About Chellaney

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The China Factor Behind India’s Pullout from RCEP


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


Brahma Chellaney, China-US Focus 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Brahma Chellaney


Brahma Chellaney
Says More…

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chellaney recommends

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

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

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

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

From the PS Archive

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

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

Around the web

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

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

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

© Project Syndicate, 2020.

The national security threat from within



Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2020.

America’s Debilitating Middle-East Obsession


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Toward an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies



Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

In his second term, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to initiate a new practice on New Year’s Day: To discuss a shared vision of peace and prosperity in India’s subregion, Modi on Jan. 1 telephoned leaders of all neighboring nations other than his country’s two adversaries, China and Pakistan.

Modi’s exclusion of India’s two closely aligned neighbors that routinely flout international norms was intended to underscore the threat to regional peace from their growing axis. China, for example, kicked off the new year (and the new decade) by launching a major combat exercise along the Himalayan border with India, deploying its lightweight Type 15 tank, a new 155-mm howitzer, and other weapons from the Tibetan capital of “Lhasa to border defense frontlines.”

China’s challenge to norms and rules, of course, extends across the Indo-Pacific region.

For example, China’s recent aggressive move in the waters off Indonesia’s northern Natuna Islands that Beijing claims are its “traditional fishing grounds,” as well as the ongoing Chinese coercion against Vietnamese hydrocarbon exploration within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, exemplify China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. That sea constitutes a critical missing link in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

How can the Indo-Pacific region be free and open if its most-important sea corridor, which links the Indian and Pacific oceans, is neither free nor open? China continues to incrementally extend its control in this critical corridor.

The Trump administration’s FOIP policy held great promise when it was unveiled by the president in a speech at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November 2017 in the Vietnamese beach resort of Danang. The FOIP policy was seen as a much-needed successor to the U.S. Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, which failed to take concrete shape.

The broadening of the U.S. policy focus to a wider region — the Indo-Pacific — was a response to the expanding ambitions of China, which, after building and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea, has started focusing on the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was authored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and embraced by India and the United States. India has been including the “free and open” phrase in joint statements with strategic partners.

For example, India, the world’s second-largest peninsula, and Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelagic state, last year identified a shared vision for “a free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.” As U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong put it, “India as a nation has invested in a free and open order.”

Today, it has become imperative to build a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific order, free of coercion and open to unhindered navigation and overflight. Establishing such an order is the goal of the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad.” The Quad’s future, however, is linked to the U.S.-led FOIP strategy.

The Trump administration has still to provide strategic heft to its FOIP policy. It has defined the policy’s objectives but is still searching for the effective means to achieve the ends. Indeed, like Tokyo, Washington no longer refers to its FOIP vision as a “strategy.” Without strategic content, the U.S.-led FOIP policy is unlikely to yield meaningful results.

In this light, there is a real risk that Trump’s FOIP policy, like Obama’s pivot to Asia, could fail to gain traction.

Indeed, as highlighted by Trump’s escalation of America’s conflict with Iran by taking out the powerful head of Iran’s Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. risks getting further mired in the Islamic world.

Soleimani, considered the most important person in Iran after Ayatollah Khamenei, was the first major foreign military leader the U.S. has killed since 1943, when it eliminated Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the supposed architect of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Trump may have won the first round against Iran, which retaliated weakly to the Soleimani assassination. But make no mistake: A second round seems inevitable.

In this light, developments in the Middle East could distract American policymakers and result in Trump’s FOIP policy — like Obama’s pivot to Asia — remaining more rhetorical than real. In fact, the pivot got lost somewhere in the arc stretching from the Middle East to Ukraine.

To be sure, Trump’s lasting legacy will be the paradigm change in America’s China policy — a shift that will outlast his presidency as it enjoys bipartisan support in Washington.

According to the philanthropist George Soros, “The greatest — and perhaps only — foreign policy accomplishment of the Trump administration has been the development of a coherent and genuinely bipartisan policy toward Xi Jinping’s China.”

The Trump administration has sought to primarily employ economic levers to rein in China, including through a gradual decoupling of the American and Chinese economies in key strategic sectors. However, it must also employ strategic levers, or else China’s territorial and maritime revisionism will remain untamed. Beijing has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a single shot or incurring any international costs.

U.S. leadership and resolve are essential to build a credible counter to Chinese expansionism. But the roles of the other major democracies are also important.

In this context, Abe’s postponement of his India visit due to unrest in the northeastern Indian state of Assam could only have pleased Beijing. A Modi-Abe summit in the Assamese capital of Guwahati, followed by the two leaders’ visit to a new peace museum in Manipur state that commemorates the Battle of Imphal between the Imperial Japanese Army and Allied forces during World War II, would have highlighted northeast India’s role as the bridge to the rest of Asia.

The Assam violence, although short-lived, will make already-wary Japanese companies more reluctant to invest in India’s remote northeast — to the delight of China, which doesn’t want any foreign investment or even multilateral lending going there. China actually claims an entire northeastern Indian state — Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times larger than Taiwan.

With private Japanese investors averse to taking risks, Japan must provide greater Official Development Assistance (ODA) loans in order to finance socioeconomic projects in India’s northeast. India, however, is already Japan’s largest ODA recipient. Japan has the distinction of being the only foreign power that has been allowed to undertake projects in India’s sensitive northeast, as well as in that country’s strategic Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Against this background, an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies isn’t on the horizon. But if democratic powers leverage their bilateral and trilateral partnerships to generate progress toward such a concert of democracies, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be achievable in the years ahead.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaneyis a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

© The Japan Times, 2019.

The Illusion of a Rules-Based Global Order



International law today is powerful against the powerless, and powerless against the powerful. As long as this is true, a rules-based global order will remain a fig leaf for the forcible pursuit of national interests.


When the Cold War ended, many pundits anticipated a new era in which geo-economics would determine geopolitics. As economic integration progressed, they predicted, the rules-based order would take root globally. Countries would comply with international law or incur high costs.

Today, such optimism looks more than a little naive. Even as the international legal system has ostensibly grown increasingly robust – underpinned, for example, by United Nations conventions, global accords like the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and the International Criminal Court – the rule of force has continued to trump the rule of law. Perhaps no country has taken more advantage of this state of affairs than China.

Consider China’s  in the Mekong River, which flows from the Chinese-controlled Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. By building 11 mega-dams near the border of the Tibetan Plateau, just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia, China has irreparably damaged the river system and wreaked broader environmental havoc, including saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta that has caused the delta to retreat.

Today, the Mekong is running at its lowest level in 100 years, and droughts are intensifying in downriver countries. This gives China powerful leverage over its neighbors. And yet China has faced no consequences for its weaponization of the Mekong’s waters. It should thus be no surprise that the country is building or planning at least eight more mega-dams on the Mekong.

China’s actions in the South China Sea may be even more brazen. This month marks the sixth anniversary of the country’s launch of a massive land-reclamation program in the highly strategic corridor, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans. By constructing and militarizing artificial islands, China has  the region’s geopolitical map without firing a shot – or incurring any international costs.

To be sure, in July 2016, an international arbitral tribunal set up by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea lacked legitimacy under international law. But China’s leaders simply disregarded the ruling, calling it a “farce.” Unless something changes, the United States-led plan to establish a “free and open Indo-Pacific” will remain little more than a paper vision.

China’s open contempt for the PCA’s ruling stood in sharp contrast with India’s response to a 2014 ruling by a PCA-established tribunal awarding Bangladesh nearly 80% of 25,602 square kilometers (9,885 square miles) of disputed territory in the Bay of Bengal. Although the decision was split (unlike the South China Sea tribunal’s unanimous verdict) and included obvious flaws – it left a sizable “gray area” in the bay – India accepted it readily.

In fact, between 2013 and 2016 – while the Philippines-initiated proceedings on China’s claims in the South China Sea were underway – three different PCA-established tribunals ruled against India in disputes with Bangladesh, Italy, and Pakistan. India complied with all of them.

The implication is clear: for large and influential countries, respecting the rules-based order is a choice – one that China, with its regime’s particular character, is unwilling to make. Against this background, Vietnam’s possible legal action on its own territorial disputes with China – which has been interfering in Vietnam’s longstanding oil and gas activities within its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea – is unlikely to amount to much. Vietnam knows that China will ignore any ruling against it and use its trade leverage to punish its less powerful neighbor.

That is why an enforcement mechanism for international law is so badly needed. Disputes between states will always arise. Peace demands mechanisms for resolving them fairly and effectively, and reinforcing respect for existing frontiers.

Yet such a mechanism seems unlikely to emerge anytime soon. After all, China is not alone in violating international law with impunity: its fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council – France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US – have all done so. These are the very countries that the UN Charter entrusted with upholding international peace and security.

Nowadays, international law is powerful against the powerless, and powerless against the powerful. Despite tectonic shifts in the economy, geopolitics, and the environment, this seems set to remain true, with the mightiest states using international law to impose their will on their weaker counterparts, while ignoring it themselves. As long as this is true, a rules-based global order will remain a fig leaf for the forcible pursuit of national interests.

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

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Why India-Japan ties matter more than ever



Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Whereas India-China and Japan-China ties are unlikely to become non-adversarial in the near future, the forthcoming summit between prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi will cement the Japan-India relationship as Asia’s fastest growing relationship, and open the path to a military logistics pact to allow access to each other’s bases. Indeed, the deepening relationship between Asia’s richest democracy and the world’s largest democracy serves the goal of forestalling the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia.

Recently, the Indian and Japanese foreign and defence ministers held their first joint meeting in a so-called “two plus two” format. India has set up such a “two plus two” dialogue with all the other Quad members. The Quad offers a promising platform for strategic maritime cooperation and coordination. But there is no guarantee that it will fulfil that promise.

The India-Japan entente is a central pillar of the U.S.-led strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept authored by Abe. Today, Japan and India serve as the linchpins for establishing a rules-based Indo-Pacific order. However, US President Donald Trump’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, like his predecessor’s pivot to Asia, hasn’t been translated into a clear policy approach with any real strategic heft. It is thus important for Japan and India to contribute their bit.

The evolving paradigm shift in Washington’s China policy, however, has put pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping to improve his country’s relations with India and Japan. Xi is expected to visit Japan in the spring. Xi’s informal summit with Modi in October yielded few tangible results. But India’s commitment at Mamallapuram to enter into bilateral talks over its lopsided trade relationship with China represented a diplomatic win for Beijing. It allows China to initiate what it is good at — endless negotiations, as its 38-year-long border talks with India illustrate.

In fact, Xi, seeking to shield his country’s burgeoning trade surplus with India, sought at Mamallapuram to rope India into the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). India already has free trade agreements (FTAs) with 12 of the other 15 RCEP member-states, and is negotiating an FTA with Australia. In this light, India’s entry into the RCEP would have effectively established a China-India FTA via the backdoor.

India’s recent withdrawal from the RCEP, like the earlier US pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has created a dilemma for Japan. While Japan took the lead to establish the TPP without the US, Tokyo does not want the RCEP negotiations to conclude without India, because it would build a China-led trading bloc. This suggests Japan may not join the RCEP without India reversing its withdrawal.

Taking advantage of its considerable assets — the world’s third-largest economy, substantial high-tech skills, and a military freed of some legal and constitutional constraints — Japan is boosting its geopolitical clout. Japan’s world-class navy has already begun operating far beyond the country’s waters in order to establish its position in the region. Abe has explained why Japan and India are natural allies, “A strong India benefits Japan, and a strong Japan benefits India.”

Against this background, the Modi-Abe summit will witness the Indian and Japanese militaries clinching a logistics sharing agreement, formally known as the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA). A logistics sharing accord has become imperative for the two militaries, given the number of joint manoeuvres they hold, including three-way exercises involving the US navy in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

The plain fact is that Japan and India, in the absence of any historical baggage or major strategic disagreement, share largely complementary strategic interests. In fact, Japan has the distinction of being the only foreign power that has been allowed to undertake infrastructure and other projects in India’s sensitive northeast (bordering Myanmar, Tibet, Bhutan and Bangladesh), as well as in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

If Japan and India continue to add concrete security content to their relationship, their strategic partnership could potentially be a game changer in Asia. The emphasis on boosting trade and investment must be balanced with greater strategic collaboration. Their first joint fighter aircraft exercise will be held in the new year in Japan.

The Abe-Modi summit offers an opportunity to discuss how the Tokyo-New Delhi duet can contribute to the larger effort to build strategic equilibrium, power stability and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. Besides deepening defence and maritime security cooperation, Japan and India must collaborate on infrastructure and other projects in third countries, including Myanmar, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, and in Africa, to help enhance strategic connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.

India and Japan have forged a special relationship, which is set to strengthen and deepen in the coming years. At a time of global geopolitical flux, the two are among the important countries that have taken up the baton to champion freedom, international norms and rules, inclusivity, and free and fair trade.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.