About Chellaney

Professor, strategic thinker, author and commentator

Stuck in a haze: New Delhi’s smog is the cost of environmental neglect



Brahma Chellaney, The Globe and Mail

Just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel reached New Delhi last week on a state visit, noxious smog blanketed the Indian capital, forcing a shutdown of schools for five days and a temporary ban on construction activity and millions of private vehicles. Indeed, Ms. Merkel’s two-day visit coincided with the declaration of a public health emergency in the city, prompting her to pitch for green urban transportation, including electric buses.

New Delhi’s buses are already green: They run on compressed natural gas. The city’s seasonal smog problem, which comes with cooler temperatures and slower winds in the post-monsoon period, is largely linked to a deleterious agricultural practice in nearby states — after harvest, farmers burn crop stubble to clear their fields.

The fumes from the stubble burnings mix with New Delhi’s vehicle emissions, construction dust and smoke from fireworks set off during Diwali, the festival of light. This creates an annual toxic haze that lingers for days or even weeks, partly due to topography. The cool air with its pollutants gets trapped by the hills that surround the Indian capital on three sides.

At the beginning of this month, New Delhi had the dubious distinction, in terms of the air quality index (AQI), of topping the list of the world’s most-polluted capital cities, with levels of deadly particulate matter reaching multiple times the global safety threshold. The opaque haze reduced visibility to such an extent that even some planes could not land at the international airport.

Add to the picture the gloom and doom on which Indian newspapers and opposition politicians thrive, which made the smog situation appear worse. “Capital Punishment,” screamed the front-page banner headline in the Hindustan Times, a leading English-language newspaper. The Indian capital’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, who belongs to a small regional party, claimed the city had turned into a “gas chamber.”

Since Tuesday, New Delhi’s AQI has significantly improved following light showers and strong breeze. (Wind, rain and snow act as pollution scrubbers.) More rain fell on Thursday. With the thick haze dissipating, a blue sky is again visible daytime and the moon at night. But the city’s environmental crisis is far from over.

Commercially available satellite imagery shows many crop-burning fires still raging in parts of northern India, especially Punjab state. This means air pollution levels remain high in the agricultural regions and cities of northwestern India.

Burning of crop stubble has long been an expedient way for Asian farmers to prepare fields for the next crop. While China has employed its authoritarian system in recent years to forcefully crack down on this polluting practice, thereby significantly reducing Beijing’s air contamination, democratic India has failed to stop the crop-stubble burnings.

Farmers, constituting the largest voting constituency in numbers, are politically powerful in India. State governments have recoiled from levying fines on stubble-burning farmers.

India’s Supreme Court this week ordered state governments to incentivize an end to stubble burnings by doling out cash rewards to farmers that do not burn their fields. “It has become a question of life and death for the common people,” the justices said while seeking accountability from federal and state governments over the smog.

The modest dole-outs the highest court has recommended, however, might not suffice to end the stubble-burning practice. Authorities also need to encourage farmers to buy machinery that helps turn stubble into mulch. This means subsidizing their machinery purchases.

Here’s the paradox: An environmentally conscious Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who initiated a “Clean India” campaign soon after coming to office in 2014, confronts a smog problem that has become acute on his watch.

India is one of the few countries trying to ban single-use plastic items. It has implemented a complete ban on import of plastic waste. And to control air pollution in New Delhi, a nearby coal-fired plant was shut down last year and the use of private vehicles restricted to alternating days during the pollution season, with cars with odd-number license plates allowed to drive only on odd dates and cars with even-numbered plates on even-numbered dates.

More fundamentally, New Delhi’s recurrent smog problem underscores the mounting costs India is paying for years of environmental neglect. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, India has the majority of the world’s most polluted cities, a fact that holds important consequences for public health in the country.

The WHO defines health as not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being. A sound natural environment is central to such well-being.

The Indian establishment, with its ostrich-like mindset, acts only when a problem turns into a crisis. As a result, the deteriorating air quality in New Delhi and other major northwestern Indian cities has became a national crisis, drawing international attention and affecting the flow of tourists to India.

In fact, unprecedented pressures on natural resources and ecosystems are triggering a broader range of adverse environmental impacts. Rapid development, breakneck urbanization, large-scale irrigated farming, lifestyle changes and other human impacts have resulted in degraded watersheds, watercourses and other ecosystems, as well as in shrinking forests and swamps. The illicit diversion of sand from riverbeds for the construction boom has damaged rivers and slowed the natural recharge of aquifers.

To be sure, India’s environmental challenges mirror those of many other developing countries, from Mexico and Peru to Indonesia and the Philippines. The imperative to develop environmentally friendly policies and practices, however, transcends the developing world. Wealthier countries with disproportionally large environmental footprints — from the United States to Australia — also need to embrace environmental protection in earnest.

Environmental protection, in the long run, is cheaper than environmental cleanup and restoration. If India’s national planners were more forward-looking, the country could avoid repeating the mistakes of other countries, instead of investing resources in tackling air, soil and water pollution and other environmental degradation. The degradation adversely affects climate, ecosystems, biodiversity and public health.

The fact that China’s environmental-contamination problems are worse than India’s, despite Beijing’s improved air quality, can give Indian authorities no comfort. As the world’s factory floor and largest exporter, including of coal-fired power plants, China is exacerbating the global environment crisis. India, with a services-led, import-dependent economy that relies largely on domestic consumption for growth, can scarcely defend its levels of air, soil and water pollution.

India needs a more holistic and integrated approach to development that places environmental protection at the center of strategic planning. Without such an approach, the linkages between a healthy natural environment and human health could trap India in a vicious cycle in which environmental degradation contributes to public health issues, and vice versa.

The New Delhi smog is a reminder that human health is inextricably linked to nature’s wealth, which we must cherish and protect.

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

© The Globe and Mail, 2019.

China is weaponizing water and worsening droughts in Asia


Its dams are provoking regional tensions, so Beijing needs to reconsider its policy.

https___s3-ap-northeast-1.amazonaws.com_psh-ex-ftnikkei-3937bb4_images_5_9_3_9_23199395-2-eng-GB_Cropped-1572010582G20191025 Three Gorges Dam night view

A night view of China’s Three Gorges Dam: Asia can build a harmonious, rules-based water management regime only if China gets on board, which does not seem likely.   © Visual China Group/Getty Images

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Asia, the world’s driest continent in per capita terms, remains the global center of dam construction, boasting more than half of the 50,000 large dams across the globe. The hyperactivity on dams has only sharpened local and international disputes over the resources of shared rivers and aquifers.

The focus on dams reflects a continuing preference for supply-side approaches, which entail increased exploitation of water resources, as opposed to pursuing demand-side solutions, including smart water management and greater water-use efficiency. As a result, nowhere is the geopolitics over dams murkier than in Asia, the world’s most dam-dotted continent.

Improving the hydropolitics demands institutionalized cooperation, transparency on projects, water-sharing arrangements and dispute-resolution mechanisms. Asia can build a harmonious, rules-based water management regime only if China gets on board. At least for now, that does not seem likely.

This past summer, water levels in continental Southeast Asia’s lifeline, the 4,880-kilometer Mekong River, fell to their lowest in more than 100 years, even though the annual monsoon season stretches from late May to late September. Yet, after completing 11 mega-dams, China is building more upstream dams on the Mekong, which originates on the Tibetan Plateau. Indeed, Beijing is also damming other transnational rivers.

China is central to Asia’s water map. Thanks to its annexation of the water-rich Tibetan Plateau and the sprawling Xinjiang province, China is the starting point of rivers that flow to 18 downstream countries. No other country in the world serves as the riverhead for so many other countries.

By erecting dams, barrages and other water diversion structures in its borderlands, China is creating an extensive upstream infrastructure that arms it with the capacity to weaponize water.

To be sure, dam-building is also roiling relations elsewhere in Asia. The festering territorial disputes over Kashmir and Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley are as much about water as they are about land. Across Asia, states are jockeying to control shared water resources by building dams, even as they demand transparency and information on their neighbors’ projects.

A serious drought presently parching parts of the vast region extending from Australia to the Indian peninsula has underscored the mounting risks from the pursuit of dam-centered engineering solutions to growing freshwater shortages.

Asia’s densely populated regions already face a high risk that their water stress could worsen to water scarcity. The dam-driven water competition is threatening to also provoke greater tensions and conflict.

The rich, fertile soil in Asia’s food bowls — the lower basins of the major river systems — owes much to nature’s yearly gift of silt. But the heavy damming of rivers is impeding the movement of nutrient-rich silt, which rivers bring from the mountains. The flooding cycle of rivers helps to refertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt. But this cycle is also being disrupted by dams.

In the West, the building of large dams has largely petered out. The construction of large dams is also slowing in Asia’s major democracies, such as Japan, South Korea and India, because of increasing grassroots opposition.

For example, Japan’s Yamba Dam and the Narmada Dam in India have been in the making for decades, yet are still not complete because of delays caused by protests and controversies.

It is the construction in non-democracies that has made Asia the global nucleus of dam-building. China remains the world’s top dam-builder at home and abroad. In keeping with its obsession to build the tallest, largest, deepest, longest and highest projects, China completed ahead of schedule the world’s biggest dam, Three Gorges, touting it as the greatest architectural feat in history since the building of the Great Wall.

It is currently implementing the most ambitious inter-basin and inter-river water transfer program ever conceived in human history. Among its planned new dams is a massive project at Metog (or “Motuo” in Chinese) on the world’s highest-altitude major river, the Brahmaputra. The proposed dam, close to the disputed, heavily militarized border with India, will have a power-generating capacity nearly twice that of the Three Gorges Dam, the length of whose reservoir is longer than the largest of North America’s Great Lakes.

Several of the Southeast Asian dam projects financed and undertaken by Chinese companies, like in Laos and Myanmar, are intended to generate electricity for export to China’s own market.

Indeed, China has demonstrated that it has no qualms about building dams in disputed territories, such as Pakistan-administered Kashmir, or in areas torn by ethnic separatism, like northern Myanmar.

Every since China erected a cascade of giant dams on the Mekong, droughts have become more frequent and intense in the downriver countries. This has created a serious public-relations headache for Beijing, which denies that its upriver dams are to blame.

Indeed, seeking to play savior, it has promised to release more dam water for the drought-stricken countries. But this offer only highlights the newfound reliance of downriver countries on Chinese goodwill — a dependence that is set to deepen as China builds more giant dams on the Mekong. By diverting river waters to giant dams, China has emerged as the upstream water controller.

With water woes worsening across Asia, the continent faces a stark choice — stay on the present path, which can lead only to more environmental degradation and even water wars, or fundamentally change course by embarking on the path of rules-based cooperation.

The latter path demands not only water-sharing accords and the free flow of hydrological data but also greater efficiency in water consumption, increased use of recycled and desalinated water, and innovative conservation and adaptation efforts.

None of this will be possible without the cooperation of China, which thus far has refused to enter into water-sharing arrangements with any downstream neighbor. If China does not abandon its current approach, the prospects for a rules-based order in Asia could perish forever. Getting China on board has thus become critical to shape water for peace in Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.

The End of Sri Lankan Democracy?


At a time of growing international skepticism toward China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Rajapaksa family’s potential return to power is welcome news for Chinese President Xi Jinping. But it is bad news for practically everyone else.



COLOMBO – One of Asia’s oldest democracies may be in jeopardy. Sri Lanka’s presidential election next month, is expected to bring to power another member of the Rajapaksa family, whose affinity for authoritarianism, violence, and corruption is well known. While Sri Lanka’s democracy survived the last test – an attempted constitutional coup by outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena a year ago – it may not survive a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency.

Gotabaya, as he is popularly known, is the current frontrunner and previously served as Sri Lanka’s defense chief under his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena’s predecessor. Mahinda’s decade-long tenure, which ended in 2015, was characterized by brazen nepotism, with the four Rajapaksa brothers controlling many government ministries and about 80% of total public spending. And by steadily expanding presidential powers, Mahinda created a quasi-dictatorship known for human-rights abuses and accused of war crimes.

Moreover, Mahinda’s pro-China foreign policy allowed for the swift expansion of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka – and rapid growth in Sri Lankan debt to China. It was the debt incurred during the last Rajapaksa presidency that forced Sirisena in 2017 to  the Indian Ocean’s most strategic port, Hambantota, along with 6,070 hectares (15,000 acres) of nearby land, on a 99-year lease. This Hong Kong-style concession was modeled on the United Kingdom’s nineteenth-century colonial imposition on China.

There is little reason to doubt that Gotabaya would revive his brother’s corrosive legacy. Simply by becoming president, he could gain immunity from two lawsuits pending in US federal court over war crimes allegedly committed while he was Sri Lanka’s defense chief. (With Parliament’s restoration of presidential term limits prohibiting Mahinda from running again, Gotabaya renounced his US citizenship to become eligible to contest the election.)

Mahinda oversaw the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal 25-year civil war in 2009. But he was no agent of peace. During the war’s final years, thousands of people – from aid workers and Tamil civilians to the Rajapaksa family’s political opponents – disappeared or were tortured. And the final military offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels was, according to the United Nations, a “grave assault on the entire regime of international law,” with as many as 40,000 civilians killed. According to the wartime military commander, Sarath Fonseka, Gotabaya ordered the summary execution of rebel leaders as they surrendered.

Despite the horrors they inflicted on Sri Lanka’s mostly Hindu Tamil minority, the Rajapaksa brothers became heroes to many among the country’s largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority. That emboldened Mahinda to step up efforts to fashion a mono-ethnic identity for a multiethnic country.

Renewing this approach, as Gotabaya is sure to do, will hardly ease the sectarian divide that triggered the civil war, let alone more recent tensions between the Sinhalese and Sri Lanka’s Muslims. Those tensions increased sharply in April, when Islamist militants carried out a series of bombings on  that killed 253 people and wounded hundreds more.

Not only was this one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in history; it was also the first major Islamist militant attack that Sri Lanka, where Muslims constitute one-tenth of the population, had ever experienced. But that doesn’t mean it was unforeseeable.

In fact, Sirisena admitted that defense and police officials had received an Indian intelligence report warning of an imminent attack and identifying the plotters, but that he had not seen it. Nor did Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – the target of Sirisena’s attempted coup last October – receive the warning. (Sirisena abruptly fired Wickremesinghe and swore in none other than Mahinda Rajapaksa, before dissolving parliament to avoid a challenge. His actions were reversed when the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional.)

The Rajapaksas have already used the Islamist bombings to fan the flame of Sinhalese nationalism. And Gotabaya has promised his supporters that, if elected, he will strengthen the intelligence services and reintroduce surveillance of citizens, in order to crush Islamist extremism. The prospect of an alleged war criminal still wedded to extrajudicial methods becoming president rightly terrifies minority groups, the media, and civil-liberties advocates.

Yet there is more worrisome news. Gotayaba’s camp has also confirmed that, as president, he plans to “restore relations” with China. Given Sri Lanka’s strategic location near the world’s busiest sea-lanes, the implications of this pledge extend well beyond the island. Indeed, Sri Lanka could play a pivotal role in the struggle for maritime primacy between China and Indo-Pacific democratic powers (India, the United States, Japan, and Australia). China’s “string of pearls” strategy has been encircling India by securing strategic military and commercial facilities along major Indian Ocean shipping lanes. The Hambantota port, which Chinese President Xi Jinping described as  to his Maritime Silk Road project, is a particularly valuable pearl.

At a time of growing international skepticism toward Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Rajapaksa family’s potential return to power in Sri Lanka is welcome news for China, which hopes to turn the country into a military outpost. But it is bad news for practically everyone else. A Gotabaya presidency would block already-delayed justice to victims of his brother’s regime, deepen ethnic and religious fault lines, and help China gain strategic supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. Sri Lankan democracy appears more vulnerable than ever.

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 Pakistan gets away with sponsoring terrorism


India has to battle terrorism on its own. Adversaries will be hostile and friends won’t help.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

vsdfthhThe Mamallapuram summit between India and China cannot obscure the fact that the power behind Pakistan is China. Nor can the summit hype cloak the strengthening axis between a muscular communist power and a terrorism-exporting Islamist neighbour, with both the revanchist partners staking claims to different Indian territories.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has said that “the time has come to fight a decisive battle against terrorism and against all those who promote terrorism”. However, there appears little prospect of such a concerted and decisive international fight. States bankrolling or rearing terrorists continue to go scot-free.

Nothing illustrates this reality better than Pakistan, which has systematically weaponised terrorism without incurring tangible international costs. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is unlikely to move Pakistan from its “grey” to “black” list, even though Islamabad has admittedly failed to meet most FATF parameters against terrorist financing.

Action is unlikely for several reasons. A Chinese national has become the FATF president. Decisions are based on consensus. Pakistan’s principal patron, China, will seek — along with Turkey, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia — to block any move to blacklist Pakistan. At the recent annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session, China, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey emerged as an anti-India quad.

The key impediment to Pakistan’s blacklisting, however, is India’s own strategic partner, the United States. The battle against international terrorism cannot be won unless the nexus between terrorist groups and Pakistan’s military is severed. A good place to start would have been to make the International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout for Pakistan contingent on concrete counter-terrorism action. However, US President Donald Trump’s attempt to finalise a Pakistan-backed Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban allowed that leverage to slip away. Pakistan secured the bailout without any action.

The US is against FATF blacklisting because such action would upend the IMF-supported programme in Pakistan. Pakistani terrorism impinges directly on Indian security but not on US homeland security. US willingness to put up with Pakistan’s sub-regionally confined use of terrorism as an instrument of State policy parallels Washington’s acceptance of Pakistan’s sub-regionally confined nuclear arsenal, including ignoring covert Chinese nuclear and missile transfers, and tolerating Pakistan’s nuclear warmongering.

Trump himself has underscored the limits of Indo-US counter-terrorism cooperation. On two consecutive days at the UNGA, Trump referred to Iranian terrorism when asked specifically about Pakistan’s emergence as the global hub of terrorism. Instead, Trump drew a perverse equivalence between terrorism-transmitting Pakistan and its victim India. According to the White House, Trump privately “encouraged Prime Minister Modi to improve relations with Pakistan”.

Modi rightly warned against the politicisation of international counter-terrorism mechanisms. The US-led war on terror has failed largely because it has become a tool of geopolitics. The US, for example, recently imposed terrorism-related sanctions on Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and allied individuals. But it has never slapped such sanctions on the leading terrorism-exporting force — Pakistan’s military — or on any of its generals or intelligence officers.

The bottom line for India is that no friend, including the US, will assist it to end Pakistan’s terrorism. This is India’s battle to fight and win. Seeking US assistance only reinforces Washington’s claim to be a stakeholder in the India-Pakistan relationship.

Imran Khan’s public declaration of a jihad against India and his threat of nuclear Armageddon only highlight India’s challenge in countering a militant neighbour that not only employs nuclear terror to shield its export of terrorism but also misuses a religion to lend sanctity to its actions. Debt-ridden and dysfunctional Pakistan cannot afford an overt war with India that it cannot win. Yet, without India imposing sufficient costs on it, Pakistan will not stop nurturing terrorists as a force multiplier in its low-intensity asymmetric war, whose ultimate goal supposedly is Ghazwa-e-Hind, or the holy conquest of India.

The Indian Air Force chief, Rakesh Bhadauria, has said that Balakot exemplified a new political resolve to “punish perpetrators of terrorism”, underscoring “a major shift in the government’s way of handling terrorist attacks”. However, Balakot, like the earlier surgical strike, has done little to change Pakistan’s behaviour. The reason is that these strikes targeted only the enemy’s non-uniformed soldiers — the easily-sacrificed terrorist proxies. Deterrence will work if India implements a multipronged strategy to impose calibrated but gradually escalating costs on Pakistan’s military masters.

The Wuhan summit was followed by a stepped-up Chinese military build-up along the Himalayas, including live-fire combat drills, and an enlargement of China’s strategic footprint in Pakistan. As its colonial outpost, Pakistan has become the springboard for China’s regional ambitions. Mamallapuram cannot change this reality.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

China, India, Pakistan: Who’s really pulling the strings in Jammu and Kashmir?


The threat of a nuclear conflict between Islamabad and New Delhi might have made global headlines, but Beijing is right at the heart of the territorial dispute in the Himalayan region, Brahma Chellaney writes.


Brahma ChellaneySouth China Morning Post

The media spotlight on India-Pakistan tensions over the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has helped obscure the role of a key third party, China, which occupies one-fifth of this Himalayan region. Kashmir is only a small slice of J&K, whose control is split among China, India and Pakistan.

Sino-Indian border tensions were exemplified by a reported September 11-12 clash between troops from the two countries in the eastern section of J&K, where Beijing’s territorial revisionism has persisted for more than six decades.

Meanwhile, ever since India revoked the statehood and autonomy of its part of J&K in August, Pakistan has stepped up its bellicose rhetoric, with military-backed Prime Minister Imran Khan vowing to “teach India a lesson” and promising a “fight until the end”. Khan has even raised the threat of nuclear war with India.

The power behind Pakistan, however, is China. As Pakistan has sought to grab more J&K territory from India, China has escalated military pressure along the region’s eastern flank with India.

Pakistan and China together hold 55 per cent of J&K but neither grants any autonomy to its portion of the region. Indeed, Beijing has never allowed foreign media into its J&K portion, which it has turned into a vast cantonment. Yet, like Pakistan, it strongly protested against New Delhi’s action in stripping the Indian part of J&K of its special constitutional powers.

J&K is such a volatile tinderbox that the United Nations Security Council has not held a formal or open meeting on the dispute since 1971, when East Pakistan, with Indian military assistance, seceded as Bangladesh.

China in August engineered an informal, closed-door Security Council meeting to discuss India’s J&K action. However, in the face of opposition from the United States, France and several other members at the meeting, China failed to get the lowest level of Security Council action – a joint statement to the media.

Still, the political fallout from China’s machinations resulted in India asking Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to cancel his September 9-10 scheduled visit to New Delhi.

J&K indeed has helped cement a deepening Sino-Pakistan nexus. China and Pakistan have little in common other than a shared interest in containing India. In keeping with the axiom that “my enemy’s enemy is my dear friend”, the two have forged one of the most enduring partnerships in international diplomacy. Wang earlier declared that China and Pakistan were “as close as lips and teeth”. The China-Pakistan axis presents India with the prospect of a two-front war, if India were to enter into conflict with either country.

This alliance was actually founded on the Kashmir issue. Pakistan ceded a sizeable slice of its own J&K to Beijing in March 1963, just months after China humiliated India in a surprise military attack across the Himalayas and captured territory in J&K’s traditionally Buddhist Ladakh region.

Pakistan’s transfer of territory (comprising mainly the Shaksgam Valley) helped foster China’s strategic nexus with what it now calls an “irreplaceable all-weather friend”.

Beijing, meanwhile, is exerting direct military pressure on India in the J&K region, including seeking to nibble at Indian border areas in Ladakh. Chinese military forays into Ladakh have become more persistent and frequent, leading to face-offs or scuffles with Indian troops.

Politically, China has sought to question India’s sovereignty over Indian-administered J&K. In 2010, it began issuing visas on a separate leaf to Indian citizens from there. It also officially shortened the length of the Himalayan border it shares with India by purging the line separating Indian Kashmir from Chinese-held Kashmir.

More importantly, to help tie down India, China has extended major help to Pakistan – from well-documented nuclear and missile assistance to security assurances and political protection, especially diplomatic cover at the UN. Such support allows Pakistan – home to 22 UN-designated terrorist entities – to use state-nurtured terrorists as a force multiplier against India.

Pakistan, in fact, has sought to replicate against India its strategy in Afghanistan, where its brutal proxies – the Taliban and the Haqqani network – have forced the US to seek Pakistani support for a face-saving exit. Pakistan’s success against India, however, has been limited to J&K’s Kashmir Valley, which it has helped turn into a terrorist hotbed, forcing the deployment of a large Indian counter-insurgency force.

The predominantly Muslim Kashmir Valley makes up just 15 per cent of the area of Indian-administered J&K but is home to more than 50 per cent of its population. The armed jihadists in the Kashmir Valley reject democracy and seek to establish an Islamic emirate. In one of the modern world’s most successful and swiftest ethnic-cleansing operations, the jihadists in 1990 expelled virtually the entire native Hindu community from the valley, but not before abducting and killing nearly 1,000 and gang-raping women.

It was Pakistan’s destabilising role in the Kashmir Valley that spurred India’s recent J&K action. Even if the Indian J&K’s special autonomous status had continued, India would still have faced the Sino-Pakistan pincer movement in that region. Indeed, the special status came to be seen by Pakistan and China as Indian acceptance that the Indian portion of J&K is a disputed territory, thus encouraging the two partners to up the ante against Delhi.

The plain fact is that India is uniquely wedged between two nuclear-armed allies that defy basic international norms. The China-Pakistan axis represents a dangerous combination of an ascendant communist power and an aggressive Islamist neighbour, with both staking claims to swathes of Indian-administered territory.

Pakistan, carved out of India by the British as the first Islamic state of the postcolonial era, has emerged as the fountainhead of Islamic extremism and terrorism – or, as former US defence secretary James Mattis said in his new book, the world’s “most dangerous” country. A secular, democratic India can never allow a caliphate in Kashmir because that would mean a second terrorism-exporting Pakistan on its borders.

Brahma Chellaney is a New Delhi-based geostrategist and the author of nine books. 

© South China Morning Post, 2019.

The Curse of Geography



Brahma Chellaney, Open Magazine

Soon after visiting Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook a US tour, the highlight of which was a spectacular public rally in Houston attended by 59,000 Indian-Americans, US President Donald Trump and a number of members of the US Congress. Now, shortly after Communist China turned 70, Modi is getting ready to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for an informal summit. Before long, Modi will also receive Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

These visits underline the complexity of India’s foreign-policy challenges and the imperative to advance the country’s interests at a time of greater geopolitical flux globally. The flux is being highlighted by several developments, including the US-China trade war, which is setting in motion a gradual “decoupling” of the world’s top two economies; the worsening relations between America’s main allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea; Hong Kong’s defiant, pro-democracy movement; and the strengthening Sino-Pakistan strategic nexus. China, meanwhile, still pursues aggression in the South China Sea, as exemplified by its ongoing coercion against Vietnamese oil and gas activities within Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone.

If Hong Kong’s mass movement loses to Chinese authoritarianism, the implications will not be limited to that city. Indeed, it could embolden Beijing’s designs against Taiwan and its territorial revisionism against India, Japan, Vietnam and others.

Against this backdrop, Modi’s foreign policy will likely continue to be guided by a non-doctrinaire vision. India, a founder leader of the nonaligned movement, now makes little mention of nonalignment. Shorn of ideology, Indian foreign policy has sought to revitalize the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner. India believes in friendship without dependence.

At the core of India’s foreign-policy and security challenges, however, is the reality that the country is located arguably in the world’s most troubled neighbourhood. India confronts a “tyranny of geography” — that is, serious external threats from virtually all directions. To some extent, it is a self-inflicted tyranny. India’s security concerns in the region partially stem from the failures of its past policies.

The increasingly unstable neighbourhood, however, is not of India’s making. The instability and volatility not only make it more difficult to promote regional cooperation and integration, but also heighten the spillover effects for India, threatening the country’s internal security.

Looking ahead, India can expect no respite in pressure from China, whose October 1 grand parade commemorating 70 years of Communist Party rule was a reminder that it has emerged as the world’s longest-surviving, strongest and largest autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party. Indeed, attempts to bend reality to the illusions and disinformation that the state propagates risk turning China into a modern-day Potemkin state.

China’s occupation of Tibet in 1950-51 represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development for India’s security in modern history. It gave China borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal for the first time, and opened the path to a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis. The impact has been exacerbated by serial Indian blunders.

Today, Tibet remains at the centre of the India-China divide, fuelling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions and riparian feuds. The more India has aligned its Tibet stance with China’s position, including recognizing that sprawling region as part of China, the more Beijing has upped the ante against New Delhi. Tellingly, Beijing began calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet” only after the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 formally recognized Tibet as part of China.

As Asia’s geographical hub, China is especially vulnerable to the same geopolitical game it plays against India or Japan — strategic containment. A grand strategy among other powers to manage a muscular China could aim to put discreet checks on the exercise of Chinese power by establishing counterbalancing coalitions around that country’s periphery. However, Trump, with his unilateralist and protectionist priorities, has still to provide strategic heft to his policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept authored by Abe.

With India’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks linked to its location next to the Afghanistan-Pakistan (“Af-Pak”) belt, the Indian government has little choice but to prepare for a long-term battle against the forces of Islamic extremism and terrorism. In fact, to India’s west, lies “an arc of crises stretching from Jordan to Pakistan”, to quote the title of one of the workshops at the 2008 World Policy Conference at Evian, France. Historically, invaders and plunderers came into the subcontinent from India’s west.

Pakistan’s present nexus with terrorist groups arose under two military dictators: Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988, and Pervez Musharraf, who fled overseas in 2008 under threat of impeachement and was subsequently charged with involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 — a milestone in Pakistan’s slide into chaos. Pakistan is now a classical example of a praetorian state where the military dominates the core political institutions and processes and calls the shots in strategic policies.

Pakistan’s military generals rarely trust their civilian proxies. Indeed, the army chief and the head of the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency accompanied Prime Minister Imran “Taliban” Khan when he visited Washington in July. Khan’s jihad-extolling, warmongering address to the United Nations General Assembly last month showed the depths to which the Pakistani state has sunk. In fact, this newest puppet of the Pakistani military has, in the name of Allah, publicly declared a jihad on India, including on what he calls a “fascist” Modi government.

India since independence has taken a cautious and reactive approach to strategic threats and challenges, despite facing repeated aggressions. Over the past three decades in particular, India’s external security environment has worsened and regional clout eroded. Yet the country has shied away from hard decisions.

An important break from this pattern was the Modi government’s decision in August to rejig the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) — an action that received Parliament’s imprimatur with overwhelming support. J&K’s special powers and privileges were revoked, Ladakh was carved out as a separate entity, and the misogynist Article 35A repealed — all in one fell swoop.

Three decades of a Pakistan-backed Islamist insurrection in the Kashmir Valley forced the government to change the status quo. Pakistan, carved out of India by the British as the first Islamic state of the post-colonial era, has emerged as the fountainhead of Islamic extremism and terrorism – or, as former US defence secretary James Mattis says in his new book, the world’s “most dangerous” country. A secular, democratic India can never allow an Islamic emirate in the Kashmir Valley because that would mean a second terrorism-exporting Pakistan on its borders.

Pakistan and China together hold 55 per cent of J&K but neither grants any autonomy to its portion of the region. Indeed, Beijing has never allowed foreign media into its J&K portion, which it has turned into a vast cantonment. Yet, Pakistan and China have hypocritically protested against New Delhi’s action in stripping the Indian part of J&K of its special constitutional powers.

Even if the Indian J&K’s special autonomous status had continued, India would still have faced the Sino-Pakistan pincer movement in that region. Indeed, the special status came to be seen by Pakistan and China as Indian acceptance that just the Indian portion of J&K is a disputed territory, thus encouraging the two partners to up the ante against New Delhi.

The plain fact is that India is uniquely wedged between two nuclear-armed allies that defy basic international norms. The China-Pakistan axis represents a dangerous combination of an ascendant communist power and an aggressive Islamist neighbour, with both staking claims to swathes of Indian-administered territory.

New Delhi may have managed reasonably well the international fallout from its J&K action, with only Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan and China (the new Quad) openly slamming India for the move. India, however, continues to get bad international press, in part because the anti-elite Modi government has failed to grasp the importance of the media in the 21st century. The Prime Minister’s Office does not have even a spokesperson. Distortion of facts thus is allowed to go unchallenged.

Commentaries in the Western press have harped on alleged Indian repression and human-rights abuses in the Kashmir Valley, with some writers claiming to see the rise of an “authoritarian” India under Modi, as if the present Indian government has abridged fundamental rights of Indians or undermined judicial independence and press freedom. Such negative and damaging portrayal is beginning to take its toll on India’s international image. It is past time for the government to wake up to the vital importance of public relations and media handling.

Add to the picture the fact that India has become increasingly polarized and divided. Indians either love or loathe Modi.

A dynamic diplomacy and sound national security management need strong, bipartisan policies. But India’s British-style parliamentary democracy has fostered a fractious polity. Britain’s own Brexit mess highlights that the British-type parliamentary system is rife with serious inefficiencies. In India, building bipartisanship has long been tough but more so now due to greater political polarization and rancour.

Domestic critics, for example, claim that Modi has a presidential (or autocratic) style of governance. The truth, however, is that India since independence has been largely led by prime ministers who have acted more like presidents — from Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister who made the country a nuclear-weapons state by overtly conducting nuclear tests. Only weak, fractious governments in India have been different.

MODI’S RETURN TO POWER in a landslide election victory earlier this year reflected the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leadership that reinvents India as a more secure, confident and competitive country. In contrast to his first term, which failed to dispel India’s image as a soft state, Modi’s second term raises hope that India would not recoil from taking hard decisions. His government’s most pressing challenges relate to national security and economic growth.

At a time when the yawning power gap between India and China has widened, New Delhi has to avert a destabilizing military imbalance with Beijing. It also needs to more effectively tackle a scofflaw Pakistan. India must reinvigorate its foreign policy to reverse its waning influence in its own backyard, including in countries long symbiotically tied to it, such as Nepal and Sri Lanka.

More broadly, some see India as a key “swing state” in the emerging geopolitical order. India, however, is already swinging in one direction, thanks to China’s territorial revisionism and muscular foreign policy.

A multi-aligned India under Modi is tilting towards the other major democracies, as the Australia-India-Japan-US Quad grouping underscores. India is now a “major defence partner” of the US, with which it holds more military exercises than with any other country. The US has also emerged as India’s largest arms supplier.

As the Houston rally attested, the Cold War-era India-Russia camaraderie has been replaced by India-US bonhomie. It is highly unusual for an American president to take the stage at a foreign leader’s rally on American soil. But Trump shares with Modi a love for big audiences and theatrics.

Still, India can scarcely depend on an unpredictable Trump administration, whose transactional approach to foreign policy is troubling all US allies and strategic partners. Therefore, India is wisely shoring up its partnerships with all key players. In fact, Indian and American interests diverge in India’s own neighbourhood.

For example, despite last month’s collapse of a tentative US deal with the Afghan Taliban, Trump is courting Pakistan, even though it provides safe havens to the Taliban and is home to 25 United Nations-designated terrorist entities. A Kashmir mediation offer is a red rag to India. Yet Trump has repeatedly offered to mediate that conflict.

Meanwhile, Washington, not content with having emerged as the largest seller of arms to India, is seeking to lock New Delhi as its exclusive arms client by using the threat of sanctions to deter it from buying major Russian weapons, including the S-400 air defence system. Furthermore, US pressure has driven up India’s oil import bill by stopping it from buying crude at concessional rates from Iran or Venezuela. The US seeks to supplant Iran as a major oil supplier to India. But it has been selling India crude at a higher price than Iran.

Washington said recently that it is “highly gratified” by India’s full compliance with US sanctions against Iran. The soaring crude prices after the loss of nearly 6% of global oil output in recent drone strikes in Saudi Arabia, however, has served as a reminder to New Delhi of the costs of halting all Iranian oil imports. To punish New Delhi for abiding by US sanctions, Iran is threatening to replace India with China as the developer of its Chabahar port, a project that is central to an Indian transportation corridor to Afghanistan.

That Pakistan-bypassing corridor shows that India’s relationship with Iran is more than just about oil. US sanctions, however, are aiding China while undermining Indian interests. Under a new accord with Tehran, China will invest $280 billion in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, deploy at least 5,000 troops to protect its projects there, and import oil at discounted prices.

Against this background, India must carefully balance closer cooperation with major players in a way that advances its own economic and security interests. India, for example, relies on Russian spare parts for its Russian-made military hardware. More importantly, Russia has transferred to India offensive weapons that the US does not export, such as an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine. So ties to Moscow remain important.

In fact, the China factor has always been central to India’s strategic ties with Moscow. In 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi skillfully engineered Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan by entering into a friendship treaty with Moscow. The treaty, with a mutual-security assistance clause, helped deter China from opening a second front against India. As the declassified Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger transcripts attested, this duo sought to egg on China to attack India when Indian forces intervened to end the East Pakistan genocide (in which up to 3 million people were killed and nearly 400,000 women were raped, with almost 10 million fleeing to India).

Modi’s recent visit to Vladivostok underscored that Russia, with its strategic capabilities and vantage position in Eurasia, remains a key country for India’s geopolitical interests. Russia shares India’s objective for a stable power balance on a continent that China seeks to dominate.

Against this background, India will likely continue to chart an independent course. After all, cautious pragmatism drives Modi’s foreign policy. A multi-aligned India pursuing omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players will be better positioned to advance its security and economic interests.

Regionally, with the tyranny of geography putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India needs to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. Only through more vigorous defence and foreign policies can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation, freeing it to play a larger global role. Otherwise, it will continue to be weighed down by its region.

To be sure, India has been imbibing greater realism as its quixotic founding philosophy centred on non-violence assumes a largely rhetorical meaning. Yet India remains intrinsically reactive, instead of being proactive. The compulsions of electoral politics make it difficult for those in power to take a long-term view that does not confound tactics with strategy. Yet, without proactive diplomacy and national defence, India will continue to punch far below its weight.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© Open Magazine, 2019.

Trump’s turn at Modi’s Houston rally only obscures U.S.-India rifts



Donald Trump and Narendra Modi walk the arena floor to greet attendants in the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston on Sep. 22.   © Reuters

Washington’s pressure on New Delhi benefits America’s adversaries

Nikkei Asian Review

When U.S. President Donald Trump last Sunday joined visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public rally in Houston, attended by 59,000 Indian-Americans and a number of U.S. congressmen and senators, it highlighted the growing closeness of the U.S.-India relationship. Trump shares with Modi a love for big audiences and theatrics.

Some saw Trump’s rally attendance as a public-relations coup for Modi. In reality, the Houston rally was a win for Trump: it served as a backdrop to signing one of the largest liquefied natural gas supply deals in U.S. history and making progress toward a trade deal with India, which Trump said would happen “very soon.”

With Trump’s focus on getting reelected next year, the rally also enabled him to connect with wealthy and increasingly influential Indian-Americans, who now number about 4 million, or 1.3% of the total population. They not only matter in some of the swing states for the election, but also are important political donors.

But far from helping to turn the page on old rifts, such as over Pakistan, the booming bilateral trade and investment relationship — symbolized by the rally — has been accompanied by new economic and strategic differences.

Despite his bonhomie with Modi, Trump has been fighting a mini-trade war against India, albeit in the shadow of the much larger U.S.-China trade war. He has raised duties on 14.3% of India’s exports to the U.S. and imposed a restrictive visa policy to squeeze the huge Indian information technology industry.

Indeed, no sooner had Modi’s second term started in May than Trump announced the termination of India’s preferential access to the U.S. market by expelling the country from the Generalized System of Preferences.

Trump has been rightly criticized for his mercurial behavior. But his move toward a trade deal with India, like his trade accords with Japan, South Korea, Canada and Mexico, show that Trump’s negotiating strategy centered on punitive tariffs and drastic threats is yielding returns for America. A trade deal with Beijing, to be sure, remains elusive.

With U.S. policies backfiring to foster a partnership between the world’s largest nuclear power, Russia, and second-largest economy, China, the strengthening American ties with democratic India assume greater importance for Washington. The latest U.S. national security strategy report says America welcomes “India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner.”

India meshes well with Trump’s export plan to create large numbers of well-paid American jobs. As Trump told the Houston rally, “we are working to expand American exports to India — one of the world’s fastest-growing markets.”

India is also pivotal to Trump’s policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a concept authored by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

These imperatives and the powerful symbolism of the Houston rally, however, cannot obscure the challenges. Trump’s unilateralism and transactional foreign policy reflect a belief that the U.S. can pursue hard-edged negotiations with friends without imperiling broader strategic ties or undermining efforts to balance China.

For example, not content with having emerged as the largest seller of arms to India, Washington is seeking to lock that country as its exclusive arms client by using the threat of sanctions to deter it from buying major Russian weapons, including the S-400 air defense system.

The paradox is that the U.S. regards India as the fulcrum of its Indo-Pacific strategy, yet the two countries’ security interests diverge in India’s own neighborhood. The farther one gets from India, the more congruent U.S. and Indian interests become. But closer home to India, the two sides’ interests are divergent. Iran is just one example.

U.S. sanctions’ pressure has driven up India’s oil import bill by stopping it from buying crude from next-door Iran. Seeking to supplant Iran as a major supplier, the U.S. has ramped up oil exports to energy-poor India by 400% in the past 12 months. But it has been selling crude at a higher price than Iran.

A transportation corridor to Afghanistan that India is building via Iran, bypassing Pakistan, shows that New Delhi’s relationship with Tehran is more than just about oil. U.S. policy, however, is pushing India out of Iran while letting China fill that space.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan belt is another example. Despite the recent collapse of a tentative U.S. deal with the Afghan Taliban, Trump is courting India’s archenemy, Pakistan, even though it provides safe havens to the Taliban and is home to 22 U.N.-designated terrorist entities.

A Kashmir mediation offer was a red rag to India, yet Trump, seeking to win Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan, offered to mediate that conflict.

The looming trade deal, limited to some sectors, is unlikely to help fully lift U.S. pressure on India, whose economy is already slowing. Indeed, lumping the world’s largest democracy with America’s main strategic competitor, Trump is pushing to terminate India’s and China’s developing-nation status at the World Trade Organization.

India has been a U.S. foreign policy bright spot. There is strong bipartisan support in Washington for a closer partnership. At the Houston rally, Trump claimed India has “never had a better friend” than him in the White House.

Yet Trump’s transactional approach, which prioritizes short-term gains for the U.S. even at the expense of long-term returns, could be reinforcing Indian skepticism about American reliability.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.