A Nascent Democratic Axis for Asia

 Brahma Chellaney

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

Nippon.com July 2014

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

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

A New Era of Warm Ties

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

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

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

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

With One Eye on the Security Scene

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

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

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

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

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

Building on Synergies

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Pursuit of Mutual Benefits

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

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

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

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

India’s Shinzo Abe

Featured

Brahma Chellaney

A Project Syndicate column

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Project Syndicate, 2014.

Alarm Bells in Asia

Featured

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, A Project Syndicate column internationally syndicated

Photo of Brahma ChellaneyThe deteriorating situation in Ukraine and rising tensions between Russia and the United States threaten to bury US President Barack Obama’s floundering “pivot” toward Asia – the world’s most vibrant (but also possibly its most combustible) continent. Obama’s tour of Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines will do little to rescue the pivot or put his regional foreign policy on a sound footing.

In fact, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine is just the latest reason that the pivot – which has been rebranded as a “rebalancing” – has failed to gain traction. A slew of other factors – including America’s foreign-policy preoccupation with the Muslim world, Obama’s reluctance to challenge an increasingly assertive China, declining US defense outlays, and diminished US leadership on the world stage – were already working against it.

The reality is that rising anxiety among Asian countries about China’s increasingly muscular foreign policy has presented the US with an important opportunity to recapture its central role in the region by strengthening old alliances and building new partnerships. But the US has largely squandered its chance, allowing China to continue to broaden its territorial claims.

Indeed, over the last two years, America’s Asian allies and partners have received three jarring wake-up calls, all of which have delivered the same clear message: the US cannot be relied upon to manage China’s rise effectively.

0020ee8c19dde118eb74caa7b7874fa5.landscapeThe first such signal came in the form of Obama’s silence when China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in July 2012. The move – which established a model for China to annex other disputed territories – occurred despite a US-brokered deal for a mutual withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine vessels from the area. Obama’s apparent indifference to America’s commitment to the Philippines under the 1951 mutual-defense treaty, which it reaffirmed in 2011, encouraged China to seize the Second Thomas Shoal, which is also claimed by the Philippines.

America’s Asian allies received a second wake-up call when China 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. China then demanded that all aircraft transiting the zone – whether headed for Chinese airspace or not – submit flight plans in advance.

Instead of demonstrating its disapproval by postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Beijing, the US government advised commercial airlines to respect China’s self-declared ADIZ. Japan, by contrast, told its carriers to disregard China’s demand – an indication of the growing disconnect in US-Japanese relations.

The third wake-up call comes from Ukraine. The US has responded to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea by distancing itself from the “Budapest Memorandum,” the pact that US President Bill Clinton signed in 1994 committing the US to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.

The first two wake-up calls highlighted the Obama administration’s unwillingness to do anything that could disrupt its close engagement with China, a country that is now central to US interests. The third was even more ominous: America’s own vital interests must be directly at stake for it to do what is necessary to uphold another country’s territorial integrity – even a country that it has pledged to protect.

The world is witnessing the triumph of brute power in the twenty-first century. Obama was quick to rule out any US military response to Russia’s Crimea takeover. Likewise, as China has stepped up efforts to upend the regional status quo – both territorial and riparian – the US has dithered, doing little to reassure its jittery Asian allies.

Instead, the US has pursued a neutral course, which it hopes will enable it to avoid being dragged into a military confrontation over countries’ conflicting territorial claims. To this end, the US has addressed its calls for restraint not only to China, but also to its own allies.

But America’s own restraint – whether in response to Russia’s forcible absorption of Crimea or to China’s creeping, covert warfare – has brought no benefits to its allies. In fact, its efforts to avoid confrontation at all costs could inadvertently spur game-changing – and potentially destabilizing – geopolitical developments.

Most important, America’s sanctions-driven policy toward Russia is likely to force the Kremlin to initiate its own pivot toward Asia – particularly toward energy-hungry, cash-rich China. At the same time, a showdown with Russia will compel the US to court China more actively. In a new Cold War scenario, China would thus be the big winner, gaining a wide diplomatic berth to pursue its territorial ambitions.

While the US propitiates China, countries like Japan, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam are being forced to accept that they will have to contend with Chinese military incursions on their own. That is why they are stepping up efforts to build credible military capabilities.

This trend could lead to the resurgence of militarily independent Asian powers that remain close strategic friends of the US. In this sense, they would be following in the footsteps of two of America’s closest allies – the United Kingdom and France – which have built formidable deterrent capacities, rather than entrust their security to the US. This would be a game-changing development for Asia, the US, and the entire world.

Brahma 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.

Read more from “Cold War II?”

Asia’s Fault Lines Stoke Tensions

By Brahma ChellaneyThe Transatlantic Academy

Asia’s Fault Lines Stoke Tensions

Asia’s dramatic economic rise led some analysts to hastily conclude that the relative decline of the West is inevitable. Developments since 2013 highlight that dangerous new fault lines have emerged in Asia, posing a major risk to peace, stability and prosperity in the world’s largest and most populous continent. The developments create a diplomatic opening for the transatlantic alliance to play a more active role in shaping Asia’s trajectory positively.

Asia today is at a defining moment in its history. Yet the international spotlight on its rapid economic ascent has obscured the serious challenges it confronts. These challenges range from recrudescence of territorial and maritime disputes and increasingly fervent nationalism to sharpening competition over natural resources and toxic historical legacies that weigh down its major interstate relationships.

Two fault lines in particular are putting Asia’s sustained rise at risk, with the adverse geopolitical trends carrying significant ramifications for global markets. With Asia’s political integration badly lagging behind its economic integration, one fault line is represented by the widening gap between politics and economics. Asia is the only continent other than Africa where political integration has failed to take off.

The other fault line is represented by the so-called history problem — or how the past threatens to imperil Asia’s present and future. Historical distortions and a failure to come to terms with the past have spurred competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms.

Asian disputes over territories, war memorials, fishing rights, natural resource reserves, and textbooks are linked with history. Yet historical narratives are never free of bias or embellishment. Objective history, after all, is an oxymoron, with historical narratives often embodying cherished national myths. Historians who dare to probe such myths through factbased interrogation can face backlash or even persecution, especially in autocratic states.

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

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

The transatlantic relationship, through diplomatic outreach, can help underscore the imperative for Asia to get rid of its baggage of history in order to chart a more stable and prosperous future. After all, the slowing of Asian economic growth only increases the risks from the new fault lines. The risks are also heightened by Asia’s lack of a security framework, with even its regional consultation mechanisms remaining weak.

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

As we commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I, it is important to remember that Europe was at the time even more integrated by trade and investment than Asia is today, with its royal families interrelated by marriage. Yet Europe’s disparate economic and political paths led to World War I. Asia thus must realize that economic interdependence, amid rising political tensions between its major countries, cannot guarantee peace by itself.

Several Asian sub-regions currently are in flux. Although the U.S. and European role in Asia is viewed by a majority of Asian states as a stabilizing influence, the U.S. remains primarily focused on the Islamic world. President Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address in January, did not even mention Asia.

Obama’s supposed policy shift toward Asia — once known as a pivot but now rebranded as a rebalance — has always seemed more rhetorical than real. To make the promise of his “pivot” real, Obama has still to convince Congress at home — and America’s Asian allies and partners — that he means to devote more military, diplomatic and economic attention to Asia as well as stand up to China’s territorial creep.

China’s rift with fellow communist state North Korea — increasingly an estranged and embittered ally — opens diplomatic space for the U.S. and Europe to help transform Northeast Asia’s fraught geopolitics. After all, Beijing today risks “losing” North Korea, the way its once-tight hold on Myanmar has slipped dramatically. China’s increasing territorial assertiveness has also strained itsrelations with several other neighbors, stretching from Japan to the Philippines and Vietnam to India.

A growing 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 31-year-old Kim, the world’s youngest head of state, has presented himself as a tough leader who will not allow China to treat North Korea as a vassal state.

Unlike the U.S. opening with Myanmar, which led to Obama’s historic visit to that country in 2012, any American engagement with North Korea would have to center on a deal to denuclearize it. But such a deal will remain elusive as long as Washington depends on Beijing to “soften” Pyongyang. Washington’s reliance on Beijing as a diplomatic intermediary indeed is a sore point with yongyang, which has sought direct engagement with the United States to counteract China’s leverage over it.

More broadly, the resurgent territorial, maritime and history disputes in Asia highlight that securing Asian peace and stability hinges fundamentally on respect for existing borders. Unless that happens, it is far from certain that Asia will be able to spearhead global growth or shape a new world order. America’s neutrality on sovereignty disputes between China and its neighbors, however, could weaken its bilateral security alliances.

This article was originally published in “the State of the Transatlantic World.”
Theme

Without action today, Asia’s future will be a dry one

Featured

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Nikkie Asian Review

Asia is the world’s largest and most economically dynamic continent. But it is also the driest, and its future may depend on how well it deals with what a U.N. panel on climate change is calling a growing risk of drought-related water and food shortages.

Unusually dry weather is parching swaths of Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Korean Peninsula, Sri Lanka, Thailand and India. This trend threatens to further squeeze the availability of drinking water, hamper economic growth and — together with the drought in the American West and parts of Brazil — push up international food prices. Palm oil prices, for example, have already surged.

Clouds make a rare appearance over the Manila skyline on Feb. 26, when the metropolitan area received its first recorded rainfall of the year. © AP

Even farmers in Australia’s eastern states of New South Wales and Queensland are bracing themselves amid warnings that the drought may spread to other parts of Asia this year due to the potential return of the El Nino weather pattern.

Asia’s climatic extremes play a big role in its vulnerability to droughts and heighten the risk of natural disasters and agriculture-related trouble. When it rains, it tends to pour, with monsoon-season flooding endemic in the region. But the seasons are often punctuated by long dry spells, and weak monsoons can trigger serious droughts. This can be disastrous on a continent where the availability of fresh water is not even half the global average of 6,079 cu. meters per person a year.

Asia is home to some of the world’s biggest natural-disaster hot spots, and no other continent is more prone to the cumulative impact of droughts, flooding and large storms. This fragility is compounded by the region’s unmatched population size and density, and its concentration of people living in deltas and other low-lying regions.

Out of balance

The specter of a hotter, drier future for Asia can be seen in the degradation of watersheds, watercourses and other ecosystems, as well as in the shrinking forests and swamps and over-dammed rivers. Such developments undermine the region’s hydrological and climatic stability, fostering a cycle of chronic droughts and flooding. To make matters worse, Asia is likely to bear the brunt — as the report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns — of the global effects of extreme weather, rising seas and shortages of drinking water. Water wars may only be a matter of time.

Asia’s droughts are becoming longer and more severe, and the availability of water per capita is declining at a rate of 1.6% a year. This is a troubling trend for a region where agriculture alone guzzles 82% of the annual water supply. The rapid spread of irrigation since the 1960s has helped turn a continent once plagued by food shortages and famines into a food exporter. But it has also exacted a heavy toll on the environment and resources.

The spread of intensive irrigation to arid or semiarid regions, such as northern China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Turkmenistan, has led to desertification in areas from which already-scarce water resources are being diverted. Meanwhile, the land being irrigated retains soluble salts, degrading the soil and the water table.

Six decades of aggressive irrigation have turned northern China into the country’s breadbasket, even though 80% of the nation’s water resources are in the south. But the north is drying up, with its lifeblood — the Yellow River — dying and most of the wetlands only a memory. The fine dust coating Beijing, carried on the wind from the bone-dry fields creeping ever closer to the capital, is the legacy of state-promoted irrigated farming.

Unquenchable thirst

Excessive use of water for agriculture has exacerbated Asia’s susceptibility to drought, leaving other sectors — industrial and municipal — struggling to meet demand. With rivers and reservoirs increasingly unable to supply enough water, the hunt for the precious resource has literally gone underground. In India, China and elsewhere, the widespread use of electric and diesel-fuel pumps has been sucking up massive volumes of groundwater, a resource better kept in reserve as insurance against droughts.

In Asia’s heavily populated coastal regions — home to almost half its population — the over-pumping of groundwater has caused seawater to seep into the water table, crimping the availability of drinking water in such cities as Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Dhaka and Karachi.

The upstream construction of giant dams and other water diversions is eating away at the shorelines of Asia’s 11 urban megadeltas, all fed and formed by rivers originating on the Tibetan plateau. Most of these megadeltas are also home to booming economic centers, including Tianjin, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Bangkok and Kolkata.

Beyond the ecological fallout, the damming of shared rivers is also a big source of political tension. This is especially true for China and its neighbors. China already has more large-scale dams than the rest of the world combined, and it is building more. The focus of its latest construction push has shifted from dams along internal rivers to those straddling waterways that flow into other countries.

Asian hydropolitics promises to become only murkier as China completes more upstream dams on the Mekong, the Salween, the Brahmaputra and other rivers that flow to South, Southeast and Central Asia and to Russia.

Women and children await government relief in Pakistan’s drought-hit province of Sindh on March 11. Dozens of children have died of malnutrition and other causes in the country’s desiccated south, prompting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to distribute $10 million in emergency aid. © Reuters

Recurrent droughts in the downstream Mekong basin have created a public-relations headache for Beijing, which rejects allegations that its multitude of upriver dams has contributed to this phenomenon. But the claims have not stopped China from moving forward with projects to build three additional giant dams on the Mekong River, continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline.

In parts of Asia where access to water is limited, even small declines in its availability or annual variations in rainfall can threaten entire communities by creating droughtlike conditions. The struggle for water in some stricken areas has led villagers to hire security guards to protect their wells and other sources.

Other examples of the knock-on effects of droughts include water rationing in parts of Malaysia; the persistent haze caused by the annual forest fires that plague Riau, the second-largest province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra; and the high suicide rate among Indian farmers. Recurrent droughts since the 1990s are widely seen as a key factor in the suicides of more than 200,000 farmers in the country’s central and southern regions. And this year’s weak “northeast monsoon” could further hit agricultural output in Asia.

Then there is the problem of environmental refugees. The Yemeni city of Sanaa risks becoming the first capital to run out of water. Where will its citizens go if the water supply dries up? Meanwhile, China’s damming of the Brahmaputra could force an exodus of thirsty Bangladeshis living downstream, creating a potentially huge security problem for India.

Dig deep enough and conflicts over resources can often be found at the heart of civil wars. The internal strife in Yemen and Afghanistan illustrates the degree to which persistent droughts can poison interethnic relations and trigger bloodshed.

Two sides collide

In water-stressed South Korea, the government is encouraging big companies to move water-intensive production activity overseas, even if the products being made are for the domestic market. But this strategy is creating problems abroad. A business deal that gave the South Korean side the right to lease up to half of all arable land in Madagascar triggered a powerful grass-roots backlash that toppled the country’s democratically elected president in 2009.

In places where water is already hard to come by, plans to construct new factories often spark local protests. This happened when South Korean steelmaker Posco said it was building a plant in the drought-prone eastern Indian state of Odisha.

Given that Asia holds 60% of the world’s population, the region’s increasing vulnerability to droughts carries the potential for humanitarian disasters. That is because the poor are the ones hit hardest when the taps go dry. This vulnerability is a potential source of conflict and refugee crises.

Averting a water-related disaster requires long-term thinking and action. Governments throughout the region need to shore up the environment by restoring the ecosystem — including reconverting farmland into forests — introducing new drought-resistant crops and halting the degradation of freshwater and coastal ecosystems. Combating wild climatic fluctuations, as manifested by chronic droughts and flooding, demands such capital-intensive measures as building surface reservoirs and other infrastructure.

Asia will also have to adopt agricultural practices that use water more efficiently. That includes overhauling antediluvian irrigation systems. Most farmers in the region still use flood irrigation when drip systems and sprinklers could halve their water use. But as long as growers enjoy access to free or heavily subsidized water, they will have little incentive to change.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press, 2013), winner of the Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

(c) Nikkie Asian Review, 2014.

India Risks Losing Out in a “Contest of Ideas”  

By Brahma Chellaney

The National Bureau of Asian Research

India has watched with unease the Ukraine-related developments that have triggered Europe’s most serious geopolitical crisis since the end of the Cold War. These events threaten to unleash a new Cold War, or at least a renewed East-West ideological struggle. U.S. President Barack Obama’s new sanctions-based approach toward Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea sets the stage for a potential clash between Western democracy and what some U.S. ideologues have described as “Putinism.” Obama himself calls the crisis a “contest of ideas.” The question many are asking is whether this portends the advent of an ominous new era.

Russia has gained little from the annexation of Crimea, which was already under its de facto control. But it has displayed contempt for international law and lost a government in Kiev that had been friendly to Russian interests. Russia also faces sanctions-related costs at a time when its economy is already fragile and its borders remain precarious.

Yet the “contest of ideas” threatens to unhinge Obama’s rebalance toward Asia. Even before the Ukraine crisis began, many wondered whether this policy would acquire concrete strategic content or remain largely a rhetorical repackaging of policies begun under Obama’s predecessor. Now the United States could be forced to focus its attention on the states on Russia’s periphery, increasing the likelihood of a new Cold War. Thus far, Washington’s rebalance to Asia has remained more rhetorical than real, in part because of U.S. foreign policy’s preoccupation with the Middle East. Furthermore, the Obama administration has been reluctant to say or do anything that might raise Beijing’s hackles.

Asian states that rely on the United States as their security guarantor were jolted by Obama’s inaction on the 2012 Chinese capture of Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. This development occurred despite a U.S.-brokered deal under which both Beijing and Manila agreed to withdraw their vessels from the area. Obama’s silence on the capture, coupled with his administration’s apathetic attitude to the U.S. commitment to the Philippines under the Mutual Defence Treaty, emboldened China to effectively seize a second Philippine-claimed shoal, the Second Thomas/Ayungin Shoal, without attempting to evict the eight Filipino sailors living there.

Another jolt came when China established an air defense identification zone that usurped international airspace over the East China Sea and extended to Japanese- and South Korean-controlled islands or rocks. Washington refrained from postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s previously scheduled trip to Beijing or otherwise demonstrating its disapproval of the Chinese action beyond verbal statements but advised U.S. commercial airlines to respect the zone. This response conflicted with Japan’s advice to its commercial airlines to ignore China’s demand that they file their flight plans through the zone in advance.

These two events showed that the Obama administration, despite its rebalance toward Asia, will not act in ways detrimental to the United States’ close engagement with China. Washington indeed has declined to take sides in the bilateral disputes between China and its neighbors—unless, of course, U.S. interests are directly at stake, such as in freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The Obama administration has also charted a course of neutrality on the recrudescence of Sino-Indian and Sino-Japanese territorial disputes.

Against this background, a protracted showdown with Russia over Ukraine would leave even less space for the United States to rebalance toward Asia. However, it will create greater space for China to disturb the territorial status quo in Asia. In a new Cold War setting, it will not be the United States but Russia that would likely pivot toward Asia. A sanctions-centered U.S. policy of selective containment of Russia could compel Moscow to cozy up with China, including to escape containment and to promote energy outflows and capital inflows. This may be particularly true if U.S. sanctions seek to bar Western investments in the Russian energy sector—a move that could prompt Moscow to reverse course and accept Chinese investments in “strategic” fields. Western sanctions against Russia could thus enable Beijing to gain important benefits, including more favorable terms for Russian energy resources and greater access to the Russian market for Chinese goods. Put simply, the only power likely to gain geopolitically from the recent turn of events in Ukraine is China, which remains a revolutionary power bent on upending the status quo in Asia. Its growing geopolitical heft has emboldened its muscle-flexing and territorial nibbling.

In order to isolate Russian president Vladimir Putin, Obama could be tempted to cede more space to Beijing in Asia. China’s geopolitical gains would be further solidified if the U.S. jettisons its post–Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration. The United States is closing the door to Russian accession to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and effectively ousting Russia from the group of eight (G-8) by making it the group of seven again—an action that can only accelerate that institution’s growing irrelevance in international relations.

India, by contrast, could be a loser in a second Cold War that redivides states along a bipolar axis. India lost out in the first Cold War because of its reluctance to take sides. Although India has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism, it sees itself as a bridge between the East and the West, not as a partisan. In the Ukraine crisis, New Delhi has treaded cautiously, supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity but opposing sanctions on Russia. If a new Cold War is to be averted, a diplomatic solution must both protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity and respect Russia’s legitimate security interests. Ukraine should remain neutral between the East and the West—a sovereign buffer between NATO and Russia. India could help broker such a solution, which, while ensuring European peace, would also contribute to Asian security.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. His latest book is Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (2013).

This is one of five essays in the roundtable “Asia-Pacific Perspectives on the Ukraine Crisis.” Download all five essays in PDF format or access them online below.

1. Crimea: A Silver Lining for the United States’ Asian Allies? By Rory Medcalf

2. India Risks Losing Out in a “Contest of Ideas” By Brahma Chellaney

3. Taiwan Is No Crimea, But… By Alexander Chieh-cheng Huang

4. Japan’s “Proactive Contribution to Peace” and the Annexation of Crimea By Tetsuo Kotani

5. The Korean Angle on Crimean Fallout: America’s Perception Gap By Seong-hyon Lee

© 2014 The National Bureau of Asian Research

International law under siege

The powerful cite international law to weaker states but blithely ignore it when it comes in their way.

Brahma Chellaney, Mint, April 22, 2014

The Russian-U.S. proxy war over Ukraine, while threatening to unleash a new cold war, serves as a reminder that power usually trumps international law. Russia’s muscular riposte, including annexing Crimea, to the U.S.-supported putsch in Kiev that deposed Ukraine’s constitutional order highlights major powers’ unilateralist approach to international law.

Anarchy-in-pakistan2The only mechanism to enforce international law is the UN Security Council (UNSC), whose permanent members are notorious for breaking international law. Is it thus any surprise that international law is applied only when it suits the interests of the strong states? The powerful cite international law to weaker states but blithely ignore it when it comes in their way.

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

This, however, cannot obscure the fact that the U.S. and NATO have repeatedly shown contempt for international law.  The list is long just for the past 15 years — the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq without UNSC mandate, the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime through aerial bombardment, the aiding of a still-raging bloody insurrection in Syria, and renditions and torture of terror suspects. The U.S. National Security Agency’s Orwellian surveillance programme mocks international law.

In February, Washington openly backed the violent street protesters — some armed with guns and Molotov cocktails — who toppled Ukraine’s democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych. This has set a dangerous precedent. No democracy can be safe if armed provocateurs are allowed to spearhead street protests against the constitutional authority.

The Ukraine case indeed illustrates the international law of convenience. Putin, for example, has cynically justified his Crimea takeover in the name of “responsibility to protect,” the very moral (not legal) principle U.S. President Barack Obama invoked to rationalize Gaddafi’s overthrow.

The Ukraine crisis is actually a geopolitical windfall for another power that serves as a prime example of a unilateralist approach to international relations — China, still hewing to Mao Zedong’s belief that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” China’s growing geopolitical heft has emboldened its muscle-flexing and territorial nibbling in Asia. China rejects some of the same treaties the U.S. declines to join, including the Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses — the first law that lays down rules on the shared resources of transnational rivers, lakes and aquifers.

China has established a hydro-supremacy unparalleled in the world by annexing the starting places of Asia’s major international rivers — the Tibetan plateau and Xinjiang — and working to reengineer their cross-border flows. Yet China — the source of transboundary-river flows to more countries than any other hydro-hegemon — rejects the very concept of water sharing and refuses to enter into water treaties with its neighbours.

With both Obama and Putin now wooing China, the likely big winner from the turn of events is the country that has been relentlessly expanding its borders ever since it came under Communist rule in 1949. That China continues to press steadily outward on its borders was illustrated by its 2012 capture of the Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and by its more recent establishment of an air-defence zone extending to islands controlled by Japan and South Korea.

China’s geopolitical gains will solidify if the U.S. jettisons — as appears likely — its post-Cold War policy of seeking to influence Russia’s conduct through engagement and integration. The U.S. is closing the door to Russian accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and effectively ousting Russia from the G8 by making it the G7 again — an action that can only accelerate that institution’s creeping irrelevance in international relations.

India, by contrast, could be a loser in a second cold war that re-divides states along a bipolar axis. India also lost out in the first cold war because of its reluctance to take sides. Although India has progressed from doctrinaire nonalignment to geopolitical pragmatism, it sees itself as a bridge between East and West, not as a partisan.

Given the innately self-calculating and self-aggrandizing human nature, strong nations have always sought to gain dominance over the weak. The advent of new technologies and reduced transportation costs has made the world increasingly interdependent. Yet the world has remained the same in one aspect — the stronger still dominate the weaker.

When the U.S. lost a 1984 International Court of Justice case filed by Nicaragua, it blocked the ruling’s implementation. But when Japan recently lost its Antarctic whaling case, it quickly agreed to comply with the ruling. This illustrates the difference between a big and a not-so-big power.

Power respects strength, while the weak remain meek. Had Crimea been seized by a smaller power, the U.S. by now would have assembled a “coalition of the willing” to launch a military attack on the occupier. But because the occupier in this case is a country armed with intercontinental-range nuclear weapons, Obama, despite his tough talk, quickly ruled out any U.S. military involvement.

The major powers assert one set of rules for themselves and a different set for other states, as if international law were only for the weak.

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

(c) Mint, 2014.