Trump is fantastic. Don’t worry.

Mr Trump’s telephone conversations with world leaders are indicative of his style, not substance.

Donald Trump’s phone calls with world leaders, screams a headline in the New York Times are “upsetting decades of diplomacy.” An already excited commentariat — around the world — is aghast at the fantastic manner in which the new US president-elect has been conducting the sublime act of statesmanship that is a telephone conversation. Just after some experts assessed that his fantastic phone call with the Pakistani prime minister might be unwelcome in India, their were jolted into assessing that Beijing would be upset (okay, make that apoplectic) after he announced that he spoke with the Taiwanese president. He even reportedly spoke to Rodrigo Duterte, the foul-mouthed president of the Philippines who had recently made a great show of insulting Barack Obama and kowtowing to Beijing. Oh yes, Mr Trump has violated the norms of the subtle, contrived and staid world of international diplomacy.

That is not a bad thing in itself. Nor is it much of a bad thing as far as US foreign policy towards Pakistan, China and the Philippines is concerned.

Mr Trump’s remarks to Nawaz Sharif appear more like the polite comments tourists make to their hosts regardless of the reality they observe. If he really meant what he said, then Pakistanis need to be worried right after they get over the surprise and puzzlement. Whoever believes that India should be concerned, less consider them unwelcome, is living in the 1990s. Analysts who believe that New Delhi is vying with Islamabad to court Washington’s favour must enlarge their frame of reference to the Indo-Pacific region, and set their watches to the present.

What about China? Hasn’t Mr Trump provoked the People’s Republic of China by exposing Beijing’s most dearly held—and most forcefully enforced—myth that the Republic of China on Taiwan does not exist as a normal state? Yes, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Perhaps due to the Western perception of its supposed exoticness, Beijing has usually had its way by pressing foreign governments to ‘respect its sensitivities’ over the Taiwan, the Dalai Lama, Xinjiang and the various territorial disputes it has with its neighbours. When the United States yields to this coercion, the rest of the world follows. If the United States were to be less inclined to ‘respect China’s sensitivities’, others are more likely to follow suit.

Beijing is quite likely to retaliate, but then, it has taken sharp foreign policy positions over the past decade without provocation. Let Beijing decide how long it wishes to play tit-for-tat with a much more powerful adversary. It remains to be seen if Mr Trump has the stomach for such a game.

It makes good sense for Mr Trump to reach out to Mr Duterte: at worst, it will confuse the Philippines establishment as it explores alignments with China and Russia. At best, it can cause Mr Duterte to execute a wild swing back towards Washington. To argue that Mr Trump must shun or punish Mr Duterte merely because the latter insulted President Obama would be to trade in foreign policy realism for soap opera sentimentalism. There is no evidence that the latter outperforms the former as a basis for pursuing a state’s interests.

For all his bluster, Mr Trump is out of his depth on matters of statecraft. He’s likely to learn on the job. Regardless of the value judgements we place on their content, it would be incorrect to take the fantastic man’s telephone conversations as indicators of his future administration’s real foreign policy positions.

China warns Singapore

As Singapore confronts difficult choices, it must sound out New Delhi.

It is an open secret that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) train in the Republic of China in Taiwan, and the two countries have enjoyed a quiet, but very productive partnership since the early 1970s. Like how actors in ’70s Hindi movies used to become totally unrecognisable merely by putting on a moustache and a beard, Singapore’s soldiers would become Taiwanese ones when they exercised in that country. The subterfuge was out of respect for diplomatic niceties, to placate the People’s Republic of China. For instance, Singapore service personnel would assume Taiwanese aliases. Sometimes this would lead to hilarious outcomes: like when my friend, an ethnic-Tamil Singaporean infantry platoon commander, had to pass off as Chong Wai-kiong.

Singapore’s defence cooperation with Taiwan (Project Starlight) predates the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. For its part, Beijing was content with this arrangement, even when it came close to war with Taiwan in the mid-1990s. Ian Storey writes that Li Peng, then China’s Premier, said that China ‘should not mind too much’ if Singapore continued its military relationship with Taiwan, but had asked that this be done discreetly.

So last week, when Hong Kong customs authorities — tipped off by their Chinese counterparts — seized nine infantry vehicles on a ship that was making its way from Taiwan to Singapore, it appears that Beijing has decided to deliver a warning. Or more.

It comes as a surprise, but is clearly yet another manifestation of an emboldened China taking aggressive positions in its extended neighbourhood. Even if Beijing were to end the impasse by releasing SAF’s equipment in return for renewed Singaporean commitment to the One China policy, it would further strengthen the perception among East Asian countries that it is best not to antagonise China. It would also put greater caution, and perhaps even a suspension of the four-decade old Singapore-Taiwan military cooperation. Chastising Singapore has multiple benefits for China.

It is too early to tell if Beijing’s actions are informed by an expectation that the upcoming Trump administration will disengage from Asia, leaving the field open to China. China’s actions over the past few years suggest that Beijing is confident of upping the ante even in the face of US “pivot” to Asia. It may be American conceit to believe that Trump is leaving East Asia to China. The rulers in Beijing perhaps believe they already have Asia.

This is a crucial period for India’s own Act East policy. New Delhi must reassure Singapore, Hanoi, Jakarta, Seoul, Tokyo and Canberra that India has the wherewithal and a commitment to shape an Asian balance that does not surrender to Chinese hegemony. If the United States wishes to be part of such an arrangement, then it is all for the better. If not, the six Indo Pacific powers must manage on their own. Let’s not forget that if the United States is no longer in the picture, India is the only nuclear power on the other side of China.

President Trump. What now for India?

Play the ball as it comes to the bat

Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley billionaire who backed Donald Trump’s candidacy, perhaps best explained the latter’s political appeal. Journalists and analysts, he said, took Mr Trump literally but not seriously, and wanted to know details of how he would implement some of the outrageous ideas he proposed. Ordinary people, on the other hand, took him seriously but not literally, and were persuaded that he intented to take policies in directions that they agreed with; the exact details didn’t matter. In the uncertainties that prevail in Washington and elsewhere on what policies President Trump would pursue, Mr Thiel’s explanation is a very useful signpost.

It would only be conceit for anyone at this stage to predict Trump’s foreign policy positions. Candidate Trump and his core supporters were anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and anti-trade. Mr Trump threatened to pull out of NATO, repudiate free trade agreements, engage Russia’s Vladimir Putin, withdraw the security umbrella from over treaty allies, renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, deal with ISIS, back Israel and grab the oil in Iraq. And yes, build that wall on the border with Mexico. At this point, it is best to take all these, as Mr Thiel suggests, seriously but not literally.

To the extent that President Trump attempts to throw international regimes, norms and institutions up in the air, New Delhi will encounter opportunities that it must be prepared to seize. This means the level of diplomatic imagination and boldness in the external affairs, commerce and defence ministries must be boosted. India is far better placed today than ever before to take advantage of possible shifts in global order.

Of course there are risks. A world that retreats from free trade will hurt India’s growth and development trajectory. A global recession will shave off significant percentage points from India’s economic growth rate. Throttling of free movement of people — in the US as in Europe — will necessitate painful business and human readjustments, although the result might be more business for India’s outsourcing/offshoring industry. Most of these risks can be managed by proceeding with structural economic reforms, or Reforms 2.0 (yes, I sound like a broken record, but the point is valid and important to make).

The path to success in the world of President Trump is nimbleness, deftness and speed. New Delhi’s diplomats and policymakers will need to see the opportunities early and act faster than others, without being constrained by historical baggage. No pre-determined strokes: see the ball early and play it accordingly.

Related Link: My colleague Pranay Kotasthane has an opinion piece on this in the New Indian Express today.

Manila on the Chinese bandwagon

The Philippines becomes the first Indo-Pacific country to declare itself for Beijing

On the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, I have long argued that “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.”

Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, appears to have decided that that stronger side is China.

“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” he said at a business forum in Beijing on Thursday. “And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.” [CNN]

There were indications of this for the last few months, but the manner in which he announced a “separation” from the United States, the Philippines’ treaty ally since 1951, could not have been more designed to ingratiate Beijing, his newfound benefactor. Mr Duterte calculates — correctly, in all likelihood — that China will now shower the Philippines with exemplary largesse. It is in Beijing’s interests to demonstrate that those who decide to join the Chinese side will be rewarded, as long as they are willing to ignore some trifling territorial disputes and international arbitration verdicts.

I have also argued that there is a Chinese wedge between ASEAN states that have a dispute with Beijing and those that don’t. That wedge has just gotten deeper and wider. The ASEAN agenda on maritime cooperation is now in question, as Philippines joins other pro-China ASEAN members in being uninterested in confronting China. Vietnam, in particular, will be under a lot more pressure.

The Philippines remains a pro-American country. It is also likely that parts of the country’s security establishment have deep links with the US armed forces. How Mr Duterte’s policy will go down with the people and the security establishment remains to be seen.

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.

Why India should not get into the fight against ISIS

The jihadi threat to India comes from Pakistan, not Syria.

Upon his return from the United States, defence minister has announced that India is prepared for an operation against ISIS under a UN resolution. He must have said this under pressure from Washington, for there it makes little sense for India to step into what is essentially a Middle Eastern problem.

The core of ISIS is not really interested in India, at least at this time. Its focus is on Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and their neighbouring countries. Its attacks on European cities in pursuit of its core goals.

Sure, ISIS has announced a wilayah or province in the subcontinent, but that is as real as an ISIS province on the moon. It might be aspirational, it might help them in its propaganda to project itself as bigger than it is, but Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has far more to worry about for a long time before he can be interested in planting his flag somewhere in India. New Delhi will have enough time to prepare before ISIS decides to pay attention to conquering India. Till such time, it is in India’s interests to let the galaxy of powers currently involved in fighting the ISIS to do so, and to prevail.

What about Indians who are going to Syria to fight for the ISIS? Well, the best strategy is to hope that they don’t come back, and ensure that they are interrogated and charged if they do. This is the kind of work India’s intelligence agencies and law enforcement authorities do, and ought to step up.

Finally, what about Islamists in India who wave the ISIS flag during protests? Shouldn’t we take them to be supporters of ISIS? Well, no. The ISIS flag is as much an inspirational totem to them as portraits of Khomeini, Arafat and bin Laden that used to be seen in their times. The effect is not unlike that of auto rickshaw driver gangs that organise themselves around portraits of movie stars. It is very unlikely that the said movie stars have any opinion on auto rickshaw fares and policies. For the drivers, though, the portraits are a totem to organise around and differentiate themselves from their counterparts. In the case of ISIS, police and intelligence agencies ought to identify individuals and groups claiming inspiration from it, and keep them under surveillance.

The primary jihadi threat to India still comes from Pakistan: the Jamaat-ud-Dawa/Lashkar-e-Taiba and other groups controlled by the Pakistani military establishment remain the principal threat. Few Western countries want to engage in seriously countering this threat, as it is not vital to their national interest. India, on the other hand, has no choice but to fight. It is important to concentrate on this project and not open unnecessary fronts in the Middle East.

Related Link: My colleague Rohan Joshi asks if a clash between ISIS and Jamaat-ud-Dawa is imminent.

Modi in the Valley

There are lessons and reflections for Narendra Modi in Silicon Valley

This is the original English version of an op-ed published in Hindi, in Nai Dunia, Indore, today.

If California were an independent country, it would be one of India’s important trading partners: last year we imported more than $5.3 billion worth of goods from that state. While IT services exports catch most of the limelight, India also exports items like cashew nuts, coffee, tea, engine parts, metal screws, rice and vegetable extracts. California hosts more than 4,75,000 Indian-Americans and is deeply connected to our technology industry. Silicon Valley companies have invested heavily in India over the last twenty years, and their presence contributes to the livelihoods of several lakhs of people in India — from IT & BPO employees to the taxi drivers who drive them to work. So much is Bangalore’s technology sector connected to America’s that we like to joke that the traffic in the city is lighter during public holidays in the United States.

So there are very good reasons for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit California, instead of limiting himself to the usual New York-Washington circuit that India’s political leaders usually do. Reaching out personally to top investors and business leaders helps promote India as a destination for investments, where we are in competition with China, East Asia and Eastern Europe. Whatever may be the domestic criticisms of the “Digital India” initiative, it is a good calling card for the Indian prime minister as he engages the some of the world’s most influential technology leaders. His personal charisma and public speaking skills make him a fantastic salesman and marketer of the India story.

Also, unlike our own businesspeople, it is likely that foreign business leaders will be more straightforward in telling him why they find it hard to do business in India. The country will benefit from such candid feedback, especially if Mr Modi diligently follows up on it once he is back in New Delhi.

That, essentially, is the real problem. Even without Mr Modi visiting Silicon Valley, it is a well-known fact that India has the talent, the resources and the market to make it a potentially exciting destination for investment. Yet, much of this potential cannot be realised because of the government gets in the way. Complicated tax laws, for instance, raise costs of doing business, increase corruption and invite political rent-seeking. Poor contract enforcement is merely the tip of the iceberg of a pervasive lack of trust in society, which deters investors. Lack of attention to basic public services, like water, electricity, education, health and transportation shifts the costs onto the private sector. This not only raises costs for investors (and makes India more expensive a place to operate from than it should be) but also creates social divisions, because others do not have them. We all know the problems with land acquisition and labour reform.

Mr Modi can’t be unaware of these issues. In his interactions with investors, he would probably have reassured them that his government will address these challenges. While he might get away with these responses as this is his first visit, he might not receive a patient hearing the next time. In other words, he has staked his personal credibility on addressing the challenges faced by investors and he will now have to deliver on them. This is not easy because it is unclear if his government realises that the entire Delhi Straitjacket has to be removed from our economic lives, not mere tweaking at the margins. We have not seen any sign of that since the Modi government came to power. Worse, even as Mr Modi promotes Digital India, his government scores such shocking self-goals like the recent one concerning a very poorly drafted National Encryption Policy that it was forced to withdraw after strong public criticism. The Modi government has done nothing to repeal the horrible IT Rules (including the infamous Section 66A) that were introduced by the UPA government.

After the success of the visit, Mr Modi will have to pay attention to the essential task of economic reform. Whether to satisfy the aspirations of the domestic population or demands of foreign investors, the answer is the same: economic liberalisation on a much bigger scale than Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s in 1991.

While no one might have told him this, but Mr Modi would do well to reflect on why Silicon Valley creates companies like Google, Tesla or Facebook that have a global mindset. Most startups there begin with a plan to capture the global market. Their dreams are big. Of course, the ecosystem enables them to fulfil those dreams, but the big dream is the starting point. Most of our entrepreneurs in contrast, limit their dreams to the borders of our own country. The Delhi Straitjacket is partially responsible for this, but there is also a mindset problem, in that we are content to think within our “narrow domestic walls”. Elon Musk wants to transform the way the whole world travels. He wants to even transform the way humans travel to space. If there is something Mr Modi should learn from Silicon Valley is the need to unshackle our richest, most capable and most talented people to open their minds and push the envelope of human achievement.

Those who criticise Mr Modi for going on too many foreign trips miss the point, for his trips help raise India’s profile abroad. What we should discuss is whether his government delivers on the reforms necessary to meet the additional expectations he has created at home and abroad.

Osama bin Laden, the ISI and the USA

The ISI might have known about bin Laden. What did the United States know?

For the first time, a person close enough to the Pakistani military establishment—and often its unofficial mouthpiece—has suggested that the ISI might have known about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts, and might have traded him in for US concessions in Afghanistan. Asad Durrani, retired ISI chief and regular television talking-head, said this in an interview to Al Jazeera at Oxford recently.

“I cannot say exactly what happened but my assessment […] was it is quite possible that they [the ISI] did not know but it was more probable that they did. And the idea was that at the right time, his location would be revealed. And the right time would have been, when you can get the necessary quid pro quo – if you have someone like Osama bin Laden, you are not going to simply hand him over to the United States.

He asserted that Bin Laden was, in his opinion, handed over in exchange for an agreement on “how to bring the Afghan problem to an end”. Asked by Hasan whether Bin Laden’s compound was an ISI safe house, Durrani responded:

“If ISI was doing that, than I would say they were doing a good job. And if they revealed his location, they again probably did what was required to be done.” [Al Jazeera PR]

This is exactly what The Acorn had argued in May 2011.

His death also means that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex gave him up. This will allow Barack Obama to declare victory and pull US troops out of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Pakistani army can then orchestrate an post-US dispensation wherein its proxies first share power with the Karzai regime. And then, sometime in the near future, take over power. [The Osama card has been played]

In an INILive discussion analysing the possibilities around bin Laden’s killing, I had argued that the most likely explanation was that:

The Pakistani military leadership was on board. In fact, they might have given up Osama as it suits their interests at this time. President Obama can declare victory and pull US troops out of Afghanistan. The Americans will have to rely on Pakistan to ensure that the withdrawal is bloodless during an election year in the United States.

This is plausible. Contrary to popular imagination, it might have been done subtly. A gentle lowering of guard around Osama, a little clue here and there, and the US intelligence would catch up…it would only be a matter of time. The US would even believe that they did it on their own.[Bin Laden’s killing and implications for India]

My May 2011 Pax Indica column discussed this in more detail, linking the event to US domestic politics and the cost-benefit calculations of the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. In March 2014, the New York Times magazine published a report by Carlotta Gall, quoting unnamed Pakistani officials as saying that Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the ISI chief in 2011, was in the know.

Now, given his background and connections, Gen Durrani is by no means a Pakistani who is seeking exile in a Western country. His revelations raise an important question: why has the Pakistani military establishment decided to reveal that it (probably) knew about bin Laden all along? There are some indications to the effect that this might be an attempt to pre-empt more explicit revelations about the Pakistani army’s role. Whatever be the case, it is highly unlikely that Gen Durrani’s comments were on-the-fly. There has to be a purpose behind them.

Gen Durrani’s admission raises another question about the Obama administration’s role in the affair. What did the United States know and when?

Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an assessment

What New Delhi should do about the threat

Here is an assessment following an email discussion with my colleagues Rohan Joshi & Pranay Kotasthane on the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. See Rohan’s post for context.

1. The Pakistani state and the Pakistani society have neither the intention nor the capability (if they have the intention) to take down the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). It has crossed the line from being a merely extremist terrorist group to a provider of public goods. It acquired the characteristics of a para-state with obvious popularity and social legitimacy.

2. The Pakistani army, on the other hand, does retain the capability to degrade the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. For instance, they could get a hothead loyal to Hafiz Saeed to assassinate Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi or another competing top-rung leader, engineer a rift, cause clashes while promoting propaganda against them. However, given that the Jamaat-ud-Dawa is a key instrument of the Pakistani army’s existential anti-India posture, the army is unlikely to want to damage the JuD.

3. So the best the civilian government will do is play the Schrödinger-Hiesenberg quantum game, where the JuD is banned but not banned. If another party takes over, the JuD will be not banned but banned. It is unrealistic to expect democratically elected civilian governments to act against JuD especially to satisfy India or the United States.

4. Therefore, India’s short-term options should be

  • to prevent JuD from acquiring greater capabilities. At this moment it is an irregular light infantry. It should not be permitted to acquire more advanced weapons and capabilities.
  • to prevent JuD from acquiring territory. ‘Non-state actors’ getting hold of swathes of territory from which they can carry out conspiracies and attacks on Indian soil will complicate New Delhi’s national security strategy.
  • to prevent JuD from acquiring followers in India. In contrast to the 1990s, it is possible today for followers to ‘train’ with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) without actually having to go to PoK via Karachi via Dubai.
  • to prevent the JuD from launching terrorist attacks in India.

5. India’s longer term option remains clear: dismantle and destroy the military-jihadi complex.

6. There is a convergence of interests between India and the United States, and to a lesser extent with China too, on the short-term options. New Delhi’s outreach to these states should be to arrive at a consensus on preventing the strengthening of JuD. It is unclear if other countries share interests on the longer-term issue of destroying the military-jihadi complex. It might be some time before the United States comes around to this view. For now, the focus on short-term goals will be good enough.

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.