India and China’s dangerous tug-of-war for the top of the world

Satellite images show China building permanent positions inside the disputed border area and just north of the point where troops from both sides faced off last summer | AFP via Getty Images

The Coming Wars

The dispute between the two giants over the Doklam plateau could drag the West into a bloody conflict.

NEW DELHI — If you were to draw the world’s economic center of gravity on a map, it would fall right on the border between Europe and Asia. But it is far from stationary. For 40 years, it has been following a long arc from the middle of the Atlantic, the sea world of yesterday, to the Himalayas, the land world of tomorrow. And if you thought the history of Western modernity was an extravaganza of technology and brute power, just wait for Asian modernity — technological on a vaster scale and directed by two fully modernized giants, India and China.

I recently sat down with Vijay Chauthaiwale, one of the brains behind Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new foreign policy. He now leads the foreign affairs department of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. I wanted to know what the real dangers would be of a potential clash between China and India.

There is a grand bargain to be struck between an expanding China and a retreating United States. The former will slowly move into the areas abandoned by the latter and we may well reach a kind of balance between the two. But what happens when China and India move into the same space, with all the hurried moves of rising powers?

Chauthaiwale sees himself as the grown-up in the room, trying to balance the voices of “Internet Hindus,” who are calling for a tougher Chinese policy, and the traditional Nehruvian elites, for whom India must always give way in foreign policy. Patience is a smart policy, as India’s position will only grow stronger, he told me. But China is also fast becoming the biggest question for Indian foreign policy, he agreed. The two countries seem to be entering a new Cold War, which includes an ongoing clash over the Maldives as well as a persistent dispute over a remote location in the Himalayas. This week China’s state-run Global Times threatened India with a military response should it intervene in the Maldives. The earlier confrontation in Doklam provides clues to how this should be interpreted.

Last summer Chinese troops were spotted extending a road through a piece of land disputed between China and Bhutan known as the Doklam plateau, which slopes down to the Siliguri Corridor, a narrow strip of Indian territory dividing the Indian mainland from the northeastern region states. If China is able to block off the corridor, this will isolate the northeastern region, a devastating scenario in case of war.

The history of the future will be written in Asia.

India perceived China’s move as an unacceptable change to the status quo and crossed its own border — in this case a perfectly settled one — to block the works. Chauthaiwale confirmed that the decision to cross the border and block the construction was carefully and deliberately taken. Indian strategists know that China advances by changing the facts on the ground, sometimes in slow increments but always with large goals in mind. There is only one way to counter this strategy and that is to block each and every of these attempts without worrying about an escalation, which is something China is not interested in.

“China blinked,” Chauthaiwale told me, referring to the agreement reached later in the summer by which the two countries moved their troops back from the standoff point. I asked him about the news that China had since returned to the area. Chauthaiwale smiled. India, he said, was ready too.

It is a dangerous game. Satellite imagery analyzed by a former Indian military intelligence officer, Colonel Vinayak Bhat, shows that China is now building permanent positions inside the disputed border area and just north of the point where troops from both sides faced each other last summer. The new images reveal concrete posts, seven helipads, several dozen armored vehicles and a tall observation tower just meters from the most forward Indian trench. The fighting posts — built on almost every hillock in the northern plateau — have dug-out areas and large, double-layered communication trenches.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi | Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images

Colonel Bhat served in the Indian Army for over 30 years. He was a satellite imagery analyst, stationed in high altitude areas, where he also attended border personnel meetings as a Mandarin interpreter. I asked him why he thought Beijing was so determined to establish control over the Doklam plateau. After all, these border areas are far removed from any population center, and in many cases the actual border is difficult to determine — the demarcation goes back to old treaties between the Qing Empire and the British Raj and outdated, hand-drawn maps. Does it matter who gains an advantage here?

“It matters,” Bhat emphatically told me. “If the Chinese control Doklam, especially South Doklam, they will be able to threaten the Siliguri Corridor. After the Doklam plateau it will all be downhill. You need anything from nine to 16 battalions in these high altitude mountains for each defensive battalion. So that changes the calculations.”

India feels it won the summer confrontation in Doklam, but the Chinese strategy is to create response fatigue. If the other side thinks it has won, it is less likely to reopen the issue when Beijing continues to press or provoke. As Colonel Bhat pointed out to me, China now has effective control over the plateau, but if it were to use that strategic advantage and cross the summer standoff point, “that would mean war.”

For those with an active imagination, it may sound like a premonition. The history of the future will be written in Asia and perhaps, in a perfect reversion of what had happened in the past, the West may well be dragged into stories — long and bloody stories — being written by others.

Bruno Maçães, a former Europe minister for Portugal, is a senior adviser at Flint Global in London and a nonresident senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington. His book “The Dawn of Eurasia” was published by Penguin on January 25.

Trump personal lawyer says he paid Stormy Daniels with his own money

Michael Cohen is pictured. | AP Photo

President Donald Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen said in a statement to The New York Times that “neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction,” and added that he was not reimbursed for the payment “either directly or indirectly.” | Andrew Harnik/AP Photo

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, said Tuesday he personally made a payment of $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels as part of a nondisclosure agreement before the 2016 election.

Cohen said in a statement to The New York Times that “neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction,” and added that he was not reimbursed for the payment “either directly or indirectly.”

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“The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone,” he said in the statement to The New York Times.

The Wall Street Journal first reported last month that Stephanie Clifford, who performs under the name Stormy Daniels, was paid before the 2016 election as part of a nondisclosure agreement to cover up an alleged affair with Trump.

A watch dog group Common Cause filed a complaint following the report, saying that the payment was an in-kind donation to Trump’s presidential campaign that should have been publicly disclosed in its official reports.

“The complaint alleges that I somehow violated campaign finance laws by facilitating an excess, in-kind contribution,” he said in the statement to the Times. “The allegations in the complaint are factually unsupported and without legal merit, and my counsel has submitted a response to the F.E.C.”

Trump After Dark: More Porter Pressure edition

Rob Porter is pictured. | Getty Images

There were fresh details reported about how the White House handled Rob Porter’s departure and how Porter himself sought to portray it. | Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The White House can’t escape its Rob Porter problem.

More than a week after allegations of domestic violence against each of his former ex-wives surfaced against the now-former staff secretary, FBI Director Christopher Wray laid the issue of Porter even more thoroughly at doorstep of President Donald Trump’s West Wing.

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“Wray said … that the bureau completed its background investigation of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter last year, contradicting the White House’s assertion that the FBI ‘process’ was ongoing,” POLITICO’s Martin Matishak and Josh Gerstein report.

Speaking to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wray’s testimony created a fresh furor around the domestic violence accusations levied at Porter, the influential former staff secretary. The result? The White House and chief of staff John Kelly in particular are once again on the defensive.

There were also fresh details today about how the White House handled Porter’s departure and how Porter himself sought to portray it. As POLITICO’s Eliana Johnson reports, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and other aides attended an off-the-record meeting with Porter and four correspondents.

Porter said he was planning to resign — and denied abuse allegations and offered an explanation for photos of one of his ex-wives with a black eye, saying it was an accident.

“The meeting, at which Porter also conceded calling his second wife ‘a f***ing bitch,’ was arranged by Sanders as the scandal mushroomed on Feb. 7 and seen by one participant as an effort to give Porter a chance to defend himself while letting the White House distance itself from him by not speaking on his behalf.”

At the same meeting, staff did not deny that Chief of Staff John Kelly wanted Porter to stay.

Elsewhere in President Trump’s orbit:

HALL PASS: An official on President Trump’s National Security Council has launched a podcast. Rear Admiral Gary Hall’s first episode is entitled “Leadership, Fitness and Sex.”

DACA DOA?: Senate debate on immigration seemed to quickly stall and President Trump warned that March 5 will be the last chance for Democrats and others to do something about Dreamers.

RUSSIAN TO DO IT AGAIN: Intelligence chiefs on the Hill said that Russia is intent on disrupting and interfering with U.S. elections again.

STILL DIDN’T GET THE MEMO: Democrats continue to wait for answers about their counter memo — after the White House said some changes might make it publishable.

NAKASONE’S THE ONE: President Trump nominated Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the leader of the Army’s digital warfighting arm, to helm the National Security Agency.

DEBT THREAT: Speaking on the Hill, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats raised the specter of federal deficits and debt as a national security threat.

BOX LUNCH?: Preisdent Trump is pitching a plan that would replace foodstamps with a box of non-perishable, government picked foods each month.

There you have it. You’re caught up on the Trump administration. Tuesday is in the books.

White House imposed a ban on new interim security clearances last fall

The White House quietly imposed a ban on new interim security clearances for anyone in the executive office of the president last fall, but let existing employees with interim clearances stay on, according to an email obtained by POLITICO.

The Nov. 7 internal email to senior leaders at the Office of Management and Budget said the White House personnel security office had advised that it would no longer grant interim security clearances. Pending requests for interim clearances were expected to be denied, though exceptions could be requested, according to the email.

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Staffers who had already been granted interim security clearances — like former staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned last week amid allegations of domestic abuse — could continue to hold them while their background investigations were finished, the email said.

The email does not shed light on the reason for the mandate and POLITICO could not immediately determine whether the policy barring new interim clearances is still in place.

But the email nonetheless indicates that officials in the personnel security office – and perhaps others in the White House – were aware as far back as last year of the potential pitfalls of over-reliance on interim security clearances, which allow staffers to handle classified material while their full clearance applications are under review.

The White House did not comment on the email or the policy changes it described.

Senior White House officials, including chief of staff John Kelly, have struggled to explain why they allowed Porter to stay in his role, which involved access to highly sensitive secrets, despite the existence of a protective order granted to one of his ex-wives. Both of Porter’s ex-wives told the Daily Mail last week that Porter verbally and physically abused them during their marriages, charges Porter has denied.

The White House says senior staff were not fully aware of the scope and severity of the allegations until last week, when the Daily Mail published photographs of Porter’s first wife with a black eye. Multiple administration officials said Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn were informed in broad terms of the problems facing Porter last year.

Kelly has said that he secured Porter’s resignation within 40 minutes of learning the extent of the allegations.

But the week-long firestorm surrounding the White House’s handling of the issue has led to finger-pointing and deep frustration, with some aides wondering if they’re being misled about the full extent of officials’ knowledge of Porter’s past.

An estimated three dozen staffers in the White House, including presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, still only have an interim clearance, according to one person familiar with the issue.

Kelly has privately expressed concerns about the large number of people working in the White House on interim clearances, and he even considered firing anybody who would not be able to secure a full clearance. Kelly had been informed several weeks ago that multiple White House officials, including Porter, would not qualify for permanent clearances.

POLITICO first reported in November that Kushner had not yet secured a permanent clearance. Kushner, according to the administration official, still does not have a full clearance and it’s unclear if he’ll ever get one.

The process of securing a permanent clearance can be lengthy and tedious, according to veterans of Democratic and Republican administration. It requires an FBI background check that, depending on a person’s history, can last for months or sometimes more than a year. The FBI then delivers its findings to the White House, which determines whether a full clearance should be granted.

A former Obama administration official said it was not uncommon for problems with a senior White House aides’ clearance to be flagged to the White House counsel’s office and the deputy chief of staff for operations, who may then brief the chief of staff and others.

“What’s really troubling about all of this to me is if the FBI determined that there was something in [Porter’s] background that would potentially jeopardize national security, this administration does not appear to have taken that side of the equation into account,” said another former Obama administration official who worked on personnel and vetting issues.

It’s unclear precisely what Joe Hagin, who serves as Trump’s deputy chief of staff for operations, knew about Porter. A second person familiar with the issue said Hagin became aware last year that there were issues with Porter’s clearance. But a White House aide strongly rejected the notion that Hagin knew about the domestic abuse allegations, adding that he found out about them last week.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday that the bureau had filed an initial report on Porter last March, finished its background check in July, submitted a follow-up in November and had “administratively closed” the file in January.

That timeline appeared to conflict with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders’ Monday assertion that Porter’s clearance was “handled by our law enforcement and intelligence community” and that it “hadn’t been completed” when he resigned last week.

Sanders sought to clarify her comments after Wray’s testimony Tuesday.

“The White House personnel security office, staffed by career officials, received information last year in what they considered to be the final background investigation report in November,” Sanders said Tuesday afternoon. “But they had not made a final recommendation for adjudication to the White House because the process was still ongoing when Rob Porter resigned.”