The Great American Election. Yawn.

Just enjoy the drama, if that’s your cup of tea.

Every four years the news-consuming people of India get caught up discussing politics—US politics. They seem to know a lot about the potential candidates, the nominees, the primaries and so on. Things seem to get a lot more exciting when the candidates square off on television. It’s a grand spectacle, much song, dance and drama, rivalling the Olympic Games and the Cricket World Cup.

It’s all very nice if you see this as good harmless entertainment. But if you are not a voter, and perhaps if you are not a certain Russian political leader, you don’t have a, er, dog in this fight. Enjoy the television if that’s your favourite poison, but hey, don’t even begin to ask “what will it mean for India?” Not even this time.

Now, I’ve had a lot of fun over the past year trolling my American friends with questions like “So, how will this change under President Trump?”, to sophisticated explanations of how the US party systems and electoral colleges work; and to decreasingly confident pronouncements of why that will never happen.

For the rest of the world, you play the ball as it comes to the bat. Perhaps Mr Trump will do this if he becomes president, but then again, maybe the policy roulette will point in a different direction. Perhaps Mrs Clinton will do that if she becomes president, but then again, global events might cause her to chart a different course. Or the other way around. We just don’t know. Analysts claiming to predict foreign policies under future presidents are demonstrating more conceit than analysis.

In foreign policy, it is mostly better to be prepared to manage consequences than try predicting the future. Let’s wait for whoever US citizens vote in as their president. And then let’s deal with him. Or even her.

China’s moment of vulnerability

China is at its most vulnerable moment since the Tiananmen Square upheaval of 1989.

At a recent panel discussion at the College of Defence Management, Secunderabad, I argued that it is important to include the dimension of China’s vulnerabilities in the way we see the India-China dynamic. The following is a summary of my remarks:

First, it has managed to antagonise almost all major nations–Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and India—in its region, causing them to explore ways to counter-balance it. This has raised the demand for a US presence and strategic engagement in East Asia. The upcoming East Asia Summit will essentially be a framework that will attempt to bind China’s rise in the silken bonds of international norms. [See the East Asian kabuki]

Second, it is locked into geo-economic interdependence with the United States in a situation akin to two people with a gun to each others’ heads. China cannot escape the consequences of a US default or devaluation. [See my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran’s pieces on China’s policy tangle, quest for balance and US default.]

Third, China’s internal stability has been rocked by multiple vectors. The three big ethnic minorities are in various stages of unrest: the Mongolians have joined Tibetans and Uyghurs in mass protests. Rising productivity is exerting upward pressure on wages that the Communist Party is being forced to keep a lid on. Some of the labour grievances have erupted into agitations. Farmers protesting against expropriation and eviction have constituted another vector of instability. While many of these incidents might not make it to televisions, newspapers and even websites due to information control, Beijing still has to deal with them.

Fourth, there is certainly a serious factional war raging within the cloisters of the Chinese Communist Party. The recent drama around the health and whereabouts of Jiang Zemin is the latest in a series of events that suggest China’s policies are outcomes of factional contention. For all its attempts to show otherwise, the Chinese Communist Party leadership is not a monolithic entity. The Shanghai faction, the Youth Communist League Faction and the ‘Princeling’ faction have been identified. Even within the PLA, geographical regional loyalties and the changing balance of power between the PLA and the PLA Navy (PLAN) might be shaping China’s behaviour, not least in the East Asian maritime domain.

What should we make of it?

India should attempt to become a swing power. It should aim to achieve better relations with China and the United States than they enjoy with each other. At the same time, it must have the credible capacity to inflict pain and give pleasure to either of the two. This requires an unprecedented level of foreign policy dexterity.

While there is some empirical evidence that China tends to be more amenable to settling boundary disputes when it is internally weak, India should not be (and should not appear to be) in any haste to rush to a settlement. China is and perceives itself to be much more powerful than India at this time, and is likely to insist that disputes are settled only on its own terms. Instead of over-emphasising the Himalayan frontier, India should engage more deeply in East Asia, and contribute to a stable balance of power there [See the Asian balance and on the East Asian dance floor]. This is the primary means for India to acquire strategic leverage vis-a-vis China, for New Delhi is mostly on a weaker wicket on other issues.

The Asian Balance: US-Iran rapprochement

Can we help Washington and Tehran to get over it?

This is the unedited version of yesterday’s column in Business Standard.

As the war in Afghanistan enters what might be an endgame, it remains clear that there is broad convergence of geopolitical interests between two sets of players: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China on the one hand, and India, Iran and the United States on the other. If Pakistan achieves its ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan, it benefits Saudi Arabia to the extent that such an outcome unsettles Iran, Riyadh’s regional and sectarian-ideological rival. For China, this means the United States is kept away from its south-western land frontiers, that Beijing is saved the messy business of intervening in Afghanistan and that friendly regimes help it manage the restive Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

If Beijing has masterfully managed its relationship with its natural allies, Washington has allowed a dogmatic petulance over Iran take over strategic sense. Why else would it work to undermine co-operation among India, Iran and the United States to address the unprecedented threats to international security emanating from Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex?

Imagine how profoundly the geopolitics of Asia would change were Iran and the United States to co-operate, even if it is in the limited context of Afghanistan. Remember, the Iranians collaborated with their ‘Great Satan’ ten years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, to get rid of the nearer shaitans to their east.

Since improved ties between Iran and the United States are in India’s interest, we should wonder why New Delhi doesn’t do anything to lubricate a rapprochement.

This brings us to two myths about our own relationship with Tehran. Myth No 1 is that without the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, we can neither buy gas from Iran nor really have a good bilateral relationship with it. Myth No 2 holds that the scope of India-Iran relations is limited by the tensions between Washington and Tehran. If it appears that these are ground realities, and not myths, it is because New Delhi chooses to make them so.

We don’t need a pipeline, over land or under sea, to get gas from Iran. We can purchase it as liquified natural gas (LNG) and ship it across to regasification terminals on India’s shores.

The fascination with pipelines is part economics, part statist mindset, and part due to a belief that a pipeline can bring peace between India and Pakistan.

Shipping LNG might be more expensive than the pipeline, but considering that the IPI pipeline  traverses the most dangerous territory in the world, the risk premium on the piped gas makes the project unviable without government subsidies. In other words, the taxpayer is being asked to make good what is fundamentally an unsound business case. Furthermore, even if pipelines can lock down gas supplies, Russia’s attempts to coerce Europe using its monopoly position at the head end of pipelines demonstrate that being at the receiving end can be uncomfortable.

Proponents of a ‘peace pipeline’ need to be asked whether India needs the pipeline for ‘peace’ or for energy security. Should India’s energy security be hostage to fantasies of those who want to put India’s jugular in the hands of the Pakistani military establishment? It is astounding that a project that deliberately creates a vulnerability that Pakistan can exploit at will is somehow considered part of energy security.

Forget the pipeline. We must make strategic investments in LNG, enabling us to purchase supplies from anywhere, including from Iran.

On to the second myth. With India in a position to be a geopolitical swing power, India’s ties with Iran need not be hostage to the tensions between Washington and Tehran.

Some might argue that this is already the case today, but the results on the ground have been unsatisfactory. Last year, Ayatollah Khamenei included Kashmir in the list of lands that needed to be “rescued from the demonic clutches of hegemonic powers.” US pressure caused India to disallow crude oil purchases from Iran under the Asian Clearing Union (ACU) mechanism, hurting Indian importers and refiners. We are getting assailed by both sides.

New Delhi should declare India’s interest in a rapprochement between the United States and Iran and work to bring them together, unofficially to start off with, and officially when it becomes possible. Indian diplomacy must be focused on persuading the two sides to undertake confidence-building measures. The goal should be to persuade the two sides to begin formal talks, under a ‘truce’ with Washington committing to non-aggression while Tehran halts its nuclear programme. Such a proposal will be rebuffed, but that need not deter us from taking our position.

Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad may not very receptive, but let’s remember ayatollahs and presidents can change, or change their minds. If a moderate Khatami could be replaced by a Ahmedinejad, the excesses of the latter could well cause a shift back to the centre. Similarly, if the United States is cozying up to Vietnam today, and even talking to the Taliban, Washington is not totally devoid of realism.

So things can change. Especially if New Delhi musters the imagination and resolve that distinguish statesmanship from mere diplomacy.