China has long shielded Pakistan from international pressure over its harboring of terrorist groups, including blocking United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pakistani terrorists and opposing moving its close ally from the gray to black list of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, the global terrorist-financing watchdog. In fact, China has often praised Pakistan’s commitment to the fight against terrorism.
But after nine of its dam engineers were killed this month in a terrorist-triggered bus explosion in Pakistan, China changed its tune. It has demanded that Pakistan, in the words of Premier Li Keqiang, “use all necessary means” against terrorists and bring “the perpetrators to justice.” Beijing has squarely blamed America’s “hasty withdrawal” from Afghanistan for creating cross-border volatility and insecurity.
The U.S. must be stopped, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, from “creating more problems and dumping the burden on regional countries.” The U.S. effectively ended its 20-year Afghanistan War on July 1 when it secretly pulled out at night from the sprawling Bagram Air Base, which had long served as the staging ground for operations in the country.
In private, Chinese officials cannot be unhappy with the exit of a defeated America. It not only opens greater space for China’s expansionism but also shows how U.S. power is in decline.
The bus explosion, however, has made China realize that the fallout from the deteriorating Afghanistan situation threatens its regional interests. Wang has proposed that Pakistan — the largest recipient of Chinese financing under President Xi Jinping’s marquee Belt and Road Initiative — collaborate with Beijing when it comes to Afghanistan and help “defend regional peace together.”
The fallout offers China a rationale for exploiting the void in Afghanistan — and the country’s vast mineral wealth. In addition, Afghanistan’s location at the crossroads of Central, South and Southwest Asia makes it geopolitically attractive for Beijing, which wants to link Kabul with the Belt and Road’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
Advancing such interests hinges on violence abating in Afghanistan, which explains why Xi has called for a political solution to the country’s long-standing conflict.
China’s strategic ambitions, however, underscore a jarring paradox. Beijing views Islamic extremism as a pressing threat and, in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi era, is holding more than a million detainees in a Muslim gulag. Yet it has built cozy ties with the Taliban, the marauding Islamist force created in the mid-1990s by Pakistani intelligence to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan.
Atheist, communist China has for more than half a century been close to Pakistan, the first Islamic republic of the postcolonial era. Likewise, it has become strange bedfellows with the Taliban, responsible for the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks. Such is the transactional approach that has long been a hallmark of Chinese foreign policy.
After the Taliban was ousted from power by a U.S.-led military invasion, Beijing quietly maintained ties with the militia in Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership took refuge. To this day, the Taliban’s top leaders remain ensconced in Pakistan, even as their fighters make gains on the ground in Afghanistan.
Much is being made of the potential for the Afghan conflict to spill over into Xinjiang. But just as China’s secure borders have for years forestalled any trouble in Xinjiang from growing jihadism in Pakistan, intensifying conflict in Afghanistan is unlikely to affect stability in China’s far west. China’s short, 76-km frontier with Afghanistan comprises mainly impassable high-altitude terrain.
China already has thousands of its own troops in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir, which borders Xinjiang. It also has deployed its own military units in another potential corridor to Xinjiang, Tajikistan, including soldiers on the Tajik-Afghan border.
As the bus explosion illustrates, China’s concerns are essentially centered on its economic interests in Pakistan and Central Asia — especially resource-rich Tajikistan — and the safety of Chinese nationals working on projects there. The threat of terrorism, however, provides a convenient cover for Beijing to advance its geopolitical interests.
With the U.S. in retreat, China is likely to increase its strategic footprint in Afghanistan by leveraging its strategic relationship with the Taliban’s main backer, Pakistan, and its own long-standing ties with that militia.
To co-opt the Taliban, China has already dangled the prospect of providing the militia the two things it needs to govern Afghanistan in whole or in part — acquiescence to its rule, if not formal recognition, and much-needed infrastructure and economic development assistance. And the Taliban, rising to the bait, is going out of its way to assuage China’s concerns. Clearly, a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan will not only be under Pakistan’s sway but also greatly aid China’s designs.
America’s exit has opened the path for an opportunistic China to make strategic inroads into Afghanistan and deepen its penetration of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in 2014 that Joe Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national-security issue over the past four decades.” The hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan is set to extend that pattern.
Afghanistan is on the brink of catastrophe, and it is US President Joe Biden’s fault. By overruling America’s top generals and ordering the hasty withdrawal of US troops, Biden opened the way for Taliban terrorists to capture more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s districts. Now, the Taliban is pushing toward Kabul, and the United States is looking weaker than ever.
The US effectively ended its military operations in Afghanistan on July 1, when it handed over to the Afghan government the sprawling Bagram Air Base, which long served as the staging ground for US operations in the country. In fact, “handover” is too generous a description. In a sign of what is to come, US forces quietly slipped out of the base overnight after shutting off the electricity. The resulting security lapse allowed looters to scavenge the facilities before Afghan troops arrived and gained control.
Biden has vehemently defended his decision to withdraw, arguing that the US “did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build” and that “staying would have meant US troops taking casualties.” He has also stood by his rushed approach, insisting that “speed is safety” in this context. “How many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk?”
The implication was clear: Questioning the wisdom of the US withdrawal is tantamount to supporting the endangerment of Americans. But it is Afghans who are really in jeopardy.
Recall the last time the US left a war unfinished: In 1973, it hastily abandoned its allies in South Vietnam. The next year, 80,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were reportedly killed as a result of the conflict, making it the deadliest year of the entire Vietnam War. It is also worth noting that in 1975, the US effectively handed Cambodia to the China-backed ultra-communist Khmer Rouge, who went on to carry out unimaginable horrors.
Now, the US is leaving Afghans at the mercy of a marauding Islamist force – one with a long history of savage behavior. Already, the Taliban offensive has displaced tens of thousands of civilians. And while the Afghan government in Kabul teeters, the Taliban is seizing American weapons from the Afghan military and showing them off as they march across the country.
America’s justification for rushing out of Afghanistan is much weaker than its reasoning for leaving Vietnam. Whereas 58,220 Americans (largely draftees) died in Vietnam, only 2,448 US soldiers (all volunteers) died over the course of 20 years in Afghanistan. Moreover, since the US formally ended its combat mission on January 1, 2015, the US has suffered just 99 fatalities, including in non-hostile incidents. During the same period, more than 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed.
None of this is to minimize the blood and treasure the US has sacrificed in Afghanistan, let alone suggest that American troops should stay indefinitely. On the contrary, ending America’s longest war is a worthy goal. But Biden’s approach entails effectively admitting that a terrorist militia has defeated the world’s most powerful military, and then handing Afghanistan back to that militia. This undercuts global trust in the US, jeopardizes Afghan and regional security, and threatens to trigger a resurgence of terror worldwide.
The Taliban’s impending return to power will surely energize and embolden other terrorist groups in the larger global jihadist movement. Furthermore, the Taliban, a creature of Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, still receives significant aid from Pakistan’s military. So, while Biden says that Afghanistan’s future is now in its own hands, it is actually mostly in Pakistani hands, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently noted.
Among those facing the most acute risks is India. When the Taliban was last in power, from 1996 to 2001, it allowed Pakistan to use Afghan territory to train terrorists for missions in India. Its return to power could thus open a new front for terrorism against India, which would then have to shift its focus from intensifying military standoffs with China in the Himalayas.
The Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan helps China in other ways, too. Given that Pakistan is a Chinese client, the US withdrawal paves the way for China to make strategic inroads into Afghanistan, with its substantial mineral wealth and strategic location between Pakistan and Iran.
China would achieve this by offering the Taliban the two things it desperately needs: international recognition and economic aid. With Russia also likely to recognize the Taliban’s leadership in Afghanistan, the group will have little incentive to moderate its violence, despite its current attempts to polish its image.Sign up for our weekly newsletter, PS on Sunday
Biden had a better option: The US could have maintained a small residual force in Afghanistan, in order to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces. Yes, this would have violated the deal that Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, struck with the Taliban in February 2020. But the Taliban have already violated that Faustian bargain. Biden was happy to overturn many of Trump’s other actions, making his insistence on upholding this deal difficult to understand.
Biden says the US is “developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability” that does not require a physical presence in Afghanistan. But if Afghan security continues to unravel, “over-the-horizon” operations will make little difference. The more likely scenario will be an emergency evacuation of US embassy personnel and other American citizens from Kabul, much like the evacuation from Saigon in 1975. India, for one, has already begun such an exodus, evacuating its consulate staff from Kandahar.
Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in 2014 that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national-security issue over the past four decades.” The hurried US withdrawal from Afghanistan is set to extend that pattern.
Chinese President Xi Jinping recently said that China should strive to “make friends” rather than enemies and be seen as a “credible, lovable and respectable” power. But Xi’s own draconian, expansionist actions at home and abroad continue to undermine China’s global image.
In Asia, Xi’s aggressive revisionism and coercion have roiled relations with countries extending from Japan and the Philippines to Vietnam and Bhutan. But the international focus on Xi’s growing intimidation of Taiwan and his campaign to bring Hong Kong into political lockstep with Beijing have also drawn attention away from his other muscular actions, especially his bare-knuckle treatment of India.
Nowhere is the damage — and the yawning gap between Xi’s rhetoric and action — more apparent than in China’s relations with New Delhi, which are today at a nadir.
China’s protracted military standoffs with India along the Himalayan border have just entered the 15th month, and continue to intensify, with both countries recently deploying additional forces and new weapons, raising the risk that another skirmish could spark a war.
The current standoffs began after India’s shocked discovery that the People’s Liberation Army had stealthily encroached on and occupied key frontier areas in its northernmost region of Ladakh, where the Himalayas meet the Karakoram Range.
The PLA’s deception might have caught India off guard, but the aggression — a territorial grab as well an attempt to cut India down to size and thereby underpin China’s regional supremacy — was a serious strategic miscalculation on Xi’s part.
Refusing to accept a changed territorial status quo, India has put up stiff military resistance, more than matching China’s deployments and ruling out normalizing bilateral ties until China rolls back its encroachments. Xi’s aggression has only made certain the rise of a more antagonistic India.
This was apparent from a news report last week that India, by deploying 50,000 additional forces and augmenting its force level against China to about 200,000, has shifted its military posture from defense to potential offense. Indeed, India’s primary military focus has moved from Pakistan to China, although it cannot wish away the specter of a two-front war against both its closely aligned foes.
Picking a border fight with India makes little strategic sense, as it is a battle neither nuclear power can possibly win. The aggression initially triggered a series of border clashes in May and June 2020 that made China realize that its army, with little combat experience since the disastrous 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam, must avoid all close combat with battle-hardened Indian troops.
The worst clash resulted in many fatalities on both sides. Xi was so embarrassed by China’s first combat deaths in over four decades that, whereas India quickly honored its 20 fallen as martyrs, Beijing has still not disclosed the Chinese death toll, other than belatedly honoring four slain soldiers and one wounded officer earlier this year.
But the regime has arrested at least six Chinese bloggers for saying that China is hiding the real death toll from that clash, in which U.S. intelligence reportedly placed Chinese fatalities at 35. One of the bloggers, who had 2.5 million followers on Weibo, was recently sentenced to eight months in prison.
Since those clashes, China has sought to forestall further fighting at close quarters, including by mutually establishing buffer zones in two of the confrontation sites and by deploying new weapons like self-propelled mortars for hit-and-run firing positions. And, in a tacit admission that Han Chinese soldiers need to be better trained for high-altitude Himalayan warfare, it has been raising new border militias made up of local Tibetan youths.
The clashes were a reminder that, without the element of surprise, China is not in a position to get the better of India when it comes to actual combat.
More fundamentally, Xi has realized the hard way that it was much easier to launch aggression than it has been to scale things back. China is now locked in an uneasy military stalemate with India. If Xi attempts to break the stalemate with a war, he is unlikely to secure a decisive win. The war itself is more likely to end in a bloody stalemate, with heavy losses on both sides.
The reputational costs of that would be far higher for the stronger military and economic power, China, than for India.
The current stalemate indeed sends out the message that China’s capability and power have come under open challenge from India. And, in a reflection of Xi’s counterproductive policies, India seems more determined than ever to counter Chinese power and work with like-minded powers such as the U.S., Japan and Australia to limit China’s international influence.
Despite the deepening chill over Hong Kong’s media, a recent article in the South China Morning Post chided China for alienating India, saying, “If Beijing is serious about not pushing New Delhi further away or even turning India into a permanent enemy, it should begin by setting aside grievances on the border issue and ending the standoff.”
The problem is that Xi, having placed the China-India relationship on a knife’s edge, has boxed himself into a corner with nowhere to go.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
The Communist Party of China’s 1951 annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau – the starting point of Asia’s ten major river systems – gave China tremendous power over Asia’s water map. In the ensuing decades, the country has made the most of this riparian advantage, but at an enormous social and environmental cost.
On July 1, the Communist Party of China (CPC) will stage a patriotic extravaganza to celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding. Among the achievements it will celebrate is the Baihetan Dam, located on the Jinsha River, on the southeastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The dam will start operations on the same day.
The CPC loves a superlative. It is the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter, with the world’s largest foreign reserves. It boasts the world’s highest railway and the highest and longest bridges. It is also the world’s most dammed country, with more large dams than the rest of the world combined, and prides itself on having the world’s biggest water-transfer canal system.
The dams themselves are often superlative. The Three Gorges Dam is the world’s largest power station, in terms of installed capacity, and the Baihetan Dam is billed as the world’s biggest arch dam, as well as the world’s first project to use a giant one-gigawatt (GW) hydro-turbine generator. With 16 such generators, Baihetan ranks as the world’s second-largest hydroelectric dam (behind the Three Gorges Dam, at 22.5 GW).
All of this make great fodder for CPC-fueled nationalism – essential to maintain support for the world’s longest-ruling party. China often flaunts its hydroengineering prowess, including its execution of the most ambitious inter-river water transfers ever conceived, to highlight its military and economic might. (To be sure, there are also superlatives China will not be flaunting at its upcoming centenary – beginning with the “world’s largest network of concentration camps.”)
But China’s dams are not merely symbols of the country’s greatness. Nor is their purpose simply to ensure China’s water security, as the CPC claims. They are also intended as a source of leverage that China can use to exert control over downstream countries.
The CPC’s 1951 annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau – the starting point of Asia’s ten major river systems – gave China tremendous power over Asia’s water map. In the ensuing decades, the country has made the most of this riparian advantage. For example, by building 11 giant dams on the Mekong, just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia, China has secured the ability to turn off the region’s water tap.
But the CPC is failing to consider the high costs of its strategy, which extend far beyond political friction with neighbors. The party’s insatiable damming is wreaking environmental havoc on Asia’s major river systems, including mainland China’s dual lifelines: the Yellow and the Yangtze.
The social costs are no less severe. For starters, given shoddy construction in the first three decades of communist rule, about 3,200 dams collapsed by 1981, with the 1975 Banqiao Dam failure alone killing up to 230,000 people. Of course, China has raised its dam-building prowess dramatically since then, and Baihetan was completed in just four years. But as its early dams age, and weather becomes increasingly extreme, catastrophic failures remain a serious risk.
Moreover, dam projects have displaced an enormous number of Chinese. In 2007, just as China’s mega-dam-building drive was gaining momentum, then-Prime Minister Wen Jiabao revealed that, since the CPC’s rise to power, China had relocated 22.9 million people to make way for water projects – a figure larger than more than 100 countries’ entire populations. The Three Gorges Dam alone displaced more than 1.4 million people.
This doesn’t seem to bother the CPC much. Baihetan’s inundation of vast stretches of a sparsely populated highland has forced local residents, mostly from the relatively poor Yi nationality, to farm more marginal tracts at higher elevations. As China shifts its focus from the dam-saturated rivers in its heartland to rivers in the ethnic-minority homelands the CPC annexed, China’s economically and culturally marginalized communities will suffer the most.
And there is little doubt that this will happen. The CPC has now set its sights on building the world’s first super-dam, on the Yarlung Zangbo river – better known as the Brahmaputra – near Tibet’s heavily militarized border with India.
The Brahmaputra curves around the Himalayas in a U-turn and forms the planet’s longest and deepest canyon, as it plunges from an altitude of 2,800 meters (9,200 feet) toward the Indian floodplains. Damming it means building at an elevation of more than 1,500 meters (4,920 feet) – the highest at which a mega-dam has ever been built. And because the gorge holds the world’s largest untapped concentration of river energy, the super-dam is supposed to have a hydropower generating capacity of 60 GW, nearly three times that of the Three Gorges Dam.
The fact that the gorge is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions seems to be of little concern to the CPC, which is far more interested in being able to use water as a weapon against India, its Asian rival. China has already set the stage for construction, recently completing a highway through the canyon and announcing the start of high-speed train service to a military town near the gorge. This will enable the transport of heavy equipment, materials, and workers to the remote region, which was long thought inaccessible because of its treacherous terrain.
The CPC views its centenary as cause for celebration. But the rest of the world should see the party for what it is: repressive, genocidal, and environmentally rapacious. And it should prepare for what the CPC’s second century may bring.
For more than a year, the Wuhan lab-leak hypothesis was treated as a pure conspiracy theory by major U.S. news organizations and social media companies.
Facebook and Instagram, for example, aggressively censored references to this hypothesis — and even suspended accounts for repeatedly sharing the claim. Newspapers, instead of investigating the story, dismissed it as a crazy idea or fringe fringe theory.
Suddenly, without any new evidence, mainstream media have embraced the theory as credible: that the greatest global health calamity in more than a century was possibly caused by a virus that escaped after being engineered in a Chinese lab. And those aforementioned social-media giants, no less abruptly, have stopped removing posts claiming that COVID-19 is human-made.
Liberal critics have termed the reversals a “fiasco” resulting from American “groupthink.” Actually, the about-turn reveals something more deep-rooted — the political bias of putatively independent institutions and their readiness to be guided by what then-President Donald Trump called America’s “deep state.”
Mike Pompeo said earlier this month that, as U.S. Secretary of State, he faced an uphill task to get to the truth on the virus’s origins. Even the U.S. intelligence community, according to him, “did not want the world to know the Chinese Communist Party was in the process of covering up several million losses of life.”
Indeed, the concerted effort to obscure the truth also extended to U.S. scientific and bureaucratic institutions, largely because U.S. government agencies funded dangerous experiments on coronaviruses at the military-linked Wuhan Institute of Virology, and also because several American labs are still engaged in similar research to engineer super-viruses. Some of the scientists that took the lead to kill off the COVID-19 lab-leak hypothesis hid their conflicts of interest, including their ties with Chinese scientists.
Today, the new international spotlight on the lab-leak theory may signal greater pressure on the world’s largest autocracy to come clean on COVID-19’s origins. But the long suppression of a free and open discussion on the lab-leak story has cast an unflattering light on institutions in the world’s most powerful democracy that control the dissemination of information that shapes public debate.
It has also underscored the pervasive impact of the polarization of U.S. politics: just because the Trump administration promoted the lab-leak theory, left-leaning news and social media organizations almost intuitively sought to debunk it.
It speaks for itself that the reversals by these organizations began days before President Joe Biden’s May 26 statement that a lab leak was one of “two likely scenarios” on how the virus originated. Biden’s admission came after China closed the door on allowing further investigation by the World Health Organization.
Viruses leaking from laboratories are not uncommon. In 1979, anthrax escaped from a Soviet laboratory in Yekaterinburg, formerly known as Sverdlovsk, killing 64 people. The 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing also resulted from a lab leak.
Yet, despite the globally disruptive COVID-19 pandemic originating in the city that is the center of Chinese research on super-viruses, as well as the fact that international scientists noticed early on that the virus’s genetic makeup was somewhat different from natural coronaviruses, the lab-leak theory was consistently dismissed until Biden became president and weighed the evidence. Sen. Lindsey Graham contends that such dismissal “played a prominent role in the defeat of Trump in the 2020 presidential race.”
If there is any silver lining to all this, the widespread death and suffering — coupled with increased public pressure — could force the U.S. and other countries to halt lab research aimed at genetically enhancing the pathogenic power of viruses. But do not count on it: the horrors of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended up setting off a nuclear arms race.
Biden would do well to fully disclose the extent of U.S. government funding of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The U.S. National Institutes of Health funneled $3.4 million to this institute through the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, whose largest source of funds is the Pentagon. But the Pentagon has yet to unequivocally deny that any of the almost $39 million it gave to EcoHealth Alliance ended up in Wuhan.
A fact-sheet released by the Trump administration in its final days expressed concern over “whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV” (Wuhan Institute of Virology).
More fundamentally, the prolonged silencing of an open international discussion on whether the pandemic was triggered by the escape of a functionally enhanced virus from an American-funded Chinese lab in Wuhan could keep the truth hidden forever. The loss of valuable time has greatly aided China’s cover-up of the virus’s origins.
If in the one-and-a-half years since the pandemic began, the U.S. has failed to find definitive intelligence in support of either hypothesis — zoonotic spillover or lab leak, new solid evidence is unlikely to emerge within the 90-day deadline set by President Biden. U.S. intelligence has yet to recover from China’s crippling elimination of its network of spies across the country a decade ago.
By now, China has likely destroyed any incriminating evidence of its negligence or complicity in the worst disaster of our time. If no conclusive evidence emerges about the genesis of the pandemic, that would amount to letting China off the hook.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”
THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC, much like a world war, has become a defining moment for the world. Our lives have profoundly changed since 2020. The pandemic-triggered economic and social disruptions have set in motion, as some early research indicates, higher rates of birth, divorce, obesity, depression, alcoholism, crime, bankruptcy, unemployment, domestic violence and suicide.
If another country, such as India, Japan or Brazil, had let a lethal virus escape from its territory and create a globally disruptive pandemic, it would today be in the international doghouse. But China thus far has escaped scot-free for unleashing the Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to ravage large parts of the world.
After infecting people across the world, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), through one of its publications, cynically called it “a rare example of a shared situation connecting every human being in the world.” The CCP has even manipulated online discourse to enforce its narrative on the novel coronavirus. As The New York Timesreported, it “directed paid trolls to inundate social media with party-line blather and deployed security forces to muzzle unsanctioned voices.”
Not only has China managed to get away with spawning the greatest global health calamity of our time, it also has successfully stymied an independent and thorough investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 virus.
In fact, China has exploited the paralysing pandemic and the suffering wrought by the virus to make major economic gains. Not only has its economy boomed during the pandemic, its exports also have soared to a record high. In other words, the major socioeconomic disruptions in much of the world have worked to China’s advantage.
Paraguay, for example, illustrates China’s cynical attempts to exploit the hardship caused by its most infamous global export, the Covid-19 virus. On March 22nd, Paraguay disclosed that it had been offered Chinese vaccines in exchange for breaking diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Another example of Beijing seeking to weaponise a pandemic that it precipitated is Honduras, a Latin American nation like Paraguay.
Consider another odd fact: The terrible ravages of the pandemic are evident globally other than in the country of its birth. China ranks as the country least affected by the pandemic. It is a mystery as to how China has managed to stay largely unaffected by a virus that originated within its borders, even as neighbouring countries—from Japan and South Korea to Nepal and India—currently grapple with a Covid-19 surge.
ORIGINS OF THE DISEASE
From the start of the pandemic, China has systematically impeded international efforts to understand the true origins of the Covid-19 virus. Instead of coming clean on the virus’ origins and providing answers that the world deserves, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 30th, expressing “sincere sympathies” on India’s devastating second wave of Covid-19. It was a case of the victimiser country pretending to sympathise with the victim.
With its international clout, including at the World Health Organization (WHO), China has worked to stifle discussion on the origins of the virus. The international focus is not on the pandemic’s genesis but on the threat posed by the virus’ different variants, which have come to be identified with specific countries.
The Indian media too refer to the “Indian variant,” the “Brazilian variant,” the “UK variant” and the “South African variant,” but not to the original Chinese virus from Wuhan. In fact, it was Indians who nicknamed the B.1.617 strain as the “Indian variant” and as the “double mutant” (a term that scientifically makes no sense because the various variants of concern all contain more than a dozen mutations).
More broadly, the world is paying the price for China’s cover-up and the WHO’s mishandling of the pandemic’s critical early stage. The WHO advised countries during the pandemic’s initial phase against closing borders or mandating the wearing of masks—measures that have since become central to stemming the spread of the disease.
As Covid-19 spread, WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus dutifully used Chinese talking points and let China, as The New York Timessaid, “take charge” of the WHO’s inquiry into the origins of the virus. By being too deferential to China throughout the crisis, the WHO provided cover to the actions of the world’s largest autocracy in violating international norms.
For example, international regulations require countries to notify the WHO within 24 hours of the occurrence of a health emergency of potential international concern. After the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, WHO member states agreed to the establishment of a set of guidelines known as the International Health Regulations.
Article 6 of these agreement obliges every state party, including China, to collect information on any “public-health emergency of international concern within its territory” and notify the WHO “within 24 hours.” Article 6 then states, “Following a notification, a state party shall continue to communicate to the WHO timely, accurate and sufficiently detailed public-health information available to it on the notified event, where possible including case definitions, laboratory results, source and type of the risk, number of cases and deaths, conditions affecting the spread of the disease and the health measures employed; and report, when necessary, the difficulties faced and support needed in responding to the potential public health emergency of international concern.”
Yet China blatantly violated this rule. As an international panel appointed by Tedros acknowledged in its recent report, the WHO first learned of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan from Taiwan, from news articles, a public bulletin, and from an automated alert system that scans the internet for mentions of unexplained pneumonia.
China, instead of notifying the WHO, “suppressed, falsified and obfuscated data and repressed advance warnings,” as highlighted by Errol Patrick Mendes, a well-known, Canada-based international human-rights lawyer. As a result, the Covid-19 virus spread internationally and still remains a global menace. According to Oxford University chancellor Chris Patten, “This is the CPC’s coronavirus, not least because the party silenced brave Chinese doctors when they tried to blow the whistle on what was happening.”
Yet, the Tedros-appointed “independent” panel, in its report released on May 12th, did not mention either China’s flagrant violation of the international rule or how to enforce compliance in a future contingency. The report did not even make a passing reference to China’s initial suppression of information on the Wuhan outbreak or its clampdown on whistleblowers who raised the alarm about the spread of the disease. Nor did it refer to China’s unconscionable delay in releasing the virus’ genetic information—vital to help medical scientists elsewhere develop appropriate diagnostic tests and treatments to save lives.
In fact, the panel’s report tacitly absolved both China and the WHO of responsibility for the pandemic. It even echoed Chinese disinformation: “the virus may already have been in circulation outside China in the last months of 2019,” it said. Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate) co-chaired the 13-member panel, which included a retired Indian Administrative Service officer, Preeti Sudan, who served as health secretary until last year.
This panel shied away from unearthing the truth in the same way as the joint WHO-China probe into the origins of the pandemic. Through the Chinese participants, the Chinese government influenced the findings of the joint-probe report, which was released on March 30th. The 124-page report, written by a team of 17 Chinese scientists and 17 international experts, merely said China lacked the research to indicate how or when the virus began spreading.
Such has been Beijing’s stonewalling that the WHO team seeking to study the virus’ origins was allowed into China only in January 2021. Before admitting the WHO team, China systematically destroyed all incriminating evidence, according to a Japanese newsmagazine that accessed internal Chinese documents.
To make matters worse, the WHO team that went to China for the joint study lacked the expertise to investigate the possible lab origins of the virus. Its report was so patchy that even Tedros admitted that it failed to carefully sift evidence about a possible lab leak. Earlier, after coming under attack for his deference to Beijing, Tedros had pledged on November 30th, 2020, that, “We want to know the origin and we will do everything to know the origin.”
US FUNDING OF WUHAN LAB RESEARCH
Another factor has also aided China’s cover-up of Covid-19’s origins—the US role. The Dr Anthony Fauci-led National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health financed dangerous lab research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) since 2014 to reengineer natural coronaviruses and make them more infectious for experiments. This was perhaps the most dangerous lab research ever conducted anywhere.
US President Joe Biden, for his part, frittered away the leverage his predecessor handed him to reform the WHO by rejoining that United Nations organisation on his first day in office. Biden’s action came despite the fact that the WHO had taken no steps to separate itself from the malign influence of China or to cease being complicit in China’s cover-up. America’s rejoining of the WHO, as former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in March, “gave the Chinese a complete pass for the Wuhan virus” and advertised American weakness.
After the WHO-rejoining decision, Biden signed a little-noticed presidential memorandum on January 26th that basically termed as racist any reference to the pandemic by the “geographic location of its origin.” The presidential memorandum directed that, “Executive departments and agencies shall take all appropriate steps to ensure that official actions, documents and statements, including those that pertain to the Covid-19 pandemic, do not exhibit or contribute to racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”
Consequently, the annual unclassified US intelligence report on threat assessment, released in April, was silent on the pandemic’s Wuhan origin. That report is just one example.
Simply put, Biden’s executive action ordering federal agencies to stop making references to the pandemic by the “geographic location of its origin” has made it an official US policy not to link the China-sourced virus to China. So, while there may be no more official US talk about where the virus came from or about the lab-leak theory, it is, strangely, still widely considered okay to refer to the variants by their geographic origin.
The Western media that objected to the Covid-19 virus being called the Wuhan or Chinese virus have been linking the new strains to the countries where they first arose. In other words, geographically labelling the original virus is racist but not its variants. The emergence of multiple variants of the original virus only underscores the mounting costs of China’s cover-up, including preventing a transparent and thorough investigation of the pandemic’s genesis.
Against this background, it is unlikely that Biden will call China out for its cover-up. China’s coronavirus culpability may now be a proven fact, yet few world leaders have spoken up as clearly as Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump did. Trump, for example, said on July 4th, 2020, “China’s secrecy, deception and cover-up allowed it to spread all over the world—189 countries—and China must be held fully accountable.”
Addressing the UN General Assembly on September 22nd, 2020, Trump declared that “we must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China.
“In the earliest days of the virus, China locked down travel domestically while allowing flights to leave China and infect the world. China condemned my travel ban on their country, even as they cancelled domestic flights and locked citizens in their homes. The Chinese government and the World Health Organization—which is virtually controlled by China—falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. Later, they falsely said people without symptoms would not spread the disease. The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions.”
WUHAN INSTITUTE’S DANGEROUS RESEARCH
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has acknowledged that its researchers led by Dr Shi Zhengli, who was proud to be called the “bat woman,” were engaged in what is scientifically known as “gain of function” research. The term refers to the deliberate enhancement of the functions of natural viruses to make them more transmissible and more dangerous for experimental purposes.
There are several published papers by Chinese researchers about such “gain of function” research on bat coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Indeed, this institution became the hub of international coronavirus research before the pandemic erupted. Researchers there experimented with RaTG13, the bat coronavirus that the Wuhan Institute of Virology has identified as its closest sample (96.2 per cent similar) to the Covid-19 virus.
It is also an admitted fact that US taxpayer dollars partly financed the dangerous coronavirus research in Wuhan. As head of the NIAID, Dr Fauci played an important role in securing US federal grants for the coronavirus research in Wuhan. The money to the Wuhan institution was routed through the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, headed by British zoologist Peter Daszak.
After the pandemic flared, Dr Fauci and Dr Daszak, seeking to deflect attention from their potential culpability, took the lead in throwing cold water on the theory that the novel coronavirus leaked from the Wuhan lab. While repeatedly dismissing that theory, Fauci and Daszak hid their acute conflict of interest.
Why did Dr Fauci funnel millions of dollars to a Chinese institution that the US government says was engaged in secret research for China’s military? In a fact-sheet published on January 15th, the US State Department said that, despite the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s claim to be a civilian institution, “the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military. The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017. The United States and other donors who funded or collaborated on civilian research at the WIV have a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.”
The fact-sheet also declared that China has not “demonstrably eliminated” its bioweapon research in apparent breach of “its clear obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention,” which entered into force 46 years ago.
Dr Fauci, for his part, now claims that he has never supported “gain of function” research. This is contrary to his own published work.
Dr Fauci championed such research from the time it emerged in the scientific field. In a co-authored op-ed that first appeared in The Washington Post on December 30th, 2011, Dr Fauci declared that, “much good can come from generating a potentially dangerous virus in the laboratory.” (The newspaper’s website has since changed the phrase “much good can come” to “insights can come,” although reprints of the op-ed elsewhere still show “much good can come…”) The op-ed cautioned that, “Safeguarding against the potential accidental release or deliberate misuse of laboratory pathogens is imperative.” Yet it is exactly this kind of dangerous lab research that the Dr Fauci-led NIAID financed at a lab in communist China since 2014.
The State Department’s fact-sheet, while pointing out that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was researching viruses similar to the Covid-19 virus, said several researchers there became sick in autumn 2019 “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.”
Investigating the pandemic’s genesis is critical for another reason—this is not the first deadly disease to spread globally from China. China was the origin of earlier influenza epidemics, including, as Chinese scientists have acknowledged, the 1957 “Asian flu,” the 1968 “Hong Kong flu” and the 1977 “Russian flu.” According to new research, the 1918 “Spanish flu” that killed some 50 million people worldwide also originated in China.
Nor is the current pandemic the first case involving Chinese concealment of facts and samples. A Chinese coverup of the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak in China triggered the world’s first 21st-century pandemic. Getting to the bottom of how the Covid-19 pathogen flared and spread is essential for designing international rapid-response efforts to prevent a future local disease outbreak from spiralling into yet another pandemic.
THE LAB-LEAK THEORY
However hard China may try, the theory that the Covid-19 virus escaped from a Wuhan lab refuses to go away. A leading American virologist, Dr Robert Redfield, who headed the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, until January this year and had access to classified information, toldCNN in March that “the most likely aetiology of this pathogen” is that it “escaped” from a lab in Wuhan.
Redfield said that, after escaping from the lab, the virus began transmitting in September-October 2019. One study, published in the journal Science, also found “the period between mid-October and mid-November 2019” to be “the plausible interval when the first case” of Covid-19 emerged in Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital.
In May, 18 scientists “with relevant expertise” declared in the journal Science that the lab-leak theory cannot be ruled out. They said, “A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest.”
Earlier in March, another group of 26 respected international scientists and experts released an “open letter” describing the joint WHO-China study as fundamentally flawed and calling for a new, unrestricted investigation, including whether the virus leaked from a lab. They said the probe should be “carried out by a truly independent team with no unresolved conflicts of interest and no full or partial control by any specific agenda or country.” The United Nations General Assembly can vote to set up such an inquiry.
Meanwhile, Nicholas Wade’s recent groundbreaking essay in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has helped renew attention on the lab-leak theory. This extract from the essay may explain why the US has shied away from exerting sustained pressure on China to come clean on the origins of a virus that has thus far killed nearly 3.5 million people officially and many more unofficially:
The US government shares a strange common interest with the Chinese authorities: Neither is keen on drawing attention to the fact that Shi’s coronavirus work was funded by the US National Institutes of Health. One can imagine the behind-the-scenes conversation in which the Chinese government says, “If this research was so dangerous, why did you fund it, and on our territory too?” To which the US side might reply, “Looks like it was you who let it escape. But do we really need to have this discussion in public?”
To be sure, no group of scientists has claimed that the Covid-19 virus was intentionally created as a bioweapon. However, a growing body of scientific opinion has come to believe that the virus’ origin in a Wuhan lab, through accidental escape or accidental infection of lab employees or lab animals, is as likely as a naturally occurring spillover from wildlife to humans. According to the State Department’s fact-sheet, “Scientists in China have researched animal-derived coronaviruses under conditions that increased the risk for accidental and potentially unwitting exposure.”
Two aspects of the Covid-19 virus, in fact, strengthen the theory that it originated in a lab. The first is the fact that the virus, from the beginning, was already well adapted to indoor transmission.
As American biologist Bret Weinstein said on the Real Time with Bill Maher show, “This virus attacks so many different tissues in the body, it does not seem natural. The fact that it does not, at least at the beginning did not seem to transmit outdoors nearly at all is very conspicuous. I mean, after all, most animals live outdoors. So, a virus that seems to be adapted to indoor transmission is a bit conspicuous.” Outdoor Covid-19 transmission still remains rare.
The second aspect is the transmission efficiency of the virus. The virus, from the beginning, has been transmitting efficiently across all geographical and climatic zones, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender and age.
Dr Redfield, in the CNN interview, said a naturally occurring virus normally takes a while to figure out how to become “more and more efficient” in transmission. But a lab experimenter, he explained, would seek to make the virus grow better and more efficient in order to learn more about it. “I have spent my life in virology. I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human, and at that moment in time, the virus…became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human-to-human transmission,” Dr Redfield added.
As history attests, authoritarian regimes rarely admit mistakes. A highly repressive regime like the one in Beijing will certainly be loath to admit that a pandemic that has killed millions of people across the world resulted from its negligence and lax safety standards at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
If the virus did not originate in a lab and China was not guilty of any cover-up, wouldn’t it be facilitating a transparent and independent inquiry by outside experts in order to clear the air with the rest of the world? China, however, has done exactly the opposite. It has even refused to turn over the raw personalized health data from its first Covid-19 cases to the WHO.
Furthermore, instead of giving outside investigators access to granular lab records, data and personnel so as to allow them to confidently evaluate the various hypotheses, Beijing has kept the Wuhan lab samples, records and research dossiers under lock and key. If the Chinese government did nothing wrong, why would it refuse to share raw data and grant complete, transparent access to the research facilities in Wuhan?
Let us be clear: Lab leaks have happened in the past. One example was the Soviet-era 1979 anthrax leak from Sverdlovsk, which Moscow admitted only in 1992 after the Soviet Union’s disintegration. According to the State Department’s fact-sheet, “Accidental infections in labs have caused several previous virus outbreaks in China and elsewhere, including a 2004 SARS outbreak in Beijing that infected nine people, killing one.”
CHINA WILL LEARN KARMA IS A BITCH
Although knowing Covid-19’s origins is critical to the prevention of future pandemics, China—as an Associated Press investigation has revealed—is “strictly controlling all research into its origins, clamping down on some while actively promoting fringe theories that it could have come from outside China.” The clampdown on all information has come from the CCP leadership.
The party’s culture of secrecy and control resulted in the virus spreading worldwide from China. Through its unrivalled surveillance, censorship and propaganda systems, the CCP is able to construct and control a narrative. China’s initial coronavirus cover-up relied on these systems, resulting in a local outbreak in Wuhan morphing into a still-raging global health calamity. The CCP’s focus remains on preventing the truth from coming out.
But as former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently, “every piece of evidence” suggests that, despite China’s cover-up of the pandemic’s genesis, the Covid-19 virus originated in the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab. He warned that the “risk that something like this happens again from that laboratory or another Chinese laboratory is very real. They [China] are operating and conducting activities that are inconsistent with their capacity to secure those facilities. And the risk of bioweapons and bioterror emanating from this region is very real.”
The pandemic-caused infections, deaths and disruptions have driven negative views of China to new heights internationally, according to a Pew Research Centre survey. China has been trying to repair the damage to its reputation by pursuing “vaccine diplomacy,” just as it pushed “mask diplomacy” in the early stages of the pandemic. The Biden administration, unfortunately, has aided China’s “vaccine diplomacy” by leaving developing nations in the lurch through its vaccine hoarding at home.
Still, China’s persistent refusal to come clean, coupled with the rising international tide of distrust of that country, has helped fuel greater interest in investigating the pandemic’s true genesis. An increasing number of international scientists have started to debate whether the pandemic occurred because of a lab leak in Wuhan. Fact-based scientists are fond of the aphorism, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
China may believe that it has got away with creating the Covid-19 pandemic, as it did with spawning the SARS pandemic. The Covid-19 pandemic, however, marks a watershed in history that will continue to dog China. Thanks to Covid-19, many countries have learned hard lessons about China-dependent supply chains, and international attitudes towards Xi’s regime have shifted.
Last year, Beijing aggressively denounced international voices calling for it to pay compensation for the pandemic-inflicted damage. These voices included the Trump administration, which said it was looking at ways of holding China financially responsible for the pandemic and the economic damage it has caused worldwide.
In 2021, no one is suggesting that China be sued for damages, largely because such action seems unrealistic. China’s international power and clout are all too visible. Yet, with the pandemic still battering large parts of the world, China continues to incur immeasurable costs to its reputation and image. Those costs cumulatively would likely surpass any possible reparations claim against it.
In a karma-is-a-bitch way, China will indeed pay for spawning the pandemic.
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.
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.
By trafficking in images of death, suffering, and private acts of mourning, Western media coverage of the COVID-19 crisis in India has broken one of the first rules of journalism. And while a Western double standard is nothing new, applying it repeatedly does not make it more acceptable.
When reporting on any mass tragedy, a basic rule of journalism is to be sensitive to the victims and those who are grieving. Western media, which double as the international media, usually observe this rule at home but discard it when reporting on disasters in non-Western societies.
The coverage of India’s devastating second wave of COVID-19 is a case in point. Western media have been filled with images of dead bodies and other graphic scenes that generally would not be shown following a similar disaster in a Western country. About half of global COVID-19 deaths have occurred in Europe and the United States alone, yet Western media have avoided presenting harrowing images from those settings.
Even at the height of the pandemic in the US and Europe, it was unthinkable that television crews would barge into emergency rooms to show how overwhelmed the doctors and nurses were. Yet such scenes have been broadcast internationally from inside Indian hospitals, with little concern for how the intrusion could affect life-or-death decisions. Television journalists have also swarmed Indian families who lost loved ones, turning their private grief into a public spectacle for Western consumption.
When covering grief in their own countries, the same media organizations are far more careful. For example, coverage of mass graves being dug to accommodate New York City’s early surge of COVID-19 fatalities featured sanitized images of misty tree-lined fields. By contrast, India’s pandemic experience will be remembered for the haunting images of bodies burning on pyres – images that the Western media beamed around the world.
The funerary fire is a classic trope in Western novels, travelogues, and paintings about India. By directing their cameras to the burning pyres, Western media outlets are satisfying their audience’s morbid fascination with the Hindu tradition of cremating the dead (even though this environmentally friendly practice is increasingly catching on in the West). Utterly ignored in this coverage is the fact that showing ghastly images of burning pyres is a grotesque and deeply disrespectful invasion of what is a very private affair in India.
This is hardly the first time Western media outlets have been insensitive in covering disasters abroad. In the coverage of the 2011 Fukushima disaster, the victims were treated as a secondary issue to the more lurid story of radiation leaks. Western reporting was also rife with cultural and racial stereotypes: the workers who stayed behind to deal with the accident-hit nuclear reactors were dubbed “nuclear samurai,” “human sacrifices,” and “nuclear ninjas on a suicide mission.”
In reality, no radiation casualties occurred at Fukushima, owing to the preventive evacuation of the area’s 100,000 residents. But that didn’t stop Western media outlets from feeding the hysteria with false and inflammatory comparisons to Chernobyl. As a result of this sensational coverage, cargo ships started avoiding Japanese ports – even those far from Fukushima – and several countries evacuated their citizens from Tokyo and elsewhere.
Western media bring a similar approach to Africa, portraying it as a continent of heathen hordes, unending disasters, and very few happy, smiling faces. The 2014-16 Ebola epidemic that swept across Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone ultimately killed 11,325 people, meaning that the death toll over two years was roughly the same as the two-day COVID-19 death toll in the US just three months ago. Nonetheless, the Western media’s coverage of the Ebola story was all about body bags, traditional mourning practices, and West African burial rituals. The 2015 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography was awarded to a freelance photojournalist who had followed body collectors and documented West Africans’ suffering, death, and despair for TheNew York Times.
Meanwhile, coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic – the greatest global health calamity of our time – did not feature in any of the 2020 Pulitzer prizes or nominations. And when the 2021 prizes are announced in June, it would come as quite a surprise if any were to be awarded to journalists who documented the deaths from the pandemic in the West. The Western media’s unvarnished coverage of suffering, grief, desperation, and ineptitude is much more likely to come from distant lands. While images of dead American soldiers are rarely published, photographs of dead Afghans, Iraqis, and others are all too common.
True, Western media should not be regarded as monolithic – indeed, Anglo-American outlets dominate. Nor are Western media averse to offering sensational coverage of bad news when it happens at home. But the overall pattern is clear: Western media coverage of tragedies elsewhere tends to traffic in cultural stereotypes and violations of privacy and dignity that would not be accepted at home.
This double standard has important implications. International perceptions are shaped by how the dominant Western media organizations present the news. As the Ebola epidemic showed, sensational images and stories make us think that a dreadful tragedy is even worse or more widespread than it actually is. The Ebola cases and deaths were almost all confined to three West African countries, yet the virus became associated with Africa as a whole.
A journalist’s duty is to inform, not to exploit human suffering with intrusive, voyeuristic, ratings-driven coverage of tragedies in faraway lands. Good journalism rises above clichéd coverage and reliance on shock value. With the coronavirus rapidly mutating and spawning dangerous new strains, we urgently need more responsible, sensitive reporting of these issues.
On October 12, 2020, the electricity went out in India’s biggest city. Mumbai faced its worst power cut in decades, with businesses crippled, the stock market shut down, thousands of commuters stranded, and hospitals scrambling to ensure backup supply for their COVID-19 patients. Major outages are not altogether uncommon in India, but Mumbai had prided itself on its recent record of reliable electricity for its residents. The disruption left authorities in the western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, searching for answers.
Indian officials revealed in March that they might have found the cause of the power cut: a foreign cyberattack that targeted the servers of state power companies. They did not name a particular culprit, but the implication was clear. Chinese hackers, officials suggested, had trained their sights on bringing down Mumbai’s electric grid—and they had succeeded.
In its bid to gain Asian hegemony, China views India as a major obstacle. This possible cyberattack came at a time of mounting military tensions, with confrontations flaring last year at numerous points along the rugged, disputed border between the two countries. Beijing’s ability to pressure its neighbor extends beyond the conventional battlefield and increasingly includes unconventional forms of warfare (or “unrestricted war,” as the title of a book by two Chinese military officers put it) to achieve expansionist and coercive objectives. Through unrestricted war—which includes its “salami slicing” strategy (or how it aggressively seizes parcels of disputed territory without providing a cause for war), cyberwarfare, debt-trap diplomacy, environmental degradation, and the spread of misinformation—China has redrawn the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without incurring any international costs. Beijing hopes to use the same methods to box India in.
WAR BY OTHER MEANS
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding this year, has ruled China continuously for more than seven decades, making it the longest-serving political party in power in modern history. Its success attests to the ruthlessness with which it has pursued its objectives at home and abroad. Mao Zedong led the party to power, and Deng Xiaoping made the country richer. Now, President Xi Jinping’s ambition is to turn China into a hegemonic global leader. Such is the essence of what Xi calls the “Chinese dream.”
The CCP pays lip service to equality and reciprocity in international relations, but in fact China under Xi seeks to subordinate small nations. Nowhere is this truer than in Southeast Asia, where China has used a two-pronged, unconventional strategy to help it both dominate the South China Sea and control the transboundary flow of the Mekong River, the region’s lifeline. Chinese forces have constructed artificial islands in the South China Sea and unilaterally claimed disputed waters. China’s 11 megadams on the Mekong equip it with the power to turn off the tap for much of continental Southeast Asia, making downstream countries dependent on Chinese goodwill for access to water.
With a similar multidimensional strategy, China also hopes to contain its two potential peer rivals in Asia, India and Japan. The CCP has adopted a strategy of indirect war against India and Japan, with the aim of fencing in the two powers. The strategy’s first phase involved building Pakistan as a nuclear and conventional-military counterweight to India and aiding North Korea’s initial development of weapons of mass destruction. In more recent years, China has focused on an escalating campaign of deception, stealth, and concealment. At the center of this campaign is territorial revisionism, with China flexing its muscles by asserting its claim to lands or islands administered by its two neighbors.
The indirect-war elements are conspicuous in China’s actions against India. China has steadily brought Indian security under pressure through unconventional instruments, including cyberattacks, its reengineering of the cross-border flows of rivers, and its nibbling away at disputed Himalayan territories. It seeks to employ all available means short of open war to curtail Indian ambitions and strike at core Indian interests.
THE SHADOW WAR
China relishes plausible deniability in its involvement in cyberwarfare against its rivals. India claims that state-sponsored Chinese hackers have repeatedly targeted its critical infrastructure, including power grids. A U.S.-based cybersecurity firm found that a China-linked group called RedEcho was behind a surge in attacks on India’s power infrastructure in 2020, but Chinese officials insisted the allegations were false and that, in any case, it is “very difficult to trace the origin of a cyberattack.”
The cyber-tactics run parallel to more traditional conflicts. Last May, a shocked India discovered that Chinese forces had stealthily occupied mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in the northern border region of Ladakh. Tensions quickly rose, with more than 100,000 war-ready Chinese and Indian troops locked in multiple Himalayan military standoffs. And as frontier skirmishes intensified, China ramped up its cyberwar on Indian power grids.
In June, clashes between Chinese and Indian forces left dozens of soldiers dead. That month also saw at least 40,300 attempts to inject malware into Indian networks. Indian officials understood these efforts as a stern warning from Xi regime’s: if India did not stand down in the border confrontation, China would turn off the lights across vast expanses of the country. India surged troops to the border in the following months, and in October, Mumbai went dark.
More recently, Chinese cyberattackers have homed in on India’s pharmaceutical industry. China’s attempts to steal American data on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments have been well publicized, but recent Chinese cyberattacks on two of India’s leading vaccine makers have received little attention. The hackers attempted to pilfer blueprints of the two COVID-19 vaccines at the heart of India’s current immunization campaign. India supplies more than 60 percent of the world’s vaccines against various diseases and is currently employing that manufacturing heft to export millions of COVID-19 shots every week.
RIVERS RUN THROUGH IT
China controls many of the rivers that flow from the Himalayas into the Indian subcontinent, and through them it can wield tremendous leverage. China has weaponized these waters in the past. In 2017, India announced that it would boycott the inaugural summit of Xi’s signature project, the vast infrastructure investment program known as the Belt and Road Initiative. (India was the first country to criticize the BRI for lacking transparency and pursuing neocolonial aims, a stance the United States later adopted.) China retaliated by abruptly withholding hydrological data it once shared on the transboundary flows of rivers originating in Tibet. It resumed sharing the data in 2018, but only after the suspension had already hampered India’s early-warning systems for flooding, resulting in preventable deaths in the downstream Indian state of Assam.
China dominates Asia’s water map with its control over the water-rich Tibetan Plateau, a region the country annexed in the early 1950s. China, however, still refuses to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any downstream country. (Even historic rivals India and Pakistan have a water-sharing treaty.) In March, China’s rubber-stamp parliament ratified the CCP decision to dam the Brahmaputra River just before it enters India. This mammoth dam will allow China to effectively control a vital resource for millions of people outside its borders. Chinese upstream activities in the past have triggered flash floods in Indian border states and polluted the Brahmaputra’s main artery, the once pristine Siang. The newly approved megaproject, whose construction in an area known for frequent seismic activity could make it a ticking “water bomb” for downstream communities, will generate almost three times as much electricity as China’s Three Gorges Dam, currently the world’s largest dam.
The country located farthest downstream, Bangladesh, will probably bear the brunt of the megaproject’s environmental havoc. This could trigger a new exodus of refugees to India, already home to millions of Bangladeshi migrants. The dam will allow China to further manipulate transboundary river flows and leverage its long-standing claim to the adjacent Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times the size of Taiwan.
In the disputed Himalayan borderlands, China has mixed conventional and unrestricted tactics. For example, China has set out to quietly build some 624 villages in the region so as to unilaterally change facts on the ground. Such military-designed border villages are the Himalayan equivalent of China’s artificially created islands in the South China Sea. By bringing people from afar to settle in desolate, uninhabited border regions, China is seeking to achieve twin objectives: to absorb disputed areas and to legitimize its grabs under international law, which customarily has recognized settlements as evidence of effective control.
The village-building spree, coupled with the frenetic construction of new military facilities along the border, is a classic example of the CCP’s indirect war, which blends irregular tactics with conventional methods. The irregular aggression, known also as “gray zone” warfare because it straddles the line between war and peace, aims to subdue the foe through exhaustion while simultaneously falling short of precipitating an actual shooting war. Even against a significant military power such as India, China has demonstrated how such hybrid warfare can incrementally advance its expansionist objectives without crossing the threshold of overt armed conflict.
China may not want to risk outright war with India or its other rivals, but it remains absolutely willing to flout its legal obligations. Its withholding from India of data about rivers breached two bilateral accords that required China to transfer to India hydrological and meteorological data daily during the dangerous flood season. The CCP ceases to see international agreements as binding when they are no longer politically convenient, a fact apparent from its obliteration of Hong Kong’s autonomy in violation of a United Nations–registered treaty. China grabbed Indian territory in 2020 in Ladakh and massed troops at the border in brazen disregard of bilateral agreements to maintain peace and tranquility.
Many of the CCP’s external actions may appear small in isolation, but they are significant when taken together. It is thus perilous for any target country to consider Chinese moves individually rather than collectively. No country has been able to figure out how to counter the CCP’s aggressive behavior under Xi—not even the United States, as China’s cost-free expansion in the South China Sea illustrates.
The CCP has repeatedly outfoxed and outmaneuvered India. Given that China made its territorial grabs in Ladakh without firing a shot, India has no credible option to restore the status quo ante without provoking a war. China is constantly searching for opportunities to take bits of territory and catch its opponent by surprise, without taking overt warlike actions. Unless India is willing to turn the tables on the CCP with its own hybrid warfare that targets China’s weak spots, including in Tibet, and unless the world’s democratic powers form a united front against Xi’s expansionism, China’s unrestricted war will continue to destabilize Asia and undermine international security.
Despite being the world’s most powerful democracy, the U.S. still shares some key traits with its main competitor, China, the world’s largest and longest surviving autocracy.
“Both have extreme superiority complexes. Each sees itself as without peers,” noted Harvard professor Graham Allison, with each country hewing to a defiant unilateralism that sees both intrude into the waters of other states.
Take America’s so-called freedom of navigation operations, known as FONOPs. Such operations are best known in the South China Sea, where an expansionist China has redrawn the geopolitical map without firing a shot or incurring any international costs. U.S. FONOPs against partner countries, however, have drawn little attention.
At a time when China’s actions against the Philippines highlight its muscular revisionism in the South China Sea, the U.S. recently triggered a diplomatic incident with friendly India by conducting a FONOP in India’s exclusive economic zone. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), any country’s EEZ extends to 200 nautical miles (370 km).
Ordinarily, an American guided-missile destroyer transiting India’s EEZ under Indian naval watch would not have generated headlines, let alone triggered an Indian objection. But in this case, it was accompanied by a provocative U.S. statement on Apr. 7 challenging India’s “excessive maritime claims.”
While noting that New Delhi required prior consent for military exercises or maneuvers within its EEZ, the statement swaggeringly said that the operation was staged “without requesting India’s prior consent.” The action, with its blunt assertion of unilateralism, sparked outrage in India, with New Delhi lodging a diplomatic protest.
India, unlike China, has not sought to push its borders far out into international waters, or build artificial islands, or militarize the seas around it, or restrict freedom of navigation. Rather, India’s “excessive maritime claims,” as alleged by Washington, center on long-standing differences between Western maritime powers and many coastal countries over foreign military activities in their respective EEZs.
The U.S. claimed its action in India’s EEZ was “consistent with international law.” Its general reference to international law, rather than to the specific law of the sea, was deliberate — to help obscure the fact that it has not acceded to UNCLOS, the global “constitution for the oceans” that entered into force almost 27 years ago. The irony is that the U.S. seeks to assert a claimed right under an international treaty that it has refused to ratify.
In fact, the FONOP against India is just the latest in a series of such U.S. actions targeting friends and foes. For example, in the 11-month period up to September 2020, the U.S. said its unilateral naval actions challenged the “excessive maritime claims” of 19 claimant states.
Even more revealing is the fact that almost all of Asia’s littoral countries have been favorite targets of such FONOPs. They include U.S. treaty allies such as Japan and the Philippines, regional rivals South and North Korea, India and Pakistan, the tiny Maldives, as well as Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Taiwan, among others. Washington accuses all of them of maintaining “excessive maritime claims” of various types.
The use of naval prowess to assert American maritime claims against a wide array of countries shows that, although the U.S. is no longer the world’s only superpower, old habits persist. The jarring paradox is that while UNCLOS has 168 state parties, the outlier U.S. has arrogated to itself the right to oversee and enforce its provisions by unilaterally interpreting them. Who said American exceptionalism is dead?
The South China Sea illustrates the dubious efficacy of U.S. FONOPs as a policy tool. America’s growing reliance on FONOPs has had zero impact on China’s continued expansion in what is the main strategic corridor between the Indian and Pacific oceans, through which one-third of global maritime trade passes.
America’s ever-expanding FONOPs, while failing to deter Chinese expansionism, nevertheless risk alienating its allies and partners. India holds the key to the future of the maritime-oriented Quad because the grouping’s other members, the U.S., Japan and Australia, are already tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves. What prompted the U.S. Navy to rake up an old issue and slight India with a public statement?
UNCLOS is ambiguous when it comes to foreign military activities in EEZs, and many countries that were colonized by European naval powers have never accepted the legitimacy of such activities. To add to their misgivings, the U.S. has conducted FONOPs against them but not against the “excessive” claims of predominantly white nations like Canada and Australia.
It is past time for the U.S. to debate the utility of military FONOPs against littoral states in Asia and elsewhere. Far from compelling them to toe the U.S. line, such use of unilateral military operations only reinforces their security concerns.
Instead of flexing its naval muscles in ways that draw unflattering, even if inaccurate, comparisons with China’s growing maritime forays, the U.S. would do well to employ diplomacy and a compromise-centered approach to bridge differences with its friends so as to advance a rules-based maritime order that helps check Chinese expansionism.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”