A New Front in Asia’s Water War

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For decades, China has been dragging its neighbors into high-stakes games of geopolitical poker over water-related issues. But the country’s politically motivated decision to withhold hydrological data from India amounts to an escalation of China’s efforts to exploit its status as the world’s hydro-hegemon to gain strategic leverage over its neighbors.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

China has long regarded freshwater as a strategic weapon — one that the country’s leaders have no compunction about wielding to advance their foreign-policy goals. After years of using its chokehold on almost every major transnational river system in Asia to manipulate water flows themselves, China is now withholding data on upstream flows to put pressure on downstream countries, particularly India.

For decades, China has been dragging its neighbors into high-stakes games of geopolitical poker over water-related issues. Thanks to its forcible annexation of Tibet and other non-Han Chinese ethnic homelands — territories that comprise some 60% of its landmass — China is the world’s unrivaled hydro-hegemon. It is the source of cross-border riparian flows to more countries than any other state.

In recent years, China has worked hard to exploit that status to increase its leverage over its neighbors, relentlessly building upstream dams on international rivers. China is now home to more dams than the rest of the world combined, and the construction continues, leaving downstream neighbors — especially the vulnerable lower Mekong basin states, Nepal, and Kazakhstan — essentially at China’s mercy.

So far, China has refused to enter into a water-sharing treaty with a single country. It does, however, share some hydrological and meteorological data — essential to enable downstream countries to foresee and plan for floods, thereby protecting lives and reducing material losses.

Yet, this year, China decided to withhold such data from India, undermining the efficacy of India’s flood early-warning systems — during Asia’s summer monsoon season, no less. As a result, despite below-normal monsoon rains this year in India’s northeast, through which the Brahmaputra River flows after leaving Tibet and before entering Bangladesh, the region faced unprecedented flooding, with devastating consequences, especially in Assam state.

China’s decision to withhold crucial data is not only cruel; it also breaches the country’s international obligations. China is one of just three countries that voted against the 1997 United Nations Watercourse Convention, which called for the regular exchange of hydrological and other data between co-basin states. But China did enter into a five-year bilateral accord, which expires next year, requiring it to transfer to India hydrological and meteorological data daily from three Brahmaputra-monitoring stations in Tibet during the risky flood season, from May 15 to October 15. A similar agreement, reached in 2015, covers the Sutlej, another flood-prone river. Both accords arose after flash floods linked to suspected discharges from Chinese projects in Tibet repeatedly ravaged India’s Arunachal and Himachal states.

Unlike some other countries, which offer hydrological data to their downstream counterparts for free, China does so only for a price. (The Watercourse Convention would have required that no charges be levied, unless the data or information was “not readily available” — a rule that may also have contributed to China’s “no” vote.)

But it was a price India was willing to pay. And this year, as always, India sent the agreed amount. Yet it received no data, with the Chinese foreign ministry claiming after almost four months that upstream stations were being “upgraded” or “renovated.” That claim was spurious: China did supply data on the Brahmaputra to Bangladesh.

Three weeks earlier, the state-controlled newspaper Global Times offered a more plausible explanation for China’s failure to deliver the promised data to India: the data transfer had been intentionally halted, owing to India’s supposed infringement on Chinese territorial sovereignty in a dispute over the remote Himalayan region of Doklam. For much of the summer, that dispute took the form of a border standoff where Bhutan, Tibet, and the Indian state of Sikkim meet.

But even before the dispute flared in mid-June, China was seething over India’s boycott of its May 14-15 summit promoting the much-vaunted “Belt and Road” initiative. The denial of data apparently began as an attempt to punish India for condemning China’s massive, cross-border infrastructure agenda as an opaque, neocolonial enterprise. China’s desire to punish India was then reinforced by the Doklam standoff.

For China, it seems, international agreements stop being binding when they are no longer politically convenient. This reading is reinforced by China’s violations of its 1984 pact with the United Kingdom, under which China gained sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997. China claims that the agreement, based on the formula “one country, two systems,” had lost “practical significance” over the last 20 years.

Were the roles reversed, a downstream China would have stridently accused an upstream India of exacerbating flood-related death and destruction by breaching its international obligations. But just as China has unilaterally and aggressively asserted its territorial and maritime claims in Asia, it is using the reengineering of cross-border riparian flows and denial of hydrological data to deepen its regional power.

In fact, China’s cutoff of water data, despite the likely impact on vulnerable civilian communities, sets a dangerous precedent of indifference to humanitarian considerations. It also highlights how China is fashioning unconventional tools of coercive diplomacy, whose instruments already range from informally boycotting goods from a targeted country to halting strategic exports (such as of rare-earth minerals) and suspending Chinese tourist travel.

Now, by seizing control over water — a resource vital to millions of lives and livelihoods — China can hold another country hostage without firing a single shot. In a water-stressed Asia, taming China’s hegemonic ambition is now the biggest strategic challenge.

© Project Syndicate, 2017.

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The danger of all talk and no action

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times, October 3, 2017

obliterating-terrorism-in-pakistan-hinges-on-state-fulfilling-its-pledge-1454069531-1848Recently, India branded Pakistan a “Terroristan”. And its external affairs minister told the United Nations that Pakistan, as the world’s “pre-eminent terror export factory”, has just one national accomplishment to boast of. Yet New Delhi is loath to back its words with even modest action, such as downsizing Pakistan’s bloated, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-infested high commission in New Delhi, withdrawing the unilaterally granted “most favoured nation” status, leveraging the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT), or halting the barter trade across the line of control (LoC) that the National Investigation Agency has identified as financing terrorism.

Despite playing to the public gallery at home, India has done nothing to treat Pakistan as a terrorist nation. Indeed, behind its rhetoric, India pursues a cautious approach. Successive governments have shied away from slapping sanctions of any kind on Pakistan, yet not been coy to press other powers and the United Nations for sanctions.

India seems reluctant not just to back words with action but also to back words with just words on some issues. Take Balochistan, Pakistan’s Achilles heel that is becoming the new East Pakistan because of military killings and mass graves. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised Balochistan in his Independence Day speech in 2016, it seemed to signal an important policy shift. Yet India has remained conspicuously mum on the Balochistan issue. Even as Pakistan uses fake photographs to peddle a false narrative on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), India is unwilling to spotlight the brutal Pakistani campaign against the Baloch people.

Another example is India’s rhetorical stance that the only outstanding issue on J&K relates to the part occupied by Pakistan. Other than slamming China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative for infringing its sovereignty, India has said precious little to show that it is serious about its claim to that occupied region. It has actually kept quiet on matters of substance, including China’s new dam and other strategic projects in Pakistan-held J&K. Had China been in India’s place, it would have raised a hue and cry over each and every project.

As for lack of Indian action, look no further than the IWT issue. Modi vowed that “blood and water cannot flow together”. But instead of action, what has followed is visible backsliding — from reviving the suspended Permanent Indus Commission to allowing the partisan World Bank to insert itself as a mediator between India and Pakistan. The IWT grants the World Bank no mediatory role. Such mediation, besides setting a dangerous precedent, breaches India’s traditional policy of not allowing a third party to intercede in bilateral disputes. Worse still, the Modi-appointed committee of secretaries on the Indus waters has fallen by the wayside, with not a single new project launched.

On the issue of cross-border terrorism, Modi, after the deadly attacks that followed his surprise Lahore visit, sought to salvage his credibility by launching a cross-LoC surgical strike on militant launch pads. But it was always clear that such a limited, one-off operation by itself would not be able to tame Pakistan. The surgical strike was followed by a terror attack on yet another military base. India must mount sustained pressure to keep Pakistan off balance and deny it room to pursue its strategy of seeking to inflict death by a thousand cuts.

The battle against Pakistan’s state terrorism is India’s fight alone. Why would the United States designate Pakistan a terrorist state when the main victim of Pakistan-scripted terror, India, is reluctant to impose any sanctions on its scofflaw neighbour? Indeed, the Modi government persuaded Rajeev Chandrasekhar to withdraw his private member’s bill in Rajya Sabha for declaring Pakistan a terrorism sponsor. New Delhi is even unwilling to declare the rogue ISI a terrorist organization. Actually, in a stunning display of naiveté, India hosted an ISI-linked Pakistani team at Pathankot so that it could probe the attack ISI orchestrated there.

The plain fact is that India is all talk when it comes to imposing costs on the “Terroristan” next door. India is not the United Nations that can remain content with all talk and no action.

Words not backed by action carry unquantifiable costs. They not only affect India’s credibility but also undermine its deterrent posture. Isn’t it telling that Pakistan continues to gore India although it is seven times smaller demographically, eight times lesser in GDP terms, and militarily weaker? Such aggression is the bitter fruit of India’s all-talk-no-action approach under successive governments. It is still not late to reverse course. The best actions to deter a congenitally hostile foe will be those that speak for themselves.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.

Democratic powers must intensify Indian Ocean cooperation

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The Indian Ocean is becoming the center of international maritime rivalry

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

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The Indian Ocean, with its crowded and in some cases contested sea lanes, is becoming the center of international maritime rivalry, with various powers jousting for influence and advantage in the world’s third largest body of water, which serves as a vital transit route for the global economy.

As if to highlight this trend, the Chinese navy recently conducted live-fire drills in the western Indian Ocean. China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted the fleet commander as saying that his ships “carried out strikes against ‘enemy’ surface ships” in an “exercise that lasted several days.” The fleet included a destroyer, a guided-missile frigate and a supply vessel. Earlier this year, similar live-fire drills were carried out in the eastern Indian Ocean by a Chinese fleet that also included a destroyer.

As the Chinese live-fire exercises show, the geostrategic maritime environment in the Indian Ocean is altering fundamentally. After consolidating its position in the South China Sea, Beijing is focusing increasingly on the Indian Ocean. A 1971 United Nations resolution declaring it a “zone of peace” has fallen by the wayside.

China’s increasing activity reflects a strategic shift from “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection,” in the name of safeguarding its trade and energy interests. This mirrors the evolution of its land-combat strategy from “deep defense” (luring enemy forces into Chinese territory, where they can be garroted) to “active defense” (a proactive posture designed to fight on enemy territory).

Beijing is also employing supposedly economic initiatives to advance its geostrategic ambitions, including implementing its Maritime Silk Road project to gain a major foothold in the Indian Ocean and chip away at India’s natural-geographic advantage.

In recognition of this changing situation, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis kicked off a visit to New Delhi on Sept. 26 by offering a slew of weapon systems to India, including 22 unarmed MQ-9 “Reaper” unmanned aerial vehicles to aid naval intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and precision strikes. Mattis’s boss, President Donald Trump, recently called India “a key security and economic partner of the United States” and said the two countries are “committed to pursuing our shared objectives” in the Indo-Pacific region.

The growing importance of the Indian Ocean resources and sea lanes is apparent. More than half of the world’s container traffic, two-thirds of its seaborne petroleum trade, and a third of all maritime traffic traverse the ocean, much of it through chokepoints such as the Malacca and Hormuz straits.

The Indian Ocean is also rich in mineral wealth, with deep seabed mining emerging as a major new strategic issue. Various powers are seeking to tap seabed resources extending from sulfide deposits — which contain valuable metals such as silver, gold, copper, manganese, cobalt and zinc — to phosphorus nodules for phosphor-based fertilizers, underscoring the need for a regulatory regime and environmental protection.

The dangerous rush to exploit mineral and halieutic resources threatens to impose considerable environmental costs and spark new conflicts and confrontations. For example, several studies have indicated that commercial fishing by foreign fleets, by depleting local resources, has driven poor Somali fishermen to piracy.

Projecting naval power

The growth of nonstate actors such as pirates, terrorists and criminal syndicates off the Horn of Africa and elsewhere is also linked with the increasing density and importance of maritime flows through the Indian Ocean. This development, however, has become a pretext for outside powers to intervene and to project naval power. China, for example, has used the excuse of oceanic piracy to launch naval operations around the Horn of Africa and to set up its first overseas naval base at Djibouti, at the northwestern edge of the Indian Ocean in north Africa.

China’s growing activities in the Indian Ocean draw strength from its success in changing the status quo in its favor in the adjacent South China Sea, where it has pushed its borders far out into international waters in a way that no power has done elsewhere. By erecting military facilities on manmade islands in the Spratly and Paracel archipelagos, China has positioned naval and air power at the mouth of the Indian Ocean.

It is now rapidly expanding its Indian Ocean footprint after setting up the Djibouti base and investing in building regional ports, including in Pakistan at Gwadar (which sits strategically at the mouth of the Strait of Hormuz), in Sri Lanka at Hambantota, and in Myanmar at Kyaukpyu. It also has port projects in the Seychelles and the Maldives. China’s submarine fleet — one of the fastest-growing in the world — is best suited not for the shallow South China Sea but for the Indian Ocean’s deep waters, a message Beijing has conveyed by dispatching attack submarines to the area.

It was always clear that if China got its way in the South China Sea, it would turn its attention to the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. Yet U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration allowed China to change the status quo by force in the South China Sea without incurring any international costs, even though this development carries greater and more far-reaching international geopolitical ramifications than Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Under Trump, the U.S. has shown no desire to seek a return to the status quo ante in the South China Sea. As a result, China is firming up its dominance there, while the U.S. symbolically undertakes freedom-of-navigation operations.

Cost-free unilateralism

In effect, China has demonstrated that defiant unilateralism is cost-free. This has left countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies with difficult choices. However, China’s actions have prompted Japan to reverse a decade of declining military outlays and India to revive stalled naval modernization.

Japan, which is heavily dependent on the Indian Ocean region for supplies of energy and raw materials, has also stepped up its regional engagement. For example, it is investing in eight port construction or renovation projects in Indonesia, India, Iran, Oman, Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Seychelles. Japan is also seeking to play a more active role in protecting the Indian Ocean sea lanes.

India, despite its strategic depth in the Indian Ocean, faces a new threat from the oceanic south. With Chinese submarines now making regular forays into India’s maritime backyard right under the nose of its Andaman and Nicobar Command, New Delhi must devise concrete steps to deal with China’s growing footprint.

With India’s energy and strategic infrastructure concentrated along a vulnerable, 7,600km coastline, the emergence of an oceanic challenge represents a tectonic shift in the country’s threat calculus. Yet it has been slow to face up to this reality. It needs a comprehensive maritime security strategy backed by naval capabilities that can take on tasks ranging from protecting and securing the seas to projecting power across the Indian Ocean region.

The Andaman and Nicobar archipelago in the Bay of Bengal is a critical asset for India to counter the growing Chinese maritime presence and to blunt the increasing land-based, trans-Himalayan military threat mounted by China. Located next to the Strait of Malacca, the Andaman and Nicobar chain offers control of this strategic chokepoint, which is one of China’s greatest maritime vulnerabilities. Just as the Chinese military harasses and threatens Indian border patrols in the Himalayas, India can potentially play the same game off the Andaman and Nicobar chain, including by establishing China-style civilian maritime militias backed by the Indian Coast Guard.

The importance of this chokepoint can be easily stated: A third of the 61% of global petroleum and other liquids production that moves on maritime routes transits the Strait of Malacca, including around 82% of China’s fuel imports. China’s hold on the South China Sea jugular makes the Strait of Malacca chokepoint a critical defense area for Indian security.

More fundamentally, greater maritime cooperation among democratic powers is becoming inescapable. Cooperation between Japan, India, Australia, Indonesia and the U.S. must extend to guarding the various “gates” to the Indian Ocean by exerting naval power at critical chokepoints. The aim should be to forestall the emergence of a destabilizing Sinocentric Asia. The common observation that, “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean dominates Asia,” is unattributed, but nonetheless true.

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

Myanmar’s Jihadi Curse

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It is vital that Myanmar’s military immediately halt human-rights abuses of Rohingya in Rakhine State. But it is also vital for the international community to reject the prevailing depiction of the current crisis, which fails to recognize the long history of violent extremism among Rohingya militants.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

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Myanmar’s military has lately been engaged in a brutal campaign against the Rohingya, a long-marginalized Muslim ethnic minority group, driving hundreds of thousands to flee to Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere. The international community has rightly condemned the crackdown. But, in doing so, it has failed to recognize that Rohingya militants have been waging jihad in the country – a reality that makes it extremely difficult to break the cycle of terror and violence.

Rakhine State, where most of Myanmar’s Rohingya reside, is attracting jihadists from far and wide. Local militants are suspected of having ties with the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations. Moreover, they increasingly receive aid from militant-linked organizations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The main insurgent group – the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, also known as Harakah al-Yaqin – is led by a Saudi-based committee of Rohingya émigrés.

The external forces fomenting insurgent attacks in Rakhine bear considerable responsibility for the Rohingyas’ current plight. In fact, it is the links between Rohingya militants and such external forces, especially terrorist organizations like ISIS, that have driven the government of India, where some 40,000 Rohingya have settled illegally, to declare that their entry poses a serious security threat. Even Bangladesh acknowledges Rohingya militants’ external jihadi connections.

But the truth is that Myanmar’s jihadi scourge is decades old, a legacy of British colonialism. After all, it was the British who, more than a century ago, moved large numbers of Rohingya from East Bengal to work on rubber and tea plantations in then-Burma, which was administered as a province of India until 1937.

In the years before India gained independence from Britain in 1947, Rohingya militants joined the campaign to establish Pakistan as the first Islamic republic of the postcolonial era. When the British, who elevated the strategy of “divide and rule” into an art, decided to establish two separate wings of Pakistan on either side of a partitioned India, the Rohingya began attempting to drive Buddhists out of the Muslim-dominated Mayu peninsula in northern Rakhine. They wanted the Mayu peninsula to secede and be annexed by East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1971).

Failure to achieve that goal led many Rohingya to take up arms in a self-declared jihad. Local mujahedeen began to organize attacks on government troops and seize control of territory in northern Rakhine, establishing a state within a state. Just months after Myanmar gained independence in 1948, martial law was declared in the region; government forces regained territorial control in the early 1950s.

But Rohingya Islamist militancy continued to thrive, with mujahedeen attacks occurring intermittently. In 2012, bloody clashes broke out between the Rohingya and the ethnic Rakhines, who feared becoming a minority in their home state. The sectarian violence, in which rival gangs burned down villages and some 140,000 people (mostly Rohingya) were displaced, helped to transform the Rohingya militancy back into a full-blown insurgency, with rebels launching hit-and-run attacks on security forces.

Similar attacks have lately been carried out against security forces and, in some cases, non-Rohingya civilians, with the violence having escalated over the last 12 months. Indeed, it was a wave of coordinated predawn insurgent attacks on 30 police stations and an army base on August 25 that triggered the violent military offensive that is driving the Rohingya out of Rakhine.

Breaking the cycle of terror and violence that has plagued Myanmar for decades will require the country to address the deep-seated sectarian tensions that are driving Rohingya toward jihadism. Myanmar is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries. Its geographic position makes it a natural bridge between South and Southeast Asia, and between China and India.

But, internally, Myanmar has failed to build bridges among its various ethnic groups and cultures. Since independence, governments dominated by Myanmar’s Burman majority have allowed postcolonial nativism to breed conflict or civil war with many of the country’s minority groups, which have complained of a system of geographic apartheid.

The Rohingya face the most extreme marginalization. Viewed as outsiders even by other minorities, the Rohingya are not officially recognized as one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups. In 1982, the government, concerned about illegal immigration from Bangladesh, enacted a law that stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship, leaving them stateless.

Successive governments have defended this approach, arguing that past secessionist movements indicate that the Rohingya never identified as part of the country. And, in fact, the common classification of Rohingya as stateless “Bengalis” mirrors the status of Rohingya exiles in the country of their dreams, Pakistan, where tens of thousands took refuge during the Pakistani military genocide that led to Bangladesh’s independence.

Still, the fact is that Myanmar’s failure to construct an inclusive national identity has allowed old ethnic rivalries to continue to fuel terrorism, stifling the resource-rich country’s potential. What Myanmar needs now is an equitable, federalist system that accommodates its many ethnic minorities, who comprise roughly a third of the population, but cover half of the total land area.

To this end, it is critical that Myanmar’s military immediately halt human-rights abuses in Rakhine. It will be impossible to ease tensions if soldiers are using disproportionate force, much less targeting civilians; indeed, such an approach is more likely to fuel than quell violent jihadism. But as the international community pressures Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi to take stronger action to protect the Rohingya, it is also vital to address the long history of Islamist extremism that has contributed to the ethnic group’s current plight.

China’s troublesome civil-military relations

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Recent developments suggest President Xi Jinping is still struggling to keep the People’s Liberation Army in line.

 

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Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects People’s Liberation Army troops during a military parade to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the PLA on July 30. | AP

BY The Japan Times

Has Chinese President Xi Jinping managed to assert full civilian control over the People’s Liberation Army through purges of generals and admirals and other reform-related actions? China’s secretive and opaque political system makes it hard to get a clear picture. Yet recent developments suggest Xi is still struggling to keep the PLA in line.

Take the recent troop standoff with India that raised the specter of a Himalayan war, with China threatening reprisals if New Delhi did not unconditionally withdraw its forces from a small Bhutanese plateau that Beijing claims is Chinese territory “since ancient times.” After 10 weeks, the faceoff on the Doklam Plateau dramatically ended with both sides pulling back troops and equipment from the site on the same day, signaling that Beijing, not New Delhi, had blinked.

The mutual-withdrawal deal was struck just after Xi replaced the chief of the PLA’s Joint Staff Department. This topmost position — equivalent to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff — was created only last year as part of Xi’s military reforms to turn the PLA into a force “able to fight and win wars.” The Joint Staff Department is in charge of PLA’s operations, intelligence and training.

The Doklam pullbacks suggest that the removed chief, General Fang Fenghui, who has since been detained for alleged corruption, was an obstacle to clinching a deal with India.

In mid-June, India’s close ally, the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, discovered PLA crews working to build a road through Doklam, prompting New Delhi to dispatch troops and equipment to halt the construction of the road that was to overlook the trijunction where Tibet, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim meet.

In seeking to use road construction to change the status quo in a disputed Himalayan territory, the PLA, in a strategic miscalculation, anticipated Bhutan’s diplomatic protest but not India’s rapid military intervention. With the attempted land grab also threatening Indian security, New Delhi was quick to turn Bhutan’s call for help into India’s own fight.

To be sure, this was not the first time the PLA’s belligerent actions in the Himalayas imposed diplomatic costs on China. A classic case was what happened when Xi went to India for a state visit in September 2014. Xi arrived on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s birthday with a strange gift for his host — a predawn Chinese military encroachment that day deep into India’s northern region of Ladakh. The encroachment, the worst in many years in terms of the number of intruding troops, overshadowed Xi’s visit.

It appeared bizarre that the military of an important power would seek to mar in this manner the visit of its own head of state to a key neighboring country.

Yet Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s earlier visit to New Delhi in 2013 was similarly preceded by a 19-km PLA incursion into another part of Ladakh that lasted three weeks. The encroachment was seemingly intended to convey anger over India’s belated efforts to fortify its border defenses.

Such provocations might suggest that they are intentional, with the Chinese government in the know, thus reflecting a preference for blending soft and hard tactics. But it is also possible that the provocations — at least their timing and duration — underscore the continuing “disconnect between the military and the civilian leadership” in China that then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned about in 2011.

During his 2014 India trip, Xi appeared embarrassed by the accompanying PLA encroachment that cast a pall over his visit. He assured Modi that he would sort it out upon his return.

Soon after he returned, the Chinese defense ministry quoted Xi as telling a closed-door meeting with PLA commanders that “all PLA forces should follow the president’s instructions” and that the military must display “absolute loyalty and firm faith in the Communist Party, guarantee a smooth chain of command, and make sure all decisions from the central leadership are fully implemented.”

Just weeks later, Xi again asked for the PLA’s full loyalty to the party, telling a military-political conference in Fujian that “the Communist Party commands the gun.”

Recently Xi conveyed that same message yet again when he addressed a parade marking the 90th anniversary of the PLA’s creation on Aug. 1, 1927. Donning military fatigues, Xi exhorted members of his 2.3 million-strong armed forces to “unswervingly follow the absolute leadership of the party.”

Had civilian control of the PLA been working well, would Xi repeatedly be demanding “absolute loyalty” from the military or asking it to “follow his instructions”?

With its one-party dictatorship placing the Communist Party above the state, China does not have a national army; rather the party has an army. So the PLA has traditionally sworn fealty to the party, not the nation. By contrast, in the case of China’s closest ally, Pakistan, the army has a country.

Under Xi’s two immediate predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, the PLA gradually became stronger at the expense of the party. The military’s rising clout has troubled Xi because it hampers his ambition to become China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong. Xi’s present wife — folk singer Peng Liyuan — is actually a civilian member of the PLA, holding a rank equivalent to major general.

As part of his effort to reassert party control over the military and carry out defense reforms, Xi has used his anti-corruption campaign to ensnare a number of top PLA officers. He has also cut the size of the ground force and established a new command-and-control structure.

But just as a dog’s tail cannot be straightened, asserting full civilian control over a politically ascendant PLA is proving unachievable. After all, the party is ideologically bankrupt and morally adrift, and depends on the PLA to ensure domestic order and sustain its own political monopoly.

The regime’s legitimacy increasingly relies on an appeal to nationalism. But the PLA, with its soaring budgets and expanding role to safeguard China’s overseas interests, sees itself as the ultimate arbiter of nationalism.

To make matters worse, Xi has made many enemies at home in his ruthless effort to concentrate power in himself, including through corruption purges. It is not known whether the PLA’s upper echelon respects him to the extent to be fully guided by his instructions.

The PLA and the government appeared to be on the same page during the Doklam standoff, with the Chinese foreign and defense ministries and other state organs keeping up a barrage of threats and vitriol against India. But no sooner had Xi fired the chief of the Joint Staff Department, Gen. Fang, then a deal with India was clinched. This suggested that the topmost general was resisting ending the standoff.

Fang was fired just days after he hosted America’s highest-ranking military officer, Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fang was replaced by Gen. Li Zuocheng, considered a “war hero” for his combat role in the 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam, although China received a bloody nose from the more battle-hardened Vietnamese.

Xi’s military purges have been designed to consolidate his authority over the PLA and ensure that it does not blindside the government with actions or statements. But as Fang’s firing and other latest changes in the PLA leadership signal, Xi is still working to bring the military fully under his control.

More fundamentally, the PLA’s growing power is redolent of what happened in Imperial Japan, which rose dramatically as a world power in one generation after the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Boosted by war victories against Manchu-ruled China and czarist Russia, the Japanese military acquired political clout and gradually went on to dictate terms to the civilian government, as the 1931 Manchurian Incident first highlighted. This opened the path to aggression and conquest in Asia, with tragic consequences for Japan and the region.

In the past decade, the PLA’s increasing clout has led China to stake out a more muscular role. This includes resurrecting territorial and maritime disputes, asserting new sovereignty claims, and using construction activity to change the status quo. It won’t be long before the PLA rekindles Himalayan tensions with a major new encroachment.

China’s cut-throat internal politics and troublesome civil-military relations clearly have a bearing on its external policy. The risks of China’s rise as a praetorian state are real and carry major implications for neighboring countries.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

India, beware: China could seek revenge for Doklam

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Damage from the Himalayan military standoff will not be easily repaired

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Exile Tibetans listen to a speaker during an Aug. 11 protest in New Delhi to show support for India in its Doklam standoff with China. The banners in local language read “Tibet’s independence is India’s security.” © AP

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

China and India have defused one of their worst border flare-ups in decades, which had threatened to trigger an armed conflict between the nuclear-armed Asian giants. However, the damage the 10-week troop standoff inflicted on the already frayed bilateral relationship will not be easy to repair. Indeed, the China-India divide over border, water, trade, maritime and other issues, including transportation and economic corridors, may only widen.

There is also the risk that the end of the face-off on the small Himalayan plateau of Doklam could prove just a temporary respite from border tensions before confrontation flares anew.

Beijing had all along insisted that if there was any dispute over Doklam — home to mainly Bhutanese shepherds — it was between China and tiny Bhutan. But, ultimately, it accepted a deal with the country it said had no role at all, India, which it labeled an “illegal trespasser.” The Chinese Communist Party and its People’s Liberation Army may find it difficult to live with a retreat that China was compelled to make after failing to intimidate India into submission through torrents of vitriol and warmongering.

China’s record under communist rule shows that it has at times retreated only to open a new front in the same area or elsewhere.

The Himalayan standoff was triggered when Chinese forces sought to change the territorial status quo by building a road through Doklam, the high-altitude Bhutanese plateau that China claims as its own. India, Bhutan’s security guarantor, intervened militarily and halted the construction, saying the road overlooking the triple border of Tibet, Bhutan and the Indian state of Sikkim threatened its own security.

The standoff ended on Aug. 28, the same day the state-owned China Daily had warned that India stood “to face retribution” over its intransigence. The Indian troops retreated 500 meters to the Indian side of the border, to a ridge-top post from where they can quickly intervene again if the PLA restarts work on the military road. China withdrew troops and construction equipment from the site while asserting the right to send armed patrols to the disputed plateau.

China sought to save face by spinning the deal as an Indian climbdown, camouflaging its own troop withdrawal from the site. It could not admit that it had withdrawn because it had claimed that Doklam — like the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, or the disputed South China Sea — had been Chinese territory “since ancient times.” In reality, China is unlikely to be able to resume work on the road project, which perished when India called China’s bluff.

Standing up to China

More fundamentally, India, like Japan before it, has shown that if a neighbor is willing to stand up to China, it can be made to back away. Doklam is a defining event: For the first time since China’s success in expanding its control in the South China Sea by artificially creating seven islands and militarizing them, a rival power has stalled Chinese construction activity to change the status quo on a disputed territory. In a grudging admission about the Doklam setback, China’s ultranationalist Global Times newspaper said on Aug. 30: “China needs to enhance its deterrence to avoid external provocations.”

Beijing was left with little choice but to negotiate a deal after India showed that it would not be cowed. To “win without fighting,” as the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu recommended, Beijing made India the target of its new “three warfares” doctrine, which was first described in a 2008 Pentagon report to Congress. The standoff revealed how China blends psychological warfare with disinformation campaigns, media manipulation, and legal action or “lawfare” to mount intense pressure while presenting the other side as the aggressor and itself as the aggrieved party.

Repeated Chinese warnings to India to back down or face dire consequences, however, fell on deaf ears. India allowed the war of words to become one-sided by refusing to react to the almost daily Chinese verbal attacks.

Eventually, Beijing was forced to end the face-off through mutual disengagement of troops. Two factors forced Beijing’s hand. It wished to save the Sept. 3-5 summit in Xiamen, China, of the BRICS countries, a bloc comprising Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa. More importantly, it wanted to safeguard Chinese President Xi Jinping’s reputation in the run-up to the critical party congress this autumn. Had the standoff with India dragged on, it could potentially have taken a toll on Xi’s standing.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration also helped put pressure on Beijing by implicitly supporting the Indian and Bhutanese positions, including backing a “return to the status quo” that prevailed on Doklam before the road building began.

The deal with India was clinched shortly after Xi replaced Gen. Fang Fenghui with Gen. Li Zuocheng in the top PLA post that is equivalent to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. This suggested that the removed chief, as head of the PLA’s operations, was an obstacle to a Doklam deal.

Despite China’s overall military superiority, India, with its terrain and tactical advantages, was in a stronger position in the triple border area. It could have prolonged the face-off until the onset of the harsh Himalayan winter, thus casting a cloud over the Chinese party congress. A protracted standoff would also have exacted increasing diplomatic costs for Beijing, given that India had dared to stand up to it, thus denting China’s reputed preeminence in Asia.

Doing Xi a favor

By reaching the deal, India effectively let China off the hook and did Xi an important favor at a time when he is focused on the party congress, which is expected to see him emerge as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. For New Delhi, salvaging Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s China visit for the BRICS summit, unfortunately, became an important consideration, although that grouping has increasingly come under Chinese sway.

But Beijing is unlikely to return the favor, and India’s decision to let China escape a strategic predicament of its own making could come back to haunt it.

China has tactically retreated because, beyond declaring war on India, it was running out of options. But without the distraction of a looming party congress, China could seek revenge for Doklam at a time and place of its choosing. Next time, the PLA is unlikely to make the mistake of encroaching onto an area where India enjoys the military advantage. It will choose a place where it can spring a nasty surprise and dictate terms to the Indian army.

With India already facing increasingly persistent PLA efforts to intrude into its borderlands, eternal vigilance holds the key to Himalayan peace. India’s army chief, Gen. Bipin Rawat, has cautioned that the country cannot be complacent because Doklam-style encroachments are likely to “increase in the future.” But while China uses the disputed long border with India as a justification to probe Indian defenses, India remains perennially in a reactive mode.

A grim reminder of the larger challenges in the bilateral relationship is China’s breach of legally binding obligations to supply India with hydrological data on upstream river flows in Tibet in order to facilitate flood forecasting and warnings. A third of India’s freshwater supply comes from river flows from Tibet. The current monsoon season has brought record flooding in parts of northern India.

Beijing has offered no explanation for its failure this year to honor bilateral accords that require it to transfer data on specific rivers to India annually from May 15 to Oct. 15. Had China been in India’s place, it would have linked the breach of commitments to the downstream floods and deaths. But India has been quiet. Timely transmission of data would have helped generate flood warnings, thus saving lives and reducing material losses in India’s northeast. The data denial apparently is designed to punish India for boycotting Xi’s Belt and Road infrastructure summit in Beijing in May.

When Beijing can breach formal bilateral agreements, will it continue to stick to the Doklam deal? In 2012, China and the Philippines reached a U.S.-brokered deal to withdraw naval vessels from around the disputed Scarborough Shoal. China gave the impression it was withdrawing its ships, only to return and capture the shoal.

China’s autocrats are actually undermining their country’s long-term interests by making a mortal enemy of India, with which they are currently running an annual trade surplus of nearly $60 billion. The cloistered process of decision-making in China has glossed over the far-reaching strategic ramifications of driving Asia’s most important geopolitical “swing state” into the U.S. camp.

Whatever happens next, Doklam illustrates China’s proclivity to miscalculate and overreach. India’s refusal to bend while talking peace offers other Asia-Pacific nations an example of how to manage Chinese coercion. Doklam also raises a broader question: Had U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration stood up to China in the South China Sea, would the seven artificial and now-militarized islands have been created? It is China’s success in altering the status quo there — without incurring any international costs — that has emboldened its territorial revisionism in the East China Sea and the Himalayas.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

Calling the Chinese Bully’s Bluff

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY

A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

The more power China has accumulated, the more it has attempted to achieve its foreign-policy objectives with bluff, bluster, and bullying. But, as its Himalayan border standoff with India’s military continues, the limits of this approach are becoming increasingly apparent.

The current standoff began in mid-June, when Bhutan, a close ally of India, discovered the People’s Liberation Army trying to extend a road through Doklam, a high-altitude plateau in the Himalayas that belongs to Bhutan, but is claimed by China. India, which guarantees tiny Bhutan’s security, quickly sent troops and equipment to halt the construction, asserting that the road – which would overlook the point where Tibet, Bhutan, and the Indian state of Sikkim meet – threatened its own security.

Since then, China’s leaders have been warning India almost daily to back down or face military reprisals. China’s defense ministry has threatened to teach India a “bitter lesson,” vowing that any conflict would inflict “greater losses” than the Sino-Indian War of 1962, when China invaded India during a Himalayan border dispute and inflicted major damage within a few weeks. Likewise, China’s foreign ministry has unleashed a torrent of vitriol intended to intimidate India into submission.

Despite all of this, India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has kept its cool, refusing to respond to any Chinese threat, much less withdraw its forces. As China’s warmongering has continued, its true colors have become increasingly vivid. It is now clear that China is attempting to use psychological warfare (“psywar”) to advance its strategic objectives – to “win without fighting,” as the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu recommended.

China has waged its psywar against India largely through disinformation campaigns and media manipulation, aimed at presenting India – a raucous democracy with poor public diplomacy – as the aggressor and China as the aggrieved party. Chinese state media have been engaged in eager India-bashing for weeks. China has also employed “lawfare,” selectively invoking a colonial-era accord, while ignoring its own violations – cited by Bhutan and India – of more recent bilateral agreements.

For the first few days of the standoff, China’s psywar blitz helped it dominate the narrative. But, as China’s claims and tactics have come under growing scrutiny, its approach has faced diminishing returns. In fact, from a domestic perspective, China’s attempts to portray itself as the victim – claiming that Indian troops had illegally entered Chinese territory, where they remain – has been distinctly damaging, provoking a nationalist backlash over the failure to evict the intruders.

As a result, President Xi Jinping’s image as a commanding leader, along with the presumption of China’s regional dominance, is coming under strain, just months before the critical 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And it is difficult to see how Xi could turn the situation around.

Despite China’s overall military superiority, it is scarcely in a position to defeat India decisively in a Himalayan war, given India’s fortified defenses along the border. Even localized hostilities at the tri-border area would be beyond China’s capacity to dominate, because the Indian army controls higher terrain and has greater troop density. If such military clashes left China with so much as a bloodied nose, as happened in the same area in 1967, it could spell serious trouble for Xi at the upcoming National Congress.

But, even without actual conflict, China stands to lose. Its confrontational approach could drive India, Asia’s most important geopolitical “swing state,” firmly into the camp of the United States, China’s main global rival. It could also undermine its own commercial interests in the world’s fastest-growing major economy, which sits astride China’s energy-import lifeline.

Already, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj has tacitly warned of economic sanctions if China, which is running an annual trade surplus of nearly $60 billion with India, continues to disturb border peace. More broadly, as China has declaredunconditional Indian troop withdrawal to be a “prerequisite” for ending the standoff, India, facing recurrent Chinese incursions over the last decade, has insisted that border peace is a “prerequisite” for developing bilateral ties.

Against this background, the smartest move for Xi would be to attempt to secure India’s help in finding a face-saving compromise to end the crisis. The longer the standoff lasts, the more likely it is to sully Xi’s carefully cultivated image as a powerful leader, and that of China as Asia’s hegemon, which would undermine popular support for the regime at home and severely weaken China’s influence over its neighbors.

Already, the standoff is offering important lessons to other Asian countries seeking to cope with China’s bullying. For example, China recently threatened to launch military action against Vietnam’s outposts in the disputed Spratly Islands, forcing the Vietnamese government to stop drilling for gas at the edge of China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

China does not yet appear ready to change its approach. Some experts even predict that it will soon move forward with a “small-scale military operation” to expel the Indian troops currently in its claimed territory. But such an attack is unlikely to do China any good, much less change the territorial status quo in the tri-border area. It certainly won’t make it possible for China to resume work on the road it wanted to build. That dream most likely died when India called the Chinese bully’s bluff.

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.

© 1995-2017 Project Syndicate.