Democracy in danger in yet another Asian nation

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President Sirisena’s bloodless coup in Sri Lanka is backfiring. By bringing governance to a standstill, it is undermining the president. And by seeking to install Rajapaksa as prime minister, Sirisena sends a chilling message to the minorities and human-rights activists.

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Once allies and now enemies: President Maithripala Sirisena, right, with Ranil Wickremesinghe, whom he has sought to oust as prime minister.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Democracy worldwide today “finds itself battered and weakened,” says the U.S.-based Freedom House think tank. Nowhere is this truer than in Asia, where only a small number of states are genuine democracies.

Political freedom is already losing ground from Bangladesh to Hong Kong. The latest developments in Sri Lanka put the future of one of Asia’s oldest democracies at serious risk.

The island’s strategic location close to the world’s busiest sea lanes has helped intensify international concern over President Maithripala Sirisena’s recent unconstitutional actions that smack of the kind of authoritarianism that his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had mastered. Sri Lanka’s vantage location has made it a “swing state” in the regional tussle for maritime ascendancy between China and democratic allies headed by India, the U.S., Japan and Australia.

Rajapaksa, who ended Sri Lanka’s 26-year-old civil war by brutally crushing rebels from the minority Tamil community, led the island-nation with an iron fist for a decade. In a stunning upset in early 2015, the strongman lost the presidential election to Sirisena, a minister in his cabinet who defected before the vote to become the common opposition candidate. Sirisena won in partnership with Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became prime minister.

The duo came to power on the promise of resolving Sri Lanka’s crisis of accountability and democratic governance and saving the country from a Chinese debt trap. China, in return for shielding Rajapaksa at the United Nations from allegations of war crimes, had won major infrastructure contracts during his rule and became the leading lender to a country it saw as vital to the completion of President Xi Jinping’s Maritime Silk Road.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, however, never jelled as partners. Their bickering turned into an open feud this year as Sirisena reneged on his promise not to seek a second term and began undercutting Wickremesinghe, who wanted to be the next president.

In recent days shockingly undemocratic steps have plunged Sri Lanka into political crisis. Sirisena joined forces with Rajapaksa to stage a political coup d’etat: Rajapaksa was hurriedly sworn in at night as prime minister after the president dismissed Wickremesinghe.

A 2015 constitutional amendment had expressly removed the president’s power to summarily fire the prime minister.

Amid outrage at home and abroad, Sirisena suspended Parliament to prevent Wickremesinghe — who has refused to accept his dismissal — from proving that he commanded a majority. In the meantime, with the United States, India and the European Union mounting pressure for a swift vote in Parliament even as China plowed a lonely furrow in recognizing the new prime minister, Sirisena sought to engineer a majority for Rajapaksa through political horse-trading, with lawmakers reportedly offered bribes to defect to his side.

On November 9, after Sirisena’s own party admitted failure to contrive majority support for Rajapaksa, the president dismissed Parliament and called parliamentary elections on January 5, about 20 months ahead of schedule. This action — which faces a challenge in the Supreme Court — was unlawful because, under Sri Lanka’s constitution, Parliament can be dissolved only when less than six months of its five-year term is left or when two-thirds of the lawmakers assent.

Sirisena’s power grab underscores the corrosive legacy of Rajapaksa’s family-centered quasi-dictatorship, which was marked by accusations of brazen nepotism, steady expansion of presidential powers, muzzling of civil liberties, and growth of Chinese influence.

The current crisis, however, should not obscure the country’s fundamental challenges in relation to ethnic reconciliation, human rights, justice and economic stability.

For example, postwar policies since the 2009 defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, far from promoting reconciliation, have engendered dangerous new ethnic and religious divides. The spread of anti-Muslim violence prompted the government in March to declare a state of emergency.

Despite the horrific human cost of the war, Rajapaksa emerged as a hero among the ethnic-Sinhalese majority, who are mainly Buddhist. An emboldened Rajapaksa stepped up efforts to fashion a mono-ethnic identity for a multiethnic Sri Lanka.

Rajapaksa’s bid to return to power sends a chilling message to the predominantly Hindu Tamils and to the Muslims, who together make up about a quarter of the country’s 22 million population.

Today, thousands of mainly Tamil families are still seeking information about loved ones who were forcibly taken away, pleading for return of land seized by the army or calling for the release of prisoners the government acknowledges it is holding.

Meanwhile, with the country slipping into debt entrapment, Sri Lanka’s China dilemma has only deepened. Unable to pay the accumulated Chinese debt, Sri Lanka was forced to hand over its strategically located Hambantota port to China last December under a 99-year lease valued at $1.12 billion. China, thanks to its leverage, has even secured new projects.

In a landmark speech last month that signaled a shift in America’s China policy, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence cited Sri Lanka as a victim of Beijing’s debt-trap diplomacy and warned that Hambantota could “soon become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy.”

Today, the choice for Sri Lanka is between shaping its own destiny through political stability and getting sucked into great-power games through internal disarray.

By engineering a national crisis that has resulted in dueling prime ministers, with Rajapaksa pitted against Wickremesinghe, the wily Sirisena has sought to clear the way for another term for himself as president.

Whatever trajectory the present crisis takes, the damage to the country’s democratic institutions will not be easy to repair. This is especially so because of the broken promises and retrograde measures.

The president who was elected to prevent abuses and excesses of power again through constitutional change has himself abused the power of his office. In fact, he has reached a Faustian bargain with the man whose 2005-2015 presidency brought democracy under siege.

More fundamentally, Sri Lanka illustrates that free and fair elections, by themselves, do not guarantee genuine democratic empowerment at the grassroots level or adherence to constitutional rules by those in power. In fact, Sri Lanka is a reminder that democratic progress is reversible unless the rule of law is firmly established and the old, entrenched forces are held to account for their rapacious past.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author of nine books, is professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. © Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

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Insecurity in India’s maritime backyard

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Maldives’ former president Mohamed Nasheed (left) with President-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih after returning from exile. (Photo: AP)

The centenary of the World War I armistice is a reminder that the war was triggered by European power struggle for territories, resources and client-states — the very pursuits of China today.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

While India watches with concern Sri Lanka’s deepening political crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is boldly visiting the Maldives on the day its autocratic president, Abdullah Yameen, is to cede power after a surprise election defeat. Modi’s visit for the new president’s inauguration effectively ensures that Yameen will peacefully transfer power to the victor, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Indeed, the mere announcement of Modi’s visit signalled to Yameen that he had no choice but to accept the fait accompli.

Coordinated pressure from democratic powers, including the spectre of an Indian military intervention, is helping to restore Maldivian democracy. The US had warned of “appropriate measures” and the EU had threatened sanctions if the vote was not free and fair. And when the graft-tainted Yameen hesitated to concede defeat despite the election outcome, Washington demanded he “respect the will of the people.”

Yameen had stacked the electoral odds in his favour by jailing or forcing into exile all important opposition leaders and working to neuter the Supreme Court, including by imprisoning justices. But such was the grassroots backlash against his dictatorial rule that he lost the election to the little-known Solih, the common opposition candidate. Unless autocrats wholly manipulate elections, they cannot control voters’ backlash, which is why Malaysia’s Najib Razak was swept out of office in May and Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa was booted out in early 2015.

It is ironical that Sri Lanka has now been plunged into political crisis by President Maithripala Sirisena’s unconstitutional actions, which smack of the kind of authoritarianism displayed by his predecessor, Rajapaksa. Sirisena, who was elected to prevent abuses and excesses of power again through constitutional change, has himself abused the power of his office. Ominously, Sirisena has reached a Faustian bargain with Rajapaksa, whose decade-long presidency brought democracy under siege.

The collapse of the Sri Lankan partnership between Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe is indeed an early warning to the Maldivian unity coalition that the restoration of full democracy is reversible unless those elected to high office respect constitutional rules and show consideration for their partners. Solih’s victory was made possible by opposition unity. But the only thing that united opposition leaders was the imperative to end Yameen’s tyrannical rule.

Those who helped fashion Solih’s victory include former presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed. Earlier jailed by Gayoom, Nasheed took office in 2008 by defeating Gayoom in the country’s first multi-party election. But in 2012, Nasheed was ousted at gunpoint after pro-Islamist groups, including forces loyal to Gayoom, laid siege to the presidential office. In this light, political stability and democratic progress in post-Yameen Maldives will hinge on rival leaders staying united behind Solih.

There is much in common between the Maldives and Sri Lanka, including their islander cultures and shifting political alliances and the fact that Maldives’ official language, Dhivehi, is a dialect of Sinhala. The murky turn of events in Sri Lanka casts an unwelcome shadow over Maldives’ new democratic beginning.

In fact, the biggest threat to democratic institutions in India’s maritime neighbourhood — after internal crisis — comes from the growing role and leverage of the world’s largest autocracy, China. From bribing politicians to shielding pliant leaders and governments from UN actions, China has encouraged anti-democratic developments. Before Sirisena recently stunned a cabinet meeting by claiming he was the target of a RAW assassination plot (his office later denied he named RAW), he publicly boasted that Chinese President Xi Jinping “gifted” him almost $300 million “for any project of my wish.” China has also built South Asia’s largest kidney hospital in Sirisena’s home district.

A central challenge for the Solih-led Maldives will be to escape China’s debt entrapment, given how Beijing has sought to further its geostrategic goals by attempting to hold Sri Lanka financially hostage. Throttling democracy allowed Yameen to take the Maldives down the slippery slope of increasing indebtedness to his protector, China. The accumulated debt to China is now more than two times greater than Maldives’ yearly revenues. In steering his archipelago country firmly into China’s orbit, Yameen also leased several unpopulated islands opaquely to Beijing.

More broadly, the centenary this week of the World War I armistice is a reminder that the war was triggered by European power struggle for territories, resources and client-states — the very pursuits of China today. China’s increasing encroachments into India’s maritime neighbourhood will likely keep this region insecure and heighten uncertainty. By muscling its way into India’s backyard, Beijing has prompted an Indian focus on the maritime domain, including seeking to turn four key projects into “pearls” — Sabang (Indonesia); Chabahar (Iran); Duqm (Oman); and Agaléga (Mauritius).

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

The linchpins for a rules-based Indo-Pacific

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

The spotlight on the Beijing summit between Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping cannot obscure the more substantive discussions starting Sunday between the Japanese prime minister and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, in Tokyo. Whereas Japan-China ties are unlikely to easily return to normal, the Abe-Modi summit will cement the Japan-India relationship as Asia’s fastest growing and open the path to a military logistics pact to allow access to each other’s bases.

The entente between Asia’s richest democracy and its largest is a central pillar of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is assertively pushing. Indeed, Abe is the architect of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept, which he formally unveiled more than two years ago while addressing African leaders in Nairobi.

Today, Japan and India serve as the linchpins for establishing an Indo-Pacific order based on the principles of the rule of law, free trade, freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes. The Trump administration openly acknowledges the critical importance of the Japan-India relationship to achieving a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy is really the successor to the “pivot” to Asia, which was announced by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2011 and became subsequently known as the “rebalance” to Asia. Like the “pivot,” the Indo-Pacific strategy is founded on the realization that the United States needs to correct its disproportionate focus on the Middle East by reorienting its policy to reflect Asia’s central importance to long-term American interests.

Asian security competition is occurring largely in the maritime context, which explains the increasing use of the term “Indo-Pacific” — representing the fusion of two oceans, the Indian and the Pacific. The geo-economic competition is also gaining traction in this region, which boasts the world’s fastest-growing economies, the fastest-increasing military expenditures and naval capabilities, the fiercest competition over natural resources, and the most dangerous hot spots. The Indo-Pacific thus holds the key to global security and a new world order.

The broadening of America’s “pivot” to a wider region that includes the Indian Ocean is also a riposte to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, whose largest investments in infrastructure projects are concentrated in the Indian Ocean Rim. And as China’s first overseas naval base at Djibouti and its acquisition of several unpopulated islets in the Maldives illustrate, the Indian Ocean is also becoming Beijing’s geostrategic focus after its success in creating and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Against this background, Abe and Modi, besides signing an accord Monday to build maritime domain awareness through partnership, will set in motion the process for the Japanese and Indian militaries to clinch a logistics-sharing agreement, formally known as the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA). A logistics-sharing accord has become imperative for the two militaries, given the number of joint maneuvers they hold, including three-way exercises involving the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

An ACSA with India will help Japan to project its rising naval power in the Indian Ocean, including allowing Japanese ships to get fuel and servicing at Indian naval bases. The Maritime Self-Defense Force will also be able to secure access to Indian naval facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, located close to the western entrance to the Malacca Straits through which sizable shares of Japan’s and China’s trade and fuel imports pass.

With the loosening of the legal and constitutional constraints on the military under Abe, the MSDF, instead of focusing merely on territorial defense of the homeland, is now able to operate far beyond Japanese shores. Indeed, Japan’s new readiness to participate in regional security, including through joint military exercises and training, is making it a critical player in the changing geostrategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific.

India has signed military logistics pacts with the U.S. and France, both of which have strategically located bases in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. A logistics-sharing agreement with Japan, along with greater bilateral maritime cooperation, will help the Indian Navy expand its footprint to the western Pacific.

The plain fact is that Japan and India, in the absence of any historical baggage or major strategic disagreement, are natural allies that share largely complementary interests. In fact, Japan has the distinction of being the only country that has been allowed to undertake infrastructure and other projects in India’s sensitive northeast (bordering Myanmar, Tibet, Bhutan and Bangladesh), as well as in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

If Japan and India add concrete security content to their relationship, their strategic partnership could potentially be a game changer in Asia. The emphasis on boosting trade and investment must be balanced with greater strategic collaboration. As Japanese Ambassador to India Kenji Hiramatsu put it, “Defense and security ties now need to catch up.”

Abe’s summit with Xi — and Modi’s earlier summit with the Chinese president in Wuhan in April — cannot hide the fact that Japan and India face a serious challenge from a revisionist and muscular China. In fact, it is the Trump administration’s pressure on Beijing on trade, technology and other fronts that has prompted Xi to reach out to Abe and Modi.

Xi is probably hoping that Japan, like it did after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of student-led protesters, will help to bail out his country at a time when America’s China policy is undergoing a fundamental shift. Japan was one of the first countries to lift post-Tiananmen economic sanctions, an action that paved the way for Emperor Akihito’s 1992 historic visit to China.

But Japan, like the U.S., has now shed its China blinkers and embraced a more realistic, clear-eyed approach to relations with Beijing. India too is under no illusion that a Xi-led China is going to discard its bullying and rule-breaking, and become a good neighbor.

In this light, the Abe-Modi summit offers an opportunity to discuss how the Tokyo-New Delhi duet can contribute to the larger U.S.-initiated effort to build strategic equilibrium, power stability and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. As for Washington, it needs to evolve a clear strategy to deal with the changing status quo in the South China Sea, a highly strategic corridor that is central to a truly “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2018.

Maldives: India should not rest on its oars

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Following President Abdulla Yameen’s surprise defeat in the Maldivian election, the air of self-congratulation that pervades in New Delhi risks obscuring the challenges. India ought to learn from its experience with Sri Lanka, where China has retained its influence and leverage even after authoritarian President Mahinda Rajapaksa was thrown out by voters in early 2015. In the Maldives, China may be down, but it’s not out and could, as in Sri Lanka, re-establish its clout through debt-trap diplomacy.

The Maldivian archipelago, despite its tiny population, is of key importance to Indian security, given that it sits astride critical sea lanes through which much of India’s shipping passes. From the Indian naval station on the Lakshadweep island of Minicoy, the Maldives’ northernmost Thuraakunu Island is just 100 kilometers away.

The election victory of opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih against an increasingly autocratic Yameen cannot by itself roll back the deep strategic inroads China made during the incumbent president’s rule. To be sure, the outcome represents a triumph of Indian patience. Had India militarily intervened in the Maldives, it could have provoked a nationalistic backlash and strengthened Islamist forces in a country that has supplied the world’s highest per-capita number of foreign fighters to terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.

After Yameen in February declared a state of emergency and jailed Supreme Court justices and political opponents, India came under pressure, including from the Maldivian opposition, to intervene militarily, as it did once before — in 1988 when it foiled an attempted coup. But unlike in 1988, no legitimate authority was inviting India to send in forces. By erring on the side of caution, and by holding out an intervention threat if the voting were not free and fair, India aided the electoral outcome.

Contrast this with Indian missteps in Nepal, where India woke up belatedly to the political machinations in Kathmandu that led to a flawed new Constitution being promulgated. India then backed the Madhesi movement for constitutional amendments — an agitation that triggered a five-month border blockade of essential supplies to Nepal. The resulting Nepalese grassroots backlash against India eventually contributed to the China-aided communists sweeping Nepal’s 2017 elections.

The restoration of full democracy in the Maldives after, hopefully, a smooth transfer of power on November 17 will be a diplomatic boost for India. However, in India’s larger strategic backyard, China continues to systematically erode Indian clout. Indeed, the Maldivian election result coincided with a major development underscoring Nepal’s pro-China tilt. After implementing a transit transport agreement with China to cut dependence on India, communist-ruled Nepal — under Chinese pressure — has reversed its previous government’s cancellation of the $2.5 billion Budhi-Gandaki Dam project. China bagged the project without competitive bidding. It massively inflated the project cost, which will leave Nepal struggling to repay the Chinese debt.

Yameen, who signed major financing and investment deals with Beijing, will be departing after pushing the Maldives to the brink of a Chinese debt trap. Can the Maldives still escape debt entrapment by emulating the example set by Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, who recently cancelled Chinese projects worth almost $23 billion? Or is the Maldives, like Sri Lanka, already so indebted that it will remain under China’s sway? Nearly 80% of the Maldives’ external debt — equivalent to about one-quarter of its GDP — is owed to China.

Even without any new contracts, the Maldivian debt to China will rise because of the Chinese projects already completed or initiated, thus allowing Beijing to retain its favourite source of leverage. Indeed, Beijing will seek to court Yameen’s successor just as it has in Sri Lanka wooed Rajapaksa’s successor, who has disclosed that China has “gifted” him $300 million “for any project of my wish,” besides constructing South Asia’s largest kidney hospital in his electoral district.

In this light, the post-Yameen Maldives — like Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — would likely seek to balance relations with India and China, thus reinforcing how Beijing has fundamentally altered geopolitics in a subregion New Delhi long considered its natural sphere of influence. As Maldives’ closest partner, a proactive India must leverage its ties. India should assist in infrastructure development and be willing to refinance Maldives’ Chinese debt so as to achieve lower costs and a longer-term maturity profile.

India will have to closely watch China’s activities in the unpopulated Maldivian islands it managed to lease during Yameen’s reign. China is muscling its way into India’s maritime backyard, including sending warships to the Maldives and signing an accord for an ocean observatory there that could provide critical data for deploying Chinese nuclear submarines. The new Maldivian government should be left in no doubt about India’s “red lines”.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

China’s Imperial Project Runs into Resistance

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Grand on ambition but short on transparency, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s marquee project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), seeks to refashion the global economic and political order by luring nations desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. The BRI is essentially an imperial project aiming to make real the mythical Middle Kingdom.

The BRI, rolled out in 2013, attracted many countries, as China offered to finance and build major infrastructure projects, including ports, highways, energy plants and railroads. But after a smooth sailing, the BRI is now encountering strong headwinds, as partner-countries worry about China ensnaring them in sovereignty-eroding debt traps.

China has extended huge loans to financially weak states, only to strengthen its leverage through debt entrapment Indeed, Beijing has converted big credits not just into political influence but also a military presence, as its first overseas naval base at Djibouti illustrates.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang by his side in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, recently criticized China’s use of infrastructure projects to spread its influence. By warning China against “a new version of colonialism,” Mr. Mahathir highlighted international concerns over Beijing’s use of geo-economic tools to achieve geopolitical objectives.

A number of countries have now begun trying to renegotiate their deals with Beijing. Some have also decided to scrap or scale back BRI projects. Mr. Mahathir, during his Beijing visit, announced cancellation of Chinese projects worth nearly $23 billion.

BRI seeks to export China’s model of top-down, debt-driven development through government-to-government deals. Vulnerable countries are now awakening to the risks of accepting loans that could financially shackle them to Beijing.

Last December, China acquired the strategic Indian Ocean port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease after the small island nation of Sri Lanka could no longer keep up with debt repayments.

In fact, China is even replicating some of the practices that were used against it during the European-colonial period. For example, the concept of a 99-year lease emerged from the flurry of European-colonial expansion in China in the 19th century.

While rates for Japan’s infrastructure loans usually run below half a percent, China offers BRI loans at rates as high as 7 percent, which can place unsustainable financial strain on small countries. For example, China’s renegotiated Hambantota port loan to Sri Lanka carries a 6.3 percent fixed rate. In China’s client state, Pakistan, Chinese state companies have secured energy contracts that guarantee 16 percent or more yearly returns, in dollar terms.

China has faced accusations in multiple countries of illegally funneling money to authoritarian presidents.

In the Maldives, China has managed to acquire several islets in that heavily indebted Indian Ocean archipelago. Mohamed Nasheed, the nation’s first democratically elected president who was ousted at gunpoint in 2012, said, “Without firing a single shot, China has grabbed more land in the Maldives than what [Britain’s] East India Company did at the height of the 19th century.”

Against this background, the BRI is beginning to encounter a push-back in a number of countries. A growing number of governments are seeking transparency in Chinese lending, investment and trade practices.

However, the BRI is still bagging new contracts in some other countries. One example is the Himalayan nation of Nepal, which became the world’s sixth Communist-ruled country in February. China helped unite warring Communist factions in Nepal and funded the election campaign. Now Beijing is reaping the rewards.

The new Communist government in Nepal in September reinstated a deal with China for a $2.5 billion dam project that was scrapped by the previous government. China won the contract without an open-bidding process. In fact, it has massively inflated the project cost, which will leave Nepal struggling to repay the Chinese loan.

Laos, another Communist-ruled nation, is also seeking more BRI financing and investment. In continental Southeast Asia, while Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are wary of getting too close to China, Laos and Cambodia see BRI as critical to boosting their economic growth.

Yet the international reality is that, after a heady first phase, the pace of new contracts under the BRI has slowed, as concerns spread about China’s debt-trap diplomacy and as heavily indebted nations recoil from accepting more Chinese financing in the form of market-rate loans. This trend is likely to intensify in the next few years.

Even within China, the BRI is facing criticism from those who question the wisdom of plowing hundreds of billions of dollars into overseas projects when the government is still grappling with poverty and underdevelopment in a number of provinces. Critics are concerned that Mr. Xi’s aggressive quest for Chinese dominance is inviting an international backlash. The BRI — the world’s biggest building program, which Mr. Xi has hailed as “the project of the century” — exemplifies how China is flaunting its global ambitions.

Meanwhile, the financial and security risks of Chinese projects in failing or dysfunctional states are becoming more apparent. Take Pakistan, the largest recipient of BRI financing. The Pakistani military has raised a special 15,000-strong force to protect Chinese projects. In addition, thousands of police have been deployed in some provinces to protect Chinese workers. Yet sporadic attacks on Chinese in Pakistan have underscored the rising security costs.

The larger push-back against China’s neocolonial practices is likely to intensify in the coming years, putting greater pressure on the BRI. The initiative, however, will continue to benefit from a U.S.-led sanctions approach that seeks to punish countries in the name of human rights or nuclear nonproliferation. Thanks to this approach, the BRI is still bagging major lucrative contracts in countries as diverse as Iran, Sudan and Cambodia.

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

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Beijing loses a battle in the Maldives — but the fight for influence goes on

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China may be down in the Maldives, but it’s not out

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India must challenge China to help the Maldives retain strategic autonomy. (Source photo by Reuters)

Brahma ChellaneyNikkei Asian Review

The Indian Ocean nation of the Maldives, comprising 1,190 coral atolls, has been roiled by a deepening national crisis since its first democratically-elected president was forced to resign at gunpoint in 2012.

This week’s surprise defeat of authoritarian President Abdulla Yameen in a national election opens the path to stability and reconciliation under the leadership of the winning opposition candidate Ibrahim Mohamed Solih.

Yameen’s defeat, despite the jailing of opponents and Supreme Court justices and efforts to manipulate the election, shows how autocrats can be swept out of office by a voters’ backlash. And that even in a country with weak democratic traditions.

The Maldives follows Malaysia, where, in May, Prime Minister Najib Razak was voted out and now faces corruption charges under his 93-year-old successor, Mahathir Mohamad. Sri Lanka’s voters in 2015 similarly ended the quasi-dictatorship of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who curtailed media freedom.

In all three states, China’s shadow loomed large. Yameen signed major financing and investment deals with China and, like Najib and Rajapaksa, is alleged by his opponents to have received Chinese funds for his reelection bid.

While Malaysian investigators are probing whether China helped bankroll Najib’s reelection bid, The New York Times reported in June that the state-run China Harbor Engineering Company allegedly gave $7.6 million for Rajapaksa’s campaign. Rajapaksa and CHEC have denied the claim, but new president Maithripala Sirisena’s government has called for an investigation.

China, Yameen’s main defender, capitalized on its support to expand its influence in the strategic Maldivian archipelago. Yameen, for his part, felt emboldened by Chinese support to crack down on the opposition and undermine national institutions, including the judiciary and the election commission.

With barely 450,000 citizens, the Maldives is tiny but sits astride critical shipping lanes, making it vital to security in the Indian Ocean. Yameen’s rout thus is a setback to China’s maritime ambitions and political influence, and a victory for grass roots democratic forces.

At a time when Beijing is beginning to encounter a wider pushback against its Belt and Road Initiative — an influence-building infrastructure program that can ensnare vulnerable countries in debt traps — the Maldives represents the latest case of a democratic election upending China’s plans. BRI could face speed bumps even in China’s close ally, Pakistan, where the new, cash-strapped government has instituted a review of Chinese projects.

China, however, can take comfort from the formation of a friendly, democratically elected communist government in the Himalayan state of Nepal. In a demonstration of autocratic China’s ability to exploit the openness of a democracy, it helped unite warring communist factions in Nepal and funded their election campaign.

In the Maldives, pressure from democratic powers, including the specter of an Indian military intervention, played a role in the outcome. The U.S. had warned of “appropriate measures” and the European Union had threatened sanctions if the vote was not free and fair. And when Yameen hesitated to concede defeat, Washington demanded he “respect the will of the people,” while India sought to present a fait accompli by being first to congratulate his opponent, Solih. (In the previous election in 2013, Yameen got the Supreme Court to annul the result after he trailed his opponent, forcing fresh polls which he dubiously won.)

India has traditionally viewed the Maldives as in its sphere of influence. So as China began eroding Indian influence by backing Yameen from 2013, concern grew in New Delhi that Beijing could turn one of the unpopulated Maldivian islands it had leased into a naval base, completing a strategic encirclement of India.

Among the islands China has acquired is Feydhoo Finolhu, for which it paid $4 million, less than the cost of a luxury apartment in Hong Kong; another island, the 7km-long Kalhufahalufushi, came even cheaper. China has revealed its strategic intentions by sending frigates to the Maldives.

After Yameen in February declared a state of emergency and jailed Supreme Court justices for quashing convictions against nine jailed or exiled opposition figures, India came under pressure, including from the Maldivian opposition, to intervene militarily, as it did once before – in 1988 when it foiled an attempted coup. The Indian intervention helped President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom to perpetuate his soft autocracy for another two decades.

An intervention this year, however, would have been dicey, not least because no legitimate authority had invited India to send in forces. The intervention could have provoked a nationalistic backlash and strengthened Islamist forces in the Maldives, which has supplied the world’s highest per capita number of foreign fighters to terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq. By correctly erring on the side of caution, India aided this week’s electoral outcome.

The restoration of full democracy in the Maldives, like in Malaysia, bucks an international trend: The global spread of democracy has largely stalled, with liberal forces unable to gain ground in the face of both tightly centralized political systems (as in China) and a revival of authoritarianism (as in Russia). While democracy has become the norm in large parts of Europe, very few Asian states are true democracies.

The return of democracy to the Maldives is especially remarkable as the country has been under authoritarianism for 50 of the 53 years since gaining independence from Britain in 1965. Yameen’s five-year rule marked a shift to hard authoritarianism, with that lurch being accompanied by the rising power of Islamists.

In the latest election, Yameen chose as his running mate a Muslim preacher with close ties to Saudi groups and got support from Jamiyyath Salaf. This extremist organization was one of the Islamist groups behind the 2012 museum attack that erased evidence of the country’s pre-Islamic past by destroying priceless Buddhist and Hindu statues.

The triumph of democratic forces, however, cannot mask the tough challenges that await Yameen’s successor, Solih, including on how to deal with Islamist power and service Chinese debt (which currently equals more than a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product). One key question is whether the Maldives will be able to pull back from the brink of a Chinese debt trap (by emulating the example set by Mahathir, who has canceled Chinese projects) or whether it is so indebted – as Sri Lanka is — that it will remain under Beijing’s sway.

China invested heavily in Sri Lanka during the rule of Rajapaksa, whom it shielded at the United Nations from allegations of war crimes. Sirisena sought to extricate Sri Lanka from the Chinese debt trap, including suspending work on major projects. But it was too late: Saddled with debts his government could not repay, Sirisena was forced to accept Chinese demands, including restarting suspended projects and handing the strategic Hambantota port to China on a 99-year lease.

Under Solih, even without new contracts, the Maldives’ debt to China will rise because of the Chinese projects already initiated. Beijing will court Solih — to be sworn in on Nov. 17 — just as it has wooed Sirisena, who has disclosed that China has “gifted” him $300 million “for any project of my wish,” besides constructing South Asia’s largest kidney hospital in his home district.

To reclaim its influence in the Maldives, India will have to do more than help strengthen the restored democracy; it must assist the new government in infrastructure development and meeting its foreign debt obligations, including by extending low-interest loans to pay off Chinese credits. Escaping debt entrapment is vital for the Maldives to retain strategic autonomy.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

China expands its control in South China Sea

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Filipino activists rally outside the Chinese Consulate in Manila in February to protest Beijing’s continued reclamation activities in the South China Sea. © Reuters

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Japan Times, September 18, 2018

As China consolidates its hold in South China Sea and wields its military, economic and diplomatic leverage, smaller countries see no credible option but to work with Beijing, even if that means furthering Chinese objectives. Manila, for example, seems willing to accede to Beijing’s demand for joint development of hydrocarbon resources in the Philippines’ own exclusive economic zone.

The plain fact is that U.S. inaction under successive administrations has allowed China to gain effective control over a strategic sea that is more than twice the size of the Gulf of Mexico and 50 percent bigger than the Mediterranean Sea. Australia’s Kevin Rudd, who is still fending off accusations that he was “a slavish pro-China prime minister,” has acknowledged that “Chinese policy has not yet been challenged in the South China Sea by the United States to any significant extent.”

The U.S., even at the risk of fostering Philippine helplessness against Chinese expansionism, has refused to clarify whether its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with Manila would apply to an attack on Philippine troops or vessels in the South China Sea. This refusal stands in contrast to Washington’s commitment to the defense of the Japanese-administered but Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. U.S. President Donald Trump, in his joint statement with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in April, said that “Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands.”

In the South China Sea, China has astounded the world with the speed and scale of its creation of artificial islands and military infrastructure. The first Chinese dredger arrived in the region in December 2013. Less than five years later, China has largely completed building most of its forward military bases. It is now ramping up its military assets in the South China Sea.

Yet China has incurred no international costs for pushing its borders far out into international waters. In fact, China stepped up the expansion of its frontiers after an international arbitration tribunal invalidated its expansive claims in the South China Sea through a 2016 ruling in a case instituted by the Philippines.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis recently called out China for its “intimidation and coercion” of smaller nations in the region. His criticism of the Chinese strategy in the South China Sea followed American action to disinvite China from this summer’s Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise, known as RIMPAC.

This might suggest that the U.S. is taking a tough line. In reality, America’s response to China’s expansionism in the South China Sea has remained muted. The U.S. has focused its concern merely on safeguarding freedom of navigation through the South China Sea.

In fact, the U.S. has refused to take sides in the territorial disputes between China and the other claimant-states in the South China Sea. The Trump administration stayed silent even when Chinese military threats forced Vietnam in March, for the second time in less than nine months, to halt oil and gas drilling on its own continental shelf.

The U.S. has similarly stayed neutral on disputes elsewhere between China and its neighbors. For example, President Barack Obama publicly said that “we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands” and advised Tokyo and Beijing to sort out their dispute peacefully. This line has not changed under Trump, despite his reassurance that the Japan-U.S. security treaty covers the Senkakus.

Growing Asian anxieties over China have helped the U.S. to return to Asia’s center-stage by strengthening old alliances, such as with Japan, South Korea and Singapore, and building new strategic partnerships with India, Vietnam and Indonesia. It has also befriended the former pariah state of Myanmar.

Yet, despite this diplomatic windfall, the U.S. has been reluctant to draw a line on Beijing’s salami-style actions to change facts on the ground.

To be sure, the Trump-led U.S. has stepped up the so-called freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea. But these operations neither reassure the smaller states nor deter China, whose actions continue to violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS.

In the East China Sea, China established an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) in 2013 covering territories, like the Senkakus, that it claims but does not control. This action set a dangerous precedent in international relations.

In the South China Sea, rather than openly declare an ADIZ, China will likely seek to enforce one by gradually establishing concentric circles of air control — but only after it has deployed sufficient military assets there and further consolidated its hold.

It has already set up an interconnected array of radar, electronic-attack facilities, missile batteries and airfields on the disputed Spratly Islands. And by turning artificial islands into military bases, it has virtually established permanent aircraft carriers whose role extends to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

China’s strategy poses a serious challenge to its neighbors, which face a deepening dilemma over how to deal with its creeping aggression.

The U.S., while seeking to protect its military freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, has effectively turned a blind eye to the broader Chinese assault on the freedom of the seas, including restricting the rights of other states to natural resources on their own continental shelves.

Unless the U.S. shifts its focus from freedom of navigation to freedom of the seas, China will have its way, including forcing its smaller neighbors to share their legitimate resources with it.

The Philippines, for example, is at serious risk of wilting under Chinese pressure. Prevented by Chinese military threats from tapping energy resources in an area of seabed known as Reed Bank, which is located close the Philippine coast, Manila seems willing to enter into a deal with Beijing to equally share the output from a joint gas project there.

Under the international arbitration ruling, the Philippines have exclusive rights to Reed Bank. But with China trashing the ruling in the absence of an international enforcement mechanism, the message to Manila is that might makes right.

Left with no other option, Manila appears ready to offer Beijing half of the gas production, but no sovereign rights. The logic behind such a prospective offer is that any Western oil giant, if it developed Reed Bank, would take about 50 percent of the output as its share. So the choice is between a Western oil company like Exxon Mobil and a Chinese state-run giant, such as the China National Offshore Oil Corp.

But such a Philippine deal would encourage China to seek similar concessions with other claimant-states, effectively blocking out Western oil firms from the South China Sea.

Make no mistake: Chinese territorial and maritime revisionism has made the South China Sea the world’s most critical hot spot. In fact, the South China Sea has become central to the wider geopolitics, balance of power and maritime order.

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.