Pakistans and talks

The problem with talking to Pakistan is that there are two of them

It’s happened again to yet another Indian prime minister. He’s decided to resume talks with the Pakistani government after the process had been halted due to Pakistani transgressions and bad faith. 

Now, there is sense in talking to the Pakistani government because that’s exactly what that country’s military-jihadi complex — and India’s irreconcilable adversary — does not want. In normal course of events denying the adversary the response he desires is good strategy. However, the problem in the case of Pakistan is that there are two ‘Pakistans’: the putative state (represented now by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif) and the military-jihadi complex that dominates the former.

Denying the military-jihadi complex what it desires means India sends a signal that it cannot punish transgressions, and allows Pakistan’s civilian government to raise its bottom lines. This risks India making incremental concessions each time without gaining anything in return. In other words, Pakistan has the ability to take by salami-slicing what it cannot achieve through war or negotiations.

What about not talking? This plays into the military-jihadi complex’s hands, which derives its own legitimacy and power by rallying all anti-India forces. In Pakistan’s domestic context, the army and the jihadi groups become more popular vis-a-vis the civilian government. Since the military-jihadi complex is irreconcilable and there is a chance that the civilian state is not, this is bad news from the Indian perspective. No surprises then, that the army and the Islamists will do whatever is possible to scuttle diplomacy.

In other words, India risks losing out on substantive issues by pursuing talks with Pakistan despite the latter’s hostility. If it does not do this, India risks strengthening its worst adversary on the other side. Damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. 

So how should New Delhi deal with this situation? Ignore it. Focus on economic growth.

What Pakistan does or doesn’t do is a minor variable in India’s growth story. Growth, on the other hand, is a major factor in India’s foreign and security policies. Putting Pakistan on the back burner (actually, keeping it in the refrigerator) is not only possible, but is necessary at this time. Just half-a-decade of high economic growth will transform the geopolitical context around Pakistan, enough to swing the negotiating environment in India’s favour. The more we wait, the better it will be for us.

Let Pakistan undergo its internal transformation. New Delhi can deal with the outcomes rather than engaging in a game where it loses out, no matter what it does.

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.

Diplomacy, politics, power and norms in the neighbourhood

Can New Delhi shape and use a normative consensus?

In today’s Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta carries forward the debate on neighbourhood policy that I attempted to initiate last week through the columns of Business Standard.

In short, I had argued that New Delhi finds itself in reacting to events around the subcontinent in an ad hoc manner because it has not yet thought out a policy framework on how to deal with the region. I recommended a new neighbourhood doctrine:

First, India must continue to generate high rates of economic growth so as to remain the economic engine of the subcontinent.

Second, India must unabashedly back pro-India political parties in neighbouring countries and make it more expensive for anti-India parties to hold their positions. [Business Standard]

Mr Mehta qualifies both these arguments. The influence of economic growth is gated by the fact that “region is still populated with leaders and political forces that will cut off their own nose to spite their face; and investments in enmity override the well-being of populations.” As for backing pro-India parties, he contends that, a short-sighted partisanship will not work, and “in the long term, these forces can only be those that have the potential to build a new normative consensus” in the subcontinent.

These are well-considered qualifications. It is easier to respond to the proposition that economic growth alone is unlikely to persuade political parties that would rather keep their populations poor than abandon their anti-India politics. This is rational from their perspective because they see it as politically advantageous. For precisely this reason, New Delhi must back pro-India parties and chip away at the perceived political advantage of being anti-India.

The issue of building a normative consensus is harder to crack. It is a challenge at the best of times to balance respect for sovereignty and a particular domestic political order at the same time. It is easier if the attempt to balance these is discarded: ASEAN, for instance, solved this dilemma by placing sovereignty over democracy (or authoritarianism) by enshrining the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs. India cannot take this escape route: a large democracy constitutionally and popularly committed to human rights and pluralism cannot be completely oblivious to the state of its neighbourhood. This is so even when New Delhi might prefer dealing with assorted despots and authoritarians. There has always been a strong constituency in parts of Indian society that stands up for democracy and human rights in neighbouring countries. (Admittedly, this constituency has been inconspicuous recent months.This is very likely due to the unusually high level of preoccupation with India’s domestic politics and economy.)

Even if New Delhi somehow manages to walk the tightrope, its ability to enshrine and enforce norms is an altogether different matter. K Subrahmanyam expounds realism when he notes that “norms can have power despite being marked by organised hypocrisy”. That said, states usually use the language of values on three occasions: when they are too weak to employ power; when they want to mask the employment of power; and when they are too strong and would rather not use power.

So a weak, newly-independent India championed liberal internationalism; during the Cold War, the United States cloaked its use of power by invoking the language of freedom and in the proximate post-Cold War era, the West hopes that enshrining norms will reduce the need for it to take the expensive route of employing hard power.

Where does India stand today in the context of its subcontinental neighbourhood? It is certainly not so weak that it has to rely on moral platitudes alone. On the other extreme, at current levels of national income and given the increasing openness of the region to external powers, it cannot be said that India can enshrine and enforce norms relatively easily.

At the risk of leaving idealists and other well-meaning people aghast, this leaves New Delhi with the middle option: use norms to cloak the use of power, participate and even lead the organised hypocrisy.

Therefore, I agree with Mr Mehta that India must build a new normative consensus as part of its neighbourhood policy doctrine—although I suspect it is for different reasons.

Related Posts: The paradox of proximity — my paper on why neighbourhood policy is difficult and a short, quirky look at the power-principle matrix.

The cat’s paw

Strategic proxies have disproportionate negotiating power

This month’s Asian Balance argues that China is indeed being ‘bullied’ by the Philippines. Such a statement is likely to cause many people to jump because of the value judgement placed on the term ‘bully’ as well as the David and Goliath-like setting. Shorn of those value judgements and biases, though, this statement holds up. As the column notes, the Philippines has more to gain and less to lose by behaving in a provocative manner than China.

One reason for this is Manila’s treaty alliance with Washington. This affords it with the security that the United States will have to intervene in some form if the Philippines is attacked by China. Washington has let it be known that it is unlikely to intervene in a territorial dispute. This allows China to act against the Philippines in the disputed territory—if Beijing takes military action beyond the disputed islands, and onto sovereign Philippines territory, then it raises the risk of US intervention. The exact red line might be fuzzy, but both Beijing and Manila know that it exists. The game then is to exploit the space before the red line is crossed.

The United States might well be using the Philippines as a proxy to indirectly contain China, its strategic adversary. However, this is not without its own strategic costs—failure to manage the proxy can drag the United States into a conflict it does not want to get into. Manila knows this and can exploit it, for instance, by demanding that the United States sell it arms so that it can defend itself better.

China is at the receiving end in this case, but is quite an accomplished player in the strategic proxy game. North Korea ties down the United States, Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia. Pakistan checks India and the United States in the subcontinent. All in the game.

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.

On bloggingheads – India, US, China and Af-Pak

The geopolitics of hope?

Here’s a diavlog with Robert Wright, editor-in-chief of on what they’ve titled as the geopolitics of hope. The conversation ranges from India-US relations, US-China relations, Af-Pak and even legitimacy of governments.

So sit back relax, spill your coffee or Fall Off Your Chair™

Jump to segments:
When American jobs go to India and elsewhere (06:21)
Is China malicious or just coolly self-interested? (08:08)
What India gets out of the AfPak mess (05:14)
Pakistan’s “Military-Jihadi complex” (06:11)
Do the terrorists win when we withdraw troops? (08:29)
India’s expanding beat as global cop (05:10)

Reconstructing Afghanistan’s natural balance

Why India must try to bring the United States, Iran and Russia together over Afghanistan

Imagine Afghanistan without extra-regional powers like the United States, NATO and others. Its stability would depend on the stability of the balance of power between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan and India. The external actors would broadly fall into two camps, based on the degree of convergence of their interests: China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in the red corner, and India, Iran and Russia in the blue. This was roughly the situation obtaining in Afghanistan in the second-half of the 1990s towards the end of which the red corner seized a dominant upper hand through the military success of Mullah Omar’s Taliban regime. After 9/11, the US and NATO stepped in and disrupted the natural geopolitical dynamics of the region.

Once external powers withdraw Afghanistan the natural geopolitics will again kick into action: with the China-Saudi-Pakistan triad seeking dominance over the landlocked country against the interests of India, Iran and Russia. The United States has the power to set the future trajectory by choosing sides. The tragedy of the last decade is the sheer inability or unwillingness (complicity or incompetence?) of the United States to appreciate the intrinsic geopolitics of the region. It would have done much better for itself and for Afghanistan if it had recognised how the fundamental interests of the region’s powers were stacked up, and aligned itself accordingly.

The single most important reason for this, perhaps, was the dysfunctional relationship between Iran. There still is no love lost between Washington and Tehran. Worse, even as China consolidates its alliance with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the United States seeks to split India and Iran. For its part, India has shown no appetite for bringing about a rapprochement between the United States and Tehran.

This must change, and 2011 has opened a window for India, Iran and the United States to attempt to increase co-operation over Afghanistan. Writing in the Washington Post, a well-connected Saudi commentator has declared a US-Saudi split. The Pakistani establishment is checking how much support it will receive from China before deciding how much to part ways with the United States. Before the killing of Osama bin Laden upset the scoreboard, General Kayani and Prime Minister Gilani had asked Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, to cut his links with the United States. In the current circumstances China doesn’t have to do anything bold: it just needs to wait.

In contrast, even after Abbottabad, the United States remains wedded to a failed strategy of pretending that the Pakistani military establishment is its ally. This only strengthens the position of the China-Saudi-Pakistan triad, and weakens its own. New Delhi is unlikely to be persuaded that it enjoys a genuinely strategic relationship with the United States as long as the latter continues to scaffold Pakistan. Tehran has many reasons to be opposed to the United States. A good part of that is ideological. What gets less attention is the fact that the realists in Tehran have reason to be wary of the United States because they see Washington as the protector of both Israel and, more importantly, the Sunni bloc consisting of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. There are some differences between New Delhi and Tehran, but nothing that can’t be resolved if Washington were to change course. Russia enjoys good relations with both Iran and India, and is likely to prefer such a re-arrangement of relations.

If realism prevails in Washington, New Delhi and Tehran, their diplomats will be galvanised into working out how the three could co-operate, albeit in a limited context, over Afghanistan. It may be that nearly three decades of estrangement has left the tribal world of Washington policymaking with few advocates of making up with Iran. That’s why India has a role—it must muster up the imagination and diplomatic chutzpah to attempt this project.

It is frustrating to see resigned minds give up before even trying.

Related Links: Lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement (from this blog’s archives) and Neil Padukone’s issue brief at CLAWS.

The Asian Balance: What if China becomes a democracy?

Business as usual, with some relative advantage and why we need Reforms 2.0

Excerpts from today’s Business Standard column:

It is extremely unlikely, but let’s say the fragrance of Jasmine flowers wafts across the Great Wall and perfumes China’s Han heartlands. A post-revolution China could take many forms, but let’s say that it turns into a democracy while retaining its existing international boundaries. Let’s set aside these two big “if’s” for a moment and ask what such a scenario would mean for India.

There are three fundamental questions. Will democratic China change its outlook, positions and policies with respect to India? Will it be any easier to deal with? And therefore, is a democratic China in our interests?

…it is likely that democratic China, like the People’s Republic, will see itself as the successor to the glorious empires of history (and its) geopolitical interests will not be too different from the People’s Republic’s.

There is also nothing to suggest that China will stop using Pakistan and other countries in India’s immediate neighbourhood as proxies and surrogates. Even the methods might not change. After all, if the US and France sell arms to the Pakistani army why can’t democratic China do the same? Let’s not forget that the US was very much a democracy when it abetted Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.

Will democracy make it be any easier to deal with the northern neighbour? Again, unlikely. Democracy in the eastern, western and southern neighbours has done little to transform their relations with India. Why should it be any different with China?

None of this implies that a democratic China is not in our interest. From a foreign policy perspective, the main reason to prefer a democratic China is to be able to mutualise the democratic disadvantage.

It is harder for democracies to doggedly pursue the quest for power. (See this post from 2006). Democracies are also more transparent. To the extent that we are familiar with Democratic China’s domestic political landscape it will be an improvement over the current situation, where we know little about the way the cards are stacked. Transparency will also make China’s politics more manipulable, and thus neutralise an asymmetric advantage that it has over India today.

Preference is one thing, capability another. A democratic, coalition-run India does not have any serious means of promoting democracy across the Himalayas. It does, however, have the power of example. The Communist Party of China contends that prosperity can only be achieved by suspending freedom. We can prove it wrong. The Beijing Consensus can be challenged, in China and outside, by fully dismantling the Delhi straitjacket, and implementing second-generation economic reforms. [Business Standard]