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.”

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

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

By Brahma Chellaney, Project Syndicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney

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

© Project Syndicate, 2022.

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

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, THE HILL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The US and India in a new world

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Brahma Chellaney, The Spectator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leverage water treaty to tame Pakistan’s terrorism

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

One paradox in Asia stands out: China, by occupying water-rich Tibetan Plateau, dominates Asia’s water map, yet it refuses to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighbour. But water-stressed India has a water-sharing treaty with each of the two countries located downstream to it — Pakistan and Bangladesh. And each of these treaties has set a new principle in international water law.

The 1996 Ganges treaty set a new standard by guaranteeing Bangladesh specific cross-border flows in the critical dry season. And the 1960 Indus treaty with Pakistan still remains the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement, in terms of both the sharing ratio and the total volume of cross-border flows.

Under this treaty of indefinite duration, India foolishly reserved 80.52% of the aggregate water flows in the six-river Indus system for Pakistan, with that arch-nemesis securing 90 times greater volume of water than Mexico’s share under a 1944 pact with the US.

In fact, the treaty effectively partitioned the rivers in the Indus Basin, with India’s full sovereignty rights limited to the three smaller rivers in the lower section and Pakistan bagging the bigger rivers of the upper basin. It remains the world’s only water pact embodying the ‘doctrine of restricted sovereignty’ in which the upper riparian state defers to the interests of a downstream state.

To make matters worse, only four of the six Indus-system rivers originate in India; the other two start in Tibet, with China free to reengineer cross-flow flows.

Against this background, the Indus treaty remains a millstone around India’s neck. India should be seeking to mitigate the burdens of a treaty that carries no benefits for it but which emboldens Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terrorism. Pakistan repays India’s unparalleled water generosity with its self-avowed “War of a Thousand Cuts”.

How can India allow its water largesse to be repaid with blood? A feckless India continues to shore up the treaty, including by sending a 10-member delegation to Pakistan for a Permanent Indus Commission meeting from March 1. For the first time in the commission’s history, female officers (all from India) will participate.

The commission’s meetings can be suspended, as they have been in the past, but India clings to the treaty’s letter and spirit, even as Pakistan flouts international norms without incurring any costs. In fact, by failing to build sufficient storage, India allows unutilized waters from its meagre share to flow to Pakistan as a continuing bonus.

Other world powers have dumped binding accords at will. One of Russia’s grievances contributing to the present crisis with the US, with Ukraine as the theatre of Russian invasion, has been Washington’s unilateral termination of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (which was of unlimited duration) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. China has demonstrated its contempt for bilateral pacts through its current border aggression against India and by its 2017 withholding of data from India on upstream river flows.

A scofflaw Pakistan wants rights without responsibilities. It demands eternal Indian water munificence while its military sustains export of terrorism to India. Leveraging the Indus treaty to help reform Pakistan’s behaviour offers India a bloodless path.

Pakistan’s use of state-reared terrorist groups could be invoked by India under international law as constituting reasonable grounds for withdrawal from the treaty. The International Court of Justice has upheld the principle that a treaty may be dissolved by reason of a fundamental change of circumstances.

But without withdrawing from the treaty, India can seek to balance the scales by invoking its treaty rights to enforce Pakistan’s responsibilities. For starters, it should condition further consultations and information exchanges, including on project-related design data, to Pakistan’s verified severing of ties with terrorist groups. Keeping its Indus commissioner’s post vacant for some years would effectively suspend riparian consultations with Pakistan. Given India’s proverbial red tape, such a vacancy will be easy to explain.

India’s approach should be to speak softly but carry a big stick. It should shun meaningless hyperbole and let its actions speak for themselves. India, however, must make clear that it has no intention of turning off or even restricting water flows to Pakistan. Indeed, India doesn’t have the hydro-infrastructure to limit river flows. The issue is about ending Pakistan’s roguish actions.

Building basin leverage can serve as a potent instrument in India’s arsenal against Pakistan.

The worst option for India is to continue hewing to its present approach by mechanically bearing all the burdens of the treaty without any tangible benefits accruing to it. Instead of advertising that its bark is worse than its bite, an imaginative India should work to remake the terms of the Indus engagement.

The writer is a geostrategist.