Pakistan: Christians under Threat

In a country officially made up of more than 96% Muslims, religious minorities feel they live on the fringes of a society that grants them—at best—the status of dhimmis. They fear, rightly, to bear the brunt of the crises that are looming in a nation with growing instability.

In 1947, during the independence of Pakistan, in a context of extreme violence, the flag was drawn with obvious Islamic symbols, the green color and crescent of Islam. But a white band on the left symbolized religious minorities. Like a place granted to them in the “land of the pure,” the literal meaning of the name “Pakistan.” The nation had just been born and was struggling to find a common identity among the Pashtun, Punjabi, Sindhî, Baluch, etc. peoples. who composed it. They had in common Islam—with serious variations—which was to serve as the basis of the new nation.

Flag of Pakistan, with the white stripe representing religious minorities.

Nearly 70 years later, the demographic weight of these minorities, mainly Hindus, Christians and Sikhs, has continued to decline. In 1947, 23% of Pakistan’s population was non-Muslim, while in 2022 the proportion had fallen to 3.5%. If the white band of the flag had to be adjusted to the proportion of the population it represents, the band would be barely visible today. These figures, however, deserve to be weighed, because as the latest ACN Religious Freedom Report denounces, several Muslim states are cheating on the real number of non-Muslims in their country. The decline of minorities in Pakistan is no less indisputable.

This decline does not correspond to a well-established political agenda. No Pakistani ruler has claimed it, and no plan of action against minorities, however secret, stands out in the country’s history. On the other hand, minorities are steadily losing their political representation and weight in Pakistani society.

Hindus who did not decide to emigrate to India at the time of independence know that they are suspect in the eyes of Muslims, as they could represent a fifth column in the event of a confrontation between the two enemy countries. As for the Christians, their case illustrates how a population gradually loses its foothold in its own country. During English colonization, lower-caste Hindus and even untouchables converted, creating a new church parallel to the historic Indian churches of Malabar and Malankara, known as the “Christians of St. Thomas.” With the support of Western Christians, the new Catholic Churches played a major social role, notably through their hospitals and schools.

In Pakistan, these structures were nationalized during the tenure of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (1971-1977), the nation’s first democratically elected leader. He was also the first leader to speak out explicitly in favor of an Islamic Pakistan. As a result, Catholic schools have been unable to play the role they do in comparable countries such as Iraq and Syria. In the latter two countries, Christian schools have a reputation for excellence that encourages wealthy Muslims to send their children there. In addition to the educational benefits of these structures, they offer young Muslims the opportunity to rub shoulders with Christians and members of other minorities. Indeed, it was in one of these schools that the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinna, was educated. The man, who is revered as the nation’s founder, also placed his own children in Christian schools.

These schools also ensured that the Christians had well-educated elites capable of rising to the highest offices of the state. This was the case of Shahbaz Bhatti, Christian, and Minister for Minorities, who was assassinated on February 9, 2011. The Ministry of Minorities has since been abolished during Imran Khan’s tenure as Prime Minister, so that there is no longer a single non-Muslim at the top of the administration.

Islamism Makes Money!

A former star cricketer and willing critic of Islamists, Imran Khan doesn’t look like a bearded man intent on wiping out minorities, who have a rather positive impact on Pakistani society. But faced with a fall in popularity, he needed to pledge his support to conservatives, in particular by coming out in favor of the anti-blasphemy law. This political coup reveals the evil that is eating away at Pakistani society, not so much the cynicism of politicians—which country is spared?—but rather the pervasiveness of radical Islamists. No politician can ignore them, and they influence the whole of society.

Warlike Islamism is being woven into the brains of young children at a very early age in school. The history of Pakistan has been rewritten in school textbooks, giving pride of place to slave-owning Muslim conquerors. Hindus, on the other hand, are portrayed as evil and brutal, and followers of other minority religions, notably Christians, are described as “infidels.” All students, regardless of their religious affiliation, are required to learn and recite by heart: “I am Pakistani. I am a Muslim. Pakistanis are Muslims.”

More generally, Muslims’ contempt for all other communities is expressed in a thousand and one ways on a daily basis. Naeem Yousaf Gill, Director of the Commission for Justice and Peace in Pakistan (CNJP), warns that it is difficult to grasp the extent of this discrimination against non-Muslims, so he illustrates it with a number of examples. His Commission comes from the local Catholic Church and is supported by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) for its work in defense of Pakistani Christians.

In a series of documents devoted to discrimination in the year 2021-2022, the Commission lists hundreds of incidents against Christians, Hindus and Sikhs, all of whom are considered subhuman. This litany includes acts of violence and discrimination covering a broad spectrum.

For example, the case of Riaz Gill, a competent employee who was promoted to director of his hospital in Karachi. He immediately received death threats from his colleagues. Petty thugs were paid to follow him home and warn him that he and his family would be in serious trouble if he did not give up his position, as it was intolerable for a Christian to lead Muslims. Wearily, Riaz Gill returned to his previous position. But the pressure continued, until he handed in his resignation.

In another typical case reported by the Commission, a Muslim riding his motorcycle past a church square complained that he had been dirtied by two young Christians sweeping the area. He returned with an angry troop of sixty men, brandishing cricket sticks and iron bars. They beat up the family of the two young men, including women and children.

Another series of facts denounces the treatment of young Christian women. It commonly happens that a Christian woman escapes an attempted rape, denounces her attacker, only to discover that a crowd forms to defend her assailant. The question of the safety of young Christian women represents a painful challenge. They know they risk being seen as easy victims for sexual predators. They can be abducted, “converted” and then forcibly “married.” Cases of this kind abound. Maira Shabbaz, who was abducted at the age of 13 and managed to escape from her attacker, is a case in point. In the majority of cases, the parents of these young girls are distraught and afraid to lodge a complaint with the police, lest it be turned against them. The CNJP points out that in 90% of cases, the aggressors divorce their “wives” within the year. More often than not, they had at least one other wife at the time of the incident, wives that are much older than the girls they take in this way.

Martyrs of the 21st Century

In 2021, Abida, 26, and Sajida, 28, two Christian sisters living in the Makhan district, on the outskirts of Lahore, were harassed and then abducted by Muslims. They were found dead, their throats slit, in sacks, abandoned in a canal, probably because they had refused forced marriage and conversion.

A multitude of other less dramatic examples are symptomatic of the sickly aversion many Pakistanis feel towards people of other religions. Also, during the year under review, a Hindu family was beaten up for filling their water bottles at a tap in front of a mosque.

The hundreds of cases recorded show that ill-treatment does not come directly from the administration. Ordinary Pakistanis, in the face of annoyance or simply to get what they want—land, a wife, revenge—believe they have the right to attack the “lower castes.” But if the authorities are not the source of these exactions, they are no less deficient in restoring justice.

The Pakistani administration, which is fighting Taliban terrorists on its own soil, is clearly reluctant to tackle the ordinary Islamism that is blighting relations between its citizens. “This is a fundamental weakness that threatens society as a whole,” warns Babar Ayaz, journalist and author of What’s wrong with Pakistan (Hay House Inc.). A Muslim himself, he notes that the Islamic Republic was not part of the project of the country’s founders. He also fears that it will inevitably lead to chaos and ruin, given the profound religious differences that exist in his country. In particular, he notes that while the majority of Pakistanis unequivocally condemn jihad and terrorism, the same cannot be said of the Ulemas, who prefer to attack the Pakistani authorities, accusing them in particular of being pro-American. Few of them openly condemn extremist violence. Under these conditions, he questions the interest of his country in continuing to train more Ulemas than doctors, lawyers and engineers.

Wishing for a separation between religion and state, Ayaz notes that the Pakistani Parliament is instead constrained by religious issues: “Parliament should be free to debate religious issues, and not have to declare itself Muslim if we want to separate religion and state. This is crucial if we are to get the evil genie of Islamism back in the bottle,” he writes.

This is all the more crucial as Pakistan is going through a period of crisis which does not bode well for the minorities living there. Experience shows that they are the first to suffer. Economically, the country is on the verge of bankruptcy, and the international context is not helping matters. On the political front, the arrest of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the destruction of his party, the PTI, demonstrate the feverishness of the current administration, which feared his return to the political scene. His still numerous supporters are likely to revolt, raising the risk of civil war.

Despised, living in a poorly built country on the brink of collapse since its creation, Pakistan’s Christians should probably represent an anemic community by human logic. But this is not the case, Mgr Shukardin, Bishop of Hyderabad, assures us: “The churches are full at weekend celebrations and during the high holidays. The people are proud of their faith and the Church is the great source of their faith, and it is source of encouragement for them.” Asked about the strange dynamism of his Church, Archbishop Shaw of Lahore replied, “I don’t know if the environment for Christians in Pakistan is improving, but I do know that we are improving our ability to adapt to the situation!”

ACN in Pakistan

Last year, the CAN spent 1.2 million euros on projects in Pakistan. This sum was spent on some sixty projects at the service of the Catholic Church in Pakistan. The construction of a church in Chakwal, the training of priests and catechists. There are also—among other initiatives—educational campaigns for young girls initiated by the Church and supported by the ACN.

The high-profile release of Asia Bibi in 2019 may have raised hopes that recourse to Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law would diminish, but the opposite is happening. On January 17, 2023, Parliament raised the minimum prison sentence for “blasphemy offenses” to 10 years.

Support the work of the ACN in Pakistan

ACN Religious Freedom Report 2023

62.5% of the world’s population lives in countries where religious freedom is seriously violated, warns ACN, which published the 16th edition of its Religious Freedom Report on June 22. Since the previous report in 2021, the situation has deteriorated significantly in 47 of the 196 countries studied.

Africa is the continent most affected by violations of religious freedom. The main cause, in addition to poverty and civil war, is the expansion of Islamist terrorist groups.

In Asia, ethno-religious nationalist powers instrumentalize religion for political ends through anti-conversion and anti-blasphemy laws that oppress religious minorities.

Faced with these facts, ACN reiterates the vital importance of upholding the right to religious freedom, as an essential condition for world peace. It urges public authorities and citizens alike not to “turn a blind eye” to religious persecution. It will continue to provide information and practical help to victims of religious persecution through its work in 128 countries.

Download the entire Report.

Sylvain Dorient is a journalist for ACN-France. This article appears through the courtesy of La Nef.

Myanmar’s Forgotten Christians

As civil war takes hold in Myanmar, the fate of Christians is more precarious than ever, and they are unfortunately among the first victims of this conflict.

The deadly strike (at least 50 dead) carried out last April by the Myanmar army against a village in the center of the country briefly brought the conflict that divides the country back to the fore. A conflict in which Christians are among the first victims.

Since gaining independence from British India in 1948, Myanmar has lived through a succession of military dictatorships since 1962, and a civil war of varying intensity between the majority ethnic group, the Bamars, and the numerous ethnic minorities. In 1988, major pro-democracy demonstrations took place in Myanmar, and the opposition movement to the military dictatorship found a leading figure in the person of Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of General Aung San, the father of independence. Demonstrations were crushed by heavy repression. Despite this, the regime holds, on thanks to support from China. In 2010, the military junta embarked on a gradual democratization process; but in February 2021, fearful of losing all its power, it staged another coup d’état. Since then, the country, already hard hit by economic crises, has suffered a civil war that has claimed over 30,000 lives.

By the force of events, several movements converged—notably the demonstrators who, after protesting against the military coup, turned to armed struggle under the banner of the “People’s Defense Forces,” and the various guerrilla movements initiated by ethnic minorities. For the past two years, the conflict has been at a standstill, with the military junta holding the major cities and the opposition forces managing to control fairly extensive territories.

The regime has announced elections for autumn 2023, to legitimize the situation created by the coup. This is likely to lead to even more violence, as the regime is determined to force the population to vote, and the opposition will do its utmost to demonstrate the regime’s lack of legitimacy by boycotting the elections. It is difficult to predict what the international community will do. While China firmly supports the military junta, there are signs that it may press for negotiations, particularly if the war threatens its direct economic interests. On the other hand, possible support from the United States could shift the balance in favor of the opposition.

In this context, the military junta specifically targets Burmese Christians (6.2% of the population), most of whom belong to ethnic minorities. Burmese nationalism mixes Bamar nationalism with religious adherence to Buddhism—all the more so as the Bamars are almost all Buddhists. This was already evident during the Rohingya crisis—this Muslim minority present in the northwestern state of Arakan fell victim to ethnic cleansing in 2017, causing 1 million of them to flee to Bangladesh. They were targeted as foreigners—Muslims and non-Bamars. The same logic applies to other ethnic minorities, albeit in a less radical way—it’s difficult to see them as foreigners, and some of them are Buddhists, although evangelization is progressing. Numerous testimonies indicate that Burmese armed forces specifically target churches in their attacks. There is even “systematic and rather diffuse persecution,” with the Catholic Church, for example, “not allowed to build new buildings or have bank accounts” (Father David Michael de Penha, Nuit des témoins de l’AED, January 2023).

There seems to be little prospect of a solution. The conflict continues to drag on, threatening to destabilize neighboring countries, some of which are already fragile (Bangladesh, Thailand, India). The best-case scenario, the opening of new negotiations, is unfortunately unlikely at present. The generals seem convinced that their repression will eventually defeat the opposition, and they do not hesitate to resort to Buddhist fundamentalists to win the support of the masses—this leads us to fear the worst for religious minorities.

Rainer Leonhardt writes from France. This article appears through the kind courtesy of La Nef.

Featured: Church burned by the Myanmar military, Daw Ngay Ku village, Hparuso township, Kayah State, June 27 and July 4, 2022 (Photo: AFP).

Two Continents and Two Approaches

The visit of the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, who in the second half of May went to several small states in the South Pacific, ended with much fewer positive results than expected by Beijing (and feared by other states in the region). In fact, only East Timor has concluded an agreement with China, of limited impact on economic and security policies. This alarm bell has further strengthened the fears of many states in the region, starting with the US, of Chinese pressure in the area which, if it has suffered a minor set-back, will not diminish.

To counter the pressure from Beijing, President Biden, during a five-day visit to Asia (South Korea and Japan only) launched a new economic initiative, but which should indirectly also have influence security architectures of the Indo-Pacific macro region. Washington launched the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity, using terminology that should draw attention among local partners), a “multilateral partnership for the 21st century,” which should help “economies to exploit rapid technological transformation, also in the digital economy, and to adapt to the next energy and climate transition.”

The push for a new economic pact in Asia with an anti-Chinese function has become a priority for Biden, who on May 23rd announced 13 nations joining the IPEF, which together with the USA, represent 40% of world GDP (Australia, Brunei, South Korea, Fiji, Philippines, Japan, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam; while the EU, France, Great Britain, Germany, Spain would be interested in being part of it, even if nothing official has still emerged on the matter).

Such a vast and articulated area brings different responses: Japan, (and Taiwan, a ghost, but very important participant) and South Korea want to work with the US, especially on emerging issues, such as the digital economy, and help set a standard for future business. India also reacted favorably to the initiative; Australia, New Zealand, Singapore are easy adherents, while for Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia the outcome will be more difficult, as with environmental transition. As White House Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell noted, economic engagement is “an area where the United States, in effect, must step up its game.”

Unfortunately for Washington, this plan seems unlikely to have a significant impact. While partners in Asia appear eager to join any US-led economic initiative as an anti-Chinese shield, Washington’s proposed framework lacks the incentives that the region’s economies are seeking. Indeed, the plan does not offer partners greater market access in the US or tariff reductions (and the Biden administration, although at the ideological antipodes of the Trump administration, which dismantled the region’s network of bilateral and multilateral economic agreements, does not seem at all willing to go back to the concerns that the return to globalization would have on the US economy and labor market). The plan does not even consider the effect China has on regional supply chains and appears to be focused on what the US can unilaterally achieve instead of finding mutual benefits for all potential members. Poorly designed in this way, there is a risk that the initiative will remain a dead letter soon.

Biden’s Indo-Pacific drive Lacks Strength and Strategic Vision

In addition to the intention to protect themselves from China, many Asian nations want closer economic ties with the United States. But if the allies of the United States are critical of the lack of incentives and ambitions in the Indo-Pacific economic framework, they remain doubtful about the security initiatives, which although more numerous (AUKUS, ANZUS, RIMPAC, Shangri-La Dialogue, Quad, various bilateral agreements)—(1) seem disconnected from the economic dimension and therefore make Washington’s action not as effective as the Biden administration hopes. The perplexities of the regional partners, beyond the accession (a formal act that must be filled with content), are also obvious, since large regional agreements are already functioning, without the participation of the United States, such as CATTP and RCEP; and (2) the IPEF is built around four pillars: (a) supply chains, (b) infrastructure and clean energy, and (c) taxes and anti-corruption, (d) and fair-trade.

But since the agreement is not a commercial agreement, there will be no negotiation of tariff reductions, which the partners insist on.

While the details of these pillars are still being negotiated, the White House wants high standards, particularly in labor and environmental provisions. As many advanced economies in Asia are already committed to fighting climate change and have strong labor protections, meeting these high standards should not be difficult. However, given the amount of political investment the Biden administration has made to restore American diplomatic relations, these standards could make it difficult for some developing economies to join. And the Biden administration would prefer to have as many members as possible to present, in the US tradition, “a global crusade against evil,” in this case, China.

To address these problems, the IPEF is an open and a la carte structure; in fact, to be considered as a member, a state can join at least one of the four pillars of the initiative. A big hit could be a digital trade deal. The CAPTPP—with Japan, Australia, Vietnam, New Zealand, and Singapore as members—already has a digital chapter in place. The US and Japan have a similar deal, and Singapore and Australia have a separate digital economy deal. Singapore also supported its partnership agreement for the digital economy. This topic is likely to prove to be one of the few areas of IPEF success.

As mentioned, the difficulty related to the effectiveness is that the Indo-Pacific countries want to talk about access to the US market and reduction of tariffs, which, as mentioned above, Washington does not want to discuss. Removing regulatory barriers is good; but it can have a limited impact on the grand scheme of supply chains.

In addition to the lack of ambition that the US partners see in the picture, there are also concerns and skepticism about its functional architecture, given that the management of the IPEF is shared between the Department of Commerce and the Office of the Foreign Trade Representative, with fewer than 500 officials), while the Department of State has so far played a secondary role. The picture might seem more of a diplomatic victory than an economic one. Meanwhile, all ASEAN members (such as Cambodia, considered a Chinese protectorate, but a small economy) are unlikely to join the IPEF, given their inability to meet higher standards, or their animosity towards the US. Of course, it is doubtful that China will be invited to join.

A Basic Ambiguity for all Concerned

These aspects, which underline the complexity of the international scene, and the very close links between economy and security (understood as a set of foreign and defense policies), also highlight other problems. In addition to the willingness of the US to maintain global and pan-regional leadership, there is an underlying ambiguity that involves all members of the IPEF, including Washington. While everyone is afraid of Chinese pressure, be it political, military, economic, at the same time doubt arises that the economic or commercial ties with partners of importance like China will be reduced, which in some states, such as Australia (which is also the most concerned about the push from Beijing), represents a very important percentage of the national GDP. So, if Washington aspires to have its partners in the Indo-Pacific macro region apply “decoupling” from China, for itself, it wants to be an exception, and maintain a dialogue, on its own terms. Beijing is well aware of these ambiguities.

And despite the many internal/external difficulties (economic slowdown, environmental reconversion, the impact of the pandemic, a conference of the CCP that promises to be difficult, relations with Russia, the situation in Hong Kong and civil rights), China yet does play all its cards with unrelenting care, starting with the fact that it owns a considerable part of the US public debt, aided in this, unwittingly, by the structural weakness of the IPEF.

The Other End of the Thread

This situation is presented in very similar terms also in the western hemisphere. Here, too, the US arrived empty-handed at the IX Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. Now that Washington has been surpassed by a China that is today the first trading partner of Brazil, Chile, and Peru, and the second of Argentina and Colombia, and this makes us think how much time has passed since the Monroe Doctrine and that of Theodore Roosevelt. In December 1994, Bill Clinton had brought together 33 heads of state and government from Canada to Chile—all but Cuba—for the first Summit of the Americas in Miami. The context seemed favorable to achieving the goals set by George H. W. Bush, in his so-called Initiative of the Americas, especially the most ambitious: the creation of a free trade area from the Bering Strait in Alaska to the Strait of Magellan in Patagonia.

Democratic advances and economic liberalization in Latin America and the Caribbean have generated expectations of greater and lasting political and economic consensus because the end of the Cold War also included the end of the Cuban model for the left and military dictatorships for the right. However, it was a clearly premature burial, as revealed by the Joe Biden administration’s difficulties in having the presence of several heads of state on the continent, where the rift between many Latin American countries and the US is evident. The US decision not to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua led the presidents of Mexico and Honduras to stay home in protest, while the presidents of El Salvador, Bolivia and Guatemala refused to attend for other reasons.

The polarization was also evident in the summit’s civil society forum. Many local activists have complained about the missed opportunity to demand that governments engage productively with their respective oppositions and ensure free and fair elections. Local groups working with migrants have also called for attention not only to those arriving at the US border, but rather to the millions of Venezuelan refugees and other who have fled to other countries in the region. Here too Biden presented a kind of IPEF clone, to which the migration control pillar is added (a critical issue for the USA and for the impact it could have on internal political dynamics, increasingly polarized in a harsh ideological confrontation between Democrats and Republicans).

But the situation is even worse. In fact, even if many nations, although ruled by left-wing leadership, would have been willing to strengthen economic ties with Washington, and have access to US markets, there is still the problem of a weak and uncertain supply chain (as acknowledged privately by senior US executives), and clashes with the accelerating Chinese presence, which has made massive investments in infrastructure projects. Thus far, Chinese pressure is less strong in the field of security; but there is an increase in infiltration attempts, especially in the fight against drug-trafficking and illegal fishing control, with the proposal of using Beijing coast guard, in aid of local forces. Up to now, these offers have not received positive responses, but for the future it is difficult to bet, given that old dynamics are being re-proposed, such as Nicaragua’s availability to host the Russian military presence, which has just been expressed.


Despite praiseworthy rhetoric, mainly due to the rejection of what was dismantled and made conflicting by the Trump Administration, the action of the Biden administration remains overall not up to par for several reasons, starting with the priorities of internal policies (economic and social), while leaving the external ones dominated by the security approach, with all the weaknesses of a sectoral vision in the face of global problems.

(1) The militarization (and re-militarization) of the anti-Chinese coalitions in the area is witnessed by two elements. In the sidelines of the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue session, which ended in Singapore in mid-June, UK, and other regional countries (all belonging to the Commonwealth), announced efforts to expand and re-energize the Five Powers Defense Arrangements (FPDA), a 51-year-old series of mutual assistance agreements comprising the UK, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. At its core, the pact commits the members to consult with one another in the event or threat of an armed attack on any of the FPDA members, and to mutually decide what measures should be taken, jointly or separately.

There are no specific obligations to intervene militarily even if there was the ANZUK set up, a joint tri-service force made up of Australian, New Zealand, and British units and formed in Singapore, on 1 November 1971 and disbanded on 31 January 1974. The FPDA was set up following the termination of the United Kingdom’s defence guarantees of the then Malaya (now Malaysia and Singapore) under the “Anglo-Malayan Defence Agreement,” because of the UK’s decision in 1967 to withdraw its armed forces east of Suez. The return to the East of Suez by London was mirrored in the recent deployment of Royal Navy carrier group in the region, an answer also to strong domestic political needs, post-Brexit; but it a small presence in Singapore, and Brunei, two small territories in the Indo-Pacific region (Pitcairn Islands, practically depopulated, and the archipelago of Chagos, vacated by its original population in the 1970s and now used almost exclusively by US forces).

During the same session of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the recently appointed French Minister for the Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu, announced that Paris would strengthen and modernize its military presence and capabilities in the Asia-Pacific zone, particularly on New Caledonia and Polynesia. Lecornu said: “There are fears among our partners who are wondering if the crisis in Ukraine could distract us from the Indo-Pacific. It is not so,” France will deploy permanently, as of 2025, six new ocean patrol boats in the Indo-Pacific, including two in the Pacific this year, one based in New Caledonia, the other in Polynesia” for “surveillance and sovereignty missions…Similarly, the five Falcon (reconnaissance) aircraft in the Pacific will be replaced by five new, more modern models.” France will organize a sovereignty mission in the Pacific, “Pégase 22,” which is also planned with the combined deployment of the Rafale fighter jet and A400 M military transport aircraft. Thus, the French forces will continue to participate in multiple multilateral exercises, organizing some of them to maintain “a significant presence in the region, to show France’s attachment to the stability of the Asia-Pacific region.”

(2) The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, was a proposed trade agreement between Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and which the US signed on 4 February 2016. Just after taking office, newly elected President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the TPP in January 2017. As a result, the agreement could not be ratified as planned and did not come into force. The remaining countries negotiated a new trade agreement, called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPATPP), which incorporates most of the provisions of the TPP and which went into effect on December 30, 2018. The TPP started as an expansion of the Transpacific Strategic Economic Partnership Agreement (TPSEP or P4), signed by Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore in 2005. Since 2008, other countries have joined the discussion for a broader agreement: Australia, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, USA, and Vietnam, bringing the countries involved in the negotiations to twelve.

As mentioned, in January 2017, the US withdrew from the deal. The other 11 TPP countries agreed in May 2017 to restore it and reached an agreement in January 2018. After ratification by six of them (Australia, Canada, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Singapore), the agreement entered in force for those countries on 30 December 2018. The UK joined the CPATPP in 2021; Taiwan, Philippines, Colombia, Thailand, and Indonesia, Bangladesh, India South Korea, Sri Lanka, and China have expressed interest in joining the CATPP.

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a free trade agreement between the Asian and Pacific nations of Australia, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The 15 member countries represent approximately 30% of the world’s population (2.2 billion people) and 30% of global GDP ($ 29.7 trillion), making it the largest trading bloc in history. Signed in November 2020, RCEP is the first free trade agreement between major Asian economies, including China, Indonesia, Japan, and South Korea.

The RCEP was conceived at the 2011 ASEAN Summit in Bali, Indonesia, while negotiations were formally launched during the 2012 ASEAN Summit in Cambodia. India, which took part in the initial negotiations but later decided to give up, has been invited to join the bloc at any time. Any other country or separate customs territory of the region can join the agreement, 18 months from the date of coming into force of the agreement, on 1 July 2023. The treaty was formally signed on 15 November 2020 at the ASEAN virtual summit hosted by Vietnam.

As of January 17, 2022, seven of the ten ASEAN signatories and all five non-ASEAN signatories have deposited their RCEP ratification instruments with the ASEAN Secretary General. For the top ten ratifying countries, the trade pact entered into force on January 1, 2022. The RCEP includes a mix of high-, middle- and low-income countries, and plans to eliminate around 90% of import tariffs among its signatories within 20 years of coming into force, and to establish common rules for e-commerce, trade and intellectual property.

Enrico Magnani, PhD is a UN officer who specializes in military history, politico-military affairs, peacekeeping and stability operations. (The opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations).

The Long Asian Century

It is time to rethink the “American Century,” which Republican internationalist Henry Luce declared in February of 1941—nearly ten months before the Japanese military attacked the American naval outpost on Oahu. Luce could hardly have known at the time what would transpire over the next thirty years, but the decades after Luce penned his call to impose American ideals on the rest of the world did, indeed, appear to be the makings of an “American century,” just as Luce had prognosticated.

What nearly everyone fails to understand about the “American century,” however, is that a large part of it was spent in Asia. If one includes the Middle East in wider Asia, then almost all of the “American century” was an Asian one. (Luce himself was raised in China, and China was the context for much of his idealism—another crucial but often-overlooked fact.)

Author and economist Parag Khanna’s book The Future Is Asian would appear to be a signal that the tide has turned and the American century has given, or is giving, way to an Asian one. But this would appear to be more a distinction of leadership cohort than of geographical focus. Contra Khanna, I think it is not the case that the world was “Europeanized” in the nineteenth century and “Americanized” in the twentieth. Rather, Europe and America were Asianized, at least in terms of economics and foreign policy. Europe and America have long been making the journey to Asia, and not the other way around. From a world historical perspective, there have been many Asian centuries prior to this one, now said to be dawning—including, especially, the “American century” which, we are now told, is passing away.

Before expanding this argument, let us first make a germane distinction between land powers and sea powers, a very old distinction and one made again with great skill recently by historian S.C.M. Paine in her 2017 book The Japanese Empire: Grand Strategy from the Meiji Restoration to the Pacific War. One of Paine’s geopolitical motifs in this volume is that Japan, an island nation, enjoyed great success as a modern naval power following the Meiji Restoration, but was undone by the Japanese army’s insistence on fighting ground wars in Asia. This is an excellent point. We can take it further and say that the Americans were able to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific because the Japanese were viewing the Pacific campaign as, disastrously, a ground campaign—holding islands—while the Americans virtually ignored the islands and pressed through, via ship, deep into Japanese Imperial territory. (Paine lays this out very nicely in her volume.)

The Americans ran into serious trouble in Okinawa, a land campaign, and were calculating the loss of hundreds of thousands more men if an invasion of Kyushu and Honshu became necessary. It was air superiority, not naval superiority, which brought the Americans victory. Midway, after all, was an air battle fought over water, and not a naval battle—the two carrier groups never came within sight of one another and no shots were fired directly from fleet to fleet.

Once the Americans had the Mariana Islands, the air campaign could be taken directly to the Japanese homeland. The firebombing of Tokyo and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were arguably much more effective than even the unrestricted submarine attacks on naval and merchant shipping had been. Japan might have been able to defeat the Americans in the Pacific had Japan focused on sea power—her natural strength—rather than ultimately pointless and ruinous land wars on the Asian continent.

I make this detour into Pacific War history because it brings us to two key points important for this essay. First, the war between the United States and Japan was largely contrived by Stalin and the Comintern. The fact that the two greatest naval powers in the Pacific embarked on a meaningless death-match, despite being separated by thousands of miles of open ocean and having no discernible geopolitical reason for waging war, is testament not to the strategic genius of either Tokyo or Washington, but to that of Stalin and his Comintern.

Some will argue that the United States did have a geopolitical interest, namely in China. This putative interest, too, was in large part a trap laid for the Americans. For example, Australian propagandist Harold John Timperley wrote his 1938 book What War Means at the behest of the Nationalist forces (whose head, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, was trained at the Soviet-backed Whampoa Military Academy). What War Means was published by Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, which was essentially the mouthpiece of the Communist Party in England at the time. American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s circle of Communist, and sometimes Soviet-backed, advisors and officials is widely known. The Japanese government, too, was infiltrated. Revisionist scholars in Japan have argued, for instance, that imperial household member and prime minister just before the outbreak of war with the United States, Konoe Fumimaro, was sympathetic to the Communist cause. Japan and the United States were enticed, maneuvered, into war. War in Asia.

The second point is that the battles in Asia, in World War II, pull back the curtain on what I think should be called the “long Asian century,” which to my mind begins with the first forays of the Portuguese into the Asian trade at the closing of the fifteenth century. Perhaps we can define the long Asian century as the time when European sea powers sought entrée into the vastness of Eurasia, and ended up centering much of their political activity on Eurasia as a result. The long Asian century thus more neatly explicates what conventionally in the West we have called “the Age of Discovery.” The discovery of what? Of the Americas, of course, but the strategic fulcrum for geopolitics and world history has remained Asia, despite and even because of the European discovery of North and South America.

EastWest Institute senior fellow and Diplomat senior editor Franz-Stefan Gady writes:

In just a little over 16 years at the beginning of the 16th century, the impoverished Kingdom of Portugal, under the House of Aviz, became the dominant power in the Indian Ocean region and laid the foundation for one of the largest and longest-lived empires in world history. Between Vasco da Gama’s epoch-making 309-day voyage from Lisbon around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean to the docking at the Indian port of Calicut on May 20, 1498, and the death of the general Afonso de Albuquerque in December 1515, Portugal established a permanent foothold in Asia from which it would not be finally dislodged until 1999 when China repossessed Macau.

Thus begins the long Asian century. Two other Iberian monarchs, shut out of the European-Atlantic-Mediterranean economic order by Portugal and other European powers, sponsored a risky exploratory voyage by Christopher Columbus to find a new route to, not America, but Asia. From the moment of first European contact, America was an adjunct to Asia in the West.

During the age of European imperialism which followed Spain’s and Portugal’s forays into Asia and the Americas, it was usually Asia which was weighted more heavily in European strategic calculations. The Spanish galleons, which brought Mexican silver to the Philippines, reinforced an Asia-centric view which Jesuit missionaries also largely shared. Britain and France clashed in North America in the eighteenth century, and Britain then clashed shortly thereafter with its erstwhile colonists there over the bill for the war Britain had waged against its continental rival; but in the end the British cut their losses in North America and focused their expansionism on Asia, including of course the crown jewel of their empire: India. (Note that Boston was never once thought of as the “crown jewel” of the British imperial project.) Napoleon threw his armies into Egypt and Moscow, but sold his holdings in central North America as so much useless overhead. The Dutch gave up on Manhattan and focused instead on Borneo.

Britain fought the Boer War in South Africa as an extension of the struggle to command old stopover points along the pre-Suez Canal ocean route to Asia. European powers intervened repeatedly in Qing Dynasty politics, wars, and state finances. Britain’s “Great Game” with the Russian Empire was over control of Asia. Colonel Francis Younghusband went to Tibet because Britain feared Russian inroads into India and central and southeast Asia. In World War I, Europe was a sideshow to the momentous changes taking place in the territory once occupied by the defunct Qing. Eastern Europe remains a cauldron of instability, as events in Ukraine now testify. The Qing, by contrast, re-emerged from its early twentieth-century shambles and is now set to become the biggest economic and military power on earth. Asia always rises again.

Japan participated in World War I desultorily on the side of the Allies—it was an option, hardly a necessity. Asia was where the action was. Japan had already gone to war twice in Asia, once with the Russian Empire and once with the Qing, over control of the Korean Peninsula and Port Arthur. After Japan had secured a vast new territory in continental Asia, she restored the scion of the Qing house to his throne, this time in the Qing heartland of Manchuria. This set in motion the events which would bog Japan, and the United States, down in an Asian war. Japan had been in Asia for decades by that point, and was fighting mightily to control the warlord-wracked eastern quarter of Eurasia. Richard Sorge was dispatched to Tokyo to spy on the Nazis and also to foment war between Japan and the United States, thereby relieving Stalin of the necessity to concentrate troops along his eastern front. Japan attacked Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Luzon, Guam, and elsewhere in Asia and the Western Pacific almost simultaneously with her attack on Oahu. The Americans got drawn into the new war first in Asia. Hitler declared war against Washington after Japan did. It was always an Asian fight.

For more than five hundred years, world history, in the Hegelian sense, has been hovering over Asia, taking Asia as its GHQ. All other conflicts and historical processes have been peripheral to Asia.

For Hitler and Stalin both, the war in Europe was about the East. It is certainly true that Hitler’s, and his National Socialists’, grotesqueries pushed the German theater of World War II into the spotlight. But remember that Hitler and his National Socialists had a distinct hatred for what they called “the West.” The bourgeoisie mentalities that the National Socialists loathed were thought, by them, to represent a tragic departure of the German spirit from the hard, martial, romantic ideals of the East. Deeper into Eurasia the German National Socialists wanted to go. Into Prussia, into the places not ruined by reason and philosophy, namely “the West.” Hitler drew attention to himself by his mad theatrics, but his focus was on the East. The casualties on Hitler’s eastern front stagger the imagination—D-Day was truly a minor event compared with the carnage in Eastern Europe and Russia. The West Hitler saw fit only for burning.

This explains the difference between Hitler and Stalin, and also indicates why it was Eurasia, the Asian megacontinent, which was the main battleground of World War II. Hitler was both a sociopath and a psychopath. He had no compassion, but he also had no powers of calculation rooted in reality. He was the last Romantic; and his only desire was to destroy. As Canadian academic Jordan Peterson has pointed out, Hitler probably wanted to lose World War II. Yes, I think so too. This is why he did, in fact, lose it.

Hitler took steps that were irrational, and he took them because they were irrational. Hitler lost the war in Eurasia, not in the West. Hitler sent his armies to overwinter in Russia, in the midst of which he provoked a showdown with Stalin in the Russian snow, deep within Russian territory. Hitler gave Stalin every advantage, and Stalin took whatever he was given. Stalin used his slave labor much more efficiently than Hitler did, too. Stalin killed indiscriminately, as did Hitler. He was also a sociopath, like Hitler. But he wasn’t a psychopath. Stalin knew what reality was, probably much better than anyone with a normally functioning conscience and emotions. Stalin put his slave labor to use building up his empire. Hitler committed resources to murdering his slave labor, an action which contributed precisely nothing to the German war effort. The Holocaust makes no sense, tactically or strategically—unless one admits that Hitler was out to destroy Europe, not rule it.

Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” should therefore be read, I think, along the grain that Hannah Arendt sets forth in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Hitler’s vision was apocalyptic, infernal. He was saying, as I read him, that it would take a thousand years of hell on earth before the West could be drawn out of the bourgeoisie daydream and reset as a great Eurasian power. Hitler spoke of blood and iron, not sail and seawater. World War II was always a land war at heart, and a land war for Asia. In this way, it was part of the long Asian century.

Let me close by saying that the United States is going the way of all European empires before her. The United States is being absorbed by the geopolitics of Asia. The American navy has lost the advantage in the Western Pacific, and its defeat in the first major naval showdown since the Battle of Leyte Gulf—this time with the Chinese Communist Party’s proprietary fleet, the People’s Liberation Army Navy, and not with the Imperial Japanese Navy—appears now inevitable.

The United States was defeated on the ground in Southeast Asia fifty years ago. The United States was brought to a standstill—from which it still has not been able to extricate itself—in a land war on the Korean Peninsula seventy years ago. The United States was defeated less than a year ago by a comically inferior militia (if the Taliban even warrant that probably too-generous description) in central Asia. As I write this, the United States is offering itself up to a land war in Ukraine, with the very power which now claims the territorial dominion once swayed by none other than Josef Stalin. For nearly three quarters of a century, the Americans have done the Russians a favor, as I see it, by occupying Europe, via NATO, and thereby keeping Russia’s only credible rival, Germany, from rampaging again. As the Soviet empire collapsed, the Americans broke their promises and expanded NATO—into Eurasia, not into the Atlantic or Africa, but deeper into Asia.

The United States, like Japan, is a natural maritime power that has no business getting involved in foreign wars of any kind, especially not in foreign land wars, and especially not in Asia. In that sense, the current adventure in Ukraine is also part of Stalin’s war. The “American Century” began, was squandered, and will die, in Asia. Today, as yesterday, it is the Russians—the masters of Eurasia, now joined by the Han Chinese—who are calling the shots.

Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.

Featured image: “The reception of the diplomatique & his suite, at the court of Pekin,” published by Hannah Humphrey, 1792.