India’s daunting foreign-policy challenges

Featured

https___s3-ap-northeast-1.amazonaws.com_psh-ex-ftnikkei-3937bb4_images_0_0_8_9_19349800-1-eng-GB_R20190214 Xi Jinping Modi Wuhan_2048x1152

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

With the national election approaching, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s focus is squarely on domestic politics. After holding a secure grip on power for nearly five years, the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) faces a tough election fight following defeats in three key state-level polls in December.

Foreign affairs are understandably low on the election agenda. But after the vote, India’s new government — whether led by Modi or not — will have to consider urgently the foreign-policy challenges, above all an ascendant China’s muscular revisionism.

For too long, New Delhi has taken a cautious and reactive approach. But with Beijing spreading its influence deep into India’s backyard, New Delhi needs to reverse its eroding regional clout.

A dynamic diplomacy needs strong, bipartisan policies. With India’s fractious politics, building bipartisanship has long been tough in the world’s largest democracy.

The danger now is that the election will likely see Modi’s government lose its commanding majority in the Parliament’s lower house and be replaced either by a weaker BJP-led administration or an opposition coalition of 20 or more groups supported by the Congress Party. Either way, foreign policy would be crimped.

Pragmatism, zeal and showmanship have been trademarks of Modi’s foreign policy. Early on in his term, he unleashed Modi-mania among Indian diaspora audiences by taking the stage like a rock star at several places, including New York’s storied Madison Square Garden.

A penchant for diplomatic surprises, however, has got him into trouble. For example, during a 2015 visit to Paris, Modi pulled a rabbit out of a hat by announcing an on-the-spot decision to buy 36 French Rafale fighter-jets. In the run-up to the election, the opposition has claimed that, behind that decision, there is a scandal involving inflated pricing and cronyism.

Modi has helped shape a nondoctrinaire foreign-policy 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.

However, in practice, closer cooperation with the United States has been Modi’s signature foreign-policy initiative. India is now a “major defense partner” of the U.S., with which it holds more military exercises than with any other country. The U.S. has also emerged as India’s largest arms supplier. The Cold War-era India-Russia camaraderie has been replaced by India-U. S. bonhomie.

India, however, relies on Russian spare parts for its Russian-made military hardware. More importantly, Russia has transferred to India offensive weapons that the U.S. does not export, such as an aircraft carrier. So ties to Moscow remain important.

India is also seeking to shield from U.S. pressures its cooperation with Tehran. Iran remains an important oil supplier to energy-poor India and is the route for a transportation corridor India is building to Afghanistan that bypasses New Delhi’s arch-enemy Pakistan.

Although India has secured provisional waivers from American retaliation, the new U.S. sanctions against Russia and Iran have accentuated India’s challenge in balancing its relationships.

Meanwhile, the recent “agreement in principle” that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has reached with the Afghan Taliban, including promising an American military pullout within 18 months, is helping to renew the salience of Iran and Russia in India’s Afghanistan policy. If the Pakistan-backed Taliban were to recapture power in Kabul, the relevance of these ties would redouble.

But, despite seeking to exit Afghanistan, the U.S. has become more vital to India’s broader foreign-policy interests, especially in relation to China. Modi has worked to deepen India’s cooperation with the U.S., Japan and the other Indo-Pacific powers that share Indian concerns about China’s territorial and maritime revisionism.

But vexed by the Trump administration’s unpredictability, Modi has also sought to mend ties with China, or at least stop them from deteriorating further. At an “informal” summit ten months ago in Wuhan, Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to “reset” relations.

For Xi, however, Wuhan has served as a cover to kill two birds with one stone. While encouraging Modi’s overtures to help instill greater Indian caution to openly challenge China, Xi has embarked on a major military buildup along the Himalayan border with India. The buildup has included deploying new offensive weapons and advertising live-fire combat exercises. Chinese encroachments in India’s maritime backyard have also increased.

Meanwhile, Chinese exports have flooded India, with Beijing more than doubling its bilateral trade surplus, on Modi’s watch, to over $66 billion a year. This trade surplus is more than 50% larger than India’s defense spending, underscoring how India unwittingly is underwriting China’s hostile politics.

India is holding its election after recent polls in most other countries in southern Asia. Since late 2017, elections have brought pro-China communists to power in Nepal and a military-backed party to office in Pakistan, while voters have booted out a quasi-dictator in the Maldives, elected a new government in Bhutan, and, in Bangladesh, retained a prime minister who has turned the country into one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. Recently, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court forced the country’s president to roll back a coup after he unconstitutionally dismissed the prime minister and called fresh parliamentary polls.

The next Indian government’s most urgent foreign-policy problems relate to the country’s neighborhood, not least a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of an aggressive neighbor and an ascendant superpower. Both these nuclear-armed allies stake claims to swaths of Indian territory.

When Modi took office, many expected him to reinvigorate foreign policy at a time when the yawning power gap between India and China had widened. But, despite considerable Indian efforts, China’s influence in India’s backyard has grown, even in countries long symbiotically tied to India, including Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

However, the most recent developments in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, by bolstering or bringing to power pro-India leaders, have aided Indian interests, even as communist-ruled Nepal has tilted toward China.

Dealing with an aggressive China or complex regional-security challenges demands a decisive leadership that takes a long-term view and does not confound tactics with strategy. But such leadership is unlikely to emerge from the forthcoming election.

To be sure, India has been imbibing greater realism as its quixotic founding philosophy centered on nonviolence assumes a largely rhetorical meaning. Yet India remains intrinsically diffident and reactive. Without proactive diplomacy, India will continue to punch far below its weight.

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.

India’s security interests at risk from U.S. readiness to capitulate to Taliban

Featured

Clipboard02

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

This year is Afghanistan’s 40th year in a row as an active war zone. Betrayal, violence and surrender have defined Afghanistan’s history for long, especially as the playground for outside powers. The US-Taliban “agreement in principle” fits with that narrative. By promising a terrorist militia a total American military pullout within 18 months and a pathway to power in Kabul, the US, in essence, is negotiating the terms of its surrender.

It is worth remembering how the US got into a military quagmire. The US invasion in October 2001 ousted the Taliban from power in Kabul for harbouring the Al Qaeda planners of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, the key Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaida and Ramzi Binalshibh, were later found holed up inside Pakistan. Yet, paradoxically, the US, while raining bombs in Afghanistan, rewarded Pakistan, as President Donald Trump said last year, with more than $33 billion in aid since 2002.

The quagmire resulted from the US reluctance to take the war to the other side of the Durand Line by targeting the Taliban’s command-and-control bases in Pakistan. In modern world history, no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border state sponsorship and safe havens. This also explains why terrorists remain active in the Kashmir Valley.

Rather than take out the Taliban’s cross-border sanctuaries, the US actively sought “reconciliation” for years, allowing the militia to gain strength and terrorize Afghans. The protracted search for a Faustian bargain with the Taliban also explains why that ruthless militia was never added to the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This approach counterproductively led to an ascendant Taliban expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in growing numbers.

Now, desperate to exit, Trump has sought to accomplish what his predecessor, Barack Obama, set out to do but failed — to cut a deal with the Taliban. It was with the aim of facilitating direct talks with the Taliban that Obama allowed the militia to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Doha, Qatar, in 2013. Then, to meet a Taliban precondition, five hardened Taliban militants (two of them accused of carrying out massacres of Tajiks and Hazaras) were freed from Guantánamo Bay. The five were described by the late US senator, John McCain, as the “hardest of hard core”.

Instead of the promised Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, the Trump administration clinched the tentative deal with the Taliban without prior consultations with Kabul and then sought to sell it to a sceptical Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In doing so, it has unwittingly aided the Taliban effort to delegitimize an elected government. Given that Ghani was blindsided by the “framework” accord, it is no surprise that Washington did not care to take India, its “major defence partner”, into confidence either.

Let’s be clear: The Taliban do not represent most Pashtuns, let alone a majority of Afghans. Many in their ranks are Pakistanis recruited and trained by Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence, just as ISI teams up with Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed against India. The US-Taliban deal nullifies then US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ promise that “we’re not going to surrender civilization to people who cannot win at the ballot box”.

Indeed, the deal represents not only a shot in the arm for the resurgent Taliban but also a major diplomatic win for its sponsor, Pakistan, which facilitated the accord. Contrary to speculation that US reliance on Pakistan is on the decline, the interim deal, and the imperative to finalize and implement it, underscore the US dependence on the Pakistani army and ISI. In effect, Pakistan is being rewarded for sponsoring cross-border terrorism.

All this holds important implications for India, which, as Mattis said in October, “has been generous over many years with Afghanistan”, earning “a degree of affection from the Afghan people”. Once US troops return home, America will have little ability — especially if it does not leave behind a residual counterterrorism force — to influence events in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt. If the Taliban were to again capture power in Kabul with Pakistan’s assistance, the benefits for Afghans from the more than $3 billion in assistance that India has given since 2002 would melt away.

Despite growing US strategic cooperation with India, Washington, by its unilateralist actions, is paradoxically increasing the salience of Iran and Russia in India’s Afghanistan policy. India will have to do whatever is necessary to shield its vital interests in Afghanistan, or else developments there would adversely impinge on Indian security, including in the Kashmir Valley.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

India’s Pakistan policy adrift

Featured

Brahma Chellaney, DailyO

incpakConsider two developments in recent days that speak volumes about India’s Pakistan policy: Just as the United States moved to unilaterally withdraw from a major arms-control pact (the Intermediate-Range Forces, or INF, Treaty), “incredible India” — as it calls itself in international tourism-promotion ads — welcomed an inspection team from a terrorist state to scrutinize Indian hydropower projects that are being built under the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).

And, as if to mock the Indian foreign secretary’s formal protest over his call to separatist Umar Farooq four days earlier, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mohammad Qureshi on Saturday telephoned another secessionist leader in Kashmir Valley, Ali Shah Geelani. Qureshi and Pakistan’s all-powerful military generals think they can get away by provoking India.

In the absence of a clearheaded Pakistan policy backed by political resolve, India continues to send confusing and contradictory signals, encouraging Pakistan’s continuing roguish conduct.

India’s welcoming of the three-member Pakistani inspection team, led by that country’s Indus commissioner, illustrated how its incoherent approach to Pakistan has spawned even appeasement.

In 1960, in the naïve hope that water largesse would yield peace, India entered into the IWT by giving away the Indus system’s largest rivers as gifts to Pakistan. Since then, the congenitally hostile Pakistan, while drawing the full benefits from the treaty, has waged overt or covert 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.

Whereas the U.S. has ditched the INF Treaty over an alleged Russian violation of its terms, India clings to the IWT’s finer details, even though Pakistan is waging proxy war by terror against it. Like the IWT, the INF Treaty is of indefinite duration.

Pakistan’s use of state-reared terrorist groups to inflict upon India death by a thousand cuts can be invoked by New Delhi as constituting reasonable grounds for Indian withdrawal from the IWT. The International Court of Justice has upheld the principle that a treaty, including one of indefinite duration, may be dissolved by reason of a fundamental change of circumstances

Still, India not only adheres to the IWT’s finer details, it even goes beyond. For example, under IWT’s Article VIII, the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) is to meet once a year. Its next meeting was due in March 2019. But, thanks to India’s zealousness, the PIC met much earlier in August 2018, just five months after its previous meeting.

It was at that meeting that India agreed to advance Pakistan’s inspection tour to October 2018. The last such tour occurred in 2014 and the next one, in keeping with the IWT provision for a tour “once every five years”, was due by the end of 2019. The local bodies’ elections in Jammu and Kashmir forced the October tour to be deferred to January-end.

Before returning home on February 1, the Pakistani team examined three Indian hydropower projects currently under construction — the Pakal Dul, which will generate up to 1,000 megawatts of electricity, Ratle (850 megawatts), and Lower Kalnai (48 megawatts). The team also visited the already operational 900-megawatt Baglihar, a project that Pakistan tried earlier to stop by invoking the IWT’s dispute-settlement provisions. But the international neutral expert that was appointed to resolve the dispute ultimately ruled in India’s favour.

Pakistan, however, could seek international intercession again by using the information its inspection team collected last week to mount technical objections to the Indian projects under construction. Indeed, even before the team visited India, Pakistani officials publicly raised objections to the spillway or freeboard of these projects.

Pakistan’s interest lies in sustaining a unique treaty that incorporates water generosity to the lower riparian on a scale unmatched by any other pact in the world. That interest arms India with significant leverage to link the IWT’s future to Pakistan’s observance of basic international norms.

Yet, India is letting go the opportunity to reframe the terms of the Indus engagement.

India’s pusillanimity is apparent from yet another development last week. After the Indian foreign secretary summoned the Pakistani high commissioner to lodge a protest over Qureshi’s call to Umar Farooq, the Pakistani foreign office the next day summoned the Indian high commissioner in Islamabad in reprisal. This raises the question as to why India does not downgrade its diplomatic relations with Pakistan. Why maintain full diplomatic ties with a country that New Delhi branded “Terroristan” in 2017?

There is no reason for India to keep diplomatic relations with a terrorist state at the high commissioner level. Downsizing diplomatic missions and doing away with high commissioners should be part of an Indian strategy to employ peaceful tools, including diplomatic, economic and riparian pressures, to reform Pakistan’s behaviour.

Sadly, India is all talk when it comes to imposing costs on the next-door terrorist state. Indian policymakers do not seem to realize that words not backed by action carry major costs. They not only affect India’s credibility but also undermine its deterrent posture by emboldening the enemy.

Isn’t it telling that Pakistan continues to gore India although it is much smaller in economic, military and demographic terms? Such aggression is the bitter fruit of India’s present approach, which essentially has remained the same under successive governments. However, it is still not late to reverse course.

India ought to talk less and act more. To tame a rogue neighbour, India must emphasize deeds, not words. For starters, it must discard the fiction that it can have normal diplomatic relations with a sponsor of terrorism.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research.

China’s India trade funds its containment strategy

Featured

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, January 5, 2018

wang yi-swarajChina is emphasizing public diplomacy to help soften Indian public opinion and mute Indian concerns over an increasingly asymmetrical trade relationship. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in New Delhi the new people-to-people mechanism will “help consolidate the public-opinion foundation” for bilateral ties. China’s public diplomacy aims to underpin its “win-win” policy toward India — engagement with containment.

New Delhi, however inadvertently, is lending a helping hand to Beijing’s strategy of engagement as a façade for containment. India has done little more than implore China to rein in its spiralling trade surplus. The lopsided trade relationship makes India essentially a colonial-style raw-material appendage of the state-led Chinese economy, which increasingly dumps manufactured goods there.

Worse still, New Delhi effectively is funding China’s India containment strategy. India’s defence budget for the current financial year, at Rs. 2,95,512 crore ($42.2 billion), is just 65% of China’s estimated trade surplus of $65.1 billion in the calendar year 2018. This means India practically is underwriting Beijing’s hostile actions against it — from its military build-up in Tibet and growing Indian Ocean encroachments to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Pakistan recently revealed to the International Monetary Fund that China’s CPEC investments will total $26.5 billion — less than half of the earlier claims. From just one year’s trade surplus with India, Beijing can fully fund two CPEC-type multi-year projects and still have billions of dollars for other activities to contain India.

In the list of countries with which China has the highest trade surpluses, India now ranks No. 2 behind the US. China’s surplus with the US, of course, is massive. But as a percentage of total bilateral trade, India’s trade deficit with China is greater than America’s. And in terms of what it exports to and imports from China, India is little different than any African economy.

Consider another troubling fact: Total Chinese foreign direct investment in India remains insignificant. Cumulatively aggregating to $1.9 billion, it is just a fraction of China’s yearly trade surplus. India’s 2015 removal of China as a “country of concern”, instead of encouraging major Chinese FDI flow, has only spurred greater dumping.

Consequently, China’s trade surplus has spiralled from less than $2.5 billion a month when Narendra Modi took office to over $5 billion a month since more than a year. China’s trade malfeasance is undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness, with the result that Modi’s “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off. Many firms in India have turned from manufacturers to traders by marketing low-end products from China — from tube lights to fans — under their brand names. Is it thus any surprise that manufacturing’s share of India’s GDP has actually contracted? Instead of “Make in India”, “Made in China” has gained a stronger foothold in India.

India’s China problem will only exacerbate when the planned 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) accord takes effect, thereby creating a free-trade zone between the world’s two most-populous countries. Unlike the other states negotiating RCEP, India is not an export-driven economy; rather it is an import-dependent economy whose growth is largely driven by domestic consumption.

RCEP’s main impact on India will come from China, which Harvard’s Graham Allison has called “the most protectionist, mercantilist and predatory major economy in the world”. China, while exploiting India’s rule of law for dumping, keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses. It has dragged its feet on dismantling regulatory barriers to the import of Indian agricultural and pharmaceutical products and IT services.

External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj rightly reminded Wang that “a solution to the continuously increasing trade deficit” is a must. Seeking to rebalance trade is not a dollar-for-dollar matter. Rather it is about ensuring fair trade and fair competition. China rose through fair access to world markets that it now denies India. Indeed, Beijing is abusing trade rules to pursue unfair trade and undercut India’s manufacturing base.

What stops India from taking a leaf out of US President Donald Trump’s playbook and giving China a taste of its own bad medicine? World Trade Organization (WTO) rules permit punitive tariffs on foreign subsidized goods that harm domestic industries. India can also emulate Beijing’s non-tariff barriers and other market restrictions.

India focuses on Pakistan’s unconventional war by terror but forgets that China is also waging an unconventional war, though by economic means. Indeed, China’s economic war is inflicting greater damage, including by killing Indian manufacturing and fostering rising joblessness among the Indian youth.

Just as the British — as American historian Will Durant noted — financed their colonization of India with Indian wealth, the Chinese are financing their encirclement of India with the profits from their predatory trade with it.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

U.S. sheds its blinkers on China

Featured

A1MAIN-tradewar-052518

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, successive US presidents, as a matter of policy, aided China’s rise in the naïve hope that a more prosperous China would liberalize economically and politically. But now a fundamental shift in America’s China policy is under way, opening the path to greater Indo-US collaboration. The evolving paradigm shift, with its broad bipartisan support, is set to outlast Donald Trump’s presidency.

China, a trade cheat that has also employed non-tariff tools to punish countries as diverse as South Korea, Mongolia, Japan and the Philippines, is getting a taste of its own medicine. By scripting the Canadian arrest of the Huawei founder’s daughter, the US has shown it has more powerful non-tariff weapons. The action has rattled China’s elites: They are angry but also fearful that any one of them could meet a similar fate while travelling to the West.

The arrest was significant for another reason. As former US Defence Secretary Ash Carter says in a recent essay published by Harvard University, Beijing has a history of staging provocations that coincide with high-level diplomacy. For example, the start of President Xi Jinping’s 2014 state visit to India coincided with a deep Chinese military incursion into Ladakh. The fact that the Huawei arrest coincided with the Dec. 1 Trump-Xi dinner meeting in Buenos Aires signalled to Beijing that others can pay it back in the same coin.

America’s ongoing policy shift, however, should not obscure how its “China fantasy”, as a book title describes it, facilitated the assertive rise of its main challenger. Such was the fantasy that President Bill Clinton got China into the WTO by citing Woodrow Wilson’s vision of “free markets, free elections, and free peoples” and claiming the admission would herald “a future of greater openness and freedom for the people of China”. Instead, China has become more autocratic and repressive, building an Orwellian surveillance state.

The end of the 45-year-old US conciliatory approach to China does not necessarily signify the advent of an overtly confrontational policy or even a new cold war. China, for example, still gets a free pass on human-rights abuses. The US has slapped no sanctions on China for detaining more than a million of its Muslims in internment camps. Imagine the US response had Russia set up such camps.

The policy shift appears more about finding economic levers to blunt China’s strategy of global expansion and ascendancy. In Asia, for example, China is aiming to displace the US as the leading power and contain its peer rivals, Japan and India, by seeking to enforce a 21st-century version of the Monroe Doctrine, including through geo-economic tools and territorial and maritime revisionism. It has gained de facto control of much of the South China Sea.

A key question is whether the US policy shift is occurring too late to stop China’s global rise or even compel it to respect international norms and rules. Having become strong through assorted trade barriers, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and industrial and export subsidies, China is unlikely to fundamentally change its behaviour in response to the new American pressure. Xi, China’s new self-crowned emperor, would undermine his position — and his strategy to build a Sino-centric Asia — by yielding to American demands.

Xi’s regime will seek to bear the US pressure — at some cost to China’s economic growth — but without materially altering its policies or global ambitions. The 90-day “truce” in the trade war that Xi negotiated with Trump in Buenos Aires meshes with Beijing’s “two steps forward, one step back” strategy to progressively advance its ambitions.

Nevertheless, the US, by embracing a more realistic and clear-eyed approach, is signalling that China’s economic and strategic aggression will no longer go unchallenged. Even if the US fails to compel Beijing to respect international rules, its policy change signifies that the free ride that China has long enjoyed is ending — a free ride that has brought the security of its neighbours, including India, under pressure.

Indeed, Trump has shown how active pressure on China, as opposed to Indian-style imploration, can yield concessions. Whereas deference to China usually invites bullying, standing up to it generates respect and compromise.

In Buenos Aires, while the spotlight was on the Trump-Xi talks, the US president’s joint meeting with prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi — the first ever such trilateral — underscored the centrality of Japan and India to the American goal to build a stable balance of power in Asia. Indeed, the entente between Asia’s richest democracy and its biggest is a principal pillar of Washington’s newly unveiled “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.

Canada must stand up to China the bully

Featured

JQFM7K6NTVCLJEC5JJUAIZCPO4

In clear reprisal for Canada’s U.S.-sought arrest of the daughter of Huawei’s founder, China has detained two Canadians on charges of undermining its national security but has shied away from taking any action against the United States. This is in keeping with Beijing’s record of acting only against the weaker side, even if it happens to be a U.S. ally.

For example, when the United States installed its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea, China used its economic leverage to retaliate against South Korea, not against the U.S. The heavy-handed economic sanctions imposed on South Korea in 2017, partly extending into this year, illustrated Beijing’s use of trade as a political weapon.

Similarly, after U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act in March, which encourages official visits between the United States and the island, China staged war games against Taiwan and bribed the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso to break diplomatic ties with Taipei. The United States, however, faced no consequences.

Now, while intensifying a punitive campaign against Canada, China has adopted a tempered approach toward the United States, even though Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou at the behest of U.S. prosecutors for alleged bank fraud related to violations of sanctions against Iran. In fact, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has bent over backward to emphasize that while confrontation hurts the U.S.-China relationship, co-operation benefits both countries.

Such is the Chinese effort to mollify the power behind Ms. Meng’s arrest that, in recent days, Beijing has made trade-related concessions to help defuse tensions with Washington. Contrast this with the way China has followed up on its threats of retaliation against Canada by arresting a former Canadian diplomat, Michael Kovrig, and then detaining Michael Spavor, a Canadian writer and entrepreneur living in the Chinese province of Liaoning. Ms. Meng’s release on bail has apparently not allayed Beijing’s anger against Ottawa.

Such behaviour fits the classic definition of a bully, whether in school or on the international stage – one that engages in unwanted, aggressive behaviour by taking advantage of an imbalance of power.

In fact, with its foreign policy favouring strong-arm methods over mutual understanding, China’s neighbours increasingly view it as a bully. U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis correctly said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that China pursues a “tribute nation” approach to other countries and aspires for “veto power” over their sovereign decisions.

This approach helps explain why Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has started to run into resistance in a number of countries. Essentially an imperial project aimed at making real the mythical Middle Kingdom, BRI has sought to lure countries desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. Countries neglected by multilateral lending institutions initially flocked to BRI, but now, partner countries worry about Beijing ensnaring them in sovereignty-eroding debt traps.

China’s penchant for bullying also explains why it essentially remains a friendless power. It lacks any real strategic allies. Indeed, the more power China has accumulated, the greater has been its difficulty in gaining genuine allies, underscoring that leadership demands more than brute might. Contrast this with the strong network of allies and partners that the United States maintains globally.

China’s increasing authoritarianism at home under Mr. Xi has fostered an overtly muscular foreign policy that has counterproductively contributed to China’s lonely rise. A senior U.S. official warned in 2016 that Beijing risks erecting “a Great Wall of self-isolation.”

China, a trade cheat that has also employed non-tariff tools to punish countries as diverse as Japan, Mongolia and the Philippines, is now getting a taste of its own medicine. With Ms. Meng’s arrest, the U.S. showed that it has more powerful non-tariff weapons. China’s elites are rattled – angry but also fearful that any one of them could meet a similar fate while traveling to the West.

Ms. Meng’s arrest was significant for another reason. As former U.S. defence secretary Ash Carter says in a recent Harvard University essay, Beijing has a history of staging provocations that coincide with high-level diplomacy. For example, the start of Mr. Xi’s 2014 state visit to India coincided with a deep Chinese military incursion into the Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh.

The fact that Ms. Meng’s arrest coincided with the Trump-Xi dinner meeting on Dec. 1 in Buenos Aires signalled to Beijing, however unintentionally, that others can pay it back in the same coin.

More importantly, Mr. Trump has shown how active U.S. pressure on China, as opposed to imploration or admonition, can yield concessions. Without the United States withdrawing its 10-per-cent tariffs on US$250-billion worth of Chinese goods, Beijing has begun lifting, following the Buenos Aires talks, its restrictions on imports of U.S. food, energy and cars. Those restrictions had been placed in retaliation for the 10-per-cent tariffs. The United States’ threat to increase them to 25 per cent and possibly extend them to all imports from China forced Beijing’s hand.

When a country pursues an accommodating approach toward Beijing, an emboldened China only ups the ante. Deference to China usually invites bullying, while standing up to it draws respect and a readiness to negotiate and shore-up cooperation.

Ottawa would do well to remember this fact as it grapples with the escalation of the diplomatic feud by a country that seeks to play the aggrieved victim while acting as the bully.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water, Peace, and War.

© The Globe and Mail, 2018.

Fair Observer talks to Brahma Chellaney

Featured

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

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

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

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

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

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

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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