Indian Ocean

In case of war, would US rush to India’s defence?

(This is  reprint from NewsBred).

Behind their pandemic-induced masks, Indians have a floating question on their lips: What if China was to pour into India and spank us like it did in 1962.

Columns on military match-ups are box-office hits.  In today’s Mint, weighing scales have measured India and China on nuclear, submarines, armoured vehicles, boots-on-the- ground, everything. It assures readers we are better in inhospitable terrains, fighter jets and in shape thanks to our periodic pounding of Pakistan. It doesn’t look at the weight Pakistan could bring into equation but that’s okay. Indian soldiers are world’s envy for over a century for a reason.

Indians are also hopeful on the United States. That Trump and Modi would look after each other’s backs. This lack-in-self isn’t mindful that India’s nuclear arsenal is deterrent enough. We won’t be rolled over in a conventional war too.  Besides, still don’t have a formal military pact with the United States.

Sure, in last decade and a half, the US administration across presidents, and Indians between their Manmohan and Modi, have resembled two lost brothers who couldn’t have enough of each other. It began with access to military sheets (GSOMIA) but ramped up startingly under the Modi regime. An important threshold crossed was reciprocal logistical support (LEMOA) in 2016; and greater Indian access to US military technology (COMCASA) in 2018. The next stage is a deal for 2021 when US could share advanced satellite, intelligence and topographical information (BECA) with India. It would be huge, but not now.

The United States, as it is, has more military pacts than one could count. In the Indo-Pacific waters itself, it’s committed to come to aid of Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Australia and, a little beyond, New Zealand. Western Europe of course is a Biblical commitment in the form of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). It’s extremely possessive about Central and Latin America and if in doubt, ask a Cuban.  In the Middle East, Israel and Saudi Arabia have the blank cheque of security. Since the Second World War, the United States has committed itself to defend a quarter of the world’s population. All are not cut-and-dried military pacts. But de facto, some 69 countries which is worth 75 per cent of world’s economic output, could claim a security umbrella festooned by Washington D.C.

Formal military pacts are dying trends. It forces counter alliances and the world is lit up in smoke as it happened during the First World War. Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were committed to each other against France and Russia and Great Britain was forging secret alliances of its own in a skullduggery which remarkably has been kept hidden by the historians of Oxford who make up the history narrative of English-speaking schools.

So, sorry folks, a military pact between India and the United States isn’t happening all too soon. If the United States enters the Indian Ocean, be sure that China and Russia would commit themselves in equal measure. The US would have its military cooperation, sea drills and logistical shares with India. It designated India as a major defense partner in 2016 itself. The satellite and intelligence sharing under BECA (Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement) would be big on its own. It would be a game-changer in communications, navigational and threat assessment. India’s defence exports from the United States are second only to Russia. But don’t mistake it for a joint resistancce against an invader.

We’re in a fluid state. We are not at war with China.  Hotheads could spin it out of control for both, and Pakistan. Looking for the United States or Russia isn’t on the charts spread at military commands of the two Asian giants. Treat the two Cold War antagonists as proteins or steroids in a gym. The heavy-lifting is still left to us. Hopefully the worst is behind us. For the time being.

The lessons for India though are unmistakable. China doesn’t have our good in mind. We would know of the United States too if Russia holds firm and delivers us S400 missile system in 2021. Closer home, we need to free up our armed forces from stifling civil bureaucracy. If they want Rafale, that’s what they get. We have a huge lag and delay is not an option.

 

Why Indians need to see more of the country they live in

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi may not have nudged we Indians into travelling more often in India than we do abroad but he surely has invited attention and it’s a good enough Independence Day intervention from the man who is master in making you reflect.

Modi wants us to make at least 15 travels within India by 2022 when India would be a young 75. Figures of 2016 show Indians already travel more within (1613 million) than they do abroad (21 million) but that’s a coarse understanding. We all know we spend five times more abroad than we do while travelling within. There is a kick when you pack your bags for Sweden than when you do it for Sarnath. You feel equal, if not superior, within your family, friends and neighbours.

All of us who travel abroad screw up their noses at hotels, transport, infrastructure, squalor and surging humanity which surrounds our own popular tourist destinations—all this of course without visiting much of India!  Yet, they are right. Just imagine our religious (Mathura, Vrindavan, Tirupati, Vaishno Devi), scenic (Ooty, Shimla, Mussoorie) or Hilly terrains (Manali, Darjeeling) and a Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur begins to make much better sense. That surely is much better value for your rupee.

Yet, think.

India is a country which has all but Himalayas bound by Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Amazing rivers (Ganga, Yamuna, Brahmaputra, Indus) are its rich veins. Incredible waterfalls dot our interiors. Wildlife like rarely elsewhere; deserts as daunting as Thar; forests as dense as Sunderban or Gir; caves carved like ones in Ajanta or Ellora; temples like Rameshwaram and Khajuraho which knock your breath out; forts like ones in Agra, Jaipur or Mysore; lakes in Nainital or Ooty; hill stations like Coorg and Shimla; snow-capped peaks which can soar young to do adventure as they do to meditate or brood over the profound for the elderly.

Come on, no less than 37 venues are World Heritage Sites authenticated by UNESCO in 2017.  These are parts of India’s rich cultural, historical and religious heritage.

Modi concedes India needs better infrastructure for its tourist destinations. And his solution offered makes so much sense. More footfalls would bring more investment; and better infrastructure would usher in more jobs for our young and restless. Technology would make inroads at so many levels. Administration would’ve much more funds to police as well as to beautify the location. Theatre and dance; artistes and artisans; local culinary and skills all get a fillip.

And if you think India is lightweight on matters of tourism think again. The World Travel and Tourism Council tabulated that tourism generated Rs 16.91 lakh crore (US$240 billion) or 9.2% of India’s GDP in 2018 and supported 32.673 million jobs, 8.1% of its total employment. The forecast is of 6.9% annual growth rate to Rs. 32.05 lakh crore (US $460 billion) by 2028 (9.9% of GDP). And we are not even talking of medical tourism which is already worth US $3 billion in 205. By next year, it’s expected to be worth US $7-8 billion.

While reflecting on India and its inbound travelers, Tamil Nadu is the most visited state. Just reflect on the names of Kanyakumari, Rameshwaram, Ooty and Kodaikanal and you would know why. Interestingly, Uttar Pradesh is the second most visited of all Indian states by domestic travellers. Be it religious sacredness of Mathura or Varanasi; Prayag or Sarnath; Ayodhya or Vrindavan, forts of Agra; the regal nawabi heritage of Lucknow, UP is far more richer than is given credit for.

Most southern states are in India’s top 10 tourist destinations but for Kerala which is surprising given God’s Own Country has Alleppey and Munnar to boast of, among others. Rajasthan, surprisingly, is on number 10 for it just doesn’t alone have magnificent forts but also Pushkar and much-revered shrines. And we haven’t come to talking of Goa, Andaman, Leh, Puri, Amristar, Bodhgaya and Shirdi.

And as Modi said, ever wondered on the magnificence of North East? Cherrapunjee, most won’t know, is in Meghalaya after all.

The Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report 2017 ranks India 40th out of 136 countries. It’s air transport (32nd) is rated good and the one on ground (29th) is reasonable too. The country also scores high on natural and cultural resources (9th).

But let’s be grounded for the moment. Just think of the benefit domestic travel would do to bring different cultures, languages, food and customs closer within our own contours. It would improve brotherhood and remove alien-ness. Besides, as Modi said, we would only be deepening our roots in this sacred land. Generation next too would retain the bond.

“Mitti, paani, hawaon se nayi urja prapt karein (Gain new energy from the earth, water and winds of this land)” was the exhortation Modi made from the ramparts of Red Fort in the Capital on the Independence Day on Thursday. If all of us do it, we would be enriching both us and the country we live in.

Chabahar is a real deal for India

For its commercial and political implications, the Chabahar Port deal with Iran marks the finest achievement yet of Narendra Modi’s global engagements.

The commercial implications are obvious—India was hemmed in by Pakistan’s intransigence to refuse direct trade between India and Afghanistan and China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) vision had the potential to clamp manacles on India’s ankles.

In one stroke, India has freed itself from the curfew and it could now entertain visions of trade and infrastructure links with Middle East and Central Asia and still further with Russia and Europe.

Let’s take up the bare details before we look at the wider implications and how Pakistan, China and United States, the other key players in the region, would react to it—Afghanistan, as we know from the history of Hindu Kush in the colonial times, is a prized land. So far it was its geographical location but now is the promise of immense mineral wealth which, according to Geological Survey of United States, could be worth as much as $1 trillion, due to its iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium potential.

Afghanistan, unfortunately, has always attracted predators who couldn’t care less about the welfare of Afghan people; who could go to any length to destabilize it in order to retain a degree of control over the cursed land. United States, on one pretext or another, stays put in the name of eliminating terrorism while, as everybody knows, promoting the same in cohort with Saudi Arabia, and not long ago, Pakistan.

The birth of modern terrorism occurred in the wake of Soviet Union’s departure from Afghanistan as United States planted mujahideens, with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia providing men, resources and ground support. The country was soon in chaos, split between war lords of one camp or other, and the lure of illicit heroin trade, which by a conservative estimate is second only to oil and gas in volume, has kept them involved. They aren’t going to leave the country in our lifetimes.

Afghanistan thus has every reason to distrust Pakistan—after all its bête noire Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar were traced there—and by inference United States. It sure receives significant infrastructural aid from China but so tied are the fortunes of the Middle Kingdom with Pakistan that Kabul can’t ignore the political implications.

India has diligently nurtured its ties with Afghanistan. Since 2001, it has provided Afghanistan with $2 billion development assistance. In December last year, Modi inaugurated Afghan parliament built on India’s aid of 90 million dollars. It has contributed $300 million on Salma dam and hydroelectric power plant at Herat which Modi is expected to inaugurate next month. In 2009, India had built a 217-km highway costing $100 million that links Zaranj with Delaram, located on Afghanistan-Iran border. From there, the local road connects to Chabahar.

India has always worried over its energy supply, most of which emanates from the Middle East. It receives 57 percent of its crude oil from the Middle East which would only increase manifolds in the coming years.  Saudi Arabia is its biggest supplier but knowing the close equation between the Arab kingdom and Pakistan, India has always been keen to get Iran on its side. The latter, for this very reason—after all the Middle East conundrum is largely a tussle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran for dominance in Muslim world—seeks a natural affinity with India. Both nations have close cultural and historical ties. Persian was the official language of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century.

Chabahar is located on the Gulf of Oman, just 80km away from Gwadar which is the cornerstone of China’s pivot to Pakistan. Chabahar is just 299km east of world’s most critical passageway for oil tankers, the Strait of Hormuz.

Iran urgently wants this port to work as 85 percent of its seaborne traffic is managed by its Bandar Abbas port in the Strait of Hormuz. However, this port can only handle 100,000-metric ton ships. Large ships first offload at the Jebel Ali port in the United Arab Emirates en route to Iran. In contrast, Chabhar is a deep-water port and could process large ships. Chabahar would also allow both India and Iran to access large parts of Africa, Asia, Arabia and Australasia.

India has so far committed $500 million on the Chabahar project. It’s also assisting the 500-km rail link between Chabahar-Zahedan-Zaranj. The free trade zone of Chabahar could also encourage investment by its industries in urea, smelter and aluminium etc. In 2012, India had already used the port to transport a 100,000 metric ton shipment of wheat to Afghanistan.

According to the JV plans, India will develop two berths in Chabahar, one to handle container traffic and the other a multi-purpose cargo terminal. The MoU includes the sea-land access route to Afghanistan. India has plans to build a road-railroad network from Chabahar to Milak in Iran which in turn would link up the Indian-built 223-km Zaranj-Delaram road in Afghanistan.

India has also allayed worries on Iran’s part over its pending $6.5 billion payment. It has begun the process of payment in Euros, as requested by Turkey’s Halkbank. A cash-strapped Iran urgently needs investment and repayment of dues.

It’s a win-win all situation for all three nations. Both India and Iran are surrounded by hostile powers; both need avenues to grow. Afghanistan would finally be able to access the Indian Ocean.

Don’t expect United States to sit and watch this alignment of India-Afghanistan-Iran to take shape. Already we hear of encroachment of Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan. US could again find a reason to impose sanctions on Iran. India too remains handicapped by its financial and regulatory hurdles.

But such is the opportunity in front of India, Afghanistan and Iran that one expects Chabahar Port to be a reality soon enough. There sure would be hurdles and interventions, but the three must stand together for their own good.

Russia need be a India-China mediator

The Russia-India-China (RIC) meet of its foreign ministers in Moscow is unlikely to have thawed the freezing relations between two Asian giants, China and India.

 

The same is true of the simultaneous visit of India’s defence minister Manohar Parrikar to China where he met his Chinese counterpart Gen. Chang Wanguan and stated India attaches highest priority to its relationship with China.

 

Both China and India suffer from a trust deficit though the niggling issue is simple enough: Both China and India need to look at each other’s territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin plateau in a spirit of cooperation and resolve the long-standing dispute.

 

As a nation which stands to gain the most through India-China alliance, Russia could offer its own example: the Russian-Chinese borders were formalized in 2004 after 40 years of bad blood between the two nations.

 

The last fortnight has been particularly frosty: China blocked India’s move in United Nations to have Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief and allegedly Pathankot terror attack mastermind, Masood Azhar be designated as terrorist,

 

India, on their part, went ahead a signed an agreement with the United States on sharing military logistics in Indian Ocean, the area which is strategically and economically lifeline to Beijing.

 

But the RIC meet is unlikely to have much influence. Despite it being a foreign ministers’ conclave, it largely deals with the economic, and not security, issues.

 

The economic prospects of trade between India and China are mammoth. It’s already worth $100 billion and given their market and areas of strength, it holds immense possibility.

 

India could offer its Information Services strength and avail China’s expertise to build high-speed rail network in India. China’s excess production could also be easily absorbed within India.

 

India is extremely touch on matters of terrorism and finds itself regularly frustrated by China on international forums. Last year, China had blocked India’s bid to question Pakistan over the release of Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a commander in Lashkar-e-Taiba, which had carried out the deadly 2008 Mumbai attacks that claimed 160 lives.

 

A leaked cable of US State Department in 2010 had revealed that China had in the past blocked UN sanctions against Lashkar-e-Taiba and the al-Akhtar Trust (a charity front for Jaish-e-Mohammad). It had also blocked India’s request to list Syed Salahuddin, a terrorist wanted in relation to numerous Hizbul Mujahideen attacks.

 

Though China’s moves were procedural within the UN sanctions committee, it was in opposition to the stands of US, UK, France and Russia all of whom were willing to back India on the issue.

 

China has a history of shielding Pakistan-based terror groups from sanctions under resolution 1267 even though it hardly ever uses a veto—exercising it only 10 times in its 70-year history of UNSC. It parrots the same line in defence that Pakistan does: “Pakistan is a terrible victim of terrorism itself.”

Such acts hardly endear China to India. It also reveals the closeness between Pakistan and China in modern context. India feels hemmed in between its two nuclear-armed northern neighbours. All it is doing is to drive India into US’ arms which dread the prospects of close India-China relations.

It still is encouraging that RIC has shown its concern on terrorism and a willingness to use international forums, such as BRICS, SCO, East Asian summits and Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA) to get the three nations closer.

Russia is keen to play a mediator’s role between China and India. It won’t be Asia’s century unless India and China draw closer to each other. Joint enterprises, preferential trade system and a common trade currency offer a huge opportunity.

China’s Great Silk Road project involves a huge territory—from Southeast Asia to the Caucasus. Russia, like India, isn’t yet a part of it even though a cooperation between the Silk Road and Russia-inspired Eurasian Eonomic Union exists.

There is a need to cool down the tempers from both sides. Says NewsBred columnist Shen Dingli: “China actually has many ways to hurt India. China could send an aircraft carrier to the Gwadar port in Pakistan. China had turned down the Pakistan offer to have military stationed in the country. If India forces China to do that,” there could be a threatening navy at India’s doorstep.