Influential powers have always aimed at mediating critical conflicts while furthering their national interests. U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent offer to mediate the current India-China border confrontation high in the Himalayas is no different. In May 2020, as tensions between India and China heightened, Trump tweeted that Washington was “ready, willing and able” to arbitrate between the two countries. On September 24, during a press conference, he reiterated his offer, stating that the Asian giants were “having difficulty, and very — very substantial difficulty.” Both New Delhi and Beijing, however, have clearly rejected the offer, emphasising that the conflict is a bilateral one and a sovereign issue in which third-power involvement is not welcome. But there are several additional factors driving their refusal to accept Washington as a mediator.
First of all, China — and even India — perceives any U.S. interference through a hegemonic lens, dictating terms with its “old-style” foreign policy approach that often overshadows the goodwill gesture itself. Beijing views U.S.’s involvement via the prism of a ‘Thucydides Trap, given its multifaceted relations with Washington. China has been increasingly decrying U.S.’s inclusion in the Asia-Pacific, with its state-sponsored news outlet Global Times regularly referring to Washington’s “interference,” its “desperate” attempts to “start trouble” and cause problems for its “regional allies.” This is especially true with reference to China’s territorial and maritime disputes with its neighbors in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and with India.
Beijing essentially sees Washington as “anti-China,” determined to curb the China’s rightful return to its past glory, under President Xi Jinping's “Chinese Dream” narrative. Trump’s branding of the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” has only added to worsening bilateral ties. U.S. humanitarian support to the Tibetan cause and military and political support to Taiwan, are two extremely sensitive issues for Beijing, deeply concerning for China as they undermine the “One China” policy. In the Tibetan context, which is closely linked to the India-China border dispute, Beijing is eagerly looking at a different situational trajectory under the next Dalai Lama; thus any U.S. interference, even in a mediating role, presents too many risks and could seriously jeopardize Chinese interests.
Both Beijing and New Delhi are also probably mindful of the U.S.’s history in the Himalayan region. The Central Intelligence Agency’s propaganda and separatist operations in the Tibet Autonomous Region, or TAR have been a source of Beijing’s deep-rooted distrust of Washington. In the 1960s, the CIA trained and armed a guerrilla fighting force that resisted the PRC’s Communist rule. The CIA’s Tibet program, known as “Mustang,” gathered important intelligence that was shared with India during the 1962 Sino-Indian war. In fact, the CIA worked with Indian intelligence to train an elite, off-the-books Indian Army unit in mountain warfare, composed of Tibetan rebels of the same guerrilla force. Nicknamed “Establishment 22,” the Special Frontier Force has reportedly been planned for use as a countermeasure in the ongoing conflict. With this complex and sensitive history looming over the Sino-Indian border dispute, any U.S. involvement would necessarily complicate the situation further.
Meanwhile, India too realizes that while Washington has expressed hope for resolving the conflict, escalation will work in favor of Trump’s anti-China policy. Trump’s offer appears appealing, considering that Washington would tilt the negotiating process in India’s favor. However, if India were to invite U.S. participation, China would view it as an unacceptable escalation and construe it as New Delhi’s concrete alignment, if not alliance, with Washington. Consequently, it would only stall talks further and attract more hostility from Beijing.
Despite the current border tensions and domestic anti-China economic measures, such as banning Chinese apps, India has been cautious to avoid appearing overtly anti-China, choosing instead to manage and mitigate the “China problem” that arises so often. India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar wished China on October 1 a congratulations for the anniversary of the PRC’s establishment. Amid the ongoing border tension this indicates the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship even post-Galwan. India’s power-partner parity configuration with China under the aegis of “developmental partnership” still seems to be a relevant way forward, as such a narrative allows India to face China as both a “disruptive power” in the Indo-Pacific and a “prudent economic partner” in the multilateral domain.
Besides, while the Galwan clash may have hastened India’s cooperation with its Indo-Pacific partners and made it more assertive in its security partnerships with “like-minded” countries, an outright alliance with any particular bloc is still not a part of India’s foreign policy strategy. India is instead pursuing a “pointed alignment” tactic to expand its security and military ties selectively. In fact, Jaishankar recently confirmed that India would “never be part of an alliance system.” Further, New Delhi is distinctly aware that as Washington’s global clout shrinks amid the new geopolitical realities, India must remain practical while staying vigilant towards any Chinese aggression. Hence, a stronger military-centric alignment, rather than an alliance, with the United States would serve India’s interest more.
At the same time, it is worth noting that for the United States, it appears that containing China is an utmost priority — and an alliance with India vital to fulfilling this interest. Closer alignment with New Delhi could help Washington strengthen its Indo-Pacific ambitions, particularly as it readies itself for what might very well evolve into a new and drawn-out cold war with China, no matter who occupies the White House after the November election.
For New Delhi, however, the presence of American troops and military bases within its borders, along with deeper defense trade – essentials of what constitutes an alliance — remains unacceptable. Not only would such an alliance completely break from the non-alignment principle guiding Indian diplomacy in its post-colonial era, it would also work against its current national interests by giving foreign forces a say in its often-contested international affairs, especially with its neighbors. It would dilute India’s independence and its capacity to be an able security provider for its immediate neighborhood. With India’s long-standing bid for United Nations Security Council permanent membership in tow, New Delhi would not want to come across as a country needing the help of a permanent UNSC power to handle a “sovereign” dispute with another permanent UNSC power.
Furthermore, India and China have been accommodating each other’s interests on certain international issues or in multilateral domains. One such common goal is the reformation of the Bretton Woods institutions and greater Asian representation on the global stage, even though such exercises have taken a backseat of late. While China is a revolutionary revisionist power, India too displays characteristics of being an emerging, evolutionary, revisionist nation. In this context, U.S. mediation could, to an extent, reinforce Washington’s standing as a “superpower” at a time when India and China are both aspiring to mold a new global order — China’s vision being a world shaped by Xi Jinping’s socialist thought and India conceptualizing a multi-polar Asia and international order.
In addition, Washington’s mediatory role is ever-more complicated by the current leaders at the helm: Xi, Modi, and Trump all have nationalistic outlooks and are dependent on nationalism-driven domestic support. The three leaders are unlikely to agree on any move that could be perceived as “weakness” in their leadership. For Xi and Trump, in particular, any appearance of bowing to the other, especially under rising anti-U.S. and anti-China sentiments within their respective nations, would only prompt public outrage. Both India and China are also mindful of the forthcoming U.S. election, which might bring Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to the White House, and uncertainty about the extent to which he will follow Trump’s proposition for mediation.
All in all, U.S. mediation in the India-China boundary dispute would have largely detrimental consequences for both parties. Beyond reasons that stem from claims of resolving sovereign disputes bilaterally, the unlikelihood of easy compromises from either of the three leaders, the changing geopolitical order, and growing domestic economic and political concerns in all three countries render any third-party mediation between the two Asian giants highly unlikely — let alone by the United States.
Dr. Jagannath Panda is a Research Fellow and Centre Coordinator for East Asia at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He is the Series Editor for “Routledge Studies on Think Asia”. Dr. Panda is the Co-Editor/Co-Author of the newly arrived book “Chinese Politics and Foreign Policy under Xi Jinping: The Future Political Trajectory” (Routledge, 2020). He is also the author of “India-China Relations: Politics of Resources, Identity and Authority in a Multipolar World” (Routledge, 2017), and “China’s Path to Power: Party, Military and the Politics of State Transition” (Pentagon Press, 2010).
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses Indian troops during his visit to Nimu in Ladakh on July 03, 2020 (iTechGuru / Shutterstock.com).
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.