And now, the Pope talks human rights at the UN

Intervention and sovereignty

Benedict XVI probably gets to address the United Nations by virtue of being the head of the Vatican state. Not because he is a Pope. But when he speaks of “the action of the international community and its institutions . . . should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty” he sure is voicing the opinion of the leader of an international religious institution. For the history of Europe for over a millennium has been one of a contest between an ‘international institution’ and the sovereign state. So you would expect him to say what he did.

But the Pope is wrong. Foreign intervention is always a violation of sovereignty. Now, under the UN charter and international law, it is legitimate to violate sovereignty if authorised by the Security Council. The question of interpretation does not arise with respect to the violation, but arises with respect to its legitimacy. The Pope is right to criticise the UN Security Council for its failure to intervene to protect human rights. But to seek to justify foreign intervention while arguing that sovereignty is not being violated is like arguing that an omelette can be made without breaking the egg.

The Pope would have a perfectly sound moral argument if he had said that violating sovereignty is acceptable if basic human rights are at stake. But then he would have sounded like the leader of an international religious institution and not a head of the Vatican state. But such an argument is not too practical. The international community that the Pope puts so much faith in (if you pardon the pun) can’t possibly be counted on to even define what those human rights are.

The rogue UN Human Rights Council has already made insulting religion a violation of human rights. If the Pope’s argument is stretched to the extreme—as it will probably be—it will never be an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty for the international community to intervene to protect people’s religious sensibilities from being hurt. That’s not a recipe for good things.

Guns for Mugabe

China sends some help

The An Yue Jiang, a ship belonging to China’s state-owned shipping company, has docked in the South African port city of Durban. It is carrying a cargo of “77 tonnes of small arms, including more than 3m rounds of ammunition, AK47 assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades”.

The cargo is bound for Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe is insisting on remaining president despite not winning the election. Violence has already broken out, and could get worse.

The Chinese foreign ministry has ducked for cover. The South African authorities have thrown up their hands saying—quite reasonably—that they can’t legally stop the shipment over land into Zimbabwe. But the South African transport workers union has refused to unload or move the containers.

Now Chinese soldiers have been reportedly been spotted in Zimbabwe (well, they were spotted in New Delhi too this week). It remains to be seen whether the next ship from China will arrive with enough trucks, truck-drivers and porters to deliver the arms shipment to Mr Mugabe.

Now there’s probably nothing illegitimate about selling arms to the Zimbabwean government. Just like there was probably nothing illegitimate in China selling the Rwandan government US$750,000 worth of machetes in 1993. Machetes, of course, didn’t carry out the subsequent genocide. Extremist Hutus did.

Using Bollywood for regime change

Why Tarun Khanna is wrong about Burma and confused about geopolitical power

The India-China hyphenation is doubly dangerous: one the one hand, the conflation of China and India (and its unspeakable, dreadful portmanteau) ignores the differences in the outlook, policies and global impact of these two countries. On the other, stretching the differentiation indiscriminately can lead to some very flawed policy prescriptions.

Like Tarun Khanna’s. In Mint, he argues that India should not try to match China in embracing the junta but rather extend “unstinting support” for democracy. Because because “India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power” and because “India’s true strength lies in projecting soft power”, and because “trying to play China’s game against China is folly, not to mention unprincipled”.

Mr Khanna’s analysis, unfortunately, is drowned in cliches and unfortunate generalisations. On the face of it, it sounds reasonable that trying to beat China in its own game might not be a good idea. But what if it is not really China’s game, and that China is a player in a game that has its own age-old rules. Like the balance of power game, for instance. It certainly doesn’t make sense to suggest that India should not play the game just because China is playing it better. Does this mean that India should cuddle the junta? Not quite, as this blog has argued, but for very different reasons. [See this op-ed and this post]

There is something disturbing in Mr Khanna’s assertion that India is congenitally incapable of deploying hard power. He seems to have forgotten Hyderabad 1948, Goa 1961, Bangladesh 1971, Maldives 1988 and Sri Lanka 1987-1991. The claim that India is structurally incapable of deploying hard power does not hold water. Moreover, Mr Khanna misses a very important point: projecting “hard” power is not quite the same as using military force. Nuclear weapons, ballistic and cruise missiles and a blue water navy project hard power. None of this means that India must even threaten their use, much less use them.

Whenever commentators call for the “projection of soft power”, one listens to see how exactly they propose this could be done. In Mr Khanna’s case, India would do this by an unstinting support for democracy and you-can’t-be-serious-ly through Bollywood. Here he is incredibly mixed up. Now unless India is willing to support democratic forces with financial and military support (“hard power”) they can’t conceivably overthrow the junta, not least because it will turn to China for support. And at this juncture, the fact that there are Bollywood lovers in Burma isn’t going to matter much. In other words, talk about moral support for democracy is certainly about softness, but won’t work without real power.

Moreover, it is naive to believe that turning Burma into a democracy will necessarily transform it into a pro-India country. Democratic governments can play one power against another, just as well as dictatorships can.

Mr Khanna begins his essay by pointing out how Chinese influence has supplanted Indian influence in Burma. This is not as much because of politics as it is because of economics. China’s economic growth has given it the clout it has. India can regain the clout at the ground level in the same manner. Like geopolitics and balance of power, the trade and investment game is also not “China’s game”.

There is a case for India to support democracy in Burma but not on the grounds Mr Khanna has laid out. And as a foreign policy prescription, it is dangerous to propose that all that is needed towards this end is “a projection of soft power”.

Should India’s foreign policy clean your kitchen sink?

Why proponents of a friendly relations with China undermine their case

M K Bhadrakumar is at it again. He asks if India’s “strategic alliance” (huh? which one?) with the United States

helped to discourage farmers in Vidharbha from taking their own lives in sheer despair, reduce the profound alienation of the people of Jammu & Kashmir or bring the neglected northeast into the national mainstream. Would “Malabar exercises” or the Indo-U.S. defence agreement or the envisaged “inter-operability” of the armed forces of the two countries make the South Asian security environment any less complicated? Would they help to ease India’s troubled relations with its neighbours? Do they tackle energy security or the looming food security crisis or the appalling illiteracy and malnutrition stalking the outer rings of our shining metros?[The Hindu]

Let’s indulge him and ignore for a moment that the India-US civilian nuclear power deal actually addresses energy security. Let’s assume that the answer is negative.

The question is: is foreign policy the relevant framework to address distressed farmers, disgruntled Kashmiris and neglected North-easterners? Or are these unhappy people victims of India’s inability to deliver effective governance? In his bid to attack India’s post-cold war foreign policy, Mr Bhadrakumar absurdly argues that foreign policy is somehow a cure for the rot in domestic governance.

His article, as before, is yet another attempt to argue why India should be pro-China and anti-America. But he fails by his own yardstick—will a pro-China and anti-America policy help people in Vidarbha, Kashmir and the North East?

Now pragmatic people will accept that India must maintain stable, hopefully friendly relations, with China. But pragmatic people will fail to understand Mr Bhadrakumar’s assertions that India’s foreign policy must necessarily antagonise the United States. Amusingly, he asserts that ” the nation got alienated from its foreign policy”. It is Mr Bhadrakumar who is alienated from the nation.

Here are some results of a nationally representative survey conducted in 2005-6 over 212,000 households:

First, there is a clear relationship between socio-economic status and the ability to respond to questions on foreign policy. The more elite (defined both by education and occupation), the more likely Indians will have an opinion on foreign policy issues. For the large number of rural landless, 69.7 percent “don’t know” while another 24.3 percent have “no response”. At the other extreme – educated urban professionals – the figures are 21 and 6 percent respectively, an almost four-fold difference. High non-response rates among the weaker socio-economic groups indicate that they may be “efficiently” ignorant i.e. they are not interested in putting in the effort on an issue that has low salience for them.
Continue reading “Should India’s foreign policy clean your kitchen sink?”

Sunday Levity: The Bappi Lahiri doctrine

Understand India’s foreign policy through its music

A grand popular narrative of Indian foreign policy has not yet been written. Here, offered entirely without such niceties as empirical evidence, is an attempt to reconcile two glorious traditions: Indian foreign policy and Hindi film music.

While scholars have tried to explain Indian foreign policy through an examination of the personalities of prime ministers, priorities of ruling political parties and the exigencies of coalition politics, a cursory glance at the history of post-independence India—say through a thorough study of the dust jacket of Ramachandra Guha’s tome under the stimulating influence of IMFL—will reveal that it is through the music of the times that we can best understand it.

The state-owned broadcaster’s decision, in the 1950s, not to play O P Nayyar’s trendy melodies already gave an indication that the foreign policy course adopted by the Nehru government was not quite consistent with popular opinion. Throughout the 50s and the 60s, foreign policy—like film music—was beautiful and elegant, hopeful in general but well below potential. Like S D Burman’s music, non-alignment was almost designed to inspire nostalgia in future generations.

It was in the early 70s—under the R D Burman doctrine—that Indian foreign policy came into its own. It was a burst of energy: the power of which had global appeal, yet was a product of indigenous improvisation blending well with foreign technology. It was the music to win wars by.

By the late 1970s and 1980s the Alokesh “Bappi” Lahiri revolution had India in its grasp. Here was a doctrine that was amoral in the true sense of the word: it did not matter where something came from. What mattered was where it went. What mattered was how something could be used to hold the audience in thrall. The confidence and innovation of India’s foreign policy in the 1980s was wrongly attributed to the Rajiv Gandhi age. In reality, Mr Gandhi and his team were heavily inspired by the Bappi Lahiri doctrine—they were undaunted by the “not invented here” syndrome at a time when it was perhaps at its strongest. In a sense the Rajiv Gandhi team, like Mr Lahiri himself, was comprised of people with a solid pedigree in the classical, yet with a pulse on the modern. Like Mr Lahiri, they were often ahead of their times. [The Ilaiyaraja doctrine, meanwhile, quietly and unthreateningly expanded Indian influence in the Indian Ocean region.]

Isolated Anand-Milind’s and Raam-Laxman’s couldn’t rescue Indian foreign policy from the backlash against the Bappi Lahiri doctrine in the final years of the 80s. The murky Nadeem-Shravan business exposed the inroads organised crime-terrorism nexus had made into the country. Until A R Rahman arrived on the scene with a doctrine for the post-cold war world, there was generally a sense of drift. It was Mr Rahman who inspired a new confidence, bolstered by an India shedding many of its shibboleths—the economic and the political. The Rahman doctrine pointed towards new possibilities arising from globalisation; that not only could India hold its own, it could even shape—albeit in a limited sense—global developments. The zenith of the Rahman doctrine was India’s emergence as a nuclear power.

While the Rahman doctrine still animates much of Indian foreign policy, it also empowered several innovative doctrines: from Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s sophisticated coalitional cosmopolitanism, to the popularisation of Indian folk music through the specialist device of item numbers, and to the dogmatic, relentless nasality of Himesh Reshammiya. The definitive post-Rahman doctrine is still a work in progress: but it is abundantly clear that all these schools both advocate and reflect an India spreading its influence far from its own shores. If Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy is about embracing globalisation and expanding India’s soft power, it is Himesh Reshammiya that stands for a more than minimum credible deterrence. Between the two they allow a thousand home-grown item numbers to flourish.

The attitude towards item numbers, perhaps, best demonstrates the attitudes towards realism. At one time item numbers were almost solely picturised on Helen, an actress who was always The Vamp. Today item numbers are picturised on the hottest stars, and doing an item number well is often a ticket to fame and fortune. In Helen’s days, the item number was seen as a necessary evil and projected as immoral. Today it is mostly celebrated. Yet, even today, item numbers constitute only five minutes of the entire 30 minute album, suggesting that there are limits to the acceptance of realist prescriptions in the foreign policy mix. That may well be the lesson for students of foreign policy.

Realism, tragedy and Sri Lanka

Pity, not serendipity

The Sri Lankan government seeks military assistance in order to defeat the LTTE. Since India is unwilling to arm the Sri Lankan army, it argues that it is only fair that it should look elsewhere. Pakistan is a willing supplier: “it’s main military supplies to Sri Lanka include mortar ammunition, radio sets, hand grenades, naval ammunition and tanks.” It supplied US$50 million worth of arms to the Sri Lankan army last year. It’s about to supply at least another US$25 million worth of mortar ammunition and hand grenades. Pakistan can argue, with reason, that it is fair that it supports a fellow South Asian government in its war against a terrorist organisation.

It’s all realism. That’s precisely why T S Gopi Rethinaraj argues in the April 2008 issue of Pragati that in the event of the LTTE’s military defeat, it is quite likely that the Sri Lankan government will have little reason to be favourably disposed towards India’s interests. This argument can’t entirely be countered by suggesting that this eventuality can be avoided if India were to support the Sri Lankan government in the first place. There is much logic in Dr Rethinaraj’s contention that the Sri Lankan government’s interests will depend on the end state, not the process of getting there. Like in the case of Bangladesh’s policy towards India, for instance. To prevent an unfavourable change in the balance of power in the immediate Indian Ocean region, he goes on to call for a subtle shift in India’s position towards the LTTE.

There is a another option: if the governments of India and Sri Lanka were to agree upon a broad security relationship that would secure India’s interests as part of a broader settlement of the ethnic civil war along federal lines. That would require a much more muscular approach from New Delhi—which, in turn requires a particular domestic political equation at the Centre and in Tamil Nadu—as well as a much more responsive approach from Sri Lanka. It’s within the realm of the possible, but don’t keep your fingers crossed.

In the meantime, watch (in despair) how a realism plays out in the region.

One China Policy

There isn’t one.

This post was first published in November 2006. As it is pertinent to the current situation it is reproduced here, almost in its entirety

In the debate over China, many of those with any experience actually dealing with China on political issues had advised caution. Many of those whose primary experience of China has been through trade and investment advocated closer ties. The oversimplified question on everyone’s lips was a cliche: Is China a friend or foe? That, though, is a wrong question to ask. The inherent anthropomorphism in the framing of this question confuses the issue, for relations between states are not like relations between people.

The essential fact is that on a fundamental level two powers as large and as proximate as China and India cannot rise without competition. And in most spheres of this competition, it is India that is catching up.

Three games
There is competition for regional and global influence: China is taking leadership in regional groupings where it has been a member, and entering groupings where it has not. It is now the most important member in East and Central Asian groupings. It has secured a good foothold in South Asia. And it is knocking on the doors of Africa. India, on the other hand, has secured a greater role for itself in South East Asia, where it has been welcomed because it can help balance China’s influence. Japan too has recognised that India will be a necessary element of the balance of power in East Asia. [See Harsh Pant’s piece in the April 2008 issue of Pragati]

Then there is competition in the quest for energy sources and, soon, natural resources. Here too, China is ahead, but India has begun to up its game in energy diplomacy. The two are already competing in securing fossil fuels. With the India-US deal bringing India into the nuclear mainstream, the competition will extend to securing nuclear fuel too. This decade will also see the two countries on a worldwide hunt for natural resources as their economy develops.

And of course, there is competition for investment and trade, which will only intensify as China becomes proficient in the English language and India gets its manufacturing act together.

…three strategies
So yes, there’s a contest going on all right. This does not, however, call for visceral hostility. Each competition has its rules. They cannot be wished away. This is a moment of profound change in the global balance of power and India would do well to play the game according to what the rules are (and not, as in the past, according to what the rules ought to be). China’s objective—couched as it may be in the language of ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious world’—is to become the pre-eminent power in Asia. It is a game that requires China to improve its relative power. There are two strategies for winning: one, for China to develop its own power; and two, for China to contain its competitors. The principal challenge for India will be to counter this. Nuclear weapons have made it unlikely that the contest will escalate to war. It is necessary to invest in maintaining the conventional and nuclear deterrence to keep it that way. They may be important in their own right, but Tibet, Tawang (i.e. the border issue) and Taiwan are both instruments and shock absorbers in this geopolitical game.

On the surface, the energy and resources game is zero-sum, and for that reason, the prudent strategy for both parties is to compete with each other. There may be scope for co-operation; but such co-operation will not be in India’s favour until it is able to negotiate with China on a peer-to-peer basis. At this time, India should focus on closing the gap, though not necessarily taking the same route as China.

It is a matter of basic economics that greater trade and investment will leave both countries better off. The rules of the game here are entirely different from the rules of the geopolitical or the energy game. There is no good reason—not even ‘national security’—for restricting trade with and investment from China. Those concerned with national security must adapt to the contemporary era of information abundance. Although this is changing, the Indian government is playing the geo-economic game according to geopolitical rules (and perhaps, vice versa).

The upshot is that India will have to counter China’s geopolitical moves, keep pace in the quest for natural resources and engage China in trade. There is, in the end, no simple one China policy.

Remembering the East Pakistan Genocide

Truth and reconciliation elude the victims of the 1971 mass murders

Thirty eight years ago this day, the Pakistani army’s tanks moved in to Dacca (now Dhaka), the capital of East Pakistan, as part of the General Yahya Khan-led junta’s plan to bring the autonomy-seeking province to heel. “We have to sort them out” said Colonel Naim of the Pakistani army’s 9th division, “to restore the land to the people, and the people to their Faith”. Operation Searchlight officially got underway on March 25th 1971, although in his memoirs, Major General Sujan Singh Uban writes that the Pakistani army had begun repressive measures a few days earlier.

Thus began the genocide.

It was perhaps among the few in recent decades that did not come as a surprise, not least to the victims. It accompanied the birth of a new nation leaving horrible birthmarks that disfigure Bangladeshi society to this day. Bangladesh in 1971 was the site of multiple conflicts: a civil war between the the two wings of Pakistan, communal violence between Bengalis and non-Bengalis, a genocide, an guerrilla war, a conventional war and a counter-genocide. In each of these conflicts perpetrators, victims and onlookers often exchanged roles. Here is my essay (PDF, 200kb) that examines the causes, course and results of one sub-conflict—the genocide against Bengalis by the West Pakistani army—and attempts to explain it through a Realist perspective.

In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power indicts the realist underpinnings of US foreign policy for its indirect complicity or reluctance to intervene in several 20th century genocides—including those in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia.

While that may indeed be the case, the events in East Pakistan between 1970, when Bhola struck, to 1974, when India, Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived at a tripartite agreement to close outstanding issues, present an interesting case of how realpolitik considerations of the states involved explain why genocide was carried out with impunity, why it was permitted by international players, why it was halted by the Indian intervention and why the perpetrators were never punished. It is not a normative discussion to study how genocides may be prevented, but rather an attempt to explain the role of Realist foreign policies of states during the episode. (The essay contains a small section disagreeing with Sarmila Bose’s recent revisionist study that concludes that the term genocide was a product of exaggeration.).

Download the essay here

From the archives: Archer Kent Blood, RIP; Who claimed Bangladeshi independence?; Indira called Nixon a…?; Bangladesh celebrates victory day; Children of a failed theory; Foreign Policy Naifs (Barbara Crossette edition)

India can do better on Tibet

India muddled on the protests, but it must rethink its Tibet policy

When China’s prime minister said he “appreciated” the Indian government’s response to public protests by Tibetan refugees, many interpreted that he was sending over a note of thanks. But Wen Jiabao’s statement could actually have been a warning.

“The Tibetan issue is a very sensitive one in our relations with India,” Mr Wen was quoted as saying by AFP news agency. “We appreciate the position and the steps taken by the Indian government in handling Tibetan independence activities masterminded by the Dalai clique.” [‘BBC’]

It is the first sentence sets the context.

As The Acorn argued while criticising the decision to stop protesters from attempting to cross over into Tibet, there is room for India to take a position that is less deferential to China. Sumit Ganguly similarly condemns the Indian government for cracking down on peaceful protesters and notes that being seen as unwilling to offend China will make “India’s claims to great power status in Asia, let alone beyond, appear utterly hollow”.

In Brahma Chellaney’s opinion, “it is past time India reclaimed leverage by subtly changing its stance on Tibet.” He proposes three changes: first, that India must bring Tibet back into focus in bilateral negotiations, placing the onus on Beijing to make Tibet a political bridge between the two countries; second, that India should treat the Dalai Lama as an ally and plan for the time when he is no longer on the scene; and third, India should stop “gratuitously referring to Tibet as a part of China”.

A burg of spiel

Darfur, according to China

This week’s issue of Beijing Review, China’s ‘national English weekly’, has an article on how China is playing a positive role in Sudan’s Darfur region. Headlined ‘Relief and recovery’, the article tells us that China is delivering “real economic and social benefits to the people of Darfur”. This, the article explains, is done through a Chinese-initiated dual-track approach that gives “equal importance to the peacekeeping operation and the political process in Darfur”. But here’s how it frames the issue:

Darfur is an arid, underdeveloped region in western Sudan. Fighting flared up there in February 2003 after rebels took up arms against the Sudanese Government, accusing it of marginalizing the region. A humanitarian crisis has since emerged. Western countries, particularly the Unites States, have ratcheted up pressure and imposed sanctions on Khartoum because of the Darfur issue. [Beijing Review]

The humanitarian crisis, it turns out, simply emerged when rebels took up arms against the Sudanese government. According to the Beijing Review neither the activities of the armed government-backed janjaweed militia nor those of the Sudanese armed forces have anything to do with the humanitarian crisis.

The article also quotes Wang Hongyi, an African affairs expert at the China Institute of International Studies, is quoted as saying “Over the past years, the Darfur issue has developed from conflicts between tribes to a hot-spot political issue. As a result, it is unlikely to be resolved in a few years’ time, though armed conflicts have greatly diminished in the region.”

He’s right. The conflict is unlikely to be resolved quickly. But not because it’s become a “hot” political issue. Because even after so much heat, China doesn’t even acknowledge the real issue.