The linchpins for a rules-based Indo-Pacific

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Longtime Japan Times contributor Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2018.

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

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Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.

Why Mike Pence is playing bad cop against China

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

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Brahma Chellaney, The National

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

China’s Imperial Project Runs into Resistance

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Washington Times
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Grand on ambition but short on transparency, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s marquee project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), seeks to refashion the global economic and political order by luring nations desperate for infrastructure investments into China’s strategic orbit. The BRI is essentially an imperial project aiming to make real the mythical Middle Kingdom.

The BRI, rolled out in 2013, attracted many countries, as China offered to finance and build major infrastructure projects, including ports, highways, energy plants and railroads. But after a smooth sailing, the BRI is now encountering strong headwinds, as partner-countries worry about China ensnaring them in sovereignty-eroding debt traps.

China has extended huge loans to financially weak states, only to strengthen its leverage through debt entrapment Indeed, Beijing has converted big credits not just into political influence but also a military presence, as its first overseas naval base at Djibouti illustrates.

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

A number of countries have now begun trying to renegotiate their deals with Beijing. Some have also decided to scrap or scale back BRI projects. Mr. Mahathir, during his Beijing visit, announced cancellation of Chinese projects worth nearly $23 billion.

BRI seeks to export China’s model of top-down, debt-driven development through government-to-government deals. Vulnerable countries are now awakening to the risks of accepting loans that could financially shackle them to Beijing.

Last December, China acquired the strategic Indian Ocean port of Hambantota on a 99-year lease after the small island nation of Sri Lanka could no longer keep up with debt repayments.

In fact, China is even replicating some of the practices that were used against it during the European-colonial period. For example, the concept of a 99-year lease emerged from the flurry of European-colonial expansion in China in the 19th century.

While rates for Japan’s infrastructure loans usually run below half a percent, China offers BRI loans at rates as high as 7 percent, which can place unsustainable financial strain on small countries. For example, China’s renegotiated Hambantota port loan to Sri Lanka carries a 6.3 percent fixed rate. In China’s client state, Pakistan, Chinese state companies have secured energy contracts that guarantee 16 percent or more yearly returns, in dollar terms.

China has faced accusations in multiple countries of illegally funneling money to authoritarian presidents.

In the Maldives, China has managed to acquire several islets in that heavily indebted Indian Ocean archipelago. Mohamed Nasheed, the nation’s first democratically elected president who was ousted at gunpoint in 2012, said, “Without firing a single shot, China has grabbed more land in the Maldives than what [Britain’s] East India Company did at the height of the 19th century.”

Against this background, the BRI is beginning to encounter a push-back in a number of countries. A growing number of governments are seeking transparency in Chinese lending, investment and trade practices.

However, the BRI is still bagging new contracts in some other countries. One example is the Himalayan nation of Nepal, which became the world’s sixth Communist-ruled country in February. China helped unite warring Communist factions in Nepal and funded the election campaign. Now Beijing is reaping the rewards.

The new Communist government in Nepal in September reinstated a deal with China for a $2.5 billion dam project that was scrapped by the previous government. China won the contract without an open-bidding process. In fact, it has massively inflated the project cost, which will leave Nepal struggling to repay the Chinese loan.

Laos, another Communist-ruled nation, is also seeking more BRI financing and investment. In continental Southeast Asia, while Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are wary of getting too close to China, Laos and Cambodia see BRI as critical to boosting their economic growth.

Yet the international reality is that, after a heady first phase, the pace of new contracts under the BRI has slowed, as concerns spread about China’s debt-trap diplomacy and as heavily indebted nations recoil from accepting more Chinese financing in the form of market-rate loans. This trend is likely to intensify in the next few years.

Even within China, the BRI is facing criticism from those who question the wisdom of plowing hundreds of billions of dollars into overseas projects when the government is still grappling with poverty and underdevelopment in a number of provinces. Critics are concerned that Mr. Xi’s aggressive quest for Chinese dominance is inviting an international backlash. The BRI — the world’s biggest building program, which Mr. Xi has hailed as “the project of the century” — exemplifies how China is flaunting its global ambitions.

Meanwhile, the financial and security risks of Chinese projects in failing or dysfunctional states are becoming more apparent. Take Pakistan, the largest recipient of BRI financing. The Pakistani military has raised a special 15,000-strong force to protect Chinese projects. In addition, thousands of police have been deployed in some provinces to protect Chinese workers. Yet sporadic attacks on Chinese in Pakistan have underscored the rising security costs.

The larger push-back against China’s neocolonial practices is likely to intensify in the coming years, putting greater pressure on the BRI. The initiative, however, will continue to benefit from a U.S.-led sanctions approach that seeks to punish countries in the name of human rights or nuclear nonproliferation. Thanks to this approach, the BRI is still bagging major lucrative contracts in countries as diverse as Iran, Sudan and Cambodia.

• Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

No easy escape from Afghan war for Trump

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Russia, China and Iran now backing Taliban and stymieing U.S. peace efforts

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The U.S. will find it difficult to pull out of Afghanistan in the face of increased foreign support for the Taliban.   © Reuters

Brahma ChellaneyNikkei Asian Review

Not for the first time, the U.S. is showing signs of desperation in trying to end its war in Afghanistan, by renewing efforts for a peace deal with the Taliban and — yet again — reviewing combat strategy.

Ending the longest war in American history, which marks its 17th anniversary on Oct. 7, appears integral to President Donald Trump’s broader plan to roll back America’s “imperial overreach” — the phenomenon of a great power going into decline when it takes on excessive global commitments.

In contrast to China’s use of economic tools to achieve strategic objectives, the U.S. has too often reached for the gun instead of the purse. Many in Washington now believe U.S. retrenchment must include staying out of faraway wars and making allies pay their fair share for defense.

In the summer of 2017, the Trump administration ended the CIA’s covert operations to train and arm rebels in Syria — a large-scale program that had begun under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Ironically, it was Obama who in 2013 underscored the danger of perpetual war for U.S. power by recalling the warning of America’s fourth president, James Madison, that “no nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Today, extricating the U.S. from the military quagmire in Afghanistan is seen as important to reversing America’s relative decline, including focusing on domestic renewal. A year ago, Trump acknowledged that his “original instinct was to pull out” but that he had been convinced that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaida.” Now, with U.S. patience wearing thin, his administration has stepped up efforts to end the war.

But international geopolitics promises to play spoilsport. U.S. foreign policy, through punitive sanctions and tariffs, is driving Russia, China and Iran to support the Afghan Taliban in a bid to tie down American forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan, which provides cross-border safe havens to America’s main battlefield foe, the Afghan Taliban, seems intent to continue running with the hare and hunting with the hounds — pretending to be a U.S. ally while harboring the Taliban’s network structure.

To make matters worse, an ascendant Afghan Taliban is expanding its territorial control and killing government forces in such record numbers that authorities in Kabul no longer disclose fatality tolls. Afghan military casualties have been rising since 2014, after U.S. forces transferred responsibility for most security to the Afghans. According to one estimate, the daily fatality toll among Afghan security forces has jumped from 22 in 2016 to about 57 recently. Both Kabul and Washington now admit that Afghan casualties have risen to unsustainable levels.

About 14,000 American troops remain in Afghanistan, including 4,000 added by Trump, plus some 26,000 American military contractors.

Trump, instead of the promised fundamentally different approach, is now seeking to essentially repeat Obama’s failed effort — to cut a deal with the Afghan Taliban, for which the U.S. needs the full backing of Pakistan’s powerful generals. To win their support, the U.S. has assassinated three successive chiefs of the Pakistani Taliban, a group that poses no real threat to American forces but is the nemesis of the Pakistan military.

After the latest killing in May, which came about four months after Washington cut most security assistance to Pakistan, the U.S. held face-to-face talks in July with the Afghan Taliban in Qatar.

The Obama administration first sought to make Qatar’s capital, Doha, a negotiations hub by allowing the Afghan Taliban to establish a de facto diplomatic mission there in 2013.

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

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, while making an unannounced visit to Kabul recently on his way back from New Delhi, said reconciliation efforts with the militia had gained “traction.”

But the Taliban, while valuing direct talks with the U.S. as a means to undercut the Afghan government’s legitimacy, have little incentive to make peace with America. The Taliban have gained the momentum against regime forces, which are spread thin and on the defensive. Taliban battlefield victories are denting government morale and making it less likely that the insurgents will agree to a deal.

Washington, in response to the increasing Taliban attacks, has advised Afghan troops to pull back from vulnerable outposts and focus on safeguarding cities. Making force protection the priority clearly signals a government in retreat.

Further emboldening the Taliban is new support from Russia, Iran and China. With U.S. sanctions hurting the Iranian and Russian economies and Trump’s trade war against China potentially laying the foundation of a new Cold War, Tehran, Moscow and Beijing are opportunistically seeking to use the Taliban as a tool to step up pressure on the U.S.

The revival of the “Great Game” — the 19th-century Anglo-Russian rivalry for Central Asian influence — makes it harder to pacify war-torn Afghanistan. Behind the changed geopolitics is a major role reversal.

In the 1980s, U.S. President Ronald Reagan used Islam as a tool to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with the CIA arming thousands of Afghan mujahedeen — violent jihadists that later spawned al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Moscow and Tehran long viewed the Taliban as a major terrorist threat and aided the 2001 U.S. overthrow of the five-year-old Taliban regime. But now Russia and Iran are seeking to assist the Taliban against the shaky, U.S.-backed Kabul government.

Meanwhile, China has long had a dubious approach toward the militia. On the day of the 2001 New York World Trade Center terrorist attack, a Chinese delegation signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement with the isolated Taliban regime in its de facto capital, Kandahar.

Seeking a bigger role in Afghanistan, China is again courting the Taliban. It has received Taliban delegations in recent years and offered to mediate peace talks. The Taliban has promised not to attack China’s much-delayed, $3 billion project to mine huge copper deposits at Mes Aynak, near Kabul.

India, a top aid donor to Afghanistan, has pursued a consistently anti-Taliban policy. Despite its warming ties with Washington, India is concerned that U.S. direct talks with the Taliban could lend respectability to a fanatical terrorist organization.

But the U.S. clearly appears willing, as part of a peace deal, to accommodate the Taliban in an Afghan power-sharing arrangement. But the spoiler roles of Russia, China and Iran and the Taliban’s battlefield successes make such a deal less likely. As American senator John McCain predicted before his death, the conflict in Afghanistan would continue “on a low-burning simmer for a long time to come.”

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

The China Backlash

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US President Donald Trump’s headline-grabbing trade war with China should not obscure a broader pushback against the country’s mercantilist trade, investment, and lending practices. In fact, China’s free ride could be coming to an end.

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On a recent official visit to China, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized his host country’s use of major infrastructure projects – and difficult-to-repay loans – to assert its influence over smaller countries. While Mahathir’s warnings in Beijing against “a new version of colonialism” stood out for their boldness, they reflect a broader pushback against China’s mercantilist trade, investment, and lending practices.

Since 2013, under the umbrella of its “Belt and Road Initiative,” China has been funding and implementing large infrastructure projects in countries around the world, in order to help align their interests with its own, gain a political foothold in strategic locations, and export its industrial surpluses. By keeping bidding on BRI projects closed and opaque, China often massively inflates their value, leaving countries struggling to repay their debts.

Once countries become ensnared in China’s debt traps, they can end up being forced into even worse deals to compensate their creditor for lack of repayment. Most notably, last December, Sri Lanka was compelled to transfer the Chinese-built strategic port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year, colonial-style lease, because it could longer afford its debt payments.

Sri Lanka’s experience was a wake-up call for other countries with outsize debts to China. Fearing that they, too, could lose strategic assets, they are now attempting to scrap, scale back, or renegotiate their deals. Mahathir, who previously cleared the way for Chinese investment in Malaysia, ended his trip to Beijing by canceling Chinese projects worth almost $23 billion.

Countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Hungary, and Tanzania have also canceled or scaled back BRI projects. Myanmar, hoping to secure needed infrastructure without becoming caught up in a Chinese debt trap, has used the threat of cancellation to negotiate a reduction in the cost of its planned Kyaukpyu port from $7.3 billion to $1.3 billion.

Even China’s closest partners are now wary of the BRI. In Pakistan, which has long worked with China to contain India and is the largest recipient of BRI financing, the new military-backed government has sought to review or renegotiate projects in response to a worsening debt crisis. In Cambodia, another leading recipient of Chinese loans, fears of effectively becoming a Chinese colony are on the rise.

The backlash against China can be seen elsewhere, too. The recent annual Pacific Islands Forum meeting was one of the most contentious in its history. Chinese policies in the region, together with the Chinese delegation leader’s behavior at the event itself, drove the president of Nauru – the world’s smallest republic, with just 11,000 inhabitants – to condemn China’s “arrogant” presence in the South Pacific. China cannot, he declared, “dictate things to us.”

When it comes to trade, US President Donald Trump’s escalating trade war with China is grabbing headlines, but Trump is far from alone in criticizing China. With policies ranging from export subsidies and nontariff barriers to intellectual-property piracy and tilting the domestic market in favor of Chinese companies, China represents, in the words of Harvard’s Graham Allison, the “most protectionist, mercantilist, and predatory major economy in the world.”

As the largest merchandise exporter in the world, China is many countries’ biggest trading partner. Beijing has leveraged this role by employing trade to punish those that refuse to toe its line, including by imposing import bans on specific products, halting strategic exports (such as rare-earth minerals), cutting off tourism from China, and encouraging domestic consumer boycotts or protests against foreign businesses.

The fact is that China has grown strong and rich by flouting international trade rules. But now its chickens are coming home to roost, with a growing number of countries imposing antidumping or punitive duties on Chinese goods. And as countries worry about China bending them to its will by luring them into debt traps, it is no longer smooth sailing for the BRI.

Beyond Trump’s tariffs, the European Union has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization about China’s practices of forcing technology transfer as a condition of market access. China’s export subsidies and other trade-distorting practices are set to encounter greater international resistance. Under WTO rules, countries may impose tariffs on subsidized goods from overseas that harm domestic industries.

Now, Chinese President Xi Jinping finds himself not only defending the BRI, his signature foreign-policy initiative, but also confronting domestic criticism, however muted, for flaunting China’s global ambitions and thereby inviting a US-led international backlash. Xi has discarded one of former Chinese strongman Deng Xiaoping’s most famous dicta: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” Instead, Xi has chosen to pursue an unabashedly aggressive strategy that has many asking whether China is emerging as a new kind of imperialist power.

International trade has afforded China enormous benefits, enabling the country to become the world’s second-largest economy, while lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. The country cannot afford to lose those benefits to an international backlash against its unfair trade and investment practices.

China’s reliance on large trade surpluses and foreign-exchange reserves to fund the expansion of its global footprint makes it all the more vulnerable to the current pushback. In fact, even if China shifts its strategy and adheres to international rules, its trade surplus and foreign-currency reserves will be affected. In short, whichever path it chooses, China’s free ride could be coming to an end.

© Project Syndicate, 2018.

India fumbles against a rogue neighbour

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today

pakistani-flag-reuetrsPakistan has turned into the Mecca of international terrorism even as its new prime minister, Imran “Taliban” Khan, has promised to make his country a Medina-like welfare state. Pakistan, however, is battling a deepening financial crisis, largely exacerbated by its “all-weather” ally, China. Beijing has imposed unfair deals on, and stepped up capital-goods exports to, Pakistan under its so-called Belt and Road Initiative.

The military-manipulated election that brought Khan to power, instead of providing much-needed stability to Pakistan, is likely to inject more turmoil. A supporter of the military-backed jihadists and a religious zealot himself, Khan in February married his burqa-clad “spiritual guide”, who now also serves as his political guide.

The Pakistani military has waged an undeclared war against India since the 1980s. But now that an internationally isolated Pakistan, with its economy in dire straits, is seeking an international bailout package, the military generals there, for tactical reasons, want “peace” talks with India while remaining engaged in aggression. Through such talks, they also wish to legitimize the government they helped to install.

Yet this is exactly what Prime Minister Narendra Modi risked doing by initially agreeing to a bilateral foreign ministers’ meeting. The meeting, on the sidelines of the UN general assembly, would have represented the first high-level contact between India and Pakistan since early 2016, when talks were suspended after the Pakistan-scripted terrorist attack on the Pathankot air force base. Despite frequent terrorist outrages, such a meeting would have signalled a thaw in Indo-Pakistan relations. Fortunately, the Modi government had the good sense to reverse its decision.

It should not be forgotten that another BJP prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, legitimized General Pervez Musharraf’s military rule by inviting him out of the blue to a summit in Agra. That summit went badly, but Musharraf came out the clear winner.

The Modi government initially agreed to the foreign ministers’ meeting just after the Pakistani army killed an Indian soldier by sniper fire and then slit his throat and mutilated his body. In fact, such was the bad optics that India was playing a cricket match with Pakistan in Dubai on the day the Pakistani savagery was first reported. Worse still, the timing of the Indian announcement to hold the meeting sent out an unfortunate message — that India, instead of being outraged over the mutilation, was rewarding Pakistan with bilateral discussions. That message was reinforced in the immediate aftermath by the abduction and killing of three cops in Jammu and Kashmir by Pakistan-backed terrorists.

To its credit, the Modi government took barely 24 hours to correct its mistake and scrap the foreign ministers’ meeting. Strong reaction on social media played a role in the quick reversal. But it is apparent that the original decision in favour of the meeting was taken without careful thought. There was no consideration of the fact that such talks would not only be futile but also amount to India playing into Pakistan’s hands.

Indeed, no sooner had India reversed its decision than Imran Khan sought to mock Modi by referring to “small men holding big offices” — a statement that effectively closes the door to any senior-level bilateral talks in the coming months. That reference might more aptly apply to Khan himself. After all, Khan (the Pakistani military’s newest puppet) has long been ridiculed as “Im the Dim” for his lack of intelligence.

Still, the fact is that incompetent officials in New Delhi have seriously embarrassed India through their flip-flop and provided new grist to the Pakistani propaganda mill. For example, the ministry of external affairs cited Pakistan’s glorification of terrorists through new postage stamps as one of the provocations for the Indian U-turn, although these stamps were released before Khan took office.

It is an open secret that Washington has sought to persuade New Delhi to engage with Islamabad. America has stepped up its effort to end its longest-ever war by clinching a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban, for which it needs the Pakistani military’s help. India, in its first bilateral engagement with the Imran Khan government, convened a meeting of the Permanent Indus Commission in Lahore at the end of last month, although the meeting was not due until March 2019. The Commission’s meeting, however, attracted little attention in India.

The Modi government’s meandering Pakistan policy is also apparent from another volte-face: It hastily permitted and then, after Khan’s mocking statement, postponed a tour of inspection of new Indian projects on River Chenab by Pakistan’s Indus commissioner and two other officials. In September 2016, Modi had vowed that, “Blood and water cannot flow together”. But two years later, instead of action, visible backsliding is evident. The Indus Waters Treaty remains the world’s most generous water-sharing pact. India, however, remains reluctant to leverage this treaty to tame a scofflaw neighbour.

Successive Indian governments have failed to develop a clear strategy to deal with Pakistan. The Modi government has finally realized what was well known — that “Pakistan will not mend its ways”. It’s better late than never. It has also acknowledged that talks with Pakistan would be “meaningless”, given “the evil agenda of Pakistan” and the “true face” of the Imran Khan government. Can we now hope that India would develop consistency, clarity and courage in its Pakistan policy and fashion a coherent strategy to contain a rogue neighbour?

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.