What’s the Korean for Parakram?

What North Korea is doing to South Korea is quite similar to Pakistan’s strategy with respect to India—carry out provocative acts of aggression under the umbrella of nuclear weapons in a bid to coerce the victim into making political concessions. It’s called a stability/instability paradox, in that while nuclear weapons create stability at one level, they allow the weaker, less risk-averse player to rock the boat with impunity. [See a related post by Joshua Pollack over at Arms Control Wonk]

The Pakistani military-jihadi complex uses terrorism. The North Korean regime sinks South Korean ships and fires artillery shells at civilian targets.

Interestingly, the manner in which South Korea and its ally, the United States, have responded so far is reminiscent of India’s response after Pakistani terrorists attacked the Indian parliament in October 2001. India sent troops to the border. They are conducting naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. Galrahn reports that the United States is deploying another carrier strike group, led by USS Carl Vinson to the Western Pacific, adding to the military ‘mobilisation’. Because this involves ships moving over water it’s considerably faster than the Indian Army mobilising its formations over land to the India-Pakistan border, but it boils down to the same thing. A show of force, parakram or if Google is to be trusted, .

Will it work?

The business of mobilising military forces is as much due to action bias and audience benefit as it is to penalising the aggressor by increasing costs. Unless it is Manmohan Singh, governments must be seen doing something in the face of flagrant provocation. The domestic and international audiences must be persuaded that the government views the provocation as serious enough to warrant more than a verbal response. Mobilising troops to war-like positions is a good way to achieve these ends. The problem, however, is that this does not automatically ensure that the aggressor is made to suffer.

If there are no external sponsors, Pakistan or North Korea can’t sustain a troop mobilisation for too long. They enjoy asymmetry in costs–in absolute terms its cheaper for them to maintain troops on alert than for their adversaries, India and South Korea & the United States respectively. However, their relative ability to sustain such expenditure is much shorter. Even if Kim Jong Il drives unpaid conscripts to stay at the border, they’ll die if they run out of food and their equipment will stop working if they run out of fuel.

But there are external sponsors. The United States bailed a bankrupt Pakistani state out in 2002 and China continues to maintain the bluff that Pyongyang’s irrationality is the reason why it needs to continue to sustain the North Korean regime. Whatever punitive costs Pakistan incurred was more than made up by US largesse. Similarly, whatever costs the US-South Korean deployment in the Yellow Sea imposes on North Korea will be covered by the funds China pumps into Pyongyang.

The value of Parakram-like mobilisations lies in their ability to enable coercive diplomacy. To the extent that the external scaffolds release pressure on North Korea and Pakistan, coercion is undermined. So too the fortunes of diplomacy.

One of the weaknesses in the theoretical studies of the “stability/instability paradox” is that it restricts the analysis to the two direct players. A smaller, weaker state cannot afford to be aggressive and adventurous unless it has the support of a big power. Once we recognise this, it becomes clearer how it is possible to check Pakistan and North Korea—as I wrote in my Pax Indica column, go after the scaffolders.

In the current Korean crisis, Washington, Seoul and the rest of the international community should just call Beijing’s bluff.

Related Link:There’s a disputed boundary in the Korean case too.

It’s not transactional, stupid!

Obama’s visit to India is a sign of the symbolism that characterises a strategic relationship

People are missing the point.

It doesn’t require the US president to come all the way to India to sell military equipment, make a case for reforming the UN security council, remove hurdles for high-technology co-operation, or indeed, as White House officials tried to project last week, encourage Indian companies to create jobs in the United States.

Such issues are negotiated by the minions, need bureaucratic and political consensus on both sides and are settled at their own pace. Official visits and summits between heads of state at best impose artificial deadlines and can be used to inject urgency into the negotiating machines. We saw it a few years ago when the India-US nuclear deal was pushed through in time for a Bush-Manmohan Singh summit.

Those who measure the significance and success of Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to India through the prism of deals signed and statements made miss the fact that the India-US relationship is strategic, not transactional. Ironically, the strategic nature of the relationship was sealed by a transaction—the nuclear deal—leading many to expect more of the same. Now, there are good reasons for the Indian government to purchase US military aircraft, but not doing so isn’t about to wreck the bilateral relationship. Similarly, there are good reasons for Mr Obama to declare support for India’s place in a reformed UN Security Council, but other than disappointing his hosts, he won’t do much damage if he skips this topic.

For the first time in more than 50 years, the interests of the United States and India are converging geopolitically, geo-economically and, to coin a phrase, geo-democratically. As K Subrahmanyam points out succinctly, the United States needs India to counter China’s rising power. Likewise, India needs a strong United States, not to ally with, but for its own reasons of swing. This is as true from the economic perspective as it is from a political one. [Also see this CNAS report] Most importantly, India and the United States are mutually popular—the bottom-up factor is a powerful driver of closer bilateral relations.

It’s very hard to measure the extent of strategic relationships. Signing of business or arms deals are poor proxies. That’s where symbolism comes in. Obama has no real business to do in India. Yet he is coming. Sure, he’ll do some business when he’s here, but none that absolutely requires his presence. It’s symbolic and it counts.

For that reason Barack Obama will have a very successful trip to India next week. He just has to turn up.

Related Links: Articles in Pragati: Partnerships are made by bureaucracies – by Nicholas Gvosdev; and What’s the big idea? by Dhruva Jaishankar.

Double talk on double-digit

India doesn’t need to buy peace from its neighbours to sustain economic growth

At a talk I gave recently, one person asked if the numerous crises in India’s immediate neighbourhood limit India’s growth. This was some time after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, at a press conference in May, asserted that “India would be unable to realise its full economic potential if it couldn’t reduce tensions with its neighbours, especially Pakistan”.

“Not at the moment, and not for the foreseeable future” I replied, “because the biggest bottlenecks to sustainable economic growth are domestic.” Only after the most important reforms—creating a national common market, unshackling agriculture, liberalising labour laws and fixing the education system—run their course might the situation in the neighbourhood begin to matter.

In a recent paper demographics and India’s labour force, Tushar Poddar and Pragyan Deb of Goldman Sachs estimate that they see the Indian economy growing at a base rate of 8% per annum. With the required reforms, the growth rate will increase to 9%. With wrong policies, there is a risk that the growth rate will fall to 6.5%. [See recent articles by Niranjan Rajadhyaksha & V Anantha Nageswaran for a discussion on sustaining high growth rates].

The neighbourhood doesn’t register much in these assessments. In fact, Dr Singh himself concedes as much. “A number of inherent strengths in the country’s economy,” he said this month “can contribute to rapid growth in the future and they should be harnessed to push up economic growth to double digits.” In other words, Dr Singh the economist contradicts Dr Singh the geopolitical strategist.

The prime minister’s concession underlines the simple fact the most brazen of Pakistan’s skulduggeries are but a pimple on the posterior of the India economy. You don’t need to have grand “composite dialogues” with Pakistan’s impotent politicians to sustain India’s economic growth.

On the contrary, the question for India’s neighbours is whether or not they want to benefit from India’s growth process? It’s their decision. Sri Lanka and now Bangladesh appear to have embarked on trajectories that make the most out of opportunities provided by both India and China. Pakistan—perhaps because its unaccountable elite are buttressed by liberal Western aid—is unconcerned with improving the lot of its own people. That is its own problem. This does not mean it is not in India’s interests to improve trade with its crisis-ridden neighbour. It only means that it won’t hurt the Indian economy much if it doesn’t happen.

Once the Indian economy exhausts all the potential from the necessary next wave of reforms the condition of the neighbourhood might begin to impose constraints on its further growth. That point is at least two decades away. And it is by no means certain that it’ll matter even then, for it is possible that the neighbourhood will matter even less.

The Sonia Gandhi-led Congress Party is equivocal (okay, very unwilling) on using its political capital to carry out the reforms that are necessary for sustainable double-digit growth. Dr Singh is committed to losing his political capital on pursuing talks with Pakistan that are unnecessary for that purpose. Don’t be fooled.

From the archives: The Reagan Parallel, June 2004

What G K Pillai achieved

Highlighting the futility of engaging Pakistan’s civilian officials is a good thing

“(People) on the Indian side need to ask” writes Siddharth Varadarajan in The Hindu “what the home secretary hoped to achieve by saying the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate of the Pakistan army had been involved in 26/11 “from the beginning till the end.”” To Mr Varadarajan it is neither the outrageousness of the Pakistani negotiating line nor the obnoxiousness of the Pakistani foreign minister’s behaviour that is the problem—it is India’s refusal to set aside Pakistan’s complicity and stonewalling on 26/11 and “indulge Pakistan’s desire for official talks on Kashmir, Siachen and other ‘core issues'”.

It is generally a good thing that the Indian media has the space to present alternative viewpoints. That said, Mr Varadarajan’s criticism has a fundamental flaw. It is no longer tenable—as he contends—that talking to the motley bunch of smug, self-important men who occupy offices in Islamabad will somehow strengthen the “civilian government” of Pakistan. There was a time between the time when the PPP’s election victory in early 2008 and the terrorist attacks on Mumbai in November 2008 when the argument would have made sense. But 26/11 was an effective coup against the Asif Ali Zardari’s seemingly conciliatory policies [See Kayani wins this round]. Since then it is the Pakistani army that controls the foreign & security policies—as evidenced by the fact that the United States directly deals with General Kayani on these subjects.

In the face of this reality, is Mr Varadarajan seriously saying that handing an odd, inconsequential lollipop to Shah Mahmood Qureshi will so much as make a dent in the military establishment’s hold on power? As a corollary, is strengthening Pakistan’s civilian government so much in India’s interests as to make substantive concessions on bilateral issues? Clearly, not.

Therein lies the answer to Mr Varadarajan’s question on what G K Pillai’s remarks achieved. Unless it is Mr Varadarajan’s case that talks between India & Pakistan must be held while keeping the Indian citizen in the dark, then Mr Pillai’s revelation had the important effect of tempering expectations. Had he remained silent on this vital bit of information, he would have been unfair to the External Affairs Minister who would have been expected to get Pakistan’s impotent civilian officials to take on people connected to the ISI. [See Please change the channel]

The genuineness of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s commitment to leave a legacy of improved relations with Pakistan is without doubt. The problem is he does not have a counterpart on the other side who shares the same vision. Given this objective reality, Dr Singh should pause and put his project in cold storage. For him to move forward in the face of a firmly entrenched military-jihadi complex is likely to result in an entirely different sort of legacy…one that he wouldn’t want to be associated with.

Please change the channel

New Delhi should realise that it can’t do business with the impotent, flippant and tiresome characters in Islamabad.

Let’s face it: After Asif Ali Zardari was marginalised by the Pakistani military-jihadi complex through the device of the 26/11 attack on Mumbai there is no purpose—save ‘political rationality’—in talking to the motley bunch of slick political operators that pass off as the Pakistani government. Their lack of empowerment to make any foreign policy or security-related decisions is masked and matched by their proclivity to say outrageous things that might score points with the military-jihadi complex.

It’s not about ‘trust deficit’ as it is made out to be. If a shady character promises to sell you the New Delhi Airport’s Terminal 3, you will be wrong to think that the deal is doable if only the trust deficit—if shady character were somehow less shady—is reduced. Yet that is exactly what Dr Manmohan Singh’s government is doing. Forget dismantling terrorist networks, the Pakistani government can’t even file charges against Hafiz Mohammed Saeed in just one case of terrorism directed against India.

When the Pakistani delegation asks for a timeline for the resolution of Kashmir, Sir Creek and other boundary issues in return for a timeline for the prosecution of those accused in the 26/11 attacks, it shows how powerless its negotiators are. That they had to have a long break suggests that they had to consult people not in the same building.

That said, that Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Pakistan’s foreign minister, should repeatedly defend the Lashkar-e-Taiba shows that the problem goes beyond the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. When asked about India’s demand for action against the LeT chief in April, during the SAARC summit in Thimphu, he dismissed it as the “same old beaten track.” He did worse yesterday, by comparing Mr Saeed’s anti-India vitriol to the Indian home secretary’s comment that the ISI was responsible for 26/11. It is as if he is the foreign minister of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. [See Smita Prakash’s report]

New Delhi must communicate with the Pakistani centres of power: but its language, instruments and channels must change. People like Mr Qureshi are just so tiresome.

Talks and action bias

Why India-Pakistan ‘talks’ are like penalty kicks in football

In a study published in 2009, Michael Bar-Eli, Ofer H Azar, and Yotam Lurie found that when it came to penalty kicks in football, the optimal strategy for the goalkeeper was to stay put (and not dive in either direction). For the kicker, the optimal strategy was to target the upper third of the goal. Yet, in the matches they analysed, goalkeepers almost always dived and kickers did not consistently aim at the upper-third.

The researchers attribute this to “action bias.” Goalkeepers dive because it is easier to be seen as trying and failing. Kickers would rather be seen as having been stopped by the goalkeeper rather than having missed the goal entirely. Mr Bar-Eli & Co propose “that such decision makers’ behavior be reconceived as ‘socially rational,’ in the sense that their social environment seems to be incorporated into their utility functions.” [linkthanks Harsh Gupta]

Why are we discussing football? Well, because the behaviour of governments of India and Pakistan when it comes to bilateral relations is not unlike that of the footballers during a penalty kick.

Like the goalkeeper, the Indian government is better off staying still—focusing on liberalising the economy, accumulating power and engaging in robust counter-terrorism. Yet, New Delhi dives spectacularly into summits, composite talks and joint mechanisms, that actually don’t really make a difference. They do create an appearance that the Indian government is actually doing something about Pakistan.

Like the kicker, the Pakistani government is better off aiming at the upper-third—deradicalising its own society, dismantling the military-jihadi complex and otherwise stop burning down its own house. Yet, Islamabad kicks the ball into the India’s hands—finding reasons to blame India for Kashmir, the Indus waters, Balochistan and Afghanistan (actually detailed in the form of a wish-list submitted to Washington).

We propose that decision makers’ behavior be reconceived as ‘politically rational,’ in the sense that their political environment seems to be incorporated into their utility functions.

Sunday Levity: The Swami and the Emperor of China

Elixir of Long Life and the recipe for sugar

In The Real Tripitaka: and other pieces Arthur Waley narrates an interesting episode, a side-story in the aftermath of the first armed conflict between Chinese and Indian forces (see these two posts for the background).

In the summer of 648 the Chinese envoy Wang Xuance returned from India bringing with him a king and an alchemist. The adventures of this mission well illustrate the buccaneering spirit of early Tang diplomats. On arriving in Central India in 647 Wang Xuance discovered that King Harsha had died some months before. After his death great disorder broke out in Central India and eventually the throne was seized by a vassal raja named King Arjuna, who refused to see the Chinese Mission.

Wang Xuance with thirty mounted followers tried to battle his way to the capital. The Chinese fought till they had shot their last arrow and were then captured, along with the presents that various rajas had asked them to take back to the Chinese Emperor. Wang Xuance and his assistant Chiang Shih-jen managed to escape from captivity, reached Tibet, and there recruited a force of twelve hundred picked men, no donut through the good offices of the Chinese princess who was one of the king of Tibet’s wives.

With these and some seven thousand Nepalese cavalry he returned to India, routed the armies of King Arjuna, captured the king, together with a vast booty, and returned to China bringing with him not only King Arjuna, but…a magician named Narayanaswami, who claimed to be two hundred years old himself and to be able to produce (for the benefit of others) an Elixir of Long Life.

The Emperor (Taizong) was much interested, and allotted him a special apartment in the Palace, where he was to pursue his alchemical experiments. No less a person than Tsui Tun-li, the Minister for War, was made responsible for seeing that he was supplied with the necessary ingredients and helpers. The emperor took his first dose of Elixir in the autumn of 648, and the tenth day of the eighth month he wrote to the alchemist: ‘Since I tool the drug I have gradually begun to lose the feeling of heaviness in my hands and feet and I hope that if I go on looking after myself carefully I shall get rid of it altogether … but my fate depends on the result of further doses. I hope I may count on attaining a great age and look forward with certainty to far outliving my generation, without any change in my appearance; also my white hair is turning black again and my worn-out body losing its infirmities and becoming stronger than ever. Do you think these hopes are justified? Please tell me quite frankly. I have the highest regard for your noble art.’

There seems to be no doubt that the Emperor’s health did improve considerably, and one might have expected that Narayanaswami would have got full credit for the improvement. However, in an edict in the ninth month, ordering the enrollment of 18,500 fresh monks and nuns, the Emperor says: ‘In the recent campaign I was exposed to wind and frost, and often spent the night on horseback. I was given some drugs, but did not, while I was taking them, recover completely. Recently, however, I have entirely regained my health, and am convinced that this is due to the pious works I have been undertaking.’

The magician was told that he might go back to India, but did not avail himself of the permission and soon afterwards discredited his art by dying in Chang-an. [Arthur Waley/The Real Tripitaka: and other stories, pp 95-96. ]

Elsewhere in the book, Waley writes that while Harsha had sent an envoy to Taizong after being impressed with the itinerant monk Xuanzhang, the reciprocal embassy “was commercial as well as diplomatic.” Wang Xuance had been “instructed to obtain the Indian recipe for making sugar. The great Chinese centre of sugarcane growing was at Yangchow, and the sugar made there according to the recipe soon (we are told) excelled that of India.” (pp 78-79)

Those masterly Persians

Lula and Erdogan have cleared Tehran’s clouds

In approximately one year two men will have red faces. That’s when the world will know that Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were suckered by the leaders of Iran.

It took Iran around 8 months to double its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU), half of which it has now agreed to swap for 20% enriched uranium under a deal brokered by the Brazilian and Turkish leaders. That still leaves it with 1200 kg of LEU, an unrestrained capacity to continue working its centrifuges and, possibly, clandestine facilities where it can produce weapons-grade uranium. In other words, Iran can get as close to building a nuclear bomb as it wishes to. Further, to the extent that that deal takes the international pressure off Iran it gives Tehran the time it needs to get closer to its self-defined finish line.

There’s more.

For now, Brazil and Turkey have avoided getting into a difficult position having to vote against Iran at the UN Security Council where they are currently non-permanent members. Since it was the Obama administration once floated the proposal for such a swap, the United States will find it hard to oppose it now, despite the facts having changed substantially since last October when it first mooted the idea. China will heave a sigh of relief too, since it too will not need to support tougher sanctions against Tehran. Everyone—other than the United States—wins. For now.

As we know from the North Korean story, what Iran needs most is time and diplomatic space. That, thanks now to Messrs Lula and Erdogan, it has acquired.

After that, it will be fait accompli.

When talks are “free and frank”

…they stopped short of coming to blows

So much have we become accustomed to Dr Manmohan Singh delivering lollipops to his Pakistani ‘counterpart’ at sidelines of multilateral meetings that this time, in Thimphu, when all he agreed was that “the show must go on”, a surreptitious sigh of relief is excusable.

After the meeting, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said that the “Prime Ministers held very good talks in a free and frank manner”. Actually that’s good to hear. “Free” probably means that there was disagreement on the agenda. “Frank” means that the events in the meeting ranged from debate, to disagreement, to a form of behaviour that stops short of actual violence against the counterpart (matter in inanimate objects, however, might get radically rearranged).

This meeting was unnecessary. As Polaris wrote, the Indian delegation should have told the meticulously Pakistanis who turned up in Bhutan to “take us to your leaders”.

Talk time

Why India’s offer of talks with Pakistan might not be that bad

So India has offered Pakistan “open-ended talks on all outstanding issues affecting peace and security”, emphasising counter-terrorism, at the level of the foreign secretaries. The offer was made two weeks ago and Pakistan is yet to respond. Also, Siddharth Varadarajan reports that “this is the second time in three months that India has proposed an official-level meeting.” For a government that has been incessantly chanting “dialogue must be resumed”, Islamabad seems reluctant to take up the offer. Now that India’s offer is in public, it will be harder for Pakistan to remain reluctant and continue its chanting.

It is not hard to find fault with the UPA government’s decision to resume bilateral negotiations even as Pakistan continues to brazenly avoid taking action against the instigators of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. First, the Zardari-Gilani government will project it as yet another political triumph. This will reinforce the state of denial in Pakistani society. Second, the dialogue process itself is unlikely to yield anything substantial in terms of resolving bilateral disputes. The military-jihadi complex has vested interests in creating new disputes—river water sharing, for instance—not in resolving old ones. It is unlikely that the back channel near-deal on Kashmir discussed during General Musharraf’s final months can be concluded now. Third, it will reinforce the military-jihadi complex’s conviction that India does not have credible instruments of retaliation even in the face of highly provocative acts of terrorism like 26/11. This will raise the risks of more such attacks against India.

So was India’s decision foolish? Was it a result of “US pressure”? While the case against resuming the dialogue with Pakistan is solid, there is also a case for it. Why? Because Pakistan has been offering bilateral tensions with India as the excuse for not fighting the taliban in its own territory. The excuse is ridiculous in the presence of nuclear deterrence, but when has logical inconsistency and factual inaccuracy stopped Pakistan? The Obama administration is not without its own sad combination of inexperience and opinionatedness, resulting in some of its quarters taking Pakistani protestations at face value.

It will be much harder for Pakistan to use the excuse if, hey, “open-ended talks on all outstanding issues” are in progress.

There is, however, a caveat. This policy of destroying Pakistan’s excuses—and acting as an anvil—makes sense only if the UPA government has the intention, capacity and will to compel the United States to hammer the military-jihadi complex. If it doesn’t, then, like similar events in history, India’s decision will be nothing other than folly.

Related Post: Operation Markarap