Fair Observer talks to Brahma Chellaney

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In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Brahma Chellaney, a prominent Indian intellectual and author.

Bordered by the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, India is the second most populous country and, arguably, the biggest democracy in the world. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund recognize India as the sixth largest economy on the planet.

Despite significant economic growth in recent decades, India faces its own set of challenges. Poverty in India is still a serious concern, even though the country is no longer home to the largest number of poor people in the world; that country is Nigeria. However, figures show two-thirds of people in India live in poverty.

India’s dynamic foreign policy and the willingness of countries to forge a close partnership with New Delhi as a nascent global power pose a serious challenge to a world order in which the US, Russia, China and the EU are competing for dominance. India’s huge energy demands also mean that oil and gas producers have a difficult job vying with each other and satisfying the needs of the third biggest energy-consuming country in the world.

The efforts of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India who is referred to as the architect of Indian foreign policy, paved the way for the foundation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961. India is a major member of the NAM and was its president from 1983 until 1986. Today, India maintains the same neutrality in international affairs, but tries to play an active role on the global stage through diversifying its economic partners, engaging in UN peacekeeping missions and keeping an eye on a possible permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Brahma Chellaney, a prominent Indian intellectual and author, about India’s foreign policy, its economy and its relations with neighboring countries in South Asia.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: The International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook predicts that India will experience a 7.4% growth in its gross domestic product by 2019 and that the figure would be 7.7% for 2020. How has India achieved such remarkable economic growth that even surpasses the United States and China?

Brahma Chellaney: Ever since India embarked on economic reforms in the early 1990s, its GDP growth has accelerated. Under the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, GDP growth surpassed 8% annually. Critics blame the Modi government’s missteps, including demonetization of high-value currency notes and a hastily introduced goods and services tax, for slowing the economic growth. However, the government’s tax and regulatory reforms, despite inflicting short-term pain, will likely help accelerate GDP growth in the medium to long-term.

India, however, needs to invest greater resources in education, human resources development and achieving autonomous technological capabilities in order to sustain economic growth in the years ahead.

Ziabari: International reports show that the number of ceasefire violations along the India-Pakistan border have increased significantly in 2017 and 2018. Do you think tensions will be alleviated between the two countries in the New Year, especially since the new Pakistani PM Imran Khan seems to be determined to make peace with India?

Chellaney: Pakistan has turned into the mecca of terrorism, even as its new leader promises a medina-like welfare state. In Pakistan, no prime minister has been allowed to complete a full five-year term. When a prime minister falls foul of the deep state, a bendable judiciary, opposition and bureaucracy are used to smear the leader’s reputation and oust him or her. Every prime minister has been thrown out on charges of corruption and incompetence.

The latest military-engineered election has changed little in Pakistan, a country still struggling to be at peace with itself. The Pakistani military will remain the puppet master calling the shots from behind the scenes, with Imran Khan as its newest puppet. Khan is a supporter of the military-backed jihadists and Islamists and a religious zealot himself.

Today, caught in mounting debt to China, Pakistan is in desperate need for an international bailout package. Against this background, Pakistan will remain a principal source of regional instability and the fountainhead of transnational terrorism. Its neighbors, including India and Afghanistan, can expect little change in Pakistan’s behavior.

Ziabari: How do you think the US and European Union’s sanctions on Russia will impact India’s economy? Do you think there will be a problem in Russia’s delivery of the S-400 air defense system to India as a result of US sanctions that make the payments difficult?

Chellaney: A generation after the Cold War ended, the Washington power elites remain obsessively fixated on Russia, although Russia’s economy today is just one-tenth the size of China’s and its military spending one-fifth of China.

Pressure from the power elites has led the Trump administration to impose at least four rounds of sanctions on Russia this year, even though better relations with Moscow can help to put discreet checks on China’s overweening ambitions. With its vast economic and military potential, China clearly represents the main threat to US interests. But the current US sanctions-centered approach to Russia has only compelled Moscow to pivot to China.

The US sanctions policy toward Russia also has gratuitously introduced a major irritant in relations with India. A new Russia-centered sanctions law took effect earlier this year. Known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, the law uses the sanctions threat to wean countries off their craving for Russian weapons, so as to boost America’s own arms sales.

The US has already overtaken Russia as the top arms seller to India. Yet it is seeking to pressure India to reduce its imports of Russian arms. India cannot snap its defense ties with Moscow. With India going ahead with a deal to buy the interceptor-based S-400 Triumf air and anti-missile defense system from Russia, the US Congress has passed a waiver legislation that grants India conditional waiver from the CAATSA sanctions.

Ziabari: Iran is the second largest supplier of India’s oil. Will the new US sanctions against Iran affect the oil trade between Tehran and New Delhi? Is India legally bound to follow the US lead in sanctioning Iran and cutting off crude imports from that country?

Chellaney: India, the second-largest importer of Iranian oil after China, is a major victim of the new US sanctions against Iran and Russia. By implicitly mounting two-pronged pressure on New Delhi on energy and defense fronts, Washington has implicitly underscored the risks for India of pursuing a foreign policy too closely aligned with America. By slapping a nation with punitive sanctions, the US seeks to block trade and financial activities with that country even by other states.

Such extraterritorial sanctions — which it euphemistically labels “secondary” sanctions — run counter to international law. Yet the US uses its unmatched power to turn national actions into global measures. As the world’s reserve currency that greases the wheels of the global financial system, the US dollar arms America with tremendous leverage, making US sanctions the most powerful in the world. Most international transactions, from banking to oil, are conducted in US dollars. Through its Iran-related sanctions, the US wants to influence the energy-import policy of India, which currently imports more than three-fourths of its crude oil requirements.

Washington is seeking to sell more oil and gas to India and also encouraging it to switch imports from Iran to Saudi Arabia and other US allies. Iran, however, has long been a major oil supplier to India. It will remain important for India’s energy-import diversification strategy. The US has granted India a six-month waiver from its Iran-related oil sanctions. In addition, the US has granted a waiver for India’s Pakistan-bypassing transportation corridor to Afghanistan via Iran. India is investing in modernizing the Chabahar Port.

Ziabari: In one of your articles, you praised President Donald Trump for trying to contain China and hold back its economic and political growth. However, many observers say that Trump is not a reliable politician and does not take advice from the right people. Do you think his lack of political experience will be a threat to India as well?

Chellaney: Any US administration’s policies are made not just by the president, but by the whole team the president has assembled. Washington is more polarized and divided than ever before. Yet it is highly significant that, in this environment, a bipartisan consensus has emerged that the decades-old US policy of “constructive engagement” with China has failed and must be replaced with active and concrete counteraction. The China policy change that is underway, therefore, will likely outlast the Trump presidency because it will be difficult for a successor to reverse it and go back to trustful cooperation.

The policy change does not seek to hold back China’s economic and political growth. Rather the aim is to make China comply with international rules and norms. For example, China has long been cheating on World Trade Organization rules. It is important to note that, despite the policy change that is underway, China still gets a free pass on human-rights abuses — from holding a million or more Muslims from Xinjiang province in internment camps to carrying out the forced disappearance of the Interpol chief. Had Russia set up such internment camps, the US response would likely have been swift and resolute.

Ziabari: You once wrote that the President Trump has tried to “sweet-talk autocratic leaders,” such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, to encourage them to make concessions. Why didn’t he try this option with Iran? Has his flattering of the North Korean and Russian leaders paid off?

Chellaney: Trump lavishes praise on autocratic foreign leaders that he is seeking to extract concessions from. Even more than Kim and Putin, Trump has lavished praise on China’s Xi Jinping, calling him “terrific” and “great.” In fact, Trump has flattered no foreign leader like Xi. Yet Trump has managed so far to wrest no major concessions from Xi. This explains why the Trump administration has targeted China with tariffs on $250 billion worth of imports into the US from there. As for Kim, Trump has succeeded in getting North Korea to declare a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing. But Kim is unlikely to give up his nuclear weapons entirely. That is the only card he has.

Trump’s Iran policy is short-sighted and counterproductive to US interests. His Iran policy has been greatly influenced by neoconservatives, election campaign donors and other interests tied to Israel. This explains why Trump has pursued a hardline approach toward Iran.

Ziabari: There are indications that India is forfeiting its democratic values. India’s top court recently ruled that movie theaters should be required to play India’s national anthem before screening movies. The country ranks 140th out of 179 in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. It is 136th out of 163 countries in the Global Peace Index 2018. Restrictions on Muslim Indians continue to remain in place. Do you think India is still a serious democracy?

Chellaney: You must be kidding that there are “restrictions” on Muslims in India. Muslims have the same rights as Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and others in India. Discrimination on the basis of religion is unlawful under the Indian Constitution.

India’s democracy certainly faces challenges. But it is widely recognized that India remains a robust and proud democracy. In fact, it is the world’s largest democracy. The Indian media is one of the freest in the world. And Indian courts regularly overturn government decisions. If anything, India has an activist judiciary that often appears to encroach on the executive branch’s powers.

In fact, democracy remains India’s greatest asset. While the concepts of democratic freedoms and the rule of law are normally associated with the West, India can claim ancient traditions bestowing respect to such values. Basic freedoms for all formed the linchpin of the rule in third century BC of Emperor Ashoka who, as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has pointed out, “did not exclude women and slaves as Aristotle did.”

Ziabari: What are the foreign policy priorities of India as of today? What is India doing to in order to consolidate its international standing and fulfill its economic aspirations?

Chellaney: India has long cherished “strategic autonomy” and sought to stay clear of formal alliances. That won’t change. However, in an important shift, India is moving from nonalignment to multi-alignment. This means India is going from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality.

There is an important difference between nonalignment and multi-alignment. Nonalignment implies a passive stance as a bystander. Multi-alignment, by contrast, permits an active and participatory role, including building close strategic partnerships with likeminded powers.

India cannot, and will not, be a lackey of any power. Because of its geographical location, India is the natural bridge between the West and the East, and between Europe and Asia. Through forward thinking and a dynamic foreign policy, India is seeking to truly play the role of a bridge between the East and the West, including serving as a link between the competing demands of the developed and developing worlds. At a time of heightened geopolitical tensions, the world needs such a bridge-builder.

Ziabari: Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Rwanda and Uganda earlier this year before traveling to South Africa for the BRICS summit. Historically, there have been large Indian communities across Africa that contributed to the economic prosperity of the continent. What is India looking for in rejuvenating its relations with African nations?

Chellaney: India has had close historical ties with Africa. Today, India is seeking to revive those ties. Take the Indian Ocean region, which extends from Australia to eastern and southern Africa. The Indian Ocean region has emerged as the world’s major energy and trade seaway, as well as the center of the challenges of the 21st-century world — from terrorism and extremism to piracy and safety of sea-lanes of communication.

India is attempting to build a web of strategic partnerships with key littoral states in the Indian Ocean rim. The partnerships incorporate trade accords, defense and energy cooperation, and strategic dialogue. India’s focus includes countries adjacent to chokepoints such as the Strait of Hormuz, Iran; the Strait of Malacca, namely Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia; the Bab el-Mandab, which are Djibouti and Eritrea; and the Cape of Good Hope and the Mozambique Channel, namely South Africa and Mozambique.

Not only does BRICS include South Africa, but also South Africa’s president will be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade on January 26, 2019. India and Japan have launched the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor in partnership with a number of African countries. In addition, India has offered a $1 billion line of credit to African countries.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

When one nation’s dam-building rage threatens an entire continent’s future

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Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

China is the world’s biggest dam builder, with the country boasting more dams than the rest of the world combined. China is also the world’s largest exporter of dams.

In Nepal, where China-backed communists are in power, Beijing has just succeeded in reviving a lucrative dam project, which was scrapped by the previous Nepalese government as China had won the contract without competitive bidding. The reversal of the previous government’s cancellation of the $2.5 billion Budhi-Gandaki Dam project has come after Nepal’s communist rulers implemented a transit transport agreement with China to cut dependence on India.

China is building dams in two other countries neighbouring India, Myanmar and Pakistan, including in areas torn by ethnic separatism (as in northern Myanmar) and in a United Nations-designated disputed territory like the Pakistan-occupied portion of Jammu and Kashmir. Yet it loudly protests when the Dalai Lama merely visits Arunachal Pradesh, claiming it to be a “disputed territory”, although only Beijing disputes India’s control over Arunachal. The UN does not recognize Arunachal as disputed.

China has also held out threats against India jointly exploring with Vietnam for offshore hydrocarbons in Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Yet it has no compunctions about unveiling projects — under the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Domestically, most of China’s mega-water projects are now concentrated on the Tibetan Plateau, a sprawling region it forcibly absorbed in the early 1950s.

By building an array of new dams on rivers flowing to other countries, Beijing seems set to roil inter-riparian relations in Asia and make it more difficult to establish rules-based water cooperation and sharing.

China has emerged as the key impediment to building institutionalized collaboration in Asia on shared water resources. In contrast to the bilateral water treaties between many of its neighbours, China rejects the concept of a water-sharing arrangement or joint, rules-based management of common resources.

The long-term implications of China’s dam programme for India are particularly stark because several major rivers flow south from the Tibetan plateau. India has water-sharing treaties with both the countries located downstream from it: the Indus pact with Pakistan guarantees the world’s largest cross-border flows under any treaty regime, while the Ganges accord has set a new principle in international water law by granting Bangladesh an equal share of downriver flows in the dry season.

China, by contrast, does not have a single water-sharing treaty with any neighbour.

Yet most of Asia’s international rivers originate in territories that China annexed after its 1949 communist “revolution”. The Tibetan Plateau is the world’s largest freshwater repository and the source of Asia’s greatest rivers, including those that are the lifeblood of mainland China, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Other Chinese-held homelands of ethnic minorities contain the headwaters of rivers such as the Irtysh, Illy and Amur, which flow to Russia and Central Asia.

China’s dam programme on international rivers is following a well-established pattern: Build modest-size dams on a river’s uppermost difficult reaches, and then construct larger dams in the upper-middle sections as the river picks up greater water volume and momentum, before embarking on mega-dams in the border area facing the neighbouring country. The cascade of mega-dams on the Mekong River, for example, is located in the area just before the river enters continental Southeast Asia.

Many of China’s new dam projects at home are concentrated in the seismically active southwest, covering parts of the Tibetan Plateau. The restart of dam building on the Salween River after a decade-long moratorium is in keeping with a precedent set on other river systems: Beijing temporarily suspends a controversial plan after major protests flare so as to buy time — before resurrecting the same plan.

The Salween — Asia’s last largely free-flowing river — runs through deep, spectacular gorges, glaciated peaks and karst on its way into Myanmar and along the Thai border before emptying into the Andaman Sea. Its upstream basin is inhabited by 16 ethnic groups, including some, like the Derung tribe, with tiny populations numbering in the thousands. As one of the world’s most biologically diverse regions, the upper basin boasts more than 5,000 plant species and nearly half of China’s animal species.

China’s action in lifting the moratorium and starting work on dams on the Tibet-originating Salween threatens the region’s biodiversity and could uproot endangered aboriginal tribes. There is also the risk that the weight of huge, new dam reservoirs could accentuate seismic instability in a region prone to recurrent earthquakes.

No country is more vulnerable to China’s re-engineering of trans-boundary flows than India. The reason is that India alone receives nearly half of the river waters that leave Chinese-held territory. According to United Nations figures, a total of 718 billion cubic meters of surface water flows out of Chinese territory yearly, of which 347 billion cubic meters (or 48.3 per cent of the total) runs directly into India.

China already has a dozen dams in the Brahmaputra River basin and one each on the Indus and the Sutlej rivers. On the Brahmaputra, it is currently constructing several more. Its dam building is likely to gradually move to Tibet’s water-rich border with Arunachal as the Brahmaputra makes a U-turn to enter India.

If Asia is to prevent water wars, it must build institutionalized cooperation in trans-boundary basins in a way that co-opts all riparian neighbours. If a dominant riparian country refuses to join, such institutional arrangements — as in the Mekong basin — will be ineffective. The arrangements must be centred on transparency, unhindered information flow, equitable sharing, dispute settlement, pollution control, and a commitment to refrain from any projects that could materially diminish trans-boundary flows.

China, undeterred by the environmental degradation it is wreaking, has made the control and manipulation of river flows a pivot of its power. It is past time for New Delhi to speak up on China’s dam-building threat to India’s security and well-being.

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

The challenge of building a “free and open” Indo-Pacific

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How can the United States succeed in establishing a truly “free and open” Indo-Pacific when the region’s most-important corridor — the South China Sea — has come under China’s de facto control and is thus neither free nor open?

Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

The Indo-Pacific is emerging as the center of global power and wealth, with security dynamics changing rapidly in the region. The contest for regional influence pits America’s new strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) — a concept authored by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — against China’s “Belt and Road” initiative (BRI), which U.S. Vice President Mike Pence last weekend mocked as a “constricting belt” and a “one-way road.”

As speculation grows that the deep-water commercial port China is building at Koh Kong in Cambodia could become dual-purpose docks, just as Pakistan’s Chinese-controlled Gwadar port has acquired a strategic dimension, Pence at the APEC summit announced that the United States will partner with its ally Australia to build a naval base on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

Two recent summits have also highlighted the changing power dynamics — between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Beijing, and between Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Japan.

Japan and India have reason to try and improve strained ties with China. But as China has come under greater U.S. pressure on trade, technology and other fronts, it has sought to ease tensions with its geopolitical rivals, Japan and India. Pence cited Xi’s outreach to Japan as one sign “China got the message” about Washington’s new position.

Indeed, in response to the mounting American pressure, Xi this month emphasized his personal relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump and called for “a plan that both can accept.” In recent days, Xi’s government has even submitted a list of concessions that Trump has rebuffed as inadequate.

This shows how active American pressure, as opposed to mere admonitions, can result in improving China’s behavior. When a nation pursues an accommodating approach toward Beijing, an emboldened China ups the ante. But while deference usually invites bullying, standing up to China draws respect and a readiness to negotiate and make concessions.

At the heart of the changing U.S. policy on China are two key priorities — ending its trade-distorting policies and developing the new Indo-Pacific strategy through the FOIP concept.

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, attempted to “pivot’ to Asia. The pivot, unveiled in 2011, attracted a lot of international attention but had little impact in shaping the regional geostrategic landscape.

For example, it did nothing to tame China’s territorial and maritime revisionism. In fact, it was on Obama’s watch, after he had unveiled the pivot, that China created and militarized islands in the South China Sea, thereby fundamentally transforming the situation there. North Korea, for its part, made rapid nuclear and missile advances.

With Obama’s attention diverted by developments in the Middle East and Russia’s takeover of Crimea, his pivot to Asia got lost somewhere in the arc between the Syria-Iraq belt and Ukraine.

Of course, under his pivot policy, the shift of more U.S forces to the Asia-Pacific gained momentum, along with a focus on investing in high-end capabilities with relevance to the Indo-Pacific, including electronic warfare, cyber and space. But Obama’s pivot policy never acquired a clear vision, and critics contended that it merely repackaged some policies initiated by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

Against this background, the Trump administration’s FOIP strategy, with its clearer vision and objectives, looks like the true pivot to Asia. This is largely because of the paradigm shift underway in America’s China policy.

The ongoing shift in China policy has spawned the FOIP strategy, which extends to the Indian Ocean — the new geostrategic focus of China, after its success in changing the South China Sea status quo in its favor. The FOIP strategy’s economic and security objectives are clearly being influenced by the evolving China-policy shift.

The real architect of the FOIP concept, however, is Abe, who unveiled that idea in mid-2016 in Nairobi. The term, “Indo-Pacific,” of course, has been in use since the 1990s. And the Obama administration publicly embraced the Indo-Pacific term so as to factor in the emerging strategic realities in the Indian Ocean region, which traditionally was not considered part of the Asia-Pacific. But it was Abe who, by prefixing the words “free and open” to Indo-Pacific, devised the concept that is now shaping Washington’s strategic reorientation.

U.S. foreign policy traditionally has not embraced a concept authored by a foreign leader. The U.S. adoption of the FOIP concept is a rare exception.

Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, however, faces some tough challenges, not least because of the hedging policies of some U.S. allies. Caught between an unpredictable and transactional Trump administration and an arrogant and pushy China, some U.S. friends find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Moreover, some U.S. allies, including Australia and South Korea, view their economic relations with China to be as important as their security ties with the U.S. The last thing they want is for American policy to force them to choose between the U.S. and China. America’s own neutrality on disputes between China and its neighbors, including in the South and East China seas and the Himalayas, encourages its friends to hedge their bets.

Another challenge for Washington relates specifically to the South China Sea, a highly strategic corridor connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. How can the Indo-Pacific be “free” and “open” when its most-important sea corridor is neither free nor open?

To be sure, this is a difficult challenge. At this stage, how could the U.S. undo what China has done in the South China Sea without provoking a war? The Trump team inherited this problem from the Obama administration. Trump recently accused the Obama administration of having been “impotent” on the South China Sea issue.

The Trump administration, to be sure, has stepped-up freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea. But let’s be clear: Such operations neither credibly deter China nor reassure America’s regional allies.

Without a clear plan to deal with the changing status quo there, the South China Sea will remain a critical missing link in Washington’s larger Indo-Pacific strategy.

Meanwhile, the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad,” despite the hype, has yet to live up to its promise. Abe, incidentally, is also the author of the idea to create a club of the four leading Indo-Pacific democracies. The Quad’s origins date back to Abe’s initial 2006-2007 stint as prime minister, when he received active support from then U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. Thanks to Abe’s push, the Quad evolved out of the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia “regional core group” that U.S. President George W. Bush announced to deal with the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster.

Since the Quad was revived a year ago, its member-states have met at the level of senior bureaucrats, including for the third time last week in Singapore. But no ministerial-level meeting has been held thus far. This may explain why the Quad’s institutionalization has yet to take off.

Quad members must start coordinating their approaches to effectively create a single regional strategy. And they need to build broader collaboration with other important players in the Indo-Pacific, as well as with strategically located small countries.

More fundamentally, progress on building a rules-based Indo-Pacific order is linked to addressing the regional imperative for strategic equilibrium, a goal at the core of Abe’s foreign policy. Playing by international rules and not seeking to redraw borders by force are central to peace and security.

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.

Democracy in danger in yet another Asian nation

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

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

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insecurity in India’s maritime backyard

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

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

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

The linchpins for a rules-based Indo-Pacific

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2018.

Maldives: India should not rest on its oars

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.