A rogue neighbour’s new rogue act

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BRAHMA CHELLANEY | DNA, April 17, 2017

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Periodically, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) offers fresh evidence that it remains a rogue agency. This includes the year-long saga involving its abduction from Iran of a former Indian naval officer, Kulbhushan Jadhav, who was recently sentenced to death by a secret military court in Pakistan for being an Indian “spy”. The case indeed stands out as a symbol of the thuggish conduct of an irredeemably scofflaw state.

Just because Pakistan alleges that Jadhav was engaged in espionage against it cannot justify the ISI’s kidnapping of him from Iran or his secret, mock trial in a military court. Under the extra-constitutional military court system — established after the late 2014 Peshawar school attack — judicial proceedings are secret, civilian defendants are barred from engaging their own lawyers, and the “judges” (not necessarily possessing law degrees) render verdicts without being required to provide reasons.

The military courts show, if any evidence were needed, that decisive power still rests with the military generals, with the army and ISI immune to civilian oversight. In fact, the announcement that Jadhav had been sentenced to death with the Pakistani army chief’s approval was made by the military, not the government, despite its major implications for Pakistan’s relations with India.

Add to the picture the Pakistani military’s ongoing state-sponsored terrorism against India, Afghanistan and even Bangladesh. Jadhav’s sentencing was a deliberate — but just the latest — provocation against India by the military, which has orchestrated a series of terrorist attacks on Indian security bases since the beginning of last year.  It is clear that Pakistan is in standing violation of every canon of international law.

The right of self-defence is embedded as an “inherent right” in the UN Charter. India is entitled to defend its interests against the terrorism onslaught by imposing deterrent costs on the Pakistani state and its terrorist agents, including the ISI.

Unfortunately, successive Indian governments have failed to pursue a consistent and coherent Pakistan policy. As a result, the Pakistani military feels emboldened to persist with its roguish conduct.

Like his predecessors, Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued a meandering policy toward the congenitally hostile Pakistan. Modi has played the Pakistan card politically at home but not lived up to his statements on matters ranging from Balochistan to the Indus Waters Treaty. Indeed, there has been visible backsliding on his stated positions. For example, the suspended Permanent Indus Commission has been revived.

The Modi government talks tough in public but, on policy, acts too cautiously. For example, it persuaded Rajeev Chandrasekhar to withdraw his private member’s bill in the Rajya Sabha for India to declare Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. India has shied away from imposing any kind of sanctions on Pakistan or even downgrading the diplomatic relations.

When history is written, Modi’s unannounced Lahore visit on Christmas Day in 2015 will be viewed as a watershed. If the visit was intended to be a peace overture, its effect was counterproductive. Modi’s olive branch helped transform his image in Pakistani military circles from a tough-minded, no-nonsense leader that Pakistan must not mess with to someone whose bark is worse than his bite.

Within days of his return to New Delhi, the ISI scripted twin terrorist attacks on India’s forward air base at Pathankot and the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, as New Year’s gifts to Modi. Worse was India’s response: It shared intelligence with Pakistan about the Pakistani origins of the Pathankot attackers while the four-day siege of the base was still on and then hosted a Pakistani inquiry team — all in the naïve hope of winning Pakistan’s anti-terrorism cooperation. In effect, India shared intelligence with an agency that it should have branded a terrorist entity long ago — the ISI.

An emboldened Pakistani military went on to orchestrate more attacks, with the Indian inaction further damaging Modi’s strongman image. Subsequently, the deadly Uri army-base attack, by claiming the lives of 19 Indian soldiers, became Modi’s defining moment. It was the deadliest assault on an Indian military facility in more than a decade and a half. Sensing the danger of being seen as little more than a paper tiger, Modi responded with a limited but much-hyped cross-border military operation by para commandos against terrorist bases.

The Indian public, whose frustration with Pakistan had reached a tipping point, widely welcomed the surgical strike as a catharsis. The one-off strike, however, did not deter the Pakistani military, which later staged the attack on India’s Nagrota army base. Modi’s response to that attack was conspicuous silence.

Recurrent cross-border terror attacks by ISI have failed to galvanize India into devising a credible counterterrorism strategy. Employing drug traffickers, the ISI is also responsible for the cross-border flow of narcotics, which is destroying public health in India’s Punjab. In fact, the Pathankot killers — like the Gurdaspur attackers — came dressed in Indian army uniforms through a drug-trafficking route.

In reality, the Pakistani military is waging an undeclared war against an India that remains adrift and reluctant to avenge even the killing of its military personnel. There are several things India can do, short of a full-fledged war, to halt the proxy war. But India must first have clear strategic objectives and display political will.

Reforming the Pakistani military’s behaviour holds the key to regional peace. After all, all the critical issues — border peace, trans-boundary infiltration and terrorism, and nuclear stability — are matters over which the civilian government in Islamabad has no real authority because these are preserves of the Pakistani military.

The Jadhav case illustrates that, as long as New Delhi recoils from imposing deterrent costs on Pakistan, the military there will continue to up the ante against India. Indeed, it has turned Jadhav into a bargaining chip to use against India. The battle to reform against Pakistan’s roguish conduct is a fight India has to wage on its own by translating its talk into action.

The author is a strategic thinker and commentator.

© DNA, 2017.

Trump’s foreign policy muddle

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times, April 1, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump came to office vowing to end what he saw as China’s free ride on trade and security issues that has allowed it to flex its muscles more strongly than ever. But as he prepares to host Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, there is little sign that Trump’s China approach thus far is different to that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, on whose watch Beijing initiated coercive actions with impunity in the South and East China seas.

Besieged by allegations of collusion between his campaign associates and Russia, Trump — to Beijing’s relief — has found little space to revamp his predecessor’s policy and take on China.

In contrast to his tough talk during his presidential campaign, when he famously said he would not “allow China to rape our country, and that’s what they’re doing,” Trump is seeking a cooperative relationship with China but grounded in flinty reciprocity. He has abandoned campaign promises to impose a punitive 45% tariff on Chinese goods and brand China a currency manipulator.

EQUAL OPPORTUNITY IN ASIA

In fact, underscoring how the U.S. still seeks to balance its bilateral relationships with important powers in Asia, Trump invited Xi to Mar-a-Lago — his private estate in Palm Beach, Florida, that he calls the “Southern White House” — because he wants to offer the leader of the world’s largest autocracy the same hospitality that he extended to the prime minister of China’s archrival, Japan, Asia’s oldest democracy. In February, Trump brought Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Mar-a-Lago on Air Force One for a weekend of working lunches and golf.

Balancing U.S. ties with Japan and China was integral to the Obama foreign policy. Even while extending U.S. security assurances to Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands in 2014, Obama emphasized that his administration was committed to encouraging China’s “peaceful rise” and urged Japan to shun “provocative actions.” Trump, in keeping with the softer line he has taken toward China after his February 9 discussion with Xi by telephone, has sought to forge a personal connection with Abe while also extending a hand of friendship to China’s “core” leader.

Xi-Trump photoThe wily Xi, during his impending two-day visit to Mar-a-Lago, will seek to capitalize on Trump’s penchant to cut deals. Indeed, Trump, the author of The Art of the Deal, appears eager to strike deals with Xi on trade and security issues — back-door deals that could potentially leave America’s allies in Asia out in the cold.

For example, to tackle the little bully, North Korea, Trump (like Obama) is seeking the help of the big bully, China, which has sought to please Washington by banning further imports this year of North Korean coal.

As the White House stated on March 20, it wants China to “step in and play a larger role” in relation to North Korea, which a Trump administration official has exaggeratingly portrayed as the “greatest immediate threat.” But the previous two U.S. administrations also relied on sanctions and Beijing to tame North Korea, only to see that reclusive nation significantly advance its nuclear and missile capabilities.

A greater U.S. reliance on China is unlikely to salvage Washington’s failed North Korea policy, but it will almost certainly result in Beijing exacting a stiff price from the Trump administration, including with respect to the South China Sea.

Beijing, in the initial test of wills, has already savored success in scuttling Trump’s effort to modify America’s longstanding “one China” policy.

Music to Beijing’s ears

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Beijing, in fact, suggested that the U.S. is willing to bend over backward to curry favor with China. Instead of delivering a clear message in Beijing, Tillerson transformed into a Chinese parrot, mouthing China’s favorite catchphrases like “mutual respect,” “non-confrontation” and “win-win” cooperation that are code for the U.S. accommodating China’s core interests and accepting a new model of bilateral ties that places the two powers essentially on an equal footing to decide Asia’s future, thus relegating U.S. allies and partners such as Japan and India to a secondary status.

It was music to Chinese ears as Tillerson echoed several Chinese bromides about the U.S.-China relationship, including “win-win” cooperation — a phrase Chinese analysts impishly refer to as entailing a double win for China.

For Beijing, the tag “mutual respect” holds great strategic importance: It is taken to mean that the U.S. and China would band together (in a sort of Group of Two) to manage international problems by respecting each other’s “core interests.” This, in turn, implies that the U.S. would avoid challenging China on the Taiwan and Tibet issues and in Beijing’s new “core-interest” area — the South China Sea.

Tillerson, in effect, compounded the Obama administration’s mistake in embracing Xi’s idea of a “new model of great power relations” between Washington and Beijing in 2013, over four years after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped foster the narrative of the U.S. propitiating China by famously declaring that Washington would not let human rights interfere with other issues it had with Beijing.

Worse still, Tillerson articulated the catchphrases by parroting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s words. For example, Xi said in November 2014 during a joint news conference with Obama in Beijing that, “China is ready to work with the United States to make efforts in a number of priority areas and putting into effect such principles as non-confrontation, non-conflict, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” Tillerson repeated the exact four principles twice in Beijing.

In his opening remarks at a March 18 news conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Tillerson said: “Since the historic opening of relations between our two countries more than 40 years ago, the U.S.-China relationship has been guided by an understanding of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.” Later that day, at the start of talks with Wang, Tillerson again parroted the same catchphrases: “U.S.-China relationship … has been a very positive relationship built on non-confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect, and always searching for win-win solutions.”

Tillerson’s words were gleefully splashed all over the official Chinese media. For example, the Global Times gloated: “Xi highlighted the significance of the Sino-U.S. relationship and Tillerson expressed the U.S.’s commitment to the principle of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation in terms of developing its ties with China, which is exactly the core content of the China-raised major power relationship between Beijing and Washington.” It pointed out the Obama administration did not use those phrases.

To be sure, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis struck a different tone subsequently, telling a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that China pursues a “tribute nation” approach to other states and aspires for “veto power” over their sovereign decisions. Still, the direction of Trump’s China policy appears more uncertain than ever.

Soft South China Sea Stance

This could make a clearer American stance against China’s territorial revisionism in Asia doubtful. Washington elites believe that friendly relations with China are indispensable to American interests. Indeed, there is talk in Washington that the Trump administration has little choice but to accept China’s territorial gains in the South China Sea.

Such acceptance, however tacit, is likely to hold security implications for America’s allies and security partners in Asia, because it will embolden Chinese revisionism in other regions — from the East China Sea to the Himalayas — while allowing China to consolidate its penetration and influence in the South China Sea. After deploying antiaircraft and other short-range weapon systems on all seven of its manmade islands in the South China Sea, Beijing is now building structures on three of them to place longer range surface-to-air missiles.

Under Obama, the U.S. made the most of Asian concerns over China’s increasingly muscular approach by strengthening military ties with U.S. allies in Asia and forging security relationships with new friends like India. However, there was little credible American pushback against China’s violation of international law in changing the status quo or against its strategy to create a Sinosphere of client nations through the geopolitically far-reaching “one belt, one road” initiative.

Tillerson, during his confirmation process, implicitly criticized Obama’s pussyfooting on China by describing Chinese expansion in the South China Sea as “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine. He said the U.S. should “send China a clear signal” by blocking its access to the artificial islands it has built. But later he retreated, saying the U.S. ought to be “capable” of restricting such access in the event of a contingency.

Trump’s ascension to power was bad news for Beijing, especially because his “Make America Great Again” vision collides with Xi’s “Chinese dream” to make this the “Chinese century.” Yet China thus far has not only escaped any punitive American counteraction on trade and security matters, but also the expected Trump-Xi bonhomie at Mar-a-Lago could advertise that the more things change, the more they stay the same in U.S. foreign policy.

Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War.”

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Putin’s Dance with the Taliban

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate.

p7-Chellaney-a-20170309Russia may be in decline economically and demographically, but, in strategic terms, it is a resurgent power, pursuing a major military rearmament program that will enable it to continue expanding its global influence. One of the Kremlin’s latest geostrategic targets is Afghanistan, where the United States remains embroiled in the longest war in its history.

Almost three decades after the end of the Soviet Union’s own war in Afghanistan – a war that enfeebled the Soviet economy and undermined the communist state – Russia has moved to establish itself as a central actor in Afghan affairs. And the Kremlin has surprised many by embracing the Afghan Taliban. Russia had long viewed the thuggish force created by Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency as a major terrorist threat. In 2009-2015, Russia served as a critical supply route for US-led forces fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan; it even contributed military helicopters to the effort.

Russia’s reversal on the Afghan Taliban reflects a larger strategy linked to its clash with the US and its European allies – a clash that has intensified considerably since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea spurred the US and Europe to impose heavy economic sanctions. In fact, in a sense, Russia is exchanging roles with the US in Afghanistan.

In the 1980s, US President Ronald Reagan used Islam as an ideological tool to spur armed resistance to the Soviet occupation. Reasoning that the enemy of their enemy was their friend, the CIA trained and armed thousands of Afghan mujahedeen – the jihadist force from which al-Qaeda and later the Taliban evolved.

Today, Russia is using the same logic to justify its cooperation with the Afghan Taliban, which it wants to keep fighting the unstable US-backed government in Kabul. And the Taliban, which has acknowledged that it shares Russia’s enmity with the US, will take whatever help it can get to expel the Americans.

Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to impose significant costs on the US for its decision to maintain military bases in Afghanistan to project power in Central and Southwest Asia. As part of its 2014 security agreement with the Afghan government, it has secured long-term access to at least nine bases to keep tabs on nearby countries, including Russia, which, according to Putin’s special envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, “will never tolerate this.”

More broadly, Putin wants to expand the geopolitical chessboard, in the hope that he can gain sufficient leverage over the US and NATO to wrest concessions on stifling economic sanctions. Putin believes that, by becoming a major player in Afghanistan, Russia can ensure that America needs its help to extricate itself from the war there. This strategy aligns seamlessly with Putin’s approach in Syria, where Russia has already made itself a vital partner in any effort to root out the Islamic State (ISIS).

In cozying up to the Taliban, Putin is sending the message that Russia could destabilize the Afghan government in the same way the US, by aiding Syrian rebels, has undermined Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-backed regime. Already, the Kremlin has implicitly warned that supply of Western anti-aircraft weapons to Syrian rebels would compel Russia to arm the Taliban with similar capabilities. That could be a game changer in Afghanistan, where the Taliban now holds more territory than at any time since it was ousted from power in 2001.

Russia is involving more countries in its strategic game. Beyond holding a series of direct meetings with the Afghan Taliban, Russia has hosted three rounds of trilateral Afghanistan-related discussions with Pakistan and China in Moscow. A coalition to help the Afghan Taliban, comprising those three countries and Iran, is emerging.

General John Nicholson, the US military commander in Afghanistan, seeking the deployment of several thousand additional American troops, recently warned of the growing “malign influence” of Russia and other powers in the country. Over the past year, Nicholson told the US Senate Armed Services Committee, Russia has been “overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban to undermine NATO efforts and bolster belligerents using the false narrative that only the Taliban are fighting [ISIS].”

The reality, Nicholson suggested, is that Russia’s excuse for establishing intelligence-sharing arrangements with the Taliban is somewhat flimsy. US-led raids and airstrikes have helped to contain ISIS fighters within Afghanistan. In any case, those fighters have little connection to the Syria-headquartered group. The Afghan ISIS comprises mainly Pakistani and Uzbek extremists who “rebranded” themselves and seized territory along the Pakistan border.

In some ways, it was the US itself that opened the way for Russia’s Afghan strategy. President Barack Obama, in his attempt to reach a peace deal with the Taliban, allowed it to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Qatar and then traded five senior Taliban leaders who had been imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay for a captured US Army sergeant. In doing so, he bestowed legitimacy on a terrorist organization that enforces medieval practices in the areas under its control.

The US has also refused to eliminate militarily the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, even though, as Nicholson admitted, “[i]t is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.” On the contrary, Pakistan remains one of the world’s largest recipients of US aid. Add to that the Taliban’s conspicuous exclusion from the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, and it is difficult for the US credibly to condemn Russia’s overtures to the Taliban and ties with Pakistan.

The US military’s objective of compelling the Taliban to sue for “reconciliation” was always going to be difficult to achieve. Now that Russia has revived the “Great Game” in Afghanistan, it may be impossible.

© 1995-2017 Project Syndicate.

Averting an accidental war on the Korean Peninsula

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Japan Times, March 21, 2017

North Korea’s rapid nuclear and missile advances and America’s rushed deployment of a ballistic missile defense system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea have increased the risks of a war on the Korean Peninsula by accident or miscalculation.

U.S. President Donald Trump may be battling the “deep state” at home but, in hastening THAAD’s deployment, his administration has acted proactively to present a fait accompli to the next South Korean president. The new president is to be elected in a snap poll in May after South Korea’s Constitutional Court recently upheld the National Assembly’s impeachment of President Park Geun-hye over alleged corruption. It was the conservative Park who agreed last July to the THAAD placement, triggering grassroots protests, especially in the area where the system was to be deployed.

The THAAD issue increasingly has become divisive in South Korean politics, and the liberals’ presidential hopeful, Moon Jae-in, has said the system’s deployment unnecessarily escalates tensions on the peninsula. However, anticipating that the Constitutional Court would oust Park and that Moon could win the presidential election, the Trump administration began THAAD’s placement early this month.

Trump, during his own election campaign, gleefully challenged diplomatic orthodoxy, including American foreign policy’s long-standing principles and shibboleths. Yet by implementing his predecessor’s THAAD decision with enthusiasm to speed up the system’s deployment, Trump has offered an example of how he is embracing key pillars of the previous administration’s foreign policy.

Two fundamental issues raised by the THAAD placement, however, cannot be obscured.

First, the deployment has been necessitated by the abysmal failure of the U.S.-led strategy to squeeze North Korea with ever-increasing international sanctions while shunning any diplomatic engagement with it. The sanctions-only approach, far from stymieing North Korea’s development of weapons of mass destruction, has only encouraged it to single-mindedly advance its nuclear-weapons and missile capabilities.

In the decade since the United States froze all diplomatic contact with North Korea, that reclusive communist nation has gone from possessing rudimentary WMD capabilities to testing advanced systems that pose a regional threat. For example, it tested a nuclear device last September whose yield, as recorded by outside seismic monitoring stations, was twice as powerful as the atomic bomb that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Since last year, Pyongyang has also tested solid-fueled missile systems, including one that can launched from a submarine.

And second, the THAAD deployment, although arising from a failed American strategy, is no plausible answer to North Korea’s nuclearization. Indeed, this is a case of the supposed remedy being worse than the disease.

The deployment could counterproductively lead to North Korea (and China, which fears that THAAD’s sophisticated X-Band radar could track its missile forces) aiming to defeat the defensive system by developing greater offensive capability. In fact, China and Russia believe that the THAAD placement is part of a larger American plan to establish a fence of antimissile systems around them and thereby undermine their nuclear deterrents.

Let’s be clear: THAAD cannot credibly protect South Korea from the North’s tactical or short-range ballistic missiles. Designed for high-altitude intercepts, THAAD is geared mainly to interdict medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Given South Korea’s relatively small land size, an attack by the North may not necessitate the use of medium- or intermediate-range missiles. Metropolitan Seoul, which has almost as many residents as North Korea’s total population of 25 million, is located just 40 km from the Demilitarized Zone dividing the two Koreas.

North Korea has a virtual artillery choke-hold on Seoul that THAAD cannot neutralize. This is why the U.S. lacks a realistic option to militarily degrade the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities without provoking Pyongyang to unleash its artillery power against Seoul or triggering an all-out war. The absence of credible techno-military options against North Korea is also underscored by the reported failure of the U.S. to undermine Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs through coordinated cyber and electronic strikes in recent years.

In this light, THAAD’s political symbolism is greater than its military utility. The system, in any case, has never been battle-tested.

But rather than enhance South Korea’s security, including by reassuring its citizens, the THAAD deployment threatens to make South Koreans more insecure through an action-reaction cycle. For example, the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang may now plan, in a combat scenario, to fire many missiles simultaneously so as to defeat THAAD.

Against this background, a new strategy is needed to stem the growing risk that a small mishap could escalate to a full-fledged war. U.S. President Barack Obama employed sanctions with engagement to clinch a nuclear deal with Iran yet, throughout his eight-year tenure, pursued a completely different approach toward North Korea — sanctions without engagement.

Given that the threat posed by North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction has reached a level defying solution through technological or military means, diplomacy must come into play to reduce tensions. For long, North Korea has sought direct talks with Washington. Trump, during his campaign, said that he would be willing to meet with North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un over a hamburger.

If the THAAD placement is not to prove counterproductive, Washington must shift to a policy of sanctions with engagement toward Pyongyang, with the ultimate goal of clinching a WMD deal as part of a comprehensive peace treaty replacing the Korean War armistice. South Korea has even a bigger stake in engagement with the North in order to reduce the costs it will bear if Korean Peninsula reunification were to occur.

Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War.”

© The Japan Times, 2017.

A rising power without allies

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Japan Times

The more power China has accumulated, the greater has been its difficulty in gaining genuine allies, underscoring that leadership demands more than brute might. Contrast this with the strong network of allies and partners that the United States maintains in the Asia-Pacific region and elsewhere. The withering of China’s special relationship with North Korea, once its vassal, illustrates Beijing’s dilemma.

Last year, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said “we have allies, friends and partners where China does not,” while U.S. Secretary for Defense Ash Carter asserted that Beijing is “erecting a great wall of self-isolation.”

The rapid deterioration in Beijing’s ties with North Korea — which boasts good reserves of iron ore, coal, magnesite, graphite, copper, zinc and other minerals — is sure to increase China’s sense of being alone.

Indeed, when Pyongyang recently accused China of “mean behavior” and “dancing to America’s tune,” it underscored not only its ruptured relationship with its powerful neighbor but also the fact that Beijing is now left with just one real ally, Pakistan. Quasi-failed Pakistan, although a useful tool for Beijing to contain India, is a dubious ally for China in the larger context.

China’s rift with Pyongyang has followed the considerable weakening of Beijing’s once-tight hold on Myanmar, another country rich in natural resources — from oil and gas to jade and timber. Today, the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship is at its lowest point since the founding of North Korea in 1948.

The reported fatal poisoning of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, represents a major setback for China. Beijing valued him — a faded playboy with residences in Macau and Beijing — as a key asset against the North Korean dictator.

To be clear, China’s vaunted “blood relations” with North Korea have been souring since Kim Jong Un came to power after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.

Since then, Kim Jong Un has been trying to show that North Korea is no client-state of China, including by rekindling the “juche” ideology of self-reliance. He has defied Beijing by repeatedly conducting nuclear and missile tests and signaled that he wants North Korea to escape from China’s clutches through better relations with the United States — an appeal that has gone unheeded in Washington.

Kim Jong Nam’s death, of course, is a blow not just for China but also for South Korea and the U.S., which had milked him for any intelligence he could provide on the inner workings of the Stalinist regime in Pyongyang. These three countries, recognizing the importance of the Kim family bloodline in dynastic North Korea, had indeed cultivated him as a potential replacement for his half brother. The North Korean ruler thus had ample reason to get rid of Kim Jong Nam.

Earlier in 2013, Pyongyang executed China’s most valued friend in the North Korean power hierarchy — Jang Song Thaek, a four-star general who was Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage. Jang, a mentor to Kim Jong Nam and Beijing’s main link to Pyongyang, was accused by the regime of abusing his power to favor China, including by underselling resources like coal, land and precious metals.

At the center of the growing China-North Korea tensions, however, is the bad blood between Kim Jong Un, who at 33 remains the world’s youngest head of state, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, nearly twice as old as him.

When Xi paid a state visit to South Korea in mid-2014, he overturned decades of tradition in which Chinese leaders always visited North Korea first. Xi has yet to travel to Pyongyang, just as Kim Jong Un has refused to visit Beijing. Paying obeisance in Beijing, however, was customary for Kim’s grandfather and father: Kim Il Sung, the founder of the state, paid 37 official visits to China, while his son and successor, Kim Jong Il, went nine times.

The young ruler’s effort to chart an independent course has sparked a sustained propaganda campaign against him in recent years by China’s state media, which has accused him of pursuing “de-Sinification” of his country and seeking to unlock ties with the U.S. and Japan.

Despite its exasperation, China’s options against the Kim regime are limited, given the fact that it does not want the North Korean state to unravel — a scenario that will result in a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with the U.S. The prospect of American troops on its border is a nightmare for China, which explains why it intervened in the Korean War when the U.S. Army crossed the 38th parallel and threatened to advance toward the Chinese border.

For centuries, China has seen the Korean Peninsula as its strategic Achilles’ heel — a region that offers foreign powers an attractive invasion route or a beachhead for attacking China.

Today, China has territorial and resource disputes with North Korea that a reunified Korea would inherit and rail against. The territorial disputes center on Chonji, the crater lake on Mount Paektu (where a 33-km stretch of the Sino-Korean boundary has not been settled) and certain islands in the Yalu and Tumen rivers, whose courses broadly define the frontier between the two countries.

Indeed, as if to signal that its present border with North Korea is not final, China has posted a revisionist historical claim that the ancient kingdom of Koguryo — founded in the Tongge River basin of northern Korea — was Chinese, not Korean, as believed by international historians. A 2012 U.S. Senate report warned that China “may be seeking to lay the groundwork for possible future territorial claims on the Korean Peninsula.”

Against this background, China sees status quo on the Korean Peninsula as serving its interest best. It will likely accept Korean reunification only if it leads to a “Finlandized” Korea making permanent strategic concessions to it.

China’s strongest action against North Korea to date — the recently imposed suspension of coal imports — can be ascribed to the “Trump effect.” U.S. President Donald Trump’s less predictable line, reflected in his wavering on the “one-China” policy and his tougher stance on Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, has prompted Beijing to take this action to blunt U.S. criticism that it is not doing enough to implement United Nations sanctions.

But China’s growing tensions with Pyongyang mean that the value of the North Korea card in Beijing’s dealings with the U.S. is likely to erode. For years, the U.S. has outsourced the North Korea issue to Beijing by offering it concessions. Today, far from credibly serving as Washington’s intermediary with North Korea, China is smarting from Pyongyang’s open disdain for it.

Still, China must grapple with the larger question of whether it can be a peer rival to the U.S. without any allies.

Brahma Chellaney, a longtime contributor to The Japan Times, is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War.”

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Time to stop the backsliding on Pakistan policy

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today, March 11, 2017

hqdefaultLast year was an unusual year: Never before had so many Indian security bases come under attack by Pakistan-based terrorists in a single year. For example, the terrorist strike on the Pathankot air base was New Year’s gift to India, while the strike on the Indian Army’s Uri base represented a birthday gift for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Furthermore, the number of Indian security personnel killed in gunbattles with terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir in 2016 was the highest in years.

In this light, it is remarkable that Modi is seeking to return to business as usual with Pakistan, now that the state elections are over in India and Pakistan-related issues have been sufficiently milked by him for political ends. Modi’s U-turn on the Permanent Indus Commission (PIC) issue could mark the beginning of India’s backsliding.

After the Uri attack in September, his government, with fanfare, suspended the PIC. Now, quietly, that suspension has been lifted, and a PIC meeting will soon be held in Lahore. In reality, the suspension was just a sham because the PIC missed no meeting as a result. Its annual meeting in the current financial year is being held before the March 31 deadline.

The PIC was created by the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty, the world’s most generous (and lopsided) water-sharing pact. The PIC decision indicates that Modi, despite vowing that “blood and water cannot flow together,” is not willing to abandon the treaty or even suspend its operation until Pakistan has terminated its proxy war by terror. The World Bank, in fact, is pressing the Modi government to use the PIC to reach a compromise with Pakistan over the latter’s demand for fundamental design changes in India’s Kishenganga and Ratle hydropower plants that could make these projects commercially unviable. Construction of the Ratle project has yet to begin.

The observable backsliding is also evident from other developments, including the appointment of a retired Pakistani diplomat, Amjad Hussain Sial, as the new secretary general of SAARC after India withdrew its objection. Modi is even keeping open the option of holding talks with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in June on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The Modi government’s reluctance to back up its words with action became conspicuous when it persuaded Rajeev Chandrasekhar to withdraw his private member’s bill in the Rajya Sabha to declare Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism. If India, the principal victim of Pakistani terrorism, is reluctant to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, can it realistically expect the U.S. to take the lead on that issue? Other powers might sympathize with India’s plight but India will not earn their respect through all talk and no action. The battle against Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism is India’s fight alone.

To be clear, the confused Pakistan policy predates the Modi government. Despite Pakistan’s unending aggression against India ever since it was created as the world’s first Islamic republic in the post-colonial era, successive Indian governments have failed to evolve a consistent, long-term policy toward that renegade country. Consequently, waging an unconventional war against India remains an effective, low-cost option for Pakistan.

A major plank on which Modi won the 2014 general election was a clear policy to defeat Pakistan’s proxy war. His blow-hot-blow-cold policy toward Pakistan, however, suggests that he has yet to evolve a coherent strategy to reform Pakistan’s roguish conduct. The key inflection point in Modi’s Pakistan policy came on Christmas Day in 2015 when he paid a surprise visit to Lahore mainly to grab international spotlight. If it yielded anything, it was the twin terrorist attacks just days later on the Pathankot base and the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, setting in motion the ominous developments of 2016.

To be sure, Modi sought to salvage his credibility when in late September the Indian Army carried out surgical strikes on militants across the line of control in J&K. But it was always clear that a one-off operation like that would not tame Pakistan. India needs to keep Pakistan off balance through sustained pressure so that it has little leeway to pursue its goal to inflict death by a thousand cuts.

It is not too late for Modi to develop a set of policies that aim to impose punitive costs on Pakistan in a calibrated and gradually escalating manner, including through diplomatic, political and economic tools. If Pakistan can wage an unconventional war with a nuclear shield, a nuclear-armed India too can respond by taking the unconventional war to the enemy’s own land, including by exploiting Pakistan’s ethnic and sectarian fault lines, particularly in Baluchistan, Sind, Gilgit-Baltistan and the Pushtun regions. India must also up the ante by unambiguously linking the future of the iniquitous Indus treaty to Pakistan’s cessation of its aggression so that Islamabad no longer has its cake and eat it too. Like Lady Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, no amount of Indus water can “wash this blood clean” from the hands of the Pakistani military generals.

© Mail Today, 2017.

Japan’s Senkaku challenge

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lee_photo_a2Japan Times

 

At a time of shifting power dynamics in Asia, Japan faces pressing security challenges. Of the 400 remote islands that serve as markers for determining Japan’s territorial waters, only about 50 are inhabited. But no group of islands poses a bigger challenge for its security than the Senkakus, a clutch of five uninhabited islets and three rocks.

This challenge is compounded by demographic and military trends. Japan has barely one-tenth the population of China’s. Moreover, its population is not just aging but also shrinking significantly; it declined by nearly a million just between 2010 and 2015.

About a decade ago, Japan’s defense budget was larger than China’s. But now China’s military spending surpasses the combined defense expenditure of Japan, Britain and France.

To make matters worse, China’s increasing territorial assertiveness and muscular foreign policy are contributing to a sense of insecurity in Japan.

President Xi Jinping declared much of the East China Sea, including the Senkakus, to be a Chinese air defense zone in 2013, and since then China has stepped up its challenge to Japan’s control over those islands, including through repeated intrusions by its military aircraft and warships. Beijing has hardened its stance by elevating its claim to the Senkakus to a “core interest,” while some in China have gone to the extent of questioning Japan’s sovereignty over even Okinawa.

Against this background, many Japanese have wondered whether the United States would come to Japan’s defense in the event of a Chinese attack on the Senkakus. The 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty states that an armed attack on either country in the territories under Japan’s administration would prompt joint action “to meet the common danger.”

Then U.S. President Barack Obama’s contradictory rhetoric instilled a sense of skepticism in Japan. Obama publicly affirmed that the U.S.-Japan security treaty covered the Senkakus. But in the same breath he refused to take a position on the islands’ sovereignty and advised Tokyo and Beijing to sort out their dispute peacefully.

Obama said the U.S. security treaty with Japan covered the Senkaku Islands because they “are under Japanese jurisdiction,” yet “we also stress that we don’t take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands.”

At his April 2014 joint news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo, Obama, while unveiling his position on the Senkakus, urged Japan to refrain from “provocative actions” and emphasized that his administration was committed to encouraging China’s “peaceful rise.”

He stated: “We don’t take a position on final sovereignty determinations with respect to Senkakus, but historically they have been administered by Japan and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally … In our discussions, I emphasized with Prime Minister Abe the importance of resolving this issue peacefully — not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions, and trying to determine how both Japan and China can work cooperatively together. And I want to make that larger point. We have strong relations with China. They are a critical country not just to the region but to the world. Obviously, with a huge population, a growing economy, we want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China.”

How could such doublespeak reassure Japan? In fact, such statements sowed doubt over America’s willingness to go to war with China to back Japan’s territorial rights, in the event of a surprise Chinese invasion of the Senkakus. The Obama administration responded by simply saying that “we do not envision that this current tension will rise to that level in any foreseeable scenario.”

Add to the picture Obama’s conspicuous inaction and silence on China’s 2012 seizure of the disputed Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, despite America’s longstanding mutual defense treaty with Manila. That development served as a wakeup call for Japan and other U.S. allies in Asia.

By contrast, the new U.S. administration led by President Donald Trump has taken a more clear-cut stance in reassuring Japan that the U.S. would defend it in any confrontation with China over the Senkakus. It has done so without the Obama-style caveat — that Washington does not take sides in the sovereignty dispute and calls on China and Japan to resolve their dispute peacefully through dialogue.

In fact, the recent Trump-Abe summit marked the first time that the U.S. commitment to defend Japan’s control over the Senkakus was recorded in a joint statement.

The Feb. 12 Trump-Abe joint statement came out strongly for Senkakus’ defense: “The two leaders affirmed that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands. They oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands … The United States and Japan oppose any attempt to assert maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force.”

This unambiguous commitment should be seen as an important success of Abe’s proactive diplomacy in seeking to build a personal connection with the new U.S. president. Abe was the first foreign leader Trump hosted at Mar-a-Lago, which he calls “The Southern White House.” Earlier, just after Trump’s unexpected election victory, Abe met face-to-face with him by making a special stop in New York en route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.

Let’s be clear: The Senkaku issue is not just about a seven-square-kilometer real estate or the potential oil and gas reserves that lie around it. The strategically located Senkakus, despite their small size, are critical to maritime security and the larger contest for influence in the East China Sea and beyond.

China is seeking to wage a campaign of attrition against Japan over the Senkakus by gradually increasing the frequency and duration of its intrusions into Japan’s airspace and territorial waters. In doing so, it has made the rest of the world recognize the existence of a dispute and the risks of armed conflict.

To be sure, changing the territorial status quo is nothing new for Beijing. The People’s Republic of China has been doing that ever since it was founded in 1949. The early forcible absorption of the sprawling Xinjiang and Tibetan Plateau more than doubled China’s landmass.

In the 21st century, Chinese expansionism has increasingly relied upon “salami tactics” — a steady progression of small, furtive actions, none of which serves as a casus belli by itself, yet which help to incrementally change facts on the ground in China’s favor.

Unlike China’s success in expanding its frontiers in the South China Sea, it has found the going tough in the East China Sea. Indeed, Beijing’s actions have shaken Tokyo out of its complacency and diffidence and set in motion the strengthening of Japan’s defense capabilities, including arming its far-flung island chain in the East China Sea with a string of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missile batteries.

At his joint news conference with Trump at the White House, Abe pledged that Japan will play a “greater role” in East Asian security. It was as if he was responding to Trump’s campaign rhetoric that Japan, which hosts about 50,000 American troops, should do more to defend itself.

One effective way the Trump administration can encourage Japan to do more for its own defense is by lending full support to the Abe-initiated national security and constitutional reform process. Such reforms could help forestall the emergence of a destabilizing power imbalance in East Asia. Japan is already working to constrain China with its own version of Beijing’s “anti-access, area denial” doctrine against the U.S.

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

© The Japan Times, 2017.