The above was the title of a talk at the Subbu Forum, at IDSA, this evening by the West’s go-to Asian savant, Kishore Mahbubani, former Foreign Secretary of Singapore and currently Dean of the Lew Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. There was a big audience because everybody expected something novel, but they’d have been disappointed. “Cunning”, a word Mahbubani conceded in the Indian context is “by definition evil”, in his telling, turns out to be an inapt word to describe what in essence and substance is nothing more than hard-headed realpolitik that a few of us have been advocating for well nigh two decades now. His choice of the word cunning apparently serving his purpose of being “provocative” rather than being otherwise useful. His thesis that India needs to wisely use the geopolitical space that’s opened up with the international system poised between the ending of the 200-year old era of Western dominance and the emergence of an Asia-on-top world order by befriending China and not getting in too thick with the declining West is an unoriginal take on the unfolding global drama and the historical power shift to the East. His example of cunning: China’s supporting the US invasion of Iraq, winning President Bush’s gratitude enough for Washington to put the clamps on Taiwan’s move to declare itself a sovereign state while Beijing opened up access of the Taiwanese people to mainland China, thus solidifying China’s position on Taiwan and affording Beijing ten years of “peaceful rise” even as the US was got more and deeply embroiled militarily in the worsening Iraqi mess of its own creation. He suggested India adopt a similar strategy with Pakistan — open up people-to-people relations, and separating this from the govt-to-govt ties. Yes, fine, but will Islamabad allow this? A 2nd example of “cunning” — Japan’s nonproliferation rhetoric combined with the acquisition of capability that can beget Tokyo nuclear weapons in a few weeks. But this is well known.
His main theme was that New Delhi should cultivate both China and the US & the West, and play them off against each other using “cunning” (the word he repeated relentlessly until grated on the ear!) and that this would fetch India geopolitical “dividends”, But such policy is what the Manmohan Singh government and the NSA Shivshankar Menon helming its foreign policy can reasonably claim they have been pursuing in the past decade!
A more practical recommendation by him published in today’s Indian Express, which he repeated, is for India to jettison its efforts to gain membership to the UN Security Council as member of the Group of Four (India, Germany, Japan, and Brazil) for the obvious reasons that China’d veto Japan and the UN General Assembly would consider Germany’s inclusion (in addition to UK and France) excessive representation for Europe — precisely the reason, he said, why London and Paris are pushing for it, guaranteeing the failure of any such attempt to enlarge the SecC. Anecdote-wise, he recalled from his time as the Singaporean Permanent Representative at the UN HQrs in New York, how his Italian counterpart, Paolo Pucci (?) exasperatedly shouted in the meeting of the Open-ended Committee for Restructuring the Security Council, in the context of Japan’s and Germany’s membership membership case gaining some traction in the mid-1980s, that Italy too deserved a permanent Council seat because “ït too lost the War”!
Mabhbubani felt that India stands the best chance if it campaigned for a reconstitution of the council with 7 members — US, Russia, China, European Union (UK and French seats being merged), India (to join China as a second Asia rep), Brazil to represent Latin America, and Nigeria the continent of Africa. And another 15 states — such as Pakistan, Argentina, South Korea, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Egypt, etc accorded the status of semi-permanent members (chosen by population, GDP, etc), each of whom will thus be assured a Council seat every eight years, giving them a stake in this new UN system and making them more agreeable to supporting such structural changes.