America defeats itself

There will be fewer takers for US promises in Asia now

As promised, Donald Trump has pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional preferential trade agreement that his predecessor put together to secure American primacy in East Asia against a rising China. It does not matter that the TPP had not yet been tabled for Congressional approval. It does not matter that the TPP might not have yielded the outcomes its proponents claimed it would.

What matters is that in one stroke of a pen, President Trump has confirmed the lingering fears among East Asian countries that the United States is unreliable as a partner in their attempts to manage an aggressively rising China. Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia–of which TPP was an important plank–was itself a response to similar fears during his first term. That pivot was at best a promise that the United States will remain engaged in the region, realists in East Asia tended to suspect that it was reassurance without adequate credibility.

The thinking within the Trump establishment appears to be that the United States can take on China on world trade and militarily in the waters of East Asia. Rex Tillerson, who will head the State Department, took a hawkish line on the latter, suggesting that the United States might deny China access to the islands it claims. Mr Trump and his colleagues seem to believe they can confront China in trade and in East Asian waters while eschewing economic engagement with the countries of the region. They will soon find out how mistaken they are.

Economics is the bloodstream of East Asian geopolitics. China is a major actor in the region not because it has gunboats and missiles, but because it has deep and growing economic relationships with almost all countries of the region. The economies of East Asia, South East Asia and Australia depend on China for their prosperity to various extents. Whatever disputes they might have with Beijing, if they do not see an alternative to China-driven growth, they are unlikely to support President Trump’s moves against China. The United States is likely to find itself isolated if it contemplates escalating conflict levels in the region.

It is likely that the powers in the region will seek protection by increasing their military capacity, and the bigger ones might even contemplate nuclearisation. Most will try to make their peace with China—to the extent possible, as long as it is possible. They will look towards India as a potential actor that can help balance China: to what extent this will work depends on how much and how fast New Delhi liberalises the Indian economy. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the Modi government is prepared to accelerate domestic liberalisation at a pace that can reassure its Asian neighbours.

India is in the geography, and over the long term will remain a potential hedge against China. The United States, though, has just about defeated itself.

“If at the end of it all you let [Abe] down, which next Japanese prime minister is going to count on you — not just on trade but on security?…If you are not prepared to deal when it comes to cars and services and agriculture, can we depend on you when it comes to security and military arrangements?”

— Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, WSJ

Being credible

New Delhi must not buckle to Chinese pressure in its engagement of Indo-Pacific countries.

After hiatus of over a year, I resume my monthly column in the Business Standard on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of the Indo-Pacific region. As the edit page is behind a paywall, I will put up unedited drafts, excerpts or the published column a day or two after it is published.


The central argument of the first innings of this column (September 2010-October 2015) was a simple one: that India should recognise that East Asia is a part of its extended neighbourhood and that it is in our national interest to invest in the stability and security of the Indo-Pacific region.

Why? Because by the mid-2000s, China under Hu Jintao was shedding the facade of ‘peaceful rise’ and beginning to take assertive positions on its territorial disputes and claims in the waters off East and South-East Asia, causing the countries of the region to look towards India for support. In their strategic calculus, if they fail to bring the United States, China and India into a balance, they had little choice but to hop onto the Beijing bandwagon. Month after month, your columnist exhorted New Delhi to exploit the geopolitical and geoeconomic opportunities that Beijing had unintentionally created.

That prescription is just as valid today as it was seven years ago. Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping has moved from assertive to aggressive, always arrogant and increasingly adventurous. The men in black suits and hair dye in Beijing have not only completely blown the cover story of ‘peaceful rise’ but have managed to antagonise the regional powers in the Indo-Pacific.

Even as Beijing pushes Chinese hegemony under clever phrases such as “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), Maritime Silk Road and “China Pakistan Economic Corridor” (CPEC), it does so in the absence of the regional goodwill that enabled its entry into the ASEAN-centred economic and security architectures in the early-2000s. South East Asian countries watch with increasing anxiety as their more of their ASEAN counterparts are attracted or coerced onto China’s camp. The divide that your columnist had predicted within ASEAN is now gaping wide.

President Xi appears to have moved beyond merely maintaining China’s claim in a dispute to pressing it. He might have calculated that Beijing is now strong enough to negotiate where it cannot just coerce the other side into caving in. In November last year, Hong Kong authorities seized military vehicles belonging to the Singapore Armed Forces on their way back from routine exercises in Taiwan. Given that the Singaporean armed forces have been training in Taiwan since the 1970s with China’s tacit non-disapproval, it is clear that Mr Xi deliberately upped the ante. Similarly, Beijing coerced Mongolia into submission after the latter allowed the Dalai Lama to visit the Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar the same month. Since the Dalai Lama had visited Mongolia at least eight times earlier, Beijing’s reaction this time stands out as extraordinary.

This week, China sent its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan straits quite likely signalling a more aggressive stance on that issue. This comes a few weeks after it challenged the US Navy in the region by stealing an underwater drone from under its noses. It is uncertain how the incoming administration of Donald Trump will handle the military dimension of its relations with China, but Mr Xi is not done with testing the nerve of Washington’s new establishment.

As much as there is a regional demand for India to play a stronger role in regional security, it has become harder and riskier for New Delhi to do so. The Modi government is reportedly considering selling medium-range surface-to-air missiles to Viet Nam. Both New Delhi and Hanoi will come under Chinese pressure and possible retaliation if the deal goes through. It would be imprudent for New Delhi or Hanoi to back down under pressure. It is in Beijing’s interest to create a perception that India is unreliable as a partner, whose promise falls short of delivery. Chinese commentators suggested as much after Beijing arm-twisted Mongolia over the Dalai Lama’s visit, drawing attention to the fact that New Delhi’s promised $1 billion line of credit failed to save Ulaanbaatar from China’s economic coercion.

New Delhi should thus be scrupulously careful about the commitments that it makes, implies, or might be construed. Once made, it should not hesitate to keep them in the face of China’s opposition. With rising risks and emerging uncertainties, credibility is the new currency in the Indo-Pacific.

This is by no means an argument to deliberately antagonise China: it is in India’s interests to nurture a close relationship with its northern neighbour. To be an effective swing power, we must enjoy better relations with China and the United States than they have with each other.

This will not come by wishing for it, especially if the wishing is one-sided. Nor will it come by succumbing to Chinese hegemony. To the extent New Delhi accumulates economic strength and demonstrates foreign policy credibility, Beijing is likely to reciprocate India’s desire for amicable bilateral relations.

Copyright: Business Standard

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]