Reconstructing Afghanistan’s natural balance

Why India must try to bring the United States, Iran and Russia together over Afghanistan

Imagine Afghanistan without extra-regional powers like the United States, NATO and others. Its stability would depend on the stability of the balance of power between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan and India. The external actors would broadly fall into two camps, based on the degree of convergence of their interests: China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the red corner, and India, Iran and Russia in the blue. This was roughly the situation obtaining in Afghanistan in the second-half of the 1990s towards the end of which the red corner seized a dominant upper hand through the military success of Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime. After 9/11, the US and NATO stepped in and disrupted the natural geopolitical dynamics of the region.

Once external powers withdraw Afghanistan the natural geopolitics will again kick into action: with the China-Saudi-Pakistan triad seeking dominance over the landlocked country against the interests of India, Iran and Russia. The United States has the power to set the future trajectory by choosing sides. The tragedy of the last decade is the sheer inability or unwillingness (complicity or incompetence?) of the United States to appreciate the intrinsic geopolitics of the region. It would have done much better for itself and for Afghanistan if it had recognised how the fundamental interests of the region’s powers were stacked up, and aligned itself accordingly.

The single most important reason for this, perhaps, was the dysfunctional relationship between Iran. There still is no love lost between Washington and Tehran. Worse, even as China consolidates its alliance with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the United States seeks to split India and Iran. For its part, India has shown no appetite for bringing about a rapprochement between the United States and Tehran.

This must change, and 2011 has opened a window for India, Iran and the United States to attempt to increase co-operation over Afghanistan. Writing in the Washington Post, a well-connected Saudi commentator has declared a US-Saudi split. The Pakistani establishment is checking how much support it will receive from China before deciding how much to part ways with the United States. Before the killing of Osama bin Laden upset the scoreboard, General Kayani and Prime Minister Gilani had asked Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, to cut his links with the United States. In the current circumstances China doesn’t have to do anything bold: it just needs to wait.

In contrast, even after Abbottabad, the United States remains wedded to a failed strategy of pretending that the Pakistani military establishment is its ally. This only strengthens the position of the China-Saudi-Pakistan triad, and weakens its own. New Delhi is unlikely to be persuaded that it enjoys a genuinely strategic relationship with the United States as long as the latter continues to scaffold Pakistan. Tehran has many reasons to be opposed to the United States. A good part of that is ideological. What gets less attention is the fact that the realists in Tehran have reason to be wary of the United States because they see Washington as the protector of both Israel and, more importantly, the Sunni bloc consisting of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. There are some differences between New Delhi and Tehran, but nothing that can’t be resolved if Washington were to change course. Russia enjoys good relations with both Iran and India, and is likely to prefer such a re-arrangement of relations.

If realism prevails in Washington, New Delhi and Tehran, their diplomats will be galvanised into working out how the three could co-operate, albeit in a limited context, over Afghanistan. It may be that nearly three decades of estrangement has left the tribal world of Washington policymaking with few advocates of making up with Iran. That’s why India has a role—it must muster up the imagination and diplomatic chutzpah to attempt this project.

It is frustrating to see resigned minds give up before even trying.

Related Links: Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement (from this blog’s archives) and Neil Padukone’s issue brief at CLAWS.

The Asian Balance: Temples, rivers and other disputes

The list of regional security issues where ASEAN is falling short is growing

Excerpts from today’s Business Standard column:

Yet, ASEAN, a regional grouping often celebrated for its pragmatism and competence, has been unable to keep two of its members from going to war with each other. It will now try to play peacemaker, but it is unlikely that it can achieve anything beyond temporary damage control. Cambodia has legal title, but Thailand is more powerful. Preah Vihear is intertwined with Thailand’s domestic political turmoil, and because ASEAN cannot interfere in the internal affairs of its members, meaningful mediation will have to wait until the unrest, intrigue and ferment in Bangkok subsides. Even then, there is no guarantee that the Thais will allow their relative power advantage to be neutralised by accepting third-party arbitration.

ASEAN’s failure to prevent the Thai-Cambodian border dispute from escalating into a shooting war calls into question its ability to take on the more challenging project of anchoring East Asia’s security architecture. That’s not all. ASEAN states have been extremely reluctant to maintain solidarity with their counterparts in the latter’s disputes with non-ASEAN states. It is to the US that Vietnam and the Philippines turned last year when China upped the ante over the maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

But Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam—lower riparians of the Mekong river—have no one to turn to in the dispute over water sharing with China. [Business Standard]

Related Links: More on the Mekong dams, from this interview with Ame Trandem. I also cite Timo Menniken’s academic paper on lessons from the Mekong on China’s behaviour in international resource politics.

Regarding Egypt’s political transformation

Managing risks is better than trying to predict the future

So what should the Indian government do about the ongoing political transformation in Egypt?

First, ensure that Indian citizens and their interests are protected during and after the crisis. New Delhi has done well on this account, with the Indian embassy in Cairo putting out a statement on the safety of the Indian community there, establishing hotlines and organising special flights to evacuate citizens from Egypt.

Second, it is both premature and arrogant to presume that certain outcomes of the political transformation are desirable merely on account that they are either democratic or that they will prevent destabilising the entire region. It is too early to tell how the transformation will proceed, less to determine whether tomorrow’s political dispensation will be pro- or anti-India. A democratic Egypt—whether or not in the hands of moderate or extremist Islamists—can still pursue anti-India policies, just as an authoritarian regime can. We might prefer a secular, democratic Egyptian republic, but that’s really projecting our own values and biases on them.

New Delhi would do well to avoid taking sides in this conflict—leaving it to the likes of the United States and Europe to pay up for dishes they ordered. At the same time, the Indian government must signal that it will do business with whoever remains or comes to power.

Third, India must prepare to deal with the consequences of the Egyptian transformation, both in Egypt and in the wider Middle East. Much of this is contingency planning: how would India be affected if the reigning despots are replaced by politically elected governments, which might be Islamist? Would we see a shift in the Middle Eastern balance of power, weakening Saudi Arabia and strengthening Turkey? Should anti-American regimes come to power, will they attempt to rely on China to sustain their confrontation with the United States? What will the United States demand of India? These are just some of the questions that need deeper thinking and something that the Ministry of External Affairs’ policy planning department should be working on.

Update: Chimaya Gharekhan in The Hindu & C Raja Mohan in the Indian Express on the subject. (linkthanks Pragmatic_D)

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 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]

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]

Pax Indica: The Palestinian Card

The First Law of Middle Eastern Geopolitics

In this fortnight’s Pax Indica column, I record Turkey’s breakout moment.

(It) was only when Turkey floated the flotilla to Gaza that people took notice. The successor to the Ottoman empire had announced its arrival.

The re-emergence of Turkey as a major power offers India the opportunity to balance its relationships with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. This calls for India to reorient its relationship with Turkey, identify common interests—managing China’s influence in Central Asia, for instance—and convert them into cooperative initiatives. That will also require Turkey to look beyond its relationship with Pakistan. In fact, this is the issue that will answer the big question: is Davutoglu’s neo-Ottomanism merely pan-Islamism or is it about Turkey’s national interests? If it is the former, then Turkey will allow its relationship with India to be constrained by its ties with Pakistan. Not so, if it is the latter. [Yahoo! India]

Pax Indica: Why India must swing

Strategy in a triangular predicament

In today’s Pax Indica column, I argue “that despite an alignment of interests, (India) must not always side with the United States. It must swing.”

To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, India’s options toward the United States and China must always be greater than their options toward each other. It serves “our purposes best if we maintained closer relations with each side than they did with each other.” Isn’t this—by design or by default—what we’re already doing? Not really. That’s because until New Delhi demonstrates that it can deliver pain for one and pleasure for the other, it won’t be seen as swinging. It will be mistaken for sleep-walking. [Yahoo! India]

Read the whole thing. Coincidentally, this piece has the answer to the question that Dan Drezner poses on his blog today, though the question itself is posed from a quintessentially American frame of reference.

The New Himalayas

Nuclear weapons are doing what high mountains once did

As K M Panikkar noted, while India developed a sophisticated framework of inter-state relations within the natural frontiers of the subcontinent it “lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers”. Arrian, the ancient Greek writer, contended that Indian kings refrained from expanding their kingdoms beyond the subcontinent because it might have even been seen as morally incorrect. Thus, while the classical Indian tradition of realist statecraft leaves us with the assessment that in the raja-mandala the immediate neighbour is an adversary and the state beyond it an ally, in practice, this is tempered by the fact that this applied to subcontinental affairs only.

China, on the other hand, sees the world divided between the civilised world centred around itself, the Middle Kingdom, on the one hand and the world of uncivilised barbarians on the other. At the periphery of the Middle Kingdom (and still within the civilised world) lay the states who paid tribute to the Chinese emperor and professed to be in awe of its great civilisation. What this meant in practice was that the Han Chinese Middle Kingdom expected its neighbours to be tributaries—the concept of a sovereign equal simply didn’t exist.

These two disparate frameworks of international relations co-existed next to each other for the most part of human history because of the unique geography—the Himalayas acted as the strategic barrier between India and China and made large scale movement of people and goods impossible. Armies couldn’t cross the mountains and the disparity in their international relations frameworks didn’t actually clash. The Himalayas kept the peace between the two civilisations.

Until the twentieth century, when the advances in technology made it possible, for the first time in human history, to breach the Himalayan barrier (in a strict sense, the Himalayas had been breached once before in 649 CE). And when in 1950 Communist China annexed Tibet—as opposed to treating it as a tributary—India and China became neighbours. For India, this meant, in the Kautilyan sense, that China was now the ‘enemy’. For China, India was now a state on the periphery of the Middle Kingdom, and therefore a ‘tributary’. The Himalayan barrier fell, and placed two conflicting worldviews in direct confrontation. It is no coincidence that this led to military conflict in 1962 and 1967.

But if technology broke one strategic barrier it also helped raise a new one. Starting from 1974 and especially after 1998 nuclear weapons replaced the Himalayan mountain range as the factor that deterred war. The new strategic barrier will improve as India’s missile capability improves and brings key Chinese cities within range making a direct military conflict between the two very unlikely.

However, this does not mean that the underlying conflict has gone away. It has, on the contrary, intensified as today both China and India have regional and global strategic imprints. The Middle Kingdom is much bigger, forced to work within a system of sovereign states that is alien to it, even as its tradition would cause it to expect ‘tribute’ from its much larger strategic periphery. India is more comfortable among sovereign states and is beginning to work off a global raja-mandala.

The New Himalayas might keep the peace along the old ones, but they won’t stop the wider geopolitical contest that will take place in the coming decades. It is therefore important for the Indian mindset move beyond the five decades of the second half of the twentieth-century when the old barriers were down and the new ones hadn’t come up yet. The game has changed (See what the astute admiral said). To bring the global raja-mandala into balance, India must seek allies that lie beyond China.

My op-ed in Mint: Managing “armed co-existence” with China

A realist appraisal of the trans-Himalayan context

In today’s Mint Sushant and I argue that more than worrying about an unlikely Chinese invasion, India ought to focus on managing the armed co-existence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China. Excerpts:

Chinese scholars have suggested that this is due to Beijing’s assessment that no Indian political leader will be able to sell the compromise to the public. While this might be true, it certainly is self-serving. If the leadership in Beijing were merely waiting for Indian public opinion to hit the Goldilocks moment for a territorial compromise, they would hardly be backtracking on their own prior commitments, not least by amplifying China’s claims to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

While the risk of even a limited military conflict are overstated, it is true that there is indeed a state of armed coexistence—to use Mao Zedong’s phrase—along the line of actual control (LOAC). “You wave a gun,” Mao said, referring to Nehru, “and I’ll wave a gun. We’ll stand face to face and can each practice our courage.”

The Great Helmsman was speaking metaphorically. In reality this means that each side must expect incursions from the other. At the same each side must ensure that these don’t get out of hand. This is one lesson from October 1962 and there are signs that it is a lesson that has been learnt. Note that much of the recent furore over red-painted boulders and helicopter-dropped canned food in Ladakh was mainly due to a hyperventilating media—the official reaction from both the Indian foreign ministry and the armed forces played down the incidents.

While eschewing paranoia, alarmism and irresponsible rhetoric, a state of armed coexistence requires astute management. First, Indian and Chinese officials—civilian and military—must communicate across all levels. The establishment of a hotline between the heads of government must be followed up with communication links and better contacts between military commanders at operational levels. Despite appearances, the Chinese government is not monolithic and India must develop independent links to its various power centres.

Second, India must continue to invest in conventional defences to ensure that the military balance across the Himalayan frontier remains stable in the face of the PLA’s rapid modernisation. This calls for careful planning as to the type of military assets used and the areas where they are deployed, to minimise the risk of miscalculation by either side. Also, as Admiral Sureesh Mehta said in an important speech a few days before he stepped down as navy chief, “on the military front, our strategy to deal with China must include reducing the military gap and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean Region. The traditional or ‘attritionist’ approach of matching ‘Division for Division’ must give way to harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent.”

Third, India must avoid creating needless suspicions in Beijing over its Tibet policy. John Garver, a noted scholar of India-China relations, determines that Mao’s profound misreading of Nehru’s strategic intentions over Tibet was one of the main drivers of China’s decision to go to war with India in 1962. New Delhi must not allow the Tibetans’ struggle to unduly determine how it is perceived by the Chinese leadership.

Finally, not everything about India-China border issue lies in the domain of foreign policy. It’s not only about ‘development’ of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Ladakh. It is about making them part of the political, economic and social mainstream. [Mint]