China’s Imperial Project Runs into Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma ChellaneyNikkei Asian Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

China expands its control in South China Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.

A shadow over the ‘two-plus-two’ meeting

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, September 4, 2018

The US has emerged as India’s most important partner. The inaugural India-US “two-plus-two” ministerial dialogue will help highlight the growing convergence of their interests in the Indo-Pacific region. However, in India’s neighbourhood, Washington and New Delhi are still not on the same page.

For example, after gratuitously assassinating the third consecutive chief of the Pakistani Taliban this summer to please Pakistan’s military generals, the US held face-to-face talks with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban in Qatar. While the Pakistani Taliban is the Pakistan military’s nemesis, the Afghan Taliban is America’s main battlefield foe in Afghanistan, yet the group is still missing from the US list of foreign terrorist organizations.

More broadly, the US and India have become key partners in seeking to create a free, open and democratic-led Indo-Pacific. The critical missing link in this strategy, however, is the South China Sea, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans. US reluctance to impose tangible costs on China’s continued expansionism in the South China Sea has emboldened Chinese inroads in the Indian Ocean.

One issue likely to figure prominently in the two-plus-two meeting is how India has emerged as a prime victim of two new sets of US economic sanctions — on Iran and on Russia. The new sanctions directly impinge on India, a longstanding significant buyer of Russian weapons and the second-largest importer of Iranian oil after China.

The twin US pressures on energy and defence fronts have made India acutely aware of the risks of aligning itself closer with Washington. After ensnaring India in its Iran and Russia sanctions, Washington has sought to save the promising Indo-US strategic partnership by throwing in concessions. In reality, the concessions are intended as tools of leverage.

For example, the Pentagon’s top Asia official, characterizing Indian media reports as “misleading”, has made it clear that India can expect no waiver from Russia-related sanctions if it signs major new defence deals with Moscow. The congressional waiver crimps India’s leeway with its stringent conditions, including a six-monthly presidential certification specifying the other side’s active steps to cut its inventory of Russian military hardware.

On the Iran-related sanctions, no waiver for India is still in sight. With global shipping operators already pulling back from Iran business and oil prices rising, India’s energy-import bill is increasing. US sanctions threaten to affect even India’s Pakistan-bypassing transportation corridor to Afghanistan via Iran, including the Chabahar port project.

The Trump administration is clearly seeking to influence India’s arms-procurement and energy-import policies. This is in keeping with its increasing unilateralism, including dictating terms to allies and friends. Canada, for example, has been warned to accept US’s terms or face exclusion from the new NAFTA. Japan is buying a $2.1 billion US missile-defence system, not because it can effectively protect it from missile attacks, but because of US pressure to buy more American military hardware.

Washington is similarly pressuring New Delhi to buy more American weapons, although the US has already emerged as the largest arms seller to India. But, while the US basically sells defensive military systems, Russia has armed India with offensive weapons, including a nuclear-powered submarine and an aircraft carrier. Washington is also seeking to sell more oil and gas to India, besides pressing it to switch imports from Iran to Saudi Arabia and other US allies. However, next-door Iran, offering discounted pricing, will remain critical to India’s energy- diversification strategy.

Meanwhile, the US — after its success in getting India to accept a logistics assistance pact, which includes access to designated Indian military sites — has pushed for India to endorse the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which the Indian armed forces initially feared could compromise their network. India, instead of leveraging its ties with Washington, appears set to announce at least an in-principle agreement on a modified COMCASA during the two-plus-two meeting, if not sign it.

Why is it that, in the run-up to any important summit or high-level meeting, India agrees to make a key concession to the other side? And why is that the other side doesn’t feel similarly pressured to make a concession to India? Isn’t reciprocity the first principle of diplomacy? Before finalizing COMCASA, India should clinch some major defence deals with Russia, including for the S-400 system, so as to test the US response. Instead, it is concluding new defence deals with the US.

The US and India will remain close friends. Washington, however, must fully address Indian concerns over the extraterritorial effects of its new Iran and Russia sanctions. Make no mistake: Washington has introduced a major irritant in the bilateral relationship that the twice-postponed two-plus-two dialogue cannot purge.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Divided Asean spins its wheels as great powers become back-seat drivers

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Brahma Chellaney says recent multilateral discussions in Singapore did little to advance preventive diplomacy or conflict resolution.

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Brahma Chellaney, South China Morning Post

Despite its lack of cohesiveness and geopolitical heft, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations likes to be in the driver’s seat even on initiatives that extend beyond its region. But having placed itself at the wheel, Asean usually needs instructions from back-seat drivers on how to proceed and where to go.

One such example is the Asean Regional Forum, which provides a setting for annual ministerial discussions on peace and security issues across the Asia-Pacific. Established in 1994, it draws together 27 member-states, including key players such as the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia, Australia and the two Koreas.

The forum’s latest discussions were held this month along with three other meetings – the 18-nation East Asia Summit (whose membership extends from the US and New Zealand to India and Russia), the Asean Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) and Asean’s own annual ministerial discussions. These meetings, all at foreign minister level and held in rapid succession in Singapore, advertised the vaunted “centrality” of Asean, which represents a strategic region connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans.

But as Asean increasingly seeks to play an extra-regional role, its project to build a robust Southeast Asian community appears to have lost momentum. Indeed, its internal challenges are mounting.

The association has not been able to moderate great-power competition in its own region. Rival Chinese and US pressures on Asean have actually crimped its room to manoeuvre.

More fundamentally, the Asean-centred extra-regional initiatives, characterised by consensual decision making and minimal institutionalisation, serve mainly as “talk shops” for confidence building and improved cooperation. Like in Asean itself, the politics of lowest common denominator tends to prevail.

Consequently, these forums have not moved to preventive diplomacy or conflict resolution. They have also not been able to tangibly contribute to building a rules-based order or rein in aggressive unilateralism by their own members like China, the US and Russia.

Despite their limitations, the forums are seen by members as offering good value for promoting their foreign policy objectives and for making progress towards an Asia-Pacific security, political and economic architecture.

The latest spate of multilateral discussions in Singapore focused on issues ranging from North Korea’s denuclearisation – with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging all states to “strictly enforce all sanctions” on Pyongyang – to the impending Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, which would create the world’s largest trading bloc.

The discussions helped underscore the competing geopolitical interests at play. China, which views the US-led strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region as directed at it, mocked Pompeo’s separate announcements of US$113 million and US$300 million in funding for economic and security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, respectively.

China’s state media compared these “paltry” US commitments with Beijing’s planned investment of US$900 billion in its “Belt and Road Initiative”, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a dig at Pompeo, saying: “The US is the sole superpower in today’s world, with a GDP totalling US$16 trillion. So when I first heard this figure of US$113 million I thought I heard wrong.”

The highlight of the Singapore meetings, however, was the announcement by China and Asean that they had agreed on a draft document that will serve as a basis for further negotiations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways.

A code was mandated by the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which exhorted all parties “to exercise self-restraint” with regard to “activities that would complicate or escalate disputes”. But that appeal was essentially ignored by China, which in recent years has fundamentally changed the status quo in the South China Sea in its favour, without incurring any international costs.

Sixteen years after that declaration, just a draft to negotiate a code of conduct has been announced. By the time the actual code emerges, China would have fully consolidated its control in the South China Sea, with the code only serving to reinforce the new reality. This explains why Beijing has delayed a code of conduct while it presses ahead in the South China Sea with frenzied construction and militarisation.

Today, the South China Sea has emerged as Asean’s Achilles’ heel, with the association’s failure to take a unified stance serving to aid Beijing’s divide-and-rule strategy. China has used inducement and coercion to split Asean and try to dictate terms to it.

The rift between pro-China Asean members and the rest has now become difficult to set right. By conveying disunity and weakness, Asean has emboldened China’s territorial and maritime revisionism, which, in turn, has made the South China Sea the world’s most critical hotspot.

Against this background, the much-hyped announcement of a single draft document for future negotiations, with Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan hailing it as “yet another milestone in the code of conduct process”, was just the latest example of how Asean has been playing right into China’s hands.

In fact, that announcement came soon after the second anniversary of the landmark ruling of an international arbitral tribunal, which knocked the bottom out of China’s grandiose territorial claims in the South China Sea. Since that ruling, which is now part of international law, China has only accelerated its expansionism, as if it is working to make the verdict totally meaningless.

This is a reminder that international law by itself is no answer to China’s expansionism. There needs to be a concerted international campaign to pressure and shame China. If Southeast Asia, a region of nearly 640 million people, is coerced into accepting Chinese hegemony, it will have a cascading geopolitical impact across the Indo-Pacific.

Yet, as if to advertise Asean’s inherent weakness, a meeting of its foreign ministers held just after the international tribunal’s ruling failed to issue even an agreed statement.

Asean was established in 1967 during the height of the cold war as a five-nation political organisation to help combat the potential threat of communist insurgencies in the region. At the time, the authoritarian-leaning, pro-capitalist governments of its founding members – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – were facing internal and external threats. After the cold war ended, Asean expanded to cover much of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to its former foe Vietnam.

Since then, the triumphs of an expanded Asean have largely been in the economic area. Politically, of course, Asean has been able to build greater interstate cooperation and stability in Southeast Asia, while collectively turning its members into a force to reckon with in international relations. This is no mean achievement.

Today, however, Asean’s challenges are being compounded by the widening gap between economics and politics in Southeast Asia. The region is integrating economically, with its economic vibrancy on open display. But its political diversity and divisions have exacerbated in the absence of common political norms.

This has raised questions about Asean’s capacity to safeguard peace and security in its own region. Such concerns have been heightened by the lack of an effective response to Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, despite its transnational effects. Asean is also struggling to cope with other pressing regional problems – from human rights abuses in some member-states and transnational human trafficking to the degradation of coastal and other marine ecosystems.

In fact, Asean has left itself little room for reflection and reform by elaborately staging its summits and foreign-minister meetings in conjunction with the extra-regional initiatives that bring leaders of outside powers. This not only allows outsiders to press their own objectives but also keeps the focus on larger international issues, with Asean notionally in the driver’s seat.

As Asean seeks to enlarge its extra-regional profile, its “centrality” in broader initiatives is exacting an increasing price internally and laying bare its limitations. Its internal stasis underscores the imperative for it to reform and become a more cohesive, dynamic and result-oriented institution that helps underpin a stable rules-based order in Southeast Asia.

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

© South China Morning Post, 2018.

The Modi Phenomenon and the Remaking of India

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Brahma Chellaney, Panorama Journal, Vol. 01/2018

In the four years that he has been in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has animated domestic politics in India and the country’s foreign policy by departing often from conventional methods and shibboleths. A key question is whether the Modi era will mark a defining moment for India, just as the 1990s were for China and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return as prime minister has been for Japan. The answer to that question is still not clear. What is clear, however, is that Modi’s ascension to power has clearly changed Indian politics and diplomacy.

Even before Modi’s Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP, won the May 2014 national election, India’s fast-growing economy and rising geopolitical weight had significantly increased the country’s international profile. India was widely perceived to be a key “swing state” in the emerging geopolitical order. Since the start of this century, India’s relationship with the United States (US) has gradually but dramatically transformed. India and the US are now increasingly close partners. The US holds more military exercises with India every year than with any other country, including Britain. In the last decade, the US has also emerged as the largest seller of weapons to India, leaving the traditional supplier, Russia, far behind.

Modi’s pro-market economic policies, tax reforms, defence modernisation and foreign-policy dynamism have not only helped to further increase India’s international profile, but also augur well for the country’s economic-growth trajectory and rising strength. However, India’s troubled neighbourhood, along with its spillover effects, has posed a growing challenge for the Modi government. The combustible neighbourhood has underscored the imperative for India to evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. For example, with its vulnerability to terrorist attacks linked to its location next to the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt, India has little choice but to prepare for a long-term battle against the forces of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Similarly, India’s ability to secure its maritime backyard, including its main trade arteries in the Indian Ocean region, will be an important test of its maritime strategy and foreign policy, especially at a time when an increasingly powerful and revisionist China is encroaching in India’s maritime space.

Modi’s Impact on Domestic Politics

Modi went quickly from being a provincial leader to becoming the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. In fact, he rode to power in a landslide national-election victory that gave India the first government since the 1980s to be led by a party enjoying an absolute majority on its own in Parliament. The period since the late 1980s saw a series of successive coalition governments in New Delhi. Coalition governments became such a norm in India that the BJP’s success in securing an absolute majority in 2014 surprised even political analysts.

What factors explain the sudden rise of Modi? One factor clearly was the major corruption scandals that marred the decade-long rule of the preceding Congress Party-led coalition government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The national treasury lost tens of billions of dollars in various corruption scandals. What stood out was not just the tardy prosecution process to bring to justice those responsible for the colossal losses but also the lack of sincere efforts to recoup the losses. The pervasive misuse of public office for private gain was seen by the voters as sapping India’s strength.

Modi, as the long-serving top elected official of the western Indian state of Gujarat, had provided a relatively clean administration free of any major corruption scandal. That stood out in contrast to Singh’s graft-tainted federal government. However, Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat turned Modi into a controversial figure, with his opponents alleging that his state administration looked the other way as Hindu rioters attacked Muslims in reprisal for a Muslim mob setting a passenger train on fire. The political controversy actually prompted the US government in 2005 to revoke Modi’s visa over the unproven allegations that he connived in the Hindu-Muslim riots. Even after India’s Supreme Court found no evidence to link Modi to the violence, the US continued to ostracise him, reaching out to him only on the eve of the 2014 national election when he appeared set to become the next prime minister.

Modi’s political career at the provincial level was actually built on his success in coordinating relief work in his home state of Gujarat in response to a major 2001 earthquake there. Months after his relief work, Modi became the state’s chief minister, or the top elected official.

His party, the BJP, has tacitly espoused the cause of the country’s Hindu majority for long while claiming to represent all religious communities. The BJP sees itself as being no different than the Christian parties that emerged in Western Europe in the post-World War II era. The Christian parties in Western Europe, such as Germany’s long-dominant Christian Democratic Union (CDU), played a key role in Western Europe’s post-war recovery and economic and political integration.[1] Modi himself has subtly played the Hindu card to advance his political ambitions at the national level.

One can also draw a parallel between the prolonged period of political drift and paralysis in India that led to the national rise of Modi in 2014 and Japan’s six years of political instability that paved the way for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return to power in 2012. Just as Abe’s return to power reflected Japan’s determination to reinvent itself as a more competitive and confident country, Modi’s election victory reflected the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leader to help revitalise their country’s economy and security.

In fact, both Modi and Abe have focused on reviving their country’s economic fortunes, while simultaneously bolstering its defences and strengthening its strategic partnerships with likeminded states in order to promote regional stability and block the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia. Modi’s policies mirror Abe’s soft nationalism, market-oriented economics, and new “Asianism”, including seeking closer ties with Asian democracies to create a web of interlocking strategic partnerships. Until Modi became the first prime minister born after India gained independence in 1947, the wide gap between the average age of Indian political leaders and Indian citizens was conspicuous. That constitutes another parallel with Abe, who is Japan’s first prime minister born after World War II.

To be sure, there is an important difference in terms of the two leaders’ upbringing. Modi rose from humble beginnings to lead the world’s most-populous democracy.[2] Abe, on the other hand, boasts a distinguished political lineage as the grandson and grandnephew of two former Japanese prime ministers and the son of a former foreign minister. In fact, Modi rode to victory by crushing Rahul Gandhi’s dynastic aspirations.

Since he became prime minister, Modi has led the BJP to a string of victories in elections in a number of states, making the party the largest political force in the country without doubt. Under his leadership, the traditionally urban-focused BJP has significantly expanded its base in rural areas and among the socially disadvantaged classes. His skills as a political tactician steeped in cold-eyed pragmatism have held him in good stead. Modi, however, has become increasingly polarising. Indian democracy today is probably as divided and polarised as US democracy.

Politically, Modi has blended strong leadership, soft nationalism, and an appeal to the Hindu majority into an election-winning strategy. Playing the Hindu card, for example, helped the BJP to sweep the northern Hindi-speaking heartland in the 2014 national election and ride to victory in the subsequent state election in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest state. But use of that card, not surprisingly, has fostered greater divisiveness. Despite playing that card, the BJP, however, has done little for the Hindu majority specifically, thus reinforcing criticism that it cleverly uses the card to achieve electoral gains.

The BJP’s electoral successes, meanwhile, have prompted the opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, to take a leaf out of Modi’s playbook by seeking to similarly boost his popularity among the Hindu majority. While campaigning in the December 2017 Gujarat state election, for example, Rahul Gandhi visited many Hindu temples. This new strategy resulted in his Congress Party, which has traditionally banked on the Muslim vote, significantly improving its strength in the Gujarat state legislature, although the BJP managed to hold on to power in a close election contest.

More fundamentally, Modi’s political rise had much to do with the Indian electorate’s yearning for an era of decisive government. Before becoming prime minister, Modi – a darling of business leaders at home and abroad – promised to restore rapid economic growth, saying there should be “no red tape, only red carpet” for investors.[3] He also pledged a qualitative change in governance and assured that the corrupt would face the full force of law. But, in office, has Modi really lived up to his promises?

Although he came to office with a popular mandate to usher in major changes, his record in power has been restorative rather than transformative. The transformative moment usually comes once in a generation. Modi failed to seize that moment. He seems to believe in incrementalism, not transformative change. His sheen has clearly dulled, yet his mass appeal remains unmatched in the country.

New Dynamism but also New Challenges in Foreign Policy

India faces major foreign-policy challenges, which by and large predate Modi’s ascension to power. India is home to more than one-sixth of the world’s population, yet it punches far below its weight. A year before Modi assumed office, an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, titled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how the country is resisting its own rise, as if the political miasma in New Delhi had turned the country into its own worst enemy.[4]

When Modi became prime minister, many Indians hoped that he would give a new direction to foreign relations at a time when the gap between India and China in terms of international power and stature was growing significantly. In fact, India’s influence in its own strategic backyard – including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives – has shrunk. Indeed, Bhutan remains India’s sole pocket of strategic clout in South Asia.

India also confronts the strengthening nexus between its two nuclear-armed regional adversaries, China and Pakistan, both of which have staked claims to substantial swaths of Indian territory and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction. In dealing with these countries, Modi has faced the same dilemma that has haunted previous Indian governments: the Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministries are weak actors. The Communist Party and the military shape Chinese foreign policy, while Pakistan is effectively controlled by its army and intelligence services, which still use terror groups as proxies. Under Modi, India has faced several daring terrorist attacks staged from Pakistan, including on Indian military facilities.

One Modi priority after assuming office was restoring momentum to the relationship with the United States, which, to some extent, had been damaged by grating diplomatic tensions and trade disputes while his predecessor was in office. While Modi has been unable to contain cross-border terrorist attacks from Pakistan or stem Chinese military incursions across the disputed Himalayan frontier, he has managed to lift the bilateral relationship with the US to a new level of engagement. He has enjoyed a good personal relationship with US President Donald Trump, like he had with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Modi considers close ties with the US as essential to the advancement of India’s economic and security interests. The US, for its part, sees India as central to its Indo-Pacific strategy. As the White House’s national security strategy report in December 2017 put it, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region. ­The region, which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, represents the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world […] We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner.”[5]

More broadly, Modi’s various steps and policy moves have helped highlight the trademarks of his foreign policy – from pragmatism and lucidity to zeal and showmanship. They have also exemplified his penchant for springing diplomatic surprises. One example was his announcement during a China visit to grant Chinese tourists e-visas on arrival, an announcement that caught by surprise even his foreign secretary, who had just said at a media briefing that there was “no decision” on the issue. Another example was in Paris, where Modi announced a surprise decision to buy 36 French Rafale fighter-jets.

Modi is a realist who loves to play on the grand chessboard of geopolitics. He is seeking to steer foreign policy in a direction that helps to significantly aid his strategy to revitalise the country’s economic and military security. At least five things stand out about his foreign policy.

First, Modi has invested considerable political capital – and time – in high-powered diplomacy. No other prime minister since the country’s independence participated in so many bilateral and multilateral summit meetings in his first years in office. Critics contend that Modi’s busy foreign policy schedule leaves him restricted time to focus on his most-critical responsibility – domestic issues, which will define his legacy.

Second, pragmatism is the hallmark of the Modi foreign policy. Nothing better illustrates this than the priority he accorded, soon after coming to office, to adding momentum to the relationship with America, despite the US having heaped visa-denial humiliation on him over nine years. In his first year in office, he also went out of his way to befriend India’s strategic rival, China, negating the early assumptions that he would be less accommodating toward Beijing than his predecessor. With China increasingly assertive and unaccommodating, Modi’s gamble failed to pay off. Yet, in April 2018, Modi made a fresh effort to “reset” relations with China and held an informal summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Third, Modi has sought to shape a non-doctrinaire foreign-policy approach powered by ideas. He has taken some of his domestic policy ideas (such as “Make in India” and “Digital India”) to foreign policy, as if to underscore that his priority is to revitalise India economically. By simultaneously courting different major powers, Modi has also sought to demonstrate his ability to forge partnerships with rival powers and broker cooperative international approaches in a rapidly changing world.

In fact, Modi’s foreign policy is implicitly attempting to move India from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalised practicality. In essence, this means that India – a founding leader of the nonaligned movement – could become more multi-aligned and less nonaligned. Building close partnerships with major powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings will not only enable India to advance its core priorities but also will help it to preserve strategic autonomy, in keeping with the country’s longstanding preference for policy independence.

Nonalignment suggests a passive approach, including staying on the sidelines. Being multi-aligned, on the other hand, permits a proactive approach. Being pragmatically multi-aligned seems a better option for India than remaining passively non-aligned. A multi-aligned India is already tilting more toward the major democracies of the world, as the resurrected Australia-India-Japan-US quadrilateral (or “quad”) grouping underscores. Still, India’s insistence on charting an independent course is reflected in its refusal to join American-led financial sanctions against Russia.

Meanwhile, a Modi-led India has not shied away from building strategic partnerships with countries around China’s periphery to counter that country’s creeping strategic encirclement of India. New Delhi’s resolve was apparent when Modi tacitly criticised China’s military buildup and encroachments in the South China Sea as evidence of an “18th-century expansionist mindset.” India’s “Look East” policy, for its part, has graduated to an “Act East” policy, with the original economic logic of “Look East” giving way to a geopolitical logic. The thrust of the new “Act East” policy – unveiled with US blessings – is to re-establish historically close ties with countries to India’s east so as to contribute to building a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. As Modi said in an op-ed published in 27 ASEAN newspapers on 26 January 2018 (the day, in a remarkable diplomatic feat, India hosted the leaders of all 10 ASEAN states as chief guests at its Republic Day parade), “Indians have always looked East to see the nurturing sunrise and the light of opportunities. Now, as before, the East, or the Indo-Pacific region, will be indispensable to India’s future and our common destiny.”[6]

Fourth, Modi has a penchant for diplomatic showmanship, reflected not only in the surprises he has sprung but also in the kinds of big-ticket speeches he has given abroad, often to chants of “Modi, Modi” from the audience. Like a rock star, he unleashed Modi-mania among Indian-diaspora audiences by taking the stage at New York’s storied Madison Square Garden, at Sydney’s sprawling Allphones Arena, and at Ricoh Coliseum, a hockey arena in downtown Toronto. When permission was sought for a similar speech event in Shanghai during Modi’s 2015 China visit, an apprehensive Chinese government, which bars any public rally, relented only on the condition that the event would be staged in an indoor stadium.

To help propel Indian foreign policy, Modi has also injected a personal touch. Indeed, Modi has used his personal touch with great effect, addressing leaders ranging from Obama to Abe by their first name and building an easy relationship with multiple world leaders. In keeping with his personalised stamp on diplomacy, Modi has relied on bilateral summits to open new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. At the same time, underscoring his nimble approach to diplomacy, he has shown he can think on his feet. The speed with which he rushed aid and rescue teams to an earthquake-battered Nepal, as well as dispatched Indian forces to evacuate Indian and foreign nationals from Nepal and conflict-torn Yemen, helped to raise India’s international profile, highlighting its capacity to respond swiftly to natural and human-induced disasters.

Fifth, it is scarcely a surprise that, given this background, Modi has put his own stamp on Indian foreign policy. The paradox is that Modi came to office with little foreign policy experience, yet he has demonstrated impressive diplomatic acumen, including taking bold steps and charting a vision for building a greater international role for India.

The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright famously said, “The purpose of foreign policy is to persuade other countries to do what we want or, better yet, to want what we want.”[7] How has Modi’s foreign policy done when measured against such a standard of success? One must concede that, in terms of concrete results, Modi’s record thus far isn’t all that impressive. His supporters, however, would say that dividends from a new direction in foreign policy flow slowly and that he has been in office for just four years.

To be sure, a long period of strategic drift under coalition governments undermined India’s strength in its own backyard. Modi, however, has not yet been able to recoup the country’s losses in its neighbourhood. The erosion of India’s influence in its backyard holds far-reaching implications for its security, underscoring the imperative for a more dynamic, forward-looking foreign policy and a greater focus on its immediate neighbourhood. China’s strategic clout, for example, is increasingly on display even in countries symbiotically tied to India, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. If China established a Djibouti-type naval base in the Maldives or Pakistan, it would effectively open an Indian Ocean front against India in the same quiet way that it opened the trans-Himalayan threat under Mao Zedong by gobbling up Tibet, the historical buffer. China has already leased several tiny islands in the Maldives and is reportedly working on a naval base adjacent to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port.

To be sure, Modi has injected dynamism and motivation in diplomacy.[8] But he has also highlighted what has long blighted the country’s foreign policy – ad hoc and personality-driven actions that confound tactics with strategy. Institutionalised and integrated policymaking is essential for a robust diplomacy that takes a long view. Without healthy institutionalised processes, policy will tend to be ad hoc and shifting, with personalities at the helm having an excessive role in shaping thinking, priorities and objectives. If foreign policy is shaped by the whims and fancies of personalities who hold the reins of power, there will be a propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure, as has happened in India repeatedly since the time of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was in office for 17 years.

Today, India confronts a “tyranny of geography” – that is, serious external threats from virtually all directions. To some extent, it is a self-inflicted tyranny. India’s concerns over China, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives stem from the failures of its past policies. An increasingly unstable neighbourhood also makes it more difficult to promote regional cooperation and integration. With its tyranny of geography putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India needs to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy. The erosion of its influence in its own backyard should serve as a wake-up call. Only through forward thinking can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation and play a larger global role. Otherwise, it will continue to be weighed down by its region.

While India undoubtedly is injecting greater realism in its foreign policy, it remains intrinsically cautious and reactive, rather than forward-looking and proactive. India has not fully abandoned its quixotic traditions. India’s tradition of realist strategic thought is probably the oldest in the world.[9] The realist doctrine was propounded by the strategist Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, who wrote the Arthashastra before Christ; this ancient manual on great-power diplomacy and international statecraft remains a must-read classic. Yet India, ironically, appears to have forgotten its own realist strategic thought.

Concluding Observations

India is more culturally diverse than the entire European Union – but with twice as many people. It is remarkable that India’s democracy has thrived despite such diversity. Yet, like the US, India has become politically polarised. And like Trump, Modi draws strong reactions – in support of him or against him. When Modi won the 2014 national election, critics said they feared his strongman tendencies – a fear they still profess. But in office, Modi has been anything but strong or aggressive in his policies. For example, his foreign policy and his domestic policies, especially economic policy, have been cautious and tactful. However, the “strongman” tag that critics have given Modi helps to obscure his failure to improve governance in India. On his watch, for example, India’s trade deficit with China has doubled to almost $5 billion a month.

Prudent gradualism, however, remains the hallmark of Modi’s approach in diplomacy and domestic policy. For example, to underpin India’s position as the world’s fastest-growing developing economy, Modi has preferred slow but steady progress on reforms, an approach that Arvind Subramanian, the government’s chief economic adviser, dubbed “creative incrementalism.” Many in India, of course, would prefer a bolder approach. But as a raucous democracy, India has to pay a “democracy tax” in the form of slower decision-making and pandering to powerful electoral constituencies. For example, under Modi, India’s bill for state subsidies has risen sharply.

A dynamic foreign policy can be built only on the foundation of a strong domestic policy, a realm where Modi must overcome political obstacles to shape a transformative legacy. If India is to emerge as a global economic powerhouse, Modi must make economic growth his first priority. Another imperative is for India to reduce its spiralling arms imports by developing an indigenous defence industry. However, Modi’s “Make in India” initiative has yet to take off, with manufacturing’s share of India’s GDP actually contracting.

As a shrewd politician, Modi has shown an ability to deftly recover from a setback. For example, he came under withering criticism when, while meeting Obama in early 2015 in New Delhi, he wore a navy suit with his name monogrammed in golden stripes all over it. Critics accused him of being narcissistic, while one politician went to the extent of calling him a “megalomaniac.” But by auctioning off the suit, Modi quickly cauterised a political liability. The designer suit was auctioned for charity, fetching INR 43.1 million ($693,234).

To many, Modi seems politically invincible at home, floating above the laws of political gravity. But, as happens in any democracy, any leader’s time eventually runs out. Modi suddenly appeared vulnerable in last December’s state elections in his native state of Gujarat but his party managed to retain power, although with a reduced majority. Until his political stock starts to irreversibly diminish, Modi will continue to dominate the Indian political scene, playing an outsize role. At present, though, there is no apparent successor to Modi.

 

Professor Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. As a specialist on international strategic issues, he held appointments at Harvard University, the Brookings Institution, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and the Australian National University. He is the author of nine books, including an international bestseller, Asian Juggernaut (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2010). His last book was Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

[1] John Murray, “Christian Parties in Western Europe,” Studies, Vol. 50, No. 198 (Summer 1961).

[2] Andy Marino, Narendra Modi: A political Biography (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2014).

[3] Economic Times, “Red carpet, not red tape for investors is the way out of economic crisis,” Interview with Narendra Modi, June 7, 2012.

[4] Manjari Chatterjee Miller, “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy: A Would-Be Great Power Resists Its Own Rise,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2013).

[5] White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: December 2017), available at: https://goo.gl/CWQf1t.

[6] Narendra Modi, “Shared values, common destiny,” The Straits Times, January 26, 2018, available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/shared-values-common-destiny.

[7] Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007).

[8] Alyssa Ayres, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[9] Aparna Pande, From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2017).

Japan’s Pivotal Role in the Emerging Indo-Pacific Order

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Brahma Chellaney, Asia-Pacific Review, Volume 25, 2018 – Issue 1

ABSTRACT

The imperative in the Indo-Pacific region is to build a new strategic equilibrium pivoted on a stable balance of power. A constellation of likeminded states linked by interlocking strategic cooperation has become critical to help build such equilibrium. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the author of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that the US is now pushing. But Japan faces important strategic challenges. To secure itself against dangers that did not exist when its current national-security policies and laws were framed, Japan must bolster its security or risk coming under siege. US security interests will be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. The US must encourage Japan, which has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II, to undertake greater national-security reforms. Peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan.

 

We live in a rapidly changing world. The past three decades have brought truly revolutionary change. The world has changed fundamentally in a geopolitical sense since the fall of the Berlin Wall. We have seen the most profound geopolitical change in the most compressed timeframe in history. And thanks to the even more rapid pace of technological change, technological forces are now playing a greater role in shaping geopolitics than at any other time in history. Economically, the pace of change has been no less dramatic, leading to global interdependence and lower trade barriers and accelerated growth.

Yet, when we look back over this period of three decades, no analyst foresaw such change coming. For example, no one predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union or the rapid rise of Asia. The Soviet Union collapsed almost like a deck of cards, fundamentally changing global geopolitics. In the economic realm, no analyst foresaw the two processes that have shaped globalization: the denationalization of production and the denationalization of consumption. The denationalization of production has resulted in the stages of production becoming geographically separated, leading to value chains being formed internationally. And the denationalization of consumption has allowed consumers to buy goods and services from places where they are produced more efficiently.

It is safe to say that the next three decades will likely bring changes no less dramatic than what the last three decades witnessed. But no analyst will be able to accurately predict what the next three decades will bring. What we do know is that the Asia-Pacific region holds the key to global security.1 The region is home not only to the world’s fastest-growing economies, but also to the fastest-increasing military expenditures and naval capabilities, the fiercest competition over natural resources, and the most dangerous strategic hot spots.

The increasing use of the term “Indo-Pacific”—which refers to all countries bordering the Indian and Pacific oceans—rather than “Asia-Pacific,” underscores the maritime dimension of today’s tensions. Asia’s oceans have increasingly become an arena of competition for resources and influence. It now seems likely that future regional crises will be triggered and/or settled at sea.

The main driver of this shift has been China. If there is one action by any power that holds the greatest strategic ramifications for global security and the international maritime order, it is China’s alteration of the status quo in the South China Sea in disregard of international norms. Operating in the threshold between peace and war, China, by creating artificial islands in the South China Sea, has pushed its borders far out into international waters in a way no other power has done elsewhere.

Having militarized these outposts and presented this development as a fait accompli to the rest of the world, it is now shifting its focus to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Already, China has established its first overseas military base in Djibouti, located at the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean region. Moreover, China is planning to open a new naval base next to Pakistan’s Chinese-controlled Gwadar port. And it has leased several islands in the crisis-ridden Maldives, where it is set to build a marine observatory that will provide subsurface data supporting the deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and nuclear-powered ballistic missile subs (SSBNs) in the Indian Ocean. In short, China has fundamentally transformed the strategic landscape in the Indo-Pacific, raising new challenges for regional countries like Japan, India, Vietnam, and Australia.

A constellation of likeminded states linked by interlocking strategic cooperation has become critical to help institute power stability. The imperative is to build a new strategic equilibrium, including a stable balance of power. If likeminded states do not step in to counter further challenges to the territorial and maritime status quo, the next five years could firmly entrench China’s strategic advantages. The result could be the ascendancy of a China-led illiberal hegemonic regional order, at the expense of the liberal rules-based order that most countries in the Indo-Pacific support. Given the region’s economic weight, this would create significant risks for global markets and international security.

Japan’s security dilemma

In modern history, Japan, the “Land of the Rising Sun,” has often inspired other Asian states. This is because Japan has had the distinction of mostly staying ahead of the rest of Asia. During the 1868-1912 Meiji era, Japan became Asia’s first modern economic success story. It then went on to become the first Asian country to emerge as a global military power when, between 1895 and 1905, it defeated Manchu-ruled China and Tsarist Russia in separate wars. With much of Asia colonized by Europeans, Russia’s military rout at the hands of the Japanese came as a shot in the arm to Asian independence movements. After Japan’s crushing defeat in World War II, Japan rose from the ashes rapidly to emerge as Asia’s first global economic powerhouse by the 1980s, an industrial dynamo of a kind Asia had never seen.

Specializing in the highest-value links of the global supply chains, Japan today ranks among the world’s richest countries. With its Gini coefficient of 0.25, it boasts the lowest income inequality in Asia, even though income inequality is now rising in this country. Japan’s per capita GDP of about $39,000 means that its citizens are almost five times wealthier than Chinese.

To be sure, Japan’s geopolitical clout has taken a beating due to a quarter-century of sluggish economic growth, a period in which China and the rest of Asia have risen dramatically. But despite the international media depicting Japan’s decline in almost gloomy terms, the truth is that real per-capita income has increased faster in this century in Japan than in the US and Britain, while Japan’s unemployment rate has long remained one of the lowest among the OECD economies. Japan enjoys the highest life expectancy of any large country in the world.

Japan’s trailblazing role in modern history raises the question as to whether its current challenges, including population aging and sluggish economic growth, presage a similar trend across East Asia. Similar problems are now beginning to trouble South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, while China has been driven to loosen its one-child policy and unveil measures to reverse slowing economic growth.

More fundamentally, Japan—Asia’s oldest liberal democracy—faces pressing security challenges today, at a time of shifting power dynamics in Asia. Japan is an archipelago of almost 7,000 islands, with a population of about 127 million. In terms of land area, Japan is ranked 60th in the world. But Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone of about 4.5 million square kilometers is the sixth largest in the world; it is larger than China’s. Of the 400 remote islands that serve as markers for determining Japan’s territorial waters, only about 50 are inhabited. No group of islands, of course, poses a bigger challenge for its security than the Senkakus, a clutch of five uninhabited islets and three rocks.

Japan’s challenge is compounded by demographic and military trends. Japan has barely one-tenth the population of China’s. Moreover, its population is not just aging but also shrinking significantly; it declined by nearly a million just between 2010 and 2015. About a decade ago, Japan’s defense budget was larger than China’s. But now China’s military spending surpasses the combined defense expenditures of Japan, Russia, Britain, and France.2 As the power balance in Asia shifts, Japan’s security concerns are accentuating.

Japan’s national-security reforms in recent years are part of its effort to reinvent itself as a more secure and competitive nation. The international spotlight on its prolonged economic woes has helped obscure one of the farthest-reaching but least-noticed developments in Asia in this century—Japan’s quiet political resurgence. Japan has historically punched above its weight—a record punctured only by its crushing World War II defeat. Today, despite achieving a high standard of living, Japan is an increasingly insecure nation. Content for decades to let the United States take care of its security, Japan confronts fast-changing security and power dynamics in Asia, with the rise of a muscular, revisionist China shaking it out of its complacency. It is determined not to accept Chinese regional hegemony.

Still, Japan faces a stark choice: bolster its security or come under siege. It must secure itself against dangers that did not exist when its current national-security policies and laws were framed. This grating reality has prompted Japan to establish the National Security Council and take some long-overdue steps, including easing its longstanding, self-imposed ban on export of arms and asserting the right to exercise “collective self-defense.” The reforms in security policy allow the Japanese military to pursue broader peacekeeping and other combat missions overseas in sync with national interest. More importantly, by removing legal ambiguities on the role Japan can play internationally, the reforms facilitate greater Japanese engagement in multilateral and bilateral arrangements. Earlier, large parts of Japan’s overseas security engagements were open to challenge on constitutionality grounds. By removing ambiguities, the security-policy reforms open the path for Japan to play a more active role multilaterally and bilaterally with friendly countries. For example, the reforms will help facilitate building security collaboration with other countries in ways that reinforce Japan’s own security and shore up an Asian order that is under challenge from Chinese revisionism.

To be clear, the policy moves—designed to “normalize” Japan’s security posture—have thus far been limited in scope and do not open the path to the country becoming a militaristic power. Restrictions on deployment of offensive weapons, for example, remain in place. Yet the moves have proved divisive at home, owing to pacifism remaining deeply embedded in Japanese society, in part because of the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism. The core issue at stake, however, is not whether Japan should remain pacifist (the US-imposed Constitution has made Japan the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation) but whether it should stay passive in regional and international affairs. Enduring peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan. If the Japanese government is to play a proactive role, it must win over a divided public at home. This is borne out by a Pew Research Center survey: 47% of Americans want Japan to play a more active role in regional security; by contrast, only 23% of Japanese want their country to play a more active role.3

If Japan fails to push further reforms of its postwar institutions and policies to meet the new challenges, it could erode its security. A Japan that is better able to defend itself and to partner with friendly Indo-Pacific countries would be able to forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia. Even US security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. After all, Japan’s policy of pacifism under the US military umbrella seems no longer adequate to shield Japanese interests—or even American interests.

A still-pacifist but proactive Japan would be able to take its rightful place in the world. But to underpin a “proactive contribution to peace”—a term popularized by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe— does Japan need to become a militarily independent power like two of America’s closest allies, Britain or France? Britain and France have built formidable military-deterrent capabilities, rather than entrust their security to the US. Legally, Japan does not have the choice to pursue the nuclear-weapons option. But, even without its abandoning the security treaty with the US, it can build robust conventional-force capabilities, including information-warfare systems, given that the cyber-realm would play an increasingly important role in conflict.

Japan’s domestic constraints

Domestic constraints accentuate Japan’s security dilemma. One example is the difficulty in reforming the Japanese Constitution, which was imposed by the occupying American forces in 1947 after disbanding the Japanese military.4  Being the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation was something the post-war Japan became proud of. Yet the fact is that no other country in the world is bound by the kind of constitutional restrictions that were imposed on vanquished Japan by an occupying power.

The Constitution prohibits Japan from acquiring the means of war and bars its purely defensive military, called the Self-Defense Forces, from staging rescue missions or other overseas operations even to free Japanese hostages. Indeed, to set up wholly defensive armed forces in the 1950s, Japan had to loosely interpret the Constitution’s force-renouncing Article 9, which says “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.” This major reinterpretation was done, paradoxically, at the behest of the US, which, after disbanding the Japanese military, realized the value of building Japan as its loyal vassal on the frontlines of the Cold War.

Yet Japan has clung to that Constitution all these years without so much as carrying out a single amendment or changing even one word. Many other democracies regard their constitutions not as cast in stone but as open to change so that they stay abreast with new social, technological, and economic developments. For example, India—whose Constitution is almost as old as Japan’s—has incorporated 100 amendments thus far. There have been fewer amendments—27—to the U.S. Constitution since its enactment in 1787. No constitution can be perfect. A constitution, like the democratic system it embodies, should be open to improvements.

In this light, Prime Minister Abe has made an impassioned appeal for constitutional reform, suggesting that the time may have come to emulate the same kind of far-reaching change that allowed Japan to rise from the ashes of its World War II defeat. Addressing the Diet, he once asked: “For the future of Japan, shouldn’t we accomplish in this Diet the biggest reform since the end of the war?” Abe’s contention that the Constitution no longer reflects the realities now facing Japan and thus needs to be updated is strengthened by another fact: Germany, also defeated in World War II, has over the years made 59 amendments to its Basic Law, or Constitution, which it adopted when it was under Allied occupation.5

Japan and Germany regained sovereignty from post-World War II military occupation only after embracing constitutional guarantees against any future threats from them to peace. However, West Germany’s new Constitution, while outlawing a war of aggression, authorized military force in self-defense or as part of a collective security agreement. By contrast, Japan’s Article 9 went further, stating that “the Japanese people forever renounce … the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” By forcing Japan to renounce war as “a sovereign right of the nation,” the Constitution imposed stringent restraints.

One key reason the German Constitution did not contain some of the harsh provisions of the US-imposed Japanese Constitution is that, by the time the German Constitution was drafted in 1949, the Cold War was in full swing, with the US-British-French focus shifting to containing communism. Japan’s constitution was imposed two years earlier. The start of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, coupled with the Communist takeover of China and China’s entry into the Korean War, changed American thinking on the pacifist constitution the US had imposed on Japan. In 1953, while visiting Japan as President Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon called the US-imposed constitution “a mistake.”

Today, from a legal standpoint, national-security reforms in Japan are linked with constitutional reform. For example, the Japanese armed forces are still called the “Self-Defense Forces.” In the more recent Japanese debate on Japan asserting the right to exercise “collective self-defense,” the focus was on the constitutionality of the move, not on substance or the strategic imperative. In fact, when Abe’s government in July 2014 reinterpreted the Constitution to assert the right to exercise collective self-defense, thus allowing Japan’s military to defend the US and other foreign armed forces even when Japan isn’t under direct attack, critics denounced the reinterpretation as undermining the Constitution. Abe was accused of changing a core element of the Constitution through reinterpretation rather than legislative amendment process. The fact is this reinterpretation was small compared with what the Americans did just years after imposing a Constitution on Japan. Through a major reinterpretation of the Constitution it imposed, the US, following the start of the Cold War, encouraged Japan to rebuild its military as the “Self-Defense Forces” so as to make the country the lynchpin of America’s Asia strategy.

The constitutional-reform push in Japan today faces major domestic obstacles. For one, the Constitution places a high bar to the enactment of any amendment, making it among the hardest in the world to revise. Any amendment must win support of two-thirds majorities in both chambers of Diet and be ratified by more than half of voters in a public referendum. For another, the majority of citizens, including most of the young, today remain comfortable with the present Constitution. After all, pacifism remains deeply ingrained in Japanese society. Indeed, a global poll by the World Values Survey revealed that Japanese rank the lowest in their “willingness to fight for the country,” with only 15.3% of Japanese—compared with 74.2% of Chinese and 57.7% of Americans—expressing readiness to defend their nation.6 Underscoring the youth’s revulsion to war, just 9.5% of Japanese under 30 said they would be willing to fight. In an extension of this attitude, many Japanese regard the Constitution as sacrosanct.

Against this background, if there is one factor that can make a meaningful difference to constitutional reform in Japan, it is American support. US support for such reform will assuage many Japanese that amending the Constitution will not mean repudiating the postwar order that America established in Japan or abandoning Japan’s pacifist policy. The alliance with Japan is central to America’s military role in Asia, including forward US military presence. Japan, for its part, remains a model ally that hosts a large US troop presence, even paying for the upkeep of American forces on its soil—a generous contribution that surpasses the combined host-nation support of America’s 26 other allies, according to a Pentagon report.

US security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and for regional security. Japan’s national-security and constitutional reforms, in fact, would put its alliance with the US on a sounder footing. If Japan is to take its rightful place in the world, it will have to adapt its post-war institutions and policies to meet the new challenges that confront it. Under Prime Minister Abe’s government, Japan has taken some long-overdue steps to strengthen national security. However, a lot more needs to be done to make Japan more secure, competitive, and internationally engaged.

Japan has an enviable record: It has not fired a single shot against an outside party since World War II. And as a major donor of economic and humanitarian aid, Japan for many decades has been a vital contributor to regional and international peace and security. The US thus must encourage Japan to undertake greater national-security reforms.

China will clearly prefer a Japan that remains dependent on America for its security than a Japan that plays a more independent role. The fact, however, is that the post-1945 system erected by the US is more suited to keep Japan as an American protectorate than to allow Japan to effectively aid the central US objective in the Asia-Pacific—a stable balance of power. A subtle US policy shift that encourages Tokyo to cut its dependence on America and do more for its own security can assist Japan in building a more secure future for itself that helps block the rise of a Sino-centric Asia.

The Senkaku challenge

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared much of the East China Sea, including the Senkakus, to be a Chinese air defense zone. Since then, China has stepped up its challenge to Japan’s control over those islands, including through repeated intrusions by its military aircraft and warships. Beijing has hardened its stance by elevating its claim to the Senkakus to a “core interest,” while some in China have gone to the ominous extent of questioning Japan’s sovereignty even over Okinawa.

Against this background, many Japanese have wondered whether the United States would come to Japan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack on the Senkakus. The 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty states that an armed attack on either country, including the territories under Japan’s administration, would prompt joint action “to meet the common danger.” However, contradictory rhetoric by then US President Barack Obama instilled a sense of skepticism in Japan. Obama publicly affirmed that the US-Japan security treaty covered the Senkakus. But in the same breath he refused to take a position on the islands’ sovereignty and advised Tokyo and Beijing to sort out their dispute peacefully. Obama said the US security treaty with Japan covered the Senkaku Islands because they “are under Japanese jurisdiction,” yet “we also stress that we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.”

At his April 2014 joint news conference with Abe in Tokyo, Obama, while unveiling his position on the Senkakus, urged Japan to refrain from “provocative actions” and emphasized that his administration was committed to encouraging China’s “peaceful rise.” He stated: “We don’t take a position on final sovereignty determinations with respect to Senkakus, but historically they have been administered by Japan and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally … In our discussions, I emphasized with Prime Minister Abe the importance of resolving this issue peacefully—not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions, and trying to determine how both Japan and China can work cooperatively together. And I want to make that larger point. We have strong relations with China. They are a critical country not just to the region but to the world. Obviously, with a huge population, a growing economy, we want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China.”

How could such doublespeak reassure Japan? In fact, such statements sowed doubt over America’s willingness to go to war with China to back Japan’s territorial rights, in the event of a surprise Chinese invasion of the Senkakus. The Obama administration responded to such doubt by simply saying that “we do not envision that this current tension will rise to that level in any foreseeable scenario.” Add to the picture Obama’s conspicuous inaction and silence on China’s 2012 seizure of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, despite America’s longstanding mutual defense treaty with Manila. That development served as a wakeup call for Japan and other US allies and partners in Asia.

By contrast, the US administration led by President Donald Trump has taken a more clear-cut stance in reassuring Japan that the US would defend it in a confrontation with China over the Senkakus. It has done so without the Obama-style caveat—that Washington does not take sides in the sovereignty dispute and that it calls on China and Japan to resolve their dispute peacefully through dialogue.

In fact, the 2017 Trump-Abe summit at Mar-a-Lago marked the first time that the US commitment to defend Japan’s control over the Senkakus was recorded in a joint statement. The February 12, 2017, Trump-Abe joint statement came out strongly for Senkakus’ defense: “The two leaders affirmed that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands. They oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands … The United States and Japan oppose any attempt to assert maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force.” This unambiguous commitment was an important success of Abe’s proactive diplomacy in seeking to build a personal connection with the new US president. Abe was the first foreign leader Trump hosted at Mar-a-Lago, which he calls “The Southern White House.” Earlier, just after Trump’s unexpected election victory, Abe met face-to-face with him by making a special stop in New York en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.

Let us be clear: The Senkaku issue is not just about a seven-square-kilometer real estate or the potential oil and gas reserves that lie around it. The strategically located Senkakus, despite their small size, are critical to maritime security and the larger contest for influence in the East China Sea and the larger Indo-Pacific region.

China is seeking to wage a campaign of attrition against Japan over the Senkakus by gradually increasing the frequency and duration of its intrusions into Japan’s airspace and territorial waters. In doing so, it has made the rest of the world recognize the existence of a dispute and the risks of armed conflict.

To be sure, a focus on changing the territorial status quo is nothing new for Beijing. The People’s Republic of China has been changing the territorial status quo ever since it was founded in 1949. The early forcible absorption of the sprawling Xinjiang and Tibetan Plateau more than doubled China’s landmass. In the 21st century, Chinese expansionism has increasingly relied upon “salami tactics”—a steady progression of small, furtive actions, none of which serves as a casus belli by itself, yet which help to incrementally change facts on the ground in China’s favor. In this manner, China has stealthily occupied much of the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam, which Bhutan—one of the world’s smallest countries—regards as its integral part. Similarly, China has progressively changed the status quo in the South China Sea in its favor.7

But unlike China’s success in expanding its frontiers in the South China Sea, it has found the going tough in the East China Sea. Indeed, Beijing’s actions have shaken Japan out of its complacency and diffidence and set in motion the strengthening of Japan’s defense capabilities, including arming its far-flung island chain in the East China Sea with a string of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missile batteries. Abe has pledged that Japan will play a “greater role” in East Asian security. It is as if he is responding to Trump’s presidential campaign rhetoric that Japan, which hosts about 54,000 American troops, should do more to defend itself.

One effective way the Trump administration can encourage Japan to do more for its own defense is by lending full support to the Abe-initiated national security and constitutional reform process. Such reforms could help forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia. Japan is already working to constrain China with its own version of Beijing’s “anti-access, area denial” doctrine against the United States. Japan has long been used to practicing passive, checkbook diplomacy. But now it appears intent on influencing Asia’s power balance.

The changing power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific

How rapidly the security situation is changing in the Indo-Pacific region can be gauged from the fact that it was just five years ago that China began building artificial islands in the South China Sea. It has since militarized the newly reclaimed outposts without incurring any significant international costs. The developments in the South China Sea carry far-reaching strategic implications for the Indo-Pacific and for the international maritime order. They also highlight that the biggest threat to maritime peace and security comes from unilateralism, especially altering the territorial or maritime status quo by violating international norms and rules.

When the US aircraft carrier, Carl Vinson, made a port call at Da Nang, Vietnam, earlier this year, it attracted international attention because this was the first time that a large contingent of US military personnel landed on Vietnamese soil since the last of the American troops withdrew from that country in 1975. The symbolism of this port call, however, failed to obscure the fact that the United States has had no coherent strategy against China’s island-building program. It was on President Obama’s watch that China created and militarized the artificial islands, while his successor, Donald Trump, has focused on North Korea, Iran, and trade; the South China Sea is not even on his radar.

As a result, China, with its expanding diplomatic, economic, and military reach, is incrementally imposing its will on the region. For example, soon after the USS Carl Vinson’s visit, Chinese pressure forced Vietnam to suspend a major oil-drilling project in the South China Sea. The project, located off Vietnam’s southeastern coast, was being led by the Spanish energy firm Repsol, which, along with its partners, had already invested nearly $200 million in it. Now Repsol is asking Vietnam for compensation.

In response to China’s creation of artificial islands, the United States has repeatedly sent warships to sail through nearby waters in “Freedom of Navigation Operations“ (FONOPs).8 Such operations, however, cannot make up for the absence of a coherent US strategy in the South China Sea; they neither deter China nor reassure America’s regional allies. After all, FONOPs do not address the rapidly shifting dynamics in the region brought about by China’s island-building strategy and its militarization of disputed features in international waters. China is asserting increasing control over the South China Sea, including by installing sophisticated weapons on the islands it controls. In doing so, it is gaining de facto control of the region’s hydrocarbon resources, estimated at 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil in proved and probable reserves.9

In essence, such developments mean that China’s cost-free change of the status quo in the South China Sea has resulted in costs for other countries, especially those in Asia—from Japan and the Philippines to Vietnam and India. Countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivism have been left with difficult choices, especially as Beijing has made its determination clear to push ahead with its revisionist policies. Japan has reversed a decade of declining military outlays, while India has revived stalled naval modernization. Smaller countries, however, are in no position to challenge China. Instead, the Philippines, for example, has proposed joint oil-and-gas exploration with China in the South China Sea.

Make no mistake: The rapidly changing maritime dynamics in the Indo-Pacific are injecting greater strategic uncertainty and raising geopolitical risks. Today, the fundamental choice in the region is between a liberal, rules-based order and an illiberal, hegemonic order. As America’s National Security Strategy report stated in December 2017, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region.”10 Abe is the author of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that the Trump administration is now pushing.

Few would like to live in an illiberal, hegemonic order. Yet this is exactly what the Indo-Pacific will get if regional states do not get their acts together. There is consensus among all important players other than China for an open, rules-based Indo-Pacific. Playing by international rules is central to peace and security, yet progress has been slow and tentative in promoting wider collaboration to advance regional stability and power equilibrium.

For example, the institutionalization of the Australia-India-Japan-US “Quadrilateral Initiative,” or Quad, has yet to take off. In this light, the idea of a “Quad plus two” to include France and Britain seems overly ambitious at this stage. Once the Quad takes concrete shape, Britain and France could, of course, join. They both have important naval assets in the Indo-Pacific. During French President Emmanuel Macron’s 2018 New Delhi visit, France and India agreed to reciprocal access to each other’s naval facilities. This accord is similar to India’s Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States.

Unless the Quad members start coordinating their approaches to effectively create a single regional strategy and build broader collaboration with other important players, Indo-Pacific security could come under greater strain. If Southeast Asia, a region of 600 million people, is coerced into accepting Chinese hegemony in such circumstances, it will have a cascading geopolitical impact in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

Against this background, what is at stake in the East and South China Seas is not just some tiny islands (or “rocks,” as perceived by some in the US) but a rules-based regional order, freedom of navigation of the seas and skies, access to maritime resources, and balanced power dynamics in Asia. Consequently, America’s allies and partners are stepping up efforts to build credible military capabilities and assume more responsibility for their own defense.

Looking ahead, Japan—with the world’s third largest economy, a world-class navy, and impressive high-technology skills—is likely to stay a strong nation, despite being eclipsed by China’s rapid rise. Japan may not share Beijing’s obsession with measures of national power, yet Japan’s military establishment, despite lacking a nuclear deterrent, is sophisticated. As a status quo power, Japan does not need to match Chinese military prowess; defense is easier than offense. However, a Japan that fails to adapt its postwar national-security policies and laws to the new geopolitical realities of today could create a power vacuum that invites conflict. Peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan. Whatever steps Japan takes to address its security dilemma are likely to carry profound implications for Asian and international security.

About the author

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author. He is presently a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi; a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin; and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London. He is the author of nine books, including an international bestseller, Asian Juggernaut, and the award-winning Water, Peace and War. He held appointments at Harvard University, the Brookings Institution, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and the Australian National University. He is also a columnist and commentator. His opinion articles appear in the Nikkei Asian Review, Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, Japan Times, The Globe and Mail, South China Morning Post, and other important newspapers. And he has often appeared on CNN and BBC, among others.

Notes

1 Thomas Mahnken and Dan Blumenthal (eds.), Strategy in Asia: The Past, Present, and Future of Regional Security (Palo Alto, California: Stanford University Press, 2014); Aaron Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012); Robert Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power (Random House, 2011); and Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (New York: Public Affairs, 2009).

2 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Trends in World Military Expenditures, 2017 (Stockholm, SIPRI, May 2018).

3 Bruce Stokes, “5 facts to help understand the US-Japan relationship,” Pew Research Center, April 7, 2015, available at: https://goo.gl/qp92NR.

The Constitution of Japan, promulgated on November 3, 1946; came into effect on May 3, 1947. Full text at: https://goo.gl/R1wViX.

5 Deutscher Bundestag, Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, available at: https:// www.btg-bestellservice.de/pdf/80201000.pdf .

6 World Values Survey, http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSOnline.jsp .

7 See Robert Kaplan, Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific (New York: Random House, 2014); and Bill Hayton, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2014).

8 Eleanor Freund, “Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea: A Practical Guide” (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, June 2017).

9 US Energy Information Administration, “South China Sea,” February 7, 2013, available at: https://goo.gl/qqAygy.

10 White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America(Washington, DC: December 2017), available at: https://goo.gl/CWQf1t.