A rising power without allies

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

The more power China has accumulated, the greater has been its difficulty in gaining genuine allies, underscoring that leadership demands more than brute might. Contrast this with the strong network of allies and partners that the United States maintains in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere. The withering of China’s special relationship with North Korea, once its vassal, illustrates Beijing’s dilemma.

Last year, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said “we have allies, friends and partners where China does not,” while U.S. Secretary for Defense Ash Carter asserted that Beijing is “erecting a great wall of self-isolation.”

The rapid deterioration in Beijing’s ties with North Korea — which boasts good reserves of iron ore, coal, magnesite, graphite, copper, zinc and other minerals — is sure to increase China’s sense of being alone.

Indeed, when Pyongyang recently accused China of “mean behavior” and “dancing to America’s tune,” it underscored not only its ruptured relationship with its powerful neighbor but also the fact that Beijing is now left with just one real ally, Pakistan. Quasi-failed Pakistan, although a useful tool for Beijing to contain India, is a dubious ally for China in the larger context.

China’s rift with Pyongyang has followed the considerable weakening of Beijing’s once-tight hold on Myanmar, another country rich in natural resources — from oil and gas to jade and timber. Today, the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship is at its lowest point since the founding of North Korea in 1948.

The reported fatal poisoning of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, represents a major setback for China. Beijing valued him — a faded playboy with residences in Macau and Beijing — as a key asset against the North Korean dictator.

To be clear, China’s vaunted “blood relations” with North Korea have been souring since Kim Jong Un came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.

Since then, Kim Jong Un has been trying to show that North Korea is no client-state of China, including by rekindling the “juche” ideology of self-reliance. He has defied Beijing by repeatedly conducting nuclear and missile tests and signaled that he wants North Korea to escape from China’s clutches through better relations with the United States — an appeal that has gone unheeded in Washington.

Kim Jong Nam’s death, of course, is a blow not just for China but also for South Korea and the U.S., which had milked him for any intelligence he could provide on the inner workings of the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang. These three countries, recognizing the importance of the Kim family bloodline in dynastic North Korea, had indeed cultivated him as a potential replacement for his half brother. The North Korean ruler thus had ample reason to get rid of Kim Jong Nam.

Earlier in 2013, Pyongyang executed China’s most valued friend in the North Korean power hierarchy — Jang Song Thaek, a four-star general who was Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage. Jang, a mentor to Kim Jong Nam and Beijing’s main link to Pyongyang, was accused by the regime of abusing his power to favor China, including by underselling resources like coal, land and precious metals.

At the center of the growing China-North Korea tensions, however, is the bad blood between Kim Jong Un, who at 33 remains the world’s youngest head of state, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, nearly twice as old as him.

When Xi paid a state visit to South Korea in mid-2014, he overturned decades of tradition in which Chinese leaders always visited North Korea first. Xi has yet to travel to Pyongyang, just as Kim Jong Un has refused to visit Beijing. Paying obeisance in Beijing, however, was customary for Kim’s grandfather and father: Kim Il Sung, the founder of the state, paid 37 official visits to China, while his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, went nine times.

The young ruler’s effort to chart an independent course has sparked a sustained propaganda campaign against him in recent years by China’s state media, which has accused him of pursuing “de-Sinification” of his country and seeking to unlock ties with the U.S. and Japan.

Despite its exasperation, China’s options against the Kim regime are limited, given the fact that it does not want the North Korean state to unravel — a scenario that will result in a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with the U.S. The prospect of American troops on its border is a nightmare for China, which explains why it intervened in the Korean War when the U.S. Army crossed the 38th parallel and threatened to advance toward the Chinese border.

For centuries, China has seen the Korean Peninsula as its strategic Achilles’ heel — a region that offers foreign powers an attractive invasion route or a beachhead for attacking China.

Today, China has territorial and resource disputes with North Korea that a reunified Korea would inherit and rail against. The territorial disputes center on Chonji, the crater lake on Mount Paektu (where a 33-km stretch of the Sino-Korean boundary has not been settled) and certain islands in the Yalu and Tumen rivers, whose courses broadly define the frontier between the two countries.

Indeed, as if to signal that its present border with North Korea is not final, China has posted a revisionist historical claim that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo — founded in the Tongge River basin of northern Korea — was Chinese, not Korean, as believed by international historians. A 2012 U.S. Senate report warned that China “may be seeking to lay the groundwork for possible future territorial claims on the Korean Peninsula.”

Against this background, China sees status quo on the Korean Peninsula as serving its interest best. It will likely accept Korean reunification only if it leads to a “Finlandized” Korea making permanent strategic concessions to it.

China’s strongest action against North Korea to date — the recently imposed suspension of coal imports — can be ascribed to the “Trump effect.” U.S. President Donald Trump’s less predictable line, reflected in his wavering on the “one-China” policy and his tougher stance on Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, has prompted Beijing to take this action to blunt U.S. criticism that it is not doing enough to implement United Nations sanctions.

But China’s growing tensions with Pyongyang mean that the value of the North Korea card in Beijing’s dealings with the U.S. is likely to erode. For years, the U.S. has outsourced the North Korea issue to Beijing by offering it concessions. Today, far from credibly serving as Washington’s intermediary with North Korea, China is smarting from Pyongyang’s open disdain for it.

Still, China must grapple with the larger question of whether it can be a peer rival to the U.S. without any allies.

Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War.”

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Japan’s Senkaku challenge

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lee_photo_a2Japan Times

 

At a time of shifting power dynamics in Asia, Japan faces pressing security challenges. Of the 400 remote islands that serve as markers for determining Japan’s territorial waters, only about 50 are inhabited. But no group of islands poses a bigger challenge for its security than the Senkakus, a clutch of five uninhabited islets and three rocks.

This challenge is compounded by demographic and military trends. Japan has barely one-tenth the population of China’s. Moreover, its population is not just aging but also shrinking significantly; it declined by nearly a million just between 2010 and 2015.

About a decade ago, Japan’s defense budget was larger than China’s. But now China’s military spending surpasses the combined defense expenditure of Japan, Britain and France.

To make matters worse, China’s increasing territorial assertiveness and muscular foreign policy are contributing to a sense of insecurity in Japan.

President Xi Jinping declared much of the East China Sea, including the Senkakus, to be a Chinese air defense zone in 2013, and since then China has stepped up its challenge to Japan’s control over those islands, including through repeated intrusions by its military aircraft and warships. Beijing has hardened its stance by elevating its claim to the Senkakus to a “core interest,” while some in China have gone to the extent of questioning Japan’s sovereignty over even Okinawa.

Against this background, many Japanese have wondered whether the United States would come to Japan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack on the Senkakus. The 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty states that an armed attack on either country in the territories under Japan’s administration would prompt joint action “to meet the common danger.”

Then U.S. President Barack Obama’s contradictory rhetoric instilled a sense of skepticism in Japan. Obama publicly affirmed that the U.S.-Japan security treaty covered the Senkakus. But in the same breath he refused to take a position on the islands’ sovereignty and advised Tokyo and Beijing to sort out their dispute peacefully.

Obama said the U.S. security treaty with Japan covered the Senkaku Islands because they “are under Japanese jurisdiction,” yet “we also stress that we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.”

At his April 2014 joint news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Obama, while unveiling his position on the Senkakus, urged Japan to refrain from “provocative actions” and emphasized that his administration was committed to encouraging China’s “peaceful rise.”

He stated: “We don’t take a position on final sovereignty determinations with respect to Senkakus, but historically they have been administered by Japan and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally … In our discussions, I emphasized with Prime Minister Abe the importance of resolving this issue peacefully — not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions, and trying to determine how both Japan and China can work cooperatively together. And I want to make that larger point. We have strong relations with China. They are a critical country not just to the region but to the world. Obviously, with a huge population, a growing economy, we want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China.”

How could such doublespeak reassure Japan? In fact, such statements sowed doubt over America’s willingness to go to war with China to back Japan’s territorial rights, in the event of a surprise Chinese invasion of the Senkakus. The Obama administration responded by simply saying that “we do not envision that this current tension will rise to that level in any foreseeable scenario.”

Add to the picture Obama’s conspicuous inaction and silence on China’s 2012 seizure of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, despite America’s longstanding mutual defense treaty with Manila. That development served as a wakeup call for Japan and other U.S. allies in Asia.

By contrast, the new U.S. administration led by President Donald Trump has taken a more clear-cut stance in reassuring Japan that the U.S. would defend it in any confrontation with China over the Senkakus. It has done so without the Obama-style caveat — that Washington does not take sides in the sovereignty dispute and calls on China and Japan to resolve their dispute peacefully through dialogue.

In fact, the recent Trump-Abe summit marked the first time that the U.S. commitment to defend Japan’s control over the Senkakus was recorded in a joint statement.

The Feb. 12 Trump-Abe joint statement came out strongly for Senkakus’ defense: “The two leaders affirmed that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands. They oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands … The United States and Japan oppose any attempt to assert maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force.”

This unambiguous commitment should be seen as an important success of Abe’s proactive diplomacy in seeking to build a personal connection with the new U.S. president. Abe was the first foreign leader Trump hosted at Mar-a-Lago, which he calls “The Southern White House.” Earlier, just after Trump’s unexpected election victory, Abe met face-to-face with him by making a special stop in New York en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.

Let’s be clear: The Senkaku issue is not just about a seven-square-kilometer real estate or the potential oil and gas reserves that lie around it. The strategically located Senkakus, despite their small size, are critical to maritime security and the larger contest for influence in the East China Sea and beyond.

China is seeking to wage a campaign of attrition against Japan over the Senkakus by gradually increasing the frequency and duration of its intrusions into Japan’s airspace and territorial waters. In doing so, it has made the rest of the world recognize the existence of a dispute and the risks of armed conflict.

To be sure, changing the territorial status quo is nothing new for Beijing. The People’s Republic of China has been doing that ever since it was founded in 1949. The early forcible absorption of the sprawling Xinjiang and Tibetan Plateau more than doubled China’s landmass.

In the 21st century, Chinese expansionism has increasingly relied upon “salami tactics” — a steady progression of small, furtive actions, none of which serves as a casus belli by itself, yet which help to incrementally change facts on the ground in China’s favor.

Unlike China’s success in expanding its frontiers in the South China Sea, it has found the going tough in the East China Sea. Indeed, Beijing’s actions have shaken Tokyo out of its complacency and diffidence and set in motion the strengthening of Japan’s defense capabilities, including arming its far-flung island chain in the East China Sea with a string of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missile batteries.

At his joint news conference with Trump at the White House, Abe pledged that Japan will play a “greater role” in East Asian security. It was as if he was responding to Trump’s campaign rhetoric that Japan, which hosts about 50,000 American troops, should do more to defend itself.

One effective way the Trump administration can encourage Japan to do more for its own defense is by lending full support to the Abe-initiated national security and constitutional reform process. Such reforms could help forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia. Japan is already working to constrain China with its own version of Beijing’s “anti-access, area denial” doctrine against the U.S.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War.”

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Engagement over Antagonism

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Sanctions alone will not curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. A healthy dose of diplomacy is needed too.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review, February 27-March 5, 2017

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For North Korea, reeling under severe United Nations sanctions, conducting missile tests has become a regular expression of political defiance and technological progress. Just last year, showing its continuing contempt for UN resolutions, it tested almost two dozen missiles, including a submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Yet its first missile test since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election in November has been speciously portrayed as a major challenge to the new administration in Washington, with some analysts like ex-CIA chief James Woolsey even calling North Korea the top national security problem at present.

The fact is that the Feb. 12 test did not involve a long-range ballistic missile, which North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had said in his New Year’s Day speech was almost ready for launch. The fired missile, which traveled 500km, was just a medium-range type that Pyongyang has tested multiple times in different variants. And although North Korea said the test involved a new missile model with a solid fuel-powered engine — a technological advance that facilitates mobility and rapid launch — this is not the country’s first solid-fueled missile. As Pyongyang admits, the new surface-to-surface missile is based on its solid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Lost in the alarmism over the new missile is the fact that the test occurred just after Trump called North Korea a threat. Kim had been on good behavior ever since Trump’s unexpected election triumph, hoping that the new American president would adopt a fresh tack, in keeping with what Trump had said during the campaign — that he would be willing to meet with the North Korean leader over a hamburger.

Kim — the world’s youngest head of state — tested a nuclear device, purportedly a hydrogen bomb, two days before his Jan. 8 birthday in 2016. International media speculated that this year Kim would celebrate his birthday by testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, although he had referred to a long-range missile, not an ICBM, in his New Year’s Day speech. Kim, however, delayed his first missile test since Trump’s victory until much later — conducting it less than 36 hours after Trump, in a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House, said that “defending against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat” was “a very, very high priority” for him.

Trump’s tempered response to the missile test drew cynical comments from critics citing his bombastic Jan. 3 tweet. Relying on misleading media reports that Kim had threatened to test an ICBM, Trump posted on Twitter: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Truth be told, North Korea is far from developing an ICBM, as the latest missile test underscores.

Still, Trump is being publicly advised to ratchet up military pressure on Pyongyang, prompting him to declare: “Obviously, North Korea is a big, big problem, and we will deal with that very strongly.”

BIG-PICTURE ISSUES  

The debate on how to tame North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions should not obscure the larger issues involved. Three key matters stand out.

Firstly, the sanctions-only approach toward North Korea spearheaded by the United States has been a conspicuous failure, encouraging Pyongyang to rapidly advance its nuclear and missile programs. With little to lose, North Korea has responded to heavy sanctions by testing nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016. It has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to conduct nuclear tests in the 21st century. North Korea has also considerably enhanced its missile capabilities, though they remain subregionally confined in range.

Sanctions without engagement have never worked. In the North Korean case, the sanctions-only approach has done exactly the opposite of its intended goal — instead of halting or retarding nuclearization, slapping on additional sanctions after every major test has only egged Pyongyang on.

Secondly, Kim has repeatedly signaled that he wants his internationally isolated nation to escape from the clutches of its millennial rival, China. Significantly, he has not visited China since assuming power in 2011, although paying obeisance in Beijing was customary for his father and grandfather, who ruled before him.

Mao Zedong famously said China and North Korea were as close as lips are to teeth. But when China last March joined hands with the U.S. to approve the toughest new U.N. sanctions in two decades against North Korea, it highlighted its virtually ruptured relationship with Pyongyang.

At a time when China’s state media has accused Kim of pursuing “de-Sinification” and seeking improved ties with the U.S. and Japan, the fatal poisoning of Kim’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport has increased the sense of alarm and frustration in Beijing. Kim Jong Nam, a reputed playboy with residences in Beijing and Macau, was a virtual Chinese pawn against Kim.

Yet, oddly, Washington has attempted to push Kim further into the Chinese dragnet, instead of seizing on the opportunity created by his desire to unlock frozen ties with America. Some U.S. scholars have even suggested a grand bargain with Beijing on North Korea. Given that North Korea has sought direct engagement with Washington to offset Chinese leverage over it, nothing is more galling to Pyongyang than U.S. efforts to use Beijing as a diplomatic instrument against it. In effect, American policy has handed Beijing the North Korea card to play against South Korea, Japan and the U.S. itself.

In truth, China is already putting the squeeze on North Korea, especially since that country carried out its most powerful nuclear test last September. But its enforcement of U.N. sanctions in a controlled way has failed to change Kim’s calculus. Beijing, of course, values North Korea as a buffer state and does not want a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with Washington, because that will open a new threat, including bringing American troops to China’s border. Make no mistake: Chinese and American interests diverge fundamentally.

And thirdly, the U.S. has no credible military option against North Korea. Any military strikes to degrade the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities will provoke Pyongyang to unleash its artillery-barrage power against the South, triggering widespread destruction and a full-fledged war involving America. The planned U.S. deployment in South Korea of the anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD — which has never been battle-tested — is no real answer to North Korea’s nuclearization or to the North’s artillery choke-hold on Seoul. China, with some justification, sees the THAAD plan as essentially directed against it.

If there is any credible U.S. option to deal with Pyongyang, it is to give diplomacy a chance, with the goal of forging a peace treaty with the North to formally end the Korean War — which has officially been in a state of cease-fire since 1953. Denuclearization should be integral to the terms of such a peace treaty. But if denuclearization is made the sole purpose of engagement with the North, diplomacy will not succeed. President Barack Obama’s administration simply refused to talk unless Pyongyang first pledged to denuclearize. The North’s only leverage is the nuclear card, which it will not surrender without securing a comprehensive peace deal.

When repeated rounds of tight sanctions not only fail to achieve their objectives but counterproductively trigger opposite effects, the need for a new approach becomes inescapable.

Through a carrot-and-stick approach of easing some sanctions and keeping more biting ones in place, diplomacy can, by persisting with what will be difficult and tough negotiations, clinch a deal to end one of the world’s longest-lingering conflicts and eliminate weapons of mass destruction.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

MOUNTAINS OF TROUBLE

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A bolder India could rein in China’s dangerous antics in Tibet

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review, January 23-29, 2017, pages 56-57

download-1While it has become fashionable to pair China and India as if they were joined at the hip, it is often forgotten that the two have little in common politically, economically or culturally.

Comparatively speaking, the countries are new neighbors. The vast Tibetan plateau, encompassing an area greater than Western Europe, separated the two civilizations throughout history, limiting interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts.

It was only after China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951 that Chinese army units appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers. This was followed 11 years later by a war in which China’s battlefield triumph sowed the seeds of greater rivalry.

Today, Tibet remains at the center of the China-India divide, fueling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions and feuds over river-water flows. For example, Beijing was harshly critical of New Delhi in December for allowing the exiled Dalai Lama — who has lived in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959 — to visit the presidential palace for a public event and meet President Pranab Mukherjee, India’s head of state.

Further diplomatic protests from Beijing are expected in coming weeks when the Dalai Lama begins a religious tour of Arunachal Pradesh, a sprawling Indian state famous for its virgin forests and soaring mountain ranges. China claims the territory, which it has called “South Tibet” since 2006.

Tibet is an issue of relevance far beyond China and India. With its lofty terrain, featuring the world’s tallest mountain peaks and largest concentration of glaciers and riverheads, the Tibetan plateau influences atmospheric circulation — and therefore climate and weather patterns — across the northern hemisphere.

China has turned this resource-rich but ecologically fragile plateau into the center of its mining and dam-building activities. With the plateau warming at a rate nearly twice as fast as the rest of the world, glacial recession in the eastern Himalayas and the thawing of permafrost (permanently frozen ground) in Tibet are increasingly apparent.

Wedge issue

The environmental crisis haunting the plateau threatens the ecological well-being of multiple nations, including those dependent on the 10 major Asian river systems that originate on the Tibetan massif. But the environmental problems are dwarfed by political strains in the region.

China lays claim to vast tracts of Indian Himalayan land on the basis of purported Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links. Tibet’s long shadow over China-India relations is also apparent from the Dalai Lama’s lengthy abode in the Indian hill resort of Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The fall of Tibet represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development in modern India’s history. It gave China borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal for the first time, and facilitated a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis by opening a common land corridor.

The impact has been exacerbated by Indian blunders that have compounded the country’s “China problem” and undercut its leverage. New Delhi was one of the first capitals to embrace the Mao Zedong-led regime in Beijing after the Chinese Communist Party seized power in 1949. But just months later, Mao began annexing the historical buffer of Tibet, eliminating India’s outer line of defense by 1951.

Led by Jawaharlal Nehru, a romantic who viewed China sympathetically as a fellow postcolonial state, India went on to surrender extraterritorial rights in Tibet inherited from the U.K., its former colonial master. It also acknowledged the “Tibet region of China,” without getting Beijing to recognize the existing Indo-Tibetan border. Ironically, the pact that recognized China’s rights in Tibet was named after the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of Panchsheela, the five principles of peaceful coexistence.

Almost half a century later, India went further still, using the legal term “recognize” in a document signed by the heads of government of the two countries in 2003 that formally accepted Tibet as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

Dictating terms

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Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is helped by attending monks as he arrives at the inauguration of a four-day seminar in New Delhi, India on Dec. 9, 2016. © AP

Meanwhile, China has sought to crimp the Dalai Lama’s freedom within a democratic India. Initially, Beijing objected to official discussions between the Dalai Lama and foreign heads of state or government. But China has progressed over the years to protesting his presence at any state-linked event, and even his visits to other countries, such as a purely religious trip to Mongolia in November.

The New Delhi event that riled Beijing in December was organized for children’s welfare by Nobel laureates, a group that includes the Dalai Lama. Demanding that India respect China’s “core interests” and refrain from causing “any disturbance” to bilateral ties, China couched its protest in imperious terms. Instead of censuring Beijing for seeking to dictate terms to India, New Delhi responded almost apologetically that the meeting was a “non-political event.”

The more accommodative that India has become of China’s claims and concerns over Tibet, the more assertive Beijing has been in upping the ante. For example, in ratcheting up the Arunachal Pradesh issue in recent years, Beijing has contended that the region — almost three times larger than Taiwan — must be “reunified” with the Chinese state to respect Tibetan sentiment. The flimsy basis of its historical claim has been exposed by the Dalai Lama, who has publicly declared that Arunachal was never part of Tibet.

By bringing its Tibet position into alignment with China’s claim, India has not won Chinese gratitude; rather it has boosted Beijing’s clout and encouraged Chinese re-engineering of transboundary river flows, on which India is critically dependent.

According to Aquastat, a database maintained by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 718 billion cubic meters of surface water a year flows out of the Tibetan plateau and the Chinese regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to neighboring countries. Of that amount, 48.33% runs directly into India. In addition, Nepal’s Tibet-originating rivers drain into India’s Gangetic basin. So no country is more vulnerable than India to China’s current focus on building cascades of large dams on international rivers.

India can reclaim its Tibet leverage by emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet hinged on a grant of genuine autonomy to the region. Instead of autonomy, Tibet has experienced tightening political control and increasing repression, triggering grassroots desperation and a wave of self-immolations.

A braver Indian approach would include showing Tibet in its official maps in a different color from the rest of China and using expressions such as “the Indo-Tibet border,” instead of “the India-China border.” Using measures such as this, India can subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue without having to renounce formally any of its previously stated positions.

Whatever it does, India must not shy away from urging China to begin a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet. Having ceased to be a political buffer between China and India, Tibet can still become a political bridge between the world’s demographic titans if Beijing initiates a process of genuine reconciliation there to ease Tibetans’ feelings of estrangement. Otherwise, Tibet will remain at the core of the China-India divide.

India has played an important role in aiding the survival of Tibetan culture by funding Tibetan schools for the large number of Tibetan exiles it hosts. By recalibrating its Tibet policy, India could elevate Tibet as a strategic and environmental issue that impinges on international security and climatic and hydrological stability.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

India may be parched yet it is remarkably short-sighted on water resources

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today, December 30, 2016

imagesThe inter-ministerial task force set up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for correcting India’s under-utilization of its allocated share of waters under the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT) has just held its first meeting. The water-related issue facing India, however, is much larger: The continuing absence of institutionalized, integrated policymaking in India, which has prevented proper management of the country’s increasingly scarce water resources. Indeed, India stands out for its lack of a national action plan to build water security.

When the Indian Republic was established, the framers of its Constitution did not visualize water scarcity in the decades ahead, given the relative abundance of water resources then. Therefore, they left water as a state-level subject, rather than making it a federal issue.

Similarly, the IWT, under which India bigheartedly agreed in 1960 to the exclusive reservation of the largest three of the six Indus system rivers for Pakistan, was negotiated in a period when water shortages were uncommon in most parts of India. This led India to sign an extraordinary treaty whose terms commit India to indefinitely reserve over four-fifths of the total waters of the Indus system for Pakistan.

The treaty uniquely parceled out entire rivers to Pakistan. It granted Pakistan virtually exclusive rights to use the waters of the Chenab, the Jhelum, and the main Indus stream — known together as the “western rivers”. The average replenishable flows of the three western rivers total 167.2 billion cubic meters (BCM) per year. As its own share, India settled for a mere 40.4 BCM, or the total yearly flows of the three so-called eastern rivers — the Sutlej, the Beas, and the Ravi.

Four of these six rivers originate in India (three of them in Himachal Pradesh), and two (the main Indus stream and the Sutlej) originate in Tibet. Only the Jhelum originates in Jammu and Kashmir.

clipboard01Today, the national water situation in India is far worse than in China. China’s population is not even 10 per cent larger than India’s but its internally renewable water resources (2,813 BCM) are almost twice as large as India’s. In aggregate water availability, including external inflows (which are sizeable in India’s case), China boasts virtually 50 per cent larger resources than India.

Yet India serves as a case study of how a disjointed policy approach and lack of vision on managing water resources can exact serious costs by creating water shortages across much of the country. In a sense, India’s fragmented approach is exactly the opposite of China’s highly centralized approach centred on mega-projects.

The startling fact is that the responsibility for water issues is so fragmented within India’s central government that 12 different departments or ministries deal with different segments of water resources. To promote clear responsibility and accountability in national water management and to facilitate integrated policymaking, India must end its present fragmented approach on water issues.

As for India’s under-utilization of its IWT-allocated water share, the task facing the task-force is formidable. For example, the waters of the three eastern rivers not utilized by India aggregate to 10.37 BCM yearly according to Pakistan or, according to the UN, 11.1 BCM. These bonus outflows to Pakistan alone amount to six times Mexico’s total water share under its treaty with the US, and are many times greater than the total volumes spelled out in the Israel-Jordan water arrangements.

Although the IWT permits India to store 4.4 BCM of waters from the Pakistan-reserved rivers, a careless India has built no storage. And despite the treaty allowing India to build hydropower plants with no dam reservoir, India’s total installed generating capacity in J&K currently does not equal the size of a single new dam in Pakistan like the 4,500-megawatt Diamer-Bhasha, whose financing for construction was approved recently.

Against this background, the task force set up by Modi, with his principal secretary as its chairman, may be a step in the right direction. But constituting this committee is hardly an adequate response to fixing the anomaly as reflected in India’s under-utilization of its water share.

Made up of senior bureaucrats who are already busy attending to other tasks, the committee cannot by itself remove the bureaucratic hurdles in the proper utilization of water resources. India’s political negligence on this issue has been so deep and extensive that it can be remedied only through hands-on political direction and in coordination with the state chief ministers.

More fundamentally, water scarcity is a looming challenge across India. The water wars between various Indian states are highlighting how the competition over shared water resources is sharpening in an alarming manner.

India must treat water as a strategic resource for its own well-being. If the current compartmentalized approach to managing water resources persists, water shortages are going to exact growing economic and social costs in India.

© Mail Today, 2016.

A Water War in Asia?

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

Tensions over water are rising in Asia — and not only because of conflicting maritime claims. While territorial disputes, such as in the South China Sea, attract the most attention — after all, they threaten the safety of sea lanes and freedom of navigation, which affects outside powers as well — the strategic ramifications of competition over transnationally shared freshwater resources are just as ominous.

Asia has less fresh water per capita than any other continent, and it is already facing a water crisis that, according to an MIT study, will continue to intensify, with severe water shortages expected by 2050. At a time of widespread geopolitical discord, competition over freshwater resources could emerge as a serious threat to long-term peace and stability in Asia.

Already, the battle is underway, with China as the main aggressor. Indeed, China’s territorial grab in the South China Sea has been accompanied by a quieter grab of resources in transnational river basins. Reengineering cross-border riparian flows is integral to China’s strategy to assert greater control and influence over Asia.

China is certainly in a strong position to carry out this strategy. The country enjoys unmatched riparian dominance, with 110 transnational rivers and lakes flowing into 18 downstream countries. China also has the world’s most dams, which it has never hesitated to use to curb cross-border flows. In fact, China’s dam builders are targeting most of the international rivers that flow out of Chinese territory.

Most of China’s internationally shared water resources are located on the Tibetan Plateau, which it annexed in the early 1950s. Unsurprisingly, the plateau is the new hub of Chinese dam building. Indeed, China’s 13th five-year plan, released this year, calls for a new wave of dam projects on the Plateau.

Moreover, China recently cut off the flow of a tributary of the Brahmaputra River, the lifeline of Bangladesh and northern India, to build a dam as part of a major hydroelectric project in Tibet. And the country is working to dam another Brahmaputra tributary, in order to create a series of artificial lakes.

China has also built six mega-dams on the Mekong River, which flows into Southeast Asia, where the downstream impact is already visible. Yet, instead of curbing its dam-building, China is hard at work building several more Mekong dams.

Likewise, water supplies in largely arid Central Asia are coming under further pressure as China appropriates a growing volume of water from the Illy River. Kazakhstan’s Lake Balkhash is now at risk of shrinking substantially, much like the Aral Sea — located on the border with Uzbekistan — which has virtually dried up in less than 40 years. China is also diverting water from the Irtysh, which supplies drinking water to Kazakhstan’s capital Astana and feeds Russia’s Ob River.

For Central Asia, the diminished transboundary flows are just one part of the problem. China’s energy, manufacturing, and agricultural activities in sprawling Xinjiang are having an even greater impact, as they contaminate the waters of the region’s transnational rivers with hazardous chemicals and fertilizers, just as China has done to the rivers in its Han heartland.

Of course, China is not the only country stoking conflict over water. As if to underscore that the festering territorial dispute in Kashmir is as much about water as it is about land, Pakistan has, for the second time this decade, initiated international arbitral tribunal proceedings against India under the terms of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. The paradox here is that downstream Pakistan has used that treaty — the world’s most generous water-sharing deal, reserving for Pakistan more than 80% of the waters of the six-river Indus system — to sustain its conflict with India.

Meanwhile, landlocked Laos — aiming to export hydropower, especially to China, the mainstay of its economy — has just notified its neighbors of its decision to move ahead with a third controversial project, the 912-megawatt Pak Beng dam. It previously brushed aside regional concerns about the alteration of natural-flow patterns to push ahead with the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dam projects. There is no reason to expect a different outcome this time.

The consequences of growing water competition in Asia will reverberate beyond the region. Already, some Asian states, concerned about their capacity to grow enough food, have leased large tracts of farmland in Sub-Saharan Africa, triggering a backlash in some areas. In 2009, when South Korea’s Daewoo Logistics Corporation negotiated a deal to lease as much as half of Madagascar’s arable land to produce cereals and palm oil for the South Korean market, the ensuing protests and military intervention toppled a democratically elected president.

The race to appropriate water resources in Asia is straining agriculture and fisheries, damaging ecosystems, and fostering dangerous distrust and discord across the region. It must be brought to an end. Asian countries need to clarify the region’s increasingly murky hydropolitics. The key will be effective dispute-resolution mechanisms and agreement on more transparent water-sharing arrangements.

Asia can build a harmonious, rules-based water management system. But it needs China to get on board. At least for now, that does not seem likely.

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.

Trump could ‘pivot’ to Asia like Obama never did

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Trump may well launch his own ‘Asian pivot’ in the vacuum of Obama’s lackluster effort.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review, November 21, 2016

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U.S. President Barack Obama’s strategic “pivot” toward Asia, unveiled in 2012, attracted much international attention but did little to tame China’s muscular approach to territorial, maritime and trade disputes. Indeed, with the United States focused on the Islamic world, Obama’s much-touted Asian pivot seemed to lose its way somewhere in the arc between Iraq and Libya. Will President-elect Donald Trump’s approach to Asia be different?

In his first meeting with a foreign leader since his surprise Nov. 8 election triumph, Trump delivered a reassuring message to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who, in turn, described him as a “trustworthy leader.” In a smart diplomatic move, Abe made a special stop in New York on Nov. 17, en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru, to meet face-to-face with Trump, who shares his conservative, nationalistic outlook.

Today, Asia faces the specter of power disequilibrium. Concern that Trump could undo Obama’s pivot to Asia by exhibiting an isolationist streak ignores the fact that the pivot has remained more rhetorical than real. Even as Obama prepares to leave office, the pivot — rebranded as “rebalancing” — has not acquired any concrete strategic content.

If anything, the coining of a catchy term, “pivot,” has helped obscure the key challenge confronting the U.S.: To remain the principal security anchor in Asia in the face of a relentless push by a revisionist China to expand its frontiers and sphere of influence.

Trump indeed could face an early test of will from a China determined to pursue its “salami slicing” approach to gaining regional dominance. In contrast to Russia’s preference for full-fledged invasion, China has perfected the art of creeping, covert warfare through which it seeks to take one “slice” of territory at a time, by force.

With Obama having increasingly ceded ground to China in Asia during his tenure, Beijing feels emboldened, as evident in its incremental expansionism in the South China Sea and its dual Silk Road projects under the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. The Maritime Silk Road is just a new name for Beijing’s “string of pearls” strategy, aimed at increasing its influence in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile, without incurring any international costs, China aggressively continues to push its borders far out into international waters in a way that no other power has done.

Indeed, boosting naval prowess and projecting power far from its shores are at the center of China’s ambition to fashion a strongly Sino-centric Asia. Boasting one of the world’s fastest-growing undersea fleets, China announced earlier in November that its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is ready for combat. Such revanchist moves will inevitably test the new U.S. administration’s limits.

Tougher approach

In this light, it is difficult to see how Trump can afford to cut back on U.S. military deployments and assets in the Asia-Pacific region. What seems more likely is that Trump will live up to his election campaign promise to invest greater resources in the military. By relaxing some of the Obama-era constraints, Trump, in keeping with his “tough guy” image, could permit the U.S. navy and air force to initiate more aggressive reconnaissance and freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea. He could also invite China’s wrath by getting Japan to join U.S. air and sea patrols in the disputed waters.

Trump is also expected to be more assertive diplomatically than Obama, who refused to speak up even when China occupied the Scarborough Shoal, located well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The 2012 takeover occurred despite a U.S.-brokered deal under which both Beijing and Manila agreed to withdraw their vessels from the area. Yet the U.S. did nothing in response to China’s move, despite its mutual-defense treaty with the Philippines. That inaction helped spur China’s frenzied creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

In late 2013, when China unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone covering territories it claims but does not control in the East China Sea, Obama again hesitated. Indeed, Washington, far from postponing Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Beijing to express disapproval of the Chinese action, advised U.S. commercial airlines to respect the ADIZ — an action that ran counter to Japan’s advice to its carriers to ignore China’s demand for advance notice of flight plans through the zone. In effect, the U.S. condoned China’s move to establish the ADIZ.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s much-criticized action to cut his own deal with China, involving billions of dollars in Chinese investment pledges, should be seen in this context. The deal, however, is likely to hold only until the next major Chinese incursion.

The paradox here is that Beijing’s rising assertiveness helped the U.S. return to Asia’s center-stage — yet, even as China became more aggressive with its neighbors, the Obama administration dithered over how to rein in such expansionism or reassure America’s jittery Asian allies. In fact, the more assertive China has become in pressing its territorial and maritime claims, from the East China Sea to the Himalayas, the more reluctant the Obama administration has been to take sides in Asia’s territorial disputes — although they center on Beijing’s efforts to change the status quo with America’s strategic allies or partners.

No less significant is Obama’s failure to provide strategic heft to his Asia pivot. By studiously avoiding disputes with China while working to balance America’s relationships with key Asian states, his administration shied away from tough strategic choices. Indeed, no sooner had the pivot policy been unveiled than a course correction was effected, with the administration tamping down the pivot’s military aspects and laying emphasis instead on greater U.S. economic engagement with Asia. Even the modest measure to permanently rotate up to 2,500 U.S. marines through Darwin, Australia, is yet to be fully implemented.

To countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies, this lack of clarity has not only raised doubts about the U.S. commitment, but also left them effectively at the mercy of a regional predator. That, in turn, has forced several of them to tread with excessive caution around Chinese concerns and interests.

Shoring up alliances

Far from retreating from Asia, the U.S. under Trump is likely to bolster alliances and partnerships with states around China’s periphery. His administration may even support constitutional and national security reforms in Japan, on the assumption that a Japan that does more for its own defense will help to forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia. Such support will also fit well with Trump’s top priority to halt the erosion of America’s relative power through comprehensive domestic renewal, including reining in the mounting U.S. budget deficit.

Trump’s election, however, has dimmed prospects for full implementation of the 12-nation, Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. The TPP, which excludes not only China but also America’s close friends like India and South Korea, has been presented by Obama as the most important component of his unhinged pivot to Asia. In truth, the TPP is hardly a transformative initiative: With half its members already boasting bilateral free trade agreements with Washington, the TPP’s main effect would have been to create a free trade agreement between Japan and the U.S., which together account for about 80% of the gross domestic product of TPP signatories.

Trade is one area where Trump must deliver on his campaign promises or risk losing his credibility with the blue-collar constituency that helped propel him to victory. His administration not only will seek to renegotiate parts of the TPP — to the discomfit of Abe, who has made the trade deal a pillar of his economic reforms — but also is unlikely to give China a free pass on its trade manipulation. For this and many other reasons, U.S.-China ties could be in for a rough patch.

At a time when the very future of the Asian order looks uncertain, Trump could pivot to Asia in a way Obama did not. But today, no single power, not even the U.S., can shape developments on its own in Asia, including ensuring a rules-based order. His administration will have to work closely with likeminded states — from Japan and Australia to India and Vietnam — to build a stable balance of power in Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2016.