January 21, 2019

Australia articulates its Indian Ocean priorities

The following article originally appeared in the Lowy Interpreter on January 21, 2019. 

At the Raisina Dialogue, India’s flagship geopolitical conference held last week in New Delhi, Australia’s high-level presence was noticeable. Foreign Minister Marise Payne led the delegation from Canberra and was accompanied by Chief of Defence Force General Angus Campbell. Campbell’s appearance on a panel with four-star admirals from India, the United States, Japan, and France was certainly a symbolic highlight. But of greater substantive interest was Payne’s articulation of an Indian Ocean approach for Australia.

As usual, China offered the backdrop. In the session that immediately followed Payne’s address, India’s Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba succinctly described China’s naval modernisation and growing presence in the Indian Ocean: "Since 2008, there has been a permanent presence of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean region in the form of an anti-piracy escort force. The 31st anti-piracy escort force is presently in the Gulf of Aden. So at any given time there are 6 to 8 Chinese navy ships in the northern part of the Indian Ocean. Also, two years ago they commissioned their first overseas facility, or base, in Djibouti.

"The stated aim of this deployment is to protect their trade, which is flowing through this area, from piracy. That included deployed submarines for anti-piracy operations, which is the most unlikely platform to be used for this role. There is no doubt they are spending a huge sum of money in developing their military capability. They are modernising their forces, they are modernizing the command structure. And in my opinion, no navy has grown so rapidly in the last 200 years as the Chinese navy. They’ve added 80 new ships in the last five years. So the Chinese navy is a force, and it is a force which is here to stay."

In her remarks, Payne clarified that “none of us want to see confrontation become the dominant shaper of US-China relations,” but argued that “the peaceful and open character of the (Indian) ocean is a vital national interest for Australia.” She reminded her audience that Australia has a long Indian Ocean coastline, boasts a large Exclusive Economic Zone, and bears responsibility for the Ocean’s largest Search and Rescue Zone. She noted that Australia possessed territory closer to New Delhi than to Canberra and had major oil and gas reserves off its north-west shore. “Few Australians would consciously be aware of this,” she said, “but more than half of all of Australia’s exports depart from Indian Ocean ports.” The minister also highlighted steps Australia was undertaking to secure the Indian Ocean. These included Australia’s largest annual naval deployment, Indo-Pacific Endeavour; its bilateral naval exercise with India (AUSINDEX); continuing military rotations in the northwest Indian Ocean and Middle East; cooperation in response to natural disasters; and future military investments in Western Australia.

The mainstay of Payne’s remarks, however, was the articulation of a four-pronged Australian approach to the Indian Ocean. Chief among these was a closer partnership with India. “We welcome India’s leadership in the Indian Ocean,” she said. She argued that the two countries held similar worldviews as “free, open, and independent democracies” that respect international law, support an open and inclusive Indo-Pacific, and believe that “might is not right.” India’s success, she said, is a reminder “of the merits of democracy, of the rule of law, of a strong private sector and an increasingly open market economy.”

A second element involved building stronger regional institutions and norms. This included Australia’s continued support for the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IOR) and its Jakarta Concord of 2017. While name-checking cooperation among the Quad (Australia, India, the United States, and Japan), the minister also echoed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call for nations to support ASEAN centrality. The two approaches, she argued, were not contradictory: “Our view is that mini-lateral cooperation in the Indian Ocean region can complement the region’s architecture.”

Third, she argued that India needed to support countries’ resilience to withstand coercion, mirroring similar Australian initiatives to its east. These include a $2 billion Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility and the development of regional peacekeeping and disaster infrastructure in Fiji.

Finally, Payne argued for policies to promote economic growth and market liberalisation. A major focus of these efforts, she said, would be India and South Asia. She reiterated support for the India Economic Strategy commissioned by the Australian government and also announced a new South Asia Regional Infrastructure Connectivity (SARIC) initiative, a $25 million, four-year programme focused on improving transportation and energy infrastructure.

Taken together, Payne made a strong case to both an international and domestic audience for Australia having important equities in the Indian Ocean region. While the totality of Australia’s military and institutional involvement appeared impressive, and the direction clear and concise, expectations could yet increase for Canberra on the economic front. There’s only one hitch: to a considerable degree, the direction and priority of Australia’s Indian Ocean policy will depend on the outcome of this year’s federal election. New Delhi, for one, will hope Payne’s successor can only build further upon her remarks at Raisina.

December 13, 2018

If State Elections Were General

The following blog post was originally published by the Brookings Institution on 13 December 2018.

On December 11, the results of five Indian state elections – in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana, and Mizoram – were announced. These will be the last state elections before the 2019 Indian general election, about which speculation will now begin in earnest. Predicting national elections is a notoriously difficult exercise; the last three defied many expectations. Given that media commentators project every state election as a trendsetter for national politics, a simple exercise to start thinking about next year’s outcome involves transposing the results of every state election over the past five years onto a national election map. Basically, this means taking the number of seats a party won in the last election in each state, dividing it by the total number of seats in the state legislature, and multiplying that number by the Lok Sabha seats representing that state.

Crunch the numbers in this manner, and it brings up the following results: the BJP drops some 103 seats and its allies another 7, giving the BJP a total of 179 and its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition about 207 seats. (For context, no winning party won more seats than that in five general elections between 1996 and 2009.) The Congress would certainly gain in this calculation – particularly in Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh – but would make only about 107 seats total. Along with its allies, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) would have 163 seats. This would represent a big increase from 2014, but is still over 40 short of their competitors. Other regional parties, led by the All India Trinamool Congress, All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Biju Janata Dal, Telugu Desam Party, and Telangana Rashtra Samiti would be among the largest contributors to 172 seats for third parties and independents.

Now, the caveats. These numbers offer a useful starting point, but should definitely not be interpreted as a prediction, for at least four reasons. The first is that Indian voters have historically distinguished between state-level and national-level issues when they voted, and parties will campaign on very different concerns and personalities. A particularly good example of this was the fact that the 2008 Uttar Pradesh elections – won convincingly by the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) – was followed shortly thereafter by a strong showing by the Congress in that state in the 2009 general election. A second reason is that enough time has elapsed from several state elections, notably in Bihar, Delhi, Maharashtra, and Uttar Pradesh, to suggest that they could have little bearing on the next general election.

The third reason is that both pre-poll and post-poll alliances will alter calculations, sometimes significantly. How the likes of the BSP, TDP, and others position themselves will make a meaningful difference, as would campaign strategies between allies. Finally, state election results disproportionately favour state parties and smaller political movements, who are more likely to be crowded out in a general election when fewer and larger seats are at stake. Nonetheless, despite these important considerations, a simple transposition of recent state election results on a national electoral map provides a basic starting point for anticipating what is in play in the run up to the 2019 elections.

November 26, 2018

26/11 anniversary: Clock hasn’t turned back in terror fight

The following article originally appeared in Mint on 26 November 2018, on the tenth anniversary of the Mumbai attacks.

The 26/11 attack was a watershed moment. It was not the most lethal incident of terrorism in India, or even in Mumbai, which experienced more fatalities in 1993 blasts and the train bombings of 2006. But 26/11 stood out for receiving unprecedented media coverage. The targets were high-profile. Victims from 17 countries lost their lives. These factors had several important consequences.

Firstly, it placed Pakistan at the epicentre of international terrorism. Not only were the perpetrators from Pakistan, but the role of Lashkar-e-Taiba was firmly established, as were links to handlers in ISI. After 26/11, it was not only India crying hoarse about Pakistan’s state support for terrorism. Further developments, including the Haqqani Network’s attacks on Kabul and the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, underscored the role played by Pakistan’s security services in fomenting acts of global terrorism.

Secondly, 26/11 resulted in unprecedented international cooperation for India on counter-terrorism. The role of FBI and others in the investigation opened room for bilateral and multilateral cooperation from which India continues to benefit.

Thirdly, the nature of terror attacks against India changed significantly. The years before 2008 witnessed routine terror attacks against civilians in Indian urban centres. After 2008, with a few prominent exceptions, terrorists began to focus more on security installations, such as in Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Uri, that were less likely to invite international opprobrium.

If these changes were decisive, there were other developments that were less so, such as the institutional reform of India’s intelligence apparatus. While P. Chidambaram, who became home minister after 26/11, outlined an ambitious programme to overhaul the internal security apparatus, many efforts became mired in issues such as centre-state relations. While India’s counter-terrorism capabilities have improved, 26/11 arguably did not result in the wholesale security reforms that had been expected.

The legacy of 26/11 is, therefore, significant. Even though the one surviving perpetrator Ajmal Kasab, was tried, convicted and executed, several key planners remain active in Pakistan. With the passage of time, other developments in Indian security, India-Pakistan relations, and the global environment have threatened to overshadow the events of November 2008. But for global perceptions of Pakistan’s support for terrorism, India’s transnational security cooperation, and the nature of terrorism in India, the clock has not turned back.

November 13, 2018

India-China Relations

The following interview was originally published by the Asia Experts Forum on 13 November 2018. 

Given the history of border disputes and geopolitical rivalry between India and China, where do you think the two powers’ relationship stands today?

We are in for a period of heightened competition between China and several other countries, one of which is India. Some of this relates to the manner of China’s rise. I would start with the caveat that China’s rise has been a major benefit to many of these very countries. It has been the primary driver of global growth, and it is now the largest trade partner of most countries in the region. But there are four main, broad areas of concern among these countries regarding China’s rise. One is the lack of transparency about decision-making in China. This adds to anxieties about Chinese intentions. We were expecting to see greater transparency as China modernized, but the ascendency of Xi Jinping has reversed a lot of that. A secondary concern has been related to China’s economic rise, which has been heavily backed by the state and state-owned enterprises. There have been many significant subsidies and supply side growth, as well as acts of industrial espionage. This has led to some market distortions, to greater debt in China, and the sense that there is an uneven playing field. The third broad area of concern is territorial revisionism. China has disputes at sea with Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and others. On land it has boundary disputes with Bhutan and India. We are seeing revisionism in all of these places. The fourth broad area is China’s attitudes toward many international norms. China’s behavior is undercutting many established international norms, whether it’s cyberspace, outer space, or freedom of navigation. So, these are the shared concerns. India has some very specific concerns as well. One is, of course, the boundary dispute. Among other things, China still claims most of one Indian state, which is home to more than two million people. There is growing concern about the trade deficit, and what many Indians perceive as a lack of market access in China. There are growing concerns about the Belt and Road Initiative, including the Maritime Silk Road, and how these things are being leveraged for debt. Finally, there are disagreements between India and China on issues of global governance. A few years ago there was actually some close collaboration. What we are seeing now is a much more competitive relationship between India and China related to some very radical changes taking place within China.

What prompted the warming of relations between India and China since their military stand-off in Doklam last year?

I would hesitate to call it a warming of relations. I’ve described it more as a time-out than a reset. There was a realization on the part of both parties that relations were at risk of spiraling out of control. In fact, India seemed to have made outreach efforts to China, but this was before the standoff took place. Those efforts were derailed by the standoff in Doklam. Starting in late 2017 we started seeing very high-level visits by representatives from both countries, including the Chinese Foreign Minister to India. That has continued into this year, and the apex was when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi went to China. He held a two-day informal summit with President Xi Jinping. Both sides have certainly tried to cool temperatures. However, on most major issues that are defining the relationship, neither China nor India has been willing to actually compromise their positions on those issues. We are seeing what I saw one commentator call, “confrontation with a smile.” That is going to continue for a while. On India’s part, this is motivated primarily by the elections that are taking place the early part of next year. If the Indians can ensure that the relationship is not rocky before the elections, it would help them in the elections.

Going forward, do you think that anything will help this relationship improve, or do you see any potential obstacles that might hinder these countries from further improving their relations?

It would require very radical revisions on the part of China, mostly unrelated to India specifically. If the Chinese were to rethink elements of the Belt and Road Initiative, or if they were to do some dramatic and bold reforms to their domestic economy, then the relationship could improve. Economically, it seems that some of China’s leaders intend to do this, though they may be unable to for a variety of reasons. Attitudes need to change, too. There needs to be an acknowledgement that other countries have their own domestic politics and concerns. That is something that China’s leadership has not been prone to do.

A 2014 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed 72% of Indians were concerned that territorial disputes between China and neighboring countries could lead to a military conflict. Do you think these concerns are legitimate? How do you think popular opinion in India and China affects the countries’ diplomatic relationship?

There is always a concern that public opinion can drive a government into a corner and reduce room for compromise. To some degree, this happened in 1962 when China and India had a border war. India had made very bold claims that it could not, at the time, back up militarily. Public opinion was what shaped such a hard position on that. That, in some ways, boxed India into a corner and reduced opportunity for compromise. The surveys that have been conducted on Indian public opinion toward China tend to be quite mixed, including this Pew poll. This suggests, at least recently, that Indian concerns about China are quite mixed. This stands in stark contrast to polls on Indian views of Pakistan, which tend to be overwhelmingly hostile. Opinions on India and China are still very mixed, though I do see negative views growing over time. But unlike Pakistan, there are still sizable positive constituencies as well.

When asked which country was the greatest threat to India in the same survey, the highest percentage of respondents (45%) answered Pakistan.  How does Pakistan factor into China-India relations?

One reason for these views on Pakistan is that Pakistan is a daily preoccupation for India’s armed forces. There still is a system in Pakistan of recruiting, financing and training militant groups, and helping to infiltrate them across the border to India. Very regularly we see news reports of Indian armed forces having to deal with cross-border terrorism from Pakistan. That has played out accordingly in public opinion. The China-Pakistan relationship is actually an old one, and dates back in some ways to the 1960s. Pakistan was the conduit for the U.S.-China negotiations in 1971. From 1976 onwards, there was nuclear cooperation between China and Pakistan, including the transfer of materials to Pakistan for bombs from China. In the early 1990s, missile technology was transferred. So there is a much older military relationship between China and Pakistan, with much of it targeting India because of mutual concerns about India. Lately, it has taken on another, more economic dimension. The signature element of Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is the China-Pakistan economic corridor. China is now investing very heavily in Pakistan in major infrastructure projects, including roads, railway networks, power stations, mass transit systems and ports. This has added another dimension to the China-Pakistan relationship. In India, this is viewed with a great deal of concern. The concern is that Pakistan is borrowing heavily from China, and may be unable to pay off those debts. This might lead China to try to extract political and possibly security favors from Pakistan. Elements of this are already happening in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, where these countries have become mired in debt owed to China.

How do you see the India-China relationship being affected by the worsening U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry? How do Indian strategists see the unfolding U.S.-China strategic competition?  What are the opportunities and potential pitfalls for India in this new “cold war”?

There’s a great deal of uncertainty on that front as well. The U.S. sees India as an integral element to the balance of power in Asia, and has seen India in that light for some time. This has always been the case, and in some ways China’s rise has always been a driver of a closer U.S.-India defensive partnership. However, at the same time, the recent trade war between the U.S. and China appears to have also led to China taking a softer line with India. This may in part explain China’s willingness to cool temperatures with India. We must periodically reassess what the implications of the U.S.-China rivalry are for India because it is moving at such a fast pace, and because there are so many uncertainties. Economically, there could be many effects of the trade war. It has led to the devaluation of the currency in India. The U.S. has also slapped tariffs on India for steel and aluminum exports, although the value of these tariffs that have been applied is a tiny fraction of the value of tariffs applied to China. There is this possibility that India will get caught in the crosswinds between the U.S. and China, at least economically. In strategic terms it is leading to a greater acceleration of U.S.-India strategic conversions. We see this in the Trump administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific policy, which places India centrally in the mix. In some ways we may see strategic convergence, but also great economic uncertainty from India’s point of view.

November 12, 2018

Does ASEAN Matter?

The following originally appeared as part of an Asia Society Policy Roundtable on 12 November 2018. 

For a large and rising power such as India, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is critical to its regional engagement. This represents a considerable turnaround from earlier decades. ASEAN initially arose in circumstances brought about by failures of Indian leadership efforts in Asia—specifically, the Non-Aligned Movement and principles of peaceful coexistence that defined the region in the 1950s. At the time, India viewed both ASEAN and its agenda with considerable suspicion, concerned that it would contribute to regional divisiveness. This began to change in the 1990s, when the end of the Cold War realigned both India’s and ASEAN’s priorities, enabling India’s “Look East” policy; its eventual incorporation into the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS), and the ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus); and its involvement in Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations.

Today, ASEAN is being tested. And yet it is at this very moment that India has chosen to increase its engagement, establishing a separate diplomatic mission and ambassador in Jakarta, as well as a new ASEAN Multilateral division in its foreign ministry. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a 2018 speech in Singapore, underscored that “ASEAN unity is essential for a stable future for this region … it has laid the foundation of the Indo-Pacific Region.” In January of this year, India invited all ten ASEAN leaders to a summit in New Delhi, wherein a joint declaration they agreed to “ensure an open, transparent, inclusive and rules-based regional architecture.”

While India has stepped up its diplomatic engagement with ASEAN, and bolstered security and – to a lesser degree – economic links with its member states, concerns are mounting about ASEAN’s internal unity and external relevance. Indeed, the various ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategies and policies that are emerging, including those of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India, are primarily efforts to reinforce the regional order in the absence of ASEAN’s ability to do so. This includes efforts at deepening security cooperation and interoperability, particularly in the maritime domain; offering new financial instruments that increase regional prosperity and connectivity without compromising national sovereignty; and promoting globally-accepted norms of behavior in contested domains. An over-emphasis on consensus – the much-vaunted “ASEAN Way” – has proved inadequate in meeting many of these demands, particularly in the face of China’s rise and newfound assertiveness.

If ASEAN did not exist today, it would have to be invented. Its achievements to date have been commendable in terms of advancing cooperation in an otherwise contested and diverse environment. The EAS, in particular, will grow in salience as the primary regional political institution. But none of this means that ASEAN is immune to criticism. Nor can it afford to exempt itself from necessary and difficult reforms if it hopes to preserve its centrality in Asia’s 21st century regional architecture. For a country such as India that is committed to ASEAN centrality, this will require redoubling its efforts at cooperation, to help strengthen a central institution at a critical juncture.