Tag Archives | United States

Examining the US-Pakistan standoff

The Pakistani establishment is grappling with the consequences of underestimating the United States

There is a lot of commentary on how US-Pakistan relations are in crisis and “hitting new lows” each day. Much of this is indeed true—not because of what the Obama administration says or does not say, but because of how the US Congress perceives the situation. If US politicians, across party lines, have turned hostile towards Pakistan, it is because they are sensitive to public opinion. Until the public mood changes, it will be much more difficult for any US president to paper over Pakistan’s shenanigans for reasons of foreign policy expediency. Washington’s ‘South Asian’ commentariat is slowly coming to realise that both the Obama administration and public opinion has left their old Pakistan narrative behind.

The current standoff has come about due to two reasons: first, General Kayani overplaying his cards; and second, the Zardari government giving up manoeuvring room by passing the buck to the parliament.

The Pakistani army thought it had a trump card in choking the supply lines and played it. It didn’t work, not least because similar acts and threats in the past had caused US military planners to work out alternatives. Shutting down the supply routes backfired on Pakistan: it has been frozen out of the diplomatic scene, US Congress has cut financial assistance and it has ended up back in the doghouse of international public opinion. The Pakistani military establishment still doesn’t get it. Judging from views expressed by pro-establishment opinion makers, they still seem to believe that US and NATO desperately need the supply routes to get out of Afghanistan. They do not consider the possibility of an exit strategy involving a combination of airlifts, passage through the Northern Distribution Network, asset transfers to the Afghan security forces and destruction of the rest. Speed matters when troops are getting in. It matters less when they are going back home. However, the Pakistani military establishment’s blinkered smugness is bolstering intransigence. (Munir Akram, a former Pakistani diplomat, even advocated showing nuclear teeth to the US.)

Under attack from a stridently anti-American media, a populist Imran Khan and the galvanisation of militant politics, the Zardari government handed over the hot potato of US-Pakistan relations to Parliament. This was clever, because it passed the buck to parliament and diffused responsibility. However, it has tied down the government’s hands now, because it requires a lot more political capital for Mr Zardari to “give and take” on anything unless the US delivers on Pakistan’s maximalist claims—an official apology for the Shalala encounter and a complete cessation of drone attacks on Pakistani soil.

The United States is in no mood to yield on either of this. An official apology would not only weaken President Obama during his re-election campaign but will be very unpopular among the US military rank-and-file. For all the diplomatic contortions Washington has engaged in over the last ten years, it is the US military that has suffered the ground reality of Pakistan’s duplicity. So an apology is unlikely until after the US election season is over. Ending drone strikes is even less likely, as they remain the most important instrument the US has to combat the international threat to its national security.

This standoff will be hard to resolve. Even so, both parties have subtly changed the framing of the issue to enable a resolution. Note Washington’s public statements tend to be about supply routes—suggesting that if Pakistan offers a reasonable compromise on this issue, the process of rebuilding the relationship can start. Similarly, while Pakistan’s sentencing of the doctor who assisted the CIA in identifying bin Laden is surely a tit-for-tat response to President Obama’s snub at Chicago, it has done so in a manner that allows compromise. Trying him under the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) allows the Pakistani government to arbitrarily change the sentence or acquit him without involving the judiciary. It is willing to trade.

Despite this negotiating room, the Zardari government is unlikely to be capable of grabbing the negotiating lifeline and arriving at a deal on the supply routes. Getting Sherry Rehman, its US ambassador and Bilawal Zardari-Bhutto, the party co-chairman to reinforce the demand for a US apology was a mistake if they didn’t already know that the US was likely to yield. It has now only made it harder for Mr Zardari to compromise. Similarly, while the US is concerned about the fate of Dr Shakeel Afridi, it is unlikely to yield to a prisoner-swap deal.

Neither side is likely to blink. But one side is bleeding.

Comments { 3 }

Let the Buzkashi begin!

The implications of Barack Obama’s policy shift in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Barack Obama has executed a very smart policy change—he has effectively dehyphenated Af-Pak by extricating the United States from the long-running Afghan civil war and focusing Washington’s attention on Pakistan. The United States will put in a genuine effort to mitigate the risk of a Taliban take-over in Afghanistan but will essentially leave Afghans to fight out their own affairs. It will, instead, maintain a security presence in the region tasked with keeping military pressure on jihadi militants that pose a threat to its own security.

What does this imply?

First, as far as the United States is concerned, not only Hamid Karzai but the post-2002 Afghan state is dispensable. If the Afghan state cannot secure itself against Taliban revolutionaries or other factions that seek to destroy it, Washington will not be concerned beyond a point. This message, as we will see, has (predictable) consequences.

Second, although the United States will withdraw its troops in 2014, it is not in a form that the Pakistani military-jihadi complex expected. Pakistani generals had long assumed that US withdrawal from Afghanistan automatically implied that they could take over the place the next day through a combination of Mullah Omar, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqanis. They had also assumed that they held the cards because international forces depended on their goodwill to make a face-saving exit. President Obama has delivered the Pakistani generals a nasty surprise—the residual US presence on the Afghan side of the Durand Line and drone strikes on Pakistani soil will calibrate how much Pakistan can influence the security and stability of Afghanistan. We have not reached the point yet, but it may well be that international forces need not rely on Pakistani routes on their way out.

Third, as a consequence of Washington extricating itself from Afghanistan, we are bound to see political factions emerge around tribal and ethnic lines, fighting and allying among themselves and seeking external support. This process will strengthen if the Taliban were either to take or share power. Let’s not forget that the mujahideen separated into factions after the Soviets left in 1989 and fought each other. Let’s also not forget that there was no ‘Northern Alliance’ before the Taliban became a dominant political force. So just because there isn’t visible opposition to the Taliban today, it doesn’t follow that there won’t be one if they come to power. Just because Messrs Omar, Hekmatyar and Haqqani are Pakistan’s proxies today, it doesn’t follow that they won’t reach for each others’ throats tomorrow. Of course this means “civil war”, if only because the Afghan civil war has been ongoing for a couple of decades now.

Fourth, if and when the “civil war” does take place, the United States will become the swing power between the China-Pakistan-Saudi and the India-Russia-Iran alignments. It has so far been engaged in the self-weakening business of preventing India, Russia and Iran from cooperating over Afghanistan. Washington will have to decide which side it intends to back. The smart thing for it to do would be to back neither permanently, rather to back them selectively, while retaining for itself the power and influence that comes from its role as the balancer. For this, though, it will need to have better relations with each of these alignments than they have with each other. Therefore, its ability to swing will depend on whether it can get over its Iran dogma and work out a modus vivendi, at least in Afghanistan.

Fifth, if Pakistan need not keep appearances of being an ally in the war on terror, the military establishment might well prefer to install in power a regime that it is to its liking. To the extent that Pakistani army’s needs for an ‘acceptable civilian face’ to extract money from the United States is diminished, Imran Khan’s—and Hafiz Saeed’s—political fortunes are set to improve.

Finally, India will need to remain open to support political factions in Afghanistan that seek it, even while robustly backing the legitimate leadership of the Afghan state. The most important risk to India’s national security comes from the spillover of veteran Afghan militants. In the early 1990s, Pakistan solved two problems at one go by diverting the surplus militant manpower to Jammu & Kashmir. Given that it has been unable to even begin address the problem of deradicalising its militant manpower base, its leaders—both military and civilian—will be tempted to do the same now. The longer these militants have reason to fight in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, the better it is for India. This should be one of New Delhi’s policy goals.

It’s time to dust off histories of Afghanistan in the 1990s.

Comments { 0 }

The cat’s paw

Strategic proxies have disproportionate negotiating power

This month’s Asian Balance argues that China is indeed being ‘bullied’ by the Philippines. Such a statement is likely to cause many people to jump because of the value judgement placed on the term ‘bully’ as well as the David and Goliath-like setting. Shorn of those value judgements and biases, though, this statement holds up. As the column notes, the Philippines has more to gain and less to lose by behaving in a provocative manner than China.

One reason for this is Manila’s treaty alliance with Washington. This affords it with the security that the United States will have to intervene in some form if the Philippines is attacked by China. Washington has let it be known that it is unlikely to intervene in a territorial dispute. This allows China to act against the Philippines in the disputed territory—if Beijing takes military action beyond the disputed islands, and onto sovereign Philippines territory, then it raises the risk of US intervention. The exact red line might be fuzzy, but both Beijing and Manila know that it exists. The game then is to exploit the space before the red line is crossed.

The United States might well be using the Philippines as a proxy to indirectly contain China, its strategic adversary. However, this is not without its own strategic costs—failure to manage the proxy can drag the United States into a conflict it does not want to get into. Manila knows this and can exploit it, for instance, by demanding that the United States sell it arms so that it can defend itself better.

China is at the receiving end in this case, but is quite an accomplished player in the strategic proxy game. North Korea ties down the United States, Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia. Pakistan checks India and the United States in the subcontinent. All in the game.

Comments { 0 }

Is China being bullied by the Philippines?

The disproportionate negotiating power of strategic proxies

Today’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

The small-country bullies
China’s aggressive posturing over maritime boundaries has caused East Asian countries to look at other powers for support

It’s those Chinese fishing vessels again. Last month they ventured into a shoal in the South China Sea, presumably hunting for giant clams, when they were apprehended by the Philippines’ naval patrols. If the Philippines claims the Scarborough shoal – a few hectares worth of low-lying rocks 200 kilometres from its shores – China claims the entire South China Sea as its own. In what has become a familiar pattern over the last few years, the Chinese fishing vessels triggered off a confrontation that quickly escalated into a maritime and diplomatic stand-off. Chinese tourists left the Philippines, and Filipino bananas face an uncertain prospect now in clearing China’s food safety tests.

The two countries are now trying to back off at this time, but not before the “w” word surfaced in the popular discourse.
War? Over some uninhabited rocks in the middle of nowhere? Between China (GDP $7.3 trillion, defence budget $106.4 billion) and the Philippines (GDP $213 billion, defence budget $2.3 billion)? Who would want it?

Not China. While it certainly wants to keep its territorial claims alive by letting intrepid fishing vessels do to South China Sea islands what dogs do to lamp posts, it knows that an outright military conflict will be counterproductive to its longer-term interests.

Provocative fishing vessels and Beijing’s aggressive diplomatic posturing over maritime boundaries have already caused East Asian countries to look at the United States, India and other powers for support. In case China finds itself in a war with the Philippines, opposition to Beijing will consolidate, and the US will make strategic inroads into the region, making it harder for China to achieve its goal of dominating the Western Pacific.

The US too does not want a war. It has a military alliance with the Philippines, and Manila could call upon US support if it is attacked. Washington is understandably reluctant to let itself be dragged into a war against a great power by a small ally over a tiny issue. The Obama administration has signalled that territorial disputes are outside the scope of the defence pact. Even so, if it is seen as shirking from supporting its ally, the value of Washington’s strategic promissory notes in East Asia will sharply depreciate. It cannot, however, support its ally without provoking Beijing. A war would cause the US to choose between losing its reputation and getting into an unwanted confrontation with China.

Most East Asian countries do not want war either. They have spent the last decade attempting to engineer “regional security architectures” – essentially multilateral forums that discuss security issues – that hope to solve tricky geopolitical disputes without being bullied and without having to fight. Yet for all its achievements, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) has little to show in terms of ability to manage armed conflict, even between its member states. Thailand, for instance, has stonewalled the deployment of Indonesian military observers over its border dispute with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple.

Nor has Asean been very vocal in insisting that China comply with the code of conduct in the South China Sea they agreed to in 2002. Its member states are unlikely to want their solidarity to be put to the kind of test that a China-Philippines naval conflict would entail.

What about the Philippines itself? For Manila, maritime boundaries in the South China Sea assume an economic significance that goes beyond nationalistic sentiment over territory. The seabed is supposed to have rich reserves of oil and natural gas, although estimates vary. The technology to exploit natural gas fields in the South China Sea is maturing. China National Offshore Oil Corporation already has semi-submersible deep sea drilling platforms. Manila has its eyes on healthy revenue streams from energy exports which can make a substantial difference to its fiscal position and overall economic health.

This, coupled with the security guarantee the Philippines enjoys by virtue of its alliance with the US, has caused it to stand firm and confront China. So much so that Dai Bingguo, one of Beijing’s top foreign policy hands, accused the Philippines, “a smaller country”, of bullying China. He has a point. As China’s leaders ought to know all too well, small countries that are backed by great powers have disproportionate negotiating power, and they “bully” both their adversaries and their backers. The Philippines might calculate that it has relatively less to lose by letting tensions escalate.

That’s the main risk — when pesky fishing boats, Chinese law enforcement vessels and Philippines naval ships are facing off each other, an accidental trigger can cause an unintentional escalation. Given the turbulence in China’s civil-military relations ahead of this autumn’s leadership transition, and the numerous Chinese state agencies engaged in the South China Sea, the risk of escalation is higher on its side. The onus, therefore, is on Beijing to keep a lid on the tensions.

Unrelated to the stand-off, a contingent of four warships from the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command is on a routine long-range overseas deployment to the South China Sea, and ports in China and the Philippines are among those it will call on. It does come at an interesting time, given its mission of what the Navy terms “generating goodwill among the neighbouring countries”.

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All Rights Reserved.

Comments { 2 }

Calculating Pakistan’s Al Faida income

The military establishment seeks more rent

Pakistan, the United States and NATO are currently engaged in negotiations over a transit fee for the route from Karachi to the Afghan border. Pakistan has demanded $5000 per container (in either direction) although other reports suggest that it would seek a ‘nominal fee’ of around $1800. It is important to note that these are over and above what Pakistan has already been making from the container traffic.

Here’s a conservative estimate of how much the Pakistan makes from permitting US and NATO troops transit routes from Karachi to the Afghanistan border. Between 2005 and June 2010, Pakistani military and civilian government entities made $290 million (Update: At least $360 million, including toll revenues—see details below], or a little over $1000 per container, from allowing US and NATO transit to Afghanistan. The military establishment’s share of this is just over half, all of it in terms of pure rent or, as we like to call it “Al Faida”. The civilian government’s share came from taxes and through port charges.

Click to enlarge

An earlier post, from February 2009, has another estimate of the takings. Those figures are higher than these because they involve a different period and perhaps a different count of the number of containers. In the present analysis, the number of containers is taken from a report on the ISAF container scam by the Pakistani government’s Federal Tax Ombudsman, from January 2011. That report provides some interesting details about the political economy of the transit business—how a lot of people make lot of shady money. Also, it notes that 3544 US/ISAF containers are ‘missing’.

Update: According to Gen William Fraser, US Transcom commander, more than 35,000 containers were delivered through Pakistan in 2011. This would give the Pakistani military establishment $18.375 million in rent and an income of $17.5 million for the civilian government entities for the year.

If the US/ISAF traffic is in the range of 600 trucks per day, then Pakistan will earn around $129 million in 2012, of which the military establishment will pocket $66 million. Note that this excludes the transit fee/tax that is under negotiation.

Update (May 23, 2012): A senior Pakistani government official has testified to the Public Accounts Committee that the Pakistani army’s construction wing, the Frontier Works Organisation, has occupied all toll plazas along the route, and pocketed all the Rs 6.5 billion in toll revenues. That’s around $71 million at the current exchange rate, but higher given that the Pakistani rupee has been depreciating over the last few years.

Related Links: Pragmatic Euphony on the truth about the NATO supply routes.

Comments { 0 }

How India and the US can be geoeconomic partners

A bloggingheads discussion with Dan Runde, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Comments { 0 }

Living with a nuclear Iran

Dealing with a nuclear Iran is better than suffering an international war to stop it.

Led by the United States, much of the international community has tightened economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to prevent it from building nuclear weapons. India and China are among the few countries that have stayed out of this initiative and have been criticised for it. In a piece in the Wall Street Journal that comprehensively captures the argument against New Delhi’s current policy of not participating in the sanctions regime, Sadanand Dhume argues:

An India that uses its oil purchases and diplomatic clout to create breathing room for Iran risks scuppering the notion New Delhi has benefited from for more than a decade: that India’s rise is beneficial to the West. By contrast, should India throw its weight behind a powerful anti-Iran coalition, it stands to gain by halting the further nuclearization of its neighborhood, blunting the spread of radical Islam and bolstering its credentials as a force for stability. [WSJ]

Mr Dhume makes an important point when he says that “India’s quest for security and prosperity is most effectively pursued in a predictable and stable US-led international order.” Yet there is room—and indeed, a need—for discrimination within agreement over this worldview. In the case of Iran Washington’s policy position is dogmatic to the point of rejecting without any consideration the benefits—to the United States and to the US-led order—of a grand rapprochement with Iran. In a recent article on FP, Neil Padukone, a new fellow for geopolitics at Takshashila, details the scale and the scope of this geopolitical opportunity. I have argued that New Delhi well-placed to lubricate this process.

We have to criticise New Delhi, but for a different reason. It did not even attempt to avoid being crunched by Washington on one side and its own interests with Iran on the other. The situation in Afghanistan can change dramatically if Iran and the United States could cooperate. Where we needed imaginative and deft diplomacy, we saw resignation and default. Opportunities to improve ties with Washington on issues unrelated to Iran—from the fighter plane purchase, to UN Security Council positions over Libya and Syria—were gratuitously squandered.

On the nuclear issue, if the question were asked at a time when Iran was far away from building a bomb, the answer to whether an Iranian bomb is in India’s interests would have been a “No.” But now, at a time when the only way to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon is a war, the answer is different. In fact, the question for governments around the world now is whether an Iranian bomb is worse than an international war to prevent it.

A military conflict against Iran is not in India’s interests. Not only will it further destabilise a region that is already in deep crisis, it will do so in a form where India will be directly affected. Fuel supplies from Iran and supply routes from the Persian Gulf will come under threat and could precipitate a domestic economic crisis with unpredictable consequences. Also, doesn’t a war with Iran once again provide the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, with the encouragement of the Saudis, to once again become a frontline ally in an American war? Washington’s predisposition to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s shenanigans in the context of its own geopolitical projects was and will be expensive to India.

Those who have long enough memories will recall that General Zia-ul-Haq was in Washington’s doghouse until the United States had to intervene in Afghanistan. Those who have shorter memories will recall General Musharraf being in a similar place and his dictatorship getting a ticket to respectability when the United States had to do it again. The Pakistani military establishment used these periods to first develop and expand its strategic assets—nuclear weapons and jihadi groups. Another reprieve will be no different.

It takes a lot to believe sanctions can prevent a determined, modern state like Iran from building a bomb it wants to. The costs of these ineffective sanctions are subjective—and unless there’s a short-term way to ensure the long-term security of 11 percent of India’s energy imports—for New Delhi they are not worth incurring.

Where does this leave us? Well, with the reality of having to deal with a nuclear Iran, and consequently perhaps with an overtly nuclear Saudi Arabia too. This need not necessarily make the region more unstable, even considering a triangular dynamic that includes Israel. Let’s not forget Western nuclear deterrence theory has always lagged deterrence in practice—be it during the Cold War or in the case of the subcontinent.

This does not mean that the Iranian regime is all Persian fragrance towards India. It’s not. But you can’t survive as a regime or as a state—even a revolutionary one—without realism. There’s a reason why Mullah Omar had to flee on a motorcycle while the leaders of Viet Nam are now Washington’s strategic allies. Regimes devoid of realism write their own obituaries. The survival of the Iranian theocratic-democracy is evidence of there being an underpinning of realism. Iran’s realists, however, are eclipsed by fundamentalists like Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who feed on hostility with the United States. To the extent that the hostility can be ratcheted down, the realists in the regime will be strengthened. Even otherwise, the Iranian regime, despite its foundations on the Shia narrative, is unlikely to desire civilisational suicide. [Update: How states act after they acquire nuclear weapons - on The Monkey Cage, linkthanks @chennaikaran]

New Delhi’s position might differ from that of Washington and Tel Aviv. But just as their positions are based on their perceptions of self-interest, so is ours. While there is no need to be apologetic about its positions over Iran, New Delhi must not lose other opportunities to strengthen its relationship with the United States and Israel.

Comments { 3 }

Pointing guns and stroking backs

The implications of Pakistan’s power triangle

Those who follow Pakistan are familiar with the metaphor that describes that country as “negotiating with a gun to its own head.” Here’s an update: it’s now run by three power centres—the military establishment, the higher judiciary and the civilian government—, where one holds a gun to the another’s head, while not so subtly stroking the back of the third. That makes the drama complex and absorbing, but the upshots for the rest of us are simple.

First, you can’t deal with Pakistan any more. You need to deal with bits, pieces, factions and quarters of Pakistan. Since none of them has the power to see through whatever they might agree, any commitment or deal they make involves, shall we say, immense counter-party risks. In other words, it means they are not worth the paper they are printed on. Whether it’s the IMF dealing with the Pakistani treasury apparatus, or the Indian commerce ministry discussing trade with its Pakistani counterpart or the United States government working on a deal over Afghanistan, there’s no guarantee that the Pakistani side is in a position to see through its end of the bargain. The only reason to persist is perhaps because, well, “the show has to go on.”

Second, the civilian government has neither any control over Pakistan’s foreign and security policies nor has any real means to bring terrorists to justice. The military establishment controls the former and the higher judiciary controls the latter. There is a degree of tacit but not-so-subtle complicity between the two. In other words the military-jihadi complex not only remain in charge but now has a lot more latitude because there are fewer pretenses to keep and fig leaves to hold up. The complex has also regained narrative dominance. To the extent that the presence of US and international forces in Afghanistan keeps the Pakistani army strategically focused on that front, General Kayani and his colleagues are unlikely to want to escalate tensions with India through renewed terrorist or insurgent attacks.

Third, while the general view is that the US-Pakistani alliance is over, it is difficult to shake-off the perception that Washington has decided to work with the Pakistani military establishment rather than strengthen the hands of the civilian government. Therefore, at a critical juncture in Pakistan’s history, Washington has again let go of an opportunity to put the military monster back in the pen. There are good excuses for this, but as much as they are good, they are still excuses.

This does not mean that President Asif Zardari will lose and General Kayani will win decisively. On the contrary, Mr Zardari might be considered to have won if he and his government just survive in office for their term. General Kayani, on the other hand, needs to meet the standards set by his successful coup-making predecessors. That is not a victory for democracy. It is at best an establishment of a new, tenuous distribution of power which, as described above, involves gun-pointing and back-stroking.

Comments { 1 }

What does Taiwan’s election result mean for India?

Ma’s victory and India’s dilemma

Yesterday’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

Taiwan’s presidential elections, since they first started in 1996, have in large part been referendums on the “One China” policy. Voters have been offered two deviations from the delicious ambiguity of the status quo: either a path towards eventual re-unification with mainland China or a dangerous path towards independence. Taiwan’s grand old party, the Kuomintang (KMT), espouses the former, while the Opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) favours the latter.

The stakes, obviously, are high for Beijing — whose leaders have tried, unsuccessfully, bullying, coercion and suasion to influence the Taiwanese voter. But the stakes are also high for the Indo-Pacific region because Taiwan is critical to the stability of US-China relations, especially at a time when they both are attempting to move away from the confrontation of the past two years.

Neither China nor the United States wants the Taiwanese voter to rock the boat. Both had let it be known that they would prefer the incumbent president, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, to win. In the event, on Saturday, the Taiwanese people agreed. But not before pre-election opinion polls showed that the election would go down to the wire, prompting thousands of expatriate Taiwanese from places like Silicon Valley to crowd into flights back to the island to cast their ballot.

That Ma found himself neck-to-neck with Tsai Ing-yen, his DPP challenger, is interesting. Four years ago, he was voted in after people felt that the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian was taking Taiwan into dangerous waters with his pro-independence line. Ma delivered on his campaign promise of closer ties with the mainland, sealing a major trade deal with China in 2010, boosting trade, travel, communications and investments.

China-Taiwan trade is currently around $160 billion. Taiwanese investors pumped in close to $40 billion in the four years of Ma’s first term. Chinese investors reciprocated, albeit only to the tune of $170 million. Increasing the number of direct flights to almost 100 a day brought in 2 million Chinese tourists and $3 billion in receipts. There has been a parallel improvement in official relations between Beijing and Taipei, as much in form as in substance.

Why then did Ma face a tough election? One answer is what we would call an anti-incumbency effect. As he admitted last month, there were some economic goals his government failed to achieve, especially those relating to employment and income growth. The other answer, one that goes beyond economic angst and back to the China-Taiwan question, might be a preference by voters to drag deviations from the status quo to the middle. As Russell Hsiao, a political analyst, wrote in the Jamestown Foundation’s “China Brief” last month, a majority of Taiwanese people want to perpetuate the status quo and will punish politicians who stray too far from it. This might also explain both the closeness of the contest and the verdict itself.

Over in Beijing, Ma’s victory is seen as vindication and a political triumph for President Hu Jintao. In the internal dynamics of the Communist Party of China, it is likely to empower individuals and factions close to Hu, influencing the pecking order of the new administration that will take over after this year’s party congress. Also, as Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based commentator, points out, “if the KMT continues to rule, one can assume that tensions will be lowered further and the [People’s Liberation Army] will have no reason to ask for a higher budget.” To the extent that the issue of Taiwan’s status becomes less of a thorn in Beijing’s side, the political salience of the hawkish factions will, on the margin, diminish. This in turn can help reduce tensions with the United States.

In Washington, some commentators have already begun asking whether it makes sense to continue to allow Taiwan to poison relations between the United States and China. While it is unlikely that such a policy reversal is in the offing, it is already clear that Washington would prefer a Taiwan that doesn’t raise the temperature in East Asia. Washington’s strategic calculus, like that of the other major powers in Indo-Pacific, is about shaping a favourable balance of power, not triggering a military confrontation.

India faces a dilemma. On the one hand, the geopolitical stability suggested by a KMT government means greater economic opportunities for India to engage Taiwan. Compared to Japan, South Korea and Singapore, our bilateral trade and investment with Taiwan is negligible. The country accounts for one per cent of India’s foreign trade. At 0.03 per cent of the total foreign direct investment in India, Taiwan ranks below countries like Chile and Turkey. Bilateral trade agreements can help, but only if domestic reforms make India relatively more attractive as an investment destination.

On the other hand, a Beijing less preoccupied with issues in its backyard will find it easier to project power elsewhere, including against India.

Geoeconomic opportunities are, thus, stacked against geopolitical risks. So unless New Delhi uses the space created by Saturday’s elections to rapidly scale up economic ties, India will have little upside from Ma’s success.
Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All Rights Reserved. [Business Standard]

Comments { 0 }

Karzai’s tightrope

Pakistan’s opposition to an autonomous Afghanistan is the problem

My op-ed in the Wall Street Journal Asia‘s symposium (Nov 15th, 2011):

As the Obama administration pushes for an earlier drawdown of U.S. troops, Kabul must quickly take responsibility for maintaining internal stability and charting an independent foreign policy. We asked four analysts—Michael O’Hanlon, Marin Strmecki, Amin Saikal and Nitin Pai—how Kabul should address the challenge.

The heart of Afghanistan’s problem is that its natural desire for autonomy provokes strong resistance from Pakistan. Islamabad perceives anything less than a satellite regime as inimical to its interests, in turn driving Kabul to seek autonomy by reaching out to India, Iran, Russia and China.

This vicious cycle of insecurity can be broken in two ways: reconfigure the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, or change geopolitical attitudes in Pakistan. The latter is decidedly more painless, but requires getting Pakistan’s generals to change their minds. It is not going to be easy.

Afghanistan then has to look for other solutions. To some extent, the Afghan state can look to New Delhi because India faces significant risks in the short term from a U.S. withdrawal.

Triumphant militants and their backers in the Pakistani military establishment, fresh from defeating a superpower, might decide to turn their attention to Kashmir. This is what happened in the early 1990s when Pakistani and other foreign veterans of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan edged out local militants in the Kashmir valley and began one of the most violent phases of Pakistan’s proxy war.

Hence India doesn’t want a repeat of the 1990s. There is however a sense in New Delhi that 2011 is not 1991. Only the most credulous today accept Pakistani denials that it does not use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy. The good news then is that international pressure on Pakistan is likely to persist even after U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.

Even so, New Delhi is hedging in four ways. First, as the recent agreements signed by President Karzai and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh show, India intends to further bolster the capacity of the Afghan state to provide for its own security. Training Afghan troops allows India the flexibility to raise or lower its security investments, depending on circumstances.

Second, India is strengthening its relationships with Afghan political formations opposed to the Taliban. Third, it is attempting to improve bilateral relations with Pakistan, to the extent possible. Fourth, New Delhi is cooperating with other nations to keep the conflict contained within Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Kabul has its own internal problems that bedevil its foreign policy. The strategic logic in Mr. Karzai’s attempts at striking a balance in Afghanistan’s relations with its neighbors has been often overshadowed by the perception that his actions are mercurial and clumsy. That means his new friends in New Delhi, Beijing or in Moscow—with whom he is trying to get closer—may look at him with some wariness.

What’s more, Mr. Karzai is keeping the Pakistani channel open at the same time. In this he faces determined domestic opposition from quarters that disapprove of his dalliances with Pakistan and its proxies. All of this makes for a heart-stopping tightrope act.

Mr. Pai is founder of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank.

Copyright © 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Comments { 0 }