About Chellaney

Professor, strategic thinker, author and commentator

U.S. courtship of Pakistan amplifies India’s challenge

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Donald Trump speaks to reporters during an Oval Office meeting with the military-backed Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on July 22.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The United States has quietly replaced its threat of sanctions against Pakistan with renewed engagement — and rewards. Desperate to finalize a “peace” deal with the brutal and thuggish Taliban, President Donald Trump is wooing its sponsor, Pakistan, to help the US “extricate ourselves” from Afghanistan. The courtship has been highlighted by a $6-billion International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for Islamabad, the US designation of the leading Baloch separatist group as “terrorist”, and Trump’s re-hyphenation of India with Pakistan, including offering to mediate the Kashmir conflict — the equivalent of a red rag to a bull.

Look at this paradox: The Taliban, despite countless attacks on US forces, are still absent from the US terrorism lists. Yet, to appease Pakistan and China (whose interests and citizens have been targeted), the US on July 2 listed the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) as “terrorist” under Executive Order 13224. The action provides Pakistan international legitimacy to go after the group and step up its dirty war in Balochistan, even as it shields state-nurtured terrorist outfits.

By handing Pakistan a major diplomatic victory, BLA’s listing balances India’s gain from the earlier US-aided UN designation of the Pakistan-based Masood Azhar as a terrorist. Similarly, as if to balance its $10 million bounty on the India-sought Hafiz Saeed, America last year announced $11 million in reward money for information on three of Pakistan’s most-wanted men linked to Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It then assassinated TTP’s third consecutive chief, even as Saeed’s very public life continued.

Meanwhile, Trump, by hosting Pakistan’s Imran Khan at the White House, has bestowed legitimacy on a figure derisively called “selected prime minister”, a reference to how the military generals engineered his ascent to power. Indeed, Pakistan’s army chief and Inter-Services Intelligence head chaperoned Khan on his US visit and attended the White House meeting. Khan is one of the weakest PMs Pakistan has ever had. Almost servile in his fealty to the military, he has shown himself to be a willing puppet — more loyal than the king.

Pakistan, in the run-up to the White House meeting, made some seemingly right moves, including arresting Hafiz Saeed, agreeing to create the Kartarpur Corridor by November, and reopening its airspace to east-west overflights after more than 15 weeks — a closure that forced airlines to incur additional costs by taking detours but also cost a cash-strapped Pakistan $55 million in lost overflight fees. The new moves signal anything but behavioural change.

Take Pakistan’s revolving-door policy on Hafiz Saeed: Pakistan has enacted a catch-and-release drama eight times since 2001. Saeed will again be released once pressure on Pakistan eases. The real issue is not his detention but whether Saeed will be tried and convicted for international terrorism.

Make no mistake: America has ample leverage to reform Pakistan but is loath to exercise it. In contrast to Trump’s sanctions-heavy approach to Iran, preposterously labelled “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism”, he — like his predecessor — is relying on carrots to handle the real epicentre of global terror, his public threats notwithstanding. Trump’s suspension of security assistance to Pakistan and several other nations was intended to signal that there is no free lunch — much like his recent expulsion of India from the Generalized System of Preferences. Washington retains Pakistan as its “major non-NATO ally” and refuses to bring Pakistan’s military to account for exporting terrorism.

Hoping that Pakistan on its own would reform and be at peace with itself is akin to expecting a dog to straighten its tail. Coddling terrorists seems to be second nature for Pakistan’s generals. Refusing to bail out Pakistan’s economy could perhaps have yielded as good results as the use of military force. Instead the US, despite enjoying veto power over IMF decisions, has done the opposite. The IMF bailout actually opens billions of dollars more for Pakistan from other international lenders. And by freeing up Pakistani foreign exchange for debt repayments to Beijing, it also bails out China’s projects in Pakistan.

Narrow geopolitical interests guiding America’s Pakistan policy will likely continue to impose costs on India, as has been the case since the 1950s. Although US-India relations have been radically transformed, Washington’s engagement with Pakistan still gives it leverage it values over India. Significantly, the US-Pakistan relationship is on the mend just as Indo-US ties are being tested by Trump’s transactional approach, including punitively increased duties on 14.3% of India’s exports to America.

Another factor at play is Trump’s determination to pull out most US troops from Afghanistan before he seeks re-election. Under the US-initiated “peace” process, Trump is preparing to sell out democratic Afghanistan’s interests to the Pakistan-Taliban axis. India’s exclusion from this process is a blessing in disguise because India must stay away from the sellout, which will bring anything but peace. Indeed, Trump’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban will only embolden Pakistan’s military by proving that sponsoring cross-border terrorism pays.

Karl Marx famously said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”. Nothing better validates that than America’s Pakistan policy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

From Moon Walk to Space Wars

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It is easy to get caught up in escalating strategic competition and conflict on Earth. But, 50 years after the Apollo 11 mission reached the Moon, guaranteeing the freedom to navigate the stars has become no less essential to global peace and security than safeguarding the freedom to navigate the seas.

Spacecraft In The Rays Of Sun. 3D Scene.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

Fifty years after astronauts first walked on the Moon, space wars have gone from Hollywood fantasy to looming threat. Not content with possessing enough nuclear weapons to wipe out all life on Earth many times over, major powers are rapidly militarizing space. Given the world’s increasing reliance on space-based assets, the risks are enormous.

As with the Cold War-era Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the new global space race has an important symbolic dimension. And, given the lunar landing’s role in establishing US dominance in space, the Moon is a natural starting point for many of the countries now jostling for position there.

In January, China became the first country to land an unmanned robotic spacecraft on the far side of the Moon. India – which in 2014 became the first Asian country to reach Mars, three years after China’s own failed attempt to leave Earth’s orbit – is scheduled to launch an unmanned mission to the Moon’s uncharted south pole on July 22, a week after the first planned launch was called off at the last minute due to a helium fuel leak. Japan and even smaller countries like South Korea and Israel are also pursuing lunar missions.

But the US will not surrender its position easily. US President Donald Trump’s administration has vowed to “return American astronauts to the Moon within the next five years.” As US Vice President Mike Pence put it, “just as the United States was the first nation to reach the Moon in the 20th century,” it will be the first “to return astronauts to the Moon in the 21st century.”

This escalating space race is not just about bragging rights; countries are also making rapid progress on developing their military space capabilities. Some, like systems that can shoot down incoming ballistic missiles, are defensive. But others, such as anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons technologies that can target space assets, are offensive.

The ability to take advantage of such systems, while denying them to adversaries, is becoming central to military strategies. That is why Trump directed the US Department of Defense to establish the Space Force, an independent military branch that will undertake space-related missions and operations.

The US hopes that such a force can protect its “margin of dominance” in space. Before Patrick M. Shanahan resigned as acting defense secretary last month, he said that that margin is “quickly shrinking,” as newer powers become adept at militarizing commercial space technologies, including those first developed as part of civilian prestige projects. The most notable such powers are Russia and China.

China, which established an independent space force in 2016, is aiming for global leadership in space. And both China and Russia have demonstrated offensive space capabilities in the form of “experimental” satellites that can potentially aid military operations. According to a US Air Force report, the purpose of these countries’ orbiting offensive capabilities is to hold US space assets hostage in the event of conflict.

This highlights the tremendous vulnerability of these assets, and not just those belonging to the US. The existing space infrastructure comprises at least 1,880 satellites owned or operated by 45 countries. These assets support a wide range of activities, including telecommunications, navigation, financial-transaction authentication, connectivity, remote sensing, and weather forecasting. From a security perspective, they facilitate intelligence, surveillance, early warning, arms-control verification, and missile guidance, for example.

There is one more key player in this intensifying space race: India. In March, the country used a ballistic-missile interceptor to destroy one of its own satellites orbiting at nearly 30,000 kilometers (18,641 miles) per hour, making it the fourth power – after the US, Russia, and China – to shoot down an object in space. The test employed some of the same technologies the US used to shoot down an intercontinental ballistic missile in a test conducted just a couple of days before.

Unlike China’s 2007 demonstration of its ASAT capabilities – which left more than 3,000 pieces of debris in orbit – the Indian test faced no international criticism, largely because it was intended to blunt China’s edge in space-war capabilities. In fact, the head of US Strategic Command, General John E. Hyten, defended India’s test: Indians are “concerned about threats to their nation from space,” he said, and thus “feel they have to have a capability to defend themselves in space.”

This sounds a lot like the justification used to build today’s enormous nuclear arsenals, and we know where that logic leads. As with nuclear deterrence, countries continue to upgrade their offensive space capabilities, until “mutually assured destruction” becomes their best hope of protecting themselves and their assets.

Before that happens, international norms and laws must be strengthened. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans space-based weapons of mass destruction, but not other types of weapons or ASAT tests. A new treaty is needed to outlaw all use of force in space, with clearly delineated – and reliably enforced – consequences for violations. Likewise, norms for responsible behavior in space must be established, in order to deter ASAT weapons testing or other actions that endanger space assets.

It is easy to get caught up in the escalating strategic competition and conflict on Earth. Safeguarding, say, freedom of maritime navigation in places like the Persian Gulf and the South China Sea (where China continues to  the territorial status quo unilaterally) is vitally important. But guaranteeing the freedom to navigate the stars has become no less essential to global peace and security.

Arming without a clear strategic direction

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T-90 Bhishma tanks march down Rajpath in New Delhi during the Republic Day parade on January 26, 2016.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

India’s new national budget accentuates its stagnant defence spending. India’s defence spending figure of $46.3 billion contrasts starkly with China’s $177.5 billion, underscoring the yawning power gap between the two. Indeed, India’s defence budget is smaller than even China’s trade surplus with it, highlighting the extent to which India underwrites China’s hostile actions against it.

To be sure, national security has little relationship with the level of defence spending. Bigger military outlays do not mean greater security. What matters is how the money is spent to boost indigenous capabilities, deter adversaries and project power. As a relatively poor country, India must balance national security demands with pressing socioeconomic priorities.

The government has rightly sought to rein in defence spending. However, military modernization continues to lag due to stalled defence reforms, with two-thirds of the defence budget earmarked just for salaries and other day-to-day running costs. On top of that, pensions cost $16.4 billion, an amount not part of the defence budget. The Army’s spending on modernization, for example, has been a mere 14% of its budget.

Worse still, imports eat up the bulk of the modernization outlays. For many years, India has been one of the world’s top arms importers, spending billions of dollars yearly. Have such imports made India stronger and more secure?

The answer unequivocally is no. The imports, far from being part of a well-planned military build-up to make India regionally preeminent, have lacked a clear long-term direction. They have often been driven by the individual choices of the three services to meet pressing needs. In many cases, the imports have been influenced by foreign-policy and other non-military considerations. In fact, the initiative on some major systems came not from India but from selling countries.

India’s approach of importing conventional weapons without a clear strategic direction or forward planning is a recipe to keep the country perpetually import-dependent. Contrast the near-term considerations that often guide conventional-weapon imports with the strategic, long-term factors driving India’s nuclear, missile and anti-satellite capabilities. After Balakot, for example, India has rushed to buy stand-off weapons.

The paradox is that Narendra Modi, by launching the “Make in India” initiative in 2014, recognized the critical importance of industrial power for national security. And yet, little has changed significantly. In fact, the customs-duty waiver for arms imports in the latest budget not only confirms that Make in India has yet to take off but also promises to block domestic arms production from becoming competitive.

The threats India now confronts are largely unconventional in nature, yet it remains focused on importing conventional weapons. Without waging open war, regional adversaries are working to undermine India’s security, including disturbing the territorial status quo, mounting surrogate threats, sending in illicit arms, narcotics, terrorists or counterfeit Indian currency, and aiding Islamist or tribal militancy.

India, of course, needs to adequately arm itself for self-defense in an increasingly combustible region. But conventional weapons can scarcely be effective in countering unconventional or emerging threats, including from malware aimed at sabotaging power plants, energy pipelines and water supplies. Cyber warfare capabilities, underpinned by artificial intelligence, will be key for national security and future war-fighting. If India invested in this domain 10% of what it spends on importing arms, it could become a cyber superpower.

Make no mistake: No nation can build security largely through imports. Indeed, with its reliance on imported weapons, India can never be a power to contend with. In the past decade, India alone accounted for about 10% of global arms sales volumes. Yet its defensive mindset persists. Any imported platform or weapon makes India hostage to the supplier-nation for spares and service for years.

All the great powers are major arms exporters. Most of them view India as a cash cow. Arms imports actually corrupt the Indian democracy in unparalleled ways. The cancer of corruption caused by such imports has spread deep and wide. Even some journalists and “strategic analysts” have turned into salesmen for foreign vendors.

In fact, it is India’s dependence on arms imports — and their corrupting role — that are at the root of the Indian armed forces’ equipment shortages and the erosion in their combat capabilities. The more arms India imports, the more it lacks the capacity to decisively win a war. But where imports are not possible, as in the space, cyber, missile and nuclear realms, India’s indigenous capabilities are notable.

The capacity to defend oneself with one’s own resources is the first test a country must pass on the way to becoming a great power. India must think and act long term, spend its money wisely, ensure the success of Make in India and advance its capabilities in frontier areas — from space to missiles — where it already boasts impressive indigenous technologies.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Plastic waste is choking India

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Monetary incentives to waste pickers and an environmental tax on plastics can help stem the problem.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

A G-20 environmental meeting on June 16 failed to agree on concrete measures to tackle marine plastic litter. There is growing evidence that human actions are irremediably altering natural ecosystems and driving increasing numbers of plant and animal species to extinction. According to a major new UN study, “nature across the globe has now been significantly altered”, with 75% of the land surface extensively modified, 85% of the wetlands lost, and two-thirds of the oceans bearing mounting cumulative impacts. Another study published in last month’s Nature, the journal of science, reports that humans have modified the flows of most long rivers other than those found in remote regions.

Not surprisingly, biodiversity is declining rapidly across the world. Aquatic ecosystems, for example, have lost 50% of their biodiversity since the 1970s. One major driver is plastic pollution.

Bottled water has become an important source of plastic waste, a scourge made worse by single-use straws, cutlery, food containers and other plastic items. In India, plastic debris is clogging up landfills, blocking drains and polluting waterways. Plastic litter on roadsides and beaches and in other public spaces has become an eyesore.

The well-off in India increasingly rely on bottled drinking water, even as the poor struggle to get basic access to water for their daily consumption and household chores. Bottled water carries a large environmental footprint: It entails use of significant resources to source, process, bottle and transport the water. For example, 1.6 litres of water, on average, are used to package one liter of bottled water. Moreover, much of the bottled water is processed groundwater. Tapping subterranean water reserves on a large scale for bottling is depleting not just aquifers but also rivers and streams that draw water from aquifers.

Mass production of plastics began just six decades ago. The bottled-water industry took off after the commercial advent in the 1990s of single-serve bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or polyester plastic. PET has helped turn water — and other drinks — into portable and lightweight consumer products. But PET takes hundreds of years to biodegrade and, if incinerated, generates toxic fumes.

PET is just one type of plastic that is damaging the environment and threatening human health. The increasing plastic pollution of oceans (including from the chemicals added to plastics to provide malleability or other qualities) is affecting many species of marine life. That, in turn, affects human food chains. Microplastics, or the tiny particles into which plastic degrades into, have been found in the guts of many fish.

The global plastic-waste crisis has been accentuated by Chinese and Indian bans on the import of such trash for recycling. India, which long had been one of the world’s largest importers of plastic waste despite generating 26,000 tons of its own plastic garbage per day, banned all such imports only three months ago. It has now embarked on an ambitious plan to phase out single-use plastics by 2022.

But India still has no concrete national strategy to clear the plastic debris polluting its land and waterways. Nor is there a national policy mandating recycling of plastic bottles. Bans on plastic bags in some states have been enforced half-heartedly at best.

Indeed, just like the current disincentives in India to domestic manufacturing, which encourage industries to rely on imports to overcome issues ranging from raw materials, land and labour to taxes, the present Indian policy (or lack of it) makes it cheaper for producers of drinks to utilize PET than an eco-friendly material. Bottlers are not even required to operate a deposit return scheme, in which a small cash sum is returned for each empty bottle given back to retailers.

India can learn from Germany, the world’s recycling champion, as to how right policies and regulations can promote high rates of recycling. Germany recycles nearly all plastic bottles. In Berlin, for example, the poor perform an environmental service by scavenging public trash bins for bottles yielding deposit return at supermarkets.

Imagine if a similar monetary incentive was offered to the poor in India to collect bottles — and all other plastic waste — and deposit them with retailers. It would help to dramatically control plastic trash and litter. Creating a more sustainable world demands effective management of plastic waste, innovations toward eco-friendly substitutes, and monetary incentives to help clear the plastic debris.

India must remember that waste pickers hold the key to effective waste management, including recycling, but they need a living wage to serve the public. Deposit return schemes are necessary but not sufficient as they are usually restricted to bottles.

Through an environmental tax on plastics, India could raise money to incentivize and reward the collection of all plastic debris. Consumer goods companies should also be made to help cover the costs of waste management and cleanup.

The plastic-waste scourge is seriously imperilling India’s environmental well-being, including contaminating our freshwater and food chain. Without urgent action locally and globally to arrest the problem, there will be, as research shows, more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans by 2050. And more people might be dying from cancer and other environmental diseases.

The writer is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2019.

Why India must get its act together on water diplomacy

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Narendra Modi’s rise as the dominant force in Indian politics cannot obscure the daunting foreign-policy challenges he faces, including on transnational water issues. For example, communist-ruled Nepal’s tilt towards China is apparent not only from the mandatory Mandarin in many schools, but also from its resurrection of a scrapped deal with China to build the $2.5 billion, 1,200-megawatt (MW) Budhi-Gandaki Dam. Beijing’s dam-building frenzy on India’s periphery extends from Myanmar and Tibet to Pakistan-held Kashmir, where it is constructing the 720 MW Karot and the 1,124 MW Kohala (the largest Chinese investment under the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor).

South Asia accounts for about 22% of the world’s population but must manage with barely 8.3% of the global water resources. Water is becoming the new oil in this region. But unlike oil — dependence on which can be reduced by tapping other sources of energy — there is no substitute for water. India ought to make water diplomacy an important tool of its regional foreign policy so as to facilitate rules-based cooperation and conflict prevention.

India has a unique riparian status: It is the only regional country that falls in all three categories — upper, middle and lower riparian. Such is India’s geographical spread that it has a direct stake in all the important river basins in the region. India is potentially affected by water-related actions of upstream countries, especially China and Nepal, while its own room for manoeuvre is constricted by the treaty relationships it has with downstream Pakistan and Bangladesh on the Indus and the Ganges, respectively. Indeed, no country in Asia is more vulnerable to China’s reengineering of trans-boundary flows than India because it alone receives — directly or via rivers that flow in through Nepal — nearly half of all river waters that leave Chinese-controlled territory.

Yet hydro-diplomacy has scarcely been a major instrument of Indian foreign policy. Had India looked at water as a strategic resource and emphasized hydro-diplomacy to leverage bilateral relations, it would not have signed the one-sided Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), still the world’s most generous water-sharing pact. The chief Indian negotiator, Niranjan Gulhati, admitted in his book that the IWT was concluded without any study on its potential long-term impact on the Indian water situation. Today, deepening water woes in India’s lower Indus Basin have resulted in the world’s second-most rapid rate of groundwater depletion in the Punjab-Haryana-Rajasthan belt after the Arabian Peninsula.

Meanwhile, China and Pakistan are employing water as a tool against India. Pakistan’s water-war strategy is centred on invoking the IWT’s conflict-resolution provisions to internationalize any perceived disagreement with India. China’s cut-off of hydrological data to India in 2017 — an action that not only breached bilateral accords but also caused preventable flood-related deaths in Assam — helped highlight how Beijing is fashioning unconventional tools of coercive diplomacy.

Modi’s new, unified water power ministry aims to rectify a splintered, piecemeal approach that has compounded India’s water challenges. But without institutionalized, integrated policymaking, it will not be easy to develop a holistic approach to a critical resource increasingly in short supply or to fashion an effective hydro-diplomacy that advances long-term water interests.

India must build pressure on China to abide by international norms on shared water resources. With Pakistan, there is no need for India to bend over backwards. Two weeks before the Pulwama massacre, India hosted a team of Indus inspectors from Pakistan, although, under the IWT’s terms, such a visit could have waited until March 2020. The Permanent Indus Commission met in August 2018, just five months after its previous meeting, although its next meeting was not due until March 2019. In February, India gratuitously supplied Pakistan the design data of three tiny hydropower plants it plans to build. Pakistan, however, has indefinitely deferred Indian inspectors’ reciprocal visit.

In keeping with Modi’s preference for the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or Bimstec, a forward-looking Indian diplomacy should promote multilateral cooperation on water and hydropower resources in the Bangladesh-Bhutan-India-Myanmar-Nepal growth corridor. Cooperation on water, energy, irrigation and flood control would facilitate joint initiatives on transportation and tourism. The ultimate goal should be a water and energy grid that turns Bimstec into Asia’s leading economic-growth zone. India has already issued a new cross-border power trading regulation that allows any neighbour to export electricity to third countries via Indian transmission lines.

Water-rich Bhutan, Myanmar and Nepal sit on vast untapped hydropower reserves. While Nepal still imports electricity from India, the flourishing Bhutan-India relationship is underpinned by close collaboration on water and clean and affordable energy. Bhutan’s hydropower exports to India have been the primary driver of what is one of the world’s smallest but fastest-growing economies. From modest, environmentally friendly, run-of-river plants, Bhutan is stepping up its India collaboration with a reservoir-based, 2,585 MW project on River Sankosh — larger than any dam in India.

Water increasingly will be a critical factor in regional development. India must get its act together on hydro-diplomacy and exert stronger leadership on trans-boundary water issues.

The writer is the author of “Water, Peace, and War.”

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

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Trump makes trouble for India

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The Modi government should strengthen ties with the US without allowing itself to be bullied by Trump, who is trying to arm-twist India into a closer but prescriptive partnership.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Narendra Modi has wisely gone to the strategic Maldives on his first overseas trip after re-election. It speaks for itself that the leader of the world’s largest democracy has begun his new term by visiting the world’s smallest Muslim nation — in population and area. Generous Indian financial assistance, including $1.4 billion in aid, has helped President Ibrahim Solih to escape a Chinese debt trap and enabled his Maldivian Democratic Party to sweep the April parliamentary elections.

Modi also shrewdly kept out troublesome Pakistan from his inauguration by inviting leaders from the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) grouping. While the moribund South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) boxes India in a narrow, artificial framework limited to the Indian subcontinent, the east-oriented BIMSTEC seeks to realign India along its historical axis. India’s main trading and cultural partners in history were the countries to its east. From the west, India experienced mainly invaders or plunderers.

Indeed, Pakistan greeted Modi’s re-election in North Korean style — by firing the nuclear-capable, Chinese-designed Shaheen II ballistic missile. Its intelligence then harassed and turned away guests invited to the Indian High Commission’s iftar reception in Islamabad. All this is a reminder that Pakistan must be kept in the diplomatic doghouse.

Modi has had little time to savour his landslide win. His second term, paradoxically, has started with troubles caused by India’s close friend — a superpower that regards India as the fulcrum of its Asia strategy. Despite an unmistakably US-friendly Indian foreign policy, US President Donald Trump’s administration has mounted pressure on India on multiple flanks — trade, oil and defence. Through its actions, Washington is presenting the US as anything but a reliable partner and unwittingly encouraging India to hedge its bets.

India is the new target in Trump’s trade wars. It was not a coincidence that on the first day of Modi’s second term, Trump announced the termination of India’s preferential access to the US market. Expelling India from the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) was intended to drive home the message that the choice before Modi is to yield to US demands or face increasing costs. America’s array of demands ranges from lifting price controls on heart stents, knee implants and other medical devices to relaxing ­e-commerce rules, even though Amazon and Walmart have been allowed to establish a virtual duopoly on India’s e-commerce. Would the US permit two foreign companies to control its e-commerce?

The latest US action exacerbates Modi’s challenges just when India’s economy is growing at the slowest rate in five years and unemployment is at a 45-year high. Washington’s heavy-handed tactics have also driven up India’s oil import bill by stopping it from buying at concessional rates from next-door Iran or Venezuela. The US is attempting to undermine India’s relationship with Tehran, which is more than just about oil, as underscored by the Pakistan-bypassing transportation corridor to Afghanistan that India is building via Iran.

The US is similarly trying to stop India from buying major Russian weapons, not just the S-400 system. Moscow’s transfer of offensive weapons that the US will not export, such as a nuclear-powered submarine and an aircraft carrier, explains why Russia remains important for India’s defence, even though Indo-Russian trade has shrunk. Simply put, the US — not content with emerging as the largest seller of arms to India, including bagging several multibillion-dollar contracts — is seeking to lock India as its exclusive arms client by torpedoing the Indian diversification strategy, which aims to import the most-potent available systems.

The Trump administration’s arbitrariness and assertiveness have imposed rising costs on India, as highlighted by the GSP-related termination of India’s designation since 1975 as a developing nation. US businesses, rather than paying new tariffs on the $5.7 billion worth of Indian products they were importing duty-free, would likely seek to source those goods from GSP-beneficiary countries, thus dimming India’s export outlook.

Trump may not stop with GSP withdrawal. Yet India responded meekly to his action by pledging to “continue to build on our strong ties with the US”. Likewise, there has been no Indian retaliation to Trump’s March 2018 steel and aluminium tariffs, with India repeatedly postponing new duties. In diplomacy, counteraction is often necessary to build bargaining leverage and to deter further bullying.

Multi-alignment has been the leitmotif of Modi’s foreign policy. As opposed to the passive approach of nonalignment — a Cold War-era concept — multi-alignment seeks to proactively build close partnerships with different powers, while shoring up India’s strategic autonomy.

In this larger strategy, a robust relationship with the US is central for India. But it cannot be at the expense of India’s own interests. US actions, including sanctions against Russia and Iran, have accentuated India’s challenge in balancing its relationships. Indeed, through its actions, Washington is calculatedly seeking to compel India to become more closely aligned with it. Is it overplaying its hand? Or will it succeed in Modi’s second term? Only time will tell.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

China’s Tiananmen Reckoning

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The 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre is a reminder that the free ride China has enjoyed internationally in recent decades is ending. It should also serve as a warning to the Communist Party that its continued reliance on brute power to keep China’s citizens in line could eventually leave it on the ash heap of history.

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Tiananmen Square just after the massacre on the night of June 3-4, 1989.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

The 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of at least 10,000 people is significant for several reasons. For one thing, the deadly assault on student-led demonstrators remains a dark and hidden chapter in China’s communist narrative. For another, the Chinese government’s arbitrary exercise of power against its own citizens has not only continued since the massacre, but has become more methodical, sophisticated, and efficient, with the country’s internal-security budget now officially surpassing its mammoth defense spending. Yet at the same time, this reliance on brute force carries an ominous message for the Communist Party of China (CPC) itself.

In a night of carnage on June 3-4, 1989, the Chinese authorities crushed the pro-democracy protests with tanks and machine guns. In Eastern Europe, the democratization push led to the fall of the Berlin Wall just five months later, heralding the end of the Cold War. But the West recoiled from sustaining its post-Tiananmen sanctions against China, thereby paving the way for the country’s dramatic rise.

The West not only glossed over the massacre, but also ignored China’s subsequent excesses and unfair trade practices. US President Donald Trump recently lamented how the United States had aided China’s rise and spawned a “monster”: “[China] took advantage of us for many, many years. And I blame us, I don’t blame them,” Trump said. “I don’t blame [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping]. I blame all of our presidents, and not just President [Barack] Obama. You go back a long way. You look at President [Bill] Clinton, [George W.] Bush – everybody; they allowed this to happen, they created a monster.”

Yet, after a long post-massacre boom, China – the world’s largest, strongest, wealthiest, and most technologically advanced autocracy – is entering a period of uncertainty just as it prepares to celebrate a record 70 years of communist rule. (The longest-lasting autocratic system in the modern era, the Soviet Union, survived 69 years.)

China’s many anniversaries in 2019 are making this a politically sensitive year. The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 were inspired by the watershed May 4, 1919, student demonstrations against Western colonialism at the same site. But whereas Xi recently extolled the May Fourth Movement in a speech marking the centenary of that event, he and the CPC  about the Tiananmen anniversary.

This year also marks the 60th anniversary of a failed uprising in Tibet against Chinese occupation. And it is ten years since a Uighur revolt killed hundreds in the Xinjiang region, where more than one million Muslims have now been  as part of a Xi-initiated effort to “cleanse” their minds of extremist thoughts. Then, on October 1, the People’s Republic of China will celebrate its 70th birthday.

But the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown is the most portentous for the CPC’s continued monopoly on power. The massacre was carried out because the party has relied on brute force since its inception, including to seize power. During the rule of the PRC’s founder, Mao Zedong, tens of millions died in the so-called Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and other state-engineered disasters.

Adolf Hitler was responsible for an estimated 11-12 million civilian deaths, and Joseph Stalin for at least six million. But Mao, with some 42.5 million, was the undisputed champion butcher of the twentieth century. And his blood-soaked rule influenced his successor, Deng Xiaoping, who ordered the savage assault on the Tiananmen demonstrators.

The CPC’s survival in power reflects not only its willingness to deploy massive violence, but also its skill at distorting reality with propaganda and snuffing out dissent. But how long can the world’s oldest autocracy continue to sustain itself? By dispensing with collective leadership and orderly succession, Xi has already undermined the institutionalism that made post-Mao China resilient to the forces of change that helped to unravel the Soviet empire.

Until Xi’s lurch to despotism, it seemed that history was by and large going China’s way. Its economy was booming, its control of the South China Sea was steadily expanding, and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of transnational infrastructure projects was progressing smoothly. But China is now facing strong international headwinds at a time when its economy has noticeably slowed. BRI partner countries are increasingly concerned about becoming ensnared in sovereignty-eroding debt traps. China’s influence operations in democratic countries – and the Trojan horse of Confucius Institutes at foreign universities – are now meeting increased resistance. And, more fundamentally, the paradigm shift in US policy toward China under Trump is altering the geopolitical landscape for Xi’s government.

Meanwhile, China’s growing economic risks – such as rising local government debt, higher US trade tariffs, and Western pushback against its technological expansion and trade and investment practices – are compounding the CPC’s concerns about social unrest. By prompting some multinationals to move production from China to Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and elsewhere, Trump’s tariffs are further intensifying the party’s anxiety.

As a result, China’s triumphalism has ceased, and Xi has warned that the country faces major new risks at home and abroad that could escalate and ignite turbulence. The CPC fears that it could meet the same fate as its Soviet counterpart, especially if it fails to prevent small incidents from spiraling into major defiance of its authority. This explains Xi’s emphasis on enforcing strict Leninist discipline. Yet Xi himself is undermining the CPC by building a cult of personality around his one-man rule and by inviting international pushback through his overemphasis on China’s strength and power.

The anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre is a reminder that the free ride China has enjoyed internationally over the past 30 years is ending. It should also serve as a warning to the CPC that its continued reliance on brute power to keep China’s citizens in line could eventually leave it on the ash heap of history.