G-20, East Asia and high-profile foreign policy

The focus on G-20, East Asia and raising India’s foreign policy profile are all the right things to do, and long overdue.

Notes for my television appearance on CNN-IBN at 9am IST today:

The Brisbane G-20 statement is so closely aligned with India’s own growth agenda: India must capitalise on this opportunity.

G-20 should become India’s most important international engagement (as my Pax Indica article from June 2010 argues). What the UN was to newly independent India, G-20 should be for a newly resurgent India. New Delhi should invest in high forums that India is already a member of is more valuable than pleading to enter stodgy old clubs like the UN Security Council.

India must contribute to the Asian Balance because it is in our interests to do so. As China and the United States contest for global power, India must project power in regions like East, West and Central Asia to defend its interests. [This is the central argument of The Asian Balance, my monthly column in Business Standard.]

It is good for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to invest time in international engagements: India’s growth is influenced by the world and the world’s situation influences India’s growth [This is the subject of an ongoing research project between Takshashila and the Hudson Institute]. India’s policy discourse will benefit from the prime minister’s international engagements & exposure.

(Point made in response to other panelists)
Mr Modi’s personal popularity among expatriate Indians and the enthusiasm they have shown around his visit to Australia help elevate India’s foreign policy profile. However, it is important for the media to not hype it beyond a point. It is in India’s interests for Indian-Australians to be good Australians: by being loyal, responsible and successful members of their communities.

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.”


[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]

It’s caution, not obfuscation

An Australian view of the attacks on Indian students

Over at The Lowy Interpreter, Rory Medcalf writes:

Even if most of the violence against Indian students has been opportunistic street crime, some of it no doubt has had a racial edge. And if any of the latest attacks on Indians in Australia are proven to involve motives of ethnic prejudice, the governments in Canberra and – especially — Melbourne will need seriously to question their policy settings and statements.

It is difficult to explain to Indian friends that Australians typically are very cautious in the way that they talk about race and crime, for the very reason that we are proud of how far this country has come in recent decades in building ethnic harmony and equality. But this multiculturalism-induced silence is being interpreted in India as denial or obfuscation. [The Lowy Interpreter]

In general, it is just as well that the Indian government is compelled to take the security of its citizens more seriously. Yet the focus on Australia distracts attention from the region that deserves a lot of it—the Gulf. As you read this around 100 Indian labourers find themselves in the refuge of a gurudwara in Kabul, after being at the receiving end of sharp business practices in Dubai. There’s no commotion at all in the Indian media.

Now China wants to divide up the sea

Maritime territorialism is a bad idea—but it might signal something worse

Rory Medcalf, over at the Lowy Interpreter flags a very important issue (via NRA). He draws attention to a media report that suggests China is considering maritime territorialism in the Gulf of Aden where navies from as many as 40 countries are engaged in anti-piracy operations. Not only that, but in what appears to be another manifestation of the kind of thinking that made a Chinese admiral recently offer to divide up the world’s oceans with his US counterpart, China is discussing this with Russia, Japan, EU and NATO. Mr Medcalf writes:

I very much doubt that other powers would accept such a move—and nor should they—because it would suggest that China is not really willing to engage in serious coordination, cooperation or transparency at sea. Carving up national maritime zones in the Indian Ocean would both reflect and worsen mistrust. It implies the failure of multilateralism, not its success. The Cold War was all about zones, spheres, sectors: think occupied Berlin. And what would happen if ships from one country strayed into another’s chosen sector?

We also need to wonder how accurate is the article’s assertion that ‘the prospect of each country being given responsibility for a certain area of ocean’ is being welcomed by the shipping industry.

Second, it was intriguing that India received no mention in the article as one of the countries that China needs or wants to coordinate with in the Indian Ocean.[Lowy Interpreter]

The first thing to note here is that such territorialism doesn’t make much sense given the vast expanse of the world’s oceans—or even the Gulf of Aden—compared to the number of ships that the world’s navies have. There is thus a very strong case for naval co-operation and co-ordination against maritime threats. It is inconceivable that Chinese maritime strategists are unaware of this.

So why is China floating what appears to be a foolish idea? Look at the countries mentioned in the media report—Russia, Japan, EU and NATO. What is common to them is that they—like China itself—are outside the Indian Ocean region. Furthermore, China has not been admitted to the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), a new platform for the navies of Indian Ocean littoral states. Beijing might be attempting to force its way into IONS by raising the bogey of an alternative organisation of extra-regional powers. (India’s unwillingness to admit China into IONS is par for the course, as China routinely attempts to keep India and the United States out of East Asian groupings)

But that is only a charitable explanation. China might be trying to gain exclusive control of key international waterways—an intention that is all the more disturbing given the rapid expansion of the PLA Navy’s capacity.

In any event, India must strengthen not only its naval operations in Indian Ocean theatres like the Gulf of Aden—something that we have been stressing for long—but also deepen maritime co-operation with the navies of the United States, Australia, Japan and Indonesia.

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.

Clueless in Kandahar

Helping Af, helpless on Pak

Let’s be fair to Richard Holbrooke. He could not have pre-empted an upcoming announcement of benchmarks of success that the Obama administration has set for its Af-Pak policy. That’s why when asked how success will be measured, he could only say “We’ll know it when we see it”. Yes, he did get some flak for that.

In all likelihood, we’ll get some benchmarks in the coming weeks. But one thing is clear: the “limited set of objectives” President Obama promised have effectively become “the expansive goals of “armed state building”.” So there’s a lot of soul-searching among the United States’ allies on why they are in Afghanistan and what they are doing there.

The opportunity cost of the debate over “What we’re doing in Afghanistan” is brought out by Sam Roggeveen over at the excellent Lowy Interpreter:

It’s all a reminder that the real danger (nuclear terrorism) is in Pakistan, and although there’s no obvious solution anyone can offer to that country’s problems, that does not excuse the fact that we are throwing so many resources at the wrong problem.

It’s said that when a drunk drops his keys, he looks for it under the lamp-post, because that’s where the light is better. Time to sober up. [TLI]

Raging in Beijing

Rio Tinto is the latest of a series of mistakes that China has made recently. Why, and why now?

“Drawing that direct link” the Wall Street Journal says “between the fortunes of (Chinese) steel mills and the interests of the Chinese state has alarmed foreign officials and businesspeople.” It refers to the arrest—on espionage charges—of four employees of Rio Tinto, a British-Australian mining company, amid tense negotiations over the price of iron ore. Coming as it does a few weeks after Australian shareholders rebuffed an attempt by China’s state-owned aluminium company to acquire a bigger stake in Rio Tinto, the possibility exists that China’s move was in part motivated by a sense of retribution.

It is not uncommon for big commercial negotiations to involve an element of trying to find out what the other side’s positions are. Sometimes, the methods used can cross the line of legality and become criminal acts. But to term such acts as stealing “state secrets” and assert that they harmed China’s “economic interests and economic security”, while being technically correct, are clearly the use of state power in the service of the commercial interests. By implication, the commercial interests of China’s state-owned firms are in the service of state power.

One key risk for Beijing is that its actions will set back years of efforts to persuade the world that Chinese state-owned enterprises are independent, commercially run entities, lawyers say. Cash-rich Chinese state companies, scouring the world for deals, must present themselves as profit-driven independent entities to overcome suspicions that they are fronts for the Chinese government.

But the Chinese government’s argument that these companies’ interests are identical with that of the state could now be undermining that effort. [WSJ]

That’s bad news for those who took that argument at face value, and there certainly were many of those. But the reality is, as fellow INI blogger V Anantha Nageswaran has argued, “right now, China has neither a command economy nor a market economy. It has a political economy.” Or Greg Sheridan, one of the most perspicacious Australian commentators, puts it baldly: “One of the most important lessons to come out of this mess is the absolute shattering of the myth that Chinese government-owned commercial entities are not part of China Inc.”

The Rio Tinto case should sensitise the Australian government to the folly of a natural resource exporting economy depending on one big buyer.

But the more important question is: why has China shed the pretence now? It is unlikely that China’s leaders would want the “peaceful rise” theory to be shattered over relatively trivial matters as the price of iron ore. Or for that matter, over an ADB loan programme to India. China cannot aspire to topple the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency unless it has the support of countries such as India and Australia.

One explanation is that it’s gone into their head and the Chinese leadership is flexing its muscles ignoring Deng Xiaoping’s advice to “keep your head down” (of course, his aphorisms were a lot less prosaic).

The other is that the balance of power within the ruling Communist party has become unstable—the factional intrigues within the leadership have resulted in several embarrassing or self-defeating incidents in recent months: making the ADB a platform to push a bilateral dispute ended in China’s total isolation; a poorly-conceived, poorly executed internet monitoring policy that ultimately ended up sparking a trade dispute with the United States; Pyongyang’s belligerence has killed the six-party talks, and undermined China’s regional standing; ethnic rioting in Urumqi and Hu Jintao’s absence at the G-8 summit prompted renewed concern over China’s political stability; and, of course, haggling over the price of iron-ore has successfully alienated the most China-friendly Australian government in more than a decade.

So much bungling in such a short period of time—from a regime that is seen as a deliberate, strategic player—rules out mere incompetence. While an outright leadership struggle is be unlikely, it could well be that a fratricidal war of succession is raging in Beijing.

Australian rules

Attack victims must make their case within the bounds of Australian law

Both SM Krishna, India’s foreign minister, and Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, have advised Indian students against—pardon the cliche—taking the law into their own hands. First, Mr Krishna urged the students “to be patient and show restraint…and concentrate on (studies) rather than retaliate”. Then Mr Rudd warned that “it’s unacceptable for anyone to commit an act of violence against any student of any ethnicity anywhere in Australia. It’s equally unacceptable for so-called reprisal attacks and for so-called vigilante action as well.” While Mr Rudd’s attempt to draw an equivalence between the two can be debated, what is indisputable is the fact that where there is rule-of-law, violation of the law has no justification.

But if there is rule-of-law in Australia, why do the Indian students feel the need to set-up “vigilante groups” to protect their compatriots? This is, first, a question for the Australian government and Australian society to contemplate. At the very least it suggests that the response of the Australian state after the first few attacks was found wanting.

Be that as it may: there is no excuse for violating the law. The Indian government must spare no attempt to ensure the safety and security of Indian nationals anywhere in the world. Where they are innocent victims, the government must do what is necessary to protect them and ensure that justice is done. But if they are accused or guilty of an offence, the government’s job is not to apologise or shield them, but rather, that due legal processes are followed and their rights are protected.

Tailpiece: On the matter of racism: Australia is not a racist country. There are racists in Australia, some of who attack foreigners. But it is incorrect and unfair to extend this argument and characterise the whole country as racist. There are anti-racists too and they are speaking up.

Curry bashers beware

Australia appears to be unaware of how serious a risk the attacks on Indian students poses to its economy

The Australian’s Greg Sheridan weighs in on an issue that has—despite its economic and political significance–received unduly little coverage in the Australian media.

The recent spate of bashings of Indian students in Melbourne is an appalling episode in this nation’s history. It is a serious social, educational, diplomatic and probably economic crisis that no one is taking seriously enough. The performance of John Brumby’s Victorian Government has been pathetic. It has stumbled from bland denial to belated symbolism, never acknowledging the gravity of the problem or its own culpability and not taking any serious action to confront it.

The Rudd Government’s response also has been belated, but there is a better sense in Canberra of the problem’s dimensions.

It seems astonishing that you would have to argue with anybody that a big outbreak of racist violence in an Australian capital city is a first-order problem.

Last financial year nearly 1500 assaults and robberies were committed on people of Indian origin in Victoria, up by nearly one-third from the year before. But what has rightly gained international attention is the many assaults on Indian students.

Brumby and his Police Commissioner Simon Overland at first were inclined to deny the problem was racial at all. Eventually they came to admit that some attacks were racial, but still cling to the idiotic defence that most of the crimes are opportunistic, as if it’s impossible to be opportunistic and racist.

In making these assertions, Brumby and co must be the only people who believe them. Certainly the victims of the crimes don’t. [The Australian]

Mr Sheridan’s piece is worth reading in full. As a Australia-based commenter on Atanu Dey’s blog says, Indian students are aggrieved that both the Australian authorities and the media are not treating the matter with the seriousness it deserves. It is wrong to think, as some Australian politicians seem to, that more cricket will somehow repair the damage to Australia’s reputation these incidents have caused.

Related Links: Niranjan Rajadhyaksha and Atanu Dey draw attention to the need for India to liberalise its education sector.