Plugging gaps in diplomacy

Modi can recoup India’s regional losses by staying focused on the key states and avoiding the “Pakistan itch” that derailed Vajpayee’s diplomacy

Brahma Chellaney, Hindustan Times, August 7, 2014

Narendra Modi took office with very high expectations. His cautious, measured start thus may disappoint those who expected his thumping electoral mandate to herald a paradigm shift in governance and policy. In truth, Modi appears to have embraced prudent gradualism.

On the economic front, Modi is seeking to erect the foundation for India’s sustained economic rise with a two-fold emphasis: improving the country’s woeful infrastructure by reversing declining public spending; and boosting manufacturing, including by liberalizing labour laws.

It is, however, on the diplomatic front that Modi is charting an assertive, dynamic approach, including regaining India’s clout in its own strategic backyard, where China stepped into a vacuum left by years of Indian neglect.

Modi has passed his first international test by resisting intense, US-led pressure not to block a new World Trade Organization accord. Members of the rich countries’ club, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, plus China provide the bulk of the world’s agricultural subsidies, estimated at $486 billion in 2012. Yet India would have taken the main hit had WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement gone through, losing potentially its sovereign right to stockpile food grains to a secure level. At Bali, Manmohan Singh’s government traded a firm commitment on trade facilitation for an empty assurance, agreeing to kick the can on a stockpiling deal to 2017. This put India’s food security at risk in case no deal was reached by 2017.

Unable to secure any concession, the Modi government vetoed the trade-facilitation accord in Geneva, a decision that has drawn America’s ire. Visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry told Modi that this sent a “wrong signal,” while the state department bluntly stated that the action “undermined the very image Prime Minister Modi is trying to send about India.” However, to Washington’s chagrin, the chief of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development has endorsed India’s stance, saying the real choice in Geneva was between “feeding” one’s own citizens and “creating jobs” for other countries.

Modi’s forward-looking diplomacy is apparent from his early-term focus on retrieving India’s lost ground in its immediate neighbourhood. After charming Bhutan on his first foreign trip, Modi has concluded a highly successful visit to Nepal.

Such had been New Delhi’s neglect of Nepal — a nation symbiotically tied to India — that this was the first bilateral visit by an Indian PM in 17 years, a period in which a waiting China strategically penetrated Nepal. Culturally, Nepal looks south at India. Much of its population is in the south. But China has been muscling in from the north.

Nepal, wracked by severe political flux since the 1990s, stands deeply divided. Yet it unitedly welcomed Modi, with the visit inspiring hope of a new dawn for bilateral ties. If there was any jarring note during the visit, it was a last-minute dispute that stalled signing of a hydropower trade accord. Water can be to Nepal what oil is to Arab sheikhdoms, if Nepal is willing to emulate the example of Bhutan, which has achieved South Asia’s highest per capita income by exploiting its hydropower reserves through small, environmentally sound projects.

By telling Nepal that he wishes to revise the 1950 bilateral treaty during his term in office, Modi, in essence, called Nepal’s bluff. It has become a bipartisan article of faith in Nepal that the treaty is “unequal” and loaded against Nepalese interests. Yet, despite India’s willingness to discuss revision, Nepal has shied away from entering into negotiations.

After independence, India could have sought to absorb Nepal. Jawaharlal Nehru, however, entered into a treaty to safeguard Nepal’s sovereignty. The treaty cemented a “special relationship”, granting Nepal preferential economic treatment. It allowed the Indian Army to enlist Gurkhas, prohibited Nepal from buying arms from a third country without Indian consent, and obligated Nepal not to permit entry into its territory of foreign elements deemed inimical by India to its interests. One glaringly unequal element in the treaty is that Nepalese get national treatment in India but not Indians in Nepal.

The treaty’s defence-related provisions, in reality, have largely fallen by the wayside. Nepal indeed has become a happy hunting ground for Pakistani and Chinese agents seeking to undermine India’s internal security and Indian interests in Nepal. The Modi-proposed treaty revision must not stop India from finding its own ways to secure its porous border with Nepal without affecting rights of Nepalese to travel to or work in India without visa.

Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj did well by making her first stand-alone foreign trip to Bangladesh, another key neighbour where India has lost substantial influence. Modi has accepted Bangladesh’s invitation to visit.

Modi must also visit Myanmar, critical to Indian interests. Although Myanmar shares a long, sensitive border with India, many in New Delhi don’t seem to regard it as a neighbour, a fact reflected in the failure to invite President Thein Sein to Modi’s swearing-in event. Distant Mauritius was invited to the event but not Myanmar, which has applied for SARRC membership.

Modi can recoup India’s regional losses by staying focused on the key states, without catching the “Pakistan itch”, which helped derail Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foreign-policy ambitions. Vajpayee’s roller-coaster policy on Pakistan traversed through Lahore, Kargil, Kandahar, Agra, Parliament and Islamabad, yielding only greater cross-border terrorism.

Next month, Modi faces a big test in diplomacy as he holds separate bilateral summits with three powers central to India’s strategic interests — Japan, China and America. Japan will be the easy part, with Modi’s visit likely to forge close strategic bonds with Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy and clinch a long-elusive nuclear deal.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and writer.

(c) The Hindustan Times, 2014.

A Nascent Democratic Axis for Asia

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 Brahma Chellaney

Narendra Modi, who recently became prime minister of India, is scheduled to visit Japan later this summer. Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney revisits the Indo-Japanese relationship and finds it thriving on both the economic and security fronts. What is the strategic outlook for these partners moving forward?

Nippon.com July 2014

The upcoming visit to Japan of India’s newly elected prime minister, Narendra Modi, is likely to strengthen the strategic bonds between Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy and the world’s largest democracy. Modi has intentionally chosen Japan as the first major country for a state visit, underscoring New Delhi’s recognition of Japan’s critical importance to Indian economic and security interests.

A similar recognition in Tokyo of India’s vital role for Japan prompted the historic Indian tour of Japan’s venerated Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko late last year. The emperor’s visit is likely to mark a watershed in Indo-Japanese ties, just as his 1992 China trip—at the height of Japan’s pro-China foreign policy—led to increased Japanese aid, investment, and technology transfer to that country. Also significant was Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s presence as the chief guest at India’s January 26, 2014, Republic Day parade.

A New Era of Warm Ties

Modi’s election is good news for Japan-India relations, with his visit to Tokyo in August promising to take those ties to a new level of economic and strategic engagement.  Modi’s 2007 and 2012 visits to Japan as the chief minister (governor) of the western Indian state of Gujarat helped forge a special relationship with Japan and also build personal rapport with Abe. Today, Abe follows only three people on Twitter: his outspoken wife Akie, author-turned-politician  Inose Naoki, and Modi.

“Personally, I have a wonderful experience of working with Japan . . . I am sure we will take India-Japan ties to newer heights,” Modi said in one of his tweets after winning a landslide election victory. In response, Abe, after making a congratulatory telephone call, posted on Twitter: “Great talking to you, Mr. Modi. I look forward to welcoming you in Tokyo and further deepening our friendly ties.”

Abe and Modi both champion pro-market reforms and share similar political values and strategic approaches, including seeking close ties with Asian democracies to help create a web of interlocking strategic partnerships. They also share a keen interest in ensuring stable power equilibrium in Asia.

Asia’s balance of power will be determined by events in two principal regions: East Asia and the Indian Ocean. As the two leading maritime democracies in Asia, Japan and India must take the lead in helping to safeguard vital sea-lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region. After all, as energy-poor countries heavily dependent on oil and gas imports, they are seriously concerned by mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes.

With One Eye on the Security Scene

The Japan-India partnership indeed holds the potential to shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China’s rise or US President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. It can, for example, impose discreet checks on China’s exercise of its rapidly accumulating power, which currently risks sliding into arrogance. China has made not-so-subtle efforts to block the rise of Japan and India, including by opposing the expansion of the United Nations Security Council’s permanent membership.

India can serve as the southern anchor and Japan the eastern anchor of an Asian balance of power.

Abe has gone to the extent of saying that Japan-India relations hold “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.” Abe’s push for closer ties with India actually dates back to his first stint as prime minister in 2006–7, when Japan and India unveiled their “strategic and global partnership.”

Japan is to join this year’s Malabar exercises, the Indo-US naval maneuvers in the Pacific. The last such trilateral naval exercises occurred in 2009. In extending the invitation to Japan that year, Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, declared Japan to be “at the heart of India’s Look East policy.”

Some in Japan have claimed that India is too diverse and complex a partner for homogenous Japan, and that the only reason the two countries are coming closer is because they are geographically distant and free of bilateral disputes. But rather than geographical distance or cultural factors, it is the convergence of key strategic interests that matters in interstate relations. In an era of increasing global interdependence and reduced transportation costs, shared economic and security interests are the main drivers of any intercountry relationship.

Building on Synergies

The dissimilarities between India and Japan, in fact, increase the potential for mutually beneficial economic collaboration.

Japan has a solid heavy manufacturing base, while India boasts services-led growth. India has the world’s largest youthful population, while Japan is aging more rapidly than any other major developed country. Whereas Japan has financial and technological power, India has human capital. Such contrasting features make their economies complementary and open a path to generating strong synergies.

Even in the strategic realm, the two countries’ dissimilar backgrounds are no drawback. For example, India has always valued strategic autonomy, while Japan remains a model US ally that hosts not only a large presence of American troops but also pays generously for their upkeep.

Indian and Japanese strategic policies are now evolving in parallel. Long used to practicing passive, checkbook diplomacy, Tokyo is now signaling its willingness to play a greater geopolitical role. India, for its part, has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism.

Since Japan and India unveiled their strategic and global partnership, their political and economic engagement has deepened significantly. Their free-trade pact, formally known as the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, came into force in 2011. They have even established an alliance to jointly develop rare earths so as to reduce their dependence on China, which has a near-monopoly on the global supply of these vital minerals.

Japan has become a critical source of capital and commercial technology for India, which has emerged as the largest destination for Japanese foreign direct investment among major industrialized nations. India surpassed China more than a decade ago as the biggest recipient of Japan’s Official Development Assistance, which is currently funding more than 60 Indian projects, such as the Western Freight Corridor, the New Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and the Bangalore Metro Rail Project.

In Pursuit of Mutual Benefits

Japan sees India as central to its own economic-revival and security-building strategies. Japan’s prolonged economic woes have obscured one of the most far-reaching but least-noticed developments in Asia—the country’s political resurgence. Japan believes it has little option but to become more competitive and shore up its security by building strategic ties with new partners, such as India.

It is against this background that India and Japan boast the fastest-growing bilateral relationship in Asia today.

But if this emerging democratic axis is to turn into a game-changer in Asia, the two countries need to make their collaboration meatier through deeper economic and security linkages. Modi’s rise opens a window of opportunity to build such linkages, including by making India the leading market for Japan’s new drive to export arms. Some of Abe’s recent steps, including easing a longstanding arms-export ban and reasserting the right of collective defense, are most promising in relation to India.

This will likely be a win-win partnership, helping to drive India’s infrastructure development and great-power aspirations, while catalyzing Japan’s revival as a world power.

India’s Shinzo Abe

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Brahma Chellaney

A Project Syndicate column

After a prolonged period of political drift and paralysis, India’s new government will be led by a man known for his decisiveness. Just as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return to power in late 2012, after six years of political instability, reflected Japan’s determination to reinvent itself as a more competitive and confident country, Narendra Modi’s election victory reflects Indians’ desire for a dynamic, assertive leader to help revitalize their country’s economy and security.

Like Abe, Modi is expected to focus on reviving India’s economic fortunes while simultaneously bolstering its defenses and strengthening its strategic partnerships with likeminded states, thereby promoting regional stability and blocking the rise of a Sino-centric Asia. The charismatic Modi – a darling of business leaders at home and abroad – has promised to restore rapid economic growth, saying there should be “no red tape, only red carpet” for investors.

The 63-year-old Modi mirrors Abe’s soft nationalism, market-oriented economics, and new Asianism, seeking close ties with Asian democracies to create a web of interlocking strategic partnerships.

In a country where the gap between the average age of political leaders and citizens is one of the world’s widest, Modi will be the first prime minister born after India gained independence in 1947. This constitutes another parallel with Abe, who is Japan’s first prime minister born after World War II.

There is, however, an important difference in terms of the two leaders’ upbringing: While Modi rose from humble beginnings to lead the world’s largest democracy, Abe – the grandson and grandnephew of two former Japanese prime ministers and the son of a former foreign minister – boasts a distinguished political lineage. In fact, Modi rode to victory by crushing the dynastic aspirations of Rahul Gandhi, whose failure to articulate clear views or demonstrate leadership ran counter to the Indian electorate’s yearning for an era of decisive government.

Modi, like Abe, faces major foreign-policy challenges. India is home to more than one-sixth of the world’s population, yet it punches far below its weight. A 2013 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, titled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how the country is resisting its own rise, as if the political miasma in New Delhi had turned the country into its own worst enemy.

Many Indians want Modi to give a new direction to foreign relations at a time when the gap between India and China in terms of international stature has grown significantly. India’s influence in its own backyard – including Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives – has shrunk. Indeed, Bhutan remains India’s sole pocket of strategic clout in South Asia.

India also confronts the strengthening nexus between its two nuclear-armed regional adversaries, China and Pakistan, both of which have staked claims to substantial swaths of Indian territory and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction. In dealing with these countries, Modi will face the same dilemma that has haunted previous Indian governments: the Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministries are weak actors. The Communist Party and the military shape Chinese foreign policy, while Pakistan relies on its army and intelligence services, which still use terror groups as proxies. The Modi government is unlikely to let another Mumbai-style terrorist attack staged from Pakistan go unpunished, employing at least non-military retaliatory options.

Restoring momentum to the relationship with the United States – damaged recently by grating diplomatic tensions and trade disputes – is another pressing challenge. But Modi’s commitment to pro-market economic policies and defense modernization is likely to yield new opportunities for US businesses and lift the bilateral relationship to a new level of engagement.

America’s strategic interests will be advanced by likely new defense cooperation and trade that boosts US arms sales and creates avenues for joint military coordination. The US already conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country.

Modi is the sort of leader who can help put US-India ties back on track and boost cooperation. Yet there is a risk that his relations with the US, at least initially, could be more businesslike than warm, owing to an American slight that is hard for him to forget. In 2005, the US government revoked his visa over unproven allegations that he connived in Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002, when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. Even after India’s Supreme Court found no evidence to link Modi to the violence, the US continued to ostracize him, reaching out to him only on the eve of the recent election.

With the US having expressed no regret for its revocation of his visa, Modi is unlikely to go out of his way to befriend the US by seeking a White House visit. Instead, he is expected to wait for US officials to come calling.

By contrast, Modi is likely to remember states, such as Japan and Israel, that courted him even as the US targeted him. Modi’s 2007 and 2012 visits to Japan opened new avenues for Japanese investment in business-friendly Gujarat.

Moreover, Modi has forged a special relationship with Japan and built personal rapport with Abe. When Abe returned to power, Modi congratulated him with a telephone call.

Modi’s victory is likely to turn Indo-Japanese ties – Asia’s fastest-developing bilateral relationship – into the main driver of India’s “Look East” strategy, which, with America’s blessing, seeks to strengthen economic and strategic cooperation with US allies and partners in East and Southeast Asia. Abe, who has sought to build security options for Japan beyond the current US-centric framework, has argued that his country’s ties with India hold “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.”

A deeper Japan-India entente under Abe and Modi could potentially reshape the Asian strategic landscape. It is no surprise that Abe rooted for a Modi victory.

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

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.

Averting a second cold war

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

001ec949c22b128eb91d2aThat we live in a world of rapid change has been confirmed by the way recent developments over Ukraine have transformed international geopolitics in just a few weeks. The looming cold war triggered by the U.S.-supported putsch in Kiev that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order and by Russia’s muscular riposte, including annexing Crimea, portends the advent of a new era.U.S. President Barack Obama’s new sanctions approach toward Russia indeed sets the stage for a potential clash between Western democracy and what American ideologues call “Putinism.”

The geopolitical tensions, military deployments and strident rhetoric point to the risk of preemptive moves and miscalculations sparking an accidental confrontation. We need only to recall how a spiral of actions and counter-actions led to World War I a hundred years ago.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s action in annexing Crimea violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity in breach of international law, even though it followed a referendum in this historically Russian region, where the majority of residents are indisputably with Russia.

Let us, however, not forget that the U.S. and NATO have flagrantly and repeatedly contravened international law in the past 15 years. It’s a long list — the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without U.N. Security Council mandate, the overthrow of Moammar Gahdafi’s regime through aerial bombardment, the aiding of a still-raging bloody insurrection in Syria, and renditions and torture of terror suspects. The U.S. National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program also disregards international law.

An international system based on the rule of law cannot be good unless norms and rules are respected on all sides. Yet power often trumps international law. Neither the U.S. nor Russia respects international borders. America, for example, invoked its Monroe Doctrine to intervene, among others, in Panama, Chile, Cuba, Nicaragua, Grenada, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

International law tends to take a back seat when a major power asserts a right to protect vital security interests. Indeed, when a great power needs a threat to justify its intervention in another state, it invariably finds one. There is thus a long political history of world powers quoting international law to others but ignoring it when it comes in their way. The Ukraine case illustrates the international law of convenience.

Yet it is difficult to see how Russian, American or European interests can be advanced by the ominous face-off over Ukraine, which has helped shift the international spotlight from Asia’s festering fault lines and territorial feuds to the new threat to European peace. The showdown, unless defused, is likely to spur significant shifts in geopolitical equations and policies.

For example, the latest developments leave less space for the U.S. to pivot toward Asia but compel Moscow to embark on its own pivot to Asia, particularly China, to promote energy outflows and capital inflows.

With both Obama and Putin actively seeking to woo China on Ukraine, the likely big winner from the turn of events is the country that has been relentlessly expanding its borders ever since it came under communist rule in 1949.

China’s geopolitical gains will solidify if the U.S. jettisons — as appears likely — its post-Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration into global institutions. The U.S. is closing the door to Russian accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and effectively ousting Russia from the Group of Eight by making it the Group of Seven again — an action that can only accelerate that institution’s creeping irrelevance in international relations.

A slippery slope to greater sanctions would clearly signal a U.S. shift to a new Russian policy of selective containment and engagement. Such a shift would be accompanied by an intellectual and normative thrust to present the new policy as vital to rein in an autocratic and ambitious Russia — as if heralding the return of a Cold War-style ideological battle between autocracy and democracy to Europe. But with communism now dead in Russia, America’s ideological war would target “Putinism.”

The demonization of Putin is ironic, given that the Russian leader pursued a pro-Western policy in the initial years after he came to power. For example, he closed down Russian military bases in Cuba and Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, and voluntarily supported America’s Afghanistan invasion. Only after his extended overtures went unreciprocated — with the U.S. instigating “color revolutions” in some ex-Soviet states and expanding NATO to the Baltics and the Balkans — did Putin adopt a more nationalistic course.

Yet the new U.S. sanctions approach is premised on a need to check Putin’s capacity to utilize state instruments like military power and energy leverage to block states in Russia’s periphery from moving closer to the West. America is likely to bolster such frontline states, including by transferring military hardware, training and integrating their forces, and placing U.S. systems on their soil. NATO countries are already being urged to cut their reliance on Russian energy supplies.

Obama seems determined to use the tool of sanctions to subtly undermine the Russian economy, including by targeting key businessmen, entities and sectors in Russia and by encouraging a flight of capital and talent from Russia. There is also a push to bar Western firms from aiding Russia’s military modernization in any way.

This punitive approach, however, would not preclude Washington from cooperating with Moscow on issues where bilateral interests overlap. After all, such cooperation occurred even during the height of the Cold War, as in establishing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Still, seeking to economically squeeze Russia and isolate it internationally would mean a strategic boon for China, just as the Soviet Union’s sudden collapse opened the way for Beijing to rapidly increase its geopolitical space globally. Beijing will work to exploit Western sanctions against Russia for its own benefit, including securing Russian energy on favorable terms and gaining greater access to the Russian market for its goods.

America’s only genuine long-term rival now is an ascendant China, which is rapidly accumulating economic and military heft. By contrast, Russian military power today pales in comparison with Soviet might, with Obama admitting Russia is not America’s top geopolitical rival.

If a new cold war is to be averted, Ukraine’s neutrality must be guaranteed. Ukraine should remain neutral between NATO and Russia — a sort of a strategic, sovereign buffer, just as Tibet was before China gobbled it up. Such a diplomatic solution, while ensuring European peace, would also contribute to Asian and international security. Otherwise, a full-blown ideological war will generate a wide geopolitical fallout, stoking greater tensions and increasing risks of miscalculation.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

(c) The Japan Times, 2014.

New Fault Lines Fester in Asia

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) The Times of India, 2014.

Friendless China

BRAHMA CHELLANEY

A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.

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

Brahma Chellaney

The National, February 2, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) The National, 2014.

Japan and India: A Transformative Entente

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Nikkie Asian Review, January 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

Complementary partners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Nikkie Asian Review, 2014.

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

Brahma Chellaney, The National, January 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) The National, 2014.

Japan’s Obama Problem

BRAHMA CHELLANEY

A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.