China’s culpability in the massacre of Indian paramilitary soldiers by a Pakistan-based terrorist group is unmistakable. It openly shields Pakistan’s export of terrorism. While Pakistan’s proxy war keeps India preoccupied in the west, China’s aid to northeast Indian insurgents weighs down India on its eastern flank.
The Dalai Lama recently told this newspaper that due to Chinese pressure, no Buddhist country, with the sole exception of the nominally Buddhist Japan, is now willing to grant him entry. China’s ability to browbeat smaller countries into submission, however, should not obscure the major new challenges it faces.
The world’s longest-surviving autocracy turns 70 this year, with its future uncertain. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, which left at least 10,000 people dead. After more than a quarter century of phenomenal economic growth, China has entered a new era of uncertainty.
China’s slowing economy, an international geopolitical pushback against its overweening ambitions, new trade disruptions and tariffs, and President Xi Jinping’s centralization of power have all contributed to a jittery mood among its elites. Add to the picture the flight of capital from a country that had amassed a mountain of foreign-exchange reserves by enjoying a surplus in its overall balance of payments. Not only is capital fleeing China but even wealthy Chinese — in an informal vote of no confidence in the Chinese system — are emigrating.
Meanwhile, China has come under international pressure on multiple fronts — from its trade, investment and lending policies to its incarceration in “re-education camps” of more than a million Muslims from Xinjiang, a sprawling territory Mao Zedong annexed in 1949 just before gobbling up the buffer with India, Tibet. China’s free ride, which helped propel its rise, seems to be ending.
Malaysia’s decision to scrap a $20-billion rail project is just the latest example of how Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is running into growing resistance. Even Pakistan, China’s client-state, has downsized, cancelled or eliminated some BRI projects. Meanwhile, a US-led pushback against China’s Huawei conglomerate has broadened from opposition to its participation in next-generation 5G wireless networks to a broader effort to restrict the use of Chinese technology over espionage concerns.
It is China’s open disregard for international rules, however, that explains why it can count on few true strategic allies or reliable security partners. China’s lonely rise could become more pronounced with the newly restructured People’s Liberation Army (PLA) becoming less of an army and more of a power projection force, the majority of whose troops now are not from the army but from the other services, including the navy, air force, rocket force and the cyber warfare-oriented strategic support force.
For China’s neighbours, the PLA’s restructuring foreshadows a more aggressive Chinese military approach of the kind already being witnessed in the South and East China seas and the Himalayas. In fact, the risk is that — just as Mao staged the 1962 invasion of India after his disastrous “Great Leap Forward” created the worst famine in modern world history — Xi’s mounting challenges at home and abroad could prompt him to divert attention through military aggression.
Undeterred by the international pushback, however, Xi’s regime is still blending economic aggression, debt-trap diplomacy, territorial and maritime revisionism, influence operations and Orwellian tactics to advance unbridled ambitions. Chinese influence operations range from legitimate activities like lobbying to more covert or corrupting actions such as seeking to meddle in the domestic politics of democracies and sway their policy-relevant discourse.
As Indian national elections approach, China has stepped up its influence operations in India. China has been emboldened by its remarkable success in Nepal, which has tilted toward Beijing, despite an open border underscoring its symbiotic relationship with India. On the first anniversary of Nepal’s communist government this weekend, it is important to remember that China played no mean role in the communists’ democratic ascension to power there.
India, with its fragmented polity and fractious political divides, has become an important target of China’s efforts to buy access and influence and sway politics. These efforts have been aided by New Delhi’s feckless approach to Beijing, especially since the Wuhan summit.
Moreover, by more than doubling its trade surplus with India to over $66 billion a year on the BJP government’s watch, Beijing has acquired deeper pockets for influence operations, which aim to help instil greater Indian caution and reluctance to openly challenge China. At a time when India is engrossed in electoral politics, including increasingly petty and bitter feuding, Beijing’s conduct is underlining its master plan for this country: It wants a weak and unwieldy Indian government to emerge from the elections.
China’s culpability in the Pulwama massacre of Indian jawans is unmistakable. In keeping with its master plan, Beijing brazenly shields Pakistan’s export of terrorism, including blocking UN action against Pakistan-based terrorists like Masood Azhar. Indeed, China has long used militants to attack India’s weak points, including by originally training Naga and Mizo guerrillas and currently consorting with several northeast Indian insurgent leaders, some of them ensconced in Yunnan or Myanmar. So, while Pakistan’s proxy war keeps India preoccupied in the west, China’s proxy war weighs down India on its eastern flank.
If India is to safeguard its interests and expand its global footprint, its next government would need a more clearheaded and self-assured foreign policy, including for addressing the insidious China challenge.
This year is Afghanistan’s 40th year in a row as an active war zone. Betrayal, violence and surrender have defined Afghanistan’s history for long, especially as the playground for outside powers. The US-Taliban “agreement in principle” fits with that narrative. By promising a terrorist militia a total American military pullout within 18 months and a pathway to power in Kabul, the US, in essence, is negotiating the terms of its surrender.
It is worth remembering how the US got into a military quagmire. The US invasion in October 2001 ousted the Taliban from power in Kabul for harbouring the Al Qaeda planners of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, the key Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaida and Ramzi Binalshibh, were later found holed up inside Pakistan. Yet, paradoxically, the US, while raining bombs in Afghanistan, rewarded Pakistan, as President Donald Trump said last year, with more than $33 billion in aid since 2002.
The quagmire resulted from the US reluctance to take the war to the other side of the Durand Line by targeting the Taliban’s command-and-control bases in Pakistan. In modern world history, no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border state sponsorship and safe havens. This also explains why terrorists remain active in the Kashmir Valley.
Rather than take out the Taliban’s cross-border sanctuaries, the US actively sought “reconciliation” for years, allowing the militia to gain strength and terrorize Afghans. The protracted search for a Faustian bargain with the Taliban also explains why that ruthless militia was never added to the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This approach counterproductively led to an ascendant Taliban expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in growing numbers.
Now, desperate to exit, Trump has sought to accomplish what his predecessor, Barack Obama, set out to do but failed — to cut a deal with the Taliban. It was with the aim of facilitating direct talks with the Taliban that Obama allowed the militia to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Doha, Qatar, in 2013. Then, to meet a Taliban precondition, five hardened Taliban militants (two of them accused of carrying out massacres of Tajiks and Hazaras) were freed from Guantánamo Bay. The five were described by the late US senator, John McCain, as the “hardest of hard core”.
Instead of the promised Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, the Trump administration clinched the tentative deal with the Taliban without prior consultations with Kabul and then sought to sell it to a sceptical Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In doing so, it has unwittingly aided the Taliban effort to delegitimize an elected government. Given that Ghani was blindsided by the “framework” accord, it is no surprise that Washington did not care to take India, its “major defence partner”, into confidence either.
Let’s be clear: The Taliban do not represent most Pashtuns, let alone a majority of Afghans. Many in their ranks are Pakistanis recruited and trained by Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence, just as ISI teams up with Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed against India. The US-Taliban deal nullifies then US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ promise that “we’re not going to surrender civilization to people who cannot win at the ballot box”.
Indeed, the deal represents not only a shot in the arm for the resurgent Taliban but also a major diplomatic win for its sponsor, Pakistan, which facilitated the accord. Contrary to speculation that US reliance on Pakistan is on the decline, the interim deal, and the imperative to finalize and implement it, underscore the US dependence on the Pakistani army and ISI. In effect, Pakistan is being rewarded for sponsoring cross-border terrorism.
All this holds important implications for India, which, as Mattis said in October, “has been generous over many years with Afghanistan”, earning “a degree of affection from the Afghan people”. Once US troops return home, America will have little ability — especially if it does not leave behind a residual counterterrorism force — to influence events in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt. If the Taliban were to again capture power in Kabul with Pakistan’s assistance, the benefits for Afghans from the more than $3 billion in assistance that India has given since 2002 would melt away.
Despite growing US strategic cooperation with India, Washington, by its unilateralist actions, is paradoxically increasing the salience of Iran and Russia in India’s Afghanistan policy. India will have to do whatever is necessary to shield its vital interests in Afghanistan, or else developments there would adversely impinge on Indian security, including in the Kashmir Valley.
Consider two developments in recent days that speak volumes about India’s Pakistan policy: Just as the United States moved to unilaterally withdraw from a major arms-control pact (the Intermediate-Range Forces, or INF, Treaty), “incredible India” — as it calls itself in international tourism-promotion ads — welcomed an inspection team from a terrorist state to scrutinize Indian hydropower projects that are being built under the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).
And, as if to mock the Indian foreign secretary’s formal protest over his call to separatist Umar Farooq four days earlier, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mohammad Qureshi on Saturday telephoned another secessionist leader in Kashmir Valley, Ali Shah Geelani. Qureshi and Pakistan’s all-powerful military generals think they can get away by provoking India.
In the absence of a clearheaded Pakistan policy backed by political resolve, India continues to send confusing and contradictory signals, encouraging Pakistan’s continuing roguish conduct.
India’s welcoming of the three-member Pakistani inspection team, led by that country’s Indus commissioner, illustrated how its incoherent approach to Pakistan has spawned even appeasement.
In 1960, in the naïve hope that water largesse would yield peace, India entered into the IWT by giving away the Indus system’s largest rivers as gifts to Pakistan. Since then, the congenitally hostile Pakistan, while drawing the full benefits from the treaty, has waged overt or covert aggression almost continuously — and is now using the IWT itself as a stick to beat India with, including by contriving water disputes and internationalizing them.
Whereas the U.S. has ditched the INF Treaty over an alleged Russian violation of its terms, India clings to the IWT’s finer details, even though Pakistan is waging proxy war by terror against it. Like the IWT, the INF Treaty is of indefinite duration.
Pakistan’s use of state-reared terrorist groups to inflict upon India death by a thousand cuts can be invoked by New Delhi as constituting reasonable grounds for Indian withdrawal from the IWT. The International Court of Justice has upheld the principle that a treaty, including one of indefinite duration, may be dissolved by reason of a fundamental change of circumstances
Still, India not only adheres to the IWT’s finer details, it even goes beyond. For example, under IWT’s Article VIII, the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) is to meet once a year. Its next meeting was due in March 2019. But, thanks to India’s zealousness, the PIC met much earlier in August 2018, just five months after its previous meeting.
It was at that meeting that India agreed to advance Pakistan’s inspection tour to October 2018. The last such tour occurred in 2014 and the next one, in keeping with the IWT provision for a tour “once every five years”, was due by the end of 2019. The local bodies’ elections in Jammu and Kashmir forced the October tour to be deferred to January-end.
Before returning home on February 1, the Pakistani team examined three Indian hydropower projects currently under construction — the Pakal Dul, which will generate up to 1,000 megawatts of electricity, Ratle (850 megawatts), and Lower Kalnai (48 megawatts). The team also visited the already operational 900-megawatt Baglihar, a project that Pakistan tried earlier to stop by invoking the IWT’s dispute-settlement provisions. But the international neutral expert that was appointed to resolve the dispute ultimately ruled in India’s favour.
Pakistan, however, could seek international intercession again by using the information its inspection team collected last week to mount technical objections to the Indian projects under construction. Indeed, even before the team visited India, Pakistani officials publicly raised objections to the spillway or freeboard of these projects.
Pakistan’s interest lies in sustaining a unique treaty that incorporates water generosity to the lower riparian on a scale unmatched by any other pact in the world. That interest arms India with significant leverage to link the IWT’s future to Pakistan’s observance of basic international norms.
Yet, India is letting go the opportunity to reframe the terms of the Indus engagement.
India’s pusillanimity is apparent from yet another development last week. After the Indian foreign secretary summoned the Pakistani high commissioner to lodge a protest over Qureshi’s call to Umar Farooq, the Pakistani foreign office the next day summoned the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad in reprisal. This raises the question as to why India does not downgrade its diplomatic relations with Pakistan. Why maintain full diplomatic ties with a country that New Delhi branded “Terroristan” in 2017?
There is no reason for India to keep diplomatic relations with a terrorist state at the high commissioner level. Downsizing diplomatic missions and doing away with high commissioners should be part of an Indian strategy to employ peaceful tools, including diplomatic, economic and riparian pressures, to reform Pakistan’s behaviour.
Sadly, India is all talk when it comes to imposing costs on the next-door terrorist state. Indian policymakers do not seem to realize that words not backed by action carry major costs. They not only affect India’s credibility but also undermine its deterrent posture by emboldening the enemy.
Isn’t it telling that Pakistan continues to gore India although it is much smaller in economic, military and demographic terms? Such aggression is the bitter fruit of India’s present approach, which essentially has remained the same under successive governments. However, it is still not late to reverse course.
India ought to talk less and act more. To tame a rogue neighbour, India must emphasize deeds, not words. For starters, it must discard the fiction that it can have normal diplomatic relations with a sponsor of terrorism.
Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research.
History helps shape national perceptions and perspectives and undergirds national security. However, the boundary between historical fact and fiction is more porous than students of history might think. History is not only written by victors but also is used by most nations as a political tool in intrastate or interstate context.
Indeed, many countries create self-serving or sanitized historical narratives. Autocracies have a monopoly on interpreting or rewriting history. China, the fairytale Middle Kingdom, weaves legend with history to foster a chauvinistic Han Chinese culture centered on regaining lost glory.
Democracies are not free from historical revisionism, although their history debates are more nuanced, usually pitting the political right against the left. In Japan, for example, attempts to reform the U.S.-imposed national security, educational and legal systems are portrayed by the left as a potential revival of prewar militarism. South Korea’s historical revisionism, for its part, is still poisoning its relations with Japan.
India, which, like South Korea, fell prey to the ravages of colonialism, has had a static history debate, a reflection of its internal divisions and inefficient, British-style parliamentary democracy. In sharp contrast to South Korea’s or China’s still-continuing tirades against Japan over its colonial rampages in the pre-World War II period, India’s relationship with Britain remains free of historical rancor, in spite of the brutality and impoverishment it suffered under British colonial rule.
Indeed, India embellished or distorted how it won independence in 1947. Indians are still taught in school that their country gained independence by nonviolence.
However, for the first time ever, India’s annual Republic Day parade this year featured veterans of the Japan-supported Indian National Army (INA), which waged an armed struggle against British colonial rule. Four INA veterans in their 90s separately rode a jeep in a parade that, paradoxically, showcased through 22 tableaux the life experiences of the apostle of nonviolence, Mahatma Gandhi.
The juxtaposed roles of the INA and Gandhi at the January 26 parade inadvertently highlighted a central contradiction in India’s historical narrative about independence. The INA veterans’ participation, in fact, helped underscore the Indian republic’s founding myth — that it won independence by nonviolence alone. This belief is deeply etched in the minds of Indians.
To be sure, the Gandhi-led nonviolent independence movement playing a critical role, both in galvanizing grassroots Indian resistance to British rule and in helping to ultimately gain independence. But the decisive factor was the protracted World War II, which reduced to ruins large swaths of Europe and Asia, especially the imperial powers. The war between the Allied and Axis powers killed 80 million, or 4% of the global population.
Despite the U.S.-engineered Allied victory, a devastated Britain was left in no position to hold on to its colonies, including “crown jewel” India. Even colonies where there was no grassroots resistance to British (or other European) rule won independence in the post-World War II period.
The British had dominated India for more than a century through a Machiavellian divide-and-rule strategy. Their exit came only after they had reduced one of the world’s wealthiest economies to one of its poorest. Indeed, they left after they had looted to their heart’s content, siphoning out at least £9.2 trillion (or $44.6 trillion) up to 1938, according to economist Utsa Patnaik’s recent estimate.
Had India, in the immediate aftermath of independence, proactively secured its frontiers, it could have averted both the Kashmir and Himalayan border problems. China was in deep turmoil until October 1949, and India had ample time and space to assert control over the traditional Himalayan borders, including its extraterritorial rights in Tibet. But India’s pernicious founding myth gave rise to a pacifist country that believed it could get peace merely by seeking peace, instead of building the capability to defend peace.
Here’s the paradox: Countless numbers of Indians died due to British colonial excesses. Just in the manmade Bengal famine of 1942-45, six to seven million Indians starved to death (a toll greater than the Holocaust) due to the British war policy under Prime Minister Winston Churchill of diverting resources away from India. Churchill had as much blood on his hands as Adolf Hitler, a fact obscured by the victors’ prevailing narratives.
Moreover, imperial Britain sent Indian soldiers in large numbers to fight its dirty wars elsewhere, including the two world wars, and many died while serving as cannon fodder. The Indian civilian and military fatality toll in World War II was higher than that of Britain, France and the U.S. combined.
Indeed, the present Indian republic was born in blood: As many as a million civilians died in senseless violence and millions more were uprooted in the British-contrived and rushed partition of the subcontinent — the fruition of Britain’s divide-and-rule policy.
Yet the myth of India uniquely charting and securing its independence by nonviolence was propagated by the inheritors of the British Raj, the British-trained “brown sahibs.” Consequently, no objective discourse was encouraged post-1947 on the multiple factors — internal and external — that aided India’s independence.
In truth, the hope of Indian independence was first kindled by Japan’s victory in the 1904-1905 war with Russia — the first time an Asian nation comprehensively defeated a European rival. However, it was the world war that Hitler unleashed through expansionism — with Imperial Japan undertaking military expeditions in the name of freeing Asia from white colonial rule — that acted as the catalyst. An emboldened Gandhi served a “Quit India” notice on the British in 1942.
While the Subhas Chandra Bose-led INA could not mount a formidable threat to a British colonial military overflowing with Indian recruits, the Bombay mutiny and other Indian troop revolts of 1946 triggered by INA prisoners’ trials undermined Britain’s confidence in sustaining the Raj, hastening its exit. Yet, independent India treated INA soldiers shabbily, with many abandoned into penury.
Against this background, the rehabilitation of Bose and the INA has long been overdue in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well to initiate the process, however low key, to give Bose and the INA their due, including recently renaming one Andaman island after Bose and two other Andaman islands to honor INA’s sacrifices. Modi even wore the INA cap to address a recent public meeting in the Andaman archipelago on the 75th anniversary of Bose’s hoisting of the Indian tricolor flag there — the only territory that the INA managed to liberate from British rule.
Today, a rules-based international order premised on nonviolence remains a worthy aspirational goal. But Indian romancing of nonviolence as a supposedly effective political instrument has crimped national-security policy since independence. The country long hewed to pacifism (with the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, publicly bewailing in 1962 that China had “returned evil for good” by militarily invading India) and frowned on materialism (even after China surpassed India’s GDP in 1984-85).
Such has been the burden of the quixotic national philosophy centered on nonviolence that India has borne enduring costs, including an absence of a strategic culture, despite the country’s location in the world’s most-troubled neighborhood. As the late American analyst George Tanham pointed out, the lack of a culture to pursue a clear strategic vision and policy hobbles India’s ambition to be a great power.
Recognizing unsung heroes is an essential step that India has initiated, however belatedly, toward rebalancing its historical narrative. As George Orwell famously said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
The just-announced “agreement in principle” between the US and the Taliban should be called what it is: a Faustian bargain that will lead to still more violence in the region, and perhaps in the West. By abandoning Afghanistan, the Trump administration is repeating one of the worst foreign-policy mistakes of the past few decades.
After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power, thereby eliminating a key nexus of international terrorism. But now, a war-weary US, with a president seeking to cut and run, has reached a tentative deal largely on the Taliban’s terms. The extremist militia that once harbored al-Qaeda and now carries out the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks has secured not just the promise of a US military exit within 18 months, but also a pathway to power in Kabul.
History is repeating itself. The US is once again abandoning war-ravaged Afghanistan, just as it did three decades ago following a successful covert operation by the CIA to force the Soviets out of the country. The US, desperate to end its longest-ever war, appears to have forgotten a key lesson of that earlier abandonment: it turned Afghanistan into a citadel of transnational terrorism, leading to civil war and eventually bloodshed in the West.
The accord reached between the Taliban and the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, reads like a wholesale capitulation on the part of the Trump administration. In 2014, the US signed a security pact with the Afghan government that granted the Americans access to nine military bases at least until 2024. But the US has now agreed to withdraw all of its forces in exchange for a mere promise from a terrorist militia that it will deny other terrorist networks a foothold on Afghan territory. Never mind that the Islamic State is already operational in Afghanistan and poses a challenge to the Taliban itself.
Though the agreement has been dubbed a “peace” deal, it will almost certainly lead to even more Islamist violence, not least against Afghanistan’s women. The Taliban are determined to re-impose the medieval practices they enforced during their harsh rule from 1996 to 2001. Whatever gains Afghanistan has made in terms of women’s and civil rights may soon be reversed.
Make no mistake: the Taliban are brutal and indiscriminate in their use of violence, and they refuse even to recognize the country’s legitimate government, which will make fleshing out the new “framework” accord exceedingly difficult. A number of key issues must be spelled out unambiguously, including when the ceasefire between the Taliban and US-backed Afghan forces will take effect. And even then, it is highly doubtful that the Taliban will agree to a power-sharing arrangement with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
In fact, having been emboldened by a series of US concessions over the past six years, the Taliban have escalated their terrorist attacks and made significant battlefield gains against Afghan forces. So, if anything, they will see the new agreement as an implicit validation of their impending victory. They know that time is on their side, and that most Americans favor a US exit. That means they will probably play hardball when negotiating the details of a final deal.
In addition to representing a major victory for the Taliban, the accord is also a win for Pakistan, which harbors the militia’s leadership and provides cross-border sanctuaries for its fighters. Just last year, Trump cut US security assistance to Pakistan, tweeting, “they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.”
It is worth remembering that when Trump took office, he promised to reverse the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan by “winning again.” But just two years later, he has apparently decided that it is the extremists who will be winning again.
Far from breaking with former US President Barack Obama’s failed approach, as he promised, Trump has now fulfilled his predecessor’s quest for a deal with the Taliban. Having also recently announced a military drawdown in Syria, Trump has made it clear that the US will readily throw its Kurdish and Afghan allies under the bus in order to extricate itself from foreign entanglements of its own making.
To be sure, America’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban has been in the making for years, which explains why the group is conspicuously absent from the US Department of State’s annual list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, despite having killed more civilians in the past year alone than any other outfit. To facilitate talks with the Taliban, Obama allowed the militia to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in 2013. And a year later, he traded five senior Taliban leaders for a US Army sergeant (who was later charged with desertion).
Moreover, to lay the groundwork for a deal, the US war planners have long refrained from targeting the Taliban’s command-and-control base in Pakistan, thereby effectively undercutting their own military mission in Afghanistan. As the top US military commander in Afghanistan admitted in 2017, “It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.”
The US has come full circle. The Taliban, like al-Qaeda, evolved from the violent jihadist groups that the CIA trained in Pakistan to wage war against the Soviets in the 1980s. After suffering the worst terrorist attack in modern world history, the US turned against the Taliban, driving their leaders out of Afghanistan.
But now, in search of a face-saving exit from the Afghan quagmire, America is implicitly preparing to hand the country back to the same thuggish group that it removed from power 17 years ago. Sadly, once American troops leave Afghan soil, the ability of the US to influence events there, or to prevent a new terrorist attack on the US homeland, will be severely limited.
As the People’s Republic of China prepares to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding later this year, the limits of its Communist Party-led model are becoming apparent. And more than ever, the world’s longest-surviving and most-powerful autocracy faces difficult choices at home and abroad.
By China’s own statistics, its economy is registering its most sluggish growth in nearly three decades. The world’s second-largest economy grew by 6.6 per cent in 2018, the lowest rate since 1990, when the fallout from the massacre of as many as 10,000 people in a tank and machine-gun assault on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square a year earlier kept growth to a humble 3.9 per cent.
At a time when China appears to have entered a new era of uncertainty after more than a quarter century of phenomenal growth, it is perhaps fitting that this year marks the 30th anniversary of that massacre.
The uncertainty is evident in a new phenomenon – the flight of capital from a country that, between 1994 and 2014, amassed towering piles of foreign-exchange reserves by enjoying a surplus in its overall balance of payments.
But now, faced with an unstoppable trend of net capital outflows, President Xi Jinping’s government has tightened exchange controls and other capital restrictions to prop up the country’s fragile financial system and sagging currency. The regime has used tens of billions of dollars in recent months alone to bolster the yuan’s international value.
It is not just capital that’s fleeing China, as more and more Chinese choose to live overseas. In an informal vote of no confidence in the Chinese system, more than a third of surveyed millionaires in China said they were “currently considering” migrating to another country. An earlier report found that almost two-thirds of rich Chinese were either emigrating or have plans to do so.
Today, China’s mounting internal challenges are being compounded by new external factors. Chinese belligerence and propaganda, for instance, have spawned a growing image problem for the country internationally, which is apparent even in regions where China has invested heavily, from Africa to Southeast Asia.
More significantly, Beijing has come under international pressure on several fronts – from its trade, investment and lending policies to its human rights record, including its incarceration of more than a million Muslims from Xinjiang, a sprawling territory Mao Zedong annexed in 1949. Perhaps China’s free ride, which helped propel its rise, is coming to an end.
The Soviet Communist Party that ran gulags was consigned to the dustbin of history. But now the Chinese Communist Party has set up its own gulags that are more high-tech and indiscriminate and have Islam as their target. The network of concentration camps is designed to dismantle Muslim identities and change the outlook of entire communities – a grim mission of unparalleled scale.
Yet, even as international criticism has mounted, the West still seems reluctant to hold Beijing accountable for its harsh treatment of ethnic minorities, deciding against, for instance, introducing sanctions.
China, meanwhile, is confronting growing US-led pressure on the trade and geopolitical fronts, accentuating Beijing’s dilemmas and fuelling uncertainty at home. As long as the US-China trade war rages, flight of capital will remain a problem for Beijing, whose foreign-exchange reserves have shrunk by about $1 trillion from their peak of just over $4 trillion in mid-2014.
At a time when China’s imperial project, the Belt and Road Initiative, is running into resistance from a growing number of partner countries, Beijing is also confronting an international pushback against its telecommunications giant Huawei. In fact, the pushback has broadened from opposition to Huawei’s participation in next-generation 5G wireless networks to a broader effort in Europe, North America and Australia to restrict the use of Chinese technology because of concerns that it is being used for espionage.
The arrest of the Huawei founder’s daughter in Canada, at the behest of Washington, rattled China’s elites, making them angry but also fearful that any one of them could meet a similar fate while travelling to the West. With Meng Wanzhou’s detention, the US signalled that it has more powerful non-tariff weapons than China, which has long used such tools to punish countries as diverse as Japan, Mongolia, South Korea and the Philippines.
Ms Meng was held for an alleged violation of America’s Iran-related sanctions, but even Western onlookers saw her arrest as an example of US high-handedness. Instead of galvanising support against the American move, China responded in typical fashion that, as an American analyst put it, is the “mark of a thuggish state” – by jailing two Canadians.
Indeed, it is Beijing’s open disregard for international rules that explains why it can count on few true strategic allies or reliable security partners. Contrast this with the strong network the US maintains, including close collaboration with many of China’s neighbours. Beijing has alienated almost every significant power in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
China’s lonely rise could become more pronounced with the newly restructured People’s Liberation Army becoming less of an army and more of a power projection force, the majority of whose troops now are not from the army but from the other services. Indeed, the PLA’s shift away from being a defensive force foreshadows a more aggressive Chinese military approach of the kind already witnessed in the South China Sea, where China has fundamentally changed the status quo in its favour.
The Dalai Lama recently said that, due to Chinese pressure, no Buddhist country, with the sole exception of the nominally Buddhist Japan, is now willing to grant him entry as the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism. However, whenever Chinese pressure forces smaller nations to cave in on any issue, it only fuels greater resentment against Beijing.
Against this backdrop, where is China heading? It has come a long way since the Tiananmen Massacre, with its citizens now more prosperous, mobile and digitally connected. Its economy, in purchasing power parity terms, is already the world’s largest.
However, its political system remains as repressive as ever, with Mr Xi centralising power in a way China has not seen since Mao. Under his leadership, the party has set out to systematically quash Muslim, Tibetan and Mongol identities, expand China’s frontiers far out into international waters, and turn the country into a digital totalitarian state.
Yet, one should not overlook what a difference less than a year has made. Few in China dared to criticize Mr Xi when he ended the decades-old, Party-led collective leadership system and abolished a two-term limit on the presidency –actions that theoretically allow him to rule for life.
But, in the new international environment in which China finds itself today, he is facing domestic criticism – however muted — for building a cult of personality around his one-man rule and for inviting an international pushback by overemphasising China’s strength and power.
Mr Xi’s word may be law but, faced with difficult choices on China’s new challenges, he now finds himself under pressure. His primary focus will probably remain ensuring stability at home. Without stability, neither he nor the Party can hope to survive in power.
To calm the economic turbulence, China’s central bank has substantially increased domestic credit to help boost consumption and investment at home. In the medium-term, the US-led tariff pressures are likely to accelerate China’s shift from low-end manufacturing to higher value-added industries like electronics, robotics and artificial intelligence.
The geopolitical pushback, for its part, could force Xi to return to the “hide your capacities, bide your time” strategy of Deng Xiaoping. But such a return can scarcely obscure China’s ambitious goals that Mr Xi has laid bare. Even if Beijing starts soft-pedalling its ambitions, it is likely to adopt a “two steps forward, one step back” strategy to keep progressing toward its goals.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War”.
Brazil’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro – known for his misogynistic, racist, homophobic and anti-environmental comments – has raised questions about the future of the world’s fourth-largest democracy with his support for torture and his unapologetic nostalgia for the country’s 1964-85 military dictatorship. But no part of Brazil’s diverse society has more to dread from Mr. Bolsonaro’s coming to power than the country’s already beleaguered Indigenous groups.
Over the past five centuries, the number of Indigenous people in Brazil has shrunk from as much as five million to about 895,000, less than 0.5 per cent of the country’s population. Since 2006, their territory – the Brazilian part of the Amazon Basin – has lost forest cover over an area greater in size than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world’s 11th-largest country, according to satellite data.
Mr. Bolsonaro, perhaps the most right-wing leader of any democracy in the world, has vowed to open up the Amazon rain forest to developers by repealing constitutional safeguards for Indigenous lands, claiming the protected reserves amount to keeping Indigenous people in “zoos.”
As if to signal his intent to permit greater destruction of the world’s biggest rain forest, he has appointed a Foreign Minister who believes climate change is an anti-Christian plot by “cultural Marxists” seeking to criminalize red meat, oil and heterosexual sex. And he has appointed an anti-abortion evangelist to head a new ministry overseeing Indigenous groups, women and human rights.
To be sure, Brazil is not the only country where Indigenous tribes must confront mounting threats to their ways of life – and their lives. From Canada and the Philippines to Japan and Indonesia, Indigenous people face growing threats of discrimination, marginalization and forced assimilation. As a result, the world’s Indigenous communities are rapidly dwindling in numbers owing to encroachment and the exploitation of their natural resources.
With their combined share of the global population shrinking to 4.5 per cent, Indigenous communities are locked in modern-day David-versus-Goliath battles against mining companies, dam builders, oil-palm plantations, loggers, ranchers, hunters, evangelists and military forces. Their rights continue to be violated with impunity despite an international convention obligating governments to protect their lands, identities, penal customs and ways of life.
More fundamentally, at a time when environmental degradation and climate change have emerged as mortal threats to humankind, Indigenous peoples’ ways of life, with their premium on maintaining a balance between human needs and the preservation of ecosystems, serve as examples to the wider world.
Living close to nature, with their survival tied to ecosystem health, Indigenous communities respect nature as their teacher and protector. Consequently, they tend to understand nature better than modern societies, as was illustrated in late 2004, when a devastating tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean, killing more than a quarter million people across 14 Asian countries. On India’s remote Andaman archipelago, however, close to the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the tsunami, two of the world’s most isolated Indigenous tribes escaped harm by relying on traditional warning systems and moving to higher ground in time.
In fact, one of these two groups – the world’s last known pre-Neolithic tribal community, living on coral-fringed North Sentinel Island – made international headlines recently because of a Chinese-American missionary’s covert but fatal expedition to convert its 100 or so members to Christianity. John Allen Chau made repeated forays onto the island over three days, ignoring warnings from the Sentinelese tribe members to leave their community alone.
After the decimation of Indigenous tribes under European colonial rule, countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, India and Peru have pursued “no contact” policies toward isolated tribes. These policies are anchored in laws that protect the rights of Indigenous people to live in seclusion on their ancestral lands. Tribal reserves in India’s Andaman archipelago, for example, are off-limits to all outsiders. Intrusions are punishable with a prison sentence.
Yet, with the support of a Kansas City-based missionary agency that trained him for the arduous undertaking, Mr. Chau dodged Indian laws and coastal security to make repeated incursions into North Sentinel to convert a highly endangered tribe to his religion, according to his own diary accounts. He undertook his mission just before American Thanksgiving, an annual whitewash of the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans.
Contrast the Sentinelese handling of the alien with punishments for unlawful activity or entry in the so-called civilized world: On Mr. Chau’s first intrusion into their peaceful world, the hunter-gatherer Sentinelese did not subject him to Abu Ghraib-style torture or to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “catch and detain” policy, applicable to anyone entering the United States illegally. The Sentinelese, as Mr. Chau acknowledged in his notes, let him go – with a warning not to return.
But an undeterred Mr. Chau, using a fishing boat and a kayak, repeatedly stepped ashore, disparaging the island as “Satan’s last stronghold.” The patience of the Sentinelese wore out, and he was likely shot with a bow and arrow. His body was reportedly buried on the beach, in the way the tribe disposes of its own dead.
Although local police have filed a case of murder against “unknown persons,” the Sentinelese acted in a way permitted by the “stand your ground” laws in states such as Florida. That self-defence law shields a person from both criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit “if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary” to use deadly force to prevent harm or death.
Mr. Chau – the son of a refugee father who fled China during the Cultural Revolution and converted to Christianity in the United States – described in his notes how he hid from Indian coastal patrols under cover of darkness to make his criminal forays into an island forbidden even to Indians, including military forces. By demonstrating the ease with which one can breach Indian tribal-protection laws and security, he helped highlight the vulnerability of India’s endangered tribes.
More broadly, his mission exemplified the threats to Indigenous people who live in total isolation. Today, most of such tribes live in the Amazon Basin, straddling Brazil’s borders with Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, or in the jungles of New Guinea and India.
The isolated tribes have rejected contact with the external world usually after experiencing ghastly violence and deadly diseases brought by outsiders from the time of European colonization, which wiped out many Indigenous communities from Australia to North America. To escape genocide, some tribes fled to the deepest and most inaccessible parts of jungles, where they still live.
For example, until 150 years ago, the Andaman archipelago was home to more than two dozen isolated aboriginal communities, whose ancestors left Africa tens of thousands of years ago in a major exodus that provided the earliest inhabitants of Asia and Oceania. Studies have identified a genetic affinity between the Andaman islanders, Malaysia’s tiny Orang Asli Indigenous population and Oceania’s Melanesians.
After British colonial excesses, only four Andaman tribes survive. Two of these groups were forcibly assimilated by the British and have become rootless and dependent on government aid. They are likely to vanish much ahead of the other two groups, which are self-sufficient and continue to live in complete isolation.
Likewise in Brazil, three-quarters of the Indigenous communities that were forced to open up to the outside world became extinct, with the rest suffering catastrophic population declines. Since the late 1980s, however, Brazil’s constitutional protections for Indigenous territories have helped many remaining tribes increase their populations – protections Mr. Bolsonaro has now threatened to repeal.
The examples from the Amazon Basin and the Andaman islands underscore the potent dangers of forced assimilation for isolated aboriginal people. Forced incorporation usually happens in the name of providing access to better technology, education and health care or, as Mr. Bolsonaro wants, to open up Indigenous lands to resource extraction and other development projects.
There are compelling anthropological and epidemiological reasons to prohibit outsiders from establishing contact with remote tribes. For example, the first waves of European colonization caused a calamitous depopulation of Indigenous societies by introducing smallpox, measles and other infectious diseases to which Indigenous people had no immunity.
Modern life is characterized by rampant use of antibiotics, including in meat production, with antibiotic resistance posing a major public-health challenge globally. Secluded people have no antibodies against the outside world’s deadly pathogens.
This helps explain why, even in death, Mr. Chau poses a potential threat to the Sentinelese community because of the pathogens he may have brought.
To be sure, contact may be perilous for isolated Indigenous groups, but leave-them-alone policies are no guarantee that remote-living tribes will survive. Small, highly inbred groups confront the spectre of dying out completely, irrespective of whether they stay in or come out of isolation.
Close rapport with alien culture, however, may be the worst option, speeding up their disappearance. An isolated Indigenous community’s embrace of modern culture usually dooms its existence. This is why remote-living groups choose to stay in isolation and – like the Sentinelese – fire warning arrows at those who seek to encroach on their habitats.
Constitutional or legal safeguards for indigenous lands, cultures and lifestyles, as in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, India and Peru, have allowed some endangered tribes to grow. When authorities look the other way, however, these tribes lose out in battles to defend their lands and cultures from miners, loggers, ranchers, evangelists and others.
The unpalatable fact is that the clearing of more forests and other ecosystems for cropland, mining, pasture and other purposes continues to contribute to the decimation of isolated Indigenous groups living in peace and contentment.
Most such groups are small and very vulnerable. Brazil, in addition to 238 “contacted” Undigenous tribes, has “23 confirmed and 47 potential” Indigenous groups living in complete isolation, according to one study, while Peru has about 15 such “uncontacted” tribes.
For scientists seeking to reconstruct evolutionary and migratory histories, tribes living in complete isolation are an invaluable biological asset. As another study has put it, “Isolated populations living in remote and/or inaccessible parts of the world are regarded as biological treasures from the genetic viewpoint. Many of these isolated human groups have remained relatively unknown until very recent times, so that the information provided by population genetic studies can help the scientists in the partial reconstruction of their demographic and evolutionary histories.”
The future of these highly endangered tribes hinges on policies and laws that adequately safeguard their seclusion and privacy from interlopers and encroachers, who bring violence, disease and rapacious exploitation.
Media labels such as “primitive” and “Stone Age” are racist tags that conjure up false images. Isolated tribe members certainly do not have the luxuries of modern life and use primal tools. But as Indian anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay, who studied the Andaman Indigenous groups, has said, “The tribes might be primitive in their technology but socially they are far ahead of us.”
Let’s be clear: Religion has little meaning for Indigenous societies that revere nature and serve as the world’s environmental sentinels. Where Indigenous communities have been converted to a religion – as on India’s now predominantly Christian Great Nicobar Island – the lifestyle changes have been so profound that the traditional Indigenous cultures have been uprooted.
Today, the world’s Indigenous groups, despite their small and declining share of the global population, manage 80 per cent of Earth’s biodiversity, in part because their ancestral lands make up 22 per cent of the world’s land surface. By preserving forests, lakes, rivers and other ecosystems on their territories, they play an indispensable role in climate-change mitigation and adaptation.
A critical part of the world’s cultural diversity and ecological harmony, Indigenous peoples have much to teach us about how to combat environmental degradation and climate change. In fact, their role as guardians of biodiversity is critical to the search of modern societies for more sustainable lifestyles.
Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including the award-winning Water, Peace, and War.