Mountain Corps Raises Questions About India’s Strategy

India’s recent decision to raise a mountain strike corps along the border with China has raised arguments over the strategic orientation the country is supposed to have in years to come.

Although the operational details of the proposed mountain corps, which involves enhancing India’s third and fourth-generation warfare capabilities, are yet to be revealed, what’s clear is that the unit will contain up to 50,000 soldiers and be headquartered at Panagarh in West Bengal. This will mark a deviation from India’s existing continental offensive strategic orientation which is primarily focused on Pakistan. It will also mark a shift in orientation toward China from defensive to proactive. Read more “Mountain Corps Raises Questions About India’s Strategy”

For Successful Asia Pivot, Obama Has to Engage Russia

Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the latter's dacha outside Moscow, July 7, 2009
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia meet at the latter’s dacha outside Moscow, July 7, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

As the United States “pivot” to Asia, China will likely dominate President Barack Obama’s second-term foreign policy. But an improvement in relations with Russia is needed for that pivot to be a success.

The American “reset” in relations with its former Cold War rival has not yielded the sort of diplomatic cooperation from Russia that the president and his foreign-policy team hoped for. If they are to prevent a new “cold war” with China from escalating into conflict in East Asia, they have to make a better effort.

The rise of China poses a challenge to the world system as it has existed since the end of World War II, dominated by Western powers and ruled by Western codes. The conflict between the supposedly covert world order that is anticipated by China and the world system as it is, is the cold war of the twenty-first century. The battle isn’t going to be fought with soldiers and tanks but for resources and through diplomacy.

The expectation of this new cold war stems from a belief that has been present in American strategic thinking since the early twentieth century; that any single major economic or military power in Eurasia, if unchecked, will ultimately extend its power into the Western Hemisphere. To prevent that from happening, the United States have sought a balance of power in Eurasia and pursued containment policies against great powers that failed to submit to it.

Historian and geostrategist Alfred Thayer Mahan predicted as early as 1900 in The Problem of Asia that not Japan or Russia would emerge as Eurasia’s preeminent power, even if, at different points in the last century, Americans dreaded both nations rising to such a station. Rather China would pose the greatest challenge to American interests and security.

At the time, China seemed to be a backwater nation, overrun by Western imperialists and later by the Japanese. But its sheer size meant it was always destined to be a major force among nation states.

The United States have, in fact, courted China for the better part of the last century, working with Mao and his successors to contain Japan and the Soviet Union. Only since the demise of the latter and the end of the Cold War have American policymakers begun to think of China as a potential threat in its own right.

2012 witnessed several political and military changes in East and South Asia which suggest that the strategic landscape is changing. These included naval standoffs in the East and South China Seas and the deepening of defense cooperation between Australia, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, the United States and Vietnam under the umbrella of the United States’ “pivot” to the region.

Within the outer strategic “wall” that the United States have erected in the Pacific as a hedge against China’s military expansion, extending from Honolulu, Hawaii to Australia and New Zealand to Mumbai, India, an inner security perimeter is perfected, extending from Japan and South Korea through Taiwan to the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. The Americans have signed bilateral defense agreements with all these nations as well as Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Designed to be flexible and reliant on a strong American forward presence in the region, these “walls” are the foundation of a security architecture to contain China.

This security architecture duplicates to an extent the Atlantic system that came before it. The “pivot” to Asia includes first the stationing of American troops in foreign bases to signal the country’s commitment to security in the Pacific as well as the benefits of an American military presence. Second, the strengthening of existing bases near key sea routes from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to Guam and Hawaii in the Pacific.

If it is denied free access to trading routes and the natural resources of overseas producers, China will be forced to look inward and find other ways to feed and sustain its burgeoning population within the context of an authoritarian political system.

Smaller nations in East Asia may be able to exploit the strategic competition between China and the United States but aspiring great powers such as Australia, India, even Russia will have to adjust to the new world order. The latter especially would be a useful hedge against Chinese hegemony. If America can somehow successfully “reset” its relations with Russia (again) and bring Australia and India together under a security arrangement, China will be largely isolated in the region.

Which is not to say that Australia’s and India’s relations with China won’t be close. Rather, like so many countries in East Asia, they simultaneously depend on the United States for security and China economically. Russia has no such needs and is therefore positioned to be the arbiter in this new “great game.”

Gujarat Election Test for Indian Right’s National Ambitions

In a democracy, charisma and leadership are often overstated. Yet no other form of government needs leadership as much as democracy.

In this sense, India can offer a curious case. Despite having so many regional satraps with mass following, very few have been able to project their clout at the national level. Moreover, one regional satrap is not unusually viewed with suspicion by another so that the general consensus is to have somebody with no mass following at all. Incumbent prime minister Manmohan Singh is a perfect example of this.

Gujarat’s chief minister Narendra Modi defies the rule. The conservative politician has a mass following as well as national appeal. As his state votes in assembly elections next week, Modi’s future will be decades. If he leads the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party to victory once more, he could emerge as the party’s prime ministerial candidate in the next general election. Read more “Gujarat Election Test for Indian Right’s National Ambitions”

BRICS Can Bark But Cannot Bite

The recent BRIC summit in New Delhi was heralded as a game changer in international politics. Although cooperation between Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa is definitely here to stay as an alternative to Western multilateral institutions, the praise has to do more with hype than substance.

The BRICS summit has been compared to the 1941 conference between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill in Newfoundland which led to the signing of the Atlantic Charter and ultimately to the creation of a new world order with the forming of United Nations in 1945. The BRICS doesn’t propose to create any such multilateral institution however. It merely seeks to make existing organizations as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank more democratic.

A major obstacle to permanent cooperation within the BRICS is the lack of resemblance among the countries that compose it.

Brazil is a regional power in South America, Russia is a great power in Eurasia, India is a great power in the Asia Pacific, China is a great power aspiring to be a superpower while South Africa is a regional power in Africa at best.

What these countries have in common is that they aren’t too pleased with the status quo of the international system which is dominated by Western powers, specifically by the United States.

Even in a country as India, which considers China to be its primary threat, there is strong domestic opposition against the values of the West and the Untied States.

Yet it remains doubtful that these countries can come together to inaugurate an alternative system at the international level. They all need United States to balance against threats in their own domains.

Brazil seeks American support in its struggle for regional hegemony with neighboring Argentina. Russia finds it hard to digest China’s influence in Central Asia and the Middle East and so does India in South and Southeast Asia. South Africa’s position in Africa is threatened by China’s presence on the continent. The latter’s scant regard for human rights is seen as a problem by both Brazil and South Africa.

There is a risk that the BRICS evolves into a platform for Chinese foreign policy just as Moscow employs an array of interregional cooperative bodies to further its own goals. If that turns out to be the case, the legitimacy of the organization is in jeopardy and it would be high time for the remaining members to consider an alternative.

India Should Prefer a Republican President

The Indian foreign policy establishment is not very interested in the outcome of this year’s presidential election in the United States. This in contrast to 2004 when it preferred George W. Bush or 2008, when the entire world was caught up in the yearlong election drama.

The reason is simple. India’s ruling center-left coalition appears to have reached a dead end and the foreign policy class is in the slumber. It should pay attention though. Barack Obama’s reelection could prove an annoyance to Indians if it is accompanied by a return of liberalism in American policy.

The Democratic president has so far conducted himself largely as a Republican in the mold of George H.W. Bush on the world stage. Indians find comfort in this conservative posture. They are wary of liberals who seek to use America’s position as the preeminent power to change the world.

They would never take this approach to China. Even the do-gooders recognize that there are limits to what they can accomplish. But with India, there are always issues to raise, ranging from Kashmir to human rights to the environment. This has been a trend among Democratic Party presidents whereas the Republicans tend to stand by India.

As early as 1919, Woodrow Wilson failed to live up to his promise to support Indian independence. Harry Truman internationalized the Kashmir dispute at India’s expense. John F. Kennedy was reluctant to intervene when China invaded Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh in 1962. Lyndon B. Johnson didn’t support India during the 1965 war with Pakistan. Bill Clinton wouldn’t involve himself in the 1999 Kargil War.

It was Republican Theodore Roosevelt who endorsed India’s bid for independence. Dwight D. Eisenhowever, another Republican, normalized relations with his 1958 visit to India. Ronald Reagan initiated technology cooperation and it was George W. Bush who signed the hallmark nuclear agreement of 2005.

There have been two exceptions to the rule. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt was tempted to condition his support for Great Britain during the Second World War on Indian independence while Republican Richard Nixon menaced India during the Bangladesh Liberation War by dispatching an aircraft carrier to the Bay of Bengal and allying himself with Pakistan.

Still, given this recent history, it’s important for India to always be skeptical when champions of liberal value such as Barack Obama occupy the White House and when the liberal establishment in the Democratic Party holds sway in the Congress and State Department.

Indian foreign policymakers need to understand that a Republican president would likely be far more beneficial to them. A Republican would more actively seek to counter China’s rise in Asia through a balance of power. This is what George W. Bush did during his eight years in office.

India is also preparing for elections. In 2014, if the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party comes to power, New Delhi could adopt a more assertive stance on the world stage and expect the United States to do the same. Specifically, the conservatives would like to see a more activist containment of China and the dismantling of Pakistan’s terrorist infrastructure. A conservative administration in the United States would surely be more cooperative.

India Had No Reason to Save Maldives’ Nasheed

When it comes to foreign policy decisionmaking in a democracy two important quotes come to mind. First is Franklin R. Roosevelt’s conversation in May 1942 with his close advisor, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. The American president at the time remarked, “You know I am a juggler and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does. I may have one policy for Europe and one diametrically opposite for North and South America. I may be entirely inconsistent and furthermore, I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war.”

Second is the incumbent president’s candid observation when he was running for the highest office in 2008. When Barack Obama was taking the heat from then Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign about his lack of national-security experience, he said, “Foreign policy is the area where I am probably most confident that I know more and understand the world better than Senator Clinton.” Meeting world leader is not important, he added. “What I know is the people. I traveled to Pakistan when I was in college. I knew what Sunni and Shia was before I joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.”

These two observations are important for any decisionmakers in foreign policy and at least the context of that has been rightly understood by the Indian foreign policy establishment when it comes to dealing with the Maldives.

There was great pressure on the part of the Indian government to intervene in the archipelago recently as President Mohammed Nasheed was feeling the heat of popular unrest in the streets. Nasheed, with his Western upbringing and Oxbridge accent had been touted as South Asia’s Barack Obama and was considered as a friend of India’s. It may have appeared to make sense to save him from being ousted to preserve India’s hegemony in South Asia. The argument is valid superficially for those who advocate a muscular Indian foreign policy without understanding the situation on the ground.

When India intervened in the Maldives in 1988 to save then-President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom through Operation Cactus, the island nation’s leader had been a friend of India’s for nearly a decade. The initiators of the invasion were from Sri Lanka and had close links with the rebel organization there which India supported in a struggle for autonomy with Colombo. Therefore, it made sense for India to save President Gayoom and it proved right when he extended his loyalty for nearly two decades to New Delhi.

The situation at present in the Maldives is an internal occurrence. Nasheed made mistakes which never went well with New Delhi. He invited a “great game” between China and India in Indian Ocean region so that the Maldives could get funding from both great powers. He forgot a basic tenet about foreign policy in South Asia. If you try to be a cut above the rest with your charisma, it won’t wind you any friends in New Delhi.
Small nations have to play second fiddle to India in South Asia and Nasheed failed to remember it. His insistence that regional summits should do more than promote Indo-Pakistani dialogue and his close friendship with the West were not considered well in India for a long time.

Despite repeated appeals from New Delhi to control a radical Muslim incursion in the Southern Maldives, Nasheed didn’t care to provide logistics for Indian intelligence to gather information about the suspected perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

As he lost popular support at home, New Delhi had only to watch the scenario unfold and throw its support behind Nasheed’s challenger when the time was right.

There are people in India who have argued that it was their nation’s “responsibility to protect” Nasheed but they need to understand that India’s best days are ahead. It has to bid for time as Roosevelt did in 1941 and understand the peculiarities of the situation on the ground, as Obama did about the wars in the Middle East, before intervening. In that light, contrary to popular opinion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got it right when he allowed Nasheed to be removed from office.

China Island Hopping in the Indian Ocean

The best way to get success in strategy is through success. An historical case study was General Douglas MacArthur’s “island hopping” strategy in the Pacific during World War II. It involved capturing an island, building a base there and moving on toward the prime target.

China seems to be copying this strategy in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. In the former, it is seeking to contain India by forging alliances with island nations including the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles and building a “string of pearls” of military bases from East Africa to Pakistan.

The strategy is designed to curtail Indian influence in the region so China, with the Americans distracted in the Middle East, can have a free run in other parts of Asia and across the Pacific Ocean but also to encroach upon African countries that welcome its yuan diplomacy — developmental and industrial support with no strings attached.

China has never announced this strategy publicly. A recent statement from the Chinese military that it’s considering an offer from the Seychelles to host a Chinese naval base confirms that the strategy exists however.

Furthermore, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has stated that it isn’t interested in building military bases in other places.

The Chinese “island hopping” strategy defies historical precedent and differs from the strategies of other and past great powers in that they were usually explicit about their intentions. China apparently believes that concealing its motives best serves its interests.

An increased Chinese presence across the Indian Ocean poses a challenge to India as it is trying to project itself as a great power beyond South Asia. The two Asian giants are vying for economic opportunities and international recognition. Renewed American engagement, which is likely to follow military withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq, could prove an obstacle to China’s designs and cause it to intensify its efforts now.

As the United States court nations ranging from Australia to Indonesia to Vietnam, the Chinese imperative to erect naval bases in the Indian Ocean and South Pacific will only seem more pressing.

Indo-Maldives Relations Continue to Blossom

South Asian leaders convened in the capital of the Maldives earlier this month. It was an appropriate venue for their summit as the island nation’s regional importance is set to increase when the region around the Indian Ocean takes center stage in the twenty-first century.

Indo-Maldives relations were affirmed in a joint statement. The two countries agreed to deepen existing strategic relations and improve cooperation in combating drug trafficking and terrorism. India also agreed to undertake a feasibility study into developing a port north of Malé in the Haa Dhaalu Atoll which would be a huge boon to the northern Maldives’ economy.

Before the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation summit commenced, Maldivian president Mohamed Nasheed vowed that his country would never menace India’s security, clearing apprehension in New Delhi that the atolls might be lured into China’s “yuan diplomacy.”

India maintains strategic relations with the Maldives for two reasons. Its intelligence services uncovered that a top operative of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant Islamist organization that orchestrated the 2008 Mumbai attacks, attempted to set up an Indian Ocean base for the group. The plot would have involved Lashkar-e-Taiba storing weapons on an uninhabited island.

In 2008, terrorist activity in the Maldives spiked with a bombing in Malé and the settlement of a jihadist community in Himandhoo, a previously uninhabited Maldivian atoll. India seeks to coordinate counterterrorism efforts with the Maldives to stamp out this presence.

India and the Maldives have also strengthened defense cooperation to counter China’s rise in the Indian Ocean area. Per a 2009 security agreement, India will construct a radar network across the atolls and link it to its coastal command. It also regularly surveys the islands with military flights and plans to erect an air force station in the Maldives.

The Maldives form a vital cog in India’s naval diplomacy. All great powers that have attempted to dominate the Indian Ocean sought a base in the Maldives, including the Dutch, the Portuguese, the British, the Americans and the Soviets.

Unlike these past great powers, India has traditionally enjoyed close relations with the island nation. It notably helped the Maldivian government thwart a coup in 1988 which saved Maumoon Abdul Gayoom’s presidency. Although his successor is of a very different political persuasion, Indo-Maldivian relations have continued to blossom under Mohamed Nasheed’s leadership because they serve the interests of both partners.

As India emerges as a great power, it is important that it appreciates the sensitivities of its neighboring states and not conduct its foreign policy from a Delhi centric point of view. For India to project “soft power” abroad, it has to be perceived as a “big brother” in Asia that doesn’t at all threaten the interests nor sovereignty of its vassals.

Singh Asserts Indian Leadership Again

India’s prime minister Manmohan Singh is something of a paradox. He is not a politician by profession, however he has proved to be a political Houdini especially when it comes to asserting his nation’s position internationally.

For example, on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit held in Bali, Indonesia, Singh was quick to assert India’s commercial interest in the South China Sea although it doesn’t share a border there. He put China in its place by emphasizing that the spats in the area should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international sea laws.

Singh also appreciated the difficult political situation in Pakistan when he extended an olive branch to Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani on the sidelines of a South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation summit in the Maldives this week.

His assertiveness with regard to China and willingness to engage Pakistan, which is internally ravaged in many ways, demonstrate Singh’s ability to read the situations outside India perfectly.

China’s revisionist border stance in the South China Sea has invited criticism from countries ranging from Australia and Indonesia to South Korea and Taiwan. Indeed, virtually all nations bordering the Pacific Ocean in East Asia are ready to seek India’s and the United States’ help in containing China’s rise.

In Pakistan, ongoing counterterrorism efforts and America’s presence in Afghanistan have inspired the people to push their leadership for greater cooperation with New Delhi. The prime minister’s astute diplomatic conduct on the eve of both aforementioned conferences buttresses Indo-Pakistani rapprochement.

Singh’s ability to improve India’s standing in the world hasn’t always gone well with India’s middle class although it is doing increasingly well both within and outside of India. It’s for his very willingness to improve relations with neighboring Pakistan that Singh is perceived as a weak leader at home whereas he is respected as a statesman abroad. His international performance has won him personal accolades and an increased respect for India on the world stage.

As President Barack Obama put it during his most recent visit to India, when Manmohan Sigh speaks, the world listens. “India is emerging as a superpower and the world is fully aware of this reality,” he said.

Some of his critics may have already written his political obituary but India’s very nimble prime minister learned an important lesson from President Theodore Roosevelt. “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Barack Obama’s Prime Minister

While campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama was asked about his future administration and promised that he would form his own “team of rivals.”

Team of Rivals was a 2005 volume by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin which described how President Abraham Lincoln included political adversaries in his cabinet and steered the union to victory in the Civil War.

When Obama assumed the highest office, it wasn’t the best of times for the United States to lead in the world. In Lincoln’s spirit though, he kept on Republican Robert Gates as defense secretary and asked his primary rival Hillary Clinton to lead the State Department. With the president campaigning for reelection, it’s worth evaluating her tenure as the nation’s secretary of state. Read more “Barack Obama’s Prime Minister”