Sri Lanka vote deals blow to China


Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review


China’s political investment in Sri Lankan strongman Rajapaksa, in the expectation that he would be a long-lasting autocrat, has backfired.

The crucial Aug. 17 parliamentary election in Sri Lanka — what increasingly looks like a “swing state” in the sharpening geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region — was a close contest, giving no party an absolute majority and thus ensuring the next government will be coalition-based. But in one respect, the poll outcome was decisive: By thwarting pro-China ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political comeback bid, it represented a defeat for Chinese diplomacy.

Sri Lanka, located virtually at the center of the Indian Ocean, straddles some of the world’s busiest sea lanes. Beijing has already pumped billions of dollars into this small, strategically located island-nation, seeking to turn it into a pivot of its “Maritime Silk Road” to Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The Maritime Silk Road is the new name for China’s strategy of building a so-called “string of pearls” along vital Indian Ocean shipping routes. Sri Lanka — where China has already built the large Hambantota port — is central to the Maritime Silk Road initiative.

The Chinese diplomatic drive in Sri Lanka, however, faces an uncertain future following two setbacks this year. The first came in January, with the shock defeat of Rajapaksa the first time around, to one-time ally Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential contest. Rajapaksa, during his nearly decade-long rule marked by increasing authoritarianism and accusations of nepotism and corruption, cozied up to China, awarding Beijing major contracts designed to make his country a key stop on the Chinese nautical “road.”

On Sri Lanka’s terms

When Sirisena won the presidency, however, he suspended the Chinese construction of a $1.4 billion, Dubai-style city on reclaimed land off Colombo, the capital. Several other Chinese projects have also been put off or delayed as Sirisena has ordered investigations into corruption and environmental breaches. Investigations are also underway into an alleged $1.1 million bribe paid by a Chinese state-run company to Rajapaksa’s failed presidential re-election campaign and the alleged role of his two brothers and his wife in misappropriating public funds.

Now, with the latest election results thwarting Rajapaksa’s bid to return to power as prime minister, China faces difficult choices in Sri Lanka. Pro-Western Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose United National Party has emerged as the largest party in the 225-member parliament, falling just short of an absolute majority, has promised to continue investment ties with Beijing but on Sri Lanka’s own terms, saying he welcomes “competitive” foreign direct investment proposals from all countries.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe have also underscored the imperative to “rebalance” relations with China. Under their leadership, Sri Lanka’s once-flagging relations with the U.S., India and Japan have significantly improved. Still, most of the stalled Chinese projects in Sri Lanka are likely to eventually resume after incorporating environmental safeguards, which might see some of them eventually scaled back.

China’s larger strategic ambitions in Sri Lanka, however, appear to have dimmed. Without Rajapaksa at the helm, China will be hard put to pursue “dual-use” infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka that serve both military and civilian purposes. One classic example of a dual-purpose project is Colombo’s new Chinese-owned commercial seaport, where two Chinese nuclear submarines and a warship docked last year during Rajapaksa’s family-dominated reign.

Plan B — the Maldives

With Sri Lanka slipping from its strategic grasp, Beijing might be forced to focus on its “Plan B” — the Maldives. China has been interested in leasing one of the 1,200 islands of the politically torn Maldives — the flattest state in the world and the smallest country in Asia in terms of population.

The Maldives recently adopted a constitutional amendment allowing foreign ownership of land, raising concern in New Delhi that the new law could open the path to the establishment of a Chinese naval base in India’s strategic backyard. But Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen, in a recent letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, said his government had no intention of allowing any country to set up a military base there.

The fact is that, with the international spotlight on its land reclamation and building of outposts in the South China Sea, China has quietly turned its sights to the Indian Ocean, the world’s new center of geopolitical gravity. China’s determination to take the sea route to gain regional hegemony was underscored by its new defense white paper, which outlined a plan for its navy to shift focus from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection.” In fact, the international attention on China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea has deflected attention from the artificial island it began building off Colombo before Sirisena suspended the megaproject to create a metropolis on 233 hectares of reclaimed land, with 108 hectares of the real estate to be owned by the state-owned company, China Communications Construction.

China’s heavy political investment in Rajapaksa, in the expectation that he would be a long-lasting autocrat, has clearly miscarried. Rajapaksa has been a war hero for many in the country’s dominant Sinhalese community but a war criminal for others: He is accused of presiding over war crimes while ruthlessly crushing a 26-year ethnic-Tamil insurgency in 2009 — a success that cost the lives of up to 40,000 civilians in the government’s final offensive against Tamil rebels. But his ouster in January revealed that many of his supporters seemed to have tired of the man for many reasons, not least the accusations of brazen nepotism, steady expansion of presidential powers, muzzling of civil liberties and favoring of China — even at the cost of national sovereignty.

“The dictatorial ways of Rajapaksa”

His successor, Sirisena, besides lifting restrictions on the media and the judiciary, has shed some of the Rajapaksa-expanded powers of the president and restored a two-term limit for an incumbent. This has strengthened the position of the prime minister, prompting Rajapaksa, ironically, to bid for that post. The choice for voters in the parliamentary election was between a return to the dictatorial ways of Rajapaksa, who blamed his political rivals for slowing economic growth by putting on hold the mainly China-backed infrastructure projects, and strengthening the “people’s revolution” that led to full-fledged democracy being restored in January — or as the campaign posters of Wickremesinghe’s UNP put it, between “jungle law” and “good governance.”

The outcome of the election, held peacefully with high voter turnout, represents a triumph of democracy. By handing Rajapaksa his second electoral defeat in eight months, it ensures that Sri Lanka will chart an independent foreign policy. It shows that genuine democracy works as a bulwark against the state mortgaging its sovereignty to become a key component of an external power’s regional strategy. By the same token, the erosion of democracy in the Maldives — where the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, was forced to resign at gunpoint in 2012 and who is now serving a 13-year jail term — creates risks for the state to get sucked into great-power rivalries in the Indian Ocean region. With Sri Lanka’s election over, it seems a good time to reflect on that point.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author of nine books, is professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. 

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2015.

Saving Tibet’s unique heritage


Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

China's gripThe Dalai Lama is the Tibetans’ god-king and also the embodiment of India’s leverage on the core issue with China — Tibet. But with the longest-living Dalai Lama having just turned 80, the future of both Tibet, and the leverage that India has shied away from exercising, looks more uncertain than ever. Beijing is waiting for the Tibetan leader to die in exile in India to install a puppet as his successor, in the way it has captured the Panchen Lama institution.

The Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday came just weeks after the 20th anniversary of China’s abduction of the Tibetan-appointed Panchen Lama, one of the world’s youngest and longest-serving political prisoners. And it will be followed by the 50th anniversary of the founding of what China deceptively calls the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region.’

This, in reality, is a gerrymandered and directly ruled Tibet, half of whose traditional areas have been taken away and incorporated in Chinese provinces. Tibet was almost the size of western Europe before it came under Chinese rule.

China’s conquest of the sprawling, resource-rich Tibet enlarged its landmass by more than 35 percent, turned it into India’s neighbor, armed it with control over Asia’s major river systems, and gave it access to a treasure-trove of mineral resources.

The Chinese name for Tibet since the Qing Dynasty of the Manchus — Xizang, or “Western Treasure Land” — underscores the great value that this restive region, strategically located in the heart of Asia, holds for China. With its galloping, often-improvident style of economic growth, China has depleted its own natural resources and now is avariciously draining resources from Tibet, the world’s highest plateau known as ‘the Roof of the World.’

Tibet — holding China’s biggest reserves of 10 different metals and serving as the world’s largest lithium producer — is now the focal point of China’s mining and damming activities, which threaten the fragile ecosystems and endemic species of the Tibetan plateau.

Tibet is one of the world’s most bio-diverse regions, with the rarest medicinal plants, the highest-living primates on Earth, and scores of bird, mammal, amphibian, reptile, fish, and plant species not found anywhere else. As a land that includes ecological zones from the arctic to subtropical, this plateau has a range of landscapes extending from tundra to tropical jungles, besides boasting the world’s steepest and longest canyon as well as its tallest peak, Mount Everest.

Serving as Asia’s main freshwater repository, largest water supplier, and principal rainmaker, Tibet plays a unique hydrological role. With its vast glaciers and permafrost, Tibet is called the “Third Pole” because it has the Earth’s largest perennial ice mass after the Arctic and Antarctica.

No development since India’s independence has carried greater implications for its long-term security than the fall of Tibet. Indeed, China’s military and resource advantage from capturing Tibet — which has led to the Tibetan plateau’s increasing militarization and the Chinese damming of its rivers, such as the Mekong, the Salween and the Brahmaputra — is turning into a strategic and environmental nightmare for downstream countries in Southeast and South Asia.

Yet for China, capturing the Dalai Lama institution has become a priority, as if it were the unfinished business of its takeover of the then-independent Tibet.

The aging 14th Dalai Lama, while coping with bouts of ill health, has publicly discussed a range of reincarnation possibilities that break from tradition, including his successor being a woman or being named while he is still alive.

To avert a Panchen Lama-type abduction, he has even suggested that he be the last Dalai Lama or that the 15th Dalai Lama be found in the “free world” — among Tibetan exiles or in the Tibetan Buddhism citadels of Ladakh and Tawang in India. He, however, has yet to issue clear-cut guidelines on his reincarnation, raising the question whether it is a calculated move or a risky hesitation.

Nevertheless, it is doubtful that things would go China’s way in Tibet merely by its installation of a marionette as the next Dalai Lama. Given how most Tibetans despise the China-appointed Panchen Lama as a fake, Beijing would be hard pressed to make its Dalai Lama appointee acceptable to them. Its bigger problem, however, would likely be different.

The present Dalai Lama, with his espousal of nonviolence and his conciliatory “Middle Way” approach of seeking Tibet’s autonomy without independence, has kept the Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule peaceful. But once he passes away, it is far from certain that the movement would remain peaceful or seek only autonomy. His “Middle Way” approach may not survive, thus closing Beijing’s window of opportunity to resolve the Tibet issue by conceding genuine, meaningful autonomy.

The Tibetan resistance movement, for its part, would become rudderless without the current Dalai Lama. This would fuel greater turbulence in a region that China has tried hard to pacify.

The 15th Dalai Lama chosen by Tibetans to take on Beijing’s doppelgänger appointee would be a small child. It was such a power vacuum that China exploited to invade and occupy Tibet when the present Dalai Lama was just 15. After the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, Tibet remained leaderless and wracked by fierce regent-related intrigues until the present Dalai Lama was hurriedly enthroned when the Chinese invasion started in 1950.

The next power vacuum in the Tibetan hierarchy could be historically momentous in sealing the fate of the Dalai Lama lineage, shaping Tibet’s destiny, and having an impact far beyond.

Given that China’s actions in Tibet pose a bigger challenge to India than any other country, New Delhi must not remain a mere spectator. India — home to a large Tibetan exile community, including the Tibetan government-in-exile, and directly bearing the impact of China’s activities on the Tibetan plateau — has a legitimate stake in Tibet’s future.

Tibet is to India against China what Pakistan is to China against India. But in sharp contrast to India’s qualms about playing the Tibet card, Beijing has had no hesitation to employ the Pakistan card against India, including by building Pakistan as a military and nuclear balancer on the subcontinent. Beijing also plays the Kashmir card against an inordinately defensive India.

Even as China politically shields Pakistani terrorism against India — exemplified by its recent step to block United Nations action against the Pakistani release of UN-designated terrorist Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi — it has stepped up its own engagement with insurgent groups in India’s northeast, including funneling arms to them via the Myanmar route and encouraging them to coalesce.

Tibet is India’s only important instrument of leverage against a muscular China bent upon altering the territorial, river-waters and geopolitical status quo and fomenting terrorism in India’s vulnerable northeast, which is sandwiched between Myanmar, Bangladesh, Tibet and Bhutan. Yet, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India unfortunately has resumed doing what his supposedly “weakling” predecessor Manmohan Singh had halted since 2010 — referring to Tibet as part of China in joint statements with Beijing.

Tibet, ever since China eliminated it as a buffer with India, has been at the heart of the Sino-Indian divide. It will remain so until Beijing pursues reconciliation and healing there.

Modi, given his dynamic, forward-looking foreign policy, must work to gradually reclaim India’s Tibet leverage against a China that openly challenges India’s territorial integrity by claiming Indian areas on the basis of their alleged ecclesial or tutelary links with annexed Tibet. China’s attempt at expanding annexation in this manner draws encouragement from India’s imprudent acceptance since the 1950s of Chinese suzerainty over Tibet.

The Dalai Lama is India’s strategic asset and ultimate trump card. If India is to safeguard its Tibet leverage for use, it must plan to act as a pivot in the Tibetan process to find, appoint and shield the next Dalai Lama.

In fact, with China’s mega-dams, mines and military activities in Tibet set to increasingly affect Asian environment and security, the world’s leading democracies must consider playing a role to help save the Tibetan plateau’s unique cultural and natural heritage from becoming extinct.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Japan Times, 2015.

Tibet After the Dalai Lama


A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.
China’s atheist government says only it has the authority to appoint the next Dalai Lama. It is as if Mussolini had claimed that only he could appoint the pope.
Dalai Lama at the  George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas on July 1, 2015

Dalai Lama at the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas on July 1, 2015

On the 80th birthday of the 14th Dalai Lama, who has been in exile in India since 1959, Tibet’s future looks more uncertain than ever. During his reign, the current Dalai Lama has seen his homeland – the world’s largest and highest plateau – lose its independence to China. Once he dies, China is likely to install a puppet as his successor, potentially eroding the institution.

China already appointed its pawn to the second-highest position in Tibetan Buddhism, the Panchen Lama, in 1995, after abducting the Tibetans’ six-year-old appointee, who had just been confirmed by the Dalai Lama. Twenty years later, the rightful Panchen Lama now ranks among the world’s longest-serving political prisoners. China also appointed the Tibetans’ third-highest religious figure, the Karmapa; but in 1999, at age 14, he fled to India.

This year marks one more meaningful anniversary for Tibet: the 50th anniversary of the founding of what China calls the “Tibet Autonomous Region.” The name is highly misleading. In fact, Tibet is directly ruled by China, and half of its historic territory has been incorporated into other Chinese provinces.

With its conquest of Tibet in 1950-1951, China enlarged its landmass by more than one-third and fundamentally altered Asia’s geostrategic landscape. China became neighbors with India, Nepal, and Bhutan, and gained control over the region’s major river systems. Rivers that originate in water-rich Tibet are vital to support the world’s two most populous countries, China and India, as well as the arc of countries stretching from Afghanistan to Vietnam.

For China, capturing the 437-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama appears to be the final step in securing its hold over Tibet. After all, since fleeing to India, the Dalai Lama – Tibet’s rightful political and spiritual leader (though he ceded his political role to a democratically elected government in exile in 2011) – has been the public face of resistance to Chinese control of Tibet. In recent years, however, China has employed its growing influence – underpinned by the threat of diplomatic and economic pain – to compel a growing number of countries not to receive the Dalai Lama, thereby reducing his international visibility.

China’s government, having issued a decree in 2007 that bans senior lamas from reincarnating without official permission, is essentially waiting for the current Dalai Lama to die, so that it can exercise its self-proclaimed exclusive authority to select his successor. China’s leaders seem not to be struck by the absurdity of an atheist government choosing a spiritual leader. It is as if Mussolini had claimed that only he, not the College of Cardinals, could appoint the pope.

The aging Dalai Lama has publicly discussed a range of unorthodox possibilities for the future disposition of his soul – from being reincarnated as a woman to naming his successor while he is still alive. Moreover, he has suggested that the next Dalai Lama will be found in the “free world,” implying that he will be reincarnated as a Tibetan exile or in India’s Tawang district, where the sixth Dalai Lama was born in the seventeenth century.

Such declarations have motivated China to claim, since 2006, India’s entire Arunachal Pradesh state as “South Tibet” and to press India, in the negotiations over the long-disputed Himalayan border, to relinquish at least the part of the Tawang district located in that state. But the declaration that has most infuriated China was the one he made last December, suggesting that he would be the last Dalai Lama.

China knows that there is every reason to expect that restive Tibet, whose people have largely scorned the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama as a fraud, would not accept its chosen Dalai Lama. If the Dalai Lama issued clear guidelines about his own reincarnation, Tibetans would be even less likely to accept China’s appointment. The question is why the Dalai Lama has hesitated to do so.

The biggest risk stemming from the Dalai Lama’s passing is violent resistance to Chinese repression in Tibet. As it stands, the Dalai Lama’s commitment to nonviolence and conciliation – exemplified in his “middle way” approach, which aims for Tibet to gain autonomy, but not independence – is helping to ensure that Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule remains peaceful and avoids overt separatism.

Indeed, over the last 60 years, Tibetans have pursued a model resistance movement, untainted by any links with terrorism. Even as China’s repression of Tibet’s religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage becomes increasingly severe, Tibetans have not taken up arms. Instead, they have protested through self-immolation, which 140 Tibetans have carried out since 2009.

But, once the current Dalai Lama is gone, this approach may not continue. Younger Tibetans already feel exasperated by China’s brutal methods – not to mention its sharp rebuff, including in a recent white paper, of the Dalai Lama’s overtures. Against this background, a Chinese-appointed “imposter” Dalai Lama could end up transforming a peaceful movement seeking autonomy into a violent underground struggle for independence.

Given that the rightful Dalai Lama would be a small child, and thus incapable of providing strong leadership to the resistance movement, such an outcome would be all the more likely. China exploited just such a situation, when the current Dalai Lama was only 15, to invade and occupy Tibet.

After the 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, a leaderless Tibet was plagued by political intrigue, until the present Dalai Lama was formally enthroned in 1950. The next power vacuum in the Tibetan hierarchy could seal the fate of the Dalai Lama lineage and propel Tibet toward a violent future, with consequences that extend far beyond that vast plateau.

© Project Syndicate, 2015.

World’s geopolitical center of gravity shifts to Indian Ocean


Brahma Chellaney, Nikkie Asian Review

The Indian Ocean Rim is set to eclipse the Pacific Rim

Indian Ocean Rim is set to eclipse Pacific Rim

As a bridge between Asia and Europe, the Indian Ocean has become the new global center of trade and energy flows, with half the world’s container traffic and 70% of its petroleum shipments traversing its waters. But there is a very real danger of this critical region becoming the hub of global geopolitical rivalry.

The region includes the entire arc of Islam, extending from the Indonesian archipelago to the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Competition between key political powers for its resources is intensifying, even as threats to maritime security grow.

A fragile center?

According to several assessments, including a study by Harvard’s Center for International Development, the Indian Ocean Rim is likely to eclipse the Pacific Rim as the most important economic region in the world.

Growth in China and developed economies is slowing, and India and East Africa are expected to become the new drivers of global growth over the next decade. As a result, the Indian Ocean region will likely become both a global maritime hub and an economic growth center — and as such strategic jockeying by great powers will undoubtedly increase in the years ahead.

At the same time, the region also has the world’s largest concentration of fragile or failing states — from Yemen and Somalia to Pakistan and the Maldives. Moreover, it is wracked by the world’s highest incidence of transnational terrorism. Security in the Indian Ocean is a pressing concern given the increasing importance of its maritime resources and sea lanes.

The region’s rim states may share a number of common interests — sea-lane security, environmental protection, regulated resource extraction, and rules-based cooperation and competition, to name a few — but they are far from becoming a community with common values. In fact, in no part of the world is the security situation so dynamic as it is along the Indian Ocean Rim.

Against this background, threats to navigation and maritime freedoms are increasing.

One source of threats comes from cross-border disputes related to maritime boundaries, sovereignty and jurisdiction. Myanmar and Bangladesh, and India and Bangladesh, have set an example by peacefully resolving their maritime-boundary issues through international adjudication or arbitration. But unresolved disputes involving other countries in the region carry serious potential for conflict.

Several states restrict freedom of navigation in their exclusive economic zones while engaged in military activities, such as surveillance by ship. The threats to navigation and maritime freedom in the Indian Ocean can be countered only through adherence to rules agreed upon by all parties and through monitoring, regulation and enforcement.

Challenges of gatekeeping

Another regional concern centers directly on sea-lane security, given the Indian Ocean’s importance to global trade and energy flows and the potential vulnerability of the chokepoints around it. These chokepoints include the Strait of Malacca, situated between Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, the Strait of Hormuz, between Iran and Oman, the Horn of Africa, between Djibouti, Eritrea and Yemen, and the routes to and from the Cape of Good Hope through the Mozambique Channel.

Safeguarding the various gateways to the Indian Ocean is thus a vital security issue, and outside powers have sought to secure these points by pursuing strategic cooperation with key coastal states. Such cooperation extends to naval training, joint military exercises and anti-piracy operations.

At the same time, the paucity of land-based natural resources in the Indian Ocean Rim has stoked competition over ocean resources, such as seafood and mineral wealth.

Deep seabed mining has emerged as a major new strategic issue and competition over such minerals is intensifying. Even an outside power like China has secured a block in the southwestern Indian Ocean from the International Seabed Authority to explore for seabed minerals.

At stake is a treasure trove of minerals, from sulfide deposits containing valuable metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc, to phosphorus nodules, mined for the phosphor-based fertilizers used in food production. The competition for these resources underscores the need for a regulatory regime that ensures environmental protection and safeguards the region’s common heritage.

The Indian Ocean region is a microcosm of the global challenges of the 21st century. In addition to terrorism, piracy and other threats to the safety of sea lanes, those challenges extend into nontraditional maritime-security domains.

For example, 70% of the world’s natural disasters occur in the Indian Ocean Rim, typically floods, cyclones, droughts and tsunamis, but also geological events such as earthquakes and landslides. These disasters present a high humanitarian risk.

No less significant is the fact that the region is on the front line of climate change. It has states whose very future is imperiled by global warming, including the Maldives, Mauritius and Bangladesh. With many megacities, energy plants and industries located in densely populated areas near the sea, the vulnerability of its coastal infrastructure has emerged as an important concern.

Put simply, this is a region where old and new challenges converge. It is also a place where the old world order — as epitomized by the Anglo-American military base at Diego Garcia and the French-administered islands — coexists uneasily with the emerging new order.

Power plays

Great-power rivalries are clearly compounding maritime-security challenges in the Indian Ocean. India may be the largest local power, but China has started challenging it in its maritime backyard. In response, India is working to revive linkages along the ancient spice trading route that once stretched from Southeast Asia to Europe, with southern India as its hub.

China has become the most active outside player in the region and is challenging the existing balance of power. This is in keeping with the greater maritime role it is openly seeking for itself. Its newly released defense white paper says that the Chinese navy will shift focus from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection.” One example of China’s increasing interest in the Indian Ocean is its move to set up a naval base in Djibouti, which overlooks the narrow Bab al-Mandeb straits.

Determined to take the sea route to world-power status and challenge the U.S.-led order, China is likely to step up its strategic role in the Indian Ocean. These ambitions are reflected in China’s submarine forays there since last autumn and in its Maritime Silk Road trade route initiative. Whether this “Maritime Silk Road” is just a benign-sounding new name for China’s “string of pearls” strategy is an important question that cannot be dismissed.

The Indian Ocean routes

The Indian Ocean routes

There are other maritime-security issues in the Indian Ocean as well. For example, some important players, including the United States and Iran, are not yet party to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS. China is a party, but it refused — in a case brought against it by the Philippines — to accept the convention’s dispute-settlement mechanism, as represented by the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In 2013, Iran seized an Indian oil tanker and held it for nearly a month, but India had no recourse, as Tehran had not ratified UNCLOS.

In this light, the 1971 U.N. General Assembly resolution declaring the Indian Ocean a “zone of peace” has become more important than ever. Indeed, in coming years, the Indian Ocean is likely to determine the wider geopolitics, maritime order and balance of power in Asia, the Persian Gulf and beyond. Developments in East Asia, where the power balance is unlikely to fundamentally change, will likely be of less importance than those in the Indian Ocean Rim, where the power balance is under threat.

Given this reality, the U.S., Japan, India, Australia and other important players must recalibrate their Indian Ocean policies and put greater focus on ensuring peace, safeguarding sea lanes and guaranteeing access to the global commons.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

© Nikkie Asian Review, 2015.

Understanding China’s Indian Ocean strategy



downloadWhat are Chinese attack submarines doing in the Indian Ocean, far from China’s maritime backyard, in what is the furthest deployment of the Chinese Navy in 600 years?

Two Chinese subs docked last fall at the new Chinese-built and -owned container terminal in Colombo, Sri Lanka. And recently a Chinese Yuan-class sub showed up at the Pakistani port city of Karachi.

The assertive way China has gone about staking its territorial claims in the South and East China seas has obscured its growing interest in the Indian Ocean. This ocean has become the new global center of trade and energy flows, accounting for half the world’s container traffic and 70 percent of its petroleum shipments.

China’s newly released defense white paper, while outlining regional hegemony aspirations, has emphasized a greater focus on the seas, including an expanded naval role beyond its maritime backyard. The white paper says that, as part of China’s effort to establish itself as a major maritime power, its navy will shift focus from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection” — a move that helps explain its new focus on the Indian Ocean, with the Maritime Silk Road initiative at the vanguard of the Chinese grand strategy. To create a blue water force and expand its naval role, China is investing heavily in submarines and warships, and working on a second aircraft carrier.

President Xi Jinping’s pet project is about expanding and securing maritime routes to the Middle East and beyond through the Indian Ocean, which is the bridge between Asia and Europe. Xi’s dual Silk Road initiatives — officially labeled the “One Belt, One Road” — constitute a westward strategic push to expand China’s power reach. Indeed, Xi’s Indian Ocean plans draw strength from his more assertive push for Chinese dominance in the South and East China seas.

The Chinese maneuvering in the Indian Ocean — part of China’s larger plan to project power in the Middle East, Africa and Europe — aims to challenge America’s sway and chip away at India’s natural-geographic advantage. Xi has sought to carve out an important role for China in the Indian Ocean through his Maritime Silk Road initiative, while his overland Silk Road is designed to connect China with Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin and Europe.

The common link between the two mega Silk Road projects is Pakistan, which stands out for simultaneously being a client state of China, Saudi Arabia and the United States — a unique status.

During a visit to Pakistan in April, Xi officially launched the project to connect China’s restive Xinjiang region with the warm waters of the Arabian Sea through a 3,000 km overland transportation corridor extending to the Chinese-built Pakistani port of Gwadar. This project makes Pakistan the central link between the maritime and overland Silk Roads. The Xi-launched corridor to Gwadar through Pakistan-held Kashmir — running in parallel to India’s Japanese-financed New Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor — will hook up the two Silk Roads.

Indeed, a stable Pakistan has become so critical to the ever-increasing Chinese strategic investments in that country that Beijing has started brokering peace talks between the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban and Kabul. This effort has been undertaken with the backing not just of Pakistan but also of the U.S., thus underscoring the growing convergence of Chinese and American interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt.

More broadly, with China’s officially disclosed defense budget soaring from $35 billion in 2006 to $141 billion in 2015, Xi has not only emphasized “active defense” but also articulated a more expansive role for his country than any modern Chinese leader other than Mao Zedong. His maritime goal is to redraw the larger geopolitical map by bringing within China’s orbit regional countries, especially those in the Indian Ocean Rim, which extends from Australia to the Middle East and Southern Africa. This region has the dubious distinction of having the world’s largest concentration of fragile or failing states.

The Maritime Silk Road initiative, with its emphasis on high-visibility infrastructure projects, targets key littoral states located along the great trade arteries. At a time of slowing economic growth in China, infrastructure exports are also designed to address the problem of overproduction at home.

By presenting commercial penetration as benevolent investment and credit as aid, Beijing is winning lucrative overseas contracts for its state-run companies, with the aim of turning economic weight into strategic clout. Through its Maritime Silk Road — a catchy new name for its “string of pearls” strategy — China is already challenging the existing balance of power in the Indian Ocean.

Beijing, while seeking to co-opt strategically located states in an economic and security alliance led by it, is working specifically to acquire naval-access outposts through agreements for refueling, replenishment, crew rest and maintenance. Its efforts also involve gaining port projects along vital sea lanes of communication, securing new supplies of natural resources, and building energy and transportation corridors to China through Myanmar and Pakistan.

One example of how China has sought to win influence in the Indian Ocean Rim is Sri Lanka. It signed major contracts with Sri Lanka’s now-ousted president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to turn that country — located along major shipping lanes — into a major stop on the Chinese nautical “road.” The country’s new president, Maithripala Sirisena, said on the election-campaign trail earlier this year that the Chinese projects were ensnaring Sri Lanka in a debt tap, with the risk that “our country would become a colony and we would become slaves.”

Another example is China’s current effort to set up a naval base in Djibouti, which overlooks the narrow Bab al-Mandeb straits. This channel, separating Africa from the Arabian Peninsula and constituting one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, leads into the Red Sea and north to the Mediterranean.

In February 2014, Beijing signed a military accord with Djibouti allowing the Chinese Navy to use facilities there, a move that angered the U.S., which already has a military base in that tiny Horn of Africa nation. Now, according to the county’s president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, China wants to establish its own naval base at Obock, Djibouti’s northern port city.

Beijing is also interested in leasing one of the 1,200 islands of the politically torn Maldives. Xi has toured several of the key countries in the Indian Ocean Rim that China is seeking to court, including the Maldives, Tanzania and Sri Lanka.

From China’s artificially created islands in the South China Sea to its ongoing negotiations for a naval base in Djibouti, the maritime domain has become central to Xi’s great-power ambitions. Yet it is far from certain that he will be able to realize his strategic aims in the Indian Ocean Rim, given the lurking suspicions about China’s motives and the precarious security situation in some regional states.

One thing is clear though: China wants to be the leader, with its own alliances and multilateral institutions, not a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-created architecture of global governance. It is building naval power to assert sovereignty over disputed areas and to project power in distant lands. Determined to take the sea route to secure global power status and challenge the U.S.-led order, China is likely to step up its strategic role in the Indian Ocean — the world’s new center of geopolitical gravity.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist, author and long-standing contributor to The Japan Times.

© The Japan Times, 2015.

Beijing’s bendable principles


China claims neighbors’ territories by inventing the ingenious principle “what is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable.”

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, June 13, 2015

c307762e-1da4-453b-85aa-8be9c65c59e4wallpaper1Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to publicly identify China on Chinese soil as an obstacle to closer bilateral ties by asking Beijing to “reconsider its approach” on some key issues. In a similar vein, his national security advisor, Ajit Doval, has classified China’s border stance as a “complete contravention of accepted principles,” pointing out that the Chinese agreed to the McMahon Line in “settling the border with Myanmar” but say “the same line is not acceptable in the case of India, particularly in Tawang.”

Don’t be surprised by this illogicality: In none of its disputes with neighboring countries has China staked a territorial claim on the basis of international law or norms. Rather, its claims flow from its revanchist view of the past — a shifting standpoint that reinterprets history to legitimize claims to territories long held by other countries. Because China does not apply the rule of law at home, it does not recognize its value in international relations.

For China, principles have always been bendable. And when it cannot bend a principle, it creates a new one.

Take its territorial disputes with India: Content with its Switzerland-size land grab (Aksai Chin) in India’s western sector, China pursues expansive claims in the eastern sector that highlight its ingenious principle to covet neighbors’ territories — “what is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable.”

Having just articulated regional-hegemony aspirations in its defense white paper, China — an outside power — wants to carve out a major role for itself in the Indian Ocean. It has invited India to collaborate with it on deep seabed mining there and join its Maritime Silk Road. Yet it opposes any Indian involvement in the South China Sea. “My sea is my sea but your ocean is our ocean” seems to be a new Chinese saying.

Since 2006, Beijing has claimed the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh, in northeastern India, as “South Tibet.” To draw attention to the state’s purported Tibetan identity, it has cooked up Tibetan names for subdivisions of Arunachal Pradesh (which includes the Tawang Valley, the gateway to the Dalai Lama’s 1959 escape from his homeland). In border negotiations in recent years, it has pressed India to cede at least Tawang.

China originally fashioned its claim to resource-rich Arunachal Pradesh — a territory almost three times larger than Taiwan — as a bargaining chip to compel India to recognize its occupation of the Aksai Chin plateau. For this reason, China withdrew from the Arunachal areas it had invaded in the 1962 war but retained its territorial gains in Aksai Chin, which provides the only passageway between its rebellious regions — Tibet and Xinjiang. But now, by ratcheting up the Arunachal issue with India, China is signaling that Arunachal (or at least Tawang) is the new Taiwan that must be “reunified” with the Chinese state.

The Dalai Lama, however, has said publicly that Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang, was traditionally not part of Tibet. Tawang indeed is a Monpa tribal area, and was separated from Tibet by a well-recognized customary line. The Monpas, like several other Himalayan communities, practice Tibetan Buddhism. They belong to the Gelukpa (“Yellow Hats”) sect.

Significantly, China made its specific claim to Tawang not before it waged war against India in 1962 but decades later as part of a maximalist boundary-related stance extending to several other neighbors. For example, China has not only escalated its challenge to Japan’s century-old control of the Senkaku Islands, but is also facing off against the Philippines since sneakily seizing the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

The India-China border negotiations have dragged on for 34 years — a world record. With no headway on reaching a frontier settlement, Modi in Beijing rightly emphasized the imperative to resume the process — derailed by China 13 years ago — to clarify the line of actual control (LAC). If the LAC remains ill-defined, can confidence-building measures be effective? To facilitate its cross-border military forays, China, however, still opposes clarification, even though the clarification can be done, as Modi pointed out, “without prejudice” to either side’s “position on the boundary question.” In 2002, after more than two decades of negotiations, China reneged on a promise to exchange maps with India covering the two main disputed sectors — Aksai Chin, along with its adjacent areas, and Arunachal Pradesh — located at either end of the Himalayas.

Doval has done well to highlight China’s hypocrisy in accepting the watershed principle — and thus the McMahon Line — with Myanmar but not with India.

Watershed (also called “river basin,” “drainage basin,” and “catchment”) is the total land area that drains surface water into a watercourse like a river, lake, pond, or aquifer. A watershed, easily identifiable on topographic maps, is delineated by a ridge or drainage divide marking the runoff boundary. Below a ridge line, all water will naturally flow downhill. A watershed boundary is identified on a topographic map by first locating the lowest point, or watershed outlet, and then establishing the highest runoff point.

The colonial-era McMahon Line was drawn on the watershed principle — a well-established international norm for boundary demarcation. Many countries have settled their boundaries on the watershed principle.

In its October 1, 1960, boundary pact with Myanmar, China settled by acquiescing in the McMahon Line, which delineated the customary border on the basis of the watershed principle. Any deviation from the McMahon Line in the accord was minor and largely necessitated by the task of producing maps of the entire 2,200-km border at 1:50,000 scale, in contrast to the thickly-marked McMahon Line.

Make no mistake: While China settled with Myanmar with a few relatively minor rectifications, it is not seeking slight adjustments with India in the eastern sector. Rather, it covets major chunks of real estate — its largest territorial claims against any nation. Myanmar, of course, poses no threat to China. But the 1960 settlement was also driven by Chinese foreign-policy compulsions, underscored by an insurrection in Tibet since 1959 and border tensions and skirmishes with India.

In deference to Beijing, the pact did not mention the McMahon Line but referred to it euphemistically as the “traditional customary line.” According to the Australian academic Brendan Whyte, “While the McMahon Line was followed here, it was used not because it was the McMahon Line, but because it happened to be a sensible boundary.” More importantly, if China openly acknowledged a line agreed to by the Tibet and British Indian governments, it would be admitting that Tibet was independent then — a historical reality Beijing remains loath to accept.

In fact, just six months after Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that China would never accept the McMahon Line, Beijing bestowed implicit respectability on that line by signing the Myanmar pact. The accord came in record time — in just nine months after a joint committee was set up to define the border and frame a treaty. The pact settled the boundary in alignment with the watershed between the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers and the “traditional customary line” (the McMahon Line).

For China, the boundary question with India is not just a territorial issue but, more fundamentally, a means to keep its peer rival under pressure and on the defensive constantly. Modi’s visit, unlike President Xi Jinping’s India trip, passed without any reported frontier intrusion, yet the danger remains — given China’s risk-taking muscularity — that a border faceoff could plunge the relationship into renewed antagonisms.

India should do what it can to prevent the frontier disputes and tensions from escalating, while factoring in the likelihood that China will not settle the border with it unless the Chinese communist system or economy crashes. But just as China plays all its cards against India and rears even new ones, India must shed its reticence and do likewise. Without building countervailing leverage, India cannot hope to tame Chinese intransigence and belligerence.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2015.

What are Chinese submarines doing in the Indian Ocean?

The Huffington Post

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

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

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

Not a Marshall Plan

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

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

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

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

Purchasing Friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Submarines in Colombo

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

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

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

© China US Focus, 2015.