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.

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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.

 

China Military Parade

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.

Vladimir Putin’s geopolitical chessboard

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, The Japan Times

U.S.-led sanctions against Moscow are helping to create a more assertive Russia determined to countervail American power. The bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee for additional sanctions, even as a special counsel investigates alleged collusion between U.S. President Donald Trump’s election campaign and Moscow, suggests that the U.S.-Russia relationship is likely to remain at a ragged low.

Despite the Russian economy suffering under the combined weight of sanctions and a fall in oil prices, Moscow is spreading its geopolitical influence to new regions and pursuing a major rearmament program involving both its nuclear and conventional forces. Today, Russia is the only power willing to directly challenge U.S. interests in the Middle East, Europe, the Caspian Sea basin, Central Asia and now Afghanistan, where America is stuck in the longest war in its history.

Put simply, the U.S.-led Western sanctions since 2014 are acting as a spur to Russia’s geopolitical resurgence.

In keeping with the maxim that countries have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests, Russia has rejiggered its geopolitical strategy to respond to the biting sanctions against it. Russian President Vladimir Putin has significantly expanded the geopolitical chessboard on which Moscow can play against the United States and NATO.

Historically, strongman governments facing domestic challenges have whipped up nationalism by rallying popular support against foreign adversaries. Who better to blame for Russia’s economic travails than the sanctions-imposing U.S. and its allies? Putin’s jaw-droppingly high approval ratings contrast starkly with the deepening unpopularity at home of his U.S. counterpart.

Putin has shown himself to be a very skilled player of geopolitical chess. Despite Russia’s gross domestic product shrinking to below that of Italy, Putin has managed to build significant Russian clout in several regions. The blunders of Western powers in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, of course, have aided Russian designs in the Middle East.

Putin has made Russia the central player in the bloody Syrian conflict, fueled by outside powers. Until Russia launched its own air war in Syria in September 2015, the U.S.-British-French alliance had the upper hand there, aiding supposedly “moderate” jihadist rebels against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and staging separate bombing campaigns against the Islamic State terrorist organization. Russia’s direct intervention, without bogging down its military in the Syrian quagmire, has helped turn around Assad’s fortunes and reshaped Moscow’s relationships with Turkey, Israel and Iran.

As part of his multidimensional chess game, Putin is also building Russian leverage in other countries that are the key focus of U.S. attention — from North Korea to Libya. But it is Russia’s warming relationship with the medieval Taliban militia — the U.S. military’s main battlefield foe in Afghanistan — that has stood out.

Russia’s new coziness with the Taliban, of course, does not mean that the enemy of its enemy is necessarily a permanent friend. Putin is opportunistically seeking to use the Taliban as a tool to weigh down the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Because of the Taliban’s command-and-control base and guerrilla sanctuaries in Pakistan, Moscow has also sought to befriend that country. This imperative has been reinforced by the continued U.S. unwillingness to bomb the Taliban’s command and control in Pakistan.

The revival of the “Great Game” in Afghanistan is just one manifestation of the U.S.-Russian relationship turning more poisonous. Another sign is Moscow’s stepped-up courting of China. The U.S.-led sanctions have compelled Russia to pivot to China. Putin attended the recent “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing despite his concern that China is using that project to displace Russia as the dominant influence in Central Asia.

To be clear, Russia’s growing ties with India’s regional adversaries, China and Pakistan, have introduced strains in the traditionally close relations between Moscow and New Delhi. The paradox is that as India has moved strategically closer to the U.S., American policy has propelled Russia to forge closer ties with Beijing and to build new relationships with the Taliban and Pakistan.

The Russia-U.S. equation has a significant bearing on Asian and international security. Trump came into office taking potshots at the Chinese leadership but wanting to be friends with Russia. However, the opposite has happened: America’s relationship with Russia, according to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, has hit its lowest point in years while Trump has developed a strong personal relationship with China’s top autocrat, Xi Jinping, who welcomes his mercantile, transactional approach to foreign policy.

This pirouette has happened because, in reality, Trump is battling those who, in the 21st century, are unwilling to forgo a Cold War mentality. Washington may be more divided and polarized than ever but, on one issue, there remains strong bipartisanship — Russia phobia. This has come handy to those seeking to inflict death by a thousand cuts on the Trump presidency, including by calculatedly leaking classified information and keeping the spotlight on the alleged Russia scandal in which there is still no shred of evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow.

Against this backdrop, America’s sanctions against Russia are unlikely to go, despite clear evidence that they are fostering increasing Moscow-Beijing closeness by making Russia more dependent on China. The sanctions effectively undercut a central U.S. policy objective since the 1972 “opening” to Beijing by President Richard Nixon — to drive a wedge between China and Russia.

For Putin, the sanctions represent war by other means and a justification for him to make his next moves on the grand chessboard. With U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker determined to slap Moscow with additional sanctions, U.S.-Russian tensions and rivalries will continue to serve as a strategic boon for China even as they roil regional and international security.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

India’s nuclear industry deserves a place in the sun

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New nuclear power has become increasingly uneconomical in the West but electricity from Indian-made reactors is still competitive.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review, July 3-9, 2017.

22_06_2017_016_023_010The Indian government recently approved the construction of 10 commercial nuclear power reactors of indigenous design, initiating the largest nuclear building program in the world since the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan. The global nuclear power industry is still reeling from that calamity: Just three of Japan’s 42 reactors are currently operating, while France — the poster child for nuclear power — plans to cut its reliance on atomic energy significantly.

New nuclear power has become increasingly uneconomical in the West, in part because of rapidly spiraling plant-construction costs, prompting the U.S. and France to push reactor exports aggressively, including to “nuclear newcomers” such as the cash-laden oil and gas sheikhdoms of the Arabian peninsula. Still, the bulk of the new reactors under construction or planned worldwide are located in just four countries — China, Russia, South Korea and India.

The Indian decision to turn to a “fully homegrown initiative” reflects the continuing problems in implementing a 2005 agreement on nuclear power with the U.S. Nine years after the U.S. Congress ratified the landmark deal, commercialization is still not within sight.

India, duped by its own hype over the nuclear deal, had announced plans to import reactors costing tens of billions of dollars from two U.S.-based vendors, Westinghouse Electric and GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy, and France’s state-owned Areva. The Indian plans helped motivate Toshiba to acquire Westinghouse — a takeover that ultimately proved a huge blunder, plunging Toshiba into a grave financial crisis. Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy protection in March.

One missing link in commercializing the U.S.-India deal has been Japan, which signed a separate civil nuclear agreement with New Delhi only in 2016 after other supplier-nations had already concluded such accords. The Japanese parliament’s approval in early June of the agreement with India clears the legal path for Japanese exports. The accord is to take effect in early July.

Japan is a top nuclear equipment supplier, not merely because Toshiba largely owns Westinghouse. Hitachi has a global nuclear power alliance with GE, while Mitsubishi Heavy has one with Areva. Just one Japan-based company, Japan Steel Works, controls 80% of the international market for heavy nuclear forgings.

The Japanese parliamentary approval, although an important development, has come at a time when Westinghouse, GE Hitachi and Areva — which dominate the international reactor export business — are in a dire financial state, with their futures at stake. These are the companies that were to principally benefit from the U.S.-India nuclear deal, although none had secured a supply contract thus far.

Fading promise

Having invested considerable political capital in the vaunted nuclear deal with the U.S., India today confronts an embarrassing situation: The nuclear power promise is fading globally before New Delhi has signed a single reactor contract as part of that deal. To save face, India, with one of the world’s oldest nuclear energy programs, has embarked on a major expansion of domestically designed power reactors.

The monumental nature of the decision to construct 10 reactors with 700 megawatts of capacity each is underscored by the fact that the total size of these units surpasses the current installed nuclear generating capacity in the country. India has 22 nuclear reactors in operation which produce 6,219MWe of electricity. The 10 new reactors will be in addition to seven others already under construction which will have a combined capacity of 5,300MWe.

The 10-reactor decision fits well with India’s commitment under the Paris climate accord to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. India is committed to cutting the carbon intensity of its economy by about a third by 2030, including by generating 40% of its electricity from non-fossil fuels. The single-minded focus on carbon, however, threatens to exacerbate India’s water crisis, given the water-guzzling nature of the energy sector, especially nuclear power.

Moreover, U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris accord has cast unflattering light on the onerous climate-related obligations India has taken on before it has provided electricity to all its citizens. According to a review of global trends by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency the U.S. produces eight times more carbon dioxide emissions than India, on a per capita basis. Under current plans, India will link the last remaining 4,141 villages without power to its electricity grid in 2018, but 24-hour electricity will not be available nationwide to all communities until 2022.

India’s decision to ramp up its nuclear power capacity may contribute little to meeting the 2022 goal, given that the time frame for domestic nuclear plant construction averages seven years. But it will yield major economic dividends, including boosting domestic industry and creating thousands of jobs. By providing $11 billion worth of likely manufacturing orders to Indian industry, the 10-reactor decision will help to transform the domestic nuclear industry, according to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

By contrast, had India relied primarily on imports of Western reactors to accelerate new capacity additions, the financial costs would have been substantially higher, without tangible benefits accruing to domestic industry. India is already a top weapons importer. Reliance on Western reactors would have made it the world’s largest importer of nuclear power plants — a double whammy for Indian taxpayers, especially given that the country is the only major Asian economy that is import-dependent rather than export driven.

In this light, the travails of the nuclear deal with the U.S. may be a blessing in disguise for India. But for the serious financial woes of Westinghouse, GE Hitachi and Areva — each of which was to build a cluster of reactors at a separate Indian park — Indian taxpayers would have been potentially saddled with plants like Areva’s reactor project in Finland, which is currently almost a decade behind schedule and billions of euros over budget.

Rightful place

To be sure, a dispute with Western suppliers over nuclear accident liability also put a break on India’s reactor-import plans. After India’s 2010 legislation put off foreign reactor vendors by giving plant operators the right of recourse against equipment suppliers in the event of a nuclear accident resulting from substandard equipment or material, New Delhi established a nuclear insurance pool in 2016 to extend protection to suppliers. By then, however, the global nuclear power scene had fundamentally changed due to the impact of the Fukushima disaster.

mapNuclear power may be on a downward trajectory globally, yet it has earned a rightful place in India’s energy mix. The country’s domestic nuclear power industry, without technological assistance from overseas, has done a good job in beating the mean global plant-construction time frame and in producing electricity at a price that is the envy of Western reactor vendors. As a result, power from domestic reactor models is competitive with cheap coal-fired electricity. By contrast, in the U.S., where five reactor closures have been announced since 2013, utilities are seeking greater state subsidies to keep other nuclear plants operating.

India was compelled to establish nuclear autarky, including an independent fuel cycle, because it was excluded from international civil nuclear trade on the grounds that it developed nuclear-weapons capability in 1974 after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty had already taken effect in 1970. (The five countries that tested bombs before the NPT was concluded were accorded the status of nuclear-weapons states under the NPT.) The Indo-U.S. nuclear deal sought to remedy this situation somewhat by opening civil nuclear commerce to India while recognizing the reality of its nuclear-weapons capability.

For many in India’s governing elite, the nuclear deal with the U.S. — despite the conditions quietly put into the American ratifying legislation — became the acme of their aspirations for the country. They believed the deal would turn the U.S. into India’s enduring benefactor and catapult the country into the big-power league. Years later, for example, New Delhi is still not in the U.S.-led Nuclear Suppliers Group, with China unyielding in its opposition to India’s entry.

A cost-benefit analysis against this background is helping to lower India’s expectations from the nuclear deal. By expanding construction of its own reactor models, India is laying the base for its emergence as a reactor exporter. Compared with the larger reactors of Westinghouse, GE Hitachi and Areva, India’s midsize reactors are better suited for the developing countries, considering their grid limitations.

India may still buy some Western reactors, but the latest decision clearly signals that its focus will be on building its own reactors. It has taken 12 years for Indian hype over the nuclear deal to give way to sober realism. The inward turn reaffirms India’s embrace of a zero-carbon power source and underscores its faith in the likely advent of commercially attractive reactors based not on uranium — a resource it lacks — but on thorium, which it has in plenty.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

 

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The Kudankulam nuclear power plant seen from a beach in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu © Reuters

Countering China’s High-Altitude Land Grab

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

Bite by kilometer-size bite, China is eating away at India’s Himalayan borderlands. For decades, Asia’s two giants have fought a bulletless war for territory along their high-altitude border. Recently, though, China has become more assertive, underscoring the need for a new Indian containment strategy.

On average, China launches one stealth incursion into India every 24 hours. Kiren Rijiju, India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs, says the People’s Liberation Army is actively intruding into vacant border space with the objective of occupying it. And according to a former top official with India’s Intelligence Bureau, India has lost nearly 2,000 square kilometers to PLA encroachments over the last decade.

The strategy underlying China’s actions is more remarkable than their scope. On land, like at sea, China uses civilian resources – herders, farmers, and grazers – as the tip of the spear. Once civilians settle on contested land, army troops gain control of the disputed area, paving the way for the establishment of more permanent encampments or observation posts. Similarly, in the South China Sea, China’s naval forces follow fishermen to carve out space for the reclamation of rocks or reefs. In both theaters, China has deployed no missiles, drones, or bullets to advance its objectives.

China’s non-violent terrestrial aggression has garnered less opposition than its blue-water ambition, which has been challenged by the United States and under international law (albeit with little effect). Indian leaders have at times even seemed to condone China’s actions. During a recent panel discussion in Russia, for example, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that although China and India are at odds over borders, it was remarkable that “in the last 40 years, not a single bullet has been fired because of [it].” The Chinese foreign ministry responded by praising Modi’s “positive remarks.”

Moreover, Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, used to claim that, in their 5,000-year history, India and China fought only one war, in 1962. What this rose-tinted history failed to acknowledge was that China and India became neighbors only after China annexed the buffer Tibet in 1951.

Given India’s accommodating rhetoric, it is easy to view the country as a paper tiger. While Modi has used the phrase “inch toward miles” as the motto of India-China cooperation, the PLA has continued its cynical territorial aggrandizement by translating that slogan into incremental advance. After spending so many years on the defensive, India must retake the narrative.

The first order of business is to abandon the platitudes. Modi’s calls for border peace and tranquility might be sincere, but his tone has made India look like a meek enabler.

yh9Tk17LChina’s fast-growing trade surplus with India, which has doubled to almost $60 billion on Modi’s watch, has increased Chinese President Xi Jinping’s territorial assertiveness. The absence of clarity about the frontier – China reneged on a 2001 promise to exchange maps with India – serves as cover for the PLA’s aggression, with China denying all incursions and claiming that its troops are operating on “Chinese land.” But, by acquiescing on bilateral trade – the dumping of Chinese-made steel on the Indian market is just one of many examples – India has inadvertently helped foot the bill for the PLA’s encirclement strategy.

China’s financial regional leverage has grown dramatically in the past decade, as it has become almost all Asian economies’ largest trade and investment partner. In turn, many of the region’s developing countries have moved toward China on matters of regional security and transport connectivity. But, as Modi himself has stressed, there remains plenty of room for India to engage in Asia’s economic development. A more regionally integrated Indian economy would, by default, serve as a counterweight to China’s territorial expansion.

India should also beef up its border security forces to become a more formidable barrier to the PLA. India’s under-resourced Indo-Tibetan Border Police, under the command of the home ministry, is little more than a doorman. Training and equipping these units properly, and placing them under the command of the army, would signal to China that the days of an open door are over.

If the tables were turned, and Indian forces were attempting to chip away at Chinese territory, the PLA would surely respond with more than words. But in many cases, Indian border police patrolling the area don’t even carry weapons. With such a docile response, China has been able to do as it pleases along India’s northern frontier. China’s support of the Pakistani military, whose forces often fire at Indian troops along the disputed Kashmir frontier, should be viewed in this light.

The PLA began honing its “salami tactics” in the Himalayas in the 1950s, when it sliced off the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau. Later, China inflicted a humiliating defeat on India in the 1962 border war, securing peace, as a state mouthpiece crowed in 2012, on its own terms. Today, China pursues a “cabbage” approach to borders, cutting off access to an adversary’s previously controlled territory and gradually surrounding it with multiple civilian and security layers.

Against this backdrop, the true sign of Himalayan peace will not be the holstering of guns, but rather the end of border incursions. India’s accommodating approach has failed to deter China. To halt further encroachments, India will need to bare its own teeth.

© 1995-2017 Project Syndicate.

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The Age of Blowback Terror

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

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World powers have often been known to intervene, overtly and covertly, to overthrow other countries’ governments, install pliant regimes, and then prop up those regimes, even with military action. But, more often than not, what seems like a good idea in the short term often brings about disastrous unintended consequences, with intervention causing countries to dissolve into conflict, and intervening powers emerging as targets of violence. That sequence is starkly apparent today, as countries that have meddled in the Middle East face a surge in terrorist attacks.

Last month, Salman Ramadan Abedi – a 22-year-old British-born son of Libyan immigrants – carried out a suicide bombing at the concert of the American pop star Ariana Grande in Manchester, England. The bombing – the worst terrorist attack in the United Kingdom in more than a decade – can be described only as blowback from the activities of the UK and its allies in Libya, where external intervention has given rise to a battle-worn terrorist haven.

The UK has not just actively aided jihadists in Libya; it encouraged foreign fighters, including British Libyans, to get involved in the NATO-led operation that toppled Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime in 2011. Among those fighters was Abedi’s father, a longtime member of the al-Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, whose functionaries were imprisoned or forced into exile during Qaddafi’s rule. The elder Abedi returned to Libya six years ago to fight alongside a new Western-backed Islamist militia known as the Tripoli Brigade. His son had recently returned from a visit to Libya when he carried out the Manchester Arena attack.

This was not the first time a former “Islamic holy warrior” passed jihadism to his Western-born son. Omar Saddiqui Mateen, who carried out last June’s Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida – the deadliest single-day mass shooting in US history – also drew inspiration from his father, who fought with the US-backed mujahedeen forces that drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

In fact, the United States’ activities in Afghanistan at that time may be the single biggest source of blowback terrorism today. With the help of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and Saudi Arabia’s money, the CIA staged what remains the largest covert operation in its history, training and arming thousands of anti-Soviet insurgents. The US also spent $50 million on a “jihad literacy” project to inspire Afghans to fight the Soviet “infidels” and to portray the CIA-trained guerrillas as “holy warriors.”

1021324883After the Soviets left, however, many of those holy warriors ended up forming al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups. Some, such as Osama bin Laden, remained in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, turning it into a base for organizing international terrorism, like the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US. Others returned to their home countries – from Egypt to the Philippines – to wage terror campaigns against what they viewed as Western-tainted governments. “We helped to create the problem that we are now fighting,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted in 2010.

Yet the US – indeed, the entire West – seems not to have learned its lesson. Clinton herself was instrumental in coaxing a hesitant President Barack Obama to back military action to depose Qaddafi in Libya. As a result, just as President George W. Bush will be remembered for the unraveling of Iraq, one of Obama’s central legacies is the mayhem in Libya.

In Syria, the CIA is again supporting supposedly “moderate” jihadist rebel factions, many of which have links to groups like al-Qaeda. Russia, for its part, has been propping up its client, President Bashar al-Assad – and experiencing blowback of its own, exemplified by the 2015 downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula. Russia has also been seeking to use the Taliban to tie down the US militarily in Afghanistan.

As for Europe, two jihadist citadels – Syria and Libya – now sit on its doorstep, and the blowback from its past interventions, exemplified by terrorist attacks in France, Germany, and the UK, is intensifying. Meanwhile, Bin Laden’s favorite son, Hamza bin Laden, is seeking to revive al-Qaeda’s global network.

Of course, regional powers, too, have had plenty to do with perpetuating the cycle of chaos and conflict in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia may have fallen out with a fellow jihad-bankrolling state, Qatar, but it continues to engage in a brutal proxy war with Iran in Yemen, which has brought that country, like Iraq and Libya, to the brink of state failure.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia has been the chief exporter of intolerant and extremist Wahhabi Islam since the second half of the Cold War. Western powers, which viewed Wahhabism as an antidote to communism and the 1979 Shia “revolution” in Iran, tacitly encouraged it.

Ultimately, Wahhabi fanaticism became the basis of modern Sunni Islamist terror, and Saudi Arabia itself is now threatened by its own creation. Pakistan – another major state sponsor of terrorism – is also seeing its chickens coming home to roost, with a spate of terrorist attacks.

It is high time for a new approach. Recognizing that arming or supporting Islamist radicals anywhere ultimately fuels international terrorism, such alliances of convenience should be avoided. In general, Western powers should resist the temptation to intervene at all. Instead, they should work systematically to discredit what British Prime Minister Theresa May has called “the evil ideology of Islamist extremism.”

On this front, US President Donald Trump has already sent the wrong message. On his first foreign trip, he visited Saudi Arabia, a decadent theocracy where, ironically, he opened the Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology. As the US and its allies continue to face terrorist blowback, one hopes that Trump comes to his senses, and helps to turn the seemingly interminable War on Terror that Bush launched in 2001 into a battle that can actually be won.

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 Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© 1995-2017 Project Syndicate.

Modi’s Russia Challenge

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Russian President Putin shakes hands with India's Prime Minister Modi during a photo opportunity ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, June 2, 2017

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Russia visit raises a fundamental question: Is Moscow still India’s ‘tried and trusted’ friend? Russia’s growing relations with India’s adversaries, China and Pakistan, have spurred unease in New Delhi. However, many in India have failed to grasp the factors driving Moscow’s overtures to Pakistan or its sale of offensive weapon systems to China.

Such moves have little to do with India. Russia may be in decline economically but, geopolitically, it is a resurgent power, spreading its geopolitical influence to new regions and pursuing rearmament at home. Russia is the only power willing to directly challenge US interests in the Middle East, Europe, Caspian Sea basin, Central Asia and now Afghanistan, where America is stuck in the longest war in its history.

In keeping with the maxim that countries have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests, Russia has rejigged its geopolitical strategy to respond to the biting US-led sanctions against it since 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin has significantly expanded the geopolitical chessboard on which Moscow can play against the US and NATO.

Putin has made Russia the central player in the bloody Syrian conflict, fuelled by outside powers. Until Russia launched its own air war in Syria in September 2015, the US-British-French alliance had the upper hand there, aiding supposedly ‘moderate’ jihadist rebels against Bashar al-Assad’s regime and staging separate bombing campaigns against ISIS. Russia’s direct intervention, without bogging down its military in the Syrian quagmire, has helped turn around Assad’s fortunes and reshaped Moscow’s relationships with Turkey, Israel and Iran.

As part of his multidimensional chess game, Putin is also building Russian leverage in other countries that are the key focus of US attention — from North Korea to Libya. But it is Russia’s warming relationship with the medieval Taliban — the US military’s main battlefield foe in Afghanistan — that seriously conflicts with India’s interest.

Russia’s new coziness with the Taliban, of course, does not mean that the enemy of its enemy is necessarily a permanent friend. Moscow is opportunistically seeking to use the Taliban as a tool to weigh down the US military in Afghanistan. Because of the Taliban’s command-and-control base and guerrilla sanctuaries in Pakistan, Moscow has also sought to befriend Islamabad. This imperative has been reinforced by the US refusal to bomb the Taliban’s command and control in Pakistan.

The paradox is that as India has moved strategically closer to the US, American policy has worked against India’s regional interests, propelling Russia to forge closer ties with Beijing and to build new relationships with the Taliban and Pakistan. The US still continues to fecklessly accommodate China and battle the Taliban on just one side of the Afghanistan-Pakistan divide. Russia is equally nonchalant if its geopolitical chess play squeezes Indian interests.

The revival of the “Great Game” in Afghanistan is just one manifestation of the US-Russian relationship turning more poisonous. Another sign is Moscow’s stepped-up courting of China. For example, with Russia staying quiet, last year’s BRICS Goa Declaration, at China’s insistence, omitted any reference to cross-border terrorism or to any Pakistan-based group yet mentioned ISIS and al-Nusra. Putin attended the recent “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing despite his concern that China is using that project to displace Russia as the dominant influence in Central Asia.

With Russia becoming the largest crude oil exporter to China, Moscow-Beijing ties are booming economically, yet underlying political suspicions and wariness remain. In the India-Russia case, it is the reverse: Relations are warm politically but the two-way trade is in sharp decline, slumping to less than $8 billion in 2015. US-led sanctions against Russia, by promoting Moscow-Beijing closeness, are undercutting a central US policy objective since the 1972 opening to Beijing — to drive a wedge between China and Russia.

For Putin, the sanctions represent war by other means and a justification for Russia to countervail US power. With the US Congress threatening to impose additional sanctions even as a special counsel investigates alleged collusion between President Donald Trump’s election campaign and Moscow, US-Russian tensions and rivalries will continue to buffet India’s regional interests, but serve as a strategic boon for China.

Against this background, Modi faces an exigent challenge to revitalize a flagging partnership with Russia while safeguarding India’s regional security and its $3 billion development aid to Afghanistan since 2002. This challenge is compounded by the fact that a robust relationship with Moscow is vital to a balanced Indian foreign policy, to leveraging India’s ties with other powers, and to managing an increasingly muscular China. A drifting relationship with Russia would crimp India’s options, to its serious detriment.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017. 

China’s Imperial Overreach

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

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HONG KONG – Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tenure has been marked by high ambition. His vision – the “Chinese dream” – is to make China the world’s leading power by 2049, the centenary of communist rule. But Xi may be biting off more than he can chew.

A critical element of Xi’s strategy to realize the Chinese dream is the “one belt, one road” (OBOR) initiative, whereby China will invest in infrastructure projects abroad, with the goal of bringing countries from Central Asia to Europe firmly into China’s orbit. When Xi calls it “the project of the century,” he may not be exaggerating.

In terms of scale or scope, OBOR has no parallel in modern history. It is more than 12 times the size of the Marshall Plan, America’s post-World War II initiative to aid the reconstruction of Western Europe’s devastated economies. Even if China cannot implement its entire plan, OBOR will have a significant and lasting impact.

Of course, OBOR is not the only challenge Xi has mounted against an aging Western-dominated international order. He has also spearheaded the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and turned to China’s advantage the two institutions associated with the BRICS grouping of emerging economies (the Shanghai-based New Development Bank and the $100 billion Contingent Reserve Arrangement). At the same time, he has asserted Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea more aggressively, while seeking to project Chinese power in the western Pacific.

But OBOR takes China’s ambitions a large step further. With it, Xi is attempting to remake globalization on China’s terms, by creating new markets for Chinese firms, which face a growth slowdown and overcapacity at home.

With the recently concluded OBOR summit in Beijing having drawn 29 of the more than 100 invited heads of state or government, Xi is now in a strong position to pursue his vision. But before he does, he will seek to emerge from the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party later this year as the country’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong.

Since taking power in 2012, Xi has increasingly centralized power, while tightening censorship and using anti-corruption probes to take down political enemies. Last October, the CCP bestowed on him the title of “core” leader.

Yet Xi has set his sights much higher: he aspires to become modern China’s most transformative leader. Just as Mao helped to create a reunified and independent China, and Deng Xiaoping launched China’s “reform and opening up,” Xi wants to make China the central player in the global economy and the international order.

So, repeating a mantra of connectivity, China dangles low-interest loans in front of countries in urgent need of infrastructure, thereby pulling those countries into its economic and security sphere. China stunned the world by buying the Greek port of Piraeus for $420 million. From there to the Seychelles, Djibouti, and Pakistan, port projects that China insisted were purely commercial have acquired military dimensions.

But Xi’s ambition may be blinding him to the dangers of his approach. Given China’s insistence on government-to-government deals on projects and loans, the risks to lenders and borrowers have continued to grow. Concessionary financing may help China’s state-owned companies bag huge overseas contracts; but, by spawning new asset-quality risks, it also exacerbates the challenges faced by the Chinese banking system.

The risk of non-performing loans at state-owned banks is already clouding China’s future economic prospects. Since reaching a peak of $4 trillion in 2014, the country’s foreign-exchange reserves have fallen by about a quarter. The ratings agency Fitch has warned that many OBOR projects – most of which are being pursued in vulnerable countries with speculative-grade credit ratings – face high execution risks, and could prove unprofitable.

Xi’s approach is not helping China’s international reputation, either. OBOR projects lack transparency and entail no commitment to social or environmental sustainability. They are increasingly viewed as advancing China’s interests – including access to key commodities or strategic maritime and overland passages – at the expense of others.

In a sense, OBOR seems to represent the dawn of a new colonial era – the twenty-first-century equivalent of the East India Company, which paved the way for British imperialism in the East. But, if China is building an empire, it seems already to have succumbed to what the historian Paul Kennedy famously called “imperial overstretch.”

And, indeed, countries are already pushing back. Sri Lanka, despite having slipped into debt servitude to China, recently turned away a Chinese submarine attempting to dock at the Chinese-owned Colombo container terminal. And popular opposition to a 15,000-acre industrial zone in the country has held up China’s move to purchase an 80% stake in the loss-making Hambantota port that it built nearby.

Shi Yinhong, an academic who serves as a counselor to China’s government, the State Council, has warned of the growing risk of Chinese strategic overreach. And he is already being proved right. Xi has gotten so caught up in his aggressive foreign policy that he has undermined his own diplomatic aspirations, failing to recognize that brute force is no substitute for leadership. In the process, he has stretched China’s resources at a time when the economy is already struggling and a shrinking working-age population presages long-term stagnation.

According to a Chinese proverb, “To feed the ambition in your heart is like carrying a tiger under your arm.” The further Xi carries OBOR, the more likely it is to bite him.

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Money trumps anti-terror task

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Donald Trump’s embrace of a country he long excoriated for its role in sponsoring terrorism reflects the fact that Saudi Arabia is a cash cow for American defense, energy and manufacturing companies.

BY The Japan Times

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Want evidence that money speaks louder than the international imperative to counter a rapidly metastasizing global jihadi threat, as symbolized by the latest attack in Manchester? Look no further than U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent visit to the world’s chief ideological sponsor of jihadism, Saudi Arabia. The trip yielded business and investment deals for the United States 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.

By exporting Wahhabism — the hyper-conservative strain of Islam that has instilled the spirit of martyrdom and become the source of modern Islamist terror — Saudi Arabia is snuffing out the more liberal Islamic traditions in many countries. Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi fanaticism is the root from which Islamist terrorist organizations ranging from the Islamic State group (which claimed responsibility for the Manchester concert attack) to al-Qaida draw their ideological sustenance.

The Manchester attack, occurring close on the heels of Trump’s Saudi visit, has cast an unflattering light on his choice of a decadent theocracy for his first presidential visit overseas. The previous four U.S. presidents made their first trips to a neighboring ally — either Mexico or Canada, which are flourishing democracies. But Trump, the businessman, always seeks opportunities to strike deals, as underscored by his 100-day trade deal with the world’s largest autocracy, China.

But Trump is not alone. In thrall to Saudi money, British Prime Minister Theresa May traveled to Riyadh six weeks before Trump on her most controversial visit since taking office. As if to signal that a post-Bexit Britain would increasingly cozy up to rich despotic states, May flew to Saudi Arabia shortly after triggering Article 50, an action that started a two-year countdown for her country’s exit from the European Union. She has also stepped up her courting of China and enthusiastically endorsed Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” program, which many EU states see as lacking in transparency and social and environmental accountability.

Anglo-American support and weapons have aided Saudi war crimes in Yemen, which is now on the brink of famine. Mass starvation would ensue there if the Saudis execute their threat to attack the city of Hodeida, now the main port for entry of Yemen’s food supplies. Britain alone has sold over £3 billion worth of arms to Riyadh since the cloistered Saudi royals began their bombardment and naval blockade of Yemen more than two years ago. While London is planning to sell more weapon systems, Trump’s arms package for the Saudis includes guided munitions that were held up by his predecessor, Barack Obama.

Salvaging the global war on terror demands a sustained information campaign to discredit the ideology of radical Islam. But as long as Saudi Arabia continues to shield its insidious role in aiding and abetting extremism by doling out multibillion-dollar contracts to key powers like the U.S. and Britain, it will be difficult to bring the war on terror back on track.

Trump exemplifies the challenge. In a speech to leaders from across the Muslim world who had gathered in Saudi Arabia, the “Make America Great Again” campaigner championed “Make Islam Great Again.” After earlier saying “Islam hates us” and calling for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S., Trump described Islam as “one of the world’s great faiths” and urged “tolerance and respect for each other.”

It was weird, though, that Trump spoke about the growing dangers of Islamic extremism from the stronghold of global jihadism, Saudi Arabia. The new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology that he opened in Riyadh promises to stand out as a symbol of U.S. hypocrisy.

The long-standing U.S. alliances with Arab monarchs have persisted despite these royals bankrolling Islamic militant groups and Islamic seminaries in other countries. Trump cannot hope to deliver credible or enduring counterterrorism results without disciplining Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other oil sheikhdoms that continue to export Islamic radicalism. But he has already discovered that this is no easy task.

For example, the U.S. alliance with Saudi Arabia yields exceptionally huge contracts and investments for the American economy. In short, Saudi Arabia is a cash cow for American defense, energy and manufacturing companies, as the latest mega-deals illustrate.

Against this background, Trump’s embrace of a country that he long excoriated reflects the success of the American “deep state” in taming him. Hyping the threat from Iran, even if it fuels the deep-seated Sunni-Shiite rivalry, helps to bolster U.S. alliances with Arab royals and win lucrative arms contracts.

Ominously, Trump in Saudi Arabia spoke of building a stronger alliance with Sunni countries, with U.S. officials saying the defense arrangements could evolve into an “Arab NATO.” However, the Sunni arc of nations is not only roiled by deep fissures, but also it is the incubator of transnational jihadis who have become a potent threat to secular, democratic states near and far. IS, al-Qaida, the Taliban, Laskar-e-Taiba, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab are all Saudi-inspired Sunni groups that blend hostility toward non-Sunnis and anti-modern romanticism into nihilistic rage.

In this light, Trump’s Sunni-oriented approach could worsen the problems of jihadism and sectarianism, undermining the anti-terror fight.

The murky economic and geopolitical considerations presently at play foreshadow a long and difficult international battle against the forces of terrorism. The key to battling violent Islamism is stemming the spread of the ideology that has fostered “jihad factories.” There can be no success without closing the wellspring of terrorism — Wahhabi fanaticism. But who will have the courage to bell the cat?

A long-standing contributor to The JapanTimes, Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

© The Japan Times, 2017.

A win comes with a challenge for India

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Brahma Chellaney, DNA

Clipboard01Pakistan is an incorrigibly scofflaw state for whom international law matters little. Still, India was left with no option but to haul Pakistan before the International Court of Justice after a secret Pakistani military court sentenced to death a former Indian naval officer, Kulbhushan Jadhav, for being an Indian “spy”. At a time when there was no hope to save Jadhav, the ICJ interim order has come as a shot in the arm for India diplomatically.

However, Pakistan’s response to the provisional but binding order that it does not accept ICJ’s jurisdiction in national security-related matters underscores India’s challenge in dealing with a country that violates canons of civilized conduct and engages in barbaric acts, as exemplified by the recent beheading of two Indian soldiers. The concept of good-neighbourly relations seems alien to Pakistan. For example, in the Kashmir Valley, the Pakistani military establishment is actively promoting civil resistance after its strategy of inciting an armed insurrection against India has yielded limited results.

For years, India has stoically put up with the Pakistani military’s export of terrorism. Even as Pakistan violates the core terms of the Simla peace treaty, India faithfully adheres to the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).

Significantly, the ICJ’s welcome interim order has followed a string of setbacks suffered by India between 2013 and 2016 in three separate cases before international arbitral tribunals. One case involved a maritime boundary dispute in the Bay of Bengal, with the tribunal awarding Bangladesh almost four-fifths of the disputed territory.

A second case, instituted by Pakistan, related to the IWT and centred on its challenge to India’s tiny 330-megawatt Kishenganga hydropower plant. The third case was filed by Italy over India’s initiation of criminal proceedings against two Italian marines, who were arrested for killing two unarmed Indian fishermen.

Despite apparent flaws in the decisions of the tribunals in all three cases, India abided by them. The ICJ is a higher judicial organ than any tribunal, yet it lacks any practical mechanism to enforce its rulings. If Pakistan does not abide by the ICJ order, it will expose itself thoroughly as a rogue state.

In a world in which power respects power, the international justice system cannot tame a wayward state like Pakistan. In the final analysis, India has to tame Pakistan on its own. The ICJ interim order should not obscure this harsh reality.

© DNA, 2017.

Water pincer against India

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China steps up its challenge to India by signing an accord with Pakistan to fund and build two mega-dams in Gilgit-Baltistan, which the United Nations recognizes as a disputed region and part of Jammu and Kashmir.

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, May 16, 2017

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China, which is working to re-engineer the trans-boundary flows of rivers originating in Tibet, has taken its dam-building frenzy to Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan, which is part of Jammu and Kashmir. In a new challenge to India, which claims Gilgit-Baltistan as its own territory, China will fund and build two Indus mega-dams at a total cost of $27 billion, according to a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed in Beijing during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit. The MoU came the same day India announced its boycott of China’s “one belt, one road” (OBOR) summit, saying no country “can accept a project that ignores its core concerns on sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Such is the mammoth size of the planned 7,100-megawatt Bunji Dam and the 4,500-megawatt Bhasha Dam that India does not have a single dam measuring even one-third of Bunji in power-generating-capacity terms. In fact, the total installed hydropower generating capacity in India’s part of J&K currently does not equal the size of even the smaller of the two planned dams in Gilgit. Still, Pakistan disingenuously rails against India’s modest hydropower projects in J&K and has sought fresh international arbitral tribunal proceedings against India over two projects, including the tiny 330-megawatt Kishenganga.

Even more striking is China’s hypocrisy: It bellicosely protested, almost on a daily basis, the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to Arunachal Pradesh, claiming it to be a “disputed territory”, although only Beijing disputes India’s control over Arunachal. It also held out threats against India jointly exploring with Vietnam for offshore hydrocarbons in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone. Yet it has no compunctions about unveiling projects — under the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC) banner — in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir, a UN-recognized disputed region.

C_6ju34UQAAiEYXCPEC — OBOR’s flagship programme, which will cement Pakistan’s status as China’s economic and security client — has become a convenient cover for Beijing to include major strategic projects, stretching from Gilgit-Baltistan to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port. The Bunji and Bhasha dams are also claimed to be part of CPEC, which, by linking the maritime and overland “Silk Roads” that China is creating, will gravely impinge on India’s security. A grateful Pakistan has given China exclusive rights to run Gwadar port for the next 40 years.

The Bunji and Bhasha dams, which will largely benefit the dominant Punjab province, located downstream, are set to enlarge China’s strategic footprint in the restive, Shia-majority Gilgit-Baltistan. For years, China has stationed several thousand of its own troops in Gilgit-Baltistan, ostensibly to protect its strategic projects there, including upgrading the Karakoram Highway and building a new railway and secret tunnels. CPEC has spurred increased concern that Gilgit-Baltistan, like Tibet, could get overwhelmed by the Chinese behemoth.

Pakistani authorities are responding harshly to anti-CPEC protests in Gilgit-Baltistan, where the corridor is widely seen as opening the path to the region’s enslavement by China. The fact that China rules Gilgit-Baltistan’s Shaksgam, Raskam, Shimshal, and Aghil valleys — ceded by Pakistan in 1963 to cement its strategic alliance with Beijing — has only added to the grassroots resistance against Chinese projects, which extend to mineral-resource extraction.

Indeed, the Bunji and Bhasha dam projects are already facing grassroots resistance because they are viewed locally as instruments to expropriate Gilgit-Baltistan’s water resources for Punjab province. The Bhasha Dam alone will flood 200 square kilometers of Gilgit-Baltistan, displacing at least 28,000 residents and submerging some significant archaeological sites.

As China uses CPEC to turn Pakistan into a colonial outpost, its new dam projects in Gilgit promise to bring the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) under greater pressure. The paradox here is that China does not accept even the concept of water sharing but its activities in Gilgit are likely to impinge on the world’s most generous water-sharing treaty that remains a colossus among water pacts in the world.

The 57-year-old IWT has survived mainly because of India’s goodwill and full adherence, even as Pakistan violates the Simla peace treaty and canons of civilized conduct. China’s construction of dams in a disputed region is set to make Pakistan’s water relationship with India murkier. The IWT is binational but China has emerged as the third party through its Gilgit dam activities and upstream control of two of the six Indus-system rivers. The Chinese role will not only cast a pall on the IWT’s future but it could also deal a mortal blow to the treaty.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2017.

America’s deepening Afghanistan quagmire

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Trump needs to break with failed U.S. policies on the Taliban

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A damaged U.S. military vehicle is seen at the site of a suicide bomb attack in Kabul on May 3. © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

The proposed dispatch of several thousand more U.S. troops to war-torn Afghanistan by President Donald Trump’s administration begs the question: If more than 100,000 American troops failed between 2010 and 2012 to bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, why would adding 3,000 to 5,000 soldiers to the current modest U.S. force of 8,400 make a difference?

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 Trump’s predecessor, Barack 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.

The mercurial Trump has revealed no doctrine or strategy relating to the Afghan War. But in keeping with his penchant for surprise, Trump picked Afghanistan for the first-ever battlefield use of GBU-43B, a nearly 10-metric-ton bomb known as the “Mother of All Bombs.” The target, however, was not the U.S. military’s main battlefield enemy — the Taliban — but the so-called Islamic State group, or ISIS, which Gen. Nicholson told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee earlier had been largely contained in Afghanistan through raids and airstrikes.

To be sure, Trump has inherited an Afghanistan situation that went from bad to worse under his predecessor. A resurgent Taliban today hold more Afghan territory than ever before, the civilian toll is at a record high, and Afghan military casualties are rising to a level that American commanders warn is unsustainable. In the Taliban’s deadliest assault on Afghan army troops, a handful of militants killed more than 140 soldiers last month at a military base in the northern province of Balkh, prompting the country’s defense minister and chief of army staff to resign.

The enemy’s enemy

Not only is the Taliban militia at its strongest, but also a Russia-organized coalition that includes Iran and China is cozying up to it. Faced with biting U.S.-led sanctions, Russia is aligning with the enemy’s enemy to weigh down the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Indeed, as Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to expand the geopolitical chessboard on which Moscow can play against the U.S. and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a new “Great Game” is unfolding in Afghanistan.

Almost three decades after Moscow ended its own disastrous Afghanistan war, whose economic costs eventually contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has sought to reemerge as an important player in Afghan affairs by embracing a thuggish force that it long viewed as a major terrorist threat — the Taliban. In effect, Russia is trading roles with the U.S. in Afghanistan: In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan promoted jihad against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with the Central Intelligence Agency training and arming thousands of Afghan mujahedeen — the violent jihadists from which al-Qaeda and the Taliban evolved.

Today, the growing strains in U.S.-Russia relations — with Trump saying “we’re not getting along with Russia at all, we may be at an all-time low” — threaten to deepen the American military quagmire in Afghanistan. Trump came into office wanting to befriend Russia yet, with the sword of Damocles hanging over his head over alleged election collusion with Moscow, U.S.-Russian ties have only deteriorated. Russia has signaled that it is in a position to destabilize the U.S.-backed government in Kabul in the way Washington has undermined Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Moscow-supported regime by aiding Syrian rebels. Gen. Nicholson has suggested that Russia has started sending weapons to the Taliban.

Against this background, the odds are stacked heavily against the U.S. reversing the worsening Afghanistan situation and “winning again,” as Trump wants, especially if his administration follows in the footsteps of the previous two U.S. governments by not recognizing Pakistan’s centrality in Afghan security. Trump’s renewed mission in Afghanistan will fail if Washington does not add sticks to its carrots-only approach toward the Pakistani military, which continues to aid the Taliban, the Haqqani network and other terrorist groups.

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.

Still, the U.S. has been reluctant to go after the Taliban’s command and control base in Pakistan in order to preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the militia. For eight years, Obama pursued the same failed strategy of using inducements, ranging from billions of dollars in aid to the supply of lethal weapons, to nudge the Pakistani military and its rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency to target the Haqqani network and get the Taliban to the negotiating table. According to Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard G. Olson, the U.S. has no “fundamental quarrel” with the Taliban and seeks a deal.

Troop surge

If the recent visit of Trump’s national security adviser, Gen. H.R. McMaster, to Afghanistan and Pakistan is any indication, a fundamental break with the Obama approach is still not on the cards. In fact, the Trump team has proposed reemploying the same tool that Obama utilized in vain — a troop surge, although at a low level.

To compound matters, Trump is showing himself to be a tactical, transactional president whose foreign policy appears guided by the axiom “Speak loudly and carry a big stick.” In dropping America’s largest non-nuclear bomb last month in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province, Trump was emboldened by the ease of his action days earlier in ordering missile strikes against a Syrian air base while eating dessert — “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever seen” — with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

It is easy to drop a massive bomb or do missile strikes and appear “muscular,” but it is difficult to figure out how to fix a broken policy. This is the dilemma Trump faces over Afghanistan. In the same Pakistan-bordering area where the “Mother of All Bombs” was dropped, two U.S. soldiers were killed in fighting just days later.

Unlike Obama, who spent eight years experimenting with various measures, extending from a troop surge to a drawdown, Trump does not have time on his side. Obama, with excessive optimism, declared in late 2014 that “the longest war in American history is coming to a responsible conclusion.” The reverse happened: Security in Afghanistan worsened rapidly. The Taliban rebuffed his peace overtures, despite Washington’s moves to allow the group to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Qatar and to trade five senior Taliban leaders jailed at Guantanamo Bay for a captured U.S. Army sergeant.

Today, the very survival of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government is at stake. Problems are rapidly mounting for the beleaguered government, which has presided over steadily deteriorating security. Its hold on many districts looks increasingly tenuous even before the approaching summer brings stepped-up Taliban attacks.

The revival of the “Great Game” in Afghanistan, meanwhile, threatens to complicate an already precarious security situation in South, Central and Southwest Asia.

If the U.S. continues to experiment, it will court a perpetual war in Afghanistan, endangering a key base from where it projects power regionally. The central choice Trump must make is between seeking to co-opt the Taliban through a peace deal, as Obama sought, and going all out after its command and control network in Pakistan. An Afghanistan settlement is likely only when the Taliban has been degraded and decapitated.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

Asia’s American Menace

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

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US President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy – based on tactics and transactions, rather than strategic vision – has produced a series of dazzling flip-flops. Lacking any guiding convictions, much less clear priorities, Trump has confounded America’s allies and strategic partners, particularly in Asia – jeopardizing regional security in the process.

To be sure, some of Trump’s reversals have brought him closer to traditional US positions. In particular, he has declared that NATO is “no longer obsolete,” as it supposedly was during his campaign. That change has eased some of the strain on the US relationship with Europe.

But in Asia – which faces serious security, political, and economic challenges – Trump’s reversals have only exacerbated regional volatility. With so many political flashpoints threatening to trigger violent conflict, the last thing Asia’s leaders need is another strategic wild card.

Yet, in Trump, that is precisely what they have. The US president has shown himself to be more mercurial than the foul-mouthed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte or the autocratic Chinese President Xi Jinping. Even the famously impulsive North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un seems almost predictable, by comparison.

Perhaps the most consistent feature of Trump’s foreign policy is his obsession with gaining short-term advantage. In one recent tweet, he asked why he should label China a currency manipulator, when the Chinese are working with the US to rein in North Korea. Just days earlier, Trump had called the Chinese the “world champions” of currency manipulation.

That tweet may offer additional insight into Trump’s Asia policy. For starters, it highlights North Korea’s sudden emergence as Trump’s main foreign-policy challenge, suggesting that the strategic patience pursued by former President Barack Obama could well be replaced by a more accident-prone policy of strategic tetchiness.

This reading is reinforced by Vice President Mike Pence’s claims that the recent low-risk, low-reward US military strikes in Syria and Afghanistan demonstrate American “strength” and “resolve” against North Korea. Such claims reflect a lack of understanding that, when it comes to North Korea, the US has no credible military option, because any US attack would result in the immediate devastation of South Korea’s main population centers.

The Trump administration’s current strategy – counting on China to address the North Korea challenge – won’t work, either. After all, North Korea has lately been seeking to escape China’s clutches and pursue direct engagement with the US.

Given the bad blood between Xi and Kim, it seems that Trump’s best bet might be some version of what he proposed during the campaign: meeting with Kim over a hamburger. With the North Korean nuclear genie already out of the bottle, denuclearization may no longer be a plausible option. But a nuclear freeze could still be negotiated.

Trump’s reliance on China to manage North Korea won’t just be ineffective; it could actually prove even more destabilizing for Asia. Trump, who initially seemed eager to challenge China’s hegemonic ambitions, now seems poised to cede more ground to the country, compounding a major foreign-policy mistake on the part of the Obama administration.

Of all of Trump’s reversals, this one has the greatest geostrategic significance, because China will undoubtedly take full advantage of it to advance its own objectives. From its growing repression of political dissidents and ethnic minorities to its efforts to upend the territorial status quo in Asia, China constantly tests how far it can go. Under Obama, it got away with a lot. Under Trump, it could get away with even more.

Trump now calls China a friend and partner of his administration – and seems to have developed a fondness for Xi himself. “We have a great chemistry together,” he says. “We like each other. I like him a lot.”

That fondness extends beyond words: Trump’s actions have already strengthened Xi’s position – and undercut his own – though Trump probably didn’t realize it. First, Trump backed down from his threat not to honor the “one China” policy. More recently, Trump hosted Xi at his Florida resort, without requiring that China dismantle any of the unfair trade and investment practices that he railed against during the campaign.

The summit with Trump boosted Xi’s image at home ahead of the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Congress later this year, where Xi may manage to break free from institutionalized collective rule to wield power more autocratically than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. It also indicated the Trump administration’s tacit acceptance of China’s territorial grabs in the South China Sea. This will embolden China not just to militarize fully its seven manmade islands there, but also to pursue territorial revisionism in other regions, from the East China Sea to the western Himalayas.

Trump believes that “lots of very potentially bad problems will be going away,” owing to his relationship with the “terrific” Xi. In fact, his promise to “Make America Great Again” is antithetical to Xi’s “Chinese dream” of “rejuvenating the Chinese nation.”

Xi’s idea, which Trump is unwittingly endorsing, is that their countries should band together in a “new model of great power relations.” But it is hard to imagine how two countries with such opposing worldviews – not to mention what Harvard University’s Graham Allison has called “extreme superiority complexes” – can oversee world affairs effectively.

It is conceivable that Trump could flip again on China (or North Korea). Indeed, Trump’s policy reversals may well turn out to be more dangerous than his actual policies. The need for constant adjustment will only stoke greater anxiety among America’s allies and partners, who now run the risk that their core interests will be used as bargaining chips. If those anxieties prompt some countries to build up their militaries, Asia’s strategic landscape will be fundamentally altered.

© 1995-2017 Project Syndicate.

A rogue neighbour’s new rogue act

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY | DNA, April 17, 2017

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Periodically, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) offers fresh evidence that it remains a rogue agency. This includes the year-long saga involving its abduction from Iran of a former Indian naval officer, Kulbhushan Jadhav, who was recently sentenced to death by a secret military court in Pakistan for being an Indian “spy”. The case indeed stands out as a symbol of the thuggish conduct of an irredeemably scofflaw state.

Just because Pakistan alleges that Jadhav was engaged in espionage against it cannot justify the ISI’s kidnapping of him from Iran or his secret, mock trial in a military court. Under the extra-constitutional military court system — established after the late 2014 Peshawar school attack — judicial proceedings are secret, civilian defendants are barred from engaging their own lawyers, and the “judges” (not necessarily possessing law degrees) render verdicts without being required to provide reasons.

The military courts show, if any evidence were needed, that decisive power still rests with the military generals, with the army and ISI immune to civilian oversight. In fact, the announcement that Jadhav had been sentenced to death with the Pakistani army chief’s approval was made by the military, not the government, despite its major implications for Pakistan’s relations with India.

Add to the picture the Pakistani military’s ongoing state-sponsored terrorism against India, Afghanistan and even Bangladesh. Jadhav’s sentencing was a deliberate — but just the latest — provocation against India by the military, which has orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks on Indian security bases since the beginning of last year.  It is clear that Pakistan is in standing violation of every canon of international law.

The right of self-defence is embedded as an “inherent right” in the UN Charter. India is entitled to defend its interests against the terrorism onslaught by imposing deterrent costs on the Pakistani state and its terrorist agents, including the ISI.

Unfortunately, successive Indian governments have failed to pursue a consistent and coherent Pakistan policy. As a result, the Pakistani military feels emboldened to persist with its roguish conduct.

Like his predecessors, Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued a meandering policy toward the congenitally hostile Pakistan. Modi has played the Pakistan card politically at home but not lived up to his statements on matters ranging from Balochistan to the Indus Waters Treaty. Indeed, there has been visible backsliding on his stated positions. For example, the suspended Permanent Indus Commission has been revived.

The Modi government talks tough in public but, on policy, acts too cautiously. For example, it persuaded Rajeev Chandrasekhar to withdraw his private member’s bill in the Rajya Sabha for India to declare Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. India has shied away from imposing any kind of sanctions on Pakistan or even downgrading the diplomatic relations.

When history is written, Modi’s unannounced Lahore visit on Christmas Day in 2015 will be viewed as a watershed. If the visit was intended to be a peace overture, its effect was counterproductive. Modi’s olive branch helped transform his image in Pakistani military circles from a tough-minded, no-nonsense leader that Pakistan must not mess with to someone whose bark is worse than his bite.

Within days of his return to New Delhi, the ISI scripted twin terrorist attacks on India’s forward air base at Pathankot and the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, as New Year’s gifts to Modi. Worse was India’s response: It shared intelligence with Pakistan about the Pakistani origins of the Pathankot attackers while the four-day siege of the base was still on and then hosted a Pakistani inquiry team — all in the naïve hope of winning Pakistan’s anti-terrorism cooperation. In effect, India shared intelligence with an agency that it should have branded a terrorist entity long ago — the ISI.

An emboldened Pakistani military went on to orchestrate more attacks, with the Indian inaction further damaging Modi’s strongman image. Subsequently, the deadly Uri army-base attack, by claiming the lives of 19 Indian soldiers, became Modi’s defining moment. It was the deadliest assault on an Indian military facility in more than a decade and a half. Sensing the danger of being seen as little more than a paper tiger, Modi responded with a limited but much-hyped cross-border military operation by para commandos against terrorist bases.

The Indian public, whose frustration with Pakistan had reached a tipping point, widely welcomed the surgical strike as a catharsis. The one-off strike, however, did not deter the Pakistani military, which later staged the attack on India’s Nagrota army base. Modi’s response to that attack was conspicuous silence.

Recurrent cross-border terror attacks by ISI have failed to galvanize India into devising a credible counterterrorism strategy. Employing drug traffickers, the ISI is also responsible for the cross-border flow of narcotics, which is destroying public health in India’s Punjab. In fact, the Pathankot killers — like the Gurdaspur attackers — came dressed in Indian army uniforms through a drug-trafficking route.

In reality, the Pakistani military is waging an undeclared war against an India that remains adrift and reluctant to avenge even the killing of its military personnel. There are several things India can do, short of a full-fledged war, to halt the proxy war. But India must first have clear strategic objectives and display political will.

Reforming the Pakistani military’s behaviour holds the key to regional peace. After all, all the critical issues — border peace, trans-boundary infiltration and terrorism, and nuclear stability — are matters over which the civilian government in Islamabad has no real authority because these are preserves of the Pakistani military.

The Jadhav case illustrates that, as long as New Delhi recoils from imposing deterrent costs on Pakistan, the military there will continue to up the ante against India. Indeed, it has turned Jadhav into a bargaining chip to use against India. The battle to reform against Pakistan’s roguish conduct is a fight India has to wage on its own by translating its talk into action.

The author is a strategic thinker and commentator.

© DNA, 2017.

Trump’s foreign policy muddle

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times, April 1, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump came to office vowing to end what he saw as China’s free ride on trade and security issues that has allowed it to flex its muscles more strongly than ever. But as he prepares to host Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, there is little sign that Trump’s China approach thus far is different to that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, on whose watch Beijing initiated coercive actions with impunity in the South and East China seas.

Besieged by allegations of collusion between his campaign associates and Russia, Trump — to Beijing’s relief — has found little space to revamp his predecessor’s policy and take on China.

In contrast to his tough talk during his presidential campaign, when he famously said he would not “allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing,” Trump is seeking a cooperative relationship with China but grounded in flinty reciprocity. He has abandoned campaign promises to impose a punitive 45% tariff on Chinese goods and brand China a currency manipulator.

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY IN ASIA

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 wants 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, 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.

Balancing U.S. ties with Japan and China was integral to the Obama foreign policy. Even while extending U.S. security assurances to Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands in 2014, Obama emphasized that his administration was committed to encouraging China’s “peaceful rise” and urged Japan to shun “provocative actions.” Trump, in keeping with the softer line he has taken toward China after his February 9 discussion with Xi by telephone, has sought to forge a personal connection with Abe while also extending a hand of friendship to China’s “core” leader.

Xi-Trump photoThe wily Xi, during his impending two-day visit to Mar-a-Lago, will seek to capitalize on Trump’s penchant to cut deals. Indeed, Trump, the author of The Art of the Deal, appears eager to strike deals with Xi on trade and security issues — back-door deals that could potentially leave America’s allies in Asia out in the cold.

For example, to tackle the little bully, North Korea, Trump (like Obama) is seeking the help of the big bully, China, which has sought to please Washington by banning further imports this year of North Korean coal.

As the White House stated on March 20, it wants China to “step in and play a larger role” in relation to North Korea, which a Trump administration official has exaggeratingly portrayed as the “greatest immediate threat.” But the previous two U.S. administrations also relied on sanctions and Beijing to tame North Korea, only to see that reclusive nation significantly advance its nuclear and missile capabilities.

A greater U.S. reliance on China is unlikely to salvage Washington’s failed North Korea policy, but it will almost certainly result in Beijing exacting a stiff price from the Trump administration, including with respect to the South China Sea.

Beijing, in the initial test of wills, has already savored success in scuttling Trump’s effort to modify America’s longstanding “one China” policy.

Music to Beijing’s ears

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Beijing, in fact, suggested that the U.S. is willing to bend over backward to curry favor with China. Instead of delivering a clear message in Beijing, Tillerson transformed into a Chinese parrot, mouthing China’s favorite catchphrases like “mutual respect,” “non-confrontation” and “win-win” cooperation that are code for the U.S. accommodating China’s core interests and accepting a new model of bilateral ties that places the two powers essentially on an equal footing to decide Asia’s future, thus relegating U.S. allies and partners such as Japan and India to a secondary status.

It was music to Chinese ears as Tillerson echoed several Chinese bromides about the U.S.-China relationship, including “win-win” cooperation — a phrase Chinese analysts impishly refer to as entailing a double win for China.

For Beijing, the tag “mutual respect” holds great strategic importance: It is taken to mean that the U.S. and China would band together (in a sort of Group of Two) to manage international problems by respecting each other’s “core interests.” This, in turn, implies that the U.S. would avoid challenging China on the Taiwan and Tibet issues and in Beijing’s new “core-interest” area — the South China Sea.

Tillerson, in effect, compounded the Obama administration’s mistake in embracing Xi’s idea of a “new model of great power relations” between Washington and Beijing in 2013, over four years after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped foster the narrative of the U.S. propitiating China by famously declaring that Washington would not let human rights interfere with other issues it had with Beijing.

Worse still, Tillerson articulated the catchphrases by parroting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s words. For example, Xi said in November 2014 during a joint news conference with Obama in Beijing that, “China is ready to work with the United States to make efforts in a number of priority areas and putting into effect such principles as non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” Tillerson repeated the exact four principles twice in Beijing.

In his opening remarks at a March 18 news conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Tillerson said: “Since the historic opening of relations between our two countries more than 40 years ago, the U.S.-China relationship has been guided by an understanding of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” Later that day, at the start of talks with Wang, Tillerson again parroted the same catchphrases: “U.S.-China relationship … has been a very positive relationship built on non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and always searching for win-win solutions.”

Tillerson’s words were gleefully splashed all over the official Chinese media. For example, the Global Times gloated: “Xi highlighted the significance of the Sino-U.S. relationship and Tillerson expressed the U.S.’s commitment to the principle of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation in terms of developing its ties with China, which is exactly the core content of the China-raised major power relationship between Beijing and Washington.” It pointed out the Obama administration did not use those phrases.

To be sure, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis struck a different tone subsequently, telling a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that China pursues a “tribute nation” approach to other states and aspires for “veto power” over their sovereign decisions. Still, the direction of Trump’s China policy appears more uncertain than ever.

Soft South China Sea Stance

This could make a clearer American stance against China’s territorial revisionism in Asia doubtful. Washington elites believe that friendly relations with China are indispensable to American interests. Indeed, there is talk in Washington that the Trump administration has little choice but to accept China’s territorial gains in the South China Sea.

Such acceptance, however tacit, is likely to hold security implications for America’s allies and security partners in Asia, because it will embolden Chinese revisionism in other regions — from the East China Sea to the Himalayas — while allowing China to consolidate its penetration and influence in the South China Sea. After deploying antiaircraft and other short-range weapon systems on all seven of its manmade islands in the South China Sea, Beijing is now building structures on three of them to place longer range surface-to-air missiles.

Under Obama, the U.S. made the most of Asian concerns over China’s increasingly muscular approach by strengthening military ties with U.S. allies in Asia and forging security relationships with new friends like India. However, there was little credible American pushback against China’s violation of international law in changing the status quo or against its strategy to create a Sinosphere of client nations through the geopolitically far-reaching “one belt, one road” initiative.

Tillerson, during his confirmation process, implicitly criticized Obama’s pussyfooting on China by describing Chinese expansion in the South China Sea as “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine. He said the U.S. should “send China a clear signal” by blocking its access to the artificial islands it has built. But later he retreated, saying the U.S. ought to be “capable” of restricting such access in the event of a contingency.

Trump’s ascension to power was bad news for Beijing, especially because his “Make America Great Again” vision collides with Xi’s “Chinese dream” to make this the “Chinese century.” Yet China thus far has not only escaped any punitive American counteraction on trade and security matters, but also the expected Trump-Xi bonhomie at Mar-a-Lago could advertise that the more things change, the more they stay the same in U.S. foreign policy.

Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War.”

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Putin’s Dance with the Taliban

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

p7-Chellaney-a-20170309Russia may be in decline economically and demographically, but, in strategic terms, it is a resurgent power, pursuing a major military rearmament program that will enable it to continue expanding its global influence. One of the Kremlin’s latest geostrategic targets is Afghanistan, where the United States remains embroiled in the longest war in its history.

Almost three decades after the end of the Soviet Union’s own war in Afghanistan – a war that enfeebled the Soviet economy and undermined the communist state – Russia has moved to establish itself as a central actor in Afghan affairs. And the Kremlin has surprised many by embracing the Afghan Taliban. Russia had long viewed the thuggish force created by Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency as a major terrorist threat. In 2009-2015, Russia served as a critical supply route for US-led forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan; it even contributed military helicopters to the effort.

Russia’s reversal on the Afghan Taliban reflects a larger strategy linked to its clash with the US and its European allies – a clash that has intensified considerably since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea spurred the US and Europe to impose heavy economic sanctions. In fact, in a sense, Russia is exchanging roles with the US in Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan used Islam as an ideological tool to spur armed resistance to the Soviet occupation. Reasoning that the enemy of their enemy was their friend, the CIA trained and armed thousands of Afghan mujahedeen – the jihadist force from which al-Qaeda and later the Taliban evolved.

Today, Russia is using the same logic to justify its cooperation with the Afghan Taliban, which it wants to keep fighting the unstable US-backed government in Kabul. And the Taliban, which has acknowledged that it shares Russia’s enmity with the US, will take whatever help it can get to expel the Americans.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to impose significant costs on the US for its decision to maintain military bases in Afghanistan to project power in Central and Southwest Asia. As part of its 2014 security agreement with the Afghan government, it has secured long-term access to at least nine bases to keep tabs on nearby countries, including Russia, which, according to Putin’s special envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, “will never tolerate this.”

More broadly, Putin wants to expand the geopolitical chessboard, in the hope that he can gain sufficient leverage over the US and NATO to wrest concessions on stifling economic sanctions. Putin believes that, by becoming a major player in Afghanistan, Russia can ensure that America needs its help to extricate itself from the war there. This strategy aligns seamlessly with Putin’s approach in Syria, where Russia has already made itself a vital partner in any effort to root out the Islamic State (ISIS).

In cozying up to the Taliban, Putin is sending the message that Russia could destabilize the Afghan government in the same way the US, by aiding Syrian rebels, has undermined Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed regime. Already, the Kremlin has implicitly warned that supply of Western anti-aircraft weapons to Syrian rebels would compel Russia to arm the Taliban with similar capabilities. That could be a game changer in Afghanistan, where the Taliban now holds more territory than at any time since it was ousted from power in 2001.

Russia is involving more countries in its strategic game. Beyond holding a series of direct meetings with the Afghan Taliban, Russia has hosted three rounds of trilateral Afghanistan-related discussions with Pakistan and China in Moscow. A coalition to help the Afghan Taliban, comprising those three countries and Iran, is emerging.

General John Nicholson, the US military commander in Afghanistan, seeking the deployment of several thousand additional American troops, recently warned of the growing “malign influence” of Russia and other powers in the country. Over the past year, Nicholson told the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Russia has been “overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban to undermine NATO efforts and bolster belligerents using the false narrative that only the Taliban are fighting [ISIS].”

The reality, Nicholson suggested, is that Russia’s excuse for establishing intelligence-sharing arrangements with the Taliban is somewhat flimsy. US-led raids and airstrikes have helped to contain ISIS fighters within Afghanistan. In any case, those fighters have little connection to the Syria-headquartered group. The Afghan ISIS comprises mainly Pakistani and Uzbek extremists who “rebranded” themselves and seized territory along the Pakistan border.

In some ways, it was the US itself that opened the way for Russia’s Afghan strategy. President Barack Obama, in his attempt to reach a peace deal with the Taliban, allowed it to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Qatar and then traded five senior Taliban leaders who had been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay for a captured US Army sergeant. In doing so, he bestowed legitimacy on a terrorist organization that enforces medieval practices in the areas under its control.

The US has also refused to eliminate militarily the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, even though, as Nicholson admitted, “[i]t is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.” On the contrary, Pakistan remains one of the world’s largest recipients of US aid. Add to that the Taliban’s conspicuous exclusion from the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, and it is difficult for the US credibly to condemn Russia’s overtures to the Taliban and ties with Pakistan.

The US military’s objective of compelling the Taliban to sue for “reconciliation” was always going to be difficult to achieve. Now that Russia has revived the “Great Game” in Afghanistan, it may be impossible.

© 1995-2017 Project Syndicate.

Nuclear power promise is fading

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Why the U.S.-India nuclear deal has proved to be a dud on the energy front, and how “incredible India” has fallen victim to its own hype over the deal.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, March 28, 2017

downloadIt is often said that China could become the first country in the world to age before it gets rich. India faces no such spectre. However, India has already become the first important economy in the world to take on onerous climate-related obligations before it has provided electricity to all its citizens.

This reality has greatly accentuated India’s energy challenge, which is unique in some respects. Consider the scale of its challenge: Before its population stabilizes, India will add at least as many people as the U.S. currently has. Even if India provided electricity to its projected 1.6 billion population in 2050 at today’s abysmally low per capita energy consumption level, it will have to increase its electricity production by about 40% of the total global output at present.

India’s domestic energy resources are exceptionally modest in comparison to population size and the demands of a fast-growing economy, with energy demand projected to rise 90% just over the next 13 years. And, unlike China, India does not share common borders with any energy-exporting country and thus must rely on imports from beyond its neighbourhood, making it vulnerable to unforeseen supply disruptions.

Still, under the Paris Agreement, India has committed to reduce the carbon intensity of its economy by about a third by 2030, including by generating 40% of its electricity from non-fossil fuels. The single-minded focus on carbon threatens to exacerbate India’s water crisis, given the water-guzzling nature of the energy sector — the largest user of water by far in the West.

What may be “clean” from a carbon angle could be “dirty” from a water-resource perspective. For example, “clean” coal, with carbon capture and sequestration, ranks along with nuclear power at the top of the water intensity chart. Also, some renewables, such as solar thermal power and geothermal energy, are notoriously water-intensive. By contrast, two renewable technologies increasingly being employed in India — solar photovoltaic and wind plants — need little water for their normal operations.

In choosing its energy options, India must strike a prudent balance between carbon intensity and water intensity, or else it will get caught in a vicious circle, with attempts to address the energy crisis worsening the water crisis, and vice versa. The nexus between energy, water and even food demands a holistic, integrated policy approach.

The share of renewables in India’s energy mix is set to considerably increase, given the tax and other incentives on offer. In contrast to the intermittent nature of renewables like solar and wind, hydro and nuclear power can be used both to cover the electrical base load and for peak load operations. Yet hydro and nuclear power face increasingly strong headwinds. Activist NGOs — many foreign funded — have made it difficult for India to build large dams, blighting the promise of hydropower. It is virtually certain that India (which generates more power from wind alone than from nuclear) will slip badly on its 2030 target to produce 12% of electricity from atomic sources.

Nuclear power growth is falling victim to larger factors. The first factor is the increasingly poor economics of nuclear power across the world. Skyrocketing construction costs, made worse by the post-Fukushima safety upgrades, and reliance on massive government subsidies are making nuclear power uncompetitive.

A second factor is the dire financial state of the foreign companies that were planning to build nuclear power plants in India — Toshiba-Westinghouse and Areva. Their very survival is at stake today. France’s state-owned Areva needs a government-led €5 billion bailout to stay afloat. It also set to be split, with its reactor unit being sold to EDF, also state-owned.

For Toshiba, the US nuclear market is proving to be its graveyard. On the brink of disintegration, Toshiba has posted a $6.2 billion nuclear-business loss, mainly from its US subsidiary, Westinghouse. Its 2006 blunder in acquiring Westinghouse has been compounded by its 2015 purchase of nuclear plant builder CB&I Stone & Webster. Now Toshiba is jettisoning its lead role in projects to build nuclear plants in India and Britain, a move that would leave it merely as a nuclear equipment supplier.

Add to the picture a third factor: Grassroots resistance in India to new nuclear power plants — a fact that resulted in considerable delay in commissioning the Kudankulam plant and forced the shifting of Westinghouse’s first planned project from Gujarat to Andhra Pradesh.

India, duped by its own hype over the 2005 nuclear deal with the US, announced plans for a huge expansion of nuclear power at a time when this energy source was already in decline globally. Its plans indeed motivated Toshiba to acquire Westinghouse. Now India faces an embarrassing situation: The nuclear power promise is visibly fading before it has signed a single reactor contract as part of the nuclear deal.

More broadly, India’s energy conundrum has been compounded by unrealistic targets, embrace of carbon-reduction goals at a time when Donald Trump was vowing to take America in the opposite direction, and inability to stem disruptive NGO activism. But for the near bankruptcy of Areva and Toshiba, Indian taxpayers would have been saddled with white-elephant projects similar to Areva’s Finnish reactor at Olkiluoto, whose construction is running almost a decade behind schedule and incurring billions of euros in cost overruns.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.

Averting an accidental war on the Korean Peninsula

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Japan Times, March 21, 2017

North Korea’s rapid nuclear and missile advances and America’s rushed deployment of a ballistic missile defense system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea have increased the risks of a war on the Korean Peninsula by accident or miscalculation.

U.S. President Donald Trump may be battling the “deep state” at home but, in hastening THAAD’s deployment, his administration has acted proactively to present a fait accompli to the next South Korean president. The new president is to be elected in a snap poll in May after South Korea’s Constitutional Court recently upheld the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye over alleged corruption. It was the conservative Park who agreed last July to the THAAD placement, triggering grassroots protests, especially in the area where the system was to be deployed.

The THAAD issue increasingly has become divisive in South Korean politics, and the liberals’ presidential hopeful, Moon Jae-in, has said the system’s deployment unnecessarily escalates tensions on the peninsula. However, anticipating that the Constitutional Court would oust Park and that Moon could win the presidential election, the Trump administration began THAAD’s placement early this month.

Trump, during his own election campaign, gleefully challenged diplomatic orthodoxy, including American foreign policy’s long-standing principles and shibboleths. Yet by implementing his predecessor’s THAAD decision with enthusiasm to speed up the system’s deployment, Trump has offered an example of how he is embracing key pillars of the previous administration’s foreign policy.

Two fundamental issues raised by the THAAD placement, however, cannot be obscured.

First, the deployment has been necessitated by the abysmal failure of the U.S.-led strategy to squeeze North Korea with ever-increasing international sanctions while shunning any diplomatic engagement with it. The sanctions-only approach, far from stymieing North Korea’s development of weapons of mass destruction, has only encouraged it to single-mindedly advance its nuclear-weapons and missile capabilities.

In the decade since the United States froze all diplomatic contact with North Korea, that reclusive communist nation has gone from possessing rudimentary WMD capabilities to testing advanced systems that pose a regional threat. For example, it tested a nuclear device last September whose yield, as recorded by outside seismic monitoring stations, was twice as powerful as the atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Since last year, Pyongyang has also tested solid-fueled missile systems, including one that can launched from a submarine.

And second, the THAAD deployment, although arising from a failed American strategy, is no plausible answer to North Korea’s nuclearization. Indeed, this is a case of the supposed remedy being worse than the disease.

The deployment could counterproductively lead to North Korea (and China, which fears that THAAD’s sophisticated X-Band radar could track its missile forces) aiming to defeat the defensive system by developing greater offensive capability. In fact, China and Russia believe that the THAAD placement is part of a larger American plan to establish a fence of antimissile systems around them and thereby undermine their nuclear deterrents.

Let’s be clear: THAAD cannot credibly protect South Korea from the North’s tactical or short-range ballistic missiles. Designed for high-altitude intercepts, THAAD is geared mainly to interdict medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Given South Korea’s relatively small land size, an attack by the North may not necessitate the use of medium- or intermediate-range missiles. Metropolitan Seoul, which has almost as many residents as North Korea’s total population of 25 million, is located just 40 km from the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas.

North Korea has a virtual artillery choke-hold on Seoul that THAAD cannot neutralize. This is why the U.S. lacks a realistic option to militarily degrade the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities without provoking Pyongyang to unleash its artillery power against Seoul or triggering an all-out war. The absence of credible techno-military options against North Korea is also underscored by the reported failure of the U.S. to undermine Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs through coordinated cyber and electronic strikes in recent years.

In this light, THAAD’s political symbolism is greater than its military utility. The system, in any case, has never been battle-tested.

But rather than enhance South Korea’s security, including by reassuring its citizens, the THAAD deployment threatens to make South Koreans more insecure through an action-reaction cycle. For example, the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang may now plan, in a combat scenario, to fire many missiles simultaneously so as to defeat THAAD.

Against this background, a new strategy is needed to stem the growing risk that a small mishap could escalate to a full-fledged war. U.S. President Barack Obama employed sanctions with engagement to clinch a nuclear deal with Iran yet, throughout his eight-year tenure, pursued a completely different approach toward North Korea — sanctions without engagement.

Given that the threat posed by North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction has reached a level defying solution through technological or military means, diplomacy must come into play to reduce tensions. For long, North Korea has sought direct talks with Washington. Trump, during his campaign, said that he would be willing to meet with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un over a hamburger.

If the THAAD placement is not to prove counterproductive, Washington must shift to a policy of sanctions with engagement toward Pyongyang, with the ultimate goal of clinching a WMD deal as part of a comprehensive peace treaty replacing the Korean War armistice. South Korea has even a bigger stake in engagement with the North in order to reduce the costs it will bear if Korean Peninsula reunification were to occur.

Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War.”

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Shed the Indus albatross

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, March 20, 2017

At a time when India is haunted by a deepening water crisis, the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) hangs like the proverbial albatross from its neck. In 1960, in the naïve hope that water largesse would yield peace, India entered into a treaty that gave away the Indus system’s largest rivers as gifts to Pakistan.

Since then, that congenitally hostile neighbour, while drawing the full benefits from the treaty, has waged overt or covert aggression almost continuously and is now using the IWT itself as a stick to beat India with, including by contriving water disputes and internationalizing them.

A partisan World Bank, meanwhile, has compounded matters further. Breaching the IWT’s terms under which an arbitral tribunal cannot be established while the parties’ disagreement “is being dealt with by a neutral expert,” the Bank proceeded in November to appoint both a court of arbitration (as demanded by Pakistan) and a neutral expert (as suggested by India). It did so while admitting that the two concurrent processes could make the treaty “unworkable over time”.

World Bank partisanship, however, is not new: The IWT was the product of the Bank’s activism, with US government support, in making India embrace an unparalleled treaty that parcelled out the largest three of the six rivers to Pakistan and made the Bank effectively a guarantor in the treaty’s initial phase. With much of its meat in its voluminous annexes, this is an exhaustive, book-length treaty with a patently neo-colonial structure that limits India’s sovereignty to the basin of the three smaller rivers.

The Bank’s recent decision was made more bizarre by the fact that while the treaty explicitly permits either party to seek a neutral expert’s appointment, it specifies no such unilateral right for a court of arbitration. In 2010, such an arbitral tribunal was appointed with both parties’ consent. The neutral expert, however, is empowered to refer the parties’ disagreement, if need be, to a court of arbitration.

The uproar that followed the World Bank’s initiation of the dual processes forced it to “pause,” but not terminate, its legally untenable decision. Stuck with a mess of its own making, it is now prodding India to bail it out by compromising with Pakistan over the two moderate-sized Indian hydropower projects. But what Pakistan wants are design changes of the type it enforced years ago in the Salal project, resulting in that plant silting up. It is threatening to target other Indian projects as well.

Yet Indian policy appears adrift. Indeed, India is backsliding even on its tentative moves to deter Pakistani terrorism. For example, after last September’s Uri attack, it suspended the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) with Pakistan. Now the suspension has been lifted, allowing the PIC to meet in the aftermath of the state elections.

In truth, the suspension was just a charade, with the PIC missing no meeting. Prime Minister Narendra Modi reversed course in time for the PIC, which meets at least once every financial year, to meet before the current year ended on March 31 in order to prepare its annual report by the treaty-stipulated June 1 deadline. But while the suspension was widely publicized for political ends, the reversal happened quietly.

Much of the media also fell for another charade that Modi sought to play to the hilt in the Punjab elections: He promised to end Punjab’s water stress by utilizing India’s full IWT-allocated share of the waters. His government, however, has initiated not a single new project to correct India’s abysmal failure to tap its meagre 19.48% share of the Indus waters.

Instead, Modi has engaged in little more than eyewash: He has appointed a committee of secretaries, not to find ways to fashion the Indus card to reform Pakistan’s conduct, but farcically to examine India’s own rights under the IWT over 56 years after it was signed. The answer to India’s serious under-utilization of its share, which has resulted in Pakistan getting more than 10 billion cubic meters (BCM) yearly in bonus waters on top of its staggering 167.2 BCM allocation, is not a bureaucratic rigmarole but political direction to speedily build storage and other structures.

Despite Modi’s declaration that “blood and water cannot flow together,” India is reluctant to hold Pakistan to account by linking the IWT’s future to that renegade state’s cessation of its unconventional war. It is past time India shed its reticence.

Pakistan’s interest lies in sustaining a unique treaty that incorporates water generosity to the lower riparian on a scale unmatched by any other pact in the world. Yet it is undermining its own interest by dredging up disputes with India and running down the IWT as ineffective for resolving them. By insisting that India must not ask what it is getting in return but bear only the IWT’s burdens, even as it suffers Pakistan’s proxy war, Islamabad itself highlights the treaty’s one-sided character.

In effect, Pakistan is offering India a significant opening to remake the terms of the Indus engagement. This is an opportunity that India should not let go. The Indus potentially represents the most potent instrument in India’s arsenal — more powerful than the nuclear option, which essentially is for deterrence.

The writer is a geostrategist and author.

© The Times of India, 2017.

A rising power without allies

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

The more power China has accumulated, the greater has been its difficulty in gaining genuine allies, underscoring that leadership demands more than brute might. Contrast this with the strong network of allies and partners that the United States maintains in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere. The withering of China’s special relationship with North Korea, once its vassal, illustrates Beijing’s dilemma.

Last year, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said “we have allies, friends and partners where China does not,” while U.S. Secretary for Defense Ash Carter asserted that Beijing is “erecting a great wall of self-isolation.”

The rapid deterioration in Beijing’s ties with North Korea — which boasts good reserves of iron ore, coal, magnesite, graphite, copper, zinc and other minerals — is sure to increase China’s sense of being alone.

Indeed, when Pyongyang recently accused China of “mean behavior” and “dancing to America’s tune,” it underscored not only its ruptured relationship with its powerful neighbor but also the fact that Beijing is now left with just one real ally, Pakistan. Quasi-failed Pakistan, although a useful tool for Beijing to contain India, is a dubious ally for China in the larger context.

China’s rift with Pyongyang has followed the considerable weakening of Beijing’s once-tight hold on Myanmar, another country rich in natural resources — from oil and gas to jade and timber. Today, the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship is at its lowest point since the founding of North Korea in 1948.

The reported fatal poisoning of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, represents a major setback for China. Beijing valued him — a faded playboy with residences in Macau and Beijing — as a key asset against the North Korean dictator.

To be clear, China’s vaunted “blood relations” with North Korea have been souring since Kim Jong Un came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.

Since then, Kim Jong Un has been trying to show that North Korea is no client-state of China, including by rekindling the “juche” ideology of self-reliance. He has defied Beijing by repeatedly conducting nuclear and missile tests and signaled that he wants North Korea to escape from China’s clutches through better relations with the United States — an appeal that has gone unheeded in Washington.

Kim Jong Nam’s death, of course, is a blow not just for China but also for South Korea and the U.S., which had milked him for any intelligence he could provide on the inner workings of the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang. These three countries, recognizing the importance of the Kim family bloodline in dynastic North Korea, had indeed cultivated him as a potential replacement for his half brother. The North Korean ruler thus had ample reason to get rid of Kim Jong Nam.

Earlier in 2013, Pyongyang executed China’s most valued friend in the North Korean power hierarchy — Jang Song Thaek, a four-star general who was Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage. Jang, a mentor to Kim Jong Nam and Beijing’s main link to Pyongyang, was accused by the regime of abusing his power to favor China, including by underselling resources like coal, land and precious metals.

At the center of the growing China-North Korea tensions, however, is the bad blood between Kim Jong Un, who at 33 remains the world’s youngest head of state, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, nearly twice as old as him.

When Xi paid a state visit to South Korea in mid-2014, he overturned decades of tradition in which Chinese leaders always visited North Korea first. Xi has yet to travel to Pyongyang, just as Kim Jong Un has refused to visit Beijing. Paying obeisance in Beijing, however, was customary for Kim’s grandfather and father: Kim Il Sung, the founder of the state, paid 37 official visits to China, while his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, went nine times.

The young ruler’s effort to chart an independent course has sparked a sustained propaganda campaign against him in recent years by China’s state media, which has accused him of pursuing “de-Sinification” of his country and seeking to unlock ties with the U.S. and Japan.

Despite its exasperation, China’s options against the Kim regime are limited, given the fact that it does not want the North Korean state to unravel — a scenario that will result in a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with the U.S. The prospect of American troops on its border is a nightmare for China, which explains why it intervened in the Korean War when the U.S. Army crossed the 38th parallel and threatened to advance toward the Chinese border.

For centuries, China has seen the Korean Peninsula as its strategic Achilles’ heel — a region that offers foreign powers an attractive invasion route or a beachhead for attacking China.

Today, China has territorial and resource disputes with North Korea that a reunified Korea would inherit and rail against. The territorial disputes center on Chonji, the crater lake on Mount Paektu (where a 33-km stretch of the Sino-Korean boundary has not been settled) and certain islands in the Yalu and Tumen rivers, whose courses broadly define the frontier between the two countries.

Indeed, as if to signal that its present border with North Korea is not final, China has posted a revisionist historical claim that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo — founded in the Tongge River basin of northern Korea — was Chinese, not Korean, as believed by international historians. A 2012 U.S. Senate report warned that China “may be seeking to lay the groundwork for possible future territorial claims on the Korean Peninsula.”

Against this background, China sees status quo on the Korean Peninsula as serving its interest best. It will likely accept Korean reunification only if it leads to a “Finlandized” Korea making permanent strategic concessions to it.

China’s strongest action against North Korea to date — the recently imposed suspension of coal imports — can be ascribed to the “Trump effect.” U.S. President Donald Trump’s less predictable line, reflected in his wavering on the “one-China” policy and his tougher stance on Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, has prompted Beijing to take this action to blunt U.S. criticism that it is not doing enough to implement United Nations sanctions.

But China’s growing tensions with Pyongyang mean that the value of the North Korea card in Beijing’s dealings with the U.S. is likely to erode. For years, the U.S. has outsourced the North Korea issue to Beijing by offering it concessions. Today, far from credibly serving as Washington’s intermediary with North Korea, China is smarting from Pyongyang’s open disdain for it.

Still, China must grapple with the larger question of whether it can be a peer rival to the U.S. without any allies.

Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War.”

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Time to stop the backsliding on Pakistan policy

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today, March 11, 2017

hqdefaultLast year was an unusual year: Never before had so many Indian security bases come under attack by Pakistan-based terrorists in a single year. For example, the terrorist strike on the Pathankot air base was New Year’s gift to India, while the strike on the Indian Army’s Uri base represented a birthday gift for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Furthermore, the number of Indian security personnel killed in gunbattles with terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir in 2016 was the highest in years.

In this light, it is remarkable that Modi is seeking to return to business as usual with Pakistan, now that the state elections are over in India and Pakistan-related issues have been sufficiently milked by him for political ends. Modi’s U-turn on the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) issue could mark the beginning of India’s backsliding.

After the Uri attack in September, his government, with fanfare, suspended the PIC. Now, quietly, that suspension has been lifted, and a PIC meeting will soon be held in Lahore. In reality, the suspension was just a sham because the PIC missed no meeting as a result. Its annual meeting in the current financial year is being held before the March 31 deadline.

The PIC was created by the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, the world’s most generous (and lopsided) water-sharing pact. The PIC decision indicates that Modi, despite vowing that “blood and water cannot flow together,” is not willing to abandon the treaty or even suspend its operation until Pakistan has terminated its proxy war by terror. The World Bank, in fact, is pressing the Modi government to use the PIC to reach a compromise with Pakistan over the latter’s demand for fundamental design changes in India’s Kishenganga and Ratle hydropower plants that could make these projects commercially unviable. Construction of the Ratle project has yet to begin.

The observable backsliding is also evident from other developments, including the appointment of a retired Pakistani diplomat, Amjad Hussain Sial, as the new secretary general of SAARC after India withdrew its objection. Modi is even keeping open the option of holding talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in June on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The Modi government’s reluctance to back up its words with action became conspicuous when it persuaded Rajeev Chandrasekhar to withdraw his private member’s bill in the Rajya Sabha to declare Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. If India, the principal victim of Pakistani terrorism, is reluctant to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, can it realistically expect the U.S. to take the lead on that issue? Other powers might sympathize with India’s plight but India will not earn their respect through all talk and no action. The battle against Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism is India’s fight alone.

To be clear, the confused Pakistan policy predates the Modi government. Despite Pakistan’s unending aggression against India ever since it was created as the world’s first Islamic republic in the post-colonial era, successive Indian governments have failed to evolve a consistent, long-term policy toward that renegade country. Consequently, waging an unconventional war against India remains an effective, low-cost option for Pakistan.

A major plank on which Modi won the 2014 general election was a clear policy to defeat Pakistan’s proxy war. His blow-hot-blow-cold policy toward Pakistan, however, suggests that he has yet to evolve a coherent strategy to reform Pakistan’s roguish conduct. The key inflection point in Modi’s Pakistan policy came on Christmas Day in 2015 when he paid a surprise visit to Lahore mainly to grab international spotlight. If it yielded anything, it was the twin terrorist attacks just days later on the Pathankot base and the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, setting in motion the ominous developments of 2016.

To be sure, Modi sought to salvage his credibility when in late September the Indian Army carried out surgical strikes on militants across the line of control in J&K. But it was always clear that a one-off operation like that would not tame Pakistan. India needs to keep Pakistan off balance through sustained pressure so that it has little leeway to pursue its goal to inflict death by a thousand cuts.

It is not too late for Modi to develop a set of policies that aim to impose punitive costs on Pakistan in a calibrated and gradually escalating manner, including through diplomatic, political and economic tools. If Pakistan can wage an unconventional war with a nuclear shield, a nuclear-armed India too can respond by taking the unconventional war to the enemy’s own land, including by exploiting Pakistan’s ethnic and sectarian fault lines, particularly in Baluchistan, Sind, Gilgit-Baltistan and the Pushtun regions. India must also up the ante by unambiguously linking the future of the iniquitous Indus treaty to Pakistan’s cessation of its aggression so that Islamabad no longer has its cake and eat it too. Like Lady Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, no amount of Indus water can “wash this blood clean” from the hands of the Pakistani military generals.

© Mail Today, 2017.

Japan’s Senkaku challenge

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At a time of shifting power dynamics in Asia, Japan faces pressing security challenges. Of the 400 remote islands that serve as markers for determining Japan’s territorial waters, only about 50 are inhabited. But no group of islands poses a bigger challenge for its security than the Senkakus, a clutch of five uninhabited islets and three rocks.

This challenge is compounded by demographic and military trends. Japan has barely one-tenth the population of China’s. Moreover, its population is not just aging but also shrinking significantly; it declined by nearly a million just between 2010 and 2015.

About a decade ago, Japan’s defense budget was larger than China’s. But now China’s military spending surpasses the combined defense expenditure of Japan, Britain and France.

To make matters worse, China’s increasing territorial assertiveness and muscular foreign policy are contributing to a sense of insecurity in Japan.

President Xi Jinping declared much of the East China Sea, including the Senkakus, to be a Chinese air defense zone in 2013, and since then China has stepped up its challenge to Japan’s control over those islands, including through repeated intrusions by its military aircraft and warships. Beijing has hardened its stance by elevating its claim to the Senkakus to a “core interest,” while some in China have gone to the extent of questioning Japan’s sovereignty over even Okinawa.

Against this background, many Japanese have wondered whether the United States would come to Japan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack on the Senkakus. The 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty states that an armed attack on either country in the territories under Japan’s administration would prompt joint action “to meet the common danger.”

Then U.S. President Barack Obama’s contradictory rhetoric instilled a sense of skepticism in Japan. Obama publicly affirmed that the U.S.-Japan security treaty covered the Senkakus. But in the same breath he refused to take a position on the islands’ sovereignty and advised Tokyo and Beijing to sort out their dispute peacefully.

Obama said the U.S. security treaty with Japan covered the Senkaku Islands because they “are under Japanese jurisdiction,” yet “we also stress that we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.”

At his April 2014 joint news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Obama, while unveiling his position on the Senkakus, urged Japan to refrain from “provocative actions” and emphasized that his administration was committed to encouraging China’s “peaceful rise.”

He stated: “We don’t take a position on final sovereignty determinations with respect to Senkakus, but historically they have been administered by Japan and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally … In our discussions, I emphasized with Prime Minister Abe the importance of resolving this issue peacefully — not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions, and trying to determine how both Japan and China can work cooperatively together. And I want to make that larger point. We have strong relations with China. They are a critical country not just to the region but to the world. Obviously, with a huge population, a growing economy, we want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China.”

How could such doublespeak reassure Japan? In fact, such statements sowed doubt over America’s willingness to go to war with China to back Japan’s territorial rights, in the event of a surprise Chinese invasion of the Senkakus. The Obama administration responded by simply saying that “we do not envision that this current tension will rise to that level in any foreseeable scenario.”

Add to the picture Obama’s conspicuous inaction and silence on China’s 2012 seizure of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, despite America’s longstanding mutual defense treaty with Manila. That development served as a wakeup call for Japan and other U.S. allies in Asia.

By contrast, the new U.S. administration led by President Donald Trump has taken a more clear-cut stance in reassuring Japan that the U.S. would defend it in any confrontation with China over the Senkakus. It has done so without the Obama-style caveat — that Washington does not take sides in the sovereignty dispute and calls on China and Japan to resolve their dispute peacefully through dialogue.

In fact, the recent Trump-Abe summit marked the first time that the U.S. commitment to defend Japan’s control over the Senkakus was recorded in a joint statement.

The Feb. 12 Trump-Abe joint statement came out strongly for Senkakus’ defense: “The two leaders affirmed that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands. They oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands … The United States and Japan oppose any attempt to assert maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force.”

This unambiguous commitment should be seen as an important success of Abe’s proactive diplomacy in seeking to build a personal connection with the new U.S. president. Abe was the first foreign leader Trump hosted at Mar-a-Lago, which he calls “The Southern White House.” Earlier, just after Trump’s unexpected election victory, Abe met face-to-face with him by making a special stop in New York en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.

Let’s be clear: The Senkaku issue is not just about a seven-square-kilometer real estate or the potential oil and gas reserves that lie around it. The strategically located Senkakus, despite their small size, are critical to maritime security and the larger contest for influence in the East China Sea and beyond.

China is seeking to wage a campaign of attrition against Japan over the Senkakus by gradually increasing the frequency and duration of its intrusions into Japan’s airspace and territorial waters. In doing so, it has made the rest of the world recognize the existence of a dispute and the risks of armed conflict.

To be sure, changing the territorial status quo is nothing new for Beijing. The People’s Republic of China has been doing that ever since it was founded in 1949. The early forcible absorption of the sprawling Xinjiang and Tibetan Plateau more than doubled China’s landmass.

In the 21st century, Chinese expansionism has increasingly relied upon “salami tactics” — a steady progression of small, furtive actions, none of which serves as a casus belli by itself, yet which help to incrementally change facts on the ground in China’s favor.

Unlike China’s success in expanding its frontiers in the South China Sea, it has found the going tough in the East China Sea. Indeed, Beijing’s actions have shaken Tokyo out of its complacency and diffidence and set in motion the strengthening of Japan’s defense capabilities, including arming its far-flung island chain in the East China Sea with a string of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missile batteries.

At his joint news conference with Trump at the White House, Abe pledged that Japan will play a “greater role” in East Asian security. It was as if he was responding to Trump’s campaign rhetoric that Japan, which hosts about 50,000 American troops, should do more to defend itself.

One effective way the Trump administration can encourage Japan to do more for its own defense is by lending full support to the Abe-initiated national security and constitutional reform process. Such reforms could help forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia. Japan is already working to constrain China with its own version of Beijing’s “anti-access, area denial” doctrine against the U.S.

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

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Trump’s China Challenge

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

Photo of Brahma ChellaneyOver the last eight years, as China’s posturing in Asia became increasingly aggressive, many criticized US President Barack Obama for failing to stand up to the Asian giant. It was on Obama’s watch, after all, that China captured the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines and built seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, on which it then deployed heavy weapons – all without incurring any international costs.

Many expect Obama’s tough-talking successor, Donald Trump, to change all of this. He is not off to a good start.

During the campaign, Trump threatened to retaliate against China for “raping” America on trade, to impose massive tariffs on Chinese imports, and to label China a currency manipulator on “day one.” Soon after his victory, Trump took a congratulatory phone call from the president of Taiwan, thereby breaking with nearly 40 years of diplomatic orthodoxy. Trump then took the matter a step further, publicly suggesting that he would use the “One China” policy as a bargaining chip in bilateral negotiations over contentious economic and security issues – from import taxes to North Korea.

But Trump backed down. Chinese President Xi Jinping made it clear that he would not so much as talk to Trump on the phone without assurance that the US president would pledge fidelity to the One China policy. The call happened, and Trump did exactly what Xi wanted, ostensibly without extracting anything in return. If China now perceives Trump to be all bark and no bite, he will undoubtedly find it harder to secure concessions from China on trade and security issues.

Trump is not the only figure in his administration to stake out a bold position on China, and then retreat meekly. During his Senate confirmation process, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared that the US should “send China a clear signal” by denying it access to its artificial islands in the South China Sea. China’s expansionism in the region, Tillerson asserted, was “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine – an implicit criticism of Obama for allowing the two developments.

But Tillerson, like his new boss, soon backed down. The US, he now claims, merely needs to be “capable” of restricting China’s access to the South China Sea islands, in the event of a contingency.

And yet China’s behavior merits stronger US action now. The country is attempting to upend the status quo not only in the South China Sea, but also in the East China Sea and the Himalayas. It is working to create a large sphere of influence through its “one belt, one road” initiative. And it is reengineering transboundary river flows. All of this is intended to achieve Chinese leaders’ goal of re-establishing the country’s mythical “Middle Kingdom” status.

Flawed US policy has opened the way for these efforts, in part by helping to turn China into an export juggernaut. The problem isn’t that China has a strong economy, but rather that it abuses free-trade rules to subsidize its exports and impede imports, in order to shield domestic jobs and industry. Today, China sells $4 worth of goods to the US for every $1 in imports.

Just as the US inadvertently saddled the world with the jihadist scourge by training Afghan mujahideen – the anti-Soviet fighting force out of which al-Qaeda evolved – it unintentionally created a rules-violating monster by aiding China’s economic rise. And it sustained its China-friendly trade policy even as China’s abuses became bolder and more obvious.

It is ironic that China, which has quietly waged a trade war for years, has responded to Trump’s threats to impose punitive tariffs by warning – notably, at this year’s World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos – of the risks of protectionism and trade wars. But not everyone is falling for China’s story. A growing number of countries are recognizing that reciprocity should guide their relations with China.

Trump himself may yet challenge China. When he agreed to abide by the One China policy, he said that he had done so at Xi’s request, suggesting that his commitment to the policy should not be taken for granted.

Moreover, even without defying the One China policy, Trump has ample room to apply pressure. He could start by highlighting increasing Chinese repression in Tibet. He could also expand political, commercial, and military contacts with Taiwan, where the One China policy has had the paradoxical effect of deepening people’s sense of national identity and strengthening their determination to maintain autonomy.

In any case, as China continues to pursue its hegemonic ambitions, Trump will have little choice but to pivot toward Asia – substantively, not just rhetorically, as Obama did. To constrain China and bring stability to Asia, he will have to work closely with friends. His efforts to establish a personal connection with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – the first foreign leader he hosted at Mar-a-Lago, his “Winter White House” – and the high priority his administration is assigning to relations with India and South Korea are positive signs.

By failing to provide strategic heft to his Asia pivot, Obama left it unhinged. Trump has the opportunity – and the responsibility – to change this. If he doesn’t, China will continue to challenge US allies and interests, with serious potential consequences for Asia and the world.

Taliban’s strange new foreign friends

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Brahma Chellaney, DNA

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India has an important stake in the future of Afghanistan, its natural ally and close friend for long. India, under successive governments, has been a major aid donor to Afghanistan. As the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, recently told his country’s Senate Armed Services Committee, “With over $2 billion development aid executed since 2002, and another $1 billion pledged in 2016, India’s significant investments in Afghan infrastructure, engineering, training, and humanitarian issues will help develop Afghan human capital and long-term stability.” Recent developments, however, do not augur well for Indian or Afghan interests.

Despite being ravaged by successive wars for the past 36 years, Afghanistan remains a playground for the foreign powers that have fomented or engaged in hostilities there. The latest developments suggest that the Afghanistan-related geopolitics is only getting murkier. In the process, the Taliban is acquiring strange new friends.

Russia and Iran, the traditional patrons of the Northern Alliance, are now openly mollycoddling the Taliban and giving it political succour. In this effort, they have the cooperation of China and Pakistan, thus creating a regional axis. This development represents a shot in the arm for the Taliban’s fight against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan and the government in Kabul.

Pakistan, of course, fathered the Taliban and remains its principal benefactor, providing safe havens on its territory to the militia. China, for its part, was just one of three countries along with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that recognized the Taliban regime in Kabul until it was overthrown in 2001 following the U.S. invasion. In fact, China and the Taliban announced a memorandum of understanding for economic and technical cooperation on the day two planes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center. Beijing is now again courting the Taliban. It has hosted at least one Taliban delegation and offered to mediate between Kabul and the rebels.

It is Russia’s U-turn on the Taliban, however, that stands out because it is strategically the most significant development. From a terrorist foe, the Taliban has become a potential ally for Moscow.

Russia’s apparent aim is to turn up the heat and raise the costs for the U.S. military’s continuing role in Afghanistan. It has even sought to obstruct the Afghan government’s U.S.-backed peace deal with a faded warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. While China has frustrated India’s moves to place the Pakistan-based terrorist Masood Azhar on the UN sanctions list, Moscow recently blocked Hekmatyar’s removal from the same list.

What makes the emerging regional axis more surprising is that Iran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia, continues to bankroll the Taliban. Another paradox is that two of America’s allies, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, are still aiding and abetting the U.S. military’s main battlefield enemy, the Taliban, which has killed hundreds of American soldiers.

As for Moscow, it has sought to underpin its policy shift by warming up to Pakistan. In order to cultivate ties with the Taliban, whose top leadership remains holed up in Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Russia is befriending Islamabad. Russia has held its first ever military exercise with Pakistan and is selling attack helicopters to it. Moscow is also negotiating a $2 billion natural gas pipeline contract with Islamabad.

The new developments in the Af-Pak belt carry major implications for Indian security.  Although India and the Afghan government were invited to a round of discussions in Moscow this month, Russia is shaping its new Afghanistan policy not in cooperation with New Delhi and Kabul. Indeed, at the Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar in December, Russia’s special envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, made some critical comments about New Delhi and Kabul. Subsequently, after discussions with Pakistan in Moscow, Russia and China called for  “flexible approaches” toward the Taliban and the removal of some its leaders from the UN sanctions list.

The Russian cooperation with the Taliban, while putting a damper on American efforts to reach a peace deal with that militia, is likely to exacerbate the security dynamics in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, which already boasts, as Gen. Nicholson pointed out, “the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world.” Put simply, Moscow’s new stance represents a setback for counterterrorism and for India’s Afghanistan policy.

© DNA, 2017.

Engagement over Antagonism

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Sanctions alone will not curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. A healthy dose of diplomacy is needed too.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review, February 27-March 5, 2017

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For North Korea, reeling under severe United Nations sanctions, conducting missile tests has become a regular expression of political defiance and technological progress. Just last year, showing its continuing contempt for UN resolutions, it tested almost two dozen missiles, including a submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Yet its first missile test since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election in November has been speciously portrayed as a major challenge to the new administration in Washington, with some analysts like ex-CIA chief James Woolsey even calling North Korea the top national security problem at present.

The fact is that the Feb. 12 test did not involve a long-range ballistic missile, which North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had said in his New Year’s Day speech was almost ready for launch. The fired missile, which traveled 500km, was just a medium-range type that Pyongyang has tested multiple times in different variants. And although North Korea said the test involved a new missile model with a solid fuel-powered engine — a technological advance that facilitates mobility and rapid launch — this is not the country’s first solid-fueled missile. As Pyongyang admits, the new surface-to-surface missile is based on its solid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Lost in the alarmism over the new missile is the fact that the test occurred just after Trump called North Korea a threat. Kim had been on good behavior ever since Trump’s unexpected election triumph, hoping that the new American president would adopt a fresh tack, in keeping with what Trump had said during the campaign — that he would be willing to meet with the North Korean leader over a hamburger.

Kim — the world’s youngest head of state — tested a nuclear device, purportedly a hydrogen bomb, two days before his Jan. 8 birthday in 2016. International media speculated that this year Kim would celebrate his birthday by testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, although he had referred to a long-range missile, not an ICBM, in his New Year’s Day speech. Kim, however, delayed his first missile test since Trump’s victory until much later — conducting it less than 36 hours after Trump, in a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House, said that “defending against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat” was “a very, very high priority” for him.

Trump’s tempered response to the missile test drew cynical comments from critics citing his bombastic Jan. 3 tweet. Relying on misleading media reports that Kim had threatened to test an ICBM, Trump posted on Twitter: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Truth be told, North Korea is far from developing an ICBM, as the latest missile test underscores.

Still, Trump is being publicly advised to ratchet up military pressure on Pyongyang, prompting him to declare: “Obviously, North Korea is a big, big problem, and we will deal with that very strongly.”

BIG-PICTURE ISSUES  

The debate on how to tame North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions should not obscure the larger issues involved. Three key matters stand out.

Firstly, the sanctions-only approach toward North Korea spearheaded by the United States has been a conspicuous failure, encouraging Pyongyang to rapidly advance its nuclear and missile programs. With little to lose, North Korea has responded to heavy sanctions by testing nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016. It has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to conduct nuclear tests in the 21st century. North Korea has also considerably enhanced its missile capabilities, though they remain subregionally confined in range.

Sanctions without engagement have never worked. In the North Korean case, the sanctions-only approach has done exactly the opposite of its intended goal — instead of halting or retarding nuclearization, slapping on additional sanctions after every major test has only egged Pyongyang on.

Secondly, Kim has repeatedly signaled that he wants his internationally isolated nation to escape from the clutches of its millennial rival, China. Significantly, he has not visited China since assuming power in 2011, although paying obeisance in Beijing was customary for his father and grandfather, who ruled before him.

Mao Zedong famously said China and North Korea were as close as lips are to teeth. But when China last March joined hands with the U.S. to approve the toughest new U.N. sanctions in two decades against North Korea, it highlighted its virtually ruptured relationship with Pyongyang.

At a time when China’s state media has accused Kim of pursuing “de-Sinification” and seeking improved ties with the U.S. and Japan, the fatal poisoning of Kim’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport has increased the sense of alarm and frustration in Beijing. Kim Jong Nam, a reputed playboy with residences in Beijing and Macau, was a virtual Chinese pawn against Kim.

Yet, oddly, Washington has attempted to push Kim further into the Chinese dragnet, instead of seizing on the opportunity created by his desire to unlock frozen ties with America. Some U.S. scholars have even suggested a grand bargain with Beijing on North Korea. Given that North Korea has sought direct engagement with Washington to offset Chinese leverage over it, nothing is more galling to Pyongyang than U.S. efforts to use Beijing as a diplomatic instrument against it. In effect, American policy has handed Beijing the North Korea card to play against South Korea, Japan and the U.S. itself.

In truth, China is already putting the squeeze on North Korea, especially since that country carried out its most powerful nuclear test last September. But its enforcement of U.N. sanctions in a controlled way has failed to change Kim’s calculus. Beijing, of course, values North Korea as a buffer state and does not want a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with Washington, because that will open a new threat, including bringing American troops to China’s border. Make no mistake: Chinese and American interests diverge fundamentally.

And thirdly, the U.S. has no credible military option against North Korea. Any military strikes to degrade the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities will provoke Pyongyang to unleash its artillery-barrage power against the South, triggering widespread destruction and a full-fledged war involving America. The planned U.S. deployment in South Korea of the anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD — which has never been battle-tested — is no real answer to North Korea’s nuclearization or to the North’s artillery choke-hold on Seoul. China, with some justification, sees the THAAD plan as essentially directed against it.

If there is any credible U.S. option to deal with Pyongyang, it is to give diplomacy a chance, with the goal of forging a peace treaty with the North to formally end the Korean War — which has officially been in a state of cease-fire since 1953. Denuclearization should be integral to the terms of such a peace treaty. But if denuclearization is made the sole purpose of engagement with the North, diplomacy will not succeed. President Barack Obama’s administration simply refused to talk unless Pyongyang first pledged to denuclearize. The North’s only leverage is the nuclear card, which it will not surrender without securing a comprehensive peace deal.

When repeated rounds of tight sanctions not only fail to achieve their objectives but counterproductively trigger opposite effects, the need for a new approach becomes inescapable.

Through a carrot-and-stick approach of easing some sanctions and keeping more biting ones in place, diplomacy can, by persisting with what will be difficult and tough negotiations, clinch a deal to end one of the world’s longest-lingering conflicts and eliminate weapons of mass destruction.

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.

China’s Debt-Trap Diplomacy

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

If there is one thing at which China’s leaders truly excel, it is the use of economic tools to advance their country’s geostrategic interests. Through its $1 trillion “one belt, one road” initiative, China is supporting infrastructure projects in strategically located developing countries, often by extending huge loans to their governments. As a result, countries are becoming ensnared in a debt trap that leaves them vulnerable to China’s influence.

Of course, extending loans for infrastructure projects is not inherently bad. But the projects that China is supporting are often intended not to support the local economy, but to facilitate Chinese access to natural resources, or to open the market for low-cost and shoddy Chinese goods. In many cases, China even sends its own construction workers, minimizing the number of local jobs that are created.

Several of the projects that have been completed are now bleeding money. For example, Sri Lanka’s Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, which opened in 2013 near Hambantota, has been dubbed the world’s emptiest. Likewise, Hambantota’s Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port remains largely idle, as does the multibillion-dollar Gwadar port in Pakistan. For China, however, these projects are operating exactly as needed: Chinese attack submarines have twice docked at Sri Lankan ports, and two Chinese warships were recently pressed into service for Gwadar port security.

In a sense, it is even better for China that the projects don’t do well. After all, the heavier the debt burden on smaller countries, the greater China’s own leverage becomes. Already, China has used its clout to push Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand to block a united ASEAN stand against China’s aggressive pursuit of its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Moreover, some countries, overwhelmed by their debts to China, are being forced to sell to it stakes in Chinese-financed projects or hand over their management to Chinese state-owned firms. In financially risky countries, China now demands majority ownership up front. For example, China clinched a deal with Nepal this month to build another largely Chinese-owned dam there, with its state-run China Three Gorges Corporation taking a 75% stake.

As if that were not enough, China is taking steps to ensure that countries will not be able to escape their debts. In exchange for rescheduling repayment, China is requiring countries to award it contracts for additional projects, thereby making their debt crises interminable. Last October, China canceled $90 million of Cambodia’s debt, only to secure major new contracts.

Some developing economies are regretting their decision to accept Chinese loans. Protests have erupted over widespread joblessness, purportedly caused by Chinese dumping of goods, which is killing off local manufacturing, and exacerbated by China’s import of workers for its own projects.

New governments in several countries, from Nigeria to Sri Lanka, have ordered investigations into alleged Chinese bribery of the previous leadership. Last month, China’s acting ambassador to Pakistan, Zhao Lijian, was involved in a Twitter spat with Pakistani journalists over accusations of project-related corruption and the use of Chinese convicts as laborers in Pakistan (not a new practice for China). Zhao described the accusations as “nonsense.”

In retrospect, China’s designs might seem obvious. But the decision by many developing countries to accept Chinese loans was, in many ways, understandable. Neglected by institutional investors, they had major unmet infrastructure needs. So when China showed up, promising benevolent investment and easy credit, they were all in. It became clear only later that China’s real objectives were commercial penetration and strategic leverage; by then, it was too late, and countries were trapped in a vicious cycle.

clipboard01Sri Lanka is Exhibit A. Though small, the country is strategically located between China’s eastern ports and the Mediterranean. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called it vital to the completion of the maritime Silk Road.

China began investing heavily in Sri Lanka during the quasi-autocratic nine-year rule of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and China shielded Rajapaksa at the United Nations from allegations of war crimes. China quickly became Sri Lanka’s leading investor and lender, and its second-largest trading partner, giving it substantial diplomatic leverage.

It was smooth sailing for China, until Rajapaksa was unexpectedly defeated in the early 2015 election by Maithripala Sirisena, who had campaigned on the promise to extricate Sri Lanka from the Chinese debt trap. True to his word, he suspended work on major Chinese projects.

But it was too late: Sri Lanka’s government was already on the brink of default. So, as a Chinese state mouthpiece crowed, Sri Lanka had no choice but “to turn around and embrace China again.” Sirisena, in need of more time to repay old loans, as well as fresh credit, acquiesced to a series of Chinese demands, restarting suspended initiatives, like the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City, and awarding China new projects.

Sirisena also recently agreed to sell an 80% stake in the Hambantota port to China for about $1.1 billion. According to China’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, Yi Xianliang, the sale of stakes in other projects is also under discussion, in order to help Sri Lanka “solve its finance problems.” Now, Rajapaksa is accusing Sirisena of granting China undue concessions.

By integrating its foreign, economic, and security policies, China is advancing its goal of fashioning a hegemonic sphere of trade, communication, transportation, and security links. If states are saddled with onerous levels of debt as a result, their financial woes only aid China’s neocolonial designs. Countries that are not yet ensnared in China’s debt trap should take note – and take whatever steps they can to avoid it.

Obama’s legacy: More war than peace

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Obama’s regime-change policy, like Bush’s, showed that the United States has the “reverse Midas Touch” — whatever it touches turns to chaos.

 

BY The Japan Times

 

What is the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize not for his accomplishments as U.S. president but for the expectations that his presidency aroused? Obama is receiving glowing tributes from many Democrats and establishment commentators for his record in clinching deals like the Paris climate change agreement, the nuclear accord with Iran and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But these deals are already under threat from his successor, Donald Trump.

More significant is the fact that even many of his supporters believe, as Nobel committee secretary Geir Lundestad has written in his memoir, that the Nobel prize to him was “a mistake.” The Nobel committee awarded Obama the prize less than nine months after he assumed office in the hope that he would be fundamentally different from President George W. Bush, whose invasion and occupation of Iraq created a failed state.

The paradox is that Obama, the supposed peacemaker, turned out to be a mirror image of Bush on foreign policy.

To set himself apart from Bush’s aggressive “hard power” approach, Obama campaigned to become president on a foreign policy platform of “smart power.” Yet in office, Obama relied heavily on raw power, waging serial military campaigns from Somalia and Yemen to Iraq and Syria and initiating “targeted killing” of even U.S. citizens with suspected ties to terrorism.

Obama championed “a nuclear-free world” only to quietly pursue an extensive expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, already the world’s costliest and most sophisticated.

Indeed, if one disregards his softer tone in comparison with Bush’s strident rhetoric, Obama’s record shows him to be even more interventionist than Bush. Last year, for example, the United States, according to an analysis of military data, dropped more than 26,000 bombs in seven countries. This happened under a president who, while deploring the ethos of “might makes right,” told the United Nations that “right makes might.”

In truth, Obama, like Bush, paid little heed to international law — or even American law — when it came in the way of his overseas military operations.

For example, Obama did not seek U.N. or U.S. congressional authorization before launching an air war in Syria. In fact, he speciously justified his bombing campaign in Syria by relying on the unrelated congressional authority that Bush secured to go after those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The 2011 U.S.-led operation against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi began as a supposed humanitarian mission, only to quickly turn into a regime-change exercise, whose success quickly bred chaos and mayhem in Libya. Although goaded into the Libyan operation by his hawkish secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, Obama will be remembered in history for demolishing Libya in the same way that Bush unraveled Iraq. The collapse of the Libyan state has created a jihadist citadel at Europe’s southern doorstep.

Obama’s CIA-led regime-change operation in Syria, although unsuccessful, contributed to plunging another secular Muslim autocracy into jihadist upheaval.

Obama indeed presided over the birth of the most potent terrorist organization in modern history — Islamic State — which still controls large tracts of territory in Syria and Iraq even 29 months after Obama began an air war against it. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has admitted, the Obama team viewed the rise of IS as a possibly useful development to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, only to see it grow into a monster.

Flush with his success in overthrowing Gadhafi — an operation that involved orchestrating an Islamist insurgency in Benghazi city and then launching a NATO aerial-bombardment campaign in the name of “responsibility to protect” — Obama turned his attention to toppling Assad. The main IS force was born in Syria out of the CIA-trained, petrodollar-funded “moderate” rebels who crossed over with their weapons to the hydra-headed group.

The rise of IS represented just the latest example of how successive U.S. presidents since the 1980s have been fighting the consequences of their own shortsighted policies. The U.S. has first trained and armed nonstate combatants in breach of international law, calling them “freedom fighters” or “the opposition.” Then it has branded the same militants as “extremists” and “terrorists” and waged war on them. This was the story of al-Qaida, made up largely of CIA-trained “freedom fighters” who, led by Osama bin Laden, turned on the U.S.

U.S. presidents, however, rarely learn from history, one of whose lessons is that the U.S. possesses, as one U.S. analyst has said, “the reverse Midas Touch” — whatever it touches “turns to mayhem.” Obama’s own creation of “moderate” rebel forces to topple Gadhafi has badly backfired, destabilizing not just Libya but also some other states in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Obama’s legacy also includes millions of uprooted Syrian, Libyan and Iraqi refugees, many of whom have flocked to Europe.

Stuck in the old paradigm, Obama did not seek to alter the geopolitical framework governing U.S. foreign policy. For example, to save America’s long-standing alliance with the Persian Gulf’s jihad-bankrolling Islamist monarchs, the Obama administration helped the oil monarchies, even the most tyrannical, to ride out the Arab Spring.

Obama did not change even the Bush-era Afghanistan strategy to use inducements — from billions of dollars in aid to the supply of lethal weapons — to prod the Pakistani military to go after the Haqqani network and get the Afghan Taliban to agree to a peace deal. With Washington clinging to a failed Pakistan policy, the longest war in U.S. history still rages in Afghanistan.

Obama’s legacy will clearly be defined as more war than peace. Obama embraced drone attacks with such alacrity — authorizing 506 known strikes, compared with the 50 strikes under Bush — that he was dubbed “the drone president.” By dramatically boosting U.S. weapon exports, Obama also distinguished himself as the greatest arms exporter since World War II.

From torture and drone strikes to regime change, Obama’s troubling legal legacy, however, is no different than Bush’s. In fact, both Obama and Bush dramatically expanded the executive branch’s power and authority in the realm of national security, including waging war.

During Obama’s tenure, as during Bush’s, the world not only became less peaceful but also America’s relative decline appeared to intensify. For example, in handling China — America’s principal long-term geopolitical rival — Obama’s policy unmistakably advertised U.S. weakness, including allowing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea to go scot-free.

Unlike Russia, which despite its continued decline has remained the top concern of the Washington elites, China sees itself as superior to the rest of the world and seeks to regain its fabled “Middle Kingdom” status.

Ominously, Obama has handed down to Trump more theaters of war than he inherited from Bush. Add to the picture the deep political polarization in America over Trump’s election and the threat the establishment perceives from Trump’s out-of-the-box thinking on several sensitive subjects — from Russia and NATO to trade and the “one-China” policy.

Rarely before has a president assumed office in a major democracy with the deep state and mainstream media so unwelcoming to him. If critics succeed in crimping Trump’s presidency, Obama’s legacy will look better than the actual record.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Nepal’s water curse

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Nepal needs bridge over troubled waters

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People ride on a boat to reach the bank of the Rapti River at Sauraha in Chitwan, south of Kathmandu. © Reuters

By Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Nepal sits on vast water resources. The United Nations describes the landlocked Himalayan state as “one of the Asian countries with the highest level of water resources per inhabitant.” Water can potentially be to Nepal what oil is to Arab sheikhdoms.

Nepal’s renewable water resources are estimated at 7,372 cubic meters per capita annually, or several times higher than those for the two demographic titans between which it is sandwiched — China and India. Yet Nepal, oddly, seems afflicted by a water curse. A failure to adequately harness water resources has left the nation acutely energy-starved, and water shortages are endemic in major Nepalese cities, including the capital, Kathmandu.

Meanwhile, as it increasingly becomes a theater of geopolitical competition between China and India, Nepal is tilting more toward Beijing and away from India, its main partner through the centuries. China, blending economic and security policies, is steadily making strategic inroads. Beijing’s latest deal with Nepal to build another largely Chinese-owned dam there highlights its growing success in clinching major infrastructure contracts in India’s backyard to advance its foreign policy and commercial interests.

Had India tried to secure a contract to set up a largely Indian-owned dam in Nepal, it would likely have faced a nationalistic backlash. Maoists, communists and nationalists in Nepal portray India as a regional hegemon and have seriously impeded its hydropower development plans. China, however, does not face such opposition in communist-dominated Nepal. This helps to explain why the new deal over the planned 750-megawatt West Seti Dam is not the first Chinese hydropower project in the country.

China, through construction projects by Chinese state-run companies and large loans to finance them, is quietly enlarging its presence in and leverage over the increasingly indebted Nepal, which risks becoming its client state. Already, Beijing has used its clout to push Nepal to crack down on Tibetans traveling through Nepal to India, where the Dalai Lama is based.

While dressing its investments in the cloak of economic aid, China is imposing stiff commercial terms on Nepal, plus taking majority project ownership upfront. For example, its state-run China Three Gorges Corporation has picked up a 75% stake in the West Seti Dam project.

Nepal holds up to 83,000 megawatts of hydropower reserves, which, if tapped partially, can make it a major exporter of electricity. By harnessing the natural bounty of the Himalayas to produce renewable electricity, Nepal could emulate the success of Bhutan in generating the hydro dollars to fuel its rapid economic development. Small Bhutan has effectively turned its rich water resources into “blue gold,” achieving the highest per capita income in South Asia.

Power shortages

Nepal, however, produces barely 800 megawatts of electricity for its 30 million citizens from all sources of energy, with the result that long power outages are common even in Kathmandu. Nepal controls the headwaters of, or serves as the corridor for, several rivers that flow into India, yet it imports electricity from that country.

As opposed to China’s water megaprojects at home, smaller and ecologically friendly projects in the Himalayas — if properly planned and designed and conforming to thorough and impartial environmental impact assessments — can yield major benefits without carrying significant environmental and social costs. Environmentally sound hydropower is particularly attractive because, despite the high upfront capital costs, a hydropower plant has a life span almost double that of a nuclear power reactor and generates electricity with no fuel cost.

India, as the subcontinent’s largest energy consumer, has sought to incentivize a subregional energy grid. Yet the vast majority of its own Himalayan hydropower projects have been delayed, suspended or shelved, largely due to grass roots opposition.

India has employed water collaboration as a tool of its diplomacy with Nepal and Bhutan. In Bhutan, India has subsidized the development of environmentally friendly hydropower by providing 60% of the investment for each project as a grant and the remaining amount as a low-interest loan. The projects have helped power Bhutan’s success story.

By contrast, the political dividends from Indo-Nepalese water cooperation have declined over the years, partly because of political constraints in Nepal and partly because India has not been sensitive to Nepalese concerns. Several joint projects have either not been completed or failed to live up to their promise, leaving a troubled legacy that has increasingly weighed down bilateral cooperation.

Bangladesh has actively sought the start of water projects in Nepal to augment the lean-season flows of the Ganges River at Farakka, the critical downriver point where the waters are equally shared between India and Bangladesh under a 1996 treaty. The treaty — which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Indian-assisted independence — has set a new principle in international water law by guaranteeing delivery of specific water quantities to downstream Bangladesh in the critical dry season.

Hundreds of rivers, some them originating in Tibet, crisscross Nepal. The country has five major river basins, from the Mahakali in the west to the eastern Kosi. All its river systems empty into the Ganges basin in India. Nepal is also rich in groundwater resources in the southern plains along its long border with India.

Resource curse

Whereas countries afflicted by what development economists call the “resource curse” find it difficult to break out of slow rates of economic growth and high levels of income inequality, despite relying on major exports of natural resources, Nepal’s water curse has come without exploiting its resource reserves for its own needs, let alone exporting hydropower.

No less significant is the fact that Nepal has several water treaties with India but none with China, which has dammed the Karnali River just before it enters Nepal. China is also planning to build a cascade of five dams on the upper reaches of the Arun River. The construction of that cascade, by diminishing flows into the Ganges, could potentially affect India’s Ganges water-sharing arrangement with Bangladesh.

Nepal’s water curse has been compounded by severe political turmoil for the past quarter century. It remains today in a politically shaky position — wracked by underdevelopment, poverty, poor governance and lawlessness and increasingly divided by its murky politics.

The sorry state of affairs in Nepal has seriously hampered its hydropower and irrigation expansion, even though progress in these areas is essential to obtain much-needed revenue and development and to help tame the transboundary rivers that often overrun their banks in Nepalese and Indian areas during the monsoons.

Indeed, the integrated development of the Ganges basin demands trilateral institutional collaboration between the three basin states — Nepal, India and Bangladesh — with cooperation extending to energy, transit and port rights. However, the entry of a non-basin state, China, is muddying the waters. Both through its unilateral dam-building activities in Tibet on the rivers that flow to Nepal, India and Bangladesh, and its entry in the Nepalese hydropower sector, China is compounding the challenges of regional integration.

Breaking the water curse is critical to Nepal’s future. While the mighty Himalayas separate it from Chinese-ruled Tibet, Nepal is tied to India by geography, including multiple shared river basins. Water cooperation with India and Bangladesh can help harness the waters of the common rivers for shared benefit.

But if Nepal remains battered by political turmoil, it risks becoming a failed state — a development that will carry major security implications for India, given the open Indo-Nepalese border that permits passage without documentation or registration.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

MOUNTAINS OF TROUBLE

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A bolder India could rein in China’s dangerous antics in Tibet

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review, January 23-29, 2017, pages 56-57

download-1While it has become fashionable to pair China and India as if they were joined at the hip, it is often forgotten that the two have little in common politically, economically or culturally.

Comparatively speaking, the countries are new neighbors. The vast Tibetan plateau, encompassing an area greater than Western Europe, separated the two civilizations throughout history, limiting interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts.

It was only after China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951 that Chinese army units appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers. This was followed 11 years later by a war in which China’s battlefield triumph sowed the seeds of greater rivalry.

Today, Tibet remains at the center of the China-India divide, fueling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions and feuds over river-water flows. For example, Beijing was harshly critical of New Delhi in December for allowing the exiled Dalai Lama — who has lived in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959 — to visit the presidential palace for a public event and meet President Pranab Mukherjee, India’s head of state.

Further diplomatic protests from Beijing are expected in coming weeks when the Dalai Lama begins a religious tour of Arunachal Pradesh, a sprawling Indian state famous for its virgin forests and soaring mountain ranges. China claims the territory, which it has called “South Tibet” since 2006.

Tibet is an issue of relevance far beyond China and India. With its lofty terrain, featuring the world’s tallest mountain peaks and largest concentration of glaciers and riverheads, the Tibetan plateau influences atmospheric circulation — and therefore climate and weather patterns — across the northern hemisphere.

China has turned this resource-rich but ecologically fragile plateau into the center of its mining and dam-building activities. With the plateau warming at a rate nearly twice as fast as the rest of the world, glacial recession in the eastern Himalayas and the thawing of permafrost (permanently frozen ground) in Tibet are increasingly apparent.

Wedge issue

The environmental crisis haunting the plateau threatens the ecological well-being of multiple nations, including those dependent on the 10 major Asian river systems that originate on the Tibetan massif. But the environmental problems are dwarfed by political strains in the region.

China lays claim to vast tracts of Indian Himalayan land on the basis of purported Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links. Tibet’s long shadow over China-India relations is also apparent from the Dalai Lama’s lengthy abode in the Indian hill resort of Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The fall of Tibet represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development in modern India’s history. It gave China borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal for the first time, and facilitated a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis by opening a common land corridor.

The impact has been exacerbated by Indian blunders that have compounded the country’s “China problem” and undercut its leverage. New Delhi was one of the first capitals to embrace the Mao Zedong-led regime in Beijing after the Chinese Communist Party seized power in 1949. But just months later, Mao began annexing the historical buffer of Tibet, eliminating India’s outer line of defense by 1951.

Led by Jawaharlal Nehru, a romantic who viewed China sympathetically as a fellow postcolonial state, India went on to surrender extraterritorial rights in Tibet inherited from the U.K., its former colonial master. It also acknowledged the “Tibet region of China,” without getting Beijing to recognize the existing Indo-Tibetan border. Ironically, the pact that recognized China’s rights in Tibet was named after the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of Panchsheela, the five principles of peaceful coexistence.

Almost half a century later, India went further still, using the legal term “recognize” in a document signed by the heads of government of the two countries in 2003 that formally accepted Tibet as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

Dictating terms

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Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is helped by attending monks as he arrives at the inauguration of a four-day seminar in New Delhi, India on Dec. 9, 2016. © AP

Meanwhile, China has sought to crimp the Dalai Lama’s freedom within a democratic India. Initially, Beijing objected to official discussions between the Dalai Lama and foreign heads of state or government. But China has progressed over the years to protesting his presence at any state-linked event, and even his visits to other countries, such as a purely religious trip to Mongolia in November.

The New Delhi event that riled Beijing in December was organized for children’s welfare by Nobel laureates, a group that includes the Dalai Lama. Demanding that India respect China’s “core interests” and refrain from causing “any disturbance” to bilateral ties, China couched its protest in imperious terms. Instead of censuring Beijing for seeking to dictate terms to India, New Delhi responded almost apologetically that the meeting was a “non-political event.”

The more accommodative that India has become of China’s claims and concerns over Tibet, the more assertive Beijing has been in upping the ante. For example, in ratcheting up the Arunachal Pradesh issue in recent years, Beijing has contended that the region — almost three times larger than Taiwan — must be “reunified” with the Chinese state to respect Tibetan sentiment. The flimsy basis of its historical claim has been exposed by the Dalai Lama, who has publicly declared that Arunachal was never part of Tibet.

By bringing its Tibet position into alignment with China’s claim, India has not won Chinese gratitude; rather it has boosted Beijing’s clout and encouraged Chinese re-engineering of transboundary river flows, on which India is critically dependent.

According to Aquastat, a database maintained by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 718 billion cubic meters of surface water a year flows out of the Tibetan plateau and the Chinese regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to neighboring countries. Of that amount, 48.33% runs directly into India. In addition, Nepal’s Tibet-originating rivers drain into India’s Gangetic basin. So no country is more vulnerable than India to China’s current focus on building cascades of large dams on international rivers.

India can reclaim its Tibet leverage by emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet hinged on a grant of genuine autonomy to the region. Instead of autonomy, Tibet has experienced tightening political control and increasing repression, triggering grassroots desperation and a wave of self-immolations.

A braver Indian approach would include showing Tibet in its official maps in a different color from the rest of China and using expressions such as “the Indo-Tibet border,” instead of “the India-China border.” Using measures such as this, India can subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue without having to renounce formally any of its previously stated positions.

Whatever it does, India must not shy away from urging China to begin a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet. Having ceased to be a political buffer between China and India, Tibet can still become a political bridge between the world’s demographic titans if Beijing initiates a process of genuine reconciliation there to ease Tibetans’ feelings of estrangement. Otherwise, Tibet will remain at the core of the China-India divide.

India has played an important role in aiding the survival of Tibetan culture by funding Tibetan schools for the large number of Tibetan exiles it hosts. By recalibrating its Tibet policy, India could elevate Tibet as a strategic and environmental issue that impinges on international security and climatic and hydrological stability.

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.

Halting China’s free ride

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Trump won’t abide Obama’s fawning approach to trade.

By Brahma Chellaney, Washington Times

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President-elect Donald Trump ran an election campaign that challenged American diplomacy’s long-standing principles and shibboleths. Since his election triumph, Mr. Trump is already rewriting the rules of the presidency and signaling that his foreign policy approach will be unconventional.

Even before assuming office, Mr. Trump has moved away from President Obama’s foreign policy approach by staking out starkly different positions on several sensitive subjects, including China, Taiwan, Israel, terrorism and nuclear weapons. A Trump presidency may not bring seismic shifts in American policy but it is likely to lead to significant change in U.S. priorities, geopolitical focus and goals as well as in the tools Washington would be willing to employ to help achieve its desired objectives.

No country faces a bigger challenge from Mr. Trump’s ascension to power than China, which has been flexing its military and economic muscles more strongly than ever. After the Obama administration’s obsequious stance, Beijing must brace up and face an assertive new national security and economic team in Washington that is unlikely to put up with its covert territorial expansion and trade manipulation.

Mr. Trump has signaled a need to recalibrate foreign policy by shifting its geopolitical focus from Russia, a declining power with a contracting economy, to the increasingly muscular and openly revisionist China. Unlike Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, China’s territorial revisionism, as illustrated in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, is creeping and incremental yet relentless.

Mr. Trump’s focus on China and Islamic radicalism indicates that, far from retreating from Asia and the Middle East, America is likely to play a sharper, more concentrated role. For example, the U.S. military could carry out more significant reconnaissance and freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea to help deter Chinese aggression.

To countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies, the Obama administration’s reluctance to challenge Beijing forced several of them to tread with excessive caution around Chinese concerns and interests. A wake-up call came with Mr. Obama’s silence about the 2012 Chinese capture of the Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Washington did nothing in response to the capture, despite its mutual-defense treaty with the Philippines.

That inaction helped spur China’s frenzied creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea. In late 2013, when China unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone covering territories it claims but does not control in the East China Sea, Mr. Obama again hesitated, effectively condoning the action. And recently, his meek response to what Mr. Trump called “an unprecedented act” — China’s daring seizure of a U.S. underwater drone — advertised American weakness.

In the dying days of the Obama administration, an emboldened China is rushing more missiles to its man-made islands in the South China Sea, where, on Mr. Obama’s watch, it has built seven islands and militarized them in an attempt to annex a strategically crucial corridor through which half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes.

China has demonstrated that defiant unilateralism is cost-free — but it knows that its free ride is about to end, with Mr. Trump willing to adopt a tougher and less predictable line toward it. This is apparent from Mr. Trump’s suggestion, after taking a phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, that a “one-China” policy is no sacred cow for him. Mr. Trump’s economic nationalism also holds greater implications for China than probably for any other country.

By subsidizing exports and impeding imports, China has long waged an economic war against other major economies. The Obama administration’s announcement last April of a deal under which China would scrap export subsidies on some products, largely agricultural items and textiles, drew skepticism in the markets because it did not cover major exports, including steel. It also left intact other forms of state support to the Chinese industry.

Mr. Trump is unlikely to give China a free pass on its trade manipulation. Trade is one area where Mr. Trump must deliver on his campaign promises or risk losing his credibility with the blue-collar constituency that helped propel him to victory. He is threatening to slap punitive tariffs on China for what he described during the campaign as “the greatest theft in the history of the world”.

Mr. Trump is unlikely to be deterred by the specter of a trade war with China for the simple reason that Beijing is already waging an economic war. In fact, Mr. Trump’s likely argument for a tough China stance will be that Beijing’s one-sided economic war must be halted. Such a policy approach is also apparent from some of his appointments, including economist Peter Navarro, the author of “Death By China,” “The Coming China Wars,” and “Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the Rest of the World.”

U.S.-China ties could be in for a rough patch for another reason: Mr. Trump could pivot to Asia in a way Mr. Obama did not. Mr. Obama’s failure to provide strategic heft left his Asia pivot unhinged.

To be sure, Mr. Trump is likely to face resistance to recalibrating U.S. foreign policy from two powerful lobbies in Washington — a large tribe of “panda huggers” and the old establishment figures who spent their formative years during the Cold War obsessing with the Soviet threat and now see Russian President Vladimir Putin as the epitome of evil.

Mr. Trump’s task is made more onerous by a mainstream media that remains hostile to him despite its epic failure to anticipate or predict the election outcome.

Still, a determined Donald Trump is likely to reorient U.S. foreign policy in potentially momentous ways.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.

Reclaiming India’s leverage on Tibet

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Brahma Chellaney, Mint, January 4, 2017

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Central governments come and go in New Delhi but India’s instinctive chariness and reserve on the issue of Tibet still persist, despite an increasingly muscular China upping the ante against it. Tibet’s annexation has affected Indian security like no other development, giving China, for the first time under Han rule, a contiguous border with India, Bhutan and Nepal and facilitating a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis through a common land corridor.

Even as the then-independent Tibet’s forcible absorption began just months after the 1949 communist victory in China, India — despite its British-inherited extraterritorial rights in Tibet — watched silently, even opposing a discussion in the UN General Assembly on the aggression. Since then, India has stayed mum on increasing Chinese repression in Tibet. But now it is allowing itself to come under Chinese pressure on the Dalai Lama’s activities and movements within India.

Consider the recent development when the Dalai Lama attended a public event at the Rashtrapati Bhawan and met with President Pranab Mukherjee: The government did the right thing by permitting the Dalai Lama to participate in the event, especially since it was organized for children’s welfare by Nobel laureates, a group that includes the Dalai Lama himself.

But after China protested the Dalai Lama’s presence at the Rashtrapati Bhawan, India gratuitously responded rather than disregarding Beijing’s silly gripe, which was couched in imperious terms.

Demanding that India respect China’s “core interests” to avoid “any disturbance” to the bilateral ties, the Chinese foreign ministry stated, “China has urged India to clearly recognize the Dalai Lama’s anti-Chinese and separatist nature, to respect China’s core interests and concerns, to take effective measures to eliminate the negative influences of the incident, and to avoid disturbing China-India ties,” adding: “Recently in disregard of China’s solemn representation and strong opposition, the Indian side insisted on arranging for the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit to the Indian presidential palace, where he took part in an event and met President Mukherjee.”

The ministry of external affairs responded not to censure China for seeking to interfere in India’s internal affairs or for dictating terms to it; rather, it responded to explain the matter to Beijing, saying: “India has a consistent position. His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is a respected and revered spiritual leader. It was a non-political event organized by Nobel laureates dedicated to the welfare of children.”

Where was the need for India to explain apologetically that it was “a non-political event” — that too to a country that has no compunction in blocking UN sanctions on Pakistan-based terrorists or in frustrating India’s admission to the Nuclear Suppliers Group? The way to deal with China on such an issue is to ignore its protests and keep doing more frequently what it finds objectionable so as to blunt its objections. This approach is necessary in order to send a clear message that China cannot arrogantly lay down terms for India to follow.

Just as China has perfected the art of creeping, covert warfare through which it seeks to take one “slice” of territory at a time, by force, its objections regarding the Dalai Lama have similarly advanced in a crawling form. From objecting to official discussions between the Dalai Lama and a foreign head of state or government, China’s opposition has progressed to protesting his presence at any state-linked event or even his purely spiritual visit to another country, as to Mongolia recently. It has also sought to crimp his freedom within a free India.

Take Mongolia, which has had close links with Tibet ever since the great Mongol king, Altan Khan, converted to Tibetan Buddhism. Indeed, the fourth Dalai Lama was born in Mongolia. But when Mongolia in November stood up to China by permitting the Dalai Lama to undertake a four-day religious tour involving no official meeting, Beijing responded as a typical bully by freezing ties and seeking to throttle its economy — dependent on commodity exports to China — by slapping punitive tariffs and shutting a key border crossing point. And it kept up the coercive pressure until Mongolia, battling a recession, agreed not to allow the Dalai Lama in again even for a religious tour.

Far from being vulnerable to Chinese economic blackmail, India is in a position to employ trade as a political instrument against China, given the lopsided nature of the bilateral commerce. Fattened by a rapidly growing trade surplus with India that now totals almost $60 billion yearly, China has been busy undermining Indian security, either directly or through its surrogate Pakistan. China’s surplus has actually doubled just since Narendra Modi assumed office.

India not only needs to fix the increasingly asymmetrical trade relationship with China but must also reclaim its leverage on the Tibet issue. Tibet is a major instrument of leverage that India has against China. Yet India remains very reluctant to exercise that leverage. Had China been in India’s place, it is unthinkable that it would have shied away from employing the Tibet card or the trade card.

Tibet is to India against China what Pakistan is to China against India. But China has had no hesitation to play the Pakistan card against India, including by building Pakistan as a military balancer on the subcontinent through continuing transfers of nuclear-weapon, missile and conventional-weapon technologies.

Way back in 1965, then education minister and soon to be external affairs minister M.C. Chagla declared, “The conditions under which we recognized China’s suzerainty no longer exist.” Yet today India recognizes Tibet as part of China even as Beijing openly challenges India’s unity and territorial integrity, including by occupying the Aksai Chin plateau and claiming an entire Indian state.

Without India asserting itself by reopening the Tibet issue, China will continue to breathe down its neck and seek to dictate terms. For example, when the Dalai Lama tours Arunachal Pradesh shortly, Beijing will again unleash its diplomatic fury by hectoring India.

© Mint, 2016.

India may be parched yet it is remarkably short-sighted on water resources

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today, December 30, 2016

imagesThe inter-ministerial task force set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for correcting India’s under-utilization of its allocated share of waters under the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) has just held its first meeting. The water-related issue facing India, however, is much larger: The continuing absence of institutionalized, integrated policymaking in India, which has prevented proper management of the country’s increasingly scarce water resources. Indeed, India stands out for its lack of a national action plan to build water security.

When the Indian Republic was established, the framers of its Constitution did not visualize water scarcity in the decades ahead, given the relative abundance of water resources then. Therefore, they left water as a state-level subject, rather than making it a federal issue.

Similarly, the IWT, under which India bigheartedly agreed in 1960 to the exclusive reservation of the largest three of the six Indus system rivers for Pakistan, was negotiated in a period when water shortages were uncommon in most parts of India. This led India to sign an extraordinary treaty whose terms commit India to indefinitely reserve over four-fifths of the total waters of the Indus system for Pakistan.

The treaty uniquely parceled out entire rivers to Pakistan. It granted Pakistan virtually exclusive rights to use the waters of the Chenab, the Jhelum, and the main Indus stream — known together as the “western rivers”. The average replenishable flows of the three western rivers total 167.2 billion cubic meters (BCM) per year. As its own share, India settled for a mere 40.4 BCM, or the total yearly flows of the three so-called eastern rivers — the Sutlej, the Beas, and the Ravi.

Four of these six rivers originate in India (three of them in Himachal Pradesh), and two (the main Indus stream and the Sutlej) originate in Tibet. Only the Jhelum originates in Jammu and Kashmir.

clipboard01Today, the national water situation in India is far worse than in China. China’s population is not even 10 per cent larger than India’s but its internally renewable water resources (2,813 BCM) are almost twice as large as India’s. In aggregate water availability, including external inflows (which are sizeable in India’s case), China boasts virtually 50 per cent larger resources than India.

Yet India serves as a case study of how a disjointed policy approach and lack of vision on managing water resources can exact serious costs by creating water shortages across much of the country. In a sense, India’s fragmented approach is exactly the opposite of China’s highly centralized approach centred on mega-projects.

The startling fact is that the responsibility for water issues is so fragmented within India’s central government that 12 different departments or ministries deal with different segments of water resources. To promote clear responsibility and accountability in national water management and to facilitate integrated policymaking, India must end its present fragmented approach on water issues.

As for India’s under-utilization of its IWT-allocated water share, the task facing the task-force is formidable. For example, the waters of the three eastern rivers not utilized by India aggregate to 10.37 BCM yearly according to Pakistan or, according to the UN, 11.1 BCM. These bonus outflows to Pakistan alone amount to six times Mexico’s total water share under its treaty with the US, and are many times greater than the total volumes spelled out in the Israel-Jordan water arrangements.

Although the IWT permits India to store 4.4 BCM of waters from the Pakistan-reserved rivers, a careless India has built no storage. And despite the treaty allowing India to build hydropower plants with no dam reservoir, India’s total installed generating capacity in J&K currently does not equal the size of a single new dam in Pakistan like the 4,500-megawatt Diamer-Bhasha, whose financing for construction was approved recently.

Against this background, the task force set up by Modi, with his principal secretary as its chairman, may be a step in the right direction. But constituting this committee is hardly an adequate response to fixing the anomaly as reflected in India’s under-utilization of its water share.

Made up of senior bureaucrats who are already busy attending to other tasks, the committee cannot by itself remove the bureaucratic hurdles in the proper utilization of water resources. India’s political negligence on this issue has been so deep and extensive that it can be remedied only through hands-on political direction and in coordination with the state chief ministers.

More fundamentally, water scarcity is a looming challenge across India. The water wars between various Indian states are highlighting how the competition over shared water resources is sharpening in an alarming manner.

India must treat water as a strategic resource for its own well-being. If the current compartmentalized approach to managing water resources persists, water shortages are going to exact growing economic and social costs in India.

© Mail Today, 2016.

From Russia With Unrequited Love

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has assiduously courted Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting with him more than a dozen times in four years. This month he hosted Putin in Tokyo and in his hometown of Nagato (famed for its onsen, or natural hot springs). But Abe’s courtship has so far yielded little for Japan, and much for Russia.

Abe’s diplomatic overtures to Putin are integral to his broader strategy to position Japan as a counterweight to China, and to rebalance power in Asia, where Japan, Russia, China, and India form a strategic quadrangle. Abe has already built a close relationship with India, and he sees improved relations with Russia – with which Japan never formally made peace after World War II – as the missing ingredient for a regional power equilibrium.

But Abe’s trust-building efforts with Russia are not aimed only at checking Chinese aggression. He also wants Russia to return its southernmost Kuril Islands – a resource-rich area known as the Northern Territories in Japan – which the Soviet Union seized just after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In exchange, Abe has offered economic aid, investments in Russia’s neglected Far East, and major energy deals.

Abe has, however, encountered several obstacles. For starters, Japan is a participant in the US-led sanctions that were imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea in March 2014. These sanctions have pushed Russia closer to its traditional rival, China; and Putin has publicly identified the sanctions as a hindrance to concluding a peace treaty with Japan.

In response to Abe’s overtures, Putin has doggedly tried to drive a hard bargain. Russia has bolstered its defenses on the four disputed islands, and, just prior to this month’s summit, he told the Japanese media that the current territorial arrangement suits Russian interests. “We think that we have no territorial problems,” he said. “It’s Japan that thinks that it has a territorial problem with Russia.”

The US-led sanctions regime and low oil prices have battered the Russian economy, which is expected to contract by 0.8% in 2016. Thus, Putin is more reluctant than ever to offer territorial concessions, lest it tarnish his domestic image as a staunch defender of Russian national interests.

Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that Abe left the recent “onsen summit” with dashed hopes of resolving the territorial dispute, while Putin returned home with 68 new commercial accords. Many of the new agreements are symbolic, but some are substantive, including deals worth $2.5 billion and an agreement to set up a $1 billion bilateral-investment fund.

Under the latter agreement, Japan and Russia are supposed create a “special framework” for joint economic activities on the disputed islands. But the plan has already run into trouble. Peter Shelakhaev, a senior Russian official who leads the government’s Far East Investment and Export Agency, has indicated that there are legal hurdles to establishing such a framework, and that Japanese firms doing business on the Kurils would have to pay taxes to Russia. If Japan did that, however, it would effectively be recognizing Russia’s jurisdiction over the islands.

Abe has thus been denied the legacy that he sought, while Putin has succeeded in easing Russia’s international isolation. Abe was the first G7 leader to hold a summit with Putin after Russia annexed Crimea, and now Russia has won Japan’s economic cooperation, too.

Japan is the only G7 country that has a territorial dispute with Russia, and it is clearly more eager to reach a deal than the Kremlin is. But this has only strengthened Russia’s hand. While Japan has softened its position, and signaled that it may accept only a partial return of the islands, Russia has grown only more intransigent. After the recent summit, Abe revealed that Putin now seems to be reneging on a 1956 agreement between Japan and the Soviet Union, which stipulates that the smaller two of the four islands will be returned to Japan after a peace treaty is signed.

As it happens, this year marks the 60th anniversary of that joint declaration, which was widely viewed as a breakthrough at the time. The Kremlin is now suggesting that its commitment to fulfilling the declaration was conditional on Japan not joining any security alliance against Russia. And Putin has expressed concerns that the 1960 Japan-US Security Treaty would extend to the disputed islands if they were returned, thus allowing the US to establish a military presence there.

Japan is in no position to address Russia’s concerns. It cannot opt out of the US-led sanctions regime; and it cannot exempt the disputed Kurils from its security treaty with the US, especially now that it has been urging the US to provide an explicit commitment to defend the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, over which China claims sovereignty.

Putin, for his part, appears smugly content with his negotiating position. Not only did he arrive almost three hours late to the onsen summit, in keeping with his habit of leaving foreign leaders waiting; he also declined a Japanese government gift – a male companion for his native Japanese Akita dog, which Japan gave him in 2012.

There is little hope now that Abe will see tangible returns on the political capital he has invested in cultivating Putin. And Japan’s dilemma will only deepen. US President-elect Donald Trump’s desire to improve relations with Russia may give Abe leeway to continue wooing Putin; but if Russia gets the US in its corner, it won’t need Japan anymore.

The Great Water Folly

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

imagesThe linkages between water stress, sharing disputes and environmental degradation threaten to trap Asia in a vicious cycle. In a continent where China’s unilateralism stands out as a destabilizing factor, only four of the 57 transnational river basins have a treaty on water sharing or institutionalized cooperation. Indeed, the only Asian treaties incorporating specific sharing formulas are between India and its downriver neighbours, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

When Pakistan was carved out of India as the first Islamic republic of the post-colonial era, the partition left the Indus headwaters in India, arming it with formidable water leverage over the newly-created country. Yet India ultimately agreed under World Bank and US pressure in 1960 to what still ranks as the world’s most generous (and lopsided) water-sharing pact.

The Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) reserved for Pakistan the largest three rivers that make up more than four-fifths of the Indus-system waters, leaving for India just 19.48% of the total waters. After gifting the lion’s share of the waters to the congenitally hostile Pakistan, India also contributed $173.63 million for dam and other projects there. The Great Water Folly — one of the major strategic problems bequeathed to future Indian generations by the Nehruvian era — began exacting serious costs within a few years.

Far from mollifying an implacable foe, the IWT whetted Pakistan’s territorial revisionism, prompting its 1965 military attack on India’s Jammu and Kashmir. The attack was aimed at gaining political control of the land through which the three largest rivers reserved for Pakistani use flowed, although only one of them originates in J&K. The 1965 attack was essentially a water war.

India’s naïve assumption that it traded water munificence for peace in 1960 has backfired, saddling it with an iniquitous treaty of indefinite duration and keeping water as a core issue in its relations with Pakistan. As for Pakistan, after failing to achieve its water designs militarily in 1965, it has continued to wage a water war against India by other means, including diplomacy and terrorism. Put simply, 56 years after the IWT was signed, Pakistan’s covetous, water-driven claim to India’s J&K remains intact.

Pakistan has cleverly employed the IWT to have its cake and eat it too. While receiving the largest quantum of waters reserved by any treaty for a downstream state, it uses the IWT to sustain its conflict and tensions with India. Worse still, this scofflaw nation repays the upper riparian’s unparalleled water largesse with blood by waging an undeclared, terrorism-centred war, with the Nagrota attack the latest example.

Pakistan has recently succeeded — for the second time in this decade — in persuading a partisan World Bank to initiate international arbitral proceedings against India. Seeking international intercession is part of Pakistan’s ‘water war’ strategy against India, yet it is the World Bank’s ugly role in the latest instance that sticks out. This should surprise few.

After all, it was the World Bank’s murky role that spawned the inherently unequal IWT. Whereas the British colonial government was the instrument in India’s 1947 land partition, the Bank served as the agent to partition the Indus-system rivers, floating the river-partitioning proposal and ramming it down India’s throat. India’s full sovereignty rights were limited to the smallest three of the six rivers, with the Bank uniquely signing a binational treaty as its guarantor.

Since then, World Bank support enabled Pakistan not only to complete mega-dams but also to sustain its ‘water war’ strategy against India by seeking to invoke international intercession repeatedly. Now, in response to Pakistan’s complaint over the design features of two midsized Indian hydropower projects, the World Bank has sought to initiate two concurrent processes that mock the IWT’s provisions for resolving any ‘questions’, ‘differences’ or ‘disputes’ between the parties: It is appointing both a court of arbitration (as sought by Pakistan) and a neutral expert (as suggested by India), while admitting that “pursuing two concurrent processes under the treaty could make it unworkable over time”.

India says it “cannot be party to actions” by the World Bank that breach the IWT’s terms, implying that it might not accept the arbitral tribunal. India’s bark, however, has always been worse than its bite. While protesting the Bank’s “legally untenable” move in the latest case, India has shown little inclination to respond through punitive counter-measures.

Had China been in India’s place, it would have sought to discipline the Bank and Pakistan. Indeed, it is unthinkable that China would have countenanced such an egregiously inequitable treaty. While mouthing empty rhetoric, India still allows Pakistan to draw the IWT’s full benefits even as Pakistan bleeds it by exporting terrorists.

The truth is this: The IWT symbolizes India’s enduring strategic naiveté and negligence. Despite water shortages triggering bitter feuds between Punjab and some other states, India has failed to tap even the allocated 19.48% share of the Indus Basin resources.

For example, the waters of the three India-earmarked rivers not utilized by India aggregate to 10.37 billion cubic metres (BCM) yearly according to Pakistan, and 11.1 BCM according to the UN. These bonus outflows to Pakistan alone amount to six times Mexico’s total water share under its treaty with the US, and are many times greater than the total volumes spelled out in the Israel-Jordan water arrangements. Although the IWT permits India to store 4.4 BCM of waters from the Pakistan-reserved rivers, a careless India has built no storage. And despite the treaty allowing India to build hydropower plants with no dam reservoir, its total installed generating capacity in J&K currently does not equal the size of a single new dam in Pakistan like the 4,500-megawatt Diamer-Bhasha, whose financing for construction was approved last week.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2016.

A Water War in Asia?

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

Tensions over water are rising in Asia — and not only because of conflicting maritime claims. While territorial disputes, such as in the South China Sea, attract the most attention — after all, they threaten the safety of sea lanes and freedom of navigation, which affects outside powers as well — the strategic ramifications of competition over transnationally shared freshwater resources are just as ominous.

Asia has less fresh water per capita than any other continent, and it is already facing a water crisis that, according to an MIT study, will continue to intensify, with severe water shortages expected by 2050. At a time of widespread geopolitical discord, competition over freshwater resources could emerge as a serious threat to long-term peace and stability in Asia.

Already, the battle is underway, with China as the main aggressor. Indeed, China’s territorial grab in the South China Sea has been accompanied by a quieter grab of resources in transnational river basins. Reengineering cross-border riparian flows is integral to China’s strategy to assert greater control and influence over Asia.

China is certainly in a strong position to carry out this strategy. The country enjoys unmatched riparian dominance, with 110 transnational rivers and lakes flowing into 18 downstream countries. China also has the world’s most dams, which it has never hesitated to use to curb cross-border flows. In fact, China’s dam builders are targeting most of the international rivers that flow out of Chinese territory.

Most of China’s internationally shared water resources are located on the Tibetan Plateau, which it annexed in the early 1950s. Unsurprisingly, the plateau is the new hub of Chinese dam building. Indeed, China’s 13th five-year plan, released this year, calls for a new wave of dam projects on the Plateau.

Moreover, China recently cut off the flow of a tributary of the Brahmaputra River, the lifeline of Bangladesh and northern India, to build a dam as part of a major hydroelectric project in Tibet. And the country is working to dam another Brahmaputra tributary, in order to create a series of artificial lakes.

China has also built six mega-dams on the Mekong River, which flows into Southeast Asia, where the downstream impact is already visible. Yet, instead of curbing its dam-building, China is hard at work building several more Mekong dams.

Likewise, water supplies in largely arid Central Asia are coming under further pressure as China appropriates a growing volume of water from the Illy River. Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash is now at risk of shrinking substantially, much like the Aral Sea — located on the border with Uzbekistan — which has virtually dried up in less than 40 years. China is also diverting water from the Irtysh, which supplies drinking water to Kazakhstan’s capital Astana and feeds Russia’s Ob River.

For Central Asia, the diminished transboundary flows are just one part of the problem. China’s energy, manufacturing, and agricultural activities in sprawling Xinjiang are having an even greater impact, as they contaminate the waters of the region’s transnational rivers with hazardous chemicals and fertilizers, just as China has done to the rivers in its Han heartland.

Of course, China is not the only country stoking conflict over water. As if to underscore that the festering territorial dispute in Kashmir is as much about water as it is about land, Pakistan has, for the second time this decade, initiated international arbitral tribunal proceedings against India under the terms of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. The paradox here is that downstream Pakistan has used that treaty — the world’s most generous water-sharing deal, reserving for Pakistan more than 80% of the waters of the six-river Indus system — to sustain its conflict with India.

Meanwhile, landlocked Laos — aiming to export hydropower, especially to China, the mainstay of its economy — has just notified its neighbors of its decision to move ahead with a third controversial project, the 912-megawatt Pak Beng dam. It previously brushed aside regional concerns about the alteration of natural-flow patterns to push ahead with the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dam projects. There is no reason to expect a different outcome this time.

The consequences of growing water competition in Asia will reverberate beyond the region. Already, some Asian states, concerned about their capacity to grow enough food, have leased large tracts of farmland in Sub-Saharan Africa, triggering a backlash in some areas. In 2009, when South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics Corporation negotiated a deal to lease as much as half of Madagascar’s arable land to produce cereals and palm oil for the South Korean market, the ensuing protests and military intervention toppled a democratically elected president.

The race to appropriate water resources in Asia is straining agriculture and fisheries, damaging ecosystems, and fostering dangerous distrust and discord across the region. It must be brought to an end. Asian countries need to clarify the region’s increasingly murky hydropolitics. The key will be effective dispute-resolution mechanisms and agreement on more transparent water-sharing arrangements.

Asia can build a harmonious, rules-based water management system. But it needs China to get on board. At least for now, that does not seem likely.

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 Juggernaut, Water: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.