President Trump. What now for India?

Play the ball as it comes to the bat

Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who backed Donald Trump’s candidacy, perhaps best explained the latter’s political appeal. Journalists and analysts, he said, took Mr Trump literally but not seriously, and wanted to know details of how he would implement some of the outrageous ideas he proposed. Ordinary people, on the other hand, took him seriously but not literally, and were persuaded that he intented to take policies in directions that they agreed with; the exact details didn’t matter. In the uncertainties that prevail in Washington and elsewhere on what policies President Trump would pursue, Mr Thiel’s explanation is a very useful signpost.

It would only be conceit for anyone at this stage to predict Trump’s foreign policy positions. Candidate Trump and his core supporters were anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and anti-trade. Mr Trump threatened to pull out of NATO, repudiate free trade agreements, engage Russia’s Vladimir Putin, withdraw the security umbrella from over treaty allies, renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, deal with ISIS, back Israel and grab the oil in Iraq. And yes, build that wall on the border with Mexico. At this point, it is best to take all these, as Mr Thiel suggests, seriously but not literally.

To the extent that President Trump attempts to throw international regimes, norms and institutions up in the air, New Delhi will encounter opportunities that it must be prepared to seize. This means the level of diplomatic imagination and boldness in the external affairs, commerce and defence ministries must be boosted. India is far better placed today than ever before to take advantage of possible shifts in global order.

Of course there are risks. A world that retreats from free trade will hurt India’s growth and development trajectory. A global recession will shave off significant percentage points from India’s economic growth rate. Throttling of free movement of people — in the US as in Europe — will necessitate painful business and human readjustments, although the result might be more business for India’s outsourcing/offshoring industry. Most of these risks can be managed by proceeding with structural economic reforms, or Reforms 2.0 (yes, I sound like a broken record, but the point is valid and important to make).

The path to success in the world of President Trump is nimbleness, deftness and speed. New Delhi’s diplomats and policymakers will need to see the opportunities early and act faster than others, without being constrained by historical baggage. No pre-determined strokes: see the ball early and play it accordingly.

Related Link: My colleague Pranay Kotasthane has an opinion piece on this in the New Indian Express today.

Burney points

Beyond the Pakistani initiatives in releasing MV Suez

Other than the fact that six of its 22 sailors were Indian nationals, the MV Suez, an Egyptian-owned, Panamanian-flagged ship, was more about Pakistan.

It was captained by a Pakistani national and was on a voyage from Karachi to the Eritrean port of Massawa in July-August 2010, when it was hijacked by Somalian pirates in the Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC), off the Horn of Africa. It sent distress signals to the EU Naval Force (EU NAVFORCE) patrolling the region but was seized before naval helicopters could arrive. The ship, cargo and crew have been held for ransom since then.

Its release was also, on the face of it, a largely Pakistani affair. Negotiations between the ship’s Egyptian owners and the pirates were deadlocked until February 2011, when Ansar Burney, a prominent Pakistani human rights activist, entered the scene. A ransom was arranged through his good offices and paid sometime in late May. As is usual with such arrangements, the source of the funds, its final recipients and suchlike are unclear. Somalia’s transitional federal government, which is against ransom payments, might even have apprehended the individuals and cash (which may be between $2 million to $4 million) in Mogadishu on May 25th. Eventually though, the pirates released the ship and its crew.

But the drama didn’t end there. Pirates attacked it again after it was released, and a Pakistani naval ship, Babur, which happened to be in the vicinity as part of the international coalition task force (CTF-151) came to its assistance and chased the pirates away. The Pakistani initiatives received well-deserved applause all around, including in the Indian media. After all, Pakistani individuals and the Pakistani navy had helped secure the return of Indian sailors when the Indian government, on the face of it, didn’t.

Indeed, the episode turns a little bizarre thereafter. MV Suez‘s crew claims they called an Indian naval ship, the Godavari, for assistance, but it didn’t respond. According to the Indian Navy, Godavari diverted course from the two ships it was escorting and tried to contact the Suez, failed, and returned to its original course. The Pakistani authorities now charge that INS Godavari “hampered humanitarian operations”, violated international codes of conduct and brushed against PNS Babur. Whoa!

Update: The Indian Navy has dismissed Pakistan’s allegations. India’s foreign ministry spokesman tweeted that India had summoned the Pakistani naval adviser in New Delhi yesterday to register serious concerns on PNS Babur‘s risky manoeuvres and that it had lodged a protest with the Pakistani government today. Also, MV Suez ran out of fuel and is stranded off Oman. 18th June, 1945 IST

Now it is extremely unlikely that the Godavari‘s captain would deliberately engage in such behaviour. It won’t be difficult to establish facts of the case, as video footage is likely to be available. The Pakistani navy is under a cloud at this moment, and the officers of PNS Babur might have resented the presence—of all ships, an Indian one—at their moment of glory. Interestingly, MV Suez‘s captain suggested that even PNS Babur was attacked by pirates, which was denied by the Pakistani navy chief.

The media coverage does not emphasise the reality that the high seas are global commons. The world’s navies on anti-piracy operations are securing the world’s shipping, providing international public goods. This is, of course, interpreted selectively, but by and large, it is not uncommon for one country’s naval ship to assist ships of other countries. In any case, international shipping is a truly international enterprise: with owners, flags, crews and cargos belonging to different countries. One’s own security lies in everyone’s security. So it is that as of November 2010, more than 1037 foreign-flagged ships benefited from the Indian Navy’s protection, compared to only 144 Indian-flagged ones. You can be sure that most of those ships, Indian or foreign, had some crew members who were Indian nationals.

The Indian government was in a bind because it could neither pay out ransoms itself nor condone the payment of ransom by others. It therefore couldn’t satisfy the relatives of the hostages. This is understandable. What is not understandable, and certainly not excusable, is its inability to manage the hostage crisis competently. The Ministry of External Affairs explained the limits of its mandate, passing the buck to the Director General of Shipping. The Ministry of Shipping had little to offer. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs made promises it was unlikely to be able to keep. The lack of purposefulness is palpable even if the Indian Navy continues to discharge its duties admirably.

The Cabinet Committee on Security must create a Maritime Security Management Task Force, headed by a serving or retired officer with expertise in maritime security and intelligence. Reporting to the National Security Advisor, it must have senior officers from the ministries of external affairs, defence, shipping, commerce, the cabinet secretariat, in addition to the three armed services. The buck on piracy matters should stop there.

Update: Pakistan’s Express Tribune, without quoting sources says “India, which was due to contribute $500,000 as part of its share of the ransom fee, never turned up with its promised amount, almost putting the lives of 22 sailors in jeopardy.” (19th July)

The paradox of proximity

Having a fragile state in the neighbourhood makes it important for you to intervene, but there are structural constraints to your ability to do so

My paper, The Paradox of Proximity – India’s approach to fragility in the neighbourhood is the first of a series of papers published by New York University’s Center for International Cooperation on rising non-Western powers’ policies towards fragile states. It was prepared with inputs from Sushant K Singh, my Takshashila colleague.

From the introduction:
The risks posed by fragile states have moved to the centre-stage of Western security consciousness only in recent years, fundamentally as the result of globalisation and precipitously due to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The threats posed by fragile states to the Western countries are palpable and proximate—for instance, in the form of terrorist plots, influx of refugees and organised crime—but their origins of the threats are relatively remote and distant. Western policymakers and publics, therefore, enjoy a certain geographical and temporal insulation, not only allowing for detached analysis but also allowing a broader range of policy options.

It is different for India. Both its immediate and its extended neighbourhoods consist of several states that in the turbulence of transition, contending with institutional weaknesses, political fragility and governance failure. For India, history and proximity turn what might have been largely matters of foreign policy into a number of inter-connected issues of domestic politics.

It is nearly impossible for India’s policymakers to detach the approach towards a nearby fragile state from a panoply of domestic political considerations. From a security perspective, the range and intensity of threats increases with proximity; but so too, the number of domestic political constituencies that have a stake in the game. Even within the Indian government, neighbourhood policy is shaped by a large number of agencies across federal, state and sometimes even district levels. Given that domestic policy outcomes in parliamentary democracies like India are generally political resultants of the complex interplay of political forces, there are limitations on the timeliness, coherence and effectiveness of India’s response.

Therein lies the paradox of proximity: having a fragile state in the neighbourhood makes it important for you to intervene, but there are structural constraints to your ability to do so.

This essay examines motivations, constraints and processes that shape India’s policy towards fragile states. It aims to show that addressing state fragility in the vicinity is a vastly more challenging project than managing risks emanating from distant ones. It begins with an overview of India’s contemporary motivations for engagement and intervention in the turbulent geopolitics of southern Asia. It identifies the various types of interventions India has engaged and attempts to derive the underlying features of India’s approach. The policy process is discussed next, analysing how drivers, constraints and players affect decision-making. We conclude with a brief assessment of how India’s policy towards fragile states, both proximate and distant, might change as India becomes a middle-income country with global interests.

Download it in PDF

Pax Indica: The G-20 opportunity

If you can’t fix the institutions that are supposed to fix the world’s problems, use new ones

In today’s Pax Indica column, I argue that “India must use the G-20 to present the UN, the World Bank and the IMF with a simple choice: reform or face irrelevance.”

Like Groucho Marx who didn’t want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member, there is something aspirational about getting into the coolest clubs, universities or corporations, and in India’s case, the UN Security Council. But why waste time and energy trying to get into something that would rather go belly-up than accept you as a member, when you already belong to a club that, with some effort on your part, can be the most powerful club in town? [Yahoo! India]

Crossette & cliché

A fisking of Barbara Crossette’s piece in Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy‘s online editors invited me to rebut Barbara Crossette’s piece on India being the baddest boy of global governance. You can see the published version on their website. This is the original draft.

Making room for India
Contrary to Barbara Crossette, India does the global governance thing

According to Financial Times’ Lucy Kellaway, “Elephant in the Room” was the most popular cliché to appear in major newspapers and journals in 2009. It is perhaps appropriate then, that Barbara Crossette’s latest diatribe against India appeared in Foreign Policy under that headline. While it claims to show that it is India that causes the most “the most global consternation” and “gives global governance the biggest headache” it is merely a series of rants and newsroom clichés selected entirely arbitrarily in order to support the author’s prejudice.

It is unfathomable how Ms Crossette can declare that it is India that causes the most consternation and the biggest headache—among Afghanistan, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Pakistan and China—merely by listing its alleged failings. Without an attempt to compare the failings across countries—and why only these countries, why leave out the West and the rest?—it is logically impossible to arrive at a conclusion that one of them is the biggest culprit. But once you trade logic for hyperbole, you can fit just about any animal you like into that room. For Ms Crossette’s, it is the pachyderm.
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