About Chellaney

Professor, strategic thinker, author and commentator

China’s expansionism creeps along as West distracted by Ukraine

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India retreats further into own territory with Himalayan buffer-zone pullbacks

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Chinese troops hold a banner reading, “You’ve crossed the border, please go back,” in Ladakh, India, in May 2013: China’s incremental, salami-slicing approach of bulletless aggression has come at little international cost. © AP

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.”

Biden’s Dangerous Embrace of Pakistan

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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.

By Brahma ChellaneyProject Syndicate

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.

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, 2022.

The Quad is at risk of losing its strategic focus

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Biden is saddling the group with a distracting global agenda

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Quad leaders chat in Tokyo on May 24: Joe Biden has coaxed the group into adopting an expansive agenda. © Reuters

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 cost-free gulag for Muslims

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill

Guard towers stand on the perimeter wall of the Urumqi No. 3 Detention Center in Dabancheng in western China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on April 23, 2021. China’s discriminatory detention of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang may constitute crimes against humanity, the U.N. human rights office said in a long-awaited report released on Aug. 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)

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 U.N. report may carry the imprimatur of the world’s only truly universal organization and its member states, yet China was quick to pour scorn on it. Just as it rubbished a 2016 international arbitral tribunal ruling that invalidated its territorial claims in the South China Sea, China ridiculed the U.N. report, calling it a pack of “disinformation and lies.”Could long COVID finally make us take chronic pain seriously?It’s crucial to reintegrate Taiwan into the ICAO

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.

India has a stake in Taiwan’s defense

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Chinese territorial claims in Himalayas are much bigger than the island

Indian military trucks move toward forward areas in Ladakh in September 2020: New Delhi is helping Taiwan’s defense by tying down a complete Chinese theater force.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

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 Afghan Abyss

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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.

By Brahma Chellaney, Project Syndicate

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.”

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, 2022.

Will US-China Tensions Boil Over?

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

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.

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, 2022.

Will Taiwan be the next Ukraine on Biden’s watch?

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hill

President Biden has still to grasp that Taiwan is far more important than Ukraine to the future of American power in the world. Yet the likelihood is growing that, on Biden’s watch, Chinese President Xi Jinping would move on Taiwan, just as Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.

In a forewarning of that, China has recently started claiming that it owns the critical international waterway, the Taiwan Strait. Just as it did earlier in the South China Sea — the strategic corridor between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, through which one-third of global maritime trade passes — Xi’s regime is seeking to advance its expansionism by laying an expansive claim to the Taiwan Strait, which, by connecting the South and East China Seas, serves as an important passage for commercial shipping as well as foreign naval vessels. 

The new claim signals that Xi is preparing to move on Taiwan at an opportune time — an action that would involve exercising maritime domain control.

By forcibly absorbing Taiwan, China would drive the final nail in the coffin of America’s global preeminence. A takeover of Taiwan would also give China a prized strategic and economic asset.

The defense of Taiwan has assumed greater significance for international security because three successive U.S. administrations have failed to credibly push back against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, relying instead on rhetoric or symbolic actions.

Biden, rather than working to deter and thwart a possible Chinese attack on Taiwan, is seeking to shield his tentative rapprochement with China, which has been forged through a series of virtual meetings with Xi and by offering Beijing important concessions. This explains why Biden publicly pushed back against a Taiwan visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

It is important to remember that, much before Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden had begun to ease pressure on China. He effectively let Xi’s regime off the hook for both covering up COVID-19’s origins and failing to meet its commitments under the 2020 “phase one” trade deal with Washington. Biden also dropped fraud charges against the daughter of the founder of the military-linked Chinese tech giant Huawei. U.S. sanctions over China’s Muslim gulag remain essentially symbolic.

And now Biden is planning to roll back tariffs on Chinese goods, which will further fuel China’s spiraling trade surplus with America. After swelling by more than 25% last year to $396.6 billion, the trade surplus with the U.S. now makes up almost three-quarters of China’s total global surplus. 

The mammoth surplus is helping to keep the Chinese economy afloat at a time when growth has slowed almost to a halt, triggering rising unemployment and mortgage and debt crises. The situation has been made worse by Xi’s lockdown-centered, zero-tolerance approach to COVID-19, which is breeding anger and resistance amid a property implosion.

Xi’s growing domestic troubles at a critical time when he is seeking a norm-breaking third term as Communist Party chairman heighten the risk of the Chinese leader resorting to nationalist brinkmanship as a distraction. After all, initiating a foreign intervention or crisis to divert attention from domestic challenges is a tried-and-true technique of leaders of major powers.

In his latest virtual meeting with Biden on July 28, Xi sharply warned against U.S. interference in the Taiwan issue, saying that those who “play with fire will perish by it.” Biden, by contrast, struck a defensive tone, reaffirming the U.S. commitment to a one-China policy and reassuring Xi that American “policy has not changed and that the United States strongly opposes anyone who will change the status quo or undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Having swallowed Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party seems itching to move on Taiwan, a technological powerhouse that plays a central role in the international semiconductor business. Annexing Taiwan will make China a more formidable rival to America and advance its goal of achieving global preeminence by the 100th anniversary of communist rule in 2049. 

Against this background, Biden’s conciliatory approach toward China threatens to embolden Xi’s designs against Taiwan.

Taiwan’s imperative is to expand its global footprint in order to help safeguard its autonomous status. Instead of aiding that effort, Biden inexplicably excluded that island democracy from his recently unveiled Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — an economic platform that seeks to promote cooperation among its member-states.

Biden’s pursuit of a rapprochement with China also explains his administration’s proposal to roll back tariffs on Chinese products, an action that would break his promise not to unilaterally lift tariffs unless Beijing’s behavior improved.

Not once, not twice, but at least three times Biden has said in recent months that he is willing to get militarily involved to defend Taiwan, only to have his senior officials walk back his comments on every occasion. The last time when he sowed international confusion afresh, Biden himself walked back his Taiwan comments, telling reporters a day later, “My policy has not changed at all.”

In seeking to placate China, Biden is sending out contradictory signals, leaving Taiwan vexed and confused.

Instead of privately advising Pelosi against visiting Taiwan, Biden gratuitously told a reporter that “the military” thinks a Pelosi visit to Taiwan is “not a good idea right now.” Pelosi then told the media, “I think what the president is saying is that maybe the military was afraid our plane would get shot down or something like that by the Chinese.”

The president’s unusual remark conveyed American weakness by implying that the U.S. military was not capable of securing the flight path of the Pelosi-carrying military aircraft to Taiwan or effectively responding to any Chinese provocation. The comment also encouraged Xi’s regime to escalate its bullying threats to stymie a Taiwan visit by the person second in line to the U.S. presidency.

More fundamentally, if Biden fears a Pelosi visit to Taipei would set back his nascent rapprochement with China and ignite new tensions, it raises serious doubts whether he will have the political will to help defeat a Chinese attack on Taiwan.

Xi is also likely encouraged by Biden’s failure to force Russian forces to retreat from Ukraine, despite Washington spearheading unprecedented Western actions against Russia, including weaponizing finance, slapping wide-ranging sanctions and arming Ukraine with a plethora of sophisticated weapons.

With Biden’s poll numbers already in the tank, the president is likely to emerge further weakened from the approaching midterm election. By contrast, a strengthened Xi securing a precedent-defying third term is likely to be bolder and more assertive in pursuing his geopolitical ambitions.

Instead of ordering a full-scale invasion, Xi may begin to slowly throttle Taiwan so as to force it to merge with China. A strangulation strategy would likely include blockading the Taiwan Strait (which will close off Taiwan’s main port, Kaohsiung) and seeking to cut off Taiwan’s undersea cables, internet connections and energy imports.

Make no mistake: Xi perceives an advantageous window of opportunity to accomplish what he has called a “historic mission” to incorporate Taiwan. And, in the style recommended by ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, Xi’s aggression will likely begin with stealth, deception, surprise and innovative methods.

For Xi, taking Taiwan is essential to achieving larger strategic goals, including making China a world power second to none by displacing America from regional and global order.

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.

Ukraine war hastens Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown

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Internal factors alone cannot explain Sri Lanka’s economic collapse. In a forewarning of wider international instability, Sri Lanka slid from a serious balance-of-payments crisis to bankruptcy due to the spiraling global fuel and food prices triggered by the Western sanctions against Russia.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Auto rickshaw drivers line up to buy gas near a fuel station in Colombo on April 13: A forewarning that more vulnerable countries could go bust. © AP

Sri Lanka’s economic collapse exemplifies how poorer countries are paying the price of Western sanctions on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

Instead of focusing on how the sanctions are fueling a global energy and food crisis, much of the international attention is on the new Cold War between the West and Moscow. Unable to pay for basic imports and crippled by domestic shortages of fuel, food and medicine, Sri Lanka is facing its worst financial crisis since independence in 1948.

After hundreds of thousands of protesters marched on Colombo over the weekend, and the risk of violent unrest intensified, Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and interim Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe separately announced they were stepping down. Gotabaya, however, fled the country on a military jet without handing in his resignation.

Rooted in fiscal imbalances, external debt and government mismanagement, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis predates the Western imposition of unparalleled sanctions on Russia over its attack on Ukraine.

But, thanks to spiraling international fuel and food prices in recent months, Sri Lanka has slid from a serious balance-of-payments crisis to bankruptcy, with Wickremesinghe declaring that the national economy had “completely collapsed.”

By taking out a crucial chunk of the global energy supply, the sanctions against Russia have triggered a surge in inflation in Western nations, which now confront cost-of-living crises. But in poorer countries, the sanctions are compounding national debt woes and threatening livelihoods and social stability.

Russia, the world’s largest exporter of oil and gas before the war, has been critical to stability in international energy markets, while its fertilizer exports remain vital for global food production, in which energy accounts for up to 30% of the cost.

Financial sanctions have made it so difficult to make payments to Russia that supplies of even sanctions-exempt commodities such as fertilizers and wheat — of which Russia is also the world’s biggest exporter — have been disrupted. Russia, for its part, has blocked shipments of Ukraine’s leading exports: sunflower oil, corn and wheat.

It is these unintended consequences that have hastened Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown. The rapid depletion of foreign exchange reserves has left its citizens without basic necessities. Rolling electricity outages and queues for fuel that run for miles have forced authorities to temporarily shut schools and offices.

Sri Lanka’s debt crisis first caught international attention in 2017 when, unable to repay Chinese loans, the nation handed a strategic port complex at Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease. Despite slipping into a debt trap, Sri Lanka went ahead with other grandiose Chinese projects, including a massive development project across the bay from Colombo on reclaimed land.

Other factors also contributed to making Sri Lanka’s debt unsustainable. A terrorist bombing spree on Easter Sunday in 2019 that killed nearly 300 people and led to a near cessation of foreign tourist arrivals, followed by the COVID pandemic, devastated the resource-poor nation’s revenue stream.

The Rajapaksa family, which has long dominated Sri Lanka’s political landscape and was instrumental in opening the door to China, racked up debt on a grand scale by committing to an array of ambitious infrastructure projects, several of which continue to bleed money. Worse still, drastic tax cuts in 2019 wiped out about a third of the government’s revenues.

More recently, after violent protests toppled Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government in May, his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, appointed an old political rival, former Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, to head an interim government and help rescue the nation from the economic death spiral.

Wickremesinghe, whose private home was set on fire by arsonists on Saturday, earlier described the national situation as unprecedented. “We’ve had difficult times [before]… But not like this. I have not seen… people without fuel, without food.”

Sri Lanka has confronted multiple economic crises in the past — since 1965 the country has secured 16 International Monetary Fund loans — but its current talks with the IMF for a bailout package are difficult because, in Wickremesinghe’s words, “we are participating in the negotiations as a bankrupt country.” An IMF approval appears months away.

China, now the world’s biggest official creditor, has balked at paring Sri Lanka’s debt, saying it would set a precedent for other borrowing countries to demand similar relief. With China’s typical loan contract compelling a borrowing country to keep confidential even the loan’s existence, Sri Lanka is reeling under a hidden debt problem, with its actual debt to Beijing perhaps making up as much as 20% of its total external debt.

To stay afloat in recent months, Sri Lanka has largely relied on help from India, which has provided over $4 billion in credit lines and other aid. But Wickremesinghe says Sri Lanka urgently needs more assistance, especially from India, Japan, the U.S. and China.

Sri Lanka’s economic meltdown, which has forced it to seek Russian oil, wheat and fertilizers on credit, may be an extreme example of the global fallout from the U.S.-led sanctions on Moscow.

But violent demonstrations from Latin America to Africa over the dizzying spiral in fuel and food prices are a forewarning that more vulnerable countries could go bust. “I think by the end of the year, you could see the impact in other countries” as well, Wickremesinghe said.

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

The Fall of the House of Rajapaksa

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Through a combination of authoritarianism, nepotism, cronyism, and hubris, the Rajapaksa family weighed down Sri Lanka’s economy with more debt than it could possibly bear. The country’s next leaders will have to address shortages of basic necessities, rebuild a wrecked economy, and reestablish the rule of law.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

For much of nearly two decades, the four Rajapaksa brothers and their sons have run Sri Lanka like a family business – and a disorderly one, at that. With their grand construction projects and spendthrift ways, they saddled Sri Lanka with unsustainable debts, driving the country into its worst economic crisis since independence. Now, the dynasty has fallen.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was instrumental in establishing the Rajapaksa dynasty. After becoming president in 2005, he ruled with an iron fist for a decade, attacking civil liberties, expanding presidential powers (including abolishing term limits), and making bad deal after bad deal with China. Throughout this process, he kept his family close, with his younger brother Gotabaya holding the defense portfolio.

But in 2015, Mahinda narrowly lost the presidential election, and the Rajapaksas were briefly driven from power. During that time, parliament restored the presidential term limit, ruling out another Mahinda presidency. Yet the family quickly devised a plan to restore their dynasty: Gotabaya would renounce his US citizenship and run for president.

Gotabaya was well-positioned to win. After all, he had been defense secretary in 2009 when Mahinda ordered the final military offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels, bringing a brutal 26-year civil war to a decisive end. With that, the Rajapaksa brothers emerged as heroes among Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority.

To be sure, the final offensive killed as many as 40,000 civilians and sparked international accusations of war crimes. The United Nations described it as a “grave assault on the entire regime of international law.” According to Sarath Fonseka, the wartime military commander, Gotabaya ordered the summary execution of surrendering rebel leaders. In California, where he was previously domiciled, Gotabaya faces civil charges over alleged war crimes.

But the Rajapaksa brothers simply presented themselves as hardheaded custodians of Sinhalese interests. And, thanks largely to his ethno-nationalist credentials, Gotabaya won the 2019 election – at which point he immediately appointed Mahinda as his prime minister. Mahinda then appointed his two sons, his other two brothers, and a nephew as ministers or to other government positions.

The same year, 277 people were killed, and hundreds more wounded, in bombings carried out by Islamist extremists on Easter Sunday. The attack highlighted tensions that had been simmering since 2009: though the military offensive marginalized the Hindu-majority Tamils, the war’s end sowed the seeds of religious conflict between the Buddhist-majority Sinhalese and Sri Lanka’s Muslims, who constitute one-tenth of the country’s population. The Easter Sunday terrorist bombings provided new ammunition for the Rajapaksas to whip up Sinhalese nationalism.

Beyond deepening ethnic and religious fault lines, Gotabaya followed his brother in establishing an imperial presidency, exemplified by the passage in 2020 of a constitutional amendment expanding the president’s power to dissolve the legislature. And he helped to push Sri Lanka further into the economic death spiral that his brother had helped create, not least through his dealings with China.

During Mahinda’s rule, as China shielded the Rajapaksas from war-crime charges at the UN, it won major infrastructure contracts in Sri Lanka and became the country’s leading lender. Debt to China piled up, incurred largely over the construction of monuments to the Rajapaksa dynasty in the family’s home district of Hambantota.

Examples include “the world’s emptiest” airport, a cricket stadium with more seats than the district capital’s population, and a $1.4 billion seaport that remained largely idle until it was signed away to China in 2017 on a 99-year lease. The most extravagant China-backed project is the $13-billion “Port City,” which is being built on land reclaimed from the sea close to the center of the capital, Colombo.

China’s modus operandi is to cut deals with strongmen and exploit their countries’ vulnerabilities to gain a strategic foothold. China’s larger aims in Sri Lanka were suggested in 2014, when two Chinese submarines made separate unannounced visits to Colombo, docking at a newly built container terminal owned largely by Chinese state companies.

So, China gained leverage over a country located near some of the world’s most important shipping lanes, and Sri Lanka became increasingly mired in debt, including “hidden debt” to China from loans whose public disclosure was prohibited by their terms. But hubris prevented the Rajapaksas from recognizing the looming crisis. On the contrary, they enacted a sweeping tax cut in 2019 that wiped out a third of the country’s tax revenues.

Then the pandemic hit, crushing the tourism and garment industries – Sri Lanka’s two main foreign-exchange earners. More recently, the war in Ukraine, by triggering soaring international energy and food prices, helped to drain Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves, creating fuel, food, medicine, and electricity shortages. It was the final straw for many Sri Lankans, who took to the streets in droves.

On May 9, Mahinda reluctantly resigned from his post as prime minister, in an effort to appease protesters. But protests continued to rage, culminating in the storming of the seaside presidential palace by demonstrators. Gotabaya fled minutes earlier before conveying his decision to resign.

Within Sri Lanka, photos of protesters lounging on the president’s bed and cooking in his backyard have become a symbol of people’s power. But they should also serve as a warning to political dynasties elsewhere in the world, from Asia to Latin America. When a family dominates a government or party, accountability tends to suffer, often leading to catastrophe. This can cause even the most entrenched dynasty to fall – and swiftly.

There is also a lesson for other heavily indebted countries. Unless they take action to make their debts sustainable, they could quickly be overwhelmed by crisis.

As for Sri Lanka, its next leaders will have to address shortages of basic necessities, rebuild a wrecked economy, reestablish the rule of law, and hold responsible those who caused the current disaster. But in a country where politics is a blood sport, one should not underestimate the challenge of overcoming the Rajapaksas’ corrosive legacy.

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, 2022.