About Chellaney

Professor, strategic thinker, author and commentator

China’s bullying of tiny Bhutan risks South Asian stability

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David and Goliath struggle exposes Beijing’s expansionist intent

The Merak village, Eastern Bhutan, pictured from the footpath heading towards Sakteng in May 2015: Xi Jinping’s expansionism has not spared China’s smallest neighbor.   © Corbis/Getty Images

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

China has failed to settle the frontier with its tiny neighbor Bhutan, despite holding talks with Bhutan since 1984. Now, after nearly four decades, it is trumpeting a newly signed memorandum of understanding with the kingdom to “expedite” the border negotiations.

The MOU cannot obscure the fact that China has in recent years incrementally encroached on Bhutan’s territory, one of the world’s smallest and least-populated nations, with just 778,000 people. Such aggression violates a 1998 bilateral treaty committing China and Bhutan “not to resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border.”

Druk Yul, or the land of the thunder dragon, as Bhutan is known, lies sandwiched between the elephant of India and since 1950 when Beijing swallowed Tibet, whose religion and culture has greatly influenced Bhutan, the giant Chinese dragon on the other side.

Despite popularizing the concept of gross national happiness as a measure of development, Bhutan’s own happiness is coming under pressure from Chinese aggression under President Xi Jinping, who is implementing the expansionist agenda that Mao Zedong left unfinished.

While China under Mao more than doubled its size, making it the world’s fourth-largest country by area, Xi’s expansionism has not spared China’s smallest neighbor.

Several newly built Chinese villages, unnoticed by the world, have cropped up inside internationally recognized Bhutanese territory, demonstrating how Xi has taken his South China Sea strategy to the Himalayas. With the villages have come planted settlers, roads and military infrastructure.

China’s program to build militarized villages in Himalayan borderlands it claims, or has seized, from Bhutan, Nepal and India gained momentum after Xi in 2017 called on Tibetan herdsmen to settle in frontier areas and “become guardians of Chinese territory.”

Establishing such facts on the ground has become integral to Xi’s strategy of territorial aggrandizement because international law recognizes civilian settlements as evidence of a country’s effective control over an area. This explains why artificial villages have been created in inhospitable Himalayan terrain, just like the human-made islands in the South China Sea.

Satellite images reveal new Chinese villages on land in Bhutan’s west and north. After the Colorado-based Maxar Technologies disclosed one such village named Pangda, Chinese state media claimed it was on Chinese territory.

Meanwhile, China has built military roads through Bhutanese territory to open a new axis against India’s most vulnerable point — the Siliguri Corridor, which connects its far northeast to the heartland. Known as the Chicken Neck, the corridor, at the intersection of Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, is barely 22 kilometers wide at its narrowest point.

Not content with such stealth encroachments, Xi’s regime has upped the ante by opening a new territorial front against Bhutan. Out of the blue, China last year laid claim to Bhutan’s rhododendron-laden Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which spreads across 741 sq. kilometers and is known for its unique flora and fauna, including endangered species such as the red panda, Himalayan serow, gorals, capped langurs, Himalayan black bear and barking deer.

The new claim to Bhutan’s easternmost territory is unusual because China has no common border there, it being a region that can only be accessed through the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh. This is the first time since the end of World War II that one country has laid claim to another state’s territory that can only be accessed via a third nation.

In doing so, Beijing has sought to simultaneously advance its designs against Bhutan and India. Its maps already show the entire area of Arunachal Pradesh — more than two times larger than Bhutan — as being part of China. To be sure, this is not the first time that Xi’s regime has targeted Bhutanese territory to bolster China’s military advantage over India.

In 2017, China occupied most of Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau overlooking India’s Chicken Neck, following a 73-day military standoff with India, the de facto guarantor of Bhutanese security. In fact, China is currently locked in another standoff with Indian forces that was triggered more than 19 months ago by Chinese encroachments on India’s northernmost territory of Ladakh, located almost 1,500 kilometers to Bhutan’s west.

Beijing has long pressed Bhutan to open diplomatic relations with it and accused India of blocking the kingdom from establishing such ties. In the absence of diplomatic relations, China has used the protracted border talks as a channel of communication with Bhutan on issues extending beyond their shared boundary.

Indeed, China’s new claim to the wildlife sanctuary appears aimed at intensifying its discussions with Bhutan to woo the kingdom away from India’s embrace. This may also explain the new MOU, whose text has not been released thus far. Chinese state media reports suggest that the MOU is more about getting Bhutan to establish diplomatic ties with China than about settling the border.

Xi, however, is giving Bhutan ample reason to resist subordination to China. The MOU was signed at a virtual event by the Bhutanese foreign minister and an assistant Chinese minister, as if Bhutan were a client state.

More fundamentally, by employing its South China Sea tactics to unilaterally change facts on the ground, China is presenting a territorial and military fait accompli to a helpless Bhutan.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

The Narco-Terrorist Taliban

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By allowing the Taliban to enrich and sustain itself with drug profits during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the US contributed to its own humiliating defeat at the hands of a narco-terrorist organization. But it is not too late for the US to start targeting the Taliban as a drug cartel through its federal courts.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

The strategic folly of US President Joe Biden’s Afghan policy has been laid bare in recent weeks. First, the country came back under the control of the Pakistan-reared Taliban. The announcement of the interim government’s composition then dashed any remaining (naive) hope that this Taliban regime would be different from the one the United States and its allies ousted in 2001. Beyond the cabinet including a who’s who of international terrorism, narcotics kingpins occupy senior positions.

Afghanistan accounts for 85% of the global acreage under opium cultivation, making the Taliban the world’s largest drug cartel. It controls and taxes opioid production, oversees exports, and shields smuggling networks. This is essential to its survival. According to a recent report by the United Nations Security Council monitoring team, the production and trafficking of poppy-based and synthetic drugs remain “the Taliban’s largest single source of income.” So reliant is the Taliban on narcotics trafficking that its leaders have at times fought among themselves over revenue-sharing.

The Taliban is hoping to expand its drug income as much as possible. Since its takeover, prices of opium in Afghanistan have more than tripled. In India – which is situated between the world’s two main opium-producing centers, the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran “Golden Crescent” and the Myanmar-Thailand-Laos “Golden Triangle” – seizures of Afghan-origin heroin have increased. As the UN Office on Drugs and Crime warns, the economic crisis Afghanistan currently faces will only increase the appeal of illicit crop cultivation for local farmers.

The problem extends beyond opioids. In recent years, Afghanistan has drastically expanded its production of methamphetamine. The appeal lies in the fact that meth offers producers a higher profit margin than heroin, owing to lower overhead costs and inexpensive ingredients, especially now that its chemical precursor, pseudoephedrine – a common ingredient in cold medications – is being produced locally.

Last year, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction warned that Afghanistan’s meth industry could soon be as large as its heroin industry. While the Taliban was not yet in control of Kabul at the time, it controlled the majority of Afghanistan’s small, clandestine meth labs.

The Taliban uses several smuggling routes to move opiates. It moves output to Western Europe via the Caucasus and the Balkans, and from there all the way to North America. With the help of the Tajikistan-based terrorist group Jamaat Ansarullah, it also uses a northern route to Russia. The southeastern route, which snakes through Pakistan, is enabled by Pakistani security officials, who cooperate with the Taliban and smuggling syndicates, known locally as “tanzeems,” in exchange for bribes.

In 2008, a Taliban drug trafficker was recorded boasting that most of his product ended up abroad. “Good,” he gloated. “May God turn all the infidels into dead corpses. Whether it is by opium or by shooting, this is our common goal.” With the Taliban channeling profits from drug sales directly into its terror machine, the connection between Islamist violence and drug trafficking could not be starker.

This is not exclusive to the Taliban; Islamist groups like Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda are also linked to drug trafficking. But not all terrorist groups are on board with this approach. As a 2020 UN Security Council report points out, the Islamic State-Khorasan – ISIS’s Afghan arm – opposes the drug trade.

This is one reason why the outfit is an enemy of the Taliban, despite the two groups’ longstanding personal relationships, common history of struggle, and shared belief in violent Islamism. In fact, when ISIS-K had control of the Afghan border province of Nangarhar, it blocked the Taliban’s trafficking routes into Pakistan. The link was restored only when the US and Afghan government forces smashed the ISIS-K stronghold there.

This highlights the failure of the US – and the West more broadly – to recognize the complex but clear links between drug trafficking and Islamist terrorism. Had the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan been followed by a US campaign to arrest and prosecute Taliban leaders for their narcotics-trafficking activities in American courts, the group’s appeal among fundamentalist Muslims might have been severely diminished.

Such a plan was proposed in 2012. In a 240-page memo, the US Drug Enforcement Administration and several Justice Department officials recommended prosecuting 26 senior Taliban leaders and allied drug lords for criminal conspiracy. A similar approach worked in Colombia, and helped to force the narcotics-funded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to make peace with the Colombian government in 2016, after 52 years of guerrilla war.

But successive US presidents refused to use this strategy against the Taliban, which was a strategic mistake with costs that are only beginning to be revealed. By allowing the Taliban to enrich and sustain itself with drug profits during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the US contributed to its own humiliating defeat at the hands of a narco-terrorist organization.Sign up for our weekly newsletter, PS on Sunday

It is not too late for the US to start targeting the Taliban as a drug cartel through its federal courts. After all, Afghan-origin opioids have resulted in high rates of drug addiction and deaths around the world, from the US and Europe to Africa and Asia. And, given Afghanistan’s economic woes, the Taliban has a strong incentive to ramp up production and trafficking.

By highlighting the nexus between Islamist terrorism and the global narcotics trade, US indictments of the Taliban’s drug kingpins would help to build multilateral cooperation to crush the group’s primary source of income, such as by blocking shipments and seizing illicit profits, often parked in banks and real-estate investments abroad.

If the US does not lead an international effort to tackle Afghanistan’s opioid and meth production, the Taliban’s power – and ability to commit atrocities – will only grow, and its narco-state will serve as a haven for al-Qaeda and other violent jihadist groups. As matters stand, the world can expect a major surge in international terrorism and drug overdoses in the months and years ahead.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2021.

Biden’s Taiwan test is coming

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© Getty Images

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill

Chinese President Xi Jinping, in power since 2012, has become increasingly emboldened in pursuing his expansionist agenda, in part because three successive American presidents have allowed him to act with impunity. Having swallowed Hong Kong, is China itching to move on Taiwan, the island democracy whose incorporation Xi recently called a “historic mission”? By rehearsing amphibious and air attacks, China has displayed a readiness to seize Taiwan by force.

Make no mistake: Taiwan is on the frontline of international defense against tyranny. This small island with almost as many people as much-larger Australia is a technological powerhouse that plays a central role in the international semiconductor business. Its absorption will not only make China a more formidable economic competitor to the United States, but also threaten global peace and critically accelerate the global chip shortage.

Encouraging Xi’s unrelenting expansionism is the fact that his heavy-handed actions at home and abroad thus far have essentially been cost-free. Take the South China Sea, whose geopolitical map Xi has forcibly redrawn, despite an international arbitral tribunal’s ruling invalidating China’s territorial claims there.

Then-President Obama seemed content to look the other way as Xi built artificial islands and militarized the South China Sea. This helped turn China’s contrived historical claims to that critical corridor into reality without firing a single shot. 

Under President Trump, despite a paradigm shift in America’s China policy, the administration prioritized a trade deal with Beijing and thus imposed largely symbolic sanctions when evidence of Xi’s Muslim gulag in Xinjiang emerged. Consequently, the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi era (which Washington acknowledges is genocide) has gone largely unpunished, even though the 1948 Genocide Convention requires its parties, which include the U.S., to “prevent and punish” acts of genocide.

When Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement was crushed and the city was brought into political lockstep with the Chinese Communist Party in breach of China’s United Nations-registered treaty with Britain, Xi and his inner circle remained untouched by the sanctions the Trump administration imposed. And all the 24 Chinese targeted by President Biden’s administration in March for their Hong Kong role had already been hit with sanctions by the Trump administration.  

Now there is real danger that, encouraged by Biden’s recent shift toward a more conciliatory approach toward China, Xi will move against Taiwan.

In fact, the exit of a vanquished America from Afghanistan, by underscoring the irreversible decline of U.S. power, may make Xi believe that China has an opening to seize Taiwan. Chinese state media have warned Taiwan that it will be abandoned by America in the face of a Chinese invasion, just as the Afghanistan disaster unfolded after the U.S. threw its allies – the Afghan government and military – under the bus.

Biden has accentuated America’s credibility problems. Asked at an Oct. 21 CNN town hall whether “the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense if China attacked,” Biden said emphatically, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” Then the White House quickly walked back his words, saying “there is no change in our policy” on Taiwan, which is centered on “strategic ambiguity” about U.S. intentions. 

Once a policy of ambiguity is described in virtually unequivocal terms by the president, and then the White House dials it back, it sends the wrong message to Beijing. Xi may read this as a lack of U.S. resolve to defend Taiwan and plan to invade Taiwan at an opportune time when America is distracted.

With its increasing bullying, Xi’s dictatorship is seeking to normalize hostile pressure on Taiwan. If not outright invasion, Beijing could seek to slowly throttle Taiwan in order to force it to accept “reunification,” including by cutting off its undersea cables, internet connections and liquified natural-gas imports. 

But if Xi perceives that China has a window of opportunity to act during the Biden presidency without inviting a major blowback, he will likely employ military force. In fact, the probability of a surprise Chinese invasion will be greater if Biden is seen as lacking the strategic vision and political will to defend Taiwan against an attack. 

In this light, the imperative for Washington is not merely to embrace strategic clarity by abandoning the outdated strategic ambiguity policy, which was formulated when China was still backward and in no position to annex Taiwan. Rather, the U.S. must shift from a “one China” policy to an overt “one China, one Taiwan” posture that recognizes the island’s independent status. And Xi should be left in no doubt that the U.S. would make China pay a heavy price if it attempted to invade or choke Taiwan.

A U.S. that fails to prevent Taiwan’s subjugation would be widely seen as unable or unwilling to defend any other ally, including Japan, which hosts more American soldiers today than any other foreign country. Taiwan (Imperial Japan’s first colony) is geographically an extension of the Japanese archipelago.

If the U.S. were to put up with a Chinese conquest of Taiwan, it would make the same fatal mistake as the participants of the 1938 Munich Conference who, yielding to Adolf Hitler, transferred the predominantly German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany. That concession paved the way for World War II.

Taiwan’s fall would significantly advance China’s hegemonic ambitions in Asia, including by triggering the unraveling of U.S.-led alliances there. And China would emerge as a pressing military threat to the U.S. itself.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

App bans not enough. India must start imposing calibrated costs on China

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

In 1962, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) set out to “teach India a lesson” by waging a surprise war. Now, by stealthily encroaching on border areas in Ladakh and then deepening and broadening the border crisis, it seems intent on making a permanent enemy of China’s largest neighbour.

From building a new axis against India’s so-called chicken-neck to advancing its “salami slicing” through militarized border villages, the CCP has steadily upped the ante. Its latest provocation is a “Land Borders Law”, primarily aimed at furthering its Himalayan expansionism.

Instead of mutually settled borders, the new law enables unilaterally imposed borders. Furthermore, the law’s assertion of absolute sovereignty over cross-border waters means that China has a declared right to divert as much of the shared waters of the Tibet-originating rivers as it wishes, regardless of downstream impacts.

Yet Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government still employs euphemisms to describe China’s 19-month-long aggression: “unilateral change of status quo” for land-grabs; “friction points” for seized areas; and “full restoration of peace and tranquillity” for rollback of the intrusions.

To Modi’s credit, though, India has refused to buckle. India has more than matched China’s military deployments and said bilateral ties cannot return to normal until China disengages and deescalates at the border.

China’s frenzied construction of new military infrastructure along the border, however, signals its intent to hold on to its gains of aggression and turn the once-lightly-patrolled frontier into a perennially hot border. The lengthy negotiations since mid-2020 have only worked to China’s advantage, enabling it to buy time and consolidate its land-grabs and build new military facilities and fibre optic networks along the frontier.

Had India done to China what China has done to it (seize territories through furtive aggression), the CCP dictatorship would have come down on it like a ton of bricks. Yet India has remained loath to impose biting trade and diplomatic sanctions, including as a means to address the largely one-sided trade and contain China’s influence operations.

India’s actions last year — from banning Chinese mobile apps to restricting Chinese companies’ access to Indian government contracts — may have helped assuage public anger at home over the aggression but did little to influence China’s behaviour. China’s exports to India are booming amid its aggression, allowing it to have its cake and eat it too. It is a “win-win” for China; it is literally winning twice.

By refraining from imposing substantive costs, India has allowed the military confrontation to remain a low-risk strategy for China. The multiple standoffs help China to keep India off-balance and stretched. Rather than India, it is China that is imposing costs, including forcing the diversion of greater Indian resources for frontier defence.

Meanwhile, India’s dual blunder in vacating the strategic Kailash Heights and accepting Chinese-designed “buffer zones” in three Ladakh areas has further emboldened China’s intransigence. Beijing has peremptorily dismissed India’s call for a return to the pre-April 2020 positions as “unreasonable and unrealistic”.

It is past time India sheds its risk aversion to build leverage over China. A calibrated imposition of progressively escalating costs has become imperative.

China’s trade with India may be modest as a percentage of its global trade, but its large trade surplus with India contributes significantly to its overall trade surplus. China’s bilateral trade surplus this year is set to nearly equal India’s total defence spending. The CCP has long waged economic war against India through product dumping to kill Indian manufacturing.

India must start employing tariff and non-tariff trade restrictions to curb non-essential imports from China. Indeed, China’s aggressive mercantilism has made trade diversification and import substitution more exigent. While China restricts market access to Indian firms, Chinese tech companies, for example, remain active in India’s lucrative cloud-computing space.

China’s challenge to its territorial integrity must prompt India to finally honour then-Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s 2014 promise to link its one-China policy to Beijing’s adoption of a one-India policy. Geopolitically, Taiwan should be to India what Pakistan is to China. If China swallows Taiwan, it will advance its hegemonic ambitions and become a more pressing military threat to India. Indian policy ought to subtly shift from a one-China stance to a “one China, one Taiwan, one Tibet” posture in practical but undeclared terms.

It is also time for New Delhi to downsize China’s large diplomatic presence in India, starting by shutting its Kolkata consulate, given the CCP’s designs on the Siliguri Corridor and the inflow of Chinese arms to insurgents. Modi’s predecessor played into China’s hands by letting it re-establish its Kolkata consulate without India reciprocally being allowed to reopen its Lhasa consulate, which Beijing shut in 1962.

The CCP is seeking to wear India out in order to impose a territorial and military fait accompli. A punitive Indian diplomatic and economic campaign can help internationally spotlight CCP’s strategic miscalculation in taking on India.

The writer is a geostrategist.

The steadily increasing risk of war between China and India

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Chinese troops pictured in Ladakh along the India-China border on Feb.15: China’s Land Borders Law effectively negates the possibility of peacefully resolving its territorial disputes with India.   © Indian Army/AP

Beijing’s use of domestic law underpins its international expansionism

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

The spotlight on the growing Chinese military threat against Taiwan has helped obscure China’s more serious military confrontation with India along an extended, mountainous frontier.

Although the intensifying multiple military standoffs between nuclear-armed titans China and India have grabbed few headlines, the risk of renewed border skirmishing, if not outright war, is increasing. Indeed, the Pentagon’s newly released annual report on China says the Chinese military is bracing for a two-front war scenario — “any escalation of border tensions with India, as well as preparing to support a Taiwan contingency.”

A reminder of the looming risks is China’s latest provocation — the enactment of a Land Borders Law — which appears primarily aimed at advancing its territorial revisionism in the Himalayas.

The law effectively negates the possibility of peacefully resolving its territorial disputes with India. Instead of mutually settled borders, the law enables unilaterally imposed borders.

The ongoing military standoffs began more than 18 months ago when a shocked India discovered that China had stealthily encroached on several key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh. The discovery led to the first deadly Chinese-Indian military clashes since 1975, including China’s first combat deaths in decades.

Unlike China’s expansionism elsewhere, including swallowing Hong Kong and redrawing maritime frontiers in the South China Sea without firing a shot, its Himalayan aggression has run into armed resistance. India has not only more than matched Chinese military deployments, but in recent days, it test-fired a nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile as a warning shot to China and conducted daring border paratrooper exercises simulating territory capture behind enemy lines.

The deepening military stalemate at the Himalayan border led Beijing to enact its new Land Borders Law, which gives its imprimatur to assertive actions along land frontiers. Those actions emulate China’s aggressive moves in the East and South China Seas, including an intensifying campaign against the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands, claimed by Beijing as the Diaoyu, through aerial and maritime incursions.

The Land Borders Law, which India’s foreign ministry slammed as a “unilateral move,” extends to transboundary river waters. According to Chinese state media, the law upholds China’s “legitimate rights and interests” over the Tibet-originating transboundary rivers like the Brahmaputra and Mekong.

The law’s assertion of full sovereignty over cross-border waters means that China has a declared right to divert as much of the shared waters as it wishes, regardless of downstream impacts. Nikkei Asia has reported in an online article, “China law tightens land borders amid regional tensions,” that Beijing is toying with the idea of limiting the volume of cross-border water flows to India during conflicts, by citing the “protection and reasonable use” stipulation of its Land Borders Law.

In fact, underscoring its readiness to weaponize even the sharing of water data on upstream river flows, China in 2017 inexplicably refused to supply hydrological data to India in violation of the terms of two bilateral agreements. The one-year data denial 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 Land Borders Law is just the latest example of how an increasingly aggressive China is using domestic law to underpin its expansionism. Beijing, for example, used a new national security law to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and bring the city into political lockstep with the Chinese Communist Party in breach of China’s United Nations-registered treaty with Britain.

The Land Borders Law came just months after China’s new Coast Guard Law took effect. Several countries, including Japan, the United States, the Philippines and Vietnam, have raised concerns about the Coast Guard Law, which clearly violates the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

But just as the Coast Guard Law is aimed at accelerating China’s maritime militarization, the Land Borders Law will speed up its militarization of the Himalayas. And just as the Coast Guard Law authorizes the use of lethal force in disputed waters claimed by China, the land law permits the use of force in defending and furthering Chinese claims to contested lands.

Simply put, Beijing enacts domestic law to violate international law. China’s success in unraveling Hong Kong’s autonomy through a national security law could inspire it to enact a Taiwan-specific legislation or activate its 2005 Anti-Secession Law against that island democracy.

By employing domestic law as a cover for unlawful actions, China illustrates that international law is powerless against the powerful, especially scofflaw states. But China’s expansionism often breaches international law with the aim, ironically, of asserting its own claims and rights under international law.

Examples include China’s human-made militarized islands in the South China Sea and its current militarized village-building spree in disputed Himalayan borderlands in order to extend or consolidate its control over strategically important areas that India, Bhutan and Nepal maintain fall within their national boundaries.

Effective control is the sine qua non of a strong territorial claim in international law. Armed patrols do not prove effective control, but civilian settlements do. So, the Chinese Communist Party is callously uprooting Tibetan nomads and forcing them to settle in its artificial new Himalayan border villages, where ethnic Han Chinese party members serve as resident overseers.

Whether China can legitimize unlawful actions retroactively in this manner is a moot point. But lawfare, or the misuse and abuse of law for political and military ends, is a key component of China’s asymmetrical or hybrid warfare.

This blends conventional and irregular tactics with incremental territorial encroachment — salami-slicing — psychological manipulation, disinformation and coercive diplomacy to help advance its expansionism.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

Why the U.S. let Pakistan nuclear scientist AQ Khan off the hook

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Decision could still come back to haunt Washington

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

The incredible story of A.Q. Khan, the Netherlands-trained Pakistani metallurgist who — with impunity — ran an illicit global nuclear-smuggling network for a quarter-century would make for a captivating thriller.

A key plotline would surely be the mystery of why Khan, who died on October 10 from complications caused by COVID-19, was never indicted by the U.S. for stealing nuclear secrets from the West. Khan played a pivotal role in helping Pakistan develop nuclear weapons and then selling crucial know-how to three U.S.-labeled “rogue states” — Iran, North Korea and Libya.

Former Netherlands Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers revealed in 2005 that Dutch authorities wanted to arrest Khan in 1975 and again in 1986 but that on each occasion the Central Intelligence Agency advised against taking such action. According to Lubbers, the CIA conveyed the message: “Give us all the information, but don’t arrest him.”

After Khan was tried in absentia and sentenced to four years in prison in 1983 for stealing uranium enrichment secrets from the Netherlands, files held by an Amsterdam court were mysteriously lost, with the main judge suspecting the CIA’s hand in their disappearance.

When an appeals court overturned Khan’s conviction on a technicality, the Netherlands — a key U.S. ally during the Cold War — declined to seek a retrial, effectively letting Khan off the hook. As the Financial Times put it, the Dutch “abandoned prosecution of the most consequential crime committed on their territory since the second world war.”

Geopolitics partly explains why the CIA wanted to protect Khan.

While the U.S. and India are close partners today, at the time Dutch authorities were seeking to arrest Khan, the U.S. was not averse to the idea of Pakistan developing a nuclear-weapons capability to balance India, which had conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. For years, the U.S. simply turned a blind eye to Pakistan’s covert nuclear-weapons development.

American concerns, however, were stirred when Khan began selling nuclear items to other renegade states. U.S. pressure compelled Pakistan to open investigations into Khan’s activities in 2003 after Iran and Libya admitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Pakistan-linked black marketeers supplied them with the components they needed to advance their nuclear research.

In 2004, Khan appeared on national television asking for forgiveness, saying he had acted entirely on his own in passing on nuclear secrets to other countries. “I take full responsibility for my actions,” Khan said, “and seek your pardon.”

After this orchestrated confession, Pakistani dictator General Pervez Musharraf, citing Khan’s status as a national hero, pardoned him. Musharraf also barred U.S. or IAEA investigators from questioning Khan. Oddly, Washington went along with this charade, which extended to Khan’s ostensible house detention.

Investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, in their acclaimed 2007 book “Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons,” concluded that Khan was the fall guy. “The covert trade in doomsday technology was not the work of one man, but the foreign policy of a nation and supervised by Pakistan’s ruling military clique,” Levy and Scott-Clark wrote, adding that Pakistan’s generals have long maintained a nexus with terrorist groups.

The military’s collusion with Khan was underscored by the use of an army plane in 2000 to transport centrifuges to Pyongyang. In return, Pakistan received North Korean ballistic missile technology, helping it to build its first intermediate-range, nuclear-capable missile, Ghauri.

While most technology transfers appeared to be state-sanctioned, Khan likely sold some nuclear items for personal profit.

Still, despite exaggerated Western media reports then, no evidence has surfaced to indicate that the Pakistani transfers significantly contributed to advancing the Iranian, North Korean and Libyan nuclear programs. North Korea, the only recipient to cross the nuclear threshold, has long relied on plutonium, which the Khan network did not traffic.

Pakistan’s own nuclear weaponization benefited decisively from clandestine transfers from China, another archrival of India. Such transfers began in 1982, when, as Khan admitted, China supplied the blueprint for one of the nuclear bombs it had tested, as well as enough weapons-grade uranium for two atomic weapons.

Yet the U.S., just as it has not penalized China for its continuing nuclear and missile transfers to Pakistan, chose not to indict the rogue Pakistani scientist that spearheaded an international smuggling enterprise. Washington, however, has indicted a number of other individuals — including as recently as last year — for conspiring to smuggle nuclear goods to Pakistan.

America’s shielding of Khan, a nuclear jihadist committed to payback for real and imagined injustices against Muslims, was doubly ironic, because it set the stage for Pakistan’s emergence as an epicenter for terrorism, with its own nuclear weapons acting as enough of a deterrent to retaliation by another state.

Indeed, through its humiliating Afghanistan defeat at the hands of the Taliban, America has tasted the bitter fruits of the Pakistani generals’ cross-border use of jihadist proxies from behind their protective nuclear shield.

The U.S. maintains contingency plans to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons if they risk falling into terrorist hands. But if a 9/11 style terrorist attack with a crude nuclear device were to occur anywhere in the world, the trail of devastation would likely lead back to Pakistan.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

Saving Tibet

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Chinese President Xi Jinping seems eager for Taiwan to go the way of once-autonomous Tibet, which was gobbled up by Mao Zedong’s regime in the early 1950s. This would constitute the biggest threat to world peace in a generation, and the United States cannot afford to allow it.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

China’s coercive expansionism may be taking its most dangerous turn yet. Recently, record-breaking numbers of Chinese military planes have entered Taiwan’s “air defense identification zone,” where the island’s authorities assert the right to demand that aircraft identify themselves. China’s muscle-flexing sends a clear message: it is serious about incorporating the island – and “reunifying” China – potentially by force.

Though the international community has been reluctant to challenge the Chinese claim that Taiwan has “always been” part of China, the claim is dubious, at best, and based on revisionist history. For most of its history, Taiwan was inhabited by non-Chinese peoples – Malayo-Polynesian tribes – and had no relationship with China. Geographically, Taiwan is closer to the Philippines than to the Chinese mainland.

It was not until the seventeenth century that significant numbers of Chinese began to migrate to Taiwan, encouraged by the island’s Dutch colonial rulers, who needed workers. Over the next 100 years, the ethnic Chinese population grew to outnumber Taiwanese natives, who were increasingly dispossessed, often violently. During this period, Taiwan came under the Qing Dynasty’s control. But it was not until 1887 that Taiwan was declared a province of China.

Barely eight years later, China ceded Taiwan to Japan in perpetuity, following its defeat in the Sino-Japanese War. Taiwan remained under Japanese colonial rule until 1945 – Japan officially renounced its sovereignty over it in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty – and has been self-governing ever since. In other words, for the last 126 years, Taiwan has been outside China’s lawful control.

Today, Taiwan has all the attributes of a robust independent state, and most Taiwanese want it to stay that way. But Chinese President Xi Jinping appears eager to annex the island, as Mao Zedong’s regime did to Tibet in the early 1950s, in the name of “reunification.” A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would constitute the biggest threat to world peace in a generation.

Beyond compromising freedom of navigation in a crucial region, a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would upend the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific, not least by enabling China to break out of the “first island chain” that runs from the Japanese archipelago, through Taiwan, the Philippines, and on to Borneo, enclosing China’s coastal seas. It would also irreparably damage America’s reputation as a reliable ally. If the United States cannot (or will not) prevent Taiwan’s subjugation, why should anyone else count on US protection?

The risks are particularly acute for Japan, whose southernmost islands are adjacent to Taiwan. As then-Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso observed in July, “Okinawa could be next.” Unable to rely on the Americans, Japan would likely remilitarize and even acquire nuclear weapons. Other US allies – such as South Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand – would likely be brought into China’s sphere of influence.

Yet the US does not seem particularly committed to preventing a Chinese takeover of Taiwan and the subsequent collapse of the half-century-old Asian security order. This is exactly what Xi is counting on. Successive US administrations have let him get away with countless expansionist maneuvers – from militarizing the South China Sea to demolishing Hong Kong’s autonomy – as well as cultural genocide in Xinjiang. Why should Taiwan be any different?

US President Joe Biden’s recent shift to a more conciliatory approach toward China has probably bolstered Xi’s confidence further. Xi currently may be focused on China’s 17-month-long military confrontation with India in the Himalayas, where Chinese territorial encroachments have triggered a massive buildup of forces along the inhospitable frontier. But, if some resolution can be found that reduces tensions in the Himalayas, it would free up Chinese capabilities to deal with the fallout of any Taiwan-related operation.

At that point, the only thing that would deter China from attempting to recolonize Taiwan would be the knowledge that it would incur high concrete – not just reputational – costs. Biden must therefore make it crystal clear to Xi that the US would mobilize its own military resources to defend Taiwan.

But will he? The US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific – a policy document declassified by President Donald Trump’s administration before leaving office – recommends that America help Taiwan develop “asymmetric” capabilities against China. Such a strategy has recently been backed by some former American government and military officials. As retired Admiral James Stavridis puts it, just as a porcupine’s quills protect it from larger predators by making it difficult to digest, weapons like anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles would turn any invasion of Taiwan into a bloody, protracted, and costly guerrilla campaign.

It is true that bolstering Taiwan’s defenses is crucial to avert Chinese amphibious and airborne operations. But even if the US and Taiwanese governments reached an agreement on an asymmetric strategy, it would take several years to build a “porcupine Taiwan” capable of choking the Chinese dragon. This process would include training a large civilian corps to mount sustained guerrilla attacks on invaders.

Until then, in keeping with the central paradox of deterrence, the only way to discourage aggression by a revisionist power is for the status quo power to threaten to go to war. That is how the US kept West Berlin – which had a political status even more precarious than Taiwan’s – free throughout the Cold War.

The worst stance the US could take would be to oppose a Chinese takeover of Taiwan without credibly signaling a genuine willingness to defend the island militarily. Such an approach could encourage Xi, who has grown accustomed to acting with impunity, to order a surprise invasion. With that, the Indo-Pacific order would be overturned, dealing a mortal blow to America’s global preeminence.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2021.

Biden shifts to a more conciliatory approach toward China

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill

In a defiant speech on Aug. 31, President Biden claimed that his precipitous exit from Afghanistan, which facilitated the terrorist takeover of that country, would allow the United States to focus on its “serious competition with China.” But there are now growing signs that Biden’s Afghan blunder has weakened his hand against China and opened greater strategic space for America’s main rival.

Illustrating his weakened position, the president has just capitulated to China’s hostage-taking tactics. In a deal Biden finalized with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the U.S. dropped its extradition case against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, allowing her to return home from Canada, in exchange for China’s release of Canadian hostages Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who spent 1,019 days in Chinese prisons on trumped-up charges. 

The hostages-for-Meng swap is the latest example of Biden’s efforts to ease tensions with China by propitiating Xi. By rewarding Xi’s use of rogue tactics, the deal sends a chilling message to foreigners working in China.

Earlier, Biden bowed to another Chinese demand — that the U.S. stop tracing the origins of the COVID-19 virus, even though the world has a right to know if China caused the worst disaster of our time, which has already killed more than 4.7 million people. Twelve days after Kabul’s fall, Biden announced on Aug. 27 that the intelligence inquiry he initiated had ended, even though it failed to uncover the genesis of the pandemic.

Xi’s regime, involved in one of the greatest cover-ups ever seen, doesn’t want the truth to come out. After all, if China’s negligence or complicity spawned the world’s worst public-health catastrophe in more than a century, it would constitute a crime against humanity.

Biden should have ordered the U.S. intelligence community to keep searching for the true origins of the virus until it reached a definitive conclusion. By not extending the inquiry’s 90-day deadline, Biden met an important Chinese demand.

Since the Afghan debacle, Biden has gone to extraordinary lengths to alleviate tensions with China. Last week began with the president’s China-conciliatory address at the United Nations and ended with Meng’s return home to a hero’s welcome.  

During a recent 90-minute phone conversation with Xi, Biden sought to explain U.S. actions toward China “in a way that [is] not misinterpreted as…somehow trying to sort of undermine Beijing in particular ways,” according to the readout from a senior U.S. official. In fact, during the call, Xi spurned Biden’s face-to-face summit offer, demanding that the U.S. first soften its China policy and tamp down rhetoric.

As if heeding Xi’s demand, Biden in his UN address never uttered the word “China,” even as he called out Iran and North Korea. The address stood in stark contrast with then-President Trump’s 2020 UN speech, which demanded the world “hold China accountable” for unleashing the “China virus.” Biden’s speech defensively stated, “We’re not seeking – say it again, we are not seeking – a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs.”

Such fecklessness appears out of step with reality, given that an ambitious and expansionist China is actively working to supplant the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power while waging a cold war against it. Since Biden assumed the presidency, the U.S. has initiated most moves for high-level talks with China, including the latest phone call.

The White House’s dropping of fraud charges against Meng, the daughter of the man who founded the military-linked Huawei, is a real shot in the arm for Xi, whose increasing appetite for taking major risks poses an international challenge. In a striking paradox, Meng departed for home from Canada on the day Biden hosted the first face-to-face leaders’ meeting of the Quad, a U.S.-India-Japan-Australia grouping catalyzed by China’s muscular foreign policy and rogue behavior.

Deals with hostage-takers usually boomerang. For example, to secure the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a captured U.S. Army sergeant who had deserted his unit in Afghanistan, President Obama in 2014 freed five Taliban leaders from Guantánamo Bay. The release of the five – “the hardest of the hardcore,” as the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said then – proved costly.

An emboldened Taliban sharply escalated its attacks in Afghanistan, bringing Afghan and U.S.-NATO forces under increasing pressure. This eventually led to Trump’s one-sided withdrawal deal with the Taliban in February 2020 and then to Biden’s recent handover of Afghanistan to that Pakistan-backed terrorist militia. Today, the five former Guantánamo inmates are senior officials of the new Afghan regime, made up of a who’s who of international terrorism.

The Biden-arranged swap is likely to prove detrimental to the free world. The deal may have unwittingly vindicated Chinese propaganda that the 2018 Canadian arrest of Meng on a U.S. warrant was politically driven and that the U.S. and Canadian judicial systems do not operate independent of political interests.

Indeed, the White House has shamed the rule of law by terminating a legal case through a political deal with a hostage-holding regime, thereby setting a terrible precedent in international relations.

The deal will inspire other hostage-takers, including the Taliban. To press for sanctions relief and other demands, the Taliban is already obstructing the evacuation of the remaining stranded foreigners from Afghanistan, including Afghans with Western passports.

More ominously, America’s yielding to China’s thuggish diplomacy of hostage-taking will encourage greater Chinese defiance of international rules and norms. Xi’s regime doesn’t care about the costs to the country’s image, which explains why, despite unfavorable views of China rising to near historic highs, it is busy corrupting, coercing or co-opting other states.

In pursuing a more conciliatory approach toward China, Biden has given respectability to the rogue-state tactic of taking hostages, making it virtually certain that the two freed Canadians will not be the last foreigners seized by Beijing as bargaining chips.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

A Striking Paradox: The U.S. Engages Taliban But Isolates Myanmar

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Taliban fighters stand guard outside Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Aug. 16: the White House has praised the Taliban for being businesslike and professional on evacuations.   © Reuters

Naypyitaw’s generals treated as bigger threat than the terrorists controlling Kabul

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

No sooner had the Taliban completed their lightning-quick conquest of Afghanistan than U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that Washington was ready to work on “counterterrorism” with the same marauding Islamist force that has so much American blood on its hands.

No less shocking was the statement from the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, that it is “possible” the U.S. will coordinate with the Taliban to conduct counterterrorism strikes on other Islamist terrorists.

British Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Nick Carter called the Taliban — responsible for the killing of more than 2,000 American soldiers and hundreds of allied troops — “country boys” that “live by a code of honor and a standard.” Carter’s claim that the Taliban have “changed” and “want an Afghanistan that is inclusive for all” has already been contradicted.

The Taliban’s all-male regime of hard-core extremists is a who’s who of international terrorism, with 17 of the 33 cabinet ministers on the United Nations’ terrorism-related sanctions list, and four former Guantanamo Bay inmates and several others who remain U.S.-designated global terrorists. The regime is headed by Mohammad Hassan Akhund, a U.N.-listed terrorist and architect of the 2001 destruction of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan.

The Anglo-American outreach to the Taliban stands in eerie contrast with U.S. and British efforts to isolate and squeeze another of India’s neighbors — military-ruled Myanmar. It is as if Myanmar’s military government is a bigger threat to international security than a Kabul regime run by some of the world’s deadliest terrorists.

Military rule is nothing new to Myanmar, one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries whose failure to construct an inclusive national identity has allowed old ethnic insurgencies to fester. Directly or indirectly, the military has always called the shots in Myanmar, a factor stifling the resource-rich nation’s potential.Soldiers set up barricades in Yangon on Feb. 15: military rule is nothing new to Myanmar,   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Yet, after the latest military takeover on Feb. 1, the U.S. and Britain took the lead in slapping a series of sanctions on Myanmar, with America even suspending bilateral trade ties. Washington says its 2013 Trade and Investment Framework Agreement with Myanmar will remain suspended until the return of a democratically elected government, of which there is currently little hope.

The U.S.-led efforts to use economic and political levers to unseat the military regime have only emboldened insurgent groups to step up their violent campaigns. A shadow government formed by opponents of military rule recently called for taking up arms against the regime. More than 220,000 people have already been displaced by internal conflict since the military takeover.

Yet, the U.S. and Britain appear reconciled to a terrorist regime ruling Afghanistan. In an echo of Gen. Carter’s call to be “very careful about using the term ‘enemy'” for the Taliban, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan has declined to call the militia an enemy of the U.S., saying, “It’s hard to put a label on it.”

In fact, Britain responded to the Taliban’s conquest by immediately announcing a doubling of its aid to Afghanistan. And U.S. President Joe Biden — not content with his Afghan surrender gifting troves of American-made weapons to the Taliban, making them the first terrorist group to acquire advanced air and land-based capabilities — is sending $64 million in aid to Afghanistan. As The Wall Street Journal put it, the Taliban “have overnight turned into a courted U.S. partner.”

The White House has praised the Taliban for being “businesslike and professional” on evacuations. They have certainly been businesslike and professional in detaining and executing perceived opponents, in ongoing ethnic cleansing and in their Pakistan-aided brutal assaults on the Panjshir Valley, the last resistance stronghold, where tens of thousands of residents have been uprooted amid widespread killings.

Meanwhile, Taliban death squads, going door to door, have been hunting down and killing those who assisted the previous government, including, in one documented case, first pulling out all the victim’s fingernails. The Taliban have been businesslike and professional too in their imposition of seventh-century Islamic practices from the Arab world that are alien to Afghan culture.

The Taliban have “changed” in one respect: In place of the blue burqa that women were made to wear during their 1996-2001 rule, they have now prescribed a full-body covering of a different color, black.

The U.S. outreach to the Taliban, including drawing specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists, is designed to soften the blow from Biden’s handover of a mineral-rich country to a militia that is a wing of the Pakistani deep state. But such an effort cannot camouflage the damage to America’s international credibility and standing.

More fundamentally, the Anglo-American courting of the Taliban highlights the selective, geopolitics-driven approach to combating terrorism, which is why the U.S.-launched global war on terrorism has yielded little even two decades after its launch. The scourge of transnational terrorism has only spread deeper and wider.

The Taliban’s rollback of civil, human and women’s rights, brutal executions, replacement of education and music with religious dogma, and enslavement of prepubescent girls through forced “marriage” to their fighters ought to spur a concerted global response.

The last thing the world can afford is condoning the Taliban’s medieval practices, misogyny and barbarity. Yet the West remains a mute spectator to the Taliban’s ongoing atrocities.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

Biden rewards Xi’s hostage diplomacy

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Globe and Mail

There is an old Chinese idiom: “Kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” And in the political crossfire between Washington and Beijing over the 2018 Canadian arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. warrant, it is clear that for China, Canada has been the chicken to the U.S.’s monkey.

The relief in Canada over the return of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig from almost three years of arbitrary detention in China should not obscure the larger implications of the U.S.-arranged deal. It represents a triumph of China’s scofflaw tactics, and a real shot in the arm for President Xi Jinping, whose expansionist policies already pose a growing international challenge.

In recent weeks, U.S. President Joe Biden has gone to extraordinary lengths to ease tensions with China, as if to underscore that the humiliating U.S. defeat in Afghanistan has weakened his hand against his country’s principal rival. During a recent 90-minute phone conversation, Mr. Xi spurned Mr. Biden’s offer of a face-to-face summit, demanding that the U.S. first soften its China policy and tamp down its rhetoric.

As if heeding Mr. Xi’s demand, Mr. Biden did not utter the word “China” in his address at the United Nations last week, even as he called out Iran and North Korea. “We’re not seeking – I’ll say it again, we are not seeking – a new Cold War or a world divided into rigid blocs,” he said defensively. Contrast that with then-president Donald Trump’s 2020 UN speech, in which he declared that the world must “hold China accountable” for the COVID-19 pandemic. And indeed, during his phone call with Mr. Xi, Mr. Biden sought to explain U.S. actions toward China “in a way that [is] not misinterpreted as … somehow trying to sort of undermine Beijing in particular ways,” according to the readout from a senior U.S. official.

Such fecklessness appears out of step with reality, given that China has been actively working to displace the U.S. as the world’s pre-eminent power. Yet, since Mr. Biden assumed office, it is the U.S. that has initiated most of the moves for high-level talks with China, including the latest phone call.

The Biden administration’s dropping of fraud charges against Ms. Meng came just after Canada completed its federal election. But, in a striking paradox, Ms. Meng departed for home from Canada on the day Mr. Biden hosted the first face-to-face leaders’ meeting of the Quad, a U.S.-India-Japan-Australia coalition catalyzed by China’s aggressive foreign policy and rogue behaviour.

By terminating a legal case through a political deal, Washington may have unwittingly vindicated Chinese propaganda – that Ms. Meng’s arrest was politically driven and that the U.S. and Canadian judicial systems were not free from political influence. The deal will encourage China to further defy international rules and norms and coerce other states, as it seeks to establish a 21st-century version of the imperial tributary system.

The White House, unfortunately, has ignored the lesson that deals with hostage takers usually boomerang. For example, to secure the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a captured U.S. Army sergeant who had deserted his unit in Afghanistan, U.S. President Barack Obama freed five Taliban leaders – “the hardest of the hardcore,” as the late senator John McCain called them at the time – from Guantánamo Bay in 2014. An emboldened Taliban then sharply escalated its attacks in Afghanistan, bringing Afghan and U.S.-NATO forces under increasing pressure. This led eventually to Mr. Trump’s one-sided withdrawal deal in February, 2020, whose precipitous implementation by Mr. Biden facilitated the Taliban’s sweep into power in August. Today, the five former Guantanamo inmates are senior officials of the Taliban regime, which is stacked with cabinet ministers who are on UN and U.S. terrorism-related sanctions lists.

Mr. Biden’s deal is also likely to prove broadly detrimental to Western interests. By striking a deal with a hostage-holding government, the White House has advertised weakness. The fact that China has gotten its way will inspire other hostage-takers, including the Taliban. In fact, to press for sanctions relief and other demands, the Taliban are already obstructing the evacuation of the remaining Western citizens from Afghanistan, including Afghans who hold U.S. passports or green cards.

Thanks to the U.S.’s deal, Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor will surely not be the last foreigners seized by Beijing as bargaining chips. By rewarding China’s hostage diplomacy, the White House has given respectability to a rogue-state tactic that Mr. Xi is sure to now employ again.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water: Asia’s New Battleground.