Wednesday, August 10, 2022

US, China dig in their heels

THE Biden-Xi call on September 9 was the first in seven months, and only the second since the former took office in January. Amidst growing tensions between the US and China over Taiwan and the South China Sea, the breakdown of their high-level communications has been worrying. A look at the readouts of the two sides reveals that both sides are hanging tough and waiting for the other side to blink.

For the record, though, the American readout said the discussion was motivated by an effort to ‘responsibly manage the competition’ between the US and China, even as the Chinese readout squarely blamed the US for the deteriorated relationship.

Recent high-level interactions between American and Chinese officials have not been particularly inspiring. This is evident from the blowup in Alaska in March at the outset of the first meeting of their top officials dealing with foreign affairs. This has been followed by a continuing Chinese refusal to allow US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin to speak to Gen Xu Qiliang, the vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. In their view, the American official should follow protocol and interact with his counterpart Gen Wei Fenghe. Alarmingly, according to the US Indo-Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, the US-China estrangement had led to the Chinese refusing to service the crisis hotline between the two countries.

The most recent snub was to John Kerry, the American climate czar who was received by a junior-level officer when he landed at Tianjin for a meeting earlier this month. Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and Vice-Premier Han Zheng only agreed to meet through Zoom. In response to Kerry’s point that climate change should be decoupled from other geostrategic issues, Wang said while climate change cooperation remained an oasis of sorts in US-China relations, ‘it could be desertified soon’ the way Sino-US relations were going. In short, there was no question of separating the issue from the wider environment of their relationship.

No specific issue was discussed in the 90-minute Xi-Biden conversation last Thursday. It was seen as a broad and strategic conversation that could, hopefully, reset the lines of communication. The American readout said the conversation discussed areas ‘where our interests converge, and areas where our interests, values and perspectives diverge.’ Biden made it clear that the discussion was part of his effort to manage the competition between the US and China and with the aim of ensuring that ‘competition does not veer into conflict.’

According to the Chinese readout, Xi told Biden ‘that for some time, due to US policy on China, the China-US relationship had run into serious difficulty’. In what is being seen as a snub to Biden, he concluded that ‘on the basis of respecting each other’s core concerns and properly managing differences, the relevant department of the two countries may continue their dialogue’ on a range of issues from Covid-19 to international and regional issues.

An all-round dialogue between the two countries would be dependent on the US paying heed to Chinese core concerns—usually translated to mean Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, and the acceptance of the primacy of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

Under the Trump administration, the US instituted wide ranging tariffs on Chinese products, placed sanctions on several officials dealing with Xinjiang, passed a Tibet policy support act to upgrade their support to Tibetans, shed its neutrality and supported the UNCLOS tribunal award in the South China Sea and eased restrictions on meeting Taiwan officials. Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also went out of his way to directly attack the role of the CPC in ruling China.

Seven months down the line, the Biden administration is yet to formally unveil its China policy. Officials have been saying that they are reviewing the policy, but no one seems to have a date as to when the review will be completed.

In the meantime, little has changed with regard to the tariffs, South China Sea and Xinjiang. Biden has come out strongly in support of Taiwan and there was even a minor kerfuffle in August when he suggested that the US could defend the island if it were attacked, instead of maintaining the existing policy of ‘strategic ambiguity’. There is, of course, the important factor of Biden working with US allies, instead of belittling them as Trump did.

In July, the US stepped up pressure on China when it accused Beijing of cyber attacks and got a coalition of nations, including the EU, to condemn China. Wall Street Journal reports that the US is now considering investigating Chinese subsidies under Section 301 of their trade law which could result in additional tariffs. The US plans to rope in the EU, Japan and other allies in Asia to take on the Chinese in the WTO. Despite pressure from the business community to ease off on China, the Biden team appears wanting to refine the strategy of pushing back at China, rather than ending it.

As of now, neither side is willing to back off, both think they are in control of the situation and have the leverage to push their point of view. On both sides, there seems to be a worry that compromise would make them look weak before domestic audiences. In 2022, Biden faces a crucial off-year election and Xi a key party congress where he is pushing for an unprecedented third term. And the Chinese must also take into account the possibility that 2025 may see Trump return to the White House.

The Tribune, September 14, 2021

Will China's 'Common Prosperity' Project Turn Out to Be a Case of 'Cure Worse Than Disease'?

Even as the attention of the world is riveted on the goings-on in Afghanistan, things have been happening in China. They may not have the scale of what has happened in Afghanistan, but they could be no less transformative. Indeed, many are comparing it to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution that convulsed China in the late 1960s.

Two weeks ago, an ‘American Idol’ type programme was banned because the men participating were deemed to be too effeminate by the Chinese authorities. The National Radio and TV Administration asked broadcasters to “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics”. There are worries that the Chinese pop stars are being unduly influenced by their South Korean and Japanese counterparts and were not masculine enough.

Just before that a popular actress Zhao Wei became a non-person – her movies, TV series and even mention of her name were wiped out from the Chinese internet. There is no explanation yet for the move.

Separately, the government rolled out new regulations decreeing the amount of time children could spend in playing video games. Last week, officials of Tencent and Netease and other gaming companies were summoned and ordered to improve their “political positions” and ensure that their games protect the “physical and mental health of minors”, and prevent addiction.

Draft rules have been issued to control recommendation algorithms to redirect people’s attention to online content which is healthy and does not encourage indulgence and excessive spending. A law has also been passed to restrict data collection by companies working in the commercial sphere.

But this merely seems to be the froth of a much more intense sea change that is currently underway in the country. This has manifested itself in the gutting of the entire private tuition and crypto-mining industries in the country, the targeting of the ride-hailing services, and new rules to strengthen supervision and audit of companies dealing with data security and cross-border data flow. The new regulations have led to the wiping out of over $ 1 trillion from the value of their stocks.

It began last October with a crackdown on Jack Ma’s company Alibaba and the cancellation of an IPO by its affiliate Ant Group, followed by a $ 2.8 billion fine. Earlier this year companies like Tencent and food delivery giant Meituan and ride delivery company Didi were targeted for regulatory attention. The government has acquired small stakes in ByteDance, the company that owns TikTok, as well as Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter.

Not only has China clipped the wings of its private sector giants like Alibaba, Tencent, Bytedance and Meituan – all founded by venture capital and many global leaders in their field – but it has mounted pressure on them to take measures to narrow the wealth gap through policy measures and charitable work.

‘Common prosperity’ 

Xi Jinping seems to be killing three birds with a single stone. First, he is bringing the ultra-rich to the heel of the Communist Party of China (CPC); second, he is carrying out needed regulatory reforms of the high tech sector; and third, he is seeking to enhance China’s somewhat sickly consumption economy by getting the rich to pay for it.

Xi has been referring to the theme of “common prosperity” ever since he came to power in  2012. But there has been a growing emphasis in recent years. Speaking in January at a seminar on the study and implementation of the spirit of the Fifth Plenum of the 19th Party Congress, Xi had bluntly said that it was not an economic issue, “but also a major political issue related to the ruling party’s foundation”.

In August, speaking before the Central Commission for Financial and Economic Affairs which he chairs, Xi said that “common prosperity” was an essential part of socialism and “a key feature of Chinese style modernisation”. This meant policies that would expand the middle class, increase the earnings for the low-income groups and promote social justice. The emphasis of the meeting was on averting financial risks, even while ensuring stable economic growth.

In recent weeks, a corrective of sorts is being put forward, such as one that was offered by vice premier Liu He, a politburo member and who is also the principal economic adviser to Xi. He made it clear that the policy of developing the private sector remains unchanged and will not change in the future. Indeed, the idea of the regulatory efforts, he said was to help the private sector to play a bigger role in stabilising growth and employment and encouraging innovation.

As Xinhua put it “common prosperity” is aimed at ensuring that instead of only a few getting rich, affluence is shared by everyone. CPC was therefore undertaking policies that would be more inclusive and fair for people to get a better education and create an environment “for more people to become wealthy.”

That prosperity in China has led to an unequal distribution of wealth is not a secret. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the Gini-coefficient, the measure of inequality, widened to 70.4 in 2020 from 59.9 in 2000 (100% indicates full inequality). After a phase when people were encouraged to get rich, the CPC now believes that the time has come to apply a corrective to ensure that the CPC does not stray from its declared path, one that has kept it in power since 1950.

A new catchword has been the notion of “tertiary distribution of wealth” which emerged as a decision of the fourth plenum of the 19th Party Congress in November 2019 which emphasised the importance of social distribution, the development of charity and other social welfare undertakings. This tertiary distribution “promotes the equilibrium of resources and wealth among different social groups”, said a commentary in the Study Times. This required a slew of policy measures ranging from tax-related incentives for donations as well as higher inheritance, gift and luxury taxes.

Positive spin 

The positive spin being given is that all this activity is aimed at achieving the goal of  “common prosperity”. At the heart of this new slogan is politics. The CPC has periodically talked of this notion and, perhaps, with the economy slowing down, demographic pressures growing and the 20th Party Congress looming ahead next year, the CPC has decided that it needs to do more to deliver on its socialistic promise. So the campaign is being renewed to underscore the  CPC’s political bargain with the Chinese people — be loyal to the CPC, which, in turn will ensure “common prosperity” for all.

But the bottom line probably is that the CPC essentially distrusts the private sector and is determined to keep it under control. The private sector in China contributes 50% of taxes, 60% of the GDP, 70% of tech innovation, 80% urban employment and 90% of new jobs.

Inherent dangers

Despite the crackdown on companies, the policy is being rolled out carefully. In June Xi picked eastern Zhejiang province, one of the richest in China, for a “common prosperity” pilot project. Under this scheme, the province will lift per capita incomes and also narrow income gaps by taxation and promoting philanthropy.

At first sight, many of the moves — providing social security for workers in ride hailing companies, regulating their working hours, banning private tuition, promoting philanthropy,  regulating internet giants — appear to promote social and economic equality. Data security rules that make the data of big companies accessible to smaller ones could help them compete and innovate.

But, to take just one example, given the unequal schooling systems, private tutoring was also an opportunity for the educational and economic advancement of poorer, but bright young people.

Representative image of a Chinese flag in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee.

The danger is that the cure could be worse than the disease. China is not just seeking to regulate the tech sector, but even buy stakes in the companies to appoint government directors. Government efforts and vast amounts of money have not been particularly successful in making China a semi-conductor power.  Most of the top tech companies, many of them world class, were set up by venture capitalists and altering their character could well kill the golden goose.

As the astute China watcher Kevin Rudd has noted that the developments are part of a larger left-ward push in Chinese domestic politics since the arrival of Xi Jinping. Coincidentally, this comes along with a rightward nationalistic thrust in China’s foreign policies. The goal is to ensure the emergence of China as a great power, second to none, through a process in which the CPC remains in complete command.

Unsaid in all this is that while on one hand the CPC’s domestic policies are aimed at maintaining and even enhancing its control, its external dimensions are being shaped by the rapidly intensifying contest with the United States. Indeed, there could be an argument that the sense of urgency we are now getting from China are shaped by the increased tensions between the US and China.

At the end of the day, like all other such campaigns in China, there is a need to take it with a slight pinch of salt. We are not on the verge of any new Cultural Revolution. The fact is that were the authorities serious about “common prosperity” there are many other steps that can be taken.

First, the massive state-owned enterprises (SOE) sector could have been roped in. Second, the government could ease off on hukou regulations that deny equal treatment to migrants to major cities in the country and depress their wages. Third, the government could institute wealth and property taxes to systematically transfer resources from the rich to the needier sectors of the economy.

So, besides cracking the whip, the CPC is not likely to do anything drastic. Inequality is not likely to go away in China, notwithstanding the rhetoric.

The Wire September 13, 2021

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

How Beijing’s New Maritime Rules in the South China Sea Will Affect India and Others

In a classic manoeuvre of what is called “lawfare”, China announced a new set of maritime regulations last week that require ships carrying certain types of cargo to provide detailed information to the Chinese authorities when transiting through Chinese “territorial waters”.

Though such demands by littoral states are not unusual, it does not take a genius to understand that this particular move is part of an ongoing Chinese project to establish its jurisdiction over the South China Sea by using Chinese laws and regulation. Neither is the use of “lawfare” to project a country’s goals. The US routinely uses what is called a “long-arm jurisdiction” to claim global authority of its laws and regulations as part of its exercise of projecting power.

An earlier 1992 Chinese law insisted that foreign military ships needed permission to enter the territorial waters, submarines needed to transit on the surface, and ships carrying toxic material had to have required documentation and take precautions in handling the cargo.

Now according to the Global Times, vessels from foreign countries, including submersibles, nuclear vessels, ships carrying radioactive materials, bulk oil, chemicals, LNG and other harmful substances, “are required to report their detailed information upon their visits to Chinese territorial waters”.

China’s claim in the South China Sea

In January 2021, the Chinese passed a new Coast Guard Law and in April and a revised Maritime Traffic Safety Law. There is a built-in ambiguity in this move, which matches with the uncertainties surrounding China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) gives military or civilian ships the right of “innocent passage” through the territorial waters of another state. Territorial sea is defined as a belt of waters extending 12 nautical miles from the baseline of a coastal state. This “innocent passage” is defined as ships that pass straight through without stopping, any exercise or practice of weapons, collecting information, fishing and so on.

Also read: From Procuring Drone Protection to Other Weapons, Indian Navy Is Ahead of Other Services

But subsequently, many countries have been concerned about smuggling, marine pollution and the dangers they faced by ships carrying hazardous cargoes. So, a number of countries like Canada, Pakistan and Portugal demand prior notification of such cargoes; Egypt, Iran, Malaysia and Yemen demand prior authorisation; and there are nations like Argentina, Nigeria and the Philippines which ban them.

China’s own definition of its territorial seas, put out by its Law on Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone of February 25, 1992, notes that it includes waters adjacent to its mainland and its offshore islands, namely Taiwan, and Diayou (Senkaku), Pengshu, Dongsha (Pratas), Xisha (Paracels) and  Nansha (Spratly) islands. Though not explicitly stated, the waters are as enclosed by the Nine Dash Line in Chinese maps. Of these, Pengshu and Dongsha are administered by Taiwan.

Map of the South China Sea, with Nine Dash Line highlighted in green. Photo: US Central Intelligence Agency/Public domain/ Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese control the Paracels which they seized from Vietnam in the closing days of the Vietnam war in 1975. Further south, control of the islands and rocks which comprise the Spratly islands group is divided among a number of claimants — the Philippines (11), Taiwan (2), Vietnam (29), China (7), Malaysia (6) and Brunei (1).

China’s legal ability to enforce its control

In recent years, many of these claimants have dredged the maritime features and created artificial islands. But the Chinese have gone further and turned many of them into full-fledged military facilities and asserted that the seas around them are “territorial waters”.

The problem for China is that as per the UNCLOS arbitration award of 2016 relating to the South China Sea, their territorial waters in the features of the Spratly islands they control are limited.

The 2016 award, passed in relation to a case brought up by the Philippines, declared that there were no real “islands” in the Spratly island group that could support habitation and claim territorial waters of 12 nautical miles and an exclusive economic zone of another 200 nautical miles.

There were a number of “high tide elevations” or rocks that showed above the high tide, but these could only generate a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles. Further, several features claimed by China such as the Mischief Reef, Second Thomas Shoal and Reed Bank were naturally under water and did not generate any territorial claim at all. Land reclamation or artificial construction would not change the legal regime or categorisation of the features.

The tribunal also found that China had occupied certain areas like the Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoals, which fell within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.

Finally, the tribunal ruled that any claim for the waters of the South China Sea coming under the category of “historic rights” under UNCLOS were untenable and inconsistent with the international law. This put paid to the extensive claims that China implicitly made by drawing the so-called Nine Dash Line that enclosed most of the South China sea.

In essence, the legal ability of China to use its latest regulations to enforce its expansive claims is limited. That, of course, does not mean they will not attempt to do so.

US’s involvement in the South China Sea dispute

The Chinese saw themselves as latecomers in the South China Sea and forcibly evicted the Vietnamese from the Fiery Cross Reef in 1988 and the Philippines from Mischief Reef in 1995 and blocked its access to the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

For the US which had always been patrolling close to Chinese waters, the South China Sea developments were an opportunity to challenge China and so beginning around 2012, it began to conduct what it said were naval operations aimed at ensuring the freedom of navigation of the South China Sea waters.

This is a screenshot of real time traffic in the South China Sea from This image as of September 3, 2021 shows that the bulk of the traffic going through the SCS is to China or Hong Kong. It actually goes in a south-west to north-east direction avoiding the Spratly Islands.

Actually, the whole issue of “freedom of navigation” is a bit of a red herring. So far, China has not sought to block any commercial traffic on the sea lanes of the South China Sea. Seven out of the 10 largest commercial ports are in China and some of the biggest shipping companies are Chinese and dependent on access to the sea lanes. As visible in the figure above, the bulk of the traffic goes to China and Hong Kong and so the Chinese are hardly likely to interdict it.

Initially, there were claims that $5.3 trillion of global trade passed through the South China Sea, but a detailed analysis by the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies found that the actual estimate for 2016 was more around $3.4 trillion, which constituted 21% of global trade, not 36% as earlier claimed.

The study also found that while 64% of China’s maritime trade went through the waterway, 42% of Japan’s did so. Just 14% of the US trade passed through the region.

There was another important component to the South China Sea equation. The  Chinese undersea nuclear weapons capability is housed in submarines whose principal base is in the Hainan Islands. The Chinese subs do not intend to roam the world oceans, but be used from locations in the deep seas close to Hainan in what is called the “bastion” mode. Hence, there is considerable sensitivity to the US movements that take place in the name of “Freedom of Navigation Operations” (FONOPS).

Also read: Ladakh Stand-off Has Exposed India’s Failed Nuclear Deterrence against China. Now What?

For the US, the South China Sea represents a useful way of checking Chinese power. Regional countries have welcomed the US’s military presence because of Beijing’s bullying ways. But the US has been chagrined to find that while these countries benefit from the presence of US power, they are unwilling to join  any coalition to confront China. As is well known, China is the ASEAN’s main trading partner.

So, the US has put its money down in the Quadrilateral Grouping (Quad) of extra-regional states like Japan, India and Australia. While Japan does have significant interest in the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a lot of its heavier traffic comes through the Lombok Strait.

As for India, as of 2019-20, just about 18% of its trade went through the South China Sea, but the bulk of it went to China. Fanciful claims that more than 50% of its trade goes through the waterway are simply not borne out by the figures. India’s trade with China topped $81 billion during this period, while the combined value of its trade with South Korea, Japan and Taiwan was half that figure, and to this add $34 billion for Hong Kong. India’s total global trade stood at $844 billion during that period.

India has another leverage against Chinese efforts to interdict our traffic — it can do the same to the China-bound traffic in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands area where it sits at one end of the Malacca Straits.

China is unlikely to back off from its expansive and ambiguous maritime claims. It is now seeking to work out a Code of Conduct with the other claimants, but it wants them to agree to a declaration that extra-regional powers are kept out of issues relating to the South China Sea.

But whether Beijing likes it or not, the arbitral award has been a dampener in its effort to consolidate its authority over the area through lawfare. Issues like the latest notification are more by way of being used as pinpricks rather than a useful means of expanding Chinese control.

The Wire 4 September 2021

With US’ Shameful Rout from Afghanistan, Who Can Trust America Again?

“I was not going to extend this forever war, and I was not extending a forever exit … The fundamental obligation of a president, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America, not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow. That is the guiding principle behind my decisions about Afghanistan,” said US President Joe Biden in his address to Americans a day after the last US troops left Kabul.

There are many words to describe what the Americans and the NATO have done in Afghanistan. You could use the neutral term “withdrawal”, but any objective person would describe what happened to them as a combination of a retreat and a rout.

True, the withdrawal was in reasonably good order, and but for 13 soldiers killed in last Thursday’s bomb attack, the US did not suffer casualties. But how do you judge an army that left behind a vast quantity of weapons and equipment on the battlefield and abandoned thousands of supporters whose lives and liberties could be at risk at the hands of the Taliban?

The Shock Departure From Bagram

True, a large number of the weapons are those supplied to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) that collapsed in the face of the Taliban. Between 2002-2017, the US gave the ANSF $28 billion worth of weaponry, including guns, rockets, night-vision goggles, some 2,000 armoured vehicles, 40 aircraft, including UH-60 Black Hawks, Scout attack helicopters and ScanEagle drones. Now, all of it is with the Taliban.

But the real measure of American incompetence came through its decision to abandon its major and well-protected base in Bagram, an hour’s drive from Kabul, without informing the Afghans. Remarkably, this hubristic act took place on 2 July, two days before the 245th year of American independence.

This shock departure, complete with the lights being turned off at the time of departure, was the final knock-out punch delivered to the ANSF’s gut. At one stroke, it wiped out a key battle-winning attribute of a military force — morale. Till this time, not a single of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals had fallen to the Taliban.

The cruel irony is that two weeks later, 6,000 American troops had to be sent back, this time to the less secure Kabul airport, to carry out the evacuation of civilians.

Is the Afghan Army Really To Blame?

It is easy now to blame the ANSF for incompetence and even cowardice, but a closer analysis would reveal that the larger US plan for leaving the country, which had been in place for a decade, was deeply flawed. Instead of leaving behind a fully functioning army, the ANSF was crucially dependent on US air, intelligence support and maintenance support. When that was abruptly cut off, they lost heart. Sensitive to Pakistani concerns, the US had not allowed the ANSF to develop all the capabilities needed by a modern army.

In contrast, in 1989, the Soviet Union had conducted a fighting retreat and put in place a government under Najibullah, which successfully took on the Mujahideen till the Soviet Union collapsed and the Afghan state ran out of money and support and was overwhelmed by the US-Pakistan-Saudi supported jihadis.

There are other issues as well about the American “withdrawal” that should concern us. For example, the US did not involve the elected government of Afghanistan in the process at all. The Ashraf Ghani government was elected by a minority of people in an election that was controversial. Yet, for advocates of democracy like Biden, it had sufficient legitimacy so that its exclusion from the peace process was tantamount to a travesty.

Indeed, by excluding the Ghani government from the peace process, the US effectively delegitimised it. It was left to Russia to host talks involving the Taliban and the Afghan government’s High Peace Council.

Close regional friends like India, too, were excluded from the process whose aim seemed to be to get the Americans and the NATO out of Afghanistan, regardless of consequences. Incidentally, and South Block needs to note this, as per the Doha deal, the Taliban commitment to not allowing its soil to be used to threaten the security of others is limited to “the United States and its allies”.

After the deal was signed, the US and NATO contingent got busy with dismantling their bases. Freed from worries about them, the Taliban intensified their attacks against the ANSF, contrary to the letter and spirit of the Doha accords.

A String of Foolish Decisions

There is another question mark here, this one relating to NATO, since this was seen as the first mission in the outfit’s history where the collective defence provision under Article V was invoked. The Americans may have done the heaviest lifting in the Afghan war, but its NATO allies — Germany, France, Britain, Canada, Turkey, Norway, Belgium, Sweden and other members — also had troops fighting on the ground till 2014. Thereafter, it became an advisory mission. But the US eventually signed a bilateral deal with the Taliban in February 2020. It may have kept its allies in the loop, but the eventual denouement in Kabul is not something that will have heartened the Europeans.

A former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, has written about the lack of strategic patience on the part of the US in dealing with the situation that presented itself in the country. The problem is that in relation to the withdrawal or retreat, even tactical patience was missing.

As another writer pointed out, it was foolish to withdraw at the height of summer when the Taliban are out in full strength, where they could have been confined to their sanctuaries had it been winter.

But more germane is the issue of announcing your departure by a particular date. This gives the adversary a huge advantage in that they can decide the pace and momentum of their campaign.

Instead, the Americans should have used the metric of conditions on the ground. They could have asked for a ceasefire pending final withdrawal or the completion of negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and pending that, maintained the token force of 2,500 personnel they had at the beginning of this year when the government controlled all the urban centres.

Indeed, the first provincial capital to fall, Zaranj, was as late as August 6. Located near the Iran border, this is the start point of the Indian-built road leading to Delaram, aimed at linking Afghanistan to the outside world through Chah Bahar.

No, the US Won't Turn Its Focus to China

There is some facile analysis that argues that having given up its long-running liabilities in the Middle East, the US will rebound with greater vigour in confronting China in the Indo-Pacific. This analysis fails to understand the current isolationist current in the United States, which would hardly back a military venture against a major power like China after having suffered a catastrophe in Afghanistan and Iraq. Also, how much trust would friends and allies retain in the US, given the way it handled its Afghan departure?

Given the American record in Afghanistan, it would require a brave person to accept that what happened in Kabul was an aberration and Washington will now neatly and strongly pivot to the Indo-Pacific.

Leave alone allies, the impact of the Biden administration’s handling of the situation has left deep scars on the US itself, especially its armed forces. This is evident from critical statements like that of serving Marine colonel Stuart Scheller and the retired military fraternity. There was a time when the stoic acceptance of casualties marked the American warrior ethos. Today, that seems to have been shredded, with the relatives who lost their near and dear excoriating Biden for his handling of the situation.

The Quint, September 1, 2021

Taliban’s charm offensive

As the Taliban cement their total victory in Afghanistan, the message coming out from their leaders is one of conciliation and moderation. On Sunday, one of their top leaders, Sher Mohammed Stanikzai, confirmed the Taliban’s commitment of not allowing their territory to be used against any country in the world. Specifically, he said they would not allow India and Pakistan to play out their rivalry in Afghanistan.

Indeed, Taliban leaders Zabiullah Mujahid, Suhail Shaheen and Stanikzai have spoken of their expectations that India will continue to maintain its ‘cultural, economic and trade ties’ with the new Emirate of Afghanistan and retain its invaluable ‘air freight corridor’ with it.

But these are still early days. The Taliban may have taken over power in Afghanistan, but now they are figuring out how to run it. The Taliban are warriors and have zero administrative experience, leave alone a cadre that can manage a city of the size of Kabul. The cities they ran in their brief reign between 1996-2001 lacked running water, electricity, telephones, and existence there was basic. But in the last 20 years, there has been a sea change, with cities having modern facilities, ranging from caf├ęs to schools, malls and gyms.

The big question before any putative Taliban administration is: Who will pay for the import of food, oil, salaries of government personnel, and the running of even a rudimentary administration? Hence, the rational calculation would be for them to moderate their extreme views and get assistance from abroad. The economy of their closest friend and mentor, Pakistan is down in the dumps and so are those of Russia and Iran. That leaves the US and its European allies and maybe the Gulf states.

The US and the Europeans are unlikely to unbelt aid to an unreconstructed Taliban. The issue is not the Sharia or democracy, considering that Saudi Arabia and Israel are close American allies. But they would be affected by the optics of a Taliban chopping off hands or banning women’s education.

Trying to understand how things could unfold is not easy. This new Taliban is a decentralised outfit which has expanded beyond its original tribal remit, hence its success in the northern part of the country dominated by the Uzbek and Tajik ethnicities. No one is clear as to their power structure, yes, there is a supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, the emir-ul-momineen, and a shura in Quetta, there are also figures like Abdul Ghani Baradar and Stanikzai who seem to be their ‘secular’ leaders, as well as people like Khalil and Sirajuddin Haqqani who have uncomfortably close links to Pakistan. There are other centres of power that are not quite visible — the Mashhad shura comprising Taliban leaders sheltering in Iran.

The Taliban may have prevailed over the Americans and Europeans, but there remains a dangerous and volatile mix of Islamist radicals and other forces that have significant roots in Afghanistan. Among these are the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K), Al- Qaeda and the Panjshiris. They are concentrated in the north-eastern part of the country where the Afghan-Pakistani cadre of the ISIS-K has about 2,000 fighters. The Panjishiris say they also have thousands of fighters. This is also an area close to Xinjiang and will generate concern in Beijing.

All estimates place the armed component of the Taliban at around 60-70,000, which is simply not enough to hold the country by force and take on their domestic opposition. In other words, the outfit needs to have some form of legitimacy. Just how they will manage—through western style elections, or some kind of a Loya Jirga — remains to be seen. The ISIS-K bomb attack in Kabul was aimed as much at the US as the Taliban, to show that the latter are not capable of controlling the country.

In recent weeks, we have seen distinct signs of accommodation between the Taliban and the US. Though insistent on the August 31 deadline, the Taliban have cooperated with the American evacuation and reportedly also sought to prevent last Thursday’s ISIS-K bomb attack. They have criticised the American action and condemned the Americans for not informing them before ordering the strike.

The primary concern of Afghanistan’s interlocutors — the US, Europe, China, India, Central Asian Republics, Russia, Iran and even Pakistan — is that the country stabilises at the earliest.

In all this, where should India stand? In the UPA period, India committed significant sums of money as part of the project of building modern Afghanistan. But today, the Indian economy is faltering and New Delhi desperately needs all it has for meeting the Chinese geopolitical challenges closer home, in our immediate neighbourhood.

However, it is in our interest to help the emergence of a stable Taliban regime. They have never sought to export their medieval version of Islam; their fault was in allowing others to use their territory to train terrorists. If they are committed to prevent this, the world would be ready to do business with them.

India may not be able to fund projects in Afghanistan, but it could, and should, promote trade which currently stands at around $1.5 billion. This will be a more sustainable way of helping the country. Though Chabahar is there, more could be gained if Islamabad removed its blockade of overland Indian exports to the country. Maybe the new Taliban government can prove to be more persuasive in this area than the earlier government was.

The Tribune 31 August 2021

Can Quad Withstand China's Use of Afghan Mess to Prove American Decline?

On the face of it, there should be little or no impact of the events in Afghanistan on the Quadrilateral Grouping (Quad) comprising of the US, Japan, India, and Australia. According to the summit statement issued on 12 March, the outfit may share a common vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” , but it is about quadrilateral cooperation in a range of areas like tackling COVID, mitigating climate change, dealing with cyber security and critical technologies, counter-terrorism, quality infrastructure development and so on.

But those are only the declared goals of the Quad. Everyone knows that its real aim is to push back at China in the Indo-Pacific region.

And there, the question of the impact of the developments in Afghanistan on the Quad is legitimate. Many views have been put forward, some suggesting that the developments will enable the US to now focus on China and the Indo-Pacific, others argue that Taiwan could become more vulnerable.

India's Military Perspective Differs From US Outlook

The very fact that the Quad has chosen not to clearly articulate a common military outlook is a weakness in itself. That means that its four constituents do not share a common perspective here. Two of them—Australia and Japan—are linked through bilateral security ties with the US, and Uncle Sam is their ultimate security guarantor.

India stands out as an independent nuclear weapons power with a substantial military that does not need the US to defend itself. Further, while it may share a maritime perspective relating to the freedom of navigation of the seas, its security also has an important continental dimension where developments in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia matter. And often India’s perspectives are at variance with the outlook of the US.

Just how things stand is obvious if you read the press releases of the United States and India following the most recent consultations of the senior officials’ of the Quad. While the US one leads off saying “senior officials discussed the importance of peace and tranquility in the Taiwan Strait, ongoing crisis in Burma…” The Indian one does not mention Burma or Taiwan.

Afghanistan Debacle Affects US-Taiwan Relations the Most

Perhaps the biggest question-mark the US debacle in Afghanistan has left relates to the US and Taiwan. The Chinese media had taken to taunting the US with Hu Xijin, editor of the Global Times saying that with the fall of the Kabul regime “the Taiwan authorities must be trembling.” Senior Taiwanese officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that they could now not rely on the US, and President Tsai Ing-wen made it clear that the country would have to rely on its own strength and determination to defend itself.

Given the touchy question of the international status of the island republic, American policy was best characterised by the term “strategic ambiguity.” Three joint communiques (1972-1982) provide the US commitment to recognising the People’s Republic as the sole legal government of China and that there would be no political relations between the US and Taiwan.

These have been refined by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 wherein the US has recognised the “one-China” principle and defined the nature of relations with the “governing authorities of Taiwan.” The Act is silent on security guarantees against a Chinese attack, but it requires the US to provide arms to Taiwan to defend itself.

Also Read

India Needs To Be ‘Aatmanirbhar’ For Semiconductors — Taiwan Can Help

Big Question Mark on America's Credibility?

In a recent interview with ABC News Biden was prodded on the comments in the Chinese media that the Afghan situation showed that the US could not be relied on. In his response Biden declared that the US had iron-clad treaty commitments with South Korea, NATO and Japan to come to their defence, and then he also added Taiwan to the list.

Given the ongoing US-China tensions over Taiwan, this created consternation, but a Biden Administration official quickly calmed the situation by declaring that US “policy with regard to Taiwan has not changed,” and it was quietly let out that the President had “mis-spoken.” In fact Kurt Campbell, the Indo-Pacific policy coordinator of the Administration had earlier rejected the possibility of giving Taiwan an explicit security guarantee.

Subsequent to the President’s gaffe, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan clarified that US commitments to its allies and partners remained strong, but that “when it comes to Taiwan, it is a fundamentally different question in a different context (to Afghanistan).”

An anonymous official added that the mission of the US in Afghanistan was quite different from the commitment to maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

Also Read


'No US Interest in Afghanistan With Al Qaeda Gone': US President Joe Biden

America's Tattered Will on Afghanistan May Not Automatically Mean the Same for Indo-Pacific

At the end of the day, all commitments and agreements are merely pieces of paper. What matters more is the sense of common interests in upholding them. As of now there is nothing to suggest that that has eroded in the case of the United States and its treaty allies and partners. What has happened is that some questionable American commitments made in the last twenty-odd years have come apart, for the simple reason that they were based on false premises.

But when it comes to, say, South Korea, Japan, Australia, NATO and even Taiwan, the US knows that their security and stability has a direct relationship to its homeland security and prosperity. They are linked not just through a piece of paper or some Congressional statement, but the nuts and bolts of trade and technology supply chains which, if disrupted, would damage the US as well.

America’s declassified Indo-Pacific Strategy put it across bluntly earlier this year that the principal US national security challenge was “how to maintain US strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific region an promote a liberal economic order while preventing China from establishing new, illiberal spheres of influence.”

This is a goal to which all four Quad countries are aligned with and they all know that it depends crucially on not just American military and economic power, but US will. That may appear tattered and broken in relation to Afghanistan, but that need not automatically be the case for its Indo-Pacific policy.

Dangers Lies in China's Use of Afghanistan Policy Disaster 

The instrument of that policy is the Quad, and there is nothing in the publicly outlined aims of the Quad that should be affected by the Afghan debacle. The Quad is being smart by adopting an unexceptional low-key approach that is based on the Biden’s view that the two countries need not have a conflict, but engage in “extreme competition.”

There is nothing in the Afghan experience can detract from the Quad’s commitments on vaccines, emerging technology cooperation and so on.

The Indo-Pacific policies, however, are an entirely different issue since various countries, including those in the Quad, have no agreed definition of the region itself, leave alone a common policy.

The real danger is not the taunts on Taiwan, but the manner in which Beijing will seek to use the Afghan policy disaster to put out the narrative of the American decline. This is a longer term and insidious project. And this is something that the US needs to answer not by displays of military power, but setting its own divided house in order back home.

The Quint August 21, 2021