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.”

Ukraine crisis: Perils of a ‘with us or against us’ approach

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Brahma Chellaney, The New Indian Express

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is just the latest example of “might makes right”. Despite claims to the contrary, the world has never had a rules-based order. Just consider the history of this century, especially the number of military invasions of sovereign states that have occurred since the year 2001.

International law is powerful against the powerless, but powerless against the powerful. Both the Russian invasion and the West’s no-holds-barred retaliatory economic war against Russia, including practically expelling it from the Western-led financial order, mock a rules-based order. While Russia’s aggression is violating Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, the West’s economic warfare is violating Russia’s economic sovereignty.

Yet this conflict holds global implications, with the potential to remake our world, including spawning the polarization of both the world economy and international politics.

As a new Cold War dawns, the US appears returning to a “with us or against us” approach. This promises to bring countries that take an objective and balanced view under intense pressure. It is also likely to complicate, if not strain, American ties with countries that insist on remaining neutral or taking a more nuanced approach than Washington’s black-and-white portrayal of the situation.

In echoes of a familiar Manichaean logic, US President Joe Biden’s administration is seeking to prod India to be on America’s side against Russia by implicitly asking, “Are you with us or against us?”

Team Biden has bristled at India abstaining from the United Nations votes to condemn Moscow, including at the Security Council on February 25 when Russia vetoed a US-sponsored resolution deploring the Russian invasion as a violation of the UN Charter. India, however, has implicitly criticized Russia’s abandonment of the path of diplomacy and repeatedly called for an end to all violence.

According to the US-based news website Axios, the State Department has recalled a strongly-worded cable to American embassies instructing them to inform India and the United Arab Emirates that their neutral stance on Ukraine put them “in Russia’s camp”. US diplomacy has a record of using media “leaks” to convey messages or warnings. In 1998, to spoil India’s ties with China, the White House leaked Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s letter to President Bill Clinton about the Indian nuclear tests.

The Axios story ended by saying that India “has faced allegations — rarely discussed by the US in public — of democratic backsliding and repression of religious minorities.” The implication is that, unless New Delhi falls in line, the Biden administration could start discussing such allegations in public.

US pressure has already compelled the UAE to reverse course. After abstaining in the Security Council, it voted in support of the March 2 non-binding resolution in the General Assembly condemning Russia. However, 35 countries abstained on the General Assembly resolution, including all of India’s major neighbours, while a further 11 didn’t vote at all.

Here’s the paradox: No head of a Western government has condemned China’s nearly 23-month-long border aggression against India or even urged Beijing to pull back the nearly 200,000 troops it has massed along the Himalayan frontier in violation of binding bilateral accords. Yet the Western bloc demands that India be firmly on its side over the Russian aggression against Ukraine, which is a member of neither NATO nor the European Union.

When Donald Trump was the US president, his top officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, regularly blasted China’s aggression against India, calling it “incredibly aggressive action”, “unacceptable behaviour” and part of a “clear and intensifying pattern of bullying”.

But the Biden administration, having placed outreach to Beijing as a high priority, has been wary of publicly supporting India against the Chinese aggression. Biden hasn’t uttered a word on that 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”.

Even in the India-Pakistan context, Team Biden isn’t firmly on India’s side. It has hedged its bets by retaining Pakistan as a “major non-NATO ally”, despite America’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of Pakistan-backed Taliban terrorists. Biden’s failure to impose any penalties on Pakistan also explains why that country is still missing from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Yet now Team Biden demands that India side with the US against Russia over Ukraine, which historically has been viewed by Moscow as its strategic buffer. Its unstated message to India is: “Do as I say, not as I do”.

India’s measured response to the Russian aggression enjoys bipartisan support at home. For India, the US has increasingly become an important strategic partner. But Moscow, which rescued India half a dozen times by vetoing UN Security Council resolutions over the decades, remains an equally important friend.

Had India voted with the Western bloc to condemn Russia, it would have burned its bridges with a country that remains a critical source of weapons and military technology in projects ranging from the Brahmos missile to nuclear submarines. To help shore up India’s defences against China, Russia has advanced the delivery of its S-400 air and anti-missile system.

The US values its strategic autonomy. So should India. Undermining ties with Moscow would make India dependent on America, whose unpredictability is legendary.

The US is already bagging billions of dollars worth of Indian arms contracts every year. Yet it is working to make India its sole arms client, including by seeking to leverage its domestic law — the 2017 ​Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) — to downgrade Indian defence ties with Moscow. Given the advent of the new Cold War, it is likely to step up that effort.

India now holds more annual military exercises with America than any other country. The US has already overtaken Russia as the largest arms seller to India. New Delhi wishes to further deepen its ties with Washington. But such cooperation cannot be exclusionary.

A “with us or against us” approach that seeks to compel India to make a choice between the US and Russia will only bring the blossoming Indo-American relationship under strain. 

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

America Is Focusing on the Wrong Enemy

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US President Joe Biden is treating a “rogue” Russia as a peer competitor, when he should be focused on the challenge from America’s actual peer, China. Not only is China more powerful than Russia; it also genuinely seeks to supplant the US as the preeminent global power.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

Much of the democratic world would like the United States to remain the preeminent global power. But with the US apparently committed to strategic overreach, that outcome risks becoming unlikely.

The problem with America’s global leadership begins at home. Hyper-partisan politics and profound polarization are eroding American democracy and impeding the pursuit of long-term objectives. In foreign policy, the partisan divide can be seen in perceptions of potential challengers to the US: according to a March 2021 poll, Republicans are most concerned about China, while Democrats worry about Russia above all.

This may explain why US President Joe Biden is treating a “rogue” Russia as a peer competitor, when he should be focused on the challenge from America’s actual peer, China. In comparison to Russia, China’s population is about ten times bigger, its economy is almost ten times larger, and its military expenditure is around four times greater. Not only is China more powerful; it genuinely seeks to supplant the US as the preeminent global power. By contrast, with its military buildup on Ukraine’s borders, Russia is seeking to mitigate a perceived security threat in its neighborhood.

Hastening the decline of US global leadership is hardly the preserve of Democrats. A bipartisan parade of US leaders has failed to recognize that the post-Cold War unipolar world order, characterized by unchallenged US economic and military predominance, is long gone. The US squandered its “unipolar moment,” especially by waging an expensive and amorphous “Global War on Terrorism,” including several military interventions, and through its treatment of Russia.

After its Cold War victory, the US essentially took an extended victory lap, pursuing strategic maneuvers that flaunted its dominance. Notably, it sought to expand NATO to Russia’s backyard, but made little effort to bring Russia into the Western fold, as it had done with Germany and Japan after World War II. The souring of relations with the Kremlin contributed to Russia’s eventual remilitarization.

So, while the US remains the world’s foremost military power, it has been stretched thin by the decisions and commitments it has made, in Europe and elsewhere, since 1991. This goes a long way toward explaining why the US has ruled out deploying its own troops to defend Ukraine today. What the US is offering Ukraine – weapons and ammunition – cannot protect the country from Russia, which has an overwhelming military advantage.

But US leaders made another fatal mistake since the Cold War: by aiding China’s rise, they helped to create the greatest rival their country has ever faced. Unfortunately, they have yet to learn from this. Instead, the US continues to dedicate insufficient attention and resources to an excessively wide array of global issues, from Russian revanchism and Chinese aggression to lesser threats in the Middle East and Africa and on the Korean Peninsula. And it continues inadvertently to bolster China’s global influence, not least through its overuse of sanctions.

For example, by barring friends and allies from importing Iranian oil, two successive US administrations enabled China not only to secure oil at a hefty discount, but also to become a top investor in – and security partner of – the Islamic Republic. US sanctions have similarly pushed resource-rich Myanmar into China’s arms. As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose country has faced a US arms embargo over its ties to China, asked last year, “If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on?”

Russia has been asking itself the same question. Though Russia and China kept each other at arm’s length for decades, US-led sanctions introduced after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea drove President Vladimir Putin to pursue a closer strategic partnership with China. The bilateral relationship is likely to deepen, regardless of what happens in Ukraine. But the raft of harsh new sanctions the US has promised to implement in the event of a Russian invasion will accelerate this shift significantly, with China as the big winner.

The heavy financial penalties the US has planned – including the “nuclear option” of disconnecting Russian banks from the international SWIFT payments system – would turn China into Russia’s banker, enabling it to reap vast profits and expand the international use of its currency, the renminbi. If Biden fulfilled his pledge to block the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which is set to deliver Russian supplies directly to Germany via the Baltic Sea, China would gain greater access to Russian energy.

In fact, by securing a commitment from Putin this month to a nearly tenfold increase in Russian natural gas exports, China is building a safety net that could – in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan – withstand Western energy sanctions and even a blockade. China could also benefit militarily by demanding greater access to Russian military technology in exchange for its support.

For the US, a strengthened Russia-China axis is the worst possible outcome of the Ukraine crisis. The best outcome would be a compromise with Russia to ensure that it does not invade and possibly annex Ukraine. By enabling the US to avoid further entanglement in Europe, this would permit a more realistic balancing of key objectives – especially checking Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific – with available resources and capabilities.

The future of the US-led international order will be decided in Asia, and China is currently doing everything in its power to ensure that order’s demise. Already, China is powerful enough that it can host the Winter Olympics even as it carries out a genocide against Muslims in the Xinjiang region, with limited pushback. If the Biden administration does not recognize the true scale of the threat China poses, and adopt an appropriately targeted strategy soon, whatever window of opportunity for preserving US preeminence remains may well close.

Brahma Chellaney

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

© Project Syndicate, 2022.

India must give Taiwan a helping hand

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Do you know that Taiwan plays an indirect role in the defense of India because its autonomous existence ties up a sizable portion of China’s armed forces? If China succeeds in recolonizing Taiwan, India’s security will come under greater pressure.

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

After swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the South China Sea’s geopolitical map and encroaching on Indian and Bhutanese borderlands, an expansionist China is itching to move on Taiwan. This island democracy is a technological powerhouse central to the international semiconductor business. Taiwan also plays an indirect role in the defence of India because its autonomous existence ties up a sizable portion of China’s armed forces.

Beijing’s claim that Taiwan has “always been” part of China is dubious, at best, and based on revisionist history. For most of its history, Taiwan was inhabited by Malayo-Polynesian tribes and had no ties with China until the island’s Dutch colonial rulers in the 17th century invited Chinese workers to emigrate. Geographically, Taiwan is closer to the Philippines than China.

The world cannot afford to let Taiwan go the way of the once-autonomous Tibet, which was gobbled up by Mao Zedong’s regime in the early 1950s. Tibet’s annexation remains one of the most far-reaching geopolitical developments in post-World War II history, which resulted in China imposing itself as India’s neighbour and waging unending aggression.

Today, Taiwan has all the attributes of a robust independent state, and most Taiwanese want it to stay that way. But China’s new Mao, Xi Jinping, calls the island’s incorporation a “historic mission”. Xi is working to implement the expansionist agenda that Mao left unfinished, which explains why he has not spared even tiny Bhutan.

In the way a porcupine’s quills protect it from larger predators by making it difficult to digest, Taiwan needs to create porcupine-like defences with weapons like anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles. By turning a Chinese invasion into a bloody and protracted guerrilla campaign, a porcupine Taiwan would inflict high costs on China, including major military casualties.

But no less important than bolstering its defences is Taiwan’s imperative to carve out greater international space for itself. If Taiwan gains greater presence on the global stage, it will be able to shore up its status as a de facto nation, making it more difficult for China to seize the island in the way it occupied Tibet and Xinjiang soon after coming under communist rule in 1949. The then-independent Tibet, for example, should have applied for United Nations membership shortly after that international body came into existence in 1945, but it never did.

China, as a step towards annexing Taiwan, is working to wipe out its international identity by bribing countries to break off diplomatic ties with Taipei and by vetoing Taiwan’s presence even in international forums. Its poaching has left only 13 nations and the Vatican still recognizing Taiwan.

But recently, China has been forced to eat humble pie by a puny nation. Lithuania, with just 18,500 active military personnel, has set an example for bigger countries on how to stand up to the global Goliath’s bullying. Undeterred by China’s sanctions campaign against it, Lithuania has allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy. With some other European states — from the Czech Republic and Poland to Slovakia — already seeking to deepen ties with Taiwan, Lithuania indeed promises to serve as a bellwetherof sorts.

India, locked in several military standoffs with China, needs to think and act creatively, including helping Taiwan by learning from its historical mistake on Tibet. When China invaded Tibet in 1950, India opposed Tibet’s desperate plea for a UN discussion before acquiescing in the Chinese annexation of the buffer, including withdrawing its military escorts from Tibet and handing over Tibet’s postal, telegraph and telephone services that it was running.

If Taiwan is not to go Tibet’s way, India must do its part to help Taiwan reinforce its defences and self-governing status. India must follow the lead of Japan and the US in strengthening ties with Taipei. And it should emulate the example set by minnow Lithuania and allow Taiwan to rename its “Taipei Economic and Cultural Centre” in New Delhi as the “Taiwanese Representative Office”, while rebranding its own mission in Taipei as the “India Representative Office”.

Make no mistake: Taiwan is on the frontline of international defence against Xi’s totalitarianism and expansionism, which have spawned a Muslim gulag in Xinjiang, brutal repression in Tibet and Himalayan aggression. Major democracies must act before it becomes too late to save Taiwan, a democratic success story. If China succeeds in recolonizing Taiwan, India’s security will come under greater pressure.

The writer is professor of strategic studies, Centre for Policy Research.

The Quad needs an economic pillar to stand on

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The Quad, a partnership of democracies that had once appeared more concept than reality, has been fortified. But it faces important challenges, including an expansive agenda that could dilute its focus and the absence of an economic pillar to lend support.

Joe Biden hosts a Quad leaders summit at the White House in September 2021: American, Australian, Indian and Japanese interests are not entirely congruent.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Resurrected in November 2017, the Australia-India-Japan-United States Quad has come a long way toward cementing a strategic coalition of the leading democracies of the Indo-Pacific region.

But the question of where the Quad is headed has gained greater salience in the wake of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) taking effect with Japan and Australia included in it.

RCEP, billed as the world’s largest trade bloc, and the separate Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) seek to promote economic integration around China and Japan, even as Beijing pursues its neo-imperial Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that has already ensnared some vulnerable states in sovereignty-eroding debt traps. The U.S. and India were to be members of CPTPP and RCEP, respectively, but then both decided not to join.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi famously mocked the Quad in 2018 as a “headline-grabbing idea” that will dissipate “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean.” However, the Quad, anchored in the free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) vision, continues to gain in strength, largely in response to China’s muscular revisionism.Leaders of participating nations at the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership meeting in Singapore, pictured in November 2018: the question of where the Quad is headed has gained greater salience in the wake of RCEP taking effect on Jan. 1.   © Reuters

The change of administrations in the U.S. and Japan in 2021 and in Australia in 2018, far from slowing momentum, has helped build continuity, making the Quad’s future more durable.

The past year will be remembered for the first-ever Quad leaders summits — a virtual summit in March, and then an in-person summit at the White House in September. The summits yielded the first-ever Quad joint statements, which articulated a clear-eyed vision. Until then, the pattern was for each state to issue its own statement at the end of a meeting of officials from the Quad countries.

To be sure, when U.S. President Joe Biden was elected, there was uncertainty over the Quad’s future, including whether Biden would carry forward his predecessor’s FOIP strategy. Only after being sworn in did Biden embrace the FOIP concept and speak about the Quad.

There is a reason why the Quad remains central to America’s Indo-Pacific strategy, despite the new, Biden-initiated AUKUS alliance with Australia and Britain. The U.S., given its relative decline, needs its allies more than ever so that, in seeking to address international challenges, American power is augmented with that of its allies and strategic partners. Asian power equilibrium cannot be built without Japan, India and Australia.

In contrast to the AUKUS alliance’s security mission, the Quad now has an agenda extending to geoeconomic issues. While then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration helped give the Quad strategic meaning, the Biden administration has sought to reorient the group toward dealing with geoeconomic challenges.

The Quad initiatives since 2021 reflect this new focus. The initiative to build resilient supply chains, for example, extends from the technology and public-health sectors to semiconductors and clean energy. It draws strength from the hard lessons many economies have learned about China-dependent supply chains.

The Quad is also seeking to deliver transparent, high-standard infrastructure by coordinating technical assistance and capacity-building efforts with regional states. The objective is to set up public-private partnership projects that are properly planned and financially and environmentally sustainable, in contrast to China’s BRI projects, many of which have also faced allegations of corruption and malpractice.

The Quad Vaccine Partnership, the most-visible initiative, is aimed at fostering equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines by expanding vaccine manufacturing capacity in the quartet and by donating vaccines to other countries. Vaccine donations collectively by the quartet already rank the largest in the world.

Such initiatives show that the Quad, although catalyzed into action by China’s aggressive actions and irascible behavior, has become more directed toward larger geoeconomic issues.

A partnership of democracies that had once appeared more concept than reality has been fortified, with its leaders pledging to promote a rules-based Indo-Pacific that is “undaunted by coercion.”

However, the Quad’s new attention on global issues, from climate change — Biden’s pet concern — to cybersecurity and the pandemic, risks diluting the group’s Indo-Pacific focus. Its expansive geoeconomic agenda could also weigh it down.

Furthermore, American, Australian, Indian and Japanese interests are not entirely congruent. For example, India, facing the China-Pakistan strategic axis, maintains a land-based defense posture, whereas Australia, Japan and the U.S. are all focused on the maritime domain. And while America’s main objective regarding China is nonmilitary — to counter its geopolitical, ideological and economic challenge to U.S. preeminence — Japan and India confront a direct Chinese threat.

According to Chinese state media commentary, Japan and Australia’s participation in RCEP has taken “the wind out of the Quad’s anti-Chinese sails.” Australia and Japan have consistently refused to bend to Chinese pressure. But they have been lured by the billions of additional dollars that they will likely earn from RCEP’s boosting of regional trade, even as China gains a greater say in shaping trade rules in the Indo-Pacific.

Arrangements like RCEP, CPTPP and BRI, in fact, underscore the imperative for an economic pillar for the FOIP vision in order to give the Quad more comprehensive meaning. The Biden administration says it will unveil an economic framework that will go beyond these arrangements.

The Quad’s security role needs to be complemented with a concretized Indo-Pacific economic dimension so that security and economic interests are fused. Otherwise, if its members pick economic interests over security interests, the Quad’s relevance will erode.

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

China’s Trojan Gift: Creditor Imperialism

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We are witnessing the end of China’s happy days when a positive image and almost unlimited capital helped its push for global influence and assets.

The scale and ambition of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is staggering. Credible estimates suggest it has now lent $1.5 trillion of state money to 150 countries, more than the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, let alone any other nation state. Is that sustainable and, given the recent slump in Chinese lending, is the decline an issue that will simply melt away?

What China’s President Xi Jinping hails as the “project of the century” is better described as debt-trap diplomacy. By extending huge loans with strings attached to financially vulnerable states, the BRI has boosted China’s political leverage over debtor states, ensnaring some in sovereignty-eroding debt traps. China has also secured favorable access to their natural assets, such as mineral resources and ports.

BRI loans continue until a borrower nation faces a debt crisis, which then arms China with considerable leverage to wrest political and economic concessions. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won its first overseas naval base at Djibouti, for example, as a result of debt entrapment. The more desperate a borrower’s situation, the higher the interest rates China will seek to impose.

Paradoxically however, the China-originating coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on the BRI by contributing to a sharp drop in lending. Since peaking in the second half of 2019, BRI financing has continued to decline. The pandemic’s socioeconomic disruptions and adverse impacts on GDP have crimped many developing nations’ capacity to undertake new infrastructure projects.

Other factors are also at play, including the international spotlight on China’s predatory lending practices. Xi’s regime, while refusing to come clean on the origins of the covid virus, has utilized the pandemic to step up muscular revisionism and other scofflaw actions, from the East and South China Seas to the Himalayas.

All of which has dented China’s global image, with China’s reputation reaching new lows. This has given confidence to a number of BRI recipient countries, including some that have slipped into debt servitude to China, to oppose unfavorable terms for fresh loans or seek renegotiation of existing loan contracts.

China has invariably refused to renegotiate the terms of existing contracts. But with a number of states scrapping or scaling back BRI projects, it is being compelled to re-strategize and recalibrate lending. The increasingly precarious financial situations of a growing number of BRI partner states have also dampened Chinese state lenders’ appetite for risk-taking.

These factors collectively explain the downward trend in BRI finance and investments, which in the first half of 2021 declined 32% to $19.3 billion compared to the previous six months. In the pre-pandemic boom time, BRI financing had reached a record $63.3 billion in the second half of 2019.

To be sure, the BRI (whose official name at launch was One Belt, One Road) continues to make inroads in the developing world, as illustrated by the newly completed high-speed railway connecting Laos to China. Ironically, Laos was compelled just about a year ago to hand over control of its debt-laden national power grid to a majority Chinese-owned company

And yet the BRI’s glory days are unlikely ever to return, even if the pandemic comes under control. The dangers of China’s creditor imperialism can no longer be ignored by borrowing countries — unless their debt entrapment is beyond redemption. Cash-strapped TajikistanPakistan, and Sri Lanka, for example, have taken fresh Chinese loans to pay off old loans, despite earlier ceding strategic assets to creditor China.

Make no mistake: The BRI faces a growing image problem. The corruption and malpractice in many of its projects are compounded by a pervasive lack of transparency, including on financing and construction. Many completed projects are not financially viable. There is also increasing international awareness that slipping into debt bondage to China will likely mean losing valuable natural assets and perhaps even sovereignty.

Even where governments remain China-friendly, many citizens are beginning to view the BRI as potentially representing the advent of a new colonial era — the 21st equivalent of the East India Company that paved the way for British imperialism in the East, initially through trade.

Meanwhile, the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad” grouping, as a counter to the BRI, is working to deliver transparent, high-standard infrastructure by coordinating technical assistance and capacity-building efforts with regional states. The objective is to set up public-private partnership projects in the vast Indo-Pacific region, including through the Blue Dot Network, that are properly planned, and financially and environmentally sustainable. The European Union seeks something similar through its Global Gateway.

The Quad effort notwithstanding, the BRI will continue to win new projects. Indeed, U.S. policies to punish or isolate countries — from Zimbabwe and Iran to Myanmar and Cambodia — ensure that China will continue to bag lucrative contracts because there are no alternatives.

However, the damage to the BRI brand may be beyond repair, even if the initiative were renamed a second time. In the coming years, the BRI is likely to encounter stronger headwinds.

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

© CEPA, Center for European Policy Analysis, Washington, DC.


The Quad’s Geo-Economic and Geostrategic Implications

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi famously mocked the Quad as a “headline-grabbing idea” that will dissipate “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean.” But far from dissipating, the Quad is strengthening, largely in response to China’s muscular revisionism.

Brahma CHELLANEY
published by RIETI (Research Institute of Economy, Trade and Industry)

At a time when there is a life-and-death conflict between two systems of governance — repressive and democratic — a loose strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific region’s four leading democracies, the Quad, is rapidly solidifying. Comprised of Australia, India, Japan and the United States, the Quad has received a lot of international attention, largely because of the promise it holds toward underpinning the power equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, the increasing use of the term “Indo-Pacific” — which refers to all countries bordering the Indian and Pacific oceans — rather than the traditional term “Asia-Pacific,” underscores the maritime dimension of today’s challenges. Asia’s oceans have increasingly become an arena of competition for resources and influence (Note 1). It now seems likely that future regional crises will be triggered and settled at sea.

As is apparent from the websites of the White House and the foreign ministries of its four member-states, the Quad’s official name is the Quad, not “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue,” as some publications keep calling it on first reference. The Quad’s origins date back to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that devastated large parts of Asia, killing hundreds of thousands across Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka and South Africa. The four countries joined hands to coordinate disaster relief and humanitarian assistance. The idea of formalizing a Quad emerged from that humanitarian initiative.

After lying dormant for nine years, the Quad was resurrected in November 2017 and began regular working-level meetings. It started gaining momentum after its consultations were elevated to the foreign-minister level in October 2020. Under U.S. President Joe Biden’s initiative, the Quad leaders convened for the first in-person summit at the White House in September 2021. In fact, just weeks after assuming office, Biden organized a virtual Quad summit that yielded the Quad leaders’ first joint statement, which articulated a clear-eyed vision (Note 2).

China has long viewed the Quad with suspicion, with its misgivings reinforced by the more recent formation of the Australia-UK-U.S. (AUKUS) alliance, which President Biden called “a historic step.” The plain fact is that China’s aggressive actions have driven India closer to America, compelled Japan to strengthen its security alliance with the U.S., and forced Australia to abandon hedging and openly align itself with Washington.

China sees the Quad as a threat to its expansionist ambitions (Note 3). But, publicly, China has been dismissive of the Quad. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi famously mocked the Quad as a “headline-grabbing idea” that will dissipate “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean.” Far from dissipating like “sea foam,” the Quad is strengthening, with its four democracies forging closer bonds in response to China’s increasingly muscular actions, which extend from the East and South China Seas to the Himalayas. In fact, opposing China’s coercive expansionism is the Quad’s unifying theme.

The next logical step would be for these democracies to play a more concerted, coordinated role in advancing broader Indo-Pacific security. The idea, however, is not to create an Asian version of NATO, but rather to develop a close partnership founded on shared values and interests, including the rule of law, freedom of navigation, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, peaceful dispute resolution, free markets and free trade.

China represents a growing challenge to these principles. At a time when the world is still battling a deadly pandemic that originated in China, that country’s muscular revisionism has lent new momentum to the Quad’s evolution toward a concrete, institutionalized grouping. In fact, with India’s closer integration, the Quad is beginning to blossom. And the Quad seems poised to deepen its strategic collaboration.

The Australia-India-Japan-U.S. quartet has affirmed a shared commitment to underpin an Indo-Pacific region based on clear and transparent rules, with respect for international law. The Quad’s agenda is centered on building a stable balance of power and a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a concept authored in 2016 by then-Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. That concept was later embraced by U.S. policy, becoming the linchpin of America’s Indo-Pacific strategy under two successive administrations. The Quad’s focus, however, extends beyond China and the security realm.

In fact, the media focus on the Quad’s geostrategic aspects has obscured the important role that the group is playing to bring about geo-economic change. The grouping’s geo-economic priorities are apparent from several of its initiatives, including the following (Note 4):

  • Build resilient supply chains. The Quad’s supply-chain initiative extends from the technology and public-health sectors to clean energy. With Beijing seeking to leverage its domination of international supply chains, many economies, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, have learned hard lessons about China-dependent supply chains. There is a growing recognition of the imperative to diversify supply chains and make them more resilient to interference or manipulation by any state. Toward that end, the Quad, among other things, has sought to secure supply chains for vaccine production and clean energy, as well as identify vulnerabilities and strengthen supply-chain security for semiconductors and their vital components.
  • Rally expertise, capacity and finance to expand regional infrastructure. The Quad is working to finance and build infrastructure projects in the Indo-Pacific that are properly planned and financially sustainable as a counter to China’s debt-trap diplomacy, which is driving its “Belt and Road Initiative” even as it increasingly ensnares vulnerable nations in sovereignty-eroding debt traps (Note 5). Since 2015, the Quad partners have provided over $48 billion to more than 30 regional states in official finance for infrastructure related to public health, rural development, water supply and sanitation, renewable power generation, telecommunications and road transportation. Meanwhile, the Quad Infrastructure Coordination Group has been established to help deliver transparent, high-standards infrastructure by coordinating technical assistance and capacity-building efforts, including with regional states.
  • Help vaccinate the world against COVID-19. The Quad Vaccine Partnership, launched in March 2021, is aimed at fostering equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines in the Indo-Pacific and the wider world by expanding vaccine manufacturing capacity in the quartet and donating vaccines to developing nations. This initiative is piloted by the Quad Vaccine Experts Group, which coordinates the Quad’s collective response to the pandemic. As part of their plan to donate more than 1.2 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses, in addition to the doses they have already financed through COVAX, the Quad countries seek to leverage the vaccine-manufacturing heft of India, which supplies more than 60% of the world’s vaccines against various diseases. Japan, for example, will invest some $100 million in India’s healthcare sector to help boost the output of COVID-19 vaccines and treatment drugs.
  • Foster an open, accessible and secure technology ecosystem. This goal extends from 5G diversification and deployment to bolstering critical-infrastructure resilience against cyber threats. The Quad partners have now extended their cooperation even to outer space, including building a partnership for exchanging satellite data to promote sustainable use of oceans and marine resources and thereby protect the Earth. Critical and Emerging Technologies Working Group has been established.
  • Keep climate goals within reach through clean-energy innovation and deployment as well as adaptation, resilience and preparedness. A Quad shipping task force, for example, will seek to establish low-emission or zero-emission shipping corridors between the Quad member-countries, including by inviting Yokohama, Los Angeles, Sydney and Mumbai to form a green-shipping network. The Quad is also aiming at a clean-hydrogen partnership to strengthen and reduce costs across all elements of the clean-hydrogen value chain and to boost trade in clean hydrogen across the Indo-Pacific. Another objective of the Quad is improving critical climate information-sharing and disaster-resilient infrastructure.

These initiatives show that the Quad, although catalyzed into action by China’s aggressive actions and irascible behavior, has a broader agenda heavily focused on geo-economic issues. After the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump took the lead in reviving the dormant Quad and giving it strategic meaning, the Biden administration, in partnership with Japan, India and Australia, has sought to orient the Quad toward addressing the geo-economic challenges. Following the G-7 summit in Britain in June 2021, President Biden revealed at a news conference that, after he won the presidential election, a Chinese leader (whom he didn’t name) sought to dissuade him from embracing the Quad (Note 6).

Today, its four members perceive the Quad as providing important new architecture in the Indo-Pacific for advancing cooperation economically and strategically. The Quad, through its geo-economic initiatives, including generous vaccine donations, is also seeking to project soft power.

The fact is that the Quad is fostering greater cooperation between and among its member-states, as well as with outside nations. By seeking to leverage both public and private resources to achieve maximum impact, the Quad offers an alternative model to China’s state-directed lending for infrastructure projects, which has saddled a number of countries with onerous debts and increased their dependence on Beijing. Australia has unveiled a $1.4 billion infrastructure fund for the South Pacific, while Japan and India have agreed to develop a series of joint projects along what they have called the “Asia-Africa Growth Corridor,” which links the two continents via sea routes.

More fundamentally, the Quad member-states have come a long way toward cementing a partnership of democracies that had once appeared more concept than reality. The new AUKUS alliance is likely to complement the Quad. For the U.S., the Quad is becoming the central dynamic of its Indo-Pacific policy, with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan calling the Quad “a foundation upon which to build substantial American policy in the Indo-Pacific (Note 7).”

While recognizing the Quad’s utility, it is also important to understand its limitations. Unlike the U.S. and Australia, which are geographically distant from China, Japan and India face a direct China threat, which the Quad cannot mitigate. While India in response has embarked on a major defense buildup, Japan — already shaken out of its complacency by an expansionist China vying for regional hegemony — is likely in the coming years to rearm and become militarily more independent of the U.S., without jettisoning its security treaty with Washington (Note 8).

Still, it is imperative that the Quad gain greater economic and strategic heft so as to ensure power equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific. By cooperating in economic, technological and security realms and coordinating their responses, the Quad member-states can help put discreet checks on the unbridled exercise of Chinese power. If China’s growing threats against Taiwan lead to military action, then a grand international coalition, with the Quad at its core, could emerge.

Footnotes:

  1. ^ The White House, United States Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific (Washington, DC: The White House, declassified on January 5, 2021); and U.S. Department of State, The Elements of the China Challenge (Washington, DC: Policy Planning Staff, Office of the Secretary of State, November 2020).
  2. ^ The White House, “Quad Leaders’ Joint Statement: ‘The Spirit of the Quad,’” March 12, 2021, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/03/12/quad-leaders-joint-statement-the-spirit-of-the-quad/.
  3. ^ Kevin Rudd, “Why the Quad Alarms China,” Foreign Affairs, August 6, 2021.
  4. ^ The White House, “Fact Sheet: Quad Leaders’ Summit,” September 24, 2021; and the White House, “Joint Statement from Quad Leaders,” September 24, 2021.
  5. ^ Anna Gelpern, Sebastian Horn, et al, How China Lends: A Rare Look into China’s Debt Contracts with Foreign Governments (Williamsburg, VA: AidData at William & Mary, the Center for Global Development, the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, and the Peterson Institute for International Economics, March 2021).
  6. ^ The White House, “Remarks by President Biden in Press Conference,” June 13, 2021, at Cornwall, United Kingdom, available at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/06/13/remarks-by-president-biden-in-press-conference-2/.
  7. ^ Kyodo, AFP-Jiji Press, “U.S. national security adviser says ‘Quad’ key in Indo-Pacific,” The Japan Times, January 30, 2021.
  8. ^ Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Full text of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security Between Japan and the United States of America, signed on January 19, 1960, available at https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/n-america/us/q&a/ref/1.html.

China will regret weaponizing sports

China has long mixed sports and politics. From its boycott of the 1956 Olympics to its more recent bullying tactics against the N.B.A., England’s Premier League and others, Beijing has treated sports as politics by other means. Now its Winter Olympics face a diplomatic boycott.

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill

The approaching Beijing Winter Olympics – the most divisive games since the 1936 Berlin Olympics – face several challenges: Boycott calls in the West; a Muslim gulag with more than one million detainees in Xinjiang; the new omicron variant of COVID-19; and a silenced #MeToo accuser, Peng Shuai, who is China’s top tennis player. No wonder Beijing is lobbying U.S. businesses, warning that they cannot expect to make money in China if they stay silent. 

The calls for a coordinated boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics (labeled by critics the “Genocide Games”) raise the question of whether such action can help influence China’s behavior under a president whose record in power is increasingly drawing comparisons to the past century’s most brutal rulers.

Robert O’Brien, national security adviser to then-President Trump, last year equated Xi Jinping to Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Some others have compared Xi to Adolf Hitler, even coining the nickname “Xitler.” Xi, for his part, has cultivated a Mao Zedong-style personality cult and embarked on completing the expansionist agenda that the communist China’s founder left unfinished.

Indeed, Xi has sought to model himself on Mao, the 20th century’s top butcher. Like Mao Zedong Thought, Xi Jinping Thought has been enshrined in China’s constitution and made the central doctrine guiding the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Xi, like Mao, is reverently referred to as renmin lingxiu, or “people’s leader.” 

China’s new Mao, while ideologically committed to classical Marxism-Leninism, is apparently seeking to build fascism with Chinese characteristics. 

Under Xi, China has emerged as a wrathful, expansionist power that pursues “wolf warrior” tactics and debt-trap diplomacy and flouts international law at will. Two successive U.S. administrations have described as genocide Xi’s Xinjiang gulag, the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi period.

The international costs of Xi’s despotism are apparent from the devastating consequences of the China-originating pandemic. Two years on, the world still does not know whether COVID-19 began as a natural spillover from wildlife or was triggered by the accidental leak of a lab-enhanced virus in Wuhan. What is apparent, though, is that Xi’s regime lied about the initial spread of the disease, hid evidence of human-to-human transmission and silenced doctors who sought to warn about the emergence of a novel coronavirus. 

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

Thanks to Xi’s scofflaw actions, China’s global image has been badly dented, forcing the country to increasingly rely on its coercive power. According to a global survey, unfavorable views of China are at or near historic highs in most advanced economies.

But instead of undertaking a course correction, Xi is doubling down on his renegade actions, as underscored by China’s stepped-up bullying of Taiwan. After Beijing’s success in swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea and changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayan borderlands with India, Nepal and Bhutan, risk is growing that Xi’s expansionism could make Taiwan its next target.

Beijing will have the honor of becoming the world’s first city to host both a summer and winter Olympics. But since the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, the human rights situation in China has worsened, with Xi establishing a techno-authoritarian state whose soaring budget for internal security has overtaken the country’s massive military budget. An increasingly repressive internal machinery, aided by an Orwellian surveillance system, has fostered a state strategy to culturally smother ethnic minorities in their traditional homelands, including through demographic change and harsh policing.

It was in 2015 that Beijing defeated Almaty (Kazakhstan) to win the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Just in the period since 2015, China, among other things, has established forward military bases on human-made islands in the South China Sea, set up the Xinjiang gulag, militarized the Himalayan borderlands, weaponized debt and gobbled up Hong Kong.

The world must not turn a blind eye to such actions, which thus far have not invited any meaningful Western sanctions. Xi has only been emboldened by the fact that his draconian, expansionist actions have essentially been cost-free. 

Just as other powers’ appeasement emboldened Hitler’s expansionism, leading to World War II, the international failure to impose tangible costs for Chinese aggression is likely to beget more aggression. Indeed, the present business-as-usual approach to China is tantamount to appeasement. 

If the Beijing Winter Olympics were held without any censure of the Xi regime, it would be an insult to every Uyghur, every Tibetan, every jailed Hong Kong democracy activist and every imprisoned Chinese political dissident. A boycott-free Games that wrap up smoothly would only encourage Xi to embark on fresh repression and expansionism.

Make no mistake: If Xi’s China stays on its present path, open conflict with the West and with its neighbors, from Japan to India, would become inevitable.

For the CCP, sports and politics have long been inseparable. From its boycott of the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne (Australia) to its more recent bullying tactics against the N.B.A., England’s Premier League and others, the party has treated sports as politics by other means. It has used threats of withdrawing lucrative sports contracts, broadcast deals and sponsorship opportunities to buy silence on its human rights record.

When China can wield sports as a political weapon, is there any reason why democratic powers should avoid giving it a taste of its own medicine to help put the CCP on notice? A coordinated boycott of the Games would convey to the Chinese people that the CCP’s rogue actions risk isolating China.

Harmonized action on the Games, even if largely symbolic, could serve as a first step toward galvanizing a larger international movement against Xi’s regime, if not triggering a “boycott China” movement along the lines of the sustained global boycott that helped end the apartheid system in South Africa.

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

© The Hill, 2021.

China’s bullying of tiny Bhutan risks South Asian stability

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

© 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).