Tuesday, October 21, 2014

After Modi's US Visit

My assessment about the state of the US-India relationship has been put out by the East West Centre through its Asia-Pacific Bulletin series.  I argued that while there are some significant advances, the relationship also faces some problems, especially as a consequence of Obama's disinterest in the region, India repeatedly disappointing its friends in Washington, and New Delhi's continuing foolishness over the nuclear liability bill.  The essay is reproduced below.

US-India Relations after the Modi Visit

A decade back, US-India relations appeared finally to be ready to break from the traditional pattern of swinging between euphoria and exasperation.  But over the last several years, that pattern re-emerged as both Washington and New Delhi busily dug their relationship into a hole.  One state visit, even such a high-octane one as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s, cannot be expected to pull the two sides out of this hole, but it would be fair to say that the two sides have at least stopped digging.  But there is hard work ahead and the outcome is by no means certain. 

There is enough blame to go around for the state of the relationship, though New Delhi has to take a bigger share.  Immediately after the US-India nuclear deal was concluded, the UPA government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in a hurry to distance itself from the US, frightened about the domestic political consequence of its closeness to Washington.  What followed was India’s Nuclear Liability Bill (which essentially negated the key benefits of the US-India nuclear deal), its decision to reject American combat jets for the Indian Air Force, its abstention from the Libya vote in the UN Security Council, and a downgrading of military ties.  On the US side, President Obama started out as other Democratic presidents have, wanting a special relationship with China and seeking to push a Kashmir negotiation between India and Pakistan, both key red flags for India.  More fundamentally, Obama’s apparent desire to pull back from America’s global commitments led to concerns in Asia and in India about Washington’s dependability just as China was asserting itself in Asia – concerns that have yet to subside despite Obama’s Asia ‘pivot’ and ‘rebalancing’. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Rhetoric, Capability and Credibility in Indian Strategic Policy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi definitely has a lot of advantages over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, especially when it comes to foreign and security policies.  Unlike Singh, he doesn't have to constantly look over his shoulder to make sure his party leaders are supporting him (remember the nuclear deal?).  Equally importantly, within the government, Singh was constantly second-guessed by other Congress big-wigs who appear never to have forgiven him for taking the top spot.  In addition, Modi comes from a very different background, from outside the New Delhi IIC culture, and appears less concerned about mouthing empty left-liberal slogans about peace and disarmament.  All this might explain why he has been much more willing to unshackle the security forces on both the Pakistan front and the China front.  Moreover, can anyone imagine Singh talking about 'vistaarvad', especially while on a trip to Japan?  [And for those who think that this was a one off, or that he wasn't referring to China, Modi had used the same word during the election campaign, while in Arunachal Pradesh, and it was a direct reference to China].

Having said all this though, there is also a danger about rhetoric running ahead of actual military capabilities.  Credibility is important in international politics and it is better to bide your time while building up your capabilities rather than let your mouth back you into a corner.  So, while Modi's firmness is welcome, I worry that New Delhi hasn't prepared for what might happen if there is an escalation.  This is particularly worrisome with regard to China, but also a problem with Pakistan. My essay in the Economic Times outlines these concerns, and is reproduced below.

Indo-Pak border skirmish: India needs to be firm & careful in its response

India's unusually tough response to Pakistan's border infractions appear to have silenced Islamabad. At least for now. Much to its own detriment, India has rarely considered military force as an element in its strategic tool kit. If India's response now signals a change in how it combines diplomacy and force, it can only be welcomed. But the harsh political rhetoric that accompanied this apparent change in strategy has its own pitfalls that New Delhi needs to consider with care. US President Theodore Roosevelt is credited with the aphorism 'Speak softly and carry a big stick'. This reflects a happy synergy between political rhetoric and practical capacities, but one that is rarely forged in foreign policies. India's leaders have been particularly inept in understanding this relationship.