Changing Indo-Pacific power dynamics



Brahma Chellaney, The Washington Times

China’s two main Asian rivals, Japan and India, are seeking to mend their relations with it at a time of greater unpredictability in U.S. policy under President Donald Trump’s administration. This development carries significant implications for geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific region and could strengthen Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hand just when he has made himself China’s absolute ruler by dismantling the collective-leadership system that Deng Xiaoping helped institutionalize.

Add to the picture Australia’s hedging of its bets, despite a national furor there over China’s interference in its internal affairs, and America’s persistently cautious approach toward Beijing, seeking neither overt competition nor confrontation. All this gives Xi the strategic space to carry on with his muscular and revisionist foreign policy, reflected in China’s growing military assertiveness in the vast Indo-Pacific region stretching from the Pacific to the Horn of Africa.

An intense pace of top-level meetings is setting the stage for improving Sino-Indian and Sino-Japanese relations. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s Japan visit this week follows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s April 27-28 “informal” summit meeting with Xi in Wuhan, China. The Wuhan summit came just days after Wang Yi became the first Chinese foreign minister to visit Japan for bilateral talks since 2009.

After his summit with Modi, Xi spoke with Abe by telephone and appreciated Tokyo’s moves to improve relations with China. Tokyo and Beijing are working to arrange respective visits by Abe to China and Xi to Japan. Abe could visit China in the coming months and then host Xi in Tokyo next year.

While the United States remains a central factor in influencing the regional geopolitical landscape, China, Japan and India constitute Asia’s strategic triangle. They form a scalene triangle with three unequal sides, with China representing the longest side, side A, Japan side B and India side C. In this triangle, if B and C gang up, A cannot hope to gain preeminence in Asia.

The relationship between Japan and India is growing fast, yet each of them feels a strategic imperative to try to improve strained ties with China.

Deteriorating ties with Beijing make Tokyo and New Delhi more dependent on an unpredictable Trump administration, whose transactional approach to foreign policy is troubling all U.S. allies and strategic partners. If Japan and India can mend their troubled relations with China, they will be able to inject greater flexibility and maneuverability in their foreign-policy strategies.

Beijing has its own strategic reasons to ease tensions with New Delhi and Tokyo, including preventing the formation of a broader anti-China front and muting or lowering Indian and Japanese criticisms of its policies and moves. While Abe is the author of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that the Trump administration is now pushing, Modi’s government was the global leader in denouncing Xi’s signature “One Belt, One Road” initiative as opaque, predatory and neocolonial — a description that has gained wide international currency.

In seeking better relations with Beijing, Japan and India appear to have separately acknowledged the broader regional trend of countries hedging their bets on China’s rise. Through hedging, countries are seeking to ensure their strategic choices are not narrowed or crimped.

For example, South Korea, treading a tightrope between Washington and Beijing despite being slapped with informal Chinese economic sanctions for agreeing to America’s THAAD deployment, has declined to endorse Trump’s “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy. Or take Vietnam, which uses close party-to-party ties with China to smooth political relations, even when they are roiled by aggressive Chinese moves.

To propitiate Beijing, Australia withdrew from the annual Indian-initiated Malabar naval exercise a decade ago, although such drills help to strengthen military cooperation and maritime interoperability in the Indo-Pacific. Four months ago, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said discussions on Australia’s return to the India-Japan-U.S. Exercise Malabar were “progressing well.” Yet this year’s naval exercise will be held off Guam without Australian participation.

Australia asked to be an official “observer” at the 2017 Exercise Malabar, which featured aircraft carriers from the U.S. and India, and Japan’s Izumo helicopter carrier in the Bay of Bengal. Australia’s request to be an “observer” at a large and complex exercise — the equivalent of wanting to be half-pregnant — found little favor with India, which saw it as part of Canberra’s continued hedging strategy. Canberra has not clarified whether today it still seeks observer status or is ready to rejoin as a full-fledged member. But accommodating Australia at this stage will run counter to India’s effort to repair relations with China.

U.S. policy has unwittingly encouraged hedging strategies in the Indo-Pacific. For example, while using the China threat to win new strategic partners and strengthen existing alliances, the U.S. has been reluctant to resourcefully push back against Beijing’s territorial and maritime revisionism or take concrete steps to help rein in its military assertiveness. Washington’s kid-glove treatment has emboldened China to step up its creeping aggression to change the status quo in its favor.

Just like it stayed silent when China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012, Washington did not side with India but stayed neutral during last summer’s Sino-Indian military standoff, triggered by a Chinese move to change the status quo on the Doklam Plateau. A more powerful example is the South China Sea.

On President Barack Obama’s watch, China created and militarized seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, incurring no international costs. Now, on Trump’s watch, it has embarked on the next phase of its strategy there by installing with impunity surface-to-air missiles, anti-ship cruise missiles and other lethal systems, even though militarization of seized features in international waters directly violates international law.

In the joint statement following last month’s Mar-a-Lago summit with Abe, Trump’s reluctance to single out Beijing for criticism resulted in a false equivalency being created between China and other South China Sea claimant-states. The statement said all “South China Sea claimants, including China, should halt their militarization of disputed features” and that “China and other claimants should manage and resolve disputes peacefully.”

On trade issues, Trump is treating allies and China alike. He has gone to the extent of publicly shaming Japan, India and South Korea, although their combined trade surplus with the U.S. — $95.6 billion in 2017 — pales in comparison to China’s $337.2 billion trade surplus, according to official U.S. data. Trump has made South Korea accept a revamped trade deal, squeezed India’s information-technology industry and forced Abe to agree to new trade dialogue despite Tokyo’s aversion to bilateral trade agreement negotiations with Washington.

Abe, besides being instrumental in shaping the Trump administration’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, has been in the lead to shore up the liberal economic order. Yet Trump has sprung nasty surprises on Abe but repeatedly lavished praise on “my good friend” Xi. Indeed, despite raising the ominous specter of a potential trade war with Beijing, Trump has yet to impose a sweeping trade sanction against China.

Against this backdrop, it is scarcely a surprise that Washington has still to provide strategic heft to its free and open Indo-Pacific strategy or that the U.S., Japan, India and Australia have yet to take concrete steps to institutionalize or even crystallize the “Quad,” which remains just an initiative for dialogue among their bureaucrats.

However, the Japanese and Indian efforts to improve relations with Beijing work to China’s advantage.

The mere semblance of better relations with Tokyo and New Delhi increases Xi’s strategic space to advance his grand strategy of making China great again — a goal that implies keeping China’s potential peer competitors like Japan and India in check. Without making any concessions to India and Japan or even easing China’s revisionist activities in the Himalayas, the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea, Xi’s appreciation of Indian and Japanese overtures and positive Chinese statements could help instill greater caution and reluctance in New Delhi and Tokyo to openly challenge China.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.


© The Washington Times, 2018.


India’s “hug, then repent” proclivity



Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, Napoleon’s famous foreign minister, prescribed a basic rule for pragmatic foreign policy: “by no means show too much zeal”.  In India’s case, oozing zealousness, gushy expectations and self-deluding hype have blighted foreign policy under successive leaders, except for a period under Indira Gandhi. Zeal has been to India’s male prime ministers what grand strategy is to great powers.

India has rushed to believe what it wanted to believe. Consequently, India is the only known country to have repeatedly cried betrayal, not by friends, but by adversaries in whom it reposed trust.

India’s foreign policy since independence can actually be summed up in three words: hug, then repent.

Consider Narendra Modi’s abrupt U-turn in China policy. Stemming the deterioration in relations with Beijing makes eminent sense so as to create more strategic space for India. With escalating US sanctions forcing Moscow to pivot to China even as Washington still treats Beijing with kid gloves, India can rely on an unpredictable and transactional Donald Trump administration only at its own peril. During the Doklam standoff, for example, Washington stayed neutral.

To leverage any policy change, the shift must be subtle, nuanced and measured, with the country displaying not zeal but a readiness to move forward reciprocally. Modi’s first attempt to “reset” ties with China in 2014 boomeranged spectacularly. Still, his latest reset effort began as a jarring volte-face, or what a Global Times commentary hailed as “India’s prudence in addressing Beijing’s concerns over the Dalai Lama”. The cabinet secretary’s intentionally leaked advisory to peers in February was a propitiatory message to China that India has changed its policy to shun official relations with the Dalai Lama and other exiled Tibetan leaders.

It was Modi who sought an “informal” summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping, conveying his readiness to travel to China for such a meeting. In this century, Chinese presidents or premiers have visited India a total of seven times, including twice for BRICS summits. But Modi, in office for barely four years, will be making his fifth visit to China next month for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.

To be sure, Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, displayed no less zeal toward China. With the era of Hindi-Chini bhai bhai now back, Rahul Gandhi plans to shortly visit the sacred mountain-and-lake duo of Kailash-Mansarover, access to which China punitively cut off for Indians last year. Beijing has now agreed to reopen such access and also resume transfer of hydrological data, but only after it demonstrated its “right” to act punitively, whenever it wants, even by breaching binding bilateral accords, as on sharing Brahmaputra and Sutlej flow data.

For China, the return of the Hindi-Chini bhai bhai era creates a win-win situation. It means India will mute its criticisms and not challenge China. Nor will India leverage trade or threaten Trump-style punitive tariffs to level the playing field. China thus will have its cake and eat it too — it will savour a fast-growing trade surplus (which has already doubled under Modi) while it mounts strategic pressure on multiple Indian flanks.

So, Xi seized on Modi’s overtures by inviting him to his Wuhan parlour — “the prettiest little parlour that ever you did spy”, to quote a line from the poem ‘The Spider and the Fly’. Xi’s generous hospitality extended to glowing state-media coverage. But what did Modi return with? Tellingly, China’s press release supports neither of India’s two key claims — that Xi and Modi “issued strategic guidance” to their respective militaries to prevent further border friction and that the two agreed to “balanced and sustainable” trade.

Winston Churchill famously said, “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile hoping it will eat him last”. Modi’s Reset 2.0 seeks to feed the giant crocodile across the Himalayas in the hope of buying peace for India. Modi’s faith in the power of his personal diplomacy is redolent of Jawaharlal Nehru’s similar approach to foreign policy. But as it happened under Nehru, Modi’s fond hope conflicts with China’s grand strategy. Xi is determined to make China great again by fair means or foul, including keeping a potential peer competitor like India in check.

If Modi’s Wuhan trip is not to bring trouble like his Lahore visit, which engendered deadly, Pakistan-scripted terrorist attacks on army bases, India will have to be on its guard. China has already outflanked India by stealthily occupying much of Doklam — a development on which the Modi government has chosen to stay mum in order to escape public embarrassment. As the philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Chabahar: Gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia


Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, April 26, 2018


Exaggerated media accounts have sought to portray commercial glitches in India’s Chabahar port project, such as attracting a private partner for the operation of marine facilities there and resolving an excise-duties dispute, as emblematic of India’s eroding influence in southern Asia. Some have seized on the Iranian foreign minister’s statement in Islamabad that Chinese and Pakistani investment in Chabahar was welcome as evidence of India’s declining strategic reach. That statement was largely an attempt to dispel a perception that Iran has teamed up with India to checkmate China’s Gwadar designs.

To be sure, India’s regional clout has suffered — from Sri Lanka and the Maldives to Nepal. The main driver of New Delhi’s eroding influence is China, which has made deep inroads in India’s backyard. By incrementally encroaching on the Bhutan-claimed Doklam Plateau, China has also shown that India cannot guarantee Bhutan’s territorial integrity.

In this dismal picture, however, Chabahar represents a strategic advance, not setback, for India. The Chabahar project’s substantial progress allows India to bypass Pakistan to reach markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia. In the past six months, consignments of wheat, for example, have been passing from India to Afghanistan through Chabahar. In effect, Chabahar helps break Pakistan’s barrier to Indian exports to landlocked Afghanistan.

The hyperbole in India notwithstanding, Chabahar is not a strategic counterpoise to the Chinese-built and -run Gwadar port, adjacent to which Beijing is reportedly building a naval base. Gwadar port offers China joint naval patrols with Pakistan in the Indian Ocean, while Gwadar airport will provide Beijing an airlift capability to link up with its military base in Djibouti. By contrast, Chabahar, located barely 72 kilometers from Gwadar, is a purely commercial project with no military utility.

Chabahar, easily accessible from India’s western coast, is part of a larger Indian-supported transport corridor. For example, the Indian-built, 193-kilometer road from Delaram, in Afghanistan’s Nimruz province, to Zaranj, on the Iranian border, links up with Iran’s new connecting road from Zaranj down to Chabahar. In addition, India is involved in a Chabahar-Faraj-Bam rail link and in a railway from Chabahar to Zahedan, on the Iran-Afghan border. It is also interested in a Chabahar-Hajigak railway that creates direct access to Afghan mines.

Chabahar’s development has been driven by shared India-Iran objectives, including ending Afghanistan’s dependence on Karachi port and integrating that country with their economies. Chabahar, lying outside the Persian Gulf and thus relatively safe from a hostile blockade, is Iran’s gateway to the Gulf of Oman and the Indian Ocean. Developing Chabahar allows Iran not only to receive larger ships but also to boost its energy and other exports.

It was only after the US-Iran nuclear deal eased decade-long international sanctions on Tehran that Chabahar’s expansion could begin in earnest. In 2016, India signed a $500-million agreement to develop two terminals — a multipurpose cargo terminal and a container terminal — in Chabahar, as part of a trilateral pact with Afghanistan and Iran. Since then, work has progressed considerably. The initial expansion of Chabahar was inaugurated this year, with Iran leasing operational control of the port’s first completed phase to India for 18 months.

Afghanistan is already becoming a major beneficiary of the Chabahar-linked transport corridor. It has shifted the bulk of its cargo traffic away from Karachi to Chabahar and Bandar Abbas. Chabahar is set to turn into a vital trading hub — a sprawling, modern port.

But as the port’s further expansion makes progress, India faces project-completion challenges that extend from the changing geopolitical dynamics to its own proverbial red tape. Cash-strapped Pakistan has no capacity to invest in Chabahar. But if China were to invest there, the commercial and strategic value of Chabahar for India to reach Afghanistan and Central Asia is unlikely to diminish.

Iran is actually seeking to ease its heavy dependence on China that developed during the sanctions period. But Iran finds itself stymied by residual but biting US-led sanctions, as in the financial sector. With Western clearing banks still spurning Tehran, Western firms cannot raise project finance to do business in Iran.

India’s biggest Chabahar-related challenge comes from US President Donald Trump’s policy to squeeze Iran — a message Trump’s then national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster,  brought to New Delhi. India, which paid a heavy price for complying with past US sanctions, needs to reject Trump’s Iran policy with the contempt it deserves. It cannot allow the Chabahar project to be hamstrung by geopolitical factors. As the top US general in Afghanistan, John Nicholson, has acknowledged, “Iranian-Indian-Afghan cooperation over the Chabahar Port presents great economic potential” and a boon for Afghanistan.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

How to Negotiate with North Korea



BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

The risks posed by North Korea’s nuclear program undoubtedly must be addressed. But rather than emphasize “denuclearization” – which implies a one-sided compromise – negotiators from South Korea and the US should seek to secure a nuclear-weapons-free zone on the Korean Peninsula.

SEOUL — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un seems to be setting the stage for an historic deal with US President Donald Trump that would allow his country, like Myanmar and Vietnam, to reduce its dependence on China and move closer to the West. But, despite declaring a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests and dropping the demand that American troops withdraw from South Korea, Kim is unlikely to abandon North Korea’s hard-won nuclear-weapons program until a credible and comprehensive agreement is reached.

North Korea has conducted a total of six nuclear tests – the same number as India, whose formidable nuclear-weapons capability is beyond dispute. Kim’s emulation of India’s 1998 declaration of a test moratorium – which enabled talks with the United States and led eventually to a US law recognizing India’s nuclear arsenal – implies that he seeks international acceptance of his country’s nuclear status.

Of course, the US-Indian nuclear deal was made possible by post-Cold War strategic pressures, which are lacking in the context of the Korean Peninsula. Nonetheless, if Trump’s summit with Kim is to have a lasting impact, it is essential to move beyond simply trying to force North Korea to denuclearize and pursue a broader strategic deal aimed at opening the North to the world.

Historically, ending longstanding conflicts – for example, taming the Khmer Rouge, which had been responsible for the Cambodian genocide in the 1970s – has depended on comprehensive strategies that have not put disarmament first. There is no reason to believe that the situation will be any different with North Korea. After all, that country’s only leverage is its nuclear arsenal – and Kim knows it. The mere fact that he finally agreed to hold summits with South Korea and the US stems from his confidence in his country’s nuclear deterrent, however limited it may be.

Kim has already enshrined North Korea’s nuclear-weapons status in the country’s constitution and erected monuments to the long-range missiles launched last year. His moratorium on testing fits this narrative, as Kim presents himself as the leader of a nuclear-armed state embarking on potentially epoch-making diplomatic initiatives.

In this context, it is important to note that, while Kim’s peace overtures are motivated by a desire to rebuild North Korea’s sanctions-battered economy, sanctions alone did not change the behavior of a country long used to enduring extreme hardship. On the contrary, escalating sanctions helped to fuel North Korea’s nuclear and missile advances. Securing any kind of denuclearization, therefore, will demand a more effective economic opening.

America’s handling of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement makes it even less likely that North Korea will agree to a narrow denuclearization accord. Even after signing the deal, President Barack Obama kept in place some strict economic sanctions, affecting, in particular, Iran’s financial sector. Making matters worse, Trump seems keen to follow through on his threat to withdraw from the Iran deal – or at least to add new sanctions – despite a lack of evidence that Iran has not fulfilled its obligations.

And yet, when it comes to North Korea, the Trump administration remains focused solely on denuclearization. To be sure, where nuclear proliferation issues are concerned, the US has a history of staking out a maximalist position publicly, but being more pragmatic in closed-door negotiations. For example, it tolerates the world’s fastest-growing nuclear arsenal in Pakistan, even though that country, in Trump’s words, has “given us nothing but lies and deceit,” including providing a “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

But Kim’s latest declaration that he has accomplished the nuclear-deterrent objective of his “byungjin policy” – the other objective being economic modernization – is not an empty boast. The North Korea challenge is no longer one of nuclear nonproliferation. Past agreements with the country, like that reached in 2005, are no longer relevant.

Of course, the risks posed by North Korea’s arsenal must be addressed. But rather than emphasize “denuclearization” – which implies a one-sided compromise – negotiators should seek to secure a nuclear-weapons-free zone (NWFZ) on the Korean Peninsula. This is also essential for realizing South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s vision of closer economic cooperation that harnesses the North’s natural resources and the South’s advanced technologies.

The NWFZ approach would entail concessions by all parties. Yes, North Korea would have to denuclearize. But all nuclear powers would have to forswear so much as threatening to use nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula. In addition, foreign warships carrying nuclear arms could no longer make port calls there.

For an NWFZ to be possible, however, South Korea would have to agree to be outside the US nuclear umbrella – not a particularly popular notion in the country. According to one opinion poll, most South Koreans want to go in the opposite direction, with the US redeploying the tactical nuclear weapons it withdrew more than a quarter-century ago.

The problem with this approach is clear: If the South will not give up its effective nuclear deterrent, Kim will ask why the North should abandon its own. As Kim has pointed out, both Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi met with gruesome ends after renouncing nuclear weapons.

Only a US-supported NWFZ can meet the denuclearization conditions to which Kim’s regime has alluded, including the removal of nuclear threats and a “commitment not to introduce the means to carry out a nuclear strike.” Elements of a NWFZ can realistically be negotiated alongside the provisions of a credible and comprehensive peace deal, though the negotiations will undoubtedly be difficult.

If the US needs added motivation to pursue this approach, it should consider this: it is China that faces the biggest challenge from North Korea’s nuclear weapons, as it works to supplant the US as Asia’s dominant power. The only way to mitigate the North Korean nuclear threat, without giving China the upper hand, is to show true diplomatic leadership in securing a comprehensive peace accord on the Korean Peninsula.

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

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

Why the South China Sea is critical to security


When the U.S. aircraft carrier, Carl Vinson, recently made a port call at Da Nang, Vietnam, it attracted international attention because this was the first time that a large contingent of U.S. military personnel landed on Vietnamese soil since the last of the American troops withdrew from that country in 1975. The symbolism of this port call, however, cannot obscure the fact that the United States, under two successive presidents, has had no coherent strategy for the South China Sea.

It was on President Barack Obama’s watch that China created and militarized seven artificial islands in the South China Sea, while his successor, Donald Trump, still does not seem to have that critical subregion on his radar.

In fact, with Trump focused on North Korea and trade, China is quietly pressing ahead with its expansionist agenda in the South China Sea and beyond. At the expense of its smaller neighbors, it is consolidating its hold by constructing more military facilities on the man-made islands and dramatically expanding its presence at sea across the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

It was just five years ago that China began pushing its borders far out into international waters by building artificial islands in the South China Sea. After having militarized these outposts, it has now presented a fait accompli to the rest of the world — without incurring any international costs.

These developments carry far-reaching strategic implications for the vast region stretching from the Pacific to the Middle East, as well as for the international maritime order. They also highlight that the biggest threat to maritime peace and security comes from unilateralism, especially altering the territorial or maritime status quo by violating international norms and rules.

The Indo-Pacific region, which extends from the western shores of the U.S. to eastern Africa and the Persian Gulf, is so interconnected that adverse developments in any of its subregions impinge on wider maritime security. For example, it was always known that if China had its way in the South China Sea, it would turn its attention to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. This is precisely what is happening now. An emboldened China has also claimed to be a “near-Arctic state”and unveiled plans for a “polar Silk Road.”

In fact, with the U.S. distracted as ever, China’s land-reclamation frenzy in the South China Sea still persists. China is now using a super-dredger, dubbed by its designers as a “magical island-building machine.”

China’s latest advances are not as eye-popping as its creation of artificial islands. Yet the under-the-radar advances, made possible by the free pass Beijing has got, position China to potentially dictate terms in the South China Sea. Last year alone, China built permanent facilities on 290,000 square meters of newly reclaimed land, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

In this light, U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea cannot make up for the absence of an American strategy. FONOPS neither deter China nor reassure America’s regional allies.

Indeed, China’s cost-free change of the status quo in the South China Sea has resulted in costs for other countries, especially in Asia — from Japan and the Philippines to Vietnam and India. Countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivism have been left with difficult choices. Japan, of course, has reversed a decade of declining military outlays, while India has revived stalled naval modernization.

China’s sprawling artificial islands that now double as military bases are like permanent aircraft carriers, whose potential role extends to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

Beijing’s growing strategic interest in the Indian Ocean region has been highlighted by its establishment of its first overseas military base at Djibouti, its deployment of warships around Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port, and its acquisition of Sri Lanka’s strategically located Hambantota port under a 99-year lease. China is also acquiring a 70 percent stake in Myanmar’s deepwater Kyaukpyu port. A political crisis in the Maldives, meanwhile, has helped reveal China’s quiet acquisition of several islets in that heavily indebted Indian Ocean archipelago.

Against this background, the rapidly changing maritime dynamics in the Indo-Pacific not only inject strategic uncertainty but also raise geopolitical risks.

Today, the fundamental choice in the region is between a liberal, rules-based order and an illiberal, hegemonic order. Few would like to live in an illiberal, hegemonic order. Yet this is exactly what the Indo-Pacific will get if regional states do not get their act together.

There is consensus among all important players other than China for an open, rules-based Indo-Pacific. Playing by international rules is central to peace and security. Yet progress has been slow and tentative in promoting wider collaboration to advance regional stability and power equilibrium.

For example, the institutionalization of the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad” has yet to take off. The Quad, in fact, remains largely aspirational. In this light, the idea of a “Quad plus two” to include France and Britain seems overly ambitious at this stage.

If and when the Quad takes concrete shape, Britain and France could, of course, join. They both have important naval assets in the Indo-Pacific. During French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent New Delhi visit, France and India agreed to reciprocal access to each other’s naval facilities, on terms similar to the U.S.-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement.

Unless the Quad members start coordinating their approaches to effectively create a single regional strategy and build broader collaboration with other important players, Indo-Pacific security could come under greater strain.

If, under such circumstances, Southeast Asia — a region of 600 million people — is coerced into accepting Chinese hegemony, it will have a cascading geopolitical impact in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. China has employed a dual strategy of inducement and coercion to divide and manage the countries of Southeast Asia.

In the South China Sea, China is unlikely to openly declare an air defense identification zone as it did in the East China Sea. Rather it is expected to seek to enforce an ADIZ by gradually establishing concentric circles of air control after it has deployed sufficient military assets on the man-made islands and consolidated its hold over the subregion.

China could also declare “straight baselines” in the Spratlys, as it did in the Paracels in 1996. Such baselines connecting the outermost points of the Spratly island chain would seek to turn the sea within, including features controlled by other nations, into “internal waters.”

To thwart China’s further designs in the South China Sea and its attempts to change the maritime status quo in the Indian Ocean and the East China Sea, a constellation of democratic states linked by interlocking strategic cooperation — as proposed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — has become critical to help institute power stability. The imperative is to build a new strategic equilibrium, including a stable balance of power.

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.

America’s Pakistan Problem



Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Debt-ridden Pakistan is very vulnerable to Western sanctions, yet it is unclear whether US President Donald Trump’s administration is willing to squeeze it financially in a way that could help reform its behaviour. Washington also seems reluctant to strip Pakistan of its status as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) or target its military for rearing transnational terrorists.

The main driver of Pakistan’s nexus with terrorists is its powerful military, whose generals hold decisive power and dictate terms to a largely impotent government. With the military’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) rearing terrorists, Pakistan has long played a double game, pretending to be America’s ally while aiding its most deadly foes that have killed or maimed thousands of US soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistani forces only target terrorists that fall out of line or threaten Pakistan itself.

The recent media attention on the multilateral Financial Action Task Force’s planned action against Pakistan obscured that country’s success in preserving its status for another two years under the European Union’s preferential trading (GSP+) programme. Pakistan is the No. 1 beneficiary of the GSP+ programme, which grants Pakistani exporters, especially of textiles, tariff-free access to the EU market in exchange for the country improving its human rights and governance. In effect, GSP+ rewards a sponsor of terror whose human-rights record has only worsened.

Trump’s suspension of most military aid to Pakistan is unlikely by itself to force a change in the behaviour of a country that counts China and Saudi Arabia as its benefactors. Only escalating American pressure through graduated sanctions can make Pakistan alter its cost-benefit calculation in propping up militant groups that have helped turn Afghanistan into a virtually failed state, where the US is stuck in the longest and most-expensive war in its history. The US failure to take the war into Pakistan’s territory has resulted in even Kabul coming under siege.

Yet, swayed by geopolitical considerations, the US has long been reluctant to hold the Pakistani generals accountable for the American blood on their hands. Indeed, Washington for years heavily funded the Pakistani military and turned Pakistan into one of its largest aid recipients — a strategy equivalent to feeding milk and honey to pit vipers in the hope of changing their biting habits. Even when the US, after a 10-year hunt, found Osama bin Laden holed up in a compound next to Pakistan’s main military academy, it did not abandon its carrots-only strategy. Such an approach has only helped to tighten the military’s grip on Pakistan, thwarting movement toward a genuine democratic transition.

Worse still, the US has dissuaded India from imposing any sanctions on Pakistan. If anything, India has been pressured to stay engaged with Pakistan, which explains the secret meetings the national security adviser has had with his Pakistani counterpart in Bangkok and elsewhere. The recent launch, with US backing, of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline project illustrates why it is difficult for India to impose even diplomatic sanctions on Pakistan, which maintains a bloated, ISI-infested high commission in New Delhi.

To be sure, the Trump administration is searching for a new strategy on Pakistan. Yet it is an open question whether it will go beyond the security aid suspension, which excludes economic assistance and military training. Aid suspension in the past has failed to change Pakistan’s behaviour.

With Washington loath to label Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, it must at least strip that country of its MNNA status, an action that will end its preferential access to US weapons and technologies and deny it the financial and diplomatic benefits associated with that designation. To force Pakistani generals to cut their nexus with terrorists, American sanctions should target some of them, including debarring them and their family members from the US and freezing their assets. Among the half a million Pakistanis living in the US are the sons and daughters of many senior Pakistani military officers.

Pakistan’s vulnerability to potential US-led sanctions is apparent from its ongoing struggle to stave off a default. Despite China’s strategic penetration of Pakistan, the US is still the biggest importer of Pakistani goods and services. US financial and trade sanctions extending to multilateral lending, as well as suspension of military spare parts, can force Pakistan to clean up its act.

To end Pakistan’s double game on terrorism, Washington will have to halt its own double game of rewarding or subsidizing a country that, in Trump’s own words, has given the US “nothing but lies and deceit”. To address a self-made problem, it is past time for US policymakers to put their money where their mouths are.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© Hindustan Times, 2018.

China’s stealth wars in the Himalayas


Beijing’s military advance into Bhutan-claimed territory leaves New Delhi floundering, raising concern over India’s own borders.

CCTV image

China’s CCTV in August shows a target exploding during a live-fire drill by the Chinese army near its border with India. © CCTV/AP

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Operating in the threshold between peace and war, China has pushed its borders far out into international waters in the South China Sea in a way no other power has done elsewhere. Less known is that China is using a similar strategy in the Himalayas to alter facts on the ground — meter by meter — without firing a single shot.

India is facing increasingly persistent Chinese efforts to intrude into its desolate borderlands. China, however, has not spared even one of the world’s smallest countries, Bhutan, which has barely 8,000 men in its security forces. In the disputed Himalayan plateau of Doklam, claimed by both Bhutan and China, the People’s Liberation Army has incrementally changed the status quo since last fall.

Doklam became a defining event in a 10-week standoff between Chinese and Indian troops last summer after the PLA started building a highway on that plateau to the India border: For the first time since China’s success in the South China Sea, a rival power stalled Chinese construction activity to change the status quo in a disputed territory.

India intervened as Bhutan’s security guarantor to thwart a threat to its own security. Despite almost daily Chinese threats to “teach it a lesson,” India refused to back down, forcing a humiliated Beijing to eventually accept a mutual-withdrawal deal to end the standoff with a country it sees as economically and militarily inferior.

But as happened with the 2012 U.S.-brokered deal for Chinese and Philippine naval vessels to withdraw from around the Scarborough Shoal, China did not faithfully comply with the Doklam accord. If anything, China applied the Scarborough “model” to Doklam — agree to disengage and, after the standoff is over, quietly send in forces to occupy the territory.

Doklam thus illustrates that while India may be content with a tactical win, China has the perseverance and guile to win at the strategic level. Camouflaging offense as defense, China hews to ancient military theorist Sun Tzu’s advice, “The ability to subdue the enemy without any battle is the ultimate reflection of the most supreme strategy.” As Sun Tzu said, “All warfare is based on deception.”

India tried for months to obfuscate the PLA’s increasing control of Doklam so as not to dilute the “victory” it had sold to its public. Even as commercially available satellite images showed China’s rapidly expanding military infrastructure in Doklam, India’s foreign ministry tried pulling the wool over the public’s eyes by repeatedly saying there were “no new developments at the faceoff site or its vicinity,” located at the plateau’s southern edge. Meanwhile, China continued to build permanent military structures and forward deploy troops across much of Doklam.

This month, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman grudgingly admitted China has constructed helipads and other military structures in Doklam so as to “maintain” troop deployments even in winter. Previously, there were no force deployments or permanent military structures on the uninhabited plateau, which was visited by nomadic shepherds and Bhutanese and Chinese mobile patrols other than in the harsh winter.

To be sure, China has dictated a Hobson’s choice to India on Doklam, like it did to the Philippines over Scarborough: Go along with the changed status quo or face the risk of open war. Clearly, New Delhi didn’t anticipate that an end to the faceoff would result in rapid Chinese encroachments that now virtually preclude India intervening again in Doklam at Bhutan’s behest.

In effect, Beijing has shown Bhutan that India cannot guarantee its territorial integrity.

China’s objective unmistakably is to undercut India’s influence in Bhutan in the way Beijing has succeeded in another Himalayan nation, Nepal, where a Chinese-backed communist government took office earlier this year. It was Beijing that persuaded Nepal’s two main communist parties to overcome their bitter squabbles and join hands in national and local elections.

China’s new control over much of Doklam, however, effectively overturns the land-swap deal it has long offered Bhutan. Under the offer, the tiny kingdom was to cede its claim to that plateau in return for Beijing renouncing its claim to a slice of northern Bhutan.

Beijing has held some 24 rounds of border talks with Bhutan since 1984, just as its negotiations with India on territorial and boundary issues have gone on interminably since 1980 without tangible progress. In fact, the largest real estate China covets in Asia is in India — Arunachal Pradesh, a resource-rich Himalayan territory almost three times as large as Taiwan.

Today, China has stepped up military pressure on India, including beefing up its ground and air assets in the Himalayan region. The Indian government recently told Parliament that the number of Chinese military intrusions into India’s vulnerable borderlands jumped 56% in one year — from 273 in 2016 to 426 in 2017, or more than one per day. It seems that just as China’s trade surplus with India has doubled since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, its border incursions are also on a similar rising trajectory.

India’s perennially reactive mode allows the PLA to keep the initiative in the Himalayas. More fundamentally, China — by mounting strategic pressure on multiple Indian flanks while raking in a fast-growing trade surplus (currently running at nearly $5 billion a month) — is able to have its cake and eat it too.

Add to the picture another important element of China’s Himalayan strategy — reengineering transboundary flows of rivers originating in Tibet through dams and other projects. A third of India’s total freshwater supply comes from rivers that start in Tibet. Last year, China breached two bilateral accords with India by withholding upstream river flow data, which is necessary for flood forecasting and warning. Supply of such data could have prevented some of the deaths in the record flooding that ravaged India’s northeast.

Some 67 years after China eliminated the historical buffer with India by annexing Tibet, it is transforming Himalayan geopolitics to its advantage. China’s strategic penetration of Nepal, which has an open border with India permitting passport-free passage, carries major implications for Indian security. Having lost the outer buffer, Tibet, India now risks losing the inner buffer, Nepal.

In the absence of a coherent strategy to counter China’s aggressive Himalayan strategy, an increasingly defensive India has now sought to make peace with Beijing. For example, it not only advised its officials to stay away from events marking the 60th anniversary this month of the Dalai Lama’s flight to India, but also got Tibetan exiles to move those events from New Delhi to remote Dharamsala, in the Himalayan foothills. Modi’s attention is focused on returning to power in the next national election, which is due to be held in April-May 2019 but might be advanced to this year-end.

Just when Chinese President Xi Jinping’s lurch toward one-man rule has led to a rethink in the West on its relationship with China, India has signaled its intent to go soft on China, with its foreign ministry saying that New Delhi was willing to develop relations with Beijing “based on commonalities.” Salvaging Modi’s China visit for last September’s BRICS (Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa) summit prompted New Delhi to cut the Doklam deal with Beijing, paving the way for the Chinese advance into the plateau. Now Modi is again set to go to China, this time for a bilateral summit with Xi. But India will likely not only come away empty-handed from its new propitiatory approach but also give cover to China’s designs against it.

Brahma Chellaney, a geostrategist and author, is professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.