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.
A common Indian refrain today is that China has betrayed India’s friendship. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Did India really draw enduring lessons from 1962? If so, how does it explain being “stabbed in the back” again by China?
Successive Indian governments have put more faith in diplomacy than the armed forces in achieving security objectives. Diplomacy can accomplish little in the absence of strategic vision and resolve or adequate leverage. The diplomatic blunders of 1948 (Kashmir dispute’s internationalization), 1954 (Panchsheel Agreement’s acceptance of the “Tibet region of China”), 1960 (Indus Waters Treaty), 1966 (Taskhent) and 1972 (Simla) have imposed enduring costs.
Worse still, India has learned little from its past, which explains why history repeats itself. Today, with China’s multi-thrust aggression, which caught India napping, history is repeating itself, underscored by a common Indian refrain that Beijing has betrayed India’s friendship.
China’s latest “stab in the back” raises key questions, not about the communist dictatorship in Beijing (which has made a practice of employing deception, concealment and surprise in peacetime), but about India. What explains India’s “hug, then repent” proclivity over the decades that highlights the aphorism, “act in haste, repent at leisure”? Why has India repeatedly cried betrayal, not by friends, but by adversaries in whom it reposed trust?
Why has Indian diplomacy, time after time, rushed to believe what it wanted to believe? Or what makes India keep repeating the cycle of bending over backward to court a foe and then failing to see aggression coming (as in Kargil, Pathankot or Doklam)? More fundamentally, why does India stay at the receiving end of its foes’ machinations and always play the victim? For example, why has it never repaid China with its own “salami slicing”?
One reason history repeats itself is that virtually every Indian prime minister, although unschooled in national security at the time of assuming office, has sought to reinvent the foreign-policy wheel, rather than learn from past blunders. Another reason is that Indian intellectuals and journalists generally shrink from closely scrutinizing foreign-policy moves.
Overselling outcomes of summit meetings with China from 1988 to 2019 for leadership glorification has led to India’s worst China crisis after the 1962 war. For example, five separate border-management agreements were signed at summits between 1993 and 2013, with each accord hailed in India (but not China) as a major or historic “breakthrough.”
Now India admits China has trashed all those agreements with its aggression. Yet India still plays into China’s hands by clinging to the accords and by agreeing recently in Moscow to build on them through new confidence-building measures (CBMs).
China is showing it is a master in protracting negotiations so as to buy time to consolidate its territorial gains, while exploring the limits of its adversary’s flexibility and testing its patience. For Beijing, any agreement is designed to bind not China but the other side to its terms. It is seeking fresh CBMs to make India respect the new, Chinese-created territorial status quo and to restrict India from upgrading its border infrastructure.
China’s foreign minister claims the “consensus” reached at Moscow is to “meet each other halfway.” Meeting China halfway will validate its “10 miles forward, 5 miles back” strategy, with China gaining half but India losing half. This illustrates Beijing’s definition of “give and take” — the other side gives and China takes.
Yet India has placed its faith in diplomacy ever since it discovered China’s intrusions in early May. It reined in its armed forces from taking counteractions until recently. Had it permitted proactive countermeasures earlier, once sufficient acclimatized troops and weapons capability were in place, China’s territorial gains would have been more limited.
China used the talks with India to make additional encroachments, especially on the critical Depsang Y-Junction, which controls access to several areas. Of all the land grabs China has made, the largest is in Depsang, the sector of utmost importance to Indian defences. Yet this encroachment has received little attention.
In fact, some are drawing a false equivalence between the Chinese and Indian military actions to obscure the reality. While China has seized several areas that traditionally were under Indian patrolling jurisdiction, India has occupied its own unmanned mountain heights in one area in order to pre-empt another Chinese land grab.
The defence minister’s statement in Parliament, however, shows the government remains loath to admit that China has encroached on Indian areas. Shielding the government’s image, alas, comes first. This explains why India hasn’t labelled China the aggressor, leaving the field open for China to repeatedly call India the aggressor.
Having redrawn the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in several Ladakh sectors, including Pangong, Gogra-Kongka La, Hot Springs and Galwan, China is now seeking to replace the term LAC with the looser expression “border areas.” It had its way in the Moscow agreement, which repeatedly mentions “border areas,” not LAC (a line unambiguously marked in Indian military maps and up to which Indian forces are supposed to defend all territory).
All the boundary-related bilateral accords and protocols are LAC-centred. But China, signalling its aggressive designs, stopped referring to the term LAC in recent years. Instead it is quietly treating the LAC as a line to actually control by changing facts on the ground.The Moscow agreement’s use of the vague term “border areas” helps to obscure China’s encroachments and creates space for continued Chinese salami slicing.
In this light, diplomacy is unlikely to deliver the status quo ante India seeks. In fact, China seems intent on continuing, below the threshold of armed conflict, coercive military pressure along the entire frontier from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh until India acquiesces to its demands, including reconciling to the new status quo.
Will China’s win-without-fighting warfare campaign help create a new India steeped in realism and determined to break the cycle of history repeating itself? At a minimum, it promises to shake up India’s business-as-usual approach to national security.
On the day two airplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, Chinese officials signed an economic and technical cooperation accord with Afghanistan’s then-ruling Taliban, in the latter’s capital, Kandahar. The 9/11 attacks led the United States, in partnership with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, to launch a military campaign that ousted the Taliban regime.
Now, China is again courting the Taliban to further its regional interests, centered primarily on safeguarding its Belt and Road projects, extracting mineral resources in Afghanistan, and preventing a surge of violent jihadism in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have detained more than a million Muslims for “re-education” in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds in the post-World War II period.
The U.S. plan to exit Afghanistan has added greater urgency to China’s efforts to cozy up to the Taliban. Chinese officials have stepped up contacts with Taliban representatives as President Donald Trump’s administration has steadily cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to 8,600 and closed several bases.
Trump, calling the U.S. military involvement in war zones “the single biggest mistake in the history of our country,” has said that there would be fewer than 5,000 American troops in Afghanistan by U.S. election day in November. The Pentagon, however, says further troop withdrawals would depend on the Taliban’s honoring of its peace deal with the U.S.
In order to win the Taliban’s cooperation, China is reportedly offering to build roads in Taliban-controlled territories, as well as a number of energy projects, including generating electricity.
Here’s the paradox: Communist China has little in common with the Taliban, a hard-line Islamist militia known for brutal, medieval practices and for demolishing the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan. In fact, China’s concern over Islamic extremism has driven it to take unparalleled steps, including the large-scale deprogramming of Islamic identities in a bid to forcibly assimilate its Muslim population into the dominant Han culture.
Yet China has nurtured long-standing ties with the Taliban — created and armed by Pakistani intelligence — to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan. While the Taliban was in power, China established economic ties with it and launched flights between Kabul and Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.
Pakistan, which Beijing considers its client-state, has helped facilitate Chinese-Taliban ties. Indeed, the Taliban’s top leadership, as well as its command and control apparatus, have been ensconced in Pakistan since it was ousted from power in 2001. This allowed China, after 9/11, to quietly continue a relationship with the Taliban.
Such long-standing ties with the Taliban, and a strong strategic nexus with Pakistan, have helped China avert any major terrorist strike on its projects in Afghanistan, including the large Aynak copper mine it secured in 2007. By contrast, Indian infrastructure projects and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan have repeatedly come under terrorist attack.
China’s latest overtures to the Taliban underscore its concern that the U.S. military withdrawal could foster greater violence and instability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, which has long been a terrorism nucleus. Beijing wants to safeguard its heavy investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the supposed crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative. It also wants to ensure the Taliban do not aid Uighur militants.
America’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban was sealed in February with Pakistan’s active support. The fact that no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border havens compelled the Trump administration to sue for peace in order to end the longest war in U.S. history.
Less known is that China also played a part in the peace effort by encouraging the Taliban to enter into a deal with the U.S. Indeed, even before Trump took office, Beijing offered to mediate and help revive the stalled talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.
In return, the U.S. last year heeded Beijing’s call to designate the Balochistan Liberation Army, the main separatist group in Pakistan’s sprawling Balochistan province, as a terrorist organization. The U.S. justified its designation on the grounds that the BLA was striking Chinese targets in Balochistan, which is home to the Chinese-run Gwadar port and a potential Chinese naval base.
Since then, relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated to a point approaching a new Cold War. Making matters worse, the U.S.-Taliban agreement appears to be tottering, with Washington accusing the Taliban of repeatedly violating the accord’s terms, including by launching rockets last month at two military bases used by American forces and by stepping up terror attacks on Afghan government forces. Hopes of a U.S.-moderated peace settlement in Afghanistan have dimmed.
Against this background, China, despite its ties with the Taliban, is likely to find it difficult to advance its interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt.
Several factors threaten to act as spoilers to China’s regional ambitions, including sharpening geopolitics, a resurgent Taliban — some of whose local commanders appear to be operating independently — and the role of non-Taliban militant groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan that are the nemesis of Pakistani intelligence. Irrespective of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, a complete American withdrawal from Afghanistan now looks uncertain.
In this conservative region, China’s Muslim gulag and other harsh anti-Islamic measures in Xinjiang are likely to fuel grassroots resentment against it, increasing the vulnerability of its projects.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
As the past weekend’s latest skirmishes between rival troops underscore, relations between the demographic titans, China and India, have hit a low not seen since their 1962 war. The two countries haveforward-deployedtens of thousands of troops and are now locked in a tense military standoff along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, which is as long as the distance between Toronto and Los Angeles.
The clash of the titans, triggered by a series of furtive Chinese encroachments on key vantage points in India’s northernmost borderlands, has received limited international attention. However, the spectre of further troop clashes or a 1962-style Himalayan war continues to loom, despite continuing bilateral efforts to disengage rival forces.
The confrontation highlights Chinese President Xi Jinping’s muscular revisionism, which has led him to open multiple fronts simultaneously – from the South and East China seas and the Himalayas to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Mr. Xi’s expansionism hasn’t spared the tiny country of Bhutan.
While India was wrestling with the outbreak of the Wuhan-originating coronavirus by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown, China carried out swift and well co-ordinated incursions into the borderlands of India’s high-altitude Ladakh region from late April. Deception and surprise are integral to the Chinese strategy, even in peacetime. The aggression in Ladakh came just six months after Mr. Xi declared on Indian soil that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development.”
China’s intrusions into Ladakh differ from its previous Asian territorial grabs under Mr. Xi in one key aspect. China went beyond its usual practice of occupying vacant border spaces by snatching territories from right under another country’s nose.
The territorial expansion in the South China Sea by China,for example, has centred on capturing disputed but unoccupied shoals and reefs and then using construction activities to turn them into militarized artificial islands. Since Mr. Xi ordered the launch of major land reclamation in 2013, China has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot.
In 2017, China captured the unoccupied and desolate Himalayan plateau of Doklam, which Bhutan claims as its territory. The occupation came soon after China ended a more than 10-week-long troop faceoff on the plateau with India, Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor.
This summer, Mr. Xi’s communist regime laid claim to another 11 per cent of Bhutan territory, in an area that can be accessed only through India’s Arunachal Pradesh state (which Chinese maps already show as part of China). The move thus sought to advance Mr. Xi’s efforts against both Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh.
In the East China Sea, meanwhile, China has stepped up incursions into the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands’ territorial waters and airspace, with the aim of weakening Japan’s control and strengthening its own sovereignty claims. By bringing Japan’s security increasingly under pressure, China is signalling that the U.S. alliance system is not an answer to its aggressive revisionism.
Against this background, Mr. Xi’s aggression against India appears to mark the start of a more daring new phase in his expansionism. As U.S. national security advisor Robert O’Brien has said, “the Chinese have been very aggressive with India” lately.
The Chinese encroachments have led to multiple rounds of clashes with Indian troops in Ladakh. The deadliest occurred on June 15, leaving 20 Indian soldiers, and an unknown number of Chinese troops, dead. While India honoured its fallen as martyrs, China still refuses to divulge its losses. U.S. intelligence agencies believe China suffered more casualties than India.
Mr. Xi’s Himalayan expansionism has sought to take off from where Mao Zedong left. Mao considered Tibet (which he annexed in 1951) to be China’s right-hand palm, with five fingers – Bhutan, Nepal and the three Indian territories of Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. The five fingers were also to be “liberated.” In fact, Mao’s 1962 war against India helped China to gain more territory in Ladakh, after it earlier grabbed a Switzerland-sized chunk, the Aksai Chin plateau.
As long as Mr. Xi, like Mao, perceives the strategic benefits as outweighing the international costs, he will persist with his campaign of expansionism.
But by seeking to start the world’s next big conflict with India, Mr. Xi is likely to end up pushing that country closer to the United States and creating an adversarial bloc around China. Already, international attitudes toward Mr. Xi’s regime have hardened and many countries and companies have begun re-evaluating China-dependent supply chains for essential goods.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
As long as the costs of expansionism remain manageable, Chinese President Xi Jinping will stay the course, seeking to exploit electoral politics and polarization in major democracies. The Indo-Pacific’s major democratic powers must not let that happen, which means ensuring that the costs for China do not remain manageable for long.
In his most recent New Year’s speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that 2020 would be “a milestone.” Xi was right, but not in the way he expected. Far from having “friends in every corner of the world,” as he boasted in his speech, China has severely damaged its international reputation, alienated its partners, and left itself with only one real lever of power: brute force. Whether the prospect of isolation thwarts Xi’s imperialist ambitions, however, remains to be seen.
Historians will most likely view 2020 as a watershed year. Thanks to COVID-19, many countries learned hard lessons about China-dependent supply chains, and international attitudes toward China’s communist regime shifted.
The tide began to turn when it was revealed that the Communist Party of China hid crucial information from the world about COVID-19, which was first detected in Wuhan – a finding confirmed by a recent US intelligence report. Making matters worse, Xi attempted to capitalize on the pandemic, first by hoarding medical products – a market China dominates – and then by stepping up aggressive expansionism, particularly in the Indo-Pacific region. This is driving rapid change in the region’s geostrategic landscape, with other powers preparing to counter China.
For starters, Japan now seems set to begin cooperating with the Five Eyes – the world’s oldest intelligence-gathering and -sharing alliance, comprising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. A new “Six Eyes” alliance would serve as a crucial pillar of Indo-Pacific security.
Moreover, the so-called Quad – comprising Australia, India, Japan, and the US – seems poised to deepen its strategic collaboration. This represents a notable shift for India, in particular, which has spent years attempting to appease China.
As US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien recently noted, “the Chinese have been very aggressive with India” lately. Since late April, the People’s Liberation Army has occupied several areas in the northern Indian region of Ladakh, turning up the heat on a long-simmering border conflict. This has left Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with little choice but to change course.
Modi is considering inviting Australia to participate in the annual Malabar naval exercise with Japanese, American, and Indian forces later this year. Australia withdrew from the exercise in 2008 when it involved only the US and India. Although Japan’s participation was regularized in 2015, India had hesitated to bring Australia back into the fold, for fear of provoking China. Not anymore. With Australia again involved in Malabar, the Quad grouping will have a formal, practical platform for naval drills.
Already, cooperation among Quad members is gaining some strategic heft. In June, Australia and India signed the Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement to increase military interoperability through bilateral defense activities. India has a similar pact with the US and is set to sign one with Japan shortly.
Japan, for its part, recently added Australia, India, and the UK as defense intelligence sharing partners by tweaking its 2014 state secrets law, which previously included exchanges only with the US. This will strengthen Japanese security cooperation under 2016 legislation that redefined Japan’s US-imposed pacifist post-war constitution in such a way that Japan may now come to the aid of allies under attack.
Thus, the Indo-Pacific’s democracies are forging closer strategic bonds in response to China’s increasing aggression. The next logical step would be for these countries to play a more concerted, coordinated role in advancing broader regional security. The problem is that American, Australian, Indian, and Japanese security interests are not entirely congruent.
For India and Japan, the security threat China poses is much more acute and immediate, as shown by China’s aggression against India and its increasingly frequent incursions into Japanese waters. Moreover, India is the only Quad member that maintains a land-based defense posture, and it faces the very real prospect of a serious conflict with China on its Himalayan border.
The US, by contrast, has never considered a land war against China. Its primary objective is to counter China’s geopolitical, ideological, and economic challenges to America’s global preeminence. America’s pursuit of this objective will be President Donald Trump’s most-consequential foreign-policy legacy.
Australia, meanwhile, must engage in a delicate balancing act. While it wants to safeguard its values and regional stability, it remains economically dependent on China, which accounts for one-third of its exports. So, even as Australia has pursued closer ties with the Quad, it has spurned US calls to join naval patrols in the South China Sea. As its foreign minister, Marise Payne, recently declared, Australia has “no intention of injuring” its relationship with China.
If China continues pursuing an expansionist strategy, however, such hedging will no longer be justifiable. Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono recently declared that the “consensus in the international community” is that China must be “made to pay a high price” for its muscular revisionism in the South and East China seas, the Himalayas, and Hong Kong. He is right – the emphasis is on “high.”
As long as the costs of expansionism remain manageable, Xi will stay the course, seeking to exploit electoral politics and polarization in major democracies. The Indo-Pacific’s major democratic powers must not let that happen, which means ensuring that the costs for China do not remain manageable for long.
Machiavelli famously wrote that, “It is better to be feared than loved.” Xi is not feared so much as hated. But that will mean little unless the Indo-Pacific’s major democracies get their act together, devise ways to stem Chinese expansionism, reconcile their security strategies, and contribute to building a rules-based regional order. Their vision must be clarified and translated into a well-defined policy approach, backed with real strategic weight. Otherwise, Xi will continue to use brute force to destabilize the Indo-Pacific further, possibly even starting a war.
China’s expansionist drive, from the East and South China seas to the Himalayas and the southern Pacific, is making the Indo-Pacific region more volatile and unstable. Along with the spread of the Wuhan-originating coronavirus, this has also given rise to growing anti-China sentiment.
China’s border aggression against India since April dovetails with a broader strategy of territorial aggrandizement that it has pursued in the period since its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam. That strategy, centered on winning without fighting, has driven its bullet-less aggressions, from seizing Johnson Reef in 1988 and Mischief Reef in 1995, to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. And since launching major land reclamation in 2013, China has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot.
However, China’s aggression in the northern Indian region of Ladakh – a high-altitude territory where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has occupied several vantage points – differs from its previous territorial grabs since the 1980s in one key aspect. China went beyond its usual practice of occupying vacant border spaces by snatching territories from right under another country’s nose.
China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, for example, has centered on capturing disputed but unoccupied shoals and reefs and then using construction activities to turn them into militarized artificial islands.
In 2017, the PLA similarly captured the unoccupied and desolate Himalayan plateau of Doklam, which one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, claims as its territory. The occupation came soon after China ended a more than 10-week-long troop standoff on the plateau with India, Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor.
China’s aggression has also extended to persistent nibbling at its neighbors’ border territories. Bite by bite, China has been eating away at its neighbors’ borderlands. In Nepal, ruled by a pro-Beijing communist government, a recently leaked internal report warned that the country was losing border territories to China’s construction projects, which it said were also changing the course of rivers.
In the East China Sea, China has stepped up incursions into the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands’ territorial waters and airspace, with the aim of weakening Japan’s control and strengthening its own sovereignty claims. By bringing Japan’s security increasingly under pressure, China is indicating that the U.S. alliance system is not an answer to its muscular revisionism.
But even by the PLA’s longstanding practice of “salami slicing,” its recent aggression against India signals that China’s territorial expansionism has entered a dangerous new phase. In an operation backed by tens of thousands of troops in the rear, the PLA brazenly seized border areas that were under another country’s military control or patrolling jurisdiction.
Deception and surprise are integral to the Chinese strategy even in peacetime. The aggression in Indian Ladakh came just six months after Chinese President Xi Jinpingdeclared on Indian soil that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development,” thus allowing both sides to “focus on friendship and cooperation.”
Xi caught India off-guard by striking when that country was wrestling with the outbreak of the coronavirus by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown. China intruded into areas located even beyond its own artificially drawn claim lines that it has published in the past.
This helps to highlight China’s increasing territorial predation under Xi. Beijing has repeatedly shown that it can make a new territorial claim or disturb the status quo anywhere at any time.
For example, Beijing has asserted a new claim since July to Bhutan’s eastern region, which shares a border only with India. Through the new claim, China has sought to simultaneously advance its designs against India and Bhutan, which popularized the concept of “Gross National Happiness” as a measure of development.
Recently, Chinese state media suddenly discovered that Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains historically “belong to China.” Earlier in May, the state-run media claimed that Mount Everest, the world’s tallest peak on the Nepal-Tibet border that symbolizes Nepalese sovereignty, was wholly in China.
Last month, a Chinese government ship conducted marine research activity in the exclusive economic zone of Okinotori Island, Japan’s southernmost point. When Tokyo protested, Beijing asserted that “Japan’s unilateral claim [to an EEZ] has no legal basis” as Okinotori was not an island but just rocks.
The Chinese Communist Party’s old practice is to stealthily occupy another nation’s territory and then claim the area was part of China since ancient times. Having recently caught India napping by encroaching, among others, on the Tibet-bordering Galwan Valley in Ladakh, China now claims that the entire valley’s sovereignty “has always belonged to China.”
China, however, became India’s neighbor only in 1951 after the CCP under Mao Zedong gobbled up the traditional buffer Tibet. The fall of Tibet increased China’s landmass by more than one-third. It also gave China common borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan and northernmost Myanmar.
Xi has sought to take off from where Mao left. Simply put, Xi is working on Mao’s unfinished agenda of territorial expansionism.
This explains the multiple fronts Xi has opened in the pursuit of his “Chinese dream” of making China the world’s foremost power by the 2049 centenary of communist rule. The fronts he has opened extend from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the South and East China seas and the Himalayas.
As long as Xi perceives the strategic benefits as outweighing the international costs, he will persist with his campaign of expansionism. But he is already sowing the seeds of an international backlash. Such a pushback will likely constrict China’s choices, making his “Chinese dream” more difficult to realize.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank, and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).
By occupying key vantage points in eastern Ladakh in an operation backed by tens of thousands of troops in the rear, China has entered a dangerous new phase in its territorial expansionism. It has brazenly seized areas that were under India’s military control or patrolling jurisdiction.
In fact, China intruded into areas located beyond any claim line it has ever published, including its 1956, 1959 and 1960 claim lines in Ladakh. Demonstrating ever-expanding claims, its forces intruded into the Hot Springs-Gogra-Kongka La region and the Depsang Y-Junction and also right up to Galwan River’s mouth and up to Pangong Lake’s Finger 4.
India, facing up to what its defence ministry calls “unilateral aggression,” has made it amply clear to China that it will settle for nothing less than a full return to status quo ante. India’s message to Beijing is that refusing to roll back its encroachments will cast a growing shadow over the bilateral relationship. Publicly, too, India has cautioned that China’s border hostilities will damage bilateral ties.
There has been no national debate, however, on India’s options to restore status quo ante. China seems determined to hold on to its territorial gains, which explains its statement that disengagement is mostly over. Indeed, it has used military and diplomatic talks to demand Indian acquiescence in the new status quo. The protracted talks have also helped it to consolidate its hold on the land grabs, including by building fortifications and installing fibre optic cables.
China has achieved its territorial gains in the same way it made territorial grabs elsewhere in Asia since the 1980s — below the threshold of armed conflict, without firing a shot. Today, it is trying to dictate a Hobson’s choice to India, like it did when it captured Doklam: Go along with the changed status quo or risk an open war. Believing time is on its side, China is seeking to wear India out in order to present a fait accompli.
Against this background, India’s options are clearly narrowing. The longer India has waited, the harder it has become to militarily push back the intruding Chinese forces and restore status quo ante. Imagine if India had dealt with China’s incursions as soon as it discovered them in early May, instead of restraining its forces and entering into unproductive talks. Indian efforts to obscure the intrusions and troop clashes only led to newer Chinese encroachments. As an August 4 defence ministry note points out, China made fresh intrusions into Kugrang, Gogra and Pangong on May 17-18.
India has the world’s most-experienced army in hybrid mountain warfare. Contrary to conventional wisdom that China holds a significant military advantage, several recent international assessments underscore that India’s air and ground forces have a qualitative edge over the People’s Liberation Army. India’s weakness is a reactive and risk-averse strategic culture.
India’s failure to employ its counterattack capability undermined its negotiating position. Instead of a “seize, hold and talk” strategy to clinch an equitable deal, India brought little to the negotiating table, thus allowing China to reinforce its bargaining power. This is apparent from China’s absurd new demands that India further retreat from Pangong and vacate the Kugrang heights.
India now faces crunch time. If it is not going to end up validating China’s forcible realignment of the Line of Actual Control, India must inflict substantive costs on the aggressor. Imposing significant economic and diplomatic costs, coupled with the application of coercive military pressure, holds the key. India must speak from a position of strength. Its professional, battle-hardened armed forces, coupled with its trade and diplomatic leverage, give it that strength.
The only way China will roll back its aggression is if India begins exacting mounting costs that make its territorial gains unbeneficial to hold. The costs India has sought to impose thus far have proved woefully inadequate to make Beijing end its aggression.
A calibrated imposition of progressively escalating costs has become imperative. Economically, India’s main steps thus far — banning Chinese mobile apps and restricting Chinese companies’ access to Indian government contracts — need to be supplemented with informal trade sanctions.Chinese exports to India are still running at more than $5 billion a month, with July witnessing a surge. Now is the time for India to leverage its buying power to correct its massive trade deficit with China.
At a time when the international environment is turning hostile to China’s ambitions, India must launch a diplomatic offensive to spotlight the Chinese aggression. India’s reticence to name and shame China seems unfathomable. Even amid its aggression, China has had no hesitation in raking up the Jammu and Kashmir issue at the United Nations Security Council.
As a warning shot across Beijing’s bow, India should rescind its 2006 decision allowing China to reopen its consulate in Kolkata, given China’s designs on the Siliguri Corridor. That decision was made despite Beijing’s refusal to let India reopen its Lhasa consulate. The Kolkata and Lhasa consulates were shut following Mao Zedong’s 1962 war against India.
Meanwhile, the highest-level visit by a US cabinet official to Taiwan since 1979 has served as an example for India to loosen its own one-China policy by living up to then Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s promise in 2014 — that the one-China policy would henceforth be predicated on China’s adoption of a one-India policy. For starters, the prime minister may like to meet the Dalai Lama and say he sought the Tibetan leader’s counsel regarding China.
India, subscribing to hard-nosed realpolitik, has no choice but to impose costs that cumulatively outweigh Beijing’s aggression gains. Without such a course, China could not only escape scot-free but also reap rewards of aggression and become a bigger threat.
Beijing’s stealth aggression against India along the Himalayan border represents a geostrategic sea change. Given China’s stepped-up incursions in or near Japanese waters, this has serious implications for Japan as well.
As part of President Xi Jinping’s aggressive expansionism, China is pursuing a strategy of attrition, friction and containment against Japan and India — its two potential peer rivals in Asia — in order to harass, encumber and weigh them down. This includes China’s efforts to police the waters off the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in recent months in order to weaken Japan’s control and strengthen its own sovereignty claims.
More broadly, Xi’s regime is pushing expansive claims on the basis of an ingenious principle — “what is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable.” This has been underscored by China’s newly minted claim to tiny Bhutan’s eastern region, which shares a border only with India. Perhaps the only time since the end of World War II that one state has laid claim to territory that can only be accessed via another country, China has sought to simultaneously advance its designs against Bhutan and India.
And when Tokyo lodged a protest last month after a Chinese government ship conducted marine research activity in the exclusive economic zone off Japan’s southernmost point, Beijing responded that “Japan’s unilateral claim [to an EEZ there] has no legal basis.” Some in China are even questioning Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa.
China’s various territorial claims, from the East China Sea to the Himalayas, are based not on international law but on alleged history. The Chinese Communist Party’s practice is to furtively occupy another nation’s territory and then claim that the captured area was part of China since ancient times.
Japan could learn from the CCP’s practices and from India’s mistakes that made it the target of China’s latest aggression. After all, China’s strategy against Japan is fairly similar to the one it is pursuing against India.
Incremental advances by stealth below the threshold of war are integral to China’s strategy. Admiral Philip Davidson warned in 2018 before taking over as the U.S. Indo-Pacific commander that China was likely to continue “to coerce Japan without sparking a crisis or conflict.”
The first lesson for Japan is that China’s aggressive actions bear no relation to the state of bilateral ties with the country it targets, as shown by the fact that the Chinese aggression in Ladakh came just six months after Xi declared during an India visit that “China-India relations have entered a new phase of sound and stable development.”
Another sign that the CCP’s revanchism is unaffected by ostensible improvements in bilateral relations was the 2019 increase in Chinese incursions into the Senkaku territorial waters and airspace compared to the previous year.
Attempts to placate Beijing also tend to backfire. After Narendra Modi became Indian prime minister in 2014, he bent over backward to befriend China, including delisting it as a “country of concern” and halting official contact with the Dalai Lama. For nearly six years, Modi ignored all warning signs, including a rising tide of Chinese incursions, especially into Ladakh, and China’s capture of the Bhutan-claimed Doklam Plateau following a 73-day standoff with Indian troops there.
There is a cautionary tale for Japan here. Tokyo, since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2018 visit to Beijing, has emphasized improving ties with Beijing and responded with conspicuous restraint to the longest series of Chinese incursions into Japanese waters in years.
After its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam, China developed a strategy of winning without fighting. Deception, concealment and surprise have driven its bulletless aggressions, from seizing Johnson Reef in 1988 and Mischief Reef in 1995, to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
And now China occupies several vantage points in Indian Ladakh, perhaps following ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice to “plan for what is difficult while it is easy” by striking when a distracted India was busy wrestling with the coronavirus outbreak.
All of which suggests that a Chinese strike against the Senkaku Islands could come when Japan least expects it.
India’s deeply rooted reactive culture has allowed China to keep the initiative, including when and how to needle India or infringe its sovereignty. Japan, too, has spent years being on the defensive and must come out of its reactive and pacifist mode to safeguard its long-term security. A more secure Japan will also help underpin peace in the Indo-Pacific region.
Today, Japan needs to deal with a more immediate challenge. Once the China-set suspension of fishing around the Senkaku Islands ends on August 16, Chinese provocations could escalate, with the possible entry of many Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard ships. After all, China’s aim is to progressively alter the status quo in its favor.
It is past time for Tokyo to turn the tables on China’s machinations by responding assertively, including disabling Chinese state ships and detaining their crews when they engage in provocative activities, such as chasing Japanese fishing vessels. Otherwise, Japan will increasingly find itself at the receiving end of China’s muscular revisionism.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
As long as the Chinese Communist Party remains in power, it will persist with territorial expansionism and none of China’s neighbors will be safe. The Chinese communists, to use a quote from the Bible, are like “greedy dogs which can never have enough.”
As the world struggles to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, which first emerged in China, Chinese President Xi Jinping is pursuing his quest for regional dominance more aggressively than ever. From the Himalayas to Hong Kong and Tibet to the South and East China Seas, Xi seems to be picking up where Mao Zedong left off, with little fear of international retribution.
The parallels between Xi and the despots of the past are obvious. He has overseen a brutal crackdown on dissent, engineered the effective demise of the “one country, two systems” arrangement with Hong Kong, filled concentration camps and detention centers with Uighurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang province, and laid the groundwork to remain president for life.
According to US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, “Xi sees himself as Joseph Stalin’s successor.” Many others have compared Xi to Adolf Hitler, even coining the nickname “Xitler.” But it is Mao – the People’s Republic’s founding father, and the twentieth century’s most prolific butcher – to whom Xi bears the closest resemblance.
For starters, Xi has cultivated a Mao-style personality cult. In 2017, the Communist Party of China enshrined in its constitution a new political doctrine: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.” The ideology is inspired by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, but its inclusion in the CPC’s constitution makes Xi the third Chinese leader – after Mao and the architect of China’s modernization, Deng Xiaoping – to be mentioned in the document. Last December, the CPC also conferred upon Xi a new title: renmin lingxiu, or “people’s leader” – a label associated with Mao.
Now, Xi is working to complete Mao’s expansionist vision. Mao’s China annexed Xinjiang and Tibet, more than doubling the country’s territory and making it the world’s fourth largest by area. Its annexation of resource-rich Tibet, in particular, represented one of the most far-reaching geopolitical developments in post-World War II history, not least because it gave China common borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan, and northernmost Myanmar.
In fact, Mao considered Tibet to be China’s right-hand palm, with five fingers – Nepal, Bhutan, and the three Indian territories of Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh – that China was also meant to “liberate.” Mao’s 1962 war against India helped China gain more territory in Ladakh, after it earlier grabbed a Switzerland-sized chunk, the Aksai Chin region.
This past April and May, Xi had the People’s Liberation Army carry out a series of well-coordinated incursions into Ladakh, with the intruding forces setting up heavily fortified encampments. He then deployed tens of thousands of troops along the disputed Line of Actual Control (LAC) with Ladakh, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh.
This “incredibly aggressive action,” as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called it, led to bloody clashes in Ladakh on June 15, leaving 20 Indian soldiers, and an unknown number of Chinese troops, dead. (US intelligence agencies believe China suffered more casualties than India, but whereas India has honored its fallen as martyrs, China has refused to divulge its losses.) Despite continuing bilateral efforts to disengage rival forces, the specter of further clashes or a war continues to loom.
The CPC has not forgotten about the other two fingers, Bhutan and Nepal. Just as China and India began withdrawing troops from the site of the June 15 clashes, Beijing opened another front in its bid for territorial expansion, asserting a new claim in Bhutan.
In 2017, China occupied the Doklam Plateau – at the intersection of Tibet, Sikkim, and Bhutan, and claimed by the latter – following a 73-day military standoff with India, the de facto guarantor of Bhutanese security. Now, China is laying claim to another 11% of the tiny kingdom’s territory, in an area that can be accessed only through Arunachal Pradesh (which Chinese maps already show as part of China). The move thus advances Xi’s efforts against two of the five fingers simultaneously.
The fifth “finger,” Nepal, has been drifting away from India and toward China since it came under communist rule two and a half years ago. Indeed, China aided the Nepalese communists’ victory, including by unifying rival factions and funding their election campaign. Since then, China has openly meddled in the country’s fractious politics, in order to keep the ruling party intact, with its ambassador acting as if she were Nepal’s matriarch.
But being in China’s strategic orbit has done nothing to protect Nepal from the CPC’s territorial predation. Last month, a leaked Nepalese agricultural department report warned that China’s massive road-development projects have expanded China’s boundary into northern territories of Nepal and changed the course of rivers.
Of course, altering Asia’s water map is nothing new for China. Tibet is the starting point of Asia’s ten major river systems. This has facilitated China’s rise as a hydro-hegemon with no modern historical parallel. Today, Chinese-built mega-dams near the borders of the Tibetan Plateau give the country leverage over downstream countries.
As the hand metaphor indicates, Tibet is the key to China’s territorial claims in the Himalayan region – and not only because of geography. China cannot claim the five fingers on the basis of any Han-Chinese connection. Instead, it points to alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, even though Tibet was part of China only when China itself had been conquered by outsiders like the Mongols and the Manchus. Chinese current claims are nothing more than a power (and resource) grab.
In other words, the five-fingers strategy, coupled with Chinese expansionism elsewhere, is all about upholding the world’s longest-running autocracy. As long as the CPC – and especially the revisionist Xi – holds a monopoly on power, none of China’s neighbors will be safe.
China’s territorial revisionism has been unrelenting. Under Mao Zedong, China more than doubled its size by annexing Tibet and Xinjiang, making it the world’s fourth largest country in area. Under Xi Jinping, China’s expansionism increasingly threatens its neighbours, big and small. Xi’s regime has just opened a new territorial front against one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, by disputing its eastern borders.
In this light, the outcome of China’s aggression against India will have an important bearing on Asian security. If the current India-China military disengagement ends up like the 2017 Doklam disengagement in making China the clear winner, an emboldened Xi regime will likely become a greater threat to neighbours.
China’s strategy after its disastrous 1979 invasion of Vietnam has been to win without fighting. Deception, concealment and surprise have driven China’s repeated use of force — from seizing the Johnson Reef in 1988 and the Mischief Reef in 1995 to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and now vantage locations in Ladakh. It has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a shot or incurring any international costs.
China has displayed its art of deception even in its disengagement process with India. The first accord of June 6 to disengage collapsed after the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) erected structures on Indian territory and then ambushed and killed Indian Army men on verification patrol. The disengagement process restarted after Prime Minister Narendra Modi seemed to let China off the hook with his June 19 speech at the all-party meeting. But the fresh process became a ruse for PLA to encroach on two new Indian areas — the Depsang Y-Junction; and the Galwan Valley site of the ambush killings.
India and China are now in their third disengagement series. But while the previous two abortive rounds followed military-level talks, the latest cycle is being driven politically. We now know that Modi’s July 3 Ladakh visit, and his tough words there, were essentially designed to create domestic political space for his government to seek de-escalation with China. Barely 48 hours after his visit, India and China hammered out a disengagement deal.
Will the latest deal stick? Having encroached on key areas that overlook India’s defences, PLA is sitting pretty. A full return to status quo ante as sought by India seems remote, thanks to India’s own mixed signals. Moreover, by encroaching on additional areas behind the previous disengagement facade, China has armed itself with greater leverage to impose a revised status quo, including by applying the precept that “possession is nine-tenths of the law”.
Disengagement (pullback of rival forces from close proximity), if not de-escalation (ending hostilities through demobilisation of forces), meshes well with China’s interest in presenting India a fait accompli. Removing the threat of an Indian counteroffensive or Indian tit-for-tat land grab will help China win without fighting.
This explains why China has accepted disengagement — but on its terms. This is illustrated in the Galwan Valley, where India has pulled back from its own territory and created a “buffer zone” on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC). These steps, though temporary, create a new, China-advantageous status quo that PLA could seek to enforce because it keeps India out of China’s newly-claimed zone — the Galwan Valley.
The risk that, like at Doklam, the current disengagement may not end well for India is high. Instead of demonstrating strength and resolve, India has displayed zeal to end the stand-off, despite its armed forces being mobilised for possible war.
At a time when the international environment is beginning to turn against China, India could have prolonged the stand-off until winter to compel restoration of status quo ante. But instead, it has kicked status quo ante down the road and settled merely for disengagement. This allows China to hold on to its core territorial gains and trade the marginal occupied territories for Indian concessions, as part of its well-known “advance 10 miles and retreat six miles” strategy.
Far from imposing military costs, India has shied away even from trade actions against the aggressor, as if to preserve the option of another Modi-Xi summit. India’s steps so far (banning Chinese mobile apps and announcing an intent to restrict Chinese investment in some areas) have been designed to assuage public anger at home, but without imposing substantive costs on Beijing or damaging bilateral relations.
In 1967, a weak India, while recovering from the 1962 and 1965 wars, gave China a bloody nose. But in 2017 and again now, after its soldiers displayed extraordinary bravery in tackling China’s aggression, a nuclear-armed India hastily sought disengagement. Its decision-makers remain loath to fundamentally change the China policy even when faced with aggression.
Bite by bite, China has been nibbling away at India’s borderlands, even as successive Indian prime ministers have sought to appease it. When political calculations trump military factors and a nation lives by empty rhetoric, it can win neither war nor peace.
The present path risks locking India in a “no war, no peace” situation with China and imposing mounting security costs. This path aids China’s time-tested strategy of attrition, friction and containment to harass, encumber, encircle, deceive and weigh India down.
If India wants Himalayan peace, it must make China pay for its aggression to help create a deterrent effect. The present aggression — the most serious since the 1960s — resulted from India letting China off the hook too easily in 2017, allowing it to capture Doklam. And if China emerges the winner from the current crisis, its next aggression could be worse. Only a chastened China saddled with high costs and loss of face will rein in its aggressive expansionism.
While the international attention remains on China’s recidivist activities in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, where it continues to incrementally expand its strategic footprint, Beijing is also quietly focusing its attention on the waters of rivers that originate in the resource-rich, Chinese-controlled territory of Tibet.
China has long pursued a broader strategy to corner natural resources. This has driven its expanding presence in faraway places, including Africa and Latin America. China’s newer obsession is freshwater, a life-creating and life-supporting resource whose growing shortages are casting a cloud over Asia’s economic future.
Peace and security in Asia both hinge on China’s willingness to embrace rules-based cooperation, which includes ceasing activities that threaten to turn internationally shared river-water resources into a Chinese political weapon. These activities range from building cascades of large dams on international rivers before they leave Chinese-controlled territory to the denial of or delayed transfer of hydrological data to downstream neighboring countries.
Most of Asia’s great rivers originate on the Tibetan Plateau. From there, they flow to a dozen countries, including mainland China. With its lofty terrain, featuring the world’s tallest mountain peaks and largest concentration of glaciers and riverheads, the Tibetan Plateau influences atmospheric circulation — and therefore climate and weather patterns — across the Northern Hemisphere.
Today, China has turned this ecologically -fragile plateau, which it invaded and occupied from 1950 to 1951, into the center of its mining and dam-building activities. With the plateau warming more than three times faster than the global average according to Chinese data, glacial recession, especially in the eastern Himalayas, and the thawing of Tibet’s permafrost (or permanently frozen ground) have accelerated.
More consequential for downstream countries is the fact that China, by building giant dams and other diversion structures on international rivers that start in Tibet, is becoming Asia’s upstream water controller. This action is arming Beijing with increasing leverage over the countries critically dependent on river flows from the Tibetan Plateau.
Take the Mekong River, continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline. A new study in the United States confirms what many in the region know — that China is damming the Mekong to environmental hell. According to the study, China’s cascade of upstream mega-dams, by limiting downstream flows, is causing recurrent droughts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam by limiting downstream flows. Using a natural-flow data model, the study found that the 11 eleven Chinese mega-dams currently in operation on the Mekong are causing severe drought and devastation downstream. Yet an undeterred China is building more giant dams on the Mekong just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia. This study by the Eyes on Earth research and consulting company was conducted with funding from the State Department’s Lower Mekong Initiative.
It is not just the Mekong: China is constructing dams on multiple international rivers just before they leave its territory. China’s efforts to reengineer cross-border natural flows are roiling its relations with downstream neighbors. Its occupation of the sprawling Tibetan Plateau enlarged its landmass by more than one-third and fundamentally altered Asia’s geostrategic realities. It made China the neighbor of India, Nepal, and Bhutan. Furthermore, China gained a throttlehold on the headwaters of Asia’s major river systems.
Tibet — the world’s highest and largest plateau — is also a treasure-trove of mineral resources, holding China’s biggest reserves of 10 ten different metals and serving as the world’s largest lithium producer. Today, Tibet is the focal point of China’s mining and damming activities, which threaten the plateau’s fragile ecosystems and endemic species. Tibet also remains at the center of the China-India divide, fueling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions, and feuds over river-water flows. Among the rivers China’s dam builders are targeting is the Brahmaputra, the lifeblood for Bangladesh and northeastern India. A series of dams are coming up on the Brahmaputra, known as Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet.
Beijing’s unilateralist actions extend beyond dam building. In 2017, China refused to supply hydrological data to India in violation of the terms of two bilateral agreements, underscoring its readiness to weaponize the sharing of water data on upstream river flows. The data denial was said to be intended to punish India for boycotting China’s inaugural Belt and Road summit and for a military standoff between the two countries that year on the small, but strategically important, Himalayan plateau of Doklam. The withholding of data crimped India’s flood early-warning systems. That, in turn, resulted in preventable deaths as the monsoon-swollen Brahmaputra overran its banks, leaving a major trail of destruction, especially in India’s Assam state.
The Siang, the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system, represents another example of China’s unilateralist actions on internationally shared waters. In 2017, the Siang’s water turned dirty and gray as the stream entered India from Tibet. This raised concern that China’s upstream activities could be threatening the Siang in the same way Beijing has polluted its own domestic rivers, including the Yellow, the cradle of the Chinese civilization. Nearly three years later, the water in the once-pristine Siang has still not fully cleared.
According to Aquastat, a database of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 718 billion cubic meters of surface water a year flows out of the Tibetan Plateau and the Chinese-administered regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to neighboring countries. Of that amount, 48.33 percent% runs directly into India. In addition, Nepal’s Tibet-originating rivers drain into India’s Gangetic basin. This might suggest that no country is more vulnerable than India to China’s current focus on building cascades of large dams on international rivers. In reality, as China’s frenzied damming of the Mekong illustrates, its small, economically vulnerable neighbors are the most susceptible to its upstream hydroengineering activities. The greatest impact of the Brahmaputra’s damming, for example, will be borne not by India but by Bangladesh, which is located furthest downstream.
For years, China has been the global leader in dam building. It already boasts slightly more than half of the globe’s approximately 58,000 large dams. Yet its “dam rush” persists. The more dams it builds on international rivers, the greater becomes its capacity to use transboundary waters as a tool of coercive diplomacy against its neighbors. Every new dam, by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows, increases the potential use of shared waters as a political weapon by augmenting China’s capacity to regulate transboundary flows. This concern is underscored by China’s refusal to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighboring country. Even India and Pakistan have a water-sharing treaty.
China’s present path will likely lead to greater environmental degradation on the Tibetan Plateau, exacerbating Asia’s water challenges. Asia is the world’s largest and most-populous continent, with three-fifths of the global population, yet it has the lowest per capita freshwater availability — less than half the global average of 5,829 cubic meters.
At a time of increasing water stress in Asia, the growth of water nationalism as a driver of China’s policy highlights the linkage between water and peace. Cooperative institutional mechanisms and sustainable resource utilization constitute the building blocks of water peace.
If China does not abandon its current approach in favor of institutionalized cooperation with co-basin states, the prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever, while the likelihood of downstream countries facing a drier future would increase. Asia will be able to shape water for peace only if China comes on board by embracing transparency and collaboration, centered on water sharing, uninterrupted hydrological-data flow, and dispute-settlement mechanisms.
. . .
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, an independent think tank, and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press), the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.
FIGHTING TWO BATTLES simultaneously — one against Chinese aggression in Ladakh and another against the China-originating coronavirus — India finds itself at a critical juncture in its post-Independence history. How India emerges from the dual crises will not only decide Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political future but, more importantly, have an important bearing on the country’s future trajectory and international standing.
The bare fact is that China’s stealth aggression in the second half of April caught India napping, with the armed forces discovering the intrusions in early May. In a swift operation that must have been planned months ahead, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forcibly changed the status quo by encroaching into disputed and undisputed border areas of Ladakh. This came at a time when a distracted India was wrestling with the coronavirus outbreak by enforcing the world’s strictest lockdown.
Since the 1980s, China has been eating away — bite by bite — at India’s Himalayan borderlands, even as successive Indian prime ministers have pursued a policy of appeasement toward Beijing. India is now reaping the bitter fruits of such appeasement.
In comparison to China’s intrusions in the past years, its latest aggression is unprecedented. The well-coordinated encroachments were strategically geared to creating new facts on the ground by grabbing vantage locations, with the intent to secure militarily commanding positions and render Indian defences vulnerable. This was underscored by the PLA’s occupation of the key strategic heights around Lake Pangong, in the area stretching from Fingers 4 to 8, and by its encampments atop Galwan Valley’s ridges that overlook India’s newly built Darbuk-Shyok-DBO highway. That highway is a key supply route to India’s most-forward military base located near the Karakoram Pass.
Although China provoked bloody clashes at the Sikkim-Tibet border in 1967 and triggered border skirmishes in 1986-87 by crossing the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Samdurong Chu, this year has marked the first time that it has opened military pressure points against India in peacetime all along the Himalayan frontier. To mount pressure on India, China not only has amassed forces along the Himalayan frontier but also provoked a series of clashes with Indian troops, even along Sikkim’s 206-kilometer border with Tibet.
China sees conflict as inevitable
Although China has risen from a backward, poor state to a global economic powerhouse, the key elements in its statecraft and strategic doctrine have not changed. Since the Mao Zedong era, China has adhered to the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.” This has meant exploiting the opponent’s weaknesses and camouflaging offense as defence. “All warfare,” Sun Tzu also famously said, “is based on deception.”
Communist China has repeatedly used force since 1950. This happened even under Deng Xiaoping, who sought to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam in 1979, in the style of Mao’s 1962 war on India. Whenever China has used force, it has been in the form of military pre-emption, executed through deception, concealment and surprise. Its latest aggression against India had all these elements.
The Chinese system sees conflict as inherent in China’s efforts to resolutely achieve its rightful place in the world and to assert its territorial claims and broader strategic interests. Beijing is thus ever willing to create or manage conflict. From employing its trade muscle to inflict commercial pain on countries that challenge it to exploiting its monopoly on the global production of a vital resource like rare-earth minerals, China has staked out a muscular, conflict-making role. As a Global Timeseditorial on June 22 said in relation to India, “The border dispute has made it clear that China is not afraid of conflicts when it comes to territorial issues.”
Against this background, a China-India agreement to de-escalate tensions will offer Beijing an opportunity to escalate its game of deception, with the aim of buying time and consolidating its hold on the newly encroached areas. China usually takes one step at a time in its relentless push to expand its land and sea frontiers. In the coming years, it could seek to replicate its Pangong territorial grab in other strategic Ladakh areas, such as Depsang, Demchok and Chumar.
In fact,India’s perennially reactive mode has long allowed the PLA to keep the initiative in the Himalayas. The PLA began honing its “salami tactics” in the Himalayas in the 1950s, when it sliced off the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau from Ladakh. Later China inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in the 1962 war, securing peace, as a state mouthpiece crowed in 2012, on its own terms.
Today, China pursues a “cabbage” approach to borders, cutting off access to an adversary’s previously controlled territory and gradually surrounding it with multiple security layers. China has been gradually subverting the status quo in the South and East China Seas, its border with India, and even the flows of international rivers — all without firing a single shot.
Operating in the threshold between peace and war, China has pursued increasingly persistent efforts to intrude into India’s desolate borderlands. Yet India has silently faced China’s bulletless war for territory without a concrete counter-strategy to impose costs for such revisionism. As China’s coercive power grows, it is likely to increasingly employ its capabilities not to wage full-scale military conflict with another country but to alter the territorial status quo in its favour short of overt war and to narrow the other side’s options.
China’s stealth wars have already become a leading cause of geopolitical instability in Asia. India is a principal target of such stealth wars. China has been posing new challenges to India, ratcheting up strategic pressure on multiple flanks, including by reviving old territorial claims and constantly expanding its claim lines in the Himalayas. Given that the two countries share the world’s longest disputed land border, India is particularly vulnerable to direct military pressure from China. Indeed, the largest territory that China seeks, Arunachal Pradesh, is almost three times as large as Taiwan.
The Himalayan frontier is vast, inhospitable and difficult to patrol, giving an advantage to a determined aggressor. Kiren Rijiju, India’s then Minister of State for Home Affairs, told Parliament in 2014 that, on average, China was launching at least one stealth border transgression into Indian territory every day. According to Rijiju, PLA troops were intruding into vacant border spaces with the objective of occupying them.
China’s high-altitude territorial incursions gained momentum after then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 surrendered India’s Tibet card by formally recognizing Tibet as part of China. Beijing exploited Vajpayee’s yearning for a successful China visit by extracting concessions that presented India as seemingly willing to accept a Sino-centric Asia. For the first time, India used the legal term “recognize” — in a joint document signed by the heads of the two countries — to accept what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”
Vajpayee’s gratuitous concession on Tibet — a large historical buffer between the Indian and Chinese civilizations that the Chinese communists annexed in 1950-51 — acted as a spur to China’s creeping aggression. It was in the period after India’s Tibet cave-in that the Chinese coined the term “South Tibet” for the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh. The cave-in also set in motion stepped-up Chinese incursions and other border transgressions, with such scofflaw actions steadily increasing in the period from 2005 to 2020, as India’s own figures underscore.
In the Himalayas, like in the South China Sea, China has in some instances employed civilian resources as the tip of its intrusion strategy. While China’s naval forces in the South China Sea have followed Chinese fishermen to carve out space for occupying reefs, in the Himalayan region, the PLA has used specially recruited Han Chinese herders and grazers to encroach on some Indian frontier areas. Once such civilians settle on the infiltrated land, PLA troops gain control of the area, thus paving the way for the establishment of more permanent encampments or observation posts. To be sure, PLA troops have also directly infiltrated and occupied unguarded areas.
Thanks to such PLA tactics, India has over the years lost considerable land in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. In Ladakh, for example, PLA’s nibbling at Indian territories has resulted in its capture of Chumar’s Tia Pangnak and Chabji Valley and an ancient trading centre, Doom Cheley. China has been able to advance its territorial aggrandizement along the Himalayan frontier (and in the South China Sea) without the need for missiles or bullets.
Yet, without realizing it, successive Indian prime ministers have aided or condoned China’s terrestrial aggression. In fact, their naïve statements have encouraged greater Chinese incursions. Take Modi, who prioritized resetting ties with China after becoming prime minister in 2014 without any prior national experience.
In 2017, Modi said that, although China and India are at odds over their borders, it was remarkable that “in the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of [it].” The Chinese foreign ministry responded by praising Modi’s “positive remarks.” Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, for his part, used to claim that, in their 5,000-year history, India and China fought only one war, in 1962. What this rose-tinted history failed to acknowledge was that China and India became neighbours only after China completed its capture of Tibet in 1951.
India’s accommodating rhetoric has helped China’s designs to such an extent that the phrase Modi coined, “inch toward miles,” as the motto of India-China cooperation actually reflects the PLA strategy of incremental encroachments. While India-China cooperation has yet to inch toward miles, the PLA has been busy translating Modi’s slogan into practice.
Slippery slope of appeasement
When China caught India’s undermanned and ill-equipped army napping by launching a surprise, multi-pronged military attack across the Himalayas on October 20, 1962, the humiliation that ensued marked a tectonic moment in India’s post-independence history. Taking an enemy by surprise confers a significant tactical advantage in war, and the Chinese invasion inflicted an immense psychological and political shock on India that greatly magnified the initial military advances that China achieved.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai publicly said that the war was intended “to teach India a lesson.” China’s blitzkrieg created gloom and a defeatist mindset in India, and forced its army to retreat to defensive positions. India even shied away from employing its air power for fear of unknown consequences, although the Chinese military lacked effective air cover for its advancing forces. India’s then prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, publicly bemoaned that China had “returned evil for good.” It was Nehru’s persistent appeasement toward China that set in motion the events leading to the 1962 Chinese invasion.
India’s defeat led to profound developments. It hastened the death of Nehru and set in motion fundamental changes in the country’s policy and approach, including the launch of military modernization. Yet, by the late 1980s, appeasement returned as the leitmotif of India’s China policy. Today, nearly 58 years after 1962, Indian appeasement toward China has again resulted in developments inimical to India’s security. War clouds have suddenly appeared. India has largely forgotten the lessons of 1962, including the costs of reposing faith in China’s words.
Appeasement is a slippery, treacherous slope. Once a nation embarks on appeasement, it slips into a self-perpetuating trap. Every prime minister after Indira Gandhi has kowtowed to China. Indian appeasement resumed with Rajiv Gandhi’s 1988 Beijing visit and deepened with Vajpayee’s 2003 surrender of India’s Tibet card. Modi, for his part, has taken appeasement to a new level.
The paradox is that, in the post-Indira Gandhi period, every time India has stood up to China, it has been followed by New Delhi’s kowtow to Beijing. The Sumdorong Chu confrontation was followed by Rajiv Gandhi’s paying of obeisance to Beijing. In 2017, Indian forces resolutely halted PLA’s effort to build a road to the Indian border through the uninhabited Doklam plateau that India’s ally, Bhutan, regards as its own territory. This action was followed by Modi’s kowtow to China.
It was Modi, as Chinese President Xi Jinping later revealed, that proposed an annual “informal” bilateral summit — a proposal that led to the so-called Wuhan process. Xi gladly accepted Modi’s proposal of early 2018 because high-level meetings aid China’s “engagement with containment” strategy toward India.
Worse still, Modi initiated this process despite China’s seizure of Doklam. After the 73-day troop standoff at the southwestern edge of Doklam ended with an agreement to disengage, China launched frenzied construction of military fortifications and seized control of almost the entire plateau, other than the corner where the faceoff had occurred. By the time Modi decided to travel to Wuhan, the Doklam plateau, which previously had no permanent military structures or permanent force deployments, was teeming with Chinese barracks, helipads, ammunition dumps and other facilities, as satellite images underscored.
The myth of Doklam victory that Modi sold Indians to bolster his image proved costly for India, as China’s 2020 aggression has highlighted. Despite being Bhutan’s de facto security guarantor, India failed to defend that tiny nation’s territorial sovereignty. China’s Doklam capture has shattered Bhutanese faith in India’s security assurances, making Thimphu more eager to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing.
Meanwhile, with his leverage weakened, Modi’s effort at rapprochement with Beijing quickly slid into overt appeasement. In early 2018, his government halted any official contact with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. This compounded Vajpayee’s Tibet cave-in. Officials were directed to stay away even from the March 2018 events marking the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India.
The following month, the Wuhan summit produced little more than Indian government-sponsored media hype. In fact, no sooner had the summit ended than significant differences emerged on how India and China interpret even the key understandings reached at Wuhan. For example, India said the two leaders “issued strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to avoid further border friction. But China’s statement made no mention of that. India, which has chafed against the increasingly lopsided trade with China, said agreement was reached at Wuhan to strengthen trade and investment in a “balanced and sustainable manner.” But that crucial phrase was missing from Beijing’s version.
Such differences were no surprise. Like all previous India-China summits since 1988, the Wuhan summit was long on political theatre, such as shows of amity, but short on concrete results to fundamentally change the bilateral dynamics. As if to pander to India’s proverbial weakness — confounding symbolism with substance — Xi focused more on diplomatic stagecraft, including receiving Modi with a very long red carpet, taking the Indian leader on a lakeside walk and a boat ride, and engaging in long handshakes while voicing hope the summit would “open a new chapter in bilateral ties.”
Wuhan was followed in October 2019 by an equally unremarkable Modi-Xi summit in Mamallapuram, near Chennai. Yet Modi hailed both summits as harbingers of a new strategic convergence with China. If anything, his “Wuhan spirit” and “Chennai connect” lullabies — like Nehru’s Hindi-Chini bhai bhai lullaby — lulled India into a dangerous complacency.
Against this background, is it any surprise that military tensions between India and China are rising again amid an intense geopolitical rivalry? There is still no clearly defined Line of Actual Control (LAC) in the Himalayas separating the rival armies. Such a situation has persisted despite regular Chinese-Indian talks since 1981. In fact, these talks constitute the longest and most futile negotiating process between any two countries in modern world history.
China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush for 39 years in the negotiations on resolving the larger boundary question. The negotiations began as “senior-level talks” in 1981 before being relabelled as “joint working group” talks in 1988 and then as “talks between special representatives” in 2003. With new each label, India has sought to wipe the slate clean, underscoring its unwillingness to learn from its unpalatable past experiences. For example, India today cites 22 rounds of talks thus far between the special representatives, but without mentioning the earlier border negotiations, as if they didn’t happen.
More significantly, China has made it clear that it has little interest in resolving the boundary question. An unsettled border aids China’s “salami slicing” strategy and also helps it to exert direct military pressure on India whenever it wants. During a 2010 visit to New Delhi, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao stated bluntly that sorting out the border disputes “will take a fairly long period of time.” In fact, after Vajpayee’s 2003 Tibet cave-in, China stopped talking about clarification of the LAC.
Since 2008, thanks to Beijing, references to clarification of the LAC finds no mention in official bilateral documents. Yet successive Indian governments have played into China’s hands by carrying on with the useless negotiations.
The same is the story with India’s investment of considerable political capital in establishing a border-management framework with China over the past 27 years. Five border-management agreements were signed between 1993 and 2013. Each was signed with great fanfare at a summit, and each was hailed in India (but not in China) as a major or historic “breakthrough.” This shows how successive Indian prime ministers have got a free pass from the country’s pliant media and feckless analysts, thus exacerbating India’s China challenge.
The last accord, the 2013 Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), was a textbook example of appeasing an aggressor and whetting the belligerent’s appetite for swallowing territory. Beijing wanted a new accord to wipe the slate clean over its breaches of the border-peace agreements signed earlier. With the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yearning to showcase the “success” of the summit, India acceded to the habitual violator’s call for new border rules. And Singh, with the help of the planeload of journalists he usually took on any overseas visit, marketed his China trip as a major success.
BDCA’s provisions were vaguely worded, allowing China — a master at reinterpreting texts — to cast the burden of compliance mainly on India. In fact, whereas China has flouted the letter and spirit of every bilateral accord, India has been strictly adhering to the various agreements’ provisions to such an extent that it has even gone beyond their literal meaning, resulting in the preventable deaths of 20 Indian soldiers at the hands of the PLA on June 15.
The 1996 accord’s provision not to use firearms within two kilometres of the LAC (Article VI) relates to peacetime border-policing situations, including cases where rival border patrols run into each other. It does not relate to aggression by one side against the other. What India has faced since April in eastern Ladakh is China’s pre-emptive military strike. Had Article VI been correctly read earlier as applicable only to border policing, India would not have lost 20 soldiers. The 20 were brutally murdered by PLA troops armed with improvised weapons, before Indian soldiers avenged the killings by inflicting heavy PLA casualties.
Today, thanks to China’s brazen aggression, the vaunted border-management framework lies in tatters. The aggression has highlighted the worthlessness of the Indian investment in such agreements. Yet, after telling his Chinese counterpart that China’s aggression broke “all our agreements,” Indian External Affairs S. Jaishankar, in the same telephonic conversation, oddly reposed faith in those very “bilateral agreements and protocols” for de-escalation! This raises a fundamental question: Will India ever learn?
Since 1988, the more India has sought to appease China, the greater has been the perceptible hardening of China’s stance toward it. This hardening is reflected in developments beyond the bilateral domain, including Chinese strategic projects in other countries that neighbour India and the PLA’s troop presence in the Pakistani-held Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). With its troops present near the Pakistan-occupied J&K’s frontier with Ladakh, China is seeking to ramp up pressure on both Indian flanks in Ladakh.
More fundamentally, the strategic rivalry between the world’s largest autocracy and its biggest democracy has also sharpened, despite their fast-rising trade. Trade is the only area in which bilateral relations have thrived, with China managing to more than double its trade surplus with India on Modi’s watch to over $60 billion per year. China’s booming trade surplus, however, has failed to moderate or restrain its behaviour.
Modi’s alternate reality
Since the time Modi served as Gujarat’s chief minister, he has tended to view China not as it is but as he would like it to be. After he became prime minister, he went out of his way to befriend China. He postponed a Japan visit by several weeks so that his first meeting with an important world leader was with Xi. By delisting China as a “country of concern,” Modi further opened up the Indian economy to Beijing but ended up facilitating greater Chinese dumping.
Even by his penchant for springing surprises, Modi’s recent televised speech at the end of the June 19 all-party meeting was a stunner. As if underline a surreal alternate reality, Modi declared: “Nobody has intruded into our territory, nor is any intruder present, and nor is any post of ours under someone else’s occupation.” His speech became an instant propaganda coup for China, with its state media saying his words signalled to Beijing that Modi doesn’t want “further conflict with China” because, as the Global Times warned, “India will be more humiliated than” in 1962.
Modi effectively scored a self-goal damaging to India’s diplomatic and strategic interests. If India is unwilling to call China out on its aggression and intrusions, how does it expect any other major power to come to its support by criticizing China’s aggression? More importantly, by obscuring the truth on China’s encroachments, India is playing right into Beijing’s hands. China, the master of propaganda, will use Modi’s own words to tell the world that there was no aggression from its side, while continuing to consolidate its new territorial gains in Ladakh.
The supposed “clarification” issued by Modi’s office on his speech raised more questions than it answered, worsening the confusion. Without denying Modi’s key words, it said: “What is Indian territory is clear from the map of India.” The official Indian map extends to areas where PLA forces are currently arrayed against India. The Chinese cannot be faulted if they interpret Modi’s words as signalling that India, in reality, no longer considers the Chinese-occupied areas, including Aksai Chin, as its own.
Modi’s speech, in fact, illustrated how India relives history. Nehru kept obscuring China’s encroachments in the 1950s until he was caught in a trap that led to the 1962 humiliation. Now, despite the availability of satellite imagery in the digital era, Modi has likewise sought to cloak Chinese intrusions. Instead of drawing lessons from the Nehru era, including from how China stealthily occupied Aksai Chin, Modi delivered a speech that implicitly absolved China of its intrusions. His words can only embolden the aggressor.
Modi has cast himself as India’s “chowdikar” (protector) safeguarding the country’s frontiers from encroachers and terrorists. The fact that India was caught off-guard by the Chinese aggression is embarrassing for him. Modi wants to protect his image as a strong leader. This, unfortunately, has led him to downplay China’s aggression from the time the Indian Army discovered it. Until the PLA’s savage killing of 20 Indian soldiers lifted the lid on the Chinese aggression, Indian authorities sought to minimize the significance of China’s actions and to hide details. How can saving face at home become a bigger priority for the country’s leader than safeguarding long-term national interests?
Had Modi rallied the nation behind him as soon as the Chinese encroachments were discovered and had he ordered the armed forces to take counteraction, the PLA would not have gained time to consolidate its hold on the newly encroached areas. In the Lake Pangong region, for example, the PLA has transformed the landscape by building dozens of observation posts, bunkers and other concrete fortifications since the first clashes flared between rival troops there on May 5-6.
India has lost valuable time by doing nothing. It has been hoping against hope that China would see reason and withdraw.
Unfortunately, the Indian government even obscured the nature and significance of the clashes that occurred in the first 10 days of May, including near the Naku-la Pass, on the Sikkim-Tibet frontier. It also hid the extent of Indian casualties. In fact, the clashes were sought to be passed off as minor until revelations emerged weeks later that both sides had briefly captured each other’s soldiers and that some troops had been so seriously wounded that they required airlifting to hospitals, including in New Delhi.
Worse still, the Indian Army chief, General Manoj Naravane, personally downplayed China’s aggression. He issued a bizarre statement on May 14 that gratuitously blamed “aggressive behaviour by both sides” for the clashes, which he euphemistically called “incidents.” An Army chief blaming his own troops for “aggressive behaviour” while they confront an invading foe is unheard of.
General Naravane’s statement — apparently issued at the government’s behest — actually went to great lengths to cover up China’s aggression, including the ensuing clashes that erupted at several border points. The statement blamed the Ladakh and Sikkim border “incidents” on “differing perceptions” of the LAC’s alignment. In effect, he offered China a justification for its encroachments.
To be sure, the “differing perceptions” argument has long been proffered by successive Indian governments to obscure loss of territory or to rationalize Chinese incursions. This argument has given China, with its ever-shifting claim lines in the Himalayas, carte blanche to keep encroaching on more and more Indian areas by quoting India’s own admission that the LAC is indistinct and hazy.
General Naravane not only expounded the “differing perceptions” theory while the country was faced with its most serious China-frontier crisis in decades, but also his statement claimed that the Ladakh and Sikkim border “incidents” were “neither co-related nor do they have any connection with other global or local activities.” Why should the Indian Army chief take it upon himself to explain Chinese actions so as to paint them in better light? The fact is that the Ladakh and Sikkim border developments were indeed co-related, and were part of Xi’s larger aggressive quest for Chinese dominance.
On June 13th, a month after his first statement, General Naravane made another statement that “the entire situation along our borders with China is under control,” even as the intruding PLA troops were consolidating their hold on the areas they had infiltrated. Just two days later, the façade of “all is well” on the Himalayan borders collapsed, after the PLA’s ambush-killings triggered bloody clashes. The killing of 20 Indian soldiers, with scores more hospitalized, shocked the nation and brought the government’s handling of the situation under public scrutiny.
China’s stealth intrusions into eastern Ladakh have been followed with frenzied construction activity to consolidate its hold on the newly encroached areas and fortify its defences. Amid a Chinese military buildup along the Himalayas, Xi appointed a favourite general in early June to lead PLA forces arrayed against India. Xu Qiling, a rising PLA star and ground force commander of the Eastern Theatre Command, swapped positions with He Weidong, the ground force commander of the Western Theatre Command. Xu has the experience to lead joint ground and air operations. As if to signal that it could be readying to wage war on India, China evacuated its citizens from India in special flights from late May.
Many analysts in India and abroad have cited the Sino-Indian power asymmetry to argue that India cannot take on China. After all, China’s economic and military power is much greater than India’s. Some analysts have argued that Modi’s “no intrusion” statement reflected this reality.
War is not decided by military and economic capabilities alone. If capabilities alone determined the outcome of wars, then the stronger side would always win. But history is replete with examples of the weaker side triumphing over the more powerful opponent.
What is critical to any war’s outcome is leadership, political will, resoluteness, strategy, tactics and troop morale. History is shaped by farsighted and visionary leaders, who can change the destiny of a nation. Great leaders in history turned small island nations into global powers, while short-sighted leaders unravelled empires.
Defence generally has the advantage over offense, because it is easier to protect and hold than to advance, destroy and seize. Defensive operations in the mountains or on high-altitude plateaus, as in Ladakh, are aimed at resisting and foiling an enemy strike in order to prepare ground for a counter-attack.
India has one of the world’s largest and most-experienced mountain warfare armies. The fearlessness and bravery of its soldiers was highlighted recently by the swift costs they imposed on PLA troops in the Galwan Valley after an Indian patrol was ambushed. They demonstrated the true mark of valour when, in the face of death, they inflicted heavy Chinese casualties in hand-to-hand combat, including killing the PLA unit’s commanding officer. Intercepts of Chinese communications by US intelligence have confirmed that China lost more than twice as many soldiers as India.
The deaths represent China’s first combat troops killed in action, other than in UN peacekeeping operations, since the end of its war with Vietnam in 1979. The combat fatalities are a humiliation for China, which explains why it has hidden information on its casualties. Some on Chinese social media have criticized Xi’s regime by contrasting India’s honouring of its martyrs, including holding large public funerals, with China’s refusal to even recognize its fallen.
The Indian Army today is capable of repulsing a PLA attack and inflicting heavy losses. But there is a bigger question: Does India have the political will to impose costs on China? Despite Modi’s strongman image, India remains essentially a soft state, as his own China speech highlighted.
Shrewdly timing a pre-emptive strike that takes the opponent completely by surprise has been central to Communist China’s repeated use of force. By contrast, India — with its defensive mindset and risk-averseness under successive prime ministers — cannot even think of undertaking a pre-emptive assault. This gives China a major tactical advantage over India. As the Global Times said on June 21, China knows that India will not fire the first shot.
It will be China’s initiative to start a war against India and to end it — just like in 1962. And to achieve its objectives, China will do anything, from breaking binding agreements to employing a range of elaborate deceptions.
India needs to make a fresh start by abandoning its accommodating approach toward China that has made it look like a meek enabler. After spending so many years on the defensive, India must discard the platitudes and retake the narrative. To blunt Xi’s expansionism and to halt further Chinese encroachments, India must bare its own teeth and implement a containment strategy, including by joining hands with likeminded powers.
India must remember that when it has stood up to China, as in 1967, the bully has backed off, thus ensuring peace along the Himalayan frontier. But when India has sought to placate or appease China, the emboldened bully has stepped up its incursions and territorial aggrandizement.
In 1967, while still recovering from the major wars of 1962 and 1965, India gave China a bloody nose in the military clashes along the Sikkim-Tibet border. Those clashes were triggered by a Chinese attack much less grave than the Chinese aggression India now confronts. In 2020, can India pretend to be weaker than it was in 1967, despite building a nuclear arsenal and despite its longstanding status as one of the world’s largest importers of weapons?
President Xi Jinping, seeking to press China’s advantage while its neighbors are distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, has lately opened multiple fronts in his campaign to make China the world’s foremost power — from Hong Kong and Taiwan to the South and East China Seas to the Himalayan frontier.
The globally paralyzing pandemic has reinforced Xi’s efforts to realize his “Chinese dream” by the 2049 centenary of communist rule. Xi said in a speech at Xi’an Jiaotong University in April that “great steps in history have always emerged from the crucible of major disasters.”
This may explain why China has sought to make the most of the pandemic. From breaking Beijing’s binding commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy and attempting to police the waters off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands to picking a nasty border fight with India by encroaching on its territory, Xi has pushed the boundaries.
His actions are helping to shift attention from China’s culpability in the global spread of COVID-19 to the threat his authoritarian regime poses to international security. But his expansive vision has also increased the risks of China succumbing to what the historian Paul Kennedy called “imperial overstretch,” or overextending itself abroad, leading to its decline and fall, like how the Soviet empire imploded.
Xi’s expansionism has sought to remake globalization on China’s terms. The overreach is best illustrated by his marquee project, the Belt and Road Initiative, which aims to refashion the global economic and political order by plowing hundreds of billions of dollars into overseas projects when China has still to fully overcome poverty and underdevelopment at home.
It is an imperial project seeking to lure nations desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. But instead of the “common prosperity” Xi promised, the BRI has been ensnaring vulnerable countries in sovereignty-eroding debt traps. The pandemic’s mounting economic toll makes it harder for partner countries to repay their loans.
Beijing’s refusal to grant debt relief to partner states facing bankruptcy is only highlighting its predatory lending practices. By engendering anger or resentment, the hard-line approach risks undermining China’s international image and inviting a pushback against its neocolonial policies.
More ominously, Xi’s aggressive quest for Chinese dominance has led him to open multiple political or military fronts at the same time. This has raised concern at home about China overextending itself and international alarm over the country’s trajectory. According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the world is seeing “continually more aggressive action” by China.
Under Xi, China’s relationship with the superpower that aided its economic rise, the U.S., has given way to hostility, with a cold war on the horizon. With India, Xi seems itching to start the world’s next big conflict. The link between China and India, which make up more than a third of humanity and over a fifth of the global economy, is critical to international relations.
Meanwhile, Xi’s regime has stepped up efforts to turn internationally shared river-water resources into a political weapon by building cascades of large dams in China’s borderlands. China’s frenzied upstream damming of the Mekong River, however, is causing recurrent droughts in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
While Mao Zedong destroyed the old order and Deng Xiaoping laid the foundations of a modern Chinese economy, Xi is determined to make China the central player in international relations. Xi’s ambition, coupled with the cult of personality around him, may be blinding him to the dangers of an approach that has stretched China’s resources when its economy is slowing and working-age population declining.
Today, China remains a friendless power lacking any true seafaring strategic allies or reliable security partners. Indeed, the more powerful China has become, the more difficult it has become for it to gain genuine allies.
Can Xi make China, without any allies, the world’s leading power by relying on an open disregard of international rules and on bullying? Leadership demands more than brute might.
The assumption behind Xi’s muscular approach — that there would not be a significant geopolitical price to pay — had thus far proved right, with other powers issuing words but shying away from actions. But with the pandemic and the move to strip Hong Kong of its autonomy, Tibet-style, Xi is courting an international backlash, underlined by a spate of actions from the U.S., EU, U.K., India and Australia.
Like the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear tragedy — a prelude to the Soviet Union’s fall — the pandemic has shown how a communist regime worsens a disaster by seeking to cover up the truth about it. The pandemic, by highlighting the global costs of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism, has made it more likely that the backlash will act as a spoiler to Xi’s neo-imperial ambitions.
Countries are already reassessing their economic reliance on Beijing and seeking supply chain diversification away from China. One example is Japan’s $2.2 billion fund to help reshore manufacturing. U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has opened the path to American sanctions against Chinese officials and companies.
With other powers still wrestling with the pandemic and a protest-scarred U.S. looking weak, Xi may take more aggressive actions to flex China’s muscle. But unless he reverses course, his overreach is likely to saddle China with overwhelming costs while creating an international environment hostile to the realization of his dream.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
India extended the hand of friendship to China but was repaid with stealth aggression in Ladakh. The Chinese incursions into strategic areas presented India with a Kargil-like challenge. The aggression is not just a wake-up call for India; it could prove to be the deciding factor in fundamentally altering the country’s approach to China.
Shrewdly timing a surprise assault has been central to China’s repeated use of force, as several studies underscore. In 1962, China invaded India just as the Cuban missile crisis was bringing the world to the brink of nuclear Armageddon. And in April-May, as a distracted India was wrestling with the coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China encroached on Ladakh’s Galwan Valley and Hot Springs (both previously undisputed areas) and simultaneously occupied Lake Pangong’s disputed long stretch between Fingers 4 and 8.
Military strategist Sun Tzu’s advice to “plan for what is difficult while it is easy” led China to strike when India was vulnerable. India’s draconian lockdown — the world’s strictest — flattened not its coronavirus curve but its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) curve, as one industrialist has noted. India now has the worst of both worlds — spiralling infection rates and a seriously-damaged economy, crimping its military options. China, which signalled a bellicose intent by conducting Himalayan military drills since the beginning of this year, seized the opening from the Indian Army’s lockdown-driven deferment of its annual Ladakh exercise, which creates acclimatised troop reserves before late spring unfreezes ingress routes.
Caught off-guard, India faces difficult options while battling the pandemic. India, however, is unlikely to put up with China’s encroachments, which explains its counterforce build-up in eastern Ladakh, despite the viral risks to troops. This week’s mutual pullback of troops at three of the four confrontation sites reduces the threat of war but doesn’t diminish China’s act of belligerence. The 2017 Doklam disengagement is a reminder that China doesn’t deviate from what it has set out to achieve: No sooner had the standoff ended than China began frenzied construction of permanent military structures and occupied almost the entire Doklam.
Let’s be clear. China’s latest aggression is very different from its Ladakh intrusions in the Depsang Plains (2013) and Chumar (2014) that had narrow tactical objectives. For example, it withdrew from Chumar after making India demolish local defensive fortifications.
The latest well-planned encroachments seem strategically geared to altering the frontier by grabbing vantage locations, whose control will place the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in a commanding position. By building bunkers and other concrete structures, such as between Pangong’s Fingers 4 and 8, PLA has signalled its intent to retain key land grabs.
With PLA forces already present in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir near its frontier with Ladakh, China is seeking to ramp up pressure on both Indian flanks in Ladakh. The encroachments raise the spectre of PLA in a war cutting through northern Ladakh and physically linking up with Pakistan to put India under siege.
China’s aggression potentially signifies a geostrategic sea change. China is seeking to buy enough time through negotiations with India to consolidate its hold on key encroached areas. In this light, Beijing is seeking to string India along. If China vacates occupied land after extracting a price, it won’t be vantage points overlooking enemy positions but marginal territory.
As Mao Zedong admitted, China undertakes negotiations to “buttress its position” and “wear down the opponent”. China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush for 39 years in the negotiations on resolving the larger boundary question. The negotiations began as “senior-level talks” in 1981 before deceptively being relabelled as “joint working group” talks in 1988 and then as “talks between special representatives” in 2003.
India also invested considerable political capital in establishing a border-management framework with China through five different agreements, each signed with great fanfare at summits between 1993 and 2013. However, by brazenly flouting the accords’ basic principles through its encroachments, China has gravely fractured the framework.
In the way it has profoundly changed the status quo in the South China Sea without firing a shot, China is seeking to complete its thus far bullet-less aggression against India by forestalling through negotiations an Indian counter-offensive or an Indian tit-for-tat grab of Chinese-claimed territory elsewhere. So, it is saying the two sides must ensure “differences do not escalate into disputes”. In plain language, China is asking India to stomach its aggression or else the situation will cease to be, in its words, “stable and controllable”.
With its aggression, however, China has brought its relations with India to a tipping point. By opening several international fronts, including one against India, Chinese President Xi Jinping may be biting off more than he can chew. He will discover India is no pushover. By awakening India to China’s threat, Xi’s aggression eventually will prove costly for China, which is already staring at a cold war with the United States.
Far from submitting to China’s aggression, India will make necessary readjustments in its foreign and defence policies with the aim of imposing costs and thwarting Beijing’s larger hegemonic objectives. After all, how India emerges from its military stand-off with China will have an important bearing on its international standing and on Asian security.
According to a Chinese proverb, “To feed the ambition in your heart is like carrying a tiger under your arm.” By starting a conflict with India to advance his larger neo-imperial ambitions, Xi has increased the odds that the tiger under his arm will bite him.
Last month’s swift and well-coordinated incursions by People’s Liberation Army troops into the icy borderlands of India’s Ladakh region were likely the product of months of preparation. The aggression – and the fact that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi didn’t see it coming – shows just how miserably his China policy has failed.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is “not in a good mood,” US President Donald Trump recently declared, as he offered to mediate India’s resurgent border conflict with China. After years of bending over backward to appease China, Modi has received yet another Chinese encroachment on Indian territory. Will this be enough to persuade him to change his approach?
While India was preoccupied with the COVID-19 crisis, China was apparently planning its next attempt to change the region’s territorial status quo by force. Last month’s swift and well-coordinated incursions by People’s Liberation Army troops into the icy borderlands of India’s Ladakh region were likely the product of months of preparation. The PLA has now established heavily fortified camps in the areas it infiltrated, in addition to deploying weapons on its side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC), within striking distance of Indian deployments.
China’s “unexpected” maneuver should not have been unexpected at all. Last August, China’s government vigorously condemned India’s establishment of Ladakh – including the Chinese-held Aksai Chin Plateau – as a new federal territory. (China seized Aksai Chin in the 1950s, after gobbling up Tibet, which had previously served as a buffer with India.) And the PLA had been conducting regular combat exercises near the Indian border this year.
Deception, concealment, and surprise often accompany China’s use of force, with Chinese leaders repeatedly claiming that military preemption was a defensive measure. Its latest assault on India – which China claims is the actual aggressor – was taken straight from this playbook.
Yet Modi did not see the Chinese incursions coming. His vision seems to have been clouded by the naive hope that, by appeasing China, he could reset the bilateral relationship and weaken China’s ties with Pakistan, another revisionist state that lays claims to sizable swaths of Indian territory.
The China-Pakistan axis has long generated high security costs for India and raised the specter of a two-front war. That is why some Indian leaders have pursued a “defensive wedge strategy,” in which the status quo power seeks to drive a wedge between two allied revisionist states, so that it can focus its capabilities on the more threatening challenger.
In 1999, the first prime minister from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, sought to win over Pakistan by visiting the country on the inaugural trip of a new bus service from Delhi to Lahore. Vajpayee was rewarded for his “bus diplomacy” with a stealth invasion by Pakistan’s powerful military of the Indian border zone of Kargil. This triggered a localized war, in which both sides lost several hundred soldiers before the status quo ante was restored.
Unlike Vajpayee, Modi has focused his attention on China – with similarly disastrous results. In fact, soon after becoming prime minister in 2014 – and just hours before hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping for a summit meeting – he learned that PLA troops had elbowed their way into southern Ladakh’s Chumar area, which lies along the LAC, and built a temporary road there.
The summit was portrayed as a success, even though the Chinese did not withdraw until weeks later, after India agreed to demolish local defensive fortifications. This was the beginning of a policy not of reconciliation, but of appeasement, the costs of which continue to mount.
On a trip to Beijing the next year, Modi surprised his own administration by announcing a decision to issue electronic tourist visas to Chinese nationals upon their arrival in India. He also delisted China as a “country of concern,” in an effort to court Chinese investment. Instead, the move opened India up to even more dumping by Chinese firms. On Modi’s watch, China has more than doubled its trade surplus with India to $60 billion per year – nearly equal to India’s annual defense spending.
Meanwhile, the PLA has continued to encroach on disputed territories. In mid-2017, Indian troops were pushed into another standoff with the PLA – this time, at Doklam, a small and desolate Himalayan plateau where Chinese-ruled Tibet meets the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim and the Kingdom of Bhutan. Indian troops stood up to the Chinese, as the PLA attempted to build a road to the India border through the uninhabited plateau that Bhutan, an Indian ally, regards as its own territory. The standoff lasted 73 days, before China and India agreed to disengage.
India declared the Doklam disengagement a tactical victory. But over the next several months, China steadily expanded its troop deployments by building permanent military structures, thereby gaining control of much of Doklam. Despite being the de facto guarantor of Bhutan’s security, India failed to defend the tiny country’s territorial sovereignty.
Yet Modi maintained India’s appeasement policy. In 2018, his government backed away from official contact with the Dalai Lama and Tibet’s India-based government-in-exile. At the same time, as Xi later revealed, Modi proposed an annual “informal” bilateral summit – a proposal Xi gladly accepted, because high-level meetings aid China’s “engagement with containment” strategy toward India. Two such summits have now been held, as well as 14 other meetings between the two leaders.
And what has Modi gotten for his troubles? China has stepped up its territorial revisionism, while raking in growing profits from the bilateral economic relationship (though, to be sure, India did recently tighten its policy on foreign direct investment, so that any flows from China must be pre-approved).
Modi has himself to blame for this state of affairs. With his excessive personalization of policy and stubborn strategic naiveté, he has shown himself not as the diplomatically deft strongman he purports to be, but as a kind of Indian Neville Chamberlain. Unless he learns from his mistakes and changes his policy toward China, India’s people – and territorial sovereignty – will pay the price.
The global backlash against China over its culpability for the international spread of the deadly coronavirus from Wuhan has gained momentum in recent weeks. And China itself has added fuel to the fire, as exemplified by its recent legal crackdown on Hong Kong. From implicitly seeking a political quid pro quo for supplying other countries with protective medical gear, to rejecting calls for an independent international inquiry into the virus’s origins until a majority of countries backed such a probe, the bullying tactics of President Xi Jinping’s government have damaged and isolated China’s communist regime.
The backlash could take the form of Western sanctions as Xi’s regime seeks to overturn Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” framework with its proposed new national-security laws for the territory, which has been wracked by widespread pro-democracy protests for over a year. More broadly, Xi’s overreach is inviting increasing hostility among China’s neighbors and around the world.
Had Xi been wise, China would have sought to repair the pandemic-inflicted damage to its image by showing empathy and compassion, such as by granting debt relief to near-bankrupt Belt and Road Initiative partner countries and providing medical aid to poorer countries without seeking their support for its handling of the outbreak. Instead, China has acted in ways that undermine its long-term interests.
Whether through its aggressive “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy – named after two Chinese films in which special-operations forces rout US-led mercenaries – or military-backed expansionist moves in China’s neighborhood, Xi’s regime has caused international alarm. In fact, Xi, the self-styled indispensable leader, views the current global crisis as an opportunity to tighten his grip on power and advance his neo-imperialist agenda, recently telling a Chinese university audience that, “The great steps in history were all taken after major disasters.”
China has certainly sought to make the most of the pandemic. After buying up much of the world’s available supply of protective medical equipment in January, it has engaged in price-gouging and apparent profiteering. And Chinese exports of substandard or defective medical gear have only added to the international anger.
While the world grapples with COVID-19, the Chinese military has provoked border flare-ups with India and attempted to police the waters off the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands. China has also recently established two new administrative districts in the South China Sea, and stepped up its incursions and other activities in the area. In early April, for example, a Chinese coast guard ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat, prompting the United States to caution China to “stop exploiting the [pandemic-related] distraction or vulnerability of other states to expand its unlawful claims in the South China Sea.”
Meanwhile, China has made good on its threat of economic reprisals against Australia for initiating the idea of an international coronavirus inquiry. Through trade actions, the Chinese government has effectively cut off imports of Australian barley and blocked more than one-third of Australia’s regular beef exports to China.
Whereas Japan readily allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct a full investigation into the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster – a probe that helped the country to improve safety governance – China strongly opposed any coronavirus inquiry, as if it had something to hide. In fact, some Chinese commentators denounced calls for an inquiry as racist.
But once a resolution calling for an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the global response to COVID-19 gained the support of more than 100 countries in the World Health Organization’s decision-making body, the World Health Assembly, Xi sought to save face by telling the assembly that “China supports the idea of a comprehensive review.” At the last minute, China co-sponsored the resolution, which was approved without objection.
The resolution, however, leaves it up to the WHO’s controversial director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to launch the review “at the earliest appropriate moment.” Tedros, who has been accused of aiding China’s initial COVID-19 cover-up, may decide to wait until the pandemic has come “under control,” as Xi has proposed.
Make no mistake: the world will not be the same after this wartime-like crisis. Future historians will regard the pandemic as a turning point that helped to reshape global politics and restructure vital production networks. Indeed, the crisis has made the world wake up to the potential threats stemming from China’s grip on many global supply chains, and moves are already afoot to loosen that control.
More fundamentally, Xi’s actions highlight how political institutions that bend to the whim of a single, omnipotent individual are prone to costly blunders. China’s diplomatic and information offensive to obscure facts and deflect criticism of its COVID-19 response may be only the latest example of its brazen use of censure and coercion to browbeat other countries. But it represents a watershed moment.
In the past, China’s reliance on persuasion secured its admission to international institutions like the World Trade Organization and helped to power its economic rise. But under Xi, spreading disinformation, exercising economic leverage, flexing military muscle, and running targeted influence operations have become China’s favorite tools for getting its way. Diplomacy serves as an adjunct of the Communist Party’s propaganda apparatus.
Xi’s approach is alienating other countries, in the process jeopardizing their appetite for Chinese-made goods, scaring away investors, and accentuating China’s image problem. Negative views of China and its leadership among Americans have reached a record high. Major economies such as Japan and the US are offering firms relocation subsidies as an incentive to shift production out of China. And India’s new rule requiring prior government approval of any investment from China is the first of its kind.
China currently faces the most daunting international environment since it began opening up in the late 1970s, and now it risks suffering lasting damage to its image and interests. A boomerang effect from Xi’s overreach seems inevitable. A pandemic that originated in China will likely end up weakening the country’s global position and hamstringing its future growth. In this sense, the hollowing out of Hong Kong’s autonomy in the shadow of COVID-19 could prove to be the proverbial straw that breaks the Chinese camel’s back.