The looming specter of Asian space wars

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The Indian test is clearly a warning shot across China’s bow. (Handout photo from India’s Press Information Bureau.)

Brahma ChellaneyNikkei Asian Review

When China demonstrated its antisatellite weapon capability in 2007, it spurred international concern and criticism over the potential militarization of outer space.

The muted response to a similar Indian test on March 27 shows that great-power capabilities in this field have so advanced that such an event is no longer a surprise. Indeed, the technology has developed to such an extent that defense planners must deal with the looming specter of wars in space.

The linkages between antisatellite, or ASAT, weapon technologies and ballistic missile defense systems, which can shoot down incoming missiles, underscore how innovations favor both offense and defense. Space wars are no longer just Hollywood fiction.

India’s ASAT test is a reminder that the Asia-Pacific region is the hub of the growing space-war capabilities. The United States and Russia field extensive missile defense systems and boast a diverse range of ground-launched and directed-energy ASAT capabilities. China’s ASAT weaponry is becoming more sophisticated, even as it aggressively seeks theater ballistic missile defenses.

Japan and South Korea are working with the U.S. separately to create missile defense systems. Although aimed at thwarting regional threats, these systems are interoperable with American missile defenses. Australia, for its part, participates in trilateral missile-defense consultations with the U.S. and Japan.

Space-based assets are critical not just for communications but also for imagery, navigation, weather forecasting, surveillance, interception, missile guidance and the delivery of precision munitions. Taking out such assets can blind an enemy.

India’s successful “kill” of one of its own satellites with a missile — confirmed by the U.S. Air Force Space Command — has made it the fourth power, after the United States, Russia and China, to shoot down an object in space. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, facing a tight reelection race, made a rare televised address to announce India’s entry into this exclusive club of nuclear-armed countries that can destroy a moving target in space.

India’s technological leap is being seen internationally as a counter to China’s growing ASAT capabilities, which include ground-based direct ascent missiles and lasers, which can blind or disable satellites.

The international development of ASAT capabilities mirrors the nuclear-weapons proliferation chain. Like nuclear weapons, the U.S. was the first to develop satellite-kill technologies, followed by the former Soviet Union. China, as in nuclear weapons, stepped into this realm much later, only to provoke India to follow suit.

The Indian test was clearly a warning shot across China’s bow, although Modi claimed that it was not aimed against any country.

India finds itself boxed in by the deepening China-Pakistan strategic nexus. China has transferred, according to international evidence, technologies for weapons of mass destruction to Pakistan to help tie down India south of the Himalayas. Beijing currently is seeking to shield Pakistan even from international pressure to root out transnational terrorist groups that operate from its territory.

The Indian ASAT demonstration holds strategic implications also for Pakistan, which values nuclear weapons as an antidote to its conventional military inferiority and thus maintains a nuclear first-use doctrine against stronger India. By shielding it from retaliation, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons enable its nurturing of armed jihadists as a force multiplier in its low-intensity proxy war by terror against India.

An ASAT capability, by potentially arming India with the means to shoot down incoming missiles, could erode Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. After all, an ASAT capability serves as a building block of a ballistic missile defense system.

However, China remains at the center of Indian security concerns. Without developing ASAT weaponry to help underpin deterrence, India risked encouraging China to go after Indian space-based assets early in a conflict.

In today’s world, one side can impose its demands not necessarily by employing force but by building capabilities that can mount a coercive threat.

China’s ASAT capabilities arguably hold the greatest significance for India, which has no security arrangements with another power and thus is on its own. Japan, South Korea and Australia, by contrast, are ensconced under the U.S. security umbrella. The U.S. and Russia, armed to their teeth, can cripple China’s space-based assets if it dared to strike any of their satellites.

India thus had stood out for its lack of a deterrent against China’s ASAT prowess. Against this background, India’s successful “kill” of a satellite is an important milestone in its quest to plug the vulnerability of its space assets.

To be sure, a space war scenario can arise only in a conflict. But preventing war demands systems of deterrence. And the only counter to ASAT weaponry is a capability to pay back in kind.

The rivalry between the demographic titans, China and India, has ominously moved into space.

India, by placing a low-cost spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2014, won Asia’s race to the Red Planet. And in 2017, India set a world record by launching 104 satellites into orbit with a single rocket. This beat the previous record of 37 satellites that Russia established in 2014.

China, for its part, has sent six crews into space and launched two space labs into the Earth’s orbit. In 2013, it became the third country, after the U.S. and Russia, to land a rover on the moon. And last December, it landed another probe and a rover on the far side of the moon — the first time this had ever been done. Its first mission to Mars is scheduled for next year.

But it is the extension of the China-India space race to the military realm that underscores the Asian specter of space wars. India’s feat in shooting down a satellite orbiting at 30,000 kilometers an hour highlights its determination to catch up with China’s advances.

According to the Pentagon, China, like Russia, has demonstrated offensive space capabilities through “experimental” satellites able to conduct on-orbit activities. China has used a ground-based laser to “paint,” or illuminate, an American satellite, as if to demonstrate a nascent capability to blind targeted satellites.

India’s ASAT test, like the 2007 Chinese satellite “kill” and the 2008 U.S. strike against a malfunctioning satellite, underscores how the environmental degradation haunting our planet is being extended to outer space. The Indian test, according to the U.S., created 270 pieces of debris in space — a number that will likely grow as the fragments decay. But since the remnants are from a low-earth-orbit satellite, many of the pieces are expected to fall onto the Earth within weeks.

The test highlights the international imperative to prevent the weaponization of outer space, including by strengthening the legal framework. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, aimed at establishing basic international space law, does not prohibit the stationing of weapons in space or ASAT tests.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.

The China-Pakistan Axis of Evil

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While Pakistan employs terrorist groups as proxies to bleed India, China uses Pakistan as a proxy to box in India. The irony is that, while providing cover for Pakistan’s open collusion with terrorists, China is locking up its “radical” Muslims in gulags.

Axisofevil1Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine

The February 26 Indian airstrike on a terrorist sanctuary in Pakistan’s heartland cannot obscure the resurfacing of India-China tensions following the Valentine’s Day terrorist attack in Pulwama that killed dozens of Indian paramilitary troops. China’s culpability in the attack — and in previous lethal cross-border terrorist strikes, such as on the Pathankot airbase — is apparent from its shielding of Pakistan’s export to terrorism to India. China brazenly provides cover for Pakistan’s collusion with state-reared terrorists.

The message from India’s use of airpower for the first time against a cross-border terrorist safe haven is that it is not afraid to escalate its response to the aerial domain in order to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. This could potentially mark a defining moment in India’s counterterrorism efforts against Pakistan’s strategy to inflict death by a thousand cuts.

The airstrike, however, is likely to reinforce Beijing’s determination to bolster Pakistan as a counterweight to India, especially because China incurs no strategic or trade costs for containing India. Beijing is not only propping up the Pakistani state financially and militarily, but also has repeatedly blocked United Nations action against the chief of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist group, which was quick to claim responsibility for the Pulwama massacre.

The paradox is that China, the world’s longest-surviving autocracy, has locked up more than a million Muslims from Xinjiang in the name of cleansing their minds of extremist thoughts, yet is simultaneously protecting Pakistan’s export of deadly Islamist terrorism to India. While Pakistan employs terrorist groups as proxies to bleed India, China uses Pakistan as a proxy to box in India.

The plain fact is that, for China, Pakistan is not just a client state, but a valued instrument to help contain India. So, is it any surprise that since the April 2018 Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has actually stepped up its use of Pakistan as an India-containment tool, including by accelerating the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and playing the Kashmir card against New Delhi? In fact, China is steadily encircling India, as several developments underscore — from its new military base in Tajikistan that overlooks the Wakhan Corridor and Pakistan-held Jammu and Kashmir to its increasing encroachments in India’s maritime backyard.

It is extraordinary that China has been able to mount pressure on India from multiple flanks at a time when its own economic and geopolitical fortunes are taking a beating. By China’s own statistics, its economy last year registered the weakest pace of growth in nearly three decades. Add to the picture a new phenomenon — the flight of capital from a country that, between 1994 and 2014, amassed a mounting pile of foreign-exchange reserves by enjoying a surplus in its overall balance of payments.

Now faced with an unstoppable trend of net capital outflows, Xi’s regime has tightened exchange controls and other capital restrictions to prop up the country’s fragile financial system and sagging currency. The regime has used tens of billions of dollars in recent months alone to bolster the yuan’s international value. Not just capital is fleeing China but even wealthy Chinese prefer to live overseas, in a vote of no confidence in the Chinese system.

China’s internal challenges are being compounded by new external factors. Chinese belligerence and propaganda, for example, have spawned a growing international image problem for the country. More significantly, China has come under international pressure on several fronts — from its trade, investment and lending policies to its human-rights abuses. U.S.-led pressure on trade and geopolitical fronts has accentuated Beijing’s dilemmas and fuelled uncertainty in China. As long as the U.S.-China trade war rages, flight of capital will remain a problem for Beijing. Its foreign-exchange reserves have shrunk by about $1 trillion from their peak of just over $4 trillion in mid-2014.

At a time when China’s imperial project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is running into resistance from a growing number of partner countries, Beijing is also confronting a U.S.-led pushback against its telecommunications giant Huawei. Meanwhile, China is alienating other Asian nations by throwing its weight around too aggressively.

This trend is likely to accelerate with the restructured People’s Liberation Army becoming less of an army and more of a power projection force, the majority of whose troops now are not from the army but from the other services. Indeed, the PLA’s shift toward power projection foreshadows a more aggressive Chinese military approach of the kind already witnessed in the Himalayas or the South China Sea, where China has fundamentally changed the status quo in its favour.

More fundamentally, it is China’s open disregard of international rules and its penchant for bullying that explains why it remains a largely friendless power. Leadership in today’s world demands more than just brute might. Beijing lacks any real strategic allies other than Pakistan. When China joined hands with the U.S. at the United Nations to impose new international sanctions on North Korea, once its vassal, it implicitly highlighted that it now has just one real ally — Pakistan.

China today is increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party, responsible for the past pogroms and witch-hunts and the current excesses. Under Xi, the party has set out to demolish Muslim, Tibetan and Mongol identities, expand China’s frontiers far out into international waters, and turn the country into a digital totalitarian state. Consequently, four decades after it initiated economic reform, China finds itself at a crossroads, with its future trajectory uncertain.

It is against this background that the Xi regime’s increasing use of Pakistan against India stands out. China is working to extend its reach to the Arabian Sea by turning Pakistan into a client-state and keeping India off-balance.

Beijing not only continues to bolster Pakistan’s offensive capabilities, including in weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but also is working in tandem with that country to militarize the northern Arabian Sea. Chinese-supplied warships have already been pressed into service to secure Pakistan’s Chinese-controlled Gwadar port, the flagship project in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which, in turn, is the centrepiece of BRI.

Through CPEC, China is seeking to turn Pakistan into its land corridor to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. And, as a U.S. Defence Department report in 2016 forewarned, Pakistan — “China’s primary customer for conventional weapons” — is likely to host a Chinese naval hub intended to project power in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Such a naval base is expected to come up quietly next to the Gwadar port, directly challenging India’s maritime interests.

China, meanwhile, has actively aided Pakistan’s counter-strategy to the Indian military’s supposed “Cold Start” doctrine. Pakistan’s counter is a mobile WMD capability centred on tactical nuclear weapons for use against enemy battle formations. The “Cold Start” doctrine is reportedly the idea of a quick and limited Indian conventional strike in response to a Pakistan-scripted terrorist attack, so as to deny Pakistani generals the ability to raise conflict to a nuclear level.

That doctrine remains notional, with no indication that India has either integrated it into its military strategy or reconfigured force deployments in order to execute it in a contingency. Yet Pakistan, with Chinese support, has fielded tactical nukes, creating a dangerous situation. Let’s be clear: Pakistan’s recklessness has been egged on by China. A full-fledged war on the subcontinent will open opportunities for China against India that Beijing seeks.

Beijing has repeatedly declared that China and Pakistan are “as close as lips and teeth.” It has also called Pakistan its “irreplaceable all-weather friend.” The two countries often boast of their “iron brotherhood.” In 2010, Pakistan’s then-prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, waxed poetic about the relationship, describing it as “taller than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.”

In truth, China has little in common with aid-dependent Pakistan other than a shared enmity against India. China and Pakistan are revisionist states not content with their existing frontiers. Both lay claim to vast swaths of Indian territory. Their “iron brotherhood” is about a shared interest in containing India. The prospect of a two-front war, should India enter into conflict with either Pakistan or China, certainly advances that interest.

India will never be able to break the China-Pakistan nexus, however hard it might try. Yet successive Indian governments have failed to grasp this strategic reality. Virtually every Indian prime minister has sought to reinvent the foreign-policy wheel rather than learn the essentials of statecraft or heed the lessons of past national mistakes.

In fact, an economically rising India seeking to chart an independent course only gives Beijing a greater incentive to use Pakistan as a surrogate against it. For China, the appeal of propping up Pakistan is heightened by the latter’s willingness to serve as a loyal proxy. In fact, given that Pakistan is an economic basket case dependent on Chinese lending, Beijing treats it as something of a guinea pig. For example, it has sold Pakistan outdated or untested nuclear power reactors (two such AC-1000 reactors are coming up near Karachi). China has also sold weapons systems not deployed by its own military.

Less known is that Pakistan’s descent into a jihadist dungeon has benefited China, as it has provided an ideal pretext for Beijing to advance its strategic interests within that country. For example, China has deployed thousands of troops in Pakistan-held Jammu and Kashmir since the last decade, ostensibly to secure its strategic projects. The Chinese military presence there means that India faces Chinese troops on both flanks of its portion of Jammu and Kashmir, given that China occupies one-fifth of the original princely state of J&K. This presence also explains why India faces a two-front scenario in the event of a war with either country.

More fundamentally, Beijing has pursued a troubling three-pronged policy to build pressure on New Delhi over J&K, where the disputed borders of India, Pakistan and China converge. First, it has enlarged its footprint in Pakistan-occupied J&K through CPEC projects, despite Indian protestations that such projects in a territory India claims as its own violate Indian sovereignty. Second, Beijing has attempted to question India’s sovereignty over Indian J&K by issuing visas on a separate leaf to J&K residents holding Indian passports. And third, it has officially shortened the length of the Himalayan border it shares with India by purging the 1,597-kilometer line separating Indian J&K from Chinese-held J&K.

Add to the picture China’s shielding of Pakistan’s export of terrorism and its indirect encouragement of separatism in India’s J&K. Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cautioned in 2010 that “Beijing could be tempted to use India’s ‘soft underbelly,’ Kashmir.”

While building projects in Pakistan-occupied J&K, a UN-designated disputed territory, China denied a visa in 2010 to the Indian Army’s Northern Command General B.S. Jaswal, who was to lead the Indian side in the bilateral defence dialogue in Beijing, on grounds that he commanded “a disputed area, Jammu and Kashmir.”At the same time, Beijing has signalled an interest in cleverly inserting itself as a mediator in the India-Pakistan tensions over Kashmir. This is part of China’s efforts to obscure the fact that it is actually the third party to the J&K dispute.

While playing the Kashmir card against India, China offers Pakistan security assurances and political protection, especially diplomatic cover at the United Nations. For example, China has repeatedly vetoed UN action against Masood Azhar, the Pakistan-based chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which, backed by Pakistani intelligence services, has carried out several major terrorist attacks on Indian targets, including the Pathankot air base in 2016 and the Parliament in 2001. And in 2016, Sartaj Aziz, the then Pakistani prime minister’s foreign-policy adviser, said that China has helped Pakistan to block India’s U.S.-supported bid to gain membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the export-control cartel.

Pakistan has secured other major benefits from China as well. For example, China provided critical assistance in building Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, including by reducing the likelihood of U.S. sanctions or Indian retaliation. China still offers covert nuclear and missile assistance, reflected in the more recent transfer of the launcher for the Shaheen-3, Pakistan’s nuclear-capable ballistic missile, which has a range of 2,750 kilometres.

In this light, a grateful Pakistan has given China exclusive rights to run Gwadar port for the next 40 years — a period in which Beijing will receive, tax free, 91% of the port’s revenues. The port operator, China Overseas Ports Holding Company, will also be exempt from major taxes for more than 20 years. Moreover, Pakistan has established a new 13,000-troop army division to protect CPEC projects. And it has deployed police forces to shield Chinese nationals and construction sites from Baloch insurgents and Islamist gunmen. China’s stationing of its own troops in the Pakistani part of J&K for years, however, betrays its lack of confidence in Pakistani security arrangements — and suggests that China will continue to enlarge its military footprint in Pakistan.

The Chinese strategic penetration of Pakistan, meanwhile, continues to be aided by the U.S. factor, despite President Donald Trump’s suspension of American security aid to that country last year.

Although Trump publicly declared that Pakistan provides the U.S. with “nothing but lies and deceit,” his desperation to get American troops out of Afghanistan has led to Washington cozying up to Pakistan again so as to clinch a final deal with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban. Indeed, the U.S. tentative deal with the Taliban in Qatar in late January was struck with Pakistan’s active support. Pakistan, in effect, is reaping rewards for sponsoring cross-border terrorism, thanks to unflinching Chinese support and the renewed U.S. dependence on the Pakistani military in relation to Afghanistan.

Make no mistake: Despite slowing economic growth, a grinding trade fight with the U.S., and an international pushback against BRI, China has been able to bring India under greater pressure. If anything, it is a reflection of India’s pusillanimity that China continues to contain India without incurring any costs. Far from seeking to impose any costs on China, India is doing the opposite.

For example, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s presence in Wuzhen, China, in late February for the Russia-India-China (RIC) initiative meeting sent the message that New Delhi, for tactical reasons, was willing to whitewash Beijing’s culpability in the Pulwama massacre. RIC is actually a meaningless and worthless initiative for India, and the least New Delhi could have done is to force a postponement of the Wuzhen meeting at a time when the Indian republic was mourning the Pulwama mass murder.

Given that New Delhi is loath to impose any costs, including trade related, why would Beijing cease protecting the Pakistani deep state’s terror campaign against India? In fact, India has allowed China to reap ever-increasing rewards while systematically undermining Indian interests.

Just consider one fact: China’s trade surplus with India, on Modi’s watch, has more than doubled to over $66 billion annually. By comparison, India’s new defence budget unveiled in February totals $42.8 billion, or just 65% of China’s bilateral trade surplus. This underscores the extent to which India is underwriting China’s hostile actions against it.

India should be willing to employ trade as a tool to help reform China’s behaviour. Yet New Delhi continues to ignore calls from Indian industry and consumer groups for protection against the rising tide of Chinese imports that is undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness. Thanks to China’s large-scale dumping of manufactured goods, Modi’s “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off.

In fact, Modi has little to show from his personal diplomacy with Xi. For Xi, the Wuhan summit has served as a cover to kill two birds with one stone. While encouraging Modi’s overtures to help instil greater Indian caution and reluctance to openly challenge China, Xi has embarked on a major military build-up along the Himalayan border with India. The build-up includes deploying offensive new weapon systems and advertising live-fire combat exercises. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s status as China’s economic and security client has been firmly cemented and Chinese encroachments in India’s maritime backyard have increased.

As China treats Pakistan more and more as a colonial outpost that has a government on Chinese payroll, the challenge for India from the Sino-Pakistan nexus is mounting. Indeed, just as Pakistan wages an unconventional war by terror against India, China is pursuing its own asymmetric warfare against India, both by economic means and by employing Pakistan as a proxy.

The hype from India’s latest counterterrorism airstrike deep inside Pakistan cannot cloak this reality. Without forward-looking and proactive diplomacy that seeks to systematically combat the China-Pakistan nexus, India will continue to be weighed down by its region. Only through more vigorous defence and foreign policies can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation, freeing it to play a larger global role.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War.”

© Open magazine, 2019.

India’s daunting foreign-policy challenges

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Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

With the national election approaching, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focus is squarely on domestic politics. After holding a secure grip on power for nearly five years, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces a tough election fight following defeats in three key state-level polls in December.

Foreign affairs are understandably low on the election agenda. But after the vote, India’s new government — whether led by Modi or not — will have to consider urgently the foreign-policy challenges, above all an ascendant China’s muscular revisionism.

For too long, New Delhi has taken a cautious and reactive approach. But with Beijing spreading its influence deep into India’s backyard, New Delhi needs to reverse its eroding regional clout.

A dynamic diplomacy needs strong, bipartisan policies. With India’s fractious politics, building bipartisanship has long been tough in the world’s largest democracy.

The danger now is that the election will likely see Modi’s government lose its commanding majority in the Parliament’s lower house and be replaced either by a weaker BJP-led administration or an opposition coalition of 20 or more groups supported by the Congress Party. Either way, foreign policy would be crimped.

Pragmatism, zeal and showmanship have been trademarks of Modi’s foreign policy. Early on in his term, he unleashed Modi-mania among Indian diaspora audiences by taking the stage like a rock star at several places, including New York’s storied Madison Square Garden.

A penchant for diplomatic surprises, however, has got him into trouble. For example, during a 2015 visit to Paris, Modi pulled a rabbit out of a hat by announcing an on-the-spot decision to buy 36 French Rafale fighter-jets. In the run-up to the election, the opposition has claimed that, behind that decision, there is a scandal involving inflated pricing and cronyism.

Modi has helped shape a nondoctrinaire foreign-policy vision. India, a founder leader of the nonaligned movement, now makes little mention of nonalignment. Shorn of ideology, Indian foreign policy has sought to revitalize the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner.

However, in practice, closer cooperation with the United States has been Modi’s signature foreign-policy initiative. India is now a “major defense partner” of the U.S., with which it holds more military exercises than with any other country. The U.S. has also emerged as India’s largest arms supplier. The Cold War-era India-Russia camaraderie has been replaced by India-U. S. bonhomie.

India, however, relies on Russian spare parts for its Russian-made military hardware. More importantly, Russia has transferred to India offensive weapons that the U.S. does not export, such as an aircraft carrier. So ties to Moscow remain important.

India is also seeking to shield from U.S. pressures its cooperation with Tehran. Iran remains an important oil supplier to energy-poor India and is the route for a transportation corridor India is building to Afghanistan that bypasses New Delhi’s arch-enemy Pakistan.

Although India has secured provisional waivers from American retaliation, the new U.S. sanctions against Russia and Iran have accentuated India’s challenge in balancing its relationships.

Meanwhile, the recent “agreement in principle” that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has reached with the Afghan Taliban, including promising an American military pullout within 18 months, is helping to renew the salience of Iran and Russia in India’s Afghanistan policy. If the Pakistan-backed Taliban were to recapture power in Kabul, the relevance of these ties would redouble.

But, despite seeking to exit Afghanistan, the U.S. has become more vital to India’s broader foreign-policy interests, especially in relation to China. Modi has worked to deepen India’s cooperation with the U.S., Japan and the other Indo-Pacific powers that share Indian concerns about China’s territorial and maritime revisionism.

But vexed by the Trump administration’s unpredictability, Modi has also sought to mend ties with China, or at least stop them from deteriorating further. At an “informal” summit ten months ago in Wuhan, Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to “reset” relations.

For Xi, however, Wuhan has served as a cover to kill two birds with one stone. While encouraging Modi’s overtures to help instill greater Indian caution to openly challenge China, Xi has embarked on a major military buildup along the Himalayan border with India. The buildup has included deploying new offensive weapons and advertising live-fire combat exercises. Chinese encroachments in India’s maritime backyard have also increased.

Meanwhile, Chinese exports have flooded India, with Beijing more than doubling its bilateral trade surplus, on Modi’s watch, to over $66 billion a year. This trade surplus is more than 50% larger than India’s defense spending, underscoring how India unwittingly is underwriting China’s hostile politics.

India is holding its election after recent polls in most other countries in southern Asia. Since late 2017, elections have brought pro-China communists to power in Nepal and a military-backed party to office in Pakistan, while voters have booted out a quasi-dictator in the Maldives, elected a new government in Bhutan, and, in Bangladesh, retained a prime minister who has turned the country into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Recently, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court forced the country’s president to roll back a coup after he unconstitutionally dismissed the prime minister and called fresh parliamentary polls.

The next Indian government’s most urgent foreign-policy problems relate to the country’s neighborhood, not least a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of an aggressive neighbor and an ascendant superpower. Both these nuclear-armed allies stake claims to swaths of Indian territory.

When Modi took office, many expected him to reinvigorate foreign policy at a time when the yawning power gap between India and China had widened. But, despite considerable Indian efforts, China’s influence in India’s backyard has grown, even in countries long symbiotically tied to India, including Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

However, the most recent developments in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, by bolstering or bringing to power pro-India leaders, have aided Indian interests, even as communist-ruled Nepal has tilted toward China.

Dealing with an aggressive China or complex regional-security challenges demands a decisive leadership that takes a long-term view and does not confound tactics with strategy. But such leadership is unlikely to emerge from the forthcoming election.

To be sure, India has been imbibing greater realism as its quixotic founding philosophy centered on nonviolence assumes a largely rhetorical meaning. Yet India remains intrinsically diffident and reactive. Without proactive diplomacy, India will continue to punch far below its weight.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.

China’s lonely rise: After decades of heady growth, Beijing is suddenly facing resistance at home and abroad

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Xi Jinping’s word may be law, but faced with difficult choices on China’s new challenges, he now finds himself under pressure

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Members of the Chinese People’s Armed Police stand guard in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Giulia Marchi / Bloomberg

By Brahma Chellaney, The National, January 25, 2019

As the People’s Republic of China prepares to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its founding later this year, the limits of its Communist Party-led model are becoming apparent. And more than ever, the world’s longest-surviving and most-powerful autocracy faces difficult choices at home and abroad.

By China’s own statistics, its economy is registering its most sluggish growth in nearly three decades. The world’s second-largest economy grew by 6.6 per cent in 2018, the lowest rate since 1990, when the fallout from the massacre of as many as 10,000 people in a tank and machine-gun assault on pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square a year earlier kept growth to a humble 3.9 per cent.

At a time when China appears to have entered a new era of uncertainty after more than a quarter century of phenomenal growth, it is perhaps fitting that this year marks the 30th anniversary of that massacre.

The uncertainty is evident in a new phenomenon – the flight of capital from a country that, between 1994 and 2014, amassed towering piles of foreign-exchange reserves by enjoying a surplus in its overall balance of payments.

But now, faced with an unstoppable trend of net capital outflows, President Xi Jinping’s government has tightened exchange controls and other capital restrictions to prop up the country’s fragile financial system and sagging currency. The regime has used tens of billions of dollars in recent months alone to bolster the yuan’s international value.

It is not just capital that’s fleeing China, as more and more Chinese choose to live overseas. In an informal vote of no confidence in the Chinese system, more than a third of surveyed millionaires in China said they were “currently considering” migrating to another country. An earlier report found that almost two-thirds of rich Chinese were either emigrating or have plans to do so.

Today, China’s mounting internal challenges are being compounded by new external factors. Chinese belligerence and propaganda, for instance, have spawned a growing image problem for the country internationally, which is apparent even in regions where China has invested heavily, from Africa to Southeast Asia.

More significantly, Beijing has come under international pressure on several fronts – from its trade, investment and lending policies to its human rights record, including its incarceration of more than a million Muslims from Xinjiang, a sprawling territory Mao Zedong annexed in 1949. Perhaps China’s free ride, which helped propel its rise, is coming to an end.

In modern-day “re-education” prisons, China is accused of forcing Uighurs and other Muslim groups to forsake Islamic practices and become secular citizens.

The Soviet Communist Party that ran gulags was consigned to the dustbin of history. But now the Chinese Communist Party has set up its own gulags that are more high-tech and indiscriminate and have Islam as their target. The network of concentration camps is designed to dismantle Muslim identities and change the outlook of entire communities – a grim mission of unparalleled scale.

Yet, even as international criticism has mounted, the West still seems reluctant to hold Beijing accountable for its harsh treatment of ethnic minorities, deciding against, for instance, introducing sanctions.

China, meanwhile, is confronting growing US-led pressure on the trade and geopolitical fronts, accentuating Beijing’s dilemmas and fuelling uncertainty at home. As long as the US-China trade war rages, flight of capital will remain a problem for Beijing, whose foreign-exchange reserves have shrunk by about $1 trillion from their peak of just over $4 trillion in mid-2014.

At a time when China’s imperial project, the Belt and Road Initiative, is running into resistance from a growing number of partner countries, Beijing is also confronting an international pushback against its telecommunications giant Huawei. In fact, the pushback has broadened from opposition to Huawei’s participation in next-generation 5G wireless networks to a broader effort in Europe, North America and Australia to restrict the use of Chinese technology because of concerns that it is being used for espionage.

The arrest of the Huawei founder’s daughter in Canada, at the behest of Washington, rattled China’s elites, making them angry but also fearful that any one of them could meet a similar fate while travelling to the West. With Meng Wanzhou’s detention, the US signalled that it has more powerful non-tariff weapons than China, which has long used such tools to punish countries as diverse as Japan, Mongolia, South Korea and the Philippines.

Ms Meng was held for an alleged violation of America’s Iran-related sanctions, but even Western onlookers saw her arrest as an example of US high-handedness. Instead of galvanising support against the American move, China responded in typical fashion that, as an American analyst put it, is the “mark of a thuggish state” – by jailing two Canadians.

Indeed, it is Beijing’s open disregard for international rules that explains why it can count on few true strategic allies or reliable security partners. Contrast this with the strong network the US maintains, including close collaboration with many of China’s neighbours. Beijing has alienated almost every significant power in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

China’s lonely rise could become more pronounced with the newly restructured People’s Liberation Army becoming less of an army and more of a power projection force, the majority of whose troops now are not from the army but from the other services. Indeed, the PLA’s shift away from being a defensive force foreshadows a more aggressive Chinese military approach of the kind already witnessed in the South China Sea, where China has fundamentally changed the status quo in its favour.

The Dalai Lama recently said that, due to Chinese pressure, no Buddhist country, with the sole exception of the nominally Buddhist Japan, is now willing to grant him entry as the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism. However, whenever Chinese pressure forces smaller nations to cave in on any issue, it only fuels greater resentment against Beijing.

Against this backdrop, where is China heading? It has come a long way since the Tiananmen Massacre, with its citizens now more prosperous, mobile and digitally connected. Its economy, in purchasing power parity terms, is already the world’s largest.

However, its political system remains as repressive as ever, with Mr Xi centralising power in a way China has not seen since Mao. Under his leadership, the party has set out to systematically quash Muslim, Tibetan and Mongol identities, expand China’s frontiers far out into international waters, and turn the country into a digital totalitarian state.

Yet, one should not overlook what a difference less than a year has made. Few in China dared to criticize Mr Xi when he ended the decades-old, Party-led collective leadership system and abolished a two-term limit on the presidency –actions that theoretically allow him to rule for life.

But, in the new international environment in which China finds itself today, he is facing domestic criticism – however muted — for building a cult of personality around his one-man rule and for inviting an international pushback by overemphasising China’s strength and power.

Mr Xi’s word may be law but, faced with difficult choices on China’s new challenges, he now finds himself under pressure. His primary focus will probably remain ensuring stability at home. Without stability, neither he nor the Party can hope to survive in power.

To calm the economic turbulence, China’s central bank has substantially increased domestic credit to help boost consumption and investment at home. In the medium-term, the US-led tariff pressures are likely to accelerate China’s shift from low-end manufacturing to higher value-added industries like electronics, robotics and artificial intelligence.

The geopolitical pushback, for its part, could force Xi to return to the “hide your capacities, bide your time” strategy of Deng Xiaoping. But such a return can scarcely obscure China’s ambitious goals that Mr Xi has laid bare. Even if Beijing starts soft-pedalling its ambitions, it is likely to adopt a “two steps forward, one step back” strategy to keep progressing toward its goals.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War”.

© The National, 2019.

China’s South China Sea Grab

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By Brahma ChellaneyProject Syndicate

Over the last five years, China has turned its contrived historical claims to the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth far from its shores. China’s leaders did not leave that outcome to chance.

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MANILA – It has been just five years since China initiated its major land reclamation in the South China Sea, and the country has already shifted the territorial status quo in its favor – without facing any international pushback. The recent anniversary of the start of its island building underscored the transformed geopolitics in a corridor central to the international maritime order.

In December 2013, the Chinese government pressed the massive Tianjing dredger into service at Johnson South Reef in the Spratly archipelago, far from the Chinese mainland. The Spratlys are to the south of the Paracel Islands, which China seized in 1974, capitalizing on American forces’ departure from South Vietnam. In 1988, the reef was the scene of a Chinese attack that killed 72 Vietnamese sailors and sunk two of their ships.

The dredger’s job is to fragment sediment on the seabed and deposit it on a reef until a low-lying manmade island emerges. The Tianjing – boasting its own propulsion system and a capacity to extract sediment at a rate of 4,530 cubic meters (5,924 cubic yards) per hour – did its job very quickly, creating 11 hectares of new land, including a harbor, in less than four months. All the while, a Chinese warship stood guard.

Since then, China has built six more artificial islands in the South China Sea and steadily expanded its military assets in this highly strategic area, through which one-third of global maritime trade passes. It has constructed port facilities, military buildings, radar and sensor installations, hardened shelters for missiles, vast logistical warehouses for fuel, water, and ammunition, and even airstrips and aircraft hangars on the manmade islands. Reinforcing its position further, China has strong-armed its neighbors into suspending the exploitation of natural resources within their own exclusive economic zones.

Consequently, China has turned its contrived historical claims to the South China Sea into reality and gained strategic depth, despite a 2016 ruling by an international arbitral tribunal invalidating those claims. China’s leaders seem intent on proving the old adage that “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” And the world, it seems, is letting them get away with it.

The Chinese did not leave that outcome to chance. Before they began building their islands in the South China Sea, they spent several months testing possible US reactions through symbolic moves. First, in June 2012, China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, without eliciting a tangible international response.

Almost immediately, the China State Shipbuilding Industry Corporation – which is currently building the country’s third aircraft carrier – published on its website draft blueprints for manmade islands atop reefs, including drawings of structures that have come to define China’s Spratly construction program. But the sketches received little international notice, and were soon removed from the website, though they later circulated on some Chinese news websites.

In September 2013, China launched its next test: it sent the Tianjing dredger to Cuarteron Reef, where it stayed for three weeks without initiating any land reclamation. Commercially available satellite images later showed the dredger at another reef, Fiery Cross, again doing little. Again, the United States, under President Barack Obama, did not push back, emboldening China to start its first island-building project, at Johnson South Reef.

In short, as China has continued to build and militarize islands, it has taken a calibrated approach, gradually ramping up its activities, while keeping an eye on the US reaction. The final two years of the Obama presidency were marked by frenzied construction.

All of this has taken a serious toll on the region’s marine life. The coral reefs China has destroyed to use as the foundation for its islands provided food and shelter for many marine species, as well as supplying larvae for Asia’s all-important fisheries. Add to that chemically laced runoff from the new artificial islands, and China’s activities are devastating the South China Sea ecosystems.

Obama’s last defense secretary, Ash Carter, has criticized his former boss’s soft approach toward China. In a recent essay, Carter wrote that Obama, “misled” by his own analysis, viewed as suspect “recommendations from me and others to more aggressively challenge China’s excessive maritime claims and other counterproductive behaviors.” For a while, Carter says, Obama even bought into China’s vision of a G2-style arrangement with the US.

Now, President Donald Trump’s administration is grappling with the consequences of Obama’s approach. Trump wants to implement a vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy is the successor to Obama’s unhinged “pivot” to Asia.

But, from its newly built perches in the South China Sea, China is better positioned not only to sustain air and sea patrols in the region, but also to advance its strategy of projecting power across the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. How can there be any hope of a free and open Indo-Pacific, when the critical corridor linking the Indian and Pacific oceans is increasingly dominated by the world’s largest autocracy?

China’s territorial grab, a triumph of brute power over rules, exposes the vulnerability of the current liberal world order. The geopolitical and environmental toll is likely to rise, imposing major costs on the region’s states and reshaping international maritime relations.

© Project Syndicate.

China is at a crossroads

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

On 70th anniversary of PRC’s founding, the limits of its Party-led model are showing

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Four decades ago, the Chinese Communist Party, under its new paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, decided to subordinate ideology to wealth creation, spawning a new aphorism, “To get rich is glorious.” The party’s central committee, disavowing Mao Zedong’s thought as dogma, embraced a principle that became Mr. Deng’s oft-quoted dictum, “Seek truth from facts.”

Mr. Mao’s death earlier in 1976 had triggered a vicious and protracted power struggle. When the diminutive Mr. Deng – once described by Mr. Mao as a “needle inside a ball of cotton” – finally emerged victorious at the age of 74, he hardly looked like an agent of reform.

But having been purged twice from the party during the Mao years – including once for proclaiming during the 1960s that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice” – Mr. Deng seized the opportunity to usher in transformative change.

The Four Modernizations program under Mr. Deng remarkably transformed China, including spurring its phenomenal economic rise. China’s economy today is 30 times larger than it was three decades ago. Indeed, in terms of purchasing power parity, China’s economy is already larger than America’s.

Yet, four decades after it initiated reform, China finds itself at the crossroads, with its future trajectory anything but certain.

To be sure, when it celebrates in 2019 the 70th anniversary of its communist “revolution,” China can truly be proud of its remarkable achievements. An impoverished, backward country in 1949, it has risen dramatically and now commands respect and awe in the world.

China is today the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party. But here’s the paradox: The more it globalizes while seeking to simultaneously insulate itself from liberalizing influences, the more vulnerable it is becoming to unforeseen political “shocks” at home.

Its overriding focus on domestic order explains one unusual but ominous fact: China’s budget for internal security – now officially at US$196-billion – is larger than even its official military budget, which has grown rapidly to eclipse the defence spending of all other powers except the United States.

China’s increasingly repressive internal machinery, aided by a creeping Orwellian surveillance system, has fostered an overt state strategy to culturally smother ethnic minorities in their traditional homelands. This, in turn, has led to the detention of a million or more Muslims from Xinjiang in internment camps for “re-education.”

Untrammelled repression, even if effective in achieving short-term objectives, could sow the seeds of violent insurgencies and upheavals.

More broadly, China’s rulers, by showing little regard for the rights of smaller countries as they do for their own citizens’ rights, are driving instability in the vast Indo-Pacific region.

Nothing better illustrates China’s muscular foreign policy riding roughshod over international norms and rules than its South China Sea grab. It was exactly five years ago that Beijing began pushing its borders far out into international waters by pressing its first dredger into service for building artificial islands. The islands, rapidly created on top of shallow reefs, have now been turned into forward military bases.

The island-building anniversary is as important as the 40th economic-reform anniversary, because it is reminder that China never abandoned its heavy reliance since the Mao era on raw power.

In fact, no sooner had Mr. Deng embarked on reshaping China’s economic trajectory than he set out to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam, in the style of Mr. Mao’s 1962 military attack on India. The February-March 1979 invasion of Vietnam occurred just days after Mr. Deng – the “nasty little man,” as Henry Kissinger once called him – became the first Chinese communist leader to visit Washington.

A decade later, Mr. Deng brutally crushed a student-led, pro-democracy movement at home. He ordered the tank and machine-gun assault that came to be known as the Tiananmen massacre. According to a British government estimate, at least 10,000 demonstrators and bystanders perished.

Yet, the United States continued to aid China’s economic modernization, as it had done since 1979, when president Jimmy Carter sent a memo to various U.S. government departments instructing them to help in China’s economic rise.

Today, a fundamental shift in America’s China policy, with its broad bipartisan support, is set to outlast Donald Trump’s presidency. This underscores new challenges for China, at a time when its economy is already slowing and it has imposed tighter capital controls to prop up its fragile financial system and the yuan’s international value.

The international factors that aided China’s rise are eroding. The changing international environment also holds important implications for China domestically, including the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Xi Jinping, who, in October 2017, ended the decades-old collective leadership system to crown himself China’s new emperor, now no longer looks invincible.

The juxtaposing of the twin anniversaries helps shine a spotlight on a fact obscured by China’s economic success: Mr. Deng’s refusal to truly liberalize China has imposed enduring costs on the country, which increasingly bends reality to the illusions that it propagates. The price being exacted for the failure to liberalize clouds China’s future, heightening uncertainty in the Asia-Pacific.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

China’s India trade funds its containment strategy

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, January 5, 2018

wang yi-swarajChina is emphasizing public diplomacy to help soften Indian public opinion and mute Indian concerns over an increasingly asymmetrical trade relationship. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in New Delhi the new people-to-people mechanism will “help consolidate the public-opinion foundation” for bilateral ties. China’s public diplomacy aims to underpin its “win-win” policy toward India — engagement with containment.

New Delhi, however inadvertently, is lending a helping hand to Beijing’s strategy of engagement as a façade for containment. India has done little more than implore China to rein in its spiralling trade surplus. The lopsided trade relationship makes India essentially a colonial-style raw-material appendage of the state-led Chinese economy, which increasingly dumps manufactured goods there.

Worse still, New Delhi effectively is funding China’s India containment strategy. India’s defence budget for the current financial year, at Rs. 2,95,512 crore ($42.2 billion), is just 65% of China’s estimated trade surplus of $65.1 billion in the calendar year 2018. This means India practically is underwriting Beijing’s hostile actions against it — from its military build-up in Tibet and growing Indian Ocean encroachments to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Pakistan recently revealed to the International Monetary Fund that China’s CPEC investments will total $26.5 billion — less than half of the earlier claims. From just one year’s trade surplus with India, Beijing can fully fund two CPEC-type multi-year projects and still have billions of dollars for other activities to contain India.

In the list of countries with which China has the highest trade surpluses, India now ranks No. 2 behind the US. China’s surplus with the US, of course, is massive. But as a percentage of total bilateral trade, India’s trade deficit with China is greater than America’s. And in terms of what it exports to and imports from China, India is little different than any African economy.

Consider another troubling fact: Total Chinese foreign direct investment in India remains insignificant. Cumulatively aggregating to $1.9 billion, it is just a fraction of China’s yearly trade surplus. India’s 2015 removal of China as a “country of concern”, instead of encouraging major Chinese FDI flow, has only spurred greater dumping.

Consequently, China’s trade surplus has spiralled from less than $2.5 billion a month when Narendra Modi took office to over $5 billion a month since more than a year. China’s trade malfeasance is undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness, with the result that Modi’s “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off. Many firms in India have turned from manufacturers to traders by marketing low-end products from China — from tube lights to fans — under their brand names. Is it thus any surprise that manufacturing’s share of India’s GDP has actually contracted? Instead of “Make in India”, “Made in China” has gained a stronger foothold in India.

India’s China problem will only exacerbate when the planned 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) accord takes effect, thereby creating a free-trade zone between the world’s two most-populous countries. Unlike the other states negotiating RCEP, India is not an export-driven economy; rather it is an import-dependent economy whose growth is largely driven by domestic consumption.

RCEP’s main impact on India will come from China, which Harvard’s Graham Allison has called “the most protectionist, mercantilist and predatory major economy in the world”. China, while exploiting India’s rule of law for dumping, keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses. It has dragged its feet on dismantling regulatory barriers to the import of Indian agricultural and pharmaceutical products and IT services.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj rightly reminded Wang that “a solution to the continuously increasing trade deficit” is a must. Seeking to rebalance trade is not a dollar-for-dollar matter. Rather it is about ensuring fair trade and fair competition. China rose through fair access to world markets that it now denies India. Indeed, Beijing is abusing trade rules to pursue unfair trade and undercut India’s manufacturing base.

What stops India from taking a leaf out of US President Donald Trump’s playbook and giving China a taste of its own bad medicine? World Trade Organization (WTO) rules permit punitive tariffs on foreign subsidized goods that harm domestic industries. India can also emulate Beijing’s non-tariff barriers and other market restrictions.

India focuses on Pakistan’s unconventional war by terror but forgets that China is also waging an unconventional war, though by economic means. Indeed, China’s economic war is inflicting greater damage, including by killing Indian manufacturing and fostering rising joblessness among the Indian youth.

Just as the British — as American historian Will Durant noted — financed their colonization of India with Indian wealth, the Chinese are financing their encirclement of India with the profits from their predatory trade with it.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.