About Chellaney

Professor, strategic thinker, author and commentator

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.

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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 65% less than China’s estimated trade surplus of $65.1 billion in calendar 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.