The US interventions haven’t paid dividends in most places whereas the Chinese are happy to play the second fiddle and wait for an opportune time to react
As per Brown University’s Institute of International and Public Affairs, the United States is believed to have incurred $2.3 trillion and 6247 war deaths (including Military, Contractors, and Civilians) in the ill-fated War in Afghanistan (2001-2021). This bill does not include future interest payments on borrowings made to fund this war or the associated Veteran care that will be required in the future. The net result of this war is that ultimately the US had to negotiate with the same group for its own exit from Afghanistan, which it had originally come to defeat in Afghanistan i.e., the Taliban. The actual superpower with which Afghanistan ought to have concerns given the contiguity of a shared land border i.e., China, stayed peacefully out of the conflict for twenty years and has gingerly walked in as the only superpower to have a real equation with the government in Afghanistan, today. All without incurring any money or firing a single shot!
German research institute, Kiel, has estimated that the United States has directed more than $75 billion in assistance to Ukraine in the form of military, financial and humanitarian aid. This makes Ukraine the top aid recipient of US foreign aid – a first-time status for a European country since the Harry Truman Government had sanctioned the rebuilding of the European continent after World War 2. The list includes cutting-edge technology like Abram tanks, coastal defence ships, anti-aircraft missiles, and advanced surveillance and radar systems, yet the Russian-Ukraine war is a stalemate, at best.
China which has a 4210 km long land border with Russia and its own axe to grind with the United States thought it best to offer platitudes that seem to blame the US or NATO more than the Russians, yet the Ukrainians strangely seem satisfied with the Chinese indifference. Zelensky, who is propped by the US largesse said incredulously, “China has chosen the policy of staying away. At the moment, Ukraine is satisfied with this policy. It is better than helping the Russian Federation in any case. And I want to believe that China will not pursue another policy. We are satisfied with this status quo, to be honest.” Again, without investing any resources, firing a shot or committing to a meaningful stand, the Chinese have retained a favourable position with Ukrainians (and obviously with the Russians), even though it is the US that is picking up the tab!
The latest global war that has drawn the United States into its ambit is the Israel-Hamas war which has resulted in Washington DC giving at least $14 billion (traditionally the US was providing up to $3 billion worth in military assistance, annually) to Israel to spruce up its air and missile systems, including the much-bandied Iron Dome, amongst other security wherewithal. As the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip continues relentlessly at a very steep human and financial cost, it is the US that will pick up a sizeable part of the bill. Yet the Chinese have decided to stay out of the conflict discourse, including taking clear sides. Perhaps it has something to do with the quixotic approach of having robust relations with Israel (including thriving trade and commerce and grantsmanship in technology forays), even as it had maintained a rare semblance of a relationship with the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah et al, earlier. This guarded approach may not endear Beijing to either of the sides in the Israel-Hamas conflict immediately, but it does save China from burning precious money from its treasury and then deciding as to which side to tilt as the dust starts settling in the Gaza Strip. Irrespective of the outcome of the war, the US will have more enemies than it had before the war started and it would have sunk huge amounts in a war that was essentially, someone else’s.
The above examples of the US’s global military intervention do not include the rather substantial ‘investments’ that it is already committed to in the war-torn Middle Eastern theatre, restive Sub-Saharan Africa etc., Yet nowhere is the US intervention leading to any tangible or long-term improvements in its sovereign perceptions or relations – whereas the fleet-footed Chinese who despite all accusations of ‘debt-traps’, inconsistent or amoral stands are increasingly getting afforded the sort of expansionism that Beijing desperately seeks.
Given that the Chinese have very little to lose and much to gain at the expense of the existing American global footprint and perceptions, it plays a snake-like baiting game of ‘wait and watch’, and then strikes when the opportunity offers itself with minimal effort or fuss. The already battered global economy post-pandemic had led to credible talks of an impending recession in the US, yet it continues sinking its fast-depleting resources under the pretext of ensuring “American security for generations”. Biden is feeding the fear of abstaining from interventions by suggesting that the “outcome of these fights for democracy against terrorism and tyranny are vital to the safety of the American people”. So far, the US interventions haven’t paid dividends in most places whereas the Chinese are happy to play the second fiddle with only accusatory statements and saving its resources for the rainy day. Something is clearly wrong in the American admixture of diplomacy as it is fast ceding ground to the penny-pinching Chinese.
(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are personal)