Loosening Japan’s pacifist bonds

The U.S. could benefit from a revision of Tokyo’s anti-defense constitution

By Brahma Chellaney – – Washington TimesJanuary 4, 2016


The international spotlight on Japan’s prolonged economic woes has helped obscure one of Asia’s farthest-reaching but least-noticed developments — the political rise of the world’s third-largest economy. By initiating national-security reforms and seeking a more active role in shaping the evolving balance of power in Asia, Japan wants to stop punching below its weight and take its rightful place in the world.

Japan’s quiet political resurgence is reflected in various ways — from the government working to strengthen security arrangements with the United States and build close strategic partnerships with other major democracies in the Asia-Pacific to a grass-roots movement at home for changes in the country’s U.S.-imposed pacifist constitution.

Japan’s passive, checkbook diplomacy is giving way to a proactive, western-facing approach focused on the Asian mainland, the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. The single biggest factor driving Japan’s political rise is the ascent of a muscular China.

Japan is the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation. The constitution’s Article 9 says “land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” No other national constitution in the world goes so far as to bar acquisition of the means of war or to renounce “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.”

Japan’s increasingly vocal critics of the constitution say it does not reflect the values, culture and traditions of Japan.

In fact, the Japanese Constitution was hastily written and imposed by an occupying power. Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur made his occupation staff write the constitution in one week so that it was ready by Abraham Lincoln’s birth anniversary on Feb. 12, 1946, although it did not come into force until May 1947.

The American success in disarming Japan by disbanding its military, imposing a pacifist constitution, and overhauling its education system, however, engendered its own challenges. It did not take long for the United States to realize that it had gone too far in creating a demilitarized Japan. In 1953, Vice President Richard Nixon called the constitution “a mistake.”

America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Communist takeover of China, and China’s entry into the Korean War helped change U.S. policy toward Japan. Through a major reinterpretation of the very constitution it had imposed, the U.S. encouraged Japan to reconstitute its military as “Self-Defense Forces” so as to make the country the lynchpin of America’s Asian strategy.

Japan’s recent reinterpretation of the constitution’s Article 9 to assert its right to collective self-defense was small in comparison. Tokyo has also relaxed its longstanding, self-imposed ban on export of arms, thus opening the path to building closer security cooperation with like-minded countries.

With Japan’s nationalist impulse to play a bigger international role now rising, its domestic debate on national security and constitutional reform is set to intensify.

Further national-security reform beyond what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has carried out is, from a legal standpoint, linked to constitutional reform. For example, there is a limit to the extent to which the Article 9 prohibitions can be reinterpreted without enacting a constitutional amendment.

The Japanese Constitution is also unique in that it defines no head of state. It stripped the emperor of all but symbolic power. This was by design: The United States wanted to have the emperor as merely the symbol of Japan so that it could use him during the 1945-52 occupation years without the monarch being able to rally his people.

Likewise, the force-renouncing Article 9 was designed to keep Japan as America’s client state so that it would never pose a threat to the U.S. again.

But today, U.S. security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security.

The Japanese Constitution, however, is among the hardest in the world to revise. It is doubtful that any proposed constitutional change — even after winning approval with the mandated two-thirds vote in both chambers of the Diet — can secure majority support in a national referendum in order to take effect.

The large protests against Mr. Abe’s 2015 security legislation permitting the Self-Defense Forces to engage in “collective defense” were a reminder that the U.S.-instilled pacifism remains deeply rooted in Japanese society. For example, a 2014 survey revealed that just 15 percent of Japanese (compared with almost 75 percent of Chinese) were willing to defend their country — the lowest figure in the world.

Let’s be clear: Enduring peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan. If Japan fails to carry out further reforms of its postwar institutions and policies to meet the new regional challenges, it could erode its security.

The United States spawned the problem that Japan confronts today — how to cast off the constitutional albatross. America must now be part of the solution because its own geostrategic interests demand that Japan play a proactive role in regional affairs and do more for its own defense. This Japan can do within the framework of the longstanding security treaty with Washington. If the U.S. were to openly support constitutional revision in Japan, it would help blunt criticism from the country’s powerful pacifist constituency and from China.

Constitutional and national-security reform in Japan would help underpin the central goal of America’s Asia-Pacific strategy — a stable balance of power. Although rising powers tend to be revisionist powers, a politically resurgent Japan, strikingly, is seeking to uphold the present Asian political and maritime order. Washington would do well to aid the continued political rise of this status quoist country, which is determined to reinvent itself as a more competitive and secure state.

Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including, most recently, “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015).

Nepal’s democracy on the brink


The crisis of democracy in communist-led Nepal raises a fundamental question: Can a democratic transition succeed where communists dominate?

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review


Nepalese Prime Minister Oli, dubbed “Oily Oli” by his critics

Landlocked Nepal has lurched from one crisis to the next for a quarter-century. Now the country is on the edge of toppling into dysfunction. The turmoil also carries major implications for India, with which Kathmandu has traditionally maintained an open border. 

Nepal has been in a state of severe political flux since 1990, when it embarked on a democratic transition. But recent developments in the country — which lies between India and the Chinese region of Tibet — are a reminder that democracy means more than just holding elections. In Nepal, an absence of sound institutions has been compounded by constitution-making without political consensus or proper attention to the interests of minority groups.

This constitutional mess is at the root of violent protests and political upheaval that are accelerating spiraling prices for essential items in the impoverished Himalayan country. In the latest crisis ethnic groups have been polarized by a new constitution and a blockade of the border with India is preventing imports of essential goods, including fuel and medicines. The political and economic turmoil comes on top of last April’s devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks — the country’s worst natural disaster in more than eight decades.

Nepal adopted a new constitution in September, a whole generation after its democratic transition began with the introduction of a multiparty democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy in 1990. That experiment opened the door to a bloody Maoist insurrection that ended only when a peace accord in 2006 paved the way for the insurgent leaders to come to power.

The current constitution emerged from a tortuous eight-year constitutional drafting process that involved two elected constituent assemblies. The first abolished the monarchy in 2008, but became gridlocked by political infighting and missed a mid-2012 deadline set by the country’s Supreme Court. The second assembly, elected in 2013, drafted the constitution and, when it came into effect, was transformed into a legislative parliament.

A constitution must represent all the country’s citizens — the U.S. constitution, for example, begins with the words “We the people.” But multiethnic Nepal’s latest constitution reflects the will of the hill elites that have long dominated its power structures, discriminating against the people who inhabit the country’s southern plains along the 1,872km border with India — an area known as the Terai. Further complicating the issue, the Madhesi ethnic group that dominates the plains has historical, cultural and family links with India.

The constitution creates a federal republic divided into seven new states, merging parts of the ancestral homelands of the Madhesis with those of the hill states. The gerrymandered boundaries leave the plains people politically weaker, while giving the hill people greater political representation than their population size merits.

Disaffected minorities

Minority groups contend that the constitution also undercuts federalism by granting little provincial and local autonomy, and diluting affirmative action. No democracy can be stable and safe if it does not protect minorities. In Nepal, the disaffected minorities are large, making up nearly a third of the population.

For any country, the implementation of a new constitution signifies a promising new beginning. But Nepal’s constitution has provoked a virtually open revolt by the plains people. Since the constitution’s adoption, two damaging divides have emerged: one between Kathmandu and the Terai, and another between Kathmandu and New Delhi, which has called for a more inclusive constitution.

To end its prolonged political instability and arrest its deteriorating internal security, Nepal needed a unifying figure. Alas, what it got in a political upheaval in October was the appointment as prime minister of Khadga Prasad Oli, leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) — a divisive figure who spent years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s for waging war against the state.

Oli’s maneuvers have deepened Nepal’s ethnic and political fault lines. Dubbed “Oily Oli” by his critics, he has publicly mocked protesters and their demands, fueling civil strife. He has also stoked tensions with India, feeding deep-seated suspicions about India’s intentions that often surface when internal problems intensify. Mistrust of India flows in part from the tensions generated by the disparity in the power and size of the two countries, and in part from overlapping ethnic and linguistic identities.

Oli’s communist-dominated government has blamed India for Nepal’s crippling fuel shortages and political crisis. Seeking to deflect attention from its own role in triggering the crisis, it has accused India of imposing an “unofficial blockade” on the cross-border movement of oil and other supplies to Nepal. In reality, the disruption in supplies has been caused by mass protests against the constitution by the Madhesi and other minority groups.

Police have shot and killed dozens of protesters blockading highways or staging other confrontations. But they have failed to evict protesters from the key border junction at Birgunj that accounts for 70% of the volume of trade with India. The protesting groups say they will not lift the blockade unless the constitution is amended to safeguard their interests.


Nepalese foreign minister meets his Chinese counterpart on Christmas

Meanwhile, the Oli government has tried to play the China card against India, trumpeting a commercial agreement with Beijing and a Chinese gift of 1,000 tons of fuel. The gift was enough to meet barely two days’ requirements. More importantly, it demonstrated that Nepal’s dependence on India for essential supplies is a matter of geography. China could replace India as Nepal’s main supplier only if the Himalayas were shifted.

Passport free

India is increasingly concerned that Nepal’s turmoil could spill over into its northern plains. Moreover, some 6 million Nepalese work and live in India. Before Nepal’s latest crisis flared, New Delhi repeatedly told Kathmandu that China and Pakistan were taking advantage of the open Indo-Nepalese border — which remains a passport-free crossing, despite the blockade — to engage in activities detrimental to India’s security. Nepal has also become a transit point for the flow of counterfeit currency and narcotics into India.

India has stepped up diplomatic efforts to broker a political settlement in Nepal, despite past experience of being blamed for interference in the internal affairs of its smaller neighbor. India recently hosted Nepalese Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa, who brought a proposal to introduce two constitutional amendments. Talks were then held in New Delhi with the Terai protest leaders, who said the two suggested amendments did not go far enough to address their main concerns. India is urging both sides to show “maturity and flexibility to find a satisfactory solution to the constitutional issues.”

Britain recently joined India in calling for “a lasting and inclusive constitutional settlement in Nepal,” reflecting fears that the current crisis could provide an opening for China to extend its influence in Nepal, while the Terai movement could become radicalized and secessionist. India and other outside powers want to see a stable, united Nepal focusing on economic growth.

Water-rich Nepal has the potential to become a prosperous state. The country boasts one of Asia’s highest levels of water resources per inhabitant, with up to 83,000 megawatts of potential hydropower reserves. If it harnessed the natural bounty of the Himalayas to produce renewable electricity for export, Nepal could turn water into “clear gold,” generating hydro dollars to fuel development.

Today, Nepal produces less than 800MW of electricity from all energy sources for its 30 million citizens. Extended power outages are common, even in Kathmandu, and Nepal imports electricity from India even though it controls the upper waters of several rivers suitable for hydroelectric power generation that flow south across the border.

Such has been the rapidity of political change in Nepal that democracy has yet to take root. The democratic transition, far from being the curative that the Nepalese had hoped for, has engendered unending disorder, puncturing Nepal’s reputation as a Shangri-La. The crisis of democracy in a country where the two main communist parties and smaller Marxist groups can between them secure the largest share of the popular vote raises a fundamental question: Can a democratic transition succeed where communists dominate?

If Nepal remains battered by political upheaval, it clearly risks becoming a failed state — a development that will have major trans-Himalayan implications. Before it is too late, a tottering Nepal must accommodate its minorities so that its constitution produces peace, not violence that derails democracy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author. He is currently professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. 

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2015.

Saudi Arabia’s Phony War on Terror


Like a drug cartel claiming to have launched a counternarcotics drive, the Saudi-led “anti-terror” coalition includes all the world’s terror sponsors

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

downloadBERLIN – Containing the scourge of Islamist terror will be impossible without containing the ideology that drives it: Wahhabism, a messianic, jihad-extolling form of Sunni fundamentalism whose international expansion has been bankrolled by oil-rich sheikhdoms, especially Saudi Arabia. That is why the newly announced Saudi-led anti-terror coalition, the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, should be viewed with profound skepticism.

Wahhabism promotes, among other things, the subjugation of women and the death of “infidels.” It is – to quote US President Barack Obama’s description of what motivated a married couple of Pakistani origin to carry out the recent mass shooting in San Bernardino, California – a “perverted interpretation of Islam,” and the ideological mother of jihadist terrorism. Its offspring include Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and the Islamic State, all of which blend hostility toward non-Sunnis and anti-modern romanticism into nihilistic rage.

Saudi Arabia has been bankrolling Islamist terrorism since the oil-price boom of the 1970s dramatically boosted the country’s wealth. According to a 2013 European Parliament report, some of the $10 billion invested by Saudi Arabia for “its Wahhabi agenda” in South and Southeast Asia was “diverted” to terrorist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

Western leaders have recognized the Saudi role for many years. In a 2009 diplomatic cable, then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton identified Saudi Arabia as “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” Thanks largely to the West’s interest in Saudi oil, however, the Kingdom has faced no international sanctions.

cwwaaiaxiaa7fidNow, with the growth of terrorist movements like the Islamic State, priorities are changing. As German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said in a recent interview, “We must make it clear to the Saudis that the time of looking the other way is over.”

This shift has spurred the Kingdom to announce a “crackdown” on individuals and groups that fund terror. But, according to a recent US State Department report, some Saudi-based charities and individual donors continue to fund Sunni militants.

From this perspective, Saudi Arabia’s surprise announcement of a 34-country anti-terror alliance, with a joint operations center based in Riyadh, is a logical step, aimed at blunting growing Western criticism, while boosting Sunni influence in the Middle East. But, of course, the alliance is a sham – as a closer look at its membership makes clear.

Tellingly, the alliance includes all of the world’s main sponsors of extremist and terrorist groups, from Qatar to Pakistan. It is as if a drug cartel claimed to be spearheading a counternarcotics campaign. Listed as members of the alliance are also all of the jihadist citadels other than Afghanistan, including war-torn Libya and Yemen, both of which are not currently governed by a single authority.

Moreover, despite being touted as an “Islamic” alliance, with members coming from “all over the Islamic world,” the group includes predominantly Christian Uganda and Gabon, but not Oman (a fellow Gulf sheikdom), Algeria (Africa’s largest country), and Indonesia (the world’s most populous Muslim country).

The failure to include Indonesia, which has almost twice as many Muslims as the entire Middle East, is striking not only because of its size: Whereas most countries in the alliance are ruled by despots or autocrats, Indonesia is a robust democracy. Autocratic rule in Islamic countries tends to strengthen jihadist forces. But when democracy takes root, as in tolerant and secular Indonesia, the clash between moderates and extremists can be better managed.

Saudi Arabia’s dysfunctional approach is reflected in the fact that some alliance members – including Pakistan, Malaysia, Lebanon, and the Palestinian Authority – immediately declared that they had never actually joined. The Kingdom seemed to think that it could make that decision on behalf of the major recipients of its aid.

Add to that the unsurprising exclusion of Shia-governed Iran and Iraq, along with Alawite-ruled Syria, and it is clear that Saudi Arabia has merely crafted another predominantly Sunni grouping to advance its sectarian and strategic objectives. This aligns with the more hardline policy approach that has taken root since King Salman ascended the throne in January 2015.

At home, Salman’s reign so far has meant a marked increase in the number of sentences of death by decapitation, often carried out in public – a method emulated by the Islamic State. Abroad, it has meant a clear preference for violent solutions in Bahrain, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

A smaller Saudi-led Arab coalition has been bombing Yemen since March, with the goal of pushing back the Shia Houthi rebels who captured Sana’a, the capital, after driving the Saudi-backed government from power. Saudi warplanes have bombed homes, markets, hospitals, and refugee camps in Yemen, leading critics to accuse the Kingdom of deliberately terrorizing civilians to turn public opinion against the Houthis.

Saudi Arabia’s solutions have often controverted the objectives of its American allies. For example, the Kingdom and its Arab partners have quietly slipped out of the US-led air war in Syria, leaving the campaign largely in American hands.

But beyond Saudi Arabia’s strategic manipulations lies the fundamental problem with which we started: the Kingdom’s official ideology forms the heart of the terrorist creed. A devoted foe of Islamist terrorism does not promote violent jihadism. Nor does it arrest and charge with “terrorism” domestic critics of its medieval interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia does both.

This speaks to the main shortcoming of today’s militarized approach to fighting terrorism. Unless the expansion of dangerous ideologies like Wahhabism is stopped, the global war on terror, now almost a generation old, will never be won. No matter how many bombs the US and its allies drop, the Saudi-financed madrassas will continue to indoctrinate tomorrow’s jihadists.

© Project Syndicate, 2015.

India’s Nepal problem

Brahma Chellaney, Mint


Nepal is not just another neighbour of India but one that is symbiotically linked to it by close cultural affinity, overlapping ethnic and linguistic identities, and an open border permitting passage without documentation or even registration — an unusual arrangement. The Indo-Nepal relationship is deeper than between any two European Union states. Indeed, ever since the 1951 Chinese annexation of Tibet eliminated the outer buffer between India and China, Nepal has served as the main inner buffer. Political turmoil in Nepal directly impinges on Indian security.

Nepal’s current political and constitutional crisis, which has engendered violent protests and serious shortages of fuel and other essential goods, is just the latest chapter in a flawed democratic experiment since 1990. The experiment has yielded mostly political upheavals — from opening the door to a decade-long Maoist insurgency and facilitating the ouster of the country’s monarchy to the deepening of the country’s ethnic fault lines and the empowerment of communists. By fostering unending turmoil, the sputtering democratic transition has made Nepal a playground for powers hostile to India.

Still, Nepali nationalism usually takes the form of India baiting. India is again at the center of a blame game by Nepalese nationalists, many of them communists, including ex-guerrillas like Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli. Ultra-nationalism and communism tend to be two sides of the same coin, as is also apparent in several ex-communist countries and China.

Nepal’s latest crisis is linked to a new Constitution that was rammed through with controversial provisions that leave the Terai plains people politically vulnerable. Oli’s communist-dominated government, appointed in October after the Constitution took effect, has only fuelled the crisis with a hardline policy stance. Yet Oli has made India the scapegoat, accusing it of unofficially blockading essential supplies to landlocked Nepal — an accusation lapped up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian critics. However, anyone visiting the Birgunj-Raxual border point, through which much of the bilateral trade flows, can see that the blockade is by the ethnic-Madhesi protest groups.

With India mediating between the two sides, Oli has now grudgingly offered to accommodate some of the Terai people’s demands, including through two constitutional amendments. But Madhesi leaders, accusing Oli of being wedded to a divisive agenda, have rejected his offer as inadequate. If the crisis drags on, a failed Constitution will compound Nepal’s political disarray.

The serious challenge posed by a quasi-failed Nepal to India is unlikely to go away, especially given the long open frontier. New Delhi has yet to frame a credible, long-term strategy to deal with a problem that includes Nepal serving as a gateway for China and Pakistan to undermine Indian security. Nepal has also become a conduit for the flow of illicit arms, narcotics and counterfeit currency to India. Kathmandu, instead of cracking down on such activity with Indian assistance, has objected to India increasing the deployment of the Sashastra Seema Bal, a police force that patrols the Nepal and Bhutan borders.

To be sure, India’s missteps and neglect have exacerbated its Nepal problem. For example, it encouraged — in an intimidation-filled environment in Nepal and by ceding strategic space to outside powers and the United Nations — the 2008 election process, which brought the Maoists to power. Having sowed the wind in Nepal, India reaped the Maoist whirlwind in the red corridor from Pashupati to Tirupati.

Despite Nepal’s critical importance to India, Modi’s August 2014 visit was the first by an Indian prime minister to that country in 17 years. It came after China had strategically penetrated Nepal.

To his credit, Modi has sought to diplomatically recoup India’s losses over the years in its strategic backyard. Modi indeed visited Nepal a second time in 2014 to participate in the SAARC summit. The two visits created a groundswell of Nepalese goodwill for India. But as soon as political machinations in Nepal over constitution making triggered a new crisis, the powerful communist parties reignited the entrenched Nepalese suspicion about India’s agenda.

Today, with an India-unfriendly government in Kathmandu, New Delhi must vie with China for influence in a country that was its security preserve for more than half a century. Aided by Nepalese communists, Beijing wields increasing influence in Nepal, which Mao Zedong once described as one of the fingers of the Tibetan palm — the others being Bhutan, Sikkim, Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. It is not an accident that having tightened its grip over the palm (Tibet), China is exerting pressure on India through each of the “fingers”.

Nepal’s porous 1,751-km border with India, meanwhile, remains a boon for Pakistani and Chinese intelligence. India has been slow to institute a stricter border regime to choke illicit activities and halt entry of arms, explosives, opiates, fake currency and subversive elements.

Nations respect, and hold in awe, a neighbour that has power, strength and determination. A weak-kneed big neighbour, by contrast, comes in handy to a smaller state for pinning blame on for anything, real or imagined. Nepal, although adrift, has the gumption to bait India and publicly ask it to stop acting like a “big brother”, while paying obeisance to China. It has awarded China a $1.6 billion large dam project — the single biggest foreign investment in Nepal — while failing to revive long-stalled joint energy projects with India. If India cannot manage a state closely tied to it like Nepal, how can it effectively deal with adversarial China and Pakistan?

© Mint, 2015.

Unaccountable China


A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate. 

ac770042b59cb2a99b45442629188250.landscapeLargeHO CHI MINH CITY – Since late 2013, China has been engaged in the frenzied creation of artificial islands and the militarization of the South China Sea. This amounts to an alarming quest for control over a strategically crucial corridor through which $5.3 trillion in trade flows each year. But what is even more shocking – not to mention dangerous – is that China has incurred no international costs for its behavior.

Of course, the international community has a lot on its plate nowadays, not least a massive refugee crisis fueled by chaos in the Middle East. But the reality is that, as long as China feels free to maneuver without consequence, it will continue to do so, fueling tensions with its neighbors that could easily turn into all-out conflict, derailing Asia’s rise.

A key component of China’s strategy in the South China Sea is the dredging of low-tide elevations to make small islands, including in areas that, as China’s deputy foreign minister for Asian affairs, Liu Zhenmin, recently acknowledged, “are far from the Chinese mainland.” In China’s view, that distance makes it “necessary” to build “military facilities” on the islands. And, indeed, three of the seven newly constructed islets include airfields, from which Chinese warplanes could challenge the US Navy’s ability to operate unhindered in the region.

By militarizing the South China Sea, China is seeking to establish a de facto Air Defense Identification Zone like the one that it formally – and unilaterally – declared in 2013 in the East China Sea, where it claims islands that it does not control. China knows that, under international law, its claim to sovereignty over virtually all of the resource-endowed South China Sea, based on an “historic right,” is weak; that is why it has opposed international adjudication. Instead, it is trying to secure “effective control” – which, under international law, enhances significantly the legitimacy of a country’s territorial claim – just as it has done in the Himalayas and elsewhere.

But China’s ambitions extend beyond the South China Sea: It aims to create a strongly Sino-centric Asia. Thus, the country recently established its first overseas military base – a naval hub in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa – and it has repeatedly sent submarines into the Indian Ocean. Moreover, China is engaging in far-reaching economic projects – such as the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, which entails the construction of infrastructure linking Asia to Europe – that will strengthen its presence in, and influence over, a number of countries, thereby recasting regional geopolitics in its image.

Meanwhile, US President Barack Obama’s administration remains hesitant to back up its much-publicized “pivot” toward Asia with meaningful action – especially action to constrain China. Instead of, say, imposing sanctions or exerting localized military pressure on China, the Obama administration has attempted to pass the buck. Specifically, it has stepped up military cooperation with other Asia-Pacific countries, encouraged other claimants to territory in the South China Sea to shore up their defenses, and supported a more active role in regional security for democratic powers like Australia, India, and even Japan.

To put it bluntly, that is not enough. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, unlike natural islands, China’s constructed islands – which were built on top of natural features that did not originally rise above the water at high tide – do not have sovereignty over 12 nautical miles of surrounding sea. Yet it was not until recently that the United States sent a warship within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island. And even then, it was just a sail-through that an official Chinese mouthpiece dismissed as a “political show.” The US did not challenge China’s territorial claims directly, or demand that China halt its island-building program.

In fact, even as China persists with its fast-paced dredging, which has already created more than 1,200 hectares of artificial land, US officials insist that the South China Sea issue should not be allowed to hijack Sino-American relations. This feckless approach to China’s quietly emerging hegemony in the South China Sea has heightened concerns of the region’s smaller countries. They know that when two great powers bargain with each other, it is countries like them that usually lose.

Some already have. In 2012, China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal, located well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The US, which had just brokered an agreement requiring Chinese and Filipino vessels to withdraw from the area, did nothing, despite its mutual-defense treaty with the Philippines.

But Asia’s smaller countries are not the only ones that should be worried. Given the South China Sea’s strategic importance, disorder there threatens to destabilize the entire region. Moreover, if China gets its way, it will become more assertive in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Perhaps most important, if Chinese bullying enables it to ignore international rules and norms, a very dangerous precedent will have been set. One can easily think of other countries that would be sure to embrace it.

© Project Syndicate, 2015.

How not to combat terror


By The Japan Times

imagesA terror attack by a married, Pakistan-origin couple in California has shaken up American politics and the presidential contest, setting in motion stricter restrictions on grant of some U.S. visas and prompting candidate Donald Trump to propose a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States. But the attack and the reactions also raise a larger question: Has the U.S. evolved a clear and credible counterterrorism strategy after spearheading the global war on terror since 2001?

President Barack Obama’s first Oval Office address in five years, while aimed at calming a jittery American public after the California attack, has only widened the gap between U.S. rhetoric and the challenge of effectively combating the international spread of Islamist extremism and terrorism.

Obama admitted that, in recent years, “the terrorist threat has evolved into a new phase” and sought to reassure Americans that “we will overcome it.” Yet, as if to underscore his incoherent and ineffectual approach, his Dec. 6 speech was conspicuous by its omission of any reference on how to combat increasing Muslim radicalization, which is spawning violent jihadists.

The radicalization is linked to the role of some Gulf sheikhdoms in spreading Wahhabism, the source of modern Islamic fundamentalism. By exporting this fringe form of Islam, these petrodollar-laden states have gradually snuffed out more liberal Muslim traditions in regions extending from Asia and Africa to the Americas.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the two officially Wahhabi states, and the United Arab Emirates still continue to fund madrassas (Islamic schools), mercenaries and militants in other places.

In his speech, Obama said the U.S. is “at war” with the Islamic State (IS) and vowed to “destroy” that terrorist organization. How does he plan to do that? He said by sticking, in essence, to his present, 1½-old strategy that has allowed IS to thrive.

Despite the U.S. military carrying out more than 8,000 airstrikes thus far, it has failed, in the absence of ground forces, to score major gains.

To America’s embarrassment, its Arab allies have gradually sneaked out from the air war, leaving the campaign as a largely American effort — now supplemented by French and Britain bombing raids and Obama’s dispatch of special operations troops in support of CIA-trained Syrian rebels.

Some 10 million people are currently living under IS rule in Syria and Iraq in an area the size of Britain. By strategically capturing oil fields and towns along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers — the region’s lifelines — IS has sought to control oil and water resources. Yet Obama’s speech did little more than repackage a foundering strategy with tougher rhetoric.

Indeed, Obama’s missteps contributed to IS’ dramatic rise. Even as IS rapidly gained sway from 2013, Obama’s strategy remained focused on overthrowing Syria’s secular ruler, Bashar Assad. Obama’s glib dismissal of IS in early 2014 as a local “JV team” trying to imitate al-Qaida but without the capacity to directly threaten America allowed the group to become a monster. In fact, just a day before the recent Paris attacks, Obama claimed IS had been “contained.”

How can IS be contained when the Obama administration has failed to make Turkey seal its frontier to deny IS oil-export revenue and new foreign fighters and weapons? Russia has accused Turkey’s pro-Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his family of profiting from the illicit oil trade with IS. Obama himself has acknowledged that a 98-km open stretch of the Turkey-Syria border permits IS to flourish.

Consider another element: Repeated U.S. failures to organize and arm a rebel force in Syria have been compounded by the defection of the vast majority of CIA-trained rebels to IS.

Obama said the couple involved in the California mass shooting “had gone down the dark path of radicalization, embracing a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the West.” But his speech shied away from identifying the main international imperative today — to get the sheikhdoms to stop financing the overseas spread of their fundamentalist, jihad-extolling strain of Islam.

It is the U.S.-backed Wahhabist monarchs that have funded the international spread of the “perverted interpretation of Islam.” The House of Saud in particular has used its custodianship of Islam’s holy places as a license to export the Wahhabi ideology.

The killer-couple in California — Syed Rizwan Farook, the U.S.-born son of Pakistani immigrants, and Pakistani national Tashfeen Malik — had been radicalized by Wahhabi ideology before IS gained prominence. Malik attended a Saudi-funded madrassa in Multan, the main city in Pakistan’s southern Punjab region. Multan is a historical center of Sufism, a liberal, mystical form of Islam that has come under open assault from the rapid spread of petrodollar-funded Wahhabism.

On the day Obama made his speech, it was the second-ranking official of one power that isn’t bombing Syria — Germany — that identified the key issue in the global war on terror. In a newspaper interview, German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel said the era of the West ignoring the Saudi sponsorship of radical Islam must come to an end.

“From Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi mosques are financed throughout the world,” Gabriel said, adding: “We must make it clear to the Saudis that the time of looking the other way is over.”

The reality is that the proliferating, petrodollar-financed Wahhabi mosques and madrassas in several countries have become incubators for terrorist and other militant groups. IS is just the symptom of a disease spawned by Wahhabism.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia shares a lot in common with IS, its ideological offspring. Wahhabism serves as the “complete ideology” of IS and “contributes in other countries to radicalization of moderate Muslims,” as the head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party parliamentary group, Thomas Oppermann, recently put it.

Like IS, Saudi Arabia is on a beheading spree. This year, under the new king Salman, Saudi executioners have been unusually busy as the number of public decapitations, according to Amnesty International, has reached the highest in two decades, with at least 151 executions having taken place as of November. While Saudi Arabia leads the world in barbaric execution practices, IS flaunts the lopped-off heads of its victims as trophies.

Against this background, how can the U.S. positively influence the ideological war now raging in Islam between moderates and extremists without bringing the jihad-exporting states to heel?

It must stop being in thrall to Gulf money and reconsider its long-standing alliance with tyrannical Arab monarchs wedded to jihadism. By backing the 2011 Saudi military intervention in Bahrain, which crushed the pro-democracy movement of the majority Shiite community, and by now aiding the Saudi-led bombing campaign in conflict-torn Yemen, the U.S. has allowed short-term calculations to trump long-term interests.

More fundamentally, without the U.S. embracing a holistic, long-term strategy, the global war on terror — already in its 15th year — has little chance of containing the growing threat from violent jihadism.

Geostrategist Brahma Chellaney is the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.”

© The Japan Times, 2015.

The geopolitical hub of international maritime challenges



The U.S. naval and air force base at the British-controlled atoll of Diego Garcia is located strategically in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

The emerging centrality of the Indian Ocean for global trade and energy flows and for a stable balance of power in Asia is sharpening geopolitical competition in the wider region, home to prominent strategic chokepoints such as the Malacca and Hormuz straits. More than half of the world’s container traffic, 70% of its seaborne petroleum trade and a third of all maritime traffic traverses the Indian Ocean, the world’s third-largest body of water, which connects Asia with Africa and, via the Middle East, with Europe.

No less important, the Indian Ocean Rim may be poised to emerge as the world’s fastest-growing region in economic terms over the next decade, according to a recent assessment by the Center for International Development at Harvard University. After two centuries of Atlantic domination followed by the rise of the Pacific Rim, the Indian Ocean Rim could become the next growth engine, amid relatively slow growth in the mature economies and a relentless slowdown in China.

Meanwhile, as outside and local powers joust for access, influence and relative advantage in the region, the Indian Ocean is witnessing a maritime version of the 19th century Great Game — the rivalry between the British and Russian empires for influence in Central Asia. Four national strategies — China’s Maritime Silk Road project, America’s “pivot” to Asia, Japan’s western-facing approach, and India’s Act East Policy — intersect in the Indian Ocean.

China’s Maritime Silk Road — a catchy name for Beijing’s “string of pearls” policy of advancing strategic interests along its trade routes — is centered in the Indian Ocean, with China employing aid, investment and political leverage to pursue geostrategic objectives. A pet project of President Xi Jinping, its larger goal is to redraw Asia’s geopolitical map by pulling strategically located states closer to China’s orbit. It also seeks to deal with China’s problem of overproduction at home by winning lucrative overseas contracts for its state-run companies to build seaports, railroads, highways and energy pipelines in states located along the great trade arteries.

The U.S. has the largest military footprint of any power in the Indian Ocean, including a major naval and air force base at the British-controlled atoll of Diego Garcia, which is located halfway between Africa and Indonesia and serves as a logistic-support center for American military missions in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. America’s much-publicized “pivot” to Asia has drawn attention to the ocean’s critical importance. Preoccupied with the Middle East, Washington has yet to provide strategic heft to its pivot, but it has encouraged both India’s Act East policy of building economic and strategic partnerships with likeminded Asian countries and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s pursuit of a western-facing policy focused on mainland Asia and the Indian Ocean. Over the last few years, the U.S. has signed approximately $10 billion in defense sales to India, according to Rich Verma, U.S. ambassador to India.

Japanese reforms

Japan, which imports 96% of its energy requirements, has become increasingly concerned about maritime security in the Indian Ocean, through which three-fifths of its energy supplies pass. Japan’s ongoing national security reforms are opening the path for it to collaborate closely with friendly Indian Ocean Rim countries such as India and Indonesia, and to play a more active role in ensuring the security of the region’s critical sea lanes. Tokyo has already eased its long-standing self-imposed ban on arms exports and reasserted its right to exercise “collective self-defense.”

One manifestation of the increasing geopolitical competition in the Indian Ocean is a naval arms race, especially under the waves. China boasts one of the fastest-growing undersea fleets in the world. It has already surpassed the U.S. submarine fleet in quantity, although not quality. But as it works to further expand its force of diesel and nuclear attack submarines, China’s territorial and maritime assertiveness and muscular actions are prompting other countries to acquire submarines as well as submarine-hunting aircraft.

About a year ago, Chinese attack submarines undertook their first known voyages to the Indian Ocean, with a Song-class diesel-electric submarine and then a Type 091 Han-class nuclear-powered boat docking at a new Chinese-majority-owned container terminal in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. This year, a Chinese submarine docked at the Pakistani port of Karachi. Earlier, Beijing conveyed to New Delhi its decision to deploy a Type-093 Shangclass nuclear-powered attack submarine for Indian Ocean patrol.

For New Delhi, China’s increasing naval forays into India’s maritime backyard carry long-term strategic implications. Just as China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951 created a northern, trans-Himalayan military threat for the first time in Indian history, its Maritime Silk Road promises to open an oceanic threat from the south for the first time since the European colonial depredations of the 18th and 19th centuries. Indeed, a Beijing-based defense website, Sina Military Network, claimed earlier this year that 10 Chinese attack submarines could blockade India’s eastern and western coastlines.

The larger strategic risk for India is that China, in partnership with its close ally Pakistan, could encircle it on land and at sea. Although trade through the Indian Ocean accounts for half of India’s gross domestic product and the bulk of its energy supplies, accidents and project delays have left its diesel submarine fleet severely depleted. India has one nuclear-powered sub on lease from Russia and is completing another domestically as it seeks to bolster its anti-submarine capabilities.

India has also stepped up its military diplomacy and is doling out billions of dollars in credit to key littoral states. At the recent India-Africa summit in New Delhi, attended by leaders of 54 African nations, India pledged $10 billion in new credit and $600-million grant aid, in addition to $7.4 billion in soft loans and $1.2 billion in aid provided since the first such summit in 2008.

Cultural Affinity

At the same time, New Delhi is working to revitalize relationships with Indian Ocean Rim states in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, including neighboring Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, whose northern tip is close to India’s Nicobar Islands territory. Using cultural affinity — an asset China lacks in region — India has sought to revive linkages along the ancient Spice Route, which had the Indian peninsula as its hub. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been conveying the message: “Our destinies are linked by the currents of the Indian Ocean.”

Meanwhile, China has finalized the sale of eight diesel-electric submarines to Pakistan, a transfer that would more than double the size of that country’s submarine fleet. Thailand is also poised to buy Chinese submarines, paying more than $1 billion for three. Indonesia, like Vietnam previously, is procuring Kilo-class vessels from Russia. It was this class of Russian boats that launched China’s own submarine modernization program.

Indian Ocean security is also linked to developments in the South China Sea, where threats to freedom of navigation and maritime security have arisen from China’s creation of artificial islands, its effort to establish a major military base on one of them, and its declaration of an expansive exclusive economic zone. Indeed, Chinese Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai claimed on Sept. 14 that the South China Sea “belongs to China.”

The U.S., aware that China’s maneuvering in the Indian Ocean draws strength from its muscular actions in the South China Sea, has been working with its allies and partners to address these challenges. The U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region — signed during President Barack Obama’s New Delhi visit in January — and the Pentagon’s subsequent Asia-Pacific Maritime Security Strategy emphasize the importance of greater maritime cooperation among democratic powers.

Yet, even at the risk of handing Beijing a fait accompli, the U.S. has restricted itself to lodging diplomatic protests over China’s creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea. It has thus far shied away from, on a regular basis, carrying out “freedom of navigation” flyovers or sail-throughs within a 12-nautical-mile zone of China’s recently constructed or expanded outposts. A recent symbolic sail-through does not change the larger picture.

The contest for influence in the Indian Ocean is pivotal to determining the direction of Asian security and shaping the international maritime order. As U.S. Admiral Samuel Locklear has noted, two-thirds of the world’s 300 submarines that are not part of the U.S. Navy (which deploys 73) are already in the Indo-Pacific region. This is a game that democratic powers must positively influence to underpin peace, stability and prosperity in the Indian Ocean and the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author. He is currently professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2015.