Hawkish China, Defensive India

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, September 19, 2014

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has bent over backwards to befriend China. Yet Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India visit has been marred by border incursions, including one that ranks, in terms of the number of intruding troops, as the worst in many years. Modi coined his “inch toward miles” slogan to underscore how India-China collaboration could positively transform Asia. But the slogan more aptly describes the salami-slice strategy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to use stealthy incursions to incrementally change facts on the ground.

The more powerful the PLA has become at the expense of the civilian collective leadership, the more China has presented itself as a tiger on the prowl by discarding Deng Xiaoping’s dictum tao guang yang hui (keep a low profile and not bare your capabilities)

The more powerful the PLA has become at the expense of the party leadership, the more China has presented itself as a tiger on the prowl

The PLA is taking advantage of its rising political clout at home to escalate border incursions. It has been undeterred even by Xi’s visit. After all, in the run-up to Premier Li Keqiang’s New Delhi visit last year, the PLA staged a deep, three-week-long intrusion into Indian territory.

Enjoying increasing autonomy and soaring budgets, the PLA of late appears ready to upstage even the Chinese Communist Party. Ideologically adrift, the party is becoming dependent on the PLA for its political legitimacy and to ensure domestic order. The PLA sees itself as the power behind the throne, encouraging it to assert primacy.

China’s expanding “core interests” and its willingness to take on several neighbours simultaneously point to how the PLA is calling the shots. With the PLA gaining political muscle and boasting financial assets and enterprises across the nation, it is seizing opportunities to nibble at neighbouring countries’ territories, besides driving an increasingly muscular foreign policy.

The more powerful the PLA has become at the expense of the civilian collective leadership, the more China has presented itself as a tiger on the prowl by discarding Deng Xiaoping’s dictum tao guang yang hui (keep a low profile and not bare your capabilities). It is as if China has decided that its moment has finally arrived.

This structural transformation parallels the one that occurred in Imperial Japan, which rose dramatically as a world power in one generation after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Boosted by war victories against Manchu-ruled China and Tsarist Russia, the Japanese military gradually went on to dictate terms to the civilian government, opening the path to aggression and conquest.

The PLA’s increasing clout has led China to resurrect territorial and maritime disputes and assert new sovereignty claims. Such assertiveness also helps the party to turn nationalism into the legitimating credo of its monopoly on power. But as the latest Ladakh intrusions show, the PLA is ready to strike even at the risk of drawing attention to the wrong issues during a Chinese presidential visit.

Whereas the Indian military continues to be shut out from the policymaking loop in a way unmatched in any other established democracy, the PLA has repeatedly blindsided government leaders with military actions, weapon displays and hawkish statements, prompting U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates in 2011 to warn of “a disconnect between the military and the civilian leadership” in China. The recent rise of a new Chinese dynasty of “princelings,” or sons of revolutionary heroes who have close contacts in the military, has narrowed that disconnect.

Xi best symbolizes the political ascent of “princelings”. Indeed, what distinguishes Xi, a former military reservist, from China’s other civilian leaders is his strong relationship with the PLA, which regards him as its own man. Xi’s wife carries an honorary rank of army general, while Xi himself is the only civilian figure in the twin Central Military Commissions. It is thus possible that the latest Himalayan incursions were deliberately timed, with Xi’s knowledge, to reinforce his message to India that China will not compromise on territorial disputes and that the onus is on New Delhi to settle Chinese claims.

The PLA’s political power poses an important challenge for India, paralleling the one it faces on Pakistan, where the military and its intelligence agency dictate foreign policy. India also confronts the strengthening nexus between China and Pakistan, both of which have staked claims to substantial swaths of Indian territory and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction. Indian diplomacy faces the dilemma of how to deal with these regional adversaries, given that the Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministries are weak actors.

In fact, China’s foreign ministry is the weakest government branch, often overruled or simply ignored by the PLA. This is a key reason why India’s border talks with the Chinese foreign ministry since 1981 have gone nowhere, dubiously ranking as the world’s longest and most-barren frontier negotiations. The Indians can stay put in this process for another 33 years and the Chinese side will continue to merrily take them round and round the mulberry bush.

Last year’s three-week military standoff in Ladakh indeed highlighted the “information lag” of the Chinese foreign ministry, whose version evolved from expressing ignorance about the intrusion, to dismissing Indian claims as “speculation”, and to finally acknowledging an “incident” and “standoff” with India. A day after India disclosed that the standoff was over, the Chinese foreign office remained utterly ignorant of the development, saying it was awaiting “the latest information”.

With China rising as a praetorian state, India’s fumbling responses to the increasing Chinese incursions do not bode well for its Himalayan security. India still deploys border police to fend off such incursions. But the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, with its defensive training and mindset and under the Home Ministry, is no match to the PLA’s aggressive designs. The Chinese border provocations and India’s meek calls for “flag meetings” to end standoffs highlight the diametrically opposite civil-military equations prevailing in the world’s two demographic titans, underscoring India’s imperative to formulate a concerted strategy to counter China’s posture of aggressive deterrence. The only counter to aggressive deterrence is offensive defence.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) The Hindustan Times, 2014.

Co-opt the water hegemon

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY
Unless China abandons its unilateralist approach to cross-border rivers and enters into water-sharing arrangements with its neighbors, prospects for a rule-based order in Asia could perish forever.
delaware-river-splash

Asia’s water resources are largely transnational, making inter-country cooperation and collaboration essential. Yet the vast majority of the 57 transnational river basins in continental Asia have no water-sharing arrangement or any other cooperative mechanism. This troubling reality has to be seen in the context of the strained political relations in several Asian sub-regions.

The river basins in the Asian continent that have a treaty-based sharing arrangement currently in place are the Al-Asi/Orontes (Lebanon-Syria), Araks-Atrek (Iran-Russia), El-Kaber (Lebanon-Syria), Euphrates (Iraq-Syria), Gandhak (India-Nepal), Ganges (Bangladesh-India), Indus (India-Pakistan), Jordan (Israel-Jordan), and Mahakali (India-Nepal).

Arrangements in some of these basins, such as the Gandhak, Jordan, and Mahakali, do not incorporate a formula dividing the shared waters between the parties but rather center on specific water withdrawals, transfers, or rights of utilization. An important arrangement in the Mekong Basin is centered on sustainable water management but without any water sharing.

The only treaties in Asia with specific sharing formulas on cross-border river flows are the ones between India and its two downriver neighbors, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Indus Waters Treaty remains the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement, under which India agreed to keep for itself only a 19.48 percent share of the waters. (The volume of waters earmarked for Pakistan — by way of comparison — is over 90 times greater than the 1.85 billion cubic meters the U.S. is required to release to Mexico under a 1944 treaty with that country.)

In addition, Soviet-era water arrangements in Central Asia continue to hold, even if tenuously. Such is the competition over scarce water resources that even sharing arrangements are not free of rancor and discord.

b3-mosher-dragon-china-gg_c0-125-1584-1181_s300x200More broadly, Asia’s water map stands out for the unique riparian status that China enjoys. It has established a hydro-hegemony unparalleled on any continent. China is the source of rivers for a dozen countries. No other country serves as the riverhead for so many countries. This makes China the driver of inter-riparian relations in Asia. Yet China also stands out for not having a single water-sharing arrangement or cooperation treaty with any co-riparian state. Its refusal to accede to the Mekong Agreement of 1995, for example, has stunted the development of a genuine basin community.

By building mega-dams and reservoirs in its borderlands, China is unilaterally re-engineering the flows of major rivers that are the lifeblood for the lower riparian states.

To be sure, China trumpets several bilateral water agreements. But none is about water sharing or institutionalized cooperation on shared resources. Some accords are commercial contracts to sell hydrological data to downstream nations. Others center on joint research initiatives, flood-control projects, hydropower development, fishing, navigation, river islands, hydrologic work, border demarcation, environmental principles, or nonbinding memorandums of understanding.

By fobbing off such accords as water agreements, China creates a false impression that it has cooperative riparian relations. In fact, it is to deflect attention from its unwillingness to enter into water sharing or institutionalized cooperation that Beijing even advertises the accords it has signed on sharing flow statistics with co-riparian states.

These agreements are merely contracts to sell hydrological data, which some other upstream countries provide free to downriver states.

The plain fact is that China rejects the very concept of water sharing. It also asserts a general principle that standing and flowing waters are subject to the full sovereignty of the state where they are located. It thus claims “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters on its side of the international boundary, including the right to divert as much shared water as it wishes for its legitimate needs.

This principle was embodied in the now-discredited “Harmon Doctrine” in the United States more than a century ago. This doctrine is named after U.S. Attorney General Judson Harmon, who put forth the argument that the U.S. owed no obligations under international law to Mexico on shared water resources and was effectively free to divert as much of the shared waters as it wished for U.S. needs.

Despite this thesis, the U.S. went on to conclude water-sharing agreements with Mexico between 1906 and 1944.

China, in rejecting the 1997 U.N. Watercourse Convention (which sets rules on shared water resources to establish an international water law), placed on record its assertion of absolute territorial sovereignty over the waters within its borders: “The text did not reflect the principle of territorial sovereignty of a watercourse state. Such a state had indisputable sovereignty over a watercourse which flowed through its territory.” The Harmon Doctrine may be dead in the country of its birth but it appears to be alive and kicking in China.

In this light, it is hardly a surprise that water has become a new divide in China’s relations with riparian neighbors. This divide has become apparent as Beijing has increasingly shifted its dam-building focus from the dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers, most of which originate on the water-rich Tibetan Plateau.

Then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally proposed to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, in separate meetings in the spring of 2013, that the two countries enter into a water treaty or establish an intergovernmental institution to define mutual rights and responsibilities on shared rivers. Both Xi and Li, however, spurned the proposal.

The Indian assumption that booming bilateral trade would make Beijing more amenable to solving border and water disputes has clearly been belied.

Only three important transnational rivers — the Amur, the Irtysh, and the Ili, which flow to Russia or Kazakhstan — originate in China outside the Tibetan plateau, whose wealth of water and mineral resources is a big factor in its political subjugation.

China’s water disputes with neighbors extend even to North Korea, with which it has yet to settle issues relating to Lake Chonji and two border rivers, the Yalu and the Tumen.

downloadChina’s rush to build more dams promises to roil inter-riparian relations, foster greater water competition and impede the already slow progress toward regional cooperation and integration. By erecting dams, barrages and other water diversion structures in its borderlands, China is spurring growing unease and concern in downriver countries. Getting China on board has thus become critical to shape water for peace in Asia.

At a time when dam building has run into growing grass-roots opposition in Asian democracies like Japan, South Korea, and India, China will remain the nucleus of the world’s dam projects. Significantly, China is also the global leader in exporting dams.

While the dams China is building in Africa and Latin America are largely designed to supply the energy for its mineral-resource extraction and processing there, many of its dam projects in Southeast Asia are intended to generate electricity for export to its own market. China is demonstrating that it has no qualms about building dams in disputed territories, such as Pakistan-administered Kashmir, or in areas torn by ethnic separatism, like northern Myanmar.

Transparency, collaboration, and sharing are the building blocks of water peace. Renewed efforts are needed to try and co-opt China in basin-level institutions. Without China’s active participation in water institutions, it will not be possible to transform Asian competition into cooperation.

Only water institutions involving all important co-riparians can make headway to regulate inter-country competition, help balance the rights and obligations of co-basin states, and promote sustainable practices.

If China were to accept rule-based cooperation, it would have to strike a balance between its right to harness transnational water resources for its development and a corresponding obligation (embedded in customary international law and the U.N. Watercourse Convention) not to cause palpable harm to any co-riparian state.

A balance between rights and obligations indeed is at the heart of how to achieve harmonious, rule-based relations between co-basin states. To be sure, any water arrangement’s comparative benefits and burdens should be such that the advantages outweigh the duties and responsibilities, or else a key state that sees itself as a loser may walk out of discussions or fail to comply with its obligations.

China must be persuaded that its diplomatic and economic interests would be better served by joining forward-looking institutionalized cooperation. Beijing will need considerable convincing, of course, if it is to participate in any basin-level framework centered on compromise, coordination, and collaboration. If China insists on staying on its current unilateralist course, the risk is not only that it will define and implement its water interests in ways irreconcilable with those of its co-riparian states, but also that prospects for a rule-based order in Asia could perish forever.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist. This is excerpted from his paper in the latest issue of Asian Survey by permission of the Regents of the University of California.

China’s Borderline Belligerence

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(Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.)

A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated.

In recent years, the People’s Liberation Army has been taking advantage of its rising political clout to provoke localized skirmishes and standoffs with India by breaching the two countries’ long and disputed Himalayan frontier. The PLA’s recent intensification of such border violations holds important implications for President Xi Jinping’s upcoming visit to India – and for the future of the bilateral relationship.

In fact, such provocations have often preceded visits to India by Chinese leaders. Indeed, it was just before President Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit that China resurrected its claim to India’s large northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Likewise, prior to Premier Wen Jiabao’s trip to India in 2010, China began issuing visas on loose sheets of paper stapled into the passports of Kashmir residents applying to enter China – an indirect challenge to India’s sovereignty. Moreover, China abruptly shortened the length of its border with India by rescinding its recognition of the 1,597-kilometer (992-mile) line separating Indian Kashmir from Chinese-held Kashmir. And Premier Li Keqiang’s visit last May followed a deep PLA incursion into India’s Ladakh region, seemingly intended to convey China’s anger over India’s belated efforts to fortify its border defenses.

Now, China is at it again, including near the convergence point of China, India, and Pakistan – the same place last year’s PLA encroachment triggered a three-week military standoff. This pattern suggests that the central objective of Chinese leaders’ visits to India is not to advance cooperation on a shared agenda, but to reinforce China’s own interests, beginning with its territorial claims. Even China’s highly lucrative and fast-growing trade with India has not curbed its rising territorial assertiveness.

By contrast, Indian prime ministers since Jawaharlal Nehru have traveled to China to express goodwill and deliver strategic gifts. Unsurprisingly, India has often ended up losing out in bilateral deals.

Particularly egregious was Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 2003 surrender of India’s Tibet card. Vajpayee went so far as to use, for the first time, the legal term “recognize” to accept what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” That opened the way for China to claim Arunachal Pradesh (three times the size of Taiwan) as “South Tibet” and reinforced China’s view of territorial issues: Whatever area it occupies is Chinese territory, and whatever territorial claims it makes must be settled on the basis of “mutual accommodation and understanding.”

Vajpayee’s blunder compounded Nehru’s 1954 mistake in implicitly accepting, in the Panchsheel Treaty, China’s annexation of Tibet, without securing (or even seeking) recognition of the then-existing Indo-Tibetan border. In fact, under the treaty, India forfeited all of the extraterritorial rights and privileges in Tibet that it had inherited from imperial Britain.

As agreed in the pact, India withdrew its “military escorts” from Tibet, and conceded to the Chinese government, at a “reasonable” price, the postal, telegraph, and public telephone services operated by the Indian government in the “Tibet region of China.” For its part, China repeatedly violated the eight-year pact, ultimately mounting the trans-Himalayan invasion of 1962.

In short, China used the Panchsheel Treaty to outwit and humiliate India. Yet, just this summer, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new government sent Vice President Hamid Ansari to Beijing to participate in the treaty’s 60th anniversary celebrations.

Ansari was accompanied by Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who, during her stay, signed an agreement allowing China – without any quid pro quo – to establish industrial parks in India. This will exacerbate existing imbalances in the bilateral trade relationship – China currently exports to India three times more than it imports from the country, with most of these imports being raw materials –thereby exposing India to increased strategic pressure and serving China’s interest in preventing India’s rise as a peer competitor.

The fact that the spotlight is now on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal Pradesh, rather than on Tibet’s status, underscores China’s dominance in setting the bilateral agenda. Given India’s dependence on cross-border water flows from Tibet, it could end up paying a heavy price.

Embarrassed by China’s relentless border violations – according to Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju, there were 334 in the first 216 days of this year – India has recently drawn a specious distinction between “transgressions” and “intrusions” that enables it to list all of the breaches simply as transgressions. But word play will get India nowhere.

A reminder of that came at July’s BRICS summit of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, when, yet again, China emerged ahead of India. The BRICS’ New Development Bank, it was announced, will be headquartered in Shanghai, not New Delhi; India’s consolation prize was that an Indian will serve as the Bank’s first president.

Under pressure from an unyielding and revanchist China, India urgently needs to craft a prudent and carefully calibrated counter-strategy. For starters, India could rescind its recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, while applying economic pressure through trade, as China has done to Japan and the Philippines when they have challenged its territorial claims. By hinging China’s market access on progress in resolving political, territorial, and water disputes, India can prevent China from fortifying its leverage.

Moreover, India must be willing to respond to Chinese incursions by sending troops into strategic Chinese-held territory. This would raise the stakes for Chinese border violations, thereby boosting deterrence.

Finally, India must consider carefully the pretense of partnership with China that it is forming through trade and BRICS agreements – at least until a more balanced bilateral relationship emerges. After all, neither booming trade nor membership in the BRICS club offers protection from bullying.

© 1995-2014 Project Syndicate.

Asia’s best friends

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Just as Japan assisted China’s economic rise through large-scale aid, investment and technology transfer for over three decades — a role obscured by the recent flare-up of territorial disputes — it is ready to help India become an economic powerhouse on par with China

Brahma Chellaney, Japan Times

HugRarely before in recent years has Japan gone so much out of its way to welcome a foreign leader as it did when receiving India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi (or NaMo to his fans), who started his tour from Kyoto. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not only broke protocol by receiving Modi in Kyoto last Saturday but also spent the weekend with him in that old imperial capital, holding a tête-à-tête with his guest and praying with him at the 1,200-year-old Buddhist temple of Toji, a world heritage site.

The NaMo-Shinzo show actually took off with a big bear hug, illustrating how close personal bonds between two government heads can help add greater momentum to a bilateral relationship. Modi deliberately made Japan his first foreign port of call beyond the Indian subcontinent so as to spotlight that country’s centrality to Indian interests.

With Japan and India moving from emphasizing shared values to jointly advancing shared interests, their ties already constitute Asia’s fast-growing bilateral relationship. Abe and Modi, however, wish to turn this blossoming partnership into a defining element in Asia’s strategic landscape so that Japan and India serve as key anchors of a stable power balance.

The rationale bringing India and Japan closer together is powerful: If China, India and Japan constitute Asia’s strategic triangle — with China representing Side A (the longest side of this scalene triangle), India Side B, and Japan Side C — the sum of B plus C will always be greater than A. In the absence of a Japan-India axis, the rise of a Sino-centric Asia could become inevitable.

Containing China, however, is not an option. China is the largest trading partner of both Japan and India, which cannot afford to disrupt their relationship with Beijing. Nor are India and Japan seeking to forge a military alliance in which each will be obligated to come to the defense of the other.

The key issue for India and Japan is how to address Asia’s current power disequilibrium, which has arisen due to the rapid rise of an increasingly assertive China that is seeking to disturb the territorial and maritime status quo. An entente between Asia’s two main democracies can help restore a fair degree of equilibrium to the power balance.

Abe, 59, and Modi 63, represent the best chance for Japan and India to establish such an entente. Ideologically, Abe and Modi are soul mates, sharing similar political values, including market-oriented economics, soft nationalism, a proactive foreign policy, and a new Asianism that seeks to promote a web of interlocking strategic partnerships among important democracies in the Asia-Pacific. The two belong to the 1950s generation, share the zodiac sign of Virgo, and regard each other as friends.

Indeed, like two buddies meeting after a long time, Modi and Abe greeted each other with an effusive hug and glowing and beaming smiles. By contrast, Modi’s predecessor, the octogenarian Manmohan Singh, was a generation older than Abe, who greeted him with the customary handshake each time they met.

International-relations theory assumes that interstate relations are shaped by impersonal forces, especially cold calculations of national interest.  In truth, history is determined equally, if not more, by the role of personalities, including their personal strengths and foibles and their search for national security and respect.

The Abe-Modi affinity has been fostered both by personal chemistry and hardnosed calculations about the importance of Indo-Japanese collaboration in their plans to revitalize their countries’ economy and security and restore national pride. Modi’s personal rapport with Abe was built during his 2007 and 2012 visits to Japan as chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat.

In a reflection of their close bond, Abe follows only three people on Twitter: his outspoken wife Akie, author-turned-politician Naoki Inose, and Modi. “I am eagerly awaiting your arrival in Kyoto this weekend,” Abe tweeted to Modi last Friday, declaring, “India has a special place in my heart.” Earlier, in a tweet in Japanese and English, Modi expressed “excitement” over his impending meeting with Abe, adding he “deeply respects” Abe’s leadership and “enjoys a warm relationship with him.”

Abe sees India as the key to expanding Japan’s security options beyond its current U.S.-centric framework, while Modi views Japan as central to the success of India’s “Look East” strategy. “Abenomics” and “Modinomics” are both geared to the same goal — reviving laggard growth­ — yet they need each other’s support for success.

Whereas Tokyo sees India as important to its own economic-revival strategy, India looks at Japan as a critical source of capital and commercial technology and and a key partner to help upgrade its infrastructure and manufacturing base. India — the biggest recipient of Japan’s Official Development Assistance, which is currently funding more than 60 Indian infrastructure projects — has become the largest destination for Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI) among major economies.

The path is gradually opening up to Japanese exports of weapon systems and, potentially, nuclear power equipment to India, the world’s largest arms importer and one of the few countries still wedded to building new commercial nuclear plants in the post-Fukushima era. Abe’s reassertion of the right of collective self-defense and his relaxation of Japan’s self-imposed ban on export of arms have opened the path to closer military cooperation with India, including co-production of weapon systems.

The two countries’ dissimilarities actually create opportunities to generate strong synergies through economic collaboration. Japan has a solid heavy manufacturing base, while India boasts services-led growth. India is a leader in software and Japan a leader in hardware. India has the world’s largest youthful population (about two-thirds of Indians are younger than 35), while Japan is aging more rapidly than any other major developed country. Whereas Japan has financial and technological power, India has human capital and a huge market for goods and services.

Japan clearly has an interest in a stronger, more economically robust India. Just as Japan assisted China’s economic rise through large-scale aid, investment and technology transfer for over three decades — a role obscured by the flare-up of territorial and other bilateral disputes in recent years — it is ready to help India become an economic powerhouse on par with China, a consideration that prompted Abe to pledge a whopping $35 billion in new assistance.

China, by contrast, has little interest in aiding India’s economic ascent. Beijing boasts a booming trade with New Delhi, but that commerce bears a distinct mercantilist imprint and shows India in an unflattering light: China exports three times as much as it imports and treats India as a raw-material supplier and a market for its finished goods. This asymmetry is made more glaring by China’s minuscule FDI in India. The present pattern of Chinese companies merely exporting finished goods in increasing quantities to India is not sustainable.

A challenge for Modi is to correct the lopsided trade and calibrate China’s market access to progress on bilateral political, territorial and water disputes, or else Beijing will fortify its leverage against India. After all, China does not shy away from making efforts to block the rise of India and Japan, including by stepping up military pressure on them and opposing the expansion of the UN Security Council’s permanent membership. Japan and India thus have a shared interest in working together to restrain China’s exercise of its rapidly accumulating power, which risks sliding into arrogance.

The Japan-India relationship — characterized by “only goodwill and mutual admiration,” in Modi’s words — can reshape Asian geopolitics and institute power stability. The process to significantly tap that potential is just beginning. Modi urged that the two countries should “strive to achieve in the next five years their relationship’s unrealized potential of the last five decades.”

After charming Nepal and Bhutan on highly successful visits, Modi’s landmark trip to Japan has not only helped to define the parameters for Asia’s new democratic alliance but also set in motion the addition of concrete strategic content to this “special strategic and global partnership” — its formal name. The entente holds the potential to revive the two countries’ economic fortunes, catalyze their emergence as world powers, reshape the Asian strategic landscape, and impel a tectonic geopolitical shift.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) The Japan Times, 2014.

India’s China problem

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Brahma Chellaney, The World Post/The Huffington Post

xi-jinping-14Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May with a thumping electoral mandate, faces a major test in diplomacy in the form of bilateral summits this month with three powers central to Indian foreign policy — Japan, China, and the United States. Modi met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on September 1, and will now receive Chinese President Xi Jinping in New Delhi. He will then visit the White House at the end of the month.

China poses the toughest challenge for Modi, although the Indian leader had a good meeting with Xi on the sidelines of the recent summit of BRICS, a grouping of major emerging economies. Their body language at the summit in Brazil indicated the two had formed an easy personal equation.

After assuming office, Modi was quick to reach out to China, negating the assumption of some analysts that his government would be less accommodating toward Beijing than its predecessor. Modi views China, with its massive foreign-exchange reserves, as a potential partner in India’s development. Yet, at a time when the China-India trade relationship is already lopsided, with Beijing exporting three times as much as it imports and treating India as a raw-material appendage of its economy like Africa, Modi must find ways to address this glaring asymmetry while seeking to make a cash-rich China an important partner in India’s developmental priorities.

Another challenge for Modi is to balance such deeper economic engagement with India’s strategic imperatives, including bolstering defenses against China and containing increasing Chinese border provocations. According to figures released by Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju in India’s Parliament recently, Chinese border transgressions this year have exceeded more than one per day, totaling 334 up to August 4.

The often tense relationship between the world’s two most-populous countries holds significant implications for international security and Asian power dynamics. As China and India gain economic heft, they are drawing ever more international attention. However, their underlying strategic dissonance and rivalry over issues extending from land and water to geopolitical influence usually attracts less notice.

The vast Tibetan plateau separated the Indian and Chinese civilizations throughout history, limiting their interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts, with political relations absent. It was only after Tibet’s annexation in the early 1950s that Han Chinese military units appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers. This was followed by a bloody Himalayan war in 1962.

More than half a century later, their old rifts persist even as new issues have started roiling their relationship, including Beijing’s resurrected claim since 2006 to the sprawling northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, almost three times larger than Taiwan. A perceptible hardening of China’s stance toward India is also manifest from other developments, including Chinese strategic projects and military presence in the Pakistan-held portion of Kashmir.

Between 2000 and 2010, China-India trade rose 20-fold, making it the only area where relations have thrived. Yet the booming trade has failed to subdue their rivalry.

At the root of the current Himalayan tensions are China’s persistent efforts to alter the territorial status quo. To be sure, India is not China’s only target: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is seeking to also disturb the territorial status quo with several other neighboring countries, including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Instead of invading, the PLA has chosen to engage in a steady progression of steps to outwit opponents and create new facts on the ground, whether in the South China Sea or the Indian Himalayas. In this way, it has sought to change the status quo without inviting outright conflict with neighboring countries. While China’s navy and a part of its air force focus on supporting revanchist territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China seas, its army has been active in the mountainous borderlands with India.

To prevent the PLA from further nibbling at its territories, India has been beefing up its military deployments in the two sensitive regions located on the opposite ends of the Himalayas — Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. It has also launched a crash program to improve its logistical capabilities through new roads, airstrips, and advanced landing stations along the Himalayas.

More importantly, India is raising a new mountain strike corps to arm itself with quick-reaction ground offensive capabilities against China. This new XVII Corps, with more than 90,000 troops, will cost $10.7 billion and be fully operational within five years. India has already deployed ballistic missile squadrons, spy drones, and Russian-built Sukhoi-30MKI fighterjets in the eastern theater against China.

Still, with the inhospitable Himalayan border difficult to patrol effectively, incursions by PLA troops have increased across the “line of actual control” (LAC) that China itself unilaterally drew when it defeated India in the 1962 Chinese-initiated war. Because the LAC has not been mutually clarified — China reneged on a 2001 promise to exchange maps with India — Beijing disputes each intrusion, claiming its troops are merely on “Chinese land.” To be sure, when challenged by Indian border police, the intruding troops tend to retreat from most points. But the rising pattern of incursions ties down large numbers of Indian border police and army troops along the Himalayas.

Despite China’s belligerence, Modi has gone out of his way to befriend Xi’s government. As prime minister, he received the Chinese foreign minister before welcoming any other foreign dignitary. Modi’s first bilateral meeting with a major state head was with Xi in Brazil. He allowed Xi to advance his India visit to September while postponing his own Japan trip so as to meet with Xi first in Brazil. Xi will be the first leader of a major power to travel to New Delhi for talks with Modi.

Modi sent India’s vice president to the 60th-anniversary celebrations in Beijing of the Panchsheel (Five Principles) treaty of peaceful coexistence, a pact that China used to outfox and outflank India, culminating in the 1962 border war. Modi even agreed to let Shanghai be the headquarters of the new BRICS bank, accepting just a consolation prize for India — an Indian as its first president.

These overtures, however, can barely conceal either India’s anxiety over China’s increasing muscle flexing or Modi’s determination to build close strategic ties with Japan in order to put discreet checks on China’s exercise of its rapidly accumulating power, which risks sliding into arrogance.

China’s strategy of constant outward pressure on its borders not only threatens to destabilize Asia’s status quo but is also pushing countries like India, Japan, and Vietnam to strategically collaborate. Modi’s priority is to ensure stable power equilibrium in Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

(c) China-United States Exchange Foundation. All rights reserved

India-Japan alliance shapes up

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After many rudderless years, India and Japan have prime ministers with a sense of purpose. This has spurred the two nations to forge an alliance.

Brahma Chellaney, Rediff.com

Abe-ModiPrime Minister Narendra Modi returned from Japan with notable gifts, especially a $35-billion Japanese assistance pledge that crowned a host of accords. But, like his predecessors, he will visit the White House bearing gifts, including a $2.5-billion contract for new military helicopters.

This, in a nutshell, explains why Modi’s Japan visit was a watershed, cementing Asia’s new democratic axis and co-opting Tokyo as an important partner in India’s development and a collaborator on mutual security. India and Japan are to cooperate on defense technology, maritime security and military preparedness, including on how to deter aggression and ensure a favorable balance of power in Asia.

For long, with major powers aggressively courting India to get a slice of its rapidly growing market, New Delhi measured success of its diplomacy by how many billions of dollars worth of contracts it doled out at a bilateral summit. It made little effort reciprocally to secure lucrative contracts for Indian industry. As a consequence, India is the only major global economy that remains import-dependent, rather than being export-oriented, and thus relies largely on domestic consumption to fuel its economic growth.

Modi, however, is committed to change that by making India stronger and more robust by reviving slumbering economic growth. He knows there cannot be a better and more reliable partner in India’s development than Japan, especially if his government is to significantly strengthen the country’s manufacturing base, upgrade its rickety infrastructure, create a network of new “smart” cities, and introduce bullet trains.

Japanese technology and investment can help make Modi’s plans a reality. That is why Modi laid emphasis on his “no red tape, only red carpet” message in Japan, saying he is striving to make India more hospitable for corporate activity. “Some people say there is thick red tape in India, but I would like you to believe there is a red carpet in India,” he told Japanese businessmen.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s $35 billion pledge in private and public investment and financing over the next five years is indeed huge. This funding will be used to improve Indian manufacturing and skills, create “smart cities” and electronics industrial parks, build high-speed rail lines and urban subways, clean up the Ganges, produce clean energy, and accelerate rural development.

But if this $35-billion assistance is to make a major difference, India must address its gaping current account deficit. India’s monthly trade deficit is now running at $11.76 billion, as the figure available for the most recent month (July) shows. The massive trade imbalance with China, which has soared from $1 billion in 2002 to $30 billion in 2013, is at the root of India’s serious current account deficit.

By importing raw materials from India but exporting finished products to it, China has effectively turned asymmetrical trade into an instrument to prevent India’s rise as a peer competitor. China, India’s largest source of imports, is also leveraging its trade and financial clout — including its role as a major supplier of power and telecom equipment and its emergence as a lender to financially troubled Indian companies — to dissuade New Delhi from assertively countering the Chinese strategic encirclement.

Modi recognizes that New Delhi must strategically collaborate with Tokyo to prevent the rise of a Sino-centric Asia, or else India’s world-power aspirations will be stymied for good.

Asia’s balance of power will be determined principally by events in two key regions: East Asia and the Indian Ocean. According to the “Tokyo Declaration for India-Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership” unveiled during Modi’s visit, these two leading maritime democracies in Asia have agreed to “upgrade and strengthen” their defense relations and work together on advancing security in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region, marked by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

As energy-poor countries heavily dependent on oil and gas imports, India and Japan are naturally concerned by China’s mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes as well as by its claim to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest and most-strategic waterways. China, in addition, has unilaterally established an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering territories that it claims (but does not control) in the East China Sea — a dangerous new precedent in international relations.

Make no mistake: China’s “salami slicing” strategy involving the use of military intimidation or force to make furtive, incremental encroachments across land and sea borders has emerged as a key destabilizing element in Asia.

Alluding to China, the Tokyo Declaration says India and Japan “affirmed their shared commitment to maritime security, freedom of navigation and overflight, civil aviation safety, unimpeded lawful commerce, and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.” Modi was blunter, telling a Tokyo symposium: “Everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mind-set — encroaching on another country, intruding in others’ waters, invading other countries, and capturing territory.” This prompted the Global Times — a mouthpiece for China’s rulers — to editorially say that “it is perhaps a fact that he [Modi] embraces some nationalist sentiments against China.”

The new Indo-Japanese axis is pivoted on a mutual recognition that such an alliance can potentially shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China’s rise or America’s “pivot” to Asia. Together, Japan and India can impose discreet checks on China’s propensity to flex its muscles and to assert revanchist territorial and maritime claims.

Not surprisingly, Indian and Japanese strategic policies have started evolving in parallel.

Long used to practicing passive, checkbook diplomacy, Japan under Abe is now pursuing a strategy of “proactive contribution to peace” by looking beyond its security ties with the U.S. and building strategic partnerships with militarily capable democracies in the Indo-Pacific region. India, for its part, has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism, the hallmark of Modi’s foreign policy.

After many rudderless years, India and Japan have a prime minister with a sense of purpose and direction. This has not only injected new-found energy in their foreign policy but also is aiding the return of economic confidence in the two countries. Such a trend holds long-term strategic implications. For example, India’s GDP growth in three years could potentially overtake that of China, which faces the specter of a slowing economy.

To be sure, Modi sees the United States as equally important to Indian economic and security interests. Eager to restore momentum to India’s relationship with America, he has shaken off the visa-related humiliations heaped on him by Washington for over nine years and is scheduled to visit the White House on September 30. The U.S. has still not expressed regret for revoking his visa over unproven allegations that he connived in Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat state. Yet Modi has decided to place national interest above personal umbrage.

Modi is also reaching out to Beijing in the hope that he can co-opt a cash-rich China as a partner in his mission to economically transform India. But this approach is not without significant risks: For China, trade and economic cooperation is about raking in profits, not about building political bridges. So, booming trade has been no hurdle to its increasing territorial assertiveness. Yet Modi’s overture appears predicated on the belief that growing economic engagement will make Beijing more amenable to a peaceful settlement of border and other disputes.

What makes India’s relationship with Japan special is that it has none of the military and trade tensions that bedevil its ties with China or the political and commercial frictions that jar its relations with America. Between India and Japan, according to Modi, “there is only goodwill and mutual admiration.” Abe has gone to the extent of saying that Japan-India relations hold “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.”

With the economic and security interests of the two countries dovetailing nicely, the process to significantly tap that potential is to be accelerated. Modi urged Abe that the two countries should “strive to achieve in the next five years their relationship’s unrealized potential of the last five decades.” He added that there are “no limits” to cooperation between the two nations and that their actions will help shape the 21st century for Asia.

The Modi trip has helped cement the India-Japan alliance, with the Tokyo Declaration calling the visit’s outcome “the dawn of a new era” in relations between “Asia’s two largest and oldest democracies.” This partnership will strengthen maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region — the world’s leading trade and energy seaway — and shape a healthy and stable Asian power equilibrium, with India serving as the southern anchor and Japan the eastern anchor of this power balance.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Oxford University Press, 2014).

(c) Rediff.com, 2014.

Modi’s imprint on foreign policy

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Brahma Chellaney, Mint, September 3, 2014

One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark

One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism the hallmark

Narendra Modi has surprised many by investing considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy in his first 100 days in office, even though he had little foreign-policy experience when he became Indian prime minister. His hosting of leaders from India’s neighbourhood when he was sworn in, his highly effective visits to two of India’s neighbours, Nepal and Bhutan, his diplomatic dexterity at the BRICS summit in Brazil, and his watershed trip to Japan are coming to define his nimble foreign-policy approach. Since his thumping electoral mandate, foreign dignitaries have made a beeline to call on him.

Instead of bumptiously enunciating a Modi doctrine in foreign policy, the Prime Minister is allowing his actions, including diplomatic successes and breaks, to define his approach. From the big bear hug with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that symbolized the dawn of an India-Japan alliance to his scrapping of scheduled foreign-secretary-level talks with Pakistan after its high commissioner defiantly met Kashmiri secessionists, Modi has managed to put his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than Jawaharlal Nehru. Indeed, as India’s veto at the WTO talks in Geneva exemplified, Modi will even stand up to a powerful, rich nations’ cabal when national interest is at stake.

Signalling his intent to boost India’s economic and security interests through multidirectional collaboration with likeminded powers, the Prime Minister has embarked on building a democratic axis with Japan — an alliance that can help reshape Asian geopolitics and accelerate India’s development. Modi deliberately made Japan his first foreign port of call beyond the Indian subcontinent so as to spotlight that country’s centrality to Indian interests. In fact, not only is Abe the most India-friendly of any world leader today, but also Japan is ready more than any other power to assist in India’s economic rise through aid, investment and technology transfer. Proof of that is its $35 billion pledge this week.

To be sure, India’s relationship with Japan began blossoming before Modi assumed office. The real architect of this axis is Abe, whose push for closer ties with India dates back to his first stint as PM in 2006-07, when Japan and India unveiled their “strategic and global partnership”. However, Modi — recognizing Japan’s importance to his own goal to boost economic growth and restore national pride — has been quick to seize the opportunity to build an entente with Tokyo.

This mission has not dissuaded him from reaching out to archrival China, despite increasing Himalayan border transgressions by its military. In a tricky act, he has sought to tame China’s belligerence through economic courtship designed to rope in that country — with its $4 trillion foreign-exchange reserves — as an important partner in India’s development, like Japan.

Indeed, Modi has gone out of his way to befriend China, negating the early assumptions that he would be less accommodating toward Beijing than his predecessor. He even delayed his Japan tour by several weeks so as to first meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS summit. Their body language at that summit indicated the two had formed an easy personal equation. But getting Xi to make progress on the issues that divide India and China won’t be easy.

China represents Modi’s diplomatic gamble. He has invited Chinese investment in his plan to modernize India’s infrastructure, especially railroads, power stations and industrial parks. China’s foreign direct investment in India, however, remains trifling, with Chinese companies preferring to import primary commodities from India while exporting an avalanche of finished products. China, by strategically expanding such lopsided trade with India, has raked in mounting profits, carving out a $30-billion trade surplus in its favour last year.  By dumping its products, it is undercutting Indian manufacturing. How long will Modi be able to walk the tightrope on a country that poses the most difficult challenge for India?

Make no mistake: The extraordinary warmth and harmony that characterized Modi’s Japan tour is unlikely to be replicated in a summit with any other country. In fact, the Prime Minister’s diplomatic skills are about to face a stiffer test in upcoming bilateral summits with Xi — a former military reservist who symbolizes China’s new militarism — and US President Barack Obama, a lame duck increasingly under political siege.

Still, Modi’s actions thus far suggest he has a clear vision of how to proactively recoup India’s regional losses and to boost its global standing. Even his decision to call off talks with Pakistan has made more sense with each passing day, given the political mayhem there. Can any meaningful talks be held at a time the Pakistani military is busy neutering the elected PM and stepping up border provocations against India? Pakistan’s cocky high commissioner is lucky he was not expelled or put in the doghouse for brazenly going against the Indian Foreign Office’s counsel. But he won’t be lucky twice.

One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark. The policy’s overriding objective appears to be to enhance the country’s economic and military security as rapidly as possible. Of course, it is too early to judge the consistency, strength or effectiveness of the Modi diplomacy. But after a long era of ad hoc, reactive, weak-kneed diplomacy, the new clarity and vision represent a welcome change for India.

(c) Mint, 2014.

The Grand Chessboard

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Brahma Chellaney: Modi takes Indian diplomacy to the big leagues

Nikkie Asian Review, August 30, 2014

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi on Aug. 15. © Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May in India’s biggest election victory in a generation, has signaled his determination to strengthen his country’s diplomatic clout in its own strategic backyard while collaborating more closely with the major powers.

So far, Modi has limited himself to visits to two of India’s smaller neighbors, Nepal and Bhutan, where the trips were hailed as successes. But the prime minister’s powers of diplomacy are about to face a stiffer test in successive bilateral summits with the leaders of Japan, China and the U.S. His handling of these talks will set the parameters of Indian foreign policy for years to come.

Time for more substance

Modi’s Aug. 30 to  Sept. 3 tour of Japan is certain to deepen bonds between the two democracies — one the world’s largest, the other Asia’s oldest (and richest). But if this emerging democratic axis is to turn into a game-changer in Asia, the two countries must add more substance to their collaboration through deeper strategic and economic links.

Modi’s visit to Tokyo will pave the way for a greater Japanese role in India’s development. But there is also scope for greater cooperation in the military realm. Some of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent steps, including easing Japan’s arms export ban and reasserting the right of collective defense, open clear new avenues of potential collaboration with India.

By contrast, when Chinese President Xi Jinping comes to New Delhi in mid-September, Modi will have a more difficult task at hand, given China’s increasing assertiveness on issues such as frontiers and its right to build dams on international rivers originating in Tibet. There may also be friction over the Indian prime minister’s election campaign rhetoric criticizing Beijing’s “expansionist attitude.”

Despite these irritants, Modi is seeking to co-opt China, with its massive foreign-exchange reserves, as a partner in India’s development, negating the early assumptions of some analysts that his government would be less accommodating toward Beijing than its predecessor.

In particular, Modi must find ways to address the lopsided trade relationship between the two countries: Beijing exports three times as much to India as it imports, and treats its huge neighbor as a raw-material appendage of its economy. The Indian leader has already sketched out ways in which this relationship can be transformed by inviting Chinese investment in his plan to modernize India’s infrastructure, especially railroads, power stations and industrial parks.

To prepare the ground for Xi’s visit, Modi has gone out of his way to befriend China. He received the Chinese foreign minister before welcoming any other foreign dignitary. His first bilateral meeting with a major head of state was with Xi on the sidelines of a summit in Brazil of the BRICS grouping of major emerging economies. He allowed the Chinese president to move up his India visit to September while postponing his own Japan trip by eight weeks, a decision that allowed him to meet Xi first. And Modi agreed to let Shanghai host the proposed new BRICS development bank, accepting the consolation prize of having an Indian as its first president.

But the tensions between the neighbors will not go away: Modi’s election-victory pronouncement that the coming decades would constitute “India’s century” sits uneasily alongside China’s similar proclamation of its ownership of the 21st century. And friction along their shared border is increasing, according to Kiren Rijiju, India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs, who told parliament recently that Chinese border transgressions this year have exceeded more than one per day to reach 334 as of Aug. 4. For India, it is clear that China remains as much a strategic rival as an economic opportunity.

Rising above U.S. humiliation

Given the critical importance of the U.S. to India, Modi has wisely placed national interests above personal umbrage by shaking off visa-denial humiliations heaped on him by Washington. These date back to 2005, when the U.S. denied Modi a visa over his alleged involvement in anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. Washington maintained the ban for years, even though he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by an inquiry appointed by India’s Supreme Court.

The U.S. abruptly reversed course when Modi emerged as the favorite to win the election, and in the wake of his overwhelming electoral mandate in May, Modi could have waited for U.S. officials to come calling. Instead, seeking to establish a mutually productive relationship with Washington, he quickly accepted President Barack Obama’s invitation to visit the White House, thereby leaving no room for perceptions about bilateral strains to damage India’s own foreign policy interests.

Nevertheless, the reality is that U.S.-India relations have gradually lost momentum since their heyday under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, even though Washington has quietly become India’s largest arms supplier. Ties hit a new low in December after an Indian diplomat serving as deputy consul general in New York was arrested and strip-searched by police after being accused of underpaying a nanny she had brought with her from India. India’s national security adviser called the diplomat’s treatment, which included vaginal and anal cavity searches by police, “despicable and barbaric.”

Modi appears keen to reinvigorate the bilateral relationship. But he will be visiting Washington at a time when Obama is beset with crises at home and abroad and appears increasingly under political siege, including from members of his own Democratic Party in the Senate. The contrast between a newly empowered Modi and a fading Obama could not be starker.

It is therefore unclear what the White House visit in late September can accomplish, other than drive home the message that all is well on the U.S.-India front. As if to highlight how transactional aspects overshadow strategic elements in the relationship, Washington will be expecting Modi to come bearing gifts in the form of new business and arms contracts.

Standing up for India

But Modi has already shown that he will unflinchingly stand up for his perception of the national interest, even if it means opposing the U.S. He demonstrated this in late July at the World Trade Organization negotiations in Geneva on a new global trade facilitation accord. Failing to win last-minute concessions in relation to India’s food-stockpiling program, the Modi government vetoed the agreement, which the previous Indian administration had tentatively approved, drawing criticism from the U.S. and many of the 158 other countries that had voted in favor of the deal.

Modi’s smoothest interaction will likely be with Japan, despite his apparent focus on wooing China. Abe will ensure that his Indian counterpart’s visit is a success, not least because the relationship is seen in Tokyo as a win-win partnership that can help catalyze Japan’s revival as a world power, while also driving India’s infrastructure development and aspirations to become a top power.

In particular, Modi is expected to return home with a much-hoped-for civil nuclear accord with Tokyo. Such a deal will be presented in India as a diplomatic triumph, even though its practical value is largely symbolic because India cannot afford large-scale investment in imported nuclear reactors. The country would be better off using its own expertise to build fast-breeder reactors and more conventional small reactors.

The Japan-India partnership nevertheless holds the potential to shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China’s rise or Obama’s U.S. “pivot” to Asia. Modi says his visit is aimed at taking “time-tested” ties with Japan to “a new level.”

India’s foreign policy has never had a distinct strategic imprint, except for a period under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The country has always placed more emphasis on being liked than on being respected. Modi recognizes this failing and, as his actions in Geneva exemplified, appears intent on fixing it.

His overtures to Beijing do not conceal his resolve to build close strategic ties with Japan to help put discreet checks on China’s exercise of its rapidly accumulating power, which risks sliding into arrogance. Modi’s vision for Asia is a stable equilibrium in which India can thrive unhindered.

Achieving that objective will not be easy, given the complex challenges facing India in its relationships with its three most important interlocutors. Yet Modi’s record since May suggests that his government has a clear vision of how a proactive foreign policy might work. For New Delhi, that is a step forward.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

© Nikkie Asian Review, 2014.

Who created the new Frankenstein monster?  

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Like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State has been inadvertently spawned by the policies of those now in the lead to combat it. But will anything substantive be learned from this experience?

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindu, August 27, 2014

SavagesU.S. President Barack Obama has labelled the jihadist juggernaut that calls itself the Islamic State a “cancer,” while his Defence Secretary, Chuck Hagel, has called it more dangerous than al-Qaeda ever was, claiming that its threat is “beyond anything we’ve seen.” No monster has ever been born on its own. So the question is: which forces helped create this new Frankenstein?

The Islamic State is a brutal, medieval organisation whose members take pride in carrying out beheadings and flaunting the severed heads of their victims as trophies. This cannot obscure an underlying reality: the Islamic State represents a Sunni Islamist insurrection against non-Sunni rulers in disintegrating Syria and Iraq.

Indeed, the ongoing fragmentation of states along primordial lines in the arc between Israel and India is spawning de facto new entities or blocks, including Shiastan, Wahhabistan, Kurdistan, ISstan and Talibanstan. Other than Iran, Egypt and Turkey, most of the important nations from the Maghreb to Pakistan (an internally torn state that could shrink to Punjabistan or, simply, ISIstan) are modern western concoctions, with no roots in history or pre-existing identity.

The West and agendas

It is beyond dispute that the Islamic State militia — formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — emerged from the Syrian civil war, which began indigenously as a localised revolt against state brutality under Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before being fuelled with externally supplied funds and weapons. From Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-training centres in Turkey and Jordan, the rebels set up a Free Syrian Army (FSA), launching attacks on government forces, as a U.S.-backed information war demonised Mr. Assad and encouraged military officers and soldiers to switch sides.

But the members of the U.S.-led coalition were never on the same page because some allies had dual agendas. While the three spearheads of the anti-Assad crusade — the U.S., Britain and France — focussed on aiding the FSA, the radical Islamist sheikhdoms such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates as well as the Islamist-leaning government in Turkey channelled their weapons and funds to more overtly Islamist groups. This splintered the Syrian opposition, marginalising the FSA and paving the way for the Islamic State’s rise.

The anti-Assad coalition indeed started off on the wrong foot by trying to speciously distinguish between “moderate” and “radical” jihadists. The line separating the two is just too blurred. Indeed, the term “moderate jihadists” is an oxymoron: Those waging jihad by the gun can never be moderate.

Invoking jihad

The U.S. and its allies made a more fundamental mistake by infusing the spirit of jihad in their campaign against Mr. Assad so as to help trigger a popular uprising in Syria. The decision to instil the spirit of jihad through television and radio broadcasts beamed to Syrians was deliberate — to provoke Syria’s majority Sunni population to rise against their secular government.

This ignored the lesson from Afghanistan (where the CIA in the 1980s ran, via Pakistan, the largest covert operation in its history) — that inciting jihad and arming “holy warriors” creates a deadly cocktail, with far-reaching and long-lasting impacts on international security. The Reagan administration openly used Islam as an ideological tool to spur armed resistance to Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

In 1985, at a White House ceremony in honour of several Afghan mujahideen — the jihadists out of which al-Qaeda evolved — President Ronald Reagan declared, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalent of America’s Founding Fathers.” Earlier in 1982, Reagan dedicated the space shuttle ‘Columbia’ to the Afghan resistance. He declared, “Just as the Columbia, we think, represents man’s finest aspirations in the field of science and technology, so too does the struggle of the Afghan people represent man’s highest aspirations for freedom. I am dedicating, on behalf of the American people, the March 22 launch of the Columbia to the people of Afghanistan.”

The Afghan war veterans came to haunt the security of many countries. Less known is the fact that the Islamic State’s self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — like Libyan militia leader Abdelhakim Belhadj (whom the CIA abducted and subjected to “extraordinary rendition”) and Chechen terrorist leader Airat Vakhitov — become radicalised while under U.S. detention. As torture chambers, U.S. detention centres have served as pressure cookers for extremism.

Mr. Obama’s Syria strategy took a page out of Reagan’s Afghan playbook. Not surprisingly, his strategy backfired. It took just two years for Syria to descend into a Somalia-style failed state under the weight of the international jihad against Mr. Assad. This helped the Islamic State not only to rise but also to use its control over northeastern Syria to stage a surprise blitzkrieg deep into Iraq this summer.

Had the U.S. and its allies refrained from arming jihadists to topple Mr. Assad, would the Islamic State have emerged as a lethal, marauding force? And would large swaths of upstream territory along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Syria and Iraq have fallen into this monster’s control? The exigencies of the topple-Assad campaign also prompted the Obama administration to turn a blind eye to the flow of Gulf and Turkish aid to the Islamic State.

A full circle

In fact, the Obama team, until recently, viewed the Islamic State as a “good” terrorist organisation in Syria but a “bad” one in Iraq, especially when it threatened to overrun the Kurdish regional capital, Erbil. In January, Mr. Obama famously dismissed the Islamic State as a local “JV team” trying to imitate al-Qaeda but without the capacity to be a threat to America. It was only after the public outrage in the U.S. over the video-recorded execution of American journalist James Foley and the flight of Iraqi Christians and Yazidis that the White House re-evaluated the threat posed by the Islamic State.

Many had cautioned against the topple-Assad campaign, fearing that extremist forces would gain control in the vacuum. Those still wedded to overthrowing Mr. Assad’s rule, however, contend that Mr. Obama’s failure to provide greater aid, including surface-to-air missiles, to the Syrian rebels created a vacuum that produced the Islamic State. In truth, more CIA arms to the increasingly ineffectual FSA would have meant a stronger and more deadly Islamic State.

As part of his strategic calculus to oust Mr. Assad, Mr. Obama failed to capitalise on the Arab Spring, which was then in full bloom. By seeking to topple a secular autocracy in Syria while simultaneously working to shield jihad-bankrolling monarchies from the Arab Spring, he ended up strengthening Islamist forces — a development reinforced by the U.S.-led overthrow of another secular Arab dictator, Muammar Qadhafi, which has turned Libya into another failed state and created a lawless jihadist citadel at Europe’s southern doorstep.

In fact, no sooner had Qadhafi been killed than Libya’s new rulers established a theocracy, with no opposition from the western powers that brought about the regime change. Indeed, the cloak of Islam helps to protect the credibility of leaders who might otherwise be seen as foreign puppets. For the same reason, the U.S. has condoned the Arab monarchs for their long-standing alliance with Islamists. It has failed to stop these cloistered royals from continuing to fund Muslim extremist groups and madrasas in other countries. The American interest in maintaining pliant regimes in oil-rich countries has trumped all other considerations.

Today, Mr. Obama’s Syria policy is coming full circle. Having portrayed Mr. Assad as a bloodthirsty monster, Washington must now accept Mr. Assad as the lesser of the two evils and work with him to defeat the larger threat of the Islamic State.

The fact that the Islamic State’s heartland remains in northern Syria means that it cannot be stopped unless the U.S. extends air strikes into Syria. As the U.S. mulls that option — for which it would need at least tacit permission from Syria, which still maintains good air defences — it is fearful of being pulled into the middle of the horrendous civil war there. It is thus discreetly urging Mr. Assad to prioritise defeating the Islamic State.

Make no mistake: like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State is a monster inadvertently spawned by the policies of those now in the lead to combat it. The question is whether anything substantive will be learned from this experience, unlike the forgotten lessons of America’s anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan. At a time when jihadist groups are gaining ground from Mali to Malaysia, Mr. Obama’s current effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, for example, gives little hope that any lesson will be learned. U.S.-led policies toward the Islamic world have prevented a clash between civilisations by fostering a clash within a civilisation, but at serious cost to regional and international security.

(Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace, and War, Oxford University Press, 2014.)

(c) The Hindu, 2014.

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To prevent another MH17, examine root causes

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By Brahma ChellaneyNikkie Asian Review

Despite the international outrage over its tragic fate, Malaysia Airlines’ MH17 is not the first civilian airliner thought to have been shot down by rebels with an anti-aircraft missile. Nor will it be the last, unless urgent steps are taken internationally to avert another such disaster.

A Buk M-23 air defense missile system is seen on display during an international air show outside Moscow. © Reuters

Next to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, the greatest threat to international security and civilian safety is posed by surface-to-air missiles, including the shoulder-fired types known as man-portable air defense systems, or “manpads.” Yet major powers have supplied such missiles to rebel groups in different parts of the world for decades.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are at least 500,000 manpads in state or nonstate hands in more than 100 countries. Estimates of the number of shoulder-fired SAMs in terrorist or rebel hands range up to 150,000. In Afghanistan alone, U.S. forces have secured thousands of such weapons since intervening in 2001.

To be sure, MH17 fell victim to a vicious Russian-U.S. proxy war over Ukraine that has destabilized that country and helped foment a raging civil war there. The MH17 crash, coming on the heels of a new round of American sanctions against Moscow, promises to further escalate this proxy conflict, pitting the U.S. and Russia against each other in a new style of Cold War.

The downing of the passenger plane occurred at a time when the U.S.-backed government in Kiev was waging artillery and air attacks on cities held by pro-Russian separatists. The fighting has created a humanitarian crisis and prompted rebels and the regime to declare rival no-fly zones over parts of eastern Ukraine.

In truth, this was a tragedy waiting to happen. In the absence of direct communication, tracking satellites, air traffic control over rebel-held territory, or the technology to detect a civilian plane’s transponder, it was easy for a ground unit to mistake a civil airliner for a military transport aircraft. A U.S. Federal Aviation Administration notice expressed concern over the potential for misidentification of civilian aircraft over eastern Ukraine, although the institution banned American flights over the area only after the MH17 disaster.

Amid increasingly murky geopolitical issues, the question that needs to be asked is why a number of airlines were still flying over a major battle zone. The rebels had already demonstrated their anti-aircraft capability on July 14, shooting down a Ukrainian military transport plane. That was three days before MH17 went down.

Some carriers, including Korean Airlines, Qantas Airways, Asiana Airlines, and Taiwan’s China Airlines, had stopped using Ukrainian airspace by April. Those that continued to overfly rebel-controlled territory appeared to take their cue from one side in the armed conflict — the Ukrainian government in Kiev — throwing caution to the wind.

There is a much bigger question: Given the proliferation of anti-aircraft weapons in the hands of nonstate actors, how can the world ensure that another commercial jetliner is not shot down? This question assumes greater significance because the MH17 incident shows that the international community has failed to learn from the downing of a number of civilian airliners by rebels in the past.

Today, the focus is rightly on Russia’s alleged role in training and arming separatists in eastern Ukraine with manpads and the more lethal Buk-M2E missile launch platform, which is suspected to have brought down MH17 with a single SA-11 Gadfly missile. The U.S. has taken the lead in holding Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, guilty in the global court of opinion. But Washington has itself armed rebels elsewhere with anti-aircraft weapons that have brought down passenger planes.

Insurgents battling Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in the 1980s downed three passenger aircraft with U.S.-supplied missiles. The deadliest incident occurred on Sept. 4, 1985, when rebels shot down a Soviet-built Antonov-26 aircraft of Bakhtar Afghan Airlines near Kandahar city with a SAM, killing 52 people. Another 29 people were killed on April 10, 1988, when a rebel-launched missile downed a second Afghan AN-26 passenger jet.

In the third case, an Ariana Afghan Airlines’ McDonnell Douglas DC-10, with about 300 passengers aboard, was struck by an insurgent-fired missile as it was preparing to land in Kabul on Sept. 21, 1984. Although the plane suffered extensive damage, including to two of its three hydraulic systems, it crash-landed with no fatalities.

Before the MH17 tragedy unfolded, U.S. President Barack Obama was seriously considering transferring manpads to rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, according to a report in Time magazine. After arming the “moderate” jihadists in Syria with sophisticated TOW anti-tank missiles, the White House hoped that the manpads would be a “game-changer” there, just as the U.S. supply of Stinger missiles to rebels in the 1980s turned the tide of the war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. To moderate the risks from such transfers, the administration was considering “building obsolescence” into the missiles, and setting a remote “kill switch” to render any missile useless if it were captured by a group linked to al-Qaida.

The MH17 episode, however, makes such transfers politically difficult. The more radical Syrian groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, are already armed with a limited number of manpads, which they secured from other sources, including Libyan militias and perhaps the Saudi and Qatari regimes. This is apparent from the videos they have posted online, including one that purports to show a Syrian government aircraft being shot down with a shoulder-fired SAM.

The main difference between heat-seeking manpads and large, radar-guided, vehicle-based systems such as Buk is that the latter can target aircraft at cruising altitude. Shoulder-fired missile systems have a limited strike range of about 6km, but can be transported and hidden easily. Manpads are among terrorism’s most deadly weapons, capable of bringing down an aircraft that has just taken off or is about to land.

They thus pose a potent threat. Guerrillas have used them with stunning effect, reportedly downing two Boeing 737s in Angola in 1983 and 1984 respectively, and a Congo Airlines Boeing 727 in 1998, killing a total of 171 people. In September 1993, rebels shot down two Tupolev planes of Transair Georgia in two straight days near the city of Sukhumi, Abkhazia, leaving 135 people dead.

In November 2003, the left wing of a DHL cargo Airbus A300 was struck by a missile while departing Baghdad. In another attack, two SA-7 missiles were fired at an Arkia Israeli Airlines Boeing 757 on Nov. 28, 2002, when it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. The rockets, however, missed the aircraft.

Against this background, the MH17 crash has ignited a new debate on how to safeguard civil aircraft from SAMs. Technical options are available, such as installing counter attack technology on aircraft. The U.S. is seeking to draw on existing military technology to develop missile-defense systems for commercial aircraft. Missile countermeasure systems, however, carry a high price tag, estimated at $1 million to $3 million per aircraft, according to a Congressional Research Service report. The weight of such systems, moreover, can potentially decrease an aircraft’s fuel efficiency, adding to operating costs.

A more cost-effective approach to countering missile threats to civil aircraft would be political, focusing on better geopolitics, improved regional security, enhanced safety measures in the vicinity of airports, and modified flight operations and air traffic procedures to minimize risks.

Many of the SAMs that have been used against passenger jets by insurgents or are currently in rebel possession have been supplied by big powers as part of a strategy targeting specific regimes.

Some such missiles have also proliferated among nonstate actors because of various countries’ dysfunctions and a flourishing black market. For example, the enduring chaos and conflict in Libya following the 2011 regime change effected by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has facilitated international trafficking of manpads — including SA-7s, the early Soviet equivalent of American Stingers — from the arsenal built by Moammar Gadhafi’s government.

Currently there is no legal restriction on transferring or trading SAMs between countries or entities, although the Wassenaar Arrangement on export controls for conventional arms and dual-use technologies has strengthened its guidelines on manpads. Clearly, an international treaty is needed to bar states from transferring SAMs to nonstate actors. Such a pact could open the path to concerted international action against the thriving black market in such weapons — and avoid another disaster such as the MH17 tragedy.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a geostrategist and the author, most recently of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

Copyright © 2014 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.

How do we avert a thirsty future?

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Special to The Globe and Mail, July 15, 2014

There is a tongue-in-cheek saying in America – attributed to Mark Twain, who lived through the early phase of the California Water Wars – that “whisky is for drinking and water is for fighting over.” It highlights the consequences, even if somewhat apocryphally, as ever-scarcer water resources create a parched world. California is currently reeling under its worst drought in modern times.

Adequate availability of water, food and energy is critical to global security. Water – the sustainer of life and livelihoods – is already the world’s most exploited natural resource. With nature’s capacity for providing renewable freshwater lagging behind humanity’s current rate of utilization, tomorrow’s water is being used to meet today’s need.

Consequently, the resources of shared rivers, aquifers and lakes have become the target of rival appropriation plans. Canada, which is the Saudi Arabia of the freshwater world, is fortunate to be blessed with exceptional water wealth. But more than half of the global population lives in conditions of water distress.

The struggle for water is exacerbating effects on the earth’s ecosystems. Groundwater depletion, for its part, is affecting natural stream flows, groundwater-fed wetlands and lakes, and related ecosystems.

If resources like water are degraded and depleted, environmental refugees will follow. Sanaa in Yemen risks becoming the first capital city to run out of water. If Bangladesh bears the main impact of China’s damming of River Brahmaputra, the resulting exodus of thirsty refugees will compound India’s security challenges.

Silent water wars between states, meanwhile, are already being waged in several regions, including by building dams on international rivers and by resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction. Examples include China’s frenetic upstream dam building in its borderlands and downriver Egypt’s threats of military reprisals against the ongoing Ethiopian construction of a large dam on the Blue Nile.

The yearly global economic losses from water shortages are conservatively estimated at $260-billion. Water-stressed South Korea is encouraging its corporate giants to produce water-intensive items — from food to steel — for the home market in overseas lands. But this strategy is creating problems elsewhere. For instance, a South Korean contract to lease as much as half of all arable land in Madagascar — a large Indian Ocean island-nation — triggered a powerful grassroots backlash that toppled the country’s democratically elected president in 2009.

Unlike mineral ores, fossils fuels, and resources from the biosphere such as fish and timber, water (unless bottled) is not a globally traded commodity. But the human population has doubled since 1970 alone, while the global economy has grown even faster.

Lifestyle changes have become a key driver of water stress. In East and Southeast Asia, for example, traditional diets have been transformed in just one generation, becoming much meatier. Meat production is highly water-intensive. If the world stopped diverting food to feed livestock and produce biofuels, it could not only abolish hunger but also feed a four-billion-larger population, according to a University of Minnesota study.

Compounding the diet-change impacts on the global water situation is the increasing body mass index (BMI) of humans in recent decades, with the prevalence of obesity doubling since the 1980s. Obesity rates in important economies now range from 33 per cent in the United States and 26.2 per cent in Canada to 5.7 per cent in China and 1.9 per cent in India. Heavier citizens make heavier demands on natural resources, especially water and energy. A study published in the British journal BMC Public Health found that if the rest of the world had the same average BMI as Americans, it would be equivalent to adding nearly an extra billion people to the global population, with major implications for the world’s water situation.

The future of human civilization hinges on sustainable development, with water at the centre of that challenge. The world can ill-afford to waste time – or water – to find ways to avert a thirsty future.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace and War.

(c) The Globe and Mail, 2014.

Alarm Bells in Asia

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated

Photo of Brahma ChellaneyThe deteriorating situation in Ukraine and rising tensions between Russia and the United States threaten to bury US President Barack Obama’s floundering “pivot” toward Asia – the world’s most vibrant (but also possibly its most combustible) continent. Obama’s tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines will do little to rescue the pivot or put his regional foreign policy on a sound footing.

In fact, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is just the latest reason that the pivot – which has been rebranded as a “rebalancing” – has failed to gain traction. A slew of other factors – including America’s foreign-policy preoccupation with the Muslim world, Obama’s reluctance to challenge an increasingly assertive China, declining US defense outlays, and diminished US leadership on the world stage – were already working against it.

The reality is that rising anxiety among Asian countries about China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy has presented the US with an important opportunity to recapture its central role in the region by strengthening old alliances and building new partnerships. But the US has largely squandered its chance, allowing China to continue to broaden its territorial claims.

Indeed, over the last two years, America’s Asian allies and partners have received three jarring wake-up calls, all of which have delivered the same clear message: the US cannot be relied upon to manage China’s rise effectively.

0020ee8c19dde118eb74caa7b7874fa5.landscapeThe first such signal came in the form of Obama’s silence when China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in July 2012. The move – which established a model for China to annex other disputed territories – occurred despite a US-brokered deal for a mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine vessels from the area. Obama’s apparent indifference to America’s commitment to the Philippines under the 1951 mutual-defense treaty, which it reaffirmed in 2011, encouraged China to seize the Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed by the Philippines.

America’s Asian allies received a second wake-up call when China unilaterally established an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering territories that it claims (but does not control) in the East China Sea – a dangerous new precedent in international relations. China then demanded that all aircraft transiting the zone – whether headed for Chinese airspace or not – submit flight plans in advance.

Instead of demonstrating its disapproval by postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Beijing, the US government advised commercial airlines to respect China’s self-declared ADIZ. Japan, by contrast, told its carriers to disregard China’s demand – an indication of the growing disconnect in US-Japanese relations.

The third wake-up call comes from Ukraine. The US has responded to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea by distancing itself from the “Budapest Memorandum,” the pact that US President Bill Clinton signed in 1994 committing the US to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.

The first two wake-up calls highlighted the Obama administration’s unwillingness to do anything that could disrupt its close engagement with China, a country that is now central to US interests. The third was even more ominous: America’s own vital interests must be directly at stake for it to do what is necessary to uphold another country’s territorial integrity – even a country that it has pledged to protect.

The world is witnessing the triumph of brute power in the twenty-first century. Obama was quick to rule out any US military response to Russia’s Crimea takeover. Likewise, as China has stepped up efforts to upend the regional status quo – both territorial and riparian – the US has dithered, doing little to reassure its jittery Asian allies.

Instead, the US has pursued a neutral course, which it hopes will enable it to avoid being dragged into a military confrontation over countries’ conflicting territorial claims. To this end, the US has addressed its calls for restraint not only to China, but also to its own allies.

But America’s own restraint – whether in response to Russia’s forcible absorption of Crimea or to China’s creeping, covert warfare – has brought no benefits to its allies. In fact, its efforts to avoid confrontation at all costs could inadvertently spur game-changing – and potentially destabilizing – geopolitical developments.

Most important, America’s sanctions-driven policy toward Russia is likely to force the Kremlin to initiate its own pivot toward Asia – particularly toward energy-hungry, cash-rich China. At the same time, a showdown with Russia will compel the US to court China more actively. In a new Cold War scenario, China would thus be the big winner, gaining a wide diplomatic berth to pursue its territorial ambitions.

While the US propitiates China, countries like Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam are being forced to accept that they will have to contend with Chinese military incursions on their own. That is why they are stepping up efforts to build credible military capabilities.

This trend could lead to the resurgence of militarily independent Asian powers that remain close strategic friends of the US. In this sense, they would be following in the footsteps of two of America’s closest allies – the United Kingdom and France – which have built formidable deterrent capacities, rather than entrust their security to the US. This would be a game-changing development for Asia, the US, and the entire world.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, is the author of Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

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Without action today, Asia’s future will be a dry one

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Nikkie Asian Review

Asia is the world’s largest and most economically dynamic continent. But it is also the driest, and its future may depend on how well it deals with what a U.N. panel on climate change is calling a growing risk of drought-related water and food shortages.

Unusually dry weather is parching swaths of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Korean Peninsula, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. This trend threatens to further squeeze the availability of drinking water, hamper economic growth and — together with the drought in the American West and parts of Brazil — push up international food prices. Palm oil prices, for example, have already surged.

Clouds make a rare appearance over the Manila skyline on Feb. 26, when the metropolitan area received its first recorded rainfall of the year. © AP

Even farmers in Australia’s eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland are bracing themselves amid warnings that the drought may spread to other parts of Asia this year due to the potential return of the El Nino weather pattern.

Asia’s climatic extremes play a big role in its vulnerability to droughts and heighten the risk of natural disasters and agriculture-related trouble. When it rains, it tends to pour, with monsoon-season flooding endemic in the region. But the seasons are often punctuated by long dry spells, and weak monsoons can trigger serious droughts. This can be disastrous on a continent where the availability of fresh water is not even half the global average of 6,079 cu. meters per person a year.

Asia is home to some of the world’s biggest natural-disaster hot spots, and no other continent is more prone to the cumulative impact of droughts, flooding and large storms. This fragility is compounded by the region’s unmatched population size and density, and its concentration of people living in deltas and other low-lying regions.

Out of balance

The specter of a hotter, drier future for Asia can be seen in the degradation of watersheds, watercourses and other ecosystems, as well as in the shrinking forests and swamps and over-dammed rivers. Such developments undermine the region’s hydrological and climatic stability, fostering a cycle of chronic droughts and flooding. To make matters worse, Asia is likely to bear the brunt — as the report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns — of the global effects of extreme weather, rising seas and shortages of drinking water. Water wars may only be a matter of time.

Asia’s droughts are becoming longer and more severe, and the availability of water per capita is declining at a rate of 1.6% a year. This is a troubling trend for a region where agriculture alone guzzles 82% of the annual water supply. The rapid spread of irrigation since the 1960s has helped turn a continent once plagued by food shortages and famines into a food exporter. But it has also exacted a heavy toll on the environment and resources.

The spread of intensive irrigation to arid or semiarid regions, such as northern China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan, has led to desertification in areas from which already-scarce water resources are being diverted. Meanwhile, the land being irrigated retains soluble salts, degrading the soil and the water table.

Six decades of aggressive irrigation have turned northern China into the country’s breadbasket, even though 80% of the nation’s water resources are in the south. But the north is drying up, with its lifeblood — the Yellow River — dying and most of the wetlands only a memory. The fine dust coating Beijing, carried on the wind from the bone-dry fields creeping ever closer to the capital, is the legacy of state-promoted irrigated farming.

Unquenchable thirst

Excessive use of water for agriculture has exacerbated Asia’s susceptibility to drought, leaving other sectors — industrial and municipal — struggling to meet demand. With rivers and reservoirs increasingly unable to supply enough water, the hunt for the precious resource has literally gone underground. In India, China and elsewhere, the widespread use of electric and diesel-fuel pumps has been sucking up massive volumes of groundwater, a resource better kept in reserve as insurance against droughts.

In Asia’s heavily populated coastal regions — home to almost half its population — the over-pumping of groundwater has caused seawater to seep into the water table, crimping the availability of drinking water in such cities as Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Dhaka and Karachi.

The upstream construction of giant dams and other water diversions is eating away at the shorelines of Asia’s 11 urban megadeltas, all fed and formed by rivers originating on the Tibetan plateau. Most of these megadeltas are also home to booming economic centers, including Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Bangkok and Kolkata.

Beyond the ecological fallout, the damming of shared rivers is also a big source of political tension. This is especially true for China and its neighbors. China already has more large-scale dams than the rest of the world combined, and it is building more. The focus of its latest construction push has shifted from dams along internal rivers to those straddling waterways that flow into other countries.

Asian hydropolitics promises to become only murkier as China completes more upstream dams on the Mekong, the Salween, the Brahmaputra and other rivers that flow to South, Southeast and Central Asia and to Russia.

Women and children await government relief in Pakistan’s drought-hit province of Sindh on March 11. Dozens of children have died of malnutrition and other causes in the country’s desiccated south, prompting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to distribute $10 million in emergency aid. © Reuters

Recurrent droughts in the downstream Mekong basin have created a public-relations headache for Beijing, which rejects allegations that its multitude of upriver dams has contributed to this phenomenon. But the claims have not stopped China from moving forward with projects to build three additional giant dams on the Mekong River, continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline.

In parts of Asia where access to water is limited, even small declines in its availability or annual variations in rainfall can threaten entire communities by creating droughtlike conditions. The struggle for water in some stricken areas has led villagers to hire security guards to protect their wells and other sources.

Other examples of the knock-on effects of droughts include water rationing in parts of Malaysia; the persistent haze caused by the annual forest fires that plague Riau, the second-largest province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra; and the high suicide rate among Indian farmers. Recurrent droughts since the 1990s are widely seen as a key factor in the suicides of more than 200,000 farmers in the country’s central and southern regions. And this year’s weak “northeast monsoon” could further hit agricultural output in Asia.

Then there is the problem of environmental refugees. The Yemeni city of Sanaa risks becoming the first capital to run out of water. Where will its citizens go if the water supply dries up? Meanwhile, China’s damming of the Brahmaputra could force an exodus of thirsty Bangladeshis living downstream, creating a potentially huge security problem for India.

Dig deep enough and conflicts over resources can often be found at the heart of civil wars. The internal strife in Yemen and Afghanistan illustrates the degree to which persistent droughts can poison interethnic relations and trigger bloodshed.

Two sides collide

In water-stressed South Korea, the government is encouraging big companies to move water-intensive production activity overseas, even if the products being made are for the domestic market. But this strategy is creating problems abroad. A business deal that gave the South Korean side the right to lease up to half of all arable land in Madagascar triggered a powerful grass-roots backlash that toppled the country’s democratically elected president in 2009.

In places where water is already hard to come by, plans to construct new factories often spark local protests. This happened when South Korean steelmaker Posco said it was building a plant in the drought-prone eastern Indian state of Odisha.

Given that Asia holds 60% of the world’s population, the region’s increasing vulnerability to droughts carries the potential for humanitarian disasters. That is because the poor are the ones hit hardest when the taps go dry. This vulnerability is a potential source of conflict and refugee crises.

Averting a water-related disaster requires long-term thinking and action. Governments throughout the region need to shore up the environment by restoring the ecosystem — including reconverting farmland into forests — introducing new drought-resistant crops and halting the degradation of freshwater and coastal ecosystems. Combating wild climatic fluctuations, as manifested by chronic droughts and flooding, demands such capital-intensive measures as building surface reservoirs and other infrastructure.

Asia will also have to adopt agricultural practices that use water more efficiently. That includes overhauling antediluvian irrigation systems. Most farmers in the region still use flood irrigation when drip systems and sprinklers could halve their water use. But as long as growers enjoy access to free or heavily subsidized water, they will have little incentive to change.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press, 2013), winner of the Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

(c) Nikkie Asian Review, 2014.

Can New Water Discoveries Save East Africa?

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East Africa sees almost year-round skirmishes over water and grazing rights among the pastoral groups that live along the Ethiopia-Kenya and South Sudan–Central African Republic borders.

By Brahma Chellaney, Foreign Affairs, April (2014)

Water scarcity is becoming the defining international crisis of the twenty-first century. Water conflicts rage across the world as communities struggle to secure clean, reliable supply One of the world’s most water-stressed regions is East Africa.  Overexploitation of water resources there has been compounded by declining snowpacks on Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya, which have shrunk since the late 1980s due to global warming.  Meanwhile, Lake Turkana — the world’s largest perennial desert lake — has largely disappeared from Ethiopian territory, retreating south into Kenya.

chellaney_quenchingkenya

An armed Turkana man walks towards the shores of Lake Turkana, October 12, 2013. (Siegfried Modola / Courtesy Reuters)

In this light, the discovery of two significant aquifers in the largely arid Kenya by a Japanese-financed UNESCO project has been hailed as a potential game changer. The first, the Lotikipi Basin Aquifer, is situated just west of Lake Turkana. The second, the smaller Lodwar Basin Aquifer, is near Lodwar, the capital of Turkana county. The aquifers were discovered by a French firm, Radar Technologies International (RTI), using a space-based exploration technology called WATEX that was originally designed to reveal mineral deposits. The company blended satellite and radar imagery with geographical surveys and seismic data to detect moisture. Subsequent drilling by UNESCO confirmed the presence of aquifers. Three other suspected aquifers in the region have yet to be confirmed through drilling.

For parched and economically backward Turkana, more than one-third of whose residents are malnourished, the discovery of major groundwater reserves is a godsend. Not only will they provide lifesaving water, they will spur agricultural and hydrocarbon development and improve the lives of the impoverished residents in this conflict-ridden region, which extends from Kenya into the borderlands of Ethiopia and South Sudan. Turkana boasts hydrocarbon deposits.

Since the new water can be piped to other regions as well, the aquifer finds are good news for Kenya as a whole. Whereas global per-capita freshwater availability averages slightly above 6,000 cubic meters per year, in Kenya it has fallen well below the international water-poverty threshold of 1,000 cubic meters. Two-fifths of the country’s population thus lacks access to safe drinking water. In addition, more than half do not have adequate sanitation, and water scarcity acts as a serious constraint on socioeconomic development and environmental protection.

The water problem, of course, extends beyond Kenya’s borders, as highlighted by the current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa wrought by prolonged drought and erratic rain patterns. Internal conflicts have exacerbated water and food crises. For example, with political conflict disrupting South Sudan fragile, agriculture-based economy, the country faces the specter of Africa’s worst starvation since the 1980s. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently warned of increased drought stress in the parched regions of Africa, such as East Africa.

East Africa sees almost year-round skirmishes over water and grazing rights among the pastoral groups that live along the Ethiopia-Kenya border and the South Sudan-Central African Republic border. As freshwater bodies dry up or recede, pastoralists have to search more widely for water and grazing land, bringing them in conflict with other herdsmen doing the same. Lake Turkana, for example, has progressively retreated from Ethiopia, and Ethiopian Dassanech tribes have moved further south with the water’s edge into Kenyan Turkana territory. In recent years, anger and frustration between the two groups has boiled over into recurrent armed clashes, aggravating military tensions between Kenya and Ethiopia.

More broadly, regional tensions between tribes and ethnic groups have been exacerbated by the hundreds of thousands of water refugees who have streamed across provincial and international frontiers since 2011 alone. For example, a severe drought and famine in 2011 forced tens of thousands to flee southern Somalia for Kenya and Ethiopia, where many still remain camped. In recent months, more than a quarter million South Sudanese have fled to neighboring countries and 30,000 Turkana pastoralists have taken their cattle to Uganda. The flow of thirsty refugees has stoked political and tribal tensions, and put a strain on their host governments.

The region is producing not only parched refugees, who seek to relocate far from their native villages, but also water warriors. Criminal gangs and warlords control many wells. Their guards have opened fire on thirsty villagers for trying to withdraw water. The use of such tactics in water-scarce areas means that the weakest and the poorest are the worst hit.

Against this grim reality, the aquifer finds in northern Kenya seem like a beacon of hope. The firm RTI estimates that its largest discovery — the Lotikipi aquifer — holds at least 250 billion cubic meters of water, which is equivalent in volume to Lake Turkana’s current capacity. It also contends that the aquifer has an impressive annual recharge rate of 3.4 billion cubic meters, which is the amount of water naturally replenished by rain and thus open to sustainable human extraction.

However, finding this hidden water wealth is just the first step. Only a detailed scientific study can reliably determine both the quantity and quality of the water underground. An independent study will also be needed to determine the real replenishment rate, a critical piece of information if Kenya is to sustainably exploit its new groundwater reserves. Reckless extraction could leave little water for future generations.

Further, even if RTI’s estimates are validated by further study, Lotikipi’s reserves are not as large as media reports (which routinely use adjectives such as “huge” and “massive”) have made them out to be. The estimated total reserves can meet the needs of the Turkana region’s residents for no more than 70 years. And the RTI-assessed recharge rate is equivalent to about two times the yearly water use of a large city such as Chicago or London. But there are 43 million people in Kenya, including about a million in Turkana, currently battling a year-long drought. In comparison to Lotikipi’s supposed reserves of 250 billion cubic meters, North Africa’s mammoth Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System — shared by Chad, Libya, Sudan, and Egypt — holds as much as 540,000 billion cubic meters, although the extractable quantity is estimated to be about 15,340 billion cubic meters.

Lotikipi’s reserves thus need to be exploited judiciously — an onerous challenge in a drought-ravaged region. The water must be used to douse the resource wars in Turkana. Developing agriculture in the region — which is currently nonexistent — and employing people to work on new farms could also help. Yet given the raging conflicts in the region, building the infrastructure to tap Lotikipi’s resources and then safeguard it will be no easy task.

One concern is that the real beneficiaries of the aquifer finds may not be the residents of Turkana, Kenya’s least-developed region, but the better-off Kenyans to the south. To prevent that, Kenya needs better governance and more equitable regional development.  Otherwise, it could breed internal conflict as has happened in some resource-rich regions of Africa. The continent has more recently become the scene of a resource-related Great Game among world powers seeking to extract resources in mineral-rich areas.

With the aquifer finds, Turkana now boasts both water and oil resources. Yet the challenges in this backwater mirror the larger challenges in Africa — how to prudently manage water and mineral resources and integrate them with development so that local communities, not outsiders, actually benefit.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY is a geostrategist and the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) and Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Georgetown University Press), which won the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

(c) Foreign Affairs, 2014.

Why the U.S. must cut Afghanistan loose

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY

Special to The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace and War.

Afghanistan’s presidential election, now apparently headed for a runoff stage, will mark the first peaceful transition of power in the history of that unfortunate country, ravaged by endless war since 1979. Displaying courage in the face of adversity, Afghans braved Taliban attacks and threats to vote in large numbers on April 5.

After almost 35 years of bloodletting, Afghans are desperate for peace. President Hamid Karzai’s successor will have his work cut out for him, including promoting national reconciliation by building bridges among the country’s disparate ethnic and political groups; strengthening the fledgling, multiethnic national army; and ensuring free and fair parliamentary elections next year.

The role of external players, however, overshadows these internal dynamics. Two external factors will significantly influence Afghanistan’s political and security transition: the likely post-2014 role of U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces; and interference by Pakistan, which still harbours militant sanctuaries and the command-and-control structure for Afghan insurgency.

Pakistani interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs can only be made to stop if U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration finally makes that a condition for continuing its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan – a remote prospect.

Mr. Obama, meanwhile, has made a U-turn on the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and is now seeking bases there for a virtually unlimited period. He had declared in Cairo in 2009, “We do not want to keep our troops in Afghanistan. We seek no military bases there.” But in a change of heart, he now wants bases there to house a fairly sizable U.S.-led NATO force armed with the authority to “conduct combat operations.”

The U.S. President is under political attack at home for having failed to persuade Mr. Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement, which is to provide the legal basis for keeping U.S. bases. The fact that the U.S. left no residual forces in Iraq when it ended its decade-long occupation of that country has made the appeal particularly strong to maintain bases in Afghanistan, where America is seeking to terminate the longest war in its history.

Although Kabul and Washington have finalized the terms of the bilateral agreement, Mr. Karzai withstood intense U.S. pressure to sign, leaving that critical decision to his successor. In truth, Mr. Karzai was afraid that if he did, he could go down in Afghan history as the second Shah Shuja. A puppet ruler installed by the British in 1839, Shah Shuja was deposed and assassinated three years later, but not before precipitating the First Anglo-Afghan War.

4_142014_b4-chell-toy-soldie8201_s640x539Mr. Obama now has little choice but to wait and try to persuade the next Afghan president to sign the accord. He has not, however, grasped the main reason why his county’s war has foundered – failure to reconcile military and political objectives. From the time it invaded in 2001, America pursued a military surge in Afghanistan, but an aid surge to the next-door country harbouring terrorist havens and the “Quetta Shura,” as the Afghan Taliban leadership there is known. The war was made unwinnable by Washington’s own refusal to target Pakistan for actively abetting elements killing or maiming U.S. troops.

Terrorism and insurgency have never been defeated in any country without choking transboundary sustenance and support. Afghans have borne the brunt from two fronts – U.S. military intervention and Pakistan’s use of surrogate militias.

Mr. Obama’s basing strategy could presage a shift from a full-fledged war to a low-intensity war, but without fixing the incongruous duality in American policy. Indeed, a smaller U.S. force in Afghanistan would only increase Washington’s imperative to mollycoddle Pakistani generals and cut a deal with the Quetta Shura in order to secure its bases.

Washington plans to gift Pakistan its surplus military hardware in Afghanistan, including several hundred mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. It has also agreed to taper off drone strikes in Pakistan.

Even more revealing is what the drones have not targeted. To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. has not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against its leadership, which is ensconced in Pakistan’s sprawling Baluchistan province. U.S. drone strikes have been restricted to the Pakistani tribal region to the north, Waziristan, where they have targeted the Pakistani Taliban – the nemesis of the Pakistani military.

To make matters worse, the U.S. plans to start significantly cutting aid to Kabul beginning next year, which threatens to undermine Afghan security forces, a key part of keeping the Afghan Taliban at bay.

Last May, Mr. Obama recalled the warning of James Madison, America’s fourth president: that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Yet he now seeks a long-term military engagement in Afghanistan, which is good news for the Pakistani generals but not for U.S., Afghan or regional interests.

Admittedly, there are no good options. But an indefinite role for foreign forces would be the equivalent of administering the same medicine that has seriously worsened the patient’s condition.

It is past time for Afghanistan to be in charge of its own security and destiny. Outside assistance should be limited to strengthening the Kabul government’s hand.

Water Woes in Asia

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By Brahma Chellaney, World Policy, Winter 2013/2014

Asia faces a dilemma. The continent has the lowest global per capita freshwater resources, less than half the global annual average of 222,480 cubic feet per head. At the same time, Asia has the fastest growing demand for water in the world. Asia can in no sense remain the engine of global economic growth without addressing its water crisis.

In an increasingly water-stressed Asia, the struggle for water is escalating political tensions and intensifying the impact on eco-systems. The water situation will worsen in the fastest growing Asian economies as well as in less developed countries where fertility rates remain high. In many Asian countries, decisions about where to place new manufacturing or energy plants are increasingly constrained by inadequate local water availability. The World Bank has estimated the economic cost of China’s water shortages at 2.3 percent of its GDP. China, however, is not yet under “water stress”—a term defined as the availability of less than 60,000 cubic feet of water per person per year. But already water-stressed economies, from South Korea to India, are paying a higher price.

It is against this background that water wars are being waged between competing states in several regions. Tactics include building dams on international rivers or, if the country is located downstream, resorting to coercive diplomacy to prevent such construction. In the case of Sino-Indian relations, water is becoming a key security issue and a potential source of serious discord. China, having established hydro-supremacy by annexing the starting places of multiple major international rivers, is now pursuing an increasingly ambitious dam-building program on the Tibetan plateau, which threatens to diminish international river flows into India and other states that share these same upland water sources.

Averting water wars demands rules-based cooperation, water sharing, and dispute settlement mechanisms. China, however, is working to get its hand on Asia’s water tap by constructing an extensive upstream hydro-infrastructure. China does not have a single water-sharing treaty with any of its neighbors.

India, by contrast, has water-sharing treaties with its two downstream neighbors—Pakistan and Bangladesh, covering the Indus and Ganges Rivers and setting new precedents in international water law. In the 1996 Ganges Pact, India guaranteed Bangladesh an equal share of the downstream flows during the difficult dry season. The 1960 Indus Treaty remains the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement. India agreed to set aside 80 percent of the waters of the six-river Indus system for Pakistan indefinitely, in the hope that it could trade water for peace.

A central issue facing Asia is the need to persuade China’s leaders to institutionalize cooperation with neighboring states on shared resources. Given China’s centrality in Asia’s water map, its rush to build more giant dams promises to upset relations across Asia, imperiling prospects for establishing any rules-based Asian water regime.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) and the earlier book, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, which won the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.

(c) World Policy, 2013.