Will SCO hold?

Jolt if not toast

The Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) was born out of China’s desire to engage the Muslim Central Asian states in a co-operative framework to keep a lid on separatism in Xinjiang. Along with Russia, these states came together to address the threats from “terrorism, separatism and extremism”, the “three forces”, for short.

Now, the Chinese authorities have blamed the ongoing riots in Xinjiang on the same “three forces.” But it is quite likely that the largely Muslim population of Central Asiawill see the situation for what it is—repression of the Uighur population—and sympathise with their religious and ethnic counterparts. [Beyond Central Asia, the Gulf countries have already expressed concern and and a Turkish minister has called for a boycott of Chinese goods. Turkey might also raise the issue at the UN Security Council.]

Popular anti-China sentiment might not immediately translate into political action given that Central Asia is ruled by authoritarian regimes. Even so, these governments cannot afford to be seen as too close to the oppressors of the Uighur people. If the unrest continues, the Central Asian republics will be forced to review their current—“but it’s China’s internal affair”—position.

Even otherwise, it will be harder now for the presidents of the Central Asian republics to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the president of China against the “three forces.” So it might well be that this year’s summit in Moscow was SCO’s high water mark. It is too early to predict the end of the SCO but the Uighur revolt will give it a jolt.

A new spring?

Looks like there been a change at South Block

Dr Manmohan Singh should not have attended the summit meeting of the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) at Yekaterinberg not only because India is formally only an ‘observer’ at that outfit, but also because it is not a club that India ought to join. The co-location of the summit with that of Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRIC) was unfortunate, but even so, there was nothing to stop the Indian prime minister from attending the BRIC event, and insulate himself from the SCO pow-wows. Dr Singh, it turns out, does not have the appetite for such sharp diplomacy.

But recent events suggest that there might be a little more spark in the second UPA government than there was in the first one. First, some tough-minded diplomacy—including a threat to review India’s relationship with the Asian Development Bank—succeeded in isolating China’s attempt to use a multilateral economic forum as an instrument its bilateral political dispute with India. Like at last October’s Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) meeting, not only were Chinese moves foiled, but China was completely isolated. Now this is in part due to China’s attempts to overplay its hand, but diplomatic victories are seldom the result of serendipity. There was hard work involved.

Second, Dr Singh’s meeting with Asif Ali Zardari showed a welcome change of style. “I am very happy to meet you,” Dr Singh told Mr Zardari “But I must tell you quite frankly that I have come with the limited mandate of discussing how Pakistan can deliver on its assurances that its territory would not be used for terrorist attacks on India.” In front of the assembled media. Of course, the Indian media reported it, the Pakistani media seems to have ignored it and the Pakistani foreign minister tried to paper it over, but it still is infinitely better than two smiling faces shaking hands as if nothing had happened in Mumbai last November. Beyond style, the substance of the talks appears to be that India is willing to re-engage Pakistan in a dialogue, on condition that between now and July 16th, Messrs Zardari & Co need to deliver a meaningful something on the issue of cross-border terrorism.

Third, the Indian government denied visas to members of a US government outfit that wanted to visit India to audit religious freedom, especially “concerned about judicial processes with regards to the incidents in Gujarat and Orissa are not functioning properly and we only wanted to get them going.” (It’s funny how these groups are terribly selective about improperly functioning judicial processes: for instance, the Kashmiri Pandits marooned in various Indian cities don’t even have a judicial process.) Denying them visas is a gentle way of saying “no, thank you” to these kind American people.

And finally, even in Yekaterinberg, it appears that the diplomatic minders did what they could to distance the Indian prime minister (see the missing) from the SCO publicity material.

If all this appears to be a nice start in managing the form of foreign affairs, it is because the bar was set so low in the last five years. The next five will be rougher and more challenging. So let’s hope it is a new spring.

Update: Now some Pakistani grandee declares that Dr Singh’s remarks are ‘unacceptable’, which is as weird as it is absurd. That is the Indian prime minister’s mandate, and there’s nothing in it for Pakistan to accept or reject. Also, it turns out that top Indian officials repeatedly emphasised to the media that the foreign secretaries will only discuss the investigations into 26/11, nothing more.

Afghans, however, think highly of India

But India has to live up to its popularity

So here are some results from a survey conducted by ABC News between late December 2008 and early January 2009: “a random national sample” of 1534 adult Afghans across the 34 provinces were asked a number of questions in face-to-face interviews. India, it turns out, is big in Afghanistan. Almost three in four Afghans had a favourable impression of India, making it the most popular country in Afghanistan, bar none.

Big in Afghanistan
Big in Afghanistan

When asked for their opinion of the role countries were playing in Afghanistan at this time, India still comes out on top. Although the United States has the highest proportion of positive ratings (44%) it also has a large proportion of negative rating (36%). India ranks slightly lower (41%) in terms of positive perceptions, but only 10% of the Afghans polled thought it was playing a negative role. This is explicable, because Indian troops are not engaged in counter-insurgency operations, unlike the Americans.

The favourable perception of India outweighs the positive opinion of the role it is playing in Afghanistan. Some of that might be due to distance, and as the surveyors suggest, due to sympathy for fellow sufferers of Pakistani machinations. But India’s role is helping maintain India’s popularity. Still there is an equal proportion of Afghans (42%) who are neutral about India’s role. This gap probably suggests to them that India could do better. As indeed, it could.

Related Links: Holding steady; the road that India built; contributing to Afghanistan’s development; and concerning pomegranates

Routes and regimes

…and the Indian wisdom concerning mangoes and trees

It is impossible to eschew sarcasm when you read that the alternative supply route through the Central Asian states “could leave the United States more reliant on cooperation from authoritarian countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which have poor records when it comes to democracy and human rights.”

One would think that their current supply route runs through Canada.

Tragedy aboard the Nerpa

Twenty die in an accident on a nuclear-powered submarine that might have been leased to India

There were four times as many people on board as there should have been. And an accidental burst of fire-suppressant gas suffocated twenty of them to death. The Nerpa, an Akula-II class nuclear submarine that was undergoing sea trials in the Sea of Japan has returned to its base on Russia’s Pacific coast.

According to some media reports, the Nerpa was to have entered service in the Indian Navy as INS Chakra, under a ten-year lease from Russia. This would allow the navy to train its personnel ahead of the launch of the Advanced Technology Vessel, India’s indigenous nuclear submarine. But both governments have been cagey over the existence of such a deal, although 40 navy personnel were supposed to have left for Vladivostok earlier this month. However, the Indian Navy has officially denied that the Nerpa had Indian crew members on board.

Update: 1. From Information Dissemination & 2. The list of casualties released by Russian authorities does not have any Indians (via BRF)

When India used to secure Somalia’s Red Sea coast

And why it must do so again

The pirates of Puntland made the strategic mistake of becoming too successful. And they also ran out of luck, when among the vessels they hijacked was one carrying a huge arms shipment, and another something mysteriously important. And suddenly, the world’s navies with the capability to get there—save India’s—decided that it was time to sail to go pirate hunting (or, at the very least, pirate watching) in the Red Sea. The US navy is already there. The Russian navy is on its way (and may well demonstrate some muscle in the days ahead). Even the European Union “is setting up an anti-piracy taskforce to help protect the lawless sea lanes off east Africa.”

Now, piracy off Somalia presents both threat to humanitarian relief operations, international security and to international commerce. And both the UN security council and the president of Somalia have called for the international community to take an interest in patrolling the region. And as Seth Weinberger writes, suo motu action against pirates has legal sanction under international law.

Piracy is one of the clearest examples of jus cogens, a preemptory norm that creates a crime for which there is no possible justification and for which there is universal jurisdiction. Thus, anyone who wishes to act against the pirates is legally allowed to do so. However, that creates a problem—in the absence of a specific jurisdiction, no one has the responsibility or strong incentive to act (why should one state bear the cost of enforcement when the cost of piracy falls on many?). [Security Dilemmas]

The question, though, is how long these navies will stay in the region. While the United States and its allies have the logistics and support infrastructure in the region, other naval forces will have to work out arrangements if they are to maintain forces for an extended period of time.

Amid all this, the Indian government is demonstrating an inexplicable reluctance to dispatch the Indian navy to the waters off Somalia. Not only does this position disregard the threat to India’s interests in the region, it also ignores the fact that a century ago, it was the (British) Indian navy that used to secure the Red Sea.

During the prime mininstership of William Gladstone in the 1880s, it was decided that the Indian government should be responsible for administering the Somaliland protectorate because the Somali coast’s strategic location on the Gulf of Aden was important to India. Customs taxes helped pay for India’s patrol of Somalia’s Red Sea Coast. [David D Laitin/LOC]

According to retired Vice Admiral Arun Kumar Singh, “it is almost impossible, and prohibitively expensive, for the Indian Navy to send two warships and a tanker, some 2,000 nm from our west coast, and keep them on patrol for 365 days a year in the “safety corridor”. He argues that apart from placing armed “Sea Marshalls” on board commercial ships passing through the region, the Indian navy should partner those of the west and Russia to patrol the region.

The long-term solution, of course, lies on land: extricating Somalia from its civil war, and stabilising the entire Horn of Africa. That’s a tall order. In the meantime, it is necessary to contain the Somali pirates. There is a clear case to deploy the Indian Navy in the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia, with rules of engagement that include hot pursuit. Indeed, there is a clear case to task the marine commandos with hostage-rescue missions where Indian ships and nationals are taken hostage.

Related Links: On INI, Pragmatic Euphony has more. Information Dissemination & Eagle1 are two excellent blogs covering maritime security issues. A Chatham House paper by Roger Middleton on the subject.

Jumping over Mamata’s nuclear hurdle

Meet the Academician Lomonosov

Swaminomics points out that the issue of land acquisition—epitomised by Mamata Banerjee—will prove to be the real hurdle in building nuclear power plants after the India-US nuclear deal (linkthanks BOK). Mr Aiyar is right—land acquisition is an important issue. (See the December 2007 and August 2008 issues of Pragati).

But who says nuclear reactors must be built on land? The Russians are building a floating nuclear power plant (FNPP), and the first, the Academician Lomonosov, is expected to be completed by 2010.

FNPP via RIA NovostiThe FNPP will be a barge able to move with the help of a tug boat. Transportation will be done without nuclear fuel, so on the move it will be non-threatening hardware.

The FNPP will look like a small island with an area of between 7.4 and 12.4 acres. It resembles a “symbiosis” of a nuclear-powered vessel and a standard land-based nuclear plant. It could well arouse amazement and fear, as radiophobia is widespread. Nevertheless, according to Sergei Kirienko, chief of Russia’s Federal Nuclear Power Agency, “the floating nuclear power plant with several levels of protection will be much safer than a land-based one.” [RIA Novosti | See the infographic]

Another Cold War?

The West risks causing one

In a recent exchange on on this article, Zorawar Daulet Singh (who had covered this theme in the November 2007 issue of Pragati) had this to say:

It was and is not in Russian interest to start a Cold War. But the facts are pretty clear, the conflict in Caucasus was precipitated by the US who egged on the Georgians. The US completely miscalculated the Russian response, assuming it would bark but not bite (perhaps not an unreasonable assumption given the last 15 years, where Russia was too weak to respond with a credible use of force). But its been increasingly clear over the last two years or so, that the Kremlin has the economic/political/military coherence to respond with multiple instruments on its near abroad. Clearly, the US didnt take any of this seriously, and kept pushing eastwards.

Russia has now demonstrated that US/NATO post-1991 gains in Eastern Europe have reached their territorial limits in terms of new states that can now enter the western alliance, which is why they demonstrated their resolve using Georgia as an example for Russia’s red lines. (For instance, Ukraine could very well be the next battleground.)

But note what Russian President Dimitri Medvedev is saying—Russia does not wish a cold war, but is ready for it if the US wishes to raise the ante. At the same time, Old Europe will need to determine whether rising instability/conflict on their frontiers is more importan than Russian gas.

Bottom line: the Russians didnt start this Cold War, but will respond in kind if US doesn’t back down. Tangentially, US actions might be motivated in part by atleast the ongoing presidential campaign and the prevailing security establishment’s objectives to buttress the probability of a victory for Republican candidate John McCain. (The assumption is a reheating of the Cold War would diminish Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s chances in November).

Russia and NATO’s Afghan supply routes

Time for the West to mend fences with Iran’s neighbours

It’s unclear if US and NATO policy-makers are looking at maps of Afghanistan and its surroundings. How do they think they are going to supply their troops in landlocked Afghanistan? The supply lines through Pakistan are coming under increasing attack by Taliban militants. Bad relations with Iran mean that a route from the Persian Gulf transiting Iran is out of bounds. And now, an escalation in tensions with Russia could mean that yet another route is under threat.

It is unlikely that the US and NATO can afford to lose these supply routes, not least in the face of a resurgent Taliban.

Western strategists should pull out their maps. Even as they prevent relations with Russia from deteriorating any further, they would do well to begin engaging Iran. [See lubricating a US-Iran rapprochement]

Pax Macdonaldica does not hold

Tom Friedman proven wrong…again

There’s good news and bad for Thomas Friedman. The good news is that one of his ‘laws’ is perhaps true. The bad news is that another of his theories has been proven to be false, yet again.

The price of oil may have stalled Russia’s moves towards becoming a liberal democracy, thereby strengthening Mr Friedman’s point about petropolitics.

But after Georgia and Russia—which both have McDonald’s restaurants—went to war with each other last week, the Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention doesn’t stand any more (via email from BOK). Did it ever?

Until our researchers or readers can tell us otherwise, we think that the Gopal Palpodi and the Ayurvedic Soap Theory of Conflict Prevention perform better in the real world than Mr Friedman’s thesis.