Interview with Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney
Says More…

This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.


Project Syndicate: You support the vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific promoted by US President Donald Trump’s administration, but complain that it lacks strategic heft – a failing that has allowed Chinese expansionism in the region to continue unabated. Given how erratic the Trump administration has been – the recent escalation in US-Iran tensions being a case in point – will Trump’s vision for the Indo-Pacific go the way of Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia? What steps are needed to get back on track?

Brahma Chellaney: The Trump administration is nearing the end of its first term, and yet the “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy has yet to gain real traction. If Trump loses the November election, his successor might replace the strategy with a new concept, as Trump did with Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”

But even if Trump wins, there is no guarantee that his administration will add the needed strategic heft. On the contrary, as I explain in my latest PS , the recent decision to expand the definition of the Indo-Pacific to include the Persian Gulf – “from Hollywood to Bollywood” has now become “from California to Kilimanjaro” – suggests that the Trump administration is succumbing to the same Middle East obsession as its predecessors. This will make it far more difficult to create a coherent, let alone effective, Indo-Pacific policy.

PS: In December, you pointed out that “for large and influential countries, respecting the rules-based order is a choice” – one that China, in particular, is unlikely to make. You then called for an “enforcement mechanism” in international law. What might such a mechanism look like, and what would it take to introduce it?

BC: Disputes will always arise between states. That is why international arbitration and adjudication exists. But even the International Court of Justice lacks any practical mechanism to enforce its rulings. As a result, they are regularly violated, especially by powerful actors.

China is a case in point. Though it acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1996, China rejected the arbitral proceedings brought by the Philippines against China in 2013 – proceedings that were instituted by UNCLOS’s dispute-settlement body, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In 2016, it rejected the panel’s final ruling that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea lacked legitimacy under international law, calling it a “farce.”

Clearly, we need coercive enforcement mechanisms to ensure that all countries respect the decisions of adjudicative tribunals and courts. But the question of what precisely those mechanisms could look like has no easy answer. As long as power respects power and the weak remain meek, it may even be a moot point.

PS: You’ve warned that the Communist Party of China’s “continued reliance on brute power” to keep citizens in line “could eventually leave it on the ash heap of history.” In lieu of international action to rein in China, could internal pressures produce a check on Chinese expansionism? Or might they have the opposite effect, with Chinese President Xi Jinping doubling down on revanchist nationalism, much like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who used the annexation of Crimea to revive his declining popularity?

BC: China is the world’s largest, strongest, and longest-surviving autocracy, and the CPC’s commitment to upholding the party’s primacy means insulating itself from liberalizing influences. But doing so, while still pursuing globalization, makes the country’s leadership increasingly vulnerable to domestic political shocks.

In fact, Communist China’s future will be shaped primarily by developments at home – and its leaders seem to know that. But their approach to protecting the CPC’s position has little to do with expansionism. They are overwhelmingly focused on maintaining domestic order in a more direct way. Tellingly, China’s official internal security budget is larger than its official military budget.

PS: You defended Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision last August to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special semi-autonomous status and take steps “to ensure security during the potentially tumultuous transition,” arguing that India was doing what it must to protect itself from threats posed by China and Pakistan. Months later, millions of Kashmiris still lack Internet access, making this the longest digital shutdown ever imposed in a democracy. Is this really necessary? When can life return to some semblance of normalcy in J&K?

BC: Internet and cellphone services have now been restored in the Indian part of divided J&K. More important, of the three countries controlling parts of J&K – China, India, and Pakistan – only India had ever provided special semi-autonomous status, and its purpose in revoking that status was to counter security pressures from the other two.

J&K has long been a flash point between India and Pakistan, and between India and China. The China-Pakistan alliance against India was actually founded on the J&K issue. And in the Indian-administered J&K, the predominantly Sunni Muslim Kashmir Valley has become a hotbed of Pakistan-backed Islamists seeking to establish an Islamic emirate. Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the Islamists’ expulsion of the valley’s native Hindu minority, in one of the modern world’s swiftest and most successful ethnic-cleansing campaigns.

Given all of this, restoring normalcy in J&K is not up to India so much as it is up to the countries that have been sowing instability there.


PS: You’ve touted the “phase one” US-China trade deal, tweeting that it “vindicates Trump’s unilateralism and transactional foreign-policy approach.” But the deal’s enforcement mechanism has a major weakness: if the US imposes tariffs in response to Chinese non-compliance – the core of the enforcement mechanism – China’s only recourse is to quit the agreement, returning both parties to square one. What makes you think the deal will survive?

BC: The deal is just a temporary truce, and it could unravel if China fails to honor its commitments. Moreover, the core issues have been left for the phase-two negotiations. It is significant that, despite the recent deal, Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods remain largely in place.

Yet, with his tough line, Trump has wrested some concessions from the Chinese that his predecessors could not. And, given bipartisan US support for a harder line on China, the policy shift under Trump will likely outlast his presidency.

PS: If you could decide the foreign policy of the next US administration, what would your top three priorities be?

BC: First, shed the preoccupation with the Middle East and focus on long-term US strategic interests, especially in the Indo-Pacific – the actual Indo-Pacific, not Trump’s new expanded version – because it is now the world’s geopolitical center of gravity.

Second, get the global War on Terror back on track, including working systematically to undermine jihadist ideology. The only way to defeat an enemy driven by a pernicious ideology is to discredit that ideology.

Third, strive to buttress a rules-based global order, in which the US leads by example, including by shunning defiant unilateralism.

PS: You’ve re-tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters and called for the international community to do more to help them. What do you propose?

BC: The Hong Kong protests show that a grassroots movement can wield considerable power, even against a state’s repressive machinery. To be sure, Xi cannot fully accede to the protesters, because that could encourage mainland Chinese to demand their own rights. But he cannot be allowed to crush them, either. To prevent a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Hong Kong, the international community must make it clear to China’s leaders that unleashing brute force would cost them dearly.

Failing to do so would have implications that extend far beyond Hong Kong. If China is allowed to suppress the Hong Kong protests violently, it could be emboldened to take stronger action against Taiwan, and to intensify its pursuit of territorial revisionism vis-à-vis India, Japan, Vietnam, and others.

PS: Modi seems to lack a robust vision for India’s place in the world. Is he too focused on domestic issues?

BC: The British-style parliamentary system is rife with inefficiencies even in the United Kingdom, as the Brexit mess has made clear. In India – a raucous democracy, which is more populous and diverse than all of Europe – its limitations are even more severe.

Consider the frequency of elections in India: no sooner have votes been counted in one state than elections loom in another state. The country is thus perpetually in election mode. This makes it easy to become mired in petty battles over domestic issues.

Bitter partisanship precludes national consensus on the challenges India confronts. Indeed, domestic politics deepens India’s internal fault lines, hobbling its ambition to be a great power.

Chellaney recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Chellaney’s picks:

  • Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

    Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

    This well-researched book describes the 1986 meltdown of a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power complex in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. The damage this wrought – from a human and environmental perspective – dwarfed that caused by the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 25 years later, even though the latter incident included three separate meltdowns.

From the PS Archive

From 2019
Chellaney highlights the havoc that China’s construction of mega-dams is wreaking on downriver countries. Read the commentary.

From 2018
Chellaney calls for tough sanctions to stop Pakistan, a supposed ally, from continuing to aid and nurture terrorists. Read the commentary.

Around the web

In an interview with Fair Observer, Chellaney discusses what global developments – from the US to Iran – mean for India. Read the transcript.

In a commentary for the Hindustan Times, Chellaney argues that the most pressing threat to India’s standing in the world comes not from neighbors but from polarized politics. Read the article.

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

© Project Syndicate, 2020.