Mirpur se Birmingham tak

A thrilling ride across continents

This is the unedited draft of today’s op-ed in the Indian Express.

For a mere $200 you get a 12-day, 6400 km “thrilling ride” across the English channel through France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran before the journey–and perhaps your enthusiasm–ends at Mirpur, in Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

If the ‘Azad’ Jammu & Kashmir transport minister’s plans come to fruition, Birmingham and Mirpur, two parts of the same city separated by distance but joined together by immigration, shall be connected by the world’s longest local bus route. Families will reunite more frequently. Nephews will find jobs more easily. Tourists who have plenty of accumulated annual leave will be able to spend $525 more on supporting the local economies instead of on air tickets.

It’s hard for many of us to get our minds around the idea of a bus that crosses a dozen national borders today. Yet, just over three decades ago, there were many intrepid travellers who could make the journey.

Between 1968 to 1976, Albert Tours operated a Sydney-Calcutta-London route, doing 15 overland trips in those years. I found an old brochure advertising departure from London’s Victoria terminus on July 25th 1972 and arrival at Calcutta’s Fairlawn Hotel on September 11th. You could experience “Banaras on the Ganges, The Taj Mahal, Afghan Tribesmen, The Khyber Pass, The Peacock Throne, Communist Bulgaria, The Blue Danube and the Golden Horn”, while enjoying shopping days in New Delhi, Tehran, Salzburg, Kabul, Istanbul and Vienna. Unscheduled adventures included having to “dig out a dry riverbed plus a piece of the mountain.” The fare for the journey of around seven weeks, including food and sundries was £145, which in those days was a lot of money.

Geopolitics put an end to those adventures. By the late-1970s, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, General Zia-ul-Haq’s coup in Pakistan and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan made it all but impossible for an ordinary passenger to innocently sit in a bus and get off at the next continent.

Violence, sanctions, travel restrictions and international suspicions cut off the Indian subcontinent from Europe since then. Hiram Warren Johnson, the US Republican politician who declared that truth is the first casualty of war was obviously wrong. It’s the bus route that suffers first. (Our own Atal Bihari Vajpayee thought starting a bus would end the war, with rather mixed results).

Is a trans-continental bus service from Birmingham to Mirpur feasible today? Three decades ago, the European leg had to traverse two geopolitical blocs. Today the entire stretch from the United Kingdom to the border with Turkey is within the European Union. It’s the journey from Turkey to Pakistan that is, to put it mildly, rocky. Turkey to Iran across restive Kurdish areas, Iran to Pakistan through a Balochistan under an insurgency and military occupation. Then through a Pakistan undergoing a political transformation under the shadow of severe violence.

While it may well be possible to squeeze past these conflicts, it is unclear if people will want to take the risk to save a few hundred dollars. Or, whether it will be possible to price the ticket at $200 after factoring in security risks. In any case, twelve days’s food, accommodation, transit fees and other administrative costs might already bring the fare close to that of a cheap air ticket. It is quite likely that the Pakistani politician allowed his excitement to get ahead of the business case.

Given the differences in purchasing power in Birmingham and Mirpur, the bus is likely to appeal more to those making the journey into the EU. Immigration authorities in the UK and elsewhere in the EU are likely to scrutinise visa applications a little more than they usually do. The security dimension adds to the economic one. Birmingham’s MP, a British politician of Pakistani origin, was putting it mildly when he suggested that “there could be a guarantee from the Pakistani government that there would be rigorous security checks.” A Pakistani government guarantee? On rigorous security checks? Seriously, now.

The idea of seamless overland connectivity across countries and continents is a good one. It is possible, for instance, to drive from northern Thailand, across Malaysia into Singapore. Even if few people actually drive down this route, international road connectivity has contributed to the economic development of South East Asia. China is plugging into South East Asian road networks by building good connections. India is late in the game and trying to build its own road links to the region. The ASEAN-India car rally, covering 7448 km from India to Indonesia is a showpiece of this effort (and has been scaled down due to budget cuts at the Ministry of External Affairs). There is sound economic, strategic and common sense in building good road connections.

It does not follow, though, that good overland connectivity must have an end-to-end bus route. The economics of bus routes might not hold up favourably compared to air, rail and sea transport for distances that span several thousand kilometres. Like the old Albert Tours, the journey will certainly appeal to those with the time, taste and money for adventure. It is unlikely to result in bringing Birmingham and Mirpur any closer together.

Copyright © 2012. The Indian Express. All rights reserved.

The price of minding Mr Hu’s delicate sensibilities

It is not in New Delhi’s interests to be seen as a craven appeaser of China

There are a number of reasons why states come together and form international groupings. These include common interests, common causes, common weaknesses, common fears, gawking, lurking and sabotaging. One of the more inexplicable reasons they form groupings is because some research at some investment bank wrote a report lumping them together based on their growth rates and sizes of their economy. That’s why when outrage suppresses yawn when BRICS summits are held.

If the Indian foreign service is understaffed and overstretched, it also is guilty of enthusiastically expending resources in one too many pointless clubs, from the Commonwealth to the Non-aligned Movement and now to BRICS. The opportunity cost of getting wrapped up in pointless pageantry is lower attention to more important forums like the G-20 and the East Asia Summit. Like in many other areas, the UPA government’s sense of priorities is highly questionable.

Worse, because China’s highly Tibet-sensitive president was to attend the summit, the Indian government found it necessary to round up not only Tibetan protestors, but anyone else who faintly resembled them. Calling it our shameful kow-tow, Mihir Sharma writes of “Tibetans being rounded up, made to squat in the sun; the ever-sensitive Delhi Police indulging in the worst sort of racial profiling, demanding that people who look even vaguely Tibetan prove their credentials or be locked up.”

Having met some of the top Indian officials dealing with China policy, I can say with some confidence that they are not the appeasing sort. So why did Delhi Police (which takes orders from the Union home ministry) behave in such a demeaning manner?

One explanation that you might hear is that since New Delhi is playing hardball where its core interests are concerned there is no point in gratuitously embarrassing China’s leader in the eyes of his peers. This being a crucial year for the Chinese leadership—where power is supposed to change hands at the Party Congress amid factional strife, economic uncertainties and internal instability—why make President Hu Jintao lose face? There’s some merit in this argument. You don’t need to make a public show of your intentions. Making your guest comfortable is as good a principle in diplomacy as in daily life (although some Leftists didn’t believe this ought to extend to a US president).

Nor does preventing pro-Tibet protests prejudice India’s current or future negotiating position on the Tibetan issue. After all, “Free Tibet” protests can take place elsewhere in the country and on any other day of the calendar.

It’s not uplifting, it’s not fragrant, but there is merit in this logic. However, it still misses a larger point. The world—and especially the countries of East Asia—are watching. What they saw is a potential counter to Chinese hegemony bend over backwards (a reverse kow-tow?) to please China’s leader. Although they have seen some measures by New Delhi that persuades them of India’s intentions to contribute to the Asian balance of power, such signals risk confusing them. Small and medium-powers in India’s extended eastern neighbourhood will begin to have doubts about New Delhi’s ability to stand up to Chinese assertiveness. This will make it much more difficult for India to pursue its own interests in East Asia.

Finally, the perception that New Delhi ‘appeased’ Beijing yet again will exacerbate the hysteria in the media and public discourse on matters concerning China. Ironically, the UPA government has ended up embarrassing itself in front of its people in order to avoid embarrassing Mr Hu in front of his. Senior Indian officials have complained that the way the Indian media report issues pertaining to India-China relations complicates matters. The way the Indian established handled Mr Hu’s visit doesn’t help matters either. Feeding a narrative of a weak India unable to show spine to China on core democratic values is unlikely to help New Delhi make tough decisions of give-and-take if the opportunity presents itself. After all, we are all just prisoners here, of our own narratives.

The Asian Balance: Dealing with a vulnerable China

China’s external, economic and ethnic vulnerabilities are worsening

Here’s today’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

This may come as a surprise to many, but China today is at its most vulnerable since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. That’s not all; it is unlikely that the country will shake off its vulnerabilities – geopolitical, economic and internal security – over the next three to five years.

The developments in East Asia in the past few weeks, focused around the East Asia Summit at Bali, have put China on the defensive. Not only is the United States reinvesting its military assets into the Indo-Pacific region, but almost all of China’s neighbours have moved to construct bulwarks against China. Even Myanmar is showing signs of wanting out of China’s orbit, and is opening up to India, the United States and Vietnam. If countries of the region are ganging up against China, it is largely Beijing’s fault. Picking a fight with each one of your neighbours at the same time is not the smartest of moves. Yet, that’s what China has done over the past couple of years.

What happened in Beijing’s foreign policy kitchen is anyone’s guess but China no longer enjoys a favourable external environment that it used to for the last two decades.

Let’s come to economics. Not only does China hold more than a trillion dollars of US debt, it is likely to have to increase its dollar holdings given the sovereign debt crises in the euro zone. So a lot of China’s money is, and will be for some time, at the mercy of its biggest strategic rival. Continue reading The Asian Balance: Dealing with a vulnerable China

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]

The Indira Doctrine is dead

Make way for the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine

Led by the redoubtable Aziz Haniffa some observers are getting more than a little flustered at a senior US official’s remarks about the United States letting China play a bigger role in and around the Indian subcontinent. Speaking at a seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration said “”China has an important role. It’s a neighbor of South Asia. And it’s unimaginable that China would not be involved.”

Well, he’s right. He appears to refer to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but even if he were to mean the subcontinent and its neighbourhood, he would not be wrong. Whether you like it or not, China is and will, in the coming years, become a even more influential player in India’s immediate neighbourhood. This will undoubtedly mean that India’s neighbours will attempts to play one against the other, and because India is the status quo power, this will work to India’s relative disadvantage vis-a-vis China.

The Indira Doctrine—which saw the subcontinent as India’s exclusive sphere of influence—died somewhere over the last twenty years. Whatever might be the reasons for its lapse, the objective reality today is that India is a pre-eminent power, but not the sole hegemon, in its immediate neighbourhood. Getting excited over Mr Steinberg’s realist appreciation of the situation is therefore unwarranted.

Should Indian foreign policy attempt to resuscitate the Indira Doctrine? Doing so would be limiting the vision to India’s capabilities and interests to what obtained during Indira Gandhi’s days, would be very challenging, of dubious strategic wisdom and perhaps even unnecessary. Why? Because India is playing in a much bigger playground today. New Delhi needs a Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. If China seeks to gain influence in India’s neighbourhood, India should do the same in China’s neighbourhood and elsewhere. [See East of Singapore and The Asian Balance]

What is interesting about Mr Steinberg’s remarks is that the United States is prepared to engage India on this. “Just as we talk about South Asia with China,” he said, “we talk about East Asia with India…” In fact what is even more interesting is this “We see India as (an) East Asian country. We engage with them on issues like North Korea and the like because we think of the importance that India plays.” This is almost exactly The Acorn’s argument.

Because of geography if not anything else, India’s influence in its immediate neighbourhood will grow in parallel with its own development. It is important, however, to understand the opportunities in the geopolitical environment that allow India to implement the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. At this moment, it is in the United States’ interest to support India in the East Asian balance of power. New Delhi must swing towards this opportunity.

The Asian Balance: Recognising good neighbours

My new monthly column in Business Standard is called The Asian Balance. It “will devote itself to chronicling and interpreting the unfolding geopolitics of East Asia. It will be a unabashed advocate of Looking East far beyond the Straits of Malacca. Rebuilding the economic, cultural and political relationships that India historically shared with the countries and the peoples to its East has never been more important to our future than it is today.”

The first piece is up. Here’s an excerpt:

Three factors will shape the Asian balance: first, nuclear weapons—what I call the New Himalayas—will shift the India-China contest away from a direct military conflict along the land border. It will take place, among others, in and around the Indian Ocean. It will play out in the form of increased Chinese presence in the waters off India’s coast and renewed US engagement of Asean countries. The big question is to what extent will India be a player in areas that China considers its backyard.

Second, the small- and medium-sized countries of the region will prefer a balance where no single power dominates over them. If they do not see this forthcoming, they are likely to join the stronger side. What this implies is that the importance they give to their relationship with India will depend on their assessment of whether New Delhi has the capability, and the will, to contribute to the balance.

Third, unless there is an addition to the number of nuclear powers in East Asia, there will be a preference to create and work through regional multilateral institutions like the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). The absence of direct nuclear deterrence in the Western Pacific has emboldened China to claim almost the entire South China Sea as its own. All the activity in East Asia trying to form one big workable grouping is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to. [Business Standard]

Newspapering over nuclear weapons

Rules won’t make China obey them. Nukes just might.

The Economist declares China v India as the contest of the century. Good. It should help focus minds of international readers on an important issue, because in the coming years they are likely to have to choose sides.

But the 20th century taught the world that blatantly foreseeable conflicts of interest can become increasingly foreseeable wars with unforeseeably dreadful consequences. Relying on prosperity and more democracy in China to sort things out thus seems unwise. Two things need to be done.

First, the slow progress towards a border settlement needs to resume. The main onus here is on China. It has the territory it really wants and has maintained its claim to Arunachal Pradesh only as a bargaining chip. It has, after all, solved intractable boundary quarrels with Russia, Mongolia, Myanmar and Vietnam. Surely it cannot be so difficult to treat with India?

That points to a second, deeper need, one that it took Europe two world wars to come close to solving: emerging Asia’s lack of serious institutions to bolster such deals. [The Economist]

While framing the challenge fairly well, that famously opinionated newspaper ignores the beasts in the basements that are the ones most likely to prevent their masters from coming to blows. We are, of course, referring to nuclear weapons, which I have argued, are the New Himalayas that make direct military conflict between the two giants unlikely. Indeed, it is the shadow of the New Himalayas that contrains China from expanding its extravagant claims to the old Himalayas.

You can see how the absence of direct nuclear deterrence in the Western Pacific has emboldened China to claim almost the entire South China Sea as its own (see the myths that Yang shattered). All the activity in East Asia trying to work out a regional security architecture is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to. Liberal internationalists, of course, will prescribe such hope-based policies. It is unfortunate that a newspaper as bold as the Economist should accept this wishfulness to such an extreme that it entirely ignores nuclear deterrence. It might be that it has to do this, because evoking nuclear weapons would damage its dogmatic and silly insistence that India should give up its arsenal because it is ‘illegitimate’.

From the archive: He saw the light after leaving the Economist; a review of Bill Emmotts’ book.

Letter to the Jakarta Post

Regarding the situation in Jammu & Kashmir

An edited version of the following letter was published in Indonesia’s Jakarta Post today:

Sir,

I refer to the article by Laura Schuurmans in the Jakarta Post dated 12 August 2010.

Ms Schuurman’s makes a specious argument linking the situation in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir to the spread of extremism across South Asia. The fact of the matter is that Jammu & Kashmir is a victim of Pakistan’s dangerous policy of using radical Islamist militants as a tool of state policy right from 1947. In other words Pakistan’s cynical manipulation of religion predates the Kashmir ‘dispute’. Secondly, as borne out by numerous statements by leaders of Pakistan-based militant organisations like Hafeez Saeed, leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the extremists’ goal is not limited to the liberation of Kashmir, but extends to the dismemberment of a India, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation which is very similar to Indonesia.

In fact, while Ms Schuurman regurgitates the Goebbelsian language about troop numbers and ‘repression’ of the people in Jammu & Kashmir, she neglects to mention that despite bloodshed of the last two decades, including the ethnic cleansing of the Hindu minorities in 1989-90, the Indian government has respected the special status given to Jammu & Kashmir state. Your readers might be surprised to know that Indian citizens cannot migrate to the state, cannot purchase land and property there and face hurdles in marrying their Kashmiri counterparts. The state not only enjoys greater political and economic freedom than Pakistani administered Kashmir, and indeed Pakistan itself, but is also the second largest recipient of fiscal transfers (per capita) from the federal government.

This is not to deny that proxy war and insurgency has not created an affective divide between Kashmiris and the Indian state. But the idea of India is big enough to bridge this gap, as indeed has been happening since 2002. Chemotherapy is painful and hurts the body, but it is necessary to treat the underlying cancer which is fatal. Despite the Ms Schuurmans’ flawed arguments, I am sure that of all the people in the region, Indonesians will appreciate the challenges of governing a diverse, deeply religious yet plural society.

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]

Ruddying relations

A closer strategic India-Australia relationship—the “how”

The Lowy Institute has released an excellent policy brief, authored by Rory Medcalf, coinciding with Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s first visit to India. You should read it in full—but the cogent executive summary is worth reproducing on this blog.

What is the problem
Strategic ties between Australia and India keep falling short of expectations, despite strong growth in trade. Controversy over the welfare of Indian students has added to differences over uranium exports to cloud what should be promising links between two countries with many common concerns. The relationship will weather recent turbulence. But without major diplomatic initiatives soon, the prospects for a truly strategic partnership between these Indian Ocean democracies will be set back for years.

What should be done?
The relationship needs to be invigorated through a leaders’ commitment to a strategic partnership, informed by a fresh awareness of how each country can help the other increase its security. This needs to be more than rhetoric.

A bilateral security declaration would add Australia-India relations to a regional web of defence ties involving Japan and South Korea. India should reciprocate Australia’s overtures to engage as a priority maritime partner, including in exercises. The two armies should help each other too, for example in special forces training.

Australia and India should work to expand common ground on nuclear non- proliferation and disarmament, which might help open the way on uranium sales. Both governments need fully to grasp Australia’s vast potential in ensuring India’s energy security.

Regular strategic dialogue should focus on common interests, including relating to China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, terrorism and maritime security. Options should also be explored for new regional arrangements including a three-party forum with Indonesia. [Lowy]

Related Link: Mr Medcalf also has an op-ed in today’s Indian Express. In the February 2008 issue of Pragati he argued that closer India-Australia ties requires political will on both sides.