Biden claims U.S. leverage over China is lacking. But he thinks the U.S. has leverage to cause economic collapse and regime change in Russia, an approach clearly based on hope. His focus on the wrong foe while seeking to appease China threatens to accelerate America’s relative decline.
The new export curbs U.S. President Joe Biden recently imposed on the Chinese chip industry to help slow Beijing’s technological and military advances have obscured his administration’s relatively conciliatory stance since taking office.
Even the export curbs have been undercut by exemptions granted to major Taiwanese and South Korean companies for their chipmaking facilities in China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, wants Biden to live up to “Five Nos” which Beijing claims the U.S. president has committed to: No to changing China’s authoritarian system; no to containing China; no to seeking U.S. economic decoupling from China; no to a policy of “one China, one Taiwan;” and no to conflict or a new Cold War with China.
According to the official Chinese readout of the two leaders’ recent meeting in Bali, “President Xi said he takes very seriously President Biden’s ‘Five Nos’ statement.”
The White House may not have directly corroborated such commitments, but similar formulations can be found in Biden’s comments and his administration’s public declarations and documents.
For example, in sharp contrast to predecessor Donald Trump’s ideological offensive against China as a predatory communist state without political legitimacy or the rule of law, Biden and his national security team have repeatedly disclaimed any intention to transform the country’s political system.
Biden himself assured Xi in a virtual summit a year ago that the U.S. would not seek to change China’s political system or direct alliances against it. On a call with Xi in September 2021, Biden sought to explain American actions toward China “in a way that [is] not misinterpreted as … somehow trying to sort of undermine Beijing in particular ways,” a senior administration official told reporters.
Similar reassurances have been embedded in Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which declares that, “Our objective is not to change the [People’s Republic of China] but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates.” In Bali, Biden went a step further by telling Xi that the U.S. “respects China’s system,” according to Beijing’s account of the meeting.
China is not just the world’s largest autocracy. It is a technology-driven Orwellian surveillance state that is seeking to stamp out the cultural and linguistic identities of ethnic minorities whose sprawling homelands the Communist Party seized after coming to power in 1949. In the largest mass incarceration on religious grounds since the Nazi period, more than 1 million Muslims have been detained in Xi’s Xinjiang gulag.
Contrast Biden’s reassurances to China despite the country’s totalitarianism with his narrative that the Western conflict with Russia symbolizes a “battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”
While publicly seeking economic collapse and regime change in Russia, the Biden administration declared in May that it is seeking neither to block China’s “role as a major power” nor to “sever China’s economy from ours or from the global economy.” It added that it remains committed to its “One China” policy.
More recently, Biden assured Xi in Bali that the U.S. is “not looking for conflict” with China. “I absolutely believe there need not be a new Cold War,” the American president said.
Indeed, the Biden administration is seeking to “coexist and cooperate” with China, resisting labeling it as an outright enemy, despite Beijing covering up the origins of COVID-19, its oppression in Hong Kong and other territories, its redrawing of the geopolitical map of the South China Sea, and its forcibly changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayas.
The Biden-Xi agreement in Bali to empower senior officials to engage in a sustained effort to manage bilateral differences is scarcely going to stabilize U.S.-China relations, given that Beijing is a revisionist power. Indeed, Biden’s conciliatory approach may only embolden Xi.
Sensing weakness on the U.S. side, Xi has upped the ante on several fronts, from his frenzied buildup of nuclear weapons to hypersonic missile testing. Biden, who just turned 80, claims U.S. leverage on China is lacking, so he wants to work with U.S. allies to shape Beijing’s behavior.
Deterrence of further Chinese expansionism must start with Taiwan, whose Chinese takeover would upend the world order. Yet in Bali, Xi warned Biden that Taiwan is Beijing’s “first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations.”
More broadly, Biden’s emphasis on “outcompeting China and restraining Russia” runs counter to the statement in his 48-page national security strategy last month that China is “the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.”
While Russia is trying to mitigate a perceived security threat in its neighborhood, China is seeking to supplant the U.S. as the preeminent global power.
China’s population and economy are each about 10 times the size of Russia’s, and its military expenditures are more than four times greater. Yet the U.S. proxy war with Russia, which has led Washington to commit a total of $91 billion for Ukraine and ask Congress for more than $37 billion in additional emergency aid, is deepening Biden’s conciliatory approach toward China while simultaneously pushing Moscow closer to Beijing.
The U.S. is in no position to meaningfully take on China and Russia simultaneously. The Biden administration’s goal to “see Russia weakened” and allow the U.S. to single-mindedly focus on the threat of China is based on hope, not reality.
The worst outcome for the U.S. from the present international crisis would be the creation of a pan-Eurasian, China-Russia axis which would compound America’s strategic overreach and accelerate its relative decline. In fact, with the blowback from the economic war on Russia exacting an increasing toll on the West, China is likely to emerge as the only winner from the conflict over Ukraine’s future.
Brahma Chellaney is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure has already been marked by high ambition and aggression, including territorial and maritime expansionism. Xi’s vision, the “Chinese dream,” is to make China the world’s leading power by 2049, the centenary of communist rule.
But Xi—who has just crowned himself China’s new emperor and elevated his favourite “yes” men to the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s highest decision-making body—may be biting off more than he can chew. His third term is likely to take a toll on China’s economy and international standing while leading the country to a major war over Taiwan.
Xi’s decade-long reign has already turned China into a wrathful, expansionist power that pursues “wolf warrior” tactics and debt-trap diplomacy and flouts international law at will. Two successive US administrations have described as genocide and crimes against humanity Xi’s Xinjiang gulag, the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi period. About a million Muslims continue to languish in Xi’s gulag, without Xi or China facing tangible Western sanctions.
The international costs of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism are apparent from the devastating consequences of the China-originating Covij-19 pandemic, which officially has killed more than 6.5 million people worldwide. Nearly three years on, the world still does not know whether Covid-19 began as a natural spillover from wildlife or was triggered by the accidental leak of a lab-enhanced virus in Wuhan city. What is apparent, though, is that Xi’s regime lied about the initial spread of the disease, hid evidence of human-to-human transmission, and silenced doctors who sought to warn about the emergence of a novel coronavirus.
More ominously, a massive cover-up in China to obscure the genesis of the virus suggests the world may never know the truth. Beijing has refused to cooperate with international investigations, characterising them as “origin-tracing terrorism,” and instead peddled conspiracy theories.
Xi, meanwhile, has accelerated national production of nuclear warheads so rapidly that the Pentagon, in just one year, revised up its estimate of the number of such weapons China will deploy by 2030 from 400 to more than 1,000. China has already fielded its first operational hypersonic-weapons system and “intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force,” according to a Pentagon report. The unprecedented speed and scale of the nuclear build-up is linked to Xi’s international expansionism, including seeking China’s global primacy by 2049.
But thanks to Xi’s actions, China’s global image has been badly dented, forcing the country to increasingly rely on its coercive power. A 2021 global survey found that unfavourable views of China were at or near historic highs in most advanced economies.
Yet, instead of undertaking a course correction, Xi is doubling down on his scofflaw actions, as underscored by China’s stepped-up bullying of Taiwan. After Beijing’s success in swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayan borderlands with India, Nepal and Bhutan, Taiwan is likely to be Xi’s next target.
Xi’s unbridled authority, however, does not augur well for international security and China’s own future. In fact, in a forewarning that Xi could lead China into a war, the customary phrase ‘peace and development remains the theme of the era’ was absent from his speech as well as report to the party Congress
It speaks for itself that, even before Xi secured a precedent-defying third term as the country’s leader at the recent party congress, his record in power was drawing comparisons to the past century’s most brutal rulers.
For example, Robert O’Brien, national security adviser to then-US President Donald Trump, last year equated Xi to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Some others have compared Xi to Adolf Hitler, even coining the nickname “Xitler.”
Xi, for his part, has cultivated a Mao Zedong-style personality cult and embarked on completing the expansionist agenda that the communist China’s founder left unfinished. Indeed, Xi has sought to model himself on Mao, the 20th century’s top butcher.
Like Mao Zedong Thought, Xi Jinping Thought has been enshrined in China’s constitution and made the central doctrine guiding the Communist Party. Also like Mao, Xi is now reverently referred to as renminlingxiu, or “people’s leader.”
China’s new Mao, while ideologically committed to classical Marxism-Leninism, as his speech at the opening of the party congress underscored, is apparently seeking to build fascism with Chinese characteristics.
A critical element of Xi’s strategy to realise the Chinese dream has been the “One Belt, One Road” project, renamed as the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, under which China has considerably invested in infrastructure projects abroad, with the goal of bringing countries firmly into China’s orbit. What Xi has called “the project of the century” has no parallel in modern history. The BRI is more than 12 times the size of the Marshall Plan, America’s post-World War II initiative to aid the reconstruction of Western Europe’s devastated economies.
Although the BRI has of late faced increasingly strong headwinds over partner countries’ debt-trap concerns, compelling Beijing to scale back the initiative, its significant and lasting impact should not be underestimated. The BRI, however, also remains a symbol of China’s imperial overreach, with Xi stretching the country’s resources to help advance his aggressive foreign policy.
Xi’s strategic overreach in international relations actually mirrors his domestic overreach, including imposing mass lockdowns and quarantines as part of a zero-Covid policy that has exacted major economic and social costs. Xi’s domestic overreach has extended to tightening the reins on the private sector, including the tech industry, as China increasingly becomes a state-driven economy that prioritises politics and national security over growth. Although China’s economic rise was driven by its embrace of a free market, Xi’s speech at the party congress emphasised Marxism more than markets.
According to a Chinese proverb, “To feed the ambition in your heart is like carrying a tiger under your arm.” The further Xi pushes his neo-imperial agenda, the more likely it is to bite him.
What Xi’s third term could bring
It is scarcely a surprise that Xi has tightened his grip on power by securing a ground-breaking third term as the country’s president following the week-long party congress. If there was any surprise at the party congress, it was the ease with which Xi has stacked the powerful Politburo Standing Committee with his acolytes and brought other loyalists or protégés to leadership positions, effectively creating a one-man rule under the Communist Party flag.
Surrounded by a closed circle of “yes” men who will be competing among themselves to show how loyal they are, the president will likely be told only what he would like to hear. As the American writer Walter Lippmann once warned, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”
Xi’s centralisation of authority means he will have a freer hand to speed up China’s rise as a military and technological superpower, while crushing all dissent at home and accelerating the Sinicisation of ethnic minorities, especially Tibetans and Uighurs. With his unchecked power, Xi can now do whatever he wants.
So, unlike in the past when he could blame others for mistakes, Xi will find it more difficult to palm off responsibility for problems. After all, Xi reigns supreme and unchallenged, without any heir apparent.
In his speech to the party congress, Xi left little doubt that he wants China to become a world power second to none, including by reducing its reliance on Western know-how and emerging as a leading technology power in its own right. Citing a host of perceived dangers, he also vowed to continue expanding the country’s already formidable national-security apparatus.
Xi’s unbridled authority, however, does not augur well for international security and China’s own future. In fact, in a forewarning that Xi could lead China into a war, the customary phrase “peace and development remains the theme of the era” was absent from his speech as well as report to the party congress. Instead, Xi darkly warned of “dangerous storms” on the horizon.
Domestic politics in any country, including in a leading democracy like the US, has a bearing on its foreign policy. This is especially so in the case of the world’s largest autocracy, China. Under Xi, China has discarded Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Instead, China has increasingly taken pride in baring its claws. This trend is likely to become even more pronounced in Xi’s third term.
Surrounded by a closed circle of ‘yes’ men who will be competing among themselves to show how loyal they are, the president will likely be told only what he would like to hear. As the American writer Walter Lippmann once warned, ‘where all think alike, no one thinks very much’
At home, Xi’s surveillance state will likely grow by leaps and bounds. Already, China’s unrivalled surveillance, censorship and propaganda systems can control or construct a narrative. But Xi is set to further expand his Orwellian surveillance state while cultivating a climate of fear.
In fact, to stamp out dissent, Xi’s regime has been whipping up ultra-nationalism by blending the digital tools of surveillance with the political tactics of the Cultural Revolution, which claimed more than a million lives. No less ominously, China’s repression and surveillance at home is a corollary of its aggressive revisionism abroad, which is largely concentrated against its neighbours.
More repression and more heavy-handedness at home are likely to be accompanied by a more aggressive military posture and a more forceful international agenda. Xi seems to believe that Chinese money can buy international acquiescence to China’s playing by its own rules, including aggressively pursuing an expansionist agenda.
With its “two steps forward, one step back” strategy, the Xi-led China will keep progressing toward its ambitious goals. Its territorial and maritime expansionism also mirrors that strategy. In this light, one can expect China to remain defiant in the face of international criticism of its renegade behaviour and actions.
Neighbouring countries will bear the brunt
The Chinese Communist Party has since its power grab in 1949 shown that it is intrinsically totalitarian, belligerent, arbitrary, expansionist and contemptuous of international law. But under Xi, the party and its rule have become more despotic, coercive, punitive and racist.
With its “tribute nation” approach to weak, vulnerable states, China seeks to influence their sovereign decisions through economic and political coercion. Indeed, Xi believes China has accumulated sufficient power to begin remaking the global order in its image, thereby reinventing itself as the mythical Middle Kingdom.
China’s territorial assertiveness and expansionism, meanwhile, have become intertwined with its national renewal. China has sought to extend its control to strategic territories and resources as part of a shrewd, high-stakes strategy to achieve political, economic, and military pre-eminence in Asia. It sees dominance in Asia as a stepping stone to supplanting the US as the world’s preeminent power.
Against this background, China’s muscular foreign policy is set to become even more assertive, with important implications for its neighbours. China will also exploit its status as the world’s unmatched hydro-hegemon to gain strategic leverage over its downstream neighbours, as the Mekong River Basin already exemplifies.
To stamp out dissent, Xi’s regime has been whipping up ultra-nationalism by blending the digital tools of surveillance with the political tactics of the cultural revolution, which claimed more than a million lives. No less ominously, China’s repression and surveillance at home is a corollary of its aggressive revisionism abroad, which is largely concentrated against its neighbours
The plain fact is that the rise of Xi’s neo-Maoist dictatorship will likely spell trouble for the democratic world but especially for neighbouring countries, which already are bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies. Indeed, Xi has shown an increasing appetite for taking major risks, as the South China Sea, the Himalayas and Hong Kong show.
Xi will continue expanding China’s influence and territorial and maritime control by stepping up pressure on other countries, a strategy that has already resulted in a fundamental change of the status quo in the South China Sea, without Beijing incurring any international costs.
Xi is now working to replicate his South China Sea strategy in the Himalayas by unilaterally changing facts on the ground, with little regard for the diplomatic and geopolitical fallout. He has not spared even Bhutan, one of the world’s smallest countries, by nibbling away at Bhutanese borderlands, one valley or pasture at a time.
China’s encroachments on several Ladakh borderlands in April-May 2020, for their part, have served as a reminder that, unlike Russia’s frontal, full-force attack on Ukraine, the Chinese Communist Party prefers a stealthy, salami-slicing approach to expand the country’s frontiers. Its tactics normally fall short of armed conflict, as a Pentagon report has noted.
The incremental, salami-slicing approach below the threshold of armed conflict explains why China’s often bulletless aggression draws little international costs. For example, without inviting any concrete Western sanctions, China has changed the status in the South China Sea and Hong Kong. What was one of Asia’s freest and most open cities, Hong Kong, has rapidly been turned into a repressive police state.
China’s salami-slicing strategy, however, did not develop under Xi. The party honed salami-slicing in the 1950s, when China sliced off the Switzerland-sized Aksai Chin plateau, which was part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. But under Xi’s leadership, the salami-slicing strategy has progressed to a “cabbage” approach to contested or claimed borderlands, with the People’s Liberation Army stealthily cutting off access to a neighbour’s previously controlled territory and surrounding it with multiple security layers.
Looking ahead, deception, stealth and surprise will remain integral to China’s expansion of its maritime and land borders. And China will likely rely more and more on coercive bargaining, including intimidating smaller nations from defending their interests.
It is important to note that China’s military drills are rarely empty shows of force. In 2020, China’s unusually large, wintertime troop exercise near the India border became the launchpad for its stealthy land grabs in Ladakh, triggering still continuing military standoffs between the two Asian giants at multiple sites along their long and inhospitable Himalayan frontier.
The more recent live-fire Chinese military drills around Taiwan in August, by simulating an air and sea blockade, demonstrated China’s combat capability to accomplish what Xi has called a “historic mission” to absorb that island democracy. The drills allowed Chinese troops to practice enforcing a gradual economic strangulation or quarantine of Taiwan.
Taiwan could well become the next Ukraine. Xi will wait for an opportune moment before moving on Taiwan, taking by complete surprise a distracted US, which is increasingly embroiled in the Ukraine war including through transfers of sophisticated weapons and battlefield intelligence. Xi’s aggression, however, is likely to take the form of a calibrated, gradually intensifying squeeze of Taiwan, rather than a full-fledged invasion.
The White House acknowledged in August that China is pursuing a “boiling the frog” strategy against Taiwan by regularising crossings of the median line in the Taiwan Strait, stepping up coercive pressures and slowly altering the status quo.
The parable of the frog is about sensory adaptation to small changes over time: If a frog is put into a pot of boiling water, it will instantly jump out, but if it is placed in a pot of cool water that is then very slowly brought to a boil, the frog will not notice, cooking to death. Likewise, Xi pursues his expansionism incrementally, conditioning international power elites to China’s expanding footprint and preventing a concerted Western response until it becomes too late.
Yet US President Joe Biden, asked recently whether American forces would defend Taiwan if China attacked, replied, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.” But China, instead of launching an unprecedented attack, is more likely to slowly throttle Taiwan.
Meanwhile, Xi, far from seeking to hide China’s frenzied nuclear weapons build-up, is virtually flaunting it, as if to underline that the country’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal is driven more by political than military considerations. China’s neighbours need to pay close attention to this build-up, even though it may be primarily aimed at dissuading the US from challenging the Xi regime’s actions at home and abroad.
Just as Xi’s muscular revisionism has largely centred on Asia—from the East and South China Seas to the Himalayas—the security-related impacts (as opposed to the geopolitical implications) of the fast-growing Chinese nuclear armoury are likely to be felt principally by Asian states. With a larger nuclear arsenal, Xi could be further emboldened to step up his conventional-military tactics and hybrid warfare from behind China’s highly protective nuclear shield.
Questions are already being raised in the US about the strategic wisdom of defending Taiwan against a potential Chinese invasion, with some analysts contending that any US plan to come to Taiwan’s rescue is far too risky and that Taipei ought to do more for its self-defence. A China armed to its teeth with nuclear weapons would cast further doubt on whether the US would come to Taiwan’s defence, given the greater risks involved.
More fundamentally, if China cannot be at peace with itself, it will not be at peace with others. Xi’s lurch toward totalitarianism will foster greater discontent among the Chinese people, spawning a pressure cooker syndrome.
History is replete with examples of dictators blinded by hubris and overreach leading their countries down a disastrous path. With the last checks and balances gone, Xi’s overweening ambition, absolute power and reliance on “yes” men are likely to spell trouble for China. Under Xi, China has already damaged its international reputation and left itself with only one real lever of power: brute force. But if Xi stays on his present course, he is likely to lead China into a war.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of two award-winning books on water: Water, Peace, and War and Water: Asia’s New Battleground.
Tensions stemming from the war in Ukraine and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan have strained the strategic partnership between the US and India. But President Joe Biden cannot afford to alienate America’s most important partner in countering China’s rise.
The strategic partnership between the United States and India is pivotal to maintaining the balance of power in the vast Indo-Pacific region and counterbalancing China’s hegemonic ambitions. The US is India’s second-largest trading partner, and deepening the ties between the two countries is one of the rare bipartisan foreign policies that exists in Washington today.
But President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan and effectively surrender the country to a Pakistan-reared terrorist militia, in addition to tensions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have strained the relationship between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies.
Like many other countries, including US allies such as Israel and Turkey, India has taken a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine. Much to the chagrin of the US and Europe, the country has continued to purchase discounted oil from Russia, rebuffing the Biden administration’s offer to replace Russian oil with US supplies. Instead, India has increased its imports of Russian crude.
While the US has already surpassed Russia as India’s largest weapons supplier, the American defense sector views the war in Ukraine as a “great opportunity” for arms sales to India to “surge.” Moreover, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has urged Indian officials to avoid buying Russian equipment and purchase US-made weapons from now on.
Yet Biden’s overriding focus on punishing Russia could exacerbate India’s security challenges, especially if the international efforts to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin inadvertently empower an expansionist China. The US-led sanctions and Europe’s shift away from Russian energy effectively put Russia – the world’s most resource-rich country – in the pocket of the resource-hungry Chinese. Its alliance with Russia has allowed China to build an energy safety net through an increase in land-based imports, which, unlike sea-borne deliveries, cannot be blockaded if Chinese President Xi Jinping decides to invade Taiwan.
The Biden administration’s disingenuous claim that upgrading Pakistan’s US-supplied F-16 fleet would advance counterterrorism has prompted a sharp response from India. During a recent visit to Washington, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar publicly condemned the deal, saying that the American explanation “is not fooling anyone”: Pakistan would undoubtedly deploy the upgraded fighter jets against India.
Against this backdrop, some observers have revived the old theory that US-India ties fare better under Republican administrations. Bilateral relations thrived during President Donald Trump’s administration, which relied heavily on India in developing its Indo-Pacific strategy. Trump instituted new US policies on China and Pakistan, whose increasingly close partnership has raised the prospect of India fighting a two-front war. In a major policy shift, Trump ended the 45-year US policy of aiding China’s rise. He also cut off security aid to Pakistan for not severing its ties with terrorist groups.
Biden, on the other hand, has resumed America’s coddling of Pakistan, made outreach to Beijing a high priority, and said nothing about China’s encroachments on Indian territory in the Himalayas. But by locking horns with China in a 30-month military standoff, India has openly challenged Chinese power in a way no other world power has done in this century.
Nothing better illustrates Biden’s neglect of the relationship with India than the fact that, since he took office, there has been no US ambassador in New Delhi. Meanwhile, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Donald Blome, caused an uproar during a visit to the Pakistani-held part of Kashmir, which he called by its Pakistani name – “Azad [Liberated] Jammu and Kashmir” – instead of “Pakistan-administered Kashmir,” as the United Nations calls it.
Moreover, the Biden administration has been trying to leverage human-rights issues against India. In April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken alleged a “rise in human-rights abuses” in the country, prompting Jaishankar to counter that India is similarly concerned about the state of human rights in the US. Likewise, prominent members of the US Democratic Party can barely conceal their hostility to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his brand of Hindu nationalism.
Given that the US and India are both bitterly polarized democracies, officials should avoid statements that could inflame domestic tensions. If the US wishes to shift strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific, it must improve relations with its most important strategic ally in Asia. To that end, Biden must not squander the historic opportunity to forge a “soft” alliance with India. If the US is to prevail in its escalating rivalry with China and Russia and avoid strategic overreach, it needs India more than ever. But without mutual respect, the bilateral partnership is doomed.
China’s relentless expansionism in the frigid high Himalayas through furtive territorial encroachments has fostered a nearly 30-month military standoff with India.
The confrontation, and the wider faceoff between the world’s two most populous nations, persists even as both militaries have pulled back recently from some front line areas to establish buffer zones so as to reduce the risk of inadvertent clashes.
China’s Himalayan encroachments are a reminder that in contrast to Russia’s full-force attack on Ukraine, Beijing prefers to act gradually with stealth, deception and surprise to expand the country’s frontiers.
This incremental, salami-slicing approach of bulletless aggression comes at little international cost. Most prominently, China has redrawn the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and maritime Southeast Asia without inviting any concrete Western sanctions.
In the Himalayas, Beijing is seeking to replicate its South China Sea strategy by unilaterally changing facts on the ground, assuming there will be little diplomatic or geopolitical fallout. It has not spared even tiny Bhutan, nibbling away at its borderlands one valley at a time.
China honed its salami-slicing strategy in the 1950s when it carved off the Aksai Chin plateau, a Switzerland-sized area originally part of the princely Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Under President Xi Jinping, this strategy has evolved into a “cabbage” approach with the People’s Liberation Army stealthily cutting off neighboring states’ access to contested territory they previously controlled and surrounding the acquired areas with multiple layers of security forces.
China’s current military standoff with India involves some of the most inhospitable terrain on Earth. But no sooner had New Delhi declared a nationwide lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic that emerged from China in early 2020 than the PLA clandestinely invaded the borderlands of India’s northernmost region of Ladakh, enveloping hundreds of square kilometers of territory with layers of defense lines.
Although India has responded with heavy military deployments, leading to the largest Himalayan buildup of rival forces in history, the PLA remains in control of the larger areas it grabbed in April 2020. Through lengthy negotiations, India has managed only to get China to convert its smaller encroachments into buffer zones — largely on Beijing’s terms.
The daunting challenge for a traditionally defensive India is to regain lost territory in the same way China took it — without resort to open combat. The scale of the challenge may explain why Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has agreed to the establishment of four separate buffer zones, with the latest established in September in the Hot Springs area of eastern Ladakh.
Under these deals, the rival forces have pulled back by equal distances from specified confrontation sites to create no man’s lands between them. The buffers in effect advance China’s “10 miles forward, eight miles back” strategy, forcing Indian forces to retreat further back into their own territory while illustrating what Beijing calls “meeting each other halfway.”
In the more strategically valuable areas it has seized, China has fortified front line positions by establishing permanent military bases and deploying large, combat-ready forces with tanks, artillery and cold-weather troop shelters to preclude any Indian attempt to regain lost territory through counterforce operations.
Indeed, since the faceoff began, China has expanded its frenzied buildup of military infrastructure and capabilities along its entire disputed frontier with India. New heliports and expanded air bases near the border have strengthened China’s vertical lift capability.
Modi, while seeking to befriend China after taking office in 2014, coined the phrase “inch toward miles” as a motto for bilateral cooperation. Beijing has cynically translated that slogan to incrementally advance its territorial aggrandizement in the Himalayas.
Simply put, China’s strategy is proving just as effective on land as it has been at sea. In fact, its terrestrial aggression has attracted even less international attention than its blue-water expansionism.
China’s actions in muscling into its neighbors’ territory reflect the Communist Party’s goal of achieving Asian hegemony as a stepping stone toward supplanting the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power. Advancing that ambition means asserting the country’s economic and strategic interests and territorial claims, including by rewriting history and disregarding international law.
Should Beijing next target Taiwan, its aggression is likely to take the form of a slow squeeze of the island democracy rather than a full-fledged invasion. China’s live-fire exercises around Taiwan in August simulated the steps it might take to slowly throttle the island, including by imposing a blockade.
The White House acknowledged in August that China is pursuing a “boiling the frog” strategy against Taiwan by regularizing crossings of the median line that previously restricted military activities in the Taiwan Strait, stepping up coercive pressure and slowly altering the status quo.
The parable of the frog is about sensory adaptation to small changes over time: If a frog is put into a pot of boiling water, it will instantly jump out, but if it is placed in a pot of cool water that is then only slowly brought to a boil, the frog will not notice before it is killed by the heat.
China likewise pursues its expansionism incrementally, conditioning international power elites to its expanding footprint and thwarting a concerted Western response until it is too late.
Asked recently whether American forces would defend Taiwan if China attacks, U.S. President Joe Biden replied, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.”
China is more likely to slowly throttle Taiwan than directly attack, however. Would Biden put up with a gradual squeeze of Taiwan?
The singular focus of the U.S. and Europe on isolating and punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine has deflected attention away from China’s creeping, covert warfare. But while Russia’s strategic ambitions are essentially limited to its near abroad, China is seeking to fundamentally alter global power dynamics.
Brahma Chellaney is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
The Biden administration could have used Pakistan’s economic crisis to compel the country to sever its longstanding ties to terrorist groups. Instead, the US continues to protect and reward it, putting short-term geopolitical considerations ahead of long-term interests.
The United States rarely learns from its mistakes, because it suffers from what the late political scientist Hans Morgenthau called “strategic narcissism.” Each US president seems to believe the world is waiting for American direction and devises policies based on this flawed assumption.
For example, President Joe Biden seems determined to repeat past blunders by resuming America’s coddling of Pakistan. Successive US presidents have failed to appreciate that America’s longstanding partnership with Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency has allowed Pakistan to institutionalize terrorism by employing armed jihadists in low-intensity asymmetric warfare against neighboring countries. For example, Pakistan has always sought to colonize Afghanistan by installing a regime that would do its bidding, so the ISI created the Taliban in the early 1990s. With the Taliban back in control after the ISI engineered America’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, Pakistan has gotten its wish.
Pakistan itself has become an extremist mecca that hosts multiple United Nations-designated terrorist entities. The US found al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden – the mastermind behind the worst terrorist attack in American history – living next to the Pakistan Military Academy. Other 9/11 plotters – including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s third in command, and Abu Zubeida, the network’s operations chief – were also captured in Pakistan. And yet, despite its terrorist ties, Pakistan’s politically powerful military, including its ISI, has managed to get off scot-free.
On the recent 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Biden pledged to continue monitoring and disrupting terrorist activities “wherever we find them, wherever they exist,” while noting that it took “ten years to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden.” Yet, disturbingly, Biden has reversed the policy of his predecessor, Donald Trump, to keep Pakistan at arm’s length until it ended its unholy alliance with terrorist organizations.
Biden could have taken advantage of Pakistan’s desperate need for an International Monetary Fund bailout to compel it to sever its links with state-backed terrorist groups. Instead, his administration recently helped the country stave off an imminent debt default by securing the IMF board’s approval for the immediate disbursement of a $1.1 billion aid package.
This is not the only leverage over Pakistan that the Biden administration has been reluctant to use. With American and Chinese support, Pakistan is close to exiting the “gray list” of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Paris-based inter-governmental agency combating terrorist financing and money laundering. The fact that Pakistani authorities have not addressed the reason their country was placed on that list in 2018 – tolerating terrorist financing – appears to matter little. In fact, Pakistan should have been placed on the FATF’s most punitive “black” list, a status that usually invites Western sanctions. But American troops were fighting the Taliban at the time, and the US, seeking to moderate Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan, successfully lobbied against it.
Nothing better illustrates Biden’s embrace of Pakistan than the $450-million deal unveiled this month to modernize the cash-strapped country’s US-supplied F-16 fleet, despite the risk that it might harm America’s close strategic relationship with India. For decades, the US had armed Pakistan to the teeth, a role subsequently taken over by China as a maneuver against India. The F-16s were given to Pakistan as a reward for its serving as the staging ground for the covert US war against the Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Pakistan also launched its nuclear-weapons program clandestinely. Pakistan’s four active F-16 squadrons remain central to its air-warfare plans against India; in fact, some were involved in a February 2019 skirmish across the Line of Control in Kashmir.
The US justified the deal by disingenuously claiming that equipping Pakistan’s F-16s with cutting-edge avionics would advance counterterrorism. But the move – announced without warning India, which was hosting senior US officials at the time – will likely renew skepticism toward the US among Indian officials. Biden has said nothing about China’s 28-month-long frontier aggression against India, and his State Department chose to remain neutral by urging the two powers to find “a peaceful resolution.” By strengthening Pakistan – China’s client state – the F-16 deal further imperils US-India relations.
Biden’s enthusiastic re-engagement with Pakistan dismisses those who called on the US to punish Pakistan for its pivotal role in the Afghanistan debacle. Far from imposing sanctions or adding Pakistan to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, his administration has championed the country as a “major non-NATO ally,” a status conferred on 17 other countries as well – but not India.
This approach should not come as a surprise. The US did not impose sanctions on Pakistan even after it aided and abetted the Taliban’s killing of American soldiers. Instead, the US treated Pakistan as a gatekeeper of its geopolitical interests in the region. America’s weakened position following its Afghan fiasco has only increased its dependence on the ISI, which continues to facilitate the Biden administration’s outreach to the Taliban.
The recent assassination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul by an American drone strike would not have been possible without US access to Pakistani airspace, which explains Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s commitment to “expanding the US-Pakistan partnership.” But at the heart of this partnership is a Faustian bargain whereby the Biden administration condones Pakistan’s harboring of known terrorists and eases sanctions on the brutal Taliban regime, despite its close ties with al-Qaeda.
The Biden administration’s reluctance to learn from previous US failures ensures that short-term geopolitical considerations will continue to drive American foreign policy, despite the long-term strategic damage to America’s interests. Biden’s approach will nurture a major hub of international terrorism and jihadism, allowing Pakistan to set regional fires while pretending to be a firefighter.
Can the Indo-Pacific region be America’s top priority if U.S. President Joe Biden is deepening commitments and resources for Europe and the Middle East?
This question is central to the future of the Quad, the strategic coalition of leading Indo-Pacific democracies comprising India, Australia, Japan and the U.S.
High-level Quad meetings, like last week’s senior officials’ gathering in New Delhi, are becoming more frequent. The group’s four national leaders alone have held four summit meetings since Biden took office in January 2021.
The accelerating tempo of meetings, though, can obscure the fact that the Quad faces important challenges, including establishing a clear strategic mission in the Indo-Pacific region, a sprawling area shaping up as the world’s economic and geopolitical hub. The Quad may have been designed to serve as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism, but Biden has coaxed the group into adopting an expansive agenda.
To be sure, the Quad has steadily gained strength since it was resurrected in 2017 from a decadelong dormancy. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi famously mocked the Quad in 2018 as a “headline-grabbing idea” that will dissipate “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Oceans.” But China’s increasingly muscular policies have helped the Quad to build momentum.
The waters of the Indo-Pacific have become an arena of competition for resources and geopolitical influence, which explains the Quad’s emphasis on the maritime domain. Indeed, as underscored by current concerns over Taiwan and the East and South China Seas, future Indo-Pacific crises are likely to be triggered at sea.
The Quad has also been catalyzed by the threat of an illiberal hegemonic regional order, which would pose significant risks to international security and global markets. The free and open Indo-Pacific vision driving the Quad was originally set out by Shinzo Abe, the late Japanese prime minister, and has since become shorthand for a rules-based, liberal order.
The Quad’s future, however, is fundamentally tied to American policies. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in June called America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region “the core organizing principle of American national-security policy.”
It is “our priority theater of operations,” “the heart of American grand strategy” and “our center of strategic gravity,” Austin declared.
However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing hybrid war effort led by the U.S. against Moscow are distracting America from growing Indo-Pacific challenges. America’s new strategic focus on Europe and force deployments there — along with the rise of a more robust NATO, which has named Russia as its primary adversary and China as just a “challenge” — make it harder for the U.S. to genuinely pivot to the Indo-Pacific.
In fact, as the U.S. gets more deeply involved in a proxy conflict with Russia, including supplying offensive weapons and battlefield intelligence to Ukraine, the Quad faces new uncertainties. Biden is the third straight president to commit to shifting America’s primary strategic focus to Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific. But Biden’s expressed belief that the Ukraine “war could continue for a long time” suggests that he too could fail, as Donald Trump and Barack Obama did.
The new cold war with Moscow, meanwhile, is constraining Biden from taking a tough line toward Beijing, lest it help cement the nascent China-Russia axis. China, with an economy 10 times larger than Russia’s, has the capacity to seriously undercut Western sanctions against Moscow and bail out the Russian economy. All this is reinforcing the more conciliatory approach toward Beijing that Biden has pursued since taking office.
Against this backdrop, it is scarcely a surprise that the Quad’s security agenda has begun to take a back seat.
In fact, Biden has saddled the Quad with an increasingly global agenda that dilutes its Indo-Pacific strategic focus. Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, as unveiled in February, confirmed the Quad’s shift toward universal challenges, from global health security and climate change to cybersecurity, resilient supply chains and green shipping.
As a small group, the Quad is in no position to deal with global challenges. Yet having launched six separate working groups on climate change, COVID-19 vaccines, critical and emerging technologies, cybersecurity, infrastructure and space, the Quad is getting weighed down by an overly ambitious agenda, crimping its ability to produce results.
The danger of overcommitting and underdelivering has been highlighted by the difficulties encountered by the Quad in supplying 1 billion Indian-manufactured COVID-19 vaccine doses to the developing world by year-end as promised. Even with the support of all four members, the Quad is set to fall far short of its vaccine pledge.
Meanwhile, as the U.S. pours military resources into Europe and the Middle East, the geostrategic dynamics are changing rapidly in the Indo-Pacific, where China is working quietly to eclipse America militarily and economically. The bulk of U.S. economic and military assistance still goes to the Middle East, even as the U.S. prioritizes NATO in order to dominate European security.
The paradox in this situation is that the Quad is becoming stronger through greater engagement among its leaders and senior officials, yet the group appears in danger of losing its strategic vision and purpose. Unless its member states imbue the Quad with a clear strategic direction and meaning, it could become a showpiece or a mere U.S. tool of leverage with Beijing.
Before critics pummel the Quad for being all bark and no bite, the group must refocus its attention on the strategic challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.
Brahma Chellaney is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”
China’s prolonged detention of more than 1 million Muslims in Xinjiang represents the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi era. Yet, disturbingly, China has incurred no international costs.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, the brain behind the scheme, and his inner circle have faced no consequences for sustaining the Muslim gulag since at least March 2017. Despite two successive U.S. administrations describing the unparalleled repression in Xinjiang as “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” Western actions against China have largely been symbolic.
The just-released report on Xinjiang by the United Nations’ human rights office cites serious human-rights violations there and recommends that Beijing take “prompt steps to release all individuals arbitrarily deprived of their liberty” in that sprawling ethnic-minority homeland.
Yet this report, paradoxically, is a fresh reminder that China has escaped scot-free, with little prospect that it will be held to account for its mass internment of Muslim minorities, including expanding detention sites in Xinjiang since 2019. The Xinjiang repression also includes forced sterilization and abortion, torture of detainees, slave labor and draconian curbs on freedom of religion and movement.
The report’s release came after nearly a yearlong delay and just minutes before the four-year term of Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, ended. U.N. investigators had compiled the Xinjiang report almost a year ago, but Bachelet kept stalling its release, despite growing pressure from Western countries.
In May, after lengthy discussions with Beijing on arrangements, Bachelet undertook a controversial official visit to China, the first by a U.N. high commissioner for human rights since 2005. During her tenure, Bachelet – a former Chilean president and political detainee under dictator Augusto Pinochet – stayed mum on the Chinese repression in Xinjiang (and Tibet). She said nothing on the crackdown in Xinjiang even when she briefly visited that region during her restrictive China tour, which glossed over abuses by Xi’s regime.
Bachelet had earlier acknowledged that she was under “tremendous pressure” over the report, with China asking her to bury it. The eventual release of the report, minutes before Bachelet’s retirement at midnight on Aug. 31, indicated that she did not want her successor or temporary replacement to take credit for publishing it. Failing to release the report would have left a glaring black mark on her tenure.
Days before her retirement, Bachelet sent a copy of the report to Beijing because, as she explained in a Sept. 1 statement, she “wanted to take the greatest care to deal with the responses and inputs received from the (Chinese) government last week.” In response to the 48-page U.N. assessment, China wrote a 131-page rebuttal, with its foreign ministry calling the report a “farce.”
China has been emboldened by the international community’s indifference and indulgence. It successfully hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics, probably the most divisive games since the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, which helped strengthen the hands of Germany’s Adolf Hitler.
Underscoring China’s growing economic power and geopolitical clout, even Muslim countries, by and large, have remained shockingly silent on the Xinjiang repression. As if that weren’t bad enough, the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation in March honored Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as a speaker at its foreign ministers’ forum in Pakistan.
Xi’s Muslim gulag has made a mockery of the 1948 Genocide Convention, to which China acceded in 1983 (with the rider that it does not consider itself bound by Article IX, the clause allowing any party in a dispute to lodge a complaint with the International Court of Justice). The Genocide Convention requires its parties, which include the United States, to “prevent and punish” acts of genocide.
Chinese authorities have subjected Uyghur and other Muslim groups in Xinjiang, including ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, to Orwellian levels of surveillance and control over many details of life. As Secretary of Commerce Gina M. Raimondo warned, China is weaponizing biotechnology to “pursue control over its people and its repression of members of ethnic and religious minority groups.”
The Xinjiang repression is aimed at indoctrinating not just political dissidents and religious zealots but entire Muslim communities by imposing large-scale deprogramming of Islamic identities. A gulag archipelago of 380 internment camps (or “reeducation hospitals,” as Beijing calls them) has become integral to this larger assault on Islam.
It is against this background that the carefully worded U.N. report warns that, “The extent of arbitrary and discriminatory detention of members of Uyghur and other predominantly Muslim groups … and deprivation more generally of fundamental rights enjoyed individually and collectively, may constitute international crimes, in particular crimes against humanity.” The report cited “patterns of torture or other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” in the detention centers, including “credible” allegations of sexual violence.
The 1945-46 Nuremberg Military Tribunal, set up after Germany’s surrender in World War II, prosecuted those involved in crimes against humanity, the same crimes now being perpetrated in Xinjiang. Yet, with China a rising power, there seems little prospect that Chinese officials behind the Muslim gulag will face similar justice.
Indeed, just as China responded to the tribunal’s ruling by accelerating its expansionism in the South China Sea, including militarizing the region, it could step up its repression in Xinjiang until it manages to fully Sinicize and tame Muslim groups.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press). Follow him on Twitter @Chellaney.
Chinese military drills are rarely empty shows of force.
In 2020, China’s unusually large winter exercises on the Tibetan Plateau became the launchpad for stealthy land grabs in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh. This triggered a military standoff between the two Asian giants at multiple sites across a long and inhospitable stretch of the Himalayas, leading to deadly clashes and China’s first combat casualties since its 1979 invasion of Vietnam.
This month’s live-fire military drills around Taiwan, which effectively simulated an air and sea blockade, demonstrated China’s combat capability to accomplish President Xi Jinping’s “historic mission” of absorbing the island democracy.
The drills allowed Chinese troops to practice enforcing a quarantine around Taiwan that would result in its gradual economic strangulation, suggesting Xi may prefer a strategy of calibrated squeeze to force the island to unify with China.
In a reminder that any Chinese operation to cut off access to Taiwan would likely intrude into Japanese airspace and perhaps pull Tokyo into a war over the island, five Chinese missiles sent over Taiwan during the drills landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Taiwan, Imperial Japan’s first colony, is, after all, geographically an extension of the Japanese archipelago.
Could Chinese aggression against Taiwan also embroil India? It is important to remember that Chinese and Indian forces have remained on a war footing along the vast glaciated heights of the Himalayas for more than two years now, with tens of thousands of troops on each side facing off in the biggest military buildup ever in this area.
Given Xi’s efforts to regularize and intensify coercive pressure on Taiwan, joint U.S.-India military exercises planned for October in an area at an altitude above 3,000 meters in the Himalayas have assumed greater significance.
As if to signal that Beijing could potentially face a second front if it were to move against Taiwan, the latest edition of the annual U.S.-India high-altitude, cold-climate drills is being held barely 100 kilometers from the Chinese frontier, closer than ever before.
Taiwan, a technological powerhouse with the world’s 22nd-largest economy by gross domestic product, plays an important, if indirect, role in Asian security: its autonomous existence ties up a sizable portion of China’s armed forces.
India likewise is helping Taiwan’s defense by tying down a complete Chinese theater force, which could otherwise be employed against the island.
Given the looming specter of a sharp uptick in Chinese aggression, deterring an attack on Taiwan has become more pressing than ever. Philip Davidson, testifying to Congress last year when he was leading the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said he believed a Chinese invasion could be launched by 2027.
U.S. intelligence now reportedly believes that Xi could move against Taiwan much earlier, specifically within the two-year window between the Chinese Communist Party congress due to take place in the next couple months and the 2024 U.S. presidential election.
U.S. President Joe Biden’s abandonment of Afghanistan to a terrorist militia a year ago and his growing involvement in the Ukraine war after failing to deter a Russian invasion of that country have left Washington in a weakened position. Xi’s designs on Taiwan have been further encouraged by the failure of Western sanctions to force Russia to retreat from Ukraine.
The fall of Taiwan to Beijing would significantly advance China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia and upend the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, not least by enabling China to break out of the so-called first island chain that encloses its coastal seas from the Japanese archipelago southward.
But the largest Asian territory Beijing covets is the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times as large as Taiwan. Beijing’s maps already show it as part of China.
After Beijing began giving its own names to places inside Arunachal Pradesh last year, the staid foreign ministry in New Delhi hit back with uncharacteristic firmness, calling it “a ridiculous exercise to support untenable territorial claims.”
Against the background of China’s designs on Arunachal Pradesh and perhaps even Okinawa, it is imperative that India and Japan step up consultations with each other, as well as with Taipei and Washington, on how they could contribute to shoring up Taiwan’s defenses and deterring a Chinese attack.
While India would not get directly involved in defending Taiwan, it could potentially play a useful role in activating another front against China in the event of a Taiwan Strait crisis, but only in close collaboration with the U.S.
India holds more annual military exercises with the U.S., its largest trading partner and an increasingly important strategic partner, than with any other country. But Biden has still not uttered a single word about the last 28 months of Himalayan border aggression by China. Nor has the Biden administration shown urgency in fortifying Taiwan’s defenses.
To be sure, America’s role is central to Taiwan’s autonomous future. A U.S. that fails to prevent Taiwan’s subjugation would be widely seen as unable or unwilling to defend any other ally.
The status quo on Taiwan is more likely to be preserved if the U.S. coordinates its island-related defense plans with Japan, India and Australia, including how to respond to potential Chinese moves to restrict access to Taiwan, whether physically or digitally. The only thing that can deter China from aggression against Taiwan is the expectation that it would incur high concrete costs.
The Taliban regime is behaving as expected, turning the country into a breeding ground for international terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and mass migration. There is no justification for attempts by US President Joe Biden’s administration to engage with it.
In the year since the United States’ disgraceful abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the country has gone down precisely the path any logical observer would have predicted: a medieval, jihadist, terrorist-sheltering emirate has been established. The US will incur costs for betraying its Afghan allies for a long time to come. But nobody will pay a higher price than Afghans.
The geopolitical fallout of America’s humiliating retreat from Afghanistan – after President Joe Biden followed through on the withdrawal commitment of his predecessor, Donald Trump – is still growing. By exposing the US as a power in decline, the withdrawal gave a huge boost to militant Islamists everywhere, while emboldening Russia and China. It is no coincidence that, not long after the fall of Kabul, Russia began massing forces along Ukraine’s borders, and China sent a record number of warplanes into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone.
But things are much worse in Afghanistan. Women and girls have lost their rights to employment and education, with many girls subjected to sexual slavery through forced marriages to Taliban fighters. Taliban death squads have been systematically identifying and murdering those who cooperated with US forces. Torture and execution have become commonplace. Afghanistan’s Hindus and Sikhs – descendants of those who withstood the medieval-era conversions to Sunni Islam by the country’s Arab conquerors – have been fleeing to India to avoid slaughter.
The regime’s cabinet is a veritable who’s who of international terrorists and narcotics kingpins. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is responsible for Afghanistan’s internal security and preventing the country from becoming a safe haven for international terrorists, is the leader of the ruthless Haqqani network. The US has designated him a “global terrorist” and placed a $10 million bounty on his head.
Not surprisingly, the Taliban continues to shelter known terrorists, as the recent Biden-ordered assassination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in central Kabul showed. While Biden was quick to take a victory lap after al-Zawahiri’s killing, the assassination hardly reflects well on him. A year ago, when ordering US troops to beat a hasty retreat, he claimed that the US no longer had any interest in Afghanistan, because al-Qaeda was already “gone.” (No matter that, just weeks earlier, a United Nations Security Council report had shown that al-Qaeda militants were fighting alongside their Taliban associates.)
Compounding the danger to Afghanistan and its neighbors, the US left behind $7.1 billion worth of weapons in its chaotic withdrawal from the country. According to a recent Pentagon report, the US has no plans to retrieve or destroy the equipment, despite recognizing that the Taliban has already “repaired some damaged Afghan Air Force aircraft and made incremental gains in its capability to employ these aircraft in operations.”
In short, Biden’s decision to overrule his generals and withdraw from Afghanistan – a month before his own target date of September 11 – has created a security and humanitarian nightmare. And Biden is nowhere near finished making foreign-policy blunders in Afghanistan.
After Kabul’s fall, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that the US would judge its future engagement with the Taliban-led government based on “one simple proposition”: whether it helps the US advance its interests, including “seeing that women’s rights are upheld,” delivering humanitarian assistance, and pursuing counterterrorism. But even though the Taliban has failed on all three counts, the Biden administration is gradually easing sanctions on the regime.
At the UN, the US spearheaded a resolution providing for a humanitarian exemption to the sanctions imposed on Afghanistan. The US Treasury Department’s General Licenses, aimed at facilitating the provision of humanitarian relief, now allow financial transactions involving the Taliban and the Haqqani network. And the US is currently negotiating with the Taliban over the release of $3.5 billion of Afghan central-bank reserves.
Meanwhile, the US refuses to target Haqqani or other leading terrorists in Kabul. Yes, al-Zawahiri was assassinated, but, contrary to the Biden administration’s narrative, he was not all that influential. He was largely retired, living with members of his extended family in a Kabul house under Haqqani’s protection.
What’s next? Will the US now reward Pakistan – one of America’s 18 “major non-NATO allies” – for opening its airspace to the drone that killed al-Zawahiri? True, Pakistan reared the Taliban and engineered the US defeat in Afghanistan, but now it wants an early International Monetary Fund loan dispersal to help it avert a debt default.
Likewise, will the US now continue to pursue the release of Afghanistan’s central-bank reserves to the Taliban, despite its indisputable harboring of terrorists and establishment of an oppressive and violent Islamic state? The Biden administration defends its engagement with the Taliban by speciously contending that the top terrorist threat in Afghanistan is the Islamic State-Khorasan. But ISIS-K has relatively few members, no state sponsor or Afghan allies, and controls no territory.
The Biden administration seems committed to striking a kind of Faustian bargain with the Taliban. But to what end? The Taliban’s political power and Islamist ideology make it a critical link in the international jihadist movement. And its rule is threatening to turn Afghanistan into a breeding ground for international terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and mass migration. There is no justification for engaging with it.
Through its precipitous and bungling withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration handed Islamists worldwide their greatest victory. But the war in Afghanistan is hardly over. As the Taliban’s self-styled emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, recently declared, “This war never ends, and it will continue till judgment day.”
China’s strategy has been to advance its foreign-policy objectives largely through bluff, bluster, and bullying. Without sparking direct armed conflict, China’s leaders have sought to intimidate and coerce neighboring countries into yielding to their demands.
In contrast to Russia’s frontal assaults on Ukraine, China’s expansionism in Asia – from the South China Sea to the Himalayas – has been pursued incrementally. For example, China’s ongoing military standoff with India along the two countries’ disputed Himalayan border was triggered by its stealthy land grabs in Indian Ladakh in April 2020.
The last thing China wants is to get into an armed conflict with the United States, a superior military power, because this would expose chinks in its armor.
By going to Taipei recently, US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi called China’s bluff. But her visit also served as a pretext for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime to step up coercive pressure on Taiwan by carrying out provocative military drills in a dress rehearsal for a blockade. Long before Pelosi considered visiting Taipei, China had been ramping up its campaign of intimidation, with its warplanes regularly crossing the median line in the Taiwan Strait.
Xi’s increasing troubles at home, including economic growth slowing almost to a halt, amplify the risk that he will resort to nationalist brinkmanship as a distraction. The odds are increasing that he will move against Taiwan in the two-year period between securing a norm-breaking third term as Communist Party chairman this November and the 2024 US presidential election.
But, rather than order a full-scale invasion, Xi is more likely to throttle Taiwan slowly. That will leave US President Joe Biden with difficult choices, with inaction likely to prove fatal for the island. A Taiwan fiasco on Biden’s watch, after his Afghanistan debacle and failure to deter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, would gravely undermine America’s global power.