China Flexes Its Naval Muscles to Project Power Far Beyond Its Shores

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Since 1949, China has been redrawing its frontiers. This still remains an unfinished task for its rulers.

Brahma Chellaney, China-US Focus

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Boosting naval prowess and projecting power as far away as the Middle East are at the center of China’s ambition to fashion a strongly Sino-centric Asia. This will be at the back of U.S. President Barack Obama’s mind when he hosts ASEAN leaders at a February 15-16 summit in Sunnylands, California, with his secretary of state John Kerry already urging Southeast Asia to show unity in response to Beijing’s territorial encroachments in the South China Sea.

Several developments underscore China’s determination to take the sea route to achieve regional dominance — from its frenzied creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea and its rapidly expanding submarine fleet, to its recent admission that it is establishing its first overseas military base in the Indian Ocean rim nation of Djibouti, located on the Horn of Africa. The Middle East base at Djibouti represents a transformative moment in its quest for supremacy at sea, a goal highlighted by its official white paper “China’s Military Strategy,” which last summer outlined a plan for the navy to shift focus from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection.”

After China’s inroads into strategically located Indian Ocean nations like Sri Lanka and the Maldives, President Xi Jinping’s latest trip to Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt point to the broader Chinese ambitions in the Middle East, a region where political turmoil and Russia’s military intervention in Syria are already altering the delicate balance of power. China has thrown down the gauntlet to the U.S. by deciding to set up its base in Djibouti, which serves as the Pentagon’s main intelligence-gathering post for the Arab world and the critical shipping lanes through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

China boasts one of the fastest-growing undersea fleets in the world. It has already surpassed the U.S. submarine fleet in quantity but not quality. But as it works to further expand its force of diesel and nuclear attack submarines, its territorial and maritime assertiveness and muscular actions are prompting neighboring countries, from Japan to India, to strengthen their anti-submarine capabilities.

Beijing’s increasing submarine forays into the Indian Ocean — the bridge between Asia and Europe — draw strength from its more assertive push for dominance in the adjacent South China Sea, where it continues to push its borders far out into international waters in a way that no power has done before elsewhere.

Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and Beijing understands that very well, especially because its claim of historic right over virtually all the resource-endowed South China Sea is weak and legally untenable. China thus has set out to achieve effective control, a key principle in international law for determining legitimate ownership of a territory.

This is exactly the same strategy the People’s Republic employed in the past to advance its territorial claims elsewhere, such as the Himalayas. In fact, no sooner had the communists seized power in Beijing than China began gobbling up the then-independent Tibet — a conquest that enlarged its landmass by more than one-third and changed Asia’s water map. Decades later, the redrawing of national frontiers remains an unfinished task for the rulers in Beijing.

The artificial islands in the South China Sea — a global trade and maritime hub — not only arm China with a great bargaining chip but allow it to forward deploy military forces hundreds of miles from its shores. In the process, China is positioning itself at the mouth of the Indian Ocean.

Indeed, Beijing appears to be using the South China Sea as a testing ground for changing the Asian geopolitical map. To advance its larger geostrategic interests, China is assertively using geoeconomic tools, such as the Maritime Silk Road and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which was launched January 16 by Chinese President Xi Jinping at a ceremony in Beijing. The Maritime Silk Road — designed to link China’s eastern coast with the Indian Ocean region and the Middle East — presents itself as a benign-sounding new banner for the country’s “string of pearls” strategy.

Make no mistake: China’s expanding submarine fleet is suited not for Southeast Asia’s shallow sea basin but for the Indian Ocean’s deep, warm waters. This explains why China is setting up a naval hub in Djibouti, building a naval base at Gwadar, Pakistan, and wanting access to port facilities around India, like it has already secured in Sri Lanka.

China’s territorial expansions in the South China Sea, without incurring any international costs, are whetting its growing interest in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. This shows that the South China Sea is critical to the contest for influence from the Middle East to the Pacific.

Yet, the Obama administration has focused its concern on safeguarding freedom of navigation through the South China Sea, not on finding ways to stop China from altering the status quo in its favor. ASEAN disunity has also aided China’s strategy.

Emboldened by international inaction and a series of crises that have helped divert global attention, Beijing has been feverishly turning low-tide elevations in the South China Sea into small islands by dredging seabed material and then dumping it using pipelines and barges. In the process, it has been creating new “facts on the ground,” including military facilities, for enforcing an air defense identification zone without having to declare one.

China’s militarization of the South China Sea not only threatens freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but is also encouraging aggressive Chinese coastguard patrolling. Hanoi, for example, has accused Chinese patrols of frequently intercepting Vietnamese fishing boats, ramming them, damaging equipment, and beating up crews.

Against this background, the South China Sea has emerged as the symbolic center of the international maritime challenges of the 21st century. The region is important even for countries in the Middle East and Europe because what happens there will impinge on larger maritime security. Indeed, developments in the South China Sea — the world’s newest maritime hot spot — carry the potential of upending even the current liberal world order by permitting brute power to trump rules.

The sea’s centrality to the international maritime order should induce likeminded states to work closely together to positively shape developments, including by ensuring that continued unilateralism is not cost-free. Only sustained pressure can persuade Beijing that its future lies in cooperation and not confrontation.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War.” He is also Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.

Why a Stable Balance of Power in Asia Calls for a Resurgent Japan

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The international spotlight on Japan’s prolonged economic woes has helped obscure one of Asia’s farthest-reaching but least-noticed developments – the political rise of the world’s third-largest economy. By initiating national-security reforms and seeking a more active role in shaping the evolving balance of power in Asia, Japan wants to stop punching below its weight and take its rightful place in the world.

Japan’s quiet political resurgence is reflected in various ways – from the government strengthening security arrangements with the United States and building close strategic partnerships with other major democracies in the Asia-Pacific region, to a grassroots movement at home pressing for changes in the country’s U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution.

Tokyo’s recent landmark deal with South Korea to settle a bitter history dispute over wartime “comfort women” promises to open up greater diplomatic space for it in East Asia.

Already, Japan’s passive chequebook diplomacy is giving way to a proactive approach focused on the Asian mainland and the oceans, including the western Pacific and Indian Ocean. Japan is shoring up ties with other major Asia-Pacific democracies, from Canada and Australia to India and Indonesia.

The single biggest factor driving Japan’s political rise is the ascent of a muscular China.

Japan is the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation. The constitution’s Article 9 says, “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” No other national constitution in the world goes so far as to bar acquisition of the means of war or to renounce “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

The American postwar success in disarming Japan by disbanding its military, imposing a 1946-drafted constitution and overhauling its education system, however, engendered its own challenges. It did not take long for the United States to realize that it had gone too far in creating a demilitarized Japan.

In 1953, then-U.S. vice-president Richard Nixon called the constitution “a mistake.” That reflected a changing U.S. approach toward Japan, owing to America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Communist takeover in China and the protracted Korean War. Through a major reinterpretation of the very constitution it had imposed, the United States encouraged Japan to reconstitute its military as “Self-Defence Forces” in order to make the country the linchpin of America’s Asian strategy.

Japan’s recent constitutional reinterpretation to assert its right to collective self-defence is small in comparison. Tokyo has also relaxed its long-standing, self-imposed ban on export of arms, thus opening the path to building closer security co-operation with other Asia-Pacific democracies.

With Japan’s nationalist impulse to play a bigger international role now rising, its domestic debate on national-security and constitutional reform is set to intensify. However, further national-security reform beyond what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has carried out is linked – from a legal standpoint – to constitutional reform.

The Japanese constitution is unique in that it defines no head of state. It stripped the emperor of all but symbolic power. This was by design: The United States wanted to have the emperor as merely the symbol of Japan so that it could use him during the 1945-52 occupation years without the monarch being able to rally his people.

Likewise, the force-renouncing Article 9 was designed to keep Japan as America’s client state so that it would never pose a threat to the United States again.

But today, U.S. security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defence and for regional security.

The Japanese constitution, however, is among the hardest in the world to revise. It is doubtful that any proposed constitutional change – even after winning approval with the mandated two-thirds vote in both chambers of parliament – can secure majority support in a national referendum in order to take effect.

The large protests against Mr. Abe’s 2015 security legislation permitting the Self-Defence Forces to engage in “collective defence” were a reminder that the U.S.-instilled pacifism remains deeply rooted in Japanese society. A 2014 survey revealed that just 15 per cent of Japanese (compared with almost 75 per cent of Chinese) were willing to defend their country – the lowest figure in the world.

Make no mistake: Enduring peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan. If Japan fails to carry out further reforms of its postwar institutions and policies to meet the new regional challenges, it could erode its security.

Having spawned the problem that Japan now confronts – how to cast off the constitutional albatross – the United States must be part of the solution. Its own geostrategic interests demand that Tokyo play a proactive role in regional affairs and do more for its own defence, within the framework of the U.S.-Japan security treaty. If the United States were to openly support constitutional revision in Japan, it would help blunt criticism from the country’s powerful pacifist constituency and from China.

Constitutional and national-security reform in Japan will help underpin the central goal of America’s Asia-Pacific strategy – a stable balance of power. Although rising powers tend to be revisionist powers, a politically resurgent Japan, strikingly, is seeking to uphold the present Asian political and maritime order.

Washington thus ought to aid the continued political rise of this status quoist country, which is determined to reinvent itself as a more competitive and secure state.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research and author, most recently, of Water, Peace and War.

© The Globe and Mail, 2016.

Upholding the Asian Order

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Brahma Chellaney

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

China's President Xi Jinping meets with the guests at the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank launch ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

China’s ambition to reshape the Asian order is no secret. From the “one belt, one road” scheme to the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, major Chinese initiatives are gradually but steadily advancing China’s strategic objective of fashioning a Sino-centric Asia. As China’s neighbors well know, the country’s quest for regional dominance could be damaging – and even dangerous. Yet other regional powers have done little to develop a coordinated strategy to thwart China’s hegemonic plans.

To be sure, other powers have laid out important policies. Notably, the United States initiated its much-touted strategic “pivot” toward Asia in 2012, when India also unveiled its “Act East” policy. Similarly, Australia has shifted its focus toward the Indian Ocean, and Japan has adopted a western-facing foreign-policy approach.

But coordinated action – or even agreement on broadly shared policy objectives – has remained elusive. In fact, a key element of America’s Asian pivot, the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, does not just exclude China; it also leaves out close US allies like India and South Korea.

That is not the only problem with the TPP. Once the lengthy process of ratifying the deal in national legislatures is complete and implementation begins, the impact will be gradual and modest. After all, six members already boast bilateral free-trade agreements with the US, meaning that the TPP’s main effect will be to create a free trade area (FTA) between Japan and the US, which together account for about 80% of the TPP countries’ combined GDP. The conclusion of the ASEAN-initiated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – which includes China, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, but not the US – is likely to weaken the TPP’s impact further.

Compare this to the “one belt, one road” initiative, which aims to boost China’s financial leverage over other countries through trade and investment, while revising the maritime status quo, by establishing a Chinese presence in areas like the Indian Ocean. If President Xi Jinping achieves even half of what he has set out to do with this initiative, Asian geopolitics will be profoundly affected.

In this context, Asia’s future is highly uncertain. To ensure geopolitical stability, the interests of the region’s major players must be balanced. But with China eager to flex the political, financial, and military muscles that it has developed over the last few decades, negotiating such a balance will be no easy feat.

As it stands, no single power – not even the US – can offset China’s power and influence on its own. To secure a stable balance of power, likeminded countries must stand together in backing a rules-based regional order, thereby compelling China to embrace international norms, including dispute settlement through peaceful negotiation, rather than military intimidation or outright force. Without such cooperation, China’s ambitions would be constrained only by domestic factors, such as a faltering economy, rising social discontent, a worsening environmental crisis, or vicious politics.

Which countries should take the lead in constraining China’s revisionist ambitions? With the US distracted by other strategic challenges – not to mention its domestic presidential campaign – Asia’s other powers – in particular, an economically surging India and a more politically assertive Japan – are the best candidates for the job.

Both India and Japan are longstanding stakeholders in the US-led global order, emphasizing in their own international relations the values that America espouses, such as the need to maintain a stable balance of power, respect the territorial and maritime status quo, and preserve freedom of navigation. Moreover, they have demonstrated their shared desire to uphold the existing Asian order.

In 2014, while visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, took a veiled swipe at Chinese expansionism, criticizing the “eighteenth-century expansionist mindset” that was becoming apparent “everywhere around us.” Citing encroachment on other countries’ lands, intrusion into their waters, and even the capture of territory, Modi left little doubt about the target of his complaint.

Last month, Abe and Modi took a small step in the direction of cooperation. By jointly appealing to all countries to “avoid unilateral actions” in the South China Sea, they implicitly criticized China’s construction of artificial islands there, which they rightly regard as a blatant attempt to secure leverage in territorial disputes – and gain control over sea lanes of “critical importance” for the Indo-Pacific region.

Clearly, both Japan and India are well aware that China’s ambitions, if realized, would result in a regional order inimical to their interests. Yet, while they are committed to maintaining the status quo, they have failed to coordinate their policies and investments in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, both strategically located countries vulnerable to Chinese pressure. This must change.

Asia’s main powers – beginning with Japan and India, but also including the US – must work together to secure a broadly beneficial and stable regional balance of power. To this end, naval maneuvers, such as the annual US-India-Japan “Exercise Malabar,” are useful, as they strengthen military cooperation and reinforce maritime stability.

But no strategy will be complete without a major economic component. Asia’s powers should move beyond FTAs to initiate joint geo-economic projects that serve the core interests of smaller countries, which would then not have to rely on Chinese investments and initiatives to boost growth. As a result, more countries would be able to contribute to the effort to secure an inclusive, stable, rules-based order in which all countries, including China, can thrive.

© Project Syndicate, 2016.

An oceanic threat rises against India

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The rapid rise of a Chinese threat from the Indian Ocean risks completing India’s strategic encirclement by China

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, January 20, 2016

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China’s rapidly growing submarine fleet is suited not for Southeast Asia’s shallow sea basin but for the Indian Ocean’s deep, warm waters.

China’s recent acknowledgement that it is establishing its first overseas military base in the Indian Ocean rim nation of Djibouti, located on the Horn of Africa, represents a transformative moment in its quest for supremacy at sea. With Chinese submarines now making regular forays into India’s maritime backyard right under the nose of its Andaman & Nicobar Command, New Delhi must now face up to a new threat from the south.

China’s growing interest in the Indian Ocean — the bridge between Asia and Europe — draws strength from its aggressive push for dominance in the adjacent South China Sea. Without incurring any international costs, it belligerently continues to push its borders far out into international waters in a way that no power has done before. Its modus operandi to extend its frontiers in the South China Sea involves creating artificial islands and claiming sovereignty over them and their surrounding waters. In just a little over two years, it has built seven islands in its attempt to annex a strategically crucial corridor through which half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes.

For India, still grappling to deal with the trans-Himalayan threat following China’s gobbling up of buffer Tibet, the rise of a Chinese oceanic threat signifies a transformative change in its security calculus. By building military facilities on disputed Spratly and Paracel islands, China is positioning itself at the mouth of the Indian Ocean. A Beijing-based defence website, Sina Military Network, last year claimed, even if implausibly, that 10 Chinese attack submarines could blockade India’s eastern and western coastlines.

Make no mistake: China’s rapidly growing submarine fleet is suited not for Southeast Asia’s shallow sea basin but for the Indian Ocean’s deep, warm waters. This explains why China is setting up a naval hub in Djibouti, building a naval base at Gwadar, and wanting access to port facilities around India, like it has secured in Sri Lanka. China’s consolidation of power in the South China Sea will have a direct bearing on India’s interests in its own maritime backyard.

With New Delhi slow to add teeth to its Andaman & Nicobar Command, Beijing is assiduously chipping away at India’s natural-geographic advantage. The longer term strategic risk for India is that China, in partnership with its close ally Pakistan, could encircle it on land and at sea. After covertly transferring nuclear-weapon, missile and, most recently, drone technologies to Pakistan, China has publicized a deal to more than double the size of that country’s submarine force by selling eight subs to it.

More broadly, the South China Sea has become critical to the contest for influence in the Indian Ocean and the larger Indo-Pacific region. Beijing views the South China Sea as a testing ground for changing the Asian maritime map.

The world has been astounded by the speed and scale of China’s creation of islands and military infrastructure in the South China Sea. Yet the international response to China’s expansions hasn’t gone beyond rhetoric. For example, the US, even at the risk of handing Beijing a fait accompli, has done little to challenge China’s expanding frontiers, focussing its concern just on safeguarding freedom of navigation through the South China Sea. As in the Himalayas and the East China Sea, the US has refused to take sides in the South China Sea in the territorial disputes between China and its neighbours. ASEAN disunity has also aided Beijing’s aggression.

Let us be clear: The South China Sea has emerged as the symbolic centre of the international maritime challenges of the 21st century. The region is important for India and even distant countries because what happens there will impinge on Asian power equilibrium and international maritime security. Indian Ocean security is linked to the South China Sea, which, Chinese Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai claimed in September, “belongs to China”. In fact, developments in the South China Sea carry the potential of upending even the current international liberal order by permitting brute power to trump rules.

The South China Sea’s centrality to the international maritime order should induce like-minded states to work closely together to positively shape developments there, including by ensuring that continued unilateralism is not cost-free. In fact, the “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region”, signed a year ago, and the Pentagon’s subsequent “Asia-Pacific Maritime Strategy” emphasize greater maritime cooperation among democratic powers.

China’s neighbours, however, bear the main responsibility. India, for its part, is working to revitalize relationships with Indian Ocean Rim states. It has also stepped up its military diplomacy and is doling out billions of dollars in credit to key littoral states, including in East Africa. But with accidents and project delays blunting its naval power, India needs to speed up its naval modernization. Trade through the Indian Ocean accounts for half of India’s GDP and the bulk of its energy supplies, underscoring the imperative for India to strengthen its naval capabilities on a priority basis.

If ASEAN states and regional powers like Japan and India do not evolve a common strategy to deal with the South China Sea dispute within an Asian framework, the issue will be left to China and the US to address through a great-power modus vivendi, sidelining the interests of the smaller disputants. A unified strategy must give meaning to the recent appeal to all countries by Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe, the Indian and Japanese prime ministers, to “avoid unilateral actions”, given the “critical importance of the sea lanes in the South China Sea” for the Indo-Pacific region.

Failure to evolve a common strategy could create a systemic risk to Asian strategic stability, besides opening the path for China to gain a firm strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean and encircle India.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. 

© The Hindustan Times, 2016.

Beijing’s Asia Pivot in 2016

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In its own “pivot” of sorts, China looks set to pursue broader ties in the Asia-Pacific region in 2016, advancing initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and ramping up maritime and land trade corridors. Seven experts assess the challenges and opportunities in China’s relations with Southeast Asia, Japan, Central Asia, South Asia, the Korean Peninsula, and Australia in the next year.

Authors: Joshua Kurlantzick, Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia, Council on Foreign Relations Sheila A. Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan Studies, Council on Foreign Relations Alexander Gabuev, Senior Associate and Chair, Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program, Carnegie Moscow Center Brahma Chellaney, Professor of strategic studies, Centre for Policy Research James Reilly, Senior Lecturer in Northeast Asian Politics, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy, Council on Foreign Relations Merriden Varrall, Director, East Asia Program, Lowy Institute. Interviewer(s): Eleanor Albert, Online Writer/Editor

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Soldiers of China’s People’s Liberation Army march during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing, China. (Photo: Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of strategic studies, Centre for Policy Research

China has embarked on major initiatives to change the region’s geopolitical map with its own Asian pivot. The Silk Road initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank epitomize Beijing’s efforts to reshape Asia’s security and financial architecture. In 2016, China appears determined to step up its efforts to fashion a Sino-centric Asia in place of the present regional order centered on a stable balance of power.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has articulated a more expansive role for China than any leader since Mao Zedong. His One Belt, One Road project, an expansive initiative to build up land and maritime trade routes,  is intended to extend the country’s commercial and strategic interests. The Maritime Silk Road and the overland Silk Road encompass Southern Asia and are linked by the $46-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Pakistan has given China exclusive rights to run the Chinese-built port at Gwadar for forty years, which, given its location at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz, is expected to become a critical outpost for the Chinese navy. Beijing, in turn, has finalized the sale of eight submarines to Islamabad, a transfer that would more than double the size of Pakistan’s submarine force. China is clearly using Pakistan as a launch pad to play a bigger role in the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean are also reflected in its submarine forays in the region, which began in 2014, and the announcement that it would establish a naval hub in Djibouti, which overlooks the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Sina Military Network, a Beijing-based defense website with ties to the People’s Liberation Army, has claimed that ten Chinese attack submarines could blockade India’s eastern and western coastlines. The question of whether the Maritime Silk Road is just a benign-sounding new name for Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy can no longer be dismissed.

Make no mistake: China’s strategic maneuvering in the Indian Ocean and Southern Asia draws strength from its muscular actions in the South China Sea, where it has incurred no international costs for creating artificial islands to host military facilities and expand its sea frontiers. Beijing’s territorial nibbling in the Himalayas and its damming of international rivers on the Tibetan plateau are also part of its effort to change the status quo.

© Council on Foreign Relations, January 5, 2016.

Loosening Japan’s pacifist bonds

The U.S. could benefit from a revision of Tokyo’s anti-defense constitution

By Brahma Chellaney – – Washington TimesJanuary 4, 2016

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The international spotlight on Japan’s prolonged economic woes has helped obscure one of Asia’s farthest-reaching but least-noticed developments — the political rise of the world’s third-largest economy. By initiating national-security reforms and seeking a more active role in shaping the evolving balance of power in Asia, Japan wants to stop punching below its weight and take its rightful place in the world.

Japan’s quiet political resurgence is reflected in various ways — from the government working to strengthen security arrangements with the United States and build close strategic partnerships with other major democracies in the Asia-Pacific to a grass-roots movement at home for changes in the country’s U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution.

Japan’s passive, checkbook diplomacy is giving way to a proactive, western-facing approach focused on the Asian mainland, the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The single biggest factor driving Japan’s political rise is the ascent of a muscular China.

Japan is the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation. The constitution’s Article 9 says “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” No other national constitution in the world goes so far as to bar acquisition of the means of war or to renounce “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

Japan’s increasingly vocal critics of the constitution say it does not reflect the values, culture and traditions of Japan.

In fact, the Japanese Constitution was hastily written and imposed by an occupying power. Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur made his occupation staff write the constitution in one week so that it was ready by Abraham Lincoln’s birth anniversary on Feb. 12, 1946, although it did not come into force until May 1947.

The American success in disarming Japan by disbanding its military, imposing a pacifist constitution, and overhauling its education system, however, engendered its own challenges. It did not take long for the United States to realize that it had gone too far in creating a demilitarized Japan. In 1953, Vice President Richard Nixon called the constitution “a mistake.”

America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Communist takeover of China, and China’s entry into the Korean War helped change U.S. policy toward Japan. Through a major reinterpretation of the very constitution it had imposed, the U.S. encouraged Japan to reconstitute its military as “Self-Defense Forces” so as to make the country the lynchpin of America’s Asian strategy.

Japan’s recent reinterpretation of the constitution’s Article 9 to assert its right to collective self-defense was small in comparison. Tokyo has also relaxed its longstanding, self-imposed ban on export of arms, thus opening the path to building closer security cooperation with like-minded countries.

With Japan’s nationalist impulse to play a bigger international role now rising, its domestic debate on national security and constitutional reform is set to intensify.

Further national-security reform beyond what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has carried out is, from a legal standpoint, linked to constitutional reform. For example, there is a limit to the extent to which the Article 9 prohibitions can be reinterpreted without enacting a constitutional amendment.

The Japanese Constitution is also unique in that it defines no head of state. It stripped the emperor of all but symbolic power. This was by design: The United States wanted to have the emperor as merely the symbol of Japan so that it could use him during the 1945-52 occupation years without the monarch being able to rally his people.

Likewise, the force-renouncing Article 9 was designed to keep Japan as America’s client state so that it would never pose a threat to the U.S. again.

But today, 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.

The Japanese Constitution, however, is among the hardest in the world to revise. It is doubtful that any proposed constitutional change — even after winning approval with the mandated two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Diet — can secure majority support in a national referendum in order to take effect.

The large protests against Mr. Abe’s 2015 security legislation permitting the Self-Defense Forces to engage in “collective defense” were a reminder that the U.S.-instilled pacifism remains deeply rooted in Japanese society. For example, a 2014 survey revealed that just 15 percent of Japanese (compared with almost 75 percent of Chinese) were willing to defend their country — the lowest figure in the world.

Let’s be clear: Enduring peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan. If Japan fails to carry out further reforms of its postwar institutions and policies to meet the new regional challenges, it could erode its security.

The United States spawned the problem that Japan confronts today — how to cast off the constitutional albatross. America must now be part of the solution because its own geostrategic interests demand that Japan play a proactive role in regional affairs and do more for its own defense. This Japan can do within the framework of the longstanding security treaty with Washington. If the U.S. were to openly support constitutional revision in Japan, it would help blunt criticism from the country’s powerful pacifist constituency and from China.

Constitutional and national-security reform in Japan would help underpin the central goal of America’s Asia-Pacific strategy — a stable balance of power. Although rising powers tend to be revisionist powers, a politically resurgent Japan, strikingly, is seeking to uphold the present Asian political and maritime order. Washington would do well to aid the continued political rise of this status quoist country, which is determined to reinvent itself as a more competitive and secure state.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

Nepal’s democracy on the brink

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The crisis of democracy in communist-led Nepal raises a fundamental question: Can a democratic transition succeed where communists dominate?

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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Nepalese Prime Minister Oli, dubbed “Oily Oli” by his critics

Landlocked Nepal has lurched from one crisis to the next for a quarter-century. Now the country is on the edge of toppling into dysfunction. The turmoil also carries major implications for India, with which Kathmandu has traditionally maintained an open border. 

Nepal has been in a state of severe political flux since 1990, when it embarked on a democratic transition. But recent developments in the country — which lies between India and the Chinese region of Tibet — are a reminder that democracy means more than just holding elections. In Nepal, an absence of sound institutions has been compounded by constitution-making without political consensus or proper attention to the interests of minority groups.

This constitutional mess is at the root of violent protests and political upheaval that are accelerating spiraling prices for essential items in the impoverished Himalayan country. In the latest crisis ethnic groups have been polarized by a new constitution and a blockade of the border with India is preventing imports of essential goods, including fuel and medicines. The political and economic turmoil comes on top of last April’s devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks — the country’s worst natural disaster in more than eight decades.

Nepal adopted a new constitution in September, a whole generation after its democratic transition began with the introduction of a multiparty democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy in 1990. That experiment opened the door to a bloody Maoist insurrection that ended only when a peace accord in 2006 paved the way for the insurgent leaders to come to power.

The current constitution emerged from a tortuous eight-year constitutional drafting process that involved two elected constituent assemblies. The first abolished the monarchy in 2008, but became gridlocked by political infighting and missed a mid-2012 deadline set by the country’s Supreme Court. The second assembly, elected in 2013, drafted the constitution and, when it came into effect, was transformed into a legislative parliament.

A constitution must represent all the country’s citizens — the U.S. constitution, for example, begins with the words “We the people.” But multiethnic Nepal’s latest constitution reflects the will of the hill elites that have long dominated its power structures, discriminating against the people who inhabit the country’s southern plains along the 1,872km border with India — an area known as the Terai. Further complicating the issue, the Madhesi ethnic group that dominates the plains has historical, cultural and family links with India.

The constitution creates a federal republic divided into seven new states, merging parts of the ancestral homelands of the Madhesis with those of the hill states. The gerrymandered boundaries leave the plains people politically weaker, while giving the hill people greater political representation than their population size merits.

Disaffected minorities

Minority groups contend that the constitution also undercuts federalism by granting little provincial and local autonomy, and diluting affirmative action. No democracy can be stable and safe if it does not protect minorities. In Nepal, the disaffected minorities are large, making up nearly a third of the population.

For any country, the implementation of a new constitution signifies a promising new beginning. But Nepal’s constitution has provoked a virtually open revolt by the plains people. Since the constitution’s adoption, two damaging divides have emerged: one between Kathmandu and the Terai, and another between Kathmandu and New Delhi, which has called for a more inclusive constitution.

To end its prolonged political instability and arrest its deteriorating internal security, Nepal needed a unifying figure. Alas, what it got in a political upheaval in October was the appointment as prime minister of Khadga Prasad Oli, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) — a divisive figure who spent years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s for waging war against the state.

Oli’s maneuvers have deepened Nepal’s ethnic and political fault lines. Dubbed “Oily Oli” by his critics, he has publicly mocked protesters and their demands, fueling civil strife. He has also stoked tensions with India, feeding deep-seated suspicions about India’s intentions that often surface when internal problems intensify. Mistrust of India flows in part from the tensions generated by the disparity in the power and size of the two countries, and in part from overlapping ethnic and linguistic identities.

Oli’s communist-dominated government has blamed India for Nepal’s crippling fuel shortages and political crisis. Seeking to deflect attention from its own role in triggering the crisis, it has accused India of imposing an “unofficial blockade” on the cross-border movement of oil and other supplies to Nepal. In reality, the disruption in supplies has been caused by mass protests against the constitution by the Madhesi and other minority groups.

Police have shot and killed dozens of protesters blockading highways or staging other confrontations. But they have failed to evict protesters from the key border junction at Birgunj that accounts for 70% of the volume of trade with India. The protesting groups say they will not lift the blockade unless the constitution is amended to safeguard their interests.

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Nepalese foreign minister meets his Chinese counterpart on Christmas

Meanwhile, the Oli government has tried to play the China card against India, trumpeting a commercial agreement with Beijing and a Chinese gift of 1,000 tons of fuel. The gift was enough to meet barely two days’ requirements. More importantly, it demonstrated that Nepal’s dependence on India for essential supplies is a matter of geography. China could replace India as Nepal’s main supplier only if the Himalayas were shifted.

Passport free

India is increasingly concerned that Nepal’s turmoil could spill over into its northern plains. Moreover, some 6 million Nepalese work and live in India. Before Nepal’s latest crisis flared, New Delhi repeatedly told Kathmandu that China and Pakistan were taking advantage of the open Indo-Nepalese border — which remains a passport-free crossing, despite the blockade — to engage in activities detrimental to India’s security. Nepal has also become a transit point for the flow of counterfeit currency and narcotics into India.

India has stepped up diplomatic efforts to broker a political settlement in Nepal, despite past experience of being blamed for interference in the internal affairs of its smaller neighbor. India recently hosted Nepalese Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa, who brought a proposal to introduce two constitutional amendments. Talks were then held in New Delhi with the Terai protest leaders, who said the two suggested amendments did not go far enough to address their main concerns. India is urging both sides to show “maturity and flexibility to find a satisfactory solution to the constitutional issues.”

Britain recently joined India in calling for “a lasting and inclusive constitutional settlement in Nepal,” reflecting fears that the current crisis could provide an opening for China to extend its influence in Nepal, while the Terai movement could become radicalized and secessionist. India and other outside powers want to see a stable, united Nepal focusing on economic growth.

Water-rich Nepal has the potential to become a prosperous state. The country boasts one of Asia’s highest levels of water resources per inhabitant, with up to 83,000 megawatts of potential hydropower reserves. If it harnessed the natural bounty of the Himalayas to produce renewable electricity for export, Nepal could turn water into “clear gold,” generating hydro dollars to fuel development.

Today, Nepal produces less than 800MW of electricity from all energy sources for its 30 million citizens. Extended power outages are common, even in Kathmandu, and Nepal imports electricity from India even though it controls the upper waters of several rivers suitable for hydroelectric power generation that flow south across the border.

Such has been the rapidity of political change in Nepal that democracy has yet to take root. The democratic transition, far from being the curative that the Nepalese had hoped for, has engendered unending disorder, puncturing Nepal’s reputation as a Shangri-La. The crisis of democracy in a country where the two main communist parties and smaller Marxist groups can between them secure the largest share of the popular vote raises a fundamental question: Can a democratic transition succeed where communists dominate?

If Nepal remains battered by political upheaval, it clearly risks becoming a failed state — a development that will have major trans-Himalayan implications. Before it is too late, a tottering Nepal must accommodate its minorities so that its constitution produces peace, not violence that derails democracy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author. He is currently professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. 

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2015.