China’s actions risk creating a coalition of democratic powers

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Brahma Chellaney, Professor, Center for Policy Research

The United States, Japan, India and Australia have renewed efforts toward a strategic constellation of democracies in the Indo-Pacific region, with their diplomatic officials meeting jointly on the sidelines of the recent East Asia Summit in Manila. The future of this currently low-key quadrilateral initiative (or “quad”) will be shaped largely by China’s actions, which are acting as a spur to establish what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once called a “democratic security diamond.”

If China moderates its behavior by respecting international law, the quad is unlikely to gain traction. But if Beijing continues to flout established rules and norms on territorial, maritime and trade issues, the apparition of what it sees as an “Asian NATO” might eventually come true.

Today, the specter of a destabilizing power imbalance looms large in the world’s most dynamic region. In this light, close strategic collaboration among the major democracies can help institute power stability in the Indo-Pacific region and contain the challenges that threaten to disrupt stability and impede economic growth.

Let’s be clear: the alternative to a liberal, inclusive, rules-based order is an illiberal, hegemonic order with Chinese characteristics. Few would like to live in such an order.

Yet, this is precisely what the Indo-Pacific region might get if regional states do not work to counter the growing challenge to the rules-based order. China has prospered under the present order. But having accumulated economic and military power, it is now insidiously challenging that order through its actions.

Before the Manila summit, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pitched for a concert of democracies. “The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” a development that demands “greater engagement and cooperation” among democratic powers, Tillerson said in his first Asia-Pacific policy speech since taking office.

To succeed, such an endeavor must reckon with certain realities, including by drawing lessons from the failed effort a decade ago to sustain a similar quadrilateral initiative. After the original quad held its inaugural meeting in May 2007, Beijing was quick to cry foul and mount intense diplomatic and economic pressure on the member-states. Ultimately, it succeeded in unraveling the quad.

From the beginning, Australia appeared ill at ease in the original quad, given that its economic boom was tied to China’s ravenous commodity imports. America’s own support to the quad was less than unreserved, in light of its economic co-dependency with China. As for India, its approach was low-key — tacitly supportive of the quad, but hesitant to do anything openly that could instigate China to step up direct or surrogate military pressure on it. That left Japan as the only enthusiastic member of the original quad. Indeed, the quad idea was conceived by Abe in his book, Utsukushii Kuni-e (Toward A Beautiful Country), which was published just months before he became prime minister for the first time in 2006.

Eventually, the Kevin Rudd government in Australia pulled the rug from under the quad in a vain attempt to appease Beijing. With his visiting Chinese counterpart by his side, then Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, “I indicated when I was in Japan that Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature.” He went on to label the inaugural quad meeting as “a one-off” affair.

Did the disbanding of the original quad help change China’s behavior in a positive direction? Actually China’s behavior changed for the worse.

Had the quad members stood up to the Chinese pressure, China would likely have had less space to strategically alter the status quo in the South China Sea in its favor. China’s success in extending its control in the South China Sea by artificially creating seven islands and militarizing them has only emboldened its aggressive designs in the Himalayas and the East China Sea.

The lost decade since the first quad experiment means that democratic powers cannot afford to fail again. They need to come together through meaningful collaboration and coordination, because no single power on its own has been able to stop China’s territorial and maritime creep or rein in its increasingly muscular approach. The rebirth of the quad is an attempt to provide an initial framework to institute such collaboration among an expanding group of democracies.

To be sure, a democratic coalition is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. A loose coalition of democracies can draw strength from the concept of democratic peace, which holds special relevance for the region. Shared values and interests are likely to drive democratic powers to promote maritime security, stability, connectivity, freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the region.

Democratic powers must proceed slowly, but surely, without unduly publicizing their meetings or intentions, in view of their failed experiment a decade ago and the current geopolitical challenges that are largely centered on China’s recidivist actions.

Japan and India, facing direct Chinese military pressure, have a much greater interest in the formation of a concert of democracies than the geographically distant U.S. and Australia.

An ongoing political crisis in Australia could trigger an election early next year, potentially bringing to power the opposition Labor Party, which seemingly favors a China-friendly foreign policy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s job approval rating has slumped to a new low. Australia, having caused the collapse of the first quad experiment, remains the weak link in the reconstituted quad.

Meanwhile, the praise Trump lavished on China and its neo-Leninist dictator, Xi Jinping, during his Beijing visit raised the question of whether he fully shares Tillerson’s Indo-Pacific vision. To be sure, the success of the reconstituted quad depends on the U.S. being fully on board.

Major Asia-Pacific powers, of course, will continue to seek opportunities to balance against China, with or without the U.S. being on board. Two recent examples from the region — the revival of the quad and the movement toward concluding a final Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement among the 11 remaining members — indicate a clear determination to block the emergence of a China-led future.

The plain fact is that the Indo-Pacific democracies are natural allies. And given that contrasting political values have become the main geopolitical dividing line in the Asia-Pacific region, establishing a community of values can help underpin regional stability and power equilibrium. Such a community can also ensure that China’s defiant unilateralism is no longer cost-free.

But whether a constellation of democracies actually emerges or remains just an attractive concept hinges on China’s willingness to play by the rules. In that sense, the ball is in Beijing’s court.

© China-US Focus, 2017.

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Abe propels a potential constellation of democracies

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BY , The Japan Times

With the specter of a destabilizing power imbalance looming large in the world’s most dynamic region, the Indo-Pacific, the imperative to establish what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once called a “democratic security diamond” has prompted Australia, India, Japan and the United States to renew efforts toward a strategic constellation of democracies.

Close strategic collaboration among key democracies can help institute power stability and contain the challenges that threaten to disrupt stability and impede economic growth in the Indo-Pacific, a region marked by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific oceans. At the core of a potential constellation of democracies is the strategic quadrilateral of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.

On the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila, U.S. President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Abe held bilateral and trilateral meetings between themselves. Diplomatic officials from the four countries also held a joint meeting there to examine “ways to achieve common goals and address common challenges in the region,” with the quadrilateral partners agreeing to defend the rules-based order, according to the U.S. State Department.

Let’s be clear: The alternative to a liberal, inclusive, rules-based order is an illiberal, hegemonic order with Chinese characteristics. Few would like to live in such an order.

Yet this is precisely what the Indo-Pacific region might get if regional states do not work to counter the growing challenge to the rules-based order. China has prospered under the present order. But having accumulated economic and military power, it is now challenging that order, including by flouting established rules and norms on territorial, maritime and trade issues.

Before the Manila summit, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pitched for a concert of democracies. “The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” a development that demands “greater engagement and cooperation” among democratic powers, Tillerson said in his first Asia-Pacific policy speech since taking office.

To succeed, such an endeavor must reckon with certain realities, including by drawing lessons from the failed effort a decade ago to sustain the exploratory Quadrilateral Initiative. After the “quad” held its inaugural meeting in May 2007, Beijing was quick to cry foul and see the apparition of an “Asian NATO.” Through intense diplomatic and economic pressure, Beijing sought to unravel the quad. Ultimately, it succeeded.

Australia appeared ill at ease in the quad, given that its economic boom was tied to China’s commodity imports. America’s support to the quad was less than unreserved, in light of its economic co-dependency with China. India was tacitly supportive of the quad but hesitant to do anything openly that could instigate China to step up direct or surrogate military pressure on it.

That left Japan as the only enthusiastic quad member. Indeed, the quad idea was conceived by Abe in his book “Utsukushii Kuni-e” (“Toward A Beautiful Country”), which was published before he became prime minister for the first time in 2006.

Eventually, the Kevin Rudd government in Australia pulled the rug from under the quad in a vain attempt to appease Beijing. With his visiting Chinese counterpart by his side, then-Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, “I indicated when I was in Japan that Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature” and labeled the inaugural quad meeting as “a one-off” affair.

Did the quad’s disbanding help change China’s behavior in a positive direction? Actually China’s behavior changed for the worse. Had the quad members stood up to the Chinese pressure, China would likely have had less space to strategically alter the status quo in the South China Sea in its favor. China’s success in extending its control in the South China Sea by artificially creating seven islands and militarizing them has only emboldened its aggressive designs in the Himalayas and the East China Sea.

The lost decade since the first quad experiment means that democratic powers cannot afford to fail again. They need to come together through meaningful collaboration and coordination because no single power on its own has been able to stop China’s territorial and maritime creep or rein in its increasingly muscular approach.

To be sure, a democratic coalition is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. A loose coalition of democracies can draw strength from the concept of democratic peace, which holds special relevance for the region. Shared values and interests are likely to drive democratic powers to promote maritime security, stability, connectivity, freedom of navigation, respect for international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the region.

Democratic powers must proceed slowly but surely, without unduly publicizing their meetings or intentions, in view of their failed experiment a decade ago and the current geopolitical challenges that are largely centered on China.

Japan and India, facing direct Chinese military pressure, have a much greater interest in the formation of a concert of democracies than the geographically distant U.S. and Australia.

An ongoing political crisis in Australia could trigger an election early next year, potentially bringing to power the opposition Labor Party, which seemingly favors a China-friendly foreign policy. Turnbull’s job approval rating has hit a new low. Having caused the collapse of the first quad experiment, Australia is the weak link in the reconstituted quad.

Meanwhile, the praise Trump lavished on China and its neo-Leninist dictator, Xi Jinping, during his recent Beijing visit raises the question whether he fully shares Tillerson’s Indo-Pacific vision. Despite his praise and flattery, Trump failed to secure any important Chinese concession. In fact, his visit, far from highlighting U.S. leadership, unwittingly spotlighted China’s strength and power to potentially shape a post-American order in the Asia-Pacific region.

To be sure, the success of the reconstituted quad hinges on the U.S. being fully on board. Of course, major Asia-Pacific powers will continue to seek opportunities to balance against China, with or without the U.S. being on board. Two recent examples from the region — the revival of the quad and the movement toward concluding a final Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement among the 11 remaining members — indicate a clear determination to block the emergence of a China-led future.

Still, the absence of a joint statement after the Nov. 12 quad meeting in Manila underscores the challenge the nascent initiative faces. Each quad member-state issued its own statement.

The resurrected quad — the result of Abe’s diplomatic doggedness — is intended to serve as an initial framework to promote a four-way security dialogue and set in motion a web of interlocking partnerships among an expanding group of democracies.

Given that contrasting political values have become the main geopolitical dividing line in the Asia-Pacific region, establishing a community of values can help underpin regional stability and power equilibrium. Such a community can also ensure that China’s defiant unilateralism is no longer cost-free.

The plain fact is that the Indo-Pacific democracies are natural allies. The Japan-U.S.-India-Australia strategic trapezium is best placed to lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and to make sure that liberalism prevails over illiberalism.

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

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Asia-Pacific democracies’ new entente

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Just as Germany’s rapid ascent prior to WWI spurred a “triple entente” among France, Russia, and the UK, China’s increasingly aggressive behavior is creating strong impetus for the Asia-Pacific democracies to build a more powerful strategic coalition. This goal should become the centerpiece of these countries’ regional policies.

Project Syndicate

PERTH – US President Donald Trump toured Asia at a moment when the region’s security situation was practically white-hot. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recognizing that the world’s “center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” called on the region’s democratic powers to pursue “greater engagement and cooperation.” They – including Trump’s US – should heed that call. In fact, only an alliance of democracies can ensure the emergence of a strong rules-based order and a stable balance of power in the world’s most economically dynamic region.

In recent years, as Tillerson acknowledged, China has taken “provocative actions,” such as in the South China Sea, that challenge international law and norms. And this behavior is set to continue, if not escalate. Last month’s 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China effectively crowned President Xi Jinping – who has spearheaded a more muscular foreign policy, in service of his goal of establishing China as a global superpower – as the country’s emperor.

Just as Germany’s rapid ascent prior to World War I spurred a “triple entente” among France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, China’s increasingly assertive behavior is creating strong impetus for the Asia-Pacific democracies to build a more powerful coalition. After all, as recent experience in the South China Sea has made clear, no single power can impose sufficient costs on China for its maritime and territorial revisionism, much less compel Chinese leaders to change course.

This is not to say that no country has been able to challenge China. Just this summer, India stood up to its muscle-flexing neighbor in a ten-week border standoff. China has been using construction projects to change the status quo on the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam, just as it has so often done in the South China Sea. India intervened, stalling China’s building activity. Had US President Barack Obama’s administration shown similar resolve in the South China Sea, perhaps China would not now be in possession of seven militarized artificial islands there.

In any case, securing a broader shift in China’s foreign policy and stabilizing the Asia-Pacific region’s power dynamics will require more than one country holding the line on any one issue. A US that is willing to employ new tools, a more confident Japan and India, and an Australia vexed by China’s meddling in its domestic affairs must work together to constrain Chinese behavior.

The good news is that an entente has already begun to emerge among the region’s key democracies. America’s relationship with India, in particular, has been undergoing what Tillerson called a “profound transformation,” as the two countries become “increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence.” The US now holds more joint defense exercises with India than with any other country. Such cooperation puts the two countries in a strong position to fulfill Tillerson’s vision of serving “as the eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific.”

Engagement with Japan, too, has deepened. This year’s Malabar exercise – an annual naval exercise in the Indian Ocean involving the US, India, and Japan – was the largest and most complex since it began a quarter-century ago. Focused on destroying enemy submarines, it involved more than 7,000 personnel from the US alone, and featured for the first time aircraft carriers from all three navies: America’s nuclear-powered USS Nimitz, Japan’s Izumo helicopter carrier, and India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya.

As Tillerson pointed out, this trilateral engagement among the US, India, and Japan is already bringing important benefits. But “there is room to invite others, including Australia, to build on the shared objectives and initiatives.”

So far, Australia has sought to avoid having to choose between its security ally, the US, and its main economic partner, China. Despite Defense Minister Marise Payne’s recent declaration that “Australia is very interested in a quadrilateral engagement with India, Japan, and the United States,” the government seems to be hedging its bets. For example, while it sought this year to rejoin the Malabar exercise – from which it withdrew a decade ago to appease China – it sought to do so only as an “observer.”

This approach is untenable. If Australia is to free itself of Chinese meddling, it will need to go beyond implementing new domestic safeguards to take a more active role in defending rules and norms beyond its borders, both on land and at sea.

In the coming years, the Indo-Pacific power balance will be determined, first and foremost, by events in the Indian Ocean and East Asia. Containing China will therefore require, first, efforts to restrict the country’s maritime activities – such as measures to safeguard vital sea lines and build maritime domain awareness – and, second, geo-economic initiatives to counter China’s coercive leverage over smaller countries. All of Asia’s democratic powers must be on board.

Calls by the US for closer cooperation bode well for this process, though the US still needs to focus more on the globally ascendant and aggressive China than on a declining Russia. The overwhelming victory of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – who has touted the idea of establishing a “democratic security diamond” in the Asia-Pacific – in his country’s recent general election is also likely to help to drive cooperation forward.

To be sure, any entente among Asian democracies is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. Rather, the objective should be for democratic powers to reach a broad strategic understanding, based on shared values. It is those values, after all, that set them apart: as Tillerson recognized, while Trump’s upcoming visit to Beijing will undoubtedly draw much global attention, the US cannot have the kind of relationship with non-democratic China that it can have with a major democracy.

By pursuing cooperation, the Indo-Pacific’s democratic powers can shore up an inclusive, rules-based order that underpins peace, prosperity, stability, and freedom of navigation in the region. That is the only way to thwart China’s effort to establish itself as the hegemon of an illiberal regional order.

Brahma Chellaney

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

© Project Syndicate, 2017.

Xi’s newfound strength obscures China’s internal risks

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BY , The Japan Times

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China, the world’s communist behemoth, is at a turning point in its history, one that will have profound implications for the rest of the world, but especially for Asia. Neighboring countries, from Japan to India, are already bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies.

The just-concluded 19th Chinese Communist Party congress put its imprimatur on President Xi Jinping’s centralization of power by naming no clear successor to him and signaling the quiet demise of the collective leadership system that has governed China for more than a quarter century. The congress, in essence, was about Xi’s coronation as China’s new emperor.

By enshrining the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era” in its constitution, the party has made this new “ideology” — just like Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong’s thoughts — compulsory learning for Chinese students at all levels.

To be sure, the lurch toward absolutism didn’t happen suddenly. Xi spent his first five-year term tightening control on society. While strengthening censorship and using anti-corruption probes to take down political enemies, he steadily concentrated powers in himself. A year ago, he got the party to bestow on him the title of “core” leader.

Now, in his second term, Xi will likely centralize power in a way China hasn’t seen since Mao. Xi has already made himself in some ways more powerful than even Mao. Today, everyone is dispensable except Xi, who appears set to remain in power indefinitely.

Domestic politics in any country, including a major democracy like the United States, has a bearing on its foreign policy. The link between China’s traditionally cut-throat internal politics and its external policy has been apparent since the Mao era.

For example, China launched the 1962 Himalayan war with India after Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” created the worst manmade famine in history, with the resulting damage to his credibility, according to the Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, serving as a strong incentive for him to reassert leadership through a war. The Great Leap Forward policy led to the deaths of up to 45 million Chinese, according to the historian Frank Dikötter.

In the run-up to the latest party congress, two senior military generals disappeared from public view, including the top general holding the position equivalent to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is unthinkable that in any other major country in the twenty-first century, the top-ranking general can just vanish and later is said to be under detention for alleged abuse of office.

Xi has ruthlessly cut to size any institution or group that could pose a potential challenge to his authority. By purging and jailing countless number of generals on corruption charges, he has sought to tame the powerful People’s Liberation Army, which traditionally has sworn fealty to the party, not the nation. More recently, Xi has also gone after China’s new tycoons in order to block the rise of Russia-style oligarchs.

Control and nationalism are the guiding themes in Xi’s approach, which centers on the state being in charge of all aspects of public life, including culture, religion and the digital realm. But such an approach risks creating a pressure cooker syndrome — cool on the outside but so pressurized on the inside that it could not be deftly managed.

It is true that even before Xi assumed power in 2012, China began gradually discarding Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to “keep a low profile and bide one’s time.” An increasingly nationalistic, assertive China staked out a more muscular role, including resurrecting territorial and maritime disputes and asserting new sovereignty claims.

China’s proclivity to bare its claws, however, has become more pronounced under Xi, who sees the West in retreat and wants China to gain the upper hand globally. His government has aggressively used construction activity to change the status quo in Asia in relation to land and sea frontiers and cross-border river flows. In his marathon, three-and-a-half-hour speech to the party congress, Xi actually bragged of his “successful prosecution of maritime rights,” citing “South China Sea reef and island construction” as one of his major achievements.

In fact, Xi aspires to become modern China’s most transformative leader. Just as Mao helped to create a reunified and independent China through a communist “revolution,” and Deng set in motion China’s economic rise through reforms, Xi wants to make China the central player in the international order.

Now that Xi’s pet “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project has been officially enshrined in the party’s constitution, the world will likely witness a greater Chinese propensity to use geo-economic tools to achieve larger geostrategic objectives. The $1 trillion OBOR, however, symbolizes the risk of China’s strategic overreach: The majority of the nations in OBOR are junk rated or not graded by international rating firms. China’s OBOR drive is actually beginning to encounter a backlash in several partner countries.

Even so, the sycophancy with which senior officials abased themselves to extol Xi at the party congress indicates that there is no room for debate in a one-man-led China. Indeed, Xi’s gaining of virtually absolute power demonstrates — if any evidence were needed — that there is no linear path between rising prosperity and political pluralism.

Internationally, Xi’s neo-Maoist dictatorship will likely spell trouble for the free world, especially Asian democracies like India, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. We will likely see a China more assertive in the Indo-Pacific region, more determined to achieve global superpower status, and more prone to employing instruments of coercive diplomacy and breaching established norms and rules. A restrained and stable Chinese foreign policy could become more difficult.

Xi’s vision, which he has called the “Chinese dream,” is essentially to make China the world’s preeminent power by 2049 — the centennial of the communist “revolution.” The longest any autocratic system has survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet Union. Xi’s grip on power may still be intact when China is expected to overtake that record in less than seven years.

Still, with the party’s ideological mask no longer credible, the longer-term prospects of continued communist rule are far from certain. After all, China’s future is likely to be determined not so much by its hugely successful economy as by its murky domestic politics.

Xi’s new strength and power helps obscure China’s internal risks, including the fundamental challenge of how to avoid a political hard-landing. As for Xi, he needs to watch his back, having made many enemies at home in his no-holds-barred effort to concentrate power in his own hands.

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

© The Japan Times, 2017.

The long history of Rohingya Islamist militancy

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today

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Inside Myanmar’s Rakhine state: Members of the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, also known as Harakah al-Yaqin, which is aided by militant organizations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The current international narrative on the plight of Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya minority has failed to recognize the roots of the present crisis or the growing transnational jihadist links of Rohingya militants, who have stepped up attacks. Contrary to the perception that the Rohingya militancy has arisen from military repression in recent years, Myanmar’s jihad scourge is decades old, with Rohingya Islamist violence beginning even before Myanmar gained independence in 1948.

Rohingya militants have actually been in the vanguard of the global rise of Islamic radicalism since the early 1940s, when they joined the campaign to press the British to establish Pakistan by partitioning India. It was the British who earlier moved large numbers of Rohingyas from East Bengal to work on rubber and tea plantations in Burma, now Myanmar, which was administered as a province of India until 1937 before it became a separate, self-governing colony. Rohingya migrants settled mainly in Myanmar’s East Bengal-bordering Arakan region (now renamed Rakhine state).

Between 1942 and the early 1950s, a civil war raged in Arakan between Muslims and Buddhists. Communal hatred spilled into violence during World War II as the Japanese military advanced into Arakan in 1942 and the British launched a counter-offensive, with local Buddhists largely siding with the Japanese and Rohingyas with the British.

Britain recruited Rohingya Muslims into its guerrilla force — the so-called “V” Force — to ambush and kill Japanese troops. When the British eventually regained control of Arakan in 1945, they rewarded Rohingya Muslims for their loyalty by appointing them to the main posts in the local government.

Emboldened by the open British support, Rohingya militants set out to settle old scores with Buddhists. And in July 1946, they formed the North Arakan Muslim League to seek the Muslim-dominated northern Arakan’s secession from Myanmar. In the religious bloodletting that preceded and followed the partition of India, Rohingya attacks sought to drive out Buddhists from northern Arakan as part of the campaign to join East Pakistan.

Failure to achieve that goal turned many Rohingyas to armed jihadism, with mujahideen forces in 1948 gaining effective control of northern Arakan. Government forces suppressed the revolt in the early 1950s, although intermittent mujahideen attacks continued until the early 1960s. From the 1970s onwards, however, Rohingya Islamist movements re-emerged, with a series of insurgent groups rising and fading away. The aim of the groups was to establish an Islamist state within a Buddhist state, principally through demographic change and jihad.

Now history has come full circle, with the Myanmar military being accused of driving Rohingyas out of Rakhine state. But in a development that carries ominous security implications for the region, especially Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, Rakhine is becoming a magnet for the global jihadist movement, with Rohingya radicals increasingly being aided by militant organizations in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The new breed of Rohingya insurgents is suspected of having links with ISIS, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaeda and even Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. Ata Ullah, the Pakistani who heads the Rohingya terrorist group, the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, reportedly returned to Pakistan from an extended stay in Saudi Arabia with millions of dollars to wage jihad against Myanmar after the 2012 deadly communal riots in Rakhine.

Against this background, India is legitimately concerned about the illegal entry of over 40,000 Rohingyas since 2012, with the government telling the Supreme Court that their arrival poses a “serious security threat” because of the links of Rohingya militants with terrorist outfits and the ISI agency. Some of these militants have become active in India, according to the government.

What is particularly disturbing is the organized manner in which the Rohingyas have sneaked into India from multiple routes and then settled across the length and breadth of the country, including in sensitive places like Jammu, Kashmir Valley, Mewat and Hyderabad. Rohingya settlements have come up even in New Delhi. Because they entered India unlawfully, the Rohingas are illegal aliens, not refugees.

Normally, those fleeing a conflict-torn zone tend to camp just across an international border. But in this case the Rohingyas entered India via a third nation, Bangladesh. And then large numbers of them dispersed from West Bengal and Tripura states to different parts of India. Many of them, as the government admits, have obtained Aadhaar and other identity cards.

Still, the government is reluctant to order an inquiry into the role of internal forces in assisting the Rohingyas’ entry, dispersal and settlement across India. Worse yet, it has passed the buck to the Supreme Court, with Home Minister Rajnath Singh saying the government would await the Court’s hearing and decision on the Rohingyas’ plea against possible deportation to Bangladesh, from where they entered. Thus far, New Delhi has been all talk and no action.

Make no mistake: India is a crowded country that, nonetheless, has generously admitted asylum seekers or refugees over the years from a host of places, including Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and mainland China. India is already home to some 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh.

But the Rohingya aliens pose a special challenge because of the escalating jihad in Rakhine and some Rohingyas’ militant activities on Indian soil. The external forces fomenting jihadist attacks in Rakhine bear considerable responsibility for the Rohingyas’ current plight.

© Mail Today, 2017.

Democratic powers must intensify Indian Ocean cooperation

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The Indian Ocean is becoming the center of international maritime rivalry

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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The Indian Ocean, with its crowded and in some cases contested sea lanes, is becoming the center of international maritime rivalry, with various powers jousting for influence and advantage in the world’s third largest body of water, which serves as a vital transit route for the global economy.

As if to highlight this trend, the Chinese navy recently conducted live-fire drills in the western Indian Ocean. China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted the fleet commander as saying that his ships “carried out strikes against ‘enemy’ surface ships” in an “exercise that lasted several days.” The fleet included a destroyer, a guided-missile frigate and a supply vessel. Earlier this year, similar live-fire drills were carried out in the eastern Indian Ocean by a Chinese fleet that also included a destroyer.

As the Chinese live-fire exercises show, the geostrategic maritime environment in the Indian Ocean is altering fundamentally. After consolidating its position in the South China Sea, Beijing is focusing increasingly on the Indian Ocean. A 1971 United Nations resolution declaring it a “zone of peace” has fallen by the wayside.

China’s increasing activity reflects a strategic shift from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection,” in the name of safeguarding its trade and energy interests. This mirrors the evolution of its land-combat strategy from “deep defense” (luring enemy forces into Chinese territory, where they can be garroted) to “active defense” (a proactive posture designed to fight on enemy territory).

Beijing is also employing supposedly economic initiatives to advance its geostrategic ambitions, including implementing its Maritime Silk Road project to gain a major foothold in the Indian Ocean and chip away at India’s natural-geographic advantage.

In recognition of this changing situation, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis kicked off a visit to New Delhi on Sept. 26 by offering a slew of weapon systems to India, including 22 unarmed MQ-9 “Reaper” unmanned aerial vehicles to aid naval intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and precision strikes. Mattis’s boss, President Donald Trump, recently called India “a key security and economic partner of the United States” and said the two countries are “committed to pursuing our shared objectives” in the Indo-Pacific region.

The growing importance of the Indian Ocean resources and sea lanes is apparent. More than half of the world’s container traffic, two-thirds of its seaborne petroleum trade, and a third of all maritime traffic traverse the ocean, much of it through chokepoints such as the Malacca and Hormuz straits.

The Indian Ocean is also rich in mineral wealth, with deep seabed mining emerging as a major new strategic issue. Various powers are seeking to tap seabed resources extending from sulfide deposits — which contain valuable metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc — to phosphorus nodules for phosphor-based fertilizers, underscoring the need for a regulatory regime and environmental protection.

The dangerous rush to exploit mineral and halieutic resources threatens to impose considerable environmental costs and spark new conflicts and confrontations. For example, several studies have indicated that commercial fishing by foreign fleets, by depleting local resources, has driven poor Somali fishermen to piracy.

Projecting naval power

The growth of nonstate actors such as pirates, terrorists and criminal syndicates off the Horn of Africa and elsewhere is also linked with the increasing density and importance of maritime flows through the Indian Ocean. This development, however, has become a pretext for outside powers to intervene and to project naval power. China, for example, has used the excuse of oceanic piracy to launch naval operations around the Horn of Africa and to set up its first overseas naval base at Djibouti, at the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean in north Africa.

China’s growing activities in the Indian Ocean draw strength from its success in changing the status quo in its favor in the adjacent South China Sea, where it has pushed its borders far out into international waters in a way that no power has done elsewhere. By erecting military facilities on manmade islands in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, China has positioned naval and air power at the mouth of the Indian Ocean.

It is now rapidly expanding its Indian Ocean footprint after setting up the Djibouti base and investing in building regional ports, including in Pakistan at Gwadar (which sits strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz), in Sri Lanka at Hambantota, and in Myanmar at Kyaukpyu. It also has port projects in the Seychelles and the Maldives. China’s submarine fleet — one of the fastest-growing in the world — is best suited not for the shallow South China Sea but for the Indian Ocean’s deep waters, a message Beijing has conveyed by dispatching attack submarines to the area.

It was always clear that if China got its way in the South China Sea, it would turn its attention to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Yet U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration allowed China to change the status quo by force in the South China Sea without incurring any international costs, even though this development carries greater and more far-reaching international geopolitical ramifications than Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Under Trump, the U.S. has shown no desire to seek a return to the status quo ante in the South China Sea. As a result, China is firming up its dominance there, while the U.S. symbolically undertakes freedom-of-navigation operations.

Cost-free unilateralism

In effect, China has demonstrated that defiant unilateralism is cost-free. This has left countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies with difficult choices. However, China’s actions have prompted Japan to reverse a decade of declining military outlays and India to revive stalled naval modernization.

Japan, which is heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean region for supplies of energy and raw materials, has also stepped up its regional engagement. For example, it is investing in eight port construction or renovation projects in Indonesia, India, Iran, Oman, Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Seychelles. Japan is also seeking to play a more active role in protecting the Indian Ocean sea lanes.

India, despite its strategic depth in the Indian Ocean, faces a new threat from the oceanic south. With Chinese submarines now making regular forays into India’s maritime backyard right under the nose of its Andaman and Nicobar Command, New Delhi must devise concrete steps to deal with China’s growing footprint.

With India’s energy and strategic infrastructure concentrated along a vulnerable, 7,600km coastline, the emergence of an oceanic challenge represents a tectonic shift in the country’s threat calculus. Yet it has been slow to face up to this reality. It needs a comprehensive maritime security strategy backed by naval capabilities that can take on tasks ranging from protecting and securing the seas to projecting power across the Indian Ocean region.

The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in the Bay of Bengal is a critical asset for India to counter the growing Chinese maritime presence and to blunt the increasing land-based, trans-Himalayan military threat mounted by China. Located next to the Strait of Malacca, the Andaman and Nicobar chain offers control of this strategic chokepoint, which is one of China’s greatest maritime vulnerabilities. Just as the Chinese military harasses and threatens Indian border patrols in the Himalayas, India can potentially play the same game off the Andaman and Nicobar chain, including by establishing China-style civilian maritime militias backed by the Indian Coast Guard.

The importance of this chokepoint can be easily stated: A third of the 61% of global petroleum and other liquids production that moves on maritime routes transits the Strait of Malacca, including around 82% of China’s fuel imports. China’s hold on the South China Sea jugular makes the Strait of Malacca chokepoint a critical defense area for Indian security.

More fundamentally, greater maritime cooperation among democratic powers is becoming inescapable. Cooperation between Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia and the U.S. must extend to guarding the various “gates” to the Indian Ocean by exerting naval power at critical chokepoints. The aim should be to forestall the emergence of a destabilizing Sinocentric Asia. The common observation that, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia,” is unattributed, but nonetheless true.

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

China’s troublesome civil-military relations

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Recent developments suggest President Xi Jinping is still struggling to keep the People’s Liberation Army in line.

 

China Military Parade

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects People’s Liberation Army troops during a military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA on July 30. | AP

BY The Japan Times

Has Chinese President Xi Jinping managed to assert full civilian control over the People’s Liberation Army through purges of generals and admirals and other reform-related actions? China’s secretive and opaque political system makes it hard to get a clear picture. Yet recent developments suggest Xi is still struggling to keep the PLA in line.

Take the recent troop standoff with India that raised the specter of a Himalayan war, with China threatening reprisals if New Delhi did not unconditionally withdraw its forces from a small Bhutanese plateau that Beijing claims is Chinese territory “since ancient times.” After 10 weeks, the faceoff on the Doklam Plateau dramatically ended with both sides pulling back troops and equipment from the site on the same day, signaling that Beijing, not New Delhi, had blinked.

The mutual-withdrawal deal was struck just after Xi replaced the chief of the PLA’s Joint Staff Department. This topmost position — equivalent to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff — was created only last year as part of Xi’s military reforms to turn the PLA into a force “able to fight and win wars.” The Joint Staff Department is in charge of PLA’s operations, intelligence and training.

The Doklam pullbacks suggest that the removed chief, General Fang Fenghui, who has since been detained for alleged corruption, was an obstacle to clinching a deal with India.

In mid-June, India’s close ally, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, discovered PLA crews working to build a road through Doklam, prompting New Delhi to dispatch troops and equipment to halt the construction of the road that was to overlook the trijunction where Tibet, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim meet.

In seeking to use road construction to change the status quo in a disputed Himalayan territory, the PLA, in a strategic miscalculation, anticipated Bhutan’s diplomatic protest but not India’s rapid military intervention. With the attempted land grab also threatening Indian security, New Delhi was quick to turn Bhutan’s call for help into India’s own fight.

To be sure, this was not the first time the PLA’s belligerent actions in the Himalayas imposed diplomatic costs on China. A classic case was what happened when Xi went to India for a state visit in September 2014. Xi arrived on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s birthday with a strange gift for his host — a predawn Chinese military encroachment that day deep into India’s northern region of Ladakh. The encroachment, the worst in many years in terms of the number of intruding troops, overshadowed Xi’s visit.

It appeared bizarre that the military of an important power would seek to mar in this manner the visit of its own head of state to a key neighboring country.

Yet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s earlier visit to New Delhi in 2013 was similarly preceded by a 19-km PLA incursion into another part of Ladakh that lasted three weeks. The encroachment was seemingly intended to convey anger over India’s belated efforts to fortify its border defenses.

Such provocations might suggest that they are intentional, with the Chinese government in the know, thus reflecting a preference for blending soft and hard tactics. But it is also possible that the provocations — at least their timing and duration — underscore the continuing “disconnect between the military and the civilian leadership” in China that then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned about in 2011.

During his 2014 India trip, Xi appeared embarrassed by the accompanying PLA encroachment that cast a pall over his visit. He assured Modi that he would sort it out upon his return.

Soon after he returned, the Chinese defense ministry quoted Xi as telling a closed-door meeting with PLA commanders that “all PLA forces should follow the president’s instructions” and that the military must display “absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party, guarantee a smooth chain of command, and make sure all decisions from the central leadership are fully implemented.”

Just weeks later, Xi again asked for the PLA’s full loyalty to the party, telling a military-political conference in Fujian that “the Communist Party commands the gun.”

Recently Xi conveyed that same message yet again when he addressed a parade marking the 90th anniversary of the PLA’s creation on Aug. 1, 1927. Donning military fatigues, Xi exhorted members of his 2.3 million-strong armed forces to “unswervingly follow the absolute leadership of the party.”

Had civilian control of the PLA been working well, would Xi repeatedly be demanding “absolute loyalty” from the military or asking it to “follow his instructions”?

With its one-party dictatorship placing the Communist Party above the state, China does not have a national army; rather the party has an army. So the PLA has traditionally sworn fealty to the party, not the nation. By contrast, in the case of China’s closest ally, Pakistan, the army has a country.

Under Xi’s two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, the PLA gradually became stronger at the expense of the party. The military’s rising clout has troubled Xi because it hampers his ambition to become China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Xi’s present wife — folk singer Peng Liyuan — is actually a civilian member of the PLA, holding a rank equivalent to major general.

As part of his effort to reassert party control over the military and carry out defense reforms, Xi has used his anti-corruption campaign to ensnare a number of top PLA officers. He has also cut the size of the ground force and established a new command-and-control structure.

But just as a dog’s tail cannot be straightened, asserting full civilian control over a politically ascendant PLA is proving unachievable. After all, the party is ideologically bankrupt and morally adrift, and depends on the PLA to ensure domestic order and sustain its own political monopoly.

The regime’s legitimacy increasingly relies on an appeal to nationalism. But the PLA, with its soaring budgets and expanding role to safeguard China’s overseas interests, sees itself as the ultimate arbiter of nationalism.

To make matters worse, Xi has made many enemies at home in his ruthless effort to concentrate power in himself, including through corruption purges. It is not known whether the PLA’s upper echelon respects him to the extent to be fully guided by his instructions.

The PLA and the government appeared to be on the same page during the Doklam standoff, with the Chinese foreign and defense ministries and other state organs keeping up a barrage of threats and vitriol against India. But no sooner had Xi fired the chief of the Joint Staff Department, Gen. Fang, then a deal with India was clinched. This suggested that the topmost general was resisting ending the standoff.

Fang was fired just days after he hosted America’s highest-ranking military officer, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fang was replaced by Gen. Li Zuocheng, considered a “war hero” for his combat role in the 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam, although China received a bloody nose from the more battle-hardened Vietnamese.

Xi’s military purges have been designed to consolidate his authority over the PLA and ensure that it does not blindside the government with actions or statements. But as Fang’s firing and other latest changes in the PLA leadership signal, Xi is still working to bring the military fully under his control.

More fundamentally, the PLA’s growing power is redolent of what happened in Imperial Japan, which rose dramatically as a world power in one generation after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Boosted by war victories against Manchu-ruled China and czarist Russia, the Japanese military acquired political clout and gradually went on to dictate terms to the civilian government, as the 1931 Manchurian Incident first highlighted. This opened the path to aggression and conquest in Asia, with tragic consequences for Japan and the region.

In the past decade, the PLA’s increasing clout has led China to stake out a more muscular role. This includes resurrecting territorial and maritime disputes, asserting new sovereignty claims, and using construction activity to change the status quo. It won’t be long before the PLA rekindles Himalayan tensions with a major new encroachment.

China’s cut-throat internal politics and troublesome civil-military relations clearly have a bearing on its external policy. The risks of China’s rise as a praetorian state are real and carry major implications for neighboring countries.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2017.