Leave the Indus treaty alone

It is unwise for New Delhi to play up the water threat

Last week CNN-IBN called me while I was driving back home, and asked if they could put me on live television to comment on what the producer said was “India’s threat to cut off Pakistan’s water supply under the Indus River Water treaty”. Had I not been stationary at the traffic signal when I heard this, my reaction might have harmed innocent motorists on the road. Despite my reluctance—as I had not familiarised with the facts—the producer patched me to the programme. I made three points.

First, the threat of cutting off water targets the Pakistani people and not the military-jihadi complex that is India’s irreconcilable adversary. Further, this mis-targeting strengthens the military-jihadi complex because it strengthens the latter’s position as the defender of the Pakistani people, who will unite around it.

Second, cutting off water is tantamount to an act of war and India will be seen as the aggressor. Even then, it would be unwise for New Delhi to go to war in response to a terrorist attack on a military camp near the Line of Control.

Third, the best that can be said about the hints of cutting off water is if it were “deliberate irrationalism”, calculated to persuade the adversary that New Delhi is not rational and can respond in grossly disproportionate ways.

Upon reaching home, I found out that the producer had taken an almost mischievous hint by the MEA spokesman and framed it into one of New Delhi actually threatening to cut off water to Pakistan. Even so, New Delhi seems to be weighing this option enough to warrant a briefing to the Prime Minister today.

It would be unwise for New Delhi to proceed in the direction of holding out reneging on the Indus Water Treaty as a coercive threat. Mainly because such talk is superfluous. A person holding a gun to your head does not have to declare that he has a gun pointed towards your head.

While the Pakistani people benefit from the Indus Waters Treaty—and India’s scrupulous observance of its terms even during major wars—the Pakistani military establishment and jihadi groups would love for New Delhi to dangle this threat. The establishment would lose no time to play up the threat that India poses to the survival of Pakistan and quickly find a way to turn “differences” into “disputes” (these terms have specific meanings under the Treaty) and take it to the Court of Arbitration. If the Court rules against India—and it is likely to, if India were to “cut off water”—then a reference to the UN Security Council will be the next step. Now, the UNSC might lack enough power to compel India to keep to terms New Delhi does not wish to, but to do all this in the current circumstances would be an overkill (self-overkill, that is).

While all this is happening, the jihadi groups would lose no time in openly mobilising, with official support, and engaging in collecting funds, minds and warm bodies. It makes little sense for New Delhi to energise an industry that is not doing too well in Pakistan.

All this is even before considering the possibility of what might the Pakistani military establishment do should India threaten to cut off water supplies. There is no doubt that India is military prepared to dominate Pakistan at all levels of escalation. The question is: can this be done with relatively lower cost to itself?

Narendra Modi’s words over the weekend inject wisdom into the hysterical jingoism that dominated the public discourse last week. He suggested that India can defeat Pakistan by winning the development race. He also drew the distinction between the Pakistani leadership and the Pakistani people. Readers of this blog will know that this is what I have long advocated. Of course, this must be accompanied by defensive measures, political overtures to close the affective divide in Jammu & Kashmir and tactical military sort of things that are best not spoken about.

As for the Indus treaty, it is in India’s interests to hold out a model where difficult issues can be sorted out as technical matters rather than highly emotive political ones. It is one of the best examples of India’s bona fides. It is not in the national interest to throw away this wicket.

From the archives: Sharing the Indus (January 2005) and the Dam difference is over (February 2007).

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.

649 – The year China first invaded India

The geopolitical implications of Xuanzang’s round-trip

The Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s journey to India and back is well-known (see Samanth Subramanian’s review of Mishi Saran’s book in Pragati). What is not so well-known is that his trip led, unintentionally, to a diplomatic spat between the China and India that ultimately resulted in the first Chinese military expedition to ‘punish’ the Indians.

Harsha-vardhana of India had earlier sent emissaries to Chang’an and in 643, around the time of Xuanzang’s departure from India, a Tang mission under a military official called Wang Xuance had repaid the compliment. Five years later, in 648, Wang Xuance was back in India at the head of a more impressive embassy that was doubtless influenced by Xuanzang’s reports on Harsha.

But this time ambassador Wang Xuanxe received a very different reception. Harsha had died the previous year, his empire was already crumbling, and a Brahminical reaction had set in against the Buddhist community. Evidently, Xuanzang’s long sojourn and his influence on Harsha had encouraged the idea that Chinese support was enabling Indian Buddhists to subvert the political primacy claimed by India’s priestly caste. Wang Xuance’s 648 mission was therefore waylaid. Its valuables were stolen, its personnel detained and Wang Xuance himself barely escaped with his life. He escaped to Tibet.

There he took advantage of a rare moment of amity in Sino-Tibetan relations. In the 630s the great Srong-brtsan-sgam-po [Songtsen Gampo] had been engaged in sporadic warfare with Tang forces in both Sichuan and Qinghai. Unusually the Tibetans fought not to keep the Chinese out of Tibet but to secure closer relations with them, or rather, to secure parity of treatment with that extended by Chang’an to their local rivals…(In 641) with a view to ending their raids, Tang Taizong had granted the Tibetans what was in effect a ‘peace-through-kinship’ treaty. It was sealed as usual with the dispatch of an imperial princess. Further exchanges followed, the Tibetans regarding them as evidence of Tang vassalage and the Tang as evidence of Tibetan vassalage.

Into this happy state of mutual misunderstanding straggled Wang Xuance on his way back from his rebuff in India. The rout of an embassy from the Son of Heaven, not to mention the Heavenly Qaghan, could not go unavenged. Wang Xuance demanded troops for a retaliatory attack on India and the Tibetans obliged. It was thus a joint Sino-Tibetan force that in 649, probably by way of the Chumbi pass between Sikkim and Nepal, crossed the Great Himalaya and inflicted heavy defeat on Harsha’s successors. ‘Thereupon’, says the standard Tang history, ‘India was overawed.’

Elsewhere it is recorded that Wang Xuance brought back as prisoner to Chang’an the man who had supposedly usurped Harsha’s throne. A statue of ‘this contumacious Indian’ was erected among the many in front of Tang Taizong’s tomb and ‘so [the Indian] found lasting fame—but as a trophy and an emblem’. Needless to say, Indian tradition is blissfully ignorant of all this. The Sino-Tibetan incursion probably affected only a corner of Bengal and had no known repercussions. Though a Chinese assault on Indian territory had been shown to be feasible, it would not be repeated until the 1960s. [John Keay/China – A History pp243-244]

Another account offers more and slightly different details:

With the growth of close relations between Nepal and Tibet, Nepal became well known to China as well. In 648-49, during the reign of Narendradeva, son of Udayadeva II, who is believed to have succeeded his father to the kingship in 643, with the help of Tibet, the Nepalese and Tibetan forces combined to avenge an insult offered by a chief of Tirhut (Tirabhukti) to an embassy from China, led by [Wang Xuance] and proceeding to Harsha’s court. This chief of Tirhut is described incorrectly in Chinese accounts as the usurper of Harsha’s throne. [Ram Rahul/Making of Modern Nepal International Studies 16:1]

Someone, Ambassador Wang perhaps, might have inflated the status of the captive to impress the emperor.

Also, given that there is no concept of sovereign equality in the Chinese system of international relations, it is reasonable to speculate whether the Wang’s embassy itself might have been, much like what led to the ‘mutual misunderstanding’ with the Tibetans, a suggestion of paramountcy. Within the context of a backlash against Buddhist political influence, such a suggestion could well have provoked the treatment that Wang received. Not unlike the treatment the Manchu emperor meted out to the papal missionaries a millennium later.

Related Posts: On the New Himalayas and on India’s omphaloskepsis

The New Himalayas

Nuclear weapons are doing what high mountains once did

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

K M Panikkar on India’s strategic omphaloskepsis

The costly refusal to see beyond itself and the subcontinent

An extract from Sardar K M Panikkar’s Annual Day address to the Indian School of International Studies on 13 February 1961:

The study of international relations is fundamentally a study of power relationships. This, of course, has to be interpreted in terms not only of military power but also of political stability and leadership, industrial strength, and all the factors which contribute to the power of nations. The power relationships between nations are constantly changing, and unless a country understands and adjusts itself to the changes that are taking place around it, its own security will be seriously endangered. In our own time we have witnessed such changes, cataclysmic in character and revolutionary in effect, that the picture of international relations may be said to have been completely transformed in the course of two decades.

It is only by a continuous and vigilant study of power relationships in the world that even the mightiest nations can maintain their position. Without a knowledge of the changes and dynamics of social life taking place elsewhere in the world no country can build up its own life. This is the primary object of international relations. Diplomatic relationships which every country now establishes with the ther independent nations of the world has this knowledge as its primary object. Earlier, since political interests were limited to one’s own neighborhood, diplomatic relations never extended beyond countries which were closely connected with one another either by geography or by interests. As everyone knows, modern diplomacy developed in Italy and spread from there to the rest of Europe. Till the second half of the nineteenth century, even the independent countries of Asia did not consider it necessary to set up permanent diplomatic missions in other countries or to study the dynamics of power so far as other countries were concerned.

Neither the Moghuls nor the Marathas had any notion of the sources of strength of the European nations with whom they had to deal. The Chinese Admiral who challenged the might of Britain during the First Anglo-Chinese War knew nothing about the naval strength of Britain and firmly believed that he could defeat the British Navy with his fleet of junks. The result of this ignorance of the sources of power of other nations was that India had, for a long time, to remain subject to a foreign power while China was, for over a hundred years, the whipping-boy of European nations.

From the earliest times, India lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers. While China was continuously watchful of developments across its land frontiers and had developed a very efficient system of diplomatic relationship on a continental basis, the Indian idea of diplomacy was confined to states within the geographical limits of India. Within this area, at different times, India developed a system of international relations and diplomatic usage. But so far as areas outside the physical boundaries of India were concerned, we were content to live with the attitude of complacent ignorance. It is a well-known fact of history that the changes in the dynamics of power in the Hindu Kush Valley profoundly influence the politics of the Indo-Gangetic Valley. From the time of the first Aryan invasions this has been one of the determining factors of Indian political evolution. The emergence of a powerful state in the Kabul area, whether in the time of Kanishka, Mahmud of Ghazni or Ahmed Shah Durrani, profoundly influenced events within India; and yet, so far as the great states of the India-Gangetic Valley were concerned, they continued to remain ignorant of these developments and, therefore, were unable to take the necessary steps to safeguard their independence. In the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, every effort was made by that king to collect and evaluate information about the political situation in India and to estimate the sources of strength of the various Indian states. We know with what thoroughness this was done from Alberuni’s great work. In contrast, we may note that the great monarchies—rich, powerful, and well organized according to the standards of the time—of King Bhoja of Dhar and the Gurjara Pratiharas of Gujarat knew little or nothing of the revolutionary transformation which had taken place in the Kabul Valley and of the strength of the great state which Sabaktajin had established and Mahmud had inherited and enlarged.

This may be compared with the policy which the policy which the British pursued from the beginning of the last century, when they established themselves as one of the imperial powers in India. The invasion of Egypt by Bonaparte was viewed as an event affecting the security of India. When Napoleon and Tsar Alexander reached an agreement at Tilsit, the British authorities in India immediately took steps to send a mission to Persia, the object of which was to find out the extent of that country’s defensive strength and to explore possibilities of entering into an alliance with its government. Sir John Malcolm’s report on Persia is still a classic. Similarly, the advance of Tsarist Russia towards Central Asia led to the British neutralization of Afghanistan. The British did not wait for enemies to penetrate as far as Panipat before taking countermeasures as the Indian rulers of the Gangetic Valley had been accustomed to do. They carefully studied the conditions across the borders, developed a large body of experts who studied the geography, language, political conditions, and economic structure of the areas which bordered on India or which were considered to be of vital importance to the defense of India. No area was left uncovered. The British Government in India had at its disposal men who had devoted most of their active life to the study of sensitive areas: the North-Western Frontier and adjacent areas, the Persian Gulf and the Trucial Coast, Tibet and the Himalayan regions, Sinkiang, Alma Ata, and other areas of Central Asia. It was sufficient for them to cover the areas of special interest to India because the British Empire, as world power whose interests were spread over five continents, was able to take care of the rest.

Our case today is different. We have to keep ourselves informed of developments in all parts of the world, not because we have vital interests everywhere, but because conditions in the world have so changed that events in the most distant parts may affect us in a manner which few of use realize. Undoubtedly for us the vital areas continue to be those immediately bordering India; and consequently the study of conditions in these areas is of permanent importance to us. But with changed economic, political and military conditions, other areas also emerge as vital and sensitive. At no time in India’s long history had Tibet and the North-Eastern Frontier become areas of vital concern to India’s defense. The geographical, political and social conditions of Tibet were sufficient guarantees for our safety from that quarter: while the North-Easter Frontier covered by dense forests and high mountains was also a dead frontier. Besides the Himalayas provided us with an almost impenetrable wall across which no invading force had ever approached India. Today, the emergence of a great military power on the other side of the Himalayas, which stretches from the Karakoram to the borders of Burma, has totally transformed the situation. This is only one example of the frequent changes in areas of international sensitivity, without a knowledge of which it is not possible at any time to formulate national policies. This has been the weakness of India in the past, this sense of isolation and refusal to see itself in relation to the states outside the geographical limits of the subcontinent. [International Studies 22:2 (1985) pp192-195, emphasis added]

The Economist can’t decide where Sikkim belongs?

Is there a method to its cartographical inconsistency?

In defence of its editorial policy on the maps it publishes alongside its articles, in September 2007 the Economist wrote “we use maps not to portray the world as it ought to be, or even as we would like it to be, but as it is.” Reassuring readers that it bore no malice about its maps of Jammu & Kashmir, it wrote “in using “the line of control” that divides Kashmir in the absence of an agreed international frontier we are merely noting the status quo, not endorsing it.”

So let’s look at its maps of the India-China border.

The most informative of the maps of the border regions came in May 1999 (although giving India and China the same colour allows a degree of chickening out, as Sikkim is both marked out but not coloured as being disputed)

Courtesy: The Economist

Maps from June and July 2003 are consistent with the Economist’s own stated policy: they note the status quo.

Courtesy: The EconomistCourtesy: The Economist

Its special annual publication, the World in 2007, published in late 2006, reported that “China now recognises the Himalayan state of Sikkim as India’s territory”. The accompanying map reflected this position.

And now in March 2008, the we find a change in the ‘status quo’: the Indian state of Sikkim has been painted in Chinese colours.

Courtesy: The Economist

Now unless the Economist knows something about the status quo that it is not letting on, it has clearly run foul of its own policy. If there is no cartographical conspiracy here, then is the Economist—unconsciously or otherwise—being a little too eager to please Beijing?

How China went back on its commitment

…and India doesn’t even realise that it has been had

Did anyone notice how China’s support for the India-US nuclear deal has been matched by its backward movement on settling the border dispute? While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came away with a “Chinese nod for him to underwrite India’s independent foreign policy”—as the Indian Express put it with dreadful (and unintended) irony—the Chinese breach of promise over settling the border dispute went unnoticed. The clever men in Beijing have every reason to be happy with Dr Singh’s visit: they gave away nothing while appearing to give a great deal, and in the bargain, ensured that they clawed back what little they had conceded in the border dispute. The best part for them was that despite all this, it was the Indian media that was celebrating!

Here’s the net outcome of Dr Singh’s visit: China has gone back on its position that the eventual border between the two countries will not disturb existing population centres. It did not show any enthusiasm to exchange official maps—a step that would have set the parameters of a final settlement. It is now not only quibbling over the meaning of the term population centres, but also sending its troops to demolish Indian bunkers. It is bleeding obvious that China wants to keep the dispute alive.

The gains that India achieved under the Vajpayee government have been lost under the UPA. Dr Singh’s visit only confirmed that. China could do this because it realised that Pakistan could no longer be used as a strategic lever against India after 9/11. It also realised that it could use the divisiveness of India’s domestic politics instead. The Left parties were anyway batting for Beijing, the BJP played into its hands and the Congress Party lacked the political sagacity to forge a non-partisan consensus on the nuclear deal. The Communists have reason to be pleased with the visit. But for others, there is no reason to celebrate.

The passage of the nuclear deal was only a matter of time. It was essentially a fait accompli for Beijing. Yet the UPA government and sections of the media projected Beijing’s blessings as a way to secure the approval of the Indian Communists. This came at a terribly expensive price: India didn’t lift as much as finger while China turned back on what it had agreed on the border dispute.

Related Posts: K Subrahmanyam, Brahma Chellaney & Manoj Joshi

How to beat China in the borderlands

Be more like India

How should India respond to China’s building of road, rail and communications infrastructure in areas adjoining the unresolved Himalayan border? Excerpt from an article in the July 2007 issue of Pragati:

Clearly then, there is an urgent need for India to review the way in which it engages China.

Meanwhile, the Indian government is caught in a reactive mode—building infrastructure in remote border regions in response to China. If done with due care to the environment this is a positive outcome of the rivalry between the two countries. Yet roads and railways do not always buy affection and China in any case can build them much faster than India can.

A far more effective way for India to bring its most distant citizens into the national mainstream would be to empower them through tangible political equality. Reconstituting the Rajya Sabha along the lines of the American Senate—and giving states like Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland the same number of seats as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and the rest—will not only be far more effective than big, leaky development programmes but is also more democratic. It is also be a move that China cannot match. [Pragati]

Related Post: The Catapult excoriates the Indian government for playing down reports of recent Chinese incursions into Indian territory