China rubs its hands amid international divide over Myanmar

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Punitive sanctions policies should be recalibrated

Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks during a news conference after attending the ASEAN leaders’ summit in Jakarta on Apr. 24: the carefully nuanced statement represented a rebuff to the U.S.-led approach to isolate Myanmar.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

International calls for the restoration of democracy in strategically located Myanmar obscure an important divide between that country’s neighbors and the West.

The sanctions-centered approach of the United States and the European Union has sought to punitively isolate Myanmar, while neighboring countries favor a policy of constructive engagement with the military junta.

After a gradual, decadelong democratization process, Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, seized power on Feb. 1 and began cracking down on those peacefully protesting the coup. The continuing unrest has carried important international implications, including the flight of political dissidents and ordinary refugees to neighboring countries.

The cross-border impacts explain why neighbors view engagement as essential, including urging Myanmar’s military rulers to address the domestic unrest through political reconciliation.

Myanmar’s land frontiers are porous, with cross-border ethnic linkages with communities in India and Thailand making the transboundary movement of people common. Trade, investment and counterinsurgency cooperation also link Myanmar with the countries that surround it.

Can anyone imagine the U.S. seeking to isolate and squeeze its southern neighbor Mexico? U.S. President Joe Biden, in fact, is relying on the Mexican government to address the present border crisis precipitated by the tide of mainly Central American refugees trying to enter the U.S. since he took office.

Likewise, it is inconceivable that Myanmar’s immediate neighbors, saddled with a refugee influx since the coup, would embrace the punitive approach adopted by the U.S. and the EU. Yet, the Biden administration initiated a sanctions campaign against Myanmar without consultations with neighboring countries.

There is truth in the common diplomatic view that the farther a country is from Myanmar, the more likely it will favor a punitive approach, while those nearby will keep the channels of communication open through calibrated engagement. The history of sanctions shows that punitive actions have rarely worked without some form of engagement.

In this light, the presence of junta leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing at the Apr. 24 in-person Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Jakarta — and the carefully nuanced summit statement on Myanmar that emphasized the “ASEAN family” — represented a rebuff to the U.S.-led approach to isolate Myanmar.

According to the five-point consensus that emerged from the summit, ASEAN will mediate to help resolve the crisis. This is, however, easier said than done. ASEAN, for example, has failed to resolve the crisis in Thailand, where the leader of the 2014 coup remains ensconced in power — in civilian garb — by cracking down on pro-democracy protesters, including using a feared lese-majeste law to imprison those who insult the royal family.

More broadly, the retreat of the Myanmar spring exemplifies how democracy is under siege around the world. The wave of rollback of democracies highlights the growing threat from a fusion of autocratic politics and crony, state-guided capitalism.

Today, all the countries of continental Southeast Asia — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam — are under authoritarian rule, like their giant northern neighbor, China. In fact, only two of ASEAN’s 10 members are true democracies with judicial independence and free media.

Still, Myanmar’s generals are discovering the hard way that rolling back democratic freedoms once people take them as their right carries enduring challenges. Although Myanmar had been under military rule for 50 of its 73 years since independence, the continuing protests show that many of its citizens are unwilling to accept a return to military rule.Anti-coup protesters in Mandalay, pictured on May 16: the continuing protests show that many of its citizens are unwilling to accept a return to military rule.    © Myitkyina News/Reuters

Only the military can return Myanmar to the path of democratization. After all, it was the military that voluntarily ushered in the country’s democratic transition that began in 2011. It is thus critical for outside states, including in the West, to maintain lines of communication with Myanmar’s top generals.

One of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, Myanmar has long been an easy sanctions target because it has remained a weak, divided state torn by ethnic insurgencies. Its failure to construct an inclusive national identity has allowed old ethnic rivalries to fester, stifling the resource-rich country’s potential.

As past experience has shown, however, an uncompromisingly harsh approach toward Myanmar has had the perverse effect of weakening America’s hand while strengthening China’s.

China values Myanmar as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean. Like India, Myanmar has long complained about the flow of Chinese arms to guerrilla groups, accusing Beijing of backing several of them as levers against it. The nationalistic military is wary of reliance on China. But international isolation could leave it with no choice.

As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told Nikkei’s Future of Asia 2021 conference earlier this month: “If I don’t rely on China, who will I rely on? If I don’t ask China, who am I to ask?” Cambodia is a cautionary tale of how international isolation pushes an economically vulnerable nation into China’s arms. Myanmar could be next, unless the U.S. recalibrates its sanctions policy.

The international divide over how to deal with Myanmar also represents a division between Western and Asian values. In contrast to the West’s interventionist impulse and democratic evangelism, the Asian way of standing up for one’s principles and beliefs does not extend to imposing them on others through coercive activism.

Today, with little prospect that the West could engineer a color revolution in Myanmar, friendly conversations with that country’s generals to persuade them to halt their crackdown and release political prisoners are likely to make more headway toward influencing future events than the current heavy-handed approach.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

Why is China making a permanent enemy of India?

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Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

Chinese troops dismantle bunkers in the Pangong Tso region, Ladakh, along the India-China border on Feb. 15: there are fears China will spring further military surprises.   © Indian Army/AP

When India, currently fighting a devastating second COVID wave, was similarly distracted a year ago with enforcing the world’s strictest coronavirus lockdown, China took advantage to stealthily infiltrate key border areas in India’s high-altitude Ladakh region.

As thawing ice reopened access routes after the brutal Himalayan winter, a shocked India discovered that the People’s Liberation Army had occupied hundreds of sq. kilometers of the borderlands, fortified by heavily armed bases. The discovery triggered the first deadly clashes in the region since 1975.

The intruding PLA forces remain well dug in, with Beijing in no mood to roll back its encroachments or accept further buffer zones of the kind established in two other confrontation areas to avert further armed clashes.

With tens of thousands of Chinese and Indian troops facing each other in multiple areas, the standoffs constitute the longest period of military confrontation since China imposed itself as India’s neighbor in the early 1950s by occupying then-autonomous Tibet. Even China’s 1962 military attack on India — the only foreign war that communist-ruled China has won — only lasted 32 days.

Now, with India battling a sudden COVID explosion, there are fears China will spring further military surprises. This thought recently prompted India’s army chief to visit the front lines in Ladakh to review operational preparedness.

Meanwhile, China’s aggression has cast an unflattering light on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who failed to foresee the aggression coming largely because he was focused on befriending China. Meeting President Xi Jinping 18 times over the previous five years, Modi was blinded to the various warning signs, including China’s combat exercises and new military installations along the Himalayan frontier.

Since China’s land grabs, the otherwise voluble Modi has been quiet, neither mentioning China by name in any of his public remarks nor acknowledging the loss of territories. Worse still, no army commander has been held accountable for the costly security lapses that resulted in India being caught napping. Nor did the defense minister accept moral responsibility and resign.

India’s efforts to obfuscate the truth in order to save face, including its euphemism for seeking China’s withdrawal from the borderlands — “full restoration of peace and tranquility in the border areas” — have become grist for the Chinese propaganda mill. Indian media coverage is rife with officially coined euphemisms, with areas seized by the PLA routinely reported as “friction points.”

All of which is emboldening China’s intransigence. In seeking to advance its “10 miles forward, five miles back” strategy, Beijing recently suggested the two countries should meet each other “halfway.” Meeting halfway would be a “win-win” for China; it would literally win twice.

Not only would China retain its core land grabs, it would force India to legitimize their Chinese capture. This approach illustrates Beijing’s definition of “give and take” — the other side gives and China takes.

To Modi’s credit, India has refused to buckle. India has more than matched China’s Himalayan military deployments, and has made clear that bilateral ties cannot return to normal as long as there is, to quote Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, “friction, coercion, intimidation and bloodshed on the border.”

This month India excluded Chinese manufacturers from its fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless network trials. And, unlike the 15 tons of medical supplies it rushed to Wuhan at the height of the pandemic there, India has declined to reciprocally take any such Chinese official assistance during its current COVID surge.

The long-term implications, however, are ominous. Consider, for example, China’s frenzied construction of new military infrastructure along the inhospitable border. This big buildup either signals that Beijing sees war as likely, or that it intends to ramp up sustained pressure on India over the long-term.

More fundamentally, China’s actions, including the forward deployment of artillery, missiles and bombers, threaten to turn what was once a lightly patrolled frontier into a perennially hot border. The Tibetan Plateau has become a vast military base for China, which also enjoys the advantage of a relatively flat terrain against India.

For India, a hot border means the diversion of even greater resources for frontier defense, including raising additional mountain-warfare forces. Such a scenario will not only make it more difficult for India to focus on its broader strategic competition with China, but will also further strengthen China’s Pakistan alliance.

Tying India down along the long Himalayan frontier could even help China secure a greater foothold in the Indian Ocean. Opening a maritime front against India would mean that country’s strategic encirclement.

It is possible, however, that — like with the 1962 war — China’s actions could prove singularly counterproductive. That war shattered Indian illusions about China and set in motion India’s shift away from pacifism. In 1967, while still recovering from the 1962 war and another war with Pakistan in 1965, India gave China a bloody nose in military clashes along the Tibet-Sikkim border.

In terms of territory gained, China’s Ladakh aggression may have been a success. But politically, it has proved self-damaging, driving India closer to Washington and making a major Indian military buildup inevitable. Relations between Beijing and New Delhi are at a nadir.

This seems a replay of 1962, when China set out, in the words of then-Premier Zhou Enlai, to “teach India a lesson.” China won the war but lost the peace. The difference now is China is making a permanent enemy of its largest neighbor.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

China’s Unrestricted War on India

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China’s shadow war seeks to employ all available means short of open war to curtail Indian ambitions and strike at core Indian interests. India, however, has yet to start countering such warfare.

Residents light a candle during a power cut in Mumbai, India, October 2020
Niharika Kulkarni / Reuters

By Brahma Chellaney

Foreign Affairs journal

On October 12, 2020, the electricity went out in India’s biggest city. Mumbai faced its worst power cut in decades, with businesses crippled, the stock market shut down, thousands of commuters stranded, and hospitals scrambling to ensure backup supply for their COVID-19 patients. Major outages are not altogether uncommon in India, but Mumbai had prided itself on its recent record of reliable electricity for its residents. The disruption left authorities in the western state of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, searching for answers.

Indian officials revealed in March that they might have found the cause of the power cut: a foreign cyberattack that targeted the servers of state power companies. They did not name a particular culprit, but the implication was clear. Chinese hackers, officials suggested, had trained their sights on bringing down Mumbai’s electric grid—and they had succeeded.

In its bid to gain Asian hegemony, China views India as a major obstacle. This possible cyberattack came at a time of mounting military tensions, with confrontations flaring last year at numerous points along the rugged, disputed border between the two countries. Beijing’s ability to pressure its neighbor extends beyond the conventional battlefield and increasingly includes unconventional forms of warfare (or “unrestricted war,” as the title of a book by two Chinese military officers put it) to achieve expansionist and coercive objectives. Through unrestricted war—which includes its “salami slicing” strategy (or how it aggressively seizes parcels of disputed territory without providing a cause for war), cyberwarfare, debt-trap diplomacy, environmental degradation, and the spread of misinformation—China has redrawn the geopolitical map of the South China Sea without incurring any international costs. Beijing hopes to use the same methods to box India in.

WAR BY OTHER MEANS

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its founding this year, has ruled China continuously for more than seven decades, making it the longest-serving political party in power in modern history. Its success attests to the ruthlessness with which it has pursued its objectives at home and abroad. Mao Zedong led the party to power, and Deng Xiaoping made the country richer. Now, President Xi Jinping’s ambition is to turn China into a hegemonic global leader. Such is the essence of what Xi calls the “Chinese dream.”


The CCP pays lip service to equality and reciprocity in international relations, but in fact China under Xi seeks to subordinate small nations. Nowhere is this truer than in Southeast Asia, where China has used a two-pronged, unconventional strategy to help it both dominate the South China Sea and control the transboundary flow of the Mekong River, the region’s lifeline. Chinese forces have constructed artificial islands in the South China Sea and unilaterally claimed disputed waters. China’s 11 megadams on the Mekong equip it with the power to turn off the tap for much of continental Southeast Asia, making downstream countries dependent on Chinese goodwill for access to water.

With a similar multidimensional strategy, China also hopes to contain its two potential peer rivals in Asia, India and Japan. The CCP has adopted a strategy of indirect war against India and Japan, with the aim of fencing in the two powers. The strategy’s first phase involved building Pakistan as a nuclear and conventional-military counterweight to India and aiding North Korea’s initial development of weapons of mass destruction. In more recent years, China has focused on an escalating campaign of deception, stealth, and concealment. At the center of this campaign is territorial revisionism, with China flexing its muscles by asserting its claim to lands or islands administered by its two neighbors.

The indirect-war elements are conspicuous in China’s actions against India. China has steadily brought Indian security under pressure through unconventional instruments, including cyberattacks, its reengineering of the cross-border flows of rivers, and its nibbling away at disputed Himalayan territories. It seeks to employ all available means short of open war to curtail Indian ambitions and strike at core Indian interests.

THE SHADOW WAR

China relishes plausible deniability in its involvement in cyberwarfare against its rivals. India claims that state-sponsored Chinese hackers have repeatedly targeted its critical infrastructure, including power grids. A U.S.-based cybersecurity firm found that a China-linked group called RedEcho was behind a surge in attacks on India’s power infrastructure in 2020, but Chinese officials insisted the allegations were false and that, in any case, it is “very difficult to trace the origin of a cyberattack.”

The cyber-tactics run parallel to more traditional conflicts. Last May, a shocked India discovered that Chinese forces had stealthily occupied mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in the northern border region of Ladakh. Tensions quickly rose, with more than 100,000 war-ready Chinese and Indian troops locked in multiple Himalayan military standoffs. And as frontier skirmishes intensified, China ramped up its cyberwar on Indian power grids.

In June, clashes between Chinese and Indian forces left dozens of soldiers dead. That month also saw at least 40,300 attempts to inject malware into Indian networks. Indian officials understood these efforts as a stern warning from Xi regime’s: if India did not stand down in the border confrontation, China would turn off the lights across vast expanses of the country. India surged troops to the border in the following months, and in October, Mumbai went dark.

More recently, Chinese cyberattackers have homed in on India’s pharmaceutical industry. China’s attempts to steal American data on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments have been well publicized, but recent Chinese cyberattacks on two of India’s leading vaccine makers have received little attention. The hackers attempted to pilfer blueprints of the two COVID-19 vaccines at the heart of India’s current immunization campaign. India supplies more than 60 percent of the world’s vaccines against various diseases and is currently employing that manufacturing heft to export millions of COVID-19 shots every week.

RIVERS RUN THROUGH IT

China controls many of the rivers that flow from the Himalayas into the Indian subcontinent, and through them it can wield tremendous leverage. China has weaponized these waters in the past. In 2017, India announced that it would boycott the inaugural summit of Xi’s signature project, the vast infrastructure investment program known as the Belt and Road Initiative. (India was the first country to criticize the BRI for lacking transparency and pursuing neocolonial aims, a stance the United States later adopted.) China retaliated by abruptly withholding hydrological data it once shared on the transboundary flows of rivers originating in Tibet. It resumed sharing the data in 2018, but only after the suspension had already hampered India’s early-warning systems for flooding, resulting in preventable deaths in the downstream Indian state of Assam.

China dominates Asia’s water map with its control over the water-rich Tibetan Plateau, a region the country annexed in the early 1950s. China, however, still refuses to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any downstream country. (Even historic rivals India and Pakistan have a water-sharing treaty.) In March, China’s rubber-stamp parliament ratified the CCP decision to dam the Brahmaputra River just before it enters India. This mammoth dam will allow China to effectively control a vital resource for millions of people outside its borders. Chinese upstream activities in the past have triggered flash floods in Indian border states and polluted the Brahmaputra’s main artery, the once pristine Siang. The newly approved megaproject, whose construction in an area known for frequent seismic activity could make it a ticking “water bomb” for downstream communities, will generate almost three times as much electricity as China’s Three Gorges Dam, currently the world’s largest dam.

The country located farthest downstream, Bangladesh, will probably bear the brunt of the megaproject’s environmental havoc. This could trigger a new exodus of refugees to India, already home to millions of Bangladeshi migrants. The dam will allow China to further manipulate transboundary river flows and leverage its long-standing claim to the adjacent Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times the size of Taiwan.

ENDLESS WAR

In the disputed Himalayan borderlands, China has mixed conventional and unrestricted tactics. For example, China has set out to quietly build some 624 villages in the region so as to unilaterally change facts on the ground. Such military-designed border villages are the Himalayan equivalent of China’s artificially created islands in the South China Sea. By bringing people from afar to settle in desolate, uninhabited border regions, China is seeking to achieve twin objectives: to absorb disputed areas and to legitimize its grabs under international law, which customarily has recognized settlements as evidence of effective control.

The village-building spree, coupled with the frenetic construction of new military facilities along the border, is a classic example of the CCP’s indirect war, which blends irregular tactics with conventional methods. The irregular aggression, known also as “gray zone” warfare because it straddles the line between war and peace, aims to subdue the foe through exhaustion while simultaneously falling short of precipitating an actual shooting war. Even against a significant military power such as India, China has demonstrated how such hybrid warfare can incrementally advance its expansionist objectives without crossing the threshold of overt armed conflict.

China may not want to risk outright war with India or its other rivals, but it remains absolutely willing to flout its legal obligations. Its withholding from India of data about rivers breached two bilateral accords that required China to transfer to India hydrological and meteorological data daily during the dangerous flood season. The CCP ceases to see international agreements as binding when they are no longer politically convenient, a fact apparent from its obliteration of Hong Kong’s autonomy in violation of a United Nations–registered treaty. China grabbed Indian territory in 2020 in Ladakh and massed troops at the border in brazen disregard of bilateral agreements to maintain peace and tranquility.

Many of the CCP’s external actions may appear small in isolation, but they are significant when taken together. It is thus perilous for any target country to consider Chinese moves individually rather than collectively. No country has been able to figure out how to counter the CCP’s aggressive behavior under Xi—not even the United States, as China’s cost-free expansion in the South China Sea illustrates.

The CCP has repeatedly outfoxed and outmaneuvered India. Given that China made its territorial grabs in Ladakh without firing a shot, India has no credible option to restore the status quo ante without provoking a war. China is constantly searching for opportunities to take bits of territory and catch its opponent by surprise, without taking overt warlike actions. Unless India is willing to turn the tables on the CCP with its own hybrid warfare that targets China’s weak spots, including in Tibet, and unless the world’s democratic powers form a united front against Xi’s expansionism, China’s unrestricted war will continue to destabilize Asia and undermine international security.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY is a geostrategist and the author of Water, Peace, and War.

© Foreign Affairs, 2021.

The Quad: Hype vs. Reality

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Brahma Chellaney, India Today

Barely six months ago, China dismissed the idea that an international coalition against it will emerge, saying “that day will never, ever come.” But, thanks to China’s aggressive expansionism and renegade actions, that day is coming, with the Quad likely to be at the core of a broader international coalition. China has fuelled the Quad’s development, with its military aggression in Ladakh helping to move India closer into this strategic grouping.

It is precisely this border aggression that has lent new momentum to the Quad’s evolution toward a concrete formal security arrangement. India holds the key to the Quad’s direction and future because the US, Australia and Japan already are tied by bilateral and trilateral security alliances among themselves.

Shocked by China’s furtive territorial encroachments in Ladakh, India shed its reticence and undertook several steps, including concluding mutual logistics support accords with Australia and Japan, signing the last of four “foundational” agreements that the US maintains with all its close defence partners, and playing host to the first-ever Quad military drills by letting Australia re-join the Malabar exercise. Boosting broader military interoperability, India is now participating in Quad-plus naval exercises, such as “Sea Dragon” that involved Canada and the upcoming “La Pérouse” with France.

With India’s closer integration, the Quad is beginning to blossom. However, there is no plan to turn the Quad into a military alliance, let alone an Indo-Pacific version of NATO. In fact, the Quad members’ security interests are not entirely congruent. The security threat China poses is much more acute and immediate for India and, to some extent, Japan than for the distant US and Australia.

The Quad — like the US Indo-Pacific policy — is focused on the maritime domain. But the ongoing Himalayan military standoffs at multiple points highlight China’s land-based threat against India. The only Quad member to share a land border with China is India, a position that allows Beijing to quickly ratchet up aggressive actions against India. In fact, India is the sole Quad state to have faced war with China in the post-World War II period.

With Australia, Japan and the US all focused on the seas, India is the only Quad member that maintains a land-based defence posture. Indeed, the US has never considered a land war against China. America’s main objective is non-military — to counter China’s geopolitical, ideological and economic challenges to its global pre-eminence.

Against this background, public discourse in India shouldn’t get ahead of the operational and functional instruments of strategic collaboration. It is important to understand both the Quad’s utility and its limitations. The Quad certainly cannot mitigate India’s security challenges. Unlike Japan and Australia, India is not under the US security (and nuclear) umbrella. The US, in any case, has a record of disregarding even its treaty-based obligations toward its allies. It was the US silence over China’s mid-2012 capture of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from American ally, the Philippines, that emboldened China to embark on an island-building programme and redraw the South China Sea’s geopolitical map.

India must deal with Chinese belligerence essentially on its own. To be sure, the China-India power asymmetry is widening. But aggregate military and economic capabilities alone do not determine any war’s outcome. History is replete with examples of the weaker side vanquishing the stronger opponent. India, with the world’s most-experienced army in hybrid mountain warfare, focuses on defence, which is easier than offense. Recognizing India’s battle-hardened air and ground forces, China has sought to achieve its territorial and other objectives by stealth. India’s main weakness, which puts it perennially at the receiving end, is a risk-averse political and military leadership.

Still, it is imperative that the Quad gain strategic heft so as to bring an expansionist China under pressure. By cooperating in military, economic and technological realms and coordinating their responses to China’s aggressive actions, the Quad members can put discreet checks on the unbridled exercise of Chinese power. India, by working closely with the other Quad members on matters of mutual interest, will be able to punch above its economic and military weight.

Brahma Chellaney is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

© India Today, 2021.

China’s Himalayan Salami Tactics

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China is applying the same strategy on the roof of the world that has driven its expansion in the South China Sea: gradual territorial encroachments followed by militarized construction. So far, this slice-by-slice approach is proving just as effective on land as it has been at sea.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

Emboldened by its cost-free expansion in the South China Sea, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime has stepped up efforts to replicate that model in the Himalayas. In particular, China is aggressively building many new villages in disputed borderlands to extend or consolidate its control over strategically important areas that India, Bhutan, and Nepal maintain fall within their national boundaries.

Underscoring the strategic implications of China’s drive to populate these desolate, uninhabited border areas is its major buildup of new military facilities there. The new installations range from electronic warfare stations and air defense sites to underground ammunition depots.

China’s militarized village-building spree has renewed the regional spotlight on Xi’s expansionist strategy at a time when, despite a recent disengagement in one area, tens of thousands of its troops remain locked in multiple standoffs with Indian forces. Recurrent skirmishing began last May after India discovered to its alarm that Chinese forces had stealthily occupied mountaintops and other strategic vantage points in its northernmost Ladakh borderlands.

China’s newly built border villages in the Himalayas are the equivalent of its artificially created islands in the South China Sea, whose geopolitical map Xi’s regime has redrawn without firing a shot. Xi’s regime advanced its South China Sea expansionism through asymmetrical or hybrid warfare, waged below the threshold of overt armed conflict. This approach blends conventional and irregular tactics with small incremental territorial encroachments (or “salami slicing”), psychological manipulation, disinformation, lawfare, and coercive diplomacy.

Now China is applying that playbook in the Himalayan borderlands. The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Postciting a Chinese government document, recently reported that China intends to build 624 border villages in disputed Himalayan areas. In the name of “poverty alleviation,” the Communist Party of China is callously uprooting Tibetan nomads and forcing them to settle in artificial new border villages in isolated, high-altitude areas. The CPC has also sent ethnic Han Chinese party members to such villages to serve as resident overseers.

Creating a dispute where none previously existed is usually China’s first step toward asserting a territorial claim, before it furtively tries to seize the coveted area. Xi’s regime frequently uses civilian militias in the vanguard of such a strategy.

So, just as China has employed flotillas of coastguard-backed civilian fishing boats for expansionist forays in the South and East China Seas, it has been sending herders and grazers ahead of regular army troops into desolate Himalayan border areas to foment disputes and then assert control. Such an approach has enabled it to nibble away at Himalayan territories, one pasture at a time.

In international law, a territorial claim must be based on continuous and peaceful exercise of sovereignty over the territory concerned. Until now, China’s Himalayan claims have been anchored in a “might makes right” approach that seeks to extend its annexation of Tibet to neighboring countries’ borderlands. By building new border villages and relocating people there, China can now invoke international law in support of its claims. Effective control is the sine qua non of a strong territorial claim in international law. Armed patrols don’t prove effective control, but settlements do.

The speed and stealth with which China has been changing the facts on the ground in the Himalayas, with little regard for the geopolitical fallout, also reflects other considerations. Border villages, for example, will constrain the opposing military’s use of force while aiding Chinese intelligence gathering and cross-frontier operations.

Satellite images show how rapidly such villages have sprouted up, along with extensive new roads and military facilities. The Chinese government recently justified constructing a new village inside the sprawling Indian border state of Arunachal Pradesh by saying it “never recognized” Indian sovereignty over that region. And China’s territorial encroachments have not spared one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, or even Nepal, which has a pro-China communist government.

China conceived its border-village program after Xi called on Tibetan herdsmen in 2017 to settle in frontier areas and “become guardians of Chinese territory.” Xi said in his appeal that, “without peace in the territory, there will be no peaceful lives for millions of families.” But Xi’s “poverty alleviation” program in Tibet, which has steadily gained momentum since 2019, has centered on cynically relocating the poor to neighboring countries’ territories.

The echoes of China’s maritime expansionism extend to the Himalayan environment. Xi’s island building in the South China Sea has “caused severe harm to the coral reef environment,” according to an international arbitral tribunal. Likewise, China’s construction of villages and military facilities in the borderlands threatens to wreak havoc on the ecologically fragile Himalayas, which are the source of Asia’s great rivers. Environmental damage is already apparent on the once-pristine Doklam Plateau, claimed by Bhutan, which China has transformed into a heavily militarized zone since seizing it in 2017.

Indian army chief Manoj Naravane recently claimed that China’s salami tactics “will not work.” Yet even an important military power like India is struggling to find effective ways to counter China’s territorial aggrandizement along one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders.

China’s bulletless aggression – based on using military-backed civilians to create new facts on the ground – makes defense challenging, because it must be countered without resorting to open combat. Although India has responded with heavy military deployments, Chinese forces remain in control of most of the areas they seized nearly a year ago. So far, China’s strategy is proving just as effective on land as it has been at sea.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma 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, 2021.

China’s Escalating Water War

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

China’s multi-pronged unconventional war against India has ranged from cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure and furtive territorial encroachments to strategic information warfare and an ongoing village-building drive to populate uninhabited but disputed borderlands. Water wars are a key component of such warfare because they allow China to leverage its upstream Tibet-centred power over the most-essential natural resource.

China knows its troops cannot fight and win decisively against the battle-hardened Indian military on a force-on-force basis, as the Galwan Valley clashes underscored. So, to contain India, it has been applying asymmetric warfare techniques to attack India’s weak points, in keeping with what Sun Tzu said: “All warfare is based on deception.”

India, instead of looking at China’s new face of war in totality and devising a comprehensive and proactive counter-strategy, has brought its security under increasing pressure through a disjointed and fragmented approach. Such is the absence of long-term strategic thinking and planning that, each time China opens a new front or pressure point, India searches for a stopgap or, worse still, seeks to paper over its weak spot.

China’s newly approved Brahmaputra mega-project, which will dwarf its Three Gorges Dam by generating almost three times more electricity, should shake India out of its ad hoc, compartmentalized approach to Chinese aggression. The project is to harness the force of a nearly 3,000-metre drop in the Brahmaputra’s height when the river, just before entering India, takes a U-turn around the Himalayas to form the world’s longest and steepest canyon. By setting out to dam the Brahmaputra there, China is seeking to effectively weaponize water against India.

Unidentified Chinese upstream activities in the past have triggered flash floods in Arunachal Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh and, more recently, turned the water in the once-pristine Siang — Brahmaputra’s main artery — dirty and grey as it entered India. Indeed, such is China’s defiant unilateralism that, to complete a major dam project, it halted the flow of a Brahmaputra tributary, the Xiabuqu, in 2016 and then started damming another such tributary, the Lhasa River, into a series of artificial lakes.

In 2017, China openly demonstrated its use of water as as a tool of coercive diplomacy when, in breach of two bilateral accords, it punitively cut off the flow of hydrological data to India, an action that undermined downstream flood early-warning systems, resulting in preventable deaths in Assam. China reversed the data cutoff only after the 2018 Wuhan summit, which was held following its capture of Doklam behind the cover of the August 2017 disengagement agreement.

About a dozen small or medium-sized Chinese dams are already operational on the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches. But with its dam building now moving to the river’s India-bordering canyon region, China will be able to manipulate transboundary flows and leverage its claim to the adjacent Arunachal Pradesh.

The serious implications, however, are being obscured by misinformation or ignorance. For example, some in Indian policy and academic circles have conjectured that the Brahmaputra collects the larger share of its water in India. This water collection is mainly restricted to the four-month monsoon season. Fluvial ecosystems depend on perennial water sources, which, in the Brahmaputra’s case, are largely in Tibet.

The Brahmaputra, the world’s highest-altitude river, gathers extremely rich silt in its almost 2,200-kilometre Himalayan run. The silt-rich water from Tibet, not monsoon-water collection, is central to the river’s unique hydrology and biodiversity support. The canyon mega-project, like the Three Gorges Dam, will trap downstream flow of nutrient-rich silt. It will also disrupt the Brahmaputra’s annual flooding cycle, which helps to re-fertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt, besides opening giant fish nurseries. That, in turn, is likely to cause subsidence and salinity in the Brahmaputra-Ganges-Meghna Delta.

In the Mekong Basin, the environmental havoc unleashed by China’s upstream giant dams is becoming increasingly apparent. The environmental devastation could be worse in the Brahmaputra Basin, especially in densely populated Bangladesh, triggering a greater exodus of refugees to India, which is already home to countless millions of illegally settled Bangladeshis.

The Brahmaputra mega-dam, ominously, will be built in a seismically active area, thus implying a ticking “water bomb” for downstream communities. The dictatorship in Beijing is not deterred even by the fact that the project will desecrate territory that is sacred to Tibetans: the major mountains, cliffs and caves in the canyon region, known locally as Pemako, or the “Hidden Lotus Land,” represent the body of their guardian deity, the goddess Dorje Pagmo (Vajravarahi in Sanskrit), and the Brahmaputra represents her spine.

The expanding water war is clearly part of China’s integrated, multidimensional strategy against India, which seeks to employ all available means short of open war. Its unconventional war is profoundly impacting every core Indian interest. To deal with this structural challenge, India, in Sun Tzu style, must give China a taste of its own medicine. Two US reports, The Longer Telegram (published by the Atlantic Council) and the state department’s The Elements of the China Challenge, underline the imperative to target China’s weak spots.

India has little choice but to asymmetrically out-compete China’s asymmetric war by exploiting its internal vulnerabilities, fissures and fragilities, including in Tibet, the main launchpad for its unconventional warfare. India has the capabilities to outwit and deter China; what it needs is the vision and resolve.

The writer is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2021.

Don’t Isolate Myanmar

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US President Joe Biden’s administration must not ignore how often American sanctions against other countries have worked to China’s advantage. In this light, the US must take a cautious and prudent approach on Myanmar.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

Directly or indirectly, the military has always called the shots in Myanmar. And now that it has removed the decade-old façade of gradual democratization by detaining civilian leaders and seizing power, Western calls to punish the country with sanctions and international isolation are growing louder. Heeding them would be a mistake.

The retreat of the “Myanmar spring” means all the countries of continental Southeast Asia – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Myanmar – are under authoritarian rule, like their giant northern neighbor, China. More fundamentally, the reversal of democratization in Myanmar is a reminder that democracy is unlikely to take root where authoritarian leaders and institutions remain deeply entrenched.

Given this, a punitive approach would merely express democratic countries’ disappointment, at the cost of stymying Myanmar’s economic liberalization, impeding the development of its civil society, and reversing its shift toward closer engagement with democratic powers. And, as in the past, the brunt of sanctions would be borne by ordinary citizens, not the generals.

This is a realistic scenario. US President Joe Biden has warned that the military’s action “will necessitate an immediate review of our sanctions laws,” followed by “appropriate action.” But Biden would do well to consider how US-led sanctions in the past pushed Myanmar into China’s strategic lap, exacerbating regional-security challenges.

Sanctions are a blunt instrument. Thailand’s army chief, with the support of an increasingly unpopular king, has remained ensconced in power in civilian garb since staging a coup in 2014. If the United States can do business with Thailand, where a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters has extended to the use of a feared lèse-majesté law to imprison those who insult the royal family, why hold neighboring Myanmar to a higher standard?

Likewise, the US, India, Japan, and others have established close defense ties with communist-ruled Vietnam. Indeed, the US boasts that in recent years it has established a “robust security partnership” with Vietnam. Only by opening lines of communication and cooperation with Myanmar’s generals can democratic powers hope to influence developments in a strategically important country.

In the past decade, as Myanmar’s democratic transition unfolded, the West neglected to build close relations with the force behind it — the military. Instead, the prevailing Anglo-American approach centered on Aung San Suu Kyi, making her bigger than the cause. That neglect persisted even after Suu Kyi fell from grace over the fate of the country’s Rohingya Muslims, many of whom fled to Bangladesh and some to India during a brutal military campaign to flush out jihadist militants waging hit-and-run attacks.

The West’s lopsided approach eventually contributed to this month’s coup. Today, the US has little influence over Myanmar’s military. The coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy, General Soe Win, were slapped with US sanctions 14 months ago over the expulsion of the Rohingya. But in responding to the mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang that it labels “genocide,” the US has spared top Chinese military and party officials, imposing largely symbolic sanctions against lower-ranking functionaries.

Despite their uneven effectiveness and unpredictable consequences, sanctions have remained a favorite – and grossly overused – instrument of Western diplomacy, especially when dealing with the small kids on the global bloc. Non-Western democracies, in stark contrast, prefer constructive engagement.

Japan, for example, has a partnership program with Myanmar’s military that includes capacity-building support and training. Likewise, India’s defense ties with Myanmar extend to joint exercises and operations and supply of military hardware; recently, it gave its neighbor its first submarine. Such ties also seek to counter China’s supply of arms and other aid to Indian tribal insurgents through rebel-controlled northern Myanmar.

Sanctions without engagement have never worked. In 2010, while the US was pursuing a sanctions-only approach to Myanmar, then-President Barack Obama criticized India’s policy of constructive engagement with that country. But within months, Obama embarked on a virtually similar policy, which led to his historic visit to Myanmar in 2012.

Crippling US-led sanctions from the late 1980s paved the way for China to become Myanmar’s dominant trading partner and investor. But in 2011, Myanmar’s bold suspension of a controversial Chinese megaproject, the Myitsone Dam, became a watershed moment for the country’s democratic opening. It set in motion developments that reduced Myanmar’s dependence on China, balanced its foreign policy, and spurred domestic reforms.

Today, nothing would serve Chinese interests more than new US-led efforts to isolate Myanmar, which serves China as a strategic gateway to the Indian Ocean and important source of natural resources. In fact, renewed sanctions and isolation would likely turn Myanmar into another Chinese satellite, like Laos, Cambodia, and Pakistan. As Japan’s state minister for defense, Yasuhide Nakayama, has warned, that outcome would “pose a risk to the security of the region.”

US policymakers must not ignore how often American sanctions against other countries have worked to China’s advantage. They should perhaps be most worried by how sanctions have forced Russia to pivot to China, turning two natural competitors into becoming close strategic partners. And China has been the main trade and investment beneficiary of US sanctions against Iran.

In this light, the US must take a prudent approach to Myanmar. When Biden has expressed a readiness to cooperate with the world’s largest autocracy, China, in areas of mutual interest, he should at least pursue a similar approach with a far weaker Myanmar, where the military is the only functioning institution.

To help influence Myanmar’s trajectory, Biden has little choice but to address what US officials have recognized as a weak spot in American policy – lack of ties with the country’s strongly nationalist military. The US must not turn Myanmar from a partner into a pariah again.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma 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, 2021.

Xi Jinping’s Strategic Overreach

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

China’s recent encroachments on Indian territory in the Himalayas could pose a significant threat to Indo-Pacific stability. But regional powers – beginning with India and increasingly supported by the US and other Western powers – are pushing back, implying that Chinese President Xi Jinping will live to regret the decisions of 2020.

The year 2020 will be remembered not only for the COVID-19 shock and the end of Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, but also as a moment of reckoning for China. With its international reputation battered by the pandemic, and with pushback against its territorial overreach intensifying, China’s ability to pursue its geopolitical ambitions is diminishing rapidly. Nowhere is this more apparent than in its relations with India.

The shift began in May. As the brutal Himalayan winter receded, a shocked India found that Chinese forces had occupied hundreds of square kilometers of borderlands in its northernmost Ladakh region. The encroaching forces, backed by thousands of troops in the rear, had seized mountaintops and other strategic vantage points, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had established forward bases, blocking India’s access to areas along the disputed frontier that had been under its exclusive jurisdiction.

It was a cynical attempt to exploit not only the chaos and hardship caused by China’s most infamous global export, COVID-19, but also Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s longstanding appeasement policy. In the previous six years, Modi had met with Chinese President Xi Jinping 18 times, in the hope of fostering friendlier relations (and weakening the China-Pakistan axis).

This hope blinded Modi to China’s preparations for aggression, including combat exercises and the frenzied construction of military infrastructure along the frontier. In this sense, Modi repeated the mistake of India’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose dogged courtship of Mao Zedong enabled China to annex Tibet, thereby eliminating the territorial buffer between itself and India. Chinese encroachments culminated in the 1962 Himalayan border war, which began with a surprise PLA attack and ended with territorial losses for India.

That war shattered India’s illusions of China as a trustworthy partner, and triggered a shift away from pacifism. With China’s recent Himalayan aggression, India seems to be re-learning the same lesson. Already, India has matched Chinese troop deployments along the frontier and occupied strategic positions in the area.

The heightened tensions have triggered a series of clashes, the worst of which left 20 Indian soldiers and an undisclosed number of PLA troops dead in mid-June. By turning what was once a lightly patrolled frontier into a “hot” border and raising the specter of further military surprises – all while deepening its strategic ties with Pakistan – China has left India little choice but to strengthen its strategic posture significantly.

In fact, a major Indian military buildup is in the cards. This will include vastly increased frontier patrols and additional mountain-warfare forces. But, because Indian forces cannot guard every nook and cranny of one of the world’s most inhospitable and treacherous borders, deterrence will also be essential.

That is why India has been testing a series of leading-edge missile systems, including a hypersonic cruise missile, a hybrid missile-torpedo (which can be deployed against submarines and aircraft carriers), and an anti-radiation missile (designed to seek and destroy enemy radar-equipped air defense systems). This portends substantial Indian investment in military modernization.

India’s military buildup will also include significant expansion of its naval capacity. This will enable India to adopt a much stronger maritime posture, which includes opening a front in the Indian Ocean, through which much of China’s trade (including most of its energy supplies) passes.

But India is not confronting China alone. In November, Australia, Japan, and the US joined India for the Malabar naval war games – the first-ever military exercise involving all four members of the so-called Quad, a loose strategic coalition of the Indo-Pacific region’s four leading democracies.

Deepening cooperation among the Quad is central to America’s Indo-Pacific policy, which includes a focus on the maritime realm. Given bipartisan consensus in the US on the need to counter China’s expansionism, this policy is unlikely to change significantly under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.

A US-India strategic alliance has long been China’s security nightmare. Yet, by repaying Modi’s peace overtures with stealthy land grabs, Xi has made such an alliance more likely. It was in response to China’s aggression that in October, India finally concluded the last of four “foundational” agreements that the US reaches with its allies. The terms of the agreement had been under negotiation for more than a decade.

Beyond working with likeminded states, diplomatically and militarily, India is attempting to counter China by exposing its neocolonial activities, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. And it will likely seek to foil Xi’s plan to capture the 442-year-old institution of the Dalai Lama and cement China’s hold over Tibet. With the current Dalai Lama having made clear that his “reincarnation will appear in a free country,” India should tacitly help Tibetan exiles find his successor in its Tibetan-Buddhist Himalayan regions, which produced a Dalai Lama in the late seventeenth century.

Yet another likely dimension of India’s new China strategy will be to pursue a managed and selective economic decoupling. China’s trade balance with India represents its third-largest bilateral surplus (after the US and the European Union). Now that India recognizes the folly of relying on China for critical supplies, this is bound to change.

Since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949, it has more than doubled its territory by annexing ethnic-minority homelands and seizing other countries’ lands. Against this background, its recent encroachments on India’s territory in the Himalayas could pose a significant threat to Indo-Pacific stability. Fortunately, regional powers – beginning with India – are pushing back. With this regional resistance increasingly supported by the US and other Western powers, Xi will most likely live to regret the decisions he made in 2020.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma 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, 2021.

Wake-up call on Tibet

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America’s Tibet law should spur New Delhi to reclaim lost leverage on China

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

America’s Tibetan Policy and Support Act (TPSA), which became law recently, highlights Tibet’s geostrategic importance, including as the source of Asia’s great rivers.Passedwith bipartisan support, TPSA establishes a US policy that the selection of Tibetan religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama’s successor, is a decision to be made only by Tibetans, free from Beijing’s interference. It mandates sanctions against Chinese officials interfering in such processes.

Will America’s new law serve as a wake-up call for India to start reclaiming its leverage on Tibet? India already received a wake-up call in April-May 2020 when China stealthily grabbed key vantage points in Ladakh and then claimed, as in the Galwan Valley case, that they were historically part of Tibet.

Tibet is clearly at the centre of the China-India divide. And TPSA holds special significance for India, which gave refuge to the Dalai Lama and his followers, helped preserve the Tibetan language and culture, and kept the spirit of Tibetan independence alive. The Indo-Tibetan border was largely peaceful throughout history until China occupied the buffer Tibet in 1951, imposing itself as India’s neighbour and then waging war 11 years later.

The Chinese name for Tibet — Xizang, or “Western Treasure Repository” — underscores the great value this vast plateau, with its bounteous mineral and water resources, holds for China. On Aug. 29, 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping directed that Tibet be made an “impregnable fortress” and its borders secured. The Chinese Communist Party has honed its repressive practices in Tibet before applying them in Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia and now Hong Kong.

India must realize that, by aligning its Tibet position with Beijing’s wishes, it has emboldened China’s designs against it. This is apparent from China’s latest aggression, which has triggered an ongoing, months-long standoff between more than one lakh Indian and Chinese troops in icy Himalayan conditions.

Today, China is claiming Indian areas on the basis of not any Han-Chinese connection to them but alleged Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links. Simply put, China’s territorial claims in Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal are based on its claim over Tibet, which India, paradoxically, has acknowledged.

In fact, to tie India’s hands on Tibet, China has been quoting the 2003 agreement under which India formally “recognized” the cartographically truncated Tibet that Beijing calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.” This recognition allowed China to advance its “salami slicing” strategy against India, including labelling Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet” and gradually increasing its incursions into Indian areas.

But make no mistake: that agreement has been nullified by China’s open violation of its key provisions, including that, “Neither side shall use or threaten to use force against the other.” China’s use of force to unilaterally change facts on the ground contravenes the agreement’s condition to “maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas” and work toward “the clarification of the Line of Actual Control.”

China has no legal standing to press India for compliance when its actions have knowingly gutted the accord, rendering it invalid in international law. Indeed, New Delhi has repeatedly stated that China, through its territorial aggression in Ladakh, has violated every agreement and commitment on border peace that the two countries have signed.

China’s recently unveiled Brahmaputra mega-project is another reminder for India to add nuance — and leverage — to its Tibet stance. No nation is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of transboundary flows than India because it alone receives 48.33% of the total river waters that leave Chinese-controlled territory. A Chinese communist publication recently asked India to assess how China could “weaponize” its control over transboundary waters and potentially “choke” the Indian economy.

While the Tibetans pray for the long life of the present Dalai Lama, Xi is waiting impatiently for him to die so that he can install a puppet as his successor, in the way China has captured the Panchen Lama institution. To frustrate his plan, India should tacitly help Tibetan exiles find, appoint and protect his successor. The Dalai Lama has said his “reincarnation will appear in a free country,” which could mean in India’s Tibetan-Buddhist Himalayan regions.

India must get its act together to help advance its interests. It should start referring to the Himalayan frontier by its correct historical term — the “Indo-Tibetan border” — and emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet was predicated on Beijing’s assurance (which it has broken) to grant the plateau genuine autonomy. India could appoint a special emissary on Tibet by stating that, although Tibet has ceased to be a political buffer with China, it should become a political bridge between the two countries.

To counter China’s growing challenges to its unity and territorial integrity, India needs to think and act creatively. America’s TPSA is significant because Tibet remains China’s Achilles’ heel.

If India is unwilling to exploit that vulnerability, the least it can do is to stop endorsing China’s stance on Tibet. This is necessary to help stem China’s aggressive Himalayan territorial revisionism and challenge its plan to control the spigot for much of northern India’s water. By cautiously recalibrating its Tibet policy, India can help elevate Tibet as an international strategic and environmental issue.

The writer is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2021.

Will China Turn Off Asia’s Tap?

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China’s megaproject on the Brahmaputra (Yarlung Tsangpo) is to come up next to Metog (Motuo), just before the mighty river crosses into India.

Brahma ChellaneyProject Syndicate

Even after Asia’s economies climb out of the COVID-19 recession, China’s strategy of frenetically building dams and reservoirs on transnational rivers will confront them with a more permanent barrier to long-term economic prosperity: water scarcity. China’s recently unveiled plan to construct a mega-dam on the Yarlung Zangbo river, better known as the Brahmaputra, may be the biggest threat yet.

China dominates Asia’s water map, owing to its annexation of ethnic-minority homelands, such as the water-rich Tibetan Plateau and Xinjiang. China’s territorial aggrandizement in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, where it has targeted even tiny Bhutan, has been accompanied by stealthier efforts to appropriate water resources in transnational river basins – a strategy that hasn’t spared even friendly or pliant neighbors, such as Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Nepal, Kazakhstan, and North Korea. Indeed, China has not hesitated to use its hydro-hegemony against its 18 downstream neighbors.

The consequences have been serious. For example, China’s 11 mega-dams on the Mekong river, Southeast Asia’s arterial waterway, have led to recurrent drought downriver, and turned the Mekong Basin into a security and environmental hot spot. Meanwhile, in largely arid Central Asia, China has diverted waters from the Illy and Irtysh rivers, which originate in China-annexed Xinjiang. Its diversion of water from the Illy threatens to turn Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash into another Aral Sea, which has all but dried up in less than four decades.

Against this background, China’s plan to dam the Brahmaputra near its disputed – and heavily militarized – border with India should be no surprise. The Chinese communist publication Huanqiu Shibao, citing an article that appeared in Australia, recently urged India’s government to assess how China could “weaponize” its control over transboundary waters and potentially “choke” the Indian economy. With the Brahmaputra megaproject, China has provided an answer.

The planned 60-gigawatts project, which will be integrated into China’s next Five-Year Plan starting in January, will reportedly dwarf China’s Three Gorges Dam – currently the world’s largest – on the Yangtze River, generating almost three times as much electricity. China will achieve this by harnessing the power of a 2,800-meter (3,062-yard) drop just before the river crosses into India.

What the chairman of China’s state-run Power Construction Corp, Yan Zhiyong, calls an “historic opportunity” for his country will be devastating for India. Just before crossing into India, the Brahmaputra curves sharply around the Himalayas, forming the world’s longest and steepest canyon – twice as deep as America’s Grand Canyon – and holding Asia’s largest untapped water resources.

Experience suggests that the proposed megaproject threatens those resources – and China’s downstream neighbors. China’s past upstream activities have triggered flash floods in the Indian states of Arunachal and Himachal. More recently, such activity turned the water in the once-pristine Siang – the Brahmaputra’s main artery – dirty and gray as it entered India.

About a dozen small or medium-size Chinese dams are already operational in the Brahmaputra’s upper reaches. But the megaproject in the Brahmaputra Canyon region will enable the country to manipulate transboundary flows far more effectively. Such manipulation could leverage China’s claim to the adjacent Indian state of Arunachal, which is almost three times the size of Taiwan. Given that China and India are already locked in a tense, months-long military standoff, which began with Chinese territorial encroachments, the risks are acute.

And yet the country that will suffer the most as a result of China’s Brahmaputra dam project is not India at all; it is densely populated and China-friendly Bangladesh, for which the Brahmaputra is the single largest freshwater source. Intensifying pressure on its water supply will likely trigger an exodus of refugees to India, already home to millions of illegally settled Bangladeshis.

The Brahmaputra megaproject also amounts to a slap in the face of Tibet, which is among the world’s most biodiverse regions and has a deeply rooted culture of reverence for nature. In fact, the canyon region is sacred territory for Tibetans: its major mountains, cliffs, and caves represent the body of their guardian deity, the goddess Dorje Pagmo, and the Brahmaputra represents her spine.

If none of this deters China, the damage it is doing to its own people and prospects should. China’s over-damming of internal rivers has severely harmed ecosystems, including by causing river fragmentation and disrupting the annual flooding cycle, which helps to refertilize farmland naturally by spreading silt. In August, some 400 million Chinese were put at risk after record flooding endangered the Three Gorges Dam. If the Brahmaputra mega-dam collapses – hardly implausible, given that it will be built in a seismically active area – millions downstream could die.

The Great Himalayan Watershed is home to thousands of glaciers and the source of Asia’s greatest river systems, which are the lifeblood of nearly half the global population. If glacial attrition is allowed to continue – let alone to be accelerated by China’s environmentally catastrophic activities – China will not be spared.

For its own sake – and the sake of Asia as a whole – China must accept institutionalized cooperation on transnational riparian flows, including measures to protect ecologically fragile zones and agreement not to dam relatively free-flowing rivers (which play a critical role in moderating the effects of climate change). This would require China to rein in its dam frenzy, be transparent about its projects, accept multilateral dispute-settlement mechanisms, and negotiate water-sharing treaties with neighbors.

Unfortunately, there is little reason to believe this will happen. On the contrary, as long as the Communist Party of China remains in power, the country will most likely continue to wage stealthy water wars that no one can win.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma 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.