Engagement over Antagonism

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Sanctions alone will not curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. A healthy dose of diplomacy is needed too.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review, February 27-March 5, 2017

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For North Korea, reeling under severe United Nations sanctions, conducting missile tests has become a regular expression of political defiance and technological progress. Just last year, showing its continuing contempt for UN resolutions, it tested almost two dozen missiles, including a submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Yet its first missile test since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election in November has been speciously portrayed as a major challenge to the new administration in Washington, with some analysts like ex-CIA chief James Woolsey even calling North Korea the top national security problem at present.

The fact is that the Feb. 12 test did not involve a long-range ballistic missile, which North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had said in his New Year’s Day speech was almost ready for launch. The fired missile, which traveled 500km, was just a medium-range type that Pyongyang has tested multiple times in different variants. And although North Korea said the test involved a new missile model with a solid fuel-powered engine — a technological advance that facilitates mobility and rapid launch — this is not the country’s first solid-fueled missile. As Pyongyang admits, the new surface-to-surface missile is based on its solid-fueled submarine-launched ballistic missile.

Lost in the alarmism over the new missile is the fact that the test occurred just after Trump called North Korea a threat. Kim had been on good behavior ever since Trump’s unexpected election triumph, hoping that the new American president would adopt a fresh tack, in keeping with what Trump had said during the campaign — that he would be willing to meet with the North Korean leader over a hamburger.

Kim — the world’s youngest head of state — tested a nuclear device, purportedly a hydrogen bomb, two days before his Jan. 8 birthday in 2016. International media speculated that this year Kim would celebrate his birthday by testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, although he had referred to a long-range missile, not an ICBM, in his New Year’s Day speech. Kim, however, delayed his first missile test since Trump’s victory until much later — conducting it less than 36 hours after Trump, in a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House, said that “defending against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat” was “a very, very high priority” for him.

Trump’s tempered response to the missile test drew cynical comments from critics citing his bombastic Jan. 3 tweet. Relying on misleading media reports that Kim had threatened to test an ICBM, Trump posted on Twitter: “North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!” Truth be told, North Korea is far from developing an ICBM, as the latest missile test underscores.

Still, Trump is being publicly advised to ratchet up military pressure on Pyongyang, prompting him to declare: “Obviously, North Korea is a big, big problem, and we will deal with that very strongly.”

BIG-PICTURE ISSUES  

The debate on how to tame North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions should not obscure the larger issues involved. Three key matters stand out.

Firstly, the sanctions-only approach toward North Korea spearheaded by the United States has been a conspicuous failure, encouraging Pyongyang to rapidly advance its nuclear and missile programs. With little to lose, North Korea has responded to heavy sanctions by testing nuclear devices in 2006, 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016. It has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the world to conduct nuclear tests in the 21st century. North Korea has also considerably enhanced its missile capabilities, though they remain subregionally confined in range.

Sanctions without engagement have never worked. In the North Korean case, the sanctions-only approach has done exactly the opposite of its intended goal — instead of halting or retarding nuclearization, slapping on additional sanctions after every major test has only egged Pyongyang on.

Secondly, Kim has repeatedly signaled that he wants his internationally isolated nation to escape from the clutches of its millennial rival, China. Significantly, he has not visited China since assuming power in 2011, although paying obeisance in Beijing was customary for his father and grandfather, who ruled before him.

Mao Zedong famously said China and North Korea were as close as lips are to teeth. But when China last March joined hands with the U.S. to approve the toughest new U.N. sanctions in two decades against North Korea, it highlighted its virtually ruptured relationship with Pyongyang.

At a time when China’s state media has accused Kim of pursuing “de-Sinification” and seeking improved ties with the U.S. and Japan, the fatal poisoning of Kim’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport has increased the sense of alarm and frustration in Beijing. Kim Jong Nam, a reputed playboy with residences in Beijing and Macau, was a virtual Chinese pawn against Kim.

Yet, oddly, Washington has attempted to push Kim further into the Chinese dragnet, instead of seizing on the opportunity created by his desire to unlock frozen ties with America. Some U.S. scholars have even suggested a grand bargain with Beijing on North Korea. Given that North Korea has sought direct engagement with Washington to offset Chinese leverage over it, nothing is more galling to Pyongyang than U.S. efforts to use Beijing as a diplomatic instrument against it. In effect, American policy has handed Beijing the North Korea card to play against South Korea, Japan and the U.S. itself.

In truth, China is already putting the squeeze on North Korea, especially since that country carried out its most powerful nuclear test last September. But its enforcement of U.N. sanctions in a controlled way has failed to change Kim’s calculus. Beijing, of course, values North Korea as a buffer state and does not want a reunified and resurgent Korea allied with Washington, because that will open a new threat, including bringing American troops to China’s border. Make no mistake: Chinese and American interests diverge fundamentally.

And thirdly, the U.S. has no credible military option against North Korea. Any military strikes to degrade the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities will provoke Pyongyang to unleash its artillery-barrage power against the South, triggering widespread destruction and a full-fledged war involving America. The planned U.S. deployment in South Korea of the anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD — which has never been battle-tested — is no real answer to North Korea’s nuclearization or to the North’s artillery choke-hold on Seoul. China, with some justification, sees the THAAD plan as essentially directed against it.

If there is any credible U.S. option to deal with Pyongyang, it is to give diplomacy a chance, with the goal of forging a peace treaty with the North to formally end the Korean War — which has officially been in a state of cease-fire since 1953. Denuclearization should be integral to the terms of such a peace treaty. But if denuclearization is made the sole purpose of engagement with the North, diplomacy will not succeed. President Barack Obama’s administration simply refused to talk unless Pyongyang first pledged to denuclearize. The North’s only leverage is the nuclear card, which it will not surrender without securing a comprehensive peace deal.

When repeated rounds of tight sanctions not only fail to achieve their objectives but counterproductively trigger opposite effects, the need for a new approach becomes inescapable.

Through a carrot-and-stick approach of easing some sanctions and keeping more biting ones in place, diplomacy can, by persisting with what will be difficult and tough negotiations, clinch a deal to end one of the world’s longest-lingering conflicts and eliminate weapons of mass destruction.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

China’s Debt-Trap Diplomacy

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A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

If there is one thing at which China’s leaders truly excel, it is the use of economic tools to advance their country’s geostrategic interests. Through its $1 trillion “one belt, one road” initiative, China is supporting infrastructure projects in strategically located developing countries, often by extending huge loans to their governments. As a result, countries are becoming ensnared in a debt trap that leaves them vulnerable to China’s influence.

Of course, extending loans for infrastructure projects is not inherently bad. But the projects that China is supporting are often intended not to support the local economy, but to facilitate Chinese access to natural resources, or to open the market for low-cost and shoddy Chinese goods. In many cases, China even sends its own construction workers, minimizing the number of local jobs that are created.

Several of the projects that have been completed are now bleeding money. For example, Sri Lanka’s Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, which opened in 2013 near Hambantota, has been dubbed the world’s emptiest. Likewise, Hambantota’s Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port remains largely idle, as does the multibillion-dollar Gwadar port in Pakistan. For China, however, these projects are operating exactly as needed: Chinese attack submarines have twice docked at Sri Lankan ports, and two Chinese warships were recently pressed into service for Gwadar port security.

In a sense, it is even better for China that the projects don’t do well. After all, the heavier the debt burden on smaller countries, the greater China’s own leverage becomes. Already, China has used its clout to push Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand to block a united ASEAN stand against China’s aggressive pursuit of its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Moreover, some countries, overwhelmed by their debts to China, are being forced to sell to it stakes in Chinese-financed projects or hand over their management to Chinese state-owned firms. In financially risky countries, China now demands majority ownership up front. For example, China clinched a deal with Nepal this month to build another largely Chinese-owned dam there, with its state-run China Three Gorges Corporation taking a 75% stake.

As if that were not enough, China is taking steps to ensure that countries will not be able to escape their debts. In exchange for rescheduling repayment, China is requiring countries to award it contracts for additional projects, thereby making their debt crises interminable. Last October, China canceled $90 million of Cambodia’s debt, only to secure major new contracts.

Some developing economies are regretting their decision to accept Chinese loans. Protests have erupted over widespread joblessness, purportedly caused by Chinese dumping of goods, which is killing off local manufacturing, and exacerbated by China’s import of workers for its own projects.

New governments in several countries, from Nigeria to Sri Lanka, have ordered investigations into alleged Chinese bribery of the previous leadership. Last month, China’s acting ambassador to Pakistan, Zhao Lijian, was involved in a Twitter spat with Pakistani journalists over accusations of project-related corruption and the use of Chinese convicts as laborers in Pakistan (not a new practice for China). Zhao described the accusations as “nonsense.”

In retrospect, China’s designs might seem obvious. But the decision by many developing countries to accept Chinese loans was, in many ways, understandable. Neglected by institutional investors, they had major unmet infrastructure needs. So when China showed up, promising benevolent investment and easy credit, they were all in. It became clear only later that China’s real objectives were commercial penetration and strategic leverage; by then, it was too late, and countries were trapped in a vicious cycle.

clipboard01Sri Lanka is Exhibit A. Though small, the country is strategically located between China’s eastern ports and the Mediterranean. Chinese President Xi Jinping has called it vital to the completion of the maritime Silk Road.

China began investing heavily in Sri Lanka during the quasi-autocratic nine-year rule of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and China shielded Rajapaksa at the United Nations from allegations of war crimes. China quickly became Sri Lanka’s leading investor and lender, and its second-largest trading partner, giving it substantial diplomatic leverage.

It was smooth sailing for China, until Rajapaksa was unexpectedly defeated in the early 2015 election by Maithripala Sirisena, who had campaigned on the promise to extricate Sri Lanka from the Chinese debt trap. True to his word, he suspended work on major Chinese projects.

But it was too late: Sri Lanka’s government was already on the brink of default. So, as a Chinese state mouthpiece crowed, Sri Lanka had no choice but “to turn around and embrace China again.” Sirisena, in need of more time to repay old loans, as well as fresh credit, acquiesced to a series of Chinese demands, restarting suspended initiatives, like the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City, and awarding China new projects.

Sirisena also recently agreed to sell an 80% stake in the Hambantota port to China for about $1.1 billion. According to China’s ambassador to Sri Lanka, Yi Xianliang, the sale of stakes in other projects is also under discussion, in order to help Sri Lanka “solve its finance problems.” Now, Rajapaksa is accusing Sirisena of granting China undue concessions.

By integrating its foreign, economic, and security policies, China is advancing its goal of fashioning a hegemonic sphere of trade, communication, transportation, and security links. If states are saddled with onerous levels of debt as a result, their financial woes only aid China’s neocolonial designs. Countries that are not yet ensnared in China’s debt trap should take note – and take whatever steps they can to avoid it.

Obama’s legacy: More war than peace

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Obama’s regime-change policy, like Bush’s, showed that the United States has the “reverse Midas Touch” — whatever it touches turns to chaos.

 

BY The Japan Times

 

What is the foreign policy legacy of Barack Obama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize not for his accomplishments as U.S. president but for the expectations that his presidency aroused? Obama is receiving glowing tributes from many Democrats and establishment commentators for his record in clinching deals like the Paris climate change agreement, the nuclear accord with Iran and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But these deals are already under threat from his successor, Donald Trump.

More significant is the fact that even many of his supporters believe, as Nobel committee secretary Geir Lundestad has written in his memoir, that the Nobel prize to him was “a mistake.” The Nobel committee awarded Obama the prize less than nine months after he assumed office in the hope that he would be fundamentally different from President George W. Bush, whose invasion and occupation of Iraq created a failed state.

The paradox is that Obama, the supposed peacemaker, turned out to be a mirror image of Bush on foreign policy.

To set himself apart from Bush’s aggressive “hard power” approach, Obama campaigned to become president on a foreign policy platform of “smart power.” Yet in office, Obama relied heavily on raw power, waging serial military campaigns from Somalia and Yemen to Iraq and Syria and initiating “targeted killing” of even U.S. citizens with suspected ties to terrorism.

Obama championed “a nuclear-free world” only to quietly pursue an extensive expansion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, already the world’s costliest and most sophisticated.

Indeed, if one disregards his softer tone in comparison with Bush’s strident rhetoric, Obama’s record shows him to be even more interventionist than Bush. Last year, for example, the United States, according to an analysis of military data, dropped more than 26,000 bombs in seven countries. This happened under a president who, while deploring the ethos of “might makes right,” told the United Nations that “right makes might.”

In truth, Obama, like Bush, paid little heed to international law — or even American law — when it came in the way of his overseas military operations.

For example, Obama did not seek U.N. or U.S. congressional authorization before launching an air war in Syria. In fact, he speciously justified his bombing campaign in Syria by relying on the unrelated congressional authority that Bush secured to go after those who “planned, authorized, committed or aided” the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The 2011 U.S.-led operation against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi began as a supposed humanitarian mission, only to quickly turn into a regime-change exercise, whose success quickly bred chaos and mayhem in Libya. Although goaded into the Libyan operation by his hawkish secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, Obama will be remembered in history for demolishing Libya in the same way that Bush unraveled Iraq. The collapse of the Libyan state has created a jihadist citadel at Europe’s southern doorstep.

Obama’s CIA-led regime-change operation in Syria, although unsuccessful, contributed to plunging another secular Muslim autocracy into jihadist upheaval.

Obama indeed presided over the birth of the most potent terrorist organization in modern history — Islamic State — which still controls large tracts of territory in Syria and Iraq even 29 months after Obama began an air war against it. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has admitted, the Obama team viewed the rise of IS as a possibly useful development to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, only to see it grow into a monster.

Flush with his success in overthrowing Gadhafi — an operation that involved orchestrating an Islamist insurgency in Benghazi city and then launching a NATO aerial-bombardment campaign in the name of “responsibility to protect” — Obama turned his attention to toppling Assad. The main IS force was born in Syria out of the CIA-trained, petrodollar-funded “moderate” rebels who crossed over with their weapons to the hydra-headed group.

The rise of IS represented just the latest example of how successive U.S. presidents since the 1980s have been fighting the consequences of their own shortsighted policies. The U.S. has first trained and armed nonstate combatants in breach of international law, calling them “freedom fighters” or “the opposition.” Then it has branded the same militants as “extremists” and “terrorists” and waged war on them. This was the story of al-Qaida, made up largely of CIA-trained “freedom fighters” who, led by Osama bin Laden, turned on the U.S.

U.S. presidents, however, rarely learn from history, one of whose lessons is that the U.S. possesses, as one U.S. analyst has said, “the reverse Midas Touch” — whatever it touches “turns to mayhem.” Obama’s own creation of “moderate” rebel forces to topple Gadhafi has badly backfired, destabilizing not just Libya but also some other states in the Maghreb and the Sahel. Obama’s legacy also includes millions of uprooted Syrian, Libyan and Iraqi refugees, many of whom have flocked to Europe.

Stuck in the old paradigm, Obama did not seek to alter the geopolitical framework governing U.S. foreign policy. For example, to save America’s long-standing alliance with the Persian Gulf’s jihad-bankrolling Islamist monarchs, the Obama administration helped the oil monarchies, even the most tyrannical, to ride out the Arab Spring.

Obama did not change even the Bush-era Afghanistan strategy to use inducements — from billions of dollars in aid to the supply of lethal weapons — to prod the Pakistani military to go after the Haqqani network and get the Afghan Taliban to agree to a peace deal. With Washington clinging to a failed Pakistan policy, the longest war in U.S. history still rages in Afghanistan.

Obama’s legacy will clearly be defined as more war than peace. Obama embraced drone attacks with such alacrity — authorizing 506 known strikes, compared with the 50 strikes under Bush — that he was dubbed “the drone president.” By dramatically boosting U.S. weapon exports, Obama also distinguished himself as the greatest arms exporter since World War II.

From torture and drone strikes to regime change, Obama’s troubling legal legacy, however, is no different than Bush’s. In fact, both Obama and Bush dramatically expanded the executive branch’s power and authority in the realm of national security, including waging war.

During Obama’s tenure, as during Bush’s, the world not only became less peaceful but also America’s relative decline appeared to intensify. For example, in handling China — America’s principal long-term geopolitical rival — Obama’s policy unmistakably advertised U.S. weakness, including allowing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea to go scot-free.

Unlike Russia, which despite its continued decline has remained the top concern of the Washington elites, China sees itself as superior to the rest of the world and seeks to regain its fabled “Middle Kingdom” status.

Ominously, Obama has handed down to Trump more theaters of war than he inherited from Bush. Add to the picture the deep political polarization in America over Trump’s election and the threat the establishment perceives from Trump’s out-of-the-box thinking on several sensitive subjects — from Russia and NATO to trade and the “one-China” policy.

Rarely before has a president assumed office in a major democracy with the deep state and mainstream media so unwelcoming to him. If critics succeed in crimping Trump’s presidency, Obama’s legacy will look better than the actual record.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist.

© The Japan Times, 2017.

Nepal’s water curse

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Nepal needs bridge over troubled waters

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People ride on a boat to reach the bank of the Rapti River at Sauraha in Chitwan, south of Kathmandu. © Reuters

By Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

Nepal sits on vast water resources. The United Nations describes the landlocked Himalayan state as “one of the Asian countries with the highest level of water resources per inhabitant.” Water can potentially be to Nepal what oil is to Arab sheikhdoms.

Nepal’s renewable water resources are estimated at 7,372 cubic meters per capita annually, or several times higher than those for the two demographic titans between which it is sandwiched — China and India. Yet Nepal, oddly, seems afflicted by a water curse. A failure to adequately harness water resources has left the nation acutely energy-starved, and water shortages are endemic in major Nepalese cities, including the capital, Kathmandu.

Meanwhile, as it increasingly becomes a theater of geopolitical competition between China and India, Nepal is tilting more toward Beijing and away from India, its main partner through the centuries. China, blending economic and security policies, is steadily making strategic inroads. Beijing’s latest deal with Nepal to build another largely Chinese-owned dam there highlights its growing success in clinching major infrastructure contracts in India’s backyard to advance its foreign policy and commercial interests.

Had India tried to secure a contract to set up a largely Indian-owned dam in Nepal, it would likely have faced a nationalistic backlash. Maoists, communists and nationalists in Nepal portray India as a regional hegemon and have seriously impeded its hydropower development plans. China, however, does not face such opposition in communist-dominated Nepal. This helps to explain why the new deal over the planned 750-megawatt West Seti Dam is not the first Chinese hydropower project in the country.

China, through construction projects by Chinese state-run companies and large loans to finance them, is quietly enlarging its presence in and leverage over the increasingly indebted Nepal, which risks becoming its client state. Already, Beijing has used its clout to push Nepal to crack down on Tibetans traveling through Nepal to India, where the Dalai Lama is based.

While dressing its investments in the cloak of economic aid, China is imposing stiff commercial terms on Nepal, plus taking majority project ownership upfront. For example, its state-run China Three Gorges Corporation has picked up a 75% stake in the West Seti Dam project.

Nepal holds up to 83,000 megawatts of hydropower reserves, which, if tapped partially, can make it a major exporter of electricity. By harnessing the natural bounty of the Himalayas to produce renewable electricity, Nepal could emulate the success of Bhutan in generating the hydro dollars to fuel its rapid economic development. Small Bhutan has effectively turned its rich water resources into “blue gold,” achieving the highest per capita income in South Asia.

Power shortages

Nepal, however, produces barely 800 megawatts of electricity for its 30 million citizens from all sources of energy, with the result that long power outages are common even in Kathmandu. Nepal controls the headwaters of, or serves as the corridor for, several rivers that flow into India, yet it imports electricity from that country.

As opposed to China’s water megaprojects at home, smaller and ecologically friendly projects in the Himalayas — if properly planned and designed and conforming to thorough and impartial environmental impact assessments — can yield major benefits without carrying significant environmental and social costs. Environmentally sound hydropower is particularly attractive because, despite the high upfront capital costs, a hydropower plant has a life span almost double that of a nuclear power reactor and generates electricity with no fuel cost.

India, as the subcontinent’s largest energy consumer, has sought to incentivize a subregional energy grid. Yet the vast majority of its own Himalayan hydropower projects have been delayed, suspended or shelved, largely due to grass roots opposition.

India has employed water collaboration as a tool of its diplomacy with Nepal and Bhutan. In Bhutan, India has subsidized the development of environmentally friendly hydropower by providing 60% of the investment for each project as a grant and the remaining amount as a low-interest loan. The projects have helped power Bhutan’s success story.

By contrast, the political dividends from Indo-Nepalese water cooperation have declined over the years, partly because of political constraints in Nepal and partly because India has not been sensitive to Nepalese concerns. Several joint projects have either not been completed or failed to live up to their promise, leaving a troubled legacy that has increasingly weighed down bilateral cooperation.

Bangladesh has actively sought the start of water projects in Nepal to augment the lean-season flows of the Ganges River at Farakka, the critical downriver point where the waters are equally shared between India and Bangladesh under a 1996 treaty. The treaty — which coincided with the 25th anniversary of Bangladesh’s Indian-assisted independence — has set a new principle in international water law by guaranteeing delivery of specific water quantities to downstream Bangladesh in the critical dry season.

Hundreds of rivers, some them originating in Tibet, crisscross Nepal. The country has five major river basins, from the Mahakali in the west to the eastern Kosi. All its river systems empty into the Ganges basin in India. Nepal is also rich in groundwater resources in the southern plains along its long border with India.

Resource curse

Whereas countries afflicted by what development economists call the “resource curse” find it difficult to break out of slow rates of economic growth and high levels of income inequality, despite relying on major exports of natural resources, Nepal’s water curse has come without exploiting its resource reserves for its own needs, let alone exporting hydropower.

No less significant is the fact that Nepal has several water treaties with India but none with China, which has dammed the Karnali River just before it enters Nepal. China is also planning to build a cascade of five dams on the upper reaches of the Arun River. The construction of that cascade, by diminishing flows into the Ganges, could potentially affect India’s Ganges water-sharing arrangement with Bangladesh.

Nepal’s water curse has been compounded by severe political turmoil for the past quarter century. It remains today in a politically shaky position — wracked by underdevelopment, poverty, poor governance and lawlessness and increasingly divided by its murky politics.

The sorry state of affairs in Nepal has seriously hampered its hydropower and irrigation expansion, even though progress in these areas is essential to obtain much-needed revenue and development and to help tame the transboundary rivers that often overrun their banks in Nepalese and Indian areas during the monsoons.

Indeed, the integrated development of the Ganges basin demands trilateral institutional collaboration between the three basin states — Nepal, India and Bangladesh — with cooperation extending to energy, transit and port rights. However, the entry of a non-basin state, China, is muddying the waters. Both through its unilateral dam-building activities in Tibet on the rivers that flow to Nepal, India and Bangladesh, and its entry in the Nepalese hydropower sector, China is compounding the challenges of regional integration.

Breaking the water curse is critical to Nepal’s future. While the mighty Himalayas separate it from Chinese-ruled Tibet, Nepal is tied to India by geography, including multiple shared river basins. Water cooperation with India and Bangladesh can help harness the waters of the common rivers for shared benefit.

But if Nepal remains battered by political turmoil, it risks becoming a failed state — a development that will carry major security implications for India, given the open Indo-Nepalese border that permits passage without documentation or registration.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

The World According to the Donald

COVER STORY/Open Magazine/20 January 2017

c2m-2a9viaak-teBy Brahma Chellaney

New US President Donald Trump’s geopolitical focus on China and Islamic radicalism meshes well with Indian strategic priorities. But will his administration add real strategic content to a vaunted ‘strategic partnership’ with New Delhi whose most-prominent feature is the emergence of India as a leading client of the American armament industry?

Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, undoubtedly advanced the relationship with India. But it is also true that Obama compounded India’s regional security challenges, both by emboldening China through his meekness toward Beijing and by bolstering China’s ‘contain India through Pakistan’ strategy. While refusing to take sides in the China-India territorial disputes, the Obama administration actually strengthened China’s strategy to box in India by extending munificent US aid to Pakistan, thus encouraging that country to continue to sponsor cross-border terrorism with impunity.

Whether the Trump administration will contribute positively or negatively to India’s regional interests hinges fundamentally on the geopolitical framework that will guide its foreign policy.

Trump ran an election campaign that challenged American diplomacy’s longstanding principles and shibboleths, turning his party’s own establishment against him. This might suggest that his foreign-policy approach would represent a break from the past.

The fact, however, is that the institutional policymaking structure in the US is much stronger than, say, in India. Therefore, it is not easy for a president to break with well-established policies that have been pursued by presidents belonging to both parties. Moreover, the approach and direction of an American president’s foreign policy becomes apparent only after his first year in office.

For example, Obama’s coming to power created high anticipation globally of significant changes in the American foreign-policy approach, with the expectations being strengthened when he surprisingly was awarded the Nobel peace prize less than nine months after assuming office. Yet Obama proved to be as interventionist as any president before him. The chaos in Libya that he sowed through regime change will be remembered—like President George W. Bush’s unravelling of Iraq—as one of his imprints on history.

India needs to play a more active role in influencing policy in Washington. New Delhi has not tried to persuade the US to end its policy of mollycoddling Pakistan by leveraging India’s defence imports from America or by utilising the services of the large and increasingly influential American Indian community.

Obama came to office vowing to end the Bush-era wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The war in Afghanistan (the longest war in American history) still rages. Obama ended the war in Iraq, only to start a new one there and in Syria. He presided over the birth of a terrorist organisation more potent that Al Qaeda—the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIS, ISIL or Islamic State. In 2016, Obama’s last year in office, the US dropped more than 26,000 bombs in seven countries, according to one assessment.

By getting the US embroiled in more conflicts, Obama has bequeathed to Trump a Middle East more violent and less stable than the one Obama inherited from Bush in 2009.

Faced with major international challenges, Trump has signalled his intent to revamp American foreign policy so that he can concentrate on his main priority—comprehensive domestic renewal, the central pillar of his promised strategy to “make America great again”. He has also indicated his desire to reverse the interventionist, regime-change policy that successive American presidents have followed since the early 1950s, when the CIA successfully plotted the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

Trump’s determination to boost US job growth by eliminating critical roadblocks, including unfair competition from Chinese manufacturers, has set the stage for a tougher American policy on trade. This is also apparent from those he has named to key positions, especially Robert Lighthizer, his nominee for trade representative, Wilbur Ross, his choice to become commerce secretary, and Peter Navarro, the head of the new White House office overseeing trade and industrial policy.

Trump’s trade-related nationalism is linked to the perception that trade liberalisation has contributed to America’s relative decline. For Trump, trade is one area where he must deliver on his campaign promises or risk losing his credibility with the blue-collar constituency that helped him defeat Hillary Clinton.

No country faces a bigger challenge from Trump’s ascension to power than China, which has been flexing its military and economic muscles more strongly than ever. After the Obama administration’s obsequious stance, Beijing must brace up and face an assertive new national security and economic team in Washington that is unlikely to put up with its covert territorial expansion and trade manipulation.

China will likely bear the brunt of Trump’s trade-related nationalism at a time when its economy is slowing despite the state heavily providing fiscal and monetary stimulus. By contrast, the impact on India will be marginal because the fallout will largely be limited to the H-1B visa issue. Trump’s tougher stance on trade with China is unlikely to be deterred by the spectre of a trade war for the simple reason that Beijing is already waging an economic war against major economies.

While subsidising its exporters, China has quietly but systematically been blocking imports. The Obama administration’s announcement last April that China had agreed to scrap export subsidies on some products, mainly agricultural items and textiles, drew scepticism in the international markets because the deal did not cover major exports, including steel. It also left intact other forms of state support to the Chinese industry.

Trump seems willing to call a spade a spade and adopt a tougher and less predictable line toward Beijing, with his choice to become secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, going to the extent of saying that China should be denied access to the artificial islands that it has created in the South China Sea.

China exports $4 worth of goods to the US for each $1 of imports. Its trade with India is even more skewed: It exports nearly $6 worth of goods for each $1 of imports. This mismatch, largely due to the systematic dumping of goods, has allowed China to rapidly double its trade surplus with India to $60 billion just on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s watch. China’s bilateral trade surplus with the US, of course, is bigger and is equal to about 3 per cent of its entire economy.

The Trump team has clarified that the president is not against free trade but against unfair trade. If China can slap Mongolia with punitive tariffs for merely allowing the Dalai Lama to undertake a purely religious tour, will it be unreasonable for the Trump administration to penalise China likewise for unashamedly distorting free trade?

Of course, the implications for China extend beyond trade. After all, Trump has signalled an imperative to recalibrate America’s foreign policy by shifting its geopolitical focus from Russia—a declining power with a sharply contracting economy—to the increasingly muscular and openly revisionist China. Unlike Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, China’s territorial revisionism, as illustrated in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, is creeping and incremental yet relentless. Also unlike Russia, China sees itself as superior to the rest of the world and seeks to regain its fabled ‘Middle Kingdom’ status.

Abandoning the longstanding US fixation on Moscow and concentrating instead on the more potent, long-term challenge from China makes eminent sense for the Trump administration. In the global geopolitical competition between the US and China, Washington should seek to ensure that Russia stays neutral, if not on America’s side. However, the Obama administration did the opposite—forcing Moscow to pivot to China.

In the Obama era, China’s defiant unilateralism remained cost-free. Indeed, in the dying days of the Obama administration, China rushed more missiles to its man-made islands in the South China Sea, where, on Obama’s watch, it built seven islands and militarised them in an attempt to annex a strategically crucial corridor through which half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes.

But now Trump seems willing to call a spade a spade and adopt a tougher and less predictable line toward Beijing, with his choice to become secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, going to the extent of saying that China should be denied access to the artificial islands that it has created in the South China Sea. While Obama remained virtually mum on China’s creeping aggression in the South China Sea, Tillerson has called it “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” and favoured a strategic payback.

Will Trump try ‘madman diplomacy’ to tame a renegade Pakistan? The plain fact is that only coercive US diplomacy can help break the Pakistan military establishment’s cosy ties with terrorist groups, some of which are among the most dangerous.

China prefers quiet diplomacy, a setting that allows it to play its cards shrewdly. But Trump’s approach is completely different, as is apparent from his statement that, “Everything is under negotiation including One China.” That America’s ‘one-China’ policy since the 1970s is no holy cow for Trump was also apparent earlier from his conversation with Taiwan’s president by telephone. Trump has also turned his Twitter feed into a twenty-first-century version of the bully pulpit, repeatedly castigating Beijing for refusing to play by the rules. President Xi Jinping and his coterie in Beijing are at a loss on how to handle Trump.

Those analysts concerned about Trump’s deal-making approach tend to forget that US foreign policy, essentially, has always been transactional in character. Trump wants to clinch good deals for the US, just as the leader of any nation ought to do.

Another Trump priority is waging war against radical Islamic militancy before it turns into a global jihadist movement. Trump, however, cannot deliver credible or enduring counterterrorism results without disciplining Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other oil sheikhdoms that continue to export Islamic radicalism. US foreign policy has had a longstanding alliance with Arab monarchs that has continued even as these cloistered royals bankroll Islamic militant groups and in other countries. Trump will also need to abandon the failed US policy on Pakistan that his immediate two predecessors pursued since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

Had Hilary Clinton won the presidency, we would likely have seen the continuation of America’s failed Pakistan policy, which has involved doling out billions of dollars in US military and civilian assistance to that quasi-failed country without seeking substantive results on the terrorism front. However, the only language Pakistan’s powerful generals understand is of the kind the US delivered right after 9/11 to bend Pakistan to its will. As former Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf has acknowledged in his memoir, he and his fellow generals genuinely believed that unless they met the Bush administration’s demands, they would be ‘bombed back to the stone ages’.

Against this background, as one American analyst has asked, will Trump try ‘madman diplomacy’ to tame a renegade Pakistan? The plain fact is that only coercive US diplomacy can help break the Pakistan military establishment’s cosy ties with terrorist groups, some of which are among the most dangerous in the world.

Yet in his written submissions to the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing process, Defence Secretary-designate James (‘Mad Dog’) Mattis pledged to build ‘trust’ with Pakistan ‘for an effective partnership’. This might suggest that America’s failed Pakistan policy would persist, even though this policy is the main reason why the US military is still stuck in the war in Afghanistan. Trump’s national security adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn, while serving as the US intelligence chief in Afghanistan, and Gen. Mattis, as CentCom chief, established close relations with the Pakistani military establishment. However, the direction of the Pakistan policy will likely be set by Trump himself, with the policy details left to the Cabinet members.

India needs to play a more active role in influencing policy in Washington. For example, it did little in response to Obama’s move nearly a year ago to reward Pakistan with eight more subsidised F-16s and hundreds of millions of dollars in additional aid under the Overseas Contingency Operations fund, which has been dubbed the ‘slush fund’. It was congressional opposition that stymied the planned transfer of additional F-16s. The blunt truth is that New Delhi has not tried to persuade the U.S. to end its policy of mollycoddling Pakistan by leveraging India’s defence imports from America or by utilising the services of the large and increasingly influential American Indian community.

As for Trump, he is already facing resistance to recalibrating US foreign policy from the deep state, which extends to a nexus between the intelligence agencies and major media organisations. To prevent any détente with Russia, powerful interests in Washington have gone to extraordinary lengths to undercut Trump, including by seeking to irreparably dent his image. This underscores the formidable challenge Trump faces to revamp foreign policy.

No president in living memory has taken office with America so politically polarised and divided and the deep state so unwelcoming as Trump, with the outgoing CIA chief actually blasting him on the eve of his inauguration. If Trump succeeds in recalibrating US foreign policy, including relating to China and Pakistan, he will set the stage for a true, robust and enduring partnership with India.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. © Open Magazine, 2016.

MOUNTAINS OF TROUBLE

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A bolder India could rein in China’s dangerous antics in Tibet

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review, January 23-29, 2017, pages 56-57

download-1While it has become fashionable to pair China and India as if they were joined at the hip, it is often forgotten that the two have little in common politically, economically or culturally.

Comparatively speaking, the countries are new neighbors. The vast Tibetan plateau, encompassing an area greater than Western Europe, separated the two civilizations throughout history, limiting interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts.

It was only after China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951 that Chinese army units appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers. This was followed 11 years later by a war in which China’s battlefield triumph sowed the seeds of greater rivalry.

Today, Tibet remains at the center of the China-India divide, fueling territorial disputes, diplomatic tensions and feuds over river-water flows. For example, Beijing was harshly critical of New Delhi in December for allowing the exiled Dalai Lama — who has lived in India since fleeing Tibet in 1959 — to visit the presidential palace for a public event and meet President Pranab Mukherjee, India’s head of state.

Further diplomatic protests from Beijing are expected in coming weeks when the Dalai Lama begins a religious tour of Arunachal Pradesh, a sprawling Indian state famous for its virgin forests and soaring mountain ranges. China claims the territory, which it has called “South Tibet” since 2006.

Tibet is an issue of relevance far beyond China and India. With its lofty terrain, featuring the world’s tallest mountain peaks and largest concentration of glaciers and riverheads, the Tibetan plateau influences atmospheric circulation — and therefore climate and weather patterns — across the northern hemisphere.

China has turned this resource-rich but ecologically fragile plateau into the center of its mining and dam-building activities. With the plateau warming at a rate nearly twice as fast as the rest of the world, glacial recession in the eastern Himalayas and the thawing of permafrost (permanently frozen ground) in Tibet are increasingly apparent.

Wedge issue

The environmental crisis haunting the plateau threatens the ecological well-being of multiple nations, including those dependent on the 10 major Asian river systems that originate on the Tibetan massif. But the environmental problems are dwarfed by political strains in the region.

China lays claim to vast tracts of Indian Himalayan land on the basis of purported Tibetan ecclesial or tutelary links. Tibet’s long shadow over China-India relations is also apparent from the Dalai Lama’s lengthy abode in the Indian hill resort of Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.

The fall of Tibet represented the most far-reaching geopolitical development in modern India’s history. It gave China borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal for the first time, and facilitated a Sino-Pakistan strategic axis by opening a common land corridor.

The impact has been exacerbated by Indian blunders that have compounded the country’s “China problem” and undercut its leverage. New Delhi was one of the first capitals to embrace the Mao Zedong-led regime in Beijing after the Chinese Communist Party seized power in 1949. But just months later, Mao began annexing the historical buffer of Tibet, eliminating India’s outer line of defense by 1951.

Led by Jawaharlal Nehru, a romantic who viewed China sympathetically as a fellow postcolonial state, India went on to surrender extraterritorial rights in Tibet inherited from the U.K., its former colonial master. It also acknowledged the “Tibet region of China,” without getting Beijing to recognize the existing Indo-Tibetan border. Ironically, the pact that recognized China’s rights in Tibet was named after the Tibetan Buddhist doctrine of Panchsheela, the five principles of peaceful coexistence.

Almost half a century later, India went further still, using the legal term “recognize” in a document signed by the heads of government of the two countries in 2003 that formally accepted Tibet as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

Dictating terms

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Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is helped by attending monks as he arrives at the inauguration of a four-day seminar in New Delhi, India on Dec. 9, 2016. © AP

Meanwhile, China has sought to crimp the Dalai Lama’s freedom within a democratic India. Initially, Beijing objected to official discussions between the Dalai Lama and foreign heads of state or government. But China has progressed over the years to protesting his presence at any state-linked event, and even his visits to other countries, such as a purely religious trip to Mongolia in November.

The New Delhi event that riled Beijing in December was organized for children’s welfare by Nobel laureates, a group that includes the Dalai Lama. Demanding that India respect China’s “core interests” and refrain from causing “any disturbance” to bilateral ties, China couched its protest in imperious terms. Instead of censuring Beijing for seeking to dictate terms to India, New Delhi responded almost apologetically that the meeting was a “non-political event.”

The more accommodative that India has become of China’s claims and concerns over Tibet, the more assertive Beijing has been in upping the ante. For example, in ratcheting up the Arunachal Pradesh issue in recent years, Beijing has contended that the region — almost three times larger than Taiwan — must be “reunified” with the Chinese state to respect Tibetan sentiment. The flimsy basis of its historical claim has been exposed by the Dalai Lama, who has publicly declared that Arunachal was never part of Tibet.

By bringing its Tibet position into alignment with China’s claim, India has not won Chinese gratitude; rather it has boosted Beijing’s clout and encouraged Chinese re-engineering of transboundary river flows, on which India is critically dependent.

According to Aquastat, a database maintained by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 718 billion cubic meters of surface water a year flows out of the Tibetan plateau and the Chinese regions of Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia to neighboring countries. Of that amount, 48.33% runs directly into India. In addition, Nepal’s Tibet-originating rivers drain into India’s Gangetic basin. So no country is more vulnerable than India to China’s current focus on building cascades of large dams on international rivers.

India can reclaim its Tibet leverage by emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet hinged on a grant of genuine autonomy to the region. Instead of autonomy, Tibet has experienced tightening political control and increasing repression, triggering grassroots desperation and a wave of self-immolations.

A braver Indian approach would include showing Tibet in its official maps in a different color from the rest of China and using expressions such as “the Indo-Tibet border,” instead of “the India-China border.” Using measures such as this, India can subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue without having to renounce formally any of its previously stated positions.

Whatever it does, India must not shy away from urging China to begin a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet. Having ceased to be a political buffer between China and India, Tibet can still become a political bridge between the world’s demographic titans if Beijing initiates a process of genuine reconciliation there to ease Tibetans’ feelings of estrangement. Otherwise, Tibet will remain at the core of the China-India divide.

India has played an important role in aiding the survival of Tibetan culture by funding Tibetan schools for the large number of Tibetan exiles it hosts. By recalibrating its Tibet policy, India could elevate Tibet as a strategic and environmental issue that impinges on international security and climatic and hydrological stability.

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

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2017.

Halting China’s free ride

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Trump won’t abide Obama’s fawning approach to trade.

By Brahma Chellaney, Washington Times

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President-elect Donald Trump ran an election campaign that challenged American diplomacy’s long-standing principles and shibboleths. Since his election triumph, Mr. Trump is already rewriting the rules of the presidency and signaling that his foreign policy approach will be unconventional.

Even before assuming office, Mr. Trump has moved away from President Obama’s foreign policy approach by staking out starkly different positions on several sensitive subjects, including China, Taiwan, Israel, terrorism and nuclear weapons. A Trump presidency may not bring seismic shifts in American policy but it is likely to lead to significant change in U.S. priorities, geopolitical focus and goals as well as in the tools Washington would be willing to employ to help achieve its desired objectives.

No country faces a bigger challenge from Mr. Trump’s ascension to power than China, which has been flexing its military and economic muscles more strongly than ever. After the Obama administration’s obsequious stance, Beijing must brace up and face an assertive new national security and economic team in Washington that is unlikely to put up with its covert territorial expansion and trade manipulation.

Mr. Trump has signaled a need to recalibrate foreign policy by shifting its geopolitical focus from Russia, a declining power with a contracting economy, to the increasingly muscular and openly revisionist China. Unlike Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, China’s territorial revisionism, as illustrated in the South China Sea and the Himalayas, is creeping and incremental yet relentless.

Mr. Trump’s focus on China and Islamic radicalism indicates that, far from retreating from Asia and the Middle East, America is likely to play a sharper, more concentrated role. For example, the U.S. military could carry out more significant reconnaissance and freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea to help deter Chinese aggression.

To countries bearing the brunt of China’s recidivist policies, the Obama administration’s reluctance to challenge Beijing forced several of them to tread with excessive caution around Chinese concerns and interests. A wake-up call came with Mr. Obama’s silence about the 2012 Chinese capture of the Scarborough Shoal, located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Washington did nothing in response to the capture, despite its mutual-defense treaty with the Philippines.

That inaction helped spur China’s frenzied creation of artificial islands in the South China Sea. In late 2013, when China unilaterally declared an air defense identification zone covering territories it claims but does not control in the East China Sea, Mr. Obama again hesitated, effectively condoning the action. And recently, his meek response to what Mr. Trump called “an unprecedented act” — China’s daring seizure of a U.S. underwater drone — advertised American weakness.

In the dying days of the Obama administration, an emboldened China is rushing more missiles to its man-made islands in the South China Sea, where, on Mr. Obama’s watch, it has built seven islands and militarized them in an attempt to annex a strategically crucial corridor through which half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes.

China has demonstrated that defiant unilateralism is cost-free — but it knows that its free ride is about to end, with Mr. Trump willing to adopt a tougher and less predictable line toward it. This is apparent from Mr. Trump’s suggestion, after taking a phone call from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, that a “one-China” policy is no sacred cow for him. Mr. Trump’s economic nationalism also holds greater implications for China than probably for any other country.

By subsidizing exports and impeding imports, China has long waged an economic war against other major economies. The Obama administration’s announcement last April of a deal under which China would scrap export subsidies on some products, largely agricultural items and textiles, drew skepticism in the markets because it did not cover major exports, including steel. It also left intact other forms of state support to the Chinese industry.

Mr. Trump is unlikely to give China a free pass on its trade manipulation. Trade is one area where Mr. Trump must deliver on his campaign promises or risk losing his credibility with the blue-collar constituency that helped propel him to victory. He is threatening to slap punitive tariffs on China for what he described during the campaign as “the greatest theft in the history of the world”.

Mr. Trump is unlikely to be deterred by the specter of a trade war with China for the simple reason that Beijing is already waging an economic war. In fact, Mr. Trump’s likely argument for a tough China stance will be that Beijing’s one-sided economic war must be halted. Such a policy approach is also apparent from some of his appointments, including economist Peter Navarro, the author of “Death By China,” “The Coming China Wars,” and “Crouching Tiger: What China’s Militarism Means for the Rest of the World.”

U.S.-China ties could be in for a rough patch for another reason: Mr. Trump could pivot to Asia in a way Mr. Obama did not. Mr. Obama’s failure to provide strategic heft left his Asia pivot unhinged.

To be sure, Mr. Trump is likely to face resistance to recalibrating U.S. foreign policy from two powerful lobbies in Washington — a large tribe of “panda huggers” and the old establishment figures who spent their formative years during the Cold War obsessing with the Soviet threat and now see Russian President Vladimir Putin as the epitome of evil.

Mr. Trump’s task is made more onerous by a mainstream media that remains hostile to him despite its epic failure to anticipate or predict the election outcome.

Still, a determined Donald Trump is likely to reorient U.S. foreign policy in potentially momentous ways.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.