Interview with Brahma Chellaney

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Brahma Chellaney
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This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

 

Project Syndicate: You support the vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific promoted by US President Donald Trump’s administration, but complain that it lacks strategic heft – a failing that has allowed Chinese expansionism in the region to continue unabated. Given how erratic the Trump administration has been – the recent escalation in US-Iran tensions being a case in point – will Trump’s vision for the Indo-Pacific go the way of Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia? What steps are needed to get back on track?

Brahma Chellaney: The Trump administration is nearing the end of its first term, and yet the “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy has yet to gain real traction. If Trump loses the November election, his successor might replace the strategy with a new concept, as Trump did with Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”

But even if Trump wins, there is no guarantee that his administration will add the needed strategic heft. On the contrary, as I explain in my latest PS , the recent decision to expand the definition of the Indo-Pacific to include the Persian Gulf – “from Hollywood to Bollywood” has now become “from California to Kilimanjaro” – suggests that the Trump administration is succumbing to the same Middle East obsession as its predecessors. This will make it far more difficult to create a coherent, let alone effective, Indo-Pacific policy.

PS: In December, you pointed out that “for large and influential countries, respecting the rules-based order is a choice” – one that China, in particular, is unlikely to make. You then called for an “enforcement mechanism” in international law. What might such a mechanism look like, and what would it take to introduce it?

BC: Disputes will always arise between states. That is why international arbitration and adjudication exists. But even the International Court of Justice lacks any practical mechanism to enforce its rulings. As a result, they are regularly violated, especially by powerful actors.

China is a case in point. Though it acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1996, China rejected the arbitral proceedings brought by the Philippines against China in 2013 – proceedings that were instituted by UNCLOS’s dispute-settlement body, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In 2016, it rejected the panel’s final ruling that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea lacked legitimacy under international law, calling it a “farce.”

Clearly, we need coercive enforcement mechanisms to ensure that all countries respect the decisions of adjudicative tribunals and courts. But the question of what precisely those mechanisms could look like has no easy answer. As long as power respects power and the weak remain meek, it may even be a moot point.

PS: You’ve warned that the Communist Party of China’s “continued reliance on brute power” to keep citizens in line “could eventually leave it on the ash heap of history.” In lieu of international action to rein in China, could internal pressures produce a check on Chinese expansionism? Or might they have the opposite effect, with Chinese President Xi Jinping doubling down on revanchist nationalism, much like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who used the annexation of Crimea to revive his declining popularity?

BC: China is the world’s largest, strongest, and longest-surviving autocracy, and the CPC’s commitment to upholding the party’s primacy means insulating itself from liberalizing influences. But doing so, while still pursuing globalization, makes the country’s leadership increasingly vulnerable to domestic political shocks.

In fact, Communist China’s future will be shaped primarily by developments at home – and its leaders seem to know that. But their approach to protecting the CPC’s position has little to do with expansionism. They are overwhelmingly focused on maintaining domestic order in a more direct way. Tellingly, China’s official internal security budget is larger than its official military budget.

PS: You defended Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision last August to revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s special semi-autonomous status and take steps “to ensure security during the potentially tumultuous transition,” arguing that India was doing what it must to protect itself from threats posed by China and Pakistan. Months later, millions of Kashmiris still lack Internet access, making this the longest digital shutdown ever imposed in a democracy. Is this really necessary? When can life return to some semblance of normalcy in J&K?

BC: Internet and cellphone services have now been restored in the Indian part of divided J&K. More important, of the three countries controlling parts of J&K – China, India, and Pakistan – only India had ever provided special semi-autonomous status, and its purpose in revoking that status was to counter security pressures from the other two.

J&K has long been a flash point between India and Pakistan, and between India and China. The China-Pakistan alliance against India was actually founded on the J&K issue. And in the Indian-administered J&K, the predominantly Sunni Muslim Kashmir Valley has become a hotbed of Pakistan-backed Islamists seeking to establish an Islamic emirate. Last month marked the 30th anniversary of the Islamists’ expulsion of the valley’s native Hindu minority, in one of the modern world’s swiftest and most successful ethnic-cleansing campaigns.

Given all of this, restoring normalcy in J&K is not up to India so much as it is up to the countries that have been sowing instability there.

BY THE WAY. . .

PS: You’ve touted the “phase one” US-China trade deal, tweeting that it “vindicates Trump’s unilateralism and transactional foreign-policy approach.” But the deal’s enforcement mechanism has a major weakness: if the US imposes tariffs in response to Chinese non-compliance – the core of the enforcement mechanism – China’s only recourse is to quit the agreement, returning both parties to square one. What makes you think the deal will survive?

BC: The deal is just a temporary truce, and it could unravel if China fails to honor its commitments. Moreover, the core issues have been left for the phase-two negotiations. It is significant that, despite the recent deal, Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods remain largely in place.

Yet, with his tough line, Trump has wrested some concessions from the Chinese that his predecessors could not. And, given bipartisan US support for a harder line on China, the policy shift under Trump will likely outlast his presidency.

PS: If you could decide the foreign policy of the next US administration, what would your top three priorities be?

BC: First, shed the preoccupation with the Middle East and focus on long-term US strategic interests, especially in the Indo-Pacific – the actual Indo-Pacific, not Trump’s new expanded version – because it is now the world’s geopolitical center of gravity.

Second, get the global War on Terror back on track, including working systematically to undermine jihadist ideology. The only way to defeat an enemy driven by a pernicious ideology is to discredit that ideology.

Third, strive to buttress a rules-based global order, in which the US leads by example, including by shunning defiant unilateralism.

PS: You’ve re-tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters and called for the international community to do more to help them. What do you propose?

BC: The Hong Kong protests show that a grassroots movement can wield considerable power, even against a state’s repressive machinery. To be sure, Xi cannot fully accede to the protesters, because that could encourage mainland Chinese to demand their own rights. But he cannot be allowed to crush them, either. To prevent a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Hong Kong, the international community must make it clear to China’s leaders that unleashing brute force would cost them dearly.

Failing to do so would have implications that extend far beyond Hong Kong. If China is allowed to suppress the Hong Kong protests violently, it could be emboldened to take stronger action against Taiwan, and to intensify its pursuit of territorial revisionism vis-à-vis India, Japan, Vietnam, and others.

PS: Modi seems to lack a robust vision for India’s place in the world. Is he too focused on domestic issues?

BC: The British-style parliamentary system is rife with inefficiencies even in the United Kingdom, as the Brexit mess has made clear. In India – a raucous democracy, which is more populous and diverse than all of Europe – its limitations are even more severe.

Consider the frequency of elections in India: no sooner have votes been counted in one state than elections loom in another state. The country is thus perpetually in election mode. This makes it easy to become mired in petty battles over domestic issues.

Bitter partisanship precludes national consensus on the challenges India confronts. Indeed, domestic politics deepens India’s internal fault lines, hobbling its ambition to be a great power.

Chellaney recommends

We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Chellaney’s picks:

  • Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

    Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

    This well-researched book describes the 1986 meltdown of a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power complex in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. The damage this wrought – from a human and environmental perspective – dwarfed that caused by the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 25 years later, even though the latter incident included three separate meltdowns.

From the PS Archive

From 2019
Chellaney highlights the havoc that China’s construction of mega-dams is wreaking on downriver countries. Read the commentary.

From 2018
Chellaney calls for tough sanctions to stop Pakistan, a supposed ally, from continuing to aid and nurture terrorists. Read the commentary.

Around the web

In an interview with Fair Observer, Chellaney discusses what global developments – from the US to Iran – mean for India. Read the transcript.

In a commentary for the Hindustan Times, Chellaney argues that the most pressing threat to India’s standing in the world comes not from neighbors but from polarized politics. Read the article.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2020.

America’s Debilitating Middle-East Obsession

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US President Donald Trump once seemed to recognize that, as long as the US remains mired in endless wars in the Middle East, it will be unable to address in a meaningful way the threat China poses. But that has not stopped him from perpetuating the cycle of self-defeating American interventionism in the Middle East.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” US President Donald Trump declared in his 2019 State of the Union speech. He had a point: military entanglements in the Middle East have contributed to the relative decline of American power and facilitated China’s muscular rise. And yet, less than a year after that speech, Trump ordered the assassination of Iran’s most powerful military commander, General Qassem Suleimani, bringing the United States to the precipice of yet another war. Such is the power of America’s addiction to interfering in the chronically volatile Middle East.

The US no longer has vital interests at stake in the Middle East. Shale oil and gas have made the US energy independent, so safeguarding Middle Eastern oil supplies is no longer a strategic imperative. In fact, the US has been supplanting Iran as an important source of crude oil and petroleum products for India, the world’s third-largest oil consumer after America and China. Moreover, Israel, which has become the region’s leading military power (and its only nuclear-armed state), no longer depends on vigilant US protection.

The US does, however, have a vital interest in resisting China’s efforts to challenge international norms, including through territorial and maritime revisionism. That is why Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, promised a “pivot to Asia” early in his presidency.

But Obama failed to follow through on his plans to shift America’s foreign-policy focus from the Middle East. On the contrary, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate staged military campaigns everywhere from Syria and Iraq to Somalia and Yemen. In Libya, his administration sowed chaos by overthrowing strongman Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. In Egypt, Obama hailed President Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster.

Yet in 2013, when the military toppled Mubarak’s democratically elected successor, Mohamed Morsi, Obama opted for non-intervention, refusing to acknowledge it as a coup, and suspended US aid only briefly. This reflected the Obama administration’s habit of selective non-intervention – the approach that encouraged China, America’s main long-term rival, to become more aggressive in pursuit of its claims in the South China Sea, including building and militarizing seven artificial islands.

Trump was supposed to change this. He has repeatedly derided US military interventions in the Middle East as a colossal waste of money, claiming the US has spent $7 trillion since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. (Brown University’s Costs of War Project puts the figure at $6.4 trillion.) “We have nothing – nothing except death and destruction. It’s a horrible thing,” Trump said in 2018.

Furthermore, the Trump administration’s national-security strategy recognizes China as a “strategic competitor” – a label that it subsequently replaced with the far blunter “enemy.” And it has laid out a strategy for curbing Chinese aggression and creating a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region stretching “from Bollywood to Hollywood.”

Yet, as is so often the case, Trump’s actions have directly contradicted his words. Despite his anti-war rhetoric, Trump appointed war-mongering aides like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been described as a “hawk brimming with bravado and ambition,” and former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who in 2015 wrote an op-ed called “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”

Perhaps it should be no surprise, then, that Trump has pursued a needlessly antagonistic approach to Iran. The escalation began early in his presidency, when he withdrew the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (which Iran had not violated), re-imposed sanctions, and pressured America’s allies to follow suit. Furthermore, since last May, Trump has deployed 16,500 additional troops to the Middle East and sent an aircraft-carrier strike group to the Persian Gulf, instead of the South China Sea. The assassination of Suleimani was part of this pattern.

Like virtually all of America’s past interventions in the Middle East, its Iran policy has been spectacularly counterproductive. Iran has announced that it will disregard the nuclear agreement’s uranium-enrichment limits. Trump’s sanctions have increased the oil-import bill of US allies like India and deepened Iran’s ties with China, which has continued to import Iranian oil through private companies and invest billions of dollars in Iran’s oil, gas, and petrochemical sectors.

Beyond Iran, Trump has failed to extricate the US from Afghanistan, Syria, or Yemen. His administration has continued to support the Saudi-led bombing campaign against Yemen’s Houthi rebels with US military raids and sorties. As a result, Yemen is enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Trump did order troops to leave Syria last October, but with so little strategic planning that the Kurds – America’s most loyal ally in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) – were left exposed to an attack from Turkey. This, together with his effort to strike a  (which is responsible for the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks), threatens to reverse his sole achievement in the Middle East: dramatically diminishing ISIS’s territorial holdings.

Making matters worse, after ordering the Syrian drawdown, Trump approved a military mission to secure the country’s oil fields. The enduring oil fixation also led Trump last April to endorse Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar, just as Haftar began laying siege to the capital, Tripoli.

The Trump administration is unlikely to change course any time soon. In fact, it has now redefined the Indo-Pacific region as extending “from California to Kilimanjaro,” thus specifically including the Persian Gulf. With this change, the Trump administration is attempting to uphold the pretense that its interventions in the Middle East serve US foreign-policy goals, even when they undermine those goals.

As long as the US remains mired in “endless wars” in the Middle East, it will be unable to address in a meaningful way the threat China poses. Trump was supposed to know this. And yet, his administration’s commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific seems likely to , while the cycle of self-defeating American interventionism in the Middle East appears set to continue.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Toward an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times

In his second term, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to initiate a new practice on New Year’s Day: To discuss a shared vision of peace and prosperity in India’s subregion, Modi on Jan. 1 telephoned leaders of all neighboring nations other than his country’s two adversaries, China and Pakistan.

Modi’s exclusion of India’s two closely aligned neighbors that routinely flout international norms was intended to underscore the threat to regional peace from their growing axis. China, for example, kicked off the new year (and the new decade) by launching a major combat exercise along the Himalayan border with India, deploying its lightweight Type 15 tank, a new 155-mm howitzer, and other weapons from the Tibetan capital of “Lhasa to border defense frontlines.”

China’s challenge to norms and rules, of course, extends across the Indo-Pacific region.

For example, China’s recent aggressive move in the waters off Indonesia’s northern Natuna Islands that Beijing claims are its “traditional fishing grounds,” as well as the ongoing Chinese coercion against Vietnamese hydrocarbon exploration within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone, exemplify China’s expansionism in the South China Sea. That sea constitutes a critical missing link in the “free and open Indo-Pacific” (FOIP) strategy of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

How can the Indo-Pacific region be free and open if its most-important sea corridor, which links the Indian and Pacific oceans, is neither free nor open? China continues to incrementally extend its control in this critical corridor.

The Trump administration’s FOIP policy held great promise when it was unveiled by the president in a speech at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in November 2017 in the Vietnamese beach resort of Danang. The FOIP policy was seen as a much-needed successor to the U.S. Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia, which failed to take concrete shape.

The broadening of the U.S. policy focus to a wider region — the Indo-Pacific — was a response to the expanding ambitions of China, which, after building and militarizing artificial islands in the South China Sea, has started focusing on the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

The concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” was authored by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and embraced by India and the United States. India has been including the “free and open” phrase in joint statements with strategic partners.

For example, India, the world’s second-largest peninsula, and Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelagic state, last year identified a shared vision for “a free, open, transparent, rules-based, peaceful, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.” As U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Wong put it, “India as a nation has invested in a free and open order.”

Today, it has become imperative to build a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific order, free of coercion and open to unhindered navigation and overflight. Establishing such an order is the goal of the Australia-India-Japan-U.S. “Quad.” The Quad’s future, however, is linked to the U.S.-led FOIP strategy.

The Trump administration has still to provide strategic heft to its FOIP policy. It has defined the policy’s objectives but is still searching for the effective means to achieve the ends. Indeed, like Tokyo, Washington no longer refers to its FOIP vision as a “strategy.” Without strategic content, the U.S.-led FOIP policy is unlikely to yield meaningful results.

In this light, there is a real risk that Trump’s FOIP policy, like Obama’s pivot to Asia, could fail to gain traction.

Indeed, as highlighted by Trump’s escalation of America’s conflict with Iran by taking out the powerful head of Iran’s Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. risks getting further mired in the Islamic world.

Soleimani, considered the most important person in Iran after Ayatollah Khamenei, was the first major foreign military leader the U.S. has killed since 1943, when it eliminated Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the supposed architect of the Pearl Harbor attack.

Trump may have won the first round against Iran, which retaliated weakly to the Soleimani assassination. But make no mistake: A second round seems inevitable.

In this light, developments in the Middle East could distract American policymakers and result in Trump’s FOIP policy — like Obama’s pivot to Asia — remaining more rhetorical than real. In fact, the pivot got lost somewhere in the arc stretching from the Middle East to Ukraine.

To be sure, Trump’s lasting legacy will be the paradigm change in America’s China policy — a shift that will outlast his presidency as it enjoys bipartisan support in Washington.

According to the philanthropist George Soros, “The greatest — and perhaps only — foreign policy accomplishment of the Trump administration has been the development of a coherent and genuinely bipartisan policy toward Xi Jinping’s China.”

The Trump administration has sought to primarily employ economic levers to rein in China, including through a gradual decoupling of the American and Chinese economies in key strategic sectors. However, it must also employ strategic levers, or else China’s territorial and maritime revisionism will remain untamed. Beijing has changed the South China Sea’s geopolitical map without firing a single shot or incurring any international costs.

U.S. leadership and resolve are essential to build a credible counter to Chinese expansionism. But the roles of the other major democracies are also important.

In this context, Abe’s postponement of his India visit due to unrest in the northeastern Indian state of Assam could only have pleased Beijing. A Modi-Abe summit in the Assamese capital of Guwahati, followed by the two leaders’ visit to a new peace museum in Manipur state that commemorates the Battle of Imphal between the Imperial Japanese Army and Allied forces during World War II, would have highlighted northeast India’s role as the bridge to the rest of Asia.

The Assam violence, although short-lived, will make already-wary Japanese companies more reluctant to invest in India’s remote northeast — to the delight of China, which doesn’t want any foreign investment or even multilateral lending going there. China actually claims an entire northeastern Indian state — Arunachal Pradesh, which is almost three times larger than Taiwan.

With private Japanese investors averse to taking risks, Japan must provide greater Official Development Assistance (ODA) loans in order to finance socioeconomic projects in India’s northeast. India, however, is already Japan’s largest ODA recipient. Japan has the distinction of being the only foreign power that has been allowed to undertake projects in India’s sensitive northeast, as well as in that country’s strategic Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Against this background, an Indo-Pacific concert of democracies isn’t on the horizon. But if democratic powers leverage their bilateral and trilateral partnerships to generate progress toward such a concert of democracies, the vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific may be achievable in the years ahead.

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

© The Japan Times, 2019.

The Illusion of a Rules-Based Global Order

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

International law today is powerful against the powerless, and powerless against the powerful. As long as this is true, a rules-based global order will remain a fig leaf for the forcible pursuit of national interests.

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When the Cold War ended, many pundits anticipated a new era in which geo-economics would determine geopolitics. As economic integration progressed, they predicted, the rules-based order would take root globally. Countries would comply with international law or incur high costs.

Today, such optimism looks more than a little naive. Even as the international legal system has ostensibly grown increasingly robust – underpinned, for example, by United Nations conventions, global accords like the 2015 Paris climate agreement, and the International Criminal Court – the rule of force has continued to trump the rule of law. Perhaps no country has taken more advantage of this state of affairs than China.

Consider China’s  in the Mekong River, which flows from the Chinese-controlled Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. By building 11 mega-dams near the border of the Tibetan Plateau, just before the river crosses into Southeast Asia, China has irreparably damaged the river system and wreaked broader environmental havoc, including saltwater intrusion in the Mekong Delta that has caused the delta to retreat.

Today, the Mekong is running at its lowest level in 100 years, and droughts are intensifying in downriver countries. This gives China powerful leverage over its neighbors. And yet China has faced no consequences for its weaponization of the Mekong’s waters. It should thus be no surprise that the country is building or planning at least eight more mega-dams on the Mekong.

China’s actions in the South China Sea may be even more brazen. This month marks the sixth anniversary of the country’s launch of a massive land-reclamation program in the highly strategic corridor, which connects the Indian and Pacific oceans. By constructing and militarizing artificial islands, China has  the region’s geopolitical map without firing a shot – or incurring any international costs.

To be sure, in July 2016, an international arbitral tribunal set up by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague ruled that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea lacked legitimacy under international law. But China’s leaders simply disregarded the ruling, calling it a “farce.” Unless something changes, the United States-led plan to establish a “free and open Indo-Pacific” will remain little more than a paper vision.

China’s open contempt for the PCA’s ruling stood in sharp contrast with India’s response to a 2014 ruling by a PCA-established tribunal awarding Bangladesh nearly 80% of 25,602 square kilometers (9,885 square miles) of disputed territory in the Bay of Bengal. Although the decision was split (unlike the South China Sea tribunal’s unanimous verdict) and included obvious flaws – it left a sizable “gray area” in the bay – India accepted it readily.

In fact, between 2013 and 2016 – while the Philippines-initiated proceedings on China’s claims in the South China Sea were underway – three different PCA-established tribunals ruled against India in disputes with Bangladesh, Italy, and Pakistan. India complied with all of them.

The implication is clear: for large and influential countries, respecting the rules-based order is a choice – one that China, with its regime’s particular character, is unwilling to make. Against this background, Vietnam’s possible legal action on its own territorial disputes with China – which has been interfering in Vietnam’s longstanding oil and gas activities within its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea – is unlikely to amount to much. Vietnam knows that China will ignore any ruling against it and use its trade leverage to punish its less powerful neighbor.

That is why an enforcement mechanism for international law is so badly needed. Disputes between states will always arise. Peace demands mechanisms for resolving them fairly and effectively, and reinforcing respect for existing frontiers.

Yet such a mechanism seems unlikely to emerge anytime soon. After all, China is not alone in violating international law with impunity: its fellow permanent members of the UN Security Council – France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the US – have all done so. These are the very countries that the UN Charter entrusted with upholding international peace and security.

Nowadays, international law is powerful against the powerless, and powerless against the powerful. Despite tectonic shifts in the economy, geopolitics, and the environment, this seems set to remain true, with the mightiest states using international law to impose their will on their weaker counterparts, while ignoring it themselves. As long as this is true, a rules-based global order will remain a fig leaf for the forcible pursuit of national interests.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Japan’s RCEP Dilemma

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Brahma Chellaney, The Japan Times 

India’s pullout from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), like the earlier U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), has created a dilemma for Japan. But whereas Japan took the lead to establish the TPP without the United States, Tokyo does not desire a RCEP without India because it would create a China-led trading bloc.

The 16-nation RCEP was supposed to establish the world’s largest trading bloc covering half of the global population. But India’s withdrawal from the RCEP has undercut that objective. It now seems likely that China would dominate the RCEP, which is set to be opened for signature next year.

The other 15 participating countries in November concluded text-based negotiations and sent the agreement to the legal scrubbing team for cleanup. A joint statement following the conclusion of the negotiations in Bangkok said, “India has significant outstanding issues, which remain unresolved. All RCEP participating countries will work together to resolve these outstanding issues in a mutually satisfactory way. India’s final decision will depend on satisfactory resolution of these issues.”

Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama told his Indian counterpart, Piyush Goyal, last week in New Delhi that Japan was ready to take the lead to help resolve the “outstanding issues” so that India can rejoin the RCEP.

The main factor behind India’s pullout from the RCEP was China, which Harvard’s Graham Allison has called “the most protectionist, mercantilist and predatory major economy in the world.” At a time of slowing Indian economic growth, India’s entry into the RCEP could exacerbate the country’s problems by opening the floodgates to the entry of cheap Chinese goods.

China, while exploiting India’s rule of law to engage in large-scale dumping and other unfair practices, keeps whole sectors of its economy off-limits to Indian businesses, including India’s $181-billion information technology industry. Beijing has also dragged its feet on dismantling regulatory barriers to the import of Indian agricultural and pharmaceutical products.

Since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, China’s trade surplus with India has more than doubled to over $60 billion annually. Modi’s 2015 removal of China as a “country of concern,” instead of encouraging major foreign direct investment (FDI) from that country, has only spurred greater dumping.

In the list of countries with which China has the highest trade surpluses, India now ranks second behind America. China’s surplus with the U.S., of course, is massive. But as a percentage of total bilateral trade or as a percentage of national gross domestic product (GDP), India’s trade deficit with China is greater than America’s. India’s trade deficit with China in 2018 accounted for 2.2% of its GDP.

China’s unfair trade practices are systematically undermining Indian manufacturing and competitiveness, with the result that Modi’s vaunted “Make in India” initiative has yet to seriously take off. In fact, China’s annual trade surplus with India is significantly larger than India’s total defense spending, underscoring the extent to which India is underwriting Chinese hostility.

India already has free trade agreements (FTAs) with 12 of the other 15 RCEP participating countries, and is negotiating an FTA with Australia. The main beneficiary of India’s entry into the RCEP would be Beijing, because it would effectively establish a China-India FTA via the backdoor.

The two “informal” summits Chinese President Xi Jinping has held with Modi since April 2018 have yielded little progress on the trade, border and political issues that divide the world’s two most-populous countries. Indeed, at the second summit, held in the Indian coastal town of Mamallapuram about two months ago, Xi sought to rope India into the RCEP in an effort to shield his country’s burgeoning trade surplus with New Delhi.

When the Mamallapuram summit concluded, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said, “President Xi has assured us that India’s concerns over the RCEP will be duly discussed. Although both Modi and Xi emphasized on the importance of having a rules-based global trading system, the Indian prime minister clarified to China that a deal should be balanced and equitable. China said it has heard India’s concerns and has agreed that there are still issues that need addressing.”

At the summit, Modi agreed to the holding of talks between the Chinese vice premier and the Indian finance minister over India’s lopsided trade relationship with China. The Indian commitment represented a diplomatic win for Beijing, allowing it to initiate what it is good at — endless negotiations, as its 38-year-long border talks with India illustrate. Ever since the talks to settle the border disputes began in 1981, China has taken India round and round the mulberry bush.

However, barely three weeks after the summit, India pulled out of the RCEP. And the bilateral trade talks that were agreed upon at the summit have yet to begin.

Let’s be clear: Unlike most other participating countries in the RCEP, India is not an export-driven economy. Rather, like the U.S., it is an import-dependent economy whose growth is largely driven by domestic consumption.

The U.S. and India have big trade deficits in goods with the rest of the world. Through bilateral or trilateral trade deals, they can leverage outsiders’ access to their huge markets to help shape trade norms and practices. This is already the approach of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Make no mistake: India needs to become more competitive in its own right, because no barrier can be high enough to protect it from China’s trade prowess. But it also true that India cannot become more competitive without curbing China’s dumping and other rapacious trade practices.

Against this background, Japan has a challenging task to get India back into the world’s largest free-trade arrangement. Whenever Prime Minister Shinzo Abe undertakes his postponed visit to India, he will seek to impress on Modi that India’s — and Japan’s — interests in the Indo-Pacific region would be better served with New Delhi being part of the RCEP.

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, 2019.

America’s Feeble Indo-Pacific Strategy

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US President Donald Trump’s administration wants to build a rules-based and democracy-led order in the Indo-Pacific, but seems to have no idea how. If it doesn’t find the answer soon, and imbue its Asia policy with strategic heft, constraining Chinese aggression will only become more difficult.

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BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

HANOI – With the global geopolitical center of gravity shifting toward Asia, a pluralistic, rules-based Indo-Pacific order is more important than ever, including for America’s own global standing. So it was good news when, two years ago, US President Donald Trump began touting a vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific, characterized by unimpeded trade flows, freedom of navigation, and respect for the rule of law, national sovereignty, and existing frontiers. Yet, far from realizing this vision, the United States has allowed Chinese expansionism in Asia to continue virtually unimpeded. This failure could not be more consequential.

Like Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia, the concept of a free and open Indo-Pacific hasn’t been translated into a clear policy approach with any real strategic heft. On the contrary, the US has continued to stand by while China has broken rules and conventions to expand its control over strategic territories, especially the South China Sea, where it has built and militarized artificial islands. China has redrawn the geopolitical map in that critical maritime trade corridor without incurring any international costs.

To be sure, the US has often expressed concern about China’s activities, including its ongoing interference in Vietnam’s oil and gas activities within that country’s own exclusive economic zone. More concretely, the US has stepped up its freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea, and engaged with the region’s three largest democracies – Australia, India, and Japan – to hold “quadrilateral consultations” on achieving a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific. Though the “Quad” has no intention of forming a military grouping, it offers a promising platform for strategic maritime cooperation and coordination, especially now that its consultations have been elevated to the foreign-minister level.

Yet there is no guarantee the Quad will fulfill that promise. While the grouping has defined vague objectives – such as ensuring, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has put it, that “China retains only its proper place in the world” – it has offered little indication of how it plans to get there.

America’s wider Indo-Pacific strategy has the same problem. The Trump administration wants to build a rules-based and democracy-led regional order, but seems to have no idea how. And instead of trying to figure that out, it has placed strategic issues on the back burner – for example, it downgraded its participation in the recent Asia-Pacific summits in Bangkok – and focused on bilateral trade deals.

Not surprisingly, this approach has done nothing to curb China’s territorial revisionism, let alone other damaging Chinese policies, including its appalling violations of the human rights of the Uighur ethnic group in Xinjiang. The Chinese government has reportedly detained more than a million Muslims, mostly Uighurs, in so-called reeducation camps – the largest mass incarceration on religious grounds since World War II.

Although a bipartisan US commission recommended sanctions over these internment camps last year, the Trump administration only recently imposed export and visa restrictions on camp-linked entities and officials, respectively. China expressed anger at the decision, insisting that its actions in Xinjiang are intended to “eradicate the breeding soil of extremism and terrorism,” but it is unlikely to be deterred by the relatively restrained US measures.

The Trump administration has also shown caution in its implementation of the Taiwan Travel Act and the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, both of which were enacted last year. Bipartisan legislation intended to support the people of Hong Kong, who have been protesting China’s increasingly blatant violations of their rights under the “one country, two systems” regime for months, is likely to face a similar fate.

China has vowed to retaliate if the US enacts the new laws, including one that would require the Secretary of State to certify each year whether Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous” to justify its special trading status. More broadly, Chinese President Xi Jinping has warned that anyone “attempting to split China” will end up with “crushed bodies and shattered bones,” and “any external forces backing such attempts” will be “deemed by the Chinese people as pipe-dreaming.”

That mentality – reinforced by years of breaking rules with impunity – will not be changed by economic measures alone. Yet economic measures remain Trump’s weapon of choice. While US sanctions and tariffs have exacerbated China’s economic slowdown, thereby undermining its ability to fund its expanding global footprint, real progress will also require strategic maneuvers These would send a clear message to both China and America’s regional allies.

Such a message is crucial because even the Quad members that were supposed to serve as the pillars of free and open Indo-Pacific have lately been hedging their bets on the US. Japan – whose prime minister, Shinzo Abe, originated the concept – has quietly dropped the term “strategy” from its policy vision for the Indo-Pacific. Australia has forged a comprehensive strategic partnership with China. And Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently hosted Xi.

The longer the US fails to act as a convincing counterweight to China, the more strategic space Xi will have to pursue his neo-imperialist agenda, and the less likely he will be to submit to US pressure, economic or otherwise. To prevent that, the US must provide strategic weight to its Indo-Pacific policy, including by establishing a clear plan for resisting China’s efforts to alter the status quo in the South China Sea. If the US oil company ExxonMobil exits Vietnam’s largest gas project, as seems likely, this will become even more urgent, given China’s interest in shutting extra-regional energy firms out of the South China Sea.

Trump once described Obama’s South China Sea strategy as “impotent.” But today, it is Trump’s approach to Chinese expansionism that looks weak. As China’s aggression continues to increase, that impotence will only become more apparent – and more damaging.

Brahma ChellaneyBrahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2019.

Stuck in a haze: New Delhi’s smog is the cost of environmental neglect

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Brahma Chellaney, The Globe and Mail

Just as German Chancellor Angela Merkel reached New Delhi last week on a state visit, noxious smog blanketed the Indian capital, forcing a shutdown of schools for five days and a temporary ban on construction activity and millions of private vehicles. Indeed, Ms. Merkel’s two-day visit coincided with the declaration of a public health emergency in the city, prompting her to pitch for green urban transportation, including electric buses.

New Delhi’s buses are already green: They run on compressed natural gas. The city’s seasonal smog problem, which comes with cooler temperatures and slower winds in the post-monsoon period, is largely linked to a deleterious agricultural practice in nearby states — after harvest, farmers burn crop stubble to clear their fields.

The fumes from the stubble burnings mix with New Delhi’s vehicle emissions, construction dust and smoke from fireworks set off during Diwali, the festival of light. This creates an annual toxic haze that lingers for days or even weeks, partly due to topography. The cool air with its pollutants gets trapped by the hills that surround the Indian capital on three sides.

At the beginning of this month, New Delhi had the dubious distinction, in terms of the air quality index (AQI), of topping the list of the world’s most-polluted capital cities, with levels of deadly particulate matter reaching multiple times the global safety threshold. The opaque haze reduced visibility to such an extent that even some planes could not land at the international airport.

Add to the picture the gloom and doom on which Indian newspapers and opposition politicians thrive, which made the smog situation appear worse. “Capital Punishment,” screamed the front-page banner headline in the Hindustan Times, a leading English-language newspaper. The Indian capital’s chief minister, Arvind Kejriwal, who belongs to a small regional party, claimed the city had turned into a “gas chamber.”

Since Tuesday, New Delhi’s AQI has significantly improved following light showers and strong breeze. (Wind, rain and snow act as pollution scrubbers.) More rain fell on Thursday. With the thick haze dissipating, a blue sky is again visible daytime and the moon at night. But the city’s environmental crisis is far from over.

Commercially available satellite imagery shows many crop-burning fires still raging in parts of northern India, especially Punjab state. This means air pollution levels remain high in the agricultural regions and cities of northwestern India.

Burning of crop stubble has long been an expedient way for Asian farmers to prepare fields for the next crop. While China has employed its authoritarian system in recent years to forcefully crack down on this polluting practice, thereby significantly reducing Beijing’s air contamination, democratic India has failed to stop the crop-stubble burnings.

Farmers, constituting the largest voting constituency in numbers, are politically powerful in India. State governments have recoiled from levying fines on stubble-burning farmers.

India’s Supreme Court this week ordered state governments to incentivize an end to stubble burnings by doling out cash rewards to farmers that do not burn their fields. “It has become a question of life and death for the common people,” the justices said while seeking accountability from federal and state governments over the smog.

The modest dole-outs the highest court has recommended, however, might not suffice to end the stubble-burning practice. Authorities also need to encourage farmers to buy machinery that helps turn stubble into mulch. This means subsidizing their machinery purchases.

Here’s the paradox: An environmentally conscious Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who initiated a “Clean India” campaign soon after coming to office in 2014, confronts a smog problem that has become acute on his watch.

India is one of the few countries trying to ban single-use plastic items. It has implemented a complete ban on import of plastic waste. And to control air pollution in New Delhi, a nearby coal-fired plant was shut down last year and the use of private vehicles restricted to alternating days during the pollution season, with cars with odd-number license plates allowed to drive only on odd dates and cars with even-numbered plates on even-numbered dates.

More fundamentally, New Delhi’s recurrent smog problem underscores the mounting costs India is paying for years of environmental neglect. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, India has the majority of the world’s most polluted cities, a fact that holds important consequences for public health in the country.

The WHO defines health as not merely the absence of disease or infirmity but a state of complete physical, social and mental well-being. A sound natural environment is central to such well-being.

The Indian establishment, with its ostrich-like mindset, acts only when a problem turns into a crisis. As a result, the deteriorating air quality in New Delhi and other major northwestern Indian cities has became a national crisis, drawing international attention and affecting the flow of tourists to India.

In fact, unprecedented pressures on natural resources and ecosystems are triggering a broader range of adverse environmental impacts. Rapid development, breakneck urbanization, large-scale irrigated farming, lifestyle changes and other human impacts have resulted in degraded watersheds, watercourses and other ecosystems, as well as in shrinking forests and swamps. The illicit diversion of sand from riverbeds for the construction boom has damaged rivers and slowed the natural recharge of aquifers.

To be sure, India’s environmental challenges mirror those of many other developing countries, from Mexico and Peru to Indonesia and the Philippines. The imperative to develop environmentally friendly policies and practices, however, transcends the developing world. Wealthier countries with disproportionally large environmental footprints — from the United States to Australia — also need to embrace environmental protection in earnest.

Environmental protection, in the long run, is cheaper than environmental cleanup and restoration. If India’s national planners were more forward-looking, the country could avoid repeating the mistakes of other countries, instead of investing resources in tackling air, soil and water pollution and other environmental degradation. The degradation adversely affects climate, ecosystems, biodiversity and public health.

The fact that China’s environmental-contamination problems are worse than India’s, despite Beijing’s improved air quality, can give Indian authorities no comfort. As the world’s factory floor and largest exporter, including of coal-fired power plants, China is exacerbating the global environment crisis. India, with a services-led, import-dependent economy that relies largely on domestic consumption for growth, can scarcely defend its levels of air, soil and water pollution.

India needs a more holistic and integrated approach to development that places environmental protection at the center of strategic planning. Without such an approach, the linkages between a healthy natural environment and human health could trap India in a vicious cycle in which environmental degradation contributes to public health issues, and vice versa.

The New Delhi smog is a reminder that human health is inextricably linked to nature’s wealth, which we must cherish and protect.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground.”

© The Globe and Mail, 2019.