New opportunities that will be wasted

Image result for pics of kovind and duterte

[Kovind and Duterte]

This past fortnight, I was away, participating in the Yushan Forum 2019 in Taipei — an annual effort by the Taiwanese government to forge regional partnerships in the face of unrelentingly punitive policies of the communist China regime to isolate Taiwan, and thence to Istanbul where I sensed considerable unease among the people about the turn Erdogan’s war with the Syrian Kurds may be taking, especially after the videos telecast by CNN showing wanton killings and other atrocities on unarmed civilian Kurds by the Turkish-supported militia in the van of the action. While Ankara, with its critical buy of the S-400 air defence system may have gained some slight capacity to water down Russia’s enthusiasm for the joint front comprising its new found partners — the indefatigable Kurds, and its old ally — Assad’s army, which’s fetching up for a fight, things on the ground may spiral out of its control.

But it is the right time for the Modi government to payback Erdogan’s gambit to insert himself and Turkey into Kashmir affairs by offering Delhi’s good offices for mediation with the Kurds. Of course, Delhi won’t do any such thing because its timorous policy mindset won’t allow it to.

It is precisely this timorousness, or may be it is plain timidity, that may also prevent Delhi from grabbing the opportunity available at the other end of Asia, in the Philippines. Among the most significant state visits in recent years by India’s leaders is the one underway by the country’s President, Ram Nath Kovind — only the third in the last 70 years, to the Philippines, a long neglected archipelagic state that a strategically challenged Delhi has accorded far less importance to than it deserves. This situation is sought to be corrected but whether sufficient seriousness, intensity and purpose will be summoned by the Modi government remains the central question.

In fact, the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a true maverick among regional leaders, who is as unpredictable as he is purposeful, referred candidly to the Indian government’s inattention despite Manila’s efforts at engaging it. Both countries, he noted, “are diversifying partnerships, rebalancing old ones and strengthening those that have traditionally been on the margins of our diplomacy.” But with the essence of the Hindustani phrase — “daer se aaye, durust aaye” perhaps in mind, he welcomed “India’s role in [Philippines’] defense capability upgrade program against the backdrop of our growing security cooperation” because as “countries strategically located in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, we [have] shared interest to protect our maritime commons and advance the rule of law in our maritime domains.”  But aware of Delhi’s inability to muster strategic focus, Duterte warned, albeit gently, that while “We hope to look back on this day as a milestone in our relations, the day when we set out to turn promise into reality, and potential into concrete benefits” it will require, he said, “a deft and agile diplomacy that empowers us to maximize opportunities for cooperation in a complex external environment.” ( https://www.tataydigong.info/duterte-president-of-india-agree-to-fight-terror-threats/ ) He thereby put his finger on a crucial Indian failing. “Deft and agile diplomacy” is, after all, not one of India’s strengths, or the country wouldn’t be in the dire strategic straits it finds itself in where China holds the whip hand.

Delhi may, however, be belatedly waking up to Philippines’ geostrategic usefulness in dealing with a rampaging China even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought not very successfully to inject a dose of Mamallapuram intimacy to the flagging Wuhan spirit. Unlike Modi, Xi Jinping, however, limits the nonsense about peacefully concerting with an obvious and manifest rival only to rhetoric, which costs him nothing, but leaves him free to pursue China’s interests without compromising them in the least, while gleefully expecting India to constrain itself — as it has always done — by following through on the Indian PM’s rhetorical flourishes.

But to return to topic, what sort of security cooperation does Manila have in mind? A couple of months back the leader of an Indian army team visiting Philippines had the remit to offer the Duterte government a “carte blanche” in this respect, in effect, asking Manila to list whatever it thought it needed by way of capacity build-up to militarily ward off China. Mightily impressed, the Philippine regime responded almost immediately with a long wish list, which is at the core of the “defence capability upgrade” Duterte referred to. But the Filipinos also offered India a glimpse of the kind of information Indian armed forces may find operationally useful. Such as real time information about Chinese naval assets, Chinese paramilitary naval vessels, and Chinese merchantmen with military equipment transiting the waters abutting on the Philippines.

For starters, India for the first time will be posting a Defence Attache in its embassy in Manila, who will become the official liaison for facilitating security cooperation particularly in the maritime domain. This will soon result in Indian assistance in erecting and, may be, even manning, radar and electronic intelligence stations on the main and outlier Philippine islands, transfer of naval capital hardware — fast attack and patrol craft and in the future, modern multi-role frigates and submarines, and training to handle and service these complex platforms.

In return, Manila will be more than amenable to the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force using the vast former US naval base at Subic Bay, the finest deep water harbour outside of Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay, and Clark’s air force base, as their forward operational posts with pre-positioned stores in the region. An Indian flotilla and air complement able thus to replenish, restock, and change crews at will in Subic Bay and at Clark’s, will translate into a virtually permanent Indian naval and air presence on China’s door step. It presents India with an extraordinary prospect and capability to bottle-up China’s Navy and naval aviation. But, as detailed in my last book, Why India is not a great Power (Yet), it is the vision-limited nay-sayers in the Indian Navy and in the Pakistan-fixated IAF who may put hurdles against such distant deployment, assuming a suddenly strategically imaginative and live Modi regime desires it.

If Philippines is a must-do security project for India, upgrading relations with Taiwan is an imperative. At the Yushan Forum, President Tsai ing-wen reaffirmed her country’s innovative “south bound policy” featuring in the main India, Australia and New Zealand. In discussions with officials at the highest levels of the Taiwan foreign ministry, it is clear cooperating intensively with Taipei in the military and cyber spheres can seriously hurt and therefore contain China. When, in my presentation and more informally I reiterated my longstanding advice to the Indian government to adopt tit-for-tat policies and in exchange for Beijing’s nuclear missile arming Pakistan that has permanently strategically discomfited India, to return the favour and nuclear missile arm countries on China’s periphery, senior Taiwanese officials reacted, supposedly in a lighter vein, saying “Please pass on some of these nuclear weapons to us!” There were also hints that Taipei had not altogether forsaken its own nuclear weapons option. Taiwan was pressured to close down its atom bomb project in the 1990s by, who else, its ostensible guardian — America!

What made an equal impression on the Taiwanese was my conceptualization of an “Asian Security system for Asia by rimland and offshore Asian states” to box in China that I have articulated in my books and other writings. It caught the fancy of the popular media, particularly online news outlets, and suggests it can gin up traction if India proposes it as a collective venture in this fraught time when Trump’s America is proving too thin a reed for Asian states to rest their security on.

It is still not too late for Delhi to recover the lost politico-military ground by, firstly, putting in motion the ‘Óne India’ concept — an extension of the government’s “One Country, one Constitution” notion generated post-Article 370 abrogation, inclusive of all territories of the erstwhile princely state of Kashmir not excluding the portions presently occupied by China in Aksai Chin, and by Pakistan, demanding that all friendly states sign up for it. It’d be a direct counter to Beijing’s ‘Óne China’ principle its foreign policy adheres to. And secondly, by ratcheting up military security relationships with states bordering China, landward and seaward, with pride of place in this security system accorded Vietnam. Taiwan, Philippines and Indonesia.

A singularly focussed Indian government, practicing hard realpolitik of this kind — something I have advocated for over 30 years now, will immediately vault India into a power that China and the United States will find hard not to respect. Alas, no Indian government to-date — not the ones run by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and even less by the Congress party, has quite grasped the necessity for India to lead the charge against China in Asia, a role almost every Asian country without exception would like India to play as a means of reining in China, making an unreliable US more expendable, and of protecting their interests.

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The coming pain from putting eggs in the US and China baskets

Image result for pics of modi, trump and Xi

Forewarned apparently does not, for the Bharatiya Janata Party government, mean being forearmed.

In writings prior to and in my recent books — Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) in end-2015 and Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition in late 2018, and in articles, op/eds and media interviews since, have been warning incessantly of the deep hole Prime Minister Modi is digging India into by thoughtlessly climbing on to Donald Trump’s bandwagon at one end and reflexively appeasing Xi Jinping and China at the other end. Troubles, as a result, may be coming home to roost in flocks.

After the over-hyped Houston tamasha and the equally overwrought media coverage of the PM’s UN General Assembly peroration which fell flat because, other than painting India as a do-gooder nation and cultural icon — a view there’s no international consensus about, Modi harped on terrorism and its source — the unnamed Pakistan. As former MEA Secretary Vivek Katju (in an op/ed) has correctly surmised, the terrorism issue has about run its course in terms of diplomatic traction it affords Delhi and puts the brakes on Pakistan’s attempts to get out from under the terrorist sponsor tag. This issue has been milked for all it is worth and has now become a barren cow. That Islamabad will not transit from the “grey list”to the “black list” automatically triggering sanctions is a certainty primarily because Washington can’t do without its help in re-starting talks with the Afghan Taliban. Moreover, the sunni Gulf nations’ siding with India has about peaked, the evidence for which is the fact that Prince Mohammad bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia used Imran Khan as the medium to initiate backdoor negotiations Tehran rather than stick with the US’ blow hot-blow cold strategy. The Iran-aided Houthi rebels’ drone attack on the premier Saudi oil refining complex that virtually instantly collapsed 40% of that country’s oil production capacity, sobered up Riyadh damn quick. So the sunni Arab states want to cut a deal with shia Iran, and the country most to benefit from this rapprochement will be Pakistan. As repeatedly stressed in previous posts, had India maintained its neutrality in the US-Israeli-Gulf versus Iran fight and not treated Tehran shabbily at Washington’say-so, Modi would have been in a position not only to mediate — a role successfully assumed by Imran Khan, but to secure unending long term energy supplies at a basement price from that region by subtly playing off Iran and Saudi Arabia, while retaining leverage with both. This in turn would have beefed up Delhi’s bargaining power with Trump. This power to strike beneficial deals with Washington, Tehran and Riyadh is no longer available to Delhi.

With Trump in a political slump and headed towards impeachment, leaders of countries who risked closeness with his Administration will feel the heat. While Volodymyr Zelensky of the Ukraine, Boris Johnson of Britain and Scott Morrison of Australia are in the line of fire in their own countries for cultivating proximity to Trump and their regimes may suffer should the Democrats cease control after the 2020 elections in the US, India may suffer some. Modi has made himself a target by openly canvassing the NRI vote for Trump at the ‘Howdy, Modi’ do as stated in my preceding post. Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar airily downplayed such a downturn by giving a twisted and unconvincing explanation for Modi’s foray into domestic American politics. Except, unlike Zelensky, Johnson and Morrison, Modi may not be hurt by this development because he will continue to sell himself to the Indian masses as someone Trump has special fondness for even if such supposed fondness has not, and will not in the future, fetch India any give on Washington’s part on any of the issues where the interests of the two countries collide. This much is clear.

At the World Economic Forum, for instance, the US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asserted that a trade deal with India could be obtained in “five minutes” if India conceded American demands on e-commerce benefiting Amazon, etc. and, in any case, that his counterpart Piyush Goyal would have to make all the concessions to equalize the terms of trade. The fact that he did not raise the matter of US agricultural and dairy exports to India — the other sticking point, suggests that Delhi has already thrown in the towel. So, we can expect a surge in imports into this country of American agricultural and dairy produce, with the effected small trader, farmer and milk producer in India, being thus left in the lurch — as predicted in a post prior to the last one. Incidentally, Ross also waved aside concerns about the US treating India and China in the same way even though the trade deficits with the two Asian states are $17 billion and $419 billion respectively! So, which country, do you reckon, Trump would like to be on the right side of? So, why is Jaishankar sanguine about reaching a trade deal? That is because as experts in succumbing to charms-qua-pressure at the negotiating table, Delhi will compromise and keep compromising the national interest until there’s nothing left to compromise. Relations with China epitomize this Modi tendency institutionalized in MEA by Jaishankar.

The lead for setting the agenda for the Modi-Xi summit in Mamallapuram Oct 11-13 has been taken by Beijing. Luo Zhaohui, former ambassador in Delhi and currently vice minister after conferring with Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, glided past all the Chinese provocations, the latest being Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi pointedly voicing support for Pakistan on Article 370 at the UNGA, one of only two leaders to do so, the other being Erdogan of Turkey, to say that the emphasis would be on keeping the “Wuhan spirit” — whatever that is — in play. “It’s clear that both sides won’t give up their longstanding positions on core issues”, he told a newspaper, “and the summit will be about carefully calibrating positions to satisfy the other partner and to take care of each other’s sensitivities.” Come again!! The only country whose sensitivities have so far been taken care of is China; this being the case, why would Beijing not want to continue with what has transpired so far?

Consider: Regarding Kashmir, China claims territorial interest even though it annexed most of the Aksai chin area, constituting almost a third of the erstwhile princely kingdom of Kashmir, as early as 1958, and then was ceded more parts of it by Pakistan vide the 1963 Ayub-Zhouenlai accord. But the Indian government has never, but ever, diplomatically raked up this matter of forcible absorption of Indian territory.

India gave up its inherited rights and privileges in Tibet even though, per the 1913 Simla Agreement, Tibet’s status was formalized as an Indian protectorate. With the HH Dalai Lama’s forced exile in Dharamshala India has been cagey about supporting him and the Lamaist traditions and, with Vajpayee’s 2003 visit, all but washed its hands off the issue. So, that option that India had, and still has, of activating the Tibet card has not materialized because Vajpayee’s recognition was for the Tibetan Autonomous Region as part of China, but because China has never permitted Tibet any autonomy that recognition is void — or so I have argued for years together, allowing India to get back into the Tibet tangle. But the fainthearted pussies in GOI/MEA want to have nothing to do with it. The Indian military has played its part in this sordid affair by not appropriately building up its warfighting capability in hinterland Tibet, choosing to stay stuck on a defensive line with Indian officers occasionally quaffing down maotai with the Chinese at flag meetings (as recently reported in the press)!

Further, Tibet, as I have maintained, should have been equated with Taiwan and Beijing’s insistence on the öne China, 2 systems-principle should have been countered with “One India”-principle with China requiring to acknowledge Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and the Aksai Chin it occupies as parts of India’s Jammu & Kashmir province. Delhi may then negotiate with Beijing for the latter to keep its part of the Aksai plateau, but the principle has to be held sacrosanct. Because China will not be easily moved, India should establish full-fledged diplomatic relations with Taiwan and formally ramp up its defence linkages with Taipei.

And most egregiously, Beijing has so far got away with nuclear missile arming Pakistan. A strong-minded government in Delhi should long ago have retaliated by transferring like armaments to all countries on China’s periphery, especially Vietnam with the kind of fighting spirit that India can only dream of. That would quieten down China as nothing else would. But again instead of tit-for-tat, we have stayed our hand. Talk of self-abnegation and outdoing the Mahatma!

And at the UNGA, when Wang Yi raised the matter of Kashmiris, was even a First Secretary at the UN Mission tasked by way of right of reply, about all of Xinjiang being turned into a vast concentration camp with Uyghur Muslims disallowed from manifesting any symbols of their religion — Islamic names, beards, prayer beads, madrassas? (When a hyperventilating Imran, talking a mile to the minute about the poor Kashmiris oppressed by the Indian army, was asked about the state of the Uyghur Muslims he answered blandly that he knew nothing about them!)

And talking of trade, it is so unbalanced it is surprising the Modi government has done less than nothing about it even as it presides over wealth flowing in torrents from the Indian coffers to the Chinese treasury. And yet there are Fifth columnists in the corporate world eager to drag in the Huawei — an out and out PLA funded operation — 5G system Trojan Horse inside India’s portals, chief among them Sunil Mittal of Bharti Airtel who, incidentally, is also the lead financier of an American Trojan horse already active in Delhi policy circles — Carnegie India.

With the entire caboodle of Indian political class, government, the corporate world, military, and the intelligentsia, seeing nothing wrong about the course the country is embarked on, India’s future cannot be other than bleak.

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This spells trouble

A lot of things were wrong, or went wrong, with the Houston-do starring Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. Not that anyone here noticed them, everybody being too busy singing hosannas for the budding Trump-Modi camaraderie on display.

Let’s start with the pic above: See Trump’s condescending, proprietory, hand on Modi’s shoulder? No self-respecting leader — unless he heads a rank small and inconsequential country and hence has no choice — would allow a big power leader to show him up in an obvious sort of way as junior partner (or, should that be pardner in Texan lingo?).

It reminds me of the US-Philippine war (1899-1902) that the US waged against the freedom movement led by Emilio Aguinaldo after Spain ceded that Asian colony to America vide the 1898 Treaty of Paris. That military campaign was justified by Washington as “saving our little brown brother” and in terms of a programme of “benevolent assimilation” in the American sphere. The publicity photos and posters distributed by the US military from its headquarters, in Manila and outlying areas, in fact featured two standing figures — one a big, white, smiling American with a hand on the shoulder of the smaller brown befuddled Filipino.

True, Modi, far from befuddled, rejoiced in the Trumpian display of insulting physical familiarity, something he brought on himself with his prior record of trademark hugs and embraces. In his first term, it startled foreign leaders but are now shrugged off by them as hazards of their trade. He went so far to curry favour with Trump as to offer his own successful election campaign slogan to suit the US President in his upcoming re-election campaign — ab ki baar Trump sarkar! It is not for nothing that Trump at this venue called Modi “America’s most devoted and loyal friend”.

That apart, Modi, in a small way, sought to influence American people to vote Trump. With the Impeachment proceedings underway against Trump in the US Congress and the issue of Russia assisting Trump in the 2016 elections with offensive cyber strategy of fake news that hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances, being investigated threadbare, Modi’s enthusiasm in pitching Trump to US voters could come in for some scrutiny. Especially because a couple of Democratic Party presidential contenders, including Bernie Sanders, have already hit out at India’s treatment of Kashmiris, etc.

Even if no Congressman takes notice of Modi’s attempts at interference in the internal affairs of the US, the fact that such a thing happened formally and openly could be a precedent for legitimating such influence peddling by foreign powers in Indian elections. Is it too much of a stretch to see a re-elected Trump mosey over to India on a state visit to return the favour and try and secure a 3rd term for Modi in 2024? Indeed, what was until now covert activity — the US routinely provided election funds to Right-thinking politicians while Moscow filled the Indian Communist parties’ coffers and, emerged as a principal funder of Indira Gandhi’s Congress party in the early 1970s. But such help was usually hush-hush except hereafter foreign entities will feel less inhibited in this regard. It is a ripple effect Modi did not ponder before becoming a carnival barker for Trump in Houston.

All this would be fine if the entire Houston tamasha was perceived as a bit of escapist political theatre and dismissed as so much diplomatic dross. Except, Modi and his government seems inclined to read more into the optics of the event than is warranted. The truth is all the posing, sweet talking and hand-in-hand “victory” lapping by Trump joining with Modi, comprised just a contingent ploy by Trump to be nice to the foreign leader he was sharing the moment with. However, Modi, Jaishankar & Company deliberately or otherwise misread and misrepresented this whole affair.

Thus, the Modi government’s joyous take on Trump’s voicing his antipathy towards “radical Islamic terrorism” as an endorsement of Modi’s Kashmir related-actions was falsified soon enough. When Trump was asked whether he sided with India against Pakistan when he talked of Islamic terrorism he stated that he was referring to Iran and, disingenuously, that that was the country he thought Modi was alluding to as well!!

Now switch over to Trump’s meeting Imran in New York yesterday. Sure, Imran didn’t get much traction from his nonsensical nuclear war-mongering spiel. It afforded the US president an opportunity to publicly revive his offer of mediation on Kashmir; but he failed to bring up the matter of Islamic terrorism because, well, Islamabad holds the Afghanistan card.

So, it doesn’t seem Modi got more out of Trump than Imran did with lot less effort and and near zero expenditure of money (versus millions of albeit NRI dollars for staging the show at the NRG Stadium in Houston). But there was a difference. Modi gave a lot to receive very little from Trump. For instance, as anticipated in my previous blog he has compromised on allowing US agricultural commodities to be sold in the Indian market to the detriment of the beleaguered Indian farmer. There may even be a provision permitting the imports into India of dairy items at the cost to the country’s dairy industry. And, of course, Delhi will be hard put to resist the American push the antiquated F-16 under the guise of transferring military technology and, God alone knows, what other dated technologies at the expense of the infant indigenous defence industry.

Is this fair exchange — Trump’s jollying Modi around for the emptying of the Indian treasury, and hollowing of Indian agricultural and industrial economy?

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How Bad is the bargain in the offing? Modi & Trump

Narendra Modi in USA in 1994

[Around 1999, Modi outside the White House fence on a US State Dept-hosted trip]

A public interview of Narendra Modi at 1800 hrs last evening on ‘India’ TV channel featured the host, Rajat Sharma, lobbing fluff-ball questions but, on occasion, receiving surprisingly revealing answers from the Prime Minister. For instance, Modi said he lets his “heart rule his head” when meeting with world leaders and relies on “personal chemistry”, but uses his head when it comes to negotiating. Amplifying on his method, he added: “hum na aanken utha ke bolte hain, na ankhen juka ke, hum ankhon mein ankh daal ke bolte hain.” (I don’t raise my eyes, nor lower them, I meet the gaze of the other person.)

This “Modi operandi” about squares with his personality attributes and his approach and way of working. [For a psychological profile of Modi and comparison with the other strongmen currently on the international stage — Vladimir Putin of Russia, Donald Trump of America, Erdogan of Turkey, Xi Jinping of China and Shinzo Abe of Japan, and how his personality traits have impacted Indian politics and policies, see my latest book — ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’.] It leads one to ponder the trade and other deals he will be striking with Trump when they meet Sept 22 in Houston at the ‘Howdy, Modi!’ reception by the NRIs, and on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session the PM will address on Sept 26.

However these deals turn out, the US State Department apparently hit the jackpot when, at the turn of the last Century, it invited Narendra Modi, then a senior BJP apparatchik in Gujarat to partake of a trip for a select lot of youngish Indian political leaders who the US government hoped would be useful to US interests in the future. It was a trip Modi alluded to yesterday in the TV event. Bedazzled by the wealth, order and prosperity of the US, Modi, with his small town background, was by his own reckoning instantly besotted. The problem for the country is that he has stayed besotted ever since, when as Prime Minister he’s expected to show a bit more restraint in his enthusiasms for America, or any other country, if only to preserve India’s leverage with them, and especially Trump who believes in pushing his advantage to the max.

Modi seems now to be circling back to what generated excitement early in his first term at least among NRI communities in different parts of the world and won him international media attention. A vast arena filled with some 50,000 prosperous Indian-origin Americans, gathered in Houston, who when not screaming their support for Modi will raptly hear his speech — the usual string of self-congratulatory spiels laced this time with references to the Balakote strike and Article 370 abrogation, aimed at making the NRIs feel good about themselves, about Modi, about India. Such an event is god-sent for any politician. More so because it will be beamed live back home by Indian TV channels and lapped up by the travelling press corps.

Not one to miss a political trick or a friendly crowd, and opportunity to make capital, US President Trump has happily signed up for the event. The external affairs minister S. Jaishankar predictably deemed Trump’s presence at the Houston show as “high honour”. That Trump will thus kill several birds with a single stone, is another matter.

Trump will try and ride Modi’s coat-tails in terms of translating the regard and fan-following the BJP leader enjoys among NRIs into votes for himself and his Republican Party slate of candidates in next year’s presidential elections. Besides, Trump, like Modi, likes big boisterous tamashas with TV cameras whirring– and the Houston affair will fit that bill. But, as has already been indicated, Washington will use Trump’s agreeing to be with Modi on the podium to leverage a more advantageous trade deal for the US. That Jaishankar is overseeing the Indian negotiating team’s efforts spells danger for the national interest because his record is one of accepting the most onerous US conditions in return for small returns. His most disastrous handiwork is the 2008 nuclear deal he negotiated as Joint Secretary (Americas) in MEA, which by formalizing Delhi’s willingness to forego further underground explosive testing capped the technology level of India’s nuclear arsenal at the basic fission armaments-level.

Modi, on the other hand, besides furthering his personal diplomacy by hugging and embracing the US President, will try and project his great camaraderie with Trump as at once consolidating the special relationship he says he enjoys with Trump and as reflecting the warmth in Indo-US friendship. Modi has stoked this “friendship” by nearly “zeroing” out oil supplies from Iran at the cost of imperilling the Chabahar port and India’s geostrategics pivoting on land connectivity to Russia, Afghanistan and Central Asia. He will seek small-time favours such as asking Trump to upbraid Pakistan for its role in sponsoring and spreading terrorism in Jammu & Kashmir, and on this score to read the riot act to Imran Khan when the latter meets him New York. This will be hugely popular with people here. Despite this Imran will be successful in getting Trump to water down the stiff terms for the IMF loan Pakistan is seeking to tide over economic difficulties. What choice does Washington have after all considering that without Pakistan the US military retreat from Afghanistan is not possible, not if saving face is also on the agenda.

Modi will return home before Imran Khan starts retailing his sob story to the UNGA about “genocide” in Kashmir — has Islamabad consulted the dictionary when using this word? — and how global inattention could lead to a nuclear war that will engulf the globe! It is not clear how all this will occur considering the Indian government has made a purely domestic political move of revoking Articles 370 & 35A, unless Islamabad follows up by facilitating some damn fool terrorist incident that will be easily traceable to ISI and GHQ, Rawalpindi, to which India will respond. Imran has been realistic enough to concede that Pakistan will lose a conventional conflict that may ensue whereupon, he and others have threatened that Islamabad will be left with no choice other than to use nuclear weapons. Except doing so will make Pakistan extinct. Indeed, Imran’s cabinet colleague Ali Mohammad Khan, with even less restraint, has upped the rhetoric by giving the emerging situation a hard religious tint. The unification of J&K with India, he claims, is the first step in the Guzhwa-e-Hind (War for India) predicted in the Hadith. Of course, none of this will obtain in the main because the party with everything to lose — the Pakistan Army, wouldn’t want to!

But to return to our main theme, as one can readily see, between Modi’s eagerness to be satisfied with little by way of quid for India’s quo, and Jaishankar’s willingness to give away the store in return for next to nothing, the Indo-US trade deal that’s to be finalized BEFORE Trump sets foot in Houston, will likely feature an easing of restrictions on American agricultural commodities and, particularly, dairy products. Soon we may find costlier US-sourced milk, butter, cheese and other such goods pushing out Amul items and their local counterparts from our shop shelves. Poor gau-mata! And, Good-Bye to the “white revolution” that the milk cooperatives-based Amul dairy industry of Gujarat began in the country!

Next, Modi’s supposedly close friend, Trump, will demand that India hurry up and take the aged aunt of a fighter plane — the venerable all gum and no teeth F-16, off Lockheed’s hands while filling its corporate purse. And because the Modi regime is disinclined to trust small Indian companies with advanced tech capabilities, inclusive of patents and intellectual property rights to produce the 5G wherewithal and the Chinese Huawei 5G is ruled out for security reasons, Trump will pressure Delhi to buy American 5G telecom gear and systems produced by Cisco and Qualcom, making India cyber security-wise vulnerable to the US instead.

Modi’s trade deal will thus darken the already bleak prospects of the Indian farmer, the Indian dairy industry, and the indigenous technology sector, with the combat aircraft sphere in the van with the foundational Tejas LCA project. Yet, when all is lost, the PM will crow about how his ‘Make in India’ is such a roaring business success producing what? Ah, yes, a 50-year old fighter aircraft the rest of the world is discarding.

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India’s missing kootayudha (covert warfare)

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[The PM, Doval and Jaishankar]

There may be some interest in hearing a videographed talk by me on covert warfare in traditional Indian statecraft and in the country’s external policies for the Srijan Talks forum. It is available on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8MzHkuvU_Q&feature=player_embedded

Posted in Afghanistan, Asian geopolitics, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Culture, Cyber & Space, Decision-making, domestic politics, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, guerilla warfare, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Intelligence, Internal Security, MEA/foreign policy, Military/military advice, SAARC, society, South Asia, Special Forces, Terrorism, Tibet, Weapons | 11 Comments

Enlarging India’s Engagement Envelope With Russia

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been hosted by President Vladimir Putin at two successive showcase events staged at the two ends of Russia – the 22nd “International Economic Forum” in St. Petersburg in May 2018 and, last week, the Fifth “Eastern Economic Forum” (EEC) in Vladivostok. Moscow has traditionally used such conferences to consolidate its relations with friendly countries and to sweeten up states it seeks to cultivate, whence the invitations to attend the EEC, besides Modi, to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed and Mongolian President Battulga Khaltmaa.

Russo-Indian relations are stuck in a rut and have been for a while, notwithstanding the flowery rhetoric. In a September 2017 meeting with his then Indian counterpart, Sushma Swaraj, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described Indo-Russian friendship “as strong as stone”. This was presumably in response to Pakistani leaders routinely talking of relations with China as “higher than the mountains, deeper than the sea, and sweeter than honey” (in Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s words) and Beijing reciprocating in a more measured tone by calling Pakistan an “iron brother”.

What these descriptions mean, and whether they suggest that Sino-Pakistan relations are stronger than Indo-Russian ties – because iron cuts stone, is anyone’s guess.  In practical terms though Russia, and its predecessor state the Soviet Union, have over the last seven decades put out for India. It has not, however, made for satisfactory relations.

But in pursuit of newer geopolitical schemes to fit their changing national interests and the uncertain times, neither country has thought it fit to pull away from the other because both governments appreciate the geostrategic utility of keeping close. The importance to Delhi of Russia to prevent the United States and China from becoming overbearing is matched by Moscow benefiting from proximity to India in its big power politics.  While the intention to grow their uni-dimensional relationship into a multi-dimensional one is not lacking, India seems unable to move other than with great deliberation when fluid international circumstances demand a faster pace and more driven policies.

To date, Russian assistance in licensed production of equipment and sales to India of advanced military hardware (such as the S-400 air defence system) and of lease of otherwise unavailable weapons platforms, such as the Akula-II class nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) and, possibly in the future, long range Tu-160M long range bombers, have been the strategic glue. But this aspect is sought to be underplayed.

In the run up to the EEC, the press reported numerous arms deals awaiting signature in Vladivostok, including Indian production of AK 203 assault rifle and Kamov 226 helicopters, none of which were signed. Delhi apparently feared riling US President Donald Trump. Instead, in an attempt to enlarge the engagement envelope Modi talked up the one billion dollar Indian credit line to provinces in the Russian Far East, approval of 50-odd accords worth $5 billion, and the 150-member strong delegation of Indian entrepreneurs and industrialists accompanying him to explore business prospects.

     The September 5 Joint Statement issued at the end of the annual 20th Indo-Russian summit between Modi and Putin that piggybacked on the EEC, declares their interest in diversifying the bilateral links. To emphasize which, some 28-29 of the 81 points in the Statement pertain to trade, commerce and economic issues generally, including those referring to Russia as supplier of oil and gas, versus 16-17 points dealing with security-related matters. Also, there was mutual support for each other’s geopolitical tilts. Eight points – some of them elaborated at considerable length, stress the importance of multilateralism and multilateral forums, which are anathema to the Trump Administration but music to Putin’s ears. Likewise, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is touted as a means to obtain “a multi-polar world order based on equal and indivisible security” – a common Indo-Russian goal directly challenging Beijing’s and Washington’s designs tending to bipolarity in the international system. It was the G2 concept the Barrack Obama government was partial to but Trump has jettisoned, preferring the confrontational style of the Cold War that saw USSR, its primary opponent, decimated.

     India, of course, would like nothing better than to see another bout of “hot peace”, this time to reduce a bumptious China in the Indo-Pacific. Whether or not that goal is achieved, Beijing’s preoccupation with America’s security initiatives will lessen Chinese military pressure along the Line of Actual Control and is welcomed by Delhi. But the attitude of a passive beneficiary is unbecoming, because Modi seriously underestimates India’s leverage with the U.S. and with China. No other Asian country has India’s all-round heft to balance China strategically, and with Beijing’s access to the U.S. market closing, only the vast consumerist-minded Indian middle class can absorb what China manufactures.  

The Joint Statement, however, hints at the larger geostrategic gains from opposing detrimental moves by US and China on the global chessboard. If India’s Eurasia policy is pivoted on connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia and landward to Russia via a rail and road grid radiating from the Iranian port of Chabahar, Russia’s Middle East strategy rests on a Turkey-Syria-Iran linkup under Moscow’s aegis to balance the Islamic bloc headed by Saudi Arabia supported by Washington, whence Moscow’s warning to Trump to not take its neutrality for granted in case he imposes a war on Iran. Thus the Vladivostok Statement favours (1) “an inclusive peace” in Afghanistan that Delhi has sought, (2) respect for “the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Bashar al-Assad-ruled Syria propped up by Russia, and (3) “mutually beneficial and legitimate economic and commercial cooperation with Iran”, which Washington has already sanctioned  several Indian and Russian entities for.

     A timid Modi feels India cannot get too close to the US without upsetting Russia and vice versa even as China looms, as much a security threat as an economic and ideological one and, therefore, fails to take the hard decisions to escape the thrall of the big three powers. Without a truly grand strategic vision and plan, his government makes do with tactical counters, actions and maneuvers. A security architecture that neutralizes China and minimizes the role of an unreliable America in non-Sinic Asia’s security is not valued. A geopolitical setup to further these objectives based on loose security-minded coalitions minus the US and China, to wit, BRIS (Brazil-Russia-India-South Africa), not BRICS, and “Mod Quad” (India, Japan, Australia, and a group of rich and capable Southeast Asian nations), and not the Quadrilateral, is not followed.

Parts of such potentially decisive groupings are already in place owing to India’s involvement in BRICS and its “Look East, Act East” policy. But the missing vision and direction from the Modi government mean policy voids that events such as EEC cannot fill.

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Published in my occasional ‘Realpolitik’ column in Bloombergquint.com on September 11, 2019, https://www.bloombergquint.com/opinion/enlarging-indias-engagement-envelope-with-russia

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Bolton out and India’s standing with the US becomes trickier

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[Bolton looks on disapprovingly (?)]

The bureaucratic winner of John Bolton’s ouster as National Security Adviser to President Donald J Trump is Mike Pompeo, Secretary of State. It was well known in Washington that Bolton and Pompeo got along like two favourites with competing charms in the harem angling for the Sultan’s attention, meaning each sought to undermine the other, with the latter having the inside track. Pompeo is oily, always adjusting to Trump’s mood and attitude to issues on the day. Bolton was his gruff — take it or leave it — self, confident that his proven neocon credentials since before the presidency of George W Bush, would not only protect him but permit him to push his own agenda. Wrong presumption.

The fact is that between a disruptor President intent on cutting big legacy deals and an unilateral interventionist sidekick resisting them, the sidekick had to go! Bolton had a long list of interventionist achievements — in the main, pushing the US into “regime changing” policies in Iraq (based on the entirely fictitious notion that Saddam Hussein was embarked on a nuclear armaments programme) and to remove the Mullah Omar-led Taliban government in Kabul in the wake of the 9/11 attack on New York, resulting in the near complete disorder in West Asia that persists to this day, and an endless war in Afghanistan against a foe long known for frustrating foreign invaders. And, he was also the main proponent for an air strike on Iran’s nuclear complex — an attack that was all to set to go in — with Israel active in support, and only awaited a go signal from the White House — which never came. Trump may be a shallow and a callow US President, but his domestic political instincts cannot be faulted.

With 2020 re-election in mind, Trump is serious about extracting America from the 18-year war in Afghanistan, reversing his predecessor Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) riveted together with major West European countries to put off Iran’s going nuclear, and forging a deal, any deal, with Kim Jong-un of North Korea, even at the expense of a treaty ally South Korea, as long as it allows Trump to crow he had brought “peace” to the Korean peninsula. Let’s briefly see what’s at work on these three issues.

Having promised withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan he couldn’t go into the next presidential election cycle with the Taliban gaining ground and getting into a position to redo in Kabul vis a vis the US what the Viet Cong-North Vietnam did in Saigon with the last American troops desperately helicoptering out of Afghanistan and out of trouble, except now it will be the advancing Taliban columns in sight. Such bad optics would defy any “fake news” that Trump and Fox News may concoct, and ignominiously terminate his presidency.

Negotiating a face-saver with Kim would be considered a success. Because Kim has not only stood up to Trump’s threats but countered by upping the ante and repeatedly rubbing America’s face in the mud, demanded that the warmongering Bolton be removed — a message delivered periodically with the firing of missiles to remind Trump he means business, but held out the prospects of a deal that could be personally negotiated with the US president. It has telegraphed to Trump the dangers of another war — this time in the east — that the US would willy-nilly get sucked into, and played on Trump’s confidence in his self-advertised deal-making skills. So far, Kim has had his way in every thing but Trump believes that he could render Kim pliable with offers of a “Marshall Plan” to develop North Korea as another East Asian economic success story. With such a deal in hand on the eve of the elections, he would win it as the maker of enduring peace in Korea, and stabilizer of an “American order” in Northeast Asia.

Iran is a nettlesome problem. Egged on by Bolton and the Israeli PM, Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump almost ordered a catastrophe in the Gulf with the proposed air attack. Had the USAF sorties gone through, Tehran would have been forced into a situation where not to use its huge stock of missiles of various range, even if indiscriminately, against any and all targets in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel would be to permanently lose them. Under attack by American forces, Iran’s reasonable “use them or lose them” posture would have ended in much of anything of economic and military value in Iran being reduced to rubble, of course, but the Iranian missiles — developed with much care and diligence with Russian and Chinese assistance, especially by the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guard), would have rained ruin on all the oil and commerce rich sunni Arab kingdoms, sheikhdoms and emirates in the Gulf. It would have plunged the international energy trade into a death spiral, reduced both the leading and sunni and shia countries of the world, and pretty much spelled finis to US influence in the extended region. And because Russia, in order to head off just such a denoument, had warned that it would not remain neutral in the face of such war against Iran, and because with Israel being hit — and depending on the scale and degree of destruction — Tel Aviv could well have unsheathed its nuclear sword. It had the potential of a nuclear Armageddon, something that had been avoided during 50 years of the Cold War-hot peace between the US and the Soviet Union post-World War Two. Even a duffer in the White House would have had such a scenario play out in his mind. It was enough provocation in any case for Trump to call an end to this madness round the corner by getting rid of Bolton. The better path, therefore, was to think about jaw-jawing with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, who would be inclined to some sort of compromise, short of reverting to the JCPOA, that would lift the sanctions off his country’s back.

Imagine three grand “negotiating successes” — with the Taliban in Afghanistan, Kim in North Korea, and Rouhani in Iran, it’d be unprecedented and make him — Trump would reason — irresistible to the voters in next year’s election.

Except Bolton, paradoxically, was good for India. He didn’t care two bits for India, of course, but he did for certain principles of action. In February this year when the Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval betook himself to Washington to curry support for the Balakot strike post-Pulwama terrorist incident, it was Bolton who signaled approval on the basis that India had every right to “self defence”. Such an approval may not be forthcoming the next time India considers forceful action because Bolton’s replacement — whosoever he/she is — will likely mirror Trump’s essential tendency to maximize leverage and not go with any principle. An inkling of what Delhi can expect in the future was available yesterday, the very day when India and Pakistan were squaring up on 370 and Kashmir at the 42nd session of the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. Unbidden, Trump again offered himself up as a possible mediator despite the clearest indication by the Modi government that no such external interference was necessary or would be countenanced. The trouble is Trump is aware that Modi is no Mullah Baradar, Kim or Rouhani and that, surrounded by appeasers in his Cabinet, like Jaishankar, he will be inclined, when he is squeezed, to squeal and compromise just to be in America’s good books.

And, re: the UNHCR session: Two things were noticeable. Secretary (East) who put forward India’s case, did not once mention Pakistan’s irrefutable record of ethnic cleansing since Partition when the non-Muslim population in that rumps state was reduced from 15% to less than 1%, this when Islamabad has used the international media megaphone to blast India for abrogating Articles 370 & 35A as prelude to “ethnic cleansing” in Kashmir. Nor did the Secretary harp and iteratively on the state of Gilgit and Baltistan (G&B) where methodical genocide is being committed against the shias of that region by the sunni state by way of straightforward killings and resettling of Mirpuri Mussalmans to change the demographic profile, and adding to Pakistan’s disreputable record on human rights.

Indeed, MEA has only recently started to mention G&B when talking about Pakistan-occupied Kashmir — a wrong long pointed out in my writings. Because it neglected for whatever reasons to desist from bringing in the status of, and the deplorable conditions of shias and others demanding freedom in, G&B, the world has been led to believe that the outstanding dispute is only about Indian J&K. This is entirely the Indian government and MEA’s fault.

The other thing was the televised speech, perhaps, in a follow-up session of UNHCR by someone who seemed to be a mid-level functionary in India’s UN Geneva mission. This person read from from the paper in front of him so rapidly, almost as if he feared a guillotine coming down on his neck, to be all but incomprehensible to anyone who was listening. One can argue it didn’t matter because most attendees at these meets are bored to tears and usually manage to sleep with their eyes open! The problem with Indian diplomats in Western settings is their accent, pace and diction when making India’s case. Even in the best of instances, there’s the trademark slightly Indian sing-song lilt when they speak, to which is coupled the haste to make the point. The result usually is the intended audience gets the drift without quite making out what’s said. This is a longstanding problem compounded in recent times by those who have joined the Foreign Service via the UPSC on the basis of regional language competence — a growing proportion of the ‘A’ stream in IFS. May be it is time for the MEA to find funds to set up a language lab for English at the Foreign Service Institute that all entrant level officers would be required to undergo for English language certification. And to think the Indian diplomatic service was, albeit very long ago, known for its drafting prowess.

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