Manila on the Chinese bandwagon

The Philippines becomes the first Indo-Pacific country to declare itself for Beijing

On the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, I have long argued that “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.”

Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, appears to have decided that that stronger side is China.

“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” he said at a business forum in Beijing on Thursday. “And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.” [CNN]

There were indications of this for the last few months, but the manner in which he announced a “separation” from the United States, the Philippines’ treaty ally since 1951, could not have been more designed to ingratiate Beijing, his newfound benefactor. Mr Duterte calculates — correctly, in all likelihood — that China will now shower the Philippines with exemplary largesse. It is in Beijing’s interests to demonstrate that those who decide to join the Chinese side will be rewarded, as long as they are willing to ignore some trifling territorial disputes and international arbitration verdicts.

I have also argued that there is a Chinese wedge between ASEAN states that have a dispute with Beijing and those that don’t. That wedge has just gotten deeper and wider. The ASEAN agenda on maritime cooperation is now in question, as Philippines joins other pro-China ASEAN members in being uninterested in confronting China. Vietnam, in particular, will be under a lot more pressure.

The Philippines remains a pro-American country. It is also likely that parts of the country’s security establishment have deep links with the US armed forces. How Mr Duterte’s policy will go down with the people and the security establishment remains to be seen.

On regulating geospatial information

A license-permit raj for maps

My responses to Times of India’s Kim Arora on the draft Geospatial Information Regulation Bill, 2016.

The wording in the draft bill is way too general and could cover anything from school children’s maps, to digital maps used by consumers to navigate, to more specialised commercial/scientific usage. Such a general wording will defeat any policy intention and create a morass of bureaucracy and corruption. With that kind of wording, anything is possible. Lawyers will have a field day.

There is a case for the government to insist that all companies and individuals in India must represent India’s boundaries accurately according to our government’s official position. However, this purpose does not require a license-permit-enforcement raj that the bill will end up creating. A simple law that imposes penalties for deliberate misrepresentation of boundaries will suffice.

As it stands, the bill will harm innovation in the IT and tech sector, raise costs for farmers and industry and create a lot of petty corruption. This is not a bill that is consistent with PM Modi’s stated vision of Digital India and Startup India.

Read her report that also quotes the indefatigable Nikhil Pahwa.

The Waheed regime’s games

New Delhi must punish Maldives’ Waheed regime, but without playing into its hands

Mohammed Waheed Hassan’s regime seized power through dubious means. It now seeks to acquire domestic popularity and external support by reneging on an airport operations contract with India’s GMR group. Contrary to its claims, the matter is not merely an issue of the business case turning out to be different than what was previously assumed. If that were so, it would not declared that it is expelling GMR and would select a different airport operator. Renegotiating with an existing vendor is less expensive, less difficult and more reasonable course of action if the intentions were purely commercial. [This ANI report has more details about the project]

The high-level politics of this is clear. The Waheed regime seeks to bolster its ‘nationalist’ credentials by showing it can take on the big, domineering neighbour. It seeks to acquire external support by playing on the India-China contest in the Indo-Pacific. If New Delhi can be provoked to react punitively, the Waheed regime gets the space to court Chinese or other foreign companies. That it was emboldened to attempt such a move is an indicator of New Delhi’s failure of neighbourhood policy.

What should New Delhi do now? First, it should not provide the Waheed regime the excuse it seeks. Diplomatic relations, economic ties, tourism and aid must not be suspended. Second, India should bolster the democratic opposition to the Waheed regime—including Mohamed Nasheed, who happens to be the legitimately elected president—and turn the heat on its illegitimate hold on power. Third, New Delhi must encourage GMR and Axis Bank to use the Singapore courts—the jurisdiction chosen by the contracting parties—to the fullest extent.

The arbitration verdict might well have gone in favour of the Waheed regime, but the Singapore court has stayed the eviction of GMR. If the Waheed regime refused to comply with the court’s orders—as it has declared it will—GMR can seek legal recourse. Similarly Axis Bank might have a case against the Maldives government if the latter has a sovereign guarantee obligation and does not discharge it. The Maldives government has financial and fixed assets in Singapore, which can be targeted by GMR & Axis Bank’s lawyers.

New Delhi has risks to its reputation at stake. If governments of the region come to expect that expropriating Indian companies will be inexpensive and will not have bad consequences, there is a greater chance that they will engage in such behaviour. The Waheed regime must be made to incur the costs of its politics. Not bluntly, though.

The issue will take on an entirely different dimension should the Waheed regime use force against Indian nationals, or engineer or condone violence against them. In such circumstances, it is proper to keep all options on the table.

Mirpur se Birmingham tak

A thrilling ride across continents

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Asian Balance: Dealing with a vulnerable China

China’s external, economic and ethnic vulnerabilities are worsening

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

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

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

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

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

On bloggingheads – India, US, China and Af-Pak

The geopolitics of hope?

Here’s a diavlog with Robert Wright, editor-in-chief of on what they’ve titled as the geopolitics of hope. The conversation ranges from India-US relations, US-China relations, Af-Pak and even legitimacy of governments.

So sit back relax, spill your coffee or Fall Off Your Chair™

Jump to segments:
When American jobs go to India and elsewhere (06:21)
Is China malicious or just coolly self-interested? (08:08)
What India gets out of the AfPak mess (05:14)
Pakistan’s “Military-Jihadi complex” (06:11)
Do the terrorists win when we withdraw troops? (08:29)
India’s expanding beat as global cop (05:10)

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.

How to lose friends and alienate people

India’s decision to reject US fighter planes is strategic stupidity

New Delhi, it is reported, has shortlisted two European vendors for its long-drawn procurement of fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force. Now, military analysts can have endless debates and even objective opinions on which among the American, European and Russian aircraft is technically superior and better suits the stated requirements of the IAF. Financial analysts can have similar debates and objective opinions on which is the cheapest or the best value for money. These opinions may or may not converge. But when you are buying 126 planes worth more than $11 billion dollars, you are essentially making a geostrategic decision, not a narrow technical/financial one.

The UPA government’s decision to reject both American proposals, of the F-16 and F/A-18, demonstrates either a poor appreciation of the geostrategic aspect or worse, indicative of a lingering anti-American mindset. While the US ambassador has resigned, whether or not it will prove to be a setback for India-US relations remains to be seen. Damaging the careers of pro-India American officials is a silly thing to do.

This move will most certainly reduce India’s geopolitical leverage with the US military-industrial complex, at a time when India needs it most. From the unfolding dynamics in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, to the changing balance of power in East Asia, to UN Security Council reform, to a number of geoeconomic issues, the United States can take positions that can have long-lasting consequences for India’s interests. Is the United States more likely to be sympathetic to India’s interests after a $11 billion contract—which means much needed jobs for the US economy —is awarded to someone else? Long used to complaining that the United States doesn’t care for India’s interests, will awarding the contract to some European firms help change the situation?

The argument that the European bids were ‘technically’ superior are not entirely credible either, for two reasons. First, at sufficiently high levels of technology, the difference between the planes on offer is marginal. To suggest that the European models are vastly superior defies logic, because some of the world’s most powerful air forces are flying F-16s, leave along F/A-18s. Second, the notion that combat requirements can be perfectly defined at the time of procurement is false. It is the combination of man and machine that wins battles. The focus on machines ignores the reality that much swings on the man flying it. Moreover, given the nuclear deterrence relationships obtaining in the subcontinent and across the Himalayas, those planes might never see an aircraft-to-aircraft dogfight in their lifetimes. For other tasks like air support for ground operations, the specifications are even lower.

What about those alphabet soup agreements and fine-print contracts that the US insists that India sign, that might prevent the planes from being used when needed? Those who make these arguments do not understand what war means. War means all bets are off, and India will do whatever necessary to protect its interests. While the existence of those agreements was a usual bargaining chip for India, to get a discount, to believe that such arguments will hamstring India’s military options is naivete. The government might not need to spell this out in public, but it should know it.

It has been this blog’s argument that in the contemporary geopolitical environment, India’s interests are best served by being a swing power, holding the balance between the United States and China. It must enjoy better relations with each of them than they have with each other. It must also have the credible capacity to give pleasure and inflict pain. In this context, buying fighter planes from the United States would have been an excellent move.

And who has New Delhi shortlisted instead? European companies. The European Union is a bit player in the international system, zealously safeguarding its own legacy position at the United Nations Security Council, the G-20, the World Bank, IMF and other places, against India. Italy is engaged in process of blocking India’s UNSC candidature. An order placed with Eurofighter or Rafael isn’t going to change its plans. EU busybodies can be found everywhere from inviting Kashmiri separatists to speak, to attending court hearings of Binayak Sen. Some small EU states almost wrecked the India-specific waiver that the United States was obtaining at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. When it’s crunch time in Afghanistan, does anyone in New Delhi think that the EU will or can make any move that’ll safeguard India’s interests? Why is India being gratuitously generous to Europe when there is much to gain from giving the contract to the United States?

Yes, France, Britain and Germany are countries that India must engage. There are ways to allow them to benefit from India’s growth process—from power projects to manufacturing to services. The fighter aircraft contract need not be awarded to European firms, because it has higher strategic opportunity costs.

The downshot is that the UPA government has squandered a unique opportunity to gain leverage in Washington at a crucial time when closer ties are in India’s interests. It first took way too long to decide, dragging the procurement process even China built its own new fighter plane. It now decided to pick two vendors who might well sell a technically superior and cheaper product, but do no more than that. To put it mildly, this is strategic stupidity.

Update: [April 29th] This post and related tweets were quoted in the Times of India and New York Times today.
My colleague Dhruva Jaishankar has a different take over at Polaris. Offstumped has it in a nutshell.

My op-ed in WSJ Asia – Dr Singh’s leap of faith

India’s decision to resume dialogue with Pakistan is a triumph of faith over reason

The following is the original draft of my op-ed that appeared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal Asia earlier this week:

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waited until public memory of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai on 26th November 2008 faded to a level that it was politically feasible for him to resume the composite bilateral dialogue with Pakistan. The attacks had compelled him to reluctantly suspend official talks two years ago. Despite increasingly compelling evidence that the Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out those attacks with the connivance of the Pakistani military establishment, Islamabad has preferred to engage in a dilatory game of dossiers-and-lawsuits to avoid having to take any action against the perpetrators of one of the most provocative acts of terrorism in recent years. Yet, in the absence of the tiniest acts of good faith from his Pakistani counterparts, Prime Minister Singh has dogmatically persisted with his pursuit of dialogue — a policy which last week saw New Delhi effectively yielding to Pakistan’s demand of talks without preconditions.

Dialogue for Mr Singh is neither an eyewash to satisfy the international community nor a pragmatic policy tied to outcomes. It is almost a matter of faith, oblivious to facts or reason. Continue reading My op-ed in WSJ Asia – Dr Singh’s leap of faith