The price of minding Mr Hu’s delicate sensibilities

It is not in New Delhi’s interests to be seen as a craven appeaser of China

There are a number of reasons why states come together and form international groupings. These include common interests, common causes, common weaknesses, common fears, gawking, lurking and sabotaging. One of the more inexplicable reasons they form groupings is because some research at some investment bank wrote a report lumping them together based on their growth rates and sizes of their economy. That’s why when outrage suppresses yawn when BRICS summits are held.

If the Indian foreign service is understaffed and overstretched, it also is guilty of enthusiastically expending resources in one too many pointless clubs, from the Commonwealth to the Non-aligned Movement and now to BRICS. The opportunity cost of getting wrapped up in pointless pageantry is lower attention to more important forums like the G-20 and the East Asia Summit. Like in many other areas, the UPA government’s sense of priorities is highly questionable.

Worse, because China’s highly Tibet-sensitive president was to attend the summit, the Indian government found it necessary to round up not only Tibetan protestors, but anyone else who faintly resembled them. Calling it our shameful kow-tow, Mihir Sharma writes of “Tibetans being rounded up, made to squat in the sun; the ever-sensitive Delhi Police indulging in the worst sort of racial profiling, demanding that people who look even vaguely Tibetan prove their credentials or be locked up.”

Having met some of the top Indian officials dealing with China policy, I can say with some confidence that they are not the appeasing sort. So why did Delhi Police (which takes orders from the Union home ministry) behave in such a demeaning manner?

One explanation that you might hear is that since New Delhi is playing hardball where its core interests are concerned there is no point in gratuitously embarrassing China’s leader in the eyes of his peers. This being a crucial year for the Chinese leadership—where power is supposed to change hands at the Party Congress amid factional strife, economic uncertainties and internal instability—why make President Hu Jintao lose face? There’s some merit in this argument. You don’t need to make a public show of your intentions. Making your guest comfortable is as good a principle in diplomacy as in daily life (although some Leftists didn’t believe this ought to extend to a US president).

Nor does preventing pro-Tibet protests prejudice India’s current or future negotiating position on the Tibetan issue. After all, “Free Tibet” protests can take place elsewhere in the country and on any other day of the calendar.

It’s not uplifting, it’s not fragrant, but there is merit in this logic. However, it still misses a larger point. The world—and especially the countries of East Asia—are watching. What they saw is a potential counter to Chinese hegemony bend over backwards (a reverse kow-tow?) to please China’s leader. Although they have seen some measures by New Delhi that persuades them of India’s intentions to contribute to the Asian balance of power, such signals risk confusing them. Small and medium-powers in India’s extended eastern neighbourhood will begin to have doubts about New Delhi’s ability to stand up to Chinese assertiveness. This will make it much more difficult for India to pursue its own interests in East Asia.

Finally, the perception that New Delhi ‘appeased’ Beijing yet again will exacerbate the hysteria in the media and public discourse on matters concerning China. Ironically, the UPA government has ended up embarrassing itself in front of its people in order to avoid embarrassing Mr Hu in front of his. Senior Indian officials have complained that the way the Indian media report issues pertaining to India-China relations complicates matters. The way the Indian established handled Mr Hu’s visit doesn’t help matters either. Feeding a narrative of a weak India unable to show spine to China on core democratic values is unlikely to help New Delhi make tough decisions of give-and-take if the opportunity presents itself. After all, we are all just prisoners here, of our own narratives.

Pointing guns and stroking backs

The implications of Pakistan’s power triangle

Those who follow Pakistan are familiar with the metaphor that describes that country as “negotiating with a gun to its own head.” Here’s an update: it’s now run by three power centres—the military establishment, the higher judiciary and the civilian government—, where one holds a gun to the another’s head, while not so subtly stroking the back of the third. That makes the drama complex and absorbing, but the upshots for the rest of us are simple.

First, you can’t deal with Pakistan any more. You need to deal with bits, pieces, factions and quarters of Pakistan. Since none of them has the power to see through whatever they might agree, any commitment or deal they make involves, shall we say, immense counter-party risks. In other words, it means they are not worth the paper they are printed on. Whether it’s the IMF dealing with the Pakistani treasury apparatus, or the Indian commerce ministry discussing trade with its Pakistani counterpart or the United States government working on a deal over Afghanistan, there’s no guarantee that the Pakistani side is in a position to see through its end of the bargain. The only reason to persist is perhaps because, well, “the show has to go on.”

Second, the civilian government has neither any control over Pakistan’s foreign and security policies nor has any real means to bring terrorists to justice. The military establishment controls the former and the higher judiciary controls the latter. There is a degree of tacit but not-so-subtle complicity between the two. In other words the military-jihadi complex not only remain in charge but now has a lot more latitude because there are fewer pretenses to keep and fig leaves to hold up. The complex has also regained narrative dominance. To the extent that the presence of US and international forces in Afghanistan keeps the Pakistani army strategically focused on that front, General Kayani and his colleagues are unlikely to want to escalate tensions with India through renewed terrorist or insurgent attacks.

Third, while the general view is that the US-Pakistani alliance is over, it is difficult to shake-off the perception that Washington has decided to work with the Pakistani military establishment rather than strengthen the hands of the civilian government. Therefore, at a critical juncture in Pakistan’s history, Washington has again let go of an opportunity to put the military monster back in the pen. There are good excuses for this, but as much as they are good, they are still excuses.

This does not mean that President Asif Zardari will lose and General Kayani will win decisively. On the contrary, Mr Zardari might be considered to have won if he and his government just survive in office for their term. General Kayani, on the other hand, needs to meet the standards set by his successful coup-making predecessors. That is not a victory for democracy. It is at best an establishment of a new, tenuous distribution of power which, as described above, involves gun-pointing and back-stroking.