Xi’s India visit unlikely to restore border peace

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How China and India try to leverage Xi’s two likely visits to India this year for the G-20 and SCO summits will be closely watched internationally

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

To Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s credit, India has more than matched China’s Himalayan military deployments, refusing to put up with its furtive territorial encroachments of April 2020 in eastern Ladakh. So, why has the robust Indian military response failed to persuade China to defuse the almost 33-month frontier crisis or deter it from opening new fronts, like when it attempted to intrude into Tawang last month?

The answer to this question is in the newly released bilateral trade figures, which show that China’s trade surplus with India has jumped nearly 50% in just one year — from $69.38 billion in 2021 to $101.02 billion in 2022. This means that the Indian trade deficit with just one country, China, now accounts for about 64% of India’s total global trade deficit.

Another paradox is that China’s bilateral trade surplus has been ballooning since it launched its border aggression, surpassing by 2021 India’s total defence budget (the world’s third largest). China’s international trade surplus is now the main engine of its slowing economy, allowing it to finance its aggressive manoeuvres in the Himalayas and other Indo-Pacific theatres. And India last year contributed 11.51% to China’s overall trade surplus of $877.6 billion.

In effect, India is underwriting China’s economic and geopolitical power. This shows how India, instead of establishing disincentives to Chinese military belligerence, has handed Beijing a potent incentive to sustain its aggression.

To emerge as a global power, India must become a manufacturing powerhouse so that factory work helps lift Indian youths out of poverty. But the avalanche of imports from China has already devastated a key job creator — the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) industry. Opening the floodgates to “Made in China” is also decimating the “Make in India” initiative.

By refusing to cut even non-essential imports from China, including of cheap, substandard goods, India not only harms its economic interests, but also allows its recalcitrant adversary to have its cake and eat it too.

The Modi government’s reluctance to leverage India’s buying power is just one facet of its increasingly confusing China policy. It has also been loath to impose any diplomatic costs. Indeed, it has scrupulously refrained from naming and shaming China for its expansionist creep, even as Beijing has raked up the Kashmir issue at the UN Security Council.

Importantly, the government still uses euphemisms to describe the military crisis: “unilateral change of status quo” for China’s aggression; “friction points” for captured areas; and “full restoration of peace and tranquillity” for rollback of the Chinese intrusions and military deployments.

Soft-pedalling the aggression, unfortunately, only aids China’s strategy of downplaying the severity of the border crisis so as to shield its booming trade surplus and deflect global attention from its use of force to change the territorial status quo. The Chinese aggression also draws encouragement from India’s disinclination to impose meaningful costs on Beijing, with New Delhi restricting its retaliation to largely symbolic actions, such as banning Chinese mobile phone apps.

Despite tens of thousands of Indian troops in the Himalayas hunkered down for the brutal winter, the government seems keen to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for two separate summits this year — the G-20 Summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit. A Xi visit could catalyse efforts to ease the military crisis. But Beijing is likely to leverage the importance of a Xi visit for either summit to mould the terms of any such deal.

This kind of a scenario could compound India’s dual blunder in vacating the strategic Kailash Heights and accepting Chinese-designed “buffer zones” in three separate Ladakh areas. The Galwan, Pangong and Gogra-Hot Springs “buffer zones” have come up largely on lands that were under India’s exclusive patrolling jurisdiction, with Indian forces retreating further back into Indian territory.

China is playing the long game in the Himalayas through its frenzied buildup of warfare infrastructure. Its new security installations, roads, helipads, electronic warfare facilities, dual-use border villages and other assets position it strongly in the long run. Just as China has shown little interest over the decades in settling the border dispute, its frenetic buildup of new border infrastructure suggests that it wants, not peace and tranquillity, but a “hot” frontier to bog India down.

So, no deal linked to a Xi visit is likely to truly restore border peace. In fact, India’s approach of letting China reap rewards of aggression has made restoration of status quo ante in eastern Ladakh illusory, with a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece dubbing a return to the April 2020 positions as “unrealistic fantasies” in India.

It is not too late for Indian decision-makers to grasp China’s true intentions, and recognize that deterrence can never be effective without a comprehensive approach that extends beyond military-power projection to the use of all available tools, including economic leverage, to impose costs.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

The Limits of Japan’s Military Awakening

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While Japan’s move toward rearmament is welcome, the embrace of Tomahawk missiles and hypersonic weapons alone will not force China to stop waging hybrid warfare. Japan must also find ways to frustrate China’s furtive efforts to alter the regional status quo while avoiding the risk of open combat.

Brahma Chellaney, Project Syndicate

For decades, Japan has based its international clout on economic competitiveness, not military might. But, with China’s lengthening shadow darkening its doorstep, Japan now seems to be abandoning its pacifist postwar security policy – which capped defense spending at about 1% of GDP and shunned offensive capabilities – in favor of assuming a central role in maintaining security in the Indo-Pacific region.

Last month, Japan unveiled a bold new national-security strategy, which includes a plan to double defense expenditure within five years. That spending – amounting to some $320 billion – will fund Japan’s largest military build-up since World War II, and implies the world’s third-largest defense budget, after the US and China. Importantly, the new strategy includes acquisition of preemptive counterstrike capabilities, such as Tomahawk cruise missiles from the United States, and the development of its own hypersonic weapons.

Japan began laying the groundwork for this shift under former Prime Minister Abe Shinzō, who was assassinated last July. On Abe’s watch, Japan increased defense spending by about 10%, and, more significantly, reinterpreted (with parliament’s approval) the country’s US-imposed “peace constitution” to allow the military to mobilize overseas for the first time since WWII. Abe also sought to amend Article 9 of the constitution, which renounces “the threat or use of force” by Japan, but his efforts were stymied by popular protests.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has not run into the same resistance. On the contrary, opinion polls show that a majority of Japanese support the military build-up. A similar shift has taken place in Kishida himself, who was widely considered a dove when he was foreign minister – a label that he publicly embraced.

The impetus for this shift is clear. In 2013, the year Xi Jinping became China’s president, Japan’s national-security strategy called China a strategic partner. According to the updated strategy, by contrast, China represents “an unprecedented and the greatest strategic challenge in ensuring the peace and security of Japan.” China’s incremental but unrelenting expansionism under Xi has rendered Japan’s pacifist stance untenable.

This is more apparent than ever in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has intensified fears that China could pursue a military option against Taiwan, which is effectively an extension of the Japanese archipelago. Last August, five of the nine missiles China fired during military exercises in the waters around Taiwan landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. Japan understandably views Taiwan’s security as vital for its own.

Japan is not the only once-conciliatory power to respond to Xi’s muscular revisionism with a newfound determination to bolster its defenses and forestall the emergence of a Sinocentric Indo-Pacific. Australia and India have embarked on the same path.

Moreover, a similar trend toward militarization has emerged among Japan’s Western allies. Germany, another pacifist country, has pledged to boost its defense spending to 2% of GDP (the same level Kishida is targeting) and accept a military leadership role in Europe. The United Kingdom has already surpassed the 2%-of-GDP level, yet aims to double its defense spending by 2030. The US has just hiked its already-mammoth military spending by 8%. And Sweden and Finland are joining a reinvigorated NATO.

While Japan’s rearmament is more widely accepted than ever – and for good reason – it is unlikely to be enough to deter China’s expansionist creep. After all, despite having the world’s third-largest defense budget, India has been locked in a military standoff with China on the disputed Himalayan border since 2020, when stealth encroachments by the People’s Liberation Army caught it by surprise. Clashes continue to erupt intermittently, including just last month.

Unlike Russia, which launched a full frontal assault on Ukraine, China prefers salami tactics, slicing away other countries’ territories with a combination of stealth, deception, and surprise. The PLA’s so-called “Three Warfares,” which focus on the psychological, public-opinion, and legal aspects of conflict, has enabled China to secure strategic victories in the South China Sea – from seizing the Johnson South Reef in 1988 to occupying the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 – while barely firing a shot.

Because China generally avoids armed conflict, it incurs minimal international costs for its actions, even as it unilaterally redraws the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and nibbles away at Bhutan’s borderlands, one pasture at a time. The government in Beijing managed to decimate Hong Kong’s autonomy without facing significant Western sanctions.

All this impunity has only emboldened Xi, who is now seeking to replicate the South China Sea strategy in the East China Sea by escalating maritime and aerial incursions to strengthen its claims to the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands. It has even tried to police the waters off the Senkakus.

Japan’s response to China’s provocations has so far remained restrained, to say the least: no Japanese defense minister has so much as conducted an aerial inspection of the Senkakus, lest it anger China. Yet Japan’s embrace of Tomahawk missiles and hypersonic weapons does not necessarily represent an effective means of resisting China’s hybrid warfare, either. For that, Japan must find ways to frustrate China’s furtive efforts to alter the status quo while avoiding the risk of open combat.

Japan’s push to become more self-reliant on defense should be welcomed. Improved defense capabilities will translate into a more confident and secure Japan – and a more stable Indo-Pacific. But if Japan is to “disrupt and defeat” threats, as the national-security strategy puts it, Japanese leaders must move proactively to beat China at its own game.

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, 2023.

Modi’s silence on China’s land grabs will not be India’s last word

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While downplaying territorial losses, New Delhi is modernizing its military

Tawang, in the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, in October 2006: The latest clashes were sparked by a Chinese attempt to seize mountaintop positions near the town. © AP

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

The latest border clash between Chinese and Indian troops on Dec. 9 took place nearly 2,000 kilometers from the sites of previous skirmishes. This underscores the enduring costs of Beijing’s stealthy land grabs along India’s borderlands and how much those encroachments have spurred military buildups and tensions along the two nations’ entire long Himalayan frontier.

When asked to comment on the fighting four days after this month’s clash, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said: “As far as we know, the China-India border areas are generally stable. The two sides have maintained smooth communication on boundary-related issues through diplomatic and military channels.”

This is in keeping with a strategy described in the U.S. Department of Defense’s annual China military report, which stated that Beijing has “sought to downplay the severity of the crisis … to prevent the standoff from harming other areas of its bilateral relationship with India.”

Through its aggressive revisionism, however, China has set in motion forces that are likely to come back to haunt its own long-term interests.

Its increasingly muscular approach and border provocations are beginning to shake India out of its complacency and trigger much-needed modernizations of the country’s military, including major investments in counterintervention capabilities, greater missile power and formation of additional mountain-warfare forces.

Yet in the short term, China’s efforts to silo the border crisis are showing some signs of success.

For example, China’s large trade surplus with India has continued to surge since the military confrontation began in May 2020 when Indian troops discovered the incursions by the Chinese military.

Indeed, India’s trade deficit with China is now the world’s third-largest such imbalance and has even overtaken New Delhi’s 5.25 trillion rupee ($63.45 billion) defense budget in size. After reaching $77 billion in the Indian financial year that ended in March, the bilateral deficit is projected to cross $88 billion this fiscal year.

In effect, India is underwriting Beijing’s economic and military power even as its forces seek to contain creeping Chinese expansionism.

The latest clashes were sparked by a Chinese attempt to seize mountaintop positions in Tawang, the birthplace of a previous Dalai Lama and a district of the state of Arunachal Pradesh, which Beijing has been calling “South Tibet” since 2006. Tawang controls access to Bhutan’s Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary, which China has claimed since mid-2020.

By playing down the military confrontation, Beijing has been able to maintain the veneer of stable diplomatic relations with India. This was underscored by smiling pictures of Chinese President Xi Jinping interacting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the recent Group of 20 summit in Bali, although the two did not hold a private meeting, as each did with other leaders.

Xi’s larger objective is to avoid driving New Delhi closer to Washington and making a U.S.-India strategic alliance a reality.

Yet Beijing’s aggression has prodded New Delhi into concluding the last of four foundational defense-related agreements that Washington regularly puts in place with military allies and has also breathed new life into the Quad arrangement with Washington, Canberra and Tokyo, with India’s annual Malabar war games now including all three partners.

For New Delhi, soft-pedaling Chinese border aggression is a way to save face. Modi, while openly challenging China’s capability and power by resolutely sustaining the military standoff, does not want to draw public attention to Beijing’s territorial grabs, as they took his government by complete surprise.

Indeed, Modi has made no comment on the land grabs. His government last week thwarted a discussion in parliament on the latest border clash, telling lawmakers to be content with a brief statement from the defense minister.

India failed to foresee the territorial losses largely because Modi had been focused on befriending Beijing to chip away at the China-Pakistan axis. As part of that effort, Modi met with Xi 18 times over the five years before the 2020 encroachments and missed warning signs, including Chinese combat exercises and frenzied military-infrastructure construction along the two nations’ frontier.

As an old adage goes, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The dogged courtship of Mao Zedong by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first post-independence prime minister, helped create New Delhi’s China problem. On Nehru’s watch, China annexed buffer state Tibet to impose itself as India’s neighbor and then began encroaching on Indian territories before launching a border war in the Himalayas in 1962.

Mao Zedong and Jawaharlal Nehru talk over a cup of tea in Beijing in October 1954: The dogged courtship of Mao by Nehru helped create New Delhi’s China problem. © Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Today, China may have reason to gloat over what it calls “recovery momentum” in ties with India. Far from launching a diplomatic offensive to spotlight Chinese aggression, New Delhi remains reticent about naming and shaming Beijing even as its rival has spotlighted issues involving Kashmir at the U.N. Security Council.

The Modi administration, in fact, still uses euphemisms to describe the Himalayan crisis, or what it calls a “unilateral change of status quo” involving “friction points” that should be resolved by the “full restoration of peace and tranquility.”

New Delhi has also shied away from imposing meaningful costs on Beijing, including by exercising its trade leverage. While New Delhi has banned numerous Chinese mobile phone apps, restricted Chinese companies’ access to Indian government contracts and launched tax and customs probes against Chinese phone makers, this has been no more than an annoyance for Beijing.

Deterrence, to be effective, must extend beyond military strength to the use of all available tools.

More fundamentally, why should salami-slicing be the prerogative of only the Chinese side? Why does India not pay China back in the same coin?

India’s overly defensive, risk-averse approach, including a reluctance to impose costs, is aiding China’s strategy of having its cake and eating it too.

India’s shortcomings, however, cannot obscure China’s glaring shortsightedness. Xi’s aggression against India promises to prove costly for China in the long run.

Xi has picked a border fight with India that China cannot win. While the Chinese military relies heavily on conscripts, India, with an all-volunteer force, has the world’s most-experienced troops for hybrid mountain warfare. A war between these two nuclear-armed giants would likely end in a bloody stalemate.

Worse still, Xi’s strategic miscalculation promises to turn a once-conciliatory neighbor into a long-term foe determined to forestall a Sinocentric Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is professor emeritus of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a former adviser to India’s National Security Council. He is the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

The Red Emperor

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Chinese President Xi Jinping at the National Congress of the Communist Party, in Beijing, October 23, 2022 (Photo: Reuters)

Brahma Chellaney, OPEN magazine

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure has already been marked by high ambition and aggression, including territorial and maritime expansionism. Xi’s vision, the “Chinese dream,” is to make China the world’s leading power by 2049, the centenary of communist rule.

But Xi—who has just crowned himself China’s new emperor and elevated his favourite “yes” men to the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s highest decision-making body—may be biting off more than he can chew. His third term is likely to take a toll on China’s economy and international standing while leading the country to a major war over Taiwan.

Xi’s decade-long reign has already turned China into a wrathful, expansionist power that pursues “wolf warrior” tactics and debt-trap diplomacy and flouts international law at will. Two successive US administrations have described as genocide and crimes against humanity Xi’s Xinjiang gulag, the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi period. About a million Muslims continue to languish in Xi’s gulag, without Xi or China facing tangible Western sanctions.

The international costs of Xi’s increasing authoritarianism are apparent from the devastating consequences of the China-originating Covij-19 pandemic, which officially has killed more than 6.5 million people worldwide. Nearly three years on, the world still does not know whether Covid-19 began as a natural spillover from wildlife or was triggered by the accidental leak of a lab-enhanced virus in Wuhan city. What is apparent, though, is that Xi’s regime lied about the initial spread of the disease, hid evidence of human-to-human transmission, and silenced doctors who sought to warn about the emergence of a novel coronavirus.

More ominously, a massive cover-up in China to obscure the genesis of the virus suggests the world may never know the truth. Beijing has refused to cooperate with international investigations, characterising them as “origin-tracing terrorism,” and instead peddled conspiracy theories.

Xi, meanwhile, has accelerated national production of nuclear warheads so rapidly that the Pentagon, in just one year, revised up its estimate of the number of such weapons China will deploy by 2030 from 400 to more than 1,000. China has already fielded its first operational hypersonic-weapons system and “intends to increase the peacetime readiness of its nuclear forces by moving to a launch-on-warning (LOW) posture with an expanded silo-based force,” according to a Pentagon report. The unprecedented speed and scale of the nuclear build-up is linked to Xi’s international expansionism, including seeking China’s global primacy by 2049.

But thanks to Xi’s actions, China’s global image has been badly dented, forcing the country to increasingly rely on its coercive power. A 2021 global survey found that unfavourable views of China were at or near historic highs in most advanced economies.

Yet, instead of undertaking a course correction, Xi is doubling down on his scofflaw actions, as underscored by China’s stepped-up bullying of Taiwan. After Beijing’s success in swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayan borderlands with India, Nepal and Bhutan, Taiwan is likely to be Xi’s next target.

Xi’s unbridled authority, however, does not augur well for international security and China’s own future. In fact, in a forewarning that Xi could lead China into a war, the customary phrase ‘peace and development remains the theme of the era’ was absent from his speech as well as report to the party Congress

It speaks for itself that, even before Xi secured a precedent-defying third term as the country’s leader at the recent party congress, his record in power was drawing comparisons to the past century’s most brutal rulers.

For example, Robert O’Brien, national security adviser to then-US President Donald Trump, last year equated Xi to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. Some others have compared Xi to Adolf Hitler, even coining the nickname “Xitler.”

Xi, for his part, has cultivated a Mao Zedong-style personality cult and embarked on completing the expansionist agenda that the communist China’s founder left unfinished. Indeed, Xi has sought to model himself on Mao, the 20th century’s top butcher.

Like Mao Zedong Thought, Xi Jinping Thought has been enshrined in China’s constitution and made the central doctrine guiding the Communist Party. Also like Mao, Xi is now reverently referred to as renminlingxiu, or “people’s leader.”

China’s new Mao, while ideologically committed to classical Marxism-Leninism, as his speech at the opening of the party congress underscored, is apparently seeking to build fascism with Chinese characteristics.

A critical element of Xi’s strategy to realise the Chinese dream has been the “One Belt, One Road” project, renamed as the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, under which China has considerably invested in infrastructure projects abroad, with the goal of bringing countries firmly into China’s orbit. What Xi has called  “the project of the century” has no parallel in modern history. The BRI is more than 12 times the size of the Marshall Plan, America’s post-World War II initiative to aid the reconstruction of Western Europe’s devastated economies.

Although the BRI has of late faced increasingly strong headwinds over partner countries’ debt-trap concerns, compelling Beijing to scale back the initiative, its significant and lasting impact should not be underestimated. The BRI, however, also remains a symbol of China’s imperial overreach, with Xi stretching the country’s resources to help advance his aggressive foreign policy.

Xi’s strategic overreach in international relations actually mirrors his domestic overreach, including imposing mass lockdowns and quarantines as part of a zero-Covid policy that has exacted major economic and social costs. Xi’s domestic overreach has extended to tightening the reins on the private sector, including the tech industry, as China increasingly becomes a state-driven economy that prioritises politics and national security over growth. Although China’s economic rise was driven by its embrace of a free market, Xi’s speech at the party congress emphasised Marxism more than markets.

According to a Chinese proverb, “To feed the ambition in your heart is like carrying a tiger under your arm.” The further Xi pushes his neo-imperial agenda, the more likely it is to bite him.

What Xi’s third term could bring

It is scarcely a surprise that Xi has tightened his grip on power by securing a ground-breaking third term as the country’s president following the week-long party congress. If there was any surprise at the party congress, it was the ease with which Xi has stacked the powerful Politburo Standing Committee with his acolytes and brought other loyalists or protégés to leadership positions, effectively creating a one-man rule under the Communist Party flag.

Surrounded by a closed circle of “yes” men who will be competing among themselves to show how loyal they are, the president will likely be told only what he would like to hear. As the American writer Walter Lippmann once warned, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.”

Xi’s centralisation of authority means he will have a freer hand to speed up China’s rise as a military and technological superpower, while crushing all dissent at home and accelerating the Sinicisation of ethnic minorities, especially Tibetans and Uighurs. With his unchecked power, Xi can now do whatever he wants.

Xi Jinping with the members of the Chinese Communist Party’s new Politburo Standing Committee in Beijing on October 23, 2022

So, unlike in the past when he could blame others for mistakes, Xi will find it more difficult to palm off responsibility for problems. After all, Xi reigns supreme and unchallenged, without any heir apparent.

In his speech to the party congress, Xi left little doubt that he wants China to become a world power second to none, including by reducing its reliance on Western know-how and emerging as a leading technology power in its own right. Citing a host of perceived dangers, he also vowed to continue expanding the country’s already formidable national-security apparatus.

Xi’s unbridled authority, however, does not augur well for international security and China’s own future. In fact, in a forewarning that Xi could lead China into a war, the customary phrase “peace and development remains the theme of the era” was absent from his speech as well as report to the party congress. Instead, Xi darkly warned of “dangerous storms” on the horizon.

Domestic politics in any country, including in a leading democracy like the US, has a bearing on its foreign policy. This is especially so in the case of the world’s largest autocracy, China. Under Xi, China has discarded Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Instead, China has increasingly taken pride in baring its claws. This trend is likely to become even more pronounced in Xi’s third term.

Surrounded by a closed circle of ‘yes’ men who will be competing among themselves to show how loyal they are, the president will likely be told only what he would like to hear. As the American writer Walter Lippmann once warned, ‘where all think alike, no one thinks very much’

At home, Xi’s surveillance state will likely grow by leaps and bounds. Already, China’s unrivalled surveillance, censorship and propaganda systems can control or construct a narrative. But Xi is set to further expand his Orwellian surveillance state while cultivating a climate of fear.

In fact, to stamp out dissent, Xi’s regime has been whipping up ultra-nationalism by blending the digital tools of surveillance with the political tactics of the Cultural Revolution, which claimed more than a million lives. No less ominously, China’s repression and surveillance at home is a corollary of its aggressive revisionism abroad, which is largely concentrated against its neighbours.

More repression and more heavy-handedness at home are likely to be accompanied by a more aggressive military posture and a more forceful international agenda. Xi seems to believe that Chinese money can buy international acquiescence to China’s playing by its own rules, including aggressively pursuing an expansionist agenda.

With its “two steps forward, one step back” strategy, the Xi-led China will keep progressing toward its ambitious goals. Its territorial and maritime expansionism also mirrors that strategy. In this light, one can expect China to remain defiant in the face of international criticism of its renegade behaviour and actions.

Neighbouring countries will bear the brunt

 The Chinese Communist Party has since its power grab in 1949 shown that it is intrinsically totalitarian, belligerent, arbitrary, expansionist and contemptuous of international law. But under Xi, the party and its rule have become more despotic, coercive, punitive and racist.

With its “tribute nation” approach to weak, vulnerable states, China seeks to influence their sovereign decisions through economic and political coercion. Indeed, Xi believes China has accumulated sufficient power to begin remaking the global order in its image, thereby reinventing itself as the mythical Middle Kingdom.

China’s territorial assertiveness and expansionism, meanwhile, have become intertwined with its national renewal. China has sought to extend its control to strategic territories and resources as part of a shrewd, high-stakes strategy to achieve political, economic, and military pre-eminence in Asia. It sees dominance in Asia as a stepping stone to supplanting the US as the world’s preeminent power.

Against this background, China’s muscular foreign policy is set to become even more assertive, with important implications for its neighbours. China will also exploit its status as the world’s unmatched hydro-hegemon to gain strategic leverage over its downstream neighbours, as the Mekong River Basin already exemplifies.

To stamp out dissent, Xi’s regime has been whipping up ultra-nationalism by blending the digital tools of surveillance with the political tactics of the cultural revolution, which claimed more than a million lives. No less ominously, China’s repression and surveillance at home is a corollary of its aggressive revisionism abroad, which is largely concentrated against its neighbours

The plain fact is that the rise of Xi’s neo-Maoist dictatorship will likely spell trouble for the democratic world but especially for neighbouring countries, which already are bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies. Indeed, Xi has shown an increasing appetite for taking major risks, as the South China Sea, the Himalayas and Hong Kong show.

Xi will continue expanding China’s influence and territorial and maritime control by stepping up pressure on other countries, a strategy that has already resulted in a fundamental change of the status quo in the South China Sea, without Beijing incurring any international costs.

Xi is now working to replicate his South China Sea strategy in the Himalayas by unilaterally changing facts on the ground, with little regard for the diplomatic and geopolitical fallout. He has not spared even Bhutan, one of the world’s smallest countries, by nibbling away at Bhutanese borderlands, one valley or pasture at a time.

China’s encroachments on several Ladakh borderlands in April-May 2020, for their part, have served as a reminder that, unlike Russia’s frontal, full-force attack on Ukraine, the Chinese Communist Party prefers a stealthy, salami-slicing approach to expand the country’s frontiers. Its tactics normally fall short of armed conflict, as a Pentagon report has noted.

The incremental, salami-slicing approach below the threshold of armed conflict explains why China’s often bulletless aggression draws little international costs. For example, without inviting any concrete Western sanctions, China has changed the status in the South China Sea and Hong Kong. What was one of Asia’s freest and most open cities, Hong Kong, has rapidly been turned into a repressive police state.

China’s salami-slicing strategy, however, did not develop under Xi. The party honed salami-slicing in the 1950s, when China sliced off the Switzerland-sized Aksai Chin plateau, which was part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. But under Xi’s leadership, the salami-slicing strategy has progressed to a “cabbage” approach to contested or claimed borderlands, with the People’s Liberation Army stealthily cutting off access to a neighbour’s previously controlled territory and surrounding it with multiple security layers.

Looking ahead, deception, stealth and surprise will remain integral to China’s expansion of its maritime and land borders. And China will likely rely more and more on coercive bargaining, including intimidating smaller nations from defending their interests.

It is important to note that China’s military drills are rarely empty shows of force. In 2020, China’s unusually large, wintertime troop exercise near the India border became the launchpad for its stealthy land grabs in Ladakh, triggering still continuing military standoffs between the two Asian giants at multiple sites along their long and inhospitable Himalayan frontier.

The more recent live-fire Chinese military drills around Taiwan in August, by simulating an air and sea blockade, demonstrated China’s combat capability to accomplish what Xi has called a “historic mission” to absorb that island democracy. The drills allowed Chinese troops to practice enforcing a gradual economic strangulation or quarantine of Taiwan.

Taiwan could well become the next Ukraine. Xi will wait for an opportune moment before moving on Taiwan, taking by complete surprise a distracted US, which is increasingly embroiled in the Ukraine war including through transfers of sophisticated weapons and battlefield intelligence. Xi’s aggression, however, is likely to take the form of a calibrated, gradually intensifying squeeze of Taiwan, rather than a full-fledged invasion.

The White House acknowledged in August that China is pursuing a “boiling the frog” strategy against Taiwan by regularising crossings of the median line in the Taiwan Strait, stepping up coercive pressures and slowly altering the status quo.

The parable of the frog is about sensory adaptation to small changes over time: If a frog is put into a pot of boiling water, it will instantly jump out, but if it is placed in a pot of cool water that is then very slowly brought to a boil, the frog will not notice, cooking to death. Likewise, Xi pursues his expansionism incrementally, conditioning international power elites to China’s expanding footprint and preventing a concerted Western response until it becomes too late.

Yet US President Joe Biden, asked recently whether American forces would defend Taiwan if China attacked, replied, “Yes, if in fact there was an unprecedented attack.” But China, instead of launching an unprecedented attack, is more likely to slowly throttle Taiwan.

Meanwhile, Xi, far from seeking to hide China’s frenzied nuclear weapons build-up, is virtually flaunting it, as if to underline that the country’s rapidly growing nuclear arsenal is driven more by political than military considerations. China’s neighbours need to pay close attention to this build-up, even though it may be primarily aimed at dissuading the US from challenging the Xi regime’s actions at home and abroad.

Just as Xi’s muscular revisionism has largely centred on Asia—from the East and South China Seas to the Himalayas—the security-related impacts (as opposed to the geopolitical implications) of the fast-growing Chinese nuclear armoury are likely to be felt principally by Asian states. With a larger nuclear arsenal, Xi could be further emboldened to step up his conventional-military tactics and hybrid warfare from behind China’s highly protective nuclear shield.

Questions are already being raised in the US about the strategic wisdom of defending Taiwan against a potential Chinese invasion, with some analysts contending that any US plan to come to Taiwan’s rescue is far too risky and that Taipei ought to do more for its self-defence. A China armed to its teeth with nuclear weapons would cast further doubt on whether the US would come to Taiwan’s defence, given the greater risks involved.

More fundamentally, if China cannot be at peace with itself, it will not be at peace with others. Xi’s lurch toward totalitarianism will foster greater discontent among the Chinese people, spawning a pressure cooker syndrome.

History is replete with examples of dictators blinded by hubris and overreach leading their countries down a disastrous path. With the last checks and balances gone, Xi’s overweening ambition, absolute power and reliance on “yes” men are likely to spell trouble for China. Under Xi, China has already damaged its international reputation and left itself with only one real lever of power: brute force. But if Xi stays on his present course, he is likely to lead China into a war.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of two award-winning books on water: Water, Peace, and War and Water: Asia’s New Battleground.

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.”

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.”

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.

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.

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.

India’s front-line battle against autocracy more important than ever

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Chinese troops dismantling their bunkers at Pangong Tso region in Ladakh in February 2021: China has turned other captured areas into permanent all-weather military encampments. © AP

The risk of renewed skirmishes with China is growing

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Two years after nighttime hand-to-hand combat with Indian troops resulted in China’s first combat deaths since its 1979 Vietnam invasion, the Chinese and Indian militaries remain locked in multiple standoffs over some of the most inhospitable terrains on Earth.

The war in Ukraine may be obscuring China’s border conflict with India, including the largest Himalayan buildup of rival forces in history. But as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reminded the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last weekend, “we see Beijing continue to harden its position along the border that it shares with India.”

With tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops facing off against each other, the risks of renewed skirmishing, if not outright war, are significant.

The clashes of June 15, 2020, were the bloodiest of a series of skirmishes or scuffles that began more than six weeks earlier after China, taking advantage of India’s preoccupation with enforcing the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdown, stealthily infiltrated key border areas in the high-altitude Indian region of Ladakh and established heavily fortified bases there.

The surprise encroachments were not nearly as clever a plan as Chinese President Xi Jinping probably thought when he gave his go-ahead. Far from handing China an easy win, they have plunged Sino-Indian relations to a nadir, kept the border crisis simmering and made the fact of a major Indian military buildup inevitable.

The June 15, 2020, clashes not just marked a watershed in India-China relations; they also stood out for their savagery. With a 1996 bilateral agreement prohibiting the two countries’ soldiers from using guns at the border in peacetime, encroaching Chinese soldiers employed metal fence posts and clubs wrapped in barbed wire in a post-sunset ambush attack on an Indian army patrol.

Some Indian soldiers were beaten to death, others were thrown from the soaring cliffs into the fast-flowing Galwan River before Indian reinforcements arrived and fought pitched hand-to-hand battles with the intruders under a moonlit sky.

After the hours-long fighting, India quickly honored its 20 fallen soldiers as martyrs and then established a war memorial to commemorate their sacrifices. But China has still not disclosed its death toll, which U.S. intelligence reportedly placed at 35 and Russia’s government-owned Tass news agency estimated at 45. More than eight months after the clashes, Beijing announced posthumous awards for four Chinese soldiers without revealing the full death toll.

This should not be a surprise, as the Chinese Communist Party rarely reveals the full truth: it disclosed the Chinese death toll from the 1962 war with India more than three decades later in 1994 after significantly lowering the figure.

With the world’s most powerful propaganda machine, the CCP seeks to manufacture reality. While releasing a propaganda video of the clashes, it jailed at least six Chinese bloggers for criticizing its death toll cover-up, with one blogger who had 2.5 million followers on Weibo sentenced to eight months in prison. More recently, it picked the military commander who led the ambush attack as a torchbearer of the Beijing Winter Olympics, provocatively feting him as a hero.

The border crisis has also cast an unflattering light on India, which has instituted no inquiry into why its army was taken unawares by the multiple Chinese intrusions, some of them deep into Indian territory.

India is the world’s third-largest defense spender after the U.S. and China, with the army continuing to appropriate the lion’s share of the defense budget. Yet over the years, the Indian army has repeatedly been caught napping by the cross-border actions of China and Pakistan.

Indeed, it has become somewhat of a tradition in India that, whenever an adversary springs a military surprise, the army generals take cover behind the political leaders, and the ruling politicians hide behind the generals, allowing accountability to go unenforced.

Chinese forces braved harsh weather to intrude into forbidding landscapes, just before thawing ice reopened access routes. But the Indian army ignored warning signs from China’s heightened military activities near the frontier, including an unusually large, wintertime troop exercise that became the launchpad for the aggression.

Yet not a single Indian army commander was relieved of his command for the fiasco. Worse still, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained a conspicuous silence on the military crisis for the past two years.

Instead, Modi has put faith in negotiations, with Beijing using endless talks to string India along while frenetically building new warfare infrastructure that General Charles A. Flynn, head of the U.S. Army Pacific, recently called “eye-opening” and “alarming.”

While withdrawing from some positions it seized, China has turned other captured areas into permanent all-weather military encampments, with large combat-ready forces and newly built roads and heliports that allow front-line positions to be quickly reinforced with fresh troop inductions.

Xi’s aim against India, as in the East and South China Seas, is for China to ultimately win without fighting by employing coercion under the shadow of its deployed military might. To Modi’s credit, India appears determined to frustrate that goal, vowing to sustain the military standoffs, despite the risk of a full-scale war, until China rolls back its encroachments.

India, the world’s largest democracy, is on the front-lines of the battle between democracy and autocracy. If China is able to coerce India into submission, it will open the path for the world’s biggest autocracy to gain supremacy in Asia and reshape the international order in its favor. No wonder Secretary Austin said in Singapore that India’s “growing military capability and technological prowess can be a stabilizing force in the region.”

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