Putin’s War and the Mirage of the Rules-Based Order

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For all the talk of a rules-based order, the world’s rule-makers have reverted unhesitatingly to unilateralism during the Ukraine war. While this will leave Russia and the US worse off, it will enable China to advance its interests and bolster its global influence.

By Brahma Chellaney, Project Syndicate

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the West’s unprecedented response, represent a watershed in international relations, marking the formal end of the post-Cold War era and setting the stage for seismic geopolitical and geo-economic shifts. But one defining feature of international relations will remain: to paraphrase Thucydides, the strong will continue to do what they can, and the weak will continue to suffer what they must.

It is true that leaders and observers around the world often speak of strengthening or defending the “rules-based international order.” But that order was always more aspirational than real. Countries that possess military or economic might reserve the right not only to make and enforce the rules, but also to break them.

It is when the rule-makers disagree that the greatest risks arise. The Ukraine war – the first conflict of the post-Cold War period that pits great powers against each other – is a case in point. On one side, Russia has been carrying out a brutal conventional military assault on Ukraine, in an apparent effort to bring the country – which Russian President Vladimir Putin believes is rightly part of his country – back into the Kremlin fold. On the other side, NATO, led by the United States, has been waging a comprehensive hybrid war against Russia.

The West’s war has included the supply of huge quantities of weapons to Ukrainian forces: US President Joe Biden alone has authorized the transfer of $1.35 billion worth of lethal weapons since the war began, with much more to come. The West has also implemented ever-escalating economic and financial sanctions, virtually expelling Russia from the Western-led financial order and sequestering the assets of many wealthy Russians. And it has sought to shape international opinion, with many countries now blocking access to Russian state media.

For all the talk of a rules-based order, the world’s rule-makers have reverted unhesitatingly to unilateralism. The risks are legion. The flood of weapons the West is sending to Ukraine – a country with a long history of weak governance and widespread corruption – could eventually flow westward, fueling organized crime, narcotics trafficking, and terrorist violence across Europe. And the Iron Curtain’s revival may hasten the emergence of a militarily robust, neo-imperial Russia. Putin, who has called the Soviet Union’s collapse a “tragedy” and the end of “historical Russia,” has indicated that Kazakhstan, like Ukraine, is not a country.

And it is not just Russia that will become isolated. The Ukraine war could trigger the unraveling of decades of broader global economic engagement, long viewed as a key deterrent to great-power conflict.

Of course, the notion that countries would rather trade than invade has never been unassailable. Economic interdependence has not stopped China, for example, from engaging in relentless expansionism, from the South and East China Seas to the Himalayas.

Even today, however, economic interdependence has forced rule-makers to exercise some restraint. Despite the raft of financial and economic sanctions it has imposed on Russia, Europe continues to support the Russian economy’s mainstay: oil and gas exports. This undermines the West’s own mission, especially as the confrontation drives up energy prices. But Europe’s longstanding dependence on Russian energy supplies has left it with no good alternatives – at least for now.

Such a tradeoff may not arise in the future. The European Union has already vowed to eliminate its dependence on Russian energy by 2030. At the same time, countries that want to uphold trade ties with Russia are seeking solutions outside Western-controlled channels. For example, India is buying Russian oil with rupees. Similar moves elsewhere – for example, Saudi Arabia is considering renminbi-based oil sales to China – threaten to erode the US dollar’s global supremacy.

This is probably the beginning of a broader bifurcation of the global economy. At a time when economic power has shifted eastward but the West still controls the world’s financial architecture – including the main international payments system, the primary currencies for trade and financial flows, and the leading credit-ratings agencies – the establishment of parallel arrangements seems imminent.

China, which dwarfs Russia in terms of both economic power and military spending, will likely lead this process. In fact, China is set to emerge as the real winner of the NATO-Russia conflict. An overstretched America’s renewed preoccupation with European security will create strategic space for China to press its strategic objectives – its leaders have been as clear about absorbing Taiwan as Putin was about claiming Ukraine – and bolster its global influence, at the expense of the US.

Chinese global dominance would amount to the final nail in the coffin of the rules-based order. Since its establishment in 1949, the People’s Republic has displayed blatant contempt for international law, more than doubling its land mass by annexing Xinjiang and Tibet and currently detaining over a million Muslims. Yet China has paid no tangible price. The Kremlin, for its part, probably did not think twice about rejecting the International Court of Justice order to suspend its military operations in Ukraine.

International law may be powerful against the powerless, but it is powerless against the powerful. The League of Nations, created after World War I, failed because it could not deter important powers from flouting international law. Its beleaguered successor, the United Nations, may be facing a similar reckoning. How can the UN Security Council fulfill its mandate of upholding international peace and stability if its five veto-wielding permanent members are arrayed into two opposing camps?

The world is headed for an era of greater upheaval. However it plays out, the pretense of a shared commitment to international law will be the first casualty.

Brahma Chellaney

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

© Project Syndicate, 2022.

The new US-Russia cold war will accelerate China’s rise

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, THE HILL

President Biden has made clear that the United States has embarked on a strategy of Containment 2.0 against Russia with what he calls “the broadest sanctions in history.” But Biden is unlikely to have factored in the possibility of a boomerang effect. The unintended consequences could bifurcate the global economy, polarize international politics and strengthen China at America’s expense.

Over the years, the relative ease of imposing economic sanctions has turned them into a grossly overused tool of American diplomacy. The efficacy of U.S. sanctions has been eroding with the relative decline of American power, and a growing body of evidence suggests that such measures have often proved counterproductive to America’s own economic and geopolitical interests. 

The U.S. has virtually ejected Russia from the Western-led financial order at a time when economic power is moving east. Expelling the world’s 11th-largest economy from an order that the U.S. seeks to uphold could intensify the search for a viable alternative system that isn’t dominated by the West. 

What is more certain is that the new U.S.-led hybrid war against Russia, centered on unparalleled sanctions, will help deepen the undeclared Beijing-Moscow axis against Washington and make China the big winner financially and geopolitically, thereby aiding its expansion of economic and military power.

The West’s heavy economic penalties on Moscow, including unplugging key Russian banks from the international SWIFT payments system, are set to turn China into Russia’s banker, enabling it to reap vast profits. In structural terms too, Russia’s sanctions pain will be China’s gain: To help insulate itself from similar Western sanctions if it were to invade Taiwan, Beijing is seeking to boost the payments and reserve role of the yuan and the international use of its competitor to the SWIFT network — the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System, or CIPS. The West’s Russia sanctions are likely to provide a fillip to both efforts. 

Furthermore, the sanctions have opened the path for China to build an energy safety net through greater land-based imports so that it can withstand a potential U.S.-led energy embargo or blockade in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The re-imposition of sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline is welcome news for Beijing, which is seeking to further boost energy imports from Russia after concluding new oil and gas deals worth a whopping $117.5 billion during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Beijing visit last month.

Here’s the paradox: China has faced no Western financial or other meaningful sanctions despite swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea, expanding its land frontiers in the Himalayas and establishing a Muslim gulag with more than one million detainees in what two successive U.S. administrations have called “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” By contrast, as Biden’s two rounds of sanctions last year underscored, Russia has remained an easy target for escalating American sanctions over the past decade because the U.S. has little stake in the Russian economy.

In this light, the West’s targeting of just Russia is certain to make China the main beneficiary of the sanctions, thus aiding Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “China dream” of supplanting the U.S. as the world’s preeminent power.

The new Biden-led sanctions against Russia will likely be undercut by Xi’s regime — unless the West goes after China too. But that possibility seems remote.

As part of a diplomatic strategy to extract important concessions from the West, Beijing will play the same cat-and-mouse game with Washington over the Russia sanctions that it has long played vis-à-vis the North Korea sanctions. It will pretend to cooperate with the U.S. while quietly undermining the Western sanctions, including by helping Russia to find China-centered financial workarounds.

The outrage over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should not obscure one key fact: China, with about a 10 times larger population and economy than Russia, poses the biggest challenge to America. Whereas Russia’s strategic priorities and ambitions are concentrated in its neighborhood, China is working to supplant the U.S. as the dominant global power.

As FBI Director Christopher Wray said last month, “There is just no country that presents a broader threat to our ideas, our innovation and our economic security than China.” And the “scale of their hacking program…is greater than every other country combined.” China has expanded its spying in the U.S. to such an extent, according to Wray, that the FBI is launching one new counterintelligence investigation on average every 12 hours.

For China, whose global image is at a historic low, the new Washington-Moscow cold war (with Russia reemerging as the “evil empire” in Western perceptions) couldn’t come at a better time. Xi has shown an increasing appetite for taking major risks, believing China has a narrow window of strategic opportunity to modify the international order in its favor before it confronts a demographic crisisstalled economic growth and an unfavorable global environment. 

Putin, through his war of aggression, is unwittingly helping Beijing, including distracting the U.S. from its China challenge. The war, which has the makings of a drawn-out and dangerous confrontation between Russia and NATO, will help Xi’s pursuit of his “China dream.”

Biden is likely to live up to his pledge to make Russia pay “dearly, economically and strategically.” Taming a largely hostile Ukraine could mire Russia in a quagmire, especially as Western lethal weapons continue to flow to Ukrainian resistance forces. Biden’s request to Congress for a staggering $10 billion in additional Ukrainian assistance shows that his Containment 2.0 strategy includes an Afghanistan 2.0 plan to replicate in Ukraine the CIA-led covert war of the 1980s that ultimately drove Soviet forces out from Afghanistan.

America’s increasing entanglement in European security, however, will open greater space for Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific, a region that will shape the new world order. In fact, U.S. policy, instead of driving a wedge between Russia and China, is serving as a bridge that unites them against an overstretched America.

More fundamentally, U.S. policy has learned little from its strategic blunder in aiding China’s rise under successive American presidents from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, which has resulted in that country today posing a military, economic and technological challenge on a scale America has not seen before. Almost every time the U.S. has slapped any country with sanctions in the post-Cold War period, it has helped advance Chinese commercial and strategic interests.

The Russia sanctions, although they hold no promise of changing Putin’s behavior, constitute one of the biggest gifts American policymakers have delivered to Beijing. By effectively putting Russia, the world’s richest country in natural resources, in Beijing’s pocket, the sanctions will yield major dividends for a resource-hungry China, including allowing it to dictate the terms of the bilateral relationship and secure greater access to Russian military technology. 

After Biden’s Afghan debacle and failure to deter Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, could Taiwan become his next foreign policy disaster? Xi will likely bide his time and wait for an opportune moment before moving on Taiwan, taking a distracted U.S. by utter surprise and bringing down the curtain on the West’s long ascendancy.

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

The US and India in a new world

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Brahma Chellaney, The Spectator

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

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

The Quad is central to the US’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. As American preeminence erodes, the US must augment its power with that of allies and partners. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi famously mocked the Quad in 2018 as a “headline-grabbing idea” that will dissipate “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean.” Instead, and thanks to China’s expansionist policies, the Quad continues to gain strength — despite the new, US-initiated AUKUS alliance with Australia and Britain. The US cannot build an Asian power equilibrium without India, Japan and Australia — and they cannot build it without the US.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Beijing Winter Olympics were a troubling reminder of 1936 Games

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The success of the Beijing Winter Olympics is another feather in Xi’s cap. Like Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, Xi’s Games succeeded after an international boycott campaign collapsed. Will an emboldened Xi now embark on fresh repression and expansionism?

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Xi Jinping on the screen during the opening ceremony at the Beijing National Stadium on Feb. 4: murky politics can lurk beneath the surface.   © Getty Images

While the Olympic movement seeks to promote “a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play,” murky politics can lurk beneath the surface.

Powerful autocracies serving as hosts have a history of using the Olympics to project themselves as friendly, peace-loving nations so as to advance their geopolitical objectives and cloak their human rights abuses. Yet their actions often speak for themselves.

As the 24th Winter Olympics in Beijing were opening, China warned foreign athletes not to “violate the Olympic spirit” by speaking out on political issues. Yet it has defended its own gross violation of the Olympic spirit by feting as an Olympic torchbearer and national hero a Chinese military officer who led an ambush attack in the Himalayas that killed 20 unarmed Indian soldiers in June 2020.

The lionizing of such a military commander is a telling commentary on the tactics and values of the Chinese Communist Party and its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army. The action also showed that China mixes politics and sports better than any other country.

Since China’s boycott of the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, the CCP has treated sports as politics by other means. It has engaged in bullying tactics against, among others, America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) and England’s Premier League. And it has used threats of withdrawing lucrative sports contracts, broadcast deals and sponsorship opportunities to buy silence regarding its human rights record.

The Beijing Winter Olympics, dubbed the “Genocide Games” by several international human rights organizations, are probably the most divisive games since the Berlin Summer Olympics. The 1936 Games helped strengthen the hands of Germany’s Adolf Hitler, emboldening his expansionism. The 2022 Games follow Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own expansionism, extending from the South China Sea and Hong Kong, to the Himalayas.

In fact, Xi has taken a page out of the 1936 Olympics playbook: Just as Hitler sought to camouflage his segregation and persecution of Jews by permitting one Jewish athlete — fencing champion Helene Mayer — to join the German team, Xi has tried to whitewash his atrocities in Xinjiang by presenting a Uighur skier as the face of the 2022 Games.

Mayer’s inclusion in the German team not only helped end international calls for a boycott of the Games but also allowed Hitler to project the image of a peace-loving statesman. Xi, for his part, opened the 2022 Games with peace doves and an obscure female Uighur skier, Dinigeer Yilamujiang, as the star of the opening ceremony. Chinese state media quickly claimed Yilamujiang had “showed the world a beautiful and progressive Xinjiang.”

There are some other troubling parallels between the two games. Before the 1936 Games, the Sachsenhausen concentration camp had been established and Hitler’s army had marched into the demilitarized Rhineland. The 2022 Games have followed Xi’s expansionism across Asia and what two successive U.S. administrations have labeled “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” in Xinjiang, where more than a million detainees languish in a Muslim gulag.

Since 2015, when Beijing defeated Almaty, Kazakhstan, to win the bid to host the 2022 Games, China has, among other things, established forward military bases on a chain of artificial islands in the South China Sea, set up the Xinjiang gulag, militarized the Himalayan borderlands and encroached on Indian, Bhutanese and Nepalese territories, weaponized debt and gobbled up Hong Kong.

And at home, Xi has established a globally unparalleled techno-authoritarian state whose soaring budget for internal security has overtaken the country’s massive military budget. A repressive internal machinery, aided by an Orwellian surveillance system, is fostering a state strategy to culturally smother ethnic minorities in their traditional homelands, including through demographic change and harsh policing.

With “Xi Jinping Thought” enshrined in the national constitution and turned into the central doctrine guiding the CCP, China’s destiny is now in the hands of one party, one leader and one ideology.

More broadly, just as a long debate has raged over how Western powers had played into Hitler’s hands by participating in the 1936 Games, the failed boycott of the 2022 Games is likely to be a subject of intense discussion in future years.

To be sure, a number of Western countries, including Australia, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Kosovo, Lithuania and the U.S., refused to send officials to Beijing for the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies in protest against China’s human rights abuses.

India, too, at the last minute decided not to grace the ceremonies with its official presence. But such diplomatic boycotts have essentially been symbolic as athletes from those countries are participating fully in the Games, including in the opening and closing ceremonies.

Xi’s Olympic Games are being held under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, now in its third year. China’s refusal to cooperate with international efforts to determine the origin of the virus first detected in the city of Wuhan — despite the pandemic’s devastating global impact — underlines the international costs of Xi’s rule.

The U.S., as the world’s leading sports nation and preeminent power, could have undercut the credibility of the Winter Games by deciding not to send its athletes and by leading a wider international boycott. But, as in 1936, it decided to allow its athletes to participate.

Meanwhile, by highlighting that Wall Street remains China’s powerful ally, some of America’s biggest corporations — from Coca-Cola and Visa to Intel and Proctor & Gamble — are underwriting the global spectacle. Very vocal when it comes to political rights at home, such sponsors have kept silent on Xinjiang, the repression in Tibet and Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong.

Three years after the 1936 Games, World War II began. Will the 2022 Games also come back to haunt the world? Buoyed by the success of the Games, Xi could embark on fresh repression and expansionism.

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

The US is letting China off the hook over its COVID-19 coverup

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The US is letting China off the hook over its COVID-19 coverup
A medical worker takes a swab from a previously recovered COVID-19 coronavirus patient in Wuhan, China on March 14, 2020. © Getty

By Brahma Chellaney, The Hill

America’s death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, now in its third year, is closing in on one million, with Americans continuing to succumb to the disease at internationally high rates. Both in total case counts and number of deaths since 2020, the United States has led the world. New data show that Americans’ life expectancy in the first year of the pandemic fell 1.8 years — the sharpest decline since at least World War II.

Given the extent of its pain and suffering, the U.S. should have a major stake in unraveling how the COVID-19 virus originated. Knowing the origins of this virus has become imperative to forestall the fourth coronavirus pandemic of the 21 Century after SARS, MERS and COVID-19.

In this light, isn’t it odd that the U.S. government is no longer seeking to get to the bottom of how the virus first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan? In fact, by relieving pressure on China to come clean on the virus’s origins, President Biden’s administration is effectively letting that communist behemoth off the hook despite the costliest government coverup perhaps of all time. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime censored all news about the initial spread of COVID-19, including hiding evidence of human-to-human transmission, resulting in a local outbreak morphing into a global health calamity. Even today, by covering up the truth on how the virus emerged, Xi’s regime disrespects the memory of the more than 5.7 million people who have died thus far. The only probe China has allowed was a 2021 “joint study” with the World Health Organization (WHO) that it controlled and steered.

Because of Beijing’s stonewalling of investigations, the world still does not know whether COVID-19 evolved naturally from wildlife or was triggered by the accidental escape of a genetically engineered coronavirus from a lab in Wuhan, the center of Chinese research on super-viruses. Xi’s regime has frustrated all efforts, including by the WHO, to conduct an independent forensic inquiry into the Wuhan labs, labeling such an audit “origin-tracing terrorism.” 

The only concession Xi has made is that last September, after the pandemic had already devastated much of the world, he ordered enhanced oversight of Chinese labs handling lethal viruses. 

Against this background, China has been comforted by Biden’s easing of pressure on it. Soon after Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, marking America’s humiliating defeat at the hands of terrorists, a weakened Biden appeared to bow to the Chinese demand that the U.S. stop investigating the virus’s origins by not extending the 90-day term of the intelligence inquiry that he had instituted, despite the probe failing to reach a definitive conclusion. 

Since then, Biden has avoided any reference to the pandemic’s origins. And after having prematurely proclaimed on the Fourth of July that “we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus,” Biden is now preparing Americans for the “new normal” of living with COVID-19, not conquering it.

Biden’s first misstep occurred just after his inauguration as the 46th president when he announced America’s immediate rejoining of the WHO. He could have leveraged his predecessor’s withdrawal from the WHO to make that international organization take steps to separate itself from the malign influence of China before formalizing America’s reentry.

The WHO led by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was complicit in China’s coverup. Indeed, it made important concessions to Beijing that may have compromised the search for the virus’s origins. So, America’s unconditional return to the WHO did little more than advertise U.S. weakness and harden Xi’s intransigence.

Then, on Jan. 26, 2021, Biden signed a presidential memorandum that ordered federal agencies to stop referring to the virus by the “geographic location of its origin,” saying that such references contribute to “racism.” So, as a matter of official U.S. policy, the virus could no more be linked to China.

Consequently, official U.S. reports, including the last annual unclassified intelligence report on threats to America, stopped mentioning the virus’s Wuhan origin. Yet, oddly, it has been okay to refer to the virus’s variants by their geographic origins or even slap on a racially tinged travel ban, as Biden did with eight southern Africa countries for five weeks after the omicron variant emerged. 

More recently, the Biden administration’s inexplicable decision not to field a candidate against Tedros left his bid unopposed for a second five-year term as the WHO chief. Indeed, France, Germany and 15 other European Union countries, with possible U.S. acquiescence, took the lead in nominating Tedros for a second term, even as his home country of Ethiopia denounced him. 

Here’s the paradox: Further undermining the WHO’s credibility, Tedros attended the Beijing Winter Olympics, despite a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott, and heaped renewed praise on China’s COVID-19 handling. In fact, Tedros carried the Olympic torch in a relay that also prominently featured another torchbearer, a Chinese military officer who led the ambush killing of 20 Indian troops in June 2020 and who, in gross violation of the Olympic spirit, is now being feted by China as a national hero. Yet, thanks to Western support, Tedros’s reelection in May has become a mere formality.

To Biden’s credit, last May he helped end the long suppression of an open debate on a possible lab leak by calling that hypothesis one of “two likely scenarios” on how the pandemic originated. Until then, the hypothesis was treated as a pure conspiracy theory by major U.S. news organizationssocial-media giants and some influential scientists who hid their conflicts of interest. Facebook and Instagram even suspended accounts that repeatedly referred to the virus’s possible escape from a lab.

The concerted effort to obscure the truth also extended to U.S. scientific and bureaucratic institutions, largely because U.S. government agencies – from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to USAID – funded dangerous research on coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) from 2014 to 2020. The long suppression of a debate only aided China’s designs, including giving it sufficient time to conceivably eliminate any incriminating evidence of its negligence or complicity in the worst disaster of our time.  

One key question remains unanswered: Why were official U.S. agencies funding research on viruses at the WIV, which, according to the U.S. government’s own admission, was linked to the Chinese military? A January 2021 State Department fact sheet raised concern over “whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.” But why did the funding proceed despite that risk?

It appears likely that Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and his then-boss, Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), began funding risky experiments at the WIV so as to circumvent the restrictions in the U.S. on “gain of function” research — or altering the genetic make-up of pathogens to enhance their virulence or infectiousness. The NIH money was routed through the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, whose largest source of funds is the Pentagon. The Pentagon has yet to unequivocally deny that any of the almost $39 million it gave to EcoHealth Alliance ended up in Wuhan. 

The NIH, for its part, has sought to obfuscate its role by scrubbing its website of the “gain of function” definition.

The Beijing Winter Olympics, meanwhile, symbolize an ascendant China that is too powerful to be punished for its COVID-19 coverup, its genocide in Xinjiang and its expansionism across Asia.

Relieving U.S. pressure on China is clearly a mistake. The Biden White House would do well to rebuild pressure on Beijing by lifting the veil on the precise role the U.S. played in supporting WIV research on increasing the transmissivity of bat coronaviruses to human cells. For starters, the U.S. should disclose the full extent of its WIV funding. America’s own transparency is essential for credible pressure on an opaque China.

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

International costs of Biden’s Afghan debacle mount

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China and Russia up the ante, violent Islamists become more emboldened, and allies are restive

U.S. Marines stand guard during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in August 2021: the costs of the Afghan blunder are becoming increasingly apparent. (Handout photo from U.S. Marine Corps)   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

History will remember U.S. President Joe Biden for consigning Afghanistan to the dark age of terrorist rule.

Yet Biden still says he has “no apologies” for his Afghan debacle. America’s self-inflicted defeat and humiliation at the hands of a brutal, Pakistan-backed Islamist militia spawned the greatest victory for terrorists in the modern history of global jihadism.

“I make no apologies for what I did,” Biden defiantly stated at his recent news conference, his first in months. By simply washing his hands of the humanitarian and security nightmare that he created in Afghanistan, Biden has compounded the greatest U.S. foreign-policy disaster in decades.

At a time when global affairs are already in a precarious state, the costs of the Afghan blunder are becoming increasingly apparent, including weakening Biden’s hand against America’s principal adversaries, China and Russia.

While highlighting the decline in American power, the Afghan fiasco has created greater space for China’s muscular revisionism in Asia and enhanced Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in the former Soviet republics extending from Ukraine to Georgia and Kazakhstan.

Worse still, the Taliban’s triumph over the “Great Satan” is serving as a real shot in the arm for Islamic terrorist groups across the world, inspiring jihadi attacks.

One example was the Jan. 15 hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue by a British Pakistani man who sought to free a convicted female Pakistani terrorist, Aafia Siddiqui, serving an 86-year sentence at a nearby prison.

Emboldened militants in Syria in recent days attacked a major prison housing thousands of former ISIS fighters, triggering a six-day wider fight with American ground troops that included U.S. airstrikes. Hundreds reportedly died. It was the biggest confrontation involving the U.S. military in three years since ISIS lost the last remaining portion of its so-called caliphate.

Meanwhile, in the deadliest attack in several years on an Iraqi military base, jihadis recently killed 10 soldiers and an officer. Such attacks raise concerns over the possible rebirth of global terrorism, including the re-emergence of ISIS.

America’s retreat from Afghanistan, meanwhile, is proving a strategic boon for Russia and China, which have ratcheted up their military threats against Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively.

Whereas Russia has massed some 100,000 troops near the Ukrainian border as if poised to invade Ukraine, a record number of Chinese warplanes have intruded into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone since October.

The U.S. may still be the world’s preeminent military power, but it is in no position to meaningfully take on China and Russia simultaneously. So the U.S.-NATO tensions with Moscow over the Russian military buildup around Ukraine risk whetting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s appetite for risk-taking, especially against Taiwan, his possible next target after notching up successes in the South China Sea and Hong Kong.

Biden’s Afghan disaster, meanwhile, has exacerbated security challenges for America’s regional friends, especially India, which now confronts a strengthening China-Pakistan-Taliban nexus. The rejuvenated epicenter for terrorism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt threatens to detract from India’s current efforts to counter China’s border aggression, which began with stealth incursions into the northern Indian territory of Ladakh in April 2020.

While Biden has elevated the Russian military threat against Ukraine to an international crisis, he, in jarring contrast, has not uttered a word on China’s larger-scale Himalayan military buildup that threatens to ignite a war with one of America’s most vital strategic partners, India.

Xi’s summit this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing — the Chinese leader’s first face-to-face meeting with a head of state in nearly two years — underlines the deepening strategic axis between China and Russia, which are now “more aligned than at any point since the mid-1950s,” according to a U.S. intelligence assessment.

Warships attend a joint naval exercise of the Iranian, Chinese and Russian navies in the northern Indian Ocean on Jan. 19.   © West Asia News Agency/Reuters

This may be little more than a marriage of convenience so as to jointly collaborate against their common foe in Washington. But since the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan, Beijing and Moscow have surprised America with major joint military exercises, including naval war games off Russia’s Far East coast in October and recent naval drills with Iran in the Gulf of Oman. The Sino-Russian collaboration reportedly extends to hypersonic-weapons technology.

Afghanistan may no longer be grabbing headlines in the West, yet it is ordinary Afghans who are paying for Biden’s blunder, as highlighted by the Taliban’s arbitrary detentions and killings, sexual enslavement of girls through forced “marriages” to their fighters, and stripping women and girls of their rights to education and equality.

The Taliban’s narco-terrorist state, serving as a haven for al-Qaida and other violent jihadi groups, is a threat to regional and international security.

The U.S., for its part, has suffered lasting damage to its international credibility and standing from Biden’s strategic folly in Afghanistan, including throwing America’s allies — the Afghan government and military — under the bus.

The damage is not only emboldening Russia, China and violent Islamists; it also has a bearing on America’s alliances, given that Biden rejected allied demands for a conditions-based withdrawal from Afghanistan.

This adds greater urgency to a question pending since earlier U.S. blunders in Iraq, Syria and Libya: How to reform alliances so that there is less U.S. diktat and more prior consultations with its allies?

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

The Great COVID Coverup

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As the world attempts to figure out how to live with COVID-19, it must also commit to identifying the missteps – accidental and otherwise – that caused the pandemic. That means, first and foremost, turning a critical eye toward China.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

As the pandemic enters its third year, questions about COVID-19’s origins appear increasingly distant. But if we are to forestall another coronavirus pandemic in the twenty-first century, understanding the causes of the current one is imperative.

Already, COVID-19 has caused more than 5.4 million deaths. But that is just the beginning: the toll of the pandemic includes increased rates of obesityunemploymentpovertydepressionalcoholismhomicidedomestic violencedivorce, and suicide. And, as the Omicron variant fuels record infection rates and disrupts economies in many parts of the world, pandemic fatigue is morphing into pandemic burnout.

Our chances of eliminating COVID-19 now appear increasingly remote. But, as we attempt to figure out how to live with the virus, we must also identify the missteps – accidental and otherwise – that led us here. And that means, first and foremost, turning a critical eye toward China.

It is well known that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime censored early reports that a new, deadly coronavirus had emerged in Wuhan and hid evidence of human-to-human transmission, thereby enabling a local outbreak to become a global calamity. What remains to be determined is whether COVID-19 emerged naturally in wildlife or was leaked from a lab – namely, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

Here, too, China has embraced obfuscation rather than transparency. Xi’s regime has blocked an independent forensic inquiry into COVID-19’s origins, arguing that any such investigation amounts to “origin-tracing terrorism.” After Australia called for a probe into China’s handling of the outbreak, Xi’s government punished it with a raft of informal sanctions.

China had help covering up its bad behavior. Early in the pandemic, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus parroted the Chinese government’s talking points and praised its handling of the outbreak. Instead of verifying China’s claims, the WHO broadcast them to the world.

Yet far from condemning this failure of global health leadership, France and Germany took the lead in nominating Tedros for a second term at the WHO’s helm, and the United States decided not to field a candidate to challenge him. Having run unopposed, Tedros will now lead this critical institution for another five years.

The West also helped China to divert attention from the lab-leak hypothesis. Not only are several labs in the West engaged in research to engineer super-viruses; Western governments have ties to the WIV – a French-designed institute where US-funded research has been carried out. Both the National Institutes of Health and USAID have issued grants to EcoHealth Alliance, a group studying bat coronaviruses in collaboration with WIV researchers.

The US government has not disclosed the full extent of its funding to WIV projects, let alone explained why its agencies would fund research at an institution linked to the Chinese military. A January 2021 State Department fact sheet proclaimed that the US has “a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.” But why was that risk deemed acceptable in the first place?

The conflicts of interest surrounding the lab-leak hypothesis distorted early discussions about the origins of COVID-19. A letter published in the Lancet in February 2020, signed by a group of virologists, is a case in point. The letter “strongly condemned” those “suggesting that COVID-19 did not have a natural origin.” The message was clear: to lend any credence to the possibility of a lab leak would be unscientific.

The letter turned out to be organized and drafted by the president of EcoHealth Alliance. But by the time the conflicts of interest came to light, it was too late. Major US news organizations and social-media giants were treating the lab-leak hypothesis as a baseless conspiracy theory, with Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter censoring references to a lab accident.

It should always have been clear that the lab-leak hypothesis had merit: the 2004 outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in Beijing resulted from such a leak. Instead, frank discussion of the possibility was suppressed until May 2021, when US President Joe Biden announced that a lab accident was one of “two likely scenarios” on which US intelligence agencies would focus, as they carried out a 90-day inquiry into the pandemic’s origins.

By then, however, Chinese authorities had had plenty of time to cover whatever tracks there may have been. Add to that its unwillingness to cooperate in a probe, and it should not be surprising that the inquiry’s results were inconclusive.

But the exercise was apparently enough to convince Biden to take the pressure off China. Despite pledging to “do everything [possible] to trace the roots of this outbreak that has caused so much pain and death around the world,” he did not extend the intelligence inquiry, and he has since avoided any reference to the pandemic’s origins.

Xi announced last September that Chinese labs handling deadly pathogens would face closer scrutiny, but he continues to denounce any insinuation that the coronavirus could have been leaked. Meanwhile, China is profiting from the pandemic; exports are surging. The country has capitalized on the crisis to advance its geopolitical interests, including by stepping up its territorial aggression, from East Asia to the Himalayas.

But a reckoning may yet come. Nearly three-quarters of Americans now believe that it is “likely” that COVID-19 was leaked from the WIV. Moreover, as China’s neo-imperialist ambitions have become clear, unfavorable views of China have reached record highs in many advanced economies. If world leaders wanted a mandate to pursue further inquiries into the pandemic’s origins, it is safe to say they have it.

This is not the first made-in-China pandemic – the country also produced SARS in 2003, the Asian flu in 1957, the Hong Kong flu in 1968, and the Russian flu in 1977. If the world keeps letting China off the hook, it will not be the last.

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.