Maldives: India should not rest on its oars

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

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The China Backlash

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US President Donald Trump’s headline-grabbing trade war with China should not obscure a broader pushback against the country’s mercantilist trade, investment, and lending practices. In fact, China’s free ride could be coming to an end.

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On a recent official visit to China, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized his host country’s use of major infrastructure projects – and difficult-to-repay loans – to assert its influence over smaller countries. While Mahathir’s warnings in Beijing against “a new version of colonialism” stood out for their boldness, they reflect a broader pushback against China’s mercantilist trade, investment, and lending practices.

Since 2013, under the umbrella of its “Belt and Road Initiative,” China has been funding and implementing large infrastructure projects in countries around the world, in order to help align their interests with its own, gain a political foothold in strategic locations, and export its industrial surpluses. By keeping bidding on BRI projects closed and opaque, China often massively inflates their value, leaving countries struggling to repay their debts.

Once countries become ensnared in China’s debt traps, they can end up being forced into even worse deals to compensate their creditor for lack of repayment. Most notably, last December, Sri Lanka was compelled to transfer the Chinese-built strategic port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year, colonial-style lease, because it could longer afford its debt payments.

Sri Lanka’s experience was a wake-up call for other countries with outsize debts to China. Fearing that they, too, could lose strategic assets, they are now attempting to scrap, scale back, or renegotiate their deals. Mahathir, who previously cleared the way for Chinese investment in Malaysia, ended his trip to Beijing by canceling Chinese projects worth almost $23 billion.

Countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Hungary, and Tanzania have also canceled or scaled back BRI projects. Myanmar, hoping to secure needed infrastructure without becoming caught up in a Chinese debt trap, has used the threat of cancellation to negotiate a reduction in the cost of its planned Kyaukpyu port from $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion.

Even China’s closest partners are now wary of the BRI. In Pakistan, which has long worked with China to contain India and is the largest recipient of BRI financing, the new military-backed government has sought to review or renegotiate projects in response to a worsening debt crisis. In Cambodia, another leading recipient of Chinese loans, fears of effectively becoming a Chinese colony are on the rise.

The backlash against China can be seen elsewhere, too. The recent annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting was one of the most contentious in its history. Chinese policies in the region, together with the Chinese delegation leader’s behavior at the event itself, drove the president of Nauru – the world’s smallest republic, with just 11,000 inhabitants – to condemn China’s “arrogant” presence in the South Pacific. China cannot, he declared, “dictate things to us.”

When it comes to trade, US President Donald Trump’s escalating trade war with China is grabbing headlines, but Trump is far from alone in criticizing China. With policies ranging from export subsidies and nontariff barriers to intellectual-property piracy and tilting the domestic market in favor of Chinese companies, China represents, in the words of Harvard’s Graham Allison, the “most protectionist, mercantilist, and predatory major economy in the world.”

As the largest merchandise exporter in the world, China is many countries’ biggest trading partner. Beijing has leveraged this role by employing trade to punish those that refuse to toe its line, including by imposing import bans on specific products, halting strategic exports (such as rare-earth minerals), cutting off tourism from China, and encouraging domestic consumer boycotts or protests against foreign businesses.

The fact is that China has grown strong and rich by flouting international trade rules. But now its chickens are coming home to roost, with a growing number of countries imposing antidumping or punitive duties on Chinese goods. And as countries worry about China bending them to its will by luring them into debt traps, it is no longer smooth sailing for the BRI.

Beyond Trump’s tariffs, the European Union has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization about China’s practices of forcing technology transfer as a condition of market access. China’s export subsidies and other trade-distorting practices are set to encounter greater international resistance. Under WTO rules, countries may impose tariffs on subsidized goods from overseas that harm domestic industries.

Now, Chinese President Xi Jinping finds himself not only defending the BRI, his signature foreign-policy initiative, but also confronting domestic criticism, however muted, for flaunting China’s global ambitions and thereby inviting a US-led international backlash. Xi has discarded one of former Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping’s most famous dicta: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Instead, Xi has chosen to pursue an unabashedly aggressive strategy that has many asking whether China is emerging as a new kind of imperialist power.

International trade has afforded China enormous benefits, enabling the country to become the world’s second-largest economy, while lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The country cannot afford to lose those benefits to an international backlash against its unfair trade and investment practices.

China’s reliance on large trade surpluses and foreign-exchange reserves to fund the expansion of its global footprint makes it all the more vulnerable to the current pushback. In fact, even if China shifts its strategy and adheres to international rules, its trade surplus and foreign-currency reserves will be affected. In short, whichever path it chooses, China’s free ride could be coming to an end.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

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.

India’s Indus leverage

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India must assert its full rights under the Indus Waters Treaty to leverage the pact and halt Pakistan’s undeclared war against it through terrorist proxies.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

In foreign policy, it is important for national leadership to choose its rhetoric carefully and back its words with at least modest action. Words not backed by any action can undermine a country’s credibility and perhaps even its deterrence.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the Balochistan issue in his Independence Day speech in 2016, he seemed to signal an important Indian policy shift. At least that is how his reference to Balochistan was widely interpreted. But since then, India has been totally silent on the issue, although Balochistan — Pakistan’s Achilles heel — threatens to become the new East Pakistan because of military killings and mass graves. India has even denied visas to some exiled Baloch activists.

Take another key issue: the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT). In 1960, in the naïve hope that water largesse would yield peace, India gifted the bulk of the Indus system’s waters — and the largest three of its six rivers — to Pakistan under the IWT. The Indus treaty remains a colossus on the world stage: It is by far the world’s most generous water pact, both in terms of the downstream country’s share of the waters (80.52%) and the aggregate volume of average yearly flows reserved for it (167.2 billion cubic metres). Still, an ungrateful Pakistan has waged covert or overt aggression almost continuously and is now using the IWT itself as a stick to beat India with, including by contriving water disputes and internationalizing them as part of a “water war” strategy.

Against this background, Modi raised the hope that India would finally revisit the IWT, by seizing on the Pakistan Senate’s unanimous March 2016 resolution calling for the treaty’s re-evaluation. Indeed, while chairing a September 2016 internal meeting on the IWT, Modi warned that, “Blood and water cannot flow together”. Setting in motion the treaty’s reappraisal, an inter-ministerial committee of secretaries was established, and officials said that India would now assert all its rights under the IWT, including fully utilizing its share of the allotted waters and expediting its long-delayed hydropower projects.

But two years later, India, alas, appears to have returned to the former state of affairs. The committee of secretaries, headed by the PM’s principal secretary, has fallen by the wayside. Apart from completing the small, 330-megawatt Kishenganga project after 11 years, India has shown little urgency on Indus Basin water projects. Even as Punjab and other states bitterly feud over water, India’s failure to adequately harness the resources of the three smaller rivers reserved for it results in Pakistan receiving substantial bonus waters. Just these extra outflows to Pakistan are many times greater yearly than the total volumes under the Israeli-Jordanian water arrangement.

India’s zigzag policy is most apparent from the recent meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC). The IWT calls for the PIC to meet at least once a year. The previous PIC meeting, like the one before it, was convened after almost 12 months — on March 29-30 this year. The next meeting was not due until 2019, yet India held a fresh PIC meeting just five months later.

The recent August 29-30 meeting, held in Lahore, marked the first bilateral engagement since the new military-backed Imran Khan government took office in Pakistan. With Pakistan’s international isolation deepening and its economy in dire straits, the military there is tactically seeking “peace” talks with India while still employing terrorists in a proxy war. Through such talks, it also hopes to legitimize the government it helped install through a manipulated election. But with India’s own elections approaching, talks with Pakistan will be politically risky for the ruling BJP.

The PIC discussions — and a prospective foreign ministers’ meeting in New York — illustrate how Modi’s government is seeking to engage Islamabad in other ways. In fact, India has given permission to Pakistan’s Indus commissioner and two other officials to shortly begin a tour of inspection of Indian projects in Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere. In the past, such a tour has been used to collect new information so as to mount objections to Indian projects. In keeping with its broader strategy to foment discontent and violence in J&K, Pakistan seeks to deny J&K people the limited water benefits permissible under the IWT.

While the US has dumped international pacts at will (from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to the Kyoto and Paris accords), India still clings to the world’s most-lopsided water treaty, adhering to its finer details, even as Pakistan refuses to honour the terms of the central treaty governing bilateral relations — the 1972 Simla peace pact. Pakistan also flouts its commitment to prevent its territory from being used for cross-border terrorism. The Indus may be Pakistan’s jugular vein, yet a visionless and water-stressed India has let the IWT hang from its neck like the proverbial albatross. Make no mistake: Only by asserting its Indus leverage can India hope to end Pakistan’s unconventional war.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Nepal’s communist challenge to India

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Communist-ruled Nepal’s troubling tilt toward China — as exemplified by latest developments — is a reminder of the costs India is incurring for its blunder in engineering the ouster of Nepal’s constitutional monarchy and inadvertently paving the path to communist domination.

Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

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Nepal is a state symbiotically tied to India. Yet today it has an openly pro-China communist government that is hostile to India. The number of communist-ruled countries in the world increased by one to six earlier this year when landlocked Nepal joined China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam.

Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to woo him, Nepal’s new prime minister, Khadga Prasad Oli, persists with his troubling tilt toward China.

Consider the latest two reminders of Oli’s approach: His government has pulled out of the first ever anti-terror military exercises being held from September 10 in Pune under the auspices of the grouping known as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or BIMSTEC; and it has implemented a transit transport agreement with China mainly to undercut India’s leverage.

Nepal, a member of BIMSTEC along with India, Thailand, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka, had initially agreed to send a platoon-size army contingent to participate in the “Milex 2018” exercises, which were mentioned by Modi in his address to the recent BIMSTEC summit in Kathmandu. Nepal also had agreed to send its army chief, General Purna Chandra Thapa, to the Milex 2018 closing ceremony.

But it reversed its decisions after a backlash from the increasingly powerful pro-China lobby, largely represented by the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP). Instead, in a symbolic gesture, Nepal has sent three observers to the week-long exercises.

The Oli government, in effect, delivered a diplomatic snub to India. This is reinforced by the fact that Nepal, while shunning participation in Milex 2018, is joining China in military exercises also focused on counter-terror operations. The China-sponsored September 17-28 exercises will commence in Chengdu (capital of Sichuan province) a day after the Pune drill concludes.

The BIMSTEC summit represented Modi’s fourth visit to Nepal in four years. No other Indian prime minister has lavished such attention on Nepal. In fact, Modi was the first Indian PM to visit Nepal in 17 years.

But no sooner had Modi returned home from his latest Nepal visit than Oli’s government signed a protocol implementing the Nepal-China Transit Transport Agreement (TTA). Under the TTA, Nepal can trade with third countries through China’s Shenzen, Lianyungang, Zhanjiang and Tianjin seaports. It will also have access to the Shigatse, Lhasa and Lanzhou land ports.

The TTA looks good only on paper. Nepal’s dependency on Indian ports arises from geography. While Kolkata is 933 kilometres away, the nearest Chinese seaport for Nepal is at a distance of 3,300 kilometres.

In implementing the TTA, Nepal is not seeking to replace India with China for transit transport. Rather, the intent of the Oli government is to try and blunt India’s natural-geographic advantage and undermine its transit clout. Through this accord, it hopes to preclude another crippling Indo-Nepalese border blockade by Nepal’s Indian-supported Madhesi (plains people) activists.

In May this year, after Nepal’s communist government took office, Modi paid an official visit to that Himalayan nation. In contrast to China’s efforts to muscle its way into Nepal, Modi’s well-received visit sought to emphasize India’s historically close cultural, religious and people-to-people relations with that nation.

From starting his visit at Janakpur — where, according to the Ramayana, Lord Rama wed Sita — to offering prayers at Kathmandu’s Pashupatinath Temple (the oldest and holiest Shiva temple in Nepal) and at the iconic Muktinath Temple (sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists), Modi sought to project India’s soft power to counter China’s hard power. The launch of an Indo-Nepal bus service from Janakpur (Sita’s hometown) to Ayodhya (her abode after marriage) underscored the historically strong cultural ties between the two countries.

But just five days after Modi returned home, a new unified communist party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), was launched with China’s support through the merger of Oli’s Marxist-Leninist Party and the Maoist group. The merger of the two main communist groups into one party came about three months after they jointly came to power. Beijing first midwifed the birth of the unified communist party and then applauded the development, saying that, “China supports the country in choosing the social system and development path that suits its national realities”.

In fact, the peaceful victory of the Nepali communists has helped to obscure their violent past. Oli spent years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s, as a communist guerrilla, for waging war against the state. Nepal’s establishment of multiparty democracy within the framework of a constitutional monarchy in 1990 opened up political space for Maoists and Oli’s party. The Maoists launched a bloody insurrection in 1996 with the aim of overthrowing the monarchy through a “people’s revolution”.

A decade later, India brokered a peace accord that ended the protracted war between Maoists and government forces in Nepal. But to meet the Maoists’ main demand, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government — dependent on the support of communists who had links with the Nepali communists — engineered the abolition of the constitutional monarchy.

This blunder, which paved the way for the communists to eventually gain political ascendancy, will continue to impose serious costs on India for years to come. The Nepali Maoists secured the monarchy’s overthrow not through their violent “revolution” but with the direct help of their supposed ideological foe, India, which to this day remains haunted, paradoxically, by its own Maoist scourge.

India helped turn Nepal from a Hindu kingdom to a communist-ruled, China-leaning state, seriously undercutting its own traditional influence there.

Today, with the new unified communist party dominating all state institutions, Beijing is actively working to bring Nepal within its orbit. In fact, before Nepal’s elections, Beijing reportedly persuaded the divided communists to form a coalition and helped fund their campaign.

Most communist parties, including the Chinese Communist Party, gained power by violent means. Of the six communist-ruled countries currently in the world, Nepal boasts the only democratically elected communist government.

Yet the key question is whether Nepal’s communist government will sustain democracy or gradually smother democracy. Will it follow the example of Czechoslovakia, which came under communist sway following national elections in 1946? By 1948, the Czechoslovak communists gained full control of the government and set out to stifle democracy.

Nepal’s PM, dubbed “Oily Oli” by his critics, has already started undermining the independence of his country’s institutions and stacking them with his own loyalists. The communists have almost two-thirds majority in Parliament and governments in six of the country’s seven provinces. Card-holding communists now hold all the constitutional and other key positions, with efforts under way to emasculate institutions — from the judiciary to the election commission.

If this assault continues, Nepal will be emulating the trajectory of how Czechoslovakia became a single-party state. In fact, a weak opposition, a pliant judiciary and an overbearing executive are already creating conditions in Nepal for creeping authoritarianism to set in.

Nepal’s internal developments directly impinge on Indian security. India and Nepal, after all, share one of the world’s most-open borders that permits passport-free passage. China’s increasing penetration of Nepal also carries major implications for India’s security.

India must end its kid-glove treatment of the communists in power in Nepal and consider them as a force inimical to its interests. New Delhi must disabuse the Nepali communists of their notion that they can sustain their hostility toward India without incurring any costs.

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

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.