August 9, 2017

Why Are China and India in a Border Standoff?

The following post appeared on August 9, 2017 as part of a conversation on China File. It can be accessed here

The standoff between Chinese and Indian forces near the trijunction with Bhutan is a live, and sensitive, issue for all three countries. It has also given rise to considerable misinformation. The facts of the matter are that on June 16, Chinese forces attempted to extend a road southwards in territory that China disputes with Bhutan, immediately adjacent to India. This extension traversed a narrow gap between an Indian military outpost in Sikkim and a steep gorge in the disputed territory. Confronted by a Royal Bhutan Army patrol, the Chinese construction party attempted to push forward, involving Indian forces stationed only a few hundred meters away. On June 20, Bhutan protested officially to the Chinese government. An unarmed military standoff between Chinese and Indian forces has since continued.

The legal and diplomatic basis for China’s actions is flimsy. It rests on Beijing’s claim that the China-Bhutan boundary lies about two kilometers south of the site of the stand-off. As supporting documentation, China cites the 1890 Tibet-Sikkim Convention between the British and Qing Empires. But Beijing conveniently overlooks the fact that the same document states that the boundary “shall be the crest of the mountain range separating the waters flowing into the Sikkim Teesta and its affluents from the waters flowing into the Thibetan Machu and northwards” or about four kilometers north of the stand-off’s location. Second, Beijing ignores the fact that Bhutan was not party to the 1890 arrangement. Third, China has violated written agreements with Bhutan from 1988 and 1998 to “maintain status quo on the boundary as before March 1959,” and “refrain from taking unilateral action, or use of force, to change the status quo on the boundary.” Fourth, China has also violated an agreement with India from 2012 that “tri-junction boundary points between India, China and third countries will be finalized in consultation with the concerned countries.” Fifth, Indian forces have not crossed a settled international boundary, as has been widely reported. In fact, both sides in 2012 agreed only on the “basis of alignment” and China had also previously indicated that the boundary with Sikkim was not entirely settled. Finally, China ignores India’s longstanding defence arrangements with Bhutan, including the two countries’ 2007 treaty. The last three facts mean that, far from being solely a bilateral China-Bhutan issue, India very much has a stake in the matter.


To date, analysts can only speculate about the motives for China’s action and its subsequent response. But what is clear is that it sets a poor precedent for Chinese leadership. Not only is Beijing attempting to ride roughshod over prior written agreements with two neighbors, it has proceeded to heighten belligerent rhetoric rather than try to create space for a mutually acceptable diplomatic solution. A peaceful resolution could yet be found, but Beijing should not underestimate the extent to which this episode undermines its bona fides—certainly in India, but also elsewhere.

July 25, 2017

Interview with The Dialogue

My interview with The Dialogue appeared on July 25, 2017 and can be accessed here.

The Doklam Standoff – Is it a hyperbole game between Indian and Chinese media or is the situation really dire? Your take on the matter.

We should appreciate that this is a live situation, about which there are still a lot of uncertainties. What can be ascertained is that there is an ongoing non-violent stand-off between Indian and Chinese forces in territory disputed between Bhutan and China. This came about because in June, Chinese forces attempted to extend a road in a manner that altered the status quo on the ground and threatened Indian security interests. China justifies its actions by citing an 1890 agreement between the British and Qing Empires. India justifies its intervention on the grounds that China had previously agreed that the boundary should follow the watershed, that India and China agreed in 2012 to not determine trijunction points unilaterally, and that New Delhi has longstanding defence arrangements with Bhutan.

What has been different about this India-China stand-off, compared to other recent episodes, is not just that this is in a third country, but the extremely harsh tenor of China’s official response. By contrast, the Indian media has been relatively muted in its criticism, and barring one press release and a few public statements by Indian diplomats, the Indian government has been mostly silent. It is possible that through aggressive threats, including via the state-run media, China is hoping to enter into a slanging match with India. If that is the case, the best thing for India to do is to not become embroiled in one. Not all Chinese threats should be taken at face value, and while taking necessary precautions it would be a mistake to unduly panic. The fact is that China finds itself in a very unusual situation, one that it is not accustomed to: it is unable to get its way in a dispute through political pressure, threats, or economic leverage without significantly escalating the situation or discrediting itself. This situation, and how it resolves itself, should be seen as a test of China’s credentials as a responsible global leader.

From an Aid Taker to Aid Giver – How do you see India’s journey into Africa and other developing nations competing with China for aid diplomacy and building strong goodwill with potential partner countries?

India is playing a new, and growing, role as an aid provider, primarily in its neighbourhood from Afghanistan to Myanmar and south into the Indian Ocean region, as well as in parts of Africa. I would warn against viewing this purely as part of a competition with China. Many of these projects would probably have been implemented even in the absence of Chinese grants, loans, and lines of credit, although without doubt there is more urgency now as a result of China’s behaviour. Furthermore, the objective of aid is not simply goodwill. Indian aid, like that of other countries, is meant to help a recipient country with public goods through financial, technical, and technological assistance, in a manner that advances the interests of both donor and recipient countries.

In India’s immediate region, the focus has been on fast-tracking connectivity projects, including roads, ports, and other transit corridors, although many challenges remain, including in cost assessments and implementation. Ultimately, Indian projects need to be financially viable and also have to take into account local concerns, such as environmental considerations. These naturally lead to a lot of delays and cost overruns, and for this reason I would warn against direct comparisons with Chinese activities. India also has important equities in Afghanistan, where it has become the fifth largest aid provider. In Africa, Indian projects are more focused. We should keep in mind that India’s resources are still limited, but I’d expect a slight acceleration in this realm in the near future.

India’s Soft Power Strategy – Initiatives like the International Yoga Day are welcome moves to enhance India’s public profile in the world. In addition to this, how can India sell itself better to the world to raise awareness about its cultural and historic significance?

I perhaps have a dissenting view on this issue. Soft power is the power of attraction – the pull factor – that makes other countries behave in a favourable manner. As such, a soft power strategy is not really possible, beyond perhaps better amplifying existing realities. That being said, India is a prime example of a country that benefits from its soft power. India’s rise is not feared or resisted as much as other countries, in part because it is a relatively transparent democracy, is status quo oriented, and it broadly respects international norms and international law. To give some obvious examples, countries of Southeast Asia actively seek greater Indian involvement despite its rise, while the United States publicly supports India’s entry into several global institutions. In the past few weeks alone, I have heard both Australia and Vietnam’s foreign ministers credit India with respecting an international ruling on its maritime dispute with Bangladesh. That is soft power.

Culture is certainly an important component, but the successful spread of Indian culture, whether yoga or Bollywood or Buddhism, has largely come despite Indian government efforts, not because of them. Attempting a soft power strategy along the lines of China – creating Confucius Institutes and the like – may thus be both a poor use of resources and counterproductive. This is not to say that International Yoga Day or other forms of cultural diplomacy are without merit – they can help to identify a cultural attribute with a country. But rather than trying to bureaucratise something that has been organically successful, perhaps the focus should be only on narrative shaping and leveraging India’s attractiveness for the nation’s benefit.

Working with Neigbours – India seems to be in a difficult position with respect to its immediate neighbourhood. Is it a trust deficit or a long term game of competing for significance in the region with China?

Every country, especially a big one, has difficulties with its neighbours. So does India. But there is also a propensity on the part of many Indian commentators to overstate the differences. Consider that India has an open border with Nepal and that Nepali citizens serve in the Indian army, or that India has a special diplomatic and defence relationship with Bhutan. With Bangladesh, India has settled its longstanding boundary disputes. India has been intimately involved in the repatriation of refugees following the Sri Lankan civil war, and has in recent months been a first responder to natural disasters in both Sri Lanka and the Maldives. At this juncture, in particular, India is fortunate to have good relationships with the current leaders of Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. With Myanmar, India has managed to preserve relatively good relations with the previous regime and the new democratic dispensation, even if the tangible outcomes have been a bit disappointing.

This is not to say that these neighbours enjoy problem-free relationships with India. But compared to – say – China or Russia, India has not done badly. The challenge now lies in two areas. One, there are political constituencies in all of India’s neighbours that derive legitimacy or popularity from anti-India rhetoric and actions. This has always been the case: after all, in the past India had to deal with the likes of Ziaur Rehman, R. Premadasa, and King Gyanendra. The fact that there are overlapping ethnicities across borders further blurs the line between the domestic politics of India and many of its neighbours. The second challenge is that these countries are now willing to fall back on Chinese support when Indian assistance has not been forthcoming, sometimes in a manner that threatens to undermine India’s security. For this reason, India has to be watchful. India has tried to address these shortcoming by prioritising diplomacy with its neighbours, become more forthcoming in aid and disaster assistance, prioritising connectivity, and reclaiming a leadership role in regional integration.

The regional outlier is, of course, Pakistan. The Pakistan military has a longstanding policy of supporting terrorist groups against India, and Islamabad has also not been responsive to efforts to normalize economic and trade relations with India. Compelling Pakistan to alter its position is a major challenge, without any easy answers because India has few levers of influence. The analogy is imperfect, but we face some of the same problems that South Korea, Japan, and the United States face with North Korea, in that we are attempting to engage a nuclear-powered, revisionist country where a small elite benefits domestically from perpetuating a siege mentality and provoking periodic crises with a more powerful neighbour. Engagement with Pakistan will be made harder for India because it is contingent upon several factors, not least the fluid situation in Afghanistan, domestic political dynamics in both countries, and increasingly, the role that China plays in Pakistan’s economic and political trajectory. I fear none of these trends currently point in a positive direction. As a result, in the short term, India will simply have to manage the Pakistan problem rather than try to resolve it.

Energy Diplomacy – As a country dependent on heavy imports of energy supplies, how can we develop priority based strategic partnership with energy rich nations in Gulf and Central Asia, with immense potential for Gas in Central Asia?

India is among the major economies that is most dependent on oil and gas imports for its energy, but it is pursuing ambitious plans to diversify its energy portfolio. This is taking a few forms. One is a major focus on renewables, particularly solar and wind. Even if India misses its ambitious deadlines over the next five years, there is no question that solar and wind energy will be a bigger part of the Indian energy mix, with positive implications for energy security. Additionally, India is also diversifying its sources of fossil fuel imports, importing more from such places as Nigeria and Angola.

Nonetheless, for the near future, security in the Gulf will matter, not just for oil and gas, but also for the large Indian diaspora and various security considerations. For their part, several Gulf economies – notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – have started planning also for a post-oil future. A big change over the past few years, and one that has surprised me as well, is the growing cooperation on security matters between India and the Gulf Arab monarchies. We shouldn’t expect a dramatic change in their position, but – for example – their criticism of Pakistan after the Uri attacks last year is part of a gradual change in their approach to India and Indian concerns. The visit of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi to India this year for Republic Day, and the joint statement that followed, clearly emphasised the security component of the relationship. At the same time, India’s interests will require it to continue balancing between the various actors in West Asia, including the GCC, Iran, and Israel.

July 21, 2017

Indian Strategy in a Non-Strategic Age

The following book chapter appeared in an edited volume, India Now and in Transition (ed. Atul Thakur, Niyogi Books, 2017). The full text can be accessed here

Strategy is a much misunderstood, misused, and maligned concept. In general, it refers to how individuals and organisations set goals and attempt to achieve them under uncertain conditions and with limited resources. In the context of national policymaking, the term ‘strategy’ is often used as shorthand for ‘grand strategy’. Grand strategy is how a national leadership controls and utilises resources to effectively promote a country’s vital national interests and secure those interests against adversaries. A successful strategy depends in large part on its feasibility and sustainability.

As India emerges in the 21st century, evolving gradually into a middle income country with increasingly global interests, it will find itself adapting to a rapidly evolving international system. India’s resources today are greater than at any time in its history, and it no longer confronts existential threats. But while the country may now be less vulnerable, it will have to confront different—and sometimes unprecedented—challenges. Are India and its leaders up to the task?

July 5, 2017

Even as India attempts to ‘Act East’, it is ‘Thinking West’

The following article, co-authored with Shruti Godbole, originally appeared in the Economic Times on July 5, 2017. An excerpt is below, and the full text can be accessed here.

India has long had vital interests in the region. The first involves the safety and well-being of the almost nine million-strong Indian diaspora in West Asia, who contribute remittances of around $40 billion annually. Their security is also a politically sensitive issue for the Indian government, and has necessitated evacuations of Indian nationals, whether from Kuwait in 1990, Lebanon in 2006, Libya in 2011or Yemen in 2015.

The second interest concerns energy security, which is vital for the health and well-being of the Indian economy. About 60% of all Indian oil imports — and even more of its natural gas — come from West Asia, making India one of the major economies that is most dependent on the region for its energy needs.

A third consideration is security, including cooperation on counterterrorism. This has required India to develop important, if sometime tacit, security- and intelligence-sharing mechanisms, as well as broader defence partnerships across the region. These critical Indian interests concerning the diaspora, energy and security have required India to maintain a delicate balancing act in the region between its major players, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and others.

But the situation in West Asia is fluid and ever-changing. There are indications that the US might play a less active role as a security guarantor in the region. This was implied previously in Barack Obama’s ‘pivot’ to Asia, and more recently by Donald Trump’s general wariness about the US’ international military involvement.

The Arab Spring, instead of resulting in mass democratisation across the region, witnessed the breakdown of governance in Egypt and triggered civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. The 2015 Iran nuclear agreement may have dealt with the immediate challenges posed by that country’s nuclear programme. But it has generated fears in other regional capitals, who worry that the removal of international sanctions against Iran may have emboldened Tehran and upset the balance of power.

Meanwhile, as oil prices remain low, several Gulf Arab countries are beginning to plan for a post-oil future. The Saudi Vision 2030, a signature project of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, marks an ambitious plan to reorient and modernise the Saudi economy.

While preserving ties with Iran, a vital conduit into Afghanistan and Central Asia, India has tried to seize the opportunities presented by this changing landscape to strengthen ties with the likes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Modi has reportedly noticeably increased the proportion of the prime minister’s time spent abroad in West Asia relative to his predecessor. It’s a reflection of the increased political importance India accords to the region.


Even as India attempts to ‘Act East’, it is increasingly ‘Thinking West’. This is where Israel’s importance becomes apparent: looking west from India, it is an island of stability amid a region beset by considerable political, military, economic and social upheaval.

June 28, 2017

On China, Modi Won Unexpected Support From Trump



The following article originally appeared on NDTV on June 28, 2017. An excerpt is below and the full text can be accessed here.

But amid all the surprises and continuity, the pomp and personal rapport, two takeaways really stand out from this meeting. One concerns India-U.S. convergence in the Indo-Pacific. This really was the headline from the visit, and underscored the central strategic rationale for the bilateral relationship. While not using the same language, perhaps too closely associated now with the Barack Obama administration, the meeting reflected an effective continuation of the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region, which was agreed in January 2015. The latest statement encompasses common principles concerning the freedom of navigation, overflight, and commerce, and the peaceful resolution of disputes in the region. Indian Ocean security - whether U.S. involvement in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium or the centrality of the Malabar naval exercises - features prominently. The U.S. offer to sell Sea Guardian unarmed drones could mark a major contribution to India's ability to monitor the Indian Ocean, just as India's earlier acquisition of P-8I maritime surveillance aircraft proved a game-changer.


But what really stands out in the joint statement is a passage on regional economic connectivity. It outlines a set of principles, specifically that such connectivity should be based on "the transparent development of infrastructure and the use of responsible debt financing practices, while ensuring respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rule of law, and the environment." These principles closely reflect India's prior statement of May 13 concerning its refusal to participate in the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. Some Indian commentators felt that India was being "isolated" when it opted to boycott the Forum, a major diplomatic initiative of the Chinese government. But the U.S. endorsement of principles first articulated by India, coupled with similar concerns described separately by the EuropeanUnion and Japan, has put India in the unusual position of being a normative leader when it comes to regional connectivity, an increasingly important arena of international competition. The challenge, moving forward, is how India can further articulate, promote, and enforce such norms in its extended neighbourhood and beyond.

June 23, 2017

Man on the Run

The following book review originally appeared in Open on June 23, 2017.

British investigative journalists Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy have established themselves as specialists in fast-paced, densely-researched, narrative non-fiction books about the shadowy security of South Asia. Nuclear Deception was an account of the AQ Khan nuclear proliferation network. The Meadow told the tale of Western backpackers taken hostage in Kashmir in 1995. The Siege detailed the horrors of the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.

The latest addition to their oeuvre, The Exile, recounts Osama bin Laden’s years in hiding after the 9/11 attacks. The narrative flits effortlessly from Iranian detention facilities, Afghan battlefields, and CIA black sites in Romania and Thailand, to Pakistan Army meetings in Rawalpindi, safe houses in Karachi, and terrorist conclaves in the tribal areas. Essentially, it tells three interwoven stories.

The first concerns the trials and tribulations of Bin Laden’s immediate family, based on the authors’ interviews with members in Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. It provides a vivid account of petty jealousies, marital prospects, and health problems (including mental illness), as Bin Laden, his many wives and children fled Afghanistan and lived in hiding in Pakistan and under protection of the Quds Force in Iran.

The second story involves the hunt for Al Qaeda from the perspective of the hunted, who dispersed to South Waziristan and Bajaur, Karachi and Iran, Haripur and Abbottabad. Scott-Clark and Levy hold a mirror to the US government’s official history, reinforced in film and other accounts. Key turning points included the capture of courier Hassan Ghul in early 2004, the CIA’s refocus on bin Laden in 2009, and the identification of bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in August 2010. There were setbacks, including attempts to turn Ghul, the notorious Aafia Siddiqui, and Jordanian doctor Humam al-Balawi into double- agents. The Exile also exposes deep flaws in US intelligence, such as the inflated importance accorded to the captured Abu Zubaydah.

The third tale concerns high politics, a domain where Scott-Clark and Levy are least comfortable. This includes the machinations of the Pakistani and Iranian governments, both of which wrestled internally with how to deal with Al Qaeda and its affiliates on the one hand, and the US on the other. Some of it strains credulity. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to assist the US against Al Qaeda is portrayed as one of swift brilliance on September 11th, 2001. Unsurprisingly, the source is Musharraf himself. But while giving some credence to the Pakistani narrative of ‘rogue’ ISI elements and uncontrollable jihadi groups (General Hamid Gul crops up, as usual, as pantomime villain), the book is far more damning on other counts.

It details the assistance provided to fleeing Al Qaeda men by ISI-affiliates Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, Musharraf’s stubborn reluctance to crack down on Al Qaeda in South Waziristan in 2004, and the fallout of the disastrous 2006 Waziristan Accord. The ISI’s S-Wing, Scott-Clark and Levy write, ‘dealt directly with armed Islamist outfits without referral back to headquarters to ensure plausible deniability for the ISI chief’. Significantly, The Exile draws a straight line between Bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan and the attack on Indian Parliament in December 2001, with Pakistani troops diverted to the Indian border with uncharacteristic alacrity. ‘It was difficult not to see this as a deliberate ruse to allow Osama bin Laden to escape from Tora Bora into Pakistan,’ the authors conclude. The dots are less well connected when it comes to the Abbottabad compound. When construction began in 2004, ‘The Abbottabad Cantonment Board approved the plans without verifying the owner, although this was a legal requirement.’ The records of Bin Laden’s architect suggest that Lashkar-e-Taiba had helped purchase the plot.


All told, The Exile makes for a brisk, informative read. But it still remains an early draft of history. Further drafts, drawing from sources not yet available, will eventually provide a more complete picture of what was once the world’s biggest unsolved mystery.

June 20, 2017

Moving Forward on Defence and Security


The following article, co-authored with Tanvi Madan, originally appeared in Mint on June 20, 2017. The full text is available here

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets US President Donald Trump for the first time, the focus will be on establishing a good rapport between the two leaders. There remain concerns that their two governments’ objectives are not compatible: that Trump’s “America First” approach, which conceives of US interests in narrow, transactional terms, will be at odds with Modi’s agenda to transform India. But one area of natural convergence is in the defence and security realm.

...Modi’s forthcoming visit is, therefore, a chance to boost security cooperation, understand each other’s strategic priorities, and build constituencies for the bilateral relationship in both countries. While greater clarity on issues such as China will facilitate cooperation, uncertainty can impede these efforts. There will continue to be differences, and these too should be addressed candidly. India will also need to follow up words with actions, and promises with performance. But on security and strategic matters, India has a good story to tell. Modi’s visit provides an opportunity to highlight for Trump the value of an India that is willing to buy American military equipment, play a greater burden-sharing role, enhance dialogue on regional security, and work more seamlessly with the US military to meet common objectives.

June 11, 2017

Brexit, Beans and Crumpets


The following article originally appeared in the Economic Times's ET Magazine on June 11. 

By Bertie Wooster


I rather fancy it is Shakespeare who says that when a prime minister is feeling particularly braced with things, Fate sneaks up behind her with a bit of lead piping. I recalled the Bard’s musings on Friday morning after Jeeves trickled in with the Fleet Street rags and the tall glass that heals. The news left me speechless. 

Eventually I found speech. Not much of it, but some. 

“Eh,” I said. 

“Yes, sir?” 

“The elections haven’t gone so dashed well for Theresa, what, what?” 

“No, sir.” 

“And this Corbyn chap. He ought to be pleased as punch.” 

“Tolerably so, sir.” 

It required the better part of the day for me to get the gist of the situ. By sundowners, tucked away in a quiet corner of the Drones Club, I was able to muster the facts. Theresa May is a steely lady who bears an alarming resemblance to my Aunt Agatha, the one who chews broken bottles and kills rats with her teeth. She would normally be a beastly sort to face over a negotiating table, or breakfast for that matter. But now only a wet cat in a strange backyard bears itself with less jauntiness. The old girl’s not much of a gambler. Besides snap elections, she could only have done worse by betting two-to-one on Gussie Fink-Nottle pinching a policeman’s helmet. Now she’s had to throw in her lot with the Democratic Unionists, a queer tribe composed of dour Northern Irish types. They’re the sort to strike the fear of God in God. 

Meanwhile, Corbyn and his comrades have cast off their gloom and stiffened their spines. I threw the mind back to the days when even the Morning Star said old Jeremy was too Bolshie for Downing Street. He normally looks like one of those things that come out of dead trees after the rain, but the whiff of victory has bucked him up like a tonic. 

The rest appears to be out, if not yet for the count. The Scottish Nationalists find themselves a little less Scottish and little less Nationalist. I imagine they’re all skulking around Glasgow with shifty, hangdog expressions. It is never difficult to distinguish Scottish grievances from rays of sunshine. 

Then there’s UKIP. The trouble with UKIP is that just because they succeeded in inducing a handful of half¬wits to permanently disfigure British politics, they thought they were somebody. They heard “Leave!” and imagined it was the Voice of the People. When what the Voice of the People actually said this week was: “Vote for anyone but those frightful asses.” 

We now find ourselves in a rum situation without the foggiest idea as to what to do. The crumpets on the Continent are apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on the Home Counties, and eager to shut the door on Queen and Country. They’re a vindictive lot. Across the pond, the Yanks remain in thrall to a bovine chappie the colour of turmeric who’s busy applying the scorched earth policy to human dignity. Theresa & Co thought the best thing under the circumstances was to run around the old colonies, waving the flag and fizzing with excitement. A fat lot of good that’ll do. 

I left the Drones, scratching the old bean. “It’s a fairly rummy matter, Jeeves, this Brexit,” I said upon my return. 

“Indeed, sir.” 

“There seems to be a lot of low-spiritedness kicking about these days.” 

“We live in difficult times, sir.” 

I took to an early bed, not wanting to miss my beauty sleep. Conceive my astonishment, therefore, when waking on the morrow and sitting up to dig into the morning teacup, I beheld a card on the tray. 

“Jeeves, who the devil wants to see me so early in the morning?” 

“Lord Buckethead, sir. He was a candidate from Maidenhead.” 

“And what sort of a specimen is he?” 

“I could not say, sir, on such short acquaintance.” 

“He’s not a chum of Spode’s, by any chance?” 

“No, sir. Lord Sidcup is presently in America, where he is enjoying the hospitality of a Mr Richard Spencer.” 

In the sitting-room, I found a breathtaking cove. About seven feet in height, and swathed in black, he caught the eye and arrested it. It was as if nature had intended to make a human howitzer, but had changed its mind at the last minute. 

“I say, old chap. What are we to do about this dashed Brexit business?” 

“That’s a philosophical question for a Saturday morning,” he said. “I’m here to solicit your support for the legalisation of the hunting of fox¬hunters.” 

He was not the chump I took him for. I lent the good Wooster name to the cause, and for a second I was able to regard the world with some sunny cheeriness. 

(Bertram Wilberforce Wooster has stepped in for Dhruva Jaishankar, who thought it a brainy scheme at the time)

May 23, 2017

Actualising East: India in a Multipolar Asia

The following paper originally appeared as ISAS Insights No. 412, published by the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore on 23 May 2017. The full text can be found here. It is adapted from a presentation made at the 11th ISAS International Conference on South Asia on 3 March 2017. 

After years of a ‘Look East’ policy that recognised the importance of the Asia-Pacific region for Indian interests, the Indian government decided to upgrade it rhetorically to ‘Act East’. The objective of the ‘Act East’ policy is to ensure a multipolar Asia, through deeper institutional engagement, land and maritime connectivity, and security partnerships with Southeast and East Asia. While institutional engagement and security cooperation have improved considerably over the past two decades, connectivity remains a work in progress. For New Delhi to ‘Actualise East,’ it will require a rethinking of the country’s China policy in the light of developments there, putting nuts and bolts to improving India’s connectivity with Bangladesh and Southeast Asia, and prioritising Indian Ocean security.

May 21, 2017

India doesn't have a lot to lose by boycotting OBOR

The following article originally appeared in the Economic Times on 21 May 2017. The full text can be found here.

What does India want from the world? It’s quite clear, really: international partnerships to accelerate its domestic development, a stable and conducive periphery, a multi-polar Asia, an end to cross-border terrorism and a sufficient role in global governance to enable it to meet these goals. Today, each of these objectives relates in some way to India’s relations with China.

Until recently, India’s aspirations required it to forge a complex and somewhat contradictory relationship with Beijing. From the early 2000s, India deepened trade and economic relations with its northern neighbour and collaborated with China in creating space for rising powers on global governance – including through the BRICS, the BASIC coalition on climate change and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

At the same time, India took measures to address the military imbalance along its disputed border with China, and kept a wary eye on Beijing’s political and military relations in its neighbourhood, especially its support for Pakistan (which extended to the transfer of nuclear and missile technology).

But things have now changed, and faster than many believed possible. The 2008 financial crisis, the half-heartedness of former US president Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and now Donald Trump’s “America First” policy have accelerated China’s relative rise in the international system. And that rise has been accompanied in China by stronger centralised governance, enduring mercantilism, more assertive territorial revisionism with neighbours and a continued disregard for certain international norms, including on cyber security and freedom of navigation.

For India, China now factors everywhere. A balanced and sustainable economic partnership is still necessary for India’s development. At the same time, China plays a more active economic, political and military role in India’s near abroad and Beijing provides cover for Pakistan’s continued support for cross-border terrorism. Under President Xi Jinping, China projects itself as ascendant, leaving little space either in Asia or on the world stage for a rising India, whose transition into a middle-income country will take place over the next two decades.

China’s ascendance is most evidently on display in its plans for One Belt, One Road (OBOR) or the Belt & Road Initiative, the subject of a major summit in Beijing this month. While many of its neighbours sent heads of state or government, or ministerial delegations, India was notably absent. India’s public rationale for its opposition to OBOR has long been that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) ran through Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK), and was thus a violation of Indian sovereignty. But New Delhi’s concerns have long run deeper, and extended both to CPEC and to the Maritime Silk Route.

India’s response to OBOR, by necessity, rests on a set of assessments. Is OBOR a commercial project, with viable financing intended to benefit both China and host countries? The evidence for this is weak. Sri Lanka is but the starkest example. Chinese support to its former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa led to the building of white elephant infrastructure projects (including what has been described as “the most underused international airport on the planet”), massive national debt and the translation of that debt into political influence – which in turn had security implications. The gradual development of Chinese military or “dual use” facilities in Djibouti and Gwadar, and the creeping militarisation of the South China Sea, offer clear indications of long-term Chinese intentions in the Indian Ocean region.

While India’s reservations about OBOR have been hinted at for years, including by the prime minister, China’s public exhortations for Indian participation at the May summit required a clearer articulation of Indian concerns. This came in the form of a statement last week that stressed India’s desire for greater regional connectivity, but laid out specific criteria. Connectivity projects must be financially responsible and not create an “unsustainable debt burden”. Additionally, they must reflect environmental considerations, be based upon a “transparent assessment” of costs, and involve the transfer of skills and technology to ensure their long-term maintenance by local communities. And, of course, they must respect countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is a clear set of normative standards, one that China, recipients of OBOR-linked largesse and other actors — including in Europe, Japan, and the United States — would do well to heed. In fact, EU participants echoed these sentiments by blocking a statement at the Belt and Road Summit on trade, on the grounds that it was not based on “transparency and co-ownership”.

Does India have a lot to lose from boycotting OBOR? Not necessarily. China’s investment into India has risen considerably since 2014. According to Indian government figures, $800 million in Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) came into India in just 17 months between April 2014 and September 2015, more than double all previous Chinese FDI to India. This is on a similar scale to estimates of Chinese FDI into Pakistan under CPEC, and is simply indicative of the immense push factor of excess Chinese capital. If it can be invested in India in a manner that meets New Delhi’s stated criteria, it would naturally be mutually beneficial. However, drawing lines upon a map in a unilateral fashion, not just in India, but across Asia and the Indian Ocean region, is a far more sinister matter.


One Belt, One Road will only be a success if it is pursued in a more transparent, status quo-oriented, market-driven and responsible manner. That would be welcome. India has staked out a clear position. Others may arrive at the same conclusions the hard way.

May 20, 2017

A Long Battle Ahead


The following article originally appeared in The Times of India on 20 May 2017. The full text can be found here.

On May 18, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) – the principal judicial arm of the United Nations – ruled on the case of Kulbhushan Jadhav, whom Pakistan alleges is an Indian spy. The court unanimously declared that Pakistan must take all measures at its disposal to ensure that Jadhav is not executed, pending a final judgment of the court. What are we to make of this ICJ decision?

First, the matter is far from over. The court simply determined that it had jurisdiction in this case, despite Pakistan’s arguments to the contrary. It also stated that the rights alleged by India were plausible, that there was a clear link with the measures being sought by India, and that the matter was urgent as Jadhav faced a death sentence which – if carried through – could not be reversed.

Second, India’s case concerns Pakistan’s violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, not so much the merits or circumstances of Jadhav’s death sentence. Since his Indian citizenship was not in question, Pakistan should have allowed Jadhav to meet with Indian government representatives. The recent ICJ ruling should thus be seen as a reprieve that buys India time, and has little direct bearing on the overall circumstances of Jadhav’s arrest and sentencing.

The indirect implications are, however, far more significant, as they raise questions about why Pakistan denied Jadhav consular access in the first place. The element of irreparable prejudice and urgency in ICJ proceedings also highlight just how incredibly unusual it is for any country to execute an alleged foreign spy in peacetime, when life imprisonment is usually the harshest sentence. Moreover, the entire episode portrays the rule of law in Pakistan in an incredibly poor light. Questions remain about the circumstances of Jadhav’s arrest and detention (India believes that he was kidnapped from Iran). A video released by Pakistan in which Jadhav appears to admit his guilt is suspicious, and suggests that it was forced or done under duress. And the opacity of the legal process – in a Pakistani military court, no less – that resulted in his death sentence is very disturbing.

Third, we must look upon this as a political victory for India as much as a legal one. ICJ is an international court, and like much international law, the court lacks appropriate enforcement mechanisms. In the past, parties – including the United States – have ignored ICJ rulings concerning the Vienna Convention and executed citizens of other countries, although not for alleged espionage. Yet should Pakistan now ignore ICJ and execute Jadhav, it will clearly be an act of bad faith.

Two other criticisms that have been made in India concerning the decision to go to ICJ should be addressed. First, concerns have been expressed that India might be unnecessarily internationalising relations with Pakistan by taking this case to ICJ. This should not be a major concern. India’s position on ICJ’s jurisdiction is clearly stated, and based on its declarations recognising the jurisdiction of the court as mandatory, which were submitted in 1974. India’s determination, however, was that a matter related to the Vienna Convention overrode its own stated objections to the jurisdiction of the court, specifically that such jurisdiction would not extend to disputes between two current or former Commonwealth members.

Finally, questions have been raised as to whether this was a necessary step, or the best recourse. For this, the answer must be found in ICJ’s statement. Given that this is a death sentence and that the circumstance of Jadhav’s trial and detention are suspect, it was necessary to do everything possible to delay his execution. Going to the ICJ and thus overriding prior concerns about internationalisation was one way of doing so, and given the court’s stay order, has proved successful for that limited purpose.


Overall, the ICJ stay on Jadhav’s execution is a political victory for India, one that casts aspersions on Pakistan’s goodwill and the rule of law in that country. But it should be seen for what it is: the start of what may still be a long and messy process to bring Jadhav home.

May 18, 2017

Making Sense of Uncertain India-US Relations

The following article originally appeared in the Indian Foreign Affairs Journal, Vol. 12, No. 1, Jan-Mar 2017. The full text can be accessed here.

What does the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA mean for India? The short answer is that no one knows, not even Trump himself. India was fortunate not to feature prominently during the heated and divisive 2016 US election season. The occasional statements concerning India by President Trump and his advisors during and after the campaign sent mixed and sometimes contradictory signals. Additionally, the belated appointment of senior officials to key government positions after his inauguration (and the profiles of those currently in place) suggest that some of the bigger questions about US engagement with the rest of the world remain unsettled.


In an era of greater flux and uncertainty, it is nonetheless important for India to identify the key variables triggered by President Trump’s election, and their implications. They relate, essentially, to four broad areas: bilateral relations; the Asian balance of power; terrorism; and global governance.

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