Here we go again

Dialogue with Pakistan should be part of an overall strategy.

“What was being done as composite dialogue, and was later called the resumed dialogue, will now be called the comprehensive bilateral dialogue.” Sushma Swaraj, External Affairs Minister [IE]

Given the history of the last fifteen years, it is hard to not be cynical about the re-initiation of the dialogue process with Pakistan. Governments engage, the Pakistani military and/or their jihadi proxies escalate violence in India and New Delhi is compelled to disengage. Time passes. Labels change. And the cycle repeats. The odds are that this round too will go the way of the previous ones. [See a previous post on the problem of talking to Pakistan]

What’s different this time? Well, this is perhaps the first time that the Indian government is indirectly engaging the Pakistani military leadership through, and alongside the Pakistani civilian government. Vajpayee engaged a Nawaz Sharif who was at loggerheads with the army, and a Musharraf who was a military dictator. Manmohan Singh engaged the same dictator and then Asif Zardari, a civilian president, who was out of the loop with the military establishment. When Narendra Modi first engaged Nawaz Sharif, the latter had already lost his hold on the military establishment. Now, with a recently retired general, Naseer Khan Janjua representing the army chief within the official setup as National Security Advisor, the Modi government will be talking to both the civilian and the military power centres at the same time.

If New Delhi could engage the Pakistani army directly, it would have been able to engage both power centres separately. Like the United States and China have shown, this has some tactical and transactional advantages. However, since New Delhi will not engage the Pakistan army, the current setup, with the army more involved in the process is better than it being not involved at all. What outcomes this will bring depends to a large extent on what the Pakistani military establishment chooses: it could replay the old records–which is what we should expect–and take us back to a new phase of the engagement-disengagement cycle.

The Modi government, like its predecessors, has decided to take the chance that “maybe, this time it will be different.” The only risk of this process is that Pakistan gets a little more rehabilitated in the international system, and take the pressure off its rulers on the issue of containing domestic and international terrorism. Also, the malevolent quarters of the Pakistani establishment might get emboldened to seize the opportunity and trigger violence in India. That is a risk that New Delhi must manage.

Of course, it is possible that the Pakistani military establishment might try a new routine and decide to lower tensions, both along the Line of Control and in terms of their jihadi proxies. This is unlikely because doing so would not only reduce its political salience, but put it along a path where its raison d’etre will be in question.

From New Delhi’s perspective, resuming dialogue — even the all-new comprehensive bilateral one — should be part of a overall strategy of its own desired outcome for Pakistan. [See an old post on talks and action bias]. This blog has argued that the containment and the eventual destruction of the military-jihadi complex is an essential part of that desired outcome. If dialogue can help achieve that, it is useful (as in February 2010). If not, well, we’ve seen this movie before.

This needs diplomacy

Going overboard on local law enforcement is not the way to go

There have been two broad sets of reactions in India and among Indians to the arrest of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul general in New York, on underpaying the domestic helper.

First, there has been a fierce nationalistic response, supporting retaliatory measures against US diplomats in India. This has not only staunchly backed the Indian government’s surprisingly swift actions in suspending import clearances for the US embassy’s liquor supplies and removing traffic barriers that the embassy installed outside its premises. There is a clamour among such quarters for even more.

Now, while it is important that New Delhi send strong signals to the Washington that India will not tolerate its diplomats—albeit one accused of an offence—being treated as dangerous criminals, the reactionary perspective ignores the risks to the painstakingly built bilateral relationship between the two countries.

Second, there are those who argue that Ms Khobragade is in the wrong and her absconding domestic helper is the one who is truly wronged. Some have argued that the Indian bureaucracy is too used to privilege at home and should not expect such perquisites as domestic helpers abroad, that they should “do their own dishes, like everyone else.” Furthermore, they contend, would the foreign service act with such alacrity if an ordinary citizen had been arrested?

Going by media reports there are grounds to accept that the authorities have a case against Ms Khobragade. Whether or not she enjoys diplomatic immunity, if it is established she has committed an offence, it is right that consequences should follow. NRIs and Indians might reasonably resent what they see as privilege and less reasonably use stereotypes to pronounce judgement on Ms Khobragade, but these are peripheral to the issue. The Indian government is obliged to take care of its employees abroad—not least a consular officer charged with the responsibility of taking care of citizens’ interests abroad!—just like any other employer.

Between liberal democratic rule-of-law countries like India and the United States, such matters are best handled in courts of law (see an earlier post on the case of the Italian marines). This is complicated in Ms Khobragade’s case, as both Indian and US courts are involved. Even so, letting the legal process determine a solution would have been and is still probably the best course of action. What complicated matters is the manner in which Ms Khobragade was arrested and treated by US authorities. She is a diplomat, the nature of her alleged offence is more in the nature of a breach of contract than a violent crime, and despite what is popularly claimed, the US authorities do treat different people differently (ask Prince Bandar for details).

The bigger problem with the “US enforces its laws seriously” argument is that Indian authorities can do it too. That would make things ugly indeed because there are quite a few statutes in our books whose strict interpretation could place more than a few foreign diplomats in prison, and ordinary treatment in Indian prisons is not, to put it mildly, pleasant. For instance, a senior BJP leader has demanded that the government invoke Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code—that renders illegal many quotidian sexual acts between consenting adults—against US diplomats. Even if it sounds over the top, it demonstrates that riding the legalistic high-horse won’t help. [We strongly disagree with Section 377, just as many Americans disagree with minimum wage laws.]

Therefore, diplomacy needs to kick in to make the situation conducive to a legal solution. Unless this happens, legalistic processes can escalate the matter into a situation where it becomes difficult for either side to give in or back off. Foreign relations are too important to be left to district attorneys, traffic policemen and customs officers. We can say with some confidence that no serious person in Washington or New Delhi wants Ms Khobragade’s case to undermine bilateral relations. Now that both sides have made their points, it is time for the political leaders to intervene and arrest the process.

My colleague V Anantha Nageswaran noted that the speed and force with which New Delhi acted against the United States on a minor issue like this stands out against the reluctance the Indian government demonstrates while handling Chinese or Pakistani transgressions. Of course, grandstanding against the West comes naturally to New Delhi but could it also be that the bilateral relationship is on such a footing today that our foreign policy establishment presumes that this won’t affect the big picture?

Even so, the UPA government and the Obama administration will be jointly responsible if this incident is any more than a temporary irritant in the bilateral relationship.

Related Link: An ugly diplomatic exchange — My storified comments on Twitter.

Examining the US-Pakistan standoff

The Pakistani establishment is grappling with the consequences of underestimating the United States

There is a lot of commentary on how US-Pakistan relations are in crisis and “hitting new lows” each day. Much of this is indeed true—not because of what the Obama administration says or does not say, but because of how the US Congress perceives the situation. If US politicians, across party lines, have turned hostile towards Pakistan, it is because they are sensitive to public opinion. Until the public mood changes, it will be much more difficult for any US president to paper over Pakistan’s shenanigans for reasons of foreign policy expediency. Washington’s ‘South Asian’ commentariat is slowly coming to realise that both the Obama administration and public opinion has left their old Pakistan narrative behind.

The current standoff has come about due to two reasons: first, General Kayani overplaying his cards; and second, the Zardari government giving up manoeuvring room by passing the buck to the parliament.

The Pakistani army thought it had a trump card in choking the supply lines and played it. It didn’t work, not least because similar acts and threats in the past had caused US military planners to work out alternatives. Shutting down the supply routes backfired on Pakistan: it has been frozen out of the diplomatic scene, US Congress has cut financial assistance and it has ended up back in the doghouse of international public opinion. The Pakistani military establishment still doesn’t get it. Judging from views expressed by pro-establishment opinion makers, they still seem to believe that US and NATO desperately need the supply routes to get out of Afghanistan. They do not consider the possibility of an exit strategy involving a combination of airlifts, passage through the Northern Distribution Network, asset transfers to the Afghan security forces and destruction of the rest. Speed matters when troops are getting in. It matters less when they are going back home. However, the Pakistani military establishment’s blinkered smugness is bolstering intransigence. (Munir Akram, a former Pakistani diplomat, even advocated showing nuclear teeth to the US.)

Under attack from a stridently anti-American media, a populist Imran Khan and the galvanisation of militant politics, the Zardari government handed over the hot potato of US-Pakistan relations to Parliament. This was clever, because it passed the buck to parliament and diffused responsibility. However, it has tied down the government’s hands now, because it requires a lot more political capital for Mr Zardari to “give and take” on anything unless the US delivers on Pakistan’s maximalist claims—an official apology for the Shalala encounter and a complete cessation of drone attacks on Pakistani soil.

The United States is in no mood to yield on either of this. An official apology would not only weaken President Obama during his re-election campaign but will be very unpopular among the US military rank-and-file. For all the diplomatic contortions Washington has engaged in over the last ten years, it is the US military that has suffered the ground reality of Pakistan’s duplicity. So an apology is unlikely until after the US election season is over. Ending drone strikes is even less likely, as they remain the most important instrument the US has to combat the international threat to its national security.

This standoff will be hard to resolve. Even so, both parties have subtly changed the framing of the issue to enable a resolution. Note Washington’s public statements tend to be about supply routes—suggesting that if Pakistan offers a reasonable compromise on this issue, the process of rebuilding the relationship can start. Similarly, while Pakistan’s sentencing of the doctor who assisted the CIA in identifying bin Laden is surely a tit-for-tat response to President Obama’s snub at Chicago, it has done so in a manner that allows compromise. Trying him under the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) allows the Pakistani government to arbitrarily change the sentence or acquit him without involving the judiciary. It is willing to trade.

Despite this negotiating room, the Zardari government is unlikely to be capable of grabbing the negotiating lifeline and arriving at a deal on the supply routes. Getting Sherry Rehman, its US ambassador and Bilawal Zardari-Bhutto, the party co-chairman to reinforce the demand for a US apology was a mistake if they didn’t already know that the US was likely to yield. It has now only made it harder for Mr Zardari to compromise. Similarly, while the US is concerned about the fate of Dr Shakeel Afridi, it is unlikely to yield to a prisoner-swap deal.

Neither side is likely to blink. But one side is bleeding.

S M Krishna’s doctrine

The focus must shift to the real Pravasi Bharatiya

S M Krishna is an unlikely person to lend his name to a foreign policy doctrine. He has, however, latched onto something that Indian foreign policy tends to ignore—that protecting the lives and well-being of Indian citizens abroad ought to be an important objective of the Indian state. In a 2006 list of top ten foreign policy objectives, I argue India must “protect—and credibly demonstrate the intention to protect at all costs—the lives and well-being of Indian citizens living abroad, (and) never forgive governments, organisations or individuals who harm Indians.”

It is easy to derogate this objective as a ‘consular’ function or set it aside as an emergency function that the Indian government engages in during times of political unrest or natural disaster. There is no doubt that Indian missions must provide consular services or help evacuate Indians during times of need. The record is patchy on the former—there are wide differences in the quality of service provided by Indian missions abroad—and fairly exemplary on the latter. Whether during the first Gulf War, during the Lebanon crisis or more recently in Libya, India has done fairly well in getting its citizens out of danger.

However, India’s foreign policy discourse is yet to grasp that how the Indian government treats its citizens abroad—and how the world sees it treat its citizens abroad—has strategic implications. As long as Indians are engaged in activities like low-skilled labour and providing low-paying services, in the popular mind of the host countries, their low social status gets associated with the image of India.

No matter how much they appreciate your cuisine, how much they adore your celebrities, how rich they grow on trade with you, their perception of India is unduly influenced by the Indians they encounter on a daily basis. What works to India’s advantage in places like the United States and Britain, works to its detriment in the Middle East and parts of South East Asia.

It is true that employers and ordinary people in some countries ill-treat immigrant workers. It’s tremendously difficult for India to get them to change. What New Delhi can do is to start treating its citizens abroad with much greater respect that it does currently. Not just the well-to-do Non-Resident Indian professionals on the top of the social pyramid, but also the large numbers of Non-Resident Indian workers at the bottom. When was the last time a visiting Prime Minister or Foreign Minister addressed a gathering of carpenters, brick layers, electricians, janitors, garbage collectors and so on? When host nations observe how seriously Indian expatriate communities and the Indian government treats people which they regard as an underclass, their own attitudes will have to change. This will change the way they and their governments perceive India. If there is such a thing as soft power, this is where it matters.

Instead of focussing on this segment, we have seen the Indian government organise gala schmoozefests for the rich and the famous among the Indian diaspora. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs and the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas are not only a waste of public funds, but a sign of misguided priorities. Public funds are better spent strengthening the size of Indian missions abroad and improving the resources ambassadors have to better serve the needs of Indian communities. What strategic objective is served by conferring awards on already rich, already famous and already respected individuals of Indian genetic stock? The government of India should leave glitzy awards ceremonies to the entertainment industry.

The focus and the resources must shift towards the ordinary Indian who carries his blue passport and disproportionately contributes towards inward remittances. If Mr Krishna’s new directives move Indian foreign policy this way, it might achieve more than merely address “the needs of Indian nationals abroad—especially those in distress.” If they are pushed far enough, they will affect the way the world perceives India.

Direct channel to Rawalpindi

Engaging the Pakistani army chief is a good idea. Conceding anything is not.

In a Pax Indica column in September 2010 I wrote about India’s engagement paradox:

New Delhi talks to the powerless but can’t talk to those in power, or vice versa. It’s most obvious in Pakistan. General Ashfaq Kayani is the man calling the shots. India has no direct channel of communication with him. The people New Delhi does talk to — the likes of President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani — have little say in the subjects that New Delhi talks to them about. This creates an illusion of movement in bilateral relations when, fundamentally, there is none. To be fair, the fact that Pakistan has such a complicated political structure (I’m being charitable here) is not India’s fault. But if the Americans can rejig their foreign policy apparatus such that some people talk to the generals while others talk to the politicians, surely, so can we. [The Acorn/Yahoo!]

Why might this be the case? In last Monday’s Business Standard column I argued that:

(One) reason why India finds itself in a bind with respect to Pakistan, where it needs to engage the real power centre but finds itself with no means to. It is not a matter of matching protocol, for it is not purely military matters that we wish to discuss with General Kayani. Washington, in comparison, handles this a lot better through Admiral Mullen and General David Petraeus, the CENTCOM chief, who are the primary interlocutors with the Pakistan army. Given that these admirals and generals are engaged in diplomatic activities of serious importance to India, can we afford to stay out of the military diplomatic loop?[The Acorn/Business Standard]

While India has not shied from talking to Pakistani army chiefs after they become dictators, dealing with General Ashfaq Kayani directly challenges diplomatic optics. The 26/11 attacks and their aftermath left no doubt that it was he, and not the Zardari-Gilani government, that was in charge. Yet, because he did not announce himself to be the dictator, chief executive or president of Pakistan, the Indian government couldn’t openly deal with him.

Bharat Karnad first alluded to a direct back channel engagement late last month (linkthanks Swami Iyer). However, it was a London Times report over the weekend that captured attention in India. The Prime Minister’s Office has issued a carefully worded denial while the Pakistani military spokesman declined to comment. It is highly likely that the reports are generally accurate and a direct channel, albeit with some deniability, has been in place for the last few months. [See this post at Pragmatic Euphony]

Why it makes sense to engage
It makes sense to directly engage the real centre of power in Pakistan. First, it allows India’s policymakers to both understand the Pakistani army’s motivations, thinking and demands, and also to communicate its own positions (both bilateral and those relating to Afghanistan). [See editorials in Mint and Indian Express]

Second, initiating an engagement “ten months ago” could have helped tactically buy respite from terrorist attacks during a critical period—post-crisis economic recovery and the world cup cricket tournament. Tactically again, it could be intended to reduce the heat of the 2011 summer in Kashmir.

To induce co-operation, though, India might have to indicate its flexibility on some issues: most likely, downplaying demands to prosecute Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders and playing up the resolution of the Sir Creek and Siachen issues.

Why such engagement is risky
For all its advantages, engaging Kayani & Co is not without risks.

First, there is a risk that it will lull the Indian security establishment into believing in the other sides’ bona fides, as after Vajpayee’s bus ride to Lahore. Keeping it secret mitigates this risk to some extent, but to the extent that it affects the psychologies of the prime minister and the top echelon of the national security apparatus, the risk of being backstabbed should concern us. Even if General Kayani himself were to have a miraculous change of heart, the Musharraf’s Musharraf effect, wherein the military-jihadi complex will act to pull the rug from under its own leader, cannot be discounted.

Second, there is a risk that the flexibility that the Indian negotiator must show in order to induce co-operation will end up locking New Delhi in. There is a perception that Siachen, for instance, is a low-hanging fruit that India can “give” to show sincerity. This is wrong: India must climb down from the Saltoro ridge entirely on its own terms. The larger issue here is that allowing the Pakistani military-jihadi complex to believe that the threat of terrorism under a nuclear umbrella will force India to concede anything is a very bad idea.

Third, a consistent impression has been created in the Indian mind that India’s approach to Pakistani aggression is to turn the other cheek. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s dogmatic approach to pursuit talks, first with Zardari-Gilani & Co and now with Kayani, risk a public backlash that risk undermining any mutual gains that might have been made as a result of it.

Fourth, Dr Singh is bargaining from a position of personal weakness, the worst position to be in while opening negotiations. He has long been out on a limb on Pakistan policy, and is just one terrorist attack away from being out of office. His government is now on the ropes on the matter of corruption and malgovernance. This compounds the risks of him making concessions in order to stay afloat.

Finally, New Delhi is reducing the pressure on General Kayani at a time when Washington is raising it. The Pakistani military-jihadi complex must be contained in the short-term. Squandering opportunities to bring forward the crunch time in Rawalpindi is an unwise move.

So what should we make of it?
On the balance, that New Delhi has chosen to open up a direct line with the Pakistani Army’s GHQ is a good thing. It could have been better timed though. We should be concerned that it is a dogmatic Dr Singh who is handling the secret, opaque process. For that reason, public debate and the political process should put a backstop on the proceedings. Opposition parties, especially the BJP, would do well to prohibit the Prime Minister from making even the smallest concession of substance.

Reality and composite dialogue

Why India is talking to Pakistan again and why it won’t achieve anything

Samanth Subramanian’s report in The National quotes my comments on New Delhi’s decision to resume the-composite-dialogue-but-we-won’t-call-it that with Pakistan:

Not calling the new talks a resumption of “composite dialogue” is important for both countries, said Nitin Pai, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, an independent strategic-affairs think tank based in Chennai. “The Indian side will look at each of the six or seven rounds of discussions, before the foreign ministers’ meeting, as a hurdle that Pakistan has to cross. The Pakistani side will say that it has resumed dialogue and gotten what it wants,” Mr Pai said. “From a purely diplomatic point of view, it’s a success to have broken the logjam.”

Mr Pai said the friction between the countries comes from India’s disconnect between “reality and the Indian government’s approach towards whatever is happening in Pakistan. You would expect things to move with reciprocity—create good faith, then take small steps”.

Instead, he said, the Indian government “driven by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is pursuing a dogmatic approach—that they have to pursue talks”. For this reason, he said, he expects “nothing concrete” to come out of them. [The National]

This warrants a more detailed post. At the political level, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waited until public memory of 26/11 faded to a level that it was politically feasible for him to resume the bilateral dialogue that he was compelled to suspend in December 2009. Whether at Sharm-el-Sheikh or at Thimphu last year, Dr Singh has dogmatically pursued dialogue with Pakistan, bending over backwards and in the face of Pakistani brazenness of epic proportions.

Faith is oblivious to facts or reason. The fact that the pompous poseurs that pass off as Pakistan’s civilian government are powerless to deliver on anything (other than meeting for talks and track-2’s) is immaterial to India’s prime minister. That General Ashfaq Kayani cannot wind down the military’s jihadi components even in the unlikely event that he wants to is lost on him. He is unconcerned that the rapid growth of Pakistan’s China-backed nuclear arsenal and US-financed conventional armoury suggests intentions inimical to rapprochement. No, Dr Manmohan Singh just wants to solve all problems by dialogue. Therefore the disconnect between India’s policy approach and objective reality.

The challenge for India’s diplomats was not so much to agree to talks with Pakistan and invite the insufferable Shah Mehmood Qureshi to New Delhi. Those were given. It was about how to do it in a manner that will not be seen as a complete cave-in to Pakistani demands. They achieved it by splitting the difference. The Pakistani side got the composite dialogue that they wanted without having to try or imprison anyone remotely connected with the 26/11 terrorist attacks. The Indian side can say that, well, we will ensure that the Pakistanis will jump seven hurdles before we make you suffer the insufferable Mr Qureshi in July.

Once a date is suggested for Mr Qureshi’s visit, the expectation is set. Whether or not the Pakistanis cross the seven hurdles, it will be extremely difficult—okay, practically impossible—for New Delhi to call off the foreign ministers’ meeting. The only hope that we’ll be spared Mr Qureshi’s obnoxious posturing is if someone else gets appointed foreign minister before then*.

Don’t believe all the solutions agreed to in track-2’s or track-1’s or track-0’s. They aren’t worth the paper they are printed on. Those who believe such promises need to understand the concept of counterparty risk. It is not a coincidence that the all-powerful General Pervez Musharraf’s political decline began around the time he presented his back-channel proposals to the Pakistani army leadership.

While talks and dialogue might impress the international community with the masochistic capabilities of India’s foreign policy, they will amount to nothing. You can’t hope to achieve much by negotiating with the dog. You must negotiate with its master.

* Update: Mr Qureshi won’t be coming in July after all. He didn’t get the foreign affairs portfolio in today’s reshuffle.

To be a real power

On the real challenges facing India’s foreign policy

Here’s a video of my opening remarks at a roundtable a few days ago at the India International Centre, New Delhi. It dealt with India in a globalised world and was organised by Vivek Dehejia, featuring Ashutosh Varshney (professor of political science at Brown University) and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta (journalist and documentary film-maker) in addition to me. You can watch the entire 90 minute programme on Mr Dehejia’s Vimeo page, of which the following is a short excerpt.

Note: In the talk I state that Singapore has more diplomats that India. This is an exaggeration, but only just. According to Daniel Markey, Singapore has 487 professional foreign service officers while India has 669. However, not all of India’s foreign service officers are engaged shaping foreign policy or conducting diplomacy. Some of them, for instance, are passport officers.

The rise of Netions

My talk at MEA’s International Conference on Public Diplomacy 2010

Last week I spoke at a conference in New Delhi on how the proliferation of social networks is creating new imagined communities—that I call Netions—and how they are profoundly changing international politics.

Video recordings of all the sessions are available at the conference website.

What’s the Korean for Parakram?

What North Korea is doing to South Korea is quite similar to Pakistan’s strategy with respect to India—carry out provocative acts of aggression under the umbrella of nuclear weapons in a bid to coerce the victim into making political concessions. It’s called a stability/instability paradox, in that while nuclear weapons create stability at one level, they allow the weaker, less risk-averse player to rock the boat with impunity. [See a related post by Joshua Pollack over at Arms Control Wonk]

The Pakistani military-jihadi complex uses terrorism. The North Korean regime sinks South Korean ships and fires artillery shells at civilian targets.

Interestingly, the manner in which South Korea and its ally, the United States, have responded so far is reminiscent of India’s response after Pakistani terrorists attacked the Indian parliament in October 2001. India sent troops to the border. They are conducting naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. Galrahn reports that the United States is deploying another carrier strike group, led by USS Carl Vinson to the Western Pacific, adding to the military ‘mobilisation’. Because this involves ships moving over water it’s considerably faster than the Indian Army mobilising its formations over land to the India-Pakistan border, but it boils down to the same thing. A show of force, parakram or if Google is to be trusted, .

Will it work?

The business of mobilising military forces is as much due to action bias and audience benefit as it is to penalising the aggressor by increasing costs. Unless it is Manmohan Singh, governments must be seen doing something in the face of flagrant provocation. The domestic and international audiences must be persuaded that the government views the provocation as serious enough to warrant more than a verbal response. Mobilising troops to war-like positions is a good way to achieve these ends. The problem, however, is that this does not automatically ensure that the aggressor is made to suffer.

If there are no external sponsors, Pakistan or North Korea can’t sustain a troop mobilisation for too long. They enjoy asymmetry in costs–in absolute terms its cheaper for them to maintain troops on alert than for their adversaries, India and South Korea & the United States respectively. However, their relative ability to sustain such expenditure is much shorter. Even if Kim Jong Il drives unpaid conscripts to stay at the border, they’ll die if they run out of food and their equipment will stop working if they run out of fuel.

But there are external sponsors. The United States bailed a bankrupt Pakistani state out in 2002 and China continues to maintain the bluff that Pyongyang’s irrationality is the reason why it needs to continue to sustain the North Korean regime. Whatever punitive costs Pakistan incurred was more than made up by US largesse. Similarly, whatever costs the US-South Korean deployment in the Yellow Sea imposes on North Korea will be covered by the funds China pumps into Pyongyang.

The value of Parakram-like mobilisations lies in their ability to enable coercive diplomacy. To the extent that the external scaffolds release pressure on North Korea and Pakistan, coercion is undermined. So too the fortunes of diplomacy.

One of the weaknesses in the theoretical studies of the “stability/instability paradox” is that it restricts the analysis to the two direct players. A smaller, weaker state cannot afford to be aggressive and adventurous unless it has the support of a big power. Once we recognise this, it becomes clearer how it is possible to check Pakistan and North Korea—as I wrote in my Pax Indica column, go after the scaffolders.

In the current Korean crisis, Washington, Seoul and the rest of the international community should just call Beijing’s bluff.

Related Link:There’s a disputed boundary in the Korean case too.