America defeats itself

There will be fewer takers for US promises in Asia now

As promised, Donald Trump has pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional preferential trade agreement that his predecessor put together to secure American primacy in East Asia against a rising China. It does not matter that the TPP had not yet been tabled for Congressional approval. It does not matter that the TPP might not have yielded the outcomes its proponents claimed it would.

What matters is that in one stroke of a pen, President Trump has confirmed the lingering fears among East Asian countries that the United States is unreliable as a partner in their attempts to manage an aggressively rising China. Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia–of which TPP was an important plank–was itself a response to similar fears during his first term. That pivot was at best a promise that the United States will remain engaged in the region, realists in East Asia tended to suspect that it was reassurance without adequate credibility.

The thinking within the Trump establishment appears to be that the United States can take on China on world trade and militarily in the waters of East Asia. Rex Tillerson, who will head the State Department, took a hawkish line on the latter, suggesting that the United States might deny China access to the islands it claims. Mr Trump and his colleagues seem to believe they can confront China in trade and in East Asian waters while eschewing economic engagement with the countries of the region. They will soon find out how mistaken they are.

Economics is the bloodstream of East Asian geopolitics. China is a major actor in the region not because it has gunboats and missiles, but because it has deep and growing economic relationships with almost all countries of the region. The economies of East Asia, South East Asia and Australia depend on China for their prosperity to various extents. Whatever disputes they might have with Beijing, if they do not see an alternative to China-driven growth, they are unlikely to support President Trump’s moves against China. The United States is likely to find itself isolated if it contemplates escalating conflict levels in the region.

It is likely that the powers in the region will seek protection by increasing their military capacity, and the bigger ones might even contemplate nuclearisation. Most will try to make their peace with China—to the extent possible, as long as it is possible. They will look towards India as a potential actor that can help balance China: to what extent this will work depends on how much and how fast New Delhi liberalises the Indian economy. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the Modi government is prepared to accelerate domestic liberalisation at a pace that can reassure its Asian neighbours.

India is in the geography, and over the long term will remain a potential hedge against China. The United States, though, has just about defeated itself.

“If at the end of it all you let [Abe] down, which next Japanese prime minister is going to count on you — not just on trade but on security?…If you are not prepared to deal when it comes to cars and services and agriculture, can we depend on you when it comes to security and military arrangements?”

— Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, WSJ

Geopolitics in Trump’s age

Perhaps it’s time for new champions of democracy, liberty and open economies

I was in a panel discussion with Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia Journalism School and T K Arun, senior editor of the Deccan Herald at the Deccan Herald Spotlight, Taj West End, Bangalore on 9th January 2017. The topic of discussion was Trump and geopolitics. The following is an outline of my initial remarks. (Read the newspaper report here)

  1. The bases for US global leadership have become uncertain
    • Resilience of its democracy is uncertain (more than merely risky)
    • Its status as a magnet for the world’s most talented people is also uncertain
  2. Trump’s rhetoric and posturing will cause others to adopt protectionist policies and withdraw behind walls and fences, at least in the short term.
    • This might reverse in the longer term but we can’t be sure how long that will take and what we’ll have to endure in the meantime
  3. For the first time, the factors that propelled India’s & China’s unprecedented growth will come under a cloud. China is luckier because it started earlier and was most focused.
    • For India the challenge will be to generate 8% growth without a benign external environment
    • How fast can India integrate domestically and iron out the kinks regarding movement of people, goods and capital across state boundaries
    • How fast can India create external relationships that will allow growth to take place?
  4. In geopolitics, it all the more clear that India will have to become a swing power. This means selective alignment with the US and China where interests coincide, without joining any one camp.
    • Better relations with US and China than they have with each other
    • Ability and willingness to inflict pain and give pleasure
  5. Finally, a more mischievous point: if the West is ceding leadership of values of democracy, liberty and free markets, then India should stake its claim to that leadership.
    • Do we really need so many illiberal democracies and authoritarian states in the permanent membership of the UNSC?
    • Do we need four or five Putins in the UN Security Council

A better way of selecting the top brass – 2

Politicisation will limit politicisation

Two of the more thoughtful critiques of the Modi government’s decision to jettison the principle of seniority in appointing India’s next army chief appear in the Indian Express and Business Standard today. Sushant Singh and Ajai Shukla are among the most astute commentators on the subject so it is important to read their arguments with care.*

Sushant’s main argument is that the principle of seniority in choosing the chief must be replaced by an institutionalised due process, and not arbitrary selection by the political leadership. Ajai, though primarily concerned about the politicisation of the army, also criticises the rationale provided by the Modi government in the specific case of Gen Rawat.

A reasonable person will tend to agree with Sushant and Ajai, for after all, it is a good idea to ensure that the selection process is transparently objective. However, the reasonable view in this case might be both unsatisfactory and impractical. It might be a better to allow the political executive the complete discretion to pick from among the available pool of three star officers. If the Cabinet prefers non-military criteria like partisanship, ideology or ethnicity, so be it, as the Cabinet is accountable for outcomes. The lessons of 1962 are not lost on India’s politicians. As I wrote in my first post on this topic, if we can trust the prime minister with a nuclear button, we shouldn’t worry about a much lesser risk as the selection of army chief.

Won’t this politicise the army? Well, the trajectory is unlikely to be much different from what it is now. Moreover, even as Sushant, Ajai and I are concerned about the politicisation of the armed forces at politician-general level, we are also concerned about the politicisation within the army. As Ajai brings out in his article, factional politics among the branches of the army are intense and have ended up in the Supreme Court. It is naive to believe that this intramural politics has been untouched by the country’s partisan politics. I’ve covered this objection in my earlier post.

(*As the two are both friends and sparring partners, this blog refers to them by their first names, instead of formally by their honorifics and last names.)

A better way of selecting the top brass

Nothing is lost by abandoning the principle of seniority, but the armed forces need restructuring

Yesterday, the Modi government decided to supersede two general officers and appoint Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as the next chief of army staff. In a system where seniority has risen from a criterion to the criterion, and where “lines of succession” are drawn in a manner to mirror royal succession in monarchies, the move has shocked many. After all, the last time such a thing happened was in 1981 when the Indira Gandhi government appointed Gen A S Vaidya over Gen S K Sinha’s head.

Here’s the thing: the Modi government has done well to break a norm that had so become an entitlement that it had begun damaging the incentive structures of the the military leadership. The sordid saga of Gen V K Singh five years ago revealed that the army’s leadership was spending undue energy on manipulating promotions and appointments to ensure desired lines of succession. Any organisation whose leadership is engaged in such machinations is likely to suffer loss of professionalism. By elevating seniority to a sacrosanct principle, we might well have depoliticised appointments at the level of the political leaders picking the military leadership. However, it does not mean we have depoliticised appointments within the military establishment. Because of secrecy and respect that the armed forces enjoy, the ‘politics’ within the armed forces is generally invisible to the public. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just go back and look at the reports that emerged five years ago during the Gen V K Singh’s controversy.

If the Indian armed forces had the luxury of being a showpiece, where they did more ceremonial parades than combat, it might have been acceptable to go by seniority. But India’s armed forces have been fighting wars, proxy wars and insurgencies for ever, and the future presents ever greater risks. In such a context, it is downright absurd to argue the the senior-most officer should become the commander. Furthermore, it is downright absurd to accept that the service chiefs should be both excellent commanders and excellent staff officers: a great military leader need not necessarily be the best military manager. To roll the two roles into the same office is to get a little bit of both, and the best of neither. Jettisoning the primacy of seniority is the first step: the Modi government must use the opportunity to implement structural reforms to India’s military structure. (It’s clear what such reform should entail: see this article)

There are two important objections to non-seniority based appointments. First, that it would upset the army’s internal appointments and promotions structure. Second, that it would allow the political leadership to appoint military leaders based on partisan, ideological, religious, caste or other criteria unrelated to military merit. Let’s consider each of them in turn.

Yes, superseding officers will cause genuine heartburn, embarrassment and grievances among those adversely affected by the move. The retirement or resignation of those who have been passed over for promotion count as a loss to India’s military capital. That, however, is the price we must pay for a competitive military establishment. Much of this cost is one off, representing what behavioural economists call the “endowment effect”. Because officers expect to be promoted on the basis of seniority, they feel what is rightfully theirs has been taken away. If, from now on, officers no longer expect the seniority norm to hold, they will feel less cheated. That said, it is incumbent on the Ministry of Defence and the services headquarters to ensure that the superseded officers are treated with respect and decorum; and if they have years of service left, are re-employed in government positions commensurate with their seniority.

The second objection is more serious: what is to stop the political leadership from appointing military chiefs on dubious, non-military criteria? Well, for one, it is not as if lobbying on such grounds has not been taking place. However, the argument that the prime minister cannot be trusted to properly appoint a service chief sounds pretty unserious when the office of the prime minister has everything from the nuclear button to the validity of all legal tender in his hand. If the citizens of India vote in a government in a constitutional manner, and the ruling party constitutionally appoints the prime minister, who selects his cabinet, then that is that.

Now it is not as if the Cabinet can appoint an army chief without being bound by any constraints: they will be limited to a small number of officers to choose from, and any ideological, partisan or communal preference will be constrained by the fact that the armed forces are engaged in active duty. No Cabinet would want to lose battles or wars, or found wanting in the face of external threats. Parliament must do its job and keep the government in tether: so rather than defend the principle of seniority, concerned citizens must demand the amendment of the anti-defection law that has converted MPs into robots under the control of the party leaders.

The Modi government would do well to follow up its departure from orthodoxy with a sincere commitment to restructure the armed forces. Early in his tenure, PM Modi was reluctant to risk this reform. He should not shy away from it now. The K Subrahmanyam report was almost two decades ago; there have been a few subsequent initiatives to study the matter further. It’s well past decision time.

Tailpiece: My comments on an NDTV show on this subject in February 2012.

Update: Read the second post on this topic here.

China warns Singapore

As Singapore confronts difficult choices, it must sound out New Delhi.

It is an open secret that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) train in the Republic of China in Taiwan, and the two countries have enjoyed a quiet, but very productive partnership since the early 1970s. Like how actors in ’70s Hindi movies used to become totally unrecognisable merely by putting on a moustache and a beard, Singapore’s soldiers would become Taiwanese ones when they exercised in that country. The subterfuge was out of respect for diplomatic niceties, to placate the People’s Republic of China. For instance, Singapore service personnel would assume Taiwanese aliases. Sometimes this would lead to hilarious outcomes: like when my friend, an ethnic-Tamil Singaporean infantry platoon commander, had to pass off as Chong Wai-kiong.

Singapore’s defence cooperation with Taiwan (Project Starlight) predates the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. For its part, Beijing was content with this arrangement, even when it came close to war with Taiwan in the mid-1990s. Ian Storey writes that Li Peng, then China’s Premier, said that China ‘should not mind too much’ if Singapore continued its military relationship with Taiwan, but had asked that this be done discreetly.

So last week, when Hong Kong customs authorities — tipped off by their Chinese counterparts — seized nine infantry vehicles on a ship that was making its way from Taiwan to Singapore, it appears that Beijing has decided to deliver a warning. Or more.

It comes as a surprise, but is clearly yet another manifestation of an emboldened China taking aggressive positions in its extended neighbourhood. Even if Beijing were to end the impasse by releasing SAF’s equipment in return for renewed Singaporean commitment to the One China policy, it would further strengthen the perception among East Asian countries that it is best not to antagonise China. It would also put greater caution, and perhaps even a suspension of the four-decade old Singapore-Taiwan military cooperation. Chastising Singapore has multiple benefits for China.

It is too early to tell if Beijing’s actions are informed by an expectation that the upcoming Trump administration will disengage from Asia, leaving the field open to China. China’s actions over the past few years suggest that Beijing is confident of upping the ante even in the face of US “pivot” to Asia. It may be American conceit to believe that Trump is leaving East Asia to China. The rulers in Beijing perhaps believe they already have Asia.

This is a crucial period for India’s own Act East policy. New Delhi must reassure Singapore, Hanoi, Jakarta, Seoul, Tokyo and Canberra that India has the wherewithal and a commitment to shape an Asian balance that does not surrender to Chinese hegemony. If the United States wishes to be part of such an arrangement, then it is all for the better. If not, the six Indo Pacific powers must manage on their own. Let’s not forget that if the United States is no longer in the picture, India is the only nuclear power on the other side of China.

What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

Three thoughts on Independence Day

A beacon of liberal nationalism
My freedom to introspect

We are like a lighthouse, a beacon of liberal nationalism. Freedoms are enshrined in the Constitution, but will be lost unless protected. We stand strongly for freedom of an individual along with economic freedom and belief in diversity.

We believe freedom should reflect in the way you do things, not just in the outcome. When you talk to people about nationalism, they often speak of borders, or integrity. As if national interest is a real estate game. Whereas, in a liberal democracy, the individual is the ultimate cause. In one of our earliest editorials for Pragati – The National Interest Review, we said, “We are a land of 1.2 billion minorities,” that is, every individual is like a minority.

Natan Sharansky, the Russian politician and human rights activist, once said, “Can someone within that society walk into the town square and say what they want without fear of being punished for his or her views? If so, then that society is a free society. If not, it is a fear society.” We believe if we can go to a town square and simply announce what we want to eat, wear, read and nobody attacks us for it, then we are a free society.

Freedom is not necessarily going against the state, it is also about staying protected from communities and civil society. The Republic of India is the best way to achieve it and one that can protect the rights of the maximum number of people.

(Recorded by Suchi Bansal for India Today’s special Independence Day issue)

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It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on

On Independence Day 201520142013201220112010200920082007200620052004;

On Republic Day 2016, 20152014201320122011201020092008200720062005

On Hollande’s mind

Indeed, a closer relationship with New Delhi is vital to France’s continued standing as an important global power in the twenty-first century. It was far sighted on behalf of the French to initiate a strategic partnership with India in 1998. From the Cold War era to recent times, New Delhi has had in France an independent-minded partner unhesitant to buck the Western consensus on defence, space and atomic energy issues. It is for the Modi government to build on that relationship and enlist France as a partner to extend India’s own geopolitical profile.

What the French president might encounter in India

This is the English version of a piece that appeared in BBC Hindi today

When President Francoise Hollande arrives in New Delhi next week as the chief guest on India’s Republic Day celebrations, he will be taking a short, partial break from his two main preoccupations: how to reduce unemployment in France ahead of the 2017 presidential elections and how to ensure that the threat from home-grown Islamist terrorists is contained.

In addition, he will no doubt be concerned about the economic trajectory of the euro zone, the prospects of long-term instability in Syria and the Middle East and, ultimately, of the risks to France’s geopolitical standing in the twenty-first century.

The honour, symbolism and pageantry apart, where does India register in President Hollande’s agenda? The immediate, tangible prize is to bring the long-drawn negotiations over fighter aircraft and nuclear reactors to fruition, which might together be worth $30 billion or more. The devil, as usual, is in the detail, and an agreement might prove elusive until the last minute. These deals matter for Mr Hollande not only because it will help him stay on the right side of politically powerful business interests, but also because they could create thousands of skilled jobs.

Mr Hollande had pledged not to stand for re-election if he “failed on growth, failed on unemployment, failed on the recovery of the country”. So a boost in jobs, investment and growth is important to his own political prospects. Given that unemployment rose to from 9.7% to 10.1% during his term, disproportionately affecting younger people, it is small wonder that he declared an economic emergency earlier this month.

If these important defence and energy deals are what Mr Hollande hopes he can take back with him, he would do well to explore how India is tackling its own employment creation challenges.

In fact, France and India have common problems on this front, in terms of restrictive labour laws, choke-hold by trade unions and a skills gap. Indian businesses like TeamLease Services, Ma Foi Randstad and others have developed experience in creating employment in an environment where there are powerful regulatory and political-economic disincentives for direct hiring. (Disclosure: Manish Sabharwal, co-founder of TeamLease is a donor to my institution). If Mr Hollande were to spend some of his time meeting Mr Modi’s officials dealing with skills and employment generation, he might carry home some good ideas in addition to the good deals.

While France and India share some similarities in the internal security context, the nature of the threat is different: for France it comes from its own citizens disgruntled with its foreign policy; for India it emanates from across its borders. Therefore even if the Paris attacks and 26/11 appeared similar, how they materialised is different. Therefore, while India and France could discuss counter-terrorism cooperation and better share intelligence, there are limitations to the extent they could go.

Similarly, India’s role in assuaging French worries over the Eurozone crisis is limited.

In recent years, France has increased its commitment to the security of the Indian Ocean. By virtue of its possession of islands of La Reunion and Mayotte, and their accompanying vast Exclusive Economic Zones, France considers itself a stakeholder and power in the Indian Ocean. It also has bases in Djibouti and Abu Dhabi that support its military interventions in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. In contrast, its capacity is limited east of the Malacca Straits.

Given that India’s own maritime footprint is significant in the Western Indian Ocean (including a diaspora in La Reunion) there is a degree of strategic contestation between the two powers in this part of the maritime space. On the other hand, shared interests in freedom of navigation indicate a scope for greater collaboration on the Eastern part of the ocean. Both Paris and New Delhi realise that this calls for closer dialogue between the strategic establishments of the two countries and regular exercises between their armed forces.

Indeed, a closer relationship with New Delhi is vital to France’s continued standing as an important global power in the twenty-first century. It was far sighted on behalf of the French to initiate a strategic partnership with India in 1998. From the Cold War era to recent times, New Delhi has had in France an independent-minded partner unhesitant to buck the Western consensus on defence, space and atomic energy issues. It is for the Modi government to build on that relationship and enlist France as a partner to extend India’s own geopolitical profile.

Why India should not get into the fight against ISIS

The jihadi threat to India comes from Pakistan, not Syria.

Upon his return from the United States, defence minister has announced that India is prepared for an operation against ISIS under a UN resolution. He must have said this under pressure from Washington, for there it makes little sense for India to step into what is essentially a Middle Eastern problem.

The core of ISIS is not really interested in India, at least at this time. Its focus is on Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and their neighbouring countries. Its attacks on European cities in pursuit of its core goals.

Sure, ISIS has announced a wilayah or province in the subcontinent, but that is as real as an ISIS province on the moon. It might be aspirational, it might help them in its propaganda to project itself as bigger than it is, but Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has far more to worry about for a long time before he can be interested in planting his flag somewhere in India. New Delhi will have enough time to prepare before ISIS decides to pay attention to conquering India. Till such time, it is in India’s interests to let the galaxy of powers currently involved in fighting the ISIS to do so, and to prevail.

What about Indians who are going to Syria to fight for the ISIS? Well, the best strategy is to hope that they don’t come back, and ensure that they are interrogated and charged if they do. This is the kind of work India’s intelligence agencies and law enforcement authorities do, and ought to step up.

Finally, what about Islamists in India who wave the ISIS flag during protests? Shouldn’t we take them to be supporters of ISIS? Well, no. The ISIS flag is as much an inspirational totem to them as portraits of Khomeini, Arafat and bin Laden that used to be seen in their times. The effect is not unlike that of auto rickshaw driver gangs that organise themselves around portraits of movie stars. It is very unlikely that the said movie stars have any opinion on auto rickshaw fares and policies. For the drivers, though, the portraits are a totem to organise around and differentiate themselves from their counterparts. In the case of ISIS, police and intelligence agencies ought to identify individuals and groups claiming inspiration from it, and keep them under surveillance.

The primary jihadi threat to India still comes from Pakistan: the Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups controlled by the Pakistani military establishment remain the principal threat. Few Western countries want to engage in seriously countering this threat, as it is not vital to their national interest. India, on the other hand, has no choice but to fight. It is important to concentrate on this project and not open unnecessary fronts in the Middle East.

Related Link: My colleague Rohan Joshi asks if a clash between ISIS and Jamaat-ud-Dawa is imminent.

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.