Trump shows India the limits of friendship with the US

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By Brahma Chellaney, Daily’O

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump makes trouble for India

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

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Election triumph will boost Modi’s international clout

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

Brahma Chellamey, Nikkei Asian Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.

Modi must advance national security

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Narendra Modi’s return to power with a stunning majority reflects the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leadership that reinvents India as a more secure, confident and competitive country. Contrast the Bharatiya Janata Party’s nationalist plank with the opposing forces’ lack of ideological conviction or a clear national agenda. Most Indian parties, including BJP’s own allies, are controlled by single families, which run them like family-owned businesses. The state-level election success of a few notwithstanding, the humiliating rout of many such parties shows that politics guided by families, not principles or national vision, is out of sync with the new India.

Indians not only want their country to stop punching below its weight but also to emerge truly as a great power. But without ameliorating its security challenges and investing in human capital, India has little hope of becoming a major power with a high level of autonomous and innovative technological capability.

Modi’s re-election represents a fresh mandate for change. The new government’s most pressing challenges relate to internal and external security, including a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan — a dangerous combination of an ascendant great power and an implacably hostile neighbour. New Delhi also needs to effectively counter Chinese inroads in its maritime backyard and in countries long symbiotically tied to India.

The recent Sri Lankan bombings, oddly, have helped underscore India’s own jihadist threat. The Sri Lankan investigations have helped shine a spotlight on the growing cross-strait role of Islamist forces in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The situations in West Bengal and Assam also appear fraught with similar danger.

Not surprisingly, national security weighed on the Indian voters’ minds — a concern reinforced by the Pulwama terrorist massacre, which led to a retaliatory Indian airstrike on the Jaish-e-Mohammed’s lair in Balakot. However, when Pakistan daringly responded by crossing a red line — its February 27 aerial blitz targeted Indian military sites — Modi surprisingly held back Indian forces from wreaking punishment.

Yet Pakistan still fears Indian punishment, which explains why its airspace has remained closed to most east-west overflights for the past three months, even though this action has also cut off Pakistan’s air connections with Southeast Asia and resulted in its loss of overflight fees. Significantly, since Pulwama, Pakistan’s military has not staged any cross-border tactical or terrorist strike in India. This shows that keeping Pakistan under sustained military and non-military pressure holds the key.

China’s muscular revisionism, of course, poses a bigger national security challenge. India’s lagging defence modernization has compounded the challenge from the world’s largest, strongest and technologically most advanced autocracy. Unlike a short-focused India, China plays the long game, with the aim to advance its interests step-by-step. However, the ongoing paradigm shift in US policy on China under President Donald Trump is putting growing pressure on Beijing, constricting its space against India.

An unpredictable and transactional Trump administration, to be sure, is also adding to India’s diplomatic challenges, as underscored by the new US sanctions against Iran and Russia. Although the Modi government said last year that “India follows only UN sanctions, not unilateral sanctions of any country”, it has been compelled to comply with the recent, Trump-imposed ban on Iranian oil exports.

More broadly, Modi’s foreign policy will continue to be guided by a non-doctrinaire vision. Shorn of ideology, his foreign policy has prudently sought to revitalize the country’s economic and military security, while avoiding having to overtly choose one power over another as a dominant partner.

Modi, however, must develop a credible counterterrorism strategy. Sri Lanka, since the Easter bombings, is seeking to proactively root out violent jihadism. Emulating the Singaporean policy of zero tolerance of jihad-extolling sermons, it has deported or arrested more than 200 mullahs and cracked down on the inflow of Gulf money. To prevent violent jihad being taught to impressionable young minds, it has decided to bring madrasas under its education ministry and outlaw the Sharia University at Batticaloa. Such steps may seem unthinkable in India.

Take another example: India kills a leading terrorist, only to squander the gain by permitting a large public funeral that memorializes him as a martyr. India has learned little from its 2016 Burhan Wani blunder. Last week’s Pulwama funeral for local Al Qaeda leader Zakir Musa triggered rioting and curfew. Contrast this with the way the US dumped Osama bin Laden’s body in the sea and China forced the burial of Noble peace laureate Liu Xiaobo’s ashes at sea.

Modi’s first term failed to dispel India’s image as a soft state. If his second term is going to reinvent India, Modi cannot shy away from taking hard decisions. The transformative moment usually comes once in a generation. Modi, with his cold-eyed pragmatism, must seize this moment. In the way his tax and regulatory overhaul is set to boost economic growth, he must similarly advance national security through fundamental reforms.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Modi’s win will cement India’s multi-aligned foreign policy

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide win in national elections represents a fresh mandate for him to reinvent India as a more secure, confident and competitive country and forge closer ties with natural allies. Modi’s second five-year term in office will help cement India’s multi-aligned foreign policy, which has sought to build close partnerships with all powers central to long-term Indian interests.

Domestically, Modi’s big win has averted a nightmare scenario for Indian democracy — an indecisive election verdict fostering political paralysis. Faced with a choice between a stable, firm government and a possible retreat to political drift, voters in the world’s largest democracy reposed their faith in Modi and his Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP.

Internationally, India’s profile has continued to rise under Modi. India appears to be moving from its long-held nonalignment to a globalized practicality — multi-alignment. A Cold War legacy, nonalignment implies a passive approach, including not taking sides and staying on the sidelines. Multi-alignment, by contrast, calls for a proactive approach.

India, although a founding leader of the nonaligned movement, now makes little mention of nonalignment. Instead it is building close partnerships with key powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings, not only to advance its core priorities but also to shore up its strategic autonomy, in keeping with its longstanding preference for an independent foreign policy. Balancing these different partnerships, of course, is proving a challenge for New Delhi.

Modi’s reelection has come after a series of elections in southern Asia. In the past 18 months, 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 Asia’s fastest-growing economies. The only country in the region not to go to the polls recently is Sri Lanka, where the Supreme Court forced the country’s president to roll back a coup after he unconstitutionally dismissed the prime minister and called fresh parliamentary elections.

India’s biggest neighbor, however, is the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy, China — a reminder that the new Indian government’s most-pressing security challenges relate to the country’s combustible neighborhood, not least a deepening strategic nexus between China and Pakistan. Both these nuclear-armed allies stake claims to vast swaths of Indian territory and employ asymmetric warfare.

Not surprisingly, national security weighed on the Indian voters’ minds, especially because, in the run-up to the elections, a Pakistan-based, United Nations-designated terrorist group claimed responsibility for a massacre of more than 40 paramilitary troops in Indian Kashmir. An Indian retaliatory airstrike on the group’s hideout in the Pakistani heartland helped burnish Modi’s credentials as a strong leader.

Now, after his reelection, Modi will have to consider urgently the foreign-policy challenges, above all an ascendant China’s muscular revisionism. China has stepped up its military pressure along the long, disputed Himalayan border with India, including deploying new offensive weapons and advertising live-fire combat exercises. Chinese encroachments in India’s maritime backyard have also increased.

Yet, vexed by the unpredictability of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, Modi has sought to mend ties with China, or at least stop them from deteriorating further. At an “informal” summit in Wuhan, China, in April 2018, Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to “reset” relations. Another Wuhan-style summit between the two leaders has been planned for this autumn in India.

For Xi, however, such summitry 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 Himalayas. 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 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, overtaking Russia. Indeed, the Cold War-era India-Russia camaraderie has been replaced by India-U.S. bonhomie.

However, India still sees Russia as a natural ally and a “tested and tried” friend. Modi has been holding annual summit meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin to bolster the bilateral relationship, whose trade component has shrunk.

India 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 and a nuclear-powered submarine. So ties to Moscow remain important.

The Trump administration’s new sanctions against Russia and Iran are accentuating the Modi government’s challenge in balancing India’s bilateral relationships. How to navigate America’s extraterritorial sanctions targeting Iran and Russia has become an important diplomatic test for India, which is increasingly concerned about Trump’s pursuit of aggressive unilateralism.

India, for example, has taken an economic hit, in the form of a higher oil-import bill, from Trump’s targeting of Iran. Over the years, Iran has been an important oil supplier to energy-poor India and is the route for a transportation corridor that India is building to Afghanistan that bypasses Pakistan.

In fact, the Trump administration’s ongoing direct talks with the Afghan Taliban to finalize a “peace” deal are 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.

Against this background, the challenges to Modi’s policy of multi-alignment are likely to mount in his second term. Meanwhile, China’s spreading influence in India’s backyard — from Nepal to Sri Lanka — is underscoring the imperative for New Delhi to arrest its eroding regional clout.

Modi’s foreign policy, however, will continue to be guided by a non-doctrinaire vision. 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.

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

Why Tibet matters ever more in India-China ties

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The Dalai Lama, after escaping to India in 1959, meets Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (right). 

If Tibet is at the heart of the China-India divide, water is at the centre of the Tibet-India bond.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Wars in space are not just Hollywood fiction but an emerging reality for defence planners. India’s successful “kill” with an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon is a major milestone in its quest for effective deterrence. Without developing ASAT capability, India risked encouraging China to go after Indian space assets early in a conflict.

The test is meant as a warning shot across China’s bow for another reason: ASAT capability serves as a basic building block of a ballistic missile defence system, which can shoot down incoming missiles. The development thus holds implications also for China’s “all-weather” strategic ally, Pakistan, which maintains a nuclear first-use doctrine against India.

In this light, it is unconscionable that the development of India’s satellite-kill technologies was held up by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, which, as top scientists have said, refused to give the go-ahead. In the Indian system, no one is held to account, even for compromising national security.

India’s ASAT test should not obscure the fact that March 31 marked the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s entry into India after a gruelling two-week journey through his Chinese-occupied homeland. Dressed as a Chinese soldier, he escaped from his military-besieged Norbulinka Palace in Lhasa. He entered India as tens of thousands died in China’s brutal suppression of an uprising against its occupation of Tibet.

Today, Tibet remains at the centre of the India-China divide, fuelling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions and riparian feuds. Indeed, the fall of Tibet represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development in modern India’s history. It gave China borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal for the first time, and opened the path to a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis. The impact has been exacerbated by serial Indian blunders.

When the Dalai Lama fled his homeland, India was the only country to have diplomatic representation in Tibet. In fact, India controlled Tibet’s postal, telegraph and telephone services and had military personnel at Yatung and Gyantse before it ceded those rights under the infamous Panchsheel Agreement of 1954.

Indeed, no sooner had Mao Zedong’s regime annexed the historical buffer of Tibet than New Delhi voluntarily began forfeiting all its extraterritorial rights and privileges there. In 1952, it replaced the 16-year-old Indian Mission in Lhasa (which maintained direct relations with Tibet) with a new consulate-general accredited to China. Nineteen months later, the Panchsheel accord gave its imprimatur to the “Tibet Region of China”, without Beijing’s recognition of the then existing Indo-Tibetan border. After China invaded India in 1962, it shut the Indian consulate in Lhasa.

Tibet enjoyed close transportation, trade and cultural links with India throughout history. But with Tibet now locked behind a Chinese “iron curtain”, the formerly integrated economies and cultures of the entire Himalayan region have broken apart.

In recent years, China has turned the resource-rich but ecologically fragile Tibetan Plateau into the centre of its mining and dam-building activities. The environmental crisis haunting the plateau threatens India’s ecological well-being. This is illustrated by the still turbid waters of the once-pristine Siang, the main artery of the Brahmaputra river system.

The more India has aligned its Tibet stance with China’s position, the more Beijing has upped the ante, including seeking to reengineer trans-boundary river flows, on which India is critically dependent. Beijing began calling Arunachal Pradesh “South Tibet” only after the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2003 formally recognized Tibet as part of China.

Today, despite the ASAT test, India’s China policy seems adrift. The Dalai Lama is a strategic asset for India, yet current Indian policy doesn’t reflect that. Indeed, according to a leaked advisory, New Delhi changed course early last year to shun official relations with the Dalai Lama and other exiled Tibetan leaders — a shift that won Beijing’s tacit appreciation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first attempt in 2014 to “reset” ties with China boomeranged spectacularly. Undeterred, Modi persisted, even as China furtively expanded its military footprint in Doklam. The Wuhan summit represented Modi’s Reset 2.0. For China, however, Wuhan served as a cover to kill two birds with one stone. While encouraging Modi’s overtures to help instil greater Indian caution to openly challenge China, Beijing has embarked on a major border-force buildup. On Modi’s watch, Chinese exports have flooded India, with Beijing more than doubling its bilateral trade surplus.

Meanwhile, Tibet’s shadow over India-China relations is becoming longer. Beijing is waiting to install a marionette as the Dalai Lama’s successor. China’s increasing militarization of Tibet directly impinges on Indian security. Its punitive denial of hydrological data to India in 2017 was an early warning of the water card it is fashioning. If Tibet is at the heart of the China-India divide, water is at the centre of the Tibet-India bond.

To help curb China’s territorial and riparian revisionism, India must subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue. By recalibrating its Tibet policy, India could elevate Tibet as a broader strategic and environmental issue that impinges on international security and climatic and hydrological stability. More than ASAT and other weapons, India needs political will and clarity to deter China.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

The China-Pakistan Axis of Evil

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While Pakistan employs terrorist groups as proxies to bleed India, China uses Pakistan as a proxy to box in India. The irony is that, while providing cover for Pakistan’s open collusion with terrorists, China is locking up its “radical” Muslims in gulags.

Axisofevil1Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine

The February 26 Indian airstrike on a terrorist sanctuary in Pakistan’s heartland cannot obscure the resurfacing of India-China tensions following the Valentine’s Day terrorist attack in Pulwama that killed dozens of Indian paramilitary troops. China’s culpability in the attack — and in previous lethal cross-border terrorist strikes, such as on the Pathankot airbase — is apparent from its shielding of Pakistan’s export to terrorism to India. China brazenly provides cover for Pakistan’s collusion with state-reared terrorists.

The message from India’s use of airpower for the first time against a cross-border terrorist safe haven is that it is not afraid to escalate its response to the aerial domain in order to call Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. This could potentially mark a defining moment in India’s counterterrorism efforts against Pakistan’s strategy to inflict death by a thousand cuts.

The airstrike, however, is likely to reinforce Beijing’s determination to bolster Pakistan as a counterweight to India, especially because China incurs no strategic or trade costs for containing India. Beijing is not only propping up the Pakistani state financially and militarily, but also has repeatedly blocked United Nations action against the chief of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist group, which was quick to claim responsibility for the Pulwama massacre.

The paradox is that China, the world’s longest-surviving autocracy, has locked up more than a million Muslims from Xinjiang in the name of cleansing their minds of extremist thoughts, yet is simultaneously protecting Pakistan’s export of deadly Islamist terrorism to India. While Pakistan employs terrorist groups as proxies to bleed India, China uses Pakistan as a proxy to box in India.

The plain fact is that, for China, Pakistan is not just a client state, but a valued instrument to help contain India. So, is it any surprise that since the April 2018 Wuhan summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Beijing has actually stepped up its use of Pakistan as an India-containment tool, including by accelerating the so-called China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and playing the Kashmir card against New Delhi? In fact, China is steadily encircling India, as several developments underscore — from its new military base in Tajikistan that overlooks the Wakhan Corridor and Pakistan-held Jammu and Kashmir to its increasing encroachments in India’s maritime backyard.

It is extraordinary that China has been able to mount pressure on India from multiple flanks at a time when its own economic and geopolitical fortunes are taking a beating. By China’s own statistics, its economy last year registered the weakest pace of growth in nearly three decades. Add to the picture a new phenomenon — the flight of capital from a country that, between 1994 and 2014, amassed a mounting pile of foreign-exchange reserves by enjoying a surplus in its overall balance of payments.

Now faced with an unstoppable trend of net capital outflows, Xi’s regime has tightened exchange controls and other capital restrictions to prop up the country’s fragile financial system and sagging currency. The regime has used tens of billions of dollars in recent months alone to bolster the yuan’s international value. Not just capital is fleeing China but even wealthy Chinese prefer to live overseas, in a vote of no confidence in the Chinese system.

China’s internal challenges are being compounded by new external factors. Chinese belligerence and propaganda, for example, have spawned a growing international image problem for the country. More significantly, China has come under international pressure on several fronts — from its trade, investment and lending policies to its human-rights abuses. U.S.-led pressure on trade and geopolitical fronts has accentuated Beijing’s dilemmas and fuelled uncertainty in China. As long as the U.S.-China trade war rages, flight of capital will remain a problem for Beijing. Its foreign-exchange reserves have shrunk by about $1 trillion from their peak of just over $4 trillion in mid-2014.

At a time when China’s imperial project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is running into resistance from a growing number of partner countries, Beijing is also confronting a U.S.-led pushback against its telecommunications giant Huawei. Meanwhile, China is alienating other Asian nations by throwing its weight around too aggressively.

This trend is likely to accelerate with the restructured People’s Liberation Army becoming less of an army and more of a power projection force, the majority of whose troops now are not from the army but from the other services. Indeed, the PLA’s shift toward power projection foreshadows a more aggressive Chinese military approach of the kind already witnessed in the Himalayas or the South China Sea, where China has fundamentally changed the status quo in its favour.

More fundamentally, it is China’s open disregard of international rules and its penchant for bullying that explains why it remains a largely friendless power. Leadership in today’s world demands more than just brute might. Beijing lacks any real strategic allies other than Pakistan. When China joined hands with the U.S. at the United Nations to impose new international sanctions on North Korea, once its vassal, it implicitly highlighted that it now has just one real ally — Pakistan.

China today is increasingly oriented to the primacy of the Communist Party, responsible for the past pogroms and witch-hunts and the current excesses. Under Xi, the party has set out to demolish Muslim, Tibetan and Mongol identities, expand China’s frontiers far out into international waters, and turn the country into a digital totalitarian state. Consequently, four decades after it initiated economic reform, China finds itself at a crossroads, with its future trajectory uncertain.

It is against this background that the Xi regime’s increasing use of Pakistan against India stands out. China is working to extend its reach to the Arabian Sea by turning Pakistan into a client-state and keeping India off-balance.

Beijing not only continues to bolster Pakistan’s offensive capabilities, including in weapons of mass destruction (WMD), but also is working in tandem with that country to militarize the northern Arabian Sea. Chinese-supplied warships have already been pressed into service to secure Pakistan’s Chinese-controlled Gwadar port, the flagship project in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which, in turn, is the centrepiece of BRI.

Through CPEC, China is seeking to turn Pakistan into its land corridor to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. And, as a U.S. Defence Department report in 2016 forewarned, Pakistan — “China’s primary customer for conventional weapons” — is likely to host a Chinese naval hub intended to project power in the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. Such a naval base is expected to come up quietly next to the Gwadar port, directly challenging India’s maritime interests.

China, meanwhile, has actively aided Pakistan’s counter-strategy to the Indian military’s supposed “Cold Start” doctrine. Pakistan’s counter is a mobile WMD capability centred on tactical nuclear weapons for use against enemy battle formations. The “Cold Start” doctrine is reportedly the idea of a quick and limited Indian conventional strike in response to a Pakistan-scripted terrorist attack, so as to deny Pakistani generals the ability to raise conflict to a nuclear level.

That doctrine remains notional, with no indication that India has either integrated it into its military strategy or reconfigured force deployments in order to execute it in a contingency. Yet Pakistan, with Chinese support, has fielded tactical nukes, creating a dangerous situation. Let’s be clear: Pakistan’s recklessness has been egged on by China. A full-fledged war on the subcontinent will open opportunities for China against India that Beijing seeks.

Beijing has repeatedly declared that China and Pakistan are “as close as lips and teeth.” It has also called Pakistan its “irreplaceable all-weather friend.” The two countries often boast of their “iron brotherhood.” In 2010, Pakistan’s then-prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, waxed poetic about the relationship, describing it as “taller than the mountains, deeper than the oceans, stronger than steel, and sweeter than honey.”

In truth, China has little in common with aid-dependent Pakistan other than a shared enmity against India. China and Pakistan are revisionist states not content with their existing frontiers. Both lay claim to vast swaths of Indian territory. Their “iron brotherhood” is about a shared interest in containing India. The prospect of a two-front war, should India enter into conflict with either Pakistan or China, certainly advances that interest.

India will never be able to break the China-Pakistan nexus, however hard it might try. Yet successive Indian governments have failed to grasp this strategic reality. Virtually every Indian prime minister has sought to reinvent the foreign-policy wheel rather than learn the essentials of statecraft or heed the lessons of past national mistakes.

In fact, an economically rising India seeking to chart an independent course only gives Beijing a greater incentive to use Pakistan as a surrogate against it. For China, the appeal of propping up Pakistan is heightened by the latter’s willingness to serve as a loyal proxy. In fact, given that Pakistan is an economic basket case dependent on Chinese lending, Beijing treats it as something of a guinea pig. For example, it has sold Pakistan outdated or untested nuclear power reactors (two such AC-1000 reactors are coming up near Karachi). China has also sold weapons systems not deployed by its own military.

Less known is that Pakistan’s descent into a jihadist dungeon has benefited China, as it has provided an ideal pretext for Beijing to advance its strategic interests within that country. For example, China has deployed thousands of troops in Pakistan-held Jammu and Kashmir since the last decade, ostensibly to secure its strategic projects. The Chinese military presence there means that India faces Chinese troops on both flanks of its portion of Jammu and Kashmir, given that China occupies one-fifth of the original princely state of J&K. This presence also explains why India faces a two-front scenario in the event of a war with either country.

More fundamentally, Beijing has pursued a troubling three-pronged policy to build pressure on New Delhi over J&K, where the disputed borders of India, Pakistan and China converge. First, it has enlarged its footprint in Pakistan-occupied J&K through CPEC projects, despite Indian protestations that such projects in a territory India claims as its own violate Indian sovereignty. Second, Beijing has attempted to question India’s sovereignty over Indian J&K by issuing visas on a separate leaf to J&K residents holding Indian passports. And third, it has officially shortened the length of the Himalayan border it shares with India by purging the 1,597-kilometer line separating Indian J&K from Chinese-held J&K.

Add to the picture China’s shielding of Pakistan’s export of terrorism and its indirect encouragement of separatism in India’s J&K. Then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cautioned in 2010 that “Beijing could be tempted to use India’s ‘soft underbelly,’ Kashmir.”

While building projects in Pakistan-occupied J&K, a UN-designated disputed territory, China denied a visa in 2010 to the Indian Army’s Northern Command General B.S. Jaswal, who was to lead the Indian side in the bilateral defence dialogue in Beijing, on grounds that he commanded “a disputed area, Jammu and Kashmir.”At the same time, Beijing has signalled an interest in cleverly inserting itself as a mediator in the India-Pakistan tensions over Kashmir. This is part of China’s efforts to obscure the fact that it is actually the third party to the J&K dispute.

While playing the Kashmir card against India, China offers Pakistan security assurances and political protection, especially diplomatic cover at the United Nations. For example, China has repeatedly vetoed UN action against Masood Azhar, the Pakistan-based chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammed, which, backed by Pakistani intelligence services, has carried out several major terrorist attacks on Indian targets, including the Pathankot air base in 2016 and the Parliament in 2001. And in 2016, Sartaj Aziz, the then Pakistani prime minister’s foreign-policy adviser, said that China has helped Pakistan to block India’s U.S.-supported bid to gain membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the export-control cartel.

Pakistan has secured other major benefits from China as well. For example, China provided critical assistance in building Pakistan’s arsenal of nuclear weapons, including by reducing the likelihood of U.S. sanctions or Indian retaliation. China still offers covert nuclear and missile assistance, reflected in the more recent transfer of the launcher for the Shaheen-3, Pakistan’s nuclear-capable ballistic missile, which has a range of 2,750 kilometres.

In this light, a grateful Pakistan has given China exclusive rights to run Gwadar port for the next 40 years — a period in which Beijing will receive, tax free, 91% of the port’s revenues. The port operator, China Overseas Ports Holding Company, will also be exempt from major taxes for more than 20 years. Moreover, Pakistan has established a new 13,000-troop army division to protect CPEC projects. And it has deployed police forces to shield Chinese nationals and construction sites from Baloch insurgents and Islamist gunmen. China’s stationing of its own troops in the Pakistani part of J&K for years, however, betrays its lack of confidence in Pakistani security arrangements — and suggests that China will continue to enlarge its military footprint in Pakistan.

The Chinese strategic penetration of Pakistan, meanwhile, continues to be aided by the U.S. factor, despite President Donald Trump’s suspension of American security aid to that country last year.

Although Trump publicly declared that Pakistan provides the U.S. with “nothing but lies and deceit,” his desperation to get American troops out of Afghanistan has led to Washington cozying up to Pakistan again so as to clinch a final deal with the Pakistan-backed Afghan Taliban. Indeed, the U.S. tentative deal with the Taliban in Qatar in late January was struck with Pakistan’s active support. Pakistan, in effect, is reaping rewards for sponsoring cross-border terrorism, thanks to unflinching Chinese support and the renewed U.S. dependence on the Pakistani military in relation to Afghanistan.

Make no mistake: Despite slowing economic growth, a grinding trade fight with the U.S., and an international pushback against BRI, China has been able to bring India under greater pressure. If anything, it is a reflection of India’s pusillanimity that China continues to contain India without incurring any costs. Far from seeking to impose any costs on China, India is doing the opposite.

For example, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s presence in Wuzhen, China, in late February for the Russia-India-China (RIC) initiative meeting sent the message that New Delhi, for tactical reasons, was willing to whitewash Beijing’s culpability in the Pulwama massacre. RIC is actually a meaningless and worthless initiative for India, and the least New Delhi could have done is to force a postponement of the Wuzhen meeting at a time when the Indian republic was mourning the Pulwama mass murder.

Given that New Delhi is loath to impose any costs, including trade related, why would Beijing cease protecting the Pakistani deep state’s terror campaign against India? In fact, India has allowed China to reap ever-increasing rewards while systematically undermining Indian interests.

Just consider one fact: China’s trade surplus with India, on Modi’s watch, has more than doubled to over $66 billion annually. By comparison, India’s new defence budget unveiled in February totals $42.8 billion, or just 65% of China’s bilateral trade surplus. This underscores the extent to which India is underwriting China’s hostile actions against it.

India should be willing to employ trade as a tool to help reform China’s behaviour. Yet New Delhi continues to ignore calls from Indian industry and consumer groups for protection against the rising tide of Chinese imports that is undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness. Thanks to China’s large-scale dumping of manufactured goods, Modi’s “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off.

In fact, Modi has little to show from his personal diplomacy with Xi. For Xi, the Wuhan summit has served as a cover to kill two birds with one stone. While encouraging Modi’s overtures to help instil greater Indian caution and reluctance to openly challenge China, Xi has embarked on a major military build-up along the Himalayan border with India. The build-up includes deploying offensive new weapon systems and advertising live-fire combat exercises. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s status as China’s economic and security client has been firmly cemented and Chinese encroachments in India’s maritime backyard have increased.

As China treats Pakistan more and more as a colonial outpost that has a government on Chinese payroll, the challenge for India from the Sino-Pakistan nexus is mounting. Indeed, just as Pakistan wages an unconventional war by terror against India, China is pursuing its own asymmetric warfare against India, both by economic means and by employing Pakistan as a proxy.

The hype from India’s latest counterterrorism airstrike deep inside Pakistan cannot cloak this reality. Without forward-looking and proactive diplomacy that seeks to systematically combat the China-Pakistan nexus, India will continue to be weighed down by its region. Only through more vigorous defence and foreign policies can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation, freeing it to play a larger global role.

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

© Open magazine, 2019.