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America and India Need a Little Flexibility at Sea

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Headlines recently shrieked outrage in India after an April 7 announcement from the U.S. 7th Fleet that it had conducted a freedom of navigation operation (commonly referred to as a FONOP) in the Indian Ocean targeting Indian claims. Some Indian commentators were shocked to learn that the United States, a burgeoning strategic partner, was publicly boasting about sailing warships through Indian waters to challenge India’s “excessive maritime claims”—an indignity they assumed was reserved for mutual rivals like China.

The operation generated a mini firestorm in India, providing fuel for skeptics opposed to stronger India-U.S. ties. It was paraded around as evidence of America’s unreliability, an affront to Indian sovereignty, and an act of hypocrisy from a country that has yet to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

But there’s nothing new in this. The United States has conducted FONOPs directed at Indian maritime claims regularly since at least 1992. The U.S. Navy conducted at least six India-related FONOPs between then and 2003 and, with two exceptions, every year between 2007 and 2021. It’s a position consistent with the long-standing U.S. commitment to freedom of passage: one that gains credibility by not being directed at strategic rivals alone.

The FONOP program, which began in 1979, is designed to challenge maritime claims the United States finds inconsistent with international law. The operations “involve naval units transiting disputed areas to avoid setting the precedent that the international community has accepted these unlawful claims.” In the India operation this month, the United States “asserted navigational rights and freedoms approximately 130 nautical miles west of the Lakshadweep Islands, inside India’s exclusive economic zone, without requesting India’s prior consent, consistent with international law.”

In recent years, FONOPs have become a part of the mainstream discourse due to a surge in operations directed at China’s unlawful claims in the South China Sea, including around the artificial islands it began constructing there in the mid-2010s. But the program is much broader than that. In fiscal year 2018, U.S. FONOPs challenged the claims of U.S. treaty allies like Albania, Croatia, Japan, and the Philippines.

While a FONOP directed at India wasn’t new or unusual, issuing a real-time press release about the operation was. Here, the 7th Fleet deviated from past practice of burying routine operations in the annual Freedom of Navigation Report released by the Department of Defense. Upon review, it appears the 7th Fleet has begun making public statements about all or most FONOPs this year, which may signal a shift by the Biden administration toward more consistent, real-time public messaging on these operations.

In most cases, such transparency would be welcome. However, FONOPs present a unique case where greater discretion might be advisable. At the very least, the India operation provides an opportunity to assess the merits of this shift toward greater public reporting on FONOPs and to review where India stands on the key freedom of navigation fault lines that divide the United States and China.

Despite their maturing strategic partnership, India and the United States diverge on several matters related to the UNCLOS maritime agreement. China, India, and the United States were all parties to UNCLOS negotiations. India and China ratified the treaty in 1995 and 1996, respectively. However, as is the case for China, several of India’s domestic laws and some of its practices do not comport with UNCLOS.

In contrast, the U.S. Senate has not ratified UNCLOS, but the U.S. government recognizes its provisions on maritime entitlements and the freedom of the seas as established international law, creating a paradoxical rift between the noncompliant signatories and the compliant abstainer.

One of the main points of disagreement between the United States and India relates to the latter’s claim that foreign navies seeking to operate in its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) must first obtain the Indian government’s consent.

During the drafting of UNCLOS, several developing nations sought to get such authorities included in the treaty. Three times, their efforts failed. Instead, the treaty mainly provides coastal states with exclusive rights over economic activities like resource exploitation in their EEZ.

More than a dozen countries, China and India included, later claimed the authority to regulate military activities in their EEZs anyway, but the U.S. government and numerous other capitals and international legal experts do not recognize these claims, as they are not enshrined in UNCLOS.

The regulation of military activities in the EEZ is particularly problematic for the United States. Roughly 40 million square miles of ocean now fall within some country’s EEZ. As the Congressional Research Service notes, “if China’s position … were to gain greater international acceptance under international law, it could substantially affect U.S. naval operations not only in the [South China Sea], but around the world.”

That isn’t the only point of disagreement between India and the United States on UNCLOS, however. The U.S. FONOP this month might also have challenged India’s attempt to claim “straight baselines” around its Lakshadweep Islands. Previously, the United States has conducted FONOPs designed to challenge China’s similar attempt to draw straight baselines around the Paracel Islands. Under UNCLOS, straight baselines can only be drawn around archipelagic nation-states (like Indonesia), not island provinces or administrative regions of an existing continental state.

While there are some clear similarities in the legal positions China and India have adopted in contravention of UNCLOS, in practice they have adopted very different approaches to enforcement, diplomacy, and arbitration.

One of the key differences is that, while India has issued diplomatic protests in the past to U.S. FONOPs and military operations in its EEZ, China has operationally challenged U.S. vessels, instigating a number of dangerous encounters at sea. As China has grown more confrontational, India has grown more accommodating.

“The US regularly carries out intelligence and survey missions in India’s EEZ. These used to occasion protests from New Delhi in the past. In these fraught times, however, the government and navy prefer to remain silent on US operations in the EEZ,” the Indian analyst Manoj Joshi wrote in 2019. “There is no record of the Indian Navy having attempted to thwart US Navy ships.”

Another notable contrast lies in the diverging approaches adopted by Beijing and New Delhi toward international law and arbitration. Whereas China flatly rejected the judgment of a 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal that invalidated several of its claims in the South China Sea, in 2014 India accepted an unfavorable ruling from the court in a maritime boundary dispute with Bangladesh, which awarded the latter the majority of the territory under dispute.

Meanwhile, in recent years, India has become an increasingly vocal advocate for freedom of navigation and upholding UNCLOS in the South China Sea. Some 90 percent of India’s international trade volume is conducted by sea, of which 55 percent traverses the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca. India affirmed its support for the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal that ruled against a number of Beijing’s South China Sea claims. Indian firms have also been involved in energy exploration projects off the coast of Vietnam that fall within China’s nebulous “nine-dash line” claim, and they have refused to abandon the projects despite pressure from Beijing.

India has also grown more comfortable with the U.S. Navy operating in the Indian Ocean. In 2016, New Delhi signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with Washington, making it easier for the two nations’ navies to visit each other’s port facilities, refuel each other at sea, and conduct joint exercises. In 2018, Indian Army Chief of Staff Bipin Rawat explained that India was “getting into an engagement with them [the Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States] to ensure there is freedom of navigation in the oceans. … We want to ensure there is a safe passage for everyone in the region.”

“The U.S., very honestly, was [in the past] very much a source of concern, even a threat. Today, the U.S. is seen much more as a partner,” explained Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar in 2020. “What we are seeing in the Indian Ocean is the coming together of converging interests of different players who are comfortable with each other politically, who have a shared concern for the global commons.”

Even as India seemingly grows more comfortable with an American naval presence in its backyard, it has become increasingly wary of China’s expanding naval footprint in the Indian Ocean. Alongside regular so-called anti-piracy patrols, Beijing now claims a military base in the western Indian Ocean in Djibouti and a substantial presence at Pakistan’s Gwadar Port.

As China’s presence in the Indian Ocean has expanded, so has its influence and activities in key countries across the region, including the island states of Sri Lanka and the Maldives. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi subsequently launched a “Neighborhood First” policy, a move widely interpreted as an attempt to check China’s growing influence in the region. In 2018, India’s chief of naval at the time acknowledged the country had begun tracking Chinese submarines when they enter the Indian Ocean.

The escalating China-India rivalry has created competing incentives for the Indian government’s approach to UNCLOS. It provides greater impetus to de-emphasize differences and improve maritime cooperation with the United States. But India is also confronting an expanding Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. The Indian government thus sees an interest in maintaining and selectively applying its more restrictive patchwork of domestic laws, some of which conflict with UNCLOS. It would prefer to retain the flexibility to adopt different approaches to Indian Ocean activities by partners and antagonists.

“The U.S. must recognise that FONOPs have implications for New Delhi that go beyond the infringement of Indian jurisdiction,” the Indian naval expert Abhijit Singh wrote this week. “Such operations normalise military activism close to India’s island territories … [and the U.S. Navy’s approach] encourages other regional navies to violate India’s domestic regulations.”

While the United States would prefer to see India’s domestic laws align more closely with established international law, the Indian government is likely to resist, at least on the subject of military operations in the EEZ. Were it to get creative, New Delhi might consider more closely aligning its domestic laws with UNCLOS while enshrining exemptions for countries with which it has active territorial disputes.

In other areas, such as India’s straight baselines claims around the Lakshadweep and Andaman and Nicobar Islands, there may be more room for maneuver. Even Singh acknowledges the straight baselines claims are “a discrepancy that cannot be explained as a minor departure from the provisions of the UNCLOS.”

The Indian government and Navy have already taken a more sober approach to the recent FONOP than the media. Retired Indian naval officials recognized that the operation was legal under international law, even as they saw the publicizing of the operation as unnecessary and unwelcome.

In fact, critics in New Delhi seemed more perturbed by the statement about the FONOP than the operation itself. “If you must do it, do it quietly,” was the common refrain. It’s a recommendation the 7th Fleet might take into consideration. Just as India has resolved not to operationally challenge U.S. FONOPs or highlight their differences on UNCLOS publicly, the United States might reconsider the merits of drawing attention and controversy to an area where Indian and U.S. policies, if not their laws, are coming into greater alignment.

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U.S. Mounts All-Out Effort to Save Iran Nuclear Deal

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U.S. President Joe Biden is intent on restoring the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, and with talks resuming in Vienna on Thursday after a weeklong break, his chief negotiator, Robert Malley, is beginning to develop a road map on how to get there. 

According to sources close to European and U.S. negotiators, Malley is expected to offer Tehran a Goldilocks-style deal: just enough sanctions relief so Iran will return to the pact but not so much that it would leave Biden vulnerable to attacks from hard-liners at home, including those in his own party who oppose any concessions at all to Iran. 

“Until now, no specific sanctions were discussed, only the broad outlines of ways to establish trust,” said Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group (ICG), who was senior advisor to Malley when the latter was head of the ICG. “What they’re doing this week is to finalize a list of measures on both sides to come back into compliance with the accord. The next step is to sequence these to allow both sides to save face.” 

This involves what a senior U.S. official described as the “painstaking” process of separating out and agreeing to remove or ease some of the sanctions that former U.S. President Donald Trump imposed as “poison pills” to ensure that the 2015 deal, which Trump had repudiated in 2018, could never be restored. These include more than 700 sanctions imposed outside the nuclear pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), that were levied at the end of Trump’s term to ensure Iran’s isolation and break its economy altogether. 

Under the “maximum pressure” campaign, the Trump administration in particular sanctioned the Central Bank of Iran, the National Iranian Oil Co., and the National Iranian Tanker Co. for financing state-sponsored terrorism. The Trump team knew that even if the JCPOA were resurrected, such new sanctions would invalidate the deal’s effects because these companies would be banned from international commerce. Together, they oversee Iran’s oil industry, and the central bank controls most of Iran’s foreign exchange reserves and revenues from the country’s oil sales. And new energy revenues are what Iran most demands if it is to return to compliance with the 2015 pact.

As the Trump administration well knew, it would be politically risky for Biden to remove these sanctions, since Iran’s central bank “is in fact responsible for allocating the funds for Hezbollah and Hamas” and the other two companies “provide and ship oil for sale by the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard Corps,” which Trump designated a foreign terrorist organization in April 2019, said Brian O’Toole of the Atlantic Council. 

Shortly before last November’s election, the Trump administration also sanctioned 18 Iranian banks the same way, paralyzing what was virtually Iran’s entire financial sector. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the move, coming amid the coronavirus health crisis, a “crime against humanity.”

“The U.S. position is that it is willing to lift two broad categories of sanctions: those outlined in the JCPOA and those that have been relabeled” by Trump, Vaez said. “However, sanctions that are justified and not inconsistent with the JCPOA, like those that targeted human rights violators in Iran or those that penalized Iranians involved in cyberattacks against the U.S., will stay in place.” The sanctions are to be lifted only if Tehran stops breaching the pact by raising its enrichment levels and producing nuclear material that could be used for bombs, as it has done in recent months.

The optimal target date for completing negotiations might be May 21, the expiration deadline for the temporary agreement reached in late February with International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi, under which U.N. nuclear inspection data will be maintained exclusively by Iran for three months. If no return to the deal is negotiated by then, Tehran has said it will destroy the data, very possibly torpedoing the nuclear agreement. 

“It’s all pretty broad brush right now,” said one European diplomat privy to the talks. And for now, all the negotiating is being done indirectly: The main talks are being conducted by the so-called E3—Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—which are shuttling proposals to Malley and the U.S. negotiating team in another room, since Tehran has insisted it will not talk directly with the Americans unless the nuclear deal is restored first. 

Outside forces have also obstructed progress, as well, starting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vehemently opposes the 2015 deal and has never shown much willingness to listen to Biden. A decade ago, Netanyahu embarrassed the then-U.S. vice president when his hard-line government announced it was expanding settlements outside Jerusalem just as Biden was visiting to promote talks with the Palestinians, who were outraged by the announcement.

Then, on Sunday, an explosion at Iran’s superfortified Natanz nuclear facility—reportedly a bomb planted by the Israelis—provoked Zarif to vow “revenge on the Zionists.” Iran promptly retaliated by raising its uranium enrichment from 20 percent purity to a potentially deal-busting 60 percent. Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, was visiting Jerusalem at the time, and the attack seemed to make mockery of strenuous efforts by Biden’s team to consult with Netanyahu early on.

Nor has the harsh rhetoric coming from Tehran helped matters. On Wednesday, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—who has the final word on negotiations—warned that the talks should not drag on and become “attritional,” and he attacked the United States for seeking “to impose its own wrong wishes” and the Europeans for following the U.S. lead. 

Malley; his boss, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan; and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have certainly worked hard to get the Europeans on board. At Washington’s urging, the E3 on Wednesday issued a statement condemning Iran’s move to raise enrichment, saying it was “particularly regrettable given they come at a time when all JCPOA participants and the United States have started substantive discussions.” 

In an email, Iranian Ambassador to the U.N. Majid Takht Ravanchi said the fact that the E3 had criticized Iran’s move but not Israel’s will only “cloud the atmosphere” in Vienna. Privately, Iran contends that the Natanz attack has strengthened its position, especially by making Russia and China—two of the parties to the 2015 deal—more eager to push for sanctions relief for Tehran. If Moscow and Beijing press harder for relief out of sympathy for Iran, it could make things more difficult for the United States and the E3.

But other experts say the Israeli attack may actually strengthen the U.S. position—signaling to Tehran that the Iranians had better get back to the deal on U.S. terms or the Israelis will end their nuclear ambitions anyway and they won’t even enjoy sanctions relief.

“Ironically, it stretches out the time it will take the Iranians to get closer to a breakout [nuclear] capability,” said Dennis Ross, a former diplomat and Middle East specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It also makes clear to the Iranians that they can keep investing a lot in their nuclear program, but as they do, their efforts will continue to be disrupted.”

Still, Iran insists it won’t cease its provocations before all JCPOA sanctions are lifted first—arguing that it was Trump, not Tehran, who broke the agreement and therefore it should be the Americans who make the first move.

If and when the Biden administration gets back to the JCPOA, it plans to “expand and strengthen” that pact, covering Iran’s militant activities and missile program so as to satisfy hard-liners from Capitol Hill to Jerusalem. Some in Washington call this “JCPOA 2.0,” but that remains a long way off, with Tehran refusing to consider any talks about a new pact.

The political pitfalls are many. If Biden is perceived as giving up too much too soon to Iran, he will face a backlash from hard-liners in the U.S. Congress, including some powerful Democrats. In late March, a bipartisan group of 43 senators—including Sen. Bob Menendez, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Sen. Chris Coons; and 11 other Democrats—sent a letter to Biden calling for a broader strategy than the JCPOA that would address Iran’s “destabilizing activity throughout the Middle East and its ballistic missile program.” 

Angering that group could be costly for Biden as he tries to whip votes for his major domestic plans, especially his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal. “Biden to some degree is in a bind because between now and July 4 is the vote on the American Jobs Act, his key domestic initiative,” said Aaron David Miller, a Mideast expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He’s going to need every Democratic vote he can get. And some Democrats like Menendez and even Coons oppose simple reentry into the JCPOA.”

On the Iranian side, Tehran may want to string things out until after the national elections in June because Khamenei may not want to affect the electoral odds, Vaez and other experts say.

Malley, an experienced Mideast player, knows this is the most complicated negotiation he has ever had to lead. Vaez, his longtime colleague at the ICG, observed that Malley himself “is never an optimist. He himself has serious concerns about the possibility of progress.” 

FP’s Colum Lynch contributed to this report. 

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The Wisdom of Leaving Afghanistan

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No sooner did news leak that U.S. President Joe Biden planned to withdraw the remaining 3,500 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan by Sept. 11 than the Washington Post’s editorial board swung into action, penning an April 13 opinion piece condemning the president’s decision. Biden, it huffed, was taking “the easy way out.”

The Washington Post’s reaction matters only insofar as it signals the tide of criticism Biden will face. Those objections amount to a cobbling together of familiar Washington bromides, nourished by the abiding conviction that the United States’ 20-year campaign in a country which it still seems to know little about can be ended on acceptable terms. Exhibit A in this regard: the Afghanistan Study Group Final Report, which devotes nearly 60 pages to regurgitating the standard brief for staying the course.

And what precisely are those acceptable terms, and how will they be realized? Much of the foreign-policy establishment believes continued U.S. engagement in Afghanistan, which includes military deployments, can usher in a stable, democratic polity and society—one in which the rights of Afghan women and ethnic minorities (notably the Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks) are respected. Anyone who cherishes democracy should be delighted at the prospect of Afghans living in such a country.

What’s up for debate, however, isn’t whether Afghans have a right to democracy in principle. Of course they do. What those opposed to exiting Afghanistan have never explained convincingly is how the United States can possibly exert the degree of influence (or pressure) required to fashion the Afghanistan they envision when it hasn’t been able to do so after 20 years of trying.

In 2010 and 2011, the United States deployed as many as 100,000 troops to the country. Some 775,000 soldiers have served in Afghanistan—and about a fifth of those did three or more tours of duty. And if all costs related to Afghanistan are tallied up, not just narrowly defined war-related ones, they amount to as much as $2 trillion. The belief that anything resembling success can still be achieved in the next few years if only the United States perseveres in this fashion amounts to a pipe dream

The bitter reality is the Taliban, which have 50,000 to 85,000 fighters and have always been vastly outmatched in numbers, mobility, and firepower by U.S. and Afghan government forces, remain standing. Not just that, they have amassed more territory since being toppled after the 2001 invasion.

The Taliban have suffered tens of thousands of casualties. The second of their supreme leaders, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, was killed by a U.S. drone in 2016. Many of their senior commanders have also been killed over the years. Just in recent months, so have several members of their shadow government. The Taliban have nevertheless replenished their ranks, raised money, and acquired weapons—for two decades. Their morale and willingness to fight have not diminished. The decision to participate in the Doha peace talks, which culminated in a February 2020 agreement with the United States, created divisions within the Taliban precisely because many senior commanders were adamant that a military victory was in view.

Meanwhile, the United States has still been unable to create a viable Afghan political order or an army that can stand on its own. Those who warn a U.S. military withdrawal will precipitate the collapse of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government in effect concede this point, although no one really knows how events will unfold in Afghanistan after September. The Taliban do not control the major cities. And they may discover that extending their rule over the Tajik and Uzbek regions in the north proves to be a difficult business—more so if states in the region support the Taliban’s foes in northern Afghanistan. Still, what those opposed to Biden’s decision don’t explain is when, approximately, we can expect to see an Afghan army that ceases to be almost totally reliant on U.S. funding and training. That hasn’t happened in two decades. A few more years wouldn’t help.

The president’s critics are more persuasive in pointing out Afghanistan could become an even bigger haven for terrorism. But the anti-terrorism mission in Afghanistan, which started in 2002, also continues with no end in sight. Countering terrorism through airstrikes and commando raids condemns the United States to playing an endless game of whack-a-mole in numerous impoverished and unstable countries worldwide while winning neither hearts nor minds. That’s because the governments it relies on are unstable and corrupt, and airstrikes against terrorist redoubts kill civilians. The argument that airstrikes have declined and drones are more precise is cold comfort to the families of the dead. There are better ways to protect the homeland, many of which have already been put in place since 9/11.

Many who condemn Biden’s plan, including the Washington Post, accept the commonplace view that Ghani has been a “feckless” leader. But so was his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who governed from 2001 to 2014. Beyond ineptitude, there has been industrial-scale corruption within the Afghan government. And U.S. money, which was supposed to promote “good governance,” has exacerbated it. There’s credible evidence that the CIA funneled millions of dollars to Karzai (and his brother Ahmed Wali Karzai) while he was president as well as to various warlords-turned-officials, such as the notorious Abdul Rashid Dostum, who served as Ghani’s vice president from 2014 to 2020. Or peruse reports by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction if you’d like to learn about the magnitude of persistent and systematic waste, fraud, and failure—all involving U.S. dollars and not a few U.S. contractors. Seeking to build institutions while simultaneously enabling corruption within them corrodes support for the Afghan state and is a decidedly odd way to increase public support for it.

Biden’s critics also seem convinced the Taliban will be forced to realize they must lay down their arms and make ideological compromises on democratic politics, such as equal rights for all individuals—regardless of gender, faith, or ethnicity—and an unfettered press and civil society. Yet no concrete evidence has ever been provided, apart from examples of tactical word parsing, to support the proposition that the Talban’s vision for Afghanistan has changed. It would be nice if it had, but it hasn’t. Nor are there any earthly reasons to believe a minor U.S. military presence, combined with the lure of Western economic aid, will eventually produce a change of heart within the Taliban’s leadership. Had the Taliban’s leaders wanted to make far-reaching concessions to accommodate democratic principles, they could have done so long ago by cutting a deal with Kabul involving power-sharing as an interim arrangement. They didn’t, even though that would have saved many of their fighters’ lives.

Tragedy is an ineradicable part of politics and war, and Afghanistan’s circumstances are tragic in the extreme. An Afghanistan that might, in whole or in part, be ruled by the Taliban isn’t a desirable outcome, especially for the millions of Afghans living there. But it won’t do to merely complain those who favor ending the United States’ longest war don’t care about human rights and democracy or are naive and defeatist. Those who wish to persist must present their plan for success and specify how and why it will work—and by when.

They have not because they cannot. Instead, they refuse to accept that some problems have no good solutions—and that many more lack U.S. solutions.

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Yes, Xinjiang Is an Intentional Genocide

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On his way out of office on Jan. 19, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a determination that China “has committed genocide against the predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.” Nobody in the U.S. policy community seriously disputes that atrocities are occurring in Xinjiang—but some analysts have zoomed in on the term “genocide.” Sometimes it seems to be a way of trying to force policies back toward the failed engagement of the past rather than confronting what’s happening in China and rethinking policy accordingly.

This debate over terminology has high stakes. It’s not just how Washington engages, competes, and cooperates with Beijing but also about how the United States understands China’s policies and intentions and how they manifest on the ground. The United States, however, cannot have a successful China policy if it is not grounded in a realistic assessment of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ambitions and methods—and the atrocities that have resulted because of them.

We can dismiss claims that genocide requires mass killing immediately. Under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, to which both China and the United States are signatories, genocide has two parts. The first is the commission of any of the following acts: “killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

The second part is intent. Any of those acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” would constitute genocide. Many denialists concede the large body of still-accumulating evidence from survivors, satellite imagery, media reporting, and Chinese government policy documents show evidence of potentially genocidal actions. However, they argue the Chinese government and the CCP have not demonstrated any intent to destroy the Uyghur people.

This argument has made the rounds in places such as the U.S. State Department, the Washington Post, and the Economist. In Brookings Institution fellow Michael O’Hanlon’s words, “there is no compelling evidence of a plan to ‘destroy’ the group, so Chinese behavior does not meet the definition of genocide based on the concept of intent as noted in Article II.” This seems to expect a criminal to explicitly describe why they are committing a crime even as it happens. Genocidal states have not, in fact, been given to acknowledging their intent publicly; even the Nazis worked overtime to lie about the Holocaust as it happened while the Soviet Union constantly denied its targeting of ethnic minorities.

Beijing has provided both direct and circumstantial evidence of the intent to destroy the Uyghur people. A Chinese government document cited by the New Yorker speaks directly to this. That document on reeducation stated, “break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins.” Agence France-Presse in 2018 found a similar document that used the same language about breaking Uyghur roots to build new, better Chinese citizens. It has recurred throughout state commentary. Even if this is not a call for mass murder—although it is violent language in a context of mass state violence—it is entirely explicit about breaking the cultural and social connections that make Uyghurs a recognizable ethnic group.

China’s policies toward Uyghur families also reinforces this interpretation of intent because they deliberately break the channels of cultural transmission from generation to generation. Thousands of Uyghur children have been placed in boarding schools and orphanages, separated from their parents and grandparents. Working age adults can be forced to work far away from their homes or may still be in prison. Many elderly Uyghurs have also been detained for attending too many funeral services, which are religious observances, or for a myriad other reasons for which Uyghurs disappear into the camps. Although specific evidence about the elderly is lacking, China has expanded the network of elderly care facilities in Xinjiang throughout this latest crackdown in the name of poverty alleviation—a justification used for the forced labor programs. These policies in combination are clearly intended to destroy any continuity of Uyghur culture or sense of identity as a people, just as Native American boarding schools in the United States were used to destroy native cultures.

This destruction of generational bonds extends to attempting to curtail the birth of new Uyghurs. From 2018, female survivors of the camps in Xinjiang reported being forced to take drugs that affected menstruation and fertility. Researcher Adrian Zenz documented a massive drop in Uyghur birth rates brought about by the Chinese government’s birth suppression policies that not only included involuntary birth control, such as the insertion of IUDs, but also forced abortions and sterilizations. Other Uyghur and Kazakh women corroborated Zenz’s findings from local government documents with their personal testimony. (For those who believe that life begins at or near conception, these actions also meet the first possible criterion for genocide.)

For adults, the expression of Uyghur culture is enough to result in detention, whether informally in the camps or formally through the prison system. The reasons for detention or disappearance include, but are not limited to, telling others not to sin, attending a traditional funeral, traveling abroad, abstaining from alcohol and cigarettes, public expressions of grief when your parents die, praying, fasting, going to a mosque, speaking your native language in school, having a full beard, or being related to anyone who has done any of the aforementioned things.

All of these atrocities have a wider political context. China’s policies toward Uyghurs should also be put in the context of the CCP’s oft-repeated goal of achieving “national unification”—one of the three pillars of what Chinese President Xi Jinping calls the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.” China analysts have typically understood “national unification” as referring to the territorial control of Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and other disputed territories.

But Chinese words and policies in practice imply economic, social, and cultural assimilation with Han-dominant parts of China. As part of the campaign against Uyghurs, Uyghur-language education has been largely if not entirely eliminated. In 2019, China’s State Council issued a white paper denying Uyghurs’ Turkic roots, claiming them instead as part of the Chinese nation. Even as China detains Uyghur religious leaders, forces Uyghurs to violate Islamic social mores, and destroys their holy sites, Beijing claims to be protecting Muslims’ right to their beliefs. All of this has been done in the name of joining the Uyghurs to the party’s version of Chinese modernity.

China’s actions very clearly meet four out of five conditions of genocide—and remember, they only need to meet one. And while no evidence has emerged of mass killing yet, the conditions that would enable it are very clearly being created. Jewish groups are increasingly speaking up about Chinese policies in part because they recognize the cruelty that marks China’s dehumanization of the Uyghurs. Dehumanization to exclude victims from the moral community is a necessary precursor to widespread cruelty, as David Livingstone Smith, author of Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others, observed. This is because it’s difficult psychologically to kill another human being or inflict atrocities on them. The Chinese guards at the camps reportedly are exhibiting the signs of this psychological toll. In the New Yorker’s account of one woman’s journey through the camps, Chinese guards at one point changed behavior, becoming erratic, irrationally cruel, and unstable—all signs of trauma for what they are being ordered to do. Just as Adolf Hitler and the Nazis called Jews “rats,” “subhuman,” and “a virus,” Xi has called Uyghurs a “virus.”

The world’s interdependence with China makes it complicit in these crimes. They are not being cruel through inattention alone but through their economic activity and household purchases that reward China’s forced labor programs built on the backs of concentration camps and the destruction of Uyghur families. China’s recent push to punish companies that refuse to use Xinjiang cotton shows Beijing demands complicity as a cost of engaging with them. Regardless whether officials call it genocide or merely crimes against humanity, China’s policies demand a response commensurate to the scale of the atrocities happening at this very moment. And the world has to acknowledge these atrocities are exactly what the CCP intends.

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Ecuador Just Voted Against Populism, but Its Democracy Is Far from Healthy 

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On Sunday, voters in Ecuador elected a candidate running for president on a conservative platform for the first time in nearly 15 years. With 99 percent of votes counted, Guillermo Lasso, a former banker and finance minister who advocates shrinking the state and cutting taxes, led his nearest rival, socialist Andrés Arauz, by almost 5 points in the country’s runoff election. Both Arauz and former President Rafael Correa congratulated Lasso on his victory Sunday night, as Lasso, a longtime Correa opponent, pledged pro-business reforms and continued respect for independent institutions and the free press.

More than just a competition between two candidates, the polarizing election became a referendum on Ecuador’s recent past. Arauz ran as the handpicked successor of the populist former leader Correa and promised to return Ecuador to the era of Correa’s “Citizens’ Revolution”: a period from 2007 to 2017 marked by high growth and the emergence of a new middle class, but also by repression and censorship of Correa’s civil society critics.

The vote shows that nearly four years after Correa left office, distrust of his brand of authoritarian populism still runs deep among a broad cross-section of the population. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic twice pushed Ecuador’s health system to the brink of collapse and plunged 3.2 million additional Ecuadorians into poverty, a plurality of voters preferred an untested alternative over a return to the past.

Disillusion with democratic institutions is running high, and Lasso will take office as an isolated president with a weak mandate, given the balance of parties in the recently elected legislature. The top three left-wing parties and coalitions hold almost 70 percent of the seats. That means he will face a much bigger challenge in governing than in winning a plurality of votes: He will need to convince his opponents that even when they lose, it’s still worth playing by democratic rules of the game.

Lasso’s ability to govern will likely be determined by the respective participation of three coalitions that have defined Ecuadorian politics since Correa’s final years in office. Lasso is a longtime leader of the first coalition: upper- and upper-middle-income voters and businesspeople eager to reduce the state’s role in the economy and Ecuador’s towering external debt, a group that also supports the current president, Lenín Moreno, who chose not to run for reelection. The second bloc, Arauz’s Union for Hope coalition, joins together the new middle class that emerged during Correa’s years in office and urban low-income voters who remember the Citizens’ Revolution as a golden era of upward mobility.

Between the two poles, a third bloc has built significant political momentum in recent years: young, socially progressive center-left voters and Indigenous communities who reject both Correa’s illiberal, extractive development model and Lasso’s neoliberalism. In first-round elections on Feb. 7, these voters supported two fresh faces, delivering a combined 35 percent of the vote to Indigenous leader Yaku Pérez of the Pachakutik party and political outsider Xavier Hervas of the Democratic Left party. Pérez alleged fraud after narrowly failing to reach the second round and requested a recount, but Ecuador’s National Electoral Council voted to stop the tally before it was complete, sowing suspicion among Pérez’s supporters of unfair dealing.

Once the competition narrowed to the two most polarizing alternatives, the election became an unpopularity contest. Both Lasso and Arauz tried their best to style themselves as unity candidates, as voters from the third bloc were forced to choose which candidate they disliked the least.

Lasso built his career as president of one of Ecuador’s largest private banks and became finance minister during the country’s traumatic 1999 economic meltdown. Fairly or unfairly, many among the left and center-left continue to associate him with the harsh austerity policies that followed. Still, as the race entered its final mile, Lasso broadened his support by pledging to keep his conservative religious views out of politics and to hold a referendum on protecting Yasuni National Park from oil exploration.

Arauz proved less able to unload his reputational baggage, perhaps because the abuses of the Correa years were fresh in voters’ minds. From the start, Arauz’s campaign was consistently linked to Correa’s legacy: Slogans promoted by prominent supporters proclaimed “Arauz is Correa,” and posters emphasized the image of the former president. In the final weeks of the campaign, Arauz muted the praise for his political mentor and talked vaguely about learning from past mistakes.

But most Ecuadorians were not ready to forgive or forget. An Arauz victory would likely have meant a return from exile for Correa, who has evaded corruption charges by remaining in Belgium for the past several years, as well as a rollback of anti-corruption investigations into Correa’s inner circle and a new lease on life for the ex-president’s political career. For both the right and the independent center-left, that was a bridge too far. Many on the center-left seem to have decided they would rather be the democratic opposition to a right-wing government than risk becoming the targets of repression by a left-wing one.

Still, the election’s outcome had more to do with abstention and ballot-spoiling, which far exceeded typical levels, than either candidate’s last-minute maneuvering. In the last presidential elections in 2017, only around 6 percent of voters handed in blank or invalid ballots. This time the figure reached 17 percent, and around 20 percent abstained despite laws that make voting mandatory. Null votes exceeded votes cast for Arauz in six provinces and came close to doing so in five others, which is far from a vote of confidence in the country’s institutions in their current form. It’s hardly a sign of democratic well-being when 1 in 5 citizens of a country goes to the polls and chooses “none of the above.” Correa’s liberalizing successor, Moreno, made some progress toward reforming these institutions. But he has made almost as many blunders, sidestepping due process guarantees to purge Correístas from the state in a way that played perfectly into Correa’s narrative of judicial persecution, and enacting austerity policies that left ordinary Ecuadorians unshielded against the past year’s economic chaos. Arauz and his allies are now on the spot to prove they can learn from their movement’s past mistakes and behave like a loyal opposition, but Lasso must also learn from Moreno’s missteps to avoid committing the same mistakes

Lasso, a textbook pro-business politician, will face an uphill battle to implement his policy agenda and perhaps to even finish out his term in office. On the campaign trail, he pledged to cut individual and corporate taxes; open Ecuador up to free trade deals with the United States, Europe, and Asia; and push forward with a $6.5 billion IMF debt negotiation and austerity measures initiated under Moreno. Lasso also promised to take a hard stance against Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and strengthen institutions to fight corruption.

However, he will find scarce legislative support in Ecuador’s newly elected National Assembly, where his Creating Opportunities party and its ally, the Social Christian Party, control just a fifth of the seats. Even among parties on the left, there is much division. The largest legislative bloc is formed by Arauz’s Union for Hope coalition, which remains loyal to Correa’s vision of active state intervention in the economy and staunchly opposed to Lasso’s slate of market reforms. The next two biggest left-wing parties in the legislature—the Pachakutik party, which is committed to environmentalism and Indigenous people’s rights, and the Democratic Left—are in talks to form a united front. The coalition plans to oppose privatization of state enterprises, reform of the Central Bank, and new extractive projects that could cause environmental harm. Pachakutik and the Democratic Left remain bitter toward Correa, who put hundreds of Indigenous leaders and environmentalists on trial during his time in office.

Pérez’s substantial support during the first round of this year’s elections demonstrated that many voters seeking progressive candidates wanted a very different path than a return to Correa’s policies. For Lasso, the emergence of an independent center-left presents an opportunity. In the best-case scenario, Lasso will realize he needs to work with the more moderate, center-left parties to govern. By genuinely including these parties in forming policy, Lasso would send Correa’s and Arauz’s allies a clear message that it pays to play within established institutional channels and that venturing outside them is a fool’s errand.

However, if Lasso attempts to go it alone or proves unwilling to make substantial policy concessions, he could quickly make friends out of enemies, and all three left-wing parties could find common ground in opposing him in the National Assembly or, more ominously, in the streets. In this worst-case scenario, Ecuador could come full circle to the presidential ousters and economic chaos that plagued the 1990s—an outcome all sides have a stake in avoiding.

Unfortunately, the present uncertainty hardly makes Ecuador particularly unique among its South American neighbors. Since commodity prices plummeted and corruption cases multiplied in the mid-2010s, electoral fragmentation and anti-system candidates have thrived across the region. In Peru’s first-round presidential elections, also held on April 11, anti-system candidates on the left and right emerged as presidential front-runners, which is likely to only exacerbate endemic instability that plagued previous governments. Peru is just the most dramatic example of a broader regional trend toward anti-politics and instability. If Ecuador is lucky and Lasso governs wisely, it could still prove the exception.

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What to Do With U.S. Forces in the Persian Gulf

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In 1971, Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, two of former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s so-called “whiz kids,” wrote a book titled How Much is Enough? Shaping the Defense Program. The subject was defense spending. And the title promised an answer, but like other perennials, the question still pops up multiple times every year in public policy decisions. It’s a simple and important one, but there remains no black and white answer.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan before Sept. 11 is a twofer: Since some U.S. forces deployed to the Persian Gulf are there to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan, they can be withdrawn and repurposed for other missions as the United States ends its military engagement in Afghanistan. However, the Biden administration will continue to struggle with how much is enough regarding the thousands of other military personnel in the Persian Gulf it inherited from its predecessor, including those dedicated to supporting U.S. military operations in Iraq.

This is, of course, not a new debate; but over the past several years, the chorus calling for ending the United States’ endless wars in the Middle East have cast a brighter light on the value of sustaining the country’s historic role as the guarantor of security in the Persian Gulf. As of yet, no consensus has emerged.

As is almost always the case in Washington policy debates, positions have become hardened around two extremes: Pack up the troops and go home, or stay the course. The answer, unsurprisingly, lies somewhere in between. As long as the rest of the world—if not the United States—remains dependent on oil and gas exports from the Persian Gulf, the United States and Iran are in conflict, and there is a potential for Iran to go nuclear or attack U.S. allies and partners in the region, the United States will need to maintain a military presence as a hedge. This military footprint, however, can be smaller than it is today.

Decisions about how small, exactly, should be based on a hard-headed calculation of U.S. interests in the Persian Gulf; an understanding of threats to those interests; and an assessment of the benefits, costs, risks, and implications of each policy choice. So what should a racking and stacking of those factors look like?


The champions of U.S. military disengagement from the Persian Gulf make several arguments.

First, the United States has no vital interests in the Persian Gulf. The region’s strategic importance to the country is declining primarily because of its growing energy production and global energy market diversification.

Second, the main threats to regional security and stability are internal, stemming from state weakness and dysfunctional governance; U.S. military forces are ill-suited to address these sources of conflict.

Third, core U.S. interests in the region are not currently endangered and can be safeguarded at a lower cost and with fewer risks and military resources. The United States does not need to maintain a permanent peacetime military presence to protect the free flow of oil, defend Israeli security, combat jihadist terrorism, or prevent the emergence of a hostile regional hegemon.

Fourth, the United States would save a considerable amount of money if forces in the Persian Gulf were withdrawn to the United States.

Fifth, the capabilities the United States deploys in the Persian Gulf would be better allocated to the European and Indo-Pacific theaters to wage great-power competition with Russia and China.

Finally, limiting the exposure of U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf would reduce the risk of their involvement in other countries’ internal conflicts; as long as the United States operates forces in the region, the argument goes, it will be too tempting for U.S. leaders to pursue military solutions to foreign-policy problems.


Proponents of maintaining the military status quo contend the financial and strategic benefits of military retrenchment have been exaggerated. Their argument goes as follows:

First, most U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf support U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and are performing non-combat roles, such as training, advising, and assisting local forces. As long as the United States maintains its missions in these two countries, there is only a limited scope for force reductions.

Second, the deployment of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf was never about ensuring U.S. access to its oil supplies—given its ability to get oil elsewhere—but rather about access for the United States’ friends, allies, and partners around the world. Although the Persian Gulf may be of declining strategic significance to the United States, Washington still has important interests in maintaining the stability of global energy markets and deterring Iranian adventurism.

Third, instability would threaten U.S. security partners and potentially create more safe havens for groups seeking to attack the United States while Iran’s assertiveness and geopolitical aspirations in the region could spark a conflict with the United States itself.

Fourth, U.S. forces stationed in Gulf Cooperation Council states suffer very few casualties, and their current force posture is relatively small and cheap to maintain in the context of a $740 billion 2021 fiscal year defense budget request. Withdrawing these forces would not save any money unless they are dropped from the force structure, which is highly unlikely. Moreover, because Persian Gulf states provide outstanding training facilities and bear most of the costs of supporting U.S. forces, relocating these assets would cost the Pentagon more money. The current U.S. military presence is politically sustainable—it does not engender local hostility, threaten domestic stability, create political problems for host countries, or present a serious risk of terrorist attacks.

In addition, the champions of the status quo contend the potential strategic risks of military disengagement have been underestimated. It could frighten U.S. allies, and the more vulnerable those allies feel to attack, the more likely some of them will act aggressively against Iran. In other words, U.S. forces are in the region not only to deter Iran but also to restrain U.S. partners.

Disengagement could also, they argue, erode credibility of the U.S. extended conventional deterrent. Tehran could decide to act more aggressively because it sees U.S. retrenchment as evidence that the United States is no longer committed to defending Gulf states. These states, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, could likewise decide the United States is no longer a reliable security partner and develop their own nuclear programs, spurring a regional arms race.

If the United States left, it would also have less leverage on oil issues with Saudi Arabia in those (admittedly extreme) circumstances when a sudden, steep, and sustained drop in oil supplies sends the global price of oil through the roof and the U.S. president is willing to turn the screws on his counterpart to ramp up Saudi oil production to lower prices.


There are good arguments on both sides, but the key driver of the current U.S. force posture is the potential for conflict with Iran. Thus, the only safe exit ramp for U.S. forces out of the Persian Gulf hinges on a long overdue resolution of the nuclear and regional issues that have vexed the U.S.-Iranian relationship for years. But as long as those two countries are in a state of conflict, U.S. military access to regional bases and a military presence will be necessary. The United States does not, however, need to maintain all the forces it currently stations in the Persian Gulf once U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down or been terminated.

A quick tour of the Gulf horizon suggests the United States should maintain its modest military presence in Bahrain unless its presence becomes a major source of instability. If the United States is going to maintain regular offshore naval deployments in the Arabian Sea, as it should, pulling up stakes in Bahrain would not be prudent or cost effective.

U.S. forces that were temporarily deployed to Saudi Arabia over the past two years should be withdrawn while air and missile defenses of critical infrastructure should be upgraded.

Downsizing some bases and trimming military personnel in Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar would be justified by the end of U.S. expeditionary operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These recommendations are based on our judgment that strategic and financial benefits of removing all U.S. forces from the Persian Gulf have been exaggerated and the risks associated with full military disengagement have been understated. The United States’ modest military presence in the Persian Gulf is affordable and politically sustainable; it also provides some value—although admittedly difficult to quantify and dependent on a given administration’s reputation—in deterring Iranian adventurism and reassuring U.S. allies in the region of its security commitment. It also enables a swift response to a range of military contingencies.

The United States’ core interests in the region can be protected with a smaller and more rationalized military presence, supplemented as necessary by rotational U.S. force deployments. These modest drawdowns will be criticized as too timid by advocates of military retrenchment while hawks on Iran will attack any withdrawals as a U.S. retreat from its leadership and a betrayal of its security partners and allies in the region. This very basic stance will ensure the United States is not caught unprepared in an area where it still has important—if diminishing—interests and which could offer unpleasant surprises as long as the United States and Iran have a hostile relationship. Until they reach some kind of compromise, a complete reduction of the United States’ presence will be constrained by the ancient adage, “if you want peace, prepare for war.”

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Kerry Seeks Cooperation in Shanghai Climate Talks

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S.-China climate talks begin in Shanghai, EU and U.K. officials meet on Northern Ireland protocol, and St. Vincent volcanic eruptions continue.

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Kerry Seeks Common Ground in China

U.S. climate envoy John Kerry is in Shanghai today to meet with Chinese officials as the world’s two largest carbon emitters seek rare common ground in a relationship not known for smooth cooperation.

The talks are aimed at convincing China to make a stronger commitment to global climate goals ahead of a summit of world leaders hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden on April 22. That meeting is itself an attempt to lay the groundwork ahead of a pivotal U.N. Climate Change Conference, COP 26, taking place in Scotland in September.

Today’s discussions will mark the first visit of a Biden cabinet official to China, and is the first meeting of the two nations since talks between senior diplomatic and national security officials in March. Those Alaska talks began acrimoniously, with Chinese officials listing a litany of U.S. offenses in their opening remarks.

Kerry will be hoping for a more cooperative atmosphere in the coming days—and is likely to get it, as Chinese President Xi Jinping’s proclamation of reaching net zero emissions by 2060 reverberates through China’s policymaking apparatus. Writing in Foreign Policy in March, Steven Stashwick explained why Xi’s words may lead to real change. And as Melinda Liu writes, the decades-long relationship between Kerry and his counterpart Xie Zhenhua may help both sides to cut through the thornier issues that divide the two nations.

Coal country. China’s coal consumption will need to take a hit, and quickly, for it to reach its 2060 goal. A study by TransitionZero, a climate analysis firm, released today, calls for China to take nearly 600 coal-fired plants offline in the next 10 years in order to meet its targets.

21st century mining. Unconventional power users will soon need to be tackled too. A study published in the journal Nature Communications last week found that 75 percent of the world’s bitcoin mining—a process that involves special computers and huge amounts of electricity—takes place in China, with the authors warning that China’s bitcoin-related energy usage will surpass Italy’s entire energy usage by 2024. China’s Inner Mongolia region is already preparing to ban new cryptocurrency projects after receiving a reprimand from Beijing over the region’s high energy consumption. 


What We’re Following Today 

EU-U.K. talks. U.K. Brexit Minister David Frost will meet his EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic in Brussels today in an attempt to resolve a dispute around the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol of the Brexit agreement. In March, Westminster unilaterally extended a waiver on some goods entering Great Britain from Northern Ireland, a move that the EU considers in breach of the deal and international law. The talks come as unrest has roiled Northern Ireland in recent days. Dan Haverty, writing in Foreign Policy, explains how Brexit has fueled anxieties within the loyalist community about a permanent break from Great Britain.

Russia sanctions. The Biden administration is expected to announce sanctions on a number of Russian individuals and entities tied to a widespread government cybersecurity breach that exploited the software of SolarWinds in December. The breach allowed intruders to access emails of a number of government agencies, as well as steal encryption keys essential to safeguarding the correspondence of top U.S. officials. The move comes after U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday called for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Eruption in the Caribbean. Didier Trebucq, the United Nations resident coordinator for Barbados and the eastern Caribbean, has warned of a humanitarian crisis following volcanic eruptions on the island of St. Vincent. About 20 percent of the island’s population has been displaced as volcanic ash continues to rain down. The National Emergency Management Organisation for St. Vincent and the Grenadines has forecast “explosions and accompanying ashfall, of similar or larger magnitude” for the next few days.


Keep an Eye On

India-Pakistan ties. Senior intelligence officials from India and Pakistan held secret talks in January over calming tensions in the disputed Kashmir region, in a sign of warming ties. The United Arab Emirates facilitated the backchannel diplomacy, which led to both sides agreeing in February to cease shooting along the Line of Control, the de facto border between the two countries. Reuters reports that the two governments have begun talks to secure a “modest roadmap to normalizing ties” in the coming months.  

Global vaccine access. Many former world leaders and Nobel prize winners have called for U.S. President Joe Biden to back a temporary waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments in order to address the current global imbalance. The letter—signed by 175 luminaries, including former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, former French President Francois Hollande, and former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev—has urged Biden to back a waiver proposed by South Africa and India at the World Trade Organization in October. The office of the U.S. trade representative said last month that it was “evaluating the efficacy” of India and South Africa’s proposal. 



Brazil investigates. The Brazilian Supreme Court has given the go-ahead for a Senate investigation into President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the country’s COVID-19 epidemic. Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco had attempted to delay the probe, citing current coronavirus restrictions. Sen. Marcio Bittar, an ally of Bolsonaro, has called the investigation “an attempted coup against the president.” Brazil’s seven-day average COVID-19 death toll hit a record high on Monday, with 3,125 deaths reported.


Odds and Ends

Sweden, like many countries over the past year, has experienced a baby bust, with 6.4 percent fewer births in 2020 than in 2019. That drop could get even worse as the country now faces a shortage of sperm donors as men largely avoided hospitals and donation clinics in 2020.

The problem has driven up wait times for assisted pregnancy from six months to two and a half years, leaving would-be parents with the option of paying the nearly $12,000 fee to attend a private clinic which can purchase donated sperm from overseas. Assisted pregnancies are otherwise covered by Sweden’s national health system.

Sweden’s regulations have also contributed to the shortage; a maximum of six women can use the same donor, and the vetting process for donors takes roughly 8 months. 

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China Intensifies Provocations Over Taiwan

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.

The highlights this week: Beijing launches the biggest incursion near Taiwan in a year, a Chinese health official backs down from criticizing its vaccines, and the government escalates its campaign against Alibaba.

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Tensions Mount Over Taiwan

Twenty-five Chinese jets breached Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on Monday, China’s largest incursion into Taiwanese airspace in a year. The maneuver is part of a long-standing Chinese harassment campaign that intensified last year, when Taiwan saw a record 380 incursions. Intended to wear down Taiwanese morale, the constant intrusions force risky and costly scrambling by its fighters in response. Taiwan has said it will no longer respond by dispatching jets and, instead, by tracking the flights with missile defense systems.

The intensified campaign in part results from increasing nationalism within the Chinese system. Chinese jets have reportedly broadcasted threats and claims to Taiwan over the radio. It is also a response to signals that the United States is growing closer to Taiwan. Last week, the Biden administration loosened restraints on U.S. officials meeting with their Taiwanese counterparts and dispatched a team of retired politicians to Taipei in what a White House official called a “personal signal” of his commitment.

These gestures are all symbolic, but it’s hard to overstate how much they matter in generating anger inside the Chinese political system.

Hatred of the idea of an independent Taiwan is drummed into Chinese kids from kindergarten. Chinese officials have walked out of meetings where a small gesture of recognition is given to Taipei, torn up conference materials that mention Taiwanese sponsorship, and pressured others to exclude Taiwan—including the Canadian government, which reportedly threatened not to host the prestigious Halifax International Security Forum if Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen received an award.

The chance of actual Chinese invasion still remains small, despite recent warnings from U.S. admirals. To assemble the forces required for even a chance of success would take China weeks at best and be visible well in advance. Discounting the high likelihood of U.S. intervention, amphibious invasions against a defender that has spent decades digging in is incredibly risky, even if the Taiwanese military faces logistical and morale issues. Rationally, an invasion would be a very high-risk move from a largely risk-averse leadership.

The question is: Is the Chinese leadership acting rationally? In the last year, the tone of its rhetoric has intensified in a way that alarms even seasoned readers of Beijing’s language. Chinese diplomats’ aggressive posturing and state media’s violent rhetoric seem off—it could mean Beijing is capable of making dumb mistakes. In a system where backing down from conflict could leave military leaders or provincial officials politically exposed, a small clash in the ocean or in the air could very easily spin out of control.


What We’re Following

Vaccine failures. As discussed in last week’s edition, Chinese COVID-19 vaccines increasingly appear ineffective compared to their Western counterparts. A study in Chile has found the Sinovac shot has just 50.4 percent efficacy two weeks after the second dose. Gao Fu, the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, publicly noted that “current vaccines don’t have very high protection rates” on Sunday—comments that he quickly walked back.

In Brazilian studies, the Chinese-made vaccines do seem to have a strong effect in preventing hospitalization or death. But data from Chile and other countries with mass vaccination campaigns with Sinovac or Sinopharm still show a steep rise in transmission alongside declining hospitalization and death rates.

My guess is Gao wanted to create impetus for vaccine change policy inside China, either by increasing flexibility about importing foreign vaccines or bolstering research for China to develop its own effective mRNA vaccine. Gao likely came under immediate backlash internally, either because of general defensiveness or from specific high-level sponsors of the vaccines. This response doesn’t bode well for an honest approach going forward.

Historical revisionism. China has launched a national hotline to report on people for sharing “historical nihilist” comments online. The term, coined by former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Jiang Zemin in 1989, fell largely out of use until Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2013. Since then, the government has mounted an intense campaign against any critical revision of official history, stretching back beyond the party’s own rule to interpretations of the past that don’t match Beijing’s ethnonationalist line.

Attacks on Maoist-era heroes seem to be singled out for punishment, despite the rank implausibility of many of the era’s propaganda tales. A key high school history textbook, meanwhile, has seen recent revisions that emphasize anti-U.S. sentiment and reduce the coverage of the Cultural Revolution, portraying it as an “anti-corruption” campaign that went astray.

Tainted water. China has raised strong objections to Japan’s decision to release radioactive water, stored after the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, into the Pacific Ocean. South Korea and Japanese environmental groups have also lodged complaints, but Tokyo and the International Atomic Energy Agency both say the move follows standard international practice. Ten years ago, Fukushima caused a wave of understandable but unnecessary public panic about radiation in China, leading to mass purchases of salt.


Tech and Business

Alibaba smackdown. The government campaign against Alibaba and its co-founder Jack Ma continues, with a record $2.8 billion fine leveled on the company for “anti-trust violations.” It’s worth remembering that Chinese firms have little recourse when the government imposes fines or forcibly breaks up companies. Instead, as Alibaba has, they must abnegate themselves in public in the hope of getting back into the Chinese Communist Party’s good graces. (The central authorities putting Alibaba in the firing line also gave local authorities free rein to go after it, resulting in more fines for various violations.)

The move is part of a wider crackdown by Beijing against technology firms, which it perceives as holding a dangerous amount of power. Whether the government can pull off greater control over the industry while maintaining the high innovation levels that made Chinese firms a world leader in some fields, such as financial technology, remains unclear.

Chip battles. Recent U.S. additions to the entities list, a trade blacklist, have resulted in Taiwanese firms suspending semiconductor sales to the Chinese supercomputing firm Phytium. Semiconductors have become a subject of contention since a Chinese plan to boost domestic development by 2021 flopped—leaving firms largely dependent on imports, especially from Taiwan. China is importing record numbers of semiconductors in anticipation of further U.S. limits.

The Taiwanese-Chinese economic relationship, as Bonnie Glaser and Jeremy Mark write in Foreign Policy, has remained strangely untouched despite their growing rift.

Warfare at sea. China has registered the names of hundreds of disputed islands and sea features as trademarks, a program started in 2014 and initiated under the auspices of Sansha City. Sansha isn’t a real city; it’s an administrative creation and military base with a population of around 1,400 people that is used to drive China’s claims in the South China Sea. The trademarks seem intended for use in possible legal cases against other claimants, such as the Philippines and Vietnam. It’s unlikely they would make a real difference, but they could be used to shape disputed maps—a perennial Chinese obsession.


City Brief


A passenger looks through the window of a train from Lanzhou to Xinjiang as it leaves the west railway station in Lanzhou, China, on Dec. 26, 2014.

A passenger looks through the window of a train from Lanzhou to Xinjiang as it leaves the west railway station in Lanzhou, China, on Dec. 26, 2014.

A passenger looks through the window of a train from Lanzhou to Xinjiang as it leaves the west railway station in Lanzhou, China, on Dec. 26, 2014.STR/AFP via Getty Images

Lanzhou, Gansu: 3.8 million people

Before Qing dynasty conquests put Xinjiang inside the empire’s orbit, the province of Gansu marked China’s western borderlands—a cultural crossroads that saw frequent revolts, incursions, and expeditions. Lanzhou, the capital, became the center of Qing government resistance against the Dungan Revolt (1862-1877), in which a dispute between Sufi sects erupted into a Muslim rebellion. (Dungan is an old name for the Hui, China’s second-largest Muslim group after the Uyghurs.) The revolt saw the mass depopulation of the region through migration and retaliatory killings by both rebels and government forces.

Caught in an airless valley with frequent desert storms, Lanzhou is still dotted with mosques, although its Muslim population is now a minority and many sites have been destroyed as part of China’s campaign against Islam. Today the city is mostly famous for Lanzhou lamian, hand-pulled noodles usually served in beef broth and derived from Hui cuisine.

Lanzhou has benefitted economically from the Chinese government’s determination to transform the historically poor and underpopulated west. Industry and oil revenue has made the city an economic success story, the rich capital of a poor province.

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Taiwan and China Are Locked in Economic Co-Dependence

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Beijing grabbed headlines in March when it banned imports of Taiwanese pineapples, alleging a pest infestation. The action fit a pattern of China’s weaponization of trade for political purposes elsewhere in the world through informal actions, rather than explicit trade barriers.

The ban ultimately proved fruitless as the 40,000 tons of pineapples originally destined for mainland Chinese tables were snapped up by other buyers. But the incident was a reminder of how deep the trade and investment ties are between Taiwan and China—and how, for the most part, they’ve remained surprisingly insulated from increasingly fraught cross-strait politics.

Cross-strait trade hit a record last year, including indirect trade through Hong Kong and Macao, with Taiwan’s exports representing some 70 percent of the total. Much of the increase was due to strong global demand for made-in-China goods in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It also helped give a lift to Taiwan’s economy, as did its successful and rapid control of the pandemic, causing growth to exceed China’s—2.98 percent versus 2.3 percent—for the first time since 1990.

While the increasing flow of trade—and more than $188 billion of Taiwanese investment into China since 1991—serves Beijing’s long-standing goal of integrating Taiwan’s economy with its own, the situation isn’t as favorable to China as it might seem. The two sides of the strait are locked in a state of economic co-dependence, with China increasingly reliant on Taiwan for technology. The largest proportion of Taiwanese exports is sophisticated electronics, especially cutting-edge semiconductors that China lacks the ability to produce. . And with the United States imposing restrictions on sales to China of both semiconductors and the technology to make them, Beijing is facing vulnerabilities that make economic relations with Taiwan even more important.

Over the years of deepening trade and investment ties, Chinese punitive economic actions against Taiwan have been limited, the notable exception being a sharp reduction in Chinese tourism after the inauguration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in May 2016. The continuing emphasis on cross-strait economic integration as a means of political reunification was underscored last month during a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Fujian province—the closest part of China to Taiwan—during which he urged Fujianese to “be bold in exploring new paths for integrated cross-strait development.”

Beijing’s reluctance to punish Taiwan economically stands in sharp contrast to hard-line Chinese diplomatic and military actions toward the island in response to Taiwanese policies that Beijing finds objectionable. During Tsai’s first four-year term, Beijing poached seven of Taipei’s diplomatic allies. Despite the pandemic, it has blocked Taiwan from participating in the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization. Since March 2019, Chinese jets regularly trespass into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and frequently cross the centerline of the Taiwan Strait, which the People’s Liberation Army Air Force had tacitly respected for 20 years. And threats of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan often appear in China’s state media. Some observers view China’s growing pressure as a sign that Beijing is no longer confident that time is on its side and that Chinese patience for reunification may be growing thin.

In this context, the pineapple ban was a shot across Taipei’s bow—a warning that the cross-strait relationship is not immune from the same retribution that countries that have angered Beijing of late have faced. For example, Australia was hit last year with restrictions on exports to China of beef, barley, wine, and other products in response to Canberra’s insistence on an international inquiry into China’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, among other perceived slights. But exports of Australian natural resources, such as iron ore and liquefied natural gas, that are important to the Chinese economy have remained largely untouched.

Taiwan’s government has attempted to reduce dependence on the Chinese economy by encouraging market diversification and by enticing Taiwanese businesses to shift investments back from China. The centerpiece of the diversification strategy has been the New Southbound Policy, which promotes the expansion of trade, investment, culture, and educational ties with other Indo-Pacific countries. That policy saw some success before COVID-19, but trade and investment flows were disrupted during the pandemic.

Incentives to Taiwanese businesses to return from China, put in place two years ago, have attracted at least $38 billion in commitments to invest in factories in Taiwan—many of them high-tech. Nonetheless, Taiwanese companies remain deeply embedded in the Chinese economy. The Foxconn Technology Group has more than 1 million employees in China assembling Apple iPhones and other name-brand electronics.

There is also a push factor for Taiwanese companies that have found China less hospitable to their bottom lines as labor costs rise, Chinese environmental regulations become stricter, and U.S.-China trade tensions disrupt supply chains. Companies—many of which once left Taiwan for China—now are shifting factories to Southeast and South Asia, and elsewhere, with an eye to producing in China only for the domestic market.

Nonetheless, China’s share (including Hong Kong and Macao) of all Taiwanese exports reached nearly 44 percent in 2020, a record high. What is uncertain is whether the rebound in cross-strait trade in response to coronavirus-related demand will last once the global economy recovers from the pandemic.

Strong demand for electronics—and especially semiconductors—is expected to continue for the next few years. But that needs to be balanced against expectations of continued U.S.-China trade tensions centered on technology sales. Those tensions affected several Taiwanese companies in 2020, when the United States imposed a ban on exports of high-end semiconductors to Huawei and restricted commercial transactions with China’s largest chipmaker, Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp. A portion of Taiwan’s increased exports to China in 2020 came as a result of Huawei’s effort to stock up on chips before the ban went into effect.

China focused its anger over the restrictions on the United States, but a key question going forward is whether it will be prepared to take major coercive economic actions against Taiwan should Washington continue to tighten controls on technology sales—or in response to developments in U.S.-Taiwan relations or Taiwanese politics. For now, China’s economic dependence on Taiwan and the Chinese leadership’s goal of integrating the two economies point to the likelihood of more responses along the lines of the pineapple ban. Taiwanese exports to China that can be replaced by other suppliers will be vulnerable, and companies in those sectors should diversify their markets.

However, punitive actions directed at Taiwan that damage core Chinese interests—certainly including Beijing’s goal of developing high-tech industries—are less likely, and imports of semiconductors and other electronics components will remain prioritized. Should Beijing choose, it has the ability to exert pressure on Taiwanese businesses that have a major presence in China by disrupting their operations But that probably would occur only if China gave up entirely on its strategy of promoting reunification through economic integration combined with various forms of military, diplomatic, and economic pressure.

China-Taiwan economic interdependence is likely to continue because of their geographical and cultural proximity and the complementarity of the two economies, as reflected in their intertwined supply chains. Beijing may target the likes of pineapples, but it is not going to upset the apple cart.

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Biden Is Done with Afghanistan. Is Afghanistan Done With America?

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U.S. President Joe Biden’s expected announcement Wednesday afternoon that all U.S. troops will be out of Afghanistan by September is a recognition, at long last, that there was no U.S. victory to be found in the country’s craggy landscape.

In his speech, Biden said four U.S. presidents have wrestled with Afghanistan—and he would not pass the problem onto a fifth. 

“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal [and] expecting a different result,” Biden said. 

Biden’s new timeline for U.S. withdrawal is only a few months later than the deal that former U.S. President Donald Trump signed up for early last year, when he reached a so-called peace agreement with the Taliban. Charitable observers would call Biden’s unconditional withdrawal an early example of what the president and his national security team have promised would be a foreign policy with “humility.” Critics would—and have—called it a humiliating defeat that leaves the United States less secure and abandons the Afghan people to a terrifying future.

In any event, the announcement stops the notion that the long-term presence of U.S. troops would help defeat the Taliban, build up Afghan forces to stand on their own, and enable the central government in Kabul to finally extend control over the whole country. After 20 years of war and thousands of deaths, none of that has come to pass. U.S. officials acknowledge the Taliban are at their strongest level militarily and have ramped up attacks dramatically over the past year. Provincial capitals, briefly held by Afghan troops, are routinely retaken by insurgents. The few remaining U.S. forces have been propping up a deeply unpopular Afghan government that has lost—or never earned—the trust of its people.

The U.S. record in Afghanistan is not a total loss. The United States ultimately invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago to root out Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda terrorists who plotted the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. By and large, that job is finished. Bin Laden has been dead for 10 years; and while al Qaeda still has pockets in Afghanistan—and still cooperates with the Taliban—the U.S. intelligence community believes the group is no longer in a position to plan attacks on the U.S. homeland. 

And the terror threat has changed: The Biden administration is more worried about threats from al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and other parts of Africa. U.S. officials feel they can keep Afghanistan from again becoming a haven for terrorists by increasing its intelligence operations and moving troops to the Persian Gulf region, where they can keep a distant watch on Afghanistan and a closer watch on other emerging threats. In the meantime, Biden officials believe diplomacy and greater humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan can compensate for the presence of U.S. troops.

But ever since Trump’s hasty withdrawal in exchange for unkept promises of less violence, the Taliban have been emboldened and see the United States, whoever is in charge, rushing for the exit. The Taliban are already threatening “compounded problems” for coalition forces if they stay beyond the original May 1 deadline. It’s also possible this is just posturing, and they will simply bide their time until September to avoid U.S. retaliation. In the meantime, their perceived victory over a superpower invader has given them greater confidence to stand firm in talks with other Afghan groups about the country’s future.

Just this week, the Taliban boycotted a scheduled peace conference in Turkey, throwing the whole future of the Afghan peace process into doubt. Taliban leaders refuse to recognize the government in Kabul and won’t even contemplate a cease-fire until a peace deal is in place—which they’ve just made harder to achieve. 

For Biden and much of his national security team, the logic of the September pullout flips 20 years of thinking on its head. Instead of leaving U.S. troops in the country as leverage for the Afghan government at the bargaining table, Washington is betting that a firm date for departure will push the parties to reach a final deal while increasing pressure on neighbors like Pakistan to use its sway over the Taliban to prevent a civil war. 

U.S. exasperation owes a lot to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Afghans blame his weak leadership for the Taliban’s resurgence. His disinclination to share power has scuppered early efforts to map out a post-war future. He also failed to build the kind of ties with Washington that might have allowed a long-term, stabilizing U.S. troop presence, which happened in Japan, Germany, and South Korea. Afghans are coming to realize that Ghani can neither wage war nor make peace.

As the United States prepares to depart, the first burning question is how many of the gains made in the last two decades—from a smattering of democracy to an advance in women’s rights—can be preserved to make sure U.S. sacrifice wasn’t entirely in vain. The trend lines aren’t positive: Under pressure from Trump, U.S. Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad was unable to secure any guarantees from the Taliban on human rights, democracy, or women’s rights. 

The second big question is how much of the future is likely to resemble the 1990s. After the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, civil war ensued. Eventually, the Taliban captured the capital in 1996, followed by failed peace talks with the Northern Alliance. Five years of brutal rule ensued until the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban.

Without any sort of peace deal—looking increasingly unlikely after the breakdown of talks in Turkey—and with the departure of U.S. (and, almost certainly, NATO) forces, the Taliban seem well-poised to reprise their past successes and force a return to power. 

The Taliban want an Islamic constitution for future Afghanistan. But that may not necessarily mean a return to the dark ages of the 1990s everywhere. Where the Taliban is in control, they continue to impose a brutal interpretation of Islamic law on Afghans, including summary justice. But Taliban leadership living in remote provinces will find much has changed in big cities like Kabul since they were last there. Today, the capital teems with internet-savvy young people in cafes listening to music, with a thriving civil society and women working alongside men. It is unlikely Afghans—an entire generation that grew up after the Taliban’s ouster—will give up this new country without a fight, if enough of them stick around after the Americans leave. If they fear the government isn’t doing enough, people may take matters into their own hands, which could see Afghanistan spiral into an even deeper civil war. 

Blowback from the U.S. decision could soon be felt, especially if the Taliban return to power. Afghanistan has consistently been among the largest source of refugees in Europe—and could be again. Afghanistan’s heroin could again flood world markets. Jihadi groups everywhere will see a simple message: They can prevail. And the Biden administration’s uncompromising plans for withdrawal may also put new strains on relations with European allies.

Ultimately, Biden may have ended U.S. involvement in Afghanistan if not the Afghan war itself. But faced with the prospect of sending more troops, certain to anger both the Taliban and U.S. voters, Biden concluded that delaying the U.S. withdrawal would just be a recipe for open-ended commitment. It may yet be a recipe for a lot worse.