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Decade of the dragon


The world changed the day twin towers in downtown Manhattan crashed to jihadi airplane-missiles. Everybody's notions of security underwent a dramatic change. Ten years later, Osama bin Laden was killed in a dramatic operation deep inside Pakistan's heartland where he had been living under the benign gaze of the ISI. That was reassuring, nothing had changed there. But hidden in that operation was perhaps the balance sheet of the past decade. It took billions of dollars and the lives of many men and women for America to realise what many said they knew all along: Washington was barking up the wrong tree. Between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US found itself scrambling to react to the strategic challenge that al-Qaida now posed. Even after the death of Bin Laden, America couldn't say convincingly that it had won.

In a weird sort of way, the past decade belonged to Osama bin Laden, the decade when al-Qaida became a many-splendoured idea, a Voldemort in the real world;when, despite the US's Predators and Reapers, radical Islam with terror in its sights somehow spread like a contagion across the Maghreb, the Arab peninsula, Africa, South Asia and Xinjiang.

In the last decade when America and its allies were expending precious resources to fight battles - some necessary, but many of choice - the real gainer was in the East. While America was absorbed with Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Libya, China used the last decade wisely. It grew unhindered, unchecked by a strategic rival too busy chasing other demons.

The US took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan and jumped into Iraq. That started a reaction of unintended consequences. The balance in the Middle East and West Asia changed, giving rise to a Shia challenge to the Sunni dominance led by Saudi Arabia. The consequent rise of Shia Iran brought the Saudis and the US back together. After 9/11, the US should actually have come down hard on Saudi Arabia and forced it to clean up its act. Saudis still fund most radical Islamist madrassas in poor countries around the world, hotbeds of jihadi ideology that many are. But Iran being America's blind spot, the US saw no other choice to countering it. The Americans held their noses and got back into bed with the Saudis. So that was one vital leak that reamined unplugged.

In Pakistan the US was too busy feeling beholden to Islamabad to worry enough that its Afghan war just refused to end - because the Taliban were being looked after by the Pakistanis, who were, in turn, accepting billions to fight the Taliban. So, when the US should have been looking to destroy terror networks inside Pakistan, they were instead losing men and money to Pakistanis, many of whom were also fronting for the Taliban.

Meanwhile, China was having a nice run of luck. Not only was it uninvolved in the war on terror, but had also got its pet hate, the radical ETIM group declared a global terrorist one by the US. Its economy was sucking in money from the rest of the world, where nobody could do without Chinese low-cost manufacturing. The Chinese then went overseas with their large pots of money and bought influence, friends and voting partners in multilateral institutions.

They also bought minerals, oil, gas and a whole range of vital commodities. They came out of the closet with their military ambitions, claimed the South China Sea as their own, and thumbed their nose at Japan, Korea and other neighbours. While America's economy collapsed due to its fiscal profligacy (which also impacted its war against terror) China was buying copper mines in Afghanistan and getting US-led forces to protect them. China kept up its 'all-weather ' friendship with Pakistan and supported that country diplomatically in multilateral forums - all on the cheap. Clearly, the US was spending the money while China was picking up the influence. It worked out real well.

China is America's biggest strategic challenge now, but while the US economy is gasping, the Chinese are all over the place. So when Hillary Clinton told the Asian Regional Forum in 2010, "the US is back" there were polite cheers all around. The 9/11 decade truly belonged to China.

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