China, COVID-19, Research, security, Writing

India’s security choices during the COVID-19 pandemic

At the start of the 2020s, India has been confronted with a massive viral spread and a relentless People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on its borders. Last year, even as India was responding to the pandemic that originated in Wuhan, it had to mobilise its forces to counter Beijing’s invasion on the Himalayan heights. Both resulted in loss of lives and both show no signs of going away. While the virus is threatening to rise again in a ‘third wave,’ China has literally dug in at high altitudes in its quest to secure real estate and territory that it believes is crucial for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), that provides access to a warm water port in the Arabian Sea, and that is critical to a larger project that seeks to reshape the geopolitical map of Asia. While the two nations have taken modest steps to disengage, military and diplomatic negotiations have not yielded substantive results.

In June 2021, reports emerged that China had been ramping up infrastructure along the Tibetan border. Following this, around 200,000 Indian soldiers have been deployed on the frontier, an increase of over 40 percent from 2020. For India, China poses a clear and present danger. To respond to an expansive and belligerent northern neighbour, it has to reorient its conception of its security as well as deployment of its political and diplomatic resources. This was not the case until very recently.

For India, China poses a clear and present danger. To respond to an expansive and belligerent northern neighbour, it has to reorient its conception of its security as well as deployment of its political and diplomatic resources.

Pakistan had been the major preoccupation since Independence in 1947. Its occupation of parts of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, its export of terror to India as a means of waging an asymmetric war, and its nuclear proliferation had positioned it as the main threat to India’s national security. For long, China had escaped critical scrutiny despite provocative actions. The Indian security establishment was not very vocal when China tested an atomic device during President R. Venkataraman’s state visit in May 1992 — clearly intended to send a message to India. Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes’ prophetic assertion at the turn of the century that China, not Pakistan, was India’s “potential threat No. 1” was not universally shared in the strategic community in New Delhi.

In their public speeches, Chinese leaders declared their preoccupation with the welfare of their people. They took great pains to position China as a responsible power that avoided international confrontation. In hindsight, they clearly succeeded. From the ‘returns seeking’ investors in the United States to the political leaders in Europe and Asia who wanted a piece of the Chinese economic pie, all bought into this masterly conduct of statecraft. For India, the urge to keep China in good humour was also implicated by the border conflict of 1962. Relations had thawed only a quarter-century later. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988 paved the way for the Sino-Indian Bilateral Peace and Tranquility Accords inked in 1993 and 1996 to stabilise the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

From the ‘returns seeking’ investors in the United States to the political leaders in Europe and Asia who wanted a piece of the Chinese economic pie, all bought into this masterly conduct of statecraft.

With stability along the boundary, trade and cultural ties between the two nations began to flourish. The boundary pacts mandated that large numbers of troops would not be amassed along the border, and that there would be no attempts to alter the status quo unilaterally. The Indian establishment believed that the border accords would be “peace for our time.” This search for fool’s gold would lead to India curtailing its multilateral naval exercises and slowing down infrastructure development in critical sectors of the India-China border. Influential voices in the Manmohan Singh government (2004-2014) believed India’s security interests would be served if it did not upset China.

Pushback came only in 2013, when transgressions by Chinese forces in Depsang were diplomatically and militarily countered. Yet, here too there was much discussion and debate in the upper echelons of government. Greater clarity was to emerge in 2014 when India, under the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was at the receiving end of Chinese incursions in Ladakh even as a summit was under way with the visiting Xi Jinping. With two episodes in close succession, it would be fair to say that a change in India’s approach to its northern neighbour was thrust upon it.

The Indian establishment believed that the border accords would be “peace for our time.” This search for fool’s gold would lead to India curtailing its multilateral naval exercises and slowing down infrastructure development in critical sectors of the India-China border.

In recent years, India has been able to recalibrate its approach towards the Middle Kingdom even as the world order is changing. The US-India partnership has evolved rapidly. Washington has helped thwart moves by China to internationalise the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, enabled India’s entry into the international nuclear order and brought pressure on Pakistan to crack down on terrorism. The Quad grouping, where Japan and Australia join the duo to keep the Indo-Pacific region inclusive and open to all, is working on providing alternatives to the BRI and is seeking a number of resilient arrangements, including on technology supply chains. A Quad vaccine for all is on the anvil and other countries are looking to partner with the Quad on important global issues.

The ‘La Pérouse’ maritime exercises in the Bay of Bengal, with France joining the Quad members, and the Australia-France-India ministerial dialogue demonstrate that the idea and the ideals of ‘Quad Plus’ are gathering steam. The UK has floated the ‘Democracy 10,’ which includes the Quad countries, to tackle issues related to 5G and emerging technologies that may have a bearing on collective security. Whitehall’s recent assessment of its economic, security and diplomatic interests may see it engage more deeply with India in the Indo-Pacific. Old Europe is certainly finding a place at the core of India’s security calculations.

A testament to India’s recalibration is NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s pitch, at the Raisina Dialogue 2021, to broaden cooperation. NATO views the rise of China as having huge security implications and assesses India as its partner. PM Modi’s historic Porto Summit with leaders of the EU and 27 EU member-states helped boost cooperation on terrorism and maritime security. The ‘connectivity partnership’ between the EU and India seeks to finance projects in other nations, offering an alternative to China’s BRI.

NATO views the rise of China as having huge security implications and assesses India as its partner.

Even as India strengthens and redirects its relationship with the old world, Russia remains the X factor. New Delhi’s strategic ties with Washington have become a sore point for the Kremlin. If two new poles emerge — the US and its partners and allies, and the Beijing-Moscow ‘axis ’ — India’s room for manoeuvre may be affected. India is alive to this possibility and is redoubling its efforts to work with Russia, its largest weapons supplier over the past decades. India has to convince President Putin that the bilateral relationship allows him greater latitude while dealing with his southern neighbour. Through back channels, India also has to work towards a reset between the US and Russia and to convince the EU that pushing Putin into Xi’s corner is dangerous and counterproductive. The recent Biden-Putin summit may have gone some way in making this a possibility.

A resurgent China, with its plan to establish regional hegemony in Asia even as it tries to split and dominate Europe, is Delhi’s biggest security challenge. The Indo-Pacific will define the future of the Asian Century. India has been astute in ensuring that its partners and fellow stakeholders from the Atlantic order work closely with it to navigate the choppy waters of the Indo-Pacific.


An abridged version of the above was published for the Lennart Meri Conference.

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Writing

The unravelling of Pax Americana

The “war on terror”, launched two decades ago, epitomised the peak of America’s unipolar moment. The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe. The near-universal commitment to this war, within the P-5 and outside, was a demonstration of America’s real power. That was a different time and a different world.

Since then, the US has been implicated in the global financial crisis of 2008. Its flawed domestic landscape and divided democracy have been a public spectacle for global audiences since 2016, from the swearing-in of President Donald Trump to that of President Joe Biden. Both individuals were and are legitimate leaders for only half their nation. America’s botched and self-serving response to the Covid-19 pandemic only hastened the decline of its ethical and moral positioning. Hot on the trail of these events, the hasty and bungled exit from Afghanistan is not just a political event, but part of a continuum, one that points to the momentous unravelling of Pax Americana.

The jets crashing into the twin towers were seen by most as an attack on the soul of globalisation, a project promoted and designed by the United States (US) and its partners in Europe.

It is not the US’s material power alone that has suffered; the institutions undergirding the liberal order are on shaky ground as well. The partisanship of its media and academia are visible to all. It is a nation where trolling as a way of life has replaced a broad national consensus. Morally tinged lectures about the international liberal order are likely to fall on deaf ears for those who witnessed the West’s callous indifference to billions in the developing world still in need of vaccines, or towards the thousands of Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to fight America’s war.

Those watching from capitals in Asia, gearing up for a new era of conflict and competition in the Indo-Pacific, will be even more sceptical. Some among them will be the first victims of the Taliban’s willingness to shelter and nurture terrorist groups. More importantly, the fall of Kabul will serve as a dire reminder of the fate that may befall them if they get mired in great power competition.

For instance, if one lived in Japan, going nuclear may be a sensible option. If you were a resident of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) country, your neighbourhood bully would seem a more predictable and acceptable proposition. No spin can change this. America today is less attractive to many. This is a heavily mediated exit from a partnership and the damage is far greater than any of its other follies.

As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology.

One could even argue that the US’s Indo-Pacific project has already faced its first significant setback. The idea that the US will now focus on China with greater intensity is naïve and suggests a poor understanding of politics. Land frontiers still matter and the US has ceded South and South-West Asia to Beijing. Chinese State media have lampooned and mocked the US’s withdrawal all week.

What role China will eventually play in Afghanistan is uncertain, but it has plans to fill the void that exists. The Chinese model is different and is based on the extraction of value from resources in the host country and providing lucre to the rulers who facilitate this. Tribes and feudal societies tend to work with this model better than the alternatives that seek to turn them into liberal nations and free markets. In the short term at least, China could well emerge as a powerful shaper of the economic and military arrangements in Af-Pak and West Asia.

This episode will have repercussions for the Quad, an ostensibly “counter-China” alliance in the Indo-Pacific. It is time to face up to some home truths.

First, for too long, policymakers in DC have relied on maps that mark the East Indian Ocean as the Indo-Pacific boundary. India’s perspective on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and West Asia has been dismissed time and again. This must change, or India will work with other arrangements to manage the threats that abound. The US must realise that dealing with the influence of China in Afghanistan and Pakistan are a core Indo-Pacific challenge. Ceding these to China defeats the Western Pacific project as well.

Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted.

Second, even as DC learns to re-imagine the expanse of the Indo-Pacific, it must internalise that Europe and Asia are merging through the efforts of Beijing. As these geographies rediscover one another, everything in between becomes a shared problem; refugee surges from countries mired in civil conflict, the climate crisis, and flows of finance, infrastructure and technology. The US cannot afford to ignore this region if it is to remain relevant at the end of the 2020s.

Third, India will continue to assess the US as its most important partner. A declining superpower is easier to do business with. The Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA) sanctions and sermons on “values” could be shrugged off more quickly. Countries have learnt to assess the US by what it does, not by what it says. Efforts to shape and design regions to suit their own narrow interests are likely to be resisted. Its reliability and trustworthiness will be measured as per its capacity to contain China’s rise without disrupting the determination of states in the region to seek growth and development on their own terms. A transactional America will now encounter transactional friends.

This commentary originally appeared in Hindustan Times.

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Research, Writing

‘Global Britain’: G7, COP26, Indo-Pacific and the Commonwealth

This commentary originally appeared in Journal of Governance Security & Development.

The rise of the European Union (EU) witnessed continental Europe’s gradual disengagement from the non-Atlantic world. A post-colonial ‘Little England’ struggled to maintain its relevance even while retreating from lands across oceans and seas. Pax Britannica, once global, ceded place to a trans-Atlantic compact in which Britain was one of many voices, often drowned out by the voices of others.

The Maastricht Treaty ensured Britain was just another member-state of the EU whose sovereignty, to some extent, rested not in London but Brussels. Brexit was aimed at reclaiming that bartered sovereignty and regaining the power—within and beyond Europe—Britain had surrendered between 1946 and 2016; it took four years to formalise the separation, and for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to re-hoist the banner of ‘Global Britain’. This coincides with the ongoing post-pandemic rearrangement of the international order, Britain’s stewardship of the G7 and the COP26, and its enduring role as the premier financial centre of the world through all the trials and tribulations.

Admittedly, Mr Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ faces challenges because Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ too faces challenges. If the former’s ‘Global Britain’—leaving the “safe harbour of the EU … at a time of heightened global risk”—is set to sail into previously avoided turbulent seas, so is Mr Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ negotiating a new passage.

For both Britain and India, it is not about changing partners and allies but stating new purpose and intent in a profoundly changed world where pre-pandemic truisms and certitudes have been rendered meaningless. It is about rationalising international engagement. Furthermore, it is about seizing the moment to emerge as a major player in crafting the new order necessitated, in large measure, by a declining America and a rising China. Britain and India must define their role in refashioning the global landscape in which a new continent, Eurasia, and a new water body, the Indo-Pacific, dominate. India has made its move; Britain, too, must.

The Strategic Rise of the Indo-Pacific  

The possible blueprint for a future whose geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic landscape is not dominated by the Middle Kingdom is obvious to all, even to those in Europe discomfited by Beijing’s seemingly inexorable continued rise and yet who are unwilling to stand up and be counted. The prospects for a future unburdened by one overwhelming power would appear brighter if nations were to forge partnerships—bilateral, minilateral, plurilateral—within and across geographies. This is already happening: The Indo-Pacific theatre offers the best and, perhaps, most dramatic example.

The political churn in the Indo-Pacific region began even before the pandemic. It gathered speed and gained purpose after the virus disrupted what were perceived to be settled global arrangements and brought to the fore the unfillable cracks that had, till then, been papered over. This churn has thrown up an indisputable fact: India is pivotal to the Indo-Pacific geography and, along with partners, will be defining the future Quad-centric ecosystem. This need not mean adding more members to the Quad comprising the US, Australia, India and Japan. As in the case of building resilient supply chains, it may only amount to specific conversations and initiatives with specific outreach partners. On issues such as climate finance, the UK is a natural Quad cousin.

Having set sail from the ‘safe harbour’ of the EU, Britain must now navigate its way to this geography where it is neither a stranger nor an intruder. Historically, the UK has been present in the Indo-Pacific region, and Britain has a sense of the nations there. Colonialism waned, but Britain’s partnerships waxed—some of its most important partnerships are in these waters; most notably, Britain has strong partnerships with individual members of the Quad, including India.

Historically, the UK has been present in the Indo-Pacific region, and Britain has a sense of the nations there. Colonialism waned, but Britain’s partnerships waxed—some of its most important partnerships are in these waters; most notably, Britain has strong partnerships with individual members of the Quad, including India

Now is the time for the UK to leverage those partnerships and demonstrate that it did not meander its way out of the EU maze directionless, but did so with firm purpose. The forces that shaped Brexit are a powerful wind in Britain’s sails, no longer constrained by either Brussels or Berlin. Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ can and must disprove those who believe it has set itself adrift with neither shore in sight nor destination in mind, by navigating towards the Indo-Pacific region, which accounts for 50 percent of global economic growth—a share that can only increase in the coming times.

Refashioning and Reviving Existing Partnerships 

Besides the Quad, Britain and others have a useful and dynamic collective that could be refashioned—the Commonwealth. It is time to reimagine this grouping and give it purpose and new energy. One possibility would be to create a group of eight within the Commonwealth comprising Britain, India, Bangladesh, Kenya, South Africa, Australia, Canada and Singapore. These eight countries have an influence on and are implicated by the developments in the Indo-Pacific. These countries are crucial for the SDG and Climate agenda, and all of these nations are regional trade hubs and technology centers. These eight can put together a vision for growth, sustainability, technology, and global norms and rules for our future and give teeth to a grouping that has been adrift and make it contemporaneous. Global Britain needs new clubs, but, first, it must explore the opportunities that reside in old partnerships.

Indeed, this provides the perfect fit for the central core strengths of ‘Global Britain’ and the legacies of Great Britain: From finance to the green economy, from technology to knowledge, from education to creative urban design—London leads the race by miles. The British economy is structured in such a manner that other economies stand to benefit from it; there is a mutuality of commercial interest and commonality of political purpose. Unlike the EU, ‘Global Britain’ does not need to offshore its economy.

The strategic importance of ‘Global Britain’—for the UK and the world—cannot be overstressed. That importance will gain traction and draw attention as Glasgow prepares to host COP26, perhaps, the most important event on the global calendar in the post-pandemic year. Britain has the capability to finance a rising nation’s transition to a green future; India and South Asia have the capacity to absorb green investments by Britain as it prepares to transit from the old to the new. Climate partnerships will prove to be the most resilient partnerships of the future, and Britain must know this and act accordingly. The City of London is a natural fit for this endeavour, but it is by no means the only candidate. An enlightened approach, including technology and access to it, can work to mutual and planetary benefit. It is for Britain to demonstrate that its approach is strategic rather than tactical. Released earlier this year, the ‘UK Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy’ is an excellent document. It needs to be put into action quickly.

The strategic importance of ‘Global Britain’—for the UK and the world—cannot be overstressed. That importance will gain traction and draw attention as Glasgow prepares to host COP26, perhaps, the most important event on the global calendar in the post-pandemic year

‘Global Britain’ should not mean Britain’s World. It should rather signify Britain with the world. Through effective engagement, backed by its very own Indo-Pacific strategy based on the twin principles of prosperity and security, it can help reinforce a “sustainable rules-based order in the region that is resilient but adaptable to the great power realities of the 21stcentury”. In all this, the centrality of India is beyond debate or doubt, which only serves to underscore that Britain should naturally invest in and with India. Yet, Britain comes into the contemporary Indo-Pacific as a latecomer, its historical role notwithstanding. It has to add value to the Quad template and India’s own evangelising of the Indo-Pacific; it cannot presume to be a leader by default or based on the past.

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With contributions from

Kanti Bajpai, Hoo Tiang Boon, Sujan Chinoy, Bill Emmott, Frédéric Grare, Suhasini Haidar, Quah Say Jye, Tsutomu Kikuchi, Chung Min Lee, Tanvi Madan,  Kishore Mahbubani, Kalpit A. Mankikar, Rana Mitter, C. Raja Mohan, Samir Saran Teresita Schaffer, Ayesha Siddiqa, Peter Varghese, Igor Yurgens

About the Book

In July 1971, US National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger, made a secret visit to China to meet top Chinese leaders. This inaugurated a new phase not just in US-China relations but in contemporary history. That visit and the subsequent US-China relationship, including the US decision to invest in China’s economic rise and admit it into the World Trade Organisation, combined to firm up the foundations of China’s rise as a world power.

For more than four decades, the leadership of the two countries had a secretive pact, which worked well to each other’s benefit. The US helped power China’s economic growth in the hope that Beijing would turn a new political leaf and adopt Western practices (e.g. democracy). China grew economically and militarily, used its financial prowess to spread its influence across continents, as four generations of Chinese leaders built their nation at the expense of the US.

Half a century after Kissinger’s historic visit, the US and China are today engaged in a trade war bordering on a new Cold War. Washington is not openly talking about “de-coupling” from China, which has begun to challenge its global dominance, but it might very well be. China has already established itself as a dominant power across Eurasia. More worryingly, China is militarily and economically threatening its neighbours, including Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan, Australia, Philippines, Indonesia and India.

This collection of critical essays examines the impact, consequences and legacy of Kissinger’s first, door-opening visit to China and how it has shaped world order.

Books, China, Writing

A New Cold War: Henry Kissinger and the Rise of China

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