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)

The Three Thoughts Archive:
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.

When should the government subsidise training filmmakers?

There is no case for government to subsidise FTII (and, for that matter, IITs and IIMs too)

One of the numerous controversies surrounding the Modi government’s appointments in the education sector revolves around a minor television actor being appointed the chairman of a government-run institute on the basis of his party, and perhaps ideological, affiliation. Students, alumni and many public commentators have opposed the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan on account of his weak acting credentials and lack of stature in the industry.

Mr Chauhan’s critics might be right. His defence — that he is being judged ahead of his performance — can also be taken at face value, not least in a country where “officially certified” graduates are unemployable, and great actors and film-makers need not necessarily be good administrators.It is not as if having great personalities running the film institute has prevented the Indian film industry from distinguishing itself through sheer mediocrity. Mr Chauhan does deserve a chance.

The Film and Television Institute of India is a government run institution. The elected government has the prerogative to appoint whoever it likes. If students and faculty do not like it, they can voice their protests, which the government ought to listen to. But if the government does not, or does not accept the criticism, then that should be the end of the matter. Students and faculty who cannot accept Mr Chauhan’s leadership can decide to quit. Whatever your politics, this is the right conduct in a republic. With apologies to John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, it is not the purpose of democracy to protect the people from the consequences of their electoral decisions.

However, the bigger issue is why is the Union government running a film institute and training actors and filmmakers with public funds? The economic argument is that the government can subsidise education that has large externalities, if there is an undersupply of such education. In other words, the reason to subsidise medical education (whether or not through government medical colleges) is that a doctor benefits society even when making money for herself. If there are too few doctors, there is a case for subsidising medical education. If there are too many of them, it doesn’t.

So do actors and filmmakers have large positive externalities? To the extent that entertainment is necessary for the well being of individuals and society, then it is possible to make a case that filmmaking ought to be supported with public funds. But are there too few actors? Are there insufficient incentives for the private sector to invest in filmmaking institutes? You could argue that a few decades ago, there was a need for government to subsidise Indian actors and filmmaking. It is difficult to argue that is the case today: the film industry was worth over $2 billion last year and almost produces more films than the United States, China and Japan (the next three biggest producers) combined. There are too many films. There are too many television channels. There is an oversupply of films, television programmes, actors and filmmakers. It makes no sense to subsidise film-making in this situation. Privatising the Film and Television Institute of India is a good idea, especially if it can use the autonomy to improve industry standards.

In a twitter conversation, a fimmaker retorted saying if government can run IITs and IIMs, then why not FTII? The answer really is that just like FTII, the government should get out of running IITs and IIMs too. Where there is need for government is in the running of 665 universities where around 30 million students are enrolled. All the IITs and IIMs together account for a mere 15000 students. The poorest student who secures admission to IITs or IIMs is likely to secure grants, scholarships or loans to pay her fees. On the other hand, the pure sciences, social sciences and arts need greater public funding because of the dismal state these disciplines are in. Universities represent education in its broadest sense, and has the broadest externalities — an educated population is in the public interest.

The debate on a few elite institutions is misplaced. The government ought to get out of running film, engineering, management and law institutes. There is no case for pouring scarce public funds in areas where there is a glut and where there are enough incentives for private provision.

Pakistans and talks

The problem with talking to Pakistan is that there are two of them

It’s happened again to yet another Indian prime minister. He’s decided to resume talks with the Pakistani government after the process had been halted due to Pakistani transgressions and bad faith. 

Now, there is sense in talking to the Pakistani government because that’s exactly what that country’s military-jihadi complex — and India’s irreconcilable adversary — does not want. In normal course of events denying the adversary the response he desires is good strategy. However, the problem in the case of Pakistan is that there are two ‘Pakistans’: the putative state (represented now by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) and the military-jihadi complex that dominates the former.

Denying the military-jihadi complex what it desires means India sends a signal that it cannot punish transgressions, and allows Pakistan’s civilian government to raise its bottom lines. This risks India making incremental concessions each time without gaining anything in return. In other words, Pakistan has the ability to take by salami-slicing what it cannot achieve through war or negotiations.

What about not talking? This plays into the military-jihadi complex’s hands, which derives its own legitimacy and power by rallying all anti-India forces. In Pakistan’s domestic context, the army and the jihadi groups become more popular vis-a-vis the civilian government. Since the military-jihadi complex is irreconcilable and there is a chance that the civilian state is not, this is bad news from the Indian perspective. No surprises then, that the army and the Islamists will do whatever is possible to scuttle diplomacy.

In other words, India risks losing out on substantive issues by pursuing talks with Pakistan despite the latter’s hostility. If it does not do this, India risks strengthening its worst adversary on the other side. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. 

So how should New Delhi deal with this situation? Ignore it. Focus on economic growth.

What Pakistan does or doesn’t do is a minor variable in India’s growth story. Growth, on the other hand, is a major factor in India’s foreign and security policies. Putting Pakistan on the back burner (actually, keeping it in the refrigerator) is not only possible, but is necessary at this time. Just half-a-decade of high economic growth will transform the geopolitical context around Pakistan, enough to swing the negotiating environment in India’s favour. The more we wait, the better it will be for us.

Let Pakistan undergo its internal transformation. New Delhi can deal with the outcomes rather than engaging in a game where it loses out, no matter what it does.

A democratic death knell for individual liberty

A referendum is a bad idea

Caught in a political tussle with the Union government that has administrative and “superuser rights”, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government has thrown up the idea of a referendum to decide whether the union territory should become fully a state. Since there is no scope for a referendum within India’s constitutional structure, everything about the proposal—from who are the voters, to who will conduct it to what does any result mean—is an open question.

Regardless, the proposal for a referendum is dangerous, poorly conceived and might destabilise India’s politics more than anyone has imagined. Not for the textual reason that the Constitution does not permit it, but for the deeper, conceptual reason as to why the Constitution does not permit it.

There are two broad arguments for representative democracy: first, the practical transaction costs of taking every issue to all the voters are massive for anything larger than a community of a few thousand people. It would be prohibitively expensive even for a small Indian state to decide every issue by asking voters directly. Technology reduces costs: it is possible that in the coming decades, the availability and adoption of technology will make referenda rather inexpensive to conduct.

So should human civilisation move ahead to direct democracy when transaction costs of referenda are lower than the transaction costs of representative democracy (all that money spent on parliament, legislators and so on)? Not quite. That is because the second argument for representative democracy–even with the quality of legislators that we often detest–is that direct democracy can lead to highly illiberal outcomes. It would be dangerous enough in a homogenous, egalitarian society. It would be extremely risky in a highly diverse society like India’s. Politics is often a contest for relative power among different communities, quite often expressed through imposition or prohibition of their mores. In India we are used to thinking in terms of the majority and minorities in ethnic-religious terms. This is bad enough. But a majority is merely a number, and it is possible for majorities and minorities to form over political issues. Even in polities divided along religious lines, have we not seen conservative elements of religious communities come together to proscribe individual liberty?

That is the danger. The biggest casualty of direct democracy will be the liberty of the individual. The Indian Constitution is a balance between a democracy that expresses the will of the majority, and the fundamental rights of the individual. Weaken this edifice and individual liberty will be the first against the wall.

Referenda are dangerous not merely because people in some states might choose to secede from the Indian Union, but really because rule-by-referenda will be the death knell for the rights of the individual. There is no safeguard for liberty in a referendum.

The AAP government in Delhi would do well not to stoke fires it cannot control. If it does want to assess public preferences–for administrative or political purposes–it can conduct large scale public consultations that ask thousands or hundreds of thousands of people for their opinion. Results of such a consultation will have no constitutional basis, but can go some way in bringing in popular sentiment into public policy.

Related Posts: Dogma, Reason & Democracy; and how to escape the tyranny of the ignorant.

The Pakistan stop of the SAARC yatra

Dispute management, not resolution

This is the gist of the points I made in a brief interview on Channel NewsAsia at 6:40pm IST yesterday. This was in the context of Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar’s visit to Pakistan as part of his SAARC Yaatra.

Q. Amid an aggressive growth agenda, how much of a priority is being placed by Mr Modi on resolving disputes with Pakistan, according to you?

Mr Modi has been keen on improving relations with India’s neighbours right from the word go. I think it reveals something about his mindset — the need for India to carry along its neighbours and its region — because strictly speaking, the neighbourhood does not matter a lot for India’s growth and development.

India’s linkages are to the West to the US and Europe and to East Asia. The subcontinental neighbourhood does not matter much for now. A lot of constraints to growth are domestic.

Q. There have been over 600 ceasefire violations in the past eight months. How much of an impact can high-level talks have on ground reality and actions?

The ceasefire has held for over a decade, so there is abundant evidence that the armed forces can hold their fire if there are top level instructions. A ceasefire is in the interests of both countries: Pakistan can focus on managing its own domestic violence. So too for India.

Q. This is all ostensibly a part of the ‘SAARC Yatra’ by the Indian government. How much has the India-Pakistan problem impaired SAARC’s development?

The problem with SAARC is not merely India-Pakistan relations, although they share part of the blame. The ethos of SAARC is more a collective bargaining forum for India’s neighbours against New Delhi. So countries focus more on what they can achieve vis-a-vis India, than what they can achieve as a group.

India’s growth and development will propel SAARC by presenting an opportunity to neighbours to benefit from the process.