The Asian Balance: Dealing with a vulnerable China

China’s external, economic and ethnic vulnerabilities are worsening

Here’s today’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

This may come as a surprise to many, but China today is at its most vulnerable since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. That’s not all; it is unlikely that the country will shake off its vulnerabilities – geopolitical, economic and internal security – over the next three to five years.

The developments in East Asia in the past few weeks, focused around the East Asia Summit at Bali, have put China on the defensive. Not only is the United States reinvesting its military assets into the Indo-Pacific region, but almost all of China’s neighbours have moved to construct bulwarks against China. Even Myanmar is showing signs of wanting out of China’s orbit, and is opening up to India, the United States and Vietnam. If countries of the region are ganging up against China, it is largely Beijing’s fault. Picking a fight with each one of your neighbours at the same time is not the smartest of moves. Yet, that’s what China has done over the past couple of years.

What happened in Beijing’s foreign policy kitchen is anyone’s guess but China no longer enjoys a favourable external environment that it used to for the last two decades.

Let’s come to economics. Not only does China hold more than a trillion dollars of US debt, it is likely to have to increase its dollar holdings given the sovereign debt crises in the euro zone. So a lot of China’s money is, and will be for some time, at the mercy of its biggest strategic rival. Continue reading “The Asian Balance: Dealing with a vulnerable China”

Lifting the AFSPA, by the numbers

The case for a step-by-step lifting of AFSPA from Jammu & Kashmir

(My op-ed in the Indian Express)

If war is politics by other means, counter-insurgency is even more so. Since the early 1990s, the national endeavour in Jammu & Kashmir has involved three battles: a military contest to crush jihadi militants by force, a political battle to defeat secessionism and a psychological one to ensure that it is India’s narrative that dominates the discourse.
Ending the insurgency requires us to win all three. One reason why the conflict has continued for so long is that we have not been able to simultaneously attain positions of military, political and psychological dominance. Now, after over two decades we have a chance to try and bring a painful, unfortunate chapter in our history to a close.

Consider. Militancy has dwindled. The Pakistani military-jihadi establishment is entangled in a face-off with the United States over Afghanistan and might not wish to scale up violence on its eastern borders. A few months ago, Jammu & Kashmir successfully conducted panchayat elections which saw record turnouts, putting curmudgeonly separatists to shame. In a year where even New York was not spared of public protests, Kashmir’s cities distinguished themselves by staying out of the news, not least due to Lieutenant General Syed Ata Hasnain’s enlightened approach to security management. Tourists got wind of all this, and more of them turned up in the first three quarters of 2011 than in any year in the last twenty-five.

What has not reduced, however, is the affective divide between those Kashmiris hurt by the consequences of insurgency and the rest of the nation. It is important to start bridging that now. Continuing to neglect this psychological aspect of strategy risks undermining hard-won successes in the military and the political battles.

A careful, judicious and step-by-step revocation of the Armed Powers Special Powers Act (AFSPA) can set off a virtuous cycle that will send a positive signal to the people of the state, strengthen the desirable political forces, put separatists on the backfoot, and take New Delhi a few moral notches higher. Such a move is seen as necessary by Omar Abdullah’s government. It is viewed favourably by many in the UPA.

The defence ministry has opposed it on the grounds that we cannot expect our army to fight with its hands tied behind its back. Other thoughtful analysts have argued that it is better to err on the side of caution and wait a few more years before considering lifting AFSPA. What should we make of these serious objections?

First, it is important to recognise that while the defence ministry’s opinion must be considered with the greatest seriousness, the final decision vests with the Union cabinet. No ministry or arm of government ought to be entitled to a veto. We might already have arrived at the point where further application of military force in populated areas of Kashmir will yield negative returns. Sure, the army must remain deployed along the Line of Control to prevent infiltration and keep a watchful eye on Pakistan, but its visibility in towns and villages where there is no militancy will only deepen resentment.

Second, revoking AFSPA does not mean the army’s hands are tied in the whole state. Rather, the provision can be lifted prudently in surgically chosen geographical areas — which can be smaller than districts — with an explicit caveat that it will be reimposed if violence rises. If the situation holds, the revocation can be extended to the next set of locations. If it gets worse, the Central and state governments can declare the areas disturbed and employ security forces as they do now.

Third, a number of steps have to be taken in tandem to manage the risks of an escalation in violence. The army and the security forces must be employed in a manner such that militants and malefactors cannot treat areas where AFSPA has been lifted as safe havens. State police and intelligence agencies must gear up to contain militant mobilisation and activity in such areas. Politically, the UPA and the Omar Abdullah governments must engage their respective opposition parties meaningfully to achieve a measure of bipartisanship.

So there are risks to making a carefully calibrated move towards the endgame now, but these can be managed. Our policy discourse is ill-served by framing the issue as “AFSPA vs no-AFSPA” and rehashing standard arguments. We would be much better off asking what the Central government, the army and the state government ought to do to ensure that lifting the AFSPA leads to the desired results.

Why not wait and see? Waiting has risks too. If the current window of opportunity closes, the UPA government might find itself with its back to the wall, compelled to revoke the AFSPA as a concession to separatists. Surely Kashmir has taught us that yielding from a position of weakness is a very bad idea.

Copyright © 2011. Indian Express. All Rights Reserved

The Asian Balance: Myanmar’s Narasimha Rao moment?

A pleasant surprise from the east

This is the unedited draft of today’s column in the Business Standard:

In a matter of months, Myanmar’s infamous junta diluted itself out of power, a new ‘elected’ government took office, duly freed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, lifted some curbs on the local media, unblocked YouTube, declared that censorship ought to go, announced the intention to introduce economic reforms and — hold on to your seats, ladies and gentlemen — bowed to public pressure and suspended construction on a huge hydro-electric dam that Chinese companies were building on the Irrawaddy river.

So far, so remarkable and so quiet have these developments been that even seasoned observers are in a state of surprise. It seems impossible that a country which appeared so utterly hopeless even twelve months ago — with a closed-minded, curmudgeonly junta presiding over the destruction of generations of human capital — has turned around even to this extent. Then again, this is 2011, the year of geopolitical surprises, where the unexpected is a daily occurrence. Myanmar is unique because the changes happened without ceremony, without round-the-clock television coverage, without foreign fighter aircraft flying sorties over the capital, even without that symbol of early twenty-first century revolution — the twitter hashtag. And so far, at least, it has been good news.

The country may be at its own Narasimha Rao moment. President Thein Sein, who was in India last week, was a top-rung general in the previous military regime and had served as prime minister. Like Rao, he is an unlikely figure to open his country to the world. And like Rao, he might well be the most appropriate. It is way too early to declare that Myanmar has climbed out of the pit its generals dug for it. The new government’s moves are tentative, but they are in the right direction. What happens next depends as much on how the world responds to Thein Sein’s overtures as on his ability to carry his country’s armed forces along.

Because some of Thein Sein’s key decisions preceded or coincided with his trip to New Delhi, some have portrayed them as a vindication of New Delhi’s approach of engaging the erstwhile junta despite its odious human rights record. Such an argument, however, must be tempered with the fact that the Myanmarese foreign minister visited Washington, which had shunned and sanctioned the junta, two weeks prior to Thein Sein’s arrival in India.

Others have cast the developments within Myanmar in the context of a grand contest between India and China, with reformist-democratic forces gravitating towards New Delhi just as conservative-authoritarians are aligned to Beijing. This is misleading.

Take for instance the halting of construction of the Myitsone dam that angered the Chinese government. Given the enormity of public opposition to the dam which mainly benefits China while causing environmental damage in Myanmar, the Thein Sein government confronted a choice between antagonising its own people and angering China. That it chose the latter is a credible signal of its approach to governance. That said, the geopolitical consequences of rubbing a powerful neighbour on the wrong side had to be managed, which explain the overtures to India and the United States. This does not mean that Myanmar will now start favouring India over China in commercial dealings. Rather, it will seek greater policy autonomy for itself by balancing its relationships with regional and world powers. This is still a positive for India, but only to the extent that the playing field will be more level that it was earlier.

So it is up to the Indian government and Indian industry to capitalise on the opening promised by the Thein Sein government. China’s success in South East Asia over the past decade has been due to a combination of money and speed. India’s announcement of a $500 million line-of-credit for development projects in Myanmar can make a meaningful different, but the our government is unlikely — for good reason — to be able to match its Chinese counterpart in the spreading of largesse. We should not get into a spending race. But we should not make excuses for the glacial pace at which India’s developmental projects move forward.

The Kaladan Multi-Modal Project, which connects India’s eastern seaboard to its north-eastern states through Myanmar, is of strategic importance. You should be properly horrified to hear that it is proceeding “slowly”. Also, last week, when one of Thein Sein’s cabinet colleagues broached the idea of re-opening the World War II-era Stillwell Road (which connects Assam and Arunachal Pradesh to Myanmar) our minister of development of the north-eastern region’s reply was: “We have told them that Government of India would consider the proposal after it is formally submitted.” In triplicate, he might have added.

We cannot say for sure that the Thein Sein government will sustain its current course. It may only be aiming at gaining greater international legitimacy and foreign investment while only marginally transforming the nature of the regime. In such circumstances, a tit-for-tat strategy — rewarding desirable movement and punishing backsliding — is called for. New Delhi should work in cooperation with the United States, Japan and key South East Asian countries to put Myanmar on an irreversible course towards freedom, democracy and development.

Copyright © 2011. Business Standard. All rights reserved.

Sunday Levity: Handmade writing instruments

Now for something completely different

Here’s an excerpt of an article I wrote for Mint Lounge on the wonderful handmade fountain pens of Andhra Pradesh.

Several years ago, I heard about a manufacturer of fountain pens in Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh, whose products were said to have been used by national leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, and legendary newsmen such as Ramnath Goenka, N. Subba Rao Pantulu and S. Kasturi Ranga Iyengar. So when a speaking invitation recently took me to this town at the head of the Godavari delta, I decided to check this intriguing story for myself.

That’s when I stumbled on Andhra Pradesh’s tradition of handmade, ebonite fountain pens.

…it’s the fountain pens that have class. You might have noticed the boutique pen stores that have sprung up in shopping malls and airport lounges, selling foreign writing instruments that cost upwards of Rs. 10,000. Classic Indian pens will cost you a few hundred rupees, and although some might contend that the lower cost is a reason not to buy them, I find the idea of owning the pen that both Indira Gandhi and Goenka used rather appealing. [Read the whole thing at Mint]

Check out the blogs of Jayasrinivasa Rao and Satish Kolluru and the Fountain Pen Network forum that I mention in the article.

What’s wrong with asking women to learn martial arts

A government that can’t prevent women from being molested on the streets is unlikely to do better against criminals and terrorists.

Excerpt from today’s DNA column:

Imagine the Indian Army begins to conduct training camps to train all of us on how to use firearms to defend ourselves against foreign attacks. Imagine they provide booklets on how to make grenades that you could throw at invading soldiers. Imagine the army chief saying that our soldiers can’t be expected defend every single part of the country, overstretched as they are, having to go abroad on UN peacekeeping missions, helping census officials, conducting elections, delivering humanitarian relief and constructing buildings for events like the Commonwealth games. Would we buy this logic?

Yet, this is precisely what we are doing with respect to our police forces. In the face of rampant sexual harassment of women (let’s not trivialise these crimes anymore by calling them ‘eve teasing’) the Delhi police force has decided to rely on D-I-Y methods. It is training women in self-defence techniques, martial arts and handing out pepper-spray recipes outside schools and colleges. Some may see these measures as practical and pragmatic, but they should worry us deeply. For they represent an abdication of the State from its fundamental responsibility – using its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to ensure that there is rule of law. [Read the rest at DNA]

Pax Indica: Double trouble

Between the military-jihadi complex and the putative Pakistani state

Excerpts from today’s Pax Indica column:

Margulies
Image credit: Margulies

…What this means for the rest of the world is that it is a challenge to implement policies that distinguish between the military-jihadi complex and the putative Pakistani state. This is because the effects of policy are fungible between the two. When the international community imposed sanctions on Pakistan after it conducted nuclear tests in 1998, the average Pakistani suffered more than the average military officer and the average jihadi militant. The military-jihadi complex was able to externalise the punishment. But when the international community rewarded Pakistan for agreeing to fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the average Pakistani benefited less than the soldier and the militant. The military-jihadi complex cornered the goodies. Not only are the effects of external actors transferable, they are controllable by the military-jihadi complex.

This is the crux of the problem. Of course, the policies adopted by New Delhi and Washington do not show that they have even registered this. They do sometimes distinguish between the civilians and the military, arguing that the former have to be strengthened relative to the latter. Grief awaits those who follow this script, because the military-jihadi complex has both civilian and military manifestations. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry and former foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, for instance, are marching to a different band, compared to Interior Minister Rehman Malik and President Asif Ali Zardari.

Many observers hoped that Pakistan’s civilian government would use the Abbottabad incident to go one up over the military establishment. Instead, Prime Minister Gilani stoutly defended the ISI and shook his fist at the United States. “Civilians vs military” does not explain this as much “military-jihadi complex vs putative Pakistani state”. It makes sense if you look under the civilian attire and realise that Mr Gilani has been the military’s man from the time Mr Zardari became president.

As the United States enters a fresh phase in its relationship with Pakistan, it is all the more important to get the game and the players right. It’s not only about strengthening the civilian government, but really about bolstering the putative Pakistani state. It is not only about giving money to the civilian government but making sure that the civilian government itself is not comprised of people batting for the military-jihadi complex. It’s not only about punishing the military establishment, but making sure that the military establishment does not transfer the blow to the putative Pakistani state. Unfortunately, the Pakistani elite cannot be relied upon to play a constructive role in this process: they are more likely to bandwagon onto the military-jihadi complex in order to preserve the predatory nature of the status quo system.

Of course, it’s not easy. We still need to think about how we can contain the military-jihadi complex without snuffing the life out of the putative Pakistani state. But treating them as two different things will inject a clarity in the way we approach the problem. [Read the rest at Yahoo!]

Pax Indica: Why they killed bin Laden now

The military-jihadi complex is likely to grow stronger

In today’s Pax Indica column on Yahoo, I warn that India has at best two summers before cross-border militancy and terrorism rise again.

You might remember a Shekhar Suman gag on Zee TV’s Movers and Shakers several years ago: An angry George W Bush announces that the United States will bomb the place where Osama bin Laden is found to be hiding.

Hearing this, Vajpayee looks under his bed, pauses, and with a characteristic flick of his wrist says: “Thank God! He isn’t here!”

Over in Rawalpindi, General Musharraf looks under his bed, sighs in relief, and says: “Thank God! He is still here!”

Shekhar Suman, more than most Western analysts, got the plot right. Keeping Osama bin Laden out of Washington’s hands was vital in order to prevent having to publicly deal with revelations of how the Pakistani military-jihadi complex not only was connected with al-Qaeda, but might also have been involved in the conspiracy behind the 9/11 attacks. [Read the rest at Yahoo!]

Sunday Levity: Paid views

The Sicilian women who offered this blogger $150m to oppose Anna Hazare

An excerpt of my short article in OPEN magazine on the wages of making unpopular points:

If the political establishment didn’t know how to respond to Anna Hazare, the mindless thousands who supported him—largely from in front of their television and computer screens— were clueless how to handle criticism of their ephemeral hero.

Now, one of the ordinary joys of non-partisanship is being called a ‘Congress hack’ or a ‘Hindutva-type’ from time to time. It gets even better when you manage being both at the same time on the same issue. Political debate in India is about labels attacking other labels, personalities attacking other personalities and parties attacking other parties. Watch a news debate on mute, and you still won’t miss anything.

But Hazare’s hazaars were extraordinary. Righteous outrage, sanctimony, the free period between two cricket tournaments and the predilection for online rudeness came together and pummelled anyone who dared point out that maybe the boon that Hazare was asking for was really more of a curse. [Read the rest at OPEN]

From the archive: August 2005 – The Best Brickbats

The Asian Balance: The case for military diplomacy

The men in uniform can play a useful role in foreign policy

Excerpts from today’s Business Standard column:

India does not engage in military diplomacy in any meaningful form.

This is part of the reason why India finds itself in a bind with respect to Pakistan, where it needs to engage the real power centre but finds itself with no means to. It is not a matter of matching protocol, for it is not purely military matters that we wish to discuss with General Kayani. Washington, in comparison, handles this a lot better through Admiral Mullen and General David Petraeus, the Af-Pak theatre commander, who are the primary interlocutors with the Pakistan army. Given that these admirals and generals are engaged in diplomatic activities of serious importance to India, can we afford to stay out of the military diplomatic loop?

This is not to say that New Delhi must set its generals and admirals off on diplomatic missions next week. Rather, India must make military diplomacy part of its foreign policy toolbox and create the capacities, structures and processes necessary to put it into action.

Diplomacy must enter the syllabuses of our military academies. Trained military officers must be deputed to Indian embassies and missions around the world, both to add to the numbers of defence attaches as well as to perform non-military functions. Not only will this expose military officers to the conduct of diplomacy but also address another problem — the inability of the Indian Foreign Service to ramp up its numbers fast enough to meet the growing demand. Furthermore, the socialisation of defence and foreign service officers through such postings will create benefits in the long term, in terms of greater understanding and policy coordination.

What about structures? As the late K Subrahmanyam consistently argued, India must restructure its armed forces along the lines of the US, with a joint chiefs of staff and tri-service theatre commands. Like it has done for the US, such a structure will lend itself to the conduct of military diplomacy.

However, while we wait for the political and defence establishments to develop an appetite for major reforms, it is possible to make adjustments to the existing structures to get some mileage. Why not make a senior defence officer the National Security Advisor? Why doesn’t the National Security Council have senior military officers in top leadership positions? Indeed, a general in the NSC can well be the point person to engage the Pakistani army establishment. [Read the whole piece at Business Standard]