About Chellaney

Professor, strategic thinker, author and commentator

Making Water-Smart Energy Choices


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Project Syndicate, 2018.


Why the South China Sea is critical to security


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.

America’s Pakistan Problem



Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© Hindustan Times, 2018.

China’s stealth wars in the Himalayas


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

CCTV image

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

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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

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

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

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

But as happened with the 2012 U.S.-brokered deal for Chinese and Philippine naval vessels to withdraw from around the Scarborough Shoal, China did not faithfully comply with the Doklam accord. If anything, China applied the Scarborough “model” to Doklam — agree to disengage and, after the standoff is over, quietly send in forces to occupy the territory.

Doklam thus illustrates that while India may be content with a tactical win, China has the perseverance and guile to win at the strategic level. Camouflaging offense as defense, China hews to ancient military theorist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.” As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception.”

India tried for months to obfuscate the PLA’s increasing control of Doklam so as not to dilute the “victory” it had sold to its public. Even as commercially available satellite images showed China’s rapidly expanding military infrastructure in Doklam, India’s foreign ministry tried pulling the wool over the public’s eyes by repeatedly saying there were “no new developments at the faceoff site or its vicinity,” located at the plateau’s southern edge. Meanwhile, China continued to build permanent military structures and forward deploy troops across much of Doklam.

This month, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman grudgingly admitted China has constructed helipads and other military structures in Doklam so as to “maintain” troop deployments even in winter. Previously, there were no force deployments or permanent military structures on the uninhabited plateau, which was visited by nomadic shepherds and Bhutanese and Chinese mobile patrols other than in the harsh winter.

To be sure, China has dictated a Hobson’s choice to India on Doklam, like it did to the Philippines over Scarborough: Go along with the changed status quo or face the risk of open war. Clearly, New Delhi didn’t anticipate that an end to the faceoff would result in rapid Chinese encroachments that now virtually preclude India intervening again in Doklam at Bhutan’s behest.

In effect, Beijing has shown Bhutan that India cannot guarantee its territorial integrity.

China’s objective unmistakably is to undercut India’s influence in Bhutan in the way Beijing has succeeded in another Himalayan nation, Nepal, where a Chinese-backed communist government took office earlier this year. It was Beijing that persuaded Nepal’s two main communist parties to overcome their bitter squabbles and join hands in national and local elections.

China’s new control over much of Doklam, however, effectively overturns the land-swap deal it has long offered Bhutan. Under the offer, the tiny kingdom was to cede its claim to that plateau in return for Beijing renouncing its claim to a slice of northern Bhutan.

Beijing has held some 24 rounds of border talks with Bhutan since 1984, just as its negotiations with India on territorial and boundary issues have gone on interminably since 1980 without tangible progress. In fact, the largest real estate China covets in Asia is in India — Arunachal Pradesh, a resource-rich Himalayan territory almost three times as large as Taiwan.

Today, China has stepped up military pressure on India, including beefing up its ground and air assets in the Himalayan region. The Indian government recently told Parliament that the number of Chinese military intrusions into India’s vulnerable borderlands jumped 56% in one year — from 273 in 2016 to 426 in 2017, or more than one per day. It seems that just as China’s trade surplus with India has doubled since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, its border incursions are also on a similar rising trajectory.

India’s perennially reactive mode allows the PLA to keep the initiative in the Himalayas. More fundamentally, China — by mounting strategic pressure on multiple Indian flanks while raking in a fast-growing trade surplus (currently running at nearly $5 billion a month) — is able to have its cake and eat it too.

Add to the picture another important element of China’s Himalayan strategy — reengineering transboundary flows of rivers originating in Tibet through dams and other projects. A third of India’s total freshwater supply comes from rivers that start in Tibet. Last year, China breached two bilateral accords with India by withholding upstream river flow data, which is necessary for flood forecasting and warning. Supply of such data could have prevented some of the deaths in the record flooding that ravaged India’s northeast.

Some 67 years after China eliminated the historical buffer with India by annexing Tibet, it is transforming Himalayan geopolitics to its advantage. China’s strategic penetration of Nepal, which has an open border with India permitting passport-free passage, carries major implications for Indian security. Having lost the outer buffer, Tibet, India now risks losing the inner buffer, Nepal.

In the absence of a coherent strategy to counter China’s aggressive Himalayan strategy, an increasingly defensive India has now sought to make peace with Beijing. For example, it not only advised its officials to stay away from events marking the 60th anniversary this month of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India, but also got Tibetan exiles to move those events from New Delhi to remote Dharamsala, in the Himalayan foothills. Modi’s attention is focused on returning to power in the next national election, which is due to be held in April-May 2019 but might be advanced to this year-end.

Just when Chinese President Xi Jinping’s lurch toward one-man rule has led to a rethink in the West on its relationship with China, India has signaled its intent to go soft on China, with its foreign ministry saying that New Delhi was willing to develop relations with Beijing “based on commonalities.” Salvaging Modi’s China visit for last September’s BRICS (Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa) summit prompted New Delhi to cut the Doklam deal with Beijing, paving the way for the Chinese advance into the plateau. Now Modi is again set to go to China, this time for a bilateral summit with Xi. But India will likely not only come away empty-handed from its new propitiatory approach but also give cover to China’s designs against it.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

A New Order for the Indo-Pacific


China has transformed the Indo-Pacific region’s strategic landscape in just five years. If other powers do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could entrench China’s strategic advantages.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

SYDNEY – Security dynamics are changing rapidly in the Indo-Pacific. The region is home not only to the world’s fastest-growing economies, but also to the fastest-increasing military expenditures and naval capabilities, the fiercest competition over natural resources, and the most dangerous strategic hot spots. One might even say that it holds the key to global security.

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

The main driver of this shift has been China, which over the last five years has been working to push its borders far out into international waters, by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. Having militarized these outposts – presented as a fait accompli to the rest of the world – it has now shifted its focus to the Indian Ocean.

Already, China has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, which recently expropriated its main port from a Dubai-based company, possibly to give it to China. Moreover, China is planning to open a new naval base next to Pakistan’s China-controlled Gwadar port. And it has leased several islands in the crisis-ridden Maldives, where it is set to build a marine observatory that will provide subsurface data supporting the deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile subs (SSBNs) in the Indian Ocean.

In short, China has transformed the region’s strategic landscape in just five years. If other powers do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could entrench China’s strategic advantages. The result could be the ascendancy of a China-led illiberal hegemonic regional order, at the expense of the liberal rules-based order that most countries in the region support. Given the region’s economic weight, this would create significant risks for global markets and international security.

To mitigate the threat, the countries of the Indo-Pacific must confront three key challenges, beginning with the widening gap between politics and economics. Despite a lack of political integration and the absence of a common security framework in the Indo-Pacific, free-trade agreements are proliferating, the latest being the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). China has emerged as the leading trade partner of most regional economies.

But booming trade alone cannot reduce political risks. That requires a framework of shared and enforceable rules and norms. In particular, all countries should agree to state or clarify their territorial or maritime claims on the basis of international law, and to settle any dispute by peaceful means – never through force or coercion.

Establishing a regional framework that reinforces the rule of law will require progress on overcoming the second challenge: the region’s “history problem.” Disputes over territory, natural resources, war memorials, air defense zones, and textbooks are all linked, in one way or another, with rival historical narratives. The result is competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms that imperil the region’s future.

The past continues to cast a shadow over the relationship between South Korea and Japan – America’s closest allies in East Asia. China, for its part, uses history to justify its efforts to upend the territorial and maritime status quo and emulate the pre-1945 colonial depredations of its rival Japan. All of China’s border disputes with 11 of its neighborsare based on historical claims, not international law.

This brings us to the third key challenge facing the Indo-Pacific: changing maritime dynamics. Amid surging maritime trade flows, regional powers are fighting for access, influence, and relative advantage.

Here, the biggest threat lies in China’s unilateral attempts to alter the regional status quo. What China achieved in the South China Sea has significantly more far-reaching and longer-term strategic implications than, say, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as it sends the message that defiant unilateralism does not necessarily carry international costs.

Add to that new challenges – from climate change, overfishing, and degradation of marine ecosystems to the emergence of maritime non-state actors, such as pirates, terrorists, and criminal syndicates – and the regional security environment is becoming increasingly fraught and uncertain. All of this raises the risks of war, whether accidental or intentional.

As the most recent US National Security Strategy report put it, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” And yet while the major players in the region all agree that an open, rules-based order is vastly preferable to Chinese hegemony, they have so far done far too little to promote collaboration.

There is no more time to waste. Indo-Pacific powers must take stronger action to strengthen regional stability, reiterating their commitment to shared norms, not to mention international law, and creating robust institutions.

For starters, Australia, India, Japan, and the US must make progress in institutionalizing their Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, so that they can better coordinate their policies and pursue broader collaboration with other important players like Vietnam, Indonesia, and South Korea, as well as with smaller countries.

Economically and strategically, the global center of gravity is shifting to the Indo-Pacific. If the region’s players don’t act now to fortify an open, rules-based order, the security situation will continue to deteriorate – with consequences that are likely to reverberate worldwide.

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


China ensnares vulnerable states in a debt trap


Easy loans are used to secure influence and grab control of strategic assets


A ship departs a port in Zhanjiang, China, in July 2017 for Djibouti to dispatch members of the People’s Liberation Army to man a military base there. © Xinhua

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

“There are two ways to conquer and enslave a country,” American statesman John Adams (U.S. president from 1797 to 1801) famously said. “One is by the sword. The other is by debt.”

China has chosen the second path. Aggressively employing economic tools to advance its strategic interests, Beijing has extended huge loans to financially-weak states and ensnared some in debt traps that greatly strengthen its leverage.

After establishing a growing presence in the South China Sea, Beijing seems increasingly determined to extend its influence in the Indian Ocean, not least in countries surrounding India, its regional strategic rival.

From Djibouti in Africa to the Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka, China has converted big credits into political influence and even a military presence.

Now a political crisis in the Maldives has highlighted the fact that China has quietly acquired several islets in the heavily-indebted Indian Ocean archipelago.

Mohamed Nasheed, the nation’s first and only democratically elected president who was ousted at gunpoint, says the country cannot repay the $1.5bn-$2bn it owes China, equivalent to 80% of the total foreign debt. “Without firing a single shot, China has grabbed more land” in the Maldives than what Britain’s “East India Company did at the height of the 19th century.”

Among the unpopulated Maldivian islands China has acquired on lease are Feydhoo Finolhu, lying close to the capital Male and previously used for police training, and the seven-kilometer-long Kalhufahalufushi, with a magnificent reef. For Feydhoo Finolhu, it paid $4 million, which is what a luxury apartment in Hong Kong sells for; Kalhufahalufushi was even cheaper.

China is the only country to come out in support of Maldives’ embattled authoritarian president, Abdulla Yameen, who came to power in 2013. Beijing has also issued an open threat against India, which has traditionally been the dominant foreign influence in the Maldives since the islands were granted independence from Britain. Chinese state-controlled media has warned that if India militarily intervenes in the Maldives, Beijing won’t “sit idly by” but will “take action to stop” it.

To be sure, China claims sound commercial grounds for acquiring its Maldivian islands. But across the Indian Ocean, port projects that China insisted were purely commercial have acquired military dimensions.

After lending billions of dollars to Djibouti, China last year established its first overseas military base in that tiny but strategically important state, located on the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean. In Pakistan, Beijing has deployed its warships for the security of the Chinese-built Gwadar port, whilst seeking to establish a military base nearby.

Beijing’s creditor diplomacy scored a major success in December when Sri Lanka formally handed over its strategically located Hambantota port to China under a 99-year lease valued at $1.12 billion. Earlier, after Sri Lanka’s $500-million, largely Chinese-owned Colombo Port container terminal opened in 2014, Chinese submarines arrived quietly and docked there.

Further east in Myanmar, there are concerns in India and the West that Kyauk Pyu, a deep-water port to be developed and financed largely by China, could eventually also serve military purposes.

In the Maldives, Beijing has shown interest in turning an uninhabited island into a naval base by cutting through the surrounding coral reefs to create passageways for its warships. Or it could create an artificial island and militarize it, as it has done in the South China Sea.

Underscoring Beijing’s strategic calculations, three Chinese frigates visited the Maldives about six months ago, docking in Male and at Girifushi Island and imparting special training to Maldivian troops.

Meanwhile, China’s stepped-up naval presence in the Indian Ocean in recent weeks might be intended to send a message to India, including seeking to deter it from militarily intervening in the Maldives, as New Delhi did with Western backing in 1988, when Indian paratroopers foiled a coup attempt. The action reinforced India’s claim to be the region’s peacekeeper.

The current ruler, Yameen, has facilitated China’s island acquisitions in his country by amending the constitution in 2015 to legalize foreign ownership of land. The amendment appeared tailored for China; the new rules for foreign ownership require a minimum $1 billion construction project that involves reclaiming at least 70% of the desired land from the ocean.

By also awarding Beijing major Chinese-financed infrastructure contracts, Yameen is saddling the Maldives with mounting debt that is likely to prove unserviceable.

Several countries that have fallen into, or risk slipping into, debt servitude to China are India’s immediate neighbors, including Bangladesh, the Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. This holds major foreign-policy implications for India, which is seeing its influence erode in its backyard. By establishing a Djibouti-type naval base in the Maldives, China could open an Indian Ocean front against India in the same quiet way that it opened the trans-Himalayan threat under Mao Zedong by gobbling up Tibet, the historical buffer.

China’s strategy in southern Asia and beyond is aimed at fashioning a Sinosphere of trade, communication, transportation and security links. By financially shackling smaller states through projects it funds and builds, it is crimping their decision-making autonomy in a way that helps bring them within its strategic orbit. It is even replicating some of the practices that were used against it during the European-colonial period when, in the words of the Chinese nationalist revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, “India was the favored wife of Britain while China was the common prostitute of all powers.” One such practice is the long-term lease, an echo of the 99-year-lease through which 19th-century Britain secured control of the New Territories, expanding Hong Kong’s landmass by 90%.

The International Monetary Fund has warned that Chinese loans, offered at rates as high as 7 percent, are promoting unsustainable debt burdens. The price that such loans exact can extend to national sovereignty and self-respect. The handover of Hambantota was seen in Sri Lanka as the equivalent of a heavily indebted farmer giving away his daughter to the cruel money lender.

In Pakistan, Chinese state companies have secured energy contracts on terms that include ownership of the plants and 16% guaranteed yearly returns, very high by global standards. The “economic corridor” that China seems intent on building across Pakistan has become a vehicle for a deep Chinese penetration of the Pakistani state, with most of the investment going into energy, agricultural and security projects often unrelated to a corridor.

Against this background, the word “predatory” is increasingly being used internationally about China’s practices. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called China a “new imperialist power” whose practices are “reminiscent of European colonialism.”

Mao said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” But with China emerging as the first major power in modern history without real allies, an additional principle is guiding its policy: buying friendship by opening a fat wallet. China is co-opting states into its sphere of influence by burying them in debt.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

India’s Choice in the Maldives



As the political situation in the Maldives deteriorates, peace and security in the Indian Ocean is increasingly in jeopardy. With China seeking to capitalize on its support for the authoritarian president, Abdulla Yameen, to expand its influence in the region, the crisis has become a defining moment for India.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

The Maldives – that beautiful Indian Ocean country comprising more than 1,000 coral islands – is known the world over as a tranquil and luxurious travel destination. But the country is now being roiled by a political crisis so severe that international advisories are cautioning against travel there.

The rule of law in the Maldives has been steadily deteriorating ever since President Abdulla Yameen came to power in 2013. The situation escalated sharply earlier this month, when Yameen refused to comply with the Supreme Court’s unanimous order quashing the convictions, which he had engineered, of nine opposition figures – including the exiled former president, Mohamed Nasheed – on terrorism charges. Instead of freeing those whose sentences were nullified, Yameen declared a state of emergency and jailed two of the Supreme Court’s five judges, including the chief justice.

To be sure, authoritarianism is not new to the Maldives. Indeed, Nasheed is the only democratically elected, non-autocratic president the country has had since it gained independence from Britain in 1965. His tenure lasted just over three years, until, in 2012, he was forced at gunpoint to resign.

But the Maldives’ sordid politics is having an increasingly far-reaching impact, not least because it is closely linked to radical Islam. On the day Nasheed was overthrown, Islamists ransacked the Maldives’ main museum, smashing priceless Buddhist and Hindu statues and erasing all evidence of the country’s pre-Islamic roots. On a per capita basis, the Maldives has sent the highest number of foreign fighters to support terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.

Moreover, the Maldives sits astride critical shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, making it vital to security in the region. As a result, the country’s deteriorating political conditions are increasingly capturing the international community’s attention. Democratic powers, from the United States to India, are calling upon the United Nations to intervene in the crisis, while China, seeking to advance its own interests in the Indian Ocean, is defending the graft-tainted Yameen.

The increasingly close relationship between China and the Maldives represents a significant shift from the past, when India was the country’s primary regional partner. Maldivians are mainly of Indian and Sri Lankan origin, and have strong cultural and economic ties to those countries. Their country has traditionally been viewed as part of India’s sphere of influence.

But, in recent years, China has been eroding India’s influence in the Maldives, as part of its effort to build its “string of pearls”: a chain of military installations and economic projects aimed at projecting Chinese power in the Indian Ocean. Just as China recently secured the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease, it has, according to Nasheed, quietly acquired 17 islands in the heavily indebted Maldives for investment purposes.

But, betraying its strategic objectives, China has also sent warships to visit the Maldives. If China, which has stepped up military pressure on India along their Himalayan frontier, turned one of the Maldivian islands into a naval base, it would effectively open a maritime front against India – a milestone in China’s strategic encirclement of its neighbor.

The Maldivian crisis thus is a defining moment for India. Will India intervene militarily, as Nasheed and other Maldivian opposition leaders have requested, or will it allow Yameen to continue to enable China to pursue its strategic objectives in the region?

There is some precedent for an Indian military intervention in the Maldives. In 1988, India snuffed out a coup attempt against the autocratic Maumoon Abdul Gayoom engineered by a Maldivian businessman with the aid of armed mercenaries, especially Sri Lankan Tamil separatists. Thanks to India’s swift military action, Gayoom would hold onto power for another two decades.

Yet when the country’s first and only democratically elected president beseeched India in 2012 to rescue him from the Islamist forces laying siege to his office, India looked the other way. India’s government felt betrayed by Nasheed’s own burgeoning relationship with China. Not only had Nasheed awarded China its first infrastructure contracts; just three months before his ouster, he had inaugurated the new Chinese embassy in the capital, Malé, on the same day that India’s then-prime minister, Manmohan Singh, arrived for a regional summit.

Today, an Indian intervention could be dicey, not least because no legitimate authority is inviting India to send in forces. Indian paratroopers could gain effective control of Malé within a few hours. But what would the endgame be? Amid rising Islamist influence and shifting political allegiances among the handful of powerful families that dominate the Maldives’ economy and politics, finding reliable allies committed to – much less capable of – protecting democratic freedoms would prove a daunting challenge.

Moreover, even if Yameen were ousted and the country held a democratic election, it is unlikely that China’s influence could be contained. As the experiences of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka illustrate, China has outmaneuvered India diplomatically, even when dealing with democratically elected governments. Indeed, it did so in the Maldives itself, with Nasheed. Because the country’s debt will continue to rise, regardless of its leadership, China will retain its favorite source of leverage.

India, with its proximity and historical ties to the Maldives, may seem to hold a strong hand. But it has a lot to lose if it aggravates an already volatile political situation in its maritime backyard by intervening militarily.

India’s best option is to hold out a credible threat of military action, while imposing, together with other democratic powers, economic sanctions that undercut support for Yameen among the Maldivian elite, many of whom own the luxury resorts that now have far too many empty rooms. With them on side, perhaps the international community would be able to ensure that the presidential election scheduled for later this year is fair and inclusive – and supervised by the UN. That is the only way to end the crisis, and restore peace to an Indian Ocean paradise.

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

© Project Syndicate, 2018.