India’s front-line battle against autocracy more important than ever

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Chinese troops dismantling their bunkers at Pangong Tso region in Ladakh in February 2021: China has turned other captured areas into permanent all-weather military encampments. © AP

The risk of renewed skirmishes with China is growing

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Two years after nighttime hand-to-hand combat with Indian troops resulted in China’s first combat deaths since its 1979 Vietnam invasion, the Chinese and Indian militaries remain locked in multiple standoffs over some of the most inhospitable terrains on Earth.

The war in Ukraine may be obscuring China’s border conflict with India, including the largest Himalayan buildup of rival forces in history. But as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reminded the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore last weekend, “we see Beijing continue to harden its position along the border that it shares with India.”

With tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops facing off against each other, the risks of renewed skirmishing, if not outright war, are significant.

The clashes of June 15, 2020, were the bloodiest of a series of skirmishes or scuffles that began more than six weeks earlier after China, taking advantage of India’s preoccupation with enforcing the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdown, stealthily infiltrated key border areas in the high-altitude Indian region of Ladakh and established heavily fortified bases there.

The surprise encroachments were not nearly as clever a plan as Chinese President Xi Jinping probably thought when he gave his go-ahead. Far from handing China an easy win, they have plunged Sino-Indian relations to a nadir, kept the border crisis simmering and made the fact of a major Indian military buildup inevitable.

The June 15, 2020, clashes not just marked a watershed in India-China relations; they also stood out for their savagery. With a 1996 bilateral agreement prohibiting the two countries’ soldiers from using guns at the border in peacetime, encroaching Chinese soldiers employed metal fence posts and clubs wrapped in barbed wire in a post-sunset ambush attack on an Indian army patrol.

Some Indian soldiers were beaten to death, others were thrown from the soaring cliffs into the fast-flowing Galwan River before Indian reinforcements arrived and fought pitched hand-to-hand battles with the intruders under a moonlit sky.

After the hours-long fighting, India quickly honored its 20 fallen soldiers as martyrs and then established a war memorial to commemorate their sacrifices. But China has still not disclosed its death toll, which U.S. intelligence reportedly placed at 35 and Russia’s government-owned Tass news agency estimated at 45. More than eight months after the clashes, Beijing announced posthumous awards for four Chinese soldiers without revealing the full death toll.

This should not be a surprise, as the Chinese Communist Party rarely reveals the full truth: it disclosed the Chinese death toll from the 1962 war with India more than three decades later in 1994 after significantly lowering the figure.

With the world’s most powerful propaganda machine, the CCP seeks to manufacture reality. While releasing a propaganda video of the clashes, it jailed at least six Chinese bloggers for criticizing its death toll cover-up, with one blogger who had 2.5 million followers on Weibo sentenced to eight months in prison. More recently, it picked the military commander who led the ambush attack as a torchbearer of the Beijing Winter Olympics, provocatively feting him as a hero.

The border crisis has also cast an unflattering light on India, which has instituted no inquiry into why its army was taken unawares by the multiple Chinese intrusions, some of them deep into Indian territory.

India is the world’s third-largest defense spender after the U.S. and China, with the army continuing to appropriate the lion’s share of the defense budget. Yet over the years, the Indian army has repeatedly been caught napping by the cross-border actions of China and Pakistan.

Indeed, it has become somewhat of a tradition in India that, whenever an adversary springs a military surprise, the army generals take cover behind the political leaders, and the ruling politicians hide behind the generals, allowing accountability to go unenforced.

Chinese forces braved harsh weather to intrude into forbidding landscapes, just before thawing ice reopened access routes. But the Indian army ignored warning signs from China’s heightened military activities near the frontier, including an unusually large, wintertime troop exercise that became the launchpad for the aggression.

Yet not a single Indian army commander was relieved of his command for the fiasco. Worse still, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has maintained a conspicuous silence on the military crisis for the past two years.

Instead, Modi has put faith in negotiations, with Beijing using endless talks to string India along while frenetically building new warfare infrastructure that General Charles A. Flynn, head of the U.S. Army Pacific, recently called “eye-opening” and “alarming.”

While withdrawing from some positions it seized, China has turned other captured areas into permanent all-weather military encampments, with large combat-ready forces and newly built roads and heliports that allow front-line positions to be quickly reinforced with fresh troop inductions.

Xi’s aim against India, as in the East and South China Seas, is for China to ultimately win without fighting by employing coercion under the shadow of its deployed military might. To Modi’s credit, India appears determined to frustrate that goal, vowing to sustain the military standoffs, despite the risk of a full-scale war, until China rolls back its encroachments.

India, the world’s largest democracy, is on the front-lines of the battle between democracy and autocracy. If China is able to coerce India into submission, it will open the path for the world’s biggest autocracy to gain supremacy in Asia and reshape the international order in its favor. No wonder Secretary Austin said in Singapore that India’s “growing military capability and technological prowess can be a stabilizing force in the region.”

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

Why is Biden appeasing China?

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Clash of Asia’s Titans

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Chinese President Xi Jinping has picked a border fight that he cannot win, and transformed a previously conciliatory India into a long-term foe. This amounts to an even bigger miscalculation than Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failure to see it coming.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

With global attention focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine, China’s territorial expansionism in Asia – especially its expanding border conflict with India – has largely fallen off the international community’s radar. Yet, in the vast glaciated heights of the Himalayas, the world’s demographic titans have been on a war footing for over two years, and the chances of violent clashes rise almost by the day.

The confrontation began in May 2020. When thawing ice reopened access routes after a brutal winter, India was shocked to discover that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had stealthily occupied hundreds of square miles of the borderlands in its Ladakh region. This triggered a series of military clashes, which resulted in China’s first combat deaths in over four decades, and triggered the fastest-ever rival troop buildup in the Himalayan region.

India’s counterattacks eventually drove the PLA back from some areas, and the two sides agreed to transform two battlegrounds into buffer zones. But, over the last 15 months, little progress has been made to defuse tensions in other areas. With tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops standing virtually at attention along the long-disputed border, a military stalemate has emerged.

But stalemate is not stagnation. China has continued to alter the Himalayan landscape rapidly and profoundly in its favor, including by establishing 624 militarized border villages – mirroring its strategy of creating artificial militarized islands in the South China Sea – and constructing new warfare infrastructure near the frontier.

As part of this effort, China recently completed a bridge over Pangong Lake – the site of past military clashes – that promises to strengthen its position in a disputed area of India’s Ladakh region. It has also built roads and security installations on territory that belongs to Bhutan, in order to gain access to a particularly vulnerable section of India’s border overlooking a narrow corridor known as the “Chicken Neck,” which connects its far northeast to the heartland.

All of this, China hopes, will enable it to dictate terms to India: accept the new status quo, with China keeping the territory it has grabbed, or risk a full-scale war in which China has maximized its advantage. China’s expansionism relies on deception, stealth, and surprise, and on apparent indifference to the risks of military escalation. The aim of its brinkmanship is to confound the other side’s deterrence strategy and leave it with no real options.

China learned from its strategic folly of invading Vietnam in 1979 and has become adept at waging asymmetric or hybrid warfare, usually below the threshold of overt armed conflict. This enables it to advance its strategic objectives, including land grabs, incrementally. Coercive bargaining and overt intimidation also help to overcome resistance.

This salami-slicing strategy has already enabled Chinese President Xi Jinping to redraw the geopolitical map in the South China Sea. And the terrestrial application of this approach being deployed against India, Bhutan, and Nepal is proving just as difficult to counter. As India is learning firsthand, countries have virtually no options other than the use of force.

One thing is certain: simply hoping that China will stop encroaching on Indian territory will do India little good. After all, India got into this situation precisely because its political and military leadership failed to take heed of China’s military activities near the frontier. On the contrary, while China was laying the groundwork for its territorial grabs, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was bending over backwards to befriend Xi. In the five years before the first clashes flared in May 2020, Modi met with his Chinese counterpart 18 times. Even a 2017 standoff on a remote Himalayan plateau did not dissuade Modi from pursuing his appeasement policy.

Seeking to protect his image as a strong leader, Modi has not acknowledged the loss of Indian territories. India’s media enables this evasion by amplifying government-coined euphemisms: China’s aggression is a “unilateral change of status quo,” and the PLA-seized areas are “friction points.” Meanwhile, Modi has allowed China’s trade surplus with India to rise so rapidly – it now exceeds India’s total defense budget (the world’s third largest) – that his government is, in a sense, underwriting China’s aggression.

But none of this should be mistaken for unwillingness to fight. India is committed to restoring the status quo ante and is at its “highest level” of military readiness. This is no empty declaration. If Xi seeks to break the current stalemate by waging war, both sides will suffer heavy losses, with no victor emerging.

In other words, Xi has picked a border fight that he cannot win, and transformed a conciliatory India into a long-term foe. This amounts to an even bigger miscalculation than Modi’s policy incoherence. The price China will pay for Xi’s mistake will far outweigh the perceived benefits of some stealthy land grabs.

In a sense, China’s territorial expansionism represents a shrewder, broader, and slower version of Russia’s conventional war on Ukraine – and could provoke a similar international backlash against Xi’s neo-imperial agenda. Already, China’s aggression has prompted Indo-Pacific powers to strengthen their military capabilities and cooperation, including with the United States. All of this will undercut Xi’s effort to fashion a Sino-centric Asia and, ultimately, achieve China’s goal of global preeminence.

Xi might recognize that he has made a strategic blunder in the Himalayas. But, at a time when he is preparing to secure a precedent-defying third term as leader of the Communist Party of China, he has little room to change course, and the costs will continue to mount.

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 Quad’s moment of truth has arrived

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Biden’s empty Taiwan rhetoric reveals Quad’s core weakness

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Anthony Albanese, Joe Biden, Fumio Kishida and Narendra Modi at the Prime Minister’s Office of Japan in Tokyo on May 24: The Quad’s moment of truth has arrived.   © Reuters

Nearly five years after it was resurrected from a decadelong dormancy, and then integrated as a strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific’s leading democracies, the Quad is struggling to make a difference in a region whose rising economic and geopolitical heft promises to reshape the international order.

Amid the deepening global fallout from the Ukraine war and the NATO-Russia proxy coflict, this week’s Quad summit in Tokyo showed that the group comprising the U.S., India, Japan and Australia has its work cut out if it is to make a meaningful impact, which will be measured in terms of deliverables, rather than the number of times its leaders get together and make promises.

While the Quad is trying to get its act together, the geostrategic dynamics are changing rapidly in the Indo-Pacific, where the world’s fastest economic growth is incongruously juxtaposed with fast-rising naval capabilities and the most dangerous strategic hot spots.

Intended to serve as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism, from the South and East China Seas to the Himalayas, the Quad has done little to rein in China’s unilateral moves to alter the regional status quo, with Beijing’s wide-ranging security accord with the Solomon Islands just the latest example.

In Tokyo, U.S. President Joe Biden stole the summit’s thunder with various pre-summit announcements or assertions, including unveiling his administration’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework — an economic platform that seeks to promote cooperation among its 13 member-states on global issues such as supply chains, clean energy and digital rules, but without reducing trade barriers or tariffs.

Biden’s indication that the U.S. would use force to defend Taiwan grabbed global headlines, yet, paradoxically, Biden has gradually been easing pressure on China. Examples include letting China off the hook over the COVID-19 origins, dropping U.S. fraud charges against the daughter of the founder of China’s Huawei Technologies, and allowing Beijing to escape scot-free over its failure to meet commitments in the so-called Phase One trade deal with Washington.

Further, Biden revealed in Tokyo that he was considering rolling back trade tariffs on Chinese products, an action that would break his promise not to unilaterally lift tariffs unless Beijing’s behavior improved.

Not once, not twice, but three times Biden has said in recent months that the U.S. will militarily defend Taiwan, only to have his senior officials walk back his comments on every occasion. A day after sowing international confusion afresh, Biden himself walked back his Taiwan comments, telling reporters, “My policy has not changed at all.”

Lost was the exclusion of Taiwan from Biden’s Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, with the White House offering no explanation for omitting the global semiconductor hub.

The defense of Taiwan has assumed greater significance for Indo-Pacific security, given that three successive U.S. administrations have failed to credibly push back against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, relying instead on rhetoric or symbolic actions. Beijing’s swallowing of Hong Kong also has essentially been cost-free.

All of this has renewed questions about the Quad’s strategic direction and mission. While it remains integral to the U.S. strategy of a free and open Indo-Pacific, Biden’s September 2021 launch of the AUKUS alliance with Australia and Britain signaled the Anglosphere is back and confirmed a shift in the Quad’s focus under him to everlasting universal challenges, from climate change and cybersecurity to global health and resilient supply chains.

Biden, after taking office in January last year, initiated the practice of Quad leaders holding summit meetings, with the Tokyo meeting representing the fourth such summit in just 14 months. But under Biden’s leadership, the group has also taken on an expansive agenda.

Given its small size, the Quad is in no position to deal with larger international challenges. Yet the first Quad summit in March 2021, held virtually, launched working groups on climate change, vaccines and critical and emerging technologies.

When the Quad leaders met in person at the White House last September, three more working groups were established on cybersecurity, infrastructure and space. With the Quad unable to meet its own target of delivering one billion Indian-manufactured doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the developing world by the end of this year, this raises the danger that the group will underdeliver on other core promises.

This week’s summit in Tokyo was a reminder that a very broad and ambitious agenda not only dilutes the Quad’s Indo-Pacific focus but also makes it more difficult to produce results.

The leaders’ joint statement was heavy with pious declarations about cooperating on issues extending from peace and security to climate, space, global health security and cybersecurity, but light on concrete plans, including on combating what it acknowledged were “coercive, provocative or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo” in the region.

The Quad’s moment of truth has arrived. The group today faces a clear choice: start translating its rhetoric into action by leveraging its members’ strengths, or risk becoming a mere talking shop. Given that the Quad is now more integrated than ever, it ought to focus on deliverables to help underscore its strategic value.

Unless the Quad gets cracking, an illiberal hegemonic order in Asia could emerge, creating significant risks for international security and global markets.

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

European scramble for energy comes at Asia’s expense

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EU moves to wean itself off Russian oil and gas is creating a self-defeating trap

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

A man rests while waiting in a line to buy diesel in Colombo on April 7: Europe’s frenzied efforts to secure alternative sources spells trouble for importing states with lower-paying power such as cash-strapped Sri Lanka.   © Reuters

The era of cheap oil and gas is over. In an increasingly risky and turbulent world, geopolitics more than supply chain issues has driven up fossil fuel prices and spurred growing energy insecurity.

The war in Ukraine has also made global inflation worse, increased debt and slowed economic growth. Financial markets have become more volatile as they start to price in the dual risk of stagnant economic growth and persistently high inflation.

Yet here’s the paradox: as many as 37 advanced economies, from Japan to Australia and Canada, have joined the unprecedented U.S.-led sanctions campaign to isolate and squeeze Russia. Unwittingly, these countries have created a self-defeating trap: their punitive campaign is raising international energy and commodity prices, as well as Russia’s revenues, despite a significant decrease in its energy exports.

And by fueling inflation at home and cutting into their citizens’ standard of living, those imposing sanctions are imposing costs on themselves, with the International Monetary Fund expecting global growth to slow to 3.6% this year from 6.1% last year.

Against this background, Europe’s ambitious mission to wean itself off Russian fossil fuels has been hailed as a “geostrategic game-changer.” In reality, Europe’s scramble to find alternative energy sources is stoking the further rise of international prices and compounding the debt woes of poorer countries.

More fundamentally, Europe’s energy shift, given the scale of its planned supply switch, is set to trigger costly competition with the thriving economies of Asia, the world’s largest energy consumer.

The 27-country European Union, which consumes 11% of the total global energy supply, currently relies on Russia for 40% of its gas and 25% of its oil.

With OPEC Secretary-General Mohammad Barkindo already stating that there is not sufficient global oil capacity to compensate for the loss of Russian supply, it is no wonder that oil prices immediately jumped 4% earlier this month when the EU proposed a phased ban on imports of Russian oil.

Brent crude futures are currently trading more than 50% higher than last year’s annual average of $70.40. Diesel, meanwhile, is already in short supply, with its price soaring as European distributors move away from Russian supplies, while American and other producers of Liquefied Natural Gas are already struggling to meet the increased demand from Europe.

The U.S., the world’s second-largest natural-gas exporter after Russia, is on track to become the world’s largest LNG exporter this year, overtaking Qatar and Australia. Yet, thanks to Europe’s scramble, U.S. natural-gas prices at home have more than doubled this year, pushing up inflation to a four-decade high of 8.3%.

Still, no region will be more affected by Europe’s shift to non-Russian sources of energy supply than Asia.

By severing its energy ties with Russia and decoupling two interlocked parts of the global energy system, Europe will become the main competitor for the energy that otherwise supplies Asia.

The EU has also opened a path for China to build an energy safety net through greater land-based imports from Russia that cannot be blockaded, even if it were to invade Taiwan.

Rewiring European economies that have long depended on cheap Russian energy will be a costly and lengthy process, requiring the building of new or expanded LNG infrastructure and the recalibrating of oil refineries that are configured for processing only Russian crude.

Meanwhile, the specter of Russia cutting supplies through counter-sanctions has led Europe to frenetically stock up on imported LNG, crude and diesel, often by outbidding Asian buyers.

Since last month, European energy imports from Africa, the Middle East and North America have hit a record high and commanded premium prices. Ironically, the EU is also stocking up on Russian gas, oil and coal, paying Moscow 44 billion euros in just the first two months of the war for such imports, compared with about 140 billion euros for the whole of 2021.

The changing dynamics compound the challenges for Japan, whose companies have invested in the Russian Sakhalin-1, Sakhalin-2 and Arctic LNG 2 projects, each of which has been deemed essential for Japanese energy security. Japan, which relies on Russia for just 4% of its total crude imports and 9% of its gas, is loath to find alternative sources at this stage, despite slapping its own sanctions on Moscow.

A Japanese-made carrier is anchored near an LNG plant on Sakhalin island: The changing dynamics compound the challenges for Japan.   © Reuters

Replacing just its Sakhalin-2 LNG with spot-market LNG could raise Japan’s total yearly import bill by as much as 50% on current trends. India, one of the world’s largest energy consumers and heavily reliant on foreign supplies, has already seen its energy-import bill rise by billions of dollars per week.

Energy markets today can ill-afford a large economy like Japan joining Europe’s scramble. Europe’s frenzied efforts to secure alternative sources already spell trouble for importing states with lower-paying power, such as cash-strapped Sri Lanka, which has declared an unprecedented nationwide curfew to deal with violent street protests.

The risk is growing that the EU, in seeking to hurt Russia, may end up hurting itself while severely penalizing developing economies. Higher energy prices will benefit all the world’s major energy exporters, from the U.S. to Russia. According to the Oslo-based Rystad Energy, despite Russian crude production projected to decline sharply in 2022, Moscow’s total income from oil alone is likely to soar to $180 billion, up 45%.

At a time of such geopolitically driven market disruptions, a Europe competing with Asia for securing greater energy supplies will not only continue to drive up prices but also could derail the economic recovery from the pandemic.

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

The Quad at a Crossroads

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The Indo-Pacific’s four leading democracies can hold as many leaders’ summits as they want, but without a clear strategic vision – and an agenda to match – they will have little impact. The group’s purpose is to act as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism and ensure a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

When the Quad was first conceived as a strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific’s four leading democracies, many doubted that it would amount to much. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi mocked it as a “headline-grabbing idea” that would dissipate “like the sea foam in the Pacific or Indian Ocean.” But continued Chinese expansionism, combined with former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s determination to build broad resistance to it, has produced an increasingly consolidated group, with real potential to bolster regional security. The question is whether it will deliver.

One thing is certain: all four Quad members – Australia, India, Japan, and the United States – are essential to realize the vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” introduced by Japan in 2016 and affirmed by the US in 2017. While the Quad took some time to get off the ground – it was resurrected during US President Donald Trump’s administration but leaders’ summits began only after Joe Biden took office – it has gained considerable momentum. Its members have held three summits since last year (two of them virtual) and are set to meet in person in Tokyo on May 24.

But the Quad still has a long way to go, not least because its members’ own actions are undercutting its strategic rationale – the need to prevent China from upending security in the Indo-Pacific. A key problem is that all four countries have allowed themselves to be seduced by the Chinese narrative that economic relations can be separated from geopolitics.

China’s trade surplus, which reached a record $676.4 billion last year, is now the main engine of its economy. Without it, Chinese growth would likely stall, especially as President Xi Jinping strengthens state control over private companies. This would also hinder China’s ability to invest in its military and finance its aggressive maneuvers in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

And yet the US and India are major contributors to China’s trade surplus. The US leads the way: its trade deficit with China swelled by more than 25% in 2021, to $396.6 billion, and now comprises over 58% of China’s total surplus. India’s trade deficit with China – which hit $77 billion in the 12 months through this March – exceeds its defense budget, even as the two countries are locked in a dangerous military confrontation on their long Himalayan frontier.

China’s stealth encroachments on some Indian border areas in 2020 triggered deadly clashes, setting in motion a buildup of forces and border infrastructure that continues to this day. This should have been a wake-up call for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had been so committed to appeasing China that he was blindsided by its aggression. But India’s large and growing trade deficit with China suggests that he is still asleep.

Australia and Japan have similarly built up significant dependency on Chinese trade. China accounts for nearly one-third of Australia’s international trade and is Japan’s largest export market. Moreover, both countries are members of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. For them, enabling China to shape trade rules in the Indo-Pacific is apparently a small price to pay for the economic benefits of increased regional commerce.

Rather than continuing to underwrite China’s economic and geopolitical power, the Quad should be making economic cooperation – including increased trade among its members – a central feature of its agenda. Unfortunately, though Biden has pledged to unveil an Indo-Pacific Economic Framework covering everything from infrastructure to the digital economy, his administration’s unwillingness to commit more resources to the region or offer regional partners better access to US markets severely limits the initiative’s potential. Moreover, Biden has pushed an expansive Quad agenda covering topics that have nothing to do with the group’s core objectives – everything from climate change to COVID-19 vaccine delivery to supply-chain resilience.

America’s deepening proxy conflict with Russia further muddies the strategic picture. Biden is the third successive US president to commit to shifting America’s primary strategic focus to Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific. But the Ukraine war – which he believes “could continue for a long time” – may well cause him, like his predecessors, not to complete that pivot.

The war might also spur Biden to take a more conciliatory approach to China. Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, Biden had begun to ease pressure on China. He effectively let China off the hook for both obscuring COVID-19’s origins and failing to meet its commitments under the 2020 “phase one” trade deal with the US. He also dropped fraud charges against the daughter of the founder of the military-linked Chinese tech giant Huawei. US sanctions over China’s Muslim gulag remain essentially symbolic.

Now, as Biden attempts to ensure that Xi does not offer Russian President Vladimir Putin an economic lifeline, thereby neutralizing the impact of Western sanctions, he is likely to adopt an even more conciliatory approach. Already, the US Trade Representative has reinstated exemptions from Trump-era tariffs on 352 products imported from China. And now the White House is considering a broader reduction of tariffs on non-strategic goods from China.

The Quad can hold as many leaders’ summits as it wants, but without a clear strategic vision – and an agenda to match – it will have little impact. The group’s purpose is to act as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism and ensure a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. At its May 24 summit, all other issues should take a backseat to this objective.

Brahma Chellaney

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

© Project Syndicate, 2022.

Why sanctions against Russia may not work

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR, THE HILL

The unprecedented U.S.-led Western sanctions against Russia have been likened to economic weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that would ultimately destroy the Russian economy. In reality, the sanctions are like a double-edged sword — they inflict pain on Russia but also impose costs on their imposers.

The West, in fact, is caught in a trap: The sanctions and the deepening conflict, by helping to raise global commodity and energy prices, translate into higher revenues for Moscow in spite of a significant decrease in its exports. And the higher international prices, by fueling inflation, mean political trouble at home for those behind the sanctions.

Look at another paradox: Despite Russia being cut off from the world’s financial arteries, the Russian ruble has dramatically recovered through state intervention. But, as if to signal that Japan is paying a price for following the U.S. lead on Russia, the Japanese yen (the world’s third-most-traded currency) has sunk to a 20-year low against the U.S. dollar, ranking this year as the worst performing of the 41 currencies tracked — worse than the ruble.

Meanwhile, the runaway inflation and supply-chain disruptions are threatening Western corporate profits, while the interest-rate hikes to rein in inflation make a bad situation worse for consumers. With economic trouble looming large, April became the worst month for Wall Street since the pandemic-triggered March 2020 plunge. The S&P 500 fell 8.8 percent in April.

In the first two months of the war in Ukraine, those imposing the sanctions ironically helped Russia to nearly double its revenues to about €62 billion from selling fossil fuels to them, according to a report of a Finland-registered think tank, the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air. The top 18 importers, with the sole exception of China, were the sanctions imposers, with the European Union (EU) alone accounting for 71 percent of the purchases of Russian fuels in this period.

While Turkey, South Korea and Japan also remain reliant on Russian energy supplies, the EU’s imports of gas, oil and coal from Russia totaled around €44 billion in this two-month period, compared with about €140 billion for the whole of 2021.

Russia, even as its economy takes a hit from the Western sanctions, is doing its bit to keep international energy and commodity prices high, including by cutting off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria. Moscow could raise prices further through broader counter-sanctions and yet manage to cushion its export earnings.

The fact is that Russia is the world’s richest country when it comes to natural resources, including serving among the world’s largest exporters of natural gas, uranium, nickel, oil, coal, aluminum, copper, wheat, fertilizers and precious metals such as palladium, which is more precious than gold and used largely in catalytic converters.

Through no fault of theirs, the real losers from the Russia-NATO conflict, sadly, are the poorer countries, which are bearing the brunt of the economic fallout. From Peru to Sri Lanka, rising fuel, food and fertilizer prices have triggered violent street protests, which in some states have spiraled into continuing political turmoil. The debt woes of many poor nations have deepened.

In employing the full range of its economic weaponry, the West sought to unleash “shock and awe” on Russia, as if to underscore that sanctions are a form of war. But like armed conflict, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine illustrates, sanctions are unpredictable in shaping outcomes and often lead to unintended or undesirable consequences.

Squeezing a major power, especially one that has the world’s largest nuclear-weapons arsenal, with a raft of harsh sanctions is fraught with danger, especially as increasingly sophisticated and heavier Western weapons pour into Ukraine, with the United States also supplying battlefield intelligence, including targeting data.

Almost every day brings a fresh reminder that this conflict is not just about the control of Ukraine or its future status. Rather, this is a full-fledged new Cold War between Washington and Moscow, with Europe as the theater of the growing confrontation. President Biden’s strategy of Containment 2.0 against Moscow is designed to ensnare Russia in a military quagmire in Ukraine, trigger the collapse of the Russian economy and bring about the overthrow of President Vladimir Putin.

As the war has progressed, Biden has become bolder, including deepening America’s involvement in it. Biden’s implicit call for regime change in Moscow and his administration’s publicly declared goal of a “weakened” Russia, however, run counter to what the president said about two weeks into the war: “Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III, something we must strive to prevent.”

Unfortunately, there has been little American debate on whether sanctions can weaken Russia or whether the generous military assistance to Ukraine can really bog down the Russian military in a protracted conflict. What if, instead of a weakened Russia, a nationalistic backlash spawns a more militarily assertive, neo-imperial Russia?

After its initial missteps that resulted in heavy Russian casualties, Russia is now militarily focused on consolidating its control in the resource-rich east and south of Ukraine. Russia has carved out a land corridor to Crimea and gained control of regions that hold 90 percent of Ukraine’s energy resources, including all its offshore oil and much of its critical port infrastructure. The Ukrainian ports on the Sea of Azov and four-fifths of Ukraine’s Black Sea coastline are now with Russia, which earlier established control over the Kerch Strait that connects those two seas. 

Can the flood of weapons the West is sending to Ukraine undo these new military realities? If Russia stays focused on narrow military objectives centered on establishing a buffer zone in the occupied parts of Ukraine’s south and east, it could avert a quagmire, while remaining free to continue systematically targeting military infrastructure across that expansive country.

Let’s be clear: Sanctions historically have worked better against small, vulnerable states than large or powerful ones. But they have rarely produced timely change. The current Western sanctions could take years to seriously hurt the Russian economy.

The irony is that, despite employing all possible coercive economic instruments against Russia and making it difficult to negotiate an end to the war, the Biden White House doesn’t believe that sanctions alone will work, which explains why it has increasingly turned to weapons supply, including asking Congress for a staggering $33 billion in additional military and economic funds to fuel the conflict and stymie Russian war objectives.

But the sanctions, by signaling the advent of a new era of U.S.-led unilateralism, are likely to weaken and ultimately even undermine the Western-controlled global financial architecture that they are meant to defend. The sweeping sanctions, by spurring broader concerns about the weaponization of finance and its implications for any country that dared to cross a U.S. red line, have created a new incentive for non-Western states to explore establishing parallel arrangements. China will not only lead this process but also is set to emerge as the real winner of the NATO-Russia conflict.

Biden’s belief that “this war could continue for a long time” is backed by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley, who testified that he expects it to last years. But as the conflict drags on and the boomerang effects of the sanctions deepen the cost-of-living crisis, the divides in the Western camp will widen and “Ukraine fatigue” will set in.

The West will be left with little choice but to negotiate with Putin to end the conflict, as predicted by Javier Solana, a former NATO chief who also served as Spain’s foreign minister. Such negotiations will be vital to halt Ukraine’s destruction and avert Europe from paying the main price.

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

Washington’s clumsy attempts to bully India must stop

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

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can punishing Russia become an end in itself?

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Biden, going beyond the traditional tools of deterrence and diplomacy, is relying entirely on his unprecedented sanctions to shape the behavior of a rival nuclear power, which has a long record of enduring economic hardship.

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, THE HILL

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President Biden’s gaffes during his recent European tour – from suggesting to American troops in Poland that they would be in war-torn Ukraine and saying NATO would respond “in kind” if Russia used chemical weapons to seemingly calling for regime change in Moscow – led to considerable clean-up efforts by his team. Biden, by his own admission, has a record of being a “gaffe machine.”

But the president’s misstatements on issues of war and peace in this perilous time carry significant risks, which explains why his top officials were quick to walk back his apparent regime-change call, lest it further erode U.S.-Russia relations. U.S.-Russia ties are already at an all-time low.

More fundamentally, Biden’s propensity for making misstatements that land his administration in difficult situations is detracting attention from the larger question of whether the president has a strategy to end the war in Ukraine.

Biden’s statements, in fact, are making it increasingly difficult to negotiate an end to the war. Washington’s overriding focus on punishing Russia for its brazen invasion suggests that top U.S. officials are not thinking of how to terminate the war, even as Moscow and Kyiv hold talks.

Punishing Russia for invading Ukraine, while essential, has ceased to be a means to an end and has apparently become an end in itself.

This may explain why Biden has discarded some key tenets of diplomacy, including avoiding insulting another country’s head of state or conveying an unintended policy message to preserve space for direct negotiations.

Biden has increasingly personalized the conflict by hurling a steady stream of insults at Russian President Vladimir Putin, while vowing to make him “a pariah on the international stage.” In the days before declaring, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” Biden called Putin “a butcher,” “a murderous dictator,” “a pure thug” and “a war criminal” — a term whose past use against a foreign leader (for example, Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) was usually accompanied by a U.S.-led campaign to topple him from power.   

The use of aggressive language began long before the Ukraine war. Just weeks after entering the White House, Biden said Putin is “a killer,” vowing that the Russian leader will “pay a price” for allegedly meddling in the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

By contrast, Biden has treated Chinese President Xi Jinping with respect. Despite Xi’s coverup of the origins of the COVID-19 virus, his Asian expansionism and his Muslim gulag (which represents the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since Adolf Hitler), the president has not hurled any personal insult at him. Nor has he imposed any sanctions on the Chinese leader or those in his inner circle.

The unintended consequence of Biden’s vilification of Putin is to seriously crimp space for the U.S. and Russia to reach a modus vivendi to rein in their conflict. Putin now has a greater reason to double down and continue his invasion until the Russian forces carve out a strategic buffer against NATO that effectively partitions Ukraine into two, with the Dnieper River possibly serving as the approximate dividing line.

Biden, going beyond the traditional tools of deterrence and diplomacy, is relying entirely on his unprecedented sanctions to shape the behavior of a rival nuclear power, which has a long record of enduring economic hardship. In the post-World War II period, the U.S. has generally relied on sanctions to help bring weak states to heel. Regime change likewise has been imposed only on weak, vulnerable nations.

Squeezing a major power with a raft of harsh sanctions is fraught with danger. The unforeseen consequences could trigger an escalating spiral leading to devastating armed conflict. It was U.S. sanctions against Imperial Japan that ultimately provoked the attack on Pearl Harbor, leading to the Pacific war and eventually the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Today’s Biden-initiated Western sanctions on Russia are the largest, coordinated punitive measures ever rolled out against any country in history. But just as Biden’s threat to impose such sanctions failed to deter Russia from invading Ukraine, their actual imposition, far from chastening Moscow, is likely to resurrect the Iron Curtain and spur the emergence of a remilitarized, neo-imperial Russia.

The U.S.-led sanctions that followed Russia’s 2014 Crimea annexation, while fueling Russian nationalism, compelled Moscow to pivot to China, turning two natural competitors into close strategic partners. Those sanctions also led Russia to build a parallel payments system that has now helped take the sting out of the recent exit of Visa and Mastercard, thereby setting an example for other nations to invest in building their own payments infrastructure.

Today, the rise in international oil and gas prices, by directly contributing to inflation and political trouble at home, is underscoring that sanctions also impose costs on their imposers. Those costs would escalate and possibly even engender recession if the cycle of sanctions, counter-sanctions and fresh sanctions substantially diminished Russian energy exports.

In a further reminder that sanctions are blunt instruments and often produce unintended and undesirable consequences, the West’s comprehensive hybrid war against Russia is helping boost Putin’s popularity at home. According to a poll by the Levada Center, an independent, Moscow-based pollster that has been designated a “foreign agent” in Russia, Putin’s approval ratings shot up from 69 percent in January to 83 percent in late March.

Biden’s primary strategic focus ought to be on preserving America’s global preeminence. For years, the U.S. waged self-debilitating wars in the Islamic world, allowing China to emerge as its primary challenger globally. Now, as it pours military resources into Europe, America’s renewed focus on European security threatens to distract it from its long-term strategic objectives.

After losing Afghanistan to sandal-wearing terroristsBiden should not allow the impulse for revenge against Moscow to drive his foreign policy. Ukraine is Europe’s problem, and he should exert pressure on Europeans to take greater ownership of their security so that the U.S. can single-mindedly focus on arresting its relative decline.

If a war-torn Ukraine were to become another Syria or Libya, the grave implications for Europe’s security would extend far beyond the refugee flow turning into a torrent. In such a scenario, some of the lethal arms the West is pouring into Ukraine could eventually flow back westward to haunt European nations’ internal security.Behind the negotiations, Russia’s elites are pulling strings of their ownAs social media turns 25, we’re still perplexed about regulating bad actors

The current crisis represents the most dangerous period since the end of the Cold War. Stable Washington-Moscow relations can help to avert a wider conflict and reach a NATO-Russia agreement on Ukraine modeled on the 1955 treaty under which Austria established itself as a buffer state between the East and West and declared its neutrality.

More broadly, the U.S. should seek to drive a wedge in the China-Russia axis, instead of becoming a bridge that unites them. The deepening China-Russia entente is perhaps the biggest U.S. foreign-policy failure of the post-Cold War era.

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

China continues its territorial advances in Asia

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Chinese troops at their mountaintop bunkers in Ladakh’s Pangong region in February 2021: what stands out is the speed and scale with which China is redrawing facts on the ground without firing a shot.   © AP

Strategy relies on a steady progression of actions to outmaneuver rival states

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is helping to obscure China’s expansionism in Asia, where it continues to redraw its land and maritime borders and exert growing pressure on Taiwan. Unlike Russia’s frontal military assault, China’s preferred mode of expansionism is salami-slicing, or altering the status quo in its favor, little by little.

In the latest example, the Chinese government’s news website Tibet.cn reported earlier this month that the People’s Liberation Army had quietly completed the 624 villages that China had set out to build in disputed or captured Himalayan border areas.

China’s militarized villages in the Himalayan borderlands, that India, Bhutan and Nepal consider to be within their own national boundaries, are the equivalent of its artificial islands that it is turning into forward military bases in the South China Sea.

What is remarkable about its village-building spree in the Himalayas is that China has reportedly managed to complete it despite the specter of armed conflict raised by its ongoing military confrontation with India. The Indian and Chinese militaries have remained locked in multiple Himalayan standoffs for the past 23 months after China stealthily encroached on some key border areas in the northernmost Indian territory of Ladakh, leading to the first deadly Chinese-Indian military clashes since 1975.

Recent talks to defuse the military crisis, including between military commanders and later between the foreign ministers, made little headway. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s New Delhi trip on Mar. 25 was the highest-level visit between the two countries since the standoffs in the frigid Himalayan heights began.

Effective control is the most vital element of a strong territorial claim in international law. This explains why establishing new facts on the ground, whether in the form of high-altitude artificial villages with planted settlers or human-made islands, is integral to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s territorial aggrandizement.

Xi’s expansionism has not spared even tiny Bhutan, with a population of barely 800,000. In disregard of a 1998 bilateral treaty that obligated its parties “not to resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border,” several of China’s militarized villages have come up in Bhutan’s northern and western borderlands.

More broadly, China’s territorial revisionism follows a cabbage strategy: gradually wrapping a claimed or contested area in multiple layers of security, like the concentric leaves of a cabbage, thereby denying access to any rival.

Just like the concentric layers of occupation around the South China Sea islands by Chinese fishing boats, coastguard ships and naval ships, expansionism in the Himalayas has involved bringing in people from afar to settle in desolate, previously uninhabited areas, with civilian militias, paramilitary police and regular PLA forces forming multilayered security.

China’s strategy of territorial creep relies on a steady progression of actions to outmaneuver a rival state, in keeping with the ancient Chinese game of Go, in which the goal is to incrementally gain more territory through unrelenting attacks on the opponent’s weak points. Before initiating a jurisdictional claim through a rising tempo of incursions, Beijing has a history of constructing a dispute.

In the East China Sea, China succeeded in getting the world to recognize the existence of a dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands by steadily increasing the frequency and duration of its intrusions into their territorial waters and airspace and by popularizing the islands’ Chinese name Diaoyu.

Chinese marine surveillance ship cruising in the East China Sea near Senkaku Islands in February 2021. (Photo by Hitoshi Nakama)   © Kyodo

Even as Beijing started dispatching armed ships and larger vessels, Japan has recoiled from purely defensive steps like building a lighthouse on the Senkakus. Indeed, no Japanese defense minister has conducted an aerial survey of the uninhabited Senkakus in order not to provoke China.

By keeping opponents off-balance, Xi’s strategy bears all the hallmarks of brinkmanship, including reliance on stealth, surprise and an indifference to the risks of military escalation. Camouflaging offense as defense, it casts the burden of starting a war on the other side.

In international law, a territorial claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. But even after an international arbitral tribunal’s 2016 ruling invalidated its territorial claims in the South China Sea, Beijing imposed “might makes right” in that region.

In more recent years, however, China has increasingly employed new domestic law both as a cover for unlawful actions and to underpin its territorial claims in international law. Through domestic legislation, Xi has sought to legitimize Chinese actions ranging from the human-made militarized islands and new administrative districts in the South China Sea to the Himalayan border villages.

China’s shadowy expansionism in the Himalayas extends far beyond the 624 border villages whose construction a 2017 Chinese government document unveiled. To project power and enable more rapid movement of troops, weaponry and equipment, Beijing has pursued frenzied construction of new military infrastructure, including in disputed borderlands. New Chinese roads through Bhutanese territory have opened an axis against India’s most vulnerable point — the Siliguri Corridor, which connects the country’s far northeast to the Indian heartland.

What stands out is the speed and scale with which China is redrawing facts on the ground without firing a shot. China’s territorial creep is contributing to increasing insecurity in Asia, the world’s most dynamic region economically.

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