Reshaping India’s diplomacy

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BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY

January 18, 2015, The Japan Times

Building closer ties with important democracies has become the leitmotif of his foreign policy. For example, his much-photographed bear hug with Abe in Kyoto has come to symbolize the dawn of an alliance between the world’s largest democracy and Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy. Likewise, Modi is enhancing defense and economic cooperation with Israel, with India ordering more Israeli arms in the past six months than in the previous three years.

When Modi won the election, his critics claimed the nationalist would pursue a doctrinaire approach in office. However, one trademark of Modi’s diplomacy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark.

Nothing better illustrates his pragmatism than the priority he has accorded to restoring momentum to India’s relationship with America.

There was concern in Washington that Modi might nurse a grudge against the United States and keep American officials at arm’s length. After all, the U.S. continued to deny Modi a visa over his alleged involvement in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat even after he had been cleared of any wrongdoing by an inquiry appointed by India’s Supreme Court. Yet, when he won the election, Obama was quick to telephone him and invite him to the White House — an invitation Modi gladly accepted, given the critical importance of America to India.

Modi’s White House visit last September helped him to establish a personal rapport with Obama. Obama’s impending India visit represents both a thank you to Modi for rising above personal umbrage and an effort to lift the U.S.-India relationship to a higher level of engagement through the major new opportunities being opened up for American businesses by Modi’s commitment to pro-market economic policies and defense modernization.

The U.S. already conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country. And in recent years, it has quietly overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India.

Another example of Modi’s pragmatism is his effort to befriend China. He has invited Chinese investment in his plan to modernize India’s infrastructure, especially railroads, power stations and industrial parks. China’s foreign direct investment in India, however, remains trifling, with Chinese companies preferring to import primary commodities from India while exporting an avalanche of finished products.

China represents Modi’s diplomatic gamble, as was highlighted when Xi’s visit to India four months ago coincided with Chinese military incursions into India’s Ladakh region and a Chinese submarine’s visit to Sri Lanka. The submarine visit underscored an emerging new threat to Indian security from the Indian Ocean, a region where China has been building ports and other infrastructure projects to extend its strategic clout and build naval presence.

Another regional adversary, Pakistan, poses a different set of challenges for Modi, given the Pakistani military’s use of terrorist proxies. More than six years after the horrific Mumbai terrorist attacks, Pakistan has yet to begin the trial of the seven Pakistani perpetrators in its custody. Adding insult to injury, Pakistani authorities recently helped United Nations-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed — the architect of the Mumbai attacks — to stage a large public rally in Lahore city, including by running special trains to ferry in participants.

Modi’s Pakistan policy blends a firm response to border provocations with friendly signals. For example, he invited his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration and asked Indian schools to honor the victims of the recent Peshawar attack in Pakistan with a two-minute silence.

At home, Modi has shaken up the diffident foreign-policy establishment with his proactive approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths. By taking bold new tacks, Modi is charting a course to boost India’s strategic influence both in its neighborhood and the wider world.

Indeed, Modi has put his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than the country’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Yet Modi appears to have no intent of enunciating a Modi doctrine in foreign policy. He wants his actions to define his policy trademarks.

His actions have already started speaking for themselves — from his moves to engineer stronger partnerships with Japan and Israel (countries critical to Indian interests but which also courted him even as the U.S. targeted him) to his mortars-for-bullet response to Pakistan’s ceasefire violations. His firm stand at the World Trade Organization on food stockpiling, central to India’s food security, demonstrated that he will stand up even to a powerful, rich nations’ cabal.

More significantly, Modi’s policy appears geared to move India from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality. This means from being nonaligned, India is likely to become multialigned, even as it tilts more toward the U.S. and other democracies in Asia and Europe. Yet, importantly, India will continue to chart its own independent course. For example, unlike Japan, it has refused to join American-led financial sanctions against Russia.

After a long era of ad hoc and reactive Indian diplomacy, the new clarity and vision Modi represents is widely seen as a welcome change for India.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield).

From a nonaligned to multialigned India?

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Brahma Chellaney, Nikkie Asian Review

When a country hosts Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama in rapid succession for bilateral meetings, it demonstrates its ability to forge partnerships with rival powers and broker cooperative international approaches in a changing world. This is exactly what India is doing under Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a display of diplomatic footwork that recently prompted the Russian ambassador to India, Alexander Kadakin, to publicly remark: “India is a rich fiancee with many bridegrooms.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin ahead of their meeting in New Delhi on Dec. 11. Modi will receive U.S. President Barack Obama in January. © Reuters

At a time when a new U.S.-Russia Cold War appears to be brewing, Modi — just after hosting Putin — will receive Obama in January, marking the first time an American president will have the honor of being the chief guest at India’s Jan. 26 Republic Day parade. The charismatic Modi, who won Time magazine’s recent reader poll for “Person of the Year” with his rock star-like following, has also sought to strengthen bilateral partnerships with other key players, including Japan, Australia and Israel. For example, his much-photographed bear hug with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has come to symbolize the dawn of an alliance between the world’s largest democracy and Asia’s oldest (and richest) democracy.

Since sweeping to power in May in India’s biggest election victory in a generation, Modi has shaken up the country’s reactive and diffident foreign-policy establishment with his proactive approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths. The Modi foreign policy appears geared to move India from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality.

In essence, this means that India — a founding leader of the nonaligned movement — is likely to become multialigned. Building close partnerships with major powers to pursue a variety of interests in diverse settings will not only enable India to advance its core priorities but will also help to preserve strategic autonomy, in keeping with its longstanding preference for policy independence.

In the last quarter century, the world witnessed the most profound technological, economic and geopolitical changes in the most compressed timeframe in modern history. But much of India’s last 25 years was characterized by political weakness and drift, resulting in erosion of its regional and extra-regional clout. For example, the gap in power and stature between China and India widened significantly in this period. A 2013 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, entitled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how India is resisting its own rise, as if political drift had turned the country into its own worst enemy.

Against this background, Modi — widely known for his decisiveness — has made revitalizing the country’s economic and military security his main priority. So far he has made more impact in diplomacy than in domestic policy, a realm where he must prove he can help transform India. Nevertheless, Modi’s focus on the grand chessboard of geopolitics to underpin national interests suggests a strategic bent of mind.

Modi indeed has surprised many by investing considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy so early in his term, even though he came to office with little foreign-policy experience. He has succeeded in putting his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than the country’s first post-independence prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Foreign policy pragmatist

Modi’s actions thus far suggest a clear intent to recoup India’s regional losses and to boost its global standing. One trademark of Modi’s foreign policy is that it is shorn of ideology, with pragmatism being the hallmark. In fact, India’s new leader has demonstrated a knack to employ levelheaded ideas in both domestic and foreign policies to lay out a nondoctrinaire vision and to win public support. For example, he has launched a “Make in India” mission to turn the country into an export-driven powerhouse like China and Japan and to transform it from being the world’s largest importer of weapons to becoming an important arms exporter. Modi’s clarity and vision, coming after a long era of ad hoc, reactive Indian diplomacy, is seen as a welcome change for India.

To be sure, the Modi foreign policy faces major regional challenges, exemplified by an arc of failing, revanchist or scofflaw states around India. India’s neighborhood is so chronically troubled that the country faces serious threats from virtually all directions. This tyranny of geography demands that India evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defense. India must actively involve itself regionally to help influence developments, which is what Modi is attempting to do.

A broader and more fundamental challenge for him is to carefully balance closer cooperation with major players in a way that advances India’s economic and security interests, without New Delhi being forced to choose one power over another. One balancing act, for example, is to restore momentum to a flagging relationship with Moscow while boosting ties with the U.S., which has quietly overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India.

Even though Modi told Putin during a summit of BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — in Brazil in July that “every person, every child” in India knows Russia is the country’s “biggest friend,” the reality is that the India-Russia camaraderie of the Cold War era has been replaced by India-U.S. bonhomie. Modi must stem the new risks as Russia moves closer to India’s strategic rivals — selling top-of-the-line weapon systems to China and signing a military-cooperation agreement with Pakistan in November.

Despite the challenges confronting Modi, India seems set to become multialigned, while tilting more toward the U.S. and other democracies in Europe and Asia. Yet, importantly, India will also continue to chart its own independent course. For example, it has rebuffed U.S. pressure to join American-led financial sanctions against Russia and instead has publicly emphasized “the need to defuse Cold War-like tensions that are increasingly manifesting themselves in global relations.” A multialigned India pursuing omnidirectional cooperation for mutual benefit with key players will be better positioned to expand its strategic influence and promote peace and cooperation in international relations.

Because of its geographical location, India is the natural bridge between the West and the East, and between Europe and Asia. Through forward thinking and a dynamic foreign policy, India can truly play the role of a facilitator and soother between the East and the West, including serving as a link between the competing demands of the developed and developing worlds. At a time of heightened geopolitical tensions, the world needs such a bridge-builder.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Water: Asia’s New Battleground,” the winner of the 2012 Bernard Schwartz Award.

Deconstructing the Modi foreign policy

BRAHMA CHELLANEYThe Hindu, December 4, 2014

India — home to more than a sixth of the human race — punches far below its weight. Internationally, it is a rule-taker, not a rule-maker. A 2013 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, titled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how India is resisting its own rise, as if political drift had turned the country into its own worst enemy.

Since the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, the world has witnessed the most-profound technological, economic and geopolitical change in the most-compressed time frame in history. Unfortunately for India, despite its impressive economic growth overall, much of its last 25 years has been characterized by political weakness and drift. For example, between 1989 and 1998, India had a succession of six weak governments. It is not an exaggeration to call Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s two terms “the lost decade” for India strategically.

Waning regional influence

The result of the prolonged leadership crisis has been a sharp erosion in India’s regional and extra-regional clout. The gap in power and stature between China and India has widened significantly. After all, this was the quarter-century in which China took off.

More troubling has been India’s shrinking space in its own strategic backyard. Even tiny Maldives had the gall to kick India in the chin and get away with it. It kicked out its Indian airport operator from the capital Male and publicly dressed down the Indian Ambassador without fear of consequences. In Nepal, India found itself competing with China. And in Sri Lanka, India became content to play second fiddle to China.

The paradox is that India’s economy continued to grow even as India’s regional influence waned. This shows that GDP growth by itself cannot translate into stronger foreign policy in the absence of a dynamic, forward-looking leadership and cogent, strategic goals. In fact, when India was economically weak under Indira Gandhi, it had a fairly robust foreign policy, with no neighbour daring to mess with it.

Job_9086Against this background, the political rise of Narendra Modi — known for his decisiveness — could be a potential game-changer. It is too early to define, let alone judge, his foreign policy, given that Mr. Modi has been in office for just six months. Yet, as he focuses on revitalizing the country’s economic and military security, five things stand out.

First, Mr. Modi continues to invest considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy so early in his term. Critics may contend that his exceptionally busy foreign-policy schedule, coupled with campaign meetings in serial state elections, leaves him restricted time to focus on his most critical responsibility — domestic issues, which will define his legacy.

Powered by ideas

No previous Indian Prime Minister participated in so many high-powered multilateral and bilateral summits in his or her first months in office as Mr. Modi. U.S. President Barack Obama’s high-profile visit in January will keep national attention on diplomacy. To be sure, Mr. Modi’s focus on the grand chessboard of geopolitics to underpin national interests suggests a strategic bent of mind that only one previous Prime Minister credibly demonstrated — Indira Gandhi.

Second, the Modi foreign policy is powered by ideas, not by any ideology. Indeed, Mr. Modi has demonstrated a knack to skilfully employ level-headed ideas to shape a non-doctrinaire vision and galvanize public opinion. On domestic policy, too, he is using the power of ideas, such as “Swachh Bharat” (or Clean India). In the strategic domain, he is taking his “Make in India” mission to the heavily-import-dependent defence sector. The real test ultimately will be Mr. Modi’s ability to translate his ideas into transformative accomplishments.

Third, he has projected a nimble foreign policy with pragmatism as its hallmark. Nothing better illustrates this than the priority he has accorded — by shaking off U.S. visa-denial humiliation heaped on him over nine years — to restoring momentum to the relationship with America. Mr. Obama’s scheduled visit as chief guest at Republic Day represents both a thank you to Mr. Modi for rising above personal umbrage and an effort to lift the India-U.S. relationship to a higher level of engagement through the major new opportunities being opened up for American businesses by Mr. Modi’s commitment to pro-market economic policies and defence modernization.

The U.S. already conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country. And in recent years, it has quietly overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India.

Food security issue

Fourth, Mr. Modi has put his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than Jawaharlal Nehru. Yet, he appears to have no intent to enunciate a Modi doctrine in foreign policy. In contrast to the meretricious “Gujral Doctrine,” which delivered little more than words, Mr. Modi wants his actions to define his policy trademarks.

In fact, his actions have started speaking for themselves — from his moves to engineer stronger partnerships with Japan and Israel (countries critical to Indian interests but which also courted him even as the U.S. targeted him) to his mortars-for-bullet response to Pakistani ceasefire violations. His firm stand at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the food-stockpiling issue, central to India’s food security, stood out.

After vetoing the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement in Geneva, Mr. Modi made the U.S. climbdown on the food-stockpiling issue, yet earned praise from Mr. Obama for helping to break the impasse. Even the head of the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development backed the veto, saying the real choice for India in Geneva was between “feeding” its citizens and “creating jobs” for wealthy economies. After all, the main providers of agricultural subsidies are the rich countries plus China.

For monsoon-dependent, drought-prone India, stockpiling food through a minimum support price to farmers serves as an insurance policy against a 1960s-style mortifying situation that saw New Delhi beseeching foreign food aid, including under U.S.’s PL-480 programme. At Bali, however, the Singh government meekly delinked the Trade Facilitation Agreement from a deal on food stockpiling. By agreeing to kick the can on the stockpiling issue to 2017, it put India’s food security at risk in case no deal was reached by that deadline — a probable scenario. Mr. Modi has succeeded in undoing Dr. Singh’s egregious concession by clinching a deal under which the developing countries’ food-stockholding programmes will face no WTO challenge until a permanent solution is found, thus shielding them from pressures indefinitely.

Looking East

Fifth, Mr. Modi — unlike the leaders who preceded him — attaches major significance to diplomatic symbolism. For example, with the opening of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit coinciding with the sombre anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks, he gave the cold shoulder to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, for refusing to prosecute the masterminds of that Pakistani scripted and executed operation. Mr. Modi publicly shook hands with Mr. Sharif only the following day at the Dhulikhel retreat. In fact, to concentrate on his broader regional and global agenda, Mr. Modi has done well to sideline Pakistan, a noxious issue that weighed down Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foreign policy. Mr. Modi, in any event, faces an important dilemma on Pakistan: With whom to engage there? After being politically cut to size by the military establishment, Mr. Sharif is like a parrot perched on the generals’ shoulders, trying to echo their lines on India, even if stutteringly.

To be sure, Mr. Modi faces major regional challenges, exemplified by the arc of failing, revanchist or scofflaw states around India. This tyranny of geography demands that India evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. India must actively involve itself regionally to help influence developments, which is what Mr. Modi is seeking to do. Indeed, his priority — apparent from the time he invited regional leaders to his inauguration — is to retrieve India’s lost ground in its strategic backyard.

As Pakistan’s obstructionism at Kathmandu to greater intra-regional cooperation highlighted, SAARC is likely to remain a stunted organisation. India, while building stronger bilateral linkages with other neighbours, must strengthen its “Look East” policy. India indeed has little choice but to look east because when it looks west, it sees only trouble. The entire belt to India’s west from Pakistan to Syria is a contiguous arc of instability and extremism. Looking east allows India to join the economic dynamism that characterizes the region to its east.

For a politician who came to office with virtually no foreign-policy experience, Mr. Modi has demonstrated impressive diplomatic acumen, including in taking bold new directions, charting a vision to reclaim India’s lost strategic clout, holding his ground in talks with world leaders, and responding to provocations by regional foes. Mr. Modi has shaken India’s foreign-policy establishment with his proactive approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths.

All in all, the Modi foreign policy appears geared to reinvent India as a more competitive, confident and secure country claiming its rightful place in the world. A robust foreign policy, however, can sustain itself only on the foundation of a strong domestic policy, a realm where Mr. Modi must prove he can help transform India.

(Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.)

© The Hindu, 2014.

How India can reclaim leverage over the Tibet issue

Brahma Chellaney, Mint, November 12, 2014

Despite booming two-way trade, India-China strategic discord and rivalry is sharpening. At the core of their divide is Tibet, an issue that fuels territorial disputes, border tensions and water feuds.

Beijing says Tibet is a core issue for China. In truth, Tibet is the core issue in Beijing’s relations with countries like India, Nepal and Bhutan that traditionally did not have a common border with China. These countries became China’s neighbours after it annexed Tibet, which, after waves of genocide since the 1950s, now faces ecocide.

China itself highlights Tibet as the core issue with India by laying claim to Indian territories on the basis of purported Tibetan religious or tutelary links, rather than any professed Han Chinese connection. Indeed, ever since China gobbled up the historical buffer with India, Tibet has remained the core issue.

The latest reminder of this reality came when President Xi Jinping brought Chinese incursions across the Indo-Tibetan border on his recent India visit. Put off by the intrusions, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government permitted Tibetan exiles to stage protests during Xi’s New Delhi stay, reversing a pattern since the early 1990s of such protests being foiled by police during the visit of any Chinese leader.

imagesHowever, India oddly bungled on Tibet and Sikkim during Xi’s visit — diplomatic goof-ups that escaped media attention.

In response to China’s increasing belligerence — reflected in a rising number of Chinese border incursions and Beijing’s new assertiveness on Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) — India since 2010 stopped making any reference to Tibet being part of China in a joint statement with China. It has also linked any endorsement of “one China” to a reciprocal Chinese commitment to a “one India.”

Yet the Modi-Xi joint statement brought in Tibet via the backdoor, with India appreciating the help extended by the “local government of Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China” to Indian pilgrims visiting Tibet’s Kailash-Mansarover, a mountain-and-lake duo sacred to four faiths: Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Tibet’s indigenous religion, Bon. Several major rivers, including the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej and the Karnali, originate around this holy duo.

The statement’s reference to the “Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China” was out of place. It lent implicit Indian support to Tibet being part of China by gratuitously changing the formulation recorded during Premier Li Keqiang’s 2013 visit, when the joint statement stated: “The Indian side conveyed appreciation to the Chinese side for the improvement of facilities for the Indian pilgrims.” Did those in the ministry of external affairs (MEA) who helped draft the statement apprise the political decision-makers of the implications of the new, China-inserted formulation?

After all, the new wording ran counter to India’s position since 2010 — a stance that came with the promise of repairing the damage from India’s past blunders over Tibet, including by Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi. Nehru, in the 1954 Panchsheel pact, ceded India’s British-inherited extraterritorial rights in Tibet and implicitly accepted the sprawling region’s annexation without any quid pro quo. Under the terms of this accord, India withdrew its “military escorts” from Tibet, and handed over to China the postal, telegraph and telephone services it operated there.

But in 2003, Atal Bihari Vajpayee went further than any predecessor and formally surrendered India’s Tibet card. In a statement he signed with the Chinese premier, Vajpayee used the legal term “recognize” to accept what China deceptively calls the Tibet Autonomous Region as “part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China.”

Vajpayee’s blunder opened the way for China to claim Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet,” a term it coined in 2006 to legitimize its attempt at rolling annexation. Had Vajpayee not caved in, China would not been emboldened to ingeniously invent the term “South Tibet” for Arunachal, which is three times the size of Taiwan and twice as large as Switzerland. And since 2010, Beijing has also questioned India’s sovereignty over J&K, one-fifth of which is under Chinese occupation.

In this light, the reference to China’s Tibet region in the Modi-Xi joint statement granted Beijing via the backdoor what India has refused to grant upfront since 2010. This sleight of hand implicitly endorsed Tibet as being part of China without Xi committing to a “one India” policy.

Now consider India’s second mistake — falling for China’s proposal for establishing an alternative route for Indian pilgrims via Sikkim, a state that strategically faces India’s highly vulnerable “chicken’s neck” and where Beijing is working to insidiously build influence.

Ironically, it is by agreeing to open a circuitous alternative route for pilgrims via Sikkim’s Nathula crossing that Beijing extracted the appreciation from India to China’s Tibet government. Given that Kailash-Mansarovar is located close to the Uttarakhand-Nepal-Tibet tri-junction, the new route entails a long, arduous detour — pilgrims must first cross eastern Himalayas and then head toward western Himalayas through a frigid, high-altitude terrain.

Unsurprisingly, the meandering route has kicked up controversy, with the Uttarakhand chief minister also injecting religion to contend that scriptures “recognize only the traditional paths for pilgrimage passing through Uttarakhand.” China currently permits entry of a very small number of Indian pilgrims through just one point — Uttarakhand’s Lipulekh Pass. The Indian foreign ministry, which organizes the Kailash-Mansarovar visits, is to take a maximum of 1,080 pilgrims in batches this year, with no more than 60 travellers in each lot.

One obvious reason China chose the roundabout route via Sikkim is that the only section of the Indo-Tibetan border it does not dispute is the Sikkim-Tibet frontier, except for the tiny Finger Area there. Beijing recognizes the 1890 Anglo-Sikkim Convention, which demarcated the 206-kilometre Sikkim-Tibet frontier, yet paradoxically rejects as a colonial relic Tibet’s 1914 McMahon Line with India, though not with Myanmar.

tibet_china_rail_map_600_20060828The more important reason is that China is seeking to advance its strategic interests in the Sikkim-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, which overlooks the narrow neck of land that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country. Should the chicken’s neck ever be blocked, the northeast would be cut off from the Indian mainland. In the event of a war, China could seek to do just that.

Two developments underscore its strategic designs. China is offering Bhutan a territorial settlement in which it would cede most of its other claims in return for being given the strategic area that directly overlooks India’s chokepoint. At the same time, Beijing is working systematically to shape a Sino-friendly Kagyu sect, which controls important Indian monasteries along the Tibetan border and is headed by the China-anointed but now India-based Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley.

The Indian government has barred Ogyen Trinley — who raised suspicion in 1999 by escaping from Tibet with astonishing ease — from visiting the sect’s headquarters at Rumtek, Sikkim.

Yet — redounding poorly on Indian intelligence — the Mandarin-speaking Ogyen Trinley has been regularly receiving envoys sent by Beijing. In recent years, he has met Han religious figures as well as Xiao Wunan, the effective head of the Asia-Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation. This dubious foundation, created to project China’s soft power, has unveiled plans with questionable motives to invest $3 billion at Lord Buddha’s birthplace in Nepal — Lumbini, located virtually on the open border with India.

Ogyen Trinley — the first Tibetan lama living in exile to include Han Buddhist rituals in traditional Tibetan practices — was recently accused by the head of the Drukpa sect in India of aiding Beijing’s frontier designs by using his money power to take over Drukpa Himalayan monasteries, including in the Kailash-Mansarovar area. Indeed, Himachal Pradesh police in 2011 seized large sums of Chinese currency from the Karmapa’s office.

Since coming up to power, Modi has pursued a nimble foreign policy. His government, hopefully, can learn from its dual mistakes. With China now challenging Indian interests even in the Indian Ocean region, it has become imperative for India to find ways to blunt Chinese trans-Himalayan pressures.

One key challenge Modi faces is how to build leverage against China, which largely sets the bilateral agenda, yet savours a galloping, $36-plus billion trade surplus with India. Modi’s “Make in India” mission cannot gain traction as long as Chinese dumping of goods undercuts Indian manufacturing.

Also, past blunders on Tibet by leaders from Nehru to Vajpayee have helped narrow the focus of Himalayan disputes to what China claims. The spotlight now is on China’s Tibet-linked claim to Arunachal, rather than on Tibet’s status itself.

To correct that, Modi must find ways to add elasticity and nuance to India’s Tibet stance.

One way for India to gradually reclaim its leverage over the Tibet issue is to start emphasizing that its acceptance of China’s claim over Tibet hinged on a grant of genuine autonomy to that region. But instead of granting autonomy, China has make Tibet autonomous in name only, bringing the region under its tight political control and unleashing increasing repression.

India must not shy away from urging China to begin a process of reconciliation and healing in Tibet in its own interest and in the interest of stable Sino-Indian relations. China’s hydro-engineering projects are another reminder that Tibet is at the heart of the India-China divide and why India must regain leverage over the Tibet issue.

That a settlement of the Tibet issue is imperative for regional stability and for improved Sino-Indian relations should become India’s consistent diplomatic refrain. India must also call on Beijing to help build harmonious bilateral relations by renouncing its claims to Indian-administered territories.

Through such calls, and by using expressions like the “Indo-Tibetan border” and by identifying the plateau to the north of its Himalayas as Tibet (not China) in its official maps, India can subtly reopen Tibet as an outstanding issue, without having to formally renounce any of its previously stated positions.

Tibet ceased to be a political buffer when China occupied it in 1950-51. But Tibet can still turn into a political bridge between China and India. For that to happen, China must start a process of political reconciliation in Tibet, repudiate claims to Indian territories on the basis of their alleged Tibetan links, and turn water into a source of cooperation, not conflict.

(c) Mint, 2014.

A broken international system?

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PLA aborts Modi’s China reset

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Brahma Chellaney, Mint, October 7, 2014

Despite China finally withdrawing its troops from Ladakh’s Chumar area after extracting a concession from India to demolish a key observation post, the tense standoff on the frigid heights of western Himalayas will be remembered as the symbol of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s abortive effort to reset India’s relationship with Beijing. After assuming office, Modi went out of his way to befriend China, making a series of overtures.

Modi received the Chinese foreign minister before welcoming any other foreign dignitary. His first bilateral meeting with an important head of state was with President Xi Jinping at the BRICS summit in Brazil. Indeed, Modi postponed his own Japan trip so that he met Xi first in Brazil. Furthermore, Xi was given the honour of being the first G-8 head of state to visit India. Not only that, Modi became the first prime minister to receive a foreign leader outside New Delhi — that too on his own birthday.

ximodisabarmati4So when Xi, wearing a Nehru jacket, toasted the birthday of his host at a private dinner on the bank of River Sabarmati in Gujarat, it highlighted Modi’s charm offensive to build a more cooperative relationship with a country that poses the main strategic challenge to India. Such was Modi’s courtship that Xi quoted him as saying “India and China are two bodies in one spirit”.

But the diplomatic love-fest quickly turned into diplomatic discomfiture as news trickled in that hundreds of Chinese soldiers had intruded into Chumar. While Modi was publicly espousing “inch toward miles” as the motto of India-China cooperation, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was implementing that call through a fresh action on the ground. Even more galling was the fact that this incursion — the worst in troop numbers in many years — came to epitomize Xi’s birthday gift for Modi.

China has used virtually every high-level visit to flex its muscles while talking peace. For example, China conducted its most-powerful nuclear test ever in 1992 during the first-ever state visit of an Indian president. In 2003, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was surrendering India’s Tibet card in Beijing at the altar of diplomatic expediency, a PLA patrol intruded 14 kilometres into Arunachal Pradesh and abducted a 10-member Indian security team.

When Chinese leaders have visited India, their trips have been preceded by or coincided with territorial provocations. It was just before President Hu Jintao’s 2006 visit that China began claiming Arunachal Pradesh as “South Tibet”. Likewise, prior to Premier Wen Jiabao’s 2010 trip, Beijing began questioning India’s sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir, one-fifth of which China occupies. And Premier Li Keqiang’s 2013 visit followed a deep PLA encroachment into Ladakh’s Depsang plateau.

The message that China seeks to deliver through such provocations is that if India does not behave, it seriously risks being taught a 1962-style lesson. Indeed, just as it deceptively accused an ill-prepared India in 1962 of having provoked the Chinese trans-Himalayan invasion, China has used its official media and think-tanks to charge India with intentionally ramping up border tensions during Xi’s visit to exert pressure on China.

Modi thought he could co-opt China as a partner in India’s development and help ease the territorial disputes. But in Chinese strategy, political and economic elements are closely integrated, with hard and soft tactics going hand-in-hand. This was demonstrated by China rattling its sabres while its president was paying a state visit to India.

Even without considering Xi’s “birthday gift” for Modi, his visit was underwhelming in substance. Xi’s $20-billion investment promise is like honey presented on a sharp knife: partaking it will cut India’s interests, including by giving China greater leeway to dump more goods in the Indian market and rake in larger profits. China’s exports to India already are almost 3½ times greater in value than its imports. Yet China’s total investment in India is a trifling $500 million, or only slightly over 1% of its yearly trade surplus with it at present.

Had the trade surplus been in India’s favour on this scale, imagine the kind of pressures China would have brought to bear. Indeed, China has a record of using trade as a political weapon, including against Japan, the Philippines and South Korea. India, by hinging China’s market access on progress in resolving political, territorial and water disputes, can prevent Beijing from fortifying its leverage.

The good news is that Modi is standing up to the pressure from an unyielding and revanchist China, signalling that India will no longer put up with incursions, which escalated significantly over the past seven years under his meek predecessor even as he stayed mum. Modi was so jolted by Xi’s “birthday gift” (the intruding Chinese force numbered 1,000 or more at its peak) that he forthrightly called border peace “an essential foundation” for India-China ties, saying it won’t be possible for the two countries to collaborate meaningfully without peace. Modi knows that China has exposed itself by opening fronts with several neighbours.

The PLA’s growing political clout emboldens its strategy of incremental encroachment through furtive nibbling. The only counter to its aggressive deterrence is offensive defence. But India still clings to defensive defence, deploying border police as its first line of defence against regular PLA troops. The result is that India continues to get blindsided by repeated incursions. It is time for India to reappraise its Himalayan defences, or else its posture of defensive defence will continue to spring nasty surprises.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.

© Mint, 2014.

India’s China problem

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Brahma Chellaney, The World Post/The Huffington Post

xi-jinping-14Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who swept to power in May with a thumping electoral mandate, faces a major test in diplomacy in the form of bilateral summits this month with three powers central to Indian foreign policy — Japan, China, and the United States. Modi met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on September 1, and will now receive Chinese President Xi Jinping in New Delhi. He will then visit the White House at the end of the month.

China poses the toughest challenge for Modi, although the Indian leader had a good meeting with Xi on the sidelines of the recent summit of BRICS, a grouping of major emerging economies. Their body language at the summit in Brazil indicated the two had formed an easy personal equation.

After assuming office, Modi was quick to reach out to China, negating the assumption of some analysts that his government would be less accommodating toward Beijing than its predecessor. Modi views China, with its massive foreign-exchange reserves, as a potential partner in India’s development. Yet, at a time when the China-India trade relationship is already lopsided, with Beijing exporting three times as much as it imports and treating India as a raw-material appendage of its economy like Africa, Modi must find ways to address this glaring asymmetry while seeking to make a cash-rich China an important partner in India’s developmental priorities.

Another challenge for Modi is to balance such deeper economic engagement with India’s strategic imperatives, including bolstering defenses against China and containing increasing Chinese border provocations. According to figures released by Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju in India’s Parliament recently, Chinese border transgressions this year have exceeded more than one per day, totaling 334 up to August 4.

The often tense relationship between the world’s two most-populous countries holds significant implications for international security and Asian power dynamics. As China and India gain economic heft, they are drawing ever more international attention. However, their underlying strategic dissonance and rivalry over issues extending from land and water to geopolitical influence usually attracts less notice.

The vast Tibetan plateau separated the Indian and Chinese civilizations throughout history, limiting their interaction to sporadic cultural and religious contacts, with political relations absent. It was only after Tibet’s annexation in the early 1950s that Han Chinese military units appeared for the first time on India’s Himalayan frontiers. This was followed by a bloody Himalayan war in 1962.

More than half a century later, their old rifts persist even as new issues have started roiling their relationship, including Beijing’s resurrected claim since 2006 to the sprawling northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, almost three times larger than Taiwan. A perceptible hardening of China’s stance toward India is also manifest from other developments, including Chinese strategic projects and military presence in the Pakistan-held portion of Kashmir.

Between 2000 and 2010, China-India trade rose 20-fold, making it the only area where relations have thrived. Yet the booming trade has failed to subdue their rivalry.

At the root of the current Himalayan tensions are China’s persistent efforts to alter the territorial status quo. To be sure, India is not China’s only target: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is seeking to also disturb the territorial status quo with several other neighboring countries, including Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Instead of invading, the PLA has chosen to engage in a steady progression of steps to outwit opponents and create new facts on the ground, whether in the South China Sea or the Indian Himalayas. In this way, it has sought to change the status quo without inviting outright conflict with neighboring countries. While China’s navy and a part of its air force focus on supporting revanchist territorial and maritime claims in the South and East China seas, its army has been active in the mountainous borderlands with India.

To prevent the PLA from further nibbling at its territories, India has been beefing up its military deployments in the two sensitive regions located on the opposite ends of the Himalayas — Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. It has also launched a crash program to improve its logistical capabilities through new roads, airstrips, and advanced landing stations along the Himalayas.

More importantly, India is raising a new mountain strike corps to arm itself with quick-reaction ground offensive capabilities against China. This new XVII Corps, with more than 90,000 troops, will cost $10.7 billion and be fully operational within five years. India has already deployed ballistic missile squadrons, spy drones, and Russian-built Sukhoi-30MKI fighterjets in the eastern theater against China.

Still, with the inhospitable Himalayan border difficult to patrol effectively, incursions by PLA troops have increased across the “line of actual control” (LAC) that China itself unilaterally drew when it defeated India in the 1962 Chinese-initiated war. Because the LAC has not been mutually clarified — China reneged on a 2001 promise to exchange maps with India — Beijing disputes each intrusion, claiming its troops are merely on “Chinese land.” To be sure, when challenged by Indian border police, the intruding troops tend to retreat from most points. But the rising pattern of incursions ties down large numbers of Indian border police and army troops along the Himalayas.

Despite China’s belligerence, Modi has gone out of his way to befriend Xi’s government. As prime minister, he received the Chinese foreign minister before welcoming any other foreign dignitary. Modi’s first bilateral meeting with a major state head was with Xi in Brazil. He allowed Xi to advance his India visit to September while postponing his own Japan trip so as to meet with Xi first in Brazil. Xi will be the first leader of a major power to travel to New Delhi for talks with Modi.

Modi sent India’s vice president to the 60th-anniversary celebrations in Beijing of the Panchsheel (Five Principles) treaty of peaceful coexistence, a pact that China used to outfox and outflank India, culminating in the 1962 border war. Modi even agreed to let Shanghai be the headquarters of the new BRICS bank, accepting just a consolation prize for India — an Indian as its first president.

These overtures, however, can barely conceal either India’s anxiety over China’s increasing muscle flexing or Modi’s determination to build close strategic ties with Japan in order to put discreet checks on China’s exercise of its rapidly accumulating power, which risks sliding into arrogance.

China’s strategy of constant outward pressure on its borders not only threatens to destabilize Asia’s status quo but is also pushing countries like India, Japan, and Vietnam to strategically collaborate. Modi’s priority is to ensure stable power equilibrium in Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author, most recently, of “Water, Peace, and War” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

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