Divided Asean spins its wheels as great powers become back-seat drivers

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Brahma Chellaney says recent multilateral discussions in Singapore did little to advance preventive diplomacy or conflict resolution.

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Brahma Chellaney, South China Morning Post

Despite its lack of cohesiveness and geopolitical heft, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations likes to be in the driver’s seat even on initiatives that extend beyond its region. But having placed itself at the wheel, Asean usually needs instructions from back-seat drivers on how to proceed and where to go.

One such example is the Asean Regional Forum, which provides a setting for annual ministerial discussions on peace and security issues across the Asia-Pacific. Established in 1994, it draws together 27 member-states, including key players such as the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia, Australia and the two Koreas.

The forum’s latest discussions were held this month along with three other meetings – the 18-nation East Asia Summit (whose membership extends from the US and New Zealand to India and Russia), the Asean Plus Three (China, Japan and South Korea) and Asean’s own annual ministerial discussions. These meetings, all at foreign minister level and held in rapid succession in Singapore, advertised the vaunted “centrality” of Asean, which represents a strategic region connecting the Pacific and Indian oceans.

But as Asean increasingly seeks to play an extra-regional role, its project to build a robust Southeast Asian community appears to have lost momentum. Indeed, its internal challenges are mounting.

The association has not been able to moderate great-power competition in its own region. Rival Chinese and US pressures on Asean have actually crimped its room to manoeuvre.

More fundamentally, the Asean-centred extra-regional initiatives, characterised by consensual decision making and minimal institutionalisation, serve mainly as “talk shops” for confidence building and improved cooperation. Like in Asean itself, the politics of lowest common denominator tends to prevail.

Consequently, these forums have not moved to preventive diplomacy or conflict resolution. They have also not been able to tangibly contribute to building a rules-based order or rein in aggressive unilateralism by their own members like China, the US and Russia.

Despite their limitations, the forums are seen by members as offering good value for promoting their foreign policy objectives and for making progress towards an Asia-Pacific security, political and economic architecture.

The latest spate of multilateral discussions in Singapore focused on issues ranging from North Korea’s denuclearisation – with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging all states to “strictly enforce all sanctions” on Pyongyang – to the impending Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, which would create the world’s largest trading bloc.

The discussions helped underscore the competing geopolitical interests at play. China, which views the US-led strategy for a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region as directed at it, mocked Pompeo’s separate announcements of US$113 million and US$300 million in funding for economic and security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, respectively.

China’s state media compared these “paltry” US commitments with Beijing’s planned investment of US$900 billion in its “Belt and Road Initiative”, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi took a dig at Pompeo, saying: “The US is the sole superpower in today’s world, with a GDP totalling US$16 trillion. So when I first heard this figure of US$113 million I thought I heard wrong.”

The highlight of the Singapore meetings, however, was the announcement by China and Asean that they had agreed on a draft document that will serve as a basis for further negotiations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways.

A code was mandated by the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, which exhorted all parties “to exercise self-restraint” with regard to “activities that would complicate or escalate disputes”. But that appeal was essentially ignored by China, which in recent years has fundamentally changed the status quo in the South China Sea in its favour, without incurring any international costs.

Sixteen years after that declaration, just a draft to negotiate a code of conduct has been announced. By the time the actual code emerges, China would have fully consolidated its control in the South China Sea, with the code only serving to reinforce the new reality. This explains why Beijing has delayed a code of conduct while it presses ahead in the South China Sea with frenzied construction and militarisation.

Today, the South China Sea has emerged as Asean’s Achilles’ heel, with the association’s failure to take a unified stance serving to aid Beijing’s divide-and-rule strategy. China has used inducement and coercion to split Asean and try to dictate terms to it.

The rift between pro-China Asean members and the rest has now become difficult to set right. By conveying disunity and weakness, Asean has emboldened China’s territorial and maritime revisionism, which, in turn, has made the South China Sea the world’s most critical hotspot.

Against this background, the much-hyped announcement of a single draft document for future negotiations, with Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan hailing it as “yet another milestone in the code of conduct process”, was just the latest example of how Asean has been playing right into China’s hands.

In fact, that announcement came soon after the second anniversary of the landmark ruling of an international arbitral tribunal, which knocked the bottom out of China’s grandiose territorial claims in the South China Sea. Since that ruling, which is now part of international law, China has only accelerated its expansionism, as if it is working to make the verdict totally meaningless.

This is a reminder that international law by itself is no answer to China’s expansionism. There needs to be a concerted international campaign to pressure and shame China. If Southeast Asia, a region of nearly 640 million people, is coerced into accepting Chinese hegemony, it will have a cascading geopolitical impact across the Indo-Pacific.

Yet, as if to advertise Asean’s inherent weakness, a meeting of its foreign ministers held just after the international tribunal’s ruling failed to issue even an agreed statement.

Asean was established in 1967 during the height of the cold war as a five-nation political organisation to help combat the potential threat of communist insurgencies in the region. At the time, the authoritarian-leaning, pro-capitalist governments of its founding members – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – were facing internal and external threats. After the cold war ended, Asean expanded to cover much of Southeast Asia, from Myanmar to its former foe Vietnam.

Since then, the triumphs of an expanded Asean have largely been in the economic area. Politically, of course, Asean has been able to build greater interstate cooperation and stability in Southeast Asia, while collectively turning its members into a force to reckon with in international relations. This is no mean achievement.

Today, however, Asean’s challenges are being compounded by the widening gap between economics and politics in Southeast Asia. The region is integrating economically, with its economic vibrancy on open display. But its political diversity and divisions have exacerbated in the absence of common political norms.

This has raised questions about Asean’s capacity to safeguard peace and security in its own region. Such concerns have been heightened by the lack of an effective response to Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, despite its transnational effects. Asean is also struggling to cope with other pressing regional problems – from human rights abuses in some member-states and transnational human trafficking to the degradation of coastal and other marine ecosystems.

In fact, Asean has left itself little room for reflection and reform by elaborately staging its summits and foreign-minister meetings in conjunction with the extra-regional initiatives that bring leaders of outside powers. This not only allows outsiders to press their own objectives but also keeps the focus on larger international issues, with Asean notionally in the driver’s seat.

As Asean seeks to enlarge its extra-regional profile, its “centrality” in broader initiatives is exacting an increasing price internally and laying bare its limitations. Its internal stasis underscores the imperative for it to reform and become a more cohesive, dynamic and result-oriented institution that helps underpin a stable rules-based order in Southeast Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground”.

© South China Morning Post, 2018.

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U.S. injects new irritant in ties with India

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Brahma Chellaney, Mail Today

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U.S. President Donald Trump’s first round of Iran-related sanctions has come into force this week, with no waiver for India in sight as yet. The U.S. Congress has passed legislation granting India a waiver from its new Russia-centred sanctions, but the waiver is conditional and contingent upon a periodic, six-monthly presidential certification. The Indian media highlighted the passing of the waiver legislation but not the conditions it incorporated.

India, as a longstanding significant buyer of Russian weapons and the second-largest importer of Iranian oil after China, is a major victim of the new U.S. sanctions. By implicitly mounting two-pronged pressure on New Delhi on energy and defence fronts, Washington has injected a major new irritant in the bilateral relationship, as if to underscore the risks for India of pursuing a foreign policy too closely aligned with America.

By slapping a nation with punitive sanctions, the U.S. seeks to block trade and financial activities with that country even by other states. Such extraterritorial sanctions — which it euphemistically labels “secondary” sanctions — run counter to international law. Yet the U.S. uses its unmatched power to turn national actions into global measures.

As the world’s reserve currency that greases the wheels of the global financial system, the U.S. dollar arms America with tremendous leverage, making U.S. sanctions the most powerful in the world. Most international transactions, from banking to oil, are conducted in U.S. dollars.

Today, however, the U.S. faces a major test to effectively enforce its new extraterritorial sanctions relating to Iran, a Trump obsession, and Russia, which still evokes bipartisan hostility in Washington although Russia’s economy has shrunk to one-tenth the size of China’s and its military spending to one-fifth of China’s.

Trump’s sanctions aimed at throttling the Iranian economy after his unilateral withdrawal from the multilateral Iran nuclear deal have prompted calls for defiance even in Europe. The new Russia sanctions, however, were initiated by Congress, which passed a law to compel the Trump administration to act against Moscow. Known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA, the law uses the sanctions threat to wean countries off their craving for Russian weapons so as to boost America’s own arms sales.

The U.S. is already the world’s leading exporter of weapons by far. Another paradox is that the U.S. has overtaken Russia as the top arms seller to India. But while Russia has transferred to India offensive weapons, including a nuclear-powered submarine (INS Chakra) and an aircraft carrier (INS Vikramaditya), the U.S. has been selling defensive military systems to India, such as the P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft and the C-17 Globemaster III and C-130J Super Hercules military transport planes. India cannot snap its defence ties with Moscow for another reason: It relies on Russian spare parts for maintenance of its Russian-made hardware, some of Soviet origin.

While the CAATSA waiver will allow India to go ahead with the pending purchase from Russia of the interceptor-based S-400 Triumf air and anti-missile defence system, future Indian imports from Russia are likely to face U.S. scrutiny. In fact, the waiver legislation mandates that India, Vietnam and Indonesia — the three countries granted waivers from the CAATSA sanctions — demonstrate that each is significantly reducing dependence on Russian arms or significantly increasing cooperation with the U.S.

The congressional intent was clearly to leverage the waiver. For example, a presidential certification must specify the active steps each nation is taking or planning to cut its inventory of Russian hardware. Such a reporting requirement, by shining a spotlight on India’s arms inventory, promises to act as an irritant in the bilateral relationship. Washington is also stepping up pressure on India to sign the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), which the Indian military fears could compromise its network.

The reason why only India, Indonesia and Vietnam were granted waivers is that the U.S. is trying to sway these three into its orbit. In the case of Turkey, a NATO member that, like India, is buying the S-400, Congress is threatening reprisals against Ankara. U.S. pressure on India, Indonesia and Vietnam, however, is unlikely to fully dissipate because no blanket waivers have been granted.

Meanwhile, through its Iran-related sanctions, the U.S. is likely to influence the energy-import policy of India, which currently imports more than three-fourth of its crude oil requirements. According to the International Energy Agency, India is set to emerge as the fastest-growing crude consumer in the world by 2040. Washington is seeking to sell more oil and gas to India and also encouraging it to switch imports from Iran to Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies.

Next-door Iran, however, has long been a major oil supplier to India. It will remain important for India’s energy-import diversification strategy. U.S. sanctions, however, threaten to affect even New Delhi’s political cooperation with Tehran, including impeding India’s Pakistan-bypassing transportation corridor to Afghanistan via Iran. India has invested in modernizing the Chabahar Port. As the top U.S. general in Afghanistan acknowledged last year, “Iranian-Indian-Afghan cooperation over the Chabahar Port presents great economic potential” for landlocked Afghanistan, which has had to depend on a hostile Pakistan for access to a port.

By making India a key target of the extraterritorial effects of its sanctions on Iran and Russia, and then dangling concessions as favours, the U.S. is doing a disservice to its goal of making the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership a linchpin of its larger strategy to build a free, open and democratic-led Indo-Pacific region. Its actions compound India’s foreign-policy challenges, including how to balance the relationships with various key players.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author.

© Mail Today, 2018.

Trump’s Grand Strategy

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As unpredictable as Trump can be, several of his key foreign-policy decisions suggest that his administration is pursuing a coherent vision aimed at reviving America’s global power.

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, a column internationally syndicated by Project Syndicate

US President Donald Trump’s inability to think strategically is undermining longstanding relationships, upending the global order, and accelerating the decline of his country’s global influence – or so the increasingly popular wisdom goes. But this assessment is not nearly as obvious as its proponents – especially political adversaries and critics in the mainstream US media – claim.

America’s relative decline was a hot topic long before Trump took office. The process began when the United States, emboldened by its emergence from the Cold War as the world’s sole superpower, started to overextend itself significantly by enlarging its military footprint and ramping up its global economic and security commitments.

America’s “imperial overreach” was first identified during President Ronald Reagan’s administration, which oversaw a frenetic expansion of military spending. It reached crisis levels with the 2003 US-led invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq under President George W. Bush – a watershed moment that caused irreparable damage to America’s international standing.

On President Barack Obama’s watch, China rapidly expanded its global influence, including by forcibly changing the status quo in the South China Sea (without incurring any international costs). By that point, it was unmistakable: the era of US hegemony was over.

It is not just that Trump cannot be blamed for America’s relative decline; he may actually be set to arrest it. As unpredictable as Trump can be, several of his key foreign-policy moves suggest that his administration is pursuing a grand strategy aimed at reviving America’s global power.

For starters, the Trump administration seems eager to roll back America’s imperial overreach, including by avoiding intervention in faraway wars and demanding that allies pay their fair share for defense. The fact is that many NATO members do not fulfill their spending commitments, effectively leaving American taxpayers to subsidize their security.

These are not new ideas. Before Trump even decided to run for office, pundits were arguing that the US needed to pursue a policy of retrenchment, drastically reducing its international commitments and transferring more of its defense burden onto its allies. But it was not until Trump, who views running a country much like running a business, that the US had a leader who was willing to pursue that path, even if it undermined the values that have long underpinned US foreign policy.

Trump’s focus on containing China – which FBI Director Christopher Wray recently labeled a far bigger challenge than Russia, even in the area of espionage – fits nicely into this strategy. Successive US presidents, from Richard Nixon to Obama, aided China’s economic rise. Trump, however, regards China not as America’s economic partner, but as “a foe economically” and even, as the official mouthpiece China Daily recently put it, America’s “main strategic rival.”

In general, Trump’s tariffs aim to put the US back in control of its economic relationships by constraining its ballooning trade deficits, with both friends and foes, and bringing economic activity (and the accompanying jobs) back home. But it is no secret that, above all, Trump’s tariffs target China – a country that has long defied international trade rules and engaged in predatory practices.

Meanwhile, Trump is also working to ensure that China does not catch up with the US technologically. In particular, his administration seeks to thwart China’s “Made in China 2025” program, the blueprint unveiled by the Chinese government in 2015 for securing global dominance over ten strategic high-tech industries, from robotics to alternative-energy vehicles.

Trump’s diplomatic activities seem intended to advance this larger strategic vision of reversing America’s relative decline. He has tried to sweet-talk autocratic leaders, from North Korea’s Kim Jong-un to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, into making concessions – an approach that has garnered its share of criticism. But Trump’s compliments have not translated into kowtowing.

For example, despite all the controversy over Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, the fact is that, since Trump took office, the US has expelled Russian diplomats, closed a Russian consulate, and imposed three rounds of sanctions on the country. His administration is now threatening to apply extraterritorial sanctions to stop other countries from making “significant” defense deals with Russia, a leading arms exporter.

Trump has not flattered any foreign leader more than Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he called “terrific” and “a great gentleman.” Yet, again, when Xi refused to yield to Trump’s demands, the US president did not hesitate to hit back “using Chinese tactics,” including suddenly changing negotiating positions and unpredictably escalating trade tensions.

Even Trump’s direct approach with North Korea undermines China’s position by bypassing it. Trump is right that transforming the US-North Korea relationship matters more than securing complete denuclearization. If he can co-opt North Korea, China’s only formal military ally, northeast Asian geopolitics will be reshaped and China’s lonely rise will be more apparent than ever.

There are plenty of problems with Trump’s methods. His brassy, theatrical, and unpredictable negotiating style, together with his China-like disregard for international norms, are destabilizing international relations. Domestic troubles like political polarization and legislative gridlock – both of which Trump has actively exacerbated – also weaken America’s hand internationally.

But there is no denying that Trump’s muscular “America First” approach – which includes one of the most significant military buildups since World War II – reflects a strategic vision that is focused squarely on ensuring that the US remains more powerful than any rival in the foreseeable future.

Perhaps more important, the transactional approach to international relations on which Trump’s strategy relies is likely to persist long after he leaves office. Friends and foes alike must get used to a more self-seeking America doing everything in its power, no matter the cost, to forestall its precipitous decline.

The Modi Phenomenon and the Remaking of India

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Brahma Chellaney, Panorama Journal, Vol. 01/2018

In the four years that he has been in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has animated domestic politics in India and the country’s foreign policy by departing often from conventional methods and shibboleths. A key question is whether the Modi era will mark a defining moment for India, just as the 1990s were for China and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return as prime minister has been for Japan. The answer to that question is still not clear. What is clear, however, is that Modi’s ascension to power has clearly changed Indian politics and diplomacy.

Even before Modi’s Bharatiya Janata (Indian People’s) Party, or BJP, won the May 2014 national election, India’s fast-growing economy and rising geopolitical weight had significantly increased the country’s international profile. India was widely perceived to be a key “swing state” in the emerging geopolitical order. Since the start of this century, India’s relationship with the United States (US) has gradually but dramatically transformed. India and the US are now increasingly close partners. The US holds more military exercises with India every year than with any other country, including Britain. In the last decade, the US has also emerged as the largest seller of weapons to India, leaving the traditional supplier, Russia, far behind.

Modi’s pro-market economic policies, tax reforms, defence modernisation and foreign-policy dynamism have not only helped to further increase India’s international profile, but also augur well for the country’s economic-growth trajectory and rising strength. However, India’s troubled neighbourhood, along with its spillover effects, has posed a growing challenge for the Modi government. The combustible neighbourhood has underscored the imperative for India to evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. For example, with its vulnerability to terrorist attacks linked to its location next to the Pakistan-Afghanistan belt, India has little choice but to prepare for a long-term battle against the forces of Islamic extremism and terrorism. Similarly, India’s ability to secure its maritime backyard, including its main trade arteries in the Indian Ocean region, will be an important test of its maritime strategy and foreign policy, especially at a time when an increasingly powerful and revisionist China is encroaching in India’s maritime space.

Modi’s Impact on Domestic Politics

Modi went quickly from being a provincial leader to becoming the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. In fact, he rode to power in a landslide national-election victory that gave India the first government since the 1980s to be led by a party enjoying an absolute majority on its own in Parliament. The period since the late 1980s saw a series of successive coalition governments in New Delhi. Coalition governments became such a norm in India that the BJP’s success in securing an absolute majority in 2014 surprised even political analysts.

What factors explain the sudden rise of Modi? One factor clearly was the major corruption scandals that marred the decade-long rule of the preceding Congress Party-led coalition government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The national treasury lost tens of billions of dollars in various corruption scandals. What stood out was not just the tardy prosecution process to bring to justice those responsible for the colossal losses but also the lack of sincere efforts to recoup the losses. The pervasive misuse of public office for private gain was seen by the voters as sapping India’s strength.

Modi, as the long-serving top elected official of the western Indian state of Gujarat, had provided a relatively clean administration free of any major corruption scandal. That stood out in contrast to Singh’s graft-tainted federal government. However, Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002 in Gujarat turned Modi into a controversial figure, with his opponents alleging that his state administration looked the other way as Hindu rioters attacked Muslims in reprisal for a Muslim mob setting a passenger train on fire. The political controversy actually prompted the US government in 2005 to revoke Modi’s visa over the unproven allegations that he connived in the Hindu-Muslim riots. Even after India’s Supreme Court found no evidence to link Modi to the violence, the US continued to ostracise him, reaching out to him only on the eve of the 2014 national election when he appeared set to become the next prime minister.

Modi’s political career at the provincial level was actually built on his success in coordinating relief work in his home state of Gujarat in response to a major 2001 earthquake there. Months after his relief work, Modi became the state’s chief minister, or the top elected official.

His party, the BJP, has tacitly espoused the cause of the country’s Hindu majority for long while claiming to represent all religious communities. The BJP sees itself as being no different than the Christian parties that emerged in Western Europe in the post-World War II era. The Christian parties in Western Europe, such as Germany’s long-dominant Christian Democratic Union (CDU), played a key role in Western Europe’s post-war recovery and economic and political integration.[1] Modi himself has subtly played the Hindu card to advance his political ambitions at the national level.

One can also draw a parallel between the prolonged period of political drift and paralysis in India that led to the national rise of Modi in 2014 and Japan’s six years of political instability that paved the way for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s return to power in 2012. Just as Abe’s return to power reflected Japan’s determination to reinvent itself as a more competitive and confident country, Modi’s election victory reflected the desire of Indians for a dynamic, assertive leader to help revitalise their country’s economy and security.

In fact, both Modi and Abe have focused on reviving their country’s economic fortunes, while simultaneously bolstering its defences and strengthening its strategic partnerships with likeminded states in order to promote regional stability and block the emergence of a Sino-centric Asia. Modi’s policies mirror Abe’s soft nationalism, market-oriented economics, and new “Asianism”, including seeking closer ties with Asian democracies to create a web of interlocking strategic partnerships. Until Modi became the first prime minister born after India gained independence in 1947, the wide gap between the average age of Indian political leaders and Indian citizens was conspicuous. That constitutes another parallel with Abe, who is Japan’s first prime minister born after World War II.

To be sure, there is an important difference in terms of the two leaders’ upbringing. Modi rose from humble beginnings to lead the world’s most-populous democracy.[2] Abe, on the other hand, boasts a distinguished political lineage as the grandson and grandnephew of two former Japanese prime ministers and the son of a former foreign minister. In fact, Modi rode to victory by crushing Rahul Gandhi’s dynastic aspirations.

Since he became prime minister, Modi has led the BJP to a string of victories in elections in a number of states, making the party the largest political force in the country without doubt. Under his leadership, the traditionally urban-focused BJP has significantly expanded its base in rural areas and among the socially disadvantaged classes. His skills as a political tactician steeped in cold-eyed pragmatism have held him in good stead. Modi, however, has become increasingly polarising. Indian democracy today is probably as divided and polarised as US democracy.

Politically, Modi has blended strong leadership, soft nationalism, and an appeal to the Hindu majority into an election-winning strategy. Playing the Hindu card, for example, helped the BJP to sweep the northern Hindi-speaking heartland in the 2014 national election and ride to victory in the subsequent state election in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest state. But use of that card, not surprisingly, has fostered greater divisiveness. Despite playing that card, the BJP, however, has done little for the Hindu majority specifically, thus reinforcing criticism that it cleverly uses the card to achieve electoral gains.

The BJP’s electoral successes, meanwhile, have prompted the opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, to take a leaf out of Modi’s playbook by seeking to similarly boost his popularity among the Hindu majority. While campaigning in the December 2017 Gujarat state election, for example, Rahul Gandhi visited many Hindu temples. This new strategy resulted in his Congress Party, which has traditionally banked on the Muslim vote, significantly improving its strength in the Gujarat state legislature, although the BJP managed to hold on to power in a close election contest.

More fundamentally, Modi’s political rise had much to do with the Indian electorate’s yearning for an era of decisive government. Before becoming prime minister, Modi – a darling of business leaders at home and abroad – promised to restore rapid economic growth, saying there should be “no red tape, only red carpet” for investors.[3] He also pledged a qualitative change in governance and assured that the corrupt would face the full force of law. But, in office, has Modi really lived up to his promises?

Although he came to office with a popular mandate to usher in major changes, his record in power has been restorative rather than transformative. The transformative moment usually comes once in a generation. Modi failed to seize that moment. He seems to believe in incrementalism, not transformative change. His sheen has clearly dulled, yet his mass appeal remains unmatched in the country.

New Dynamism but also New Challenges in Foreign Policy

India faces major foreign-policy challenges, which by and large predate Modi’s ascension to power. India is home to more than one-sixth of the world’s population, yet it punches far below its weight. A year before Modi assumed office, an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, titled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focused on how the country is resisting its own rise, as if the political miasma in New Delhi had turned the country into its own worst enemy.[4]

When Modi became prime minister, many Indians hoped that he would give a new direction to foreign relations at a time when the gap between India and China in terms of international power and stature was growing significantly. In fact, India’s influence in its own strategic backyard – including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Maldives – has shrunk. Indeed, Bhutan remains India’s sole pocket of strategic clout in South Asia.

India also confronts the strengthening nexus between its two nuclear-armed regional adversaries, China and Pakistan, both of which have staked claims to substantial swaths of Indian territory and continue to collaborate on weapons of mass destruction. In dealing with these countries, Modi has faced the same dilemma that has haunted previous Indian governments: the Chinese and Pakistani foreign ministries are weak actors. The Communist Party and the military shape Chinese foreign policy, while Pakistan is effectively controlled by its army and intelligence services, which still use terror groups as proxies. Under Modi, India has faced several daring terrorist attacks staged from Pakistan, including on Indian military facilities.

One Modi priority after assuming office was restoring momentum to the relationship with the United States, which, to some extent, had been damaged by grating diplomatic tensions and trade disputes while his predecessor was in office. While Modi has been unable to contain cross-border terrorist attacks from Pakistan or stem Chinese military incursions across the disputed Himalayan frontier, he has managed to lift the bilateral relationship with the US to a new level of engagement. He has enjoyed a good personal relationship with US President Donald Trump, like he had with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

Modi considers close ties with the US as essential to the advancement of India’s economic and security interests. The US, for its part, sees India as central to its Indo-Pacific strategy. As the White House’s national security strategy report in December 2017 put it, “A geopolitical competition between free and repressive visions of world order is taking place in the Indo-Pacific region. ­The region, which stretches from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States, represents the most populous and economically dynamic part of the world […] We welcome India’s emergence as a leading global power and stronger strategic and defence partner.”[5]

More broadly, Modi’s various steps and policy moves have helped highlight the trademarks of his foreign policy – from pragmatism and lucidity to zeal and showmanship. They have also exemplified his penchant for springing diplomatic surprises. One example was his announcement during a China visit to grant Chinese tourists e-visas on arrival, an announcement that caught by surprise even his foreign secretary, who had just said at a media briefing that there was “no decision” on the issue. Another example was in Paris, where Modi announced a surprise decision to buy 36 French Rafale fighter-jets.

Modi is a realist who loves to play on the grand chessboard of geopolitics. He is seeking to steer foreign policy in a direction that helps to significantly aid his strategy to revitalise the country’s economic and military security. At least five things stand out about his foreign policy.

First, Modi has invested considerable political capital – and time – in high-powered diplomacy. No other prime minister since the country’s independence participated in so many bilateral and multilateral summit meetings in his first years in office. Critics contend that Modi’s busy foreign policy schedule leaves him restricted time to focus on his most-critical responsibility – domestic issues, which will define his legacy.

Second, pragmatism is the hallmark of the Modi foreign policy. Nothing better illustrates this than the priority he accorded, soon after coming to office, to adding momentum to the relationship with America, despite the US having heaped visa-denial humiliation on him over nine years. In his first year in office, he also went out of his way to befriend India’s strategic rival, China, negating the early assumptions that he would be less accommodating toward Beijing than his predecessor. With China increasingly assertive and unaccommodating, Modi’s gamble failed to pay off. Yet, in April 2018, Modi made a fresh effort to “reset” relations with China and held an informal summit meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Third, Modi has sought to shape a non-doctrinaire foreign-policy approach powered by ideas. He has taken some of his domestic policy ideas (such as “Make in India” and “Digital India”) to foreign policy, as if to underscore that his priority is to revitalise India economically. By simultaneously courting different major powers, Modi has also sought to demonstrate his ability to forge partnerships with rival powers and broker cooperative international approaches in a rapidly changing world.

In fact, Modi’s foreign policy is implicitly attempting to move India from its long-held nonalignment to a contemporary, globalised practicality. In essence, this means that India – a founding leader of the nonaligned movement – could become more multi-aligned and less nonaligned. 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 also will help it to preserve strategic autonomy, in keeping with the country’s longstanding preference for policy independence.

Nonalignment suggests a passive approach, including staying on the sidelines. Being multi-aligned, on the other hand, permits a proactive approach. Being pragmatically multi-aligned seems a better option for India than remaining passively non-aligned. A multi-aligned India is already tilting more toward the major democracies of the world, as the resurrected Australia-India-Japan-US quadrilateral (or “quad”) grouping underscores. Still, India’s insistence on charting an independent course is reflected in its refusal to join American-led financial sanctions against Russia.

Meanwhile, a Modi-led India has not shied away from building strategic partnerships with countries around China’s periphery to counter that country’s creeping strategic encirclement of India. New Delhi’s resolve was apparent when Modi tacitly criticised China’s military buildup and encroachments in the South China Sea as evidence of an “18th-century expansionist mindset.” India’s “Look East” policy, for its part, has graduated to an “Act East” policy, with the original economic logic of “Look East” giving way to a geopolitical logic. The thrust of the new “Act East” policy – unveiled with US blessings – is to re-establish historically close ties with countries to India’s east so as to contribute to building a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. As Modi said in an op-ed published in 27 ASEAN newspapers on 26 January 2018 (the day, in a remarkable diplomatic feat, India hosted the leaders of all 10 ASEAN states as chief guests at its Republic Day parade), “Indians have always looked East to see the nurturing sunrise and the light of opportunities. Now, as before, the East, or the Indo-Pacific region, will be indispensable to India’s future and our common destiny.”[6]

Fourth, Modi has a penchant for diplomatic showmanship, reflected not only in the surprises he has sprung but also in the kinds of big-ticket speeches he has given abroad, often to chants of “Modi, Modi” from the audience. Like a rock star, he unleashed Modi-mania among Indian-diaspora audiences by taking the stage at New York’s storied Madison Square Garden, at Sydney’s sprawling Allphones Arena, and at Ricoh Coliseum, a hockey arena in downtown Toronto. When permission was sought for a similar speech event in Shanghai during Modi’s 2015 China visit, an apprehensive Chinese government, which bars any public rally, relented only on the condition that the event would be staged in an indoor stadium.

To help propel Indian foreign policy, Modi has also injected a personal touch. Indeed, Modi has used his personal touch with great effect, addressing leaders ranging from Obama to Abe by their first name and building an easy relationship with multiple world leaders. In keeping with his personalised stamp on diplomacy, Modi has relied on bilateral summits to open new avenues for cooperation and collaboration. At the same time, underscoring his nimble approach to diplomacy, he has shown he can think on his feet. The speed with which he rushed aid and rescue teams to an earthquake-battered Nepal, as well as dispatched Indian forces to evacuate Indian and foreign nationals from Nepal and conflict-torn Yemen, helped to raise India’s international profile, highlighting its capacity to respond swiftly to natural and human-induced disasters.

Fifth, it is scarcely a surprise that, given this background, Modi has put his own stamp on Indian foreign policy. The paradox is that Modi came to office with little foreign policy experience, yet he has demonstrated impressive diplomatic acumen, including taking bold steps and charting a vision for building a greater international role for India.

The former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright famously said, “The purpose of foreign policy is to persuade other countries to do what we want or, better yet, to want what we want.”[7] How has Modi’s foreign policy done when measured against such a standard of success? One must concede that, in terms of concrete results, Modi’s record thus far isn’t all that impressive. His supporters, however, would say that dividends from a new direction in foreign policy flow slowly and that he has been in office for just four years.

To be sure, a long period of strategic drift under coalition governments undermined India’s strength in its own backyard. Modi, however, has not yet been able to recoup the country’s losses in its neighbourhood. The erosion of India’s influence in its backyard holds far-reaching implications for its security, underscoring the imperative for a more dynamic, forward-looking foreign policy and a greater focus on its immediate neighbourhood. China’s strategic clout, for example, is increasingly on display even in countries symbiotically tied to India, such as Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. If China established a Djibouti-type naval base in the Maldives or Pakistan, it would effectively open an Indian Ocean front against India in the same quiet way that it opened the trans-Himalayan threat under Mao Zedong by gobbling up Tibet, the historical buffer. China has already leased several tiny islands in the Maldives and is reportedly working on a naval base adjacent to Pakistan’s Chinese-built Gwadar port.

To be sure, Modi has injected dynamism and motivation in diplomacy.[8] But he has also highlighted what has long blighted the country’s foreign policy – ad hoc and personality-driven actions that confound tactics with strategy. Institutionalised and integrated policymaking is essential for a robust diplomacy that takes a long view. Without healthy institutionalised processes, policy will tend to be ad hoc and shifting, with personalities at the helm having an excessive role in shaping thinking, priorities and objectives. If foreign policy is shaped by the whims and fancies of personalities who hold the reins of power, there will be a propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure, as has happened in India repeatedly since the time of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who was in office for 17 years.

Today, India confronts a “tyranny of geography” – that is, serious external threats from virtually all directions. To some extent, it is a self-inflicted tyranny. India’s concerns over China, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives stem from the failures of its past policies. An increasingly unstable neighbourhood also makes it more difficult to promote regional cooperation and integration. With its tyranny of geography putting greater pressure on its external and internal security, India needs to develop more innovative approaches to diplomacy. The erosion of its influence in its own backyard should serve as a wake-up call. Only through forward thinking can India hope to ameliorate its regional-security situation and play a larger global role. Otherwise, it will continue to be weighed down by its region.

While India undoubtedly is injecting greater realism in its foreign policy, it remains intrinsically cautious and reactive, rather than forward-looking and proactive. India has not fully abandoned its quixotic traditions. India’s tradition of realist strategic thought is probably the oldest in the world.[9] The realist doctrine was propounded by the strategist Kautilya, also known as Chanakya, who wrote the Arthashastra before Christ; this ancient manual on great-power diplomacy and international statecraft remains a must-read classic. Yet India, ironically, appears to have forgotten its own realist strategic thought.

Concluding Observations

India is more culturally diverse than the entire European Union – but with twice as many people. It is remarkable that India’s democracy has thrived despite such diversity. Yet, like the US, India has become politically polarised. And like Trump, Modi draws strong reactions – in support of him or against him. When Modi won the 2014 national election, critics said they feared his strongman tendencies – a fear they still profess. But in office, Modi has been anything but strong or aggressive in his policies. For example, his foreign policy and his domestic policies, especially economic policy, have been cautious and tactful. However, the “strongman” tag that critics have given Modi helps to obscure his failure to improve governance in India. On his watch, for example, India’s trade deficit with China has doubled to almost $5 billion a month.

Prudent gradualism, however, remains the hallmark of Modi’s approach in diplomacy and domestic policy. For example, to underpin India’s position as the world’s fastest-growing developing economy, Modi has preferred slow but steady progress on reforms, an approach that Arvind Subramanian, the government’s chief economic adviser, dubbed “creative incrementalism.” Many in India, of course, would prefer a bolder approach. But as a raucous democracy, India has to pay a “democracy tax” in the form of slower decision-making and pandering to powerful electoral constituencies. For example, under Modi, India’s bill for state subsidies has risen sharply.

A dynamic foreign policy can be built only on the foundation of a strong domestic policy, a realm where Modi must overcome political obstacles to shape a transformative legacy. If India is to emerge as a global economic powerhouse, Modi must make economic growth his first priority. Another imperative is for India to reduce its spiralling arms imports by developing an indigenous defence industry. However, Modi’s “Make in India” initiative has yet to take off, with manufacturing’s share of India’s GDP actually contracting.

As a shrewd politician, Modi has shown an ability to deftly recover from a setback. For example, he came under withering criticism when, while meeting Obama in early 2015 in New Delhi, he wore a navy suit with his name monogrammed in golden stripes all over it. Critics accused him of being narcissistic, while one politician went to the extent of calling him a “megalomaniac.” But by auctioning off the suit, Modi quickly cauterised a political liability. The designer suit was auctioned for charity, fetching INR 43.1 million ($693,234).

To many, Modi seems politically invincible at home, floating above the laws of political gravity. But, as happens in any democracy, any leader’s time eventually runs out. Modi suddenly appeared vulnerable in last December’s state elections in his native state of Gujarat but his party managed to retain power, although with a reduced majority. Until his political stock starts to irreversibly diminish, Modi will continue to dominate the Indian political scene, playing an outsize role. At present, though, there is no apparent successor to Modi.

 

Professor Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the independent Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi and an affiliate with the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. As a specialist on international strategic issues, he held appointments at Harvard University, the Brookings Institution, the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and the Australian National University. He is the author of nine books, including an international bestseller, Asian Juggernaut (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2010). His last book was Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014).

[1] John Murray, “Christian Parties in Western Europe,” Studies, Vol. 50, No. 198 (Summer 1961).

[2] Andy Marino, Narendra Modi: A political Biography (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2014).

[3] Economic Times, “Red carpet, not red tape for investors is the way out of economic crisis,” Interview with Narendra Modi, June 7, 2012.

[4] Manjari Chatterjee Miller, “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy: A Would-Be Great Power Resists Its Own Rise,” Foreign Affairs (May/June 2013).

[5] White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Washington, DC: December 2017), available at: https://goo.gl/CWQf1t.

[6] Narendra Modi, “Shared values, common destiny,” The Straits Times, January 26, 2018, available at: http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/shared-values-common-destiny.

[7] Madeleine Albright, The Mighty and the Almighty (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007).

[8] Alyssa Ayres, Our Time Has Come: How India is Making Its Place in the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[9] Aparna Pande, From Chanakya to Modi: Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy (New Delhi: HarperCollins, 2017).

US sanctions policy risks alienating India

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Washington should be mindful of India’s heavy dependence on Iranian oil and Russian arms sales, exemplified by the INS Vikramaditya carrier adopted from Russia.   © Reuters

After hitting New Delhi with Russia and Iran measures, Washington seeks to limit their impact.

When the U.S. slaps a nation with punitive sanctions, it tries to prevent not only American companies from doing business with the target country but also those of other states. Inevitably, these extraterritorial effects hit some countries much harder than others — as India has just found to its cost.

Even though New Delhi has been boosting ties with Washington for over a decade, it is a prime victim of two new sets of U.S. economic sanctions — on Iran and on Russia. These two countries, now at the center of the current American foreign policy debate, are both long-standing economic and political partners for India.

Since New Delhi cannot suddenly wind down the relationships with them without jeopardizing its national security, it must consider carefully how to balance those interests with its growing strategic partnership with the U.S., a top trading and defense partner of India. Washington, for its part, should give maneuvering space to India, a key player in the U.S.’s biggest geopolitical game in the Indo-Pacific region — reining in an increasingly muscular China.

Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the multilateral Iran nuclear deal, followed by his globally applicable sanctions to choke the Iranian economy, has prompted calls for defiance even from Washington’s close allies in Europe. The U.S. president’s latest offer of direct talks with Iranian leaders may signal a wish to strike a deal but he is a long way off from lifting sanctions.

Extraterritorial sanctions are also at the heart of a new Russia-centered law passed by the U.S. Congress — the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAASTA. The law hits Russia where it hurts most, its defense and energy businesses.

India, a significant buyer of Russian weapons and the second-largest importer of Iranian oil after China, has been made acutely aware of the risks of aligning itself closer with the U.S.

In actual fact, America has overtaken Russia in recent years as the top arms seller to New Delhi, and also emerged as a source of oil and gas supply to India. But these evolving ties cannot at this stage replace India’s links with Russia and Iran. The U.S. has basically transferred defensive military systems, while Russia has sold India offensive weapons, including a nuclear-powered submarine and an aircraft carrier. India also relies on Russian spare parts for maintenance of its Soviet-origin systems. Meanwhile, in oil, nearby Iran has long been one of India’s top suppliers.

Even before the new Iran sanctions and CAATSA, questions were being asked in India about whether the pro-U.S. foreign policy pursued by successive governments since 2004 had yielded any concrete returns.

One telling point was the tense border standoff between Indian and Chinese troops on the remote Doklam plateau about a year ago, when Washington did not issue a single statement in India’s support but chose to stay neutral, despite a fusillade of Chinese threats to teach India a “lesson.” Many in India have come to believe that New Delhi can rely on an unpredictable and transactional Trump administration only at its peril.

In recent months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seemingly attempted to mitigate the risks from his open embrace of the U.S. by seeking to ease tensions with China and reverse a declining relationship with Russia. At his initiative, Modi held separate summit meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Wuhan and Sochi, respectively. These initiatives were seen in Washington as a subtle attempt to recalibrate ties with the U.S.

Since then, a realization that the new sanctions would be counterproductive to the U.S.’s relations with India and other key partners has led the Trump administration and Congress to separately climb down from their positions that there would be no sanctions exemptions.

Congress this week enacted CAATSA waivers for India and two other countries, while the administration, signaling a readiness to consider granting waivers, has walked back from its pointblank threat to impose sanctions on countries buying Iranian oil beyond its Nov. 4 deadline. The administration has yet to clarify the conditions or duration of any waivers.

However, the Iran-related sanctions, even before entering into force, have already increased the oil import bill of India, the world’s third largest crude importer, by driving up prices.

India, while warning its energy companies of the risk of U.S. sanctions if they do not wind down their trade with Iran by early November, is pressing Washington for sanctions relief. In the previous round of Iran sanctions under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, India secured rolling six-month waivers from U.S. sanctions by showing that it was continuing to reduce its imports of Iranian oil. To sidestep the U.S. financial system, India had to pay Iran in its own currency and accelerate barter trade.

Under CAATSA, Congress deliberately set the bar for any presidential waiver very high so as to tie Trump’s hands on the Russia sanctions. But after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned that “the sanctions will only drive strategic partners to buy more Russian hardware and prevent them from buying American in the future,” Congress relented.

Significantly, CAATSA waivers are being granted for the three countries that Washington is trying to bring closer into its orbit — India, Indonesia and Vietnam — but not for Turkey, a NATO member that is, like India, buying the S-400 long-range air and anti-missile defense system from Russia.

U.S. pressure on India, Indonesia and Vietnam, however, is unlikely to fully dissipate because no blanket waivers are being granted. Congress has mandated that each country demonstrate that it is significantly reducing dependence on Russian arms or significantly increasing cooperation with the U.S.

The price the U.S. is seeking to extract from India for a waiver is its signature on two remaining “foundational defense agreements.” After getting India to accept a logistics assistance pact, which includes access to designated Indian military sites, the U.S. is now pushing for India to endorse a secure communications accord (which the Indian military fears could compromise its network) and a geospatial intelligence agreement.

More fundamentally, the U.S. intends to influence the Indian, Indonesian and Vietnamese arms procurement policies. As Mattis told Congress, “we are faced with an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to decrease Russia’s dominance in key regions.” Indeed, CAATSA was enacted with the intent to shift arms business from Russia — an important weapons seller to China’s potential adversaries, from India to Vietnam and Indonesia — to the U.S., already the world’s top arms exporter.

The Iran sanctions’ impact on India could also impede its loudly touted transportation corridor to Afghanistan via Iran, which includes the Chabahar Port modernization project. This joint India-Iran project, which circumvents any need to cross Pakistani territory, highlights the strategic importance of Tehran for New Delhi.

U.S. foreign policy has long relied on sanctions, despite their uncertain effectiveness and unpredictable consequences. For example, crippling U.S. sanctions prompted Japan’s 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, leading to the Pacific War that ended with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The newest Iran sanctions, which make China the likely main beneficiary by driving Beijing and Tehran closer together, also underscore the law of unintended consequences.

Ensnaring India in sanctions aimed at punishing Iran and Russia, and then dangling concessions, undermines the U.S. goal of developing a more robust defense relationship with the world’s largest democracy and building a stable power balance in the Indo-Pacific. While the U.S. and India will remain close friends, Washington has gratuitously introduced a major irritant in the relationship that no waivers can fully purge.

Such unilateralism also highlights why the American-led strategy for a free, open and democratic-led Indo-Pacific — aimed at containing China by cooperating with India and other partners — has yet to acquire strategic heft.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author, most recently, of the award-winning “Water, Peace, and War.”

© Nikkei Asian Review, 2018.

Why Moon is courting India

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India gains importance for Seoul as South Korea’s ‘miracle economy’ starts to face major new challenges

Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

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South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s visits to India and Singapore this week underscore his “New Southern Policy” (NSP), which gives priority to deepening bilateral relations with the ASEAN economies and India. NSP was unveiled on the heels of Moon’s “New Northern Policy”, whose primary but unstated objective is to jointly develop Russia’s Far East with Moscow. Simply put, the dual policies aim to invest greater resources in countries that previously were not on South Korea’s priority list.

Moon is seeking to diversify South Korea’s external portfolio so as to build a more “balanced diplomacy”. But while India’s Act East policy is driven by both geostrategic and geo-economic factors, Moon’s NSP is rooted mainly in economic logic.

There isn’t much room to expand Seoul’s already well-developed relations with China, Japan and the US. In fact, with new issues cropping up in ties with China and America, export-driven South Korea must find new markets to cut reliance on its top two trade partners. Moreover, despite increasing exports of semiconductors and electronics, South Korea’s economic growth has slowed, presenting it with important challenges.

Moon is targeting economies with the greatest growth potential: Several ASEAN economies and India are projected to grow at annual rates more than double that of South Korea in the coming years. Seoul, however, is not alone in courting Southeast Asia and India.

Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pursued a “southward advance” economic strategy. Taiwan’s new “Southbound Policy” is driven by the same economic rationale, and seeks similar strategic objectives, as Moon’s NSP. China too has a southern policy, which goes by the official name of “One Belt, One Road”. Then there is Australia, which is looking at Southeast Asia and India, in part to mitigate its China-related risks.

Similar risks are also driving Moon’s NSP. China’s heavy-handed economic sanctioning of South Korea, in response to the US deployment of the THAAD anti-missile system, has served as a wake-up call for South Korea, making it conscious of its vulnerabilities and forcing a rethink. Although the informal Chinese sanctions began before Moon was elected president, the shock therapy administered by China’s use of economic coercion as a tool of statecraft led to his NSP.

South Korea is too heavily dependent on one market — China’s market — a factor that arms Beijing with considerable leverage over Seoul. Diversification is essential to a hedging strategy. And hedging is at the heart of Moon’s NSP.

Today, rebooting inter-Korean economic relations is emerging as an option — an option that can yield rich dividends if progress were made toward denuclearizing North Korea. Failure to build enduring inter-Korean peace, however, could rebound on the South Korean economy. Whatever scenario unfolds, the NSP imperative will likely remain intact. NSP, despite its economic focus, promises to yield broader diplomatic and strategic benefits for Seoul.

However, NSP is not an answer to the South Korean economy’s structural challenges. South Korea needs to make its economy less vulnerable to external shocks by undertaking structural reforms. In fact, Moon took office with a strong mandate to “democratize” economic growth and cultivate innovation by switching priorities from the giant family-owned conglomerates known as chaebol to smaller enterprises and start-ups and by encouraging bottom-up jobs growth. The country’s chaebol-centred crony capitalism spawned an influence-peddling scandal that cost Moon’s predecessor her job.

South Korea’s challenges largely arise from its extraordinary success in transforming itself from an economic minnow to the world’s fifth-largest exporter. South Korea was one of the world’s poorest countries in the early 1960s before it embarked on rapid economic expansion, becoming the world’s fastest-growing economy between 1963 and 1979. In 1996, South Korea joined the OECD, the club of the world’s wealthiest nations.

South Korea escaped the “middle income trap” in large part because of its democratic transition. China, however, risks falling into that trap. The fact is that South Korea went from poverty to wealth in almost one generation. There are few examples in modern history of such rapid economic success. But success can breed problems.

An unintended consequence of South Korea’s remarkable success has been its high exposure to global market volatility. South Korea has a high trade-to-GDP ratio, which is a good indicator of how vulnerable any country is to the dips and dives of the global economy. Ongoing changes in global market conditions, including US protectionism and the US-China trade war, will likely hit the South Korean economy harder than less export-dependent economies. For example, a deepening slowdown in China brought about by US tariffs would undermine South Korean exports to China, thereby further depressing South Korean growth.

Moon’s India visit was part of his effort to tide over such challenges. From enlarging South Korea’s footprint in the world’s third-biggest consumer market by purchasing power to peddling wares to the world’s largest arms importer, Moon sees India as central to NSP’s success. However, at a time when many chaebol are navigating generational transitions and Moon has committed to “democratize” economic growth, structural reform at home is the price South Korea must pay to sustain a “miracle economy”.

The writer is a geostrategist.

© The Times of India, 2018.

India’s mistakes have allowed China to make inroads into Nepal

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Nepali counterpart, K.P. Oli, in Kathmandu in May.

Brahma Chellaney, The Hindustan Times

Nepal’s new communist prime minister, K.P. Oli, has paid obeisance in Beijing, where he agreed to the proposal to extend the railway from Shigatse in Tibet to his country so as to reduce Nepali dependence on India. For India, Nepal is not just another neighbour but one that is symbiotically linked through close cultural affinity, overlapping ethnic and linguistic identities, and an open border permitting passport-free passage. The China-Nepal railway — a “game changer”, as a Chinese mouthpiece called it — will compound the impact on India’s strategic interests of Nepal’s emergence as the world’s sixth communist-ruled country.

The two communist groups that came to power in February merged into a single party in May. The new Nepali Communist Party, with almost two-thirds majority in Parliament and governments in six of the nation’s seven provinces, casts an ominous shadow over Nepal’s sputtering democratic transition. From constitutional functionaries, such as the president and vice president, to key officials, including the chief of police services, are today card-carrying communists.

Emboldened by the communists’ pervasive domination, Oli has started undermining the independence of Nepal’s institutions, from the judiciary to the election commission. The communists’ next target will likely be the army. Whether democracy will survive under communist rule is uncertain. What is clear is that Nepal is impinging on Indian security.

A Nepal increasingly open to Chinese influence shares a tightly guarded frontier with Tibet but wishes to maintain an open border with India. India has repeatedly advised Nepal that its southern border belt is turning into a zone of jihadist and foreign intelligence activities that threaten Indian security. Nepal has also become a major transit point for the flow of counterfeit Indian currency, narcotics and Chinese arms to India.

Simply put, Nepal represents a critical challenge for India. But, to a significant extent, this is a self-created problem. Three Indian blunders since the mid-2000s have proved very costly for India — spearheading the abolition of Nepal’s constitutional monarchy; bringing the underground Maoists to the centre-stage of Nepali politics; and, more recently, aiding the plains people’s revolt against the new, 2015-drafted Nepali Constitution and then abandoning their movement and pressuring them (the Madhesis) to participate in the 2017 elections, thus legitimizing a Constitution it said was flawed.

New Delhi indeed owes an apology to Nepal’s citizens for its past meddling, which, as if to underscore the law of unintended consequences, boomeranged on India’s own interests. India’s mistakes set in motion developments that seriously eroded its clout in Nepal and helped China to made major inroads.

When history is written, one Manmohan Singh blunder in particular will stand out for empowering Nepali communists and undermining India’s long-term interests — engineering the ouster of Nepal’s monarchy, the symbol of that country’s stability, continuity and unity for 239 years. The monarchy was removed without ascertaining the will of the people through a referendum and without even a basic level of due process.

Singh’s government, which at that time was dependent on communist support at home for survival, intervened as a peace maker. But what mattered to it was just one thing — accommodating the Maoists’ main demand for the monarchy’s removal in order to bring them into the Nepali political mainstream. It hosted a meeting between Nepal’s Maoists and opposition parties in November 2005 at which an accord to abolish the monarchy was reached. How empowering Nepali Maoists and other communists would serve India’s interest, and what the larger implications of the monarchy’s abolition would be for Nepal’s future, were issues that went unexamined.

The upshot was that Nepal went from being a Hindu kingdom (indeed the world’s only officially Hindu nation) to coming under the sway of communists, who largely filled the void from the monarchy’s removal, thereby undercutting the influence of the Nepali Congress Party, dominant until then. From 2008 onwards, the Nepali communists were in coalition governments for almost a decade before capturing power on their own in the last elections. Oli’s Marxist-Leninist Party and the Maoists, which fought the elections jointly under China’s advice, tapped into grassroots anger over the Indian-backed Madhesi protesters’ earlier border blockade.

India, paradoxically, is still unable to make peace with its own Maoists. In fact, the Nepali Maoists’ Indian-assisted success in enjoying power after waging a decade-long bloody insurrection has emboldened the Indian Maoists to step up their hit-and-run attacks on police and paramilitary troops. Meanwhile, the Maoists’ dreamland, China, is pulling Nepal into its orbit. Make no mistake: India is reaping what it sowed.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

© The Hindustan Times, 2018.