How wrong I was

2005 was a different place

The Acorn, like many other blogs, routinely calls out those who were wrong. Time to direct the criticism at oneself: this blog got it wrong—in 2005—when I thought that China would see it as in its best interests to stop antagonising India. Here’s a post that I wrote on the eve of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s March 2005 visit to India.

In my defence, I’ll only say that my assessment of the prospects for India-China relations has changed in the face of new facts.

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.

Pax Indica: Use religion in foreign policy

The missing ingredient in India’s soft power

“We have allowed,” today’s Pax Indica contends “our misunderstanding of secularism to keep religion out of the foreign policy toolkit.”

Excerpt:

No one bats an eyelid when someone argues that we should use democracy, free-market capitalism, socialism or “South-South solidarity” to promote India’s interests abroad. But mention religion and all sorts of people jump at you. The first objection you hear is that “it’s against our secular values”. This is absurd, as I’ve just argued, because secularism applies only to India’s internal affairs.

It is unacceptable for a country with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, one with the longest experience of practising the Islamic faith in a multi-religious society to have no voice at all in one of the most important geopolitical dynamics of our time. India’s lack of Islamic soft power is a symptom of its, well, secular rejection of religious soft power. If we are serious about being a major global power, if soft power is to be something more than a feel-good story, and indeed for our own survival and security, we must dispassionately begin to make strategic use of our religion and culture. [Read the rest at Yahoo! India]

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.

Not Sun Tzu

Beijing’s has made some bad moves recently

It is fairly common to ascribe a certain oriental strategic wisdom to China’s foreign policy moves. That’s not always true. Whatever the outcome of the current stand-off with Japan over the fishing trawler near the Senkaku islands, Beijing has already lost one round of the geopolitical game.

The incident involving a Chinese fishing trawler ramming into two Japanese coast guard vessels in Japanese waters claimed by Beijing should not have allowed to become a litmus test of sovereignty claims. Yet that is exactly what China did. Instead of reciprocating the Japanese government’s early and wise move to prevent escalation of tensions—by returning the trawler and crew, minus the captain—Beijing contended that trying the captain under Japanese law would be an implicit recognition of Japan’s territorial claims. If Japan now concedes to this demand it would be seen as succumbing to Chinese bullying. If Japan does not concede, the leadership in Beijing loses faces to its own people.

If Sun Tzu said something about not putting an enemy with the back to the wall, his modern day compatriots certainly have not paid heed.

There are, of course, face-saving diplomatic solutions possible if China is ready to explore them. However this plays out, Beijing’s actions will push Tokyo, Seoul and other East Asian capitals strongly towards each other and towards Washington. All the more so if, in the unlikely event, tensions lead to military conflict.

It might well be the all Beijing cares for is to ensure that its actions play well to its domestic audience. If so, it has badly miscalculated the international price it will have to pay for playing to the galleries.

Related Posts: Beijing’s series of foreign policy mistakes are likely due to a factional power struggle ahead of the leadership transition in 2012.

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]

The wolf in the cabbage patch

…is unlikely to be vegetarian

The tragedy of M K Bhadrakumar’s article in today’s Hindu is that one half of it is eminently sensible and the other, unsubstantiated wishfulness. Yes, it is important not to allow paranoia to determine policy towards China, but unless Mr Bhadrakumar is wired into the minds of the Chinese leadership, it is illogical and dangerous to assume that the wolf in the cabbage patch is vegetarian. And will remain vegetarian.

As I had tweeted earlier, reports of Pakistan handing Gilgit-Baltistan over to China are almost certainly exaggerated. This does not mean, however, that the scenario is implausible. To the extent that Selig Harrison’s article caused the public and politicians to consider the implications of such a scenario—and hopefully, prepare for it—it served a purpose. It is quite possible that Mr Harrison was an unwitting part of a disinformation operation, perhaps by the United States, to ensure that public opinion in India remains wary of China. If this were so, shouldn’t China be extra careful to ensure that it doesn’t deliberately carry out unfriendly acts like the visa denial to a senior military officer? Mr Bhadrakumar would have been on a firmer footing had he listed some measures China took to prove its bona fides vis-a-vis India. I myself can count none.

Mr Bhadrakumar goes on to make two key assertions. First, that stability in India’s immediate neighbourhood needs India and China to co-operate, and that China sees a stable subcontinent as in its interests. Second, that growing Chinese influence in the neighbourhood will not damage India’s interests. There is no basis for such beliefs, and surely enough, he does not offer any.

On the first point, there is direct evidence that China uses unstable states to indirectly keep its adversaries engaged. China deliberately transferred nuclear weapons technologies to Pakistan, Iran and North Korea so that India and the United States could expend their resources tackling the paw, not the cat. It is hard to adduce evidence to prove conclusively that China is deliberately destabilising the subcontinent in order to contain India, but no sensible person can dismiss the possibility. The onus is on Mr Bhadrakumar to produce evidence of Chinese moves to stabilise the neighbourhood in co-operation with India. Does selling nuclear reactors to a highly unstable Pakistan, in violation of its international commitments, count?

On the second point, realists will accept that China’s influence in the subcontinent will grow, whether or not India likes it. But that’s not the issue. The issue is, even in the unlikely event that China itself does not use its influence against India’s interests, the countries of the subcontinent almost certainly will. Bilateral relations with Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar and countries of ASEAN will get even more difficult to resolve, because their leaders will play New Delhi against Beijing. There’s evidence for this: King Gyanendra, Khaleda Zia and Mahinda Rajapaksa all pursued policies contrary to New Delhi’s recommendations. Two of them lost power, but not before plunging their countries into instability and crises. Mr Rajapaksa didn’t lose power, but thanks to Chinese influence, tragically believes he can avoid genuine reconciliation after the civil war.

While India cannot prevent China from increasing its influence in the subcontinent, there is no reason to welcome it. New Delhi must act to increase its own influence and counter China’s. That’s not all. The game is not restricted to the neighbourhood—it is global. Ergo, India must extend its influence in and around China’s immediate neighbourhood. As I wrote in my Pax Indica column recently, New Delhi needs a Look East Beyond Singapore strategy. Achieving balance within regions and balance between regions is the surest way to have a stable relationship with China.

Related Posts: M K Bhadrakumar routinely imputes benevolent motives to Beijing. Couple of instances: Worshipping false gods; John 8:7 doesn’t apply to international relations

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.

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]