A Concert of Indo-Pacific Democracies

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The deepening relationship between Japan and India serves the goal of forestalling the emergence of a China-centric Asia. If they can leverage their relationship to generate progress toward broader cooperation among the region’s democracies, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be achievable.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

On his week-long tour of Asia, US Vice President Mike Pence has been promoting a vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region, characterized by unimpeded trade flows, freedom of navigation, and respect for the rule of law, national sovereignty, and existing frontiers. The question is whether this vision of an Indo-Pacific free of “authoritarianism and aggression” is achievable.

One country that seems willing to contribute to realizing this vision is Japan. In fact, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the originator of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept that lies at the heart of President Donald Trump’s new strategy, the successor to Barack Obama’s  “pivot” to Asia.

Having historically punched above its weight internationally, Japan is responding to China’s muscular rise by strengthening its own position in the region. Taking advantage of its considerable assets – the world’s third-largest economy, substantial high-tech skills, and a military that has recently been freed of some legal and constitutional constraints – Japan is boosting its geopolitical clout.

Japan’s world-class navy has already begun operating far beyond the country’s waters in order to establish its position in the region. For example, in order to challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea, a Japanese submarine and three destroyers carried out naval drills there in September. “Japan’s willingness to participate in Asian security,” former US Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently said, “makes it an increasingly important player in the region.”

But creating a free and open Indo-Pacific is not the job of one country alone. Establishing the stable balance of power needed to realize Pence’s vision will require all of the region’s major democracies – from Japan and India to Indonesia and Australia – to come together.

The good news is that Abe seems to recognize the importance of cooperation among Asia’s democratic powers. For example, in discussing the natural alliance between the region’s richest democracy and its largest one, he declared: “A strong India benefits Japan, and a strong Japan benefits India.”

With that in mind, Abe and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, recently held a summit that opened the way for a military logistics pact that would give each country’s armed forces access to the other’s bases. Beyond instituting a joint “two plus two” dialogue among the countries’ foreign and defense ministers, Abe and Modi agreed to deepen naval and maritime-security cooperation and collaborate on projects in third countries, including Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, to enhance strategic connectivity in the Indo-Pacific.

At the summit, Japan and India devised a new motto for the bilateral relationship: “Shared security, shared prosperity, and shared destiny.” The comfort and camaraderie shown by Abe and Modi during their meeting, held at Abe’s private vacation home near Mount Fuji, stood in stark contrast to the stony expressions and somber handshakes on display when, just two days earlier, Abe had met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.

Cooperation between India and Japan builds on, among other things, the trilateral India-Japan-US “Malabar” naval exercises. Malabar has become an important component of the effort to defend freedom of navigation and overflight in the Indo-Pacific region, through which two-thirds of global trade travels. If India signed a military logistics agreement with Japan, as it has with the US, the Indian navy would be better able to expand its footprint to the western Pacific, while enabling Japan to project its naval power in the Indian Ocean.

Fortunately, relations among the Indo-Pacific’s four key maritime democracies – Australia, India, Japan, and the US – are stronger than ever, characterized by high-level linkages and intelligence-sharing. These countries should institutionalize their “quad” initiative, with the India-Japan dyad forming the cornerstone of efforts to pursue wider collaboration in the region.

But such collaboration will face considerable obstacles. For starters, the relationship between Japan and America’s other closest East Asian ally, South Korea, continues to be  by history.

The issue of “comfort women,” Korean women who were coerced into providing sexual services to Japanese troops during World War II, has long been particularly contentious. A 2015 agreement, endorsed by Abe and former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, claimed to resolve the issue “irreversibly”: Japan offered its apology and one billion yen ($8.8 million) for a fund created to help the victims.

But, earlier this year, Park’s successor, Moon Jae-in, rejected the deal, arguing that it did not adequately serve the victims or the public. More recently, South Korea’s Supreme Court ordered a major Japanese steelmaker to compensate the “victims of forced labor” during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea, even though a 1965 bilateral agreement was supposed to have settled “completely and finally” all such claims.

The rancorous relationship between Japan and South Korea plays directly into China’s hands. While South Korea obviously should not disregard its history, it should find a way to move past its colonial subjugation and form new, mutually beneficial relationships with Japan, much as India, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia have done with their former colonizers.

Another potential impediment to a concert of Indo-Pacific democracies is domestic instability in key countries. In strategically located Sri Lanka, for example, President Maithripala Sirisena has ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (despite the latter’s parliamentary majority) and called a snap election, even though the constitution does not give him the power to do either. A weakening of the country’s democracy could have strategic ramifications for an economically integrated but politically divided Indo-Pacific.

Nonetheless, the deepening relationship between Japan and India serves the goal of forestalling the emergence of a China-centric Asia. If Japan and India – after China, the region’s most influential countries – can leverage their relationship to generate progress toward a broader concert of democracies in the region, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be achievable after all.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

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Insecurity in India’s maritime backyard

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Maldives’ former president Mohamed Nasheed (left) with President-elect Ibrahim Mohamed Solih after returning from exile. (Photo: AP)

The centenary of the World War I armistice is a reminder that the war was triggered by European power struggle for territories, resources and client-states — the very pursuits of China today.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

While India watches with concern Sri Lanka’s deepening political crisis, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is boldly visiting the Maldives on the day its autocratic president, Abdullah Yameen, is to cede power after a surprise election defeat. Modi’s visit for the new president’s inauguration effectively ensures that Yameen will peacefully transfer power to the victor, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. Indeed, the mere announcement of Modi’s visit signalled to Yameen that he had no choice but to accept the fait accompli.

Coordinated pressure from democratic powers, including the spectre of an Indian military intervention, is helping to restore Maldivian democracy. The US had warned of “appropriate measures” and the EU had threatened sanctions if the vote was not free and fair. And when the graft-tainted Yameen hesitated to concede defeat despite the election outcome, Washington demanded he “respect the will of the people.”

Yameen had stacked the electoral odds in his favour by jailing or forcing into exile all important opposition leaders and working to neuter the Supreme Court, including by imprisoning justices. But such was the grassroots backlash against his dictatorial rule that he lost the election to the little-known Solih, the common opposition candidate. Unless autocrats wholly manipulate elections, they cannot control voters’ backlash, which is why Malaysia’s Najib Razak was swept out of office in May and Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa was booted out in early 2015.

It is ironical that Sri Lanka has now been plunged into political crisis by President Maithripala Sirisena’s unconstitutional actions, which smack of the kind of authoritarianism displayed by his predecessor, Rajapaksa. Sirisena, who was elected to prevent abuses and excesses of power again through constitutional change, has himself abused the power of his office. Ominously, Sirisena has reached a Faustian bargain with Rajapaksa, whose decade-long presidency brought democracy under siege.

The collapse of the Sri Lankan partnership between Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe is indeed an early warning to the Maldivian unity coalition that the restoration of full democracy is reversible unless those elected to high office respect constitutional rules and show consideration for their partners. Solih’s victory was made possible by opposition unity. But the only thing that united opposition leaders was the imperative to end Yameen’s tyrannical rule.

Those who helped fashion Solih’s victory include former presidents Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and Mohamed Nasheed. Earlier jailed by Gayoom, Nasheed took office in 2008 by defeating Gayoom in the country’s first multi-party election. But in 2012, Nasheed was ousted at gunpoint after pro-Islamist groups, including forces loyal to Gayoom, laid siege to the presidential office. In this light, political stability and democratic progress in post-Yameen Maldives will hinge on rival leaders staying united behind Solih.

There is much in common between the Maldives and Sri Lanka, including their islander cultures and shifting political alliances and the fact that Maldives’ official language, Dhivehi, is a dialect of Sinhala. The murky turn of events in Sri Lanka casts an unwelcome shadow over Maldives’ new democratic beginning.

In fact, the biggest threat to democratic institutions in India’s maritime neighbourhood — after internal crisis — comes from the growing role and leverage of the world’s largest autocracy, China. From bribing politicians to shielding pliant leaders and governments from UN actions, China has encouraged anti-democratic developments. Before Sirisena recently stunned a cabinet meeting by claiming he was the target of a RAW assassination plot (his office later denied he named RAW), he publicly boasted that Chinese President Xi Jinping “gifted” him almost $300 million “for any project of my wish.” China has also built South Asia’s largest kidney hospital in Sirisena’s home district.

A central challenge for the Solih-led Maldives will be to escape China’s debt entrapment, given how Beijing has sought to further its geostrategic goals by attempting to hold Sri Lanka financially hostage. Throttling democracy allowed Yameen to take the Maldives down the slippery slope of increasing indebtedness to his protector, China. The accumulated debt to China is now more than two times greater than Maldives’ yearly revenues. In steering his archipelago country firmly into China’s orbit, Yameen also leased several unpopulated islands opaquely to Beijing.

More broadly, the centenary this week of the World War I armistice is a reminder that the war was triggered by European power struggle for territories, resources and client-states — the very pursuits of China today. China’s increasing encroachments into India’s maritime neighbourhood will likely keep this region insecure and heighten uncertainty. By muscling its way into India’s backyard, Beijing has prompted an Indian focus on the maritime domain, including seeking to turn four key projects into “pearls” — Sabang (Indonesia); Chabahar (Iran); Duqm (Oman); and Agaléga (Mauritius).

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Belt and Roadblocks

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India’s stance vindicated as China’s grandiose BRI plans run into resistance

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

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Sierra Leone has become the latest country to scrap a Belt and Road (BRI) project, cancelling a $318-million airport deal with China. After smooth sailing, the BRI is now encountering strong headwinds, as partner-nations worry about sovereignty-eroding debt traps. In multiple countries, BRI projects are being scrapped or scaled back.

India was the first country to come out against the opaque BRI, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s marquee initiative. India boycotted Xi’s much-hyped BRI summit, held to drum up global support for his initiative. The May 2017 summit in Beijing attracted 29 heads of state or government, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But, while the US sent a joint secretary-equivalent official to the summit, India sent no one.

Indeed, India publicly portrayed BRI as a non-transparent, neocolonial enterprise aimed at ensnaring smaller, cash-strapped states in a debt trap to help advance China’s geopolitical agenda. An official Indian statement before the BRI summit declared that “connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, the rule of law, openness, transparency and equality” and that they must also “follow principles of financial responsibility to avoid projects that would create unsustainable debt burden”.

Some commentators in India were quick to claim that, through its summit boycott, India had isolated itself. They also predicted that India would come out a loser by turning its back on what they saw as a promising infrastructure-building initiative that New Delhi too should have tapped.

But at the BRI summit itself, India received implicit support. The European Union openly echoed India’s concerns by saying the BRI did not include commitments to transparency and social and environmental sustainability. The EU’s refusal to back Xi’s BRI-related trade statement marred the summit.

Before long, the US began depicting the BRI as the dawn of a new colonial era. Then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called China a “new imperialist power” whose practices are “reminiscent of European colonialism”.

The word “predatory” is now being used internationally about China’s practices. The International Monetary Fund has warned that Chinese loans are promoting unsustainable debt burdens. The price such burdens exact can extend to national sovereignty and self-respect. The handover of Hambantota port on a 99-year lease to China was seen in Sri Lanka as the equivalent of a heavily indebted farmer giving away his daughter to the cruel money lender.

Beijing has leveraged big credits to gain even military presence, as its first overseas naval base at Djibouti illustrates. Trapped in a debt crisis after borrowing billions of dollars, Djibouti was left with no choice but to lease land for the base to China for $20 million in annual rent. China is similarly seeking to employ its leverage over cash-strapped Pakistan to build a naval base next to Gwadar port.

In the Maldives, China has acquired several islets in that heavily indebted Indian Ocean archipelago. While the terms of the various lease agreements have not been disclosed, the acquisitions have come cheap; for example, China paid just $4 million for Feydhoo Finolhu, an island that previously served as a police training centre.

However, China’s grandiose BRI plans are running into broader resistance. Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang by his side in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, recently criticized China’s use of infrastructure projects to spread its influence. By warning China against “a new version of colonialism”, Mahathir highlighted international concerns over Beijing’s use of geo-economic tools to achieve geopolitical objectives.

Sri Lanka’s experience has been a wake-up call for other countries with outsize debts to China. A number of BRI partner-states have begun trying to renegotiate their deals with Beijing. Some have decided to cancel or scale back projects. Mahathir, during his Beijing visit, announced the cancellation of Chinese projects worth nearly $23 billion. And China’s close ally, Pakistan, has downsized its main BRI railroad project by $2 billion.

The BRI seeks to export China’s model of top-down, debt-driven development through government-to-government deals clinched without competitive bidding. But, increasingly, the BRI is being seen internationally as an attempt to remake global commerce on China’s terms and project Chinese power far and wide.

Vulnerable countries are awakening to the risks of accepting loans that are too good to be true and then slipping into debt entrapment. China is even replicating some of the practices that were used against it during the European-colonial period, such as the concept of a 99-year lease. The BRI, by creating a mountain of debt, risks undermining China’s international standing, including engendering hidden hostility. A broader pushback against China’s mercantilist practices is already emerging.

Against this background, India’s brave, principled stand against the BRI stands fully vindicated. India can pride itself as the intellectual leader that helped shine a spotlight on the BRI’s financial and security risks and thereby moulded the international debate. The larger international pushback against China’s predatory practices is likely to intensify in the coming years, putting greater pressure on the BRI.

The writer is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2018.

The End of America’s China Fantasy

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Over the last couple of years, the China-policy debate in the US has begun to reflect more realism, with a growing number of voices recognizing China’s ambition to supplant its American benefactor as the leading global superpower. But is it too late to rein in America’s main geopolitical rival?

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

A long-overdue shift in America’s China policy is underway. After decades of “constructive engagement” – an approach that has facilitated China’s rise, even as the country has violated international rules and norms – the United States is now seeking active and concrete counter-measures. But is it too late to rein in a country that has emerged, with US help, as America’s main geopolitical rival?

From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, successive US presidents regarded aiding China’s economic rise as a matter of national interest; indeed, Jimmy Carter once issued a presidential memo declaring as much. Even as China defied world trade rules, forced companies to share their intellectual property, and flexed its military muscles, the US held onto the naive hope that, as China became increasingly prosperous, it would naturally pursue economic and even political liberalization.

America’s “China fantasy,” as James Mann calls it, was exemplified by Bill Clinton’s argument in favor of allowing China’s admission to the World Trade Organization. Citing Woodrow Wilson’s vision of “free markets, free elections, and free peoples,” Clinton declared that China’s WTO entry would herald “a future of greater openness and freedom for the people of China.”

That is not what happened. Instead, China established itself at the center of global manufacturing value chains, as countless companies moved their production to the country – including from the US – while keeping its markets, politics, and people under tight control. In fact, China’s dictatorship has become even more entrenched in recent years, as the Communist Party of China has used digital technologies to build a surveillance state. Meanwhile, the US has run up trillions of dollars in bilateral trade deficits.

Nonetheless, America’s China fantasy endured, leading Obama to look on as the country created and militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea. At the height of the Chinese government’s island-building, Obama argued that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.” As a result, China seized de facto control of a highly strategic sea corridor through which one-third of global maritime trade passes – all without incurring any international costs.

Over the last couple of years, however, the China-policy debate in the US has begun to reflect more realism, with a growing number of voices recognizing China’s ambition to supplant its American benefactor as the leading global superpower. The US finally called China what it is: a “revisionist power” and “strategic competitor.” And, just this month, Vice President Mike Pence bluntly accused China of “using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests” in the US.

This rhetorical shift is being translated into action. President Donald Trump’s trade war, in particular, has grabbed headlines, though many observers have failed to discern the strategy behind the tariffs.

Whereas Trump has used tariffs against allies as leverage to secure concessions and clinch new trade deals, US tariffs targeting China – which could endure for years – are intended to bring about more fundamental and far-reaching change. Even the revised deals with US allies are intended partly to isolate China, thereby forcing it to abandon its mercantilist trade practices, such as forced technology transfer.

But what the Trump administration has initiated goes beyond tariffs; it amounts to a structural change in America’s China policy that promises to reshape global geopolitics and trade. Because this change aligns with an incipient US bipartisan consensus in favor of more assertive action to constrain China, it is likely to outlast Trump’s presidency.

To be sure, this does not mean that the US is going to adopt an overtly confrontational China policy. Nor does it necessarily mean that, as many , a new cold war is in the offing. For example, China still gets a free pass on human-rights abuses, from holding up to a million Muslims from Xinjiang province in internment camps to effectively kidnapping Interpol President Meng Hongwei. And, despite his assertions that the Obama administration’s response to China’s activities in the South China Sea was “impotent,” Trump has done little to counter Chinese expansionism.

Instead, the US seems to hope that it can use primarily economic levers to weaken China – a kind of death from a thousand cuts. But will it be enough? Or is the US effectively shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted?

China is already challenging the US for technological and geopolitical primacy, and flaunting its authoritarian capitalism as an alternative to democracy. Communism couldn’t pose a credible challenge to liberal democracy, but authoritarian capitalism might. In that sense, China’s model represents the first major challenge to liberal democracy since the rise of Nazism.

Thanks to its great strides in strengthening its technological prowess and geopolitical clout, China is in a strong position to withstand US pressure to change its ways. It will have to sacrifice some economic growth. But for President Xi Jinping, such a sacrifice would be worth it, if it meant protecting not only his own position, but also his “Chinese dream” of global preeminence. Even if US pressure escalates significantly, China will likely adopt a “two steps forward, one step back” strategy to keep progressing toward its ambitious goals.

This is not to say that US efforts are for naught. On the contrary, its policy shift amounts to its last chance to stop China before it secures the critical technologies it needs to gain the upper hand geopolitically in Asia and beyond. Even if it is too late to force China to respect international rules and human rights, it is never too soon to end China’s damaging free ride.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

The linchpins for a rules-based Indo-Pacific

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

The spotlight on the Beijing summit between Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping cannot obscure the more substantive discussions starting Sunday between the Japanese prime minister and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, in Tokyo. Whereas Japan-China ties are unlikely to easily return to normal, the Abe-Modi summit will cement the Japan-India relationship as Asia’s fastest growing and open the path to a military logistics pact to allow access to each other’s bases.

The entente between Asia’s richest democracy and its largest is a central pillar of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy that U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration is assertively pushing. Indeed, Abe is the architect of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept, which he formally unveiled more than two years ago while addressing African leaders in Nairobi.

Today, Japan and India serve as the linchpins for establishing an Indo-Pacific order based on the principles of the rule of law, free trade, freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes. The Trump administration openly acknowledges the critical importance of the Japan-India relationship to achieving a “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy is really the successor to the “pivot” to Asia, which was announced by President Barack Obama’s administration in 2011 and became subsequently known as the “rebalance” to Asia. Like the “pivot,” the Indo-Pacific strategy is founded on the realization that the United States needs to correct its disproportionate focus on the Middle East by reorienting its policy to reflect Asia’s central importance to long-term American interests.

Asian security competition is occurring largely in the maritime context, which explains the increasing use of the term “Indo-Pacific” — representing the fusion of two oceans, the Indian and the Pacific. The geo-economic competition is also gaining traction in this region, which boasts the world’s fastest-growing economies, the fastest-increasing military expenditures and naval capabilities, the fiercest competition over natural resources, and the most dangerous hot spots. The Indo-Pacific thus holds the key to global security and a new world order.

The broadening of America’s “pivot” to a wider region that includes the Indian Ocean is also a riposte to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative, whose largest investments in infrastructure projects are concentrated in the Indian Ocean Rim. And as China’s first overseas naval base at Djibouti and its acquisition of several unpopulated islets in the Maldives illustrate, the Indian Ocean is also becoming Beijing’s geostrategic focus after its success in creating and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Against this background, Abe and Modi, besides signing an accord Monday to build maritime domain awareness through partnership, will set in motion the process for the Japanese and Indian militaries to clinch a logistics-sharing agreement, formally known as the Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement (ACSA). A logistics-sharing accord has become imperative for the two militaries, given the number of joint maneuvers they hold, including three-way exercises involving the U.S. Navy in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

An ACSA with India will help Japan to project its rising naval power in the Indian Ocean, including allowing Japanese ships to get fuel and servicing at Indian naval bases. The Maritime Self-Defense Force will also be able to secure access to Indian naval facilities in the Andaman and Nicobar islands, located close to the western entrance to the Malacca Straits through which sizable shares of Japan’s and China’s trade and fuel imports pass.

With the loosening of the legal and constitutional constraints on the military under Abe, the MSDF, instead of focusing merely on territorial defense of the homeland, is now able to operate far beyond Japanese shores. Indeed, Japan’s new readiness to participate in regional security, including through joint military exercises and training, is making it a critical player in the changing geostrategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific.

India has signed military logistics pacts with the U.S. and France, both of which have strategically located bases in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. A logistics-sharing agreement with Japan, along with greater bilateral maritime cooperation, will help the Indian Navy expand its footprint to the western Pacific.

The plain fact is that Japan and India, in the absence of any historical baggage or major strategic disagreement, are natural allies that share largely complementary interests. In fact, Japan has the distinction of being the only country that has been allowed to undertake infrastructure and other projects in India’s sensitive northeast (bordering Myanmar, Tibet, Bhutan and Bangladesh), as well as in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

If Japan and India add concrete security content to their relationship, their strategic partnership could potentially be a game changer in Asia. The emphasis on boosting trade and investment must be balanced with greater strategic collaboration. As Japanese Ambassador to India Kenji Hiramatsu put it, “Defense and security ties now need to catch up.”

Abe’s summit with Xi — and Modi’s earlier summit with the Chinese president in Wuhan in April — cannot hide the fact that Japan and India face a serious challenge from a revisionist and muscular China. In fact, it is the Trump administration’s pressure on Beijing on trade, technology and other fronts that has prompted Xi to reach out to Abe and Modi.

Xi is probably hoping that Japan, like it did after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of student-led protesters, will help to bail out his country at a time when America’s China policy is undergoing a fundamental shift. Japan was one of the first countries to lift post-Tiananmen economic sanctions, an action that paved the way for Emperor Akihito’s 1992 historic visit to China.

But Japan, like the U.S., has now shed its China blinkers and embraced a more realistic, clear-eyed approach to relations with Beijing. India too is under no illusion that a Xi-led China is going to discard its bullying and rule-breaking, and become a good neighbor.

In this light, the Abe-Modi summit offers an opportunity to discuss how the Tokyo-New Delhi duet can contribute to the larger U.S.-initiated effort to build strategic equilibrium, power stability and maritime security in the Indo-Pacific. As for Washington, it needs to evolve a clear strategy to deal with the changing status quo in the South China Sea, a highly strategic corridor that is central to a truly “free and open” Indo-Pacific.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2018.

Pakistan’s double game stymies Trump’s Afghan peace effort

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The US war in Afghanistan has already lasted more than twice as long as World War II, exacting a staggering cost in blood and treasure. With the longest war in American history completing 17 years this month, US patience appears to be wearing thin. Recent American moves — from renewing efforts for a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban to changing the combat strategy — indicate that President Donald Trump’s administration is desperate to end the war.

downloadThe newly appointed US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad blindsided the Afghan government by holding unannounced face-to-face talks recently with the Taliban in Qatar. Khalilzad’s negotiations — just ahead of Afghanistan’s Oct. 20 parliamentary elections that the Taliban sought to disrupt — constituted the second round of US-Taliban direct talks in about three months.

The revived “Great Game”, however, is clouding the renewed US peace effort. US foreign policy, through punitive sanctions and tariffs, is driving Russia, China and Iran to support the Taliban in a bid to tie down American forces in Afghanistan. And Pakistan, which provides cross-border safe havens to the Taliban, continues running with the hare and hunting with the hounds — pretending to be a US ally while harbouring the Taliban’s network structure.

To make matters worse, an ascendant Taliban is expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in such record numbers that authorities in Kabul no longer disclose fatality tolls. Afghan military casualties have been rising since 2014, after US forces transferred responsibility for most security to the Afghans. Still, almost 15,000 American troops remain, while some 26,000 US military contractors in Afghanistan continue doing many jobs that soldiers would normally do.

Pakistan holds the key to a US peace deal with the Taliban. Then US President Barack Obama unsuccessfully tried to co-opt Pakistan by extending multibillion-dollar aid packages to that country. Now, under Trump, the US has renewed efforts to win the support of Pakistan’s powerful military generals, including by assassinating the chief of the Pakistani Taliban in May. In fact, three successive Pakistani Taliban chiefs have been killed by US military strikes, with each assassination intended to win Pakistan’s cooperation in the Afghan war.

For its part, the US, seeking to preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Afghan Taliban, has not included that militia in its list of foreign terrorist organizations. And the only time the US has assassinated a major Afghan Taliban leader inside the militia leadership’s sanctuary, Pakistan, was in 2016 when a drone strike killed the new chief after he adamantly opposed any peace talks.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, while making an unannounced visit to Kabul last month on his way back from New Delhi, claimed that reconciliation efforts with the Taliban had gained “traction”. But the Taliban, while valuing direct talks with the US as a means to undercut the Afghan government’s legitimacy, have little incentive to make peace with America. Through battlefield victories, the Taliban have already gained the momentum against government forces, which are spread thin and on the defensive.

An emboldened Taliban, in the recent talks in Qatar, demanded a timeframe for an “end to the US occupation” and removal of all Taliban leaders from US sanctions lists. Meanwhile, in response to the increasing Taliban attacks in Afghanistan, Washington has advised Afghan troops to pull back from sparsely populated areas and focus instead on safeguarding cities. Consequently, not only have vast swaths of Afghanistan become no-go zones, but also the priority accorded to force protection is signalling a government in retreat.

Further emboldening the Taliban are the new avenues of support from Russia, Iran and China. But while Moscow and Tehran long viewed the Taliban as a major terrorist threat before establishing contact with the militia, China has always had a dubious approach toward the Taliban. When 9/11 happened, a Chinese delegation was in Kandahar signing an accord with the isolated Taliban regime. Now, seeking a bigger role in Afghanistan, China is again courting the Taliban.

India, a top aid donor to Afghanistan, is the only power to pursue a consistently anti-Taliban policy. India is concerned that the US-Taliban direct talks, besides marginalizing the Afghan government, lend respectability to a terrorist organization that enforces medieval practices. But the US appears willing, as part of a peace deal, to accommodate the Taliban in an Afghan power-sharing arrangement.

However, an enduring peace deal appears unlikely as long as Pakistan continues playing a double game and the US refuses to go after the Taliban’s cross-border safe havens. The Trump team knows this and yet is seeking to repeat Obama-era failed efforts, including wooing the Taliban.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Why Mike Pence is playing bad cop against China

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As the trade war escalates, Donald Trump is seeking to preserve space for a possible deal and leaving his deputy to tackle the tough questions.

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Brahma Chellaney, The National

After a landmark speech this month at the Hudson Institute, which signalled a fundamental shift in America’s China policy, Vice President Mike Pence will lead a US delegation to three important multilateral summits in November. While President Donald Trump has lavished praise on China’s President Xi Jinping despite their escalating trade war, Pence is leading the administration’s charge against China.

Mr Trump and Mr Pence might, in fact, be playing a deliberate game of good cop, bad cop.

Mr Trump’s handling of China reflects his reluctance to antagonize Mr Xi or impose sanctions on China even in response to egregious human-rights abuses, including its internment of up to one million Muslims from Xinjiang. Had Russia set up such camps, the US response would likely have been swift and resolute.

The US president is a great believer in the idea that a good rapport between heads of government can significantly shape the relationship between the countries they lead. He also prides himself on being a great negotiator and deal-maker.

While letting his vice president forthrightly articulate America’s concerns over China, Mr Trump is seeking to preserve space to cut a possible deal with Mr Xi on trade. Mr Trump and Mr Xi, in their first face-to-face interaction in nearly a year, are likely to meet on November 29 in Buenos Aires, a day before the G20 summit opens there.

In his recent speech, Mr Pence highlighted how China is blending economic aggression, territorial and maritime revisionism, military adventurism, influence operations and Orwellian repression at home to advance its ambitions.

More importantly, Mr Pence declared that “the US has adopted a new approach to China”, saying that “previous administrations all but ignored China’s actions. And in many cases, they abetted them. But those days are over.”

The speech laid out why the Trump administration is making a course correction in the China policy that successive American presidents have pursued since the early 1970s, when the US managed the diplomatic coup of splitting its two main enemies – the Soviet Union and China. With the US winning over China to its side, it became two against one. This proved a critical factor in the eventual US victory in the Cold War and the Soviet Union’s collapse.

In return, the US actively aided China’s rise. After Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s paramount leader in 1978, following a fierce power struggle, and embarked on economic modernisation, the US lent full support to his mission.

The US policy of assisting China’s economic ascent did not change even in response to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. There, Chinese authorities used tanks to ruthlessly crush student-led protests in the heart of Beijing – an action that left hundreds, possibly thousands, dead.

But now the Trump administration has unveiled a new strategy to shift the US relationship with China from co-operation to competition, including confronting Chinese mercantilism and Beijing’s campaign of influence operations on American soil.

As Mr Pence put it, the US miscalculated that after the fall of the Soviet Union, “a free China was inevitable”. Today, according to him, an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive China has “mobilised covert actors, front groups, and propaganda outlets to shift Americans’ perception of Chinese policy … what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country”.

Against this backdrop, it might seem appropriate that Mr Trump is sending the blunt-speaking Mr Pence in his place to the forthcoming multilateral summits in the Indo-Pacific region − the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the US-Asean summit, both to be held in Singapore in mid-November, followed by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group summit at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, on November 17-18.

APEC summits, instituted in 1993, have become largely symbolic, and Mr Trump’s absence at Port Moresby will not be unusual. Bill Clinton missed two summits and Barack Obama skipped one. As APEC’s membership has expanded, the grouping’s cohesiveness and mission have weakened.

The promise of the 18-nation EAS has also faded. Like the 21-nation APEC, the EAS includes America’s main geopolitical rivals, China and Russia.

In this light, to counter the rise of an increasingly muscular China that refuses to play by international rules, substance matters more for US policy than group photographs at multilateral summits.

It is significant that, in an otherwise polarised and divided Washington, a bipartisan consensus is emerging that the failed US policy of “constructive engagement” with China must be replaced with concrete counteraction.

For example, in a Harvard University essay this month, Obama’s defence secretary, Ashton Carter, writes: “Washington since the end of the Cold War has often backed down in the face of Chinese bullying. From aggressive territorial claims to human-rights abuses and brazen theft on a trillion-dollar scale, China has violated core international norms time and again with little repercussions beyond scolding American speeches”.

Mr Carter recommends that, “when China behaves inappropriately on the international stage, the US must firmly push back and stand up for the principles of international order”. Mr Pence has signalled that this is precisely what the Trump administration intends to do.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of the award-winning Water, Peace, and War.