Damming the Mekong

Who can resist China?

While researching for today’s Business Standard column I came across Ame Trandem’s article in Vietnam’s Than Nien newspaper on the controversy relating to the Xayaboury (Xayaburi) dam in Laos. Here’s an excerpt of my subsequent email interview with Ms Trandem:

Nitin Pai: What is China’s position on the downstream dams that Laos is building & Thailand is financing? China is not in the Mekong River Commission (MRC) but are they playing a role in the shadows?

Ame Trandem: While China is not a member of the MRC, it is a dialogue partner. However China’s own upstream dam construction on the Mekong has helped pave the way for the Lower Mekong mainstream dams to re-emerge on the region’s agenda. With four dams built on the mainstream in China, its dams have begun changing the river’s hydrology and sediment flow, which has helped ease past reluctance in mainstream dam building.
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The Asian Balance: Recognising good neighbours

My new monthly column in Business Standard is called The Asian Balance. It “will devote itself to chronicling and interpreting the unfolding geopolitics of East Asia. It will be a unabashed advocate of Looking East far beyond the Straits of Malacca. Rebuilding the economic, cultural and political relationships that India historically shared with the countries and the peoples to its East has never been more important to our future than it is today.”

The first piece is up. Here’s an excerpt:

Three factors will shape the Asian balance: first, nuclear weapons—what I call the New Himalayas—will shift the India-China contest away from a direct military conflict along the land border. It will take place, among others, in and around the Indian Ocean. It will play out in the form of increased Chinese presence in the waters off India’s coast and renewed US engagement of Asean countries. The big question is to what extent will India be a player in areas that China considers its backyard.

Second, the small- and medium-sized countries of the region will prefer a balance where no single power dominates over them. If they do not see this forthcoming, they are likely to join the stronger side. What this implies is that the importance they give to their relationship with India will depend on their assessment of whether New Delhi has the capability, and the will, to contribute to the balance.

Third, unless there is an addition to the number of nuclear powers in East Asia, there will be a preference to create and work through regional multilateral institutions like the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). The absence of direct nuclear deterrence in the Western Pacific has emboldened China to claim almost the entire South China Sea as its own. All the activity in East Asia trying to form one big workable grouping is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to. [Business Standard]

Letter to the Jakarta Post

Regarding the situation in Jammu & Kashmir

An edited version of the following letter was published in Indonesia’s Jakarta Post today:


I refer to the article by Laura Schuurmans in the Jakarta Post dated 12 August 2010.

Ms Schuurman’s makes a specious argument linking the situation in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir to the spread of extremism across South Asia. The fact of the matter is that Jammu & Kashmir is a victim of Pakistan’s dangerous policy of using radical Islamist militants as a tool of state policy right from 1947. In other words Pakistan’s cynical manipulation of religion predates the Kashmir ‘dispute’. Secondly, as borne out by numerous statements by leaders of Pakistan-based militant organisations like Hafeez Saeed, leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the extremists’ goal is not limited to the liberation of Kashmir, but extends to the dismemberment of a India, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation which is very similar to Indonesia.

In fact, while Ms Schuurman regurgitates the Goebbelsian language about troop numbers and ‘repression’ of the people in Jammu & Kashmir, she neglects to mention that despite bloodshed of the last two decades, including the ethnic cleansing of the Hindu minorities in 1989-90, the Indian government has respected the special status given to Jammu & Kashmir state. Your readers might be surprised to know that Indian citizens cannot migrate to the state, cannot purchase land and property there and face hurdles in marrying their Kashmiri counterparts. The state not only enjoys greater political and economic freedom than Pakistani administered Kashmir, and indeed Pakistan itself, but is also the second largest recipient of fiscal transfers (per capita) from the federal government.

This is not to deny that proxy war and insurgency has not created an affective divide between Kashmiris and the Indian state. But the idea of India is big enough to bridge this gap, as indeed has been happening since 2002. Chemotherapy is painful and hurts the body, but it is necessary to treat the underlying cancer which is fatal. Despite the Ms Schuurmans’ flawed arguments, I am sure that of all the people in the region, Indonesians will appreciate the challenges of governing a diverse, deeply religious yet plural society.

Why do Europeans take a dim view of India’s international role?

Views of India remain positive, but have taken a “somewhat negative turn” in 2008

This year’s poll by WorldPublicOpinion.org finds that while international opinion of India is positive overall, average positive views have declined from 41% to 39%, while negative views have increased from 30% to 33%. Among the 21 countries polled, 12 (which includes India itself) had predominantly positive views, six had predominantly negative views, and in three, opinions were divided.

Chart: 'BBC' World Service Poll 2008/WorldPublicOpinion.org
Chart: 'BBC' World Service Poll 2008/WorldPublicOpinion.org

People in Western countries, Africa, Asia and South America generally had positive views, while those in Islamic countries didn’t. This is not unexpected—democracy, Anglophony and traditional “third world” ties would account for the popularity.

But the exceptions to these trends are interesting. The Philippines is the only non-Islamic Asian countries to share a predominantly negative view, and Indonesia is the only Islamic country to have a predominantly positive view. Among Western countries, four major continental European countries—Germany, France, Italy and Spain—see India’s role as predominantly negative.

The mystery of the unimpressed Filipinos might be due to the unpopularity of local ethnic Indians in the Philippines. That’s because they have been in the moneylending business, and the exorbitant rates of interest they charge for unsecured personal loans don’t endear them to the people. Their unpopularity might be rubbing off on India. (This explanation came from one of Pragati’s editorial advisors at a recent lunch. Emperical evidence is awaited)

Cultural links between India and Indonesia have been strong, causing the democratic country with the world’s largest Islamic population to have a net positive view of the democratic country with the second largest. So that’s explained.

But whatever happened to the Europeans? The negative swing has been 12% to 20% in the four major European countries. The poll was conducted in late-November/early-December 2008, after the global economic crisis had set in, and after the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. So it might be that a combination of the anxiety over the ‘rise of China and India’, the impasse at the WTO’s Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations and economic worries caused Europeans to feel this way. John Pomfret attributes this to “an element of racism” in the context of China’s unpopularity (via The Peking Duck), a factor that might apply in India’s case as well. From the geopolitical angle, the US-India nuclear deal might have also contributed to the negative perception. Indians, however, continue to have a predominantly positive view of the EU.

As compared to the 2007 survey (see the Acorn’s March 2007 post), more Indians take a positive view of India’s role in the world. Around one in two persons, or 51% feel India’s role is positive, up from 47% two years ago. Only 7% have a negative view, down from 10% in the 2007 survey. That’s still lower than the Chinese, a whopping 92% of who are convinced that their country is playing a positive role. Whatever others might think of them, that is something.

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