About Chellaney

Professor, strategic thinker, author and commentator

What are Chinese submarines doing in the Indian Ocean, far from China’s maritime backyard?

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The Huffington Post

China, although an outside power, is seeking to carve out a role for itself in the Indian Ocean region through its Maritime Silk Road initiative. The Maritime Silk Road — along with an overland Silk Road to connect China with Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin and beyond — bears the imprint of President Xi Jinping, who has articulated a more expansive role for China than any modern Chinese leader other than Mao Zedong.

China’s quiet maneuvering in the Indian Ocean, where it is seeking to challenge America’s sway and chip away at India’s natural-geographic advantage, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South China Sea — the critical corridor between the Pacific and Indian oceans. With China converting tiny, largely submerged reefs into islands that can host military facilities and personnel, the South China Sea has become pivotal to the contest for influence in the Indian Ocean and the larger Indo-Pacific region.

The dual Silk Road initiatives — also labeled the “One Belt and One Road” by Beijing — are part of Xi’s strategy for China to break out of the East Asia mold and become a more global power, with its clout extending to the Middle East. The projects will enable China to build economic leverage and help pull regional countries closer to its orbit.

Not a Marshall Plan

The twin initiatives, however, are not a Chinese version of America’s altruistic post-World War II Marshall Plan. Rather, at a time of slowing economic growth in China, they have been designed to win lucrative contracts for Chinese state-run companies by presenting commercial penetration as benevolent investment and credit as aid. Beijing indeed is doing a great job in fobbing off overseas business as economic aid.

The contracts that China is bagging will help it to deal with its problem of overproduction at home. From a $10.6 billion railroad project in Thailand to more than $20 billion worth of new power projects in Pakistan, China is emphasizing infrastructure exports.

By embarking on connecting China’s restive Xinjiang region with the Arabian Sea through a 3,000-kilometer overland transportation corridor to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port, Xi has made Pakistan the central link between the maritime and overland Silk Roads. This corridor through Pakistan-held Kashmir will hook up the two Silk Roads, besides permitting China to challenge India in its maritime backyard.

China is also seeking to tap the Indian Ocean’s rich mineral wealth, and is inviting India to join hands with it in deep seabed mining there. Yet it opposes any Indian-Vietnamese collaboration in the South China Sea. “Your sea is our sea but my sea is my sea” seems to be the new Chinese saying.

Purchasing Friends

More broadly, the Silk Road initiatives mesh with Xi’s larger strategy of co-opting regional states, especially by integrating them with China’s economy and security. According to the Chinese conservative scholar Yan Xuetong, the “lie low, bide your time” dictum of the late strongman Deng Xiaoping is no longer relevant and has been replaced by Xi’s more ambitious and assertive policy toward smaller countries. In Yan’s words, “We let them benefit economically and, in return, we get good political relationships. We should ‘purchase’ the relationships.”

One example of how China has sought to “purchase” friendships was the major contracts it signed with Sri Lanka’s now-ousted president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to turn that strategically located Indian Ocean country into a major stop on China’s nautical “road.” The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, said on the election-campaign trail that the Chinese projects were ensnaring Sri Lanka in a “debt trap.”

In his election manifesto, without naming China, Sirisena warned: “The land that the White Man took over by means of military strength is now being obtained by foreigners by paying ransom to a handful of persons. This robbery is taking place before everybody in broad daylight… If this trend continues for another six years, our country would become a colony and we would become slaves.”

The Maritime Silk Road initiative, with its emphasis on high-visibility infrastructure projects, targets key littoral states located along the great trade arteries in the Indian Ocean, the new global center of trade and energy flows. This critical ocean region, extending from Australia to the Middle East and Southern Africa, is likely to determine the wider geopolitics, maritime order and balance of power in Asia, the Persian Gulf and beyond.

o-MAP-570Through its Maritime Silk Road, China is challenging the existing balance of power in the Indian Ocean. Its effort involves securing port projects along vital sea lanes; building energy and transportation corridors to China through Myanmar and Pakistan; and assembling a “string of pearls” in the form of refueling stations and naval-access outposts along the great trade arteries.

China’s interest in the Indian Ocean has grown steadily since 2008, when it embarked on a naval mission as part of a multilateral effort to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa. It was the first time the Chinese navy had deployed that far in 600 years.

Chinese Submarines in Colombo

Illustrating how China blends its economic and military interests, Chinese attack submarines last fall undertook their first known voyages to the Indian Ocean, with two subs docking at the new Chinese-built and Chinese-owned container terminal at Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo. After building Sri Lanka’s southern port of Hambantota, China now wants to construct a major stop on its nautical “road” in the form of a $1.4 billion city, roughly the size of Monaco, on reclaimed land off Colombo. Beijing is also interested in leasing one of the 1,200 islands of the politically torn Maldives.

Under Xi, China has moved to a proactive posture to shape its external security environment, using trade and investment to expand its sphere of strategic influence while simultaneously asserting territorial and maritime claims against its neighbors. The Maritime Silk Road project — part of Xi’s increasing focus on the seas — is driven by his belief that the maritime domain holds the key to China achieving preeminence in Asia.

In this light, the new Asian order will be determined not so much by developments in East Asia as by the contest for major influence in the Indian Ocean, the maritime center of the world.

© China US Focus, 2015.

The Global Pragmatist

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Seven features of Modi’s non-doctrinaire foreign policy that is taking
India from non-alignment to multi-alignment

By Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine, June 1, 2015

18626.globalprotagonist1In the one year that he has been in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has animated Indian foreign policy by taking a proactive approach on some critical issues and departing often from conventional methods and shibboleths. Modi’s recent China visit illustrates all the trademarks of his foreign policy—from pragmatism and lucidity to zeal and showmanship. It also exemplifies his penchant for springing diplomatic surprises, with his announcement to grant Chinese tourists e-visas-on-arrival catching by surprise even his foreign secretary, who had just said at a media briefing that there was ‘no decision’ on the issue. Earlier, in Paris, Modi pulled a rabbit out of a hat by announcing a decision to buy 36 French fighter-jets.

Modi, however, is a realist who loves to play on the grand chessboard of geopolitics. He is clearly seeking to steer foreign policy in a direction that would significantly aid his strategy to revitalise India’s economic and military security. At least seven things stand out about his foreign policy.

First, Modi continues to invest considerable political capital—and time—in high-powered diplomacy. No other prime minister since independence participated in so many bilateral and multilateral summit meetings in his first year in office. The Congress party has criticised his frequent overseas tours, forgetting that Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, also loved to go abroad frequently. Critics, however, may have a point that Modi’s exceptionally busy foreign- policy schedule leaves him restricted time to focus on his most-critical responsibility: domestic issues, which will define his legacy. Indeed, some of his trips could have been better timed.

Take his Sri Lanka visit in March, the first by an Indian prime minister to that country in 28 years. India’s neglect of Sri Lanka and the larger Indian Ocean region has become the strategic gain of China, which is now seeking to challenge India in its own maritime backyard. A prime ministerial visit to Sri Lanka was long overdue. But Modi chose to travel to Colombo barely a month after President Maithripala Sirisena’s India tour. Modi could have delayed his trip to Sri Lanka until after the forthcoming parliamentary elections there had cleared up the political scene.

Similarly, what was the need for Modi to undertake a China tour barely eight months after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India visit, a trip that was marred by a major Chinese military incursion into the Chumar region of Ladakh? The early return visit left limited time for preparatory work to achieve tangible and enduring results. The reason Modi went to China is that he had sentimentally promised Xi in India that he would visit China before the end of his first year in office. In that sense, Modi was chasing his own artificial deadline, which left little time for groundwork to make his trip authentically path-breaking.

Modi has lined up several more foreign tours in the coming months, including an important visit to Bangladesh, which under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed is standing up to jihadism. Sheikh Hasina, a friend of India, is one of the few leaders in today’s world unafraid to take on violent Islamists, even as she fights to retain control of the country.

Second, pragmatism is the hallmark of the Modi foreign policy. Nothing better illustrates this than the priority he accorded—soon after coming to office—to adding momentum to the relationship with America, despite the US having heaped visa-denial humiliation on him over nine years. He has also gone out of his way to befriend China, negating early assumptions that he would be less accommodating of Beijing than his predecessor. He even delayed his Japan visit by several weeks so that his first major bilateral meeting was with Xi on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Brazil.

Modi has sought to rope in China, with its overflowing foreign-exchange reserves, as an important partner in India’s infrastructure development, like Japan. But it is unclear whether Modi’s gamble will pay off, given China’s interest in pushing exports, not investment, which remains insignificant in India. The much- publicised contracts signed during Modi’s visit are largely about Chinese state-owned banks financing Indian companies to buy Chinese equipment. This would likely widen India’s already-mammoth trade deficit with China, now nearing $50 billion.

Third, Modi is shaping a non-doctrinaire foreign-policy approach powered by ideas. He has taken some of his domestic ideas (such as ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’) to foreign policy, as if to underscore that his priority is to revitalise India’s economy.

By simultaneously courting Xi, US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other world leaders, Modi wants to demonstrate his ability to forge partnerships with rival powers and broker cooperative international approaches in a changing world. This suggests that the Modi foreign policy is geared to move India from its long-held non-alignment to a contemporary, globalised practicality. In essence, this means that India, a founding leader of the non-aligned movement, could become multi- aligned. Building close partnerships with major powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings will not only enable India to advance its core priorities, but will also help it preserve strategic autonomy in keeping with its long- standing preference for policy independence.

Non-alignment suggests a passive approach, including staying on the sidelines. Being multi- aligned, on the other hand, permits a proactive approach. A multi-aligned India will tilt more towards the major democracies of the world. Yet a multi-aligned India will continue to be scrupulously autonomous in its foreign policy. An example of how India freely charts its own course is its continued refusal to join American- led financial sanctions against Russia.

A multi-aligned India also will not shy away from building strategic partnerships with countries around China’s periphery to counter that country’s India-containment strategy. Modi’s early focus was on diplomatically recouping India’s regional losses by re-engaging countries in the nation’s strategic backyard. Even as that goal remains a priority, India is seeking to advance its ‘Act East’ policy, as Modi’s Mongolia and South Korea visits signal.

Fourth, zeal is to Modi’s diplomacy what Sun Tzu precepts are to Chinese diplomacy. In that sense, Modi is following in the footsteps of his predecessors, other than Indira Gandhi. Talleyrand, the illustrious foreign minister of Napoleon and the Bourbons, prescribed one basic rule for a sound foreign policy: ‘By no means show too much zeal.’ Gushy expectations and oozing zealousness, however, have been the bane of Indian foreign policy almost since independence.

Modi wore his zeal on his sleeve during the China visit. While his hosts uttered a couple of carefully crafted sentences on why India-China cooperation would be mutually beneficial, Modi waxed eloquent on this theme ad nauseum at every public event, including while addressing the expatriate Indian community. The Prime Minister effectively turned Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ jingle into ‘Modi-Chini bhai bhai’, among other things, by describing his friendship with Xi as ‘plus one’.

Modi’s zeal also tends to translate into diplomatic showmanship, reflected in the kind of big- ticket speeches he has been making abroad to chants of ‘Modi, Modi’ from the audience. Like a rock star, he unleashed Modi mania among Indian diaspora audiences by taking the stage at New York’s storied Madison Square Garden in September 2014, at Sydney’s Allphones Arena in November, and then in April at Ricoh Coliseum, a hockey arena in downtown Toronto. When permission was sought for a similar speech in Shanghai, an apprehensive Chinese government, which bars any public rally, relented only on the condition that the event would be staged in an indoor stadium.

Fifth, Modi has injected a personal touch to propel Indian foreign policy. Indeed, Modi has used his personal touch with great effect, addressing leaders ranging from Obama to Xi by their first name and building an easy equation with them. Indian diplomacy now bears Modi’s distinct imprint.

In keeping with his personaliszed stamp on diplomacy, Modi has relied on bilateral summits to open new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. At the same time, as if to underscore his nimble approach to diplomacy, he has shown he can think on his feet. The speed with which he rushed aid and rescue teams to quake-battered Nepal, as well as the Indian forces’ evacuation of Indian and foreign nationals from Nepal and conflict-torn Yemen, helped raise India’s international profile, highlighting its capacity to respond swiftly to natural and other disasters.

Sixth, against this background, it is scarcely a surprise that Modi has put his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor other than Nehru. The paradox is that Modi came to office with little foreign-policy experience, yet he has demonstrated impressive diplomatic acumen, including the bold steps taken and vision charted to reclaim India’s lost strategic clout.

Seventh, to be effective, diplomacy must operate on the principle of give-and-take. But successive Indian prime ministers have chosen to operate lopsidedly on the half principle of ‘give’. There are plenty of examples of how unilateral magnanimity has backfired, saddling future Indian generations with serious strategic problems— from taking the Kashmir issue to the United Nations to reserving more than 80 per cent of the waters of the six-river Indus system for Pakistan by signing a treaty of indefinite duration. Even a strategy-minded Indira Gandhi blundered at the Simla Peace Summit in spite of holding all the cards.

Modi can certainly take credit for crafting a sensible and shrewd foreign policy. Yet, despite having cultivated a muscular image, he is no exception to the Indian itch to concede unilaterally. To flaunt a bilateral summit as a ‘success’, Modi is at times willing to abandon—at the altar of diplomatic expediency—the basic tenets of statecraft, including reciprocity (the first principle of diplomacy) and leverage.

Examples of Modi being a Mr Giver range from concessions to America on the nuclear-accident liability of reactor vendors to reversing course and permitting the Pakistani high commissioner in New Delhi to meet Hurriyat separatists on any occasion other than when official Indo- Pakistan talks are about to begin. His China visit also illustrates this chink in his armour.

The Chinese side did not yield on any issue, but Modi did. Overruling objections by the Indian security establishment, Modi announced the grant of e-visa-on-arrival on a non-reciprocal basis to Chinese tourists. So, even as China issues stapled visas to Indian citizens living in Arunachal Pradesh, India has agreed to reward it with that facility. The announcement, made at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, made Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi so happy that he asked the assembled students to loudly cheer and thank Modi for the ‘gift’.

As in September during Xi’s visit, Modi also yielded on Tibet, with the joint statement in Beijing referring to the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China’ in the context of Indian pilgrims’ visits to the sacred Kailash-Mansarovar site. ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’ is China’s official name for truncated Tibet, even though there is nothing autonomous about a region that is brutally repressed and ruled directly by Beijing. Referring to Tibet as part of the PRC undercuts India’s revised policy since 2010 to refrain from such a depiction in any joint statement as long as China persists with its cartographic aggression against India.

The urge to project a summit as a resounding success or to please the other side is often the main driver for India to yield. This is an urge Modi must learn to resist. After all, he is pursuing a foreign policy that, taken as a whole, is smart, realistic and forward-looking.

Modi’s astuteness and perspicuity were on open display in his press statement in Beijing, in which—in a nuanced and sophisticated manner—he held China responsible for impediments in the development of bilateral ties and identified all the key issues for India. Describing his discussions with the Chinese leadership, he said: “We covered all issues, including those that trouble smooth development of our relations. I stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership. I suggested that China should take a strategic and long-term view of our relations.”

Modi must bear in mind that institutionalised and integrated policymaking are essential for India to have a robust diplomacy and to be able to stay its course. Without the health of these processes, policy will tend to be ad hoc and shifting, with personalities at the helm having an excessive role in shaping thinking, priorities and objectives. If foreign policy is shaped by the whims and fancies of personalities who hold the reins of power, there will be a propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure, as has happened in India repeatedly since the Nehruvian era.

Diplomacy is largely about negotiations. India must develop a tradition and culture of hard bargaining. Also, no country’s diplomacy can afford to confound tactics with strategy or marginalise its national-security establishment.

The political ascent of Modi, a man known for his decisiveness, can be a game-changer for Indian foreign policy if diplomacy is anchored in goal-oriented statecraft. After a decade of drift and neglect, India, under Modi’s leadership, is actively involving itself regionally to help influence developments in its strategic backyard. Modi realises that big-buck corruption can enfeeble internal security and crimp foreign- policy options, and is seeking to bring this scourge under control. The Prime Minister seems to recognise that he can sustain a dynamic foreign policy only on the foundation of a strong domestic policy, a realm where he must overcome political obstacles to shape a transformative legacy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of Water, Peace, and War (Rowman & Littlefield, USA).

© Open, 2015.

Modi in China

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

China and India have a fraught relationship, characterized by festering disputes, deep mistrust, and a shared ambivalence about political cooperation. Booming bilateral trade, far from helping to turn the page on old rifts, has been accompanied by increasing border incidents, military tensions, and geopolitical rivalry, as well as disagreements on riparian and maritime issues.

Since taking office last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to transform his country’s relationship with China, arguing that Asia’s prospects hinge “in large measure” on what the two countries – which together account for one-third of the world’s population – “achieve individually” and “do together.” But, as Modi’s just-concluded tour of China highlighted, the issues that divide the demographic titans remain formidable.

Modi XiTo be sure, China’s leaders fêted Modi in style. When Modi arrived in Xian – one of China’s four ancient capitals and President Xi Jinping’s hometown – Xi took him on a personal tour of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. (Modi subsequently boasted of his close “plus one” friendship with Xi.) In Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang posed for a selfie with Modi outside the Temple of Heaven.

What China’s leaders did not do was yield on any substantive issue – and not for lack of effort on Modi’s part. Despite Modi’s pragmatic and conciliatory tack, his request that China “reconsider its approach” on some of the issues that are preventing the partnership from realizing its “full potential” went unheeded.

Consider discussions relating to the ongoing dispute over the two countries’ long Himalayan frontier. Alluding to a series of Chinese military incursions since 2006, Modi declared that “a shadow of uncertainty” hangs over the border region, because the “line of actual control” that China unilaterally drew after defeating India in a 1962 war that it had initiated was never mutually clarified. Modi proposed resuming the LAC clarification process, but to no avail.

In fact, the reason for the continued ambiguity is that, in 2002, after more than two decades of negotiations, China reneged on a promise to exchange maps with India covering the two main disputed sectors – the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh and the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin, along with its adjacent areas – located at either end of the Himalayas. Four years later, China revived its long-dormant claim to Arunachal Pradesh, and has since breached its border several times. It fulminated against Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in February.

Nonetheless, in his zeal to build the bilateral relationship, Modi announced that Chinese tourists are now eligible to receive electronic visas on arrival in India – blindsiding his foreign secretary, who had just told the media that no such decision had been made. China’s foreign minister hailed the measure as a “gift” – an accurate description, given that China has yielded nothing in return. On the contrary, China has aimed to undermine India’s sovereignty, by issuing stapled visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh.

Moreover, China – which, by annexing water-rich Tibet, has become the region’s hydro-hegemon – also declined to conclude an agreement to sell India hydrological data on transboundary rivers year-round, rather than just during the monsoon season. So China is not only refusing to create a water-sharing pact with any of its neighbors; it will not even share comprehensive data on upstream river flows.

Making matters worse, there is an unmistakable air of condescension in the pronouncements, contained in the joint statement issued at the end of Modi’s visit, that China “took note of India’s aspirations” to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and “understands and supports India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations, including in the Security Council.” China is the only major power that has not backed India’s bid to become a permanent member of the Security Council.

Economic outcomes were similarly unequal. Many of the deals Modi made with business leaders in Shanghai – supposedly worth $22 billion – entail Chinese state-owned banks financing Indian firms to purchase Chinese equipment. This will worsen India’s already massive trade deficit with China, while doing little to boost China’s meager investment in India, which totals just 1% of China’s annual bilateral trade surplus – a surplus that has swelled by one-third since Modi took office and is now approaching $50 billion.

Indeed, China and India have one of the world’s most lopsided trade relationships. Chinese exports to India are worth five times more than its imports from India. Moreover, China mainly purchases raw materials from India, while selling it mostly value-added goods. With India making little effort to stem the avalanche of cheap Chinese goods flooding its market – despite Modi’s much-touted “Make in India” campaign – China’s status as the country’s largest source of imports appears secure.

China is well practiced in using trade and commercial penetration to bolster its influence in other countries. In India’s case, it is leveraging its clout as a major supplier of power and telecommunications equipment and active pharmaceutical ingredients, not to mention as a lender to financially troubled Indian firms, to limit the country’s options. By allowing the trade distortions from which China profits to persist – and, indeed, to grow – India is effectively funding this strategy.

As hard as Modi tries to put a positive spin on his recent visit to China, highlighting the 24 mostly symbolic agreements that were concluded, he cannot obscure the harsh strategic realities affecting the bilateral relationship. Without a new approach, the Sino-Indian relationship seems doomed to remain highly uneven and contentious.

© 1995-2015 Project Syndicate.

Obama’s lesson in how to not make peace in Afghanistan

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

p9-Chellaney-a-20150513-870x593The just-concluded exploratory “peace” talks in Qatar between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the Taliban militia obscure the continuing combat role in Afghanistan of the United States, which facilitated these discussions. Months after U.S. President Barack Obama declared an end to America’s “combat role” in Afghanistan, U.S. troops are still regularly carrying out strikes on Taliban positions, while U.S. special operations forces continue to raid suspected insurgent hideouts.

The U.S., after militarily toppling the Taliban from power in Afghanistan in 2001, has spent 14 years battling this militia in a still-raging war whose goal in recent time has turned farcically to making peace with the enemy. The result is that America’s longest war in history is getting even longer, with Obama’s overtures to the Taliban exposing fatal flaws in his Afghan policy.

Amending the name of the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Afghanistan from Operation Enduring Freedom to Operation Resolute Support with effect from Jan. 1 has changed little, despite the Afghan forces shouldering increased warfighting responsibilities.

The White House claims that U.S. strikes now are essentially for protection of American soldiers still stationed in Afghanistan and for combating al-Qaida remnants. In truth, it is the Taliban’s advances that are triggering everyday U.S. combat missions, including warplane and drone attacks and Special Operations raids.

Ghani, who has yet to appoint a defense minister, allows the U.S. to run the war, content to play second fiddle to Gen. John F. Campbell, the top American commander in Afghanistan.

The Taliban militia, despite its recent talks with the Afghan government, has stepped up attacks on members of Afghanistan’s military and police. One such attack, which inflicted heavy casualties on a police unit in Badakhshan province, occurred while the talks were under way in Qatar.

Civilians, however, continue to bear the brunt of the fighting. The United Nations documented 10,548 civilian casualties — a record — in increased ground fighting just last year.

Obama has already missed the 2014 deadline he himself laid down for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Now he is set to miss his revised deadline to pull out U.S. troops by January 1, 2016. Scrapping the scheduled halving by this year-end of the about 10,000 U.S. troops still deployed, the White House recently decided to maintain the current force level into 2016. Indeed, the duration of U.S. military presence has become open-ended.

The war, which has left 2,315 American troops killed and 20,000 wounded, has already cost nearly $1 trillion.

Obama’s premature declaration that America’s long military campaign against the Taliban is over will be remembered much like his predecessor George W. Bush’s 2003 “Mission Accomplished” speech on the Iraq war. It was Obama that ended Bush’s Iraq war. Yet by 2014, Obama was back at war in Iraq, relying on the same 2002 congressional authorization that Bush secured for military action there.

In Afghanistan, the main enemy of U.S. forces is the Pakistan-backed Taliban, which has already inflicted far more casualties among American and allied forces than al-Qaida and the Islamic State have managed to do in the countries where they operate. Yet Obama refuses to treat the medieval-theology-hewing Taliban as a terrorist organization. Indeed, the White House has sought to paint the Taliban as a moderate force that can be politically accommodated in Afghanistan’s power structure as part of a peace deal.

Obama’s plans, however, have been upset by the Taliban continuing to play for time. The militia, for example, has rebuffed the idea of a ceasefire.

Still, Obama’s pursuit of a peace deal led him to release top Taliban figures from Guantanamo Bay last year and to allow the Taliban in 2013 to set up in Qatar’s capital Doha a virtual embassy in exile, complete with a flag and other trappings of a diplomatic mission.

Five hardened Taliban militants (two of them wanted for war crimes) were freed not so much to secure the release of a U.S. soldier — Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has now been charged with desertion — as to set the stage for talks with the Taliban, which had sought their freedom as a precondition for direct talks. The release of the five — the “hardest of hard core,” according to Senator John McCain — belied U.S. claims that it doesn’t negotiate with militants over hostages or seek a deal with terrorists. Two of them, Mohammad Fazie and Mullah Nori, are suspected of carrying out massacres of Sunni Tajiks and Shiite Hazaras in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s Doha office, which was shut after its opening angered then Afghan President Hamid Karzai, has become active again, as the U.S. has eased some restrictions on the Taliban leadership, including travel bans.

Tragically, Obama’s overtures to the Taliban have yielded little more than talks about talks, with the militia dragging its feet on negotiating a peace deal. The May 3-4 “unofficial” talks in Qatar — hosted by the Qatari government and the Pugwash Council — produced only broad thoughts, including that “foreign forces have to leave Afghanistan soon,” that Afghanistan will have an “Islamic” government, and that more discussions are necessary to sustain the “peace process.”

The Obama policy has failed to get the Pakistani military to stop sheltering Taliban’s top leadership or to cease treating the militia as an invaluable asset for gaining “strategic depth” in Afghanistan against India. Obama has showered Pakistan with generous aid to secure its cooperation, unveiling $1 billion recently in new assistance flow and another $1 billion package of missiles, helicopters and other weapons.

More fundamentally, Obama’s faltering strategy to win over the Taliban serves as a cautionary tale of how not to make peace with an enemy. Indeed, in a reflection of America’s shrinking options, its success or failure in Afghanistan now hinges on a limited issue — whether it can prevent the Taliban from marching into Kabul.

Despite Obama’s decision to put off a further drawdown of U.S. forces, the Taliban continues to incrementally gain ground. For example, its forces have advanced to the outskirts of the capital of the northern province of Kunduz.

The Taliban, with its top leadership ensconced in Pakistan, no longer has a centralized command and command. Its field commanders are becoming increasingly autonomous.

Worried about desertions from its ranks to the ISIS, a new player in Afghanistan that claimed responsibility for the April 18 series of deadly explosions in the eastern city of Jalalabad that left at least 34 people dead, the Taliban knows that a peace deal offering Obama what he wants — a way to declare victory before his exit from office — will be its death knell. In fact, to stop the erosion in its support, the Taliban is seeking to match the brutal tactics of the ISIS.

The Taliban’s larger strategy to return to power is simply to wait out the Americans.

Before it is too late, Obama must replace his wishful peace-deal pursuit with a clear focus on bolstering the Afghan security forces and finding ways to eliminate the Taliban’s cross-border sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.

© The Japan Times, 2015.

China and Pakistan: Little in common yet the closest of allies

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

pakistan470080792President Xi Jinping’s recent Islamabad visit, by unveiling agreements valued at $28 billion, shows that China has made Pakistan the central link between its dual Silk Road initiatives. While the maritime Silk Road is the meretriciously benign name for China’s “string of pearls” strategy, the overland Silk Road project has been designed to advance Chinese interests in Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin and beyond.

These initiatives are part of China’s larger strategy to break out of the East Asia mold and become a more global power.

Xi has now embarked on connecting China’s restive Xinjiang region with the Arabian Sea through a 3,000-kilometer overland transportation corridor to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port. Known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, this $46 billion project through Pakistan-held Kashmir will hook up China’s maritime and overland Silk Roads and increase Pakistan’s pivotal importance for Beijing.

When an Indian prime minister visits the Myanmar-bordering Arunachal Pradesh (a large Himalayan territory whose control by India only China questions), or India and Vietnam jointly explore for offshore oil in the South China Sea, China protests loudly, claiming it is “disputed territory.” But the Xi-pushed corridor will traverse an internationally recognized disputed region — Pakistan-held Kashmir — where China has been enlarging its military footprint.

An influx of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops into the Pakistani Kashmir’s Shiite-majority Gilgit-Baltistan region in recent years, to supposedly guard Chinese strategic projects there, has resulted in Chinese military presence close to Pakistan’s line of control with India in Kashmir.

The scenario presents India with a two-front theater in Kashmir in the event of a war with either country. This threat is also being highlighted by PLA officers conducting field exercises close to Pakistan’s line of control with India to train Pakistani army troops in the use of Chinese-supplied weapons.

More fundamentally, India is contained geopolitically by the longstanding axis between China and Pakistan, involving, among other things, covert nuclear, missile and intelligence cooperation. With serious strains emerging in Beijing’s relationship with North Korea, Pakistan is now clearly China’s only real ally.

China’s nexus with Pakistan has long been likened to the closeness between lips and teeth, with Beijing recently calling Pakistan its “irreplaceable all-weather friend.” The two often boast of being “iron brothers.” Of late, though, their description of their relationship has become more flowery — “taller than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.”

Paradoxically, China and Pakistan have little in common, yet boast one of the closest relationships in international diplomacy. Their axis has been built on a shared objective to tie India down, as former state department official Daniel Markey says in his 2013 book, No Exit From Pakistan. Weapon transfers, loans and infrastructure projects allow China to use Pakistan as a cost-effective counterweight to India.

Pakistan, for example, developed its nuclear-weapons capability with Chinese aid and U.S. indulgence, highlighting the fact that no other state has received Chinese and American support in parallel on a sustained basis extending for decades. Indeed, the more Pakistan has become a jihadist snake pit, the greater has been China’s leeway to increase its strategic penetration of that country.

For India, the implications of the growing nexus are particularly stark because both China and Pakistan stake claims to substantial swaths of Indian land and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction.

Significantly, as China’s involvement in strategic projects in Pakistan-held Kashmir has grown, it has openly started needling India on Kashmir, one-fifth of which is under Chinese occupation. It has employed innovative ways to question India’s sovereignty over Kashmir and stepped up military incursions into Indian Kashmir’s Buddhist Ladakh region.

China is clearly signaling that Kashmir is where the Sino-Pakistan nexus can squeeze India. Its military pressure on Arunachal Pradesh, located at the other end of the Himalayas, seems more intended to distract from its Kashmir designs.

Xi’s visit indeed was a reminder that Pakistan-held Kashmir serves as the artery of the Sino-Pakistan nexus.

Xi, who has articulated a more expansive role for China in the world than any modern Chinese leader other than Mao Zedong, showed how high-visibility infrastructure projects drive China’s promotion of commercial and strategic interests. Much of the Chinese funding unveiled during Xi’s visit will be for power projects, including the $1.4-billion Karot Dam, located on the Pakistan-held Kashmir’s border with the Punjab province. This dam is the first project to be financed by China’s new $40-billion Silk Road Fund.

As if to highlight that China treats Pakistan as its newest colony, Xi’s package of power projects will be Chinese-owned, including the Karot Dam station, with the Pakistani government committed to buying power at a preset rate. The power projects, in essence, are to use Pakistan’s resources for Chinese state-run companies to generate profits for repatriation.

In another example of the puppet-puppeteer equation and the risk of Pakistan turning into a Chinistan, Islamabad has given Beijing 40-year exclusive rights to run the port at Gwadar, which is likely to double up as a key outpost for the Chinese navy and serve as China’s first overseas naval station.

The Xi-launched corridor — a network of roads, railway and pipelines — will give China access to the Indian Ocean, thus challenging India in its maritime backyard and opening a new threat for it. The corridor’s transportation links will also allow China to rapidly come to Pakistan’s aid in the event of a war with India.

Moreover, by transforming Pakistan into a client state of the Chinese economy, the corridor will tighten China’s grip over that country, thus preventing it from emulating the example of Myanmar or Sri Lanka to escape Beijing’s clutches. In return for the contracts and other concessions, China will offer Pakistan protection, including diplomatic cover at the United Nations.

However, Pakistan’s insurrection-torn sprawling province of Baluchistan — home to Gwadar — stands out as the Achilles heel of China’s corridor initiative, despite the Pakistani decision during Xi’s visit to create a special security force to protect Chinese projects.

China thinks in the long term. Pakistan — set to get delivery of eight Chinese attack submarines — is now China’s launch pad for playing a bigger role in the Indian Ocean and Middle East, besides serving as a linchpin of its India-containment strategy. China’s land corridor to the Arabian Sea will extend India’s encirclement by the PLA from the Kashmir land borders to the Indian Ocean sea lanes.

No country in the world other than India confronts a strengthening nexus between two revisionist nuclear-armed neighbors with a proven track record of covert actions in breach of international norms. The corridor constitutes China’s new pincer strategy. India — like the proverbial frog in a gradually heating pot of water not realizing the danger until it is too late — can stay silent and passive at its own peril.

Brahma Chellaney, a long-standing contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award. His latest book is “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.”

© The Japan Times, 2015.

Why the U.S. must support constitutional reform in Japan

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U.S. security interests will be better served by a more confident, secure Japan free from its constitutional fetters.

Brahma Chellaney

us_news_obama_3_aba_1135298_34228639In keeping with Japan’s interest to play a more robust international role, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s U.S. visit has yielded new guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation — the first such revision since 1997. But it is also in U.S. interest to help Japan free itself of its constitutional millstone so that global military cooperation becomes truly feasible. Japan’s antiwar Constitution must be amended to allow its “Self-Defense Forces” to become a full-fledged military.That will allow Japanese forces to play an expanded role, as envisioned by the revised guidelines.

Let’s face it: No other country in the world is bound by the kind of constitutional restrictions that were imposed on vanquished Japan by occupying American forces in 1947.

U.S. policy toward Japan must change with the changing geopolitical circumstances in East Asia. While China will prefer a Japan that remains dependent on America for its security than a Japan that can play a more independent role, the post-1945 security system erected by the United States is more suited to keep Japan as an American protectorate than to allow Tokyo to effectively aid the central U.S.-policy objective in the Asia-Pacific — a stable balance of power. An American policy approach that subtly encourages Tokyo to cut its overdependence on America and do more for its own defense can assist Japan in shaping a new strategic future for itself that contributes to Asian power equilibrium, thus aiding U.S. interests.

Japan’s current Constitution prohibits it from acquiring the means of war and bars its Self-Defense Forces from staging rescue missions or other overseas operations, even to free Japanese hostages. To set up wholly defensive armed forces in the 1950s, Japan had to loosely interpret the Constitution’s Article Nine, which says “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Japan has clung to this Constitution for 68 years without so much as carrying out a single amendment or changing even one word. Many other democracies regard their constitutions not as cast in stone but as open to change so that they stay abreast with new social, technological and economic developments. For example, India — whose Constitution is almost as old as Japan’s — is set to enact its 100th amendment. Even Germany — also defeated in World War II — has thus far made 59 amendments to its Basic Law, or Constitution, which it adopted when it was under Allied occupation.

If Japan were to break free from its constitutional fetters, it will aid its “normalization” as a nation at a time when the ascent of an increasingly muscular China has exacerbated the Asian security environment. In East Asia, Japan is the only democracy that can balance the power of rising China.

The United Nations charter recognizes individual and collective self-defense as an “inherent right” of nations. Yet Japan did not have this right, until the Abe government last year reinterpreted the Constitution on “collective self-defense” — a step that would allow Japan to come to the aid of its allies. The U.S. wisely supported this reinterpretation.

Abe’s larger constitutional-reform push, however, faces major obstacles at home. For one, the Constitution places a high bar to the enactment of any amendment, making it among the hardest in the world to revise. Any amendment must win support of two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Diet and be ratified by more than half of voters in a public referendum. For another, the majority of citizens, including most of the young, remain comfortable with the present Constitution. After all, pacifism remains deeply ingrained in Japanese society, in part because of the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism.

In fact, many Japanese regard the Constitution as sacrosanct and unchangeable. Such constitutional-sanctity zeal is virtually akin to the religious fundamentalism sweeping elsewhere in the world. To regard every word or provision in the Constitution as sacred is like defending the literal truth of a religious scripture.

Such are the current obstacles to constitutional revision that what Abe can hope for in his term is effecting, at best, a relaxation of amendment procedures, leaving the modification of the force-renouncing Article Nine to a successor government. Yet accomplishing even that limited goal remains uncertain. It is an open question whether any proposed amendment of Article 96 to lower the revision bar — even if it were to clear both houses of the Diet with two-thirds majority — would win public support in a referendum.

If there is one factor that can make a meaningful difference, it is American support. If President Barack Obama’s administration were to lend support to Abe’s constitutional-reform agenda, it will not only blunt Chinese criticism but also assuage many Japanese that amending the Constitution will not mean repudiating the postwar order that America established in Japan or abandoning pacifism.

U.S. security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. In the way America backed Abe’s reinterpretation of the collective self-defense right, it ought to support constitutional reform in Asia’s oldest liberal democracy, which has an enviable record: Japan has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II and has been a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid and promoter of global peace. Today, Japan is the only power that can block China from gaining ascendancy in the region.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, among others, of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© China-US Focus, 2015.

China reinvents ‘string of pearls’ as Maritime Silk Road

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In contrast to Deng’s “lie low, bide your time” dictum, Xi’s approach is xiong xin bo bo (full of big ambitions)

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkie Asian Review

For years, China has pursued a “string of pearls” strategy to create a network of infrastructure projects and staging posts stretching from its eastern coast to the Middle East along the great trade arteries in order to gain strategic clout and naval access. But more recently, China has worked to ease growing concerns in Asia and beyond over its geopolitical aims by rebranding “string of pearls” — a term coined by U.S. consultancy firm Booz Allen Hamilton in a 2005 report for the Pentagon — as the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road” initiative. But can a simple name change allay suspicions that China’s true goal is regional domination?

Stripped of its rhetoric, the Maritime Silk Road initiative — just like the “string of pearls” project — is designed to make China the hub of a new order in Asia and the Indian Ocean region. And just as the “string of pearls” focused on the great trade arteries, the initiative targets key littoral states that sit astride major access routes or are located near choke points. It follows the same route from which, historically, these countries drew wealth and strength.

Coining a name to shake off a foreign-imposed term allows Beijing to market the initiative as a “win-win” trade connectivity project. For small, internationally neglected states, it opens the way for an infusion of major Chinese aid and investment. And for China, it is opening lucrative contracts for its state-run companies and aiding its strategic penetration of regional states. Chinese construction of ports, railroads, highways and pipelines helps project China’s image as a strong but benevolent power. It also permits Beijing to pull regional countries closer to its orbit through economic leverage and soft power.

More broadly, China aims to use the Maritime Silk Road project to counter U.S. President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia, even though the “pivot” remains more rhetorical than real, largely because of American foreign policy’s preoccupation with the Muslim world. For China, economic development is a key drawcard card to help carve out a steadily enlarging sphere of influence in the region.

Silk_routeThe initiative bears the stamp of President Xi Jinping, who is pushing it with a $40 billion Silk Road Fund and the new China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Xi announced the Maritime Silk Road initiative during a trip to Indonesia in October 2013, just a month after he unveiled an overland “Silk Road” project to connect China with Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin and Europe. The new AIIB, according to Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, would finance infrastructure construction under both initiatives.

The Maritime Silk Road — to be ultimately protected by Chinese warships — is part of Xi’s focus on the seas that includes employing gunboat diplomacy to challenge Japan in the East China Sea, enlarging China’s control over some of the world’s most strategic waterways in the South China Sea, and making China an important player in the Indian Ocean region. Xi, who has articulated a more expansive role for China than any modern Chinese leader other than Mao Zedong, is using overseas infrastructure projects to extend China’s commercial and strategic interests.

Xi’s call last November for China to establish “big country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics” served as a fresh reminder that he is abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s dictum “hide your brightness, bide your time.” Deng’s “hide and bide” approach was designed to allow China to focus on economic growth and political stability, while Xi’s approach is xiong xin bo bo (full of big ambitions).

Under Xi, China has moved to a proactive posture to shape its external security environment. It is pursuing a muscular approach by boosting its military buildup, asserting territorial claims against its neighbors, and using trade and investment to expand its sphere of influence to the strategic domain.

China’s efforts to disturb the territorial and maritime status quo are best illustrated by the remarkable speed with which it has been building up land mass in the South China Sea, hundreds of kilometers from its mainland. By converting tiny, largely submerged reefs into islands that can host military facilities and personnel, China has highlighted the scale of its ambition to hold sway over vital sea lanes of communication between the Indian and Pacific oceans.

Added to this is China’s frenzied submarine-building program, with the country now boasting more diesel- and nuclear-powered vessels than the U.S., according to Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, U.S. deputy chief of naval operations for capabilities and resources. Mulloy recently told the U.S. House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee that China is extending the geographic areas of operation for its submarines and keeping them at sea for longer periods of deployment.

Soft and hard tactics

China’s construction of seaports, railroads and highways in littoral states contrasts with its broader military assertiveness. Such construction, however, is integral to a strategy that fuses soft and hard tactics to convince regional states that it is in their interest to join forces with China and accept it as the regional leader. In fact, the Maritime Silk Road does little more than attempt to recast the “string of pearls” strategy in meretriciously benign terms.

Paradoxically, China’s whipping up of nationalism at home goes hand-in-hand with its project to globalize and build a vast trading network along the ancient Maritime Silk Road. And even as China works quietly to alter the territorial and maritime status quo with several neighbors, it presents itself to regional states as a partner in their development.

How China blends its economic and military interests was illustrated last autumn by the separate docking of two Chinese attack submarines at the new Chinese-built container terminal at Sri Lanka’s Colombo Harbour. The $500 million container terminal is majority owned by Chinese state companies.

Beijing has been attracted by Sri Lanka’s strategic location, close to the world’s busiest sea lanes. After China completed building Sri Lanka’s southern port of Hambantota, Xi inaugurated construction of a $1.4 billion Chinese-funded project to create a city roughly the size of Monaco on reclaimed land off Colombo, the capital. The planned sprawling complex — currently embroiled in a major political and environmental controversy in Sri Lanka — is intended to become a major stop on China’s nautical “road,” for whose security Chinese warships will increasingly turn up at harbors.

Meanwhile, China’s desire for a permanent military presence in the Indian Ocean — where it has already carried out three deployments — is being whetted by its control of Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, near the Iranian border. Located strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, a gateway for a third of the world’s traded oil, the deep-water port epitomizes how an increasingly ambitious China, brimming with hard cash from blazing economic growth, is building new transportation, trade, energy and naval links to advance its interests.

The Gwadar Port Authority chairman recently revealed that Pakistan has granted China 40-year rights to operate the Chinese-built port. Beijing is investing another $1.62 billion in new infrastructure, including a container terminal, an international airport, and an expressway linking the harbor with the coastline.

Strategic corridors

As Xi’s April 20-21 Pakistan visit attested, China is working to connect its restive Xinjiang region with the Arabian Sea by building a 3,000-kilometer overland transportation corridor to Gwadar through Pakistan-held Kashmir. Known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, this $46 billion project will hook up China’s maritime and overland Silk Roads. Contracts worth $28 billion were unveiled during Xi’s visit under the corridor plan.

The strategic corridor will allow Beijing to shorten the route of its oil imports from the Middle East and Africa to barely one quarter of the current 12,000km. The oil will be offloaded at Gwadar for transport by pipeline to western China. Beijing is building a similar network of highways, railroads and energy pipelines from Myanmar’s coast to southern China.

China has operationally taken over Gwadar Port to develop not just its commercial value but also its potential as a naval outpost overlooking Gulf shipping lanes. Having insisted that Gwadar’s role was purely commercial, Beijing was deeply embarrassed when Ahmed Mukhtar, Pakistan’s then-defense minister, disclosed in 2011 that Pakistan had asked China to begin building a naval base there. “We have asked our Chinese brothers to please build a naval base at Gwadar,” he said.

Given China’s proclivity for strategic stealth, its work even on the commercial port at Gwadar was launched quietly. The planned naval base is now being projected as a refueling and works station, which China’s own submarines could use to extend their range in the Indian Ocean.

China has also sought to court the Maldives, a group of strategically located islands in the Indian Ocean where the first democratically elected president was forced at gunpoint to resign in 2012. Xi, during a visit last September, unveiled new Chinese-run infrastructure projects there, calling the Maldives “an important stop” on the Maritime Silk Road. China remains interested in leasing one of its 1,200 islands.

The Indian Ocean is central to Beijing’s intent to fashion a Sino-centric Asia. China’s quiet maneuvering, chipping away at India’s natural geographic advantage, draws strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the South and East China Seas.

In this light, China’s aggressive maritime strategy has emerged as the biggest challenge in the Indo-Pacific region. Just as the U.S. dominates the Western hemisphere, China wants to gain pre-eminence in Asia by widening the power gap with its most formidable neighbors — Japan, Russia and India. It believes the maritime domain holds the key to achieving its goal, thus prompting the launch of the Maritime Silk Road initiative. But success will elude Beijing if other important players in Asia establish a strategic constellation with the aim of inducing China to accept the status quo.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” winner of the 2012 Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

© Nikkie Asian Review, 2015.