The Global Pragmatist

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Seven features of Modi’s non-doctrinaire foreign policy that is taking
India from non-alignment to multi-alignment

By Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine, June 1, 2015

18626.globalprotagonist1In the one year that he has been in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has animated Indian foreign policy by taking a proactive approach on some critical issues and departing often from conventional methods and shibboleths. Modi’s recent China visit illustrated all the trademarks of his foreign policy—from pragmatism and lucidity to zeal and showmanship. It also exemplified his penchant for springing diplomatic surprises, with his announcement to grant Chinese tourists e-visas-on-arrival catching by surprise even his foreign secretary, who had just said at a media briefing that there was ‘no decision’ on the issue. Earlier, in Paris, Modi pulled a rabbit out of a hat by announcing a decision to buy 36 French fighter-jets.

Modi, however, is a realist who loves to play on the grand chessboard of geopolitics. He is clearly seeking to steer foreign policy in a direction that would significantly aid his strategy to revitalise India’s economic and military security. At least seven things stand out about his foreign policy.

First, Modi continues to invest considerable political capital—and time—in high-powered diplomacy. No other prime minister since independence participated in so many bilateral and multilateral summit meetings in his first year in office. The Congress party has criticised his frequent overseas tours, forgetting that Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, also loved to go abroad frequently. Critics, however, may have a point that Modi’s exceptionally busy foreign- policy schedule leaves him restricted time to focus on his most-critical responsibility: domestic issues, which will define his legacy. Indeed, some of his trips could have been better timed.

Take his Sri Lanka visit in March, the first by an Indian prime minister to that country in 28 years. India’s neglect of Sri Lanka and the larger Indian Ocean region has become the strategic gain of China, which is now seeking to challenge India in its own maritime backyard. A prime ministerial visit to Sri Lanka was long overdue. But Modi chose to travel to Colombo barely a month after President Maithripala Sirisena’s India tour. Modi could have delayed his trip to Sri Lanka until after the forthcoming parliamentary elections there had cleared up the political scene.

Similarly, what was the need for Modi to undertake a China tour barely eight months after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India visit, a trip that was marred by a major Chinese military incursion into the Chumar region of Ladakh? The early return visit left limited time for preparatory work to achieve tangible and enduring results. The reason Modi went to China is that he had sentimentally promised Xi in India that he would visit China before the end of his first year in office. In that sense, Modi was chasing his own artificial deadline, which left little time for groundwork to make his trip authentically path-breaking.

Modi has lined up several more foreign tours in the coming months, including an important visit to Bangladesh, which under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed is standing up to jihadism. Sheikh Hasina, a friend of India, is one of the few leaders in today’s world unafraid to take on violent Islamists, even as she fights to retain control of the country.

Second, pragmatism is the hallmark of the Modi foreign policy. Nothing better illustrates this than the priority he accorded—soon after coming to office—to adding momentum to the relationship with America, despite the US having heaped visa-denial humiliation on him over nine years. He has also gone out of his way to befriend China, negating early assumptions that he would be less accommodating of Beijing than his predecessor. He even delayed his Japan visit by several weeks so that his first major bilateral meeting was with Xi on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Brazil.

Modi has sought to rope in China, with its overflowing foreign-exchange reserves, as an important partner in India’s infrastructure development, like Japan. But it is unclear whether Modi’s gamble will pay off, given China’s interest in pushing exports, not investment, which remains insignificant in India. The much- publicised contracts signed during Modi’s visit are largely about Chinese state-owned banks financing Indian companies to buy Chinese equipment. This would likely widen India’s already-mammoth trade deficit with China, now nearing $50 billion.

Third, Modi is shaping a non-doctrinaire foreign-policy approach powered by ideas. He has taken some of his domestic ideas (such as ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’) to foreign policy, as if to underscore that his priority is to revitalise India’s economy.

By simultaneously courting Xi, US President Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and other world leaders, Modi wants to demonstrate his ability to forge partnerships with rival powers and broker cooperative international approaches in a changing world. This suggests that the Modi foreign policy is geared to move India from its long-held non-alignment to a contemporary, globalised practicality. In essence, this means that India, a founding leader of the non-aligned movement, could become multi- aligned. Building close partnerships with major powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings will not only enable India to advance its core priorities, but will also help it preserve strategic autonomy in keeping with its long- standing preference for policy independence.

Non-alignment suggests a passive approach, including staying on the sidelines. Being multi- aligned, on the other hand, permits a proactive approach. A multi-aligned India will tilt more towards the major democracies of the world. Yet a multi-aligned India will continue to be scrupulously autonomous in its foreign policy. An example of how India freely charts its own course is its continued refusal to join American- led financial sanctions against Russia.

A multi-aligned India also will not shy away from building strategic partnerships with countries around China’s periphery to counter that country’s India-containment strategy. Modi’s early focus was on diplomatically recouping India’s regional losses by re-engaging countries in the nation’s strategic backyard. Even as that goal remains a priority, India is seeking to advance its ‘Act East’ policy, as Modi’s Mongolia and South Korea visits signal.

Fourth, zeal is to Modi’s diplomacy what Sun Tzu precepts are to Chinese diplomacy. In that sense, Modi is following in the footsteps of his predecessors, other than Indira Gandhi. Talleyrand, the illustrious foreign minister of Napoleon and the Bourbons, prescribed one basic rule for a sound foreign policy: ‘By no means show too much zeal.’ Gushy expectations and oozing zealousness, however, have been the bane of Indian foreign policy almost since independence.

Modi wore his zeal on his sleeve during the China visit. While his hosts uttered a couple of carefully crafted sentences on why India-China cooperation would be mutually beneficial, Modi waxed eloquent on this theme ad nauseum at every public event, including while addressing the expatriate Indian community. The Prime Minister effectively turned Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Hindi-Chini bhai bhai’ jingle into ‘Modi-Chini bhai bhai’, among other things, by describing his friendship with Xi as ‘plus one’.

Modi’s zeal also tends to translate into diplomatic showmanship, reflected in the kind of big- ticket speeches he has been making abroad to chants of ‘Modi, Modi’ from the audience. Like a rock star, he unleashed Modi mania among Indian diaspora audiences by taking the stage at New York’s storied Madison Square Garden in September 2014, at Sydney’s Allphones Arena in November, and then in April at Ricoh Coliseum, a hockey arena in downtown Toronto. When permission was sought for a similar speech in Shanghai, an apprehensive Chinese government, which bars any public rally, relented only on the condition that the event would be staged in an indoor stadium.

Fifth, Modi has injected a personal touch to propel Indian foreign policy. Indeed, Modi has used his personal touch with great effect, addressing leaders ranging from Obama to Xi by their first name and building an easy equation with them. Indian diplomacy now bears Modi’s distinct imprint.

In keeping with his personaliszed stamp on diplomacy, Modi has relied on bilateral summits to open new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. At the same time, as if to underscore his nimble approach to diplomacy, he has shown he can think on his feet. The speed with which he rushed aid and rescue teams to quake-battered Nepal, as well as the Indian forces’ evacuation of Indian and foreign nationals from Nepal and conflict-torn Yemen, helped raise India’s international profile, highlighting its capacity to respond swiftly to natural and other disasters.

Sixth, against this background, it is scarcely a surprise that Modi has put his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor other than Nehru. The paradox is that Modi came to office with little foreign-policy experience, yet he has demonstrated impressive diplomatic acumen, including the bold steps taken and vision charted to reclaim India’s lost strategic clout.

Seventh, to be effective, diplomacy must operate on the principle of give-and-take. But successive Indian prime ministers have chosen to operate lopsidedly on the half principle of ‘give’. There are plenty of examples of how unilateral magnanimity has backfired, saddling future Indian generations with serious strategic problems— from taking the Kashmir issue to the United Nations to reserving more than 80 per cent of the waters of the six-river Indus system for Pakistan by signing a treaty of indefinite duration. Even a strategy-minded Indira Gandhi blundered at the Simla Peace Summit in spite of holding all the cards.

Modi can certainly take credit for crafting a sensible and shrewd foreign policy. Yet, despite having cultivated a muscular image, he is no exception to the Indian itch to concede unilaterally. To flaunt a bilateral summit as a ‘success’, Modi is at times willing to abandon—at the altar of diplomatic expediency—the basic tenets of statecraft, including reciprocity (the first principle of diplomacy) and leverage.

Examples of Modi being a Mr Giver range from concessions to America on the nuclear-accident liability of reactor vendors to reversing course and permitting the Pakistani high commissioner in New Delhi to meet Hurriyat separatists on any occasion other than when official Indo- Pakistan talks are about to begin. His China visit also illustrates this chink in his armour.

The Chinese side did not yield on any issue, but Modi did. Overruling objections by the Indian security establishment, Modi announced the grant of e-visa-on-arrival on a non-reciprocal basis to Chinese tourists. So, even as China issues stapled visas to Indian citizens living in Arunachal Pradesh, India has agreed to reward it with that facility. The announcement, made at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, made Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi so happy that he asked the assembled students to loudly cheer and thank Modi for the ‘gift’.

As in September during Xi’s visit, Modi also yielded on Tibet, with the joint statement in Beijing referring to the ‘Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China’ in the context of Indian pilgrims’ visits to the sacred Kailash-Mansarovar site. ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’ is China’s official name for truncated Tibet, even though there is nothing autonomous about a region that is brutally repressed and ruled directly by Beijing. Referring to Tibet as part of the PRC undercuts India’s revised policy since 2010 to refrain from such a depiction in any joint statement as long as China persists with its cartographic aggression against India.

The urge to project a summit as a resounding success or to please the other side is often the main driver for India to yield. This is an urge Modi must learn to resist. After all, he is pursuing a foreign policy that, taken as a whole, is smart, realistic and forward-looking.

Modi’s astuteness and perspicuity were on open display in his press statement in Beijing, in which—in a nuanced and sophisticated manner—he held China responsible for impediments in the development of bilateral ties and identified all the key issues for India. Describing his discussions with the Chinese leadership, he said: “We covered all issues, including those that trouble smooth development of our relations. I stressed the need for China to reconsider its approach on some of the issues that hold us back from realising the full potential of our partnership. I suggested that China should take a strategic and long-term view of our relations.”

Modi must bear in mind that institutionalised and integrated policymaking are essential for India to have a robust diplomacy and to be able to stay its course. Without the health of these processes, policy will tend to be ad hoc and shifting, with personalities at the helm having an excessive role in shaping thinking, priorities and objectives. If foreign policy is shaped by the whims and fancies of personalities who hold the reins of power, there will be a propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure, as has happened in India repeatedly since the Nehruvian era.

Diplomacy is largely about negotiations. India must develop a tradition and culture of hard bargaining. Also, no country’s diplomacy can afford to confound tactics with strategy or marginalise its national-security establishment.

The political ascent of Modi, a man known for his decisiveness, can be a game-changer for Indian foreign policy if diplomacy is anchored in goal-oriented statecraft. After a decade of drift and neglect, India, under Modi’s leadership, is actively involving itself regionally to help influence developments in its strategic backyard. Modi realises that big-bucks corruption can enfeeble internal security and crimp foreign- policy options, and is seeking to bring this scourge under control. The Prime Minister seems to recognise that he can sustain a dynamic foreign policy only on the foundation of a strong domestic policy, a realm where he must overcome political obstacles to shape a transformative legacy.

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

© Open, 2015.

Modi in China

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

China and India have a fraught relationship, characterized by festering disputes, deep mistrust, and a shared ambivalence about political cooperation. Booming bilateral trade, far from helping to turn the page on old rifts, has been accompanied by increasing border incidents, military tensions, and geopolitical rivalry, as well as disagreements on riparian and maritime issues.

Since taking office last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to transform his country’s relationship with China, arguing that Asia’s prospects hinge “in large measure” on what the two countries – which together account for one-third of the world’s population – “achieve individually” and “do together.” But, as Modi’s just-concluded tour of China highlighted, the issues that divide the demographic titans remain formidable.

Modi XiTo be sure, China’s leaders fêted Modi in style. When Modi arrived in Xian – one of China’s four ancient capitals and President Xi Jinping’s hometown – Xi took him on a personal tour of the Big Wild Goose Pagoda. (Modi subsequently boasted of his close “plus one” friendship with Xi.) In Beijing, Premier Li Keqiang posed for a selfie with Modi outside the Temple of Heaven.

What China’s leaders did not do was yield on any substantive issue – and not for lack of effort on Modi’s part. Despite Modi’s pragmatic and conciliatory tack, his request that China “reconsider its approach” on some of the issues that are preventing the partnership from realizing its “full potential” went unheeded.

Consider discussions relating to the ongoing dispute over the two countries’ long Himalayan frontier. Alluding to a series of Chinese military incursions since 2006, Modi declared that “a shadow of uncertainty” hangs over the border region, because the “line of actual control” that China unilaterally drew after defeating India in a 1962 war that it had initiated was never mutually clarified. Modi proposed resuming the LAC clarification process, but to no avail.

In fact, the reason for the continued ambiguity is that, in 2002, after more than two decades of negotiations, China reneged on a promise to exchange maps with India covering the two main disputed sectors – the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh and the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin, along with its adjacent areas – located at either end of the Himalayas. Four years later, China revived its long-dormant claim to Arunachal Pradesh, and has since breached its border several times. It fulminated against Modi’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh in February.

Nonetheless, in his zeal to build the bilateral relationship, Modi announced that Chinese tourists are now eligible to receive electronic visas on arrival in India – blindsiding his foreign secretary, who had just told the media that no such decision had been made. China’s foreign minister hailed the measure as a “gift” – an accurate description, given that China has yielded nothing in return. On the contrary, China has aimed to undermine India’s sovereignty, by issuing stapled visas to residents of Arunachal Pradesh.

Moreover, China – which, by annexing water-rich Tibet, has become the region’s hydro-hegemon – also declined to conclude an agreement to sell India hydrological data on transboundary rivers year-round, rather than just during the monsoon season. So China is not only refusing to create a water-sharing pact with any of its neighbors; it will not even share comprehensive data on upstream river flows.

Making matters worse, there is an unmistakable air of condescension in the pronouncements, contained in the joint statement issued at the end of Modi’s visit, that China “took note of India’s aspirations” to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and “understands and supports India’s aspiration to play a greater role in the United Nations, including in the Security Council.” China is the only major power that has not backed India’s bid to become a permanent member of the Security Council.

Economic outcomes were similarly unequal. Many of the deals Modi made with business leaders in Shanghai – supposedly worth $22 billion – entail Chinese state-owned banks financing Indian firms to purchase Chinese equipment. This will worsen India’s already massive trade deficit with China, while doing little to boost China’s meager investment in India, which totals just 1% of China’s annual bilateral trade surplus – a surplus that has swelled by one-third since Modi took office and is now approaching $50 billion.

Indeed, China and India have one of the world’s most lopsided trade relationships. Chinese exports to India are worth five times more than its imports from India. Moreover, China mainly purchases raw materials from India, while selling it mostly value-added goods. With India making little effort to stem the avalanche of cheap Chinese goods flooding its market – despite Modi’s much-touted “Make in India” campaign – China’s status as the country’s largest source of imports appears secure.

China is well practiced in using trade and commercial penetration to bolster its influence in other countries. In India’s case, it is leveraging its clout as a major supplier of power and telecommunications equipment and active pharmaceutical ingredients, not to mention as a lender to financially troubled Indian firms, to limit the country’s options. By allowing the trade distortions from which China profits to persist – and, indeed, to grow – India is effectively funding this strategy.

As hard as Modi tries to put a positive spin on his recent visit to China, highlighting the 24 mostly symbolic agreements that were concluded, he cannot obscure the harsh strategic realities affecting the bilateral relationship. Without a new approach, the Sino-Indian relationship seems doomed to remain highly uneven and contentious.

© 1995-2015 Project Syndicate.

China and Pakistan: Little in common yet the closest of allies

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

pakistan470080792President Xi Jinping’s recent Islamabad visit, by unveiling agreements valued at $28 billion, shows that China has made Pakistan the central link between its dual Silk Road initiatives. While the maritime Silk Road is the meretriciously benign name for China’s “string of pearls” strategy, the overland Silk Road project has been designed to advance Chinese interests in Central Asia, the Caspian Sea basin and beyond.

These initiatives are part of China’s larger strategy to break out of the East Asia mold and become a more global power.

Xi has now embarked on connecting China’s restive Xinjiang region with the Arabian Sea through a 3,000-kilometer overland transportation corridor to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port. Known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, this $46 billion project through Pakistan-held Kashmir will hook up China’s maritime and overland Silk Roads and increase Pakistan’s pivotal importance for Beijing.

When an Indian prime minister visits the Myanmar-bordering Arunachal Pradesh (a large Himalayan territory whose control by India only China questions), or India and Vietnam jointly explore for offshore oil in the South China Sea, China protests loudly, claiming it is “disputed territory.” But the Xi-pushed corridor will traverse an internationally recognized disputed region — Pakistan-held Kashmir — where China has been enlarging its military footprint.

An influx of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops into the Pakistani Kashmir’s Shiite-majority Gilgit-Baltistan region in recent years, to supposedly guard Chinese strategic projects there, has resulted in Chinese military presence close to Pakistan’s line of control with India in Kashmir.

The scenario presents India with a two-front theater in Kashmir in the event of a war with either country. This threat is also being highlighted by PLA officers conducting field exercises close to Pakistan’s line of control with India to train Pakistani army troops in the use of Chinese-supplied weapons.

More fundamentally, India is contained geopolitically by the longstanding axis between China and Pakistan, involving, among other things, covert nuclear, missile and intelligence cooperation. With serious strains emerging in Beijing’s relationship with North Korea, Pakistan is now clearly China’s only real ally.

China’s nexus with Pakistan has long been likened to the closeness between lips and teeth, with Beijing recently calling Pakistan its “irreplaceable all-weather friend.” The two often boast of being “iron brothers.” Of late, though, their description of their relationship has become more flowery — “taller than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.”

Paradoxically, China and Pakistan have little in common, yet boast one of the closest relationships in international diplomacy. Their axis has been built on a shared objective to tie India down, as former state department official Daniel Markey says in his 2013 book, No Exit From Pakistan. Weapon transfers, loans and infrastructure projects allow China to use Pakistan as a cost-effective counterweight to India.

Pakistan, for example, developed its nuclear-weapons capability with Chinese aid and U.S. indulgence, highlighting the fact that no other state has received Chinese and American support in parallel on a sustained basis extending for decades. Indeed, the more Pakistan has become a jihadist snake pit, the greater has been China’s leeway to increase its strategic penetration of that country.

For India, the implications of the growing nexus are particularly stark because both China and Pakistan stake claims to substantial swaths of Indian land and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction.

Significantly, as China’s involvement in strategic projects in Pakistan-held Kashmir has grown, it has openly started needling India on Kashmir, one-fifth of which is under Chinese occupation. It has employed innovative ways to question India’s sovereignty over Kashmir and stepped up military incursions into Indian Kashmir’s Buddhist Ladakh region.

China is clearly signaling that Kashmir is where the Sino-Pakistan nexus can squeeze India. Its military pressure on Arunachal Pradesh, located at the other end of the Himalayas, seems more intended to distract from its Kashmir designs.

Xi’s visit indeed was a reminder that Pakistan-held Kashmir serves as the artery of the Sino-Pakistan nexus.

Xi, who has articulated a more expansive role for China in the world than any modern Chinese leader other than Mao Zedong, showed how high-visibility infrastructure projects drive China’s promotion of commercial and strategic interests. Much of the Chinese funding unveiled during Xi’s visit will be for power projects, including the $1.4-billion Karot Dam, located on the Pakistan-held Kashmir’s border with the Punjab province. This dam is the first project to be financed by China’s new $40-billion Silk Road Fund.

As if to highlight that China treats Pakistan as its newest colony, Xi’s package of power projects will be Chinese-owned, including the Karot Dam station, with the Pakistani government committed to buying power at a preset rate. The power projects, in essence, are to use Pakistan’s resources for Chinese state-run companies to generate profits for repatriation.

In another example of the puppet-puppeteer equation and the risk of Pakistan turning into a Chinistan, Islamabad has given Beijing 40-year exclusive rights to run the port at Gwadar, which is likely to double up as a key outpost for the Chinese navy and serve as China’s first overseas naval station.

The Xi-launched corridor — a network of roads, railway and pipelines — will give China access to the Indian Ocean, thus challenging India in its maritime backyard and opening a new threat for it. The corridor’s transportation links will also allow China to rapidly come to Pakistan’s aid in the event of a war with India.

Moreover, by transforming Pakistan into a client state of the Chinese economy, the corridor will tighten China’s grip over that country, thus preventing it from emulating the example of Myanmar or Sri Lanka to escape Beijing’s clutches. In return for the contracts and other concessions, China will offer Pakistan protection, including diplomatic cover at the United Nations.

However, Pakistan’s insurrection-torn sprawling province of Baluchistan — home to Gwadar — stands out as the Achilles heel of China’s corridor initiative, despite the Pakistani decision during Xi’s visit to create a special security force to protect Chinese projects.

China thinks in the long term. Pakistan — set to get delivery of eight Chinese attack submarines — is now China’s launch pad for playing a bigger role in the Indian Ocean and Middle East, besides serving as a linchpin of its India-containment strategy. China’s land corridor to the Arabian Sea will extend India’s encirclement by the PLA from the Kashmir land borders to the Indian Ocean sea lanes.

No country in the world other than India confronts a strengthening nexus between two revisionist nuclear-armed neighbors with a proven track record of covert actions in breach of international norms. The corridor constitutes China’s new pincer strategy. India — like the proverbial frog in a gradually heating pot of water not realizing the danger until it is too late — can stay silent and passive at its own peril.

Brahma Chellaney, a long-standing contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award. His latest book is “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.”

© The Japan Times, 2015.

Why the U.S. must support constitutional reform in Japan

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U.S. security interests will be better served by a more confident, secure Japan free from its constitutional fetters.

Brahma Chellaney

us_news_obama_3_aba_1135298_34228639In keeping with Japan’s interest to play a more robust international role, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s U.S. visit has yielded new guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation — the first such revision since 1997. But it is also in U.S. interest to help Japan free itself of its constitutional millstone so that global military cooperation becomes truly feasible. Japan’s antiwar Constitution must be amended to allow its “Self-Defense Forces” to become a full-fledged military.That will allow Japanese forces to play an expanded role, as envisioned by the revised guidelines.

Let’s face it: 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.

U.S. policy toward Japan must change with the changing geopolitical circumstances in East Asia. While China will prefer a Japan that remains dependent on America for its security than a Japan that can play a more independent role, the post-1945 security system erected by the United States is more suited to keep Japan as an American protectorate than to allow Tokyo to effectively aid the central U.S.-policy objective in the Asia-Pacific — a stable balance of power. An American policy approach that subtly encourages Tokyo to cut its overdependence on America and do more for its own defense can assist Japan in shaping a new strategic future for itself that contributes to Asian power equilibrium, thus aiding U.S. interests.

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

Japan has clung to this 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 — is set to enact its 100th amendment. Even Germany — also defeated in World War II — has thus far made 59 amendments to its Basic Law, or Constitution, which it adopted when it was under Allied occupation.

If Japan were to break free from its constitutional fetters, it will aid its “normalization” as a nation at a time when the ascent of an increasingly muscular China has exacerbated the Asian security environment. In East Asia, Japan is the only democracy that can balance the power of rising China.

The United Nations charter recognizes individual and collective self-defense as an “inherent right” of nations. Yet Japan did not have this right, until the Abe government last year reinterpreted the Constitution on “collective self-defense” — a step that would allow Japan to come to the aid of its allies. The U.S. wisely supported this reinterpretation.

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.

In fact, many Japanese regard the Constitution as sacrosanct and unchangeable. Such constitutional-sanctity zeal 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.

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 the modification of the force-renouncing Article Nine to a successor government. Yet accomplishing even that limited goal remains uncertain. 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. If President Barack Obama’s administration were to lend support to Abe’s constitutional-reform agenda, it 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.

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, which 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. Today, Japan is the only power that can block China from gaining ascendancy in the region.

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

© China-US Focus, 2015.

Why is Narendra Modi going to China?  

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Brahma Chellaney, Mint, April 30, 2015

oped--621x414Barely eight months after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India trip, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will shortly make a return visit to China. China’s intrusion into Chumar—one of its biggest incursions ever—coincided with Xi’s arrival, representing his birthday gift for Modi, who turned 64 on that day. Given that Beijing has only hardened its border stance and taken other unfriendly actions since, why is Modi paying a return visit so soon after Xi’s trip?

Normally, a return visit to any country should be undertaken only after preparatory work indicates the trip could tangibly advance the bilateral relationship. Modi’s trip, however, holds little prospect for achieving a more balanced and stable relationship or making progress on resolving land and water disputes and correcting an increasingly lopsided trade relationship. Given the limited time, no real groundwork has been done to ensure that the visit yields enduring results.

Beijing has only been queering the pitch for Modi’s visit. Its reaction to Modi’s Arunachal Pradesh tour in February to open two development projects was unparalleled. Over two days, China fulminated against India, with the Indian ambassador being summarily summoned, the Chinese vice foreign minister speaking scathingly, and the Chinese foreign ministry posting a condemnatory press release on its website.

Worse still, Beijing, in a little-noticed action, used this occasion to escalate its stance on Arunachal. The Chinese vice foreign minister brusquely told the Indian ambassador that the Modi visit undermined “China’s territorial sovereignty, right and interests” and that it “violates the consensus to appropriately handle the border issue.” In other words, Beijing claimed that Arunachal was no longer just a “disputed territory” but China’s sovereign territory, and it contrived a “consensus” against an Indian leader visiting that northeastern state.

Actually, China’s creep began in 2006 when, for the first time, it claimed Arunachal as “South Tibet.” It has since cooked up Tibetan names for invented subdivisions of Arunachal to draw attention to the state’s purported Tibetan identity, even though the Dalai Lama has publicly said that Arunachal historically was not part of Tibet. In its February 20 admonition to India, Beijing alleged the “so-called Arunachal Pradesh” was established largely in the “three areas of China’s Tibet—Monyul, Loyul and Lower Tsayul” and claimed these “had always been Chinese territory.”

What was India’s reaction to Beijing’s serially grating statements on Arunachal, including accusing Modi of breaching an ostensible “consensus”? Conspicuous silence. Modi’s government, however, went ahead and scheduled its maiden round of border talks with China in New Delhi in March, instead of postponing it. Emboldened, Beijing mounted pressure on two fronts — just before and after the border talks, intruding Chinese forces had face-offs with Indian troops in Ladakh’s Depsang plateau; and, without cause, China raked up the Arunachal issue again.

In April, Beijing claimed it is an “undeniable fact” that there is a “huge dispute” over Arunachal. The undeniable fact is actually the converse: that the “huge dispute” is really about Tibet since all Chinese claims flow from that. Sprawling Tibet, the world’s largest and highest plateau, remains at the core of the India-China divide.

Consider yet another hostile action: Chinese intelligence, playing an active role, got nine insurgent groups from India’s northeast recently to meet in Myanmar and form a united front. And just before hosting Modi, Xi has travelled to Pakistan where he signed agreements valued at $28 billion and unveiled the development of a Kashgar-Gwadar land corridor to the Indian Ocean that will challenge India in its own maritime backyard.

Yet, mum’s the word for India. It would seem that safeguarding Modi’s visit has trumped the strategic imperative to respond diplomatically to China’s antagonistic actions. These actions cannot but embarrass Modi, who is still courting Beijing.

For example, how is India planning to respond to China’s stapled-visa policy towards Arunachal residents? Not in kind, such as by introducing stapled visas for the Tibetan plateau’s Han settlers, but by bestowing a reward: e-visa on arrival for Chinese nationals. Such an overture, even if continuing the Indian tradition since 1949 of going overboard to befriend China, signals that India remains hobbled by low self-esteem and a subaltern mindset.

A resurgent India would shine a spotlight on the core dispute by slowly reopening the Tibet issue and reclaiming its lost leverage. After all, China has trampled on its pledge to respect Tibet’s autonomy. Yet, without inviting any reprisal, China continues to squeeze a defensive India. The fact that India does not take its claim to Aksai Chin or Pakistan-held Kashmir seriously encourages China to enlarge its strategic footprint in the Pakistani part of Kashmir and to step up incursions into Ladakh from the Chinese-occupied portion of Kashmir.

In the absence of goal-oriented statecraft, Indian diplomacy has long been shaped by personalities at the helm. Their propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure has been legendary, as India has ignored the sound advice of Talleyrand, Napoleon’s famous foreign minister: “By no means show too much zeal.” Zeal, especially in the form of diplomatic surprises and unilateral gestures, is a trademark of the Modi foreign policy. Indeed, Modi is going to China because he gratuitously told Xi he would pay a return visit before completing his first year in office. With such a schmaltzy approach, can India stand up for its interests and make China walk its talk?

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research.

© Mint, 2015 

Why India needs to reformulate its China policy

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, April 14, 2015

Xi Jinping in AhmedabadThe hype over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s China visit next month is likely to obscure the underlying strategic dissonance and tensions between the world’s two most populous countries on issues extending from land and water to geopolitical aims.

Two issues stand out: An increasingly asymmetrical trade relationship and a gradually rising pattern of Chinese border incursions in several regions since 2006, when China for the first time claimed Arunachal Pradesh as ‘South Tibet’.

India-China commerce constitutes one of the world’s most lopsided trade relationships: China’s exports are 3½ times greater in value than its imports, and it buys mainly primary commodities from India but exports value-added goods to it. For example, China’s steel producers find India an easy dumping prey, with Chinese dumping of steel items rising almost fourfold under Modi’s watch in 2014. New Delhi, by tamely allowing China to rake in growing profits through such trade, in effect funds the Chinese strategy to encircle India.

Despite rising border provocations, Indian policymakers have still to get their act together. To Modi’s credit, he has stressed that border peace and tranquillity is a prerequisite to the continued growth of India-China relations. But with his government, like his predecessor’s, preoccupied with fire-fighting on several fronts, policymakers are missing the significance of what China is up to.

There is a clear pattern, backed by an identifiable strategy, to the Chinese incursions. With the aid of progressively increasing or recurrent incursions in each coveted area, the strategy aims to create a dispute where no dispute has existed so that China can subsequently demand that it be settled ‘peacefully’ on give-and-take terms. This pattern and strategy are apparent, for example, from repeated Chinese intrusions in Ladakh’s two strategic regions — Depsang and Chumar — where the geography favours Indian forces, lending a distinct military advantage.

Neither Chumar nor Depsang was in dispute earlier. Yet Chinese President Xi Jinping’s India arrival last September coincided with a Chinese intrusion into Chumar — one of the biggest incursions ever, representing Xi’s birthday gift for Modi, who turned 64 on that day. And Premier Li Keqiang’s 2013 visit followed a Chinese encroachment into Depsang, with the intruding troops setting up camp in an area that extended beyond the ‘line of actual control’ (LAC) that China itself unilaterally drew when it defeated India in the 1962 Chinese-initiated war.

The tense, intrusion-triggered military standoffs notwithstanding, incursions remain business as usual for China. For example, on the eve of the recent border talks, and then soon thereafter, intruding Chinese forces had face-offs with Indian troops in two separate areas of the Depsang plateau. In both the cases on March 20 and March 28, the Chinese attempt to reach India’s Old Patrol Point base was foiled. In response to an incursion, Indian forces hold a banner drill to get the intruding troops out — a task that might also necessitate one or more flag meetings. But no sooner has one face-off ended than another incursion occurs. After all, Chinese border ‘transgressions’, as government figures reveal, now exceed more than one per day.

One novel method the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has employed is to bring ethnic Han pastoralists to the valleys along the LAC and give them cover to range across it, thus driving Indian herdsmen from their traditional pasturelands. In the absence of a strategy to thwart such PLA-assisted ‘civilian’ encroachments (one of which occurred during Xi’s visit), India has been incrementally losing land, especially in Arunachal and Ladakh.

Why blame China for employing means — fair or foul — to alter the LAC bit by bit when Indians remain confused as ever on how to respond? To thwart encroachment by regular PLA troops, India’s first line of defence remains a thinly stretched police force. The home ministry-administered Indo-Tibetan Border Police is no match for the PLA guile and capability. Beefing up its strength alone won’t suffice; it must be placed under the army’s operational command.

The focus on high-level visits and the border talks proceeding for 34 years — a world record — distracts attention from India’s strategic imperatives while emboldening China to furtively nibble at Indian territories.

The Modi government’s recently concluded maiden border talks with China dashed hopes of these negotiations being reoriented to produce results. The two countries in September recommitted to ‘an early settlement of the boundary question’, with Modi urging Xi to “resume the stalled process of clarifying the LAC” — a process derailed by China’s breaking of a 2001 promise to exchange maps with India. The recent discussions, however, represented no earnest effort to restructure the talks, under way since 1981.

India’s choice is not between persisting with a weak-kneed policy and risking a war. India has a hundred different options between these extremities, as China’s own actions attest. Yet national security adviser Ajit Doval said after the latest round that holding border negotiations was itself valuable, even if the talks yielded no progress, because their absence would mean “conflict is the only means of resolution”. Such logic that the sole choice for India is between staying stuck in futile talks and entering into conflict only encourages a revanchist China to take India round and round the mulberry bush.

India must stop seeing options only at the extreme ends and build a credible counter-strategy. China indeed is trying to limit India’s options by leveraging its economic clout, including as a major supplier of power and telecom equipment and active pharmaceutical ingredients and as a lender to financially troubled Indian firms. China is already India’s largest source of imports.

With creative gradualism his forte, Modi must evolve a China policy that errs on the side of caution, not meekness. Caution averts problems but timidity, as the past decade has shown, invites more problems. Prudence demands denying China the leeway to continue distorting commerce and boosting its trade surplus year after year, even as it keeps India under mounting strategic pressure without incurring political costs.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) The Hindustan Times, 2015.

History holds Asia hostage

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Nikkie Asian Review, April 6-12, 2015

A failure to come to terms with history weighs on all the important bilateral relationships in Asia. As the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, some nations in the region are resurrecting the ghosts of history.

China, for example, is planning a grand military parade in Beijing on Sept. 3 to commemorate what it calls Victory over Japan Day. In announcing the parade, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, said it will display China’s military prowess and “make Japan tremble.” An increasingly muscular China, however, is rattling not only Japan but also its other neighbors.

How diplomatic relationships are held hostage to history is best exemplified by the strained ties between America’s closest regional allies — South Korea and Japan. Following Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s re-election, these two countries were presented with a stark choice: find ways to stem the recrudescence of bitter disputes over history or stay frozen in a political relationship that plays into China’s hands.

Playing the history card, China has made ultranationalism the legitimating credo of Communist rule. In recent years, China has sought to draw attention to the atrocities committed by the Japanese during World War II by expanding and renovating war museums memorializing the 1931-1945 invasion, as well as through other government projects and subsidies. As though to stir its people into a frenzy of patriotism, China has also declared two new national days to remember Japanese aggression.

But what if the victims of China’s aggression followed its example and commemorated Chinese attacks on them? China, while seeking to obscure its own aggressions and occupations since the communist “revolution,” including the 1951 annexation of the sprawling Tibetan plateau and invasions of India and Vietnam in 1962 and 1979, respectively, has long called on Japan to take history as a mirror and demonstrate greater remorse for its past aggressions.

When nationalisms collide

History is rarely an objective chronicle, in keeping with the dictum that it is written by the winners. Yet history greatly shapes national narratives. In Asia, the “history problem” has spurred a resurgence of competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms. Squabbles over history and remembrance remain the principal obstacle to political reconciliation in Asia, reinforcing negative stereotypes of rival nations and helping to rationalize claims to territories long held by other nations. A country’s commemoration is usually linked with its national identity.

Honoring one country’s heroes and history can be done without seeking to alienate, provoke or rub salt in the wounds of another nation. In an economically integrated but politically divided Asia, however, relations between nations remain trapped in a mutually reinforcing loop: Poor political relations help magnify and accentuate the history problem, thus chaining diplomatic ties to history.

Breaking out of this vicious cycle demands forward-looking leadership and the will to pursue political reconciliation. At present, though, the trend is in the opposite direction. For example, attempts in East Asia to rewrite or sugarcoat history, including by revising textbooks or erecting memorials to newfound heroes, are inciting greater regional rancor and recrimination. A potent mix of domestic politics, growing geopolitical competition and military tensions has turned history into a driver of corrosive nationalism.

Disputes between South Korea and Japan and between China and Japan over territories, war memorials, textbooks and natural resources are the result of an entangled history. The Sino-Indian relationship is also a prisoner of the past. This is especially evident in the context of China’s elimination of the historical buffer — Tibet — and its subsequent war with India. Even the Chinese-South Korean relationship carries the baggage of history, burdened  by China’s more recent revisionist claim to the kingdom of Koguryo, one of the three kingdoms in ancient Korea.

Missed opportunity

The recent commitment of U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to work with like-minded states to establish a power equilibrium and a rule-based order in Asia can make little headway if history continues to hinder relations even between democracies. Take Japan and South Korea: As export-oriented powerhouses with traditionally close cultural ties, the two share many values. But resurgent history issues between them have dimmed hopes of a concert of democracies to rein in China’s assertiveness.

The century-old case of Korean activist Ahn Jung-geun illustrates history’s divisive hold. Considered a terrorist in  Japan, where he was hanged, but a hero in South Korea, Ahn assassinated four-time Japanese Prime Minister and the first Resident-General of Korea Hirobumi Ito in 1909 at the Harbin railway station in China.

The case resurfaced after China opened a memorial hall in Harbin in January 2014 commemorating Ahn, prompting Japan to denounce China for glorifying a terrorist. The hall was built at the suggestion of South Korean President Park Geun-hye during a meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in the summer of 2013.

South Korea, a hyper-nationalistic state, has sought to eliminate all signs of Japanese colonial rule. But not all Asian states seek to obliterate their colonial past. India continues to transact much of its key government business from British-era edifices, and some  of its major criminal and civil laws date from the colonial period. Taiwan — a former Japanese colony — also has a tolerant view of its period of subjugation.

Many nations, however, blend historical fact with myth. For example, China, as the fairy-tale Middle Kingdom, claims to be the mother of all civilizations, weaving legend with history to foster a chauvinistic Han culture centered on regaining lost glory. The Communist Party projects great-power status as China’s historical entitlement. Indeed, by embellishing China’s past, it wants to make real the legend that drives Chinese revisionist history — China’s centrality in the world. This is reflected in President Xi’s goal to build what he calls the “Chinese dream.”

Stirring up the past

Harmful historical legacies create serious impediments to rational policy choices. Park, for example, has sought closer ties with China even though South Korea’s natural regional partner is Japan. Japan — Asia’s oldest liberal democracy, which has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II — has been a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid.

Since coming to power more than two years ago, Park — the daughter of the military general who served as South Korea’s dictator for 18 years until 1979 — has not held a single one-on-one meeting with Abe, insisting that Japan first address lingering issues over its annexation of Korea more than 100 years ago. Japan declared Korea a protectorate in 1905, and officially annexed it in 1910.

Abe’s re-election places him on strong political ground to reach out to Park and find ways to put history behind them through negotiation. But this will be a challenging task for two reasons. First, South Korea clings to the past while Japan, which has acknowledged and apologized several times for its war crimes, wishes to forget the past. In the last century, Japan was a victor and a loser, as well as an oppressor and a victim, making its historical narrative complex and difficult, especially in relation to China and South Korea.

Second, Park has persisted in raking up the past even at the expense of the bilateral relationship. She has sought to pander to nationalist sentiment at home by being tough on Japan, clearly in part to play down her father’s collaboration with the Japanese Imperial Army. For example, Park recently again called on Japan to acknowledge the historical truth by resolving the “comfort women” issue, a reference to the sexual slavery of Korean and other women by the Japanese Imperial Army.

A grand bargain between the two East Asian neighbors would require Japan to more clearly and fully express regret and remorse over its militaristic past and South Korea to agree not to keep dredging up historical grievances.

If South Korea and Japan take the lead to put their shared past behind them, they could set an example for other relationships in Asia that are burdened by historical differences and distortions.

Asian states cannot change the past, but they can strive to shape a more cooperative future. As a Russian proverb puts it pithily, “Forget the past and lose an eye; dwell on the past and lose both eyes.”

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of the award-winning book Water: Asia’s New Battleground, Georgetown University Press.