Month: October 2017

President Xi and Secretary Tillerson: what two speeches tell us about the future of China and the US

Flags of U.S. and China are placed for a meeting between Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and China's Minister of Agriculture Han Changfu at the Ministry of Agriculture in Beijing, China June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Jason Lee - RC1A8F925660

Landmark addresses by President Xi Jinping and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson were a study in contrast


The past week has been a significant one for speeches. The first was President Xi Jinping’s marathon three-and-a-half-hour-long “report”, inaugurating the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) 19th National Congress. The 68-year-old Xi, widely regarded as the most influential Chinese leader since Chairman Mao, laid his ambition for the Asian giant bare, with his plan for “socialism with Chinese characteristics” in a “new era”.

 

As head of the party, military and state, Xi has accomplished what other world leaders can only dream of: an unprecedented centralization of power. He has the authority to make the world’s largest armed forces and the huge transnational Chinese corporations an instrument of his state policy, and this gives him the muscle to rewrite the rules of international politics.

 

His repeated swipes at President Trump’s “America first” policy, and emphasis on China’s positive role in global governance, sent a clear message: this new era would be Chinese-led, with China able and willing to commit political, military and economic capital to ensure that it happens. Needless to say, the “Chinese dream” – which includes becoming a global tech leader by 2035, reconnecting Eurasia with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and achieving a strong, prosperous society by 2049 – brings with it implications for the rest of the world.

 

Before China can become a global leader, however, it must consolidate its position in Asia – arguably the most important region in the 21st century. What truly defines China’s ambitions in Asia is the BRI – Xi’s signature development strategy, which he called on the country to pursue as a priority. There was an underlying message to those who oppose or question it.

Image: Lowy Institute

China’s proposition

Ostensibly, the BRI is a regional connectivity project, stretching from oil and gas projects in Myanmar to ports in Malaysia and Pakistan, to a military base in Djibouti. This also creates the physical infrastructure for China’s “march west” to capture high-value markets in Europe – an essential part of its rise.

At its core, however, the BRI creates strategic co-dependencies between China and host states, setting the stage for what may be a Sino-centric world order. Already, China is in a position to create norms and rules across the wider region. Its leadership, through institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and initiatives such as the Regional Comprehensive Trade Partnership, significantly aid China in this effort.

While Xi was careful to point out that China’s rise would not be hegemonic, his speech also celebrated China’s militarization of the South China Sea (SCS), regarded by some as detrimental to the smaller littorals in that region.

 

Additionally, several of China’s regional projects have saddled smaller nations with debts they are struggling to repay, as was Sri Lanka’s experience with the Hambantota port. New Delhi, which boycotted the BRI summit in May over these very concerns (alongside the principal concern around sovereignty), was rewarded with a 73-day military standoff in the Himalayas.

 

Xi is confident that other developing countries would benefit from China’s rise. He was clear, however, that China would always protect its national interests – an attitude that will by definition be disadvantageous to many of its neighbours.

A democratic counterweight

Against this backdrop, the second important speech was delivered by the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, a week before he is expected to visit New Delhi. Emphasizing on the importance of “shared democratic values”, Tillerson set out to define America’s “relationship with India for the next century”. Delivered on the same day as Xi’s landmark address, the speech extolled India’s peaceful rise, while chastising China’s disdain for international law and sovereignty.

 

Notably, Tillerson’s critique of the BRI was the strongest the Trump administration has made so far. Earlier in July, an Indo-US joint statement made only an oblique reference to “regional connectivity”, echoing some of India’s concerns. Tillerson, however, was more direct.

Tillerson hailed the US and India as the “eastern and western beacons of the Indo-Pacific”. Having struggled to balance China’s rise in the SCS, the US is keen to prevent the same kind of maritime militarization elsewhere – an objective India undoubtedly shares. Tillerson sees cooperation among the “Indo-Pacific democracies” – namely, India, Japan, the US and Australia – as key to stability in Asia.

 

With an eye on China, Tillerson’s speech is a call to like-minded states to ensure a rule-based multipolar governance architecture. Already, there is clear convergence of norms between the democratic powers – the US and Japan have reiterated India’s position that regional integration must be financed responsibly and must respect sovereignty. Similarly, Japan and India have echoed the US stance on freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of maritime disputes. India led by example when it peacefully settled its dispute with Bangladesh recently.

 

Leading from behind?

What Tillerson’s speech tells us is that the Trump administration is correct in its reading of the geopolitical currents in Asia. It also tells us, unfortunately, that the US has no coherent response. Tillerson’s vague call for “some means of countering [the BRI] with alternative financing measures” underlines the fact that this and previous American pronouncements have not been matched by actual political actions and propositions. There is little to demonstrate that there has been any serious attempt to put together an alternative to the Chinese-led BRI in Washington, DC.

Unlike China, which is forging ahead on its own with its own roadmap, America is attempting to stitch together an alliance that is heavily limited by the larger political compulsions, both its own and those of its partners. Australia, for example, is still debating the nature of its relationship with China, and refusing to take a clear stance on either the BRI or on a maritime order, while Japan is still unsure about transitioning from its pacifist constitution. The US’s own willingness to engage with Pakistan limits its ability to integrate with India. India will confirm that, while it was staring down the dragon in the Himalayas recently, it was indeed lonely.

 

Xi has transformed China into a military heavyweight. Taking into account Beijing’s relaxed purse strings, no developing country can ignore China’s allure. American reluctance to address China’s rise head-on has already seen it lose influence in Asia, including with strategic partner the Philippines. While Tillerson’s words may constitute fresh rhetoric from DC, they will have limited impact on China’s influence, unless backed by real political and economic investments in the region.

 

Hardening fault-lines

 

The speeches by Xi and Tillerson are a study in contrast, and are reflective of the complex times in which they are given. At a time when US primacy is waning, Asia is rapidly emerging as the centre of global economic growth. The geopolitical implications are significant, and the institutional arrangements in Washington to manage this development are missing or feeble.

 

Both politicians sought to address this paradigm and were distinct in their tenor. Xi was imperious and forthright; with no signs of hesitation, he appeared certain that China was a power whose time had come and that he was destined to deliver “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

 

Tillerson, on the other hand, voiced anxiety around managing a rapidly changing environment. It was a plea for collective action; to serve ambiguous goals; on behalf of a country whose policy of “leading from behind” is fast turning into, as US diplomat Richard Haass puts it, “leaving from behind”. The fate of the international order depends on which narrative ultimately prevails. Writing the script for this era will require a strong hand. As things stand currently, we know from whom the ink flows.

Original link is here

Intelligent interlocution

Economic Times, ET Commentary, 24 October, 2017

Original link is here

On Tuesday, the former chief of the Intelligence Bureau, Dineshwar Sharma, was appointed as the Government of India’s representative for Kashmir, in a bid to, in the words of Union home minister Rajnath Singh, “open a sustained dialogue” with stakeholders holding various shades of opinion in the beleaguered state of Jammu and Kashmir.

Dialogue, however, is rarely easy in Kashmir. History, religion, external actors, changing demographics and a technology-driven news environment have turned Kashmir into a perpetually simmering tinderbox of violence and cacophonous opinions.

In his book, Clash of Barbarisms: September 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder, Soas political scientist Gilbert Achcar famously wrote that the US and the Arab world were caught between two ‘barbarianisms’: Islamic fundamentalism and the military muscle of a superpower.

Kashmir, unfortunately, finds itself similarly trapped: a tragic painting of what ails many other parts of the world. A reality where the brutal response to ‘jihad’ and the ‘jihad’ itself affect similar populations.

The first ‘barbarianism’ results from poor state capacity in responding to incidents of terror, violence and unrest in J&K. Each time violence erupts in Kashmir, it generates an exasperatingly similar set of reactions.

Absent of any political guidance, and clever and contemporary security responses, the state police and army resort to brutal methods of crowd control, generating further outrage and disaffection.

Even as angry prime-time anchors fall over themselves to carry the banner of nationalism to garner TRPs, the Valley feels victimised twice over.

The second ‘barbarianism’ is the rabid violence of the extremists, who draw their self-perceived virility from social media where their perverse actions are extolled and eulogised. In turn, tech-savvy, disgruntled and often indoctrinated young men from Kashmir fall prey to the illusion of ‘Azadi’ (freedom) and the romanticism of a transnational jihad. Trapped in the futile narrative of a ‘colonising’ India and an occupied ‘Kashmir’, the aspirations of the state’s citizens remain unfulfilled and democracy mostly defeated.

The Vale Beyond the Veil

Caught between these two extremes, successive central governments in New Delhi have consistently failed to create a political opening to quell this recursive violence. If the Narendra Modi government is intent on making a sincere attempt to free Kashmir from this pattern, it must take stock of past failures and the lessons that they offer.

For one, the rest of the world is largely unsympathetic to separatist and radical movements, especially in areas where Islamic ideologies have taken hold in the post-9/11scenario. It is less likely than ever that the ‘Kashmir conflict’ will be ‘internationalised’, or other parties will seek to mediate.

This, however, may not be a bad thing as it has created enormous space for dialogue, which, in the case of Kashmir, is repeatedly wasted away by unimaginative State policy. Poor governance, failure to empower and create local institutions, and the lack of sustainable economic integration has left the Kashmiris disillusioned and secluded.

Second, despite the predictability of protests and uprisings, the Indian State’s inability to engage with the Valley manifests itself repeatedly through its failure to build police capacity that responds humanely. A larger failure in recent times has been the lack of capability to control the narrative. More often than not, sophisticated separatist propaganda successfully hijacks public perception and imagination.

Add to this, the vicious social media debates between the political parties at the Centre to use the travails of Kashmiris as a useful prop to score brownie points for, or against, the ruling dispensation. Internet shutdowns and curbs on media freedom only fuel the feeling of isolation at one level, and reveal the helplessness of the state machinery at another.

Finally, New Delhi has continued to invest political capital in a select few elite families, in the hope that they may manage the conflict. This is an unfortunate ‘colonial’ tactic. Outreach involves reaching out to disaffected communities and addressing local concerns, and in discovering new voices and new leadership that have astake in the future. Presumably, this is what Dineshwar Sharma hopes to achieve as special interlocutor.

But he has his work cut out. The predominant discord that has manifested in the past year with a spate of violence has seen the coming together of ideas and actors that are sometimes indigenous and organic, sometimes controlled and contrived, and many a times angry and irrational.

The spontaneous discord that emerged this past summer, though, may have been different and new. The response to it must also be novel. It must discard antiquity, manage malevolence and empower new and young democratic voices.

Talk Peace, Not Piece

The Indian State’s failure so far reflects lazy politics. A successful counterterrorism strategy requires outreach, minus the fear and threat of violence that the state today invokes. At the same time, conversations are meaningless if the State cannot create sufficient peace for dialogue to take place.

The key is to find a balance. Perhaps a consensus in Kashmir will require, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, “an abandonment of all beliefs, values and policies. So that it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects”.

The writer is vice-president, Observer Research Foundation

The next ten years of BRICS – will the relationship last?

World Economic Forum, Global Agenda,  3rd October, 2017

Original link is here

Over the years, many observers have expressed skepticism about the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) initiative – and skeptics within the BRICS member states perhaps outnumber those outside.

The reason is a clear lack of traditional logic behind the coming together of these countries. They are dispersed geographically, their economies are in different stages of development and there is a fair degree of ideological dissonance between them. And unlike other economic associations, BRICS does not seek to set up any common political or security architecture.

However, this should not obfuscate the fact that the purpose of BRICS was clear from its inception: to form a convenient and pragmatic 21st-century relationship that pools the influence of its members in order to achieve objectives agreed to by all five countries. In a multipolar world in which economic and political power is rapidly diffusing, the BRICS nations seek to influence and shape the norms of global governance, which have been fashioned by the Atlantic system in the past. BRICS, then, is a coming together of nation states at a particular geopolitical moment to achieve a set of goals.

Each member of BRICS also has their own reason to sustain this plurilateral movement. Russia sees BRICS as a geopolitical counterweight to the eastward expansion of the Atlantic system. For South Africa, BRICS is a means to legitimize its role as a gateway to and powerhouse of the African continent. BRICS allows Brazil to collaborate in the shaping of the Asian century, despite its geographical location. China participates in the forum because it recognizes BRICS as an important vehicle for fashioning governance systems in which its political influence is commensurate to its growing economic heft. Finally, for India, BRICS is a useful bridge between its rising status as a leading power and its erstwhile identity as the leader of the developing world.

BRICS.jpg

How do the BRICS nations sit within the global economy?
Image: BRICS Summit 2015

The first decade of BRICS

BRICS’ first decade saw each of the members laying down groundwork for cooperation, from identifying areas of convergence on political issues to improving economic ties. The level of engagement between its members, ranging from high-level summit and ministerial meetings to various working groups and conferences, has only deepened over that time.

Today there is a fair degree of cooperation on issues such as trade, infrastructure finance, urbanisation and climate change. Moreover, the five members have made modest progress in people-to-people connections. Platforms such as the BRICS Academic Forum and Business Council have proved to be useful in improving their understanding of each other’s industry, academia and government.

 

Undoubtedly, the two most notable achievements of the BRICS have been the institutionalization of the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingency Reserve Arrangement.

 

The importance of these institutions cannot be understated. For one thing, they mark a shift from political rhetoric to delivering concrete results, alleviating some of the skepticism surrounding the BRICS initiative. More importantly, they represent a partial fulfilment of BRICS’ core raison d’être: to offer credible alternatives to the Atlantic system of global governance.

While such institutions are unlikely to ever replace the IMF or the World Bank, they represent a fundamentally different governance paradigm. By giving equal voting rights to its founding members and improving reliance on local currencies, the BRICS members are attempting to create a new, non-Bretton Woods template for the developing world to emulate.

 

The end of innocence

Despite achieving a moderate level of success over the last decade, two recent events have brought the divergence between the BRICS members into sharp focus.

The first is the recent military standoff between India and China on the Doklam plateau, which has effectively brought to an end the naive notion that a comfortable political relationship is always possible amongst the BRICS members. The second is China’s efforts at creating a ‘BRICS plus’ model, a thinly veiled attempt to co-opt nation states, which are integral to its Belt and Road Initiative, into a broader political arrangement.

 

Both of these events highlight how the foundational principles of BRICS – respect for sovereign equality and pluralism in global governance – are liable to be tested as the five member countries pursue their own national agendas.

 

However, instead of derailing the BRICS project, these developments are likely to inject a level of pragmatism into the initiative. While BRICS itself is unlikely to form the lynchpin of foreign policy for any of its members, it will continue to be an important instrument in their toolkit.

 

Essentially, the BRICS members are now likely to realise that the group itself is a ‘limited purpose partnership’ in which political barriers will always limit the partnership’s full economic potential.

The next decade?

If BRICS is to remain relevant over the next decade, each of its members must make a realistic assessment of the initiative’s opportunities and inherent limitations.

BRICS did well in its first decade to identify issues of common interests and to create platforms to address these issues. However, new political realities require the BRICS nations to recalibrate their approach and to recommit to their founding ethos.

For one, they must reaffirm their commitment to a multipolar world that allows for sovereign equality and democratic decision-making. Only by doing so can they address the asymmetry of power within the group and in global governance generally. Only this approach will strengthen multilateralism.

 

Second, they must build on the success of the NDB and invest in additional BRICS institutions. It will be useful for BRICS to develop an institutional research wing, along the lines of the OECD, which can offer solutions distinct from western-led knowledge paradigms and which is better suited to the developing world.

Third, they should consider a BRICS-led effort to meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement on climate change and the UN’s sustainable development goals. This could include, for example, setting up a BRICS energy alliance and an energy policy institution. Similarly, the NDB in partnership with other development finance institutions could be a potent vehicle to finance progress towards the sustainable development goals amongst the BRICS members.

 

Fourth, the BRICS nations can also consider expanding the remit of their cooperation to address emerging areas of global governance such as outer space, the oceans and the internet.

Finally, the BRICS members must encourage direct interactions between their constituents. In the digital age, seamless conversations amongst people, business and academia can foster relationships, which are more likely to cement the future of this alliance than any government efforts.

 

For the first decade of its existence, the group was powered by a top-down approach with large investments of political capital. The second decade must ride on the energy and entrepreneurship of the citizens and communities that reside within the BRICS countries.