Pathways to tackling the plastic waste problem

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Bottled water has a huge environmental footprint. About 1.6 liters of water are needed to produce one liter of bottled water, demand is depleting precious groundwater resources, and most of the recyclable PET bottles are buried in landfills or end up as litter.

Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

Is the human species becoming a cancer on the planet? This question arises from the grim findings of a new United Nations study that human actions are irremediably altering natural ecosystems and driving increasing numbers of plant and animal species to extinction.

“Nature across the globe has now been significantly altered,” with 75 percent of the land surface extensively modified, 85 percent of the wetlands lost, and two-thirds of the oceans bearing mounting cumulative impacts, according to the study’s just-released summary of findings. Another study published in this month’s Nature, the journal of science, reports that humans have modified the flows of most long rivers other than those found in remote regions.

Not surprisingly, biodiversity is declining rapidly across the world. Aquatic ecosystems, for example, have lost 50 percent of their biodiversity since the 1970s. One major driver is plastic pollution.

Bottled water has become an important source of plastic waste, along with single-use straws, cutlery, food containers and other plastic items. Plastic debris is clogging up landfills, blocking drains, polluting waterways and contributing to biodiversity loss. Plastic litter on roadsides and beaches and in other public spaces is an eyesore.

Mass production of plastics began just six decades ago. The bottled-water industry, however, took off after the commercial advent in the 1990s of single-serve bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate (PET), or polyester plastic. Fabricated from crude oil and natural gas, PET has helped turn water — and other drinks — into portable and lightweight consumer products. But PET takes hundreds of years to biodegrade and, if incinerated, generates toxic fumes.

Other forms of plastics are also polluting land and water. They include low-density polyethylene, which creates shopping bags, bubble wrap, flexible bottles and wire and cable insulation; high-density polyethylene used for making toys, garden furniture, trash bins, detergent and bleach bottles, buckets and jugs; and polypropylene found in bottle tops, diapers, drinking straws, lunch boxes, insulated coolers, and fabric and carpet fiber.

Barely 18 percent of plastic waste is recycled globally — and slightly more in Japan. The rest ends up as trash and litter. For example, tens of billions of easily recyclable PET bottles are discarded as garbage every year.

Chinese and Indian bans on import of plastic waste for recycling are accentuating the global plastic crisis. Many cities in advanced economies, faced with mountains of plastic waste, are struggling to expand landfill capacities. Japan, for example, confronts spiraling plastic waste despite shipping more such trash to Southeast Asia following China’s imposition of import restrictions in late 2017. Japan now must recycle more of its waste at home, an imperative that has prompted Japanese firms to pour investments into plastic recycling plants. With virgin plastic cheaper than recycled plastic, Japan could offer manufacturers tax concessions to switch to recycled plastic.

Against this background, about 180 countries agreed on May 10 to a new U.N. accord to regulate the export of plastic waste, some eight million tons of which ends up in the oceans each year — the equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic being tipped into the sea every minute. The accord amends the 1989 Basel Convention on the control of hazardous wastes to include plastic trash.

Plastic pollution of oceans has increased tenfold since 1980 alone. By affecting many species of marine life, such pollution threatens human food chains. Microplastics, the tiny particles into which plastic degrades into, have been found in many fishes’ guts.

A similar challenge to human health is posed by a different class of plastic particles called microbeads, used as abrasives in cosmetics and toothpaste. Such fine particles are not filtered out by most wastewater treatment plants. Despite efforts in some countries to prohibit or regulate their use, microbeads have entered freshwater bodies, such as the Great Lakes, where they can become coated with cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs. Mistakenly eaten by fish, these particles then enter human bodies.

As the U.N. study warns, “Plastic microparticles and nanoparticles are entering food webs in poorly understood ways.”

Not enough is being done to address the plastic waste scourge. Some popular consumer products are a source of environmental degradation even without the plastic containers in which they are marketed. Bottled water is a prime example. Bottled water carries a large environmental footprint: It entails use of significant resources to source, process, bottle and transport the water. For example, 1.6 liters of water, on average, are used to package one liter of bottled water. Processing and transportation of bottled water result in a notable carbon footprint.

Much of the bottled water sold globally is extracted groundwater that has been subjected to reverse osmosis or other treatment of the kind given to tap water. Yet more and more people don’t trust tap water and rely on bottled water, making it the largest commercial growth area among drinks. Tapping subterranean water reserves on a large scale for bottling depletes not just aquifers but also rivers and streams that draw water from aquifers. Premium bottled water, sourced from glaciers’ runoff, is also compounding human impacts on fragile ecosystems.

It is past time for the international community to deal with its plastics-centered environmental health challenges. Why allow the use of plastics for products (including plates, cups, straws, cutlery, drink stirrers and cotton swabs) where non-plastic alternatives are available and commercially affordable? Beverage companies, for example, should be made to use biodegradable or eco-friendly reusable containers, instead of PET bottles.

In fact, there is a dire need for a global ban on single-use plastics, whose increasing use is triggering a slow-onset disaster. Japan and other countries may be reluctant, but a legally binding, global phase-out of most single-out plastics has become inescapable.

A global prohibition would need to be strictly enforced. In the absence of enforcement, current partial bans on single-use plastic shopping bags in more than 100 countries, for example, have proved ineffective.

Creating a more sustainable world demands effective management of plastic waste, innovations toward eco-friendly substitutes, and monetary incentives to help clear the plastic debris. It also calls for reducing consumer demand for environmentally harmful products that also generate a lot of plastic waste, like bottled water.

The right policies and regulations can promote high rates of recycling and prevent plastic waste in public spaces. Japan has been slow to respond to the plastic-waste crisis, although it produces the largest amount of such waste per capita after the United States. Japan could learn from Germany, the world’s recycling champion that recycles nearly all plastic bottles. In Berlin, for example, the poor perform an environmental service by scavenging public trash bins for bottles yielding deposit return from machines at supermarkets.

Imagine if an attractive monetary incentive was offered to the poor in all countries to collect bottles and other plastic waste and deposit them with retailers. It would help to dramatically control plastic trash and litter.

Waste pickers hold the key to effective waste management, including recycling, but they need a living wage to serve the public. Deposit return schemes are necessary but not sufficient as they are usually restricted to bottles. An environmental tax on plastics could help governments to raise sufficient money to incentivize the collection of all plastic debris. Consumer goods companies should also be made to help cover the costs of waste management and cleanup.

Make no mistake: The plastic waste scourge is seriously imperiling the world’s environmental well-being, including contaminating our freshwater and food chain. Without urgent action to arrest the problem, there will be, as research shows, more plastic than fish by weight in the oceans by 2050. And more people might be dying from cancer and other environmental diseases.

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2019.

The Global War on Terrorism Has Failed. Here’s How to Win.

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Targeting terrorists and their networks brings only temporary success. A long-term strategy needs to focus on discrediting the ideology that spawns suicide killers.

By Brahma Chellaney

Foreign Policy journal| May 2019

The jihadi bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday are the latest reminder that terrorism is not driven by deprivation or ignorance. As with the 2016 cafe attack on foreigners in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the slaughter of churchgoers and hotel guests in Sri Lanka was carried out by educated Islamists from wealthy families. Two of the eight Sri Lankan suicide bombers were sons of one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen. Several of the attackers had the means to study abroad.

One reason why these attacks keep taking place is that the U.S.-led global war on terrorism has failed—and that is because it has focused on eliminating terrorists and their networks, not on defeating the jihadi ideology that inspires suicide attacks around the world. The bombings in a place as unlikely as Sri Lanka—a country with no history of radical Islamist terrorism—underscore how far militaristic theology can spread and why the world needs to tackle it at its roots.

When it comes to radical Islamist terrorism, the ideological roots can most often be traced back to Wahhabism, an extreme form of Sunni Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism legitimizes violent jihad with its call for a war on “infidels.” According to the Saudi Muslim scholar Ali al-Ahmed, it advocates that nonbelievers are “to be hated, to be persecuted, even killed.” Such is the power of this insidious ideology that the two sons of a Sri Lankan spice tycoon, Mohammad Yusuf Ibrahim, chose martyrdom over a continued life of comfort and luxury, including living in a palatial villa and traveling in expensive chauffeured cars.

Make no mistake: Wahhabism’s phony idea of a paradise full of sensual delights for martyrs foments suicide killings. The so-called benefits it espouses make a would-be attacker believe that he will be delivered 72 virgins in heaven. (This claim finds no mention in the Quran but is found in a supposed ninth-century hadith—a record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.)

Founded in the 18th century by the cleric Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, Wahhabism remained a fringe form of Islam until the dawn of the oil price boom in the 1970s. Flush with funds, Saudi Arabia has since spent $200 billion funding Wahhabi madrassas (religious seminaries), mosques, clerics, and books to promote its form of Islam and gain geopolitical influence. But the oil price boom was not the only factor contributing to Wahhabism’s rapid spread. The export of this jihad-fostering ideology was also promoted by the United States and its allies to stem, for example, the threat from Soviet communism: The CIA, according to the author Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (the nephew of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy), “nurtured violent jihadism as a Cold War weapon.”

Gradually, Wahhabism has been snuffing out the diverse, more liberal Islamic traditions in non-Arab countries with large Muslim communities and created a toxic environment in which extremism can thrive. Pluralistic interpretations of Islam are being stifled so that this hard-line strain makes inroads. By promoting militant Islamic fundamentalism, Saudi Arabia and its ideological partners have in effect promoted modern Islamist terrorism. The sponsorship of extremism has fostered hatred, misogyny, and violence, and it has deepened differences between Sunnis and Shiites. And that divide, in turn, has roiled regional geopolitics and incited anti-Shiite attacks in predominantly Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Against this background, it is past time for the global war on terrorism to be reoriented. U.S. counterterrorism policy should focus not merely on foes like the Islamic State and al Qaeda but also on Arab monarch friends pushing a jihadi agenda by, among other means, turning a blind eye to charities in their countries that fund Islamist militancy around the world. Despite steps taken by Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region to disrupt terrorist financing, Persian Gulf-based charities—as the U.S. State Department’s annual country reports on terrorism acknowledge—continue to play a role in the sponsorship of terrorist groups.

Saudi Arabia—perhaps the largest sponsor of radical Islam and one of the world’s most repressive states—has faced little international pressure even on human rights. In fact, the total ban on Iranian oil exports ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration from May 3 will financially reward Saudi Arabia and the other jihad-financing countries. Iran, to be sure, is a destabilizing regional force. But it is certainly not “the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” as the Trump administration calls it. The largest acts of international terrorism—including the recent Sri Lanka bombings, the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., and the 2008 Mumbai siege—were carried out by brutal Sunni organizations with connections to Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism but none to Iran. Indeed, all major Islamist terrorist organizations, despite their differing jihadi philosophies and goals, draw their ideological sustenance from Wahhabism, the source of modern Sunni jihad.

The United States lists Iran, Sudan, Syria, and North Korea as state sponsors of terrorism but not Saudi Arabia, despite Trump calling the country “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism.” Recently, the Trump administration added Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to its list of foreign terrorist organizations. But still missing from that list is a major terrorism-exporting force—Pakistan’s military—which maintains cozy ties with transnational terrorist groups, including providing, as Trump has acknowledged, “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

The politicization of the global war on terrorism must end so that a concerted and sustained international onslaught on the perverted ideology of radical Islam can begin. Such an offensive is essential because, as long as violent jihadism is perceived as a credible ideology, suicide bombers will be motivated to carry out horrific attacks.

In fact, the only way to defeat an enemy driven by a pernicious ideology is to discredit that ideology. The West won the Cold War not so much by military means as by spreading the ideas of freedom and capitalism that helped suck the lifeblood out of communism’s international appeal, thereby making it incapable of meeting the widespread popular yearning for a better, more open life.

Today, jihadi theology helps link diverse Islamist groups around the world. Because the cross-border linkages of these outfits are often based not on structured coordination but simply on a shared ideology, the global jihadi movement is essentially self-organizing. The movement’s strength remains unaffected even if any individuals or bands are eliminated in government counterterrorism actions. Another ominous fact is that when individuals embrace the ideology of violent jihadism, their leap to actual terrorism can be swift and sudden.

The focus of the global war on terrorism must shift to crushing this ideological movement. One way to do this is to deploy a sustained information campaign to discredit the ideology of radical Islam. For example, it would not be difficult to mock and run down the jihadi notion that a martyr in heaven will enjoy the company of 72 virgins. And the concept of jihad itself can be attacked as antithetical to the fundamental principles of contemporary civilization, while the Islamist drive to impose sharia, or Islamic law, should be exposed as an assault on science and modernity, as fostering gender inequality and discrimination against women and non-Muslims, and as legitimizing child rape through the marriage of young girls to adult men.

While working to systematically bring into disrepute the jihadi ideology, punitive sanctions should be slapped on Saudi and other Persian Gulf terrorist financiers as well as charities still funding overseas Islamist seminaries, clerics, and groups. The Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force should develop more effective ways to stop nonstate terrorist financiers from exploiting informal financial systems.

Only a robust response—from governments and civil societies—to the mounting threats from Islamist ideology can help contain the spread of terrorism. In combating that dangerous ideology, the United States must take the lead and help bring the global war on terrorism back on track.

Brahma Chellaney, the author of nine books, is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Richard von Weizsäcker fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

© Foreign Policy, 2019.

Sri Lanka bombings carry a stark message for India

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The Sri Lanka bombings — one of the world’s deadliest acts of terrorism — highlight the growing terrorist threat to democratic, secular states. Far from a concerted and sustained global war on terror, the anti-terrorism fight is being undermined by geopolitics. The global ideological movement fuelling terrorism is Wahhabi jihadism. Yet, the U.S.-ordered total ban on Iranian oil exports from May 3 will reward this jihadism’s main financiers.

Despite specific and detailed Indian intelligence warnings, Sri Lanka failed to avert the bombings, in large part because of a divided and dysfunctional government. However, in keeping with an international anti-terrorist practice, Sri Lanka was quick to detain the bombers’ family members for questioning once the suicide killers were identified. By contrast, the Pulwama bomber’s family members not only remained free but also gave media interviews rationalizing the suicide attack.

Sri Lanka has a blood-soaked history, but the scale and intensity of the latest attacks were unprecedented. The coordinated bombings, in less than 30 minutes, killed more people than the 2008 Mumbai terrorist siege, which lasted nearly four days. Actually, in terms of sophisticated methods and synchronized lethality, they were eerily similar to the 1993 serial bombings that targeted Mumbai landmarks. Jihadists have long used India as a laboratory: Major acts of terror first tried out in India and then replicated elsewhere include attacks on symbols of state authority, midair bombing of a commercial jetliner and coordinated strikes on a city transportation system.

The series of extraordinary steps Sri Lanka took after the bombings — blocking social media, imposing a daily dusk-to-dawn curfew, closing schools until April 29 and proclaiming an emergency law — may seem unthinkable in terrorism-scarred but rights-oriented India. But such measures were necessary to maintain control and to deter large-scale reprisal attacks against Muslims.

Ironically, in the days leading up to the Sri Lanka bombings, the 2008 Mumbai attacks were back in the news in India because of Bharatiya Janata Party candidate Pragya Thakur’s controversial comment on Hemant Karkare, the police officer gunned down in that siege. The irony of ironies is that those 26/11 attacks received more Indian attention this month than on their 10th anniversary five months ago. This underscores a troubling truth: Nothing draws the attention of Indians more than political controversy, however petty.

The Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. This is especially true of India, which — far from heeding the 26/11 lessons — doesn’t remember its martyrs. How many Indians know the name of Tukaram Omble, the “hero among heroes” of 26/11?  An ex-army soldier who became a police assistant sub-inspector, Omble — by ensuring terrorist Ajmal Kasab’s capture alive — provided the clinching evidence of Pakistan’s involvement in 26/11. Kasab was captured after the ambush killing of six cops, including Karkare and additional commissioner Ashok Kamte. Omble grabbed the barrel of Kasab’s AK-47 and took a volley of fired bullets, allowing others to seize Kasab.

All the 10 Pakistani terrorists involved in 26/11 wore red string wristbands for Hindus that Pakistani-American David Headley got for them from Mumbai’s Siddhivinayak Temple. But for Kasab’s capture (and confession) helping to indisputably establish Pakistan’s direct involvement, Pakistan’s wicked plan was to portray 26/11 as exemplifying the rise of Hindu terrorism by capitalizing on the then Manmohan Singh government’s classification of the 2006-07 blasts in Malegaon, Ajmer Sharif, Mecca Masjid and Samjhauta Express as “Hindu terror”.

Omble’s extraordinary bravery thus should never be forgotten. Nor the sacrifices of the other 26/11 martyrs awarded the Ashok Chakra — Sandeep Unnikrishnan, Gajender Singh, Vijay Salaskar, Karkare and Kamte. The 26/11 siege affected the national psyche more deeply than any other terrorist attack. Yet such is India’s lack of a sense of remembrance that it laid the Kartarpur Corridor’s cornerstone on the 10th anniversary of 26/11, with an oblivious Indian vice president calling it a “historic day”. The 26/11 perpetrator, Pakistan, couldn’t have received a better gift from India.

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Suspected ringleader Zaharan Hashim

Make no mistake: The Sri Lanka attacks hold major implications for Indian security, in part because the main group behind the bombings, the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ), is an ideological offspring of the rapidly growing, Saudi-funded Tamil Nadu Thowheed Jamat (TNTJ). The TNTJ, wedded to fanatical Wahhabism, rails against idolaters. It helped establish the Sri Lanka Thowheed Jamat, from which the bomber outfit NTJ emerged as a splinter.

Like the 2016 brutal Dhaka café attack, the Sri Lanka slaughter was carried out by educated Islamists from well-off families. And just as Bangladesh blamed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) for the attack, the NTJ has ties with ISI’s front organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba, which, through its Sri Lanka operations, has sought links with the TNTJ in India. NTJ leader Zaharan Hashim was inspired by fugitive Indian preacher Zakir Naik’s sermons and received funds from Indian jihadists. It would be paradoxical if India, which tipped off Sri Lanka about the bombing plot, became a victim itself of Thowheed Jamat terror. First of all, it must outlaw the TNTJ.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

India’s elusive deterrence against Pakistani terror

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In seeking to demonstrate resolve and strengthen deterrence, India ended up snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Deterrence theorists have long underscored that a deterrent’s credibility is in the eye of the beholder — namely, is the target of deterrence (the potential aggressor) sufficiently convinced that the other side has both the capability and the will to act so as to make aggression not worth the risk? Whether a foe is deterred is thus a function of its understanding of the deterrer’s strengths and intentions.

Pakistan has waged a protracted proxy war by terror against the much-stronger India since the 1980s because it has repeatedly tested the will of successive Indian governments and found it wanting. No prime minister after Indira Gandhi has been willing to impose sufficient costs on Pakistan to dissuade it from continuing to inflict upon India death by a thousand cuts.

The February 26 Balakot airstrike was a potential game-changer. It revived bitter Pakistani memories of the 2011 US raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Even before India said a word, Pakistan admitted Indian warplanes struck at Balakot without being interdicted or challenged. That India struck a target in the Pakistani heartland with impunity was momentous. The extent of damage or the death toll was immaterial. However, boastful toll-related claims, starting with the foreign secretary’s statement that “a very large number” of terrorists were “eliminated”, generated partisan controversy that undercut the chilling message that the Indian Air Force (IAF) delivered to Pakistan’s terror masters — the military generals.

Worse still, India has allowed a defining moment to slip away by failing to retaliate against Pakistan’s aerial blitz. Pakistan’s military regards its terrorist surrogates as de facto special operations forces, employing them cost-effectively as a force multiplier against India. So, India’s contention that it struck a “non-military” target at Balakot did not wash with the Pakistani generals, who responded barely 30 hours later with a daring, daytime aerial onslaught, in which India lost a MiG-21 — and, in perhaps friendly fire, a Mi-17 helicopter.

Voltairenet-org_-_1-657-2fc4aThe F-16 downing issue has not only detracted from Balakot’s main message but also obscured the absence of Indian retribution for the Pakistani blitz. The IAF is sure its MiG-21 shot down an attacking F-16. What is remarkable is that a short, sketchy April 4 US news report, which quoted anonymous sources to claim a US inventory probe found none of Pakistan’s F-16s missing, attracted front-page Indian press coverage and was quickly seized upon by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s critics at home and abroad — until the Pentagon said “we weren’t aware of any investigation like that”.

The intruding Pakistani warplanes brazenly tried to bomb Indian military sites. Although “no significant” damage was caused, according to the Indian military, Pakistan’s trans-border targeting of army formations opened a long-sought opportunity for the Indian armed forces to wreak massive punishment. Underscoring this opportunity is the fact that a near-bankrupt Pakistan cannot afford a military conflict. Indeed, such is Pakistan’s vulnerability to a punitive attack that, as this newspaper reported, only one Pakistani submarine currently is operational — that too partially.

Yet, India’s political leadership held back the armed forces from retaliating. New Delhi chose to defer to Washington’s assurances on Pakistan. Consequently, it was US President Donald Trump who signalled de-escalation, saying the tensions were “going to be coming to an end”. Hours after Trump’s announcement, an overcautious India finally allowed its armed forces to brief the media. But by then, parts of Pakistani propaganda had already taken hold internationally.

Modi has oddly relied on the ministry of external affairs to issue statements about a military crisis. Naturally, MEA has been out of its depth in that role, as was illustrated during the Doklam crisis, when India had no answer to China’s full-throttle information warfare. In the Balakot saga, MEA’s tardy, unforthcoming briefings ceded perception management to a mendacious Pakistani military, whose claim of downing two Indian warplanes dominated international news for days. Indeed, MEA’s February 26 statement inexcusably failed to identify where Balakot is located. This led the international media to wrongly assume it is in Pakistan-held Jammu and Kashmir and to spotlight the Kashmir dispute.

Despite Modi letting go the opportunity to wreak vengeance on Pakistan, the threshold-breaching Balakot strike after years of Indian inaction has helped sharpen his strong-leader image at election time. Pakistan, however, still fears Indian reprisals to its blitz, which explains why its airspace remains closed to most commercial overflights. It has reopened just one of its 11 airways for flights between Asia and Europe — that too a marginal route over Balochistan to Iran.

Meanwhile, international pressure on Pakistan to take verifiable actions to root out terrorist groups has started easing. The US lists North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria as “state sponsors of terrorism” but not the main sponsors — Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Its latest action in designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as “terrorist” but not the biggest terror-exporting force — Pakistan’s military — highlights the increasing politicization of the war on terror.

India, alas, has yet to build a reputation for resolve, which, as the social scientist and Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling wrote, is a prerequisite for deterrence. All the weapons India is frenetically importing can offer no effective deterrence in the absence of political will. India failed to capitalize on the Balakot strike to compel the Pakistani generals to start cleaning up their terror act. Far from imposing deterrent costs to prevent further terrorist attacks, India reinforced the Pakistani generals’ belief that its bark is worse than its bite. This is why the present lull is likely to prove only an interlude.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2019.

Global Silence on China’s Gulag

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Brahma Chellaney, an internationally syndicated column from Project Syndicate

In the absence of international censure, China has stepped up its systematic persecution of Muslims, under the dubious pretense that it is fighting “terrorism” and protecting its economic interests. But more than just an attack on human rights, the crackdown is representative of President Xi Jinping’s totalitarian ambitions.

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For more than two years, China has waged a campaign of unparalleled repression against its Islamic minorities, incarcerating an estimated one-sixth of the adult Muslim population of the Xinjiang region at one point or another. Yet, with the exception of a recent tweet from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on China to “end its repression,” the international community has remained largely mute.

In its reliance on mass detention, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has followed the Soviet Union’s example. But China’s concentration camps and detention centers are far larger and more technologically advanced than their Soviet precursors; and their purpose is to indoctrinate not just political dissidents, but an entire community of faith.

Although independent researchers and human-rights groups have raised awareness of practices such as force-feeding Muslims alcohol and pork, the Chinese authorities have been able to continue their assault on Islam with impunity. Even as China’s security agencies pursue Uighurs and other Muslims as far afield as Turkey, Chinese leaders and companies involved in the persecution have not faced international sanctions or incurred any other costs.

Chief among the culprits, of course, is Chinese President Xi Jinping, who in 2014 ordered the policy change that set the stage for today’s repression of ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Hui, and other Muslim groups. The forcible assimilation of Muslims into the country’s dominant Han culture is apparently a cornerstone of Xiism – or “Xi Jinping Thought” – the grand “ism” that Xi has introduced to overshadow the influence of Marxism and Maoism in China.

To oversee this large-scale deprogramming of Islamic identities, Xi, who has amassed more power than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, reassigned the notorious CPC enforcer Chen Quanguo from Tibet to Xinjiang and elevated him to the all-powerful Politburo. Though Chen’s record of overseeing human-rights abuses is well known, the Trump administration has yet to act on a bipartisan commission’s 2018 recommendation that he and other Chinese officials managing the gulag policy be sanctioned. In general, financial and trade interests, not to mention the threat of Chinese retribution, have deterred most countries from condemning China’s anti-Muslim policies.

With the exception of Turkey, even predominantly Muslim countries that were quick to condemn Myanmar for its treatment of Rohingya Muslims have remained conspicuously silent on China. While Pakistan’s military-backed prime minister, Imran Khan, has feigned ignorance about the Xinjiang crackdown, Saudi Arabia’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has gone so far as to defend China’s right to police “terrorism.”

Emboldened by the muted international response, China has stepped up its drive to Sinicize Xinjiang by demolishing Muslim neighborhoods. In Urumqi and other cities, once-bustling Uighur districts have been replaced with heavily policed zones purged of Islamic culture.

9099340c-dd10-4392-80c6-8d7a1f90175eThe irony is that while China justifies its “reeducation hospitals” as necessary to cleanse Muslim minds at home of extremist thoughts, it is effectively supporting Islamist terrorism abroad. For example, China has repeatedly blocked UN sanctions against Masood Azhar, the head of the Pakistan-based, UN-designated terrorist group responsible for carrying out serial attacks in India, including on Parliament and, most recently, on a paramilitary police convoy. As Pompeo tweeted, “The world cannot afford China’s shameful hypocrisy toward Muslims. On one hand, China abuses more than a million Muslims at home, but on the other it protects violent Islamic terrorist groups from sanctions at the UN.”

An added irony is that while China still harps on its “century of humiliation” at the hands of foreign imperial powers, it has for decades presided over the mass humiliation of minorities in Xinjiang and Tibet. Ominously, by systematically degrading Muslim populations, it could be inspiring white supremacists and other Islamaphobes around the world. For example, the Australian extremist arrested for the recent twin mosque massacres in Christchurch, New Zealand, declared an affinity for China’s political and social values.

There has been a good deal of reporting about how China has turned Xinjiang into a laboratory for Xi’s Orwellian surveillance ambitions. Less known is how Xi’s trillion-dollar “Belt and Road Initiative” is being used as a catalyst for the crackdown. According to Chinese authorities, the establishment of a surveillance state is necessary to prevent unrest in the province at the heart of the BRI’s overland route.

Like Marxism-Leninism, Nazism, Stalinism, and Maoism, which left millions of people dead, Xiism promises to impose significant long-term costs on untold numbers of innocent people. It is the impetus behind China’s ruthless targeting of minority cultures and communities, as well as its aggressive expansion into international waters and introduction of digital totalitarianism.

Thanks to Xiism, the world’s largest, strongest, and oldest autocracy finds itself at a crossroads. As the People’s Republic of China approaches its 70th birthday, its economy is slowing amid escalating capital flight, trade disruptions, and the emigration of wealthy Chinese. The Chinese technology champion Huawei’s international travails augur difficult times ahead.

The last thing China needs right now is more enemies. Yet Xi has used his unbridled power to expand China’s global footprint and lay bare his imperial ambitions. His repression of Muslim minorities may or may not lead to international action against China. But it will almost certainly spawn a new generation of Islamist terrorists, compounding China’s internal-security challenges. China’s domestic security budget is already larger than its bloated defense budget, which makes it second only to the United States in terms of military spending. The Soviet Union once held the same position – until it collapsed.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

The looming specter of Asian space wars

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The Indian test is clearly a warning shot across China’s bow. (Handout photo from India’s Press Information Bureau.)

Brahma ChellaneyNikkei Asian Review

When China demonstrated its antisatellite weapon capability in 2007, it spurred international concern and criticism over the potential militarization of outer space.

The muted response to a similar Indian test on March 27 shows that great-power capabilities in this field have so advanced that such an event is no longer a surprise. Indeed, the technology has developed to such an extent that defense planners must deal with the looming specter of wars in space.

The linkages between antisatellite, or ASAT, weapon technologies and ballistic missile defense systems, which can shoot down incoming missiles, underscore how innovations favor both offense and defense. Space wars are no longer just Hollywood fiction.

India’s ASAT test is a reminder that the Asia-Pacific region is the hub of the growing space-war capabilities. The United States and Russia field extensive missile defense systems and boast a diverse range of ground-launched and directed-energy ASAT capabilities. China’s ASAT weaponry is becoming more sophisticated, even as it aggressively seeks theater ballistic missile defenses.

Japan and South Korea are working with the U.S. separately to create missile defense systems. Although aimed at thwarting regional threats, these systems are interoperable with American missile defenses. Australia, for its part, participates in trilateral missile-defense consultations with the U.S. and Japan.

Space-based assets are critical not just for communications but also for imagery, navigation, weather forecasting, surveillance, interception, missile guidance and the delivery of precision munitions. Taking out such assets can blind an enemy.

India’s successful “kill” of one of its own satellites with a missile — confirmed by the U.S. Air Force Space Command — has made it the fourth power, after the United States, Russia and China, to shoot down an object in space. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, facing a tight reelection race, made a rare televised address to announce India’s entry into this exclusive club of nuclear-armed countries that can destroy a moving target in space.

India’s technological leap is being seen internationally as a counter to China’s growing ASAT capabilities, which include ground-based direct ascent missiles and lasers, which can blind or disable satellites.

The international development of ASAT capabilities mirrors the nuclear-weapons proliferation chain. Like nuclear weapons, the U.S. was the first to develop satellite-kill technologies, followed by the former Soviet Union. China, as in nuclear weapons, stepped into this realm much later, only to provoke India to follow suit.

The Indian test was clearly a warning shot across China’s bow, although Modi claimed that it was not aimed against any country.

India finds itself boxed in by the deepening China-Pakistan strategic nexus. China has transferred, according to international evidence, technologies for weapons of mass destruction to Pakistan to help tie down India south of the Himalayas. Beijing currently is seeking to shield Pakistan even from international pressure to root out transnational terrorist groups that operate from its territory.

The Indian ASAT demonstration holds strategic implications also for Pakistan, which values nuclear weapons as an antidote to its conventional military inferiority and thus maintains a nuclear first-use doctrine against stronger India. By shielding it from retaliation, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons enable its nurturing of armed jihadists as a force multiplier in its low-intensity proxy war by terror against India.

An ASAT capability, by potentially arming India with the means to shoot down incoming missiles, could erode Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent. After all, an ASAT capability serves as a building block of a ballistic missile defense system.

However, China remains at the center of Indian security concerns. Without developing ASAT weaponry to help underpin deterrence, India risked encouraging China to go after Indian space-based assets early in a conflict.

In today’s world, one side can impose its demands not necessarily by employing force but by building capabilities that can mount a coercive threat.

China’s ASAT capabilities arguably hold the greatest significance for India, which has no security arrangements with another power and thus is on its own. Japan, South Korea and Australia, by contrast, are ensconced under the U.S. security umbrella. The U.S. and Russia, armed to their teeth, can cripple China’s space-based assets if it dared to strike any of their satellites.

India thus had stood out for its lack of a deterrent against China’s ASAT prowess. Against this background, India’s successful “kill” of a satellite is an important milestone in its quest to plug the vulnerability of its space assets.

To be sure, a space war scenario can arise only in a conflict. But preventing war demands systems of deterrence. And the only counter to ASAT weaponry is a capability to pay back in kind.

The rivalry between the demographic titans, China and India, has ominously moved into space.

India, by placing a low-cost spacecraft in orbit around Mars in 2014, won Asia’s race to the Red Planet. And in 2017, India set a world record by launching 104 satellites into orbit with a single rocket. This beat the previous record of 37 satellites that Russia established in 2014.

China, for its part, has sent six crews into space and launched two space labs into the Earth’s orbit. In 2013, it became the third country, after the U.S. and Russia, to land a rover on the moon. And last December, it landed another probe and a rover on the far side of the moon — the first time this had ever been done. Its first mission to Mars is scheduled for next year.

But it is the extension of the China-India space race to the military realm that underscores the Asian specter of space wars. India’s feat in shooting down a satellite orbiting at 30,000 kilometers an hour highlights its determination to catch up with China’s advances.

According to the Pentagon, China, like Russia, has demonstrated offensive space capabilities through “experimental” satellites able to conduct on-orbit activities. China has used a ground-based laser to “paint,” or illuminate, an American satellite, as if to demonstrate a nascent capability to blind targeted satellites.

India’s ASAT test, like the 2007 Chinese satellite “kill” and the 2008 U.S. strike against a malfunctioning satellite, underscores how the environmental degradation haunting our planet is being extended to outer space. The Indian test, according to the U.S., created 270 pieces of debris in space — a number that will likely grow as the fragments decay. But since the remnants are from a low-earth-orbit satellite, many of the pieces are expected to fall onto the Earth within weeks.

The test highlights the international imperative to prevent the weaponization of outer space, including by strengthening the legal framework. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, aimed at establishing basic international space law, does not prohibit the stationing of weapons in space or ASAT tests.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.

Pakistan, China and terrorism

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China is left with just one real ally — Pakistan.    © Reuters

Beijing’s support protects Islamabad from global pressure to suppress militants

International calls for Pakistan to take concrete steps against the terrorist groups that operate from its territory have mounted in recent weeks after a Valentine’s Day attack killed 41 Indian paramilitary soldiers and sparked a military crisis on the subcontinent.

Such appeals have been made by the United States, Japan and European powers but one voice has been conspicuous by its absence — China’s.

If anything, Beijing has sought to shield Pakistan from international censure. Most recently, on March 13, China blocked United Nations Security Council action against the ailing founder of the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed group, which is already under international terrorism sanctions. The aim was not to protect a terrorist leader reportedly on his deathbed but to frustrate the international pressure that has grown on Islamabad to take credible anti-terror actions.

The U.S., for example, has insisted Pakistan take “sustained, irreversible action against terrorist groups.” Jaish-e-Mohammed, which was quick to claim responsibility for the Valentine’s Day attack, is just one of 22 U.N.-designated terrorist entities that Pakistan hosts.

Pakistan’s civilian leadership routinely denies that the country’s military cultivates terrorist surrogates. But India holds Islamabad responsible for multiple outrages including the Valentine’s Day attack, which coincided with deadly terrorist strikes on Iranian and Afghan troops that Tehran and Kabul also blamed on Pakistan.

In coming to Pakistan’s help at a critical time, China has highlighted the strategic importance it still attaches to its ties with that increasingly fragile and debt-ridden country. In contrast to America’s strong network of allies and partners, China can count on few true strategic allies or reliable security partners. When it joined hands with Washington to impose new international sanctions on North Korea, once its vassal, Beijing implicitly highlighted that it was left with just one real ally — Pakistan.

The China-Pakistan axis has been cemented by “iron brotherhood,” with the two “as close as lips and teeth,” according to Beijing. It calls Pakistan its “all-weather friend.”

China, however, has little in common with Pakistan, beyond the fact that both are dissatisfied with their existing frontiers and claim territory held by neighbors. Their “iron brotherhood” is actually about a shared interest in containing India. That interest has raised the specter for New Delhi of a two-front war in the event military conflict breaks out with either Pakistan or China.

However, the immediate threat India faces is asymmetric warfare, including China’s “salami slicing” strategy of furtive, incremental territorial encroachments in the Himalayas and Pakistan’s use of terrorist proxies. No surprise then, that China seeks to shield Pakistan’s proxy war by Islamist terror against India. Beijing seems untroubled by the seeming contradiction between this approach abroad while, at home, it locks up more than a million Muslims from Xinjiang in the name of cleansing their minds of extremist thoughts.

For years, China has been attracted by Pakistan’s willingness to serve as its economic and military client. China has sold Pakistan weapons its own military has not inducted, as well as prototype nuclear power reactors.

Since at least 2005, Pakistan has allowed Beijing to station thousands of Chinese troops in the Pakistani part of the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir, where control is divided between India (45%), Pakistan (35%) and China (20%). More recently, China has sought to turn Pakistan into its land corridor to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. With Chinese involvement, the northern Arabian Sea is becoming militarized: China has supplied warships to the Pakistani navy, it controls Pakistan’s Gwadar port, and its submarines are on patrol.

For Pakistan, however, China’s close embrace is becoming a tight squeeze financially. Fast-rising debt to Beijing has contributed to Pakistan’s dire financial situation today. With its economy teetering on the brink of default, Pakistan is urgently seeking a $12 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Pakistan is the largest recipient of Chinese financing under President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. The Pakistani military has created a special 15,000-troop army division to protect Chinese projects. In addition, thousands of police have been deployed to protect Chinese workers. Yet, underscoring the security costs, attacks on Chinese people in Pakistan have occurred now and then.

Rising financial costs, however, are triggering a pushback against Chinese projects even in friendly Pakistan. The new military-backed Pakistani government that took office last summer under Imran Khan has sought to scrap, scale back or renegotiate some Chinese projects. It downsized the main Chinese railway project by $2 billion, removed a $14 billion dam from Chinese financing, and canceled a 1,320-megawatt coal-based power plant.

China is receiving 91% of revenues from Gwadar port until its return to Pakistan in four decades.   © Reuters

China’s predatory practices have come under increasing scrutiny. For example, in return for building Gwadar port, China is receiving, tax-free, 91% of revenues from the port until its return to Pakistan in four decades.

Rising capital equipment imports from China, coupled with high returns for Beijing on its investment, have led to large foreign-exchange outflows, spurring Pakistan’s serious balance-of-payments crisis. Pakistan, seeking new loans to repay old ones, finds itself trapped in a vicious circle.

Yet Pakistan is unlikely to stop being China’s loyal client. Despite Western concern that the tide of Chinese strategic projects is making the country dangerously dependent on China, the relationship brings major benefits for Pakistan, including internationally well-documented covert nuclear and missile assistance from Beijing.

China also provides security assurances and political protection, especially diplomatic cover at the U.N., as has been illustrated by its torpedoing of the U.S.-French-British move to designate the Jaish-e-Mohammed chief as a global terrorist. Western powers failed to persuade China that the threat it cites from Islamist terrorism in its own western region demands that it join hands with them.

However, despite securing billions of dollars in recent emergency loans from China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan cannot do without a large IMF bailout. This will be Pakistan’s 22nd IMF bailout in six decades, and the largest ever. Pakistan’s cycle of dependency on the IMF has paralleled the rise of its military-Islamist complex.

Unless the latest IMF bailout is made contingent upon concrete anti-terror action, it will, as past experience shows, help underpin Pakistan’s collusion with terrorist groups. This is especially so because a new IMF bailout will also support the Sino-Pakistan link, including by freeing up other resources in Pakistan for debt repayments to Beijing.

Democratic powers, especially the U.S., which holds a dominant 17.46% voting share in the IMF, must now insist on setting tough conditions, including making Pakistan take credible, verifiable and irreversible steps against the terrorist groups that its military has long nurtured. Among other things, an honorable U.S. exit from Afghanistan hinges on the success of such treatment.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” which won the Bernard Schwartz Award.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2019.