Ensuring defiant unilateralism is not cost-free


BY The Japan Times

China has been expanding its frontiers ever since it came under communist rule in 1949. Yet no country dared to haul it before an international tribunal till the Philippines in 2013 invoked the dispute-settlement mechanism of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), thereby setting in motion the arbitration proceedings that this week resulted in the stinging rebuke of China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea.

The trigger for Manila approaching the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) was China’s capture in 2012 of Scarborough Shoal, located close to the Philippines but hundreds of miles from China’s coast. ITLOS then set up a five-member tribunal under The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to hear the case.

Despite strenuous Chinese efforts to dismiss and discredit the proceedings from the start, Beijing tried unsuccessfully to persuade the tribunal that it had no jurisdiction to hear the case. Last October, the tribunal said that it was “properly constituted” under UNCLOS, that the Philippines was within its rights in filing the case, and that China’s non-participation in the proceedings was immaterial.

Now in its final verdict delivered unanimously, the tribunal has dismissed Beijing’s claim that it has historic rights to much of the South China Sea and ruled that China was in violation of international law on multiple counts, including damaging the marine environment through its island-building spree and interfering with the rights of others.

The panel effectively declared as illegitimate China’s South China Sea boundary (the so-called nine-dash line).

It also held that China’s strategy of creating artificial islands and claiming sovereignty over them and their surrounding waters had no legal basis. In less than three years, China has built seven islands and militarized several of them in an attempt to annex a strategically crucial corridor through which half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes.

In the absence of a mechanism to enforce the ruling, Beijing, however, was quick to pour scorn on the verdict and brazenly declare that it would ignore a legally binding ruling.

Contrast China’s contempt for the landmark verdict with neighboring India’s ready acceptance of adverse rulings in recent years by similar PCA tribunals in two separate cases involving South Asian rows — India’s maritime-boundary dispute with Bangladesh and its Indus River-related dispute with Pakistan over a small dam project at Kishenganga. India deferentially accepted the verdicts and complied with them, although the Kishenganga ruling will affect all future Indian projects on the Indus and the other ruling has left a large “grey area” while delimiting the Bangladesh-India sea borders.

China’s disdain for the ruling shows that international law matters to it only when it can serve its own interests. Otherwise, international rules are bendable and expendable.

To be sure, China has never pretended that it believes in a rules-order order. This was apparent from its aggressive steps to enforce its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea — actions that the tribunal has now ruled violate international law.

Indeed, Beijing has sought to rely on a multinational proclamation that it has flagrantly breached — the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which it signed with the 10ASEAN states in 2002. While violating the declaration’s central commitment — to resolve “disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force” — Beijing has cited the declaration’s reference to the use of “friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned” to insist that any dispute can only be addressed bilaterally and not through international arbitration or adjudication.

Dispute settlement by peaceful means is essential to building harmonious interstate relations. However, Beijing’s dismissal of the tribunal’s ruling is in keeping with its broader opposition to settling disputes with its neighbors — from Japan and South Korea to India and tiny Bhutan — by means of international mediation, arbitration or adjudication.

Instead, China’s creeping aggression in Asia reflects a “might is right” strategy that aims to extend Chinese control to strategic areas and resources by altering the status quo. The strategy focuses on a steady progression of steps to create new facts on the ground by confounding and outwitting neighbors while avoiding a confrontation with the United States, which sees itself as a geographically non-resident power in Asia.

Through its furious reaction to the tribunal’s ruling, China is saying that it should be the judge in its own cause. More ominously, it is signaling its determination to stay on the course of unilateralism by settling matters militarily in the resource-rich South China Sea, which is larger than the Mediterranean and carries $5 trillion in annual trade.

The example Beijing is setting will not only be damaging to the law of the sea but is also likely to stoke serious tensions and insecurities in Asia, the world’s economic locomotive.

The South China Sea — a global trade and maritime hub — is critical to the contest for influence in the larger Indo-Pacific region extending from the Arabian Sea to Australia and Canada. As Beijing consolidates its power in the South China Sea by completing ports and airstrips and building up its military assets on man-made islands, the impact of its actions will extend beyond reducing ASEAN states to a tributary status and bringing resources under its tight control: Such consolidation will have a significant bearing on the wider geopolitics, balance of power, and maritime order.

Like-minded states thus must work closely together to defend the law of the sea by ensuring that defiant unilateralism is not cost-free. Unless China is made to realize that its future lies in cooperation and not confrontation, a systemic risk to Asian stability and prosperity is bound to arise, with far-reaching implications for the world.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

 © The Japan Times, 2016.

The U.S. needs to support Japanese constitutional reform


Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review, July 18, 2016

downloadJapan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has secured a rare opportunity for constitutional reform following the July 10 election for the upper house of the Diet, or parliament. His ruling coalition now has a supermajority in both houses. Yet he is right to tread cautiously on constitutional change. Since many Japanese remain wary of amending a constitution that is widely seen as having brought a long period of peace, the government would be hard pressed to win a national referendum on constitutional change — even if any proposed amendment passed both houses of the Diet with the required two-thirds majority.

If there is one factor that could help ease grassroots concerns and facilitate constitutional reform, it is American support for the process. This would help blunt criticism from Japan’s powerful pacifist constituency as well as from China, which equates any potential constitutional change with Japan’s remilitarization — even as Beijing frenetically builds up its own military might.

U.S. security interests would be better served by a more confident and secure Japan that assumes greater responsibility for its own defense and regional security. National security reforms in Japan are tied to constitutional reforms. Together, they would help strengthen the central goal of the U.S strategy for the Asia-Pacific — a stable balance of power.

Japan has been a model U.S. ally, hosting a large U.S. troop presence and contributing billions of dollars to support the costs of stationing those forces on its soil. The U.S. has said this assistance is “by far the most generous host-nation support” provided by any of the 27 allies with which Washington has defense treaties. Japan’s financial support is so significant that it is approximately equivalent to the U.S. annual budget for maintaining domestic military bases — a fact that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump seemed unaware of when he said Tokyo should pay more.

Because of Japanese generosity, it is cheaper for the U.S. to have its troops stationed in Japan than back home. In fact, Tokyo recently agreed to marginally increase its host-nation support after initially seeking to cut its contribution to help reduce Japan’s massive public debt.

More important, the alliance with Japan remains central to the U.S. role in Asia, including maintaining a forward military presence. However, the U.S. faces major new challenges in the region due to the rise of an increasingly assertive China – best symbolized by Beijing’s rejection of the July 12 international tribunal ruling that knocked the bottom out of its expansive sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. China’s creeping aggression in Asia reflects a “might makes right” strategy designed to extend Chinese control to strategic areas and resources — from the East China Sea to the Himalayas.

In this light, peace in Asia demands a proactive Japan. The issue Japan faces is not whether it should remain pacifist, since it is unlikely to discard pacifism, but whether it can afford to stay passive in regional and international affairs. A Japan that is better able to defend itself and to cooperate with friendly Indo-Pacific countries to forestall a destabilizing power disequilibrium in Asia would truly become a “proactive contributor to peace” — a concept popularized by the Abe government.

A weaker defense alliance

If Tokyo, however, fails to carry out further reforms of its postwar institutions and policies to meet the new challenges in Asia, it could not only weaken its own security but also the role of the U.S.-Japan strategic alliance.

By drafting and imposing a constitution after World War II, the U.S. created the problem that Japan now confronts — how to cast off the constitutional albatross. The U.S. must seek to be part of the solution so that Japan, in keeping with American interests, plays a proactive role in Asian affairs and does more for its own defense. Japan can play this role within the framework of its longstanding security treaty with Washington.

It has been largely forgotten that Supreme Allied Commander Douglas MacArthur made his occupation staff hastily write the Japanese constitution in just one week so that it would be ready to coincide with the U.S. national holiday celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12, 1946. However, it did not come into force until May 1947. No national constitution in the world goes so far as Japan’s in barring the acquisition of the means of war or to renounce “the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” A defeated Germany escaped Japan-like constitutional fetters because by the time its constitution, or Basic Law, was drafted in 1949, the Cold War was in full swing.

It did not take long for the U.S. to realize that it went too far in defanging Japan when it disbanded its military and imposed the world’s first pacifist constitution. After the Korean War, through a major legal reinterpretation of the constitution it had imposed, the U.S. encouraged Japan to reconstitute its military as “Self-Defense Forces” to make the country the lynchpin of its Asian strategy.

The Japanese constitution suffers from inherent flaws. For example, it defines no head of state, having stripped the emperor, then Hirohito, of all but symbolic power. Article 1 defines the emperor’s position as “the symbol of the state and of the unity of the people,” while Article 3 declares he “shall have no governmental powers, nor shall he assume nor be granted such powers.”

This was deliberate. The U.S. wanted to have the emperor merely serve as the symbol of Japan so that Washington could use him to win public support for the U.S. occupation between 1945 and 1952, while denying him powers to oppose it. Likewise, the force-renouncing Article 9 was designed to keep Japan as an U.S. client state, while depriving it of the ability to ever mount another Pearl Harbor-style attack against the U.S. But today, U.S. security interests would be better served by a militarily stronger Japan.

Another anomaly is the absence of constitutional protection for the Japan Self-Defense Forces, 62 years after they were established, despite popular support for the military. By renouncing “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes,” the constitution has imposed an impractical fetter from which Japan will have to break free to defend itself from any aggression, as Abe has said.


In truth, Japanese pacifism has been made possible not so much by the constitution as by the fact that Japan is under U.S. security protection. Pacifism, however, has coexisted with contradictory trends. For example, Japan has denounced nuclear weapons and consistently called for a world without them, yet welcomed the nuclear umbrella provided to it by the U.S. Japan has kept its military forces out of combat but has endorsed U.S. military interventions around the world, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 2011 regime change in Libya.

But Japan’s constitutional fundamentalists regard the constitution as sacrosanct, as if it were religious scripture, and oppose any change, even though the U.S. has ratified six amendments to its own constitution since it drafted the Japanese charter. At the other end of the spectrum are Japanese who seek a new constitution. They want Asia’s oldest liberal democracy and one that has not fired a single shot since World War II to frame a new constitution anchored in its own values and traditions.

By placing a high bar to the enactment of any amendment, the Japanese constitution is among the hardest in the world to revise. Just 35% of Japanese support constitutional revision, according to a poll conducted by the Yomiuri Shimbun.

Against this background, only open U.S. support for constitutional reform can make a meaningful difference. It will allay public concerns among the Japanese, with only 23% wanting their country to play a more active role in regional affairs, according to a 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center. Another survey in 2014 revealed that just 15% of Japanese, compared with almost 75% of Chinese, were willing to defend their country — the lowest figure in the world.

Unlike China, Japan is not a revisionist power. Rather, its strategic priorities converge with U.S. regional goals, including maintaining the present Asian political and maritime order to ensure a regional power equilibrium and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The U.S., in its own interest, should back constitutional reform in Japan, which has not sent a single soldier into combat since 1945 — a record of pacifism surpassing even that of Germany.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield); he is currently a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2016.

China’s Challenge to the Law of the Sea


A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

imae SCS

China has been trying to bully its way to dominance in Asia for years. And it seems that not even an international tribunal in The Hague is going to stand in its way.

China has rebuffed the landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which knocked the bottom out of expansive Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea and held that some of the country’s practices were in violation of international law. Recognizing that there is no mechanism to enforce the PCA’s ruling, China does not intend to give even an inch on its claims to everything that falls within its unilaterally drawn “nine-dash line.”

Clearly, China values the territorial gains – which provide everything from major oil and gas reserves to fisheries (accounting for 12% of the global catch) to strategic depth – more than its international reputation. Unfortunately, this could mean more trouble for the region than for China itself.

China is not just aiming for uncontested control in the South China Sea; it is also working relentlessly to challenge the territorial status quo in the East China Sea and the Himalayas, and to reengineer the cross-border flows of international rivers that originate on the Tibetan Plateau. In its leaders’ view, success means reducing Southeast Asian countries to tributary status – and there seems to be little anyone can do to stop them from pursuing that outcome.

Indeed, China’s obvious disdain for international mediation, arbitration, or adjudication essentially takes peaceful dispute resolution off the table. And, because none of its regional neighbors wants to face off with the mighty China, all are vulnerable to Chinese hegemony.

To be sure, China does not seek to dominate Asia overnight. Instead, it is pursuing an incremental approach to shaping the region according to its interests. Rather than launch an old-fashioned invasion – an approach that could trigger a direct confrontation with the United States – China is creating new facts on the ground by confounding, bullying, and bribing adversaries.

To scuttle efforts to build an international consensus against its unilateralism, China initiates and maintains generous aid and investment arrangements with countries in need. In the run-up to the arbitration ruling, China used its clout to force the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to retract a joint statement critical of its role in the South China Sea.

Of course, the potential of China’s bribery and manipulation has its limits. The country has few friends in Asia, a point made by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter’s warning that China is erecting a “Great Wall of Self-Isolation.” The Chinese foreign ministry responded by citing support for its positions from distant countries such as Sierra Leone and Kenya.

But in a world where domination is often conflated with leadership and where money talks, China may not have all that much to worry about. Consider how rapidly normal diplomatic relations with China were restored in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Already, criticism of China’s territorial grabs focuses on dissuading its leaders from further expansionary activities, rather than on forcing it to vacate the seven reefs and outcroppings it has already turned into nascent military outposts in the South China Sea. The international community may not like what China has done, but it seems willing to accept it.

That reality has not been lost on China, which was emboldened by the absence of any meaningful international pushback against two particularly audacious moves: its 2012 seizure of Scarborough Shoal, just 120 nautical miles from the Philippines, and its establishment in 2013 of an air-defense identification zone (ADIZ) over areas of the East China Sea that it does not control. Since then, China’s leaders have ramped up their island-building spree in the South China Sea considerably.

Though the Philippines did fight back, invoking the dispute-settlement provision of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), its efforts seem unlikely to yield much. On the contrary, China could now double down on its defiance, by establishing an ADIZ in the South China Sea – a move that would effectively prohibit flights through the region without Chinese permission. Given that China has already militarized the area, including by building radar facilities on new islets and deploying the 100-kilometer-range HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, it is well positioned to enforce such an ADIZ.

China’s defiance of the PCA’s ruling will deal a crushing blow to international law. As French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said recently, if UNCLOS is openly flouted in the South China Sea, “it will be in jeopardy in the Arctic, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere tomorrow.” Given that international law is crucial to protect smaller states by keeping major powers in check, the immediate question is what happens when simmering tensions with China’s Asian neighbors – and with the US – finally boil over.

Mao Zedong famously asserted that, “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” We might like to think that we’re better than that, or that the world has progressed beyond naked coercion by great powers. But, as China’s actions suggest, the essence of geopolitics has not changed. The bullies still run the schoolyard.

© 1995-2016 Project Syndicate.


« La montée du capitalisme autoritaire », principal défi pour les démocraties



« Comme le montre l’exemple spectaculaire de la Chine, devenue puissance mondiale en l’espace d’une seule génération, le modèle du capitalisme autoritaire représente le premier défi direct à la démocratie libérale depuis la montée du nazisme (Photo : le président chinois Xi Jinping et Vladimir Poutine, le 25 juin, à Pékin). SPUTNIK / REUTERS

Par Brahma Chellaney (Professeur d’études stratégiques au Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, Inde

LE MONDE | 08.07.2016

L’un des plus profonds changements des dernières décennies aura été la montée du capitalisme autoritaire en tant que modèle politico-économique, notamment dans les pays en développement. Ce modèle se définit comme un mélange de gouvernance autocratique et de capitalisme népotique contrôlé par l’Etat.

Entre 1988 et 1990, alors que la guerre froide s’éteignait peu à peu, des manifestations pro-démocratie ont éclaté dans différentes régions du monde, depuis la Chine jusqu’à la Birmanie en passant par l’Europe orientale. Ces mouvements ont contribué à propager les libertés politiques dans cette dernière région et ont renversé ailleurs dans le monde des dictatures dans des pays aussi divers que l’Indonésie, la Corée du Sud, le Chili et Taïwan.

A la suite de la désintégration de l’Union soviétique, la Russie elle-même a paru être un candidat crédible aux réformes démocratiques. Le renversement de ces régimes totalitaires ou autocratiques a modifié le rapport de force mondial en faveur des courants démocratiques.

Plus d’un quart de siècle après la chute du mur de Berlin, force est de constater que l’avancée mondiale de la démocratie est bloquéePourtant, tous les mouvements pro-démocratie n’ont pas été couronnés de succès. Les « révolutions de couleur » ont renforcé la méfiance des régimes autoritaires qui avaient survécu, les incitant à mettre en place des contre-mesures. Plus d’un quart de siècle après la chute du mur de Berlin,…


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Jihadism: What Goes Around, Comes Around


Brahma Chellaney

Orlando-624x415In the wake of the worst gun rampage in American history, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub, was radicalized online, saying he had been “inspired by various extremist information that was disseminated over the internet.” While that may be partly true, the Orlando shooter’s jihadist indoctrination can actually be traced to his father, Seddique Mir Mateen, a local guerrilla commander in the U.S.-backed jihad against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The elder Mateen, an asset to the Central Intelligence Agency, was rewarded with permanent residency in the United States, where Omar was born. With the father presenting himself over the years as an Afghan émigré leader and building close ties with some U.S. government officials and lawmakers, the Federal Bureau of Investigation failed to stop Omar from carrying out the shootings despite interviewing him three times since 2013 on suspicion of terrorist links.

The U.S. debate on the Orlando massacre has focused on the killer’s troubled life and sexual orientation but missed the bigger picture. The real issue centers on the spreading jihadism that is inspiring a spate of terrorist attacks in the world, from Europe (Brussels and Paris) and Asia (Pathankot and Jakarta) to the U.S. (San Bernardino and Boston).

Stemming the spread of the Islamist ideology, which has fostered “jihad factories” and threatens the security of countries as diverse as the U.S. and China, holds the key to containing terrorism.

This demands two things. The first is finding ways to stop the religious-industrial complexes in the Persian Gulf from exporting Wahhabism, a messianic, jihad-extolling form of Sunni fundamentalism that promotes, among other things, the subjugation of women and the death of “infidels.” The cloistered royals in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and elsewhere continue to fund Muslim extremist groups and madrasas in other countries.

Their export of Wahhabism has not only snuffed out more liberal Islamic traditions in many countries, but has also created the wellspring that feeds extremism and terrorism. Wahhabi fanaticism, in fact, is the ideological mother of modern terrorism.

The other imperative is for the U.S. to learn lessons from its role — indirect and direct — in aiding jihadism over the years in pursuit of narrow geostrategic objectives in some regions. China’s love for pariah regimes is well known and has extended to building cozy ties with the Taliban when that medieval militia was in power in Kabul. But how does the U.S. explain its troubling ties with Islamist rulers and groups?

These ties were cemented in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan used Islam as an ideological tool to spur jihad to oust the invading Soviet “infidels” from Afghanistan. Through a covert program of unparalleled size, the CIA trained and armed thousands of guerrillas from Afghanistan and elsewhere to establish a multinational Sunni fighting force with Arab petrodollars and the help of Pakistan’s rogue, military-run Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

Some U.S. allies, including al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Mohammed Omar, later became America’s nemeses. Supping with the devil is always fraught with grave risks for peace and security.

Indeed, it is America’s allies of convenience — both state and non-state — that over the years have come to haunt the security of Western and non-Western democracies alike.

In the second half of the Cold War, the U.S. tacitly encouraged Saudi Arabia to export Wahhabism as an antidote to communism and the 1979 anti-American Shia revolution in Iran. Developments since the end of the Cold War show that Wahhabi fanaticism is the root from which the world’s leading Islamist terrorist groups — such as ISIS, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Laskar-e-Taiba, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab — draw their ideological sustenance.

Although the U.S.-Saudi alliance has come under strain of late, America has still to release a long-classified section of a 2002 congressional report that discusses a possible Saudi government role in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the U.S., in which 15 of the 19 passenger jet hijackers were Saudi citizens. Before the approaching 15th anniversary of 9/11, the U.S. would do well to lift the secrecy of the so-called 28 pages. There is no reason why the truth should still be suppressed.

More broadly, the spread of jihadism underscores the imperative for major powers to focus on long-term goals rather than short-term objectives. The need for caution in training Islamic insurgents and funneling lethal arms to them to help overthrow a regime is highlighted by the current chaos in and refugee exodus from Syria and Libya, which now rival Pakistan and Afghanistan as international jihadist citadels.

In fact, the recent terror strikes in the West suggest they are a blowback from the interventionist policies of some powers that have helped unravel fragile states like Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. Several Muslim countries, including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan, have become de facto partitioned, while Jordan and Lebanon face a similar threat.

The surge of Islamist terrorism is a reminder that jihad cannot be geographically confined to a targeted nation, however distant, as the examples of Afghanistan, Syria and Libya indicate. In fact, no state, due to foreign intervention, has unraveled and become a terrorist haven faster than Libya.

Against this background, containing the spread of the jihad virus is a difficult challenge. The Orlando shootings show how the American-born offspring of a former “holy warrior” who emigrated to the U.S. can imbibe violent extremism when the spirit of jihad runs in the family.

Or take the 2013 Boston Marathon attack case: Anzor Tsarnaev, the Chechen father of the two terrorists involved in the bombings, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, moved to America with his family with the help of his U.S.-based brother who had married the daughter of a former high-ranking CIA officer, Graham Fuller. An ex-CIA station chief in Kabul, Fuller was an architect of the Reagan-era “mujahedeen” war against Soviet forces.

Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev were radicalized in America. Similarly, the Paris and Brussels attackers — mainly European nationals of Middle Eastern or North African descent — developed their violent jihadist leanings in France or Belgium.

The fact that what goes around comes around is apparent also from the domestic jihadist threat now faced by jihad-exporting Saudi Arabia, which has bankrolled Islamist terrorism ever since the oil-price boom of the 1970s boosted the country’s wealth dramatically. Likewise, for another leading state sponsor of terrorism, Pakistan, the chickens are coming home to roost with a vengeance.

As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton publicly warned Pakistan that keeping “snakes in your backyard” was dangerous as “those snakes are going to turn on” it. This warning, however, was equally applicable to the U.S., Britain and France.

The three Western powers, instrumental in turning Libya into a battle-worn wasteland through a botched Hillary Clinton-championed regime change, continue to speciously distinguish between “moderate” and “radical” jihadists in Syria so as to aid the former, although those waging jihad by the gun can never be moderate. In fact, it is such aid that created the conditions for ISIS to emerge as a potent force.

The global war on terror, now almost a generation old, will never be won with treacherous allies, such as jihadist rebels and Islamist rulers. Such alliances, as recent terror attacks indicate, strengthen jihadism and endanger the security of secular, pluralistic states.

It is time for Western powers to reconsider their regional strategies and focus attention on attacking the ideology driving terror.

© China-US Focus, 2016.

The Tendrils of Terrorism



Local residents pay their respects to the victims of the attack on the Holey Artisan Bakery at a stadium in Dhaka on July 4. © AP

Asia needs a concerted campaign to counter the fast-spreading culture of jihad.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

One of Bangladesh’s worst terrorist attacks, in which 20 patrons of a Dhaka restaurant were butchered by militants, highlights Asia’s growing threat from Islamist violence. Among those killed were seven Japanese aid workers, including an 80-year-old railway expert, nine Italians, one Indian and a U.S. national. Terrorist attacks this year from Jakarta to Pathankot, India, have served as a reminder of the growing scourge of jihadism in Asia.

Several factors have contributed to the rise of Islamist terrorism. Some Muslim communities are caught in a vicious circle of exploding populations, a chronic dearth of jobs, high illiteracy and fast-spreading extremism. In Bangladesh, among other troubled states, the intersection of political instability, popular discontent, resource stress and population pressures has formed a deadly cocktail of internal disarray, fostering a pervasive jihad culture.

In addition, a corroding state structure has served as an incubator of Islamist terror, creating conditions under which transnational militant groups can thrive. Weak or dysfunctional states are more likely to host terrorist groups that not only carry out transnational attacks but also target their host states.

Another major factor is the systematic export by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and some other oil sheikhdoms of Wahhabism, an obscurantist and intolerant version of Islam. This has gradually snuffed out more liberal and pluralistic interpretations of Islam in Southeast, South and Central Asia, thereby promoting radicalization among many Muslims and allowing Islamist groups to become increasingly entrenched.

Linking radical Islam with radical terror, Wahhabism interprets the Koran in a way that instills the spirit of martyrdom, with promises of reaching paradise through death.

Reinforcing the rise of religious extremism, petrodollar-financed madrasas, or religious schools, have sprung up across Asia. Wahhabi fanaticism has helped spread the tendrils of terrorism, serving as the ideological mother of Asian jihadist groups that murder, maim and menace the innocent — from Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia to Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Taliban in the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt. Bangladesh authorities have blamed the cafe attack — claimed by the Islamic State group — on a local Wahhabi-infused group, Jamaat ul-Mujahideen, whose top two leaders were convicted and executed in 2008 for carrying out nationwide bombings.

Adding to Asian security concerns, Wahhabi-indoctrinated militants from countries including Australia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China, India and Kazakhstan, have gone to Syria and Iraq to fight for another offspring of Wahhabism — IS. Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong last year called Southeast Asia “a key recruitment center” for the fanatical group.

The jihadists who return to their homelands from Syria and Iraq could wage terror campaigns in the same way that the Afghan war veterans, like Osama bin Laden, came to haunt the security of the Middle East, Asia and the West. The multinational rebels in Afghanistan, who became known as “mujahideen” (Islamic holy warriors), were originally trained and armed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s to help oust Soviet forces from that country.

Yet another factor that has fueled violent jihadism is state sponsorship of — or collusion with — terrorism. Militants, some promoted by regimes and some operating with the connivance of elements within national militaries and intelligence organizations, have employed religion or ethnic or sectarian aspirations to justify their acts of cross-border terror.

For example, Pakistan’s use of extremist groups as an instrument of foreign policy is well documented, with the U.S. State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism for 2015 stating that some United Nations-designated terrorist organizations continue “to operate within Pakistan, employing economic resources under their control and fundraising openly.” Essentially, the Pakistani military has reared “good” terrorists for cross-border missions while battling “bad” militants that fail to toe its line.

For states nurturing violent jihadist groups, the chickens have come home to roost with a vengeance. For example, the recent Istanbul airport attack is a reminder that Turkey has come full circle. The country served as a rear base and transit hub for IS fighters. But when IS became a potent threat to Western interests, Turkey came under pressure and began tightening its borders. By allowing the U.S. to fly sorties over Syria and Iraq from a Turkish air base, Ankara has now incurred the wrath of IS, the group whose rise it aided.

Saudi Arabia, which has bankrolled Islamist extremism ever since the oil-price boom of the 1970s boosted the kingdom’s wealth, also contributed to the rise of IS, creating a Frankenstein’s monster that now threatens it as much as any other country. This is apparent from the latest explosions in Medina and two other Saudi cities. Paradoxically, IS is using Wahhabism to try and delegitimize Saudi Arabia’s cloistered, Wahhabism-exporting royals.

Bangladesh’s grim challenge

The Dhaka cafe attack highlights the specter of jihadism haunting Bangladesh, the seventh most populous nation, that is made up mainly of low-lying floodplains and deltas. Excluding microstates, Bangladesh features the greatest population density in the world. Less known is the fact that its jihadist problem is largely self-inflicted.

Indeed, Bangladesh’s future is imperiled as much by Islamic radicalization as by global warming. The accelerating radicalization of a society with largely moderate Muslim traditions was highlighted by the fact that the slaughter of mainly foreigners in the cafe attack was perpetrated by educated young men from affluent families.

Ever since her election as prime minister in late 2008 marked the restoration of democracy in Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina has battled jihadists, including those reared by the country’s military intelligence agency, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence, and the National Security Intelligence agency. Hasina has sought to curtail the powers of the DGFI, which, like Pakistan’s military-run Inter-Services Intelligence agency, nurtured militant groups and conducted operations against political parties and journalists.

Born in blood in 1971, Bangladesh has been wracked by perennial turmoil, including 22 coup attempts, some successful. Hasina survived when gunmen assassinated her father — Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the founder of Bangladesh and its first prime minister — and executed her extended family in a single night in 1975. She survived again in 2004 when assassins hurled grenades at one of her political rallies, leaving two dozen people dead. According to Hasina, she has escaped death 19 times.

That Bangladesh’s political turbulence and violence are unlikely to end any time soon is apparent from two developments: The boycott by the largest opposition party of the January 2014 national election, which returned Hasina to power; and the wave of Islamist attacks since 2013 on secular bloggers, atheists, gay rights activists, and members of the Hindu minority, with some of the targets decapitated or hacked to death in public. Now, there are serious questions about whether a politically divided Bangladesh can cope with the upsurge of Islamist violence.

Against this background, the fight against terrorism in Asia is likely to prove long and difficult. A study by the Washington-based Pew Research Center estimates that the aggregate Muslim population by 2030 will have doubled since 1990, with the largest increase being in Asia. The demographic explosion could accentuate the stresses that are contributing to violent jihadism and thereby act as a threat multiplier.

There is greater need than ever to bring the international fight against terrorism back on track. Only a concerted, sustained campaign to deal with the factors spurring jihadism can help stem the challenge from the forces of terror.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the Center for Policy Research, New Delhi, and a Richard von Weizsacker Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy, Berlin.

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2016.

Obama’s Bitter Afghan Legacy


A column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

afghanistan_war_imageNearly 15 years after its launch, the United States’ war in Afghanistan is still raging, making it the longest war in American history. Nowadays, the war is barely on the world’s radar, with only dramatic developments, like America’s recent drone-strike assassination of Afghan Taliban Chief Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, getting airtime. But Afghans continue to lose their friends, neighbors, and children to conflict, as they have since the 1979 Soviet invasion, which triggered the refugee exodus that brought the parents of Omar Mateen, the killer of 49 people in a nightclub in Orlando, to the US.

America’s invasion, launched by former President George W. Bush in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, was intended to dismantle Al Qaeda and remove the Taliban from power, thereby ensuring that Afghanistan would no longer serve as a safe base of operations for extremists. With those goals ostensibly accomplished, Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, reduced troop levels in the country, even declaring a year and a half ago that the war was “coming to a responsible conclusion.”

But, with a resurgent Taliban stepping up attacks, the war has raged on, exacting staggering costs in blood and treasure. One key reason is Pakistan, which has harbored the Afghan Taliban’s command and control, while pretending to be a US ally.

If there were any doubts about Pakistan’s duplicity, they should have been eliminated in 2011, when Osama bin Laden was killed in a military garrison town near the country’s capital. Yet, five years later, Pakistan still has not revealed who helped bin Laden hide for all those years. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has continued to shower the country with billions of dollars in aid.

The assassination of Mansour on Pakistan’s territory, near its border with Iran and Afghanistan, has exposed, yet again, the deceitfulness of Pakistani officials, who have repeatedly denied sheltering Taliban leaders. Like the raid by US Navy SEALs that killed bin Laden, Mansour’s assassination required the US to violate the sovereignty of a country that, as one of the largest recipients of American aid, should have been supporting the effort. The question is whether the US will acknowledge the obvious lesson this time and change course.

While Mansour’s killing may be, as Obama put it, “an important milestone” in the effort to bring peace to Afghanistan, it also exposed America’s policy failures under the Obama administration, rooted in the desire not to confront either Pakistan or even the Taliban too strongly. Obama’s objective was to preserve the option of reaching a Faustian bargain with the Taliban – a power-sharing arrangement to underpin a peace deal – facilitated by the Pakistani military. That is why the US has not branded the Afghan Taliban – much less Pakistan’s rogue intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – a terrorist organization, and instead has engaged in semantic jugglery.

This approach goes beyond rhetoric. America took almost 15 years to carry out its first drone strike in Pakistan’s sprawling Balochistan province, even though the Afghan Taliban leadership established its command-and-control structure there almost immediately after the US military intervention ousted it from Afghanistan. Instead, the US concentrated its drone strikes in Pakistan’s Waziristan region, allowing the Taliban leaders to remain ensconced.

The US has even made direct overtures to the Taliban, in order to promote negotiations aimed at securing peace through a power-sharing arrangement. It allowed the Taliban to set up a de facto diplomatic mission in Doha, Qatar, in 2013. A year later, it traded five senior Taliban leaders who had been jailed at Guantánamo Bay for a captured US Army sergeant.

What the US did not know was that the Taliban’s founder, Mullah Mohammed Omar, died in 2013 in a hospital in the Pakistani city of Karachi. Omar’s death was kept secret for more than two years, during which time ISI claimed to be facilitating contacts with him.

Finally, last July, Mansour was installed as the Taliban’s new leader – and he was not interested in peace talks. It was Mansour’s intransigence that spurred the US to change its tactics. Instead of using carrots to secure Taliban support for a peace deal, the Obama administration is now using very large sticks.

But even if this approach manages to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, it will probably not be enough to secure a lasting peace deal. If the US is to succeed at ending the war in Afghanistan, it must do more than change tactics; it must rethink its fundamental strategy.

The reality is that the medieval Taliban will neither be defeated nor seek peace until their Pakistani sanctuaries are eliminated. No counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded in a country when the militants have found refuge in another. While Obama recognizes the imperative of eliminating terrorist sanctuaries, he has failed to do what is needed.

Simply put, bribing Pakistan’s military will not work. Over the last 14 years, the US has given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid and armed it with lethal weapons, ranging from F-16s and P-3C Orion maritime aircraft to Harpoon anti-ship missiles and TOW anti-armor missiles. And yet Pakistan continues to provide the Afghan Taliban a safe haven within its borders.

A better approach would be to link aid disbursement to concrete Pakistani action against militants, while officially classifying ISI as a terrorist entity. Such a move would send a strong signal to Pakistan’s military – which views the Taliban and other militant groups as useful proxies and force multipliers vis-à-vis Afghanistan and India – that it can no longer hunt with the hounds and run with the foxes.

Obama’s decision last October to prolong indefinitely US involvement in Afghanistan means not only that he will leave office without fulfilling his promise to end Bush-era military entanglements, but also that the US will continue to fight the war on the wrong side of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Perhaps his successor will finally recognize the truth: the end of the war in Afghanistan lies in Pakistan.