A Spotlight on Chinese Debt Bondage

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The details of China’s loan contracts with developing countries are only beginning to come to light. But it is already clear that China’s creditor imperialism holds far-reaching risks, both for the debtors themselves and for the future of the international order.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

Recently released details of Kenya’s 2014 loan agreement with China to finance a controversial railway project have once again highlighted the predatory nature of Chinese lending in developing countries. The contract not only imposed virtually all risk on the borrower (including requiring binding arbitration in China to settle any dispute), but also raised those risks to unmanageable levels (such as by setting an unusually high interest rate). With terms like that, it is no wonder that multiple countries around the world have become ensnared in sovereignty-eroding Chinese debt traps.

Over the last decade, China has become the world’s largest single creditor, with loans to lower- and middle-income countries tripling in this period, to $170 billion at the end of 2020. Its outstanding foreign loans now exceed 6% of global GDP, making China competitive with the International Monetary Fund as a global creditor. And through loans extended under its $838-billion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has overtaken the World Bank as the world’s largest funder of infrastructure projects.

To be sure, since the start of the made-in-China COVID-19 pandemic, China’s overseas lending for infrastructure projects has been on the decline (until 2019, it was rising sharply). This is partly because the pandemic left partner countries in dire economic straits, though growing international criticism of China’s predatory lending has likely also contributed.

One might hope that this downward trend augurs the end of colonial-style lending by China. But the decline has been offset by an increase in bailout lending, mostly to BRI partner countries – including Kenya – which were already weighed down by debts owed to China.

The scale of the bailout lending is massive. The top three borrowers alone – Argentina, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – have received $32.8 billion in rescue lending from China since 2017. Pakistan has been the biggest borrower by far, receiving a staggering $21.9 billion in Chinese emergency lending since 2018.

This highlights the self-reinforcing debt spiral into which China thrusts countries. Because China, unlike the IMF, does not attach stringent conditions to its loans, countries simply borrow more to service outstanding debts, thus sinking ever deeper into debt.

Crucially, China’s loan contracts are typically shrouded in secrecy; Kenya’s revelations, for example, were technically in violation of its agreement’s sweeping confidentiality clause. In many cases, the loans are hidden from taxpayers, undermining government accountability. China also increasingly directs its lending not to governments directly, but to state-owned companies, state-owned banks, special purpose vehicles, and private-sector institutions in recipient countries. The result is crushing levels of “hidden debt.”

Consider Laos, where hidden debts to China eclipse official debts. To stave off default following the pandemic shock, the small, landlocked country was forced to hand China majority control of its national electricity grid. And it may find itself with little choice but to barter away land and natural resources.

There is ample precedent for this. Already, several of China’s debtors have been forced to cede strategic assets to their creditor. Tajikistan has surrendered 1,158 square kilometers (447 square miles) of the Pamir mountains to China, granted Chinese companies rights to mine gold, silver, and other mineral ores in its territory, and approved the Chinese-funded construction of a military base near its border with Afghanistan.

Sri Lanka’s debt crisis first attracted international attention in 2017. Unable to repay Chinese loans, the country signed away the Indian Ocean region’s most strategically important port, Hambantota, and more than 6,000 hectares of land around it, by granting a 99-year lease to China. In Sri Lanka, the port transfer was likened to a heavily indebted farmer giving his daughter to an unyielding money lender. Despite this sacrifice, Sri Lanka defaulted on its debts earlier this year.

Similarly, Pakistan has given China exclusive rights to run its strategically located Gwadar port for four decades. During that time, China will pocket a whopping 91% of the port’s revenues. Moreover, the China Overseas Ports Holding Company will enjoy a 23-year tax holiday to facilitate its installation of equipment and machinery at the site.

Near Gwadar, China plans to build an outpost for its navy – a move that follows a well-established pattern. Debt entrapment enabled China to gain its first overseas naval base in Djibouti, strategically situated at the entrance to the Red Sea. China is also now seeking a naval base on the West African coastline, where it has made the most progress in Equatorial Guinea, a heavily indebted low-income country.

This is the result of a lending strategy that is focused squarely on maximizing leverage over borrowers. As one international study showed, “cancellation, acceleration, and stabilization clauses in Chinese contracts potentially allow the lenders to influence debtors’ domestic and foreign policies.” China often exercises this policy leverage by reserving the right to recall loans arbitrarily or demand immediate repayment.

In this way, China can use its overseas lending to advance its economic and diplomatic interests. If China can dim the lights in Laos, for example, it has a certain ally in multilateral forums. If it can drive a country to debt default, it can secure all the trade and construction contracts it wants. And if it can control a country’s ports, it can strengthen its strategic position.

The details of China’s loan contracts with developing countries have not yet come fully to light. But it is already clear that China’s creditor imperialism carries far-reaching risks, both for the debtors themselves and for the future of the international order.

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.

Xi Jinping is taking advantage of Biden’s soft touch

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Biden claims U.S. leverage over China is lacking. But he thinks the U.S. has leverage to cause economic collapse and regime change in Russia, an approach clearly based on hope. His focus on the wrong foe while seeking to appease China threatens to accelerate America’s relative decline.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

The new export curbs U.S. President Joe Biden recently imposed on the Chinese chip industry to help slow Beijing’s technological and military advances have obscured his administration’s relatively conciliatory stance since taking office.

Even the export curbs have been undercut by exemptions granted to major Taiwanese and South Korean companies for their chipmaking facilities in China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, wants Biden to live up to “Five Nos” which Beijing claims the U.S. president has committed to: No to changing China’s authoritarian system; no to containing China; no to seeking U.S. economic decoupling from China; no to a policy of “one China, one Taiwan;” and no to conflict or a new Cold War with China.

According to the official Chinese readout of the two leaders’ recent meeting in Bali, “President Xi said he takes very seriously President Biden’s ‘Five Nos’ statement.”

The White House may not have directly corroborated such commitments, but similar formulations can be found in Biden’s comments and his administration’s public declarations and documents.

For example, in sharp contrast to predecessor Donald Trump’s ideological offensive against China as a predatory communist state without political legitimacy or the rule of law, Biden and his national security team have repeatedly disclaimed any intention to transform the country’s political system.

Biden himself assured Xi in a virtual summit a year ago that the U.S. would not seek to change China’s political system or direct alliances against it. On a call with Xi in September 2021, Biden sought to explain American actions toward China “in a way that [is] not misinterpreted as … somehow trying to sort of undermine Beijing in particular ways,” a senior administration official told reporters.

Similar reassurances have been embedded in Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which declares that, “Our objective is not to change the [People’s Republic of China] but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates.” In Bali, Biden went a step further by telling Xi that the U.S. “respects China’s system,” according to Beijing’s account of the meeting.

China is not just the world’s largest autocracy. It is a technology-driven Orwellian surveillance state that is seeking to stamp out the cultural and linguistic identities of ethnic minorities whose sprawling homelands the Communist Party seized after coming to power in 1949. In the largest mass incarceration on religious grounds since the Nazi period, more than 1 million Muslims have been detained in Xi’s Xinjiang gulag.

Contrast Biden’s reassurances to China despite the country’s totalitarianism with his narrative that the Western conflict with Russia symbolizes a “battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”

While publicly seeking economic collapse and regime change in Russia, the Biden administration declared in May that it is seeking neither to block China’s “role as a major power” nor to “sever China’s economy from ours or from the global economy.” It added that it remains committed to its “One China” policy.

More recently, Biden assured Xi in Bali that the U.S. is “not looking for conflict” with China. “I absolutely believe there need not be a new Cold War,” the American president said.

Indeed, the Biden administration is seeking to “coexist and cooperate” with China, resisting labeling it as an outright enemy, despite Beijing covering up the origins of COVID-19, its oppression in Hong Kong and other territories, its redrawing of the geopolitical map of the South China Sea, and its forcibly changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayas.

The Biden-Xi agreement in Bali to empower senior officials to engage in a sustained effort to manage bilateral differences is scarcely going to stabilize U.S.-China relations, given that Beijing is a revisionist power. Indeed, Biden’s conciliatory approach may only embolden Xi.

Sensing weakness on the U.S. side, Xi has upped the ante on several fronts, from his frenzied buildup of nuclear weapons to hypersonic missile testing. Biden, who just turned 80, claims U.S. leverage on China is lacking, so he wants to work with U.S. allies to shape Beijing’s behavior.

Deterrence of further Chinese expansionism must start with Taiwan, whose Chinese takeover would upend the world order. Yet in Bali, Xi warned Biden that Taiwan is Beijing’s “first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations.”

More broadly, Biden’s emphasis on “outcompeting China and restraining Russia” runs counter to the statement in his 48-page national security strategy last month that China is “the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.”

While Russia is trying to mitigate a perceived security threat in its neighborhood, China is seeking to supplant the U.S. as the preeminent global power.

China’s population and economy are each about 10 times the size of Russia’s, and its military expenditures are more than four times greater. Yet the U.S. proxy war with Russia, which has led Washington to commit a total of $91 billion for Ukraine and ask Congress for more than $37 billion in additional emergency aid, is deepening Biden’s conciliatory approach toward China while simultaneously pushing Moscow closer to Beijing.

The U.S. is in no position to meaningfully take on China and Russia simultaneously. The Biden administration’s goal to “see Russia weakened” and allow the U.S. to single-mindedly focus on the threat of China is based on hope, not reality.

The worst outcome for the U.S. from the present international crisis would be the creation of a pan-Eurasian, China-Russia axis which would compound America’s strategic overreach and accelerate its relative decline. In fact, with the blowback from the economic war on Russia exacting an increasing toll on the West, China is likely to emerge as the only winner from the conflict over Ukraine’s future.

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

The US-India Partnership is Too Important to Lose

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Tensions stemming from the war in Ukraine and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan have strained the strategic partnership between the US and India. But President Joe Biden cannot afford to alienate America’s most important partner in countering China’s rise.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

The strategic partnership between the United States and India is pivotal to maintaining the balance of power in the vast Indo-Pacific region and counterbalancing China’s hegemonic ambitions. The US is India’s second-largest trading partner, and deepening the ties between the two countries is one of the rare bipartisan foreign policies that exists in Washington today.

The upcoming October 18-31 joint military exercise known as Yudh Abhyas (War Practice), in a high-altitude area less than 100 kilometers (62 miles) from India’s border with China, highlights the partnership’s growing strategic importance. India holds more annual military exercises with the US than any other country, as the two powers seek to improve their forces’ interoperability. As Admiral Michael M. Gilday, the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, put it recently, India is a “crucial partner” in countering China’s rise.

But President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan and effectively surrender the country to a Pakistan-reared terrorist militia, in addition to tensions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have strained the relationship between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies.

Like many other countries, including US allies such as Israel and Turkey, India has taken a neutral stance on the war in Ukraine. Much to the chagrin of the US and Europe, the country has continued to purchase discounted oil from Russia, rebuffing the Biden administration’s offer to replace Russian oil with US supplies. Instead, India has increased its imports of Russian crude.

At the heart of India’s decision is fear of losing out to China. Since 2019, the US has used the sanctions on Iran’s oil exports to deprive India of cheaper Iranian oil, thereby turning it into the largest market for US energy exporters. The main beneficiary of the sanctions is China, which has increased its purchases of Iranian oil at a discount and developed a security partnership with the Islamic Republic without facing US reprisal.

While the US has already surpassed Russia as India’s largest weapons supplier, the American defense sector views the war in Ukraine as a “great opportunity” for arms sales to India to “surge.” Moreover, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has urged Indian officials to avoid buying Russian equipment and purchase US-made weapons from now on.

Yet Biden’s overriding focus on punishing Russia could exacerbate India’s security challenges, especially if the international efforts to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin inadvertently empower an expansionist China. The US-led sanctions and Europe’s shift away from Russian energy effectively put Russia – the world’s most resource-rich country – in the pocket of the resource-hungry Chinese. Its alliance with Russia has allowed China to build an energy safety net through an increase in land-based imports, which, unlike sea-borne deliveries, cannot be blockaded if Chinese President Xi Jinping decides to invade Taiwan.

Meanwhile, America’s recent $450 million deal to modernize Pakistan’s F-16 fleet – unveiled days after the US helped the country stave off an imminent debt default through an International Monetary Fund bailout – has evoked bitter memories of the US arming Pakistan against India and supporting the initial development of the Pakistani nuclear-weapons program during the Cold War.

The Biden administration’s disingenuous claim that upgrading Pakistan’s US-supplied F-16 fleet would advance counterterrorism has prompted a sharp response from India. During a recent visit to Washington, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar publicly condemned the deal, saying that the American explanation “is not fooling anyone”: Pakistan would undoubtedly deploy the upgraded fighter jets against India.

Against this backdrop, some observers have revived the old theory that US-India ties fare better under Republican administrations. Bilateral relations thrived during President Donald Trump’s administration, which relied heavily on India in developing its Indo-Pacific strategy. Trump instituted new US policies on China and Pakistan, whose increasingly close partnership has raised the prospect of India fighting a two-front war. In a major policy shift, Trump ended the 45-year US policy of aiding China’s rise. He also cut off security aid to Pakistan for not severing its ties with terrorist groups.

Biden, on the other hand, has resumed America’s coddling of Pakistan, made outreach to Beijing a high priority, and said nothing about China’s encroachments on Indian territory in the Himalayas. But by locking horns with China in a 30-month military standoff, India has openly challenged Chinese power in a way no other world power has done in this century.

Nothing better illustrates Biden’s neglect of the relationship with India than the fact that, since he took office, there has been no US ambassador in New Delhi. Meanwhile, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Donald Blome, caused an uproar during a visit to the Pakistani-held part of Kashmir, which he called by its Pakistani name – “Azad [Liberated] Jammu and Kashmir” – instead of “Pakistan-administered Kashmir,” as the United Nations calls it.

Moreover, the Biden administration has been trying to leverage human-rights issues against India. In April, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken alleged a “rise in human-rights abuses” in the country, prompting Jaishankar to counter that India is similarly concerned about the state of human rights in the US. Likewise, prominent members of the US Democratic Party can barely conceal their hostility to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his brand of Hindu nationalism.

Given that the US and India are both bitterly polarized democracies, officials should avoid statements that could inflame domestic tensions. If the US wishes to shift strategic focus to the Indo-Pacific, it must improve relations with its most important strategic ally in Asia. To that end, Biden must not squander the historic opportunity to forge a “soft” alliance with India. If the US is to prevail in its escalating rivalry with China and Russia and avoid strategic overreach, it needs India more than ever. But without mutual respect, the bilateral partnership is doomed.

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 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.

Why is Biden appeasing China?

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill

President Biden is yet to make his long-anticipated China strategy speech to define his approach to a country that has emerged as the greatest rival that the United States has ever faced. Instead, Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out the administration’s approach in a speech that acknowledged that China poses “the most serious long-term challenge to the international order.”

In Blinken’s words, “China is the only country with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to do it.” 

The president, however, has been fixated since taking office on the weaker of America’s two main foes, Russia, while letting China escape scot-free for covering up the COVID-19 virus’s origins and for detaining more than a million Muslims in internment camps. Indeed, the Biden administration labels only Russia as an adversary, while calling China merely a competitor.

A careful examination of Blinken’s speech, the White House’s “Indo-Pacific Strategy” released in February and Biden’s own actions since last year confirms that a conciliatory approach toward China is taking root, despite occasional tough-sounding rhetoric.

Under President Trump’s administration, a fundamental shift in China policy occurred with the aim of reining in a country that, with U.S. help, became America’s main rival. The paradigm shift formally ended America’s “China fantasy,” which lasted over 45 years — a period in which successive presidents, from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, aided China’s rise in the naive hope that, as China became increasingly prosperous, it would naturally pursue economic and even political liberalization.

Backed by a broadly bipartisan consensus in favor of ending China’s free ride, this policy change promised to reshape global geopolitics and trade.

Biden, however, has unobtrusively undertaken a course correction, with Blinken’s speech offering more evidence of the administration’s efforts to “coexist and cooperate” with the world’s largest autocracy.

Blinken’s soothing message for Beijing was that the U.S. does not seek to block China’s “role as a major power,” or hinder its economic growth or “transform” its totalitarian system. “We are not looking for conflict or a new Cold War. To the contrary, we’re determined to avoid both,” he declared.

In contrast to the Trump administration’s launch of an ideological offensive against China as a predatory communist state without political legitimacy or the rule of law, Team Biden has repeatedly forsworn any intention to transform that country’s political system in any way.

Biden himself assured Chinese President Xi Jinping in a virtual summit meeting last November that the U.S. will not seek to change China’s political system or direct its alliances against it. And when he telephoned Xi last September, Biden, according to a U.S. background briefer, sought to explain American actions toward China “in a way that [is] not misinterpreted as … somehow trying to sort of undermine Beijing in particular ways.”

Similar reassurances are embedded in the Biden Indo-Pacific strategy document, which declares that, “Our objective is not to change the PRC [People’s Republic of China] but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates…” Contrast that with the administration’s publicly declared goal to “see Russia weakened,” including triggering its economic collapse and degrading its military capabilities.  

With Biden willing to give China a pass on its expansionist policies, the risk is growing that Xi will make Taiwan his next target after his regime’s success in swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayas.

Not once, not twice, but three times in recent months Biden has said that the U.S. will militarily defend Taiwan, only to have his senior officials on each occasion walk back his comments. While creating international confusion afresh on that issue during his Tokyo visit, Biden played down the possibility of China invading Taiwan, saying, “My expectation is that it will not happen.”

But by appeasing China, Biden may invite such aggression. Indeed, Biden’s deepening of U.S. involvement in the Ukraine conflict offers Xi an opening to move on Taiwan at an opportune time when a distracted America is taken by complete surprise. Through rising bullying, Xi is already normalizing China’s hostile pressure on Taiwan.

Nothing better illustrates Biden’s efforts to appease China than Taiwan’s exclusion from his newly unveiled Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. The White House has offered no credible explanation for omitting this economic powerhouse, which is a hub of global semiconductor production.

Taiwan’s exclusion shows how Biden, by bending over backwards not to antagonize Beijing, is sending mixed messages about U.S. commitment to that island democracy. Prioritizing Ukraine’s defense over Taiwan’s, Washington has informed Taipei that the 2022 scheduled delivery of an important U.S. artillery system would be delayed until 2026 at the earliest. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, meanwhile, referred to Taiwan by the demeaning name of “Chinese Taipei” while listing it as one of the founding members of the newly established Cross-Border Privacy Rules Forum.

Make no mistake: Xi is unlikely to be deterred by the harsh U.S.-led sanctions against Russia. The Chinese economy is 10 times larger than the Russian economy, and enforcing sanctions against China would cause serious economic disruptions in the West and upend global supply chains.

In this light, the mixed messages from Washington could lead Xi to believe that Biden lacks the strategic vision and political will to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack.

More fundamentally, Biden is quietly dismantling, brick by brick, the Trump administration’s China policy without drawing attention to it. U.S. pressure on Xi’s regime is gradually being eased. Examples include letting it off the hook over its great COVID-19 stonewall and dropping fraud charges against the daughter of the founder of China’s military-linked Huawei Technologies.

Despite the FBI director publicly warning that Chinese spying in the U.S. has reached unparalleled levels, Biden has effectively disbanded the “China Initiative,” which was intended to empower the Justice Department to combat Beijing’s vast espionage campaign.

Biden may now target the Trump-era trade tariffs on $370 billion worth of Chinese goods, telling reporters in Tokyo that he was considering rolling them back. As a first step in that direction, his administration has initiated a legally required review of the tariffs, which were slapped on as part of a strategy to use economic levers to weaken China — a kind of death from a thousand cuts.

Rolling the tariffs back would break Biden’s promise not to unilaterally lift them unless China improved its behavior on issues of U.S. concern — from its unfair trade practices to its theft of intellectual property. Team Biden has already condoned Beijing’s failure to meet commitments in the so-called Phase One trade deal with Washington. It also has reinstated exemptions from Trump-era tariffs on 352 products imported from China.

America’s trade deficit with China, meanwhile, continues to swell, jumping over 25 percent in 2021 to $396.6 billion. It now makes up nearly 60 percent of China’s total global trade surplus, which has become the main engine of its economy, besides financing its warfare machine.

Continuing to underwrite China’s economic and geopolitical power not only means that the U.S. has yet to learn from how it aided the rise of a hostile giant; it also is likely to accelerate America’s relative decline.

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 should invite Myanmar’s foreign minister to ASEAN meet

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Giving Naypyitaw the cold shoulder is not in New Delhi’s interests

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Min Aung Hlaing is greeted by an Indonesian official upon arrival at the airport on the outskirts of Jakarta in April 2021: The presence of the Senior General at the leaders’ meeting in Jakarta emphasized the ASEAN family.   © Indonesian Presidential Palace/AP

India not only shares long land and maritime borders with Myanmar, but it also sees the country as a strategic corridor to Southeast Asia. Given the porous state of the frontier and the cross-border movement of people and guerrillas — some trained and armed by China — close counterinsurgency cooperation with Myanmar is vital for India’s security.

Yet, as the host of the June 16-17 Association of Southeast Asian Nations-India foreign ministers’ meeting, New Delhi is giving Myanmar the cold shoulder.

Falling in line with double standards practiced by the U.S., India will host the foreign minister of Thailand, where the army chief who staged a coup in 2014 remains in power in civilian garb, but not Myanmar’s foreign minister after the military there seized power 16 months ago.

The military has long dominated politics in Myanmar and Thailand. But Washington, while seeking to isolate and squeeze Myanmar, has deepened cooperation with the Thai government, despite its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, including use of lese-majeste laws to imprison anyone deemed to have insulted the king.

The 10-nation ASEAN has traditionally favored a policy of engagement and noninterference, which explained the presence of Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing at its April 2021 leaders’ meeting in Jakarta that emphasized “the ASEAN family.” But later, wilting under stepped-up U.S. pressure, ASEAN excluded him from its annual summit last October.

Here is the irony: In the name of promoting democratic rights, U.S. President Joe Biden’s Myanmar policy has sought to win the cooperation of ASEAN, most of whose member states are under authoritarian rule.

They include Brunei, an absolutist monarchy; communist-ruled Vietnam and Laos; Singapore, governed by only one party since independence; and Cambodia, where the ruling party holds all the parliamentary seats.

Indeed, Biden invited only three ASEAN states — Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia — to his democracy summit last December, while at his recent special summit with ASEAN leaders, Myanmar was represented by an empty chair.

The bigger paradox centers on India, whose security over the years has come under pressure from specious U.S. distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists and “good” and “bad” autocrats.

For example, despite Pakistan’s politically dominant military maintaining a close nexus with terrorist groups, Washington still retains that state as a “major non-NATO ally,” a special status conferred on 17 other countries but not India.

Yet, by not inviting Myanmar’s foreign minister to a meeting during the officially proclaimed India-ASEAN Year of Friendship, New Delhi is giving credence to Washington’s geopolitically driven distinction between Myanmar and the other ASEAN states.

In justifying Myanmar’s foreign minister’s exclusion, India’s foreign ministry has sought to hide behind the U.S.-shaped ASEAN stance of inviting a nonpolitical Myanmar representative. In response to India inviting just its top foreign ministry bureaucrat, Myanmar will likely boycott the New Delhi meeting, as it has done with other ASEAN meetings since last October.

More fundamentally, Biden’s sanctions against Myanmar affect that country’s neighbors in the same way the U.S., already confronting a southern border crisis, would be affected if it sought to punish and isolate Mexico. Still, without consulting Myanmar’s neighbors that face an influx of refugees, Biden has stepped up his sanctions drive against Myanmar, even as he eases sanctions pressure on Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Biden’s use of economic and political levers to help unseat Myanmar’s military regime has only worsened the situation in that strategically located country, emboldening some opponents to take up arms and hardening the military regime’s crackdown while exacerbating cross-border impacts.

And just as the deepening U.S. involvement in the Ukraine conflict to help inflict a strategic defeat on Russia is beginning to fracture European unity, Biden’s uncompromisingly punitive approach toward Myanmar has hopelessly divided ASEAN, unraveling its long tradition of a consensus-based decision making.

Meanwhile, in less than six months, a feckless India has gone from sending its foreign secretary to Myanmar to meet the military ruler to excluding that country’s foreign minister from its upcoming meeting with ASEAN.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s yielding to U.S. pressure has already undercut India’s once-growing relationship with a key neighbor, Iran. The U.S. used its Iran sanctions to deprive India of cheaper oil and turn it into the world’s largest importer of American energy — a development that allowed India’s rival, China, to become Iran’s almost exclusive buyer of oil at a hefty discount, as well as becoming top security partner and investor.

Now Modi could be making a similar mistake with Myanmar, which China views as its gateway to the Indian Ocean. Myanmar has historically been a peaceful neighbor for India, never posing a threat to its security. But the Modi government’s snub could jeopardize Indian projects in Myanmar and counterinsurgency cooperation.

Biden’s Myanmar policy has had the perverse effect of weakening America’s hand while strengthening China’s. And by nudging India into giving Myanmar the cold shoulder, Biden is pushing that resource-rich nation into China’s arms.

Modi, for his part, is forgetting that a country that allows its policies toward its own neighbors to be influenced by a distant power will inevitably be seen as weak.

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

Washington’s clumsy attempts to bully India must stop

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Undermining its relationship with New Delhi will cost the U.S. dearly

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Joe Biden meets virtually with Narendra Modi in Washington on April 11: It is a challenging time for U.S.-India relations.   © AP

U.S. President Joe Biden’s concerted effort to cajole nations into joining the American-led coalition against Russia recalls the famous words of the legendary anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, who said the grievous mistake some Westerners make is to insist that “their enemies should be our enemies.”

In the conflict between the West and Moscow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, much of the non-Western world has declined to take sides. So why has Biden especially bristled at India’s independent stance when the world’s major non-Western democracies — from Brazil and Mexico to South Africa and Indonesia — have all chartered a course of neutrality?

Because India is the world’s largest democracy, its neutrality undermines Biden’s narrative that the conflict symbolizes a “battle between democracy and autocracy, between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.” Never mind that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s regime is no less autocratic than Russian President Vladimir Putin’s.

The fact is that whichever side the U.S. has armed over the decades was invariably portrayed by it as “fighting for freedom” — from the anti-Soviet Islamist guerrillas in Afghanistan from whom al-Qaida and the Taliban evolved, to Syria’s anti-Bashar Assad jihadists who gave rise to ISIS. Biden’s “new battle for freedom,” as he calls it, has led to increasingly sophisticated Western weapons pouring into Ukraine, with the U.S. also supplying battlefield intelligence, including targeting data.

Here’s the paradox: While seeking to co-opt New Delhi in his new Cold War with Moscow, Biden has still not uttered a single word on China’s two-year-long border aggression against India, which has triggered the largest Himalayan buildup of rival forces in history. In keeping with Biden’s outreach to Beijing, his State Department, equating the victim with the aggressor, has urged India and China to find “a peaceful resolution of the border disputes.”

India holds more annual military exercises with America, its largest trading partner and an increasingly important strategic partner, than any other country. U.S. arms sales to India went from near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020. India’s almost $150-billion goods and services trade with the U.S. dwarfs New Delhi’s $12.8 billion trade with Russia, its largest defense partner.

Indian and U.S. soldiers take part in a joint combat exercise in Ranikhet, India, in September 2016: India holds more annual military exercises with America than any other country.   © Reuters

Team Biden’s growing warnings to countries intent on sitting out the new Cold War to pick a side or face economic consequences could undermine the blossoming partnership with India, which stayed neutral even when the U.S. and its allies invaded Iraq or waged regime-change war in Libya. Biden’s top economic adviser, Brian Deese, touched a raw nerve in India when he threatened that “the costs and consequences” for it would be “significant and long-term.”

However, the more positive tone emanating from Washington following the latest U.S.-India discussions suggests that the White House may have secured an Indian assurance on “sanctions compliance,” as an American background briefer phrased it.

On April 11, Biden held an hourlong virtual discussion with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a prelude to the “two-plus-two” discussions that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken jointly had with the visiting Indian defense and foreign ministers.

Encouraged by how America’s Iran sanctions have helped undercut India’s relationship with Tehran, Biden sees his Russia sanctions as opening a major opportunity to undermine the traditionally strong New Delhi-Moscow ties.

The U.S. used its Iran sanctions to deprive India of cheaper oil and turn it into the world’s largest importer of American energy. The main beneficiary of those sanctions has been India’s rival, China, which, without facing American reprisals, has been buying Iranian oil at a hefty discount, besides becoming Iran’s security partner and top investor.

Now Washington seems intent on employing its Russia sanctions to downgrade Indian defense ties with Moscow, with Austin calling on India to cut defense transactions with Russia and turn to America for all its military requirements. Indeed, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told Congress that the U.S. sees “a great opportunity” for defense sales to India to “surge.”

Energy purchases and payments are exempt from America’s Russia sanctions. Yet, as if heeding Biden’s call to India not to accelerate or increase imports of heavily discounted Russian oil, the state-run Indian Oil Corporation, the country’s leading refiner, recently dropped Russia’s flagship Urals crude from its newest tender. And Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, by saying that “we won’t be in the top 10” buyers of Russian oil, has signaled that India will not significantly go beyond its traditionally modest imports of Russian energy.

Still, Biden is not easing pressure on India. While appeasing communist China, his administration is paradoxically trying to employ human-rights issues as leverage against India. After the two-plus-two discussions, Blinken took a swipe at India, alleging “a rise in human rights abuses.” But barely nine months earlier, Blinken had sung a different tune, saying “both of our democracies are works in progress.”

These are challenging times for U.S.-India relations. Undermining what should be America’s most important strategic partnership in Asia makes little strategic sense, especially if the U.S. wishes to genuinely pivot to the Indo-Pacific.

India’s neighborhood is already troubled, with a crisis-torn Sri Lanka suspending foreign debt payments and mounting Chinese repression triggering fresh self-immolations in Tibet. Yet, Biden surrendered Afghanistan to the Taliban terrorists, thereby strengthening Pakistan at India’s expense. And he is pushing military-ruled Myanmar into China’s arms with his sanctions policy.

Biden’s overriding focus on punishing Russia threatens to exacerbate India’s regional-security challenges, especially by aiding the further rise of an expansionist China. The U.S.-led sanctions will effectively put Russia, the world’s richest country in natural resources, in the pocket of a resource-hungry China.

The main brunt of the rise of a more powerful and aggressive China will be borne by its neighbors, especially India. Unlike Japan and Australia, which are under the U.S. security and nuclear umbrella, India must deal with China on its own, as the current Himalayan military crisis shows.

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

The US and India in a new world

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Brahma Chellaney, The Spectator

The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the Indo-Pacific. The new global order will be shaped by developments in a sprawling region where interstate rivalries and tensions are sharpening geopolitical risks. Building a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific has become more important than ever, but China’s territorial and maritime revisionism, and its heavy-handed use of economic and military power, are causing instability and undercutting international norms.

Against this background, the expanding strategic partnership between the world’s most powerful and most populous democracies — the United States and India — has become pivotal to equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific. With India’s closer integration, the four-nation Quad — Australia, India, Japan and the US — is blossoming as a strategic coalition of the leading Indo-Pacific democracies.

The Quad is central to the US’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. As American preeminence erodes, the US must augment its power with that of allies and partners. China’s 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 Ocean.” Instead, and thanks to China’s expansionist policies, the Quad continues to gain strength — despite the new, US-initiated AUKUS alliance with Australia and Britain. The US cannot build an Asian power equilibrium without India, Japan and Australia — and they cannot build it without the US.

Today, the US is also close to achieving a long-sought goal: a “soft alliance” with India that needs no treaty. The US has already emerged as the largest arms seller to India, leaving its traditional supplier, Russia, far behind. US defense transactions with India went from near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020. Furthermore, India has signed the four “foundational” agreements that the US maintains with all its close defense partners. These accords range from providing reciprocal access to each other’s military facilities and securing military communications to sharing geospatial data from airborne and satellite sensors.

India, a founder and leader of the Nonaligned Movement that sought to chart a neutral course in the US-Soviet rivalry during the Cold War, now makes little mention of nonalignment. Instead, it is multi-aligned and building close partnerships with democratic powers from Asia to Europe. India now holds more annual military exercises with America than any other country.

The main driver of the growing US-India strategic collaboration is China’s neo-imperial expansionism. President Xi Jinping believes that China has a narrow window of strategic opportunity to modify the international order in its favor before it confronts a demographic crisis, stalled economic growth and an unfavorable global environment. Accordingly, Xi has shown an increasing appetite for taking major risks.

American and Indian strategic priorities regarding China are, however, not the same. The US has never considered fighting a land war against China. The primary American objective is non-military: to counter China’s geopolitical, economic and ideological challenges. By contrast, China poses a pressing military challenge for India. The spotlight on the Chinese threats against Taiwan has helped obscure China’s more serious military confrontation with India along the long Himalayan frontier — a confrontation that is still raging.

The US and India, however, are united by other shared strategic interests. These include the rule of law, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, freedom of navigation, peaceful dispute resolution and a rules-based Indo-Pacific free of coercion. The biggest challenge to all these principles comes from China.

In May 2020, a shocked India discovered that China had stealthily encroached on several key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh. The discovery led to the first deadly Chinese-Indian military clashes in the Himalayas since 1975, including China’s first combat deaths in over four decades. The Indian and Chinese militaries remain locked in multiple standoffs, and the steadily increasing introduction of new weapons and troops by both sides has amplified the risk of renewed border skirmishing, if not outright war. Xi has picked a border fight with India that China cannot win. A war between these two nuclear- armed demographic giants is likely to end in a bloody stalemate with heavy losses on both sides. This is not the only instance in which Xi’s aggressive policies have proved to be counterproductive.

For India, China’s territorial aggression proves the importance of building close strategic collaboration with the US and likeminded powers. India today seems more determined than ever to frustrate China’s ambition to achieve Asian hegemony. By locking horns with China in tense military standoffs despite the risk of a full-scale war, India has openly challenged Chinese capability and power in a way no other power has done in this century. Since 2020, when India let Australia join the annual Exercise Malabar war games with the American, Japanese and Indian navies, the Quad has possessed a platform for an annual military exercise involving all its members.

Xi must now also contend with the strengthening US-India relationship. In a pivot to Asia that much of the US media either ignored or derided, the Trump administration gave India pride of place in its Indo-Pacific strategy. It also instituted fundamental shifts in US policies on China and Pakistan, two close allies whose strengthening strategic axis in southern Asia imposes high security costs on India, including raising the specter of a two-front war. Trump reversed the forty-five-year US policy of aiding China’s rise; with bipartisan support, he designated China as a strategic rival and threat. His administration also cut off security aid to Pakistan for not severing its ties with terrorist groups.

Relations between the Indo-Pacific’s two largest democratic powers thrived during the Trump presidency. Trump built a personal rapport with India’s prime minister Narendra Modi, with whom he shares a love for big audiences and theatrics. Trump joined Modi’s September 2019 public rally in Houston, which was attended by 59,000 Indian Americans and a number of US congressmen and senators. Then, during his February 2020 standalone visit to India, Trump spoke at the largest rally any American president has ever addressed — at home or abroad.

More than 100,000 people packed the world’s largest cricket stadium, in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. “America loves India, America respects India, and America will always be faithful and loyal friends to the Indian people,” Trump declared. After returning home, Trump called India an “incredible country,” saying, “Our relationship with India is extraordinary right now.”

The US and India are both bitterly polarized democracies. In each, rival political forces are self-segregated into their own ideological silos. Trump and Modi have faced similar accusations from critics. Both are accused of being blinkered demagogues, of pursuing divisive policies and choosing populism over constitutionalism. Each consciously avoided saying anything that could give a handle to the other’s domestic critics.

President Biden, by contrast, entered the White House after criticizing Modi’s government on issues like Kashmir and a new Indian law on citizenship for non-Muslim refugees who had fled religious persecution in neighboring Islamic countries. Biden’s election victory created uncertainty over the future direction of US-India ties. Indeed, as a senator, Biden had spearheaded a congressional sanctions move in 1992 that helped block Russia’s sale of cryogenic-engine technology for India’s civilian space program, setting it back many years.

Yet President Biden has sustained the momentum in the growth of the bilateral relationship. As with tacit acceptances of Trump’s other unorthodox foreign-policy initiatives, Biden has no choice but to recognize India’s centrality in an Asian balance of power. Despite his party’s hostility to Modi and Hindu nationalism, Biden’s interactions with Modi have been characterized by ease and warmth. In September, Biden welcomed Modi to the White House as “my friend” and said, “I’ve long believed that the US-India relationship can help us solve an awful lot of global challenges.”

Booming US exports to India — one of the world’s fastest-growing markets —reinforce bipartisan support in Washington for a closer partnership with New Delhi. The US has rapidly become an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, which is the world’s third-largest oil consumer after the US and China. But the US and India are not entirely on the same page.

America’s self-inflicted defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan at the hands of a Pakistan-backed terrorist militia have compounded India’s security challenges at a time when it should be fully focused on countering China’s Himalayan expansionism. Worse still, Team Biden, unlike the Trump administration, has placed outreach to Beijing as a high priority, and has been wary of publicly supporting India against Chinese aggression. The Democrats’ Russia fixation, meanwhile, is only strengthening under Biden.

Nevertheless, India will continue to quietly gain greater salience in US policy — especially as Russia and China deepen their entente. Instead of driving a wedge between these two natural competitors, US policy has helped turn them into close strategic partners. If the US is not to accelerate its relative decline through strategic overreach, it needs India more than ever. It would be doubly ironic, given Vice President Kamala Harris’s Indian heritage, if Biden did not seize the opportunity to formalize the US’s de facto and deepening security alliance with India.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2022 World edition. 

The new global Cold War clouds India’s tightrope walk

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India, having confronted Chinese border aggression over the past 22 months, has taken a restrained stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, underscoring its focus on countering Beijing’s military actions without affecting its close relationships with the United States and Russia. The new U.S.-Russia Cold War, however, promises to compound India’s strategic challenges.

India is the only member of “the Quad” to refrain from openly condemning Russia for invading a sovereign country. In fact, like its archnemesis China, India abstained from the Feb. 25 vote at the United Nations Security Council on a U.S.-sponsored resolution deploring the Russian invasion as a violation of the U.N. Charter. India, however, has implicitly criticized Russia’s abandonment of the path of diplomacy and called for an end to all violence.

Unlike Japan and Australia, which are under the U.S. security (and nuclear) umbrella, India has to deal with China on its own, as the current Himalayan border conflict has highlighted. And while China poses a pressing military challenge for India along a more than 4,000-kilometer-long land frontier, the U.S. has never considered a land war against China and its primary objective is nonmilitary — to counter China’s geopolitical, economic and ideological challenges to its global preeminence.

India’s solo struggle to rein in an expansionist China in the icy Himalayan region has helped influence its measured response to the Russian aggression against Ukraine. After all, which head of a Western government has condemned China’s aggression against India or even urged Beijing to pull back its forces from the Himalayan frontier?

U.S. President Joe Biden has not uttered a word on the subject. His State Department on Feb. 3 urged India and China to find “a peaceful resolution of the border disputes,” and then added in general terms, “We have previously voiced our concerns of Beijing’s pattern of ongoing attempts to intimidate its neighbors.”

The Biden administration, unlike former President Donald Trump’s administration, has placed outreach to Beijing as a high priority, and has been wary of publicly supporting India against Chinese aggression. Indeed, Biden’s recently unveiled Indo-Pacific Strategy refers to China’s military actions against India since 2020 not as “aggression,” but in neutral language — as “the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India.”

In May 2020, a shocked India discovered that China had stealthily encroached on several key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh. The discovery led to the first deadly Chinese-Indian military clashes in the Himalayas since 1975, including China’s first combat deaths in over four decades.

By locking horns with China in tense military standoffs despite the risk of a full-scale war, India has openly challenged Chinese capability and power in a way no other power has done in this century. China has massed up to 200,000 soldiers along the frontier, but India has more than matched the Chinese force deployments — with the steadily increasing induction of new weapons and troops by both sides amplifying the risk of renewed border skirmishing, if not outright war.

The U.S.-India strategic partnership, meanwhile, continues to strengthen. The U.S. has already surpassed Russia as the largest arms seller to India. American defense transactions with India, according to the State Department, went from “near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020.”

Still, in an effort to make India its sole arms client, the U.S. has sought to leverage a domestic law — the 2017 ​Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act — to downgrade Indian defense ties with Moscow. Russia, however, remains a critical source of arms and military technology for India.

In the current Himalayan military crisis, Russia, despite its deepening entente with China, has transferred weapons to help strengthen India’s defenses. It is advancing the delivery of its S-400 air and anti-missile defense system that India urgently needs as a protection against China’s forward deployment of an array of lethal missiles.

The latest Western financial sanctions on Moscow, however, threaten to affect Russia-India defense trade by complicating the issue of payments. The escalating sanctions could also impede India’s plans for greater investment both in the Russian oil and gas sector and in Russia’s Far East.

The U.S., with the aid of its energy sanctions on Iran, has emerged as an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China. And its new sanctions on Russia are expected to facilitate greater American arms exports to India.

More fundamentally, the advent of the new Cold War promises to make India’s neutrality more challenging. Biden has made clear that he has embarked on a strategy of Containment 2.0 against Russia.

The new U.S. sanctions, which Biden has called “the broadest sanctions in history,” seek to disrupt the Russian economy. Simultaneously, Biden is planning to ensnare Russia in a military quagmire in Ukraine through massive arms supplies to the Ukrainian armed forces and other resistance forces. He has asked Congress for a staggering $6.4 billion for this mission.

However, U.S. power now faces a double whammy: China’s military, economic and technological challenge on a scale the U.S. has not seen before and a re-militarized Russia challenging the NATO creep to its borders.

But with its strategic focus shifting to shoring up European security, the U.S. is pouring military resources into that theater — and the main casualty of such a shift is likely to be Asian security.

By compounding America’s strategic overstretch and distracting it from the China challenge, the new Cold War will open greater space for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive revisionism. It will also likely advance China’s economic power and energy security by making Beijing the main beneficiary of the new Western sanctions on Russia.

India may have no dog in the fight, yet — like Japan — it will not be able to escape the larger strategic ramifications of the conflict over Ukraine. This could prove a watershed moment in international relations and complicate India’s ability to walk a diplomatic tightrope.

Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

Ukraine war puts U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy in jeopardy

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Focus on Russia will curtail efforts to limit Chinese expansionism

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Joe Biden meets virtually with Xi Jinping from the White House in November 2021: Biden has sought to stabilize the geopolitical competition with China so as to focus on containing Russia.   © AP

The Indo-Pacific region — home to the world’s most populous nations, largest economies and largest militaries — has emerged as the world’s economic and geopolitical hub. This vast region will shape the new world order, including America’s geopolitical standing, in the coming years.

Greater volatility in the Indo-Pacific, however, seems inevitable as a result of the deepening international crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Western retaliation in the form of an unprecedented hybrid war against Moscow.

Sanctions are a form of warfare whose unforeseen consequences have, historically, set in motion an escalating spiral leading to devastating armed conflict. It was a raft of U.S. sanctions intended to squeeze Imperial Japan that ultimately provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, leading to the Pacific war and eventually the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Russia, now the world’s most-sanctioned country, remains a nuclear and cyber superpower, as well as the world’s richest country when it comes to natural resources, and its own likely reprisals to the West’s hybrid war will increase the risks of a wider conflict.

The new Cold War will constrain an overstretched Washington from genuinely pivoting to the Indo-Pacific or robustly countering the challenge to its global preeminence from China, which dwarfs Russia in economic power and military spending.

Since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to stabilize the geopolitical competition with China so as to focus on containing Russia, in keeping with what he told CBS “60 Minutes” just before being elected: Russia is “the biggest threat to America” and China “the biggest competitor.”

As part of that approach — a reversal of the Trump administration policy of treating the Chinese Communist Party as an existential threat to U.S. interests — Biden last year poured a record $650 million in military aid into Ukraine. Last autumn’s U.S.-NATO military exercises near Russia’s Black Sea coast incensed Moscow, foreshadowing Russian aggression today.

To help stabilize relations with Beijing, Biden has taken a number of steps, including a decision not to reinstate certain tariffs. Biden allowed Beijing to escape scot-free over its failure to meet commitments in the so-called Phase One trade deal with the Trump administration. China’s increased purchases of U.S. goods and services fell far below its commitment of $200 billion over 2017 levels during the deal’s two-year period that ended on Dec. 31, 2021.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s unrelenting expansionism from the South and East China Seas to Hong Kong and the Himalayas has essentially been cost-free. Even Xi’s mass incarceration of over a million Muslims in Xinjiang, which the Biden administration acknowledges is “genocide” and “crimes against humanity,” has gone unpunished, with the U.S. imposing only symbolic sanctions.

Biden, after more than a year in office and barely two weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, unveiled the “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States.” This followed criticism at home that he lacked clarity on a region central to long-term U.S. interests.

Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, while acknowledging that “our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost” of China’s “harmful behavior,” goes out of its way to mollify Xi’s regime, stating that America’s “objective is not to change the PRC (People’s Republic of China) but to shape the strategic environment in which it operates.” It also says the U.S. will “manage competition with the PRC responsibly” and “work with the PRC in areas like climate change and nonproliferation.”

As if seeking to allay China’s concerns, Biden has also progressively diluted the Quad’s agenda, broadening it, as his Indo-Pacific strategy attests, to everlasting universal challenges like climate change, sustainability, “global health” and “advancing common technology principles.” The Quad, however, was designed as a bulwark against China’s expansionism.

Biden has yet to comment on China’s nearly two-year border aggression against India. Nor has the U.S. asked Beijing to pull back the nearly 200,000 Chinese troops it has massed along the Indian frontier. Yet Biden, seeking to co-opt India in his new Cold War with Russia, hosted a special Quad summit by video link on Mar. 3 to discuss the Russian aggression.

But the summit, as the unusually short White House statement indicated, achieved little. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put his foot down over extending the Quad’s sphere to Ukraine, saying the group must “remain focused on its core objective… in the Indo-Pacific region.”

India — the only Quad member not under the U.S. security and nuclear umbrella — has taken an independent stance on Ukraine, calling for an end to hostilities and a return to the path of diplomacy but abstaining from the United Nations votes to condemn Russia.

As Biden steps up his hybrid war against Russia, his conciliatory approach will become more pronounced toward China, which has the capacity to bail out the Russian economy. But Xi is likely to work toward neutralizing similar Western sanctions against China in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Xi is expected to fast-track progress on parallel international financial arrangements that are free from Western domination and weaponization.

Biden’s imperative to win Chinese cooperation on his sanctions against Russia gives Beijing important leverage. Like a double-edged sword, it will wield that leverage to extract U.S. and Russian concessions. With Biden’s characterization of Russia as Enemy No. 1 becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, a major casualty is likely to be America’s Indo-Pacific strategy.

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