This week, Project Syndicate catches up with Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
Project Syndicate: You support the vision of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific promoted by US President Donald Trump’s administration, but complain that it lacks strategic heft – a failing that has allowed Chinese expansionism in the region to continue unabated. Given how erratic the Trump administration has been – the recent escalation in US-Iran tensions being a case in point – will Trump’s vision for the Indo-Pacific go the way of Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia? What steps are needed to get back on track?
Brahma Chellaney: The Trump administration is nearing the end of its first term, and yet the “free and open” Indo-Pacific strategy has yet to gain real traction. If Trump loses the November election, his successor might replace the strategy with a new concept, as Trump did with Obama’s “pivot to Asia.”
But even if Trump wins, there is no guarantee that his administration will add the needed strategic heft. On the contrary, as I explain in my latest PS commentary, the recent decision to expand the definition of the Indo-Pacific to include the Persian Gulf – “from Hollywood to Bollywood” has now become “from California to Kilimanjaro” – suggests that the Trump administration is succumbing to the same Middle East obsession as its predecessors. This will make it far more difficult to create a coherent, let alone effective, Indo-Pacific policy.
PS: In December, you pointed out that “for large and influential countries, respecting the rules-based order is a choice” – one that China, in particular, is unlikely to make. You then called for an “enforcement mechanism” in international law. What might such a mechanism look like, and what would it take to introduce it?
BC: Disputes will always arise between states. That is why international arbitration and adjudication exists. But even the International Court of Justice lacks any practical mechanism to enforce its rulings. As a result, they are regularly violated, especially by powerful actors.
China is a case in point. Though it acceded to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1996, China rejected the arbitral proceedings brought by the Philippines against China in 2013 – proceedings that were instituted by UNCLOS’s dispute-settlement body, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. In 2016, it rejected the panel’s final ruling that China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea lacked legitimacy under international law, calling it a “farce.”
Clearly, we need coercive enforcement mechanisms to ensure that all countries respect the decisions of adjudicative tribunals and courts. But the question of what precisely those mechanisms could look like has no easy answer. As long as power respects power and the weak remain meek, it may even be a moot point.
PS: You’ve warned that the Communist Party of China’s “continued reliance on brute power” to keep citizens in line “could eventually leave it on the ash heap of history.” In lieu of international action to rein in China, could internal pressures produce a check on Chinese expansionism? Or might they have the opposite effect, with Chinese President Xi Jinping doubling down on revanchist nationalism, much like Russian President Vladimir Putin, who used the annexation of Crimea to revive his declining popularity?
BC: China is the world’s largest, strongest, and longest-surviving autocracy, and the CPC’s commitment to upholding the party’s primacy means insulating itself from liberalizing influences. But doing so, while still pursuing globalization, makes the country’s leadership increasingly vulnerable to domestic political shocks.
In fact, Communist China’s future will be shaped primarily by developments at home – and its leaders seem to know that. But their approach to protecting the CPC’s position has little to do with expansionism. They are overwhelmingly focused on maintaining domestic order in a more direct way. Tellingly, China’s official internal security budget is larger than its official military budget.
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We ask all our Say More contributors to tell our readers about a few books that have impressed them recently. Here are Chellaney's picks:
by Adam Higginbotham
This well-researched book describes the 1986 meltdown of a reactor at the Chernobyl nuclear power complex in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. The damage this wrought – from a human and environmental perspective – dwarfed that caused by the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant 25 years later, even though the latter incident included three separate meltdowns.
by Will McCallum
Plastic waste is choking our planet, and this book offers a blueprint for making it stop. Humans are irremediably altering natural ecosystems and draining our planet of its biodiversity. Plastic waste is at the center of these environmental challenges.
From the PS Archive
Chellaney highlights the havoc that China's construction of mega-dams is wreaking on downriver countries. Read the commentary.
Chellaney calls for tough sanctions to stop Pakistan, a supposed ally, from continuing to aid and nurture terrorists. Read the commentary.
Around the web
In an interview with Fair Observer, Chellaney discusses what global developments – from the US to Iran – mean for India. Read the transcript.
In a commentary for the Hindustan Times, Chellaney argues that the most pressing threat to India’s standing in the world comes not from neighbors but from polarized politics. Read the article.