China’s bullying of tiny Bhutan risks South Asian stability

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David and Goliath struggle exposes Beijing’s expansionist intent

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

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biden’s Taiwan test is coming

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© Getty Images

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writer is a geostrategist.

The steadily increasing risk of war between China and India

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

Beijing’s use of domestic law underpins its international expansionism

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, underscoring its readiness to weaponize even the sharing of water data on upstream river flows, China in 2017 inexplicably refused to supply hydrological data to India in violation of the terms of two bilateral agreements. The one-year data denial resulted in preventable deaths as the monsoon-swollen Brahmaputra overran its banks, leaving a major trail of destruction, especially in India’s Assam state.

The Land Borders Law is just the latest example of how an increasingly aggressive China is using domestic law to underpin its expansionism. Beijing, for example, used a new national security law to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and bring the city into political lockstep with the Chinese Communist Party in breach of China’s United Nations-registered treaty with Britain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biden shifts to a more conciliatory approach toward China

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biden rewards Xi’s hostage diplomacy

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Globe and Mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China rubs its hands amid international divide over Myanmar

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Punitive sanctions policies should be recalibrated

Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks during a news conference after attending the ASEAN leaders’ summit in Jakarta on Apr. 24: the carefully nuanced statement represented a rebuff to the U.S.-led approach to isolate Myanmar.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

International calls for the restoration of democracy in strategically located Myanmar obscure an important divide between that country’s neighbors and the West.

The sanctions-centered approach of the United States and the European Union has sought to punitively isolate Myanmar, while neighboring countries favor a policy of constructive engagement with the military junta.

After a gradual, decadelong democratization process, Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, seized power on Feb. 1 and began cracking down on those peacefully protesting the coup. The continuing unrest has carried important international implications, including the flight of political dissidents and ordinary refugees to neighboring countries.

The cross-border impacts explain why neighbors view engagement as essential, including urging Myanmar’s military rulers to address the domestic unrest through political reconciliation.

Myanmar’s land frontiers are porous, with cross-border ethnic linkages with communities in India and Thailand making the transboundary movement of people common. Trade, investment and counterinsurgency cooperation also link Myanmar with the countries that surround it.

Can anyone imagine the U.S. seeking to isolate and squeeze its southern neighbor Mexico? U.S. President Joe Biden, in fact, is relying on the Mexican government to address the present border crisis precipitated by the tide of mainly Central American refugees trying to enter the U.S. since he took office.

Likewise, it is inconceivable that Myanmar’s immediate neighbors, saddled with a refugee influx since the coup, would embrace the punitive approach adopted by the U.S. and the EU. Yet, the Biden administration initiated a sanctions campaign against Myanmar without consultations with neighboring countries.

There is truth in the common diplomatic view that the farther a country is from Myanmar, the more likely it will favor a punitive approach, while those nearby will keep the channels of communication open through calibrated engagement. The history of sanctions shows that punitive actions have rarely worked without some form of engagement.

In this light, the presence of junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing at the Apr. 24 in-person Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Jakarta — and the carefully nuanced summit statement on Myanmar that emphasized the “ASEAN family” — represented a rebuff to the U.S.-led approach to isolate Myanmar.

According to the five-point consensus that emerged from the summit, ASEAN will mediate to help resolve the crisis. This is, however, easier said than done. ASEAN, for example, has failed to resolve the crisis in Thailand, where the leader of the 2014 coup remains ensconced in power — in civilian garb — by cracking down on pro-democracy protesters, including using a feared lese-majeste law to imprison those who insult the royal family.

More broadly, the retreat of the Myanmar spring exemplifies how democracy is under siege around the world. The wave of rollback of democracies highlights the growing threat from a fusion of autocratic politics and crony, state-guided capitalism.

Today, all the countries of continental Southeast Asia — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam — are under authoritarian rule, like their giant northern neighbor, China. In fact, only two of ASEAN’s 10 members are true democracies with judicial independence and free media.

Still, Myanmar’s generals are discovering the hard way that rolling back democratic freedoms once people take them as their right carries enduring challenges. Although Myanmar had been under military rule for 50 of its 73 years since independence, the continuing protests show that many of its citizens are unwilling to accept a return to military rule.Anti-coup protesters in Mandalay, pictured on May 16: the continuing protests show that many of its citizens are unwilling to accept a return to military rule.    © Myitkyina News/Reuters

Only the military can return Myanmar to the path of democratization. After all, it was the military that voluntarily ushered in the country’s democratic transition that began in 2011. It is thus critical for outside states, including in the West, to maintain lines of communication with Myanmar’s top generals.

One of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, Myanmar has long been an easy sanctions target because it has remained a weak, divided state torn by ethnic insurgencies. Its failure to construct an inclusive national identity has allowed old ethnic rivalries to fester, stifling the resource-rich country’s potential.

As past experience has shown, however, an uncompromisingly harsh approach toward Myanmar has had the perverse effect of weakening America’s hand while strengthening China’s.

China values Myanmar as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean. Like India, Myanmar has long complained about the flow of Chinese arms to guerrilla groups, accusing Beijing of backing several of them as levers against it. The nationalistic military is wary of reliance on China. But international isolation could leave it with no choice.

As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told Nikkei’s Future of Asia 2021 conference earlier this month: “If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on? If I don’t ask China, who am I to ask?” Cambodia is a cautionary tale of how international isolation pushes an economically vulnerable nation into China’s arms. Myanmar could be next, unless the U.S. recalibrates its sanctions policy.

The international divide over how to deal with Myanmar also represents a division between Western and Asian values. In contrast to the West’s interventionist impulse and democratic evangelism, the Asian way of standing up for one’s principles and beliefs does not extend to imposing them on others through coercive activism.

Today, with little prospect that the West could engineer a color revolution in Myanmar, friendly conversations with that country’s generals to persuade them to halt their crackdown and release political prisoners are likely to make more headway toward influencing future events than the current heavy-handed approach.

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

Why is China making a permanent enemy of India?

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Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Chinese troops dismantle bunkers in the Pangong Tso region, Ladakh, along the India-China border on Feb. 15: there are fears China will spring further military surprises.   © Indian Army/AP

When India, currently fighting a devastating second COVID wave, was similarly distracted a year ago with enforcing the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdown, China took advantage to stealthily infiltrate key border areas in India’s high-altitude Ladakh region.

As thawing ice reopened access routes after the brutal Himalayan winter, a shocked India discovered that the People’s Liberation Army had occupied hundreds of sq. kilometers of the borderlands, fortified by heavily armed bases. The discovery triggered the first deadly clashes in the region since 1975.

The intruding PLA forces remain well dug in, with Beijing in no mood to roll back its encroachments or accept further buffer zones of the kind established in two other confrontation areas to avert further armed clashes.

With tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops facing each other in multiple areas, the standoffs constitute the longest period of military confrontation since China imposed itself as India’s neighbor in the early 1950s by occupying then-autonomous Tibet. Even China’s 1962 military attack on India — the only foreign war that communist-ruled China has won — only lasted 32 days.

Now, with India battling a sudden COVID explosion, there are fears China will spring further military surprises. This thought recently prompted India’s army chief to visit the front lines in Ladakh to review operational preparedness.

Meanwhile, China’s aggression has cast an unflattering light on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who failed to foresee the aggression coming largely because he was focused on befriending China. Meeting President Xi Jinping 18 times over the previous five years, Modi was blinded to the various warning signs, including China’s combat exercises and new military installations along the Himalayan frontier.

Since China’s land grabs, the otherwise voluble Modi has been quiet, neither mentioning China by name in any of his public remarks nor acknowledging the loss of territories. Worse still, no army commander has been held accountable for the costly security lapses that resulted in India being caught napping. Nor did the defense minister accept moral responsibility and resign.

India’s efforts to obfuscate the truth in order to save face, including its euphemism for seeking China’s withdrawal from the borderlands — “full restoration of peace and tranquility in the border areas” — have become grist for the Chinese propaganda mill. Indian media coverage is rife with officially coined euphemisms, with areas seized by the PLA routinely reported as “friction points.”

All of which is emboldening China’s intransigence. In seeking to advance its “10 miles forward, five miles back” strategy, Beijing recently suggested the two countries should meet each other “halfway.” Meeting halfway would be a “win-win” for China; it would literally win twice.

Not only would China retain its core land grabs, it would force India to legitimize their Chinese capture. This approach illustrates Beijing’s definition of “give and take” — the other side gives and China takes.

To Modi’s credit, India has refused to buckle. India has more than matched China’s Himalayan military deployments, and has made clear that bilateral ties cannot return to normal as long as there is, to quote Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, “friction, coercion, intimidation and bloodshed on the border.”

This month India excluded Chinese manufacturers from its fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless network trials. And, unlike the 15 tons of medical supplies it rushed to Wuhan at the height of the pandemic there, India has declined to reciprocally take any such Chinese official assistance during its current COVID surge.

The long-term implications, however, are ominous. Consider, for example, China’s frenzied construction of new military infrastructure along the inhospitable border. This big buildup either signals that Beijing sees war as likely, or that it intends to ramp up sustained pressure on India over the long-term.

More fundamentally, China’s actions, including the forward deployment of artillery, missiles and bombers, threaten to turn what was once a lightly patrolled frontier into a perennially hot border. The Tibetan Plateau has become a vast military base for China, which also enjoys the advantage of a relatively flat terrain against India.

For India, a hot border means the diversion of even greater resources for frontier defense, including raising additional mountain-warfare forces. Such a scenario will not only make it more difficult for India to focus on its broader strategic competition with China, but will also further strengthen China’s Pakistan alliance.

Tying India down along the long Himalayan frontier could even help China secure a greater foothold in the Indian Ocean. Opening a maritime front against India would mean that country’s strategic encirclement.

It is possible, however, that — like with the 1962 war — China’s actions could prove singularly counterproductive. That war shattered Indian illusions about China and set in motion India’s shift away from pacifism. In 1967, while still recovering from the 1962 war and another war with Pakistan in 1965, India gave China a bloody nose in military clashes along the Tibet-Sikkim border.

In terms of territory gained, China’s Ladakh aggression may have been a success. But politically, it has proved self-damaging, driving India closer to Washington and making a major Indian military buildup inevitable. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi are at a nadir.

This seems a replay of 1962, when China set out, in the words of then-Premier Zhou Enlai, to “teach India a lesson.” China won the war but lost the peace. The difference now is China is making a permanent enemy of its largest neighbor.

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

Colonization by other means: China’s debt-trap diplomacy

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© Getty Images

Brahma Chellaney, The Hill

American statesman John Adams, who served as U.S. president from 1797 to 1801, famously said, “There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country: One is by the sword; the other is by debt.” China, choosing the second path, has embraced colonial-era practices and rapidly emerged as the world’s biggest official creditor.

With its international loans surpassing more than 5% of the global GDP, China has now eclipsed traditional lenders, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and all the creditor nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) put together. By extending huge loans with strings attached to financially vulnerable states, it has not only boosted its leverage over them but also ensnared some in sovereignty-eroding debt traps.

The latest to fall prey to China’s debt-trap diplomacy is small Laos, which recently signed a 25-year concession agreement allowing a majority Chinese-owned company to control its national power grid, including electricity exports to neighboring countries. This shows that, even as the China-originating COVID-19 pandemic exacts a heavy toll across the world, Beijing continues to weaponize debt as part of its strategy to expand its economic, political and military presence abroad.

Instead of first evaluating a borrower country’s creditworthiness, including whether new loans could saddle it with an onerous debt crisis, China is happy to lend. The heavier the debt burden on the borrower, the greater China’s own leverage becomes.

A new international study has shed light on China’s muscular and exploitative lending practices by examining 100 of its loan contracts with 24 countries, many of which participate in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an imperial project that seeks to make real the mythical Middle Kingdom. The study found that these agreements arm China with considerable leverage by incorporating provisions that go beyond standard international lending contracts.

In fact, such is the lopsided nature of the Chinese-dictated contracts that, while curtailing the options of the borrowing nations, they give China’s state-owned banks untrammeled discretion over any borrower, including the power to scrap loans or even demand full repayment ahead of schedule, according to the study by researchers at AidData at William & Mary, the Center for Global Development, the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, and the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

“Such terms give lenders an opening to project policy influence over the sovereign borrower, and effectively limit the borrower’s policy space to cancel a Chinese loan or to issue new environmental regulations. Some of the debt contracts in our sample could pose a challenge for multilateral cooperation in debt or financial crises, since so many of their terms run directly counter to recent multilateral commitments, long-established practices, and institutional policies,” the study noted.

China leverages its state-sponsored loans to aggressively advance its trade and geopolitical interests, with the study reporting pervasive links between Chinese financial, trade and construction contracts with developing countries. Many Chinese loans, in fact, have not been publicly disclosed, thus spawning a “hidden debt” problem.

Every contract since 2014 has incorporated a sweeping confidentiality clause that compels the borrowing country to keep confidential its terms or even the loan’s existence. Such China-enforced opacity, as the study points out, breaches the principle that public debt should be public and not hidden from taxpayers so that governments can be held accountable.

Forcing the other side to keep contractual provisions under wraps is also necessitated by the fact that China’s loan accords equip it with “broad latitude to cancel loans or accelerate repayment if it disagrees with a borrower’s policies,” whether domestic or foreign policy, according to the study.

No less significant is another unique clause: The contracts, the study found, obligate the borrower to exclude the Chinese debt from any multilateral restructuring process, such as the Paris Club of official bilateral creditors, and from any “comparable debt treatment.” This is aimed at ensuring that the borrowing country remains dependent on Beijing, including for any debt relief in the event of financial distress, like in the current pandemic.

The study confirms that little of what China provides is aid or low-interest lending. Rather, its infrastructure financing comes mainly in the form of market-rate loans like those from private capital markets. The more dire the borrower’s financial situation, the higher the interest rate China is likely to charge for lending money.

In stark contrast, interest rates for Japan’s infrastructure loans to developing countries, for example, mostly run below half a percent.

Worse still, many of China’s loan agreements incorporate collateral arrangements, such as lender-controlled revenue accounts. Its collateralization practices seek to secure debt repayments by revenues flowing from, for example, commodity exports. Through various contract clauses, a commercially aggressive China, according to the study, limits the borrowing state’s crisis management options while leveraging its own role.

The study did not examine how borrowing states, when unable to repay Chinese loans, are compelled, including by contract provisions allowing debt-for-equity swaps, to cede strategic assets to China. Water-rich Laos handed China majority control of its national electric grid after its state-owned electricity company’s debt spiraled to 26% of national GDP. The transfer also holds implications for national water resources as hydropower makes up more than four-fifths of Laos’s total electricity generation.

One of the earliest successes of China’s debt-trap diplomacy was in securing 1,158 square kilometers of strategic Pamir Mountains territory from the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan in 2011 in exchange for debt forgiveness. Tajikistan’s unending debt crisis has also forced it to grant Chinese companies rights to mine gold, silver and other mineral ores. As the Chinese military base in the Badakhshan region underscores, China has expanded its foothold in Tajikistan, thanks to a corrupt power elite there.

A more famous example is the Sri Lankan transfer of the Hambantota Port, along with more than 6,000 hectares of land around it, to Beijing on a 99-year lease. The concept of a 99-year lease, ironically, emerged from the flurry of European colonial expansion in China in the 19th century. In Sri Lanka, the transfer of the Indian Ocean region’s most strategically located port in late 2017 was seen as the equivalent of a heavily indebted farmer giving away his daughter to the cruel money lender.

China’s debt-trap diplomacy has not spared Pakistan, which ranks as its sole strategic ally following the withering of Beijing’s special relationship with North Korea, once its vassal. Saddled with huge Chinese debt, Pakistan has given China exclusive rights, coupled with a tax holiday, to run Gwadar Port for the next four decades. China will pocket 91% of the port’s revenues. It also plans to build near the port a Djibouti-style outpost for its navy.

In small island nations, China has converted big loans into acquisition of entire islets through exclusive development rights. China took over a couple of islets in the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives and one island in the South Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands. The European Union, meanwhile, has refused to bail out the tiny Balkan republic of Montenegro for mortgaging itself to China.

BRI, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s signature initiative, has been plagued by allegations of corruption and malpractice, and many of its completed projects have proved not financially viable. But, as an unclassified U.S. intelligence report released on April 13 said, Xi’s regime will continue to promote BRI, while fine-tuning it in response to regional and international criticism.

After all, BRI is central to its debt-trap diplomacy. China often begins as an economic partner of a small, financial weak country and then gradually enlarges its footprint in that state to become its economic master.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press), which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.