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]

Grand Strategy

India has always had a grand strategy: to keep the country united

N S Sisodia, IDSA’s director-general, makes the case in the Indian Express today for the strategic affairs community to develop and articulate a grand strategy for India. IDSA recently launched the National Strategy Project (INSP) that aims to bring together a wide range of scholars, analysts and experts and jointly shape a grand strategy. (Disclosure: a couple of us at Takshashila are involved in this project).

Now, that government-related institutions are beginning to think systematically about the big “Why” questions of foreign and national security policies is a good thing. (ICRIER had launched a National Interest Project in 2007). Does India need a grand strategy that will inform and influence policymakers across ministries, across political party lines and over time? Obviously, yes. Should this be publicly articulated? Most certainly—it might not convince everyone, but doing so offers us a way to assess whether or not policymakers are sticking to the given script.

But is it true that India has lacked a grand strategy all this while?

Two answers are usually offered: the first, made famous by George Tanham, suggests that India lacks coherent strategic thinking. Unlike many other countries, the Indian government’s decision-making remains behind a wall of secrecy, records remain locked up in archives or personal collections and few people close to the action write books on contemporary events, if they write at all. So it is fair for information-starved academic scholars to conclude that the absence of evidence is really evidence of absence—forget grand, they would say, New Delhi lacks strategy.

The second answer contends that non-alignment was India’s grand strategy from independence to the end of the Cold War. During the early Nehruvian-era, non-alignment had realist underpinnings, but in 1962—when Nehru requested Kennedy for US air power support—non-alignment became a grand slogan. But what are bureaucracies for if not to provide policy continuity? Non-alignment continued to be worshipped by India’s politicians and intellectuals even after Indira Gandhi—in an act of hard realism—signed a treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971. It was only when the Cold War ended that non-alignment became a painfully obvious anachronism. The deity had vanished, leaving the worshippers lost and confused.

So it is perhaps not a coincidence that Tanham’s view gained traction in India the early 1990s, just after the Cold War ended.

Actually, the case of the missing grand strategy remained unsolved because they were looking in the wrong place. India’s leaders, at least from the Mauryas to the Mughals to Manmohan Singh, have always had a grand strategy. And it is a very simple one—to unite India and keep it united. Scholars of international relations have missed this because India’s grand strategy has been largely domestic in its focus. As K M Panikkar laments, India’s rulers have always been preoccupied with the subcontinent. Even as it indicates a lack of interest in extra-subcontinental geopolitics, it suggests that they were not “bereft of coherent strategic thinking”.

From Chandragupta’s empire building to Aurangzeb’s military expeditions to the Deccan to the Indian republic’s foreign policy, the grand strategy is consistent—bringing the whole of the Indian subcontinent under their rule and keeping it that way. Non-alignment was not grand strategy, but rather, an approach that followed from the grand strategy. And Tanham was wrong. The survival and security of the state, the most parsimonious definition of the national interest, has been and remains India’s grand strategy. It should remain so.

That said, can India afford such parsimony in its strategic approach towards the twenty-first century? Not quite, because to the extent that India’s grand strategy caused India’s leaders to be inward-looking, both the opportunities and threats emanating from outside have been neglected. In the highly competitive times of the twenty-first century, India cannot afford to miss either. So there is a case to rethink grand strategy. There is a need to shake up the foreign policy and security establishment from one that was defending a weak India from a world that was out to get us, to promoting the interests of a stronger India in a world where there are opportunities as there are threats.

The case for South Korean nukes

Self-help is best

Kim Dae-joong, columnist at South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper calls for Seoul to develop its own nuclear arsenal, arguing that the South’s nuclearisation is the key to the denuclearisation of the penisula.

(Few) experts or politicians believe the North will actually abandon its nuclear program. They know that the North Korean regime believes the country would have no future if it gives up its nuclear weapons. In other words, the parties to the nuclear talks are operating on false premises, trotting out their goals out of habit without any belief that they can achieve them. Fully aware that the North won’t denuclearize, they clamor for its denuclearization at every available occasion. It is the ultimate in hypocrisy and bad faith.

The way out of the hypocrisy trap is for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons too. Only when Seoul develops a nuclear bomb will the way for substantive negotiations between the two Koreas open. Paradoxically, denuclearization is possible on the Korean Peninsula only when both Koreas have nuclear arms, exercise mutual restraint and conduct nuclear disarmament talks. We can no longer entrust our lives and territorial security to the incompetence of world powers that have failed to settle the North Korean nuclear issue for over two decades. We have to take charge, and to do that we need to develop nuclear weapons.

The regions most exposed to the threat of war are the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East and Africa. Nuclear balance is maintained in the Mideast and Africa. But on the Korean Peninsula the North can make nuclear threats and the South trembles. Some say the U.S. nuclear umbrella plays its role, but having nuclear arms and relying on someone else’s nuclear protection are two very different things.

The chances are nil that Washington, which trembled at the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, would risk a war with China by deploying its nuclear umbrella when the North launches a nuclear attack. That is the limitation of the nuclear umbrella, and there lies the reason why Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons can be subject to negotiations, but a nuclear umbrella cannot. [Chosun Ilbo]

How wrong I was

2005 was a different place

The Acorn, like many other blogs, routinely calls out those who were wrong. Time to direct the criticism at oneself: this blog got it wrong—in 2005—when I thought that China would see it as in its best interests to stop antagonising India. Here’s a post that I wrote on the eve of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s March 2005 visit to India.

In my defence, I’ll only say that my assessment of the prospects for India-China relations has changed in the face of new facts.

It’s not transactional, stupid!

Obama’s visit to India is a sign of the symbolism that characterises a strategic relationship

People are missing the point.

It doesn’t require the US president to come all the way to India to sell military equipment, make a case for reforming the UN security council, remove hurdles for high-technology co-operation, or indeed, as White House officials tried to project last week, encourage Indian companies to create jobs in the United States.

Such issues are negotiated by the minions, need bureaucratic and political consensus on both sides and are settled at their own pace. Official visits and summits between heads of state at best impose artificial deadlines and can be used to inject urgency into the negotiating machines. We saw it a few years ago when the India-US nuclear deal was pushed through in time for a Bush-Manmohan Singh summit.

Those who measure the significance and success of Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to India through the prism of deals signed and statements made miss the fact that the India-US relationship is strategic, not transactional. Ironically, the strategic nature of the relationship was sealed by a transaction—the nuclear deal—leading many to expect more of the same. Now, there are good reasons for the Indian government to purchase US military aircraft, but not doing so isn’t about to wreck the bilateral relationship. Similarly, there are good reasons for Mr Obama to declare support for India’s place in a reformed UN Security Council, but other than disappointing his hosts, he won’t do much damage if he skips this topic.

For the first time in more than 50 years, the interests of the United States and India are converging geopolitically, geo-economically and, to coin a phrase, geo-democratically. As K Subrahmanyam points out succinctly, the United States needs India to counter China’s rising power. Likewise, India needs a strong United States, not to ally with, but for its own reasons of swing. This is as true from the economic perspective as it is from a political one. [Also see this CNAS report] Most importantly, India and the United States are mutually popular—the bottom-up factor is a powerful driver of closer bilateral relations.

It’s very hard to measure the extent of strategic relationships. Signing of business or arms deals are poor proxies. That’s where symbolism comes in. Obama has no real business to do in India. Yet he is coming. Sure, he’ll do some business when he’s here, but none that absolutely requires his presence. It’s symbolic and it counts.

For that reason Barack Obama will have a very successful trip to India next week. He just has to turn up.

Related Links: Articles in Pragati: Partnerships are made by bureaucracies – by Nicholas Gvosdev; and What’s the big idea? by Dhruva Jaishankar.

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]

The Asian Balance: Recognising good neighbours

My new monthly column in Business Standard is called The Asian Balance. It “will devote itself to chronicling and interpreting the unfolding geopolitics of East Asia. It will be a unabashed advocate of Looking East far beyond the Straits of Malacca. Rebuilding the economic, cultural and political relationships that India historically shared with the countries and the peoples to its East has never been more important to our future than it is today.”

The first piece is up. Here’s an excerpt:

Three factors will shape the Asian balance: first, nuclear weapons—what I call the New Himalayas—will shift the India-China contest away from a direct military conflict along the land border. It will take place, among others, in and around the Indian Ocean. It will play out in the form of increased Chinese presence in the waters off India’s coast and renewed US engagement of Asean countries. The big question is to what extent will India be a player in areas that China considers its backyard.

Second, the small- and medium-sized countries of the region will prefer a balance where no single power dominates over them. If they do not see this forthcoming, they are likely to join the stronger side. What this implies is that the importance they give to their relationship with India will depend on their assessment of whether New Delhi has the capability, and the will, to contribute to the balance.

Third, unless there is an addition to the number of nuclear powers in East Asia, there will be a preference to create and work through regional multilateral institutions like the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). The absence of direct nuclear deterrence in the Western Pacific has emboldened China to claim almost the entire South China Sea as its own. All the activity in East Asia trying to form one big workable grouping is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to. [Business Standard]

The wolf in the cabbage patch

…is unlikely to be vegetarian

The tragedy of M K Bhadrakumar’s article in today’s Hindu is that one half of it is eminently sensible and the other, unsubstantiated wishfulness. Yes, it is important not to allow paranoia to determine policy towards China, but unless Mr Bhadrakumar is wired into the minds of the Chinese leadership, it is illogical and dangerous to assume that the wolf in the cabbage patch is vegetarian. And will remain vegetarian.

As I had tweeted earlier, reports of Pakistan handing Gilgit-Baltistan over to China are almost certainly exaggerated. This does not mean, however, that the scenario is implausible. To the extent that Selig Harrison’s article caused the public and politicians to consider the implications of such a scenario—and hopefully, prepare for it—it served a purpose. It is quite possible that Mr Harrison was an unwitting part of a disinformation operation, perhaps by the United States, to ensure that public opinion in India remains wary of China. If this were so, shouldn’t China be extra careful to ensure that it doesn’t deliberately carry out unfriendly acts like the visa denial to a senior military officer? Mr Bhadrakumar would have been on a firmer footing had he listed some measures China took to prove its bona fides vis-a-vis India. I myself can count none.

Mr Bhadrakumar goes on to make two key assertions. First, that stability in India’s immediate neighbourhood needs India and China to co-operate, and that China sees a stable subcontinent as in its interests. Second, that growing Chinese influence in the neighbourhood will not damage India’s interests. There is no basis for such beliefs, and surely enough, he does not offer any.

On the first point, there is direct evidence that China uses unstable states to indirectly keep its adversaries engaged. China deliberately transferred nuclear weapons technologies to Pakistan, Iran and North Korea so that India and the United States could expend their resources tackling the paw, not the cat. It is hard to adduce evidence to prove conclusively that China is deliberately destabilising the subcontinent in order to contain India, but no sensible person can dismiss the possibility. The onus is on Mr Bhadrakumar to produce evidence of Chinese moves to stabilise the neighbourhood in co-operation with India. Does selling nuclear reactors to a highly unstable Pakistan, in violation of its international commitments, count?

On the second point, realists will accept that China’s influence in the subcontinent will grow, whether or not India likes it. But that’s not the issue. The issue is, even in the unlikely event that China itself does not use its influence against India’s interests, the countries of the subcontinent almost certainly will. Bilateral relations with Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar and countries of ASEAN will get even more difficult to resolve, because their leaders will play New Delhi against Beijing. There’s evidence for this: King Gyanendra, Khaleda Zia and Mahinda Rajapaksa all pursued policies contrary to New Delhi’s recommendations. Two of them lost power, but not before plunging their countries into instability and crises. Mr Rajapaksa didn’t lose power, but thanks to Chinese influence, tragically believes he can avoid genuine reconciliation after the civil war.

While India cannot prevent China from increasing its influence in the subcontinent, there is no reason to welcome it. New Delhi must act to increase its own influence and counter China’s. That’s not all. The game is not restricted to the neighbourhood—it is global. Ergo, India must extend its influence in and around China’s immediate neighbourhood. As I wrote in my Pax Indica column recently, New Delhi needs a Look East Beyond Singapore strategy. Achieving balance within regions and balance between regions is the surest way to have a stable relationship with China.

Related Posts: M K Bhadrakumar routinely imputes benevolent motives to Beijing. Couple of instances: Worshipping false gods; John 8:7 doesn’t apply to international relations

Pax Indica: Your own private foreign policy

In foreign affairs, unlike the government, civil society can speak the language of values

In today’s Pax Indica column, I call upon individuals, NGOs and media to take a greater interest in foreign affairs:

Over the last few days, before S M Krishna called his counterpart offering help, many of my friends complained that India — that is, the Indian government — had not offered any humanitarian assistance to flood-ravaged Pakistan. ‘Politics’, some said, should be set aside in the face of the enormous tragedy that has befallen the Pakistani people. Others argued that giving aid will change the ‘politics’ itself. For when ordinary Pakistanis see India as among those who helped them during their time of need, hearts and minds will change, undermining the anti-India position of their government.

On the other side were those, like Atanu Dey, who offered the compelling logic that since money is fungible, giving money to the Pakistani government for flood relief is equivalent to giving money to that government to fund cross-border terrorism or build nuclear weapons. Moreover, another argument goes, since the wishes of the Pakistani people are weakly expressed in their government’s policies, changing hearts and minds won’t make the military establishment stop terrorism directed against India.

Wherever you stand on this issue, what you will notice is that people implicitly assume that when it comes to foreign affairs “India” means only the Indian government.

A few years ago, after France passed laws restricting the wearing of turbans, people lobbied the Indian government to intervene on behalf of French Sikhs. The Indian prime minister sent a special envoy to Paris, to “impress upon President Chirac the significance of the turban to the Sikh faith”. The irony of one famously secular state taking up a religious cause with another famously secular state apart, this was an unwarranted interference into the domestic affairs of another democratic republic. And again, when Malaysia’s Tamil minority was out on the streets protesting against discrimination, Dr Singh’s government gave in to public pressure, gratuitously expressed concern over that country’s domestic politics, and received a rebuff.

Now, the Indian government is obliged to protect the lives and interests of its citizens anywhere their blue passports takes them. It has little business taking up cudgels of behalf of people who might be of Indian origin, but are nevertheless citizens of another country. You could say that everyone has a responsibility to protect human rights in authoritarian regimes, but if the other country happens to be a democratic republic with rule of law, what grounds does the government of India have to interfere?

Does this mean Indians should stop caring about what happens around the world? Not quite. It only means that Indians should stop seeing the government has having a monopoly on foreign affairs. There is nothing to stop individuals, NGOs and media from taking an active interest in the world outside India’s borders. There is nothing to stop us from standing up for whatever cause we like. There is nothing to stop us from drawing attention to the plight of the world’s oppressed people, collect funds, mobilise volunteers, build institutions, lobby foreign governments and deliver social services beyond India’s shores.

Sure, we could also persuade the Indian government as part of our activism, but what stops us from getting on with it in spite of the Indian government? A large number of NGOs at home do valuable work despite the government. Why should it be any different abroad?

In fact, it is in India’s national interest for civil society to become a foreign policy player in its own right. Governments are constrained by realpolitik. They follow the grammar of power. Civil society does not have the same constraints. It is free to speak the language of values. The Tibetan struggle, for instance, is one area where India’s overall policy has benefited from citizen activism. Similarly, after the 2005 earthquake, Infosys announced that it would provide Rs 10 million in aid to Pakistan. Many of us donated money for Haiti’s earthquake victim through the Red Cross and through religious institutions. These are, however, isolated and sporadic instances.

We should ask ourselves why India’s civil society is not a significant international player? The primary reason, I would say, might be the mindset that sees the government as the Grand Solver of Problems. As long as this mindset is dominant, lesser hurdles like lack of financial resources, organisational capabilities and channels of action will appear insurmountable. Another reason is our tendency to contemplate our collective navels, for there are innumerable, seemingly intractable problems at home that deserve our attention. “[So] far as areas outside the physical boundaries of India were concerned” the historian K M Panikkar noted, “we were content to live with the attitude of complacent ignorance…This has been the weakness of India in the past, this sense of isolation and refusal to see itself in relation to the states outside the geographical limits of the subcontinent.”

This, though, is changing, as economic growth increases disposable incomes and as we come to be better informed by the world’s media. That begs the question: why is it that we are only informed by the world’s media? Isn’t it a grand lack of imagination that hundreds of our TV news channels fight for ratings by covering essentially the same domestic stories, only differentiating themselves using ever higher decibel levels? Isn’t it ironic that it is the likes of Qatar’s Al Jazeera and China’s CCTV-4 that challenge the Western media’s hold on the grand narrative? As Indian civil society takes a greater interest in the world, one or more Indian international TV news channels will be invaluable.

So forget about New Delhi’s offer and Islamabad’s response. Think about the enormous human tragedy that is unfolding across our north-western borders. Then think of the political consequences, not least the real risk that the disaster will end up strengthening the bad guys. Think also of the hapless people in Balochistan, where the Pakistani government has banned international relief agencies from operating. You might find some factors more important than others, depending on your personal values, beliefs and hopes. Then do what you think is appropriate.

Why have one Afghanistan

…when you can have two?

The call for the partitioning of Afghanistan is not new. In December 2003, for instance, Randall Parker of the ParaPundit blog argued that “(it) would be less trouble in the long run if Afghanistan was just split up with the Pashtuns getting their own country while the other groups either form a single country for a few separate countries. The other groups could even take pieces of Afghanistan and merge them with their ethnic brothers who speak the same languages and have much the same cultures in bordering northern countries.”

Yet, despite ethnic heterogeneity, foreign invasions, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the contemporary weakness of the Afghan state, the people of Afghanistan have a strong sense of nationhood. So while partitioning the country might have its attractions for geopolitical strategists, it is unlikely that the Afghan people will countenance such a project.

So what should we make of the recent debate that started after Robert Blackwill, one of the most astute American strategists, called for a de facto partition of Afghanistan?

The least worst option for the United States, Mr Blackwill contends, is to give the south to the Taliban, and concentrate on holding and building the north and the east of Afghanistan. This will not only turn the Pakistani military establishment’s dream of “strategic depth” into the nightmare of Pashtun nationalism, but also upset the tenuous ethnic balance in Pakistan by weakening Punjabi dominance. At a time when the conventional wisdom in Washington is to prevent the collapse of Pakistan, this is heretical. However, since this is also a time when the Obama administration is looking for ways out of the mess it is in—not least in terms of domestic politics—heresies might stand the best chance of gaining acceptance.

Mr Blackwill has already succeeded in exposing the weaknesses in the arguments of his critics. Ahmed Rashid points out that partition won’t be popular with Afghans (as if a Taliban takeover will be) and otherwise points to the bloodiness that accompanies a redrawing of borders (as if the status quo is bloodless). The “only solution” according to him, “is dialogue between the genuine Taliban leadership, Kabul and Washington for a power-sharing deal at both the centre and in the provinces.” This, from the man who wrote the book about the genuine Taliban leadership!

Chimaya Gharekhan and Karl Inderfurth reject the partition proposal and propose, instead, that “the solution lies in less or zero interference, not more, and certainly not military intervention, in Afghanistan’s affairs.” That is a very good idea. The question is how? The authors propose “that someone, preferably the Secretary-General of the United Nations, should engage in a diplomatic exercise to hold talks with all the parties and states concerned to establish a consensus, however defined, on arriving at a compact of mutual non-intervention and non-interference among all of Afghanistan’s neighbours.”

Now this might sound convincing if you are an optimist with faith in the United Nations, but the authors are silent about just why the Pakistani military establishment will play along? Pakistan might even sign such a treaty if the price is right, but if the force of US arms didn’t prevent the Pakistani army from interfering in Afghanistan, a piece of paper and the UN Secretary General’s platitudes are, to put it mildly, less likely to.

Perhaps the best critique of Mr Blackwill’s proposal comes from Pratap Bhanu Mehta. He charges the strategic establishments with hubris where “the relations between intention and action, ends and means, instruments and goals, costs and benefits seem to all be obscured by the self-satisfaction that we are at least making a next move.” His case for caution is well-made: that India “should not be tempted into actions whose consequences it cannot control.”

However, this injunction must be balanced against the concern that India should not be lulled into inactions whose consequences, likewise, it cannot control. What ultimately is likely decide the issue is the nature of the strategic cultures. Washington, with its action bias, ends up suffering the consequences of its action. New Delhi, with its (in)action bias, ends up suffering not only the consequences of its own inaction, but also the consequences of the actions of others.

For now, the call for the partition of Afghanistan, as both K Subrahmanyam and Mr Mehta note, is likely a shot across the bow, a warning for General Ashfaq Kayani. Even so, New Delhi would do well to prepare for such an outcome too.