The Taliban’s return: New battlefronts for China, Pakistan!

In one fell swoop—suddenly withdrawing its army overnight from Afghanistan—America has completely changed geopolitical equations against China. The resurgent Taliban may become Beijing’s nemesis and Islamabad’s graveyard, the way mountainous Afghanistan had become the graveyard for the British, Soviet and American forces.

Utter confusion in the two ‘all-weather allies is showing up in both China and Pakistan; they do not know how to recalibrate their policies about Afghanistan…and India.

Pakistan, in particular, has a sense of betrayal not only from Beijing but also from fellow Islamists of the Taliban it created, funded, sponsored, armed, and launched against enemies. On its border with India, it is petrified of the substandard Chinese military supplies; on its border with Afghanistan, it is paranoid with the unpredictable Taliban.

Recent media reports indicate the level of distrust between China and Pakistan as well, despite their protestations to the contrary.

One report said that Beijing has sold substandard equipment to the Pakistan Army, making it vulnerable to any Indian attacks. Another report said that China, distrustful of Pakistan, has sent it’s own ‘armed workers’—soldiers carrying AK-47 rifles—to finish incomplete infrastructural projects, in the midst of terrorist attacks against them.

The first report indicated that China is not properly responding to the Pakistani Army’ concerns that their air defence systems deployed on the eastern borders with India was endangered due to technical failures.

The Chinese-built portable air defence systems, artillery rocket systems and surface-to-air missile systems, worth millions of dollars, are riddled with technical and operational deficiencies. Because of this, as many as 850 man-portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADs), both launchers and missiles, have become dysfunctional, leaving a serious gap in air defence on its borders.

The Chinese-made FN-16 MANPADS were designed to intercept low altitude and ultralow altitude air targets like enemy helicopters and low-flying aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles under visual conditions. But most of these systems are handicapped by defective surface-to-air night aiming and battleground signalling systems. Without these systems, the MANPADs are literally blind.

The Chinese manufacturer, Wuhan Infrared Co. Ltd, instead of quickly replacing or repairing the systems, has appointed an allied firm, Valiant Technologies, to sort out the mess. Equally serious problems afflict over 500 QW 18 MANPAD launchers imported from China.

These systems were supposed to counter aerial threats and have a range of 6 km with a speed of 600 metres per second. It boasts of high anti-jamming and multi-tracking capability.

The MANPADs form part of a larger contract of supply of 1,300 systems with China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC). About 500 of these systems were inducted into the Pakistan Army in 2016. Numerous deficiencies were found in these systems during biennial functional testing of these systems at the army base workshops since July 2019. The army has asked CPMIEC to replace at least 47 of these systems along with one base control unit and one training simulator.

The story of multiple launch artillery systems, A-100, also bought from China, is similar. It was manufactured by the China state-run Aerospace Long-March International Trade Co (ALIT).

The A-100, incidentally rejected even by the Chinese Army, was inducted into Pakistan Army. During field trials, the Pakistan Army found it wanting in many respects. Even the Chinese manufacturer concluded that the systems had to be replaced as they were beyond repairs.

These problems are causing a serious headache in the forward air defence positions of the Pakistan Army which comes on top of the persisting issue of the defective Chinese-made LY80 surface-to-air missile systems.

These reports of substandard Chinese supplies to Pakistan have come at a time when the Taliban are about to take back control of Afghanistan after the sudden withdrawal of American troops, something neither Islamabad nor Beijing were ready for. The American move has made both Xinjiang vulnerable to China and Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) to Pakistan.

For, they fear, under the new global realignment of forces, the Taliban may become Washington’s militant arm against Beijing the way it was against Moscow two decades ago. That is why China is trying to coax the Taliban to shun terrorism and recalibrate adjustment.

The Taliban now control nearly 250 districts, out of 400, in Afghanistan, and Beijing is apprehensive of their designs in Xinjiang, imperilling the entire Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), whose flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), passes through the restive regions like POK and Baluchistan.

Afghanistan is a key link between China and Central Asian republics, and Beijing envisions a “Pamir Group” of Afghanistan, China and Pakistan, with a new Silk Road linking the Caucasus to western China.

However, America’s masterstroke in arranging the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan has drastically changed geopolitics and put paid to China’s global ambitions. Apparently, the US has successfully persuaded the Taliban to join hands against China, the bigger foe, which has not only tried ‘genocide’ of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang but also attempted to wipe out the identities of even mosques and churches across the country.

Now, China is paranoid about insecurity overspill from Afghanistan and fears that it could become a safe haven for Xinjiang terrorists, whose trouble could further spill over to Central Asia and the Chinese mainland.

With China’s relentless efforts to blot out Islam from across the land, Beijing genuinely fears that Afghanistan could become a launchpad for the revengeful Taliban and for separatist activities targeting the iron rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Xinjiang.

For long, Beijing has been blaming the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a shadowy group it accuses of seeking Islamic rule in Xinjiang, of fomenting trouble in the restive, Muslim-majority province. Recent reports suggested that hundreds of ETIM terrorists were being trained by the intrepid Taliban in the Badakhshan area bordering Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China. China and Afghanistan share a 76-km-long border which Beijing knows is porous for Uyghur fighters.

The CPEC was supposed to be extended to Afghanistan as well. This extension included projects like a motorway linking Peshawar and Kabul, and a trans-Afghan highway joining Pakistan to Central Asia. Afghanistan could have become a promising notch in the BRI.

As in Pakistan, where China is alarmed by attacks from militant groups like the Baluchistan Liberation Army, it fears uncontrolled attacks against Chinese interests in Afghanistan as well. The July 14 terror attack, in which nine Chinese workers and six Pakistanis died in a dam project, have heightened China’s fears, despite the Taliban’s ‘assurances’ as Beijing knows they are as unreliable as itself!

This particular incident has prompted China to deploy its armed men as ‘construction workers’ in the CPEC projects.

And Pakistan is in no position to say no to Beijing!

The Taliban: Pakistan scared of the returning Frankenstein it created!

Twenty years after the unsuccessful American troops withdraw from a minefield called Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, Pakistan is extremely worried of the Frankenstein it had conceived: The Taliban, perhaps the only terrorist group created by Pakistan that has gone beyond its control.

After the 9/11 attacks, America had launched its War on Terror to hunt down al-Qaeda militants and their leader Osama bin-Laden and bombed their hideouts across Afghanistan.

Since 2002, the US has provided nearly USD 88 billion in security assistance, USD 36 billion in civilian assistance, including USD 787 million specifically intended to support Afghan women and girls, and nearly USD 3.9 billion in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, the US said.

At present, the Afghan government forces and the Taliban, seen as successors of al-Qaeda, are engaged in a war of attrition to control the terrorism-infested mountainous country, snatching one district here or there from one another on a weekly basis.

On Friday, US President Joe Biden told his visiting Afghan counterpart Ashraf Ghani in the White House that America will continue to “stick” with his country even after withdrawing the troops.

Islamabad is also apprehensive about a possible ‘secret’ deal between the US and the Taliban, as part of a ‘peace agreement’ between them. Washington could encourage the Islamists to attack Baluchistan to sabotage the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), create a Greater Pakhtoonistan by splitting Pakistan’s northwestern areas and even launch attacks on China’s Xinjiang province.

That is why, for the first time, Islamabad dreads the prospects of the Taliban returning to power in Afghanistan. For, these uncouth Islamic terrorists are ready to launch attacks even on Pakistan! No longer does Afghanistan provides a ‘strategic depth’ to Pakistan against India. On the contrary, Kabul is like the proverbial monkey Islamabad finds it impossible to shoo away from its shoulder.

It was this reason that Prime Minister Imran Ahmed Khan Niazi has ruled out hosting American bases in Pakistan for military action inside war-torn Afghanistan, fearing it might lead to his own country being ‘targeted in revenge attacks by terrorists.

He said as much in a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post newspaper ahead of US President Joe Biden’s meeting with top Afghan leaders at the White House last week. He even questioned the efficacy of such US bases in Pakistan.

Apparently, the article was ghost-written for Khan by the mandarins of the Pakistan Army and the Foreign Office—trying to balance between the two stools, America and Afghanistan.

‘We simply cannot afford this. We have already paid too heavy a price,” Khan said, amid reports that the US is focusing on Pakistan for a military base in the region to keep an eye on Afghanistan and adjoining areas.

Arguing for not allowing the US bases in Pakistan, which were earlier permitted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America in 2001, to coordinate operations in Afghanistan, Khan said, “If Pakistan were to agree to host US bases, from which to bomb Afghanistan, and an Afghan civil war ensued, Pakistan would be targeted for revenge by terrorists again.’

The US had used the Shamsi air base in Balochistan province of Pakistan to carry out relentless drone strikes since 2008, focusing mainly on suspected Al Qaeda operatives in mountainous tribal areas. The US troops had also crossed this border to enter Afghanistan.

 “If the United States, with the most powerful military machine in history, couldn’t win the war from inside Afghanistan after 20 years, how would America do it from bases in our country?” Khan argued.

Not to rub America the wrong way, however, he claimed that Pakistan and the US have the same interests in Afghanistan: a political settlement, stability, economic development and the denial of any haven for terrorists. ‘We want a negotiated peace, not civil war,’ he claimed.

Pakistan is willing to partner with the US for peace in Afghanistan but “we will avoid risking further conflict” after withdrawal of American troops.

Even as the US withdraws foreign troops from Afghanistan this year, it is looking for options to keep a close eye on the region, trying to enlist support from other countries about it.

President Biden’s talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah on Friday discussed US troop withdrawal amid a surge in fighting between Afghan forces and the Taliban across the country, according to media reports.

Khan claimed that “We have no favourites and will work with any government that enjoys the confidence of the Afghan people. History proves that Afghanistan can never be controlled from outside,” he warned America in an oblique reference to its ‘failures’ without Pakistan’s help.

Recalling the heavy ‘price’ Pakistan paid for its role in Afghanistan, he said, “More than 70,000 Pakistanis have been killed. While the United States provided USD 20 billion in aid, losses to the Pakistani economy have exceeded USD 150 billion.”

He said tourism and investment dried up and after joining the US effort, “Pakistan was targeted as a collaborator, leading to terrorism against our country from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and other groups”.

Questioning the use of US drone attacks, which “I warned against, didn’t win the war, but they did create hatred for Americans, swelling the ranks of terrorist groups against both our countries”.

Khan said there are more than three million Afghan refugees in Pakistan and their number may increase in case of further civil war in Afghanistan.

Most of the Taliban are from the Pashtun ethnic group and more than half the Pashtuns live on the Pakistan side of the border.

“This is why we have done a lot of real diplomatic heavy lifting to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, first with the Americans, and then with the Afghan government.

 “Further military action is futile. If we share this responsibility, Afghanistan, once synonymous with the ‘Great Game’ and regional rivalries, could instead emerge as a model of regional cooperation,” he said.

The Great Game of the 21st century begins: China’s BRI versus G-7’s B3W

So the Great Game of the 21st century has begun: Eight years after China began its One Belt One Road (OBOR) programme—later rechristened as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)–the Group of Seven Nations (G-7) has announced its own “Build Back Better World (B3W)—a mammoth plan with potential investments worth USD 40 trillion by 2035 across the globe, vis-à-vis BRI’s USD 3.7 trillion worth of projects.

In May, US President Joe Biden had hinted at it in his telephonic conversation with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, ahead of the 47th Summit of G-7 leaders, which is underway at Cornwall, UK, from June 11 to 13.

On the opening day itself, G-7 unveiled a global infrastructure plan called B3W to counter Beijing’s multi-trillion-dollar BRI. This amply demonstrated the G-7 members’ concerns about Beijing’s growth geopolitical footprint and the urgent need to counter it.

The first major step to counter China in geopolitics was the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), in which America has lined up three more democracies—Australia, Japan, and India. With the B3W initiative, Washington is drafting contours of the second front against Beijing in the 21st century, the way it had set up like NATO, CENTO, SEATO, etc. against the then rival Soviet Union after the Second World War.

“Build Back Better World” (B3W), will be a values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership led by major democracies and intended to facilitate the building of infrastructure in poorer nations, a US  statement said.

“The adoption of the US-inspired “Build Back Better World” (B3W) project came after President Joe Biden and leaders met to address “strategic competition with China and commit to concrete actions to help meet the tremendous infrastructure need in low- and middle-income countries”, the White House said.

The B3W initiative will provide a transparent infrastructure partnership to help narrow the $40 trillion needed by developing nations by 2035, it said.

“B3W will collectively catalyse hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment for low- and middle-income countries in the coming years,” said the White House.

The G-7 is more transparent with respect to its funding as opposed to China. The B3W project plans to put more emphasis on the environment and climate, labor safeguards, transparency, and anti-corruption.

In a veiled criticism of China’s approach to financing BRI projects, the White House said B3W investments would be led by “a responsible and market-driven private sector, paired with high standards and transparency in public funding”.

“This is not just about confronting or taking on China,” a senior official in the Biden’s administration said. “But until now we haven’t offered a positive alternative that reflects our values, our standards and our way of doing business.” the statement added.

The 47th G7 summit is currently being held in Cornwall in the UK. Participants include the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US and representatives from the European Union.

The new infrastructure plan is recognition of the growing challenge mounted by Beijing’s BRI, a mammoth infrastructure project, with the most ambitious being the USD 60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), linking China’s Xinjiang province with the Arabian Sea.

More than 100 countries have signed agreements with China to cooperate in BRI projects like railways, ports, highways, and other infrastructure. With many BRI projects leading to debt restructuring, it has faced strong domestic opposition in various countries. Countries like Indonesia and Malaysia have canceled some projects, while China’s aggressive stance has forced others to do a rethink. Even the Opposition parties have expressed apprehension about CPEC in Pakistan. Beijing has faced accusations of operating as a predatory lender setting up debt traps for its ‘client’ countries like Pakistan.

Abraham Accords-II: Jews may help usher in a ‘Muslim Renaissance’!

Few had expected quick results, or any at all, to follow the “Abraham Accords” that the UAE and Bahrain signed with Israel in Washington in September 2020 a couple of months before US President Donald Trump ran for a second term in the White House.

Within nine months, however, two remarkable things have followed: One, the 11-day Jerusalem-Hamas conflict did not escalate into a full-scale Arab-Israel war—except beyond a minor war of word. This when more than 200 Palestinian died in Gaza, which Israel target-bombed to destroy what it called ‘terror infrastructure’ after Hamas missile-attacked Jerusalem and other areas.

Two, within a couple of weeks after this war, and for the first time in history, an Arab Muslim political party has become a kingmaker in Israel, signalling the arrival of “Abraham Accords-II”. The Saudis, and other Arabs, could sign peace deals with Israel to counter the threats from non-Arab Muslim countries like Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan, within the larger Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), headquartered in Jeddah.

In the 21st century, a grand Jewish-Christian-Muslim reconciliation may be slowly emerging. It has the potential to bring about a “Muslim Renaissance” the second largest community in the world is expecting for a long time so as to shake off the burden of obscurantism, terrorism, and backwardness to join the global mainstream of development.

After several trials and errors, this megatrend actually began a decade ago with the “Arab Spring” heralding the retreat of feudalism and dynastic power transfer in the Muslim world. For that matter, even Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is targeting to resurrect the Ottoman Empire and Caliphate, is a democratically-elected leader.

Democracy, therefore, is in the air in the world’s most volatile region.

Israel is no exception.

After helming Israel for 12 crucial years, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now facing ouster after his opponents announced a deal last week to replace him. Curiously, for the first time, a minor Muslim party, United Arab List (UAL), has emerged as the kingmaker in Israel’s democracy as part of the anti-Netanyahu coalition.

The dramatic announcement made by Opposition leader Yair Lapid and his main coalition partner Naftali Bennett came soon after a deadline at last Wednesday midnight and prevented the Jewish country from plunging into its fifth consecutive election in just over two years.

“This government will work for all the citizens of Israel, those that voted for it, and those that didn’t. It will do everything to unite Israeli society’, Lapid tweeted.

However, no one is sure of this new government’s longevity. For, the coalition partners are still not clear on many issues except their opposition to Netanyahu. Its leaders, centrist Yair Lapid and ultranationalist and hardliner Naftali Bennett will lead the country as PM by rotation, with Bennett taking oath first.

Curiously, his right-wing party failed to cross the electoral threshold in 2019 and had no seats in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. Two years later, he is ready to replace his former boss as the next PM.

A former chief of staff to then-opposition leader, Netanyahu, Bennett could now unseat the PM, bringing an end to his run as the country’s longest serving PM, for 12 years.

Despite his far-right beliefs, a former Defence Minister and millionaire Bennett, 49, has signed onto a historic coalition agreement with centrist leader Yair Lapid who cobbled together a wide swath of political parties together accounting for 61 seats out of 120 in parliament to oust Netanyahu.

And, for the first time in Israeli history, a Muslim party, United Arab List (UAL), led by a dentist Dr. Mansour Abbas, has emerged as the second kingmaker, in an awkwardly assembled coalition of unlikeliest parties, like that of the then Indian PM V P Singh’s in the 1989-91 period.

If Israel’s parliament green-signals, Bennett will take the top job for the first two years of a four-year term, followed by Lapid.

Interestingly, Bennett is even more ultranationalist than Netanyahu and will carry into office a history of incendiary remarks about Palestinians and his well-known criticism of the two-state solution and the ambition to annex part of the occupied West Bank.

Because of his far-right beliefs, Israelis gave only seven seats to Bennett’s Yamina party in the March 2021 elections, compared to Netanyahu’s 30 in the 120-member Knesset. But Bennett found himself the first kingmaker, wooed by both Netanyahu and Lapid who needed his party’s support in order to form a majority.

After his fallout, Bennett became a fierce Netanyahu critic, condemning his pandemic Covid-19 handling and country’s interminable political deadlock. Four elections in two years left the country in flux, with Netanyahu simultaneously appearing to be both stubbornly unmovable yet perpetually on the cusp of losing power.

It is in this backdrop that Bennett will become the PM.

Not only Abbas is the odd partner, even the two main coalition partners are also unlikely bedfellows. A charismatic former TV anchor, Lapid supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians and opposes the influence of religion in Israel, which he wants to address through steps like mixed civil marriages.

Bennett’s coalition agreement must first get a vote of confidence in the Knesset within a week of being formally notified as the PM of a new government. This step might not happen until Monday, which means the vote could be held as late as June 14.

That means there’s still time for Netanyahu and his allies to convince members of parliament to defect from the coalition, or somehow tie things up procedurally in parliament. A collapse of the ceasefire with the Hamas-led militants in Gaza or another outside event could also topple the burgeoning new government.

Apart from this internal Israeli politics, the Abbas factor is of crucial importance. If he remains survives as part of the government, he could become a source of inspiration to other Muslim leaders to reconcile with the Jews, bring peace to the region, and herald an era of Muslim Renaissance.

Covid-19: Vaccines as a new global geopolitical weapon

Some nations have suddenly acquired a new weapon to further their geopolitical aims: Vaccines for Covid-19. Some multinational corporations, likewise, are using the once-in-a-century opportunity to make profit out of coronavirus victims.

They all conveniently camouflage their real objectives with high-sounding morals. Profit-making, not life-saving, has always been their mission statement. If anything, the pandemic has exposed all such hypocrites.

Start with Bill Gates, the global ‘idol of philanthropy’. In 2015, he was said to have predicted a pandemic soon. In the recent years, the Microsoft co-founder invested heavily in pharmaceutical sector to emerge as a vaccine czar as well. Despite his philanthropic claims, he would not like to transfer vaccine technology to others, including India, as he believed that it cannot be done without American “grants” and “expertise”. In other words, the developing countries cannot manufacture vaccines without American technology.

Gates, and the US, appeared peeved at India not only indigenously developing Covid-19 vaccines but also exporting these to nearly 70 countries in what became known as ‘vaccine diplomacy’. It was in this backdrop that US President Joe Biden, ostensibly at the behest of American vaccine-makers, invoked the Defense Production Act of 1950 to starve India of critical American raw material required to manufacture and deliver the vaccines.

India responded with some deft diplomacy of checks-and-balances. It showed a keen interest in Russian and Chinese vaccines instead! This alarmed Washington last week as its plans to contain China with the help of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad)—the anti-Beijing group of four democracies viz, the US, India, Australia, and New Zealand—could go haywire. The Biden administration did a quick course correction to control the damage and, with amazing speed, sent assistance to India.

Not to lag behind, Russia also rushed planeloads of assistance including vaccines to beat the US at its own game. China, which initially tried to wean India away from America, later backtracked. Some 40 countries extended help to India, which is combating a killer second wave of the pandemic, as a pay-back: in the last few months, New Delhi had helped these nations with vaccines via the WHO and business channels.

Why is the US—or for that matter Russia or China—trying to leverage vaccine-making as a geopolitical weapon? This coronavirus is not a one-off epidemic nor is it going to disappear in a hurry. German vaccine-maker BioNTech’s CEO Ugur Sahin had said in December 2020 that the virus will stay with us for the next 10 years. “We need a new definition of normal,” he said. No wonder, influenza is around even after a century, killing some five million people every year.

Clearly, all the Covid-19 afflicted will need effective vaccines, and then booster shots, to combat new variants of Covid-19. In addition, the co-morbidities and side-effects they develop will mean new business opportunities! Covid-19 provides a ‘sustainable’ business model for global pharmaceutical giants!

According to a report by the US health data company, IQVIA Holdings Inc., released last week, the world is going to spend at least USD 15 billion on Covid-19 vaccines until 2025, as the affected countries will have to go for mass vaccination programmes, followed by “booster shots.”

IQVIA, which provides data and analytics for the healthcare industry, said it expected the first wave of Covid-19 vaccinations to reach about 70 percent of the global population by the end of 2022. Booster shots are likely to follow initial vaccinations every two years as per the current data on the duration of effect of the vaccines, media reports said.

America itself is preparing for the possibility that a booster shot will be required between nine and 12 months after the people receive their first full inoculations against the pandemic. Top pharma player Pfizer has also confirmed that these shots may be needed within 12 months.

Quad gallops as Australia thumbs nose at China’s BRI

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) is getting fresh steam and may forge ahead in 2021 to formally emerge as the ‘Asian NATO’. Quad, which its prime mover America sees as an instrument to remain the world’s only superpower in the 21st century, got two fillips last week. One, the US-led West arm-twisted India (on the Covid-19 vaccine issue) to end its dilly-dallying and join the four-nation pressure group against Beijing, and two, Australia broke off deals with China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI).

Like NATO, the US-led Quad is a group of four ‘democratic’ countries (USA, India, Japan and Australia), against a ‘dictatorial’ China. More members could be enrolled into Quad once it formalizes as ‘Asian NATO’.

The US attempts to pull in Australia and India as ‘active’ participants in the Quad have begun to bear fruit with Canberra’s decisive steps. Japan, which suffered the American nuclear attacks in 1945, is more cautious.

In the last few months, China has tried to keep India away from Quad. In February, it pulled back the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Eastern Ladakh. This month, it agreed to export Chinese vaccines to India to combat Covid-19, at a time America is trying to leverage its position.

On Australia, however, China is furious, and slammed Canberra’ decision, signalling a worsening of ties between the nations.

The Australian federal government scrapped both the Memorandum of Understanding and framework agreement signed between Victoria (Australia’s south-eastern state) and China’s National Development and Reform Commission, Beijing’s top economic planning body. Foreign Minister Marise Payne described the deals, signed in 2018-19, as “inconsistent with Australia’s foreign policy or adverse to our foreign relations.”

Payne’s announcement, which included bans on two other deals between Victoria and the governments of Iran and Syria, is an indication how fast the US is drawing in Australia inside the Quad.

The BRI deals with Victoria, Australia’s small but second-most populous state, aimed to increase Chinese participation in new infrastructure projects.

Condemning the step, Beijing’s embassy in Canberra said it “is another unreasonable and provocative move taken by the Australian side against China.” “It further shows that the Australian government has no sincerity in improving China-Australia relations—it is bound to bring further damage to bilateral relations, and will only end up hurting itself.”

The Communist Party of China (CPC) mouthpiece Global Times quoted Chen Hong, Director of the Australian Studies Centre at East China Normal University in Shanghai, as saying that Australia has “basically fired the first major shot against China in trade and investment conflicts” and that “China will surely respond accordingly.”

In a stern representation lodged with Australia, China has reserved the right to take more action, media quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin as saying on Thursday in Beijing.

Relations between Australia and its largest trading partner have been souring since 2020 when Canberra demanded an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic now known as Covid-19. Beijing has since reacted with trade reprisals, including imposing crippling tariffs on Australian barley and wine while blocking coal shipments. In retaliation, Australia has also made life difficult for Chinese students coming for education, apart from taking other steps.

The Australian move to scrap BRI deals is the first under the new laws passed by the national parliament in December 2020, empowering the Foreign Minister to stop new and previously signed agreements between overseas governments and Australia’s eight states and territories, and also with bodies such as local authorities and universities.

These laws allowed the federal government, currently led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, to block or curtail foreign involvement in a broad range of sectors including infrastructure, trade cooperation, tourism, cultural collaboration, science, health and education, and university research partnerships.

Foreign Minister Payne said more than 1,000 arrangements had been made between foreign governments and Australia’s states and territories, local governments and public universities.

But China has still not lost all hopes. The new law may allow the federal government to review and overturn MoUs between Beijing and the state governments of Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania in sectors ranging from investment, science cooperation and access to the Antarctic. “I will continue to consider foreign arrangements,” Payne said. “I expect the overwhelming majority of them to remain unaffected.”

Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China’s cabinet and founder of the Center for China and Globalization, described Australia’s move as unwise.

Victoria’s participation in the BRI was a “huge benefit” for Australia, and “if they abandon that, it’s going to take more time for China-Australia relations to recover.”

Last week, America dilly-dallied export of vaccines and their ingredients to India, which is severely affected with the second wave of Covid-19. This dilly-dallying is strategic, and a quid pro quo for New Delhi’s own dilly-dallying to sign up for whole-hearted participation in the Quad.

This story is unfolding…

How pandemics alter geopolitics, create new superpowers?

Pandemics are, perhaps, like Nature’s detergents that cleanse up clogged arteries of Organic Evolution by removing surplus population. These widespread diseases have often changed the course of world history.

Nothing cripples human societies the way diseases do. Pandemics have triggered the collapse of empires, weakened contemporary powers, and institutions, caused social upheavals and ended even wars. They have altered geopolitics, pushed up new players, and unveiled superpowers

Thus, these scourges have had great influence in shaping human society, civilizations, geopolitics, and national politics throughout history.

We can list here some of these pandemics and how they reshaped our known history.

The Justinian Plague was among the deadliest pandemics ever recorded. It broke out in the sixth century in Egypt and spread fast to Constantinople, the capital of the then Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine), at the peak of its imperial glory. The plague was named after the then Byzantine’s Christian Emperor Justinian (482-565 AD). The outbreak spread from Constantinople to both the East and West, and killed an estimated 25 to 100 million people.

The scourge returned, again and again, in waves, in different countries, until 750 AD, paving the way for Islam to replace a weakened Christianity as the dominant faith. The Byzantine army weakened as it failed to recruit new soldiers or maintain military supplies to battlegrounds. It lost one province after another…By the time the plague ended, the empire had lost vast tracts of Europe to the new forces like Germanic-speaking Franks and Syria and Egypt to Islam…

Another pandemic, the deadliest in our recorded annals, which changed the course of history in the medieval era, was the Black Death, or pestilence. It hit Europe and Asia in the 14th century and was estimated to have killed between 75 and 200 million people. In the early 1340s, the scourge struck India, China, Egypt, Syria and some other countries before arriving in Europe in 1347 where it killed about 50 percent of the total population.

It also had lasting economic and social consequences. The pandemic led to large-scale persecution of the Jews in Europe as the Christians blamed the community for spreading the diseases…it continued until the Jews returned to Israel after the Second World War in the mid-20th century.

But the Black Death was also a great leveler. It began to dismantle the old feudal system, improved the wages for workers due to their dwindled numbers, and gave a strong voice to the underprivileged…which led to the emergence of democracy. It also weakened the hold of the Church on the Christians some of whom broke away to form Protestant denominations—and virtually shifted the global power of Christianity to America.

In the early 20th century, the ‘Spanish flu’ we now know as influenza impacted likewise. The pandemic broke out in the last phase of the First World War (1914-18), killing up to 50 million people worldwide. From Europe, it spread to America and Asia. It weakened the war machine of the Germans and Austrians, and dismantled the last Muslim Empire of the Ottomans. India was the worst-hit; it lost about 6 percent of the population, up to 18 million people, crippling the British Empire and its Indian soldiers, and paving the way for the rise of anti-colonial movement, and Mahatma Gandhi.

Similarly, in the early 21st century, Covid-19 has unfolded to reshape geopolitics…in 2021, we are apprehensive of what could happen next. While the pandemic is still unfolding in waves, ebbs and flows, and will take years to settle down with a ‘new normal’, we can make some intelligent guess about its long-term impact.

Some experts have suggested the following three-phased progression: (1) The end of the globalized liberal order; (2) A resurgence of authoritarianism, as in the 1930s; and (3) a China-dominated New World Order.

But this appears simplistic, based as it is on the previous scenarios. Of course the past can guide us to explain the present and push us towards the possible future, we should know that the past would have stayed on if it was perfect.  A study of history can make us historian, not history-maker!

We can make history if learn from past errors and innovate for the future.

Covid-19 can help us understand the emerging scenario.

The fear that we have come to the end of the globalized liberal order appears unfounded; in our world of globalization of economies and internationalization of civilization, this is not possible—even dictatorships promise democracy! No country, not even North Korea or Myanmar, for example, can live in isolation for long, sitting as they are on their own volcanoes; they will have to come to terms with modernity and join the mainstream, or disintegrate and disappear.

Similarly, the authoritarianism of the 1930s cannot return, except in some areas. No country, not even Saudi Arabia, can afford to ignore the calls of modernity. And no country can import only the consumer products of the West but not its socio-political value systems that had created those products in the first place. Science and democracy are Siamese twins.

Which brings us to the ‘belief’ that China can replace America as the sole superpower.

Of course the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has risen phenomenally as an economic powerhouse, but its ancient socio-political infrastructure is unable to absorb so much wealth; it is like a beggar burdened with a jackpot! Internal pressures will eventually prise open the Communist-controlled dying socio-political infrastructure and create a new one.

There is a major difference between China and America; the former is almost entirely full of native population while the latter is almost full of immigrants of different varieties and generations. In the US, the people run the government; in the PRC, it is the other way round.

So China can flaunt its riches and huge population, America is likely to remain ahead of it due to its controlled population constantly requiring immigrants who come with innovations. Thus America will, in all likelihood, continue to remain the planet’s hub of innovations while China will have to make do with its moniker of world’s factory.

Huge population has huge surpluses and it is no longer an asset, but a liability, where it is China or India. What matters is a continuous inflow of working and innovating population, something that made America the world power in the last century.

But America may outsource its powers to the new group, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) it is trying to set up with India, Japan, and Australia, as a remote-control over China.

These democracies will be the real challenge to China in the 21st century.

And this will perhaps be the contribution of Covid-19 to geopolitics.

How Biden plans to speed past, and stop China!

If Joe Biden successfully launches two of his favourite multi-trillion dollar infrastructure projects, in and out of America, he may well go down in history as one of the most successful American Presidents.

In March, he proposed two highly-ambitious infrastructure projects: the first one will challenge China’s mammoth $3.7 trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to commercially connect over 100 countries across three continents; and the other aims to revamp the USA’s ageing infrastructure, pegged at $2.3 billion, in the next eight years.

On the foreign policy front, Biden proposed a ‘democratic’ rival to BRI during a telephonic conversation with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week. He suggested founding an initiative from democratic countries to rival China’s BRI at a time tensions spike between Beijing and the West.

Recently, the US President had declared that he would prevent China from passing the US to emerge the world’s most powerful nation, and he vowed to invest heavily to ensure America prevailed in the ever-growing rivalry between the world’s two largest economies.

“I suggested that we should have, essentially, a similar initiative coming from the democratic states, helping those communities around the world that, in fact, need help”, Biden told reporters, referring to BRI.

Since President-for-Life Xi Jinping came to power in 2013, China has been trying to increase influence by ‘debt-trapping’ some countries, raising concerns among regional powers and the West.

The BRI has, in fact, come as a major geopolitical challenge to the West as China has helped many countries to build infrastructure. China has enrolled over 100 countries for cooperation in the BRI projects like railways, ports, highways and other infrastructure.

As of mid-2020, more than 2,600 projects were linked to the BRI, but 20 percent of them had been “seriously affected” by the global pandemic. Some countries have also pushed back their BRI projects as costly and unnecessary. They forced Beijing to scale back some plans by asking it to review, cancel or scale down commitments, citing concerns over costs, erosion of sovereignty, and corruption. Even the BRI’s flagship project, the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPAC) has virtually stopped mid-way.

While Biden’s ‘BRI-II’ plan is yet to take wings, he has also proposed  another, multi-trillion dollar plan to revamp ageing infrastructure of the USA itself, and position Washington to out-compete Beijing.

The proposed $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan is expected to create millions of ‘good paying’ jobs and rebuild the American infrastructure in what officials deem as a “once-in-a-century capital investment” in America. “By this investment, over the next eight years, we can transform our current and future infrastructure and fundamentally change life for Americans”, officials said.

“If passed alongside President Biden’s Made in America corporate tax plan, it would be fully paid for within the next 15 years and reduce deficits in the years after. This plan will bring public investment as a share of the economy back to where it was in the 1960s, the last time we made transformative investments in our nation’s infrastructure,” they said.

Currently, the US ranks 13th in global infrastructure. Delays caused by traffic congestion alone cost over $160 billion per annum, and motorists are forced to pay over $ 1,000 every year in wasted time and fuel.

The Biden plan proposes to invest $620 billion in transportation infrastructure, which will modernise 20,000 miles of highways, roads and main streets. It will also fix the 10 most economically-significant bridges in need of reconstruction, and repair the worst 10,000 smaller bridges, reconnecting communities across the country.

Also, it will spark the electric vehicle revolution, building a network of 500,000 Electric Vehicles (EV) chargers, replace 50,000 diesel transit vehicles, electrify at least 20 per cent of the yellow bus fleet, and help consumers purchase the vehicles of tomorrow, media reports quoting the White House said.

The plan will make the new infrastructure more resilient to climate change. Some 40 per cent of the benefits of the climate and clean infrastructure investments will flow back to the disadvantaged communities.

As part of the plan, investments of $650 billion will reconnect communities and transform the way Americans live.

The plan will deliver universal broadband access, including to the more than 35 per cent of rural Americans who currently lack access, in addition to the underserved communities that cannot afford it. It will entirely replace the nation’s lead pipes and service lines and reduce lead exposure in 400,000 schools and childcare centers. It will also lay thousands of miles of transmission lines, making the electric grid more resilient. It will build, renovate, and retrofit more than 2 million homes and housing units.

The plan will also repair schools, community colleges, childcare facilities, and federal buildings, including the veterans’ hospitals. It will cap hundreds of thousands of orphan oil and gas wells and abandoned mines, putting many people to work in communities that have been affected by the market-based transition to clean energy.

The American Jobs Plan will invest $400 billion in the care economy. The plan will support well-paying caregiving jobs that include benefits and the ability to collectively bargain.

Besides, the plan invests $580 billion in Research and Development (R&D), manufacturing and training, and $50 billion in domestic semiconductor manufacturing, securing the US leadership in a global market that supplies critical inputs for almost all goods — from cars to refrigerators to computers.

The US also proposed to fundamentally reform the corporate tax code so that it incentivises job creation and investment in the United States, stops unfair and wasteful profit shifting to tax havens, and ensures that large corporations are paying their fair share, the officials said.

One key element of the plan is to raise the corporate tax rate to 28 percent. The rate will remain lower than at any point since World War II other than the years since the 2017 tax act.

Immigration: New US laws may help Trump bounce back in 2024

He had hinted that he will return. For now, Donald Trump is, since the accession of President Joe Biden in January 2021, lying low. He has reasons to smile and announce his candidacy for the 2024 presidential election.

Angry Trumpites—chiefly the conservative Republicans and the White supremacists, in the “Bible Belt”—had created mayhem in Washington DC on January 4, 2021, when the US Congress met to confirm Biden’s election as the 46th President in the November 2020 election, which the outgoing President had dubbed as a ‘massive voter fraud’ perpetrated by the Democrats.

Additionally, within two months, Biden, 78, has proved that he is too old, ageing faster, and forgetful, a deadly combination for any leader, particularly for the President of the “world’s only superpower”. Last November, he broke his leg. This week, he addressed Vice President Kamala Harris as “President”, and stumbled, thrice, while boarding his official aircraft, Air Force One. The White House had a difficult time claiming his ‘good health’, as the video of his stumble went viral all over the world.

In contrast, Trump, 74, is robust, full of energy, and in fighting spirit. Even  leaders of new American ‘Asian NATO’ partner countries are likewise: Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga (72), Indian PM Narendra Modi (70), and Australian PM Scott Morrison (52).

Even China’s President-for-Life Xi Jinping is only 67.

Clearly, Biden is the oldest of them all. And age, and falling health, are catching up with him: in 2024, he will be 81, and Trump 77.

Besides, Trump has reason to be optimistic about his next run, thanks to the new immigration laws the Biden Administration has just got through.

These may potentially open the ‘floodgates’ for foreign immigrants, strengthening Trump’s voter-base. In the next four years, the White Americans would helplessly watch more ‘coloured’ people flooding in from across all borders, including Mexico, and change the very complexion and demographic composition of America.

The US House of Representatives (Lower House of Parliament) has just passed two key bills that would ease getting American citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, some migrant farmworkers and children whose parents immigrated legally to the country, like those under the H-1B visa program. The bills will now go to the Upper House (Senate), which must pass before the President signs to make them law.

Describing it as a critical first step in “reforming” America’s immigration system, President Biden welcomed the passage of the fresh bill, the American Dream, and the Promise Act of 2021. The House passed it on Thursday by 228-197 votes.

It will provide relief to Temporary Protected Status (TPS) holders and Dreamers, young people who entered the US as children and know no other country. “I support this bill, and commend the House of Representatives for passing this important legislation,” Biden said.

Those known as ‘dreamers’ are basically undocumented immigrants who enter the country as children with parents. The US has nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants from all over the world, including more than 500,000 from India, a policy document issued by the Biden campaign in November 2020, had revealed.

Indian-Americans are the third most influential community in the US. Currently, they constitute about 2 percent of the total population of 331 million, or nearly 7 million. 

Among others, the bill also provides relief for legal dreamers, the foreign-born children of non-immigrant workers, including those on H-1B visas, who lose their legal status once they reach 21 years of age. It would allow many other promising young people to pursue their ‘American Dream’.

The H-1B visa, the most sought after among Indian IT professionals, is a non-immigrant visa that allows American companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations requiring theoretical or technical expertise. Technology companies depend on it to hire tens of thousands of employees each year from countries like India and China.

“My administration looks forward to working together with Congress to do the right thing for Dreamers and TPS holders who contribute so much to our country, and to building a 21st-century immigration system that is grounded in dignity, safety, and fairness… to create a path to citizenship for the undocumented population in the United States”, Biden said.

The American Dream and Promise Act establishes a path to Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR) status for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients and for certain individuals who either held or were eligible for TPS or Deferred Enforced Departure (DED).

The majority of these individuals have been in the United States for much of their lives, often with work authorization and temporary protection against deportation.

Five years after attaining full LPR status, individuals are then eligible to apply for citizenship, a path that is supported by nearly 75 percent of the American public, Indian-American Congressman Ami Bera said.

This legislation is protecting Dreamers, TPS, and DED recipients honor the truth that immigrants are the constant reinvigoration of our country, when they come here with their hopes and dreams and aspirations, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the original sponsor of the Dream Act said that “the legislative solution was long overdue for Dreamers who have devoted their lives to our country, undocumented migrant farmworkers doing backbreaking agricultural work during this pandemic to keep food on our tables.”

Undocumented immigrants are believed to be one of the largest groups among the immigrant essential workforce, making up 5.2 million essential workers, of which nearly one million are Dreamers, part of the 2019 American Dream and Promise Act, who entered the US as children.

Another legislation, the Farm Workforce Modernisation Act, will allow unauthorized farmworkers to earn legal status in the US and update temporary agricultural worker programs to meet the economy’s needs. It will provide H-2A eligibility to employers having year-round labor needs, which is critical for dairy and livestock.

According to New American Economy, more than 500,000 DACA-eligible immigrants are essential workers, including 62,000 in the healthcare industry alone.

Senator Dianne Feinstein said that since Obama created DACA in 2012 to temporarily protect Dreamers, more than 800,000 individuals have registered for the program. California is home to the most DACA recipients, more than one in four live in our state.

These young people didn’t break the law, many were brought here as babies or small children by their parents. They now go to school, work, and pay taxes here in the United States. They are US citizens in all but name, she said.

The 2024 electoral battle for the next US Presidency, therefore, is expected to be between the old immigrants and the new ones.

Divided States of America: “Movement has only just begun,” says triumphant Trump

Only thirty-eight days after his violent supporters stormed the US Congress on the Capitol Hill in Washington, former President Donald Trump, accused of inciting this “insurrection”, was exonerated of all the allegations the Democrats had brought against him and impeached him a second time.

This exoneration has thrown up a larger question. Will Trump’s successor Joe Biden become Abraham Lincoln-II?

The impeachment move against Trump came after an angry mob of his supporters stormed the US Congress on January 6, 2021, trying to stop it from certifying the Electoral College results that showed his Democrat rival Joe Biden had defeated him in the November 3, 2020, elections.

On February 13, the Senate (Upper House) acquitted him of all charges of inciting an insurrection at the Capitol after a majority of Republican lawmakers voted him “not guilty”. They refused to vote in favor of the Democrats’ move to punish Trump.

His successor, the 46th President Joe Biden, who took the oath on January 20, was reported to be against Trump’s impeachment as he feared the former President stood to gain, either way: if impeached a second time, his millions of White, conservative supporters could permanently ditch the Democrats; if he won, these same jubilant supporters would make life hell for the new Administration.

Nobody knew it better than Biden as to what Trump’s exoneration means.

Hours after the Senate’s acquittal, he said in a statement: “This sad chapter in our history has reminded us that democracy is fragile.”

But he also had to do a balancing act: “While the final vote did not lead to a conviction, the substance of the charge is not in dispute.”

Never has America been so divided after Abraham Lincoln’s era in the mid-19th century.

 “Our historic, patriotic and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun,” a triumphant Trump said in a statement, hours after the Senate vote, media reported.

“In the months ahead, I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people. We have so much work ahead of us, and soon we will emerge with a vision for a bright, radiant, and limitless American future.”

While a two-thirds majority (67 votes) was needed in the 100-member US Senate to convict Trump on charges of inciting violence, only 57 Senators voted in favour of holding Trump guilty, while 43 voted ‘not guilty’.

Seven anti-Trump Republican Senators joined the Democrats’ ranks and voted for his conviction in the five-day long trial, making it the most bipartisan impeachment trial in the history of the USA.

Trump described this impeachment trial, his second during his four-year tenure, as “yet another phase of the greatest witch hunt in the history of our country.” “No President has ever gone through anything like it.”

The House of Representatives (Lower House) had impeached Trump on January 13 and sent the charge of inciting an insurrection to the Senate to hold the trial.

“There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day,” senior Republican leader Mitch McConnell said after voting to acquit Trump.

He said that his vote against conviction was based on a technicality that under the Constitution Trump could not be impeached by the House of Representatives and tried by the Senate because he was out of office.

Democrats and their Republican supporters, however, said that although he was no longer the president, he could still be impeached and face the penalty of being barred from running for office.

Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Party leader in the Senate, was shocked. He condemned the Republicans who voted against the Trump conviction.

“The failure to convict Donald Trump will live as a vote of infamy in the history of the US Senate,” he said.

“We saw it, we heard it, we lived it,” he said, calling the January 6 incidents a “constitutional crime” witnessed by Senators.

Trump’s second impeachment was quite shorter that his first in 2020 and relied largely on the video footage of his incendiary remarks and storming of the US Congress. His defense argued that he did not incite “what was already going to happen” that day and that his remarks were protected by his right to free speech, as per the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

Trump, who had won more than 74 million votes in the election, had, even after being declared defeated, announced that he will continue to be politically active, hinting that he might run again in 2024. He reiterated it on Saturday as well. His massive support base had made the majority of Republican Senators wary of crossing his way.

Post-exoneration, Trump may prove more dangerous to Biden.

“In the months ahead, I have much to share with you, and I look forward to continuing our incredible journey together to achieve American greatness for all of our people. There has never been anything like it!”, Trump said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the pro-Trump Senators who voted to acquit him, “cowardly”. She however ruled out censuring Trump saying it would let “everybody off the hook”.

“What we saw in that Senate today was a cowardly group of Republicans who apparently have no options because they are afraid to defend their job… respect the institution in which they serve,” Pelosi said at a press conference after the historic but controversial trial.

“What is so important that the political survival of any one of us that (sic) is more important than our Constitution that we take an oath to protect and defend?” she asked, media reports said.

McConnell said that he voted to acquit Trump because “former Presidents are not eligible for conviction.” Shortly after the vote, however, he said the former President was “practically and morally responsible for provoking” the January 6 attack.

They (the mob) did this because they had been fed wild falsehoods by the most powerful man on earth,” he said.

Like Biden, he was also forced to do a balancing act!