Who Lost the South China Sea?

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY,  a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

The South China Sea is central to the contest for strategic influence in the larger Indo-Pacific region. Unless the US adopts a stronger policy to contain Chinese expansionism there, the widely shared vision of a free, open, and democratic-led Indo-Pacific will give way to an illiberal, repressive regional order.

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US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has spoken out against China’s strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and electronic jammers, and, more recently, the landing of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft at Woody Island. There are, Mattis warned, “consequences to China ignoring the international community.”

But what consequences? Two successive US administrations – Barack Obama’s and now Donald Trump’s – have failed to push back credibly against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, which has accelerated despite a 2016 international arbitral tribunal ruling invalidating its territorial claims there. Instead, the US has relied on rhetoric or symbolic actions.

For example, the United States has disinvited China from this summer’s 26-country Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise. The move has been played up as a potential indication that the US may finally be adopting a tougher approach toward China. Mattis himself has called the decision an “initial response” to China’s militarization of the South China Sea, which is twice the size of the Gulf of Mexico and 50% bigger than the Mediterranean Sea.

Similarly, the US Navy’s freedom of navigation (FON) operations, which are occurring more regularly under Trump than they did under Obama, have been widely hyped. After the most recent operation, in which a guided-missile cruiser and a destroyer sailed past the disputed Paracel Islands, Mattis declared that the US was the “only country” to stand up to China.

But China, too, has used America’s FON operations to play to the Chinese public, claiming after the latest operation that its navy had “warned and expelled” two US warships. More important, neither FON operations nor China’s exclusion from the RIMPAC exercise addresses the shifts in regional dynamics brought about by China’s island-building and militarization, not to mention its bullying of its neighbors. As a result, they will not credibly deter China or reassure US allies.

The reality is that China’s incremental encroachments have collectively changed the facts in the South China Sea. It has consolidated its control over the strategic corridor between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, through which one-third of global maritime trade – worth $5.3 trillion last year – passes. It is also asserting control over the region’s natural resources, by bullying and coercing other claimants seeking to explore for oil and gas in areas that are theirs under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Vietnam, for example, has been forced to scrap a project on its own continental shelf.

Perhaps most ominous, China’s development of forward operating bases on manmade South China Sea islands “appears complete,” as Admiral Philip Davidson told a Senate committee in April before taking over the US Indo-Pacific Command. “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US,” Davidson confirmed.

Davidson’s characterization is revealing. As China takes a long-term strategic approach to strengthening its hold over the South China Sea (and, increasingly, beyond), the US is focused solely on the prospect of all-out war.

The Pentagon has flaunted its capability to demolish China’s artificial islands, whose creation Chinese President Xi Jinping has cited as one of his key accomplishments. “I would just tell you,” joint staff director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie recently said, “the US military has had a lot of experience in the western Pacific taking down small islands.”

If open war is China’s only vulnerability in the South China Sea, the US will lose the larger strategic competition. While seeking to protect its military freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the US has turned a blind eye to China’s stealthy but aggressive assault on the freedom of the seas, including restricting the rights of other countries in the region.

The only viable option is a credible strategy that pushes back against China’s use of coercion to advance its territorial and maritime revisionism. As Admiral Harry Harris cautioned last month while departing as head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, “Without focused involvement and engagement by the US and our allies and partners, China will realize its dream of hegemony in Asia.”

Simply put, China is winning the battle for the South China Sea without firing a shot – or paying any international costs. While Trump is sustaining this trend, it began under Obama, on whose watch China created seven artificial islands and started militarizing them.

Obama’s silence in 2012 when China occupied the disputed Scarborough Shoal – a traditional Philippine fishing ground located within that country’s exclusive economic zone – emboldened China to embark on a broader island-building strategy in the South China Sea the following year. By the time the US realized the scope and scale of China’s land-reclamation program, Russia grabbed its attention by annexing Crimea. Yet the long-term strategic implications of what China has achieved in the South China Sea are far more serious.

Unfortunately, when it comes to constraining China’s expansionism, Trump seems just as clueless as his predecessor. Focused obsessively on three issues – trade, North Korea, and Iran – Trump has watched quietly as China builds up its military assets through frenzied construction of permanent facilities on newly reclaimed land. And now China has begun making strategic inroads in the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea, threatening the interests of more countries, from India to Japan.

The South China Sea has been and will remain central to the contest for influence in the larger Indo-Pacific region. Thanks to US fecklessness, the widely shared vision of a free, open, and democratic-led Indo-Pacific could give way to an illiberal, repressive regional order, with China in full control.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

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Trump delivers lessons for Japan on North Korea

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By BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Japan Times

Japan was so concerned that its security interests would be overlooked in a U.S. nuclear deal with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the White House just before President Donald Trump left for Canada and Singapore. Yet Japan’s strategic imperatives and interests were barely on Trump’s mind when he met Kim. Despite Trump saying that he raised with Kim the decades-old North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens, Japan’s interests got short-shrift.

With the Singapore summit yielding only a joint statement, Trump has bet on what he called a “very special bond” and “terrific relationship” with Kim to secure a real deal. It is worth remembering that Trump has said similar things about Abe and several other world leaders, only to ignore their interests or turn on them later. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, is still licking his wounds.

As Trump’s announcement to suspend U.S. war games with South Korea underscored, he is seeking to narrowly advance American interests, especially saving money — a factor that he said could eventually lead him to bring back home the 32,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. A dilution of U.S. security commitments in northeast Asia, however, is contrary to Japanese strategic interests.

Trump is only stoking Japanese concerns about America’s long-term commitment to regional security by signaling that a rapprochement with North Korea could possibly lead to a broader U.S. retreat from northeast Asia. Announcing the suspension of the war games without prior notification to South Korea, for example, sent the wrong message to allies, although U.S. and South Korean officials had previously discussed this option.

More fundamentally, Trumps seems unmindful of the fact that the alliance system is essential — and cost-effective — for the United States to pursue its regional objectives, including maintaining a stable balance of power.

Tokyo, in the most generous host-nation support by any of America’s 27 allies, pays billions of dollars yearly for the basing of U.S. troops on Japanese territory. South Korea, in addition to its host-nation support, has generously picked up about 92% of the $10.8 billion cost of the U.S. military’s new base, Camp Humphreys, located south of Seoul. It is much cheaper for the U.S. to keep troops in South Korea (or Japan) than to have them back home.

To Trump’s credit, he has correctly described as “very provocative” the U.S.-led war games, which, with live-fire drills, simulate every spring a full-scale invasion of North Korea. Critics are upset that he has lifted the pretense that these war games are routine “military exercises” and defensive in nature.

Progress toward denuclearization, however, is likely to be slow. The joint statement implicitly links denuclearization to “mutual confidence building.” What has been set in motion is a complex, long process of bargaining, deal making and, if all goes well, denuclearizing.

The joint statement’s reference to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, not just North Korea, means creating a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Such a zone can emerge only if South Korea steps out of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and America, China and Russia formally commit not to introduce, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.

For decades, Japan and South Korea have remained under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But, in reality, the U.S. is unlikely to use nuclear weapons to defend Japan or South Korea; it will rely instead on conventional weapons. The nuclear umbrella serves more as a potent symbol of U.S. commitment and as a nonproliferation tool to prevent either ally from developing its own nuclear weapons.

Still, if South Korea agrees to be outside the American nuclear umbrella, Japan — the world’s only victim of nuclear bombings — will find itself in the odd position of being the sole Asian country inside the umbrella. This will hardly sit well with its diplomatic interests.

But what prompted Abe’s latest White House visit was concern that Washington could tolerate a North Korean sub-regional nuclear arsenal if Kim dismantled his long-range nuclear capability that threatens America. Tokyo’s security nightmare is North Korea retaining the short- and medium-range portion of its nuclear arsenal while China continues to expand its nuclear and conventional military capabilities. If North Korea kept a residual, subregionally confined nuclear capability, it would reinforce Japanese and South Korean reliance on security arrangements with America.

Such a scenario is not improbable, especially with the Trump administration saying goodbye to the “Libya model” and seeking instead to apply the “South Africa model” to North Korea.

The administration’s early brinkmanship almost derailed the Singapore summit when its references to the Libya model provocatively suggested that Kim follow a path that ultimately led to Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s gruesome end. But, recognizing North Korea’s longstanding resistance to intrusive international inspections, U.S. officials now say their role model is apartheid-era South Africa.

Before transiting to black majority rule, South Africa secretly dismantled its six nuclear weapons, destroying all major documents relating to them but stashing weapons-grade enriched uranium. It then opened its sites to international inspection.

Such voluntary denuclearization outside international monitoring is not an example of complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement, which is what Japan wants to see in North Korea. America’s focus, however, is on safeguarding its own security. Trump, after the summit, wrote online that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat to the U.S., adding that Americans should “sleep well tonight.”

While his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has spoken of “in-depth verification,” North Korea is likely to allow external inspectors only limited access at best. Intrusive international monitoring, with inspectors free to go anywhere, could sound the death knell for Kim’s secretive regime. In the past, the U.S. has sent intelligence agents as international nuclear inspectors, as the Iraq investigations revealed.

A Japan exposed to a potential North Korean nuclear strike would be open to atomic blackmail and coercion. Yet, some U.S. officials and analysts have characterized Japan’s insistence on complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament as “maximalist,” as if seeking a deal that addresses only U.S. security interests (as the Trump administration is apparently doing) amounts to a reasonable stance.

Another issue also highlights how self-interest drives U.S. policy. The joint statement commits North Korea to repatriate the remains of American military personnel missing from the Korean War. But it contains no reference to a highly emotive subject in Japan — abductions of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang’s agents to train as spies. Trump said he “absolutely” raised that topic but did not indicate what Kim’s response was.

Let’s be clear: Dismantling North Korea’s extensive nuclear infrastructure will entail a long-drawn-out process. Nuclear weapons are the only assets the North can leverage to end its international pariah status. Kim is unlikely to give up his “crown jewels” without U.S. security guarantees that go beyond symbolic steps and a temporary halt of U.S.-led war games. Nor will he unilaterally disarm without reciprocal actions to turn the Korean Peninsula into a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

While Trump is seeking, to quote Pompeo, “major disarmament” in the remainder of his current term, Kim, who is less than half the age of the U.S. president, has a much longer time horizon. Kim is playing a long game to ease his country’s international isolation and build an independent foreign policy that diminishes dependence on China.

A stretched-out denuclearization process, however, suits China too. It will allow Beijing to string the U.S. along on North Korea while it stakes out a key role for itself by leveraging its status as a linchpin to keeping Pyongyang under economic pressure. More ominously, U.S. preoccupation with North Korea will aid China’s territorial and maritime revisionism in the Indo-Pacific region, including consolidating its hold in the South China Sea. To gain dominance in Asia, Beijing is seeking to marginalize Japan and weaken the U.S. alliance with South Korea.

Japan today finds itself thoroughly marginalized on the North Korean issue, despite that subject’s critical importance to its long-term security. Abe’s tireless efforts to cultivate Trump have yielded little on that front.

In this light, Japan has no option but to directly deal with Pyongyang. Indeed, this is the central takeaway for Japan from Trump’s North Korea diplomacy.

To be meaningful, such engagement must be without preconditions. There is no reason why the abductions issue should still hold Japan’s strategic interests hostage. At a time when Kim is seeking to mend fences with different powers, Japanese engagement could help persuade Pyongyang to reopen talks on the abductions topic and come clean.

Abe should seek to meet Kim on the sidelines of the Sept. 11-13 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia. Kim is likely to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to attend that annual forum.

Make no mistake: The main lesson for Japan is that, instead of relying on Washington, it must directly engage North Korea by leveraging its economic might and soft power and playing to Kim’s rebalancing aspiration.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2018.

Doklam exemplifies China’s broader recidivism in Himalayas

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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The first anniversary of the Doklam standoff calls for reflection on China’s strategy of territorial revisionism and India’s response. The Doklam Plateau, like the South China Sea, illustrates how China operates in the threshold between peace and war. Just as China has made creeping but transformative encroachments in the South China Sea without firing a single shot, it has incrementally but fundamentally changed the status quo in Doklam in its favour since ending the 73-day troop standoff with India.

Doklam exemplifies China’s broader recidivism in the Himalayas. China is still working to redraw Himalayan boundaries nearly seven decades after it gobbled up Tibet, an action that led to its occupation of the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau. Aksai Chin fell to what has since become Beijing’s favoured frontier-expansion strategy — “salami slicing”. This involves a steady progression of actions short of war that camouflage offense as defence and help change facts on the ground.

The latest victim of China’s “salami slicing” is one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, which has just 7,500 military personnel. In the past nine months, China — by steadily expanding its troop deployments through new permanent military structures — has gained effective control of much of Doklam, which Bhutan regards as its own territory. Previously, there were no permanent military structures or force deployments on this uninhabited but disputed plateau, which was visited by nomadic shepherds and Bhutanese and Chinese mobile patrols other than in the harsh winter.

Satellite images since last autumn show how rapidly China has expanded its military footprint in Doklam, wreaking environmental degradation in a once-unspoiled place. China’s new control there precludes India intervening again at Bhutan’s behest.

So, just as “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US”, to quote the admiral in charge of America’s Indo-Pacific naval forces, Beijing today is in a position to call the shots across the Doklam Plateau other than the site where the standoff with India occurred. But right next to the standoff site, located at the plateau’s southwestern corner, China has built military fortifications and facilities overlooking Indian positions.

Yet there is no debate in India on how Doklam was lost. Although the defence minister in March grudgingly admitted China’s construction of helipads and other military structures in Doklam so as to “maintain” troop deployments even in the severe winter, New Delhi has tried to obfuscate the increasing Chinese control of the remote plateau so as not to dilute the “victory” it had sold to the world last summer.

To be sure, India has no territorial claim to any part of Doklam. Also, with Thimphu and New Delhi revising their 1949 treaty in 2007, India has ceded its right to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy. But, as underscored by the Indian Army’s presence in Bhutan, India still has an implicit obligation to defend Bhutan’s territorial integrity. Last summer, it intervened as Bhutan’s patron and de facto security guarantor, driven by the threat to its own security from the Chinese attempt to construct a military road to the strategic Jampheri Ridge, overlooking India’s most vulnerable point — the “Chicken Neck”.

But, a year later, it is apparent that an India increasingly mired in domestic politics has failed both to defend Bhutan’s territorial sovereignty and to thwart the Chinese threat to its “Chicken Neck”. Satellite images show China is building an alternative road from eastern Doklam toward the Jampheri Ridge. So, despite blocking a road construction last summer in Doklam’s southwest, India finds its “Chicken Neck” looking vulnerable again. China, with its extensive new all-weather military infrastructure and forward-deployments in Doklam, is now capable of executing deep incursions into India’s Siliguri Corridor.

Against this backdrop, the silence in India on a fundamentally changed scenario is troubling. The silence indeed is reminiscent of the way Beijing captured Aksai Chin in the mid-1950s while India was chanting the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai mantra. Today, in the absence of an effective strategy against China’s stealth aggression in the Himalayas and its growing inroads in India’s maritime backyard, an increasingly defensive New Delhi has sought to make peace with Beijing.

Make no mistake: The main Doklam lesson is that India’s perennial preoccupation with petty domestic political issues, coupled with its reactive mode due to absence of strategic thinking, allows China to seize the initiative in the Himalayas. More fundamentally, Doklam illustrates that while India may be content with a tactical win, China has the tenacity and guile to outfox its rival and win at the strategic level.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

The challenge of America’s new extraterritorial sanctions

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The United States, by imposing extraterritorial sanctions, seeks to effectively extend its jurisdiction far beyond its borders. However, such sanctions — which it euphemistically labels “secondary” sanctions — run counter to international law.

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Japan Times 

How to navigate America’s new extraterritorial sanctions targeting Iran has become an important diplomatic test for Japan and a number of other important democracies concerned about U.S. President Donald Trump’s pursuit of aggressive unilateralism. Many of these countries have already taken an economic hit, in the form of higher oil-import bills, from Trump’s unilateral pullout from the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran.

The United States has also imposed extraterritorial sanctions to punish the Kremlin for its alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The new Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAASTA, which came into effect on Jan. 29, seeks to stop other countries from making “significant” defense transactions with Russia, a leading arms exporter.

However, with Trump seeking a nuclear deal with North Korea, much of the weight of America’s punitive approach is likely to fall on Iran. Trump, whose main aim is to topple the Iranian regime, said ominously on June 1, “You are going to see how powerful the sanctions are when it comes to Iran.”

The U.S. — armed with not just unmatched military might but also unrivaled financial power from the role of the American dollar as the world’s reserve currency — has the capacity and will to coerce allies and adversaries alike. As the world’s dominant currency that greases the wheels of the global financial system, the dollar equips America with tremendous economic leverage while conferring important advantages to its economy.

By imposing extraterritorial — or, as it likes to euphemistically portray them, “secondary” — sanctions, the U.S. seeks to effectively extend its jurisdiction far beyond its borders. Such sanctions, however, run counter to international law, including the United Nations Charter and the rules of the World Trade Organization.

It is one thing for the U.S. to invoke national security or other grounds as a rationale to impose punitive trade sanctions on a country, including prohibiting American persons and companies from engaging in transactions with the designated state. It is quite another for the U.S. to use extraterritorial sanctions to block trade and financial activities by non-U.S. parties with that country — in other words, to coercively turn national actions into global measures, in breach of the sovereignty of other states.

Through extraterritoriality, the U.S. aims not only to sharpen the impact of its sanctions, but also to advance its own geopolitical and commercial interests. One example is how the U.S. today is ingeniously employing the sanctions threat under CAASTA to wean countries as diverse as India and Turkey off their craving for Russian weapons so as to boost its own arms sales. The U.S. is already the world’s No. 1 exporter of weapons, accounting for 34 percent of all global sales between 2013 and 2017.

In the past, few international players were willing to flout U.S. extraterritorial sanctions for fear of being locked out of the U.S. financial system and barred from doing business with American entities. But Trump’s aggressive unilateralism on matters extending from trade and global warming to Iran and Israel has prompted calls for defiance even by U.S. allies, a number of whom have now been slapped with U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs.

The European Commission has decided to revive its “blocking statute” to prevent European firms from adhering to the new U.S. sanctions against Iran. Originally created in 1996 to counter a U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, the blocking statute bars European Union citizens and companies from complying with the extraterritorial aspects of U.S. sanctions. It also grants EU entities the right to “recover any damages, including legal costs,” from the application of such sanctions and nullifies the effect of any foreign court judgment.

The commission hopes its blocking law will be approved by member-states and take effect before Aug. 6, when the first batch of re-imposed U.S. sanctions against Iran kick in, including on trade in precious metals, coal, aluminum and steel. Trump’s shipping- and petroleum-related sanctions — the second set — are scheduled to enter into force on Nov. 4. But global shipping operators and tanker owners are already pulling back from Iran-related business.

Under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, foreign companies were held hostage by America’s Iran-related extraterritorial sanctions, forcing them to cease or cut oil and other business dealings with Tehran between 2012 and 2015. But the U.S. at that time secured wide support from an international community keen to block Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

This time the U.S. is acting alone. It is seeking to tighten the screws on Iran after having reneged on the Iran deal, despite the International Atomic Energy Agency certifying that Tehran was in compliance with its terms. Indeed, the other signatories to the 2015 Iran deal — France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China — have affirmed their intent to preserve the deal without the U.S.

In this situation, the Trump administration will not find it easy to coerce the rest of the world to comply with its Iran-related sanctions regime. Even Washington’s extraterritorial jurisdictional claim in relation to the Russia-centered CAASTA is being challenged. Turkey, a NATO ally, has threatened reprisals if the U.S. cancels the F-35 fighter-jet deal with it in response to its contract with Moscow to buy the S-400 long-range air and anti-missile defense system. India also appears all set to import the lethal, interceptor-based S-400 system.

On Iran, even if the U.S. succeeds in browbeating some vulnerable countries into abiding by its new sanctions, it will likely find it difficult to secure broad international compliance.

The main buyers of Iranian crude oil and petroleum products are all located in Asia: China, India, Japan and South Korea together account for almost three-quarters of Iran’s oil exports.

China, ever ready to swoop in to exploit opportunities in sanctions-hit countries, will find ways to circumvent the new sanctions, as it did in the previous round, including by boosting imports of Iranian fuel oil. It used the earlier sanctions to deeply penetrate the Iranian economy.

Successive U.S. presidents have helped out China — from aiding its economic rise to making it the key beneficiary of their actions elsewhere. Now it is Trump’s turn: His new sanctions are a diplomatic boon for Beijing, including making a reluctant Iran enter into a tighter Chinese embrace and forcing Russia to pivot to China.

In this light, Japan, India and South Korea, instead of simply succumbing again to America’s Iran sanctions or seeking waivers, should push back with full diplomatic strength, including putting the U.S. on notice that they will challenge its extraterritorial sanctions before the WTO dispute-resolution body.

Seeking deal-related or rolling waivers would be tantamount to adhering to the sanctions. And any waiver will come with conditions that crimp their latitude further.

Past experience indicates that when the U.S. is internationally isolated, it ultimately caves in to the demands of its friends who show resolve to defy its sanctions threat. For example, in 1997, the U.S. reached agreement with the EU to suspend enforcement of the extraterritorial dimensions of its Cuba-related sanctions after the threat of an EU complaint to the WTO.

Today, the U.S. is acting counterproductively to its own interest to safeguard the dollar’s centrality: It is leaving other countries with little choice but to work around its sanctions by using non-dollar currencies so as to avoid the American banking system, besides making alternative arrangements for shipping insurance. This development, and Trump’s other actions, could ensure that the dollar’s days as the world’s reserve currency are numbered.

Make no mistake: International adherence to the new extraterritorial sanctions will only embolden the Trump administration’s defiant unilateralism, which is redolent of China’s unilateralist actions. Broad compliance will not only further weaken the WTO, the U.N. and other international institutions, but also allow Washington to dictate international rules and other countries’ choices. Instead of a rules-based world order, the U.S. and China are seeking to impose a power-based Group of Two order founded on unilateralism.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.

© The Japan Times, 2018.

The World According to Trump and Xi

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Trump’s “America First” strategy and Xi’s “Chinese dream” are founded on a common premise: that the world’s two biggest powers can act in their own interest with impunity. The G2 world order that they are creating is hardly an order at all; for everyone else, it’s a trap.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

The world’s leading democracy, the United States, is looking increasingly like the world’s biggest and oldest surviving autocracy, China. By pursuing aggressively unilateral policies that flout broad global consensus, President Donald Trump effectively justifies his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping’s longtime defiance of international law, exacerbating already serious risks to the rules-based world order.

China is aggressively pursuing its territorial claims in the South China Sea – including by militarizing disputed areas and pushing its borders far out into international waters – despite an international arbitral ruling invalidating them. Moreover, the country has weaponized transborder river flows and used trade as an instrument of geo-economic coercion against countries that refuse to toe its line.

The US has often condemned these actions. But, under Trump, those condemnations have lost credibility, and not just because they are interspersed with praise for Xi, whom Trump has called “terrific” and “a great gentleman.” In fact, Trump’s behavior has heightened the sense of US hypocrisy, emboldening China further in its territorial and maritime revisionism in the Indo-Pacific region.

To be sure, the US has long pursued a unilateralist foreign policy, exemplified by George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq and Barack Obama’s 2011 overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. Although Trump has not (yet) toppled a regime, he has taken the approach of assertive unilateralism several steps further, waging a multi-pronged assault on the international order.

Almost immediately upon entering the White House, Trump withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an ambitious 12-country trade and investment agreement brokered by Obama. Soon after, Trump rejected the Paris climate agreement, with its aim to keep global temperatures “well below” 2°C above pre-industrial levels, making the US the only country not participating in that endeavor.

More recently, Trump moved the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, despite a broad international consensus to determine the contested city’s status within the context of broader negotiations on a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the embassy was opened, Palestinian residents of Gaza escalated their protests demanding that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return to what is now Israel, prompting Israeli soldiers to kill at least 62 demonstrators and wound more than 1,500 others at the Gaza boundary fence.

Trump shoulders no small share of the blame for these casualties, not to mention the destruction of America’s traditional role as a mediator of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The same will go for whatever conflict and instability arises from Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal despite Iran’s full compliance with its terms.

Trump’s assault on the rules-based order extends also – and ominously – to trade. While Trump has blinked on China by putting on hold his promised sweeping tariffs on Chinese imports to the US, he has attempted to coerce and shame US allies like Japan, India, and South Korea, even though their combined trade surplus with the US – $95.6 billion in 2017 – amounts to about a quarter of China’s.

Trump has forced South Korea to accept a new trade deal, and has sought to squeeze India’s important information technology industry – which generates output worth $150 billion per year – by imposing a restrictive visa policy. As for Japan, last month Trump forced a reluctant Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to accept a new trade framework that the US views as a precursor to negotiations on a bilateral free-trade agreement.

Japan would prefer the US to rejoin the now-Japan-led TPP, which would ensure greater overall trade liberalization and a more level playing field than a bilateral deal, which the US would try to tilt in its own favor. But Trump – who has also refused to exclude permanently Japan, the European Union, and Canada from his administration’s steel and aluminum tariffs – pays no mind to his allies’ preferences.

Abe, for one, has “endured repeated surprises and slaps” from Trump. And he is not alone. As European Council President Donald Tusk recently put it, “with friends like [Trump], who needs enemies.”

Trump’s trade tactics, aimed at stemming America’s relative economic decline, reflect the same muscular mercantilism that China has used to become rich and powerful. Both countries are now not only actively undermining the rules-based trading system; they seem to be proving that, as long as a country is powerful enough, it can flout shared rules and norms with impunity. In today’s world, it seems, strength respects only strength.

This dynamic can be seen in the way Trump and Xi respond to each other’s unilateralism. When the US deployed its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system in South Korea, China used its economic leverage to retaliate against South Korea, but not against America.

Likewise, after Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act, which encourages official visits between the US and the island, China staged war games against Taiwan and bribed the Dominican Republic to break diplomatic ties with the Taiwanese government. The US, however, faced no consequences from China.

As for Trump, while he has pressed China to change its trade policies, he has given Xi a pass on the South China Sea, taking only symbolic steps – such as freedom of navigation operations – against Chinese expansionism. He also stayed silent in March, when Chinese military threats forced Vietnam to halt oil drilling within its own exclusive economic zone. And he chose to remain neutral last summer, when China’s road-building on the disputed Doklam plateau triggered a military standoff with India.

Trump’s “America First” strategy and Xi’s “Chinese dream” are founded on a common premise: that the world’s two biggest powers have complete latitude to act in their own interest. The G2 world order that they are creating is thus hardly an order at all. It is a trap, in which countries are forced to choose between an unpredictable and transactional Trump-led US and an ambitious and predatory China.

Can democracy and communism coexist?

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Nepal has become the sixth communist-ruled country on today’s world map. © Reuters

When Nepal’s new pro-China communist prime minister, Khadga Prasad Oli, shortly pays obeisance in Beijing, he will seek not only greater aid but also the establishment of “brotherly” relations between the Chinese and Nepalese communist parties.

This year the number of communist-ruled countries in the world increased by one to six, with the landlocked Himalayan state of Nepal joining China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam. Nepal’s two main communist groups merged into one party on May 17, about three months after jointly coming to power.

Nepal boasts the world’s only democratically elected communist government. This development has revived a longstanding international question as to whether communism can reform itself to coexist with democracy.  In Nepal, where communist China and democratic India are competing for influence, the answer will be affected by forces far beyond its borders.

Globally, most communist parties gained power by violent means. The Soviet communist system lasted 74 years — the longest any autocracy has survived in modern history — after it was established following two violent revolutions in 1917 that ended Tsarist rule and brought the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin to power. The Chinese Communist Party, in power for almost 69 years, has established a Leninist one-party state that appears set to surpass the Soviet longevity record.

Communist rule in China was built with blood — from the Red Army’s march to victory, which cut a vast swath of death and destruction, to subsequent decades of fratricidal killings in political witch-hunts and other state-sponsored actions, including atrocities against Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians and the Tiananmen Square massacre of student-led demonstrators. Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” caused the Great Famine of 1958 to 1962 that left between 35 million to 45 million people dead. Despite such a gory history, the CCP still retains the reins of power.

The Nepalese communists’ peaceful ascension to power helps to obscure a violent past. Prime Minister Oli spent years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s, as a communist guerrilla, for waging war against the state. Nepal’s 1990 establishment of multiparty democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy opened up legitimate political space for all groups, including the Maoists and Oli’s Marxist-Leninist Party. The Maoists, influenced more by Mao’s notion of peasant-based revolution than orthodox Marxism-Leninism, launched a bloody insurrection in 1996 with the aim of overthrowing the monarchy through a “people’s revolution.”

A decade later, a peace accord ended a protracted war between Maoists and government forces. India — governed at that time by a shaky coalition government, dependent on the support of local communists who had links with Nepalese communists — engineered not only the peace but also the abolition of the constitutional monarchy.

These developments paved the way for the Maoists and the Marxist-Leninist Party to share power with the Nepali Congress Party, dominant until then. In 2008, the Maoist chief was appointed prime minister, the first of a series of communists to head coalition governments. Severe political flux resulted in governments changing 10 times in the past decade, a period in which the two communist parties rapidly expanded their political base before sweeping the last national and state elections.

Today, the Nepali Communist Party, which was formed last week when the two communist groups merged, casts a long, ominous shadow over the country’s politics: It has almost two-thirds majority in Parliament and governments in six of the country’s seven provinces. Such domination raises serious risks for Nepal’s sputtering democratic transition, which has been buffeted by one crisis after another.

There are portentous parallels with another country that came under communist sway through largely peaceful but uncommon means centered on a creeping approach exploiting democratic methods — Czechoslovakia after World War II.

Just as national elections in Czechoslovakia in 1946 resulted in leftist and communist parties securing significant representation in the new constituent assembly and then gradually dictating terms to President Eduard Benes, the 2007-initiated constituent assembly process in Nepal helped communists to gain power and leave their imprint on the new constitution that took effect in 2015. And just as U.S. missteps, including terminating a large loan to Czechoslovakia, triggered a backlash that boosted popular support for communists, Indian blunders helped empower communists in Nepal, undermining India’s own close relations with that country.

To gain political ground in the lead-up to the most recent elections, the Nepalese communists played the nationalist card, including whetting a deep-seated suspicion about India’s intentions, in ways redolent of how the Czechoslovak communists whipped up anti-U.S. sentiment and drove out other coalition partners from the government. By 1948, the Czechoslovak communists gained full control of the government.

No less important is the fact that, just as the Soviet Union aided the Czechoslovak communists’ march to victory, China has helped out the Nepalese communists. China reportedly persuaded the divided communists to form a coalition before the Nepalese elections, helped fund their campaign, and midwifed last week’s birth of a new unified communist party.

When history is written, two blunders of India under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will stand out for irreparably damaging its long-term interests in Nepal — helping to bring the Maoists to the center-stage of Nepalese politics; and instigating the ouster of that country’s more than two-century-old monarchy, the central pillar of stability, continuity and national unity. The void from the monarchy’s fall was largely filled by the communists.

The paradox is that the Maoists secured the monarchy’s overthrow not through their violent campaign but with the direct help of a country they considered their ideological foe. A double irony is that India remains plagued by its own Maoist scourge, unable to halt the rebels’ periodic ambush-killing of police.

A predominantly Hindu India helped turn a Hindu kingdom (indeed the world’s only officially Hindu country) into a secular, communist-ruled, China-leaning state, seriously eroding its own traditional influence there. India and Nepal share one of the world’s most-open borders that permits passport-free passage, and China’s increasing footprint in Nepal carries major implications for India’s internal security.

More broadly, Nepal has emerged as a test case for whether democracy can survive under communist rule. Can communism become democratic? Or is there an inherent contradiction between communism and democracy?

One cannot ignore the fundamental divergences: Democracy enshrines and enhances individual rights and freedoms, while communism erodes and smothers them. Democracy is pluralistic, whereas communism in practice tends to be authoritarian.

Western hope that democracy would follow capitalism into communist states has been dashed. Fusing market capitalism with a one-party state, China has created its own model of authoritarian capitalism, which Vietnam and Laos have embraced and Cuba and North Korea are willing to adopt if the U.S. lifts sanctions against them. The CCP, as revealed by its 2013 circular known as “Document No. 9,” views democracy as China’s biggest threat.

Against this background, can Nepal be an exception? It is too early to determine but initial signs are not encouraging. Oli has already started undermining the independence of Nepal’s institutions and stacking them with his own loyalists. One of his first decisions in office was to replace key figures in many institutions, including those loosely linked with the government. The already weak judiciary is in no position to stand up to the one-party domination. If the assault on institutions continues, Nepal will be emulating the trajectory of how Czechoslovakia turned into a single-party state.

Nepal’s tenuous democracy has also come under pressure from ethnic fault lines that constitution-writing political machinations helped stoke. The new constitution reflects the will of the hill elites that have long dominated Nepal’s power structure. Its enactment has fuelled discontent and unrest among the plains people, who inhabit the southern belt along the India frontier and feel discriminated against. Some of them wish to secede.

Czechoslovakia survived dismemberment by the Nazis and 41 years of communist rule only to split under democracy. In Nepal, communist domination will likely increase southern alienation. Make no mistake: Nepal’s very future is at stake.

Brahma Chellaneyis a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

(c) Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

U.S. extraterritorial sanctions: Begging for a waiver is the worst possible option for India

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

By imposing extraterritorial or “secondary” sanctions, the US seeks to effectively extend its jurisdiction far beyond its borders. Armed with unmatched power from the role of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, America has the capacity and will to coerce allies and adversaries alike by threatening to lock them out of the US financial system. But make no mistake: Its extraterritorial sanctions violate international law, the UN Charter and WTO rules.

imagesIndia is directly in the crosshairs of the new US extraterritorial sanctions targeting Russia and Iran. India is already suffering the unintended consequences of President Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal — a pullout that has spurred higher oil-import bills, the rupee’s weakening against the US dollar, and increased foreign-exchange outflows. This is just the latest financial hit India has suffered since 2005 when New Delhi, under US persuasion, voted against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency’s governing board, prompting Tehran to cancel a long-term LNG deal favourable to India.

Under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, India was forced between 2012 and 2015 to significantly slash Iranian oil imports and pay Iran in rupees or initiate barter trade. Now India has to readopt those workarounds on payment and shipping insurance because global shipping operators and tanker owners are pulling back from Iran-related business even before the new sanctions take effect on November 4. The sanctions threaten to also impede India’s Pakistan-bypassing transportation corridor to Afghanistan and Central Asia via Iran, including the Chabahar port project.

The India implications of the new Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) are even more stark. While dangling the prospect of securing a “flexible waiver authority” from its Congress, the US intends to use CAATSA to try and wean India gradually off its craving for Russian weapons so as to boost its own arms sales. The US is already the largest arms seller to India. But it basically has been selling defensive systems, including big-ticket items like the P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft and the C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Super Hercules military transport planes.

Russia, by contrast, has transferred offensive weapon systems to India, including strategic bombers (Sukhi 30MKI), an aircraft carrier (INS Vikramaditya), conventional submarines and a nuclear-powered submarine (INS Chakra). The only foreign power helping India with strategic projects like the Arihant nuclear submarine is Russia, which today is willing to sell India the lethal, interceptor-based S-400 Triumf air defence system and also lease a second nuclear-powered submarine.

On balance, Russia remains India’s most critical defence partner. Yet, through CAATSA, the US is seeking to have a say in India’s defence dealings with Russia. For example, it has signalled its disapproval of the planned S-400 import on grounds that it would thwart building interoperability with Indian forces, as if India is not America’s strategic partner but its client state. The US is ingeniously employing extraterritorial sanctions to advance its geopolitical and commercial interests. But can India tolerate an American veto over its defence deals with Moscow?

How India navigates the new sanctions will be a crucial test of its ability to safeguard an independent foreign policy. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj says, “India follows only UN sanctions, not unilateral sanctions of any country”. But if India seeks deal-related or rolling waivers, it would, in effect, be adhering to the US sanctions. Begging for a waiver is the worst possible choice India can pursue, because it will come with conditions that crimp New Delhi’s latitude further.

India has diplomatic space to rebuff US pressure because the US this time is acting alone, with its own European allies defiant. If India goes ahead with Russian and Iranian deals regardless of the sanctions threat, the US will have little choice but to exempt India without conditions. India should partner other key democracies to push back with full diplomatic strength, including, if necessary, hauling the US into the WTO dispute-resolution body and introducing a UN General Assembly resolution against unlawful extraterritorial sanctions. The main beneficiary of the new US sanctions, of course, will be China, ever ready to capitalize on opportunities in sanctions-hit countries.

The writer is a geostrategist and author.

© The Times of India, 2018.

The art of unraveling a potential deal

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

Donald Trump’s planned summit meeting with Kim Jong Un is still days away but the American president has already stirred things up by warning the North Korean leader of “total decimation,” in the way Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi met a gruesome end, “if we don’t make a deal.” Even if that threat were to frighten Kim into agreeing to a deal, he has no assurance that Trump will keep his end of the bargain. Trump’s record, after all, attests to his proclivity to renege on commitments.

In fact, following Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 multilateral nuclear deal with Iran, Kim appears to have got cold feet. This is apparent from Pyongyang’s change of tone, including new warnings to the U.S. and South Korea, thereby undercutting the White House hype over the forthcoming Trump-Kim summit in Singapore.

In the run-up to the most-consequential summit of Trump’s presidency, the president’s Cabinet members are also doing their bit to foolishly stoke up regional concerns. It was the neoconservative John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, who triggered an angry reaction from Pyongyang by saying that the U.S. wants to apply the “Libya model” to North Korea.

Bolton’s statement was clearly a provocation for Pyongyang. Kim had earlier cited the fate that Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein met when they renounced the nuclear-weapons option.

Indeed, just days after American forces captured Hussein from his dingy hideout, Qaddafi reached an agreement with U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration to dismantle his country’s nascent nuclear-weapons program in exchange for a promised easing of Western sanctions. That agreement proved his undoing, because it eliminated the potential capability that could have deterred the NATO-led intervention that ultimately deposed him.

When Qaddafi was captured, tortured and murdered by NATO-aided rebels, with a video showing him being sodomized with a knife before his execution, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exulted in a live TV interview. Her reaction to receiving that news on her cell phone was to rephrase Julius Caesar’s famous line after a decisive Roman victory in 46 B.C. (“veni, vidi, vici,” or “I came, I saw, I conquered”) as, “We came; we saw; he died.” Clinton then laughed and clapped her hands in apparent celebration.

Against this backdrop, Kim has viewed a nuclear deterrent as the way to escape Qaddafi’s fate. When he assumed power barely two months after the Libyan leader’s killing, Kim made accelerating his country’s nuclear and missiles advances his top priority.

Indeed, when NATO launched its air war against Libya in 2011, a North Korean official said the intervention showed that Qaddafi had been duped in the 2003 nuclear bargain with the West. More recently, a commentary published by North Korea’s state news agency in 2016 said that “history proves that powerful nuclear deterrence serves as the strongest treasure sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression.”

downloadYet, in the lead-up to the Singapore summit, Trump and Bolton have gratuitously referred to the “Libya model” in the specific context of North Korea. Mentioning the U.S. elimination of Qaddafi, Trump told reporters at the Oval Office, “That model will take place if we don’t make a deal, most likely. But if make a deal, I think Kim Jong Un is going to be very, very happy … I think when John Bolton made that statement, he was talking about if we are going to have problem, because we just cannot let that country have nukes.”

The imprudent references to the “Libya model” can only ensure that Kim will not make the same mistake as Qaddafi. North Korea’s nuclear negotiator and vice foreign minister, Kim Gye Gwan, calling such references “highly sinister,” said the “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq which have met miserable” fates.

Meanwhile, another well-known neocon, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has caused misgivings in Japan and South Korea by suggesting that America’s focus is on eliminating North Korea’s nuclear threat to its homeland, not to its allies. “Make no mistake about it: America’s interest here is preventing the risk that North Korea will launch a nuclear weapon into L.A. or Denver or into the very place we’re sitting here this morning,” Pompeo said in a TV interview from Washington.

This implies that the main U.S. objective is to eliminate North Korea’s long-range missile capability. A deal that allows Pyongyang to retain its short- and medium-range nuclear delivery capability will leave regional allies in the lurch.

Such a scenario cannot be ruled out. After all, the U.S. has always focused on forestalling threats to its own security even if its regional friends are left at the receiving end. For example, the U.S. has tolerated the fast-growing nuclear arsenal of Pakistan — one of the largest recipients of American aid in this century — because its nuke capability is subregionally confined.

The U.S. has given no hint as to what concessions it might be willing to make to secure a deal with Kim. Yet the U.S. has publicized unreasonable demands that North Korea is unlikely to accept. For example, Bolton said Pyongyang will have to surrender its entire nuclear program before the U.S. relaxes economic sanctions.

Pyongyang has made it clear that, to preclude a bait-and-switch approach that ensnared Qaddafi, a deal must involve a phased process, with each side making reciprocal concessions in stages. To try and overcome Pyongyang’s stubbornness, U.S. negotiations have suggested a partial surrender up-front of nuclear delivery vehicles (and their components and blueprints), especially the Hwasong-15 and Hwasong-14 ballistic missiles. These two supposedly intercontinental-range systems were tested last year.

It is doubtful Pyongyang will countenance a partial surrender demand because it reeks of the U.S. nuclear bargain with Libya. Qaddafi did not have nuclear weapons like North Korea, but he sealed his fate when he handed Libya’s uranium-enrichment centrifuge components and nuclear-weapons blueprints to the U.S.

More fundamentally, it appears odd that the Trump administration does not recognize the contradiction between wanting to blow up the Iran nuclear deal and, at the same time, pressing North Korea to sign a nuclear deal. It is also strange that Trump and Bolton do not seem to understand that, by raking up the “Libya model,” they are undermining the prospect of a North Korea deal.

At a time when even U.S. allies are finding it difficult to rely on an unpredictable and capricious Trump administration, Kim’s strategy will likely seek to safeguard his nuclear “crown jewels” until a comprehensive peace and denuclearization accord is reached — an agreement he wants with reciprocal obligations, including South Korea coming out of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and the U.S., China and Russia committing not to introduce or threaten to use nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. Such a complex accord can be implemented only in a lengthy process.

If no deal emerges next month, Trump ought to write a sequel to his 1987 book The Art of the Deal with the title, The Art of Unmaking a Potential Deal.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books. 

© The Japan Times, 2018.

The Nehruvian Style of Modi’s Foreign Policy

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Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine

Openessay_6In the four years that he has been in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has animated domestic politics in India and the country’s foreign policy by departing often from conventional methods and shibboleths. As he focuses on winning the next general election, the key question is whether the Modi era will mark a defining moment for India, just as Xi Jinping’s ascension to power has been for China. The answer to that question is still not clear. What is clear, however, is that Modi’s stint in office has clearly changed Indian politics and diplomacy.

In domestic politics, Modi has a stronger record: He has led the Bharatiya Janata Party to a string of victories in elections in a number of states, making his party the largest political force in the country by far. Under his leadership, the traditionally urban-focused BJP has significantly expanded its base in rural areas and among the socially disadvantaged classes and spread to the country’s eastern and southern regions. His skills as a political tactician steeped in cold-eyed pragmatism have held him in good stead. Modi, however, has become increasingly polarizing. Consequently, Indian democracy today is probably as divided and polarized as US democracy.

Even before Modi came to power, India’s fast-growing economy and rising geopolitical weight had significantly increased the country’s international profile. India was widely perceived to be a key “swing state” in the emerging geopolitical order. The political stability Modi has brought, coupled with his pro-market economic policies, tax reforms, defence modernization and foreign-policy dynamism, has only helped to further increase India’s international profile. However, India’s troubled neighbourhood, along with its spillover effects, has posed a serious challenge for Modi.

The combustible neighbourhood has underscored the imperative for India to evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. For example, with its vulnerability to terrorist attacks linked to its location next to the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt, India has little choice but to prepare for a long-term battle against the forces of Islamist extremism and terrorism. Similarly, India’s ability to secure its maritime backyard, including its main trade arteries in the Indian Ocean region, will be an important test of its maritime strategy and foreign policy, especially at a time when an increasingly powerful and revisionist China is encroaching on India’s maritime space.

It is important to remember that Modi went quickly from being a provincial leader to becoming the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. In fact, he rode to power in a landslide national-election victory that gave India the first government since the 1980s to be led by a party enjoying an absolute majority on its own in Parliament. One factor that aided Modi’s dramatic rise was clearly the major corruption scandals that marred the decade-long rule of the preceding Congress Party-led coalition government.

Until Modi became the first prime minister born after independence, the wide gap between the average age of political leaders and citizens was conspicuous. But like his predecessors, from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh, Modi took office unschooled in national security. The on-the-job learning of successive leaders, coupled with their reliance on bureaucrats that have generalized knowledge and little time for forward thinking, has blighted national security since independence. Prime minister after prime minister has bypassed institutionalized processes of policymaking and pursued a meandering, personality-driven approach to diplomacy.

Modi is no exception. In fact, his recent Reset 2.0 with China shows that he does not believe in the “once bitten, twice shy” adage. His Reset 1.0, which was launched soon after he came to office, backfired conspicuously. After taking office, Modi made closer ties with China a priority. He even postponed his Japan visit by several weeks so that his first major bilateral meeting was with Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the BRICS summit in Brazil. His overtures were intended to encourage Beijing to be more cooperative.

Modi’s gamble, however, boomeranged. Xi arrived in India on Modi’s birthday in September 2014 bearing an unusual gift — a deep Chinese military incursion into Ladakh. Relations progressively worsened after that, as China become more hardline on issues ranging from the border to its overt and covert collaboration with Pakistan.

As anyone who has interacted with Modi in person will attest, he is a soft-spoken, attentive and magnetic personality — a contrast to the voluble, rabble-rousing Modi on the campaign trail. Those who meet him are charmed by his disarming ways. That may have helped foster Modi’s abiding faith in the power of his personal diplomacy.

To be sure, Modi has used his personal touch with some effect, addressing several world leaders by their first name and building an easy relationship with them. In keeping with his personalized stamp on diplomacy, Modi has also relied on bilateral summits to try and open new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. Yet, in terms of tangible gains for India, his personal diplomacy has little to show, other than with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. For example, Modi’s unannounced visit to Lahore in late 2015, as part of his personal outreach to the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, actually engendered a series of Pakistan-orchestrated terrorist attacks on Indian military bases and camps.

Truth be told, Modi’s personal diplomacy mirrors that of the man he intensely dislikes, Nehru. Politically and ideologically, Modi has little in common with Nehru. For example, Modi rose from humble beginnings to lead the world’s most-populous democracy, while Nehru boasted a wealthy lineage. Nehru espoused internationalism, in contrast to the “India first” brand that Modi promoted to come to power. Yet Modi’s foreign-policy approach has a lot in common with Nehru’s. It is indeed ironical that Modi’s faith in his personal diplomacy bears a striking resemblance to the man he and his party abhor.

Foreign policy challenges

India faces major foreign-policy challenges, which by and large predate Modi’s ascension to power. India is home to more than one-sixth of the world’s population, yet it punches far below its weight. A year before Modi assumed office, an 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.

When Modi became prime minister, many Indians had hoped that he would give a new direction to foreign relations at a time when the gap between India and China in terms of international power and stature was growing significantly. In fact, India’s influence in its own strategic backyard — including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives — has shrunk. Today, Bhutan probably remains India’s sole pocket of strategic clout in South Asia. Even in culturally linked Nepal, India now has China as a strategic competitor.

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 has faced 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 is effectively controlled by its army and intelligence services, which still use terror groups as proxies. Under Modi, India has repeatedly faced daring terrorist attacks staged from Pakistan.

While Modi has found it difficult to contain cross-border terrorist attacks from Pakistan or stem Chinese military incursions across the Himalayan frontier, he has managed to lift the bilateral relationship with the United States to a deeper level of engagement. Modi considers close ties with the US as essential to the advancement of India’s economic and security interests. The US, for its part, sees India as central to its Indo-Pacific strategy. As the White House’s national security strategy report in December put it, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region. The region, which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, represents the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world […] We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner”.

Still, at a time of greater unpredictability in US policy under President Donald Trump’s administration, Modi has been compelled to balance India’s relations with various powers, in large part because his pro-American foreign policy has failed to secure tangible benefits for the country. Modi’s separate informal summits with Xi in Wuhan and with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi underscore India’s strategic imperative to develop a semblance of balance in relations with different powers, including reversing the declining trajectory of the once-special relationship with Moscow.

The Trump administration’s transactional approach to foreign policy is troubling all US allies and strategic partners. This approach has generated growing American pressures on India, including to slash its $29-billion yearly trade surplus, cut back its ties with Iran and Russia, and desist from imposing diplomatic sanctions on Pakistan, despite the latter’s continued export of terrorists. Trump’s restrictive visa policy, meanwhile, is hurting India’s $150-billion-a-year information technology industry. Washington is also warning that India’s defence transactions with Russia would attract sanctions under the new Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, even as the Trump administration seeks a “flexible waiver authority” from the US Congress to protect relationships with India and others.

Trump’s tightening of the screws on Iran, after withdrawing from the 2015 nuclear deal with that country, is set to compound India’s foreign-policy challenges. America’s preoccupation with Iran and the Middle East creates more space for China to pursue its recidivist actions in the Himalayas, the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. China would likely be the main beneficiary of Trump’s decision to re-impose stringent sanctions against Tehran. Such US sanctions will likely impede India’s transportation corridor to Afghanistan and Central Asia via Iran, including completion of the Chabahar port modernization project. By seeking regime change in Tehran, Trump could relieve US pressure on Iran’s immediate neighbour Pakistan, especially if the CIA were to use that country as a staging ground for covert operations into Iran.

Meanwhile, with the “Russia collusion” sword of Damocles hanging over him, Trump has imposed two rounds of new sanctions against Moscow this year. With escalating US sanctions forcing Russia to pivot to China even as Washington still treats Beijing with kid gloves, India can rely on a capricious and transactional Trump administration only at its own peril. During last summer’s Doklam standoff, for example, Washington did not issue a single statement in India’s favour but chose to stay neutral.

Such realities have led Modi to reach out to other powers in order to increase India’s strategic space and add greater flexibility and manoeuvrability in its foreign-policy strategy. This also helps to explain Modi’s latest effort to improve relations with China. Xi has his own strategic reasons to lower tensions with India at a time when a Western pushback against China’s predatory economic practices is potentially emerging. But Xi is driven by shrewd, tactical calculations. Without Beijing making any concessions to India or even easing its revisionist activities in the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, Xi believes that he, by encouraging Modi’s overtures, can instil greater caution and reluctance in New Delhi to openly criticize or challenge China.

To be sure, the Modi government has quietly sought to build strategic partnerships with countries around China’s periphery — from Mongolia to Vietnam — so as to counter Beijing’s creeping strategic encirclement of India. But Modi is unlikely to repeat his earlier criticism of China’s military buildup and encroachments in the South China Sea as representing an “18th-century expansionist mindset”. Still, India’s “Act East” policy aims to re-establish historically close ties with countries to the country’s east in order to build a stable balance of power and prevent the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia. As Modi said in an op-ed published in 27 ASEAN newspapers on 26 January 2018 (the day, in a remarkable diplomatic feat, India hosted the leaders of all 10 ASEAN states as chief guests at its Republic Day parade), “Indians have always looked East to see the nurturing sunrise and the light of opportunities. Now, as before, the East, or the Indo-Pacific region, will be indispensable to India’s future and our common destiny”.

Shaping Modi’s legacy

Modi, more fundamentally, sees himself as a practical and spirited leader who likes to play on the grand chessboard of global geopolitics. At a time of increasingly daunting challenges to India’s diplomacy, he is seeking to steer foreign policy in a direction that helps to aid the country’s economic and military security. Modi’s various steps and actions have helped highlight the trademarks of his foreign policy — from pragmatism and minimalism to zeal and showmanship. They have also exemplified his penchant for springing diplomatic surprises.

As his schedule in recent months highlights, Modi continues to invest considerable time and political capital in diplomacy, especially travelling overseas. In addition to maintaining a busy foreign-policy schedule, Modi is often on the campaign trail because India remains almost perennially in the election mode. One state election is followed by another. Modi thus is left with limited time to focus on improving quality of governance and better delivery of public services, although his legacy will largely be shaped by domestic issues. Critics are correct in saying that there has been little improvement in governance under Modi.

The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright famously said, “The purpose of foreign policy is to persuade other countries to do what we want or, better yet, to want what we want”. How has Modi’s foreign policy done when measured against such a standard of success? The truth is that, in terms of concrete results, Modi’s record thus far isn’t all that impressive. His supporters, however, would say that dividends from a new direction in foreign policy flow slowly and that he has been in office for just four years.

Admittedly, a long period of strategic drift under successive coalition governments undermined India’s strength in its own backyard. Modi, however, has not yet been able to recoup the country’s losses in its neighbourhood. The erosion of India’s influence in its backyard holds far-reaching implications for its security, underscoring the imperative for a more dynamic, forward-looking foreign policy and a greater focus on its immediate neighbourhood. China’s strategic clout, for example, is increasingly on display even in countries symbiotically tied to India, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. If China were to establish a Djibouti-type naval base in the Maldives or Pakistan, it would effectively open an Indian Ocean front against India in the same quiet way that it opened the trans-Himalayan threat under Mao Zedong by gobbling up Tibet, the historical buffer. China has already leased several tiny islands in the Maldives and is reportedly working on a naval base adjacent to Pakistan’s Chinese-built and -controlled Gwadar port.

Modi has clearly injected dynamism and motivation in Indian diplomacy. But his record also highlights what has long been the bane of the country’s foreign policy — ad hoc and personality-driven actions that confound tactics with strategy. Institutionalised and integrated policymaking is essential for a robust diplomacy that takes a long view. Without healthy institutionalised processes, policy will tend to be ad hoc and shifting, with personalities at the helm having an excessive role in shaping thinking, priorities and objectives. If foreign policy is shaped by the whims and fancies of personalities who hold the reins of power, there will be a propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure, as has happened in India repeatedly since independence.

Today, India confronts a “tyranny of geography” — that is, serious external threats from virtually all directions. But, to a large extent, it is a self-inflicted tyranny. India’s concerns over China, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives stem from the failures of its past policies before Modi. With its tyranny of geography putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India needs to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy. The erosion of its influence in its own strategic backyard should serve as a wake-up call. India faces a stark choice: ameliorate its regional-security situation to play a larger role or be increasingly weighed down by its region.

A dynamic foreign policy can be built firmly on the foundation of a strong domestic policy, a realm where Modi must overcome political obstacles to shape a transformative legacy. If India is to emerge as a major global economic powerhouse, Modi must make economic growth his first priority and reduce the country’s spiralling arms imports, especially by developing an indigenous defence industry. Unfortunately, Modi’s “Make in India” initiative has yet to take off, with manufacturing’s share of India’s GDP actually contracting.

Modi’s political rise had much to do with the Indian electorate’s yearning for an era of decisive government. Before becoming prime minister, he pledged to qualitatively change governance and strengthen national security. Although he came to office with a popular mandate to usher in major changes, his record in power has been restorative rather than transformative. The transformative moment usually comes once in a generation. Modi failed to seize that moment. He seems to believe in incrementalism, not transformative change. His sheen has clearly dulled, yet his mass appeal remains unmatched in the country.

As for foreign policy, India, despite absorbing greater realism, remains intrinsically cautious and reactive, rather than forward-looking and proactive. India has not fully abandoned its quixotic traditions. India’s tradition of realist strategic thought is probably the oldest in the world. The realist doctrine was propounded by the strategist Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, who wrote the Arthashastra before Christ; this ancient manual on great-power diplomacy and international statecraft remains a must-read classic. Yet India, ironically, appears to have forgotten its own realist strategic thought.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground, the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award. 

© Open magazine, 2018. 

Changing Indo-Pacific power dynamics

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Brahma Chellaney, The Washington Times

China’s two main Asian rivals, Japan and India, are seeking to mend their relations with it at a time of greater unpredictability in U.S. policy under President Donald Trump’s administration. This development carries significant implications for geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region and could strengthen Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hand just when he has made himself China’s absolute ruler by dismantling the collective-leadership system that Deng Xiaoping helped institutionalize.

Add to the picture Australia’s hedging of its bets, despite a national furor there over China’s interference in its internal affairs, and America’s persistently cautious approach toward Beijing, seeking neither overt competition nor confrontation. All this gives Xi the strategic space to carry on with his muscular and revisionist foreign policy, reflected in China’s growing military assertiveness in the vast Indo-Pacific region stretching from the Pacific to the Horn of Africa.

An intense pace of top-level meetings is setting the stage for improving Sino-Indian and Sino-Japanese relations. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s Japan visit this week follows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s April 27-28 “informal” summit meeting with Xi in Wuhan, China. The Wuhan summit came just days after Wang Yi became the first Chinese foreign minister to visit Japan for bilateral talks since 2009.

After his summit with Modi, Xi spoke with Abe by telephone and appreciated Tokyo’s moves to improve relations with China. Tokyo and Beijing are working to arrange respective visits by Abe to China and Xi to Japan. Abe could visit China in the coming months and then host Xi in Tokyo next year.

While the United States remains a central factor in influencing the regional geopolitical landscape, China, Japan and India constitute Asia’s strategic triangle. They form a scalene triangle with three unequal sides, with China representing the longest side, side A, Japan side B and India side C. In this triangle, if B and C gang up, A cannot hope to gain preeminence in Asia.

The relationship between Japan and India is growing fast, yet each of them feels a strategic imperative to try to improve strained ties with China.

Deteriorating ties with Beijing make Tokyo and New Delhi more dependent on an unpredictable Trump administration, whose transactional approach to foreign policy is troubling all U.S. allies and strategic partners. If Japan and India can mend their troubled relations with China, they will be able to inject greater flexibility and maneuverability in their foreign-policy strategies.

Beijing has its own strategic reasons to ease tensions with New Delhi and Tokyo, including preventing the formation of a broader anti-China front and muting or lowering Indian and Japanese criticisms of its policies and moves. While Abe is the author of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that the Trump administration is now pushing, Modi’s government was the global leader in denouncing Xi’s signature “One Belt, One Road” initiative as opaque, predatory and neocolonial — a description that has gained wide international currency.

In seeking better relations with Beijing, Japan and India appear to have separately acknowledged the broader regional trend of countries hedging their bets on China’s rise. Through hedging, countries are seeking to ensure their strategic choices are not narrowed or crimped.

For example, South Korea, treading a tightrope between Washington and Beijing despite being slapped with informal Chinese economic sanctions for agreeing to America’s THAAD deployment, has declined to endorse Trump’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Or take Vietnam, which uses close party-to-party ties with China to smooth political relations, even when they are roiled by aggressive Chinese moves.

To propitiate Beijing, Australia withdrew from the annual Indian-initiated Malabar naval exercise a decade ago, although such drills help to strengthen military cooperation and maritime interoperability in the Indo-Pacific. Four months ago, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said discussions on Australia’s return to the India-Japan-U.S. Exercise Malabar were “progressing well.” Yet this year’s naval exercise will be held off Guam without Australian participation.

Australia asked to be an official “observer” at the 2017 Exercise Malabar, which featured aircraft carriers from the U.S. and India, and Japan’s Izumo helicopter carrier in the Bay of Bengal. Australia’s request to be an “observer” at a large and complex exercise — the equivalent of wanting to be half-pregnant — found little favor with India, which saw it as part of Canberra’s continued hedging strategy. Canberra has not clarified whether today it still seeks observer status or is ready to rejoin as a full-fledged member. But accommodating Australia at this stage will run counter to India’s effort to repair relations with China.

U.S. policy has unwittingly encouraged hedging strategies in the Indo-Pacific. For example, while using the China threat to win new strategic partners and strengthen existing alliances, the U.S. has been reluctant to resourcefully push back against Beijing’s territorial and maritime revisionism or take concrete steps to help rein in its military assertiveness. Washington’s kid-glove treatment has emboldened China to step up its creeping aggression to change the status quo in its favor.

Just like it stayed silent when China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, Washington did not side with India but stayed neutral during last summer’s Sino-Indian military standoff, triggered by a Chinese move to change the status quo on the Doklam Plateau. A more powerful example is the South China Sea.

On President Barack Obama’s watch, China created and militarized seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, incurring no international costs. Now, on Trump’s watch, it has embarked on the next phase of its strategy there by installing with impunity surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles and other lethal systems, even though militarization of seized features in international waters directly violates international law.

In the joint statement following last month’s Mar-a-Lago summit with Abe, Trump’s reluctance to single out Beijing for criticism resulted in a false equivalency being created between China and other South China Sea claimant-states. The statement said all “South China Sea claimants, including China, should halt their militarization of disputed features” and that “China and other claimants should manage and resolve disputes peacefully.”

On trade issues, Trump is treating allies and China alike. He has gone to the extent of publicly shaming Japan, India and South Korea, although their combined trade surplus with the U.S. — $95.6 billion in 2017 — pales in comparison to China’s $337.2 billion trade surplus, according to official U.S. data. Trump has made South Korea accept a revamped trade deal, squeezed India’s information-technology industry and forced Abe to agree to new trade dialogue despite Tokyo’s aversion to bilateral trade agreement negotiations with Washington.

Abe, besides being instrumental in shaping the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, has been in the lead to shore up the liberal economic order. Yet Trump has sprung nasty surprises on Abe but repeatedly lavished praise on “my good friend” Xi. Indeed, despite raising the ominous specter of a potential trade war with Beijing, Trump has yet to impose a sweeping trade sanction against China.

Against this backdrop, it is scarcely a surprise that Washington has still to provide strategic heft to its free and open Indo-Pacific strategy or that the U.S., Japan, India and Australia have yet to take concrete steps to institutionalize or even crystallize the “Quad,” which remains just an initiative for dialogue among their bureaucrats.

However, the Japanese and Indian efforts to improve relations with Beijing work to China’s advantage.

The mere semblance of better relations with Tokyo and New Delhi increases Xi’s strategic space to advance his grand strategy of making China great again — a goal that implies keeping China’s potential peer competitors like Japan and India in check. Without making any concessions to India and Japan or even easing China’s revisionist activities in the Himalayas, the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea, Xi’s appreciation of Indian and Japanese overtures and positive Chinese statements could help instill greater caution and reluctance in New Delhi and Tokyo to openly challenge China.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

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© The Washington Times, 2018.

India’s “hug, then repent” proclivity

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, Napoleon’s famous foreign minister, prescribed a basic rule for pragmatic foreign policy: “by no means show too much zeal”.  In India’s case, oozing zealousness, gushy expectations and self-deluding hype have blighted foreign policy under successive leaders, except for a period under Indira Gandhi. Zeal has been to India’s male prime ministers what grand strategy is to great powers.

India has rushed to believe what it wanted to believe. Consequently, India is the only known country to have repeatedly cried betrayal, not by friends, but by adversaries in whom it reposed trust.

India’s foreign policy since independence can actually be summed up in three words: hug, then repent.

Consider Narendra Modi’s abrupt U-turn in China policy. Stemming the deterioration in relations with Beijing makes eminent sense so as to create more strategic space for India. With escalating US sanctions forcing Moscow to pivot to China even as Washington still treats Beijing with kid gloves, India can rely on an unpredictable and transactional Donald Trump administration only at its own peril. During the Doklam standoff, for example, Washington stayed neutral.

To leverage any policy change, the shift must be subtle, nuanced and measured, with the country displaying not zeal but a readiness to move forward reciprocally. Modi’s first attempt to “reset” ties with China in 2014 boomeranged spectacularly. Still, his latest reset effort began as a jarring volte-face, or what a Global Times commentary hailed as “India’s prudence in addressing Beijing’s concerns over the Dalai Lama”. The cabinet secretary’s intentionally leaked advisory to peers in February was a propitiatory message to China that India has changed its policy to shun official relations with the Dalai Lama and other exiled Tibetan leaders.

It was Modi who sought an “informal” summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, conveying his readiness to travel to China for such a meeting. In this century, Chinese presidents or premiers have visited India a total of seven times, including twice for BRICS summits. But Modi, in office for barely four years, will be making his fifth visit to China next month for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.

To be sure, Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, displayed no less zeal toward China. With the era of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai now back, Rahul Gandhi plans to shortly visit the sacred mountain-and-lake duo of Kailash-Mansarover, access to which China punitively cut off for Indians last year. Beijing has now agreed to reopen such access and also resume transfer of hydrological data, but only after it demonstrated its “right” to act punitively, whenever it wants, even by breaching binding bilateral accords, as on sharing Brahmaputra and Sutlej flow data.

For China, the return of the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai era creates a win-win situation. It means India will mute its criticisms and not challenge China. Nor will India leverage trade or threaten Trump-style punitive tariffs to level the playing field. China thus will have its cake and eat it too — it will savour a fast-growing trade surplus (which has already doubled under Modi) while it mounts strategic pressure on multiple Indian flanks.

So, Xi seized on Modi’s overtures by inviting him to his Wuhan parlour — “the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy”, to quote a line from the poem ‘The Spider and the Fly’. Xi’s generous hospitality extended to glowing state-media coverage. But what did Modi return with? Tellingly, China’s press release supports neither of India’s two key claims — that Xi and Modi “issued strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to prevent further border friction and that the two agreed to “balanced and sustainable” trade.

Winston Churchill famously said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last”. Modi’s Reset 2.0 seeks to feed the giant crocodile across the Himalayas in the hope of buying peace for India. Modi’s faith in the power of his personal diplomacy is redolent of Jawaharlal Nehru’s similar approach to foreign policy. But as it happened under Nehru, Modi’s fond hope conflicts with China’s grand strategy. Xi is determined to make China great again by fair means or foul, including keeping a potential peer competitor like India in check.

If Modi’s Wuhan trip is not to bring trouble like his Lahore visit, which engendered deadly, Pakistan-scripted terrorist attacks on army bases, India will have to be on its guard. China has already outflanked India by stealthily occupying much of Doklam — a development on which the Modi government has chosen to stay mum in order to escape public embarrassment. As the philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

India’s Nepal challenge

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Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his New Delhi visit in April 2018.

Brahma Chellaney, DNA

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the right decision to visit Nepal, just weeks after he hosted his Nepalese counterpart, Khadga Prasad Oli, who chose India for his first foreign trip. New Delhi’s traditionally close relationship with Kathmandu is today in need of urgent repair, in part because of the Modi government’s missteps in the past couple of years and because of the election of a China-backed communist coalition in Nepal.

Landlocked Nepal has lurched from one crisis to another for more than two decades. Ever since it embarked on a democratic transition, it has been in severe political flux. It is too early to say if the Oli government will be able to bring political stability. The promise of an early merger of the two main Communist parties that have formed the government has given way to protracted negotiations and public squabbling.

Nepal is a strategic buffer between India and the Chinese-occupied Tibet, and developments there directly impinge on India’s security. India has an open border with Nepal permitting passport-free passage. This open border is becoming the Indian internal security’s Achilles heel.

Oli has long been a divisive figure. As a Communist guerrilla, he spent years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s for waging war against the state. In his first stint as PM from October 2015 to August 2016, Oli stoked tensions with the people in the Terai region (the Madhesis) and with India, deepening Nepal’s ethnic and political fault lines.

Now, in his second stint as PM since February 15, Oli has been talking of a foreign policy that maintains “equidistance” from India and China — in other words, a policy that seeks to balance Nepal’s two neighbouring powers. In reality, Oli — dubbed “Oily Oli” by his critics — can barely disguise his pro-China stance. After all, he is beholden to Beijing for bringing Nepal’s two Communist parties together before the elections and thereby helping him to return to power. He had accused India of manoeuvring his ouster as PM in August 2016.

Still, Oli’s April 6-8 New Delhi visit was intended to buy peace with India, which he recognises has still the capacity to make things difficult for him, in spite of China’s growing role and clout in Nepal. During his visit, he sought to assure New Delhi that he will not allow Nepalese territory to be used against Indian interests. But he will find it difficult to bridge the gap between his words and actions.

Modi has his own compulsions to visit Nepal. The impressive gains of his first visit in August 2014 were squandered by Indian missteps, including waking up belatedly to Nepal’s flawed new Constitution and then backing the Madhesi movement in favour of constitutional changes — an agitation that resulted in a five-month blockade on the cross-border movement of oil and other essential supplies from India to Nepal.

The new Constitution has left the plains people politically weaker through gerrymandered boundaries. The electoral system has been so manipulated as to give the hill people greater political representation than their population size merits.

In Nepal, however, a deep-seated suspicion about India’s intentions surfaces time and again, especially when the country’s internal problems worsen. The blockade whipped up a nationalistic backlash against India, especially because it occurred even before Nepal could recover from a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake — its worst natural disaster in more than eight decades. Oli’s government scapegoated India for Nepal’s then political and constitutional crisis, accusing it of imposing an unofficial trade blockade on Nepal.

The Modi government’s lack of a clear strategy on Nepal and its meandering approach made things worse. Having encouraged the Madhesi agitation, India later abandoned the Madhesis. Without Kathmandu meeting the Madhesis’ core demands, India pressured Madhesi leaders to participate in the state and federal elections of November and December 2017. The elections, by bringing to power the communists, strengthened China’s hand.

Now, seeking to cut losses, Modi plans to be in Nepal on May 11 and 12, during which he will also visit Janakpur, in the Terai plains. The visit to Janakpur — where, according to the Ramayana, Lord Rama wed Sita — in intended to signal that his government is still with the Madhesis.

The stark reality for India, however, is that its clout in Nepal has considerably eroded, both because of China’s aggressive inroads and the failure of successive Indian governments to handle that country strategically. It will not be easy for India to recoup its losses.

Oli, for his part, will continue to play the China card against India. For example, just after returning from New Delhi, he sent his foreign minister to pay obeisance in Beijing, where it was announced that China and Nepal would partner in trans-Himalayan transportation projects, including building a railway to Kathmandu.

Over the years, New Delhi has repeatedly conveyed to Kathmandu that China and Pakistan are taking advantage of the open Indo-Nepalese border to engage in activities detrimental to India’s security. For example, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence used Nepal to stage the December 24, 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814. Nepal has also become a transit point for the flow of counterfeit Indian currency notes and narcotics to India.

But it will not be easy for India to close the open border with Nepal, given the cross-frontier kinship ties. Moreover, some six million Nepalese work and live in India.

Meanwhile, Nepal’s political flux will also continue to affect India. Since returning to office, Oli has aggressively moved to expand his power, including seeking to make the judiciary subservient to the executive branch and eroding the autonomy of other institutions. His actions rekindle the question: Can democracy and communism go together?

The writer is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground”.

© DNA, 2018.

India-China summit highlights Modi’s hope versus Xi’s strategy

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An unpredictable and transactional Trump administration puts India on the back foot with Beijing

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “informal” summit meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, significantly, began on the same day as the inter-Korean summit on April 27. That Xi chose the same date for the two-day summit might not have been a mere coincidence, given that the historic meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea left China on the sidelines, with little influence over those proceedings.

It was Modi’s government, however, that initiated the effort at rapprochement with Beijing following a rocky year in which new disputes flared between the two Asian giants, including over China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Dalai Lama’s visit to a Chinese-claimed Himalayan Indian state, transboundary river waters, and the Chinese military encroachment on Doklam plateau, which India’s ally Bhutan regards as its own territory. The relationship between the two countries, which make up more than a third of humanity and almost a fifth of the global economy, is critical to international relations.

The Wuhan summit, with no set agenda other than to improve the relationship, was billed as a chance to “reset” ties. No breakthroughs on major disputes were expected. But no sooner had the summit ended than significant differences emerged on how India and China interpret even the understandings reached at Wuhan.

For example, India said the two leaders “issued strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to avoid further border friction. But China’s statement made no mention of that. India, which has chafed against increasingly lopsided trade with China, said agreement was reached to strengthen trade and investment in a “balanced and sustainable manner.” But that key phrase was missing from Beijing’s version.

Such differences are no surprise: The summit was long on political theater, such as shows of amity, but short on concrete results to fundamentally change the Sino-Indian dynamics. As if to pander to India’s proverbial weakness — confounding symbolism with substance — Xi focused more on diplomatic stagecraft, including receiving Modi with a very long red carpet, taking the Indian leader on a lakeside walk and a boat ride, and engaging in long handshakes while voicing hope the summit would “open a new chapter in bilateral ties.”

Compelling strategic reasons may have prompted Modi to seek reconciliation with China. Yet his abrupt policy shift is fraught with political risk at home, where it could potentially dent his self-cultivated image as a strongman boasting a 56-inch chest measurement. Modi decided to take the risk now because the national election is a year away. His gambit, however, sends confusing signals to India’s strategic partners, including about the country’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” — a key goal of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Behind Modi’s overture to China is India’s strategic imperative to develop a semblance of balance in relations with various powers, largely because his pro-U.S. foreign policy has failed to secure tangible benefits for India thus far. Trump’s increasingly transactional approach to international relations and narrow geopolitical calculations have generated growing American pressures on India, including to slash its $25-billion yearly trade surplus, cut back its ties with Russia and Iran, and maintain full diplomatic relations with Pakistan, despite the latter’s export of terrorists.

The U.S. is also warning that India’s defense and energy dealings with Russia would attract sanctions under the new Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, even as the Trump administration seeks “a flexible waiver authority” from Congress to protect relationships with India and others. Moreover, Trump’s policy to squeeze Iran, despite the 2015 nuclear deal, has emerged as an obstacle in the Indian project to expand and modernize the Iranian port of Chabahar, India’s gateway to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia. Trump’s restrictive visa policy, meanwhile, is crimping India’s $150-billion-a-year information technology industry.

A feeling is growing in New Delhi that the U.S. takes India for granted while it handles China with kid gloves, to the extent that Beijing managed to create and militarize seven artificial islands in the South China Sea without incurring any international costs. The Trump administration did not issue a single statement in India’s support during last summer’s 73-day Doklam military standoff, even as Beijing threatened virtually every day to teach India a bitter lesson. By contrast, Japan publicly sided with India.

In fact, U.S. policy continues to drive India’s old partner, Russia, closer to China, while Trump periodically heaps praise on “my good friend” Xi and says he is hopeful of clinching a deal with Beijing that would avert the imposition of punitive trade tariffs. By making China the main beneficiary of its fixation on Russia, North Korea and Iran, Washington is compelling New Delhi to hedge its bets.

In keeping with the old saying, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” Modi has sought to arrest the deterioration in Sino-Indian relations, which constricted India’s foreign policy options, including making it dependent on an unpredictable Trump administration. Indeed, with even Japan seeking to mend fences with China and inviting Xi to pay a visit, India could not afford to be an outlier.

Xi has his own strategic reasons to appreciate Modi’s overture, including the threat of a trade war with America. It is hardly in Chinese interest to push India — a critical swing state — into the anti-China camp. In any event, the semblance of better bilateral relations gives Beijing greater space, including by quieting New Delhi’s concerns, to pursue its engagement-with-containment strategy, which has steadily built greater strategic pressure on India.

Make no mistake: Prospects of a genuine rapprochement look anything but promising. This, after all, is Modi’s second effort at a “reset.” The first effort, which Modi launched soon after coming to office, backfired conspicuously. Xi arrived in India on Modi’s birthday in September 2014 bearing an unusual gift — a deep Chinese military incursion into India’s Ladakh region. Relations progressively worsened after that.

In fact, ever since China became India’s neighbor by occupying Tibet in 1951, high-level bilateral dialogue has been no indicator of better relations. For example, New Delhi’s ongoing negotiations with Beijing to settle territorial disputes first began in 1981, when India’s economy was larger than China’s. Now India’s economy is five times smaller, with China’s military power dwarfing India’s, yet the negotiations have still to produce real progress toward a resolution.

Little good has come from Modi’s own discussions with Xi, although the two have met 14 times since 2014 in different locations around the world. Since assuming office four years ago, Modi has already traveled to China four times and will be going there again soon for the mid-June summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization security bloc.

Modi actually traveled to Wuhan with weakened leverage. After Modi defiantly stood up to China’s Doklam aggression and forced Beijing to accept a mutual pullback from the standoff, Chinese forces in the past eight months have quietly moved in and occupied much of that remote plateau. Also, on Modi’s watch, China has doubled its trade surplus with India to almost $5 billion a month.

To be sure, Modi went to Wuhan just after the Indian Air Force, deploying its entire warfighting machinery and flying 11,000 sorties, conducted its largest ever exercise, which simulated a simultaneous war with China and its ally Pakistan. Nevertheless, with Modi seeking less border trouble and more balanced trade, Xi likely believes that the Indian leader needs him more than he needs Modi — a situation Xi will seek to exploit with the same guile that has effectively made him China’s new emperor.

This suggests that, far from addressing India’s security and economic concerns or reining in its increasing border intrusions, Beijing would like the Wuhan bonhomie to translate into two material gains — a bigger Chinese penetration of the Indian market and greater caution and reluctance on India’s part to challenge, or gang up against, China. In other words, a truly win-win outcome for China from Modi’s Reset 2.0. If this happens, Modi will validate Karl Marx’s statement that “history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.”

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

Chabahar: Gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, April 26, 2018

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Exaggerated media accounts have sought to portray commercial glitches in India’s Chabahar port project, such as attracting a private partner for the operation of marine facilities there and resolving an excise-duties dispute, as emblematic of India’s eroding influence in southern Asia. Some have seized on the Iranian foreign minister’s statement in Islamabad that Chinese and Pakistani investment in Chabahar was welcome as evidence of India’s declining strategic reach. That statement was largely an attempt to dispel a perception that Iran has teamed up with India to checkmate China’s Gwadar designs.

To be sure, India’s regional clout has suffered — from Sri Lanka and the Maldives to Nepal. The main driver of New Delhi’s eroding influence is China, which has made deep inroads in India’s backyard. By incrementally encroaching on the Bhutan-claimed Doklam Plateau, China has also shown that India cannot guarantee Bhutan’s territorial integrity.

In this dismal picture, however, Chabahar represents a strategic advance, not setback, for India. The Chabahar project’s substantial progress allows India to bypass Pakistan to reach markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia. In the past six months, consignments of wheat, for example, have been passing from India to Afghanistan through Chabahar. In effect, Chabahar helps break Pakistan’s barrier to Indian exports to landlocked Afghanistan.

The hyperbole in India notwithstanding, Chabahar is not a strategic counterpoise to the Chinese-built and -run Gwadar port, adjacent to which Beijing is reportedly building a naval base. Gwadar port offers China joint naval patrols with Pakistan in the Indian Ocean, while Gwadar airport will provide Beijing an airlift capability to link up with its military base in Djibouti. By contrast, Chabahar, located barely 72 kilometers from Gwadar, is a purely commercial project with no military utility.

Chabahar, easily accessible from India’s western coast, is part of a larger Indian-supported transport corridor. For example, the Indian-built, 193-kilometer road from Delaram, in Afghanistan’s Nimruz province, to Zaranj, on the Iranian border, links up with Iran’s new connecting road from Zaranj down to Chabahar. In addition, India is involved in a Chabahar-Faraj-Bam rail link and in a railway from Chabahar to Zahedan, on the Iran-Afghan border. It is also interested in a Chabahar-Hajigak railway that creates direct access to Afghan mines.

Chabahar’s development has been driven by shared India-Iran objectives, including ending Afghanistan’s dependence on Karachi port and integrating that country with their economies. Chabahar, lying outside the Persian Gulf and thus relatively safe from a hostile blockade, is Iran’s gateway to the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Developing Chabahar allows Iran not only to receive larger ships but also to boost its energy and other exports.

It was only after the US-Iran nuclear deal eased decade-long international sanctions on Tehran that Chabahar’s expansion could begin in earnest. In 2016, India signed a $500-million agreement to develop two terminals — a multipurpose cargo terminal and a container terminal — in Chabahar, as part of a trilateral pact with Afghanistan and Iran. Since then, work has progressed considerably. The initial expansion of Chabahar was inaugurated this year, with Iran leasing operational control of the port’s first completed phase to India for 18 months.

Afghanistan is already becoming a major beneficiary of the Chabahar-linked transport corridor. It has shifted the bulk of its cargo traffic away from Karachi to Chabahar and Bandar Abbas. Chabahar is set to turn into a vital trading hub — a sprawling, modern port.

But as the port’s further expansion makes progress, India faces project-completion challenges that extend from the changing geopolitical dynamics to its own proverbial red tape. Cash-strapped Pakistan has no capacity to invest in Chabahar. But if China were to invest there, the commercial and strategic value of Chabahar for India to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia is unlikely to diminish.

Iran is actually seeking to ease its heavy dependence on China that developed during the sanctions period. But Iran finds itself stymied by residual but biting US-led sanctions, as in the financial sector. With Western clearing banks still spurning Tehran, Western firms cannot raise project finance to do business in Iran.

India’s biggest Chabahar-related challenge comes from US President Donald Trump’s policy to squeeze Iran — a message Trump’s then national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster,  brought to New Delhi. India, which paid a heavy price for complying with past US sanctions, needs to reject Trump’s Iran policy with the contempt it deserves. It cannot allow the Chabahar project to be hamstrung by geopolitical factors. As the top US general in Afghanistan, John Nicholson, has acknowledged, “Iranian-Indian-Afghan cooperation over the Chabahar Port presents great economic potential” and a boon for Afghanistan.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

How to Negotiate with North Korea

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

The risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear program undoubtedly must be addressed. But rather than emphasize “denuclearization” – which implies a one-sided compromise – negotiators from South Korea and the US should seek to secure a nuclear-weapons-free zone on the Korean Peninsula.

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems to be setting the stage for an historic deal with US President Donald Trump that would allow his country, like Myanmar and Vietnam, to reduce its dependence on China and move closer to the West. But, despite declaring a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests and dropping the demand that American troops withdraw from South Korea, Kim is unlikely to abandon North Korea’s hard-won nuclear-weapons program until a credible and comprehensive agreement is reached.

North Korea has conducted a total of six nuclear tests – the same number as India, whose formidable nuclear-weapons capability is beyond dispute. Kim’s emulation of India’s 1998 declaration of a test moratorium – which enabled talks with the United States and led eventually to a US law recognizing India’s nuclear arsenal – implies that he seeks international acceptance of his country’s nuclear status.

Of course, the US-Indian nuclear deal was made possible by post-Cold War strategic pressures, which are lacking in the context of the Korean Peninsula. Nonetheless, if Trump’s summit with Kim is to have a lasting impact, it is essential to move beyond simply trying to force North Korea to denuclearize and pursue a broader strategic deal aimed at opening the North to the world.

Historically, ending longstanding conflicts – for example, taming the Khmer Rouge, which had been responsible for the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s – has depended on comprehensive strategies that have not put disarmament first. There is no reason to believe that the situation will be any different with North Korea. After all, that country’s only leverage is its nuclear arsenal – and Kim knows it. The mere fact that he finally agreed to hold summits with South Korea and the US stems from his confidence in his country’s nuclear deterrent, however limited it may be.

Kim has already enshrined North Korea’s nuclear-weapons status in the country’s constitution and erected monuments to the long-range missiles launched last year. His moratorium on testing fits this narrative, as Kim presents himself as the leader of a nuclear-armed state embarking on potentially epoch-making diplomatic initiatives.

In this context, it is important to note that, while Kim’s peace overtures are motivated by a desire to rebuild North Korea’s sanctions-battered economy, sanctions alone did not change the behavior of a country long used to enduring extreme hardship. On the contrary, escalating sanctions helped to fuel North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances. Securing any kind of denuclearization, therefore, will demand a more effective economic opening.

America’s handling of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement makes it even less likely that North Korea will agree to a narrow denuclearization accord. Even after signing the deal, President Barack Obama kept in place some strict economic sanctions, affecting, in particular, Iran’s financial sector. Making matters worse, Trump seems keen to follow through on his threat to withdraw from the Iran deal – or at least to add new sanctions – despite a lack of evidence that Iran has not fulfilled its obligations.

And yet, when it comes to North Korea, the Trump administration remains focused solely on denuclearization. To be sure, where nuclear proliferation issues are concerned, the US has a history of staking out a maximalist position publicly, but being more pragmatic in closed-door negotiations. For example, it tolerates the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in Pakistan, even though that country, in Trump’s words, has “given us nothing but lies and deceit,” including providing a “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

But Kim’s latest declaration that he has accomplished the nuclear-deterrent objective of his “byungjin policy” – the other objective being economic modernization – is not an empty boast. The North Korea challenge is no longer one of nuclear nonproliferation. Past agreements with the country, like that reached in 2005, are no longer relevant.

Of course, the risks posed by North Korea’s arsenal must be addressed. But rather than emphasize “denuclearization” – which implies a one-sided compromise – negotiators should seek to secure a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) on the Korean Peninsula. This is also essential for realizing South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s vision of closer economic cooperation that harnesses the North’s natural resources and the South’s advanced technologies.

The NWFZ approach would entail concessions by all parties. Yes, North Korea would have to denuclearize. But all nuclear powers would have to forswear so much as threatening to use nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, foreign warships carrying nuclear arms could no longer make port calls there.

For an NWFZ to be possible, however, South Korea would have to agree to be outside the US nuclear umbrella – not a particularly popular notion in the country. According to one opinion poll, most South Koreans want to go in the opposite direction, with the US redeploying the tactical nuclear weapons it withdrew more than a quarter-century ago.

The problem with this approach is clear: If the South will not give up its effective nuclear deterrent, Kim will ask why the North should abandon its own. As Kim has pointed out, both Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi met with gruesome ends after renouncing nuclear weapons.

Only a US-supported NWFZ can meet the denuclearization conditions to which Kim’s regime has alluded, including the removal of nuclear threats and a “commitment not to introduce the means to carry out a nuclear strike.” Elements of a NWFZ can realistically be negotiated alongside the provisions of a credible and comprehensive peace deal, though the negotiations will undoubtedly be difficult.

If the US needs added motivation to pursue this approach, it should consider this: it is China that faces the biggest challenge from North Korea’s nuclear weapons, as it works to supplant the US as Asia’s dominant power. The only way to mitigate the North Korean nuclear threat, without giving China the upper hand, is to show true diplomatic leadership in securing a comprehensive peace accord on the Korean Peninsula.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Making Water-Smart Energy Choices

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Just as the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere contributes to climate change, so does the degradation and depletion of water resources. If the world does not adopt a more holistic approach that recognizes this reality, it will be impossible to save the planet.

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Climate change undoubtedly poses a potent – even existential – threat to the planet. But the current approach to mitigating it, which reflects a single-minded focus on cutting carbon dioxide emissions, may end up doing serious harm, as it fails to account for the energy sector’s depletion of water resources – another major contributor to climate change.

“Water is at the heart of both the causes and effects of climate change,” a National Research Council report declares. And, indeed, the water cycle – the processes of precipitation, evaporation, freezing, melting, and condensation that circulate water from clouds to land to the ocean and back – is inextricably linked to the energy exchanges among the land, ocean, and atmosphere that determine Earth’s climate. Just as the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere contributes to climate change, so does the degradation and depletion of water resources. And these processes are mutually reinforcing, with each propelling and intensifying the other.

Energy extraction, processing (including refining), and production is highly water-intensive. The energy sector is the largest consumer of water in every developed country except Australia, where, like in most developing countries, agriculture comes out on top. In the European Union, electricity-generating plants alone account for 44% of all freshwater consumed each year; in the United States, that figureis 41%.

The more stressed water resources become, the more energy the water sector demands, as groundwater must be pumped from greater depths, and surface water must be transported across longer distances. In India, for example, energy now comprises about 90% of the cost of groundwater.

As these processes fuel climate variability, they reduce water availability and boost energy demand even further, producing a vicious cycle that will be hard to break. In fact, meeting higher electricity demand and achieving national targets for production of biofuels and other alternative fuels would require a more than twofold increase in global water use for energy production over the next quarter-century.

The only way to break this cycle – and thus to mitigate climate change effectively – is to manage the nexus between water and energy (as well as food, production of which depends on water and energy). In other words, countries must make energy choices that are not only less carbon-intensive, but also less water-intensive.

With global water supplies already strained, the shift to a water-smart approach to energy could not be more urgent. Two-thirds of the world’s people – especially in Central and South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa – confront serious water shortages. Asia – the biggest driver of increased global energy demand – is also the world’s driest continent, measured by water availability per capita.

In these water-stressed regions, shortages have already begun to constrain the expansion of energy infrastructure. One important reason why China has failed to develop its shale hydrocarbon industry is inadequate water in the areas where its deposits are located. (To extract energy from shale, millions of gallons of water must be shot into it.)

Increasing water stress has also driven up costs for existing power-generation projects, possibly jeopardizing their viability. Australia’s Millennium drought, which lasted from the late 1990s until 2012, undermined energy production, causing prices to rise.

With energy shortages usually most severe in water-stressed areas, what are affected countries to do? For starters, they must recognize that energy that is “clean” in terms of carbon can be “dirty” from a water-resource perspective. For example, “clean” coal involving carbon capture and sequestration ranks, along with nuclear power, at the top of the water-intensity chart.

Some renewables, such as solar thermal power and geothermal energy, are also notoriously water-intensive. By contrast, solar photovoltaic and wind power – two renewable technologies gaining traction globally – require no water for their normal operations. Encouraging the development of such sources should thus be a high priority.

But the type of energy that is used is not the only issue. It is also important to select the right types of plants at the planning stage. Alternative cooling technologies for power generation, including dry or hybrid cooling, can reduce water consumption (though the use of such technologies currently is constrained by efficiency losses and higher costs).

Power plants should also be located in places where they will rely not on freshwater resources, but instead on saline, brackish, degraded, or reclaimed water. In Asia, which now leads the world in terms of adding nuclear power capacity, most new plants are located along coastlines, so that these thirsty facilities can draw more on seawater.

Yet here, too, there are serious risks. Rising sea levels, as a result of climate change, could pose a much more potent threat than natural disasters, such as the tsunami that caused the 2011 Fukushima catastrophe in Japan. Moreover, with coastal areas often densely populated and economically valuable, finding suitable seaside sites for new nuclear plants is no longer easy. Despite having more than 4,500 miles (7,200 kilometers) of coastline, India has struggled to implement its planned expansion of nuclear power through seaside plants, owing to strong grassroots opposition.

True energy security is possible only in the context of resource, climate, and environmental sustainability. The global focus solely on carbon reduction not only obscures these critical linkages, but also encourages measures that adversely impact resource stability. It is time to adopt a more comprehensive, integrated, and long-term approach to the management and planning of energy, water, and other resources, with a view toward broader environmental protection. Otherwise, we will fail to meet the sustainable-development challenges we face, with devastating consequences, beginning with the world’s most water-stressed regions.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Why the South China Sea is critical to security

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Japan Times
When the U.S. aircraft carrier, Carl Vinson, recently made a port call at Da Nang, Vietnam, it attracted international attention because this was the first time that a large contingent of U.S. military personnel landed on Vietnamese soil since the last of the American troops withdrew from that country in 1975. The symbolism of this port call, however, cannot obscure the fact that the United States, under two successive presidents, has had no coherent strategy for the South China Sea.

It was on President Barack Obama’s watch that China created and militarized seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, while his successor, Donald Trump, still does not seem to have that critical subregion on his radar.

In fact, with Trump focused on North Korea and trade, China is quietly pressing ahead with its expansionist agenda in the South China Sea and beyond. At the expense of its smaller neighbors, it is consolidating its hold by constructing more military facilities on the man-made islands and dramatically expanding its presence at sea across the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

It was just five years ago that China began pushing its borders far out into international waters by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. After having militarized these outposts, it has now presented a fait accompli to the rest of the world — without incurring any international costs.

These developments carry far-reaching strategic implications for the vast region stretching from the Pacific to the Middle East, as well as for the international maritime order. They also highlight that the biggest threat to maritime peace and security comes from unilateralism, especially altering the territorial or maritime status quo by violating international norms and rules.

The Indo-Pacific region, which extends from the western shores of the U.S. to eastern Africa and the Persian Gulf, is so interconnected that adverse developments in any of its subregions impinge on wider maritime security. For example, it was always known that if China had its way in the South China Sea, it would turn its attention to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. This is precisely what is happening now. An emboldened China has also claimed to be a “near-Arctic state”and unveiled plans for a “polar Silk Road.”

In fact, with the U.S. distracted as ever, China’s land-reclamation frenzy in the South China Sea still persists. China is now using a super-dredger, dubbed by its designers as a “magical island-building machine.”

China’s latest advances are not as eye-popping as its creation of artificial islands. Yet the under-the-radar advances, made possible by the free pass Beijing has got, position China to potentially dictate terms in the South China Sea. Last year alone, China built permanent facilities on 290,000 square meters of newly reclaimed land, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

In this light, U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea cannot make up for the absence of an American strategy. FONOPS neither deter China nor reassure America’s regional allies.

Indeed, China’s cost-free change of the status quo in the South China Sea has resulted in costs for other countries, especially in Asia — from Japan and the Philippines to Vietnam and India. Countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivism have been left with difficult choices. Japan, of course, has reversed a decade of declining military outlays, while India has revived stalled naval modernization.

China’s sprawling artificial islands that now double as military bases are like permanent aircraft carriers, whose potential role extends to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

Beijing’s growing strategic interest in the Indian Ocean region has been highlighted by its establishment of its first overseas military base at Djibouti, its deployment of warships around Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port, and its acquisition of Sri Lanka’s strategically located Hambantota port under a 99-year lease. China is also acquiring a 70 percent stake in Myanmar’s deepwater Kyaukpyu port. A political crisis in the Maldives, meanwhile, has helped reveal China’s quiet acquisition of several islets in that heavily indebted Indian Ocean archipelago.

Against this background, the rapidly changing maritime dynamics in the Indo-Pacific not only inject strategic uncertainty but also raise geopolitical risks.

Today, the fundamental choice in the region is between a liberal, rules-based order and an illiberal, hegemonic order. Few would like to live in an illiberal, hegemonic order. Yet this is exactly what the Indo-Pacific will get if regional states do not get their act together.

There is consensus among all important players other than China for an open, rules-based Indo-Pacific. Playing by international rules is central to peace and security. Yet progress has been slow and tentative in promoting wider collaboration to advance regional stability and power equilibrium.

For example, the institutionalization of the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad” has yet to take off. The Quad, in fact, remains largely aspirational. In this light, the idea of a “Quad plus two” to include France and Britain seems overly ambitious at this stage.

If and when the Quad takes concrete shape, Britain and France could, of course, join. They both have important naval assets in the Indo-Pacific. During French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent New Delhi visit, France and India agreed to reciprocal access to each other’s naval facilities, on terms similar to the U.S.-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement.

Unless the Quad members start coordinating their approaches to effectively create a single regional strategy and build broader collaboration with other important players, Indo-Pacific security could come under greater strain.

If, under such circumstances, Southeast Asia — a region of 600 million people — is coerced into accepting Chinese hegemony, it will have a cascading geopolitical impact in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. China has employed a dual strategy of inducement and coercion to divide and manage the countries of Southeast Asia.

In the South China Sea, China is unlikely to openly declare an air defense identification zone as it did in the East China Sea. Rather it is expected to seek to enforce an ADIZ by gradually establishing concentric circles of air control after it has deployed sufficient military assets on the man-made islands and consolidated its hold over the subregion.

China could also declare “straight baselines” in the Spratlys, as it did in the Paracels in 1996. Such baselines connecting the outermost points of the Spratly island chain would seek to turn the sea within, including features controlled by other nations, into “internal waters.”

To thwart China’s further designs in the South China Sea and its attempts to change the maritime status quo in the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea, a constellation of democratic states linked by interlocking strategic cooperation — as proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — has become critical to help institute power stability. The imperative is to build a new strategic equilibrium, including a stable balance of power.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

© The Japan Times, 2018.

America’s Pakistan Problem

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Debt-ridden Pakistan is very vulnerable to Western sanctions, yet it is unclear whether US President Donald Trump’s administration is willing to squeeze it financially in a way that could help reform its behaviour. Washington also seems reluctant to strip Pakistan of its status as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) or target its military for rearing transnational terrorists.

The main driver of Pakistan’s nexus with terrorists is its powerful military, whose generals hold decisive power and dictate terms to a largely impotent government. With the military’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) rearing terrorists, Pakistan has long played a double game, pretending to be America’s ally while aiding its most deadly foes that have killed or maimed thousands of US soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistani forces only target terrorists that fall out of line or threaten Pakistan itself.

The recent media attention on the multilateral Financial Action Task Force’s planned action against Pakistan obscured that country’s success in preserving its status for another two years under the European Union’s preferential trading (GSP+) programme. Pakistan is the No. 1 beneficiary of the GSP+ programme, which grants Pakistani exporters, especially of textiles, tariff-free access to the EU market in exchange for the country improving its human rights and governance. In effect, GSP+ rewards a sponsor of terror whose human-rights record has only worsened.

Trump’s suspension of most military aid to Pakistan is unlikely by itself to force a change in the behaviour of a country that counts China and Saudi Arabia as its benefactors. Only escalating American pressure through graduated sanctions can make Pakistan alter its cost-benefit calculation in propping up militant groups that have helped turn Afghanistan into a virtually failed state, where the US is stuck in the longest and most-expensive war in its history. The US failure to take the war into Pakistan’s territory has resulted in even Kabul coming under siege.

Yet, swayed by geopolitical considerations, the US has long been reluctant to hold the Pakistani generals accountable for the American blood on their hands. Indeed, Washington for years heavily funded the Pakistani military and turned Pakistan into one of its largest aid recipients — a strategy equivalent to feeding milk and honey to pit vipers in the hope of changing their biting habits. Even when the US, after a 10-year hunt, found Osama bin Laden holed up in a compound next to Pakistan’s main military academy, it did not abandon its carrots-only strategy. Such an approach has only helped to tighten the military’s grip on Pakistan, thwarting movement toward a genuine democratic transition.

Worse still, the US has dissuaded India from imposing any sanctions on Pakistan. If anything, India has been pressured to stay engaged with Pakistan, which explains the secret meetings the national security adviser has had with his Pakistani counterpart in Bangkok and elsewhere. The recent launch, with US backing, of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project illustrates why it is difficult for India to impose even diplomatic sanctions on Pakistan, which maintains a bloated, ISI-infested high commission in New Delhi.

To be sure, the Trump administration is searching for a new strategy on Pakistan. Yet it is an open question whether it will go beyond the security aid suspension, which excludes economic assistance and military training. Aid suspension in the past has failed to change Pakistan’s behaviour.

With Washington loath to label Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, it must at least strip that country of its MNNA status, an action that will end its preferential access to US weapons and technologies and deny it the financial and diplomatic benefits associated with that designation. To force Pakistani generals to cut their nexus with terrorists, American sanctions should target some of them, including debarring them and their family members from the US and freezing their assets. Among the half a million Pakistanis living in the US are the sons and daughters of many senior Pakistani military officers.

Pakistan’s vulnerability to potential US-led sanctions is apparent from its ongoing struggle to stave off a default. Despite China’s strategic penetration of Pakistan, the US is still the biggest importer of Pakistani goods and services. US financial and trade sanctions extending to multilateral lending, as well as suspension of military spare parts, can force Pakistan to clean up its act.

To end Pakistan’s double game on terrorism, Washington will have to halt its own double game of rewarding or subsidizing a country that, in Trump’s own words, has given the US “nothing but lies and deceit”. To address a self-made problem, it is past time for US policymakers to put their money where their mouths are.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© Hindustan Times, 2018.

China’s stealth wars in the Himalayas

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Beijing’s military advance into Bhutan-claimed territory leaves New Delhi floundering, raising concern over India’s own borders.

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China’s CCTV in August shows a target exploding during a live-fire drill by the Chinese army near its border with India. © CCTV/AP

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Operating in the threshold between peace and war, China has pushed its borders far out into international waters in the South China Sea in a way no other power has done elsewhere. Less known is that China is using a similar strategy in the Himalayas to alter facts on the ground — meter by meter — without firing a single shot.

India is facing increasingly persistent Chinese efforts to intrude into its desolate borderlands. China, however, has not spared even one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, which has barely 8,000 men in its security forces. In the disputed Himalayan plateau of Doklam, claimed by both Bhutan and China, the People’s Liberation Army has incrementally changed the status quo since last fall.

Doklam became a defining event in a 10-week standoff between Chinese and Indian troops last summer after the PLA started building a highway on that plateau to the India border: For the first time since China’s success in the South China Sea, a rival power stalled Chinese construction activity to change the status quo in a disputed territory.

India intervened as Bhutan’s security guarantor to thwart a threat to its own security. Despite almost daily Chinese threats to “teach it a lesson,” India refused to back down, forcing a humiliated Beijing to eventually accept a mutual-withdrawal deal to end the standoff with a country it sees as economically and militarily inferior.

But as happened with the 2012 U.S.-brokered deal for Chinese and Philippine naval vessels to withdraw from around the Scarborough Shoal, China did not faithfully comply with the Doklam accord. If anything, China applied the Scarborough “model” to Doklam — agree to disengage and, after the standoff is over, quietly send in forces to occupy the territory.

Doklam thus illustrates that while India may be content with a tactical win, China has the perseverance and guile to win at the strategic level. Camouflaging offense as defense, China hews to ancient military theorist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.” As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception.”

India tried for months to obfuscate the PLA’s increasing control of Doklam so as not to dilute the “victory” it had sold to its public. Even as commercially available satellite images showed China’s rapidly expanding military infrastructure in Doklam, India’s foreign ministry tried pulling the wool over the public’s eyes by repeatedly saying there were “no new developments at the faceoff site or its vicinity,” located at the plateau’s southern edge. Meanwhile, China continued to build permanent military structures and forward deploy troops across much of Doklam.

This month, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman grudgingly admitted China has constructed helipads and other military structures in Doklam so as to “maintain” troop deployments even in winter. Previously, there were no force deployments or permanent military structures on the uninhabited plateau, which was visited by nomadic shepherds and Bhutanese and Chinese mobile patrols other than in the harsh winter.

To be sure, China has dictated a Hobson’s choice to India on Doklam, like it did to the Philippines over Scarborough: Go along with the changed status quo or face the risk of open war. Clearly, New Delhi didn’t anticipate that an end to the faceoff would result in rapid Chinese encroachments that now virtually preclude India intervening again in Doklam at Bhutan’s behest.

In effect, Beijing has shown Bhutan that India cannot guarantee its territorial integrity.

China’s objective unmistakably is to undercut India’s influence in Bhutan in the way Beijing has succeeded in another Himalayan nation, Nepal, where a Chinese-backed communist government took office earlier this year. It was Beijing that persuaded Nepal’s two main communist parties to overcome their bitter squabbles and join hands in national and local elections.

China’s new control over much of Doklam, however, effectively overturns the land-swap deal it has long offered Bhutan. Under the offer, the tiny kingdom was to cede its claim to that plateau in return for Beijing renouncing its claim to a slice of northern Bhutan.

Beijing has held some 24 rounds of border talks with Bhutan since 1984, just as its negotiations with India on territorial and boundary issues have gone on interminably since 1980 without tangible progress. In fact, the largest real estate China covets in Asia is in India — Arunachal Pradesh, a resource-rich Himalayan territory almost three times as large as Taiwan.

Today, China has stepped up military pressure on India, including beefing up its ground and air assets in the Himalayan region. The Indian government recently told Parliament that the number of Chinese military intrusions into India’s vulnerable borderlands jumped 56% in one year — from 273 in 2016 to 426 in 2017, or more than one per day. It seems that just as China’s trade surplus with India has doubled since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, its border incursions are also on a similar rising trajectory.

India’s perennially reactive mode allows the PLA to keep the initiative in the Himalayas. More fundamentally, China — by mounting strategic pressure on multiple Indian flanks while raking in a fast-growing trade surplus (currently running at nearly $5 billion a month) — is able to have its cake and eat it too.

Add to the picture another important element of China’s Himalayan strategy — reengineering transboundary flows of rivers originating in Tibet through dams and other projects. A third of India’s total freshwater supply comes from rivers that start in Tibet. Last year, China breached two bilateral accords with India by withholding upstream river flow data, which is necessary for flood forecasting and warning. Supply of such data could have prevented some of the deaths in the record flooding that ravaged India’s northeast.

Some 67 years after China eliminated the historical buffer with India by annexing Tibet, it is transforming Himalayan geopolitics to its advantage. China’s strategic penetration of Nepal, which has an open border with India permitting passport-free passage, carries major implications for Indian security. Having lost the outer buffer, Tibet, India now risks losing the inner buffer, Nepal.

In the absence of a coherent strategy to counter China’s aggressive Himalayan strategy, an increasingly defensive India has now sought to make peace with Beijing. For example, it not only advised its officials to stay away from events marking the 60th anniversary this month of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India, but also got Tibetan exiles to move those events from New Delhi to remote Dharamsala, in the Himalayan foothills. Modi’s attention is focused on returning to power in the next national election, which is due to be held in April-May 2019 but might be advanced to this year-end.

Just when Chinese President Xi Jinping’s lurch toward one-man rule has led to a rethink in the West on its relationship with China, India has signaled its intent to go soft on China, with its foreign ministry saying that New Delhi was willing to develop relations with Beijing “based on commonalities.” Salvaging Modi’s China visit for last September’s BRICS (Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa) summit prompted New Delhi to cut the Doklam deal with Beijing, paving the way for the Chinese advance into the plateau. Now Modi is again set to go to China, this time for a bilateral summit with Xi. But India will likely not only come away empty-handed from its new propitiatory approach but also give cover to China’s designs against it.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author, is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

A New Order for the Indo-Pacific

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China has transformed the Indo-Pacific region’s strategic landscape in just five years. If other powers do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could entrench China’s strategic advantages.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

SYDNEY – Security dynamics are changing rapidly in the Indo-Pacific. The region is home not only to the world’s fastest-growing economies, but also to the fastest-increasing military expenditures and naval capabilities, the fiercest competition over natural resources, and the most dangerous strategic hot spots. One might even say that it holds the key to global security.

The increasing use of the term “Indo-Pacific” – which refers to all countries bordering the Indian and Pacific oceans – rather than “Asia-Pacific,” underscores the maritime dimension of today’s tensions. Asia’s oceans have increasingly become an arena of competition for resources and influence. It now seems likely that future regional crises will be triggered and/or settled at sea.

The main driver of this shift has been China, which over the last five years has been working to push its borders far out into international waters, by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. Having militarized these outposts – presented as a fait accompli to the rest of the world – it has now shifted its focus to the Indian Ocean.

Already, China has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, which recently expropriated its main port from a Dubai-based company, possibly to give it to China. Moreover, China is planning to open a new naval base next to Pakistan’s China-controlled Gwadar port. And it has leased several islands in the crisis-ridden Maldives, where it is set to build a marine observatory that will provide subsurface data supporting the deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile subs (SSBNs) in the Indian Ocean.

In short, China has transformed the region’s strategic landscape in just five years. If other powers do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could entrench China’s strategic advantages. The result could be the ascendancy of a China-led illiberal hegemonic regional order, at the expense of the liberal rules-based order that most countries in the region support. Given the region’s economic weight, this would create significant risks for global markets and international security.

To mitigate the threat, the countries of the Indo-Pacific must confront three key challenges, beginning with the widening gap between politics and economics. Despite a lack of political integration and the absence of a common security framework in the Indo-Pacific, free-trade agreements are proliferating, the latest being the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). China has emerged as the leading trade partner of most regional economies.

But booming trade alone cannot reduce political risks. That requires a framework of shared and enforceable rules and norms. In particular, all countries should agree to state or clarify their territorial or maritime claims on the basis of international law, and to settle any dispute by peaceful means – never through force or coercion.

Establishing a regional framework that reinforces the rule of law will require progress on overcoming the second challenge: the region’s “history problem.” Disputes over territory, natural resources, war memorials, air defense zones, and textbooks are all linked, in one way or another, with rival historical narratives. The result is competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms that imperil the region’s future.

The past continues to cast a shadow over the relationship between South Korea and Japan – America’s closest allies in East Asia. China, for its part, uses history to justify its efforts to upend the territorial and maritime status quo and emulate the pre-1945 colonial depredations of its rival Japan. All of China’s border disputes with 11 of its neighborsare based on historical claims, not international law.

This brings us to the third key challenge facing the Indo-Pacific: changing maritime dynamics. Amid surging maritime trade flows, regional powers are fighting for access, influence, and relative advantage.

Here, the biggest threat lies in China’s unilateral attempts to alter the regional status quo. What China achieved in the South China Sea has significantly more far-reaching and longer-term strategic implications than, say, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as it sends the message that defiant unilateralism does not necessarily carry international costs.

Add to that new challenges – from climate change, overfishing, and degradation of marine ecosystems to the emergence of maritime non-state actors, such as pirates, terrorists, and criminal syndicates – and the regional security environment is becoming increasingly fraught and uncertain. All of this raises the risks of war, whether accidental or intentional.

As the most recent US National Security Strategy report put it, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” And yet while the major players in the region all agree that an open, rules-based order is vastly preferable to Chinese hegemony, they have so far done far too little to promote collaboration.

There is no more time to waste. Indo-Pacific powers must take stronger action to strengthen regional stability, reiterating their commitment to shared norms, not to mention international law, and creating robust institutions.

For starters, Australia, India, Japan, and the US must make progress in institutionalizing their Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, so that they can better coordinate their policies and pursue broader collaboration with other important players like Vietnam, Indonesia, and South Korea, as well as with smaller countries.

Economically and strategically, the global center of gravity is shifting to the Indo-Pacific. If the region’s players don’t act now to fortify an open, rules-based order, the security situation will continue to deteriorate – with consequences that are likely to reverberate worldwide.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis. © Project Syndicate.

 

China ensnares vulnerable states in a debt trap

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Easy loans are used to secure influence and grab control of strategic assets

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A ship departs a port in Zhanjiang, China, in July 2017 for Djibouti to dispatch members of the People’s Liberation Army to man a military base there. © Xinhua

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

“There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country,” American statesman John Adams (U.S. president from 1797 to 1801) famously said. “One is by the sword. The other is by debt.”

China has chosen the second path. Aggressively employing economic tools to advance its strategic interests, Beijing has extended huge loans to financially-weak states and ensnared some in debt traps that greatly strengthen its leverage.

After establishing a growing presence in the South China Sea, Beijing seems increasingly determined to extend its influence in the Indian Ocean, not least in countries surrounding India, its regional strategic rival.

From Djibouti in Africa to the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka, China has converted big credits into political influence and even a military presence.

Now a political crisis in the Maldives has highlighted the fact that China has quietly acquired several islets in the heavily-indebted Indian Ocean archipelago.

Mohamed Nasheed, the nation’s first and only democratically elected president who was ousted at gunpoint, says the country cannot repay the $1.5bn-$2bn it owes China, equivalent to 80% of the total foreign debt. “Without firing a single shot, China has grabbed more land” in the Maldives than what Britain’s “East India Company did at the height of the 19th century.”

Among the unpopulated Maldivian islands China has acquired on lease are Feydhoo Finolhu, lying close to the capital Male and previously used for police training, and the seven-kilometer-long Kalhufahalufushi, with a magnificent reef. For Feydhoo Finolhu, it paid $4 million, which is what a luxury apartment in Hong Kong sells for; Kalhufahalufushi was even cheaper.

China is the only country to come out in support of Maldives’ embattled authoritarian president, Abdulla Yameen, who came to power in 2013. Beijing has also issued an open threat against India, which has traditionally been the dominant foreign influence in the Maldives since the islands were granted independence from Britain. Chinese state-controlled media has warned that if India militarily intervenes in the Maldives, Beijing won’t “sit idly by” but will “take action to stop” it.

To be sure, China claims sound commercial grounds for acquiring its Maldivian islands. But across the Indian Ocean, port projects that China insisted were purely commercial have acquired military dimensions.

After lending billions of dollars to Djibouti, China last year established its first overseas military base in that tiny but strategically important state, located on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean. In Pakistan, Beijing has deployed its warships for the security of the Chinese-built Gwadar port, whilst seeking to establish a military base nearby.

Beijing’s creditor diplomacy scored a major success in December when Sri Lanka formally handed over its strategically located Hambantota port to China under a 99-year lease valued at $1.12 billion. Earlier, after Sri Lanka’s $500-million, largely Chinese-owned Colombo Port container terminal opened in 2014, Chinese submarines arrived quietly and docked there.

Further east in Myanmar, there are concerns in India and the West that Kyauk Pyu, a deep-water port to be developed and financed largely by China, could eventually also serve military purposes.

In the Maldives, Beijing has shown interest in turning an uninhabited island into a naval base by cutting through the surrounding coral reefs to create passageways for its warships. Or it could create an artificial island and militarize it, as it has done in the South China Sea.

Underscoring Beijing’s strategic calculations, three Chinese frigates visited the Maldives about six months ago, docking in Male and at Girifushi Island and imparting special training to Maldivian troops.

Meanwhile, China’s stepped-up naval presence in the Indian Ocean in recent weeks might be intended to send a message to India, including seeking to deter it from militarily intervening in the Maldives, as New Delhi did with Western backing in 1988, when Indian paratroopers foiled a coup attempt. The action reinforced India’s claim to be the region’s peacekeeper.

The current ruler, Yameen, has facilitated China’s island acquisitions in his country by amending the constitution in 2015 to legalize foreign ownership of land. The amendment appeared tailored for China; the new rules for foreign ownership require a minimum $1 billion construction project that involves reclaiming at least 70% of the desired land from the ocean.

By also awarding Beijing major Chinese-financed infrastructure contracts, Yameen is saddling the Maldives with mounting debt that is likely to prove unserviceable.

Several countries that have fallen into, or risk slipping into, debt servitude to China are India’s immediate neighbors, including Bangladesh, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This holds major foreign-policy implications for India, which is seeing its influence erode in its backyard. By establishing a Djibouti-type naval base in the Maldives, China could open an Indian Ocean front against India in the same quiet way that it opened the trans-Himalayan threat under Mao Zedong by gobbling up Tibet, the historical buffer.

China’s strategy in southern Asia and beyond is aimed at fashioning a Sinosphere of trade, communication, transportation and security links. By financially shackling smaller states through projects it funds and builds, it is crimping their decision-making autonomy in a way that helps bring them within its strategic orbit. It is even replicating some of the practices that were used against it during the European-colonial period when, in the words of the Chinese nationalist revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, “India was the favored wife of Britain while China was the common prostitute of all powers.” One such practice is the long-term lease, an echo of the 99-year-lease through which 19th-century Britain secured control of the New Territories, expanding Hong Kong’s landmass by 90%.

The International Monetary Fund has warned that Chinese loans, offered at rates as high as 7 percent, are promoting unsustainable debt burdens. The price that such loans exact can extend to national sovereignty and self-respect. The handover of Hambantota was seen in Sri Lanka as the equivalent of a heavily indebted farmer giving away his daughter to the cruel money lender.

In Pakistan, Chinese state companies have secured energy contracts on terms that include ownership of the plants and 16% guaranteed yearly returns, very high by global standards. The “economic corridor” that China seems intent on building across Pakistan has become a vehicle for a deep Chinese penetration of the Pakistani state, with most of the investment going into energy, agricultural and security projects often unrelated to a corridor.

Against this background, the word “predatory” is increasingly being used internationally about China’s practices. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called China a “new imperialist power” whose practices are “reminiscent of European colonialism.”

Mao said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” But with China emerging as the first major power in modern history without real allies, an additional principle is guiding its policy: buying friendship by opening a fat wallet. China is co-opting states into its sphere of influence by burying them in debt.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War.”

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

India’s Choice in the Maldives

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As the political situation in the Maldives deteriorates, peace and security in the Indian Ocean is increasingly in jeopardy. With China seeking to capitalize on its support for the authoritarian president, Abdulla Yameen, to expand its influence in the region, the crisis has become a defining moment for India.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

The Maldives – that beautiful Indian Ocean country comprising more than 1,000 coral islands – is known the world over as a tranquil and luxurious travel destination. But the country is now being roiled by a political crisis so severe that international advisories are cautioning against travel there.

The rule of law in the Maldives has been steadily deteriorating ever since President Abdulla Yameen came to power in 2013. The situation escalated sharply earlier this month, when Yameen refused to comply with the Supreme Court’s unanimous order quashing the convictions, which he had engineered, of nine opposition figures – including the exiled former president, Mohamed Nasheed – on terrorism charges. Instead of freeing those whose sentences were nullified, Yameen declared a state of emergency and jailed two of the Supreme Court’s five judges, including the chief justice.

To be sure, authoritarianism is not new to the Maldives. Indeed, Nasheed is the only democratically elected, non-autocratic president the country has had since it gained independence from Britain in 1965. His tenure lasted just over three years, until, in 2012, he was forced at gunpoint to resign.

But the Maldives’ sordid politics is having an increasingly far-reaching impact, not least because it is closely linked to radical Islam. On the day Nasheed was overthrown, Islamists ransacked the Maldives’ main museum, smashing priceless Buddhist and Hindu statues and erasing all evidence of the country’s pre-Islamic roots. On a per capita basis, the Maldives has sent the highest number of foreign fighters to support terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.

Moreover, the Maldives sits astride critical shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, making it vital to security in the region. As a result, the country’s deteriorating political conditions are increasingly capturing the international community’s attention. Democratic powers, from the United States to India, are calling upon the United Nations to intervene in the crisis, while China, seeking to advance its own interests in the Indian Ocean, is defending the graft-tainted Yameen.

The increasingly close relationship between China and the Maldives represents a significant shift from the past, when India was the country’s primary regional partner. Maldivians are mainly of Indian and Sri Lankan origin, and have strong cultural and economic ties to those countries. Their country has traditionally been viewed as part of India’s sphere of influence.

But, in recent years, China has been eroding India’s influence in the Maldives, as part of its effort to build its “string of pearls”: a chain of military installations and economic projects aimed at projecting Chinese power in the Indian Ocean. Just as China recently secured the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease, it has, according to Nasheed, quietly acquired 17 islands in the heavily indebted Maldives for investment purposes.

But, betraying its strategic objectives, China has also sent warships to visit the Maldives. If China, which has stepped up military pressure on India along their Himalayan frontier, turned one of the Maldivian islands into a naval base, it would effectively open a maritime front against India – a milestone in China’s strategic encirclement of its neighbor.

The Maldivian crisis thus is a defining moment for India. Will India intervene militarily, as Nasheed and other Maldivian opposition leaders have requested, or will it allow Yameen to continue to enable China to pursue its strategic objectives in the region?

There is some precedent for an Indian military intervention in the Maldives. In 1988, India snuffed out a coup attempt against the autocratic Maumoon Abdul Gayoom engineered by a Maldivian businessman with the aid of armed mercenaries, especially Sri Lankan Tamil separatists. Thanks to India’s swift military action, Gayoom would hold onto power for another two decades.

Yet when the country’s first and only democratically elected president beseeched India in 2012 to rescue him from the Islamist forces laying siege to his office, India looked the other way. India’s government felt betrayed by Nasheed’s own burgeoning relationship with China. Not only had Nasheed awarded China its first infrastructure contracts; just three months before his ouster, he had inaugurated the new Chinese embassy in the capital, Malé, on the same day that India’s then-prime minister, Manmohan Singh, arrived for a regional summit.

Today, an Indian intervention could be dicey, not least because no legitimate authority is inviting India to send in forces. Indian paratroopers could gain effective control of Malé within a few hours. But what would the endgame be? Amid rising Islamist influence and shifting political allegiances among the handful of powerful families that dominate the Maldives’ economy and politics, finding reliable allies committed to – much less capable of – protecting democratic freedoms would prove a daunting challenge.

Moreover, even if Yameen were ousted and the country held a democratic election, it is unlikely that China’s influence could be contained. As the experiences of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka illustrate, China has outmaneuvered India diplomatically, even when dealing with democratically elected governments. Indeed, it did so in the Maldives itself, with Nasheed. Because the country’s debt will continue to rise, regardless of its leadership, China will retain its favorite source of leverage.

India, with its proximity and historical ties to the Maldives, may seem to hold a strong hand. But it has a lot to lose if it aggravates an already volatile political situation in its maritime backyard by intervening militarily.

India’s best option is to hold out a credible threat of military action, while imposing, together with other democratic powers, economic sanctions that undercut support for Yameen among the Maldivian elite, many of whom own the luxury resorts that now have far too many empty rooms. With them on side, perhaps the international community would be able to ensure that the presidential election scheduled for later this year is fair and inclusive – and supervised by the UN. That is the only way to end the crisis, and restore peace to an Indian Ocean paradise.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

The Maldives: The moment of truth

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

China, the sole defender of the Maldives’ embattled autocrat, Abdulla Yameen, has issued an open threat through a state mouthpiece: If India militarily intervenes in the Maldives, Beijing won’t “sit idly by” but will “take action to stop” it. This essentially is an empty threat because China has no credible capability to sustain a military operation far from its shores. Despite China’s rising naval power, taking on India in its own maritime backyard will be a fool’s errand.

India could call China’s bluff through quick military action that deposes Yameen and installs the jailed Supreme Court chief justice as the interim president to oversee fair elections under UN supervision. In truth, an Indian intervention is not on the cards, in part because such action would trample on the principles India has long championed.

India has carefully weighed all the factors and resolved not to intervene at present in the vicious politics of the increasingly radicalized Maldives. If the crisis there were to escalate to civil war-like conditions, with street clashes erupting in the capital Malé, where two-fifths of the nation’s total population lives, India could, of course, intervene in the name of “responsibility to protect”, the moral principle NATO invoked to counterproductively overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

India had a narrow window of opportunity to intervene immediately after Yameen declared a state of emergency and jailed many, including his elderly half-brother, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, whose dictatorship lasted three decades largely because Indian paratroopers in 1988 salvaged his presidency from coup plotters who seized control of much of Malé. Before Yameen fell out with Gayoom, he actually ran a family dictatorship, with Gayoom’s daughter his foreign minister.

Beijing’s threat at this stage is not only Doklam-style psychological warfare against India but, more importantly, also an effort to curry favour with the internationally isolated Yameen. By claiming to shield him from India’s potential action, China wants to expand its strategic footprint in the Maldives, where it has already acquired several of the country’s 1,190 atolls for projects. The Maldives’ first and only democratically elected president, Mohamed Nasheed, who was ousted at gunpoint by Gayoom’s pro-Islamist cronies, claims China’s “land grab” has netted 17 islets.

While India has wisely refrained from any precipitous action in response to Yameen’s unbridled lurch toward authoritarianism, it faces a pressing foreign-policy challenge extending beyond the Maldivian crisis. Make no mistake: India’s rapidly eroding influence in its strategic backyard holds far-reaching implications for its security, underscoring the imperative for a more dynamic, forward-looking strategy. India’s inaction and missteps have aided China’s aggressive diplomacy, with Chinese clout increasingly on display even in countries symbiotically tied to India, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. With Beijing seeking to establish a Djibouti-type naval base in the Maldives, China is opening an oceanic threat against India in the same quiet way that it opened the trans-Himalayan threat under Mao Zedong.

On the Maldives, India’s moment of truth came not with the latest emergency proclamation but in February 2012 when Nasheed made desperate phone calls to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh pleading for an Indian intervention against the Islamists besieging his office. Nasheed, however, had roiled New Delhi with his overtures to Beijing, including personally inaugurating the newly established Chinese Embassy on the day Singh arrived in Malé for a SAARC summit. India’s refusal to take a long-term strategic view and prevent Nasheed’s overthrow has had important consequences, including empowering the Islamists and ceding more space to China. Just months after Nasheed’s ouster, the Maldives expropriated its main international airport from India’s GMR Infrastructure.

In recent years, an emboldened Maldives has increasingly acted against India’s strategic interests with impunity. Six months ago, it sent New Delhi a chilling message by welcoming three Chinese frigates, which docked in Malé and Girifushi Island and imparted special training to Maldivian troops. Yameen amended the Constitution in 2015 to legalize foreign ownership of land in a way tailored for China, requiring a minimal $1-billion construction project that reclaims at least 70% of the desired land from the ocean. New Delhi’s carrots-only approach also encouraged Yameen more recently to sign a free-trade agreement with China that seems designed to use the Maldives as a conduit for the flow of Chinese goods to the Indian market.

India must now start wielding the stick. With other democratic powers, it should impose punishing sanctions. However, the right powers to militarily intervene in the Maldives are the U.S. and Britain because, unlike India, they have little to lose and democracy promotion is a legitimate foreign-policy plank for them. China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean threatens not just India’s security but also the Diego Garcia-centred Anglo-American naval pre-eminence in the region.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

How Can America Change Pakistani Behavior?

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The US has plenty of incentive to put pressure on Pakistan, a country that has long pretended to be an ally, even as it continues to aid the militant groups fighting and killing US soldiers in neighboring Afghanistan. In fact, it is partly because of that aid that Afghanistan is a failing state, leaving the US mired in its longest-ever war.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate column

LeT-terroristUS President Donald Trump’s recent decision to freeze some $2 billion in security assistance to Pakistan as punishment for the country’s refusal to crack down on transnational terrorist groups is a step in the right direction. But more steps are needed.

The United States has plenty of incentive to put pressure on Pakistan, a country that has long pretended to be an ally, even as it continues to aid the militant groups fighting and killing US soldiers in neighboring Afghanistan. In fact, it is partly because of that aid that Afghanistan is a failing state, leaving the US mired in the longest war in its history.

More than 16 years after the US invaded Afghanistan, its capital Kabul has come under siege, exemplified by the recent terrorist attack on Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel and the suicide bombing, using an explosives-laden ambulance, in the city center. In recent months, the US has launched a major air offensive to halt the rapid advance of the Afghan Taliban. The US has now carried out more airstrikes since last August than in 2015 and 2016 combined.

Yet neither the air blitz nor the Trump administration’s deployment of 3,000 additional US troops can reverse the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. To achieve that, Pakistan would have to dismantle the cross-border sanctuaries used by the Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani network, as well as their command-and-control operations, which are sited on Pakistani territory. As the US military commander in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, has acknowledged, “It’s very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.”

The problem is that Pakistan’s powerful military, whose generals dictate terms to a largely impotent civilian government, seems committed to protecting, and even nurturing, terrorists on Pakistani soil. Only those militants who threaten Pakistan are targeted by the country’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency.

Far from holding Pakistan’s generals accountable for the American blood on their hands, the US has provided them large amounts of funding – so much, in fact, that Pakistan has been one of America’s largest aid recipients. Even when the US found Osama bin Laden, after a ten-year hunt, holed up in a compound next to Pakistan’s main military academy, it did not meaningfully alter its carrot-only strategy. This has enabled the military to tighten its grip on Pakistan further, frustrating domestic efforts to bring about a genuine democratic transition.

Making matters worse, the US has dissuaded its ally India – a major target of Pakistan-supported terrorists – from imposing any sanctions on the country. Instead, successive US administrations have pressured India to engage diplomatically with Pakistan, including through secret meetings between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s national security adviser and his Pakistani counterpart in Bangkok and elsewhere.

This approach has emboldened Pakistan-based terrorists to carry out cross-border attacks on targets from Mumbai to Kashmir. As for the US, the White House’s new National Security Strategy confirms that America “continues to face threats from transnational terrorists and militants operating from within Pakistan.” This conclusion echoes then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning in 2009 that Pakistan “poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world.”

Against this background, the Trump administration’s acknowledgement of US policy failure in Pakistan is good news. But history suggests that simply suspending security aid – economic assistance and military training are set to continue – will not be enough to bring about meaningful change in Pakistan (which also counts China and Saudi Arabia among its benefactors).

One additional step the US could take would be to label Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. If the US prefers not to do so, it should at least strip Pakistan of its status, acquired in 2004, as a Major non-NATO Ally, thereby ending its preferential access to American weapons and technologies.

Moreover, the US should impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes on senior military officers who maintain particularly close ties to terrorists. With the children of many Pakistani military officers living in the US, it would also be worth barring these families from the country.

Finally, the US should take advantage of its enduring position as Pakistan’s largest export market to tighten the economic screws on the cash-strapped country. Since 2013, Pakistan has attempted to offset the sharp decline in its foreign-exchange reserves by raising billions of dollars in dollar-denominated debt with ten-year bonds. Pakistan’s efforts to stave off default create leverage that the US should use.

Likewise, Pakistan agreed to privatize 68 state-run companies, in exchange for $6.7 billion in credit from the International Monetary Fund. If the US extended financial and trade sanctions to multilateral lending, and suspended supplies of military spare parts, it would gain another effective means of bringing Pakistan to heel.

To be sure, Pakistan could respond to such sanctions by blocking America’s overland access to Afghanistan, thereby increasing the cost of resupplying US forces by up to 50%. But, as Pakistan learned in 2011-2012, such a move would hurt its own economy, especially its military-dominated trucking industry. Meanwhile, the added cost to the US would be lower than America’s military reimbursements to Pakistan in the last year, which covered, among other things, resupply routes and the country’s supposed counterterrorism operations.

If Pakistan is going to abandon its double game of claiming to be a US ally while harboring terrorists, the US will need to stop rewarding it for offering, as Trump put it, “nothing but lies and deceit.” More than that, the US will need to punish Pakistan for its duplicity. And US policymakers must act soon, or an increasingly fragile Pakistan could well be transformed from a state sponsor of terrorism into a state sponsored by terrorists.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

India has forgotten its own realist strategic thought

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India’s tradition of realist strategic thought is probably the oldest in the world. Yet India has forgotten its own realist strategic thought, as propounded before Christ by the strategist Kautilya (also known as Chanakya). So, despite growing realism in foreign policy, quixotic traditions from the Nehruvian era still persist to this day. 

Chanakya

Brahma Chellaney, DNA, January 26, 2018

Madeleine Albright famously said that, “The purpose of foreign policy is to persuade other countries to do what you want or, better yet, to want what we want.” How has Indian foreign policy done when measured against such a standard of success?

In this century, India’s growing geopolitical weight, impressive economic-growth rate, rising military capabilities, increasing maritime role, abundant market opportunities, and favourable long-term demographics have helped increase its international profile. India is widely perceived to be a key “swing state” in the emerging international order. Yet Indian foreign policy offers little clue as to whether India is a world power in the making or just a sub-regional power with global-power pretensions.

India has yet to resolve an underlying tension in policy between realism and idealism. The struggle between idealism and pragmatism has bedevilled its diplomacy since independence, imposing serious costs. For example, Jawaharlal Nehru, the idealist, rejected a U.S. suggestion in the 1950s that India take China’s vacant seat in the United Nations Security Council. The officially blessed selected works of Nehru quote him as saying that India could not accept the American proposal because it meant “falling out with China and it would be very unfair for a great country like China not to be in the [Security] Council.” The selected works also quote Nehru as telling Soviet Premier Marshal Nikolai A. Bulganin in 1955 on the same U.S. offer that “we should first concentrate on getting China admitted.”

Such have been the national-security costs for future Indian generations that just in the first seven years after independence, India allowed Pakistan to seize and retain one-third of Jammu and Kashmir; looked the other way when the newly established People’s Republic of China gobbled up the large historical buffer, the Tibetan Plateau; and tamely surrendered its British-inherited extra-territorial rights in Tibet without any quid pro quo, not even Beijing’s acceptance of the then-prevailing Indo-Tibetan border. The 1954 surrender of extra-territorial rights in Tibet included India shutting its military outposts at Yatung and Gyantse in Tibet and handing over Tibet’s postal, telegraph and public telephone services that it had been running to the Chinese government.

India thought that if it sought peace, it would get peace. In reality, a nation gets peace only if it can defend peace. This reality did not sink in until China humiliated India in 1962.

The 1962 invasion, however, did not change another characteristic of Indian diplomacy — it has been driven not by integrated, institutionalized policymaking but by largely an ad hoc, personality-driven approach. This remains the bane of Indian foreign policy, precluding the establishment of a strategic framework for pursuit of goals. The reliance by successive prime ministers on ad hoc, personal initiatives and decisions has helped marginalize the national security establishment and compounded India’s challenges.

This needs to be corrected. The ministry of external affairs, for example, must play its assigned role in the formulation and execution of key aspects of foreign policy — a role that has increasingly been usurped by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Today, India confronts a “tyranny of geography” — that is, serious external threats from virtually all directions. To some extent, it is a self-inflicted tyranny. India’s concerns over China, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and even Pakistan stem from the failures of its past policies. An increasingly unstable neighbourhood also makes it more difficult to promote regional cooperation and integration.

With its tyranny of geography putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India needs to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy. The erosion of its influence in its own backyard should serve as a wake-up call. Only through forward thinking and a dynamic foreign policy can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation, freeing it to play a larger global role. Otherwise, it will continue to be weighed down by its region.

While India undoubtedly is imbibing greater realism in its foreign policy, it remains intrinsically cautious and reactive, rather than forward-looking and proactive. And as illustrated by Narendra Modi’s unannounced Lahore visit or by his government’s reluctance to impose any sanctions on a country it has called “Terroristan,” India hasn’t fully abandoned its quixotic traditions from the Nehruvian era.

India’s tradition of realist strategic thought is probably the oldest in the world. The realist doctrine was propounded by the strategist Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, who wrote the Arthashastra before Christ. This ancient manual on great-power diplomacy and international statecraft remains a must-read classic. Yet India, ironically, has forgotten Arthashastra.

© DNA, 2018.

A quiet water war takes a page out of Sun Tzu’s Art of War playbook

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International pressure is needed to rein in Beijing’s dam-building frenzy and ensure it respects the environment and rights of downstream nations.
Dam frenzy illustration
Column by Brahma Chellaney, South China Morning Post, January 17, 2018
China’s hyperactive dam building is a reminder that, while the international attention remains on its recidivist activities in the South China Sea’s disputed waters, it is also focusing quietly on other waters – of rivers that originate in Chinese-controlled territory like Tibet and flow to other countries. No country in history has built more dams than China. In fact, China today boasts more dams than the rest of the world combined.

As part of its broader strategy to corner natural resources, China’s new obsession is freshwater, a life-creating and life-supporting resource whose growing shortages are casting a cloud over Asia’s economic future. Dams are integral to this strategy, although they have wreaked havoc on the natural ecosystems.

Dams in China now total 86,000, which means it has completed, on average, at least one dam per day since 1949. Nearly a third of these are large dams, defined as having a height of at least 15 metres (49 feet) or a water storage capacity of more than 3 million cubic metres (793 million gallons). The United States, the world’s second most dammed country with about 5,500 large dams, has been left far behind.

With the world’s most resource-hungry economy, China has gone into overdrive to appropriate natural resources. On the most essential resource, freshwater, it is seeking to become the upstream controller by re-engineering transboundary flows through dams and other structures. Its dam building has largely shifted from internal rivers to transnational rivers, such as the Mekong, Salween, Brahmaputra, Irtysh, Illy and Amur.

Just as the Persian Gulf states sit over immense reserves of oil and gas, China controls vast transnational water resources. By forcibly absorbing Asia’s “water tower”, the Tibetan Plateau, in 1951, it gained a throttlehold on the headwaters of Asia’s major river systems. Its actions in more recent years have sought to build water leverage over its downstream neighbours.

For example, China has erected eight giant dams on the Mekong just before the river enters Southeast Asia, and is building or planning another 20. Armed with the new dam-centred clout, Beijing has rejected the treaty-linked Mekong River Commission and instead co-opted the vulnerable downstream nations in its own Lancang-Mekong Cooperation initiative, which lacks binding rules.

Similar unilateralism by China has fostered increasing water-related tensions with India, many of whose important rivers originate in Tibet.

In 2017, in violation of two legally binding bilateral accords, China refused to supply hydrological data to India, underscoring how it is weaponising the sharing of water data on upstream river flows. The data denial was apparently intended to punish India for boycotting China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” summit and for last summer’s border stand-off on the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam.

The monsoon-swollen Brahmaputra River last year caused record flooding that left a major trail of death and destruction, especially in India’s Assam state. Some of these deaths might have been prevented had China’s data denial not crimped India’s flood early-warning systems.

Even as Beijing has yet to indicate if it would resume sharing data this year, a major new issue has cropped up in its relations with India – the water in the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system, the Siang, has turned dirty and grey when the stream enters India from Tibet. This has spurred downstream concern in India and elsewhere that China’s upstream activities could be threatening the ecosystem health of the cross-border rivers in the way it has polluted its own domestic rivers, including the Yellow, the cradle of the Chinese civilisation.

After staying quiet over the Siang’s contamination for many weeks, Beijing claimed on December 27 that an earthquake that struck southeastern Tibet in mid-November “might have led to the turbidity” in the river waters. But the flows of the Siang, one of the world’s most pristine rivers, had turned blackish grey before the quake struck.

China has been engaged in major mining and dam-building activities in southeastern Tibet. The Tibetan Plateau is rich in both water and minerals.

As China quietly works on a series of hydro projects in Tibet that could affect the quality and quantity of downstream flows in South and Southeast Asia, it is apparently still toying with the idea of re-routing the upper Brahmaputra river system. An officially blessed book published in 2005 championed the Brahmaputra’s re-routing to the Han heartland.

To deflect attention from its continuing dam-building frenzy and its refusal to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighbour, China has bragged about its hydrological-data sharing accords.

Yet it showed in 2017 that it can breach these accords at will. The denial of hydrological data to India actually underscores how China is using transboundary water as a tool of coercive diplomacy.

Such is China’s defiant unilateralism that, to complete a major dam project, it cut off the flow of a Brahmaputra tributary, the Xiabuqu, in 2016 and is currently damming another such tributary, the Lhasa River, into a series of artificial lakes.

Make no mistake: China, by building increasing control over cross-border water resources through hydroengineering structures, is dragging its riparian neighbours into high-stakes games of geopolitical poker over water-related issues. In waging water wars by stealth, China seeks to hew to the central principle enunciated by the ancient military theorist Sun Tzu – “all wars are based on deception”.

International pressure needs to be mounted on Beijing to rein in its dam frenzy and respect environmental standards and the rights of downstream nations.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including Water: Asia’s New Battleground , which won the Bernard Schwartz Book Award.

© South China Morning Post, 2018.

China’s Creditor Imperialism

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Just as European imperial powers employed gunboat diplomacy, China is using sovereign debt to bend other states to its will. As Sri Lanka’s handover of the strategic Hambantota port shows, states caught in debt bondage to the new imperial giant risk losing both natural assets and their very sovereignty.

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, Project Syndicate
BERLIN – This month, Sri Lanka, unable to pay the onerous debt to China it has accumulated, formally handed over its strategically located Hambantota port to the Asian giant. It was a major acquisition for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – which President Xi Jinping calls the “project of the century” – and proof of just how effective China’s debt-trap diplomacy can be.

Unlike International Monetary Fund and World Bank lending, Chinese loans are collateralized by strategically important natural assets with high long-term value (even if they lack short-term commercial viability). Hambantota, for example, straddles Indian Ocean trade routes linking Europe, Africa, and the Middle East to Asia. In exchange for financing and building the infrastructure that poorer countries need, China demands favorable access to their natural assets, from mineral resources to ports.

Moreover, as Sri Lanka’s experience starkly illustrates, Chinese financing can shackle its “partner” countries. Rather than offering grants or concessionary loans, China provides huge project-related loans at market-based rates, without transparency, much less environmental- or social-impact assessments. As US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it recently, with the BRI, China is aiming to define “its own rules and norms.”

To strengthen its position further, China has encouraged its companies to bid for outright purchase of strategic ports, where possible. The Mediterranean port of Piraeus, which a Chinese firm acquired for $436 million from cash-strapped Greece last year, will serve as the BRI’s “dragon head” in Europe.

By wielding its financial clout in this manner, China seeks to kill two birds with one stone. First, it wants to address overcapacity at home by boosting exports. And, second, it hopes to advance its strategic interests, including expanding its diplomatic influence, securing natural resources, promoting the international use of its currency, and gaining a relative advantage over other powers.

China’s predatory approach – and its gloating over securing Hambantota – is ironic, to say the least. In its relationships with smaller countries like Sri Lanka, China is replicating the practices used against it in the European-colonial period, which began with the 1839-1860 Opium Wars and ended with the 1949 communist takeover – a period that China bitterly refers to as its “century of humiliation.”

China portrayed the 1997 restoration of its sovereignty over Hong Kong, following more than a century of British administration, as righting a historic injustice. Yet, as Hambantota shows, China is now establishing its own Hong Kong-style neocolonial arrangements. Apparently Xi’s promise of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” is inextricable from the erosion of smaller states’ sovereignty.4

Just as European imperial powers employed gunboat diplomacy to open new markets and colonial outposts, China uses sovereign debt to bend other states to its will, without having to fire a single shot. Like the opium the British exported to China, the easy loans China offers are addictive. And, because China chooses its projects according to their long-term strategic value, they may yield short-term returns that are insufficient for countries to repay their debts. This gives China added leverage, which it can use, say, to force borrowers to swap debt for equity, thereby expanding China’s global footprint by trapping a growing number of countries in debt servitude.

Even the terms of the 99-year Hambantota port lease echo those used to force China to lease its own ports to Western colonial powers. Britain leased the New Territories from China for 99 years in 1898, causing Hong Kong’s landmass to expand by 90%. Yet the 99-year term was fixed merely to help China’s ethnic-Manchu Qing Dynasty save face; the reality was that all acquisitions were believed to be permanent.

Now, China is applying the imperial 99-year lease concept in distant lands. China’s lease agreement over Hambantota, concluded this summer, included a promise that China would shave $1.1 billion off Sri Lanka’s debt. In 2015, a Chinese firm took out a 99-year lease on Australia’s deep-water port of Darwin – home to more than 1,000 US Marines – for $388 million.

Similarly, after lending billions of dollars to heavily indebted Djibouti, China established its first overseas military base this year in that tiny but strategic state, just a few miles from a US naval base – the only permanent American military facility in Africa. Trapped in a debt crisis, Djibouti had no choice but to lease land to China for $20 million per year. China has also used its leverage over Turkmenistan to secure natural gas by pipeline largely on Chinese terms.

Several other countries, from Argentina to Namibia to Laos, have been ensnared in a Chinese debt trap, forcing them to confront agonizing choices in order to stave off default. Kenya’s crushing debt to China now threatens to turn its busy port of Mombasa – the gateway to East Africa – into another Hambantota.

These experiences should serve as a warning that the BRI is essentially an imperial project that aims to bring to fruition the mythical Middle Kingdom. States caught in debt bondage to China risk losing both their most valuable natural assets and their very sovereignty. The new imperial giant’s velvet glove cloaks an iron fist – one with the strength to squeeze the vitality out of smaller countries.

Water shortages could trigger Asia conflicts

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A number of factors threaten environmental stability and spur climate change

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Asia exemplifies that dams and democracy do not go well together. Dam building has run into major grassroots opposition in major Asian democracies. But it continues unhindered in countries where grassroots empowerment is absent.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

In recent weeks, one of the most pristine Himalayan rivers has mysteriously turned black when entering India from Tibet, highlighting how China’s upstream tunneling, damming and mining activities might be causing major environmental contamination. The plight of the Siang, the central artery of the Brahmaputra river system — the lifeline of northeastern India and Bangladesh — is a stark reminder that transboundary river water issues in Asia are no less important than the regional maritime issues of the South and East China seas and the Indian Ocean, which have attracted greater global attention.

Freshwater, or water that is not salty, is a life-supporting resource. But it is increasingly in short supply in Asia. Although home to 60% of the world’s population, Asia has less freshwater per capita than any other continent. Its annual freshwater availability of 2,697 cubic meters per person is less than half the global average of 5,829 cubic meters. Yet Asia has experienced the world’s most rapid growth in freshwater withdrawals from rivers, lakes and aquifers since its economic rise.

The region’s freshwater usage rate exceeds its renewable stocks. By digging deeper wells and overexploiting river resources, combined with irrigation subsidies, Asia is accelerating water resource depletion and environmental degradation.

Transboundary problem

Water contamination until now has been mainly a domestic issue as highlighted by the pollution problems affecting the Yellow River in China and the Ganges in India. But the contamination of the Siang signals that this problem is becoming a transboundary problem, which will increase tensions and discord between neighboring countries.

Sino-India tensions have already increased due to freshwater disputes. Beijing has withheld hydrological data from New Delhi on upstream river flows in 2017 in breach of two bilateral accords. This undermined India’s flood early-warning systems during the critical monsoon season. In India’s Assam state, which suffered record flooding despite below-normal monsoon rainfall, many deaths were preventable. The data denial was apparently intended to punish India for boycotting China’s Belt and Road summit and for the border standoff on the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam.

Asia’s water crisis, meanwhile, has given rise to grand but environmentally problematic projects such as China’s South-to-North Water Diversion Project. China has already completed two of the three legs of the world’s most ambitious water transfer program, which is now diverting billions of cubic meters of river waters yearly to its parched north. Because this program’s highly controversial third leg is to divert waters from rivers flowing to other countries from the Tibetan Plateau, China refuses to divulge any details about it.

More broadly, even as threats to Asia’s sustainable water supply are intensifying, geostrategic factors are raising the specter of water wars. Dam building and other diversions are often at the center of tensions and recriminations between states.

Asia illustrates that once shared water becomes a political and diplomatic battleground between countries, it begins to insidiously exact geopolitical costs in ways not dissimilar to the legacy of an armed conflict. The casualty usually is sub-regional stability and cooperation.

Asia also exemplifies another important trend — that dams and democracy do not go well together. Dam building has run into major grassroots opposition in Asian democracies like Japan, South Korea and India, driving up project costs and acting as a damper on hydropower expansion. In the absence of grassroots empowerment, however, there are few impediments to dam construction in Laos, Myanmar, Pakistan, China and elsewhere.

Indeed, China has become the global leader in dam building, boasting more large dams than the rest of the world combined. What is intensifying concern among downstream nations about China’s dam frenzy is the shift in its focus from domestic rivers to ones that cross borders. The Siang River’s contamination triggered a political furor and grassroots protests in India’s northeast, forcing Beijing to break its long silence and claim that a Nov. 18 earthquake in southeastern Tibet “might have led to the turbidity (clouding)” of the river. But the river waters turned dirty and gray before the quake struck.

The plain fact is that the environmental futures of China and its many neighbors are inextricably linked. Environmental degradation on the world’s largest and highest plateau — Tibet (which is warming at a rate three times the global average) — carries pan-Asian implications. With its height and other unique features, the Tibetan Plateau influences climatic and rainfall patterns across Asia.

Several other developments are also undermining Asia’s hydrological and climatic stability and fostering a cycle of chronic flooding and droughts. In many Asian countries, watersheds, watercourses, coastal ecosystems and the broader environment are being degraded, resulting in shrinking wetlands and forests, increased water pollution and other ecological problems.

These developments spur global warming. Natural water flows, evaporation and condensation help to propel the earth’s biogeochemical cycles and regulate its climate. Environmental degradation creates a vicious circle. It affects the hydrological cycle that shapes regional climate. A warming climate, in turn, has a significant impact on water resources.

Demand-side options

Jakarta illustrates how Asia’s mounting threats from climate change are fostered by changes in the hydrological cycle. The Indonesian capital, home to nearly 30 million people, is sinking faster than any other major city in the world because of accelerated groundwater depletion. Tens of thousands of wells across Jakarta pump out groundwater at such a rate that it is causing large-scale subsidence, with as much as 40% of the city now said to be below sea level. Groundwater depletion is also contributing to the rise of the Java Sea, thus exacerbating Jakarta’s troubles. Some of the waters extracted from Jakarta’s underground aquifers ultimately end up in the sea.

A surfeit of water but not enough to drink is a scenario likely to confront many coastal Asian cities. One study estimates that groundwater depletion contributes 0.8 millimeters per year to the rise of ocean levels globally, or about a quarter of the total rise. Groundwater depletion, by inviting seawater intrusion into aquifers, is already compounding freshwater shortages in some Asian cities. Meanwhile, the plethora of upstream dams on rivers is causing a perceptible retreat of Asia’s heavily populated deltas that are home to megacities like Bangkok, Dhaka, Guangzhou, Kolkata, Shanghai and Tianjin.

Given that Asia is likely to face a hotter, drier future, governments there must initiate action to mitigate the impacts. The freshwater crisis that many Asian countries already confront should be tackled in a way that contributes to combating climate change. The imperative is to move from purely supply-side approaches to demand-side options that emphasize water conservation and quality as much as quantity. Even on the supply side, nontraditional measures, from recycling of water to rainwater capture, must be embraced.

If unsustainable practices and mismanagement of water resources are not addressed, freshwater will become a precious commodity whose control will spark conflicts in Asia. The rise of water nationalism at a time of increasing water stress highlights the linkage between water and peace. Cooperative institutional mechanisms and sustainable resource utilization constitute the building blocks of water peace. Water is a key test of whether Asian leaders have the political will and good sense to think and act long term. What Asia confronts today, other continents are likely to face tomorrow.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategic and author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

China’s actions risk creating a coalition of democratic powers

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Brahma Chellaney, Professor, Center for Policy Research

The United States, Japan, India and Australia have renewed efforts toward a strategic constellation of democracies in the Indo-Pacific region, with their diplomatic officials meeting jointly on the sidelines of the recent East Asia Summit in Manila. The future of this currently low-key quadrilateral initiative (or “quad”) will be shaped largely by China’s actions, which are acting as a spur to establish what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once called a “democratic security diamond.”

If China moderates its behavior by respecting international law, the quad is unlikely to gain traction. But if Beijing continues to flout established rules and norms on territorial, maritime and trade issues, the apparition of what it sees as an “Asian NATO” might eventually come true.

Today, the specter of a destabilizing power imbalance looms large in the world’s most dynamic region. In this light, close strategic collaboration among the major democracies can help institute power stability in the Indo-Pacific region and contain the challenges that threaten to disrupt stability and impede economic growth.

Let’s be clear: the alternative to a liberal, inclusive, rules-based order is an illiberal, hegemonic order with Chinese characteristics. Few would like to live in such an order.

Yet, this is precisely what the Indo-Pacific region might get if regional states do not work to counter the growing challenge to the rules-based order. China has prospered under the present order. But having accumulated economic and military power, it is now insidiously challenging that order through its actions.

Before the Manila summit, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pitched for a concert of democracies. “The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” a development that demands “greater engagement and cooperation” among democratic powers, Tillerson said in his first Asia-Pacific policy speech since taking office.

To succeed, such an endeavor must reckon with certain realities, including by drawing lessons from the failed effort a decade ago to sustain a similar quadrilateral initiative. After the original quad held its inaugural meeting in May 2007, Beijing was quick to cry foul and mount intense diplomatic and economic pressure on the member-states. Ultimately, it succeeded in unraveling the quad.

From the beginning, Australia appeared ill at ease in the original quad, given that its economic boom was tied to China’s ravenous commodity imports. America’s own support to the quad was less than unreserved, in light of its economic co-dependency with China. As for India, its approach was low-key — tacitly supportive of the quad, but hesitant to do anything openly that could instigate China to step up direct or surrogate military pressure on it. That left Japan as the only enthusiastic member of the original quad. Indeed, the quad idea was conceived by Abe in his book, Utsukushii Kuni-e (Toward A Beautiful Country), which was published just months before he became prime minister for the first time in 2006.

Eventually, the Kevin Rudd government in Australia pulled the rug from under the quad in a vain attempt to appease Beijing. With his visiting Chinese counterpart by his side, then Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, “I indicated when I was in Japan that Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature.” He went on to label the inaugural quad meeting as “a one-off” affair.

Did the disbanding of the original quad help change China’s behavior in a positive direction? Actually China’s behavior changed for the worse.

Had the quad members stood up to the Chinese pressure, China would likely have had less space to strategically alter the status quo in the South China Sea in its favor. China’s success in extending its control in the South China Sea by artificially creating seven islands and militarizing them has only emboldened its aggressive designs in the Himalayas and the East China Sea.

The lost decade since the first quad experiment means that democratic powers cannot afford to fail again. They need to come together through meaningful collaboration and coordination, because no single power on its own has been able to stop China’s territorial and maritime creep or rein in its increasingly muscular approach. The rebirth of the quad is an attempt to provide an initial framework to institute such collaboration among an expanding group of democracies.

To be sure, a democratic coalition is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. A loose coalition of democracies can draw strength from the concept of democratic peace, which holds special relevance for the region. Shared values and interests are likely to drive democratic powers to promote maritime security, stability, connectivity, freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the region.

Democratic powers must proceed slowly, but surely, without unduly publicizing their meetings or intentions, in view of their failed experiment a decade ago and the current geopolitical challenges that are largely centered on China’s recidivist actions.

Japan and India, facing direct Chinese military pressure, have a much greater interest in the formation of a concert of democracies than the geographically distant U.S. and Australia.

An ongoing political crisis in Australia could trigger an election early next year, potentially bringing to power the opposition Labor Party, which seemingly favors a China-friendly foreign policy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s job approval rating has slumped to a new low. Australia, having caused the collapse of the first quad experiment, remains the weak link in the reconstituted quad.

Meanwhile, the praise Trump lavished on China and its neo-Leninist dictator, Xi Jinping, during his Beijing visit raised the question of whether he fully shares Tillerson’s Indo-Pacific vision. To be sure, the success of the reconstituted quad depends on the U.S. being fully on board.

Major Asia-Pacific powers, of course, will continue to seek opportunities to balance against China, with or without the U.S. being on board. Two recent examples from the region — the revival of the quad and the movement toward concluding a final Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement among the 11 remaining members — indicate a clear determination to block the emergence of a China-led future.

The plain fact is that the Indo-Pacific democracies are natural allies. And given that contrasting political values have become the main geopolitical dividing line in the Asia-Pacific region, establishing a community of values can help underpin regional stability and power equilibrium. Such a community can also ensure that China’s defiant unilateralism is no longer cost-free.

But whether a constellation of democracies actually emerges or remains just an attractive concept hinges on China’s willingness to play by the rules. In that sense, the ball is in Beijing’s court.

© China-US Focus, 2017.

Rohingya militancy poses a regional threat

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A screen shot from a video released on 15 August 2017, showing a top commander of the terrorist group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), and four of his followers.

BY 

In Myanmar, one of the world’s most diverse, multiethnic nations, there is a rare consensus — the much-persecuted Rohingya Muslims are outsiders and not part of the country. A military operation to flush out Rohingya militants waging a hit-and-run campaign has led to an exodus of Rohingya residents from Rakhine state, creating a refugee crisis for Bangladesh and, to a smaller extent, India.

India, over the years, has generously admitted asylum seekers or refugees from a host of places, including Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China. But the illegal entry of tens of thousands of Rohingya is seen in India as an internal security challenge, in part because of the threat the Indian government perceives from Rohingya jihadist activities. Rohingya militants have a long history of violent jihadism, including recent attacks on non-Muslim civilians in Rakhine state.

The current international narrative on the Rohingya plight has actually failed to recognize the roots of the present crisis. Contrary to the perception that the Rohingya militancy has arisen from military repression in recent years, Myanmar’s jihad scourge is decades old, with Rohingya Islamist violence beginning even before Myanmar gained independence in 1948.

Rohingya militants have actually been in the vanguard of the global rise of Islamic radicalism since the early 1940s, when they joined the campaign to press the British to establish Pakistan by partitioning India. It was the British who more than a century ago moved large numbers of Rohingya from East Bengal to work on rubber and tea plantations in Burma, now Myanmar, which was administered as a province of India until 1937 before it became a separate, self-governing colony. Rohingya migrants settled mainly in Myanmar’s East Bengal-bordering Arakan region (now renamed Rakhine state).

It was the advance of the Imperial Japanese Army into Myanmar during World War II that first highlighted the country’s Rohingya problem. Communal hatred spilled into violence as the Japanese military swept into Arakan in 1942 and the British launched a counter-offensive, with the local Buddhists largely siding with the Japanese and the Rohingya with the British.

Britain recruited Rohingya Muslims into its guerrilla force — the “V” Force — to ambush and kill Japanese troops. When the British eventually regained control of Arakan in 1945, they rewarded Rohingya Muslims for their loyalty by appointing them to the main posts in the local government.

Emboldened by the open British support, Rohingya militants set out to settle old scores with the Buddhists. And in July 1946, they formed the North Arakan Muslim League to seek the Muslim-dominated northern Arakan’s secession from Myanmar. In the religious bloodletting that preceded and followed the 1947 partition of India, Rohingya attacks sought to drive out the Buddhists from northern Arakan as part of the militants’ campaign to join East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1971).

Failure to join East Pakistan turned many Rohingyas to armed jihadism, with mujaheddin forces in 1948 gaining effective control of northern Arakan. Government forces suppressed the revolt only in the early 1950s, although intermittent mujaheddin attacks continued even subsequently until the early 1960s.

From the 1970s onward, Rohingya Islamist movements reemerged, with a series of insurgent groups rising and fading away. The aim of the groups was to establish an Islamist state within a Buddhist state through jihad and demographic change.

Now history has come full circle, with the Myanmar military being accused of driving the Rohingya out of Rakhine state. But in a development that carries ominous security implications for the region, especially Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, Rakhine is becoming a magnet for the global jihadist movement, with Rohingya radicals increasingly being aided by militant organizations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The new breed of Rohingya insurgents is suspected of having links with Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaida and even Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. After the 2012 deadly communal riots in Rakhine, Ata Ullah, the Pakistani who heads the Rohingya terrorist group, the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, reportedly returned to Pakistan from an extended stay in Saudi Arabia with millions of dollars to wage jihad against Myanmar.

Against this background, India is concerned about the illegal entry of over 40,000 Rohingya since 2012. The government has told the country’s Supreme Court that their arrival poses a “serious security threat” because of Rohingya militants’ links with terrorist outfits. Some Rohingya militants have become active even in India, according to the government.

What is particularly striking is the organized manner in which the Rohingya sneaked into India from multiple routes and then settled across the length and breadth of the country, including in communally sensitive places like Kashmir and Hyderabad. Rohingya settlements have come up even in New Delhi. Because they entered India unlawfully, the Rohingya are classified as illegal aliens, not refugees.

Normally those fleeing a conflict-torn zone tend to camp just across an international border. But the Rohingya entered India not through the long border the country shares with Myanmar but via a third nation, Bangladesh. After having crossed over into India, many Rohingya then dispersed from the Bangladesh-bordering West Bengal and Tripura states to different parts of the country. Large numbers of these arrivals, according to the government, have fraudulently obtained Indian identity cards, thus reinforcing security concerns.

In fact, the Rohingya have approached India’s Supreme Court against their possible deportation. Because they entered from Bangladesh, they can be deported only to that country, not to Myanmar. However, the Indian government has made no attempt thus far to deport any Rohingya.

India is already home to some 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh, a figure that is nearly double the number of Mexican immigrants — legal and illegal — living in the United States. But while the presence of the Mexican aliens is a hot political and judicial issue in the U.S., political correctness has inhibited any debate in India for years on how to deal with the illegal Bangladeshi settlers. The United Nations has described the influx of Bangladeshis into India as “the single largest bilateral stock of international migrants” in the eastern hemisphere.

A crowded India is in no mood to accommodate more illegal aliens. The specter of the Rohingya contributing to violent Islamism in India has made them feel unwelcome.

More broadly, the external forces fomenting jihadist attacks in Rakhine state bear considerable responsibility for the current plight of the Rohingya. It is ironic that the Islamic nations aiding jihad in Rakhine and slamming Myanmar are unwilling to give refuge to any of the fleeing Rohingya.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Abe propels a potential constellation of democracies

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BY , The Japan Times

With the specter of a destabilizing power imbalance looming large in the world’s most dynamic region, the Indo-Pacific, the imperative to establish what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once called a “democratic security diamond” has prompted Australia, India, Japan and the United States to renew efforts toward a strategic constellation of democracies.

Close strategic collaboration among key democracies can help institute power stability and contain the challenges that threaten to disrupt stability and impede economic growth in the Indo-Pacific, a region marked by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific oceans. At the core of a potential constellation of democracies is the strategic quadrilateral of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.

On the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila, U.S. President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Abe held bilateral and trilateral meetings between themselves. Diplomatic officials from the four countries also held a joint meeting there to examine “ways to achieve common goals and address common challenges in the region,” with the quadrilateral partners agreeing to defend the rules-based order, according to the U.S. State Department.

Let’s be clear: The alternative to a liberal, inclusive, rules-based order is an illiberal, hegemonic order with Chinese characteristics. Few would like to live in such an order.

Yet this is precisely what the Indo-Pacific region might get if regional states do not work to counter the growing challenge to the rules-based order. China has prospered under the present order. But having accumulated economic and military power, it is now challenging that order, including by flouting established rules and norms on territorial, maritime and trade issues.

Before the Manila summit, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pitched for a concert of democracies. “The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” a development that demands “greater engagement and cooperation” among democratic powers, Tillerson said in his first Asia-Pacific policy speech since taking office.

To succeed, such an endeavor must reckon with certain realities, including by drawing lessons from the failed effort a decade ago to sustain the exploratory Quadrilateral Initiative. After the “quad” held its inaugural meeting in May 2007, Beijing was quick to cry foul and see the apparition of an “Asian NATO.” Through intense diplomatic and economic pressure, Beijing sought to unravel the quad. Ultimately, it succeeded.

Australia appeared ill at ease in the quad, given that its economic boom was tied to China’s commodity imports. America’s support to the quad was less than unreserved, in light of its economic co-dependency with China. India was tacitly supportive of the quad but hesitant to do anything openly that could instigate China to step up direct or surrogate military pressure on it.

That left Japan as the only enthusiastic quad member. Indeed, the quad idea was conceived by Abe in his book “Utsukushii Kuni-e” (“Toward A Beautiful Country”), which was published before he became prime minister for the first time in 2006.

Eventually, the Kevin Rudd government in Australia pulled the rug from under the quad in a vain attempt to appease Beijing. With his visiting Chinese counterpart by his side, then-Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, “I indicated when I was in Japan that Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature” and labeled the inaugural quad meeting as “a one-off” affair.

Did the quad’s disbanding help change China’s behavior in a positive direction? Actually China’s behavior changed for the worse. Had the quad members stood up to the Chinese pressure, China would likely have had less space to strategically alter the status quo in the South China Sea in its favor. China’s success in extending its control in the South China Sea by artificially creating seven islands and militarizing them has only emboldened its aggressive designs in the Himalayas and the East China Sea.

The lost decade since the first quad experiment means that democratic powers cannot afford to fail again. They need to come together through meaningful collaboration and coordination because no single power on its own has been able to stop China’s territorial and maritime creep or rein in its increasingly muscular approach.

To be sure, a democratic coalition is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. A loose coalition of democracies can draw strength from the concept of democratic peace, which holds special relevance for the region. Shared values and interests are likely to drive democratic powers to promote maritime security, stability, connectivity, freedom of navigation, respect for international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the region.

Democratic powers must proceed slowly but surely, without unduly publicizing their meetings or intentions, in view of their failed experiment a decade ago and the current geopolitical challenges that are largely centered on China.

Japan and India, facing direct Chinese military pressure, have a much greater interest in the formation of a concert of democracies than the geographically distant U.S. and Australia.

An ongoing political crisis in Australia could trigger an election early next year, potentially bringing to power the opposition Labor Party, which seemingly favors a China-friendly foreign policy. Turnbull’s job approval rating has hit a new low. Having caused the collapse of the first quad experiment, Australia is the weak link in the reconstituted quad.

Meanwhile, the praise Trump lavished on China and its neo-Leninist dictator, Xi Jinping, during his recent Beijing visit raises the question whether he fully shares Tillerson’s Indo-Pacific vision. Despite his praise and flattery, Trump failed to secure any important Chinese concession. In fact, his visit, far from highlighting U.S. leadership, unwittingly spotlighted China’s strength and power to potentially shape a post-American order in the Asia-Pacific region.

To be sure, the success of the reconstituted quad hinges on the U.S. being fully on board. Of course, major Asia-Pacific powers will continue to seek opportunities to balance against China, with or without the U.S. being on board. Two recent examples from the region — the revival of the quad and the movement toward concluding a final Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement among the 11 remaining members — indicate a clear determination to block the emergence of a China-led future.

Still, the absence of a joint statement after the Nov. 12 quad meeting in Manila underscores the challenge the nascent initiative faces. Each quad member-state issued its own statement.

The resurrected quad — the result of Abe’s diplomatic doggedness — is intended to serve as an initial framework to promote a four-way security dialogue and set in motion a web of interlocking partnerships among an expanding group of democracies.

Given that contrasting political values have become the main geopolitical dividing line in the Asia-Pacific region, establishing a community of values can help underpin regional stability and power equilibrium. Such a community can also ensure that China’s defiant unilateralism is no longer cost-free.

The plain fact is that the Indo-Pacific democracies are natural allies. The Japan-U.S.-India-Australia strategic trapezium is best placed to lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and to make sure that liberalism prevails over illiberalism.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Asia-Pacific democracies’ new entente

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Just as Germany’s rapid ascent prior to WWI spurred a “triple entente” among France, Russia, and the UK, China’s increasingly aggressive behavior is creating strong impetus for the Asia-Pacific democracies to build a more powerful strategic coalition. This goal should become the centerpiece of these countries’ regional policies.

Project Syndicate

PERTH – US President Donald Trump toured Asia at a moment when the region’s security situation was practically white-hot. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recognizing that the world’s “center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” called on the region’s democratic powers to pursue “greater engagement and cooperation.” They – including Trump’s US – should heed that call. In fact, only an alliance of democracies can ensure the emergence of a strong rules-based order and a stable balance of power in the world’s most economically dynamic region.

In recent years, as Tillerson acknowledged, China has taken “provocative actions,” such as in the South China Sea, that challenge international law and norms. And this behavior is set to continue, if not escalate. Last month’s 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China effectively crowned President Xi Jinping – who has spearheaded a more muscular foreign policy, in service of his goal of establishing China as a global superpower – as the country’s emperor.

Just as Germany’s rapid ascent prior to World War I spurred a “triple entente” among France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, China’s increasingly assertive behavior is creating strong impetus for the Asia-Pacific democracies to build a more powerful coalition. After all, as recent experience in the South China Sea has made clear, no single power can impose sufficient costs on China for its maritime and territorial revisionism, much less compel Chinese leaders to change course.

This is not to say that no country has been able to challenge China. Just this summer, India stood up to its muscle-flexing neighbor in a ten-week border standoff. China has been using construction projects to change the status quo on the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam, just as it has so often done in the South China Sea. India intervened, stalling China’s building activity. Had US President Barack Obama’s administration shown similar resolve in the South China Sea, perhaps China would not now be in possession of seven militarized artificial islands there.

In any case, securing a broader shift in China’s foreign policy and stabilizing the Asia-Pacific region’s power dynamics will require more than one country holding the line on any one issue. A US that is willing to employ new tools, a more confident Japan and India, and an Australia vexed by China’s meddling in its domestic affairs must work together to constrain Chinese behavior.

The good news is that an entente has already begun to emerge among the region’s key democracies. America’s relationship with India, in particular, has been undergoing what Tillerson called a “profound transformation,” as the two countries become “increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence.” The US now holds more joint defense exercises with India than with any other country. Such cooperation puts the two countries in a strong position to fulfill Tillerson’s vision of serving “as the eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific.”

Engagement with Japan, too, has deepened. This year’s Malabar exercise – an annual naval exercise in the Indian Ocean involving the US, India, and Japan – was the largest and most complex since it began a quarter-century ago. Focused on destroying enemy submarines, it involved more than 7,000 personnel from the US alone, and featured for the first time aircraft carriers from all three navies: America’s nuclear-powered USS Nimitz, Japan’s Izumo helicopter carrier, and India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya.

As Tillerson pointed out, this trilateral engagement among the US, India, and Japan is already bringing important benefits. But “there is room to invite others, including Australia, to build on the shared objectives and initiatives.”

So far, Australia has sought to avoid having to choose between its security ally, the US, and its main economic partner, China. Despite Defense Minister Marise Payne’s recent declaration that “Australia is very interested in a quadrilateral engagement with India, Japan, and the United States,” the government seems to be hedging its bets. For example, while it sought this year to rejoin the Malabar exercise – from which it withdrew a decade ago to appease China – it sought to do so only as an “observer.”

This approach is untenable. If Australia is to free itself of Chinese meddling, it will need to go beyond implementing new domestic safeguards to take a more active role in defending rules and norms beyond its borders, both on land and at sea.

In the coming years, the Indo-Pacific power balance will be determined, first and foremost, by events in the Indian Ocean and East Asia. Containing China will therefore require, first, efforts to restrict the country’s maritime activities – such as measures to safeguard vital sea lines and build maritime domain awareness – and, second, geo-economic initiatives to counter China’s coercive leverage over smaller countries. All of Asia’s democratic powers must be on board.

Calls by the US for closer cooperation bode well for this process, though the US still needs to focus more on the globally ascendant and aggressive China than on a declining Russia. The overwhelming victory of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – who has touted the idea of establishing a “democratic security diamond” in the Asia-Pacific – in his country’s recent general election is also likely to help to drive cooperation forward.

To be sure, any entente among Asian democracies is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. Rather, the objective should be for democratic powers to reach a broad strategic understanding, based on shared values. It is those values, after all, that set them apart: as Tillerson recognized, while Trump’s upcoming visit to Beijing will undoubtedly draw much global attention, the US cannot have the kind of relationship with non-democratic China that it can have with a major democracy.

By pursuing cooperation, the Indo-Pacific’s democratic powers can shore up an inclusive, rules-based order that underpins peace, prosperity, stability, and freedom of navigation in the region. That is the only way to thwart China’s effort to establish itself as the hegemon of an illiberal regional order.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2017.

Xi’s newfound strength obscures China’s internal risks

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BY , The Japan Times

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China, the world’s communist behemoth, is at a turning point in its history, one that will have profound implications for the rest of the world, but especially for Asia. Neighboring countries, from Japan to India, are already bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies.

The just-concluded 19th Chinese Communist Party congress put its imprimatur on President Xi Jinping’s centralization of power by naming no clear successor to him and signaling the quiet demise of the collective leadership system that has governed China for more than a quarter century. The congress, in essence, was about Xi’s coronation as China’s new emperor.

By enshrining the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era” in its constitution, the party has made this new “ideology” — just like Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong’s thoughts — compulsory learning for Chinese students at all levels.

To be sure, the lurch toward absolutism didn’t happen suddenly. Xi spent his first five-year term tightening control on society. While strengthening censorship and using anti-corruption probes to take down political enemies, he steadily concentrated powers in himself. A year ago, he got the party to bestow on him the title of “core” leader.

Now, in his second term, Xi will likely centralize power in a way China hasn’t seen since Mao. Xi has already made himself in some ways more powerful than even Mao. Today, everyone is dispensable except Xi, who appears set to remain in power indefinitely.

Domestic politics in any country, including a major democracy like the United States, has a bearing on its foreign policy. The link between China’s traditionally cut-throat internal politics and its external policy has been apparent since the Mao era.

For example, China launched the 1962 Himalayan war with India after Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” created the worst manmade famine in history, with the resulting damage to his credibility, according to the Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, serving as a strong incentive for him to reassert leadership through a war. The Great Leap Forward policy led to the deaths of up to 45 million Chinese, according to the historian Frank Dikötter.

In the run-up to the latest party congress, two senior military generals disappeared from public view, including the top general holding the position equivalent to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is unthinkable that in any other major country in the twenty-first century, the top-ranking general can just vanish and later is said to be under detention for alleged abuse of office.

Xi has ruthlessly cut to size any institution or group that could pose a potential challenge to his authority. By purging and jailing countless number of generals on corruption charges, he has sought to tame the powerful People’s Liberation Army, which traditionally has sworn fealty to the party, not the nation. More recently, Xi has also gone after China’s new tycoons in order to block the rise of Russia-style oligarchs.

Control and nationalism are the guiding themes in Xi’s approach, which centers on the state being in charge of all aspects of public life, including culture, religion and the digital realm. But such an approach risks creating a pressure cooker syndrome — cool on the outside but so pressurized on the inside that it could not be deftly managed.

It is true that even before Xi assumed power in 2012, China began gradually discarding Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to “keep a low profile and bide one’s time.” An increasingly nationalistic, assertive China staked out a more muscular role, including resurrecting territorial and maritime disputes and asserting new sovereignty claims.

China’s proclivity to bare its claws, however, has become more pronounced under Xi, who sees the West in retreat and wants China to gain the upper hand globally. His government has aggressively used construction activity to change the status quo in Asia in relation to land and sea frontiers and cross-border river flows. In his marathon, three-and-a-half-hour speech to the party congress, Xi actually bragged of his “successful prosecution of maritime rights,” citing “South China Sea reef and island construction” as one of his major achievements.

In fact, Xi aspires to become modern China’s most transformative leader. Just as Mao helped to create a reunified and independent China through a communist “revolution,” and Deng set in motion China’s economic rise through reforms, Xi wants to make China the central player in the international order.

Now that Xi’s pet “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project has been officially enshrined in the party’s constitution, the world will likely witness a greater Chinese propensity to use geo-economic tools to achieve larger geostrategic objectives. The $1 trillion OBOR, however, symbolizes the risk of China’s strategic overreach: The majority of the nations in OBOR are junk rated or not graded by international rating firms. China’s OBOR drive is actually beginning to encounter a backlash in several partner countries.

Even so, the sycophancy with which senior officials abased themselves to extol Xi at the party congress indicates that there is no room for debate in a one-man-led China. Indeed, Xi’s gaining of virtually absolute power demonstrates — if any evidence were needed — that there is no linear path between rising prosperity and political pluralism.

Internationally, Xi’s neo-Maoist dictatorship will likely spell trouble for the free world, especially Asian democracies like India, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. We will likely see a China more assertive in the Indo-Pacific region, more determined to achieve global superpower status, and more prone to employing instruments of coercive diplomacy and breaching established norms and rules. A restrained and stable Chinese foreign policy could become more difficult.

Xi’s vision, which he has called the “Chinese dream,” is essentially to make China the world’s preeminent power by 2049 — the centennial of the communist “revolution.” The longest any autocratic system has survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet Union. Xi’s grip on power may still be intact when China is expected to overtake that record in less than seven years.

Still, with the party’s ideological mask no longer credible, the longer-term prospects of continued communist rule are far from certain. After all, China’s future is likely to be determined not so much by its hugely successful economy as by its murky domestic politics.

Xi’s new strength and power helps obscure China’s internal risks, including the fundamental challenge of how to avoid a political hard-landing. As for Xi, he needs to watch his back, having made many enemies at home in his no-holds-barred effort to concentrate power in his own hands.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

A New Front in Asia’s Water War

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For decades, China has been dragging its neighbors into high-stakes games of geopolitical poker over water-related issues. But the country’s politically motivated decision to withhold hydrological data from India amounts to an escalation of China’s efforts to exploit its status as the world’s hydro-hegemon to gain strategic leverage over its neighbors.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

China has long regarded freshwater as a strategic weapon — one that the country’s leaders have no compunction about wielding to advance their foreign-policy goals. After years of using its chokehold on almost every major transnational river system in Asia to manipulate water flows themselves, China is now withholding data on upstream flows to put pressure on downstream countries, particularly India.

For decades, China has been dragging its neighbors into high-stakes games of geopolitical poker over water-related issues. Thanks to its forcible annexation of Tibet and other non-Han Chinese ethnic homelands — territories that comprise some 60% of its landmass — China is the world’s unrivaled hydro-hegemon. It is the source of cross-border riparian flows to more countries than any other state.

In recent years, China has worked hard to exploit that status to increase its leverage over its neighbors, relentlessly building upstream dams on international rivers. China is now home to more dams than the rest of the world combined, and the construction continues, leaving downstream neighbors — especially the vulnerable lower Mekong basin states, Nepal, and Kazakhstan — essentially at China’s mercy.

So far, China has refused to enter into a water-sharing treaty with a single country. It does, however, share some hydrological and meteorological data — essential to enable downstream countries to foresee and plan for floods, thereby protecting lives and reducing material losses.

Yet, this year, China decided to withhold such data from India, undermining the efficacy of India’s flood early-warning systems — during Asia’s summer monsoon season, no less. As a result, despite below-normal monsoon rains this year in India’s northeast, through which the Brahmaputra River flows after leaving Tibet and before entering Bangladesh, the region faced unprecedented flooding, with devastating consequences, especially in Assam state.

China’s decision to withhold crucial data is not only cruel; it also breaches the country’s international obligations. China is one of just three countries that voted against the 1997 United Nations Watercourse Convention, which called for the regular exchange of hydrological and other data between co-basin states. But China did enter into a five-year bilateral accord, which expires next year, requiring it to transfer to India hydrological and meteorological data daily from three Brahmaputra-monitoring stations in Tibet during the risky flood season, from May 15 to October 15. A similar agreement, reached in 2015, covers the Sutlej, another flood-prone river. Both accords arose after flash floods linked to suspected discharges from Chinese projects in Tibet repeatedly ravaged India’s Arunachal and Himachal states.

Unlike some other countries, which offer hydrological data to their downstream counterparts for free, China does so only for a price. (The Watercourse Convention would have required that no charges be levied, unless the data or information was “not readily available” — a rule that may also have contributed to China’s “no” vote.)

But it was a price India was willing to pay. And this year, as always, India sent the agreed amount. Yet it received no data, with the Chinese foreign ministry claiming after almost four months that upstream stations were being “upgraded” or “renovated.” That claim was spurious: China did supply data on the Brahmaputra to Bangladesh.

Three weeks earlier, the state-controlled newspaper Global Times offered a more plausible explanation for China’s failure to deliver the promised data to India: the data transfer had been intentionally halted, owing to India’s supposed infringement on Chinese territorial sovereignty in a dispute over the remote Himalayan region of Doklam. For much of the summer, that dispute took the form of a border standoff where Bhutan, Tibet, and the Indian state of Sikkim meet.

But even before the dispute flared in mid-June, China was seething over India’s boycott of its May 14-15 summit promoting the much-vaunted “Belt and Road” initiative. The denial of data apparently began as an attempt to punish India for condemning China’s massive, cross-border infrastructure agenda as an opaque, neocolonial enterprise. China’s desire to punish India was then reinforced by the Doklam standoff.

For China, it seems, international agreements stop being binding when they are no longer politically convenient. This reading is reinforced by China’s violations of its 1984 pact with the United Kingdom, under which China gained sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997. China claims that the agreement, based on the formula “one country, two systems,” had lost “practical significance” over the last 20 years.

Were the roles reversed, a downstream China would have stridently accused an upstream India of exacerbating flood-related death and destruction by breaching its international obligations. But just as China has unilaterally and aggressively asserted its territorial and maritime claims in Asia, it is using the reengineering of cross-border riparian flows and denial of hydrological data to deepen its regional power.

In fact, China’s cutoff of water data, despite the likely impact on vulnerable civilian communities, sets a dangerous precedent of indifference to humanitarian considerations. It also highlights how China is fashioning unconventional tools of coercive diplomacy, whose instruments already range from informally boycotting goods from a targeted country to halting strategic exports (such as of rare-earth minerals) and suspending Chinese tourist travel.

Now, by seizing control over water — a resource vital to millions of lives and livelihoods — China can hold another country hostage without firing a single shot. In a water-stressed Asia, taming China’s hegemonic ambition is now the biggest strategic challenge.

© Project Syndicate, 2017.

The long history of Rohingya Islamist militancy

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today

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Inside Myanmar’s Rakhine state: Members of the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, also known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which is aided by militant organizations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The current international narrative on the plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority has failed to recognize the roots of the present crisis or the growing transnational jihadist links of Rohingya militants, who have stepped up attacks. Contrary to the perception that the Rohingya militancy has arisen from military repression in recent years, Myanmar’s jihad scourge is decades old, with Rohingya Islamist violence beginning even before Myanmar gained independence in 1948.

Rohingya militants have actually been in the vanguard of the global rise of Islamic radicalism since the early 1940s, when they joined the campaign to press the British to establish Pakistan by partitioning India. It was the British who earlier moved large numbers of Rohingyas from East Bengal to work on rubber and tea plantations in Burma, now Myanmar, which was administered as a province of India until 1937 before it became a separate, self-governing colony. Rohingya migrants settled mainly in Myanmar’s East Bengal-bordering Arakan region (now renamed Rakhine state).

Between 1942 and the early 1950s, a civil war raged in Arakan between Muslims and Buddhists. Communal hatred spilled into violence during World War II as the Japanese military advanced into Arakan in 1942 and the British launched a counter-offensive, with local Buddhists largely siding with the Japanese and Rohingyas with the British.

Britain recruited Rohingya Muslims into its guerrilla force — the so-called “V” Force — to ambush and kill Japanese troops. When the British eventually regained control of Arakan in 1945, they rewarded Rohingya Muslims for their loyalty by appointing them to the main posts in the local government.

Emboldened by the open British support, Rohingya militants set out to settle old scores with Buddhists. And in July 1946, they formed the North Arakan Muslim League to seek the Muslim-dominated northern Arakan’s secession from Myanmar. In the religious bloodletting that preceded and followed the partition of India, Rohingya attacks sought to drive out Buddhists from northern Arakan as part of the campaign to join East Pakistan.

Failure to achieve that goal turned many Rohingyas to armed jihadism, with mujahideen forces in 1948 gaining effective control of northern Arakan. Government forces suppressed the revolt in the early 1950s, although intermittent mujahideen attacks continued until the early 1960s. From the 1970s onwards, however, Rohingya Islamist movements re-emerged, with a series of insurgent groups rising and fading away. The aim of the groups was to establish an Islamist state within a Buddhist state, principally through demographic change and jihad.

Now history has come full circle, with the Myanmar military being accused of driving Rohingyas out of Rakhine state. But in a development that carries ominous security implications for the region, especially Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, Rakhine is becoming a magnet for the global jihadist movement, with Rohingya radicals increasingly being aided by militant organizations in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The new breed of Rohingya insurgents is suspected of having links with ISIS, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda and even Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Ata Ullah, the Pakistani who heads the Rohingya terrorist group, the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, reportedly returned to Pakistan from an extended stay in Saudi Arabia with millions of dollars to wage jihad against Myanmar after the 2012 deadly communal riots in Rakhine.

Against this background, India is legitimately concerned about the illegal entry of over 40,000 Rohingyas since 2012, with the government telling the Supreme Court that their arrival poses a “serious security threat” because of the links of Rohingya militants with terrorist outfits and the ISI agency. Some of these militants have become active in India, according to the government.

What is particularly disturbing is the organized manner in which the Rohingyas have sneaked into India from multiple routes and then settled across the length and breadth of the country, including in sensitive places like Jammu, Kashmir Valley, Mewat and Hyderabad. Rohingya settlements have come up even in New Delhi. Because they entered India unlawfully, the Rohingas are illegal aliens, not refugees.

Normally, those fleeing a conflict-torn zone tend to camp just across an international border. But in this case the Rohingyas entered India via a third nation, Bangladesh. And then large numbers of them dispersed from West Bengal and Tripura states to different parts of India. Many of them, as the government admits, have obtained Aadhaar and other identity cards.

Still, the government is reluctant to order an inquiry into the role of internal forces in assisting the Rohingyas’ entry, dispersal and settlement across India. Worse yet, it has passed the buck to the Supreme Court, with Home Minister Rajnath Singh saying the government would await the Court’s hearing and decision on the Rohingyas’ plea against possible deportation to Bangladesh, from where they entered. Thus far, New Delhi has been all talk and no action.

Make no mistake: India is a crowded country that, nonetheless, has generously admitted asylum seekers or refugees over the years from a host of places, including Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and mainland China. India is already home to some 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

But the Rohingya aliens pose a special challenge because of the escalating jihad in Rakhine and some Rohingyas’ militant activities on Indian soil. The external forces fomenting jihadist attacks in Rakhine bear considerable responsibility for the Rohingyas’ current plight.

© Mail Today, 2017.

The danger of all talk and no action

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, October 3, 2017

obliterating-terrorism-in-pakistan-hinges-on-state-fulfilling-its-pledge-1454069531-1848Recently, India branded Pakistan a “Terroristan”. And its external affairs minister told the United Nations that Pakistan, as the world’s “pre-eminent terror export factory”, has just one national accomplishment to boast of. Yet New Delhi is loath to back its words with even modest action, such as downsizing Pakistan’s bloated, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-infested high commission in New Delhi, withdrawing the unilaterally granted “most favoured nation” status, leveraging the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), or halting the barter trade across the line of control (LoC) that the National Investigation Agency has identified as financing terrorism.

Despite playing to the public gallery at home, India has done nothing to treat Pakistan as a terrorist nation. Indeed, behind its rhetoric, India pursues a cautious approach. Successive governments have shied away from slapping sanctions of any kind on Pakistan, yet not been coy to press other powers and the United Nations for sanctions.

India seems reluctant not just to back words with action but also to back words with just words on some issues. Take Balochistan, Pakistan’s Achilles heel that is becoming the new East Pakistan because of military killings and mass graves. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised Balochistan in his Independence Day speech in 2016, it seemed to signal an important policy shift. Yet India has remained conspicuously mum on the Balochistan issue. Even as Pakistan uses fake photographs to peddle a false narrative on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), India is unwilling to spotlight the brutal Pakistani campaign against the Baloch people.

Another example is India’s rhetorical stance that the only outstanding issue on J&K relates to the part occupied by Pakistan. Other than slamming China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative for infringing its sovereignty, India has said precious little to show that it is serious about its claim to that occupied region. It has actually kept quiet on matters of substance, including China’s new dam and other strategic projects in Pakistan-held J&K. Had China been in India’s place, it would have raised a hue and cry over each and every project.

As for lack of Indian action, look no further than the IWT issue. Modi vowed that “blood and water cannot flow together”. But instead of action, what has followed is visible backsliding — from reviving the suspended Permanent Indus Commission to allowing the partisan World Bank to insert itself as a mediator between India and Pakistan. The IWT grants the World Bank no mediatory role. Such mediation, besides setting a dangerous precedent, breaches India’s traditional policy of not allowing a third party to intercede in bilateral disputes. Worse still, the Modi-appointed committee of secretaries on the Indus waters has fallen by the wayside, with not a single new project launched.

On the issue of cross-border terrorism, Modi, after the deadly attacks that followed his surprise Lahore visit, sought to salvage his credibility by launching a cross-LoC surgical strike on militant launch pads. But it was always clear that such a limited, one-off operation by itself would not be able to tame Pakistan. The surgical strike was followed by a terror attack on yet another military base. India must mount sustained pressure to keep Pakistan off balance and deny it room to pursue its strategy of seeking to inflict death by a thousand cuts.

The battle against Pakistan’s state terrorism is India’s fight alone. Why would the United States designate Pakistan a terrorist state when the main victim of Pakistan-scripted terror, India, is reluctant to impose any sanctions on its scofflaw neighbour? Indeed, the Modi government persuaded Rajeev Chandrasekhar to withdraw his private member’s bill in Rajya Sabha for declaring Pakistan a terrorism sponsor. New Delhi is even unwilling to declare the rogue ISI a terrorist organization. Actually, in a stunning display of naiveté, India hosted an ISI-linked Pakistani team at Pathankot so that it could probe the attack ISI orchestrated there.

The plain fact is that India is all talk when it comes to imposing costs on the “Terroristan” next door. India is not the United Nations that can remain content with all talk and no action.

Words not backed by action carry unquantifiable costs. They not only affect India’s credibility but also undermine its deterrent posture. Isn’t it telling that Pakistan continues to gore India although it is seven times smaller demographically, eight times lesser in GDP terms, and militarily weaker? Such aggression is the bitter fruit of India’s all-talk-no-action approach under successive governments. It is still not late to reverse course. The best actions to deter a congenitally hostile foe will be those that speak for themselves.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.

Democratic powers must intensify Indian Ocean cooperation

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The Indian Ocean is becoming the center of international maritime rivalry

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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The Indian Ocean, with its crowded and in some cases contested sea lanes, is becoming the center of international maritime rivalry, with various powers jousting for influence and advantage in the world’s third largest body of water, which serves as a vital transit route for the global economy.

As if to highlight this trend, the Chinese navy recently conducted live-fire drills in the western Indian Ocean. China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted the fleet commander as saying that his ships “carried out strikes against ‘enemy’ surface ships” in an “exercise that lasted several days.” The fleet included a destroyer, a guided-missile frigate and a supply vessel. Earlier this year, similar live-fire drills were carried out in the eastern Indian Ocean by a Chinese fleet that also included a destroyer.

As the Chinese live-fire exercises show, the geostrategic maritime environment in the Indian Ocean is altering fundamentally. After consolidating its position in the South China Sea, Beijing is focusing increasingly on the Indian Ocean. A 1971 United Nations resolution declaring it a “zone of peace” has fallen by the wayside.

China’s increasing activity reflects a strategic shift from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection,” in the name of safeguarding its trade and energy interests. This mirrors the evolution of its land-combat strategy from “deep defense” (luring enemy forces into Chinese territory, where they can be garroted) to “active defense” (a proactive posture designed to fight on enemy territory).

Beijing is also employing supposedly economic initiatives to advance its geostrategic ambitions, including implementing its Maritime Silk Road project to gain a major foothold in the Indian Ocean and chip away at India’s natural-geographic advantage.

In recognition of this changing situation, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis kicked off a visit to New Delhi on Sept. 26 by offering a slew of weapon systems to India, including 22 unarmed MQ-9 “Reaper” unmanned aerial vehicles to aid naval intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and precision strikes. Mattis’s boss, President Donald Trump, recently called India “a key security and economic partner of the United States” and said the two countries are “committed to pursuing our shared objectives” in the Indo-Pacific region.

The growing importance of the Indian Ocean resources and sea lanes is apparent. More than half of the world’s container traffic, two-thirds of its seaborne petroleum trade, and a third of all maritime traffic traverse the ocean, much of it through chokepoints such as the Malacca and Hormuz straits.

The Indian Ocean is also rich in mineral wealth, with deep seabed mining emerging as a major new strategic issue. Various powers are seeking to tap seabed resources extending from sulfide deposits — which contain valuable metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc — to phosphorus nodules for phosphor-based fertilizers, underscoring the need for a regulatory regime and environmental protection.

The dangerous rush to exploit mineral and halieutic resources threatens to impose considerable environmental costs and spark new conflicts and confrontations. For example, several studies have indicated that commercial fishing by foreign fleets, by depleting local resources, has driven poor Somali fishermen to piracy.

Projecting naval power

The growth of nonstate actors such as pirates, terrorists and criminal syndicates off the Horn of Africa and elsewhere is also linked with the increasing density and importance of maritime flows through the Indian Ocean. This development, however, has become a pretext for outside powers to intervene and to project naval power. China, for example, has used the excuse of oceanic piracy to launch naval operations around the Horn of Africa and to set up its first overseas naval base at Djibouti, at the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean in north Africa.

China’s growing activities in the Indian Ocean draw strength from its success in changing the status quo in its favor in the adjacent South China Sea, where it has pushed its borders far out into international waters in a way that no power has done elsewhere. By erecting military facilities on manmade islands in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, China has positioned naval and air power at the mouth of the Indian Ocean.

It is now rapidly expanding its Indian Ocean footprint after setting up the Djibouti base and investing in building regional ports, including in Pakistan at Gwadar (which sits strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz), in Sri Lanka at Hambantota, and in Myanmar at Kyaukpyu. It also has port projects in the Seychelles and the Maldives. China’s submarine fleet — one of the fastest-growing in the world — is best suited not for the shallow South China Sea but for the Indian Ocean’s deep waters, a message Beijing has conveyed by dispatching attack submarines to the area.

It was always clear that if China got its way in the South China Sea, it would turn its attention to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Yet U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration allowed China to change the status quo by force in the South China Sea without incurring any international costs, even though this development carries greater and more far-reaching international geopolitical ramifications than Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Under Trump, the U.S. has shown no desire to seek a return to the status quo ante in the South China Sea. As a result, China is firming up its dominance there, while the U.S. symbolically undertakes freedom-of-navigation operations.

Cost-free unilateralism

In effect, China has demonstrated that defiant unilateralism is cost-free. This has left countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies with difficult choices. However, China’s actions have prompted Japan to reverse a decade of declining military outlays and India to revive stalled naval modernization.

Japan, which is heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean region for supplies of energy and raw materials, has also stepped up its regional engagement. For example, it is investing in eight port construction or renovation projects in Indonesia, India, Iran, Oman, Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Seychelles. Japan is also seeking to play a more active role in protecting the Indian Ocean sea lanes.

India, despite its strategic depth in the Indian Ocean, faces a new threat from the oceanic south. With Chinese submarines now making regular forays into India’s maritime backyard right under the nose of its Andaman and Nicobar Command, New Delhi must devise concrete steps to deal with China’s growing footprint.

With India’s energy and strategic infrastructure concentrated along a vulnerable, 7,600km coastline, the emergence of an oceanic challenge represents a tectonic shift in the country’s threat calculus. Yet it has been slow to face up to this reality. It needs a comprehensive maritime security strategy backed by naval capabilities that can take on tasks ranging from protecting and securing the seas to projecting power across the Indian Ocean region.

The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in the Bay of Bengal is a critical asset for India to counter the growing Chinese maritime presence and to blunt the increasing land-based, trans-Himalayan military threat mounted by China. Located next to the Strait of Malacca, the Andaman and Nicobar chain offers control of this strategic chokepoint, which is one of China’s greatest maritime vulnerabilities. Just as the Chinese military harasses and threatens Indian border patrols in the Himalayas, India can potentially play the same game off the Andaman and Nicobar chain, including by establishing China-style civilian maritime militias backed by the Indian Coast Guard.

The importance of this chokepoint can be easily stated: A third of the 61% of global petroleum and other liquids production that moves on maritime routes transits the Strait of Malacca, including around 82% of China’s fuel imports. China’s hold on the South China Sea jugular makes the Strait of Malacca chokepoint a critical defense area for Indian security.

More fundamentally, greater maritime cooperation among democratic powers is becoming inescapable. Cooperation between Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia and the U.S. must extend to guarding the various “gates” to the Indian Ocean by exerting naval power at critical chokepoints. The aim should be to forestall the emergence of a destabilizing Sinocentric Asia. The common observation that, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia,” is unattributed, but nonetheless true.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

Myanmar’s Jihadi Curse

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It is vital that Myanmar’s military immediately halt human-rights abuses of Rohingya in Rakhine State. But it is also vital for the international community to reject the prevailing depiction of the current crisis, which fails to recognize the long history of violent extremism among Rohingya militants.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

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Myanmar’s military has lately been engaged in a brutal campaign against the Rohingya, a long-marginalized Muslim ethnic minority group, driving hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere. The international community has rightly condemned the crackdown. But, in doing so, it has failed to recognize that Rohingya militants have been waging jihad in the country – a reality that makes it extremely difficult to break the cycle of terror and violence.

Rakhine State, where most of Myanmar’s Rohingya reside, is attracting jihadists from far and wide. Local militants are suspected of having ties with the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations. Moreover, they increasingly receive aid from militant-linked organizations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The main insurgent group – the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, also known as Harakah al-Yaqin – is led by a Saudi-based committee of Rohingya émigrés.

The external forces fomenting insurgent attacks in Rakhine bear considerable responsibility for the Rohingyas’ current plight. In fact, it is the links between Rohingya militants and such external forces, especially terrorist organizations like ISIS, that have driven the government of India, where some 40,000 Rohingya have settled illegally, to declare that their entry poses a serious security threat. Even Bangladesh acknowledges Rohingya militants’ external jihadi connections.

But the truth is that Myanmar’s jihadi scourge is decades old, a legacy of British colonialism. After all, it was the British who, more than a century ago, moved large numbers of Rohingya from East Bengal to work on rubber and tea plantations in then-Burma, which was administered as a province of India until 1937.

In the years before India gained independence from Britain in 1947, Rohingya militants joined the campaign to establish Pakistan as the first Islamic republic of the postcolonial era. When the British, who elevated the strategy of “divide and rule” into an art, decided to establish two separate wings of Pakistan on either side of a partitioned India, the Rohingya began attempting to drive Buddhists out of the Muslim-dominated Mayu peninsula in northern Rakhine. They wanted the Mayu peninsula to secede and be annexed by East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1971).

Failure to achieve that goal led many Rohingya to take up arms in a self-declared jihad. Local mujahedeen began to organize attacks on government troops and seize control of territory in northern Rakhine, establishing a state within a state. Just months after Myanmar gained independence in 1948, martial law was declared in the region; government forces regained territorial control in the early 1950s.

But Rohingya Islamist militancy continued to thrive, with mujahedeen attacks occurring intermittently. In 2012, bloody clashes broke out between the Rohingya and the ethnic Rakhines, who feared becoming a minority in their home state. The sectarian violence, in which rival gangs burned down villages and some 140,000 people (mostly Rohingya) were displaced, helped to transform the Rohingya militancy back into a full-blown insurgency, with rebels launching hit-and-run attacks on security forces.

Similar attacks have lately been carried out against security forces and, in some cases, non-Rohingya civilians, with the violence having escalated over the last 12 months. Indeed, it was a wave of coordinated predawn insurgent attacks on 30 police stations and an army base on August 25 that triggered the violent military offensive that is driving the Rohingya out of Rakhine.

Breaking the cycle of terror and violence that has plagued Myanmar for decades will require the country to address the deep-seated sectarian tensions that are driving Rohingya toward jihadism. Myanmar is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries. Its geographic position makes it a natural bridge between South and Southeast Asia, and between China and India.

But, internally, Myanmar has failed to build bridges among its various ethnic groups and cultures. Since independence, governments dominated by Myanmar’s Burman majority have allowed postcolonial nativism to breed conflict or civil war with many of the country’s minority groups, which have complained of a system of geographic apartheid.

The Rohingya face the most extreme marginalization. Viewed as outsiders even by other minorities, the Rohingya are not officially recognized as one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups. In 1982, the government, concerned about illegal immigration from Bangladesh, enacted a law that stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, leaving them stateless.

Successive governments have defended this approach, arguing that past secessionist movements indicate that the Rohingya never identified as part of the country. And, in fact, the common classification of Rohingya as stateless “Bengalis” mirrors the status of Rohingya exiles in the country of their dreams, Pakistan, where tens of thousands took refuge during the Pakistani military genocide that led to Bangladesh’s independence.

Still, the fact is that Myanmar’s failure to construct an inclusive national identity has allowed old ethnic rivalries to continue to fuel terrorism, stifling the resource-rich country’s potential. What Myanmar needs now is an equitable, federalist system that accommodates its many ethnic minorities, who comprise roughly a third of the population, but cover half of the total land area.

To this end, it is critical that Myanmar’s military immediately halt human-rights abuses in Rakhine. It will be impossible to ease tensions if soldiers are using disproportionate force, much less targeting civilians; indeed, such an approach is more likely to fuel than quell violent jihadism. But as the international community pressures Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to take stronger action to protect the Rohingya, it is also vital to address the long history of Islamist extremism that has contributed to the ethnic group’s current plight.

China’s troublesome civil-military relations

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Recent developments suggest President Xi Jinping is still struggling to keep the People’s Liberation Army in line.

 

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Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects People’s Liberation Army troops during a military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA on July 30. | AP

BY The Japan Times

Has Chinese President Xi Jinping managed to assert full civilian control over the People’s Liberation Army through purges of generals and admirals and other reform-related actions? China’s secretive and opaque political system makes it hard to get a clear picture. Yet recent developments suggest Xi is still struggling to keep the PLA in line.

Take the recent troop standoff with India that raised the specter of a Himalayan war, with China threatening reprisals if New Delhi did not unconditionally withdraw its forces from a small Bhutanese plateau that Beijing claims is Chinese territory “since ancient times.” After 10 weeks, the faceoff on the Doklam Plateau dramatically ended with both sides pulling back troops and equipment from the site on the same day, signaling that Beijing, not New Delhi, had blinked.

The mutual-withdrawal deal was struck just after Xi replaced the chief of the PLA’s Joint Staff Department. This topmost position — equivalent to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff — was created only last year as part of Xi’s military reforms to turn the PLA into a force “able to fight and win wars.” The Joint Staff Department is in charge of PLA’s operations, intelligence and training.

The Doklam pullbacks suggest that the removed chief, General Fang Fenghui, who has since been detained for alleged corruption, was an obstacle to clinching a deal with India.

In mid-June, India’s close ally, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, discovered PLA crews working to build a road through Doklam, prompting New Delhi to dispatch troops and equipment to halt the construction of the road that was to overlook the trijunction where Tibet, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim meet.

In seeking to use road construction to change the status quo in a disputed Himalayan territory, the PLA, in a strategic miscalculation, anticipated Bhutan’s diplomatic protest but not India’s rapid military intervention. With the attempted land grab also threatening Indian security, New Delhi was quick to turn Bhutan’s call for help into India’s own fight.

To be sure, this was not the first time the PLA’s belligerent actions in the Himalayas imposed diplomatic costs on China. A classic case was what happened when Xi went to India for a state visit in September 2014. Xi arrived on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s birthday with a strange gift for his host — a predawn Chinese military encroachment that day deep into India’s northern region of Ladakh. The encroachment, the worst in many years in terms of the number of intruding troops, overshadowed Xi’s visit.

It appeared bizarre that the military of an important power would seek to mar in this manner the visit of its own head of state to a key neighboring country.

Yet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s earlier visit to New Delhi in 2013 was similarly preceded by a 19-km PLA incursion into another part of Ladakh that lasted three weeks. The encroachment was seemingly intended to convey anger over India’s belated efforts to fortify its border defenses.

Such provocations might suggest that they are intentional, with the Chinese government in the know, thus reflecting a preference for blending soft and hard tactics. But it is also possible that the provocations — at least their timing and duration — underscore the continuing “disconnect between the military and the civilian leadership” in China that then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned about in 2011.

During his 2014 India trip, Xi appeared embarrassed by the accompanying PLA encroachment that cast a pall over his visit. He assured Modi that he would sort it out upon his return.

Soon after he returned, the Chinese defense ministry quoted Xi as telling a closed-door meeting with PLA commanders that “all PLA forces should follow the president’s instructions” and that the military must display “absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party, guarantee a smooth chain of command, and make sure all decisions from the central leadership are fully implemented.”

Just weeks later, Xi again asked for the PLA’s full loyalty to the party, telling a military-political conference in Fujian that “the Communist Party commands the gun.”

Recently Xi conveyed that same message yet again when he addressed a parade marking the 90th anniversary of the PLA’s creation on Aug. 1, 1927. Donning military fatigues, Xi exhorted members of his 2.3 million-strong armed forces to “unswervingly follow the absolute leadership of the party.”

Had civilian control of the PLA been working well, would Xi repeatedly be demanding “absolute loyalty” from the military or asking it to “follow his instructions”?

With its one-party dictatorship placing the Communist Party above the state, China does not have a national army; rather the party has an army. So the PLA has traditionally sworn fealty to the party, not the nation. By contrast, in the case of China’s closest ally, Pakistan, the army has a country.

Under Xi’s two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, the PLA gradually became stronger at the expense of the party. The military’s rising clout has troubled Xi because it hampers his ambition to become China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Xi’s present wife — folk singer Peng Liyuan — is actually a civilian member of the PLA, holding a rank equivalent to major general.

As part of his effort to reassert party control over the military and carry out defense reforms, Xi has used his anti-corruption campaign to ensnare a number of top PLA officers. He has also cut the size of the ground force and established a new command-and-control structure.

But just as a dog’s tail cannot be straightened, asserting full civilian control over a politically ascendant PLA is proving unachievable. After all, the party is ideologically bankrupt and morally adrift, and depends on the PLA to ensure domestic order and sustain its own political monopoly.

The regime’s legitimacy increasingly relies on an appeal to nationalism. But the PLA, with its soaring budgets and expanding role to safeguard China’s overseas interests, sees itself as the ultimate arbiter of nationalism.

To make matters worse, Xi has made many enemies at home in his ruthless effort to concentrate power in himself, including through corruption purges. It is not known whether the PLA’s upper echelon respects him to the extent to be fully guided by his instructions.

The PLA and the government appeared to be on the same page during the Doklam standoff, with the Chinese foreign and defense ministries and other state organs keeping up a barrage of threats and vitriol against India. But no sooner had Xi fired the chief of the Joint Staff Department, Gen. Fang, then a deal with India was clinched. This suggested that the topmost general was resisting ending the standoff.

Fang was fired just days after he hosted America’s highest-ranking military officer, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fang was replaced by Gen. Li Zuocheng, considered a “war hero” for his combat role in the 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam, although China received a bloody nose from the more battle-hardened Vietnamese.

Xi’s military purges have been designed to consolidate his authority over the PLA and ensure that it does not blindside the government with actions or statements. But as Fang’s firing and other latest changes in the PLA leadership signal, Xi is still working to bring the military fully under his control.

More fundamentally, the PLA’s growing power is redolent of what happened in Imperial Japan, which rose dramatically as a world power in one generation after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Boosted by war victories against Manchu-ruled China and czarist Russia, the Japanese military acquired political clout and gradually went on to dictate terms to the civilian government, as the 1931 Manchurian Incident first highlighted. This opened the path to aggression and conquest in Asia, with tragic consequences for Japan and the region.

In the past decade, the PLA’s increasing clout has led China to stake out a more muscular role. This includes resurrecting territorial and maritime disputes, asserting new sovereignty claims, and using construction activity to change the status quo. It won’t be long before the PLA rekindles Himalayan tensions with a major new encroachment.

China’s cut-throat internal politics and troublesome civil-military relations clearly have a bearing on its external policy. The risks of China’s rise as a praetorian state are real and carry major implications for neighboring countries.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

India, beware: China could seek revenge for Doklam

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Damage from the Himalayan military standoff will not be easily repaired

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Exile Tibetans listen to a speaker during an Aug. 11 protest in New Delhi to show support for India in its Doklam standoff with China. The banners in local language read “Tibet’s independence is India’s security.” © AP

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

China and India have defused one of their worst border flare-ups in decades, which had threatened to trigger an armed conflict between the nuclear-armed Asian giants. However, the damage the 10-week troop standoff inflicted on the already frayed bilateral relationship will not be easy to repair. Indeed, the China-India divide over border, water, trade, maritime and other issues, including transportation and economic corridors, may only widen.

There is also the risk that the end of the face-off on the small Himalayan plateau of Doklam could prove just a temporary respite from border tensions before confrontation flares anew.

Beijing had all along insisted that if there was any dispute over Doklam — home to mainly Bhutanese shepherds — it was between China and tiny Bhutan. But, ultimately, it accepted a deal with the country it said had no role at all, India, which it labeled an “illegal trespasser.” The Chinese Communist Party and its People’s Liberation Army may find it difficult to live with a retreat that China was compelled to make after failing to intimidate India into submission through torrents of vitriol and warmongering.

China’s record under communist rule shows that it has at times retreated only to open a new front in the same area or elsewhere.

The Himalayan standoff was triggered when Chinese forces sought to change the territorial status quo by building a road through Doklam, the high-altitude Bhutanese plateau that China claims as its own. India, Bhutan’s security guarantor, intervened militarily and halted the construction, saying the road overlooking the triple border of Tibet, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim threatened its own security.

The standoff ended on Aug. 28, the same day the state-owned China Daily had warned that India stood “to face retribution” over its intransigence. The Indian troops retreated 500 meters to the Indian side of the border, to a ridge-top post from where they can quickly intervene again if the PLA restarts work on the military road. China withdrew troops and construction equipment from the site while asserting the right to send armed patrols to the disputed plateau.

China sought to save face by spinning the deal as an Indian climbdown, camouflaging its own troop withdrawal from the site. It could not admit that it had withdrawn because it had claimed that Doklam — like the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, or the disputed South China Sea — had been Chinese territory “since ancient times.” In reality, China is unlikely to be able to resume work on the road project, which perished when India called China’s bluff.

Standing up to China

More fundamentally, India, like Japan before it, has shown that if a neighbor is willing to stand up to China, it can be made to back away. Doklam is a defining event: For the first time since China’s success in expanding its control in the South China Sea by artificially creating seven islands and militarizing them, a rival power has stalled Chinese construction activity to change the status quo on a disputed territory. In a grudging admission about the Doklam setback, China’s ultranationalist Global Times newspaper said on Aug. 30: “China needs to enhance its deterrence to avoid external provocations.”

Beijing was left with little choice but to negotiate a deal after India showed that it would not be cowed. To “win without fighting,” as the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu recommended, Beijing made India the target of its new “three warfares” doctrine, which was first described in a 2008 Pentagon report to Congress. The standoff revealed how China blends psychological warfare with disinformation campaigns, media manipulation, and legal action or “lawfare” to mount intense pressure while presenting the other side as the aggressor and itself as the aggrieved party.

Repeated Chinese warnings to India to back down or face dire consequences, however, fell on deaf ears. India allowed the war of words to become one-sided by refusing to react to the almost daily Chinese verbal attacks.

Eventually, Beijing was forced to end the face-off through mutual disengagement of troops. Two factors forced Beijing’s hand. It wished to save the Sept. 3-5 summit in Xiamen, China, of the BRICS countries, a bloc comprising Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa. More importantly, it wanted to safeguard Chinese President Xi Jinping’s reputation in the run-up to the critical party congress this autumn. Had the standoff with India dragged on, it could potentially have taken a toll on Xi’s standing.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration also helped put pressure on Beijing by implicitly supporting the Indian and Bhutanese positions, including backing a “return to the status quo” that prevailed on Doklam before the road building began.

The deal with India was clinched shortly after Xi replaced Gen. Fang Fenghui with Gen. Li Zuocheng in the top PLA post that is equivalent to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. This suggested that the removed chief, as head of the PLA’s operations, was an obstacle to a Doklam deal.

Despite China’s overall military superiority, India, with its terrain and tactical advantages, was in a stronger position in the triple border area. It could have prolonged the face-off until the onset of the harsh Himalayan winter, thus casting a cloud over the Chinese party congress. A protracted standoff would also have exacted increasing diplomatic costs for Beijing, given that India had dared to stand up to it, thus denting China’s reputed preeminence in Asia.

Doing Xi a favor

By reaching the deal, India effectively let China off the hook and did Xi an important favor at a time when he is focused on the party congress, which is expected to see him emerge as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. For New Delhi, salvaging Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s China visit for the BRICS summit, unfortunately, became an important consideration, although that grouping has increasingly come under Chinese sway.

But Beijing is unlikely to return the favor, and India’s decision to let China escape a strategic predicament of its own making could come back to haunt it.

China has tactically retreated because, beyond declaring war on India, it was running out of options. But without the distraction of a looming party congress, China could seek revenge for Doklam at a time and place of its choosing. Next time, the PLA is unlikely to make the mistake of encroaching onto an area where India enjoys the military advantage. It will choose a place where it can spring a nasty surprise and dictate terms to the Indian army.

With India already facing increasingly persistent PLA efforts to intrude into its borderlands, eternal vigilance holds the key to Himalayan peace. India’s army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, has cautioned that the country cannot be complacent because Doklam-style encroachments are likely to “increase in the future.” But while China uses the disputed long border with India as a justification to probe Indian defenses, India remains perennially in a reactive mode.

A grim reminder of the larger challenges in the bilateral relationship is China’s breach of legally binding obligations to supply India with hydrological data on upstream river flows in Tibet in order to facilitate flood forecasting and warnings. A third of India’s freshwater supply comes from river flows from Tibet. The current monsoon season has brought record flooding in parts of northern India.

Beijing has offered no explanation for its failure this year to honor bilateral accords that require it to transfer data on specific rivers to India annually from May 15 to Oct. 15. Had China been in India’s place, it would have linked the breach of commitments to the downstream floods and deaths. But India has been quiet. Timely transmission of data would have helped generate flood warnings, thus saving lives and reducing material losses in India’s northeast. The data denial apparently is designed to punish India for boycotting Xi’s Belt and Road infrastructure summit in Beijing in May.

When Beijing can breach formal bilateral agreements, will it continue to stick to the Doklam deal? In 2012, China and the Philippines reached a U.S.-brokered deal to withdraw naval vessels from around the disputed Scarborough Shoal. China gave the impression it was withdrawing its ships, only to return and capture the shoal.

China’s autocrats are actually undermining their country’s long-term interests by making a mortal enemy of India, with which they are currently running an annual trade surplus of nearly $60 billion. The cloistered process of decision-making in China has glossed over the far-reaching strategic ramifications of driving Asia’s most important geopolitical “swing state” into the U.S. camp.

Whatever happens next, Doklam illustrates China’s proclivity to miscalculate and overreach. India’s refusal to bend while talking peace offers other Asia-Pacific nations an example of how to manage Chinese coercion. Doklam also raises a broader question: Had U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration stood up to China in the South China Sea, would the seven artificial and now-militarized islands have been created? It is China’s success in altering the status quo there — without incurring any international costs — that has emboldened its territorial revisionism in the East China Sea and the Himalayas.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War.”

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

China’s water war on India by other means

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Tibet, a treasure-trove of natural resources, including water and precious metals, is a great strategic asset for China in its pursuit of an often-improvident style of economic growth. The sprawling Tibetan plateau also arms Beijing with water leverage over downstream countries because it is the starting point for most of Asia’s great rivers, many of which are being heavily dammed just before they cross into neighbouring nations.

China is sharpening its leverage with co-riparian India. Water indeed has emerged as a new divide in Sino-Indian relations, as Beijing quietly and opaquely builds dams, barrages and other structures on rivers flowing to India. It spurned then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s 2013 proposal that the two countries enter into a water treaty or establish an intergovernmental institution to define mutual rights and responsibilities on shared rivers. The flash floods that ravaged Himachal Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh between 2000 and 2005 were linked to the unannounced releases from rain-swollen Chinese dams and barrages.

At a time when the Doklam face-off has entered its third month and the risk of a Chinese military attack on India is growing, there is more troubling news: Beijing is fashioning water into a political weapon by denying India flood-related hydrological data since May, even as major flooding has hit the region from Assam to Uttar Pradesh. Data on upstream river flows is essential for flood forecasting and warning in order to save lives and reduce material losses. China’s data denial crimps flash flood modelling in India.

By embarking on a dangerous game of water poker, Beijing has demonstrated how the denial of hydrological data in the critically important monsoon season amounts to the use of water as a political tool against a downstream country. Indeed, even while supplying data in past years, China’s lack of transparency raised questions. After all, like rice traded on the world market, hydrological data comes in different grades and qualities — from good, reliable data to inferior data and broken data.

China’s latest action actually violates two bilateral MOUs of 2013 and a 2014 accord, which obligate it to transfer hydrological data to India from three upstream monitoring stations in Tibet every year from May 15 to October 15. No data has been transferred thus far this year, although India, in keeping with the MOUs, paid for the data in advance. While China sells hydrological data to downriver countries, India provides such data free to both its downstream neighbours — Pakistan and Bangladesh.

China has long displayed contempt for international law. No bilateral accord seems to have binding force for it once its immediate purpose has passed, as Beijing recently highlighted by trashing the 1984 Sino-British treaty that paved the way for Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. China said that pact had lost “practical meaning” because 20 years had passed since Hong Kong’s return. Yet it selectively invokes a 19th-century, colonial-era accord to justify its Doklam intrusion, while ignoring its own violations — cited by Bhutan and India — of more recent bilateral agreements not to disturb the territorial status quo.

India should not be downplaying China’s breach of commitment to supply hydrological data from May 15. Yet, for two months, the ministry of external affairs hid China’s contravention, which began much before the Doklam standoff. When MEA finally admitted China’s breach of obligation, it simultaneously sought to shield Beijing by saying there could be a “technical reason” for non-transfer of data (just as MEA sought to obscure China’s Aug. 15 twin raids in the Lake Pangong area by gratuitously telling the Financial Times that “no commonly delineated boundary” exists there). How can a technical hitch explain data withholding from three separate stations for over two months? MEA also went out of its way to reject a linkage between China’s data denial and the flooding, for example, in Assam. Wouldn’t the timely transmission of data have generated flood warnings and thus helped save lives and movable assets?

Had China been in India’s place, it would have promptly raised a hue and cry about the commitment violation and linked it to the downstream floods and deaths.

More fundamentally, the Doklam standoff, the Chinese hydro-engineering projects to reengineer cross-border river flows, the denial of hydrological data, and China’s claims to vast tracts of Indian land are all a reminder that Tibet is at the heart of the India-China divide. The 1951 fall of Tibet represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development in modern India’s history, with the impact exacerbated by subsequent Indian blunders. India must subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue, including by using historically more accurate expressions like “Indo-Tibetan border” (not “India-China border”) and emphasizing that its previously stated positions were linked to Tibet securing real autonomy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.

Calling the Chinese Bully’s Bluff

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

The more power China has accumulated, the more it has attempted to achieve its foreign-policy objectives with bluff, bluster, and bullying. But, as its Himalayan border standoff with India’s military continues, the limits of this approach are becoming increasingly apparent.

The current standoff began in mid-June, when Bhutan, a close ally of India, discovered the People’s Liberation Army trying to extend a road through Doklam, a high-altitude plateau in the Himalayas that belongs to Bhutan, but is claimed by China. India, which guarantees tiny Bhutan’s security, quickly sent troops and equipment to halt the construction, asserting that the road – which would overlook the point where Tibet, Bhutan, and the Indian state of Sikkim meet – threatened its own security.

Since then, China’s leaders have been warning India almost daily to back down or face military reprisals. China’s defense ministry has threatened to teach India a “bitter lesson,” vowing that any conflict would inflict “greater losses” than the Sino-Indian War of 1962, when China invaded India during a Himalayan border dispute and inflicted major damage within a few weeks. Likewise, China’s foreign ministry has unleashed a torrent of vitriol intended to intimidate India into submission.

Despite all of this, India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has kept its cool, refusing to respond to any Chinese threat, much less withdraw its forces. As China’s warmongering has continued, its true colors have become increasingly vivid. It is now clear that China is attempting to use psychological warfare (“psywar”) to advance its strategic objectives – to “win without fighting,” as the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu recommended.

China has waged its psywar against India largely through disinformation campaigns and media manipulation, aimed at presenting India – a raucous democracy with poor public diplomacy – as the aggressor and China as the aggrieved party. Chinese state media have been engaged in eager India-bashing for weeks. China has also employed “lawfare,” selectively invoking a colonial-era accord, while ignoring its own violations – cited by Bhutan and India – of more recent bilateral agreements.

For the first few days of the standoff, China’s psywar blitz helped it dominate the narrative. But, as China’s claims and tactics have come under growing scrutiny, its approach has faced diminishing returns. In fact, from a domestic perspective, China’s attempts to portray itself as the victim – claiming that Indian troops had illegally entered Chinese territory, where they remain – has been distinctly damaging, provoking a nationalist backlash over the failure to evict the intruders.

As a result, President Xi Jinping’s image as a commanding leader, along with the presumption of China’s regional dominance, is coming under strain, just months before the critical 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And it is difficult to see how Xi could turn the situation around.

Despite China’s overall military superiority, it is scarcely in a position to defeat India decisively in a Himalayan war, given India’s fortified defenses along the border. Even localized hostilities at the tri-border area would be beyond China’s capacity to dominate, because the Indian army controls higher terrain and has greater troop density. If such military clashes left China with so much as a bloodied nose, as happened in the same area in 1967, it could spell serious trouble for Xi at the upcoming National Congress.

But, even without actual conflict, China stands to lose. Its confrontational approach could drive India, Asia’s most important geopolitical “swing state,” firmly into the camp of the United States, China’s main global rival. It could also undermine its own commercial interests in the world’s fastest-growing major economy, which sits astride China’s energy-import lifeline.

Already, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has tacitly warned of economic sanctions if China, which is running an annual trade surplus of nearly $60 billion with India, continues to disturb border peace. More broadly, as China has declaredunconditional Indian troop withdrawal to be a “prerequisite” for ending the standoff, India, facing recurrent Chinese incursions over the last decade, has insisted that border peace is a “prerequisite” for developing bilateral ties.

Against this background, the smartest move for Xi would be to attempt to secure India’s help in finding a face-saving compromise to end the crisis. The longer the standoff lasts, the more likely it is to sully Xi’s carefully cultivated image as a powerful leader, and that of China as Asia’s hegemon, which would undermine popular support for the regime at home and severely weaken China’s influence over its neighbors.

Already, the standoff is offering important lessons to other Asian countries seeking to cope with China’s bullying. For example, China recently threatened to launch military action against Vietnam’s outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands, forcing the Vietnamese government to stop drilling for gas at the edge of China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

China does not yet appear ready to change its approach. Some experts even predict that it will soon move forward with a “small-scale military operation” to expel the Indian troops currently in its claimed territory. But such an attack is unlikely to do China any good, much less change the territorial status quo in the tri-border area. It certainly won’t make it possible for China to resume work on the road it wanted to build. That dream most likely died when India called the Chinese bully’s bluff.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© 1995-2017 Project Syndicate.

China’s Weaponization of Trade

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The largest container ship in world, CSCL Globe, docks during its maiden voyage, at the port of Felixstowe in southeast England, January 7, 2015. Photo: Reuters.

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

China denies mixing business with politics, yet it has long used trade to punish countries that refuse to toe its line. China’s recent heavy-handed economic sanctioning of South Korea, in response to that country’s decision to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system, was just the latest example of the Chinese authorities’ use of trade as a political weapon.

China’s government has encouraged and then exploited states’ economic reliance on it to compel their support for its foreign-policy objectives. Its economic punishments range from restricting imports or informally boycotting goods from a targeted country to halting strategic exports (such as rare-earth minerals) and encouraging domestic protests against specific foreign businesses. Other tools include suspending tourist travel and blocking fishing access. All are used carefully to avoid disruption that could harm China’s own business interests.

Mongolia became a classic case of such geo-economic coercion, after it hosted the Dalai Lama last November. With China accounting for 90% of Mongolian exports, the Chinese authorities set out to teach Mongolia a lesson. After imposing punitive fees on its commodity exports, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi voiced “hope that Mongolia has taken this lesson to heart” and that it would “scrupulously abide by its promise” not to invite the Tibetan spiritual leader again.

A more famous case was China’s trade reprisals against Norway, after the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. As a result, Norwegian salmon exports to China collapsed.

In 2010, China exploited its monopoly on the global production of vital rare-earth minerals to inflict commercial pain on Japan and the West through an unannounced export embargo. In 2012, after China’s sovereignty dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands (which the Japanese first controlled in 1895) flared anew, China once again used trade as a strategic weapon, costing Japan billions of dollars.

Likewise, in April 2012, following an incident near the disputed Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, China bullied the Philippines not only by dispatching surveillance vessels, but also by issuing an advisory against travel there and imposing sudden curbs on banana imports (which bankrupted many Philippine growers). With international attention focused on its trade actions, China then quietly seized the shoal.

China’s recent trade reprisals against South Korea for deploying the THAAD system should be viewed against this background. China’s reprisals were not launched against the US, which deployed the system to defend against North Korea’s emerging missile threat and has the heft to hit back hard. Nor was this the first time: in 2000, when South Korea increased tariffs on garlic to protect its farmers from a flood of imports, China responded by banning imports of South Korean cellphones and polyethylene. The sweeping retaliation against unrelated products was intended not only to promote domestic industries, but also to ensure that South Korea lost far more than China did.

China will not use the trade cudgel when it has more to lose, as illustrated by the current Sino-Indian troop standoff at the border where Tibet, Bhutan, and the Indian state of Sikkim meet. Chinese leaders value the lopsided trade relationship with India – exports are more than five times higher than imports – as a strategic weapon to undercut its rival’s manufacturing base while reaping handsome profits. So, instead of halting border trade, which could invite Indian economic reprisals, China has cut offIndian pilgrims’ historical access to sacred sites in Tibet.

Where it has trade leverage, China is not shy about exercising it. A 2010 study found that countries whose leaders met the Dalai Lama suffered a rapid decline of 8.1-16.9% in exports to China, with the result that now almost all countries, with the conspicuous exception of India and the US, shun official contact with the Tibetan leader.

The harsh reality is that China is turning into a trade tyrant that rides roughshod over international rules. Its violations include maintaining nontariff barriers to keep out foreign competition; subsidizing exports; tilting the domestic market in favor of Chinese companies; pirating intellectual property; using antitrust laws to extort concessions; and underwriting acquisitions of foreign firms to bring home their technologies.

China regards even bilateral pacts as no more than tools to enable it to achieve its objectives. From China’s perspective, no treaty has binding force once it has served its immediate purpose, as officials recently demonstrated by trashing the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for Hong Kong’s handover in 1997.

Ironically, China has developed its trade muscle with help from the US, which played a key role in China’s economic rise by shunning sanctions and integrating it into global institutions. President Donald Trump’s election was supposed to end China’s free ride on trade. Yet, far from taking any action against a country that he has long assailed as a trade cheater, Trump is helping make China great again, including by withdrawing the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and shrinking US influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

The TPP, which Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to revive, but without US participation, can help rein in China’s unremitting mercantilist behavior by creating a market-friendly, rule-based economic community. But if the TPP is to be truly effective in offsetting the trade sword wielded by a powerful, highly centralized authoritarian regime, it needs to be expanded to include India and South Korea.

China’s weaponization of trade has gone unchallenged so far. Only a concerted international strategy, with a revived TPP an essential component, stands a chance of compelling China’s leaders to play by the rules.

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

By refusing to buckle under China’s threats, India has called the bully’s bluff

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

modi-style_0_0Standing on the Himalayan crest with well-developed infrastructure, China is in a militarily advantageous position along much of the border with India. The tri-border overlooking the Chinese-held Chumbi Valley is one of the few areas where India still holds a distinct advantage, with Chinese forces within Indian observation-cum-artillery range. If China were to capture Bhutan’s high-altitude Doklam plateau, it would not only mitigate that vulnerability but also hold a knife to India’s jugular vein — the Siliguri Corridor, through which Bhutan’s communications and transportation arteries also pass.

While existential stakes drove India to halt China’s construction of a strategic highway through Doklam, Beijing made a serious strategic miscalculation by intruding there: It anticipated Bhutan’s diplomatic protest but not India’s swift, stealthy military intervention. The Indian army had long geared up to respond to such a contingency.

No Indian government can countenance the construction of a road through Doklam that allows China to bring main battle tanks to the tri-border and implement, in the event of a war, its military plan to decapitate India. In such a corridor-bisecting scenario, while China gobbles up Arunachal Pradesh, the other northeast Indian states, as a Chinese state mouthpiece warned recently, could become “independent”.

Today, thanks to its miscalculation, China finds itself in an unenviable position: It must extricate itself from a militarily wretched situation in Doklam, where its intruding soldiers are caught in a pincer movement. If China were to initiate hostilities at the tri-border, it will likely be left, as in 1967, with a bloodied nose, given the Indian army’s terrain and tactical advantages.

Politically, Beijing has boxed itself in a corner, with its intense psychological warfare (“psywar”) and disinformation operations failing to yield continuing gains, after the success in initially dominating the narrative. If anything, its psychological operations (“psy-ops”) and manipulation of legal arguments (“lawfare”), as by selectively quoting an 1890 colonial-era accord, offer India important lessons. It is standard Chinese strategy to play the victim in any conflict or dispute, as China brazenly did even in 1962.

Mounting frustration has sharpened Beijing’s war rhetoric, as its latest 15-page diatribe against India underscores. To compound matters, the standoff is imposing reputational costs on a power that supposedly brooks no challenge and is ever willing to wreak punishment. India, in the face of vitriolic warmongering, has defiantly stood up to China and refused to budge. By calling the bully’s bluff, India has set an example for other Asian states to emulate.

Beijing’s story that Indian troops “trespassed” into Chinese territory was designed to disguise its intrusion into tiny Bhutan. But this tale, along with President Xi Jinping’s vow not to permit the loss of “any piece” of Chinese land, deepens China’s discomfiture by undermining the image it has sought to project at home and abroad — Asia’s pre-eminent power that no neighbour will mess with.

In sum, China, if it is to save face, needs India’s help to extricate itself from a mess of its own making. Beijing’s coarse statements and threats, while integral to its psywar, are also part of a negotiating ploy to secure a compromise on largely its terms.

There is no reason, however, why India should let China off the hook easily. With Xi looking ahead to this autumn’s Communist Party congress to cement his status as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, India should play psychological hardball because Chinese incursions have become increasingly recurrent.

India should allow the Doklam military stalemate to drag on until the arrival of the harsh winter forces the rival troops to retreat, thus restoring the status quo ante, including frustrating China’s road-building plan. If an earlier negotiated mutual retreat from Doklam becomes possible, it should be based on an unequivocal assurance that China henceforth will refrain from unilaterally disturbing the territorial status quo anywhere in the Himalayan borderlands.

Implicitly, if not explicitly, China must come out a significant loser in order to help rein in its creeping, covert encroachments. There should be no more Depsangs, Chumars and Doklams or the quiet chipping away at Indian and Bhutanese lands.

The writer is a geostrategist and author. 

© The Times of India, 2017.

China Reveals How it Wages Psychological Warfare

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The Sino-Indian troop standoff has underscored the centrality of propaganda in China’s foreign policy.

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A Chinese government handout photo of a live-fire military exercise in Tibet. The photo was released amid rising border tensions with India. It later came to light that the military exercise was conducted before the crisis began.

By , The Japan Times

Since a Sino-Indian troop standoff began at the border where Tibet, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim meet, China’s warmongering has become so raucous and coarse that, to the casual observer, a Himalayan military conflict may seem imminent. In reality, Beijing is waging — in Chinese strategic tradition — full-throttle psychological warfare to compel India to back down without a shot being fired.

The current crisis, more significantly, has underscored the centrality of propaganda in China’s foreign policy — from the aggressor playing the victim to unremitting efforts to camouflage its intrusion into tiny Bhutan that precipitated the standoff. China’s vitriolic war rhetoric and unrealistic preconditions for holding talks stand out in stark contrast to India’s measured response and emphasis on diplomacy and dialogue to peacefully resolve the standoff. The U.S. has implicitly supported India’s stance by similarly calling for a dialogue to peacefully end the crisis.

The crisis, in fact, has highlighted how China blends psychological warfare (“psywar”), media warfare and the manipulation of legal arguments (“lawfare”) to undermine the opponent’s information-control capabilities and to buttress its strategic game plan. Disinformation and deceit are among the tools China is employing in its psywar to tame India without military combat, in Sun Tzu style.

Its psychological operations (psy-ops) have included mounting almost daily threats to teach India a lesson, unless it gives in. Indeed, the authoritarian regime in Beijing has shown itself adept at exploiting the political divisions in the world’s largest democracy, including reaching out to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opponents and attacking his “Hindu nationalism” in order to help sow dissensions in India on its current China approach.

Given China’s rise as a praetorian state, its foreign ministry is probably the weakest government branch; yet that ministry has taken the lead to intimidate India in unbecoming and undiplomatic language. Beijing is also using its state media to threaten an “all out confrontation” along the entire, more than 4,000-kilometer-long Sino-Indian border and to warn India that it would suffer a humiliating rout greater than it did in the 1962 war. One Chinese state mouthpiece even called the Indian foreign minister a liar.

In the current crisis, the Chinese state and its media have worked in tandem to feed disinformation as part of the psy-ops. After all, media organizations, backed by an annual $10 billion budget from the state, have become integral to China’s global propaganda offensive. Chinese propaganda is getting smarter and more targeted, with some in the Indian media lapping up the disinformation, yet Beijing’s mendacity is becoming conspicuous.

Consider two examples. In mid-July, the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV telecast a video of live-fire military exercises in Tibet by a mountain brigade deployed against India. It later came to light that this was a routine annual drill conducted in early June before the crisis began. Shortly after the CCTV report, the Chinese military’s official newspaper, PLA Daily, said tens of thousands of tons of military hardware had been moved to Tibet in response to the troop standoff. This report too turned out to be part of China’s psywar, with Indian intelligence still finding no evidence of a Chinese military buildup in Tibet.

In this light, what can China hope to achieve through its psy-ops? India has a lot at stake: If it were to wilt under the Chinese pressure, it would impair its national security and potentially open the path to its long-term strategic subordination to China. In addition, China would be able to mount a stronger military threat against India’s hold on its far northeast.

India is a raucous democracy with poor public relations and media outreach. Yet China’s psywar has failed to obscure even the key facts, let alone achieve any political objective.

The crisis, which offers important insights to other countries on China’s psychological-warfare practices, was triggered in mid-June after days of growing local military tensions when People’s Liberation Army troops sought to unilaterally change the territorial status quo by beginning work on a strategic highway through Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau, which is located very close to the Tibet-Bhutan-Sikkim trijunction. (China contends that Doklam is its own territory in the way it claims the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands or the sprawling northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh.) The Chinese encroachment prompted the Indian army to swiftly intervene and halt the road construction, triggering the standoff.

The PLA has for years been quietly chipping away at strategic areas in Bhutan’s north and west. It has also waged an aggression by stealth to assert its claim over the Doklam Plateau, including by increasingly sending Tibetan herdsmen and armed patrols there and by turning some natural paths into small paved roads. Bhutan has long complained of Chinese encroachments. For example, it told its Parliament in 2009 that it had “protested many times to the Chinese regarding the road-construction activities.”

Bhutan, with just 8,000 men in its military, police and militia, has no means to resist Chinese encroachments. Its security partner, India, was previously loath to go beyond training and advising Bhutanese forces. But with China’s latest land grab also threatening Indian security, New Delhi decided that Bhutan’s fight was India’s fight. In a strategic miscalculation that has fueled its current fury, China anticipated Bhutan’s diplomatic protest over its latest road construction but not India’s rapid military intervention.

New Delhi cannot allow Beijing to gain control of Doklam because it will result in China fortifying its military positions around the border trijunction and bringing India’s territorial link with its northeastern states within Chinese artillery range. This link — the Siliguri Corridor — is just 27 kilometers wide at its narrowest point and is aptly known as the “Chicken Neck.” If China built the highway through Doklam, it would be able to transport heavy tanks to the trijunction and, in the event of a war, seek to implement its military plan to cut off mainland India from northeast India.

The risk that a frustrated China could escalate its current psy-ops to a military conflict cannot be discounted. Indeed, Beijing is signaling that it will brook no Indian “interference” in Bhutan’s external relations or national security, although Indo-Bhutanese relations are governed by a friendship treaty and defense arrangements. It wants India to leave Bhutan to its fate.

More fundamentally, China’s intrusion into Bhutan and its war rhetoric against India raise important larger issues. One issue is China’s disregard of international law, including the bilateral accords it has signed with Bhutan and India pledging not to alter the status quo unilaterally. As the South and East China seas also illustrate, Beijing signs agreements and treaties but does not comply with them.

Another issue is China’s abiding faith in propaganda, extending from fake history claims to other countries’ territories to disinformation operations intended to deceive and outmaneuver opponents. The reliance on propaganda blurs the line between fact and fiction to such an extent that, gradually, the Chinese state begins to believe its own propaganda and act upon it. This factor, along with its associated risks, is apparent in the Doklam standoff.

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

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Turn the tables on China

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China’s strategy is to subdue India by attacking its weak points and stymieing its rise to the extent possible.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, July 22, 2017

The current troop standoff with China at Doklam offers India important lessons that go far beyond the Chinese intrusion into this Bhutanese plateau. Unless India grasps the long-term threat posed by an increasingly muscular China and responds with an appropriate counter-strategy, it is sure to confront much bigger problems than Doklam. Unfortunately, institutional memory in India tends to be short, with a mindset of immediacy blurring the bigger picture.

For example, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s recent statement that China is “meddling” in her state was seen as signifying a new trend. In truth, China — occupying a fifth of the original princely state of J&K and now enlarging its strategic footprint in Pakistan-occupied J&K — has long been playing the Kashmir card against India. In 2010 it honed that card by aggressively adopting a stapled-visa policy for J&K residents.

To mount pressure, Beijing has tacitly questioned India’s sovereignty over the 45% of J&K under Indian control and officially shortened the length of the Himalayan border it shares with India by purging the 1,597-kilometre line separating Indian J&K from Chinese-held J&K. China’s Kashmir interference will only increase as a result of its so-called economic corridor through Pakistan-held J&K, where Chinese military presence is growing, including near Pakistan’s ceasefire line with India. India now faces Chinese troops on both flanks of its portion of J&K.

China, which fomented the Naga and Mizo insurgencies, taught its “all weather” client Pakistan how to wage proxy war against India. China still fans flames in India’s northeast. For example, Paresh Barua, the long-time fugitive commander-in-chief of ULFA, has been traced to Ruili, in China’s Yunnan province. Some other Indian insurgent leaders have been ensconced in Myanmar’s Yunnan-bordering region controlled by the China-backed Kachin Independence Army. This newspaper reported in 2015 that Chinese intelligence played “an active role” in assisting nine northeast Indian insurgent groups to form a united front. The illicit flow of Chinese arms to India, including to Maoists, was confirmed by Home Secretary G.K. Pillai in 2010. Meanwhile, the deepening China-Pakistan nexus presents India with a two-front theatre in the event of a war with either country.

China’s strategy is to subdue India by attacking its weak points, striking where it is unprepared, and stymieing its rise to the extent possible. As part of this strategy, it is waging a multipronged unconventional war without firing a single shot. It is closing in on India from multiple flanks, extending from Nepal to the Indian Ocean.

Sixty-six years after gobbling up buffer Tibet and mounting a Himalayan threat, China — with the world’s fastest-growing submarine fleet — is opening a threat from the seas against India. Its recently opened naval base in Djibouti, at the Indian Ocean’s north-western edge, constitutes just a first step in its game plan to dominate the region. For India, whose energy and strategic infrastructure is concentrated along a vulnerable, 7,600-kilometre coastline, this represents a tectonic shift in its threat calculus.

Add to the picture China’s economic warfare to undermine India’s strength in various ways, including stifling its manufacturing capability through large-scale dumping of goods. Artificially low prices of Chinese products also translate into India losing billions of dollars yearly in customs duties and tax revenue. Portentously, China, including Hong Kong, made up 22% of India’s imports in 2015, with the US just at 5% and Japan at 2%.

Yet India has yet to fully shed its policy blinkers. As India repeats the same old platitudes about conciliation and cooperation, China is making clear that there cannot be “two Suns in the sky” — or, as a Chinese idiom goes, “one mountain cannot accommodate two tigers”. With its rekindled, atavistic nationalism, China plainly wants to be Asia’s sole tiger.

Beijing is currently waging full-throttle psychological warfare over Doklam to tame India. Deception and mendacity are its tools. If India gives in, it will endure strategic subordination and ignominy forever. Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s excellent rebuttal in Parliament of Chinese disinformation begs the question: Why has India been so slow in countering Beijing’s propaganda war?

New Delhi must play psychological hardball: Instead of appearing zealous for talks, it should insist that China first withdraw both its troops and preconditions, while leaving Beijing in no doubt that India will hold its ground, come what may. If India is to stop China’s creeping, covert encroachments and secure Himalayan peace, it must be ready to give Beijing a real bloody nose if it escalates the standoff to a conflict. Humiliating China even in a localized military engagement, in 1967 style, is vital to help destabilize its expansionist regime.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.

China’s Bhutan land grab aims at bigger target

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Beijing employs stealth aggression in territorial expansion

My map of Himalayan territorial disputes (NAR)

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

China honed its “salami slicing” strategy in the Himalayan borderlands with India in the 1950s, when it grabbed the Switzerland-sized Aksai Chin plateau by surreptitiously building a strategic highway through that unguarded region. Aksai Chin, part of the original princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, has since provided China with the only passageway between its rebellious regions of Tibet and Xinjiang.

Now, the attempt by the People’s Liberation Army to replicate its seizure of Aksai Chin by building a military road through the Doklam plateau of tiny Bhutan has triggered one of the most serious troop standoffs in years between China and India, which is a guarantor of Bhutanese security.

The standoff involving hundreds of PLA and Indian troops, near where the borders of Tibet, Bhutan and India’s Sikkim state meet, has successfully halted the Chinese construction of the highway in Doklam, which Beijing claims as a “traditional pasture for Tibetans.” This is similar to Beijing’s claims in the South and East China seas, which are based on “traditional fishing grounds for Chinese.” The Indian intervention has triggered a furious reaction from China, which is warning India almost daily to back down or face reprisals, including a possible war. India has mobilized up to 10,000 troops for any contingency.

The Chinese defense ministry has warned India to learn the “historical lessons” from the major military reversals it suffered in 1962 when China carried out a surprise trans-Himalayan invasion just when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were locked in the Cuban missile crisis. Beijing has also stepped up diplomatic pressure on New Delhi, with the Chinese foreign ministry insisting that the “precondition for any meaningful dialogue” would be for Indian troops to “unconditionally” pull back from Doklam.

Beijing’s full-throttle campaign against India amounts to psychological warfare, from mounting daily threats to staging military drills in Tibet. For example, a recent “full combat readiness” exercise with tanks was aimed at delivering a clear warning to New Delhi, according to Chinese state media. However, the more China threatens India and the more it refuses to seek a compromise, the more it paints itself in a corner.

Beijing has no good options in emerging as a winner from this confrontation. Given the geography, military logistics, weapon deployments and the entrenched Indian positions, the PLA will find it hard to give India a bloody nose and seize Doklam. If it were to attack, it could suffer a setback. Just as Beijing’s intense propaganda war against India over the Dalai Lama’s April tour to the Chinese-claimed northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh achieved nothing, China risks losing face over the current troop standoff.

The central issue that China has sought to disguise is its intrusion into tiny Bhutan, which has less than 800,000 people. To cause a distraction, Beijing, in keeping with ancient military theorist Sun Tzu’s concept of strategic deception, has tried to shift the focus to India through a public relations blitzkrieg that presents China as the victim and India as the aggressor. Just as it has touted historical claims to much of the South China Sea, which have been dismissed by an international arbitral tribunal as groundless, Beijing contends that Doklam (or “Donglang” as China calls it) has belonged to it “since ancient times.”

Beijing’s dire warning

Besides launching a flurry of official denunciations of India, China has employed the state media in the psychological warfare campaign. “We firmly believe that the face-off in the Donglang area will end up with the Indian troops in retreat. The Indian military can choose to return to its territory with dignity or be kicked out of the area by Chinese soldiers,” China’s nationalist tabloid Global Times said on July 5. “This time we must teach New Delhi a bitter lesson.”

An article on the PLA’s English-language website, China Military Online, has warned that “if a solution isn’t reached through diplomatic or military communication or the issue isn’t handled properly, another armed conflict … is not completely out of the question.”

Despite the Indian army’s prompt actions to protect Bhutan’s territorial interests, the standoff has exposed some of India’s institutional weaknesses. In combating disinformation in war or peace, time is of the essence. Yet it took New Delhi more than four days to issue its first statement in response to China’s verbal attacks against India’s move to protect Bhutan, its longstanding strategic ally. The result was that after Beijing revealed the days-old troop standoff just hours before the June 26 meeting between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House, the Indian media was awash with Chinese propaganda, reporting only Beijing’s line on the standoff.

The current crisis has shown that New Delhi is ill-prepared to counter China’s grandstanding tactics. India’s response to the continuing barrage of hostile Chinese statements against it has been confined to a single statement issued by its foreign ministry on June 30. This is partly to do with India’s intrinsically defensive strategic mindset, including a reluctance to employ its natural economic leverage to rein in Chinese belligerence.

Since China has an almost $60 billion annual trade surplus with India currently, New Delhi has an opportunity to emulate Beijing’s use of trade as a political instrument in punishing South Korea, Mongolia, the Philippines, Japan and others. The flood of Chinese goods entering India is overwhelming. The lopsided trade balance not only rewards China’s strategic hostility but also foots the bill for its strategy of encircling India. Beijing thus has little incentive to moderate its behavior or avoid belligerence.

India also appears reluctant to reopen the Tibet issue, even though China is laying claim to Indian and Bhutanese territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan (not Han Chinese) historical links to these areas. Like Doklam, China claims Arunachal Pradesh, a territory almost three times larger than Taiwan that is famous for its virgin forests and soaring mountain ranges. To help curb such territorial revisionism, India needs to question China’s claim to Tibet itself.

Tibet, autonomous until China annexed it in 1951, enjoyed close historical transportation, trade and cultural links with India, exemplified by the fact that the main Tibetan cities are located close to the Indian border. But with Tibet now locked behind a Chinese “iron curtain,” the formerly integrated economies and cultures of the entire Himalayan region have broken apart.

Expansion drive

Modern China has come a long way since the Great Wall denoted the limits of the Han empire’s political frontiers, as during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Territorially, Han power is now at its zenith. With the exception of Mongolia, China is seeking to expand its frontiers beyond the conquests made by the Manchu Qing dynasty in the 17th and 18th centuries. By relying on stealth aggression in which no bullets or missiles need to be fired, China has mastered the art of creeping, covert warfare, as is apparent in the Himalayas and the South and East China seas. “Only vast lands can cradle great powers,” according to Chinese geographers Du Debin and Ma Yahua.

Recent events have offered clear evidence on how China uses history to justify its territorial ambitions. In the same week that it dusted off an 1890 colonial-era accord on the Tibet-Sikkim border to use in its propaganda war against India, even though the agreement was irrelevant to its intrusion into Bhutan, it mocked as worthless the legally binding 1984 pact with Britain that paved the way for Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 by guaranteeing the city’s rights and freedoms under China’s “one country, two systems” formula. By turning its back on the 1984 pact, Beijing indicated that “one country, two systems” was just a ruse to recover Hong Kong. Yet China will cling to colonial-era accords if they still serve its interests.

Unless Beijing reopens the door to diplomacy, the present military stalemate at Doklam could drag on until the arrival of the harsh winter forces the rival troops to retreat, thus ending the confrontation. This would restore the status quo ante by frustrating the PLA’s road-building plan. The brief July 7 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Modi at the G-20 summit in Hamburg has offered China an opening to save face through a possible mutual retreat from Doklam.

Whatever happens, the current crisis offers India important lessons, including how a clever China presents itself as the victim and feeds disinformation to the Indian media. This should, however, not have come as a surprise. It is standard Chinese strategy to play the victim in any conflict or dispute in an example of how China blends toughness, savvy, single-mindedness and deft propaganda to try to achieve its goals. Psychological warfare is integral to China’s military strategy. Yet India found itself taken by surprise.

More fundamentally, India must recognize that while caution is prudent, diffidence tends to embolden the aggressor. It should continue to err on the side of caution but must shed its reluctance to employ countervailing leverage against China so that it is not always in a reactive mode.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

Asia’s colossus threatens a tiny state

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In the latest chapter in China’s stealth wars, Bhutan is the target.

BY , The Japan Times, July 5, 2017

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Bhutan, one of the world’s smallest nations, has protested that the Asian colossus, China, is chipping away at its territory by building a strategic highway near the Tibet-India-Bhutan trijunction in the Himalayas. Bhutan has security arrangements with India, and the construction has triggered a tense standoff between Chinese and Indian troops at the trijunction, with the Chinese state media warning of the possibility of war.

Bhutan says “China’s construction of the road inside Bhutanese territory is a direct violation” of its agreements with Beijing. China, however, has sought to obscure its aggression by blaming India for not respecting either the trijunction points or the boundary between Tibet and the Indian state of Sikkim, which is also contiguous to Bhutan.

In the way an increasingly muscular China — without firing a single shot — has waged stealth wars to change the status quo in the South and East China seas, it has been making furtive encroachments across its Himalayan frontiers with the intent to expand its control meter by meter, kilometer by kilometer. It has targeted strategic areas in particular.

If its land grab is challenged, China tends to play the victim, including accusing the other side of making a dangerous provocation. And to mask the real issue involved, it chooses to wage a furious propaganda war. Both these elements have vividly been on display in the current troop standoff at the edge of the Chumbi Valley, a Chinese-controlled zone that forms a wedge between Bhutan and Sikkim, and juts out as a dagger against a thin strip of Indian territory known as the Chicken Neck, which connects India’s northeast to the rest of the country.

In recent years, China has been upgrading its military infrastructure and deployments in this highly strategic region so that, in the event of a war, its military blitzkrieg can cut off India from its northeast. Such an invasion would also leave Bhutan completely surrounded and at China’s mercy.

India-Bhutan defense ties

Bhutan, with a population of only 750,000, shares some of its national defense responsibilities with India under a friendship treaty. Indian troops, for example, assist the undersized Royal Bhutan Army in guarding the vulnerable portions of Bhutan’s border with China.

The 2007 Bhutan-India friendship treaty states that the two neighbors “shall cooperate closely with each other on issues relating to their national interests.” The 2007 pact — signed after the Himalayan kingdom introduced major political reforms to emerge as the world’s newest democracy — replaced their 1949 treaty under which Bhutan effectively was an Indian protectorate, with one of the clauses stipulating that it would be “guided by” India in its foreign policy.

Recently, after days of rising Sino-Indian tensions at the trijunction, the People’s Liberation Army on June 16 brought in heavy earth-moving equipment and began building a road through Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau, which China claims, including Sinicizing its name as Donglong. Indian troops intervened, leading to scuffles with PLA soldiers, with the ongoing standoff halting work at the 3,000-meter-high construction site.

Significantly, the standoff did not become public until June 26 when China released a complaint against India, just as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was about to begin discussions with U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House. The statement — timed to cast a shadow over the Modi-Trump discussions and to remind Modi of the costs Beijing could impose on India for his pro-U.S. tilt — presented China as the victim by alleging that Indian troops had “intruded” into “China’s Donglong region” and halted a legitimate construction activity. It demanded India withdraw its troops or face retaliation.

This was followed by a frenzied Chinese public-relations blitzkrieg against India designed to obfuscate the real issue — the PLA’s encroachment on Bhutanese territory. Chinese officials and state media fulminated against India over the troop standoff but shied away from even mentioning Bhutan.

It was only after Bhutan’s ambassador to India publicly revealed on June 28 that his country had protested the PLA’s violation of its territorial sovereignty and demanded a return to status quo ante that Beijing finally acknowledged the involvement of a third party in the dispute. The fact that an insecure and apprehensive Bhutan (which has no diplomatic relations with China) took eight days to make public its protest to Beijing played into China’s hands.

China piles on the pressure

The Chinese attacks on India for halting the road construction, meanwhile, are continuing. For example, the Chinese defense ministry spokesperson, alluding to India’s defeat in the 1962 war with China, asked the Indian army on June 29 to “learn from historical lessons” and to stop “clamoring for war.” The Indian defense minister, in response, said the India of today was different from the one in 1962.

The same trijunction was the scene of heavy Sino-Indian military clashes in 1967, barely five years after China’s 1962 trans-Himalayan invasion led to major Indian reverses. But unlike in 1962, the Chinese side suffered far heavier casualties in the 1967 clashes, concentrated at Nathu-la and Cho-la.

Today, to mount pressure on India, China has cut off Indian pilgrims’ historical access to a mountain-and-lake site in Tibet that is sacred to four faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and the indigenous religion of Tibet, Bon. While Manasarovar is the world’s highest freshwater lake at 4,557 meters above sea level, Mount Kailash — the world’s legendary center — is worshipped by believers as the abode of the planet’s father and mother, the gods Shiva and Uma, and as the place where Lord Buddha manifested himself in his super-bliss form. Four important rivers of Asia, including the Indus and the Brahmaputra, originate from around this duo.

By arbitrarily halting the pilgrimages, Beijing is reminding New Delhi to review its Tibet policy. India needs to subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue in order to fend off Chinese pressure. After all, China lays claim to Indian and Bhutanese territories on the basis of alleged Tibetan (not Han Chinese) links to them historically. India must start to question China’s purportedly historical claim to Tibet itself.

More broadly, by waging stealth wars to accomplish political and military objectives, China is turning into a principle source of strategic instability in Asia. The stealth wars include constructing a dispute and then setting in motion a jurisdictional creep through a steady increase in the frequency and duration of Chinese incursions — all with the intent of either establishing military control over a coveted area or pressuring the opponent to cut a deal on its terms.

This strategy of territorial creep is based not on chess, which is centered on securing a decisive victory, but on the ancient Chinese game of Go, aimed at steadily making incremental gains by outwitting the opponent through unrelenting attacks on its weak points.

China has long camouflaged offense as defense, in keeping with the ancient theorist Sun Tzu’s advice that all warfare is “based on deception.” Still, the fact that the world’s fourth largest country in area, after Russia, Canada and the United States, is seeking to nibble away at the territory of a tiny nation speaks volumes about China’s aggressive strategy of expansion.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Truth Beyond the Brotherhood

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With the passage of time, the transactional elements in the U.S.-Indian partnership have become more conspicuous than the geostrategic dimensions, compounding India’s security dilemmas.

 Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine

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U.S. President Donald Trump made it known during his presidential election campaign that he likes India and Indians. Yet, in office, Trump has taken a series of steps in the immigration and trade realms that have adversely impacted India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a good first-ever meeting with Trump, although it yielded few deliverables. The two will have another opportunity to meet soon when Germany hosts the annual G-20 summit in Hamburg. Yet it is still not clear how salient India will be in the Trump foreign policy. This is largely because Trump’s larger geopolitical policy framework is still evolving.

The U.S.-India strategic partnership is essentially founded on two pillars — a U.S. commitment to assist, in America’s own interest, India’s rise; and a shared interest in building an inclusive, stable, rules-based Asian order to help manage China’s muscular rise. The hope in India has been that the U.S. would assist its rise in the way it aided China’s economic ascent since the 1970s. President Jimmy Carter, for example, sent a memo to various U.S government departments instructing them to help in China’s rise. Even China’s firing of missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996 did not change that policy. If anything, the U.S. has gradually loosened its close links with Taiwan, with no U.S. Cabinet member visiting that island since those missile manoeuvres.

U.S. policy, effectively, helped turn China into an export juggernaut, which today sells $4 worth of goods to the U.S. for each $1 of imports.  In the process, just as the U.S. inadvertently saddled the world with the jihadist scourge by training Afghan mujahedeen — the anti-Soviet guerrillas out of which Al Qaeda evolved — it unintentionally created a rules-violating monster by aiding China’s economic rise. Abusing free-trade rules, China has systematically subsidized its exports while impeding imports to shield domestic jobs and industry. In effect, China has grown strong and rich by quietly waging a trade war. Trump said he told Chinese President Xi Jinping during their Mar-a-Lago summit in April that “we’ve rebuilt China with the money you’ve taken out of the United States.”

India wants the U.S. to buttress the two central pillars of their strategic partnership. Washington’s China “opening” of 1970-1971, engineered by US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, was designed in the wake of the 1969 Sino-Soviet military clashes to exploit the rift in the Communist world by aligning China with America’s anti-Soviet strategy. The result was that China, in the second half of the Cold War, became Washington’s partner against the Soviet Union. By comparison, there is no tectonic geopolitical development or calculation motivating the U.S. to assist India’s rise. Rather, the main driver is a transactional calculation — that an economically booming India, just like China’s economic ascent, will be good for American businesses.

Make no mistake: U.S. foreign policy is inherently transactional, with commerce the central plank. Indeed, Trump’s recent visit to the world’s chief ideological sponsor of jihadism, Saudi Arabia, was a reminder that money speaks louder than the international imperative to counter a rapidly metastasizing global jihadist threat. The visit yielded business and investment deals for the U.S. valued at up to almost $400 billion, including a contract to sell $109.7 billion worth of arms to a country that Trump previously accused of being complicit in 9/11.

Trump’s immediate two predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, did not hide their transactional approach toward a warming relationship with India. For example, the landmark nuclear deal, unveiled in 2005, was pivoted on India boosting its defence transactions with the United States. Consequently, India has emerged as a top U.S. arms client in a matter of years, even as the 12-year-old nuclear deal remains a dud deal on the energy front, with not a single contract signed as yet.

Trump’s weakness, for which he has been widely lampooned, is that he is publicly mercantile and transactional in his foreign-policy approach. His being so commerce-oriented upfront, rather than quietly, as was the case under his predecessors, does not, of course, signify a shift in U.S. policy focus. For example, in the past, the American demand for Indian steps to correct India’s large trade surplus with the U.S. was made in private by a president or publicly by one of his Cabinet members. But Trump articulated that demand forthrightly in his opening remarks at the joint news conference with Modi. “It is important that barriers be removed to the export of U.S. goods into your markets, and that we reduce our trade deficit with your country,” he stated.

The mutual admiration on display during the visit — with Trump lavishing praise on Modi and calling him a “true friend,” and Modi returning the favour to laud Trump’s “vast and successful” business experience — could not obscure the U.S.-India divergence on regional security issues. The Modi visit speeded up Washington’s decision to fill the vacant position of U.S. ambassador to India by naming Kenneth Juster, a senior White House official. Hopefully, the visit will also accelerate the separate inter-agency reviews currently being conducted in Washington on America’s Pakistan and Afghanistan policies.

Take Afghanistan: For nearly 16 years, the U.S. has been stuck in Afghanistan in the longest and most expensive war in its history. It has tried several policies to wind down the war, including a massive military “surge” under Obama to compel the Taliban to sue for peace. Nothing has worked, in large part because the U.S. has continued to fight the war on just one side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan divide and refused to go after the Pakistan-based sanctuaries of the Taliban and its affiliate, the Haqqani network. As Gen. John Nicholson, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, acknowledged earlier this year, “It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.” Worse still, the Taliban is conspicuously missing from the U.S. list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, while the procreator and sponsor of that medieval militia — Pakistan — has been one of the largest recipients of American aid since 2001, when the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan helped remove the Taliban from power.

India is concerned that the U.S. still seeks to preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Taliban. No counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when militants have enjoyed cross-border havens. The Taliban are unlikely to be routed or seek peace as long as they can operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan, where their top leaders are ensconced. Their string of battlefield victories indeed gives them little incentive to enter into serious peace negotiations. U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in June signalled a potentially tougher approach to safe havens in Pakistan, saying the U.S. will hit the enemy where it is “fighting from,” which is “not just Afghanistan”. However, only time will be tell whether this was a rhetorical statement or more.

U.S. has long had a blind spot for Pakistan. Today, the key question for Trump on that front is whether to continue the carrots-only approach toward Pakistan of Obama and Bush or finally begin to wield the big stick against a country that defiantly remains wedded to terrorism. To be sure, the tough message to Pakistan in the joint U.S.-India joint statement on the occasion of Modi’s visit was music to Indian ears: “The leaders called on Pakistan to ensure that its territory is not used to launch terrorist attacks on other countries. They further called on Pakistan to expeditiously bring to justice the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai, Pathankot, and other cross-border terrorist attacks perpetrated by Pakistan-based groups”. This was the clearest message to Pakistan that any Indo-U.S. joint statement has incorporated.

Indeed, the Trump-Modi statement also stated: “The leaders stressed that terrorism is a global scourge that must be fought and terrorist safe havens rooted out in every part of the world. They resolved that India and the United States will fight together against this grave challenge to humanity. They committed to strengthen cooperation against terrorist threats from groups including Al Qaida, ISIS, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, D-Company, and their affiliates. India appreciated the United States designation of the Hizbul Mujahideen leader as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist as evidence of the commitment of the United States to end terror in all its forms”.

The Pakistan-based Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin, who held a joint public rally last December with Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed, is the first militant from India’s Jammu and Kashmir to be designated by the U.S. as a global terrorist. The action against Salahuddin, although belated and designed largely to play to the Indian gallery, adds to the number of Pakistan-based individuals designated as terrorists by the U.S. or the United Nations. It thus helps reinforce Pakistan’s image as a leading terrorist hub.

However, it is true that the U.S. has long been reluctant to take concrete action against Pakistan-based individuals that it has labelled “terrorists”, if their terrorism is directed only at India. Take Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the cataclysmic 2008 Mumbai terrorist strikes: The U.S. has yet to act five years after putting a $10 million bounty on Saeed’s head. Saeed, who founded the Inter-Services Intelligence agency’s largest front organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba, remains the Pakistani military’s darling, with his public life mocking both America’s bounty on his head and the UN’s inclusion of him on a terrorist list. Washington has refrained from even criticizing Pakistani authorities for aiding and abetting Saeed’s public rallies. The rallies seek to project him as some sort of messiah of the Pakistani people. Saeed’s public role adds insult to injury for India, reinforcing the imperative that it must on its own fight Pakistan’s jihad-inspired war, which shows no sign of abating. Indeed, with Pakistan’s ceasefire violations triggering a fierce Indian response, Pakistani generals since the beginning of 2016 are using their terrorist proxies to target security camps in J&K.

Through both policy inaction and generous aid, the U.S. has effectively turned Pakistan into its terrorist protégé, like Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is a valued asset for China to keep India boxed in, but why does Washington still shield that country? U.S. policy indeed plays into China’s hands by propping up Pakistan and unwittingly helping to cement the Sino-Pakistan nexus. Will Trump fix a broken Pakistan policy that permits the Pakistani military to keep nurturing transnational terrorists? It will be overly optimistic to believe that the U.S. under him will change course fundamentally and apply sustained pressure to encourage a reformed Pakistan at peace with itself.

Compounding matters for India is Trump’s lack of an Asia policy or a larger geostrategic vision that gives primacy to major Asian democracies like Japan and India so as to prevent the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia. Trump came to office vowing to end what he saw as China’s free ride on trade and security issues that has allowed Beijing to flex its muscles more strongly than ever. But in contrast to his tough talk during his presidential campaign, when he famously said he would not “allow China to rape our country,” Trump has sought a cooperative relationship with China grounded in reciprocity. Accordingly, Trump, far from seeking to challenge Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions, has stayed on the same China-friendly path as Obama.

In fact, underscoring how the U.S. still seeks to balance its bilateral relationships with important powers in Asia, Trump invited Xi to Mar-a-Lago — his private estate in Palm Beach, Florida, that he calls the “Southern White House” — because he wanted to offer the leader of the world’s largest autocracy the same hospitality that he extended to the prime minister of China’s archrival, Japan, which is Asia’s oldest democracy. In February, Trump brought Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Mar-a-Lago on Air Force One for a weekend of working lunches and golf. And in April, he hosted Xi at Mar-a-Lago.

Those Indians getting carried away by Trump’s praise for Modi should know the kind of admiration the U.S. president publicly displayed for Xi. “We have a great chemistry together,” he said about Xi. “We like each other. I like him a lot.” Trump also added that “lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away,” owing to his relationship with the “terrific” Xi.

The mercurial Trump’s honeymoon with Xi (and China), however, appears to be coming to an end. In a stunning admission of failure, Trump tweeted that counting on Xi to address the North Korea challenge hasn’t worked. It was naïve of Trump to rely on Beijing because North Korea has been seeking to escape China’s clutches and pursue direct engagement with Washington. It is possible that Trump may now pursue a tougher line toward Beijing, especially on trade issues. But that may not necessarily be India’s gain, unless he develops a larger geostrategic plan for Asia, including fixing Obama’s unhinged “pivot” policy and treating India as an indispensable partner. At present, Trump scarcely shares India’s concern about Chinese expansionism in its neighborhood and beyond and appears reluctant to aggressively confront Pakistan on its support for terrorist groups.

The growing cosiness in India’s ties with Washington masks New Delhi’s increasing concerns about its deteriorating regional-security environment. China has stepped up strategic pressure on India from different fronts, including deepening its nexus with Pakistan. Even as a pro-U.S. tilt has become pronounced in Indian foreign policy over the past one decade, with India emerging as a leading U.S. arms client, the relationship with Washington offers no answers to New Delhi’s security dilemmas. Trump, besieged by allegations of collusion between his campaign associates and Russia, has little space to fundamentally revamp U.S. foreign policy, including on Pakistan and China. The more things change, the more they tend to stay the same in U.S. foreign policy. India has no choice but to address the security dilemmas — and the regional threats — on its own.

© Open, 2017.

The Bull in the China Shop

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Beijing’s annual trade surplus with India is large enough for it to finance one China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) every calendar year and still have a few billion dollars to spare.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, June 29, 2017

Doklam plateau

Just as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was meeting US President Donald Trump at the White House, Beijing ratcheted up pressure on India by officially publicizing a military standoff at the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction. The shadow of China’s muscle flexing over the Modi-Trump discussions paralleled what happened when Chinese President Xi Jinping paid an official visit to India in 2014. Xi arrived on Modi’s birthday bearing an unusual gift for his host — a major Chinese military encroachment into Ladakh’s Chumar region. And Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s 2013 visit was preceded by a 19-kilometre incursion into Ladakh’s Depsang Plateau.

In China’s Sun Tsu-style strategy, diplomacy and military pressure, as well as soft and hard tactics, go hand-in-hand. In the same way, China’s xenophobic nationalism goes hand-in-hand with its economic globalization project. Similarly, Beijing poses as a champion of free trade even as it abuses free-trade rules to maintain high trade barriers and to subsidize its exports. In effect, China has grown strong by quietly waging a trade war.  China has held border talks with India while its forces perched on the upper heights of the Tibetan massif have staged fresh incursions.

In Beijing’s view, India is a critical “swing state” that increasingly is moving to the US camp, undercutting Xi’s ambition to establish a Sino-centric Asia through an expanded tianxia system of the 15th century. Given India’s vantage geographical location, China needs its participation to plug key gaps in Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project. But India not only boycotted Xi’s OBOR summit but has also portrayed OBOR as an opaque, neo-colonial enterprise seeking to ensnare smaller, cash-strapped states in a debt trap.

China, by encroaching on Bhutan’s Doklam enclave, may have orchestrated the tri-junction standoff not so much to cast a shadow over the Modi-Trump discussions as to warn Modi that his increasing tilt toward America will carry long-term costs. China is already stepping up its direct and surrogate threats against India. One example is the proliferation of incursions and other border incidents since the 2005 Indo-US nuclear deal, which laid out a strategic framework for the US to co-opt India. China is also waging psy-war through media.

With Chinese forces aggressively seeking to nibble away at Indian territory, India’s Himalayan challenge has been compounded by a lack of an integrated approach that blends military, economic and diplomatic elements into a coherent strategy. Modi, for example, has allowed China’s trade surplus with India to double on his watch to almost $60 billion. By comparison, India’s trade surplus with the US is about half of that, yet Trump wants urgent Indian action to balance the two-way trade.

By importing $5 worth of goods from China for every $1 worth of exports to it, India not only rewards Chinese belligerence but also foots the bill for Beijing’s encirclement strategy. Beijing’s annual trade surplus with India is large enough for it to finance one China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) every calendar year and still have a few billion dollars to spare. India’s most powerful weapon against China is trade. Given China’s proclivity to deploy trade as a political weapon, as against South Korea in the latest case, why doesn’t India take a page out of the Chinese playbook?

India also needs to eschew accommodating rhetoric that plays into China’s hands. Modi’s recent statement that — despite the boundary dispute — “not a single bullet has been fired” was music to Chinese ears, with Beijing going out of its way to welcome it. In truth, China’s bullet-less Himalayan aggression, as the Sikkim episode demonstrates, is similar to the way it has expanded its control in the South China Sea. Indian statements should not give comfort to an adversary that employs furtive, creeping actions to alter the frontier bit by bit.

Meanwhile, China, by arbitrarily suspending Indians’ pilgrimage to the sacred duo of Mount Kailash and Lake Mansarover, is reminding New Delhi to review its Tibet policy. To blunt China’s Tibet-linked claims to Indian territories and to defend against the growing Chinese pressure, India must subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue. Theoretically, India has a better historical claim to Kailash-Mansarover than China has to Arunachal, where no Han Chinese set foot until the 1962 invasion.

Make no mistake: Despite the cosy ties with Washington, India, essentially, is on its own against China. It needs to bolster its border defences and boost its nuclear and missile deterrent capabilities. The U.S., with a price tag of up to $3 billion, is offering 22 unarmed MQ-9B unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance, not the “hunter-killer” UAVs India needs to counter the emerging Indian Ocean threat from China. By investing that kind of money, India could develop potent new deterrent instruments against China — intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and long-range cruise missiles, the symbols of power in today’s world.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.