The following Q&A is adapted from a Reddit ‘Ask Me Anything’ for IndiaSpeaks between April 10-12, 2020. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and flow.Jump to:
Question 1: Can you share your insights about India's position vis-à-vis the US-China dynamic. Will we need to choose one or the other?
I think we need to break this issue down in two. One, how are U.S.-China relations evolving? Will there be long-term cooperation (a 'G2'), mostly competition with tactical cooperation, or all out competition (a 'new Cold War')? Most countries would prefer the first, although India has harbored strong reservations about what that means for its own position. The growing consensus, one I happen to subscribe to, is it will look more like the third option going forward: long-term strategic competition. This is likely to continue, with some variation, even under a Democratic administration in the United States.
If that is the case, what options does India have? Crudely speaking, there are three: (1) siding more with China, (2) siding more with the U.S., (3) equivocating. Of course, no one doubts India's positions will be taken on a case-by-case basis and its likely to disagree with both countries on various issues. This idea of India becoming a coopted ally of one or the other is a straw man argument. India is not about to sacrifice its autonomy to anyone: it did not do it when it was weaker, and is even less likely to do so as it gets stronger. But my point is to underscore that *not* making a choice is itself a choice. Even Non-alignment - as originally envisioned - was a proactive policy, not one of sitting back and letting events take their own course.
So if one analyzes the problem this way, we look at relations with two great powers. With one, India has (a) a massive boundary dispute, (b) intensifying competition in its immediate neighbourhood, (c) a trade deficit that is comparable in size to its entire defence budget, and (d) differences over institutional membership and values. With the other, you have (a) broadly convergent strategic interests, (b) a diversified and balanced economic relationship, (c) a large diaspora that provides a bridge, and (d) similar democratic values. I worry that not making a choice - although an option - could put India in a far more dangerous predicament.
India will have most options in a world of managed competition between the United States and China. But the ideal scenario where the U.S. and China manage their competition is unlikely to occur, so India will have to make choices. And when you compare India's interests vis-a-vis the two countries, as I attempted to do in my answer above, it becomes evident which way most (even if not all) those choices will go.
Question 2: Why is China trying to surround India with all those military bases in other countries of South Asia? We aren't in anyway a threat to them by any measure. Do you think India will become one of the respected world powers on par with China and the USA?
It is hard to discern the motivations behind Chinese actions, including in South Asia. Part of it is part of a broader strategic objective focused on major chokepoints, which partly explain the older focus on Pakistan (Gwadar) and Myanmar (Kyaukpyu), and also strategically important Sri Lanka and the Maldives. But there is also a long history of using Pakistan to hem in India, which explains China-Pakistan cooperation on nuclear and defence matters dating to the 1970s. Bangladesh too has been a beneficiary of Chinese military assistance from the 1980s, partly because at that time only China could provide the low-cost equipment that Dhaka wanted. On balance, a broader Chinese strategy of 'going out' combined with a policy of keeping India in check may be responsible for a lot of what we are witnessing.
India can be a respected power on par with China and the U.S. only if its economy is roughly on par. At 4% or 5% growth that will take a lot longer than 7-10% growth. For now, I would hold my breath. It is of little use trying to predict the future beyond 20 years, but at the present rate, India is likely to be #3, but well short of the U.S. and China. In the medium-term future, we can expect a bipolar world in which a few key actors, India among them (but also Japan, Russia, Europe) will play important roles in the balance of power.
Question 3: How serious do you believe the Chinese are in their claim over ‘South Tibet’? Do you think this can be addressed with mutual satisfaction or will this claim fester forever? Finally, any differences between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) on their Arunachal policy?
China’s claim over much of Arunachal Pradesh, which it calls South Tibet, is based on customary claims linked to the region's tribute to Lhasa. But a few things are notable. One is that China withdrew to behind the McMahon Line in 1962, despite inflicting a decisive defeat in that sector over India. This was for logistic reasons, but also paradoxically reinforces an acceptance of sorts that this is Indian territory. Secondly, when India made Arunachal Pradesh a state, there was a spike in tensions. The Sumdorongchu stand-off in the 1980s, when India airlifted forces and China eventually backed down, again reinforced the status quo. So that tells you that while China will not for now drop its claims, and will use various related issues (e.g. visas to people from Arunachal Pradesh) as bargaining chips, that its claims are both tenuous and hard to enforce. Remember too that both those incidents were before the 1998 nuclear tests.
You would have to ask someone with much more tangible China expertise than me on the bureaucratic divisions, although differences between MFA and the PLA have been in evidence in the recent past, including over the handling of Doklam. Additionally, it appears as if any resolution will be part of a 'package deal' when all or most sectors of the boundary dispute between India and China will be resolved. A sector-by-sector approach will inevitably play in China's favour.
Question 4: How would you rate this government’s policies in handling in China?
I do not think it is fair for me to rate this or any other government, nor is that my job. I try instead to explain what has occurred, examine why, and suggest alternatives if they're found wanting. On China, let me just point to a few developments in recent years: India has dropped routine reference to 'One China' policy in statements, boycotted BRI, engaged in a Quad dialogue, stopped illegal Chinese road building at Doklam, expelled Chinese journalists who were engaging in non-journalistic activities, criticised Chinese actions in the South China Sea, withdrawn from RCEP (which would have benefited China), and evacuated students from Wuhan despite Chinese requests that they remain.
Question 5: The US is a practitioner of realpolitik. Do you think the US-India partnership can rise above mere transactions? Can the US be considered a reliable partner on major issues such as trade and China? How is China able to influence the liberal Western media, educational institutions and international institutions (such as the WHO) despite having such ugly record on human rights?
There are two ways of considering your first question. The realist approach is that no other country can be trusted: international relations are not dictated by trust, and ultimately everyone looks out selfishly for themselves. But what does matter is self-interest. So if there is an alignment of Indian and U.S. interests on a particular issue (e.g. China, terrorism, defence trade), the two will work together. The second approach suggests that values matter, at least to some degree. The fact that the U.S. system of foreign policy decision-making is more open and transparent helps India (and other countries) ensure that their interests can be protected to a certain degree. Consider how India has (mostly) successfully advocated to be exempted from sanctions related to defence trade with Russia (CAATSA) or Iran (specific to Chabahar). That might not be possible in a more closed system. In that worldview, the United States' liberalism (meaning "openness" in this context), is an asset not a liability. So the short answer to your question is that the U.S. can't be trusted, cooperation is really about alignment of interests, but that the distrust can be mitigated to some extent by its relative transparency.
The question of Chinese influence is a big one these days. It looks like a few factors are at play. One, money talks. China can exert a lot of sway because people are loathe to lose market access or business opportunities or (with academics) simply access to China. Two, China has exploited the openness of Western societies but has not offered reciprocal benefits. Huawei can sue scholars for defamation in Europe, China Daily has inserts in the Washington Post, and Chinese officials are on platforms like Twitter that are banned in China. At the same time, Facebook and the New York Times are banned in China, foreign companies cannot rely on the rule of law there (and are vulnerable to the whims of the CCP), and foreign officials don't have the same public diplomacy opportunities with the Chinese public. So it's really a question of reciprocity. Third, China has been smart in building goodwill with countries that are most desperate and vulnerable (often through BRI), and that has created a formidable voting bloc in international institutions.
Question 6: What do you see as the future of the Quad? Just a talk shop or something more substantial?
The Quad is a foreign ministry dialogue at a senior working level (joint secretary-level). So it's not really about posturing but actually serves both a signaling purpose (showing cooperation among the four) and a coordination purpose. Just in the past few months, we've seen other aspects develop including some table-top exercises, cyber coordination efforts, and now some coordination (with other countries) on COVID-19. Additionally, as I've pointed out, the real story on the defence side is what's happening among the Quad countries not just through a quadrilateral process.
Question 7: Will project Blue Dot bring more American investment in the future and is this project better than China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?
Blue Dot is a project to certify standards. It is not a financing mechanism. So one would be comparing two different things. It is clearly a response to BRI, but I suspect it is just one arrow in a quiver of measures the U.S. and others will take to compete with BRI. The idea presumably is that by raising standards and publicly naming and shaming substandard projects, that it would dissuade countries from entering into bad deals with China.
Question 8: Why does India keep reviving SAARC and not create a parallel organisation minus Pakistan?
In my personal opinion, SAARC suffered from some design flaws. Its biggest advocate in the early 1980s was in fact Bangladesh, and other smaller South Asian states were early supporters (e.g. Sri Lanka). Both India and Pakistan had their own reservations. India felt that with all original seven members given an equal say, it would constrain India. Pakistan feared that India would use it to advance regional hegemony. So both were not that enthusiastic about SAARC at its creation, which goes a long way towards explaining why it has not developed as it could. At the same time, SAARC does some important work, including technical cooperation, that does not always get much attention. International institutions are generally reluctant to radical change; they suffer from the fallacy of sunk costs. So that's partly why we see SAARC continue: by now, all the other countries have some stakes in the project. But it is also clear that it has hit its limitations as far as cooperation can go, largely because of the India-Pakistan dynamic. We have therefore seen India starting to explore alternatives, often without Pakistan. These include ad hoc agreements (the BBIN motor vehicle agreement that Bhutan withdrew from), a "SAARC-minus" approach (as in the South Asian satellite), and other institutions (last year, India's budget for BIMSTEC matched that for SAARC for the first time). So it's not entirely accurate that India keeps 'reviving' SAARC: it's a permanent fixture and has a full-time secretariat. In fact, most other South Asian countries complain that India doesn't invest enough in it. The challenge, for the reasons I've outlined above, is to do what is possible within SAARC but not be unduly limited by it in achieving regional objectives.
Question 9: This government has repeatedly said that Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (PoK) is part of India and any talks with Pakistan can only happen on that point. Given that PoK is an existential issue, how do you think India can get it back?
A few facts that must be simultaneously kept in mind on this issue: India has a legal claim to PoK based on the Instrument of Accession signed by Maharaja Hari Singh and the Indian government. Pakistan does not have a similar legal basis, which also explains the special status accorded PoK by the government of Pakistan (there is a 'President' of so-called 'Azad Kashmir'). India lost control on the ground of PoK during the 1947-1948 war and has not had governance over the area since. A lot has changed since, including to the social composition of the region. The Shimla Agreement and LoC has established a de facto border. This was agreed to by both parties and the sentiment was reinforced in the Lahore Declaration of 1999. Pakistan, despite criticising India for changing the status of Jammu and Kashmir, has repeatedly changed the status of PoK, including as recently as 2009. Both countries are nuclear-armed powers, and that has important implications for their ability to change the territorial status quo. Under these circumstances, India regularly reinforces its rhetorical claims to PoK because it cannot afford not to: it is part of the negotiation towards a settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir issue. Those (including in the U.S. I find) who claim Indian reiterations of this claims are attempts to change the status quo are therefore being somewhat disingenuous in their characterization.
Question 10: How important is Nepal to India? Can India bully Nepal to have say in their things? Does the relationship between India and Nepal change along with changes in ruling government? Where does China fit in?
Nepal is very important for India. Think of how unusual the relationship is: we have an open border and few mobility restrictions. There are 7 regiments of Nepalis serving in the Indian Army (and about 120,000 Nepalis receive pensions from India). The level of physical integration has also increased of late, especially energy integration, with India investing heavily in hydropower projects. So it remains a very close relationship, despite various frictions.
I don't think "bully" is the right word. India and Nepal have revisited the terms of their special relationship periodically, starting in the 1950s itself. Nepal settled its boundary dispute with China, for example. But while Nepal has occasionally sough to demonstrate its autonomy from New Delhi, it has been incumbent upon India to remind Nepal's leadership that some of its actions might undermine relations with India. One prominent example of course was in the late 1980s, when under King Birendra, Nepal attempted to forge a security partnership with China (including anti-aircraft weapons) and suspend some of the privileges it afforded Indians in Nepal. This led to a blockade and combined with democratic protests to compel Nepal to reverse these positions. Overall, it should be welcome that Nepal has become a democratic republic and ended years of painful civil war. But its democracy has led to new dynamics, and occasionally greater differences with India. It seems we are over the worst of it (2015-2016) and the relationship is now on a more even keel. But I did find in visits to Kathmandu an unfortunate tendency to blame India for some of Nepal's domestic governance challenges (at that time, it concerned the delivery of earthquake relief). While India could do a better job of being sensitive to Nepal's concerns and responding proactively, it should also recognise attempts to scapegoat India for problems that are not of its own creation.
There are minor changes here and there with changes in government. In recent times, the cultural connect has gained greater prominence. Different prime ministers in Nepal have also had different instincts when it comes to relations with India and China.
There is no question that China's role in Nepal has steadily increased, although the degree is sometimes overstated. There are stronger party-to-party links between Beijing and Kathmandu, which I have witnessed firsthand. Chinese investment and tourists are more evident now, and promises of Chinese financing are large. That said, there are still functions and arrangements that China will not be wholly willing to replicate. For India, China's growing profile in India's neighbourhood should be a wake-up call, but I find a lot of the commentary in India on the subject to be excessively alarmist.
Question 11: Why do you think India's position in Malaysia and Indonesia has worsened all of a sudden?
Relations between India and Malaysia have long been difficult, and that stems from some of the bumiputera policies that Mahatir and other leaders enforced in the past, which biased against Indians. This was not always the case. In fact, in a little-known episode, Malaysia's Ambassador to the UN criticized Pakistan during the 1965 War (Indonesia then provided Pakistan with arms) and Pakistan and Malaysia broke off diplomatic ties! More recently, however, that has changed, and Malaysian criticism of Indian actions have made things worse. The spat over palm oil imports is reflective of this.
Indonesia, I would be much more positive about, despite some of the public criticism. Chinese encroachment into the areas around the Natunas Islands has increased concerns in Jakarta, and one consequence is that the Jokowi government is much more seriously looking at India as a defence partner. India's coast guard and navy do coordinated patrols around the Strait of Malacca and have accessed the port at Sabang. There is also movement towards cooperation on coastal radar systems. So overall, the trajectory is positive, despite some public posturing.
Question 12: Do you think India has historically given too much importance to Iran? Hasn’t Iran provided more costs than benefits?
I'll say two things. Policymakers need to assess the relative benefits, costs, and risks associated with every relationship. For some time, since the early 2000s, there have been some in India who have argued that India's interests aligned more with the GCC states and Israel than with Iran, and that is a compelling case when one considers the totality of energy flows, diaspora links, and other factors. Second, it's important (albeit difficult) for observers to distinguish between rhetoric and reality. So for all the talk of 'civilizational links' between India and Iran, the reality of the relationship has been a lot more prosaic. I'd advise to look less at words and more at actions by both parties, and that tells a different story.
Question 13: Why do you think the India-Turkey relationship has underperformed? Does New Delhi want to change this dynamic? What needs to be done in this relationship?
Turkey has bene attempting to improve the business-to-business relationship, as Erdogan made clear on his last visit to India, but the poor performance of the Turkish economy hasn't helped matters. Ties have been tricky for some time; Turkey was once seen as the model state for a country like Pakistan (especially its military) to follow. But the rather dramatic shift in Turkey's foreign policy under Erdogan has not helped matters. There are other irritants, including Fethullah Gulen followers.
Question 14: What is your opinion about Australia’s weight in the international order? Can they get more powerful? While they seem an attractive power for India to have now, they do not seem able to provide India with what a France or a Japan can.
Australia is an attractive partner in many ways for India. Some cultural and political commonalities, growing demographic, educational, and energy links, an active armed forces, and immense natural resources. The limitation that you seem to be driving at are two-fold: Australia is not a manufacturing or investment powerhouse on the scale of Japan, nor is it a leader in strategic technologies (defence, space) that France is. On the security side, while we may see more consultations, exercises, and agreements between India and Australia, with significant implications for the eastern Indian Ocean, defence trade and technology cooperation will be more modest than many of India's other security partners.
Question 15: What are India’s options in Myanmar? It seems like that is one neighbour where we have historically been second to China and that seems set to continue. Anything unique Delhi can offer that Beijing can’t?
China has a much larger presence in Myanmar; it was the primary external supporter of the junta and the resources it is able to deploy in Myanmar dwarf those of India. So it's unrealistic to expect India to play a role akin to China in Myanmar. Instead, look at where India has stronger interests. A few areas of emerging cooperation include: cross border trade and connectivity (the IMT trilateral highway and Kaladan corridor will be completed eventually, even if both have lagged tremendously), counter-terrorism cooperation has been very successful (and has received little attention in India), India has helped with training modules on civil-military relations and disarmament for the Myanmar military, there is some cooperation on coastal radar and naval patrols, and the fact is for all the talk about Chabahar, India has actually built a port in Sittwe, despite adverse conditions in Rakhine. At the same time there has been some pushback, including local-level protests over the implications of the IMT highway, and difficulties faced by Indian engineers in getting visas to Myanmar.
Question 16: Are you surprised at the lack of a solid India-EU relationship? Is it not a very natural partnership? Who would be more to blame in this?
I spent some six years trying to improve the understanding of India in Brussels and the EU in New Delhi and it was like hitting one's head against a brick wall. In some ways, Indian euroscepticism (before it became fashionable) was justified following the eurozone, refugee, Ukraine, and Brexit crises. But there was also a tendency to let bilateral issues (such as with Italy over marines, or with Denmark over extradition) vitiate the overall India-EU relationship. Some of those avoidable problems have been remedied, and again with little fanfare. The EU, for its part, consistently under invested in India, and put all its eggs in the trade basket. There may be some changes now, and the EU High Representative Josep Borrell seems to have made India a priority. For too long, Asia was equated with China, but that misperception has also started to change.
Queston 17: How concerned should we be about the India-Russia relationship for the 2020s? India’s military acquisitions from Russia will not cease, but will probably slow. Any other carrots here?
There have been recent attempt to try to diversify the India-Russia relationship beyond defence. There has been a noticeable uptick in overall trade and energy cooperation has also increased, although both are modest relative to India's partnerships with others. You'll notice also India's attempts at investing in Russia's Far East. Russia's dependence on oil and gas and the strength of its corporate sector are limitations. As I've written, it appears as if Russia under Putin views India (and everyone else) in rather transactional terms.
Question 18: Do you see any benefit for India to keep championing the Global South? Should Delhi not focus on the countries which have billions for investment?
Actually, I would argue that now is the time for India to double down in its engagement of the Global South and not because of any perceived moral obligation. Many parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America are doing really well, and will be future drivers of growth. The demographics of Africa in particular are very positive. India has many natural advantages (including its diaspora), and is perceived as a model for democratic development. India's investment in Africa is about 1/13th China's, but in many cases it has demonstrated that these investments are more beneficial to local populations. China has demonstrated how investments can strengthen its international position, including in international institutions.
Question 19: What is your stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I'm not sure my view matters very much, and I'm not a Middle East specialist (there are people who have spent their entire careers trying to resolve this issue). I have traveled to Israel and crossed over to territory administered by the Palestinian Authority. I've spoken with people on both sides across a pretty wide spectrum. A two-state solution has, at various times since the 1990s, come frustratingly close to being realised. But there now appears to be an impasse, with Israeli political consensus hardening against a two-state solution and the legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership in question following the ascent of Hamas in Gaza. The consequences of the Arab Spring have not made things easier. The Syrian Civil War and tensions between the GCC and Iran have also diluted the centrality of the Israel-Palestine dispute in the broader region.
I don't think India gains much by wading into this situation, certainly not in an aggressive fashion. The relationship with Israel is important and multi-faceted, encompassing trade, technology, defence, agriculture, and tourism, among other things. But there is value in continuing to engage with Ramallah, including for India's position in the region as a whole. This is in part why we have seen President Pranab Mukherjee and the PM visit in recent years.
Question 20: How important are think tanks in influencing policymakers in reality? Can you give some examples of where you’ve seen a particular think tank be behind an innovative foreign policy approach a government ended up following?
The role of think tanks are several. (1) Governments in opposition (this applies more to the US and UK than to India). (2) Neutral venues to bring together multiple stakeholders on a given subject. (3) A platform that grants the luxury of time to dwell and publish on matters that are important, but not issues that governments or businesses have the competence or time to investigate. (4) An avenue for shaping (often gradually) the broader intellectual consensus surrounding a given issue. For these reasons, it's very hard for think tanks in general to 'prove' that they have had an impact. We use metrics (number of citations, government consultations, media hits, publications) but these do not do justice.
I'm of the view that think tanks shouldn't be offering specific policy proposals; that's for people in government to decide based on other factors such as politics, budgetary constraints, etc. Think tanks can play a useful role by (a) identifying 'big ideas', including both big concepts and big problems, (b) doing the painstaking work of data compilation, and (c) offering specific domain expertise that those in government might not possess. To give a few examples: think tanks (IDSA, NMF, Carnegie India) have played a role in developing the idea of the Indo-Pacific that has now become common currency in governments and has led to shifts in strategic posture; think tanks (TERI, Brookings India) have done detailed data-driven work on healthcare, climate change, and energy modeling which the government now uses; and people from think tanks (ORF, IDSA) have served as consultants to the Indian government on issues such as cyber governance and civil nuclear energy.
Question 21: Who are the best young scholars - could be Indian or foreign - writing about Indian foreign policy these days? Do you worry that many of them are based in overseas universities and not many remain in India?
There are so many, and a lot are indeed overseas. This is in large part because Indian institutions (both academic institutions and think tanks) are restricted from offering competitive salaries and providing scholars with the resources and atmosphere that would allow them to do the best work. But a lot (myself included) felt compelled to return to India, and I hope that trend continues.
I am probably neglecting some people, but I'd recommend in no particular order: Anit Mukherjee, Harsh Pant, Rudra Chaudhuri, Rahul Sagar, Rohan Mukherjee, Avinash Paliwal, Srinath Raghavan, Constantino Xavier, Tanvi Madan, Nicolas Blarel, Iskander Rehman, Arun Sukumar, Raji Rajagopalan, Zorawar Daulet Singh, Paul Staniland, Darshana Baruah, Vipin Narang, Prashant Jha, Sushant Singh, Manjeet Pardesi, Nilanthi Samaranayake, Deep Pal, Jeff Smith, and Garima Mohan. I don't always agree with all their conclusions but I find all of them diligent researchers (whether at universities, at think tanks, or in the media) and well-worth reading. I should add: Kunal Singh, Nitin Pai, Sameer Patil, Ananth Krishnan, Manjari Miller, Sumitha Kutty, Walter Ladwig, Rani Mullen, Jabin Jacob, Prabir De, and Amrita Narlikar. I am almost certainly forgetting some others too.
Question 22: How can a 23-year-old beginner join or take part in think tank activities if he has interests in geopolitics and national security? Can you suggest 10 books on topics like India, geopolitics, and the world order in general and future trends in national security?
Sign up for mailing lists of think tanks and attend, whenever possible, think tank discussions. Many resources are completely free. Use this both to learn about areas of interest and network with professionals. Read relevant books by the leading experts in the field of interest to get a sense of what knowledge is already out there. Practice, even for yourself, reading, analyzing a problem, and writing about it. If you can offer novel insights based on relevant empirical facts, then voila, you have arrived!
Ten books seem like both too many and too few! I'll just list a few of my favorites. 5 on general international politics that I enjoyed were: Mark Mazower's Governing the World, Eliot Cohen's Supreme Command, Edward Luttwak's Strategy, John Ikenberry's Liberal Leviathan, and Steve Coll's Ghost Wars. Five on India: Upinder Singh's Political Violence in Ancient India, George Perkovich's India's Nuclear Bomb, The Kargil Review Committee Report From Surprise to Reckoning, Srinath Raghavan's War and Peace in Modern India, and TCA Raghavan's The People Next Door (on India-Pakistan relations).
Question 23: What disadvantages are there to joining the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in today's age? What sort of benefits are there are to joining, in terms of opportunities and learning-environment?
I'm not in the IFS and have never sat for the UPSC exam, although I know plenty of people who have. The advantages to joining are you are on a set career path, working in a specialised field (diplomacy), and there are perks (travel, housing, schooling, language training), and job security. The down sides are being part of a rigid hierarchy, the low pay (relative to private sector), the prestige (which has declined somewhat as service preferences indicate), and the recruitment process (where the margins in the UPSC are so small that it becomes like a lottery as to whether you get in).
Question 24: I am presently a law student. How do I switch to a career in geopolitics?
I would advise against a career in geopolitics, especially over law, partly because one doesn't really exist (unfortunately). Briefly: the only way you can get paid for a job related to geopolitics is: (1) take the UPSC and join the IFS, (2) get a Ph.D. and become a professor, (3) become a full-time foreign affairs or security reporter, although these opportunities are few and require you to be able to write well and quickly, (4) work for little pay at an NGO for a cause you believe passionately in, (5) become a consultant in a private sector company but that requires a knowledge of international business, or (6) work at a think tank, which requires a background in one or more of the above. Overall, it's not much of a 'profession' and rarely pays well. I advise a lot of people to keep their day jobs, while developing expertise and writing, commenting, and analyzing on the side.
Question 25: Tell us about your experience working as a research assistant for Edward Luttwak. What did you learn the most from him?
A lot! He's one of the most innovative and outrageous thinkers I've ever come across, and is really one-of-a-kind in terms of his work. (I'd recommend this long profile of him, even if it makes him seem a little more sinister than is warranted.) I suppose I learned most to see a problem from multiple angles, and the importance of having wide-ranging interests. Conversations with him would be all over the place: Napoleon's campaigns, Indonesian piracy, Byzantine warships, Mussolini's legacy, the Danish language, the advantages of some semi-automatic rifles over others, Claus von Stauffenberg, Carnatic music, Chinese luxury hotels, Israeli military recruitment, and tribal art in Arunachal Pradesh.
Question 26: Biden or Trump? And why?
Overall, I don't think India will be as affected by changes to the U.S. presidency as much as many other countries. India is neither as dependent on the U.S. for security(as NATO or Japan or on trade as Mexico or China, although the United States remains India's most important partner. This goes some way to explaining the broadly improving ties under successive leaders in both countries.
That said, there will be some inevitable changes, which is why such leadership changes matter. In Trump, India now has some familiarity and relatively good rapport, particularly after his visit to India (which he still speaks about). His unpredictability has become more predictable. India broadly welcomes his tough talk on China and terrorism and gets the transactional nature of his diplomacy. The down sides is his reelection will be seen as a validation also of his social policies, so I would expect a much tougher approach to immigration. This will have significant implications for India and Indians, whether short-term immigrant workers (H1Bs), students (F1), or all those who have overstayed their visas.
With Biden, India also has some familiarity both from his time in the Senate and as Vice President. Some of Biden's advisors are quite hawkish on China, although there will also be an impulse to cooperate with China on global issues (such as climate change). Biden is also likely to be more open to trade than other Democrats, although sentiment on both the right and left has dampened. We may see a greater emphasis on human rights and values but may not see the strident criticism that might have accompanied another Democratic president further to the left. At the same time, a Biden presidency could mean a return to some professionalism and consistency that's been missing from the White House over the last three years or so.
So overall, India is not likely to face severe setback either way, although both candidates are more prone to offer India better opportunities in some areas, and some slight difficulties in other areas.
Question 27: With a rise in star power of left leaning "progressive" politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), Bernie Sanders, Rashida Tlaib and others, there is a lot of unfair commentary on CAA-NRC, which is amplified by the media as well. What does the research community think of this?
A few issues have changed in recent years in U.S. politics, particularly on the left. One, there's a sharper divide between a vocal progressive wing of the party and a more centrist wing who hope to gain power by appealing to swing voters, and growing competition between them for attention, funding, and votes. This has also led to sharper debates on U.S. foreign policy in general. Two, identity-based coalitions have consolidated and changed, leading to some positions becoming politically more powerful than even a few years ago. For some of these constituencies, there's value in criticism of India for some of its policies. Three, there has always been a strong human-rights first constituency: these people have been critical of lots of countries, and not just India, but also China, Pakistan, and even the United States. Finally, the sharper partisan politics means that it's become harder to engage a leader (e.g. Trump) without contributing to the perception of partisan politics. A combination of all of these factors are at play.
There are two kinds of responses to this. Those policy professionals who want to be involved in politics (including political campaigns) will have to wade into this, and decide what positions are worth taking on different issues. To others who are more apolitical, and I would put myself in this category, I think the challenge is to understand the political dynamics at play but analyze the merits of various policy positions. In other words, make sure that people have thought through all sides of a particular issue, whatever the political value of their rhetoric or policies. Sometimes, policy professionals - particularly specialists - are not fully cognizant of the politics; I've found immense value in recent years in interacting with political influencers, who often look at the same problems from a very different perspective. It's been a learning experience for me.
Question 28: With Sen. Bernie Sanders suspending his campaign, Joe Biden and Donald Trump are the only candidates for the 2020 elections. Do you think Bernie's withdrawal is beneficial for India?
Bernie Sanders' criticism of India was, in part, motivated by an attempt to appeal to certain constituencies; I've already highlighted some of the political dynamics at play, and I fear it's something that a lot of policy specialists tend to overlook. But that overshadowed what I perceived to be a bigger challenge: many of his key advisers had suggested a scepticism of great power competition and U.S. leadership in global affairs. And if that is the worldview of a U.S. president, it would overturn decades of U.S. foreign policy, with potentially detrimental consequences for India-U.S. relations.
Question 29: What is your opinion on the future of globalisation in post-COVID-19 world? Will there be a concerted effort by the international community to check the Chinese influence in international organisations like the WHO, the WTO, etc.? What are the ways in which India can gain after this epidemic?
Funny you should ask about globalization, since I wrote a column on that exact topic. On international institutions, many people had argued, including in India, the U.S., and elsewhere, that power is power, and that it made little difference if the U.S. or China or some other country had inordinate sway over international institutions. Others, who have argued that a state's behaviour abroad is reflective of its domestic politics, may now have stronger arguments on their side, as evident from China's behaviour at the WHO, ICAO, etc. To give one example as to how this has already had an effect, notice the pushback against Chinese leadership at the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), which elected a new Director-General last month. The winning candidate from Singapore was supported by the U.S. and India, among others. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/us-diplomats-scored-a-quiet-but-important-win-against-china/2020/03/10/64dd0fdc-62fb-11ea-845d-e35b0234b136_story.html
If it plays its cards right, India can receive a boost from manufacturing following the coronavirus pandemic. This will be not only due to the renationalisation of some manufacturing but incentives provided by others to invest away from mainland China. But it depends on whether India can make the terms attractive enough for both domestic and foreign business, and can scale up quickly.
Question 30: What according to you are the factors responsible for delayed response to the pandemic through out the world? Considering news of the disease being communicable were reported as early as last week of January.
First, there was lack of knowledge initially about COVID-19 and how communicable it was. This tripped up the Chinese response in particular, but was exacerbated by Beijing's attempts at covering things up at an early stage. The politicization of the WHO's early report did not help. Second, many countries did not take the threat seriously and were reluctant to move when the number of confirmed cases were so low. This is part of a general problem in how large organisations respond to drastic change. Third, there were concerns by leaders about the implications of severe measures (such as lockdowns and quarantines) on business and the economy. So they tried a business-as-usual approach, and only changed course when it proved either unpopular or the severity of the virus became apparent.
Question 31: Do you think the US and European leaderships came out as a bit ignorant on the COVID-19 front as compared to their Asian counterparts?
In Asia, (particularly East and parts of Southeast Asia), there have been consistent fears of a SARS-like epidemic since 2003, and their public health systems have prepared accordingly. In fact, South Korea's government did an exercise just a few months ago that anticipated exactly such an outbreak. But it has been interesting to see parts of South, Southeast Asia, and Latin America (including India) taking the challenge that is COVID-19 much more seriously, at an earlier stage, than many countries in Europe and North America.
Question 32: What are the reasons for why the COVID-19 cases in the U.S are unimaginably higher than any other country? Are all reasons linked to their delayed response?
A big part of it is that the U.S. is far more decentralised than many people imagine. State governments (and their governors) as well as county and municipal governments actually are quite autonomous. So we haven't seen a unified national response to COVID-19 as we have in other countries. Additionally, there were concerns about the legality and constitutionality of some of the measures. Finally, there were also concerns about the adverse effects on the economy, which meant that leaders (both at the federal and state level) were unwilling to impose stringent measures to counter the pandemic. The U.S. is therefore bearing the consequences. We may very well see multiple waves of the virus as well, as it will be hard to impose domestic travel restrictions.
Question 33: Do you think that India should shift away from interventionist policies to free market policies (lower taxes, lower business regulations)? If so, how do you think such policies could help break the poverty cycle for poorer communities?
As I belong to probably the last generation who can remember pre-1991 India, I'm generally in favour of liberalization because I've seen what it's done for the country. Naturally there are secondary problems, such as inequality and poverty alleviation, but without growth, solving India's myriad problems would be virtually impossible. And we simply can't have that growth without investment and employment which in turn requires a better business climate. Obviously blanket liberalization isn't a panacea, but it's hard to envision progress for the country as a whole without some meaningful liberalising steps. That said, there are a number of headwinds, including the realities of electoral politics, strong vested interests, and an adverse international climate (which makes India vulnerable to dumping by other countries).
Question 34: I'm a huge fan of high-speed rail and think it's an excellent idea to significant infrastructure reform. Do you think this is realistic given how large India is? If yes, how do you think high speed rail can lead to improvement in job creation, bridging access between urban & rural areas and also cut down on pollution? How do you think we could make this possible?
On high-speed rail, it makes sense generally for mid-range distances (e.g. Tokyo-Fukuoka, Beijing-Shanghai, Madrid-Barcelona) but the cost makes less sense for longer distance travel (e.g. Beijing-Guangzhou). So there are some corridors in India which are natural candidates, but other connections may make less sense. In terms of scepticism about the ability to execute such a project in India, I recall similar scepticism about the safety and operational capability of the Delhi Metro 20 years ago! And yet most major metro areas in India are investing in rapid transit. Final point on this is that Indian Railways is going to suffer in the future as subsidies from freight (e.g. coal) diminish; so there will have to be other means of getting passengers back on trains, particularly given the building of highways and civil aviation boom.
Question 35: Do you believe the Indo-US nuclear deal tied our hands in terms of increasing nuclear warheads and in testing a new arsenal? If so, why did we agree to that deal which weakens India against China?
I don't think there's any evidence that the India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement restricted India's ability to develop its nuclear arsenal in any way. In fact, a significant development since has been that of a submarine-based nuclear deterrent as part of a triad, which has helped India to develop a second strike capability. The consequences of nuclear testing could be more severe only because India now has more to lose, but there's enough latitude for India to be potentially exempted from sanctions if there was another round of testing by other countries (after all, no one else has tested since 1998 other than North Korea). Furthermore, if India's hands were bound by the nuclear deal, why did China attempt to block the exemption for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2008 (and continue to oppose India's membership at the NSG until the present day)? No, on balance, India has benefited, largely by receiving access to a lot of technology - including in defence and space - that would have continued being denied to it had a global exception not been made for its nuclear status. And that global exception would not have been possible without the advocacy of the United States. There were some very illogical and factually questionable arguments made against the civil nuclear agreement by certain vested interests in India; had they had their way, India's ability to compete globally would have been set back significantly.
Question 36: As U.S. private industry becomes increasingly assertive in space, how will the world react to this new reality? How will this affect national security calculations and what should be the way forward for India?
Space is one area that will see increased competition not just between states but also between private players, partly due to the diminishing costs of launch. That said, there is limited real estate in space, which means it will become more crowded. We tend to think of outer space as a vast resource but its far more limited. It seems as if India has adopted an unusual (and right) approach of prioritizing development objectives, but the militarization of space is inevitable. I'd see India's ASAT test in that light, along with other parallel initiatives. If you'd like to know more, Air Marshal M. Matheswaran (based in Chennai) and my colleague Raji Rajagopalan are valuable resources.
Question 37: What would be your primary reform and policy points to make India the global leader in the next generation of key technologies in green-tech, clean-tech, and the circular economy?
I would point you to a compilation I edited last year, after the final votes had been cast in the Indian general election but before the votes were counted and the results were declared. I do not ascribe to all the views here, but there are some thoughtful suggestions, including on the subject of green tech, from knowledgeable experts.
Question 38: Is there a way for India to protect herself against foreign influence exerted to destabilise her?
The question of foreign influence has become more salient in recent years, and not just in India. Every country has to have its own internal debate about what constitutes legitimate foreign activity and what is illegal. The U.S., for example, offers quite a lot of latitude for other countries to invest in the media, contribute to the ideas industry, engage business interest groups, and hire lobbyists. India has traditionally been far more restrictive. In my view, as long as there is clarity on the rules as to what is acceptable, it becomes easier to distinguish between legitimate foreign activity and illegal influence. The trouble is the rules are not always so clear. India has rather strict rules against the foreign funding of NGOs, and makes it hard to invest in the media or academia. Certainly, India is more restrictive than most Western democracies. When one reads about concerns, for example, of Chinese influence activities in Australia, the U.S., or Germany - much of it technically legal according to local laws - one realises that a lot of that is simply impossible in India.
Question 39: Is there dissonance in India's foreign policy and domestic politics i.e. ideas and values which we promote externally while doing the opposite internally? Is it possible to bring coherence or is that the case worldwide?
Values are aspirational. When the Indian constitution first articulated the quest for certain basic values, it was not as if the majority of Indians espoused or benefited from those values at the time. There was no suffrage, you still had big landowners and zamindars, the education and health metrics were abysmal, etc. So Indian democracy - like all democracies - is a constant work in progress, with the capacity for self-improvement. The same goes, to some degree, in international relations. It is perfectly fine to articulate the desire for a certain kind of world, even if that world does not exist (and may be a utopia). This means there will always be a dissonance, which will lead to charges of hypocrisy. I point out to my American friends that the U.S. didn't really export democracy during the Cold War, except to parts of Europe and Japan, despite talking a good game. The great democratization of the world happened only in the 1990s after Cold War imperatives became less pronounced, and often despite U.S. policy. But the basic character of a country is certainly reflected in its international behaviour to some degree: it's difficult to imagine a closed society and political system being truly accommodating of others on the international stage.
Question 40: Why is so much of the symbolism in America based on Roman and Greek culture? Also could you please explain where does the concept of the ‘West’ come from?
The roots of Roman and Greek cultural influence on the United States are in some ways two-fold. The first is that classical antiquity (ancient Roman and Greek culture) constitutes one part of what defined "European culture", along with Western Christianity (Catholicism and later Protestantism) and Teutonic or Germanic cultural influences. If you think these factors don't still matter, consider the seemingly arbitrary criteria for European Union membership, which prioritised majority Catholic/Protestant states (the Baltics, Visegrad 4, Slovenia, and Croatia) over Eastern Orthodox (until Romania and Bulgaria) and yet fast-tracked Hellenistic Greece and Cyprus. So the definition of what constitutes 'Europe' is still influenced by these cultural identifiers. In other words, the classical world was one of the 'glues' that linked together the different cultures of Europe. The United States was in this sense an outgrowth of 'European civilization.'
The second factor was the more immediate context of the European Enlightenment, which presented the circumstances under which the United States was founded. The founders of the United States in some ways put into practice the European intellectual scene's rediscovery of both Athenian democracy and (especially) Roman Republicanism. There's an important distinction here. While Athenians prioritised the one-citizen-one-vote model of governance in a city-state, the Romans were more pessimistic about human nature and created a complex system of checks and balances. So much of what we consider modern American democracy derives from Roman Republicanism: the Capitol (named after the Capitoline Hill in Rome), the Senate, bicameral legislature, term limits, etc. And this was reflected in art and architecture too, hence the neo-classical buildings of the period. George Washington, when he opted to relinquish power, was likened to the Roman general Cincinnatus. Incidentally, some of those same Enlightenment ideals also drove the French Revolution, although that eventually assumed a different form.
I've already partly answered the notion of what constitutes the 'West' although this cultural definition is fluid and debatable. The 'core' West includes European countries that were traditionally majority Catholic or Protestant, and which had the shared experience of classical antiquity, Western Christianity, medieval feudalism, the Renaissance, Reformation (and Counter-Reformation), Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution, as well as those countries in North America that were cultural outgrowths (the United States and Canada). Thus the Baltic countries, Scandinavia, Italy, Spain, Ireland, and Poland all easily qualify. (Many Poles, Czechs, and East Germans during the Cold War argued that they were naturally 'Western' societies on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.) Things get less clear-cut in other parts of Europe, such as the eastern Balkans or Caucasus, and this issue of what constitutes the 'West' is the undercurrent in discussions about Ukrainian accession to 'Western' organisations such as NATO and the European Union. Many Europeans don't consider Russia part of the West, even if many Russians consider themselves Europeans. And it can be debated whether Australia, New Zealand, Israel (where a plurality is of European origin), South Africa (during Apartheid), Turkey (which is a member of NATO), and Latin America (which also has large populations of European origin) are part of the West too. It really depends on the context.
Question 41: You hinted at the ‘othering’ of Russians by Europeans. How important is this tendency to ‘other’ certain people for maintaining group cohesion?
It is possible that two things can be true at the same time. One, collective identity remains strong even in a globalized world, and is exacerbated in times of stress (say, during economic crises). Second, culture and cultural identity changes with time. In the United States, certain groups that were not considered 'white' are now generally considered so. The idea of a common 'Asian' identity is a more recent creation. There were pan-German, pan-Italian, and pan-Slavic movements in the 19th century, which both followed and preceded periods of factionalism. There's some fascinating work on how an integrated and cosmopolitan city like Sarajevo could fracture so suddenly along ethnic lines with the outbreak of the Balkan Wars.
Question 42: Almost all literature related to the rise and fall of empires is written from a Eurocentric view. Could you recommend some similar texts which expound on the strategic culture of India?
It's funny that because the nation-state is the basic unit of analysis in traditional international relations, that all non-nation states are ignored in the literature, and that applies to much of the non-Western world for much of human history. I much prefer reading histories to international relations partly for that reason. There's some very interesting and exciting scholarship about pre-modern India but it suffers from a general disinclination away from the study of power politics, methodological limitations for cross-cultural studies, and vagaries in the source material (which itself is inaccessible to most people who don't have the required language skills). For this reason, it remains understudied. However, I'd recommend Upinder Singh's work, also some of Rizvi's work on medieval India, some of which has been superseded in recent years. For an interesting take on inter-state rivalry between the Mughals, Safavids, and Ottomans, I'd point you to this article by Manjeet Pardesi.
Question 43: I’d like to know more about hearing what officials and academics in other countries think about India’s position in the world order and it’s future potential? Which countries were the most bullish on India and which were the most disdainful?
It’s hard to generalize. There is a lot of variety in each place, and I always meet people who are bullish or bearish in different countries. Some of those sentiments are justified but others are actually driven by an absence of familiarity with India. If I had to hazard an estimation, I would say that the U.S. (government and defence establishment), Japan (among officials only), France (government and business), Australia, UAE, Sweden, Singapore, and Israel are among the more bullish. Even the UK, to some degree, although this is not always reflected among intellectual elites. Europeans by and large are less bullish on India, although big business interest has picked up in places like Germany, Scandinavia, and Central Europe. China, on the other hand, is becoming more dismissive, which is perhaps natural given it is only country where the power differential with India has *widened* over the past three decades. Sometimes the lack of understanding about India in places like Iran, Russia, Germany, and South Korea - places that one might expect greater familiarity - can be quite astounding. Others don't necessarily view India through a strategic lens, and that was my sense in places like Canada and New Zealand.
Question 44: Why do you think the Western media tends to have some kind of contempt for India?
I know a lot of Western media correspondents based in India, many personally. The majority I do not think are motivated by any particular ill-will towards India (there are, I suspect, a few exceptions). In fact, many foreign correspondents picked their assignments to India because of a particular attraction or fascination for the country and its people.
However, I do sense a strong bias in favour of certain kinds of stories about India in the Western press, often negative. This is for a few reasons, including: (1) Editors are likely to prefer 'bad news' to 'good news', and that applies universally, not just to India. (2) Quirky stories that reinforce stereotypes are more likely to be published: pollution, monkeys, bovine worship, bureaucratic incompetence, child labour, etc., (3) Many reporters may be nostalgic for an old, gentle India that may never have actually existed and are uncomfortable with the changes they're witnessing in an increasingly aspirational and assertive society, (4) Journalists are people, and everyone prefers talking to those who speak and think like them, which reinforces certain viewpoints when conducting interviews and reflecting Indian opinion about a certain issue, (5) Some relative newcomers among foreign journalists may be unaware of longer term trends and ways in which things have actually improved in India over the last few decades ("oh my god, there is poverty!"), (6) Indian commentators in the Western press reflect particular viewpoints often motivated by their own ideology and personal biases, and editorial boards are either not willing to air or are sometimes simply unaware of alternative viewpoints.
I suspect much of the negative press that India receives in the Western press is due to a combination of these and other causes, rather than some centralised plot to malign India. But I do sense a pretty consistent bias. Let me give an example: I know that three leading Western newspapers solicited opinion articles for an Indian point of view following the abrogation of Article 370 last year. However, one asked that the author include specific content in the piece (which the author refused), a second made such drastic editorial changes that the author withdrew the submission, and the third sat on the copy on the grounds of 'fact checking' while running an article by Imran Khan that was full of questionable assertions. So the charges of editorial bias do have some merit.
Another example of bias: I have seen the following two headlines in recent weeks in Western media outlets: "The Callousness of India's COVID-19 Response" and "Has Sweden Found the Right Response to the Coronavirus". Admittedly, things could still change, but as of now, Sweden, a country of 10 million people, has 9685 confirmed cases and 870 deaths, while India with over 100 times the population has 6725 confirmed cases and 229 deaths. Make of this what you will.
Question 45: How would the media reaction have been different if the virus had originated in India?
It's hard to speculate, but consider how India successfully managed to contain a Nipah outbreak in Kerala in 2018. Only 17 people died, over 2000 people were quarantined.
Question 46: The last year has been a roller-coaster for India from the Section 370 removal to CAA to riots. How do you think India’s image has been affected globally?
By and large, criticism of India for some combination of Article 370, CAA, and the violence in Delhi has been higher, but relegated to some quarters. Officially, Pakistan and occasionally China, Malaysia, and Turkey have led criticism. In the West, this has been led mostly by the media and legislatures (sections of the U.S. Congress, British Parliament, and European Parliament for example), although some U.S. presidential candidates did indeed weigh in. Overall, there has been more criticism of CAA than of Article 370, which many countries (barring some of those listed above) consider a national security issue. But CAA has elicited some negative responses even in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Indonesia. It's important to examine the domestic political factors at play in some of these countries as well, which have influenced their positions on these issues. Unfortunately, in India, a lot of the media commentary tends to overlook some of these factors.
Question 47: Does the news ever find its way into government-to-government conversations these days? Does it affect positively or negatively?
There can be multiple tracks in relations between two countries. Sometimes government-to-government interactions are very strong even when people-to-people contacts are not (e.g. India and Japan today, or China and Pakistan traditionally). Obviously a stronger relationship would include a shared understanding of culture and values as well, but sometimes (and one could argue traditonally) governments understood that national interests could override other concerns. The U.S. continues to do business with a lot of pretty reprehensible regimes, despite adverse media coverage.
I think we forget that governments and businesses often have access to other sources of information (intelligence agencies or diplomatic reporting in the case of government). I've often seen U.S. officials roll their eyes at media coverage on a specific topic related to India, for example. (The recent outcry over hydroxychloroquine being but one example.) Moreover, sometimes there's so much information out there that officials feel inundated; they don't have time for so much public chatter and find a lot of it useless or well-informed. That is not to say that public opinion or elite opinion do no matter. They absolutely do. But only up to a point. This is an example that is more specific to the U.S., but sometimes news stories in the U.S. press lead to calls by constituents to their elected representatives in the U.S. Congress, who then write letters to the State Department. That's one example of how such information shapes policy discussions.
Question 48: Do you think bad press in the Western media can cause a significant amount of investment to turn away from India?
Yes and no. On the one hand, negative coverage - particularly in publications read by business leaders (Financial Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal) does influence decision-making. At the same time, investors tend to be pretty amoral. Consider how many continued doing business in Xinjiang, or take money from Saudi Arabia, despite severe human rights concerns. And you frequently see business leaders bending over backwards to justify working in countries with really bad track records. So negative media coverage of India may have some adverse implications, but probably not as much as many people imagine.