Realism, tragedy and Sri Lanka

Pity, not serendipity

The Sri Lankan government seeks military assistance in order to defeat the LTTE. Since India is unwilling to arm the Sri Lankan army, it argues that it is only fair that it should look elsewhere. Pakistan is a willing supplier: “it’s main military supplies to Sri Lanka include mortar ammunition, radio sets, hand grenades, naval ammunition and tanks.” It supplied US$50 million worth of arms to the Sri Lankan army last year. It’s about to supply at least another US$25 million worth of mortar ammunition and hand grenades. Pakistan can argue, with reason, that it is fair that it supports a fellow South Asian government in its war against a terrorist organisation.

It’s all realism. That’s precisely why T S Gopi Rethinaraj argues in the April 2008 issue of Pragati that in the event of the LTTE’s military defeat, it is quite likely that the Sri Lankan government will have little reason to be favourably disposed towards India’s interests. This argument can’t entirely be countered by suggesting that this eventuality can be avoided if India were to support the Sri Lankan government in the first place. There is much logic in Dr Rethinaraj’s contention that the Sri Lankan government’s interests will depend on the end state, not the process of getting there. Like in the case of Bangladesh’s policy towards India, for instance. To prevent an unfavourable change in the balance of power in the immediate Indian Ocean region, he goes on to call for a subtle shift in India’s position towards the LTTE.

There is a another option: if the governments of India and Sri Lanka were to agree upon a broad security relationship that would secure India’s interests as part of a broader settlement of the ethnic civil war along federal lines. That would require a much more muscular approach from New Delhi—which, in turn requires a particular domestic political equation at the Centre and in Tamil Nadu—as well as a much more responsive approach from Sri Lanka. It’s within the realm of the possible, but don’t keep your fingers crossed.

In the meantime, watch (in despair) how a realism plays out in the region.

Would you spare us the briefings!

The more China puts pressure on India over the Tibetan protests, the more it harms bilateral relations

First, the Chinese prime minister issued a veiled threat. Then Beijing’s equivalent of the NSA ‘briefed’ his Indian counterpart. Then they woke up the Indian ambassador at 2am to ‘brief’ her. And now Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister ‘briefed’ his Indian counterpart. It is normal for top leaders to talk to each other on the telephone. But when reports of such conversations are released to the public through the media, it is not merely a business-like conversation on the issues at hand. It’s a signal.

It’s boring to read these reports. China briefs India, India reiterates that Tibet is a part of China, China asks India to prevent the Dalai clique from engaging in politics, India responds that this has always been the way, and so on.

In this case, the UPA government has bent over backwards to accomodate China’s demands. It prevented Tibetans from protesting peacefully. And now, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee felt the need to publicly warn the Dalai Lama from engaging in “any political activity that can adversely affect the relations between India and China” (linkthanks Ajit Joshi). Given that from China’s perspective the Dalai Lama’s mere presence adversely affects bilateral relations, Mr Mukherjee’s warning is absurd. It too is a signal.

It is a signal that makes it plain that India is succumbing to China’s armtwisting. Now, it may well be that Beijing believes that treating bilateral relations with such disdain is somehow alright. That is a profound mistake. India will remain China’s neighbour even after the Olympics. Beijing’s hamfisted approach has already caused damage to bilateral relations. Even if the episode does not get worse, it has become much more difficult for any Indian government—even a spineless one as this—to make any substantive moves on bilateral issues.

China would do well to understand that both sides have vested interests in stability of bilateral relations, and spare Indian officials these repeated ‘briefings’. Beijing should understand that if relations turn worse on account of its graceless handling of relations with India in the wake of the Tibetan protests, it has only itself to blame.

One China Policy

There isn’t one.

This post was first published in November 2006. As it is pertinent to the current situation it is reproduced here, almost in its entirety

In the debate over China, many of those with any experience actually dealing with China on political issues had advised caution. Many of those whose primary experience of China has been through trade and investment advocated closer ties. The oversimplified question on everyone’s lips was a cliche: Is China a friend or foe? That, though, is a wrong question to ask. The inherent anthropomorphism in the framing of this question confuses the issue, for relations between states are not like relations between people.

The essential fact is that on a fundamental level two powers as large and as proximate as China and India cannot rise without competition. And in most spheres of this competition, it is India that is catching up.

Three games
There is competition for regional and global influence: China is taking leadership in regional groupings where it has been a member, and entering groupings where it has not. It is now the most important member in East and Central Asian groupings. It has secured a good foothold in South Asia. And it is knocking on the doors of Africa. India, on the other hand, has secured a greater role for itself in South East Asia, where it has been welcomed because it can help balance China’s influence. Japan too has recognised that India will be a necessary element of the balance of power in East Asia. [See Harsh Pant’s piece in the April 2008 issue of Pragati]

Then there is competition in the quest for energy sources and, soon, natural resources. Here too, China is ahead, but India has begun to up its game in energy diplomacy. The two are already competing in securing fossil fuels. With the India-US deal bringing India into the nuclear mainstream, the competition will extend to securing nuclear fuel too. This decade will also see the two countries on a worldwide hunt for natural resources as their economy develops.

And of course, there is competition for investment and trade, which will only intensify as China becomes proficient in the English language and India gets its manufacturing act together.

…three strategies
So yes, there’s a contest going on all right. This does not, however, call for visceral hostility. Each competition has its rules. They cannot be wished away. This is a moment of profound change in the global balance of power and India would do well to play the game according to what the rules are (and not, as in the past, according to what the rules ought to be). China’s objective—couched as it may be in the language of ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious world’—is to become the pre-eminent power in Asia. It is a game that requires China to improve its relative power. There are two strategies for winning: one, for China to develop its own power; and two, for China to contain its competitors. The principal challenge for India will be to counter this. Nuclear weapons have made it unlikely that the contest will escalate to war. It is necessary to invest in maintaining the conventional and nuclear deterrence to keep it that way. They may be important in their own right, but Tibet, Tawang (i.e. the border issue) and Taiwan are both instruments and shock absorbers in this geopolitical game.

On the surface, the energy and resources game is zero-sum, and for that reason, the prudent strategy for both parties is to compete with each other. There may be scope for co-operation; but such co-operation will not be in India’s favour until it is able to negotiate with China on a peer-to-peer basis. At this time, India should focus on closing the gap, though not necessarily taking the same route as China.

It is a matter of basic economics that greater trade and investment will leave both countries better off. The rules of the game here are entirely different from the rules of the geopolitical or the energy game. There is no good reason—not even ‘national security’—for restricting trade with and investment from China. Those concerned with national security must adapt to the contemporary era of information abundance. Although this is changing, the Indian government is playing the geo-economic game according to geopolitical rules (and perhaps, vice versa).

The upshot is that India will have to counter China’s geopolitical moves, keep pace in the quest for natural resources and engage China in trade. There is, in the end, no simple one China policy.

Doing it at ungodly hours

China’s unfriendliness is revealing

A sign of the nature of a relationship between countries is the manner in which they officially communicate displeasure. So when the Chinese government calls in the Indian ambassador at 2am, to hand her details of plans by Tibetan protesters to disrupt the movement of the Olympic torch in India, you know what the Chinese think about the nature of bilateral relationship. China might have reason to be angry. That it chose to be demonstrate unfriendliness reveals that it believes the proper way to handle India is through overreaction and bullying.

India responded by cancelling Commerce Minister Kamal Nath’s trip to China. The unwritten rules of the game would have suggested tit-for-tat: that the Chinese ambassador be summoned at 2am and handed some inane document. (But where’s the joy is having to meet a Chinese diplomat at 2am? Asking Mr Kamal Nath to cancel his tickets was easier. In any case, the Chinese ambassador, expecting to be called in at an ungodly hour, must have spent the night in his suit, waiting for the call that didn’t come. Not calling him, arguably, was more punishing than calling him in)

China has escalated its diplomatic offensive. The first round was when Premier Wen Jiabao issued a disguised warning. In the second round, the disguise has come off. But it’s a bad move: as the UPA government’s decision to call off Kamal Nath’s trip shows, bullying is the worst strategy China could take against India. Even its mouthpieces can’t generate enough propaganda to prevent public opinion from massively turning against Beijing. China would do well to conduct its business at normal working hours.

Update: Read Tarun Vijay’s op-ed

Enter the hatchet man

The Hindu returns to mislead, obfuscate and yes, bat for Beijing

As expected, the The Hindu has published an entirely one-sided editorial supporting Beijing and condemning the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans. Why it took so long to come might not even be a mystery, in this age of instantaneous international communications, considering that Beijing decided to go on the media offensive after an initial period of censorship and silence. Now that The Hindu should take a pro-Beijing editorial line is acceptable, even if it is extremely disagreeable.

What is especially flagrant about the newspaper’s recent coverage is an insidious, misleading and grossly flawed attempt to cast China’s repression of Tibet favourably in comparison to various political conflicts in India.

If you go by western media reports, the propaganda of the so-called ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’…Tibet is in the throes of a mass democratic uprising against Han Chinese communist rule…The reality is that the riot that broke out in Lhasa on March 14 and claimed a confirmed toll of 22 lives involved violent, ransacking mobs, including 300 militant monks from the Drepung Monastery, who marched in tandem with a foiled ‘March to Tibet’ by groups of monks across the border in India…There was violence also in Tibetan ethnic areas in the adjacent provinces of Gansu and Sichuan, which, according to official estimates, took an injury toll of more than 700. [The Hindu]

There’s intellectual dishonesty right from the start. The editorial begins by conflating the uprising with non-violent protests and implies that because there was violence, reports of an uprising are mere propaganda. The earliest international media reports, filed by The Economist’s James Miles, who ‘just happened to be in Lhasa‘ reported violence. Acknowledging this, the Dalai Lama himself has gone to the extreme of threatening to step down if violence continued. The fact that the protests turned violent is not disputed. What the The Hindu needs to explain is that if the Tibetan protests were not for freedom then what were they for? Surely, the violent, ransacking mobs were not out on the streets protesting against inflation!
Continue reading “Enter the hatchet man”

Remembering the East Pakistan Genocide

Truth and reconciliation elude the victims of the 1971 mass murders

Thirty eight years ago this day, the Pakistani army’s tanks moved in to Dacca (now Dhaka), the capital of East Pakistan, as part of the General Yahya Khan-led junta’s plan to bring the autonomy-seeking province to heel. “We have to sort them out” said Colonel Naim of the Pakistani army’s 9th division, “to restore the land to the people, and the people to their Faith”. Operation Searchlight officially got underway on March 25th 1971, although in his memoirs, Major General Sujan Singh Uban writes that the Pakistani army had begun repressive measures a few days earlier.

Thus began the genocide.

It was perhaps among the few in recent decades that did not come as a surprise, not least to the victims. It accompanied the birth of a new nation leaving horrible birthmarks that disfigure Bangladeshi society to this day. Bangladesh in 1971 was the site of multiple conflicts: a civil war between the the two wings of Pakistan, communal violence between Bengalis and non-Bengalis, a genocide, an guerrilla war, a conventional war and a counter-genocide. In each of these conflicts perpetrators, victims and onlookers often exchanged roles. Here is my essay (PDF, 200kb) that examines the causes, course and results of one sub-conflict—the genocide against Bengalis by the West Pakistani army—and attempts to explain it through a Realist perspective.

In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power indicts the realist underpinnings of US foreign policy for its indirect complicity or reluctance to intervene in several 20th century genocides—including those in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

While that may indeed be the case, the events in East Pakistan between 1970, when Bhola struck, to 1974, when India, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived at a tripartite agreement to close outstanding issues, present an interesting case of how realpolitik considerations of the states involved explain why genocide was carried out with impunity, why it was permitted by international players, why it was halted by the Indian intervention and why the perpetrators were never punished. It is not a normative discussion to study how genocides may be prevented, but rather an attempt to explain the role of Realist foreign policies of states during the episode. (The essay contains a small section disagreeing with Sarmila Bose’s recent revisionist study that concludes that the term genocide was a product of exaggeration.).

Download the essay here

From the archives: Archer Kent Blood, RIP; Who claimed Bangladeshi independence?; Indira called Nixon a…?; Bangladesh celebrates victory day; Children of a failed theory; Foreign Policy Naifs (Barbara Crossette edition)

John 8:7 does not apply to international relations

Perfection is not a pre-requisite for expressing concerns over China’s treatment of Tibetans

M K Bhadrakumar’s op-ed in The Hindu criticising India’s response to China’s handling of the Tibetan protests is bizarre. It is bizarre because despite being a former diplomat, he appears to argue that foreign policies ought to be free of double (or multiple) standards, and only perfect states can criticise others.

One does not have to be a practitioner of diplomacy to comprehend that the UPA government was advising China one or two things about how to set its house in order in Tibet. Evidently, our government is highly experienced in tackling political violence that regularly rocks our country and the Chinese government could learn a few useful things from the UPA. After all, in something like 150 districts in India, the writ of the Indian state no longer runs. Yet Beijing could see, our leadership calls the problem a mere “virus.” [The Hindu]

Mr Bhadrakumar’s implies that India has no right to criticise China’s handling of Tibetan protests because of its own failure to tackle Maoist political violence in the country. This argument is flawed at many levels. For one, India has never used violence against any political movement that is non-violent. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should equate the Maoists (for whom armed struggle is an article of faith) with the Tibetans (for whom non-violence is the article of faith). It defies imagination that he should equate India, a democracy with universal suffrage with China, a dictatorship where Tibetans (and non-Tibetans) do not have political rights.

It defies imagination that he should equate India, which still accords special statuses and prevents demographic change in states suffering from separatist violence with China, where transmigration is official policy and a ground reality. And it defies imagination that he should equate India, whose constitution protects religious minorities and whose governments go out of the way to pander to them, with China, which sees them as ‘primitive’ and in need of ‘modernisation’. In a world of imperfect states and imperfect governments, if there is a country that has moral right to speak to China, it is India. Ask Pallavi Aiyar.

Matt. 7:1 doesn’t apply either

The problem is that such vacuity and double standards can easily boomerang. Curiously, just as South Block was pontificating on how China should govern Tibet, a cable was landing in our foreign policy establishment informing it that the 60-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) at its summit meeting in Dakar, Senegal, adopted a devastatingly critical resolution on Jammu & Kashmir. Of course, this is not the first time that the OIC has done this. But the latest condemnation calling for the right of self-determination for the Kashmiri people has been unusually strong. Among others, Foreign Ministers of friendly countries such as Turkey, Tajikistan, and Saudi Arabia expressed their anguish over the “plight” of Kashmiris in “Indian-occupied Kashmir.” [The Hindu]

Mr Bhadrakumar then points to the OIC’s recent escalation of rhetoric on Jammu & Kashmir and cites it as an example of such ‘double standards’ boomeranging. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should think that the OIC’s criticism of India over Jammu & Kashmir was influenced by India’s position over Tibet. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should believe that the OIC would pipe down its criticism if only India would remain silent on Tibet. It defies imagination that he should think that India should take the OIC more seriously merely because the Russia and the United States are doing so. It defies imagination the yardsticks he uses to define countries as ‘friendly’.

Now there is a reasonable argument—and one that The Acorn subscribes to—that India must refrain from going overboard in its support for the Tibetan protests lest this issue upset broader relations with China. But Mr Bhadrakumar defies imagination by holding the Indian government guilty of doing too much already. That’s really being holier than the Pope, for China itself has not registered even displeasure at India’s positions. Well, not through its official channels, at least.

Pelosi should have stayed in Washington

The useless (to the Tibetans) charade of visiting the Dalai Lama

“If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out about Chinese repression in China and Tibet” Nancy Pelosi said, “we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world”.

She may not be exaggerating. But the issue is not about the freedom-loving people of the world, who are already speaking up against Chinese repression in Tibet. The issue is of ostensibly freedom-loving governments and political leaders of the world, who are not. It is all very well for the Speaker of the US House of Representatives to travel half-way around the world and stand beside the Dalai Lama at this time. It plays well to the world’s television cameras and to Ms Pelosi’s constituents back in America. But by way of meaningful support for the Tibetan struggle, it means little. On the contrary, it will allow China’s Communist party to project the Tibetan protests as part of an American conspiracy to shame China.

If she really wanted to support the Dalai Lama’s struggle, she needn’t even have made the trip to Dharamsala. Perhaps the US Congress could have adopted a stern resolution. Perhaps American congressmen could try and compel the Bush administration to be blunt in its criticism of China. And perhaps (yes, we’re stretching it), freedom-loving American legislators could compel the Bush administration to do something about it.

No, Ms Pelosi and US legislators are not doing that. Regardless of their sincerity, they are content to only put up another show of the dismal political theatre. At the Tibetans’ expense. Ms Pelosi could have spared us this act.

The Quad is dead

Australia has decided that it pays to be nice to China

There’s an interesting discussion going on down under about the death of the “Quad”, a grouping involving India, Japan, Australia and the United States. It was not only seen as an Asia-Pacific “concert of democracies”, but more importantly, as a quiet attempt to balance China’s rising power in the region.

Over at the Lowy Interpreter, Raoul Hienrichs argues that more than the election of pro-China governments in Japan and Australia, the Quad died because China killed it (peacefully, of course).

But there is also something quite revealing about this dynamic. That the Rudd Government did not have to explicitly defer to China’s concerns, because Tokyo and New Dehli had already backed away from the quadrilateral arrangement, is itself a clear indication of China’s rising influence and perhaps Washington’s gradual relative decline in Asia. Moreover, China’s willingness to use its considerable diplomatic weight to prevent the emergence of a regional grouping perceived to be inimical to its interests suggests a new level of confidence in China’s foreign and strategic policy, and an increased awareness among its policy makers of their capacity to independently shape China’s strategic environment. [Lowy Interpreter]

Clearly, at a time when the Australian economy is witnessing a sustained boom thanks to resource exports to China, and that the economic news coming out of the United States is getting worse, the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government might have calculated that now is not the time to attempt to balance China. Snubbing Japan, though, was wholly unnecessary. For if ever Australia changes its mind on its own position vis-a-vis China’s strategic rise, Japan, India and the United States are the only ones it can count on. For them, the interests that led to the move towards the quadrilateral initiative are fundamental—even if current governments are lukewarm about a showy new regional grouping.