Changing Security and Power Dynamics in East Asia

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Brahma Chellaney, China-US Focus

Japan has been shaken out of its complacency by the rise of an increasingly muscular and revisionist China vying for regional hegemony. But America’s apparent willingness, as part of a deal aimed at forestalling the rise of a new long-range missile threat, to accept a North Korea armed with short- to medium-range missiles is giving Japan the jitters.

Since July 25 alone, North Korea has test-fired seven different new short-range ballistic missile systems, including three new systems, indicating that it has been busy boosting its sub-regional capabilities after its leader Kim Jong Un met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Korean demilitarized zone in June. Yet Trump has openly condoned the North Korean tests, largely because the new missiles threaten not the United States, but Japan and South Korea.

Indeed, Trump has clearly indicated that his administration will put up with North Korea’s sub-regionally confined nuclear arsenal (as Washington has done with Pakistan’s) as long as Kim does not pursue long-range capability that threatens America. “He likes testing missiles,” Trump said on August 23, a day after South Korea decided to pull out of a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan. “But we never restricted short-range missiles,” Trump added.

Not surprisingly, this American stance unnerves Japan, which is central to U.S. forward deployment in Asia, but feels increasingly vulnerable to growing Chinese and North Korean missile capabilities. In fact, the North Korean tests have prompted Japan to agree to buy 73 Raytheon-made SM-3 Block IIA anti-ballistic missiles worth $3.3 billion from the U.S.

Trump’s stance is not only emboldening Kim, but also giving him virtually a free hand in developing and testing short-range missiles that can potentially deliver nuclear warheads.

Trump has gone to the extent of making allowances for North Korea’s firing of such missiles by accepting Pyongyang’s explanation that the tests are linked to the joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea. Trump has called the two-week exercises “ridiculous and expensive.”

In fact, responding to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s concern, Trump has conveyed to him that he will continue to tolerate North Korea’s test-firing of short-range missiles so as to save the engagement process with Pyongyang.

It is not just Trump; others in his administration have also shrugged off North Korea’s short-range missile tests at a time when Washington is eager to revive stalled denuclearization talks with Pyongyang. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statements, for example, have highlighted U.S. willingness to put up with the test of any North Korean missile whose range is far short of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

After North Korea in early May conducted what was its first missile test in a year-and-a-half, Pompeo said on ABC’s This Week that, “At no point was there ever any international boundary crossed.” Referring to the agreement reached at the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June 2018, Pompeo candidly told Fox News Sunday, “The moratorium was focused, very focused, on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that threaten the United States, for sure.”

North Korea’s missile firings violate United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang from developing and testing ballistic missile technologies. According to Trump, there “may be a United Nations violation” but the “missiles tests are not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement, nor was there [any] discussion of short-range missiles when we shook hands.”

This position, in effect, means that the Trump administration is ready to sacrifice the security interests of America’s regional allies as long as Kim does not test any capability that threatens American security.

In fact, just before Trump left for the Singapore summit, Abe visited the White House to urge any agreement with Kim not to compromise Japan’s security interests. But that is precisely what happened, with Kim agreeing not to test ICBMs but gaining leeway on shorter, Japan-reachable missiles.

Among the five weapons tests North Korea has conducted since July 25 is a new short-range ballistic missile known internationally as KN-23. It seemingly resembles Russia’s nuclear-capable Iskander missile in its flight pattern and other traits.

Indeed, all three of the new missile systems test-fired by Pyongyang symbolize significant technological advances. They are all solid-fueled and road-mobile systems, making it easier to hide and launch them by surprise. By contrast, North Korea’s older, liquid-fueled missiles are detectable during the pre-launch fueling stage. At least one of the new missile systems can possibly be maneuvered during flight, making its interception more difficult for a missile defense system.

In this light, North Korea’s new missile systems represent a potent threat to America’s main allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea. But by shrugging off Pyongyang’s recent tests, including describing them as “smaller ones” that were neither ICBMs nor involved nuclear detonations, Trump has displayed remarkable insensitivity to Japanese and South Korean concerns.

Japan’s security nightmare has been that, as China continues to expand its already-formidable nuclear and conventional military capabilities, the U.S. will let North Korea retain the short- and medium-range portion of its nuclear arsenal. With self-interest driving U.S. policy, that nightmare appears to be coming true.

A North Korean subregionally confined nuclear capability will only deepen Japanese reliance on security arrangements with America. Japan has long remained ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But will the U.S. use nuclear weapons to defend Japan against an attack by China or North Korea?

For the U.S., its nuclear-umbrella protection serves more as a potent symbol of American security commitment and as a nonproliferation tool to prevent Japan from considering its own nuclear-weapons option. In a military contingency, the U.S. is more likely to employ conventional weapons to defend Japan, which pays Washington billions of dollars yearly for the basing of American troops on Japanese territory in the most generous host-nation support by any of America’s 27 allies.

The threat to Japan from North Korea’s nuclear-weapons capability comes not only from a potential nuclear strike but also from nuclear blackmail and coercion.

The main lesson for Japan from Trump’s focus on addressing only U.S. security interests is to directly engage Pyongyang by leveraging its own economic power. To shore up its security, Tokyo could also consider mutual defense arrangements with other friendly powers, including a nuclear-armed India.

Pacifism remains deeply embedded in Japanese society, in part because of the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism. But the key issue at stake today is not whether Japan should remain pacifist (Japan is the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation) but whether it can afford to stay passive in a rapidly changing security environment.

China would like Japan to continue relying on the U.S. for protection, because the alternative is the rise of Japan as an independent military power. Trump’s North Korea approach, however, will only encourage Japan to enhance its military capacity to forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. He is also a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

© China-US Focus, 2019.

Changes on the Indo-Pacific’s Geopolitical Chessboard

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Today, with the specter of Asian power disequilibrium looming, the China factor has gained greater salience in the equations between and among the major Indo-Pacific powers.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

downloadchessThe Indo-Pacific region’s geopolitical flux is being highlighted by several developments. The escalating U.S.-China trade war is setting in motion a gradual “decoupling” of the world’s top two economies; South Korea’s weaponization of history is increasingly roiling its relations with Japan; Beijing appears to be inexorably moving to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement; and the Sino-Pakistan strategic nexus is deepening. 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 (EEZ).

Add to the picture surging tensions over two Indo-Pacific hotspots: Taiwan, with the growing animosity between Beijing and Taipei increasing the risks of a shooting war; and the erstwhile kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, whose control is split among India, Pakistan and China.

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.

Another Tiananmen Square triggered by China’s unleashing of brute force would likely have far greater international geopolitical fallout than the 1989 massacre in Beijing. After the Tiananmen Square massacre, Washington did not sustain sanctions against Beijing in the naïve hope that a more prosperous China would liberalize economically and politically. But now a fundamental shift in America’s China policy is in progress.

To be sure, the larger challenges in the Indo-Pacific center on establishing a pluralistic and stable regional order, ensuring respect for existing borders, and safeguarding freedoms of navigation and overflight.

The Indo-Pacific’s geopolitical landscape will be shaped by five key powers: America, China, India, Japan and Russia. Equations within this strategic pentagon will profoundly influence Asian geopolitics in particular. As Asia’s geographical hub, China is especially vulnerable to the same geopolitical game it plays against Japan and India — strategic containment.

A shared grand strategy 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, U.S. President Donald 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 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In fact, the South China Sea, where China’s land reclamation and militarization persist, poses the biggest challenge for Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. How can the Indo-Pacific be “free and open” when, in its most-important sea corridor, China’s aggression continues?

As the U.S. government said on August 22, China’s coercion against Vietnam and other claimants “undermines regional peace and security,” imposes “economic costs” on them by “blocking their access to an estimated $2.5 trillion in unexploited hydrocarbon resources,” and demonstrates “China’s disregard for the rights of countries to undertake economic activities in their EEZs, under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention, which China ratified in 1996.” Vietnam, to its credit, has thus far refused to buckle under Chinese intimidation over an oil exploration project at the Vietnamese-controlled Vanguard Bank in the Spratly Islands.

Although the Vanguard Bank project involves a Russian energy firm, the U.S. has stood out as the only important power to directly criticize China’s coercion against Vietnam. However, U.S. sanctions against Russia and tariffs against China have counterproductively fostered a partnership between the world’s largest nuclear power and second-largest economy.

Russia and China, however, are not natural allies but natural competitors. China’s rise has paralleled Russia’s decline. Today, Chinese expansionism is bringing Central Asia’s ex-Soviet republics under China’s sway and threatening Moscow’s interests in the Russian Far East. Russia, the world’s largest country by area and richest in natural resources, shares a long border with a resource-hungry China, whose population is 10 times larger.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called Russian President Vladimir Putin his “best and bosom friend.” Yet, beneath the surface, all is not well. Despite booming economic ties, the Russia-China relationship is marred by mutual suspicions and wariness in the political realm. In the Russia-India case, it is the reverse: Bilateral trade has shrunk noticeably but political ties remain genuinely warm.

An open secret in Moscow is that Russia’s main long-term geopolitical challenge centers on China. The marriage of convenience between the bear and the dragon is unlikely to last long, given their history of geopolitical rivalry, including Chinese-initiated military clashes in 1969.

When the rupture happens, it will have as profound an impact globally as the 1960s’ Sino-Soviet rift, which led to the U.S. rapprochement with China. Indeed, the U.S.-China strategic collusion since the 1970s contributed significantly to Soviet imperial overstretch and to the West’s ultimate triumph in the Cold War.

Today, however, the U.S., instead of establishing itself as a natural wedge between Russia and China, has become a bridge uniting them against it.

For India, the China factor has always been central to its strategic ties with Moscow. In 1971, Indian 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).

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vladivostok from Thursday underscores 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. Like Abe, Modi will be in Vladivostok to attend the Eastern Economic Forum but he will also hold his annual summit with Putin. Modi’s visit will yield a military logistics pact with Russia of the kind that India has already concluded with America and France and is negotiating with Japan and Australia.

Today, with the specter of Asian power disequilibrium looming, the China factor has gained greater salience in the equations between and among the major Indo-Pacific powers. If the U.S., Russia, Japan and India were to work together, China would find itself boxed in from virtually all sides, extinguishing the prospect of a Sino-centric Asia.

Strategists both inside and outside the Trump administration have this logic in mind when pushing for rapprochement with Russia. But current American domestic politics will not allow that.

Moreover, Russo-Japanese relations have yet to be normalized, thus constituting a missing link in the strategic pentagon. Abe, however, has sought to court Putin to help rebalance power in Asia, while seeking Russia’s return of the resource-rich Northern Territories (which the Soviet Union seized just after the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945).

The imperative in the Indo-Pacific today is to build a new strategic equilibrium pivoted on a stable balance of power. A constellation of likeminded states linked by interlocking strategic cooperation has become critical to help build such equilibrium.

Trump may have done little to build broader geostrategic collaboration with other important players in the Indo-Pacific, but his lasting legacy will be the paradigm change in America’s China policy — a shift that enjoys bipartisan support in the U.S.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2019.

Damming the Mekong Basin to Environmental Hell

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Dam construction on the Mekong River poses a serious threat to the region’s economies and ecosystems. The only way to mitigate that threat is to end defiant unilateralism and embrace institutionalized collaboration focused on protecting each country’s rights and enforcing its obligations – to its people, its neighbors, and the planet.

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Arming without a clear strategic direction

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

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Why India must get its act together on water diplomacy

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

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Trump makes trouble for India

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

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Election triumph will boost Modi’s international clout

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Narendra Modi, left, and Xi Jinping talk at a garden in Wuhan on Apr. 28, 2018: Modi has invited Xi to India on Oct. 11 for another “informal” summit.   © Xinhua/AP

Brahma Chellamey, Nikkei Asian Review

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hit the ground running after shocking the country’s liberal chattering classes by returning to power with a thumping majority in the parliamentary elections on the back of a nationalist wave.

Modi’s new Cabinet is a mix of old and new faces. Before being sworn in for a second term on May 30, Modi already set out a heavy foreign-policy agenda, including meetings with several world leaders in the coming months — among them possibly two with U.S. President Donald Trump.

But wherever he goes, China — and the strategic threat it poses for India — will be at the top of his agenda.

Modi’s anti-elite coalition garnered a nearly two-thirds majority in the ruling lower house of Parliament. The strong mandate gives Modi the authority to move forcefully on domestic and foreign policy.

Modi is in some ways India’s Shinzo Abe, reflecting the Japanese prime minister’s soft nationalism, foreign-policy pragmatism, market-oriented economics, and tilt toward other major democracies, as well as a focus on maintaining a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, which largely comes down to containing China.

Just as Abe became Japan’s first prime minister born after World War II, Modi is India’s first head of government born after the country gained independence in 1947. However, unlike Abe’s distinguished political lineage, Modi, a self-made man, rose from humble beginnings.

Modi’s nationalist plank, like Abe’s, has been a key factor behind his political rise. His record in office also mirrors Abe’s cautious approach.

For example, like the Abe-led Liberal Democratic Party’s commitment to constitutional reform, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP, hews to constitutional revisionism, especially the abrogation of Article 370 that grants the troubled, northern state of Jammu and Kashmir special powers and status.

But just as his close friend, Abe, has thus far not introduced any amendment to tinker with Japan’s standing as the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation, Modi has trod cautiously on constitutional change.

Modi’s foreign policy will likely stick to cautious pragmatism. However, showmanship and a penchant for springing surprises have also been the trademarks of Modi’s highly personalized way of decision-making.

This has led his critics to claim that Modi has a presidential 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 BJP prime minister who made the country a nuclear-weapons state by overtly conducting nuclear tests. Only weak, fractious governments have been different.

Just before the recent elections, Modi, in a warning shot across China’s bow, demonstrated India’s space-war capability. India’s successful “kill” of one of its own satellites with a missile on March 27 made it the fourth power, after the United States, Russia and China, to shoot down an object in space.

India tested an anti-satellite weapon on Mar. 27, saying an indigenously produced interceptor was used to destroy an object in orbit.

Just as the anti-satellite weapon test marked a major milestone in India’s quest for effective deterrence against China, Modi’s first foreign-policy moves after his re-election also have Beijing in view.

For his first overseas trip, Modi has strategically chosen the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives, where voters last year booted out a China-backed autocrat, but not before he allowed Beijing to acquire several islets on lease. Generous Indian financial assistance to the Maldives since the restoration of democracy there has not only helped that nation to escape a Chinese debt trap but also allowed the new president’s Maldivian Democratic Party to sweep recent parliamentary elections.

Modi’s June 7-8 visit is symbolically important: The leader of the world’s largest democracy will begin his second term by touring the world’s smallest Muslim nation — in both population and area.

In another smart move, Modi invited to his inauguration the leaders of the member-states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC, a grouping that brings together Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. BIMSTEC is a promising initiative compared to the moribund South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC, whose leaders Modi invited to his first inauguration in 2014.

The Bay of Bengal, which connects South and Southeast Asia, is where India’s “neighborhood first” and “Act East” policies meet. In contrast to SAARC, which boxes India in a narrow framework limited to the Indian subcontinent, the east-oriented BIMSTEC seeks to realign India along its historical axis. India’s main trading and cultural partners in history were the countries to its east.

BIMSTEC thus meshes better with India’s strategic compass. It also furthers India’s role in the U.S.-led strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a concept authored by Abe.

By inviting BIMSTEC, not SAARC, leaders, Modi kept out troublesome Pakistan, which greeted his reelection in North Korean style — by firing a nuclear-capable, Chinese-designed intermediate-range ballistic missile.

The inauguration snub prompted Pakistan to extend until mid-June the closure of its airspace to most east-west overflights. Pakistan had said that, after the Indian elections, it would end the closure, in effect since India’s February 26 airstrike on a Pakistan-based terrorist group that claimed responsibility for a massacre of more than 40 Indian paramilitaries.

The close alignment between Pakistan and China epitomizes Modi’s strategic challenges in one of the world’s troubled neighborhoods.

Modi has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to India on October 11 for another “informal” summit of the kind the two leaders held in Wuhan 13 months ago in a bid to mend frayed relations. China has been holding live-fire combat exercises near the border with India. However, Trump’s policy shift on China is helping to constrict Beijing’s room for maneuver against India.

Trump, to be sure, is also compounding Modi’s challenges, despite the growing U.S.-India bonhomie. He has raised energy-poor India’s oil-import bill by forcing it to stop buying from Iran and Venezuela. Washington, despite securing $15 billion worth of Indian defense contracts, is pressuring India to halt buying major Russian military hardware.

Trump has also taken trade actions against India, including on May 31. Accusing New Delhi of failing to provide the U.S. with “equitable and reasonable access to its markets in numerous sectors,” he announced the termination of India’s benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, which allows preferential duty-free imports of up to $5.6 billion from India.

When Trump called Modi to congratulate him on his re-election, the two agreed to meet on the sidelines of the June 28-29 G-20 summit in Osaka. Modi’s hectic travel schedule will also take him to the June 14-15 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Kyrgyzstan, the September 4-6 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, and a likely bilateral summit with Trump in Washington in the fall.

Modi’s travel plans show there is no doubting his commitment to advancing India’s interests. If he fails to do so perceptibly in his second term, he will suffer for it politically. But if he succeeds, he may turn out to be the most important Indian leader on the world stage since Indira Gandhi, who engineered Bangladesh’s 1971 independence and conducted India’s first nuclear test in 1974.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.