Doggy disinformation

China’s faltering ties with North Korea have spawned a disinformation campaign against its estranged ally, with the rift holding larger geopolitical implications.

In happier times: Jang Song Thaek (left) with supreme leader Kim Jong Un.

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times, January 8, 2014

China’s autocrats, by upending the status quo in the East and South China Seas and the Himalayas, are waging an undeclared war against multiple neighboring countries at once. Their next target is likely to be fellow communist state North Korea, now an estranged ally and the last frontier of the Cold War.

China’s “blood relations” with North Korea — acclaimed in the past to be as close as “lips and teeth” — have soured badly. A widening chasm between China’s assertive, nationalistic president, Xi Jinping, and North Korea’s defiant young dictator, Kim Jong Un, has thrown the bilateral relationship into a tailspin. The 30-year-old Kim, the world’s youngest head of state, appears determined to chart an independent course, spurring increasing unease in China.

North Korea has become the target of a Chinese campaign of disinformation after it executed China’s most-valued friend in its power hierarchy, Jang Song Thaek, a four-star general who was Kim’s uncle by marriage. The Chinese campaign seeks to portray Kim as a wickedly eccentric and bloodthirsty megalomaniac.

Jang, China’s main link to the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang, was convicted and executed Dec. 12 for treason, including plotting a coup and underselling national resources (such as coal, land and precious metals) to a “foreign country” — a reference to China. This has infuriated Xi and many others in China, with one general warning that North Korea was slipping out of the Chinese sphere of influence and government mouthpieces calling for a tough new approach. China’s online censors have conspicuously overlooked social media’s increasing vilification of Kim.

According to a candid Jan.6 commentary in China’s Global Times, Jang’s fall signifies North Korea’s effort at “de-Sinification,” reflecting an “anxious desire to shake off its overdependence on China and find a way out of the deadlock with the U.S.” The article, authored by Da Zhigang, director of the Institute of Northeast Asian Studies, Heilongjiang Provincial Academy of Social Sciences, said the development represented a serious setback for China’s interests because it symbolizes the “acceleration” of the North’s attempt to “reorient” toward the U.S. as part of its juche ideology of self-reliance and the songun ideal of a militarily strong, secure state.

Immediately after the execution, a small but sensationalist Hong Kong newspaper aligned with the Chinese Communist Party reported that Kim and other senior leaders watched as Jang and five associates were stripped naked, thrown into a cage, and devoured by 120 hungry dogs. The paper, Wen Wei Po, cited not a single source for its claim, which harked back to the ancient Roman tradition of throwing convicts to dogs, lions or other animals.

Yet days later, the outlandish claim was published in the Straits Times, the main newspaper in Singapore, a city-state with no press freedom. The Dec. 24 Straits Times’ report was authored by a former Wen Wei Po reporter who was once jailed in China for allegedly spying for Taiwan. By Jan. 3, the speculative story had been picked up by media across the world.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweeted Jan. 3, “Well, the truly interesting thing is that the story seems to be put out by the authorities in Beijing.” The death-by-ravenous-dog tale from the country famous for its “dog meat festivals” was a reminder that China uses the Hong Kong-Singapore route for disinformation. Eating dog meat is an ancient custom in China. Indeed, in some regions there, eating dog meat on the summer solstice is believed to help ward off evil spirits and disease.

Demonizing the reclusive and recalcitrant North Korea comes easily to many in the world, given its government’s opaque inner-workings and how little hard information flows out of that hermetic nation. Many outsiders are ready to believe any story about it, especially because there is no way to disprove it.

The international media, in any event, loves stories about dictators, however poorly sourced and farfetched they may be.

In this case, the North Korean regime itself lent a “dog” angle by publicly branding Jang as “worse than a dog.” Still, it is significant that the unverified execution-by-dog story was not lapped up by the media in South Korea, where journalists track developments in North Korea closely with access to intelligence sources and defectors.

The story bore distinctly Chinese characteristics, including attention to precise numbers — 120 dogs, starved for five days, were supposedly unleashed in an action supervised by 300 officials.

Numerical symbolism has always been important in China, extending even to witch hunts — for example, the “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom” campaign in the 1950s.

China’s warriors of disinformation betrayed an uncanny trait in counting both the number of hounds who ate up Jang and the number of officials who supervised the quan jue, or execution by dogs. The “120 dogs ate up Jang” story was a dead giveaway. In fact, the tale now is an acknowledged fabrication — one that apparently originated as satire on a Chinese microblogging website and was repackaged as hard news. The tale served the disinformers’ purpose in depicting Kim internationally as more brutal than previously believed.

Evidence thus far points to Jang’s execution by North Korea’s normal practice — a firing squad. What is remarkable is that the doggy disinformation was widely disseminated by a country whose political system is no different than North Korea’s. China indeed has well-oiled, sophisticated repression and propaganda machines that, unlike North Korea’s, have kept pace with technological advances.

In truth, China has learned some of its disinformation tricks from the United States, which has a penchant to demonize dictators it dumps after using them.

China’s faltering ties with North Korea, however, make it stand out as a lonely rising power with no real allies, in stark contrast to the U.S., which boasts 27 military allies and a number of other strategic partners. There are no good options for Beijing on North Korea, especially after Jang’s execution and Kim’s purge of some other purportedly pro-China elements.

Kim has presented himself as a tough leader who will not allow China to treat North Korea as a vassal state. Kim Il Sung, the founder of the state, paid 37 official visits to China, and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, went nine times. But Kim Jong Un has not been to China even once since he came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.

Thumbing his nose at Xi’s entreaties for restraint, he successfully fired a rocket to place a satellite in orbit in late 2012 and carried out his country’s third nuclear test in February 2013. His open defiance prompted China to endorse new United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea, further fraying the bilateral relationship.

China’s policy dilemma is compounded by the fact that it has little interest in the collapse of the Kim family’s rule because that could unravel the North Korean state and create a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with the U.S.

China has territorial and resource disputes with North Korea that a reunified Korea will inherit. The territorial disputes center on Chonji, the crater lake on Mount Paektu — where the Sino-Korean boundary has not been settled — and certain islands in the Yalu and the Tumen, both border rivers.

Indeed, signaling that its present border with North Korea may not be final for it, China has made a revisionist historical claim that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo — founded in the Tongge River basin of northern Korea — was Chinese and not Korean. As a December 2012 U.S. Senate report warned, China “may be seeking to lay the groundwork for possible future territorial claims on the Korean peninsula.”

Whereas Washington’s policy on North Korea focuses narrowly on its denuclearization, Beijing seeks geopolitical influence and continued access to the vast reserves of iron ore, magnesite, copper and other minerals there. It also wants to block Russia and Japan from making strategic inroads into the North. It remains wedded to a strategy to prevent South Korea from absorbing the North.

The Kim regime, for its part, seeks normalized relations with the U.S. so as to escape depending excessively on China. It thus chafes at the Obama administration’s use of Beijing as a diplomatic go-between.

Make no mistake: The China-North Korea rift holds far-reaching implications for regional geopolitics. U.S.’s North Korean policy must reassess its dubious reliance on Beijing as an intermediary and find ways to reengage Pyongyang directly — an imperative that also extends to policymakers in Tokyo and Seoul.

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

(c) The Japan Times, January 8, 2014.

Fury of the meekest

After the U.S. indictment and de facto expulsion of the New York-based Indian woman diplomat who was arrested and strip searched, it is important to remember that India’s only tangible response to the entire episode has been to withdraw some unilateral privileges to U.S. diplomats and consular officials that it shouldn’t have extended in the first place.

Brahma Chellaney, India Today, January 13, 2014

America’s demeaning strip and cavity search of an Indian diplomat in breach of international norms has become a symbol of a once-flourishing bilateral relationship gone awry. The U.S. and India entered into a much-ballyhooed strategic partnership, not a patron-client relationship. With 27 military allies, the U.S., however, is used to a patron-client equation, not a partnership, which demands some degree of equivalence and mutual respect. It thus began to take India for granted, and appeared genuinely surprised that India reacted to Devyani Khobragade’s humiliation as if it were the proverbial straw threatening to break its back.

U.S.’s “problem” with India extends well beyond this episode. For example, almost one-third of all T visas it has issued worldwide to victims of extremely grave sex or labour trafficking have been to Indians, thus mocking the most-populous democracy’s judicial system. The manner in which it spirited out of India the family of Khobragade’s maid on T visas and with tax-exempt tickets improperly procured by its embassy, paradoxically, was tantamount to an act of state-sponsored trafficking. The action had an openly conspiratorial ring to it: No sooner had the U.S., playing global cop, “evacuated” the maid’s family from its home country than it arrested Khobragade.

Make no mistake: America would not have dared to arrest and strip search a Chinese or Russian diplomat for allegedly underpaying a maid because that would have invited swift and disproportionate retaliation. In fact, just one week before Khobragade’s arrest, Preetinder Singh Bharara—the rogue prosecutor in New York who likes to be addressed as “Preet” or “Pete” when in reality he is Mr. Pretender—charged a number of Russian diplomats and consular officials for defrauding Medicaid of $1.5 million. But before unveiling the charges, the defendants were allowed to leave the US.

What has been India’s response to the insults heaped on it, or what the incredible Manmohan Singh called “some hiccups”? Don’t let all the sound and fury spook you: India’s only response thus far has been to start withdrawing non-reciprocal privileges to US diplomatic and consular staff and their families.

In a classic case of impotent fury, India made no effort to try to penalize the U.S. Indeed, India did the exact opposite by rewarding America with a new mega-contract—a $1.01-billion deal for additional C-130J military aircraft. Its demand for a formal apology has dissipated. It did not even hold back its new ambassador from taking charge in Washington until the U.S. made some amends. Why blame the U.S. for taking liberties when India’s toadying foreign minister has hailed NSA’s notorious global surveillance as “only a computer study” and “not snooping”?

Indeed, no Indian is asking the key question: Why did India in the first place unilaterally extend the privileges to U.S. diplomatic and consular staff that it is now withdrawing? India’s servility went to the extent of granting family members of U.S. consular officials a degree of diplomatic immunity for which they were ineligible. Ignoring its own security protocol, India handed out identity-less airport passes usable by any diplomat or consular official.  India’s VVIPs, often seeking visas and other favours for their relatives, blocked New Delhi’s Nyaya Marg (the road behind the U.S. Embassy) to graciously allow U.S. Embassy personnel to visit the American Club without having to cross a public street.

New Delhi made no effort over the years to ensure that those working in American schools and other non-diplomatic U.S. government facilities in India were employed in compliance with Indian labour laws, which mandate, among other things, income tax and provident fund deductions. U.S. diplomats’ spouses worked in American schools and other U.S. facilities without seeking host-nation permission or paying taxes on their earnings. India turned a blind eye to such violations, which, if they occurred in the U.S., would land a violator in serious trouble, possibly even in jail.

India has now asked a reluctant U.S. Embassy to supply all the relevant details. Will the Embassy come clean? Who will crack the enforcement whip? India’s compromised governing elites?

There is yet another unanswered question: When there was a non-bailable Indian warrant against Khobragade’s absconding maid, how did Indian immigration allow her family to leave on “T” visas? True, a family cannot be liable for an absconding member. Yet Indian immigration and intelligence should have smelt a rat that the family was leaving on “trafficking” visas.

Clearly, Indian authorities have a lot to answer for. India—having absorbed no lesson from the case involving U.S. informant David Headley—must blame itself for inviting the latest outrage. Indeed, what was billed as India’s atypically tough response has ended in a whimper, reinforcing the country’s lamb-like image.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) India Today, 2014.

Border-talks charade

Why India risks repeating its Himalayan territorial blunder vis-à-vis China

Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today, November 29, 2013

An Indian soldier stands guard at the ancient Nathu La border crossing between India and Chinese-ruled Tibet.

India has held regular border-settlement negotiations with China since 1981 in what is the longest such continuous process between any two nations in post-World War II history.  The negotiations, which began as “senior-level talks”, were rechristened first in 1988 as “joint working group” talks and then in 2003 as talks between “special representatives”. Yet, after 32 years of border-related talks, India has failed to persuade China to agree to the bare minimum — a mutually defined line of control — even as the two sides continue to farcically call their disputed frontline the “Line of Actual Control”, or LAC.

In fact, China has strengthened its leverage against India by upping the ante, both by hardening its stance in the negotiations and by stepping up military pressure, including nibbling at Indian territory through stealthy incursions. The pattern to disturb the status quo little by little and mount increased pressure is in keeping with China’s preferred approach to territorial disputes: What is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable.

Having annexed the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau in the western Himalayas, China has focused its attention on the Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh in the east, aggressively laying its claim since 2006 to that rugged Indian state, which borders Bhutan and Myanmar and is almost three times larger than Taiwan. In a clever ploy to turn Arunachal into an internationally recognized dispute, China has started calling it “South Tibet”, a term that was unknown before it invented it in 2006. Yet a timid India has retreated to an increasingly defensive position in the border talks.

The spotlight now is on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal rather than on Tibet’s status itself. China’s revival of its claim to Arunachal, in fact, drew encouragement from the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 2003 recognition of Tibet as part of the People’s Republic. Beijing’s success in securing that recognition has helped narrow the dispute to what it claims. As a result, a politically adrift India has been left to fend off China’s increasingly assertive territorial demands.

What does India gain by persisting with the border-talks charade? By staying put in a barren and counterproductive process, India only aids China’s containment-behind-engagement strategy. As long as India remains directionless, China will continue to press its claims by whatever means — fair or foul — it deems advantageous. And as India gets sucked into a 1950s-style trap, history is in danger of repeating itself.

The issue then was Aksai Chin; the issue now is Arunachal. As a result, whenever an Indian president or prime minister visits Arunachal — which is once in several years — Beijing rakes up its territorial demand by publicly condemning the trip. China feels emboldened to up the ante because of Indian pusillanimity. For example, when President Pranab Mukherjee visited Arunachal in November 2013 — the first visit by an Indian president to the state in more than five years — he avoided going to Arunachal’s Tibetan Buddhism pilgrimage valley of Tawang, just like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did during his visits to that state in 2008 and 2009. Singh’s predecessor, the self-styled nationalist Atal Bihari Vajpayee, didn’t even set foot in Arunachal.

The Dalai Lama has repudiated the Chinese claim that Arunachal, or even just the Tawang Valley, was historically part of Tibet. China, however, insists on securing at least the Tawang Valley — the gateway to the Dalai Lama’s 1959 escape from his homeland — so as to complete its assimilation of traditional Tibetan-inhabited lands and obliterate the remaining evidence of Tibet’s historical status as an independent entity. The strategic Tawang Valley is a critical corridor between Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, and the Assam plains because it can militarily open the way for China to throttle India’s hold on its entire northeastern region.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) Mail Today, 2013.

Asia’s new strategic allies

For a politically rising Japan that is beginning to shed its pacifist blinkers, India is central to both its economic-revival and security-building strategies.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindu newsaper, November 27, 2013

Asia’s balance of power will be determined principally by events in East Asia and the Indian Ocean. In this light, the emerging Indo-Japanese entente is likely to help shape Asia’s strategic future as much as China’s ascent or America’s Asian “pivot.” Japan and India, as Asia’s natural-born allies, have a pivotal role to play in preserving stability and helping to safeguard vital sea-lanes in the wider Indo-Pacific region — a region defined not only by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but also by its significance as the global trade and energy-supply hub.


The India visit of Japan’s Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko from November 30 promises to be a landmark event in the already fast-developing partnership between Asia’s two leading democracies, which are strategically located on opposite flanks of the continent. In the more than 2,600-year history of the Japanese monarchy — the world’s oldest continuous hereditary royalty — no emperor has been to India, although India has traditionally been referred to in Japan as Tenjiku, or the heavenly country.

Customarily, the Japanese Emperor’s visit to any country is highly significant because it symbolises a watershed in relations with that nation. It was in recognition of the momentous nature of the royal trip that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appointed Ashwini Kumar as his special envoy with Cabinet rank in August to “prepare for the upcoming visit” of the imperial couple, and for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit early next year. Indeed, the India tour could be the last overseas visit of Emperor Akihito, who has undergone coronary and prostate-cancer surgeries in the past decade and will turn 80 a couple of weeks after he returns home from Chennai.

India has been specially chosen for an imperial visit to signal Japan’s commitment to forge closer ties. Japan is already doing more for India than any other economic partner of this country: it is the largest source of aid, and is playing a key role in helping India to improve its poor infrastructure, as illustrated by the Japanese-financed Western Freight Corridor, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and the Bangalore Metro Rail Project. Tokyo is also keen to add concrete strategic content to the bilateral ties.

The relationship, remarkably free of any strategic dissonance or bilateral dispute, traces its roots to the introduction of Buddhism in Japan in the 6th century CE. The Todaiji Temple in the ancient capital city of Nara is home to Japan’s most famous and biggest statue — a great gilt bronze image of Lord Buddha. The statue’s allegorical eyes-opening ceremony in 752 CE was conducted by a priest from India in the presence of Emperor Shômu, who declared himself a servant of the “Three Treasures” — the Buddha, the Buddhist law, and the monastic order. Japan’s cultural heritage from India via China extends to Sanskrit influence on the Japanese language.

Japanese still bless a newly married couple by reciting an ancient proverb that they are the best bride and bridegroom across the three kingdoms of Kara (China), Tenjiku (India) and Hinomoto (Japan). Akihito is not unfamiliar with India: A year and a half after marrying Michiko — the daughter of a wealthy businessman — he came to India in 1960 as the crown prince, along with his wife. During that visit, he laid the cornerstone of New Delhi’s India International Centre and planted a sapling at the Japanese Embassy that has grown into a huge tree.

Today, the contrast between the disciplined Japanese society and tumultuous India could not be more striking. India has the world’s largest youthful population, while Japan is ageing more rapidly than any other developed country. And whereas India has always valued strategic autonomy, Japan remains a model U.S. ally that hosts not only a large U.S. troop presence but also pays generously for the upkeep of the American forces on its soil.

Yet, the dissimilarities between the two countries increase the potential for close collaboration. Japan’s heavy-manufacturing base and India’s services-led growth — as well as their contrasting age structures — make their economies complementary, opening the path to generating strong synergies. India’s human capital and Japan’s financial and technological power can be a good match to help drive India’s infrastructure development and great-power aspirations, and catalyse Japan’s revival as a world power.


For India, Japan is a critical source of capital and commercial technology. Indeed, there cannot be a better partner for India’s development than the country that was the first non-western society to modernise and emerge as a world power, spearheading Asia’s industrial and technological advances since the 19th century. Dr. Singh has underscored the importance of also building security collaboration with it, saying Indians “see Japan as a natural and indispensable partner in our quest for stability and peace in the vast” Indo-Pacific region.

For a politically rising Japan that is beginning to shed its pacifist blinkers, India is central to both its economic-revival and security-building strategies. After prolonged economic stagnation, Japan faces difficult challenges, including a shrinking population, a spiralling public debt, a fundamentally deflationary environment, and a security dilemma compounded by constraints arising from the U.S.-imposed, post-war Constitution. However, Mr. Abe’s dynamic leadership and control of both houses of parliament is aiding his moves to place Japan on the right track.

Japan and India, as energy-poor countries heavily reliant on oil imports from the unstable Persian Gulf region, are seriously concerned over mercantilist efforts to assert control over energy supplies and the transport routes for them. So the maintenance of a peaceful and lawful maritime domain, including unimpeded freedom of navigation, is critical to their security and economic well-being. That is why they have moved from emphasising shared values to seeking to protect shared interests, including by holding joint naval exercises.

These facts explain why India and Japan boast the fastest-growing bilateral relationship in Asia today. Since they unveiled a “strategic and global partnership” in 2006, their political and economic engagement has deepened at a remarkable pace. Their free-trade pact, formally known as the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA), came into force in 2011. They have even established an alliance to jointly develop rare-earth minerals so as to reduce their dependence on China.

The level and frequency of India-Japan official engagement have become extraordinary. In addition to holding an annual Prime Minister-level summit, the two also conduct several yearly ministerial dialogues: A strategic dialogue between their Foreign Ministers; a security dialogue between their Defence Ministers; a policy dialogue between India’s Commerce Minister and Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry; and separate ministerial-level energy and economic dialogues. And, to top it off, they also hold a trilateral strategic dialogue with the United States.

According to Dr. Singh, “India and Japan have a shared vision of a rising Asia.” Translating that vision into practice demands strengthening their still-fledgling strategic cooperation and working together to ensure a pluralistic, stable Asian order.

Japan, in keeping with its pacifist Constitution, does not possess offensive systems, such as nuclear submarines, large aircraft carriers, and long-range missiles. But with the world’s sixth largest defence budget, it has a formidable defensive capability, an impressive armament-production base, and Asia’s largest naval fleet, including top-of-the-line conventional subs, large helicopter-carrying destroyers, and Aegis-equipped cruisers capable of shooting down ballistic missiles.

India — the world’s largest arms importer that desperately needs to develop an indigenous arms-production capability — must forge closer defence ties with Japan, including co-developing weapon systems and working together on missile defence. The most stable economic partnerships in the world, such as the Atlantic community and the Japan-U.S. partnership, have been built on the bedrock of security collaboration. Economic ties that lack the underpinning of strategic partnerships tend to be less stable and even volatile, as is apparent from China’s economic relationships with India, Japan and the U.S. Through close strategic collaboration, Japan and India must lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.

Against this background, the Emperor’s visit promises to live up to Mr. Abe’s hope of being a “historic event.” It is likely to herald an enduring Indo-Japanese strategic partnership.

(Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist, is the author, most recently, of Water, Peace, and War)

(c) The Hindu, 2013.

The Emperor’s New Goal


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

A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated

Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko, in a rare overseas trip, are scheduled to begin a tour of the Indian cities of New Delhi and Chennai on November 30. The imperial couple’s weeklong visit is likely to mark a defining moment in Indo-Japanese relations, fostering closer economic and security ties between Asia’s two leading democracies as they seek a pluralistic, stable Asian order.

Traditionally, a visit from the Japanese emperor – except for a coronation or royal anniversary celebration – signified a turning point in a bilateral relationship. While the emperor is merely the “symbol of the state” under Japan’s US-imposed postwar constitution, he retains significant influence, owing to Japanese veneration of the imperial dynasty – the world’s oldest continuous hereditary monarchy, the origins of which can be traced to 660 BC. Indeed, the emperor’s overseas visits remain deeply political, setting the tone – if not the agenda – for Japan’s foreign policy.

Consider Akihito’s 1992 visit to China – the first such visit by any Japanese emperor. Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s government – grateful for Japan’s reluctance to maintain punitive sanctions over the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and eager for international recognition, not to mention Japanese capital and commercial technologies – had extended seven invitations over two years.

Akihito’s trip, which came at the height of Japan’s pro-China foreign policy, was followed by increased Japanese aid, investment, and technology transfer, thereby cementing Japan’s role in China’s economic rise. The improved diplomatic relationship lasted until the recent flare-up of territorial and other bilateral disputes.

Although no Japanese emperor has visited India before, the bilateral relationship runs deep. In traditional Japanese culture, India is Tenjiku (the country of heaven). Today, Japan is India’s largest source of aid and has secured a key role in supporting infrastructure development, financing projects like the Western Dedicated Freight Corridor, the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, and the Bangalore Metro Rail Project.

With these natural allies seeking to add strategic bulk to their rapidly multiplying ties, Akihito’s tour is the most significant visit to India by any foreign leader in recent years. Indeed, it is expected to be one of the last foreign trips for the 79-year-old emperor, who has undergone several major surgeries in the past decade.

Akihito’s travel schedule contrasts sharply with that of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Despite having had open-heart surgery during his first term, India’s 81-year-old leader has sought to offset his low domestic political stock by flying more than one million kilometers on overseas trips – including visits to Japan, China, Indonesia, Russia, Thailand, and the United States in the last six months alone.

The paradox of Akihito’s tour – for which Singh has appointed a special envoy with ministerial rank to oversee preparations – is that Japan is investing substantial political capital to build a strong, long-term partnership with India’s government at a time when India is gripped by policy paralysis. Japan’s leaders are perhaps counting on the continuity of India’s strategic policies, which would require the Indian government that emerges from next year’s general election to sustain the momentum of cooperation.

But, more important, Japan is adjusting to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing regional environment, characterized by rising geopolitical competition with China. In a historical reversal, Japan has found itself on the defensive against the increasingly muscular foreign policy of its former colony and old rival.

This situation is forcing the Japanese government to reconsider its postwar pacifism, revise its defense strategy, and increase its military spending. In this context, Japan knows that a deeper strategic collaboration with India – which is also seeking to blunt increasing military pressure from China – is its best move.

In modern history, Japan has had the distinction of consistently staying ahead of the rest of Asia. During the Meiji era, in the second half of the nineteenth century, it became the first Asian country to modernize. It was also the first Asian country to emerge as a world power, defeating Manchu-ruled China and Czarist Russia in separate wars. And after its defeat in World War II, Japan rose from the ashes to become Asia’s first global economic powerhouse.

With per capita GDP of more than $37,000, Japan still ranks among the world’s richest countries, specializing in the highest-value links of global supply chains. And income inequality in Japan ranks among the lowest in Asia.

Nonetheless, almost two decades of economic stagnation have eroded Japan’s regional clout. This raises the question of whether Japan’s current problems –sluggish growth, high public debt, and rapid population aging – presage a similar trend across East Asia. Similar problems are already appearing in South Korea, while China has been driven to loosen its one-child policy and unveil plans for economic reforms aimed at reviving growth.

For India, Japan is indispensable as both an economic and a security partner. It is central to India’s “Look East” policy, which has evolved into more of an “Act East” policy, whereby the original strategy’s economic logic has been amplified by the larger geopolitical objective of ensuring Asian stability and a regional balance of power. It is in this light that Akihito’s historic visit should be viewed.

Hug first, repent at leisure

Singh returned from Beijing with a sham river-waters accord and a China-dictated border pact that crimps Indian military response to any incursion by the PLA

Brahma Chellaney, India Today, November 25, 2013, Upfront Column, Page 12

Diplomacy, to be effective, must be backed by leverage and cross-linkages to minimize the weaker side’s disadvantages and help maintain a degree of equilibrium in a bilateral relationship. The Indian leadership, however, has ignored that imperative, embracing diplomatic showmanship. Its engagement with China is bereft of even the first principle of diplomacy—reciprocity—thus allowing Beijing to reap a soaring trade surplus even as it undermines Indian interests. Showcasing the “success” of a bilateral summit takes precedence over safeguarding national interest—a “hug first, repent at leisure” approach.

Clipboard01Nothing can illustrate this better than the recent Beijing visit of Manmohan Singh, India’s most-travelled prime minister ever. He returned with a completely hollow river-waters accord that effectively hands China a propaganda tool to blunt any Indian criticism of its dam-building spree in Tibet. Rarely before have two major countries signed an accord so steeped in empty rhetoric as this memorandum of understanding unveiled during Singh’s visit. The accord, incorporating not a single Chinese commitment or anything tangible, seeks to pull the wool over the Indian public’s eyes.

It is just a public-relations text with only platitudes—that the “two sides recognized that trans-border rivers and related natural resources and the environment are assets of immense value”; that they “agreed that cooperation on trans-border rivers will further enhance mutual strategic trust and communication”; and that they also “agreed to further strengthen cooperation on trans-border rivers” and “exchange views on other issues of mutual interest”. As if to add insult to injury, the accord extracts India’s “appreciation to China” for selling “flood-season hydrological data”, although India provides such data free to downstream Pakistan and Bangladesh year-round.

Another much-trumpeted accord signed during the visit—the Chinese-dictated Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA)—contains nothing to halt the increasingly frequent Chinese border incursions or prevent a Depsang-style deep encroachment again. Defence Minister A.K. Anthony has admitted this, saying the accord “does not mean nothing will happen” on the frontier. Beijing wanted a new accord to wipe the slate clean over its breaches of the border-peace agreements signed in 1993, 1996 and 2005. But why did India accede to the violator’s demand for new border rules?

BDCA’s provisions are so vaguely worded as to allow China—a master at reinterpreting texts—to cast the burden of compliance mainly on India. For example, Article II, without elaboration, calls for exchange of “information about military exercises, aircrafts, demolition operations and unmarked mines”. Does this mean that India must inform China about its military-cargo flights to forward landing strips such as Daulat Beg Oldi and its demolition work to build Himalayan road tunnels?

Or take Article VI, which says minimally: “The two sides agree that they shall not follow or tail patrols of the other side in areas where there is no common understanding of the line of actual control (LAC)”. The Home Ministry-administered Assam Rifles and Indo-Tibetan Border Police (not regular army troops) that India timorously deploys to fend off the aggressive People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have a defensive mindset and are in no position to tail the Chinese. But if PLA troops intrude and pitch tents, claiming they are on Chinese land, Beijing is likely to interpret this provision as barring Indian patrols from encircling them or setting up their own Depsang-style camp to keep an eye on the raiders. The provision indeed will constrain Indian border guards from attempting to drive back any intruding Chinese patrol.

Given China’s claims on Indian territories and its refusal to even clarify the LAC, Article VI, in effect, ties only India’s hands. No less suspect is Article VII, which gives either side the right to seek “clarification” from the other if “any activity” occurs in “areas where there is no common understanding” of the LAC. If India were to seek clarification over a Chinese penetration, it would likely get the stock reply that the “Chinese troops are on Chinese soil”. Contrary to the pre-visit claim, BDCA contains no commitment to set up a hotline between the Indian and Chinese military headquarters; it only says the two sides “may consider” doing that.

Any Chinese leader combines an India stopover with a visit to his country’s “all-weather ally”, Pakistan, but a meek Singh declined to club his China visit with a trip to Japan or Vietnam. Singh, in fact, was in Beijing at the same time as the Russian and Mongolian premiers, with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev beginning his Beijing trip while Singh was cooling his heels in Moscow on an official visit.

Yet, with the help of the planeload of journalists he takes with him on any overseas visit, Singh marketed his China trip as a major success. In truth, as the two accords attest, he wilfully played into China’s hands.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

(c) India Today, 2013.

Supping with the devil

Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times, November 19, 2013

The cover of the 2010 book by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef

The image of then Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh — after having just chaperoned three jailed terrorists to freedom — walking hand-in-hand with the Afghan Taliban regime’s foreign minister, Mullah Wakil Ahmed Mutawakil, on the runway at Kandahar Airport in late 1999 still haunts. Mutawakil was later imprisoned by the U.S. military at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.

Now Indian Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram has greeted Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef in Goa, best known for its beaches. Zaeef, the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan until the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan, spent four years in America’s notorious detention center at Guantanamo Bay.

Spanish-born U.S. philosopher George Santayana’s warning is particularly true for India: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

In 1999, no sooner had a hijacked Indian Airlines flight landed in Kandahar than a hallucinating Jaswant Singh began briefing newspaper editors about the great opportunity it presented to drive a wedge between the Afghan Taliban and its sponsor, Pakistan. In truth, he was preparing ground for what became an ignominious cave-in unparalleled in modern world history — a foreign minister flying to known terrorist territory in a special aircraft to hand-deliver three terrorists so as to secure the release of a planeload of hostages.

Now fast-forward 14 years: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his advisers are feeding the Indian public their hallucination that engagement with the Taliban can help drive a wedge between that thuggish militia and Pakistan and thereby aid India’s interests in Afghanistan.

Zaeef’s Goa visit, in reality, was part of a broader U.S.-initiated effort to make an American deal with the Afghan Taliban internationally acceptable. Washington is seeking a deal with the Taliban as a face-saving way to end its war in Afghanistan next year as planned and also to safeguard the military bases it intends to keep in that rugged, landlocked country after 2014.

To bolster that effort, the United States has kissed and made up with Pakistan, resuming generous aid to that country and working closely with the Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chiefs there.

The restored $1.6 billion aid had been blocked because Pakistan never came clean about who helped Osama bin Laden hide for years in a military garrison town near its capital, Islamabad.

U.S.-Pakistan relations also came under strain because the Pakistani military establishment both shelters the top leadership of the Afghan Taliban, who kill American soldiers, and aids jihadists who carry out cross-border attacks in India and Afghanistan.

Yet with his 2014 deadline to end combat operations in Afghanistan approaching, President Barack Obama has reached out to Pakistan. After talks with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the White House last month, Obama “commended the resolve” of Pakistan “to defeat terrorists.” He also praised Pakistan — “an essential partner” — for its helpful role in the Afghan peace process.

In recent years, the U.S. has carried out from Afghanistan a series of air and drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal Waziristan region against the Pakistani Taliban, the nemesis of the Pakistani military. U.S. drone strikes have killed two successive chiefs of the Pakistani Taliban — Baitullah Mehsud in 2009, and Hakimullah Mehsud at the beginning of this month.

But, tellingly, the U.S. has not carried out a single air, drone or ground attack against the Afghan Taliban leadership, ensconced in Pakistan’s sprawling Baluchistan province, located to the south of Waziristan.

To justify the planned Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban — despite the major regional implications it holds — the Obama team is drawing a specious distinction between al-Qaida and the Taliban and differentiating between “moderate” Taliban amenable to a deal (the good terrorists) and those that rebuff deal-making (the bad terrorists). Zaeef is a “good” terrorist and has been rewarded (like the Taliban’s rehabilitated ex-foreign minister Mutawakil) with a plush house in Kabul.

The U.S., moreover, has facilitated both the Afghan Taliban’s opening of a de facto diplomatic mission in Doha, Qatar, and the overseas visits of some “good terrorists” to places ranging from Berlin to Tokyo. It has now roped in India to lend legitimacy to its effort.

In seeking to co-opt its main battlefield opponent — the Afghan Taliban — the U.S. seems unconcerned that it is bestowing legitimacy on a terrorist militia that enforces medieval practices in the areas under its control. This is in keeping with a long-standing U.S. policy weakness: The pursuit of narrow geopolitical objectives without much regard for the long-term consequences or the interests of friends in the region.

The Afghan Taliban, al-Qaida and groups like the ISI-sponsored Lashkar-e-Taiba are a difficult to separate mix of soul-mates who together constitute the global jihad syndicate and who still enjoy state sanctuaries or support. The scourge of transnational terrorism cannot be stemmed if deceptive distinctions are drawn between such groups. If any state were to cut a deal with a constituent of the global terror syndicate, it would likely encourage more international terrorism.

In this light, India’s hosting of a Taliban leader is not statecraft. It is not even stagecraft. In reflecting a desire to cozy up to the Taliban, it reeks of diplomatic witchcraft.

By playing host to Zaeef, India has only exposed the lack of consistency and direction in its foreign policy. No sooner had Prime Minister Singh decided to boycott the Commonwealth summit in Sri Lanka owing to human rights concerns there than his corruption-tainted government welcomed the Taliban mafiaso.

Lost in the U.S. and Indian diplomatic maneuvers is the age-old wisdom: He who sups with the devil should have a long spoon.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

Dancing in the dragon’s jaws

Why India’s new border pact with China won’t work

Brahma Chellaney, Mint, October 22, 2013

Seeking to compensate for his low political stock at home, Manmohan Singh has undertaken more overseas trips as prime minister than any predecessor, visiting China multiple times. Yet, India punches far below its weight internationally, while its regional security has come under siege, with Singh’s tenure witnessing a sharp deterioration in ties with China.

The highlight of the latest China visit of India’s most-travelled prime minister will not be progress on any of the core issues dividing the two countries but a Chinese-ordained border accord designed to supplant existing frontier-peace and confidence-building agreements that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has undermined through repeated cross-frontier raids and other incursions. No Indian official has explained the rationale for entering into a new agreement demanded by the party that has breached existing border-peace accords with impunity.

New Delhi’s willingness to let China dictate the so-called Border Defence Cooperation Agreement (BDCA) mirrors its broader strategic timidity in permitting Beijing to lay down the terms of the bilateral relationship. China has fashioned an asymmetrical commercial relationship, reaping a swelling trade surplus, even as it stymies any progress on issues of core concern to India, including the territorial and water disputes, recurrent cross-border military raids, China’s continuing nuclear and missile collaboration with Pakistan, and the growing Chinese strategic footprint in Pakistani-held Kashmir.

China’s most-insidious warfare against India is in the economic realm, yet India has done little to stop Beijing from turning it into a raw-material supplier to the Chinese economy and from subverting Indian manufacturing through dumping of goods. Official statistics show that India’s trade deficit with China in the past decade has soared at about four times the pace of aggregate bilateral commerce. The widening trade imbalance with China, in fact, has become a major contributor to India’s worsening current account deficit.

Perpetuating such a lopsided economic relationship gives Beijing little incentive to bridge the political divide. If anything, it aids China’s strategy to prevent India’s rise as a peer competitor.

Even as Beijing disturbs the territorial and water-flow status quo, New Delhi won’t leverage China’s growing India-market access to influence Chinese conduct. China, however, does not shy away from mixing politics and business. It has a record of quietly using trade to punish countries it quarrels with. For example, Japanese exports to China, which sank 13.2% in the first seven months of this year, began falling after Beijing unsheathed its trade sword in September 2012 over the Senkaku Islands dispute.

Singh’s visit will likely yield the usual platitudes about friendship and cooperation while leaving India’s concerns unaddressed. With an unresolved border arming China with leverage to keep India under military pressure, Beijing has been reluctant to even clarify what the two sides farcically call “the line of actual control” (LAC). And even as it turns Tibet into the new hub of its dam-building spree, China has brazenly sought to turn the tables on India, accusing it through a state mouthpiece last week of “attempting to reinforce its actual control and occupation of” Arunachal Pradesh through water projects there.

Singh, acquiescing to China’s sidelining of the core issues, told reporters before leaving that, “The two governments are addressing them with sincerity and maturity without letting them affect the overall atmosphere of friendship and cooperation”. Even by his pusillanimous standards, making a Chinese-dictated accord the highlight of his official visit marks a new low in Indian diplomacy.

Consider the humiliating circumstances that spawned this agreement: the PLA intruded deep into Ladakh’s Depsang Plateau by stealth before Beijing embarked on coercive diplomacy, forcing India’s hand on BDCA, whose draft it had sent earlier. In return for China withdrawing its encamped troops from Indian land, India demolished a line of defensive fortifications in Chumar—much to the south of Depsang—and ended forward patrols in the area, besides agreeing to wrap up negotiations on BDCA, which until then it had baulked at.

The Depsang encroachment inflicted permanent damage to the existing border-peace accords, including the 2005 mutual commitment to “strictly respect and observe” the LAC. Yet, paradoxically, China demanded a new agreement to take precedence over the more equitable 1993, 1996 and 2005 border-peace accords.

Indeed, such was the bloodless victory China scored by deploying a single platoon of no more than 50 soldiers in Depsang that India, in the manner of a vanquished nation, merely offered its comments and suggestions on the Chinese-imposed draft and sent its national security adviser and defence minister in rapid succession to Beijing to commit itself to BDCA’s “early conclusion.”

Now, by personally paying obeisance in Beijing, Singh culminates this mortifying process, lending his imprimatur to an agreement that can only embolden China to up the ante. In fact, since India’s virtual capitulation to Chinese demands more than five months ago, China’s military provocations have included multiple daring raids and other forays across the Himalayan frontier, the world’s longest disputed border.

Via the planeload of journalists he takes, Singh trumpets almost every overseas visit as a diplomatic success. His spinmeisters are also marketing BDCA as positive for India, highlighting features that in reality are dubious.

Why would a new military hotline with China make a difference when a similar hotline with Pakistan hasn’t worked? Given that India timorously deploys border police (such as the Home Ministry-administered Assam Rifles and Indo-Tibetan Border Police) to fend off incursions by the aggressive PLA, the clause on “no tailing” of each other’s patrols is really applicable to China. But any accord for China is just a political tool to advance its interests, including by lulling the other party into complacency and creating exploitable opportunities.

Any Chinese leader combines an India visit with a visit to his country’s “all-weather ally,” Pakistan, but Singh declined to club his China visit with a pending trip to Japan. Singh, in fact, will be in Beijing at the same time as the Russian and Mongolian prime ministers, with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev beginning his Beijing trip while Singh was still in Moscow on an official visit.

Singh’s China policy, by leaving India more vulnerable to Chinese belligerence, represents a case study in how meekness attracts bullying. BDCA is a symbol of that.

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

(c) Mint, 2013.

Wages of Mishandling Pakistan

  Brahma Chellaney, The Economic Times, October 9, 2013

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent state visit to Washington generated a lot of media coverage, not in the U.S. (where the media literally took no note of it) but in India, thanks to the planeload of journalists that Singh took with him. Rarely before had an Indian prime minister’s state visit to U.S. been so invisible to Americans.

If the American media did notice Singh, it was only at the fag end of his trip when he met with his Pakistani counterpart in New York. That put the spotlight, however briefly, on the India-Pakistan equation rather than on the Indo-U.S. relationship. New Delhi doesn’t like the India-Pakistan hyphenation, yet its own actions can be counterproductive. Singh defiantly met Nawaz Sharif, disregarding both public opinion at home and the Pakistani military’s increased hostility.

But before meeting Sharif, Singh complained to US President Barack Obama about Pakistan’s continuing export of terrorism — a complaint that prompted Sharif to purportedly compare Singh with a whining “dehati aurat.” By grumbling to Obama, Singh implicitly expressed his government’s helplessness in countering Pakistani terrorism, besides signalling that his meeting with Sharif was at the U.S. request. In fact, the state department welcomed his discussion with Sharif, saying “dialogue is a positive step forward and we’ll continue to encourage that.”

If Singh believed that holding political dialogue with Pakistan’s new civilian government was important, a New York meeting at the foreign minister level would have sufficed at this stage, especially since no one expected a meeting between the two PMs to break new ground.

Yet the extent to which Singh went to save his September 29 meeting with Sharif can be gauged from one troubling fact: news about the September 24 Pakistani cross-border raid into the Keran sector — which triggered a two-week gunbattle between Indian army troops and the intruders — was not released by the government until after the Singh-Sharif meeting. It is unfortunate the government allowed the political exigencies of a meeting in New York to take precedence over the imperative to inform the nation about a major intrusion involving Pakistani special forces.

It is crystal clear that India’s Pakistan policy has lost all sense of direction. Indeed, it is so adrift that it has emboldened the Pakistan army to carry out multiple acts of aggression across the line of control this year without fear of Indian retribution — from the decapitation of two Indian soldiers and the separate killing of five troops to the Samba raid and the Keran incursion. Sadly, the government has also sowed factionalism in the army’s senior hierarchy by playing favourites and targeting the ex-chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, through media plants.

Worse still, the government has restrained the army both from responding appropriately and effectively to cross-border aggression and from giving out any information to the media on Pakistani (or Chinese) border violations. The restraint order has crimped the army’s traditional leeway to act preemptively against an impending aggression and to inflict a just retribution for any cross-border attack.

Can any force be turned into a veritable sitting duck struggling to fend off repeated aggression? By allowing the army’s operational imperatives to be trumped by the government’s meandering and clueless foreign policy, army chief Gen. Bikram Singh faces an unflattering reality on his record: His stint as chief has coincided with a pattern of rising cross-border aggression by Pakistan (and China).

Let’s be clear: Battling repeated cross-border encroachments on terms dictated by the enemy — a tradition India set in 1999 when it fought the entire Kargil War on Indian territory on Pakistan’s terms — is anything but sound strategy. Indeed, it is an invitation to bringing the country’s border security under siege.

More fundamentally, why has it become a virtual custom since the late 1990s for an Indian prime minister’s meeting with Pakistan’s leader to invariably spell trouble for India? Atal Bihari Vajpayee publicly bemoaned that his peace bus to Lahore in February 1999 was “hijacked and taken to Kargil.” Still, he went to Pakistan in early 2004 for a second time as PM — a trip that sowed the seeds of Pakistan’s stepped-up export of terrorism in the subsequent years.

With his blow-hot-blow-cold approach, the sphinx-like Vajpayee executed several U-turns in his Pakistan policy, which traversed through Lahore, Kargil, Kandahar, Agra, and Parliament House, before culminating in Islamabad on his second trip to Pakistan.

The scandal-tainted Singh has brought a nasty “gift” for his nation from each meeting with a Pakistani counterpart.

Apart from the latest Keran surprise, Singh came back from Sharm el-Sheikh after arming Pakistan with the Baluchistan card against India, while he returned from Havana earlier after declaring that the exporter of terrorism is actually a “victim of terrorism” like India.

In the absence of a long-term strategic blueprint, coupled with the marginalization of the ministry of external affairs and other professional bodies, Indian foreign policy increasingly is being driven by ad hoc, personal interventions of the prime minister — with serious costs to national interest.

Brahma Chellaney is a strategic affairs expert.

(c) The Economic Times, 2013.

Obama’s Great Asian Dawdle

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Washington Times, September 2, 2013

The U.S. is shying away from China’s stealth aggression.

The more assertive Beijing has become, the more reluctant U.S. President Barack Obama has been to take sides in Asian territorial disputes, although they center on a combative China’s efforts to change the territorial status quo with America’s strategic allies or partners. Washington’s feckless Asia policy has helped deepen the security dilemma of several Asian states on how to protect their territorial and economic rights against China’s power grab.

Washington has made it amply clear that despite its “pivot” toward Asia, it will not put American lives at risk to defend its allies’ territorial claims against Beijing or act in ways detrimental to its close engagement with China. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel even said in an August 28 BBC interview that the U.S. does not look at China’s military buildup as a threat.

Indeed, there has been a course correction in the Obama administration’s “pivot” policy. After initially raising Asian expectations about a robust U.S. response to China’s assertiveness, Washington has tamped down the military aspects of its “pivot,” lest it puts it on the path of taking on Beijing. Instead it has started laying emphasis on the economic aspects.

Obama’s Asia policy has treaded a course of neutrality on territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, while seeking to reap the economic and strategic benefits of closer engagement with Asian states.

Washington, for example, is chary of getting drawn into Sino-Japanese territorial disputes, although Tokyo is its close ally and U.S. forward military deployments in Japan are a linchpin of America’s strategy to retain primacy in Asia. In fact, the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands to which China has laid claim are close to Okinawa, home to the largest U.S. military presence in Asia.

Similarly, even as China purposely badgers India along the Himalayan frontier, Washington has shied away from cautioning Beijing against any attempt to change the territorial status quo by force. In fact, on a host of Asian disputes, including China’s claim since 2006 to India’s Austria-size Arunachal Pradesh state, Washington has chosen not to antagonize Beijing and stayed neutral.

Even in a case when China has forcibly changed the status quo — by taking effective control since last year of the Scarborough Shoal, located in the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone — the Obama team has done little more than counsel restraint and talks. With Chinese vessels this year present near the Second Thomas Shoal, the lesson the Philippines is learning that might remains right in international relations and that its security dependence on Washington is no check on the intruding colossus.

The paradox is that China’s rising assertiveness has helped the U.S. to return to Asia’s center-stage, yet Obama is wary of taking sides in the territorial disputes. The only issue on which Washington has spoken up is freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

The China factor, which has allowed the U.S. to strengthen its existing military relationships and build new strategic partnerships in Asia, can remain useful for America only if it is seen by its allies and partners as a credible guarantor of stability and security in Asia. That is a function not of its military strength but of its political will.

To be sure, Washington has an interest in preventing the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia. But it has no interest in getting entangled in Asia’s territorial feuds. If it can, it would like to find a way to support its allies and partners in their disputes with China, but without alienating Beijing — a tough balancing act.

For example, the Obama administration has said the U.S. security treaty with Japan covers the Senkaku Islands because they “are under Japanese jurisdiction,” yet “we also stress that we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.” How reassured can Japan be with such doublespeak?

Washington indeed has advised Tokyo and Beijing repeatedly to sort out their dispute peacefully. Some U.S. analysts who have served in the government have urged Washington not to issue a “blank check” to an uncompromising Japan that refuses to negotiate with Beijing on the dispute.

If China were to employ military force in the dispute, would the U.S. take all necessary actions, including the use of its military capability, to repulse a Chinese action that was confined to the 7-square-kilometer disputed real estate in the East China Sea? The Obama administration has simply said that despite China’s increasing intrusions into the Senkaku waters, “we do not envision that this current tension will rise to that level in any foreseeable scenario.”

Tokyo, skeptical that the U.S. will go to war with China to back Japan’s territorial rights, wants a clear U.S. defense guarantee. The Obama administration, however, has balked at Tokyo’s November 2012 proposal that the U.S.-Japan alliance’s defense guidelines be updated to specifically include the Senkakus.

America’s larger chariness has seemingly encouraged China to up the ante against several neighbors. For example, after gradually increasing the frequency of its incursions into Senkaku waters since September 2012, China is now focusing on increasing their duration. Similarly, China’s land incursions into India’s Ladakh region, after going up in frequency, are this year being staged intermittently for longer duration.

This pattern appears designed to pressure an opponent to cut a deal on Chinese terms, in keeping with Beijing’s stratagem on territorial disputes — what is ours is ours and what is yours is negotiable.

China, despite its bluster, is unlikely to wage open war against a determined, well-armed opponent for fear it may get a bloody nose, as happened in 1979 when it invaded Vietnam. Yet the possibility of an overt war resulting from mistake or miscalculation cannot be ruled out.

Even if no open war flares, Japan and several other Asian states already face China’s war by stealth. Through a clever strategy of furtive, incremental encroachments, China is actually undercutting the value of its opponents’ security relationships with Washington. Compounding this situation is Washington’s signal to its allies and partners that it is their own responsibility to safeguard territories that China covets.

Given Washington’s hands-off approach to Beijing’s creeping, covert warfare — designed to change facts on the ground slowly without having to fire a single shot — the relevance of U.S. security assurances to China’s neighbors risks becoming largely symbolic. In fact, the U.S. has sent out a contradictory message: It wants its allies to do more for their own security, yet it has scowled at Japan’s interest in acquiring offensive capability to deter aggression, asking Tokyo to consider the plan’s potential negative fallout in East Asia.

China’s aggressive stance thus poses difficult challenges for America’s allies and partners. For these states, the logical response to their security predicament would be to bolster defenses; build partnerships with each other to create a web of interlocking strategic relationships; and deepen their strategic engagement with Washington but without expecting the U.S. to come to their aid in a military contingency in which American interests are not at stake directly.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).

 (c) Washington Times, 2013.