Like China in a china shop

A costly show of brightness

The line-up of columnists at Yahoo! India have a special on 2010 Year in Review. In my view, the most important geopolitical development of the year was the shattering of the myth of China’s “peaceful rise”. Here’s my piece:

Factional power struggles within the Politburo, bureaucratic turf fights among various arms of the PLA, overconfidence arising from the geo-economic cards it holds, provocation by the United States or grand incompetence — whatever the reason might be, China set aside Deng Xiaoping’s uncharacteristically straightforward advice to “hide your brightness, bide your time”. In doing so, it shattered the myth of a “peaceful rise” that its own spin-meisters had created and the world’s wishful had consumed. It also put paid to fanciful notions, promoted by nostalgic Cold War-era strategists, that the United States and China could form a “G-2” super-duopoly and, between them, sort out the many problems of global governance. China’s rapid change of foreign policy gears surprised its Asian neighbours both for its content as for its speed. The countries of East Asia are now engaged in a dramatic quest for stability that will come from a new balance of power.

India is an intrinsic part of this dynamic. There are signs that the UPA government, in its second term, is more committed to adding India’s weight to the Asian balance than it was in its first. It is drawing closer to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and the United States, strengthening their diplomatic hands in their engagements with China. Executed carefully, such a strategy is just what New Delhi needs to check China’s moves in the Indian Ocean. As I wrote in a Pax Indica column “the seas east of Singapore hold the key to the lands west of the Indus.”

Beijing is aware that stronger India-US partnership in East Asia is not in China’s interests. It is unclear, though, whether China’s leaders realise that they can avoid such an outcome by stepping back from the numerous Indian red lines it crossed in 2010. Comrade Deng perhaps didn’t say this, but “it’s better to have a swinging neighbor to the south, than a committed one.” [Yahoo India!]

Pax Indica: Use religion in foreign policy

The missing ingredient in India’s soft power

“We have allowed,” today’s Pax Indica contends “our misunderstanding of secularism to keep religion out of the foreign policy toolkit.”


No one bats an eyelid when someone argues that we should use democracy, free-market capitalism, socialism or “South-South solidarity” to promote India’s interests abroad. But mention religion and all sorts of people jump at you. The first objection you hear is that “it’s against our secular values”. This is absurd, as I’ve just argued, because secularism applies only to India’s internal affairs.

It is unacceptable for a country with one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, one with the longest experience of practising the Islamic faith in a multi-religious society to have no voice at all in one of the most important geopolitical dynamics of our time. India’s lack of Islamic soft power is a symptom of its, well, secular rejection of religious soft power. If we are serious about being a major global power, if soft power is to be something more than a feel-good story, and indeed for our own survival and security, we must dispassionately begin to make strategic use of our religion and culture. [Read the rest at Yahoo! India]

Pax Indica: Five neighbourhood paradoxes

Five neighbourhood paradoxes

You might have noticed that, relatively speaking, India’s policy towards the United States or Japan is far more coherent than towards, say, Nepal. Over the last few years, New Delhi was able to challenge the age-old dogma of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), strike a favourable bargain with Washington and break into the international nuclear mainstream. Contrast that with the Indian government’s inability to play any palpable role in the political upheavals taking place in all the countries across its borders. The consensus, confidence and coherence that is increasingly visible in India’s dealings with the world’s powers is conspicuously missing in its dealings with its immediate neighbours. Why? Because neighbourhood policy is trapped in five paradoxes.

The paradox of proximity: While a peaceful and stable neighbourhood is conducive to India’s growth and development, domestic politics circumscribes New Delhi’s ability to intervene coherently. Look no further than the way the UPA government handled the Sri Lankan civil war. A government that names every fixed object built with public funds after Rajiv Gandhi could still not bring itself to unequivocally oppose the terrorist organisation that killed him. It’s not as if the LTTE enjoyed massive support in Tamil Nadu — it’s popularity waned after it assassinated Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 — but such was the political calculus that untrammeled support for the Sri Lankan government became impossible. This opened the gates for China to make inroads into India’s southern neighbour, the implications of which will unfold over the next few years.

It’s a similar story with Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, and not always political. S D Muni, one of India’s leading authorities on international relations, says that the PWD engineers in the Indian districts adjoining Nepal have a say in New Delhi’s policy towards its Himalayan neighbour, because water-sharing is a key bilateral issue.

The paradox of power: as India’s geopolitical power has grown so has its fear of overreach. In a way, this is a reversal of the 1980s when the Rajiv Gandhi government’s ambitions were not always matched by adequate economic and military capacity. Like his mother, Rajiv Gandhi understood and was unhesitant to project power where necessary. Sending paratroopers to the Maldives to foil a coup by armed mercenaries, getting the Indian Air Force to drop relief supplies over Jaffna in defiance of the Sri Lankan government and ordering military exercises that implicitly threatened Pakistan were bold uses of power. Unfortunately, Indira Gandhi had severely damaged the domestic economic engines necessary to generate and sustain that power, ultimately resulting in the overreach in Sri Lanka. That experience so scarred India’s politicians and policymakers that the use of military force outside India’s borders has been practically renounced as a tool of statecraft.

Instead of a careful projection of power within India’s (much greater) capacity today, we have strategy by bureaucracy. When you hear policy-makers say ”we will only send troops under the UN flag” you wonder whether our armed forces exist to serve our interests or those of the United Nations. This is not an argument for a trigger-happy policy. Rather, that India is incapable of protecting its interests without rethinking its policy on overseas military deployments.

The paradox of engagement: New Delhi talks to the powerless but can’t talk to those in power, or vice versa. It’s most obvious in Pakistan. General Ashfaq Kayani is the man calling the shots. India has no direct channel of communication with him. The people New Delhi does talk to — the likes of President Asif Zardari and Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani — have little say in the subjects that New Delhi talks to them about. This creates an illusion of movement in bilateral relations when, fundamentally, there is none. To be fair, the fact that Pakistan has such a complicated political structure (I’m being charitable here) is not India’s fault. But if the Americans can rejig their foreign policy apparatus such that some people talk to the generals while others talk to the politicians, surely, so can we.

It’s somewhat similar in Nepal, where we don’t properly talk to the Maoists. It’s the opposite in Myanmar, where we speak only to the generals and have so ignored the beleagured democratic opposition that, in the event that there is a change in circumstances in that benighted country, New Delhi will find itself needing to make new friends fast. Yes, circumstances are unlikely to change, but that’s no excuse to not hedge your bets.

The paradox of process: we are relying on processes that are only feasible when they achieve the outcomes they seek. In simple English, that’s called putting the cart before the horse. That absurd game of dossiers & lawsuits with Pakistan is a case in point. It would have been meaningful to use legal processes if India and Pakistan enjoyed the kind of normal relations that exist, say, between Malaysia and Thailand. But since they don’t, and Pakistan’s legal system is a joke (I’m not being charitable this time) dossiers & lawsuits is not only ridiculous. It is counterproductive, because anyone who reads newspapers will be put off by Islamabad’s shifty, brazen, too-clever-by-half attitude.

And finally, there’s the paradox of neighbourhood—we can’t choose our neighbours, but we have. For centuries, Gujaratis have been neighbours with East Africans. Keralites are neighbours of the Gulf Arabs, Tamils of Malaysia and Singapore. New Delhi doesn’t consider these countries neighbours. Yet they are. Treating them as if they are not has trapped us into a mindset of living in a troubled, unstable neighbourhood. This is one unfortunate fallout of the faulty conceptualisation of “South Asia” as being limited to the countries of the subcontinent. Once you see the neighbourhood as what it is, and includes East Africa, the Gulf, and South East Asia, you’ll find it full of opportunities, not vexed problems.

The first of these paradoxes might well be structural — foreign policy problems are more difficult to solve when entangled with domestic politics. But the other paradoxes are those of agency — we might be able to escape them if we want to. If we want to.

(This is the unedited version of my column in Yahoo! India)

Pax Indica: The call General Kayani cannot make

A pessimistic prognosis regarding Pakistan’s transformation

Imagine that General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani wakes up one fine morning and decides that the Talibanisation of his country now risked destroying the military establishment that nurtured it since 1947. The militant groups that the army had used to attack India and Afghanistan on the cheap were not only creating trouble for Pakistan around the world, but had wrecked Pakistani society and its economy. General Kayani can tolerate all that, but reckons he will soon have to choose be-tween cutting them down to size or joining their bandwagon, perhaps as their “amir-ul-momineen.” Imagine that he chooses the former option, if only to con-tinue enjoying the “al-Faida” that has come the Pakistani army’s way since 9/11.

“Get Pasha on the line,” he barks at his orderly. Lieutenant-General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, chief of the Agency That Should Not Be Named, picks up the phone from his well-appointed office in the unmarked building near Islamabad’s Aabpara market.

“Pasha, shut them all down, and this is an order.” General Kayani doesn’t stop for pleasantries or preamble, fearing that the ever-reasonable Pasha will find ways to dissuade him.

“Sir, yes sir! And what then, sir?” Pasha asks. Kayani has known Pasha long enough to know this was not a rhetorical question.

How will the Pakistani government — which can’t even collect taxes, electric-ity and water bills from anyone who refuses to pay them — demobilise hundreds of thousands of functionally illiterate, violent, combat-hardened and thoroughly radi-calised young men? The civilian political leadership, bureaucracy and police sim-ply do not have the capacity, competence and power to put anyone other than low-ranking jihadi leaders under arrest, that too temporarily. The only institution that has the prerequisites necessary to take on the jihadi groups is the Pakistan army.

Those on the margins are likely to explore alternatives to martyrdom, but the hard core of the jihadi firmament won’t give in without a bloody fight.


Forty-year-old Brigadier Adnan, tasked to dismantle and neutralise a jihadi hub in South Punjab, tugs at his beard. He has deep misgivings about the mission he has been charged with, even as he gathers his officers for the operational brief-ing. As he explains how they will take out the militant headquarters and such, he sees that most of his subordinates have puzzled looks on their faces. Finally, the brigade-major, an energetic 25-year old infantryman, speaks up. “Sir, why are we targeting these boys?”

“Because, uh, they are putting Pakistan in danger.”

“How sir? They are only fighting against the Amrika, the Israel and the India. They are only doing what we should. They are doing it because our Crore Com-manders have decided that al-Faida is more important than the real mission. And sir, you do know that our men watch television.”

Brigadier Adnan gives his beard another tug. This was not going to be easy.


2000 militants surrendered in one week, and it fell to Colonel Bashir to deal with them. They had been lodged in a hurriedly erected camp outside the village for identification, debriefing and triage. If his job was not difficult enough, the bloody Americans wanted to poke their noses into his business. Their spies were everywhere. Yet he knew his problem was the easy one – the really wicked prob-lem would begin when these boys went home to their towns and villages and fig-ured out there was nothing for them to do there. Some would find ad hoc employ-ment with the local feudal landlord, who could use their special talents. Most, however, would do — what? Other than working the farm for the landlord, there was little to keep them occupied, much less employed.

Colonel Bashir was not even thinking about their minds. Would minds, once radicalised, ever shrink back to their original state?


Now you know why General Kayani will never give such an order in real life. The Pakistani state and its society simply does not have what it takes to dismantle, demobilise and de-radicalise the hundreds of thousands of militants that operate in that country.

In a 2007 study on militant recruitment in Pakistan, C Christine Fair, now as-sistant professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Peace and Security Studies notes: “Limited evidence suggests that both public school and madrasah students tend to support jihad, tanzeems, and war with India, and are more intolerant toward Pakistan’s minorities and women. Thus, if Ethan Bueno de Mesquita’s model is correct, creating educational and employment opportunities may not put an end to militancy because tanzeems can recruit from lower-quality groups. In the long term, however, interventions of this kind may diminish the quality of terror pro-duced, rendering tanzeems a mere nuisance rather than a menace to regional secu-rity. This would be a positive development.”

That would be a positive development, yes, but, as she points out in the very next sentence, “(the) problem with school reform and employment generation ef-forts is not only that they may be beyond Islamabad’s capability and resolve but also that there may be no feasible scope for U.S. or international efforts to per-suade Islamabad to make meaningful reforms on its own.”

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that this is going to get a whole lot worse, as the population grows, the education system continues to radicalise minds, the media reinforces prejudices and the military establishment exploits geo-political opportunities to stay on the same dangerous course.

In the face of this grim reality, the antics of the motley bunch of slick political operators that pass off as the Pakistani government are tragicomic. Politicians like Yusuf Raza Gilani and Shah Mahmood Qureshi mask their impotence by outrageous grandstanding intended to score points with the military-jihadi com-plex.

It is a good idea for India to engage the various players in Pakistan to manage — to the extent that it can be managed — the fallout of the turmoil across its north-western borders; so, too, to engage all of Pakistan’s external sponsors. Even so, neither India nor the rest of the world can escape the consequences of Pakistan’s transformation. Driven as much by strategy as by sentiment, Prime Minister Man-mohan Singh is genuinely committed to leaving a legacy of good relations with Pakistan. Don’t you feel sorry for him?

© Copyright 2010. Yahoo! India. All Rights Reserved. Link.

Pax Indica: Playing the energy game with China

Why India must promote democracy abroad & private enterprise at home

An interesting conversation with Rajeev Mantri & Yogesh Mokashi last week led to the writing of this piece: how might India compete against China in the global quest for energy (and other) resources:

Moreover, the “game” is not one-off. It is a continuous ongoing game that will be played for generations. Nor is it entirely “zero-sum”. It is possible to envision a world where both China and India have access to the energy resources they need. Such a world is possible even when, perhaps only when, the two countries are competing (in a free market) for those resources. Such a world, however, will cer-tainly not come into being merely by wishing for it. It has to evolve, under the tender loving care of nuclear weapons.

The Indian government is trying to improve its score. It has set overseas acquisition targets for state-owned corporations and permitted them to spend $1.1 billion ‘without government approval’. This might yet produce some results—especially if it is backed by political support. It is unlikely, though, that bidding wars with companies that have parents with the world’s deepest pockets are winnable. That’s not all. As India found out in Kazakhstan in August 2005, the kid whose dad drives a Merc can get the goalposts shifted after the game begins.

Clearly, India’s strategy must be different. It must be one that plays to India’s strong points. It must also be one that undermines China’s advantages. The greatest asymmetries that are in India’s favour are democracy and private enterprise.

Consider. It would be much harder for China to move goalposts by coddling the dictator if there were no dictator to coddle. It would be much easier for Indian companies to compete against Chinese ones if the former didn’t have the Government of India as the single largest shareholder. In other words, in the long term, it is in India’s interests for resource-rich countries to be democracies. It is also in India’s interests to facilitate its private sector to expand globally. [Yahoo! India]

Read the whole thing at Yahoo!

Pax Indica: The G-20 opportunity

If you can’t fix the institutions that are supposed to fix the world’s problems, use new ones

In today’s Pax Indica column, I argue that “India must use the G-20 to present the UN, the World Bank and the IMF with a simple choice: reform or face irrelevance.”

Like Groucho Marx who didn’t want to belong to any club that would accept him as a member, there is something aspirational about getting into the coolest clubs, universities or corporations, and in India’s case, the UN Security Council. But why waste time and energy trying to get into something that would rather go belly-up than accept you as a member, when you already belong to a club that, with some effort on your part, can be the most powerful club in town? [Yahoo! India]

Pax Indica: The Palestinian Card

The First Law of Middle Eastern Geopolitics

In this fortnight’s Pax Indica column, I record Turkey’s breakout moment.

(It) was only when Turkey floated the flotilla to Gaza that people took notice. The successor to the Ottoman empire had announced its arrival.

The re-emergence of Turkey as a major power offers India the opportunity to balance its relationships with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. This calls for India to reorient its relationship with Turkey, identify common interests—managing China’s influence in Central Asia, for instance—and convert them into cooperative initiatives. That will also require Turkey to look beyond its relationship with Pakistan. In fact, this is the issue that will answer the big question: is Davutoglu’s neo-Ottomanism merely pan-Islamism or is it about Turkey’s national interests? If it is the former, then Turkey will allow its relationship with India to be constrained by its ties with Pakistan. Not so, if it is the latter. [Yahoo! India]

Pax Indica: Why India must swing

Strategy in a triangular predicament

In today’s Pax Indica column, I argue “that despite an alignment of interests, (India) must not always side with the United States. It must swing.”

To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, India’s options toward the United States and China must always be greater than their options toward each other. It serves “our purposes best if we maintained closer relations with each side than they did with each other.” Isn’t this—by design or by default—what we’re already doing? Not really. That’s because until New Delhi demonstrates that it can deliver pain for one and pleasure for the other, it won’t be seen as swinging. It will be mistaken for sleep-walking. [Yahoo! India]

Read the whole thing. Coincidentally, this piece has the answer to the question that Dan Drezner poses on his blog today, though the question itself is posed from a quintessentially American frame of reference.

Introducing Pax Indica

Of Vijay Chauhan, Voldemort and the Realist perspective

Over at Yahoo! India columns I introduce Pax Indica, my fortnightly column.

The underlying point is that countries operate in an anarchy, an environment where there is no overarching authority that can constrain their actions. Here, as the charismatic Vijay Dinanath Chauhan vividly explains to Commissioner Gaitonde in Agneepath, the law of the jungle operates. The strong survive by killing the weak. Similarly, when Lord Voldemort tries to entice the young Harry Potter to join him, he declares that “there is no good or evil, only power and those too weak to seek it.”

Both Vijay Dinanath Chauhan and Voldemort would have been astute geopolitical strategists, but went tragically wrong when they applied their logic of power to domestic affairs, where the law of the jungle does not apply. For sovereign states though, the message is clear: their very survival depends on having adequate power to ensure it. But how much power is adequate? That’s hard to say, so the prudent answer is “as much as possible”

Read the rest at Yahoo! India and subscribe to its RSS feed.

On Yahoo! India columns, every fortnight

Pax Indica

“Nitin Pai,” writes Amit Varma, “known for his sharp analysis of foreign affairs, will set out every alternate Tuesday to demystify international relations for you in a column named Pax Indica. Rather than just comment from on high about current affairs, he will explain the different schools of thought in the field, and talk about the prism through which he views geopolitics. Whether or not you agree with him, it will at least be clear to you what his belief system is, and which first principles he draws them from.”

What this means is that I will summarily dismiss liberal internationalism, constructivism, post-modernism and all other schools of international relations in the very first sentence, and then hold forth on realism in every column. Okay, not in the first sentence. But I might argue that it’s really all about alcohol. Or declare that Indian foreign policymakers need to frequently ask themselves “What would Mukeshbhai do in this situation”. Or demand that Shah Rukh Khan be appointed as India’s special representative to Afghanistan. Or, or…anything you, the regular readers of The Acorn, suggest.

What will interest you is the company Pax Indica finds itself in. Anything That Moves, Minority of One, Corner Plot, Atlas Invested, Viewfinder, Dead Tree Diaries, Persistence of Vision, Stereotypist and even a Mirth Vader. More from Amit on his blog and his introductory piece at Yahoo! India.