About Chellaney

Professor, strategic thinker, author and commentator

A turning point signalling new resolve

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It speaks for itself that there has been no major Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack since India’s Balakot airstrike, which punched a hole through Pakistan’s nuclear shield for terror.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Exactly a year ago, India carried out a daring airstrike at Balakot to signal that Pakistan’s terrorism export would no longer be cost-free. Internationally, this marked the first-ever conventional military attack by a nuclear-armed nation on the undeniably sovereign territory of another nuclear-weapons state. The fact that Indian warplanes, unchallenged, struck a deep target in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province led an apprehensive Pakistan to close its airspace to all international overflights for months thereafter.

According to the “theory of nuclear revolution”, nuclear weapons offer a powerful deterrent against a major attack. Attacking another nuclear-armed state, according to this theory, is dangerous because it could invite a nuclear reprisal. Pakistan’s nuclear shield, however, did not prevent India from retaliating against a Pakistan-aided terrorist attack on a security convoy in Pulwama, in Indian Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

The Pakistani nuclear shield failed to deter the Indian strike largely because Pakistan’s actions have long militated against the dominant theory of nuclear revolution. The theory posits that, by guaranteeing a country’s security, nuclear weapons make nations less inclined to engage in aggression or belligerent acts.

Instead of viewing nuclear weapons essentially as tools of deterrence, a scofflaw Pakistan — with China’s protection — has been emboldened to engage in roguish actions. By valuing nuclear weapons as political tools for belligerent goals, including seeking to blunt its widening power asymmetry with India through a death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy, Pakistan has sought to validate the rival “theory of nuclear opportunism”.

Balakot, however, showed that, when Pakistan’s nuclear bluff was called, its situation paralleled Hans Christian Andersen’s famous tale about the emperor with “invisible” clothing who was indeed naked. By leaving a gaping hole in the nuclear shield behind which Pakistan has pursued its terrorist agenda, Balakot sent a chilling message to the all-powerful Pakistani generals, including about the vulnerability of their military and intelligence headquarters. And, as if to underline that power respects power, the strike drew no international criticism, but prompted a chorus of calls to Pakistan to root out the terrorist entities it harbours.

Tellingly, no major Pakistan-sponsored terrorist attack has occurred in India in the last 12 months, underscoring Balakot’s game-changing potential. As the late senior minister, Arun Jaitley, declared, “The security doctrine of India has changed. We now attack the point of origin of terror”. Balakot indeed created the strategic space for India to carry out the constitutional reorganization of its part of J&K.

Pakistan’s generals know that, with its threshold-breaching Balakot strike, India turned the page on its failed policy of strategic restraint. Indian Air Force chief Rakesh Bhadauria has pointed to a paradigm “shift” in India’s posture, with a new political resolve to “punish perpetrators of terrorism”. Given that India’s new chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat, and its new Army chief, General Mukund Naravane, have both spoken about liberating Pakistan-held J&K, Pakistan’s generals are currently loath to provoke a conflict with India, especially when their cash-strapped country is relying on international dole-outs.

The Balokot attack, like India’s 2016 ground-launched surgical strike, targeted the enemy’s non-uniformed soldiers — terrorist proxies. Indeed, India went out of its way to say it hit a “non-military target” at Balakot, although the terrorist group whose camp was struck is a known front organization of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. Pakistan’s military regards its terrorist surrogates as de facto special operations forces and employs them cost-effectively as a force multiplier against India. This explains why, just 30 hours after the Balakot strike, Pakistan tried to bomb military sites in Indian J&K in a daring aerial blitz.

In repulsing the Pakistani aerial attack, India not only lost a MiG-21, with its pilot captured by Pakistan, but also mistakenly shot down its own Mi17 chopper — a horrific incident in which six Air Force officers and a civilian were killed. Pakistan’s attack opened an opportunity for India to wreak massive punishment. But, averse to triggering a spiral of escalation at a time when national elections were looming, India let go of that opportunity.

Against this background, if Pakistan’s risk-seeking behaviour, territorial revisionism and terrorist agenda persist, the risks of a major military confrontation with India cannot be discounted. India seems no longer willing to put up with Pakistan’s terrorism-driven asymmetric warfare, which cumulatively has proved costlier for India in financial, human and internal-security terms than even the historic 1971 War that gave birth to Bangladesh.

Deterrence works if the punitive response to aggression is prompt and effective. Pakistan’s generals are uncertain about the extent or severity of an Indian military response if they stage another major cross-border terrorist attack.

To compel a fundamental change in Pakistan’s conduct, India appears ready to impose greater costs. The next Indian reprisal attack could seek to target the terror masters, not their surrogates. Unless the puppeteers — not their puppets, who essentially serve as cannon fodder — begin bearing escalating costs, hoping that Pakistan would reform and be at peace with itself would be equivalent to expecting to straighten a dog’s tail.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2020.

Can India really count on Trump?

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Brahma Chellaney, Open Magazine

US President Donald Trump’s India visit, with his wife Melania, is significant for several reasons, including the fact that this is his first overseas trip since his acquittal earlier this month in the impeachment trial. Like his host, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Trump has become a lightning rod in his country’s political churn. The hyper-partisan domestic politics in the US and India has been plumbing new depths, poisoning the discourse in both countries.

To be sure, the US and India are not the only democracies weighed down by a spike in polarization or by incivility in political discourse. Partisanship has become more intense than ever in a number of other democracies. 

However, bitter partisanship and a national divide stand out in the US and India. Nothing illustrated this better than the vote in the US House of Representatives to impeach Trump along party lines, without the support of a single Republican member. Impeachment should never have proceeded without broad, bipartisan support. Even Trump’s Senate acquittal was essentially along party lines.

Trump and Modi, despite their very different backgrounds, have a lot in common politically. Each has become an increasingly polarizing figure at home. Citizens either love or loathe them. Like the Washington establishment’s antipathy to Trump, the privileged New Delhi elite has never accepted Modi. This explains why Modi’s re-election in a landslide victory nine months ago has only helped to solidify the polarization in the country.

In fact, Trump and Modi are accused by their critics at home of behaving like authoritarian strongmen. The truth is that American and Indian democracies are robust enough to deter authoritarian creep. Modi’s critics, for example, only underscore India’s robust freedoms by hurling — without fear of reprisal — all sorts of accusations at him, including that he is striking “a historic blow” to Indian democracy and turning India into a “Hindu Pakistan”.

In both the US and India, the widening schism between the pro- and anti-Trump/Modi forces — who, segregated in their own ideological silos, inhabit increasingly separate realities about virtually everything — is strengthening divisive politics. This, in turn, has made politics increasingly vitriolic.

Against this background, is it any surprise that Trump decided, even before the Senate acquittal, to meet his friend Modi in India, including in the latter’s home base of Ahmedabad? Trump’s visit to the world’s largest democracy was overdue, given that he has already been to the other major Asian countries, such as China and Japan. His India visit, significantly, is a solo trip.

Trump shares with Modi a love for big audiences and theatrics. This is why Modi decided to honour Trump at an event to be attended by some 110,000 people at the world’s biggest cricket stadium in Ahmedabad. Last September, Modi and Trump had walked hand-in-hand at a rock-concert-like event, called “Howdy, Modi”, at the NRG Stadium in Houston.

When Trump joined Modi’s public rally in Houston, which was attended by 59,000 Indian-Americans and a number of American congressmen and senators, it underscored the growing closeness of the US-India relationship. Now the Ahmedabad event and Trump’s meetings in New Delhi, as the White House has said, will “further strengthen the US-India strategic partnership and highlight the strong and enduring bonds between the American and Indian people”.

With Trump’s focus on getting re-elected in November, his India visit will also endear him to the increasingly influential and wealthy Indian-Americans, who now number about 4 million, or 1.3% of the total US population. They not only matter in some of the swing states for the presidential election, but also are important political donors.

The rationale for closer ties

The strengthening American ties with democratic India have assumed greater geopolitical importance for Washington, given that US policies in this century have counterproductively fostered a partnership between the world’s largest nuclear power, Russia, and the world’s second-largest economy, China. But during the Cold War years, US President Richard Nixon’s administration, seeking to avoid confronting Russia and China simultaneously, forged strategic cooperation with the weaker party, China, in order to balance the stronger Soviet Union. China’s co-option played an important role in the West’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War. Today, however, US policy has helped build a growing Sino-Russian nexus.

According to the last US national security strategy report, America welcomes “India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner”. India is pivotal to the Trump administration’s strategy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, a concept originally authored by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. India occupies a critical position in the western part of the Indo-Pacific: It has a coastline of 7,500 kilometres, with more than 1,380 islands and over two million square kilometres of Exclusive Economic Zone.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his New Delhi visit last June, said: “We must understand that not only is the US important to India but India is very important to the US”.  India meshes well with Trump’s export plan to create large numbers of well-paid American jobs. As Trump told the Houston rally, “We are working to expand American exports to India, one of the world’s fastest-growing markets”.

Moreover, the US and India are natural allies in countering the growing global scourge of jihadist terrorism. At Modi’s Houston rally, Trump said: “Today, we honour all of the brave American and Indian military service members who work together to safeguard our freedom.  We stand proudly in defence of liberty, and we are committed to protecting innocent civilians from the threat of radical Islamic terrorism”.

In the way Modi casts himself as India’s “chowdikar” (protector) safeguarding the country’s frontiers from terrorists and other subversives, Trump has prioritized border defences to keep out those that “threaten our security”. As Trump declared at the Houston rally, to the delight of Indians, “Border security is vital to the US.  Border Security is vital to India. We understand that”.

Considering such a congruent interest, US-India counterterrorism cooperation ought to be robust, mutually beneficial and mutually reinforcing, while America’s relationship with Pakistan by now should have come apart. However, while US-India counterterrorism cooperation is growing, the Trump administration has helped secure an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for cash-strapped Pakistan and opposed that country’s inclusion on the blacklist of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF).

Trump has also drawn a perverse equivalence between the terrorism-exporting Pakistan and its victim India. Indeed, according to the White House, Trump, at his meeting with Modi in New York last autumn, privately “encouraged Prime Minister Modi to improve relations with Pakistan”, and then publicly said, “Those are two nuclear countries. They’ve got to work it out”. Geopolitically, Pakistan remains important for America’s regional interests, including in relation to Afghanistan, Iran and India.

Consider a more fundamental factor: Whereas the US significantly aided China’s economic rise from the 1970s by co-opting Beijing into its anti-Soviet strategy, Washington today has no such compelling geostrategic motivation to assist India’s rise. The US does not feel as threatened by Sino-Russian cooperation as it did from the Soviet-Chinese partnership during the Cold War, largely because Russia now appears in irreversible decline. Indeed, the more Russia has moved closer to China, the more it has eroded its influence, as in Central Asia.

India is important for the US because of its large and rapidly growing market and its strategic location in the Indo-Pacific. It is the only resident power in the western part of the Indo-Pacific that can countervail China’s military and economic moves.

The phrase “Indo-Pacific”, as then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson alluded to, was intended to emphasize that the US and India are “bookends” in that region. Recently, however, the Trump administration has redefined the Indo-Pacific as a region extending to the Persian Gulf, in keeping with its fixation on Iran. This is one reason why its “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy has still to gain traction.

The US views an economically booming India as good for American businesses. Trump in New Delhi will meet with top executives of Indian companies that are major investors in the US. For example, Mahindra and Mahindra has announced it is investing $1 billion in the US, while the Tata Group is one of the largest multinationals operating from American soil. Today, the transactional elements in the US-Indian partnership, unfortunately, have become more conspicuous than the geostrategic dimensions.

Trump, a friend of India?

Trump’s foreign policy has centred on a strange mix of avowed isolationism, impulsive interventionism and tough negotiations even with friends. Trump’s unilateralism and transactional approach have reflected a belief that the US can pursue hard-edged negotiations with friends without imperilling its broader strategic interests. This approach has rattled many of America’s longstanding allies.

In India, however, Trump still enjoys a high positive rating. He may have privately mocked Modi’s English pronunciation but has developed a personal rapport with him.

Successive US administrations, in fact, have been good at massaging India’s collective ego, with statements like “the growing partnership between the world’s oldest democracy and largest democracy”. Pompeo, for example, declared, “Modi hai to sab mumkin hai”. Pompeo’s praise of US-India ties, however, has failed to obscure the differences and disputes resulting from the Trump administration’s unilateral actions and demands.

Despite his bonhomie with Modi, Trump, for example, has waged a mini-trade war against India, although in the shadow of the much larger US-China trade war. He has raised duties on 14.3% of India’s exports to the US and imposed a restrictive visa policy to squeeze the huge Indian information-technology industry. In March 2018, he increased tariffs on steel and aluminium from India.

Indeed, no sooner had Modi’s second term started in May 2019 than Trump announced the termination of India’s preferential access to the US market by expelling the country from the Generalized System of Preferences. Soon thereafter, the office of the United States Trade Representative warned of a Section 301 investigation against India if trade differences were not sorted out.

The array of US demands on India have ranged from lifting price controls on heart stents, knee implants and other medical devices to relaxing ­e-commerce rules. Unlike China, where homegrown players like Alibaba have cornered the e-commerce market, India has allowed Amazon and Walmart to establish a virtual duopoly over its e-commerce. Would the US, like India, permit two foreign companies to control its e-commerce?

Some US demands actually represent gross insensitivity. For example, the US has pressured India — where many citizens are vegetarian — to open its market to American cheese and other products from cows that have been raised on feed containing bovine and other animal by-products. This would offend the religious and cultural sensitivities of many Indians, especially Hindus who do not consume beef or its by-products. For India, the routine administration of antibiotics to healthy cows in the US also raises public-health concerns, including the possible spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Despite Modi’s unmistakably US-friendly foreign policy, the Trump administration has mounted pressure on India not just on trade but also on other flanks, including oil and defence. For example, not content with the US having emerged as the largest seller of arms to India, Washington has sought to lock that country as America’s exclusive arms client by using the threat of sanctions to deter it from buying major Russian weapons, including the S-400 air defence system.

The US said last July, after it terminated India’s sanctions waiver for importing Iranian oil, that it was “highly gratified” by New Delhi’s compliance with sanctions against Iran. It is really one-sided gratification. The US sanctions have driven up India’s oil-import bill by stopping it from buying crude from next-door Iran. In fact, the US has been supplanting Iran as an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China. But the US oil and petroleum exports to India come at a higher price than from Iran.

A transportation corridor to Afghanistan that India is building via Iran, bypassing Pakistan, shows that New Delhi’s relationship with Tehran is more than just about oil. US policy, however, is pushing India out of Iran while letting China fill that space. China has deepened its ties with Tehran: It has continued to import Iranian oil through private companies and invest billions of dollars in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sectors.

A US-India trade deal, however framed, is unlikely to help fully lift US pressure on India, whose economy is now growing at the slowest rate in years, with unemployment at a 45-year high. Some of Trump’s trade-related demands would help open the Indian market further to Chinese dumping, thereby widening India’s already-huge trade deficit with China. Indeed, lumping the world’s largest democracy with America’s main strategic competitor, Trump is pushing to terminate India’s and China’s developing-nation status at the World Trade Organization.

Meanwhile, Trump’s policy, by seeking to normalize US relations with Pakistan, has helped ease international pressure on that country to take concrete, verifiable actions to root out the 22 UN-designated terrorist entities that it harbours. Pakistan, for its part, has shown that there are no significant economic consequences for being on the FATF’s “grey” list. Just last summer it secured a large IMF bailout package with US backing. It has also received billions of dollars in emergency loans from China, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

The FATF admits that Pakistan has failed to meet the group’s major parameters against terror financing. Yet, with the US loath to exercise the leverage it has to reform a scofflaw Pakistan, that country has not been moved from the FATF’s “grey” to “black” list.

Modi, speaking at the UN General Assembly last September, warned against the politicization of international counterterrorism mechanisms. The global war on terror, however, has always been about geopolitics. Otherwise, why would the US align with Al Qaeda in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, or why would China seek to shield the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists based in Pakistan?

Geopolitical factors, including Trump’s effort to strike a Faustian bargain with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban, also explain why the US president, despite a Kashmir mediation offer being a red rag to India, has repeatedly offered to mediate that conflict. In fact, Trump has rewarded Pakistan with IMF and other aid and then offered to mediate the Kashmir conflict. Likewise, Trump first green-lighted Turkey’s military assault on America’s Kurdish allies and then offered to broker peace between the Turks and Kurds, saying “I hope we can mediate”.

Trump’s mediation offer has little to do with finding a way to resolve the Kashmir problem; it is more about making the US a stakeholder. As long as Indian policy seeks American assistance to rein in Pakistan, instead of tackling the problem directly, the US will strive to make itself a stakeholder in the India-Pakistan relationship.

Still, the US is a key partner for India

Despite bilateral differences on several important subjects, the US remains a key partner for India. Accelerating cooperation and collaboration with the US has been Modi’s signature foreign-policy initiative. Under Modi, India has been gravitating closer to the US in ways that do not undermine India’s longstanding partnership with Russia or provoke retribution from China.

The deepening cooperation has led to a series of bilateral agreements in recent years. In 2016, the US and India signed a logistics agreement on access to each other’s military base. A 2018 accord allows US and Indian forces to share encrypted communications. And a 2019 agreement permits each other’s private companies to transfer classified defence technologies.

Furthermore, the frequency and complexity of US-India military exercises have increased. Last November, the US military held its first joint exercises with all three of India’s military branches — the army, the navy and the air force.

To be sure, US-India military collaboration poses some challenges. The US has little experience in developing close military collaboration with countries that are not its treaty-based allies. All its major military partners are its allies in a patron-client framework. India, however, is its strategic partner (not an ally) that expects some degree of equality. Yet, in opposing India’s purchase of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system from Russia, the US has cited “military interoperability” issues, as if India were a NATO member or its formal ally like Turkey, which is also acquiring the S-400.

India’s long legacy of dependence on Russia for strategic weapons — ranging from a nuclear-powered submarine to an aircraft carrier — will change only through a robust Indo-US partnership, not through threats or sanctions. However, last year’s failure to pass an amendment in the US Congress to give India NATO-equivalent status under the US Arms Export Control Act (AECA) for the purposes of arms sales represents a setback for building a steady US-India military partnership.

Had it been enacted in its original form, the amendment (introduced by Congressman Brad Sherman and co-sponsored by several other representatives) would have provided India the same status as America’s NATO allies as well as Israel, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Japan for AECA-related purposes in relation to arms exports. The original amendment sought to elevate India’s status under the AECA so as to facilitate US arms sales to India in a wider and more forward-looking and timely manner. That would have been in keeping with the imperative to bolster the Indo-US relationship in order to check China’s muscular moves in the Indian Ocean region.

India is ideologically compatible with, and strategically central, to US interests. For New Delhi, a robust relationship with the US is pivotal to long-term Indian interests. Yet, paradoxically, the two countries’ strategic interests diverge in India’s own neighbourhood. The farther one gets from India, the more congruent US and Indian interests become. But closer home to India, the two sides’ interests are divergent, including on how to deal with the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran challenges.

Against this background, does anybody seriously think that if China staged a 1962-style surprise military attack on India, the Trump-led US will come to India’s aid or even side with India? As it did during the 2017 Doklam standoff, the US would probably chart a course of neutrality in that war.

Take another example: Pakistan used the US-supplied F-16s against India on February 27, 2019, in a cross-border aerial raid following the Indian Air Force’s daring airstrike on a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Balakot. Yet, the US chose to look the other way, despite admitting the “presence of US personnel that provide 24/7 end-use monitoring” on the F-16 fleet in Pakistan. Worse still, it rewarded Pakistan with $125 million worth of technical and logistics support services for the F-16s, saying the aid will not affect the “regional balance”.

The bottom line for India is that no friend, including the US, will truly assist it to end Pakistan’s terrorism. When terrorism is directed at just India, the American military will not seek to take out any of the US-designated “global terrorists” in Pakistan. For example, the US has done little more than put a $10 million bounty since 2012 on Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, one of the top terrorist leaders in Pakistan. This is India’s battle to fight and win on its own.

More broadly, a US policy approach that seeks to weaponize tariffs, trade and dollar dominance will compel India to hedge its bets. As the chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Eliot L. Engel, warned last year, the Trump administration, by “attempting to coerce India into complying with US demands on a variety of issues”, has not only “introduced significant friction in our partnership with New Delhi” but also is alienating India.

Henry Kissinger once quipped that “it may be dangerous to be America’s enemybut to be America’s friend is fatal”. Trump is pursuing his foreign policy as if those words have the ring of truth. At the Houston rally, Trump claimed India has “never had a better friend” than him in the White House. Yet Trump’s transactional approach, which prioritizes short-term gains for the US even at the expense of long-term returns, could be reinforcing Indian scepticism about American reliability. The Modi government, clearly, values robust ties with the US, but such relations cannot be at the expense of India’s own interests.

Make no mistake: India has been a US foreign-policy bright spot. There is strong bipartisan support in Washington for a closer partnership with India. And as Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has said, “The relationship between America and India is one with boundless potential”. It is important for both sides to focus on the relationship’s tremendous potential.

© Open Magazine, 2020.

Preventing the Death of the World’s Rivers

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The world’s rivers are under unprecedented pressure from contamination, damming, and diversion, which are straining water resources, destroying ecosystems, jeopardizing livelihoods, and damaging human health. International cooperation can save riparian systems, but first we must recognize the consequences of doing nothing.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

From the Tigris to the Indus and the Yangtze to the Nile, rivers were essential to the emergence of human civilization. Millennia later, hundreds of millions of people still depend on rivers to quench their thirst, grow food, and make a living. And yet we are rapidly destroying the planet’s river systems, with serious implications for our economies, societies, and even our survival.

China is a case in point. Its dam-building frenzy and over-exploitation of rivers is wreaking environmental havoc on Asia, destroying forests, depleting biodiversity, and straining water resources. China’s first water census, released in 2013, showed that the number of rivers – not including small streams – had plummeted by more than half over the previous six decades, with over 27,000 rivers lost.

The situation has only deteriorated since then. The Mekong River is running at a historically low level, owing largely to a series of Chinese-built mega-dams near the border of the Tibetan Plateau, just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia. In fact, the Tibetan Plateau is the starting point of most of Asia’s major rivers, and China has taken advantage of that, not least to gain leverage over downstream countries.

China may be the world’s largest dam builder, but it is not alone; other countries, from Asia to Latin America, have also been tapping long rivers for electricity generation. The diversion of water for irrigation is also a major source of strain on rivers. In fact, crop and livestock production absorbs almost three-quarters of the world’s freshwater resources, while creating runoff that, together with industrial waste and sewage discharge, pollutes those very resources.

In total, almost two-thirds of the world’s long rivers have been modified, and some of the world’s longest – including the Nile and the Rio Grande – now qualify as endangered. Of the 21 rivers longer than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) that still flow freely from their mountain sources to the sea, most are in remote regions of the Arctic and in the Amazon and Congo basins, where hydropower development is not yet economically viable.

These trends strain water resources, destroy ecosystems, and threaten human health. For example, heavy upstream diversions have turned the deltas of the Colorado River and the Indus River into saline marshes. Moreover, lower river-water levels impede the annual flooding cycle, which in tropical regions helps to re-fertilize farmland naturally with nutrient-rich sediment. In periods of below-average rainfall, a number of rivers increasingly run dry before reaching the ocean, and even when they do make it, they are depositing less of the nutrients and minerals that are vital to marine life.

Globally, aquatic ecosystems have lost half of their biodiversity since the mid-1970s, and about half of all wetlands have been destroyed over the last century. A recent United Nations study warned that up to a million animal and plant species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.

Humans are hardly exempt from the health consequences of river destruction. In Central Asia, the Aral Sea has all but dried up in less than 40 years, owing to the Soviet Union’s introduction of cotton cultivation, for which water was siphoned from the sea’s principal sources, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers. Today, particles blown from its exposed seabed – thick with salts and agricultural chemical residue – not only kill crops; they are sickening local people with everything from kidney disease to cancer.

Free-flowing rivers play a critical role in moderating the effects of climate change, by transporting decaying organic material and eroded rock to the ocean. This process draws about 200 million tons of carbon out of the air each year.

In short, the case for protecting our rivers could not be stronger. Yet, while world leaders are often willing to pay lip service to the imperative of strengthening river protections, their rhetoric is rarely translated into action. On the contrary, in some countries, regulations are being rolled back.

In the United States, almost half of rivers and streams are considered to be in poor biological condition. Yet last October, President Donald Trump’s administration repealed “Waters of the US,” which had been introduced by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in order to limit pollution of streams, wetlands, and other bodies of water. Last month, the Trump administration replaced the rule with a far weaker version, called the “Navigable Waters Protection Rule.”

Likewise, in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has relaxed environmental rules in the name of economic growth. Among the casualties is the Amazon River, the world’s largest river in terms of discharge, which carries more water than the next ten largest rivers combined. Already, the Amazon basin in Brazil has lost forest cover over an area larger than the entire Democratic Republic of Congo – the world’s 11th-largest country.

The absence of water-sharing or cooperative-management arrangements in the vast majority of transnational river basins facilitates such destruction. Many countries pursue projects without regard for their cross-border or environmental effects.

One way to protect relatively undamaged river systems – such as the Amur, the Congo, and the Salween – would be to broaden implementation of the 1972 World Heritage Convention, and add these rivers to the World Heritage List, alongside UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This would be in line with recent efforts in some countries – Australia, Bangladesh, Colombia, India, and New Zealand – to grant legal rights to rivers and watersheds. For such initiatives to work, however, effective enforcement is essential.

As for the rivers that are already damaged, action must be taken to restore them. This includes artificially recharging rivers and aquifers with reclaimed wastewater; cleaning up pollution; reconnecting rivers with their floodplains; removing excessive or unproductive dams; and implementing protections for freshwater-ecosystem species.

The world’s rivers are under unprecedented pressure from contamination, damming, and diversion. International cooperation can save them, but first we must recognize the consequences of doing nothing.

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, 2019.

The China Factor Behind India’s Pullout from RCEP

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The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was set to become the world’s largest free trade agreement. But India’s withdrawal from it has thrown the negotiated trade bloc into imbalance and has underscored India’s qualms with China’s trade practices.

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Brahma Chellaney, China-US Focus 

The 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was supposed to establish the world’s largest trading bloc, covering half of the global population. But India’s abrupt withdrawal from the RCEP has undercut that goal. The decision came soon after the latest “informal” summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during which Xi acknowledged India’s China-related concerns over the RCEP and pledged to address them.

New Delhi’s entry into the RCEP would effectively create a China-India free trade agreement (FTA) via the backdoor, at a time when Chinese exports are already swamping the Indian market and questions are being raised domestically on Modi’s management of the economy.

The China factor was central to India’s pullout from the RCEP. India already has FTAs with 12 of the other 15 participating RCEP countries and is negotiating an FTA with Australia. Therefore, the main beneficiary of India’s entry into the RCEP would have been China.

Xi’s two “informal” summits with Modi since April 2018 have yielded little progress in the trade, border, and political issues dividing the world’s two most-populous countries. Indeed, at the second summit, held in the Indian coastal town of Mamallapuram in October, Xi sought to rope India into the RCEP in an effort to shield his country’s burgeoning trade surplus with New Delhi.

When the summit concluded, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said, “President Xi has assured us that India’s concerns over the RCEP will be duly discussed. Although both Modi and Xi emphasized on the importance of having a rules-based global trading system, the Indian prime minister clarified to China that a deal should be balanced and equitable. China said it has heard India’s concerns and has agreed that there are still issues that need addressing.”

At the summit, Modi agreed to starting bilateral talks between the Chinese vice premier and the Indian finance minister over India’s uneven trade relationship with China, which is weighted heavily in Beijing’s favor. China’s trade surplus with India has jumped from less than $2.5 billion a month in 2014 when Modi took office to more than $5 billion a month.

The Indian commitment to bilateral trade talks represented a diplomatic win for Beijing, allowing it to initiate what it is good at: endless negotiations, as its 38-year-long border talks with India illustrate. Ever since the talks to settle the border disputes began in 1981, China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush.

However, only three weeks after the Xi-Modi summit, India pulled out of the RCEP. And the bilateral trade talks that were agreed upon at the summit have yet to begin.

In November, the other 15 participating RCEP countries concluded text-based negotiations and sent the agreement to the legal team for cleanup. A joint statement following the conclusion of the negotiations in Bangkok said, “India has significant outstanding issues, which remain unresolved. All RCEP participating countries will work together to resolve these outstanding issues in a mutually satisfactory way. India’s final decision will depend on satisfactory resolution of these issues.”

It will not be easy to resolve India’s concerns. At a time of slowing Indian growth, India’s entry into the RCEP could exacerbate the country’s economic problems by opening the floodgates to the entry of cheap Chinese goods.

China, while exploiting India’s rule of law to engage in large-scale dumping and other unfair practices, keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses, including India’s $181-billion information technology industry. Beijing has also dragged its feet on dismantling regulatory barriers to the import of Indian agricultural and pharmaceutical products.

Modi, in the hope of spurring greater foreign direct investment (FDI) from China, removed it from the official list as a “country of concern” for India. However, instead of greater FDI, the step invited greater Chinese dumping.

China’s cumulative FDI in India remains a fraction of its yearly trade surplus with the country. In fact, in the list of countries with which China has the highest trade surpluses, India now ranks second behind America.

China’s surplus with the U.S., of course, is massive. But as a percentage of total bilateral trade or as a percentage of national gross domestic product (GDP), India’s trade deficit with China is greater than America’s. India’s trade deficit with China in 2018 accounted for 2.2% of its GDP.

China’s unfair trade practices are systematically undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness, with the result that Modi’s vaunted “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off. Indeed, China’s annual trade surplus with India is significantly larger than India’s total defense spending, underscoring the extent to which India is underwriting Chinese hostility.

Against this background, India’s concerns are unlikely to be addressed in time for it to join the other participating countries at the RCEP signing ceremony in Hanoi next year.

Let’s be clear: unlike most other participating countries in the RCEP, India is not an export-driven economy. Rather, like the U.S., it is an import-dependent economy whose growth is largely driven by domestic consumption.

The U.S. and India have big trade deficits in goods with the rest of the world. Through bilateral or trilateral trade deals, they can leverage outsiders’ access to their huge markets to help shape trade norms and practices. This is already the approach of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Make no mistake – India needs to become more competitive in its own right because no barrier can be high enough to protect it from China’s trade prowess. But it also true that India cannot become more competitive without curbing China’s dumping and other rapacious trade practices.

An RCEP without India could create an imbalance within that trading bloc, just as Japan, Australia, and the ASEAN states have feared. It now seems likely that China will dominate the world’s largest free trade arrangement.

Interview with Brahma Chellaney

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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.

BY THE WAY. . .

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.

The national security threat from within

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Amid the raging media war between Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters and critics, recent developments are helping to disprove one charge — that India is getting isolated internationally. From frustrating China’s latest UN Security Council (UNSC) move on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to forcing Malaysia to start addressing its growing trade surplus with India, including by importing more Indian sugar, Indian diplomacy has rarely been more robust. It was China that was isolated in the UNSC discussion on J&K.

US President Donald Trump’s forthcoming visit promises to raise India’s international salience. Building closer cooperation with the US, while shielding India’s longstanding partnership with Russia, has been Modi’s signature foreign-policy initiative. The US and India have never been closer than they are today, despite their differences over the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran challenges.

The showmanship, zeal and penchant for surprises that Modi’s diplomacy displayed in his first years in office have gradually given way to a more down-to-earth approach and greater pragmatism, including seeking to more resourcefully advance the country’s core interests. Under Modi, Indian diplomacy has been shedding its conventional methods and shibboleths to help build innovative dynamism. This remains a work in progress.

India is now more willing to act proactively. Consider the imperative to reverse eroding regional clout at a time when China is spreading its influence deep into India’s backyard. In Sri Lanka, no sooner had Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election than Modi sent his foreign minister to personally invite him to New Delhi. And then, to follow up on the discussions during Gotabaya’s visit, Modi’s national security adviser was in Colombo recently.

Another recent example is India’s pullout from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to forestall an India-China free trade agreement emerging via the backdoor. The decision not to join RCEP came barely three weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the Mamallapuram summit, pleaded with Modi for India’s entry and offered to discuss Indian concerns bilaterally.

The trade deficit with China has more than doubled on Modi’s watch and now accounts for 2.2% of India’s GDP, which is higher than its total defence spending. At a time of slowing Indian economic growth, India’s RCEP entry would seriously exacerbate the country’s problems by opening the floodgates to the entry of cheap goods from China, which keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses.

While Trump has got his phase-one deal to reduce the US trade deficit with China, India’s trade deficit with China continues to climb. In these circumstances, India’s RCEP entry would not only aid Beijing’s India policy of containment with engagement, including aggressively advancing commercial interests. In essence, China’s policy seeks to ensure it wins doubly — reap soaring profits on India trade while simultaneously working to box India in.

Through greater realism, India has progressively evolved a nondoctrinaire foreign-policy vision since it went overtly nuclear. It seeks to revitalize its economic and military security without having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner. Given its nuclear-armed status, its quixotic founding philosophy centred on non-violence has assumed a largely rhetorical meaning.

As one US official, Alice Wells, has acknowledged, India’s “broadening strategic horizons” have led to a “shift away from a passive foreign policy”. India, however, remains intrinsically diffident, with a tendency to confound tactics with strategy and unable at times to recognize the difference between being cautious and being meek. Caution helps avert problems, while meekness compounds challenges.

Making matters worse, India today is weighed down not just by a troubled neighbourhood but also by its increasingly murky politics. A dynamic diplomacy needs strong bipartisan support, especially for ambitious or risky undertakings. But given India’s fractious and obstreperous politics, such bipartisanship has been hard to come by. Consider the political nitpicking over the Indian Air Force’s daring strike inside Pakistan at Balakot.

The bitter partisanship at home, by sharpening national divisions, makes it more challenging to meaningfully reinvigorate foreign policy. Indeed, the most pressing threat to India’s standing in the world comes not from China’s expansionism or the roguish activity of a scofflaw Pakistan but from polarized Indian politics. Given the threat from within, can India effectively deal with complex regional-security challenges, including the growing strategic axis between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of a powerful Leninist autocracy and an Islamist neighbour?

Modi may have become a lightning rod in India’s political churn. But make no mistake: Modi is a symptom of a longer-term trend of rancorous polarization in Indian politics that predates his arrival on the national scene and is likely to persist after he leaves office.

The world’s largest democracy has been in crisis for long. Its systemic problems have an important bearing on national security. Coping with mounting regional-security challenges while managing internal divisions will prove onerous unless India finds ways to control its growing divide.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2020.

America’s Debilitating Middle-East Obsession

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US President Donald Trump once seemed to recognize that, as long as the US remains mired in endless wars in the Middle East, it will be unable to address in a meaningful way the threat China poses. But that has not stopped him from perpetuating the cycle of self-defeating American interventionism in the Middle East.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” US President Donald Trump declared in his 2019 State of the Union speech. He had a point: military entanglements in the Middle East have contributed to the relative decline of American power and facilitated China’s muscular rise. And yet, less than a year after that speech, Trump ordered the assassination of Iran’s most powerful military commander, General Qassem Suleimani, bringing the United States to the precipice of yet another war. Such is the power of America’s addiction to interfering in the chronically volatile Middle East.

The US no longer has vital interests at stake in the Middle East. Shale oil and gas have made the US energy independent, so safeguarding Middle Eastern oil supplies is no longer a strategic imperative. In fact, the US has been supplanting Iran as an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China. Moreover, Israel, which has become the region’s leading military power (and its only nuclear-armed state), no longer depends on vigilant US protection.

The US does, however, have a vital interest in resisting China’s efforts to challenge international norms, including through territorial and maritime revisionism. That is why Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, promised a “pivot to Asia” early in his presidency.

But Obama failed to follow through on his plans to shift America’s foreign-policy focus from the Middle East. On the contrary, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate staged military campaigns everywhere from Syria and Iraq to Somalia and Yemen. In Libya, his administration sowed chaos by overthrowing strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. In Egypt, Obama hailed President Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster.

Yet in 2013, when the military toppled Mubarak’s democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi, Obama opted for non-intervention, refusing to acknowledge it as a coup, and suspended US aid only briefly. This reflected the Obama administration’s habit of selective non-intervention – the approach that encouraged China, America’s main long-term rival, to become more aggressive in pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea, including building and militarizing seven artificial islands.

Trump was supposed to change this. He has repeatedly derided US military interventions in the Middle East as a colossal waste of money, claiming the US has spent $7 trillion since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (Brown University’s Costs of War Project puts the figure at $6.4 trillion.) “We have nothing – nothing except death and destruction. It’s a horrible thing,” Trump said in 2018.

Furthermore, the Trump administration’s national-security strategy recognizes China as a “strategic competitor” – a label that it subsequently replaced with the far blunter “enemy.” And it has laid out a strategy for curbing Chinese aggression and creating a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region stretching “from Bollywood to Hollywood.”

Yet, as is so often the case, Trump’s actions have directly contradicted his words. Despite his anti-war rhetoric, Trump appointed war-mongering aides like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been described as a “hawk brimming with bravado and ambition,” and former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who in 2015 wrote an op-ed called “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that Trump has pursued a needlessly antagonistic approach to Iran. The escalation began early in his presidency, when he withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (which Iran had not violated), re-imposed sanctions, and pressured America’s allies to follow suit. Furthermore, since last May, Trump has deployed 16,500 additional troops to the Middle East and sent an aircraft-carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, instead of the South China Sea. The assassination of Suleimani was part of this pattern.

Like virtually all of America’s past interventions in the Middle East, its Iran policy has been spectacularly counterproductive. Iran has announced that it will disregard the nuclear agreement’s uranium-enrichment limits. Trump’s sanctions have increased the oil-import bill of US allies like India and deepened Iran’s ties with China, which has continued to import Iranian oil through private companies and invest billions of dollars in Iran’s oil, gas, and petrochemical sectors.

Beyond Iran, Trump has failed to extricate the US from Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen. His administration has continued to support the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels with US military raids and sorties. As a result, Yemen is enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Trump did order troops to leave Syria last October, but with so little strategic planning that the Kurds – America’s most loyal ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) – were left exposed to an attack from Turkey. This, together with his effort to strike a  (which is responsible for the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks), threatens to reverse his sole achievement in the Middle East: dramatically diminishing ISIS’s territorial holdings.

Making matters worse, after ordering the Syrian drawdown, Trump approved a military mission to secure the country’s oil fields. The enduring oil fixation also led Trump last April to endorse Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, just as Haftar began laying siege to the capital, Tripoli.

The Trump administration is unlikely to change course any time soon. In fact, it has now redefined the Indo-Pacific region as extending “from California to Kilimanjaro,” thus specifically including the Persian Gulf. With this change, the Trump administration is attempting to uphold the pretense that its interventions in the Middle East serve US foreign-policy goals, even when they undermine those goals.

As long as the US remains mired in “endless wars” in the Middle East, it will be unable to address in a meaningful way the threat China poses. Trump was supposed to know this. And yet, his administration’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific seems likely to , while the cycle of self-defeating American interventionism in the Middle East appears set to continue.

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, 2019.