Tibet core to Sino-Indian ties

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

Despite booming two-way trade, strategic discord and rivalry between China and India is sharpening. At the core of their divide is Tibet, an issue that fuels territorial disputes, border tensions and water feuds.

The Tibetan plateau is Asia’s “water tower.” © Brahma Chellaney, “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013).

The Tibetan plateau is Asia’s “water tower.”          © Brahma Chellaney, Water: Asia’s New Battleground (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2013).

Beijing says Tibet is a core issue for China. In truth, Tibet is the core issue in Beijing’s relations with countries like India, Nepal and Bhutan that traditionally did not have a common border with China. These countries became China’s neighbors after it annexed Tibet, a sprawling, high-altitude plateau where, after waves of genocide since the 1950s, ecocide now looms large.

Take China’s relations with India: Beijing itself highlights Tibet as the core issue with that country by laying claim to large chunks of Indian land on the basis of purported Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, rather than any professed Han Chinese connection. Indeed, since 2006, Beijing has a new name — “South Tibet” — for the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is three times the size of Taiwan and twice as large as Switzerland.

Tibet historically was the buffer that separated the Chinese and Indian civilizations. Ever since Communist China, in one of its first acts, gobbled up that buffer with India, Tibet has remained the core matter with India.

In the latest reminder of this reality, President Xi Jinping brought Chinese military incursions across the Indo-Tibetan border on his India visit in September. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government responded to the border provocations by permitting Tibetan exiles to stage protests during Xi’s New Delhi stay.

In response to China’s increasing belligerence — reflected in a rising number of Chinese border incursions and Beijing’s new assertiveness on the two Indian states of Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir — India since 2010 has stopped making any reference to Tibet being part of China in a joint statement with China. It has also linked any endorsement of “one China” to a reciprocal Chinese commitment to a “one India.”

Yet the Chinese side managed to bring in Tibet via the back door in the Modi-Xi joint statement, which recorded India’s appreciation of the help extended by the “local government of Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China” to Indian pilgrims visiting Tibet’s Kailash-Mansarover, a mountain-and-lake duo sacred to four faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Tibet’s indigenous religion, Bon. Several major rivers, including the Indus and the Brahmaputra, originate around this holy place.

Actually, a succession of Indian prime ministers has blundered on Tibet. Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954 ceded India’s British-inherited extraterritorial rights in Tibet and implicitly accepted the plateau’s annexation by China without any quid pro quo. Under the terms of the 1954 accord, India withdrew its “military escorts” from Tibet and handed over to China the postal, telegraph and telephone services it operated there.

But in 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee went further than any predecessor and formally surrendered India’s Tibet card. In a statement he signed with the Chinese premier, Vajpayee used the legal term “recognize” to accept what China deceptively calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

Vajpayee’s blunder opened the way for China to claim Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet,” a term it coined to legitimize its attempt at rolling annexation. In fact, since 2010, Beijing has also questioned India’s sovereignty over the state of Jammu and Kashmir, one-fifth of which is under Chinese occupation and another one-third under Pakistani control.

During Xi’s visit, it was by agreeing to open a circuitous alternative route for pilgrims via the Himalayan Indian state of Sikkim that Beijing extracted the appreciation from India to China’s Tibet government. Given that the sacred Kailash-Mansarovar site is located toward the western side of the Tibet-India border, the new route entails a long, arduous detour — pilgrims must first cross eastern Himalayas and then head toward western Himalayas through a frigid, high-altitude terrain.

One obvious reason China chose the roundabout route via Sikkim is that the only section of the Indo-Tibetan border it does not dispute is the Sikkim-Tibet frontier. Beijing recognizes the 1890 Anglo-Sikkim Convention, which demarcated the 206-km Sikkim-Tibet frontier, yet it paradoxically rejects as a colonial relic Tibet’s 1914 McMahon Line with India, though not with Myanmar.

The more important reason is that China is seeking to advance its strategic interests in the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, which overlooks the narrow neck of land that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country. Should the “chicken’s neck” ever be blocked, the northeast would be cut off from the Indian mainland. In the event of a war, China could seek to do just that.

Two developments underscore China’s strategic designs. Beijing is offering Bhutan a territorial settlement in which it would cede most of its other claims in return for being given the strategic area that directly overlooks India’s chokepoint. At the same time, Beijing is working to insidiously build influence in Sikkim, including by shaping a Sino-friendly Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

This sect controls important Indian monasteries along the Tibetan border and is headed by the China-anointed but now India-based Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley. The Indian government has barred Ogyen Trinley — who raised suspicion in 1999 by escaping from Tibet with astonishing ease — from visiting the sect’s headquarters in Sikkim. Indian police in 2011 seized large sums of Chinese currency from his office.

India, however, has permitted the Mandarin-speaking Ogyen Trinley to receive envoys sent by Beijing. In recent years, he has met Han Buddhist figures as well as Xiao Wunan, the effective head of the Asia-Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation. This dubious foundation, created to project China’s soft power, has unveiled plans with questionable motives to invest $3 billion at Lord Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal — Lumbini, located just 22 km from the open border with India.

Since coming up to power six months ago, Modi has pursued a nimble foreign policy. One key challenge he faces is how to build leverage against China, which largely sets the bilateral agenda, yet savors a galloping, $36-plus billion trade surplus with India.

Moreover, past Indian blunders on Tibet have helped narrow the focus of Himalayan disputes to what China claims. The spotlight now is on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal, rather than on Tibet’s status itself.

To correct that, Modi must find ways to add elasticity and nuance to India’s Tibet stance.

One way for India to gradually reclaim its leverage over the Tibet issue is to start emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet hinged on a grant of genuine autonomy to that region. But instead of granting autonomy, China has make Tibet autonomous in name only, bringing the region under its tight political control and unleashing increasing repression.

India must not shy away from urging China to begin a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet in its own interest and in the interest of stable Sino-Indian relations. China’s dam-building frenzy is another reminder that Tibet is at the heart of the India-China divide.

That a settlement of the Tibet issue is imperative for regional stability and for improved Sino-Indian relations should become India’s consistent diplomatic refrain. India must also call on Beijing to help build harmonious bilateral relations by renouncing its claims to Indian-administered territories.

Through such calls, and by using expressions like the “Indo-Tibetan border” and by identifying the plateau to the north of its Himalayas as Tibet (not China) in its official maps, India can subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue, without having to formally renounce any of its previously stated positions.

Tibet ceased to be a political buffer when China occupied it in 1950-51. But Tibet can still turn into a political bridge between China and India. For that to happen, China must start a process of political reconciliation in Tibet, repudiate claims to Indian territories on the basis of their alleged Tibetan links, and turn water into a source of cooperation, not conflict.

Brahma Chellaney, a regular contributor to The Japan Times, is the author of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

© The Japan Times, 2014.

Deconstructing the Modi foreign policy

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Hindu, December 4, 2014

India — home to more than a sixth of the human race — punches far below its weight. Internationally, it is a rule-taker, not a rule-maker. A 2013 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, titled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how India is resisting its own rise, as if political drift had turned the country into its own worst enemy.

Since the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, the world has witnessed the most-profound technological, economic and geopolitical change in the most-compressed time frame in history. Unfortunately for India, despite its impressive economic growth overall, much of its last 25 years has been characterized by political weakness and drift. For example, between 1989 and 1998, India had a succession of six weak governments. It is not an exaggeration to call Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s two terms “the lost decade” for India strategically.

Waning regional influence

The result of the prolonged leadership crisis has been a sharp erosion in India’s regional and extra-regional clout. The gap in power and stature between China and India has widened significantly. After all, this was the quarter-century in which China took off.

More troubling has been India’s shrinking space in its own strategic backyard. Even tiny Maldives had the gall to kick India in the chin and get away with it. It kicked out its Indian airport operator from the capital Male and publicly dressed down the Indian Ambassador without fear of consequences. In Nepal, India found itself competing with China. And in Sri Lanka, India became content to play second fiddle to China.

The paradox is that India’s economy continued to grow even as India’s regional influence waned. This shows that GDP growth by itself cannot translate into stronger foreign policy in the absence of a dynamic, forward-looking leadership and cogent, strategic goals. In fact, when India was economically weak under Indira Gandhi, it had a fairly robust foreign policy, with no neighbour daring to mess with it.

Job_9086Against this background, the political rise of Narendra Modi — known for his decisiveness — could be a potential game-changer. It is too early to define, let alone judge, his foreign policy, given that Mr. Modi has been in office for just six months. Yet, as he focuses on revitalizing the country’s economic and military security, five things stand out.

First, Mr. Modi continues to invest considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy so early in his term. Critics may contend that his exceptionally busy foreign-policy schedule, coupled with campaign meetings in serial state elections, leaves him restricted time to focus on his most critical responsibility — domestic issues, which will define his legacy.

Powered by ideas

No previous Indian Prime Minister participated in so many high-powered multilateral and bilateral summits in his or her first months in office as Mr. Modi. U.S. President Barack Obama’s high-profile visit in January will keep national attention on diplomacy. To be sure, Mr. Modi’s focus on the grand chessboard of geopolitics to underpin national interests suggests a strategic bent of mind that only one previous Prime Minister credibly demonstrated — Indira Gandhi.

Second, the Modi foreign policy is powered by ideas, not by any ideology. Indeed, Mr. Modi has demonstrated a knack to skilfully employ level-headed ideas to shape a non-doctrinaire vision and galvanize public opinion. On domestic policy, too, he is using the power of ideas, such as “Swachh Bharat” (or Clean India). In the strategic domain, he is taking his “Make in India” mission to the heavily-import-dependent defence sector. The real test ultimately will be Mr. Modi’s ability to translate his ideas into transformative accomplishments.

Third, he has projected a nimble foreign policy with pragmatism as its hallmark. Nothing better illustrates this than the priority he has accorded — by shaking off U.S. visa-denial humiliation heaped on him over nine years — to restoring momentum to the relationship with America. Mr. Obama’s scheduled visit as chief guest at Republic Day represents both a thank you to Mr. Modi for rising above personal umbrage and an effort to lift the India-U.S. relationship to a higher level of engagement through the major new opportunities being opened up for American businesses by Mr. Modi’s commitment to pro-market economic policies and defence modernization.

The U.S. already conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country. And in recent years, it has quietly overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India.

Food security issue

Fourth, Mr. Modi has put his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than Jawaharlal Nehru. Yet, he appears to have no intent to enunciate a Modi doctrine in foreign policy. In contrast to the meretricious “Gujral Doctrine,” which delivered little more than words, Mr. Modi wants his actions to define his policy trademarks.

In fact, his actions have started speaking for themselves — from his moves to engineer stronger partnerships with Japan and Israel (countries critical to Indian interests but which also courted him even as the U.S. targeted him) to his mortars-for-bullet response to Pakistani ceasefire violations. His firm stand at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the food-stockpiling issue, central to India’s food security, stood out.

After vetoing the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement in Geneva, Mr. Modi made the U.S. climbdown on the food-stockpiling issue, yet earned praise from Mr. Obama for helping to break the impasse. Even the head of the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development backed the veto, saying the real choice for India in Geneva was between “feeding” its citizens and “creating jobs” for wealthy economies. After all, the main providers of agricultural subsidies are the rich countries plus China.

For monsoon-dependent, drought-prone India, stockpiling food through a minimum support price to farmers serves as an insurance policy against a 1960s-style mortifying situation that saw New Delhi beseeching foreign food aid, including under U.S.’s PL-480 programme. At Bali, however, the Singh government meekly delinked the Trade Facilitation Agreement from a deal on food stockpiling. By agreeing to kick the can on the stockpiling issue to 2017, it put India’s food security at risk in case no deal was reached by that deadline — a probable scenario. Mr. Modi has succeeded in undoing Dr. Singh’s egregious concession by clinching a deal under which the developing countries’ food-stockholding programmes will face no WTO challenge until a permanent solution is found, thus shielding them from pressures indefinitely.

Looking East

Fifth, Mr. Modi — unlike the leaders who preceded him — attaches major significance to diplomatic symbolism. For example, with the opening of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit coinciding with the sombre anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks, he gave the cold shoulder to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, for refusing to prosecute the masterminds of that Pakistani scripted and executed operation. Mr. Modi publicly shook hands with Mr. Sharif only the following day at the Dhulikhel retreat. In fact, to concentrate on his broader regional and global agenda, Mr. Modi has done well to sideline Pakistan, a noxious issue that weighed down Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foreign policy. Mr. Modi, in any event, faces an important dilemma on Pakistan: With whom to engage there? After being politically cut to size by the military establishment, Mr. Sharif is like a parrot perched on the generals’ shoulders, trying to echo their lines on India, even if stutteringly.

To be sure, Mr. Modi faces major regional challenges, exemplified by the arc of failing, revanchist or scofflaw states around India. This tyranny of geography demands that India evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. India must actively involve itself regionally to help influence developments, which is what Mr. Modi is seeking to do. Indeed, his priority — apparent from the time he invited regional leaders to his inauguration — is to retrieve India’s lost ground in its strategic backyard.

As Pakistan’s obstructionism at Kathmandu to greater intra-regional cooperation highlighted, SAARC is likely to remain a stunted organisation. India, while building stronger bilateral linkages with other neighbours, must strengthen its “Look East” policy. India indeed has little choice but to look east because when it looks west, it sees only trouble. The entire belt to India’s west from Pakistan to Syria is a contiguous arc of instability and extremism. Looking east allows India to join the economic dynamism that characterizes the region to its east.

For a politician who came to office with virtually no foreign-policy experience, Mr. Modi has demonstrated impressive diplomatic acumen, including in taking bold new directions, charting a vision to reclaim India’s lost strategic clout, holding his ground in talks with world leaders, and responding to provocations by regional foes. Mr. Modi has shaken India’s foreign-policy establishment with his proactive approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths.

All in all, the Modi foreign policy appears geared to reinvent India as a more competitive, confident and secure country claiming its rightful place in the world. A robust foreign policy, however, can sustain itself only on the foundation of a strong domestic policy, a realm where Mr. Modi must prove he can help transform India.

(Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.)

© The Hindu, 2014.

How India can reclaim leverage over the Tibet issue

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Brahma Chellaney, Mint, November 12, 2014

Despite booming two-way trade, India-China strategic discord and rivalry is sharpening. At the core of their divide is Tibet, an issue that fuels territorial disputes, border tensions and water feuds.

Beijing says Tibet is a core issue for China. In truth, Tibet is the core issue in Beijing’s relations with countries like India, Nepal and Bhutan that traditionally did not have a common border with China. These countries became China’s neighbours after it annexed Tibet, which, after waves of genocide since the 1950s, now faces ecocide.

China itself highlights Tibet as the core issue with India by laying claim to Indian territories on the basis of purported Tibetan religious or tutelary links, rather than any professed Han Chinese connection. Indeed, ever since China gobbled up the historical buffer with India, Tibet has remained the core issue.

The latest reminder of this reality came when President Xi Jinping brought Chinese incursions across the Indo-Tibetan border on his recent India visit. Put off by the intrusions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government permitted Tibetan exiles to stage protests during Xi’s New Delhi stay, reversing a pattern since the early 1990s of such protests being foiled by police during the visit of any Chinese leader.

imagesHowever, India oddly bungled on Tibet and Sikkim during Xi’s visit — diplomatic goof-ups that escaped media attention.

In response to China’s increasing belligerence — reflected in a rising number of Chinese border incursions and Beijing’s new assertiveness on Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) — India since 2010 stopped making any reference to Tibet being part of China in a joint statement with China. It has also linked any endorsement of “one China” to a reciprocal Chinese commitment to a “one India.”

Yet the Modi-Xi joint statement brought in Tibet via the backdoor, with India appreciating the help extended by the “local government of Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China” to Indian pilgrims visiting Tibet’s Kailash-Mansarover, a mountain-and-lake duo sacred to four faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Tibet’s indigenous religion, Bon. Several major rivers, including the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej and the Karnali, originate around this holy duo.

The statement’s reference to the “Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China” was out of place. It lent implicit Indian support to Tibet being part of China by gratuitously changing the formulation recorded during Premier Li Keqiang’s 2013 visit, when the joint statement stated: “The Indian side conveyed appreciation to the Chinese side for the improvement of facilities for the Indian pilgrims.” Did those in the ministry of external affairs (MEA) who helped draft the statement apprise the political decision-makers of the implications of the new, China-inserted formulation?

After all, the new wording ran counter to India’s position since 2010 — a stance that came with the promise of repairing the damage from India’s past blunders over Tibet, including by Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi. Nehru, in the 1954 Panchsheel pact, ceded India’s British-inherited extraterritorial rights in Tibet and implicitly accepted the sprawling region’s annexation without any quid pro quo. Under the terms of this accord, India withdrew its “military escorts” from Tibet, and handed over to China the postal, telegraph and telephone services it operated there.

But in 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee went further than any predecessor and formally surrendered India’s Tibet card. In a statement he signed with the Chinese premier, Vajpayee used the legal term “recognize” to accept what China deceptively calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

Vajpayee’s blunder opened the way for China to claim Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet,” a term it coined in 2006 to legitimize its attempt at rolling annexation. Had Vajpayee not caved in, China would not been emboldened to ingeniously invent the term “South Tibet” for Arunachal, which is three times the size of Taiwan and twice as large as Switzerland. And since 2010, Beijing has also questioned India’s sovereignty over J&K, one-fifth of which is under Chinese occupation.

In this light, the reference to China’s Tibet region in the Modi-Xi joint statement granted Beijing via the backdoor what India has refused to grant upfront since 2010. This sleight of hand implicitly endorsed Tibet as being part of China without Xi committing to a “one India” policy.

Now consider India’s second mistake — falling for China’s proposal for establishing an alternative route for Indian pilgrims via Sikkim, a state that strategically faces India’s highly vulnerable “chicken’s neck” and where Beijing is working to insidiously build influence.

Ironically, it is by agreeing to open a circuitous alternative route for pilgrims via Sikkim’s Nathula crossing that Beijing extracted the appreciation from India to China’s Tibet government. Given that Kailash-Mansarovar is located close to the Uttarakhand-Nepal-Tibet tri-junction, the new route entails a long, arduous detour — pilgrims must first cross eastern Himalayas and then head toward western Himalayas through a frigid, high-altitude terrain.

Unsurprisingly, the meandering route has kicked up controversy, with the Uttarakhand chief minister also injecting religion to contend that scriptures “recognize only the traditional paths for pilgrimage passing through Uttarakhand.” China currently permits entry of a very small number of Indian pilgrims through just one point — Uttarakhand’s Lipulekh Pass. The Indian foreign ministry, which organizes the Kailash-Mansarovar visits, is to take a maximum of 1,080 pilgrims in batches this year, with no more than 60 travellers in each lot.

One obvious reason China chose the roundabout route via Sikkim is that the only section of the Indo-Tibetan border it does not dispute is the Sikkim-Tibet frontier, except for the tiny Finger Area there. Beijing recognizes the 1890 Anglo-Sikkim Convention, which demarcated the 206-kilometre Sikkim-Tibet frontier, yet paradoxically rejects as a colonial relic Tibet’s 1914 McMahon Line with India, though not with Myanmar.

tibet_china_rail_map_600_20060828The more important reason is that China is seeking to advance its strategic interests in the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, which overlooks the narrow neck of land that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country. Should the chicken’s neck ever be blocked, the northeast would be cut off from the Indian mainland. In the event of a war, China could seek to do just that.

Two developments underscore its strategic designs. China is offering Bhutan a territorial settlement in which it would cede most of its other claims in return for being given the strategic area that directly overlooks India’s chokepoint. At the same time, Beijing is working systematically to shape a Sino-friendly Kagyu sect, which controls important Indian monasteries along the Tibetan border and is headed by the China-anointed but now India-based Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley.

The Indian government has barred Ogyen Trinley — who raised suspicion in 1999 by escaping from Tibet with astonishing ease — from visiting the sect’s headquarters at Rumtek, Sikkim.

Yet — redounding poorly on Indian intelligence — the Mandarin-speaking Ogyen Trinley has been regularly receiving envoys sent by Beijing. In recent years, he has met Han religious figures as well as Xiao Wunan, the effective head of the Asia-Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation. This dubious foundation, created to project China’s soft power, has unveiled plans with questionable motives to invest $3 billion at Lord Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal — Lumbini, located virtually on the open border with India.

Ogyen Trinley — the first Tibetan lama living in exile to include Han Buddhist rituals in traditional Tibetan practices — was recently accused by the head of the Drukpa sect in India of aiding Beijing’s frontier designs by using his money power to take over Drukpa Himalayan monasteries, including in the Kailash-Mansarovar area. Indeed, Himachal Pradesh police in 2011 seized large sums of Chinese currency from the Karmapa’s office.

Since coming up to power, Modi has pursued a nimble foreign policy. His government, hopefully, can learn from its dual mistakes. With China now challenging Indian interests even in the Indian Ocean region, it has become imperative for India to find ways to blunt Chinese trans-Himalayan pressures.

One key challenge Modi faces is how to build leverage against China, which largely sets the bilateral agenda, yet savours a galloping, $36-plus billion trade surplus with India. Modi’s “Make in India” mission cannot gain traction as long as Chinese dumping of goods undercuts Indian manufacturing.

Also, past blunders on Tibet by leaders from Nehru to Vajpayee have helped narrow the focus of Himalayan disputes to what China claims. The spotlight now is on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal, rather than on Tibet’s status itself.

To correct that, Modi must find ways to add elasticity and nuance to India’s Tibet stance.

One way for India to gradually reclaim its leverage over the Tibet issue is to start emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet hinged on a grant of genuine autonomy to that region. But instead of granting autonomy, China has make Tibet autonomous in name only, bringing the region under its tight political control and unleashing increasing repression.

India must not shy away from urging China to begin a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet in its own interest and in the interest of stable Sino-Indian relations. China’s hydro-engineering projects are another reminder that Tibet is at the heart of the India-China divide and why India must regain leverage over the Tibet issue.

That a settlement of the Tibet issue is imperative for regional stability and for improved Sino-Indian relations should become India’s consistent diplomatic refrain. India must also call on Beijing to help build harmonious bilateral relations by renouncing its claims to Indian-administered territories.

Through such calls, and by using expressions like the “Indo-Tibetan border” and by identifying the plateau to the north of its Himalayas as Tibet (not China) in its official maps, India can subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue, without having to formally renounce any of its previously stated positions.

Tibet ceased to be a political buffer when China occupied it in 1950-51. But Tibet can still turn into a political bridge between China and India. For that to happen, China must start a process of political reconciliation in Tibet, repudiate claims to Indian territories on the basis of their alleged Tibetan links, and turn water into a source of cooperation, not conflict.

(c) Mint, 2014.

PLA aborts Modi’s China reset

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Brahma Chellaney, Mint, October 7, 2014

Despite China finally withdrawing its troops from Ladakh’s Chumar area after extracting a concession from India to demolish a key observation post, the tense standoff on the frigid heights of western Himalayas will be remembered as the symbol of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s abortive effort to reset India’s relationship with Beijing. After assuming office, Modi went out of his way to befriend China, making a series of overtures.

Modi received the Chinese foreign minister before welcoming any other foreign dignitary. His first bilateral meeting with an important head of state was with President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in Brazil. Indeed, Modi postponed his own Japan trip so that he met Xi first in Brazil. Furthermore, Xi was given the honour of being the first G-8 head of state to visit India. Not only that, Modi became the first prime minister to receive a foreign leader outside New Delhi — that too on his own birthday.

ximodisabarmati4So when Xi, wearing a Nehru jacket, toasted the birthday of his host at a private dinner on the bank of River Sabarmati in Gujarat, it highlighted Modi’s charm offensive to build a more cooperative relationship with a country that poses the main strategic challenge to India. Such was Modi’s courtship that Xi quoted him as saying “India and China are two bodies in one spirit”.

But the diplomatic love-fest quickly turned into diplomatic discomfiture as news trickled in that hundreds of Chinese soldiers had intruded into Chumar. While Modi was publicly espousing “inch toward miles” as the motto of India-China cooperation, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was implementing that call through a fresh action on the ground. Even more galling was the fact that this incursion — the worst in troop numbers in many years — came to epitomize Xi’s birthday gift for Modi.

China has used virtually every high-level visit to flex its muscles while talking peace. For example, China conducted its most-powerful nuclear test ever in 1992 during the first-ever state visit of an Indian president. In 2003, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was surrendering India’s Tibet card in Beijing at the altar of diplomatic expediency, a PLA patrol intruded 14 kilometres into Arunachal Pradesh and abducted a 10-member Indian security team.

When Chinese leaders have visited India, their trips have been preceded by or coincided with territorial provocations. It was just before President Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit that China began claiming Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet”. Likewise, prior to Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2010 trip, Beijing began questioning India’s sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir, one-fifth of which China occupies. And Premier Li Keqiang’s 2013 visit followed a deep PLA encroachment into Ladakh’s Depsang plateau.

The message that China seeks to deliver through such provocations is that if India does not behave, it seriously risks being taught a 1962-style lesson. Indeed, just as it deceptively accused an ill-prepared India in 1962 of having provoked the Chinese trans-Himalayan invasion, China has used its official media and think-tanks to charge India with intentionally ramping up border tensions during Xi’s visit to exert pressure on China.

Modi thought he could co-opt China as a partner in India’s development and help ease the territorial disputes. But in Chinese strategy, political and economic elements are closely integrated, with hard and soft tactics going hand-in-hand. This was demonstrated by China rattling its sabres while its president was paying a state visit to India.

Even without considering Xi’s “birthday gift” for Modi, his visit was underwhelming in substance. Xi’s $20-billion investment promise is like honey presented on a sharp knife: partaking it will cut India’s interests, including by giving China greater leeway to dump more goods in the Indian market and rake in larger profits. China’s exports to India already are almost 3½ times greater in value than its imports. Yet China’s total investment in India is a trifling $500 million, or only slightly over 1% of its yearly trade surplus with it at present.

Had the trade surplus been in India’s favour on this scale, imagine the kind of pressures China would have brought to bear. Indeed, China has a record of using trade as a political weapon, including against Japan, the Philippines and South Korea. India, by hinging China’s market access on progress in resolving political, territorial and water disputes, can prevent Beijing from fortifying its leverage.

The good news is that Modi is standing up to the pressure from an unyielding and revanchist China, signalling that India will no longer put up with incursions, which escalated significantly over the past seven years under his meek predecessor even as he stayed mum. Modi was so jolted by Xi’s “birthday gift” (the intruding Chinese force numbered 1,000 or more at its peak) that he forthrightly called border peace “an essential foundation” for India-China ties, saying it won’t be possible for the two countries to collaborate meaningfully without peace. Modi knows that China has exposed itself by opening fronts with several neighbours.

The PLA’s growing political clout emboldens its strategy of incremental encroachment through furtive nibbling. The only counter to its aggressive deterrence is offensive defence. But India still clings to defensive defence, deploying border police as its first line of defence against regular PLA troops. The result is that India continues to get blindsided by repeated incursions. It is time for India to reappraise its Himalayan defences, or else its posture of defensive defence will continue to spring nasty surprises.

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

© Mint, 2014.

Tibet is the real source of Sino-Indian friction

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkie Asian Review

The sprawling, mountainous country of Tibet was annexed by China in the 1950s, eliminating a historical buffer with India. Today, the region remains at the heart of Sino-Indian problems, including territorial disputes, border tensions and water feuds. Beijing lays claim to adjacent Indian territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links, rather than an ethnic Chinese connection.

So when Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled in mid-September to India — home to Tibet’s government in exile — Tibet loomed large. The Tibetan plateau, and the military tensions the issue provokes, will also figure prominently in the Sept. 29-30 summit at the White House between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Barack Obama, who has urged Beijing to reopen talks with the Dalai Lama, the exiled religious leader revered as a god-king by Tibetans.

Xi’s visit to New Delhi began with the visitor toasting Modi’s birthday. But, underlining the deep divide regarding Tibet, the visit was overshadowed by a Chinese military incursion across the traditional Indo-Tibetan border. It was as if the incursion — the biggest in terms of troop numbers in many years and the trigger for a military standoff in the Ladakh region — was Xi’s birthday gift for Modi.

An Indian policeman restrains a Tibetan youth at a protest in New Delhi during the visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping against China’s control of Tibet. © AP

Modi’s government, for its part, allowed Tibetan exiles to stage street protests during the two days that Xi was in New Delhi, including some close to the summit venue. This reversed a pattern that had held since the early 1990s, in which police routinely prevented such protests during the visits of Chinese leaders. During the decade-long reign of Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, police would impose a lockdown on the Indian capital’s Tibetan quarter and beat up Tibetans who attempted to rally.

Such brutal practices would have befitted a repressive autocracy like China, but not a country that takes pride in being the world’s largest democracy. In any event, the muzzling of protests won India no gratitude from an increasingly assertive China.

It was a welcome change that India permitted members of its large Tibetan community to exercise their legitimate democratic rights. Even the Dalai Lama felt at liberty to speak up during Xi’s visit, reminding Indians: “Tibet’s problem is also India’s problem.” The Tibetan protests, although peaceful, rattled China, which had grown accustomed to Indian authorities doing its bidding.

When Modi took office in May, the prime minister of Tibet’s government in exile, Lobsang Sangay, was invited to the swearing-in event. So Xi sought an assurance that the Modi government regards Tibet as part of China. Modi has yet to speak his mind on this issue in public, but the Chinese foreign ministry, apparently citing private discussions, announced: “Prime Minister Modi said that Tibet is an integral part of China, and India does not allow any separatist activities on its soil.”

Diplomatic fumbles

Tibet — the world’s highest and largest plateau — separated the Chinese and Indian civilizations until relatively recently, limiting their interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contact, with no political relations. It was only after China forcibly occupied Tibet that Chinese military units appeared for the first time on the Himalayan frontiers.

The fall of Tibet represented the most profound and far-reaching geopolitical development in India’s modern history. It led to China’s bloody trans-Himalayan invasion in 1962 and its current claims to vast tracts of additional Indian land.

Yet Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954 surrendered India’s extraterritorial rights in Tibet — inherited from Britain at independence — and accepted the existence of the “Tibet region of China” with no quid pro quo, not even Beijing’s acknowledgement of the then-prevailing Indo-Tibetan border. He did this by signing a pact mockingly named after the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of Panchsheela, or the five principles of peaceful coexistence. As agreed in the pact, India withdrew its “military escorts” from Tibet and conceded to China, at a “reasonable” price, the postal, telegraph and public telephone services operated by the Indian government in the region.

Years later, another Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, went further. During Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in 2003, China wrung from India the concession it always wanted — an unambiguous recognition of Tibet as part of China. Vajpayee went so far as to use the legal term “recognize” in a document signed by the two nations’ heads of government, confirming that what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region was “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

This opened the way for China to claim the large northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh — three times the size of Taiwan — as “South Tibet,” a term it coined in 2006. Since 2010, Beijing has also questioned India’s sovereignty over the Indian portion of the disputed northern region known as Jammu and Kashmir, a former princely state of which China occupies one-fifth and Pakistan more than a third. In response to such increasing belligerence, a pattern reinforced by a rising number of border violations by Chinese troops, India stopped making references to Tibet being part of China in the same year.

Yet, in a significant diplomatic blunder, the joint statement issued by Modi and Xi after their summit referred to India’s appreciation of the help extended by the “local government of Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China” to Indian pilgrims visiting Kailash-Mansarover — a mountain-and-lake area of Tibet that is sacred to Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Bon, the indigenous religion of Tibet. The wording gave Beijing an implicit Indian endorsement that Tibet is indeed part of China.

Widen the focus

The spotlight today is on China’s claim to the state of Arunachal Pradesh, rather than the status of Tibet itself. The blunders of some of Modi’s predecessors served to narrow the focus to what China wants, reinforcing Beijing’s views. Those territorial claims must be negotiable, and can only be settled on the basis of give and take — or, as China puts it, on the basis of “mutual accommodation and mutual understanding.”

India can reclaim leverage by emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s hold on Tibet hinged on a grant of genuine autonomy to the plateau, whose elevation is so high that it is called the “Roof of the World.” Instead of granting autonomy, China has brought Tibet under tight political control and unleashed increasing repression, triggering a wave of self-immolations and grass-roots desperation.

Having ceased to be a political buffer between China and India, Tibet could become a political bridge between the world’s demographic titans if Beijing were willing to initiate a process of reconciliation to ease Tibetans’ feelings of estrangement. Otherwise, Tibet will remain at the core of the China-India divide. The tense military standoff triggered by intruding Chinese troops is a reminder of that.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.

Hawkish China, Defensive India

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, September 19, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) The Hindustan Times, 2014.

Co-opt the water hegemon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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