Maldives: India should not rest on its oars

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Following President Abdulla Yameen’s surprise defeat in the Maldivian election, the air of self-congratulation that pervades in New Delhi risks obscuring the challenges. India ought to learn from its experience with Sri Lanka, where China has retained its influence and leverage even after authoritarian President Mahinda Rajapaksa was thrown out by voters in early 2015. In the Maldives, China may be down, but it’s not out and could, as in Sri Lanka, re-establish its clout through debt-trap diplomacy.

The Maldivian archipelago, despite its tiny population, is of key importance to Indian security, given that it sits astride critical sea lanes through which much of India’s shipping passes. From the Indian naval station on the Lakshadweep island of Minicoy, the Maldives’ northernmost Thuraakunu Island is just 100 kilometers away.

The election victory of opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih against an increasingly autocratic Yameen cannot by itself roll back the deep strategic inroads China made during the incumbent president’s rule. To be sure, the outcome represents a triumph of Indian patience. Had India militarily intervened in the Maldives, it could have provoked a nationalistic backlash and strengthened Islamist forces in a country that has supplied the world’s highest per-capita number of foreign fighters to terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.

After Yameen in February declared a state of emergency and jailed Supreme Court justices and political opponents, India came under pressure, including from the Maldivian opposition, to intervene militarily, as it did once before — in 1988 when it foiled an attempted coup. But unlike in 1988, no legitimate authority was inviting India to send in forces. By erring on the side of caution, and by holding out an intervention threat if the voting were not free and fair, India aided the electoral outcome.

Contrast this with Indian missteps in Nepal, where India woke up belatedly to the political machinations in Kathmandu that led to a flawed new Constitution being promulgated. India then backed the Madhesi movement for constitutional amendments — an agitation that triggered a five-month border blockade of essential supplies to Nepal. The resulting Nepalese grassroots backlash against India eventually contributed to the China-aided communists sweeping Nepal’s 2017 elections.

The restoration of full democracy in the Maldives after, hopefully, a smooth transfer of power on November 17 will be a diplomatic boost for India. However, in India’s larger strategic backyard, China continues to systematically erode Indian clout. Indeed, the Maldivian election result coincided with a major development underscoring Nepal’s pro-China tilt. After implementing a transit transport agreement with China to cut dependence on India, communist-ruled Nepal — under Chinese pressure — has reversed its previous government’s cancellation of the $2.5 billion Budhi-Gandaki Dam project. China bagged the project without competitive bidding. It massively inflated the project cost, which will leave Nepal struggling to repay the Chinese debt.

Yameen, who signed major financing and investment deals with Beijing, will be departing after pushing the Maldives to the brink of a Chinese debt trap. Can the Maldives still escape debt entrapment by emulating the example set by Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, who recently cancelled Chinese projects worth almost $23 billion? Or is the Maldives, like Sri Lanka, already so indebted that it will remain under China’s sway? Nearly 80% of the Maldives’ external debt — equivalent to about one-quarter of its GDP — is owed to China.

Even without any new contracts, the Maldivian debt to China will rise because of the Chinese projects already completed or initiated, thus allowing Beijing to retain its favourite source of leverage. Indeed, Beijing will seek to court Yameen’s successor just as it has in Sri Lanka wooed Rajapaksa’s successor, who has disclosed that China has “gifted” him $300 million “for any project of my wish,” besides constructing South Asia’s largest kidney hospital in his electoral district.

In this light, the post-Yameen Maldives — like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — would likely seek to balance relations with India and China, thus reinforcing how Beijing has fundamentally altered geopolitics in a subregion New Delhi long considered its natural sphere of influence. As Maldives’ closest partner, a proactive India must leverage its ties. India should assist in infrastructure development and be willing to refinance Maldives’ Chinese debt so as to achieve lower costs and a longer-term maturity profile.

India will have to closely watch China’s activities in the unpopulated Maldivian islands it managed to lease during Yameen’s reign. China is muscling its way into India’s maritime backyard, including sending warships to the Maldives and signing an accord for an ocean observatory there that could provide critical data for deploying Chinese nuclear submarines. The new Maldivian government should be left in no doubt about India’s “red lines”.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

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China’s Imperial Project Runs into Resistance

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Washington Times
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Grand on ambition but short on transparency, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s marquee project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), seeks to refashion the global economic and political order by luring nations desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. The BRI is essentially an imperial project aiming to make real the mythical Middle Kingdom.

The BRI, rolled out in 2013, attracted many countries, as China offered to finance and build major infrastructure projects, including ports, highways, energy plants and railroads. But after a smooth sailing, the BRI is now encountering strong headwinds, as partner-countries worry about China ensnaring them in sovereignty-eroding debt traps.

China has extended huge loans to financially weak states, only to strengthen its leverage through debt entrapment Indeed, Beijing has converted big credits not just into political influence but also a military presence, as its first overseas naval base at Djibouti illustrates.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang by his side in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, recently criticized China’s use of infrastructure projects to spread its influence. By warning China against “a new version of colonialism,” Mr. Mahathir highlighted international concerns over Beijing’s use of geo-economic tools to achieve geopolitical objectives.

A number of countries have now begun trying to renegotiate their deals with Beijing. Some have also decided to scrap or scale back BRI projects. Mr. Mahathir, during his Beijing visit, announced cancellation of Chinese projects worth nearly $23 billion.

BRI seeks to export China’s model of top-down, debt-driven development through government-to-government deals. Vulnerable countries are now awakening to the risks of accepting loans that could financially shackle them to Beijing.

Last December, China acquired the strategic Indian Ocean port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease after the small island nation of Sri Lanka could no longer keep up with debt repayments.

In fact, China is even replicating some of the practices that were used against it during the European-colonial period. For example, the concept of a 99-year lease emerged from the flurry of European-colonial expansion in China in the 19th century.

While rates for Japan’s infrastructure loans usually run below half a percent, China offers BRI loans at rates as high as 7 percent, which can place unsustainable financial strain on small countries. For example, China’s renegotiated Hambantota port loan to Sri Lanka carries a 6.3 percent fixed rate. In China’s client state, Pakistan, Chinese state companies have secured energy contracts that guarantee 16 percent or more yearly returns, in dollar terms.

China has faced accusations in multiple countries of illegally funneling money to authoritarian presidents.

In the Maldives, China has managed to acquire several islets in that heavily indebted Indian Ocean archipelago. Mohamed Nasheed, the nation’s first democratically elected president who was ousted at gunpoint in 2012, said, “Without firing a single shot, China has grabbed more land in the Maldives than what [Britain’s] East India Company did at the height of the 19th century.”

Against this background, the BRI is beginning to encounter a push-back in a number of countries. A growing number of governments are seeking transparency in Chinese lending, investment and trade practices.

However, the BRI is still bagging new contracts in some other countries. One example is the Himalayan nation of Nepal, which became the world’s sixth Communist-ruled country in February. China helped unite warring Communist factions in Nepal and funded the election campaign. Now Beijing is reaping the rewards.

The new Communist government in Nepal in September reinstated a deal with China for a $2.5 billion dam project that was scrapped by the previous government. China won the contract without an open-bidding process. In fact, it has massively inflated the project cost, which will leave Nepal struggling to repay the Chinese loan.

Laos, another Communist-ruled nation, is also seeking more BRI financing and investment. In continental Southeast Asia, while Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are wary of getting too close to China, Laos and Cambodia see BRI as critical to boosting their economic growth.

Yet the international reality is that, after a heady first phase, the pace of new contracts under the BRI has slowed, as concerns spread about China’s debt-trap diplomacy and as heavily indebted nations recoil from accepting more Chinese financing in the form of market-rate loans. This trend is likely to intensify in the next few years.

Even within China, the BRI is facing criticism from those who question the wisdom of plowing hundreds of billions of dollars into overseas projects when the government is still grappling with poverty and underdevelopment in a number of provinces. Critics are concerned that Mr. Xi’s aggressive quest for Chinese dominance is inviting an international backlash. The BRI — the world’s biggest building program, which Mr. Xi has hailed as “the project of the century” — exemplifies how China is flaunting its global ambitions.

Meanwhile, the financial and security risks of Chinese projects in failing or dysfunctional states are becoming more apparent. Take Pakistan, the largest recipient of BRI financing. The Pakistani military has raised a special 15,000-strong force to protect Chinese projects. In addition, thousands of police have been deployed in some provinces to protect Chinese workers. Yet sporadic attacks on Chinese in Pakistan have underscored the rising security costs.

The larger push-back against China’s neocolonial practices is likely to intensify in the coming years, putting greater pressure on the BRI. The initiative, however, will continue to benefit from a U.S.-led sanctions approach that seeks to punish countries in the name of human rights or nuclear nonproliferation. Thanks to this approach, the BRI is still bagging major lucrative contracts in countries as diverse as Iran, Sudan and Cambodia.

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

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

No easy escape from Afghan war for Trump

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Russia, China and Iran now backing Taliban and stymieing U.S. peace efforts

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The U.S. will find it difficult to pull out of Afghanistan in the face of increased foreign support for the Taliban.   © Reuters

Brahma ChellaneyNikkei Asian Review

Not for the first time, the U.S. is showing signs of desperation in trying to end its war in Afghanistan, by renewing efforts for a peace deal with the Taliban and — yet again — reviewing combat strategy.

Ending the longest war in American history, which marks its 17th anniversary on Oct. 7, appears integral to President Donald Trump’s broader plan to roll back America’s “imperial overreach” — the phenomenon of a great power going into decline when it takes on excessive global commitments.

In contrast to China’s use of economic tools to achieve strategic objectives, the U.S. has too often reached for the gun instead of the purse. Many in Washington now believe U.S. retrenchment must include staying out of faraway wars and making allies pay their fair share for defense.

In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration ended the CIA’s covert operations to train and arm rebels in Syria — a large-scale program that had begun under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Ironically, it was Obama who in 2013 underscored the danger of perpetual war for U.S. power by recalling the warning of America’s fourth president, James Madison, that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Today, extricating the U.S. from the military quagmire in Afghanistan is seen as important to reversing America’s relative decline, including focusing on domestic renewal. A year ago, Trump acknowledged that his “original instinct was to pull out” but that he had been convinced that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaida.” Now, with U.S. patience wearing thin, his administration has stepped up efforts to end the war.

But international geopolitics promises to play spoilsport. U.S. foreign policy, through punitive sanctions and tariffs, is driving Russia, China and Iran to support the Afghan Taliban in a bid to tie down American forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan, which provides cross-border safe havens to America’s main battlefield foe, the Afghan Taliban, seems intent to continue running with the hare and hunting with the hounds — pretending to be a U.S. ally while harboring the Taliban’s network structure.

To make matters worse, an ascendant Afghan Taliban is expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in such record numbers that authorities in Kabul no longer disclose fatality tolls. Afghan military casualties have been rising since 2014, after U.S. forces transferred responsibility for most security to the Afghans. According to one estimate, the daily fatality toll among Afghan security forces has jumped from 22 in 2016 to about 57 recently. Both Kabul and Washington now admit that Afghan casualties have risen to unsustainable levels.

About 14,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, including 4,000 added by Trump, plus some 26,000 American military contractors.

Trump, instead of the promised fundamentally different approach, is now seeking to essentially repeat Obama’s failed effort — to cut a deal with the Afghan Taliban, for which the U.S. needs the full backing of Pakistan’s powerful generals. To win their support, the U.S. has assassinated three successive chiefs of the Pakistani Taliban, a group that poses no real threat to American forces but is the nemesis of the Pakistan military.

After the latest killing in May, which came about four months after Washington cut most security assistance to Pakistan, the U.S. held face-to-face talks in July with the Afghan Taliban in Qatar.

The Obama administration first sought to make Qatar’s capital, Doha, a negotiations hub by allowing the Afghan Taliban to establish a de facto diplomatic mission there in 2013.

To preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. has not included the militia in its list of foreign terrorist organizations. And the only time the U.S. has assassinated a major Afghan Taliban leader inside the militia leadership’s sanctuary, Pakistan, was in 2016 when a drone strike killed the new chief after he adamantly opposed any peace talks.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, while making an unannounced visit to Kabul recently on his way back from New Delhi, said reconciliation efforts with the militia had gained “traction.”

But the Taliban, while valuing direct talks with the U.S. as a means to undercut the Afghan government’s legitimacy, have little incentive to make peace with America. The Taliban have gained the momentum against regime forces, which are spread thin and on the defensive. Taliban battlefield victories are denting government morale and making it less likely that the insurgents will agree to a deal.

Washington, in response to the increasing Taliban attacks, has advised Afghan troops to pull back from vulnerable outposts and focus on safeguarding cities. Making force protection the priority clearly signals a government in retreat.

Further emboldening the Taliban is new support from Russia, Iran and China. With U.S. sanctions hurting the Iranian and Russian economies and Trump’s trade war against China potentially laying the foundation of a new Cold War, Tehran, Moscow and Beijing are opportunistically seeking to use the Taliban as a tool to step up pressure on the U.S.

The revival of the “Great Game” — the 19th-century Anglo-Russian rivalry for Central Asian influence — makes it harder to pacify war-torn Afghanistan. Behind the changed geopolitics is a major role reversal.

In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan used Islam as a tool to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with the CIA arming thousands of Afghan mujahedeen — violent jihadists that later spawned al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Moscow and Tehran long viewed the Taliban as a major terrorist threat and aided the 2001 U.S. overthrow of the five-year-old Taliban regime. But now Russia and Iran are seeking to assist the Taliban against the shaky, U.S.-backed Kabul government.

Meanwhile, China has long had a dubious approach toward the militia. On the day of the 2001 New York World Trade Center terrorist attack, a Chinese delegation signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement with the isolated Taliban regime in its de facto capital, Kandahar.

Seeking a bigger role in Afghanistan, China is again courting the Taliban. It has received Taliban delegations in recent years and offered to mediate peace talks. The Taliban has promised not to attack China’s much-delayed, $3 billion project to mine huge copper deposits at Mes Aynak, near Kabul.

India, a top aid donor to Afghanistan, has pursued a consistently anti-Taliban policy. Despite its warming ties with Washington, India is concerned that U.S. direct talks with the Taliban could lend respectability to a fanatical terrorist organization.

But the U.S. clearly appears willing, as part of a peace deal, to accommodate the Taliban in an Afghan power-sharing arrangement. But the spoiler roles of Russia, China and Iran and the Taliban’s battlefield successes make such a deal less likely. As American senator John McCain predicted before his death, the conflict in Afghanistan would continue “on a low-burning simmer for a long time to come.”

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War.”

The China Backlash

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US President Donald Trump’s headline-grabbing trade war with China should not obscure a broader pushback against the country’s mercantilist trade, investment, and lending practices. In fact, China’s free ride could be coming to an end.

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On a recent official visit to China, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized his host country’s use of major infrastructure projects – and difficult-to-repay loans – to assert its influence over smaller countries. While Mahathir’s warnings in Beijing against “a new version of colonialism” stood out for their boldness, they reflect a broader pushback against China’s mercantilist trade, investment, and lending practices.

Since 2013, under the umbrella of its “Belt and Road Initiative,” China has been funding and implementing large infrastructure projects in countries around the world, in order to help align their interests with its own, gain a political foothold in strategic locations, and export its industrial surpluses. By keeping bidding on BRI projects closed and opaque, China often massively inflates their value, leaving countries struggling to repay their debts.

Once countries become ensnared in China’s debt traps, they can end up being forced into even worse deals to compensate their creditor for lack of repayment. Most notably, last December, Sri Lanka was compelled to transfer the Chinese-built strategic port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year, colonial-style lease, because it could longer afford its debt payments.

Sri Lanka’s experience was a wake-up call for other countries with outsize debts to China. Fearing that they, too, could lose strategic assets, they are now attempting to scrap, scale back, or renegotiate their deals. Mahathir, who previously cleared the way for Chinese investment in Malaysia, ended his trip to Beijing by canceling Chinese projects worth almost $23 billion.

Countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Hungary, and Tanzania have also canceled or scaled back BRI projects. Myanmar, hoping to secure needed infrastructure without becoming caught up in a Chinese debt trap, has used the threat of cancellation to negotiate a reduction in the cost of its planned Kyaukpyu port from $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion.

Even China’s closest partners are now wary of the BRI. In Pakistan, which has long worked with China to contain India and is the largest recipient of BRI financing, the new military-backed government has sought to review or renegotiate projects in response to a worsening debt crisis. In Cambodia, another leading recipient of Chinese loans, fears of effectively becoming a Chinese colony are on the rise.

The backlash against China can be seen elsewhere, too. The recent annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting was one of the most contentious in its history. Chinese policies in the region, together with the Chinese delegation leader’s behavior at the event itself, drove the president of Nauru – the world’s smallest republic, with just 11,000 inhabitants – to condemn China’s “arrogant” presence in the South Pacific. China cannot, he declared, “dictate things to us.”

When it comes to trade, US President Donald Trump’s escalating trade war with China is grabbing headlines, but Trump is far from alone in criticizing China. With policies ranging from export subsidies and nontariff barriers to intellectual-property piracy and tilting the domestic market in favor of Chinese companies, China represents, in the words of Harvard’s Graham Allison, the “most protectionist, mercantilist, and predatory major economy in the world.”

As the largest merchandise exporter in the world, China is many countries’ biggest trading partner. Beijing has leveraged this role by employing trade to punish those that refuse to toe its line, including by imposing import bans on specific products, halting strategic exports (such as rare-earth minerals), cutting off tourism from China, and encouraging domestic consumer boycotts or protests against foreign businesses.

The fact is that China has grown strong and rich by flouting international trade rules. But now its chickens are coming home to roost, with a growing number of countries imposing antidumping or punitive duties on Chinese goods. And as countries worry about China bending them to its will by luring them into debt traps, it is no longer smooth sailing for the BRI.

Beyond Trump’s tariffs, the European Union has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization about China’s practices of forcing technology transfer as a condition of market access. China’s export subsidies and other trade-distorting practices are set to encounter greater international resistance. Under WTO rules, countries may impose tariffs on subsidized goods from overseas that harm domestic industries.

Now, Chinese President Xi Jinping finds himself not only defending the BRI, his signature foreign-policy initiative, but also confronting domestic criticism, however muted, for flaunting China’s global ambitions and thereby inviting a US-led international backlash. Xi has discarded one of former Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping’s most famous dicta: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Instead, Xi has chosen to pursue an unabashedly aggressive strategy that has many asking whether China is emerging as a new kind of imperialist power.

International trade has afforded China enormous benefits, enabling the country to become the world’s second-largest economy, while lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The country cannot afford to lose those benefits to an international backlash against its unfair trade and investment practices.

China’s reliance on large trade surpluses and foreign-exchange reserves to fund the expansion of its global footprint makes it all the more vulnerable to the current pushback. In fact, even if China shifts its strategy and adheres to international rules, its trade surplus and foreign-currency reserves will be affected. In short, whichever path it chooses, China’s free ride could be coming to an end.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Beijing loses a battle in the Maldives — but the fight for influence goes on

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China may be down in the Maldives, but it’s not out

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India must challenge China to help the Maldives retain strategic autonomy. (Source photo by Reuters)

Brahma ChellaneyNikkei Asian Review

The Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives, comprising 1,190 coral atolls, has been roiled by a deepening national crisis since its first democratically-elected president was forced to resign at gunpoint in 2012.

This week’s surprise defeat of authoritarian President Abdulla Yameen in a national election opens the path to stability and reconciliation under the leadership of the winning opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

Yameen’s defeat, despite the jailing of opponents and Supreme Court justices and efforts to manipulate the election, shows how autocrats can be swept out of office by a voters’ backlash. And that even in a country with weak democratic traditions.

The Maldives follows Malaysia, where, in May, Prime Minister Najib Razak was voted out and now faces corruption charges under his 93-year-old successor, Mahathir Mohamad. Sri Lanka’s voters in 2015 similarly ended the quasi-dictatorship of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who curtailed media freedom.

In all three states, China’s shadow loomed large. Yameen signed major financing and investment deals with China and, like Najib and Rajapaksa, is alleged by his opponents to have received Chinese funds for his reelection bid.

While Malaysian investigators are probing whether China helped bankroll Najib’s reelection bid, The New York Times reported in June that the state-run China Harbor Engineering Company allegedly gave $7.6 million for Rajapaksa’s campaign. Rajapaksa and CHEC have denied the claim, but new president Maithripala Sirisena’s government has called for an investigation.

China, Yameen’s main defender, capitalized on its support to expand its influence in the strategic Maldivian archipelago. Yameen, for his part, felt emboldened by Chinese support to crack down on the opposition and undermine national institutions, including the judiciary and the election commission.

With barely 450,000 citizens, the Maldives is tiny but sits astride critical shipping lanes, making it vital to security in the Indian Ocean. Yameen’s rout thus is a setback to China’s maritime ambitions and political influence, and a victory for grass roots democratic forces.

At a time when Beijing is beginning to encounter a wider pushback against its Belt and Road Initiative — an influence-building infrastructure program that can ensnare vulnerable countries in debt traps — the Maldives represents the latest case of a democratic election upending China’s plans. BRI could face speed bumps even in China’s close ally, Pakistan, where the new, cash-strapped government has instituted a review of Chinese projects.

China, however, can take comfort from the formation of a friendly, democratically elected communist government in the Himalayan state of Nepal. In a demonstration of autocratic China’s ability to exploit the openness of a democracy, it helped unite warring communist factions in Nepal and funded their election campaign.

In the Maldives, pressure from democratic powers, including the specter of an Indian military intervention, played a role in the outcome. The U.S. had warned of “appropriate measures” and the European Union had threatened sanctions if the vote was not free and fair. And when Yameen hesitated to concede defeat, Washington demanded he “respect the will of the people,” while India sought to present a fait accompli by being first to congratulate his opponent, Solih. (In the previous election in 2013, Yameen got the Supreme Court to annul the result after he trailed his opponent, forcing fresh polls which he dubiously won.)

India has traditionally viewed the Maldives as in its sphere of influence. So as China began eroding Indian influence by backing Yameen from 2013, concern grew in New Delhi that Beijing could turn one of the unpopulated Maldivian islands it had leased into a naval base, completing a strategic encirclement of India.

Among the islands China has acquired is Feydhoo Finolhu, for which it paid $4 million, less than the cost of a luxury apartment in Hong Kong; another island, the 7km-long Kalhufahalufushi, came even cheaper. China has revealed its strategic intentions by sending frigates to the Maldives.

After Yameen in February declared a state of emergency and jailed Supreme Court justices for quashing convictions against nine jailed or exiled opposition figures, India came under pressure, including from the Maldivian opposition, to intervene militarily, as it did once before – in 1988 when it foiled an attempted coup. The Indian intervention helped President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to perpetuate his soft autocracy for another two decades.

An intervention this year, however, would have been dicey, not least because no legitimate authority had invited India to send in forces. The intervention could have provoked a nationalistic backlash and strengthened Islamist forces in the Maldives, which has supplied the world’s highest per capita number of foreign fighters to terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. By correctly erring on the side of caution, India aided this week’s electoral outcome.

The restoration of full democracy in the Maldives, like in Malaysia, bucks an international trend: The global spread of democracy has largely stalled, with liberal forces unable to gain ground in the face of both tightly centralized political systems (as in China) and a revival of authoritarianism (as in Russia). While democracy has become the norm in large parts of Europe, very few Asian states are true democracies.

The return of democracy to the Maldives is especially remarkable as the country has been under authoritarianism for 50 of the 53 years since gaining independence from Britain in 1965. Yameen’s five-year rule marked a shift to hard authoritarianism, with that lurch being accompanied by the rising power of Islamists.

In the latest election, Yameen chose as his running mate a Muslim preacher with close ties to Saudi groups and got support from Jamiyyath Salaf. This extremist organization was one of the Islamist groups behind the 2012 museum attack that erased evidence of the country’s pre-Islamic past by destroying priceless Buddhist and Hindu statues.

The triumph of democratic forces, however, cannot mask the tough challenges that await Yameen’s successor, Solih, including on how to deal with Islamist power and service Chinese debt (which currently equals more than a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product). One key question is whether the Maldives will be able to pull back from the brink of a Chinese debt trap (by emulating the example set by Mahathir, who has canceled Chinese projects) or whether it is so indebted – as Sri Lanka is — that it will remain under Beijing’s sway.

China invested heavily in Sri Lanka during the rule of Rajapaksa, whom it shielded at the United Nations from allegations of war crimes. Sirisena sought to extricate Sri Lanka from the Chinese debt trap, including suspending work on major projects. But it was too late: Saddled with debts his government could not repay, Sirisena was forced to accept Chinese demands, including restarting suspended projects and handing the strategic Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease.

Under Solih, even without new contracts, the Maldives’ debt to China will rise because of the Chinese projects already initiated. Beijing will court Solih — to be sworn in on Nov. 17 — just as it has wooed Sirisena, who has disclosed that China has “gifted” him $300 million “for any project of my wish,” besides constructing South Asia’s largest kidney hospital in his home district.

To reclaim its influence in the Maldives, India will have to do more than help strengthen the restored democracy; it must assist the new government in infrastructure development and meeting its foreign debt obligations, including by extending low-interest loans to pay off Chinese credits. Escaping debt entrapment is vital for the Maldives to retain strategic autonomy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War.”

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

India fumbles against a rogue neighbour

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today

pakistani-flag-reuetrsPakistan has turned into the Mecca of international terrorism even as its new prime minister, Imran “Taliban” Khan, has promised to make his country a Medina-like welfare state. Pakistan, however, is battling a deepening financial crisis, largely exacerbated by its “all-weather” ally, China. Beijing has imposed unfair deals on, and stepped up capital-goods exports to, Pakistan under its so-called Belt and Road Initiative.

The military-manipulated election that brought Khan to power, instead of providing much-needed stability to Pakistan, is likely to inject more turmoil. A supporter of the military-backed jihadists and a religious zealot himself, Khan in February married his burqa-clad “spiritual guide”, who now also serves as his political guide.

The Pakistani military has waged an undeclared war against India since the 1980s. But now that an internationally isolated Pakistan, with its economy in dire straits, is seeking an international bailout package, the military generals there, for tactical reasons, want “peace” talks with India while remaining engaged in aggression. Through such talks, they also wish to legitimize the government they helped to install.

Yet this is exactly what Prime Minister Narendra Modi risked doing by initially agreeing to a bilateral foreign ministers’ meeting. The meeting, on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, would have represented the first high-level contact between India and Pakistan since early 2016, when talks were suspended after the Pakistan-scripted terrorist attack on the Pathankot air force base. Despite frequent terrorist outrages, such a meeting would have signalled a thaw in Indo-Pakistan relations. Fortunately, the Modi government had the good sense to reverse its decision.

It should not be forgotten that another BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, legitimized General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule by inviting him out of the blue to a summit in Agra. That summit went badly, but Musharraf came out the clear winner.

The Modi government initially agreed to the foreign ministers’ meeting just after the Pakistani army killed an Indian soldier by sniper fire and then slit his throat and mutilated his body. In fact, such was the bad optics that India was playing a cricket match with Pakistan in Dubai on the day the Pakistani savagery was first reported. Worse still, the timing of the Indian announcement to hold the meeting sent out an unfortunate message — that India, instead of being outraged over the mutilation, was rewarding Pakistan with bilateral discussions. That message was reinforced in the immediate aftermath by the abduction and killing of three cops in Jammu and Kashmir by Pakistan-backed terrorists.

To its credit, the Modi government took barely 24 hours to correct its mistake and scrap the foreign ministers’ meeting. Strong reaction on social media played a role in the quick reversal. But it is apparent that the original decision in favour of the meeting was taken without careful thought. There was no consideration of the fact that such talks would not only be futile but also amount to India playing into Pakistan’s hands.

Indeed, no sooner had India reversed its decision than Imran Khan sought to mock Modi by referring to “small men holding big offices” — a statement that effectively closes the door to any senior-level bilateral talks in the coming months. That reference might more aptly apply to Khan himself. After all, Khan (the Pakistani military’s newest puppet) has long been ridiculed as “Im the Dim” for his lack of intelligence.

Still, the fact is that incompetent officials in New Delhi have seriously embarrassed India through their flip-flop and provided new grist to the Pakistani propaganda mill. For example, the ministry of external affairs cited Pakistan’s glorification of terrorists through new postage stamps as one of the provocations for the Indian U-turn, although these stamps were released before Khan took office.

It is an open secret that Washington has sought to persuade New Delhi to engage with Islamabad. America has stepped up its effort to end its longest-ever war by clinching a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, for which it needs the Pakistani military’s help. India, in its first bilateral engagement with the Imran Khan government, convened a meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission in Lahore at the end of last month, although the meeting was not due until March 2019. The Commission’s meeting, however, attracted little attention in India.

The Modi government’s meandering Pakistan policy is also apparent from another volte-face: It hastily permitted and then, after Khan’s mocking statement, postponed a tour of inspection of new Indian projects on River Chenab by Pakistan’s Indus commissioner and two other officials. In September 2016, Modi had vowed that, “Blood and water cannot flow together”. But two years later, instead of action, visible backsliding is evident. The Indus Waters Treaty remains the world’s most generous water-sharing pact. India, however, remains reluctant to leverage this treaty to tame a scofflaw neighbour.

Successive Indian governments have failed to develop a clear strategy to deal with Pakistan. The Modi government has finally realized what was well known — that “Pakistan will not mend its ways”. It’s better late than never. It has also acknowledged that talks with Pakistan would be “meaningless”, given “the evil agenda of Pakistan” and the “true face” of the Imran Khan government. Can we now hope that India would develop consistency, clarity and courage in its Pakistan policy and fashion a coherent strategy to contain a rogue neighbour?

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

China expands its control in South China Sea

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Filipino activists rally outside the Chinese Consulate in Manila in February to protest Beijing’s continued reclamation activities in the South China Sea. © Reuters

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Japan Times, September 18, 2018

As China consolidates its hold in South China Sea and wields its military, economic and diplomatic leverage, smaller countries see no credible option but to work with Beijing, even if that means furthering Chinese objectives. Manila, for example, seems willing to accede to Beijing’s demand for joint development of hydrocarbon resources in the Philippines’ own exclusive economic zone.

The plain fact is that U.S. inaction under successive administrations has allowed China to gain effective control over a strategic sea that is more than twice the size of the Gulf of Mexico and 50 percent bigger than the Mediterranean Sea. Australia’s Kevin Rudd, who is still fending off accusations that he was “a slavish pro-China prime minister,” has acknowledged that “Chinese policy has not yet been challenged in the South China Sea by the United States to any significant extent.”

The U.S., even at the risk of fostering Philippine helplessness against Chinese expansionism, has refused to clarify whether its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with Manila would apply to an attack on Philippine troops or vessels in the South China Sea. This refusal stands in contrast to Washington’s commitment to the defense of the Japanese-administered but Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. U.S. President Donald Trump, in his joint statement with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in April, said that “Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands.”

In the South China Sea, China has astounded the world with the speed and scale of its creation of artificial islands and military infrastructure. The first Chinese dredger arrived in the region in December 2013. Less than five years later, China has largely completed building most of its forward military bases. It is now ramping up its military assets in the South China Sea.

Yet China has incurred no international costs for pushing its borders far out into international waters. In fact, China stepped up the expansion of its frontiers after an international arbitration tribunal invalidated its expansive claims in the South China Sea through a 2016 ruling in a case instituted by the Philippines.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently called out China for its “intimidation and coercion” of smaller nations in the region. His criticism of the Chinese strategy in the South China Sea followed American action to disinvite China from this summer’s Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise, known as RIMPAC.

This might suggest that the U.S. is taking a tough line. In reality, America’s response to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea has remained muted. The U.S. has focused its concern merely on safeguarding freedom of navigation through the South China Sea.

In fact, the U.S. has refused to take sides in the territorial disputes between China and the other claimant-states in the South China Sea. The Trump administration stayed silent even when Chinese military threats forced Vietnam in March, for the second time in less than nine months, to halt oil and gas drilling on its own continental shelf.

The U.S. has similarly stayed neutral on disputes elsewhere between China and its neighbors. For example, President Barack Obama publicly said that “we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands” and advised Tokyo and Beijing to sort out their dispute peacefully. This line has not changed under Trump, despite his reassurance that the Japan-U.S. security treaty covers the Senkakus.

Growing Asian anxieties over China have helped the U.S. to return to Asia’s center-stage by strengthening old alliances, such as with Japan, South Korea and Singapore, and building new strategic partnerships with India, Vietnam and Indonesia. It has also befriended the former pariah state of Myanmar.

Yet, despite this diplomatic windfall, the U.S. has been reluctant to draw a line on Beijing’s salami-style actions to change facts on the ground.

To be sure, the Trump-led U.S. has stepped up the so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. But these operations neither reassure the smaller states nor deter China, whose actions continue to violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.

In the East China Sea, China established an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) in 2013 covering territories, like the Senkakus, that it claims but does not control. This action set a dangerous precedent in international relations.

In the South China Sea, rather than openly declare an ADIZ, China will likely seek to enforce one by gradually establishing concentric circles of air control — but only after it has deployed sufficient military assets there and further consolidated its hold.

It has already set up an interconnected array of radar, electronic-attack facilities, missile batteries and airfields on the disputed Spratly Islands. And by turning artificial islands into military bases, it has virtually established permanent aircraft carriers whose role extends to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

China’s strategy poses a serious challenge to its neighbors, which face a deepening dilemma over how to deal with its creeping aggression.

The U.S., while seeking to protect its military freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, has effectively turned a blind eye to the broader Chinese assault on the freedom of the seas, including restricting the rights of other states to natural resources on their own continental shelves.

Unless the U.S. shifts its focus from freedom of navigation to freedom of the seas, China will have its way, including forcing its smaller neighbors to share their legitimate resources with it.

The Philippines, for example, is at serious risk of wilting under Chinese pressure. Prevented by Chinese military threats from tapping energy resources in an area of seabed known as Reed Bank, which is located close the Philippine coast, Manila seems willing to enter into a deal with Beijing to equally share the output from a joint gas project there.

Under the international arbitration ruling, the Philippines have exclusive rights to Reed Bank. But with China trashing the ruling in the absence of an international enforcement mechanism, the message to Manila is that might makes right.

Left with no other option, Manila appears ready to offer Beijing half of the gas production, but no sovereign rights. The logic behind such a prospective offer is that any Western oil giant, if it developed Reed Bank, would take about 50 percent of the output as its share. So the choice is between a Western oil company like Exxon Mobil and a Chinese state-run giant, such as the China National Offshore Oil Corp.

But such a Philippine deal would encourage China to seek similar concessions with other claimant-states, effectively blocking out Western oil firms from the South China Sea.

Make no mistake: Chinese territorial and maritime revisionism has made the South China Sea the world’s most critical hot spot. In fact, the South China Sea has become central to the wider geopolitics, balance of power and maritime order.

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.

India’s Indus leverage

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India must assert its full rights under the Indus Waters Treaty to leverage the pact and halt Pakistan’s undeclared war against it through terrorist proxies.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

In foreign policy, it is important for national leadership to choose its rhetoric carefully and back its words with at least modest action. Words not backed by any action can undermine a country’s credibility and perhaps even its deterrence.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the Balochistan issue in his Independence Day speech in 2016, he seemed to signal an important Indian policy shift. At least that is how his reference to Balochistan was widely interpreted. But since then, India has been totally silent on the issue, although Balochistan — Pakistan’s Achilles heel — threatens to become the new East Pakistan because of military killings and mass graves. India has even denied visas to some exiled Baloch activists.

Take another key issue: the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). In 1960, in the naïve hope that water largesse would yield peace, India gifted the bulk of the Indus system’s waters — and the largest three of its six rivers — to Pakistan under the IWT. The Indus treaty remains a colossus on the world stage: It is by far the world’s most generous water pact, both in terms of the downstream country’s share of the waters (80.52%) and the aggregate volume of average yearly flows reserved for it (167.2 billion cubic metres). Still, an ungrateful Pakistan has waged covert or overt 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 as part of a “water war” strategy.

Against this background, Modi raised the hope that India would finally revisit the IWT, by seizing on the Pakistan Senate’s unanimous March 2016 resolution calling for the treaty’s re-evaluation. Indeed, while chairing a September 2016 internal meeting on the IWT, Modi warned that, “Blood and water cannot flow together”. Setting in motion the treaty’s reappraisal, an inter-ministerial committee of secretaries was established, and officials said that India would now assert all its rights under the IWT, including fully utilizing its share of the allotted waters and expediting its long-delayed hydropower projects.

But two years later, India, alas, appears to have returned to the former state of affairs. The committee of secretaries, headed by the PM’s principal secretary, has fallen by the wayside. Apart from completing the small, 330-megawatt Kishenganga project after 11 years, India has shown little urgency on Indus Basin water projects. Even as Punjab and other states bitterly feud over water, India’s failure to adequately harness the resources of the three smaller rivers reserved for it results in Pakistan receiving substantial bonus waters. Just these extra outflows to Pakistan are many times greater yearly than the total volumes under the Israeli-Jordanian water arrangement.

India’s zigzag policy is most apparent from the recent meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC). The IWT calls for the PIC to meet at least once a year. The previous PIC meeting, like the one before it, was convened after almost 12 months — on March 29-30 this year. The next meeting was not due until 2019, yet India held a fresh PIC meeting just five months later.

The recent August 29-30 meeting, held in Lahore, marked the first bilateral engagement since the new military-backed Imran Khan government took office in Pakistan. With Pakistan’s international isolation deepening and its economy in dire straits, the military there is tactically seeking “peace” talks with India while still employing terrorists in a proxy war. Through such talks, it also hopes to legitimize the government it helped install through a manipulated election. But with India’s own elections approaching, talks with Pakistan will be politically risky for the ruling BJP.

The PIC discussions — and a prospective foreign ministers’ meeting in New York — illustrate how Modi’s government is seeking to engage Islamabad in other ways. In fact, India has given permission to Pakistan’s Indus commissioner and two other officials to shortly begin a tour of inspection of Indian projects in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. In the past, such a tour has been used to collect new information so as to mount objections to Indian projects. In keeping with its broader strategy to foment discontent and violence in J&K, Pakistan seeks to deny J&K people the limited water benefits permissible under the IWT.

While the US has dumped international pacts at will (from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to the Kyoto and Paris accords), India still clings to the world’s most-lopsided water treaty, adhering to its finer details, even as Pakistan refuses to honour the terms of the central treaty governing bilateral relations — the 1972 Simla peace pact. Pakistan also flouts its commitment to prevent its territory from being used for cross-border terrorism. The Indus may be Pakistan’s jugular vein, yet a visionless and water-stressed India has let the IWT hang from its neck like the proverbial albatross. Make no mistake: Only by asserting its Indus leverage can India hope to end Pakistan’s unconventional war.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Nepal’s communist challenge to India

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Communist-ruled Nepal’s troubling tilt toward China — as exemplified by latest developments — is a reminder of the costs India is incurring for its blunder in engineering the ouster of Nepal’s constitutional monarchy and inadvertently paving the path to communist domination.

Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

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Nepal is a state symbiotically tied to India. Yet today it has an openly pro-China communist government that is hostile to India. The number of communist-ruled countries in the world increased by one to six earlier this year when landlocked Nepal joined China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.

Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to woo him, Nepal’s new prime minister, Khadga Prasad Oli, persists with his troubling tilt toward China.

Consider the latest two reminders of Oli’s approach: His government has pulled out of the first ever anti-terror military exercises being held from September 10 in Pune under the auspices of the grouping known as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC; and it has implemented a transit transport agreement with China mainly to undercut India’s leverage.

Nepal, a member of BIMSTEC along with India, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, had initially agreed to send a platoon-size army contingent to participate in the “Milex 2018” exercises, which were mentioned by Modi in his address to the recent BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu. Nepal also had agreed to send its army chief, General Purna Chandra Thapa, to the Milex 2018 closing ceremony.

But it reversed its decisions after a backlash from the increasingly powerful pro-China lobby, largely represented by the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Instead, in a symbolic gesture, Nepal has sent three observers to the week-long exercises.

The Oli government, in effect, delivered a diplomatic snub to India. This is reinforced by the fact that Nepal, while shunning participation in Milex 2018, is joining China in military exercises also focused on counter-terror operations. The China-sponsored September 17-28 exercises will commence in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan province) a day after the Pune drill concludes.

The BIMSTEC summit represented Modi’s fourth visit to Nepal in four years. No other Indian prime minister has lavished such attention on Nepal. In fact, Modi was the first Indian PM to visit Nepal in 17 years.

But no sooner had Modi returned home from his latest Nepal visit than Oli’s government signed a protocol implementing the Nepal-China Transit Transport Agreement (TTA). Under the TTA, Nepal can trade with third countries through China’s Shenzen, Lianyungang, Zhanjiang and Tianjin seaports. It will also have access to the Shigatse, Lhasa and Lanzhou land ports.

The TTA looks good only on paper. Nepal’s dependency on Indian ports arises from geography. While Kolkata is 933 kilometres away, the nearest Chinese seaport for Nepal is at a distance of 3,300 kilometres.

In implementing the TTA, Nepal is not seeking to replace India with China for transit transport. Rather, the intent of the Oli government is to try and blunt India’s natural-geographic advantage and undermine its transit clout. Through this accord, it hopes to preclude another crippling Indo-Nepalese border blockade by Nepal’s Indian-supported Madhesi (plains people) activists.

In May this year, after Nepal’s communist government took office, Modi paid an official visit to that Himalayan nation. In contrast to China’s efforts to muscle its way into Nepal, Modi’s well-received visit sought to emphasize India’s historically close cultural, religious and people-to-people relations with that nation.

From starting his visit at Janakpur — where, according to the Ramayana, Lord Rama wed Sita — to offering prayers at Kathmandu’s Pashupatinath Temple (the oldest and holiest Shiva temple in Nepal) and at the iconic Muktinath Temple (sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists), Modi sought to project India’s soft power to counter China’s hard power. The launch of an Indo-Nepal bus service from Janakpur (Sita’s hometown) to Ayodhya (her abode after marriage) underscored the historically strong cultural ties between the two countries.

But just five days after Modi returned home, a new unified communist party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), was launched with China’s support through the merger of Oli’s Marxist-Leninist Party and the Maoist group. The merger of the two main communist groups into one party came about three months after they jointly came to power. Beijing first midwifed the birth of the unified communist party and then applauded the development, saying that, “China supports the country in choosing the social system and development path that suits its national realities”.

In fact, the peaceful victory of the Nepali communists has helped to obscure their violent past. Oli spent years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s, as a communist guerrilla, for waging war against the state. Nepal’s establishment of multiparty democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy in 1990 opened up political space for Maoists and Oli’s party. The Maoists launched a bloody insurrection in 1996 with the aim of overthrowing the monarchy through a “people’s revolution”.

A decade later, India brokered a peace accord that ended the protracted war between Maoists and government forces in Nepal. But to meet the Maoists’ main demand, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government — dependent on the support of communists who had links with the Nepali communists — engineered the abolition of the constitutional monarchy.

This blunder, which paved the way for the communists to eventually gain political ascendancy, will continue to impose serious costs on India for years to come. The Nepali Maoists secured the monarchy’s overthrow not through their violent “revolution” but with the direct help of their supposed ideological foe, India, which to this day remains haunted, paradoxically, by its own Maoist scourge.

India helped turn Nepal from a Hindu kingdom to a communist-ruled, China-leaning state, seriously undercutting its own traditional influence there.

Today, with the new unified communist party dominating all state institutions, Beijing is actively working to bring Nepal within its orbit. In fact, before Nepal’s elections, Beijing reportedly persuaded the divided communists to form a coalition and helped fund their campaign.

Most communist parties, including the Chinese Communist Party, gained power by violent means. Of the six communist-ruled countries currently in the world, Nepal boasts the only democratically elected communist government.

Yet the key question is whether Nepal’s communist government will sustain democracy or gradually smother democracy. Will it follow the example of Czechoslovakia, which came under communist sway following national elections in 1946? By 1948, the Czechoslovak communists gained full control of the government and set out to stifle democracy.

Nepal’s PM, dubbed “Oily Oli” by his critics, has already started undermining the independence of his country’s institutions and stacking them with his own loyalists. The communists have almost two-thirds majority in Parliament and governments in six of the country’s seven provinces. Card-holding communists now hold all the constitutional and other key positions, with efforts under way to emasculate institutions — from the judiciary to the election commission.

If this assault continues, Nepal will be emulating the trajectory of how Czechoslovakia became a single-party state. In fact, a weak opposition, a pliant judiciary and an overbearing executive are already creating conditions in Nepal for creeping authoritarianism to set in.

Nepal’s internal developments directly impinge on Indian security. India and Nepal, after all, share one of the world’s most-open borders that permits passport-free passage. China’s increasing penetration of Nepal also carries major implications for India’s security.

India must end its kid-glove treatment of the communists in power in Nepal and consider them as a force inimical to its interests. New Delhi must disabuse the Nepali communists of their notion that they can sustain their hostility toward India without incurring any costs.

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

A shadow over the ‘two-plus-two’ meeting

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, September 4, 2018

The US has emerged as India’s most important partner. The inaugural India-US “two-plus-two” ministerial dialogue will help highlight the growing convergence of their interests in the Indo-Pacific region. However, in India’s neighbourhood, Washington and New Delhi are still not on the same page.

For example, after gratuitously assassinating the third consecutive chief of the Pakistani Taliban this summer to please Pakistan’s military generals, the US held face-to-face talks with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban in Qatar. While the Pakistani Taliban is the Pakistan military’s nemesis, the Afghan Taliban is America’s main battlefield foe in Afghanistan, yet the group is still missing from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.

More broadly, the US and India have become key partners in seeking to create a free, open and democratic-led Indo-Pacific. The critical missing link in this strategy, however, is the South China Sea, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans. US reluctance to impose tangible costs on China’s continued expansionism in the South China Sea has emboldened Chinese inroads in the Indian Ocean.

One issue likely to figure prominently in the two-plus-two meeting is how India has emerged as a prime victim of two new sets of US economic sanctions — on Iran and on Russia. The new sanctions directly impinge on India, a longstanding significant buyer of Russian weapons and the second-largest importer of Iranian oil after China.

The twin US pressures on energy and defence fronts have made India acutely aware of the risks of aligning itself closer with Washington. After ensnaring India in its Iran and Russia sanctions, Washington has sought to save the promising Indo-US strategic partnership by throwing in concessions. In reality, the concessions are intended as tools of leverage.

For example, the Pentagon’s top Asia official, characterizing Indian media reports as “misleading”, has made it clear that India can expect no waiver from Russia-related sanctions if it signs major new defence deals with Moscow. The congressional waiver crimps India’s leeway with its stringent conditions, including a six-monthly presidential certification specifying the other side’s active steps to cut its inventory of Russian military hardware.

On the Iran-related sanctions, no waiver for India is still in sight. With global shipping operators already pulling back from Iran business and oil prices rising, India’s energy-import bill is increasing. US sanctions threaten to affect even India’s Pakistan-bypassing transportation corridor to Afghanistan via Iran, including the Chabahar port project.

The Trump administration is clearly seeking to influence India’s arms-procurement and energy-import policies. This is in keeping with its increasing unilateralism, including dictating terms to allies and friends. Canada, for example, has been warned to accept US’s terms or face exclusion from the new NAFTA. Japan is buying a $2.1 billion US missile-defence system, not because it can effectively protect it from missile attacks, but because of US pressure to buy more American military hardware.

Washington is similarly pressuring New Delhi to buy more American weapons, although the US has already emerged as the largest arms seller to India. But, while the US basically sells defensive military systems, Russia has armed India with offensive weapons, including a nuclear-powered submarine and an aircraft carrier. Washington is also seeking to sell more oil and gas to India, besides pressing it to switch imports from Iran to Saudi Arabia and other US allies. However, next-door Iran, offering discounted pricing, will remain critical to India’s energy- diversification strategy.

Meanwhile, the US — after its success in getting India to accept a logistics assistance pact, which includes access to designated Indian military sites — has pushed for India to endorse the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which the Indian armed forces initially feared could compromise their network. India, instead of leveraging its ties with Washington, appears set to announce at least an in-principle agreement on a modified COMCASA during the two-plus-two meeting, if not sign it.

Why is it that, in the run-up to any important summit or high-level meeting, India agrees to make a key concession to the other side? And why is that the other side doesn’t feel similarly pressured to make a concession to India? Isn’t reciprocity the first principle of diplomacy? Before finalizing COMCASA, India should clinch some major defence deals with Russia, including for the S-400 system, so as to test the US response. Instead, it is concluding new defence deals with the US.

The US and India will remain close friends. Washington, however, must fully address Indian concerns over the extraterritorial effects of its new Iran and Russia sanctions. Make no mistake: Washington has introduced a major irritant in the bilateral relationship that the twice-postponed two-plus-two dialogue cannot purge.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

A Global Environmental Threat Made in China

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From large-scale dam-building to unbridled resource-exploitation, human activity is causing serious damage to Himalayan ecosystems. While all the countries in the region are culpable to some extent, none is doing as much harm as China.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

Asia’s future is inextricably tied to the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range and the source of the water-stressed continent’s major river systems. Yet reckless national projects are straining the region’s fragile ecosystems, resulting in a mounting security threat that extends beyond Asia.

With elevations rising dramatically from less than 500 meters (1,640 feet) to over 8,000 meters, the Himalayas are home to ecosystems ranging from high-altitude alluvial grasslands and subtropical broadleaf forests to conifer forests and alpine meadows. Stretching from Myanmar to the Hindu-Kush watershed of Central Asia, the Himalayas play a central role in driving Asia’s hydrological cycle and weather and climate patterns, including triggering the annual summer monsoons. Its 18,000 high-altitude glaciers store massive amounts of freshwater and serve in winter as the world’s second-largest heat sink after Antarctica, thus helping to moderate the global climate. In summer, however, the Himalayas turn into a heat source that draws the monsoonal currents from the oceans into the Asian hinterland.

The Himalayas are now subject to accelerated glacial thaw, climatic instability, and biodiversity loss. Five rivers originating on the Great Himalayan Massif – the Yangtze, the Indus, the Mekong, the Salween, and the Ganges – rank among the world’s ten most endangered rivers.

From large-scale dam construction to the unbridled exploitation of natural resources, human activity is clearly to blame for these potentially devastating changes to the Himalayan ecosystems. While all the countries in the region are culpable to some extent, none is doing as much harm as China.

Unconstrained by the kinds of grassroots activism seen in, say, democratic India, China has used massive, but often opaque, construction projects to bend nature to its will and trumpet its rise as a great power. This includes a globally unmatched inter-river and inter-basin water-transfer infrastructure with the capacity to move over ten billion cubic meters (13 billion cubic yards) through 16,000 kilometers (9,940 miles) of canals.

China’s reengineering of natural river flows through damming – one-fifth of the country’s rivers now have less water flowing through them each year than is diverted to reservoirs – has already degraded riparian ecosystems and caused 350 large lakes to disappear. With these water-diverting projects increasingly focused on international, rather than internal, rivers – in particular those in the Tibetan Plateau, which covers nearly three-quarters of the Himalayan glacier area – the environmental threat extends far beyond China’s borders.

And dams are just the beginning. The Tibetan Plateau is also the subject of Chinese geo-engineering experiments, which aim to induce rain in its arid north and northwest. (Rain in Tibet is concentrated in its Himalayan region.) Such activities threaten to suck moisture from other regions, potentially affecting Asia’s monsoons. Ominously, such experiments are an extension of the Chinese military’s weather-modification program.

Moreover, as if to substantiate the Chinese name for Tibet, Xizang(“Western Treasure Land”), China is draining mineral resources from this ecologically fragile but resource-rich plateau, without regard for the consequences. Already, copper mine tailings are polluting waters in a Himalayan region sacred to Tibetans, which they call Pemako (“Hidden Lotus Land”), where the world’s highest-altitude major river, the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo to Tibetans), curves around the Himalayas before entering India.

Last fall, the once-pristine Siang – the Brahmaputra’s main artery – suddenly turned blackish gray as it entered India, potentially because of China’s upstream tunneling, mining, or damming activity. To be sure, the Chinese government claimed that an earthquake that struck southeastern Tibet in mid-November “might have led to the turbidity” in the river waters. But the water had become unfit for human consumption long before the quake.

In any case, China is not letting up. It has, for example, eagerly launched large-scale operations to mine precious minerals like gold and silver in a disputed area of the eastern Himalayas that it seized from India in a 1959 armed clash.

Meanwhile, China’s bottled-water industry – the world’s largest – is siphoning “premium drinking water” from the Himalayas’ already-stressed glaciers, particularly those in the eastern Himalayas, where accelerated melting of snow and ice fields is already conspicuous. Unsurprisingly, this is causing biodiversity loss and impairment of ecosystem services.

Across the Himalayas, scientists report large-scale deforestation, high rates of loss of genetic variability, and species extinction in the highlands. The Tibetan Plateau, for its part, is warming at almost three times the average global rate. This holds environmental implications that extend far beyond Asia.

The towering Himalayan Highlands, particularly Tibet, influence the Northern Hemisphere’s atmospheric-circulation system, which helps to transport warm air from the equator toward the poles, sustaining a variety of climate zones along the way. In other words, Himalayan ecosystem impairment will likely affect European and North American climatic patterns.

Halting rampant environmental degradation in the Himalayas is now urgent, and it is possible only through cooperation among all members of the Himalayan basin community, from the lower Mekong River region and China to the countries of southern Asia. To bring about such cooperation, however, the entire international community will have to apply pressure to rein in China’s reckless environmental impairment, which is by far the greatest source of risk.

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

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Divided Asean spins its wheels as great powers become back-seat drivers

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Brahma Chellaney says recent multilateral discussions in Singapore did little to advance preventive diplomacy or conflict resolution.

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Brahma Chellaney, South China Morning Post

Despite its lack of cohesiveness and geopolitical heft, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations likes to be in the driver’s seat even on initiatives that extend beyond its region. But having placed itself at the wheel, Asean usually needs instructions from back-seat drivers on how to proceed and where to go.

One such example is the Asean Regional Forum, which provides a setting for annual ministerial discussions on peace and security issues across the Asia-Pacific. Established in 1994, it draws together 27 member-states, including key players such as the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia, Australia and the two Koreas.

The forum’s latest discussions were held this month along with three other meetings – the 18-nation East Asia Summit (whose membership extends from the US and New Zealand to India and Russia), the Asean Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) and Asean’s own annual ministerial discussions. These meetings, all at foreign minister level and held in rapid succession in Singapore, advertised the vaunted “centrality” of Asean, which represents a strategic region connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans.

But as Asean increasingly seeks to play an extra-regional role, its project to build a robust Southeast Asian community appears to have lost momentum. Indeed, its internal challenges are mounting.

The association has not been able to moderate great-power competition in its own region. Rival Chinese and US pressures on Asean have actually crimped its room to manoeuvre.

More fundamentally, the Asean-centred extra-regional initiatives, characterised by consensual decision making and minimal institutionalisation, serve mainly as “talk shops” for confidence building and improved cooperation. Like in Asean itself, the politics of lowest common denominator tends to prevail.

Consequently, these forums have not moved to preventive diplomacy or conflict resolution. They have also not been able to tangibly contribute to building a rules-based order or rein in aggressive unilateralism by their own members like China, the US and Russia.

Despite their limitations, the forums are seen by members as offering good value for promoting their foreign policy objectives and for making progress towards an Asia-Pacific security, political and economic architecture.

The latest spate of multilateral discussions in Singapore focused on issues ranging from North Korea’s denuclearisation – with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging all states to “strictly enforce all sanctions” on Pyongyang – to the impending Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, which would create the world’s largest trading bloc.

The discussions helped underscore the competing geopolitical interests at play. China, which views the US-led strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region as directed at it, mocked Pompeo’s separate announcements of US$113 million and US$300 million in funding for economic and security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, respectively.

China’s state media compared these “paltry” US commitments with Beijing’s planned investment of US$900 billion in its “Belt and Road Initiative”, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a dig at Pompeo, saying: “The US is the sole superpower in today’s world, with a GDP totalling US$16 trillion. So when I first heard this figure of US$113 million I thought I heard wrong.”

The highlight of the Singapore meetings, however, was the announcement by China and Asean that they had agreed on a draft document that will serve as a basis for further negotiations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways.

A code was mandated by the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which exhorted all parties “to exercise self-restraint” with regard to “activities that would complicate or escalate disputes”. But that appeal was essentially ignored by China, which in recent years has fundamentally changed the status quo in the South China Sea in its favour, without incurring any international costs.

Sixteen years after that declaration, just a draft to negotiate a code of conduct has been announced. By the time the actual code emerges, China would have fully consolidated its control in the South China Sea, with the code only serving to reinforce the new reality. This explains why Beijing has delayed a code of conduct while it presses ahead in the South China Sea with frenzied construction and militarisation.

Today, the South China Sea has emerged as Asean’s Achilles’ heel, with the association’s failure to take a unified stance serving to aid Beijing’s divide-and-rule strategy. China has used inducement and coercion to split Asean and try to dictate terms to it.

The rift between pro-China Asean members and the rest has now become difficult to set right. By conveying disunity and weakness, Asean has emboldened China’s territorial and maritime revisionism, which, in turn, has made the South China Sea the world’s most critical hotspot.

Against this background, the much-hyped announcement of a single draft document for future negotiations, with Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan hailing it as “yet another milestone in the code of conduct process”, was just the latest example of how Asean has been playing right into China’s hands.

In fact, that announcement came soon after the second anniversary of the landmark ruling of an international arbitral tribunal, which knocked the bottom out of China’s grandiose territorial claims in the South China Sea. Since that ruling, which is now part of international law, China has only accelerated its expansionism, as if it is working to make the verdict totally meaningless.

This is a reminder that international law by itself is no answer to China’s expansionism. There needs to be a concerted international campaign to pressure and shame China. If Southeast Asia, a region of nearly 640 million people, is coerced into accepting Chinese hegemony, it will have a cascading geopolitical impact across the Indo-Pacific.

Yet, as if to advertise Asean’s inherent weakness, a meeting of its foreign ministers held just after the international tribunal’s ruling failed to issue even an agreed statement.

Asean was established in 1967 during the height of the cold war as a five-nation political organisation to help combat the potential threat of communist insurgencies in the region. At the time, the authoritarian-leaning, pro-capitalist governments of its founding members – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – were facing internal and external threats. After the cold war ended, Asean expanded to cover much of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to its former foe Vietnam.

Since then, the triumphs of an expanded Asean have largely been in the economic area. Politically, of course, Asean has been able to build greater interstate cooperation and stability in Southeast Asia, while collectively turning its members into a force to reckon with in international relations. This is no mean achievement.

Today, however, Asean’s challenges are being compounded by the widening gap between economics and politics in Southeast Asia. The region is integrating economically, with its economic vibrancy on open display. But its political diversity and divisions have exacerbated in the absence of common political norms.

This has raised questions about Asean’s capacity to safeguard peace and security in its own region. Such concerns have been heightened by the lack of an effective response to Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, despite its transnational effects. Asean is also struggling to cope with other pressing regional problems – from human rights abuses in some member-states and transnational human trafficking to the degradation of coastal and other marine ecosystems.

In fact, Asean has left itself little room for reflection and reform by elaborately staging its summits and foreign-minister meetings in conjunction with the extra-regional initiatives that bring leaders of outside powers. This not only allows outsiders to press their own objectives but also keeps the focus on larger international issues, with Asean notionally in the driver’s seat.

As Asean seeks to enlarge its extra-regional profile, its “centrality” in broader initiatives is exacting an increasing price internally and laying bare its limitations. Its internal stasis underscores the imperative for it to reform and become a more cohesive, dynamic and result-oriented institution that helps underpin a stable rules-based order in Southeast Asia.

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

© South China Morning Post, 2018.

U.S. injects new irritant in ties with India

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s first round of Iran-related sanctions has come into force this week, with no waiver for India in sight as yet. The U.S. Congress has passed legislation granting India a waiver from its new Russia-centred sanctions, but the waiver is conditional and contingent upon a periodic, six-monthly presidential certification. The Indian media highlighted the passing of the waiver legislation but not the conditions it incorporated.

India, as a longstanding significant buyer of Russian weapons and the second-largest importer of Iranian oil after China, is a major victim of the new U.S. sanctions. By implicitly mounting two-pronged pressure on New Delhi on energy and defence fronts, Washington has injected a major new irritant in the bilateral relationship, as if to underscore the risks for India of pursuing a foreign policy too closely aligned with America.

By slapping a nation with punitive sanctions, the U.S. seeks to block trade and financial activities with that country even by other states. Such extraterritorial sanctions — which it euphemistically labels “secondary” sanctions — run counter to international law. Yet the U.S. uses its unmatched power to turn national actions into global measures.

As the world’s reserve currency that greases the wheels of the global financial system, the U.S. dollar arms America with tremendous leverage, making U.S. sanctions the most powerful in the world. Most international transactions, from banking to oil, are conducted in U.S. dollars.

Today, however, the U.S. faces a major test to effectively enforce its new extraterritorial sanctions relating to Iran, a Trump obsession, and Russia, which still evokes bipartisan hostility in Washington although Russia’s economy has shrunk to one-tenth the size of China’s and its military spending to one-fifth of China’s.

Trump’s sanctions aimed at throttling the Iranian economy after his unilateral withdrawal from the multilateral Iran nuclear deal have prompted calls for defiance even in Europe. The new Russia sanctions, however, were initiated by Congress, which passed a law to compel the Trump administration to act against Moscow. Known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, the law uses the sanctions threat to wean countries off their craving for Russian weapons so as to boost America’s own arms sales.

The U.S. is already the world’s leading exporter of weapons by far. Another paradox is that the U.S. has overtaken Russia as the top arms seller to India. But while Russia has transferred to India offensive weapons, including a nuclear-powered submarine (INS Chakra) and an aircraft carrier (INS Vikramaditya), the U.S. has been selling defensive military systems to India, such as the P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft and the C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Super Hercules military transport planes. India cannot snap its defence ties with Moscow for another reason: It relies on Russian spare parts for maintenance of its Russian-made hardware, some of Soviet origin.

While the CAATSA waiver will allow India to go ahead with the pending purchase from Russia of the interceptor-based S-400 Triumf air and anti-missile defence system, future Indian imports from Russia are likely to face U.S. scrutiny. In fact, the waiver legislation mandates that India, Vietnam and Indonesia — the three countries granted waivers from the CAATSA sanctions — demonstrate that each is significantly reducing dependence on Russian arms or significantly increasing cooperation with the U.S.

The congressional intent was clearly to leverage the waiver. For example, a presidential certification must specify the active steps each nation is taking or planning to cut its inventory of Russian hardware. Such a reporting requirement, by shining a spotlight on India’s arms inventory, promises to act as an irritant in the bilateral relationship. Washington is also stepping up pressure on India to sign the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which the Indian military fears could compromise its network.

The reason why only India, Indonesia and Vietnam were granted waivers is that the U.S. is trying to sway these three into its orbit. In the case of Turkey, a NATO member that, like India, is buying the S-400, Congress is threatening reprisals against Ankara. U.S. pressure on India, Indonesia and Vietnam, however, is unlikely to fully dissipate because no blanket waivers have been granted.

Meanwhile, through its Iran-related sanctions, the U.S. is likely to influence the energy-import policy of India, which currently imports more than three-fourth of its crude oil requirements. According to the International Energy Agency, India is set to emerge as the fastest-growing crude consumer in the world by 2040. Washington is seeking to sell more oil and gas to India and also encouraging it to switch imports from Iran to Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies.

Next-door Iran, however, has long been a major oil supplier to India. It will remain important for India’s energy-import diversification strategy. U.S. sanctions, however, threaten to affect even New Delhi’s political cooperation with Tehran, including impeding India’s Pakistan-bypassing transportation corridor to Afghanistan via Iran. India has invested in modernizing the Chabahar Port. As the top U.S. general in Afghanistan acknowledged last year, “Iranian-Indian-Afghan cooperation over the Chabahar Port presents great economic potential” for landlocked Afghanistan, which has had to depend on a hostile Pakistan for access to a port.

By making India a key target of the extraterritorial effects of its sanctions on Iran and Russia, and then dangling concessions as favours, the U.S. is doing a disservice to its goal of making the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership a linchpin of its larger strategy to build a free, open and democratic-led Indo-Pacific region. Its actions compound India’s foreign-policy challenges, including how to balance the relationships with various key players.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author.

© Mail Today, 2018.

Trump’s Grand Strategy

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As unpredictable as Trump can be, several of his key foreign-policy decisions suggest that his administration is pursuing a coherent vision aimed at reviving America’s global power.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

US President Donald Trump’s inability to think strategically is undermining longstanding relationships, upending the global order, and accelerating the decline of his country’s global influence – or so the increasingly popular wisdom goes. But this assessment is not nearly as obvious as its proponents – especially political adversaries and critics in the mainstream US media – claim.

America’s relative decline was a hot topic long before Trump took office. The process began when the United States, emboldened by its emergence from the Cold War as the world’s sole superpower, started to overextend itself significantly by enlarging its military footprint and ramping up its global economic and security commitments.

America’s “imperial overreach” was first identified during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, which oversaw a frenetic expansion of military spending. It reached crisis levels with the 2003 US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq under President George W. Bush – a watershed moment that caused irreparable damage to America’s international standing.

On President Barack Obama’s watch, China rapidly expanded its global influence, including by forcibly changing the status quo in the South China Sea (without incurring any international costs). By that point, it was unmistakable: the era of US hegemony was over.

It is not just that Trump cannot be blamed for America’s relative decline; he may actually be set to arrest it. As unpredictable as Trump can be, several of his key foreign-policy moves suggest that his administration is pursuing a grand strategy aimed at reviving America’s global power.

For starters, the Trump administration seems eager to roll back America’s imperial overreach, including by avoiding intervention in faraway wars and demanding that allies pay their fair share for defense. The fact is that many NATO members do not fulfill their spending commitments, effectively leaving American taxpayers to subsidize their security.

These are not new ideas. Before Trump even decided to run for office, pundits were arguing that the US needed to pursue a policy of retrenchment, drastically reducing its international commitments and transferring more of its defense burden onto its allies. But it was not until Trump, who views running a country much like running a business, that the US had a leader who was willing to pursue that path, even if it undermined the values that have long underpinned US foreign policy.

Trump’s focus on containing China – which FBI Director Christopher Wray recently labeled a far bigger challenge than Russia, even in the area of espionage – fits nicely into this strategy. Successive US presidents, from Richard Nixon to Obama, aided China’s economic rise. Trump, however, regards China not as America’s economic partner, but as “a foe economically” and even, as the official mouthpiece China Daily recently put it, America’s “main strategic rival.”

In general, Trump’s tariffs aim to put the US back in control of its economic relationships by constraining its ballooning trade deficits, with both friends and foes, and bringing economic activity (and the accompanying jobs) back home. But it is no secret that, above all, Trump’s tariffs target China – a country that has long defied international trade rules and engaged in predatory practices.

Meanwhile, Trump is also working to ensure that China does not catch up with the US technologically. In particular, his administration seeks to thwart China’s “Made in China 2025” program, the blueprint unveiled by the Chinese government in 2015 for securing global dominance over ten strategic high-tech industries, from robotics to alternative-energy vehicles.

Trump’s diplomatic activities seem intended to advance this larger strategic vision of reversing America’s relative decline. He has tried to sweet-talk autocratic leaders, from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, into making concessions – an approach that has garnered its share of criticism. But Trump’s compliments have not translated into kowtowing.

For example, despite all the controversy over Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the fact is that, since Trump took office, the US has expelled Russian diplomats, closed a Russian consulate, and imposed three rounds of sanctions on the country. His administration is now threatening to apply extraterritorial sanctions to stop other countries from making “significant” defense deals with Russia, a leading arms exporter.

Trump has not flattered any foreign leader more than Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he called “terrific” and “a great gentleman.” Yet, again, when Xi refused to yield to Trump’s demands, the US president did not hesitate to hit back “using Chinese tactics,” including suddenly changing negotiating positions and unpredictably escalating trade tensions.

Even Trump’s direct approach with North Korea undermines China’s position by bypassing it. Trump is right that transforming the US-North Korea relationship matters more than securing complete denuclearization. If he can co-opt North Korea, China’s only formal military ally, northeast Asian geopolitics will be reshaped and China’s lonely rise will be more apparent than ever.

There are plenty of problems with Trump’s methods. His brassy, theatrical, and unpredictable negotiating style, together with his China-like disregard for international norms, are destabilizing international relations. Domestic troubles like political polarization and legislative gridlock – both of which Trump has actively exacerbated – also weaken America’s hand internationally.

But there is no denying that Trump’s muscular “America First” approach – which includes one of the most significant military buildups since World War II – reflects a strategic vision that is focused squarely on ensuring that the US remains more powerful than any rival in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps more important, the transactional approach to international relations on which Trump’s strategy relies is likely to persist long after he leaves office. Friends and foes alike must get used to a more self-seeking America doing everything in its power, no matter the cost, to forestall its precipitous decline.

The Modi Phenomenon and the Remaking of India

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Brahma Chellaney, Panorama Journal, Vol. 01/2018

In the four years that he has been in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has animated domestic politics in India and the country’s foreign policy by departing often from conventional methods and shibboleths. A key question is whether the Modi era will mark a defining moment for India, just as the 1990s were for China and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return as prime minister has been for Japan. The answer to that question is still not clear. What is clear, however, is that Modi’s ascension to power has clearly changed Indian politics and diplomacy.

Even before Modi’s Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP, won the May 2014 national election, India’s fast-growing economy and rising geopolitical weight had significantly increased the country’s international profile. India was widely perceived to be a key “swing state” in the emerging geopolitical order. Since the start of this century, India’s relationship with the United States (US) has gradually but dramatically transformed. India and the US are now increasingly close partners. The US holds more military exercises with India every year than with any other country, including Britain. In the last decade, the US has also emerged as the largest seller of weapons to India, leaving the traditional supplier, Russia, far behind.

Modi’s pro-market economic policies, tax reforms, defence modernisation and foreign-policy dynamism have not only helped to further increase India’s international profile, but also augur well for the country’s economic-growth trajectory and rising strength. However, India’s troubled neighbourhood, along with its spillover effects, has posed a growing challenge for the Modi government. The combustible neighbourhood has underscored the imperative for India to evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. For example, with its vulnerability to terrorist attacks linked to its location next to the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt, India has little choice but to prepare for a long-term battle against the forces of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Similarly, India’s ability to secure its maritime backyard, including its main trade arteries in the Indian Ocean region, will be an important test of its maritime strategy and foreign policy, especially at a time when an increasingly powerful and revisionist China is encroaching in India’s maritime space.

Modi’s Impact on Domestic Politics

Modi went quickly from being a provincial leader to becoming the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. In fact, he rode to power in a landslide national-election victory that gave India the first government since the 1980s to be led by a party enjoying an absolute majority on its own in Parliament. The period since the late 1980s saw a series of successive coalition governments in New Delhi. Coalition governments became such a norm in India that the BJP’s success in securing an absolute majority in 2014 surprised even political analysts.

What factors explain the sudden rise of Modi? One factor clearly was the major corruption scandals that marred the decade-long rule of the preceding Congress Party-led coalition government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The national treasury lost tens of billions of dollars in various corruption scandals. What stood out was not just the tardy prosecution process to bring to justice those responsible for the colossal losses but also the lack of sincere efforts to recoup the losses. The pervasive misuse of public office for private gain was seen by the voters as sapping India’s strength.

Modi, as the long-serving top elected official of the western Indian state of Gujarat, had provided a relatively clean administration free of any major corruption scandal. That stood out in contrast to Singh’s graft-tainted federal government. However, Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat turned Modi into a controversial figure, with his opponents alleging that his state administration looked the other way as Hindu rioters attacked Muslims in reprisal for a Muslim mob setting a passenger train on fire. The political controversy actually prompted the US government in 2005 to revoke Modi’s visa over the unproven allegations that he connived in the Hindu-Muslim riots. Even after India’s Supreme Court found no evidence to link Modi to the violence, the US continued to ostracise him, reaching out to him only on the eve of the 2014 national election when he appeared set to become the next prime minister.

Modi’s political career at the provincial level was actually built on his success in coordinating relief work in his home state of Gujarat in response to a major 2001 earthquake there. Months after his relief work, Modi became the state’s chief minister, or the top elected official.

His party, the BJP, has tacitly espoused the cause of the country’s Hindu majority for long while claiming to represent all religious communities. The BJP sees itself as being no different than the Christian parties that emerged in Western Europe in the post-World War II era. The Christian parties in Western Europe, such as Germany’s long-dominant Christian Democratic Union (CDU), played a key role in Western Europe’s post-war recovery and economic and political integration.[1] Modi himself has subtly played the Hindu card to advance his political ambitions at the national level.

One can also draw a parallel between the prolonged period of political drift and paralysis in India that led to the national rise of Modi in 2014 and Japan’s six years of political instability that paved the way for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return to power in 2012. Just as Abe’s return to power reflected Japan’s determination to reinvent itself as a more competitive and confident country, Modi’s election victory reflected the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leader to help revitalise their country’s economy and security.

In fact, both Modi and Abe have focused on reviving their country’s economic fortunes, while simultaneously bolstering its defences and strengthening its strategic partnerships with likeminded states in order to promote regional stability and block the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia. Modi’s policies mirror Abe’s soft nationalism, market-oriented economics, and new “Asianism”, including seeking closer ties with Asian democracies to create a web of interlocking strategic partnerships. Until Modi became the first prime minister born after India gained independence in 1947, the wide gap between the average age of Indian political leaders and Indian citizens was conspicuous. That constitutes another parallel with Abe, who is Japan’s first prime minister born after World War II.

To be sure, there is an important difference in terms of the two leaders’ upbringing. Modi rose from humble beginnings to lead the world’s most-populous democracy.[2] Abe, on the other hand, boasts a distinguished political lineage as the grandson and grandnephew of two former Japanese prime ministers and the son of a former foreign minister. In fact, Modi rode to victory by crushing Rahul Gandhi’s dynastic aspirations.

Since he became prime minister, Modi has led the BJP to a string of victories in elections in a number of states, making the party the largest political force in the country without doubt. Under his leadership, the traditionally urban-focused BJP has significantly expanded its base in rural areas and among the socially disadvantaged classes. His skills as a political tactician steeped in cold-eyed pragmatism have held him in good stead. Modi, however, has become increasingly polarising. Indian democracy today is probably as divided and polarised as US democracy.

Politically, Modi has blended strong leadership, soft nationalism, and an appeal to the Hindu majority into an election-winning strategy. Playing the Hindu card, for example, helped the BJP to sweep the northern Hindi-speaking heartland in the 2014 national election and ride to victory in the subsequent state election in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest state. But use of that card, not surprisingly, has fostered greater divisiveness. Despite playing that card, the BJP, however, has done little for the Hindu majority specifically, thus reinforcing criticism that it cleverly uses the card to achieve electoral gains.

The BJP’s electoral successes, meanwhile, have prompted the opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, to take a leaf out of Modi’s playbook by seeking to similarly boost his popularity among the Hindu majority. While campaigning in the December 2017 Gujarat state election, for example, Rahul Gandhi visited many Hindu temples. This new strategy resulted in his Congress Party, which has traditionally banked on the Muslim vote, significantly improving its strength in the Gujarat state legislature, although the BJP managed to hold on to power in a close election contest.

More fundamentally, Modi’s political rise had much to do with the Indian electorate’s yearning for an era of decisive government. Before becoming prime minister, Modi – a darling of business leaders at home and abroad – promised to restore rapid economic growth, saying there should be “no red tape, only red carpet” for investors.[3] He also pledged a qualitative change in governance and assured that the corrupt would face the full force of law. But, in office, has Modi really lived up to his promises?

Although he came to office with a popular mandate to usher in major changes, his record in power has been restorative rather than transformative. The transformative moment usually comes once in a generation. Modi failed to seize that moment. He seems to believe in incrementalism, not transformative change. His sheen has clearly dulled, yet his mass appeal remains unmatched in the country.

New Dynamism but also New Challenges in Foreign Policy

India faces major foreign-policy challenges, which by and large predate Modi’s ascension to power. India is home to more than one-sixth of the world’s population, yet it punches far below its weight. A year before Modi assumed office, an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, titled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how the country is resisting its own rise, as if the political miasma in New Delhi had turned the country into its own worst enemy.[4]

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

India also confronts the strengthening nexus between its two nuclear-armed regional adversaries, China and Pakistan, both of which have staked claims to substantial swaths of Indian territory and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction. In dealing with these countries, Modi has faced the same dilemma that has haunted previous Indian governments: the Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministries are weak actors. The Communist Party and the military shape Chinese foreign policy, while Pakistan is effectively controlled by its army and intelligence services, which still use terror groups as proxies. Under Modi, India has faced several daring terrorist attacks staged from Pakistan, including on Indian military facilities.

One Modi priority after assuming office was restoring momentum to the relationship with the United States, which, to some extent, had been damaged by grating diplomatic tensions and trade disputes while his predecessor was in office. While Modi has been unable to contain cross-border terrorist attacks from Pakistan or stem Chinese military incursions across the disputed Himalayan frontier, he has managed to lift the bilateral relationship with the US to a new level of engagement. He has enjoyed a good personal relationship with US President Donald Trump, like he had with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Modi considers close ties with the US as essential to the advancement of India’s economic and security interests. The US, for its part, sees India as central to its Indo-Pacific strategy. As the White House’s national security strategy report in December 2017 put it, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region. ­The region, which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, represents the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world […] We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner.”[5]

More broadly, Modi’s various steps and policy moves have helped highlight the trademarks of his foreign policy – from pragmatism and lucidity to zeal and showmanship. They have also exemplified his penchant for springing diplomatic surprises. One example was his announcement during a China visit to grant Chinese tourists e-visas on arrival, an announcement that caught by surprise even his foreign secretary, who had just said at a media briefing that there was “no decision” on the issue. Another example was in Paris, where Modi announced a surprise decision to buy 36 French Rafale fighter-jets.

Modi is a realist who loves to play on the grand chessboard of geopolitics. He is seeking to steer foreign policy in a direction that helps to significantly aid his strategy to revitalise the country’s economic and military security. At least five things stand out about his foreign policy.

First, Modi has invested considerable political capital – and time – in high-powered diplomacy. No other prime minister since the country’s independence participated in so many bilateral and multilateral summit meetings in his first years in office. Critics contend that Modi’s busy foreign policy schedule leaves him restricted time to focus on his most-critical responsibility – domestic issues, which will define his legacy.

Second, pragmatism is the hallmark of the Modi foreign policy. Nothing better illustrates this than the priority he accorded, soon after coming to office, to adding momentum to the relationship with America, despite the US having heaped visa-denial humiliation on him over nine years. In his first year in office, he also went out of his way to befriend India’s strategic rival, China, negating the early assumptions that he would be less accommodating toward Beijing than his predecessor. With China increasingly assertive and unaccommodating, Modi’s gamble failed to pay off. Yet, in April 2018, Modi made a fresh effort to “reset” relations with China and held an informal summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Third, Modi has sought to shape a non-doctrinaire foreign-policy approach powered by ideas. He has taken some of his domestic policy ideas (such as “Make in India” and “Digital India”) to foreign policy, as if to underscore that his priority is to revitalise India economically. By simultaneously courting different major powers, Modi has also sought to demonstrate his ability to forge partnerships with rival powers and broker cooperative international approaches in a rapidly changing world.

In fact, Modi’s foreign policy is implicitly attempting to move India from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalised practicality. In essence, this means that India – a founding leader of the nonaligned movement – could become more multi-aligned and less nonaligned. Building close partnerships with major powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings will not only enable India to advance its core priorities but also will help it to preserve strategic autonomy, in keeping with the country’s longstanding preference for policy independence.

Nonalignment suggests a passive approach, including staying on the sidelines. Being multi-aligned, on the other hand, permits a proactive approach. Being pragmatically multi-aligned seems a better option for India than remaining passively non-aligned. A multi-aligned India is already tilting more toward the major democracies of the world, as the resurrected Australia-India-Japan-US quadrilateral (or “quad”) grouping underscores. Still, India’s insistence on charting an independent course is reflected in its refusal to join American-led financial sanctions against Russia.

Meanwhile, a Modi-led India has not shied away from building strategic partnerships with countries around China’s periphery to counter that country’s creeping strategic encirclement of India. New Delhi’s resolve was apparent when Modi tacitly criticised China’s military buildup and encroachments in the South China Sea as evidence of an “18th-century expansionist mindset.” India’s “Look East” policy, for its part, has graduated to an “Act East” policy, with the original economic logic of “Look East” giving way to a geopolitical logic. The thrust of the new “Act East” policy – unveiled with US blessings – is to re-establish historically close ties with countries to India’s east so as to contribute to building a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. As Modi said in an op-ed published in 27 ASEAN newspapers on 26 January 2018 (the day, in a remarkable diplomatic feat, India hosted the leaders of all 10 ASEAN states as chief guests at its Republic Day parade), “Indians have always looked East to see the nurturing sunrise and the light of opportunities. Now, as before, the East, or the Indo-Pacific region, will be indispensable to India’s future and our common destiny.”[6]

Fourth, Modi has a penchant for diplomatic showmanship, reflected not only in the surprises he has sprung but also in the kinds of big-ticket speeches he has given abroad, often to chants of “Modi, Modi” from the audience. Like a rock star, he unleashed Modi-mania among Indian-diaspora audiences by taking the stage at New York’s storied Madison Square Garden, at Sydney’s sprawling Allphones Arena, and at Ricoh Coliseum, a hockey arena in downtown Toronto. When permission was sought for a similar speech event in Shanghai during Modi’s 2015 China visit, an apprehensive Chinese government, which bars any public rally, relented only on the condition that the event would be staged in an indoor stadium.

To help propel Indian foreign policy, Modi has also injected a personal touch. Indeed, Modi has used his personal touch with great effect, addressing leaders ranging from Obama to Abe by their first name and building an easy relationship with multiple world leaders. In keeping with his personalised stamp on diplomacy, Modi has relied on bilateral summits to open new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. At the same time, underscoring his nimble approach to diplomacy, he has shown he can think on his feet. The speed with which he rushed aid and rescue teams to an earthquake-battered Nepal, as well as dispatched Indian forces to evacuate Indian and foreign nationals from Nepal and conflict-torn Yemen, helped to raise India’s international profile, highlighting its capacity to respond swiftly to natural and human-induced disasters.

Fifth, it is scarcely a surprise that, given this background, Modi has put his own stamp on Indian foreign policy. The paradox is that Modi came to office with little foreign policy experience, yet he has demonstrated impressive diplomatic acumen, including taking bold steps and charting a vision for building a greater international role for India.

The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright famously said, “The purpose of foreign policy is to persuade other countries to do what we want or, better yet, to want what we want.”[7] How has Modi’s foreign policy done when measured against such a standard of success? One must concede that, in terms of concrete results, Modi’s record thus far isn’t all that impressive. His supporters, however, would say that dividends from a new direction in foreign policy flow slowly and that he has been in office for just four years.

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

To be sure, Modi has injected dynamism and motivation in diplomacy.[8] But he has also highlighted what has long blighted the country’s foreign policy – ad hoc and personality-driven actions that confound tactics with strategy. Institutionalised and integrated policymaking is essential for a robust diplomacy that takes a long view. Without healthy institutionalised processes, policy will tend to be ad hoc and shifting, with personalities at the helm having an excessive role in shaping thinking, priorities and objectives. If foreign policy is shaped by the whims and fancies of personalities who hold the reins of power, there will be a propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure, as has happened in India repeatedly since the time of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was in office for 17 years.

Today, India confronts a “tyranny of geography” – that is, serious external threats from virtually all directions. To some extent, it is a self-inflicted tyranny. India’s concerns over China, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives stem from the failures of its past policies. An increasingly unstable neighbourhood also makes it more difficult to promote regional cooperation and integration. With its tyranny of geography putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India needs to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy. The erosion of its influence in its own backyard should serve as a wake-up call. Only through forward thinking can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation and play a larger global role. Otherwise, it will continue to be weighed down by its region.

While India undoubtedly is injecting greater realism in its foreign policy, it remains intrinsically cautious and reactive, rather than forward-looking and proactive. India has not fully abandoned its quixotic traditions. India’s tradition of realist strategic thought is probably the oldest in the world.[9] The realist doctrine was propounded by the strategist Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, who wrote the Arthashastra before Christ; this ancient manual on great-power diplomacy and international statecraft remains a must-read classic. Yet India, ironically, appears to have forgotten its own realist strategic thought.

Concluding Observations

India is more culturally diverse than the entire European Union – but with twice as many people. It is remarkable that India’s democracy has thrived despite such diversity. Yet, like the US, India has become politically polarised. And like Trump, Modi draws strong reactions – in support of him or against him. When Modi won the 2014 national election, critics said they feared his strongman tendencies – a fear they still profess. But in office, Modi has been anything but strong or aggressive in his policies. For example, his foreign policy and his domestic policies, especially economic policy, have been cautious and tactful. However, the “strongman” tag that critics have given Modi helps to obscure his failure to improve governance in India. On his watch, for example, India’s trade deficit with China has doubled to almost $5 billion a month.

Prudent gradualism, however, remains the hallmark of Modi’s approach in diplomacy and domestic policy. For example, to underpin India’s position as the world’s fastest-growing developing economy, Modi has preferred slow but steady progress on reforms, an approach that Arvind Subramanian, the government’s chief economic adviser, dubbed “creative incrementalism.” Many in India, of course, would prefer a bolder approach. But as a raucous democracy, India has to pay a “democracy tax” in the form of slower decision-making and pandering to powerful electoral constituencies. For example, under Modi, India’s bill for state subsidies has risen sharply.

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

As a shrewd politician, Modi has shown an ability to deftly recover from a setback. For example, he came under withering criticism when, while meeting Obama in early 2015 in New Delhi, he wore a navy suit with his name monogrammed in golden stripes all over it. Critics accused him of being narcissistic, while one politician went to the extent of calling him a “megalomaniac.” But by auctioning off the suit, Modi quickly cauterised a political liability. The designer suit was auctioned for charity, fetching INR 43.1 million ($693,234).

To many, Modi seems politically invincible at home, floating above the laws of political gravity. But, as happens in any democracy, any leader’s time eventually runs out. Modi suddenly appeared vulnerable in last December’s state elections in his native state of Gujarat but his party managed to retain power, although with a reduced majority. Until his political stock starts to irreversibly diminish, Modi will continue to dominate the Indian political scene, playing an outsize role. At present, though, there is no apparent successor to Modi.

 

Professor Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. As a specialist on international strategic issues, he held appointments at Harvard University, the Brookings Institution, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and the Australian National University. He is the author of nine books, including an international bestseller, Asian Juggernaut (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2010). His last book was Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

[1] John Murray, “Christian Parties in Western Europe,” Studies, Vol. 50, No. 198 (Summer 1961).

[2] Andy Marino, Narendra Modi: A political Biography (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2014).

[3] Economic Times, “Red carpet, not red tape for investors is the way out of economic crisis,” Interview with Narendra Modi, June 7, 2012.

[4] Manjari Chatterjee Miller, “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy: A Would-Be Great Power Resists Its Own Rise,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2013).

[5] White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: December 2017), available at: https://goo.gl/CWQf1t.

[6] Narendra Modi, “Shared values, common destiny,” The Straits Times, January 26, 2018, available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/shared-values-common-destiny.

[7] Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007).

[8] Alyssa Ayres, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[9] Aparna Pande, From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2017).

Pakistan’s sham election reinforces India’s challenge

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Why India shouldn’t rush into engaging with the new Imran-led Pakistan

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, August 4, 2018

It has taken the Pakistani military a full year to complete the soft coup it launched when it used a pliant judiciary to oust an elected prime minister. The military-engineered election outcome in favour of Imran Khan came virtually on the anniversary of Nawaz Sharif’s removal from office. What happened to Sharif will happen to any PM that seeks to assert civilian control over a praetorian military.

In fact, no PM has been allowed to complete a full five-year term. When a PM falls foul of the deep state, the judiciary, opposition and bureaucracy are used to smear the leader’s reputation and oust him or her. Every PM has been thrown out on charges of corruption and incompetence.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court hanged one elected PM in 1979, ousted another in 2017, and legitimized every military coup. Sharif was ousted without a trial, let alone a conviction. Turning natural justice on its head, the Supreme Court first pronounced him guilty of corrupt practices on the basis of the report of a military intelligence-associated Joint Investigation Team and then ordered his trial post-ouster.

The Sharif removal anniversary last Saturday was a reminder that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s surprise Lahore visit proved very costly for the now-jailed Sharif and for India, with the Pakistani military responding with a series of daring terrorist attacks on Indian security bases, from Pathankot to Uri and Nagrota. Modi’s visit sealed Sharif’s political fate, with the subsequent Panama Papers leak providing the perfect pretext for ousting him.

For India, this is not just a cautionary tale but also a sobering lesson that policy made on the fly increases the odds of a boomerang effect. So does diplomacy seeking to befriend Pakistan’s civilian government in the hope of both offsetting Pakistani military’s implacable hostility to India and driving a wedge between civilian and military authorities. Such diplomacy has repeatedly recoiled on India. Didn’t Atal Bihari Vajpayee ride a bus to Pakistan and then publicly bewail that his “bus got hijacked and taken to the Kargil battlefield”?

The latest election has changed little in Pakistan, a country still struggling to be at peace with itself. The Pakistani military will remain the puppet master calling the shots from behind the scenes, with Imran as its newest puppet.

The military didn’t just stack the electoral odds in Imran’s favour; it did practically everything to put him in power. It took the general election to literally mean that it was to be run by the generals.

It was the military’s brainchild to bring into the political mainstream the terrorists and militants assisting its belligerent India policy and Afghanistan meddling. In the election, not all the Islamists and militants fared badly. One militant group, Tehreek-i-Labbaik, garnered nearly two million votes. Even in the case of the terrorist-affiliated groups that were routed, the military has largely succeeded in its objective of “mainstreaming” them. The terrorists’ conversion into politicians means not just that they no longer are pariahs; their increasing political footprint in the coming years will likely extend Pakistan’s jihad culture to the polity.

The military has actually scored a double win: The next PM is a supporter of the military-backed jihadists and Islamists. Imran, long ridiculed as “Im the Dim” for his lack of intelligence, has morphed into a religious zealot who plays the blasphemy card and whose party brass includes hardcore extremists like Ijaz Shah, an ex-ISI officer and handler of Hafiz Saeed, Mullah Omar and Daniel Pearl’s murderer. Shah, now in Parliament, also helped hide Osama bin Laden.

Make no mistake: After this contrived election, Pakistan seriously risks slipping deeper into a jihadist dungeon. Its exploding population, resource pressures, a pervasive lack of jobs, high illiteracy and fast-spreading jihadism create a deadly cocktail of internal disarray. Caught in mounting debt to China, it now needs an international bailout.

Successive Indian governments have failed to develop a clear strategy to deal with this Mecca of terrorism. India’s policy pendulum on Pakistan actually swings from one extreme to the other — from vowing a decisive fight to making schmaltzy overtures. While Washington has cut off security assistance to Pakistan and periodically slaps new sanctions on Pakistan-based terrorists, India is loath to back its rhetoric with even modest diplomatic sanctions or by leveraging the Indus Waters Treaty, the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement. All talk and no action, by undermining Indian deterrence, has invited continuing cross-border terrorism.

Today, instead of rushing to engage Imran, New Delhi should let the new leader establish his bona fide intentions for combating terrorism. Tellingly, in his “victory” speech, he called Kashmir the “core” subject but evaded the central issue for India, Afghanistan, the US and Pakistan’s own future — tackling and terminating the presence of terrorist groups on Pakistani soil.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

US sanctions policy risks alienating India

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Washington should be mindful of India’s heavy dependence on Iranian oil and Russian arms sales, exemplified by the INS Vikramaditya carrier adopted from Russia.   © Reuters

After hitting New Delhi with Russia and Iran measures, Washington seeks to limit their impact.

When the U.S. slaps a nation with punitive sanctions, it tries to prevent not only American companies from doing business with the target country but also those of other states. Inevitably, these extraterritorial effects hit some countries much harder than others — as India has just found to its cost.

Even though New Delhi has been boosting ties with Washington for over a decade, it is a prime victim of two new sets of U.S. economic sanctions — on Iran and on Russia. These two countries, now at the center of the current American foreign policy debate, are both long-standing economic and political partners for India.

Since New Delhi cannot suddenly wind down the relationships with them without jeopardizing its national security, it must consider carefully how to balance those interests with its growing strategic partnership with the U.S., a top trading and defense partner of India. Washington, for its part, should give maneuvering space to India, a key player in the U.S.’s biggest geopolitical game in the Indo-Pacific region — reining in an increasingly muscular China.

Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, followed by his globally applicable sanctions to choke the Iranian economy, has prompted calls for defiance even from Washington’s close allies in Europe. The U.S. president’s latest offer of direct talks with Iranian leaders may signal a wish to strike a deal but he is a long way off from lifting sanctions.

Extraterritorial sanctions are also at the heart of a new Russia-centered law passed by the U.S. Congress — the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAASTA. The law hits Russia where it hurts most, its defense and energy businesses.

India, a significant buyer of Russian weapons and the second-largest importer of Iranian oil after China, has been made acutely aware of the risks of aligning itself closer with the U.S.

In actual fact, America has overtaken Russia in recent years as the top arms seller to New Delhi, and also emerged as a source of oil and gas supply to India. But these evolving ties cannot at this stage replace India’s links with Russia and Iran. The U.S. has basically transferred defensive military systems, while Russia has sold India offensive weapons, including a nuclear-powered submarine and an aircraft carrier. India also relies on Russian spare parts for maintenance of its Soviet-origin systems. Meanwhile, in oil, nearby Iran has long been one of India’s top suppliers.

Even before the new Iran sanctions and CAATSA, questions were being asked in India about whether the pro-U.S. foreign policy pursued by successive governments since 2004 had yielded any concrete returns.

One telling point was the tense border standoff between Indian and Chinese troops on the remote Doklam plateau about a year ago, when Washington did not issue a single statement in India’s support but chose to stay neutral, despite a fusillade of Chinese threats to teach India a “lesson.” Many in India have come to believe that New Delhi can rely on an unpredictable and transactional Trump administration only at its peril.

In recent months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seemingly attempted to mitigate the risks from his open embrace of the U.S. by seeking to ease tensions with China and reverse a declining relationship with Russia. At his initiative, Modi held separate summit meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Wuhan and Sochi, respectively. These initiatives were seen in Washington as a subtle attempt to recalibrate ties with the U.S.

Since then, a realization that the new sanctions would be counterproductive to the U.S.’s relations with India and other key partners has led the Trump administration and Congress to separately climb down from their positions that there would be no sanctions exemptions.

Congress this week enacted CAATSA waivers for India and two other countries, while the administration, signaling a readiness to consider granting waivers, has walked back from its pointblank threat to impose sanctions on countries buying Iranian oil beyond its Nov. 4 deadline. The administration has yet to clarify the conditions or duration of any waivers.

However, the Iran-related sanctions, even before entering into force, have already increased the oil import bill of India, the world’s third largest crude importer, by driving up prices.

India, while warning its energy companies of the risk of U.S. sanctions if they do not wind down their trade with Iran by early November, is pressing Washington for sanctions relief. In the previous round of Iran sanctions under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, India secured rolling six-month waivers from U.S. sanctions by showing that it was continuing to reduce its imports of Iranian oil. To sidestep the U.S. financial system, India had to pay Iran in its own currency and accelerate barter trade.

Under CAATSA, Congress deliberately set the bar for any presidential waiver very high so as to tie Trump’s hands on the Russia sanctions. But after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned that “the sanctions will only drive strategic partners to buy more Russian hardware and prevent them from buying American in the future,” Congress relented.

Significantly, CAATSA waivers are being granted for the three countries that Washington is trying to bring closer into its orbit — India, Indonesia and Vietnam — but not for Turkey, a NATO member that is, like India, buying the S-400 long-range air and anti-missile defense system from Russia.

U.S. pressure on India, Indonesia and Vietnam, however, is unlikely to fully dissipate because no blanket waivers are being granted. Congress has mandated that each country demonstrate that it is significantly reducing dependence on Russian arms or significantly increasing cooperation with the U.S.

The price the U.S. is seeking to extract from India for a waiver is its signature on two remaining “foundational defense agreements.” After getting India to accept a logistics assistance pact, which includes access to designated Indian military sites, the U.S. is now pushing for India to endorse a secure communications accord (which the Indian military fears could compromise its network) and a geospatial intelligence agreement.

More fundamentally, the U.S. intends to influence the Indian, Indonesian and Vietnamese arms procurement policies. As Mattis told Congress, “we are faced with an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to decrease Russia’s dominance in key regions.” Indeed, CAATSA was enacted with the intent to shift arms business from Russia — an important weapons seller to China’s potential adversaries, from India to Vietnam and Indonesia — to the U.S., already the world’s top arms exporter.

The Iran sanctions’ impact on India could also impede its loudly touted transportation corridor to Afghanistan via Iran, which includes the Chabahar Port modernization project. This joint India-Iran project, which circumvents any need to cross Pakistani territory, highlights the strategic importance of Tehran for New Delhi.

U.S. foreign policy has long relied on sanctions, despite their uncertain effectiveness and unpredictable consequences. For example, crippling U.S. sanctions prompted Japan’s 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, leading to the Pacific War that ended with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The newest Iran sanctions, which make China the likely main beneficiary by driving Beijing and Tehran closer together, also underscore the law of unintended consequences.

Ensnaring India in sanctions aimed at punishing Iran and Russia, and then dangling concessions, undermines the U.S. goal of developing a more robust defense relationship with the world’s largest democracy and building a stable power balance in the Indo-Pacific. While the U.S. and India will remain close friends, Washington has gratuitously introduced a major irritant in the relationship that no waivers can fully purge.

Such unilateralism also highlights why the American-led strategy for a free, open and democratic-led Indo-Pacific — aimed at containing China by cooperating with India and other partners — has yet to acquire strategic heft.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War.”

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

Japan’s Pivotal Role in the Emerging Indo-Pacific Order

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Brahma Chellaney, Asia-Pacific Review, Volume 25, 2018 – Issue 1

ABSTRACT

The imperative in the Indo-Pacific region is to build a new strategic equilibrium pivoted on a stable balance of power. A constellation of likeminded states linked by interlocking strategic cooperation has become critical to help build such equilibrium. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the author of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that the US is now pushing. But Japan faces important strategic challenges. To secure itself against dangers that did not exist when its current national-security policies and laws were framed, Japan must bolster its security or risk coming under siege. US security interests will be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. The US must encourage Japan, which has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II, to undertake greater national-security reforms. Peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan.

 

We live in a rapidly changing world. The past three decades have brought truly revolutionary change. The world has changed fundamentally in a geopolitical sense since the fall of the Berlin Wall. We have seen the most profound geopolitical change in the most compressed timeframe in history. And thanks to the even more rapid pace of technological change, technological forces are now playing a greater role in shaping geopolitics than at any other time in history. Economically, the pace of change has been no less dramatic, leading to global interdependence and lower trade barriers and accelerated growth.

Yet, when we look back over this period of three decades, no analyst foresaw such change coming. For example, no one predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union or the rapid rise of Asia. The Soviet Union collapsed almost like a deck of cards, fundamentally changing global geopolitics. In the economic realm, no analyst foresaw the two processes that have shaped globalization: the denationalization of production and the denationalization of consumption. The denationalization of production has resulted in the stages of production becoming geographically separated, leading to value chains being formed internationally. And the denationalization of consumption has allowed consumers to buy goods and services from places where they are produced more efficiently.

It is safe to say that the next three decades will likely bring changes no less dramatic than what the last three decades witnessed. But no analyst will be able to accurately predict what the next three decades will bring. What we do know is that the Asia-Pacific region holds the key to global security.1 The region is home not only to the world’s fastest-growing economies, but also to the fastest-increasing military expenditures and naval capabilities, the fiercest competition over natural resources, and the most dangerous strategic hot spots.

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

The main driver of this shift has been China. If there is one action by any power that holds the greatest strategic ramifications for global security and the international maritime order, it is China’s alteration of the status quo in the South China Sea in disregard of international norms. Operating in the threshold between peace and war, China, by creating artificial islands in the South China Sea, has pushed its borders far out into international waters in a way no other power has done elsewhere.

Having militarized these outposts and presented this development as a fait accompli to the rest of the world, it is now shifting its focus to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Already, China has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, located at the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, China is planning to open a new naval base next to Pakistan’s Chinese-controlled Gwadar port. And it has leased several islands in the crisis-ridden Maldives, where it is set to build a marine observatory that will provide subsurface data supporting the deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile subs (SSBNs) in the Indian Ocean. In short, China has fundamentally transformed the strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific, raising new challenges for regional countries like Japan, India, Vietnam, and Australia.

A constellation of likeminded states linked by interlocking strategic cooperation has become critical to help institute power stability. The imperative is to build a new strategic equilibrium, including a stable balance of power. If likeminded states do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could firmly entrench China’s strategic advantages. The result could be the ascendancy of a China-led illiberal hegemonic regional order, at the expense of the liberal rules-based order that most countries in the Indo-Pacific support. Given the region’s economic weight, this would create significant risks for global markets and international security.

Japan’s security dilemma

In modern history, Japan, the “Land of the Rising Sun,” has often inspired other Asian states. This is because Japan has had the distinction of mostly staying ahead of the rest of Asia. During the 1868-1912 Meiji era, Japan became Asia’s first modern economic success story. It then went on to become the first Asian country to emerge as a global military power when, between 1895 and 1905, it defeated Manchu-ruled China and Tsarist Russia in separate wars. With much of Asia colonized by Europeans, Russia’s military rout at the hands of the Japanese came as a shot in the arm to Asian independence movements. After Japan’s crushing defeat in World War II, Japan rose from the ashes rapidly to emerge as Asia’s first global economic powerhouse by the 1980s, an industrial dynamo of a kind Asia had never seen.

Specializing in the highest-value links of the global supply chains, Japan today ranks among the world’s richest countries. With its Gini coefficient of 0.25, it boasts the lowest income inequality in Asia, even though income inequality is now rising in this country. Japan’s per capita GDP of about $39,000 means that its citizens are almost five times wealthier than Chinese.

To be sure, Japan’s geopolitical clout has taken a beating due to a quarter-century of sluggish economic growth, a period in which China and the rest of Asia have risen dramatically. But despite the international media depicting Japan’s decline in almost gloomy terms, the truth is that real per-capita income has increased faster in this century in Japan than in the US and Britain, while Japan’s unemployment rate has long remained one of the lowest among the OECD economies. Japan enjoys the highest life expectancy of any large country in the world.

Japan’s trailblazing role in modern history raises the question as to whether its current challenges, including population aging and sluggish economic growth, presage a similar trend across East Asia. Similar problems are now beginning to trouble South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, while China has been driven to loosen its one-child policy and unveil measures to reverse slowing economic growth.

More fundamentally, Japan—Asia’s oldest liberal democracy—faces pressing security challenges today, at a time of shifting power dynamics in Asia. Japan is an archipelago of almost 7,000 islands, with a population of about 127 million. In terms of land area, Japan is ranked 60th in the world. But Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone of about 4.5 million square kilometers is the sixth largest in the world; it is larger than China’s. Of the 400 remote islands that serve as markers for determining Japan’s territorial waters, only about 50 are inhabited. No group of islands, of course, poses a bigger challenge for its security than the Senkakus, a clutch of five uninhabited islets and three rocks.

Japan’s 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 expenditures of Japan, Russia, Britain, and France.2 As the power balance in Asia shifts, Japan’s security concerns are accentuating.

Japan’s national-security reforms in recent years are part of its effort to reinvent itself as a more secure and competitive nation. The international spotlight on its prolonged economic woes has helped obscure one of the farthest-reaching but least-noticed developments in Asia in this century—Japan’s quiet political resurgence. Japan has historically punched above its weight—a record punctured only by its crushing World War II defeat. Today, despite achieving a high standard of living, Japan is an increasingly insecure nation. Content for decades to let the United States take care of its security, Japan confronts fast-changing security and power dynamics in Asia, with the rise of a muscular, revisionist China shaking it out of its complacency. It is determined not to accept Chinese regional hegemony.

Still, Japan faces a stark choice: bolster its security or come under siege. It must secure itself against dangers that did not exist when its current national-security policies and laws were framed. This grating reality has prompted Japan to establish the National Security Council and take some long-overdue steps, including easing its longstanding, self-imposed ban on export of arms and asserting the right to exercise “collective self-defense.” The reforms in security policy allow the Japanese military to pursue broader peacekeeping and other combat missions overseas in sync with national interest. More importantly, by removing legal ambiguities on the role Japan can play internationally, the reforms facilitate greater Japanese engagement in multilateral and bilateral arrangements. Earlier, large parts of Japan’s overseas security engagements were open to challenge on constitutionality grounds. By removing ambiguities, the security-policy reforms open the path for Japan to play a more active role multilaterally and bilaterally with friendly countries. For example, the reforms will help facilitate building security collaboration with other countries in ways that reinforce Japan’s own security and shore up an Asian order that is under challenge from Chinese revisionism.

To be clear, the policy moves—designed to “normalize” Japan’s security posture—have thus far been limited in scope and do not open the path to the country becoming a militaristic power. Restrictions on deployment of offensive weapons, for example, remain in place. Yet the moves have proved divisive at home, owing to pacifism remaining deeply embedded in Japanese society, in part because of the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism. The core issue at stake, however, is not whether Japan should remain pacifist (the US-imposed Constitution has made Japan the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation) but whether it should stay passive in regional and international affairs. Enduring peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan. If the Japanese government is to play a proactive role, it must win over a divided public at home. This is borne out by a Pew Research Center survey: 47% of Americans want Japan to play a more active role in regional security; by contrast, only 23% of Japanese want their country to play a more active role.3

If Japan fails to push further reforms of its postwar institutions and policies to meet the new challenges, it could erode its security. A Japan that is better able to defend itself and to partner with friendly Indo-Pacific countries would be able to forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia. Even US security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. After all, Japan’s policy of pacifism under the US military umbrella seems no longer adequate to shield Japanese interests—or even American interests.

A still-pacifist but proactive Japan would be able to take its rightful place in the world. But to underpin a “proactive contribution to peace”—a term popularized by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe— does Japan need to become a militarily independent power like two of America’s closest allies, Britain or France? Britain and France have built formidable military-deterrent capabilities, rather than entrust their security to the US. Legally, Japan does not have the choice to pursue the nuclear-weapons option. But, even without its abandoning the security treaty with the US, it can build robust conventional-force capabilities, including information-warfare systems, given that the cyber-realm would play an increasingly important role in conflict.

Japan’s domestic constraints

Domestic constraints accentuate Japan’s security dilemma. One example is the difficulty in reforming the Japanese Constitution, which was imposed by the occupying American forces in 1947 after disbanding the Japanese military.4  Being the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation was something the post-war Japan became proud of. Yet the fact is that no other country in the world is bound by the kind of constitutional restrictions that were imposed on vanquished Japan by an occupying power.

The Constitution prohibits Japan from acquiring the means of war and bars its purely defensive military, called the Self-Defense Forces, from staging rescue missions or other overseas operations even to free Japanese hostages. Indeed, to set up wholly defensive armed forces in the 1950s, Japan had to loosely interpret the Constitution’s force-renouncing Article 9, which says “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” This major reinterpretation was done, paradoxically, at the behest of the US, which, after disbanding the Japanese military, realized the value of building Japan as its loyal vassal on the frontlines of the Cold War.

Yet Japan has clung to that Constitution all these years without so much as carrying out a single amendment or changing even one word. Many other democracies regard their constitutions not as cast in stone but as open to change so that they stay abreast with new social, technological, and economic developments. For example, India—whose Constitution is almost as old as Japan’s—has incorporated 100 amendments thus far. There have been fewer amendments—27—to the U.S. Constitution since its enactment in 1787. No constitution can be perfect. A constitution, like the democratic system it embodies, should be open to improvements.

In this light, Prime Minister Abe has made an impassioned appeal for constitutional reform, suggesting that the time may have come to emulate the same kind of far-reaching change that allowed Japan to rise from the ashes of its World War II defeat. Addressing the Diet, he once asked: “For the future of Japan, shouldn’t we accomplish in this Diet the biggest reform since the end of the war?” Abe’s contention that the Constitution no longer reflects the realities now facing Japan and thus needs to be updated is strengthened by another fact: Germany, also defeated in World War II, has over the years made 59 amendments to its Basic Law, or Constitution, which it adopted when it was under Allied occupation.5

Japan and Germany regained sovereignty from post-World War II military occupation only after embracing constitutional guarantees against any future threats from them to peace. However, West Germany’s new Constitution, while outlawing a war of aggression, authorized military force in self-defense or as part of a collective security agreement. By contrast, Japan’s Article 9 went further, stating that “the Japanese people forever renounce … the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” By forcing Japan to renounce war as “a sovereign right of the nation,” the Constitution imposed stringent restraints.

One key reason the German Constitution did not contain some of the harsh provisions of the US-imposed Japanese Constitution is that, by the time the German Constitution was drafted in 1949, the Cold War was in full swing, with the US-British-French focus shifting to containing communism. Japan’s constitution was imposed two years earlier. The start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, coupled with the Communist takeover of China and China’s entry into the Korean War, changed American thinking on the pacifist constitution the US had imposed on Japan. In 1953, while visiting Japan as President Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon called the US-imposed constitution “a mistake.”

Today, from a legal standpoint, national-security reforms in Japan are linked with constitutional reform. For example, the Japanese armed forces are still called the “Self-Defense Forces.” In the more recent Japanese debate on Japan asserting the right to exercise “collective self-defense,” the focus was on the constitutionality of the move, not on substance or the strategic imperative. In fact, when Abe’s government in July 2014 reinterpreted the Constitution to assert the right to exercise collective self-defense, thus allowing Japan’s military to defend the US and other foreign armed forces even when Japan isn’t under direct attack, critics denounced the reinterpretation as undermining the Constitution. Abe was accused of changing a core element of the Constitution through reinterpretation rather than legislative amendment process. The fact is this reinterpretation was small compared with what the Americans did just years after imposing a Constitution on Japan. Through a major reinterpretation of the Constitution it imposed, the US, following the start of the Cold War, encouraged Japan to rebuild its military as the “Self-Defense Forces” so as to make the country the lynchpin of America’s Asia strategy.

The constitutional-reform push in Japan today faces major domestic obstacles. For one, the Constitution places a high bar to the enactment of any amendment, making it among the hardest in the world to revise. Any amendment must win support of two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Diet and be ratified by more than half of voters in a public referendum. For another, the majority of citizens, including most of the young, today remain comfortable with the present Constitution. After all, pacifism remains deeply ingrained in Japanese society. Indeed, a global poll by the World Values Survey revealed that Japanese rank the lowest in their “willingness to fight for the country,” with only 15.3% of Japanese—compared with 74.2% of Chinese and 57.7% of Americans—expressing readiness to defend their nation.6 Underscoring the youth’s revulsion to war, just 9.5% of Japanese under 30 said they would be willing to fight. In an extension of this attitude, many Japanese regard the Constitution as sacrosanct.

Against this background, if there is one factor that can make a meaningful difference to constitutional reform in Japan, it is American support. US support for such reform will assuage many Japanese that amending the Constitution will not mean repudiating the postwar order that America established in Japan or abandoning Japan’s pacifist policy. The alliance with Japan is central to America’s military role in Asia, including forward US military presence. Japan, for its part, remains a model ally that hosts a large US troop presence, even paying for the upkeep of American forces on its soil—a generous contribution that surpasses the combined host-nation support of America’s 26 other allies, according to a Pentagon report.

US security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. Japan’s national-security and constitutional reforms, in fact, would put its alliance with the US on a sounder footing. If Japan is to take its rightful place in the world, it will have to adapt its post-war institutions and policies to meet the new challenges that confront it. Under Prime Minister Abe’s government, Japan has taken some long-overdue steps to strengthen national security. However, a lot more needs to be done to make Japan more secure, competitive, and internationally engaged.

Japan has an enviable record: It has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II. And as a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid, Japan for many decades has been a vital contributor to regional and international peace and security. The US thus must encourage Japan to undertake greater national-security reforms.

China will clearly prefer a Japan that remains dependent on America for its security than a Japan that plays a more independent role. The fact, however, is that the post-1945 system erected by the US is more suited to keep Japan as an American protectorate than to allow Japan to effectively aid the central US objective in the Asia-Pacific—a stable balance of power. A subtle US policy shift that encourages Tokyo to cut its dependence on America and do more for its own security can assist Japan in building a more secure future for itself that helps block the rise of a Sino-centric Asia.

The Senkaku challenge

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared much of the East China Sea, including the Senkakus, to be a Chinese air defense zone. 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 ominous extent of questioning Japan’s sovereignty even over 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 US-Japan Security Treaty states that an armed attack on either country, including the territories under Japan’s administration, would prompt joint action “to meet the common danger.” However, contradictory rhetoric by then US President Barack Obama instilled a sense of skepticism in Japan. Obama publicly affirmed that the US-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 US 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 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 to such doubt 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 US allies and partners in Asia.

By contrast, the US administration led by President Donald Trump has taken a more clear-cut stance in reassuring Japan that the US would defend it in a 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 that it calls on China and Japan to resolve their dispute peacefully through dialogue.

In fact, the 2017 Trump-Abe summit at Mar-a-Lago marked the first time that the US commitment to defend Japan’s control over the Senkakus was recorded in a joint statement. The February 12, 2017, 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 was an important success of Abe’s proactive diplomacy in seeking to build a personal connection with the new US 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 us 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 the larger Indo-Pacific region.

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, a focus on changing the territorial status quo is nothing new for Beijing. The People’s Republic of China has been changing the territorial status quo 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. In this manner, China has stealthily occupied much of the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam, which Bhutan—one of the world’s smallest countries—regards as its integral part. Similarly, China has progressively changed the status quo in the South China Sea in its favor.7

But 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 Japan 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. Abe has pledged that Japan will play a “greater role” in East Asian security. It is as if he is responding to Trump’s presidential campaign rhetoric that Japan, which hosts about 54,000 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 United States. Japan has long been used to practicing passive, checkbook diplomacy. But now it appears intent on influencing Asia’s power balance.

The changing power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific

How rapidly the security situation is changing in the Indo-Pacific region can be gauged from the fact that it was just five years ago that China began building artificial islands in the South China Sea. It has since militarized the newly reclaimed outposts without incurring any significant international costs. The developments in the South China Sea carry far-reaching strategic implications for the Indo-Pacific and for the international maritime order. They also highlight that the biggest threat to maritime peace and security comes from unilateralism, especially altering the territorial or maritime status quo by violating international norms and rules.

When the US aircraft carrier, Carl Vinson, made a port call at Da Nang, Vietnam, earlier this year, it attracted international attention because this was the first time that a large contingent of US military personnel landed on Vietnamese soil since the last of the American troops withdrew from that country in 1975. The symbolism of this port call, however, failed to obscure the fact that the United States has had no coherent strategy against China’s island-building program. It was on President Obama’s watch that China created and militarized the artificial islands, while his successor, Donald Trump, has focused on North Korea, Iran, and trade; the South China Sea is not even on his radar.

As a result, China, with its expanding diplomatic, economic, and military reach, is incrementally imposing its will on the region. For example, soon after the USS Carl Vinson’s visit, Chinese pressure forced Vietnam to suspend a major oil-drilling project in the South China Sea. The project, located off Vietnam’s southeastern coast, was being led by the Spanish energy firm Repsol, which, along with its partners, had already invested nearly $200 million in it. Now Repsol is asking Vietnam for compensation.

In response to China’s creation of artificial islands, the United States has repeatedly sent warships to sail through nearby waters in “Freedom of Navigation Operations“ (FONOPs).8 Such operations, however, cannot make up for the absence of a coherent US strategy in the South China Sea; they neither deter China nor reassure America’s regional allies. After all, FONOPs do not address the rapidly shifting dynamics in the region brought about by China’s island-building strategy and its militarization of disputed features in international waters. China is asserting increasing control over the South China Sea, including by installing sophisticated weapons on the islands it controls. In doing so, it is gaining de facto control of the region’s hydrocarbon resources, estimated at 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil in proved and probable reserves.9

In essence, such developments mean that China’s cost-free change of the status quo in the South China Sea has resulted in costs for other countries, especially those in Asia—from Japan and the Philippines to Vietnam and India. Countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivism have been left with difficult choices, especially as Beijing has made its determination clear to push ahead with its revisionist policies. Japan has reversed a decade of declining military outlays, while India has revived stalled naval modernization. Smaller countries, however, are in no position to challenge China. Instead, the Philippines, for example, has proposed joint oil-and-gas exploration with China in the South China Sea.

Make no mistake: The rapidly changing maritime dynamics in the Indo-Pacific are injecting greater strategic uncertainty and raising geopolitical risks. Today, the fundamental choice in the region is between a liberal, rules-based order and an illiberal, hegemonic order. As America’s National Security Strategy report stated in December 2017, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.”10 Abe is the author of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that the Trump administration is now pushing.

Few would like to live in an illiberal, hegemonic order. Yet this is exactly what the Indo-Pacific will get if regional states do not get their acts together. There is consensus among all important players other than China for an open, rules-based Indo-Pacific. Playing by international rules is central to peace and security, yet progress has been slow and tentative in promoting wider collaboration to advance regional stability and power equilibrium.

For example, the institutionalization of the Australia-India-Japan-US “Quadrilateral Initiative,” or Quad, has yet to take off. In this light, the idea of a “Quad plus two” to include France and Britain seems overly ambitious at this stage. Once the Quad takes concrete shape, Britain and France could, of course, join. They both have important naval assets in the Indo-Pacific. During French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2018 New Delhi visit, France and India agreed to reciprocal access to each other’s naval facilities. This accord is similar to India’s Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States.

Unless the Quad members start coordinating their approaches to effectively create a single regional strategy and build broader collaboration with other important players, Indo-Pacific security could come under greater strain. If Southeast Asia, a region of 600 million people, is coerced into accepting Chinese hegemony in such circumstances, it will have a cascading geopolitical impact in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Against this background, what is at stake in the East and South China Seas is not just some tiny islands (or “rocks,” as perceived by some in the US) but a rules-based regional order, freedom of navigation of the seas and skies, access to maritime resources, and balanced power dynamics in Asia. Consequently, America’s allies and partners are stepping up efforts to build credible military capabilities and assume more responsibility for their own defense.

Looking ahead, Japan—with the world’s third largest economy, a world-class navy, and impressive high-technology skills—is likely to stay a strong nation, despite being eclipsed by China’s rapid rise. Japan may not share Beijing’s obsession with measures of national power, yet Japan’s military establishment, despite lacking a nuclear deterrent, is sophisticated. As a status quo power, Japan does not need to match Chinese military prowess; defense is easier than offense. However, a Japan that fails to adapt its postwar national-security policies and laws to the new geopolitical realities of today could create a power vacuum that invites conflict. Peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan. Whatever steps Japan takes to address its security dilemma are likely to carry profound implications for Asian and international security.

About the author

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author. He is presently a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is the author of nine books, including an international bestseller, Asian Juggernaut, and the award-winning Water, Peace and War. He held appointments at Harvard University, the Brookings Institution, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and the Australian National University. He is also a columnist and commentator. His opinion articles appear in the Nikkei Asian Review, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, Japan Times, The Globe and Mail, South China Morning Post, and other important newspapers. And he has often appeared on CNN and BBC, among others.

Notes

1 Thomas Mahnken and Dan Blumenthal (eds.), Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present, and Future of Regional Security (Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2014); Aaron Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012); Robert Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (Random House, 2011); and Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (New York: Public Affairs, 2009).

2 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Trends in World Military Expenditures, 2017 (Stockholm, SIPRI, May 2018).

3 Bruce Stokes, “5 facts to help understand the US-Japan relationship,” Pew Research Center, April 7, 2015, available at: https://goo.gl/qp92NR.

The Constitution of Japan, promulgated on November 3, 1946; came into effect on May 3, 1947. Full text at: https://goo.gl/R1wViX.

5 Deutscher Bundestag, Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, available at: https:// www.btg-bestellservice.de/pdf/80201000.pdf .

6 World Values Survey, http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSOnline.jsp .

7 See Robert Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2014); and Bill Hayton, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2014).

8 Eleanor Freund, “Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea: A Practical Guide” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 2017).

9 US Energy Information Administration, “South China Sea,” February 7, 2013, available at: https://goo.gl/qqAygy.

10 White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America(Washington, DC: December 2017), available at: https://goo.gl/CWQf1t.

Why Moon is courting India

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India gains importance for Seoul as South Korea’s ‘miracle economy’ starts to face major new challenges

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visits to India and Singapore this week underscore his “New Southern Policy” (NSP), which gives priority to deepening bilateral relations with the ASEAN economies and India. NSP was unveiled on the heels of Moon’s “New Northern Policy”, whose primary but unstated objective is to jointly develop Russia’s Far East with Moscow. Simply put, the dual policies aim to invest greater resources in countries that previously were not on South Korea’s priority list.

Moon is seeking to diversify South Korea’s external portfolio so as to build a more “balanced diplomacy”. But while India’s Act East policy is driven by both geostrategic and geo-economic factors, Moon’s NSP is rooted mainly in economic logic.

There isn’t much room to expand Seoul’s already well-developed relations with China, Japan and the US. In fact, with new issues cropping up in ties with China and America, export-driven South Korea must find new markets to cut reliance on its top two trade partners. Moreover, despite increasing exports of semiconductors and electronics, South Korea’s economic growth has slowed, presenting it with important challenges.

Moon is targeting economies with the greatest growth potential: Several ASEAN economies and India are projected to grow at annual rates more than double that of South Korea in the coming years. Seoul, however, is not alone in courting Southeast Asia and India.

Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pursued a “southward advance” economic strategy. Taiwan’s new “Southbound Policy” is driven by the same economic rationale, and seeks similar strategic objectives, as Moon’s NSP. China too has a southern policy, which goes by the official name of “One Belt, One Road”. Then there is Australia, which is looking at Southeast Asia and India, in part to mitigate its China-related risks.

Similar risks are also driving Moon’s NSP. China’s heavy-handed economic sanctioning of South Korea, in response to the US deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system, has served as a wake-up call for South Korea, making it conscious of its vulnerabilities and forcing a rethink. Although the informal Chinese sanctions began before Moon was elected president, the shock therapy administered by China’s use of economic coercion as a tool of statecraft led to his NSP.

South Korea is too heavily dependent on one market — China’s market — a factor that arms Beijing with considerable leverage over Seoul. Diversification is essential to a hedging strategy. And hedging is at the heart of Moon’s NSP.

Today, rebooting inter-Korean economic relations is emerging as an option — an option that can yield rich dividends if progress were made toward denuclearizing North Korea. Failure to build enduring inter-Korean peace, however, could rebound on the South Korean economy. Whatever scenario unfolds, the NSP imperative will likely remain intact. NSP, despite its economic focus, promises to yield broader diplomatic and strategic benefits for Seoul.

However, NSP is not an answer to the South Korean economy’s structural challenges. South Korea needs to make its economy less vulnerable to external shocks by undertaking structural reforms. In fact, Moon took office with a strong mandate to “democratize” economic growth and cultivate innovation by switching priorities from the giant family-owned conglomerates known as chaebol to smaller enterprises and start-ups and by encouraging bottom-up jobs growth. The country’s chaebol-centred crony capitalism spawned an influence-peddling scandal that cost Moon’s predecessor her job.

South Korea’s challenges largely arise from its extraordinary success in transforming itself from an economic minnow to the world’s fifth-largest exporter. South Korea was one of the world’s poorest countries in the early 1960s before it embarked on rapid economic expansion, becoming the world’s fastest-growing economy between 1963 and 1979. In 1996, South Korea joined the OECD, the club of the world’s wealthiest nations.

South Korea escaped the “middle income trap” in large part because of its democratic transition. China, however, risks falling into that trap. The fact is that South Korea went from poverty to wealth in almost one generation. There are few examples in modern history of such rapid economic success. But success can breed problems.

An unintended consequence of South Korea’s remarkable success has been its high exposure to global market volatility. South Korea has a high trade-to-GDP ratio, which is a good indicator of how vulnerable any country is to the dips and dives of the global economy. Ongoing changes in global market conditions, including US protectionism and the US-China trade war, will likely hit the South Korean economy harder than less export-dependent economies. For example, a deepening slowdown in China brought about by US tariffs would undermine South Korean exports to China, thereby further depressing South Korean growth.

Moon’s India visit was part of his effort to tide over such challenges. From enlarging South Korea’s footprint in the world’s third-biggest consumer market by purchasing power to peddling wares to the world’s largest arms importer, Moon sees India as central to NSP’s success. However, at a time when many chaebol are navigating generational transitions and Moon has committed to “democratize” economic growth, structural reform at home is the price South Korea must pay to sustain a “miracle economy”.

The writer is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2018.

India’s mistakes have allowed China to make inroads into Nepal

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Nepali counterpart, K.P. Oli, in Kathmandu in May.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Nepal’s new communist prime minister, K.P. Oli, has paid obeisance in Beijing, where he agreed to the proposal to extend the railway from Shigatse in Tibet to his country so as to reduce Nepali dependence on India. For India, Nepal is not just another neighbour but one that is symbiotically linked through close cultural affinity, overlapping ethnic and linguistic identities, and an open border permitting passport-free passage. The China-Nepal railway — a “game changer”, as a Chinese mouthpiece called it — will compound the impact on India’s strategic interests of Nepal’s emergence as the world’s sixth communist-ruled country.

The two communist groups that came to power in February merged into a single party in May. The new Nepali Communist Party, with almost two-thirds majority in Parliament and governments in six of the nation’s seven provinces, casts an ominous shadow over Nepal’s sputtering democratic transition. From constitutional functionaries, such as the president and vice president, to key officials, including the chief of police services, are today card-carrying communists.

Emboldened by the communists’ pervasive domination, Oli has started undermining the independence of Nepal’s institutions, from the judiciary to the election commission. The communists’ next target will likely be the army. Whether democracy will survive under communist rule is uncertain. What is clear is that Nepal is impinging on Indian security.

A Nepal increasingly open to Chinese influence shares a tightly guarded frontier with Tibet but wishes to maintain an open border with India. India has repeatedly advised Nepal that its southern border belt is turning into a zone of jihadist and foreign intelligence activities that threaten Indian security. Nepal has also become a major transit point for the flow of counterfeit Indian currency, narcotics and Chinese arms to India.

Simply put, Nepal represents a critical challenge for India. But, to a significant extent, this is a self-created problem. Three Indian blunders since the mid-2000s have proved very costly for India — spearheading the abolition of Nepal’s constitutional monarchy; bringing the underground Maoists to the centre-stage of Nepali politics; and, more recently, aiding the plains people’s revolt against the new, 2015-drafted Nepali Constitution and then abandoning their movement and pressuring them (the Madhesis) to participate in the 2017 elections, thus legitimizing a Constitution it said was flawed.

New Delhi indeed owes an apology to Nepal’s citizens for its past meddling, which, as if to underscore the law of unintended consequences, boomeranged on India’s own interests. India’s mistakes set in motion developments that seriously eroded its clout in Nepal and helped China to made major inroads.

When history is written, one Manmohan Singh blunder in particular will stand out for empowering Nepali communists and undermining India’s long-term interests — engineering the ouster of Nepal’s monarchy, the symbol of that country’s stability, continuity and unity for 239 years. The monarchy was removed without ascertaining the will of the people through a referendum and without even a basic level of due process.

Singh’s government, which at that time was dependent on communist support at home for survival, intervened as a peace maker. But what mattered to it was just one thing — accommodating the Maoists’ main demand for the monarchy’s removal in order to bring them into the Nepali political mainstream. It hosted a meeting between Nepal’s Maoists and opposition parties in November 2005 at which an accord to abolish the monarchy was reached. How empowering Nepali Maoists and other communists would serve India’s interest, and what the larger implications of the monarchy’s abolition would be for Nepal’s future, were issues that went unexamined.

The upshot was that Nepal went from being a Hindu kingdom (indeed the world’s only officially Hindu nation) to coming under the sway of communists, who largely filled the void from the monarchy’s removal, thereby undercutting the influence of the Nepali Congress Party, dominant until then. From 2008 onwards, the Nepali communists were in coalition governments for almost a decade before capturing power on their own in the last elections. Oli’s Marxist-Leninist Party and the Maoists, which fought the elections jointly under China’s advice, tapped into grassroots anger over the Indian-backed Madhesi protesters’ earlier border blockade.

India, paradoxically, is still unable to make peace with its own Maoists. In fact, the Nepali Maoists’ Indian-assisted success in enjoying power after waging a decade-long bloody insurrection has emboldened the Indian Maoists to step up their hit-and-run attacks on police and paramilitary troops. Meanwhile, the Maoists’ dreamland, China, is pulling Nepal into its orbit. Make no mistake: India is reaping what it sowed.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Trump’s North Korea diplomacy aims to contain China

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Beijing is at risk of losing its only ally in Northeast Asia.

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Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review 

U.S. President Donald Trump, by seeking to clinch a deal directly with Pyongyang, is attempting to effectively cut out the traditional middleman, China. Beijing’s growing anxieties over the engagement between Washington and Pyongyang have prompted it to host North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un for the third time in less than three months.

In fact, the White House has already eroded China’s role as an essential conduit in U.S. diplomacy with Pyongyang by establishing direct connections, including a virtual hotline, to Kim, while Chinese President Xi Jinping has no hotline with him.

Kim has also fueled Beijing’s geopolitical troubles, displaying strategic defiance as he attempts to cut North Korea’s dependence on China, its longtime benefactor. In his search for a grand bargain to end North Korea’s international isolation, Kim effectively sidelined China by deciding to hold separate summits with his nation’s bitterest enemies, South Korea and the U.S.

Instead of both Koreas leaning toward China, as Xi’s strategy seeks, recent developments are consigning Beijing to a peripheral role in the region just when a trade war with the U.S. looms large. China has silently waged a trade war for years, facing no international reprisals. The situation will fundamentally change if the bulk of Trump’s tariffs of 25% on $50 billion of imports from China take effect from July 6.

Kim’s three visits to China in quick succession cannot obscure the serious strains in Beijing-Pyongyang relations, which Mao Zedong famously claimed were as close as lips are to teeth. Distrust of China, the historical rival of Koreans, runs deep in North Korea, which has no monuments honoring the 400,000 Chinese soldiers who died fighting on its behalf during the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Bilateral ties began deteriorating after Kim came to power in late 2011. China’s state media accused him of pursuing the “de-Sinification” of the hermit kingdom. Kim broke with the tradition set by his father and grandfather, who ruled before him, of paying obeisance in Beijing. To counterbalance China’s influence, Kim sent out feelers to U.S. President Barack Obama to improve relations, only to be rebuffed.

Yet Kim’s defiance of China continued. His nuclear and missile tests were often timed to snub Beijing. The tests set in motion developments adverse to Chinese interests — from initiating Japan’s efforts to strengthen its military to prompting the U.S. to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system in South Korea. THAAD’s deployment led to China’s heavy-handed and counterproductive economic sanctioning of South Korea.

Xi sought to ease the increasingly fraught relationship with Pyongyang only after Trump began laying the groundwork for a summit with Kim by using the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to communicate with its North Korean counterpart, the Reconnaissance General Bureau. Despite the past North Korean snubs, Xi sent a senior envoy to Pyongyang to invite Kim to China, his first foreign trip since assuming power.

Kim’s China visits since late March have been primarily aimed at strengthening his own bargaining position with the U.S. By playing one power against the other, he has sought to bolster his leverage. But his action in inviting observers from the U.S. and South Korea, but not China, to the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear test site indicated that he is unwilling to forgive Beijing for its linchpin role in imposing United Nations sanctions against his nation.

Consequently, China, which values North Korea as a strategic buffer against the U.S. military presence in South Korea, has become increasingly suspicious of Kim’s overtures to Washington and the Trump administration’s direct dealings with Pyongyang. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Beijing after the Trump-Xi summit did little to allay Chinese apprehensions.

Beijing fears that, just as it formally turned against the Soviet Union after it developed high-level contacts with the U.S. in the early 1970s, its estranged ally, North Korea, could similarly switch sides now. Kim, however, seems more interested in achieving a limited goal — rebalancing his foreign policy by mending fences with the U.S. to reduce North Korea’s reliance on China, whose neo-imperialist policies are arousing growing concerns in Asia and beyond.

Make no mistake: The path to North Korea’s denuclearization promises to be long and difficult, given its extensive nuclear and missile infrastructure and Kim’s firm belief that the nuclear arsenal serves as insurance against his country becoming China’s colony. Not only does such an arsenal hold greater security implications for China than for the U.S., but also Trump’s diplomacy is making it more difficult for Beijing to keep North Korea in its orbit. Washington’s direct diplomacy with North Korea began in dramatic fashion, with Pompeo, when he was CIA chief, holding unpublicized talks with Kim in Pyongyang.

Yet some analysts have speciously claimed that China, without being at the table, was the clear winner from Trump’s summit with Kim. Critics have accused Trump of making “big concessions” in exchange for securing indefinable commitments from Kim. The only concession Trump made — suspending U.S. war games with South Korea as a gesture of good faith — is easily reversible if negotiations do not yield progress.

To be sure, Beijing last September proposed the suspension of the U.S. military exercises in exchange for a North Korean moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. It was Kim, however, who undermined China’s “freeze for freeze” proposal by unilaterally declaring a test moratorium in April without any reciprocal U.S. concession.

Under Obama, the U.S. helped end Myanmar’s international isolation, with the U.S. president paying a historic visit to that county in 2012. The shift in U.S. policy allowed Myanmar to cut its dependence on China and open its economy to Western investors. Now Trump is encouraging another isolated, China-dependent state, North Korea, to end its international pariah status.

North Korea — with its vast store of iron ore, magnesite, copper and other minerals — is resource-rich like Myanmar, whose natural reserves range from oil and gas to jade and timber. Resource-hungry China has been the dominant importer of natural resources from both of these countries.

North Korea, however, is different from Myanmar in two key aspects. It is armed with potent nuclear and missile capabilities, while it is also a homogenous and regimented society, in contrast to ethnically diverse and troubled Myanmar.

Trump is right that at this stage fundamentally changing the U.S.-North Korea relationship matters more than denuclearization. If the West encourages Kim’s efforts to modernize the North Korean economy, just as it aided China’s economic rise since the late 1970s, it will help to moderate Pyongyang’s behavior. Economic engagement can achieve a lot more than economic sanctions, which counterproductively accelerated North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances.

U.S. policy under Trump’s predecessors, instead of helping Pyongyang to escape from China’s clutches, attempted to push it further into China’s corner. It also helped Beijing to play the North Korea card against the U.S. and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea.

But Beijing’s efforts to string the U.S. along on North Korea came to naught when Washington established direct contact with Pyongyang. Beijing even tried to use its North Korea leverage in the trade dispute with Washington, which explains why Trump waited until after his summit with Kim to announce new planned tariffs against China.

With Washington’s sanctions-only approach encouraging Pyongyang to expand its nuclear and missile programs, a shift in its North Korea policy became imperative even before Trump took office. Trump’s direct diplomacy seeks to address that imperative by seizing on Pyongyang’s desire to unlock frozen ties with the U.S. and by exploiting the China-North Korea rift.

At the core of Trump’s North Korea gambit is the containment of China, a fact many analysts have missed. By seeking to co-opt North Korea, including encouraging closer links with Seoul, Washington aims to foster a major new regional alignment that diminishes China’s relevance.

If Beijing cannot keep North Korea as a client state, China’s lonely rise will become more conspicuous. Its only other strategic ally is Pakistan. The more power China has accumulated, the greater has been its problems in gaining reliable security partners, underscoring that regional leadership demands more than brute might.

Clearing the path to North Korean disarmament will not be easy. Yet Trump’s direct diplomacy promises to positively change northeast Asian geopolitics by crimping China’s leverage and role, even as U.S. troops remain in South Korea. If Washington stays on its current course, China will be the clear loser.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

Who Lost the South China Sea?

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY,  a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Trump delivers lessons for Japan on North Korea

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By BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Japan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2018.

Doklam exemplifies China’s broader recidivism in Himalayas

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

The challenge of America’s new extraterritorial sanctions

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

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Japan Times 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.

The World According to Trump and Xi

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

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can democracy and communism coexist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(c) Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

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

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writer is a geostrategist and author.

© The Times of India, 2018.

The art of unraveling a potential deal

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.

The Nehruvian Style of Modi’s Foreign Policy

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Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foreign policy challenges

India faces major foreign-policy challenges, which by and large predate Modi’s ascension to power. India is home to more than one-sixth of the world’s population, yet it punches far below its weight. A year before Modi assumed office, an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, titled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how the country is resisting its own rise, as if the political miasma in New Delhi had turned the country into its own worst enemy.

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

India also confronts the strengthening nexus between its two nuclear-armed regional adversaries, China and Pakistan, both of which have staked claims to substantial swaths of Indian territory and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction. In dealing with these countries, Modi has faced the same dilemma that has haunted previous Indian governments: the Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministries are weak actors. The Communist Party and the military shape Chinese foreign policy, while Pakistan is effectively controlled by its army and intelligence services, which still use terror groups as proxies. Under Modi, India has repeatedly faced daring terrorist attacks staged from Pakistan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaping Modi’s legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Open magazine, 2018. 

Changing Indo-Pacific power dynamics

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Brahma Chellaney, The Washington Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© The Washington Times, 2018.

India’s “hug, then repent” proclivity

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

India’s Nepal challenge

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

Brahma Chellaney, DNA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© DNA, 2018.

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

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

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

Chabahar: Gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, April 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

How to Negotiate with North Korea

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Making Water-Smart Energy Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Why the South China Sea is critical to security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.

America’s Pakistan Problem

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© Hindustan Times, 2018.

China’s stealth wars in the Himalayas

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

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

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

A New Order for the Indo-Pacific

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

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

China ensnares vulnerable states in a debt trap

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

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

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

India’s Choice in the Maldives

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

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

The Maldives: The moment of truth

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

How Can America Change Pakistani Behavior?

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

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate column

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

India has forgotten its own realist strategic thought

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

Chanakya

Brahma Chellaney, DNA, January 26, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© DNA, 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© South China Morning Post, 2018.

China’s Creditor Imperialism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Water shortages could trigger Asia conflicts

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A number of factors threaten environmental stability and spur climate change

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

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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

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

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

Transboundary problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Demand-side options

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

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

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

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

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

China’s actions risk creating a coalition of democratic powers

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Brahma Chellaney, Professor, Center for Policy Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© China-US Focus, 2017.