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

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY
Japan Times, March 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Fault Lines Fester in Asia

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

New fault lines have emerged in Asia — the world’s economic locomotive and largest creditor — that signal increasing geopolitical risks, including for global markets.

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

The fact is that Asia today is at a defining moment in its history. Yet the international spotlight on its dramatic economic rise has obscured the serious challenges it confronts.

These challenges range from recrudescence of territorial and maritime disputes and increasingly fervent nationalism to sharpening competition over natural resources and toxic historical legacies that weigh down its major interstate relationships.

The future will not belong to Asia merely because it is the world’s most-populous and fastest-developing continent, where GDP continues to grow by more than 5% each year. Asia’s deepening challenges actually call into question the assumption of some analysts that its continued rise is unstoppable and the West’s decline inevitable.

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

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

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

Respect for boundaries is a prerequisite to peace and stability on any continent. Europe has built its peace on that principle, with a number of European states learning to live with boundaries that they don’t like. But in Asia, renewed attempts to disturb the territorial status quo are stirring geopolitical tensions and fueling rivalries.

In particular, an increasingly muscular China harps on historical grievances — real or imaginary — to justify its claims to territories and fishing areas long held by others. Whether it is strategic islands in the South and East China Seas or the resource-rich Himalayan Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, China is dangling the threat of force to assert its claims.

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

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

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

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

Unlike Europe’s bloody wars of the first half of the twentieth century, which have made war there unthinkable today, the wars in Asia in the second half of the twentieth century only sharpened rivalries, fostering a bitter legacy. Several interstate wars have been fought in Asia since 1950, such as the Korean War, without resolving the underlying disputes.

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

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

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

Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868 to 1912) created a powerful military under the national slogan “Enrich the Country and Strengthen the Military.” The military eventually become so strong as to dictate terms to the civilian government. The same could unfold in China, where the generals are becoming increasingly powerful as the Communist Party becomes beholden to the military for retaining its monopoly on power. 

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

Make no mistake: The risks inherent in the present Asian trends can be contained only by bridging the gulf between politics and economics. The resurgent territorial and maritime disputes underscore that securing Asian peace and stability hinges fundamentally on respect for existing borders.

Unless that happens, it is far from certain that Asia will be able to spearhead global growth or shape a new world order.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) The Times of India, 2014.

Energy challenges test water-stressed Asia

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY
Nikkie Asian Review, February 27, 2014
 

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

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

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

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

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

Stress nexus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maritime disputes in play

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friendless China

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY

A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.

Asia’s emerging democratic axis

By BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

The nascent entente between Asia’s richest democracy and its largest was powerfully showcased by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s presence as the chief guest at India’s Jan. 26 Republic Day, just weeks after the historic Indian tour of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko. Abe returned home with an invitation for Japan to join Indian-sponsored naval exercises with the United States and to invest in infrastructure development in India’s sensitive northeast, a sizable slice of which China claims.

The ascent of an increasingly assertive and revanchist China is beginning to trigger geopolitical realignments in Asia, in keeping with balance-of-power theory. The new bonds between a politically resurgent Japan and a strategically transforming India are an important example of this trend.

A Japan-India democratic axis, with U.S. support, can potentially reshape the Asian strategic landscape and block the rise of a Sino-centric Asia.

Deepening the strategic collaboration between Asia’s second- and third-biggest economies, however, must await the outcome of India’s national election by May. Like Japan before Abe’s return to power in late 2012, India currently is weighed down by its domestic politics. A rudderless India indeed is in search of its own Abe — a clearheaded, determined and dynamic leader to head its next government.

abeAbe, an admirer of India, has been the main driver of the Indo-Japanese entente, investing substantial political capital in forging closer ties on the recently articulated premise that these relations hold “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.” In his 2007 book “Toward a Beautiful Country: My Vision for Japan,” Abe said it would not surprise him if “in another decade, Japan-India relations overtake Japan-U.S. and Japan-China ties.”

In fact, it was during Abe’s first stint as prime minister in 2006-07 that Japan and India unveiled their “strategic and global partnership” — a significant milestone that set in motion the rapid expansion of bilateral cooperation. In a 2011 speech in New Delhi, Abe said: “A strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.”

Today no other leader of a major power underlines the centrality of building strategic bonds with India as Abe does.

The fact is that Japan has gone from aiding China’s economic rise through technology transfers and generous Official Development Assistance (ODA) to trying to balance China’s emergence as a military threat. Japan has emerged as India’s critical source of capital and commercial technology. India overtook China a decade ago as the largest recipient of ODA, which is currently funding more than 60 Indian projects.

China has absorbed much of Japan’s emerging-market investments, but Japanese investors are now beginning to increasingly view China’s rising labor costs and political muscle-flexing as significant risks. After years of focusing on China, Japanese firms are seeking to moderate the risks by tapping the markets in India and Southeast Asia. In this context, India — with its vast domestic market and large, young and cheap labor force — is seeking to position itself as Japan’s investment partner of choice.

An ongoing shift in Japanese foreign direct investment has turned Japan into India’s largest source of FDI among major industrialized nations.

The number of Japanese companies operating in India has almost doubled over the past five years. Bilateral trade could reach $25 billion this year, roughly double the level four years ago, thanks to a 2011 comprehensive trade pact that aims to remove duties on most goods.

India’s human capital and Japan’s financial and technological power can be a good match to propel India’s infrastructure development and great-power aspirations, as well as catalyze Japan’s revival as a world power. There is clear potential for strong synergies.

At a time when China barely disguises its ambition to carve out an Asian dominion, the logic for Indo-Japanese strategic collaboration is no less compelling. Referring to “changes in the strategic environment” — an allusion to the rise of China as a muscular, authoritarian great power — Japan and India pledged in their common statement to work for “freedom, democracy and rule of law” and “contribute jointly to peace, stability and prosperity.”

Abe’s push for closer strategic bonds with India is part of his broader strategy of “proactive pacifism” to put discreet checks on any unbridled exercise of Chinese power. He, however, has had to deal with a tottering government in India.

Discussions on Japan’s offer to sell its ShinMaywa US-2i amphibious search-and-rescue aircraft, for example, have made little headway, although further talks are scheduled for March. Similarly, despite the two countries forging an alliance to develop rare earths so as to reduce their dependence on China for these vital minerals, the planned joint production in India has still to begin. Toyota Tsusho completed building a rare-earths processing plant in India’s Odisha state last year but remains locked in a price dispute with the state-owned Indian Rare Earths Limited.

New Delhi has eagerly sought a civilian nuclear deal with Japan, similar to the one it clinched with the U.S. in 2008. At a time when public sentiment in Japan against nuclear power is growing, the Abe administration has little incentive to conclude such an accord with a lame-duck Indian government facing an almost-certain election rout. Consequently, three rounds of talks in the past seven months have failed to produce even a draft accord.

Still, the level and frequency of bilateral engagement has become extraordinary in recent years. Every year, the two countries hold a summit, several ministerial-level meetings, and a 2-plus-2 dialogue involving senior officials from their foreign and defense ministries. India holds a 2-plus-2 dialogue with no other nation and an annual summit with only one other country — Russia.

The fact is that Japan and India have moved from emphasizing shared values to seeking to protect shared interests, including through joint naval exercises. Their emphasis is on holding high-quality military exercises involving plausible scenarios. Japan is to join this year’s Indo-U.S. “Malabar” naval maneuvers in the Pacific. The last such trilateral naval exercises occurred in 2009. In extending the invitation to Japan for this year’s exercises, Abe’s Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, declared that, “Japan is at the heart of India’s Look East policy.”

In the next phase, Japan-India collaboration will likely extend to missions in space. Both India and Japan have formidable space capabilities. While Japan has sophisticated rocket and satellite capabilities for both civilian and military use, India has developed and placed in orbit Asia’s largest fleet of satellites for remote sensing and communication purposes. After its unmanned lunar mission, India, with a new Mars mission, has overtaken China’s efforts in space, with an Indian spacecraft currently on its way to the red planet.

New institutional mechanisms for collaboration indicate that the role of personalities as drivers of the partnership will gradually become less important. However, if the entente is to ensure a pluralistic, stable Asian order and help transform Asian geopolitics, India and Japan need to add greater strategic and economic bulk to their ties.

A Tokyo-New Delhi duet must lead the effort to build Asian power equilibrium and safeguard vital sea lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

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

How the Japan-India alliance could redraw Asia’s geopolitical map

Brahma Chellaney

The National, February 2, 2014

Abe visitHighlighting the strengthening ties between Asia’s second- and third-largest economies, Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan, was the guest of honour at India’s January 26 Republic Day celebrations, just weeks after the landmark tour of India by the Japanese emperor and his wife.

Mr Abe’s presence at India’s national day parade, which included a display of the nuclear-armed country’s military might, symbolised the emerging Japan-India strategic alliance. This partnership holds the potential to shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China’s rise or America’s Asian “pivot”.

Since Japan and India unveiled a “strategic and global partnership” during Mr Abe’s first stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, their engagement has deepened at pace. The driving force behind their growing collaboration is China’s increasing assertiveness in Asia.

Through persistent nibbling and other strong-arm tactics, a resurgent China is seeking to disturb the territorial status quo. While most international attention has focused on Chinese incursions in the South and East China Seas, China has also been active along its long Himalayan border with India and in the waters of the Indian Ocean.

Asia’s balance of power will be shaped largely by events in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. By linking these two regions, the Indo-Japanese entente – underpinned by close maritime cooperation – can ensure Asian power equilibrium and help safeguard vital sea lanes.

Japan and India value, according to their joint statement last weekend, “freedom, democracy and rule of law” and seek “to contribute jointly to the peace, stability and prosperity of the region and the world, taking into account changes in the strategic environment” – an allusion to the ascent of a muscular China.

India and Japan, natural allies strategically located on opposite flanks of Asia, are energy-poor countries heavily reliant on oil and gas imports from the Arabian Gulf region. The two maritime democracies are seriously concerned by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and the transport routes for them. So, the maintenance of a peaceful and lawful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation, is critical to their security and economic well-being.

This is why they have held joint naval exercises since 2012. These are just one sign of a shift from emphasising shared values to seeking to protect common interests. During Mr Abe’s visit, India also invited Japan to join this year’s US-Indian naval manoeuvres, known by their Indian name “Malabar”.

The Indo-Japanese relationship, remarkably free of any strategic dissonance or bilateral dispute, traces its roots to the introduction of Buddhism in Japan in the sixth century. The Todaiji Temple in the ancient capital city of Nara is home to Japan’s most famous statue – a gilt bronze image of Lord Buddha.

The statue’s allegorical eyes-opening ceremony in the year 752 was conducted by a priest from India in the presence of Emperor Shomu, who declared himself a servant of the “Three Treasures” – the Buddha, Buddhist law and the monastic order. Japan’s cultural heritage from India extends to Sanskrit influence on the Japanese language.

The Japanese imperial couple’s Indian tour in early December was a watershed moment in Japan-India relations. In the more than 2,600-year history of the Japanese monarchy, no emperor had previously been to India, although India has traditionally been respected in Japan as Tenjiku, or the heavenly country of Buddhism.

Today, Japan is a critical source of capital and commercial technology for India. Indeed, there cannot be a better partner for India’s development than the country that was Asia’s first modern economic-success story, inspiring other Asian states.

Japan, spearheading Asia’s industrial and technology advances since the nineteenth century, was also the first country in the non-Western world to emerge as a world power in modern history – a success that opened the path to its imperial conquests.

Since 2011, Japan has emerged as India’s largest source of foreign direct investment from a major industrialised nation. India overtook China a decade ago as the largest recipient of Japan’s official development assistance, which includes loans, grants and technical assistance.

For Japan, India is central to both its economic-revival and security-building strategies.

Mr Abe’s dynamic leadership and control of both houses of parliament is aiding his moves to return Japan to the right track. “Abenomics”, for example, has succeeded in weakening the yen, making exports more competitive and boosting corporate profits.

As part of his broader strategy of “proactive pacifism” to create a web of interlocking partnerships with countries in China’s periphery, Mr Abe has pushed for close, enduring collaboration with New Delhi. His Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, has said that Indians “see Japan as a natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast” Indo-Pacific region, marked by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

A growing congruence of strategic interests led India and Japan to sign a Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation in 2008, a significant milestone in building a stable balance of power in Asia. This joint declaration was modelled on Japan’s 2007 defence cooperation accord with Australia – the only other country with whom Japan, a US military ally, has a security-cooperation arrangement. The India-Japan security declaration, in turn, spawned a similar Indian-Australian accord in 2009.

The budding alliance between Japan and India holds the potential to redraw the Asian geopolitical map. Through close collaboration with each other and with other like-minded Asian states, Asia’s two main democracies must lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in Asia.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author of Asian Juggernaut

(c) The National, 2014.

Japan and India: A Transformative Entente

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Nikkie Asian Review, January 23, 2014

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Asia’s future rests on the strategic triangle of China, India, and Japan — countries that have never before been strong at the same time. In the coming years, Asian geopolitics will be greatly influenced by an inexorable tightening of the bonds between Japan and India, which hope to fend off China’s growing assertiveness and territorial creep.

On the heels of the landmark Indian tour of Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be the guest of honor at India’s Republic Day parade Jan. 26. This underscores the fast-developing partnership between Asia’s second- and third-largest economies. The two countries are also ramping up defense cooperation, as agreed during a recent visit by Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.

Asia’s balance of power will be determined principally by events in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. By linking these two regions, the emerging Indo-Japanese entente holds virtually the same potential to shape the future as China’s ascent or America’s “pivot to Asia.”

Japan and India, natural allies strategically located on opposite flanks of the continent, have a pivotal role to play in ensuring a regional power equilibrium and safeguarding vital sea lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region — an essential hub for global trade and energy supply.

Complementary partners

The visit of Japan’s Imperial couple in early December was a watershed moment in Japan-India relations. In the more than 2,600-year history of the Japanese monarchy — the world’s oldest continuous hereditary royalty — no emperor had previously been to India, although India has traditionally been respected in Japan as Tenjiku, or the heavenly country of Buddhism.

New Delhi invited the emperor and empress a decade ago. But it was Abe, an admirer of India, who keenly supported their visit as a way to signal his government’s commitment to forging closer ties with New Delhi. Now, Abe’s chief-guest role at India’s national day celebration adds meaning to his talk of a new “arc of freedom and prosperity” connecting Asia’s two main democracies. If there is any potential pitfall to the partnership, it is their messy domestic politics, including a dysfunctional party system that weighs them down.

The fact is that Japan has gone from aiding China’s economic rise through technology transfers and generous official development assistance to trying to balance China’s emergence as a military power. India overtook China a decade ago as the largest recipient of Japanese ODA, which includes loans, grants and technical assistance. Through its ODA, Japan is helping India improve its poor infrastructure, among other programs.

China’s rising labor costs and political muscle-flexing are seen as risks for foreign investors. Meanwhile, India — with its vast domestic market and large, young and cheap labor force — is seeking to position itself as Japan’s investment partner of choice. Japanese companies are themselves aiming for a more regionally balanced approach after years of focusing on China, which has absorbed much of Japan’s emerging-market investments.

The resulting shift in foreign direct investment has turned Japan into India’s largest source of FDI among major industrialized nations. A weakening yen is set to spur only greater Japanese capital outflows, allowing India to attract more Japanese investment to help fund its large current-account deficit.

The contrast between disciplined Japan and tumultuous India is striking. India has the world’s largest youthful population, while Japan is aging more rapidly than any other developed country. Whereas India has always valued strategic autonomy, Japan remains a model U.S. ally that hosts not only a large U.S. troop presence but also pays generously for the upkeep of American forces on its soil. Japan’s contribution surpasses the combined host-nation support of America’s 26 other allies.

Yet the dissimilarities between Japan and India have much to do with the prospects for close collaboration. Japan’s heavy-manufacturing base and India’s services-led growth — as well as their contrasting age structures — make their economies complementary. India’s human capital and Japan’s financial and technological strength can be a good match to propel India’s infrastructure development and great-power aspirations, as well as catalyze Japan’s revival as a world power. There is clear potential for strong synergies.

The logic for strategic collaboration is no less compelling. If China, India and Japan constitute Asia’s scalene triangle — with China representing the longest Side A, India Side B, and Japan Side C — the sum of B and C will always be greater than A. It is thus little surprise that Japan and India are seeking to add strategic bulk to their quickly deepening relationship.

Indeed, the world’s most stable economic partnerships, such as the Atlantic community and the Japan-U.S. partnership, have been built on the bedrock of security collaboration. Economic ties lacking that strategic underpinning tend to be less stable and even volatile, as is apparent from China’s economic relations with Japan, India, and the U.S.

The transformative India-Japan entente promises to positively shape Asia’s power dynamics.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author, is a professor at the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi.

© Nikkie Asian Review, 2014.

How do Japan’s leaders reconcile with being on the wrong side of history?

Brahma Chellaney, The National, January 15, 2014

yasukuniHow did Yasukuni, a stately shrine in the heart of Tokyo, become the centre of an international controversy? For an answer, look not so much at the past as at the present, particularly as to how rival states in East Asia are using history as a political instrument.

Unassuaged historical grievances have sharpened rival territorial and maritime claims and constricted diplomatic space for building political reconciliation among China, Japan and South Korea.

In an atmosphere of nationalist grandstanding over conflicting narratives and territorial claims, the risks of a naval or air conflict by accident or miscalculation are increasing in the region, especially between China and Japan.

China and South Korea, which suffered under Japanese occupation, reacted angrily when Shinzo Abe last month became the first Japanese prime minister to pray at Yasukuni since Junichiro Koizumi, who defiantly went each year to the shrine during his 2001-2006 tenure.

Mr Abe, significantly, did not visit the shrine during a previous stint as prime minister. He may well have maintained his restraint had China not provocatively established an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) that sets a perilous precedent in international relations by covering islands that Beijing claims but does not control.

Yasukuni, built by the pre-war Japanese government, enshrines the spirits – not the bones or ashes – of Japan’s 2.5 million war dead, including 14 individuals who were convicted and executed as Class A war criminals by a military tribunal.

In keeping with the dictum that history is written by the winners, the tribunal delivered “victors’ justice”, with its proceedings tainted by extreme arbitrariness. Within a few years, Japan’s US occupation authorities freed a number of important Japanese who had been jailed, further undercutting the credibility of the original proceedings.

To China and South Korea, Yasukuni remains a symbol of Japan’s pre-war militarism, with its adjoining museum promoting the view that Japan waged aggression in Asia to liberate it from European colonial rule. Many foreigners contend that the museum presents a revisionist interpretation of the 20th century to portray Japan as the victim in order to rationalise its militaristic past.

All this, however, cannot obscure a key question: even if Japan must still atone for its past colonial rampage, doesn’t it have the same right today as other nations to honour its citizens killed in the Second World War?

All nations, after all, honour their war dead, even if they were the aggressors, plundering distant lands, as European colonial powers did.

Japanese culture, with its martial traditions, places a high premium on honouring the war dead, with the spirits of the fallen soldiers deified by the Japanese. In the absence of any other commemorative monument, Yasukuni serves as Japan’s war memorial.

Japanese politicians, especially those on the right, like to compare Yasukuni with the Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington DC, which also honours and memorialises the war dead.

Given that a prime ministerial visit to Yasukuni ignites nationalistic passions in China and South Korea, would these countries accept an alternative war memorial in Japan? What if Tokyo proposed building a national war memorial where Japan’s leaders could pay respects to the collective memory of the fallen heroes without igniting international controversy?

Such a proposal would most likely come under immediate attack from China and South Korea as a new Japanese project to honour past militarism. In other words, no war memorial, given Japan’s imperialist history, would be free of controversy.

But the history problem extends beyond Japan. Take the case of China, which justifies its increasingly muscular foreign policy by harping on the 110 years of national humiliation it suffered up to 1949. True, Western colonial powers heaped indignities, forcing China, for example, to import opium in return for Chinese goods, while occupying Japanese forces committed atrocities between 1937 and 1945.

China’s selective historical memory, however, is evident from its school textbooks, which blackout the Chinese invasion of Tibet (1950) and its aggression against India (1962) and Vietnam (1979). A Pentagon report has cited several examples of how China repeatedly has carried out military pre-emption since 1949 in the name of strategic defence.

South Korea has eliminated the last vestiges of Japanese colonial rule, with its president, Park Geun-hye, ruling out holding a summit with Mr Abe until his government addressed lingering issues over Japan’s occupation of Korea. By contrast, Taiwan – a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945 – has preserved and declared as national treasures its imperial-era structures, including the Presidential Office Building.

The fact is that history is still being used by some states to instil among their citizens an abiding sense of grievance and victimisation. China and Japan use Nanjing and Hiroshima-Nagasaki, respectively, as national symbols of crimes by outsiders against them.

To understand the risks to peace and stability from the widening gulf between economics and politics in East Asia, one must recall the situation that prevailed in Europe a century ago. Europe then was even more integrated by trade and investment than East Asia is today, with its royal families interrelated by marriage. Yet, Europe’s disparate economic and political paths led to the Second World War.

Lack of any security framework and weak regional consultation mechanisms in East Asia underscore its imperative to contain the increasing risks to peace by dispensing with historical baggage that weighs down interstate relationships. If the past is not to imperil the present or the future, regional states have little choice but to mend their political relations.

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

(c) The National, 2014.

Japan’s Obama Problem

BRAHMA CHELLANEY

A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated.

TOKYO — When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine last month, Chinese leaders, predictably, condemned his decision to honor those behind “the war of aggression against China.” But Abe was also sending a message to Japan’s main ally and defender, the United States. Faced with US President Barack Obama’s reluctance to challenge China’s muscle-flexing and territorial ambition in Asia — reflected in Japan’s recent split with the US over China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) — an increasingly desperate Abe was compelled to let both countries know that restraint cannot be one-sided.

For China and South Korea, the Yasukuni Shrine’s inclusion of 14 Class A war criminals who were executed after World War II has made it a potent symbol of Japan’s prewar militarism, and Abe long refrained from visiting it — including during his previous stint as prime minister. He may well have maintained that stance had China not established the ADIZ, which set an ominous new precedent by usurping international airspace over the East China Sea, including areas that China does not control. (Abe does not appear to have considered the possibility that his pilgrimage to Yasukuni might end up helping China by deepening South Korea’s antagonism toward Japan.)

The Obama administration had been pressing Abe not to aggravate regional tensions by visiting Yasukuni — an entreaty reiterated by Vice President Joe Biden during a recent stopover in Tokyo on his way to Beijing. In fact, Biden’s tour deepened Japan’s security concerns, because it highlighted America’s focus on balancing its relationships in East Asia, even if that means tolerating an expansionist China as the strategic equivalent of an allied Japan.

Instead of postponing Biden’s trip to Beijing to demonstrate disapproval of China’s new ADIZ, the US advised its commercial airlines to respect it, whereas Japan asked its carriers to ignore China’s demand that they file their flight plans through the zone in advance. By calling for Japanese restraint, the US stoked Japan’s anxiety, without winning any concession from China.

Now, the widening rift between the US and Japan has become starkly apparent. Abe feels let down by Obama’s decision not to take a firm stand on the ADIZ — the latest in a series of aggressive moves by China to upend the status quo in the East China Sea. For its part, the US government openly — and uncharacteristically — criticized Abe’s Yasukuni visit, releasing a statement saying that it was “disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan’s neighbors.”

Such recriminations do not mean that the US-Japan alliance — the bedrock of America’s forward military deployment in Asia — is in immediate jeopardy. Japan remains a model ally that hosts a large US troop presence, even paying for the upkeep of American forces on its soil — a generous contribution that surpasses the combined host-nation support of America’s 26 other allies, according to a Pentagon report. Indeed, Abe’s visit to Yasukuni came only a day after he completed a long-elusive, US-backed bilateral deal to relocate America’s air base in Okinawa to a less populous area of the island. And he supports Japan’s entry into the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership, an emerging regional trading bloc that will exclude China.

Nonetheless, a psychological schism between the Abe and Obama administrations has gradually developed. While the US frets about Abe’s nationalistic stance vis-à-vis China and South Korea, Japanese officials have stopped trying to conceal their uneasiness over Obama’s effort to balance alliance commitments with closer Sino-American ties. Biden spent more than twice as much time in discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping as he did with Abe.

The paradox is that while anxiety over China’s growing assertiveness has returned the US to the center of Asian geopolitics and enabled it to strengthen its security arrangements in the region, this has not led to action aimed at quelling China’s expansionary policies. As a result, Japan is becoming skeptical about America’s willingness to support it militarily in the event of a Chinese attack on the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in China). The Obama administration’s contradictory rhetoric — affirming that the US-Japan security treaty covers the Senkakus, while refusing to take a position on the islands’ sovereignty — has not helped.

wake-up call for Japan was Obama’s inaction in 2012, when China captured the Scarborough Shoal, part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In an effort to end a tense standoff, the US brokered a deal in which both countries agreed to withdraw their maritime vessels from the area. But, after the Philippines withdrew, China occupied the shoal — and, despite a mutual-defense treaty between the US and the Philippines, the US did little in response. This emboldened China effectively to seize a second Philippine-claimed shoal, part of the disputed Spratly Islands.

Factors like geographical distance and economic interdependence have made the US wary of entanglement in Asia’s territorial feuds. And, unlike Asian countries, America would not really suffer from a Chinese “Monroe Doctrine” declaring that China would not accept any outside intervention in Asia. But America’s neutrality on sovereignty disputes threatens to undermine its bilateral security alliances (which, by preventing countries like Japan from turning toward militarism, actually serve Chinese interests).

The Obama administration’s Asian balancing act obfuscates the broader test of power that China’s recent actions represent. What is at stake are not merely islands in the East and South China Seas, but a rules-based regional order, freedom of navigation of the seas and skies, access to maritime resources, and balanced power dynamics in Asia.

By fueling Japanese insecurity, US policy risks bringing about the very outcome — a return to militarism — that it aims to prevent.

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

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.

China’s game of chicken

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

China’s Nov. 23 declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) extending to territories it does not control is just the latest example of its jurisdictional creep that reflects a larger strategy to supplant the United States as the preeminent power in Asia. Yet U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has responded to China’s aggression with words of cautious criticism but no castigatory step, not even delaying Vice President Joe Biden’s Beijing visit. China gave no ground to Biden during his Dec. 4-5 visit.

Washington has not explicitly called on China to roll back the ADIZ. Indeed, with its advisory to U.S. airlines to respect China’s new ADIZ, it has opened a rift with ally Japan at a time when the imperative is for presenting a united front against an escalatory action that even Biden admits is “a unilateral attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” causing “significant apprehension in the region.”

Japan has asked its carriers to ignore China’s demand for advance notification of flights even if they are merely transiting the new zone and not heading toward Chinese airspace. This demand, unusual by international ADIZ standards, impinges on the principle of freedom of navigation of the skies.

Washington is signaling that if Beijing backed away from this unusual demand and set up a military hotline with Tokyo to forestall an accidental military flare-up, it may be willing to live with the Chinese ADIZ — a position certain to displease Japan.

Let’s be clear: At stake in the East China Sea are not just some flyspeck islands but regional power balance, a rules-based order, freedom of navigation of the skies and seas, and access to maritime resources, including seabed minerals. If China gets its way, the path to a Sino-centric Asia would open.

As China accumulates economic and military power, it has increasingly taken to flexing its muscles, ratcheting up territorial disputes with multiple neighbors and seeking to alter the status quo in Asia through surprise actions. This is alienating it from its neighbors and further calling into question its “peaceful rise” claim.

The ADIZ establishment was cleverly timed to coincide with the unveiling of the interim Iran nuclear deal in Geneva so as to take advantage of the U.S. and international distraction. Shrewdly timing an action and achieving a major tactical surprise against an opponent are key elements in China’s strategic doctrine.

China’s latest action is a reminder that Obama must turn his attention from the preoccupations of the Middle East to the potentially combustible situation in East Asia. To make the promise of his Asian “pivot” real, he must be willing to assert U.S. leadership in order to help tame China’s belligerence and reassure allies.

Sending two unarmed B-52 bombers on “routine” runs through the Chinese ADIZ was tokenism that cannot obscure the need for crafting a credible response. Unfortunately, Obama seems more interesting in balancing America’s relationships in Asia than in checkmating an aggressive China.

Obama’s Asia policy seeks to reap the benefits of building closer engagement with Asian states — including China, now central to U.S. economic and strategic interests — while charting a course of neutrality on sovereignty disputes. This delicate balancing act, however, implies strategic and moral equivalence, even though the coercion and aggression is largely by China against states that are America’s allies or strategic partners.

For example, in the current geopolitical crisis, Washington is urging restraint also on Japan’s part, lest any escalation force the U.S. to take sides, undermining its policy to manage China’s rise without trying to contain it. Washington is seeking to manage Sino-Japanese tensions, too, by urging both sides to tamp down their nationalistic rhetoric and reduce the risk of escalation or miscalculation through crisis-management and confidence-building measures. This is the message Biden took to Tokyo and Beijing.

Yet the focus on the dual management of China’s rise and Sino-Japanese tensions obfuscates the broader test of power in the Asia-Pacific that Chinese actions represent. It also obscures the then U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ January 2011 warning that China’s long-term goal is to push the United States and its military assets farther out in the Pacific.

In this light, the Obama administration’s stance not to challenge China directly only aids its creeping aggression in Asia.

China is nibbling at territories held by several neighbors, as highlighted by growing Chinese incursions across the long, disputed Himalayan border with India, its success in outwitting the Philippines to gain effective control of the Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal, and its aggressive moves against Vietnam over their unsettled maritime boundary.

Its self-declared ADIZ in the East China Sea even covers the sky over the South Korean-held Leodo Isle (“Suyan Rock” to Beijing), prompting Seoul to expand its own air-defense zone.

China’s ADIZ, while aimed at solidifying its claims to territories held by Japan and South Korea, increases regional tensions and the risks of Sino-Japanese conflict.

Compelling aircraft transiting the zone to accept the new Chinese rules won’t be easy for Beijing, given China’s limited early warning radar and in-flight refueling capabilities and the refusal of some neighboring states, especially Japan, to fall in line. As part of its step-by-step strategy, however, Beijing has no intention to enforce the zone immediately.

Efforts at enforcement will come later when circumstances are more favorable. Right now, the priority of China’s leaders is to prevail in the dangerous game of chicken that they have started.

If China is able to ride out international criticism while holding its ground, it will be emboldened to set up — as Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera has warned — a similarly expansive air-defense zone in the South China Sea, more than 80 percent of which it now formally claims. A Chinese government spokesman said Nov. 27, according to Xinhua, that “China will set up other ADIZs in due time after completing relevant preparations.”

That is why it is important for the U.S. to draw the line now over China’s territorial creep. Otherwise, China — in the absence of any geopolitical blowback — will continue to subvert the status quo in the East and South China Seas, along its border with India, and even on the cross-border flows of Asia’s major rivers, which originate in the Chinese-annexed Tibetan plateau.

Without a concerted U.S.-led effort to push back against China’s aggression in the East China Sea, it won’t be long before another Chinese encroachment occurs.

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

(c) The Japan Times, 2013.