Japan’s constitutional millstone

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY

The Japan Times, February 21, 2015

By underscoring Japan’s powerlessness to act or retaliate, the Islamic State group’s separate beheading of two Japanese hostages recently has brought Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cherished goal of reforming the U.S.-drafted Constitution back into national focus. No other country in the world is bound by the kind of constitutional restrictions that were imposed on vanquished Japan by occupying American forces in 1947.

The Constitution prohibits Japan from acquiring the means of war and bars its purely defensive military, called the Self-Defense Forces, from staging rescue missions or other overseas operations to free Japanese hostages. Indeed, to set up wholly defensive armed forces in the 1950s, Japan had to loosely interpret the Constitution’s force-renouncing Article 9, which says “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.”

Yet Japan has clung to that Constitution for 68 years without so much as carrying out a single amendment or changing even one word. Many other democracies regard their constitutions not as cast in stone but as open to change so that they stay abreast with new social, technological and economic developments. For example, India — whose constitution is almost as old as Japan’s — has incorporated 99 amendments thus far. There have been fewer amendments — 27 — to the U.S. Constitution since its enactment in 1787.

AbeNo constitution can be perfect. A constitution, like the democratic system it embodies, should be open to improvements. In this light, Abe has made an impassioned appeal for constitutional reform, suggesting that the time may have come to emulate the same kind of far-reaching change that allowed Japan to rise from the ashes of its World War II defeat. Addressing the Diet, he asked: “For the future of Japan, shouldn’t we accomplish in this Diet the biggest reform since the end of the war?”

Abe’s contention that the Constitution no longer reflects the realities now facing Japan and thus needs to be updated is strengthened by another fact: Germany, also defeated in World War II, has made 59 amendments to its Basic Law, or constitution, which it adopted when it was under Allied occupation.

Japan and Germany regained sovereignty from military occupation only after embracing constitutional guarantees against any future threats from them to peace. West Germany’s new constitution, while outlawing a war of aggression, authorized military force in self-defense or as part of a collective security agreement. However, Japan’s Article 9 went further, stating that “the Japanese people forever renounce … the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” By forcing Japan to renounce war as “a sovereign right of the nation,” the Constitution imposed stringent restraints.

The constitutional fetters were a punishment for the policies of Japan’s wartime government and designed to forestall Japan from ever again engaging in militarist expansion. Although the Constitution was readily embraced by a war-weary Japanese public and continues to enjoy popular support today, it will be unrealistic to expect its exceptional restraints to last forever.

Abe indeed has seized on the terrorist beheadings to refocus on constitutional revision, signaling that he would push in that direction after elections to the Diet’s upper house, scheduled for the summer of 2016.

Cementing his grip on power after his party’s victory in a snap national election in December, Abe wants to reshape Japan by helping it to break free from the fetters of the past and by making it more competitive. He has tied his constitutional-reform agenda to Japan’s “normalization” as a nation at a time when the ascent of an increasingly muscular China has exacerbated the regional security environment, posing a direct challenge for Tokyo.

Abe has already reinterpreted the Constitution on “collective self-defense,” a step that would allow Japan to come to the aid of its allies. The move has been criticized by some in Japan as well as by Beijing, which frets about potential recrudescence of militarism in Japan, although it is China’s own military buildup and pressure on Tokyo that is prompting the Japanese government to reappraise national defense.

The United Nations charter recognizes individual and collective self-defense as an “inherent right” of nations. The Abe Cabinet’s U.S.-supported constitutional reinterpretation of the “collective self-defense” issue last July actually amounts to little more than a tweak — permitting Japanese forces, for example, to shield an American warship defending Japan but without arming Tokyo with the right to initiate offensive attacks or participate in multilateral military operations. Legislation to put this reinterpretation into practice is to be submitted in the current Diet session, which will last up to June.

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

Indeed, a poll by the World Values Survey last year revealed that Japanese rank the lowest in their “willingness to fight for the country,” with only 15.3 percent of Japanese — and just 9.5 percent of Japanese under 30 — expressing readiness to defend their nation, compared with 74.2 percent of Chinese and 57.7 percent of American.

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

Given such entrenched attitudes, the Abe government took recourse to reinterpreting Article 9 on the collective self-defense issue. However, any actual amendment of Article 9 does not seem feasible at present, especially as long as the small Komeito party remains part of the ruling coalition.

In fact, such are the current obstacles to constitutional revision that what Abe can hope for in his term is effecting, at best, a relaxation of amendment procedures, leaving Article 9′s modification to a successor government. Yet accomplishing even that limited goal remains uncertain. Given the strongly pacifist sentiment in society and the power of constitutional fundamentalists, it is an open question whether any proposed amendment of Article 96 to lower the revision bar — even if it were to clear both houses of the Diet with two-thirds majority — would win public support in a referendum.

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

Japan is the only power that can block China from gaining ascendancy in the region. America’s Japan policy, however, remains more geared to keeping that country as a U.S. protectorate than allowing it to directly aid the central U.S. policy objective in the Asia-Pacific — a stable balance of power.

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

Meanwhile, Japanese must engage in an open and free debate on their Constitution. Such a debate should focus on what provisions in the Constitution need to be updated, improved, upgraded or expanded given new security, economic, social and political realities. Only such a debate can set the stage for reform that helps Japan to free itself from its constitutional millstone.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2015.

Japan’s Constitutional Albatross

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

downloadThe approach of the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II has sparked much discussion – and lamentation – of East Asia’s resurgent historical feuds. But recent tensions in the region may partly reflect a lack of progress in another, overlooked area: Japanese constitutional reform. Indeed, despite the powerlessness so vividly highlighted by the Islamic State’s beheading of two Japanese hostages, Japan has not adopted even one amendment to the “peace constitution” that the occupying American forces imposed on it in 1947.

At first glance, this may not be altogether surprising. After all, the constitution served an important purpose: by guaranteeing that Japan would not pose a military threat in the future, it enabled the country finally to escape foreign occupation and pursue rebuilding and democratization. But consider this: Germany adopted an Allied-approved constitution under similar circumstances in 1949, to which it has since made dozens of amendments.

Moreover, whereas Germany’s constitution, or Basic Law, authorized the use of military force in self-defense or as part of a collective security agreement, Japan’s constitution stipulated full and permanent relinquishment of “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Japan is the only country in the world bound by such restrictions – imposed not just to prevent a militarist revival, but also to punish Japan for its wartime government’s policies – and continued adherence to them is unrealistic.

That is why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made constitutional reform a high priority. Having cemented his authority in December’s snap general election, in which his Liberal Democratic Party won a decisive victory, Abe is determined to pursue his goal of building a stronger, more competitive Japan – one that can hold its own against an increasingly muscular China.

Abe’s effort to “normalize” Japan’s strategic posture began with a reinterpretation of Article 9 of the constitution, according to which the country would henceforth be allowed to engage in “collective self-defense.” Japan’s government approved the change last summer, and the United States backed the move as well. With the Islamic State’s attempts to leverage the lives of two Japanese hostages, legislation to implement the reinterpretation is set to be submitted to the Diet.

Yet the reinterpretation has faced some resistance at home and abroad. Chinese critics, in particular, have expressed concern that Japanese militarism could reemerge, though they neglect to mention that it is China’s military buildup that prompted Japan’s government to reassess its national defense policy.

In fact, the reinterpretation amounts to little more than a tweak: Japanese forces can now shield an American warship defending Japan, but they remain prohibited from initiating offensive attacks or participating in multilateral military operations. Given that the United Nations charter recognizes individual and collective self-defense as an “inherent right” of sovereign countries, the change should be uncontroversial.

But significant obstacles continue to block wider constitutional reform. Amendments require a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the Diet, and a majority in a popular referendum, making Japan’s constitution one of the world’s most difficult to revise. To facilitate his ambitions, Abe hopes to scale down the requirement to simple majorities in both chambers or eliminate the need for a public referendum.

Given popular resistance to change, Abe’s task will not be easy. Whereas citizens of most democracies regard their constitutions as works in progress – India, for example, has amended its constitution 99 times since 1950 – the Japanese largely treat their constitution as sacrosanct. As a result, rather than ensuring that their constitution reflects social, technological, economic, and even ideological developments, they zealously uphold its precise provisions, like religious fundamentalists defending the literal truth of scripture.

Moreover, pacifism is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche, even among young people, largely owing to the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism. Indeed, a poll conducted by the World Values Survey last year revealed that only 15.3% of Japanese – compared with 74.2% of Chinese and 57.7% of Americans – would be prepared to defend their country, the lowest rate in the world. Just 9.5% of Japanese under the age of 30 said that they would be willing to fight.

Given such opposition, an actual revision of Article 9, rather than just a reinterpretation, does not seem feasible, especially while the avowedly pacifist Komeito party remains part of the ruling coalition. Even if Abe manages to relax the amendment requirements – no easy feat, given the likelihood that a popular referendum would reveal weak public support – he will probably have to leave the change to his successor.

But one factor could bolster Abe’s cause considerably. Explicit US support for Japanese constitutional reform might not only blunt Chinese criticism, but could also reassure many Japanese that updating Article 9 would not amount to rejecting the postwar order that the Americans helped to establish in Japan.

Such a move would also serve US security interests. A more confident and secure Japan would be better able to block China from gaining ascendancy in the western Pacific, thereby advancing the central US policy objective of ensuring a stable balance of power in Asia. No other country in the region could act as a credible counterweight to China.

Today’s Japan – a liberal democracy that has not fired a single shot against an outside party in nearly seven decades, and that has made major contributions to global development during this period – is very different from the Japan of 1947. Its constitution should reflect that.

© Project Syndicate, 2015.

East Asia’s Historical Shackles

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

flagsTOKYO – Diplomatic relationships in East Asia have long been held hostage by history. But the region’s “history problem” has been intensifying lately, with growing nationalism among major actors like China, Japan, and South Korea fueling disputes over everything from territory and natural resources to war memorials and textbooks. Can East Asian countries overcome their legacy of conflict to forge a common future that benefits all?

Consider the relationship between America’s closest East Asian allies, Japan and South Korea. Though historical disagreements have long hampered bilateral ties, the increasingly nationalistic stance of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye has aggravated festering tensions. If they fail to work together to stem the revival of bitter historical disputes, their relationship will remain frozen, playing into China’s hands.

And nobody plays the history card with quite as much relish as China, where President Xi Jinping is also relying on nationalism to legitimize his rule. Last year, China introduced two new national memorial days to commemorate China’s long battle against Japanese aggression in World War II: “War against Japanese Aggression Victory Day” on September 3 and “Nanjing Massacre Day” on December 13. What would happen if countries like Vietnam and India dedicated days to remembering China’s aggression toward them since 1949?

By reinforcing negative stereotypes of rival countries, such squabbles over history and remembrance sow fragmentation and instability, and have certainly fueled the region’s recent territorial disputes. Indeed, the politicization of history remains the principal obstacle to reconciliation in East Asia. Repeated attempts to rewrite history – sometimes literally, through textbook revisions – along nationalist lines make it nearly impossible to establish regional institutions.

This should not be the case. Japan and South Korea, for example, are vibrant democracies and export-oriented economic powerhouses, with traditionally close cultural ties and many shared values. In other words, they are ideal candidates for collaboration.

US President Barack Obama recognizes this potential, and has promoted increased strategic cooperation between South Korea and Japan in order to underpin a stronger trilateral security alliance with the US that can balance a rising China. But Japan and South Korea refuse to let go of history.

To be sure, there is some truth to South Korea’s accusation that Japan is denying some of its past behavior. But it is also true that Park – who has refused to meet formally with Abe until he addresses lingering issues over Japan’s annexation of Korea – has used history to pander to domestic nationalist sentiment. Indeed, adopting a hardline stance has enabled her to whitewash some inconvenient family history: Her father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, collaborated with the Japanese military while Korea was under colonial rule.

Abe, too, has stoked tensions, particularly by visiting Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine – a controversial memorial that honors, among others, Class A war criminals from World War II. Though Abe visited the shrine only once – in December 2013 – he felt compelled to do so in response to China’s unilateral declaration of an air-defense identification zone, covering territories that it claims but does not control.

Of course, the divergences between Japanese and South Korean historical narratives go back further than WWII. More than a century ago, the Korean activist Ahn Jung-geun assassinated Japan’s first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, at the railway station in the Chinese city of Harbin, cementing Ahn’s status as a hero in Korea and a terrorist in Japan. Ito’s image can be seen on Japan’s 1,000-yen note; Ahn has appeared on a 200-won postage stamp in South Korea.

A visitor looking at exhibits at the Chinese memorial to the Korean assassin who killed Japan's first PM. © AFP

A visitor looking at exhibits at the Chinese memorial to the Korean assassin who killed Japan’s first PM. © AFP

Last year, Park asked Xi to honor Ahn. Xi seized the opportunity to drive a wedge between America’s two main Asian allies, and built a memorial to Ahn. Japan responded by blasting China for glorifying a terrorist and propagating a “one-sided” view of history – a move that, Japan asserted, was “not conducive to building peace and stability.”

Such conflicts have a clear catalyst: Asia’s rising prosperity. As their economies have expanded, Asian countries have gained the confidence to construct and exalt a new past, in which they either downplay their own aggressions or highlight their steadfastness in the face of brutal victimization.

All countries’ legitimizing narratives blend historical fact and myth. But, in some cases, historical legacies can gain excessive influence, overwhelming leaders’ capacity to make rational policy choices. That explains why Park has sought closer ties with China, even though South Korea’s natural regional partner is democratic Japan. One source of hope stems from Abe’s landslide victory in the recent snap general election, which gives him the political capital to reach out to Park with a grand bargain: If Japan expresses remorse more clearly for its militaristic past, South Korea will agree to leave historical grievances out of official policy.

Japan and South Korea cannot change the past. But they can strive to shape a more cooperative future. As a Russian proverb succinctly puts it, “Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.”

© Project Syndicate, 2015.

Tibet core to Sino-Indian ties

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Japan Times, 2014.

Deconstructing the Modi foreign policy

BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Hindu, December 4, 2014

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

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

Waning regional influence

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

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

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

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

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

Powered by ideas

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

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

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

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

Food security issue

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

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

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

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

Looking East

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

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

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

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

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

(Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.)

© The Hindu, 2014.

How India can reclaim leverage over the Tibet issue

Brahma Chellaney, Mint, November 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Mint, 2014.

PLA aborts Modi’s China reset

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Brahma Chellaney, Mint, October 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Mint, 2014.