Modi must advance national security

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Narendra Modi’s return to power with a stunning majority reflects the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leadership that reinvents India as a more secure, confident and competitive country. Contrast the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nationalist plank with the opposing forces’ lack of ideological conviction or a clear national agenda. Most Indian parties, including BJP’s own allies, are controlled by single families, which run them like family-owned businesses. The state-level election success of a few notwithstanding, the humiliating rout of many such parties shows that politics guided by families, not principles or national vision, is out of sync with the new India.

Indians not only want their country to stop punching below its weight but also to emerge truly as a great power. But without ameliorating its security challenges and investing in human capital, India has little hope of becoming a major power with a high level of autonomous and innovative technological capability.

Modi’s re-election represents a fresh mandate for change. The new government’s most pressing challenges relate to internal and external security, including a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of an ascendant great power and an implacably hostile neighbour. New Delhi also needs to effectively counter Chinese inroads in its maritime backyard and in countries long symbiotically tied to India.

The recent Sri Lankan bombings, oddly, have helped underscore India’s own jihadist threat. The Sri Lankan investigations have helped shine a spotlight on the growing cross-strait role of Islamist forces in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The situations in West Bengal and Assam also appear fraught with similar danger.

Not surprisingly, national security weighed on the Indian voters’ minds — a concern reinforced by the Pulwama terrorist massacre, which led to a retaliatory Indian airstrike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s lair in Balakot. However, when Pakistan daringly responded by crossing a red line — its February 27 aerial blitz targeted Indian military sites — Modi surprisingly held back Indian forces from wreaking punishment.

Yet Pakistan still fears Indian punishment, which explains why its airspace has remained closed to most east-west overflights for the past three months, even though this action has also cut off Pakistan’s air connections with Southeast Asia and resulted in its loss of overflight fees. Significantly, since Pulwama, Pakistan’s military has not staged any cross-border tactical or terrorist strike in India. This shows that keeping Pakistan under sustained military and non-military pressure holds the key.

China’s muscular revisionism, of course, poses a bigger national security challenge. India’s lagging defence modernization has compounded the challenge from the world’s largest, strongest and technologically most advanced autocracy. Unlike a short-focused India, China plays the long game, with the aim to advance its interests step-by-step. However, the ongoing paradigm shift in US policy on China under President Donald Trump is putting growing pressure on Beijing, constricting its space against India.

An unpredictable and transactional Trump administration, to be sure, is also adding to India’s diplomatic challenges, as underscored by the new US sanctions against Iran and Russia. Although the Modi government said last year that “India follows only UN sanctions, not unilateral sanctions of any country”, it has been compelled to comply with the recent, Trump-imposed ban on Iranian oil exports.

More broadly, Modi’s foreign policy will continue to be guided by a non-doctrinaire vision. Shorn of ideology, his foreign policy has prudently sought to revitalize the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner.

Modi, however, must develop a credible counterterrorism strategy. Sri Lanka, since the Easter bombings, is seeking to proactively root out violent jihadism. Emulating the Singaporean policy of zero tolerance of jihad-extolling sermons, it has deported or arrested more than 200 mullahs and cracked down on the inflow of Gulf money. To prevent violent jihad being taught to impressionable young minds, it has decided to bring madrasas under its education ministry and outlaw the Sharia University at Batticaloa. Such steps may seem unthinkable in India.

Take another example: India kills a leading terrorist, only to squander the gain by permitting a large public funeral that memorializes him as a martyr. India has learned little from its 2016 Burhan Wani blunder. Last week’s Pulwama funeral for local Al Qaeda leader Zakir Musa triggered rioting and curfew. Contrast this with the way the US dumped Osama bin Laden’s body in the sea and China forced the burial of Noble peace laureate Liu Xiaobo’s ashes at sea.

Modi’s first term failed to dispel India’s image as a soft state. If his second term is going to reinvent India, Modi cannot shy away from taking hard decisions. The transformative moment usually comes once in a generation. Modi, with his cold-eyed pragmatism, must seize this moment. In the way his tax and regulatory overhaul is set to boost economic growth, he must similarly advance national security through fundamental reforms.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

The Modi Phenomenon Gains Strength

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India’s biggest neighbour, however, is the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy, China – a reminder that the new Indian government’s most pressing security challenges relate to the country’s neighbourhood, not least a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan. Both these nuclear-armed allies stake claims to vast swaths of Indian territory and employ asymmetric warfare.

Not surprisingly, national security weighed on the Indian voters’ minds, especially because, in the run-up to the elections, a Pakistan-based, United Nations-designated terrorist group claimed responsibility for a massacre of more than 40 paramilitary troops in Indian Kashmir. An Indian retaliatory airstrike on the group’s hideout in the Pakistani heartland helped burnish Mr. Modi’s credentials as a strong leader.

Mr. Modi’s dramatic rise in 2014 from being a provincial politician to heading the national government had much to do with the Indian electorate’s yearning for an era of decisive government after a scandal-marred, decade-long tenure of former prime minister Manmohan Singh, who was widely seen as a proxy of the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi (no relation to the apostle of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi).

Mr. Modi’s stint in office has helped change Indian politics and diplomacy. He has animated the country’s foreign policy by often departing from conventional methods and shibboleths. And as underscored by his latest election triumph, he has helped turn his Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP, into India’s largest political force.

The BJP has long espoused the cause of the country’s Hindu majority while claiming to represent all religious communities. It sees itself as being no different than the Christian political parties that played a key role in Western Europe’s post-Second World War recovery and economic and political integration. Mr. Modi has subtly played the Hindu nationalist card to advance his political ambitions.

However, like U.S. President Donald Trump, Mr. Modi has become increasingly polarizing. Consequently, Indian democracy perhaps is as divided and polarized as U.S democracy. Mr. Modi’s landslide election win is unlikely to heal the polarization.

In fact, Mr. Modi, like Mr. Trump, is accused by his critics of behaving like an authoritarian strongman. The truth, however, is that Indian democracy, like American democracy, is robust enough to deter authoritarian creep.

If anything, the “strongman” tag that political opponents have given Mr. Modi helps to cloak his failings. For example, his “Make in India” initiative to promote domestic manufacturing has failed to seriously take off. He has also been reluctant to introduce national-security reform. India’s defence modernization has lagged, widening the yawning power gap with China.

However, to his credit, Mr. Modi has reduced political corruption and cut India’s proverbial red tape by streamlining regulations and reining in the bloated bureaucracy. For example, government permits and licences can be sought online.

A new simplified national tax regime serves as further advertisement that India is open for business. The tax and regulatory overhaul will likely yield major dividends in Mr. Modi’s second term.

To be sure, India’s economic growth has remained impressive. Its economy now is about 50 per cent larger than when Mr. Modi took office five years ago.

After overtaking France, India – the world’s fastest-growing major economy – has just edged out its former colonial master, Britain, to leap to the fifth place in the international GDP rankings. But if GDP is measured in terms of purchasing power parity, India’s economy ranks third behind the United States and China.

India is respected as the first developing economy that, from the beginning, has strived to modernize and prosper through a democratic system. Less known is that India’s British-style parliamentary democracy has fostered a fractious and fragmented polity, weighing down the country’s potential. Some 2,300 parties fielded candidates in the latest election.

The British-type parliamentary system is rife with inefficiencies, as Britain’s Brexit mess highlights. This system’s limitations appear greater in much bigger India, which is more populous and diverse than the whole of Europe.

Fortunately for India, Mr. Modi’s big win has averted a nightmare scenario – an indecisive election verdict fostering political paralysis.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© Globe and Mail, 2019.

The internal jihadist threat is rapidly growing in India

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Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

As India seeks to address the terrorism challenge in Jammu and Kashmir, jihadist forces are quietly gaining ground in far-flung states, especially West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The situation in Assam is also fraught with danger. India can ignore the spreading jihadist threat only at its own peril.

The ISIS, for example, has reportedly named a new “Bengal emir.” The Sri Lanka bombings, meanwhile, have helped highlight the growing cross-strait role of Islamist forces in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Such forces are affiliated with larger extremist networks or provide succour to radical groups elsewhere.

The main group blamed for the Sri Lanka bombings, the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ), is an ideological offspring of the rapidly growing Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamat (TNTJ). The Saudi-funded TNTJ, wedded to fanatical Wahhabism, is working to snuff out pluralistic strands of Islam. Such Arabization of Islam is increasingly apparent in Muslim communities extending from Bangladesh and West Bengal to Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province.

More broadly, the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in Syria and Iraq has only intensified the terrorism challenge. Battle-hardened terrorist fighters returning home from Syria and Iraq have become a major counterterrorism concern in South and Southeast Asia, given their operational training, skills, and experience to stage savage attacks.

The presence of such returnees in Sri Lanka explains how an obscure local group carried out near-simultaneous strikes on three iconic churches and three luxury hotels, with the bombers detonating military-grade high explosives through suicide vests. Similar returnees are present in a number of other Asian countries.

The Sri Lanka attacks indeed underscore the potential of such returnees to wage terror campaigns in the same way that the activities of the Afghan war veterans, like Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, came to haunt the security of Asia, the Middle East and the West.

The jihadist threat, however, is posed not only by the returnees from Syria and Iraq. Such a threat also arises from those elements who never left their countries but see violence as a sanctified tool of religion and a path to redemption. Such local forces extolling terror are gaining clout.

The TNTJ in India, for example, helped to establish the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamat, from which the bomber outfit NTJ emerged as a splinter. In the current national elections in India, the DMK and some other local political parties have openly courted the TNTJ.

Just as Bangladesh blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for instigating the 2016 brutal Dhaka café attack through a Bangladeshi outfit, Sri Lanka’s NTJ has ties with the ISI’s front organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The ISI and the LeT, through their joint Sri Lanka operations, has sought to establish cross-strait contacts with TNTJ activists in India.

NTJ leader Zaharan Hashim, who reportedly died in one of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings, was inspired by fugitive Indian Islamist preacher Zakir Naik’s jihad-extolling sermons. Hashim also reportedly received funds from jihadists in south India.

India, despite providing detailed intelligence warnings to Sri Lanka about the bombing plot, has been slow to develop a credible strategy to counter the growing jihadist influence within its own borders. For example, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government initiated action against Zakir Naik only after the Dhaka café attack prompted Bangladesh to demand action against him. The prime minister, however, is right in saying that Naik enjoyed the patronage of the predecessor Manmohan Singh-led government — which, according to Modi, once invited Naik to address police personnel on the issue of terrorism!

Today, Naik is ensconced in Malaysia, which has granted him permanent residency. Yet, India has imposed no costs on Malaysia, such as cutting palm-oil imports from there, for sheltering a leading fugitive from Indian law.

Lull-in-terrorism-masks-a-deepening-Jihadist-threat-Dutch-report-warnsLike al-Qaeda at one time, ISIS seeks to show its continuing relevance by claiming responsibility for terror strikes that occur in places far from the areas where it has had presence. Rather than ISIS being directly involved in the Sri Lanka bombings, it is more likely that the ideology ISIS subscribes to — Wahhabi fanaticism — inspired those attacks.

It takes months, not weeks, to motivate, train and equip a suicide bomber. So, the speculative comment that the Sri Lanka bombings were a reprisal to the March 15 Christchurch, New Zealand, massacre made little sense, especially as it came from the Sri Lankan junior defence minister. Fortunately, the Sri Lankan prime minister later walked back that speculation.

Detaining a terrorist attacker’s family members for questioning has become a de facto international anti-terrorist practice. Sri Lanka quickly rounded up the bombers’ family members, including parents, for questioning once the suicide killers were identified. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation also detains a terrorist attacker’s family members for questioning, but not India. For example, the Pulwama bomber’s family members not only remained free but also gave media interviews rationalizing the February 14 suicide attack.

Publicity is the oxygen of terrorism. Terrorists rely on media publicity to provoke fear and demonstrate power.

Unfortunately, in the absence of U.S.-style media peer guidelines in India on terrorism-related coverage, Indian journalists supplied the oxygen of publicity by reporting allegations of the Pulwama bomber’s family members, including their claim that he was once roughed up by army or paramilitary soldiers. What the family members did not reveal was that the bomber had previously been detained on four separate occasions by J&K police on suspicion of providing logistical assistance to the LeT but that each time he was freed without the investigators getting to the bottom of his activities.

Make no mistake: Islamist terror is closely connected with the spread of Wahhabism, the obscurantist and intolerant version of Islam bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and other oil sheikhdoms. Wahhabi fanaticism is terrorism’s ideological mother, whose offspring include ISIS, al-Qaeda, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Boko Haram.

The jihadist threat in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam — like in Sri Lanka — is linked with the growing spread of Wahhabism. If left unaddressed, this scourge of Islamist extremism could become a major internal-security crisis in India.

India’s counterterrorism focus on Jammu and Kashmir has allowed jihadists to gain influence in some other states far from J&K.

India needs to wake up to this spreading threat. It must crack down on the preachers of hatred and violence. It also must rein in the increasing inflow of Saudi and other Gulf money so as to close the wellspring that feeds terrorism — Wahhabi fanaticism.

Asia Is the New Ground Zero for Islamist Terror

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The murder of more than 250 churchgoers, tourists, and other civilians in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday should serve as a reminder that Asia is now the world’s leading site of Islamist extremism. The region’s leaders must either address the problem at its source or prepare for more bloodshed in the coming years and decades.

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Brahma ChellaneyProject Syndicate

The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka rank among the deadliest terrorist attacks in modern history, and underscore the metastasizing scourge of Islamist violence in Asia. Radical Islamic groups, some affiliated with larger extremist networks, have been quietly gaining influence in an arc of countries extending from the Maldivian to the Philippine archipelagos, and the threat they pose can no longer be ignored.

In fact, the grisly Sri Lankan bombings are a reminder that Asia – not the Middle East – is the region most afflicted by terrorist violence. Home to the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, it is also host to multiple “terrorist safe havens,” owing to the rise of grassroots radical movements and years of complacency on the part of policymakers.

With a total of 253 people dead (and hundreds more wounded), the Sri Lanka bombings were five times deadlier than the March 15 massacre by a white supremacist at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The death toll is also higher than that of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which involved ten Pakistan-based militants in one of the modern world’s longest-ever terrorist sieges.

By targeting international hotels and iconic churches, the Islamists behind the Sri Lankan blasts clearly intended to strike a blow against Sri Lanka’s fast-growing tourism industry, a mainstay of the country’s debt-ridden economy. Reduced tourism receipts will add to the burden of Sri Lanka’s high external interest payments, compounding a problem that has already forced the country to cede control of its strategic Indian Ocean port, Hambantota, to China (a signal achievement of the latter’s debt-trap diplomacy).

The attacks also mark the dawn of Islamist terrorism in Sri Lanka. Though suicide bombings were not uncommon during the country’s 26-year civil war, which pitted the ethnic Sinhalese majority against the minority Tamils, Sri Lanka has not previously experienced coordinated violence on this scale or a major attack by Islamist militants.

The civil war ended in 2009, when the Sri Lanka Army brutally crushed the last of the Tamil separatist rebels. But that outcome sowed the seeds of religious conflict between the country’s mainly Buddhist Sinhalese and a Muslim minority that constitutes one-tenth of the population.

Sri Lanka’s Muslim population is largely concentrated in the Eastern Province, where Saudi and other Gulf funding has fueled the rise of jihadist groups seeking to enforce sharia (Islamic law). The group suspected of carrying out the Easter bombings, the National Thowheed Jamaath, thrived in this setting. Like the similarly named outfit Sri Lanka Thawheed Jama’athand the rapidly growing Tamil Nadu Thoweed Jamath in southernmost India, its primary goal is to foment militant Islamic fundamentalism.

We now know that Indian intelligence had tipped off Sri Lankan security agencies about the Easter bombing plot, even identifying its alleged masterminds. Yet, owing to political infighting between Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the latter was kept in the dark. Accordingly, many are now blaming the failure on Sirisena, who oversees the security agencies (and who had previously attempted to remove Wickremesinghe in a constitutional coup, only to be overruled by the Supreme Court).

Though its extremist enclave in Syria and Iraq has crumbled and its leaders are on the run, the Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the bombings. Like al-Qaeda before it, ISIS wants to demonstrate its continued relevance by taking credit for attacks in areas where it has no presence. Most likely, the Sri Lanka attacks were not the direct work of ISIS. And yet they were inspired by the same toxic ideology espoused by ISIS: Wahhabi fanaticism.

Wahhabism, the austere, rigid version of Islam bankrolled by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf sheikhdoms, remains the driving force behind Islamist terrorism today. Its offspring include not just al-Qaeda and ISIS, but also the Taliban in Afghanistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia. All of these groups are driven by a nihilistic rage born of hostility toward non-Sunnis and a rejection of modernity.

Unfortunately, as the Sri Lanka bombings and other attacks in Asia show, the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq has only intensified the terrorism challenge, because battle-hardened fighters with the operational training to stage savage attacks are now returning home. The presence of such returnees in Sri Lanka explains how an obscure local group was able to carry out sophisticated, near-simultaneous strikes on three churches and three hotels, using military-grade explosives.

Returnees are present in many other Asian countries as well, from the Philippines and Indonesia to the Maldives and Uzbekistan. Like Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders who cut their teeth in the US-backed war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, this new generation of jihadist veterans could haunt the security of Asia, the Middle East, and the West for years to come.

To be sure, official discrimination against Muslims has contributed to Islamists’ growing influence, particularly in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, Thailand’s four southernmost provinces, and the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. But so have Saudi-funded madrasas (religious seminaries) and social-media platforms, which facilitate fundraising, recruitment, and dissemination of jihadist propaganda. Hence, jihadist violence has also come to threaten predominantly Muslim countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Kazakhstan. And in some cases – namely Pakistan – the state itself is abetting violent extremists.

If left unaddressed, this scourge could become the defining crisis of the century for Asian countries. To prevent that outcome, the fount of jihadist extremism – Wahhabi fanaticism – must be cut off. As the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew said, preventing terrorist attacks requires that we eliminate the “queen bees” (the preachers of hatred and violence) who are inspiring the “worker bees” (suicide bombers) to become martyrs. The global war on terror, launched by the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001, is losing steam. Unless it is invigorated and prosecuted to the end, many more innocent lives will be lost.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Why Tibet matters ever more in India-China ties

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The Dalai Lama, after escaping to India in 1959, meets Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (right). 

If Tibet is at the heart of the China-India divide, water is at the centre of the Tibet-India bond.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Wars in space are not just Hollywood fiction but an emerging reality for defence planners. India’s successful “kill” with an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon is a major milestone in its quest for effective deterrence. Without developing ASAT capability, India risked encouraging China to go after Indian space assets early in a conflict.

The test is meant as a warning shot across China’s bow for another reason: ASAT capability serves as a basic building block of a ballistic missile defence system, which can shoot down incoming missiles. The development thus holds implications also for China’s “all-weather” strategic ally, Pakistan, which maintains a nuclear first-use doctrine against India.

In this light, it is unconscionable that the development of India’s satellite-kill technologies was held up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, which, as top scientists have said, refused to give the go-ahead. In the Indian system, no one is held to account, even for compromising national security.

India’s ASAT test should not obscure the fact that March 31 marked the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s entry into India after a gruelling two-week journey through his Chinese-occupied homeland. Dressed as a Chinese soldier, he escaped from his military-besieged Norbulinka Palace in Lhasa. He entered India as tens of thousands died in China’s brutal suppression of an uprising against its occupation of Tibet.

Today, Tibet remains at the centre of the India-China divide, fuelling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions and riparian feuds. Indeed, the fall of Tibet represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development in modern India’s history. It gave China borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal for the first time, and opened the path to a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis. The impact has been exacerbated by serial Indian blunders.

When the Dalai Lama fled his homeland, India was the only country to have diplomatic representation in Tibet. In fact, India controlled Tibet’s postal, telegraph and telephone services and had military personnel at Yatung and Gyantse before it ceded those rights under the infamous Panchsheel Agreement of 1954.

Indeed, no sooner had Mao Zedong’s regime annexed the historical buffer of Tibet than New Delhi voluntarily began forfeiting all its extraterritorial rights and privileges there. In 1952, it replaced the 16-year-old Indian Mission in Lhasa (which maintained direct relations with Tibet) with a new consulate-general accredited to China. Nineteen months later, the Panchsheel accord gave its imprimatur to the “Tibet Region of China”, without Beijing’s recognition of the then existing Indo-Tibetan border. After China invaded India in 1962, it shut the Indian consulate in Lhasa.

Tibet enjoyed close transportation, trade and cultural links with India throughout history. But with Tibet now locked behind a Chinese “iron curtain”, the formerly integrated economies and cultures of the entire Himalayan region have broken apart.

In recent years, China has turned the resource-rich but ecologically fragile Tibetan Plateau into the centre of its mining and dam-building activities. The environmental crisis haunting the plateau threatens India’s ecological well-being. This is illustrated by the still turbid waters of the once-pristine Siang, the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system.

The more India has aligned its Tibet stance with China’s position, the more Beijing has upped the ante, including seeking to reengineer trans-boundary river flows, on which India is critically dependent. Beijing began calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet” only after the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 formally recognized Tibet as part of China.

Today, despite the ASAT test, India’s China policy seems adrift. The Dalai Lama is a strategic asset for India, yet current Indian policy doesn’t reflect that. Indeed, according to a leaked advisory, New Delhi changed course early last year to shun official relations with the Dalai Lama and other exiled Tibetan leaders — a shift that won Beijing’s tacit appreciation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first attempt in 2014 to “reset” ties with China boomeranged spectacularly. Undeterred, Modi persisted, even as China furtively expanded its military footprint in Doklam. The Wuhan summit represented Modi’s Reset 2.0. For China, however, Wuhan served as a cover to kill two birds with one stone. While encouraging Modi’s overtures to help instil greater Indian caution to openly challenge China, Beijing has embarked on a major border-force buildup. On Modi’s watch, Chinese exports have flooded India, with Beijing more than doubling its bilateral trade surplus.

Meanwhile, Tibet’s shadow over India-China relations is becoming longer. Beijing is waiting to install a marionette as the Dalai Lama’s successor. China’s increasing militarization of Tibet directly impinges on Indian security. Its punitive denial of hydrological data to India in 2017 was an early warning of the water card it is fashioning. If Tibet is at the heart of the China-India divide, water is at the centre of the Tibet-India bond.

To help curb China’s territorial and riparian revisionism, India must subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue. By recalibrating its Tibet policy, India could elevate Tibet as a broader strategic and environmental issue that impinges on international security and climatic and hydrological stability. More than ASAT and other weapons, India needs political will and clarity to deter China.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

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.