Indian Ocean

It’s in China’s interest to keep India in good humour and here’s why

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

We could all look at clues emanating from a two-hour meeting between India’s foreign minister S. Jaishankar with Wang Yi, his Chinese counterpart, in Moscow on Thursday. Or trust the redoubtable Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov to have hefted his weight in making them shake hands. But frankly, it’s in China’s interests to keep India in good humour.

As the two troops square up within a punch’s distance in Ladakh, where even a guttural breath could spark off World War III, analysts have a meltdown that India could be facing a multi-pronged war on its borders, none more so than on its eastern, northern and western ones from two heavily nuclear-armed enemies—China and Pakistan. Most are failing to connect the dots that it’s China which presently is more encircled and it’s India which is the centrepiece in the coordinated move.

Agreed, India hosting the QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) later this year doesn’t sound menacing at first glance. But the enormity of the moment won’t be lost on pros who know that India now has military logistical agreement with all three other members of the grouping: the United States, Australia and Japan. The one with the US (LEMOA) has been operational since 2016. The one with Australia was signed in June. Now, on Thursday, India and Japan, riding on the visible warmth between Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and his outgoing Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, have inked a similar military logistical deal. Who said nothing moved during the Corona?

Even as I write this, French defence minister Florence Parly would’ve left Indian shores after overseeing the official induction of 5 Rafale jets in the Indian Air Force in Ambala on Thursday. Don’t go by the innocent press releases marking the moment. In geopolitical and military sense, it carried a grave message for Beijing.

Quietly in the background, India and France have grown akin to blood brothers. It hasn’t happened overnight. As soon as the Cold War ended last century, India and France had signed a “strategic partnership.” Everyone talks of 36 Rafale jets but it isn’t much in public domain that Indian navy has already commissioned 2 of 6 Scorpene submarines being build in our own Malegaon dockyards. The third one is undergoing sea trials. India had signed a military logistics pact with France in 2018 itself. France was one of the few countries which had backed India’s decision to nuclear-test in 1998.

And this is all because like other members of QUAD, France too needs India badly for its considerable stakes in the Indian Ocean. The two countries could sign a secure communications agreement too which would allow the two navies to share maritime domain awareness. Even before Parly arrived in India, the two countries, along with Australia, had held their a trilateral foreign-secretary level dialogue on Wednesday. Surely, India-France are welcoming the likeminded in fold.

The domino effect of this all must not be lost on observers. LEMOA with the US has extended Indian navy’s reach in southwestern Indian Ocean due to French bases in Reunion island near Madagascar and Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. The logistical arrangement with Australia has bolstered Indian warships in southern Indian Ocean and the western Pacific.

There are two other logistical pacts—besides the US, Australia, Japan and France—which India has firmly secured under its belt. One is with South Korea, the other one is with Singapore. Now Indian officials are openly touting two more in near future—with the UK and Russia, the latter one possibly by the end of this year itself. Yes, Russia—you have heard it right.

And now comes something which completely has rattled the command of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). India, Japan and Australia have launched a “Resilient Supply Chain Initiative” amongst themselves. In simpler terms, it means the three countries are looking for alternatives to China in terms of relocating industries and supply chains in Indo-Pacific.

Japan, which has considerable industrial presence in China, unlike India or Australia, is even incentivizing its companies to relocate to, say India and Bangladesh. It has taken badly the recent moves by China to intensify dispute in East China Sea. Australia is badly stung by the trade spats with China. The repatriation of Australian journalists by Beijing hasn’t helped matters. India of course has a war at door.

In essence, there is an attempt to disengage supply chains in strategic areas such as telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, semiconductors etc from China. This has potential to fundamentally alter the geographical shape of cross-border industrial network in the region. It would hurt China where it hurts most.

India and China could point fingers at each other, and not just Finger 3 or 4, for the downturn of ties between two of world’s most populous nations. China could claim that it has had enough of India’s “running with the hare and hunting with the hound” attitude. India could do likewise. After all, China backs Pakistan both on its terrorism and hostility in Kashmir. But these are no better than academic discourse. The truth is India has moved firmly on its Act East Policy. And China has to look after its back. Like Doklam, this face-off ftoo is likely to end with a loss of face for the Dragon.

 

 

 

Why China is not bothered at the world screaming in its ears?

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

There is a reason why China doesn’t give a damn to retaliatory measures by the United States, Europe, India or anyone else for that matter.

Individuals or nations don’t turn their back on overflowing coffers and even if they make noise, there is little by way of action on the ground—or ocean if you have South China Sea in mind.

The world today is a buyers’ market and China is stuffing yuan in mouths which open up with the honest intention of registering their protests against the Beijing.

The latest trade figures of China in June are breathtaking. When the world is said to be angry at Coronavirus pandemic and neighbours are traumatized by the Middle Kingdom’s bullying, China’s exports have picked up. The biggest shock though is that its imports have risen by 2.7 per cent too, implying that more money is reaching the pockets of distressed economies of the world.

This is not Cold War II—as analysts are fond of saying these days.  Soviet Union was an empire cut off by the liberal or western world. China, in contrast, doesn’t have an empire. It just has found a way to every central bank and command structure of the nations.

This is more than geopolitics. This is geo-economics.

We all had thought that it’s payback time for a boorish China, induced by the pandemic. Well, it imported $167.15 billion worth of goods in June 2020 and made a nonsense of the Bloomberg prediction of a 10 per cent slump. China meanwhile exported $213.6 billion which is a hike of 0.5 per cent.

If China could import as much as it exports—presently some $46.2 billion adrift—it could scoff at punitive actions by the rest of the world as not just economies but the global industrial chain and trade won’t move without its consent.

China’s imports have taken off since their domestic market today is worth 41.2 trillion yuan. It has grown at a breakneck speed in last six years, contributing 57.8 percent to GDP growth during this spell.

Interestingly, its trade surplus hasn’t dropped by much against the United States. In June, it was $29.41 billion compared to $29.91 a year ago at the same stage.

China’s imports of copper concentrate from the United States is its highest in nearly two years. It’s purchase of iron ore has jumped to 35.3 per cent since October 2017. The arrival of soybeans has climbed by 71 per cent. It has imported record meat, including offal, which is nearly 74 per cent up to the same period a year ago.

And this is cutting across all ideologies, without distinction between friends and rivals. For instance, China is about to open its money reserves for beleaguered Iran. Yet, the arch rivals of the Islamic Republic—Saudi Arabia—is the biggest exporter of oil to Beijing. China’s crude oil imports from the Saudi kingdom has risen by 15% in June. This record import is in the shadow of price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, the world’s top oil exporters. This is when Moscow, as we know, is said to be the blood-brother of Beijing these days. On top of it, China has also boosted its inflows from Brazil, Norway and Angola.

India of course is a very minor trading partner for China since it imports a mere 3% of China’s overall exports. New Delhi could hurt mega business houses of China, especially the digital kind, but it’s not to say it is bringing beads of sweat on Beijing’s forehead.

India could feel that it has favourable neighbouring relations with the governments in Afghanistan and Bangladesh but China, against it, has brought Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal in its fold. It’s planning to invest $50 billion in Bangladesh over the next couple of years.

China, further, has deployed its military infrastructure around Indian Ocean. It already has eight naval ships in these waters. It has sold 10 submarines to India’s neighbours—8 to Pakistan and 2 to Bangladesh. It has a naval base in Djibouti and a military surveillance capability on Myanmar’s Coco island. It’s offering land exchange to Myanmar.

So even though one keeps hearing the angst of world against China, in effect little is changing on the ground. It would take more than mere rhetoric to keep China honest. So far there is little to suggest that the world is walking the talk.

 

The London Times chooses India’s planned new Central Vista to reveal its’ Hinduphobia

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

If I was the editor of London Times, god forbids, and had sought out my New Delhi correspondent Hugh Tomlinson in my cabin, it would cross my mind how he would make a living outside the News Building in London.

I am afraid I don’t know how good he is with his arms or legs, for as far as his mind is concerned, there is enough in his latest piece to suggest it’s in need of attention.

He has chosen to write about the proposed “Central Vista” in India’s Capital which would be at least six years in the making and would house India’s parliamentarians besides carving out a new residence for its prime minister.

Somehow, he has quoted £2.4 billion as the cost of new Central Vista which is nearly three times the proposed expenditure. I mean I distinctly remember the concerned Indian minister to have pegged the figure at £800 million. Who is Hugh’s source? I need to ask for he hasn’t bothered with his source in the piece. Not even “according to a tea-seller outside the ministry who refused to be named.” I know pen-pushers are grumpy on their salary; and pissed at any penny the government spends. But even lies need be palatable. You can’t describe the fly-in-your-tea as a new delicacy.

Then Hugh shouts out that the expense involves the one on Indian prime minister Mr Modi’s new residence. I mean it would only be ready after 2024 when Modi would’ve finished his second term. Who knows the people’s choice thereafter? Unless of course a bird has hummed the future in Hugh’s ears. And if indeed it’s a prediction, how would he approach Rahul Gandhi after dooming his prospects? Burning bridges from both ends, I say.

By now, I know figures are not Hugh’s strong points. To his eyes, India’s parliament is almost a century old. It’s actually seven years outside since it began functioning in 1927. As a Briton, he ought to remember that all it took was seven years of World War II to terminate the British Empire of centuries. It was enough to move the nerve centre of world from London to Washington.

Hugh, I would tell him, do work on your history. I mean you find the Parliament House most viewed structure after Taj Mahal. It can’t be that you haven’t been to Gateway of India. Or the magnificent view of Rashtrapati Bhavan from India Gate has escaped you. You also declare with flourish that the new Central Vista would “consign to history” the Parliament House.  The latter in fact would only be turned into a museum.

A few visits to library—I mean not the one of our own in The Times which hides more than it reveals– would let you know that in today’s free world, words such as imperialism and slavery are cussed terms.

When this new city we call New Delhi came up, built by Herbert Baker and Edwin Lutyens, and which led to creation of the Parliament and the Viceroy’s House (Rashtrapati Bhavan) among others, India’s native leaders, later its founding fathers, viewed it as permanent edifice of colonialism. Nehru had mocked it as the “chief temple where the High Priest officiated” while Mahatma Gandhi is rumoured to have wanted to turn the Viceroy’s House into a hospital.

Baker was the disciple of arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes. Baker’s words “…People must raise themselves to liberty, it is a blessing that must be earned…” are still engraved outside New Delhi’s secretariats. This view was the guiding public face of colonialism, propounded by men such as John Ruskin which justified centuries of genocide and pillage by the British around the world. Lutyens had viewed the Taj Mahal, which Hugh so admires, as “small but very costly beer.” It can’t be that it has escaped Hugh’s attention the statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were attacked in Portland recently . Today’s US is hell-bent on discarding racists and slavery-champions, what if they were its founding fathers.

Hugh clearly suffers from Hinduphobia. I squirmed in my seat at his words that the present move is “desecration of India’s heritage” amidst the growing fears that “Modi aims to sweep away India’s secular foundations and establish a Hindu theocracy.” I mean even by prejudicial yardstick of The Times, this was too far out.

For India to establish a Hindu theocracy, it would have to drive 200 Indian Muslims into Indian Ocean. It would have to deny voting rights to millions; dump periodic elections and burn up the Indian Constitution. Modi could perhaps all do this if he could transport a billion Hindus to some other planet which is habitable but has not a single other soul.

Who gave Hugh this idea? I hope not one among the 100 “historians” and “architects” who have written a letter to Delhi’s planners recently. How do you bring people into decision-making? By referendum? And keep the voters-in-favour waiting for four years. a la Brexit?

The official word to me seems pretty sound. The 500-odd member of parliaments (MPs) don’t have their own chambers to meet or attend a stream of visitors. Where do they handle secret documents that the MPs are required to read and refer? Where do they peer through volume of committees-related work? Is the present Parliament safe on hazards such as “fire” and “earthquake-resistant”? Does it have basic public facilities and ample parking? Do we want people to take call on such specialized matters? Don’t elections in democracy mean that the work of people has ended and the job of government has begun?

It is India’s money and India’s choice. They have every right to vision an India of tomorrow. If it feels the new Central Vista would lead to better coordination among parliamentarians, cabinet, the President and their attendant staff for efficient running of the country, who is me or Hugh to knit the dog’s hair?

The one thing I would grant Hugh is that he didn’t give the headline. Next in my chamber is the sub-editor who put “vanity scheme” in the headline. Who’s vanity? Modi’s? Where’s such a reference in the text?

 

Why China is fighting the world? What’s the method behind this madness?

(This is a reprint from the NewsBred).

Why is China so reckless, why it doesn’t mind that the world is beginning to array itself against Beijing politically, economically and militarily?

It has pushed India to a point where India is doing navy drills with the United States in Andaman and Nicobar, right at the mouth of Malacca Strait which, if it was to be blocked, would finish China. Eighty-percent of China’s energy and trade is conducted through these waters. This is the strait which joins Indian Ocean with Pacific Ocean.

China has torched the informal summits between its leader Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi, all those moments at swing in Ahmedabad, those hugs at BRICS and SCOs, after it killed 20 Indian soldiers and buried billions of Chinese investments now, and for decades, in India. It has created an enemy in India when an enduring friendship was in the front lawns.

It has angered the United States, The European Union and a host of other democratic nations with its revamped security laws on Hong Kong to the extent that Washington would offload its officials at airports; England is offering citizenship to Hong Kong residents, tearing the extradition treaty and EU is vowing to stand by the “citizens of Hong Kong.”

It has annoyed most of its neighbours in Indo-Pacific–Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, Japan etc—with its aggressive claims on reefs and islands; patrolling and sinking their assets with impunity. Most of them it shares seats with in ASEAN and RCEP.  Besides, nations such as Vietnam, Japan and Indonesia—and many others—are de facto NATO bases which could cripple the supply lines of China.

It has spat on one of its largest partners, Australia, by raising a prohibitive 80% tariffs on exports by Canberra. All this for Australia voicing their concern on Hong Kong.

Leave aside Tibet or Taiwan, China is also making partners such as Kazakhstan fume with claims on its sovereignty. They recently had a report in its servile media where Kazakhstan was said to belong to China since ages and that Kazakhs would have no problem if they were to merge with China.

Isn’t China mindful that Hong Kong, as a global financial hub, is their interface with the capitalist world?

This is a country which has a debt that is 300 percent of its GDP. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is staring at a financial catastrophe in the Covid-19 world. It has lent $1.5 trillion to more than 150 countries. Several of these countries would soon be defaulting on loans.

Most of us know that China is world’s largest exporter. Very few realize that it’s also world’s second largest importer. It imports minerals and oil to run its industries which feed its exports. Why is it endangering these imports?

It’s telecom giant Huawei, with over $100 billion of revenue every year, has gone on a “survival mode” as said by its own president, Guo Ping since US has shut its door. So would do India, England and the Western world.

Isn’t China mindful that the world is seething in anger against them? That actions against Beijing are already shifting gears? Why is it shooting itself in the foot? Why is it willing to lose in seconds all that it had gained in decades?

An incident during the lockdown perhaps holds an answer to China’s present recklessness. People of Hubei and Ziangxi clashed with the police as they were refrained from crossing the bridge over the Yangtze River. All they wanted was to get back to work. China’s big firms, which engage 30 crore migrants, were opening up. Millions today need work to survive.

It’s all about population

China has always worried about its population. Even way back in 1820, every third person in the world was Chinese. It could feed its people due to its fertile floodlands around two major rivers: the Yellow river and Yangtze River. That of course was the agricultural era. But food is food in any era. That was the reason it annexed Tibet since both these rivers originated there. What if India, a neighbour, poisons those rivers? What if a puny like Tibet, without any army, could choke it to its death? China thus staked its claim on Tibet and cooked up historical evidence when Tibetans are no Han Chinese.

It’s thus inevitable that people’s anger would burst forth if world begins to pull out its manufacturing units out of mainland.  The population is already ageing, Covid-19 hasn’t been a help in an already falling birth rate. What happens if “Tiananmen Square” erupts in every province?

This is the reason why China is taking on the world. It wants to stoke the feeling of nationalism in its 1.40 billion population. It has insurmountable problems since the world is hostile and views them as villain of this Coronavirus catastrophe. Their best bet is to tell its people that they need to get behind since Capitalist forces of the world want to break them up like they did during the Opium Wars of the 19th century.

It would give Communist Party of China (CCP) the handle to retain its control over the people and even over its own comrades. It could further tighten its surveillance over its own citizens in the name of national security. In China, a mobile SIM subscription links a person to his health, finances and recognition details. In the name of controlling health, Beijing is making it mandatory for all its citizens to register to its Apps now.

There is no getting away that more its “sheep”—a term for its citizens—try to breakaway from the fold, more are the chances that China would indulge in some reckless political or military gamble. It explains why the Dragon is more like a mad elephant gone berserk these days.

 

 

China moves to turn Iran into a client-state; stakes up for India

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

India would watch with concern a blood-pact in the making between China and Iran which could mean trouble both at home and abroad.

China put an agreement in place last month which would virtually turn Iran into a vessel state. Tehran is already in bed in wild anticipation, once its parliament approves the union.

The 18-page agreement, accessed by the New York Times, involves 100 projects worth a staggering $400 billion. China would get discounted oil for next 25 years and in exchange would pepper the Persia of old with subways, high-speed railways and airports. There would be free-trade zones in strategic locations, including two which would overlook the critical Persian Gulf (Abadan) and the Strait of Hormuz (Qeshm).

Iran plans to hand over Jask, a port just outside the Strait of Hormuz, to China which is the vantage point through which most of the world’s oil transits. India, which imports 84% of its oil, has reduced its dependence on Middle East in recent years but it still accounts for 65 per cent of its needs. Saudi Arabia and Iraq are two of its biggest oil suppliers from the Middle East.

China has a string of ports in Indian Ocean, such as Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan, and now soon in Jask, which puts New Delhi at unease on its energy and security needs, if China was to block the free seas and give these ports a military makeover.

It also messes up the Chabahar port on the Gulf of Oman which India has helped build and now controls since 2018. India had soaring ambitions of turning this base into access to Central Asia and much of Eurasian landmass, through a mix of sea-land routes, not to say oil pipelines, bypassing the physical barrier of Pakistan on its north-western borders (see image).

Now India is hemmed in on its north and west flanks by two enemies and in between are the impassable Himalayas. It would be increasingly reliant on the military muscle of the United States for its freer access to seas upwards.

The United States would be no less alarmed by China’s move on Iran. It had sought-and controlled—the Middle East for decades since the World War II. Now its Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, could face China’s build-up. Its warships have regularly tangled with Iranian fleets in the busy sea lanes of the Persian Gulf.

The proposed deal also makes a nonsense of the United States sanctions against Iran under the Trump administration, which had brought Tehran on its knees with crippled oil supply and blocked access to world’s financial highways. China, it seems, has braced itself too for the US economic sanctions which are inevitable in the wake of this agreement and would intensify the trade or covert war between two of world’s biggest powers.

Iran needs to produce—and supply—at least 8.5 million barrels a day in order to be relevant in the energy sector. China seeks to import at least 10 million barrels a day for its energy needs. It imports 75 percent of its oil from foreign oilfields.

The agreement also outlines China’s plan to help Iran build its 5G telecommunications network, riding on its major player Huawei. The Trump administration has barred Huawei from the United States and India is set to do the same under prime minister Narendra Modi.

The Shia Factor

India’s ties with Iran have plummeted in recent months. The Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif had made inflammatory remarks on the CAA and on Delhi riots in February for which it was rebuked by the Modi government. India has the second highest number of Shias in the world after Iran. India’s Shias have been a moderating influence on a virulent Muslim section in India.

The document also outlines military cooperation, joint training, exercises and research besides intelligence sharing and manufacturing weapons. The military ties between China and Iran have only scaled up in recent years. The Chinese navy has participated in military exercises in Iranian waters at least three times since 2014.

Then there is the Russia factor. Moscow is India’s biggest defence importer but if asked to make a choice, it would look after China’s back than of India. It is India’s oldest and most reliable friend but the ties now are facing its litmus test. The clincher would be the supply of S400 missile system in 2021 which India is committed to buy and the United States is determined to prevent. It would be a make or break moment for India-Russia ties, at least in the immediate future.

The second Cold War is unfolding. In its first version, the United States and Soviet Union were ranged against each after World War II, in the battle-lines drawn by the NATO and the Warsaw Pact in the European theatre, their respective allies in the neighbourhood of Central-Latin America and Eastern Europe-Central Asia visible in plain view. The contours of the second Cold War is no less apparent. The United States and China are snarling at each other, with Indo-Pacific and the Middle East the two most likely flashpoints. The stand-alone moment for India is gone.

 

 

 

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.