How India can reclaim leverage over the Tibet issue

Brahma Chellaney, Mint, November 12, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Mint, 2014.

A broken international system?

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PLA aborts Modi’s China reset

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Brahma Chellaney, Mint, October 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Mint, 2014.

India’s China problem

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Brahma Chellaney, The World Post/The Huffington Post

xi-jinping-14Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May with a thumping electoral mandate, faces a major test in diplomacy in the form of bilateral summits this month with three powers central to Indian foreign policy — Japan, China, and the United States. Modi met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on September 1, and will now receive Chinese President Xi Jinping in New Delhi. He will then visit the White House at the end of the month.

China poses the toughest challenge for Modi, although the Indian leader had a good meeting with Xi on the sidelines of the recent summit of BRICS, a grouping of major emerging economies. Their body language at the summit in Brazil indicated the two had formed an easy personal equation.

After assuming office, Modi was quick to reach out to China, negating the assumption of some analysts that his government would be less accommodating toward Beijing than its predecessor. Modi views China, with its massive foreign-exchange reserves, as a potential partner in India’s development. Yet, at a time when the China-India trade relationship is already lopsided, with Beijing exporting three times as much as it imports and treating India as a raw-material appendage of its economy like Africa, Modi must find ways to address this glaring asymmetry while seeking to make a cash-rich China an important partner in India’s developmental priorities.

Another challenge for Modi is to balance such deeper economic engagement with India’s strategic imperatives, including bolstering defenses against China and containing increasing Chinese border provocations. According to figures released by Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju in India’s Parliament recently, Chinese border transgressions this year have exceeded more than one per day, totaling 334 up to August 4.

The often tense relationship between the world’s two most-populous countries holds significant implications for international security and Asian power dynamics. As China and India gain economic heft, they are drawing ever more international attention. However, their underlying strategic dissonance and rivalry over issues extending from land and water to geopolitical influence usually attracts less notice.

The vast Tibetan plateau separated the Indian and Chinese civilizations throughout history, limiting their interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts, with political relations absent. It was only after Tibet’s annexation in the early 1950s that Han Chinese military units appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers. This was followed by a bloody Himalayan war in 1962.

More than half a century later, their old rifts persist even as new issues have started roiling their relationship, including Beijing’s resurrected claim since 2006 to the sprawling northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, almost three times larger than Taiwan. A perceptible hardening of China’s stance toward India is also manifest from other developments, including Chinese strategic projects and military presence in the Pakistan-held portion of Kashmir.

Between 2000 and 2010, China-India trade rose 20-fold, making it the only area where relations have thrived. Yet the booming trade has failed to subdue their rivalry.

At the root of the current Himalayan tensions are China’s persistent efforts to alter the territorial status quo. To be sure, India is not China’s only target: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is seeking to also disturb the territorial status quo with several other neighboring countries, including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Instead of invading, the PLA has chosen to engage in a steady progression of steps to outwit opponents and create new facts on the ground, whether in the South China Sea or the Indian Himalayas. In this way, it has sought to change the status quo without inviting outright conflict with neighboring countries. While China’s navy and a part of its air force focus on supporting revanchist territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China seas, its army has been active in the mountainous borderlands with India.

To prevent the PLA from further nibbling at its territories, India has been beefing up its military deployments in the two sensitive regions located on the opposite ends of the Himalayas — Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. It has also launched a crash program to improve its logistical capabilities through new roads, airstrips, and advanced landing stations along the Himalayas.

More importantly, India is raising a new mountain strike corps to arm itself with quick-reaction ground offensive capabilities against China. This new XVII Corps, with more than 90,000 troops, will cost $10.7 billion and be fully operational within five years. India has already deployed ballistic missile squadrons, spy drones, and Russian-built Sukhoi-30MKI fighterjets in the eastern theater against China.

Still, with the inhospitable Himalayan border difficult to patrol effectively, incursions by PLA troops have increased across the “line of actual control” (LAC) that China itself unilaterally drew when it defeated India in the 1962 Chinese-initiated war. Because the LAC has not been mutually clarified — China reneged on a 2001 promise to exchange maps with India — Beijing disputes each intrusion, claiming its troops are merely on “Chinese land.” To be sure, when challenged by Indian border police, the intruding troops tend to retreat from most points. But the rising pattern of incursions ties down large numbers of Indian border police and army troops along the Himalayas.

Despite China’s belligerence, Modi has gone out of his way to befriend Xi’s government. As prime minister, he received the Chinese foreign minister before welcoming any other foreign dignitary. Modi’s first bilateral meeting with a major state head was with Xi in Brazil. He allowed Xi to advance his India visit to September while postponing his own Japan trip so as to meet with Xi first in Brazil. Xi will be the first leader of a major power to travel to New Delhi for talks with Modi.

Modi sent India’s vice president to the 60th-anniversary celebrations in Beijing of the Panchsheel (Five Principles) treaty of peaceful coexistence, a pact that China used to outfox and outflank India, culminating in the 1962 border war. Modi even agreed to let Shanghai be the headquarters of the new BRICS bank, accepting just a consolation prize for India — an Indian as its first president.

These overtures, however, can barely conceal either India’s anxiety over China’s increasing muscle flexing or Modi’s determination to build close strategic ties with Japan in order to put discreet checks on China’s exercise of its rapidly accumulating power, which risks sliding into arrogance.

China’s strategy of constant outward pressure on its borders not only threatens to destabilize Asia’s status quo but is also pushing countries like India, Japan, and Vietnam to strategically collaborate. Modi’s priority is to ensure stable power equilibrium in Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

(c) China-United States Exchange Foundation. All rights reserved

India-Japan alliance shapes up

After many rudderless years, India and Japan have prime ministers with a sense of purpose. This has spurred the two nations to forge an alliance.

Brahma Chellaney, Rediff.com

Abe-ModiPrime Minister Narendra Modi returned from Japan with notable gifts, especially a $35-billion Japanese assistance pledge that crowned a host of accords. But, like his predecessors, he will visit the White House bearing gifts, including a $2.5-billion contract for new military helicopters.

This, in a nutshell, explains why Modi’s Japan visit was a watershed, cementing Asia’s new democratic axis and co-opting Tokyo as an important partner in India’s development and a collaborator on mutual security. India and Japan are to cooperate on defense technology, maritime security and military preparedness, including on how to deter aggression and ensure a favorable balance of power in Asia.

For long, with major powers aggressively courting India to get a slice of its rapidly growing market, New Delhi measured success of its diplomacy by how many billions of dollars worth of contracts it doled out at a bilateral summit. It made little effort reciprocally to secure lucrative contracts for Indian industry. As a consequence, India is the only major global economy that remains import-dependent, rather than being export-oriented, and thus relies largely on domestic consumption to fuel its economic growth.

Modi, however, is committed to change that by making India stronger and more robust by reviving slumbering economic growth. He knows there cannot be a better and more reliable partner in India’s development than Japan, especially if his government is to significantly strengthen the country’s manufacturing base, upgrade its rickety infrastructure, create a network of new “smart” cities, and introduce bullet trains.

Japanese technology and investment can help make Modi’s plans a reality. That is why Modi laid emphasis on his “no red tape, only red carpet” message in Japan, saying he is striving to make India more hospitable for corporate activity. “Some people say there is thick red tape in India, but I would like you to believe there is a red carpet in India,” he told Japanese businessmen.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s $35 billion pledge in private and public investment and financing over the next five years is indeed huge. This funding will be used to improve Indian manufacturing and skills, create “smart cities” and electronics industrial parks, build high-speed rail lines and urban subways, clean up the Ganges, produce clean energy, and accelerate rural development.

But if this $35-billion assistance is to make a major difference, India must address its gaping current account deficit. India’s monthly trade deficit is now running at $11.76 billion, as the figure available for the most recent month (July) shows. The massive trade imbalance with China, which has soared from $1 billion in 2002 to $30 billion in 2013, is at the root of India’s serious current account deficit.

By importing raw materials from India but exporting finished products to it, China has effectively turned asymmetrical trade into an instrument to prevent India’s rise as a peer competitor. China, India’s largest source of imports, is also leveraging its trade and financial clout — including its role as a major supplier of power and telecom equipment and its emergence as a lender to financially troubled Indian companies — to dissuade New Delhi from assertively countering the Chinese strategic encirclement.

Modi recognizes that New Delhi must strategically collaborate with Tokyo to prevent the rise of a Sino-centric Asia, or else India’s world-power aspirations will be stymied for good.

Asia’s balance of power will be determined principally by events in two key regions: East Asia and the Indian Ocean. According to the “Tokyo Declaration for India-Japan Special Strategic and Global Partnership” unveiled during Modi’s visit, these two leading maritime democracies in Asia have agreed to “upgrade and strengthen” their defense relations and work together on advancing security in Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region, marked by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

As energy-poor countries heavily dependent on oil and gas imports, India and Japan are naturally concerned by China’s mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and transport routes as well as by its claim to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest and most-strategic waterways. China, in addition, has unilaterally established an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) covering territories that it claims (but does not control) in the East China Sea — a dangerous new precedent in international relations.

Make no mistake: China’s “salami slicing” strategy involving the use of military intimidation or force to make furtive, incremental encroachments across land and sea borders has emerged as a key destabilizing element in Asia.

Alluding to China, the Tokyo Declaration says India and Japan “affirmed their shared commitment to maritime security, freedom of navigation and overflight, civil aviation safety, unimpeded lawful commerce, and peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law.” Modi was blunter, telling a Tokyo symposium: “Everywhere around us, we see an 18th century expansionist mind-set — encroaching on another country, intruding in others’ waters, invading other countries, and capturing territory.” This prompted the Global Times — a mouthpiece for China’s rulers — to editorially say that “it is perhaps a fact that he [Modi] embraces some nationalist sentiments against China.”

The new Indo-Japanese axis is pivoted on a mutual recognition that such an alliance can potentially shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China’s rise or America’s “pivot” to Asia. Together, Japan and India can impose discreet checks on China’s propensity to flex its muscles and to assert revanchist territorial and maritime claims.

Not surprisingly, Indian and Japanese strategic policies have started evolving in parallel.

Long used to practicing passive, checkbook diplomacy, Japan under Abe is now pursuing a strategy of “proactive contribution to peace” by looking beyond its security ties with the U.S. and building strategic partnerships with militarily capable democracies in the Indo-Pacific region. India, for its part, has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism, the hallmark of Modi’s foreign policy.

After many rudderless years, India and Japan have a prime minister with a sense of purpose and direction. This has not only injected new-found energy in their foreign policy but also is aiding the return of economic confidence in the two countries. Such a trend holds long-term strategic implications. For example, India’s GDP growth in three years could potentially overtake that of China, which faces the specter of a slowing economy.

To be sure, Modi sees the United States as equally important to Indian economic and security interests. Eager to restore momentum to India’s relationship with America, he has shaken off the visa-related humiliations heaped on him by Washington for over nine years and is scheduled to visit the White House on September 30. The U.S. has still not expressed regret for revoking his visa over unproven allegations that he connived in Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat state. Yet Modi has decided to place national interest above personal umbrage.

Modi is also reaching out to Beijing in the hope that he can co-opt a cash-rich China as a partner in his mission to economically transform India. But this approach is not without significant risks: For China, trade and economic cooperation is about raking in profits, not about building political bridges. So, booming trade has been no hurdle to its increasing territorial assertiveness. Yet Modi’s overture appears predicated on the belief that growing economic engagement will make Beijing more amenable to a peaceful settlement of border and other disputes.

What makes India’s relationship with Japan special is that it has none of the military and trade tensions that bedevil its ties with China or the political and commercial frictions that jar its relations with America. Between India and Japan, according to Modi, “there is only goodwill and mutual admiration.” Abe has gone to the extent of saying that Japan-India relations hold “the greatest potential of any bilateral relationship anywhere in the world.”

With the economic and security interests of the two countries dovetailing nicely, the process to significantly tap that potential is to be accelerated. Modi urged Abe that the two countries should “strive to achieve in the next five years their relationship’s unrealized potential of the last five decades.” He added that there are “no limits” to cooperation between the two nations and that their actions will help shape the 21st century for Asia.

The Modi trip has helped cement the India-Japan alliance, with the Tokyo Declaration calling the visit’s outcome “the dawn of a new era” in relations between “Asia’s two largest and oldest democracies.” This partnership will strengthen maritime security in the Indo-Pacific region — the world’s leading trade and energy seaway — and shape a healthy and stable Asian power equilibrium, with India serving as the southern anchor and Japan the eastern anchor of this power balance.

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

(c) Rediff.com, 2014.

Modi’s imprint on foreign policy

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Brahma Chellaney, Mint, September 3, 2014

One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark

One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism the hallmark

Narendra Modi has surprised many by investing considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy in his first 100 days in office, even though he had little foreign-policy experience when he became Indian prime minister. His hosting of leaders from India’s neighbourhood when he was sworn in, his highly effective visits to two of India’s neighbours, Nepal and Bhutan, his diplomatic dexterity at the BRICS summit in Brazil, and his watershed trip to Japan are coming to define his nimble foreign-policy approach. Since his thumping electoral mandate, foreign dignitaries have made a beeline to call on him.

Instead of bumptiously enunciating a Modi doctrine in foreign policy, the Prime Minister is allowing his actions, including diplomatic successes and breaks, to define his approach. From the big bear hug with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that symbolized the dawn of an India-Japan alliance to his scrapping of scheduled foreign-secretary-level talks with Pakistan after its high commissioner defiantly met Kashmiri secessionists, Modi has managed to put his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than Jawaharlal Nehru. Indeed, as India’s veto at the WTO talks in Geneva exemplified, Modi will even stand up to a powerful, rich nations’ cabal when national interest is at stake.

Signalling his intent to boost India’s economic and security interests through multidirectional collaboration with likeminded powers, the Prime Minister has embarked on building a democratic axis with Japan — an alliance that can help reshape Asian geopolitics and accelerate India’s development. Modi deliberately made Japan his first foreign port of call beyond the Indian subcontinent so as to spotlight that country’s centrality to Indian interests. In fact, not only is Abe the most India-friendly of any world leader today, but also Japan is ready more than any other power to assist in India’s economic rise through aid, investment and technology transfer. Proof of that is its $35 billion pledge this week.

To be sure, India’s relationship with Japan began blossoming before Modi assumed office. The real architect of this axis is Abe, whose push for closer ties with India dates back to his first stint as PM in 2006-07, when Japan and India unveiled their “strategic and global partnership”. However, Modi — recognizing Japan’s importance to his own goal to boost economic growth and restore national pride — has been quick to seize the opportunity to build an entente with Tokyo.

This mission has not dissuaded him from reaching out to archrival China, despite increasing Himalayan border transgressions by its military. In a tricky act, he has sought to tame China’s belligerence through economic courtship designed to rope in that country — with its $4 trillion foreign-exchange reserves — as an important partner in India’s development, like Japan.

Indeed, Modi has gone out of his way to befriend China, negating the early assumptions that he would be less accommodating toward Beijing than his predecessor. He even delayed his Japan tour by several weeks so as to first meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the BRICS summit. Their body language at that summit indicated the two had formed an easy personal equation. But getting Xi to make progress on the issues that divide India and China won’t be easy.

China represents Modi’s diplomatic gamble. He has invited Chinese investment in his plan to modernize India’s infrastructure, especially railroads, power stations and industrial parks. China’s foreign direct investment in India, however, remains trifling, with Chinese companies preferring to import primary commodities from India while exporting an avalanche of finished products. China, by strategically expanding such lopsided trade with India, has raked in mounting profits, carving out a $30-billion trade surplus in its favour last year.  By dumping its products, it is undercutting Indian manufacturing. How long will Modi be able to walk the tightrope on a country that poses the most difficult challenge for India?

Make no mistake: The extraordinary warmth and harmony that characterized Modi’s Japan tour is unlikely to be replicated in a summit with any other country. In fact, the Prime Minister’s diplomatic skills are about to face a stiffer test in upcoming bilateral summits with Xi — a former military reservist who symbolizes China’s new militarism — and US President Barack Obama, a lame duck increasingly under political siege.

Still, Modi’s actions thus far suggest he has a clear vision of how to proactively recoup India’s regional losses and to boost its global standing. Even his decision to call off talks with Pakistan has made more sense with each passing day, given the political mayhem there. Can any meaningful talks be held at a time the Pakistani military is busy neutering the elected PM and stepping up border provocations against India? Pakistan’s cocky high commissioner is lucky he was not expelled or put in the doghouse for brazenly going against the Indian Foreign Office’s counsel. But he won’t be lucky twice.

One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark. The policy’s overriding objective appears to be to enhance the country’s economic and military security as rapidly as possible. Of course, it is too early to judge the consistency, strength or effectiveness of the Modi diplomacy. But after a long era of ad hoc, reactive, weak-kneed diplomacy, the new clarity and vision represent a welcome change for India.

(c) Mint, 2014.

The Grand Chessboard

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Brahma Chellaney: Modi takes Indian diplomacy to the big leagues

Nikkie Asian Review, August 30, 2014

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi on Aug. 15. © Reuters

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May in India’s biggest election victory in a generation, has signaled his determination to strengthen his country’s diplomatic clout in its own strategic backyard while collaborating more closely with the major powers.

So far, Modi has limited himself to visits to two of India’s smaller neighbors, Nepal and Bhutan, where the trips were hailed as successes. But the prime minister’s powers of diplomacy are about to face a stiffer test in successive bilateral summits with the leaders of Japan, China and the U.S. His handling of these talks will set the parameters of Indian foreign policy for years to come.

Time for more substance

Modi’s Aug. 30 to  Sept. 3 tour of Japan is certain to deepen bonds between the two democracies — one the world’s largest, the other Asia’s oldest (and richest). But if this emerging democratic axis is to turn into a game-changer in Asia, the two countries must add more substance to their collaboration through deeper strategic and economic links.

Modi’s visit to Tokyo will pave the way for a greater Japanese role in India’s development. But there is also scope for greater cooperation in the military realm. Some of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent steps, including easing Japan’s arms export ban and reasserting the right of collective defense, open clear new avenues of potential collaboration with India.

By contrast, when Chinese President Xi Jinping comes to New Delhi in mid-September, Modi will have a more difficult task at hand, given China’s increasing assertiveness on issues such as frontiers and its right to build dams on international rivers originating in Tibet. There may also be friction over the Indian prime minister’s election campaign rhetoric criticizing Beijing’s “expansionist attitude.”

Despite these irritants, Modi is seeking to co-opt China, with its massive foreign-exchange reserves, as a partner in India’s development, negating the early assumptions of some analysts that his government would be less accommodating toward Beijing than its predecessor.

In particular, Modi must find ways to address the lopsided trade relationship between the two countries: Beijing exports three times as much to India as it imports, and treats its huge neighbor as a raw-material appendage of its economy. The Indian leader has already sketched out ways in which this relationship can be transformed by inviting Chinese investment in his plan to modernize India’s infrastructure, especially railroads, power stations and industrial parks.

To prepare the ground for Xi’s visit, Modi has gone out of his way to befriend China. He received the Chinese foreign minister before welcoming any other foreign dignitary. His first bilateral meeting with a major head of state was with Xi on the sidelines of a summit in Brazil of the BRICS grouping of major emerging economies. He allowed the Chinese president to move up his India visit to September while postponing his own Japan trip by eight weeks, a decision that allowed him to meet Xi first. And Modi agreed to let Shanghai host the proposed new BRICS development bank, accepting the consolation prize of having an Indian as its first president.

But the tensions between the neighbors will not go away: Modi’s election-victory pronouncement that the coming decades would constitute “India’s century” sits uneasily alongside China’s similar proclamation of its ownership of the 21st century. And friction along their shared border is increasing, according to Kiren Rijiju, India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs, who told parliament recently that Chinese border transgressions this year have exceeded more than one per day to reach 334 as of Aug. 4. For India, it is clear that China remains as much a strategic rival as an economic opportunity.

Rising above U.S. humiliation

Given the critical importance of the U.S. to India, Modi has wisely placed national interests above personal umbrage by shaking off visa-denial humiliations heaped on him by Washington. These date back to 2005, when the U.S. denied Modi a visa over his alleged involvement in anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat in 2002. Washington maintained the ban for years, even though he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by an inquiry appointed by India’s Supreme Court.

The U.S. abruptly reversed course when Modi emerged as the favorite to win the election, and in the wake of his overwhelming electoral mandate in May, Modi could have waited for U.S. officials to come calling. Instead, seeking to establish a mutually productive relationship with Washington, he quickly accepted President Barack Obama’s invitation to visit the White House, thereby leaving no room for perceptions about bilateral strains to damage India’s own foreign policy interests.

Nevertheless, the reality is that U.S.-India relations have gradually lost momentum since their heyday under Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, even though Washington has quietly become India’s largest arms supplier. Ties hit a new low in December after an Indian diplomat serving as deputy consul general in New York was arrested and strip-searched by police after being accused of underpaying a nanny she had brought with her from India. India’s national security adviser called the diplomat’s treatment, which included vaginal and anal cavity searches by police, “despicable and barbaric.”

Modi appears keen to reinvigorate the bilateral relationship. But he will be visiting Washington at a time when Obama is beset with crises at home and abroad and appears increasingly under political siege, including from members of his own Democratic Party in the Senate. The contrast between a newly empowered Modi and a fading Obama could not be starker.

It is therefore unclear what the White House visit in late September can accomplish, other than drive home the message that all is well on the U.S.-India front. As if to highlight how transactional aspects overshadow strategic elements in the relationship, Washington will be expecting Modi to come bearing gifts in the form of new business and arms contracts.

Standing up for India

But Modi has already shown that he will unflinchingly stand up for his perception of the national interest, even if it means opposing the U.S. He demonstrated this in late July at the World Trade Organization negotiations in Geneva on a new global trade facilitation accord. Failing to win last-minute concessions in relation to India’s food-stockpiling program, the Modi government vetoed the agreement, which the previous Indian administration had tentatively approved, drawing criticism from the U.S. and many of the 158 other countries that had voted in favor of the deal.

Modi’s smoothest interaction will likely be with Japan, despite his apparent focus on wooing China. Abe will ensure that his Indian counterpart’s visit is a success, not least because the relationship is seen in Tokyo as a win-win partnership that can help catalyze Japan’s revival as a world power, while also driving India’s infrastructure development and aspirations to become a top power.

In particular, Modi is expected to return home with a much-hoped-for civil nuclear accord with Tokyo. Such a deal will be presented in India as a diplomatic triumph, even though its practical value is largely symbolic because India cannot afford large-scale investment in imported nuclear reactors. The country would be better off using its own expertise to build fast-breeder reactors and more conventional small reactors.

The Japan-India partnership nevertheless holds the potential to shape Asian geopolitics in much the same way as China’s rise or Obama’s U.S. “pivot” to Asia. Modi says his visit is aimed at taking “time-tested” ties with Japan to “a new level.”

India’s foreign policy has never had a distinct strategic imprint, except for a period under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The country has always placed more emphasis on being liked than on being respected. Modi recognizes this failing and, as his actions in Geneva exemplified, appears intent on fixing it.

His overtures to Beijing do not conceal his resolve to build close strategic ties with Japan to help put discreet checks on China’s exercise of its rapidly accumulating power, which risks sliding into arrogance. Modi’s vision for Asia is a stable equilibrium in which India can thrive unhindered.

Achieving that objective will not be easy, given the complex challenges facing India in its relationships with its three most important interlocutors. Yet Modi’s record since May suggests that his government has a clear vision of how a proactive foreign policy might work. For New Delhi, that is a step forward.

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

© Nikkie Asian Review, 2014.