Home Opinion and Features Key nations sit out US stand-off with Russia and China, leaks show

Key nations sit out US stand-off with Russia and China, leaks show

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US President Joe Biden’s global agenda faces significant challenges as major developing nations seek to evade the intensifying stand-off between the United States, Russia and China and, in some cases, exploit that rivalry for their own gain, classified American intelligence assessments show.

US President Joe Biden speaks with Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi at the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, on November 15, 2022. File picture: Prasetyo Utomo, G20 Media Center, Handout via Reuters

US PRESIDENT Joe Biden’s global agenda faces significant challenges as major developing nations seek to evade the intensifying standoff between the United States, Russia and China and, in some cases, exploit that rivalry for their own gain, classified American intelligence assessments show.

The documents, among a trove of US secrets leaked online through the Discord messaging platform, provide a rare glimpse into the private calculations by key emerging powers, including India, Brazil, Pakistan and Egypt, as they attempt to straddle allegiances in an era when America is no longer the world’s unchallenged superpower.

The leaked intelligence findings, which have not been previously disclosed, also offer new insights on the obstacles Biden faces in securing global support for his efforts to reject the spread of authoritarianism, contain Russia’s belligerence beyond its borders and counter China’s growing global reach – as influential regional powers try to remain on the sidelines.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. The Defense Department, where many of the documents were briefed to senior leaders before being leaked online, declined to comment.

Matias Spektor, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said developing nations are recalibrating at a moment when America faces potent new competition, as China projects new economic and military clout and Russia, though weakened by President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, demonstrates its ability to deflect Western pressure.

“It’s unclear who will end up in a pole position in 10 years’ time, so they need to diversify their risk and hedge their bets,” Spektor said.

This is apparent in Pakistan, which received billions of dollars in US economic and security aid following 9/11 but now is heavily reliant on Chinese investment and loans. According to one of the leaked documents, Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs, argued in March that her country can “no longer try to maintain a middle ground between China and the United States.”

In an internal memo she titled “Pakistan’s Difficult Choices,” Khar, who previously served as Pakistan’s foreign minister, cautioned that Islamabad should avoid giving the appearance of appeasing the West, and said the instinct to preserve Pakistan’s partnership with the United States would ultimately sacrifice the full benefits of what she deemed the country’s “real strategic” partnership with China. The undated intelligence document does not detail how the United States gained access to Khar’s memo.

Another document, dated February 17, describes Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s deliberations with a subordinate about an upcoming UN vote on the Ukraine conflict, and what the government anticipated would be renewed Western pressure to back a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.

The aide advised Sharif that support for the measure would signal a shift in Pakistan’s position following its earlier abstention on a similar resolution, the intelligence document says. Pakistan had the ability to negotiate trade and energy deals with Russia, and backing the Western-backed resolution could jeopardize those ties, the aide noted.

When the UN General Assembly voted on February 23, Pakistan was among 32 countries that abstained.

Pakistani officials and those from other countries named in the leaked documents declined to comment.

While core US allies in Europe and East Asia have come together to back Biden’s Ukraine campaign, providing an ever-increasing array of weapons and weaning themselves off Russian energy, Washington has encountered resistance elsewhere.

The Biden administration has told those countries that it is not asking them to pick sides between the United States on one hand and China and Russia on the other, a message that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stressed in his travels. But nations including South Africa and Colombia bridle at what they see as an implicit choice.

When Blinken made a trip last year to South Africa, another emerging power that recently held military exercises with Russia and may deny a request by the International Criminal Court to arrest Putin if he should visit during a summit this year, officials there told the secretary of state they would not be bullied into making decisions that don’t suit them.

India, likewise, appeared to avoid taking sides between Washington and Moscow during a conversation on February 22 between Indian national security adviser Ajit Kumar Doval and his Russian counterpart, Nikolay Patrushev, another of the leaked documents indicates.

It says that Doval assured Patrushev of India’s support for Russia in multilateral venues and that New Delhi was working to ensure the war did not come up during a Group of 20 meeting chaired by India, despite “considerable pressure” to do so. At the meeting of G-20 foreign ministers in New Delhi a week later, disagreement over Ukraine resulted in a failure to forge a consensus on broader global challenges.

Doval, the leaked document shows, also cited India’s resistance to pressure to support the Western-backed UN resolution over Ukraine, saying his country “would not deviate from the principled position it had taken in the past.”

People familiar with India’s position say it does not support Russia’s war – pointing to a denunciation Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered to Putin in person – but has long relied on Moscow’s support at the United Nations and has little choice but to maintain energy and economic ties with Russia.

Unlike the non-aligned movement that flourished during the Cold War, in which developing nations like Algeria and Cuba pushed back against colonialism and Western dominance, experts say there is little in the way of common ideology today and no explicit allegiance between countries seeking to navigate this great power rivalry.

Central Asian nations, meanwhile, are “looking to exploit” this competition and capitalise on expanded interest from the United States, China and Europe as they seek to lessen their dependence on Russia, according to a February 17 assessment from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The document did not identify those countries, but they probably include nations such as Kazakhstan that are seeking to diminish Russian influence and develop new partnerships in energy and trade.

Leaders in the region “are eager to work with whoever offers the most immediate deliverables, which for now is China,” the document says.

Some officials in the Global South, a term used to describe the parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, are positioning themselves as a diplomatic bridge between the three rivals. Among them is Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has sought to stake out a leading global role for his country after a period of isolationist moves under predecessor Jair Bolsonaro.

The leaked documents preview Lula’s proposal to stand up a “world peace bloc” to mediate US and Chinese interests and broker an end to the fighting in Ukraine, saying the left-leaning Brazilian leader planned to discuss the initiative with President Xi Jinping during a visit to China, which occurred in April.

Lula has angered Nato nations by suggesting they are prolonging the Ukraine conflict by supplying arms to Kyiv and proposing that, to achieve peace, Russia might surrender some of the territory it controls in Ukraine but retain the occupied Crimean peninsula, a prospect dismissed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

According to intelligence cited in the leaked documents, officials at Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported Lula’s plan, saying it would counteract the West’s “aggressor-victim” narrative about Ukraine. Shortly after returning from China, Lula hosted Russia’s foreign minister in Brasília.

Lula’s initiative was taking shape at the same time his government welcomed by two warships from American archrival Iran, both of which were designated as part of a US sanctions program. A March document contained in the Discord leaks says the ships Makran and Dena, part of Iran’s 86th Deployed Naval Group, concluded a week-long port call in Rio de Janeiro on March 4.

The Pentagon assessed that Lula “likely approved the port call to bolster his reputation as a global mediator and burnish Brazil’s image as a neutral power” but said the visit didn’t necessarily indicate a major expansion of the two countries’ military relationship, despite Iranian hopes for such an outcome, the document says.

It added that the governments of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela turned down Iran’s requests for parallel visits.

Ahead of the visit, the document says, some Brazilian navy officials had lobbied the United States to urge Lula’s government to deny the visit because they did not want Washington to view it as a “realignment” of Brazil’s external partnerships.

According to the document, a senior official at Brazil’s Foreign Ministry said Brazil had no reason to link the visit to Iran’s poor human rights record nor any legal grounds for turning down Iran. It said Brazil’s navy downplayed the visit to the media but held a ceremony aboard the Dena.

The president of Argentina, Alberto Fernández, meanwhile, planned to use a renewed alliance of Latin American nations including Argentina, Mexico and Brazil to secure more power in negotiations with the United States, China and the European Union, according to another leaked document.

As The Washington Post reported previously, the repercussions of US tensions with Russia are particularly acute in Egypt, which receives more than $1 billion a year in aid from Washington but has deepened ties with Moscow. Russia is building Egypt’s first nuclear power plant and promising to provide it with military hardware.

The leaked documents show Egypt attempting to navigate the standoff over Ukraine and parry demands for military aid from both Russia and the United States. President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi initially ordered the production of up to 40,000 rockets to be covertly supplied to Russia, US intelligence assessments show, but later appeared to bow to US pressure and deferred that deal, agreeing instead to manufacture artillery shells for Ukraine.

Spektor said that despite the Biden administration’s attempt to cajole, rather than browbeat, developing nations into supporting its global priorities, they would probably remain wary.

“These countries look at the US, and the US is so much more powerful than they are,” Spektor said. “When you’re dealing with a mammoth, it doesn’t matter whether the mammoth is sympathetic to what you are saying. When it moves, the earth still shakes.”

– THE WASHINGTON POST

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