On Aamir Khan’s decision to carry the torch

There are good reasons to carry the Olympic torch. Aamir Khan gave the worst one.

Aamir Khan, it has been reported, has turned down pleas by Tibetan refugees, fans, friends and some members of his family not to carry the Olympic torch on its Indian leg on April 17th.

His decision is in sharp contrast to that of Baichung Bhutia, the Indian football captain. Mr Bhutia pulled out of the programme as a personal protest against the China’s handling of the protests in Tibet.

It is not at all surprising that Mr Bhutia’s decision was hailed as heroic, and Mr Khan’s criticised. Indeed, if Mr Khan had only justified his decision based on the need for an Indian citizen to respect the Olympic spirit on the grounds that the Olympics ought to transcend politics, like Kiran Bedi did, his decision too would have been praiseworthy. It would have invoked the Longbottom principle.

Unfortunately, Mr Khan went on to justify his decision by belittling his own country. As B Raman writes in an open letter to Mr Khan, and as The Acorn pointed out when M K Bhadrakumar made a similar argument a few days ago, it takes a particular form of moral deficiency to equate China and India and the way they deal with disaffected citizens.

There can only be contempt for those who draw this specious analogy and hide behind the I-am-against-any-form-of-violence amoral pacifism.

That Aamir Khan made this comparison should disqualify him from carrying the torch on behalf of India. The torch should be carried by those who are proud of the values that India stands for.

Shame on you, Mr Khan.

Update: Aamir Khan is carrying the torch on behalf of the Coca Cola Company, and not a representative of India. The difference is important. It is a decision between him and his corporate sponsor. Given his repugnant perception of his own country’s values, it should only be a good thing that he is not “officially” representing India. But this does not mean that his comments are any less excusable.

Would you spare us the briefings!

The more China puts pressure on India over the Tibetan protests, the more it harms bilateral relations

First, the Chinese prime minister issued a veiled threat. Then Beijing’s equivalent of the NSA ‘briefed’ his Indian counterpart. Then they woke up the Indian ambassador at 2am to ‘brief’ her. And now Yang Jiechi, China’s foreign minister ‘briefed’ his Indian counterpart. It is normal for top leaders to talk to each other on the telephone. But when reports of such conversations are released to the public through the media, it is not merely a business-like conversation on the issues at hand. It’s a signal.

It’s boring to read these reports. China briefs India, India reiterates that Tibet is a part of China, China asks India to prevent the Dalai clique from engaging in politics, India responds that this has always been the way, and so on.

In this case, the UPA government has bent over backwards to accomodate China’s demands. It prevented Tibetans from protesting peacefully. And now, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee felt the need to publicly warn the Dalai Lama from engaging in “any political activity that can adversely affect the relations between India and China” (linkthanks Ajit Joshi). Given that from China’s perspective the Dalai Lama’s mere presence adversely affects bilateral relations, Mr Mukherjee’s warning is absurd. It too is a signal.

It is a signal that makes it plain that India is succumbing to China’s armtwisting. Now, it may well be that Beijing believes that treating bilateral relations with such disdain is somehow alright. That is a profound mistake. India will remain China’s neighbour even after the Olympics. Beijing’s hamfisted approach has already caused damage to bilateral relations. Even if the episode does not get worse, it has become much more difficult for any Indian government—even a spineless one as this—to make any substantive moves on bilateral issues.

China would do well to understand that both sides have vested interests in stability of bilateral relations, and spare Indian officials these repeated ‘briefings’. Beijing should understand that if relations turn worse on account of its graceless handling of relations with India in the wake of the Tibetan protests, it has only itself to blame.

One China Policy

There isn’t one.

This post was first published in November 2006. As it is pertinent to the current situation it is reproduced here, almost in its entirety

In the debate over China, many of those with any experience actually dealing with China on political issues had advised caution. Many of those whose primary experience of China has been through trade and investment advocated closer ties. The oversimplified question on everyone’s lips was a cliche: Is China a friend or foe? That, though, is a wrong question to ask. The inherent anthropomorphism in the framing of this question confuses the issue, for relations between states are not like relations between people.

The essential fact is that on a fundamental level two powers as large and as proximate as China and India cannot rise without competition. And in most spheres of this competition, it is India that is catching up.

Three games
There is competition for regional and global influence: China is taking leadership in regional groupings where it has been a member, and entering groupings where it has not. It is now the most important member in East and Central Asian groupings. It has secured a good foothold in South Asia. And it is knocking on the doors of Africa. India, on the other hand, has secured a greater role for itself in South East Asia, where it has been welcomed because it can help balance China’s influence. Japan too has recognised that India will be a necessary element of the balance of power in East Asia. [See Harsh Pant’s piece in the April 2008 issue of Pragati]

Then there is competition in the quest for energy sources and, soon, natural resources. Here too, China is ahead, but India has begun to up its game in energy diplomacy. The two are already competing in securing fossil fuels. With the India-US deal bringing India into the nuclear mainstream, the competition will extend to securing nuclear fuel too. This decade will also see the two countries on a worldwide hunt for natural resources as their economy develops.

And of course, there is competition for investment and trade, which will only intensify as China becomes proficient in the English language and India gets its manufacturing act together.

…three strategies
So yes, there’s a contest going on all right. This does not, however, call for visceral hostility. Each competition has its rules. They cannot be wished away. This is a moment of profound change in the global balance of power and India would do well to play the game according to what the rules are (and not, as in the past, according to what the rules ought to be). China’s objective—couched as it may be in the language of ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious world’—is to become the pre-eminent power in Asia. It is a game that requires China to improve its relative power. There are two strategies for winning: one, for China to develop its own power; and two, for China to contain its competitors. The principal challenge for India will be to counter this. Nuclear weapons have made it unlikely that the contest will escalate to war. It is necessary to invest in maintaining the conventional and nuclear deterrence to keep it that way. They may be important in their own right, but Tibet, Tawang (i.e. the border issue) and Taiwan are both instruments and shock absorbers in this geopolitical game.

On the surface, the energy and resources game is zero-sum, and for that reason, the prudent strategy for both parties is to compete with each other. There may be scope for co-operation; but such co-operation will not be in India’s favour until it is able to negotiate with China on a peer-to-peer basis. At this time, India should focus on closing the gap, though not necessarily taking the same route as China.

It is a matter of basic economics that greater trade and investment will leave both countries better off. The rules of the game here are entirely different from the rules of the geopolitical or the energy game. There is no good reason—not even ‘national security’—for restricting trade with and investment from China. Those concerned with national security must adapt to the contemporary era of information abundance. Although this is changing, the Indian government is playing the geo-economic game according to geopolitical rules (and perhaps, vice versa).

The upshot is that India will have to counter China’s geopolitical moves, keep pace in the quest for natural resources and engage China in trade. There is, in the end, no simple one China policy.

The Economist can’t decide where Sikkim belongs?

Is there a method to its cartographical inconsistency?

In defence of its editorial policy on the maps it publishes alongside its articles, in September 2007 the Economist wrote “we use maps not to portray the world as it ought to be, or even as we would like it to be, but as it is.” Reassuring readers that it bore no malice about its maps of Jammu & Kashmir, it wrote “in using “the line of control” that divides Kashmir in the absence of an agreed international frontier we are merely noting the status quo, not endorsing it.”

So let’s look at its maps of the India-China border.

The most informative of the maps of the border regions came in May 1999 (although giving India and China the same colour allows a degree of chickening out, as Sikkim is both marked out but not coloured as being disputed)

Courtesy: The Economist

Maps from June and July 2003 are consistent with the Economist’s own stated policy: they note the status quo.

Courtesy: The EconomistCourtesy: The Economist

Its special annual publication, the World in 2007, published in late 2006, reported that “China now recognises the Himalayan state of Sikkim as India’s territory”. The accompanying map reflected this position.

And now in March 2008, the we find a change in the ‘status quo’: the Indian state of Sikkim has been painted in Chinese colours.

Courtesy: The Economist

Now unless the Economist knows something about the status quo that it is not letting on, it has clearly run foul of its own policy. If there is no cartographical conspiracy here, then is the Economist—unconsciously or otherwise—being a little too eager to please Beijing?

Doing it at ungodly hours

China’s unfriendliness is revealing

A sign of the nature of a relationship between countries is the manner in which they officially communicate displeasure. So when the Chinese government calls in the Indian ambassador at 2am, to hand her details of plans by Tibetan protesters to disrupt the movement of the Olympic torch in India, you know what the Chinese think about the nature of bilateral relationship. China might have reason to be angry. That it chose to be demonstrate unfriendliness reveals that it believes the proper way to handle India is through overreaction and bullying.

India responded by cancelling Commerce Minister Kamal Nath’s trip to China. The unwritten rules of the game would have suggested tit-for-tat: that the Chinese ambassador be summoned at 2am and handed some inane document. (But where’s the joy is having to meet a Chinese diplomat at 2am? Asking Mr Kamal Nath to cancel his tickets was easier. In any case, the Chinese ambassador, expecting to be called in at an ungodly hour, must have spent the night in his suit, waiting for the call that didn’t come. Not calling him, arguably, was more punishing than calling him in)

China has escalated its diplomatic offensive. The first round was when Premier Wen Jiabao issued a disguised warning. In the second round, the disguise has come off. But it’s a bad move: as the UPA government’s decision to call off Kamal Nath’s trip shows, bullying is the worst strategy China could take against India. Even its mouthpieces can’t generate enough propaganda to prevent public opinion from massively turning against Beijing. China would do well to conduct its business at normal working hours.

Update: Read Tarun Vijay’s op-ed

Enter the hatchet man

The Hindu returns to mislead, obfuscate and yes, bat for Beijing

As expected, the The Hindu has published an entirely one-sided editorial supporting Beijing and condemning the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans. Why it took so long to come might not even be a mystery, in this age of instantaneous international communications, considering that Beijing decided to go on the media offensive after an initial period of censorship and silence. Now that The Hindu should take a pro-Beijing editorial line is acceptable, even if it is extremely disagreeable.

What is especially flagrant about the newspaper’s recent coverage is an insidious, misleading and grossly flawed attempt to cast China’s repression of Tibet favourably in comparison to various political conflicts in India.

If you go by western media reports, the propaganda of the so-called ‘Tibetan government-in-exile’…Tibet is in the throes of a mass democratic uprising against Han Chinese communist rule…The reality is that the riot that broke out in Lhasa on March 14 and claimed a confirmed toll of 22 lives involved violent, ransacking mobs, including 300 militant monks from the Drepung Monastery, who marched in tandem with a foiled ‘March to Tibet’ by groups of monks across the border in India…There was violence also in Tibetan ethnic areas in the adjacent provinces of Gansu and Sichuan, which, according to official estimates, took an injury toll of more than 700. [The Hindu]

There’s intellectual dishonesty right from the start. The editorial begins by conflating the uprising with non-violent protests and implies that because there was violence, reports of an uprising are mere propaganda. The earliest international media reports, filed by The Economist’s James Miles, who ‘just happened to be in Lhasa‘ reported violence. Acknowledging this, the Dalai Lama himself has gone to the extreme of threatening to step down if violence continued. The fact that the protests turned violent is not disputed. What the The Hindu needs to explain is that if the Tibetan protests were not for freedom then what were they for? Surely, the violent, ransacking mobs were not out on the streets protesting against inflation!
Continue reading “Enter the hatchet man”

John 8:7 does not apply to international relations

Perfection is not a pre-requisite for expressing concerns over China’s treatment of Tibetans

M K Bhadrakumar’s op-ed in The Hindu criticising India’s response to China’s handling of the Tibetan protests is bizarre. It is bizarre because despite being a former diplomat, he appears to argue that foreign policies ought to be free of double (or multiple) standards, and only perfect states can criticise others.

One does not have to be a practitioner of diplomacy to comprehend that the UPA government was advising China one or two things about how to set its house in order in Tibet. Evidently, our government is highly experienced in tackling political violence that regularly rocks our country and the Chinese government could learn a few useful things from the UPA. After all, in something like 150 districts in India, the writ of the Indian state no longer runs. Yet Beijing could see, our leadership calls the problem a mere “virus.” [The Hindu]

Mr Bhadrakumar’s implies that India has no right to criticise China’s handling of Tibetan protests because of its own failure to tackle Maoist political violence in the country. This argument is flawed at many levels. For one, India has never used violence against any political movement that is non-violent. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should equate the Maoists (for whom armed struggle is an article of faith) with the Tibetans (for whom non-violence is the article of faith). It defies imagination that he should equate India, a democracy with universal suffrage with China, a dictatorship where Tibetans (and non-Tibetans) do not have political rights.

It defies imagination that he should equate India, which still accords special statuses and prevents demographic change in states suffering from separatist violence with China, where transmigration is official policy and a ground reality. And it defies imagination that he should equate India, whose constitution protects religious minorities and whose governments go out of the way to pander to them, with China, which sees them as ‘primitive’ and in need of ‘modernisation’. In a world of imperfect states and imperfect governments, if there is a country that has moral right to speak to China, it is India. Ask Pallavi Aiyar.

Matt. 7:1 doesn’t apply either

The problem is that such vacuity and double standards can easily boomerang. Curiously, just as South Block was pontificating on how China should govern Tibet, a cable was landing in our foreign policy establishment informing it that the 60-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) at its summit meeting in Dakar, Senegal, adopted a devastatingly critical resolution on Jammu & Kashmir. Of course, this is not the first time that the OIC has done this. But the latest condemnation calling for the right of self-determination for the Kashmiri people has been unusually strong. Among others, Foreign Ministers of friendly countries such as Turkey, Tajikistan, and Saudi Arabia expressed their anguish over the “plight” of Kashmiris in “Indian-occupied Kashmir.” [The Hindu]

Mr Bhadrakumar then points to the OIC’s recent escalation of rhetoric on Jammu & Kashmir and cites it as an example of such ‘double standards’ boomeranging. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should think that the OIC’s criticism of India over Jammu & Kashmir was influenced by India’s position over Tibet. It defies imagination that Mr Bhadrakumar should believe that the OIC would pipe down its criticism if only India would remain silent on Tibet. It defies imagination that he should think that India should take the OIC more seriously merely because the Russia and the United States are doing so. It defies imagination the yardsticks he uses to define countries as ‘friendly’.

Now there is a reasonable argument—and one that The Acorn subscribes to—that India must refrain from going overboard in its support for the Tibetan protests lest this issue upset broader relations with China. But Mr Bhadrakumar defies imagination by holding the Indian government guilty of doing too much already. That’s really being holier than the Pope, for China itself has not registered even displeasure at India’s positions. Well, not through its official channels, at least.

Pelosi should have stayed in Washington

The useless (to the Tibetans) charade of visiting the Dalai Lama

“If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out about Chinese repression in China and Tibet” Nancy Pelosi said, “we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world”.

She may not be exaggerating. But the issue is not about the freedom-loving people of the world, who are already speaking up against Chinese repression in Tibet. The issue is of ostensibly freedom-loving governments and political leaders of the world, who are not. It is all very well for the Speaker of the US House of Representatives to travel half-way around the world and stand beside the Dalai Lama at this time. It plays well to the world’s television cameras and to Ms Pelosi’s constituents back in America. But by way of meaningful support for the Tibetan struggle, it means little. On the contrary, it will allow China’s Communist party to project the Tibetan protests as part of an American conspiracy to shame China.

If she really wanted to support the Dalai Lama’s struggle, she needn’t even have made the trip to Dharamsala. Perhaps the US Congress could have adopted a stern resolution. Perhaps American congressmen could try and compel the Bush administration to be blunt in its criticism of China. And perhaps (yes, we’re stretching it), freedom-loving American legislators could compel the Bush administration to do something about it.

No, Ms Pelosi and US legislators are not doing that. Regardless of their sincerity, they are content to only put up another show of the dismal political theatre. At the Tibetans’ expense. Ms Pelosi could have spared us this act.

India can do better on Tibet

India muddled on the protests, but it must rethink its Tibet policy

When China’s prime minister said he “appreciated” the Indian government’s response to public protests by Tibetan refugees, many interpreted that he was sending over a note of thanks. But Wen Jiabao’s statement could actually have been a warning.

“The Tibetan issue is a very sensitive one in our relations with India,” Mr Wen was quoted as saying by AFP news agency. “We appreciate the position and the steps taken by the Indian government in handling Tibetan independence activities masterminded by the Dalai clique.” [‘BBC’]

It is the first sentence sets the context.

As The Acorn argued while criticising the decision to stop protesters from attempting to cross over into Tibet, there is room for India to take a position that is less deferential to China. Sumit Ganguly similarly condemns the Indian government for cracking down on peaceful protesters and notes that being seen as unwilling to offend China will make “India’s claims to great power status in Asia, let alone beyond, appear utterly hollow”.

In Brahma Chellaney’s opinion, “it is past time India reclaimed leverage by subtly changing its stance on Tibet.” He proposes three changes: first, that India must bring Tibet back into focus in bilateral negotiations, placing the onus on Beijing to make Tibet a political bridge between the two countries; second, that India should treat the Dalai Lama as an ally and plan for the time when he is no longer on the scene; and third, India should stop “gratuitously referring to Tibet as a part of China”.

Chennai rejects

Some opinions just can’t make it to the People’s Daily of Chennai

The Beijing correspondent of The Hindu can hardly be classified as a critic of the People’s Republic. But when Pallavi Aiyar wrote a piece that compared India and China that showed the latter in rather unfavourable light, she had to publish it in Asia Times Online, a Hong Kong (Special Administrative Region of China) based publication. It is understood that The Hindu, ‘India’s national newspaper’ declined to publish it. Oh! the irony.

In direct contradistinction to China, India’s polity has flourished precisely because of its ability to acknowledge difference. The very survival of India as a country, given the scope of its bewildering diversity, has been dependent on the possibility of dissent…

In China, regular lip service is also paid to the country’s own, considerable diversity. During the National People’s Congress’ annual session, for example, delegates representing China’s multiplicity of minorities swish around the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in their “ethnic” dresses. Beijing regularly talks of the religious freedoms enjoyed by the country’s Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.

But in fact, the fundamental tenet of China’s political philosophy is not diversity but uniformity. This homogeneity does not only extend itself to the tangible, such as architecture or the system of writing alone, but also to thought.

Even in the modern China of the 21st century where there are more Internet users than even in the United States, those who disagree with mainstream, officially sanctioned views outside of the parameters set by mainstream officially sanctioned debate, more often than not find themselves branded as dissidents – suspect, hunted, under threat.

The insistence on “harmony” as the only reality and inability to admit genuine differences in interest and opinions between the peoples of a country of the size and complexity of China is ultimately the country’s greatest weakness.

Talk of political reform in China continues to be bound by the “harmonious” parameters set by Hu Jintao, the president. The idea is that everyone’s interests and opinions are to be balanced and resolved without conflict…

For China’s authorities to simply deny the reality of the problem, blame all tension on an exiled leader and insist that the majority of Tibetans couldn’t be happier with the Communist Party’s harmonious policies, is self-defeating. [Asia Times]