The End of Sri Lankan Democracy?

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At a time of growing international skepticism toward China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Rajapaksa family’s potential return to power is welcome news for Chinese President Xi Jinping. But it is bad news for practically everyone else.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

COLOMBO – One of Asia’s oldest democracies may be in jeopardy. Sri Lanka’s presidential election next month, is expected to bring to power another member of the Rajapaksa family, whose affinity for authoritarianism, violence, and corruption is well known. While Sri Lanka’s democracy survived the last test – an attempted constitutional coup by outgoing President Maithripala Sirisena a year ago – it may not survive a Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency.

Gotabaya, as he is popularly known, is the current frontrunner and previously served as Sri Lanka’s defense chief under his older brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sirisena’s predecessor. Mahinda’s decade-long tenure, which ended in 2015, was characterized by brazen nepotism, with the four Rajapaksa brothers controlling many government ministries and about 80% of total public spending. And by steadily expanding presidential powers, Mahinda created a quasi-dictatorship known for human-rights abuses and accused of war crimes.

Moreover, Mahinda’s pro-China foreign policy allowed for the swift expansion of Chinese influence in Sri Lanka – and rapid growth in Sri Lankan debt to China. It was the debt incurred during the last Rajapaksa presidency that forced Sirisena in 2017 to  the Indian Ocean’s most strategic port, Hambantota, along with 6,070 hectares (15,000 acres) of nearby land, on a 99-year lease. This Hong Kong-style concession was modeled on the United Kingdom’s nineteenth-century colonial imposition on China.

There is little reason to doubt that Gotabaya would revive his brother’s corrosive legacy. Simply by becoming president, he could gain immunity from two lawsuits pending in US federal court over war crimes allegedly committed while he was Sri Lanka’s defense chief. (With Parliament’s restoration of presidential term limits prohibiting Mahinda from running again, Gotabaya renounced his US citizenship to become eligible to contest the election.)

Mahinda oversaw the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal 25-year civil war in 2009. But he was no agent of peace. During the war’s final years, thousands of people – from aid workers and Tamil civilians to the Rajapaksa family’s political opponents – disappeared or were tortured. And the final military offensive against the Tamil Tiger rebels was, according to the United Nations, a “grave assault on the entire regime of international law,” with as many as 40,000 civilians killed. According to the wartime military commander, Sarath Fonseka, Gotabaya ordered the summary execution of rebel leaders as they surrendered.

Despite the horrors they inflicted on Sri Lanka’s mostly Hindu Tamil minority, the Rajapaksa brothers became heroes to many among the country’s largely Buddhist Sinhalese majority. That emboldened Mahinda to step up efforts to fashion a mono-ethnic identity for a multiethnic country.

Renewing this approach, as Gotabaya is sure to do, will hardly ease the sectarian divide that triggered the civil war, let alone more recent tensions between the Sinhalese and Sri Lanka’s Muslims. Those tensions increased sharply in April, when Islamist militants carried out a series of bombings on  that killed 253 people and wounded hundreds more.

Not only was this one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in history; it was also the first major Islamist militant attack that Sri Lanka, where Muslims constitute one-tenth of the population, had ever experienced. But that doesn’t mean it was unforeseeable.

In fact, Sirisena admitted that defense and police officials had received an Indian intelligence report warning of an imminent attack and identifying the plotters, but that he had not seen it. Nor did Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – the target of Sirisena’s attempted coup last October – receive the warning. (Sirisena abruptly fired Wickremesinghe and swore in none other than Mahinda Rajapaksa, before dissolving parliament to avoid a challenge. His actions were reversed when the Supreme Court ruled them unconstitutional.)

The Rajapaksas have already used the Islamist bombings to fan the flame of Sinhalese nationalism. And Gotabaya has promised his supporters that, if elected, he will strengthen the intelligence services and reintroduce surveillance of citizens, in order to crush Islamist extremism. The prospect of an alleged war criminal still wedded to extrajudicial methods becoming president rightly terrifies minority groups, the media, and civil-liberties advocates.

Yet there is more worrisome news. Gotayaba’s camp has also confirmed that, as president, he plans to “restore relations” with China. Given Sri Lanka’s strategic location near the world’s busiest sea-lanes, the implications of this pledge extend well beyond the island. Indeed, Sri Lanka could play a pivotal role in the struggle for maritime primacy between China and Indo-Pacific democratic powers (India, the United States, Japan, and Australia). China’s “string of pearls” strategy has been encircling India by securing strategic military and commercial facilities along major Indian Ocean shipping lanes. The Hambantota port, which Chinese President Xi Jinping described as  to his Maritime Silk Road project, is a particularly valuable pearl.

At a time of growing international skepticism toward Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Rajapaksa family’s potential return to power in Sri Lanka is welcome news for China, which hopes to turn the country into a military outpost. But it is bad news for practically everyone else. A Gotabaya presidency would block already-delayed justice to victims of his brother’s regime, deepen ethnic and religious fault lines, and help China gain strategic supremacy in the Indo-Pacific. Sri Lankan democracy appears more vulnerable than ever.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

The Curse of Geography

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Brahma Chellaney, Open Magazine

Soon after visiting Russia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi undertook a US tour, the highlight of which was a spectacular public rally in Houston attended by 59,000 Indian-Americans, US President Donald Trump and a number of members of the US Congress. Now, shortly after Communist China turned 70, Modi is getting ready to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for an informal summit. Before long, Modi will also receive Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

These visits underline the complexity of India’s foreign-policy challenges and the imperative to advance the country’s interests at a time of greater geopolitical flux globally. The flux is being highlighted by several developments, including the US-China trade war, which is setting in motion a gradual “decoupling” of the world’s top two economies; the worsening relations between America’s main allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea; Hong Kong’s defiant, pro-democracy movement; and the strengthening Sino-Pakistan strategic nexus. China, meanwhile, still pursues aggression in the South China Sea, as exemplified by its ongoing coercion against Vietnamese oil and gas activities within Vietnam’s own exclusive economic zone.

If Hong Kong’s mass movement loses to Chinese authoritarianism, the implications will not be limited to that city. Indeed, it could embolden Beijing’s designs against Taiwan and its territorial revisionism against India, Japan, Vietnam and others.

Against this backdrop, Modi’s foreign policy will likely continue to be guided by a non-doctrinaire vision. India, a founder leader of the nonaligned movement, now makes little mention of nonalignment. Shorn of ideology, Indian foreign policy has sought to revitalize the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner. India believes in friendship without dependence.

At the core of India’s foreign-policy and security challenges, however, is the reality that the country is located arguably in the world’s most troubled neighbourhood. 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 security concerns in the region partially stem from the failures of its past policies.

The increasingly unstable neighbourhood, however, is not of India’s making. The instability and volatility not only make it more difficult to promote regional cooperation and integration, but also heighten the spillover effects for India, threatening the country’s internal security.

Looking ahead, India can expect no respite in pressure from China, whose October 1 grand parade commemorating 70 years of Communist Party rule was a reminder that it has emerged as the world’s longest-surviving, strongest and largest autocracy. This is a country increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party. Indeed, attempts to bend reality to the illusions and disinformation that the state propagates risk turning China into a modern-day Potemkin state.

China’s occupation of Tibet in 1950-51 represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development for India’s security in modern history. It gave China borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal for the first time, and opened the path to a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis. The impact has been exacerbated by serial Indian blunders.

Today, Tibet remains at the centre of the India-China divide, fuelling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions and riparian feuds. The more India has aligned its Tibet stance with China’s position, including recognizing that sprawling region as part of China, the more Beijing has upped the ante against New Delhi. Tellingly, Beijing began calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet” only after the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 formally recognized Tibet as part of China.

As Asia’s geographical hub, China is especially vulnerable to the same geopolitical game it plays against India or Japan — strategic containment. A grand strategy among other powers to manage a muscular China could aim to put discreet checks on the exercise of Chinese power by establishing counterbalancing coalitions around that country’s periphery. However, Trump, with his unilateralist and protectionist priorities, has still to provide strategic heft to his policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” — a concept authored by Abe.

With India’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks linked to its location next to the Afghanistan-Pakistan (“Af-Pak”) belt, the Indian government has little choice but to prepare for a long-term battle against the forces of Islamic extremism and terrorism. In fact, to India’s west, lies “an arc of crises stretching from Jordan to Pakistan”, to quote the title of one of the workshops at the 2008 World Policy Conference at Evian, France. Historically, invaders and plunderers came into the subcontinent from India’s west.

Pakistan’s present nexus with terrorist groups arose under two military dictators: Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who died in a mysterious plane crash in 1988, and Pervez Musharraf, who fled overseas in 2008 under threat of impeachement and was subsequently charged with involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007 — a milestone in Pakistan’s slide into chaos. Pakistan is now a classical example of a praetorian state where the military dominates the core political institutions and processes and calls the shots in strategic policies.

Pakistan’s military generals rarely trust their civilian proxies. Indeed, the army chief and the head of the rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency accompanied Prime Minister Imran “Taliban” Khan when he visited Washington in July. Khan’s jihad-extolling, warmongering address to the United Nations General Assembly last month showed the depths to which the Pakistani state has sunk. In fact, this newest puppet of the Pakistani military has, in the name of Allah, publicly declared a jihad on India, including on what he calls a “fascist” Modi government.

India since independence has taken a cautious and reactive approach to strategic threats and challenges, despite facing repeated aggressions. Over the past three decades in particular, India’s external security environment has worsened and regional clout eroded. Yet the country has shied away from hard decisions.

An important break from this pattern was the Modi government’s decision in August to rejig the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) — an action that received Parliament’s imprimatur with overwhelming support. J&K’s special powers and privileges were revoked, Ladakh was carved out as a separate entity, and the misogynist Article 35A repealed — all in one fell swoop.

Three decades of a Pakistan-backed Islamist insurrection in the Kashmir Valley forced the government to change the status quo. Pakistan, carved out of India by the British as the first Islamic state of the post-colonial era, has emerged as the fountainhead of Islamic extremism and terrorism – or, as former US defence secretary James Mattis says in his new book, the world’s “most dangerous” country. A secular, democratic India can never allow an Islamic emirate in the Kashmir Valley because that would mean a second terrorism-exporting Pakistan on its borders.

Pakistan and China together hold 55 per cent of J&K but neither grants any autonomy to its portion of the region. Indeed, Beijing has never allowed foreign media into its J&K portion, which it has turned into a vast cantonment. Yet, Pakistan and China have hypocritically protested against New Delhi’s action in stripping the Indian part of J&K of its special constitutional powers.

Even if the Indian J&K’s special autonomous status had continued, India would still have faced the Sino-Pakistan pincer movement in that region. Indeed, the special status came to be seen by Pakistan and China as Indian acceptance that just the Indian portion of J&K is a disputed territory, thus encouraging the two partners to up the ante against New Delhi.

The plain fact is that India is uniquely wedged between two nuclear-armed allies that defy basic international norms. The China-Pakistan axis represents a dangerous combination of an ascendant communist power and an aggressive Islamist neighbour, with both staking claims to swathes of Indian-administered territory.

New Delhi may have managed reasonably well the international fallout from its J&K action, with only Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan and China (the new Quad) openly slamming India for the move. India, however, continues to get bad international press, in part because the anti-elite Modi government has failed to grasp the importance of the media in the 21st century. The Prime Minister’s Office does not have even a spokesperson. Distortion of facts thus is allowed to go unchallenged.

Commentaries in the Western press have harped on alleged Indian repression and human-rights abuses in the Kashmir Valley, with some writers claiming to see the rise of an “authoritarian” India under Modi, as if the present Indian government has abridged fundamental rights of Indians or undermined judicial independence and press freedom. Such negative and damaging portrayal is beginning to take its toll on India’s international image. It is past time for the government to wake up to the vital importance of public relations and media handling.

Add to the picture the fact that India has become increasingly polarized and divided. Indians either love or loathe Modi.

A dynamic diplomacy and sound national security management need strong, bipartisan policies. But India’s British-style parliamentary democracy has fostered a fractious polity. Britain’s own Brexit mess highlights that the British-type parliamentary system is rife with serious inefficiencies. In India, building bipartisanship has long been tough but more so now due to greater political polarization and rancour.

Domestic critics, for example, claim that Modi has a presidential (or autocratic) style of governance. The truth, however, is that India since independence has been largely led by prime ministers who have acted more like presidents — from Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister who made the country a nuclear-weapons state by overtly conducting nuclear tests. Only weak, fractious governments in India have been different.

MODI’S RETURN TO POWER in a landslide election victory earlier this year reflected the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leadership that reinvents India as a more secure, confident and competitive country. In contrast to his first term, which failed to dispel India’s image as a soft state, Modi’s second term raises hope that India would not recoil from taking hard decisions. His government’s most pressing challenges relate to national security and economic growth.

At a time when the yawning power gap between India and China has widened, New Delhi has to avert a destabilizing military imbalance with Beijing. It also needs to more effectively tackle a scofflaw Pakistan. India must reinvigorate its foreign policy to reverse its waning influence in its own backyard, including in countries long symbiotically tied to it, such as Nepal and Sri Lanka.

More broadly, some see India as a key “swing state” in the emerging geopolitical order. India, however, is already swinging in one direction, thanks to China’s territorial revisionism and muscular foreign policy.

A multi-aligned India under Modi is tilting towards the other major democracies, as the Australia-India-Japan-US Quad grouping underscores. India is now a “major defence partner” of the US, with which it holds more military exercises than with any other country. The US has also emerged as India’s largest arms supplier.

As the Houston rally attested, the Cold War-era India-Russia camaraderie has been replaced by India-US bonhomie. It is highly unusual for an American president to take the stage at a foreign leader’s rally on American soil. But Trump shares with Modi a love for big audiences and theatrics.

Still, India can scarcely depend on an unpredictable Trump administration, whose transactional approach to foreign policy is troubling all US allies and strategic partners. Therefore, India is wisely shoring up its partnerships with all key players. In fact, Indian and American interests diverge in India’s own neighbourhood.

For example, despite last month’s collapse of a tentative US deal with the Afghan Taliban, Trump is courting Pakistan, even though it provides safe havens to the Taliban and is home to 25 United Nations-designated terrorist entities. A Kashmir mediation offer is a red rag to India. Yet Trump has repeatedly offered to mediate that conflict.

Meanwhile, Washington, not content with having emerged as the largest seller of arms to India, is seeking to lock New Delhi as its exclusive arms client by using the threat of sanctions to deter it from buying major Russian weapons, including the S-400 air defence system. Furthermore, US pressure has driven up India’s oil import bill by stopping it from buying crude at concessional rates from Iran or Venezuela. The US seeks to supplant Iran as a major oil supplier to India. But it has been selling India crude at a higher price than Iran.

Washington said recently that it is “highly gratified” by India’s full compliance with US sanctions against Iran. The soaring crude prices after the loss of nearly 6% of global oil output in recent drone strikes in Saudi Arabia, however, has served as a reminder to New Delhi of the costs of halting all Iranian oil imports. To punish New Delhi for abiding by US sanctions, Iran is threatening to replace India with China as the developer of its Chabahar port, a project that is central to an Indian transportation corridor to Afghanistan.

That Pakistan-bypassing corridor shows that India’s relationship with Iran is more than just about oil. US sanctions, however, are aiding China while undermining Indian interests. Under a new accord with Tehran, China will invest $280 billion in Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical sectors, deploy at least 5,000 troops to protect its projects there, and import oil at discounted prices.

Against this background, India must carefully balance closer cooperation with major players in a way that advances its own economic and security interests. India, for example, relies on Russian spare parts for its Russian-made military hardware. More importantly, Russia has transferred to India offensive weapons that the US does not export, such as an aircraft carrier and a nuclear-powered submarine. So ties to Moscow remain important.

In fact, the China factor has always been central to India’s strategic ties with Moscow. In 1971, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi skillfully engineered Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan by entering into a friendship treaty with Moscow. The treaty, with a mutual-security assistance clause, helped deter China from opening a second front against India. As the declassified Richard Nixon-Henry Kissinger transcripts attested, this duo sought to egg on China to attack India when Indian forces intervened to end the East Pakistan genocide (in which up to 3 million people were killed and nearly 400,000 women were raped, with almost 10 million fleeing to India).

Modi’s recent visit to Vladivostok underscored that Russia, with its strategic capabilities and vantage position in Eurasia, remains a key country for India’s geopolitical interests. Russia shares India’s objective for a stable power balance on a continent that China seeks to dominate.

Against this background, India will likely continue to chart an independent course. After all, cautious pragmatism drives Modi’s foreign policy. A multi-aligned India pursuing omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players will be better positioned to advance its security and economic interests.

Regionally, with the tyranny of geography putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India needs to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. Only through more vigorous defence and foreign policies can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation, freeing it to play a larger global role. Otherwise, it will continue to be weighed down by its region.

To be sure, India has been imbibing greater realism as its quixotic founding philosophy centred on non-violence assumes a largely rhetorical meaning. Yet India remains intrinsically reactive, instead of being proactive. The compulsions of electoral politics make it difficult for those in power to take a long-term view that does not confound tactics with strategy. Yet, without proactive diplomacy and national defence, India will continue to punch far below its weight.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© Open Magazine, 2019.

Trump’s turn at Modi’s Houston rally only obscures U.S.-India rifts

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Donald Trump and Narendra Modi walk the arena floor to greet attendants in the “Howdy Modi” event in Houston on Sep. 22.   © Reuters

Washington’s pressure on New Delhi benefits America’s adversaries

Nikkei Asian Review

When U.S. President Donald Trump last Sunday joined visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public rally in Houston, attended by 59,000 Indian-Americans and a number of U.S. congressmen and senators, it highlighted the growing closeness of the U.S.-India relationship. Trump shares with Modi a love for big audiences and theatrics.

Some saw Trump’s rally attendance as a public-relations coup for Modi. In reality, the Houston rally was a win for Trump: it served as a backdrop to signing one of the largest liquefied natural gas supply deals in U.S. history and making progress toward a trade deal with India, which Trump said would happen “very soon.”

With Trump’s focus on getting reelected next year, the rally also enabled him to connect with wealthy and increasingly influential Indian-Americans, who now number about 4 million, or 1.3% of the total population. They not only matter in some of the swing states for the election, but also are important political donors.

But far from helping to turn the page on old rifts, such as over Pakistan, the booming bilateral trade and investment relationship — symbolized by the rally — has been accompanied by new economic and strategic differences.

Despite his bonhomie with Modi, Trump has been fighting a mini-trade war against India, albeit in the shadow of the much larger U.S.-China trade war. He has raised duties on 14.3% of India’s exports to the U.S. and imposed a restrictive visa policy to squeeze the huge Indian information technology industry.

Indeed, no sooner had Modi’s second term started in May than Trump announced the termination of India’s preferential access to the U.S. market by expelling the country from the Generalized System of Preferences.

Trump has been rightly criticized for his mercurial behavior. But his move toward a trade deal with India, like his trade accords with Japan, South Korea, Canada and Mexico, show that Trump’s negotiating strategy centered on punitive tariffs and drastic threats is yielding returns for America. A trade deal with Beijing, to be sure, remains elusive.

With U.S. policies backfiring to foster a partnership between the world’s largest nuclear power, Russia, and second-largest economy, China, the strengthening American ties with democratic India assume greater importance for Washington. The latest U.S. national security strategy report says America welcomes “India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defense partner.”

India meshes well with Trump’s export plan to create large numbers of well-paid American jobs. As Trump told the Houston rally, “we are working to expand American exports to India — one of the world’s fastest-growing markets.”

India is also pivotal to Trump’s policy of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a concept authored by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

These imperatives and the powerful symbolism of the Houston rally, however, cannot obscure the challenges. Trump’s unilateralism and transactional foreign policy reflect a belief that the U.S. can pursue hard-edged negotiations with friends without imperiling broader strategic ties or undermining efforts to balance China.

For example, not content with having emerged as the largest seller of arms to India, Washington is seeking to lock that country as its exclusive arms client by using the threat of sanctions to deter it from buying major Russian weapons, including the S-400 air defense system.

The paradox is that the U.S. regards India as the fulcrum of its Indo-Pacific strategy, yet the two countries’ security interests diverge in India’s own neighborhood. The farther one gets from India, the more congruent U.S. and Indian interests become. But closer home to India, the two sides’ interests are divergent. Iran is just one example.

U.S. sanctions’ pressure has driven up India’s oil import bill by stopping it from buying crude from next-door Iran. Seeking to supplant Iran as a major supplier, the U.S. has ramped up oil exports to energy-poor India by 400% in the past 12 months. But it has been selling crude at a higher price than Iran.

A transportation corridor to Afghanistan that India is building via Iran, bypassing Pakistan, shows that New Delhi’s relationship with Tehran is more than just about oil. U.S. policy, however, is pushing India out of Iran while letting China fill that space.

The Afghanistan-Pakistan belt is another example. Despite the recent collapse of a tentative U.S. deal with the Afghan Taliban, Trump is courting India’s archenemy, Pakistan, even though it provides safe havens to the Taliban and is home to 22 U.N.-designated terrorist entities.

A Kashmir mediation offer was a red rag to India, yet Trump, seeking to win Pakistan’s cooperation in Afghanistan, offered to mediate that conflict.

The looming trade deal, limited to some sectors, is unlikely to help fully lift U.S. pressure on India, whose economy is already slowing. Indeed, lumping the world’s largest democracy with America’s main strategic competitor, Trump is pushing to terminate India’s and China’s developing-nation status at the World Trade Organization.

India has been a U.S. foreign policy bright spot. There is strong bipartisan support in Washington for a closer partnership. At the Houston rally, Trump claimed India has “never had a better friend” than him in the White House.

Yet Trump’s transactional approach, which prioritizes short-term gains for the U.S. even at the expense of long-term returns, could be reinforcing Indian skepticism about American reliability.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.

Changing Security and Power Dynamics in East Asia

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Brahma Chellaney, China-US Focus

Japan has been shaken out of its complacency by the rise of an increasingly muscular and revisionist China vying for regional hegemony. But America’s apparent willingness, as part of a deal aimed at forestalling the rise of a new long-range missile threat, to accept a North Korea armed with short- to medium-range missiles is giving Japan the jitters.

Since July 25 alone, North Korea has test-fired seven different new short-range ballistic missile systems, including three new systems, indicating that it has been busy boosting its sub-regional capabilities after its leader Kim Jong Un met with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Korean demilitarized zone in June. Yet Trump has openly condoned the North Korean tests, largely because the new missiles threaten not the United States, but Japan and South Korea.

Indeed, Trump has clearly indicated that his administration will put up with North Korea’s sub-regionally confined nuclear arsenal (as Washington has done with Pakistan’s) as long as Kim does not pursue long-range capability that threatens America. “He likes testing missiles,” Trump said on August 23, a day after South Korea decided to pull out of a military intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan. “But we never restricted short-range missiles,” Trump added.

Not surprisingly, this American stance unnerves Japan, which is central to U.S. forward deployment in Asia, but feels increasingly vulnerable to growing Chinese and North Korean missile capabilities. In fact, the North Korean tests have prompted Japan to agree to buy 73 Raytheon-made SM-3 Block IIA anti-ballistic missiles worth $3.3 billion from the U.S.

Trump’s stance is not only emboldening Kim, but also giving him virtually a free hand in developing and testing short-range missiles that can potentially deliver nuclear warheads.

Trump has gone to the extent of making allowances for North Korea’s firing of such missiles by accepting Pyongyang’s explanation that the tests are linked to the joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea. Trump has called the two-week exercises “ridiculous and expensive.”

In fact, responding to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s concern, Trump has conveyed to him that he will continue to tolerate North Korea’s test-firing of short-range missiles so as to save the engagement process with Pyongyang.

It is not just Trump; others in his administration have also shrugged off North Korea’s short-range missile tests at a time when Washington is eager to revive stalled denuclearization talks with Pyongyang. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statements, for example, have highlighted U.S. willingness to put up with the test of any North Korean missile whose range is far short of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

After North Korea in early May conducted what was its first missile test in a year-and-a-half, Pompeo said on ABC’s This Week that, “At no point was there ever any international boundary crossed.” Referring to the agreement reached at the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore in June 2018, Pompeo candidly told Fox News Sunday, “The moratorium was focused, very focused, on intercontinental missile systems, the ones that threaten the United States, for sure.”

North Korea’s missile firings violate United Nations Security Council resolutions that ban Pyongyang from developing and testing ballistic missile technologies. According to Trump, there “may be a United Nations violation” but the “missiles tests are not a violation of our signed Singapore agreement, nor was there [any] discussion of short-range missiles when we shook hands.”

This position, in effect, means that the Trump administration is ready to sacrifice the security interests of America’s regional allies as long as Kim does not test any capability that threatens American security.

In fact, just before Trump left for the Singapore summit, Abe visited the White House to urge any agreement with Kim not to compromise Japan’s security interests. But that is precisely what happened, with Kim agreeing not to test ICBMs but gaining leeway on shorter, Japan-reachable missiles.

Among the five weapons tests North Korea has conducted since July 25 is a new short-range ballistic missile known internationally as KN-23. It seemingly resembles Russia’s nuclear-capable Iskander missile in its flight pattern and other traits.

Indeed, all three of the new missile systems test-fired by Pyongyang symbolize significant technological advances. They are all solid-fueled and road-mobile systems, making it easier to hide and launch them by surprise. By contrast, North Korea’s older, liquid-fueled missiles are detectable during the pre-launch fueling stage. At least one of the new missile systems can possibly be maneuvered during flight, making its interception more difficult for a missile defense system.

In this light, North Korea’s new missile systems represent a potent threat to America’s main allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea. But by shrugging off Pyongyang’s recent tests, including describing them as “smaller ones” that were neither ICBMs nor involved nuclear detonations, Trump has displayed remarkable insensitivity to Japanese and South Korean concerns.

Japan’s security nightmare has been that, as China continues to expand its already-formidable nuclear and conventional military capabilities, the U.S. will let North Korea retain the short- and medium-range portion of its nuclear arsenal. With self-interest driving U.S. policy, that nightmare appears to be coming true.

A North Korean subregionally confined nuclear capability will only deepen Japanese reliance on security arrangements with America. Japan has long remained ensconced under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But will the U.S. use nuclear weapons to defend Japan against an attack by China or North Korea?

For the U.S., its nuclear-umbrella protection serves more as a potent symbol of American security commitment and as a nonproliferation tool to prevent Japan from considering its own nuclear-weapons option. In a military contingency, the U.S. is more likely to employ conventional weapons to defend Japan, which pays Washington billions of dollars yearly for the basing of American troops on Japanese territory in the most generous host-nation support by any of America’s 27 allies.

The threat to Japan from North Korea’s nuclear-weapons capability comes not only from a potential nuclear strike but also from nuclear blackmail and coercion.

The main lesson for Japan from Trump’s focus on addressing only U.S. security interests is to directly engage Pyongyang by leveraging its own economic power. To shore up its security, Tokyo could also consider mutual defense arrangements with other friendly powers, including a nuclear-armed India.

Pacifism remains deeply embedded in Japanese society, in part because of the painful legacy of Japan’s prewar militarism. But the key issue at stake today is not whether Japan should remain pacifist (Japan is the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation) but whether it can afford to stay passive in a rapidly changing security environment.

China would like Japan to continue relying on the U.S. for protection, because the alternative is the rise of Japan as an independent military power. Trump’s North Korea approach, however, will only encourage Japan to enhance its military capacity to forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. He is also a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

© China-US Focus, 2019.

Trump shows India the limits of friendship with the US

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By Brahma Chellaney, Daily’O

downloadUS President Donald Trump’s offer to mediate Kashmir conflict was not the only controversial or outlandish statement he made in his 40-minute media interaction on July 22 while hosting Pakistan’s military-backed prime minister, Imran Khan, at the Oval Office. Trump also drew a perverse equivalence between India and Pakistan, threw Afghanistan and Hong Kong under the bus, and begged Pakistan to “extricate us” from Afghanistan.

At a time when Trump is under attack at home for his fear-mongering and racist rhetoric, he has also courted controversy with his comments on other nations. Take his comments that he could have had Afghanistan “wiped off the face of the Earth” but did not “want to kill 10 million people.”

Those comments were not just bizarre; they were also paradoxical because they were made in the presence of the prime minister of Pakistan, which, by creating and nurturing the Taliban, has actively contributed to Afghanistan’s ruin. Indeed, Trump’s repeated bragging that he could kill 10 million Afghans sent out a racist and supercilious message, triggering outrage in Afghanistan.

In just one media interaction, Trump seriously complicated his country’s relations with Afghanistan and India while betraying Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Trump not only endorsed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of Hong Kong, saying Xi “has acted responsibly, very responsibly,” but also gave Xi a virtual license to crack down and end the protests, which he lamented had gone on for “a very long time.”

More than Trump’s offer to mediate the Kashmir conflict, it is his turning to Pakistan to “help us out” in Afghanistan that should concern India. The Faustian bargain that Trump is preparing to strike with the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban will seriously impinge on India’s regional interests and on Indian security, especially in the Kashmir Valley.

Pakistan has harboured the Taliban leadership since the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan in the expectation that the Taliban, with the Pakistani military’s not-so-covert support, would recapture power in Kabul. Trump’s desperation to end America’s nearly 19-year war in Afghanistan has come handy to Pakistan to play Washington again.

In fact, the deal that Islamabad has sought to push with the Trump administration is that, in return for Pakistani help in Afghanistan, the US will agree to play a role in the Kashmir dispute, including helping to revive India-Pakistan talks. So, it was not sheer coincidence that Trump chose to speak on Kashmir in Imran Khan’s presence, including declaring that he would “love to be a mediator” between India and Pakistan.

India should not be surprised by Trump’s Kashmir mediation offer because it allowed him to intercede and defuse the subcontinental crisis after the Indian airstrike on the terrorist sanctuary at Balakot, deep inside Pakistan. It was Trump — not Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who announced the India-Pakistan de-escalation. Trump made that announcement on February 28, 2019 while attending a summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi.

The February 26 Balakot strike held the promise of a potential game-changer. India, however, allowed that defining moment to slip away by failing to retaliate against Pakistan’s February 27 aerial blitz. Worse still, it allowed the egotistical showman Trump to intercede and take credit for de-escalating the situation — a development that led to the return of the captured Indian pilot.

India similarly allowed US diplomatic intervention to help end the Kargil War, whose 20th anniversary is currently being observed, with Army chief General Bipin Rawat warning Pakistan of a “bloodier nose” next time.

The blunt fact is that India has never sought to bring finality to its disputes with Pakistan even when opportunities have beckoned it. At Simla in 1972, for example, India could have traded the return of captured territories and 93,000 prisoners of war for a Kashmir settlement and border adjustments, including securing Kartarpur. Yet, despite holding all the cards, India surrendered at the negotiating table what its martyrs gained on the battlefield.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said on July 26 that Pakistan can afford to neither fight a full-fledged war nor a limited war with India, which is why it has chosen instead to wage a proxy war by terror. That is absolutely correct. But it is also true that India’s hesitation to bring closure to its disputes with Pakistan, including treating it as a terrorist state in policy (as opposed to rhetoric), encourages Pakistan’s proxy war as well as America’s readiness to intercede.

Today, India should be deeply concerned that Trump, by emboldening the Pakistan-Taliban combine, is riding roughshod over its regional and security interests. Add to the picture Trump’s other actions, including barring oil shipments from Iran and raising India’s energy-import bill, expelling India from the US Generalized System of Preferences, and mounting a trade war to secure Indian concessions.

Pakistan used the US-supplied F-16s against India on Feb. 27. Yet, the US has just approved $125 million worth of technical and logistics support services for Pakistan’s F-16 fleet, saying it will not affect the “regional balance”. Those who claim Trump’s July 22 comments mean nothing are missing the new courtship.

Earlier, Trump patted Pakistan’s back for arresting Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. Although Saeed has been living in the open in Pakistan, inciting jihad at public rallies and plotting new attacks despite a $10-million US bounty on him since 2012, Trump on July 17 tweeted, “After a ten year search, the so-called ‘mastermind’ of the Mumbai Terror attacks has been arrested in Pakistan. Great pressure has been exerted over the last two years to find him!”

The Taliban, which once harboured Al Qaeda and now carries out the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks, has secured not just the commitment of a US military exit but also a pathway to power in Kabul. Pakistan’s military generals are showing that sponsoring cross-border terrorism pays: Their brutal proxies, the Taliban and Haqqani Network, have compelled the US president to negotiate the terms of American surrender in Afghanistan and seek Pakistan’s support to finalize the exit.

The draft agreement Trump’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has reached with the Taliban reportedly incorporates mere Taliban promises but major US concessions, including a pledge to release 13,000 Taliban prisoners, a reference to the Taliban controlling an “emirate,” and a deal for the “safe passage” of American troops out of Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, the Trump administration’s impending capitulation to the Taliban-Pakistan axis will come as a shot in the arm for Pakistan’s India-centred terrorist outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. Indeed, no organization will likely be more emboldened than Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which fathered these outfits.

History is repeating itself. The US is once again abandoning war-ravaged Afghanistan, just as it did three decades ago following a successful CIA covert operation that forced Soviet troops out of that country. That success, paradoxically, helped turn Afghanistan into a citadel of transnational terrorism. It also allowed the ISI (which actively aided the CIA operation) to install the Taliban in power.

With the US again ready to let Pakistan have its way in Afghanistan, whatever gains the latter has made in terms of women’s and civil rights would likely be reversed once the Taliban re-impose the medieval practices they enforced during their harsh rule from 1996 to 2001. That development, in turn, will further boost the power of Islamists in Pakistan.

The US is clearly coming full circle. Nearly 19 years after removing the Taliban from power and forcing their leaders to flee to Pakistan, the US is ready to let that same thuggish group regain the reins of power.

Henry Kissinger once quipped that “it may be dangerous to be America’s enemy, but to be America’s friend is fatal.” India is learning the soundness of that statement the hard way.

Trump makes trouble for India

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The Modi government should strengthen ties with the US without allowing itself to be bullied by Trump, who is trying to arm-twist India into a closer but prescriptive partnership.

Trumpmodipic

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Narendra Modi has wisely gone to the strategic Maldives on his first overseas trip after re-election. It speaks for itself that the leader of the world’s largest democracy has begun his new term by visiting the world’s smallest Muslim nation — in population and area. Generous Indian financial assistance, including $1.4 billion in aid, has helped President Ibrahim Solih to escape a Chinese debt trap and enabled his Maldivian Democratic Party to sweep the April parliamentary elections.

Modi also shrewdly kept out troublesome Pakistan from his inauguration by inviting leaders from the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) grouping. While the moribund South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) boxes India in a narrow, artificial framework limited to the Indian subcontinent, the east-oriented BIMSTEC seeks to realign India along its historical axis. India’s main trading and cultural partners in history were the countries to its east. From the west, India experienced mainly invaders or plunderers.

Indeed, Pakistan greeted Modi’s re-election in North Korean style — by firing the nuclear-capable, Chinese-designed Shaheen II ballistic missile. Its intelligence then harassed and turned away guests invited to the Indian High Commission’s iftar reception in Islamabad. All this is a reminder that Pakistan must be kept in the diplomatic doghouse.

Modi has had little time to savour his landslide win. His second term, paradoxically, has started with troubles caused by India’s close friend — a superpower that regards India as the fulcrum of its Asia strategy. Despite an unmistakably US-friendly Indian foreign policy, US President Donald Trump’s administration has mounted pressure on India on multiple flanks — trade, oil and defence. Through its actions, Washington is presenting the US as anything but a reliable partner and unwittingly encouraging India to hedge its bets.

India is the new target in Trump’s trade wars. It was not a coincidence that on the first day of Modi’s second term, Trump announced the termination of India’s preferential access to the US market. Expelling India from the US Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) was intended to drive home the message that the choice before Modi is to yield to US demands or face increasing costs. America’s array of demands ranges from lifting price controls on heart stents, knee implants and other medical devices to relaxing ­e-commerce rules, even though Amazon and Walmart have been allowed to establish a virtual duopoly on India’s e-commerce. Would the US permit two foreign companies to control its e-commerce?

The latest US action exacerbates Modi’s challenges just when India’s economy is growing at the slowest rate in five years and unemployment is at a 45-year high. Washington’s heavy-handed tactics have also driven up India’s oil import bill by stopping it from buying at concessional rates from next-door Iran or Venezuela. The US is attempting to undermine India’s relationship with Tehran, which is more than just about oil, as underscored by the Pakistan-bypassing transportation corridor to Afghanistan that India is building via Iran.

The US is similarly trying to stop India from buying major Russian weapons, not just the S-400 system. Moscow’s transfer of offensive weapons that the US will not export, such as a nuclear-powered submarine and an aircraft carrier, explains why Russia remains important for India’s defence, even though Indo-Russian trade has shrunk. Simply put, the US — not content with emerging as the largest seller of arms to India, including bagging several multibillion-dollar contracts — is seeking to lock India as its exclusive arms client by torpedoing the Indian diversification strategy, which aims to import the most-potent available systems.

The Trump administration’s arbitrariness and assertiveness have imposed rising costs on India, as highlighted by the GSP-related termination of India’s designation since 1975 as a developing nation. US businesses, rather than paying new tariffs on the $5.7 billion worth of Indian products they were importing duty-free, would likely seek to source those goods from GSP-beneficiary countries, thus dimming India’s export outlook.

Trump may not stop with GSP withdrawal. Yet India responded meekly to his action by pledging to “continue to build on our strong ties with the US”. Likewise, there has been no Indian retaliation to Trump’s March 2018 steel and aluminium tariffs, with India repeatedly postponing new duties. In diplomacy, counteraction is often necessary to build bargaining leverage and to deter further bullying.

Multi-alignment has been the leitmotif of Modi’s foreign policy. As opposed to the passive approach of nonalignment — a Cold War-era concept — multi-alignment seeks to proactively build close partnerships with different powers, while shoring up India’s strategic autonomy.

In this larger strategy, a robust relationship with the US is central for India. But it cannot be at the expense of India’s own interests. US actions, including sanctions against Russia and Iran, have accentuated India’s challenge in balancing its relationships. Indeed, through its actions, Washington is calculatedly seeking to compel India to become more closely aligned with it. Is it overplaying its hand? Or will it succeed in Modi’s second term? Only time will tell.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Election triumph will boost Modi’s international clout

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Narendra Modi, left, and Xi Jinping talk at a garden in Wuhan on Apr. 28, 2018: Modi has invited Xi to India on Oct. 11 for another “informal” summit.   © Xinhua/AP

Brahma Chellamey, Nikkei Asian Review

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has hit the ground running after shocking the country’s liberal chattering classes by returning to power with a thumping majority in the parliamentary elections on the back of a nationalist wave.

Modi’s new Cabinet is a mix of old and new faces. Before being sworn in for a second term on May 30, Modi already set out a heavy foreign-policy agenda, including meetings with several world leaders in the coming months — among them possibly two with U.S. President Donald Trump.

But wherever he goes, China — and the strategic threat it poses for India — will be at the top of his agenda.

Modi’s anti-elite coalition garnered a nearly two-thirds majority in the ruling lower house of Parliament. The strong mandate gives Modi the authority to move forcefully on domestic and foreign policy.

Modi is in some ways India’s Shinzo Abe, reflecting the Japanese prime minister’s soft nationalism, foreign-policy pragmatism, market-oriented economics, and tilt toward other major democracies, as well as a focus on maintaining a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, which largely comes down to containing China.

Just as Abe became Japan’s first prime minister born after World War II, Modi is India’s first head of government born after the country gained independence in 1947. However, unlike Abe’s distinguished political lineage, Modi, a self-made man, rose from humble beginnings.

Modi’s nationalist plank, like Abe’s, has been a key factor behind his political rise. His record in office also mirrors Abe’s cautious approach.

For example, like the Abe-led Liberal Democratic Party’s commitment to constitutional reform, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP, hews to constitutional revisionism, especially the abrogation of Article 370 that grants the troubled, northern state of Jammu and Kashmir special powers and status.

But just as his close friend, Abe, has thus far not introduced any amendment to tinker with Japan’s standing as the world’s first constitutionally pacifist nation, Modi has trod cautiously on constitutional change.

Modi’s foreign policy will likely stick to cautious pragmatism. However, showmanship and a penchant for springing surprises have also been the trademarks of Modi’s highly personalized way of decision-making.

This has led his critics to claim that Modi has a presidential style of governance. The truth, however, is that India since independence has been largely led by prime ministers who have acted more like presidents — from Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first BJP prime minister who made the country a nuclear-weapons state by overtly conducting nuclear tests. Only weak, fractious governments have been different.

Just before the recent elections, Modi, in a warning shot across China’s bow, demonstrated India’s space-war capability. India’s successful “kill” of one of its own satellites with a missile on March 27 made it the fourth power, after the United States, Russia and China, to shoot down an object in space.

India tested an anti-satellite weapon on Mar. 27, saying an indigenously produced interceptor was used to destroy an object in orbit.

Just as the anti-satellite weapon test marked a major milestone in India’s quest for effective deterrence against China, Modi’s first foreign-policy moves after his re-election also have Beijing in view.

For his first overseas trip, Modi has strategically chosen the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives, where voters last year booted out a China-backed autocrat, but not before he allowed Beijing to acquire several islets on lease. Generous Indian financial assistance to the Maldives since the restoration of democracy there has not only helped that nation to escape a Chinese debt trap but also allowed the new president’s Maldivian Democratic Party to sweep recent parliamentary elections.

Modi’s June 7-8 visit is symbolically important: The leader of the world’s largest democracy will begin his second term by touring the world’s smallest Muslim nation — in both population and area.

In another smart move, Modi invited to his inauguration the leaders of the member-states of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC, a grouping that brings together Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. BIMSTEC is a promising initiative compared to the moribund South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, or SAARC, whose leaders Modi invited to his first inauguration in 2014.

The Bay of Bengal, which connects South and Southeast Asia, is where India’s “neighborhood first” and “Act East” policies meet. In contrast to SAARC, which boxes India in a narrow framework limited to the Indian subcontinent, the east-oriented BIMSTEC seeks to realign India along its historical axis. India’s main trading and cultural partners in history were the countries to its east.

BIMSTEC thus meshes better with India’s strategic compass. It also furthers India’s role in the U.S.-led strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a concept authored by Abe.

By inviting BIMSTEC, not SAARC, leaders, Modi kept out troublesome Pakistan, which greeted his reelection in North Korean style — by firing a nuclear-capable, Chinese-designed intermediate-range ballistic missile.

The inauguration snub prompted Pakistan to extend until mid-June the closure of its airspace to most east-west overflights. Pakistan had said that, after the Indian elections, it would end the closure, in effect since India’s February 26 airstrike on a Pakistan-based terrorist group that claimed responsibility for a massacre of more than 40 Indian paramilitaries.

The close alignment between Pakistan and China epitomizes Modi’s strategic challenges in one of the world’s troubled neighborhoods.

Modi has invited Chinese President Xi Jinping to India on October 11 for another “informal” summit of the kind the two leaders held in Wuhan 13 months ago in a bid to mend frayed relations. China has been holding live-fire combat exercises near the border with India. However, Trump’s policy shift on China is helping to constrict Beijing’s room for maneuver against India.

Trump, to be sure, is also compounding Modi’s challenges, despite the growing U.S.-India bonhomie. He has raised energy-poor India’s oil-import bill by forcing it to stop buying from Iran and Venezuela. Washington, despite securing $15 billion worth of Indian defense contracts, is pressuring India to halt buying major Russian military hardware.

Trump has also taken trade actions against India, including on May 31. Accusing New Delhi of failing to provide the U.S. with “equitable and reasonable access to its markets in numerous sectors,” he announced the termination of India’s benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences, or GSP, which allows preferential duty-free imports of up to $5.6 billion from India.

When Trump called Modi to congratulate him on his re-election, the two agreed to meet on the sidelines of the June 28-29 G-20 summit in Osaka. Modi’s hectic travel schedule will also take him to the June 14-15 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Kyrgyzstan, the September 4-6 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, and a likely bilateral summit with Trump in Washington in the fall.

Modi’s travel plans show there is no doubting his commitment to advancing India’s interests. If he fails to do so perceptibly in his second term, he will suffer for it politically. But if he succeeds, he may turn out to be the most important Indian leader on the world stage since Indira Gandhi, who engineered Bangladesh’s 1971 independence and conducted India’s first nuclear test in 1974.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.