Filling a Punctured Power Vacuum


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS web journal in my column ‘The Strategist,’ appears titled “Afghanistan : the consequences of US withdrawal”. Available at the following site


President Biden announced on 14 April 2021 the end of, what is described as, America’s ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan; the announcement came nearly two decades after invasion. A decade earlier, the US proclaimed that they had accomplished their war aims with the ouster of the Taliban and the disposal of Osama bin Laden.  What followed was ten years of a rudderless war that made a futile attempt to transform Afghan society and foist a Western style democracy on its people.

Under the Doha Agreement of February 2020, between the US and Taliban, American forces were to fully withdraw by 01 May 2021 in exchange for Taliban commitment to prevent Afghan soil from being used by terrorists and agreeing to intra-Afghan talks. Even before Biden’s announcement the Taliban had declared they would not participate in any further talks and threatened “consequences” if the withdrawal deadline was shifted. The matter of terrorist use of Afghan territory remains undetermined, while they have reneged on any further intra-Afghan talks. In its twelfth report on 01 June, the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the UN, has observed: “The Taliban’s intent appears to be to continue to strengthen its military position as leverage… the Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties”. The report also highlights the issue of narcotics in Afghanistan which continues to remain the Taliban’s largest single source of income. Sure enough since 01 May the Taliban have struck at Kabul, Zabul, Logar, Herat, Helmand and Ghor causing over 136 casualties this included a car bombing of a school in the capital resulting in over 85 casualties.  Extrapolating these incidents one can picture the scope, spread and ferocity of the Taliban assault post-withdrawal as they make their inexorable bid to seize unconditional power.

So what of the power vacuum in Afghanistan? While much has been made of the potential of the region to harness its role as the “Heart of Asia” to integrate and stimulate commerce between and outward of the five central Asian states; the reality is the warring nature of polity within and the intrusive external interests that seek to manipulate and control. For Pakistan it is the expansion and consolidation of exclusive Taliban power that would facilitate their bizarre concept of “strategic depth”; China seeks a free hand in the exploitation of Afghan resources irrespective of the dispensation in power; while Iran has been wary of an exclusively pro-Saudi and pro-Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan and may be willing to queer he pitch by introducing Shia fighters (ex-Syria) to keep the Afghan cauldron in a state of boil.

In retrospect very little has changed over the last two decades, in fact the period of bloody turmoil has continued for four decades since the erstwhile Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Prior to the US invasion of 2001 the fundamentalist Taliban from 1996 until 2001, provided refuge to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. After being ousted by the US invasion, the Taliban regrouped across the border in Pakistan and has led an insurgency against the government in Kabul for more than nineteen years.  

The question before us: Is the Afghanistan of 2021 indistinguishable from when the Taliban was ousted in 2001? Is it the same ultra-conservative, misogynist, religious and political society that not only ruled but also provided sanctuary to extremist Islamic groups such as the Al-Qaeda and resuscitated terrorists like the militant Islamic State? It would be naïve to believe that two decades later religious zealots would control life, bring about a return to oppression of women, massacre of ethnic and religious minorities and a ban on TV and music. Reason being that an entire generation of Afghans have come of age with some advantages of technology. Admittedly this may be more applicable to the urban areas. However, regional anxieties over the looming power vacuum in Afghanistan in the wake of a pull out are fuelled by the already bleak prospects of reconciliation between warring Afghan groups.

There is a school of thought that believes that U S strategic aims which changed from counter terrorism to the fallacious idea that they could rebuild the nation in a democratic mould, was the belief that became a source of insecurity, instability and Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and indeed the failure of US war aims. The absence of a social system based upon a scientific and irreligious slant to life, a modern structure of justice, and a social contract that would draw inspiration from the need for both rights and duties and respect for civilizational traditions, has opened the doors to chaos, violent extremism and insecurity.  Was it then a convincing proposition to build a democratic state where the social, cultural and religio-political foundations militated against it?

Recent military history will suggest that no interventionary force has left the host in a condition of stability that could take over the reins of governance. The examples of the last century ranging from Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan (Soviet invasion), the Levant, Iraq, Libya and indeed Afghanistan of today do not seem to contradict the aphorism. In all cases it was clearly the tragic friction between the objectives of the intruder and the very foundations of the indigenous society that presaged disaster.

The regional impact of the impending festering situation is more than likely to be a civil war between the Taliban and forces loyal to Kabul. Already the former control over 30% of the land area while fierce fighting for control is going on in 26 of the 34 provinces. The nature of this war is agitated by Pakistan that vigorously advocates the Taliban cause; such a scenario makes a spill over of extremism into neighbouring spaces inevitable. The Americans in the meantime have assured Kabul that they would remain in the region and deploy in a ‘monitor and strike role’. Intriguing what this means operationally, particularly so after two decades of being in Afghanistan with forces that surged to 83,000 troops + 32,000 (NATO) they were unable to fulfil the very same role.

Afghanistan has been invaded since the first millennium BCE by the Mauryans, Greeks, the Caliphate, Mongols, Timurids, Mughals, Sikhs, British, Soviets and the Americans; the invading armies never quite understood the nature of war they were engaged in. While conquest of territory in Afghanistan and to emerge victorious in tactical engagements was more than probable; it was virtually impossible to hold the patchwork of tribal principalities down to a centralised government. Imposition of Western norms without turning to indigenous cultural models of governance and organization was destined for failure.

 History serves as a fertile classroom for structuring civilizational insights. In the absence of such a nuanced approach, no surprise that Afghanistan remains and will continue to be a ‘Graveyard of Empires.’

The South China Sea: Decadal Dynamics that Impact on its Geopolitik


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS Web Journal and available in the authors column The Strategist at

Geopolitical trends are not “pop-up” events, what they represent is an evolved aggregation of implemented policies that manifests themselves as direction in a nation’s world view. And therefore as we set out to identify the critical trends that had an impact on the politico military dynamics of the South China Sea over the last decade, we would do well to note that trends evolve. The impact of Climate Change is a fact that is there for the world to perceive; it has not only set into motion migratory impulses but has compelled world governments to see the elite and the not-so-elite as a part of a shared destiny. While the pandemic, a one-of human event, has exposed the fragility of structures that we have erected that separate nations and societies. The social media on the other hand has democratised access without attaching accountability for actions; to an extent where the role of government is placed on a shaky footing. The events at Benghazi, Libya in September 2012 are a unique point in social media and international relations history.  

These three are no doubt seminal events of the last decade, but they are more in the nature of fractious and uncontrollable developments.

In this frame of reference one may identify three abiding trends that have ripened across decades to set in motion disruptive forces world over and in particular in the South China Sea:

  • The disintegration of Cold War alliances leaving in its wake absence of leadership and a breakdown of the balance of power that provided both context and substance to international relations.
  • Condition of sovereignty of states in the face of globalization of capital, labour and technology. While a surge of migrations has turned existing socio-economic conditions on its head.   All of which exposed the fragility of democracies.
  • The diminishing prospects of order as nations adopt aggressive military postures and doctrines with a view to change geography and existent political norms.

Disintegration of Cold War Alliances Leaving in its Wake a Breakdown of the Balance of Power

Elements that “Balance of Power” stoked were those devices that strengthened mutual forces such that no one State should be able absolutely to predominate and prescribe laws to the rest. And, since all were equally interested in this condition, it was held to be the common interest, the right, and the duty of every power to interfere, even by force of arms when any of the conditions of this settlement were infringed by any other member of the community. The concept grew in Europe as an instrument of survival of State which demanded that military strategy not be freed from political control. It was premised on two realities of the existent international system. First, the system was anarchic with no hegemon to dominate. Second, that nations are principle actors in the international system, as they “set the terms of collaboration” and devise balancing alliances. This theory with all its abstractions and many flaws lay at the heart of the system up to and beyond the Cold War.

Crumbling of the Soviet Union and the attendant power melt-down in Russia left the world in a unipolar condition. The US donned the mantle of the unchallenged global hegemon. It dominated international systems through time-established networks and indeed dispensed order over and including the South China Sea (SCS). The world, from an era of unipolarity and then multipolar uncertainty that dominated the last three decades between the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, has moved to what may be termed as “penumbric competition”—conflicts (Shankar, 2019) where lack of definition masks the nature of engagement which is rivalry between major powers over mercantile domination and the ability to tweak the ‘rule book’.

China has made palpably clear that the instruments of influence to further its aspirations are financial inveiglement, military coercion and leveraging instabilities. Since the first decade of the millennium, the international scene, has noted how China’s posture has been turned on its head from the Deng days, gone was the maxim to “hide capacities and bide time, to maintain a low profile and abjure leadership.”

Xi Jinping in his words has sought to strengthen the party’s control over a modernizing society and restore China to what he considers its rightful place as a global power. Further, Xi’s Thought and political theory, “on socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era,” has, in imperial fashion, been added to the Constitution as the new political doctrine. Central theme is the promise of national glory bound to the nation upholding his absolute leadership.  

But the problem is far more complex; existent international systems have evolved through an acceptance of economic laissez faire, Adam Smith’s views on state control is revealing and should put a dampener on China’s aspirations as he suggested “It is the highest impertinence and presumption in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people, and to restrain their expense.” In such circumstances an extant milieu is most unlikely to adopt a prejudiced revision coming from a society that neither promotes liberal values nor respects an unautocratic approach.

Sovereignty of States

Globalization of capital, labour and technology is redefining the very concept of a sovereign state; while a surge of migrations have turned existing socio-economic conditions topsy-turvy. The economic benefits of this ‘new world’ are there for those willing to embrace the change. Nations that have retreated within are left in a world of denial that fails to recognise what has structurally redefined the modern successor to the overwhelmingly antiquated Westphalian Order. But what of nations such as China that have selectively endorsed and embraced attributes of the globalised world without the ‘messiness’ of socio-economic changes?

The principal motive force underlying globalisation is the progressive integration of economies and societies. Driven by new technologies, new economic and financial relationships, international policies and the urge for wealth creation; globalisation provides the ultimate amalgamation that can potentially free societies from the constraints of autocratic control. These exchanges have led to interdependencies at all levels. It has also precipitated a conflict between markets and governments that tends to weaken and tear the very fabric that binds nations together.

But is this a condition that China’s authoritarian system can tolerate? And if it cannot, will it not result in unendurable stresses within society that may eventually bring about the dissolution of the regime?

Diminishing Prospects of Order

One of the awkward ironies of recent history is the ephemeral nature of American domination over global affairs. Uni-polarity was not only short-lived, but the US was actually instrumental in encouraging the rise of competing powers. China was catapulted to the forefront of world economic development to a great extent as a consequence of American actions to integrate the PRC into the larger global capitalist system. The result was the creation of a competitor and a threat to existing order.

It is not simply the rise of China’s comprehensive power that has given notice to the status-quoists, but also its determination to re-write the ‘rule book’ on its terms as apparent from its claims in the SCS and its flouting of international norms. The loss of confidence that the US has been confronted with by the stalemate in Iraq, the Levant, Afghanistan and the past inability to come to grips with the financial crisis of 2008 can hardly have helped to steel its geopolitical poise.

Even if China’s efforts to gain strategic  dominance in the region does not achieve the desired results, clearly, their efforts are symptomatic of defiance of existing international order. China’s vision of domination leans heavily on its grandiose ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative and the financial clout of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) created in 2016 as a counter to the US dominated World Bank and the IMF. The growing apprehension is that in the absence of a set of conditionality and a consensus that underwrites fiscal discipline, tax reform, deregulation of market dynamics and secure property rights; loans transforms to territorial lease or trade concessions as the Chinese have done in Sri Lanka, Djibouti, Pakistan or in Kenya where the port of Mombasa serves as collateral for the loss making  Nairobi-to-Mombasa rail corridor; in another ‘debt-for-equity’ swap.   

                  On the security front the Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) aims to balance the revisionist ambitions of China. While it has neither announced itself as a military alliance, it would need to define purpose and should take the next step of enhancing military cooperation to signal intent to deter future Chinese attempts to further alter the status quo. This would take the form of improvements in interoperability, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and access to logistics and infrastructure for power projection. A Charter and a Fund to define mandates and develop strategic Indo-Pacific infrastructure are subsequent logical steps.

In the South China Sea, in the meantime, claims defined by China’s 9-dash line have been judicially de-bunked by an International Tribunal at The Hague in 2016. The Quad has the opening to institute measures that serve to contain China’s revisionist policies and aggressive territorial grab. The opportunity must be seized lest globalism be held to ransom by Chinese nationalism.  

An Improbable Prognosis

The three trends have seemingly opened the SCS to the arrival of a new hegemon. The apparent imbalance caused by the receding influence of the US and the absence of an alternative would appear to throw an invitation to China to fill the vacuum; and yet there remains a body of distrust. If domination of the region remains the aim then what becomes of the slackening terms of sovereignty one wonders? There is a discernable movement against an autocratic regimen, its imperial methods and its territorial ambitions whether in Taiwan, Ladakh, the South China Sea or elsewhere.

We have noted the Indo-Pacific presents an awkward anomaly to strategic thinkers. The question is, are there any basis for China’s quest for a reset to the status-quo other than a quest for power and glory in the colonial mode?

China and the Geopolitical Impact of the Virus-Induced Slowdown


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the authors column “The Strategist” on the the IPCS website and available at

China’s dazzling growth story over the last four decades has been rudely disrupted by the outbreak and spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent chaos it has brought down on global economic systems. Ironically, in the past, its growth trajectory was able to brush aside the fall-out of the Tiananmen Square massacre despite the apparent humanitarian repugnance it caused world-wide. Even the global financial crisis of 2008 failed to have any major impact on China due to its closed financial system, the massive economic stimulus it provided to encourage internal consumption and external investments, and its single minded approach to promote accretion of technologies, setting aside dysfunctional ideologies and international conventions.

Beijing is faced with a complex economic dilemma that will neither abate nor yield to any financial stimulus as it did in 2008 due to its very colossal size and its intricate linkages with the larger global systems. Besides, China’s lack of transparency in the origin and circumstances of the pandemic’s spread has caused a decline in global demand for Chinese exports and set into motion an antagonistic and sometimes mixed trend towards its businesses and its loan-for-lease territory grabbing strategies. However, one of the biggest long-term risks to China’s economy could come in the form of economic decoupling. Throughout the year, tensions between China and India, Japan, Australia and the United States have escalated over a number of issues, including Ladakh, Senkaku Islands, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the prolonged trade war, and increased technological rivalry. Disruption of ties between such large economies has had a downward pressure on growth; starting 2010, China’s economic growth began to decline. GDP dropped from 9.5 % in 2011 to 7.3% in 2014 and the rate continued its decline to 1.85% in 2020. It is expected to rise hereafter.

China, in the meantime, initiated military measures to persist with claims within the 9-Dash Line in the South China Sea (SCS), precipitated a territorial embroilment with India, pressed on with a grandiose global infrastructure plan called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), drastically reorganized and modernized the military and enforced ideological purity in schools and the media — all parts of its vision of a rejuvenated China.

In the circumstances, there are two possibilities that the future may hold:

First,Beijing has advanced the view that, their economy is emerging more resilient and competitive than any other. It aims to build a “new system of an open economy with higher standards providing more opportunities for the world to benefit from China’s high-quality development.” This is contrary to the facts on the ground; Australia is a case in point where its banning of China’s 5G network has provoked a tit-for-tat response as China systematically bans the import of Australian products in addition to embarking on a media campaign to malign Australia’s  involvement in the Afghan war. In various forums, Xi has made it abundantly clear that the world needed China more than China the world. A new found confidence of the meaning of globalization with a Chinese bent is apparent as Beijing creates an order where subjection to Chinese produce counters any maverick tendencies; as it rewrites a new set of rules for the international economic system.         

 Will the world ‘kow-tow’ to this new order?  

The Second Possibility relates to the nature of the post-pandemic world and its impact on China’s designs. Will we see more fragmented regionalism less globalisation or a global response to Xi’s disruptive nationalism? For a global response or at least a strong and meaningful push-back short term commercial interests will have to be set aside. Awkwardly, we have noted Australia despite being punished by having its exports worth $6 billion unfairly blocked by China has gone out of its way to sign up for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. Within neo-realist thought, this may well appear an appropriate response, to attempt to bring China into the status quoist group. And yet, was that not the intent for the last three decades, when the assumption of dominance of military security lost ground to greater interest in the economic and environmentalist agendas? The most uncomplicated way for a new hegemon to face-down opposition is to be up against disjointed competition.

So are we witness to not just the arrival of a new regional hegemon but also a changing order of the International System? The Indian Foreign Minister has suggested in his book The India Way “…for two decades, China has been winning without fighting, while the US was fighting without winning;” or has the pandemic put another twist to this tale?