China’s actions risk creating a coalition of democratic powers

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Brahma Chellaney, Professor, Center for Policy Research

The United States, Japan, India and Australia have renewed efforts toward a strategic constellation of democracies in the Indo-Pacific region, with their diplomatic officials meeting jointly on the sidelines of the recent East Asia Summit in Manila. The future of this currently low-key quadrilateral initiative (or “quad”) will be shaped largely by China’s actions, which are acting as a spur to establish what Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once called a “democratic security diamond.”

If China moderates its behavior by respecting international law, the quad is unlikely to gain traction. But if Beijing continues to flout established rules and norms on territorial, maritime and trade issues, the apparition of what it sees as an “Asian NATO” might eventually come true.

Today, the specter of a destabilizing power imbalance looms large in the world’s most dynamic region. In this light, close strategic collaboration among the major democracies can help institute power stability in the Indo-Pacific region and contain the challenges that threaten to disrupt stability and impede economic growth.

Let’s be clear: the alternative to a liberal, inclusive, rules-based order is an illiberal, hegemonic order with Chinese characteristics. Few would like to live in such an order.

Yet, this is precisely what the Indo-Pacific region might get if regional states do not work to counter the growing challenge to the rules-based order. China has prospered under the present order. But having accumulated economic and military power, it is now insidiously challenging that order through its actions.

Before the Manila summit, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pitched for a concert of democracies. “The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” a development that demands “greater engagement and cooperation” among democratic powers, Tillerson said in his first Asia-Pacific policy speech since taking office.

To succeed, such an endeavor must reckon with certain realities, including by drawing lessons from the failed effort a decade ago to sustain a similar quadrilateral initiative. After the original quad held its inaugural meeting in May 2007, Beijing was quick to cry foul and mount intense diplomatic and economic pressure on the member-states. Ultimately, it succeeded in unraveling the quad.

From the beginning, Australia appeared ill at ease in the original quad, given that its economic boom was tied to China’s ravenous commodity imports. America’s own support to the quad was less than unreserved, in light of its economic co-dependency with China. As for India, its approach was low-key — tacitly supportive of the quad, but hesitant to do anything openly that could instigate China to step up direct or surrogate military pressure on it. That left Japan as the only enthusiastic member of the original quad. Indeed, the quad idea was conceived by Abe in his book, Utsukushii Kuni-e (Toward A Beautiful Country), which was published just months before he became prime minister for the first time in 2006.

Eventually, the Kevin Rudd government in Australia pulled the rug from under the quad in a vain attempt to appease Beijing. With his visiting Chinese counterpart by his side, then Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, “I indicated when I was in Japan that Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature.” He went on to label the inaugural quad meeting as “a one-off” affair.

Did the disbanding of the original quad help change China’s behavior in a positive direction? Actually China’s behavior changed for the worse.

Had the quad members stood up to the Chinese pressure, China would likely have had less space to strategically alter the status quo in the South China Sea in its favor. China’s success in extending its control in the South China Sea by artificially creating seven islands and militarizing them has only emboldened its aggressive designs in the Himalayas and the East China Sea.

The lost decade since the first quad experiment means that democratic powers cannot afford to fail again. They need to come together through meaningful collaboration and coordination, because no single power on its own has been able to stop China’s territorial and maritime creep or rein in its increasingly muscular approach. The rebirth of the quad is an attempt to provide an initial framework to institute such collaboration among an expanding group of democracies.

To be sure, a democratic coalition is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. A loose coalition of democracies can draw strength from the concept of democratic peace, which holds special relevance for the region. Shared values and interests are likely to drive democratic powers to promote maritime security, stability, connectivity, freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the region.

Democratic powers must proceed slowly, but surely, without unduly publicizing their meetings or intentions, in view of their failed experiment a decade ago and the current geopolitical challenges that are largely centered on China’s recidivist actions.

Japan and India, facing direct Chinese military pressure, have a much greater interest in the formation of a concert of democracies than the geographically distant U.S. and Australia.

An ongoing political crisis in Australia could trigger an election early next year, potentially bringing to power the opposition Labor Party, which seemingly favors a China-friendly foreign policy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s job approval rating has slumped to a new low. Australia, having caused the collapse of the first quad experiment, remains the weak link in the reconstituted quad.

Meanwhile, the praise Trump lavished on China and its neo-Leninist dictator, Xi Jinping, during his Beijing visit raised the question of whether he fully shares Tillerson’s Indo-Pacific vision. To be sure, the success of the reconstituted quad depends on the U.S. being fully on board.

Major Asia-Pacific powers, of course, will continue to seek opportunities to balance against China, with or without the U.S. being on board. Two recent examples from the region — the revival of the quad and the movement toward concluding a final Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement among the 11 remaining members — indicate a clear determination to block the emergence of a China-led future.

The plain fact is that the Indo-Pacific democracies are natural allies. And given that contrasting political values have become the main geopolitical dividing line in the Asia-Pacific region, establishing a community of values can help underpin regional stability and power equilibrium. Such a community can also ensure that China’s defiant unilateralism is no longer cost-free.

But whether a constellation of democracies actually emerges or remains just an attractive concept hinges on China’s willingness to play by the rules. In that sense, the ball is in Beijing’s court.

© China-US Focus, 2017.

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Rohingya militancy poses a regional threat

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A screen shot from a video released on 15 August 2017, showing a top commander of the terrorist group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), and four of his followers.

BY 

In Myanmar, one of the world’s most diverse, multiethnic nations, there is a rare consensus — the much-persecuted Rohingya Muslims are outsiders and not part of the country. A military operation to flush out Rohingya militants waging a hit-and-run campaign has led to an exodus of Rohingya residents from Rakhine state, creating a refugee crisis for Bangladesh and, to a smaller extent, India.

India, over the years, has generously admitted asylum seekers or refugees from a host of places, including Tibet, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China. But the illegal entry of tens of thousands of Rohingya is seen in India as an internal security challenge, in part because of the threat the Indian government perceives from Rohingya jihadist activities. Rohingya militants have a long history of violent jihadism, including recent attacks on non-Muslim civilians in Rakhine state.

The current international narrative on the Rohingya plight has actually failed to recognize the roots of the present crisis. Contrary to the perception that the Rohingya militancy has arisen from military repression in recent years, Myanmar’s jihad scourge is decades old, with Rohingya Islamist violence beginning even before Myanmar gained independence in 1948.

Rohingya militants have actually been in the vanguard of the global rise of Islamic radicalism since the early 1940s, when they joined the campaign to press the British to establish Pakistan by partitioning India. 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 Burma, now Myanmar, which was administered as a province of India until 1937 before it became a separate, self-governing colony. Rohingya migrants settled mainly in Myanmar’s East Bengal-bordering Arakan region (now renamed Rakhine state).

It was the advance of the Imperial Japanese Army into Myanmar during World War II that first highlighted the country’s Rohingya problem. Communal hatred spilled into violence as the Japanese military swept into Arakan in 1942 and the British launched a counter-offensive, with the local Buddhists largely siding with the Japanese and the Rohingya with the British.

Britain recruited Rohingya Muslims into its guerrilla force — the “V” Force — to ambush and kill Japanese troops. When the British eventually regained control of Arakan in 1945, they rewarded Rohingya Muslims for their loyalty by appointing them to the main posts in the local government.

Emboldened by the open British support, Rohingya militants set out to settle old scores with the Buddhists. And in July 1946, they formed the North Arakan Muslim League to seek the Muslim-dominated northern Arakan’s secession from Myanmar. In the religious bloodletting that preceded and followed the 1947 partition of India, Rohingya attacks sought to drive out the Buddhists from northern Arakan as part of the militants’ campaign to join East Pakistan (which became Bangladesh in 1971).

Failure to join East Pakistan turned many Rohingyas to armed jihadism, with mujaheddin forces in 1948 gaining effective control of northern Arakan. Government forces suppressed the revolt only in the early 1950s, although intermittent mujaheddin attacks continued even subsequently until the early 1960s.

From the 1970s onward, Rohingya Islamist movements reemerged, with a series of insurgent groups rising and fading away. The aim of the groups was to establish an Islamist state within a Buddhist state through jihad and demographic change.

Now history has come full circle, with the Myanmar military being accused of driving the Rohingya out of Rakhine state. But in a development that carries ominous security implications for the region, especially Myanmar, India and Bangladesh, Rakhine is becoming a magnet for the global jihadist movement, with Rohingya radicals increasingly being aided by militant organizations in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The new breed of Rohingya insurgents is suspected of having links with Islamic State, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al-Qaida and even Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. After the 2012 deadly communal riots in Rakhine, Ata Ullah, the Pakistani who heads the Rohingya terrorist group, the well-oiled Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, reportedly returned to Pakistan from an extended stay in Saudi Arabia with millions of dollars to wage jihad against Myanmar.

Against this background, India is concerned about the illegal entry of over 40,000 Rohingya since 2012. The government has told the country’s Supreme Court that their arrival poses a “serious security threat” because of Rohingya militants’ links with terrorist outfits. Some Rohingya militants have become active even in India, according to the government.

What is particularly striking is the organized manner in which the Rohingya sneaked into India from multiple routes and then settled across the length and breadth of the country, including in communally sensitive places like Kashmir and Hyderabad. Rohingya settlements have come up even in New Delhi. Because they entered India unlawfully, the Rohingya are classified as illegal aliens, not refugees.

Normally those fleeing a conflict-torn zone tend to camp just across an international border. But the Rohingya entered India not through the long border the country shares with Myanmar but via a third nation, Bangladesh. After having crossed over into India, many Rohingya then dispersed from the Bangladesh-bordering West Bengal and Tripura states to different parts of the country. Large numbers of these arrivals, according to the government, have fraudulently obtained Indian identity cards, thus reinforcing security concerns.

In fact, the Rohingya have approached India’s Supreme Court against their possible deportation. Because they entered from Bangladesh, they can be deported only to that country, not to Myanmar. However, the Indian government has made no attempt thus far to deport any Rohingya.

India is already home to some 20 million illegal migrants from Bangladesh, a figure that is nearly double the number of Mexican immigrants — legal and illegal — living in the United States. But while the presence of the Mexican aliens is a hot political and judicial issue in the U.S., political correctness has inhibited any debate in India for years on how to deal with the illegal Bangladeshi settlers. The United Nations has described the influx of Bangladeshis into India as “the single largest bilateral stock of international migrants” in the eastern hemisphere.

A crowded India is in no mood to accommodate more illegal aliens. The specter of the Rohingya contributing to violent Islamism in India has made them feel unwelcome.

More broadly, the external forces fomenting jihadist attacks in Rakhine state bear considerable responsibility for the current plight of the Rohingya. It is ironic that the Islamic nations aiding jihad in Rakhine and slamming Myanmar are unwilling to give refuge to any of the fleeing Rohingya.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Abe propels a potential constellation of democracies

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BY , The Japan Times

With the specter of a destabilizing power imbalance looming large in the world’s most dynamic region, the Indo-Pacific, the imperative to establish what Prime Minister Shinzo Abe once called a “democratic security diamond” has prompted Australia, India, Japan and the United States to renew efforts toward a strategic constellation of democracies.

Close strategic collaboration among key democracies can help institute power stability and contain the challenges that threaten to disrupt stability and impede economic growth in the Indo-Pacific, a region marked by the confluence of the Indian and Pacific oceans. At the core of a potential constellation of democracies is the strategic quadrilateral of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.

On the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila, U.S. President Donald Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Abe held bilateral and trilateral meetings between themselves. Diplomatic officials from the four countries also held a joint meeting there to examine “ways to achieve common goals and address common challenges in the region,” with the quadrilateral partners agreeing to defend the rules-based order, according to the U.S. State Department.

Let’s be clear: The alternative to a liberal, inclusive, rules-based order is an illiberal, hegemonic order with Chinese characteristics. Few would like to live in such an order.

Yet this is precisely what the Indo-Pacific region might get if regional states do not work to counter the growing challenge to the rules-based order. China has prospered under the present order. But having accumulated economic and military power, it is now challenging that order, including by flouting established rules and norms on territorial, maritime and trade issues.

Before the Manila summit, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pitched for a concert of democracies. “The world’s center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” a development that demands “greater engagement and cooperation” among democratic powers, Tillerson said in his first Asia-Pacific policy speech since taking office.

To succeed, such an endeavor must reckon with certain realities, including by drawing lessons from the failed effort a decade ago to sustain the exploratory Quadrilateral Initiative. After the “quad” held its inaugural meeting in May 2007, Beijing was quick to cry foul and see the apparition of an “Asian NATO.” Through intense diplomatic and economic pressure, Beijing sought to unravel the quad. Ultimately, it succeeded.

Australia appeared ill at ease in the quad, given that its economic boom was tied to China’s commodity imports. America’s support to the quad was less than unreserved, in light of its economic co-dependency with China. India was tacitly supportive of the quad but hesitant to do anything openly that could instigate China to step up direct or surrogate military pressure on it.

That left Japan as the only enthusiastic quad member. Indeed, the quad idea was conceived by Abe in his book “Utsukushii Kuni-e” (“Toward A Beautiful Country”), which was published before he became prime minister for the first time in 2006.

Eventually, the Kevin Rudd government in Australia pulled the rug from under the quad in a vain attempt to appease Beijing. With his visiting Chinese counterpart by his side, then-Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said, “I indicated when I was in Japan that Australia would not be proposing to have a dialogue of that nature” and labeled the inaugural quad meeting as “a one-off” affair.

Did the quad’s disbanding help change China’s behavior in a positive direction? Actually China’s behavior changed for the worse. Had the quad members stood up to the Chinese pressure, China would likely have had less space to strategically alter the status quo in the South China Sea in its favor. China’s success in extending its control in the South China Sea by artificially creating seven islands and militarizing them has only emboldened its aggressive designs in the Himalayas and the East China Sea.

The lost decade since the first quad experiment means that democratic powers cannot afford to fail again. They need to come together through meaningful collaboration and coordination because no single power on its own has been able to stop China’s territorial and maritime creep or rein in its increasingly muscular approach.

To be sure, a democratic coalition is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. A loose coalition of democracies can draw strength from the concept of democratic peace, which holds special relevance for the region. Shared values and interests are likely to drive democratic powers to promote maritime security, stability, connectivity, freedom of navigation, respect for international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes in the region.

Democratic powers must proceed slowly but surely, without unduly publicizing their meetings or intentions, in view of their failed experiment a decade ago and the current geopolitical challenges that are largely centered on China.

Japan and India, facing direct Chinese military pressure, have a much greater interest in the formation of a concert of democracies than the geographically distant U.S. and Australia.

An ongoing political crisis in Australia could trigger an election early next year, potentially bringing to power the opposition Labor Party, which seemingly favors a China-friendly foreign policy. Turnbull’s job approval rating has hit a new low. Having caused the collapse of the first quad experiment, Australia is the weak link in the reconstituted quad.

Meanwhile, the praise Trump lavished on China and its neo-Leninist dictator, Xi Jinping, during his recent Beijing visit raises the question whether he fully shares Tillerson’s Indo-Pacific vision. Despite his praise and flattery, Trump failed to secure any important Chinese concession. In fact, his visit, far from highlighting U.S. leadership, unwittingly spotlighted China’s strength and power to potentially shape a post-American order in the Asia-Pacific region.

To be sure, the success of the reconstituted quad hinges on the U.S. being fully on board. Of course, major Asia-Pacific powers will continue to seek opportunities to balance against China, with or without the U.S. being on board. Two recent examples from the region — the revival of the quad and the movement toward concluding a final Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement among the 11 remaining members — indicate a clear determination to block the emergence of a China-led future.

Still, the absence of a joint statement after the Nov. 12 quad meeting in Manila underscores the challenge the nascent initiative faces. Each quad member-state issued its own statement.

The resurrected quad — the result of Abe’s diplomatic doggedness — is intended to serve as an initial framework to promote a four-way security dialogue and set in motion a web of interlocking partnerships among an expanding group of democracies.

Given that contrasting political values have become the main geopolitical dividing line in the Asia-Pacific region, establishing a community of values can help underpin regional stability and power equilibrium. Such a community can also ensure that China’s defiant unilateralism is no longer cost-free.

The plain fact is that the Indo-Pacific democracies are natural allies. The Japan-U.S.-India-Australia strategic trapezium is best placed to lead the effort to build freedom, prosperity and stability in the Indo-Pacific region and to make sure that liberalism prevails over illiberalism.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Asia-Pacific democracies’ new entente

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Just as Germany’s rapid ascent prior to WWI spurred a “triple entente” among France, Russia, and the UK, China’s increasingly aggressive behavior is creating strong impetus for the Asia-Pacific democracies to build a more powerful strategic coalition. This goal should become the centerpiece of these countries’ regional policies.

Project Syndicate

PERTH – US President Donald Trump toured Asia at a moment when the region’s security situation was practically white-hot. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, recognizing that the world’s “center of gravity is shifting to the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” called on the region’s democratic powers to pursue “greater engagement and cooperation.” They – including Trump’s US – should heed that call. In fact, only an alliance of democracies can ensure the emergence of a strong rules-based order and a stable balance of power in the world’s most economically dynamic region.

In recent years, as Tillerson acknowledged, China has taken “provocative actions,” such as in the South China Sea, that challenge international law and norms. And this behavior is set to continue, if not escalate. Last month’s 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China effectively crowned President Xi Jinping – who has spearheaded a more muscular foreign policy, in service of his goal of establishing China as a global superpower – as the country’s emperor.

Just as Germany’s rapid ascent prior to World War I spurred a “triple entente” among France, Russia, and the United Kingdom, China’s increasingly assertive behavior is creating strong impetus for the Asia-Pacific democracies to build a more powerful coalition. After all, as recent experience in the South China Sea has made clear, no single power can impose sufficient costs on China for its maritime and territorial revisionism, much less compel Chinese leaders to change course.

This is not to say that no country has been able to challenge China. Just this summer, India stood up to its muscle-flexing neighbor in a ten-week border standoff. China has been using construction projects to change the status quo on the remote Himalayan plateau of Doklam, just as it has so often done in the South China Sea. India intervened, stalling China’s building activity. Had US President Barack Obama’s administration shown similar resolve in the South China Sea, perhaps China would not now be in possession of seven militarized artificial islands there.

In any case, securing a broader shift in China’s foreign policy and stabilizing the Asia-Pacific region’s power dynamics will require more than one country holding the line on any one issue. A US that is willing to employ new tools, a more confident Japan and India, and an Australia vexed by China’s meddling in its domestic affairs must work together to constrain Chinese behavior.

The good news is that an entente has already begun to emerge among the region’s key democracies. America’s relationship with India, in particular, has been undergoing what Tillerson called a “profound transformation,” as the two countries become “increasingly global partners with growing strategic convergence.” The US now holds more joint defense exercises with India than with any other country. Such cooperation puts the two countries in a strong position to fulfill Tillerson’s vision of serving “as the eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific.”

Engagement with Japan, too, has deepened. This year’s Malabar exercise – an annual naval exercise in the Indian Ocean involving the US, India, and Japan – was the largest and most complex since it began a quarter-century ago. Focused on destroying enemy submarines, it involved more than 7,000 personnel from the US alone, and featured for the first time aircraft carriers from all three navies: America’s nuclear-powered USS Nimitz, Japan’s Izumo helicopter carrier, and India’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya.

As Tillerson pointed out, this trilateral engagement among the US, India, and Japan is already bringing important benefits. But “there is room to invite others, including Australia, to build on the shared objectives and initiatives.”

So far, Australia has sought to avoid having to choose between its security ally, the US, and its main economic partner, China. Despite Defense Minister Marise Payne’s recent declaration that “Australia is very interested in a quadrilateral engagement with India, Japan, and the United States,” the government seems to be hedging its bets. For example, while it sought this year to rejoin the Malabar exercise – from which it withdrew a decade ago to appease China – it sought to do so only as an “observer.”

This approach is untenable. If Australia is to free itself of Chinese meddling, it will need to go beyond implementing new domestic safeguards to take a more active role in defending rules and norms beyond its borders, both on land and at sea.

In the coming years, the Indo-Pacific power balance will be determined, first and foremost, by events in the Indian Ocean and East Asia. Containing China will therefore require, first, efforts to restrict the country’s maritime activities – such as measures to safeguard vital sea lines and build maritime domain awareness – and, second, geo-economic initiatives to counter China’s coercive leverage over smaller countries. All of Asia’s democratic powers must be on board.

Calls by the US for closer cooperation bode well for this process, though the US still needs to focus more on the globally ascendant and aggressive China than on a declining Russia. The overwhelming victory of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – who has touted the idea of establishing a “democratic security diamond” in the Asia-Pacific – in his country’s recent general election is also likely to help to drive cooperation forward.

To be sure, any entente among Asian democracies is unlikely to take the shape of a formal alliance. Rather, the objective should be for democratic powers to reach a broad strategic understanding, based on shared values. It is those values, after all, that set them apart: as Tillerson recognized, while Trump’s upcoming visit to Beijing will undoubtedly draw much global attention, the US cannot have the kind of relationship with non-democratic China that it can have with a major democracy.

By pursuing cooperation, the Indo-Pacific’s democratic powers can shore up an inclusive, rules-based order that underpins peace, prosperity, stability, and freedom of navigation in the region. That is the only way to thwart China’s effort to establish itself as the hegemon of an illiberal regional order.

Brahma Chellaney

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, 2017.

Xi’s newfound strength obscures China’s internal risks

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BY , The Japan Times

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China, the world’s communist behemoth, is at a turning point in its history, one that will have profound implications for the rest of the world, but especially for Asia. Neighboring countries, from Japan to India, are already bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies.

The just-concluded 19th Chinese Communist Party congress put its imprimatur on President Xi Jinping’s centralization of power by naming no clear successor to him and signaling the quiet demise of the collective leadership system that has governed China for more than a quarter century. The congress, in essence, was about Xi’s coronation as China’s new emperor.

By enshrining the “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era” in its constitution, the party has made this new “ideology” — just like Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong’s thoughts — compulsory learning for Chinese students at all levels.

To be sure, the lurch toward absolutism didn’t happen suddenly. Xi spent his first five-year term tightening control on society. While strengthening censorship and using anti-corruption probes to take down political enemies, he steadily concentrated powers in himself. A year ago, he got the party to bestow on him the title of “core” leader.

Now, in his second term, Xi will likely centralize power in a way China hasn’t seen since Mao. Xi has already made himself in some ways more powerful than even Mao. Today, everyone is dispensable except Xi, who appears set to remain in power indefinitely.

Domestic politics in any country, including a major democracy like the United States, has a bearing on its foreign policy. The link between China’s traditionally cut-throat internal politics and its external policy has been apparent since the Mao era.

For example, China launched the 1962 Himalayan war with India after Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” created the worst manmade famine in history, with the resulting damage to his credibility, according to the Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, serving as a strong incentive for him to reassert leadership through a war. The Great Leap Forward policy led to the deaths of up to 45 million Chinese, according to the historian Frank Dikötter.

In the run-up to the latest party congress, two senior military generals disappeared from public view, including the top general holding the position equivalent to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. It is unthinkable that in any other major country in the twenty-first century, the top-ranking general can just vanish and later is said to be under detention for alleged abuse of office.

Xi has ruthlessly cut to size any institution or group that could pose a potential challenge to his authority. By purging and jailing countless number of generals on corruption charges, he has sought to tame the powerful People’s Liberation Army, which traditionally has sworn fealty to the party, not the nation. More recently, Xi has also gone after China’s new tycoons in order to block the rise of Russia-style oligarchs.

Control and nationalism are the guiding themes in Xi’s approach, which centers on the state being in charge of all aspects of public life, including culture, religion and the digital realm. But such an approach risks creating a pressure cooker syndrome — cool on the outside but so pressurized on the inside that it could not be deftly managed.

It is true that even before Xi assumed power in 2012, China began gradually discarding Deng Xiaoping’s dictum to “keep a low profile and bide one’s time.” An increasingly nationalistic, assertive China staked out a more muscular role, including resurrecting territorial and maritime disputes and asserting new sovereignty claims.

China’s proclivity to bare its claws, however, has become more pronounced under Xi, who sees the West in retreat and wants China to gain the upper hand globally. His government has aggressively used construction activity to change the status quo in Asia in relation to land and sea frontiers and cross-border river flows. In his marathon, three-and-a-half-hour speech to the party congress, Xi actually bragged of his “successful prosecution of maritime rights,” citing “South China Sea reef and island construction” as one of his major achievements.

In fact, Xi aspires to become modern China’s most transformative leader. Just as Mao helped to create a reunified and independent China through a communist “revolution,” and Deng set in motion China’s economic rise through reforms, Xi wants to make China the central player in the international order.

Now that Xi’s pet “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) project has been officially enshrined in the party’s constitution, the world will likely witness a greater Chinese propensity to use geo-economic tools to achieve larger geostrategic objectives. The $1 trillion OBOR, however, symbolizes the risk of China’s strategic overreach: The majority of the nations in OBOR are junk rated or not graded by international rating firms. China’s OBOR drive is actually beginning to encounter a backlash in several partner countries.

Even so, the sycophancy with which senior officials abased themselves to extol Xi at the party congress indicates that there is no room for debate in a one-man-led China. Indeed, Xi’s gaining of virtually absolute power demonstrates — if any evidence were needed — that there is no linear path between rising prosperity and political pluralism.

Internationally, Xi’s neo-Maoist dictatorship will likely spell trouble for the free world, especially Asian democracies like India, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. We will likely see a China more assertive in the Indo-Pacific region, more determined to achieve global superpower status, and more prone to employing instruments of coercive diplomacy and breaching established norms and rules. A restrained and stable Chinese foreign policy could become more difficult.

Xi’s vision, which he has called the “Chinese dream,” is essentially to make China the world’s preeminent power by 2049 — the centennial of the communist “revolution.” The longest any autocratic system has survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet Union. Xi’s grip on power may still be intact when China is expected to overtake that record in less than seven years.

Still, with the party’s ideological mask no longer credible, the longer-term prospects of continued communist rule are far from certain. After all, China’s future is likely to be determined not so much by its hugely successful economy as by its murky domestic politics.

Xi’s new strength and power helps obscure China’s internal risks, including the fundamental challenge of how to avoid a political hard-landing. As for Xi, he needs to watch his back, having made many enemies at home in his no-holds-barred effort to concentrate power in his own hands.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

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.

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.