Pakistan, China and terrorism

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China is left with just one real ally — Pakistan.    © Reuters

Beijing’s support protects Islamabad from global pressure to suppress militants

International calls for Pakistan to take concrete steps against the terrorist groups that operate from its territory have mounted in recent weeks after a Valentine’s Day attack killed 41 Indian paramilitary soldiers and sparked a military crisis on the subcontinent.

Such appeals have been made by the United States, Japan and European powers but one voice has been conspicuous by its absence — China’s.

If anything, Beijing has sought to shield Pakistan from international censure. Most recently, on March 13, China blocked United Nations Security Council action against the ailing founder of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed group, which is already under international terrorism sanctions. The aim was not to protect a terrorist leader reportedly on his deathbed but to frustrate the international pressure that has grown on Islamabad to take credible anti-terror actions.

The U.S., for example, has insisted Pakistan take “sustained, irreversible action against terrorist groups.” Jaish-e-Mohammed, which was quick to claim responsibility for the Valentine’s Day attack, is just one of 22 U.N.-designated terrorist entities that Pakistan hosts.

Pakistan’s civilian leadership routinely denies that the country’s military cultivates terrorist surrogates. But India holds Islamabad responsible for multiple outrages including the Valentine’s Day attack, which coincided with deadly terrorist strikes on Iranian and Afghan troops that Tehran and Kabul also blamed on Pakistan.

In coming to Pakistan’s help at a critical time, China has highlighted the strategic importance it still attaches to its ties with that increasingly fragile and debt-ridden country. In contrast to America’s strong network of allies and partners, China can count on few true strategic allies or reliable security partners. When it joined hands with Washington to impose new international sanctions on North Korea, once its vassal, Beijing implicitly highlighted that it was left with just one real ally — Pakistan.

The China-Pakistan axis has been cemented by “iron brotherhood,” with the two “as close as lips and teeth,” according to Beijing. It calls Pakistan its “all-weather friend.”

China, however, has little in common with Pakistan, beyond the fact that both are dissatisfied with their existing frontiers and claim territory held by neighbors. Their “iron brotherhood” is actually about a shared interest in containing India. That interest has raised the specter for New Delhi of a two-front war in the event military conflict breaks out with either Pakistan or China.

However, the immediate threat India faces is asymmetric warfare, including China’s “salami slicing” strategy of furtive, incremental territorial encroachments in the Himalayas and Pakistan’s use of terrorist proxies. No surprise then, that China seeks to shield Pakistan’s proxy war by Islamist terror against India. Beijing seems untroubled by the seeming contradiction between this approach abroad while, at home, it locks up more than a million Muslims from Xinjiang in the name of cleansing their minds of extremist thoughts.

For years, China has been attracted by Pakistan’s willingness to serve as its economic and military client. China has sold Pakistan weapons its own military has not inducted, as well as prototype nuclear power reactors.

Since at least 2005, Pakistan has allowed Beijing to station thousands of Chinese troops in the Pakistani part of the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir, where control is divided between India (45%), Pakistan (35%) and China (20%). More recently, China has sought to turn Pakistan into its land corridor to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. With Chinese involvement, the northern Arabian Sea is becoming militarized: China has supplied warships to the Pakistani navy, it controls Pakistan’s Gwadar port, and its submarines are on patrol.

For Pakistan, however, China’s close embrace is becoming a tight squeeze financially. Fast-rising debt to Beijing has contributed to Pakistan’s dire financial situation today. With its economy teetering on the brink of default, Pakistan is urgently seeking a $12 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Pakistan is the largest recipient of Chinese financing under President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Pakistani military has created a special 15,000-troop army division to protect Chinese projects. In addition, thousands of police have been deployed to protect Chinese workers. Yet, underscoring the security costs, attacks on Chinese people in Pakistan have occurred now and then.

Rising financial costs, however, are triggering a pushback against Chinese projects even in friendly Pakistan. The new military-backed Pakistani government that took office last summer under Imran Khan has sought to scrap, scale back or renegotiate some Chinese projects. It downsized the main Chinese railway project by $2 billion, removed a $14 billion dam from Chinese financing, and canceled a 1,320-megawatt coal-based power plant.

China is receiving 91% of revenues from Gwadar port until its return to Pakistan in four decades.   © Reuters

China’s predatory practices have come under increasing scrutiny. For example, in return for building Gwadar port, China is receiving, tax-free, 91% of revenues from the port until its return to Pakistan in four decades.

Rising capital equipment imports from China, coupled with high returns for Beijing on its investment, have led to large foreign-exchange outflows, spurring Pakistan’s serious balance-of-payments crisis. Pakistan, seeking new loans to repay old ones, finds itself trapped in a vicious circle.

Yet Pakistan is unlikely to stop being China’s loyal client. Despite Western concern that the tide of Chinese strategic projects is making the country dangerously dependent on China, the relationship brings major benefits for Pakistan, including internationally well-documented covert nuclear and missile assistance from Beijing.

China also provides security assurances and political protection, especially diplomatic cover at the U.N., as has been illustrated by its torpedoing of the U.S.-French-British move to designate the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief as a global terrorist. Western powers failed to persuade China that the threat it cites from Islamist terrorism in its own western region demands that it join hands with them.

However, despite securing billions of dollars in recent emergency loans from China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan cannot do without a large IMF bailout. This will be Pakistan’s 22nd IMF bailout in six decades, and the largest ever. Pakistan’s cycle of dependency on the IMF has paralleled the rise of its military-Islamist complex.

Unless the latest IMF bailout is made contingent upon concrete anti-terror action, it will, as past experience shows, help underpin Pakistan’s collusion with terrorist groups. This is especially so because a new IMF bailout will also support the Sino-Pakistan link, including by freeing up other resources in Pakistan for debt repayments to Beijing.

Democratic powers, especially the U.S., which holds a dominant 17.46% voting share in the IMF, must now insist on setting tough conditions, including making Pakistan take credible, verifiable and irreversible steps against the terrorist groups that its military has long nurtured. Among other things, an honorable U.S. exit from Afghanistan hinges on the success of such treatment.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.

Use the IMF route to tighten the screws on Pakistan

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The international community should call Pakistan’s fiscal bluff: Pakistan has long employed not just nuclear blackmail but also fiscal blackmail — help us financially or face the perils of the country falling apart.

Pakistan-IMF

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The subcontinent’s military crisis is anything but over. Pakistan’s military generals fear another surprise Indian strike, which explains why much of Pakistan’s airspace is still closed to commercial traffic: Most international overflights remain barred, while domestic flights must stick to a narrow western corridor close to Iran and Afghanistan. Pakistan’s armed forces are on full operational alert, with combat air patrols continuing and the army beefing up deployments along the India frontier.

Yet, emboldened by China’s support, Pakistan is ignoring international calls to take concrete, irrevocable steps against the terrorist groups that operate openly from its territory. Indeed, Pakistan has yet to take the first credible step, which is to declare a policy — embraced by the chief of army staff (COAS) and the chairman joint chiefs of staff committee (CJCSC) — to deny sanctuary and financing to all terrorist groups.

The COAS remains Pakistan’s effective ruler. Imran Khan is not just one of Pakistan’s weakest prime ministers ever but also has shown himself to be the military’s willing puppet. Even while announcing the Indian pilot’s release as a “peace gesture”, Khan denied Pakistan is cultivating terror groups but justified terrorist attacks and suggested Pulwama was an Indian conspiracy.

Against this background, China’s action in again blocking UN action against Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) founder Masood Azhar was aimed at thwarting international pressure on Pakistan to take credible, irreversible anti-terror actions. That China still protects a terrorist who reportedly is on his deathbed undergirds the extent to which it shields Pakistan’s proxy war by terror against India.

It also helps highlight China’s own proxy war against India by employing Pakistan as a surrogate for containment. While reaping an ever-increasing trade surplus with India, China is systematically undermining Indian interests. Yet, since the Wuhan summit, India’s China policy has become more feckless than ever.

It is not a question of whether but when an Indian target will be attacked again by a Pakistan-based terrorist group. If war is to be averted, major powers other than China must tighten the screws on Pakistan. A major source of international leverage is Pakistan’s current desperate need for a $12 billion International Monetary Fund bailout. This will be Pakistan’s 22nd IMF bailout in six decades, and the largest ever. The IMF should bail out debt-ridden Pakistan only in return for concrete anti-terror action.

An international financial squeeze can effectively force Pakistan’s hand. The key to this is the US, which has the IMF clout (underscored by a dominant 17.46% voting share) to put off the impending bailout or tie it to specific conditions. India must seek to persuade the US — and other key IMF members like Japan and Germany, with 6.48% and 5.60% voting shares respectively — to not let go the present opportunity to reform a scofflaw Pakistan.

US President Donald Trump’s administration, far from welcoming Khan’s tokenistic anti-terror measures, has insisted Pakistan take “sustained, irreversible action against terrorist groups.” However, Trump’s zeal to finalize a tentative deal that his administration reached with the Pakistan-created Afghan Taliban in late January offers Pakistan’s generals their trump card.

Through their brutal proxies, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, these generals have compelled the US to negotiate the terms of its exit from Afghanistan and to seek Pakistan’s help to midwife the deal. However, the US will be able to honourably end the longest war in its history, and get the Taliban to keep up its end of the bargain, only if it makes Pakistan’s generals realize that sponsoring cross-border terrorism in Afghanistan carries major costs. If the generals are to take concrete anti-terror steps, there must first be tangible action on America’s part, including stripping Pakistan of its “Major Non-NATO Ally” status, adding it to its list of state sponsors of terrorism, or at least leveraging the IMF bailout.

Pakistan is trapped in a vicious circle, seeking new loans to repay old ones. Despite recently getting $7.5 billion in cash from Saudi, Emirati and Chinese transfers, it cannot do without a large IMF bailout. Pakistan’s cycle of dependency on IMF has paralleled the rise of its military-mullah-jihadist complex. Foreign aid and lending have helped underpin Pakistan’s collusion with terrorist groups.

Today, an IMF bailout will aid Chinese designs by freeing up other resources in Pakistan for debt repayments to Beijing. It will thus implicitly support China’s debt-trap diplomacy with Pakistan, the largest recipient of Belt and Road financing. Such lending has contributed to Pakistan’s dire financial situation, locking it in debt servitude to China.

Pakistan has long employed not just nuclear blackmail but also fiscal blackmail — help us financially or face the perils of the country falling apart. If Pakistan is unwilling to sever its links with state-nurtured terrorists, it is better for the world to let it fail than to continue propping up its military-mullah-jihadist complex with aid and loans — the equivalent of giving more alcohol to an alcoholic, instead of treating the addiction. The treatment now must centre on making Pakistan take verifiable and unalterable anti-terror steps.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Why the Pakistan-Terrorist Nexus Persists

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Pulwama-Blast

Brahma Chellaney, an internationally syndicated column from Project Syndicate

Once again, an attack on India by a Pakistan-based terrorist group has raised the specter of a major confrontation on the Indian subcontinent – and fueled international pressure for Pakistan to take concrete action against the 22 United Nations-designated terrorist entities it hosts. But this time, the pressure is compounded by fury over attacks by Pakistan-based terrorists on the country’s other key neighbors, Iran and Afghanistan. Will Pakistan finally respond convincingly?

Over the years, the footprints of many terrorist attacks in the West have been traced to Pakistan. The United States found al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden ensconced in the high-security garrison town of Abbottabad, in the shadow of the Pakistan Military Academy. Other terrorist leaders captured since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US – including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s third in command, and Abu Zubeida, the network’s operations chief – were also found living in Pakistan’s heartland.

Such revelations have often fueled calls for Pakistan to tackle its transnational terrorism problem. Last year, US President Donald Trump tweeted that, though Pakistan received more than $33 billion in American aid since 2002, it has returned “nothing but lies and deceit,” including providing “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.” The US – which has long had contingency plans to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, if necessary, to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on them – then suspended security aid.

Recent attacks have reinvigorated demands for Pakistan to take action – amid threats of reprisal. On February 14, a suicide bombing claimed by the group Jaish-e-Mohammed killed 41 Indian paramilitary soldiers in India-administered Kashmir. In the same week, another suicide bombing – this one claimed by a group called Jaish ul-Adl – killed 27 Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members and injured 13 others in southeastern Iran, and a Taliban strike killed 32 Afghan troops at a remote base.

Since then, India and Pakistan have engaged in tit-for-tat aerial incursions, and Iran has vowed to retaliate. The US has stressed the “urgency” of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups. If Pakistan is moved from the “gray” to “black” list of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – which recently chastised the country for failing to cut off terrorist financing and demanded concrete action by May – Western sanctions will probably follow.

Pakistan’s position as a mecca of terrorism is now raising concerns among even its main patrons – China, which has long stood with it against India, and Saudi Arabia, its bulwark against Iran – which have lent it no support in its present crisis with India. More than ever, Pakistan finds itself internationally isolated, and risks becoming a global pariah.

Beyond the geostrategic repercussions, this outcome poses a grave threat to Pakistan’s economy, which is teetering on the brink of default. Despite having secured emergency loans from China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan desperately needs a large International Monetary Fund bailout. And while a $12 billion IMF deal is in the works, the situation will only deteriorate further if the FATF blacklists Pakistan.

To avoid this, Pakistan’s government is signaling its intent to crack down on terrorist groups. But the international community should not get its hopes up. With the military still dominant, the toothless civilian leadership is offering only tentative, reversible measures, suggesting a likely return to business as usual as soon as external pressure has eased.

Pakistan’s all-powerful military establishment – which includes the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency – is loath to sever its cozy alliances with terrorist groups. It would prefer to continue nurturing armed jihadists as a force multiplier in its low-intensity asymmetric wars against neighboring countries. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons enable this approach, because they shield its military and state-nurtured terrorist groups from retaliation.

This constraint is reflected in India’s response to the Pakistani military’s long-term strategy of inflicting on India “death by a thousand cuts.” Pakistan’s protracted terrorism-centered asymmetric warfare has, cumulatively, proved costlier for India than any past full-fledged war on the subcontinent, including the 1971 war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. But, as India’s patience wears thin, a limited war that calls the Pakistani generals’ nuclear bluff is no longer inconceivable.

But nuclear weapons are not the only factor protecting Pakistan’s generals. Despite Trump’s complaints, the US has yet to strip Pakistan of its “Major Non-NATO Ally” status or to add the country to its list of state sponsors of terrorism. The reason is simple: Pakistan is now a gatekeeper of America’s geopolitical interests in the region.

Not only does the US supply its Afghanistan-based troops largely via Pakistan; it is depending on Pakistani help in finalizing a peace deal with the Taliban. In other words, Pakistan’s generals are now being rewarded for sponsoring terror in Afghanistan through their brutal proxies – the Taliban and the Haqqani Network – which, according to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, have killed as many as 45,000 Afghan security personnel since 2014 alone. The message is clear: sponsoring cross-border terrorism pays.

The battle against international terrorism cannot be won unless the nexus between terrorist groups and Pakistan’s military is severed. A good place to start would be to make the IMF bailout contingent on concrete counter-terrorism action. In the longer term, however, civilian-military relations must be rebalanced: the Pakistani generals’ viselike grip on power must be broken, and the military, intelligence, and nuclear establishment must be subordinated to the civilian government.

The international community has enough leverage to force change in debt-ridden and dysfunctional Pakistan. But, to use it, Trump would need to rethink his Faustian bargain with the Taliban. And, unfortunately, that seems unlikely to happen.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

The China-Pakistan Axis of Evil

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While Pakistan employs terrorist groups as proxies to bleed India, China uses Pakistan as a proxy to box in India. The irony is that, while providing cover for Pakistan’s open collusion with terrorists, China is locking up its “radical” Muslims in gulags.

Axisofevil1Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine

The February 26 Indian airstrike on a terrorist sanctuary in Pakistan’s heartland cannot obscure the resurfacing of India-China tensions following the Valentine’s Day terrorist attack in Pulwama that killed dozens of Indian paramilitary troops. China’s culpability in the attack — and in previous lethal cross-border terrorist strikes, such as on the Pathankot airbase — is apparent from its shielding of Pakistan’s export to terrorism to India. China brazenly provides cover for Pakistan’s collusion with state-reared terrorists.

The message from India’s use of airpower for the first time against a cross-border terrorist safe haven is that it is not afraid to escalate its response to the aerial domain in order to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. This could potentially mark a defining moment in India’s counterterrorism efforts against Pakistan’s strategy to inflict death by a thousand cuts.

The airstrike, however, is likely to reinforce Beijing’s determination to bolster Pakistan as a counterweight to India, especially because China incurs no strategic or trade costs for containing India. Beijing is not only propping up the Pakistani state financially and militarily, but also has repeatedly blocked United Nations action against the chief of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist group, which was quick to claim responsibility for the Pulwama massacre.

The paradox is that China, the world’s longest-surviving autocracy, has locked up more than a million Muslims from Xinjiang in the name of cleansing their minds of extremist thoughts, yet is simultaneously protecting Pakistan’s export of deadly Islamist terrorism to India. While Pakistan employs terrorist groups as proxies to bleed India, China uses Pakistan as a proxy to box in India.

The plain fact is that, for China, Pakistan is not just a client state, but a valued instrument to help contain India. So, is it any surprise that since the April 2018 Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has actually stepped up its use of Pakistan as an India-containment tool, including by accelerating the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and playing the Kashmir card against New Delhi? In fact, China is steadily encircling India, as several developments underscore — from its new military base in Tajikistan that overlooks the Wakhan Corridor and Pakistan-held Jammu and Kashmir to its increasing encroachments in India’s maritime backyard.

It is extraordinary that China has been able to mount pressure on India from multiple flanks at a time when its own economic and geopolitical fortunes are taking a beating. By China’s own statistics, its economy last year registered the weakest pace of growth in nearly three decades. Add to the picture a new phenomenon — the flight of capital from a country that, between 1994 and 2014, amassed a mounting pile of foreign-exchange reserves by enjoying a surplus in its overall balance of payments.

Now faced with an unstoppable trend of net capital outflows, Xi’s regime has tightened exchange controls and other capital restrictions to prop up the country’s fragile financial system and sagging currency. The regime has used tens of billions of dollars in recent months alone to bolster the yuan’s international value. Not just capital is fleeing China but even wealthy Chinese prefer to live overseas, in a vote of no confidence in the Chinese system.

China’s internal challenges are being compounded by new external factors. Chinese belligerence and propaganda, for example, have spawned a growing international image problem for the country. More significantly, China has come under international pressure on several fronts — from its trade, investment and lending policies to its human-rights abuses. U.S.-led pressure on trade and geopolitical fronts has accentuated Beijing’s dilemmas and fuelled uncertainty in China. As long as the U.S.-China trade war rages, flight of capital will remain a problem for Beijing. Its foreign-exchange reserves have shrunk by about $1 trillion from their peak of just over $4 trillion in mid-2014.

At a time when China’s imperial project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is running into resistance from a growing number of partner countries, Beijing is also confronting a U.S.-led pushback against its telecommunications giant Huawei. Meanwhile, China is alienating other Asian nations by throwing its weight around too aggressively.

This trend is likely to accelerate with the restructured People’s Liberation Army becoming less of an army and more of a power projection force, the majority of whose troops now are not from the army but from the other services. Indeed, the PLA’s shift toward power projection foreshadows a more aggressive Chinese military approach of the kind already witnessed in the Himalayas or the South China Sea, where China has fundamentally changed the status quo in its favour.

More fundamentally, it is China’s open disregard of international rules and its penchant for bullying that explains why it remains a largely friendless power. Leadership in today’s world demands more than just brute might. Beijing lacks any real strategic allies other than Pakistan. When China joined hands with the U.S. at the United Nations to impose new international sanctions on North Korea, once its vassal, it implicitly highlighted that it now has just one real ally — Pakistan.

China today is increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party, responsible for the past pogroms and witch-hunts and the current excesses. Under Xi, the party has set out to demolish Muslim, Tibetan and Mongol identities, expand China’s frontiers far out into international waters, and turn the country into a digital totalitarian state. Consequently, four decades after it initiated economic reform, China finds itself at a crossroads, with its future trajectory uncertain.

It is against this background that the Xi regime’s increasing use of Pakistan against India stands out. China is working to extend its reach to the Arabian Sea by turning Pakistan into a client-state and keeping India off-balance.

Beijing not only continues to bolster Pakistan’s offensive capabilities, including in weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but also is working in tandem with that country to militarize the northern Arabian Sea. Chinese-supplied warships have already been pressed into service to secure Pakistan’s Chinese-controlled Gwadar port, the flagship project in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which, in turn, is the centrepiece of BRI.

Through CPEC, China is seeking to turn Pakistan into its land corridor to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. And, as a U.S. Defence Department report in 2016 forewarned, Pakistan — “China’s primary customer for conventional weapons” — is likely to host a Chinese naval hub intended to project power in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Such a naval base is expected to come up quietly next to the Gwadar port, directly challenging India’s maritime interests.

China, meanwhile, has actively aided Pakistan’s counter-strategy to the Indian military’s supposed “Cold Start” doctrine. Pakistan’s counter is a mobile WMD capability centred on tactical nuclear weapons for use against enemy battle formations. The “Cold Start” doctrine is reportedly the idea of a quick and limited Indian conventional strike in response to a Pakistan-scripted terrorist attack, so as to deny Pakistani generals the ability to raise conflict to a nuclear level.

That doctrine remains notional, with no indication that India has either integrated it into its military strategy or reconfigured force deployments in order to execute it in a contingency. Yet Pakistan, with Chinese support, has fielded tactical nukes, creating a dangerous situation. Let’s be clear: Pakistan’s recklessness has been egged on by China. A full-fledged war on the subcontinent will open opportunities for China against India that Beijing seeks.

Beijing has repeatedly declared that China and Pakistan are “as close as lips and teeth.” It has also called Pakistan its “irreplaceable all-weather friend.” The two countries often boast of their “iron brotherhood.” In 2010, Pakistan’s then-prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, waxed poetic about the relationship, describing it as “taller than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.”

In truth, China has little in common with aid-dependent Pakistan other than a shared enmity against India. China and Pakistan are revisionist states not content with their existing frontiers. Both lay claim to vast swaths of Indian territory. Their “iron brotherhood” is about a shared interest in containing India. The prospect of a two-front war, should India enter into conflict with either Pakistan or China, certainly advances that interest.

India will never be able to break the China-Pakistan nexus, however hard it might try. Yet successive Indian governments have failed to grasp this strategic reality. Virtually every Indian prime minister has sought to reinvent the foreign-policy wheel rather than learn the essentials of statecraft or heed the lessons of past national mistakes.

In fact, an economically rising India seeking to chart an independent course only gives Beijing a greater incentive to use Pakistan as a surrogate against it. For China, the appeal of propping up Pakistan is heightened by the latter’s willingness to serve as a loyal proxy. In fact, given that Pakistan is an economic basket case dependent on Chinese lending, Beijing treats it as something of a guinea pig. For example, it has sold Pakistan outdated or untested nuclear power reactors (two such AC-1000 reactors are coming up near Karachi). China has also sold weapons systems not deployed by its own military.

Less known is that Pakistan’s descent into a jihadist dungeon has benefited China, as it has provided an ideal pretext for Beijing to advance its strategic interests within that country. For example, China has deployed thousands of troops in Pakistan-held Jammu and Kashmir since the last decade, ostensibly to secure its strategic projects. The Chinese military presence there means that India faces Chinese troops on both flanks of its portion of Jammu and Kashmir, given that China occupies one-fifth of the original princely state of J&K. This presence also explains why India faces a two-front scenario in the event of a war with either country.

More fundamentally, Beijing has pursued a troubling three-pronged policy to build pressure on New Delhi over J&K, where the disputed borders of India, Pakistan and China converge. First, it has enlarged its footprint in Pakistan-occupied J&K through CPEC projects, despite Indian protestations that such projects in a territory India claims as its own violate Indian sovereignty. Second, Beijing has attempted to question India’s sovereignty over Indian J&K by issuing visas on a separate leaf to J&K residents holding Indian passports. And third, it has officially shortened the length of the Himalayan border it shares with India by purging the 1,597-kilometer line separating Indian J&K from Chinese-held J&K.

Add to the picture China’s shielding of Pakistan’s export of terrorism and its indirect encouragement of separatism in India’s J&K. Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cautioned in 2010 that “Beijing could be tempted to use India’s ‘soft underbelly,’ Kashmir.”

While building projects in Pakistan-occupied J&K, a UN-designated disputed territory, China denied a visa in 2010 to the Indian Army’s Northern Command General B.S. Jaswal, who was to lead the Indian side in the bilateral defence dialogue in Beijing, on grounds that he commanded “a disputed area, Jammu and Kashmir.”At the same time, Beijing has signalled an interest in cleverly inserting itself as a mediator in the India-Pakistan tensions over Kashmir. This is part of China’s efforts to obscure the fact that it is actually the third party to the J&K dispute.

While playing the Kashmir card against India, China offers Pakistan security assurances and political protection, especially diplomatic cover at the United Nations. For example, China has repeatedly vetoed UN action against Masood Azhar, the Pakistan-based chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which, backed by Pakistani intelligence services, has carried out several major terrorist attacks on Indian targets, including the Pathankot air base in 2016 and the Parliament in 2001. And in 2016, Sartaj Aziz, the then Pakistani prime minister’s foreign-policy adviser, said that China has helped Pakistan to block India’s U.S.-supported bid to gain membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the export-control cartel.

Pakistan has secured other major benefits from China as well. For example, China provided critical assistance in building Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, including by reducing the likelihood of U.S. sanctions or Indian retaliation. China still offers covert nuclear and missile assistance, reflected in the more recent transfer of the launcher for the Shaheen-3, Pakistan’s nuclear-capable ballistic missile, which has a range of 2,750 kilometres.

In this light, a grateful Pakistan has given China exclusive rights to run Gwadar port for the next 40 years — a period in which Beijing will receive, tax free, 91% of the port’s revenues. The port operator, China Overseas Ports Holding Company, will also be exempt from major taxes for more than 20 years. Moreover, Pakistan has established a new 13,000-troop army division to protect CPEC projects. And it has deployed police forces to shield Chinese nationals and construction sites from Baloch insurgents and Islamist gunmen. China’s stationing of its own troops in the Pakistani part of J&K for years, however, betrays its lack of confidence in Pakistani security arrangements — and suggests that China will continue to enlarge its military footprint in Pakistan.

The Chinese strategic penetration of Pakistan, meanwhile, continues to be aided by the U.S. factor, despite President Donald Trump’s suspension of American security aid to that country last year.

Although Trump publicly declared that Pakistan provides the U.S. with “nothing but lies and deceit,” his desperation to get American troops out of Afghanistan has led to Washington cozying up to Pakistan again so as to clinch a final deal with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban. Indeed, the U.S. tentative deal with the Taliban in Qatar in late January was struck with Pakistan’s active support. Pakistan, in effect, is reaping rewards for sponsoring cross-border terrorism, thanks to unflinching Chinese support and the renewed U.S. dependence on the Pakistani military in relation to Afghanistan.

Make no mistake: Despite slowing economic growth, a grinding trade fight with the U.S., and an international pushback against BRI, China has been able to bring India under greater pressure. If anything, it is a reflection of India’s pusillanimity that China continues to contain India without incurring any costs. Far from seeking to impose any costs on China, India is doing the opposite.

For example, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s presence in Wuzhen, China, in late February for the Russia-India-China (RIC) initiative meeting sent the message that New Delhi, for tactical reasons, was willing to whitewash Beijing’s culpability in the Pulwama massacre. RIC is actually a meaningless and worthless initiative for India, and the least New Delhi could have done is to force a postponement of the Wuzhen meeting at a time when the Indian republic was mourning the Pulwama mass murder.

Given that New Delhi is loath to impose any costs, including trade related, why would Beijing cease protecting the Pakistani deep state’s terror campaign against India? In fact, India has allowed China to reap ever-increasing rewards while systematically undermining Indian interests.

Just consider one fact: China’s trade surplus with India, on Modi’s watch, has more than doubled to over $66 billion annually. By comparison, India’s new defence budget unveiled in February totals $42.8 billion, or just 65% of China’s bilateral trade surplus. This underscores the extent to which India is underwriting China’s hostile actions against it.

India should be willing to employ trade as a tool to help reform China’s behaviour. Yet New Delhi continues to ignore calls from Indian industry and consumer groups for protection against the rising tide of Chinese imports that is undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness. Thanks to China’s large-scale dumping of manufactured goods, Modi’s “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off.

In fact, Modi has little to show from his personal diplomacy with Xi. For Xi, the Wuhan summit has served as a cover to kill two birds with one stone. While encouraging Modi’s overtures to help instil greater Indian caution and reluctance to openly challenge China, Xi has embarked on a major military build-up along the Himalayan border with India. The build-up includes deploying offensive new weapon systems and advertising live-fire combat exercises. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s status as China’s economic and security client has been firmly cemented and Chinese encroachments in India’s maritime backyard have increased.

As China treats Pakistan more and more as a colonial outpost that has a government on Chinese payroll, the challenge for India from the Sino-Pakistan nexus is mounting. Indeed, just as Pakistan wages an unconventional war by terror against India, China is pursuing its own asymmetric warfare against India, both by economic means and by employing Pakistan as a proxy.

The hype from India’s latest counterterrorism airstrike deep inside Pakistan cannot cloak this reality. Without forward-looking and proactive diplomacy that seeks to systematically combat the China-Pakistan nexus, India will continue to be weighed down by its region. Only through more vigorous defence and foreign policies can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation, freeing it to play a larger global role.

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

© Open magazine, 2019.

How the terrorist threat from Pakistan can be quelled

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imagesPakistan’s current faceoff with India has come at an awkward time. All three of its main neighbours – India, Iran and Afghanistan – have accused it of complicity in recent terrorist attacks on their soil. The rising regional tensions, highlighted by Indian and Pakistani tit-for-tat aerial incursions, threaten to complicate U.S. President Donald Trump’s effort to finalize a peace deal with Afghanistan’s Pakistan-created Taliban.

The trigger for the current tensions was a Valentine’s Day attack – claimed by a Pakistan-based terrorist group – that killed 41 Indian troops in the Indian part of divided Kashmir, where the contested borders of India, Pakistan and China meet. That same week, 27 members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards were slain, prompting Tehran to threaten retaliation against Pakistan, while all 32 Afghan troops at a remote base were killed in a Taliban strike.

Pakistan remains a major hub of transnational terrorism. The footprints of many international terrorist attacks have been traced to Pakistan, including the 2005 London bombings, the 2008 Mumbai siege and the 2015 San Bernardino, Calif., killings. The principal architects of the 9/11 attacks in the United States were found ensconced in Pakistan, including Osama bin Laden.

But it is Pakistan’s neighbours that have borne the brunt of its terrorism. Even Bangladesh, which seceded from Pakistan in 1971, blamed its worst terrorist attack on Pakistan’s shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

More than seven decades after it was established as the first Islamic republic of the postcolonial era, Pakistan stares at an uncertain future. Its jihad culture has fostered rising militancy and a serious financial crisis, with the country dependent on bailouts from its patrons, China and Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan’s problems have been compounded by a long-standing nexus between its military and terrorist groups. Nuclear-armed Pakistan is today home to 22 United Nations-designated terrorist entities, several of them reared by its military as proxies. Pakistan’s thriving jihadist groups arose under two military dictators: Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who died in 1988, and Pervez Musharraf, who fled overseas in 2008.

Indeed, at the root of Pakistan’s dysfunction are its skewed civil-military relations: The powerful, meddling military, including its ISI agency, remains immune to civilian oversight. Despite an elected government in place, decisive power rests with the military generals, enabling them to maintain ties with terrorist groups.

The current regional tensions have intensified international pressure on the Pakistani military to dismantle the terrorist complex it supports. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this week stressed the “urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil.” Similar calls have been made in recent days by the European Union and others.

However, such calls are unlikely to be heeded. For Pakistan’s military, waging an undeclared war against India through terrorist proxies remains a useful, low-cost option to contain a larger, more powerful adversary.

The Valentine’s Day attack – the latest in a string of cross-border strikes by Pakistan-backed terrorists – led India to shed its restraint and carry out its first air strike in 48 years inside Pakistan by bombing a terrorist safe haven. This was the first time a nuclear power carried out an air strike inside another nuclear-armed state.

Virtually calling the Pakistani generals’ nuclear bluff, India sent warplanes that deeply penetrated Pakistani air defences and bombed the terrorist sanctuary with impunity. Caught napping, the generals sought to save face with aerial aggression the next day, triggering a brief skirmish over the frontier in which each side lost a warplane.

The matter is unlikely to end there. India’s patience is wearing thin, and it is unwilling to be further gored.

Indeed, behind the recent U.S. decision to cut and run from Afghanistan is the same factor – Pakistan, which harbours not only Taliban leadership and fighters but also the Haqqani Network, responsible for terrorist attacks on American troops and civilians. As the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan admitted in 2017, “It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.”

The Trump administration’s tentative deal with the Taliban, including an American military exit within 18 months, has come as a shot in the arm for the Pakistani generals. Their long-standing goal to have an Islamist, pro-Pakistan government in Kabul was disrupted when the United States invaded Afghanistan after 9/11 and removed the Taliban from power. But now, the generals hope to realize their goal again.

U.S. negotiators are currently in talks with the Taliban to flesh out the tentative deal. However, U.S. concessions have already emboldened Pakistan’s generals and the Taliban. It may not be a coincidence that the terrorist attacks on Indian and Iranian troops occurred shortly after the tentative U.S.-Taliban deal was unveiled.

Against this background, the crisis in southern Asia will likely rumble on until Pakistan’s military agrees to halt its decades-old use of terrorist proxies to wage asymmetric warfare against neighbouring countries.

The terrorism emanating from Pakistan cannot be stemmed without correcting the country’s civil-military relations. Without civilian control over it, the praetorian military will remain wedded to the export of terrorism, exacting mounting costs for Pakistan, which has already lost American security aid and is now on the grey list of the Paris-based international body combating terrorism financing.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and award-winning author.

© The Globe and Mail, 2019.

India’s options on Pakistan

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, February 28, 2019

terrorismPakistan didn’t wait long to squash India’s Balakot airstrike bravado with its own air incursions. However, the financially strapped country cannot afford a serious escalation of hostilities, not least because India could wreak massive punishment. This explains why Pakistan’s military is at pains to affirm that it is not seeking war.

The mass-murder attack at Pulwama was India’s moment of truth. For too long, India had put up with Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism without imposing any tangible costs. So, when Pulwama happened, it triggered intense anger across the country, not just against Pakistan, but also against the fractious and feckless political class that has reduced India to a soft state.

Peace with Pakistan is a mirage, and the Indian Air Force (IAF) aptly employed its Mirage 2000 aircraft to bomb terrorists there. In a chilling message to Pakistan’s terror masters — the military generals — it demonstrated its ability to deeply penetrate Pakistani air defences and bomb. This represented a major loss of face for the generals. To salvage their image at home, the generals have responded with aerial aggression.

Had the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee quickly responded with punitive airstrikes to the December 2001 Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on Parliament — at a time when much of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet was not airworthy due to a lack of spares — India probably would have been spared the Pakistan-scripted terrorist carnages that have followed. The lost golden opportunity was compounded by nearly 18 years of political dithering on allowing limited uses of air power, such as taking out trans-border terrorist launch pads. India’s belated use of air power to strike a terrorist safe haven has finally sent a clear message — it is not afraid to  call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff.

Balakot represents the first time a nuclear power carried out an airstrike inside another nuclear-armed State. The current conventional military face-off, however, promises to bust Western academic theories about the inevitability of tit-for-tat actions rapidly triggering a serious nuclear crisis. Pakistani generals may be roguish but they are not suicidal. Their delusions of security behind a supposed nuclear shield stand exposed.

A more fundamental question is whether the current face-off will mark a turning point for India, generating a newfound determination not to be continually gored. Or did India carry out the Balakot airstrike — like the 2016 ground-launched surgical strike — largely to assuage public anger, with the calculation that Pakistan would again not respond in kind? A one-off airstrike, in any event, would be as ineffective in deterring Pakistan as the one-off surgical strike was.

Whatever the number of terrorists killed at Balakot, the fact is that Pakistan’s generals were made to pay no costs. Now emboldened by their own quick military response, they will seek to bleed India further. Tellingly, the 2016 terrorists-targeting surgical strike, while underscoring India’s refusal to impose any costs on the terror masters, was followed by serial Pakistan-orchestrated terrorist attacks from Nagrota to Pulwama.

India must bring Pakistan under sustained and multipronged pressure. For example, how can India expect the international community to diplomatically isolate Pakistan when New Delhi is unwilling to do that itself? Indeed, India’s refusal to treat Pakistan as a terrorist state in its policy, as opposed to its rhetoric, has come back to haunt it.

India shies away from taking even non-military measures to penalise Pakistan. Nitin Gadkari’s empty statements on the Indus Waters Treaty have only generated bad international publicity. Far from seeking to weaponise water or leverage the treaty, India is adhering to the pact’s finer details, including supplying Pakistan design data of three proposed hydropower facilities on the eve of Pulwama.

Oddly, just as India called its 1974 nuclear test “peaceful”, only to endure almost a quarter-century of sanctions until it went overtly nuclear, it labelled its Balakot strike a “non-military” pre-emptive action. Pakistan’s military riposte has helped shatter that pretence. More significantly, India’s failure to quickly rebut Pakistan’s disinformation in the current face-off suggests it has learned little from China’s psychological warfare during the Doklam standoff.

India must face up to the fact that Pakistan has been at war with it for years. Labelling that aggression simply “terrorism” minimises its larger strategic dimensions and obviates the need to formulate a comprehensive strategy in place of the present ad hoc, reactive approach. It is a grinding, largely one-sided unconventional war since the 1980s whose cumulative costs for India outweigh those imposed by any full-fledged war in the past. Unless India is willing to take the battle to Pakistan’s terror masters, the latter will continue employing their terrorist proxies against it.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

India’s daunting foreign-policy challenges

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Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

With the national election approaching, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focus is squarely on domestic politics. After holding a secure grip on power for nearly five years, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces a tough election fight following defeats in three key state-level polls in December.

Foreign affairs are understandably low on the election agenda. But after the vote, India’s new government — whether led by Modi or not — will have to consider urgently the foreign-policy challenges, above all an ascendant China’s muscular revisionism.

For too long, New Delhi has taken a cautious and reactive approach. But with Beijing spreading its influence deep into India’s backyard, New Delhi needs to reverse its eroding regional clout.

A dynamic diplomacy needs strong, bipartisan policies. With India’s fractious politics, building bipartisanship has long been tough in the world’s largest democracy.

The danger now is that the election will likely see Modi’s government lose its commanding majority in the Parliament’s lower house and be replaced either by a weaker BJP-led administration or an opposition coalition of 20 or more groups supported by the Congress Party. Either way, foreign policy would be crimped.

Pragmatism, zeal and showmanship have been trademarks of Modi’s foreign policy. Early on in his term, he unleashed Modi-mania among Indian diaspora audiences by taking the stage like a rock star at several places, including New York’s storied Madison Square Garden.

A penchant for diplomatic surprises, however, has got him into trouble. For example, during a 2015 visit to Paris, Modi pulled a rabbit out of a hat by announcing an on-the-spot decision to buy 36 French Rafale fighter-jets. In the run-up to the election, the opposition has claimed that, behind that decision, there is a scandal involving inflated pricing and cronyism.

Modi has helped shape a nondoctrinaire foreign-policy vision. India, a founder leader of the nonaligned movement, now makes little mention of nonalignment. Shorn of ideology, Indian foreign policy has sought to revitalize the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner.

However, in practice, closer cooperation with the United States has been Modi’s signature foreign-policy initiative. India is now a “major defense partner” of the U.S., with which it holds more military exercises than with any other country. The U.S. has also emerged as India’s largest arms supplier. The Cold War-era India-Russia camaraderie has been replaced by India-U. S. bonhomie.

India, however, relies on Russian spare parts for its Russian-made military hardware. More importantly, Russia has transferred to India offensive weapons that the U.S. does not export, such as an aircraft carrier. So ties to Moscow remain important.

India is also seeking to shield from U.S. pressures its cooperation with Tehran. Iran remains an important oil supplier to energy-poor India and is the route for a transportation corridor India is building to Afghanistan that bypasses New Delhi’s arch-enemy Pakistan.

Although India has secured provisional waivers from American retaliation, the new U.S. sanctions against Russia and Iran have accentuated India’s challenge in balancing its relationships.

Meanwhile, the recent “agreement in principle” that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has reached with the Afghan Taliban, including promising an American military pullout within 18 months, is helping to renew the salience of Iran and Russia in India’s Afghanistan policy. If the Pakistan-backed Taliban were to recapture power in Kabul, the relevance of these ties would redouble.

But, despite seeking to exit Afghanistan, the U.S. has become more vital to India’s broader foreign-policy interests, especially in relation to China. Modi has worked to deepen India’s cooperation with the U.S., Japan and the other Indo-Pacific powers that share Indian concerns about China’s territorial and maritime revisionism.

But vexed by the Trump administration’s unpredictability, Modi has also sought to mend ties with China, or at least stop them from deteriorating further. At an “informal” summit ten months ago in Wuhan, Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to “reset” relations.

For Xi, however, Wuhan has served as a cover to kill two birds with one stone. While encouraging Modi’s overtures to help instill greater Indian caution to openly challenge China, Xi has embarked on a major military buildup along the Himalayan border with India. The buildup has included deploying new offensive weapons and advertising live-fire combat exercises. Chinese encroachments in India’s maritime backyard have also increased.

Meanwhile, Chinese exports have flooded India, with Beijing more than doubling its bilateral trade surplus, on Modi’s watch, to over $66 billion a year. This trade surplus is more than 50% larger than India’s defense spending, underscoring how India unwittingly is underwriting China’s hostile politics.

India is holding its election after recent polls in most other countries in southern Asia. Since late 2017, elections have brought pro-China communists to power in Nepal and a military-backed party to office in Pakistan, while voters have booted out a quasi-dictator in the Maldives, elected a new government in Bhutan, and, in Bangladesh, retained a prime minister who has turned the country into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Recently, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court forced the country’s president to roll back a coup after he unconstitutionally dismissed the prime minister and called fresh parliamentary polls.

The next Indian government’s most urgent foreign-policy problems relate to the country’s neighborhood, not least a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of an aggressive neighbor and an ascendant superpower. Both these nuclear-armed allies stake claims to swaths of Indian territory.

When Modi took office, many expected him to reinvigorate foreign policy at a time when the yawning power gap between India and China had widened. But, despite considerable Indian efforts, China’s influence in India’s backyard has grown, even in countries long symbiotically tied to India, including Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

However, the most recent developments in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, by bolstering or bringing to power pro-India leaders, have aided Indian interests, even as communist-ruled Nepal has tilted toward China.

Dealing with an aggressive China or complex regional-security challenges demands a decisive leadership that takes a long-term view and does not confound tactics with strategy. But such leadership is unlikely to emerge from the forthcoming election.

To be sure, India has been imbibing greater realism as its quixotic founding philosophy centered on nonviolence assumes a largely rhetorical meaning. Yet India remains intrinsically diffident and reactive. Without proactive diplomacy, India will continue to punch far below its weight.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.

China’s master plan for India

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China’s culpability in the massacre of Indian paramilitary soldiers by a Pakistan-based terrorist group is unmistakable. It openly shields Pakistan’s export of terrorism. While Pakistan’s proxy war keeps India preoccupied in the west, China’s aid to northeast Indian insurgents weighs down India on its eastern flank.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The Dalai Lama recently told this newspaper that due to Chinese pressure, no Buddhist country, with the sole exception of the nominally Buddhist Japan, is now willing to grant him entry. China’s ability to browbeat smaller countries into submission, however, should not obscure the major new challenges it faces.

The world’s longest-surviving autocracy turns 70 this year, with its future uncertain. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre, which left at least 10,000 people dead. After more than a quarter century of phenomenal economic growth, China has entered a new era of uncertainty.

China’s slowing economy, an international geopolitical pushback against its overweening ambitions, new trade disruptions and tariffs, and President Xi Jinping’s centralization of power have all contributed to a jittery mood among its elites. Add to the picture the flight of capital from a country that had amassed a mountain of foreign-exchange reserves by enjoying a surplus in its overall balance of payments. Not only is capital fleeing China but even wealthy Chinese — in an informal vote of no confidence in the Chinese system — are emigrating.

Meanwhile, China has come under international pressure on multiple fronts — from its trade, investment and lending policies to its incarceration in “re-education camps” of more than a million Muslims from Xinjiang, a sprawling territory Mao Zedong annexed in 1949 just before gobbling up the buffer with India, Tibet. China’s free ride, which helped propel its rise, seems to be ending.

Malaysia’s decision to scrap a $20-billion rail project is just the latest example of how Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is running into growing resistance. Even Pakistan, China’s client-state, has downsized, cancelled or eliminated some BRI projects. Meanwhile, a US-led pushback against China’s Huawei conglomerate has broadened from opposition to its participation in next-generation 5G wireless networks to a broader effort to restrict the use of Chinese technology over espionage concerns.

It is China’s open disregard for international rules, however, that explains why it can count on few true strategic allies or reliable security partners. China’s lonely rise could become more pronounced with the newly restructured People’s Liberation Army (PLA) becoming less of an army and more of a power projection force, the majority of whose troops now are not from the army but from the other services, including the navy, air force, rocket force and the cyber warfare-oriented strategic support force.

For China’s neighbours, the PLA’s restructuring foreshadows a more aggressive Chinese military approach of the kind already being witnessed in the South and East China seas and the Himalayas. In fact, the risk is that — just as Mao staged the 1962 invasion of India after his disastrous “Great Leap Forward” created the worst famine in modern world history — Xi’s mounting challenges at home and abroad could prompt him to divert attention through military aggression.

Undeterred by the international pushback, however, Xi’s regime is still blending economic aggression, debt-trap diplomacy, territorial and maritime revisionism, influence operations and Orwellian tactics to advance unbridled ambitions. Chinese influence operations range from legitimate activities like lobbying to more covert or corrupting actions such as seeking to meddle in the domestic politics of democracies and sway their policy-relevant discourse.

As Indian national elections approach, China has stepped up its influence operations in India. China has been emboldened by its remarkable success in Nepal, which has tilted toward Beijing, despite an open border underscoring its symbiotic relationship with India. On the first anniversary of Nepal’s communist government this weekend, it is important to remember that China played no mean role in the communists’ democratic ascension to power there.

India, with its fragmented polity and fractious political divides, has become an important target of China’s efforts to buy access and influence and sway politics. These efforts have been aided by New Delhi’s feckless approach to Beijing, especially since the Wuhan summit.

Moreover, by more than doubling its trade surplus with India to over $66 billion a year on the BJP government’s watch, Beijing has acquired deeper pockets for influence operations, which aim to help instil greater Indian caution and reluctance to openly challenge China. At a time when India is engrossed in electoral politics, including increasingly petty and bitter feuding, Beijing’s conduct is underlining its master plan for this country: It wants a weak and unwieldy Indian government to emerge from the elections.

China’s culpability in the Pulwama massacre of Indian jawans is unmistakable. In keeping with its master plan, Beijing brazenly shields Pakistan’s export of terrorism, including blocking UN action against Pakistan-based terrorists like Masood Azhar. Indeed, China has long used militants to attack India’s weak points, including by originally training Naga and Mizo guerrillas and currently consorting with several northeast Indian insurgent leaders, some of them ensconced in Yunnan or Myanmar. So, while Pakistan’s proxy war keeps India preoccupied in the west, China’s proxy war weighs down India on its eastern flank.

If India is to safeguard its interests and expand its global footprint, its next government would need a more clearheaded and self-assured foreign policy, including for addressing the insidious China challenge.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

India’s security interests at risk from U.S. readiness to capitulate to Taliban

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

This year is Afghanistan’s 40th year in a row as an active war zone. Betrayal, violence and surrender have defined Afghanistan’s history for long, especially as the playground for outside powers. The US-Taliban “agreement in principle” fits with that narrative. By promising a terrorist militia a total American military pullout within 18 months and a pathway to power in Kabul, the US, in essence, is negotiating the terms of its surrender.

It is worth remembering how the US got into a military quagmire. The US invasion in October 2001 ousted the Taliban from power in Kabul for harbouring the Al Qaeda planners of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, the key Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaida and Ramzi Binalshibh, were later found holed up inside Pakistan. Yet, paradoxically, the US, while raining bombs in Afghanistan, rewarded Pakistan, as President Donald Trump said last year, with more than $33 billion in aid since 2002.

The quagmire resulted from the US reluctance to take the war to the other side of the Durand Line by targeting the Taliban’s command-and-control bases in Pakistan. In modern world history, no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border state sponsorship and safe havens. This also explains why terrorists remain active in the Kashmir Valley.

Rather than take out the Taliban’s cross-border sanctuaries, the US actively sought “reconciliation” for years, allowing the militia to gain strength and terrorize Afghans. The protracted search for a Faustian bargain with the Taliban also explains why that ruthless militia was never added to the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This approach counterproductively led to an ascendant Taliban expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in growing numbers.

Now, desperate to exit, Trump has sought to accomplish what his predecessor, Barack Obama, set out to do but failed — to cut a deal with the Taliban. It was with the aim of facilitating direct talks with the Taliban that Obama allowed the militia to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Doha, Qatar, in 2013. Then, to meet a Taliban precondition, five hardened Taliban militants (two of them accused of carrying out massacres of Tajiks and Hazaras) were freed from Guantánamo Bay. The five were described by the late US senator, John McCain, as the “hardest of hard core”.

Instead of the promised Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, the Trump administration clinched the tentative deal with the Taliban without prior consultations with Kabul and then sought to sell it to a sceptical Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In doing so, it has unwittingly aided the Taliban effort to delegitimize an elected government. Given that Ghani was blindsided by the “framework” accord, it is no surprise that Washington did not care to take India, its “major defence partner”, into confidence either.

Let’s be clear: The Taliban do not represent most Pashtuns, let alone a majority of Afghans. Many in their ranks are Pakistanis recruited and trained by Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence, just as ISI teams up with Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed against India. The US-Taliban deal nullifies then US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ promise that “we’re not going to surrender civilization to people who cannot win at the ballot box”.

Indeed, the deal represents not only a shot in the arm for the resurgent Taliban but also a major diplomatic win for its sponsor, Pakistan, which facilitated the accord. Contrary to speculation that US reliance on Pakistan is on the decline, the interim deal, and the imperative to finalize and implement it, underscore the US dependence on the Pakistani army and ISI. In effect, Pakistan is being rewarded for sponsoring cross-border terrorism.

All this holds important implications for India, which, as Mattis said in October, “has been generous over many years with Afghanistan”, earning “a degree of affection from the Afghan people”. Once US troops return home, America will have little ability — especially if it does not leave behind a residual counterterrorism force — to influence events in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt. If the Taliban were to again capture power in Kabul with Pakistan’s assistance, the benefits for Afghans from the more than $3 billion in assistance that India has given since 2002 would melt away.

Despite growing US strategic cooperation with India, Washington, by its unilateralist actions, is paradoxically increasing the salience of Iran and Russia in India’s Afghanistan policy. India will have to do whatever is necessary to shield its vital interests in Afghanistan, or else developments there would adversely impinge on Indian security, including in the Kashmir Valley.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

India’s Pakistan policy adrift

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Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

incpakConsider two developments in recent days that speak volumes about India’s Pakistan policy: Just as the United States moved to unilaterally withdraw from a major arms-control pact (the Intermediate-Range Forces, or INF, Treaty), “incredible India” — as it calls itself in international tourism-promotion ads — welcomed an inspection team from a terrorist state to scrutinize Indian hydropower projects that are being built under the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).

And, as if to mock the Indian foreign secretary’s formal protest over his call to separatist Umar Farooq four days earlier, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mohammad Qureshi on Saturday telephoned another secessionist leader in Kashmir Valley, Ali Shah Geelani. Qureshi and Pakistan’s all-powerful military generals think they can get away by provoking India.

In the absence of a clearheaded Pakistan policy backed by political resolve, India continues to send confusing and contradictory signals, encouraging Pakistan’s continuing roguish conduct.

India’s welcoming of the three-member Pakistani inspection team, led by that country’s Indus commissioner, illustrated how its incoherent approach to Pakistan has spawned even appeasement.

In 1960, in the naïve hope that water largesse would yield peace, India entered into the IWT by giving away the Indus system’s largest rivers as gifts to Pakistan. Since then, the congenitally hostile Pakistan, while drawing the full benefits from the treaty, has waged overt or covert aggression almost continuously — and is now using the IWT itself as a stick to beat India with, including by contriving water disputes and internationalizing them.

Whereas the U.S. has ditched the INF Treaty over an alleged Russian violation of its terms, India clings to the IWT’s finer details, even though Pakistan is waging proxy war by terror against it. Like the IWT, the INF Treaty is of indefinite duration.

Pakistan’s use of state-reared terrorist groups to inflict upon India death by a thousand cuts can be invoked by New Delhi as constituting reasonable grounds for Indian withdrawal from the IWT. The International Court of Justice has upheld the principle that a treaty, including one of indefinite duration, may be dissolved by reason of a fundamental change of circumstances

Still, India not only adheres to the IWT’s finer details, it even goes beyond. For example, under IWT’s Article VIII, the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) is to meet once a year. Its next meeting was due in March 2019. But, thanks to India’s zealousness, the PIC met much earlier in August 2018, just five months after its previous meeting.

It was at that meeting that India agreed to advance Pakistan’s inspection tour to October 2018. The last such tour occurred in 2014 and the next one, in keeping with the IWT provision for a tour “once every five years”, was due by the end of 2019. The local bodies’ elections in Jammu and Kashmir forced the October tour to be deferred to January-end.

Before returning home on February 1, the Pakistani team examined three Indian hydropower projects currently under construction — the Pakal Dul, which will generate up to 1,000 megawatts of electricity, Ratle (850 megawatts), and Lower Kalnai (48 megawatts). The team also visited the already operational 900-megawatt Baglihar, a project that Pakistan tried earlier to stop by invoking the IWT’s dispute-settlement provisions. But the international neutral expert that was appointed to resolve the dispute ultimately ruled in India’s favour.

Pakistan, however, could seek international intercession again by using the information its inspection team collected last week to mount technical objections to the Indian projects under construction. Indeed, even before the team visited India, Pakistani officials publicly raised objections to the spillway or freeboard of these projects.

Pakistan’s interest lies in sustaining a unique treaty that incorporates water generosity to the lower riparian on a scale unmatched by any other pact in the world. That interest arms India with significant leverage to link the IWT’s future to Pakistan’s observance of basic international norms.

Yet, India is letting go the opportunity to reframe the terms of the Indus engagement.

India’s pusillanimity is apparent from yet another development last week. After the Indian foreign secretary summoned the Pakistani high commissioner to lodge a protest over Qureshi’s call to Umar Farooq, the Pakistani foreign office the next day summoned the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad in reprisal. This raises the question as to why India does not downgrade its diplomatic relations with Pakistan. Why maintain full diplomatic ties with a country that New Delhi branded “Terroristan” in 2017?

There is no reason for India to keep diplomatic relations with a terrorist state at the high commissioner level. Downsizing diplomatic missions and doing away with high commissioners should be part of an Indian strategy to employ peaceful tools, including diplomatic, economic and riparian pressures, to reform Pakistan’s behaviour.

Sadly, India is all talk when it comes to imposing costs on the next-door terrorist state. Indian policymakers do not seem to realize that words not backed by action carry major costs. They not only affect India’s credibility but also undermine its deterrent posture by emboldening the enemy.

Isn’t it telling that Pakistan continues to gore India although it is much smaller in economic, military and demographic terms? Such aggression is the bitter fruit of India’s present approach, which essentially has remained the same under successive governments. However, it is still not late to reverse course.

India ought to talk less and act more. To tame a rogue neighbour, India must emphasize deeds, not words. For starters, it must discard the fiction that it can have normal diplomatic relations with a sponsor of terrorism.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research.

Shackles of history in the world’s largest democracy

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Brahma Chellaney

History helps shape national perceptions and perspectives and undergirds national security. However, the boundary between historical fact and fiction is more porous than students of history might think. History is not only written by victors but also is used by most nations as a political tool in intrastate or interstate context.

Indeed, many countries create self-serving or sanitized historical narratives. Autocracies have a monopoly on interpreting or rewriting history. China, the fairytale Middle Kingdom, weaves legend with history to foster a chauvinistic Han Chinese culture centered on regaining lost glory.

Democracies are not free from historical revisionism, although their history debates are more nuanced, usually pitting the political right against the left. In Japan, for example, attempts to reform the U.S.-imposed national security, educational and legal systems are portrayed by the left as a potential revival of prewar militarism. South Korea’s historical revisionism, for its part, is still poisoning its relations with Japan.

India, which, like South Korea, fell prey to the ravages of colonialism, has had a static history debate, a reflection of its internal divisions and inefficient, British-style parliamentary democracy. In sharp contrast to South Korea’s or China’s still-continuing tirades against Japan over its colonial rampages in the pre-World War II period, India’s relationship with Britain remains free of historical rancor, in spite of the brutality and impoverishment it suffered under British colonial rule.

Indeed, India embellished or distorted how it won independence in 1947. Indians are still taught in school that their country gained independence by nonviolence.

However, for the first time ever, India’s annual Republic Day parade this year featured veterans of the Japan-supported Indian National Army (INA), which waged an armed struggle against British colonial rule. Four INA veterans in their 90s separately rode a jeep in a parade that, paradoxically, showcased through 22 tableaux the life experiences of the apostle of nonviolence, Mahatma Gandhi.

The juxtaposed roles of the INA and Gandhi at the January 26 parade inadvertently highlighted a central contradiction in India’s historical narrative about independence. The INA veterans’ participation, in fact, helped underscore the Indian republic’s founding myth — that it won independence by nonviolence alone. This belief is deeply etched in the minds of Indians.

To be sure, the Gandhi-led nonviolent independence movement playing a critical role, both in galvanizing grassroots Indian resistance to British rule and in helping to ultimately gain independence. But the decisive factor was the protracted World War II, which reduced to ruins large swaths of Europe and Asia, especially the imperial powers. The war between the Allied and Axis powers killed 80 million, or 4% of the global population.

Despite the U.S.-engineered Allied victory, a devastated Britain was left in no position to hold on to its colonies, including “crown jewel” India. Even colonies where there was no grassroots resistance to British (or other European) rule won independence in the post-World War II period.

The British had dominated India for more than a century through a Machiavellian divide-and-rule strategy. Their exit came only after they had reduced one of the world’s wealthiest economies to one of its poorest. Indeed, they left after they had looted to their heart’s content, siphoning out at least £9.2 trillion (or $44.6 trillion) up to 1938, according to economist Utsa Patnaik’s recent estimate.

Had India, in the immediate aftermath of independence, proactively secured its frontiers, it could have averted both the Kashmir and Himalayan border problems. China was in deep turmoil until October 1949, and India had ample time and space to assert control over the traditional Himalayan borders, including its extraterritorial rights in Tibet. But India’s pernicious founding myth gave rise to a pacifist country that believed it could get peace merely by seeking peace, instead of building the capability to defend peace.

Here’s the paradox: Countless numbers of Indians died due to British colonial excesses. Just in the manmade Bengal famine of 1942-45, six to seven million Indians starved to death (a toll greater than the Holocaust) due to the British war policy under Prime Minister Winston Churchill of diverting resources away from India. Churchill had as much blood on his hands as Adolf Hitler, a fact obscured by the victors’ prevailing narratives.

Moreover, imperial Britain sent Indian soldiers in large numbers to fight its dirty wars elsewhere, including the two world wars, and many died while serving as cannon fodder. The Indian civilian and military fatality toll in World War II was higher than that of Britain, France and the U.S. combined.

Indeed, the present Indian republic was born in blood: As many as a million civilians died in senseless violence and millions more were uprooted in the British-contrived and rushed partition of the subcontinent — the fruition of Britain’s divide-and-rule policy.

Yet the myth of India uniquely charting and securing its independence by nonviolence was propagated by the inheritors of the British Raj, the British-trained “brown sahibs.” Consequently, no objective discourse was encouraged post-1947 on the multiple factors — internal and external — that aided India’s independence.

In truth, the hope of Indian independence was first kindled by Japan’s victory in the 1904-1905 war with Russia — the first time an Asian nation comprehensively defeated a European rival. However, it was the world war that Hitler unleashed through expansionism — with Imperial Japan undertaking military expeditions in the name of freeing Asia from white colonial rule — that acted as the catalyst. An emboldened Gandhi served a “Quit India” notice on the British in 1942.

While the Subhas Chandra Bose-led INA could not mount a formidable threat to a British colonial military overflowing with Indian recruits, the Bombay mutiny and other Indian troop revolts of 1946 triggered by INA prisoners’ trials undermined Britain’s confidence in sustaining the Raj, hastening its exit. Yet, independent India treated INA soldiers shabbily, with many abandoned into penury.

Against this background, the rehabilitation of Bose and the INA has long been overdue in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well to initiate the process, however low key, to give Bose and the INA their due, including recently renaming one Andaman island after Bose and two other Andaman islands to honor INA’s sacrifices. Modi even wore the INA cap to address a recent public meeting in the Andaman archipelago on the 75th anniversary of Bose’s hoisting of the Indian tricolor flag there — the only territory that the INA managed to liberate from British rule.

Today, a rules-based international order premised on nonviolence remains a worthy aspirational goal. But Indian romancing of nonviolence as a supposedly effective political instrument has crimped national-security policy since independence. The country long hewed to pacifism (with the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, publicly bewailing in 1962 that China had “returned evil for good” by militarily invading India) and frowned on materialism (even after China surpassed India’s GDP in 1984-85).

Such has been the burden of the quixotic national philosophy centered on nonviolence that India has borne enduring costs, including an absence of a strategic culture, despite the country’s location in the world’s most-troubled neighborhood. As the late American analyst George Tanham pointed out, the lack of a culture to pursue a clear strategic vision and policy hobbles India’s ambition to be a great power.

Recognizing unsung heroes is an essential step that India has initiated, however belatedly, toward rebalancing its historical narrative. As George Orwell famously said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Japan Times, 2019.

Trump’s Gift to the Taliban

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The just-announced “agreement in principle” between the US and the Taliban should be called what it is: a Faustian bargain that will lead to still more violence in the region, and perhaps in the West. By abandoning Afghanistan, the Trump administration is repeating one of the worst foreign-policy mistakes of the past few decades.

Brahma Chellaney, a Project Syndicate column

talibanimageAfter the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power, thereby eliminating a key nexus of international terrorism. But now, a war-weary US, with a president seeking to cut and run, has reached a tentative deal largely on the Taliban’s terms. The extremist militia that once harbored al-Qaeda and now carries out the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks has secured not just the promise of a US military exit within 18 months, but also a pathway to power in Kabul.

History is repeating itself. The US is once again abandoning war-ravaged Afghanistan, just as it did three decades ago following a successful covert operation by the CIA to force the Soviets out of the country. The US, desperate to end its longest-ever war, appears to have forgotten a key lesson of that earlier abandonment: it turned Afghanistan into a citadel of transnational terrorism, leading to civil war and eventually bloodshed in the West.

The accord reached between the Taliban and the US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, reads like a wholesale capitulation on the part of the Trump administration. In 2014, the US signed a security pact with the Afghan government that granted the Americans access to nine military bases at least until 2024. But the US has now agreed to withdraw all of its forces in exchange for a mere promise from a terrorist militia that it will deny other terrorist networks a foothold on Afghan territory. Never mind that the Islamic State is already operational in Afghanistan and poses a challenge to the Taliban itself.

Though the agreement has been dubbed a “peace” deal, it will almost certainly lead to even more Islamist violence, not least against Afghanistan’s women. The Taliban are determined to re-impose the medieval practices they enforced during their harsh rule from 1996 to 2001. Whatever gains Afghanistan has made in terms of women’s and civil rights may soon be reversed.

Make no mistake: the Taliban are brutal and indiscriminate in their use of violence, and they refuse even to recognize the country’s legitimate government, which will make fleshing out the new “framework” accord exceedingly difficult. A number of key issues must be spelled out unambiguously, including when the ceasefire between the Taliban and US-backed Afghan forces will take effect. And even then, it is highly doubtful that the Taliban will agree to a power-sharing arrangement with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government.

In fact, having been emboldened by a series of US concessions over the past six years, the Taliban have escalated their terrorist attacks and made significant battlefield gains against Afghan forces. So, if anything, they will see the new agreement as an implicit validation of their impending victory. They know that time is on their side, and that most Americans favor a US exit. That means they will probably play hardball when negotiating the details of a final deal.

In addition to representing a major victory for the Taliban, the accord is also a win for Pakistan, which harbors the militia’s leadership and provides cross-border sanctuaries for its fighters. Just last year, Trump cut US security assistance to Pakistan, tweeting, “they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.”

It is worth remembering that when Trump took office, he promised to reverse the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan by “winning again.” But just two years later, he has apparently decided that it is the extremists who will be winning again.

Far from breaking with former US President Barack Obama’s failed approach, as he promised, Trump has now fulfilled his predecessor’s quest for a deal with the Taliban. Having also recently announced a military drawdown in Syria, Trump has made it clear that the US will readily throw its Kurdish and Afghan allies under the bus in order to extricate itself from foreign entanglements of its own making.

To be sure, America’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban has been in the making for years, which explains why the group is conspicuously absent from the US Department of State’s annual list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, despite having killed more civilians in the past year alone than any other outfit. To facilitate talks with the Taliban, Obama allowed the militia to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Qatar’s capital, Doha, in 2013. And a year later, he traded five senior Taliban leaders for a US Army sergeant (who was later charged with desertion).

Moreover, to lay the groundwork for a deal, the US war planners have long refrained from targeting the Taliban’s command-and-control base in Pakistan, thereby effectively undercutting their own military mission in Afghanistan. As the top US military commander in Afghanistan admitted in 2017, “It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.”

The US has come full circle. The Taliban, like al-Qaeda, evolved from the violent jihadist groups that the CIA trained in Pakistan to wage war against the Soviets in the 1980s. After suffering the worst terrorist attack in modern world history, the US turned against the Taliban, driving their leaders out of Afghanistan.

But now, in search of a face-saving exit from the Afghan quagmire, America is implicitly preparing to hand the country back to the same thuggish group that it removed from power 17 years ago. Sadly, once American troops leave Afghan soil, the ability of the US to influence events there, or to prevent a new terrorist attack on the US homeland, will be severely limited.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

China’s lonely rise: After decades of heady growth, Beijing is suddenly facing resistance at home and abroad

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Xi Jinping’s word may be law, but faced with difficult choices on China’s new challenges, he now finds himself under pressure

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Members of the Chinese People’s Armed Police stand guard in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Giulia Marchi / Bloomberg

By Brahma Chellaney, The National, January 25, 2019

As the People’s Republic of China prepares to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding later this year, the limits of its Communist Party-led model are becoming apparent. And more than ever, the world’s longest-surviving and most-powerful autocracy faces difficult choices at home and abroad.

By China’s own statistics, its economy is registering its most sluggish growth in nearly three decades. The world’s second-largest economy grew by 6.6 per cent in 2018, the lowest rate since 1990, when the fallout from the massacre of as many as 10,000 people in a tank and machine-gun assault on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square a year earlier kept growth to a humble 3.9 per cent.

At a time when China appears to have entered a new era of uncertainty after more than a quarter century of phenomenal growth, it is perhaps fitting that this year marks the 30th anniversary of that massacre.

The uncertainty is evident in a new phenomenon – the flight of capital from a country that, between 1994 and 2014, amassed towering piles of foreign-exchange reserves by enjoying a surplus in its overall balance of payments.

But now, faced with an unstoppable trend of net capital outflows, President Xi Jinping’s government has tightened exchange controls and other capital restrictions to prop up the country’s fragile financial system and sagging currency. The regime has used tens of billions of dollars in recent months alone to bolster the yuan’s international value.

It is not just capital that’s fleeing China, as more and more Chinese choose to live overseas. In an informal vote of no confidence in the Chinese system, more than a third of surveyed millionaires in China said they were “currently considering” migrating to another country. An earlier report found that almost two-thirds of rich Chinese were either emigrating or have plans to do so.

Today, China’s mounting internal challenges are being compounded by new external factors. Chinese belligerence and propaganda, for instance, have spawned a growing image problem for the country internationally, which is apparent even in regions where China has invested heavily, from Africa to Southeast Asia.

More significantly, Beijing has come under international pressure on several fronts – from its trade, investment and lending policies to its human rights record, including its incarceration of more than a million Muslims from Xinjiang, a sprawling territory Mao Zedong annexed in 1949. Perhaps China’s free ride, which helped propel its rise, is coming to an end.

In modern-day “re-education” prisons, China is accused of forcing Uighurs and other Muslim groups to forsake Islamic practices and become secular citizens.

The Soviet Communist Party that ran gulags was consigned to the dustbin of history. But now the Chinese Communist Party has set up its own gulags that are more high-tech and indiscriminate and have Islam as their target. The network of concentration camps is designed to dismantle Muslim identities and change the outlook of entire communities – a grim mission of unparalleled scale.

Yet, even as international criticism has mounted, the West still seems reluctant to hold Beijing accountable for its harsh treatment of ethnic minorities, deciding against, for instance, introducing sanctions.

China, meanwhile, is confronting growing US-led pressure on the trade and geopolitical fronts, accentuating Beijing’s dilemmas and fuelling uncertainty at home. As long as the US-China trade war rages, flight of capital will remain a problem for Beijing, whose foreign-exchange reserves have shrunk by about $1 trillion from their peak of just over $4 trillion in mid-2014.

At a time when China’s imperial project, the Belt and Road Initiative, is running into resistance from a growing number of partner countries, Beijing is also confronting an international pushback against its telecommunications giant Huawei. In fact, the pushback has broadened from opposition to Huawei’s participation in next-generation 5G wireless networks to a broader effort in Europe, North America and Australia to restrict the use of Chinese technology because of concerns that it is being used for espionage.

The arrest of the Huawei founder’s daughter in Canada, at the behest of Washington, rattled China’s elites, making them angry but also fearful that any one of them could meet a similar fate while travelling to the West. With Meng Wanzhou’s detention, the US signalled that it has more powerful non-tariff weapons than China, which has long used such tools to punish countries as diverse as Japan, Mongolia, South Korea and the Philippines.

Ms Meng was held for an alleged violation of America’s Iran-related sanctions, but even Western onlookers saw her arrest as an example of US high-handedness. Instead of galvanising support against the American move, China responded in typical fashion that, as an American analyst put it, is the “mark of a thuggish state” – by jailing two Canadians.

Indeed, it is Beijing’s open disregard for international rules that explains why it can count on few true strategic allies or reliable security partners. Contrast this with the strong network the US maintains, including close collaboration with many of China’s neighbours. Beijing has alienated almost every significant power in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

China’s lonely rise could become more pronounced with the newly restructured People’s Liberation Army becoming less of an army and more of a power projection force, the majority of whose troops now are not from the army but from the other services. Indeed, the PLA’s shift away from being a defensive force foreshadows a more aggressive Chinese military approach of the kind already witnessed in the South China Sea, where China has fundamentally changed the status quo in its favour.

The Dalai Lama recently said that, due to Chinese pressure, no Buddhist country, with the sole exception of the nominally Buddhist Japan, is now willing to grant him entry as the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism. However, whenever Chinese pressure forces smaller nations to cave in on any issue, it only fuels greater resentment against Beijing.

Against this backdrop, where is China heading? It has come a long way since the Tiananmen Massacre, with its citizens now more prosperous, mobile and digitally connected. Its economy, in purchasing power parity terms, is already the world’s largest.

However, its political system remains as repressive as ever, with Mr Xi centralising power in a way China has not seen since Mao. Under his leadership, the party has set out to systematically quash Muslim, Tibetan and Mongol identities, expand China’s frontiers far out into international waters, and turn the country into a digital totalitarian state.

Yet, one should not overlook what a difference less than a year has made. Few in China dared to criticize Mr Xi when he ended the decades-old, Party-led collective leadership system and abolished a two-term limit on the presidency –actions that theoretically allow him to rule for life.

But, in the new international environment in which China finds itself today, he is facing domestic criticism – however muted — for building a cult of personality around his one-man rule and for inviting an international pushback by overemphasising China’s strength and power.

Mr Xi’s word may be law but, faced with difficult choices on China’s new challenges, he now finds himself under pressure. His primary focus will probably remain ensuring stability at home. Without stability, neither he nor the Party can hope to survive in power.

To calm the economic turbulence, China’s central bank has substantially increased domestic credit to help boost consumption and investment at home. In the medium-term, the US-led tariff pressures are likely to accelerate China’s shift from low-end manufacturing to higher value-added industries like electronics, robotics and artificial intelligence.

The geopolitical pushback, for its part, could force Xi to return to the “hide your capacities, bide your time” strategy of Deng Xiaoping. But such a return can scarcely obscure China’s ambitious goals that Mr Xi has laid bare. Even if Beijing starts soft-pedalling its ambitions, it is likely to adopt a “two steps forward, one step back” strategy to keep progressing toward its goals.

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

© The National, 2019.

Indigenous groups are the world’s endangered environmental guardians

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Waiapi people pose in Manilha village in Amapa state, Brazil, Oct. 15, 2017.

Brahma Chellaney

The Globe and Mail

Brazil’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro – known for his misogynistic, racist, homophobic and anti-environmental comments – has raised questions about the future of the world’s fourth-largest democracy with his support for torture and his unapologetic nostalgia for the country’s 1964-85 military dictatorship. But no part of Brazil’s diverse society has more to dread from Mr. Bolsonaro’s coming to power than the country’s already beleaguered Indigenous groups.

Over the past five centuries, the number of Indigenous people in Brazil has shrunk from as much as five million to about 895,000, less than 0.5 per cent of the country’s population. Since 2006, their territory – the Brazilian part of the Amazon Basin – has lost forest cover over an area greater in size than the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the world’s 11th-largest country, according to satellite data.

Mr. Bolsonaro, perhaps the most right-wing leader of any democracy in the world, has vowed to open up the Amazon rain forest to developers by repealing constitutional safeguards for Indigenous lands, claiming the protected reserves amount to keeping Indigenous people in “zoos.”

As if to signal his intent to permit greater destruction of the world’s biggest rain forest, he has appointed a Foreign Minister who believes climate change is an anti-Christian plot by “cultural Marxists” seeking to criminalize red meat, oil and heterosexual sex. And he has appointed an anti-abortion evangelist to head a new ministry overseeing Indigenous groups, women and human rights.

To be sure, Brazil is not the only country where Indigenous tribes must confront mounting threats to their ways of life – and their lives. From Canada and the Philippines to Japan and Indonesia, Indigenous people face growing threats of discrimination, marginalization and forced assimilation. As a result, the world’s Indigenous communities are rapidly dwindling in numbers owing to encroachment and the exploitation of their natural resources.

With their combined share of the global population shrinking to 4.5 per cent, Indigenous communities are locked in modern-day David-versus-Goliath battles against mining companies, dam builders, oil-palm plantations, loggers, ranchers, hunters, evangelists and military forces. Their rights continue to be violated with impunity despite an international convention obligating governments to protect their lands, identities, penal customs and ways of life.

More fundamentally, at a time when environmental degradation and climate change have emerged as mortal threats to humankind, Indigenous peoples’ ways of life, with their premium on maintaining a balance between human needs and the preservation of ecosystems, serve as examples to the wider world.

Living close to nature, with their survival tied to ecosystem health, Indigenous communities respect nature as their teacher and protector. Consequently, they tend to understand nature better than modern societies, as was illustrated in late 2004, when a devastating tsunami struck in the Indian Ocean, killing more than a quarter million people across 14 Asian countries. On India’s remote Andaman archipelago, however, close to the epicentre of the earthquake that caused the tsunami, two of the world’s most isolated Indigenous tribes escaped harm by relying on traditional warning systems and moving to higher ground in time.

In fact, one of these two groups – the world’s last known pre-Neolithic tribal community, living on coral-fringed North Sentinel Island – made international headlines recently because of a Chinese-American missionary’s covert but fatal expedition to convert its 100 or so members to Christianity. John Allen Chau made repeated forays onto the island over three days, ignoring warnings from the Sentinelese tribe members to leave their community alone.

After the decimation of Indigenous tribes under European colonial rule, countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, India and Peru have pursued “no contact” policies toward isolated tribes. These policies are anchored in laws that protect the rights of Indigenous people to live in seclusion on their ancestral lands. Tribal reserves in India’s Andaman archipelago, for example, are off-limits to all outsiders. Intrusions are punishable with a prison sentence.

A man with the Sentinelese tribe aims his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter as it flies over North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Islands, Dec. 28, 2004.

Yet, with the support of a Kansas City-based missionary agency that trained him for the arduous undertaking, Mr. Chau dodged Indian laws and coastal security to make repeated incursions into North Sentinel to convert a highly endangered tribe to his religion, according to his own diary accounts. He undertook his mission just before American Thanksgiving, an annual whitewash of the genocide perpetrated against Native Americans.

Contrast the Sentinelese handling of the alien with punishments for unlawful activity or entry in the so-called civilized world: On Mr. Chau’s first intrusion into their peaceful world, the hunter-gatherer Sentinelese did not subject him to Abu Ghraib-style torture or to U.S. President Donald Trump’s “catch and detain” policy, applicable to anyone entering the United States illegally. The Sentinelese, as Mr. Chau acknowledged in his notes, let him go – with a warning not to return.

But an undeterred Mr. Chau, using a fishing boat and a kayak, repeatedly stepped ashore, disparaging the island as “Satan’s last stronghold.” The patience of the Sentinelese wore out, and he was likely shot with a bow and arrow. His body was reportedly buried on the beach, in the way the tribe disposes of its own dead.

Although local police have filed a case of murder against “unknown persons,” the Sentinelese acted in a way permitted by the “stand your ground” laws in states such as Florida. That self-defence law shields a person from both criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit “if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary” to use deadly force to prevent harm or death.

Mr. Chau – the son of a refugee father who fled China during the Cultural Revolution and converted to Christianity in the United States – described in his notes how he hid from Indian coastal patrols under cover of darkness to make his criminal forays into an island forbidden even to Indians, including military forces. By demonstrating the ease with which one can breach Indian tribal-protection laws and security, he helped highlight the vulnerability of India’s endangered tribes.

More broadly, his mission exemplified the threats to Indigenous people who live in total isolation. Today, most of such tribes live in the Amazon Basin, straddling Brazil’s borders with Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, or in the jungles of New Guinea and India.

The isolated tribes have rejected contact with the external world usually after experiencing ghastly violence and deadly diseases brought by outsiders from the time of European colonization, which wiped out many Indigenous communities from Australia to North America. To escape genocide, some tribes fled to the deepest and most inaccessible parts of jungles, where they still live.

For example, until 150 years ago, the Andaman archipelago was home to more than two dozen isolated aboriginal communities, whose ancestors left Africa tens of thousands of years ago in a major exodus that provided the earliest inhabitants of Asia and Oceania. Studies have identified a genetic affinity between the Andaman islanders, Malaysia’s tiny Orang Asli Indigenous population and Oceania’s Melanesians.

After British colonial excesses, only four Andaman tribes survive. Two of these groups were forcibly assimilated by the British and have become rootless and dependent on government aid. They are likely to vanish much ahead of the other two groups, which are self-sufficient and continue to live in complete isolation.

Likewise in Brazil, three-quarters of the Indigenous communities that were forced to open up to the outside world became extinct, with the rest suffering catastrophic population declines. Since the late 1980s, however, Brazil’s constitutional protections for Indigenous territories have helped many remaining tribes increase their populations – protections Mr. Bolsonaro has now threatened to repeal.

The examples from the Amazon Basin and the Andaman islands underscore the potent dangers of forced assimilation for isolated aboriginal people. Forced incorporation usually happens in the name of providing access to better technology, education and health care or, as Mr. Bolsonaro wants, to open up Indigenous lands to resource extraction and other development projects.

There are compelling anthropological and epidemiological reasons to prohibit outsiders from establishing contact with remote tribes. For example, the first waves of European colonization caused a calamitous depopulation of Indigenous societies by introducing smallpox, measles and other infectious diseases to which Indigenous people had no immunity.

Modern life is characterized by rampant use of antibiotics, including in meat production, with antibiotic resistance posing a major public-health challenge globally. Secluded people have no antibodies against the outside world’s deadly pathogens.

This helps explain why, even in death, Mr. Chau poses a potential threat to the Sentinelese community because of the pathogens he may have brought.

To be sure, contact may be perilous for isolated Indigenous groups, but leave-them-alone policies are no guarantee that remote-living tribes will survive. Small, highly inbred groups confront the spectre of dying out completely, irrespective of whether they stay in or come out of isolation.

Close rapport with alien culture, however, may be the worst option, speeding up their disappearance. An isolated Indigenous community’s embrace of modern culture usually dooms its existence. This is why remote-living groups choose to stay in isolation and – like the Sentinelese – fire warning arrows at those who seek to encroach on their habitats.

Constitutional or legal safeguards for indigenous lands, cultures and lifestyles, as in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, India and Peru, have allowed some endangered tribes to grow. When authorities look the other way, however, these tribes lose out in battles to defend their lands and cultures from miners, loggers, ranchers, evangelists and others.

The unpalatable fact is that the clearing of more forests and other ecosystems for cropland, mining, pasture and other purposes continues to contribute to the decimation of isolated Indigenous groups living in peace and contentment.

Most such groups are small and very vulnerable. Brazil, in addition to 238 “contacted” Undigenous tribes, has “23 confirmed and 47 potential” Indigenous groups living in complete isolation, according to one study, while Peru has about 15 such “uncontacted” tribes.

For scientists seeking to reconstruct evolutionary and migratory histories, tribes living in complete isolation are an invaluable biological asset. As another study has put it, “Isolated populations living in remote and/or inaccessible parts of the world are regarded as biological treasures from the genetic viewpoint. Many of these isolated human groups have remained relatively unknown until very recent times, so that the information provided by population genetic studies can help the scientists in the partial reconstruction of their demographic and evolutionary histories.”

The future of these highly endangered tribes hinges on policies and laws that adequately safeguard their seclusion and privacy from interlopers and encroachers, who bring violence, disease and rapacious exploitation.

Media labels such as “primitive” and “Stone Age” are racist tags that conjure up false images. Isolated tribe members certainly do not have the luxuries of modern life and use primal tools. But as Indian anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay, who studied the Andaman Indigenous groups, has said, “The tribes might be primitive in their technology but socially they are far ahead of us.”

Let’s be clear: Religion has little meaning for Indigenous societies that revere nature and serve as the world’s environmental sentinels. Where Indigenous communities have been converted to a religion – as on India’s now predominantly Christian Great Nicobar Island – the lifestyle changes have been so profound that the traditional Indigenous cultures have been uprooted.

Today, the world’s Indigenous groups, despite their small and declining share of the global population, manage 80 per cent of Earth’s biodiversity, in part because their ancestral lands make up 22 per cent of the world’s land surface. By preserving forests, lakes, rivers and other ecosystems on their territories, they play an indispensable role in climate-change mitigation and adaptation.

A critical part of the world’s cultural diversity and ecological harmony, Indigenous peoples have much to teach us about how to combat environmental degradation and climate change. In fact, their role as guardians of biodiversity is critical to the search of modern societies for more sustainable lifestyles.

Remake the terms of the Indus treaty

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, January 22, 2019

indusThe Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), the most generous water-sharing pact in modern world history, remains a large millstone around India’s neck. Far from seeking to get rid of that millstone, India next weekend will welcome a three-member Pakistani team for an inspection tour of Indian hydropower projects in the basin of the Chenab, the largest of the six Indus-system rivers in terms of the rate of cross-border flow.

Contrast this with the record of other powers on binding accords. China’s 2017 breach of bilateral accords by denying India hydrological data resulted in many preventable deaths in Assam floods. The U.S. is now dumping the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty after unilaterally terminating another IWT-style pact of unlimited duration — the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

A scofflaw Pakistan, despite being in dire financial straits, remains wedded to terrorism, including inflicting upon India death by a thousand cuts. Yet the much-larger India, instead of imposing deterrent costs, continues to treat Pakistan with kid gloves, as underscored by the impending visit of the Indus commissioner-led Pakistani team.

While Pakistan flouts international norms and rules, India adheres to the IWT’s finer details — and goes even beyond. For example, under IWT’s Article VIII, the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) is to meet once a year. Its next meeting was due in March 2019. But, thanks to India’s zealousness, the PIC met much earlier in August 2018, just five months after its previous meeting.

It was at that meeting that India agreed to advance Pakistan’s inspection tour to October 2018. The last such tour occurred in 2014 and the next one, in keeping with the IWT provision for a tour “once every five years”, was due by the end of 2019. The local bodies’ elections in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) forced the October tour to be deferred to January.

The Pakistani side, like in 2014, will use its upcoming tour to collect new information on Indian projects and then mount technical objections to their designs and seek international intercession. Even before the team’s visit, Pakistani officials have raised objections to the spillway or freeboard of the projects to be inspected.

The lopsided IWT, which keeps for India just 19.48% of the total Indus-system waters, is the world’s only inter-country water agreement embodying the doctrine of restricted sovereignty, which compels the upstream nation to forego major river uses for the benefit of the downstream state. India has failed to fully exercise even its IWT-truncated rights. For example, India has built no storage on the Chenab, Jhelum and the main Indus stream, although the IWT permits it to store 4.4 billion cubic meters of these rivers’ waters.

On the three rivers, India is allowed to build run-of-river hydropower plants without dam reservoirs. Yet India’s total installed generating capacity in J&K currently does not match the electric output of a single major dam in Pakistan, such as Tarbela, opened in 1976, or Diamer-Bhasha, whose construction is about to begin. In the lower basin, where India has full rights, the substantial waters of the Beas, Ravi and Sutlej untapped by it go to Pakistan as bonus outflows.

To bring Pakistan to heel, India needs to fashion water as an instrument of leverage. Such leverage can serve as the most potent instrument in India’s arsenal against Pakistan — more powerful than the nuclear-weapons option, which essentially is for deterrence. Building leverage in the Indus Basin is a cheaper option for India to reform Pakistan’s behaviour than fighting a war. Indeed, peaceful options — from mounting escalating riparian pressures to waging economic, cyber and diplomatic warfare — can effectively tame Pakistan.

India gains little from its present approach. For example, despite India’s scrupulous observance of the IWT provisions and its concessions, Pakistan accuses it of not fully complying with the treaty’s terms. Pakistan will never be satisfied. Nor will it stop “internationalizing” every disagreement as part of its water-war strategy against India. Add to the picture its proxy war by terror. While trampling on basic norms, Pakistan claims interminable water rights.

In this light, an increasingly water-stressed India should unilaterally remake the terms of the Indus engagement. Four of the six Indus-system rivers originate in India. The other two begin as small rivers in Tibet and gain major flows in India. For starters, India should keep its Indus commissioner’s post vacant. Without formally withdrawing from the IWT, India must assert its upper-riparian rights. India cannot keep bearing the IWT’s burdens without any tangible benefits accruing to it from the treaty.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

China’s South China Sea Grab

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By Brahma ChellaneyProject Syndicate

Over the last five years, China has turned its contrived historical claims to the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth far from its shores. China’s leaders did not leave that outcome to chance.

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MANILA – It has been just five years since China initiated its major land reclamation in the South China Sea, and the country has already shifted the territorial status quo in its favor – without facing any international pushback. The recent anniversary of the start of its island building underscored the transformed geopolitics in a corridor central to the international maritime order.

In December 2013, the Chinese government pressed the massive Tianjing dredger into service at Johnson South Reef in the Spratly archipelago, far from the Chinese mainland. The Spratlys are to the south of the Paracel Islands, which China seized in 1974, capitalizing on American forces’ departure from South Vietnam. In 1988, the reef was the scene of a Chinese attack that killed 72 Vietnamese sailors and sunk two of their ships.

The dredger’s job is to fragment sediment on the seabed and deposit it on a reef until a low-lying manmade island emerges. The Tianjing – boasting its own propulsion system and a capacity to extract sediment at a rate of 4,530 cubic meters (5,924 cubic yards) per hour – did its job very quickly, creating 11 hectares of new land, including a harbor, in less than four months. All the while, a Chinese warship stood guard.

Since then, China has built six more artificial islands in the South China Sea and steadily expanded its military assets in this highly strategic area, through which one-third of global maritime trade passes. It has constructed port facilities, military buildings, radar and sensor installations, hardened shelters for missiles, vast logistical warehouses for fuel, water, and ammunition, and even airstrips and aircraft hangars on the manmade islands. Reinforcing its position further, China has strong-armed its neighbors into suspending the exploitation of natural resources within their own exclusive economic zones.

Consequently, China has turned its contrived historical claims to the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth, despite a 2016 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal invalidating those claims. China’s leaders seem intent on proving the old adage that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” And the world, it seems, is letting them get away with it.

The Chinese did not leave that outcome to chance. Before they began building their islands in the South China Sea, they spent several months testing possible US reactions through symbolic moves. First, in June 2012, China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, without eliciting a tangible international response.

Almost immediately, the China State Shipbuilding Industry Corporation – which is currently building the country’s third aircraft carrier – published on its website draft blueprints for manmade islands atop reefs, including drawings of structures that have come to define China’s Spratly construction program. But the sketches received little international notice, and were soon removed from the website, though they later circulated on some Chinese news websites.

In September 2013, China launched its next test: it sent the Tianjing dredger to Cuarteron Reef, where it stayed for three weeks without initiating any land reclamation. Commercially available satellite images later showed the dredger at another reef, Fiery Cross, again doing little. Again, the United States, under President Barack Obama, did not push back, emboldening China to start its first island-building project, at Johnson South Reef.

In short, as China has continued to build and militarize islands, it has taken a calibrated approach, gradually ramping up its activities, while keeping an eye on the US reaction. The final two years of the Obama presidency were marked by frenzied construction.

All of this has taken a serious toll on the region’s marine life. The coral reefs China has destroyed to use as the foundation for its islands provided food and shelter for many marine species, as well as supplying larvae for Asia’s all-important fisheries. Add to that chemically laced runoff from the new artificial islands, and China’s activities are devastating the South China Sea ecosystems.

Obama’s last defense secretary, Ash Carter, has criticized his former boss’s soft approach toward China. In a recent essay, Carter wrote that Obama, “misled” by his own analysis, viewed as suspect “recommendations from me and others to more aggressively challenge China’s excessive maritime claims and other counterproductive behaviors.” For a while, Carter says, Obama even bought into China’s vision of a G2-style arrangement with the US.

Now, President Donald Trump’s administration is grappling with the consequences of Obama’s approach. Trump wants to implement a vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy is the successor to Obama’s unhinged “pivot” to Asia.

But, from its newly built perches in the South China Sea, China is better positioned not only to sustain air and sea patrols in the region, but also to advance its strategy of projecting power across the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. How can there be any hope of a free and open Indo-Pacific, when the critical corridor linking the Indian and Pacific oceans is increasingly dominated by the world’s largest autocracy?

China’s territorial grab, a triumph of brute power over rules, exposes the vulnerability of the current liberal world order. The geopolitical and environmental toll is likely to rise, imposing major costs on the region’s states and reshaping international maritime relations.

© Project Syndicate.

China is at a crossroads

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

On 70th anniversary of PRC’s founding, the limits of its Party-led model are showing

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Four decades ago, the Chinese Communist Party, under its new paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, decided to subordinate ideology to wealth creation, spawning a new aphorism, “To get rich is glorious.” The party’s central committee, disavowing Mao Zedong’s thought as dogma, embraced a principle that became Mr. Deng’s oft-quoted dictum, “Seek truth from facts.”

Mr. Mao’s death earlier in 1976 had triggered a vicious and protracted power struggle. When the diminutive Mr. Deng – once described by Mr. Mao as a “needle inside a ball of cotton” – finally emerged victorious at the age of 74, he hardly looked like an agent of reform.

But having been purged twice from the party during the Mao years – including once for proclaiming during the 1960s that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice” – Mr. Deng seized the opportunity to usher in transformative change.

The Four Modernizations program under Mr. Deng remarkably transformed China, including spurring its phenomenal economic rise. China’s economy today is 30 times larger than it was three decades ago. Indeed, in terms of purchasing power parity, China’s economy is already larger than America’s.

Yet, four decades after it initiated reform, China finds itself at the crossroads, with its future trajectory anything but certain.

To be sure, when it celebrates in 2019 the 70th anniversary of its communist “revolution,” China can truly be proud of its remarkable achievements. An impoverished, backward country in 1949, it has risen dramatically and now commands respect and awe in the world.

China is today the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party. But here’s the paradox: The more it globalizes while seeking to simultaneously insulate itself from liberalizing influences, the more vulnerable it is becoming to unforeseen political “shocks” at home.

Its overriding focus on domestic order explains one unusual but ominous fact: China’s budget for internal security – now officially at US$196-billion – is larger than even its official military budget, which has grown rapidly to eclipse the defence spending of all other powers except the United States.

China’s increasingly repressive internal machinery, aided by a creeping Orwellian surveillance system, has fostered an overt state strategy to culturally smother ethnic minorities in their traditional homelands. This, in turn, has led to the detention of a million or more Muslims from Xinjiang in internment camps for “re-education.”

Untrammelled repression, even if effective in achieving short-term objectives, could sow the seeds of violent insurgencies and upheavals.

More broadly, China’s rulers, by showing little regard for the rights of smaller countries as they do for their own citizens’ rights, are driving instability in the vast Indo-Pacific region.

Nothing better illustrates China’s muscular foreign policy riding roughshod over international norms and rules than its South China Sea grab. It was exactly five years ago that Beijing began pushing its borders far out into international waters by pressing its first dredger into service for building artificial islands. The islands, rapidly created on top of shallow reefs, have now been turned into forward military bases.

The island-building anniversary is as important as the 40th economic-reform anniversary, because it is reminder that China never abandoned its heavy reliance since the Mao era on raw power.

In fact, no sooner had Mr. Deng embarked on reshaping China’s economic trajectory than he set out to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam, in the style of Mr. Mao’s 1962 military attack on India. The February-March 1979 invasion of Vietnam occurred just days after Mr. Deng – the “nasty little man,” as Henry Kissinger once called him – became the first Chinese communist leader to visit Washington.

A decade later, Mr. Deng brutally crushed a student-led, pro-democracy movement at home. He ordered the tank and machine-gun assault that came to be known as the Tiananmen massacre. According to a British government estimate, at least 10,000 demonstrators and bystanders perished.

Yet, the United States continued to aid China’s economic modernization, as it had done since 1979, when president Jimmy Carter sent a memo to various U.S. government departments instructing them to help in China’s economic rise.

Today, a fundamental shift in America’s China policy, with its broad bipartisan support, is set to outlast Donald Trump’s presidency. This underscores new challenges for China, at a time when its economy is already slowing and it has imposed tighter capital controls to prop up its fragile financial system and the yuan’s international value.

The international factors that aided China’s rise are eroding. The changing international environment also holds important implications for China domestically, including the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Xi Jinping, who, in October 2017, ended the decades-old collective leadership system to crown himself China’s new emperor, now no longer looks invincible.

The juxtaposing of the twin anniversaries helps shine a spotlight on a fact obscured by China’s economic success: Mr. Deng’s refusal to truly liberalize China has imposed enduring costs on the country, which increasingly bends reality to the illusions that it propagates. The price being exacted for the failure to liberalize clouds China’s future, heightening uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

The Vital Isolation of Indigenous Groups

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After the American missionary John Allen Chau ignored successive warnings, the isolated Sentinelese people killed him. But the threat the world’s isolated tribes face is far from neutralized, as some have taken Chau’s death as an opportunity to argue that policies protecting them should be reversed.

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The remote, coral-fringed North Sentinel Island made headlines late last year, after an American Christian missionary’s covert expedition to convert its residents – the world’s last known pre-Neolithic tribal group – ended in his death. The episode has cast a spotlight on the threats faced by the world’s remote indigenous groups, which are already on the brink of disappearance.

The Sentinelese people targeted by the slain evangelist John Allen Chau are probably the most isolated of the world’s remaining remote tribes, and they are keen to stay that way. They shoot arrows to warn off anyone who approaches their island, and attack those, like Chau, who ignore their warnings.

It was not always this way. When Europeans first made contact with the Sentinelese, the British naval commander Maurice Vidal Portman described them in 1899 as “painfully timid.” But the profound shift is not hard to explain. Tribes like the Sentinelese have learned to associate outsiders with the ghastly violence and deadly diseases brought by European colonization.

British colonial excesses whittled down the aboriginal population of the Andaman Islands, which includes North Sentinel Island, from more than two dozen tribes 150 years ago to just four today. The tribes that escaped genocide at the hands of the colonizers did so largely by fleeing to the deepest and most inaccessible parts of jungles.

That was the story in North Sentinel, which Portman and his forces raided, abducting the few children and elderly who failed to flee into the dense rainforest in time. As a 2009 book by Satadru Sen notes, Portman used members of Andaman tribes as subjects in his supposed anthropometry research, forcibly measuring and photographing their bodies. The research, according to Sen, reflected a perverted “fascination” with “male genitalia.”

After the decimation of indigenous peoples under colonial rule, the countries where isolated tribes remain – including Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, India, and Peru – have pursued a “no contact” policy toward these groups. This policy is anchored in laws that protect indigenous people’s rights to ancestral lands and to live in seclusion, and reinforced by an international convention obligating governments to protect these communities’ lands, identities, penal customs, and ways of life.

It is illegal – and punishable by a prison sentence – for outsiders to enter India’s tribal reserves. Yet Chau dodged Indian laws and coastal security, according to his own diary accounts, to make repeated forays into North Sentinel over three days – an arduous effort that was facilitated by a Kansas City-based missionary agency, which trained him for his journey. The Sentinelese killed him only after he ignored repeated warnings to stop trespassing.

But the threat to the Sentinelese people – and, indeed, all isolated tribes – is far from neutralized, as some have taken Chau’s death as an opportunity to argue that we should reverse the policies protecting isolated tribes. And while some have good intentions – to provide access to modern technology, education, and health care – others do not. For example, Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has threatened to repeal constitutional safeguards for aboriginal lands in order to expand developers’ access to the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest.

Whatever the motivation, connecting with remote tribes would amount to a death sentence for them. The first waves of European colonization caused a calamitous depopulation of indigenous societies through violence and the introduction of infectious diseases like smallpox and measles, to which the natives had no immunity.

In Brazil, three-quarters of the indigenous societies that opened up to the outside world have become extinct, with the rest suffering catastrophic population declines. Over the last five centuries, Brazil’s total indigenous population has plummeted from up to five million to fewer than 900,000 people, with the introduction of constitutional protections for indigenous territories in the late 1980s aimed at arresting the decline.

In the Andaman chain, of the four tribes that survive, the two that were forcibly assimilated by the British have become dependent on government aid and are close to vanishing. Indigenous communities’ combined share of the world population now stands at just 4.5%.

To be sure, leaving secluded tribes alone is no guarantee that they will survive. These highly inbred groups are already seeing their numbers dwindle, and face the specter of dying out completely. But they will probably die a lot faster if we suddenly contact them, bringing with us modern pathogens against which they have no antibodies.

These tribes might be isolated, but their demise will have serious consequences. With their reverence for – and understanding of – nature, such groups serve as the world’s environmental sentinels, safeguarding 80% of global diversity and playing a critical role in climate change mitigation and adaptation. When the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami struck, more than a quarter-million people died across 14 countries, but the two isolated Andaman tribes, which rely on traditional warning systems, suffered no known casualties.

But, as Bolsonaro’s promises underscore, indigenous societies have been pitted directly against loggers, miners, crop planters, ranchers, oil drillers, hunters, and other interlopers. In the last 12 years alone, according to satellite data, Brazil’s Amazon Basin has lost forest cover equivalent in size to the entire Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s eleventh-largest country.

Indigenous people are an essential element of cultural diversity and ecological harmony, not to mention a biological treasure for scientists seeking to reconstruct evolutionary and migratory histories. The least the world can do is to let them live in peace in the ancestral lands that they have honored and preserved for centuries.

China’s India trade funds its containment strategy

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, January 5, 2018

wang yi-swarajChina is emphasizing public diplomacy to help soften Indian public opinion and mute Indian concerns over an increasingly asymmetrical trade relationship. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in New Delhi the new people-to-people mechanism will “help consolidate the public-opinion foundation” for bilateral ties. China’s public diplomacy aims to underpin its “win-win” policy toward India — engagement with containment.

New Delhi, however inadvertently, is lending a helping hand to Beijing’s strategy of engagement as a façade for containment. India has done little more than implore China to rein in its spiralling trade surplus. The lopsided trade relationship makes India essentially a colonial-style raw-material appendage of the state-led Chinese economy, which increasingly dumps manufactured goods there.

Worse still, New Delhi effectively is funding China’s India containment strategy. India’s defence budget for the current financial year, at Rs. 2,95,512 crore ($42.2 billion), is just 65% of China’s estimated trade surplus of $65.1 billion in the calendar year 2018. This means India practically is underwriting Beijing’s hostile actions against it — from its military build-up in Tibet and growing Indian Ocean encroachments to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Pakistan recently revealed to the International Monetary Fund that China’s CPEC investments will total $26.5 billion — less than half of the earlier claims. From just one year’s trade surplus with India, Beijing can fully fund two CPEC-type multi-year projects and still have billions of dollars for other activities to contain India.

In the list of countries with which China has the highest trade surpluses, India now ranks No. 2 behind the US. China’s surplus with the US, of course, is massive. But as a percentage of total bilateral trade, India’s trade deficit with China is greater than America’s. And in terms of what it exports to and imports from China, India is little different than any African economy.

Consider another troubling fact: Total Chinese foreign direct investment in India remains insignificant. Cumulatively aggregating to $1.9 billion, it is just a fraction of China’s yearly trade surplus. India’s 2015 removal of China as a “country of concern”, instead of encouraging major Chinese FDI flow, has only spurred greater dumping.

Consequently, China’s trade surplus has spiralled from less than $2.5 billion a month when Narendra Modi took office to over $5 billion a month since more than a year. China’s trade malfeasance is undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness, with the result that Modi’s “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off. Many firms in India have turned from manufacturers to traders by marketing low-end products from China — from tube lights to fans — under their brand names. Is it thus any surprise that manufacturing’s share of India’s GDP has actually contracted? Instead of “Make in India”, “Made in China” has gained a stronger foothold in India.

India’s China problem will only exacerbate when the planned 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) accord takes effect, thereby creating a free-trade zone between the world’s two most-populous countries. Unlike the other states negotiating RCEP, India is not an export-driven economy; rather it is an import-dependent economy whose growth is largely driven by domestic consumption.

RCEP’s main impact on India will come from China, which Harvard’s Graham Allison has called “the most protectionist, mercantilist and predatory major economy in the world”. China, while exploiting India’s rule of law for dumping, keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses. It has dragged its feet on dismantling regulatory barriers to the import of Indian agricultural and pharmaceutical products and IT services.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj rightly reminded Wang that “a solution to the continuously increasing trade deficit” is a must. Seeking to rebalance trade is not a dollar-for-dollar matter. Rather it is about ensuring fair trade and fair competition. China rose through fair access to world markets that it now denies India. Indeed, Beijing is abusing trade rules to pursue unfair trade and undercut India’s manufacturing base.

What stops India from taking a leaf out of US President Donald Trump’s playbook and giving China a taste of its own bad medicine? World Trade Organization (WTO) rules permit punitive tariffs on foreign subsidized goods that harm domestic industries. India can also emulate Beijing’s non-tariff barriers and other market restrictions.

India focuses on Pakistan’s unconventional war by terror but forgets that China is also waging an unconventional war, though by economic means. Indeed, China’s economic war is inflicting greater damage, including by killing Indian manufacturing and fostering rising joblessness among the Indian youth.

Just as the British — as American historian Will Durant noted — financed their colonization of India with Indian wealth, the Chinese are financing their encirclement of India with the profits from their predatory trade with it.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

A mortal threat to Asia’s rise

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Governments must tackle environmental degradation as it threatens region’s future

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A man wears a mask as Tiananmen Square is shrouded in smog in Beijing in November. © Kyodo

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Many Asian cities will ring in the New Year with high levels of air pollution, which contributes to potentially life-shortening health problems, from heart disease to severe asthma. Seasonal cold weather impedes dispersal of pollutants in the air, and so tends to increase levels of carbon monoxide and particulates, including tiny particles that can find their way into human lungs.

Asia, given the contamination levels and large populations, is the epicenter of the global air pollution problem. City dwellers are breathing polluted air contaminated with particulates multiple times greater in concentration than the World Health Organization’s safe limit.

The air pollution problem is intimately linked to Asia’s larger crisis arising from its deteriorating natural environment. This degradation poses a potent threat to Asia’s future.

For example, one factor that has contributed to New Delhi’s dangerous air pollution levels is the disappearance of 31 hills in northwest India’s Aravalli range due to mining. India’s Supreme Court in October halted all further mining in the 690-kilometer-long range, which has lost its forest cover, resulting in summertime dust storms in the Indian capital and other cities in the region.

Similarly, the ever-increasing sand squalls that blanket Beijing are linked to misguided government policies that have inadvertently promoted desertification in China’s northwest, north and northeast (officially called the “three norths”). The Gobi Desert’s advance toward Beijing has been aided since the Mao Zedong era by subsidized natural resources to agriculture and industry, thus promoting inefficiency and waste.

In particular, state-fostered irrigated farming in the “three norths” has led to degradation or depletion of water, land and forest resources, decimating many aquatic, wildlife and plant species. The 5,830-kilometer Yellow River — the cradle of the Han civilization — was once known as China’s sorrow because of its recurrent flooding. But now it has become a source of sorrow for the opposite reason: With farms and industries siphoning off its waters, it is running dry.

Rapid expansion of intensive irrigation has helped turn China’s semiarid north into the country’s food bowl, although the south boasts fertile land and bounteous water. To sustain this environmentally damaging paradox, the elites, located in the north, have engineered huge water transfers from the south through the Great South-North Water Diversion Project, the world’s largest inter-river and inter-basin transfer program.

More broadly, economic and demographic expansion in Asia is increasingly damaging the environment, while promoting a scramble for limited supplies of commodities.

In per capita terms, Asia is the world’s most resource-poor continent. For example, Asia’s water availability is less than half of the global average of 5,829 cubic meters per person yearly. Thanks to increasing demand for tropical and other timbers, including teak, Asian countries have among the world’s highest deforestation rates. Asia is already the world’s largest importer of fossil fuels, including coal.

Asia’s overexploitation of its natural resources has created an environmental crisis that is contributing to regional climate change. For example, the Tibetan Plateau, which contains the world’s third largest store of ice after the two poles, is warming at almost three times the average global rate, largely because of Chinese policies that have led to intensive mining, giant dam projects, deforestation, elimination of grasslands, and introduction of Western-style agriculture.

Asia’s sharpening competition over commodities is also shaping resource geopolitics, including the construction of oil and gas pipelines. China is sourcing new hydrocarbon supplies from Central Asia and Russia via pipeline. But this option is not available to Asia’s other leading economies — Japan, India and South Korea — as they are not contiguous with suppliers in Central Asia, Iran or Russia.

Natural resources have long played a significant role in global strategic relations, including driving armed interventions and wars. At present, rising dependence on energy imports is being used by Asian powers to build greater naval capabilities, spurring new concerns about sea-lane safety and vulnerability to supply disruptions. One example is the growing tension in the South China Sea, a critical corridor linking the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Meanwhile, Asian challenges emerging from the close nexus between energy, water and food are underlining risks of unprecedented resource-related shocks. Asia is the biggest driver of increased global energy demand, while its food challenges are being compounded by rising incomes that are altering people’s diets, with a greater intake of animal-based proteins. For example, Chinese diets have changed so dramatically since the 1979 advent of economic modernization that China last year reportedly consumed twice as much pork, beef and poultry as the U.S.

Yesterday’s luxuries are becoming today’s necessities, putting greater demand on natural resources — from energy, food and water to metals and minerals — and thereby contributing to environmental degradation. Rising incomes are fueling consumption growth, which in turn is aggravating the environmental impacts.

Declining fertility rates, as in East Asia, are correlated with growing prosperity and greater consumption levels. Rising prosperity fuels resource demand. Changing diets are also an important driver of environmental degradation and resource stress. Humans have changed not only their diet but also the diet of the animals they raise for food: Livestock are often fed grain, not grass, their natural intake.

Because livestock require much more food, land, water and energy than plants, the spiraling Asian demand for meat harms ecosystems and fuels climate change. Meaty diets, in turn, are contributing to an obesity problem. Heavier citizens, with their greater demand on resources, carry a larger ecological footprint.

Simply put, the growing strains on environmental sustainability are tied to factors that extend far beyond population growth.

In fact, as more Asians prosper and seek the everyday comforts of modern life, environmental impacts are likely to be exacerbated in the coming years unless governments adopt a more comprehensive approach to the management of natural resources and to environmental protection. For example, the integration of energy, water and food in national policies is essential to advance synergies.

Asia cannot afford to let environmental issues fall by the wayside. While competition for resources will continue to shape Asia’s security dynamics, the fact is that Asian states cannot sustain their impressive economic growth without addressing their resource, environmental and security challenges in a cooperative framework, including by establishing norms and institutions and pursuing forward-looking policies. Energy, food and water resources must be managed jointly in policy terms.

The New Year should serve as a reminder for governments to adopt more sustainable practices and build healthier and more secure societies through participatory environmental management.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

U.S. sheds its blinkers on China

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, successive US presidents, as a matter of policy, aided China’s rise in the naïve hope that a more prosperous China would liberalize economically and politically. But now a fundamental shift in America’s China policy is under way, opening the path to greater Indo-US collaboration. The evolving paradigm shift, with its broad bipartisan support, is set to outlast Donald Trump’s presidency.

China, a trade cheat that has also employed non-tariff tools to punish countries as diverse as South Korea, Mongolia, Japan and the Philippines, is getting a taste of its own medicine. By scripting the Canadian arrest of the Huawei founder’s daughter, the US has shown it has more powerful non-tariff weapons. The action has rattled China’s elites: They are angry but also fearful that any one of them could meet a similar fate while travelling to the West.

The arrest was significant for another reason. As former US Defence Secretary Ash Carter says in a recent essay published by Harvard University, Beijing has a history of staging provocations that coincide with high-level diplomacy. For example, the start of President Xi Jinping’s 2014 state visit to India coincided with a deep Chinese military incursion into Ladakh. The fact that the Huawei arrest coincided with the Dec. 1 Trump-Xi dinner meeting in Buenos Aires signalled to Beijing that others can pay it back in the same coin.

America’s ongoing policy shift, however, should not obscure how its “China fantasy”, as a book title describes it, facilitated the assertive rise of its main challenger. Such was the fantasy that President Bill Clinton got China into the WTO by citing Woodrow Wilson’s vision of “free markets, free elections, and free peoples” and claiming the admission would herald “a future of greater openness and freedom for the people of China”. Instead, China has become more autocratic and repressive, building an Orwellian surveillance state.

The end of the 45-year-old US conciliatory approach to China does not necessarily signify the advent of an overtly confrontational policy or even a new cold war. China, for example, still gets a free pass on human-rights abuses. The US has slapped no sanctions on China for detaining more than a million of its Muslims in internment camps. Imagine the US response had Russia set up such camps.

The policy shift appears more about finding economic levers to blunt China’s strategy of global expansion and ascendancy. In Asia, for example, China is aiming to displace the US as the leading power and contain its peer rivals, Japan and India, by seeking to enforce a 21st-century version of the Monroe Doctrine, including through geo-economic tools and territorial and maritime revisionism. It has gained de facto control of much of the South China Sea.

A key question is whether the US policy shift is occurring too late to stop China’s global rise or even compel it to respect international norms and rules. Having become strong through assorted trade barriers, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and industrial and export subsidies, China is unlikely to fundamentally change its behaviour in response to the new American pressure. Xi, China’s new self-crowned emperor, would undermine his position — and his strategy to build a Sino-centric Asia — by yielding to American demands.

Xi’s regime will seek to bear the US pressure — at some cost to China’s economic growth — but without materially altering its policies or global ambitions. The 90-day “truce” in the trade war that Xi negotiated with Trump in Buenos Aires meshes with Beijing’s “two steps forward, one step back” strategy to progressively advance its ambitions.

Nevertheless, the US, by embracing a more realistic and clear-eyed approach, is signalling that China’s economic and strategic aggression will no longer go unchallenged. Even if the US fails to compel Beijing to respect international rules, its policy change signifies that the free ride that China has long enjoyed is ending — a free ride that has brought the security of its neighbours, including India, under pressure.

Indeed, Trump has shown how active pressure on China, as opposed to Indian-style imploration, can yield concessions. Whereas deference to China usually invites bullying, standing up to it generates respect and compromise.

In Buenos Aires, while the spotlight was on the Trump-Xi talks, the US president’s joint meeting with prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi — the first ever such trilateral — underscored the centrality of Japan and India to the American goal to build a stable balance of power in Asia. Indeed, the entente between Asia’s richest democracy and its biggest is a principal pillar of Washington’s newly unveiled “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.

Weaponizing water

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Brahma Chellaney, DNA newspaper

NIDS - CopyJust as China has changed the status quo in the South China Sea through an island-building strategy, it is working to re-engineer cross-border flows of international rivers that originate in Tibet, which Beijing annexed in 1951.

No country will be more affected by China’s dam frenzy than India because of one telling statistic: Out of the 718 billion cubic metres of surface water that flows out of Chinese-held territory yearly, 347 billion cubic meters (or 48.3% of the total) runs directly into India. Several major Indian rivers originate in Tibet, including the Brahmaputra, the Kosi, the Sutlej and the Indus.

China already boasts more large dams than the rest of the world put together. More importantly, it has emerged as the key obstacle to building institutionalized collaboration on shared water resources in Asia.

In contrast to the bilateral water treaties between many of its neighbours, China rejects the concept of a water-sharing arrangement or joint, rules-based management of common resources.

India has water-sharing treaties with both the countries located downstream to it: Pakistan and Bangladesh. These treaties govern the Indus and the Ganges.

By contrast, China, despite its unrivalled international status as the source of river flows to more than a dozen countries, stands out for not having a single water-sharing arrangement with any neighbour.

India’s treaties with Pakistan and Bangladesh have actually set new principles in international water law. The 1996 Ganges treaty — which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Indian-assisted independence — set a new standard by guaranteeing delivery of specific water quantities in the critical dry season.

The Indus treaty stands out as the world’s most generous water pact, in terms of both the sharing ratio (80.52% of the aggregate water flows in the six-river Indus system are reserved for Pakistan) and the total volume of basin waters for the downstream state (Pakistan gets 90 times greater volume of water than Mexico’s share under a 1944 pact with the US).

China, in rejecting the 1997 UN convention that lays down rules on shared water resources, contended that an upstream power has the right to assert absolute territorial sovereignty over the waters on its side of the international boundary — or the right to divert as much water as it wishes for its needs, irrespective of the effects on a downriver state.

Today, by building mega-dams and reservoirs in its borderlands, China is working to divert the flows of major rivers that are the lifeline of lower riparian states.

Since the last decade, China’s major dam building has moved from dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers located in ethnic-minority homelands like Tibet. On the Brahmaputra, China is racing to complete several additional dams located in close proximity to each other. This cascade of dams is likely to affect the quality and quantity of downstream flows into India and Bangladesh.

Only five rivers in the world carry more water than the Brahmaputra and only one — mainland China’s Yellow River — carries more silt. The Brahmaputra is the world’s highest-altitude river. It represents a unique fluvial ecosystem largely due to the heavy load of high-quality nutrient-rich silt it carries from forbidding Himalayan heights.

The Brahmaputra’s annual flooding cycle helps to re-fertilize overworked soils in India’s Assam plains and large parts of Bangladesh, where the river is the biggest source of water supply. The silt-movement impediment by China’s upstream dam projects constitutes a bigger threat to the biophysical vitality of the river and to the soil fertility of downstream plains than even the likely diminution of cross-border flows.

China’s centralized, mega-projects-driven approach to water resources is the antithesis of the policy in India, where water is a state (not federal) subject under the Constitution and where anti-dam non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are powerful. India’s Narmada Dam project, which remains incomplete decades after its construction began, symbolizes the power of NGOs.

The largest dam India has built since independence — the 2,000-megawatt Tehri Dam on River Bhagirathi — pales in comparison to China’s giant projects, such as the 22,500-megawatt Three Gorges Dam and the new mega-dams on the Mekong like Xiaowan, which dwarfs Paris’s Eiffel Tower in height, and Nuozhadu, which boasts of a 190-square-km reservoir.

China’s population is just marginally larger than India’s, but its internally renewable water resources (2,813 billion cubic meters per year) are almost twice as large as India’s. In aggregate water availability, including external inflows (which are sizeable in India’s case), China boasts virtually 50% larger water resources than India.

India’s surface-water storage capacity — an important measure of any nation’s ability to deal with drought or seasonal imbalances in water availability — is one of the world’s lowest: Amounting to 200 cubic metres per head per year, it is more than 11 times lower than China’s. The 2030 Water Resources Group, an international unit, has warned that India is likely to face a 50% deficit between water demand and supply by 2030.

In the coming years, China, by ramping up construction of dams on trans-Himalayan rivers, could fashion water into a political weapon against India.

(He is author of award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground”.)

© DNA newspaper, 2018.

Canada must stand up to China the bully

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In clear reprisal for Canada’s U.S.-sought arrest of the daughter of Huawei’s founder, China has detained two Canadians on charges of undermining its national security but has shied away from taking any action against the United States. This is in keeping with Beijing’s record of acting only against the weaker side, even if it happens to be a U.S. ally.

For example, when the United States installed its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea, China used its economic leverage to retaliate against South Korea, not against the U.S. The heavy-handed economic sanctions imposed on South Korea in 2017, partly extending into this year, illustrated Beijing’s use of trade as a political weapon.

Similarly, after U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act in March, which encourages official visits between the United States and the island, China staged war games against Taiwan and bribed the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso to break diplomatic ties with Taipei. The United States, however, faced no consequences.

Now, while intensifying a punitive campaign against Canada, China has adopted a tempered approach toward the United States, even though Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou at the behest of U.S. prosecutors for alleged bank fraud related to violations of sanctions against Iran. In fact, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has bent over backward to emphasize that while confrontation hurts the U.S.-China relationship, co-operation benefits both countries.

Such is the Chinese effort to mollify the power behind Ms. Meng’s arrest that, in recent days, Beijing has made trade-related concessions to help defuse tensions with Washington. Contrast this with the way China has followed up on its threats of retaliation against Canada by arresting a former Canadian diplomat, Michael Kovrig, and then detaining Michael Spavor, a Canadian writer and entrepreneur living in the Chinese province of Liaoning. Ms. Meng’s release on bail has apparently not allayed Beijing’s anger against Ottawa.

Such behaviour fits the classic definition of a bully, whether in school or on the international stage – one that engages in unwanted, aggressive behaviour by taking advantage of an imbalance of power.

In fact, with its foreign policy favouring strong-arm methods over mutual understanding, China’s neighbours increasingly view it as a bully. U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis correctly said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that China pursues a “tribute nation” approach to other countries and aspires for “veto power” over their sovereign decisions.

This approach helps explain why Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has started to run into resistance in a number of countries. Essentially an imperial project aimed at making real the mythical Middle Kingdom, BRI has sought to lure countries desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. Countries neglected by multilateral lending institutions initially flocked to BRI, but now, partner countries worry about Beijing ensnaring them in sovereignty-eroding debt traps.

China’s penchant for bullying also explains why it essentially remains a friendless power. It lacks any real strategic allies. Indeed, the more power China has accumulated, the greater has been its difficulty in gaining genuine allies, underscoring that leadership demands more than brute might. Contrast this with the strong network of allies and partners that the United States maintains globally.

China’s increasing authoritarianism at home under Mr. Xi has fostered an overtly muscular foreign policy that has counterproductively contributed to China’s lonely rise. A senior U.S. official warned in 2016 that Beijing risks erecting “a Great Wall of self-isolation.”

China, a trade cheat that has also employed non-tariff tools to punish countries as diverse as Japan, Mongolia and the Philippines, is now getting a taste of its own medicine. With Ms. Meng’s arrest, the U.S. showed that it has more powerful non-tariff weapons. China’s elites are rattled – angry but also fearful that any one of them could meet a similar fate while traveling to the West.

Ms. Meng’s arrest was significant for another reason. As former U.S. defence secretary Ash Carter says in a recent Harvard University essay, Beijing has a history of staging provocations that coincide with high-level diplomacy. For example, the start of Mr. Xi’s 2014 state visit to India coincided with a deep Chinese military incursion into the Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh.

The fact that Ms. Meng’s arrest coincided with the Trump-Xi dinner meeting on Dec. 1 in Buenos Aires signalled to Beijing, however unintentionally, that others can pay it back in the same coin.

More importantly, Mr. Trump has shown how active U.S. pressure on China, as opposed to imploration or admonition, can yield concessions. Without the United States withdrawing its 10-per-cent tariffs on US$250-billion worth of Chinese goods, Beijing has begun lifting, following the Buenos Aires talks, its restrictions on imports of U.S. food, energy and cars. Those restrictions had been placed in retaliation for the 10-per-cent tariffs. The United States’ threat to increase them to 25 per cent and possibly extend them to all imports from China forced Beijing’s hand.

When a country pursues an accommodating approach toward Beijing, an emboldened China only ups the ante. Deference to China usually invites bullying, while standing up to it draws respect and a readiness to negotiate and shore-up cooperation.

Ottawa would do well to remember this fact as it grapples with the escalation of the diplomatic feud by a country that seeks to play the aggrieved victim while acting as the bully.

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

© The Globe and Mail, 2018.

India’s Kartarpur Headache

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New Delhi must proactively thwart Pakistan’s effort to revive Sikh militancy in Punjab

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, December 14, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently raked up the issue as to why Kartarpur today is in Pakistan, not India. At Simla in 1972, for example, India could have traded the return of captured territories and 93,000 prisoners of war for a Kashmir settlement and border adjustments to secure Kartarpur — and more. Yet, despite holding all the cards, Indira Gandhi surrendered at the negotiating table India’s major gains from martyrs’ sacrifices.

In effect, Indira pardoned Pakistan in the style of Prithviraj Chauhan, who routed invader Mahmud Ghori on the battlefield, only to set him free — an action that encouraged Ghori to return later to wage the Second Battle of Tarain, where he defeated and executed the Rajput ruler. Just like Prithviraj Chauhan, Indira paid with her life for her blunder. Left free to avenge 1971, Pakistan, before focussing on the Kashmir Valley, engineered a bloody Sikh militancy that ultimately spawned Indira’s assassination.

Against this background, Modi must pay heed to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s warning that the Pakistan army and Inter-Services Intelligence, with the aim of reviving Sikh militancy, planned the Kartarpur corridor even before Imran Khan took office. Pakistan’s army chief has taken a keen interest in the corridor plan, which explains his presence at the Kartarpur ceremony. The corridor, if it opens, will likely become a major security headache for India.

India, unfortunately, chose the 10th anniversary period of the four-day Mumbai terrorist attacks for the corridor’s cornerstone-laying ceremonies in India and Pakistan. This not only conveyed a regrettable message that India lacked a sense of remembrance, but also handed the 26/11 perpetrator, Pakistan, a propaganda coup.

Indeed, Pakistan used the occasion to ominously greet the Indian delegation with Sikh separatist posters and an in-house Sikh militant. The ill-timed ceremonies apparently were intended to let Modi take a positive message to the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires.

Over seven decades, India has bent over backwards to make peace with Pakistan, only to be repeatedly kicked in the face. Consider, for example, India’s globally unparalleled water generosity in the form of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. Or its big-heartedness at Tashkent and Simla.

Or India’s initiation of “composite dialogue” in the 1990s, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore, his Agra summit with General Pervez Musharraf, his second Pakistan visit in the twilight of his rule and, just months after 26/11, Manmohan Singh’s Chamberlainian appeasement at Sharm el-Sheikh.

Or take the olive branches Modi has extended — from inviting Nawaz Sharif  to his 2014 inauguration and opening an unpublicized dialogue at the national security adviser-level to making a surprise Lahore visit and later sending his foreign minister to Islamabad. Nothing has worked.

Indeed, India’s peace initiatives and magnanimity have had the opposite effect of emboldening Pakistan’s scofflaw actions. Modi’s Lahore visit, for example, led to the Pakistan military’s scripting of terrorist attacks on a raft of Indian security bases, from Pathankot to Uri. Yet, on the 26/11 anniversary eve, Modi oddly voiced hope that the Kartarpur corridor would have the same momentous impact in uniting two societies that the Berlin Wall’s fall had.

The 10th anniversary of 26/11 should have been a sombre occasion to remember the victims of one of modern history’s worst terrorist carnages and to spotlight Pakistan’s continued protection of the masterminds. India ought to have reminded Pakistan that its day of reckoning will come before long.

Unfortunately, amid the corridor-related fervour, India did not remember even the martyrs, such as the cop Tukaram Omble, who, by ensuring Ajmal Kasab’s capture alive, provided the clinching evidence of Pakistan’s involvement in 26/11.

India laid the corridor cornerstone on its side of the border on the opening day of the 26/11 anniversary period, with an oblivious Indian vice president calling it a “historic day”! Indeed, such was the oozing zeal that India sent not one but two ministers to the Pakistan-side ceremony.

Make no mistake: Pakistan may be isolated and cash-strapped, yet it gladly remains a terrorist state. Lest we forget, the Nirankari sect guru’s 1980 assassination paved the way for Pakistan to script terrorism in India. To incite tensions and militancy in Punjab, Pakistan, as the first line of attack, targeted Nirankaris, who are at odds with mainstream Sikhs as they believe in a living guru and reject the militant brotherhood of the Khalsa.

Just when Pakistan has laid bare its designs to use the Kartarpur corridor to indoctrinate and radicalize Sikh pilgrims from India, a recent attack on Nirankari worshippers outside Amritsar with a Pakistan-origin grenade suggests the ISI may be reviving its old strategy.

Sikh militancy cost India dearly, triggering the disastrous Operation Bluestar and a PM’s killing. Its potential resurgence at a time when illicit drugs from Pakistan have become a scourge in Punjab could possibly tear India apart. India, with its ostrich-like approach and perennial preoccupation with electoral politics, would do well to remember the old adage, “a stitch in time saves nine”, lest history — to quote Karl Marx — repeat itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce”.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2018.

Fair Observer talks to Brahma Chellaney

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In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Brahma Chellaney, a prominent Indian intellectual and author.

Bordered by the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, India is the second most populous country and, arguably, the biggest democracy in the world. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund recognize India as the sixth largest economy on the planet.

Despite significant economic growth in recent decades, India faces its own set of challenges. Poverty in India is still a serious concern, even though the country is no longer home to the largest number of poor people in the world; that country is Nigeria. However, figures show two-thirds of people in India live in poverty.

India’s dynamic foreign policy and the willingness of countries to forge a close partnership with New Delhi as a nascent global power pose a serious challenge to a world order in which the US, Russia, China and the EU are competing for dominance. India’s huge energy demands also mean that oil and gas producers have a difficult job vying with each other and satisfying the needs of the third biggest energy-consuming country in the world.

The efforts of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India who is referred to as the architect of Indian foreign policy, paved the way for the foundation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961. India is a major member of the NAM and was its president from 1983 until 1986. Today, India maintains the same neutrality in international affairs, but tries to play an active role on the global stage through diversifying its economic partners, engaging in UN peacekeeping missions and keeping an eye on a possible permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Brahma Chellaney, a prominent Indian intellectual and author, about India’s foreign policy, its economy and its relations with neighboring countries in South Asia.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: The International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook predicts that India will experience a 7.4% growth in its gross domestic product by 2019 and that the figure would be 7.7% for 2020. How has India achieved such remarkable economic growth that even surpasses the United States and China?

Brahma Chellaney: Ever since India embarked on economic reforms in the early 1990s, its GDP growth has accelerated. Under the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, GDP growth surpassed 8% annually. Critics blame the Modi government’s missteps, including demonetization of high-value currency notes and a hastily introduced goods and services tax, for slowing the economic growth. However, the government’s tax and regulatory reforms, despite inflicting short-term pain, will likely help accelerate GDP growth in the medium to long-term.

India, however, needs to invest greater resources in education, human resources development and achieving autonomous technological capabilities in order to sustain economic growth in the years ahead.

Ziabari: International reports show that the number of ceasefire violations along the India-Pakistan border have increased significantly in 2017 and 2018. Do you think tensions will be alleviated between the two countries in the New Year, especially since the new Pakistani PM Imran Khan seems to be determined to make peace with India?

Chellaney: Pakistan has turned into the mecca of terrorism, even as its new leader promises a medina-like welfare state. In Pakistan, no prime minister has been allowed to complete a full five-year term. When a prime minister falls foul of the deep state, a bendable judiciary, opposition and bureaucracy are used to smear the leader’s reputation and oust him or her. Every prime minister has been thrown out on charges of corruption and incompetence.

The latest military-engineered 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 Khan as its newest puppet. Khan is a supporter of the military-backed jihadists and Islamists and a religious zealot himself.

Today, caught in mounting debt to China, Pakistan is in desperate need for an international bailout package. Against this background, Pakistan will remain a principal source of regional instability and the fountainhead of transnational terrorism. Its neighbors, including India and Afghanistan, can expect little change in Pakistan’s behavior.

Ziabari: How do you think the US and European Union’s sanctions on Russia will impact India’s economy? Do you think there will be a problem in Russia’s delivery of the S-400 air defense system to India as a result of US sanctions that make the payments difficult?

Chellaney: A generation after the Cold War ended, the Washington power elites remain obsessively fixated on Russia, although Russia’s economy today is just one-tenth the size of China’s and its military spending one-fifth of China.

Pressure from the power elites has led the Trump administration to impose at least four rounds of sanctions on Russia this year, even though better relations with Moscow can help to put discreet checks on China’s overweening ambitions. With its vast economic and military potential, China clearly represents the main threat to US interests. But the current US sanctions-centered approach to Russia has only compelled Moscow to pivot to China.

The US sanctions policy toward Russia also has gratuitously introduced a major irritant in relations with India. A new Russia-centered sanctions law took effect earlier this year. 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 US has already overtaken Russia as the top arms seller to India. Yet it is seeking to pressure India to reduce its imports of Russian arms. India cannot snap its defense ties with Moscow. With India going ahead with a deal to buy the interceptor-based S-400 Triumf air and anti-missile defense system from Russia, the US Congress has passed a waiver legislation that grants India conditional waiver from the CAATSA sanctions.

Ziabari: Iran is the second largest supplier of India’s oil. Will the new US sanctions against Iran affect the oil trade between Tehran and New Delhi? Is India legally bound to follow the US lead in sanctioning Iran and cutting off crude imports from that country?

Chellaney: India, the second-largest importer of Iranian oil after China, is a major victim of the new US sanctions against Iran and Russia. By implicitly mounting two-pronged pressure on New Delhi on energy and defense fronts, Washington has implicitly underscored the risks for India of pursuing a foreign policy too closely aligned with America. By slapping a nation with punitive sanctions, the US 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 US 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 US dollar arms America with tremendous leverage, making US sanctions the most powerful in the world. Most international transactions, from banking to oil, are conducted in US dollars. Through its Iran-related sanctions, the US wants to influence the energy-import policy of India, which currently imports more than three-fourths of its crude oil requirements.

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 US allies. Iran, however, has long been a major oil supplier to India. It will remain important for India’s energy-import diversification strategy. The US has granted India a six-month waiver from its Iran-related oil sanctions. In addition, the US has granted a waiver for India’s Pakistan-bypassing transportation corridor to Afghanistan via Iran. India is investing in modernizing the Chabahar Port.

Ziabari: In one of your articles, you praised President Donald Trump for trying to contain China and hold back its economic and political growth. However, many observers say that Trump is not a reliable politician and does not take advice from the right people. Do you think his lack of political experience will be a threat to India as well?

Chellaney: Any US administration’s policies are made not just by the president, but by the whole team the president has assembled. Washington is more polarized and divided than ever before. Yet it is highly significant that, in this environment, a bipartisan consensus has emerged that the decades-old US policy of “constructive engagement” with China has failed and must be replaced with active and concrete counteraction. The China policy change that is underway, therefore, will likely outlast the Trump presidency because it will be difficult for a successor to reverse it and go back to trustful cooperation.

The policy change does not seek to hold back China’s economic and political growth. Rather the aim is to make China comply with international rules and norms. For example, China has long been cheating on World Trade Organization rules. It is important to note that, despite the policy change that is underway, China still gets a free pass on human-rights abuses — from holding a million or more Muslims from Xinjiang province in internment camps to carrying out the forced disappearance of the Interpol chief. Had Russia set up such internment camps, the US response would likely have been swift and resolute.

Ziabari: You once wrote that the President Trump has tried to “sweet-talk autocratic leaders,” such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, to encourage them to make concessions. Why didn’t he try this option with Iran? Has his flattering of the North Korean and Russian leaders paid off?

Chellaney: Trump lavishes praise on autocratic foreign leaders that he is seeking to extract concessions from. Even more than Kim and Putin, Trump has lavished praise on China’s Xi Jinping, calling him “terrific” and “great.” In fact, Trump has flattered no foreign leader like Xi. Yet Trump has managed so far to wrest no major concessions from Xi. This explains why the Trump administration has targeted China with tariffs on $250 billion worth of imports into the US from there. As for Kim, Trump has succeeded in getting North Korea to declare a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. But Kim is unlikely to give up his nuclear weapons entirely. That is the only card he has.

Trump’s Iran policy is short-sighted and counterproductive to US interests. His Iran policy has been greatly influenced by neoconservatives, election campaign donors and other interests tied to Israel. This explains why Trump has pursued a hardline approach toward Iran.

Ziabari: There are indications that India is forfeiting its democratic values. India’s top court recently ruled that movie theaters should be required to play India’s national anthem before screening movies. The country ranks 140th out of 179 in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. It is 136th out of 163 countries in the Global Peace Index 2018. Restrictions on Muslim Indians continue to remain in place. Do you think India is still a serious democracy?

Chellaney: You must be kidding that there are “restrictions” on Muslims in India. Muslims have the same rights as Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and others in India. Discrimination on the basis of religion is unlawful under the Indian Constitution.

India’s democracy certainly faces challenges. But it is widely recognized that India remains a robust and proud democracy. In fact, it is the world’s largest democracy. The Indian media is one of the freest in the world. And Indian courts regularly overturn government decisions. If anything, India has an activist judiciary that often appears to encroach on the executive branch’s powers.

In fact, democracy remains India’s greatest asset. While the concepts of democratic freedoms and the rule of law are normally associated with the West, India can claim ancient traditions bestowing respect to such values. Basic freedoms for all formed the linchpin of the rule in third century BC of Emperor Ashoka who, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has pointed out, “did not exclude women and slaves as Aristotle did.”

Ziabari: What are the foreign policy priorities of India as of today? What is India doing to in order to consolidate its international standing and fulfill its economic aspirations?

Chellaney: India has long cherished “strategic autonomy” and sought to stay clear of formal alliances. That won’t change. However, in an important shift, India is moving from nonalignment to multi-alignment. This means India is going from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality.

There is an important difference between nonalignment and multi-alignment. Nonalignment implies a passive stance as a bystander. Multi-alignment, by contrast, permits an active and participatory role, including building close strategic partnerships with likeminded powers.

India cannot, and will not, be a lackey of any power. Because of its geographical location, India is the natural bridge between the West and the East, and between Europe and Asia. Through forward thinking and a dynamic foreign policy, India is seeking to truly play the role of a bridge between the East and the West, including serving as a link between the competing demands of the developed and developing worlds. At a time of heightened geopolitical tensions, the world needs such a bridge-builder.

Ziabari: Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Rwanda and Uganda earlier this year before traveling to South Africa for the BRICS summit. Historically, there have been large Indian communities across Africa that contributed to the economic prosperity of the continent. What is India looking for in rejuvenating its relations with African nations?

Chellaney: India has had close historical ties with Africa. Today, India is seeking to revive those ties. Take the Indian Ocean region, which extends from Australia to eastern and southern Africa. The Indian Ocean region has emerged as the world’s major energy and trade seaway, as well as the center of the challenges of the 21st-century world — from terrorism and extremism to piracy and safety of sea-lanes of communication.

India is attempting to build a web of strategic partnerships with key littoral states in the Indian Ocean rim. The partnerships incorporate trade accords, defense and energy cooperation, and strategic dialogue. India’s focus includes countries adjacent to chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz, Iran; the Strait of Malacca, namely Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia; the Bab el-Mandab, which are Djibouti and Eritrea; and the Cape of Good Hope and the Mozambique Channel, namely South Africa and Mozambique.

Not only does BRICS include South Africa, but also South Africa’s president will be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade on January 26, 2019. India and Japan have launched the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor in partnership with a number of African countries. In addition, India has offered a $1 billion line of credit to African countries.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

When one nation’s dam-building rage threatens an entire continent’s future

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Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

China is the world’s biggest dam builder, with the country boasting more dams than the rest of the world combined. China is also the world’s largest exporter of dams.

In Nepal, where China-backed communists are in power, Beijing has just succeeded in reviving a lucrative dam project, which was scrapped by the previous Nepalese government as China had won the contract without competitive bidding. The reversal of the previous government’s cancellation of the $2.5 billion Budhi-Gandaki Dam project has come after Nepal’s communist rulers implemented a transit transport agreement with China to cut dependence on India.

China is building dams in two other countries neighbouring India, Myanmar and Pakistan, including in areas torn by ethnic separatism (as in northern Myanmar) and in a United Nations-designated disputed territory like the Pakistan-occupied portion of Jammu and Kashmir. Yet it loudly protests when the Dalai Lama merely visits Arunachal Pradesh, claiming it to be a “disputed territory”, although only Beijing disputes India’s control over Arunachal. The UN does not recognize Arunachal as disputed.

China has also held out threats against India jointly exploring with Vietnam for offshore hydrocarbons in Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Yet it has no compunctions about unveiling projects — under the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Domestically, most of China’s mega-water projects are now concentrated on the Tibetan Plateau, a sprawling region it forcibly absorbed in the early 1950s.

By building an array of new dams on rivers flowing to other countries, Beijing seems set to roil inter-riparian relations in Asia and make it more difficult to establish rules-based water cooperation and sharing.

China has emerged as the key impediment to building institutionalized collaboration in Asia on shared water resources. In contrast to the bilateral water treaties between many of its neighbours, China rejects the concept of a water-sharing arrangement or joint, rules-based management of common resources.

The long-term implications of China’s dam programme for India are particularly stark because several major rivers flow south from the Tibetan plateau. India has water-sharing treaties with both the countries located downstream from it: the Indus pact with Pakistan guarantees the world’s largest cross-border flows under any treaty regime, while the Ganges accord has set a new principle in international water law by granting Bangladesh an equal share of downriver flows in the dry season.

China, by contrast, does not have a single water-sharing treaty with any neighbour.

Yet most of Asia’s international rivers originate in territories that China annexed after its 1949 communist “revolution”. The Tibetan Plateau is the world’s largest freshwater repository and the source of Asia’s greatest rivers, including those that are the lifeblood of mainland China, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Other Chinese-held homelands of ethnic minorities contain the headwaters of rivers such as the Irtysh, Illy and Amur, which flow to Russia and Central Asia.

China’s dam programme on international rivers is following a well-established pattern: Build modest-size dams on a river’s uppermost difficult reaches, and then construct larger dams in the upper-middle sections as the river picks up greater water volume and momentum, before embarking on mega-dams in the border area facing the neighbouring country. The cascade of mega-dams on the Mekong River, for example, is located in the area just before the river enters continental Southeast Asia.

Many of China’s new dam projects at home are concentrated in the seismically active southwest, covering parts of the Tibetan Plateau. The restart of dam building on the Salween River after a decade-long moratorium is in keeping with a precedent set on other river systems: Beijing temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests flare so as to buy time — before resurrecting the same plan.

The Salween — Asia’s last largely free-flowing river — runs through deep, spectacular gorges, glaciated peaks and karst on its way into Myanmar and along the Thai border before emptying into the Andaman Sea. Its upstream basin is inhabited by 16 ethnic groups, including some, like the Derung tribe, with tiny populations numbering in the thousands. As one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, the upper basin boasts more than 5,000 plant species and nearly half of China’s animal species.

China’s action in lifting the moratorium and starting work on dams on the Tibet-originating Salween threatens the region’s biodiversity and could uproot endangered aboriginal tribes. There is also the risk that the weight of huge, new dam reservoirs could accentuate seismic instability in a region prone to recurrent earthquakes.

No country is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of trans-boundary flows than India. The reason is that India alone receives nearly half of the river waters that leave Chinese-held territory. According to United Nations figures, a total of 718 billion cubic meters of surface water flows out of Chinese territory yearly, of which 347 billion cubic meters (or 48.3 per cent of the total) runs directly into India.

China already has a dozen dams in the Brahmaputra River basin and one each on the Indus and the Sutlej rivers. On the Brahmaputra, it is currently constructing several more. Its dam building is likely to gradually move to Tibet’s water-rich border with Arunachal as the Brahmaputra makes a U-turn to enter India.

If Asia is to prevent water wars, it must build institutionalized cooperation in trans-boundary basins in a way that co-opts all riparian neighbours. If a dominant riparian country refuses to join, such institutional arrangements — as in the Mekong basin — will be ineffective. The arrangements must be centred on transparency, unhindered information flow, equitable sharing, dispute settlement, pollution control, and a commitment to refrain from any projects that could materially diminish trans-boundary flows.

China, undeterred by the environmental degradation it is wreaking, has made the control and manipulation of river flows a pivot of its power. It is past time for New Delhi to speak up on China’s dam-building threat to India’s security and well-being.

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

India’s internal security is porous

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The unlawful, and fatal, expedition of a young American evangelist adventurer to a remote island that is home to the world’s last known pre-Neolithic tribe has highlighted India’s lax internal-security controls and the threat to endangered indigenous communities from interlopers. The episode also casts an unflattering light on the ministry of home affairs (MHA), which, to cover up its lapses, has sought to obscure the truth.

Although lionized as a martyr in the US evangelical media, John Allen Chau was a wilful intruder. He trespassed on a prohibited island to impose his religion on a tiny, highly endangered tribe whose seclusion and privacy are legally protected. Worse still, his repeated intrusions into their peaceful, self-contented world might have exposed the Sentinelese — with no resistance to outsiders’ common diseases and already on the brink of extinction — to deadly pathogens. One crazed man’s conduct may have put an entire tribe’s survival at risk.

On his first intrusion into their North Sentinel Island, the Sentinelese, setting an example for the so-called civilized world, did not subject Chau to Abu Ghraib-style torture or even detain him. Yet, undeterred by the tribe’s warning not to return, a recalcitrant Chau over the next two days repeatedly came back to the island, disparaging it as “Satan’s last stronghold”, according to his own diary notes, released by his mother. The son of a refugee father who fled China during the Cultural Revolution and converted to Christianity in the US, Chau described in his notes how he hid from Indian coastal patrols under cover of darkness to make his criminal forays into an island forbidden even to Indians and Indian forces.

The ease with which he broke Indian laws and evaded onshore and offshore checks is a sad commentary on India’s internal security. The Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) chain is a critical asset for India’s national security. Located just northwest of the Malacca Strait, the archipelago offers India control of a chokepoint that is China’s greatest maritime vulnerability.

A&N is also home to some of the world’s most-endangered tribes. After the ravages of British colonial rule, when the archipelago’s aboriginal communities were systematically decimated, only some tribes still survive. But their member numbers are dwindling. For example, the Jarawas, one of the first tribes to fall prey to British excesses, are vanishing, in an example of how contact with outsiders can doom an indigenous community.

Chau, instead of applying for a missionary visa, abused India’s e-visa on arrival system for tourists by hiding his real purpose. He neither registered with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office nor sought the mandatory permission under the separate aborigine and forest protection laws before undertaking a mission he plotted through previous A&N visits. Yet, in isolated but militarily sensitive Andaman, no agency spotted the Chinese-looking American, although Chinese and Pakistanis need MHA’s clearance to be there.

In June, MHA lifted the requirement for foreigners to secure a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) to visit 29 A&N islands “in the interest of promoting tourism and [their] overall development”. The decision smacked of utter recklessness: About one-third of the 29 islands, including North Sentinel, are home to endangered tribes and not open to tourism or development under the aborigine law. RAP’s lifting implicitly emboldened Chau’s exploits, although foreigners, like Indians, still need special permission under the aborigine and forest acts to visit any tribal-reserved island.

Caught flat-footed by Chau’s forays, an embarrassed MHA contradicted the Andaman police to claim there was no evidence that he was on a mission to evangelize. Had Chau’s own detailed accounts of his motives and exploits not become public, the MHA’s misinformation would have prevailed. To cover its back, MHA now claims it lifted RAP for tribal-reserved islands, not for tourism, but to promote the “flow of people, particularly anthropologists and other researchers”, although no foreign expert is left on these tribes. Thanks to MHA’s ineptitude, we may never know if an external group funded Chau’s mission, which he ominously undertook just before Thanksgiving, an annual whitewash of white settlers’ mass killing of millions of Native Americans.

Internal security has historically been India’s Achilles’ heel — a frailty that invited repeated foreign invasions, plunder and subjugation. Yet, with India not fully absorbing the lessons of history, internal security has remained its paramount weakness under successive governments. Developments continue to expose glaring gaps in its internal security — from the entry of foreign extremists, criminals and illegal migrants to recurrent terrorist attacks, such as the recent strike on Nirankari worshippers with a Pakistan-made grenade.

With India’s internal security under increasing pressure, the endangered tribes’ future has grown even more uncertain.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

The challenge of building a “free and open” Indo-Pacific

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How can the United States succeed in establishing a truly “free and open” Indo-Pacific when the region’s most-important corridor — the South China Sea — has come under China’s de facto control and is thus neither free nor open?

Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

The Indo-Pacific is emerging as the center of global power and wealth, with security dynamics changing rapidly in the region. The contest for regional influence pits America’s new strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) — a concept authored by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — against China’s “Belt and Road” initiative (BRI), which U.S. Vice President Mike Pence last weekend mocked as a “constricting belt” and a “one-way road.”

As speculation grows that the deep-water commercial port China is building at Koh Kong in Cambodia could become dual-purpose docks, just as Pakistan’s Chinese-controlled Gwadar port has acquired a strategic dimension, Pence at the APEC summit announced that the United States will partner with its ally Australia to build a naval base on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

Two recent summits have also highlighted the changing power dynamics — between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Beijing, and between Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Japan.

Japan and India have reason to try and improve strained ties with China. But as China has come under greater U.S. pressure on trade, technology and other fronts, it has sought to ease tensions with its geopolitical rivals, Japan and India. Pence cited Xi’s outreach to Japan as one sign “China got the message” about Washington’s new position.

Indeed, in response to the mounting American pressure, Xi this month emphasized his personal relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump and called for “a plan that both can accept.” In recent days, Xi’s government has even submitted a list of concessions that Trump has rebuffed as inadequate.

This shows how active American pressure, as opposed to mere admonitions, can result in improving China’s behavior. When a nation pursues an accommodating approach toward Beijing, an emboldened China ups the ante. But while deference usually invites bullying, standing up to China draws respect and a readiness to negotiate and make concessions.

At the heart of the changing U.S. policy on China are two key priorities — ending its trade-distorting policies and developing the new Indo-Pacific strategy through the FOIP concept.

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, attempted to “pivot’ to Asia. The pivot, unveiled in 2011, attracted a lot of international attention but had little impact in shaping the regional geostrategic landscape.

For example, it did nothing to tame China’s territorial and maritime revisionism. In fact, it was on Obama’s watch, after he had unveiled the pivot, that China created and militarized islands in the South China Sea, thereby fundamentally transforming the situation there. North Korea, for its part, made rapid nuclear and missile advances.

With Obama’s attention diverted by developments in the Middle East and Russia’s takeover of Crimea, his pivot to Asia got lost somewhere in the arc between the Syria-Iraq belt and Ukraine.

Of course, under his pivot policy, the shift of more U.S forces to the Asia-Pacific gained momentum, along with a focus on investing in high-end capabilities with relevance to the Indo-Pacific, including electronic warfare, cyber and space. But Obama’s pivot policy never acquired a clear vision, and critics contended that it merely repackaged some policies initiated by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

Against this background, the Trump administration’s FOIP strategy, with its clearer vision and objectives, looks like the true pivot to Asia. This is largely because of the paradigm shift underway in America’s China policy.

The ongoing shift in China policy has spawned the FOIP strategy, which extends to the Indian Ocean — the new geostrategic focus of China, after its success in changing the South China Sea status quo in its favor. The FOIP strategy’s economic and security objectives are clearly being influenced by the evolving China-policy shift.

The real architect of the FOIP concept, however, is Abe, who unveiled that idea in mid-2016 in Nairobi. The term, “Indo-Pacific,” of course, has been in use since the 1990s. And the Obama administration publicly embraced the Indo-Pacific term so as to factor in the emerging strategic realities in the Indian Ocean region, which traditionally was not considered part of the Asia-Pacific. But it was Abe who, by prefixing the words “free and open” to Indo-Pacific, devised the concept that is now shaping Washington’s strategic reorientation.

U.S. foreign policy traditionally has not embraced a concept authored by a foreign leader. The U.S. adoption of the FOIP concept is a rare exception.

Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, however, faces some tough challenges, not least because of the hedging policies of some U.S. allies. Caught between an unpredictable and transactional Trump administration and an arrogant and pushy China, some U.S. friends find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Moreover, some U.S. allies, including Australia and South Korea, view their economic relations with China to be as important as their security ties with the U.S. The last thing they want is for American policy to force them to choose between the U.S. and China. America’s own neutrality on disputes between China and its neighbors, including in the South and East China seas and the Himalayas, encourages its friends to hedge their bets.

Another challenge for Washington relates specifically to the South China Sea, a highly strategic corridor connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. How can the Indo-Pacific be “free” and “open” when its most-important sea corridor is neither free nor open?

To be sure, this is a difficult challenge. At this stage, how could the U.S. undo what China has done in the South China Sea without provoking a war? The Trump team inherited this problem from the Obama administration. Trump recently accused the Obama administration of having been “impotent” on the South China Sea issue.

The Trump administration, to be sure, has stepped-up freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea. But let’s be clear: Such operations neither credibly deter China nor reassure America’s regional allies.

Without a clear plan to deal with the changing status quo there, the South China Sea will remain a critical missing link in Washington’s larger Indo-Pacific strategy.

Meanwhile, the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad,” despite the hype, has yet to live up to its promise. Abe, incidentally, is also the author of the idea to create a club of the four leading Indo-Pacific democracies. The Quad’s origins date back to Abe’s initial 2006-2007 stint as prime minister, when he received active support from then U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. Thanks to Abe’s push, the Quad evolved out of the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia “regional core group” that U.S. President George W. Bush announced to deal with the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster.

Since the Quad was revived a year ago, its member-states have met at the level of senior bureaucrats, including for the third time last week in Singapore. But no ministerial-level meeting has been held thus far. This may explain why the Quad’s institutionalization has yet to take off.

Quad members must start coordinating their approaches to effectively create a single regional strategy. And they need to build broader collaboration with other important players in the Indo-Pacific, as well as with strategically located small countries.

More fundamentally, progress on building a rules-based Indo-Pacific order is linked to addressing the regional imperative for strategic equilibrium, a goal at the core of Abe’s foreign policy. Playing by international rules and not seeking to redraw borders by force are central to peace and security.

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.

Democracy in danger in yet another Asian nation

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President Sirisena’s bloodless coup in Sri Lanka is backfiring. By bringing governance to a standstill, it is undermining the president. And by seeking to install Rajapaksa as prime minister, Sirisena sends a chilling message to the minorities and human-rights activists.

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Once allies and now enemies: President Maithripala Sirisena, right, with Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom he has sought to oust as prime minister.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Democracy worldwide today “finds itself battered and weakened,” says the U.S.-based Freedom House think tank. Nowhere is this truer than in Asia, where only a small number of states are genuine democracies.

Political freedom is already losing ground from Bangladesh to Hong Kong. The latest developments in Sri Lanka put the future of one of Asia’s oldest democracies at serious risk.

The island’s strategic location close to the world’s busiest sea lanes has helped intensify international concern over President Maithripala Sirisena’s recent unconstitutional actions that smack of the kind of authoritarianism that his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had mastered. Sri Lanka’s vantage location has made it a “swing state” in the regional tussle for maritime ascendancy between China and democratic allies headed by India, the U.S., Japan and Australia.

Rajapaksa, who ended Sri Lanka’s 26-year-old civil war by brutally crushing rebels from the minority Tamil community, led the island-nation with an iron fist for a decade. In a stunning upset in early 2015, the strongman lost the presidential election to Sirisena, a minister in his cabinet who defected before the vote to become the common opposition candidate. Sirisena won in partnership with Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became prime minister.

The duo came to power on the promise of resolving Sri Lanka’s crisis of accountability and democratic governance and saving the country from a Chinese debt trap. China, in return for shielding Rajapaksa at the United Nations from allegations of war crimes, had won major infrastructure contracts during his rule and became the leading lender to a country it saw as vital to the completion of President Xi Jinping’s Maritime Silk Road.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, however, never jelled as partners. Their bickering turned into an open feud this year as Sirisena reneged on his promise not to seek a second term and began undercutting Wickremesinghe, who wanted to be the next president.

In recent days shockingly undemocratic steps have plunged Sri Lanka into political crisis. Sirisena joined forces with Rajapaksa to stage a political coup d’etat: Rajapaksa was hurriedly sworn in at night as prime minister after the president dismissed Wickremesinghe.

A 2015 constitutional amendment had expressly removed the president’s power to summarily fire the prime minister.

Amid outrage at home and abroad, Sirisena suspended Parliament to prevent Wickremesinghe — who has refused to accept his dismissal — from proving that he commanded a majority. In the meantime, with the United States, India and the European Union mounting pressure for a swift vote in Parliament even as China plowed a lonely furrow in recognizing the new prime minister, Sirisena sought to engineer a majority for Rajapaksa through political horse-trading, with lawmakers reportedly offered bribes to defect to his side.

On November 9, after Sirisena’s own party admitted failure to contrive majority support for Rajapaksa, the president dismissed Parliament and called parliamentary elections on January 5, about 20 months ahead of schedule. This action — which faces a challenge in the Supreme Court — was unlawful because, under Sri Lanka’s constitution, Parliament can be dissolved only when less than six months of its five-year term is left or when two-thirds of the lawmakers assent.

Sirisena’s power grab underscores the corrosive legacy of Rajapaksa’s family-centered quasi-dictatorship, which was marked by accusations of brazen nepotism, steady expansion of presidential powers, muzzling of civil liberties, and growth of Chinese influence.

The current crisis, however, should not obscure the country’s fundamental challenges in relation to ethnic reconciliation, human rights, justice and economic stability.

For example, postwar policies since the 2009 defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, far from promoting reconciliation, have engendered dangerous new ethnic and religious divides. The spread of anti-Muslim violence prompted the government in March to declare a state of emergency.

Despite the horrific human cost of the war, Rajapaksa emerged as a hero among the ethnic-Sinhalese majority, who are mainly Buddhist. An emboldened Rajapaksa stepped up efforts to fashion a mono-ethnic identity for a multiethnic Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa’s bid to return to power sends a chilling message to the predominantly Hindu Tamils and to the Muslims, who together make up about a quarter of the country’s 22 million population.

Today, thousands of mainly Tamil families are still seeking information about loved ones who were forcibly taken away, pleading for return of land seized by the army or calling for the release of prisoners the government acknowledges it is holding.

Meanwhile, with the country slipping into debt entrapment, Sri Lanka’s China dilemma has only deepened. Unable to pay the accumulated Chinese debt, Sri Lanka was forced to hand over its strategically located Hambantota port to China last December under a 99-year lease valued at $1.12 billion. China, thanks to its leverage, has even secured new projects.

In a landmark speech last month that signaled a shift in America’s China policy, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence cited Sri Lanka as a victim of Beijing’s debt-trap diplomacy and warned that Hambantota could “soon become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy.”

Today, the choice for Sri Lanka is between shaping its own destiny through political stability and getting sucked into great-power games through internal disarray.

By engineering a national crisis that has resulted in dueling prime ministers, with Rajapaksa pitted against Wickremesinghe, the wily Sirisena has sought to clear the way for another term for himself as president.

Whatever trajectory the present crisis takes, the damage to the country’s democratic institutions will not be easy to repair. This is especially so because of the broken promises and retrograde measures.

The president who was elected to prevent abuses and excesses of power again through constitutional change has himself abused the power of his office. In fact, he has reached a Faustian bargain with the man whose 2005-2015 presidency brought democracy under siege.

More fundamentally, Sri Lanka illustrates that free and fair elections, by themselves, do not guarantee genuine democratic empowerment at the grassroots level or adherence to constitutional rules by those in power. In fact, Sri Lanka is a reminder that democratic progress is reversible unless the rule of law is firmly established and the old, entrenched forces are held to account for their rapacious past.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author of nine books, is professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. © Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

A Concert of Indo-Pacific Democracies

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The deepening relationship between Japan and India serves the goal of forestalling the emergence of a China-centric Asia. If they can leverage their relationship to generate progress toward broader cooperation among the region’s democracies, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be achievable.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

On his week-long tour of Asia, US Vice President Mike Pence has been promoting a vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region, characterized by unimpeded trade flows, freedom of navigation, and respect for the rule of law, national sovereignty, and existing frontiers. The question is whether this vision of an Indo-Pacific free of “authoritarianism and aggression” is achievable.

One country that seems willing to contribute to realizing this vision is Japan. In fact, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the originator of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that lies at the heart of President Donald Trump’s new strategy, the successor to Barack Obama’s  “pivot” to Asia.

Having historically punched above its weight internationally, Japan is responding to China’s muscular rise by strengthening its own position in the region. Taking advantage of its considerable assets – the world’s third-largest economy, substantial high-tech skills, and a military that has recently been freed of some legal and constitutional constraints – Japan is boosting its geopolitical clout.

Japan’s world-class navy has already begun operating far beyond the country’s waters in order to establish its position in the region. For example, in order to challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea, a Japanese submarine and three destroyers carried out naval drills there in September. “Japan’s willingness to participate in Asian security,” former US Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently said, “makes it an increasingly important player in the region.”

But creating a free and open Indo-Pacific is not the job of one country alone. Establishing the stable balance of power needed to realize Pence’s vision will require all of the region’s major democracies – from Japan and India to Indonesia and Australia – to come together.

The good news is that Abe seems to recognize the importance of cooperation among Asia’s democratic powers. For example, in discussing the natural alliance between the region’s richest democracy and its largest one, he declared: “A strong India benefits Japan, and a strong Japan benefits India.”

With that in mind, Abe and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, recently held a summit that opened the way for a military logistics pact that would give each country’s armed forces access to the other’s bases. Beyond instituting a joint “two plus two” dialogue among the countries’ foreign and defense ministers, Abe and Modi agreed to deepen naval and maritime-security cooperation and collaborate on projects in third countries, including Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, to enhance strategic connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.

At the summit, Japan and India devised a new motto for the bilateral relationship: “Shared security, shared prosperity, and shared destiny.” The comfort and camaraderie shown by Abe and Modi during their meeting, held at Abe’s private vacation home near Mount Fuji, stood in stark contrast to the stony expressions and somber handshakes on display when, just two days earlier, Abe had met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

Cooperation between India and Japan builds on, among other things, the trilateral India-Japan-US “Malabar” naval exercises. Malabar has become an important component of the effort to defend freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region, through which two-thirds of global trade travels. If India signed a military logistics agreement with Japan, as it has with the US, the Indian navy would be better able to expand its footprint to the western Pacific, while enabling Japan to project its naval power in the Indian Ocean.

Fortunately, relations among the Indo-Pacific’s four key maritime democracies – Australia, India, Japan, and the US – are stronger than ever, characterized by high-level linkages and intelligence-sharing. These countries should institutionalize their “quad” initiative, with the India-Japan dyad forming the cornerstone of efforts to pursue wider collaboration in the region.

But such collaboration will face considerable obstacles. For starters, the relationship between Japan and America’s other closest East Asian ally, South Korea, continues to be  by history.

The issue of “comfort women,” Korean women who were coerced into providing sexual services to Japanese troops during World War II, has long been particularly contentious. A 2015 agreement, endorsed by Abe and former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, claimed to resolve the issue “irreversibly”: Japan offered its apology and one billion yen ($8.8 million) for a fund created to help the victims.

But, earlier this year, Park’s successor, Moon Jae-in, rejected the deal, arguing that it did not adequately serve the victims or the public. More recently, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered a major Japanese steelmaker to compensate the “victims of forced labor” during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, even though a 1965 bilateral agreement was supposed to have settled “completely and finally” all such claims.

The rancorous relationship between Japan and South Korea plays directly into China’s hands. While South Korea obviously should not disregard its history, it should find a way to move past its colonial subjugation and form new, mutually beneficial relationships with Japan, much as India, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia have done with their former colonizers.

Another potential impediment to a concert of Indo-Pacific democracies is domestic instability in key countries. In strategically located Sri Lanka, for example, President Maithripala Sirisena has ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (despite the latter’s parliamentary majority) and called a snap election, even though the constitution does not give him the power to do either. A weakening of the country’s democracy could have strategic ramifications for an economically integrated but politically divided Indo-Pacific.

Nonetheless, the deepening relationship between Japan and India serves the goal of forestalling the emergence of a China-centric Asia. If Japan and India – after China, the region’s most influential countries – can leverage their relationship to generate progress toward a broader concert of democracies in the region, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be achievable after all.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Insecurity in India’s maritime backyard

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Maldives’ former president Mohamed Nasheed (left) with President-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih after returning from exile. (Photo: AP)

The centenary of the World War I armistice is a reminder that the war was triggered by European power struggle for territories, resources and client-states — the very pursuits of China today.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

While India watches with concern Sri Lanka’s deepening political crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is boldly visiting the Maldives on the day its autocratic president, Abdullah Yameen, is to cede power after a surprise election defeat. Modi’s visit for the new president’s inauguration effectively ensures that Yameen will peacefully transfer power to the victor, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Indeed, the mere announcement of Modi’s visit signalled to Yameen that he had no choice but to accept the fait accompli.

Coordinated pressure from democratic powers, including the spectre of an Indian military intervention, is helping to restore Maldivian democracy. The US had warned of “appropriate measures” and the EU had threatened sanctions if the vote was not free and fair. And when the graft-tainted Yameen hesitated to concede defeat despite the election outcome, Washington demanded he “respect the will of the people.”

Yameen had stacked the electoral odds in his favour by jailing or forcing into exile all important opposition leaders and working to neuter the Supreme Court, including by imprisoning justices. But such was the grassroots backlash against his dictatorial rule that he lost the election to the little-known Solih, the common opposition candidate. Unless autocrats wholly manipulate elections, they cannot control voters’ backlash, which is why Malaysia’s Najib Razak was swept out of office in May and Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa was booted out in early 2015.

It is ironical that Sri Lanka has now been plunged into political crisis by President Maithripala Sirisena’s unconstitutional actions, which smack of the kind of authoritarianism displayed by his predecessor, Rajapaksa. Sirisena, who was elected to prevent abuses and excesses of power again through constitutional change, has himself abused the power of his office. Ominously, Sirisena has reached a Faustian bargain with Rajapaksa, whose decade-long presidency brought democracy under siege.

The collapse of the Sri Lankan partnership between Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe is indeed an early warning to the Maldivian unity coalition that the restoration of full democracy is reversible unless those elected to high office respect constitutional rules and show consideration for their partners. Solih’s victory was made possible by opposition unity. But the only thing that united opposition leaders was the imperative to end Yameen’s tyrannical rule.

Those who helped fashion Solih’s victory include former presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed. Earlier jailed by Gayoom, Nasheed took office in 2008 by defeating Gayoom in the country’s first multi-party election. But in 2012, Nasheed was ousted at gunpoint after pro-Islamist groups, including forces loyal to Gayoom, laid siege to the presidential office. In this light, political stability and democratic progress in post-Yameen Maldives will hinge on rival leaders staying united behind Solih.

There is much in common between the Maldives and Sri Lanka, including their islander cultures and shifting political alliances and the fact that Maldives’ official language, Dhivehi, is a dialect of Sinhala. The murky turn of events in Sri Lanka casts an unwelcome shadow over Maldives’ new democratic beginning.

In fact, the biggest threat to democratic institutions in India’s maritime neighbourhood — after internal crisis — comes from the growing role and leverage of the world’s largest autocracy, China. From bribing politicians to shielding pliant leaders and governments from UN actions, China has encouraged anti-democratic developments. Before Sirisena recently stunned a cabinet meeting by claiming he was the target of a RAW assassination plot (his office later denied he named RAW), he publicly boasted that Chinese President Xi Jinping “gifted” him almost $300 million “for any project of my wish.” China has also built South Asia’s largest kidney hospital in Sirisena’s home district.

A central challenge for the Solih-led Maldives will be to escape China’s debt entrapment, given how Beijing has sought to further its geostrategic goals by attempting to hold Sri Lanka financially hostage. Throttling democracy allowed Yameen to take the Maldives down the slippery slope of increasing indebtedness to his protector, China. The accumulated debt to China is now more than two times greater than Maldives’ yearly revenues. In steering his archipelago country firmly into China’s orbit, Yameen also leased several unpopulated islands opaquely to Beijing.

More broadly, the centenary this week of the World War I armistice is a reminder that the war was triggered by European power struggle for territories, resources and client-states — the very pursuits of China today. China’s increasing encroachments into India’s maritime neighbourhood will likely keep this region insecure and heighten uncertainty. By muscling its way into India’s backyard, Beijing has prompted an Indian focus on the maritime domain, including seeking to turn four key projects into “pearls” — Sabang (Indonesia); Chabahar (Iran); Duqm (Oman); and Agaléga (Mauritius).

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Belt and Roadblocks

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India’s stance vindicated as China’s grandiose BRI plans run into resistance

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

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Sierra Leone has become the latest country to scrap a Belt and Road (BRI) project, cancelling a $318-million airport deal with China. After smooth sailing, the BRI is now encountering strong headwinds, as partner-nations worry about sovereignty-eroding debt traps. In multiple countries, BRI projects are being scrapped or scaled back.

India was the first country to come out against the opaque BRI, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s marquee initiative. India boycotted Xi’s much-hyped BRI summit, held to drum up global support for his initiative. The May 2017 summit in Beijing attracted 29 heads of state or government, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But, while the US sent a joint secretary-equivalent official to the summit, India sent no one.

Indeed, India publicly portrayed BRI as a non-transparent, neocolonial enterprise aimed at ensnaring smaller, cash-strapped states in a debt trap to help advance China’s geopolitical agenda. An official Indian statement before the BRI summit declared that “connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, the rule of law, openness, transparency and equality” and that they must also “follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden”.

Some commentators in India were quick to claim that, through its summit boycott, India had isolated itself. They also predicted that India would come out a loser by turning its back on what they saw as a promising infrastructure-building initiative that New Delhi too should have tapped.

But at the BRI summit itself, India received implicit support. The European Union openly echoed India’s concerns by saying the BRI did not include commitments to transparency and social and environmental sustainability. The EU’s refusal to back Xi’s BRI-related trade statement marred the summit.

Before long, the US began depicting the BRI as the dawn of a new colonial era. Then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called China a “new imperialist power” whose practices are “reminiscent of European colonialism”.

The word “predatory” is now being used internationally about China’s practices. The International Monetary Fund has warned that Chinese loans are promoting unsustainable debt burdens. The price such burdens exact can extend to national sovereignty and self-respect. The handover of Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to China was seen in Sri Lanka as the equivalent of a heavily indebted farmer giving away his daughter to the cruel money lender.

Beijing has leveraged big credits to gain even military presence, as its first overseas naval base at Djibouti illustrates. Trapped in a debt crisis after borrowing billions of dollars, Djibouti was left with no choice but to lease land for the base to China for $20 million in annual rent. China is similarly seeking to employ its leverage over cash-strapped Pakistan to build a naval base next to Gwadar port.

In the Maldives, China has acquired several islets in that heavily indebted Indian Ocean archipelago. While the terms of the various lease agreements have not been disclosed, the acquisitions have come cheap; for example, China paid just $4 million for Feydhoo Finolhu, an island that previously served as a police training centre.

However, China’s grandiose BRI plans are running into broader resistance. 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”, Mahathir highlighted international concerns over Beijing’s use of geo-economic tools to achieve geopolitical objectives.

Sri Lanka’s experience has been a wake-up call for other countries with outsize debts to China. A number of BRI partner-states have begun trying to renegotiate their deals with Beijing. Some have decided to cancel or scale back projects. Mahathir, during his Beijing visit, announced the cancellation of Chinese projects worth nearly $23 billion. And China’s close ally, Pakistan, has downsized its main BRI railroad project by $2 billion.

The BRI seeks to export China’s model of top-down, debt-driven development through government-to-government deals clinched without competitive bidding. But, increasingly, the BRI is being seen internationally as an attempt to remake global commerce on China’s terms and project Chinese power far and wide.

Vulnerable countries are awakening to the risks of accepting loans that are too good to be true and then slipping into debt entrapment. China is even replicating some of the practices that were used against it during the European-colonial period, such as the concept of a 99-year lease. The BRI, by creating a mountain of debt, risks undermining China’s international standing, including engendering hidden hostility. A broader pushback against China’s mercantilist practices is already emerging.

Against this background, India’s brave, principled stand against the BRI stands fully vindicated. India can pride itself as the intellectual leader that helped shine a spotlight on the BRI’s financial and security risks and thereby moulded the international debate. The larger international pushback against China’s predatory practices is likely to intensify in the coming years, putting greater pressure on the BRI.

The writer is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2018.

The End of America’s China Fantasy

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Over the last couple of years, the China-policy debate in the US has begun to reflect more realism, with a growing number of voices recognizing China’s ambition to supplant its American benefactor as the leading global superpower. But is it too late to rein in America’s main geopolitical rival?

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

A long-overdue shift in America’s China policy is underway. After decades of “constructive engagement” – an approach that has facilitated China’s rise, even as the country has violated international rules and norms – the United States is now seeking active and concrete counter-measures. But is it too late to rein in a country that has emerged, with US help, as America’s main geopolitical rival?

From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, successive US presidents regarded aiding China’s economic rise as a matter of national interest; indeed, Jimmy Carter once issued a presidential memo declaring as much. Even as China defied world trade rules, forced companies to share their intellectual property, and flexed its military muscles, the US held onto the naive hope that, as China became increasingly prosperous, it would naturally pursue economic and even political liberalization.

America’s “China fantasy,” as James Mann calls it, was exemplified by Bill Clinton’s argument in favor of allowing China’s admission to the World Trade Organization. Citing Woodrow Wilson’s vision of “free markets, free elections, and free peoples,” Clinton declared that China’s WTO entry would herald “a future of greater openness and freedom for the people of China.”

That is not what happened. Instead, China established itself at the center of global manufacturing value chains, as countless companies moved their production to the country – including from the US – while keeping its markets, politics, and people under tight control. In fact, China’s dictatorship has become even more entrenched in recent years, as the Communist Party of China has used digital technologies to build a surveillance state. Meanwhile, the US has run up trillions of dollars in bilateral trade deficits.

Nonetheless, America’s China fantasy endured, leading Obama to look on as the country created and militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea. At the height of the Chinese government’s island-building, Obama argued that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” As a result, China seized de facto control of a highly strategic sea corridor through which one-third of global maritime trade passes – all without incurring any international costs.

Over the last couple of years, however, the China-policy debate in the US has begun to reflect more realism, with a growing number of voices recognizing China’s ambition to supplant its American benefactor as the leading global superpower. The US finally called China what it is: a “revisionist power” and “strategic competitor.” And, just this month, Vice President Mike Pence bluntly accused China of “using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests” in the US.

This rhetorical shift is being translated into action. President Donald Trump’s trade war, in particular, has grabbed headlines, though many observers have failed to discern the strategy behind the tariffs.

Whereas Trump has used tariffs against allies as leverage to secure concessions and clinch new trade deals, US tariffs targeting China – which could endure for years – are intended to bring about more fundamental and far-reaching change. Even the revised deals with US allies are intended partly to isolate China, thereby forcing it to abandon its mercantilist trade practices, such as forced technology transfer.

But what the Trump administration has initiated goes beyond tariffs; it amounts to a structural change in America’s China policy that promises to reshape global geopolitics and trade. Because this change aligns with an incipient US bipartisan consensus in favor of more assertive action to constrain China, it is likely to outlast Trump’s presidency.

To be sure, this does not mean that the US is going to adopt an overtly confrontational China policy. Nor does it necessarily mean that, as many , a new cold war is in the offing. For example, China still gets a free pass on human-rights abuses, from holding up to a million Muslims from Xinjiang province in internment camps to effectively kidnapping Interpol President Meng Hongwei. And, despite his assertions that the Obama administration’s response to China’s activities in the South China Sea was “impotent,” Trump has done little to counter Chinese expansionism.

Instead, the US seems to hope that it can use primarily economic levers to weaken China – a kind of death from a thousand cuts. But will it be enough? Or is the US effectively shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted?

China is already challenging the US for technological and geopolitical primacy, and flaunting its authoritarian capitalism as an alternative to democracy. Communism couldn’t pose a credible challenge to liberal democracy, but authoritarian capitalism might. In that sense, China’s model represents the first major challenge to liberal democracy since the rise of Nazism.

Thanks to its great strides in strengthening its technological prowess and geopolitical clout, China is in a strong position to withstand US pressure to change its ways. It will have to sacrifice some economic growth. But for President Xi Jinping, such a sacrifice would be worth it, if it meant protecting not only his own position, but also his “Chinese dream” of global preeminence. Even if US pressure escalates significantly, China will likely adopt a “two steps forward, one step back” strategy to keep progressing toward its ambitious goals.

This is not to say that US efforts are for naught. On the contrary, its policy shift amounts to its last chance to stop China before it secures the critical technologies it needs to gain the upper hand geopolitically in Asia and beyond. Even if it is too late to force China to respect international rules and human rights, it is never too soon to end China’s damaging free ride.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

The linchpins for a rules-based Indo-Pacific

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

The spotlight on the Beijing summit between Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping cannot obscure the more substantive discussions starting Sunday between the Japanese prime minister and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, in Tokyo. Whereas Japan-China ties are unlikely to easily return to normal, the Abe-Modi summit will cement the Japan-India relationship as Asia’s fastest growing and open the path to a military logistics pact to allow access to each other’s bases.

The entente between Asia’s richest democracy and its largest is a central pillar of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is assertively pushing. Indeed, Abe is the architect of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept, which he formally unveiled more than two years ago while addressing African leaders in Nairobi.

Today, Japan and India serve as the linchpins for establishing an Indo-Pacific order based on the principles of the rule of law, free trade, freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes. The Trump administration openly acknowledges the critical importance of the Japan-India relationship to achieving a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy is really the successor to the “pivot” to Asia, which was announced by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2011 and became subsequently known as the “rebalance” to Asia. Like the “pivot,” the Indo-Pacific strategy is founded on the realization that the United States needs to correct its disproportionate focus on the Middle East by reorienting its policy to reflect Asia’s central importance to long-term American interests.

Asian security competition is occurring largely in the maritime context, which explains the increasing use of the term “Indo-Pacific” — representing the fusion of two oceans, the Indian and the Pacific. The geo-economic competition is also gaining traction in this region, which boasts the world’s fastest-growing economies, the fastest-increasing military expenditures and naval capabilities, the fiercest competition over natural resources, and the most dangerous hot spots. The Indo-Pacific thus holds the key to global security and a new world order.

The broadening of America’s “pivot” to a wider region that includes the Indian Ocean is also a riposte to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, whose largest investments in infrastructure projects are concentrated in the Indian Ocean Rim. And as China’s first overseas naval base at Djibouti and its acquisition of several unpopulated islets in the Maldives illustrate, the Indian Ocean is also becoming Beijing’s geostrategic focus after its success in creating and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Against this background, Abe and Modi, besides signing an accord Monday to build maritime domain awareness through partnership, will set in motion the process for the Japanese and Indian militaries to clinch a logistics-sharing agreement, formally known as the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA). A logistics-sharing accord has become imperative for the two militaries, given the number of joint maneuvers they hold, including three-way exercises involving the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

An ACSA with India will help Japan to project its rising naval power in the Indian Ocean, including allowing Japanese ships to get fuel and servicing at Indian naval bases. The Maritime Self-Defense Force will also be able to secure access to Indian naval facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, located close to the western entrance to the Malacca Straits through which sizable shares of Japan’s and China’s trade and fuel imports pass.

With the loosening of the legal and constitutional constraints on the military under Abe, the MSDF, instead of focusing merely on territorial defense of the homeland, is now able to operate far beyond Japanese shores. Indeed, Japan’s new readiness to participate in regional security, including through joint military exercises and training, is making it a critical player in the changing geostrategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific.

India has signed military logistics pacts with the U.S. and France, both of which have strategically located bases in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. A logistics-sharing agreement with Japan, along with greater bilateral maritime cooperation, will help the Indian Navy expand its footprint to the western Pacific.

The plain fact is that Japan and India, in the absence of any historical baggage or major strategic disagreement, are natural allies that share largely complementary interests. In fact, Japan has the distinction of being the only country that has been allowed to undertake infrastructure and other projects in India’s sensitive northeast (bordering Myanmar, Tibet, Bhutan and Bangladesh), as well as in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

If Japan and India add concrete security content to their relationship, their strategic partnership could potentially be a game changer in Asia. The emphasis on boosting trade and investment must be balanced with greater strategic collaboration. As Japanese Ambassador to India Kenji Hiramatsu put it, “Defense and security ties now need to catch up.”

Abe’s summit with Xi — and Modi’s earlier summit with the Chinese president in Wuhan in April — cannot hide the fact that Japan and India face a serious challenge from a revisionist and muscular China. In fact, it is the Trump administration’s pressure on Beijing on trade, technology and other fronts that has prompted Xi to reach out to Abe and Modi.

Xi is probably hoping that Japan, like it did after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of student-led protesters, will help to bail out his country at a time when America’s China policy is undergoing a fundamental shift. Japan was one of the first countries to lift post-Tiananmen economic sanctions, an action that paved the way for Emperor Akihito’s 1992 historic visit to China.

But Japan, like the U.S., has now shed its China blinkers and embraced a more realistic, clear-eyed approach to relations with Beijing. India too is under no illusion that a Xi-led China is going to discard its bullying and rule-breaking, and become a good neighbor.

In this light, the Abe-Modi summit offers an opportunity to discuss how the Tokyo-New Delhi duet can contribute to the larger U.S.-initiated effort to build strategic equilibrium, power stability and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. As for Washington, it needs to evolve a clear strategy to deal with the changing status quo in the South China Sea, a highly strategic corridor that is central to a truly “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2018.

Pakistan’s double game stymies Trump’s Afghan peace effort

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The US war in Afghanistan has already lasted more than twice as long as World War II, exacting a staggering cost in blood and treasure. With the longest war in American history completing 17 years this month, US patience appears to be wearing thin. Recent American moves — from renewing efforts for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban to changing the combat strategy — indicate that President Donald Trump’s administration is desperate to end the war.

downloadThe newly appointed US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad blindsided the Afghan government by holding unannounced face-to-face talks recently with the Taliban in Qatar. Khalilzad’s negotiations — just ahead of Afghanistan’s Oct. 20 parliamentary elections that the Taliban sought to disrupt — constituted the second round of US-Taliban direct talks in about three months.

The revived “Great Game”, however, is clouding the renewed US peace effort. US foreign policy, through punitive sanctions and tariffs, is driving Russia, China and Iran to support the Taliban in a bid to tie down American forces in Afghanistan. And Pakistan, which provides cross-border safe havens to the Taliban, continues running with the hare and hunting with the hounds — pretending to be a US ally while harbouring the Taliban’s network structure.

To make matters worse, an ascendant 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 US forces transferred responsibility for most security to the Afghans. Still, almost 15,000 American troops remain, while some 26,000 US military contractors in Afghanistan continue doing many jobs that soldiers would normally do.

Pakistan holds the key to a US peace deal with the Taliban. Then US President Barack Obama unsuccessfully tried to co-opt Pakistan by extending multibillion-dollar aid packages to that country. Now, under Trump, the US has renewed efforts to win the support of Pakistan’s powerful military generals, including by assassinating the chief of the Pakistani Taliban in May. In fact, three successive Pakistani Taliban chiefs have been killed by US military strikes, with each assassination intended to win Pakistan’s cooperation in the Afghan war.

For its part, the US, seeking to preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, has not included that militia in its list of foreign terrorist organizations. And the only time the US 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.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, while making an unannounced visit to Kabul last month on his way back from New Delhi, claimed that reconciliation efforts with the Taliban had gained “traction”. But the Taliban, while valuing direct talks with the US as a means to undercut the Afghan government’s legitimacy, have little incentive to make peace with America. Through battlefield victories, the Taliban have already gained the momentum against government forces, which are spread thin and on the defensive.

An emboldened Taliban, in the recent talks in Qatar, demanded a timeframe for an “end to the US occupation” and removal of all Taliban leaders from US sanctions lists. Meanwhile, in response to the increasing Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, Washington has advised Afghan troops to pull back from sparsely populated areas and focus instead on safeguarding cities. Consequently, not only have vast swaths of Afghanistan become no-go zones, but also the priority accorded to force protection is signalling a government in retreat.

Further emboldening the Taliban are the new avenues of support from Russia, Iran and China. But while Moscow and Tehran long viewed the Taliban as a major terrorist threat before establishing contact with the militia, China has always had a dubious approach toward the Taliban. When 9/11 happened, a Chinese delegation was in Kandahar signing an accord with the isolated Taliban regime. Now, seeking a bigger role in Afghanistan, China is again courting the Taliban.

India, a top aid donor to Afghanistan, is the only power to pursue a consistently anti-Taliban policy. India is concerned that the US-Taliban direct talks, besides marginalizing the Afghan government, lend respectability to a terrorist organization that enforces medieval practices. But the US appears willing, as part of a peace deal, to accommodate the Taliban in an Afghan power-sharing arrangement.

However, an enduring peace deal appears unlikely as long as Pakistan continues playing a double game and the US refuses to go after the Taliban’s cross-border safe havens. The Trump team knows this and yet is seeking to repeat Obama-era failed efforts, including wooing the Taliban.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Why Mike Pence is playing bad cop against China

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As the trade war escalates, Donald Trump is seeking to preserve space for a possible deal and leaving his deputy to tackle the tough questions.

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Brahma Chellaney, The National

After a landmark speech this month at the Hudson Institute, which signalled a fundamental shift in America’s China policy, Vice President Mike Pence will lead a US delegation to three important multilateral summits in November. While President Donald Trump has lavished praise on China’s President Xi Jinping despite their escalating trade war, Pence is leading the administration’s charge against China.

Mr Trump and Mr Pence might, in fact, be playing a deliberate game of good cop, bad cop.

Mr Trump’s handling of China reflects his reluctance to antagonize Mr Xi or impose sanctions on China even in response to egregious human-rights abuses, including its internment of up to one million Muslims from Xinjiang. Had Russia set up such camps, the US response would likely have been swift and resolute.

The US president is a great believer in the idea that a good rapport between heads of government can significantly shape the relationship between the countries they lead. He also prides himself on being a great negotiator and deal-maker.

While letting his vice president forthrightly articulate America’s concerns over China, Mr Trump is seeking to preserve space to cut a possible deal with Mr Xi on trade. Mr Trump and Mr Xi, in their first face-to-face interaction in nearly a year, are likely to meet on November 29 in Buenos Aires, a day before the G20 summit opens there.

In his recent speech, Mr Pence highlighted how China is blending economic aggression, territorial and maritime revisionism, military adventurism, influence operations and Orwellian repression at home to advance its ambitions.

More importantly, Mr Pence declared that “the US has adopted a new approach to China”, saying that “previous administrations all but ignored China’s actions. And in many cases, they abetted them. But those days are over.”

The speech laid out why the Trump administration is making a course correction in the China policy that successive American presidents have pursued since the early 1970s, when the US managed the diplomatic coup of splitting its two main enemies – the Soviet Union and China. With the US winning over China to its side, it became two against one. This proved a critical factor in the eventual US victory in the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s collapse.

In return, the US actively aided China’s rise. After Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s paramount leader in 1978, following a fierce power struggle, and embarked on economic modernisation, the US lent full support to his mission.

The US policy of assisting China’s economic ascent did not change even in response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. There, Chinese authorities used tanks to ruthlessly crush student-led protests in the heart of Beijing – an action that left hundreds, possibly thousands, dead.

But now the Trump administration has unveiled a new strategy to shift the US relationship with China from co-operation to competition, including confronting Chinese mercantilism and Beijing’s campaign of influence operations on American soil.

As Mr Pence put it, the US miscalculated that after the fall of the Soviet Union, “a free China was inevitable”. Today, according to him, an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive China has “mobilised covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policy … what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country”.

Against this backdrop, it might seem appropriate that Mr Trump is sending the blunt-speaking Mr Pence in his place to the forthcoming multilateral summits in the Indo-Pacific region − the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the US-Asean summit, both to be held in Singapore in mid-November, followed by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group summit at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on November 17-18.

APEC summits, instituted in 1993, have become largely symbolic, and Mr Trump’s absence at Port Moresby will not be unusual. Bill Clinton missed two summits and Barack Obama skipped one. As APEC’s membership has expanded, the grouping’s cohesiveness and mission have weakened.

The promise of the 18-nation EAS has also faded. Like the 21-nation APEC, the EAS includes America’s main geopolitical rivals, China and Russia.

In this light, to counter the rise of an increasingly muscular China that refuses to play by international rules, substance matters more for US policy than group photographs at multilateral summits.

It is significant that, in an otherwise polarised and divided Washington, a bipartisan consensus is emerging that the failed US policy of “constructive engagement” with China must be replaced with concrete counteraction.

For example, in a Harvard University essay this month, Obama’s defence secretary, Ashton Carter, writes: “Washington since the end of the Cold War has often backed down in the face of Chinese bullying. From aggressive territorial claims to human-rights abuses and brazen theft on a trillion-dollar scale, China has violated core international norms time and again with little repercussions beyond scolding American speeches”.

Mr Carter recommends that, “when China behaves inappropriately on the international stage, the US must firmly push back and stand up for the principles of international order”. Mr Pence has signalled that this is precisely what the Trump administration intends to do.

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

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.

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.