The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the greatest jihadist victory in modern times, will give rise to a terrorist super-state that serves as a magnet for violent Islamists from around the world. The US-led global war on terror, which was already faltering before President Joe Biden took office, may not recover.
The American-led global war on terror, launched 20 years ago after the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States, was already faltering before President Joe Biden took office. Now it may not recover from the blow delivered by Biden’s historic blunder in facilitating the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. The flag of the world’s deadliest terrorists – responsible for killing over 2,000 US soldiers since 2001 – will fly above Kabul on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
By empowering the Taliban, Biden has empowered all violent Islamist groups, thus making the rebirth of global terror highly likely. And by betraying one ally – the Afghan government – he has made other American allies feel that the US could abandon them, too, when the chips are down.
The greatest jihadist victory in modern times will soon give rise to a terrorist super-state – a haven for transnational fanatics and a magnet for violent Islamists from around the world seeking training to carry out attacks back home. The Taliban’s “Islamic emirate” will lay the foundation for an international caliphate of the type sought by the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
Whereas the short-lived “caliphate” of the Islamic State (ISIS) filled a political vacuum in northern Syria before expanding into Iraq, the Taliban’s emirate has resulted from the defeat of the world’s mightiest power. The Taliban’s triumph will thus give the international jihadist movement an unprecedented boost, including for enlisting new recruits, with consequences that will play out for many years. The war on terror, which extends from the Middle East and southern Europe to Africa and Asia, will become increasingly difficult as its fronts multiply.
This comes at a time when America’s accelerating imperial decline is already weakening its capacity to impose its will on other countries, thereby encouraging China’s global expansion. Biden, continuing his predecessor Donald Trump’s policy of military retrenchment, recently committed to ending the US combat mission in Iraq this year.
The US has expended huge resources in its war on terror, waging counterterrorism operations in scores of countries. According to a recent report from Brown University’s Costs of War project, America’s post-9/11 wars, including efforts to secure its homeland, have cost about $8 trillion and caused an estimated 900,000 deaths, including of civilians and humanitarian aid workers. But they have yielded no enduring results.
The main reason is that America has long forgotten the lessons of 9/11, including the need to shun the path of expediency. As a result, the politicization of the war on terror has prevented a concerted ideological onslaught on violent jihadism.
Biden, for his part, is drawing specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists, in a bid to obscure both the significance of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and his administration’s outreach to it. For example, he claims that “ISIS-K terrorists” are “sworn enemies of the Taliban” without acknowledging that the Taliban – like al-Qaeda and ISIS-K – are sworn enemies of the free world. Likewise, Biden was quick to absolve the Taliban of responsibility for the recent terrorist bombing at Kabul airport by pinning the blame on ISIS-K, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US is ready to work on “counterterrorism” with the new regime in Kabul.
But the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS-K share a common ideology and commitment to violent jihad, with their members commingling and even moving from one group to another. As the Pentagon has acknowledged, the victorious Taliban have released thousands of ISIS-K prisoners. And according to a recent United Nations Security Council report, “the Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned.”
Meanwhile, the State Department has sought to spin a myth by claiming that the Taliban and their special forces, the Haqqani Network, “are separate entities.” In fact, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network are a wing of Pakistan’s “deep state.” The network’s chief, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is a deputy leader of the Taliban. And the arrival in Kabul of the head of Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency even before the Taliban formed their government highlighted that the real victor in Afghanistan is Pakistan, which has virtually gained proxy control of its neighbor.
Yet, underscoring the geopolitics behind the war on terror, the Biden administration is unlikely to punish Pakistan, a “major non-NATO ally,” for engineering America’s humiliating rout in Afghanistan. Instead, it is relying on Pakistan and another long-time sponsor of jihadists, Qatar, to establish a relationship with the theocratic dictatorship in Kabul.
The US has come full circle by ceding control of Afghanistan to the same organization that gave bin Laden the base from which to plot the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks resulted from America’s troubling ties with Islamist groups since the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan used Islam as an ideological tool to encourage armed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, including the Haqqani Network’s founder, cut their teeth in that CIA-run covert war. Another veteran of that war now heads the Taliban regime – Muhammad Hassan Akhund, a UN-listed terrorist and architect of the 2001 demolition of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan.
But within a decade of 9/11, the US returned to training jihadists and funneling lethal arms to them in regime-change wars, such as in Syria and Libya, with the CIA’s $1 billion secret war to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resulting in the rise of ISIS. And it bankrolled a renegade Pakistan as it sheltered the Taliban’s command-and-control network.
Forgetting the lessons of 9/11 has effectively derailed the global war on terror. Putting it back on track, though a daunting challenge, is essential if the scourge of violent jihadism is not to become the defining crisis of this century.
The U.S.-led war on terror, in the global imagination, has become associated with U.S. surveillance excesses, torture, renditions, and regime-change military interventions. America’s Afghan defeat, drenched in the blood of betrayal, is the final nail in the coffin.
On the day the United States marked two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Taliban triumphantly hoisted their flag over the Afghan presidential palace and launched their new regime in a brief ceremony. The unprecedented 9/11 attacks prompted the U.S. not only to invade landlocked, strategically located Afghanistan but also to launch a global war on terror. But now, the U.S. has come full circle by handing Afghanistan to the same terrorists responsible for 9/11.
President Joe Biden’s historic blunder in facilitating the terrorist takeover of Afghanistan has highlighted how the U.S.-led war on terror has gone astray. Over the past 20 years, the scourge of international terrorism has spread deeper and wider in the world.
Biden has earned his place in history by making the world’s deadliest terrorists — the Pakistan-reared Taliban, who killed more than 2,000 American soldiers since 2001 — great again. Historians will be flummoxed that the U.S. expended considerable blood and treasure in a protracted war to ultimately help its enemy ride triumphantly back to power.
The humiliating rout of the world’s mightiest power represents the greatest victory of violent Islamists in the modern history of jihadism, with the Taliban calling it “the most joyful day of our existence.” The triumph over the “Great Satan” is certain to inspire other Islamist and terrorist groups worldwide.
Undeterred by his Afghan disaster, Biden plans to withdraw from Iraq this year, in keeping with what he declared in his August 31 address to the nation: “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” This readjustment of strategic objectives is already rattling allies — from Taiwan to Ukraine — who fear being abandoned the way the U.S. threw the Afghan government under the bus.
Afghanistan indeed may not be the last blunder of the Biden presidency. Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in 2014 that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Gates has proved right.
In fact, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in a May 2010 letter found in his Pakistan compound after he was killed by U.S. forces, advised al-Qaeda not to target then-Vice President Biden, in the hope that he would one day become president. “Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis,” bin Laden wrote. He too has proved correct.
Biden has ignored the lessons of 9/11. This is apparent from the administration’s outreach to the Taliban. Biden has attempted to paint the Taliban as “good” terrorists and ISIS-K, al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network as “bad” terrorists. He even claimed that “ISIS-K terrorists” are “sworn enemies of the Taliban,” ignoring the Pentagon’s acknowledgment that it was the victorious Taliban that freed thousands of ISIS-K prisoners.
Like the administration’s attempt to portray the new Taliban as more enlightened than the old Taliban, Biden’s specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists have been part of his public-relations campaign to soften the blow from his handover of mineral-rich Afghanistan to an Islamist militia that is a wing of the Pakistani “deep state.” Indeed, extending its good-terrorists-versus-bad-terrorists hypothesis, Team Biden has sought to court the Taliban as America’s new partner to help contain the “bad” militants, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying publicly that the U.S. is ready to work on “counterterrorism” with the Taliban.
A key 9/11 lesson was that the viper reared against one state is a viper against others. Drawing distinctions between those who threaten U.S. security and those who threaten others is a sure recipe for counterterrorism failure, as terrorist cells and networks must be targeted wherever they exist on a sustained basis in order to achieve enduring results against the forces of global jihad.
Team Biden is intentionally ignoring the fact that the Taliban are closely entwined with other terror groups. A recent United Nations Security Council report said, “the Taliban and al-Qaida remain closely aligned” and cooperate through the Haqqani Network. The triumphant Taliban have not only refused to utter a critical word about al-Qaeda but also now claim there is “no proof” that bin Laden was responsible for 9/11.
The Taliban and the Haqqani Network are not “two separate entities,” as the State Department claimed, but closely integrated, as the lineup of the new Cabinet ministers in Kabul shows. And, although Biden sought to insulate the Taliban from the Aug. 26 Kabul Airport bombing by quickly pinning the blame on ISIS-K, the fact is that ISIS-K has little relationship with the ISIS founded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Rather, as part of Pakistani intelligence’s deception operations to build plausible deniability in terror attacks, ISIS-K draws its cadres largely from the Taliban’s special forces — the Haqqani Network.
The world today is reaping the bitter fruits of a geopolitics-driven war on terror, which, in the global imagination, has become associated with U.S. surveillance excesses, torture, renditions and regime-change military interventions. Afghanistan is set to become a haven for international terrorists under a regime stacked with U.N.-listed or U.S.-designated terrorists, including the prime minister, who was instrumental in the 2001 destruction of two giant, sixth-century Buddhas in Bamiyan.
America’s Afghan defeat, drenched in the blood of betrayal, resulted from ignoring the lessons of 9/11, including the importance of not coddling states that bankroll or sponsor transnational terrorism. And the U.S.-led war on terror, instead of containing terrorism, has generated greater international insecurity. It is not too late for the U.S. to absorb the lessons from national policies that gave rise to Frankenstein’s monsters.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
Taliban Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid makes his first-ever public appearance at a press conference in Kabul, August 17 (Photo: Getty Images)
THE UNPARALLELED TERRORIST attacks of September 11th, 2001 in the US gave birth to the American-led global war on terror. Nearly 3,000 Americans died in the unprecedented 9/11 attacks. Yet, two decades later, it is apparent that the war on terror has been remarkably ineffective, as the recent terrorist takeover of Afghanistan highlights.
Much before US President Joe Biden’s blunder in enabling the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan, the war on terror had already gone astray. Over the past 20 years, the number of terrorism-related casualties has increased globally. Terror has spread geographically, with new regions being battered by the scourge of violent extremism. And national expenditures on combating terrorism, from North America and Europe to Asia, have risen sharply.
In fact, it has been in the period since 9/11 that India has suffered a series of major terrorist strikes. The terrorist assaults on the state legislature of Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian Parliament occurred within weeks of 9/11. The 2008 Mumbai massacre was India’s equivalent of 9/11, affecting the Indian psyche more deeply than any other attack.
Globally, the past two decades have largely been a wasted period in combating the menace of terrorism: Instead of containing terrorism, the war on terror has generated greater insecurity in several parts of the world, including Europe, Africa and Asia. “The war has been long and complex and horrific and unsuccessful,” in the words of Brown University’s Catherine Lutz, who has been tracking the costs of America’s counterterrorism operations across the world.
What explains the failure of the US-led war on terror to achieve tangible results? Simply put, the war’s increasing politicisation has effectively stymied any possibility of achieving lasting success.
GEOPOLITICS DRIVES COUNTERTERRORISM
The US under successive presidents has turned the war on terror into a geopolitical instrument to advance narrow interests, instead of focusing on rooting out all terrorist groups wherever they exist. It is this approach that has led to the US defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan. This defeat was drenched in the blood of betrayal: America ditched its ally—the elected Afghan government—and got into bed with the world’s deadliest terrorists (the Taliban), culminating in its humiliating rout.
The only way to combat terrorism is through vigorous, proactive and pre-emptive actions, without seeking to differentiate between good terrorists and bad terrorists. Also, talking tough but doing little in action only emboldens terrorists and their sponsors.
The US, unfortunately, has never adopted a forward-looking approach to containing international terrorism. It has been more concerned about protecting its own interests, including its homeland, than about winning the larger war against terrorism. It has entered into deals with terrorist groups operating against its own regional allies and partners.
Yet it has long maintained the pretence that it does not negotiate with terrorists. In 2008, then US Vice President Dick Cheney even declared, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” But while regurgitating the line that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” the US has quietly done the opposite in practice, as President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban and the Biden administration’s current outreach to that militia underscore.
The February 2020 Doha deal between the US and the Taliban showed that Washington not only negotiates with terrorists, but also clinches an agreement with much fanfare.
Even before the Doha deal, the US traded three leading Taliban terrorists, including Anas Haqqani (son of the Haqqani network’s founder), for two captured Westerners in November 2019. Likewise, in 2014, it freed five Taliban leaders from Guantánamo Bay in exchange for the release of a captured US Army sergeant. The late American Senator, John McCain, had called the five released detainees “the hardest of the hardcore.”
Despite America’s obsession with counterterrorism, it has always waged its war on terror selectively. It has shielded client nations even if they have bankrolled or sponsored transnational terrorism, and gone after countries that have defiantly stood their ground against Washington.
This is apparent from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, which today includes only four countries—Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria. These four have been targeted for geopolitical reasons. Such has been the arbitrariness that the US identified Cuba out of the blue as a state sponsor of terrorism in January this year, after earlier dropping Sudan from its list.
The main financiers of violent Islamists, by Washington’s own admission, are US allies (Saudi Arabia and the other oil sheikhdoms). In fact, President Trump once called Saudi Arabia “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism.” And another US ally, Pakistan, has long served as the main international sanctuary of Al Qaeda and other transnational terrorists like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Toiba.
Thanks to WikiLeaks disclosures, we know that US officials have privately acknowledged that the terrorism problem is largely tied to American allies. Yet successive US governments have employed the war on terror as a geopolitical tool, instead of focusing on reining in America’s renegade allies.
Given the number of U.N.-listed terrorists that the Taliban have appointed as ministers, can there be any doubt that helping this terrorist regime to gain international acceptability will be disastrous for counterterrorism?
Pakistan’s shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, as a tacit or overt sponsor of violent extremists and terrorist groups, has long acted as the enabler of transnational terrorism. No other intelligence agency in the world has promoted international terrorism to the extent ISI has done over more than four decades.
Yet the US has added Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to its list of foreign terrorist organizations but not ISI, with which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has sustained a longstanding relationship. ISI itself is part of a major terrorism-exporting force—Pakistan’s military—which maintains cosy ties with transnational terrorist groups, including providing, as President Trump acknowledged, “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”
Nothing better illustrates the politicisation of the global war on terror than the fact that the US government never added the Pakistan-reared Afghan Taliban to the State Department’s annual list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This outfit killed more than 2,000 American soldiers between 2001 and 2021. The Taliban’s rapid conquest of Afghanistan may have brought shame and humiliation to the US, yet today the Biden administration, paradoxically, is courting this militia that is responsible for so many American deaths.
Take another example: Pakistan engineered the US rout in Afghanistan through its proxy, yet Biden is unlikely to revoke the “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA) status enjoyed by that country. Sixteen other countries, including Japan, Australia and Israel but not India, have the MNNA status, which carries security benefits under American law. Nor is Biden likely to impose any financial or diplomatic sanctions on Pakistan.
It is thus no wonder that terrorism has virtually become our new normal. After the terrorist capture of Afghanistan, the international counterterrorism challenges are bound to escalate.
SURRENDER IN AFGHANISTAN
Biden’s surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban and his administration’s ongoing efforts to legitimise the new terrorist regime in Kabul have unravelled whatever was left of the American-led global war on terror. Given the number of United Nations-listed terrorists that the Taliban have appointed as ministers, can there be any doubt that helping this terrorist regime to gain international acceptability will be disastrous for counterterrorism?
Even the head of the Taliban regime, Mohammad Hassan Akhund, is on the UN blacklist. In fact, Hassan Akhund oversaw the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001. And with the FBI-wanted Sirajuddin Haqqani as interior minister, the notorious Haqqani network—and by extension Pakistan’s ISI agency—will be in charge of Afghanistan’s internal security. So much for the talk that the Taliban have changed!
Biden, however, has defiantly refused to offer any sort of mea culpa for his Afghan surrender and instead repeatedly attempted to rationalise his precipitous and ill-planned military withdrawal, which set in motion developments beyond the control of the US or the elected Afghan government. Lost in such defiance is Biden’s admission that Afghanistan is not a one-off decision. Rather, according to him, it represents a fundamental readjustment of America’s strategic objectives under his leadership.
“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” Biden declared in his August 31st address to the nation. The statement, reinforced by his recent pledge to withdraw from Iraq this year, raises nagging questions whether the US is faltering and retreating from its global commitments.
Biden’s Afghan disaster and new foreign-policy vision, while emboldening America’s adversaries, are likely to spur US allies to hedge, given that US objectives and resolve now seem suspect. Ukraine is worried Biden will abandon it the way he ditched the Afghan government. And Taiwan is concerned that Biden’s blunder could embolden Chinese dictator Xi Jinping to launch a lightning attack to forcibly absorb the island democracy of 24 million people. Those worries prompted Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to declare, “It is not our option to do nothing and only rely on others for protection.”
What stands out, however, is the huge victory for global jihad that Biden has helped deliver. There was no strategic or domestic imperative for Biden to order a hasty and total pullout of the US force that had been drastically cut, as he admitted, to the “bare minimum of 2,500” before his predecessor left office.
That small US force could have been easily sustained with relatively modest cost and little risk to American lives. Since the US combat role in Afghanistan ended on December 31st, 2014, Afghan soldiers, not American troops, had been on the frontlines, with the residual US force playing only a supporting role.
Yet Biden rebuffed his top military commanders’ advice and ordered all American troops to rapidly return home. Biden also ignored the report of the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group that recommended a conditions-based withdrawal while warning that a hurried, unconditional military exit would “leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats” and have “catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region.”
An unclassified version of the US intelligence community’s global threat assessment had warned in April: “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
Biden, however, refused to listen to any advice suggesting caution or developing a transition plan for the Afghan forces, which for combat operations were highly reliant on US and NATO capabilities—from intelligence and close air support to emergency logistics and medical evacuation.
Biden’s Afghan surrender occurred just months after he took office, suggesting that this is unlikely to be the last blunder of his presidency. But the US and its Western allies are located far from Afghanistan. It is next-door India that will likely bear the brunt of the strategic fallout from Pakistan’s success in Afghanistan.
An emboldened Pakistani military establishment is bound to use its ISI agency to keep India off balance in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Cadres of Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Al-Badr, which are all fronts for ISI, are likely to create greater trouble for India in Jammu and Kashmir and possibly elsewhere.
To make matters worse, the Biden administration has been drawing false distinctions between the Taliban, Haqqani network, Al Qaeda and ISIS-K. In reality, these groups are interlinked. For example, the Taliban and Al Qaeda members are tied by close personal relationships and intermarriage, and Al Qaeda has pledged loyalty to every Taliban leader since the time ISI created the Taliban in the mid-1990s, according to terrorism expert Seth G Jones.
ISI has used the Haqqani network to provide cadres to ISIS-K so as to help establish plausible deniability in terror attacks. As for the Taliban, their longstanding ties with Al Qaeda are reflected in the fact that, since Kabul’s fall, Taliban spokesmen have not only refused to utter a critical word about Al Qaeda, but also have claimed that there is “no proof” that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
In October 2015, US forces under General John F Campbell uncovered in Kandahar province the largest Al Qaeda base discovered anywhere in the world (75 square kilometres in size), where Al Qaeda and the Taliban were found training and operating together. According to a recent UN Security Council report, “the Taliban and Al Qaida remain closely aligned” and cooperate through the Haqqani network.
Against this background, the Taliban must be deterred, not emboldened. But the Biden administration, not content with having indirectly armed the Taliban with billions of dollars worth of US-made weapons, is seeking to build a partnership with this terrorist militia.
In the first ever case of a terrorist organisation acquiring an air force and sophisticated land-based capabilities, troves of US-made weapons, helicopters, planes and armoured vehicles have fallen into the Taliban’s hands. The most sophisticated weapons probably have already been transported to Pakistan for likely deployment against India. Taliban patrols are now using some of the other US-made weapons. The Taliban could transfer some weapons to Pakistani jihadists operating from Afghanistan.
Biden, seeking to blunt the torrent of bipartisan criticism at home, has bragged that he ended “the longest war in American history”. With Afghanistan now set to become a haven for transnational terrorists, the US role has merely paused. But the damage to America’s credibility and the global war on terror cannot be undone.
NEGLECTED LESSONS OF 9/11
The Afghanistan war did not start in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. As Columbia University’s Jeffery Sachs has explained, “The Afghanistan war started 42 years ago, in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter’s administration covertly supported Islamic jihadists to fight a Soviet-backed regime. Soon, the CIA-backed mujahideen helped to provoke a Soviet invasion, trapping the Soviet Union in a debilitating conflict, while pushing Afghanistan into what became a forty-year-long downward spiral of violence and bloodshed.”
With the 9/11 attacks, however, the chickens came home to roost. The attacks profoundly shook the US. But did the US draw the appropriate lessons from 9/11 and halt further training and arming of jihadists by CIA?
Then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton candidly said in an ABC News interview in November 2010 that the US was paying the price for creating Al Qaeda. “Part of what we are fighting against right now, the United States created. We created the mujahideen force against the Soviet Union. We trained them, we equipped them, we funded them, including somebody named Osama bin Laden. And then when we finally saw the end of the Soviet Army crossing back out of Afghanistan, we all breathed a sigh of relief and said, okay, fine, we’re out of there. And it didn’t work out so well for us,” she said.
Yet, less than a year after that interview, then-US President Barack Obama, with Hillary Clinton’s active encouragement, helped turn Libya into a failed state by toppling ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Obama also started an air war in Syria—his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim nation and one that consumed his remaining term in office.
Less known is that the Obama-ordered CIA covert war in Syria ended up creating ISIS, even if inadvertently. As Trump put it, “Obama and Hillary created ISIS.”
Against this background, is it any surprise that in the period since America launched the global war on terror in 2001 under Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, the scourge of international terrorism has only spread deeper and wider in the world? Jihadist forces extolling terror as a sanctified tool of religion have gained ground in a number of countries. And once-stable nations such as Iraq, Syria and Libya have become anarchic, crumbling states and new hubs of transnational terrorism, even as Pakistan has remained “ground zero” for the international terrorist threat.
The first lesson is to keep the focus on longer-term goals. Terrorism can be stemmed only through a concerted and sustained international campaign that targets terrorist cells and networks wherever they exist and as long as they exist
The lessons of 9/11 were obvious, but successive US governments ignored them. The Biden administration is doing the same.
The first lesson is to keep the focus on longer-term goals and not be carried away by political convenience and narrow objectives. Terrorism can be stemmed only through a concerted and sustained international campaign that targets terrorist cells and networks wherever they exist and as long as they exist. The US cannot afford to draw distinctions between good and bad terrorists and between those who threaten its security and those who threaten others. The viper reared against one country is a viper against others.
A second lesson is not to turn the war against terrorism into a geopolitical battle to serve one’s strategic interests while ignoring the interests of others, including allies and strategic partners. After launching the global war on terror, President Bush used it to expand US military, diplomatic and energy interests in an unprecedented manner and position American forces in the largest array of nations since World War II—all in the name of fighting terror.
Another lesson is that the problem of and solution to terrorism are linked. Terrorism not only threatens the free, secular world but also springs from the rejection of democracy and secularism. The terrorism-breeding swamps can never be fully drained so long as the societies that rear or tolerate them are not de-radicalised and democratised.
President Biden’s Afghanistan blunder has spawned the greatest victory for terrorists in the modern history of global jihadism. Notwithstanding his claim in a defiant speech on Tuesday that the exit from Afghanistan will allow the United States to counter China and Russia, Biden knows that the Afghan security and humanitarian catastrophe he unleashed has weakened his hand against America’s adversaries.
In fact, the U.S. defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan, while highlighting the irreversible decline of American power, have created greater space for China’s assertive global expansion, for Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and for Iran’s continued defiance. The calamitous U.S. withdrawal also threatens to destabilize the wider region extending across the Indian subcontinent.
The Taliban’s victory over the “Great Satan,” meanwhile, is inspiring other Islamist and terrorist groups across the world. By serving as an unparalleled recruiting boost, it is promising to deliver the rebirth of global terror.
Biden not only facilitated the Taliban’s sweep of Afghanistan but also is now seeking to strike a Faustian bargain with this Pakistan-reared terrorist militia. Biden kept his promise to the Taliban, including a complete U.S. withdrawal by Aug. 31, but not his word to U.S. allies in Afghanistan or to partner countries.
Historians will be flummoxed that the world’s mightiest power expended considerable blood and treasure in a two-decade-long war to ultimately help its enemy ride triumphantly back to power.
This is a watershed moment that will go down in history books as marking the beginning of the end of American preeminence. After the way the U.S. betrayed the elected Afghan government, other allies can scarcely rely on Washington to support them when the chips are down. The erosion of American credibility will cause lasting damage to the interests of the U.S. and its friends.
America’s close partner India, with its location right next to the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, is likely to be one big loser from Biden’s Afghan debacle. The rejuvenated epicenter for terrorism next door will leave India less space to counter an expansionist China. Nuclear-armed titans China and India have been locked in a Himalayan military confrontation for the past 16 months following Chinese border encroachments.
The void created by America’s retreat is a strategic boon for China, which will now shore up its interests in mineral-rich Afghanistan and deepen its penetration of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. The retreat will also embolden Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expansionism.
Indeed, Biden may have made Taiwan Xi’s next target by acknowledging, “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” The statement conveys a great deal about U.S. objectives and resolve. No wonder Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, responding to Chinese warnings that the U.S. will abandon it like Afghanistan, declared, “Taiwan’s only option is to grow stronger … It is not our option to do nothing and only rely on others for protection.”
Illustrating his weakened position, Biden has just bowed to China’s demand to stop tracing the origins of the COVID-19 virus by announcing that the intelligence inquiry he ordered has ended, even though the probe failed to uncover the genesis of the world’s worst public-health catastrophe in more than a century. By not extending the inquiry’s 90-day deadline, Biden, in effect, is letting China get away scot-free over its cover-up of the virus’s origins.
The president could have ordered the U.S. intelligence community to keep searching for the true origins of the virus until a definitive conclusion was reached. Instead, as if to underline that he can ill-afford a crisis in relations with China at this stage, Biden has pleaded with a recalcitrant Beijing “to cooperate with the World Health Organization’s Phase II evidence-based, expert-led determination into the origins of COVID-19.” But China, as the intelligence inquiry’s declassified summary states, “continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blame other countries, including the United States.”
Had Biden extended the term of the inquiry, it would have scuttled the ongoing effort to set up a meeting between him and Xi on the sidelines of the G20 Rome summit in October. To make matters worse, Biden’s Afghan disaster has undercut U.S. leverage to pressure China to share information relevant to determining the virus’s origins, including lab records, clinical samples and raw health data from the earliest COVID-19 cases.
The upcoming 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should be an occasion to reflect on how the U.S., by facilitating the terrorist takeover of Afghanistan, has made its homeland and its friends less safe. The seeds of another 9/11 may have been sown.
One forgotten lesson of 9/11 is that the U.S. must not draw specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists. The Biden administration, while quick to blame a local ISIS affiliate for the Kabul airport massacre, has sought to build a partnership with the Taliban, including, strangely, on “counterterrorism,” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledges. It has also refrained from striking Black Hawk helicopters and other U.S.-made assets parked in the open at Afghan bases.
In the first ever case of a terrorist organization acquiring an air force and sophisticated land-based capabilities, troves of U.S.-made weapons, helicopters, planes and armored vehicles worth many billions of dollars have fallen into the Taliban’s hands. The terrorist capture of Afghanistan will come back to haunt U.S. security sooner or later.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
The Kabul Airport massacre is a reminder that the geopolitical consequences of America’s Afghanistan fiasco — one of the biggest foreign policy failures under any U.S. president since World War II — will likely play out for years.
According to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s potential successor Armin Laschet, this is the “biggest debacle that NATO has suffered since its founding, and we are standing before an epochal change.”
U.S. President Joe Biden paved the way for the Taliban sweep of Afghanistan by pulling the rug out from under the Afghan military’s feet. The sudden withdrawal of some 18,000 U.S. civilian contractors effectively disabled the Afghan military’s planes and helicopters, leaving ground troops without close air support and emergency logistics, including medical evacuation, and rendering the reputable special forces immobile and out of action.
Historians will be baffled that the world’s mightiest power waged war for two decades to make the Taliban, the world’s deadliest terrorists, great again. But the immediate message from Biden’s Afghanistan disaster is that U.S. allies cannot count on America when the chips are down. The damage to America’s reputation and credibility could potentially herald a paradigm shift in international geopolitics.
Already, the image of America’s betrayal of its Afghan allies and capitulation to the Taliban has become etched indelibly in the global imagination. Indeed, a secret meeting between CIA Director William Burns and the Taliban leadership in Kabul on Aug. 23 has only underscored the troubling U.S. equation with an Islamist militia whose brutality has been a hallmark of its fundamentalism.
With Biden quickly blaming a local ISIS affiliate for the airport bombing and ordering reprisals against the group, the U.S. has been left to draw specious distinctions between good and bad terrorists.
Given Afghanistan’s strategic location at the crossroads of Central, South and Southwest Asia, the greatest strategic fallout from Afghanistan’s security and humanitarian catastrophe is likely to be felt in the Asian region. This is ironic because Biden sought to justify his withdrawal as necessary to focus on the great-power competition with China.
In reality, the void opened by America’s retreat has only given greater strategic space for China, Russia and Iran to expand their strategic footprints. For securing oil deliveries, the Taliban are now paying a cash-strapped Iran in dollars from their lucrative narcotics trade.
China, with its long-standing ties to the Taliban, including supplying weapons via Pakistan, has taken the lead in portraying the U.S. as a declining power whose ditching of the Afghan government demonstrates that it is an unreliable partner for any country.
America’s self-inflicted defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan has also blunted U.S. leverage to determine China’s coronavirus culpability, including pressuring Beijing to share lab records, genomic samples and other data relevant to finding out how the COVID-19 virus originated. It is thus no surprise that the Biden-ordered U.S. intelligence inquiry, at the end of its 90-day deadline, has failed to reach a definitive conclusion on the virus’ origins, although time is running out to find reliable answers.
If the intelligence inquiry — like the recent report by congressional Republicans — had concluded that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab, it could have further ruptured already fraught relations with China, which has been demanding that the U.S. stop tracing the origins of the virus.
After Kabul’s fall, China’s victory lap included a state-media warning to Taiwan that the U.S. would abandon it too in the face of a Chinese invasion, prompting Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to declare, “Taiwan’s only option is to grow stronger… It is not our option to do nothing and only rely on others for protection.”
One definite loser from the Afghanistan debacle is India, whose security risks are coming under siege from the Taliban-Pakistan-China coalition. India, one of the largest aid donors to Afghanistan, had a big presence in that country, but its diplomats and civilians were among the first to flee.
Since last year, India has been locked in military standoffs with China, its leading adversary. But if India now faces a greater terrorist threat from across its western borders, it will have less capacity to counter an expansionist China. Afghanistan’s fall will likely strengthen the anti-India axis between the Taliban’s sponsor, Pakistan, and Pakistan’s main patron, China.
Will Biden now revoke the major non-NATO ally (MNNA) status enjoyed by Afghanistan and Pakistan, which engineered the U.S. rout through its proxy? Fifteen other countries, including Japan, Australia and Israel, have MNNA status, which carries security benefits under U.S. law.
By empowering the Taliban, Biden has strengthened all jihadi groups, promising the rebirth of global terrorism. And by betraying one ally — the elected Afghan government — he has made other U.S. allies feel that they too could be betrayed when they most need American support. Nowhere will the U.S. costs for its Afghanistan blunder be more visible than in Asia, where an emboldened China is set to up the ante.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
Biden’s Afghan disaster ranks as one of the biggest foreign-policy failures of any US president since World War II. Yet Biden remains tone-deaf to the realities, including damage to America’s international credibility and standing.
The terrorist takeover of Afghanistan, following President Joe Biden’s precipitous and bungling military exit, has brought an ignoble end to America’s longest war. This is a watershed moment that will be remembered for formalizing the end of the long-fraying Pax Americana and bringing down the curtain on the West’s long ascendancy.
At a time when its global preeminence was already being severely challenged by China, the United States may never recover from the blow this strategic and humanitarian disaster delivers to its international credibility and standing. The message it delivers to US allies is that they count on America’s support when they most need it at their own peril.
After all, the Afghanistan catastrophe unfolded after the US threw its ally – the Afghan government – under the bus and got into bed with the world’s deadliest terrorists, the Taliban. President Donald Trump first struck a Faustian bargain with them, and then the Biden administration rushed to execute the military exit dictated by the deal, even though the Taliban had been openly violating the agreement.
The dramatic collapse of the Afghan defenses and then the government was directly linked to the US betrayal. Biden admits Trump “drew US forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500” in Afghanistan. By refusing to retain that small military footprint and by ordering a rapid exit at the onset of the annual fighting season, Biden pulled the rug out from under the Afghan military’s feet, thus facilitating the Taliban’s sweep.
The US had trained and equipped the Afghan forces not to play an independent role but to rely on American and NATO capabilities for a host of battlefield imperatives – from close air support, including drones for situational awareness, to keeping US-supplied weapon systems operational. Biden’s calamitous troop pullout without a transition plan to sustain the Afghans’ combat capabilities unleashed a domino effect, with 8,500 NATO forces and some 18,000 US military contractors also withdrawing and leaving the Afghan military in the lurch.
As former CIA Director General David Petraeus has explained, ever since US combat operations in Afghanistan ended on January 1, 2015, Afghan soldiers had been bravely “fighting and dying for their country” until the US suddenly ditched them this summer, mortally compromising Afghan defenses. This assessment is reinforced by the number of military deaths: Since the US combat role ended more than six and a half years ago, Afghan security forces lost tens of thousands of soldiers, while the Americans suffered just 99 fatalities, many in non-hostile incidents.
This is not the first time the US has dumped its allies – or even the first time in recent memory. In the fall of 2019, the US abruptly abandoned its Kurdish allies in northern Syria, leaving them at the mercy of a Turkish offensive.
But in Afghanistan, the US sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind. Its self-inflicted defeat and humiliation have resulted from a failure of political, not military, leadership. Biden, ignoring conditions on the ground, overruled his top military generals in April and ordered all US troops to return home. Now, two decades of American war in Afghanistan have culminated with the enemy riding triumphantly back to power.
Whereas 58,220 Americans (largely draftees) were killed in Vietnam, 2,448 US soldiers (all volunteers) died over the course of 20 years in Afghanistan. Yet, the geopolitical implications of the US defeat in Afghanistan are much more significant globally than the American defeat in Vietnam.
The Pakistan-reared Taliban may not have a global mission, but their militaristic theology of violent Islamism makes them a critical link in an international jihadist movement that whips hostility toward non-Sunni Muslims into nihilistic rage against modernity. The Taliban’s recapture of power will energize and embolden other violent groups in this movement, helping to deliver the rebirth of global terror.
In the Taliban’s emirate, al-Qaeda, remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS), and Pakistani terrorist groups are all likely to find sanctuary. According to a recent United Nations Security Council report, “the Taliban and al-Qaida remain closely aligned” and cooperate through the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network, a front for Pakistani intelligence.
The unraveling of the effort to build a democratic, secular Afghanistan will pose a far greater threat to the free world than Syria’s meltdown, which triggered a huge flow of refugees to Europe and allowed ISIS to declare a caliphate and extend it into Iraq. The Taliban’s absolute power in Afghanistan will sooner or later threaten US security interests at home and abroad.
By contrast, China’s interests will be aided by the Taliban’s defeat of the world’s most powerful military. The exit of a vanquished America creates greater space for China’s coercion and expansionism, including against Taiwan, while underscoring the irreversible decline of US power.
An opportunistic China is certain to exploit the new opening to make strategic inroads into mineral-rich Afghanistan and deepen its penetration of Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia. To co-opt the Taliban, with which it has maintained longstanding ties, China has already dangled the prospect of providing the two things the militia needs to govern Afghanistan: diplomatic recognition and much-needed infrastructure and economic assistance.
The reconstitution of a medieval, ultra-conservative, jihad-extolling emirate in Afghanistan will be a monument to US perfidy. And the images of Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters transporting Americans from the US embassy compound in Kabul, recalling the frenzied evacuation from Saigon in 1975, will serve as a testament to America’s loss of credibility – and the world’s loss of Pax Americana.
The US has grievously hurt its international credibility with a self-inflicted defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan. Its enemies can only be celebrating. The security and humanitarian disaster that the Biden administration has unleashed in Afghanistan will likely unravel whatever is left of American primacy.
BETRAYAL, VIOLENCE AND surrender have defined Afghanistan’s history for long, especially as the playground for outside powers. The US-midwifed terrorist takeover of Afghanistan fits with that pattern. When an ageing US president, refusing to consider conditions on the ground, overrules his military generals and intelligence agencies and orders a precipitous and ill-planned action, it is a sure recipe for a foreign policy disaster. The blame for the international humiliation wreaked on the US by the terrorist capture of Afghanistan must be laid squarely at the door of Joe Biden, the oldest person to ever assume the American presidency.
The fact that the US, however unwittingly, aided the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan is likely to redraw attention to American policies which, over the decades, have spawned dangerous jihadists. America’s troubling ties with violent Islamists were cemented in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan’s administration used Islam as an ideological tool to incite armed resistance to the Soviet military intervention Afghanistan. In 1985, at a White House ceremony attended by several Afghan mujahedeen (jihadists), Reagan gestured toward his guests and declared, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers.”
Within years, however, many of the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers, including Osama bin Laden, came to haunt US security. Yet, there was never any debate in the US on the lessons for the US from the CIA’s creation of jihad-extolling mujahideen. In fact, under President Barack Obama, the US ruined two countries—Libya and Syria—by arming jihadists to topple governments there.
The experiment in Syria, the second largest covert operation in CIA’s history after the clandestine war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, failed to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. But the US-led intervention in Libya led to seven months of NATO airstrikes in the name of democracy, resulting in the overthrow of the secular dictatorship that Muammar el-Qaddafi ran for 42 years and the still-continuing jihadist chaos there.
Against this background, it is worth remembering how the US got into an overt war in Afghanistan that became the longest armed conflict in American history. The US-led invasion in October 2001 ousted the Taliban from power in Kabul for harbouring the Al Qaeda planners of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, the key Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaida and Ramzi Binalshibh, were later found holed up inside Pakistan. Yet, paradoxically, the US, while raining bombs on Afghanistan for almost 20 years, rewarded Pakistan in the same period with tens of billions of dollars in aid.
It was the US reluctance to take the war to the other side of the Durand Line by targeting the Taliban’s command-and-control bases in Pakistan that undercut America’s war effort in Afghanistan. Rather than degrade and decapitate the Taliban, the US sought “reconciliation” with its battlefield enemy, allowing the medieval, jihadist militia to gain strength and terrorise Afghans. As General John Nicholson, the then US military commander in Afghanistan, admitted in 2017, , “It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.” The reluctance to target the Taliban’s cross-border network structure in Pakistan hobbled the US military mission in Afghanistan right until Biden’s bungling military exit.
The fact is that, in modern world history, no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border state sponsorship and safe havens. This also explains why terrorists remain active in the Kashmir Valley. As former CIA Director General David Petraeus said recently, “the Taliban, Haqqani Network and the other associated extremists and insurgents have their headquarters, their major bases, outside of Afghanistan and beyond our reach in Pakistan, where our Pakistani partners refuse to eliminate them from their soil. So, you could never truly win.”
The protracted search for a Faustian bargain with the Taliban also explains why that ruthless militia was never added to the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This approach counterproductively led to an ascendant Taliban expanding their territorial control and killing government forces in growing numbers.
By spurning the advice of his civilian and military advisers and unleashing the Afghanistan disaster, Biden must shoulder the blame for America’s international humiliation. Let us be clear: there was no strategic or domestic imperative for Biden to order a hasty and total pullout
The Taliban, like Al Qaeda, evolved from the violent jihadists that the CIA trained in Pakistan to wage war against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. It was only after the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks at home that the US turned against the Taliban. Then, in search of a face-saving exit from the military quagmire in Afghanistan, America embraced the Taliban by concluding a “peace” deal with them. That development eventually led the US to unwittingly enable the conquest of Afghanistan by the same thuggish group that it had removed from power in 2001.
AMERICA’S FATEFUL DEAL WITH TALIBAN
It was US President Donald Trump’s capitulation to the Taliban at the negotiating table that set in motion events that culminated under his successor in America’s humiliating rout in Afghanistan. The deal was clinched after more than a year of negotiations, with US and Taliban representatives signing the agreement on February 29th, 2020 at Doha, Qatar.
Desperate to exit Afghanistan, Trump accomplished what his predecessor set out to do but failed—to cut a deal with the Taliban. It was with the aim of facilitating direct talks with the Taliban that Obama allowed the militia to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Doha in 2013. Then, to meet a Taliban precondition, the Obama administration freed five hardened Taliban militants (two of them accused of carrying out massacres of Tajiks and Hazaras) from Guantánamo Bay. The five were described by the late US Senator, John McCain, as the “hardest of hard core”.
But when the then Taliban chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, defiantly refused to revive stalled peace negotiations, the CIA, on Obama’s orders, assassinated him inside Pakistan with a drone strike in 2016. Although Obama hailed Mansour’s killing as “an important milestone”, it did little to change military realities on the ground.
After Trump came to power, he promised to reverse the worsening Afghanistan situation that he inherited from Obama by “winning again”. Yet, two years into his term, he embarked on fulfilling his predecessor’s quest for a deal with the Taliban. Trump’s message, including from his drawdown of US troops in Syria, was unmistakable: To exit from messy situations of its own making, the US doesn’t mind throwing its allies under the bus—from the Afghan government to its Kurdish partners in Syria.
Instead of the promised Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, Trump clinched the deal with the Taliban without prior consultations with Kabul and then sought to sell it to a sceptical Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In doing so, Washington involuntarily aided the Taliban effort to delegitimise the elected Afghan government. Given that Ghani was blindsided by the “peace” accord, it was no surprise that Washington did not care to take India, its supposed “major defence partner”, into confidence either.
Under the largely one-sided deal, America committed to the withdrawal of all US and NATO forces by May 1st, 2021. By promising a terrorist militia a total American military exit in about 14 months as well as a pathway to power in Kabul, the US, in essence, entered the terms of its surrender in the agreement.
The accord US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad finalised with the Taliban in Qatar read more like US capitulation to a terrorist organisation. The US, despite having earlier signed a security pact with Kabul in 2014 to maintain nine military bases, conceded the Taliban’s main demand for a total American exit. In exchange, the terrorist group offered a fig leaf—a promise to deny other terrorist networks a foothold on Afghan soil. However, as a recent United Nations Security Council report pointed out, “the Taliban and Al Qaida remain closely aligned” and cooperate through the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network, a veritable arm of Pakistani intelligence.
The deal was a major diplomatic win for the Taliban’s sponsor, Pakistan, which, until the Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan, sheltered the top Taliban leadership and provided cross-border sanctuaries to Taliban fighters. A year before the deal with the Taliban, Trump had cut off most security assistance to Pakistan, saying, “The US has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.”
Yet in February 2020, Trump agreed to abandon Afghanistan to Pakistan’s machinations. Under successive US presidents, Pakistan has been rewarded for sponsoring cross-border terrorism.
The Doha agreement document, as revealed to the public, was short. It, however, contained classified appendices that were never declassified. Two of the elements contained in the secret appendices, as acknowledged in US congressional testimony, were: one, the Taliban pledged not to attack US or allied forces or civilians during the period through the promised US and NATO military exit by May 1st, 2021; and two, the Taliban and the US agreed to jointly target their common enemy, the Islamic State (ISIS)-Khorasan, on the basis of US intelligence shared with the Taliban.
The Taliban, by all publicly available accounts, did stick to their first promise other than committing one violation, when they attacked a joint US-Afghan base. But that promise left the Taliban free to escalate their hit-and-run attacks against Afghan forces and civilians, which they did with increasing brutality. What was dubbed as a “peace” deal engendered greater bloodshed and, as Biden admits, “left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001.”
Indeed, the “peace” deal not only granted the Taliban respectability and legitimacy, but also meant war on Afghan women and civil liberties. By concluding the deal behind the Afghan government’s back and by excluding the lawfully constituted government from the agreement, the US left intra-Afghan reconciliation talks to move on a separate track. But the Taliban, with their determination to impose a military solution, had no incentive to negotiate in good faith with the Afghan government, let alone to make concessions, because the US had unconditionally agreed to gradually draw down its forces and leave Afghanistan.
In this light, the die had been cast in February 2020 that the US would exit Afghanistan, no matter what. The deal led not only to greater terrorist attacks by the Taliban but also eventually to the unravelling of the elected Afghan government.
BIDEN’S RECORD OF BLUNDERS
Robert Gates, who served as defence secretary under presidents George W Bush and Obama, wrote in a 2014 memoir that Joe Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”. Biden’s surrender of Afghanistan to the terrorist Taliban vindicates Gates’ grating assessment. By spurning the advice of his civilian and military advisers and unleashing the Afghanistan disaster, Biden must shoulder the blame for America’s international humiliation.
Let us be clear: There was no strategic or domestic imperative for Biden to order a hasty and total pullout of the US force that had been drastically cut, as he admitted a day before Kabul fell, to the “bare minimum of 2,500” before his predecessor left office.
The small US force could have been easily sustained with relatively modest cost and little risk to American lives. Not a single American soldier had been killed in fighting in the past more than a year-and-a-half, essentially because only Afghan soldiers were on the frontlines since the US combat role in Afghanistan ended on December 31st, 2014. The residual US force was mainly playing a supporting role.
Yet Biden rebuffed his top military commanders’ advice in April and ordered all American troops to rapidly return home. Biden also ignored the report of the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group that recommended a conditions-based withdrawal while warning that a hurried, unconditional military exit would “leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats” and have “catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region.”
When the Taliban were previously in power, their brutal record evoked the horrors perpetrated by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. The reestablishment of a jihadist, theocratic dictatorship in Kabul will likely destabilise the region
In fact, an unclassified version of the US intelligence community’s global threat assessment had warned in April that, “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.” Biden, however, refused to listen to any advice suggesting caution or developing a transition plan for the Afghan forces, which for combat operations were highly reliant on US and NATO capabilities—from intelligence and close air support to emergency logistics and medical evacuation.
The irony is that Biden was facing no public pressure to quickly end the Afghanistan War. Contrary to the American media trope about “war weariness”, there was no evidence that Americans were tired of the military entanglement in Afghanistan, especially given the very small number of troops involved in the mission and the minimal casualties.
In fact, Gallup polling over the course of the 20-year war in Afghanistan repeatedly found Americans to be more supportive than opposed to that military intervention. The sustained public support to the longest war in American history was in stark contrast to previous US wars, including in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, during which the majority public opinion at some point turned unfavourable, giving rise to anti-war movements.
It was only after Biden had effectively ended the Afghanistan War on July 1st (when US forces secretly pulled out at night from the sprawling Bagram Airbase, which had long served as the staging ground for operations in the country) that an American partisan divide over the war became distinct. (The Biden administration, in unpublicised negotiations with the Taliban, had secured a short extension of the original May 1st deadline for exit.) In a July 6-21 Gallup poll, 47 per cent Americans (the vast majority of them Democrats) said the war was a mistake, while 46 per cent said it wasn’t.
If there was any imperative for a rushed withdrawal, it was Biden’s woolly-headedness to honour a one-sided US deal with the Taliban that Trump had bequeathed. The Taliban, Pakistan’s longstanding proxies whose brutal attacks over the years made them the world’s deadliest terrorists, had been openly violating the deal, so Biden’s sticking to it made little sense.
Indeed, Biden’s clinging to a blighted deal seriously compounded a US pattern of undermining the Afghan government, including forcing Afghan authorities last year to release 5,000 jailed Taliban terrorists (a number equivalent to the size of two US army brigades or regiments). The freed terrorists helped spearhead the Taliban reconquest of the country.
If Biden did not want to retain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, he could have reduced their number to just 1,000 to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces. That would have averted the disaster that has unfolded. But Biden, seeking to imprudently safeguard a deal that had already been wrecked by the Taliban, ruled that option out.
As one Afghan city after another fell to the Taliban and several American Senators and retired generals urged the White House to immediately unleash US military might to halt the militia’s further advances so as to save Kabul, Biden issued a statement on August 14th that proved the final nail in the coffin for a secular Afghanistan. Biden adamantly stated that, “I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan—two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”
By confirming that his dumping of the Afghan government was irrevocable, the statement led next day to two momentous events—President Ashraf Ghani’s hurried escape from Afghanistan, followed quickly by the fall of Kabul.
This background illustrates how Biden’s actions aided and abetted the terrorist capture of Afghanistan. As a lawmaker from Biden’s own Democratic Party, Dean Phillips, put it, it is the Biden administration’s execution of the Trump-initiated exit strategy that “clearly, by any measure, has been a dramatic failure and stain on the United States.”
By confirming that his dumping of the Afghan government was irrevocable, Biden’s statement led next day to two momentous events—president ashraf Ghani’s hurried escape from Afghanistan, followed quickly by the fall of Kabul
When the Taliban were previously in power, their brutal record, including destroying historic and cultural artefacts, , evoked some of the horrors perpetrated by Cambodia’s China-backed ultra-communist Khmer Rouge between 1975 and1979. The Taliban’s reestablishment of a jihadist, theocratic dictatorship in Kabul will likely destabilise the region.
The US and its Western allies are located far away. But with the terrorist takeover of Afghanistan, India is being encircled by the China-Pakistan strategic nexus. In fact, the Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan will facilitate an even stronger China-Pakistan axis against India, while aiding the Pakistani intelligence’s proxy war against Indian targets.
The stepped-up threat from the axis may not be of immediate nature, yet the Taliban’s success creates greater strategic space for the two revisionist allies, China and Pakistan, to collaborate and advance their interests at India’s expense. This, coupled with Pakistan’s long-coveted acquisition of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, holds significant, long-term implications for the security of India and the wider region.
Simply put, after the Afghan people and Afghan nation, India will be the biggest loser from Biden’s Afghanistan blunder.
THE END OF THE AMERICAN ERA
The US has grievously hurt its international credibility and standing with a self-inflicted defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan. And its enemies can only be celebrating.
The US, the world’s preeminent power since 1945, has long prioritised the safeguarding of that privileged position. But even before the Afghanistan debacle, America’s global primacy had been slowly eroding. The security and humanitarian disaster that the Biden administration has unleashed in Afghanistan will likely unravel whatever is left of American primacy.
Biden’s fantasy that US security could be advanced simply by bringing back American troops enabled terrorists to recapture Afghanistan. The debacle shows how a fawning media can be dangerous. The US mainstream media had literally spearheaded Biden’s presidential campaign, trashing his opponent and concealing the Hunter Biden scandal. They still slobber over him.
When Biden ordered a hasty total withdrawal from Afghanistan by overruling top military generals, the US media didn’t question his decision. Contrast that with the way the US media had roasted Trump when, ignoring military advice, he drastically cut troop levels in Afghanistan. It was with the domestic media’s support that Biden embarked on a path of self-delusion, with him and his team naively believing that the US could use aid and sanctions relief to moderate the Taliban and prevent that militia from pursing a military solution.
In his headlong rush to exit Afghanistan, Biden neglected to consult with America’s allies on the tactics or timing. Instead, Biden acted more like his predecessor, whose unilateralism he had repeatedly criticised. Biden’s unilateralist actions that precipitated the Afghanistan disaster, according to one news report, have left America’s closest ally, Britain, “embarrassed and embittered”.
Like a Santa Claus at Christmas, Biden delivered three gifts to the world’s most brutal militia.
First, Biden facilitated the Taliban’s lightning conquest of Afghanistan, including the bloodless takeover of Kabul. The capture of the capital without firing a shot represented a major propaganda success for the Taliban, given that the new rulers need international recognition and economic assistance to govern Afghanistan. A bloody seizure of Kabul would have made the task of securing recognition and aid very difficult.
The Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan will facilitate an even stronger China-Pakistan axis against India, while aiding the Pakistani intelligence’s proxy war against Indian targets. After the Afghan people and Afghan nation, India will be the biggest loser from Biden’s Afghanistan blunder
Second, the Biden-enabled terrorist takeover of Afghanistan has boosted the Taliban’s terrorising capabilities with massive caches of US-made weapons, including artillery, Humvees, helicopters, planes and armoured vehicles. Thanks to Biden, the Taliban now have what they had never dreamed of—an air force.
According to fleet data from Cirium, the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing had 284 aircraft in active use before the Taliban completed its sweep of Afghanistan on August 15th. Between August 14th and 15th, Cirium reported that “a large number of Afghan Air Force aircraft and helicopters were flown by ‘escaping aircrew’ to Termez, Uzbekistan.” A few helicopters and aircraft were also flown to Tajikistan.
But some US-supplied assets that remained on the ground at Afghan airbases have come under Taliban control. These include armed MD530 rotorcraft, UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters, A-29 Super Tucano armed turboprops and MD-530F light scout attack helicopters, as well as Soviet-made Mi-17s. Given China’s longstanding ties with the Taliban, the US has a difficult task at hand in the present circumstances to prevent its technological knowhow from falling into Chinese hands.
Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, admits that a “fair amount” of US weaponry has fallen into Taliban hands. Some reports suggest that a lot of arms, ammunition, military equipment and military vehicles have moved across the border into Pakistan, the Taliban’s procreator.
Third, Biden has helped deliver to the Taliban Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, estimated to total between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in value. The untapped resources open the path for the Taliban to move from their traditional reliance on opium and heroin trade for income to developing the country’s mining industry with China’s help, which has long sought to exploit Afghanistan’s rich lithium, copper, iron, cobalt and rare-earth deposits.
The Taliban may have an “emir”, or spiritual leader, who was long holed up near Quetta in Pakistan, but in Biden, they have found a godfather.
Old age is usually associated with caution and judiciousness. But the 78-year-old Biden has lived up to the adage “Act in haste, repent at leisure”. In doing so, he has undermined the trust of allies in US leadership. America’s allies henceforth will balk at unquestioningly toeing its line on issues in which they have a stake. Biden, by handing Afghanistan to terrorists, has also undercut the US-led global war on terror. The US may not be able to recoup from the Afghanistan disaster.
Yet, Biden refuses to accept any responsibility for bringing the Taliban back to power. In his August 16 speech to the nation after the Taliban completed its sweep, Biden blamed everyone—from Trump to the Afghan government and Afghan military—except the Taliban and himself. As The Wall Street Journalput it editorially, Biden is “determined in retreat, defiant in surrender, and confident in the rightness of consigning the country [Afghanistan] to jihadist rule.”
In fact, to escape culpability for the terrorist takeover of Afghanistan, Biden has pinned the blame on Afghan troops for not putting up a fight—a myth the US mainstream media has been quick to embrace. In truth, Biden pulled the rug out from under the Afghan forces’ feet, with his precipitous withdrawal leaving the Afghan military high and dry.
It is America’s misfortune that, at a critical juncture when China is aggressively expanding its strategic footprint and clout, it is led by a weak president whose repeated bungling in a short time has triggered major crises from the southern US border with Mexico to Afghanistan. America’s enemies can only be emboldened by a president who rationalises his bungling in Afghanistan as strategic prudence. Foes will see such fecklessness as an opportunity for them to seize.
Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in a 2014 memoir that Joe Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” President Biden’s surrender of Afghanistan to the terrorist Taliban vindicates Gates’s grating assessment.
By spurning the advice of his civilian and military advisers, Biden must shoulder the blame for the international humiliation wrought on the United States by the terrorist capture of Afghanistan. There was no strategic or domestic imperative for Biden to order a hasty and total pullout of the U.S. force that had been drastically cut, as he admitted over the weekend, to the “bare minimum of 2,500” before his predecessor, Donald Trump, left office.
The small U.S. force could have been easily sustained with relatively modest cost and little risk to American lives. Not a single American soldier had been killed in fighting in the past more than a year and a half, essentially because only Afghan soldiers were on the frontlines since the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan ended on Jan. 1, 2015. The residual U.S. force was essentially playing a supporting role.
Yet Biden rebuffed his top military commanders’ advice in April and ordered all American troops to rapidly return home. Biden also ignored the report of the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group that recommended a conditions-based withdrawal while warning that a hurried, unconditional military exit would “leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats” and have “catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region.”
In fact, an unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence community’s global threat assessment had warned in April that, “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”
Biden, however, refused to heed any advice suggesting caution or developing a transition plan for the Afghan forces, which for combat operations were highly reliant on U.S. and NATO capabilities — from intelligence and close air support to emergency logistics and medical evacuation.
The irony is that Biden was facing no public pressure to quickly end the Afghanistan War. Contrary to the myth that the U.S. was tired of the war, Gallup polling over the past 20 years repeatedly found Americans to be more supportive than opposed to that military entanglement. The sustained public support to the longest war in American history was in stark contrast to previous U.S. wars, including in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, during which the majority public opinion at some point turned unfavorable, giving rise to antiwar movements.
It was only after Biden had effectively ended the Afghanistan War on July 1 (when U.S. forces secretly pulled out at night from the sprawling Bagram Airbase, which had long served as the staging ground for operations in the country) that an American partisan divide over the war became distinct. In a July 6-21 Gallup poll, 47 percent of Americans (the vast majority of them Democrats) said the war was a mistake, while 46 percent said it wasn’t.
If there was any imperative for a rushed withdrawal, it was Biden’s woolly-headedness to honor a one-sided U.S. deal with the Taliban that Trump had bequeathed. The Taliban, Pakistan’s longstanding proxies whose brutal attacks over the years made them the world’s deadliest terrorists, had been openly violating the deal, so Biden’s sticking to it made little sense.
Indeed, Biden’s clinging to a blighted deal seriously compounded a U.S. pattern of undermining the elected Afghan government, including striking a deal with the Taliban behind Kabul’s back and then forcing Afghan authorities to release 5,000 jailed Taliban terrorists (a number equivalent to the size of two U.S. army brigades or regiments). The freed terrorists helped spearhead the latest onslaughts.
If Biden did not want to retain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, he could have reduced their number to just 1,000 to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces. That would have averted the disaster that has unfolded. But Biden, seeking to imprudently safeguard a deal that had already been wrecked by the Taliban, ruled that option out.
Last week, as one Afghan city after another fell to the Taliban and several senators and retired generals urged the White House to immediately employ military might to halt the terrorist militia’s further advances, Biden issued a statement on Saturday that proved the final nail in the coffin for a secular Afghanistan. By confirming that his dumping of the Afghan government was irrevocable, the statement led to President Ashraf Ghani’s escape from Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul.
This background illustrates how U.S. actions unwittingly aided and abetted the terrorist capture of strategically located Afghanistan. As Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) put it, it is the Biden administration’s execution of the Trump-initiated exit strategy that “clearly, by any measure, has been a dramatic failure and stain on the United States.”
When the Taliban was previously in power, from 1996 to 2001, its brutal record, including destroying historic and cultural artifacts, evoked some of the horrors perpetrated by Cambodia’s China-backed ultra-communist Khmer Rouge between 1975 and1979. The Taliban’s reestablishment of a jihadist, theocratic dictatorship in Kabul will likely destabilize the region and come to haunt U.S. security.
Biden, the oldest American to ever assume the presidency, has lived up to the adage, “Act in haste, repent at leisure.” In doing so, he has undermined America’s international credibility. The U.S. may not be able to recoup from the latest debacle.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
Afghanistan is turning out to be U.S. President Joe Biden’s first foreign-policy disaster.
Ending America’s 20-year war there made sense, but the sudden and poorly planned U.S. military exit has facilitated the Taliban’s rapid advances, which have included the capture of a string of provincial capitals. The Taliban, long-standing proxies of Pakistan, have already managed to expand their control to two-thirds of the country, leaving the Afghan government in Kabul teetering on the brink, with its forces retreating from rural areas to defend cities.
The hasty exit order is especially foolhardy given that Mr. Biden, who has been quick to overturn many of his predecessor’s actions, is honouring Donald Trump’s one-sided deal with the Taliban. The U.S. could have quit Afghanistan without getting into bed with the world’s deadliest terrorists and thereby undermining the security of the country and the region. Instead, by following in Mr. Trump’s footsteps in Afghanistan, the White House has undercut U.S. leverage by vacating all its bases there, leaving the administration to chant the mantra that “there’s no military solution in Afghanistan” – even as the Taliban demonstrate in blood and territory that one indeed exists.
The geopolitical fallout from the Taliban’s success in forcing out Americawill extend far beyond Afghanistan. By signifying U.S. defeat, it will energize and embolden other terrorist groups in the global jihadist movement. If the Taliban seize Kabul, they are likely to declare an Islamic caliphate, as they did in 1996, when they seized power and ruled brutally until the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Make no mistake: The disaster in Afghanistan is unfolding just the way top U.S. generals had forewarned in the event of a hurried U.S. exit. But Mr. Biden overruled them in April and ordered all U.S. troops home. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost.
The U.S. has launched air strikes, but they have failed to halt the Taliban’s ruthless offensive. With the situation on the ground increasingly dire, many embassies in Kabul have advised their nationals to flee Afghanistan before commercial flight operations cease. Canada is bringing in Afghans who assisted the Canadian military’s mission in the country.
When Mr. Biden took office, there were just 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, compared with more than 100,000 at the height of the war. After the U.S. combat role ceased at the end of 2014, U.S. financial costs and casualties dramatically plummeted. In the period since, Afghan security forces have lost tens of thousands of men while the Americans suffered just 99 fatalities, including in non-hostile incidents.
Mr. Biden could have left behind a small residual force to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces in a cost-effective way. This would have prevented the security and humanitarian nightmare that is now developing. But the President, seeking to safeguard a deal that the Taliban had already been violating, ruled that option out.
Clinging to a blighted deal, Mr. Biden has compounded a Trump-initiated pattern of undermining the elected Afghan government, including Mr. Trump’s actions in striking a deal with the Taliban behind Kabul’s back and then forcing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to release 5,000 jailed Taliban terrorists, many of whom are now in the vanguard of the latest onslaughts. Just before Mr. Biden’s withdrawal decision was announced, a leak of his administration’s draft peace proposal revealed that he sought to replace Mr. Ghani with a transitional government in which the Taliban held half of all positions – which only further emboldened them.
The primarily ethnic-Pashtun Taliban have now stepped up their campaign of targeted killings while seeking to militarily oust Mr. Ghani’s government. Their capture of key cities in the north – dominated by ethnic-minority groups – is part of a strategy to forestall the re-emergence of the “Northern Alliance,” whose ground operations aided U.S. air power in overthrowing the Taliban regime in 2001.
The Taliban’s brutal record in power, including destroying historic and cultural artifacts, evoked some of the horrors perpetrated by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. A recent United Nations Security Council report said the Taliban and al-Qaeda “remain closely aligned” and co-operate through the Pakistani-based Haqqani Network, known as an arm of Pakistani intelligence.
The Taliban’s swift advances raise the spectre of a reconstituted extremist emirate emerging in Kabul – one that is likely to deliver the rebirth of global terror. And just as the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq led to U.S. reintervention, a Taliban emirate in Kabul will likely trigger the same awful cost eventually – which would only affirm Mr. Biden’s decision as a historic blunder.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
Japan, America’s most pivotal ally in Asia, faces pressing security challenges due to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expansionist policies, which appear to be driven by an increasing appetite for taking risks.
After accelerating a provocative campaign of aerial and maritime incursions designed to challenge Japanese control of the disputed Senkaku Islands, Xi has also set his sights on absorbing Taiwan, which, geographically, is an extension of the Japanese archipelago.
Stepping up China’s military intimidation of Taiwan — Imperial Japan’s first colony — Xi recently vowed to crush any attempt to thwart his “historic mission” to incorporate the island democracy.
No country will be more threatened by China’s invasion of Taiwan than Japan, a peaceful nation that has not fired a single shot since World War II. Indeed, as Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso recently said, Japan would regard such an invasion as an existential threat to its security, making it likely that it would join the U.S. in defending Taiwan. That prompted Chinese Communist Party organs to threaten “Japan’s survival” with military reprisals, including through “continuous” nuclear bombing.
There are more American soldiers permanently stationed in Japan than in any other foreign country, with about 54,000 military personnel spread across over 80 U.S. military facilities on Japanese soil as part of a long-standing mission to keep the peace in the Pacific. A 1960 bilateral security treaty also commits America to defend Japan in the event of an attack.
So, what explains Japan’s growing sense of insecurity?
To start with, China’s official military spending has expanded to four times that of Japan over the last eight years. The gap is even wider because China’s official budget hides significant parts of its defense spending, with external organizations estimating actual Chinese military expenditure to be up to 40% higher.
Furthermore, Japan’s population, totaling just 8.7% of China’s, is not just aging but shrinking. This unfavorable demographic trend accentuates Japan’s security concerns, including how to effectively police a vast exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which, with 6,852 islands, is larger than China’s.
Add to the picture America’s unpredictability, which causes unease in Tokyo and explains why successive Japanese prime ministers have repeatedly sought U.S. assurances that the Senkaku Islands are covered by the 1960 treaty.
The Senkakus are part of the Ryukyu island chain centered on Okinawa, which the U.S., after World War II, occupied for two decades longer than the rest of Japan. Even after returning Okinawa in 1972, the U.S. for years rebuffed Japan’s pleas to abandon its neutral stance on the Senkaku issue.
America eventually discarded its neutrality, but the first caveat-free U.S. assurance on the Senkakus did not come until Donald Trump’s presidency. U.S. President Joe Biden recently provided a Trump-type unambiguous assurance when he met Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, with their joint statement reaffirming that “Article V of the  Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands.”
But can Japan really trust America’s security guarantee? The U.S., despite a mutual defense treaty with Manila, has sat back and watched China’s incremental encroachments in the Philippines’ maritime backyard, starting with the 2012 capture of Scarborough Shoal. The lack of U.S. response to the Scarborough capture came as a wake-up call for Tokyo.
When China in 2013 unilaterally established an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering the Senkakus, Japan received a second wake-up call. Washington, instead of demonstrating its disapproval by postponing then-Vice President Biden’s trip to Beijing, advised U.S. commercial airlines to respect China’s ADIZ.
Such fecklessness has allowed China to turn its contrived historical claims to the South China Sea into reality without penalty. The crackdown in Hong Kong further highlights how an emboldened Xi is changing the status quo.
The U.S., however, is still following its old diplomatic playbook, despite its relative decline. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, during his recent visit to New Delhi, sought Indian help in Afghanistan but said nothing about China’s aggression against India that has turned the Himalayas into Asia’s biggest flashpoint.
Japan faces a clear choice: bolster its security or come under siege. Yet, paradoxically, a key obstacle to Tokyo building formidable military capabilities to independently deter China is the U.S.-imposed constitution. No other country in the world is bound by the kind of constitutional restrictions, including a prohibition on acquiring offensive capabilities, that the occupying U.S. imposed on a vanquished Japan.
Such constitutional constraints militate against U.S. interests today. After all, a more confident and secure Japan that can deter China on its own will aid regional security, including preventing Xi’s regime from seizing Taiwan. The U.S. must make amends by encouraging constitutional reform to “normalize” Japan’s security posture and help transform that country into a militarily independent power like Britain and France but without nuclear weapons.
Japan, while maintaining its security alliance with Washington, must build robust capabilities, including the ability to carry out offensive cyber and naval operations, so that it can, if necessary, defend itself alone. The worst option would be to take periodic comfort in U.S. security reassurances, like a spouse going through a midlife crisis seeking repeated assurances as to their partner’s commitment.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
COVID-19 has now been with us for more than a year and a half. It has stopped societies in their tracks, triggered sharp economic downturns, and killed more than 4.2 million people. But we still do not know where the deadly virus came from, for a simple reason: China does not want us to know.
China first reported that a novel coronavirus had emerged in Wuhan weeks after its initial detection. This should not be a surprise. The ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) prefers to suppress information that might cast it in an unflattering light, and the emergence of COVID-19 within the country’s borders undoubtedly fit this description. In fact, the Chinese authorities went so far as to detain whistleblowers for “spreading rumors.”
By the time China told the world about COVID-19, it was far too late to contain the virus. Yet, the CPC has not learned its lesson. Understanding whether the coronavirus emerged naturally in wildlife or was leaked from a lab is essential to forestall another pandemic. But the CPC has been doing everything in its power to prevent an independent forensic investigation into the matter.
The CPC did allow one “investigation”: a “joint study” with the World Health Organization that China steered. But when WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently proposed a second phase of studies – centered on audits of Chinese markets and laboratories, especially the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) – China balked. And when US President Joe Biden announced a new US intelligence inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, China’s leaders condemned America’s “politicization of origins tracing.”
Without China’s cooperation, determining COVID-19’s origins will be virtually impossible. We know that the WIV has a published record of genetically engineering coronaviruses, some of which were similar to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), and that it has collaborated with the Chinese military on secret projects since at least 2017. This information was included in a US State Department report released in the final days of President Donald Trump’s administration.
But proving that COVID-19 was leaked from the WIV – or that it wasn’t – would require US intelligence agencies to gain access to more data from the early days of the Wuhan outbreak, and the CPC is not giving that up. Nor does US intelligence currently have the kind of spy network in China it would need to circumvent the official blockade. (China took care of that a decade ago by identifying and eliminating CIA informants.)
In any case, China has by now had plenty of time to get rid of any evidence of its negligence or complicity. For this, they can thank the major US news organizations, social-media giants, and influential scientists (some of whom hid their conflicts of interest) who have spent most of the pandemic likening the lab-leak hypothesis to a baseless conspiracy theory.
This stance was often politically motivated. Trump directed far more of his attention toward pointing fingers at China than devising an effective pandemic response in the US. So, when he promoted the lab-leak theory, his opponents largely dismissed it as yet another Trumpian manipulation.
Even today, with Biden now regarding a lab leak as one of “two likely scenarios,” many Democrats resist the idea. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans accuse Democrats of helping China to cover up the virus’s origins. The GOP recently released its own report, which concludes that the WIV was working to modify coronaviruses to infect humans, and that COVID-19 was accidentally leaked months before China sounded the alarm.
If the Biden-ordered US intelligence report reaches a similar conclusion, it could push already fraught Sino-American relations to breaking point. This is not what the Biden administration wants, as evidenced by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s efforts, on her recent visit to China, to “set terms for responsible management of the US-China relationship.” With Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping also considering meeting on the sidelines of the October G20 summit in Rome, it seems likely that, at the very least, the US intelligence inquiry will be extended beyond its 90-day deadline.
But reluctance to provoke China is not the only reason why the Biden administration might hesitate to follow through on its demands for transparency. US government agencies, from the National Institutes of Health to USAID, funded research on coronaviruses at the WIV from 2014 to 2020, via the US-based EcoHealth Alliance.
The details remain murky, and US officials have admitted to no wrongdoing. But accusations that the US funded so-called “gain-of-function research” – or altering the genetic make-up of pathogens to enhance their virulence or infectiousness – have yet to be definitively quelled. On the contrary, according to a Vanity Fairinvestigation, “In one State Department meeting, officials seeking to demand transparency from the Chinese government…were explicitly told by colleagues not to explore the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s gain-of-function research, because it would bring unwelcome attention to US government funding of it.”
Even as circumstances conspire to keep the truth hidden, one question will not go away: Could it have been a coincidence that the globally disruptive pandemic originated in the same city where China is researching ways to increase the transmissivity of bat coronaviruses to human cells? As CIA Director William Burns has acknowledged, we may never know for sure. But we should have no illusions about what that means. In failing to conduct a proper investigation when the pandemic began, we may well have let the CPC get away with millions of deaths.
China has long shielded Pakistan from international pressure over its harboring of terrorist groups, including blocking United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pakistani terrorists and opposing moving its close ally from the gray to black list of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, the global terrorist-financing watchdog. In fact, China has often praised Pakistan’s commitment to the fight against terrorism.
But after nine of its dam engineers were killed this month in a terrorist-triggered bus explosion in Pakistan, China changed its tune. It has demanded that Pakistan, in the words of Premier Li Keqiang, “use all necessary means” against terrorists and bring “the perpetrators to justice.” Beijing has squarely blamed America’s “hasty withdrawal” from Afghanistan for creating cross-border volatility and insecurity.
The U.S. must be stopped, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, from “creating more problems and dumping the burden on regional countries.” The U.S. effectively ended its 20-year Afghanistan War on July 1 when it secretly pulled out at night from the sprawling Bagram Air Base, which had long served as the staging ground for operations in the country.
In private, Chinese officials cannot be unhappy with the exit of a defeated America. It not only opens greater space for China’s expansionism but also shows how U.S. power is in decline.
The bus explosion, however, has made China realize that the fallout from the deteriorating Afghanistan situation threatens its regional interests. Wang has proposed that Pakistan — the largest recipient of Chinese financing under President Xi Jinping’s marquee Belt and Road Initiative — collaborate with Beijing when it comes to Afghanistan and help “defend regional peace together.”
The fallout offers China a rationale for exploiting the void in Afghanistan — and the country’s vast mineral wealth. In addition, Afghanistan’s location at the crossroads of Central, South and Southwest Asia makes it geopolitically attractive for Beijing, which wants to link Kabul with the Belt and Road’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Advancing such interests hinges on violence abating in Afghanistan, which explains why Xi has called for a political solution to the country’s long-standing conflict.
China’s strategic ambitions, however, underscore a jarring paradox. Beijing views Islamic extremism as a pressing threat and, in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi era, is holding more than a million detainees in a Muslim gulag. Yet it has built cozy ties with the Taliban, the marauding Islamist force created in the mid-1990s by Pakistani intelligence to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan.
Atheist, communist China has for more than half a century been close to Pakistan, the first Islamic republic of the postcolonial era. Likewise, it has become strange bedfellows with the Taliban, responsible for the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks. Such is the transactional approach that has long been a hallmark of Chinese foreign policy.
After the Taliban was ousted from power by a U.S.-led military invasion, Beijing quietly maintained ties with the militia in Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership took refuge. To this day, the Taliban’s top leaders remain ensconced in Pakistan, even as their fighters make gains on the ground in Afghanistan.
Much is being made of the potential for the Afghan conflict to spill over into Xinjiang. But just as China’s secure borders have for years forestalled any trouble in Xinjiang from growing jihadism in Pakistan, intensifying conflict in Afghanistan is unlikely to affect stability in China’s far west. China’s short, 76-km frontier with Afghanistan comprises mainly impassable high-altitude terrain.
China already has thousands of its own troops in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir, which borders Xinjiang. It also has deployed its own military units in another potential corridor to Xinjiang, Tajikistan, including soldiers on the Tajik-Afghan border.
As the bus explosion illustrates, China’s concerns are essentially centered on its economic interests in Pakistan and Central Asia — especially resource-rich Tajikistan — and the safety of Chinese nationals working on projects there. The threat of terrorism, however, provides a convenient cover for Beijing to advance its geopolitical interests.
With the U.S. in retreat, China is likely to increase its strategic footprint in Afghanistan by leveraging its strategic relationship with the Taliban’s main backer, Pakistan, and its own long-standing ties with that militia.
To co-opt the Taliban, China has already dangled the prospect of providing the militia the two things it needs to govern Afghanistan in whole or in part — acquiescence to its rule, if not formal recognition, and much-needed infrastructure and economic development assistance. And the Taliban, rising to the bait, is going out of its way to assuage China’s concerns. Clearly, a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan will not only be under Pakistan’s sway but also greatly aid China’s designs.
America’s exit has opened the path for an opportunistic China to make strategic inroads into Afghanistan and deepen its penetration of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in 2014 that Joe Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national-security issue over the past four decades.” The hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan is set to extend that pattern.
Afghanistan is on the brink of catastrophe, and it is US President Joe Biden’s fault. By overruling America’s top generals and ordering the hasty withdrawal of US troops, Biden opened the way for Taliban terrorists to capture more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s districts. Now, the Taliban is pushing toward Kabul, and the United States is looking weaker than ever.
The US effectively ended its military operations in Afghanistan on July 1, when it handed over to the Afghan government the sprawling Bagram Air Base, which long served as the staging ground for US operations in the country. In fact, “handover” is too generous a description. In a sign of what is to come, US forces quietly slipped out of the base overnight after shutting off the electricity. The resulting security lapse allowed looters to scavenge the facilities before Afghan troops arrived and gained control.
Biden has vehemently defended his decision to withdraw, arguing that the US “did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build” and that “staying would have meant US troops taking casualties.” He has also stood by his rushed approach, insisting that “speed is safety” in this context. “How many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk?”
The implication was clear: Questioning the wisdom of the US withdrawal is tantamount to supporting the endangerment of Americans. But it is Afghans who are really in jeopardy.
Recall the last time the US left a war unfinished: In 1973, it hastily abandoned its allies in South Vietnam. The next year, 80,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were reportedly killed as a result of the conflict, making it the deadliest year of the entire Vietnam War. It is also worth noting that in 1975, the US effectively handed Cambodia to the China-backed ultra-communist Khmer Rouge, who went on to carry out unimaginable horrors.
Now, the US is leaving Afghans at the mercy of a marauding Islamist force – one with a long history of savage behavior. Already, the Taliban offensive has displaced tens of thousands of civilians. And while the Afghan government in Kabul teeters, the Taliban is seizing American weapons from the Afghan military and showing them off as they march across the country.
America’s justification for rushing out of Afghanistan is much weaker than its reasoning for leaving Vietnam. Whereas 58,220 Americans (largely draftees) died in Vietnam, only 2,448 US soldiers (all volunteers) died over the course of 20 years in Afghanistan. Moreover, since the US formally ended its combat mission on January 1, 2015, the US has suffered just 99 fatalities, including in non-hostile incidents. During the same period, more than 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed.
None of this is to minimize the blood and treasure the US has sacrificed in Afghanistan, let alone suggest that American troops should stay indefinitely. On the contrary, ending America’s longest war is a worthy goal. But Biden’s approach entails effectively admitting that a terrorist militia has defeated the world’s most powerful military, and then handing Afghanistan back to that militia. This undercuts global trust in the US, jeopardizes Afghan and regional security, and threatens to trigger a resurgence of terror worldwide.
The Taliban’s impending return to power will surely energize and embolden other terrorist groups in the larger global jihadist movement. Furthermore, the Taliban, a creature of Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, still receives significant aid from Pakistan’s military. So, while Biden says that Afghanistan’s future is now in its own hands, it is actually mostly in Pakistani hands, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently noted.
Among those facing the most acute risks is India. When the Taliban was last in power, from 1996 to 2001, it allowed Pakistan to use Afghan territory to train terrorists for missions in India. Its return to power could thus open a new front for terrorism against India, which would then have to shift its focus from intensifying military standoffs with China in the Himalayas.
The Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan helps China in other ways, too. Given that Pakistan is a Chinese client, the US withdrawal paves the way for China to make strategic inroads into Afghanistan, with its substantial mineral wealth and strategic location between Pakistan and Iran.
China would achieve this by offering the Taliban the two things it desperately needs: international recognition and economic aid. With Russia also likely to recognize the Taliban’s leadership in Afghanistan, the group will have little incentive to moderate its violence, despite its current attempts to polish its image.Sign up for our weekly newsletter, PS on Sunday
Biden had a better option: The US could have maintained a small residual force in Afghanistan, in order to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces. Yes, this would have violated the deal that Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, struck with the Taliban in February 2020. But the Taliban have already violated that Faustian bargain. Biden was happy to overturn many of Trump’s other actions, making his insistence on upholding this deal difficult to understand.
Biden says the US is “developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability” that does not require a physical presence in Afghanistan. But if Afghan security continues to unravel, “over-the-horizon” operations will make little difference. The more likely scenario will be an emergency evacuation of US embassy personnel and other American citizens from Kabul, much like the evacuation from Saigon in 1975. India, for one, has already begun such an exodus, evacuating its consulate staff from Kandahar.
Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in 2014 that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national-security issue over the past four decades.” The hurried US withdrawal from Afghanistan is set to extend that pattern.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently said that China should strive to “make friends” rather than enemies and be seen as a “credible, lovable and respectable” power. But Xi’s own draconian, expansionist actions at home and abroad continue to undermine China’s global image.
In Asia, Xi’s aggressive revisionism and coercion have roiled relations with countries extending from Japan and the Philippines to Vietnam and Bhutan. But the international focus on Xi’s growing intimidation of Taiwan and his campaign to bring Hong Kong into political lockstep with Beijing have also drawn attention away from his other muscular actions, especially his bare-knuckle treatment of India.
Nowhere is the damage — and the yawning gap between Xi’s rhetoric and action — more apparent than in China’s relations with New Delhi, which are today at a nadir.
China’s protracted military standoffs with India along the Himalayan border have just entered the 15th month, and continue to intensify, with both countries recently deploying additional forces and new weapons, raising the risk that another skirmish could spark a war.
The current standoffs began after India’s shocked discovery that the People’s Liberation Army had stealthily encroached on and occupied key frontier areas in its northernmost region of Ladakh, where the Himalayas meet the Karakoram Range.
The PLA’s deception might have caught India off guard, but the aggression — a territorial grab as well an attempt to cut India down to size and thereby underpin China’s regional supremacy — was a serious strategic miscalculation on Xi’s part.
Refusing to accept a changed territorial status quo, India has put up stiff military resistance, more than matching China’s deployments and ruling out normalizing bilateral ties until China rolls back its encroachments. Xi’s aggression has only made certain the rise of a more antagonistic India.
This was apparent from a news report last week that India, by deploying 50,000 additional forces and augmenting its force level against China to about 200,000, has shifted its military posture from defense to potential offense. Indeed, India’s primary military focus has moved from Pakistan to China, although it cannot wish away the specter of a two-front war against both its closely aligned foes.
Picking a border fight with India makes little strategic sense, as it is a battle neither nuclear power can possibly win. The aggression initially triggered a series of border clashes in May and June 2020 that made China realize that its army, with little combat experience since the disastrous 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam, must avoid all close combat with battle-hardened Indian troops.
The worst clash resulted in many fatalities on both sides. Xi was so embarrassed by China’s first combat deaths in over four decades that, whereas India quickly honored its 20 fallen as martyrs, Beijing has still not disclosed the Chinese death toll, other than belatedly honoring four slain soldiers and one wounded officer earlier this year.
But the regime has arrested at least six Chinese bloggers for saying that China is hiding the real death toll from that clash, in which U.S. intelligence reportedly placed Chinese fatalities at 35. One of the bloggers, who had 2.5 million followers on Weibo, was recently sentenced to eight months in prison.
Since those clashes, China has sought to forestall further fighting at close quarters, including by mutually establishing buffer zones in two of the confrontation sites and by deploying new weapons like self-propelled mortars for hit-and-run firing positions. And, in a tacit admission that Han Chinese soldiers need to be better trained for high-altitude Himalayan warfare, it has been raising new border militias made up of local Tibetan youths.
The clashes were a reminder that, without the element of surprise, China is not in a position to get the better of India when it comes to actual combat.
More fundamentally, Xi has realized the hard way that it was much easier to launch aggression than it has been to scale things back. China is now locked in an uneasy military stalemate with India. If Xi attempts to break the stalemate with a war, he is unlikely to secure a decisive win. The war itself is more likely to end in a bloody stalemate, with heavy losses on both sides.
The reputational costs of that would be far higher for the stronger military and economic power, China, than for India.
The current stalemate indeed sends out the message that China’s capability and power have come under open challenge from India. And, in a reflection of Xi’s counterproductive policies, India seems more determined than ever to counter Chinese power and work with like-minded powers such as the U.S., Japan and Australia to limit China’s international influence.
Despite the deepening chill over Hong Kong’s media, a recent article in the South China Morning Post chided China for alienating India, saying, “If Beijing is serious about not pushing New Delhi further away or even turning India into a permanent enemy, it should begin by setting aside grievances on the border issue and ending the standoff.”
The problem is that Xi, having placed the China-India relationship on a knife’s edge, has boxed himself into a corner with nowhere to go.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
The Communist Party of China’s 1951 annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau – the starting point of Asia’s ten major river systems – gave China tremendous power over Asia’s water map. In the ensuing decades, the country has made the most of this riparian advantage, but at an enormous social and environmental cost.
On July 1, the Communist Party of China (CPC) will stage a patriotic extravaganza to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. Among the achievements it will celebrate is the Baihetan Dam, located on the Jinsha River, on the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The dam will start operations on the same day.
The CPC loves a superlative. It is the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter, with the world’s largest foreign reserves. It boasts the world’s highest railway and the highest and longest bridges. It is also the world’s most dammed country, with more large dams than the rest of the world combined, and prides itself on having the world’s biggest water-transfer canal system.
The dams themselves are often superlative. The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest power station, in terms of installed capacity, and the Baihetan Dam is billed as the world’s biggest arch dam, as well as the world’s first project to use a giant one-gigawatt (GW) hydro-turbine generator. With 16 such generators, Baihetan ranks as the world’s second-largest hydroelectric dam (behind the Three Gorges Dam, at 22.5 GW).
All of this make great fodder for CPC-fueled nationalism – essential to maintain support for the world’s longest-ruling party. China often flaunts its hydroengineering prowess, including its execution of the most ambitious inter-river water transfers ever conceived, to highlight its military and economic might. (To be sure, there are also superlatives China will not be flaunting at its upcoming centenary – beginning with the “world’s largest network of concentration camps.”)
But China’s dams are not merely symbols of the country’s greatness. Nor is their purpose simply to ensure China’s water security, as the CPC claims. They are also intended as a source of leverage that China can use to exert control over downstream countries.
The CPC’s 1951 annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau – the starting point of Asia’s ten major river systems – gave China tremendous power over Asia’s water map. In the ensuing decades, the country has made the most of this riparian advantage. For example, by building 11 giant dams on the Mekong, just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia, China has secured the ability to turn off the region’s water tap.
But the CPC is failing to consider the high costs of its strategy, which extend far beyond political friction with neighbors. The party’s insatiable damming is wreaking environmental havoc on Asia’s major river systems, including mainland China’s dual lifelines: the Yellow and the Yangtze.
The social costs are no less severe. For starters, given shoddy construction in the first three decades of communist rule, about 3,200 dams collapsed by 1981, with the 1975 Banqiao Dam failure alone killing up to 230,000 people. Of course, China has raised its dam-building prowess dramatically since then, and Baihetan was completed in just four years. But as its early dams age, and weather becomes increasingly extreme, catastrophic failures remain a serious risk.
Moreover, dam projects have displaced an enormous number of Chinese. In 2007, just as China’s mega-dam-building drive was gaining momentum, then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao revealed that, since the CPC’s rise to power, China had relocated 22.9 million people to make way for water projects – a figure larger than more than 100 countries’ entire populations. The Three Gorges Dam alone displaced more than 1.4 million people.
This doesn’t seem to bother the CPC much. Baihetan’s inundation of vast stretches of a sparsely populated highland has forced local residents, mostly from the relatively poor Yi nationality, to farm more marginal tracts at higher elevations. As China shifts its focus from the dam-saturated rivers in its heartland to rivers in the ethnic-minority homelands the CPC annexed, China’s economically and culturally marginalized communities will suffer the most.
And there is little doubt that this will happen. The CPC has now set its sights on building the world’s first super-dam, on the Yarlung Zangbo river – better known as the Brahmaputra – near Tibet’s heavily militarized border with India.
The Brahmaputra curves around the Himalayas in a U-turn and forms the planet’s longest and deepest canyon, as it plunges from an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,200 feet) toward the Indian floodplains. Damming it means building at an elevation of more than 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) – the highest at which a mega-dam has ever been built. And because the gorge holds the world’s largest untapped concentration of river energy, the super-dam is supposed to have a hydropower generating capacity of 60 GW, nearly three times that of the Three Gorges Dam.
The fact that the gorge is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions seems to be of little concern to the CPC, which is far more interested in being able to use water as a weapon against India, its Asian rival. China has already set the stage for construction, recently completing a highway through the canyon and announcing the start of high-speed train service to a military town near the gorge. This will enable the transport of heavy equipment, materials, and workers to the remote region, which was long thought inaccessible because of its treacherous terrain.
The CPC views its centenary as cause for celebration. But the rest of the world should see the party for what it is: repressive, genocidal, and environmentally rapacious. And it should prepare for what the CPC’s second century may bring.
For more than a year, the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis was treated as a pure conspiracy theory by major U.S. news organizations and social media companies.
Facebook and Instagram, for example, aggressively censored references to this hypothesis — and even suspended accounts for repeatedly sharing the claim. Newspapers, instead of investigating the story, dismissed it as a crazy idea or fringe fringe theory.
Suddenly, without any new evidence, mainstream media have embraced the theory as credible: that the greatest global health calamity in more than a century was possibly caused by a virus that escaped after being engineered in a Chinese lab. And those aforementioned social-media giants, no less abruptly, have stopped removing posts claiming that COVID-19 is human-made.
Liberal critics have termed the reversals a “fiasco” resulting from American “groupthink.” Actually, the about-turn reveals something more deep-rooted — the political bias of putatively independent institutions and their readiness to be guided by what then-President Donald Trump called America’s “deep state.”
Mike Pompeo said earlier this month that, as U.S. Secretary of State, he faced an uphill task to get to the truth on the virus’s origins. Even the U.S. intelligence community, according to him, “did not want the world to know the Chinese Communist Party was in the process of covering up several million losses of life.”
Indeed, the concerted effort to obscure the truth also extended to U.S. scientific and bureaucratic institutions, largely because U.S. government agencies funded dangerous experiments on coronaviruses at the military-linked Wuhan Institute of Virology, and also because several American labs are still engaged in similar research to engineer super-viruses. Some of the scientists that took the lead to kill off the COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis hid their conflicts of interest, including their ties with Chinese scientists.
Today, the new international spotlight on the lab-leak theory may signal greater pressure on the world’s largest autocracy to come clean on COVID-19’s origins. But the long suppression of a free and open discussion on the lab-leak story has cast an unflattering light on institutions in the world’s most powerful democracy that control the dissemination of information that shapes public debate.
It has also underscored the pervasive impact of the polarization of U.S. politics: just because the Trump administration promoted the lab-leak theory, left-leaning news and social media organizations almost intuitively sought to debunk it.
It speaks for itself that the reversals by these organizations began days before President Joe Biden’s May 26 statement that a lab leak was one of “two likely scenarios” on how the virus originated. Biden’s admission came after China closed the door on allowing further investigation by the World Health Organization.
Viruses leaking from laboratories are not uncommon. In 1979, anthrax escaped from a Soviet laboratory in Yekaterinburg, formerly known as Sverdlovsk, killing 64 people. The 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing also resulted from a lab leak.
Yet, despite the globally disruptive COVID-19 pandemic originating in the city that is the center of Chinese research on super-viruses, as well as the fact that international scientists noticed early on that the virus’s genetic makeup was somewhat different from natural coronaviruses, the lab-leak theory was consistently dismissed until Biden became president and weighed the evidence. Sen. Lindsey Graham contends that such dismissal “played a prominent role in the defeat of Trump in the 2020 presidential race.”
If there is any silver lining to all this, the widespread death and suffering — coupled with increased public pressure — could force the U.S. and other countries to halt lab research aimed at genetically enhancing the pathogenic power of viruses. But do not count on it: the horrors of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended up setting off a nuclear arms race.
Biden would do well to fully disclose the extent of U.S. government funding of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The U.S. National Institutes of Health funneled $3.4 million to this institute through the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, whose largest source of funds is the Pentagon. But the Pentagon has yet to unequivocally deny that any of the almost $39 million it gave to EcoHealth Alliance ended up in Wuhan.
A fact-sheet released by the Trump administration in its final days expressed concern over “whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV” (Wuhan Institute of Virology).
More fundamentally, the prolonged silencing of an open international discussion on whether the pandemic was triggered by the escape of a functionally enhanced virus from an American-funded Chinese lab in Wuhan could keep the truth hidden forever. The loss of valuable time has greatly aided China’s cover-up of the virus’s origins.
If in the one-and-a-half years since the pandemic began, the U.S. has failed to find definitive intelligence in support of either hypothesis — zoonotic spillover or lab leak, new solid evidence is unlikely to emerge within the 90-day deadline set by President Biden. U.S. intelligence has yet to recover from China’s crippling elimination of its network of spies across the country a decade ago.
By now, China has likely destroyed any incriminating evidence of its negligence or complicity in the worst disaster of our time. If no conclusive evidence emerges about the genesis of the pandemic, that would amount to letting China off the hook.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
International calls for the restoration of democracy in strategically located Myanmar obscure an important divide between that country’s neighbors and the West.
The sanctions-centered approach of the United States and the European Union has sought to punitively isolate Myanmar, while neighboring countries favor a policy of constructive engagement with the military junta.
After a gradual, decadelong democratization process, Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, seized power on Feb. 1 and began cracking down on those peacefully protesting the coup. The continuing unrest has carried important international implications, including the flight of political dissidents and ordinary refugees to neighboring countries.
The cross-border impacts explain why neighbors view engagement as essential, including urging Myanmar’s military rulers to address the domestic unrest through political reconciliation.
Myanmar’s land frontiers are porous, with cross-border ethnic linkages with communities in India and Thailand making the transboundary movement of people common. Trade, investment and counterinsurgency cooperation also link Myanmar with the countries that surround it.
Can anyone imagine the U.S. seeking to isolate and squeeze its southern neighbor Mexico? U.S. President Joe Biden, in fact, is relying on the Mexican government to address the present border crisis precipitated by the tide of mainly Central American refugees trying to enter the U.S. since he took office.
Likewise, it is inconceivable that Myanmar’s immediate neighbors, saddled with a refugee influx since the coup, would embrace the punitive approach adopted by the U.S. and the EU. Yet, the Biden administration initiated a sanctions campaign against Myanmar without consultations with neighboring countries.
There is truth in the common diplomatic view that the farther a country is from Myanmar, the more likely it will favor a punitive approach, while those nearby will keep the channels of communication open through calibrated engagement. The history of sanctions shows that punitive actions have rarely worked without some form of engagement.
In this light, the presence of junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing at the Apr. 24 in-person Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Jakarta — and the carefully nuanced summit statement on Myanmar that emphasized the “ASEAN family” — represented a rebuff to the U.S.-led approach to isolate Myanmar.
According to the five-point consensus that emerged from the summit, ASEAN will mediate to help resolve the crisis. This is, however, easier said than done. ASEAN, for example, has failed to resolve the crisis in Thailand, where the leader of the 2014 coup remains ensconced in power — in civilian garb — by cracking down on pro-democracy protesters, including using a feared lese-majeste law to imprison those who insult the royal family.
More broadly, the retreat of the Myanmar spring exemplifies how democracy is under siege around the world. The wave of rollback of democracies highlights the growing threat from a fusion of autocratic politics and crony, state-guided capitalism.
Today, all the countries of continental Southeast Asia — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam — are under authoritarian rule, like their giant northern neighbor, China. In fact, only two of ASEAN’s 10 members are true democracies with judicial independence and free media.
Only the military can return Myanmar to the path of democratization. After all, it was the military that voluntarily ushered in the country’s democratic transition that began in 2011. It is thus critical for outside states, including in the West, to maintain lines of communication with Myanmar’s top generals.
One of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, Myanmar has long been an easy sanctions target because it has remained a weak, divided state torn by ethnic insurgencies. Its failure to construct an inclusive national identity has allowed old ethnic rivalries to fester, stifling the resource-rich country’s potential.
As past experience has shown, however, an uncompromisingly harsh approach toward Myanmar has had the perverse effect of weakening America’s hand while strengthening China’s.
China values Myanmar as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean. Like India, Myanmar has long complained about the flow of Chinese arms to guerrilla groups, accusing Beijing of backing several of them as levers against it. The nationalistic military is wary of reliance on China. But international isolation could leave it with no choice.
As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told Nikkei’s Future of Asia 2021 conference earlier this month: “If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on? If I don’t ask China, who am I to ask?” Cambodia is a cautionary tale of how international isolation pushes an economically vulnerable nation into China’s arms. Myanmar could be next, unless the U.S. recalibrates its sanctions policy.
The international divide over how to deal with Myanmar also represents a division between Western and Asian values. In contrast to the West’s interventionist impulse and democratic evangelism, the Asian way of standing up for one’s principles and beliefs does not extend to imposing them on others through coercive activism.
Today, with little prospect that the West could engineer a color revolution in Myanmar, friendly conversations with that country’s generals to persuade them to halt their crackdown and release political prisoners are likely to make more headway toward influencing future events than the current heavy-handed approach.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, much like a world war, has become a defining moment for the world. Our lives have profoundly changed since 2020. The pandemic-triggered economic and social disruptions have set in motion, as some early research indicates, higher rates of birth, divorce, obesity, depression, alcoholism, crime, bankruptcy, unemployment, domestic violence and suicide.
If another country, such as India, Japan or Brazil, had let a lethal virus escape from its territory and create a globally disruptive pandemic, it would today be in the international doghouse. But China thus far has escaped scot-free for unleashing the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to ravage large parts of the world.
After infecting people across the world, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), through one of its publications, cynically called it “a rare example of a shared situation connecting every human being in the world.” The CCP has even manipulated online discourse to enforce its narrative on the novel coronavirus. As The New York Timesreported, it “directed paid trolls to inundate social media with party-line blather and deployed security forces to muzzle unsanctioned voices.”
Not only has China managed to get away with spawning the greatest global health calamity of our time, it also has successfully stymied an independent and thorough investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 virus.
In fact, China has exploited the paralysing pandemic and the suffering wrought by the virus to make major economic gains. Not only has its economy boomed during the pandemic, its exports also have soared to a record high. In other words, the major socioeconomic disruptions in much of the world have worked to China’s advantage.
Paraguay, for example, illustrates China’s cynical attempts to exploit the hardship caused by its most infamous global export, the Covid-19 virus. On March 22nd, Paraguay disclosed that it had been offered Chinese vaccines in exchange for breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Another example of Beijing seeking to weaponise a pandemic that it precipitated is Honduras, a Latin American nation like Paraguay.
Consider another odd fact: The terrible ravages of the pandemic are evident globally other than in the country of its birth. China ranks as the country least affected by the pandemic. It is a mystery as to how China has managed to stay largely unaffected by a virus that originated within its borders, even as neighbouring countries—from Japan and South Korea to Nepal and India—currently grapple with a Covid-19 surge.
ORIGINS OF THE DISEASE
From the start of the pandemic, China has systematically impeded international efforts to understand the true origins of the Covid-19 virus. Instead of coming clean on the virus’ origins and providing answers that the world deserves, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 30th, expressing “sincere sympathies” on India’s devastating second wave of Covid-19. It was a case of the victimiser country pretending to sympathise with the victim.
With its international clout, including at the World Health Organization (WHO), China has worked to stifle discussion on the origins of the virus. The international focus is not on the pandemic’s genesis but on the threat posed by the virus’ different variants, which have come to be identified with specific countries.
The Indian media too refer to the “Indian variant,” the “Brazilian variant,” the “UK variant” and the “South African variant,” but not to the original Chinese virus from Wuhan. In fact, it was Indians who nicknamed the B.1.617 strain as the “Indian variant” and as the “double mutant” (a term that scientifically makes no sense because the various variants of concern all contain more than a dozen mutations).
More broadly, the world is paying the price for China’s cover-up and the WHO’s mishandling of the pandemic’s critical early stage. The WHO advised countries during the pandemic’s initial phase against closing borders or mandating the wearing of masks—measures that have since become central to stemming the spread of the disease.
As Covid-19 spread, WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus dutifully used Chinese talking points and let China, as The New York Timessaid, “take charge” of the WHO’s inquiry into the origins of the virus. By being too deferential to China throughout the crisis, the WHO provided cover to the actions of the world’s largest autocracy in violating international norms.
For example, international regulations require countries to notify the WHO within 24 hours of the occurrence of a health emergency of potential international concern. After the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, WHO member states agreed to the establishment of a set of guidelines known as the International Health Regulations.
Article 6 of these agreement obliges every state party, including China, to collect information on any “public-health emergency of international concern within its territory” and notify the WHO “within 24 hours.” Article 6 then states, “Following a notification, a state party shall continue to communicate to the WHO timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed public-health information available to it on the notified event, where possible including case definitions, laboratory results, source and type of the risk, number of cases and deaths, conditions affecting the spread of the disease and the health measures employed; and report, when necessary, the difficulties faced and support needed in responding to the potential public health emergency of international concern.”
Yet China blatantly violated this rule. As an international panel appointed by Tedros acknowledged in its recent report, the WHO first learned of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan from Taiwan, from news articles, a public bulletin, and from an automated alert system that scans the internet for mentions of unexplained pneumonia.
China, instead of notifying the WHO, “suppressed, falsified and obfuscated data and repressed advance warnings,” as highlighted by Errol Patrick Mendes, a well-known, Canada-based international human-rights lawyer. As a result, the Covid-19 virus spread internationally and still remains a global menace. According to Oxford University chancellor Chris Patten, “This is the CPC’s coronavirus, not least because the party silenced brave Chinese doctors when they tried to blow the whistle on what was happening.”
Yet, the Tedros-appointed “independent” panel, in its report released on May 12th, did not mention either China’s flagrant violation of the international rule or how to enforce compliance in a future contingency. The report did not even make a passing reference to China’s initial suppression of information on the Wuhan outbreak or its clampdown on whistleblowers who raised the alarm about the spread of the disease. Nor did it refer to China’s unconscionable delay in releasing the virus’ genetic information—vital to help medical scientists elsewhere develop appropriate diagnostic tests and treatments to save lives.
In fact, the panel’s report tacitly absolved both China and the WHO of responsibility for the pandemic. It even echoed Chinese disinformation: “the virus may already have been in circulation outside China in the last months of 2019,” it said. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate) co-chaired the 13-member panel, which included a retired Indian Administrative Service officer, Preeti Sudan, who served as health secretary until last year.
This panel shied away from unearthing the truth in the same way as the joint WHO-China probe into the origins of the pandemic. Through the Chinese participants, the Chinese government influenced the findings of the joint-probe report, which was released on March 30th. The 124-page report, written by a team of 17 Chinese scientists and 17 international experts, merely said China lacked the research to indicate how or when the virus began spreading.
Such has been Beijing’s stonewalling that the WHO team seeking to study the virus’ origins was allowed into China only in January 2021. Before admitting the WHO team, China systematically destroyed all incriminating evidence, according to a Japanese newsmagazine that accessed internal Chinese documents.
To make matters worse, the WHO team that went to China for the joint study lacked the expertise to investigate the possible lab origins of the virus. Its report was so patchy that even Tedros admitted that it failed to carefully sift evidence about a possible lab leak. Earlier, after coming under attack for his deference to Beijing, Tedros had pledged on November 30th, 2020, that, “We want to know the origin and we will do everything to know the origin.”
US FUNDING OF WUHAN LAB RESEARCH
Another factor has also aided China’s cover-up of Covid-19’s origins—the US role. The Dr Anthony Fauci-led National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health financed dangerous lab research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) since 2014 to reengineer natural coronaviruses and make them more infectious for experiments. This was perhaps the most dangerous lab research ever conducted anywhere.
US President Joe Biden, for his part, frittered away the leverage his predecessor handed him to reform the WHO by rejoining that United Nations organisation on his first day in office. Biden’s action came despite the fact that the WHO had taken no steps to separate itself from the malign influence of China or to cease being complicit in China’s cover-up. America’s rejoining of the WHO, as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in March, “gave the Chinese a complete pass for the Wuhan virus” and advertised American weakness.
After the WHO-rejoining decision, Biden signed a little-noticed presidential memorandum on January 26th that basically termed as racist any reference to the pandemic by the “geographic location of its origin.” The presidential memorandum directed that, “Executive departments and agencies shall take all appropriate steps to ensure that official actions, documents and statements, including those that pertain to the Covid-19 pandemic, do not exhibit or contribute to racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”
Consequently, the annual unclassified US intelligence report on threat assessment, released in April, was silent on the pandemic’s Wuhan origin. That report is just one example.
Simply put, Biden’s executive action ordering federal agencies to stop making references to the pandemic by the “geographic location of its origin” has made it an official US policy not to link the China-sourced virus to China. So, while there may be no more official US talk about where the virus came from or about the lab-leak theory, it is, strangely, still widely considered okay to refer to the variants by their geographic origin.
The Western media that objected to the Covid-19 virus being called the Wuhan or Chinese virus have been linking the new strains to the countries where they first arose. In other words, geographically labelling the original virus is racist but not its variants. The emergence of multiple variants of the original virus only underscores the mounting costs of China’s cover-up, including preventing a transparent and thorough investigation of the pandemic’s genesis.
Against this background, it is unlikely that Biden will call China out for its cover-up. China’s coronavirus culpability may now be a proven fact, yet few world leaders have spoken up as clearly as Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump did. Trump, for example, said on July 4th, 2020, “China’s secrecy, deception and cover-up allowed it to spread all over the world—189 countries—and China must be held fully accountable.”
Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 22nd, 2020, Trump declared that “we must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China.
“In the earliest days of the virus, China locked down travel domestically while allowing flights to leave China and infect the world. China condemned my travel ban on their country, even as they cancelled domestic flights and locked citizens in their homes. The Chinese government and the World Health Organization—which is virtually controlled by China—falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Later, they falsely said people without symptoms would not spread the disease. The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions.”
WUHAN INSTITUTE’S DANGEROUS RESEARCH
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has acknowledged that its researchers led by Dr Shi Zhengli, who was proud to be called the “bat woman,” were engaged in what is scientifically known as “gain of function” research. The term refers to the deliberate enhancement of the functions of natural viruses to make them more transmissible and more dangerous for experimental purposes.
There are several published papers by Chinese researchers about such “gain of function” research on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Indeed, this institution became the hub of international coronavirus research before the pandemic erupted. Researchers there experimented with RaTG13, the bat coronavirus that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has identified as its closest sample (96.2 per cent similar) to the Covid-19 virus.
It is also an admitted fact that US taxpayer dollars partly financed the dangerous coronavirus research in Wuhan. As head of the NIAID, Dr Fauci played an important role in securing US federal grants for the coronavirus research in Wuhan. The money to the Wuhan institution was routed through the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, headed by British zoologist Peter Daszak.
After the pandemic flared, Dr Fauci and Dr Daszak, seeking to deflect attention from their potential culpability, took the lead in throwing cold water on the theory that the novel coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan lab. While repeatedly dismissing that theory, Fauci and Daszak hid their acute conflict of interest.
Why did Dr Fauci funnel millions of dollars to a Chinese institution that the US government says was engaged in secret research for China’s military? In a fact-sheet published on January 15th, the US State Department said that, despite the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s claim to be a civilian institution, “the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017. The United States and other donors who funded or collaborated on civilian research at the WIV have a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.”
The fact-sheet also declared that China has not “demonstrably eliminated” its bioweapon research in apparent breach of “its clear obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention,” which entered into force 46 years ago.
Dr Fauci, for his part, now claims that he has never supported “gain of function” research. This is contrary to his own published work.
Dr Fauci championed such research from the time it emerged in the scientific field. In a co-authored op-ed that first appeared in The Washington Post on December 30th, 2011, Dr Fauci declared that, “much good can come from generating a potentially dangerous virus in the laboratory.” (The newspaper’s website has since changed the phrase “much good can come” to “insights can come,” although reprints of the op-ed elsewhere still show “much good can come…”) The op-ed cautioned that, “Safeguarding against the potential accidental release or deliberate misuse of laboratory pathogens is imperative.” Yet it is exactly this kind of dangerous lab research that the Dr Fauci-led NIAID financed at a lab in communist China since 2014.
The State Department’s fact-sheet, while pointing out that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was researching viruses similar to the Covid-19 virus, said several researchers there became sick in autumn 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
Investigating the pandemic’s genesis is critical for another reason—this is not the first deadly disease to spread globally from China. China was the origin of earlier influenza epidemics, including, as Chinese scientists have acknowledged, the 1957 “Asian flu,” the 1968 “Hong Kong flu” and the 1977 “Russian flu.” According to new research, the 1918 “Spanish flu” that killed some 50 million people worldwide also originated in China.
Nor is the current pandemic the first case involving Chinese concealment of facts and samples. A Chinese coverup of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak in China triggered the world’s first 21st-century pandemic. Getting to the bottom of how the Covid-19 pathogen flared and spread is essential for designing international rapid-response efforts to prevent a future local disease outbreak from spiralling into yet another pandemic.
THE LAB-LEAK THEORY
However hard China may try, the theory that the Covid-19 virus escaped from a Wuhan lab refuses to go away. A leading American virologist, Dr Robert Redfield, who headed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, until January this year and had access to classified information, toldCNN in March that “the most likely aetiology of this pathogen” is that it “escaped” from a lab in Wuhan.
Redfield said that, after escaping from the lab, the virus began transmitting in September-October 2019. One study, published in the journal Science, also found “the period between mid-October and mid-November 2019” to be “the plausible interval when the first case” of Covid-19 emerged in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital.
In May, 18 scientists “with relevant expertise” declared in the journal Science that the lab-leak theory cannot be ruled out. They said, “A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest.”
Earlier in March, another group of 26 respected international scientists and experts released an “open letter” describing the joint WHO-China study as fundamentally flawed and calling for a new, unrestricted investigation, including whether the virus leaked from a lab. They said the probe should be “carried out by a truly independent team with no unresolved conflicts of interest and no full or partial control by any specific agenda or country.” The United Nations General Assembly can vote to set up such an inquiry.
Meanwhile, Nicholas Wade’s recent groundbreaking essay in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has helped renew attention on the lab-leak theory. This extract from the essay may explain why the US has shied away from exerting sustained pressure on China to come clean on the origins of a virus that has thus far killed nearly 3.5 million people officially and many more unofficially:
The US government shares a strange common interest with the Chinese authorities: Neither is keen on drawing attention to the fact that Shi’s coronavirus work was funded by the US National Institutes of Health. One can imagine the behind-the-scenes conversation in which the Chinese government says, “If this research was so dangerous, why did you fund it, and on our territory too?” To which the US side might reply, “Looks like it was you who let it escape. But do we really need to have this discussion in public?”
To be sure, no group of scientists has claimed that the Covid-19 virus was intentionally created as a bioweapon. However, a growing body of scientific opinion has come to believe that the virus’ origin in a Wuhan lab, through accidental escape or accidental infection of lab employees or lab animals, is as likely as a naturally occurring spillover from wildlife to humans. According to the State Department’s fact-sheet, “Scientists in China have researched animal-derived coronaviruses under conditions that increased the risk for accidental and potentially unwitting exposure.”
Two aspects of the Covid-19 virus, in fact, strengthen the theory that it originated in a lab. The first is the fact that the virus, from the beginning, was already well adapted to indoor transmission.
As American biologist Bret Weinstein said on the Real Time with Bill Maher show, “This virus attacks so many different tissues in the body, it does not seem natural. The fact that it does not, at least at the beginning did not seem to transmit outdoors nearly at all is very conspicuous. I mean, after all, most animals live outdoors. So, a virus that seems to be adapted to indoor transmission is a bit conspicuous.” Outdoor Covid-19 transmission still remains rare.
The second aspect is the transmission efficiency of the virus. The virus, from the beginning, has been transmitting efficiently across all geographical and climatic zones, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender and age.
Dr Redfield, in the CNN interview, said a naturally occurring virus normally takes a while to figure out how to become “more and more efficient” in transmission. But a lab experimenter, he explained, would seek to make the virus grow better and more efficient in order to learn more about it. “I have spent my life in virology. I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human, and at that moment in time, the virus…became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human-to-human transmission,” Dr Redfield added.
As history attests, authoritarian regimes rarely admit mistakes. A highly repressive regime like the one in Beijing will certainly be loath to admit that a pandemic that has killed millions of people across the world resulted from its negligence and lax safety standards at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
If the virus did not originate in a lab and China was not guilty of any cover-up, wouldn’t it be facilitating a transparent and independent inquiry by outside experts in order to clear the air with the rest of the world? China, however, has done exactly the opposite. It has even refused to turn over the raw personalized health data from its first Covid-19 cases to the WHO.
Furthermore, instead of giving outside investigators access to granular lab records, data and personnel so as to allow them to confidently evaluate the various hypotheses, Beijing has kept the Wuhan lab samples, records and research dossiers under lock and key. If the Chinese government did nothing wrong, why would it refuse to share raw data and grant complete, transparent access to the research facilities in Wuhan?
Let us be clear: Lab leaks have happened in the past. One example was the Soviet-era 1979 anthrax leak from Sverdlovsk, which Moscow admitted only in 1992 after the Soviet Union’s disintegration. According to the State Department’s fact-sheet, “Accidental infections in labs have caused several previous virus outbreaks in China and elsewhere, including a 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing that infected nine people, killing one.”
CHINA WILL LEARN KARMA IS A BITCH
Although knowing Covid-19’s origins is critical to the prevention of future pandemics, China—as an Associated Press investigation has revealed—is “strictly controlling all research into its origins, clamping down on some while actively promoting fringe theories that it could have come from outside China.” The clampdown on all information has come from the CCP leadership.
The party’s culture of secrecy and control resulted in the virus spreading worldwide from China. Through its unrivalled surveillance, censorship and propaganda systems, the CCP is able to construct and control a narrative. China’s initial coronavirus cover-up relied on these systems, resulting in a local outbreak in Wuhan morphing into a still-raging global health calamity. The CCP’s focus remains on preventing the truth from coming out.
But as former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently, “every piece of evidence” suggests that, despite China’s cover-up of the pandemic’s genesis, the Covid-19 virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab. He warned that the “risk that something like this happens again from that laboratory or another Chinese laboratory is very real. They [China] are operating and conducting activities that are inconsistent with their capacity to secure those facilities. And the risk of bioweapons and bioterror emanating from this region is very real.”
The pandemic-caused infections, deaths and disruptions have driven negative views of China to new heights internationally, according to a Pew Research Centre survey. China has been trying to repair the damage to its reputation by pursuing “vaccine diplomacy,” just as it pushed “mask diplomacy” in the early stages of the pandemic. The Biden administration, unfortunately, has aided China’s “vaccine diplomacy” by leaving developing nations in the lurch through its vaccine hoarding at home.
Still, China’s persistent refusal to come clean, coupled with the rising international tide of distrust of that country, has helped fuel greater interest in investigating the pandemic’s true genesis. An increasing number of international scientists have started to debate whether the pandemic occurred because of a lab leak in Wuhan. Fact-based scientists are fond of the aphorism, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
China may believe that it has got away with creating the Covid-19 pandemic, as it did with spawning the SARS pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, marks a watershed in history that will continue to dog China. Thanks to Covid-19, many countries have learned hard lessons about China-dependent supply chains, and international attitudes towards Xi’s regime have shifted.
Last year, Beijing aggressively denounced international voices calling for it to pay compensation for the pandemic-inflicted damage. These voices included the Trump administration, which said it was looking at ways of holding China financially responsible for the pandemic and the economic damage it has caused worldwide.
In 2021, no one is suggesting that China be sued for damages, largely because such action seems unrealistic. China’s international power and clout are all too visible. Yet, with the pandemic still battering large parts of the world, China continues to incur immeasurable costs to its reputation and image. Those costs cumulatively would likely surpass any possible reparations claim against it.
In a karma-is-a-bitch way, China will indeed pay for spawning the pandemic.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press), which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.
When India, currently fighting a devastating second COVID wave, was similarly distracted a year ago with enforcing the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdown, China took advantage to stealthily infiltrate key border areas in India’s high-altitude Ladakh region.
As thawing ice reopened access routes after the brutal Himalayan winter, a shocked India discovered that the People’s Liberation Army had occupied hundreds of sq. kilometers of the borderlands, fortified by heavily armed bases. The discovery triggered the first deadly clashes in the region since 1975.
The intruding PLA forces remain well dug in, with Beijing in no mood to roll back its encroachments or accept further buffer zones of the kind established in two other confrontation areas to avert further armed clashes.
With tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops facing each other in multiple areas, the standoffs constitute the longest period of military confrontation since China imposed itself as India’s neighbor in the early 1950s by occupying then-autonomous Tibet. Even China’s 1962 military attack on India — the only foreign war that communist-ruled China has won — only lasted 32 days.
Now, with India battling a sudden COVID explosion, there are fears China will spring further military surprises. This thought recently prompted India’s army chief to visit the front lines in Ladakh to review operational preparedness.
Meanwhile, China’s aggression has cast an unflattering light on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who failed to foresee the aggression coming largely because he was focused on befriending China. Meeting President Xi Jinping 18 times over the previous five years, Modi was blinded to the various warning signs, including China’s combat exercises and new military installations along the Himalayan frontier.
Since China’s land grabs, the otherwise voluble Modi has been quiet, neither mentioning China by name in any of his public remarks nor acknowledging the loss of territories. Worse still, no army commander has been held accountable for the costly security lapses that resulted in India being caught napping. Nor did the defense minister accept moral responsibility and resign.
India’s efforts to obfuscate the truth in order to save face, including its euphemism for seeking China’s withdrawal from the borderlands — “full restoration of peace and tranquility in the border areas” — have become grist for the Chinese propaganda mill. Indian media coverage is rife with officially coined euphemisms, with areas seized by the PLA routinely reported as “friction points.”
All of which is emboldening China’s intransigence. In seeking to advance its “10 miles forward, five miles back” strategy, Beijing recently suggested the two countries should meet each other “halfway.” Meeting halfway would be a “win-win” for China; it would literally win twice.
Not only would China retain its core land grabs, it would force India to legitimize their Chinese capture. This approach illustrates Beijing’s definition of “give and take” — the other side gives and China takes.
To Modi’s credit, India has refused to buckle. India has more than matched China’s Himalayan military deployments, and has made clear that bilateral ties cannot return to normal as long as there is, to quote Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, “friction, coercion, intimidation and bloodshed on the border.”
This month India excluded Chinese manufacturers from its fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless network trials. And, unlike the 15 tons of medical supplies it rushed to Wuhan at the height of the pandemic there, India has declined to reciprocally take any such Chinese official assistance during its current COVID surge.
The long-term implications, however, are ominous. Consider, for example, China’s frenzied construction of new military infrastructure along the inhospitable border. This big buildup either signals that Beijing sees war as likely, or that it intends to ramp up sustained pressure on India over the long-term.
More fundamentally, China’s actions, including the forward deployment of artillery, missiles and bombers, threaten to turn what was once a lightly patrolled frontier into a perennially hot border. The Tibetan Plateau has become a vast military base for China, which also enjoys the advantage of a relatively flat terrain against India.
For India, a hot border means the diversion of even greater resources for frontier defense, including raising additional mountain-warfare forces. Such a scenario will not only make it more difficult for India to focus on its broader strategic competition with China, but will also further strengthen China’s Pakistan alliance.
Tying India down along the long Himalayan frontier could even help China secure a greater foothold in the Indian Ocean. Opening a maritime front against India would mean that country’s strategic encirclement.
It is possible, however, that — like with the 1962 war — China’s actions could prove singularly counterproductive. That war shattered Indian illusions about China and set in motion India’s shift away from pacifism. In 1967, while still recovering from the 1962 war and another war with Pakistan in 1965, India gave China a bloody nose in military clashes along the Tibet-Sikkim border.
In terms of territory gained, China’s Ladakh aggression may have been a success. But politically, it has proved self-damaging, driving India closer to Washington and making a major Indian military buildup inevitable. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi are at a nadir.
This seems a replay of 1962, when China set out, in the words of then-Premier Zhou Enlai, to “teach India a lesson.” China won the war but lost the peace. The difference now is China is making a permanent enemy of its largest neighbor.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
American statesman John Adams, who served as U.S. president from 1797 to 1801, famously said, “There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country: One is by the sword; the other is by debt.” China, choosing the second path, has embraced colonial-era practices and rapidly emerged as the world’s biggest official creditor.
With its international loans surpassing more than 5% of the global GDP, China has now eclipsed traditional lenders, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and all the creditor nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) put together. By extending huge loans with strings attached to financially vulnerable states, it has not only boosted its leverage over them but also ensnared some in sovereignty-eroding debt traps.
The latest to fall prey to China’s debt-trap diplomacy is small Laos, which recently signed a 25-year concession agreement allowing a majority Chinese-owned company to control its national power grid, including electricity exports to neighboring countries. This shows that, even as the China-originating COVID-19 pandemic exacts a heavy toll across the world, Beijing continues to weaponize debt as part of its strategy to expand its economic, political and military presence abroad.
Instead of first evaluating a borrower country’s creditworthiness, including whether new loans could saddle it with an onerous debt crisis, China is happy to lend. The heavier the debt burden on the borrower, the greater China’s own leverage becomes.
A new international study has shed light on China’s muscular and exploitative lending practices by examining 100 of its loan contracts with 24 countries, many of which participate in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an imperial project that seeks to make real the mythical Middle Kingdom. The study found that these agreements arm China with considerable leverage by incorporating provisions that go beyond standard international lending contracts.
In fact, such is the lopsided nature of the Chinese-dictated contracts that, while curtailing the options of the borrowing nations, they give China’s state-owned banks untrammeled discretion over any borrower, including the power to scrap loans or even demand full repayment ahead of schedule, according to the study by researchers at AidData at William & Mary, the Center for Global Development, the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, and the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“Such terms give lenders an opening to project policy influence over the sovereign borrower, and effectively limit the borrower’s policy space to cancel a Chinese loan or to issue new environmental regulations. Some of the debt contracts in our sample could pose a challenge for multilateral cooperation in debt or financial crises, since so many of their terms run directly counter to recent multilateral commitments, long-established practices, and institutional policies,” the study noted.
China leverages its state-sponsored loans to aggressively advance its trade and geopolitical interests, with the study reporting pervasive links between Chinese financial, trade and construction contracts with developing countries. Many Chinese loans, in fact, have not been publicly disclosed, thus spawning a “hidden debt” problem.
Every contract since 2014 has incorporated a sweeping confidentiality clause that compels the borrowing country to keep confidential its terms or even the loan’s existence. Such China-enforced opacity, as the study points out, breaches the principle that public debt should be public and not hidden from taxpayers so that governments can be held accountable.
Forcing the other side to keep contractual provisions under wraps is also necessitated by the fact that China’s loan accords equip it with “broad latitude to cancel loans or accelerate repayment if it disagrees with a borrower’s policies,” whether domestic or foreign policy, according to the study.
No less significant is another unique clause: The contracts, the study found, obligate the borrower to exclude the Chinese debt from any multilateral restructuring process, such as the Paris Club of official bilateral creditors, and from any “comparable debt treatment.” This is aimed at ensuring that the borrowing country remains dependent on Beijing, including for any debt relief in the event of financial distress, like in the current pandemic.
The study confirms that little of what China provides is aid or low-interest lending. Rather, its infrastructure financing comes mainly in the form of market-rate loans like those from private capital markets. The more dire the borrower’s financial situation, the higher the interest rate China is likely to charge for lending money.
In stark contrast, interest rates for Japan’s infrastructure loans to developing countries, for example, mostly run below half a percent.
Worse still, many of China’s loan agreements incorporate collateral arrangements, such as lender-controlled revenue accounts. Its collateralization practices seek to secure debt repayments by revenues flowing from, for example, commodity exports. Through various contract clauses, a commercially aggressive China, according to the study, limits the borrowing state’s crisis management options while leveraging its own role.
The study did not examine how borrowing states, when unable to repay Chinese loans, are compelled, including by contract provisions allowing debt-for-equity swaps, to cede strategic assets to China. Water-rich Laos handed China majority control of its national electric grid after its state-owned electricity company’s debt spiraled to 26% of national GDP. The transfer also holds implications for national water resources as hydropower makes up more than four-fifths of Laos’s total electricity generation.
One of the earliest successes of China’s debt-trap diplomacy was in securing 1,158 square kilometers of strategic Pamir Mountains territory from the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan in 2011 in exchange for debt forgiveness. Tajikistan’s unending debt crisis has also forced it to grant Chinese companies rights to mine gold, silver and other mineral ores. As the Chinese military base in the Badakhshan region underscores, China has expanded its foothold in Tajikistan, thanks to a corrupt power elite there.
A more famous example is the Sri Lankan transfer of the Hambantota Port, along with more than 6,000 hectares of land around it, to Beijing on a 99-year lease. The concept of a 99-year lease, ironically, emerged from the flurry of European colonial expansion in China in the 19th century. In Sri Lanka, the transfer of the Indian Ocean region’s most strategically located port in late 2017 was seen as the equivalent of a heavily indebted farmer giving away his daughter to the cruel money lender.
China’s debt-trap diplomacy has not spared Pakistan, which ranks as its sole strategic ally following the withering of Beijing’s special relationship with North Korea, once its vassal. Saddled with huge Chinese debt, Pakistan has given China exclusive rights, coupled with a tax holiday, to run Gwadar Port for the next four decades. China will pocket 91% of the port’s revenues. It also plans to build near the port a Djibouti-style outpost for its navy.
In small island nations, China has converted big loans into acquisition of entire islets through exclusive development rights. China took over a couple of islets in the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives and one island in the South Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands. The European Union, meanwhile, has refused to bail out the tiny Balkan republic of Montenegro for mortgaging itself to China.
BRI, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature initiative, has been plagued by allegations of corruption and malpractice, and many of its completed projects have proved not financially viable. But, as an unclassified U.S. intelligence report released on April 13 said, Xi’s regime will continue to promote BRI, while fine-tuning it in response to regional and international criticism.
After all, BRI is central to its debt-trap diplomacy. China often begins as an economic partner of a small, financial weak country and then gradually enlarges its footprint in that state to become its economic master.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press), which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.
By trafficking in images of death, suffering, and private acts of mourning, Western media coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in India has broken one of the first rules of journalism. And while a Western double standard is nothing new, applying it repeatedly does not make it more acceptable.
When reporting on any mass tragedy, a basic rule of journalism is to be sensitive to the victims and those who are grieving. Western media, which double as the international media, usually observe this rule at home but discard it when reporting on disasters in non-Western societies.
The coverage of India’s devastating second wave of COVID-19 is a case in point. Western media have been filled with images of dead bodies and other graphic scenes that generally would not be shown following a similar disaster in a Western country. About half of global COVID-19 deaths have occurred in Europe and the United States alone, yet Western media have avoided presenting harrowing images from those settings.
Even at the height of the pandemic in the US and Europe, it was unthinkable that television crews would barge into emergency rooms to show how overwhelmed the doctors and nurses were. Yet such scenes have been broadcast internationally from inside Indian hospitals, with little concern for how the intrusion could affect life-or-death decisions. Television journalists have also swarmed Indian families who lost loved ones, turning their private grief into a public spectacle for Western consumption.
When covering grief in their own countries, the same media organizations are far more careful. For example, coverage of mass graves being dug to accommodate New York City’s early surge of COVID-19 fatalities featured sanitized images of misty tree-lined fields. By contrast, India’s pandemic experience will be remembered for the haunting images of bodies burning on pyres – images that the Western media beamed around the world.
The funerary fire is a classic trope in Western novels, travelogues, and paintings about India. By directing their cameras to the burning pyres, Western media outlets are satisfying their audience’s morbid fascination with the Hindu tradition of cremating the dead (even though this environmentally friendly practice is increasingly catching on in the West). Utterly ignored in this coverage is the fact that showing ghastly images of burning pyres is a grotesque and deeply disrespectful invasion of what is a very private affair in India.
This is hardly the first time Western media outlets have been insensitive in covering disasters abroad. In the coverage of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the victims were treated as a secondary issue to the more lurid story of radiation leaks. Western reporting was also rife with cultural and racial stereotypes: the workers who stayed behind to deal with the accident-hit nuclear reactors were dubbed “nuclear samurai,” “human sacrifices,” and “nuclear ninjas on a suicide mission.”
In reality, no radiation casualties occurred at Fukushima, owing to the preventive evacuation of the area’s 100,000 residents. But that didn’t stop Western media outlets from feeding the hysteria with false and inflammatory comparisons to Chernobyl. As a result of this sensational coverage, cargo ships started avoiding Japanese ports – even those far from Fukushima – and several countries evacuated their citizens from Tokyo and elsewhere.
Western media bring a similar approach to Africa, portraying it as a continent of heathen hordes, unending disasters, and very few happy, smiling faces. The 2014-16 Ebola epidemic that swept across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone ultimately killed 11,325 people, meaning that the death toll over two years was roughly the same as the two-day COVID-19 death toll in the US just three months ago. Nonetheless, the Western media’s coverage of the Ebola story was all about body bags, traditional mourning practices, and West African burial rituals. The 2015 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography was awarded to a freelance photojournalist who had followed body collectors and documented West Africans’ suffering, death, and despair for TheNew York Times.
Meanwhile, coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic – the greatest global health calamity of our time – did not feature in any of the 2020 Pulitzer prizes or nominations. And when the 2021 prizes are announced in June, it would come as quite a surprise if any were to be awarded to journalists who documented the deaths from the pandemic in the West. The Western media’s unvarnished coverage of suffering, grief, desperation, and ineptitude is much more likely to come from distant lands. While images of dead American soldiers are rarely published, photographs of dead Afghans, Iraqis, and others are all too common.
True, Western media should not be regarded as monolithic – indeed, Anglo-American outlets dominate. Nor are Western media averse to offering sensational coverage of bad news when it happens at home. But the overall pattern is clear: Western media coverage of tragedies elsewhere tends to traffic in cultural stereotypes and violations of privacy and dignity that would not be accepted at home.
This double standard has important implications. International perceptions are shaped by how the dominant Western media organizations present the news. As the Ebola epidemic showed, sensational images and stories make us think that a dreadful tragedy is even worse or more widespread than it actually is. The Ebola cases and deaths were almost all confined to three West African countries, yet the virus became associated with Africa as a whole.
A journalist’s duty is to inform, not to exploit human suffering with intrusive, voyeuristic, ratings-driven coverage of tragedies in faraway lands. Good journalism rises above clichéd coverage and reliance on shock value. With the coronavirus rapidly mutating and spawning dangerous new strains, we urgently need more responsible, sensitive reporting of these issues.
On October 12, 2020, the electricity went out in India’s biggest city. Mumbai faced its worst power cut in decades, with businesses crippled, the stock market shut down, thousands of commuters stranded, and hospitals scrambling to ensure backup supply for their COVID-19 patients. Major outages are not altogether uncommon in India, but Mumbai had prided itself on its recent record of reliable electricity for its residents. The disruption left authorities in the western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, searching for answers.
Indian officials revealed in March that they might have found the cause of the power cut: a foreign cyberattack that targeted the servers of state power companies. They did not name a particular culprit, but the implication was clear. Chinese hackers, officials suggested, had trained their sights on bringing down Mumbai’s electric grid—and they had succeeded.
In its bid to gain Asian hegemony, China views India as a major obstacle. This possible cyberattack came at a time of mounting military tensions, with confrontations flaring last year at numerous points along the rugged, disputed border between the two countries. Beijing’s ability to pressure its neighbor extends beyond the conventional battlefield and increasingly includes unconventional forms of warfare (or “unrestricted war,” as the title of a book by two Chinese military officers put it) to achieve expansionist and coercive objectives. Through unrestricted war—which includes its “salami slicing” strategy (or how it aggressively seizes parcels of disputed territory without providing a cause for war), cyberwarfare, debt-trap diplomacy, environmental degradation, and the spread of misinformation—China has redrawn the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without incurring any international costs. Beijing hopes to use the same methods to box India in.
WAR BY OTHER MEANS
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding this year, has ruled China continuously for more than seven decades, making it the longest-serving political party in power in modern history. Its success attests to the ruthlessness with which it has pursued its objectives at home and abroad. Mao Zedong led the party to power, and Deng Xiaoping made the country richer. Now, President Xi Jinping’s ambition is to turn China into a hegemonic global leader. Such is the essence of what Xi calls the “Chinese dream.”
The CCP pays lip service to equality and reciprocity in international relations, but in fact China under Xi seeks to subordinate small nations. Nowhere is this truer than in Southeast Asia, where China has used a two-pronged, unconventional strategy to help it both dominate the South China Sea and control the transboundary flow of the Mekong River, the region’s lifeline. Chinese forces have constructed artificial islands in the South China Sea and unilaterally claimed disputed waters. China’s 11 megadams on the Mekong equip it with the power to turn off the tap for much of continental Southeast Asia, making downstream countries dependent on Chinese goodwill for access to water.
With a similar multidimensional strategy, China also hopes to contain its two potential peer rivals in Asia, India and Japan. The CCP has adopted a strategy of indirect war against India and Japan, with the aim of fencing in the two powers. The strategy’s first phase involved building Pakistan as a nuclear and conventional-military counterweight to India and aiding North Korea’s initial development of weapons of mass destruction. In more recent years, China has focused on an escalating campaign of deception, stealth, and concealment. At the center of this campaign is territorial revisionism, with China flexing its muscles by asserting its claim to lands or islands administered by its two neighbors.
The indirect-war elements are conspicuous in China’s actions against India. China has steadily brought Indian security under pressure through unconventional instruments, including cyberattacks, its reengineering of the cross-border flows of rivers, and its nibbling away at disputed Himalayan territories. It seeks to employ all available means short of open war to curtail Indian ambitions and strike at core Indian interests.
THE SHADOW WAR
China relishes plausible deniability in its involvement in cyberwarfare against its rivals. India claims that state-sponsored Chinese hackers have repeatedly targeted its critical infrastructure, including power grids. A U.S.-based cybersecurity firm found that a China-linked group called RedEcho was behind a surge in attacks on India’s power infrastructure in 2020, but Chinese officials insisted the allegations were false and that, in any case, it is “very difficult to trace the origin of a cyberattack.”
The cyber-tactics run parallel to more traditional conflicts. Last May, a shocked India discovered that Chinese forces had stealthily occupied mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in the northern border region of Ladakh. Tensions quickly rose, with more than 100,000 war-ready Chinese and Indian troops locked in multiple Himalayan military standoffs. And as frontier skirmishes intensified, China ramped up its cyberwar on Indian power grids.
In June, clashes between Chinese and Indian forces left dozens of soldiers dead. That month also saw at least 40,300 attempts to inject malware into Indian networks. Indian officials understood these efforts as a stern warning from Xi regime’s: if India did not stand down in the border confrontation, China would turn off the lights across vast expanses of the country. India surged troops to the border in the following months, and in October, Mumbai went dark.
More recently, Chinese cyberattackers have homed in on India’s pharmaceutical industry. China’s attempts to steal American data on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments have been well publicized, but recent Chinese cyberattacks on two of India’s leading vaccine makers have received little attention. The hackers attempted to pilfer blueprints of the two COVID-19 vaccines at the heart of India’s current immunization campaign. India supplies more than 60 percent of the world’s vaccines against various diseases and is currently employing that manufacturing heft to export millions of COVID-19 shots every week.
RIVERS RUN THROUGH IT
China controls many of the rivers that flow from the Himalayas into the Indian subcontinent, and through them it can wield tremendous leverage. China has weaponized these waters in the past. In 2017, India announced that it would boycott the inaugural summit of Xi’s signature project, the vast infrastructure investment program known as the Belt and Road Initiative. (India was the first country to criticize the BRI for lacking transparency and pursuing neocolonial aims, a stance the United States later adopted.) China retaliated by abruptly withholding hydrological data it once shared on the transboundary flows of rivers originating in Tibet. It resumed sharing the data in 2018, but only after the suspension had already hampered India’s early-warning systems for flooding, resulting in preventable deaths in the downstream Indian state of Assam.
China dominates Asia’s water map with its control over the water-rich Tibetan Plateau, a region the country annexed in the early 1950s. China, however, still refuses to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any downstream country. (Even historic rivals India and Pakistan have a water-sharing treaty.) In March, China’s rubber-stamp parliament ratified the CCP decision to dam the Brahmaputra River just before it enters India. This mammoth dam will allow China to effectively control a vital resource for millions of people outside its borders. Chinese upstream activities in the past have triggered flash floods in Indian border states and polluted the Brahmaputra’s main artery, the once pristine Siang. The newly approved megaproject, whose construction in an area known for frequent seismic activity could make it a ticking “water bomb” for downstream communities, will generate almost three times as much electricity as China’s Three Gorges Dam, currently the world’s largest dam.
The country located farthest downstream, Bangladesh, will probably bear the brunt of the megaproject’s environmental havoc. This could trigger a new exodus of refugees to India, already home to millions of Bangladeshi migrants. The dam will allow China to further manipulate transboundary river flows and leverage its long-standing claim to the adjacent Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times the size of Taiwan.
In the disputed Himalayan borderlands, China has mixed conventional and unrestricted tactics. For example, China has set out to quietly build some 624 villages in the region so as to unilaterally change facts on the ground. Such military-designed border villages are the Himalayan equivalent of China’s artificially created islands in the South China Sea. By bringing people from afar to settle in desolate, uninhabited border regions, China is seeking to achieve twin objectives: to absorb disputed areas and to legitimize its grabs under international law, which customarily has recognized settlements as evidence of effective control.
The village-building spree, coupled with the frenetic construction of new military facilities along the border, is a classic example of the CCP’s indirect war, which blends irregular tactics with conventional methods. The irregular aggression, known also as “gray zone” warfare because it straddles the line between war and peace, aims to subdue the foe through exhaustion while simultaneously falling short of precipitating an actual shooting war. Even against a significant military power such as India, China has demonstrated how such hybrid warfare can incrementally advance its expansionist objectives without crossing the threshold of overt armed conflict.
China may not want to risk outright war with India or its other rivals, but it remains absolutely willing to flout its legal obligations. Its withholding from India of data about rivers breached two bilateral accords that required China to transfer to India hydrological and meteorological data daily during the dangerous flood season. The CCP ceases to see international agreements as binding when they are no longer politically convenient, a fact apparent from its obliteration of Hong Kong’s autonomy in violation of a United Nations–registered treaty. China grabbed Indian territory in 2020 in Ladakh and massed troops at the border in brazen disregard of bilateral agreements to maintain peace and tranquility.
Many of the CCP’s external actions may appear small in isolation, but they are significant when taken together. It is thus perilous for any target country to consider Chinese moves individually rather than collectively. No country has been able to figure out how to counter the CCP’s aggressive behavior under Xi—not even the United States, as China’s cost-free expansion in the South China Sea illustrates.
The CCP has repeatedly outfoxed and outmaneuvered India. Given that China made its territorial grabs in Ladakh without firing a shot, India has no credible option to restore the status quo ante without provoking a war. China is constantly searching for opportunities to take bits of territory and catch its opponent by surprise, without taking overt warlike actions. Unless India is willing to turn the tables on the CCP with its own hybrid warfare that targets China’s weak spots, including in Tibet, and unless the world’s democratic powers form a united front against Xi’s expansionism, China’s unrestricted war will continue to destabilize Asia and undermine international security.
Despite being the world’s most powerful democracy, the U.S. still shares some key traits with its main competitor, China, the world’s largest and longest surviving autocracy.
“Both have extreme superiority complexes. Each sees itself as without peers,” noted Harvard professor Graham Allison, with each country hewing to a defiant unilateralism that sees both intrude into the waters of other states.
Take America’s so-called freedom of navigation operations, known as FONOPs. Such operations are best known in the South China Sea, where an expansionist China has redrawn the geopolitical map without firing a shot or incurring any international costs. U.S. FONOPs against partner countries, however, have drawn little attention.
At a time when China’s actions against the Philippines highlight its muscular revisionism in the South China Sea, the U.S. recently triggered a diplomatic incident with friendly India by conducting a FONOP in India’s exclusive economic zone. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), any country’s EEZ extends to 200 nautical miles (370 km).
Ordinarily, an American guided-missile destroyer transiting India’s EEZ under Indian naval watch would not have generated headlines, let alone triggered an Indian objection. But in this case, it was accompanied by a provocative U.S. statement on Apr. 7 challenging India’s “excessive maritime claims.”
While noting that New Delhi required prior consent for military exercises or maneuvers within its EEZ, the statement swaggeringly said that the operation was staged “without requesting India’s prior consent.” The action, with its blunt assertion of unilateralism, sparked outrage in India, with New Delhi lodging a diplomatic protest.
India, unlike China, has not sought to push its borders far out into international waters, or build artificial islands, or militarize the seas around it, or restrict freedom of navigation. Rather, India’s “excessive maritime claims,” as alleged by Washington, center on long-standing differences between Western maritime powers and many coastal countries over foreign military activities in their respective EEZs.
The U.S. claimed its action in India’s EEZ was “consistent with international law.” Its general reference to international law, rather than to the specific law of the sea, was deliberate — to help obscure the fact that it has not acceded to UNCLOS, the global “constitution for the oceans” that entered into force almost 27 years ago. The irony is that the U.S. seeks to assert a claimed right under an international treaty that it has refused to ratify.
In fact, the FONOP against India is just the latest in a series of such U.S. actions targeting friends and foes. For example, in the 11-month period up to September 2020, the U.S. said its unilateral naval actions challenged the “excessive maritime claims” of 19 claimant states.
Even more revealing is the fact that almost all of Asia’s littoral countries have been favorite targets of such FONOPs. They include U.S. treaty allies such as Japan and the Philippines, regional rivals South and North Korea, India and Pakistan, the tiny Maldives, as well as Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Taiwan, among others. Washington accuses all of them of maintaining “excessive maritime claims” of various types.
The use of naval prowess to assert American maritime claims against a wide array of countries shows that, although the U.S. is no longer the world’s only superpower, old habits persist. The jarring paradox is that while UNCLOS has 168 state parties, the outlier U.S. has arrogated to itself the right to oversee and enforce its provisions by unilaterally interpreting them. Who said American exceptionalism is dead?
The South China Sea illustrates the dubious efficacy of U.S. FONOPs as a policy tool. America’s growing reliance on FONOPs has had zero impact on China’s continued expansion in what is the main strategic corridor between the Indian and Pacific oceans, through which one-third of global maritime trade passes.
America’s ever-expanding FONOPs, while failing to deter Chinese expansionism, nevertheless risk alienating its allies and partners. India holds the key to the future of the maritime-oriented Quad because the grouping’s other members, the U.S., Japan and Australia, are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves. What prompted the U.S. Navy to rake up an old issue and slight India with a public statement?
UNCLOS is ambiguous when it comes to foreign military activities in EEZs, and many countries that were colonized by European naval powers have never accepted the legitimacy of such activities. To add to their misgivings, the U.S. has conducted FONOPs against them but not against the “excessive” claims of predominantly white nations like Canada and Australia.
It is past time for the U.S. to debate the utility of military FONOPs against littoral states in Asia and elsewhere. Far from compelling them to toe the U.S. line, such use of unilateral military operations only reinforces their security concerns.
Instead of flexing its naval muscles in ways that draw unflattering, even if inaccurate, comparisons with China’s growing maritime forays, the U.S. would do well to employ diplomacy and a compromise-centered approach to bridge differences with its friends so as to advance a rules-based maritime order that helps check Chinese expansionism.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
NEW DELHI – One of the most crucial early tests for US President Joe Biden concerns Afghanistan. An emboldened Taliban have escalated their campaign of assassinations and terrorist attacks since reaching a deal with Donald Trump’s administration that called for power sharing in Kabul and a full US military withdrawal by May 1. Biden’s policy course will not only determine Afghanistan’s fate but also affect regional security, the global war on terror, and America’s international standing at a time when its relative decline has become unmistakable.
The United States came full circle in February 2020, when Trump, seeking to cut and run from Afghanistan, signed a “peace” agreement with the same terrorist militia that the US had removed from power by invading the country in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Trump’s Faustian bargain, struck behind the back of the elected Afghan government, bestowed legitimacy on the Taliban. The surge in terrorist violence since then shows how little Afghanistan gained from the US-Taliban deal.
It makes sense for America to exit a long and futile war that has cost more than $800 billion and the lives of 2,218 US service members. (The US and NATO combat role in Afghanistan actually ended before Trump took office, with Afghan government forces assuming full security responsibility on January 1, 2015.) What doesn’t make sense is what Trump’s one-time national security adviser H.R. McMaster called America’s “Munich-like appeasement” of “some of the most horrible people on earth.”
In effect, Trump set out to abandon Afghanistan to terrorists and their sponsors in Pakistan, whose all-powerful military created the Taliban group, still harbors its leadership, and provides cross-border sanctuaries for its fighters. Pakistan’s military would be the real winner from a deal that threatens to turn Afghanistan into a weak, pliable neighbor that Pakistan can influence at will.
Yet, after taking office, Biden was quick to embrace Trump’s deal, and retained Zalmay Khalilzad as US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. The Afghanistan-born Khalilzad has forged close ties with the Taliban but struggled to establish common ground with the Afghan government. The Biden administration’s recently leaked draft peace proposal highlighted its frantic effort to force an Afghan settlement in order to meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline.
The proposal seeks to replace Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with a new transitional government in which the Taliban hold half of all positions. In a letter to Ghani, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed him to develop “a roadmap to a new, inclusive government” and a new constitution, adding that he was asking Turkey’s Islamist government to host a meeting between Afghan government and Taliban representatives “to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter’s peremptory tone prompted Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh to say that Afghanistan will “never accept a bossy and imposed peace.”
Biden’s administration must answer a central question: How can a terrorist group be part of government when it remains committed to military victory and the reimposition of brutal theocratic rule? The Taliban want to secure absolute power over Afghanistan by waiting out the Americans, which explains their foot-dragging in the power-sharing talks with the Afghan government.
With the US strategy threatening to unravel, Biden now says “it’s going to be hard to meet” the May 1 deadline, but he “can’t picture” American troops being in Afghanistan next year. If Biden withdraws all US troops before 2022, a terrorist takeover of Afghanistan on his watch is highly probable. The Taliban, in fact, will take Biden’s statement as confirmation that they need only to bide their time for a few more months before laying siege to Kabul.
The debate in the US over whether al-Qaeda could rebuild a base in Afghanistan following an American exit, or whether the Islamic State (ISIS) could enlarge its footprint there, ignores the fact that Islamist terrorism is a self-organizing ideological movement that unites diverse jihadist groups, without the need to coordinate action. The Taliban militia may not have a global mission, but it is a critical link in an international jihadist movement that whips hostility toward non-Sunni Muslims into violent rage against modernity.
By forcing the Americans to leave and seizing Kabul, the Taliban would inspire jihadist groups elsewhere to escalate their terror campaigns. The perception that jihadists vanquished the world’s most powerful military would nurture the belief that American power is in irreversible decline. Simply put, the Taliban wielding absolute power in Afghanistan would pose a greater jihadist threat to the free world than any other group, including al-Qaeda or ISIS remnants.
To avoid this outcome, the US must keep residual forces in Afghanistan to continue providing reassurance and air support to Afghan forces, as well as logistics aid to about 7,000 NATO and allied troops. The US now has just 2,500 troops in the country, compared to some 100,000 at the height of the war. America’s financial costs and casualties have fallen dramatically since its combat role ended, with no US fatality in the past 14 months.
Biden must choose between a complete US withdrawal, which could well unleash chaos and undermine the Afghan state, and maintaining a small residual force to avert civil war and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist hub. The first option, far from offering America a face-saving exit from a 20-year war, would make it an accomplice of the Taliban, whose control of Afghanistan would cause lasting damage to the interests of the US and its friends.
The U.S. today risks accelerating its relative decline through strategic overreach. A first step to addressing that risk is to abandon its sanctions overreach and recalibrate its sanctions so that they stop advancing China’s commercial and strategic interests.
U.S. foreign policy has long relied on sanctions, despite their uncertain effectiveness and unintended consequences. No sooner had President Joe Biden assumed office than he slapped new sanctions on Russia and Myanmar.
Sanctions are a favorite and grossly overused tool of American diplomacy when dealing with countries that cannot impose significant costs in reprisal. Indeed, Washington has fallen into a self-injurious trap by viewing sanctions as the easy answer to any problem.
Sanctions may have been a defensible policy in the second half of the 20th century, when American economic and military power was overwhelming. But with relative U.S. wealth and power in decline, so is the efficacy of its sanctions. Far from exacting a serious penalty, U.S. sanctions often advance the commercial and strategic interests of its main competitor, China.
Nothing better illustrates this fact than China’s latest 25-year economic and security agreement with Iran, where ever-tightening U.S. sanctions have made China that country’s most important commercial partner over the past decade.
Now, under the new accord, China will boost its investment in major Iranian sectors even further, step up defense cooperation and establish a joint bank that will allow Tehran to borrow and trade in yuan, whose international use Beijing is actively promoting. Iran also shows how U.S. sanctions can penalize America’s own friends such as India and Japan.
While India’s compliance with America’s Iran-oil embargo has added billions of dollars to its fuel import costs, China has defiantly stepped up its purchases of Iranian oil at discounted prices. When the U.S. reimposed a new list of penalties on Iran in November 2018, it forced many Japanese companies to suspend their contracts with Iranian energy suppliers.
U.S. policymakers should be most worried by how their punitive actions have forced Russia to pivot to China, helping two natural competitors become close strategic partners. A forward-looking U.S. administration would avoid confronting Russia and China simultaneously, and instead seek to play one off against the other.
But Biden, claiming that a declining Russia poses “just as real” a threat as the powerful, rising, technologically sophisticated China, hit Moscow with new sanctions in early March for detaining dissident Alexei Navalny. And, subsequently vowing that Russian President Vladimir Putin will “pay a price” for his alleged meddling in U.S. presidential elections and calling him a “killer,” Biden has threatened to impose more severe boycotts.
The multiple rounds of U.S. sanctions since Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea have already resulted in the worst relationship Washington has had with Moscow since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently noted, sanctions “are not going to do much good.”
In fact, Russia’s increasingly close strategic alignment with China represents a profound U.S. foreign policy failure, underscoring the counterproductive nature of American sanctions. The U.S. could seek to rebalance its relationship with Russia by easing its heavy-handed approach, but old habits die hard. More sanctions on Moscow will only strengthen China’s hand in challenging America’s global preeminence.
Paradoxically, the U.S. treats China with respect. Biden, for example, has not called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “killer” or pledged to make him pay a price, despite China’s concentration camps in Xinjiang that hold more than a million Muslim Uighurs. U.S. sanctions over the muzzling of Hong Kong’s autonomy in violation of a United Nations-registered treaty have spared those in Xi’s inner circle.
When it comes to the small kids on the block, however, U.S. sanctions often substitute for forward-thinking policy. For example, the U.S. slapped sanctions on Myanmar’s top generals in late 2019 over the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya instead of addressing what American officials recognized as the main weakness in policy — Washington’s failure to establish close ties with Myanmar’s military.
The sanctions effectively removed all incentives for the commander in chief of Myanmar’s armed forces, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, to support continued democratization. Worse still, after helping turn National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi into a virtual saint, the U.S. began slamming her over treatment of the Rohingya exodus and her ties to the military, emboldening the generals to stage a coup.
Now the U.S. risks repeating history. Just as crippling sanctions from the late 1980s pushed a reluctant Myanmar into China’s arms, the new series of sanctions on Myanmar since February — including the latest suspension of trade relations — is welcome news for Xi’s regime.
More fundamentally, Washington’s reliance on sanctions has highlighted the inherent weakness in its policy: The failure to develop objective criteria on the circumstances that would justify sanctions has allowed narrow geopolitical considerations to drive the imposition of sanctions seemingly at random.
Why, for example, does the U.S. readily do business with Thailand, even as the leader of the 2014 coup remains ensconced in power, but insists on “immediate restoration of democracy” in neighboring Myanmar? The Biden administration has initiated an internal review of U.S. sanctions programs to understand their utility and consequences. Yet, without waiting for the outcome of the review, Biden has taken to sanctions like a duck to water.
The U.S. today risks accelerating its relative decline through strategic overreach. A first step to addressing that risk is to abandon its sanctions overreach and recalibrate sanctions so that they do not aid Xi’s hegemony-seeking “Chinese dream.”
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
Biden inherited a coherent and realistic Indo-Pacific strategy. This explains why, while overturning his predecessor’s other policies at a rapid pace, Biden has thus far stayed the course set by the Trump administration on China and the Indo-Pacific.
President Biden has been overturning his predecessor’s policies at a frenetic pace, but on one key issue – China – he has stayed the course set by the previous administration. In a reflection of the bipartisan consensus in Washington that an increasingly aggressive China must be reined in, Biden has upped the ante by raising human-rights concerns, which Donald Trump largely ignored until the final months of his presidency. For example, while coordinating joint Western action this week to penalize China for its Muslim gulag, Secretary of State Antony Blinkendeclared that Beijing “continues to commit genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.”
Nothing better illustrates how Team Biden is hewing to the Trump administration’s approach to China than the Quad, a strategic coalition of the leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific region — Australia, India, Japan and the United States. In 2017, the Trump administration resurrected the Quad, which had been lying dormant for nine years, and placed it at the center of its “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Now, at Biden’s initiative, the Quad leaders this month held their first-ever summit.
When Biden was elected, there was uncertainty over the Quad’s future, including whether the new president would carry forward his predecessor’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Even the term “Indo-Pacific” was conspicuously absent in Biden’s presidential campaign statements and the 2020 Democratic Party Platform, which repeatedly used the old name for the region that China prefers — “Asia-Pacific.”
It was only after Biden was sworn in as president that he began speaking about a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” He then proposed the Quad summit, which was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. Calling the Quad “a vital arena for cooperation in the Indo-Pacific,” Biden told the other leaders at the meeting that this was the “first multilateral summit that I’ve had the opportunity to host as president.”
The summit was a testament to the fact that the Biden administration inherited a coherent and realistic strategy on the Indo-Pacific, with the Quad at its core. The Quad has gradually sharpened its edges in recent years in response to China’s aggressive expansionism.
Likewise, Biden’s views on China have evolved significantly since his presidential campaign. On the campaign trail in 2019, Biden stunned many with his apparent strategic naivete by declaring, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.”
Then, in a 180-degree turn as president, Biden said during an Oval Office meeting last month, “If we don’t get moving, they [China] are going to eat our lunch.” He was talking about China’s frenzied infrastructure development at home and abroad and noting that the U.S. must step up in this regard.
Just six months ago, China dismissed the idea that an international coalition against it will emerge, saying “that day will never, ever come.” But, thanks to China’s heavy-handed use of its military and economic power, that day is coming. China has fueled the Quad’s development. For example, its military aggression in the northernmost Indian borderlands of Ladakh since April 2020 has helped to move India closer into this strategic grouping.
It is precisely this border aggression that has lent new momentum to the Quad’s progress toward a concrete and formal security arrangement. India holds the key to the Quad’s direction and future because the U.S., Australia and Japan already are tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves.
The surprise from the Biden-initiated Quad summit was that – unlike the past meetings of the Quad foreign ministers – it yielded a joint statement, which articulated a clear-eyed vision. “We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion,” the statement declared.
But make no mistake: Without real action and sustained resolve, dialogues and joint statements will not be enough to make a difference in the Indo-Pacific. An emboldened China, after tasting consecutive successes in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, could make Taiwan its next direct target. It has stepped up its expansionist activities in the Himalayan borderlands and the East China Sea.
Despite China’s lengthening shadow, the Quad summit, however, offered little in terms of concrete strategic counteraction. If anything, its vaccine initiative illustrated how a public-relations exercise can be spun into a major summit success. The summit’s “breakthrough” deal centered on helping India’s Biological E firm to produce 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of 2022, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But the firm has confirmed that it already can produce more than 1 billion vaccine doses a year.
The Biden White House would do well to grasp the urgency of developing an actionable and durable American-led approach to China, which is becoming increasingly assertive, expansionist and authoritarian. In fact, the Quad’s unifying theme is opposing China’s aggressive revisionism.
To be sure, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive policies, underlined by his hegemony-seeking “Chinese dream,” will ensure that the Quad continues to solidify and actively work toward establishing a new multilateral Indo-Pacific security structure. Even powers like France, Germany and Canada now view a rules-based Indo-Pacific as pivotal to international security. They are strengthening maritime collaboration with the Quad states.
Last November’s “Malabar” naval war games in the Indian Ocean – the first-ever Quad military drills – have been followed by “Sea Dragon,” an anti-submarine warfare exercise in January that involved the Quad members and Canada, and the scheduling of another Quad-plus naval exercise, the “La Pérouse” drills with France, for April 4.
As Biden develops great strategic clarity on China, the Quad is likely to become the central dynamic of his Indo-Pacific policy. Xi’s renegade expansionism could even help build a grand international coalition, with the Quad at its core.
Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).
Barely six months ago, China dismissed the idea that an international coalition against it will emerge, saying “that day will never, ever come.” But, thanks to China’s aggressive expansionism and renegade actions, that day is coming, with the Quad likely to be at the core of a broader international coalition. China has fuelled the Quad’s development, with its military aggression in Ladakh helping to move India closer into this strategic grouping.
It is precisely this border aggression that has lent new momentum to the Quad’s evolution toward a concrete formal security arrangement. India holds the key to the Quad’s direction and future because the US, Australia and Japan already are tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves.
Shocked by China’s furtive territorial encroachments in Ladakh, India shed its reticence and undertook several steps, including concluding mutual logistics support accords with Australia and Japan, signing the last of four “foundational” agreements that the US maintains with all its close defence partners, and playing host to the first-ever Quad military drills by letting Australia re-join the Malabar exercise. Boosting broader military interoperability, India is now participating in Quad-plus naval exercises, such as “Sea Dragon” that involved Canada and the upcoming “La Pérouse” with France.
With India’s closer integration, the Quad is beginning to blossom. However, there is no plan to turn the Quad into a military alliance, let alone an Indo-Pacific version of NATO. In fact, the Quad members’ security interests are not entirely congruent. The security threat China poses is much more acute and immediate for India and, to some extent, Japan than for the distant US and Australia.
The Quad — like the US Indo-Pacific policy — is focused on the maritime domain. But the ongoing Himalayan military standoffs at multiple points highlight China’s land-based threat against India. The only Quad member to share a land border with China is India, a position that allows Beijing to quickly ratchet up aggressive actions against India. In fact, India is the sole Quad state to have faced war with China in the post-World War II period.
With Australia, Japan and the US all focused on the seas, India is the only Quad member that maintains a land-based defence posture. Indeed, the US has never considered a land war against China. America’s main objective is non-military — to counter China’s geopolitical, ideological and economic challenges to its global pre-eminence.
Against this background, public discourse in India shouldn’t get ahead of the operational and functional instruments of strategic collaboration. It is important to understand both the Quad’s utility and its limitations. The Quad certainly cannot mitigate India’s security challenges. Unlike Japan and Australia, India is not under the US security (and nuclear) umbrella. The US, in any case, has a record of disregarding even its treaty-based obligations toward its allies. It was the US silence over China’s mid-2012 capture of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from American ally, the Philippines, that emboldened China to embark on an island-building programme and redraw the South China Sea’s geopolitical map.
India must deal with Chinese belligerence essentially on its own. To be sure, the China-India power asymmetry is widening. But aggregate military and economic capabilities alone do not determine any war’s outcome. History is replete with examples of the weaker side vanquishing the stronger opponent. India, with the world’s most-experienced army in hybrid mountain warfare, focuses on defence, which is easier than offense. Recognizing India’s battle-hardened air and ground forces, China has sought to achieve its territorial and other objectives by stealth. India’s main weakness, which puts it perennially at the receiving end, is a risk-averse political and military leadership.
Still, it is imperative that the Quad gain strategic heft so as to bring an expansionist China under pressure. By cooperating in military, economic and technological realms and coordinating their responses to China’s aggressive actions, the Quad members can put discreet checks on the unbridled exercise of Chinese power. India, by working closely with the other Quad members on matters of mutual interest, will be able to punch above its economic and military weight.
Brahma Chellaney is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
China is applying the same strategy on the roof of the world that has driven its expansion in the South China Sea: gradual territorial encroachments followed by militarized construction. So far, this slice-by-slice approach is proving just as effective on land as it has been at sea.
Emboldened by its cost-free expansion in the South China Sea, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime has stepped up efforts to replicate that model in the Himalayas. In particular, China is aggressively building many new villages in disputed borderlands to extend or consolidate its control over strategically important areas that India, Bhutan, and Nepal maintain fall within their national boundaries.
Underscoring the strategic implications of China’s drive to populate these desolate, uninhabited border areas is its major buildup of new military facilities there. The new installations range from electronic warfare stations and air defense sites to underground ammunition depots.
China’s militarized village-building spree has renewed the regional spotlight on Xi’s expansionist strategy at a time when, despite a recent disengagement in one area, tens of thousands of its troops remain locked in multiple standoffs with Indian forces. Recurrent skirmishing began last May after India discovered to its alarm that Chinese forces had stealthily occupied mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in its northernmost Ladakh borderlands.
China’s newly built border villages in the Himalayas are the equivalent of its artificially created islands in the South China Sea, whose geopolitical map Xi’s regime has redrawn without firing a shot. Xi’s regime advanced its South China Sea expansionism through asymmetrical or hybrid warfare, waged below the threshold of overt armed conflict. This approach blends conventional and irregular tactics with small incremental territorial encroachments (or “salami slicing”), psychological manipulation, disinformation, lawfare, and coercive diplomacy.
Now China is applying that playbook in the Himalayan borderlands. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, citing a Chinese government document, recently reported that China intends to build 624 border villages in disputed Himalayan areas. In the name of “poverty alleviation,” the Communist Party of China is callously uprooting Tibetan nomads and forcing them to settle in artificial new border villages in isolated, high-altitude areas. The CPC has also sent ethnic Han Chinese party members to such villages to serve as resident overseers.
Creating a dispute where none previously existed is usually China’s first step toward asserting a territorial claim, before it furtively tries to seize the coveted area. Xi’s regime frequently uses civilian militias in the vanguard of such a strategy.
So, just as China has employed flotillas of coastguard-backed civilian fishing boats for expansionist forays in the South and East China Seas, it has been sending herders and grazers ahead of regular army troops into desolate Himalayan border areas to foment disputes and then assert control. Such an approach has enabled it to nibble away at Himalayan territories, one pasture at a time.
In international law, a territorial claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. Until now, China’s Himalayan claims have been anchored in a “might makes right” approach that seeks to extend its annexation of Tibet to neighboring countries’ borderlands. By building new border villages and relocating people there, China can now invoke international law in support of its claims. Effective control is the sine qua non of a strong territorial claim in international law. Armed patrols don’t prove effective control, but settlements do.
The speed and stealth with which China has been changing the facts on the ground in the Himalayas, with little regard for the geopolitical fallout, also reflects other considerations. Border villages, for example, will constrain the opposing military’s use of force while aiding Chinese intelligence gathering and cross-frontier operations.
Satellite images show how rapidly such villages have sprouted up, along with extensive new roads and military facilities. The Chinese government recently justified constructing a new village inside the sprawling Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh by saying it “never recognized” Indian sovereignty over that region. And China’s territorial encroachments have not spared one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, or even Nepal, which has a pro-China communist government.
China conceived its border-village program after Xi called on Tibetan herdsmen in 2017 to settle in frontier areas and “become guardians of Chinese territory.” Xi said in his appeal that, “without peace in the territory, there will be no peaceful lives for millions of families.” But Xi’s “poverty alleviation” program in Tibet, which has steadily gained momentum since 2019, has centered on cynically relocating the poor to neighboring countries’ territories.
The echoes of China’s maritime expansionism extend to the Himalayan environment. Xi’s island building in the South China Sea has “caused severe harm to the coral reef environment,” according to an international arbitral tribunal. Likewise, China’s construction of villages and military facilities in the borderlands threatens to wreak havoc on the ecologically fragile Himalayas, which are the source of Asia’s great rivers. Environmental damage is already apparent on the once-pristine Doklam Plateau, claimed by Bhutan, which China has transformed into a heavily militarized zone since seizing it in 2017.
Indian army chief Manoj Naravane recently claimed that China’s salami tactics “will not work.” Yet even an important military power like India is struggling to find effective ways to counter China’s territorial aggrandizement along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders.
China’s bulletless aggression – based on using military-backed civilians to create new facts on the ground – makes defense challenging, because it must be countered without resorting to open combat. Although India has responded with heavy military deployments, Chinese forces remain in control of most of the areas they seized nearly a year ago. So far, China’s strategy is proving just as effective on land as it has been at sea.
The sharpening geopolitical competition over natural resources has turned some strategic resources into engines of power struggle. This is scarcely a surprise: Access to natural resources has historically been a major factor in peace and war. Resource considerations were a major driver of many armed interventions and wars, including the European colonial conquests and a number of the wars of the last century.
Water is the most-critical resource for human well-being, sustainable livelihoods and biodiversity support. Yet, access to adequate supplies of freshwater poses a particularly difficult challenge in several parts of the world because of spreading water shortages. Hydropolitics has consequently become murkier.
It might be cliché but water is the new oil of the twenty-first century. Today, water resources shared between nations are at the centre of increasing competition and conflict, triggering a dam-building race and prompting growing calls for the United Nations to make water a key security concern.
China, which dominates Asia’s water map because of its 1951 annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau, is driving the sharpening hydropolitics in Asia. Almost all of Asia’s major rivers originate on the Tibetan Plateau, and China is erecting an expansive hydro-infrastructure to make itself the upstream water controller. In recent days, its rubber-stamp parliament has ratified a controversial plan to build a mega-dam on the Brahmaputra (known as Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans) just before the world’s highest-altitude river crosses into India.
This plan, which is likely to unleash environmental havoc in downstream regions, comes after one of the most pristine Himalayan rivers mysteriously turned black when entering India from Tibet, highlighting how China’s upstream tunnelling, damming and mining activities might be causing major environmental contamination. The plight of the Siang, and the Brahmaputra mega-project, serve as a stark reminder that transboundary river water issues in Asia are no less important than the regional maritime issues of the South and East China seas and the Indian Ocean, which have attracted greater global attention.
Freshwater is increasingly in short supply, with nearly two-thirds of the global population living in water-stressed conditions. Asia, home to 60% of the world’s population, has less freshwater per capita than any other continent. Its annual freshwater availability per person is less than half the global average of 5,829 cubic metres.
Yet Asia, the global economic locomotive, has experienced the world’s most rapid growth in water withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers. Its dramatic economic rise has resulted in its water usage rate surpassing renewable stocks. By digging deeper wells, overexploiting river resources and maintaining generous irrigation subsidies, Asia is accelerating water-resource depletion and environmental degradation.
To be sure, the water crisis extends beyond Asia. Even in the relatively water-rich United States, water-sharing disputes are becoming rife. In fact, national paucity of water and arable land is driving some wealthier countries to produce food for their home markets on farmland acquired overseas, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
Such land grabs by outsiders are effectively water grabs because the farmland leases come with the right to harness local water resources for cultivation. According to a couple of studies, at least 20 states in sub-Saharan Africa have leased fertile land measuring more than Spain’s landmass to outside governments and agribusiness firms. One mammoth lease in the Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar by the South Korean corporate giant Daewoo triggered a powerful grassroots backlash, which helped to topple the country’s democratically elected president in 2009.
A potent example of the world’s deepening water crisis is the dramatic rise of the bottled water industry over the past two decades. Bottled water, in fact, has become a major source of plastic waste, with plastic debris clogging up landfills, blocking drains, polluting waterways and contributing to biodiversity loss. Such is the low recycling rate in many countries that, for example, 80% of all plastic water bottles sold in the United States become litter.
Bottled water carries a large environmental footprint that extends beyond plastic waste. Significant resources are needed to source, process, bottle and transport such water, including 1.6 litres of water, on average, to package one litre of bottled water. Add to the picture the carbon footprint from processing and transporting bottled water.
Much of the bottled water sold across the world is extracted groundwater that, before being bottled, has been subjected to reverse osmosis or other treatment. Tapping subterranean water reserves on a large scale for this purpose depletes not just aquifers but also rivers and streams that draw water from aquifers. Premium bottled water, sourced from glaciers’ runoff, is also compounding adverse impacts on fragile ecosystems.
Yet, more and more people are relying on bottled water even in those Western cities where tap water is safe and highly regulated. This has created a strange paradox: While the prosperous in the world now depend largely on bottled drinking water, the poor struggle to get basic access to water for their daily consumption and household chores.
This month’s 10th anniversary of the Fukushima disaster was a reminder of another water-related paradox: Water is a life preserver but also becomes a life destroyer if it carries deadly bacteria or takes the form of tsunamis, flash floods, storms and hurricanes. Fukushima’s triple nuclear meltdown was triggered not by the earthquake that struck the area but by the tsunami that followed.
Global warming, for its part, is set to worsen the water crisis. As oceans rise and the intensity and frequency of storms and other extreme weather events increases due to global warming, freshwater resources will come under increasing strain.
Jakarta demonstrates how human-induced changes in the hydrological cycle are helping to foster threats from global warming. The Indonesian capital, home to more than 10 million people, is sinking faster than any other major city in the world because of stepped-up groundwater depletion. Tens of thousands of wells across Jakarta are pumping out groundwater at such an alarming rate that as much as two-fifths of the city is now said to be below sea level. Groundwater depletion is also aiding the rise of the Java Sea, thus worsening Jakarta’s plight.
One study has estimated that groundwater depletion alone contributes 0.8 millimetre per year to the rise of ocean levels globally, or about a quarter of the total rise of the oceans. Groundwater depletion, by inviting seawater intrusion into aquifers, is already compounding freshwater shortages in coastal Asian cities. Meanwhile, the plethora of upstream dams on rivers is causing a perceptible retreat of Asia’s heavily populated deltas that are home to mega-cities like Bangkok, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Kolkata, Shanghai and Tianjin.
The current freshwater shortages are clearly being exacerbated by water pollution. Water contamination until now had largely been a domestic issue, as highlighted by the pollution problems affecting the Yellow River in China and the Ganges in India and Bangladesh. But the contamination of the Siang has shown that this problem is becoming a transboundary issue.
Against this background, water wars in a political and economic sense are already being waged in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers and by resorting to coercive diplomacy or other means to prevent such construction. One example of a silent water war has been Ethiopia’s dam building on the Blue Nile and the consequent Egyptian threats of covert or overt reprisals.
A report reflecting the joint judgment of US intelligence agencies warned a few years ago that the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism would become more likely in some regions. The InterAction Council, comprising more than 30 former heads of state or government, has underscored the imperative for urgent action, saying some countries battling severe water shortages are at risk of failing.
The risks of water conflicts are especially pronounced in the world’s most water-stressed regions — North Africa, the Middle East, and much of Asia. Asia cannot continue to drive global economic growth without finding ways to sustainably alleviate its water crisis.
Water discord, meanwhile, is fuelling China-India tensions. In recent years, Beijing increasingly has been employing its water leverage against India.
In 2017, in breach of two bilateral accords, China withheld hydrological data from India on upstream river flows. This undermined India’s flood early-warning systems during the critical monsoon season. Many of the deaths in Assam, which suffered record flooding that year despite below-normal monsoon rainfall, were preventable. The data denial was apparently intended to punish India for boycotting China’s inaugural Belt and Road summit and for the border standoff at Doklam.
The India-Pakistan water dynamic is driven by different factors. When Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947 as the first Islamic republic of the post-colonial era, the partition left the headwaters of the six-river Indus system on the Indian side of the border but the basin’s larger segment in the newly-created country. This division armed India with tremendous water leverage over Pakistan. But India, without any quid pro quo, ceded that leverage by signing what still remains the world’s most generous water-sharing pact: The 1960 Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) has indefinitely reserved for Pakistan more than 80% of the total Indus-system waters.
Not content with securing the lion’s share of the Indus waters, Pakistan has continued to play the water card against India. From waging conventional wars against India in the past to sustaining a protracted proxy war by terror since the 1980s, Pakistan has in parallel started waging a water war. Its strategy has centred on repeatedly invoking the IWT’s conflict-resolution provisions to internationalize any perceived disagreement so as to keep India under intense pressure.
Asia illustrates that once shared water becomes a diplomatic battleground between countries, it begins to exact geopolitical costs in ways not dissimilar to the legacies of armed conflicts. The casualty usually is sub-regional stability and cooperation. SAARC, for example, has no future; it will remain a stunted initiative.
Asia also exemplifies another important trend — that dams and democracy do not go well together. Dam building has run into major grassroots opposition in Asian democracies like India, Japan and South Korea, driving up project costs and acting as a damper on hydropower expansion. But dam building remains unconstrained in countries where grassroots empowerment is absent, such as China, Pakistan, Myanmar and Laos.
Activist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) — many foreign funded — have made it difficult for India to build large dams. This has only compounded India’s energy conundrum. India’s inability to stem disruptive NGO activism will continue to blight the promise of hydropower in the country.
In contrast, China stands out as the global leader in dam building, boasting more large dams than the rest of the world combined. The focus of China’s dam frenzy has ominously shifted over the past decade from domestic rivers to transboundary rivers. This carries serious implications for downstream neighbours. For example, as downstream droughts become more frequent due to China’s dam network on the Mekong River, China is leveraging its upstream water control to influence policies of downstream states.
The environmental degradation on the world’s largest and highest plateau, Tibet, due to Chinese damming and mining activities carries wide implications. With its height and other unique features, the Tibetan Plateau influences climatic and rainfall patterns across Asia.
To be sure, other countries also are contributing to environmental degradation and thereby undermining Asia’s hydrological and climatic stability. In a number of countries, watersheds, watercourses, coastal environment and other ecosystems are being degraded, resulting in shrinking wetlands and forests, increased water pollution and other ecological problems.
Given that Asia is likely to face a hotter, drier future, governments must initiate plans now to mitigate the effects. The imperative is to move from purely supply-side approaches to demand-side options that emphasize water conservation and quality as much as quantity. Even on the supply side, non-traditional measures, from recycling of water to rainwater capture, must be embraced.
Rainwater harvesting is an ancient technique that originated in Asia, especially India. Rainwater capture is also the cheapest and most-sustainable option to address water shortages and replenish groundwater. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Catch the Rain” initiative, by achieving demonstrable results on the ground, can serve as a model for other countries.
India must elevate water as a strategic resource. The Modi-created new, unified water power ministry is seeking to rectify a splintered, piecemeal approach that has compounded India’s water challenges. But without institutionalized, integrated policymaking, it will not be easy for India to develop a holistic approach to an increasingly scarce resource or fashion an effective hydro-diplomacy that advances the country’s long-term water interests.
Water increasingly will be a critical factor in regional development. So, India needs to get its act together on transboundary water issues. It should, for example, build sustained pressure on China to abide by international norms on shared water resources. Indian diplomacy ought to promote multilateral cooperation on water and hydropower resources in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Myanmar-Nepal growth corridor. Such collaboration will also boost BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation).
More broadly, three interconnected crises — a water crisis, an environmental crisis and a climate crisis — are threatening Asia’s economic, social and ecological future. Wasteful practices and mismanagement of water resources need to be addressed across Asia, or else the water crisis will worsen and spark raging conflicts. Cooperative institutional mechanisms and sustainable practices constitute the building blocks of water peace. Water indeed is a key test of whether Asian leaders have the political will and good sense to think and act long term.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of two award-winning books on water: “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield) and “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
The “Quad,” as its recent virtual summit underscored, has come a long way in cementing a strategic coalition of the leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific region. Comprising Australia, India, Japan and the United States, it has gradually sharpened its edges since 2019 in response to China’s aggressive expansionism.
Yet, when Joe Biden was elected, there was uncertainty over the Quad’s future, including whether the new U.S. president would carry forward his predecessor’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy based on the concept authored by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016. Even the term “Indo-Pacific” was conspicuously absent in Biden’s presidential campaign statements and the 2020 Democratic Party Platform.
Only after being sworn in as president, Biden began speaking about a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” He then took the initiative for the first-ever Quad summit. This is a testament to the fact that the Biden administration inherited a coherent and realistic strategy on the Indo-Pacific.
The surprise from the March 12 summit was that — unlike the past Quad foreign ministers’ meetings — it yielded a joint statement, which articulated a clear-eyed vision. “We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion,” the statement declared.
But make no mistake: Without real action and sustained resolve, dialogues and joint statements will not be enough to make a difference in the Indo-Pacific. An emboldened China, after tasting consecutive successes in the South China Sea and Hong Kong, could make Taiwan its next direct target. It has stepped up its expansionist activities in the Himalayan borderlands and the East China Sea.
Despite China’s lengthening shadow, the summit, however, offered little in terms of concrete strategic counteraction. If anything, its vaccine initiative illustrated how, with the media’s help, a public relations gimmick can be spun into a major summit success.
The summit’s “breakthrough” deal centered on helping India’s Biological E firm to produce 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses by the end of 2022, including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. But the firm has confirmed that it already can produce more than 1 billion vaccine doses a year. It signed a preliminary co-production agreement with Johnson & Johnson last August.
The Quad vaccine initiative has done little more than obscure America’s refusal to do something now, including releasing the vaccines it has been hoarding and permitting a temporary intellectual-property waiver so as to give poorer nations access to generic versions of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. India and South Africa are leading the international push for such a temporary waiver.
Given its relative decline, the U.S. needs its allies more than ever so that, in seeking to address the China challenge and other global problems, its power is augmented by that of its allies and strategic partners.
Yet, under Biden, it is sadly sending a wrong message with its vaccine hoarding, which denies its European allies much-needed supplies to combat COVID-19. This is likely to raise an important question among all allies, from Japan to Poland and Canada: If the U.S. will not share its vaccine stockpile with its closest allies during a horrendous pandemic, how can its leadership be trusted in a security contingency?
In fact, by invoking the 1950 U.S. Defense Production Act, the Biden administration is also hoarding vaccine components. America’s export restriction is creating a global supply chain problem: With not enough critical raw materials to go around, vaccine production is coming under pressure in other manufacturing centers, including India, which boasts the world’s largest vaccine-making capacity. Does Biden want other nations to learn hard lessons during the current pandemic about both China-reliant and U.S.-dependent supply chains?
Instead of persisting with a self-centered vaccine policy, the U.S. would do well to grasp the urgency of developing an actionable and durable American-led approach to China, which is becoming increasingly assertive, expansionist and authoritarian. In fact, the Quad’s unifying theme is opposing China’s aggressive expansionism.
Biden, however, has still to firm up his China policy. In fact, after his calls to Quad leaders, Biden telephoned China’s leader Xi Jinping on Feb. 10 and held a two-hour-long tete-a-tete. Then this month, the Quad summit and America’s “2 plus 2” dialogues in Tokyo and Seoul were followed by the high-level U.S.-China discussions in Anchorage, Alaska.
The parallel U.S. effort to reset ties with Beijing may explain why the two recent online Quad meetings — first between the foreign ministers and then the summit — focused less on the China challenge to a rules-based order and more on global issues like the pandemic and climate change. Vaccine diplomacy — as by India, which has donated more than eight million free COVID-19 vaccines — may aid projection of soft power. But the Quad, as a security coalition, has no need to project soft power.
If the Quad persists with prioritizing global issues over Indo-Pacific security challenges, it would blur its focus and encourage China to step up its coercive diplomacy through heavy-handed use of military and economic power.
The White House’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance released this month says “we welcome the Chinese government’s cooperation on issues such as climate change, global health security, arms control and nonproliferation where our national fates are intertwined.” However, Biden’s effort to reset ties with China appears doomed, largely because Xi sees the change of the U.S. administration as offering him greater space to pursue his hegemony-seeking “Chinese dream.”
To be sure, Xi’s aggressive policies will ensure that the Quad continues to solidify and actively work toward establishing a new multilateral Indo-Pacific security structure. Even distant powers like France, Germany and Canada now view a rules-based Indo-Pacific as central to international security.
They are strengthening maritime collaboration with the Quad states. Last November’s “Malabar” naval war games — the first-ever Quad military drills — have been followed by “Sea Dragon,” an anti-submarine warfare exercise in January that involved Quad members and Canada, and the scheduling of another Quad-plus naval exercise, the “La Perouse” drills with France, from April 4.
As Biden develops strategic clarity on China, the Quad is likely to become the central dynamic of his Indo-Pacific policy. Xi’s renegade expansionism could even help build a grand international coalition, with the Quad at its core.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War.”
China’s multi-pronged unconventional war against India has ranged from cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure and furtive territorial encroachments to strategic information warfare and an ongoing village-building drive to populate uninhabited but disputed borderlands. Water wars are a key component of such warfare because they allow China to leverage its upstream Tibet-centred power over the most-essential natural resource.
China knows its troops cannot fight and win decisively against the battle-hardened Indian military on a force-on-force basis, as the Galwan Valley clashes underscored. So, to contain India, it has been applying asymmetric warfare techniques to attack India’s weak points, in keeping with what Sun Tzu said: “All warfare is based on deception.”
India, instead of looking at China’s new face of war in totality and devising a comprehensive and proactive counter-strategy, has brought its security under increasing pressure through a disjointed and fragmented approach. Such is the absence of long-term strategic thinking and planning that, each time China opens a new front or pressure point, India searches for a stopgap or, worse still, seeks to paper over its weak spot.
China’s newly approved Brahmaputra mega-project, which will dwarf its Three Gorges Dam by generating almost three times more electricity, should shake India out of its ad hoc, compartmentalized approach to Chinese aggression. The project is to harness the force of a nearly 3,000-metre drop in the Brahmaputra’s height when the river, just before entering India, takes a U-turn around the Himalayas to form the world’s longest and steepest canyon. By setting out to dam the Brahmaputra there, China is seeking to effectively weaponize water against India.
Unidentified Chinese upstream activities in the past have triggered flash floods in Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh and, more recently, turned the water in the once-pristine Siang — Brahmaputra’s main artery — dirty and grey as it entered India. Indeed, such is China’s defiant unilateralism that, to complete a major dam project, it halted the flow of a Brahmaputra tributary, the Xiabuqu, in 2016 and then started damming another such tributary, the Lhasa River, into a series of artificial lakes.
In 2017, China openly demonstrated its use of water as as a tool of coercive diplomacy when, in breach of two bilateral accords, it punitively cut off the flow of hydrological data to India, an action that undermined downstream flood early-warning systems, resulting in preventable deaths in Assam. China reversed the data cutoff only after the 2018 Wuhan summit, which was held following its capture of Doklam behind the cover of the August 2017 disengagement agreement.
About a dozen small or medium-sized Chinese dams are already operational on the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches. But with its dam building now moving to the river’s India-bordering canyon region, China will be able to manipulate transboundary flows and leverage its claim to the adjacent Arunachal Pradesh.
The serious implications, however, are being obscured by misinformation or ignorance. For example, some in Indian policy and academic circles have conjectured that the Brahmaputra collects the larger share of its water in India. This water collection is mainly restricted to the four-month monsoon season. Fluvial ecosystems depend on perennial water sources, which, in the Brahmaputra’s case, are largely in Tibet.
The Brahmaputra, the world’s highest-altitude river, gathers extremely rich silt in its almost 2,200-kilometre Himalayan run. The silt-rich water from Tibet, not monsoon-water collection, is central to the river’s unique hydrology and biodiversity support. The canyon mega-project, like the Three Gorges Dam, will trap downstream flow of nutrient-rich silt. It will also disrupt the Brahmaputra’s annual flooding cycle, which helps to re-fertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt, besides opening giant fish nurseries. That, in turn, is likely to cause subsidence and salinity in the Brahmaputra-Ganges-Meghna Delta.
In the Mekong Basin, the environmental havoc unleashed by China’s upstream giant dams is becoming increasingly apparent. The environmental devastation could be worse in the Brahmaputra Basin, especially in densely populated Bangladesh, triggering a greater exodus of refugees to India, which is already home to countless millions of illegally settled Bangladeshis.
The Brahmaputra mega-dam, ominously, will be built in a seismically active area, thus implying a ticking “water bomb” for downstream communities. The dictatorship in Beijing is not deterred even by the fact that the project will desecrate territory that is sacred to Tibetans: the major mountains, cliffs and caves in the canyon region, known locally as Pemako, or the “Hidden Lotus Land,” represent the body of their guardian deity, the goddess Dorje Pagmo (Vajravarahi in Sanskrit), and the Brahmaputra represents her spine.
The expanding water war is clearly part of China’s integrated, multidimensional strategy against India, which seeks to employ all available means short of open war. Its unconventional war is profoundly impacting every core Indian interest. To deal with this structural challenge, India, in Sun Tzu style, must give China a taste of its own medicine. Two US reports, The Longer Telegram (published by the Atlantic Council) and the state department’s The Elements of the China Challenge, underline the imperative to target China’s weak spots.
India has little choice but to asymmetrically out-compete China’s asymmetric war by exploiting its internal vulnerabilities, fissures and fragilities, including in Tibet, the main launchpad for its unconventional warfare. India has the capabilities to outwit and deter China; what it needs is the vision and resolve.
Donald Trump’s tough China policy is his most consequential – and constructive – foreign-policy legacy. Unless President Joe Biden pursues a similar approach, the erosion of US global leadership will become inexorable.
In his inaugural address, US President Joe Biden declared that Americans “will be judged” for how they “resolve the cascading crises of our era.” He expressed confidence that the country would “rise to the occasion,” and pledged that the United States would lead “not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”
The contrast with President Donald Trump’s divisive, isolationist rhetoric could not be sharper. But adopting a different tone is easier than reversing America’s relative decline. To do that, Biden will need to provide wise, forward-looking leadership. And that does not necessarily mean breaking with everything that Trump did.
America’s debilitating political polarization has undermined its international standing. Partisan considerations have hampered – even precluded – the pursuit of long-term foreign-policy objectives. US policy toward a declining Russia, for example, has become hostage to US domestic politics.
Biden’s calls for unity reflect his awareness of this. But the truth is that healing the deep rupture in US society may be beyond any president’s ability, not least because so many Republican voters seem to have abandoned all faith in evidence and expertise. So, rather than becoming consumed by domestic political divisions, Biden must rise above them.
And yet, there is one area where there is broad bipartisan consensus: the need to stand up to China. Trump understood this. Indeed, his tough China policy is his most consequential – and constructive – foreign-policy legacy. Unless Biden pursues a similar approach, the erosion of US global leadership will become inexorable.
The Indo-Pacific region – a global economic hub and geopolitical hotspot – is central to an effective China strategy. Recognizing the region’s immense importance to the world order, China has been steadily reshaping it to serve Chinese interests, using heavy-handed economic coercion, political repression, and aggressive expansionism to have its way from the Himalayas and Hong Kong to the South and East China Seas.
The only way to preserve a stable regional balance of power is with a rules-based, democracy-led order – or, as the Trump administration put it, a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Over the last year, this vision has spurred the region’s democracies to deepen their strategic bonds and inspired even the faraway democracies of Europe to implement supportive policies. Under the Biden administration’s leadership, countries must now build on this progress, creating a true concert of democracies capable of providing stability and balance in the Indo-Pacific.
Biden seems to understand this. He has made clear his intention to build a united democratic front to counter China. But he is also at risk of undermining his own vision.
For starters, Biden did not embrace the term “Indo-Pacific” until after his electoral victory, and when he did, he replaced “free and open” with “secure and prosperous.” But, whereas “free and open” automatically implies a rules-based, democracy-led order, “secure and prosperous” leaves room for the inclusion of – and even leadership by – autocratic regimes. This ignores the crux of the Indo-Pacific challenge: a revisionist China is actively seeking to supplant the US as the region’s dominant power.
Making matters worse, Biden has signaled a possible reset of ties with China. This would play right into China’s hands.
Trump’s China policy was not just about trade or human rights. It sent the (right) message that China is a predatory communist state without political legitimacy or the rule of law. This helped to tip the scales in America’s favor. Over the last year, unfavorable perceptions of China reached historic highs in many countries. While this was largely because of the made-in-China COVID-19 pandemic, Trump’s ideological onslaught and China’s own aggression – such as on its Himalayan border with India – also played a role.
If the Biden administration abandons economic decoupling and treats China as a major competitor, rather than an implacable adversary, it will tip the scales in the opposite direction, relieving pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime and undermining faith in US leadership. This could embolden China to destabilize the Indo-Pacific further, with Taiwan possibly its next direct target.
Moreover, US conciliation would give India second thoughts about aligning itself too closely with the US, and would likely lead to Japan’s militarization – a potential game changer in the Indo-Pacific. It would also facilitate China’s efforts to leverage its vast market to draw in America’s democratic allies – a risk underscored by its recent investment deal with the European Union. All of this would undermine efforts to forge the united democratic front Biden envisions, compounding the threat of China’s aggressive authoritarianism.
The worst choice Biden can make is to seek shared leadership with China in the Indo-Pacific, as some are advocating. Worryingly, Biden’s team does not seem clear on this. In a 2019 essay, Jake Sullivan (Biden’s national security adviser) and Kurt Campbell (Biden’s “Indo-Pacific czar” at the National Security Council) championed “coexistence with China,” describing the country as “an essential US partner.”
To be sure, Sullivan and Campbell did not call for Sino-American joint hegemony, in the Indo-Pacific or beyond. But they also did not take the clear and necessary position that the US must forge a concert of democracies to bring sustained multilateral pressure to bear on China.
After four years of Trump, Biden is right to tout the importance of domestic unity. But a tough line on China is one of the few policy areas behind which Americans can unite. More important, it is the only way to ensure a stable Indo-Pacific and world order.
US President Joe Biden’s administration must not ignore how often American sanctions against other countries have worked to China’s advantage. In this light, the US must take a cautious and prudent approach on Myanmar.
Directly or indirectly, the military has always called the shots in Myanmar. And now that it has removed the decade-old façade of gradual democratization by detaining civilian leaders and seizing power, Western calls to punish the country with sanctions and international isolation are growing louder. Heeding them would be a mistake.
The retreat of the “Myanmar spring” means all the countries of continental Southeast Asia – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar – are under authoritarian rule, like their giant northern neighbor, China. More fundamentally, the reversal of democratization in Myanmar is a reminder that democracy is unlikely to take root where authoritarian leaders and institutions remain deeply entrenched.
Given this, a punitive approach would merely express democratic countries’ disappointment, at the cost of stymying Myanmar’s economic liberalization, impeding the development of its civil society, and reversing its shift toward closer engagement with democratic powers. And, as in the past, the brunt of sanctions would be borne by ordinary citizens, not the generals.
This is a realistic scenario. US President Joe Biden has warned that the military’s action “will necessitate an immediate review of our sanctions laws,” followed by “appropriate action.” But Biden would do well to consider how US-led sanctions in the past pushed Myanmar into China’s strategic lap, exacerbating regional-security challenges.
Sanctions are a blunt instrument. Thailand’s army chief, with the support of an increasingly unpopular king, has remained ensconced in power in civilian garb since staging a coup in 2014. If the United States can do business with Thailand, where a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters has extended to the use of a feared lèse-majesté law to imprison those who insult the royal family, why hold neighboring Myanmar to a higher standard?
Likewise, the US, India, Japan, and others have established close defense ties with communist-ruled Vietnam. Indeed, the US boasts that in recent years it has established a “robust security partnership” with Vietnam. Only by opening lines of communication and cooperation with Myanmar’s generals can democratic powers hope to influence developments in a strategically important country.
In the past decade, as Myanmar’s democratic transition unfolded, the West neglected to build close relations with the force behind it — the military. Instead, the prevailing Anglo-American approach centered on Aung San Suu Kyi, making her bigger than the cause. That neglect persisted even after Suu Kyi fell from grace over the fate of the country’s Rohingya Muslims, many of whom fled to Bangladesh and some to India during a brutal military campaign to flush out jihadist militants waging hit-and-run attacks.
The West’s lopsided approach eventually contributed to this month’s coup. Today, the US has little influence over Myanmar’s military. The coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy, General Soe Win, were slapped with US sanctions 14 months ago over the expulsion of the Rohingya. But in responding to the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang that it labels “genocide,” the US has spared top Chinese military and party officials, imposing largely symbolic sanctions against lower-ranking functionaries.
Despite their uneven effectiveness and unpredictable consequences, sanctions have remained a favorite – and grossly overused – instrument of Western diplomacy, especially when dealing with the small kids on the global bloc. Non-Western democracies, in stark contrast, prefer constructive engagement.
Japan, for example, has a partnership program with Myanmar’s military that includes capacity-building support and training. Likewise, India’s defense ties with Myanmar extend to joint exercises and operations and supply of military hardware; recently, it gave its neighbor its first submarine. Such ties also seek to counter China’s supply of arms and other aid to Indian tribal insurgents through rebel-controlled northern Myanmar.
Sanctions without engagement have never worked. In 2010, while the US was pursuing a sanctions-only approach to Myanmar, then-President Barack Obama criticized India’s policy of constructive engagement with that country. But within months, Obama embarked on a virtually similar policy, which led to his historic visit to Myanmar in 2012.
Crippling US-led sanctions from the late 1980s paved the way for China to become Myanmar’s dominant trading partner and investor. But in 2011, Myanmar’s bold suspension of a controversial Chinese megaproject, the Myitsone Dam, became a watershed moment for the country’s democratic opening. It set in motion developments that reduced Myanmar’s dependence on China, balanced its foreign policy, and spurred domestic reforms.
Today, nothing would serve Chinese interests more than new US-led efforts to isolate Myanmar, which serves China as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean and important source of natural resources. In fact, renewed sanctions and isolation would likely turn Myanmar into another Chinese satellite, like Laos, Cambodia, and Pakistan. As Japan’s state minister for defense, Yasuhide Nakayama, has warned, that outcome would “pose a risk to the security of the region.”
US policymakers must not ignore how often American sanctions against other countries have worked to China’s advantage. They should perhaps be most worried by how sanctions have forced Russia to pivot to China, turning two natural competitors into becoming close strategic partners. And China has been the main trade and investment beneficiary of US sanctions against Iran.
In this light, the US must take a prudent approach to Myanmar. When Biden has expressed a readiness to cooperate with the world’s largest autocracy, China, in areas of mutual interest, he should at least pursue a similar approach with a far weaker Myanmar, where the military is the only functioning institution.
To help influence Myanmar’s trajectory, Biden has little choice but to address what US officials have recognized as a weak spot in American policy – lack of ties with the country’s strongly nationalist military. The US must not turn Myanmar from a partner into a pariah again.
Large parts of the world are still reeling from the rampaging spread of the coronavirus, with renewed lockdowns in effect in many places. With every stricken country focused on tackling its COVID-19 crisis, there is little international generosity in donating large quantities of medicines or vaccines when demand for them is sky-high.
So, when India in recent days delivered millions of COVID-19 vaccines as gifts to countries in the Indian Ocean region, it attracted international attention.
More than five million Indian-made vaccines were airlifted last week to countries extending from Myanmar and Bangladesh to Mauritius and the Seychelles. And millions of more free vaccines are on their way this week.
The scale of India’s vaccine gifts is unrivaled. No other country has delivered millions of free vaccines to other nations — not even China, which has pursued its own vaccine diplomacy in a bid to repair the damage to its global image from the spread of the deadly coronavirus from Chinese soil. The gifts help to highlight India’s enormous vaccine-manufacturing capacity.
What stands out the most about India’s humanitarian gesture is that it was launched just four days after the country began vaccinating its own citizens, starting with health-care workers. On receiving the first shipment of Indian vaccines, the prime minister of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan called it “altruism” that “precious commodities are shared even before meeting your own needs.” The overseas vaccine shipments extend from India’s ambitious plan to inoculate its huge 1.3 billion population in one of the world’s biggest COVID-19 vaccination drives.
India’s free-vaccine diplomacy, however, has been driven by more than altruism. There are geopolitical considerations at play, including building goodwill and influence and countering China’s growing strategic footprint in the Indian Ocean region. Supplying free vaccines to combat a raging pandemic also seems a better choice for New Delhi than providing direct aid in another form.
One of India’s strengths is that it supplies more than 60% of the world’s vaccines against various diseases. Now it is leveraging that manufacturing heft by embarking on what has been billed as humanitarian diplomacy — the supply of free vaccines to countries in its extended neighborhood.
Its extensive vaccine-manufacturing infrastructure also explains why India, as research by Fitch Solutions suggests, will be able to inoculate most of its vulnerable citizens such as health-care workers and the elderly by mid-2021 — ahead of the much-smaller South Korea, for example.
India already has agreed to supply more than one billion coronavirus vaccines to various countries and to the World Health Organization-backed Covax initiative aimed at poorer countries. India is currently manufacturing two vaccines — the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine, known in India as Covishield, and Covaxin, developed by the Indian pharmaceutical firm Bharat Biotech. Three other Indian companies are close to wrapping up development of their own vaccines.
Before India granted emergency approval to Covishield and Covaxin in early January, the privately-owned Serum Institute of India (SII) — the world’s largest maker of vaccines by volume and the leading production partner of AstraZeneca-Oxford — had already manufactured and stocked between 70 to 80 million Covishield doses. This large stockpile has meant that India has enough vaccines to share with other countries.
Furthermore, India’s rapidly falling coronavirus infections have given Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government greater room to advance vaccine diplomacy. Daily new cases in India — a distant second to the United States in aggregate infections — have dramatically declined since last fall.
The international spotlight on the competitive vaccine offerings of the United States, Britain, Russia and China has helped obscure India’s role. Since the pandemic began, India has quietly donated or commercially exported crucial items that have encountered massive demand surges, such as COVID-19 test kits, personal protection equipment and medicines for coronavirus symptoms. India, the world’s leading supplier of generic drugs, shipped 50 million tablets of hydroxychloroquine to the U.S. last spring at then-American President Donald Trump’s request.
China, while exploiting its pharmaceutical clout for commercial ends throughout the pandemic, has thus far announced only modest vaccine donations. Its aggressive push to sell vaccines to developing nations, however, has suffered a setback after its leading inoculation candidate turned out to just 50% effective in late-stage trials in Brazil. Indeed, Brazil has turned to India, importing two million vaccines in recent days.
Against this background, will India’s vaccine diplomacy tangibly aid its foreign-policy interests? As more than 100,000 war-ready Indian and Chinese troops remain locked in a months-long Himalayan military standoff, India feels increasingly hemmed in by the expanding Chinese influence in its neighborhood.
India is hoping that, in contrast to the coronavirus’s indelible association with China as the country of origin, it will be remembered for helping many of its neighbors to immunize the vulnerable segments of their populations against the disease.
Still, with China spreading its influence deep into India’s backyard, New Delhi can scarcely reverse its eroding regional clout with just the goodwill generated from its large vaccine donations. India needs to do a lot more on a sustained basis. This demands it shed its intrinsic diffidence in favor of proactive diplomacy.
In fact, there is the question of whether India will bear the financial burden of supplying more free coronavirus vaccines to neighboring countries beyond the initial shipments. The issue whether such vaccines will be free for all of India’s own citizens has yet to be settled.
India’s large overseas shipments, however, belie the current Western narrative that wealthy nations are monopolizing the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and fueling a widening gap in access around the world. As with the shots against many other diseases, from polio and pneumonia to meningitis and measles, India is likely to be the largest and most-affordable source of COVID-19 vaccines, especially as new inoculation candidates enter into Indian production after approval.
In fact, the paradox is that many wealthy countries, especially in the European Union, have been slow to roll out COVID-19 vaccines, making India’s robust vaccine industry stand out as a model.
The Indian industry’s role will be central to ending the pandemic because only India has the vast infrastructure at present to meet the global vaccine demand. However, the extensive damage and five deaths from last week’s major fire at a new building at the SII campus were a reminder that, at a time when many low- and middle-income countries are depending on Indian production, unforeseen events could potentially disrupt supply of essential vaccines.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime Japan Times contributor, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.
President Joe Biden faces a slew of important foreign policy challenges. But with India, he has a historic opportunity to forge a strategic alliance to help build a stable balance of power in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region.
India has been a bright spot in U.S. foreign policy over the past two decades. Continuing a process set in motion by President Bill Clinton during the 1990s and accelerated by every succeeding administration, U.S.-India relations thrived during Donald Trump’s presidency. Not surprisingly, there is strong bipartisan support in both Washington and New Delhi for a closer partnership under Biden.
The Trump administration’s now-declassified “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific” gives India pride of place in American strategy. “A strong India, in cooperation with like-minded countries, would act as a counterbalance to China,” it states. The framework underlines the U.S. objective to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security” in the Indo-Pacific and as America’s major defense partner.
Trump’s standalone trip to India last year underscored how the expanding strategic partnership has become an important diplomatic asset for both countries. The visit is remembered by many Indians for Trump’s famous words at a huge rally in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home city of Ahmedabad: “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”
Today, the United States is close to accomplishing what it has long struggled to achieve: co-opting India in a “soft alliance” built not on formal security obligations but on common interests. U.S. officials recognize that such an arrangement will bear little resemblance to the patron-client framework that was established in Asia during the Cold War, with Washington as the “hub” and treaty allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia as the “spokes.” No such arrangement would work with India today, for the simple reason that a country so large, especially one that values its strategic autonomy, cannot become another Japan or South Korea to the U.S. As then-Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun stressed during a visit to New Delhi in October, the U.S. is seeking “not an alliance on the postwar model but a fundamental alignment along shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests, and shared values.”
China’s aggressive expansionism has helped drive India’s shift toward closer strategic collaboration with the U.S. A major turning point was China’s decision last spring to stealthily occupy mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in the borderlands of the northernmost Indian region of Ladakh. That move triggered the deadliest clash along the two countries’ disputed border in decades, and 100,000 war-ready Indian and Chinese troops are still locked in a military standoff.
The depth of strategic collaboration between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies will ultimately be shaped by Biden’s China policy.
Against this background, U.S.-India ties will remain close. However, the depth of strategic collaboration between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies will ultimately be shaped by Biden’s China policy. Biden has yet to clearly enunciate his approach toward Beijing or his overall Asia policy. If anything, Biden has fueled uncertainty over whether his administration will continue with Trump’s strategy, including by refraining from using the term, “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” coining a new phrase instead: a “Secure and Prosperous Indo-Pacific.” He has made no mention thus far of the Quad, which holds the promise of becoming a formal security arrangement. Biden, however, has done well to name the veteran Asia hand Kurt Campbell to the newly created position of Indo-Pacific coordinator on the National Security Council.
Will Biden spurn the Trump administration’s approach and seek to reset U.S. policy toward China and the Indo-Pacific? A softer U.S. approach toward Beijing is unlikely to help build the long-sought soft alliance with India. Given the bipartisan U.S. consensus and some of his own national security appointments, it is doubtful that Biden could return to the more-indulgent approach to China of the Obama administration, when Beijing engaged in mostly cost-free expansionism, including redrawing the South China Sea’s geopolitical map.
To be sure, there are also other issues, including Pakistan and human rights, that could impede progress toward India’s full involvement in the U.S.-led security architecture. A decision to restore U.S. security aid to Pakistan, for example, would set off alarm bells in New Delhi, as it would relieve pressure on Pakistan to curb its well-documented support for terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani Network, and unwittingly contribute to the growing China-Pakistan axis against India.
India’s domestic politics mirrors that of the U.S. in terms of hardened polarization, with a widening divide between liberals and conservatives. Trump refrained from commenting on contentious developments in India so as not to be seen as wading into the country’s domestic politics. But Biden has pledged a renewed U.S. focus on promotion of liberal values and human rights. In his presidential campaign, Biden criticized the Modi government’s suppression of dissent in the Muslim-majority territory of Jammu and Kashmir, as well as a new Indian law to grant citizenship to non-Muslim refugees that fled religious persecution in the three neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. Critics have branded that law anti-Muslim. If the Biden administration were to be openly critical of such issues, it might embolden Modi’s critics while turning Indian public opinion against a closer partnership with Washington.
However, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was Indian, are likely to pursue a pragmatic approach that prioritizes deeper engagement with India. This will include clinching a much-sought-after trade deal with India, whose huge market is an increasingly powerful magnet for U.S. businesses; forging a partnership with New Delhi on climate change; and expanding defense ties. Such a balanced approach is appropriate, for no relationship between any two democracies is as important in today’s changing world than the one between the U.S. and India.
Brahma Chellaney is a geo-strategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).
At 78, Joe Biden is the oldest president in US history to assume office. The unprecedented security at his inauguration, which included neutralising any possible insider threat from National Guardsmen and police officers at the ceremony, underscored the new president’s challenges. Biden has come to power with about one-third of the American voters believing he stole the election, with the US Congress almost evenly divided between the two parties, and with America reeling from the rampaging spread of the coronavirus.
Biden’s biggest foreign-policy challenge relates to the world’s economic and geopolitical hub— the Indo-Pacific region, which unites the Indian and Pacific oceans. An expansionist China is injecting greater instability and tensions in the Indo-Pacific through its territorial and maritime revisionism and heavy-handed use of economic and military power.
The increasingly polarised and virulent US politics, however, will likely weigh down Biden’s agenda. Before the election, according to one survey, nearly 90 per cent of supporters of Biden and his rival Donald Trump believed that the opponent’s victory would bring lasting harm to America.
Indeed, Trump left office refusing to concede the election. He repeatedly alleged that the election was marred by fraud and irregularities and thus illegitimate. To be sure, Trump’s 2016 election victory was never accepted by many prominent Democrats, who sought to delegitimise his presidency by spinning a tale of his “collusion” with Russia. A partisan national media served as an echo chamber for the Russia-collusion story. Today, the base of the Republican Party reveres Trump even in defeat.
Biden has talked about unifying a divided America. But he has taken little concrete action thus far in that direction.
It will not be easy to heal the wounds after the recent developments, including the Trump-supporting mob’s storming of the US Capitol, the rushed second impeachment of Trump in the House of Representatives after just a four-hour debate, and Big Tech’s open display of its political leanings by targeting Trump and his supporters and by shutting down Twitter’s rapidly growing rival, Parler. After being kicked off US servers, Parler has been forced to turn to a Russian firm that routes internet traffic.
As William Barr, who served as the US attorney general until December 2020, has warned, “I think that when you start suppressing free speech, when people lose confidence in the media, and also when they lose faith in the integrity of elections, you’re going to have some people resort to violence.” Anger has deepened among conservatives, especially among many of the 74 million who voted for Trump and whose belief in a stolen election is now etched in their psyches.
The US is being torn apart by hyper-partisan politics. Tolerance for opposing views is increasingly in short supply. In this environment, fake news, conspiracy theories, fear-mongering and alternative narratives thrive. What keeps the US strong, though, is institutional resilience. Hardened polarisation hasn’t really dented national institutions, which remain by and large effective in helping to insulate the country’s economy and security from the effects of partisan politics.
Yet, there is a high risk that, like his predecessor, Biden in office could become an increasingly polarising figure, with Americans either loving or loathing him. Trump’s supporters already hate Biden. In fact, just as Democrats spent four years seeking to tar Trump with a Russia-collusion story, hardcore conservatives are already calling Biden the “Manchurian candidate” who, to quote the prominent right-wing commentator Mark Levin, was “bought and paid for by China.”
To compound matters, the new president’s decades-long political career shows that he has no firm convictions. Indeed, during the presidential election campaign, Biden made a habit of reversing his positions on major policy issues. Flip-flops are to Biden what egomania was to Trump as president.
FOREIGN POLICY UNDER BIDEN
Biden says he intends to reshape US foreign policy, including by shoring up alliances and by rejoining the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. But the “one America, two nations” problem at home could impinge on Biden’s foreign-policy agenda, as it did on Trump’s. Trump pursued a strange mix of avowed isolationism, impulsive interventionism and unexpected resort to force, as in early 2020 when the US assassinated General Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s commando Quds Force. Trump’s critics rejoiced over Soleimani’s killing because they had been slamming his foreign-policy approach of relying largely on economic levers by rebuffing the preference of the US “deep state” for periodically employing military force to assert American power.
Trump, who railed against “endless wars,” was the first US president since Jimmy Carter not to start a new war. Trump ended the CIA’s large covert operation in Syria and worked to bring back home US troops from various theatres of conflict. But his itch to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan led him to cut a deal with the terrorist Taliban, handing Pakistan a major victory. Consequently, the old US-Pakistan-Taliban alliance is back in play in Afghanistan, with Washington’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban spawning an escalating wave of targeted killings.
Against this background, how will Biden’s foreign policy be different? Biden has promised to pursue a more predictable and multilateral approach and to help unite allies in concerted action on issues ranging from climate change to Russia and China.
But few seem to clearly know Biden’s thinking on major geostrategic issues.
In the presidential campaign, Biden’s theme essentially was that he wasn’t Trump. Biden made the election a referendum on the incumbent rather than a choice. Yet, without having a political base or articulating a clear vision, Biden won. In victory, the Democrats are trying to figure out what they stand for as a party. But the division between progressives and establishment forces runs deep in the party.
One thing seems certain: Despite Biden’s multilateralism rhetoric, he is likely to be more interventionist than Trump. In fact, most members of Biden’s national security team are considered “liberal interventionists,” or hawks on the left. It was the liberal interventionists who, under President Barack Obama, engineered the disastrous interventions in Libya and Syria and who, during the Bill Clinton presidency, spearheaded the NATO air war against Yugoslavia.
Biden’s protégé and now Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, supported the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the 2011 intervention in Libya, both of which turned the once-stable countries into failed states. Blinken hailed America’s occupation of Iraq as a success, claiming it had brought down violence and won grassroots support. As his critics point out, there isn’t a war that Blinken hasn’t loved.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s National Security Advisor, supported supplying anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, which President Obama opposed and President Trump finally delivered.
On China, however, the otherwise hawkish Sullivan has been an advocate of a conciliatory approach. For example, during a 2017 lecture he delivered on behalf of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, Sullivan said foreign policy expert Owen Harries was “right” to warn that “containment” is a self-defeating policy, much like acquiescence. “We need to strike a middle course—one that encourages China’s rise in a manner consistent with an open, fair, rules-based, regional order,” Sullivan declared. He said the China policy needs to be about more than just bilateral ties, “it needs to be about our ties to the region that create an environment more conducive to a peaceful and positive sum Chinese rise.”
More recently, Sullivan co-authored an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs (September/October 2019) with Kurt Campbell, Biden’s “Indo-Pacific coordinator”—a new position inside the National Security Council. The essay argued for managed coexistence with China, saying China is a “formidable competitor” but also “an essential US partner.” So, containment is not tenable, it contended.
The essay pushed for managed coexistence in these words; “Advocates of neo-containment tend to see any call for managed coexistence as an argument for a version of the grand bargain; advocates of a grand bargain tend to see any suggestion of sustained competition as a case for a version of containment. That divide obscures a course between these extremes—one that is not premised on Chinese capitulation or on U.S.-Chinese condominium.” According to it, “The need for cooperation between Washington and Beijing is far more acute, given the nature of contemporary challenges.” But the key, it said, is for Washington to get “the balance between cooperation and competition right.”
In essence, the essay implicitly sought a G2-style condominium defined by competitive-cum-cooperative elements, with the rest of the world having to adjust to it. By suggesting China’s challenge and threat could no longer be addressed by the US alone, the essay, in addition to advocating the strengthening of US alliances, said that a US partnership with Beijing was indispensable.
The essay actually stood out for failing to look ahead. It listed four hot spots in the Indo-Pacific region but not the Himalayas, now the most dangerous flashpoint. In fact, it made no mention of India or the Quad or America’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy or economic decoupling. If anything, the essay reflected the Kissingerian thinking still prevailing in some US policy circles.
A former Chinese vice foreign minister’s call in a November 2020 New York Times op-ed for “cooperative competition” between the US and China sounded a lot like the “managed coexistence” idea proposed by Campbell and Sullivan in their essay, with both concepts implying a G2-style condominium. The ex-vice foreign minister, Fu Ying, wrote in her op-ed: “It is possible for the two countries to develop a relationship of ‘coopetition’ (cooperation + competition) by addressing each other’s concerns.”
The Trump administration defined the relationship with Beijing as pitting the US in deeply ideological, even existential, conflict with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). If Biden pursued US cooperation with China, it would help strengthen the CCP internally and externally.
Managed coexistence would allow China to manage the bilateral relationship largely on its terms, including protecting the CCP’s primacy. When Fu called for “addressing each other’s concerns” to build cooperative competition, she meant, as she herself put it, that the “United States should be respectful of China’s sense of national unity and avoid challenging China on the issue of Taiwan or by meddling in the territorial disputes of the South China Sea.” Addressing each other’s concerns also implies that the US must respect the fact, as Fu said, that China has a “different political system.” China cannot, and will not, change because, without ultra-nationalism as the CCP’s legitimating credo and without the Xi Jinping regime’s aggressive expansionism, the country’s political system would unravel.
Biden is unlike the four most recent US presidents: He has deep ties to the Washington establishment, including the lobbying industry, from his 44 years in the Senate and as vice president. No sooner had the media declared him the election winner than he named at least 40 current and former registered lobbyists to his transition team.
Biden, backed by Big Money, Big Tech and Big Media, was Wall Street’s favoured candidate in the election. But, thanks to US corporate greed, Wall Street also remains China’s powerful ally.
Furthermore, the national security team Biden has chosen isn’t free of the Cold War thinking that sees Russia as the main foe. Such thinking plays into China’s hands. Russia and China, as geographically proximate nations, have always been suspicious of each other’s intentions as they compete for geopolitical influence. But US policy, including sanctions against Russia, have brought two natural strategic competitors into ever-closer alignment.
More fundamentally, an interventionist foreign policy under Biden on issues other than China will raise concerns over the renewed influence of the so-called US deep state, which is centred in security and intelligence agencies. Many Republicans believed the deep state worked hard to topple Trump from power. Former Attorney General Barr publicly identified one such rogue actor—the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). A “wilful if small” group at the FBI used the Russia-collusion claim to try and “topple an administration,” Barr said in an interview in December.
A NEW INDO-PACIFIC POLICY
The imperative in the Indo-Pacific is to build a new strategic equilibrium pivoted on a stable balance of power. A constellation of likeminded countries linked by interlocking strategic cooperation has become critical to help build such equilibrium. The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was authored by the then Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2016 and subsequently became the basis of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy after Trump was elected president.
Biden has yet to clearly spell out his administration’s approach to the Indo-Pacific. There are signs, though, that Biden may replace the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy with a new policy. The Indo-Pacific strategy and China policy he adopts will be among his most-consequential foreign policy decisions. Biden’s China and Indo-Pacific policies will have an important bearing on Indian (and Asian) security.
On China, Biden has shown a striking lack of strategic clarity thus far. After he launched his presidential campaign in 2019, Biden stunned many with his apparent strategic naïveté by declaring, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The strong blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
In stark contrast, Trump repeatedly pledged during his successful presidential campaign in 2016 to fundamentally change the relationship with China. After assuming office, Trump quickly abandoned the approach of his predecessors, from Richard Nixon to Obama, that aided the rise of China, including as a trade leviathan. Jettisoning his predecessors’ policy of “constructive engagement” with Beijing, Trump classified China as a “revisionist power,” “strategic competitor” and principal adversary.
Trump’s standing up to China explains why, unlike in Europe or the US, he has been popular in large parts of the Indo-Pacific, including in places as diverse as Japan, Australia, Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar and South Korea. According to one analyst, many Asians “saw Trump as a coarse but powerful leader of the free world against [Chinese] communist tyranny.” Even within China, Trump was admired by those concerned about President Xi Jinping’s increasingly arbitrary and despotic rule.
However, by the time Trump came to office and engineered a paradigm shift in America’s China policy, China had already emerged as his country’s most formidable competitor and as a potent threat to its Asian neighbours.
Assisting China’s rise was the “greatest” mistake of US foreign policy since the 1930s, according to Robert O’Brien, the last National Security Advisor under Trump. How did this blunder occur? “We closed our ears and our eyes. We believed what we wanted to believe,” O’Brien candidly said last year.
That blunder “created a monster,” as Trump admitted in 2019—a monster that will continue to haunt not only the US but also its allies and partners. Indeed, Asian countries, from Japan to India, are bearing the brunt of China’s rise as an expansionist power that openly flouts international norms.
When Biden assumed office, the US was locked in a trade war, a technology war and a geopolitical war with China, with the strategic and ideological confrontation between the world’s two largest economies beginning to reshape global geopolitics. In fact, by defining the CCP as the main threat to international peace and security and to the Chinese people’s well-being, the Trump administration signalled its support for regime change in Beijing.
Of all the actions of the Trump administration, the one that stung Beijing the most was the unremitting US offensive against China as a predatory state controlled by the CCP without any political legitimacy or rule of law. This ideological onslaught implied that regime change was essential for China to abide by international norms and rules. The paradox is that Xi himself, as the New York Times reported, “sees China and the United States as locked in ideological rivalry. Since coming to power in 2012, he has called for Chinese schools, textbooks and websites to inoculate youth against Western values that could erode party rule and the country’s ‘cultural self-confidence.’”
Meanwhile, US sanctions in the past year against CCP officials involved in the Hong Kong, Xinjiang and other crackdowns or in the South China Sea aggression have complicated Xi’s task of holding his flock together. US sanctions and visa restrictions against CCP cadres and their family members threaten to create internal disarray in the party by jeopardising important members’ interests, including their ability to keep money overseas and send their children to study in the West.
However, just when the Trump administration was on the cusp of forging an international democratic coalition against China, threatening the survival of Xi’s regime, Trump lost the election. The election loss set in motion tumultuous and riotous developments in Washington that could undermine Trump’s legacy.
UNCERTAIN DIRECTION UNDER BIDEN
Will Biden radically shift the Trump administration policy and treat China as a major competitor but not an implacable enemy, while also abandoning economic decoupling? Such a climbdown would mean a significant dilution of the US strategy to contain China, including reining in the relentless expansionism it pursues without regard to the diplomatic or geopolitical fallout.
Some close to the new US administration have fallaciously argued that China’s significant geopolitical and economic clout cannot be rolled back and that the country is far too integrated in the global economy for economic decoupling to be successful. In fact, some key members of Biden’s team believe that, instead of the US treating China as its primary adversary, Washington and Beijing should aim for shared leadership in the Indo-Pacific.
How will seeking shared leadership justify the united democratic front on China that Biden wishes to build? Can the US build a democratic coalition with the aim, not to contain China, but to employ major democracies’ aggregate geopolitical and economic heft to establish a modus vivendi with Beijing?
It is critical issues like these that have injected a layer of uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific landscape following the leadership change in the White House. The big unknown is whether America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and China policy will undergo structural shifts.
It is significant that, since Biden’s victory in the US presidential election in November, China has displayed a distinctly cocky tone in its official statements. It has also put its propaganda machinery in overdrive. What explains this? The Chinese communist publication Global Times has offered an answer: “Biden is likely to abandon or at least adjust” Trump’s “so-called Indo-Pacific strategy” and “fix ties with China.”
Xi’s regime, which presides over the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy, clearly saw Biden’s election win as a silver lining for China. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, reposing China’s hope in Biden, said early this year that “a new window of hope is opening” and that the bilateral relationship with the US could now get back on the right track following a period of “unprecedented difficulty.”
The pressure that the Trump administration ramped up on China has exacted a heavy toll on Beijing, denting its international image. Negative views of China reached historic highs in 2020.
Until Biden’s election victory became clear, Beijing had sought to absorb the Trump administration’s unceasing attacks by essentially ducking them. It sought the moral high ground by decrying Washington’s return to the “zero-sum thinking of the Cold War era” and by claiming that it did not want to play into America’s hands by responding in kind (as if it could). In essence, China’s then posture implicitly conveyed that it could do little to deter the Trump administration’s attacks and thus was putting up with them without seeking to provoke greater US punitive actions.
But once a Biden win became apparent, Beijing began aggressively lambasting the Trump administration’s actions as extreme and crazy. More significantly, it started saying that, once the Biden administration took office, the US and China must come to terms with each other by opening dialogue. Seeking such a modus vivendi was also embedded in Xi’s belated congratulatory letter to Biden.
The Trump administration’s approach towards China, meanwhile, continues to be mischaracterised by many in the West as a “got-it-alone” approach. The truth is that the Trump administration ramped up pressure on China by resurrecting the Quad and giving it concrete shape. Trump may have weakened the trans-Atlantic alliance but, in the Indo-Pacific, his administration built the Quad into a promising coalition and upgraded security ties with key partners, including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and Thailand. It also established new US defence cooperation with Vietnam and the Maldives.
Biden wants to build a coalition of democracies to exert pressure on China. But this is exactly what the Trump administration sought to do. The Quad is an alliance of leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific. The Trump administration committed to establishing a concert of democracies, with India serving as the western anchor and Japan and Australia the eastern and southern anchors of an Indo-Pacific balance of power. This led even distant powers like France, Germany and Britain to view a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific as central to international security and to unveil their own Indo-Pacific policies.
Important democracies today are looking to Biden to provide strategic clarity on his approach to the Indo-Pacific. Holding a large Summit for Democracy, as he plans to do to help “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world,” can scarcely offer such clarity. The summit would represent a values-based, globalised approach standing in sharp contrast to the Trump administration strategy of regionally leveraging cooperation with democracies for geopolitical ends.
Biden has claimed the US doesn’t have leverage against China as yet. In reality, the Trump administration has bequeathed important leverage to the Biden team to capitalise on and deal with Beijing from a position of strength. However, if the Biden administration seeks to paint the Trump team’s China legacy in unflattering light, it will undermine that leverage and embolden Beijing to demand the repudiation and rollback of Trump’s actions. In fact, Xi’s regime is hoping that Biden will return to the accommodationist approach of the Obama period, when China created artificial islands and militarised the South China Sea without inviting US sanctions or any other international costs.
In this light, how the Indo-Pacific and China policies develop under Biden will help shape regional security and the Quad’s future. If Biden weakens America’s Indo-Pacific and China policies, it will raise serious concerns across Asia. It will also lead to questions about the inherent unpredictability surrounding US strategy and the wisdom of investing in closer strategic bonds with Washington in the first place.
Biden has already signalled the likely replacement of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Absent in the 2020 Democratic Party Platform and Biden’s campaign statements was any reference even to the widely used term “Indo-Pacific,” as if the Democrats wished to return to the old name that China prefers: “Asia-Pacific”. After his election, Biden started referring to the “Indo-Pacific” in calls with foreign leaders but not to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Instead, Biden coined a new phrase—“secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” Also, in apparent deference to Beijing, the Biden office readout left out the assurance Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received from Biden during a congratulatory call that US security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands.
Just before demitting office as the US vice president, Mike Pence asked the incoming president to “stay the course” and “stand up to Chinese aggression and trade abuses.” Pence called the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy “essential to our prosperity, our security and the vitality of freedom in the world.”
However, Biden thus far has given no indication how his “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” policy will be different from the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. A “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific,” which by definition doesn’t exclude autocracies like China, would imply the abandonment of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy’s goal of a rules-based and democracy-led order.
Furthermore, it is uncertain whether the Trump administration-initiated ideological offensive against the CCP as a threat to the Indo-Pacific and the wider world will survive under Biden. If it doesn’t, the CCP’s vicelike grip on China will endure, with its external aggression accelerating.
WILL BIDEN CO-OPT INDIA?
Biden’s Indo-Pacific policy approach will have an important bearing on Indian security and the direction of US-India strategic collaboration. China’s aggressive expansionism has already driven a tectonic shift in India’s security calculus, leading to closer defence and intelligence-sharing collaboration with the US and the signing of military logistics agreements last year with Japan and Australia.
The Trump administration helped midwife this tectonic shift by placing India at the centre of its Indo-Pacific strategy and seeking to forge a “soft alliance” with New Delhi. After establishing an Indo-Pacific strategy and resurrecting the Quad, which had been lying dormant for nine years, the Trump administration—in a symbolic nod towards India—renamed the US military’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.
Will Biden be able to build on that momentum in bilateral relations and formalise a soft alliance with New Delhi? The Chinese territorial aggression in the Himalayas has created a significant opening for Washington to bring India along.
China’s aggression has compounded India’s security challenges by turning the once-lightly-patrolled Himalayan frontier into a “hot” border. Beijing has also hung the threat of further military surprises, even as it deepens its strategic nexus with Pakistan to contain India. India henceforth will have to patrol the Himalayan frontier in a manpower-intensive way and raise additional mountain-warfare forces to help counter the growing Chinese threat.
Bolstering deterrence holds the key, as Indian forces cannot guard every nook and cranny of what is one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders. India remains committed to strengthening strategic partnerships with key powers in the Indo-Pacific.
The Biden administration’s co-option of India will be pivotal to building a constellation of democracies in the Indo-Pacific. After all, the other Quad members—the US, Japan and Australia—are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves.
India’s co-option, in fact, will ensure that the Quad becomes a de facto strategic alliance and starts playing a central role in a new multilateral security arrangement for the Indo-Pacific. That development, in turn, will serve as further evidence that the Xi regime’s aggressive policies are starting to backfire.
The momentum towards deeper US-India strategic collaboration, however, could perceptively slow if Biden’s foreign policy downgrades India’s importance in the Indo-Pacific strategy and returns to the Obama-era accommodationist approach towards China. If that happens, it would convince Indian policymakers to step up military modernisation so that India not only effectively counters Chinese threats and aggression but also starts imposing significant deterrent costs on Beijing. In any event, security across the Indo-Pacific, including US strategic interests, would benefit if India reinvented itself as a more secure and competitive nation.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.
China’s recent encroachments on Indian territory in the Himalayas could pose a significant threat to Indo-Pacific stability. But regional powers – beginning with India and increasingly supported by the US and other Western powers – are pushing back, implying that Chinese President Xi Jinping will live to regret the decisions of 2020.
The year 2020 will be remembered not only for the COVID-19 shock and the end of Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, but also as a moment of reckoning for China. With its international reputation battered by the pandemic, and with pushback against its territorial overreach intensifying, China’s ability to pursue its geopolitical ambitions is diminishing rapidly. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its relations with India.
The shift began in May. As the brutal Himalayan winter receded, a shocked India found that Chinese forces had occupied hundreds of square kilometers of borderlands in its northernmost Ladakh region. The encroaching forces, backed by thousands of troops in the rear, had seized mountaintops and other strategic vantage points, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had established forward bases, blocking India’s access to areas along the disputed frontier that had been under its exclusive jurisdiction.
It was a cynical attempt to exploit not only the chaos and hardship caused by China’s most infamous global export, COVID-19, but also Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s longstanding appeasement policy. In the previous six years, Modi had met with Chinese President Xi Jinping 18 times, in the hope of fostering friendlier relations (and weakening the China-Pakistan axis).
This hope blinded Modi to China’s preparations for aggression, including combat exercises and the frenzied construction of military infrastructure along the frontier. In this sense, Modi repeated the mistake of India’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose dogged courtship of Mao Zedong enabled China to annex Tibet, thereby eliminating the territorial buffer between itself and India. Chinese encroachments culminated in the 1962 Himalayan border war, which began with a surprise PLA attack and ended with territorial losses for India.
That war shattered India’s illusions of China as a trustworthy partner, and triggered a shift away from pacifism. With China’s recent Himalayan aggression, India seems to be re-learning the same lesson. Already, India has matched Chinese troop deployments along the frontier and occupied strategic positions in the area.
The heightened tensions have triggered a series of clashes, the worst of which left 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of PLA troops dead in mid-June. By turning what was once a lightly patrolled frontier into a “hot” border and raising the specter of further military surprises – all while deepening its strategic ties with Pakistan – China has left India little choice but to strengthen its strategic posture significantly.
In fact, a major Indian military buildup is in the cards. This will include vastly increased frontier patrols and additional mountain-warfare forces. But, because Indian forces cannot guard every nook and cranny of one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, deterrence will also be essential.
That is why India has been testing a series of leading-edge missile systems, including a hypersonic cruise missile, a hybrid missile-torpedo (which can be deployed against submarines and aircraft carriers), and an anti-radiation missile (designed to seek and destroy enemy radar-equipped air defense systems). This portends substantial Indian investment in military modernization.
India’s military buildup will also include significant expansion of its naval capacity. This will enable India to adopt a much stronger maritime posture, which includes opening a front in the Indian Ocean, through which much of China’s trade (including most of its energy supplies) passes.
But India is not confronting China alone. In November, Australia, Japan, and the US joined India for the Malabar naval war games – the first-ever military exercise involving all four members of the so-called Quad, a loose strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific region’s four leading democracies.
Deepening cooperation among the Quad is central to America’s Indo-Pacific policy, which includes a focus on the maritime realm. Given bipartisan consensus in the US on the need to counter China’s expansionism, this policy is unlikely to change significantly under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.
A US-India strategic alliance has long been China’s security nightmare. Yet, by repaying Modi’s peace overtures with stealthy land grabs, Xi has made such an alliance more likely. It was in response to China’s aggression that in October, India finally concluded the last of four “foundational” agreements that the US reaches with its allies. The terms of the agreement had been under negotiation for more than a decade.
Beyond working with likeminded states, diplomatically and militarily, India is attempting to counter China by exposing its neocolonial activities, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. And it will likely seek to foil Xi’s plan to capture the 442-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama and cement China’s hold over Tibet. With the current Dalai Lama having made clear that his “reincarnation will appear in a free country,” India should tacitly help Tibetan exiles find his successor in its Tibetan-Buddhist Himalayan regions, which produced a Dalai Lama in the late seventeenth century.
Yet another likely dimension of India’s new China strategy will be to pursue a managed and selective economic decoupling. China’s trade balance with India represents its third-largest bilateral surplus (after the US and the European Union). Now that India recognizes the folly of relying on China for critical supplies, this is bound to change.
Since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, it has more than doubled its territory by annexing ethnic-minority homelands and seizing other countries’ lands. Against this background, its recent encroachments on India’s territory in the Himalayas could pose a significant threat to Indo-Pacific stability. Fortunately, regional powers – beginning with India – are pushing back. With this regional resistance increasingly supported by the US and other Western powers, Xi will most likely live to regret the decisions he made in 2020.
America’s Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA), which became law recently, highlights Tibet’s geostrategic importance, including as the source of Asia’s great rivers.Passedwith bipartisan support, TPSA establishes a US policy that the selection of Tibetan religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama’s successor, is a decision to be made only by Tibetans, free from Beijing’s interference. It mandates sanctions against Chinese officials interfering in such processes.
Will America’s new law serve as a wake-up call for India to start reclaiming its leverage on Tibet? India already received a wake-up call in April-May 2020 when China stealthily grabbed key vantage points in Ladakh and then claimed, as in the Galwan Valley case, that they were historically part of Tibet.
Tibet is clearly at the centre of the China-India divide. And TPSA holds special significance for India, which gave refuge to the Dalai Lama and his followers, helped preserve the Tibetan language and culture, and kept the spirit of Tibetan independence alive. The Indo-Tibetan border was largely peaceful throughout history until China occupied the buffer Tibet in 1951, imposing itself as India’s neighbour and then waging war 11 years later.
The Chinese name for Tibet — Xizang, or “Western Treasure Repository” — underscores the great value this vast plateau, with its bounteous mineral and water resources, holds for China. On Aug. 29, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping directed that Tibet be made an “impregnable fortress” and its borders secured. The Chinese Communist Party has honed its repressive practices in Tibet before applying them in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and now Hong Kong.
India must realize that, by aligning its Tibet position with Beijing’s wishes, it has emboldened China’s designs against it. This is apparent from China’s latest aggression, which has triggered an ongoing, months-long standoff between more than one lakh Indian and Chinese troops in icy Himalayan conditions.
Today, China is claiming Indian areas on the basis of not any Han-Chinese connection to them but alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links. Simply put, China’s territorial claims in Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal are based on its claim over Tibet, which India, paradoxically, has acknowledged.
In fact, to tie India’s hands on Tibet, China has been quoting the 2003 agreement under which India formally “recognized” the cartographically truncated Tibet that Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” This recognition allowed China to advance its “salami slicing” strategy against India, including labelling Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet” and gradually increasing its incursions into Indian areas.
But make no mistake: that agreement has been nullified by China’s open violation of its key provisions, including that, “Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other.” China’s use of force to unilaterally change facts on the ground contravenes the agreement’s condition to “maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas” and work toward “the clarification of the Line of Actual Control.”
China has no legal standing to press India for compliance when its actions have knowingly gutted the accord, rendering it invalid in international law. Indeed, New Delhi has repeatedly stated that China, through its territorial aggression in Ladakh, has violated every agreement and commitment on border peace that the two countries have signed.
China’s recently unveiled Brahmaputra mega-project is another reminder for India to add nuance — and leverage — to its Tibet stance. No nation is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of transboundary flows than India because it alone receives 48.33% of the total river waters that leave Chinese-controlled territory. A Chinese communist publication recently asked India to assess how China could “weaponize” its control over transboundary waters and potentially “choke” the Indian economy.
While the Tibetans pray for the long life of the present Dalai Lama, Xi is waiting impatiently for him to die so that he can install a puppet as his successor, in the way China has captured the Panchen Lama institution. To frustrate his plan, India should tacitly help Tibetan exiles find, appoint and protect his successor. The Dalai Lama has said his “reincarnation will appear in a free country,” which could mean in India’s Tibetan-Buddhist Himalayan regions.
India must get its act together to help advance its interests. It should start referring to the Himalayan frontier by its correct historical term — the “Indo-Tibetan border” — and emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet was predicated on Beijing’s assurance (which it has broken) to grant the plateau genuine autonomy. India could appoint a special emissary on Tibet by stating that, although Tibet has ceased to be a political buffer with China, it should become a political bridge between the two countries.
To counter China’s growing challenges to its unity and territorial integrity, India needs to think and act creatively. America’s TPSA is significant because Tibet remains China’s Achilles’ heel.
If India is unwilling to exploit that vulnerability, the least it can do is to stop endorsing China’s stance on Tibet. This is necessary to help stem China’s aggressive Himalayan territorial revisionism and challenge its plan to control the spigot for much of northern India’s water. By cautiously recalibrating its Tibet policy, India can help elevate Tibet as an international strategic and environmental issue.
The global shock brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, with its major economic and social disruptions, has ensured that 2020 will go down in history as a watershed year. Researchers believe that the impact of the pandemic has set in motion higher rates of birth, divorce, obesity, depression, bankruptcy, unemployment and domestic violence, among other things.
But one key implication of the pandemic has received little attention: increasing demand for safe water. Freshwater is not just the basis of cleanliness; it is an indispensable weapon in combating Covid-19 or any other disease.
More fundamentally, water is essential for economic growth and social stability. However, it has already become the world’s most exploited natural resource. Even before the pandemic flared, our water crisis was becoming more acute.
According to the British scientific journal Nature, about 53 per cent of the people across the globe go without safe sanitation services of any kind. The UN reports that about 40 per cent of global households lack access to basic handwashing facilities, while 28 per cent of the world’s population even lacks access to even safe drinking water.
Most striking is how unevenly and unequally water resources are distributed across the world. Some countries, notably Canada and Russia, are endowed with copious water resources. The poorest states in water resources, by contrast, are largely located in Middle East and North Africa. Natural water availability in these countries is just a fraction of 1 per cent of the per capita resources in, say, water-rich Brazil.
Water scarcity, already affecting two-thirds of the global population, is set is grow due to several factors. These include over-exploitation of the resources of rivers, aquifers and lakes; rising demands of economic development; changing diets, especially the increasing intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive; and global warming.
National paucity of water resources is driving some countries or companies to produce food for their home markets on overseas farmland, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.
Meanwhile, the critical importance of water, coupled with its growing shortages, has resulted in grating “hydropolitics” in transnational basins.
Riparian neighbours are increasingly competing to appropriate resources of shared rivers and aquifers by building hydro-engineering structures, which are exacerbating the environmental impact. Not surprisingly, distrust and discord have begun to roil relations between upstream and downstream states.
In fact, just like arms racing, “dam racing” has emerged as a geopolitical concern in several river basins. In Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, water has become the most contested resource.
A report reflecting the joint judgment of US intelligence agencies warned in 2012 that the use of water as a weapon or a tool of terrorism will become more likely in some regions, with some countries using shared water resources to exert leverage over their neighbours and to secure regional influence. Since then, the water situation has become more dire and the hydropolitics murkier.
Another trend is the increasing commodification of water, as reflected in the dramatic rise of the bottled-water industry. The bottled-water industry’s rise over the past two decades has had two global implications.
First, bottled water has become a major source of plastic waste. And second, bottled mineral water is already more precious than crude oil. The current international spot price of crude oil is lower than the retail price of any mineral water in a convenience store or supermarket.
Yet more and more people are relying on bottled water even in cities in the developed world where tap water is safe and highly regulated.
Water remains the world’s most underrated and under-appreciated resource. The pandemic, though, may have helped raise global awareness about the centrality of water in our lives. But the pandemic has also underlined the challenge: how to meet the increasing demand for water?
One pathway is to use new clean-water technologies to tap non-traditional supply sources, such as seawater, brackish water, recycled wastewater, and atmospheric water. Scientific advancements have substantially improved the energy-water ratio of such technologies, thus increasing the commercial feasibility and attraction of utilising new supply sources.
These sources of supply, however, still remain more expensive than conventional water.
It has also become imperative to achieve greater water-use efficiency and productivity, including controlling wasteful practices. Because agriculture uses about 70 per cent of the world’s water supply, the greatest potential for easing the water crisis is through practices that cut the amount of water used in food and livestock production.
The sharpening hydropolitics, meanwhile, represents a formidable challenge. It has turned shared water resources into an engine of power struggles, with some upstream countries such as China and Turkey criticised for seeking to weaponise this most essential of natural resources.
There is no alternative to rules-based co-operation on shared water resources. Transparency on national projects, collaboration between co-riparian states on trans-boundary aquifers, rivers and lakes, sharing arrangements, and dispute-settlement mechanisms are the building blocks of water peace.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
Even after Asia’s economies climb out of the COVID-19 recession, China’s strategy of frenetically building dams and reservoirs on transnational rivers will confront them with a more permanent barrier to long-term economic prosperity: water scarcity. China’s recently unveiled plan to construct a mega-dam on the Yarlung Zangbo river, better known as the Brahmaputra, may be the biggest threat yet.
China dominates Asia’s water map, owing to its annexation of ethnic-minority homelands, such as the water-rich Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang. China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, where it has targeted even tiny Bhutan, has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins – a strategy that hasn’t spared even friendly or pliant neighbors, such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Kazakhstan, and North Korea. Indeed, China has not hesitated to use its hydro-hegemony against its 18 downstream neighbors.
The consequences have been serious. For example, China’s 11 mega-dams on the Mekong river, Southeast Asia’s arterial waterway, have led to recurrent drought downriver, and turned the Mekong Basin into a security and environmental hot spot. Meanwhile, in largely arid Central Asia, China has diverted waters from the Illy and Irtysh rivers, which originate in China-annexed Xinjiang. Its diversion of water from the Illy threatens to turn Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash into another Aral Sea, which has all but dried up in less than four decades.
Against this background, China’s plan to dam the Brahmaputra near its disputed – and heavily militarized – border with India should be no surprise. The Chinese communist publication Huanqiu Shibao, citing an article that appeared in Australia, recently urged India’s government to assess how China could “weaponize” its control over transboundary waters and potentially “choke” the Indian economy. With the Brahmaputra megaproject, China has provided an answer.
The planned 60-gigawatts project, which will be integrated into China’s next Five-Year Plan starting in January, will reportedly dwarf China’s Three Gorges Dam – currently the world’s largest – on the Yangtze River, generating almost three times as much electricity. China will achieve this by harnessing the power of a 2,800-meter (3,062-yard) drop just before the river crosses into India.
What the chairman of China’s state-run Power Construction Corp, Yan Zhiyong, calls an “historic opportunity” for his country will be devastating for India. Just before crossing into India, the Brahmaputra curves sharply around the Himalayas, forming the world’s longest and steepest canyon – twice as deep as America’s Grand Canyon – and holding Asia’s largest untapped water resources.
Experience suggests that the proposed megaproject threatens those resources – and China’s downstream neighbors. China’s past upstream activities have triggered flash floods in the Indian states of Arunachal and Himachal. More recently, such activity turned the water in the once-pristine Siang – the Brahmaputra’s main artery – dirty and gray as it entered India.
About a dozen small or medium-size Chinese dams are already operational in the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches. But the megaproject in the Brahmaputra Canyon region will enable the country to manipulate transboundary flows far more effectively. Such manipulation could leverage China’s claim to the adjacent Indian state of Arunachal, which is almost three times the size of Taiwan. Given that China and India are already locked in a tense, months-long military standoff, which began with Chinese territorial encroachments, the risks are acute.
And yet the country that will suffer the most as a result of China’s Brahmaputra dam project is not India at all; it is densely populated and China-friendly Bangladesh, for which the Brahmaputra is the single largest freshwater source. Intensifying pressure on its water supply will likely trigger an exodus of refugees to India, already home to millions of illegally settled Bangladeshis.
The Brahmaputra megaproject also amounts to a slap in the face of Tibet, which is among the world’s most biodiverse regions and has a deeply rooted culture of reverence for nature. In fact, the canyon region is sacred territory for Tibetans: its major mountains, cliffs, and caves represent the body of their guardian deity, the goddess Dorje Pagmo, and the Brahmaputra represents her spine.
If none of this deters China, the damage it is doing to its own people and prospects should. China’s over-damming of internal rivers has severely harmed ecosystems, including by causing river fragmentation and disrupting the annual flooding cycle, which helps to refertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt. In August, some 400 million Chinese were put at risk after record flooding endangered the Three Gorges Dam. If the Brahmaputra mega-dam collapses – hardly implausible, given that it will be built in a seismically active area – millions downstream could die.
The Great Himalayan Watershed is home to thousands of glaciers and the source of Asia’s greatest river systems, which are the lifeblood of nearly half the global population. If glacial attrition is allowed to continue – let alone to be accelerated by China’s environmentally catastrophic activities – China will not be spared.
For its own sake – and the sake of Asia as a whole – China must accept institutionalized cooperation on transnational riparian flows, including measures to protect ecologically fragile zones and agreement not to dam relatively free-flowing rivers (which play a critical role in moderating the effects of climate change). This would require China to rein in its dam frenzy, be transparent about its projects, accept multilateral dispute-settlement mechanisms, and negotiate water-sharing treaties with neighbors.
Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe this will happen. On the contrary, as long as the Communist Party of China remains in power, the country will most likely continue to wage stealthy water wars that no one can win.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has been wrong on China almost his entire career. Will he finally get it right after being sworn in as president? Biden’s policy will help shape security across the Indo-Pacific region, including China’s behavior.
It is no exaggeration to say that international policy toward China has for decades been shaped largely by one power — the United States. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, a succession of U.S. presidents aided China’s rise, including its integration in international institutions — from the United Nations Security Council to the World Trade Organization. And other countries followed the American lead in outsourcing manufacturing to China and building closer bonds with that communist giant.
It is Donald Trump’s presidency that began a fundamental shift in U.S. policy.
In a major speech on China in July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “Nixon once said he feared he had created a ‘Frankenstein’ by opening the world to the Chinese Communist Party” (CCP). Trump himself has acknowledged that the U.S. “created a monster.”
Aiding China’s rise was the greatest mistake of U.S. foreign policy in the post-World War II period. The U.S. actively contributed to the rise of its most formidable competitor in what will be remembered as a historically unprecedented act.
The U.S., however, is separated from China by a vast ocean — the Pacific — and does not have the same immediate and potent security concerns over growing Chinese assertiveness that Japan and many other Asian states have. The security costs of America’s China blunder are being borne essentially by Asians.
The year 2020 will be remembered for the China-inspired COVID-19 shock, with the dictatorship in Beijing seeking to capitalize on the pandemic. Consequently, negative views of China have reached historic highs in many countries, according to a recent survey.
Biden is assuming office at a time when an international pushback against China is clearly emerging. A number of important economies are now seeking a managed and selective decoupling from China in key areas. But if Biden proves a weak president, the pushback will ease — and the decoupling will slow.
Could Biden return to the softer approach toward China of the Obama period? Just months before he left office, Obama contended that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.”
Under Obama’s watch, Chinese President Xi Jinping embarked on aggressive expansionism, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without firing a single shot or incurring any international costs. The same model Xi is now seeking to replicate in the East China Sea and the Himalayas, where China remains locked in a military standoff with India since May after encroaching on some Indian border areas.
Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken,said in July that a Biden administration would seek to make the U.S. more competitive and values-centered and “reengage China and work with China” from a position of strength. Finding ways to cooperate with Beijing would mark a break with the Trump administration’s approach, which sees the U.S. in deeply ideological, even existential, conflict with the dictatorship there.
Biden’s pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in aco-authored essay in the Foreign Affairs journal,argued for “managed coexistence” with China, saying China is a “formidable competitor” but also “an essential U.S. partner.” So, containment is not tenable, it contended.
The essay’s advocacy of “managed coexistence” with China is no different than “cooperative competition” that some prominent Chinese are promoting. Both concepts imply a G2-style condominium.
But make no mistake: A U.S. policy of “managed coexistence” with China will further strengthen the CCP internally and externally. China is already the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the CCP’s primacy.
In 2000, Biden, as the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, supported establishing Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Beijing on grounds that it would yield “economic benefits to the U.S.,” “political reform in China” and a positive “impact on our national security.” More than a decade later, in a 2011 op-ed, Biden declared, “I remain convinced that a successful China can make our country more prosperous, not less.”
Just last year, Biden stunned many with his continuing strategic naïveté by declaring, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
After Biden’s election win over Trump, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received an assurance from the president-elect during a congratulatory call that U.S. security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands. But, in apparent deference to China, the Biden office readout left out that assurance.
In another worrying sign, Steve Ricchetti, who led the effort 21 years ago to get China into the WTO (an entry that has come back to haunt the U.S.), was named as the White House senior adviser to Biden — or, as one American newspaper put it, “tapped for the West Wing’s wise-man role.”
In an interview this month, Biden surprisingly claimed that the U.S. doesn’t have leverage against China as yet. While promising not to immediately lift Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, Biden said he plans to get allies on the same page and have a robust U.S. industrial policy in place before finalizing a China strategy.
Such delay in crafting a strategy could help relieve pressure on Beijing. Biden can hardly lead a “unified front of allies,” to quote his words, without U.S. policy having strategic clarity.
In fact, even before taking office, Biden has signaled his intent to discard the Trump administration’s strategy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept originally authored by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Even the term “Indo-Pacific” was conspicuously absent in Biden’s campaign statements, while the 2020 Democratic Party Platform reverted to the use of the old term “Asia-Pacific.”
China strongly prefers the “Asia-Pacific” term. In recent days, Chinese state media have been urging the Biden team to replace “Indo-Pacific” with “Asia-Pacific.”
After his election, Biden started referring to “Indo-Pacific” in calls with foreign leaders but not to “free and open.” Instead, Biden has coined a new phrase — “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” Biden, however, has given no indication how his “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” policy will be different. The likely demise of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy will spur concern in the region about the inherent unpredictability surrounding U.S. policy.
Biden’s statement this week nominating Lloyd J. Austin as his secretary of defense made no reference to America’s biggest challenge, China. And instead of “Indo-Pacific,” it referred to “Asia-Pacific.” Austin’s own statement in response mentioned “Asia-Pacific,” not “Indo-Pacific” — a term that even European nations have embraced. Austin’s counterinsurgency experience in the Middle East scarcely equips him to deal with China’s expansionism.
Xi may see Biden’s election victory as a silver lining, but it will be a major surprise if “managed coexistence” (aka “cooperative competition”) comes to define Biden’s China policy.
Such an approach will militate against the current U.S. bipartisan consensus on China. Managed coexistence, in fact, could be a recipe for America’s unstoppable decline.
There is an additional factor that could constrain Biden from going soft on China — a lingering scandal involving his controversial son, Hunter. As vice president, Biden took Hunter aboard Air Force Two to Beijing in 2013. Within days, Hunter’s firm become a partner in a new Bank of China-backed investment company that raised more than $1.5 billion. Hunter personally made millions of dollars from the deal. Republicans could resurrect that scandal to embarrass Biden.
China has long used U.S. corporate greed to get American businesses do its bidding. Wall Street remains its powerful ally.
China also has another ally in Washington — those who remain mired in Cold War thinking and see Russia as the main foe. Biden’s national security team isn’t free of that mindset, which is why the outgoing Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe has urged Biden to acknowledge that China is the “greatest national security threat that we face.”
Without U.S. leadership, vision and resolve, a credible counter to Chinese expansionism and the CCP’s malign global agenda will never be convincing. This is why Biden must at the earliest provide strategic clarity to his China approach.
Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, Water, Peace, and War.
It is no exaggeration to say that international policy toward China has for decades been shaped largely by one power — the United States. From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, a succession of U.S. presidents aided China’s rise, including its integration into international institutions — from the UN Security Council to the World Trade Organization. And other countries followed the American lead in outsourcing manufacturing to China and building closer bonds with that communist giant. It is Donald Trump’s presidency that began a fundamental shift in U.S. policy.
The U.S. and India are now close security partners. But it is no exaggeration to say that India’s security over the years has been gravely undermined by U.S. policies, which created a Frankenstein on India’s northern frontiers (China) and an epicentre of international terrorism on its western borders (Pakistan).
In a major speech on China in July, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared: “President Nixon once said he feared he had created a ‘Frankenstein’ by opening the world to the Chinese Communist Party, and here we are. Now, people of good faith can debate why free nations allowed these bad things to happen for all these years. Perhaps we were naive about China’s virulent strain of communism, or triumphalist after our victory in the Cold War, or cravenly capitalist, or hoodwinked by Beijing’s talk of a ‘peaceful rise.’ Whatever the reason — whatever the reason, today China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else. And President Trump has said: enough.”
Trump himself has acknowledged that the U.S. created a “monster” by aiding China’s rise: “They [China] took advantage of us for many, many years. And I blame us, I don’t blame them. I don’t blame President Xi. I blame all of our presidents, and not just President Obama. You go back a long way. You look at President Clinton, Bush — everybody; they allowed this to happen, they created a monster.”
Aiding China’s rise was the greatest mistake of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II. The U.S. actively contributed to the rise of its most formidable peer competitor in what will be remembered as a historically unprecedented act.
The U.S., however, is separated from China by a vast ocean — the Pacific — and does not have the same immediate and potent security concerns over growing Chinese assertiveness that many Asian states have. The security costs of America’s China blunder are indeed being borne essentially by Asians, from those in Taiwan and Hong Kong to the ethnic Tibetans and Uighurs. And as the Chinese encroachments on Ladakh’s key border areas this year have highlighted, India is bearing the brunt of China’s terrestrial aggression.
Here’s the paradox: As Sino-Indian relations plumb new depths following the Chinese stealth encroachments in Ladakh, India — unable to effectively counter the China threat on its own — is strengthening defence and strategic collaboration with the U.S., the monster creator. Chinese territorial aggression in the Himalayas has been a huge boon for American efforts to win over India, as highlighted by a recent agreement to share geospatial data from airborne and satellite sensors.
The U.S. today is close to accomplishing what it has long struggled to achieve — co-opt India in a “soft alliance.” In October, India signed the last of four “foundational” agreements that the U.S. maintains with all its close defence partners. Then-U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper declared that India will be “the most consequential partner for us, I think, in the Indo-Pacific for sure in this century.”
The U.S.-India strategic ties bear little resemblance to America’s Cold War-era system, which rested on a patron-client framework, with the U.S. as the “hub” and its allies as the “spokes.” No such arrangement would work nowadays, for the simple reason that a country as large as India cannot become just another Japan to the U.S.
The U.S., Japan and Australia are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves, making India’s co-option pivotal to building a constellation of democracies in the Indo-Pacific region. After establishing an Indo-Pacific strategy and resurrecting the Quad, which had been lying dormant for nine years, the Trump administration — in a symbolic nod toward India — renamed the U.S. military’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command.
The “soft alliance” the U.S. is seeking to build with India will be devoid of any treaty obligations. And, given India’s longstanding preference for strategic autonomy, the U.S. has sought to reassure New Delhi that it is not seeking to change its foreign-policy traditions.
In the recent words of U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, “Rather we want to explore how to empower them and India’s ability to defend its own sovereignty and democracy and to advance Indian interests across the Indo-Pacific region. As the U.S. assesses our own interests and how they intersect with India’s, we have seen the conditions emerge for an organic and deeper partnership — not an alliance on the post-war model, but a fundamental alignment along shared security and geopolitical goals, shared interests and shared values.”
Biden’s tarnished record on China
The year 2020 will be remembered not just for the China-inspired COVID-19 shock and a moment of reckoning for the world’s largest dictatorship in Beijing, but also for the election defeat of Donald Trump, setting in motion the end of his U.S. presidency. Will Trump’s exit help relieve pressure on China?
Will the administration of Joe Biden return to the softer approach toward China of the Obama period? Under Obama’s watch, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime built artificial islands and militarized the South China Sea — without firing a single shot or incurring any international costs. The same model China has sought to replicate in the Himalayas, by incrementally encroaching on the territories of India, Nepal and Bhutan.
Yet, just months before he left office, Obama contended that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” Few of China’s neighbours shared that assessment. The Obama administration did little more than watch China’s aggressive expansionism — from redrawing the geopolitical map in the South China Sea to rolling out the neo-colonial Belt and Road Initiative with the aim to refashion the global economic and political order by luring nations desperate for infrastructure investments into its strategic orbit.
What will be the future of the Quad and the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy after Trump’s departure? This is another question with a bearing on India’s security and interests. The Trump administration gave India pride of place in its “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. That strategy has relied on the Quad.
The Trump administration, moreover, lent full support to India in countering China’s Himalayan border aggression and cut off security aid to Pakistan for not severing its ties with terrorist groups. It implicitly supported India’s 2019 Balakot airstrike deep inside Pakistan and refrained from criticizing India on its domestic actions, from the reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir to a refugees-related citizenship law amendment.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal rapport with Trump served India well. Trump’s standalone trip to India less than 10 months ago underscored how the expanding U.S.-India strategic partnership has become an important diplomatic asset for both countries. Trump summed up his trip as “unforgettable, extraordinary and productive.” The visit will be remembered for Trump’s famous words at a mega-rally in Modi’s home city of Ahmedabad: “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people.”
Under Biden, the fundamental direction of the U.S.-India relationship toward closer cooperation is unlikely to change. But Biden could reset ties with China in order to lower Sino-U.S. tensions and rebuild cooperation in areas where bilateral interests converge.
The open support the U.S. has extended to India in countering China’s border aggression may not survive under a Biden administration, especially if it seeks to reset ties with Beijing. With a pusillanimous Modi government unwilling to call China out on its aggression, let alone wage a diplomatic offensive to spotlight the Chinese encroachments, Trump’s national-security team members spoke out on what Xi’s regime had done to India.
For example, after the Galwan Valley clashes of mid-June, U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said, “Chinese troops ambushed the Indians. They beat 20 Indians to death. They beat them so badly with clubs with nails in them and wrapped with concertina wire — barbed wire. They beat the Indians so badly that they were disfigured and could not be identified by their comrades. The Chinese have been very aggressive with India.”
Pompeo, for his part, has repeatedly highlighted China’s aggression against India. On July 8, Pompeo said, “The Chinese took incredibly aggressive action. The Indians have done their best to respond to that … I don’t think it’s possible to look at that particular instance of Chinese Communist Party aggression in isolation. I think you need to put it in the larger context.” Then on July 22 he said, “The recent clashes initiated by the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] are just the latest examples of the CCP’s unacceptable behaviour.”
On July 30, Pompeo cautioned, “They talk about bringing socialism with Chinese characteristics to the world. Claims that they have now made for real estate in Bhutan, the incursions that took place in India, these are indicative of Chinese intentions. And they are testing, they are probing the world to see if we are going to stand up to their threats and their bullying.” And, in a similar vein, he said on Sept. 2: “From the Taiwan Strait to the Himalayas and beyond, the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in a clear and intensifying pattern of bullying its neighbours.”
Such plain speaking may become a thing of the past. Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, said at a Hudson Institute event in July that a Biden administration would seek to make the U.S. more competitive and values-centred and “reengage China and work with China” from a position of strength. Finding ways to cooperate with Beijing would mark a break with the Trump administration’s approach, which sees the U.S. in deeply ideological, even existential, conflict with the CCP.
Biden’s pick for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in a 2017 lecture, warned against “containment” as a policy, stating: “We need to strike a middle course — one that encourages China’s rise in a manner consistent with an open, fair, rules-based, regional order.” An autumn 2019 essay in the Foreign Affairs journalco-authored by Sullivan argued for “managed coexistence” with China, saying China is a “formidable competitor” but also “an essential U.S. partner.” So, containment is not tenable, it posited.
The essay pushed for “managed coexistence” in these words; “Advocates of neo-containment tend to see any call for managed coexistence as an argument for a version of the grand bargain; advocates of a grand bargain tend to see any suggestion of sustained competition as a case for a version of containment. That divide obscures a course between these extremes — one that is not premised on Chinese capitulation or on U.S.-Chinese condominium.” According to the essay, “The need for cooperation between Washington and Beijing is far more acute, given the nature of contemporary challenges.” The key, it argued, is for Washington to get “the balance between cooperation and competition right.”
The essay’s advocacy of “managed coexistence” with China must have been music to Chinese ears. In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Fu Ying, a vice chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of China’s National People’s Congress and an ex-vice foreign minister, called for “cooperative competition” between the U.S. and China. Ms. Fu wrote: “Both governments have heavy domestic agendas to attend to, and so even if competition between China and the United States is unavoidable, it needs to be managed well, cooperatively. It is possible for the two countries to develop a relationship of ‘coopetition’ (cooperation + competition) by addressing each other’s concerns.”
The concept of “cooperative competition” sounds a lot like the “managed coexistence” idea. Both concepts imply a G2-style condominium defined by competitive-cum-cooperative elements. But make no mistake: America’s “managed coexistence” with China will further strengthen the CCP internally and externally. China is already the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party.
What is remarkable — and a cause for deep concern — is that Biden has been wrong on China virtually his entire career.
For example, as the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Biden in 2000 supported establishing Permanent Normal Trade Relations (PNTR) with Beijing on grounds that it would yield “economic benefits to the U.S.,” “political reform in China” and a positive “impact on our national security.” More than a decade later, in an op-ed in The New York Times in 2011, Biden gullibly declared, “I remain convinced that a successful China can make our country more prosperous, not less.”
Just last year, Biden stunned many with his apparent strategic naïveté by declaring at a campaign rally, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
After Biden’s election win over Trump, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received an assurance from the president-elect during a congratulatory call that U.S. security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the disputed Senkaku Islands. But, in apparent deference to China, the Biden office readout left out that assurance. In another worrying sign, Steve Ricchetti, who led the effort 21 years ago to get China into the WTO (an entry that has come back to haunt the U.S.), was named as the White House senior adviser to Biden — or, as one American newspaper put it, “tapped for the West Wing’s wise-man role.”
Likely demise of “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy
Biden’s biggest foreign-policy challenge relates to the world’s economic and geopolitical hub — the Indo-Pacific region, which unites the Indian and Pacific oceans. An expansionist China is injecting greater instability and tensions in the Indo-Pacific through its territorial and maritime revisionism and heavy-handed use of economic and military power.
When Trump took office, he replaced Obama’s floundering “pivot” to Asia with the broader “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, besides designating China as a strategic competitor and threat. Will America’s Indo-Pacific policy flip again during Biden’s presidency?
Last month’s “Malabar” Australia-India-Japan-U.S. naval war games in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea showed that the Quad is beginning to take concrete shape in response to China’s muscular policies. But just when a concert of democracies in the Indo-Pacific seems closer than ever, the impending change of U.S. government has added a new layer of uncertainty, including on the future of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.
Biden, even before taking office, has signalled his intent to discard the Trump administration’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. The “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept was originally authored by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Rarely has the U.S. adopted a foreign-designed concept as the linchpin of its foreign policy.
The “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy’s days seem numbered. Even the term “Indo-Pacific,” whose use expanded America’s regional framework to include India as a major power, was conspicuously absent in Biden’s campaign statements and the 2020 Democratic Party Platform.
In fact, the 2020 Democratic Party Platform reverted to the use of the old term “Asia-Pacific” in place of “Indo-Pacific.” It carried a section titled “Asia-Pacific.” China strongly prefers the “Asia-Pacific” term. After the U.S. presidential election, the Chinese state media has been urging the Biden team to replace “Indo-Pacific” with “Asia-Pacific.”
After his election, Biden has started referring to “Indo-Pacific” in calls with foreign leaders but not to “free and open.” Instead, Biden has coined a new phrase — “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific.” He used the new expression in calls with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan. Biden, however, has given no indication how his “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” policy will be different from the current “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy.
Today, a rules-based and democracy-led order in the Indo-Pacific has become more important than ever to ensure a stable power balance. If the region’s major democracies, from Canada and South Korea to Indonesia and India, leverage their growing strategic bonds to generate progress toward a broader concert of democracies, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be realized.
Instead, the likely demise of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy is set to spur concerns in Asia. It will also lead to questions about the inherent unpredictability surrounding U.S. strategy and the wisdom of investing in closer strategic bonds with Washington.
Nowhere will these questions generate greater concerns than in India, which hosted the recent Malabar war games. India elevated the war games this year from a trilateral to quadrilateral event by finally acceding to Australia’s pending request to re-join an exercise from which it dropped out 12 years ago in a bid to appease Beijing. The Chinese communist mouthpiece Global Timessaid earlier that Australia’s inclusion would “signal that the Quad military alliance is officially formed.”
The loss of the expression “free and open Indo-Pacific” will likely be seen in India as a diminution of its future role in American strategy. More broadly, it could be viewed as a possible dilution of the U.S. commitment to establish an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies, with India serving as the western anchor and Japan and Australia the eastern and southern anchors of a regional balance of power.
Biden has promised to host a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office to help “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” But such a values-based, globalized approach contrasts with the current U.S. strategy of regionally leveraging cooperation with democracies for geopolitical ends.
Unless a clearer strategic vision emerges under Biden, the likely unravelling of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy could smother any hoped-for regional concert of democracies.
At a time when the strengthening China-Pakistan strategic nexus is imposing greater security costs on India, any shifts in America’s China and Pakistan policies — even if subtle — will only embolden the two hand-in-glove neighbours to further up the ante against New Delhi. U.S.-India relations thrived during the Trump presidency, despite Trump’s mini-trade war against New Delhi. But India now faces new uncertainties with regard to U.S. regional policies, including whether Biden’s administration will seek greater cooperation with Beijing and Islamabad.
Few know what Biden stands for. Biden, who turned 78 last month, will be the oldest ever American president sworn in for the first time. An October op-ed in The Wall Street Journal said, “Though it is impolitic to say so, Biden has exhibited clear signs of mental decline.”
Biden won the election despite having no political base or vision — and no ideas, other than to oust Trump from office. In fact, his divided Democratic Party is trying to figure out what it stands for after realizing the common goal of ending Trump’s presidency.
Some in Indian policy circles still remember how Senator Biden spearheaded a congressional move in 1992 that helped block Russian sale of cryogenic-engine technology for India’s civilian space program, setting it back many years. Today, the U.S. and India are not only space partners, but also the U.S. Strategic Command head defended India’s 2019 demonstration of a capability to destroy an orbiting satellite.
If as president, Biden seeks to mend U.S. ties with the Chinese dictatorship, relieves terrorism-related pressure on Pakistan by restoring security aid, and criticizes India on Kashmir and minority rights, New Delhi will have second thoughts on getting too close to the US. India, however, is likely to remain important for the U.S. because of its massive market and strategic location. It is the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific that can countervail China’s military and economic moves.
Biden hasn’t revealed his thinking to any significant degree on foreign policy. Most members of the national security team he has selected are considered “liberal interventionists” — or hawks on the American left. It was liberal interventionists who, under Obama, engineered the disastrous interventions in Syria and Libya and who, during the Bill Clinton presidency, spearheaded the NATO air war against Yugoslavia.
Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state pick, favoured invasion of Iraq in 2003 and military intervention in Libya in 2011. Indeed, Blinken publicly celebrated America’s occupation of Iraq as a “success,” claiming it had brought down violence and won grassroots support. Sullivan, another hawk in Biden’s team, supported U.S. supply of anti-tank missiles for Ukraine, which President Obama opposed and Trump finally delivered.
Espousing military action as humanitarianism has been the common leitmotif uniting liberal interventionists with neoconservatives, who were behind America’s Iraq invasion and occupation. Today, both these powerful groups in Washington remain fixated on Russia, although Russia’s economy today is less than one-tenth the size of China’s and its military spending one-fifth of China.
U.S. policy has already driven two natural competitors, China and Russia, into a growing strategic alignment. This geopolitical reality, if left unaddressed, could crimp U.S. strategy against China.
Let’s be clear: The year 2020 has been particularly bad for Beijing. China’s initial coverup of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan that gifted the world a horrendous pandemic, followed by its unchecked expansionism and pursuit of “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” were signal moments that spurred a tectonic shift in views across the political spectrum in the U.S. and helped change global opinion on China. Negative views of China have now reached historic highs in many countries, according to a survey by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
Perhaps the only bit of good news for Beijing in 2020 has been Trump’s ouster. Xi’s regime is hoping that Biden’s administration will ease the mounting U.S. pressure that has set in motion an international pushback against Beijing. A number of important economies are now seeking a managed and selective decoupling from China in key areas. If Biden proves a weak president, the pushback will certainly ease — and the decoupling could slow.
Although Xi may see Biden’s election victory as a silver lining, it will be a major surprise if “managed coexistence” (aka “cooperative competition”) comes to define Biden’s China policy.
Such an approach will militate against the current bipartisan consensus on China in the U.S., reflected in the 2020 Democratic Party Platform’s pledge that the “Democrats will be clear, strong, and consistent in pushing back where we have profound economic, security and human rights concerns about the actions of China’s government.” Managed coexistence, in fact, could be a recipe for America’s inexorable decline.
There is an additional factor that could constrain Biden from going soft on China — a lingering scandal involving his controversial son, Hunter. As vice president, Biden took Hunter aboard Air Force Two to Beijing in 2013. Within days, Hunter’s firm become a partner in a new Bank of China-backed investment company that raised more than $1.5 billion. Hunter personally made millions of dollars from the deal. Republicans could resurrect that scandal to embarrass Biden.
In fact, after Biden’s election win, the U.S. state department released a 72-page blueprint on how to checkmate China’s imperial ambitions to dominate the world. The blueprint, which includes a section on China’s internal vulnerabilities, is in the style of a landmark 1947 essay by George F. Kennan (the founding director of its Policy Planning Staff) that helped institute the containment policy against the Soviet Union — a policy that defined the Cold War era. Kennan published the essay anonymously in the journal Foreign Affairs, the so-called “X-Article.”
The new blueprint on how to deal with the China challenge is likely to serve as broad guidance for Biden’s administration. It specifies a multipronged approach to address the China challenge.
For New Delhi, the key concern extends beyond the bilateral relationship with Washington — a relationship that is likely to remain close. There is gnawing uncertainty about the larger strategic approach of the Biden presidency and how it will align with India’s own strategic interests.
Without U.S. leadership and resolve, a credible counter to Chinese expansionism will never be convincing. Biden’s China and Indo-Pacific policies will help influence Beijing’s behaviour in Asia and the strategic trajectory of the U.S.-India relationship.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, Water, Peace, and War.
In a world wracked by violence, Islamist beheadings stand out for their savagery. While the absolute number of victims is relatively small, the threat this practice poses should not be underestimated, and the lessons it suggests about prosecuting the “war on terror” must not be ignored.
Last month, an 18-year-old Chechen immigrant stalked, stabbed, and decapitated a history teacher, Samuel Paty, in a Paris suburb near the middle school where Paty worked. Soon after, a Quran-carrying Tunisian man beheaded a woman and fatally stabbed two other people in a church in Nice. In the same month, two British-born Islamic State (ISIS) militants were brought to the United States to face trial for their participation in a brutal abduction scheme in Syria that ended with American and other hostages beheaded on camera.
In a world wracked by violence, such killings stand out for their savagery. While the absolute number of victims is relatively small, the threat this practice poses to fundamental principles of modern civilization should not be underestimated.
The ancient Greeks and Romans instituted beheading as a mode of capital punishment. Today, radical Islamists commonly employ it in extrajudicial executions, which have been reported in a wide range of countries, including Egypt, India, the Philippines, and Nigeria. In Mozambique, up to 50 people, including women and children, have reportedly been murdered – and, in many cases, decapitated – by ISIS-linked fighters this month alone.
Such savagery casts a long shadow – especially because perpetrators so often share images of their actions. Ever since the 2002 decapitation of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, terrorist organizations have taken to posting videos of beheadings online. After murdering Paty, the perpetrator tweeted a photo of the severed head.
For Islamists, beheadings are a potent weapon of asymmetric warfare. The gruesome spectacle inspires jihadi sympathizers around the world, while fomenting fear in local communities, to the point that the Islamists are often able to impose their will – including medieval codes of conduct – on the societies in which they operate.
Jihadis represent a tiny minority of the world’s Muslims. But, by making clear their willingness to behave inhumanely, they have ensured that few dare defy them. Just this month, a Bangladeshi cricket star was forced, under threat of Islamist retaliation, to apologize publicly for briefly attending a Hindu ceremony in India. Through such tactics, Islamists are gradually snuffing out more liberal, diverse Islamic traditions in non-Arab countries.
Although beheadings have a particularly visceral impact, they are far from the only way the jihadists incite fear. Earlier this month, ISIS-linked gunmen stormed Afghanistan’s Kabul University, killing at least 35 – mainly students – and wounding dozens more. In Vienna, another Islamist, who had previously been jailed for trying to join ISIS, killed four people and wounded 22 in a shooting rampage.
The persistent scourge of Islamist violence is a clear signal that the global “war on terror,” launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, has faltered. Even within Western countries, meaningful government action against Islamist extremism has often been stymied by concerns about discrimination. But, far from protecting Muslims, those crying “Islamophobia” often are making Muslim communities less secure, by allowing extremism to grow unchecked.
The truth is that there is only one country in the world today that is truly cracking down on Islam, rather than on radical Islamism: China. In the last few years, China has incarcerated more than one million Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region. Under the pretense of fighting terrorism, the authorities are carrying out a methodical, large-scale erasure of Islamic identities.
And yet the international community – including Muslim countries – have remained largely silent about China’s actions. Last year, Malaysia’s then-prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, explained why: “China is a very powerful nation.”
By contrast, after the Nice attack, Mahathir tweeted that “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” The incendiary tweet has since been removed for “glorifying violence,” though Mahathir’s account wasn’t suspended – a missed opportunity to push back against incitement.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, has called for a boycott of French goods, because French President Emmanuel Macron pledged after Paty’s murder to defend secularism against radical Islam. It is clearly far easier to attack a democracy than to stand up to a ruthless dictatorship.
But none of this will protect Muslim communities, let alone end Islamist terrorism. For that, governments must adopt a new approach, based on a better understanding of the enemy they are fighting.
Islamist extremism is not an organization or an army; it is an ideological movement. As recent attacks show, the existence of a clear doctrine of violence obviates the need to coordinate action. That is why eliminating high-level figures in ISIS or al-Qaeda does so little to stop the bloodshed, and why military action alone will always fall short.
Instead, counterterrorism efforts should target the fount of jihadist terrorism: the militaristic Wahhabi theology, which justifies and commands the use of violence against “infidels.” This means, first and foremost, discrediting that “evil ideology,” as former British Prime Minister Theresa May put it, by attacking its core tenets, starting with the claim (unsupported by the Quran) that 72 virgins await every martyr in heaven.
It also means taming the clerics and other preachers of violent jihad. As the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew explained, we must target the “queen bees” (the preachers of violence) who inspire the “worker bees” (suicide attackers), not the worker bees themselves. Otherwise, the war on terror will continue to rage, and violent Islamism will become more deeply entrenched in societies.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
The current naval war games involving Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. in the Indian Ocean show that the Quad — a loose coalition of the Indo-Pacific region’s four leading democracies — is beginning to take concrete shape in response to China’s muscular foreign policy. A concert of democracies in the Indo-Pacific seems closer than ever.
But just when the four powers appear on the cusp of formalizing their coalition, the impending change in the White House has added a layer of uncertainty. The big unknown is whether America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and how it will treat China will undergo a structural shift under President Joe Biden, as they did under President Donald Trump.
Trump fundamentally changed U.S. policy on China by acting on his campaign pledge to treat Beijing as a strategic rival and threat. He also replaced Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, which never acquired concrete strategic content, with the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, a concept authored by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Rarely has the U.S. adopted a foreign-designed concept as the linchpin of its foreign policy.
Given Beijing’s heavy-handed use of its military and economic power, if President Biden flips America’s Indo-Pacific and China policies once again, that will raise concerns across Asia. It will also lead to questions about the inherent unpredictability surrounding U.S. strategy and the wisdom of investing in closer strategic bonds with Washington in the first place.
Nowhere will these questions generate greater concerns than in India, the host of the current Quad naval war games up to Nov. 20. Formally known as the Malabar exercise after an area on India’s southwestern coast, this annual series of complex war games is aimed at building military interoperability on the high seas, and now involves aircraft carriers.
India elevated Malabar this year from a trilateral to a quadrilateral event by finally acceding to Australia’s pending request to rejoin after it dropped out 12 years ago in a bid to appease Beijing. The Chinese communist mouthpiece the Global Times said earlier that Australia’s inclusion would “signal that the Quad military alliance is officially formed.”Ships from the Indian navy, Royal Australian Navy, and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force sail in formation during an exercise as part of Malabar 2020 on Nov. 3. (Handout photo from U.S. Navy)
China’s aggressive expansionism has driven a tectonic shift in India’s security calculus, leading to closer defense and intelligence-sharing collaboration with the U.S. and the signing of military logistics agreements this year with Japan and Australia. The Trump administration helped midwife this tectonic shift by placing India at the center of its Indo-Pacific strategy and seeking to forge a “soft alliance” with New Delhi.
The U.S., Japan and Australia are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves, making India’s co-option pivotal to building a constellation of democracies. After establishing an Indo-Pacific strategy and resurrecting the Quad, which had been lying dormant for nine years, the Trump administration — in a symbolic nod toward India — renamed the U.S. military’s Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command. Chinese territorial aggression in the Himalayas has helped bring India along.
But the momentum toward deeper collaboration could slow if Biden’s foreign policy downgrades India’s importance in regional strategy and returns — as Biden has signaled — to the Obama-era approach of cooperating with China in areas where Sino-U.S. interests converge. This would mark a break with the current approach that sees the U.S. in deeply ideological — even existential — conflict with the Chinese Communist Party.
Last year, Biden stunned many with his apparent strategic naivete by declaring that “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what? They’re not competition for us.” The blowback compelled Biden to backtrack and admit China was a threat.
To be sure, Biden made a habit during the election campaign of reversing his positions on major policy issues. Flip-flops are to Biden what egomania is to Trump. Still, the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy’s days seem numbered. Even the term “Indo-Pacific,” whose use expanded America’s regional framework to include India as a major power, was conspicuously absent in Biden’s campaign statements and the 2020 Democratic Party Platform.
Biden could revert to the old term “Asia-Pacific” or keep “Indo-Pacific” while enunciating a new policy for the region. In calls last week with the leaders of Japan, South Korea and Australia but not India, Biden emphasized a “secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific” instead of a free and open Indo-Pacific. And, in apparent deference to Beijing, the Biden office readout left out the assurance Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he received from the president-elect that U.S. security guarantees apply to Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu.
The bipartisan consensus in Washington that the U.S. must get tough with Beijing, however, is likely to prevent Biden’s return to the softer China approach of the Obama period. It was on Obama’s watch that China launched cost-free expansionism, including redrawing the geopolitical map in the South China Sea.
The loss of the expression “free and open Indo-Pacific” will likely be seen in India as a diminution of its future role in American strategy. More broadly, it could be viewed as a possible dilution of the U.S. commitment to establish an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies, with India serving as the western anchor and Japan and Australia the eastern and southern anchors of a regional balance of power.
Biden has promised to host a global Summit for Democracy in his first year in office to help “renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” But such a values-based, globalized approach contrasts with the current U.S. strategy of regionally leveraging cooperation with democracies for geopolitical ends.
Unless a clearer strategic vision emerges under Biden, the likely unraveling of the free and open Indo-Pacific strategy could silence any hoped-for regional concert of democracies.
President-elect Joe Biden will inherit a U.S.-Indian relationship that is nearer than ever to a formal alliance. Will the bilateral relationship continue to deepen under the next U.S. administration?
President-elect Joe Biden will inherit a U.S.-Indian relationship that is nearer than ever to a formal alliance. In the past decade, Washington and New Delhi have deepened their diplomatic and defense ties, but the Indian government has not yet officially allied with the United States. During the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, India and the United States signed a series of foundational defense, logistics, and intelligence-sharing agreements that pave the way for close security cooperation. Last month, the then U.S. secretary of defense, Mark Esper, declared that India will be “the most consequential partner for us, I think, in the Indo-Pacific for sure in this century.”
India’s newfound interest in defense collaboration with the United States is mainly a reaction to Chinese imperial expansionism. Beijing’s territorial aggression in the Himalayas this year and the resulting clashes with Indian troops laid bare the risks to India of dealing with its giant neighbor without the clear support of the United States. As the specter of additional Himalayan battles—or even a reprise of the 1962 border war with China—looms large, India has grown more willing to work with the United States to meet common challenges. To that end, India has intensified its involvement with the Quad—a loose coalition among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States that is central to the United States’ strategy for maintaining a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” As a result of these efforts, India is currently hosting the first-ever Quad military exercise: the Malabar naval war games in the Indian Ocean.
Biden is likely to continue to push for closer cooperation between New Delhi and Washington. But he is also widely expected to reset ties with China in order to ease Sino-U.S. tensions and rebuild cooperation with Beijing. Such a reset will affect relations with India and raise doubts in New Delhi about Washington’s reliability. India’s future partnership with the United States is not yet guaranteed, and Biden will have to be careful not to push India away as he devises a new U.S. strategy in Asia.
THREADING THE NEEDLE
Separated from China by a vast ocean, the United States does not share India’s immediate and potent concerns over Beijing’s growing assertiveness. Earlier this year, while India sought to snuff out the novel coronavirus with the world’s strictest lockdown, China stealthily encroached on several border areas in India’s high-altitude Ladakh region. Beijing seized key stretches of territory and has refused to pull back, alarming both Indian policymakers and the public at large.
Given these tensions, Biden will have to thread a diplomatic needle to improve relations with China without alienating India. Successive U.S. presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama aided China’s rise. Beijing militarized the South China Sea under Obama’s watch. Yet, just months before he left office, Obama contended that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” China’s neighbors do not share that assessment. It was the paradigm policy shift under Trump, who set Beijing in his crosshairs from the beginning of his presidency and designated China as a “revisionist power” and a “strategic competitor,” that persuaded India to move closer to the United States.
A softer U.S. approach toward China and its regional ally, Pakistan, could slow India’s entry into the U.S.-led security architecture and even push New Delhi to revert to its traditional posture of nonalignment, or strategic autonomy from great powers. The strengthening Chinese-Pakistani alliance generates high security costs for India, including raising the ominous prospect of a war on two fronts. New Delhi would be disappointed if Biden, in seeking to mend U.S. ties with the Chinese dictatorship, abandons Trump’s more confrontational posture toward Beijing. And if Biden relieves terrorism-related pressure on Pakistan by restoring security aid, the Indian government may have second thoughts about hopping on the U.S. security bandwagon.
Another issue that has the potential to sour relations with India during Biden’s presidency relates to India’s domestic division and polarization. While in office, Trump has refrained from commenting on India’s internal matters, understanding that U.S. criticism could strengthen Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opponents at home. But Biden, through his official campaign page, has already slammed Modi’s government on issues such as Indian actions in Kashmir and a controversial law on citizenship for refugees, calling these matters inconsistent with India’s “long tradition of secularism and with sustaining a multiethnic and multireligious democracy.”
India has traditionally resented such interference in and commentary on its internal affairs. Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar canceled a meeting with members of the U.S. Congress last December after it emerged that Representative Pramila Jayapal, an outspoken critic of the Modi government, would attend. If U.S. leaders, including Biden, are outspoken in their criticism of Modi’s domestic policies or actions, New Delhi will be less likely and less able to formalize an alliance with Washington.
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
Such differences have the potential to set back U.S. relations with India. But the general trajectory toward increased strategic collaboration probably won’t be altered. There remains strong bipartisan support in Washington for a closer partnership with India, a relationship that could serve as the fulcrum of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy.
Biden’s administration will probably prioritize deepening the United States’ engagement with India. The incoming president, more broadly, is likely to pursue a pragmatic policy aimed at containing the threats posed by both the Chinese Communist Party and violent Islamist extremists. He will try to strengthen alliances and partnerships, some of which Trump undermined, and could echo Obama, who declared the U.S.-Indian relationship “one of the defining partnerships of the twenty-first century.”
Biden could accomplish what Trump failed to achieve—clinching a trade deal with India. The booming trade between the two countries totaled almost $150 billion last year. That commercial exchange may help the United States break China’s stranglehold on key global supply chains, especially in the medical sector. The Biden administration will need India, the world’s leading exporter of generic drugs, to source pharmaceuticals and medical technology needed to fight the pandemic. And given Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s Indian heritage, it would be ironic if relations with India did not flourish under Biden.
Current U.S. policies have counterproductively fostered an expanding partnership between Russia and China. In that context, the strengthening bond with India assumes greater meaning for U.S. policymakers. Even as he tries to lower tensions with China, Biden must be careful not to allow the historic opportunity to forge a U.S.-Indian security alliance slip away. The world’s most powerful and most populous democracies could establish a strong partnership that helps underpin a stable power balance in the Indo-Pacific.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
China’s debt-trap diplomacy, redolent of colonial-era practices, has claimed its latest victim — the small, resource-rich nation of Laos. Struggling to pay back Chinese loans, Laos has handed China majority control of its national electric grid at a time when its state-owned electricity company’s debt has spiraled to 26% of its gross domestic product.
Sri Lanka and Pakistan, meanwhile, are taking fresh loans from China to pay off old loans, highlighting the vicious cycle in which they find themselves trapped. Both have already been compelled to cede strategic assets to China.
Less than three years ago, Sri Lanka signed away the Indian Ocean region’s most strategically located port, and more than 6,000 hectares of land around it, on a 99-year lease to China. The Hambantota port’s transfer to Beijing was seen in Sri Lanka as the equivalent of a heavily indebted farmer giving away his daughter to a cruel money lender.
Pakistan has given China exclusive rights, coupled with a tax holiday, to run Gwadar port for the next 40 years. China will pocket 91% of the port’s revenues. Next to the port, which is located at the crossroads of the global energy trade, China plans to build a Djibouti-style outpost for its navy.
Tajikistan, whose borrowing binge from 2006 was followed by its ceding of 1,158 sq. kilometers of the Pamir mountains to China and then granting Chinese companies rights to mine gold, silver and other mineral ores, recently asked Beijing for debt relief.
Another country heavily in debt to China, neighboring Kyrgyzstan, also sought relief from Beijing last month before it plunged into political chaos. In Africa, a long list of states wanting suspension of their debt repayments to Beijing during the coronavirus pandemic includes Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique and Zambia.
Laos’s ambition was to become the battery of Southeast Asia by investing in hydropower development and exporting electricity. So, it agreed to give deep-pocketed Chinese state-run companies an important role in harnessing its rich hydropower reserves.
But today, Beijing has effectively taken control of Laos’s electric grid and, by extension, its water resources. This holds serious implications for environmental security and sustainable development in landlocked Laos, given how China’s heavy upstream damming of the Mekong River is already contributing to depleted river levels and recurrent drought in downstream areas.
China’s deal also arms it with tremendous leverage over a country with just seven million citizens. Beijing’s power to dim all lights in Laos leaves little wiggle room for its tiny neighbor, already reeling under its staggering debt obligations.
Meanwhile, as concerns mount that Sri Lanka could become China’s satellite state, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due to arrive there from New Delhi tomorrow to try and pull Sri Lanka into Washington’s camp. Pompeo will press the ruling Rajapaksa brothers to accept a Status of Forces Agreement and a $480-million, five-year Millennium Challenges Corporation aid compact, both controversial subjects in Sri Lanka.
But cash-strapped Sri Lanka’s recent decision to turn to its biggest lender China, rather than to the International Monetary Fund, for a large loan to avert a default on its debt raises a larger question: What makes some nations sink deeper into Chinese debt, despite the risks of mortgaging their foreign-policy autonomy to Beijing?
The answer is several factors, including the comparative ease of borrowing from China, with IMF lending normally carrying stringent conditions and oversight. China does not evaluate a borrower state’s creditworthiness, unlike the IMF, which will not lend if its assessment indicates that additional loans could drive the country into a serious debt crisis. Indeed, China is happy to lend until nations face a debt crisis because of the greater leverage it gives Beijing.
Typically, China starts as an economic partner of another country, only to gradually become its economic master. In fact, the more desperate a borrower country’s situation, the higher the interest rates it will likely pay on Chinese loans. China has a record of exploiting the vulnerability of small, strategically located countries that borrow big. One such example is the Maldives, where Beijing converted big credits into political influence, including acquiring a couple of islets cheaply in that Indian Ocean archipelago.
Unlike some other heavily indebted states, the Maldives has been lucky to escape a Chinese debt trap. Since the Maldives’s election ousted its authoritarian president barely two years ago, India has stepped in to bail it out with generous budgetary support and a recent aid package.
China’s strategic use of debt to hold vulnerable states captive to its wishes may seem to mesh well with its vaunted focus on the long run. But the wider pushback against its imperial overreach, coupled with the corruption and malpractice in many of its Belt and Road projects, suggests that Beijing could be securing near-term advantages at the expense of its long-term goals.
Negative views of China have reached historic highs this year. The rising public distrust of China even in partner countries, and the fact that many Belt and Road projects are still not financially viable, have resulted in a declining number of new projects. Cumulatively, China is likely to pay a high price for its debt-trap diplomacy, even as the states it has ensnared are bound to suffer.
Despite US President Donald Trump’s undermining of US alliances, his administration has made significant progress in bringing together the Indo-Pacific’s leading democracies. And now that China has forced India’s hand, a new strategic arrangement in the region is almost a foregone conclusion.
The Quad, a loose strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific region’s four leading democracies, is rapidly solidifying this year in response to China’s aggressive foreign policy. Following a recent meeting of their top foreign-policy officials in Tokyo, Australia, India, Japan, and the United States are now actively working toward establishing a new multilateral security structure for the region. The idea is not to create an Asian version of NATO, but rather to develop a close security partnership founded on shared values and interests, including the rule of law, freedom of navigation, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, peaceful dispute resolution, free markets, and free trade.
China represents a growing challenge to all these principles. At a time when the world is struggling with a pandemic that originated in China, that country’s expansionism and rogue behavior have lent new momentum to the Quad’s evolution toward a concrete formal security arrangement.
Of course, the Quad’s focus also extends beyond China, with the goal being to ensure a stable balance of power within a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” That concept was first articulated in 2016 by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and has quickly become the linchpin of America’s regional strategy.
While all of the Quad partners agree in principle on the need for a free and open Indo-Pacific, it is Chinese expansionism that has catalyzed their recent actions. China is forcing even distant powers like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to view a rules-based Indo-Pacific as central to international peace and security.
France, for example, has just appointed an ambassador for the Indo-Pacific, after unveiling a new strategy affirming the region’s importance in any stable, law-based, multipolar global order. And Germany, which currently holds the European Council presidency, has sought to develop an Indo-Pacific strategy for the European Union. In its own recently released policy guidelines, it calls for measures to ensure that rules prevail over a “might-makes-right” approach in the Indo-Pacific. These developments suggest that in the coming years, Quad members will increasingly work with European partners to establish a strategic constellation of democracies capable of providing stability and an equilibrium of power in the Indo-Pacific.
After lying dormant for nine years, the Quad was resurrected in late 2017, but really only gained momentum over the last year, when its consultations were elevated to the foreign-minister level. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this month that, “once we’ve institutionalized what we’re doing, the four of us together, we can begin to build out a true security framework, a fabric that can counter the challenge that the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us.”
The Quad’s future, however, hinges on India, because the other three powers in the group are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves. Australia and Japan are both under the US security (and nuclear) umbrella, whereas India not only shares a large land border with China, but also must confront Chinese territorial aggression on its own, as it is currently doing. China’s stealth land grabs in the northernmost Indian borderlands of Ladakh earlier this year have led to a major military standoff, raising the risks of further localized battles or another 1962-style frontier war.
It is precisely this aggression that has changed the strategic equation. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s authorization of People’s Liberation Army incursions into the Himalayas has forced India itself to take a more confrontational position. It is now more likely than ever that the Quad will shift gears from consultation and coordination to become a de facto strategic alliance that plays a central role in a new multilateral security arrangement for the region.
This new architecture will bear little resemblance to America’s Cold War-era system, which rested on a patron-client framework, with the US as the “hub” and its allies as the “spokes.” No such arrangement would work nowadays, for the simple reason that a country as large as India cannot become just another Japan to the US.
That is why the US is working to coax India into a “soft alliance” devoid of any treaty obligations. This effort will be on full display on October 26-27, when Pompeo and US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visit New Delhi for joint consultations with their Indian counterparts. Most likely, this meeting will conclude with India signing on to the last of the four foundational agreements that the US maintains with its other close defense partners. Under these accords, both countries will be committed to providing reciprocal access to each other’s military facilities, securing military communications, and sharing geospatial data from airborne and satellite sensors.
Moreover, having held multiple bilateral and trilateral military exercises with its Quad partners, India has invited Australia to next month’s “Malabar” naval war games with the US and Japan. This will mark the first-ever Quad military exercise; or, as the Chinese communist mouthpiece Global Times, put it, “it would signal that the Quad military alliance is officially formed.”
US foreign policy has always been most effective when it leverages cooperation with other countries to advance shared strategic objectives. Despite President Donald Trump’s undermining of US alliances, his administration has built the Quad into a promising coalition, and has upgraded security ties with key Indo-Pacific partners, including Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand, and India.
More fundamentally, the Quad’s consolidation is further evidence that the Xi regime’s aggressive policies are starting to backfire. International views of China have reached new lows this year. Yet the Chinese foreign ministry – doubling down on its “wolf warrior” diplomacy – recently dismissed as “nonsense” Pompeo’s plan to forge an international coalition against China. “He won’t see that day,” the ministry declared. “And his successors won’t see that day either, because that day will never, ever come.”
But that day is coming. The Quad once merely symbolized an emerging international effort to establish a discreet check on Chinese power. If Xi’s increasing threats toward Taiwan lead to military action, then a grand international coalition, with the Quad at its core, will become inevitable.
Is China’s insecurity over the restive Tibetan Plateau, which has already led to a major military standoff between the two Asian giants along their long and treacherous Himalayan frontier, driving President Xi Jinping’s belligerent policy toward India? The extended standoff has certainly raised the risks of further localized battles or another full-scale border war.
Xi recently underscored his regime’s anxieties by ordering Communist Party, government and military leaders to turn remote Tibet into an “impregnable fortress” against separatism and “solidify border defenses” to ensure frontier security with India. He also called for the Sinicizing of Tibetan Buddhism to help accelerate the Tibetan minority’s assimilation into the dominant Han culture.
Several issues are fueling Xi’s concerns over Tibet: controlling who succeeds the 85-year-old Dalai Lama; continued Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule; and China’s growing suspicions about India, which hosts a Tibetan government-in-exile and welcomes fleeing Tibetans.
Xi has sought to ruthlessly root out all signs of unrest in Tibet, the world’s largest and highest plateau that is very far from Beijing. Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, is more than 3,500 kilometers from the Chinese capital, but only 1,356 kilometers from New Delhi.
The Tibetan frontier with India was largely peaceful for centuries before China occupied Tibet in 1951. With its conquest of the “Roof of the World,” China enlarged its landmass by more than a third and fundamentally altered Asia’s geostrategic landscape.
After imposing itself as India’s neighbor, China refused to accept the Indo-Tibetan boundary’s customary alignment, which led to a bloody border war in 1962. That war, however, didn’t settle the territorial disputes, with China subsequently laying claim to more Indian territories beyond those it seized in 1962.
As China’s encroachments into India’s northernmost highlands since April show, Beijing is claiming these areas on the basis of alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, even though Tibet only became part of China when China itself had been conquered by outsiders such as the Mongols and the Manchus.
The plain fact is that Tibet, despite disappearing as a buffer, remains at the heart of the China-India divide, fueling land disputes, diplomatic tensions, and — given that most of Asia’s great river systems originate on the Tibetan Plateau — feuds over the Chinese re-engineering of cross-border river flows.
Under Xi, China has introduced measures to snuff out Tibetan culture and cut Tibetans off from ancient traditions, including herding and farming. Recent reports have shed light on a coerced labor program to forcibly assimilate Tibetans, including through military drill-style skills training. China has also forced the last remaining Tibetan-language school to teach in Chinese.
For Xi, capturing the 442-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama is a pivotal final step toward securing China’s hold over Tibet.
India, however, continues to stand in the way of Xi’s plan to install a pawn to succeed the current 14th Dalai Lama. Underscoring the sharpening geopolitics, the U.S. Congress is close to passing the new Tibetan Policy and Support Act, which mandates financial and travel sanctions against Chinese officials who interfere in the Dalai Lama’s succession.
India, acting on the Dalai Lama’s instructions, could tacitly help Tibetan exiles find, appoint and protect his successor. The Dalai Lama has said his “reincarnation will appear in a free country,” which could mean in India’s Tibetan-Buddhist Himalayan regions. This explains why China has intensified its claim to Tawang, the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama.
Despite catching India’s military off-guard in Ladakh, located more than 1,500 kilometers from Tawang, Xi seems to have greatly underestimated India’s capacity to recoup from initial setbacks and fight back. About a month ago, Indian special forces stunned China by occupying vacant mountain heights overlooking key Chinese positions on the southern side of Ladakh’s Pangong Lake. Even more humiliating for Beijing is the fact that the Indian operation was spearheaded by a special force made up entirely of Tibetan exiles.
India’s daring seizure of the heights has drawn international attention to its secretive, all-Tibetan Special Frontier Force, established after Mao Zedong’s 1962 war with India. The itch to fight the occupiers of their homeland has drawn Tibetan recruits to this force.
Xi, China’s most powerful leader since Mao, is working to complete Mao’s expansionist vision, from the East and South China Seas to the Himalayan region. But his aggression against India may not be progressing as planned.
His real achievement may be sowing the seeds of the world’s next big conflict and ensuring the rise of a more antagonistic India. This means Tibet’s shadow will only grow longer over China-India relations in the coming years.
The understanding reached between Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Chinese President Xi Jinping to pursue high-level contacts is unlikely to stem China’s incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace. But it will allow Xi’s regime to blend engagement with containment, including challenging Japan’s control of the Senkaku Islands and strengthening Chinese claims of sovereignty over them.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s proposed visit to Tokyo will likely have the same core agenda that his recent trip to Europe had — to avert economic decoupling from China and dissuade U.S. allies from supporting Washington’s moves to impose checks on the exercise of Chinese power. China, however, is unwilling to curb its economic and territorial expansionism.
In fact, Xi continues to push the boundaries, as underscored by the multiple fronts he has opened simultaneously, including in the East and South China seas, the Himalayan frontier, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Yet, Xi has sought to portray China as a country of peace, telling the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 22, “We will never seek hegemony, expansion, or sphere of influence. We have no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot war with any country. We will continue to narrow differences and resolve disputes with others through dialogue and negotiation.”
Xi’s words rang hollow, especially as they came amid the border aggression he has launched against India since April, when the People’s Liberation Army made stealth encroachments on the highlands of Indian Ladakh. The intrusions have triggered a major India-China military standoff along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, which is as long as the distance between Tokyo and Hanoi.
There are important parallels between the way China is pursuing its territorial revisionism against its two main rivals in Asia, Japan and India. Indeed, China is pursuing a strategy of attrition and containment against both.
More fundamentally, Xi’s regime is pushing expansive territorial claims in Asia on the basis of revisionist history, not international law. Its weak legal case was highlighted by an international arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling that invalidated its claims in the South China Sea.
In international law, a territorial claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. There is absolutely no evidence that China ever had effective control over, for example, the Senkaku Islands.
In fact, China began claiming the Senkakus only after a United Nation agency’s report in 1969 referred to the possible existence of oil reserves in the East China Sea. It was not until the early 1970s that Chinese documents began applying the name “Diaoyu” to the Senkakus and claiming they were part of China.
Sinicizing the names of territories it claims is an old tactic of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP’s record also reveals its penchant to create a dispute out of the blue by claiming that the territory it covets was part of China since ancient times.
Under Xi, China’s incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace have steadily intensified, not just in frequency but also with the entry of larger vessels and armed ships. In recent months, China has sought to even police the waters off the Senkakus.
If history is not to be repeated, Suga should draw some lessons, including from the record of his predecessor, Shinzo Abe.
The first lesson is that establishing better relations with Beijing doesn’t necessarily yield better Chinese behavior. Xi’s aggressive revisionism is unaffected by diplomatic progress.
For example, Abe’s 2018 visit to Beijing was instrumental in helping improve ties with China. Yet the ensuing diplomatic progress, far from reining in China’s aggressive actions, engendered increasing Chinese intrusions, including the longest series of incursions into Japanese waters in years.
A second lesson is that responding with notable restraint to China’s belligerence only encourages Beijing to further up the ante. Consider the startling fact that no Japanese defense minister has ever conducted an aerial survey of the Senkakus. In August, the then-defense minister, Taro Kono, decided to break that taboo but then backed off “so as not to provoke China.”
Such shrinking from purely defensive action explains why an emboldened China has stepped up incursions. Japan needs to strengthen its administrative and security control over the Senkakus.
A third lesson relates to China’s strategy. Deception, concealment and surprise are central to China’s strategy to win without fighting. It adheres to the ancient theorist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.”
This approach involves taking an adversary by surprise, including seizing an opportunistic timing, and camouflaging offense as defense.
China’s war of attrition against Japan over the Senkakus has already disturbed the status quo, including by making the international community recognize the existence of a dispute and by regularizing Chinese incursions. China persists with its recklessly provocative actions, including ignoring the risk that an incident could spiral out of control.
A fourth lesson is that as long as China perceives strategic benefits as outweighing costs, Xi will persist with his strategy of attrition against Japan. Xi’s strategy is imposing greater security costs on Japan than on China.
Against this background, a Chinese strike against the Senkaku Islands could conceivably come when Japan has been lulled into complacency and least expects an attack. This is what happened to India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not see the Chinese aggression coming because his vision had been clouded by the naive hope that, by meeting Xi 18 times in about five years, he had reset the bilateral relationship.
China’s aim against Japan is to progressively alter the territorial status quo in its favor. Despite the Suga-Xi understanding, Chinese provocations could escalate.
Japan has spent years being on the defensive, allowing China to keep the initiative. It is past time for Tokyo to come out of its reactive mode and turn the tables on China’s machinations by responding assertively. It must frustrate China’s strategy of incrementally altering the status quo without incurring substantive costs.
Japan ought to look at ways to impose costs. This could include first warning Beijing that its provocative actions, such as chasing Japanese fishing vessels within Japanese territorial waters, would henceforth be firmly countered. If provocative actions persist despite the warning, the Japan Coast Guard could selectively act against some intruding Chinese state ships.
To be sure, effectively countering Chinese incursions demands more than ramming or disabling intruding ships and detaining their crews. It calls for an important shift in Japan’s policies, including building defensive facilities in the Senkakus. Japan could begin modestly by building an environmental monitoring station in the Senkakus.
China, of course, will react furiously to any Japanese counteractions. But at a time when the international environment is turning hostile to Xi’s expansionism, Japan must display strength and resolve. If not, China will bring Japanese security under increasing pressure in the coming years.
Japan has a strong case, anchored in international law, that it has exercised sovereignty over the Senkakus since 1895. But make no mistake: The future of the Senkakus will not be decided by international law, even though a just, rules-based order is essential for international peace and security.
The South China Sea is a reminder that international law is powerless against the powerful. China has turned its contrived historical claims in the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth, despite the international tribunal’s ruling against it.
Japan undoubtedly faces hard choices. But accommodation with an unyielding China is simply not possible.
Without concrete counteractions, Japan will increasingly find itself at the receiving end of China’s muscular revisionism. To stop its security from coming under siege, Japan must act — with calm, confidence and firmness.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.
For Xi Jinping, the COVID-19 pandemic – which has preoccupied the world’s governments for months – seemed like an ideal opportunity to make quick progress on his expansionist agenda. But by provoking India, he may have bitten off more than he can chew.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, recently declared that aggression and expansionism have never been in the Chinese nation’s “genes.” It is almost astonishing that he managed to say it with a straight face.
Aggression and expansionism obviously are not genetic traits, but they have defined President Xi Jinping’s tenure. Xi, who in some ways has taken up the expansionist mantle of Mao Zedong, is attempting to implement a modern version of the tributary system that Chinese emperors used to establish authority over vassal states: submit to the emperor, and reap the benefits of peace and trade with the empire.
For Xi, the COVID-19 pandemic – which has preoccupied the world’s governments for months – seemed like an ideal opportunity to make quick progress on his agenda. So, in April and May, he directed the People’s Liberation Army to launch furtive incursions into the icy borderlands of India’s Ladakh region, where it proceeded to establish heavily fortified encampments.
It wasn’t nearly as clever a plan as Xi probably thought. Far from entrenching China’s regional preeminence, it has intensified the pushback by Indo-Pacific powers, which have deepened their security cooperation. This includes China’s most powerful competitor, the United States, thereby escalating a bilateral strategic confrontation that has technological, economic, diplomatic, and military dimensions. The specter of international isolation and supply disruptions now looms over China, spurring Xi to announce plans to hoard mammoth quantities of mineral resources and agricultural products.
But Xi’s real miscalculation on the Himalayan border was vis-à-vis India, which has now abandoned its appeasement policy toward China. Not surprisingly, China remains committed to the PLA’s incursions, which it continues to portray as defensive: late last month, Xi told senior officials to “solidify border defenses” and “ensure frontier security” in the Himalayan region.
India, however, is ready to fight. In June, after the PLA ambushed and killed Indian soldiers patrolling Ladakh’s Galwan Valley, a hand-to-hand confrontation led to the deaths of numerous Chinese troops – the first PLA troops killed in action outside United Nations peacekeeping operations in over four decades. Xi was so embarrassed by this outcome that, whereas India honored its 20 fallen as martyrs, China refuses to admit its precise death toll.
The truth is that, without the element of surprise, China is not equipped to dominate India in a military confrontation. And India is making sure that it will not be caught off guard again. It has now matched Chinese military deployments along the Himalayan frontier and activated its entire logistics network to transport the supplies needed to sustain the troops and equipment through the coming harsh winter.
In another blow to China, Indian special forces recently occupied strategic mountain positions overlooking key Chinese deployments on the southern side of Pangong Lake. Unlike the PLA, which prefers to encroach on undefended border areas, Indian forces carried out their operation right under China’s nose, in the midst of a major PLA buildup.
If that were not humiliating enough for China, India eagerly noted that the Special Frontier Force that spearheaded the operation comprises Tibetan refugees. The Tibetan soldier who was killed by a landmine in the operation was honored with a well-attended military funeral.
India’s message was clear: China’s claims to Tibet, which separated India and China until Mao Zedong’s regime annexed it in 1951, are not nearly as strong as it pretends they are. Tibetans view China as a brutally repressive occupying power, and those eager to fight the occupiers flocked to the Frontier Force, established after Mao’s 1962 war with India.
Here’s the rub: China’s claims to India’s vast Himalayan borderlands are based on their alleged historical links to Tibet. If China is merely occupying Tibet, how can it claim sovereignty over those borderlands?
In any case, Xi’s latest effort to gain control of territories that aren’t China’s to take has proved far more difficult to complete than it was to launch. As China’s actions in the South China Sea demonstrate, Xi prefers asymmetrical or hybrid warfare, which combines conventional and irregular tactics with psychological and media manipulation, disinformation, lawfare, and coercive diplomacy.
But while Xi managed to change the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot, it seems clear that this will not work on China’s Himalayan border. Instead, Xi’s approach has placed the Sino-Indian relationship – crucial to regional stability – on a knife edge. Xi wants neither to back down nor to wage an open war, which is unlikely to yield the decisive victory he needs to restore his reputation after the border debacle.
China might have the world’s largest active-duty military force, but India’s is also massive. More important, India’s battle-hardened forces have experience in low-intensity conflicts at high altitudes; the PLA, by contrast, has had no combat experience since its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam. Given this, a Sino-Indian war in the Himalayas would probably end in a stalemate, with both sides suffering heavy losses.
Xi seems to be hoping that he can simply wear India down. At a time when the Indian economy has registered its worst-ever contraction due to the still-escalating COVID-19 crisis, Xi has forced India to divert an increasing share of resources to national defense. Meanwhile, ceasefire violations by Pakistan, China’s close ally, have increased to a record high, raising the specter of a two-front war for India. As some Chinese military analysts have suggested, Xi could use America’s preoccupation with its coming presidential election to carry out a quick, localized strike against India without seeking to start a war.
But it seems less likely that India will wilt under Chinese pressure than that Xi will leave behind a legacy of costly blunders. With his Himalayan misadventure, Xi has provoked a powerful adversary and boxed himself into a corner.