November 2, 2017

Trump Goes to Asia


The following post appeared on China File on November 2, 2017.

Let us give credit where credit is due. For all the talk of dysfunction and policy incoherence in Washington under President Donald J. Trump, his administration has started to get some things right, especially when it comes to Asia policy. It helps that some of the key positions in the U.S. government, including senior posts at the Department of Defense and important ambassadorial appointments, are finally being filled by competent and experienced personnel. Additionally, after some trial and error, regional policy has started to assume some consistency. Indeed, the Trump administration’s learning curve on Asia over the past year has actually been steeper than the Obama administration’s, which often reversed or moderated course during its first six years.

Admittedly, Trump’s Asia policy got off on the wrong foot, with the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) sending a strong signal of American commercial disengagement from Asia. The handling of the North Korea situation was also mismanaged, to the detriment of U.S. relations with South Korea, and raised genuine questions about Trump’s ability to handle sensitive crisis scenarios.

But a lot has changed. One, in contrast to his peculiar presentation in Beijing in March which appeared to inadvertently rehash Chinese talking points, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson produced a clear policy speech in Washington last week. Ostensibly about relations with India, Tillerson’s remarks offered a carefully-crafted but sharp critique of China’s “predatory economics,” subversion of its neighbors’ sovereignty, and disrespect of a rules-based order. It provides an important insight into the administration’s thinking about the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. Moreover, Tillerson, Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence have laid some important groundwork with visits to Indonesia, Australia, and South Korea

Two, the broader policy direction has been complemented by action on the ground. This is most clearly manifested in more frequent U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea over the past several months.

Three, while the Trump administration’s emphasis on burden sharing may sit uncomfortably with European allies and partners, in Japan and India, the United States has found partners willing to step up and burden-share. Indeed, these now account for some of the more positive relationships that the Trump administration enjoys, despite niggling differences, including over trade. And finally, despite political distractions at the top, the strength of the U.S. system has persisted. For all the talk of the Philippines’ growing proximity to China under Rodrigo Duterte, it was U.S. special operations forces that helped that country’s military retake the city of Marawi from Islamic State-linked militants.


The ability to articulate a consistent policy line, follow through, work more seamlessly with partners in achieving those objectives, and retain strong habits of cooperation lie at the core of sound policy. As Trump heads to Asia on his maiden trip as President, he has the opportunity to build upon what has been a reasonably successful reversal and consolidation of his administration’s regional policy over the past few months.

October 28, 2017

Tillerson’s visit opens a window of opportunity that India must seize

The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on October 28, 2017. 

In 2000, in the midst of a US election, George W Bush’s top foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that outlined the candidate’s worldview. Among other things, it recognised the importance of India, and the need to facilitate its rise as a balancer in Asia. The US “should pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance”, she wrote. “There is a strong tendency conceptually to connect India with Pakistan and to think only of Kashmir or the nuclear competition between the two states. But India is an element in China’s calculation, and it should be in America’s, too. India is not a great power yet, but it has the potential to emerge as one.” This may seem obvious today, but it was not widely recognised in the US at the time. Many Indians — including at the senior levels of government — were unimpressed. Why should India be dragged into America’s geopolitical games?

Five years later, Philip Zelikow, counsellor to Rice, now US secretary of state, said in a background briefing that the US wanted to “help India become a major world power in the 21st century”, adding, “we understand fully the implications, including the military implications, of that statement.” This sentiment similarly faced resistance in both Washington and New Delhi. Indeed, it was in part why the statement had to be couched in a background briefing rather than in a policy statement by a senior official. But after considerable debate and deliberation in both capitals, it manifested itself in a civil nuclear agreement and a defence framework agreement.

How times have changed. Recently, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson expressed rather the same sentiments in a public address — the first foreign policy speech in Washington by a senior Trump administration official on relations with an individual country. “The United States and India are increasingly global partners, with growing strategic convergence,” Tillerson said. “Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy; we share a vision of the future. The emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership stands upon a shared commitment upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade.” Tillerson contrasted India with a China that challenges international law and norms, subverts the sovereignty of its neighbours, and disadvantages other countries through its predatory economic policies. In his subsequent visit to India, Tillerson reiterated those thoughts in meetings with Indian leaders.

The fact that Tillerson’s remarks were positively received in India signals just how far India has come. When the US and Japan agreed to send delegates to China’s Belt and Road Forum in May, it was India that took a principled stand and articulated its concerns. Today, both the US and Japan have come around to sharing India’s view about the Belt and Road Initiative, as have some others. Similarly, it is India that deployed military force to prevent Chinese unilateral expansionism in a third country at Doklam in June. India has shown itself capable of shouldering a burden in its neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean region, without being a burden on the US — an ideal partner for a US presidency that has often criticised its allies for not playing an adequate role as net security providers.

Today, rather than concern in India about being dragged into the US’ geopolitics, it is about keeping the US engaged in advancing India’s strategic interests. It is important to recognise that neither the US’ offers of support for India nor India’s desire for the US to play an active and supportive role in its region are motivated by sentiment. Rather, the two countries have a clear congruence of interests when it comes now to China’s rise and assertiveness, an open and secure Indian Ocean, a stable and democratic Afghanistan, and global counter-terrorism. The signal of receptivity on the part of the US to help address some core Indian challenges is an opening for New Delhi to now seize squarely. This window of opportunity will not remain open forever.

Equally, it will be important to better manage continuing differences, especially on Pakistan. The US under Donald Trump has shown a greater receptivity to Indian perspectives about dealing with Pakistan’s continued State support for terrorist organisations. What exactly Washington does about this remains a very open question. But if a shared vision of an India-US partnership is to be realised, it will now require concrete actions on the US’ part to recalibrate its Pakistan policy.

October 26, 2017

The rise and rise of Xi Jinping


The following article originally appeared in The Times of India on October 26, 2017. 

The National Congress of the Communist Party, held every five years, is the closest thing authoritarian China has to an election. The most recent Congress – the 19th – was held October 18-24, and was an occasion for the over 2,000 delegates to deliberate and agree on policy matters guiding the nation. It also witnessed the selection of the Party’s Central Committee, the 25 member Politburo, the 11 member Central Military Commission, and the 7 member Politburo Standing Committee, which forms the country’s most exclusive leadership circle.

Observers in China and around the world had been on the lookout for signs about the degree of centralised power that will now lie with President Xi Jinping, and hints about his future succession plans. The implications are potentially significant. Among other things, they will affect India’s economic prospects, border security, neighbourhood relations, and global ambitions. With the unveiling yesterday of the Politburo Standing Committee, we now have some tentative answers, although they are far from encouraging.

First, on policy, Xi laid out his thoughts in a marathon three-and-a-half hours speech on October 18, the central theme of which was ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. With the goal of achieving “national rejuvenation”, Xi has advocated a “people-centred philosophy of development” grounded in “Four Comprehensives”: the continued centrality and strengthening of Communist Party rule, further reform, “law-based governance”, and the building of a “moderately prosperous society”.Xi also spoke of the need for a strong military capable of winning wars and “a new type of international relations”. A cynical reading of Xi’s speech would suggest that the party’s governance philosophy now clearly constitutes a mix of authoritarianism, populism and nationalism.

This broad approach has Xi’s strong personal imprint and ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ has now been written into the Communist Party’s charter. This week, the 19th Congress “unanimously” agreed that Xi Jinping Thought will guide the party for the foreseeable future. Xi and the Party are now effectively one and the same, and opposition to one constitutes opposition to the other. Moreover, the inclusion of Xi Jinping Thought in the charter now sets China’s president on par with only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping as major leaders of Communist China identified with their own philosophies.

The second indicator of Xi’s power – the politics, rather than the policy – resulted in more ambiguous outcomes. To some degree, there was steady continuity, particularly on accounts that directly affect relations with India. General Zhao Zongqi, commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s vast Western Theatre Command (with responsibility for the entire border with India), has retained his position in the Central Committee. The country’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi, who acts as the special representative for the border talks with New Delhi, was elevated to the Politburo.

Of greater curiosity, observers were looking to see whether the 69-year-old Wang Qishan, who has led Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and is sometimes described as the country’s second most powerful person, would retain his position on the Standing Committee, in contravention of informal age limitation rules. Wang’s retention would have been a key indicator of Xi’s dominance over various rival factions within the Party, and a sign that Xi would have a recent precedent to hold on to power for another five-year term beyond 2022 after he crosses the age threshold of 68. However, Wang was not included in the Central Committee list, and is expected to be replaced by new Standing Committee member Zhao Leji.

Furthermore, questions lingered about who would fill the leadership vacuum caused by Xi’s purge of those who have opposed his rise to power. Bo Xilai, the charismatic head of the party in Chongqing and once considered a potential rival of Xi’s, was found guilty of corruption in 2013 and sentenced to life imprisonment after a high profile trial. Xi also went after the old guard. In 2015, Zhou Yongkang, once one of the country’s most powerful people as head of internal security and law enforcement, was similarly charged and sentenced. Sun Zhengcai, who until recently was considered a future senior leader, was suddenly expelled from the party.

Eyes were therefore on a handful of younger political leaders as potential successors to Xi. Hu Chunhua of Guangdong Province was seen as an earlier frontrunner, but the rise of Chen Min’er as the party chief of Chongqing following Sun’s expulsion had created an alternative. Heilongjiang chief Zhang Qingwei, a former aerospace engineer, represented an outside possibility. But as it turned out, none were appointed to the Standing Committee, leaving open the questions about Xi’s likely successor.


In sum, the 19th Congress has seen Xi consolidate power to a degree not seen since the days of Deng Xiaoping and possibly since Mao Zedong. He has maintained the authoritarian, populist, and nationalist tone that has characterised his presidency to date, and now has fewer checks on his power and vision. At the same time, questions about his succession remain as open as ever. For India, as with other countries around the region that have been confronted with China’s growing assertiveness under Xi, these are discouraging signs.

October 9, 2017

Uneasy Triangle: India’s Evolving Relations with the United States and China


The following chapter is part of a PerthUSAsia report titled "Realising The Indo-Pacific: Tasks for India's Regional Integration" that brought together emerging scholars from Australia and India to explore India's regional integration into the Indo-Pacific. 

The United States of America, the People’s Republic of China, and the Republic of India are the world’s three largest countries by population and will soon comprise the world’s three largest economies. Critical inflection points in their origins as modern world powers date from between 1945 and 1950. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States found itself one of two global superpowers, along with the Soviet Union. In 1945, the United States’ mainland was left relatively unscarred; its war economy was booming; it had a strong military presence in Europe and Asia; and it had a proven atomic weapon capability. Two years later, in 1947, India achieved independence from Britain; it was born a unified democracy but under the horrific and violent cloud of Partition. By 1950, it had cast off the last vestiges of formal British rule to become a republic, although it retained many of its colonial-era administrative, bureaucratic, and military structures. And in 1949, Mao Zedong ended decades of civil war by declaring the founding of the People’s Republic of China and installing a powerful revolutionary government in Beijing. The revolution (or ‘liberation’) did not end there, but continued with the annexation of Tibet and involvement in the Korean War a year later.

Read the full text here.

September 30, 2017

India’s traditional refugee policy shows why it’s unlikely to give Rohingyas sanctuary


The following article, co-authored with Tushita Saraf, originally appeared in The Print on September 30, 2017.

The Rohingya crisis in Myanmar has attracted global attention, concern, and condemnation over the past several weeks. India, while being both critical and supportive of the government of Myanmar, has been quick to respond with assistance to displaced Rohingya in Bangladesh.

But the crisis has also raised questions about India’s approach to refugees, specifically the 40,000 Rohingya that have entered the country in recent years. Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju has called them “illegal immigrants” who “stand to be deported,” but he subsequently clarified that there was not yet a plan for their removal. Such attempts might be complicated by a Supreme Court ruling against the deportation of asylum-seekers on the basis of the right to life and personal liberty. Moreover, because many Rohingya are effectively stateless, and not recognized as citizens by Myanmar, their forced repatriation could become problematic.

Although some 200,000 refugees reside in India, the central government lacks a national legal or policy regime concerning refugees. India is also not a signatory to either the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or the 1967 UN Protocol on Refugees. In the absence of international obligations or a national policy, the law that applies to asylum-seekers is the Foreigner’s Act of 1946, which gives the government the power to restrict the movement of non-Indian citizens not just into India but also within the country. The Foreigner’s Act – which defines a foreigner broadly as any person “who is not a citizen of India” – is vague about the differences between temporary residents, tourists, travelers, economic migrants, and refugees.

At present, the Indian government only recognizes about 110,000 Tibetans and 102,000 Sri Lankans as refugees. This may appear arbitrary, but is the product of political considerations. Tibetans who accompanied the Dalai Lama to India in 1959 were allowed to remain as refugees on the grounds that they were fleeing persecution by Chinese forces. They have been provided assistance and protection by the Indian government, and have freedom of movement and access to residence and work permits.

Sri Lankans began migrating to India in 1983 after the outbreak of a civil war between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil separatists. Over 67,000 Sri Lankan refugees remain in Indian camps, and a further 35,000 reside elsewhere in India, although some are in the process of returning. While provided with shelter, food, and allowances in designated camps and access to the informal labor market, their freedom of movement and employment opportunities are limited. Since 2012, India has also granted stay visas or long term visas to both Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees. These have proved more popular with Tibetans, while Sri Lankans have been more liable to opt for voluntary repatriation.

By contrast, groups from Bangladesh and Pakistan have generally been considered economic migrants by the Indian government. For example, the Indian government never formally regarded those fleeing Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) in 1971 as refugees, despite providing them with considerable aid and assistance. This may have helped ensure their return following the conclusion of the India-Pakistan War in late 1971 that resulted in Bangladesh’s independence.

India’s ambiguity concerning its refugee policy does confer certain advantages. Specifically, it grants discretionary powers to the government to designate refugees and offer them asylum and other benefits. Creating a national policy or joining an international convention would hold India to certain standards and possibly limit options. India’s ambiguity has also led to its developing a unique relationship with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). India allows the UNHCR to recognize, register, and protect certain groups of people as refugees after evaluating their claims on a case-by-case basis. So, for example, the UNHCR has registered refugees from Myanmar, Afghanistan and Somalia who continue to be treated as “foreign nationals” by the Indian government. More recently, the UNHCR has had to deal with Iraqi and Palestinian applicants seeking to reside in India temporarily, until they can be resettled in third countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia.


An Indian crackdown on illegal immigrants – including Rohingya – is consistent with its traditional hesitation about automatically designating asylum seekers as refugees. Over the years, the Indian government has provided assistance to the likes of Bangladeshis and Afghans fleeing war and persecution, but has created disincentives for them to stay on in India permanently. In the absence of a standard refugee policy, we can expect this approach to continue.

August 29, 2017

China Miscalculated How To Handle India, Allowed Face-Saving Exit



The following article originally appeared on August 29, 2017 on NDTV.com

To the considerable relief of all parties involved, India and China agreed yesterday to end a 74-day stand-off by their security forces near the trijunction with Bhutan. India initiated the announcement with a short statement that simply said that an "expeditious disengagement of border personnel...has been agreed to and is ongoing." China confirmed that India had withdrawn border personnel. Its spokesperson added that Beijing would "continue to exercise its sovereignty and uphold its territorial integrity" and reportedly that its forces "will continue to patrol in Doklam region." Beijing acknowledged that "adjustments" would be made on the ground.

A lot was left unsaid, and deliberately so. China did not say that its own troops had fallen back or that it was calling off the road building activities in the disputed territory that had provoked the stand-off. Equally - and more importantly - Chinese officials did not confirm that road building would continue or deny a disengagement of forces. Affairs had been choreographed so that both sides could claim victory. China was satisfied with Indian forces withdrawing to their prior positions to the west. But India accomplished its objective of ensuring that China would cease road building to its south.

The Doklam situation has provoked a host of commentary, much of it ill-informed, in part due to uncertainty and initially vague reports about its exact location, the competing legal claims made by China, Bhutan, and India, and the extraordinarily harsh rhetoric by China's officials and state media leading to concerns about escalation. But three questions remain. Why did the situation come about? Why did it end? And what might be the long-term consequences?

The exact reasons and timing for China's actions which precipitated the impasse on June 16 may never be known. Construction activities meant to strengthen China's position in disputed territory have become a common practice, including in the South China Sea. It is also now clear that China's leaders miscalculated, and did not anticipate an Indian intervention as their forces pushed forward in territory disputed with Bhutan. Speculative theories that China intended to teach a lesson to India - including possibly for its boycott of the Belt and Road Initiative - do not withstand scrutiny, given that events unfolded at a site where India had natural advantages.

The reasons for the stand-off's conclusion are easier to fathom. China had attempted to threaten and cajole India through public messages, mocking videos, and travel advisories intended to limit Chinese tourists from traveling to India. None of that worked. Indian forces were also better positioned on the ground, with more robust supply lines than their Chinese counterparts. The forthcoming BRICS Summit in the south-eastern Chinese city of Xiamen risked being overshadowed. It would have been awkward and embarrassing for China to welcome an Indian prime minister as a guest even as Indian forces were present in (what Beijing believes to be) Chinese territory. Finally, the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was looming, and an unresolved stand-off with India risked having domestic political ramifications. For these reasons, it was in Beijing's interest to ensure an early resolution to the stand-off, assuming a face-saving formula could be found.

What are the consequences? In the near future, it heralds a return to some possible normalcy in India-China relations. The two sides demonstrated that, despite the rhetoric, a peaceful and diplomatic solution could be found. But the long-term implications will be more uncertain. India has shown considerable resolve, not just in an effort to protect its own security interests but those of its neighbours. China, meanwhile, has done considerable damage to its reputation in India, less by precipitating the problem, and more by its poor handling of the situation. Whether on the border or beyond - in other domains, including regional security, multilateral affairs, or economic and trade relations - it would not be surprising if New Delhi was to approach its relations with Beijing with greater wariness. Particularly following its behaviour on the South China Sea, it would be natural for India not to trust Chinese promises on the disputed frontier, but to continue to remain vigilant.

If the Chinese state has hurt its reputation, so has the press, which did not acquit itself very well over the course of the past two months. The Chinese media resorted to ugly taunts and uglier threats. The Indian media, while more tepid, was often speculative and sometimes wildly misleading. Both the Indian and the international media were particularly insensitive in their portrayal of Bhutan, whose government proved admirably level-headed in what was an extraordinarily delicate and occasionally tense situation. But even the resolution of the impasse produced confident interpretations by journalists who lacked both immediate information and broader context.


Doklam shows that a military confrontation between two nuclear-armed powers can be resolved diplomatically, and without escalation. But for China's leadership there is perhaps a need for introspection about why it let relations with India deteriorate so sharply for no material gain.

August 21, 2017

India feeling the heat on Belt and Road



The following article originally appeared in The Lowy Interpreter on August 21, 2017.
In May, when China organised a major summit in Beijing around its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative(BRI, also known as 'One Belt, One Road', or OBOR), one invited country was completely absent: India. In response to queries, New Delhi issued only a short statement that underscored the benefits of 'enhanced physical connectivity' but listed a set of criteria that such initiatives must follow. These included avoiding 'unsustainable debt,' taking into account 'environment protection,' making a 'transparent assessment of project costs,' guaranteeing the transfer of 'skill and technology' to local communities, and respecting 'sovereignty and territorial integrity.'
The message was clear: BRI did not satisfy these requirements. India's concerns have since been partially echoed by other major countries and companies including the European Union, the United States, and Japan.
There are certainly reasons to be somewhat sceptical about BRI's future success. There are gaps between the sums promised and delivery on the ground. New investment commitments might bedeclining. Chinese companies have often struggled in new operating environments. Much of the financing has gone to pet projects or constituencies of local leaders. Chinese initiatives have sometimes resulted in popular protests (and occasionally violent opposition) in MyanmarThailandSri LankaPakistanBangladesh, and East Africa. And Beijing's propensity to sweep many existing initiatives under the BRI umbrella or shower state support on nominally-linked projects tends to inflate its importance. Despite the bold public face, some Chinese analysts and businesspeople acknowledge these deficiencies in private.
India's concerns with BRI are specific. One set of issues relates to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Not only does this transit territory claimed by India, thus dropping any pretence of Chinese neutrality between India and Pakistan (and, from India's perspective, violating Indian sovereignty) – it threatens to connect what have so far been two different theatres for India. Furthermore, New Delhi is concerned that Pakistan's overdependence on China could turn it into a client state. While some in Washington may be reassured by China assuming greater responsibility for Pakistan's stability, New Delhi believes that with few exceptions, China has not played a stabilising rolein South Asia.
The second set of Indian concerns relate to the Maritime Silk Road, where India perceives many commercial projects being potentially used for military purposes. Djibouti now hosts China's first overseas military facility, the port of Gwadar is evolving into a Chinese outpost, and the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) already utilises Karachi and the Seychelles for replenishment and refuelling. The creeping militarisation of port investments in other countries, from East Africa to South and Southeast Asia can no longer be ruled out. Sri Lanka (whose government admits to being stuck in a 'gigantic debt trap') represents the most obvious case of unsustainable Chinese debt being translated into Chinese control of a port, though Sri Lankan authorities have to assured India that it will still not be used for military purposes. As an indication of its sensitivities about India's concerns, Sri Lanka recently refused permission for a Chinese submarine to dock in Colombo.
A case could be made that BRI's hype and flaws mean that it should not be a cause for concern for New Delhi. But national security policy has to account for a variety of scenarios. Given that BRI directly impinges upon India's neighbourhood policy, counter-terrorism objectives, desire for a stable balance of power in Asia, and ability to shape global institutions and norms, it arguably presents the greatest single challenge to India's foreign policy. Just glance at a map: from India's perspective, Belt and Road looks a lot like a noose.
India's options
So what is India doing about this? The idea that India can (or should) compete directly with China overlooks important constraints on India's part.
One is that India simply has fewer resources to commit: China's GDP is 4.8 times larger (2.4 times when adjusted for purchasing power parity).
Two, India's outward investment is mostly private sector-led. Like most US or European companies, Indian businesses are unlikely to invest in unprofitable or risky overseas ventures, let alone take direction from the government (state-owned energy companies represent a partial exception.)
A third factor is, of course, that India's infrastructure has traditionally been shabby, although that's gradually changing – the airports in MumbaiDelhi, and Hyderabad are now world-class, and the same goes for certain small stretches of highway and bridges. India's cities now boast seven metro rail networks and another seven are under constructionPortsoil refineries, and massive solar plants are starting to dot the Indian landscape. The trouble is that these successes remain exceptions, and are isolated to small pockets of the country. India's infrastructure companies are also over-leveraged, and reluctant to spend more quickly, constraining near-term expansion. Moreover, India's project management record overseas has historically been poor.
Despite its smaller resource base, commercial concerns, and infrastructural limitations, India has undertaken a number of important and often overlooked steps to respond to respond to BRI. The first is a refocus on its 'Neighbourhood First' policy, in part to ensure that BRI does not compromise the security of India's periphery. The idea is to go the extra mile and establish disproportionately important and non-reciprocal relationships with its smaller neighbours. Effectively, this means extending Prime Minister Narendra Modi's call for domestic development ('Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas' or 'collective efforts, inclusive growth') to India's neighbourhood.
In practice, this has required giving much more diplomatic attention to India's neighbours. Over the past three years, India's Prime Minister has made significant visits to Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Seychelles, and Mauritius – in some cases multiple times. Today, those countries all have governments committed to deepening relations with India. Another element involves foreign aid. In 2012, India set up an aid agency (the Development Partnership Administration) that overseas about $1 billion in annual grants, mostly to South Asia and Africa. It has begun or completed some significant regional infrastructure connectivity initiatives, including a major dam and highway in Afghanistan, electricity transmission with Nepal and Bangladesh, and housing projects and railways in Sri Lanka. India has also demonstrated its ability to provide swift humanitarian assistance, including in recent years to Sri LankaNepal, and the Maldives. New Delhi provides technicalassistance to other South Asian states and has tried to reinvigorate regionalism.
Indian Ocean focus
There's been a particular focus on the Indian Ocean, from East Africa to Malacca Straits and beyond. India has committed to develop 'infrastructure' on islands in Mauritius and the Seychelles, and link those countries to an existing India-Sri Lanka-Maldives maritime security cooperation mechanism focused on maritime domain awareness. India already has longstanding arrangements with the Seychelles for surveillance of its Exclusive Economic Zone and has provided Mauritius with an offshore patrol vessel. Ensuring that security competition remains dampened in India's immediate neighbourhood, including the Indian Ocean, has become a high priority.
Secondly, India has had to get serious about regional connectivity, particularly eastwards, if it is to play an appropriate economic and commercial role in Asia. ASEAN is now India's fourth-largest trading partner, but India still punches below its weight in Southeast Asia's commercial mix. It does not help that India has traditionally underdeveloped its Northeast and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, impeding commercial activity with the region. The 2015 Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh and the opening up of Myanmar have presented new opportunities. Furthermore, India-ASEAN efforts have received a major push this year, culminating in an invitation to all 10 ASEAN leaders to participate in India's 2018 Republic Day celebrations.
At least three major connectivity initiatives are of particular importance, although all have struggled. One is the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway, from Moreh in Manipur to Mae Sot on the Myanmar-Thailand border. Once completed, it will link up with a highway that extends to Vietnam's South China Sea coast. A second initiative, the Kaladan Multi-Modal Transit Transport Project, links Sittwe in Myanmar to the Indian state of Mizoram, connecting India's Northeast to the Bay of Bengal. This project is overdue and over-budget, but is seeing progress. Finally, efforts are being explored to link Chennai to the port of Dawei in Myanmar, which is being developed by Thailand and Japan. These efforts are positive but may not be sufficient – for example, air links between India and Southeast Asia, particularly the likes of Myanmar and Vietnam, remain poor. But IMT, Kaladan, and Chennai-Dawei represent some of the efforts underway to connect India to Southeast Asia, and facilitate a commercial rebalancing for Southeast Asia away from an overdependence on China.
A third element of India's response to BRI involves partnerships with other countries that share its concerns. In terms of security partnerships, India has made significant strides with the United States, Japan, and Australia. It now conducts regular naval exercises with all three countries, and participates in high-level bilateral and trilateral (India-US-Japan and India-Japan-Australia) dialogues. The level of coordination on security matters between these countries is now considerable. India also supports Southeast Asian militaries in various ways, whether through technological assistance to Myanmar, training to Vietnamese combat pilots and submarine sailors, access to facilities for Singaporean military exercises, or coordinated maritime patrols with Indonesia. But beyond security cooperation (which builds capacities, improves interoperability, and facilitates information exchange) India has started to coordinate with certain countries on BRI specifically. Japan's efforts have, to date, received the most attention, particularly with the recent unveiling of a vision document for an Asia-Africa Growth Corridor that had been discussed previously by the Indian and Japanese prime ministers. 
CPEC continues to loom large
Will these steps – dampening security competition in India's neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean, connecting more purposefully into Southeast Asia, and cooperating with partners in the Indo-Pacific on security and infrastructure – be enough to address India's BRI concerns? Possibly not. India may have the ability, willing partners, and natural geographical advantages to offset some of its concerns in the maritime domain, and the close nature of New Delhi's relationships with the likes of Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka is often underappreciated.
However, CPEC represents an altogether different challenge, given how little leverage India enjoys with Pakistan. There is a possibility that China's efforts in Pakistan will fail, and that the project may even aggravate tensions between Beijing and Islamabad. There is also a chance, more remote, that it might create new incentives for Pakistan to evolve into a more responsible member of the international community. But a growing political-military nexus between the two countries, as currently seems likely, will further aggravate security competition with India. Reluctantly, New Delhi is now having to come to terms with that prospect.

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.