Trump is fantastic. Don’t worry.

Mr Trump’s telephone conversations with world leaders are indicative of his style, not substance.

Donald Trump’s phone calls with world leaders, screams a headline in the New York Times are “upsetting decades of diplomacy.” An already excited commentariat — around the world — is aghast at the fantastic manner in which the new US president-elect has been conducting the sublime act of statesmanship that is a telephone conversation. Just after some experts assessed that his fantastic phone call with the Pakistani prime minister might be unwelcome in India, their were jolted into assessing that Beijing would be upset (okay, make that apoplectic) after he announced that he spoke with the Taiwanese president. He even reportedly spoke to Rodrigo Duterte, the foul-mouthed president of the Philippines who had recently made a great show of insulting Barack Obama and kowtowing to Beijing. Oh yes, Mr Trump has violated the norms of the subtle, contrived and staid world of international diplomacy.

That is not a bad thing in itself. Nor is it much of a bad thing as far as US foreign policy towards Pakistan, China and the Philippines is concerned.

Mr Trump’s remarks to Nawaz Sharif appear more like the polite comments tourists make to their hosts regardless of the reality they observe. If he really meant what he said, then Pakistanis need to be worried right after they get over the surprise and puzzlement. Whoever believes that India should be concerned, less consider them unwelcome, is living in the 1990s. Analysts who believe that New Delhi is vying with Islamabad to court Washington’s favour must enlarge their frame of reference to the Indo-Pacific region, and set their watches to the present.

What about China? Hasn’t Mr Trump provoked the People’s Republic of China by exposing Beijing’s most dearly held—and most forcefully enforced—myth that the Republic of China on Taiwan does not exist as a normal state? Yes, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Perhaps due to the Western perception of its supposed exoticness, Beijing has usually had its way by pressing foreign governments to ‘respect its sensitivities’ over the Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Xinjiang and the various territorial disputes it has with its neighbours. When the United States yields to this coercion, the rest of the world follows. If the United States were to be less inclined to ‘respect China’s sensitivities’, others are more likely to follow suit.

Beijing is quite likely to retaliate, but then, it has taken sharp foreign policy positions over the past decade without provocation. Let Beijing decide how long it wishes to play tit-for-tat with a much more powerful adversary. It remains to be seen if Mr Trump has the stomach for such a game.

It makes good sense for Mr Trump to reach out to Mr Duterte: at worst, it will confuse the Philippines establishment as it explores alignments with China and Russia. At best, it can cause Mr Duterte to execute a wild swing back towards Washington. To argue that Mr Trump must shun or punish Mr Duterte merely because the latter insulted President Obama would be to trade in foreign policy realism for soap opera sentimentalism. There is no evidence that the latter outperforms the former as a basis for pursuing a state’s interests.

For all his bluster, Mr Trump is out of his depth on matters of statecraft. He’s likely to learn on the job. Regardless of the value judgements we place on their content, it would be incorrect to take the fantastic man’s telephone conversations as indicators of his future administration’s real foreign policy positions.

Manila on the Chinese bandwagon

The Philippines becomes the first Indo-Pacific country to declare itself for Beijing

On the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, I have long argued that “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.”

Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, appears to have decided that that stronger side is China.

“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” he said at a business forum in Beijing on Thursday. “And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.” [CNN]

There were indications of this for the last few months, but the manner in which he announced a “separation” from the United States, the Philippines’ treaty ally since 1951, could not have been more designed to ingratiate Beijing, his newfound benefactor. Mr Duterte calculates — correctly, in all likelihood — that China will now shower the Philippines with exemplary largesse. It is in Beijing’s interests to demonstrate that those who decide to join the Chinese side will be rewarded, as long as they are willing to ignore some trifling territorial disputes and international arbitration verdicts.

I have also argued that there is a Chinese wedge between ASEAN states that have a dispute with Beijing and those that don’t. That wedge has just gotten deeper and wider. The ASEAN agenda on maritime cooperation is now in question, as Philippines joins other pro-China ASEAN members in being uninterested in confronting China. Vietnam, in particular, will be under a lot more pressure.

The Philippines remains a pro-American country. It is also likely that parts of the country’s security establishment have deep links with the US armed forces. How Mr Duterte’s policy will go down with the people and the security establishment remains to be seen.

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).

G-20, East Asia and high-profile foreign policy

The focus on G-20, East Asia and raising India’s foreign policy profile are all the right things to do, and long overdue.

Notes for my television appearance on CNN-IBN at 9am IST today:

The Brisbane G-20 statement is so closely aligned with India’s own growth agenda: India must capitalise on this opportunity.

G-20 should become India’s most important international engagement (as my Pax Indica article from June 2010 argues). What the UN was to newly independent India, G-20 should be for a newly resurgent India. New Delhi should invest in high forums that India is already a member of is more valuable than pleading to enter stodgy old clubs like the UN Security Council.

India must contribute to the Asian Balance because it is in our interests to do so. As China and the United States contest for global power, India must project power in regions like East, West and Central Asia to defend its interests. [This is the central argument of The Asian Balance, my monthly column in Business Standard.]

It is good for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to invest time in international engagements: India’s growth is influenced by the world and the world’s situation influences India’s growth [This is the subject of an ongoing research project between Takshashila and the Hudson Institute]. India’s policy discourse will benefit from the prime minister’s international engagements & exposure.

(Point made in response to other panelists)
Mr Modi’s personal popularity among expatriate Indians and the enthusiasm they have shown around his visit to Australia help elevate India’s foreign policy profile. However, it is important for the media to not hype it beyond a point. It is in India’s interests for Indian-Australians to be good Australians: by being loyal, responsible and successful members of their communities.

India’s position on Crimea

Don’t rush to take sides.

This was my response to a journalist’s question on what I thought of India’s position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

India neither has important interests nor the capability to be a useful player over Ukraine and Crimea. It is therefore sensible for New Delhi to let those with interests & capabilities play it out and deal with the outcomes. In any case, the Crimean case conclusively shows that the UN Security Council cannot be relied upon to uphold and enforce the UN Charter.

If Russia’s annexation of Crimea leads to a wider armed conflict then New Delhi will have to review its position.

The Acorn's Power Principle Matrix
Power & Principle Matrix
For context, see this post on the Power & Principle Matrix. Taking gratuitous moral positions is not a good way to conduct foreign policy. Let’s not forget that the principle of territorial integrity that the United States and European Union are invoking over Crimea was overlooked with respect to Kosovo a few years ago. A different principle—mass atrocities against the population—was invoked then. Clearly, interests determine which principle is evoked in international relations.

The internet is freest in US hands

Internationalising internet governance will abridge liberty and restrict free speech

Edward Snowden’s revelations have strengthened demands for “extricating the internet from US control.” This is not a new phenomenon. Ever since Jon Postel died in 1998, governments and non-government organisations have been engaged in a long, complex and meandering process of somehow taking control over the internet. However, while outfits like ICANN and assorted United Nations forums have gotten into the act of “internet governance”, much of the internet remains in US hands. China might well be the country that has more internet users, but it has locked its citizens behind the Great Firewall and effectively created its own national intranet.

Mr Snowden’s revelations are grave, but shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with national security issues or the communications infrastructure business. So while a lot of international reaction is properly in the Captain Renault (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”) category, there are some attempts by governments to secure greater control over internet. China, Russia and Brazil are expected to raise the pitch in the coming months.

It would be terrible thing if they succeed. Whatever the imperfections, whatever the US government’s transgressions, we are better off with as much of the internet coming under the US Constitution than the UN Charter.

Why so? Because there is no better political system—the constitution, separation of powers, civil society and citizens—than the United States today that can protect liberty and free speech. Start with Mr Snowden. Where is Russia’s Snowden? Where is China’s Snowden? Where is Brazil’s Snowden? The United States has strong and vocal free speech and privacy advocates who can hold their government accountable without fear of harm. It has a judicial system that is sufficiently independent as to overrule the executive if found violating the US constitution. Despite what cynics in the United States and detractors around the world say, the US system works. To the extent that it does, it protects everyone’s liberties (albeit to a lesser degree than it protects the liberties of US citizens).

For those who contend that this isn’t good enough, consider the alternative. The vast United Nations system that is accountable to exactly no one. The General Assembly has almost two hundred nation-states as members with varying degrees of commitment to upholding liberty. The Security Council reflects the balance of interests its permanent members, where such paragons of free speech as Russia and China have a veto. Let’s say that the UN creates a brand new UN Internet Governance Council to sit at the helm of internet governance. What is to prevent it from going the way of the UN Human Rights Council, where you don’t need any commitment to human rights to be a member, and where you can rule that free speech shouldn’t defame religion.

Now, those who argue that national governments must control the internet because they must exercise their sovereignty over their ‘territory’ of cyberspace have a logical argument when they call for the internationalisation of internet governance. However, it is unfathomable why proponents of free speech and liberty would want the world’s authoritarian regimes to have a say on how the internet is governed.

Calls for “extricating the internet from US control” are effectively facades for authoritarian states to further abridge the liberties of the world’s citizens. That is why they must be resisted. Indians are much better off putting their faith in their freedom-loving American counterparts than participating in grandiose international internet governance schemes.

International Relations – The Board Game

The players are not playing on the same game board

Image: Nitin Pai/The Acorn/The Takshashila Institution

This is a graphic that I use for my lectures on international relations to illustrate the point that the players see the game board differently. How a player sees the board not only influences that player’s strategy but also influences his perception of others’ actions. The point is simple enough, but many are conditioned to believe that everyone sees the board just as they do. Of course, it does not mean that states act rigorously in accordance with these stylised models—it means that no student of international politics can be oblivious to their existence and influence.

Not Italian tonight

In the case of the killing of Kerala fishermen, Italy would do well to defend its nationals in Indian courts

There are two aspects to the case of the killing of Indian fishermen allegedly by persons on the Enrica Lexie, an Italian merchant ship: the legal and the geopolitical. They are interconnected but looking at the two strands separately is useful.

The most important legal issue at this time is of jurisdiction. According to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) of which both India and Italy are signatories, the coastal state (India) has jurisdiction in its territorial waters (12 nautical miles from the shoreline) for ships engaged in innocent passage. Because it’s hard to draw boundary lines in the water, UNCLOS recognises a contiguous zone that extends a further 12 nautical miles beyond the territorial waters where the coastal state can visit, board and arrest ships suspected of criminal activity in its territorial waters.

What if the crime has been committed in international waters? In general, UNCLOS treats the ship as sovereign territory of the country whose flag it flies and therefore under its jurisdiction. For warships, this is explicit and unambiguous. Even so, there are grounds for another state to claim jurisdiction, invoking its domestic laws or broader principles of international law. [See this explainer at Straight Dope] In effect, this really depends on the relative power of the states concerned—the United States may be able to assert a principle that say, the Republic of Nauru cannot.

Once jurisdiction is established, the respective legal processes take over: evidence must be produced, culpability established, guilt proven, verdicts given and appeals heard before civil damages are paid or criminal punishments meted out. So until the courts pronounce the verdict, the Italian marines are suspects and must be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

On the jurisdictional matter, what it means is that if it is established that the crime occurred short of 12 nautical miles from the Kerala coast, India has exclusive jurisdiction. If it occurred in international waters, beyond 200 nautical miles from Kerala, Italy does.

But between the two areas lies the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) where there is a balance between the rights of the coastal state and everyone else. This is perhaps the international lawyers get to make their money. Because UNCLOS says that the coastal state may initiate judicial proceedings on a foreign vessel in “the exercise of its sovereign rights to explore, exploit, conserve and manage the living resources in the exclusive economic zone.” Those who disagree with how a coastal state interprets this can, well, go to the Hague.

This case involves an additional factor: not only were there armed military personnel on board the merchant ship, they were reportedly not under the command of the Enrica Lexie‘s captain. While the ship is ostensibly an oil-tanker this arrangement calls into question whether”innocent passage” and “peaceful purpose” holds. Furthermore, under international law, military personnel are considered state actors. This means the actions of the Italian marines on board the Enrica Lexie, whether or not authorised by the government, are construed to be that of the Italian Republic.

From media reports, the Italian marines might have opened fire too readily even considering the risk of piracy. Their failure to report the incident before being quizzed by the Indian Coast Guard adds to the dubiousness of their conduct.

So far the Indian authorities have acted in consistence with international law. The Coast Guard and police were within their rights to board and arrest suspects on the Enrica Lexie and subject them to the due process under Indian law. If not already, they will almost certainly be allowed consular access and legal defence. The defendants and the Italian government can challenge the court’s jurisdiction by providing evidence of their claim that the incident occurred in the high seas.

It is untenable to claim, as the Italians are doing, that the legal proceedings must take place in Italy on the basis of their claim that the incident took place in international waters. So let the law take its course.

In international relations, legal processes operate to the extent the states involved agree to abide by them. This is a fit case: there was a reason to deploy armed marines on the merchant ship and it is quite unlikely that the Italians were attempting an invasion or infiltration of Kerala. In the absence of hostile or mala fide intents (politically speaking), it is best to agree to pursue the matter soberly in courts of law. Fattening lawyers is far more conducive to international peace than agitating politicians.

Geopolitical questions are decided on the basis of interests and power, with legal principles and processes employed as mere instruments in their pursuit. There is no reason for India to wish for raising tensions with Italy at this time. Italy’s behaviour in the coming weeks will determine whether this feeling is mutual.

Update 1: Some reports suggest that the Italian delegation claimed that the marines have diplomatic immunity because they are naval officers. That’s ridiculous.

Update 2: Italy could claim that because the marines are elements of the state, they enjoy absolute sovereign immunity. The assertion of such a legal principle—which does not today enjoy the acceptance it did a century ago—will serve to bring the matter into the domain of geopolitics. If India were to refuse to accept this principle, then there’s not much Italy could do about it.

A world full of barbarians

China is unlikely to succeed in using moral power to upstage the United States

Yan Xuetong is one of China’s finest minds on international relations. His recent volume, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power is an excellent introduction to the schools of political philosophy in the Chinese civilisation. His op-ed in the New York Times today presents his view on the essence (if at all an essence can be distilled from diverse, rich strands of wisdom) of what ancient Chinese thinking might mean for contemporary geopolitics.

According to the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, there were three types of leadership: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. Humane authority won the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny — based on military force — inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic powers lay in between: they did not cheat the people at home or cheat allies abroad. But they were frequently indifferent to moral concerns and often used violence against non-allies. The philosophers generally agreed that humane authority would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny.
..
How, then, can China win people’s hearts across the world? According to ancient Chinese philosophers, it must start at home. Humane authority begins by creating a desirable model at home that inspires people abroad.

This means China must shift its priorities away from economic development to establishing a harmonious society free of today’s huge gaps between rich and poor. It needs to replace money worship with traditional morality and weed out political corruption in favor of social justice and fairness. [NYT]

Mr Yan argues that China must display humane authority abroad by developing better relations with other countries than the United States does. China must protect weaker states and strengthen regional security arrangements like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. He calls for China to be open to foreigners and attract talented immigrants. This is the way, he says, China can defeat the United States—not through hot or cold wars, but through strategic competition.

There’s much to recommend Mr Yan’s vision of China’s role in the world, not least because it might be a better template for Beijing’s foreign policy than whatever is on offer today. However, Mr Yan’s conceptualisation of humane authority being the route to global hegemony has two fundamental problems.

First, nations of the world resist the idea of an external authority, humane or otherwise. This resistance grows when the said authority is illiberal and inequitable. It is unlikely that nations that have tasted freedom, or are yearning for it, would willingly accept authoritarianism even of the humane variety. The best that can be said is that China’s civilisational ethos makes its people accepting of authoritarianism, but a look at Taiwan and Hong Kong suggests otherwise. If people value liberty more than whatever domestic or hegemonic humane authority offers them, then China is unlikely to gain influence. Mr Yan might be betraying the Middle Kingdom mindset, implying that “what Chinese people consider good, everyone else ought to consider good”.

Second, if China interprets ‘humane authority’ as discarding the Middle Kingdom mindset and accepting liberalism, plurality and diversity, then it might be indistinguishable from the United States. What then would be China’s competitive advantage vis-a-vis its primary rival? To defeat the United States, China will have to become more like the United States. If it becomes more like the United States, would it be a victory for China at all?

Traditional Chinese political philosophy is at its weakest when analysing a diverse, heterogenous world with multiple sovereignties. As Mr Yan’s arguments show, it finds it hard to reconcile values, beliefs and behaviours that are just different. In ancient China, people who didn’t subscribe to the norms were termed “barbarians”, to be kept out using great walls, kept away through diplomacy or subdued by military force. Chinese strategy has the unenviable task of dealing with a modern world that is full of such ‘barbarians’.

Related posts: On the Middle Kingdom mindset; and how it interacts with India’s geopolitical worldview.