Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan”.
US foreign policy has long relied on sanctions, despite their uncertain effectiveness and unintended consequences. No sooner had President Joe Biden taken office when he imposed new sanctions on Russia and Myanmar.
Sanctions are a favorite and largely overused tool of US diplomacy in dealing with countries that cannot impose significant costs in retaliation. Indeed, Washington has fallen into a self-harm trap by viewing sanctions as the easy answer to any problem.
Sanctions may have been a defensible policy in the second half of the 20th century, when US economic and military might was overwhelming. But with the relative wealth and power of the United States declining, so too is the effectiveness of its sanctions. Far from requiring a harsh sanction, US sanctions often advance the commercial and strategic interests of its main competitor, China.
Nothing illustrates this better than China’s last 25-year economic and security agreement with Iran, where ever-stricter U.S. sanctions have made China the country’s most important trading partner over the past decade. last decade.
Now, under the new deal, China will further strengthen its investments in key Iranian sectors, step up defense cooperation, and create a joint bank that will allow Tehran to borrow and trade the yuan, which Beijing is promoting. actively international use. Iran is also showing how US sanctions can penalize America’s own friends like India and Japan.
As India’s compliance with the US embargo on Iranian oil added billions of dollars to its fuel import costs, China has stepped up its purchases of Iranian oil at reduced prices. When the United States reimposed a new sanctions list against Iran in November 2018, it forced many Japanese companies to suspend contracts with Iranian energy suppliers.
American policymakers should be more concerned about how their punitive actions forced Russia to pivot towards China, helping two natural competitors to become close strategic partners. A forward-looking US administration would avoid confronting Russia and China simultaneously and instead seek to play against each other.
Biden, claiming that a declining Russia posed a threat “just as real” as the powerful, rising and technologically sophisticated China, hit Moscow with new sanctions in early March for the detention of dissident Alexei Navalny. And, subsequently swearing that Russian President Vladimir Putin “will pay a price” for his alleged interference in the US presidential election and calling him a “killer,” Biden threatened to impose tougher boycotts.
The multiple rounds of US sanctions since Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014 have already resulted in the worst relationship Washington has had with Moscow since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently noted, the sanctions “aren’t going to do much good.”
In fact, Russia’s increasingly tight strategic alignment with China represents a profound failure of US foreign policy, underscoring the counterproductive nature of US sanctions. The United States could seek to rebalance its relations with Russia by relaxing its authoritarian approach, but old habits die hard. More sanctions against Moscow will only strengthen China’s hand in challenging America’s world preeminence.
Ironically, the United States treats China with respect. Biden, for example, has not called Chinese President Xi Jinping a “murderer” or promised to make him pay a price, despite the Chinese concentration camps in Xinjiang that are home to more than a million Muslim Uyghurs. The US sanctions on the muzzling of the autonomy of Hong Kong in violation of a treaty registered by the United Nations spared Xi’s relatives.
When it comes to the neighborhood’s small children, however, US sanctions often substitute for forward-thinking policy. For example, the United States imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s top generals at the end of 2019 for ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya instead of tackling what US officials have recognized as the main policy weakness – l Washington’s inability to establish close ties with the Myanmar military.
The sanctions effectively removed all incentives for the Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, to support further democratization. Worse yet, after helping turn National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi into a virtual saint, the United States began to criticize her for dealing with the Rohingya exodus and her links to it. the army, encouraging the generals to organize a coup.
Now the United States risks repeating history. Just as the crippling sanctions of the late 1980s pushed a reluctant Myanmar into China’s arms, the new round of sanctions against Myanmar since February – including the latest suspension of trade relations – is good news for the regime. of Xi.
More fundamentally, Washington’s resort to sanctions highlighted the inherent weakness of its policy: the inability to develop objective criteria on the circumstances that would justify sanctions allowed narrow geopolitical considerations to drive the imposition of sanctions apparently. randomly.
Why, for example, does the United States willingly do business with Thailand, even as the 2014 coup leader remains firmly in power, but insists on the “immediate restoration of democracy” in Myanmar neighbour? The Biden administration has launched an internal review of U.S. sanctions programs to understand their usefulness and consequences. Yet without waiting for the outcome of the review, Biden took sanctions like a duck in the water.
The United States is now in danger of accelerating its relative decline by a strategic overtaking. A first step in dealing with this risk is to drop its excessive sanctions and recalibrate the sanctions so that they do not help Xi’s “Chinese dream” in search of hegemony.
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