U.S. sheds its blinkers on China

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, successive US presidents, as a matter of policy, aided China’s rise in the naïve hope that a more prosperous China would liberalize economically and politically. But now a fundamental shift in America’s China policy is under way, opening the path to greater Indo-US collaboration. The evolving paradigm shift, with its broad bipartisan support, is set to outlast Donald Trump’s presidency.

China, a trade cheat that has also employed non-tariff tools to punish countries as diverse as South Korea, Mongolia, Japan and the Philippines, is getting a taste of its own medicine. By scripting the Canadian arrest of the Huawei founder’s daughter, the US has shown it has more powerful non-tariff weapons. The action has rattled China’s elites: They are angry but also fearful that any one of them could meet a similar fate while travelling to the West.

The arrest was significant for another reason. As former US Defence Secretary Ash Carter says in a recent essay published by Harvard University, Beijing has a history of staging provocations that coincide with high-level diplomacy. For example, the start of President Xi Jinping’s 2014 state visit to India coincided with a deep Chinese military incursion into Ladakh. The fact that the Huawei arrest coincided with the Dec. 1 Trump-Xi dinner meeting in Buenos Aires signalled to Beijing that others can pay it back in the same coin.

America’s ongoing policy shift, however, should not obscure how its “China fantasy”, as a book title describes it, facilitated the assertive rise of its main challenger. Such was the fantasy that President Bill Clinton got China into the WTO by citing Woodrow Wilson’s vision of “free markets, free elections, and free peoples” and claiming the admission would herald “a future of greater openness and freedom for the people of China”. Instead, China has become more autocratic and repressive, building an Orwellian surveillance state.

The end of the 45-year-old US conciliatory approach to China does not necessarily signify the advent of an overtly confrontational policy or even a new cold war. China, for example, still gets a free pass on human-rights abuses. The US has slapped no sanctions on China for detaining more than a million of its Muslims in internment camps. Imagine the US response had Russia set up such camps.

The policy shift appears more about finding economic levers to blunt China’s strategy of global expansion and ascendancy. In Asia, for example, China is aiming to displace the US as the leading power and contain its peer rivals, Japan and India, by seeking to enforce a 21st-century version of the Monroe Doctrine, including through geo-economic tools and territorial and maritime revisionism. It has gained de facto control of much of the South China Sea.

A key question is whether the US policy shift is occurring too late to stop China’s global rise or even compel it to respect international norms and rules. Having become strong through assorted trade barriers, quotas, currency manipulation, forced technology transfer, intellectual property theft, and industrial and export subsidies, China is unlikely to fundamentally change its behaviour in response to the new American pressure. Xi, China’s new self-crowned emperor, would undermine his position — and his strategy to build a Sino-centric Asia — by yielding to American demands.

Xi’s regime will seek to bear the US pressure — at some cost to China’s economic growth — but without materially altering its policies or global ambitions. The 90-day “truce” in the trade war that Xi negotiated with Trump in Buenos Aires meshes with Beijing’s “two steps forward, one step back” strategy to progressively advance its ambitions.

Nevertheless, the US, by embracing a more realistic and clear-eyed approach, is signalling that China’s economic and strategic aggression will no longer go unchallenged. Even if the US fails to compel Beijing to respect international rules, its policy change signifies that the free ride that China has long enjoyed is ending — a free ride that has brought the security of its neighbours, including India, under pressure.

Indeed, Trump has shown how active pressure on China, as opposed to Indian-style imploration, can yield concessions. Whereas deference to China usually invites bullying, standing up to it generates respect and compromise.

In Buenos Aires, while the spotlight was on the Trump-Xi talks, the US president’s joint meeting with prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Narendra Modi — the first ever such trilateral — underscored the centrality of Japan and India to the American goal to build a stable balance of power in Asia. Indeed, the entente between Asia’s richest democracy and its biggest is a principal pillar of Washington’s newly unveiled “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2017.

Canada must stand up to China the bully

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In clear reprisal for Canada’s U.S.-sought arrest of the daughter of Huawei’s founder, China has detained two Canadians on charges of undermining its national security but has shied away from taking any action against the United States. This is in keeping with Beijing’s record of acting only against the weaker side, even if it happens to be a U.S. ally.

For example, when the United States installed its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea, China used its economic leverage to retaliate against South Korea, not against the U.S. The heavy-handed economic sanctions imposed on South Korea in 2017, partly extending into this year, illustrated Beijing’s use of trade as a political weapon.

Similarly, after U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act in March, which encourages official visits between the United States and the island, China staged war games against Taiwan and bribed the Dominican Republic and Burkina Faso to break diplomatic ties with Taipei. The United States, however, faced no consequences.

Now, while intensifying a punitive campaign against Canada, China has adopted a tempered approach toward the United States, even though Canadian authorities arrested Meng Wanzhou at the behest of U.S. prosecutors for alleged bank fraud related to violations of sanctions against Iran. In fact, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has bent over backward to emphasize that while confrontation hurts the U.S.-China relationship, co-operation benefits both countries.

Such is the Chinese effort to mollify the power behind Ms. Meng’s arrest that, in recent days, Beijing has made trade-related concessions to help defuse tensions with Washington. Contrast this with the way China has followed up on its threats of retaliation against Canada by arresting a former Canadian diplomat, Michael Kovrig, and then detaining Michael Spavor, a Canadian writer and entrepreneur living in the Chinese province of Liaoning. Ms. Meng’s release on bail has apparently not allayed Beijing’s anger against Ottawa.

Such behaviour fits the classic definition of a bully, whether in school or on the international stage – one that engages in unwanted, aggressive behaviour by taking advantage of an imbalance of power.

In fact, with its foreign policy favouring strong-arm methods over mutual understanding, China’s neighbours increasingly view it as a bully. U.S. Defence Secretary Jim Mattis correctly said at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing that China pursues a “tribute nation” approach to other countries and aspires for “veto power” over their sovereign decisions.

This approach helps explain why Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has started to run into resistance in a number of countries. Essentially an imperial project aimed at making real the mythical Middle Kingdom, BRI has sought to lure countries desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. Countries neglected by multilateral lending institutions initially flocked to BRI, but now, partner countries worry about Beijing ensnaring them in sovereignty-eroding debt traps.

China’s penchant for bullying also explains why it essentially remains a friendless power. It lacks any real strategic allies. Indeed, 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 globally.

China’s increasing authoritarianism at home under Mr. Xi has fostered an overtly muscular foreign policy that has counterproductively contributed to China’s lonely rise. A senior U.S. official warned in 2016 that Beijing risks erecting “a Great Wall of self-isolation.”

China, a trade cheat that has also employed non-tariff tools to punish countries as diverse as Japan, Mongolia and the Philippines, is now getting a taste of its own medicine. With Ms. Meng’s arrest, the U.S. showed that it has more powerful non-tariff weapons. China’s elites are rattled – angry but also fearful that any one of them could meet a similar fate while traveling to the West.

Ms. Meng’s arrest was significant for another reason. As former U.S. defence secretary Ash Carter says in a recent Harvard University essay, Beijing has a history of staging provocations that coincide with high-level diplomacy. For example, the start of Mr. Xi’s 2014 state visit to India coincided with a deep Chinese military incursion into the Indian Himalayan region of Ladakh.

The fact that Ms. Meng’s arrest coincided with the Trump-Xi dinner meeting on Dec. 1 in Buenos Aires signalled to Beijing, however unintentionally, that others can pay it back in the same coin.

More importantly, Mr. Trump has shown how active U.S. pressure on China, as opposed to imploration or admonition, can yield concessions. Without the United States withdrawing its 10-per-cent tariffs on US$250-billion worth of Chinese goods, Beijing has begun lifting, following the Buenos Aires talks, its restrictions on imports of U.S. food, energy and cars. Those restrictions had been placed in retaliation for the 10-per-cent tariffs. The United States’ threat to increase them to 25 per cent and possibly extend them to all imports from China forced Beijing’s hand.

When a country pursues an accommodating approach toward Beijing, an emboldened China only ups the ante. Deference to China usually invites bullying, while standing up to it draws respect and a readiness to negotiate and shore-up cooperation.

Ottawa would do well to remember this fact as it grapples with the escalation of the diplomatic feud by a country that seeks to play the aggrieved victim while acting as the bully.

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

© The Globe and Mail, 2018.

India’s Kartarpur Headache

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New Delhi must proactively thwart Pakistan’s effort to revive Sikh militancy in Punjab

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Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India, December 14, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently raked up the issue as to why Kartarpur today is in Pakistan, not India. At Simla in 1972, for example, India could have traded the return of captured territories and 93,000 prisoners of war for a Kashmir settlement and border adjustments to secure Kartarpur — and more. Yet, despite holding all the cards, Indira Gandhi surrendered at the negotiating table India’s major gains from martyrs’ sacrifices.

In effect, Indira pardoned Pakistan in the style of Prithviraj Chauhan, who routed invader Mahmud Ghori on the battlefield, only to set him free — an action that encouraged Ghori to return later to wage the Second Battle of Tarain, where he defeated and executed the Rajput ruler. Just like Prithviraj Chauhan, Indira paid with her life for her blunder. Left free to avenge 1971, Pakistan, before focussing on the Kashmir Valley, engineered a bloody Sikh militancy that ultimately spawned Indira’s assassination.

Against this background, Modi must pay heed to Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh’s warning that the Pakistan army and Inter-Services Intelligence, with the aim of reviving Sikh militancy, planned the Kartarpur corridor even before Imran Khan took office. Pakistan’s army chief has taken a keen interest in the corridor plan, which explains his presence at the Kartarpur ceremony. The corridor, if it opens, will likely become a major security headache for India.

India, unfortunately, chose the 10th anniversary period of the four-day Mumbai terrorist attacks for the corridor’s cornerstone-laying ceremonies in India and Pakistan. This not only conveyed a regrettable message that India lacked a sense of remembrance, but also handed the 26/11 perpetrator, Pakistan, a propaganda coup.

Indeed, Pakistan used the occasion to ominously greet the Indian delegation with Sikh separatist posters and an in-house Sikh militant. The ill-timed ceremonies apparently were intended to let Modi take a positive message to the G-20 summit in Buenos Aires.

Over seven decades, India has bent over backwards to make peace with Pakistan, only to be repeatedly kicked in the face. Consider, for example, India’s globally unparalleled water generosity in the form of the 1960 Indus Waters Treaty. Or its big-heartedness at Tashkent and Simla.

Or India’s initiation of “composite dialogue” in the 1990s, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore, his Agra summit with General Pervez Musharraf, his second Pakistan visit in the twilight of his rule and, just months after 26/11, Manmohan Singh’s Chamberlainian appeasement at Sharm el-Sheikh.

Or take the olive branches Modi has extended — from inviting Nawaz Sharif  to his 2014 inauguration and opening an unpublicized dialogue at the national security adviser-level to making a surprise Lahore visit and later sending his foreign minister to Islamabad. Nothing has worked.

Indeed, India’s peace initiatives and magnanimity have had the opposite effect of emboldening Pakistan’s scofflaw actions. Modi’s Lahore visit, for example, led to the Pakistan military’s scripting of terrorist attacks on a raft of Indian security bases, from Pathankot to Uri. Yet, on the 26/11 anniversary eve, Modi oddly voiced hope that the Kartarpur corridor would have the same momentous impact in uniting two societies that the Berlin Wall’s fall had.

The 10th anniversary of 26/11 should have been a sombre occasion to remember the victims of one of modern history’s worst terrorist carnages and to spotlight Pakistan’s continued protection of the masterminds. India ought to have reminded Pakistan that its day of reckoning will come before long.

Unfortunately, amid the corridor-related fervour, India did not remember even the martyrs, such as the cop Tukaram Omble, who, by ensuring Ajmal Kasab’s capture alive, provided the clinching evidence of Pakistan’s involvement in 26/11.

India laid the corridor cornerstone on its side of the border on the opening day of the 26/11 anniversary period, with an oblivious Indian vice president calling it a “historic day”! Indeed, such was the oozing zeal that India sent not one but two ministers to the Pakistan-side ceremony.

Make no mistake: Pakistan may be isolated and cash-strapped, yet it gladly remains a terrorist state. Lest we forget, the Nirankari sect guru’s 1980 assassination paved the way for Pakistan to script terrorism in India. To incite tensions and militancy in Punjab, Pakistan, as the first line of attack, targeted Nirankaris, who are at odds with mainstream Sikhs as they believe in a living guru and reject the militant brotherhood of the Khalsa.

Just when Pakistan has laid bare its designs to use the Kartarpur corridor to indoctrinate and radicalize Sikh pilgrims from India, a recent attack on Nirankari worshippers outside Amritsar with a Pakistan-origin grenade suggests the ISI may be reviving its old strategy.

Sikh militancy cost India dearly, triggering the disastrous Operation Bluestar and a PM’s killing. Its potential resurgence at a time when illicit drugs from Pakistan have become a scourge in Punjab could possibly tear India apart. India, with its ostrich-like approach and perennial preoccupation with electoral politics, would do well to remember the old adage, “a stitch in time saves nine”, lest history — to quote Karl Marx — repeat itself, “first as tragedy, then as farce”.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2018.

India’s internal security is porous

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

The unlawful, and fatal, expedition of a young American evangelist adventurer to a remote island that is home to the world’s last known pre-Neolithic tribe has highlighted India’s lax internal-security controls and the threat to endangered indigenous communities from interlopers. The episode also casts an unflattering light on the ministry of home affairs (MHA), which, to cover up its lapses, has sought to obscure the truth.

Although lionized as a martyr in the US evangelical media, John Allen Chau was a wilful intruder. He trespassed on a prohibited island to impose his religion on a tiny, highly endangered tribe whose seclusion and privacy are legally protected. Worse still, his repeated intrusions into their peaceful, self-contented world might have exposed the Sentinelese — with no resistance to outsiders’ common diseases and already on the brink of extinction — to deadly pathogens. One crazed man’s conduct may have put an entire tribe’s survival at risk.

On his first intrusion into their North Sentinel Island, the Sentinelese, setting an example for the so-called civilized world, did not subject Chau to Abu Ghraib-style torture or even detain him. Yet, undeterred by the tribe’s warning not to return, a recalcitrant Chau over the next two days repeatedly came back to the island, disparaging it as “Satan’s last stronghold”, according to his own diary notes, released by his mother. The son of a refugee father who fled China during the Cultural Revolution and converted to Christianity in the US, Chau described in his notes how he hid from Indian coastal patrols under cover of darkness to make his criminal forays into an island forbidden even to Indians and Indian forces.

The ease with which he broke Indian laws and evaded onshore and offshore checks is a sad commentary on India’s internal security. The Andaman and Nicobar (A&N) chain is a critical asset for India’s national security. Located just northwest of the Malacca Strait, the archipelago offers India control of a chokepoint that is China’s greatest maritime vulnerability.

A&N is also home to some of the world’s most-endangered tribes. After the ravages of British colonial rule, when the archipelago’s aboriginal communities were systematically decimated, only some tribes still survive. But their member numbers are dwindling. For example, the Jarawas, one of the first tribes to fall prey to British excesses, are vanishing, in an example of how contact with outsiders can doom an indigenous community.

Chau, instead of applying for a missionary visa, abused India’s e-visa on arrival system for tourists by hiding his real purpose. He neither registered with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office nor sought the mandatory permission under the separate aborigine and forest protection laws before undertaking a mission he plotted through previous A&N visits. Yet, in isolated but militarily sensitive Andaman, no agency spotted the Chinese-looking American, although Chinese and Pakistanis need MHA’s clearance to be there.

In June, MHA lifted the requirement for foreigners to secure a Restricted Area Permit (RAP) to visit 29 A&N islands “in the interest of promoting tourism and [their] overall development”. The decision smacked of utter recklessness: About one-third of the 29 islands, including North Sentinel, are home to endangered tribes and not open to tourism or development under the aborigine law. RAP’s lifting implicitly emboldened Chau’s exploits, although foreigners, like Indians, still need special permission under the aborigine and forest acts to visit any tribal-reserved island.

Caught flat-footed by Chau’s forays, an embarrassed MHA contradicted the Andaman police to claim there was no evidence that he was on a mission to evangelize. Had Chau’s own detailed accounts of his motives and exploits not become public, the MHA’s misinformation would have prevailed. To cover its back, MHA now claims it lifted RAP for tribal-reserved islands, not for tourism, but to promote the “flow of people, particularly anthropologists and other researchers”, although no foreign expert is left on these tribes. Thanks to MHA’s ineptitude, we may never know if an external group funded Chau’s mission, which he ominously undertook just before Thanksgiving, an annual whitewash of white settlers’ mass killing of millions of Native Americans.

Internal security has historically been India’s Achilles’ heel — a frailty that invited repeated foreign invasions, plunder and subjugation. Yet, with India not fully absorbing the lessons of history, internal security has remained its paramount weakness under successive governments. Developments continue to expose glaring gaps in its internal security — from the entry of foreign extremists, criminals and illegal migrants to recurrent terrorist attacks, such as the recent strike on Nirankari worshippers with a Pakistan-made grenade.

With India’s internal security under increasing pressure, the endangered tribes’ future has grown even more uncertain.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

A U.S.-based agency broke laws to send an evangelist to his death

The Kansas City-based All Nations missionary agency and the agent it dispatched to India’s forbidden North Sentinel Island, John Allen Chau, broke a whole raft of Indian laws or regulations, including the following:

  1. Visa law (Chau falsely entered India as a tourist, when the agency should have sought for him a “missionary visa,” which is what India grants to those coming for religious work. The “e-visa on arrival” form for tourists specifically asks if the applicant will engage in missionary activity).
  2. The 1956 Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Regulation (the agency or its agent should have taken the mandatory permission under this law on this form).
  3. Regulations under the Indian Forest Act, 1927, applicable to natural forest reserves, including the primordial rainforest of North Sentinel. (A visit to the North Sentinel Island, among other reserves, is prohibited.)

The aboriginal and forest protection laws remain applicable despite the lifting of the so-called Restricted Area Permit requirement for foreigners. The removal of the “permit” requirement merely leveled the playing field for foreigners and Indians: Now both foreigners and Indians need to secure the same permissions — under the aboriginal and forest protection laws.

Also, as part of the tourist visa regulation applicable to the Andaman and Nicobar island chain, Chau should have registered with the Foreigners Regional Registration Office on arriving in Port Blair, the archipelago’s capital. But he didn’t.

In addition, Chau’s broke the tribe’s unwritten law by repeatedly intruding into their island over three days, despite warnings from the tribespeople to stop trespassing. This made him a serial offender for the tribespeople, who, after initially handling him with remarkable restraint, dealt with him in the way modern legal systems punish repeat offenders.

Chau was recruited by the agency’s international executive leader, Mary Ho, who told the Washington Post that Chau had traveled to India as a tourist, without the proper missionary visa, as missionary visas “aren’t easy to come by.”  In statements to other American papers or news portals, the All Nations agency has defended its action in sending Chau to the North Sentinel Island, claiming that India’s MHA had lifted RAP requirement in August for North Sentinel. Here’s one sample: https://goo.gl/GoNyqG.

Chau’s own 13-page diary notes, however, show that he was fully aware of the unlawful nature of his mission, which is why, according to his own admission, he evaded Indian coastal patrols under cover of darkness. (The prohibition on travel to the North Sentinel Island actually extends to a five-kilometer exclusion zone around it.) Chau appears to have used his previous visits to the Andaman archipelago for reconnaissance planning, including learning to dodge Indian coastal patrols. On his last visit, he spent four full weeks in the Andaman chain before undertaking his fateful trip to North Sentinel.

The challenge of building a “free and open” Indo-Pacific

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How can the United States succeed in establishing a truly “free and open” Indo-Pacific when the region’s most-important corridor — the South China Sea — has come under China’s de facto control and is thus neither free nor open?

Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

The Indo-Pacific is emerging as the center of global power and wealth, with security dynamics changing rapidly in the region. The contest for regional influence pits America’s new strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) — a concept authored by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — against China’s “Belt and Road” initiative (BRI), which U.S. Vice President Mike Pence last weekend mocked as a “constricting belt” and a “one-way road.”

As speculation grows that the deep-water commercial port China is building at Koh Kong in Cambodia could become dual-purpose docks, just as Pakistan’s Chinese-controlled Gwadar port has acquired a strategic dimension, Pence at the APEC summit announced that the United States will partner with its ally Australia to build a naval base on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

Two recent summits have also highlighted the changing power dynamics — between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Beijing, and between Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Japan.

Japan and India have reason to try and improve strained ties with China. But as China has come under greater U.S. pressure on trade, technology and other fronts, it has sought to ease tensions with its geopolitical rivals, Japan and India. Pence cited Xi’s outreach to Japan as one sign “China got the message” about Washington’s new position.

Indeed, in response to the mounting American pressure, Xi this month emphasized his personal relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump and called for “a plan that both can accept.” In recent days, Xi’s government has even submitted a list of concessions that Trump has rebuffed as inadequate.

This shows how active American pressure, as opposed to mere admonitions, can result in improving China’s behavior. When a nation pursues an accommodating approach toward Beijing, an emboldened China ups the ante. But while deference usually invites bullying, standing up to China draws respect and a readiness to negotiate and make concessions.

At the heart of the changing U.S. policy on China are two key priorities — ending its trade-distorting policies and developing the new Indo-Pacific strategy through the FOIP concept.

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, attempted to “pivot’ to Asia. The pivot, unveiled in 2011, attracted a lot of international attention but had little impact in shaping the regional geostrategic landscape.

For example, it did nothing to tame China’s territorial and maritime revisionism. In fact, it was on Obama’s watch, after he had unveiled the pivot, that China created and militarized islands in the South China Sea, thereby fundamentally transforming the situation there. North Korea, for its part, made rapid nuclear and missile advances.

With Obama’s attention diverted by developments in the Middle East and Russia’s takeover of Crimea, his pivot to Asia got lost somewhere in the arc between the Syria-Iraq belt and Ukraine.

Of course, under his pivot policy, the shift of more U.S forces to the Asia-Pacific gained momentum, along with a focus on investing in high-end capabilities with relevance to the Indo-Pacific, including electronic warfare, cyber and space. But Obama’s pivot policy never acquired a clear vision, and critics contended that it merely repackaged some policies initiated by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

Against this background, the Trump administration’s FOIP strategy, with its clearer vision and objectives, looks like the true pivot to Asia. This is largely because of the paradigm shift underway in America’s China policy.

The ongoing shift in China policy has spawned the FOIP strategy, which extends to the Indian Ocean — the new geostrategic focus of China, after its success in changing the South China Sea status quo in its favor. The FOIP strategy’s economic and security objectives are clearly being influenced by the evolving China-policy shift.

The real architect of the FOIP concept, however, is Abe, who unveiled that idea in mid-2016 in Nairobi. The term, “Indo-Pacific,” of course, has been in use since the 1990s. And the Obama administration publicly embraced the Indo-Pacific term so as to factor in the emerging strategic realities in the Indian Ocean region, which traditionally was not considered part of the Asia-Pacific. But it was Abe who, by prefixing the words “free and open” to Indo-Pacific, devised the concept that is now shaping Washington’s strategic reorientation.

U.S. foreign policy traditionally has not embraced a concept authored by a foreign leader. The U.S. adoption of the FOIP concept is a rare exception.

Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy, however, faces some tough challenges, not least because of the hedging policies of some U.S. allies. Caught between an unpredictable and transactional Trump administration and an arrogant and pushy China, some U.S. friends find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

Moreover, some U.S. allies, including Australia and South Korea, view their economic relations with China to be as important as their security ties with the U.S. The last thing they want is for American policy to force them to choose between the U.S. and China. America’s own neutrality on disputes between China and its neighbors, including in the South and East China seas and the Himalayas, encourages its friends to hedge their bets.

Another challenge for Washington relates specifically to the South China Sea, a highly strategic corridor connecting the Indian and Pacific oceans. How can the Indo-Pacific be “free” and “open” when its most-important sea corridor is neither free nor open?

To be sure, this is a difficult challenge. At this stage, how could the U.S. undo what China has done in the South China Sea without provoking a war? The Trump team inherited this problem from the Obama administration. Trump recently accused the Obama administration of having been “impotent” on the South China Sea issue.

The Trump administration, to be sure, has stepped-up freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea. But let’s be clear: Such operations neither credibly deter China nor reassure America’s regional allies.

Without a clear plan to deal with the changing status quo there, the South China Sea will remain a critical missing link in Washington’s larger Indo-Pacific strategy.

Meanwhile, the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad,” despite the hype, has yet to live up to its promise. Abe, incidentally, is also the author of the idea to create a club of the four leading Indo-Pacific democracies. The Quad’s origins date back to Abe’s initial 2006-2007 stint as prime minister, when he received active support from then U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney. Thanks to Abe’s push, the Quad evolved out of the U.S.-India-Japan-Australia “regional core group” that U.S. President George W. Bush announced to deal with the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami disaster.

Since the Quad was revived a year ago, its member-states have met at the level of senior bureaucrats, including for the third time last week in Singapore. But no ministerial-level meeting has been held thus far. This may explain why the Quad’s institutionalization has yet to take off.

Quad members must start coordinating their approaches to effectively create a single regional strategy. And they need to build broader collaboration with other important players in the Indo-Pacific, as well as with strategically located small countries.

More fundamentally, progress on building a rules-based Indo-Pacific order is linked to addressing the regional imperative for strategic equilibrium, a goal at the core of Abe’s foreign policy. Playing by international rules and not seeking to redraw borders by force are central to peace and security.

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

© The Japan Times, 2018.

A Concert of Indo-Pacific Democracies

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

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Project Syndicate, 2018.