China warns Singapore

As Singapore confronts difficult choices, it must sound out New Delhi.

It is an open secret that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) train in the Republic of China in Taiwan, and the two countries have enjoyed a quiet, but very productive partnership since the early 1970s. Like how actors in ’70s Hindi movies used to become totally unrecognisable merely by putting on a moustache and a beard, Singapore’s soldiers would become Taiwanese ones when they exercised in that country. The subterfuge was out of respect for diplomatic niceties, to placate the People’s Republic of China. For instance, Singapore service personnel would assume Taiwanese aliases. Sometimes this would lead to hilarious outcomes: like when my friend, an ethnic-Tamil Singaporean infantry platoon commander, had to pass off as Chong Wai-kiong.

Singapore’s defence cooperation with Taiwan (Project Starlight) predates the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. For its part, Beijing was content with this arrangement, even when it came close to war with Taiwan in the mid-1990s. Ian Storey writes that Li Peng, then China’s Premier, said that China ‘should not mind too much’ if Singapore continued its military relationship with Taiwan, but had asked that this be done discreetly.

So last week, when Hong Kong customs authorities — tipped off by their Chinese counterparts — seized nine infantry vehicles on a ship that was making its way from Taiwan to Singapore, it appears that Beijing has decided to deliver a warning. Or more.

It comes as a surprise, but is clearly yet another manifestation of an emboldened China taking aggressive positions in its extended neighbourhood. Even if Beijing were to end the impasse by releasing SAF’s equipment in return for renewed Singaporean commitment to the One China policy, it would further strengthen the perception among East Asian countries that it is best not to antagonise China. It would also put greater caution, and perhaps even a suspension of the four-decade old Singapore-Taiwan military cooperation. Chastising Singapore has multiple benefits for China.

It is too early to tell if Beijing’s actions are informed by an expectation that the upcoming Trump administration will disengage from Asia, leaving the field open to China. China’s actions over the past few years suggest that Beijing is confident of upping the ante even in the face of US “pivot” to Asia. It may be American conceit to believe that Trump is leaving East Asia to China. The rulers in Beijing perhaps believe they already have Asia.

This is a crucial period for India’s own Act East policy. New Delhi must reassure Singapore, Hanoi, Jakarta, Seoul, Tokyo and Canberra that India has the wherewithal and a commitment to shape an Asian balance that does not surrender to Chinese hegemony. If the United States wishes to be part of such an arrangement, then it is all for the better. If not, the six Indo Pacific powers must manage on their own. Let’s not forget that if the United States is no longer in the picture, India is the only nuclear power on the other side of China.

Chinese inroads

The new silk road is being built faster than the world’s ability to grasp its consequences.

China has worked out a railway route to Afghanistan and, from August this year, begun operating two trains a month from Nantong (China) to Hairatan (Afghanistan) passing through Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan along the way. This remarkable achievement suffers from a temporary hitch — the trains have to go back empty to China because Uzbek authorities are yet to give permission for Afghan goods to transit their territory.

Last week, Chinese trucks drove south-west across the Himalayas, passing through the Karakorum pass into Pakistani territory. They transited through Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan before unloading their cargo onto a Chinese ship at the Chinese-built, Chinese-operated Pakistani port of Gwadar. [Gwadar is finally in Chinese hands, after Washington released its pressure on the Pakistani government due to an inability to persist or out of a lack of interest.]

On the eastern side of the Indian Ocean, analysts in Singapore are concerned over what appears to be a commercially dubious proposal to build a new port in the Malaysian town of Melaka (Malacca) that sits at the northern side of the important Straits of Malacca. The Malaysians have pulled out the stops to enable the project to take shape quickly. In typical fashion a little-known local firm is partnering a Chinese company to build the port.

Since there’s enough capacity in existing Malaysian ports, and it is relatively easy to expand them, the Melaka Gateway project is of questionable business value. But a foothold that commands the Straits, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean makes a lot of geostrategic sense if someone is willing to foot the $10 billion bill. And China is.

It appears that Xi Jinping’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) is proceeding at a pace faster than the region’s policymakers can handle.

Connectionistan
Building transport connectivity in Central Asia is likely to unleash economic potential in the landlocked region, and depending on where the roads and railways lead, to other regions too. This will come with the usual political economy of Chinese overseas economic expansion: newly enriched local entrepreneurs, strengthened local political strongmen and grumblings due to Chinese labourers imported en mass. This will also be accompanied by fears of a demographic invasion from China into the sparsely populated Central Asian states.

The Chinese railway through the Central Asian states to Afghanistan presents India with a tantalising opportunity, if it were possible for Indian cargo and passengers to use the route. Pakistan would be deeply concerned, of course. Indeed, Pakistani strategists would already be worried that for the first time, China can trade with Afghanistan without having to transit through Pakistan.

New Delhi should explore arrangements with China, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan to connect to this railway. At the very least, Beijing’s intentions can be put to test.

Another port in the straits
The Chinese interest in Melaka comes at a time when the United States is likely to rebuff the painfully negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership. Singapore, among other East Asian states will be unhappy with the turn of events. Another port along Malaysia’s west coast abutting the Malacca straits implies further competition to the island’s own ports. With the projected overcapacity, it gets worse.

While there is little New Delhi can do to ameliorate this, there is an emerging convergence of interests between India and Singapore. So too, we are likely to see, with other East Asian countries as they grapple with the undesirable prospect of having to jump onto the Chinese bandwagon given the increasing unreliability of the United States. This has been true for much of the past decade. Now, however, it has gotten all the more intense. The Modi government is clear that it seeks to engage East Asian states with greater boldness and purpose. Whether this will prove adequate or fast enough remains to be seen.

The Waheed regime’s games

New Delhi must punish Maldives’ Waheed regime, but without playing into its hands

Mohammed Waheed Hassan’s regime seized power through dubious means. It now seeks to acquire domestic popularity and external support by reneging on an airport operations contract with India’s GMR group. Contrary to its claims, the matter is not merely an issue of the business case turning out to be different than what was previously assumed. If that were so, it would not declared that it is expelling GMR and would select a different airport operator. Renegotiating with an existing vendor is less expensive, less difficult and more reasonable course of action if the intentions were purely commercial. [This ANI report has more details about the project]

The high-level politics of this is clear. The Waheed regime seeks to bolster its ‘nationalist’ credentials by showing it can take on the big, domineering neighbour. It seeks to acquire external support by playing on the India-China contest in the Indo-Pacific. If New Delhi can be provoked to react punitively, the Waheed regime gets the space to court Chinese or other foreign companies. That it was emboldened to attempt such a move is an indicator of New Delhi’s failure of neighbourhood policy.

What should New Delhi do now? First, it should not provide the Waheed regime the excuse it seeks. Diplomatic relations, economic ties, tourism and aid must not be suspended. Second, India should bolster the democratic opposition to the Waheed regime—including Mohamed Nasheed, who happens to be the legitimately elected president—and turn the heat on its illegitimate hold on power. Third, New Delhi must encourage GMR and Axis Bank to use the Singapore courts—the jurisdiction chosen by the contracting parties—to the fullest extent.

The arbitration verdict might well have gone in favour of the Waheed regime, but the Singapore court has stayed the eviction of GMR. If the Waheed regime refused to comply with the court’s orders—as it has declared it will—GMR can seek legal recourse. Similarly Axis Bank might have a case against the Maldives government if the latter has a sovereign guarantee obligation and does not discharge it. The Maldives government has financial and fixed assets in Singapore, which can be targeted by GMR & Axis Bank’s lawyers.

New Delhi has risks to its reputation at stake. If governments of the region come to expect that expropriating Indian companies will be inexpensive and will not have bad consequences, there is a greater chance that they will engage in such behaviour. The Waheed regime must be made to incur the costs of its politics. Not bluntly, though.

The issue will take on an entirely different dimension should the Waheed regime use force against Indian nationals, or engineer or condone violence against them. In such circumstances, it is proper to keep all options on the table.

Damming the Mekong

Who can resist China?

While researching for today’s Business Standard column I came across Ame Trandem’s article in Vietnam’s Than Nien newspaper on the controversy relating to the Xayaboury (Xayaburi) dam in Laos. Here’s an excerpt of my subsequent email interview with Ms Trandem:

Nitin Pai: What is China’s position on the downstream dams that Laos is building & Thailand is financing? China is not in the Mekong River Commission (MRC) but are they playing a role in the shadows?

Ame Trandem: While China is not a member of the MRC, it is a dialogue partner. However China’s own upstream dam construction on the Mekong has helped pave the way for the Lower Mekong mainstream dams to re-emerge on the region’s agenda. With four dams built on the mainstream in China, its dams have begun changing the river’s hydrology and sediment flow, which has helped ease past reluctance in mainstream dam building.
Continue reading “Damming the Mekong”

The Asian Balance: On the East Asian dance floor

It’s up to you to find your partner

In my Business Standard column today argue that “the (East Asia Summit) club only provides the dance floor. India will have to court its dancing partners on an individual basis.”

Excerpts:

[Although] the EAS is set to become the pre-eminent regional grouping, bilateral alignments remain in a state of flux.

A divide is emerging between countries that have a dispute with China, and countries that don’t. The former — a list that includes Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei — will seek greater security in the form of alliances with the United States and India.

These countries want a closer tango, not least in the security arena. During Defence Minister A K Antony’s visit, his Vietnamese counterpart General Phung Quang Thanh welcomed Indian Navy ships to make more port calls and offered maintenance facilities at Vietnamese ports. Last month, South Korea signed two defence cooperation agreements with India encompassing a broad range of activities, including exchange of visits, R&D, training and joint exercises. An agreement is still some distance away, but the very fact that India and Japan are currently negotiating a civil nuclear agreement is already a sign of how far Tokyo has travelled.

India will have to go beyond defence and invest in building deep, broad and balanced economic relationships with these countries. As the experience with Russia has taught us, a merely defence-centred bilateral relationship can often be troublesome.

On the other side of the divide, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and even Australia — countries which do not have territorial disputes with China — while desiring an outcome where the big powers balance each other out, will be reluctant to do anything that might attract Beijing’s unpleasant attention. Not unlike the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms of historical South East Asia that preserved their independence by paying nominal tribute to the Chinese Emperor in return for being left alone. [Business Standard]

Pax Indica: East of Singapore

The waters east of Singapore hold the key to the lands west of the Indus

Yesterday’s post was about the developments in East Asia. In today’s Pax Indica column, I argue that India must be part of the security equilibrium in that region. Excerpts:

India’s strategic power projection will not be unwelcome in South East Asia. It will also enable the United States to remain engaged in Afghanistan-Pakistan by freeing up resources that might otherwise be employed in the western Pacific. Also, regardless of what the United States does, an Indian strategic commitment in East Asia will strengthen its overall negotiation position with China.

Whatever might have caused China to bully its neighbours this year, it has opened another window of opportunity for India to engage with the region. Pre-occupied as it is with the game in the north-western part of the subcontinent, it is unclear if New Delhi sufficiently realises that the seas east of Singapore hold the key to the lands west of the Indus.

India must vastly increase its economic, diplomatic and military presence in and beyond South East Asia. [Yahoo! India]