A Water War in Asia?

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump could ‘pivot’ to Asia like Obama never did

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

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review, November 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tougher approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shoring up alliances

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

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

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

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

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2016.

China’s sole ally in Asia might get more than it wished for

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BY The Japan Times, November 8, 2016

sino-pak-imageWhen China joined hands with the United States earlier this year at the United Nations Security Council to approve the toughest new international sanctions in two decades against North Korea, it implicitly highlighted that Beijing now is left with just one real ally in Asia — Pakistan. Indeed, China has forged with Pakistan one of the closest and most-enduring relationships in international diplomacy.

Mao Zedong famously said China and North Korea were as close as lips are to teeth. Similarly, Beijing now compares its strategic nexus with Pakistan to the closeness between lips and teeth, calling that country its “irreplaceable all-weather friend” and boasting of an “iron brotherhood” with it.

In reality, this is largely a one-sided relationship that is turning Pakistan into China’s client and guinea pig.

For example, Beijing has sold Pakistan outdated or untested nuclear power reactors and prototype weapon systems not deployed by the Chinese military. The two AC-1000 reactors currently under construction near the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi represent a model China has adapted from French designs but not built at home.

According to a recent Pentagon report, Pakistan is not just “China’s primary customer for conventional weapons,” but also is likely to host a Chinese naval hub geared toward power projection in the Indian Ocean region. It is well documented that China helped build Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, with covert Chinese nuclear and missile assistance still persisting.

Pakistan is the linchpin of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s dual Silk Road projects, officially known as “One Belt, One Road.”

By launching work on a $46 billion “economic corridor” stretching from Xinjiang to Pakistan’s Chinese-built and-run Gwadar port, Xi has made that country the central link between the twin Silk Road initiatives, which aim to employ geoeconomic tools to create a “Sinosphere” of trade, communications, transportation and security links. The corridor will link up Beijing’s maritime and overland Silk Roads, thereby shortening China’s route to the Middle East by 12,000 km and giving it access to the Indian Ocean, where it would be able to challenge India in its own maritime backyard.

Not surprisingly, Xi has gone out of his way to shield Pakistan, including from accusations that its intelligence service was behind recent grisly terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and India. For example, Xi ensured that the final communique issued at the end of the Oct. 14-15 summit of the five BRICS countries — Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa — omitted any reference to state sponsorship of terror or to any Pakistan-based terrorist group, even as it mentioned organizations like the Islamic State and al-Nusra.

A more potent reminder of such support was China’s action last month in blocking proposed U.N. sanctions on a Pakistan-based terrorist leader Masood Azhar, who heads Jaish-e-Mohammed, a covert front organization for Pakistani intelligence service. It was the sixth time since September 2014 that China singlehandedly thwarted sanctions against Azhar, despite support for the move by all other members of the Security Council’s Resolution 1267 committee, including the United States, Britain and France. Resolution 1267 mandates U.N. sanctions on the Islamic State, al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities.

The Security Council proscribed Jaish-e-Mohammed way back in 2001, yet the group operates openly from its base in Pakistan’s largest province of Punjab. The need for U.N. sanctions against the group’s chief has been underscored by evidence linking him and his group to two terrorist attacks this year on Indian military bases that killed 27 soldiers.

Despite repeatedly vetoing U.N. action against Azhar, China seems unconcerned that it could be seen as complicit in the killing of the Indian soldiers.

Previously, China also blocked U.N. action against some other Pakistan-based terrorist entities or individuals. For example, it came in the way of the U.N. proscribing United Jihad Council chief Syed Salahuddin and probing how U.N.-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed is still able to raise funds and organize large public rallies in major Pakistani cities. With China’s help, Pakistan escaped U.N. censure for freeing on bail Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist strikes.

In fact, with China boosting its strategic investments in Pakistan, Beijing is stepping up its diplomatic, economic and military support to that country. In the process, it is seeking to cement Pakistan’s status as its client.

For example, China has already secured exclusive rights for the next 40 years to run Gwadar, which could become a hub for Chinese naval operations in the Indian Ocean. The Shanghai Stock Exchange, for its part, is poised to take a 40 percent stake in Pakistan’s bourse.

Some analysts like the American author Gordon G. Chang believe that the tide of new Chinese strategic projects, including in divided and disputed Kashmir, is turning Pakistan into China’s “newest colony.”

Indeed, Beijing has persuaded internally torn Pakistan to set up special security forces, including a new 13,000-strong army division, to protect the Chinese projects. Still, the growing security costs of the “economic corridor” to the Indian Ocean prompted a Chinese state paper in September to warn that China “be prepared for potential setbacks,” adding that “it would be unwise to put all its eggs in one basket.”

The fact is that the corridor will cement Pakistan’s status as Beijing’s economic and security client. By tightening China’s grip over the country, it will preclude Pakistan from possibly emulating the example of Myanmar or North Korea to escape Beijing’s clutches.

Indeed, several years before China unveiled its plan to build the corridor, it started stationing its own troops in the Pakistan-held part of Kashmir, ostensibly to shield its ongoing highway, dam and other projects in the mountainous region.

The implications of China’s growing strategic penetration of Pakistan are ominous for the region and for Pakistan’s own future. Concern is increasing in Pakistan that, thanks to the Chinese projects, the country is slipping into a massive debt trap that could compromise its sovereignty and future.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut,” “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” and “Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.” He is a long-standing contributor to The Japan Times.

© The Japan Times, 2016.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s diplomatic balancing act

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Sustaining “neutrality” in foreign policy will likely prove a challenge for Myanmar’s de facto leader

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

aung-san-suu-kyiIn keeping with the untrammeled power she enjoys in her ruling National League for Democracy party, Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi is rapidly putting her imprint on her country’s international relations. She has shaken up Myanmar’s diffident foreign policy establishment by proactively seeking to build partnerships with multiple powers. But rather than pronouncing a “Suu Kyi doctrine” in foreign policy, she is allowing her actions to define her approach.

Suu Kyi’s approach is unmistakable — a nondoctrinaire vision with pragmatism as the hallmark, that aims to build equilibrium in relations with major powers and underscore Myanmar’s potential role as a bridge between different regions, cultures and powers. Myanmar’s geographic and geostrategic position makes it the natural bridge between South and Southeast Asia and between the demographic titans, China and India.

Myanmar is as large as Britain and France combined. Yet by coming under severe U.S.-led sanctions, Myanmar was strikingly left out of Asia’s economic boom of the past generation. Since 2011, its democratic transition — cemented by NLD’s landslide election victory nearly a year ago — has reversed its fortunes, with a number of countries jockeying to exploit the economic opportunities it offers.

Suu Kyi seems to believe that, through a dynamic foreign policy, she not only can advance Myanmar’s economic and security interests but also play the role of a facilitator between rival powers, including between China and Japan. Myanmar’s economic and political vulnerability, however, crimps Suu Kyi’s ambitious diplomacy, forcing her to perform a delicate balancing act between major powers vying for influence.

Take China, with which Myanmar shares a 2,129km border: As if to signal that her country’s pro-China tilt and dependence on Beijing was an aberration fostered by crippling U.S.-led sanctions for nearly a quarter century, Suu Kyi committed, soon after coming to power, to revive the country’s tradition of pursuing a neutral foreign policy. Yet, her first visit to a major capital was to Beijing in August.

The plain fact is that even though China impeded the Suu Kyi-led democracy movement by siding with Myanmar’s military rulers, its aggressive pursuit of strategic and resource interests has left it with considerable clout in the country. It accounts for about half of Myanmar’s foreign investment and 40% of its trade, with new multibillion-dollar oil and gas pipelines leading from Myanmar’s western coast to southern China.

Pecking order

Four weeks after her China trip, Suu Kyi visited the U.S., leading her country’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in New York and then meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House. The White House meeting led to Obama’s Oct. 7 executive order lifting U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar.

Now, after a recent tour of the world’s largest democracy — next-door India — Suu Kyi is set to visit Asia’s oldest, and richest, democracy, Japan, from Nov. 1. That Suu Kyi prioritized visits to Beijing and Washington over trips to New Delhi where she was educated, and Tokyo, Myanmar’s largest provider of debt relief, showed that she regards India and Japan as of lesser importance to her country’s interests than China and the U.S.

Yet the fact is that Japan and India, with traditionally close ties to Myanmar, have played key roles in helping to end the country’s pariah status and reintegrating it regionally. Myanmar indeed was a province of India until 1937 in the British Indian empire before it become a separate colony, only to be occupied during 1941-45 by Japan, which established the country’s first postcolonial state and army. After Myanmar gained independence from Britain in early 1948, Japan played a major role in Myanmar’s economic development by allocating war reparations and official development assistance.

Suu Kyi’s Oct. 16-19 India tour was part of New Delhi’s invitation to member states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation for a joint summit in the beach resort of Goa with Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, collectively known as BRICS. The Bay of Bengal Initiative, which brings together Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, is seen as a better alternative than the China-proposed Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor because it is more inclusive and seeks to reintegrate the region along its historical axis.

Even before her party formed a new government on Mar. 31, Suu Kyi appealed for more aid from Japan, which, since the start of Myanmar’s democratic transition, has dramatically increased its official development assistance, besides forgiving large amounts of debt and investing in ambitious projects. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government responded to Suu Kyi’s appeal through additional loans and grant assistance.

A huge debt write-off by Japan, totaling about $3.3 billion, has helped Myanmar to clear its arrears to the World Bank and Asian Development Bank, opening the path for aid donors to support the country’s reform process. By setting up the giant Thilawa special economic zone, southeast of Yangon, the largest city, Japan has made major investments to establish Myanmar as a regional manufacturing hub. It has also invested in infrastructure and urban-development projects, including in Yangon’s water, sewage and electricity facilities.

However, the sluggish pace of reforms in Myanmar, including liberalizing land rights, tightening fiscal management and opening the financial sector, has impeded the Abe government’s larger strategy to reduce the Mekong region’s dependence on China by strengthening intraregional trade links. Suu Kyi’s five-day Japan visit offers her an opportunity to allay Japanese concerns over Myanmar’s reform process and her own “neutral” foreign policy.

China, however, represents the biggest test of Suu Kyi’s diplomacy. How long will she be able to walk the tightrope on a country that poses the most complex challenge for Myanmar?

China, by strategically penetrating Myanmar, has not only armed itself with formidable leverage but also sought to turn the country into its corridor to the Indian Ocean. Having established a firm foothold in Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukp hyu, Beijing is seeking to open a shorter, cheaper trade route to Europe via Myanmar’s River Irrawaddy, which flows south from near the Chinese border to the Andaman Sea.

China holds the keys to ending decades of ethnic conflict in Myanmar, including by cutting off the flow of arms to guerrilla groups and exercising its clout over several key insurgent leaders. But it is unclear whether Beijing, despite being invited by Suu Kyi to play mediator, will genuinely aid her effort to build ethnic peace or use its role as a broker between the government and guerrilla groups to merely underpin its own leverage. A crucial peace conference hosted by Suu Kyi in the capital Naypyitaw ended in early September without any tangible progress.

Meanwhile, to deflect Chinese pressure to resume the Beijing-sponsored Myitsone Dam project, Suu Kyi has appointed a 20-member commission to review the previous government’s decision to suspend it. The $3.6 billion project was designed to generate electricity largely for export to China while saddling Myanmar with human and environmental costs. But its 2011 suspension carried major strategic ramifications: While representing a slap in the face to China, it became a watershed moment for Myanmar, accelerating its democratic transition and ending the country’s international isolation.

Politically speaking, Suu Kyi can ill afford to revive a dam project that she slammed as the opposition leader. The project indeed is despised in Myanmar as an epitome of China’s neocolonial policies toward smaller countries. Through the commission, however, Suu Kyi can help China save face, if Myanmar agrees to pay compensation. Beijing could plow that compensation into new deals for smaller, environmentally friendly hydropower plants.

In concept, Suu Kyi’s “neutrality” in foreign policy seems attractive, potentially allowing her to carefully balance cooperation with all the major players in a way that advances Myanmar’s interest, without the country being forced to choose one power over another. Building such multidirectional collaboration can definitely help Myanmar to advance its development and security.

In reality, though, it might be difficult for an aid-dependent, internally torn Myanmar to sustain a neutral foreign policy. Despite her diplomatic balancing act, Suu Kyi’s approach faces major challenges, including an arc of insurgencies in Myanmar and the attempt by various powers to treat the country as a chessboard of geopolitics.

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

 

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2016.

Why Japan and India must be partners in Myanmar

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A Japan-India partnership on major projects in Myanmar can help reduce the salience of Chinese influence there.

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Japan Times, October 19, 2016

Myanmar’s de factor leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is seeking to carefully balance relations with major powers as part of her commitment to revive the country’s tradition of employing a neutral foreign policy. Suu Kyi’s India visit this week follows trips to Beijing and Washington.

Myanmar’s geographic, cultural and geostrategic positioning between India and China makes it critical to the long-term interests of both these powers.

Crippling U.S.-led sanctions since the late 1980s pushed resource-rich Myanmar into China’s strategic lap. Sanctions without engagement have never worked. During his 2010 Indian tour, U.S. President Barack Obama criticized India’s policy of constructive engagement with Myanmar, only to return home and pursue, within months, a virtually similar policy. The shift in U.S. policy helped to spur Myanmar’s reform process, thereby ending half a century of military-dominated rule.

Yet today the Obama White House is ignoring that lesson by pursuing a sanctions-only approach toward North Korea, which recently carried out its fifth and most-powerful nuclear test and then conducted a failed missile test launch last weekend.

On her first visit to a major capital since her National League for Democracy (NLD) party came to power almost seven months ago, Suu Kyi in August visited Beijing, not New Delhi where she was educated. Her aim was to smooth over the frayed relationship with China. Ties with China have been roiled by Myanmar’s 2011 suspension of the $3.6 billion, Chinese-financed Myitsone Dam project. The suspension on the eve of China’s national day constituted a slap in the face to Beijing — a loss of face made worse by the fact that the action became a turning point for Myanmar’s democratization and reintegration with the outside world.

The bold move, by demonstrating to Washington that Myanmar was no client state of China and by helping to both change U.S. policy and accelerate the country’s own transition to democracy, set in motion an easing of Western sanctions and ending Myanmar’s international isolation — best symbolized by Obama’s 2012 visit.

After work on the Myitsone Dam was halted midway, China’s relations with Myanmar perceptibly cooled, with several energy and other dam projects also put on hold. Beijing, however, managed to complete multibillion-dollar oil and gas pipelines from Myanmar’s western coast to southern China.

With the rise of a democratically governed Myanmar that is being wooed by all powers and by international investors, China can no longer push its strategic and resource interests by brushing aside questions about the environmental and human costs of its mining and other projects there.

But with China still wielding more leverage over Myanmar than any other power, President Xi Jinping is pushing for the Myitsone project’s revival — or the undoing of the 2011 humiliation. To deflect Chinese pressure, Suu Kyi, before visiting Beijing, appointed a 20-member commission to review Myitsone and other dam projects on River Irrawaddy, the country’s lifeline.

After her China trip, Suu Kyi, as part of her balancing act, visited Washington, where she was warmly received Sept. 14 at the White House. But it was only on Oct. 7 — about 11 months after the NLD won a landslide election victory — that Obama lifted U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar through an executive order terminating an emergency directive that deemed the policies of its former military government a threat to U.S. national security. Military-related sanctions, however, have been retained.

Suu Kyi, accompanied by key ministers, traveled to India to attend a weekend multinational summit in Goa and then hold bilateral meetings with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top officials in New Delhi.

Her visit was part of India’s invitation to member states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) for a joint summit with the five-nation BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in Goa. Suu Kyi thus met with a host of world leaders in Goa, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi.

Bringing together Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, BIMSTEC holds more promise than the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which is likely to remain a stunted organization, largely because of regional concerns over terrorism emanating from one of its members, Pakistan. A SAARC summit scheduled for next month in Islamabad collapsed after India, Afghanistan and Bangladesh accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency of orchestrating recent terrorist attacks within their borders.

Myanmar is India’s gateway to the east. It was at the India-ASEAN summit in Myanmar’s capital Naypyitaw in late 2014 that Modi launched India’s U.S.-backed “Act East” policy.

When Suu Kyi was in the opposition, India supported Suu Kyi’s democracy movement and sheltered many Myanmar refugees and dissidents, despite engaging with Myanmar’s military government in a carefully calibrated manner to promote political reconciliation and to stem China’s growing clout there.

Today, a key challenge for both Myanmar and India is to manage a difficult and complex relationship with China. Just as India’s northern neighbor historically was Tibet, not China, Myanmar’s neighbor for much of its early history was the independent kingdom of Yunnan, with Tibet also sharing a border with Myanmar until 1950.

Myanmar, like India, has long complained about the flow of Chinese arms to local guerrilla groups, accusing Beijing of backing several of them in its north as levers against it. Still, recognizing that Beijing holds the keys to ending decades of armed conflict in Myanmar, Suu Kyi has given China an important role in her new initiative to promote ethnic reconciliation. Yet, despite China playing mediator, a Suu Kyi-sponsored peacemaking gathering attended by ethnic warlords in Naypyitaw ended in early September without any headway.

China values Myanmar as a strategic asset, viewing its long shoreline as a gateway to the Indian Ocean, where it is seeking to chip away at India’s natural-geographic advantage. Having established a foothold in Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal port of Kyaukpyu, from where new energy pipelines lead to southern China, Beijing is now seeking to open a shorter, cheaper trade route to Europe via Myanmar’s River Irrawaddy, which flows in a southerly direction from near the Chinese border to the Andaman Sea.

Against this backdrop, India can ill afford to neglect Myanmar or persist with its sluggish implementation of projects there. It must actively involve itself in Myanmar, including by collaborating with Japan, with which it enjoys fast-growing strategic cooperation. The giant Thilawa industrial zone southeast of Yangon symbolizes Japan’s investment campaign in Myanmar to gain access to a new market and counterbalance China.

Greater Indian investment in and counterinsurgency cooperation with Myanmar, coupled with an India-Japan partnership on major projects in that country, can help reduce the salience of Chinese influence there and further Suu Kyi’s agenda for a balanced, neutral and pragmatic foreign policy.

Brahma Chellaney is a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin and a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

© The Japan Times, 2016.

Why India must not neglect Myanmar

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, October 15, 2016

downloadThe visit of Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de factor leader, to India is significant. Myanmar’s geographic, cultural and geostrategic positioning between India and China makes it critical to long-term Indian interests. Yet it took 25 years for an Indian prime minister to visit Myanmar, India’s gateway to the east.

Since that visit in 2012 by Manmohan Singh, India has upgraded its Myanmar policy from constructive engagement to comprehensive interconnection. It was at the India-ASEAN Summit in Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw in late 2014 that Narendra Modi launched India’s “Act East” policy. Yet, for his own inauguration in office, Modi invited leaders of all regional states, including Mauritius, but not next-door Myanmar, in a reminder of how India episodically neglects an important neighbour.

Suu Kyi’s visit is part of India’s invitation to member-states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) for a joint summit with BRICS at Goa. Bringing together Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, BIMSTEC is a better alternative for India than the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which is likely to remain a stunted organization. Indeed, SAARC boxes India in an artificial regional framework; India’s natural strategic compass is broader.

Suu Kyi, committed to reviving her country’s old tradition of a neutral foreign policy, is seeking to carefully balance relations with major powers. On her first visit to a major capital since her party won a landslide election victory less than a year ago, Suu Kyi in August visited Beijing, not New Delhi where she was educated. Her aim was to smooth over the frayed relationship with China. Ties with China have been roiled by Myanmar’s 2011 suspension of the $3.6-billion, Chinese-financed Myitsone Dam project.

The suspension on the eve of China’s national day constituted a slap in the face to Beijing — a loss of face made worse by the fact that the action became a turning point for Myanmar’s democratization and reintegration with the outside world. The bold move, by demonstrating that Myanmar was no client state of China and by helping to accelerate the country’s transition to democracy, set in motion an easing of Western sanctions and ending Myanmar’s international isolation — best symbolized by Barack Obama’s 2012 visit, the first ever by a U.S. president.

But with China still wielding more leverage over Myanmar than any other power, President Xi Jinping is now pushing for the Myitsone project’s revival — or the undoing of the 2011 humiliation. To blunt Chinese pressure, Suu Kyi, before visiting Beijing, appointed a 20-member commission to review the project.

After her China trip, Suu Kyi, as part of her balancing act, visited Washington, where she was warmly received. But it was just last weekend that Obama lifted U.S. economic sanctions on Myanmar, while retaining military-related sanctions.

Myanmar, like India, has long complained about the flow of Chinese arms to guerrilla groups, accusing Beijing of backing several of them in its north as levers against it. Still, recognizing that Beijing holds the keys to ending decades of armed conflict in Myanmar, Suu Kyi has given China an important role in her new initiative to promote ethnic reconciliation. Yet, despite China playing mediator, a Suu Kyi-sponsored peacemaking gathering attended by ethnic warlords in Naypyidaw ended early last month without any headway.

China values Myanmar as a strategic asset, viewing its long shoreline as a gateway to the Indian Ocean, where it is seeking to chip away at India’s natural-geographic advantage. Having established a foothold in Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu port, from where the new energy pipelines lead to southern China, Beijing is seeking to open a shorter, cheaper trade route to Europe via Myanmar’s River Irrawaddy.

Against this backdrop, India can ill afford to neglect Myanmar, or persist with its sluggish implementation of projects there, or unilaterally conduct cross-border military strikes on Naga guerrillas. While being sensitive to Myanmarese concerns, India must actively involve itself in Myanmar through greater trade, investment and counterinsurgency cooperation to help reduce the salience of Chinese influence and to further Suu Kyi’s agenda for a balanced, neutral and pragmatic foreign policy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War.”

© The Times of India, 2016.

Fashioning water as a weapon

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By BRAHMA CHELLANEYMail Today

39510d2200000578-3833294-image-a-1_1476223932637China’s cutting off the flow of a Brahmaputra tributary is just the latest example of its emergence as the upstream water controller through a globally unparalleled hydro-engineering infrastructure centred on dams.

Earlier this year, Beijing itself highlighted its water hegemony over downstream countries by releasing some of its dammed water for drought-hit nations in the lower Mekong basin.

Blocking the flow of the Xiabu river, a Brahmaputra tributary, through a dam project is a significant development, a forewarning that China intends to do a lot more to re-engineer flows in the Brahmaputra system by riding roughshod over the interests of the lower riparians, India and Bangladesh.

Just as it has heavily dammed the Mekong, China is now working to complete a cascade of dams in the Brahmaputra basin.

Dependence

On the Mekong, China has erected six giant dams, with the smallest of them bigger than the largest dam India has built since Independence.

For the downriver countries in that basin, the release of water from the Chinese dams to combat drought was a jarring reminder of not just China’s new-found power to control the flow of a life-sustaining resource, but also of their own reliance on Beijing’s goodwill and charity.

With a further 14 dams being built or planned by China, their dependence on Chinese goodwill is likely to deepen – at some cost to their strategic leeway and environmental security.

Armed with such leverage, Beijing is pushing its Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) initiative as an alternative to the lower-basin states’ Mekong River Commission, which China has spurned over the years.

Indeed, having its cake and eating it, China is a dialogue partner but not a member of the Mekong River Commission, underscoring its intent to stay clued in on the discussions, without having to take on any legal obligations.

The Mekong, Southeast Asia’s lifeline, is just one of the international rivers China has dammed.

It has also targeted the Arun, the Indus, the Sutlej, the Irtysh, the Illy, the Amur and the Salween, besides the Brahmaputra.

These rivers flow into India, Nepal, Kazakhstan, Russia or Myanmar.

Asia’s water map changed fundamentally after the communists took power in China in 1949.

It wasn’t geography but guns that established China’s chokehold on almost every major transnational river system in Asia, the world’s largest and most-populous continent.

Absorption

By forcibly absorbing the Tibetan Plateau (the giant incubator of Asia’s main river systems) and Xinjiang (the starting point of the Irtysh and the Illy), China became the source of trans-boundary river flows to the largest number of countries in the world, extending from the Indochina Peninsula and South Asia to Kazakhstan and Russia.

Beijing’s claim over these sprawling territories, which make up more than half of China’s landmass today, drew from the fact that they were imperial spoils of the earlier foreign rule in China.

Before the communists seized power, China had only 22 dams of any significant size. But now, China boasts more large dams on its territory than the rest of the world combined.

If dams of all sizes and types are counted, their number in China surpasses 85,000. Strongman Mao Zedong initiated an ambitious dam-building programme, but the majority of the existing dams were built in the period after him.

China’s dam frenzy, however, shows no sign of slowing. The country’s dam builders, in fact, are shifting their focus from the dam-saturated internal rivers (some of which, like the Yellow, are dying) to the international rivers, especially those that originate on the waterrich Tibetan Plateau.

This raises fears that the degradation haunting China’s internal rivers could be replicated in the international rivers.

Leverage

China, after all, has graduated to erecting mega-dams.

Take its latest dams on the Mekong: the 4,200- megawatt Xiaowan (taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris) and the 5,850- megawatt Nuozhadu, with a 190-square-kilometre reservoir.

Either of them is larger than the current hydropower-generating capacity of the lower Mekong states combined.

Despite its centrality in Asia’s water map, China has rebuffed the idea of a water-sharing treaty with any neighbour. The concern is thus growing among is downstream neighbours that China is seeking to turn water into a potential political weapon.

After all, by controlling the spigot for much of Asia’s water, China is acquiring major leverage over its neighbours’ behaviour in a continent already reeling under low freshwater availability.

China is clearly not content with being the world’s most dammed country, and the only thing that could temper its dam frenzy is a prolonged economic slowdown at home.

Flattening demand for electricity due to China’s already-slowing economic growth, for example, offers a sliver of hope that the Salween river could be saved from the cascade of hydroelectric mega-dams that Beijing has planned to build on it.

Even so, China’s riparian might will remain unmatched.

© Mail Today, 2016.