India’s Nepal challenge

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Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his New Delhi visit in April 2018.

Brahma Chellaney, DNA

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the right decision to visit Nepal, just weeks after he hosted his Nepalese counterpart, Khadga Prasad Oli, who chose India for his first foreign trip. New Delhi’s traditionally close relationship with Kathmandu is today in need of urgent repair, in part because of the Modi government’s missteps in the past couple of years and because of the election of a China-backed communist coalition in Nepal.

Landlocked Nepal has lurched from one crisis to another for more than two decades. Ever since it embarked on a democratic transition, it has been in severe political flux. It is too early to say if the Oli government will be able to bring political stability. The promise of an early merger of the two main Communist parties that have formed the government has given way to protracted negotiations and public squabbling.

Nepal is a strategic buffer between India and the Chinese-occupied Tibet, and developments there directly impinge on India’s security. India has an open border with Nepal permitting passport-free passage. This open border is becoming the Indian internal security’s Achilles heel.

Oli has long been a divisive figure. As a Communist guerrilla, he spent years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s for waging war against the state. In his first stint as PM from October 2015 to August 2016, Oli stoked tensions with the people in the Terai region (the Madhesis) and with India, deepening Nepal’s ethnic and political fault lines.

Now, in his second stint as PM since February 15, Oli has been talking of a foreign policy that maintains “equidistance” from India and China — in other words, a policy that seeks to balance Nepal’s two neighbouring powers. In reality, Oli — dubbed “Oily Oli” by his critics — can barely disguise his pro-China stance. After all, he is beholden to Beijing for bringing Nepal’s two Communist parties together before the elections and thereby helping him to return to power. He had accused India of manoeuvring his ouster as PM in August 2016.

Still, Oli’s April 6-8 New Delhi visit was intended to buy peace with India, which he recognises has still the capacity to make things difficult for him, in spite of China’s growing role and clout in Nepal. During his visit, he sought to assure New Delhi that he will not allow Nepalese territory to be used against Indian interests. But he will find it difficult to bridge the gap between his words and actions.

Modi has his own compulsions to visit Nepal. The impressive gains of his first visit in August 2014 were squandered by Indian missteps, including waking up belatedly to Nepal’s flawed new Constitution and then backing the Madhesi movement in favour of constitutional changes — an agitation that resulted in a five-month blockade on the cross-border movement of oil and other essential supplies from India to Nepal.

The new Constitution has left the plains people politically weaker through gerrymandered boundaries. The electoral system has been so manipulated as to give the hill people greater political representation than their population size merits.

In Nepal, however, a deep-seated suspicion about India’s intentions surfaces time and again, especially when the country’s internal problems worsen. The blockade whipped up a nationalistic backlash against India, especially because it occurred even before Nepal could recover from a devastating 7.9-magnitude earthquake — its worst natural disaster in more than eight decades. Oli’s government scapegoated India for Nepal’s then political and constitutional crisis, accusing it of imposing an unofficial trade blockade on Nepal.

The Modi government’s lack of a clear strategy on Nepal and its meandering approach made things worse. Having encouraged the Madhesi agitation, India later abandoned the Madhesis. Without Kathmandu meeting the Madhesis’ core demands, India pressured Madhesi leaders to participate in the state and federal elections of November and December 2017. The elections, by bringing to power the communists, strengthened China’s hand.

Now, seeking to cut losses, Modi plans to be in Nepal on May 11 and 12, during which he will also visit Janakpur, in the Terai plains. The visit to Janakpur — where, according to the Ramayana, Lord Rama wed Sita — in intended to signal that his government is still with the Madhesis.

The stark reality for India, however, is that its clout in Nepal has considerably eroded, both because of China’s aggressive inroads and the failure of successive Indian governments to handle that country strategically. It will not be easy for India to recoup its losses.

Oli, for his part, will continue to play the China card against India. For example, just after returning from New Delhi, he sent his foreign minister to pay obeisance in Beijing, where it was announced that China and Nepal would partner in trans-Himalayan transportation projects, including building a railway to Kathmandu.

Over the years, New Delhi has repeatedly conveyed to Kathmandu that China and Pakistan are taking advantage of the open Indo-Nepalese border to engage in activities detrimental to India’s security. For example, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence used Nepal to stage the December 24, 1999 hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC-814. Nepal has also become a transit point for the flow of counterfeit Indian currency notes and narcotics to India.

But it will not be easy for India to close the open border with Nepal, given the cross-frontier kinship ties. Moreover, some six million Nepalese work and live in India.

Meanwhile, Nepal’s political flux will also continue to affect India. Since returning to office, Oli has aggressively moved to expand his power, including seeking to make the judiciary subservient to the executive branch and eroding the autonomy of other institutions. His actions rekindle the question: Can democracy and communism go together?

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

© DNA, 2018.

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India-China summit highlights Modi’s hope versus Xi’s strategy

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An unpredictable and transactional Trump administration puts India on the back foot with Beijing

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “informal” summit meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, significantly, began on the same day as the inter-Korean summit on April 27. That Xi chose the same date for the two-day summit might not have been a mere coincidence, given that the historic meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea left China on the sidelines, with little influence over those proceedings.

It was Modi’s government, however, that initiated the effort at rapprochement with Beijing following a rocky year in which new disputes flared between the two Asian giants, including over China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Dalai Lama’s visit to a Chinese-claimed Himalayan Indian state, transboundary river waters, and the Chinese military encroachment on Doklam plateau, which India’s ally Bhutan regards as its own territory. The relationship between the two countries, which make up more than a third of humanity and almost a fifth of the global economy, is critical to international relations.

The Wuhan summit, with no set agenda other than to improve the relationship, was billed as a chance to “reset” ties. No breakthroughs on major disputes were expected. But no sooner had the summit ended than significant differences emerged on how India and China interpret even the understandings reached at Wuhan.

For example, India said the two leaders “issued strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to avoid further border friction. But China’s statement made no mention of that. India, which has chafed against increasingly lopsided trade with China, said agreement was reached to strengthen trade and investment in a “balanced and sustainable manner.” But that key phrase was missing from Beijing’s version.

Such differences are no surprise: The summit was long on political theater, such as shows of amity, but short on concrete results to fundamentally change the Sino-Indian dynamics. As if to pander to India’s proverbial weakness — confounding symbolism with substance — Xi focused more on diplomatic stagecraft, including receiving Modi with a very long red carpet, taking the Indian leader on a lakeside walk and a boat ride, and engaging in long handshakes while voicing hope the summit would “open a new chapter in bilateral ties.”

Compelling strategic reasons may have prompted Modi to seek reconciliation with China. Yet his abrupt policy shift is fraught with political risk at home, where it could potentially dent his self-cultivated image as a strongman boasting a 56-inch chest measurement. Modi decided to take the risk now because the national election is a year away. His gambit, however, sends confusing signals to India’s strategic partners, including about the country’s commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” — a key goal of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Behind Modi’s overture to China is India’s strategic imperative to develop a semblance of balance in relations with various powers, largely because his pro-U.S. foreign policy has failed to secure tangible benefits for India thus far. Trump’s increasingly transactional approach to international relations and narrow geopolitical calculations have generated growing American pressures on India, including to slash its $25-billion yearly trade surplus, cut back its ties with Russia and Iran, and maintain full diplomatic relations with Pakistan, despite the latter’s export of terrorists.

The U.S. is also warning that India’s defense and energy dealings with Russia would attract sanctions under the new Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, even as the Trump administration seeks “a flexible waiver authority” from Congress to protect relationships with India and others. Moreover, Trump’s policy to squeeze Iran, despite the 2015 nuclear deal, has emerged as an obstacle in the Indian project to expand and modernize the Iranian port of Chabahar, India’s gateway to landlocked Afghanistan and Central Asia. Trump’s restrictive visa policy, meanwhile, is crimping India’s $150-billion-a-year information technology industry.

A feeling is growing in New Delhi that the U.S. takes India for granted while it handles China with kid gloves, to the extent that Beijing managed to create and militarize seven artificial islands in the South China Sea without incurring any international costs. The Trump administration did not issue a single statement in India’s support during last summer’s 73-day Doklam military standoff, even as Beijing threatened virtually every day to teach India a bitter lesson. By contrast, Japan publicly sided with India.

In fact, U.S. policy continues to drive India’s old partner, Russia, closer to China, while Trump periodically heaps praise on “my good friend” Xi and says he is hopeful of clinching a deal with Beijing that would avert the imposition of punitive trade tariffs. By making China the main beneficiary of its fixation on Russia, North Korea and Iran, Washington is compelling New Delhi to hedge its bets.

In keeping with the old saying, “keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” Modi has sought to arrest the deterioration in Sino-Indian relations, which constricted India’s foreign policy options, including making it dependent on an unpredictable Trump administration. Indeed, with even Japan seeking to mend fences with China and inviting Xi to pay a visit, India could not afford to be an outlier.

Xi has his own strategic reasons to appreciate Modi’s overture, including the threat of a trade war with America. It is hardly in Chinese interest to push India — a critical swing state — into the anti-China camp. In any event, the semblance of better bilateral relations gives Beijing greater space, including by quieting New Delhi’s concerns, to pursue its engagement-with-containment strategy, which has steadily built greater strategic pressure on India.

Make no mistake: Prospects of a genuine rapprochement look anything but promising. This, after all, is Modi’s second effort at a “reset.” The first effort, which Modi launched soon after coming to office, backfired conspicuously. Xi arrived in India on Modi’s birthday in September 2014 bearing an unusual gift — a deep Chinese military incursion into India’s Ladakh region. Relations progressively worsened after that.

In fact, ever since China became India’s neighbor by occupying Tibet in 1951, high-level bilateral dialogue has been no indicator of better relations. For example, New Delhi’s ongoing negotiations with Beijing to settle territorial disputes first began in 1981, when India’s economy was larger than China’s. Now India’s economy is five times smaller, with China’s military power dwarfing India’s, yet the negotiations have still to produce real progress toward a resolution.

Little good has come from Modi’s own discussions with Xi, although the two have met 14 times since 2014 in different locations around the world. Since assuming office four years ago, Modi has already traveled to China four times and will be going there again soon for the mid-June summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization security bloc.

Modi actually traveled to Wuhan with weakened leverage. After Modi defiantly stood up to China’s Doklam aggression and forced Beijing to accept a mutual pullback from the standoff, Chinese forces in the past eight months have quietly moved in and occupied much of that remote plateau. Also, on Modi’s watch, China has doubled its trade surplus with India to almost $5 billion a month.

To be sure, Modi went to Wuhan just after the Indian Air Force, deploying its entire warfighting machinery and flying 11,000 sorties, conducted its largest ever exercise, which simulated a simultaneous war with China and its ally Pakistan. Nevertheless, with Modi seeking less border trouble and more balanced trade, Xi likely believes that the Indian leader needs him more than he needs Modi — a situation Xi will seek to exploit with the same guile that has effectively made him China’s new emperor.

This suggests that, far from addressing India’s security and economic concerns or reining in its increasing border intrusions, Beijing would like the Wuhan bonhomie to translate into two material gains — a bigger Chinese penetration of the Indian market and greater caution and reluctance on India’s part to challenge, or gang up against, China. In other words, a truly win-win outcome for China from Modi’s Reset 2.0. If this happens, Modi will validate Karl Marx’s statement that “history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.”

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

Why the South China Sea is critical to security

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Japan Times
When the U.S. aircraft carrier, Carl Vinson, recently made a port call at Da Nang, Vietnam, it attracted international attention because this was the first time that a large contingent of U.S. military personnel landed on Vietnamese soil since the last of the American troops withdrew from that country in 1975. The symbolism of this port call, however, cannot obscure the fact that the United States, under two successive presidents, has had no coherent strategy for the South China Sea.

It was on President Barack Obama’s watch that China created and militarized seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, while his successor, Donald Trump, still does not seem to have that critical subregion on his radar.

In fact, with Trump focused on North Korea and trade, China is quietly pressing ahead with its expansionist agenda in the South China Sea and beyond. At the expense of its smaller neighbors, it is consolidating its hold by constructing more military facilities on the man-made islands and dramatically expanding its presence at sea across the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

It was just five years ago that China began pushing its borders far out into international waters by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. After having militarized these outposts, it has now presented a fait accompli to the rest of the world — without incurring any international costs.

These developments carry far-reaching strategic implications for the vast region stretching from the Pacific to the Middle East, as well as for the international maritime order. They also highlight that the biggest threat to maritime peace and security comes from unilateralism, especially altering the territorial or maritime status quo by violating international norms and rules.

The Indo-Pacific region, which extends from the western shores of the U.S. to eastern Africa and the Persian Gulf, is so interconnected that adverse developments in any of its subregions impinge on wider maritime security. For example, it was always known that if China had its way in the South China Sea, it would turn its attention to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. This is precisely what is happening now. An emboldened China has also claimed to be a “near-Arctic state”and unveiled plans for a “polar Silk Road.”

In fact, with the U.S. distracted as ever, China’s land-reclamation frenzy in the South China Sea still persists. China is now using a super-dredger, dubbed by its designers as a “magical island-building machine.”

China’s latest advances are not as eye-popping as its creation of artificial islands. Yet the under-the-radar advances, made possible by the free pass Beijing has got, position China to potentially dictate terms in the South China Sea. Last year alone, China built permanent facilities on 290,000 square meters of newly reclaimed land, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

In this light, U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea cannot make up for the absence of an American strategy. FONOPS neither deter China nor reassure America’s regional allies.

Indeed, China’s cost-free change of the status quo in the South China Sea has resulted in costs for other countries, especially in Asia — from Japan and the Philippines to Vietnam and India. Countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivism have been left with difficult choices. Japan, of course, has reversed a decade of declining military outlays, while India has revived stalled naval modernization.

China’s sprawling artificial islands that now double as military bases are like permanent aircraft carriers, whose potential role extends to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

Beijing’s growing strategic interest in the Indian Ocean region has been highlighted by its establishment of its first overseas military base at Djibouti, its deployment of warships around Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port, and its acquisition of Sri Lanka’s strategically located Hambantota port under a 99-year lease. China is also acquiring a 70 percent stake in Myanmar’s deepwater Kyaukpyu port. A political crisis in the Maldives, meanwhile, has helped reveal China’s quiet acquisition of several islets in that heavily indebted Indian Ocean archipelago.

Against this background, the rapidly changing maritime dynamics in the Indo-Pacific not only inject strategic uncertainty but also raise geopolitical risks.

Today, the fundamental choice in the region is between a liberal, rules-based order and an illiberal, hegemonic order. Few would like to live in an illiberal, hegemonic order. Yet this is exactly what the Indo-Pacific will get if regional states do not get their act together.

There is consensus among all important players other than China for an open, rules-based Indo-Pacific. Playing by international rules is central to peace and security. Yet progress has been slow and tentative in promoting wider collaboration to advance regional stability and power equilibrium.

For example, the institutionalization of the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad” has yet to take off. The Quad, in fact, remains largely aspirational. In this light, the idea of a “Quad plus two” to include France and Britain seems overly ambitious at this stage.

If and when the Quad takes concrete shape, Britain and France could, of course, join. They both have important naval assets in the Indo-Pacific. During French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent New Delhi visit, France and India agreed to reciprocal access to each other’s naval facilities, on terms similar to the U.S.-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement.

Unless the Quad members start coordinating their approaches to effectively create a single regional strategy and build broader collaboration with other important players, Indo-Pacific security could come under greater strain.

If, under such circumstances, Southeast Asia — a region of 600 million people — is coerced into accepting Chinese hegemony, it will have a cascading geopolitical impact in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. China has employed a dual strategy of inducement and coercion to divide and manage the countries of Southeast Asia.

In the South China Sea, China is unlikely to openly declare an air defense identification zone as it did in the East China Sea. Rather it is expected to seek to enforce an ADIZ by gradually establishing concentric circles of air control after it has deployed sufficient military assets on the man-made islands and consolidated its hold over the subregion.

China could also declare “straight baselines” in the Spratlys, as it did in the Paracels in 1996. Such baselines connecting the outermost points of the Spratly island chain would seek to turn the sea within, including features controlled by other nations, into “internal waters.”

To thwart China’s further designs in the South China Sea and its attempts to change the maritime status quo in the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea, a constellation of democratic states linked by interlocking strategic cooperation — as proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — has become critical to help institute power stability. The imperative is to build a new strategic equilibrium, including a stable balance of power.

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.

China’s stealth wars in the Himalayas

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Beijing’s military advance into Bhutan-claimed territory leaves New Delhi floundering, raising concern over India’s own borders.

CCTV image

China’s CCTV in August shows a target exploding during a live-fire drill by the Chinese army near its border with India. © CCTV/AP

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Operating in the threshold between peace and war, China has pushed its borders far out into international waters in the South China Sea in a way no other power has done elsewhere. Less known is that China is using a similar strategy in the Himalayas to alter facts on the ground — meter by meter — without firing a single shot.

India is facing increasingly persistent Chinese efforts to intrude into its desolate borderlands. China, however, has not spared even one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, which has barely 8,000 men in its security forces. In the disputed Himalayan plateau of Doklam, claimed by both Bhutan and China, the People’s Liberation Army has incrementally changed the status quo since last fall.

Doklam became a defining event in a 10-week standoff between Chinese and Indian troops last summer after the PLA started building a highway on that plateau to the India border: For the first time since China’s success in the South China Sea, a rival power stalled Chinese construction activity to change the status quo in a disputed territory.

India intervened as Bhutan’s security guarantor to thwart a threat to its own security. Despite almost daily Chinese threats to “teach it a lesson,” India refused to back down, forcing a humiliated Beijing to eventually accept a mutual-withdrawal deal to end the standoff with a country it sees as economically and militarily inferior.

But as happened with the 2012 U.S.-brokered deal for Chinese and Philippine naval vessels to withdraw from around the Scarborough Shoal, China did not faithfully comply with the Doklam accord. If anything, China applied the Scarborough “model” to Doklam — agree to disengage and, after the standoff is over, quietly send in forces to occupy the territory.

Doklam thus illustrates that while India may be content with a tactical win, China has the perseverance and guile to win at the strategic level. Camouflaging offense as defense, China hews to ancient military theorist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.” As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception.”

India tried for months to obfuscate the PLA’s increasing control of Doklam so as not to dilute the “victory” it had sold to its public. Even as commercially available satellite images showed China’s rapidly expanding military infrastructure in Doklam, India’s foreign ministry tried pulling the wool over the public’s eyes by repeatedly saying there were “no new developments at the faceoff site or its vicinity,” located at the plateau’s southern edge. Meanwhile, China continued to build permanent military structures and forward deploy troops across much of Doklam.

This month, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman grudgingly admitted China has constructed helipads and other military structures in Doklam so as to “maintain” troop deployments even in winter. Previously, there were no force deployments or permanent military structures on the uninhabited plateau, which was visited by nomadic shepherds and Bhutanese and Chinese mobile patrols other than in the harsh winter.

To be sure, China has dictated a Hobson’s choice to India on Doklam, like it did to the Philippines over Scarborough: Go along with the changed status quo or face the risk of open war. Clearly, New Delhi didn’t anticipate that an end to the faceoff would result in rapid Chinese encroachments that now virtually preclude India intervening again in Doklam at Bhutan’s behest.

In effect, Beijing has shown Bhutan that India cannot guarantee its territorial integrity.

China’s objective unmistakably is to undercut India’s influence in Bhutan in the way Beijing has succeeded in another Himalayan nation, Nepal, where a Chinese-backed communist government took office earlier this year. It was Beijing that persuaded Nepal’s two main communist parties to overcome their bitter squabbles and join hands in national and local elections.

China’s new control over much of Doklam, however, effectively overturns the land-swap deal it has long offered Bhutan. Under the offer, the tiny kingdom was to cede its claim to that plateau in return for Beijing renouncing its claim to a slice of northern Bhutan.

Beijing has held some 24 rounds of border talks with Bhutan since 1984, just as its negotiations with India on territorial and boundary issues have gone on interminably since 1980 without tangible progress. In fact, the largest real estate China covets in Asia is in India — Arunachal Pradesh, a resource-rich Himalayan territory almost three times as large as Taiwan.

Today, China has stepped up military pressure on India, including beefing up its ground and air assets in the Himalayan region. The Indian government recently told Parliament that the number of Chinese military intrusions into India’s vulnerable borderlands jumped 56% in one year — from 273 in 2016 to 426 in 2017, or more than one per day. It seems that just as China’s trade surplus with India has doubled since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, its border incursions are also on a similar rising trajectory.

India’s perennially reactive mode allows the PLA to keep the initiative in the Himalayas. More fundamentally, China — by mounting strategic pressure on multiple Indian flanks while raking in a fast-growing trade surplus (currently running at nearly $5 billion a month) — is able to have its cake and eat it too.

Add to the picture another important element of China’s Himalayan strategy — reengineering transboundary flows of rivers originating in Tibet through dams and other projects. A third of India’s total freshwater supply comes from rivers that start in Tibet. Last year, China breached two bilateral accords with India by withholding upstream river flow data, which is necessary for flood forecasting and warning. Supply of such data could have prevented some of the deaths in the record flooding that ravaged India’s northeast.

Some 67 years after China eliminated the historical buffer with India by annexing Tibet, it is transforming Himalayan geopolitics to its advantage. China’s strategic penetration of Nepal, which has an open border with India permitting passport-free passage, carries major implications for Indian security. Having lost the outer buffer, Tibet, India now risks losing the inner buffer, Nepal.

In the absence of a coherent strategy to counter China’s aggressive Himalayan strategy, an increasingly defensive India has now sought to make peace with Beijing. For example, it not only advised its officials to stay away from events marking the 60th anniversary this month of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India, but also got Tibetan exiles to move those events from New Delhi to remote Dharamsala, in the Himalayan foothills. Modi’s attention is focused on returning to power in the next national election, which is due to be held in April-May 2019 but might be advanced to this year-end.

Just when Chinese President Xi Jinping’s lurch toward one-man rule has led to a rethink in the West on its relationship with China, India has signaled its intent to go soft on China, with its foreign ministry saying that New Delhi was willing to develop relations with Beijing “based on commonalities.” Salvaging Modi’s China visit for last September’s BRICS (Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa) summit prompted New Delhi to cut the Doklam deal with Beijing, paving the way for the Chinese advance into the plateau. Now Modi is again set to go to China, this time for a bilateral summit with Xi. But India will likely not only come away empty-handed from its new propitiatory approach but also give cover to China’s designs against it.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author, is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

A New Order for the Indo-Pacific

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China has transformed the Indo-Pacific region’s strategic landscape in just five years. If other powers do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could entrench China’s strategic advantages.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

SYDNEY – Security dynamics are changing rapidly in the Indo-Pacific. The region is home not only to the world’s fastest-growing economies, but also to the fastest-increasing military expenditures and naval capabilities, the fiercest competition over natural resources, and the most dangerous strategic hot spots. One might even say that it holds the key to global security.

The increasing use of the term “Indo-Pacific” – which refers to all countries bordering the Indian and Pacific oceans – rather than “Asia-Pacific,” underscores the maritime dimension of today’s tensions. Asia’s oceans have increasingly become an arena of competition for resources and influence. It now seems likely that future regional crises will be triggered and/or settled at sea.

The main driver of this shift has been China, which over the last five years has been working to push its borders far out into international waters, by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. Having militarized these outposts – presented as a fait accompli to the rest of the world – it has now shifted its focus to the Indian Ocean.

Already, China has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, which recently expropriated its main port from a Dubai-based company, possibly to give it to China. Moreover, China is planning to open a new naval base next to Pakistan’s China-controlled Gwadar port. And it has leased several islands in the crisis-ridden Maldives, where it is set to build a marine observatory that will provide subsurface data supporting the deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile subs (SSBNs) in the Indian Ocean.

In short, China has transformed the region’s strategic landscape in just five years. If other powers do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could entrench China’s strategic advantages. The result could be the ascendancy of a China-led illiberal hegemonic regional order, at the expense of the liberal rules-based order that most countries in the region support. Given the region’s economic weight, this would create significant risks for global markets and international security.

To mitigate the threat, the countries of the Indo-Pacific must confront three key challenges, beginning with the widening gap between politics and economics. Despite a lack of political integration and the absence of a common security framework in the Indo-Pacific, free-trade agreements are proliferating, the latest being the 11-country Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). China has emerged as the leading trade partner of most regional economies.

But booming trade alone cannot reduce political risks. That requires a framework of shared and enforceable rules and norms. In particular, all countries should agree to state or clarify their territorial or maritime claims on the basis of international law, and to settle any dispute by peaceful means – never through force or coercion.

Establishing a regional framework that reinforces the rule of law will require progress on overcoming the second challenge: the region’s “history problem.” Disputes over territory, natural resources, war memorials, air defense zones, and textbooks are all linked, in one way or another, with rival historical narratives. The result is competing and mutually reinforcing nationalisms that imperil the region’s future.

The past continues to cast a shadow over the relationship between South Korea and Japan – America’s closest allies in East Asia. China, for its part, uses history to justify its efforts to upend the territorial and maritime status quo and emulate the pre-1945 colonial depredations of its rival Japan. All of China’s border disputes with 11 of its neighborsare based on historical claims, not international law.

This brings us to the third key challenge facing the Indo-Pacific: changing maritime dynamics. Amid surging maritime trade flows, regional powers are fighting for access, influence, and relative advantage.

Here, the biggest threat lies in China’s unilateral attempts to alter the regional status quo. What China achieved in the South China Sea has significantly more far-reaching and longer-term strategic implications than, say, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, as it sends the message that defiant unilateralism does not necessarily carry international costs.

Add to that new challenges – from climate change, overfishing, and degradation of marine ecosystems to the emergence of maritime non-state actors, such as pirates, terrorists, and criminal syndicates – and the regional security environment is becoming increasingly fraught and uncertain. All of this raises the risks of war, whether accidental or intentional.

As the most recent US National Security Strategy report put it, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.” And yet while the major players in the region all agree that an open, rules-based order is vastly preferable to Chinese hegemony, they have so far done far too little to promote collaboration.

There is no more time to waste. Indo-Pacific powers must take stronger action to strengthen regional stability, reiterating their commitment to shared norms, not to mention international law, and creating robust institutions.

For starters, Australia, India, Japan, and the US must make progress in institutionalizing their Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, so that they can better coordinate their policies and pursue broader collaboration with other important players like Vietnam, Indonesia, and South Korea, as well as with smaller countries.

Economically and strategically, the global center of gravity is shifting to the Indo-Pacific. If the region’s players don’t act now to fortify an open, rules-based order, the security situation will continue to deteriorate – with consequences that are likely to reverberate worldwide.

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 JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis. © Project Syndicate.

 

India’s Choice in the Maldives

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As the political situation in the Maldives deteriorates, peace and security in the Indian Ocean is increasingly in jeopardy. With China seeking to capitalize on its support for the authoritarian president, Abdulla Yameen, to expand its influence in the region, the crisis has become a defining moment for India.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, Project Syndicate

The Maldives – that beautiful Indian Ocean country comprising more than 1,000 coral islands – is known the world over as a tranquil and luxurious travel destination. But the country is now being roiled by a political crisis so severe that international advisories are cautioning against travel there.

The rule of law in the Maldives has been steadily deteriorating ever since President Abdulla Yameen came to power in 2013. The situation escalated sharply earlier this month, when Yameen refused to comply with the Supreme Court’s unanimous order quashing the convictions, which he had engineered, of nine opposition figures – including the exiled former president, Mohamed Nasheed – on terrorism charges. Instead of freeing those whose sentences were nullified, Yameen declared a state of emergency and jailed two of the Supreme Court’s five judges, including the chief justice.

To be sure, authoritarianism is not new to the Maldives. Indeed, Nasheed is the only democratically elected, non-autocratic president the country has had since it gained independence from Britain in 1965. His tenure lasted just over three years, until, in 2012, he was forced at gunpoint to resign.

But the Maldives’ sordid politics is having an increasingly far-reaching impact, not least because it is closely linked to radical Islam. On the day Nasheed was overthrown, Islamists ransacked the Maldives’ main museum, smashing priceless Buddhist and Hindu statues and erasing all evidence of the country’s pre-Islamic roots. On a per capita basis, the Maldives has sent the highest number of foreign fighters to support terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.

Moreover, the Maldives sits astride critical shipping lanes in the Indian Ocean, making it vital to security in the region. As a result, the country’s deteriorating political conditions are increasingly capturing the international community’s attention. Democratic powers, from the United States to India, are calling upon the United Nations to intervene in the crisis, while China, seeking to advance its own interests in the Indian Ocean, is defending the graft-tainted Yameen.

The increasingly close relationship between China and the Maldives represents a significant shift from the past, when India was the country’s primary regional partner. Maldivians are mainly of Indian and Sri Lankan origin, and have strong cultural and economic ties to those countries. Their country has traditionally been viewed as part of India’s sphere of influence.

But, in recent years, China has been eroding India’s influence in the Maldives, as part of its effort to build its “string of pearls”: a chain of military installations and economic projects aimed at projecting Chinese power in the Indian Ocean. Just as China recently secured the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease, it has, according to Nasheed, quietly acquired 17 islands in the heavily indebted Maldives for investment purposes.

But, betraying its strategic objectives, China has also sent warships to visit the Maldives. If China, which has stepped up military pressure on India along their Himalayan frontier, turned one of the Maldivian islands into a naval base, it would effectively open a maritime front against India – a milestone in China’s strategic encirclement of its neighbor.

The Maldivian crisis thus is a defining moment for India. Will India intervene militarily, as Nasheed and other Maldivian opposition leaders have requested, or will it allow Yameen to continue to enable China to pursue its strategic objectives in the region?

There is some precedent for an Indian military intervention in the Maldives. In 1988, India snuffed out a coup attempt against the autocratic Maumoon Abdul Gayoom engineered by a Maldivian businessman with the aid of armed mercenaries, especially Sri Lankan Tamil separatists. Thanks to India’s swift military action, Gayoom would hold onto power for another two decades.

Yet when the country’s first and only democratically elected president beseeched India in 2012 to rescue him from the Islamist forces laying siege to his office, India looked the other way. India’s government felt betrayed by Nasheed’s own burgeoning relationship with China. Not only had Nasheed awarded China its first infrastructure contracts; just three months before his ouster, he had inaugurated the new Chinese embassy in the capital, Malé, on the same day that India’s then-prime minister, Manmohan Singh, arrived for a regional summit.

Today, an Indian intervention could be dicey, not least because no legitimate authority is inviting India to send in forces. Indian paratroopers could gain effective control of Malé within a few hours. But what would the endgame be? Amid rising Islamist influence and shifting political allegiances among the handful of powerful families that dominate the Maldives’ economy and politics, finding reliable allies committed to – much less capable of – protecting democratic freedoms would prove a daunting challenge.

Moreover, even if Yameen were ousted and the country held a democratic election, it is unlikely that China’s influence could be contained. As the experiences of Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Sri Lanka illustrate, China has outmaneuvered India diplomatically, even when dealing with democratically elected governments. Indeed, it did so in the Maldives itself, with Nasheed. Because the country’s debt will continue to rise, regardless of its leadership, China will retain its favorite source of leverage.

India, with its proximity and historical ties to the Maldives, may seem to hold a strong hand. But it has a lot to lose if it aggravates an already volatile political situation in its maritime backyard by intervening militarily.

India’s best option is to hold out a credible threat of military action, while imposing, together with other democratic powers, economic sanctions that undercut support for Yameen among the Maldivian elite, many of whom own the luxury resorts that now have far too many empty rooms. With them on side, perhaps the international community would be able to ensure that the presidential election scheduled for later this year is fair and inclusive – and supervised by the UN. That is the only way to end the crisis, and restore peace to an Indian Ocean paradise.

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 JuggernautWater: Asia’s New Battleground, and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

India has forgotten its own realist strategic thought

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India’s tradition of realist strategic thought is probably the oldest in the world. Yet India has forgotten its own realist strategic thought, as propounded before Christ by the strategist Kautilya (also known as Chanakya). So, despite growing realism in foreign policy, quixotic traditions from the Nehruvian era still persist to this day. 

Chanakya

Brahma Chellaney, DNA, January 26, 2018

Madeleine Albright famously said that, “The purpose of foreign policy is to persuade other countries to do what you want or, better yet, to want what we want.” How has Indian foreign policy done when measured against such a standard of success?

In this century, India’s growing geopolitical weight, impressive economic-growth rate, rising military capabilities, increasing maritime role, abundant market opportunities, and favourable long-term demographics have helped increase its international profile. India is widely perceived to be a key “swing state” in the emerging international order. Yet Indian foreign policy offers little clue as to whether India is a world power in the making or just a sub-regional power with global-power pretensions.

India has yet to resolve an underlying tension in policy between realism and idealism. The struggle between idealism and pragmatism has bedevilled its diplomacy since independence, imposing serious costs. For example, Jawaharlal Nehru, the idealist, rejected a U.S. suggestion in the 1950s that India take China’s vacant seat in the United Nations Security Council. The officially blessed selected works of Nehru quote him as saying that India could not accept the American proposal because it meant “falling out with China and it would be very unfair for a great country like China not to be in the [Security] Council.” The selected works also quote Nehru as telling Soviet Premier Marshal Nikolai A. Bulganin in 1955 on the same U.S. offer that “we should first concentrate on getting China admitted.”

Such have been the national-security costs for future Indian generations that just in the first seven years after independence, India allowed Pakistan to seize and retain one-third of Jammu and Kashmir; looked the other way when the newly established People’s Republic of China gobbled up the large historical buffer, the Tibetan Plateau; and tamely surrendered its British-inherited extra-territorial rights in Tibet without any quid pro quo, not even Beijing’s acceptance of the then-prevailing Indo-Tibetan border. The 1954 surrender of extra-territorial rights in Tibet included India shutting its military outposts at Yatung and Gyantse in Tibet and handing over Tibet’s postal, telegraph and public telephone services that it had been running to the Chinese government.

India thought that if it sought peace, it would get peace. In reality, a nation gets peace only if it can defend peace. This reality did not sink in until China humiliated India in 1962.

The 1962 invasion, however, did not change another characteristic of Indian diplomacy — it has been driven not by integrated, institutionalized policymaking but by largely an ad hoc, personality-driven approach. This remains the bane of Indian foreign policy, precluding the establishment of a strategic framework for pursuit of goals. The reliance by successive prime ministers on ad hoc, personal initiatives and decisions has helped marginalize the national security establishment and compounded India’s challenges.

This needs to be corrected. The ministry of external affairs, for example, must play its assigned role in the formulation and execution of key aspects of foreign policy — a role that has increasingly been usurped by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Today, India confronts a “tyranny of geography” — that is, serious external threats from virtually all directions. To some extent, it is a self-inflicted tyranny. India’s concerns over China, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and even Pakistan stem from the failures of its past policies. An increasingly unstable neighbourhood also makes it more difficult to promote regional cooperation and integration.

With its tyranny of geography putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India needs to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy. The erosion of its influence in its own backyard should serve as a wake-up call. Only through forward thinking and a dynamic foreign policy can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation, freeing it to play a larger global role. Otherwise, it will continue to be weighed down by its region.

While India undoubtedly is imbibing greater realism in its foreign policy, it remains intrinsically cautious and reactive, rather than forward-looking and proactive. And as illustrated by Narendra Modi’s unannounced Lahore visit or by his government’s reluctance to impose any sanctions on a country it has called “Terroristan,” India hasn’t fully abandoned its quixotic traditions from the Nehruvian era.

India’s tradition of realist strategic thought is probably the oldest in the world. The realist doctrine was propounded by the strategist Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, who wrote the Arthashastra before Christ. This ancient manual on great-power diplomacy and international statecraft remains a must-read classic. Yet India, ironically, has forgotten Arthashastra.

© DNA, 2018.