Saturday, May 7, 2016

Lessons from the Dolkun Isa Visa Fiasco

I wrote a brief essay that was published by Observer Research Foundation on the Indian government first granting and then withdrawing visa for Mr. Dolkun Isa, an Uyghur activist.  Posted below in full:

Lessons from the Dolkun Isa Visa Fiasco

The Indian government has rightly come in for a significant amount of criticism for backtracking and withdrawing the visa it had granted to Mr. Dolkun Isa, a Uyghur activist, after the Chinese government complained.  While there is almost universal condemnation of the incompetence of the Indian state in efficiently managing something as simple as granting a visa, opinions about the strategic consequences of the Indian government’s actions are more divided.  Much of the commentary has been highly partisan.  Still, this episode also raises important questions about how Indian foreign policy and security policies are managed.
We do not yet know, of course, the real story behind why an Indian visa was granted to Mr. Isa or why it was later withdrawn, or why many other Chinese dissidents were also refused visas to attend a conference that presumably relevant government agencies had already approved.  Early press stories suggested that New Delhi granted the visa to Mr. Isa apparently in retaliation for China blocking India’s efforts to place Masood Azhar, head of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorist group, on a UN terrorist list established by the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee.  (China had claimed that India’s application did not “meet the requirements”).  The consistency in these stories suggest that the story was based on briefing by senior government officials.  Indeed, some reports quoted “top sources” as saying that this decision was taken at the “highest level” in the government.  This is useful to keep in mind because once the government decided to withdraw the visa, the story became one of an inter-departmental snafu between the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).  It is also possible that the visa was granted by mistake because Indian officials did not realise Mr. Isa’s name was on an Interpol red corner notice.  Still, the government took no steps to deny these stories in the first two days, before the visa was retracted, suggesting that something more than an interdepartmental issue was at play.  Some reports have even suggested that India and China had worked out a quid-pro-quo on the Masood Azhar issue, but this appears highly doubtful.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Considering Trump and New Delhi

C. Raja Mohan wrote a typical thoughtful and thought-provoking essay yesterday in the Indian Express on why New Delhi should take Donald Trump seriously, despite his contradictions.  Now that Trump looks like the presumptive Republican nominee after his impressive win in the Indiana primary, Raja Mohan's points are even more critical.  He is a typical populist politician, one whose support is based on ideas or ideology or even simple consistency but on just the strength of his personality. Raja Mohan is right to point to Trump's larger worldview rather than the specific policy points regarding India.  As he put it: "The significance of Trump for Delhi’s diplomacy may not necessarily lie in the few stray comments he has made about India. Nor do his occasional remarks on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons suggest a definitive shift. Although Trump’s overall attitude towards India has been positive, it’s his larger worldview that will have a great bearing on India’s strategic choices."

I think this is a point that not just New Delhi needs to keep in mind but most of US allies -- and US adversaries.  Even if Trump does not win the Presidency -- this is by no means certain, as some Democrats like the political commentator Van Jones is trying desperately to tell their party -- he is quite likely to move the entire conversation to the Left on critical issues such as (as Raja Mohan pointed out, correctly) on trade, but also on US commitment to its allies because, as Trump has pointed out, US allies don't pay their fair share of the burden of the common defense.  This is an old issue within US alliances, but what Trump forgets is that old Spiderman quote: with great power comes great responsibility. Or may be it is greater responsibility.  Still, Trump's focus is likely shift domestic argument, and Hillary Clinton -- assuming she is the Democratic nominee -- is also likely to agree that burden-sharing needs to be revisited.  This should be serious worry for all US allies -- and for countries like India which, though not a formal US ally, depends on the US to help balance China in Asia.  Much of the discussion of unipolarity and the post cold war international system has focused on calculations of material power to assess polarity.  But they have rarely considered the willingness of the US to carry the burden of managing and maintaining global order.  And Defensive Realists, who have repeatedly called for the US to reduce its global footprint with an off-shore balancing strategy, do not consider the consequences of such a posture for regional stability and its consequent impact on global order.  If Trump wins in November, and if he carries through with his promise, India and other Asian powers will find that the biggest problem will be to convince the US that it has to play a role as a balancer in Asia.  This raises unpalatable choices for India and other Asian states -- either acquiesce in a China-dominated Asia or expend a lot more effort in trying to balance China.  It might become difficult to find a hedge to perch on then.