Can New Water Discoveries Save East Africa?


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.


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



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.

Mr. 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.

The coming era of water wars


Upstream hydro-hegemony threatens to trigger downstream upheaval

By Brahma Chellaney, The Washington Times

3_132014_b4-chell-gun-faucet8201_s640x785There is a tongue-in-cheek saying in America — attributed to Mark Twain, who lived through the early phase of the California water wars — that “whiskey 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 currently is suffering under its worst drought of the modern era.

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 freshwater renewable capacity 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. Securing a larger portion of the shared water has fostered increasing competition between countries and provinces.

Efforts by some countries to turn transnational water resources into an instrument of power has encouraged a dam-building race and prompted growing calls for the United Nations to make water a key security concern.

More ominously, the struggle for water is exacerbating impacts on the earth’s ecosystems. Humanity is altering freshwater and other ecosystems more rapidly than its own scientific understanding of the implications of such change.

Degradation of water resources has resulted in aquatic ecosystems losing half of their biodiversity since just the mid-1970s. Groundwater depletion, for its part, is affecting natural streamflows, groundwater-fed wetlands and lakes, and related ecosystems.

The future of human civilization hinges on sustainable development. 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.

Internal resource conflicts are often camouflaged as civil wars. Sudan’s Darfur conflict, for example, arose from water and grassland scarcity.

Interstate water wars in a political and economic sense are 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.

Upstream Turkey, inspired by China’s strengthening hydro-hegemony, is accelerating its diversion of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This will exacerbate water stress in the two violence-torn, downriver states of Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Israel, with its control of the water-rich Golan Heights and the West Bank aquifers, has leveraged its role as water supplier to Palestinians and Jordanians.

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. This strategy has created a grass-roots backlash against South Korean firms in Madagascar and India’s Odisha state.

A report reflecting the joint judgment of U.S. intelligence agencies has warned that the use of water as a weapon of war or a tool of terrorism would become more likely in the next decade.

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

Consumption growth, however, is the single biggest driver of water stress. Rising incomes, for example, have promoted changing diets, especially a greater intake of meat, whose production is notoriously water-intensive.

In China, South Korea and Southeast Asia, traditional diets have been transformed in the past generation alone, becoming much meatier.

If the world stopped diverting food to feed livestock and produce biofuels, it could not only abolish hunger, but also feed a population larger by four billion, according to a University of Minnesota study.

Compounding the diet-change impacts on the global water situation is the increasing body-mass index of humans in recent decades, with the prevalence of obesity doubling since the 1980s.

Obesity rates in important economies now range from 33 percent in the United States and 26.9 percent in Britain to 5.7 percent in China and 1.9 percent in India.

Heavier citizens make heavier demands on natural resources, especially water and energy. They also cause much greater greenhouse-gas emissions through their bigger food and transport needs.

A study published in the British journal BMC Public Health found that if the rest of the world had the same average body-mass index as the United States, 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 issue thus isn’t just about how many mouths there are to feed, but also about how much excess body fat there is on the planet.

The point to note is that a net population increase usually translates into greater human capital to create innovations, power economic growth and support the elderly, but a net increase in body weight only contributes to state liability and greater water stress.

Preventing water wars demands rules-based cooperation, water-sharing and dispute-settlement mechanisms.

However, most of the world’s transnational basins lack any cooperative arrangement, and there is still no international water law in force. Worse, unilateralist appropriation of shared water resources is endemic where autocrats rule.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

© Washington Times, 2014

International law only applies when it suits the strong


Brahma Chellaney, The National

PointThe looming cold war triggered by the US-supported putsch in Kiev that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order and by Russia’s muscular riposte, including annexing Crimea, underscores the major powers’ unilateralist approach to international law.

A just, rules-based global order has long been touted by powerful states as essential for international peace and security. Yet there is a long history of world powers flouting international law while using it against other states.

Russian president Vladimir Putin’s action in annexing Crimea violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity, even though it followed a referendum in that historically Russian region, where the majority of residents indisputably lean toward Russia. The annexation represents a flagrant breach of international law.

This, however, cannot obscure the fact that the US and Nato have repeatedly shown contempt for international law. There’s a long list just for the past 15 years – the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UN Security Council mandates, the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime through aerial bombardment, the aiding of a still-raging bloody insurrection in Syria, and renditions and torture of terror suspects. The US has refused to join a host of critical international treaties – ranging from the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to the 1998 International Criminal Court Statute. Even its National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance policy mocks international law.

In this light, is it any surprise that the US’s moral authority and international standing have eroded?

Washington openly backed the violent street protesters who in February toppled Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovich. This has set a dangerous precedent. No democracy can be safe if armed men are allowed to spearhead street protests against the constitutional authority.

The Ukraine case illustrates the international law of convenience. Mr Putin has cynically justified his action in the name of his “responsibility to protect”, the very moral (not legal) principle US president Barack Obama invoked to rationalise Qaddafi’s overthrow.

To be sure, the Ukraine crisis is rooted in Nato expansion and US-led moves to take Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence. After Nato’s 1949 birth, its first secretary general, Lord Ismay, admitted the organisation’s purpose was to keep “the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”. Now Nato’s sole aim is to stay relevant in spite of the Cold War’s end, even if that means playing up the Russian threat.

The new developments are actually a geopolitical windfall for another power that serves as a prime example of a unilateralist approach to international relations – China, which still hews to Mao Zedong’s belief that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun”.

China’s growing geopolitical heft has emboldened its muscle-flexing and territorial nibbling in Asia. China rejects some of the same treaties the US has declined to join, including the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which lays down rules on the shared resources of transnational rivers, lakes and aquifers.

China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled in the world by annexing the starting places of Asia’s major international rivers – the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang – and working to reengineer their cross-border flows. Yet China – the source of transboundary river flows to more countries than any other hydro-hegemon – rejects the concept of water sharing and refuses to enter into any treaties.

China remains territorially a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo in Asia. Yet, with both Mr Obama and Mr Putin actively seeking to woo China, the likely big winner from the turn of events is the country that has been expanding its borders ever since it came under Communist rule in 1949. That China continues to press steadily outward was illustrated by its recent establishment of an air-defence zone extending to islands controlled by Japan and South Korea.

China’s geopolitical gains will solidify if the US jettisons – as appears likely – its post-Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration. The US is closing the door to Russian accession to the OECD and effectively ousting Russia from the G8 by making it the G7 again – an action that can only accelerate that institution’s crawling irrelevance in international relations.

Punishing Moscow risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that promotes the re-emergence of a czarist Russia and segregates states along a new bipolar axis.

Given the innately self-calculating and self-aggrandising human nature, strong nations have always sought to gain dominance over the weak. New technologies and reduced transport costs have made the world increasingly interdependent and generated many new treaties and rules. Yet the more the world has changed, the more it has remained the same in one aspect – the strong still dominate the weak.

While the weak remain meek, power respects strength. Had Crimea been seized by a smaller power, the US by now would have assembled a “coalition of the willing” to launch a military attack on the occupier. But because the occupier in this case is a country armed with nuclear weapons, Mr Obama has ruled out any US military involvement.

The major powers assert one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other states, as if international law were only for the weak.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author

(c) The National, 2014.

Energy challenges test water-stressed Asia


Nikkie Asian Review, February 27, 2014

Asia is attracting more attention than ever before, in large part because of its re-emergence after a two-century decline. Amid the world’s ever-growing energy focus, Asia’s serious energy challenges have driven sharpening oil-and-gas competition there, spurring maritime tensions, territorial disputes, and resource and environmental stresses. There has been, however, insufficient discussion of such challenges in Asia.

In coming years, energy demand is likely to accelerate because the continent’s per capita energy consumption levels remain low by Western standards. The largest increase in global energy demand is in Asia. This demand is likely to only accelerate.

Over the next 20 years, Asia’s share of global energy consumption is projected to almost double, to about 54% for oil and 22% for natural gas. The densely populated subregions of Asia — East, Southeast and South — with their heavy dependence on oil and gas imports, will remain particularly vulnerable to sudden supply shortages or disruptions.

Asia’s growing energy consumption — much of it from fossil fuels, especially coal — militates against the gathering international push to combat global warming. Coal use, for example, has helped China lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, with the rising coal demand there not expected to plateau until at least 2025.

Yet the environmental and public-health costs of China’s coal use (it burns nearly as much coal as the rest of the world combined) are already high. Smog and soot periodically force citywide shutdowns, while the life expectancy of the people living in the northern parts of the country, according to a recent scientific study, has declined by more than five years on average.

Stress nexus

The energy-water-food nexus is at the core of Asia’s sustainable-development challenges. This stress nexus is behind the continent’s three interlinked crises: A resource crisis has spurred an environmental crisis, which in turn is contributing to regional climate change.

The reason for such stresses is that food production is reliant on water and energy, and energy and water are directly connected with each other. Energy is vital to extract, treat, distribute and supply water. Water is essential for energy extraction, processing and production. It takes, on average, up to 10 calories of fossil fuel energy to produce one calorie of food.

Groundwater extraction is particularly energy-intensive, and sinking water tables across much of Asia have significantly increased the energy needed to bring the same quantity of water to the surface. The expanding output of biofuels from irrigated crops has emerged as another important source of growing energy-related water consumption.

In an increasingly water-stressed Asia, the struggle for water is not only escalating political tensions and intensifying the impact on ecosystems, but it is also crimping rapid expansion of the region’s energy infrastructure. In many Asian countries, decisions about where to place new energy plants are increasingly constrained due to inadequate availability of local water.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that energy shortages in the heavily populated Asian subregions are usually the most severe in water-scarce areas. Yet, copious amounts of water are needed to generate electricity from coal, nuclear energy, natural gas, oil, biomass, concentrated solar energy and geothermal energy. In India, water stress is exacerbating an energy crisis, with its largest power generator, the National Thermal Power Corp., being forced to abandon plans for new coal-fired plants in water-scarce areas.

     One key reason why China has failed to develop its shale hydrocarbon industry is water paucity. To initially stimulate a shale well, millions of gallons of water must be shot into it to crack the shale rock and get crude oil, natural gas or natural-gaslike liquids flowing.

About 56,150 cu. feet (1,590 cu. meters) of water is used for every 1 million cu. feet of gas that comes from shale. Shale oil development is typically several times more water intensive than shale gas. China has impressive shale-hydrocarbon deposits, but these are largely located in areas where water resources are already scarce or under pressure.

Water constraints are increasingly shaping Asian decisions about energy facilities, cooling technologies and plant sites. For example, all new nuclear plants in Asia — the center of global nuclear power construction — are located along coastlines so that these water-guzzling facilities can draw more on seawater. Yet, seaside reactors face major risks from global-warming-induced natural disasters, as highlighted by Japan’s Fukushima disaster in 2011, which though tsunami-induced, showed the risks of sudden sea changes. Southeast Asia, with 3.3% of global landmass but more than 11% of the world’s coastline, is particularly vulnerable to water-related disasters.

Moreover, with Asia’s economic boom zones located along coastlines, finding suitable seaside sites for new nuclear plants is no longer easy. Coastal areas are often not only heavily populated but also constitute prime real estate. For example, India, despite having a 6,000km coastline, has seen its plans for a huge expansion of nuclear power through seaside plants run into stiff grass-roots objections.

Maritime disputes in play

Another concern in Asia is the growing linkage of territorial and maritime disputes with energy resources. Such linkage is hardly conducive to Asian peace and stability.

Access to resources has historically been a critical factor in war and peace. According to a recently published study, between one-quarter and one-half of interstate wars since the advent of the modern oil age in 1973 have been connected to oil geopolitics, including access concerns, producer politics, control and market structure.

Asia’s sharpening energy competition has contributed to aggravating territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas. The disputed Spratly and Senkaku islands occupy an area of barely 11 sq. km but are surrounded by rich hydrocarbon reserves.

China did not lay a formal claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands until international studies in the late 1960s pointed to potentially vast hydrocarbon reserves beneath the seabed. Its newly declared air defense identification zone (ADIZ) covers territories that China claims but does not control, setting a dangerous precedent in international relations.

      Meanwhile, pipeline geopolitics have also intensified in Asia, even as Europe has sought to route additional Caspian Sea and Central Asian energy supplies to European markets at the cost of Asian markets.

China has managed to secure new hydrocarbon supplies through pipelines from Kazakhstan and Russia. But this option is not available to Asia’s other leading economies — Japan, India, and South Korea — which are not contiguous with suppliers in Central Asia, Iran or Russia. These countries will remain dependent on oil imports from an increasingly unstable Persian Gulf.

Furthermore, China’s fears that hostile naval forces could hold its economy hostage by interdicting its oil imports have prompted it to build a massive oil reserve, and to plan two strategic energy corridors in southern Asia. The corridors will provide a more direct transport route for oil and liquefied gas from Africa and the Persian Gulf, while minimizing exposure to sea lanes policed by the U.S. Navy.

One such corridor extends 800km from the Bay of Bengal across Myanmar to southern China. In addition to gas pipelines — the first was completed last year — it will include a high-speed railway and a highway from Myanmar’s west coast to China’s Yunnan Province, offering China’s remote interior provinces a link to the sea for the first time.

The other corridor — work on which has been delayed due to a separatist insurrection in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province — will stretch from the Chinese-operated port at Gwadar, near Pakistan’s border with Iran, through the Karakoram mountains to the landlocked, energy-producing Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. Notably, with Pakistan giving China control of its strategic Gwadar Port in early 2013, the path has been opened for the Chinese government to build a naval base there.

     Given the significant role that energy resources play in global strategic relations, Asia’s increasingly murky resource geopolitics threatens to exacerbate interstate tensions. Rising dependence on energy imports has already been used to rationalize an increased emphasis on maritime power, raising new concerns about sea lane safety and vulnerability to supply disruptions.

Asia is one of only two continents, along with Africa, where regional integration has yet to take hold, largely because political and cultural diversity — together with historical animosities — has hindered institution-building. Strained political relations among most of Asia’s subregions are also obstacles.

Strategic competition over energy resources will continue to shape Asia’s security dynamics. The associated risks can be moderated only if Asia’s leaders seek to break from the present insecurity by establishing norms and institutions aimed at building rules-based cooperation.

Energy and water shortages keep the poor chained to poverty. Asia needs an energy-technology revolution that can deliver cheap, reliable power to those mired in energy poverty and help clean up polluted waters, treat and recycle wastewater and make ocean water potable. Such a revolution is also critical for Asia to sustain its economic “miracle.”

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

Friendless China



A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated

2621018,h=425,pd=1,w=620HONG KONG – At a time when China’s territorial assertiveness has strained its ties with many countries in the region, and its once-tight hold on Myanmar has weakened, its deteriorating relationship with North Korea, once its vassal, renders it a power with no real allies. The question now is whether the United States and other powers can use this development to create a diplomatic opening to North Korea that could help transform northeast Asia’s fraught geopolitics.

China’s ties with Myanmar began to deteriorate in late 2011, when Myanmar decided to suspend work on its largest and most controversial Chinese-aided project: the $3.6 billion Myitsone Dam, located at the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. The decision shocked China, which had been treating Myanmar as a client state – one where it retains significant interests, despite today’s rift.

The bold decision to halt the dam project may have hurt Myanmar’s relationship with China, but it was a positive step for its relations with the rest of the world. Indeed, a major political shift followed, bringing about the easing of longstanding Western sanctions and ending decades of international isolation.

By distancing himself from China, North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong-un, could well be signaling a desire to move in a similar direction. Of course, if he is seeking a thaw in relations with the US, he has a long way to go. His welcoming of former American basketball star Dennis Rodman has generated only controversy in the US, and his apparent execution by machine-gun of a former girlfriend (as reported by a South Korean paper, citing unnamed sources in China) is no way to endear oneself to the American heartland.

For most observers, the episode that triggered the deterioration in China’s relationship with North Korea – the execution of Kim’s uncle by marriage, Jang Song-thaek – simply reflected North Korea’s erratic and obscure politics. For China, however, it was personal. The treason charges leveled against Jang – China’s most valued friend in North Korea’s regime – included underselling resources like coal, land, and precious metals to China.

But China’s carefully nurtured “blood relations” with North Korea have been souring almost since Kim succeeded his father, Kim Jong-il, in late 2011. In an early show of defiance, North Korea seized three Chinese fishing boats, detained a reported 29 people on board for 13 days (during which they were allegedly abused), and then demanded $190,000 in compensation for illegal fishing in North Korean waters. Kim went on to rile China further by carrying out his country’s third nuclear test.

Unsurprisingly, China’s state-run media have responded to Kim’s attempts to chart an independent course by accusing him of pursuing the “de-Sinification” of the hermit kingdom. But, beyond an anti-Kim propaganda campaign, China’s options are limited, not least because it has a strong interest in retaining access to North Korea’s vast reserves of iron ore, magnesite, copper, and other minerals – just as it retains access to Myanmar’s massive and undeveloped reserves.

More important, any Chinese attempt to squeeze North Korea, including by cutting off energy and food supplies, would risk triggering a mass influx of refugees. Worse, from China’s perspective, it could bring about the collapse of the Kim family’s rule, which could unravel the North Korean state and lead to a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with the US. The prospect of US troops on its border is a nightmare scenario for China.

Moreover, a reunified Korea would inherit ongoing territorial and resource disputes with China (concerning, for example, Chonji, the crater lake on Mount Paektu, and islands in the Yalu and Tumen rivers). China would likely accept reunification only if it led to a “Finlandized” Korea that offers permanent strategic concessions to the superpower next door.

Like North Korea today, Myanmar was, until recently, an isolated, militaristic country suffering under prolonged and escalating international sanctions. In fact, reflecting its growing frustration with Kim, China co-sponsored the most recent round of United Nations sanctions against North Korea last year.

But, whereas Myanmar is a diverse society that has long been ravaged by internal conflicts pitting ethnic-Burmese governing elites against many of the country’s minority groups, North Korea is a homogenous, regimented, and nuclear-armed society. In other words, North Korea is a far more potent threat to the rest of the world.

Still, the China-North Korea rift marks a potential turning point in northeast Asian geopolitics. If the US is to seize the diplomatic opening, it must shed its reliance on the Chinese to serve as its intermediary with North Korea – a sore point with the Kim regime, given its desire to reduce its dependence on China.

Unlike the US opening with Myanmar, which led to US President Barack Obama’s historic visit in 2012, any American engagement with North Korea would have to be based on reaching a denuclearization agreement. The question is whether Obama – who is weighed down not only by domestic woes, but also by efforts to reach an agreement on Syria and an interim nuclear deal with Iran – has the political room or personal inclination to enter into risky negotiations with North Korea.

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.

Water Woes in Asia


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.

An Afghan Afghanistan


(A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.)

As it braces for its upcoming presidential election, Afghanistan finds itself at another critical juncture, with its unity and territorial integrity at stake after 35 years of relentless war. Can Afghanistan finally escape the cycle of militancy and foreign intervention that has plagued it for more than three decades?

Two key questions are shaping discussions about Afghanistan’s post-2014 trajectory. The first concerns the extent to which Pakistan will interfere in Afghan affairs, such as by aiding and abetting the Afghan Taliban and its main allies, including the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s militia. This will depend on whether the United States conditions its generous aid to cash-strapped Pakistan on noninterference in Afghanistan.

The second question is whether US-led NATO forces will continue to play any role in Afghanistan. It is no secret that US President Barack Obama wants to maintain an American military presence in the country – a reversal of his declaration in 2009 that the US sought no military bases there.

Indeed, for several months, the US has been involved in painstaking negotiations with the Afghan government to conclude a bilateral security agreement that would enable the US to maintain bases in Afghanistan virtually indefinitely. What was supposed to be an endgame for Afghanistan has turned into a new game over America’s basing strategy.

But, despite having finalized the terms of the agreement, Obama failed to persuade Afghanistan’s outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, to sign it. That means that America’s role in the country can be settled only after the new Afghan president assumes office in May.

And the election’s outcome is far from certain. While all eight Afghan presidential candidates claim to support the security accord, this may offer little comfort to the US, given that most of the candidates have directly opposed US interests in the past – not to mention that several of them are former or current warlords.

Moreover, there remains the question of how a residual American-led force, even if sizable, could make a difference in Afghanistan, given that a much larger force failed to secure a clear victory over the past 13 years. Obama has offered no answer.

Nonetheless, there is strong bipartisan support in the US for maintaining military bases in Afghanistan, as a means of projecting hard power, and the increasingly charged confrontation between the US and Russia over Ukraine has boosted that support considerably. In fact, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explicitly linked Russia’s actions in Ukraine with “talk of withdrawal from Afghanistan, whether the security situation warrants it or not.”

According to Rice, anything less than a residual force of 10,000 American troops will send the message that the US is not serious about helping to stabilize Afghanistan – a message that would embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin further. What she does not seem to recognize is that America’s deteriorating ties with Russia – a key conduit for US military supplies to Afghanistan – could undercut its basing strategy.

The US is clearly convinced that a continued military presence in Afghanistan is in its interests. But what would it mean for Afghanistan, a country that has long suffered at the hands of homegrown militant groups and foreign forces alike?

Afghanistan has been at war since 1979, when Soviet forces launched a disastrous eight-year military campaign against multinational insurgent groups. That intervention – together with the US and Saudi governments’ provision of arms to Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet guerrillas through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency – helped spread militancy and terrorism, which the subsequent US military intervention has kept alive. As a result, Afghanistan is now at risk of becoming partitioned along ethnic and tribal lines, with militia- or warlord-controlled enclaves proliferating.

In short, foreign involvement in Afghanistan has so far failed to produce positive results. That is why Afghanistan’s political and security transition would be better served by focusing on three key internal factors:

·         Free and fair elections that are widely viewed as reflecting the will of the Afghan people to chart a peaceful future.

·         The ability of Karzai’s successor to unite disparate ethnic and political groups – a tall order that can be filled only by a credible and widely respected leader.

·         The government’s success in building up Afghanistan’s multi-ethnic security forces.

How the April presidential election plays out is crucial. If threats and violence from the Taliban prevent too many Afghans from casting their vote, the legitimacy of the outcome could be questioned, possibly inciting even more turmoil, which Afghanistan’s fledging security forces would struggle to contain.

To be sure, the security forces have, so far, mostly held their ground, deterring assassinations and keeping Kabul largely secure. But they have also failed to make significant gains, and US plans to cut aid will make progress even more difficult. Unable to sustain the current force with reduced aid, the Afghan government will have to try to make it “leaner and meaner.” Whether it will succeed is far from certain.

That only increases the pressure to maintain a foreign military presence, even though it is unlikely to bring peace to Afghanistan. In fact, the risk of becoming locked in a protracted, low-intensity war against militancy and warlordism is likely to outweigh any geopolitical advantages that the US would gain from military bases in the country. After all, the terrorist havens and command-and-control centers for the Afghan insurgency are located in Pakistan – undercutting the US military effort to rout the Afghan Taliban since 2001.

All of this points to a clear conclusion: Afghanistan’s future must finally be put in the hands of Afghans. Outside resources should be devoted to building the governing capacity needed to keep the country united and largely peaceful.

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

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.

Averting a second cold war


001ec949c22b128eb91d2aThat we live in a world of rapid change has been confirmed by the way recent developments over Ukraine have transformed international geopolitics in just a few weeks. The looming cold war triggered by the U.S.-supported putsch in Kiev that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order and by Russia’s muscular riposte, including annexing Crimea, portends the advent of a new era.U.S. President Barack Obama’s new sanctions approach toward Russia indeed sets the stage for a potential clash between Western democracy and what American ideologues call “Putinism.”

The geopolitical tensions, military deployments and strident rhetoric point to the risk of preemptive moves and miscalculations sparking an accidental confrontation. We need only to recall how a spiral of actions and counter-actions led to World War I a hundred years ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s action in annexing Crimea violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity in breach of international law, even though it followed a referendum in this historically Russian region, where the majority of residents are indisputably with Russia.

Let us, however, not forget that the U.S. and NATO have flagrantly and repeatedly contravened international law in the past 15 years. It’s a long list — the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without U.N. Security Council mandate, the overthrow of Moammar Gahdafi’s regime through aerial bombardment, the aiding of a still-raging bloody insurrection in Syria, and renditions and torture of terror suspects. The U.S. National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program also disregards international law.

An international system based on the rule of law cannot be good unless norms and rules are respected on all sides. Yet power often trumps international law. Neither the U.S. nor Russia respects international borders. America, for example, invoked its Monroe Doctrine to intervene, among others, in Panama, Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, Grenada, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

International law tends to take a back seat when a major power asserts a right to protect vital security interests. Indeed, when a great power needs a threat to justify its intervention in another state, it invariably finds one. There is thus a long political history of world powers quoting international law to others but ignoring it when it comes in their way. The Ukraine case illustrates the international law of convenience.

Yet it is difficult to see how Russian, American or European interests can be advanced by the ominous face-off over Ukraine, which has helped shift the international spotlight from Asia’s festering fault lines and territorial feuds to the new threat to European peace. The showdown, unless defused, is likely to spur significant shifts in geopolitical equations and policies.

For example, the latest developments leave less space for the U.S. to pivot toward Asia but compel Moscow to embark on its own pivot to Asia, particularly China, to promote energy outflows and capital inflows.

With both Obama and Putin actively seeking to woo China on Ukraine, the likely big winner from the turn of events is the country that has been relentlessly expanding its borders ever since it came under communist rule in 1949.

China’s geopolitical gains will solidify if the U.S. jettisons — as appears likely — its post-Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration into global institutions. The U.S. is closing the door to Russian accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and effectively ousting Russia from the Group of Eight by making it the Group of Seven again — an action that can only accelerate that institution’s creeping irrelevance in international relations.

A slippery slope to greater sanctions would clearly signal a U.S. shift to a new Russian policy of selective containment and engagement. Such a shift would be accompanied by an intellectual and normative thrust to present the new policy as vital to rein in an autocratic and ambitious Russia — as if heralding the return of a Cold War-style ideological battle between autocracy and democracy to Europe. But with communism now dead in Russia, America’s ideological war would target “Putinism.”

The demonization of Putin is ironic, given that the Russian leader pursued a pro-Western policy in the initial years after he came to power. For example, he closed down Russian military bases in Cuba and Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, and voluntarily supported America’s Afghanistan invasion. Only after his extended overtures went unreciprocated — with the U.S. instigating “color revolutions” in some ex-Soviet states and expanding NATO to the Baltics and the Balkans — did Putin adopt a more nationalistic course.

Yet the new U.S. sanctions approach is premised on a need to check Putin’s capacity to utilize state instruments like military power and energy leverage to block states in Russia’s periphery from moving closer to the West. America is likely to bolster such frontline states, including by transferring military hardware, training and integrating their forces, and placing U.S. systems on their soil. NATO countries are already being urged to cut their reliance on Russian energy supplies.

Obama seems determined to use the tool of sanctions to subtly undermine the Russian economy, including by targeting key businessmen, entities and sectors in Russia and by encouraging a flight of capital and talent from Russia. There is also a push to bar Western firms from aiding Russia’s military modernization in any way.

This punitive approach, however, would not preclude Washington from cooperating with Moscow on issues where bilateral interests overlap. After all, such cooperation occurred even during the height of the Cold War, as in establishing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Still, seeking to economically squeeze Russia and isolate it internationally would mean a strategic boon for China, just as the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse opened the way for Beijing to rapidly increase its geopolitical space globally. Beijing will work to exploit Western sanctions against Russia for its own benefit, including securing Russian energy on favorable terms and gaining greater access to the Russian market for its goods.

America’s only genuine long-term rival now is an ascendant China, which is rapidly accumulating economic and military heft. By contrast, Russian military power today pales in comparison with Soviet might, with Obama admitting Russia is not America’s top geopolitical rival.

If a new cold war is to be averted, Ukraine’s neutrality must be guaranteed. Ukraine should remain neutral between NATO and Russia — a sort of a strategic, sovereign buffer, just as Tibet was before China gobbled it up. Such a diplomatic solution, while ensuring European peace, would also contribute to Asian and international security. Otherwise, a full-blown ideological war will generate a wide geopolitical fallout, stoking greater tensions and increasing risks of miscalculation.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

(c) The Japan Times, 2014.

How China gains from a U.S.-Russia face-off

Japan Times, March 8, 2014

us-russiaThe U.S.-backed putsch that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order and triggered the Russian military intervention in the Crimean Peninsula has shifted the international spotlight from Asia’s festering fault lines and territorial feuds to the new threat to European peace. The crisis over Ukraine cannot obscure Asia’s growing geopolitical risks for long.

In fact, the clear geopolitical winner from the U.S.-Russian face-off over Ukraine will be an increasingly muscular China, which harps on historical grievances — real or imaginary — to justify its claims to territories and fishing areas long held by other Asian states. Whether it is strategic islands in the East and South China Seas or the resource-rich Himalayan Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, China is dangling the threat of force to assert its claims.

China will gain significantly from a new U.S.-Russian cold war, just as it became a major beneficiary from America’s Cold War-era “ping-pong diplomacy,” which led to President Richard Nixon’s historic handshake with Mao Zedong in 1972 in an “opening” designed to employ a newly assertive, nuclear-armed China to countervail Soviet power in the Asia-Pacific region. Since the 1970s, the U.S. has followed a conscious policy to aid China’s rise — an approach that remains intact today, even as America seeks to hedge against the risk of Chinese power sliding into arrogance.

A new U.S.-Russian cold war will leave greater space for China to advance its territorial creep in Asia.

Asia’s geopolitical risks were highlighted recently by the comments of both Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who noted that Britain and Germany went to war in 1914 despite being economically interdependent in the same way Japan and China now are — and Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III, who compared China’s territorial creep with Nazi Germany’s expansionism.

Two fault lines in particular are putting Asia’s sustained rise at risk, with the adverse geopolitical trends carrying significant ramifications for global markets.

With Asia’s political integration badly lagging behind its economic integration, one fault line is represented by the widening gap between politics and economics. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where political integration has failed to take off.

The other fault line is represented by the so-called history problem — or how the past threatens to imperil Asia’s present and future. Historical distortions and a failure to come to terms with the past have spurred competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms. Asia must find ways to get rid of its baggage of history so as to chart a more stable and prosperous future.

Respect for boundaries is a prerequisite to peace and stability on any continent. Just as Russia’s Crimean intervention challenges that principle, renewed attempts in Asia to disturb the territorial status quo are stirring geopolitical tensions and fueling rivalries.

Aquino, drawing an analogy between China’s territorial assertiveness and the failure of other powers to support Czechoslovakia against Hitler’s territorial demands in 1938, pointedly asked in a New York Times interview last month: “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’?”

At the root of the rising Asian geopolitical tensions is the fact that Asia is coming together economically but not politically. Indeed, it is becoming more divided politically. Even as the region’s economic horse seeks to take it toward greater prosperity, its political horse is attempting to steer it in a dangerous direction.

This dichotomy is a reminder that economic interdependence and booming trade by itself is no guarantee of moderation or restraint between states. Unless estranged neighbors fix their political relations, economics alone will not be enough to stabilize their relationship.

The slowing of Asian economic growth underscores the risks arising from this fault line. The risks are heightened by Asia’s lack of a security framework, with even its regional consultation mechanisms remaining weak.

That the risks posed by Asia’s new fault lines are serious can be seen from the situation that prevailed in Europe 100 years ago. Europe then was even more integrated by trade and investment than Asia is today, with its royal families interrelated by marriage. Yet Europe’s disparate economic and political paths led to World War I.

Abe, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, was thus right to warn that economic interdependence cannot by itself prevent war. But by implicitly comparing China with pre-1914 Imperial Germany, Abe sought to gain the moral high ground by depicting Japan as a democratic state that, like Britain a century ago, is seeking to checkmate the expansionist ambitions of a rapidly rising authoritarian power.

The paradox is that China, with its aggressive modernization strategy, appears to be on the same path that made Japan a militaristic state a century ago, with tragic consequences for the region and Japan itself.

Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912) created a powerful military under the national slogan “Enrich the Country and Strengthen the Military.”

The military eventually became so strong as to dictate terms to the civilian government. The same could unfold in China, where the generals are becoming increasingly powerful as the Communist Party becomes beholden to the military for retaining its monopoly on power.

China only highlights the futility of political negotiations by overtly refusing to accept Asia’s territorial status quo. After all, frontiers are significantly redrawn not at the negotiating table but through the use of force, as China has itself demonstrated since 1949.

Yet, U.S. President Barack Obama’s repeated warnings to Moscow over Crimea, including holding out the threat to isolate Russia politically, diplomatically and economically, contrasts starkly with his silence on China’s aggression, including its seizure of the Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal, and its establishment of an air-defense zone extending to territories it covets but does not control.

Obama has not said a word on these Chinese actions, even though they targeted U.S. allies, the Philippines and Japan. Unlike Ukraine, these are countries with which the United States has mutual defense treaties.

Obama’s “pivot” to Asia —rebranded as “rebalancing” — remains more rhetorical than real.

Make no mistake: Asia’s resurgent territorial and maritime disputes underscore that securing Asian peace and stability — like in Europe — hinges fundamentally on respect for existing borders. Unless that happens, it is far from certain that Asia will be able to spearhead global growth or shape a new world order.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of “Asian Juggernaut.”