America’s Feeble Indo-Pacific Strategy

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US President Donald Trump’s administration wants to build a rules-based and democracy-led order in the Indo-Pacific, but seems to have no idea how. If it doesn’t find the answer soon, and imbue its Asia policy with strategic heft, constraining Chinese aggression will only become more difficult.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

HANOI – With the global geopolitical center of gravity shifting toward Asia, a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific order is more important than ever, including for America’s own global standing. So it was good news when, two years ago, US President Donald Trump began touting a vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, characterized by unimpeded trade flows, freedom of navigation, and respect for the rule of law, national sovereignty, and existing frontiers. Yet, far from realizing this vision, the United States has allowed Chinese expansionism in Asia to continue virtually unimpeded. This failure could not be more consequential.

Like Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific hasn’t been translated into a clear policy approach with any real strategic heft. On the contrary, the US has continued to stand by while China has broken rules and conventions to expand its control over strategic territories, especially the South China Sea, where it has built and militarized artificial islands. China has redrawn the geopolitical map in that critical maritime trade corridor without incurring any international costs.

To be sure, the US has often expressed concern about China’s activities, including its ongoing interference in Vietnam’s oil and gas activities within that country’s own exclusive economic zone. More concretely, the US has stepped up its freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, and engaged with the region’s three largest democracies – Australia, India, and Japan – to hold “quadrilateral consultations” on achieving a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Though the “Quad” has no intention of forming a military grouping, it offers a promising platform for strategic maritime cooperation and coordination, especially now that its consultations have been elevated to the foreign-minister level.

Yet there is no guarantee the Quad will fulfill that promise. While the grouping has defined vague objectives – such as ensuring, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has put it, that “China retains only its proper place in the world” – it has offered little indication of how it plans to get there.

America’s wider Indo-Pacific strategy has the same problem. The Trump administration wants to build a rules-based and democracy-led regional order, but seems to have no idea how. And instead of trying to figure that out, it has placed strategic issues on the back burner – for example, it downgraded its participation in the recent Asia-Pacific summits in Bangkok – and focused on bilateral trade deals.

Not surprisingly, this approach has done nothing to curb China’s territorial revisionism, let alone other damaging Chinese policies, including its appalling violations of the human rights of the Uighur ethnic group in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has reportedly detained more than a million Muslims, mostly Uighurs, in so-called reeducation camps – the largest mass incarceration on religious grounds since World War II.

Although a bipartisan US commission recommended sanctions over these internment camps last year, the Trump administration only recently imposed export and visa restrictions on camp-linked entities and officials, respectively. China expressed anger at the decision, insisting that its actions in Xinjiang are intended to “eradicate the breeding soil of extremism and terrorism,” but it is unlikely to be deterred by the relatively restrained US measures.

The Trump administration has also shown caution in its implementation of the Taiwan Travel Act and the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, both of which were enacted last year. Bipartisan legislation intended to support the people of Hong Kong, who have been protesting China’s increasingly blatant violations of their rights under the “one country, two systems” regime for months, is likely to face a similar fate.

China has vowed to retaliate if the US enacts the new laws, including one that would require the Secretary of State to certify each year whether Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous” to justify its special trading status. More broadly, Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned that anyone “attempting to split China” will end up with “crushed bodies and shattered bones,” and “any external forces backing such attempts” will be “deemed by the Chinese people as pipe-dreaming.”

That mentality – reinforced by years of breaking rules with impunity – will not be changed by economic measures alone. Yet economic measures remain Trump’s weapon of choice. While US sanctions and tariffs have exacerbated China’s economic slowdown, thereby undermining its ability to fund its expanding global footprint, real progress will also require strategic maneuvers These would send a clear message to both China and America’s regional allies.

Such a message is crucial because even the Quad members that were supposed to serve as the pillars of free and open Indo-Pacific have lately been hedging their bets on the US. Japan – whose prime minister, Shinzo Abe, originated the concept – has quietly dropped the term “strategy” from its policy vision for the Indo-Pacific. Australia has forged a comprehensive strategic partnership with China. And Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently hosted Xi.

The longer the US fails to act as a convincing counterweight to China, the more strategic space Xi will have to pursue his neo-imperialist agenda, and the less likely he will be to submit to US pressure, economic or otherwise. To prevent that, the US must provide strategic weight to its Indo-Pacific policy, including by establishing a clear plan for resisting China’s efforts to alter the status quo in the South China Sea. If the US oil company ExxonMobil exits Vietnam’s largest gas project, as seems likely, this will become even more urgent, given China’s interest in shutting extra-regional energy firms out of the South China Sea.

Trump once described Obama’s South China Sea strategy as “impotent.” But today, it is Trump’s approach to Chinese expansionism that looks weak. As China’s aggression continues to increase, that impotence will only become more apparent – and more damaging.

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

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

China is weaponizing water and worsening droughts in Asia

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

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

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.

The End of Sri Lankan Democracy?

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

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Changing Security and Power Dynamics in East Asia

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Brahma Chellaney, China-US Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© China-US Focus, 2019.

Changes on the Indo-Pacific’s Geopolitical Chessboard

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

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

downloadchessThe Indo-Pacific region’s geopolitical flux is being highlighted by several developments. The escalating U.S.-China trade war is setting in motion a gradual “decoupling” of the world’s top two economies; South Korea’s weaponization of history is increasingly roiling its relations with Japan; Beijing appears to be inexorably moving to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement; and the Sino-Pakistan strategic nexus is deepening. China, meanwhile, still pursues aggression in the South China Sea, as exemplified by its ongoing coercion against Vietnamese oil and gas activities within Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

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

If Hong Kong’s mass movement loses to Chinese authoritarianism, the implications will not be limited to that city. Indeed, it could embolden Beijing’s designs against Taiwan.

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

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

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

A shared grand strategy to manage a muscular China could aim to put discreet checks on the exercise of Chinese power by establishing counterbalancing coalitions around that country’s periphery.

However, U.S. President Donald Trump, with his unilateralist and protectionist priorities, has still to provide strategic heft to his policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept authored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In fact, the South China Sea, where China’s land reclamation and militarization persist, poses the biggest challenge for Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy. How can the Indo-Pacific be “free and open” when, in its most-important sea corridor, China’s aggression continues?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Vladivostok from Thursday underscores that Russia, with its strategic capabilities and vantage position in Eurasia, remains a key country for India’s geopolitical interests. Russia shares India’s objective for a stable power balance on a continent that China seeks to dominate. Like Abe, Modi will be in Vladivostok to attend the Eastern Economic Forum but he will also hold his annual summit with Putin. Modi’s visit will yield a military logistics pact with Russia of the kind that India has already concluded with America and France and is negotiating with Japan and Australia.

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2019.

Damming the Mekong Basin to Environmental Hell

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

DACHAOSHAN DAM

Arming without a clear strategic direction

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

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.