Japan’s Pivotal Role in the Emerging Indo-Pacific Order


Brahma Chellaney, Asia-Pacific Review, Volume 25, 2018 – Issue 1


The imperative in the Indo-Pacific region 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. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the author of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that the US is now pushing. But Japan faces important strategic challenges. To secure itself against dangers that did not exist when its current national-security policies and laws were framed, Japan must bolster its security or risk coming under siege. US security interests will be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. The US must encourage Japan, which has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II, to undertake greater national-security reforms. Peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan.


We live in a rapidly changing world. The past three decades have brought truly revolutionary change. The world has changed fundamentally in a geopolitical sense since the fall of the Berlin Wall. We have seen the most profound geopolitical change in the most compressed timeframe in history. And thanks to the even more rapid pace of technological change, technological forces are now playing a greater role in shaping geopolitics than at any other time in history. Economically, the pace of change has been no less dramatic, leading to global interdependence and lower trade barriers and accelerated growth.

Yet, when we look back over this period of three decades, no analyst foresaw such change coming. For example, no one predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union or the rapid rise of Asia. The Soviet Union collapsed almost like a deck of cards, fundamentally changing global geopolitics. In the economic realm, no analyst foresaw the two processes that have shaped globalization: the denationalization of production and the denationalization of consumption. The denationalization of production has resulted in the stages of production becoming geographically separated, leading to value chains being formed internationally. And the denationalization of consumption has allowed consumers to buy goods and services from places where they are produced more efficiently.

It is safe to say that the next three decades will likely bring changes no less dramatic than what the last three decades witnessed. But no analyst will be able to accurately predict what the next three decades will bring. What we do know is that the Asia-Pacific region holds the key to global security.1 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.

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. If there is one action by any power that holds the greatest strategic ramifications for global security and the international maritime order, it is China’s alteration of the status quo in the South China Sea in disregard of international norms. Operating in the threshold between peace and war, China, by creating artificial islands in the South China Sea, has pushed its borders far out into international waters in a way no other power has done elsewhere.

Having militarized these outposts and presented this development as a fait accompli to the rest of the world, it is now shifting its focus to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Already, China has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, located at the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, China is planning to open a new naval base next to Pakistan’s Chinese-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 fundamentally transformed the strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific, raising new challenges for regional countries like Japan, India, Vietnam, and Australia.

A constellation of likeminded states linked by interlocking strategic cooperation has become critical to help institute power stability. The imperative is to build a new strategic equilibrium, including a stable balance of power. If likeminded states do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could firmly 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 Indo-Pacific support. Given the region’s economic weight, this would create significant risks for global markets and international security.

Japan’s security dilemma

In modern history, Japan, the “Land of the Rising Sun,” has often inspired other Asian states. This is because Japan has had the distinction of mostly staying ahead of the rest of Asia. During the 1868-1912 Meiji era, Japan became Asia’s first modern economic success story. It then went on to become the first Asian country to emerge as a global military power when, between 1895 and 1905, it defeated Manchu-ruled China and Tsarist Russia in separate wars. With much of Asia colonized by Europeans, Russia’s military rout at the hands of the Japanese came as a shot in the arm to Asian independence movements. After Japan’s crushing defeat in World War II, Japan rose from the ashes rapidly to emerge as Asia’s first global economic powerhouse by the 1980s, an industrial dynamo of a kind Asia had never seen.

Specializing in the highest-value links of the global supply chains, Japan today ranks among the world’s richest countries. With its Gini coefficient of 0.25, it boasts the lowest income inequality in Asia, even though income inequality is now rising in this country. Japan’s per capita GDP of about $39,000 means that its citizens are almost five times wealthier than Chinese.

To be sure, Japan’s geopolitical clout has taken a beating due to a quarter-century of sluggish economic growth, a period in which China and the rest of Asia have risen dramatically. But despite the international media depicting Japan’s decline in almost gloomy terms, the truth is that real per-capita income has increased faster in this century in Japan than in the US and Britain, while Japan’s unemployment rate has long remained one of the lowest among the OECD economies. Japan enjoys the highest life expectancy of any large country in the world.

Japan’s trailblazing role in modern history raises the question as to whether its current challenges, including population aging and sluggish economic growth, presage a similar trend across East Asia. Similar problems are now beginning to trouble South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, while China has been driven to loosen its one-child policy and unveil measures to reverse slowing economic growth.

More fundamentally, Japan—Asia’s oldest liberal democracy—faces pressing security challenges today, at a time of shifting power dynamics in Asia. Japan is an archipelago of almost 7,000 islands, with a population of about 127 million. In terms of land area, Japan is ranked 60th in the world. But Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone of about 4.5 million square kilometers is the sixth largest in the world; it is larger than China’s. Of the 400 remote islands that serve as markers for determining Japan’s territorial waters, only about 50 are inhabited. No group of islands, of course, poses a bigger challenge for its security than the Senkakus, a clutch of five uninhabited islets and three rocks.

Japan’s challenge is compounded by demographic and military trends. Japan has barely one-tenth the population of China’s. Moreover, its population is not just aging but also shrinking significantly; it declined by nearly a million just between 2010 and 2015. About a decade ago, Japan’s defense budget was larger than China’s. But now China’s military spending surpasses the combined defense expenditures of Japan, Russia, Britain, and France.2 As the power balance in Asia shifts, Japan’s security concerns are accentuating.

Japan’s national-security reforms in recent years are part of its effort to reinvent itself as a more secure and competitive nation. The international spotlight on its prolonged economic woes has helped obscure one of the farthest-reaching but least-noticed developments in Asia in this century—Japan’s quiet political resurgence. Japan has historically punched above its weight—a record punctured only by its crushing World War II defeat. Today, despite achieving a high standard of living, Japan is an increasingly insecure nation. Content for decades to let the United States take care of its security, Japan confronts fast-changing security and power dynamics in Asia, with the rise of a muscular, revisionist China shaking it out of its complacency. It is determined not to accept Chinese regional hegemony.

Still, Japan faces a stark choice: bolster its security or come under siege. It must secure itself against dangers that did not exist when its current national-security policies and laws were framed. This grating reality has prompted Japan to establish the National Security Council and take some long-overdue steps, including easing its longstanding, self-imposed ban on export of arms and asserting the right to exercise “collective self-defense.” The reforms in security policy allow the Japanese military to pursue broader peacekeeping and other combat missions overseas in sync with national interest. More importantly, by removing legal ambiguities on the role Japan can play internationally, the reforms facilitate greater Japanese engagement in multilateral and bilateral arrangements. Earlier, large parts of Japan’s overseas security engagements were open to challenge on constitutionality grounds. By removing ambiguities, the security-policy reforms open the path for Japan to play a more active role multilaterally and bilaterally with friendly countries. For example, the reforms will help facilitate building security collaboration with other countries in ways that reinforce Japan’s own security and shore up an Asian order that is under challenge from Chinese revisionism.

To be clear, the policy moves—designed to “normalize” Japan’s security posture—have thus far been limited in scope and do not open the path to the country becoming a militaristic power. Restrictions on deployment of offensive weapons, for example, remain in place. Yet the moves have proved divisive at home, owing to pacifism remaining deeply embedded in Japanese society, in part because of the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism. The core issue at stake, however, is not whether Japan should remain pacifist (the US-imposed Constitution has made Japan the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation) but whether it should stay passive in regional and international affairs. Enduring peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan. If the Japanese government is to play a proactive role, it must win over a divided public at home. This is borne out by a Pew Research Center survey: 47% of Americans want Japan to play a more active role in regional security; by contrast, only 23% of Japanese want their country to play a more active role.3

If Japan fails to push further reforms of its postwar institutions and policies to meet the new challenges, it could erode its security. A Japan that is better able to defend itself and to partner with friendly Indo-Pacific countries would be able to forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia. Even US security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. After all, Japan’s policy of pacifism under the US military umbrella seems no longer adequate to shield Japanese interests—or even American interests.

A still-pacifist but proactive Japan would be able to take its rightful place in the world. But to underpin a “proactive contribution to peace”—a term popularized by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe— does Japan need to become a militarily independent power like two of America’s closest allies, Britain or France? Britain and France have built formidable military-deterrent capabilities, rather than entrust their security to the US. Legally, Japan does not have the choice to pursue the nuclear-weapons option. But, even without its abandoning the security treaty with the US, it can build robust conventional-force capabilities, including information-warfare systems, given that the cyber-realm would play an increasingly important role in conflict.

Japan’s domestic constraints

Domestic constraints accentuate Japan’s security dilemma. One example is the difficulty in reforming the Japanese Constitution, which was imposed by the occupying American forces in 1947 after disbanding the Japanese military.4  Being the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation was something the post-war Japan became proud of. Yet the fact is that no other country in the world is bound by the kind of constitutional restrictions that were imposed on vanquished Japan by an occupying power.

The Constitution prohibits Japan from acquiring the means of war and bars its purely defensive military, called the Self-Defense Forces, from staging rescue missions or other overseas operations even to free Japanese hostages. Indeed, to set up wholly defensive armed forces in the 1950s, Japan had to loosely interpret the Constitution’s force-renouncing Article 9, which says “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” This major reinterpretation was done, paradoxically, at the behest of the US, which, after disbanding the Japanese military, realized the value of building Japan as its loyal vassal on the frontlines of the Cold War.

Yet Japan has clung to that Constitution all these years without so much as carrying out a single amendment or changing even one word. Many other democracies regard their constitutions not as cast in stone but as open to change so that they stay abreast with new social, technological, and economic developments. For example, India—whose Constitution is almost as old as Japan’s—has incorporated 100 amendments thus far. There have been fewer amendments—27—to the U.S. Constitution since its enactment in 1787. No constitution can be perfect. A constitution, like the democratic system it embodies, should be open to improvements.

In this light, Prime Minister Abe has made an impassioned appeal for constitutional reform, suggesting that the time may have come to emulate the same kind of far-reaching change that allowed Japan to rise from the ashes of its World War II defeat. Addressing the Diet, he once asked: “For the future of Japan, shouldn’t we accomplish in this Diet the biggest reform since the end of the war?” Abe’s contention that the Constitution no longer reflects the realities now facing Japan and thus needs to be updated is strengthened by another fact: Germany, also defeated in World War II, has over the years made 59 amendments to its Basic Law, or Constitution, which it adopted when it was under Allied occupation.5

Japan and Germany regained sovereignty from post-World War II military occupation only after embracing constitutional guarantees against any future threats from them to peace. However, West Germany’s new Constitution, while outlawing a war of aggression, authorized military force in self-defense or as part of a collective security agreement. By contrast, Japan’s Article 9 went further, stating that “the Japanese people forever renounce … the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” By forcing Japan to renounce war as “a sovereign right of the nation,” the Constitution imposed stringent restraints.

One key reason the German Constitution did not contain some of the harsh provisions of the US-imposed Japanese Constitution is that, by the time the German Constitution was drafted in 1949, the Cold War was in full swing, with the US-British-French focus shifting to containing communism. Japan’s constitution was imposed two years earlier. The start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, coupled with the Communist takeover of China and China’s entry into the Korean War, changed American thinking on the pacifist constitution the US had imposed on Japan. In 1953, while visiting Japan as President Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon called the US-imposed constitution “a mistake.”

Today, from a legal standpoint, national-security reforms in Japan are linked with constitutional reform. For example, the Japanese armed forces are still called the “Self-Defense Forces.” In the more recent Japanese debate on Japan asserting the right to exercise “collective self-defense,” the focus was on the constitutionality of the move, not on substance or the strategic imperative. In fact, when Abe’s government in July 2014 reinterpreted the Constitution to assert the right to exercise collective self-defense, thus allowing Japan’s military to defend the US and other foreign armed forces even when Japan isn’t under direct attack, critics denounced the reinterpretation as undermining the Constitution. Abe was accused of changing a core element of the Constitution through reinterpretation rather than legislative amendment process. The fact is this reinterpretation was small compared with what the Americans did just years after imposing a Constitution on Japan. Through a major reinterpretation of the Constitution it imposed, the US, following the start of the Cold War, encouraged Japan to rebuild its military as the “Self-Defense Forces” so as to make the country the lynchpin of America’s Asia strategy.

The constitutional-reform push in Japan today faces major domestic obstacles. For one, the Constitution places a high bar to the enactment of any amendment, making it among the hardest in the world to revise. Any amendment must win support of two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Diet and be ratified by more than half of voters in a public referendum. For another, the majority of citizens, including most of the young, today remain comfortable with the present Constitution. After all, pacifism remains deeply ingrained in Japanese society. Indeed, a global poll by the World Values Survey revealed that Japanese rank the lowest in their “willingness to fight for the country,” with only 15.3% of Japanese—compared with 74.2% of Chinese and 57.7% of Americans—expressing readiness to defend their nation.6 Underscoring the youth’s revulsion to war, just 9.5% of Japanese under 30 said they would be willing to fight. In an extension of this attitude, many Japanese regard the Constitution as sacrosanct.

Against this background, if there is one factor that can make a meaningful difference to constitutional reform in Japan, it is American support. US support for such reform will assuage many Japanese that amending the Constitution will not mean repudiating the postwar order that America established in Japan or abandoning Japan’s pacifist policy. The alliance with Japan is central to America’s military role in Asia, including forward US military presence. Japan, for its part, remains a model ally that hosts a large US troop presence, even paying for the upkeep of American forces on its soil—a generous contribution that surpasses the combined host-nation support of America’s 26 other allies, according to a Pentagon report.

US security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. Japan’s national-security and constitutional reforms, in fact, would put its alliance with the US on a sounder footing. If Japan is to take its rightful place in the world, it will have to adapt its post-war institutions and policies to meet the new challenges that confront it. Under Prime Minister Abe’s government, Japan has taken some long-overdue steps to strengthen national security. However, a lot more needs to be done to make Japan more secure, competitive, and internationally engaged.

Japan has an enviable record: It has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II. And as a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid, Japan for many decades has been a vital contributor to regional and international peace and security. The US thus must encourage Japan to undertake greater national-security reforms.

China will clearly prefer a Japan that remains dependent on America for its security than a Japan that plays a more independent role. The fact, however, is that the post-1945 system erected by the US is more suited to keep Japan as an American protectorate than to allow Japan to effectively aid the central US objective in the Asia-Pacific—a stable balance of power. A subtle US policy shift that encourages Tokyo to cut its dependence on America and do more for its own security can assist Japan in building a more secure future for itself that helps block the rise of a Sino-centric Asia.

The Senkaku challenge

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

Against this background, many Japanese have wondered whether the United States would come to Japan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack on the Senkakus. The 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty states that an armed attack on either country, including the territories under Japan’s administration, would prompt joint action “to meet the common danger.” However, contradictory rhetoric by then US President Barack Obama instilled a sense of skepticism in Japan. Obama publicly affirmed that the US-Japan security treaty covered the Senkakus. But in the same breath he refused to take a position on the islands’ sovereignty and advised Tokyo and Beijing to sort out their dispute peacefully. Obama said the US security treaty with Japan covered the Senkaku Islands because they “are under Japanese jurisdiction,” yet “we also stress that we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.”

At his April 2014 joint news conference with Abe in Tokyo, Obama, while unveiling his position on the Senkakus, urged Japan to refrain from “provocative actions” and emphasized that his administration was committed to encouraging China’s “peaceful rise.” He stated: “We don’t take a position on final sovereignty determinations with respect to Senkakus, but historically they have been administered by Japan and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally … In our discussions, I emphasized with Prime Minister Abe the importance of resolving this issue peacefully—not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions, and trying to determine how both Japan and China can work cooperatively together. And I want to make that larger point. We have strong relations with China. They are a critical country not just to the region but to the world. Obviously, with a huge population, a growing economy, we want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China.”

How could such doublespeak reassure Japan? In fact, such statements sowed doubt over America’s willingness to go to war with China to back Japan’s territorial rights, in the event of a surprise Chinese invasion of the Senkakus. The Obama administration responded to such doubt by simply saying that “we do not envision that this current tension will rise to that level in any foreseeable scenario.” Add to the picture Obama’s conspicuous inaction and silence on China’s 2012 seizure of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, despite America’s longstanding mutual defense treaty with Manila. That development served as a wakeup call for Japan and other US allies and partners in Asia.

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

In fact, the 2017 Trump-Abe summit at Mar-a-Lago marked the first time that the US commitment to defend Japan’s control over the Senkakus was recorded in a joint statement. The February 12, 2017, Trump-Abe joint statement came out strongly for Senkakus’ defense: “The two leaders affirmed that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands. They oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands … The United States and Japan oppose any attempt to assert maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force.” This unambiguous commitment was an important success of Abe’s proactive diplomacy in seeking to build a personal connection with the new US president. Abe was the first foreign leader Trump hosted at Mar-a-Lago, which he calls “The Southern White House.” Earlier, just after Trump’s unexpected election victory, Abe met face-to-face with him by making a special stop in New York en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.

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

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

To be sure, a focus on changing the territorial status quo is nothing new for Beijing. The People’s Republic of China has been changing the territorial status quo ever since it was founded in 1949. The early forcible absorption of the sprawling Xinjiang and Tibetan Plateau more than doubled China’s landmass. In the 21st century, Chinese expansionism has increasingly relied upon “salami tactics”—a steady progression of small, furtive actions, none of which serves as a casus belli by itself, yet which help to incrementally change facts on the ground in China’s favor. In this manner, China has stealthily occupied much of the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam, which Bhutan—one of the world’s smallest countries—regards as its integral part. Similarly, China has progressively changed the status quo in the South China Sea in its favor.7

But unlike China’s success in expanding its frontiers in the South China Sea, it has found the going tough in the East China Sea. Indeed, Beijing’s actions have shaken Japan out of its complacency and diffidence and set in motion the strengthening of Japan’s defense capabilities, including arming its far-flung island chain in the East China Sea with a string of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missile batteries. Abe has pledged that Japan will play a “greater role” in East Asian security. It is as if he is responding to Trump’s presidential campaign rhetoric that Japan, which hosts about 54,000 American troops, should do more to defend itself.

One effective way the Trump administration can encourage Japan to do more for its own defense is by lending full support to the Abe-initiated national security and constitutional reform process. Such reforms could help forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia. Japan is already working to constrain China with its own version of Beijing’s “anti-access, area denial” doctrine against the United States. Japan has long been used to practicing passive, checkbook diplomacy. But now it appears intent on influencing Asia’s power balance.

The changing power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific

How rapidly the security situation is changing in the Indo-Pacific region can be gauged from the fact that it was just five years ago that China began building artificial islands in the South China Sea. It has since militarized the newly reclaimed outposts without incurring any significant international costs. The developments in the South China Sea carry far-reaching strategic implications for the Indo-Pacific and 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.

When the US aircraft carrier, Carl Vinson, made a port call at Da Nang, Vietnam, earlier this year, it attracted international attention because this was the first time that a large contingent of US 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, failed to obscure the fact that the United States has had no coherent strategy against China’s island-building program. It was on President Obama’s watch that China created and militarized the artificial islands, while his successor, Donald Trump, has focused on North Korea, Iran, and trade; the South China Sea is not even on his radar.

As a result, China, with its expanding diplomatic, economic, and military reach, is incrementally imposing its will on the region. For example, soon after the USS Carl Vinson’s visit, Chinese pressure forced Vietnam to suspend a major oil-drilling project in the South China Sea. The project, located off Vietnam’s southeastern coast, was being led by the Spanish energy firm Repsol, which, along with its partners, had already invested nearly $200 million in it. Now Repsol is asking Vietnam for compensation.

In response to China’s creation of artificial islands, the United States has repeatedly sent warships to sail through nearby waters in “Freedom of Navigation Operations“ (FONOPs).8 Such operations, however, cannot make up for the absence of a coherent US strategy in the South China Sea; they neither deter China nor reassure America’s regional allies. After all, FONOPs do not address the rapidly shifting dynamics in the region brought about by China’s island-building strategy and its militarization of disputed features in international waters. China is asserting increasing control over the South China Sea, including by installing sophisticated weapons on the islands it controls. In doing so, it is gaining de facto control of the region’s hydrocarbon resources, estimated at 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil in proved and probable reserves.9

In essence, such developments mean that China’s cost-free change of the status quo in the South China Sea has resulted in costs for other countries, especially those 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, especially as Beijing has made its determination clear to push ahead with its revisionist policies. Japan has reversed a decade of declining military outlays, while India has revived stalled naval modernization. Smaller countries, however, are in no position to challenge China. Instead, the Philippines, for example, has proposed joint oil-and-gas exploration with China in the South China Sea.

Make no mistake: The rapidly changing maritime dynamics in the Indo-Pacific are injecting greater strategic uncertainty and raising geopolitical risks. Today, the fundamental choice in the region is between a liberal, rules-based order and an illiberal, hegemonic order. As America’s National Security Strategy report stated in December 2017, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.”10 Abe is the author of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that the Trump administration is now pushing.

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 acts 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-US “Quadrilateral Initiative,” or Quad, has yet to take off. In this light, the idea of a “Quad plus two” to include France and Britain seems overly ambitious at this stage. Once 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 2018 New Delhi visit, France and India agreed to reciprocal access to each other’s naval facilities. This accord is similar to India’s Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States.

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 Southeast Asia, a region of 600 million people, is coerced into accepting Chinese hegemony in such circumstances, it will have a cascading geopolitical impact in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Against this background, what is at stake in the East and South China Seas is not just some tiny islands (or “rocks,” as perceived by some in the US) but a rules-based regional order, freedom of navigation of the seas and skies, access to maritime resources, and balanced power dynamics in Asia. Consequently, America’s allies and partners are stepping up efforts to build credible military capabilities and assume more responsibility for their own defense.

Looking ahead, Japan—with the world’s third largest economy, a world-class navy, and impressive high-technology skills—is likely to stay a strong nation, despite being eclipsed by China’s rapid rise. Japan may not share Beijing’s obsession with measures of national power, yet Japan’s military establishment, despite lacking a nuclear deterrent, is sophisticated. As a status quo power, Japan does not need to match Chinese military prowess; defense is easier than offense. However, a Japan that fails to adapt its postwar national-security policies and laws to the new geopolitical realities of today could create a power vacuum that invites conflict. Peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan. Whatever steps Japan takes to address its security dilemma are likely to carry profound implications for Asian and international security.

About the author

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author. He is presently a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is the author of nine books, including an international bestseller, Asian Juggernaut, and the award-winning Water, Peace and War. He held appointments at Harvard University, the Brookings Institution, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and the Australian National University. He is also a columnist and commentator. His opinion articles appear in the Nikkei Asian Review, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, Japan Times, The Globe and Mail, South China Morning Post, and other important newspapers. And he has often appeared on CNN and BBC, among others.


1 Thomas Mahnken and Dan Blumenthal (eds.), Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present, and Future of Regional Security (Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2014); Aaron Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012); Robert Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (Random House, 2011); and Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (New York: Public Affairs, 2009).

2 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Trends in World Military Expenditures, 2017 (Stockholm, SIPRI, May 2018).

3 Bruce Stokes, “5 facts to help understand the US-Japan relationship,” Pew Research Center, April 7, 2015, available at: https://goo.gl/qp92NR.

The Constitution of Japan, promulgated on November 3, 1946; came into effect on May 3, 1947. Full text at: https://goo.gl/R1wViX.

5 Deutscher Bundestag, Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, available at: https:// www.btg-bestellservice.de/pdf/80201000.pdf .

6 World Values Survey, http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSOnline.jsp .

7 See Robert Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2014); and Bill Hayton, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2014).

8 Eleanor Freund, “Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea: A Practical Guide” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 2017).

9 US Energy Information Administration, “South China Sea,” February 7, 2013, available at: https://goo.gl/qqAygy.

10 White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America(Washington, DC: December 2017), available at: https://goo.gl/CWQf1t.


India’s mistakes have allowed China to make inroads into Nepal



Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Nepali counterpart, K.P. Oli, in Kathmandu in May.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Nepal’s new communist prime minister, K.P. Oli, has paid obeisance in Beijing, where he agreed to the proposal to extend the railway from Shigatse in Tibet to his country so as to reduce Nepali dependence on India. For India, Nepal is not just another neighbour but one that is symbiotically linked through close cultural affinity, overlapping ethnic and linguistic identities, and an open border permitting passport-free passage. The China-Nepal railway — a “game changer”, as a Chinese mouthpiece called it — will compound the impact on India’s strategic interests of Nepal’s emergence as the world’s sixth communist-ruled country.

The two communist groups that came to power in February merged into a single party in May. The new Nepali Communist Party, with almost two-thirds majority in Parliament and governments in six of the nation’s seven provinces, casts an ominous shadow over Nepal’s sputtering democratic transition. From constitutional functionaries, such as the president and vice president, to key officials, including the chief of police services, are today card-carrying communists.

Emboldened by the communists’ pervasive domination, Oli has started undermining the independence of Nepal’s institutions, from the judiciary to the election commission. The communists’ next target will likely be the army. Whether democracy will survive under communist rule is uncertain. What is clear is that Nepal is impinging on Indian security.

A Nepal increasingly open to Chinese influence shares a tightly guarded frontier with Tibet but wishes to maintain an open border with India. India has repeatedly advised Nepal that its southern border belt is turning into a zone of jihadist and foreign intelligence activities that threaten Indian security. Nepal has also become a major transit point for the flow of counterfeit Indian currency, narcotics and Chinese arms to India.

Simply put, Nepal represents a critical challenge for India. But, to a significant extent, this is a self-created problem. Three Indian blunders since the mid-2000s have proved very costly for India — spearheading the abolition of Nepal’s constitutional monarchy; bringing the underground Maoists to the centre-stage of Nepali politics; and, more recently, aiding the plains people’s revolt against the new, 2015-drafted Nepali Constitution and then abandoning their movement and pressuring them (the Madhesis) to participate in the 2017 elections, thus legitimizing a Constitution it said was flawed.

New Delhi indeed owes an apology to Nepal’s citizens for its past meddling, which, as if to underscore the law of unintended consequences, boomeranged on India’s own interests. India’s mistakes set in motion developments that seriously eroded its clout in Nepal and helped China to made major inroads.

When history is written, one Manmohan Singh blunder in particular will stand out for empowering Nepali communists and undermining India’s long-term interests — engineering the ouster of Nepal’s monarchy, the symbol of that country’s stability, continuity and unity for 239 years. The monarchy was removed without ascertaining the will of the people through a referendum and without even a basic level of due process.

Singh’s government, which at that time was dependent on communist support at home for survival, intervened as a peace maker. But what mattered to it was just one thing — accommodating the Maoists’ main demand for the monarchy’s removal in order to bring them into the Nepali political mainstream. It hosted a meeting between Nepal’s Maoists and opposition parties in November 2005 at which an accord to abolish the monarchy was reached. How empowering Nepali Maoists and other communists would serve India’s interest, and what the larger implications of the monarchy’s abolition would be for Nepal’s future, were issues that went unexamined.

The upshot was that Nepal went from being a Hindu kingdom (indeed the world’s only officially Hindu nation) to coming under the sway of communists, who largely filled the void from the monarchy’s removal, thereby undercutting the influence of the Nepali Congress Party, dominant until then. From 2008 onwards, the Nepali communists were in coalition governments for almost a decade before capturing power on their own in the last elections. Oli’s Marxist-Leninist Party and the Maoists, which fought the elections jointly under China’s advice, tapped into grassroots anger over the Indian-backed Madhesi protesters’ earlier border blockade.

India, paradoxically, is still unable to make peace with its own Maoists. In fact, the Nepali Maoists’ Indian-assisted success in enjoying power after waging a decade-long bloody insurrection has emboldened the Indian Maoists to step up their hit-and-run attacks on police and paramilitary troops. Meanwhile, the Maoists’ dreamland, China, is pulling Nepal into its orbit. Make no mistake: India is reaping what it sowed.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Trump’s North Korea diplomacy aims to contain China


Beijing is at risk of losing its only ally in Northeast Asia.


Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review 

U.S. President Donald Trump, by seeking to clinch a deal directly with Pyongyang, is attempting to effectively cut out the traditional middleman, China. Beijing’s growing anxieties over the engagement between Washington and Pyongyang have prompted it to host North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un for the third time in less than three months.

In fact, the White House has already eroded China’s role as an essential conduit in U.S. diplomacy with Pyongyang by establishing direct connections, including a virtual hotline, to Kim, while Chinese President Xi Jinping has no hotline with him.

Kim has also fueled Beijing’s geopolitical troubles, displaying strategic defiance as he attempts to cut North Korea’s dependence on China, its longtime benefactor. In his search for a grand bargain to end North Korea’s international isolation, Kim effectively sidelined China by deciding to hold separate summits with his nation’s bitterest enemies, South Korea and the U.S.

Instead of both Koreas leaning toward China, as Xi’s strategy seeks, recent developments are consigning Beijing to a peripheral role in the region just when a trade war with the U.S. looms large. China has silently waged a trade war for years, facing no international reprisals. The situation will fundamentally change if the bulk of Trump’s tariffs of 25% on $50 billion of imports from China take effect from July 6.

Kim’s three visits to China in quick succession cannot obscure the serious strains in Beijing-Pyongyang relations, which Mao Zedong famously claimed were as close as lips are to teeth. Distrust of China, the historical rival of Koreans, runs deep in North Korea, which has no monuments honoring the 400,000 Chinese soldiers who died fighting on its behalf during the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Bilateral ties began deteriorating after Kim came to power in late 2011. China’s state media accused him of pursuing the “de-Sinification” of the hermit kingdom. Kim broke with the tradition set by his father and grandfather, who ruled before him, of paying obeisance in Beijing. To counterbalance China’s influence, Kim sent out feelers to U.S. President Barack Obama to improve relations, only to be rebuffed.

Yet Kim’s defiance of China continued. His nuclear and missile tests were often timed to snub Beijing. The tests set in motion developments adverse to Chinese interests — from initiating Japan’s efforts to strengthen its military to prompting the U.S. to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, anti-missile system in South Korea. THAAD’s deployment led to China’s heavy-handed and counterproductive economic sanctioning of South Korea.

Xi sought to ease the increasingly fraught relationship with Pyongyang only after Trump began laying the groundwork for a summit with Kim by using the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to communicate with its North Korean counterpart, the Reconnaissance General Bureau. Despite the past North Korean snubs, Xi sent a senior envoy to Pyongyang to invite Kim to China, his first foreign trip since assuming power.

Kim’s China visits since late March have been primarily aimed at strengthening his own bargaining position with the U.S. By playing one power against the other, he has sought to bolster his leverage. But his action in inviting observers from the U.S. and South Korea, but not China, to the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear test site indicated that he is unwilling to forgive Beijing for its linchpin role in imposing United Nations sanctions against his nation.

Consequently, China, which values North Korea as a strategic buffer against the U.S. military presence in South Korea, has become increasingly suspicious of Kim’s overtures to Washington and the Trump administration’s direct dealings with Pyongyang. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Beijing after the Trump-Xi summit did little to allay Chinese apprehensions.

Beijing fears that, just as it formally turned against the Soviet Union after it developed high-level contacts with the U.S. in the early 1970s, its estranged ally, North Korea, could similarly switch sides now. Kim, however, seems more interested in achieving a limited goal — rebalancing his foreign policy by mending fences with the U.S. to reduce North Korea’s reliance on China, whose neo-imperialist policies are arousing growing concerns in Asia and beyond.

Make no mistake: The path to North Korea’s denuclearization promises to be long and difficult, given its extensive nuclear and missile infrastructure and Kim’s firm belief that the nuclear arsenal serves as insurance against his country becoming China’s colony. Not only does such an arsenal hold greater security implications for China than for the U.S., but also Trump’s diplomacy is making it more difficult for Beijing to keep North Korea in its orbit. Washington’s direct diplomacy with North Korea began in dramatic fashion, with Pompeo, when he was CIA chief, holding unpublicized talks with Kim in Pyongyang.

Yet some analysts have speciously claimed that China, without being at the table, was the clear winner from Trump’s summit with Kim. Critics have accused Trump of making “big concessions” in exchange for securing indefinable commitments from Kim. The only concession Trump made — suspending U.S. war games with South Korea as a gesture of good faith — is easily reversible if negotiations do not yield progress.

To be sure, Beijing last September proposed the suspension of the U.S. military exercises in exchange for a North Korean moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. It was Kim, however, who undermined China’s “freeze for freeze” proposal by unilaterally declaring a test moratorium in April without any reciprocal U.S. concession.

Under Obama, the U.S. helped end Myanmar’s international isolation, with the U.S. president paying a historic visit to that county in 2012. The shift in U.S. policy allowed Myanmar to cut its dependence on China and open its economy to Western investors. Now Trump is encouraging another isolated, China-dependent state, North Korea, to end its international pariah status.

North Korea — with its vast store of iron ore, magnesite, copper and other minerals — is resource-rich like Myanmar, whose natural reserves range from oil and gas to jade and timber. Resource-hungry China has been the dominant importer of natural resources from both of these countries.

North Korea, however, is different from Myanmar in two key aspects. It is armed with potent nuclear and missile capabilities, while it is also a homogenous and regimented society, in contrast to ethnically diverse and troubled Myanmar.

Trump is right that at this stage fundamentally changing the U.S.-North Korea relationship matters more than denuclearization. If the West encourages Kim’s efforts to modernize the North Korean economy, just as it aided China’s economic rise since the late 1970s, it will help to moderate Pyongyang’s behavior. Economic engagement can achieve a lot more than economic sanctions, which counterproductively accelerated North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances.

U.S. policy under Trump’s predecessors, instead of helping Pyongyang to escape from China’s clutches, attempted to push it further into China’s corner. It also helped Beijing to play the North Korea card against the U.S. and its regional allies, Japan and South Korea.

But Beijing’s efforts to string the U.S. along on North Korea came to naught when Washington established direct contact with Pyongyang. Beijing even tried to use its North Korea leverage in the trade dispute with Washington, which explains why Trump waited until after his summit with Kim to announce new planned tariffs against China.

With Washington’s sanctions-only approach encouraging Pyongyang to expand its nuclear and missile programs, a shift in its North Korea policy became imperative even before Trump took office. Trump’s direct diplomacy seeks to address that imperative by seizing on Pyongyang’s desire to unlock frozen ties with the U.S. and by exploiting the China-North Korea rift.

At the core of Trump’s North Korea gambit is the containment of China, a fact many analysts have missed. By seeking to co-opt North Korea, including encouraging closer links with Seoul, Washington aims to foster a major new regional alignment that diminishes China’s relevance.

If Beijing cannot keep North Korea as a client state, China’s lonely rise will become more conspicuous. Its only other strategic ally is Pakistan. The more power China has accumulated, the greater has been its problems in gaining reliable security partners, underscoring that regional leadership demands more than brute might.

Clearing the path to North Korean disarmament will not be easy. Yet Trump’s direct diplomacy promises to positively change northeast Asian geopolitics by crimping China’s leverage and role, even as U.S. troops remain in South Korea. If Washington stays on its current course, China will be the clear loser.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

Who Lost the South China Sea?


BRAHMA CHELLANEY,  a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

The South China Sea is central to the contest for strategic influence in the larger Indo-Pacific region. Unless the US adopts a stronger policy to contain Chinese expansionism there, the widely shared vision of a free, open, and democratic-led Indo-Pacific will give way to an illiberal, repressive regional order.


US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has spoken out against China’s strategy of “intimidation and coercion” in the South China Sea, including the deployment of anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and electronic jammers, and, more recently, the landing of nuclear-capable bomber aircraft at Woody Island. There are, Mattis warned, “consequences to China ignoring the international community.”

But what consequences? Two successive US administrations – Barack Obama’s and now Donald Trump’s – have failed to push back credibly against China’s expansionism in the South China Sea, which has accelerated despite a 2016 international arbitral tribunal ruling invalidating its territorial claims there. Instead, the US has relied on rhetoric or symbolic actions.

For example, the United States has disinvited China from this summer’s 26-country Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercise. The move has been played up as a potential indication that the US may finally be adopting a tougher approach toward China. Mattis himself has called the decision an “initial response” to China’s militarization of the South China Sea, which is twice the size of the Gulf of Mexico and 50% bigger than the Mediterranean Sea.

Similarly, the US Navy’s freedom of navigation (FON) operations, which are occurring more regularly under Trump than they did under Obama, have been widely hyped. After the most recent operation, in which a guided-missile cruiser and a destroyer sailed past the disputed Paracel Islands, Mattis declared that the US was the “only country” to stand up to China.

But China, too, has used America’s FON operations to play to the Chinese public, claiming after the latest operation that its navy had “warned and expelled” two US warships. More important, neither FON operations nor China’s exclusion from the RIMPAC exercise addresses the shifts in regional dynamics brought about by China’s island-building and militarization, not to mention its bullying of its neighbors. As a result, they will not credibly deter China or reassure US allies.

The reality is that China’s incremental encroachments have collectively changed the facts in the South China Sea. It has consolidated its control over the strategic corridor between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, through which one-third of global maritime trade – worth $5.3 trillion last year – passes. It is also asserting control over the region’s natural resources, by bullying and coercing other claimants seeking to explore for oil and gas in areas that are theirs under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Vietnam, for example, has been forced to scrap a project on its own continental shelf.

Perhaps most ominous, China’s development of forward operating bases on manmade South China Sea islands “appears complete,” as Admiral Philip Davidson told a Senate committee in April before taking over the US Indo-Pacific Command. “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US,” Davidson confirmed.

Davidson’s characterization is revealing. As China takes a long-term strategic approach to strengthening its hold over the South China Sea (and, increasingly, beyond), the US is focused solely on the prospect of all-out war.

The Pentagon has flaunted its capability to demolish China’s artificial islands, whose creation Chinese President Xi Jinping has cited as one of his key accomplishments. “I would just tell you,” joint staff director Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie recently said, “the US military has had a lot of experience in the western Pacific taking down small islands.”

If open war is China’s only vulnerability in the South China Sea, the US will lose the larger strategic competition. While seeking to protect its military freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, the US has turned a blind eye to China’s stealthy but aggressive assault on the freedom of the seas, including restricting the rights of other countries in the region.

The only viable option is a credible strategy that pushes back against China’s use of coercion to advance its territorial and maritime revisionism. As Admiral Harry Harris cautioned last month while departing as head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, “Without focused involvement and engagement by the US and our allies and partners, China will realize its dream of hegemony in Asia.”

Simply put, China is winning the battle for the South China Sea without firing a shot – or paying any international costs. While Trump is sustaining this trend, it began under Obama, on whose watch China created seven artificial islands and started militarizing them.

Obama’s silence in 2012 when China occupied the disputed Scarborough Shoal – a traditional Philippine fishing ground located within that country’s exclusive economic zone – emboldened China to embark on a broader island-building strategy in the South China Sea the following year. By the time the US realized the scope and scale of China’s land-reclamation program, Russia grabbed its attention by annexing Crimea. Yet the long-term strategic implications of what China has achieved in the South China Sea are far more serious.

Unfortunately, when it comes to constraining China’s expansionism, Trump seems just as clueless as his predecessor. Focused obsessively on three issues – trade, North Korea, and Iran – Trump has watched quietly as China builds up its military assets through frenzied construction of permanent facilities on newly reclaimed land. And now China has begun making strategic inroads in the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea, threatening the interests of more countries, from India to Japan.

The South China Sea has been and will remain central to the contest for influence in the larger Indo-Pacific region. Thanks to US fecklessness, the widely shared vision of a free, open, and democratic-led Indo-Pacific could give way to an illiberal, repressive regional order, with China in full control.

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

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Trump delivers lessons for Japan on North Korea




Japan was so concerned that its security interests would be overlooked in a U.S. nuclear deal with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the White House just before President Donald Trump left for Canada and Singapore. Yet Japan’s strategic imperatives and interests were barely on Trump’s mind when he met Kim. Despite Trump saying that he raised with Kim the decades-old North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens, Japan’s interests got short-shrift.

With the Singapore summit yielding only a joint statement, Trump has bet on what he called a “very special bond” and “terrific relationship” with Kim to secure a real deal. It is worth remembering that Trump has said similar things about Abe and several other world leaders, only to ignore their interests or turn on them later. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for example, is still licking his wounds.

As Trump’s announcement to suspend U.S. war games with South Korea underscored, he is seeking to narrowly advance American interests, especially saving money — a factor that he said could eventually lead him to bring back home the 32,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. A dilution of U.S. security commitments in northeast Asia, however, is contrary to Japanese strategic interests.

Trump is only stoking Japanese concerns about America’s long-term commitment to regional security by signaling that a rapprochement with North Korea could possibly lead to a broader U.S. retreat from northeast Asia. Announcing the suspension of the war games without prior notification to South Korea, for example, sent the wrong message to allies, although U.S. and South Korean officials had previously discussed this option.

More fundamentally, Trumps seems unmindful of the fact that the alliance system is essential — and cost-effective — for the United States to pursue its regional objectives, including maintaining a stable balance of power.

Tokyo, in the most generous host-nation support by any of America’s 27 allies, pays billions of dollars yearly for the basing of U.S. troops on Japanese territory. South Korea, in addition to its host-nation support, has generously picked up about 92% of the $10.8 billion cost of the U.S. military’s new base, Camp Humphreys, located south of Seoul. It is much cheaper for the U.S. to keep troops in South Korea (or Japan) than to have them back home.

To Trump’s credit, he has correctly described as “very provocative” the U.S.-led war games, which, with live-fire drills, simulate every spring a full-scale invasion of North Korea. Critics are upset that he has lifted the pretense that these war games are routine “military exercises” and defensive in nature.

Progress toward denuclearization, however, is likely to be slow. The joint statement implicitly links denuclearization to “mutual confidence building.” What has been set in motion is a complex, long process of bargaining, deal making and, if all goes well, denuclearizing.

The joint statement’s reference to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, not just North Korea, means creating a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Such a zone can emerge only if South Korea steps out of the U.S. nuclear umbrella and America, China and Russia formally commit not to introduce, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula.

For decades, Japan and South Korea have remained under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But, in reality, the U.S. is unlikely to use nuclear weapons to defend Japan or South Korea; it will rely instead on conventional weapons. The nuclear umbrella serves more as a potent symbol of U.S. commitment and as a nonproliferation tool to prevent either ally from developing its own nuclear weapons.

Still, if South Korea agrees to be outside the American nuclear umbrella, Japan — the world’s only victim of nuclear bombings — will find itself in the odd position of being the sole Asian country inside the umbrella. This will hardly sit well with its diplomatic interests.

But what prompted Abe’s latest White House visit was concern that Washington could tolerate a North Korean sub-regional nuclear arsenal if Kim dismantled his long-range nuclear capability that threatens America. Tokyo’s security nightmare is North Korea retaining the short- and medium-range portion of its nuclear arsenal while China continues to expand its nuclear and conventional military capabilities. If North Korea kept a residual, subregionally confined nuclear capability, it would reinforce Japanese and South Korean reliance on security arrangements with America.

Such a scenario is not improbable, especially with the Trump administration saying goodbye to the “Libya model” and seeking instead to apply the “South Africa model” to North Korea.

The administration’s early brinkmanship almost derailed the Singapore summit when its references to the Libya model provocatively suggested that Kim follow a path that ultimately led to Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi’s gruesome end. But, recognizing North Korea’s longstanding resistance to intrusive international inspections, U.S. officials now say their role model is apartheid-era South Africa.

Before transiting to black majority rule, South Africa secretly dismantled its six nuclear weapons, destroying all major documents relating to them but stashing weapons-grade enriched uranium. It then opened its sites to international inspection.

Such voluntary denuclearization outside international monitoring is not an example of complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement, which is what Japan wants to see in North Korea. America’s focus, however, is on safeguarding its own security. Trump, after the summit, wrote online that North Korea no longer poses a nuclear threat to the U.S., adding that Americans should “sleep well tonight.”

While his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has spoken of “in-depth verification,” North Korea is likely to allow external inspectors only limited access at best. Intrusive international monitoring, with inspectors free to go anywhere, could sound the death knell for Kim’s secretive regime. In the past, the U.S. has sent intelligence agents as international nuclear inspectors, as the Iraq investigations revealed.

A Japan exposed to a potential North Korean nuclear strike would be open to atomic blackmail and coercion. Yet, some U.S. officials and analysts have characterized Japan’s insistence on complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament as “maximalist,” as if seeking a deal that addresses only U.S. security interests (as the Trump administration is apparently doing) amounts to a reasonable stance.

Another issue also highlights how self-interest drives U.S. policy. The joint statement commits North Korea to repatriate the remains of American military personnel missing from the Korean War. But it contains no reference to a highly emotive subject in Japan — abductions of Japanese citizens by Pyongyang’s agents to train as spies. Trump said he “absolutely” raised that topic but did not indicate what Kim’s response was.

Let’s be clear: Dismantling North Korea’s extensive nuclear infrastructure will entail a long-drawn-out process. Nuclear weapons are the only assets the North can leverage to end its international pariah status. Kim is unlikely to give up his “crown jewels” without U.S. security guarantees that go beyond symbolic steps and a temporary halt of U.S.-led war games. Nor will he unilaterally disarm without reciprocal actions to turn the Korean Peninsula into a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

While Trump is seeking, to quote Pompeo, “major disarmament” in the remainder of his current term, Kim, who is less than half the age of the U.S. president, has a much longer time horizon. Kim is playing a long game to ease his country’s international isolation and build an independent foreign policy that diminishes dependence on China.

A stretched-out denuclearization process, however, suits China too. It will allow Beijing to string the U.S. along on North Korea while it stakes out a key role for itself by leveraging its status as a linchpin to keeping Pyongyang under economic pressure. More ominously, U.S. preoccupation with North Korea will aid China’s territorial and maritime revisionism in the Indo-Pacific region, including consolidating its hold in the South China Sea. To gain dominance in Asia, Beijing is seeking to marginalize Japan and weaken the U.S. alliance with South Korea.

Japan today finds itself thoroughly marginalized on the North Korean issue, despite that subject’s critical importance to its long-term security. Abe’s tireless efforts to cultivate Trump have yielded little on that front.

In this light, Japan has no option but to directly deal with Pyongyang. Indeed, this is the central takeaway for Japan from Trump’s North Korea diplomacy.

To be meaningful, such engagement must be without preconditions. There is no reason why the abductions issue should still hold Japan’s strategic interests hostage. At a time when Kim is seeking to mend fences with different powers, Japanese engagement could help persuade Pyongyang to reopen talks on the abductions topic and come clean.

Abe should seek to meet Kim on the sidelines of the Sept. 11-13 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia. Kim is likely to accept Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invitation to attend that annual forum.

Make no mistake: The main lesson for Japan is that, instead of relying on Washington, it must directly engage North Korea by leveraging its economic might and soft power and playing to Kim’s rebalancing aspiration.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2018.

Doklam exemplifies China’s broader recidivism in Himalayas


Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times


The first anniversary of the Doklam standoff calls for reflection on China’s strategy of territorial revisionism and India’s response. The Doklam Plateau, like the South China Sea, illustrates how China operates in the threshold between peace and war. Just as China has made creeping but transformative encroachments in the South China Sea without firing a single shot, it has incrementally but fundamentally changed the status quo in Doklam in its favour since ending the 73-day troop standoff with India.

Doklam exemplifies China’s broader recidivism in the Himalayas. China is still working to redraw Himalayan boundaries nearly seven decades after it gobbled up Tibet, an action that led to its occupation of the Switzerland-size Aksai Chin plateau. Aksai Chin fell to what has since become Beijing’s favoured frontier-expansion strategy — “salami slicing”. This involves a steady progression of actions short of war that camouflage offense as defence and help change facts on the ground.

The latest victim of China’s “salami slicing” is one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, which has just 7,500 military personnel. In the past nine months, China — by steadily expanding its troop deployments through new permanent military structures — has gained effective control of much of Doklam, which Bhutan regards as its own territory. Previously, there were no permanent military structures or force deployments on this uninhabited but disputed plateau, which was visited by nomadic shepherds and Bhutanese and Chinese mobile patrols other than in the harsh winter.

Satellite images since last autumn show how rapidly China has expanded its military footprint in Doklam, wreaking environmental degradation in a once-unspoiled place. China’s new control there precludes India intervening again at Bhutan’s behest.

So, just as “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US”, to quote the admiral in charge of America’s Indo-Pacific naval forces, Beijing today is in a position to call the shots across the Doklam Plateau other than the site where the standoff with India occurred. But right next to the standoff site, located at the plateau’s southwestern corner, China has built military fortifications and facilities overlooking Indian positions.

Yet there is no debate in India on how Doklam was lost. Although the defence minister in March grudgingly admitted China’s construction of helipads and other military structures in Doklam so as to “maintain” troop deployments even in the severe winter, New Delhi has tried to obfuscate the increasing Chinese control of the remote plateau so as not to dilute the “victory” it had sold to the world last summer.

To be sure, India has no territorial claim to any part of Doklam. Also, with Thimphu and New Delhi revising their 1949 treaty in 2007, India has ceded its right to guide Bhutan’s foreign policy. But, as underscored by the Indian Army’s presence in Bhutan, India still has an implicit obligation to defend Bhutan’s territorial integrity. Last summer, it intervened as Bhutan’s patron and de facto security guarantor, driven by the threat to its own security from the Chinese attempt to construct a military road to the strategic Jampheri Ridge, overlooking India’s most vulnerable point — the “Chicken Neck”.

But, a year later, it is apparent that an India increasingly mired in domestic politics has failed both to defend Bhutan’s territorial sovereignty and to thwart the Chinese threat to its “Chicken Neck”. Satellite images show China is building an alternative road from eastern Doklam toward the Jampheri Ridge. So, despite blocking a road construction last summer in Doklam’s southwest, India finds its “Chicken Neck” looking vulnerable again. China, with its extensive new all-weather military infrastructure and forward-deployments in Doklam, is now capable of executing deep incursions into India’s Siliguri Corridor.

Against this backdrop, the silence in India on a fundamentally changed scenario is troubling. The silence indeed is reminiscent of the way Beijing captured Aksai Chin in the mid-1950s while India was chanting the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai mantra. Today, in the absence of an effective strategy against China’s stealth aggression in the Himalayas and its growing inroads in India’s maritime backyard, an increasingly defensive New Delhi has sought to make peace with Beijing.

Make no mistake: The main Doklam lesson is that India’s perennial preoccupation with petty domestic political issues, coupled with its reactive mode due to absence of strategic thinking, allows China to seize the initiative in the Himalayas. More fundamentally, Doklam illustrates that while India may be content with a tactical win, China has the tenacity and guile to outfox its rival and win at the strategic level.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Can democracy and communism coexist?



Nepal has become the sixth communist-ruled country on today’s world map. © Reuters

When Nepal’s new pro-China communist prime minister, Khadga Prasad Oli, shortly pays obeisance in Beijing, he will seek not only greater aid but also the establishment of “brotherly” relations between the Chinese and Nepalese communist parties.

This year the number of communist-ruled countries in the world increased by one to six, with the landlocked Himalayan state of Nepal joining China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam. Nepal’s two main communist groups merged into one party on May 17, about three months after jointly coming to power.

Nepal boasts the world’s only democratically elected communist government. This development has revived a longstanding international question as to whether communism can reform itself to coexist with democracy.  In Nepal, where communist China and democratic India are competing for influence, the answer will be affected by forces far beyond its borders.

Globally, most communist parties gained power by violent means. The Soviet communist system lasted 74 years — the longest any autocracy has survived in modern history — after it was established following two violent revolutions in 1917 that ended Tsarist rule and brought the Bolsheviks and Vladimir Lenin to power. The Chinese Communist Party, in power for almost 69 years, has established a Leninist one-party state that appears set to surpass the Soviet longevity record.

Communist rule in China was built with blood — from the Red Army’s march to victory, which cut a vast swath of death and destruction, to subsequent decades of fratricidal killings in political witch-hunts and other state-sponsored actions, including atrocities against Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians and the Tiananmen Square massacre of student-led demonstrators. Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” caused the Great Famine of 1958 to 1962 that left between 35 million to 45 million people dead. Despite such a gory history, the CCP still retains the reins of power.

The Nepalese communists’ peaceful ascension to power helps to obscure a violent past. Prime Minister Oli spent years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s, as a communist guerrilla, for waging war against the state. Nepal’s 1990 establishment of multiparty democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy opened up legitimate political space for all groups, including the Maoists and Oli’s Marxist-Leninist Party. The Maoists, influenced more by Mao’s notion of peasant-based revolution than orthodox Marxism-Leninism, launched a bloody insurrection in 1996 with the aim of overthrowing the monarchy through a “people’s revolution.”

A decade later, a peace accord ended a protracted war between Maoists and government forces. India — governed at that time by a shaky coalition government, dependent on the support of local communists who had links with Nepalese communists — engineered not only the peace but also the abolition of the constitutional monarchy.

These developments paved the way for the Maoists and the Marxist-Leninist Party to share power with the Nepali Congress Party, dominant until then. In 2008, the Maoist chief was appointed prime minister, the first of a series of communists to head coalition governments. Severe political flux resulted in governments changing 10 times in the past decade, a period in which the two communist parties rapidly expanded their political base before sweeping the last national and state elections.

Today, the Nepali Communist Party, which was formed last week when the two communist groups merged, casts a long, ominous shadow over the country’s politics: It has almost two-thirds majority in Parliament and governments in six of the country’s seven provinces. Such domination raises serious risks for Nepal’s sputtering democratic transition, which has been buffeted by one crisis after another.

There are portentous parallels with another country that came under communist sway through largely peaceful but uncommon means centered on a creeping approach exploiting democratic methods — Czechoslovakia after World War II.

Just as national elections in Czechoslovakia in 1946 resulted in leftist and communist parties securing significant representation in the new constituent assembly and then gradually dictating terms to President Eduard Benes, the 2007-initiated constituent assembly process in Nepal helped communists to gain power and leave their imprint on the new constitution that took effect in 2015. And just as U.S. missteps, including terminating a large loan to Czechoslovakia, triggered a backlash that boosted popular support for communists, Indian blunders helped empower communists in Nepal, undermining India’s own close relations with that country.

To gain political ground in the lead-up to the most recent elections, the Nepalese communists played the nationalist card, including whetting a deep-seated suspicion about India’s intentions, in ways redolent of how the Czechoslovak communists whipped up anti-U.S. sentiment and drove out other coalition partners from the government. By 1948, the Czechoslovak communists gained full control of the government.

No less important is the fact that, just as the Soviet Union aided the Czechoslovak communists’ march to victory, China has helped out the Nepalese communists. China reportedly persuaded the divided communists to form a coalition before the Nepalese elections, helped fund their campaign, and midwifed last week’s birth of a new unified communist party.

When history is written, two blunders of India under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will stand out for irreparably damaging its long-term interests in Nepal — helping to bring the Maoists to the center-stage of Nepalese politics; and instigating the ouster of that country’s more than two-century-old monarchy, the central pillar of stability, continuity and national unity. The void from the monarchy’s fall was largely filled by the communists.

The paradox is that the Maoists secured the monarchy’s overthrow not through their violent campaign but with the direct help of a country they considered their ideological foe. A double irony is that India remains plagued by its own Maoist scourge, unable to halt the rebels’ periodic ambush-killing of police.

A predominantly Hindu India helped turn a Hindu kingdom (indeed the world’s only officially Hindu country) into a secular, communist-ruled, China-leaning state, seriously eroding its own traditional influence there. India and Nepal share one of the world’s most-open borders that permits passport-free passage, and China’s increasing footprint in Nepal carries major implications for India’s internal security.

More broadly, Nepal has emerged as a test case for whether democracy can survive under communist rule. Can communism become democratic? Or is there an inherent contradiction between communism and democracy?

One cannot ignore the fundamental divergences: Democracy enshrines and enhances individual rights and freedoms, while communism erodes and smothers them. Democracy is pluralistic, whereas communism in practice tends to be authoritarian.

Western hope that democracy would follow capitalism into communist states has been dashed. Fusing market capitalism with a one-party state, China has created its own model of authoritarian capitalism, which Vietnam and Laos have embraced and Cuba and North Korea are willing to adopt if the U.S. lifts sanctions against them. The CCP, as revealed by its 2013 circular known as “Document No. 9,” views democracy as China’s biggest threat.

Against this background, can Nepal be an exception? It is too early to determine but initial signs are not encouraging. Oli has already started undermining the independence of Nepal’s institutions and stacking them with his own loyalists. One of his first decisions in office was to replace key figures in many institutions, including those loosely linked with the government. The already weak judiciary is in no position to stand up to the one-party domination. If the assault on institutions continues, Nepal will be emulating the trajectory of how Czechoslovakia turned into a single-party state.

Nepal’s tenuous democracy has also come under pressure from ethnic fault lines that constitution-writing political machinations helped stoke. The new constitution reflects the will of the hill elites that have long dominated Nepal’s power structure. Its enactment has fuelled discontent and unrest among the plains people, who inhabit the southern belt along the India frontier and feel discriminated against. Some of them wish to secede.

Czechoslovakia survived dismemberment by the Nazis and 41 years of communist rule only to split under democracy. In Nepal, communist domination will likely increase southern alienation. Make no mistake: Nepal’s very future is at stake.

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

(c) Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.