South China Sea

NAM adrift as helmsman India has better views on horizon

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) with 120-member countries is second only to the United Nations (UN) in size yet its’ two-day 18th Summit in Baku, Azerbaijan on Friday would be lucky to find front-page mention in your newspaper.

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi would give it a miss again, like he did in Venezuela in 2016, and so would heads of a whole lot of other nations even though Hassan Rouhani (Iran), Sheikh Hasina (Bangladesh) and KP Sharma Oli (Nepal) as notable exceptions are making rounds in press releases.

It’s unlikely, anyway, that Baku would see more heads of states than eight viewed in Venezuela, down incidentally from 35 witnessed in a still previous edition in Iran in 2012. The NAM doesn’t have a formal constitution or a permanent secretariat, only a coordinating office adjacent to the UN in New York, and a formal media communiqué is all they have to declare to an indifferent world.

It wasn’t so when the world was freeing itself from colonialism in the aftermath of World War II in 1945, and few charismatic world leaders– Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Sukarno (Indonesia), Gemel Abdel Nasser (Egypt) and Josep Broz Tito (Yugoslavia)—rallied the new nations under the banner of the NAM to keep an equidistance from the two superpowers, United States and the Soviet Union. It was a Third World-grouping which didn’t lean either way in the dangerous nuclear-race of Cold War era.

The grouping ensured the vestiges of colonialism didn’t linger on long in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean through their activism in UN General Assembly which declared de-colonization as its main objective in 1960. They brought their weight to bear on the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty and later helped the superpowers to formulate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

 

 

But the Cold War ended in 1989, the Soviet Union was no more soon, the Warsaw Pact was dissolved and apartheid in South Africa was dismantled. The NAM still defined its role through the prism of Third World nationalism. Western hegemony was still the elephant in the room.

All of it has changed with the rise of China: What was an ideological war has today become one for economics and geography. Many of the NAM members are economic basket cases of the West. As many as 40 of Africa’s 55 states, along with the African Union, have signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) with Beijing in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to build their ports and airports, highways and railways. Over 50 NAM countries figure prominently in the index of failed states.

You thus have a situation where support for Iran’s nuclear programme is voiced in the NAM’s summit but the same nations back economic-sanctions resolutions in the UN Security Council against Tehran. A host of Arab countries bristle with anger against Israel in the NAM conferences but lap up profitable military and economic ties with the Jewish country once outside the boardroom. From conservative Colombia to Leftist Venezuela; from pro-West Malaysia to socialist Cuba, all have hosted NAM conferences.

India which skillfully used Soviet Union to secure their veto in the UN Security Council on Goa and Jammu & Kashmir  in the 50s and 60s and used the Western economic assistance to bail themselves out of a food crisis don’t see much value in NAM these days. S. Jaishankar, present foreign minister, had no qualm in declaring in Venezuela Summit that blocs and alliances are less relevant in international order, and the world is moving towards a “loosely arranged order.”

Still, India has embedded itself in nimble regional networks such as SAARC and BIMSTEC, multilaterial ties with ASEAN; is a respected dialogue partner of the European Union and a special invitee to the G-8 summits. It has a trilateral grouping with Russia and China; holds a quadrilateral security dialogue (QUAD) with the United States, Japan and Australia.  There is then BRICS and SCO.  It is thus easy to see why India is losing steam on the NAM.

In an ideal world, NAM could be an immense balancing bloc to lower the heat in the South China Sea. Lesser states in Asia-Pacific would pay a heavy price if US and China up the ante of their animosity. The NAM could restrain US and Russia; help China and India lower their suspicion of each other.  There are still dime-a-dozen limited wars being fought around the world and the NAM, if it wants, could still be heard in the UN.

Unfortunately, the leaders of the NAM in its pomp, India, Egypt, Indonesia and Yugoslavia, bear little resemblance to the era of 50s.  For good or worse, they have moved on. Without a credible helmsman, the NAM is nothing but a talking shop.

 

Iran feels let down by India and rightly so

(This is a reprint from NewsBred).

Iran has shown its hurt on India which has unilaterally stopped the import of its oil, unwilling to stand in the corner of the adversaries of the United States.

Ali Chegeni, Iranian Ambassador to India, didn’t mince his words in a press briefing in New Delhi on Tuesday, chiding India for succumbing to the “sanctions” of the United States.

The Donald Trump administration is going berserk in his attempt to destroy Iran, first pulling out of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) despite Iran being faithful to the deal and piling on with economic sanctions without approval from its allies or world community in the form of United Nations.

India hasn’t imported oil from Iran for months now and couched its action as “reduced” and not “stopped” to suit its independent image. But now that Iran has gone public, India has been shown as having been arm-twisted by the United States.

Fans of India’s prime minister Narendra Modi and his muscular foreign policy could feel cheated as a multi-polar world—against the unipolar bullying of United States—is nearer to being a reality.

Russia and China, hit by sanctions and trade wars, are now joined at hips and Iran is a vital clog in their drive to keep Middle East, even Eurasia, out of bounds for the United States. European Union (EU) has created INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges) to keep trading with Iran without resorting to direct transfers of money between the two entities. India is seen as one final piece of jigsaw of the emerging multi-polar world which would signal the further unravelling of US’ hegemony.

To be sure, the United States is one hell of an economic power and throws its weight to bring nations under its heel. It’s the nerve centre of global economy. Be it goods or money; data or transportation, the world doesn’t move much without the express will of the United States.

The United States is the kingpin of globalization. It anchors International Monetary Fund (IMF). It controls over 50 per cent of the venture capital, all but 10 per cent of currency trade use its dollars.  Tech and finance doesn’t move without its dollars; it could cripple phone-operating systems of the world; it controls the fund-management assets. As The Economist puts it: “Across the panel, it’s normal to use a Visa card, invoice exports in dollars, sleep beside a device with a Qualcomm chip, watch Netflix and work for a firm that BlackRock invests in.”

If a firm is blacklisted, no bank would touch you with a barge pole and you are put outside the dollar payment system. There is a law in place which controls the foreign investment into Silicon Valley—if you fall foul, you could virtually say goodbye to transactions in semiconductors and software, a virtual ruination in today’s world.

Economy isn’t the imperative though which has guided India’s change of course vis-à-vis Iran. India needs to hedge its bets. That’s the demand of the geopolitics reality. It neither can annoy the chief actors of the drama nor it can afford to align itself with either of the two groups: United States vs the Russia-China combine.  If it snuggles up to the United States, it loses the strategic and military advantage of Russia. It provokes China to join hands with Pakistan and cause mayhem on its borders. If it slips into the arms of Russia-China, it must brace itself to the devastation which the United States could unleash, like the one they have in Hong Kong.

India thus follows the sensible policy of keeping its suitors interested. Both the United States and China need India. The United States in its existential mission to squeeze China and badly needs India. China wants to keep India dormant for the same reason. It can’t afford a naval configuration of United States-Japan-Australia-India to spike its waters.

India too needs to do a balancing act of its own. So it relents on South China Sea to ensure China doesn’t help Pakistan to the extent its borders are put under siege. It relents to United States’ demand on Iran to ensure its military purchases from Russia are unimpaired. It knows the mischief the United States is capable of.  India internally is in an ideological churn. And the United States is expert in fishing in troubled waters. Kashmir could so easily go horribly wrong.

I suspect Modi’s India, in its heart, is for a multi-polar world. United States doesn’t follow rules, it isn’t friends with anyone. All it wants is servility. Those who are independent—like Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, China, North Korea or Iran—face its wrath.  India is still some leagues away  before it could trust China completely and dump the United States for good. India is pivotal to Project Eurasia but can’t afford to annoy either of the two blocs. It’s a watchful tread by them.

It’s just not the United States: India has also made a choice in warming up to Saudi Arabia-Israel in the Middle East. They are Iran’s sworn enemies. By drawing close to the Gulf Muslim nations, India has left Pakistan sterile. Pakistan’s fervent appeal on religious lines to Muslim nations has drawn a very tepid response on Kashmir. Instead we have the situation where Modi is being accorded the highest civilian honour in UAE and Bahrain.  This comes in the backdrop of Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Maldives conferring similar honours to him. It has isolated Pakistan on Kashmir.

Iran has shown it can’t wait for India interminably.  It doesn’t want to be a minor player in India’s international diplomatic games. It’s a perfectly legitimate response given how Iran and its’ proud people are waging a war for survival. Modi government though is in the thick of its own war with internal and external enemies.  One hopes, through the backdoor diplomatic channels,  India and Iran remain warm to each other. Till the time is ripe.

It’s good for the world.

 

India-China Cold War is bad news for BRICS

The Indo-US agreement on sharing military logistics to counter China’s assertiveness in Indian Ocean could have wider ramifications.  The two can use each other’s land, air and naval bases for supplies and repair. A piece on the essentials of this conflict:

India and China have been engaged in a Cold War since the beginning of 2015.

New Delhi feels a certain hegemony over Indian Ocean. China, which views it as vital to its survival as a trade route, won’t let it happen. The trade deficit between the two doesn’t help the cause.  Both are wary of each other. It’s a real bad news for the future of BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)—much to the delight of western powers.

India has made a few moves in recent past which shows its anxiety. Modi visited Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka in March last year but ignored China-friendly Maldives as an apparent snub. Also a conference of “Indian Ocean: Renewing the Maritime Trade and Civilisational Linkages” was held in Bhubaneswar.  India wants its own Cotton Route to challenge China’s New Silk Road.  The Grand Prize of East Africa doesn’t lessen their friction.

China has its own “String of Pearls” strategy. The Gwadar port in Pakistan; naval bases in Myanmar, intelligence facility in Bay of Bengal, a canal-in-construct across the Kra Isthmus in Thailand, a military tie-up with Cambodia and building military bases in the South China Sea. The “String of Pearls” is meant to secure the sea lanes from the Middle East to the South China Sea for its energy and security concerns.

With the Strait of Malacca enabling almost 80 percent of passage to China’s energy needs, it has looked to build its naval power at choke points along the sea routes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.

A look at the two Asian powers’ position vis-à-vis critical nations/islands strewn across the Indian Ocean:

Myanmar

This Southeast Asian state was close to China for two decades. But in 2012, it began a “pro-democratization” process—most likely under US pressure—and is now seen close to India. The two together plan to extend Myanmar-Thailand Highway into a trilateral deal.

India’s “Cotton Road” strategy is meant to counter China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) plan. India wishes to integrate with its ASEAN counterparts and block china from dominating these states.

Sri Lanka

In a surprise result last year, the pro-China leadership in Sri Lanka, under Rajapksa was ousted and pro-India Sirisena came to power. The first thing Sirisena did was to suspend China’s $1.4 billion investment in port infrastructure.

With Sri Lanka back under India’s influence, for the moment, the link between Maldives and Myanmar for China has been “cut,” so to speak.

Pakistan

Pakistan has decisively moved into China’s arms and there’s no going back on it. The $46 billion Pakistan-China Economic Corridor is well and truly underway. From an Indian perspective, it’s a bad news.

Bangladesh

In order to counter China-Pakistan alliance, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi went to Bangladesh and paved way for resolving the 40-year old border disagreement. It can also have a vital impact on India’s control of its northeast region.  India can also now directly use Bangladesh’s ports, instead of relying on vulnerable Siliguri Corridor. Till Modi visited Bangladesh, the latter had been cuddling up to China.

Nepal

Nepal has been a clear loss to India.  New Delhi reacted badly to Nepal’s new federative constitution, as did the pro-India Madhesi ethnic group that occupies the Terai border. Subsequent riots and Indian trucks refusing to cross the border into Nepal worsened the situation. Kathmandu sees the hand of New Delhi in this unrest.

China moved in swiftly, providing 1.3 million litres of petrol and signing a deal to fill in Nepal’s demand in the face of India’s monopoly. In one swift action, Nepal has pivoted itself on China’s axis. China surely eyes the control of strategic Karnali and Koshi rivers that sustains 200 million Indians who live at the southern border.

Maldives

The ouster of former head Nauseed and his Maldivian Democratic Party is a big blow to India’s plans for this little island nation. The current president Yameen is well-disposed towards China which gives it a proxy control on this island chain. There have been multiple attempts on Yameen’s life and India has found itself drawn into the scandal.

Has Japan won India for its master?

India and China have suffered a massive chasm to their ties in a matter of 72 hours which threatens the stability of Asia.

These 72 hours pertained to the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to India last week when the hosts were offered a bouquet of infrastructural, nuclear and military deals too mouth-watering to resist.

All these would’ve still been par for course but for that joint public announcement by the two Prime Ministers welcoming Japan’s participation in the India-US Malabar exercises on a permanent basis to meet the “maritime challenges in the Indo-Pacific region.”

It straightaway got China’s goat who warned both India and Japan to “not provoke confrontation and create tension in the region.”

China has long viewed Japan as a vassal of United States and its action being one of a puppet managed by its master. It sees a quadrilateral force of US-Japan-Australia-India now trying to ring and encircle it in the critical Pacific Ocean where it is engaged in disputes with Japan in East China Sea and with Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia among others in the South China Sea.

There is little doubt that US’ “pivot to Asia” is aimed to curtail the growing might of China, the world’s second largest economy and what better way to do than to unleash Japan, world’s third largest economy and India, world’s  ninth largest economy, at the throat of the Middle Kingdom? And one must not forget the recent Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which serves the same purpose.

The readers at this stage would rightfully question why I offer the supposition that (a) Japan is a vassal state of United States; (b) India has finally hitched its wagon with the US-led cart ; and (c) India and China have grown irrevocably apart despite their cooperation in Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), BRICS,  and SCO (albeit from next year).

There is also this critical subtext of Japan and China being irrevocable enemies which deserves an explanation but let me first throw light on the Malabar exercise issue.

Japan is not new in the US-India Malabar naval drill exercise routine which began in 1992. It took part in 2007, 2009 and 2014 but only as an invitee. Singapore and Australia too have taken part in this exercise, held in the Bay of Bengal, in the past.  But now Japan would have a permanent presence, making it a trilateral US-Japan-India naval exercise.

Clearly, it’s Japan’s presence in the exercise which has touched a raw nerve in China. Thus I move to the first synthesis to the question which you might have in your mind:

Why China and Japan are so irrevocably hostile to each other

During the Second World War, while US threw its lot in Europe to counter the Axis threat of Germany and Italy, it was China’s heroism which kept Japan pinned down in Asia before US mopped it up with the finality of the atomic strikes in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

US and China would thus have been a natural ally and Japan a reviled enemy but for that twist to the tale—communism. As Mao wrested control from Chiang Kai-shek in China, the spectre of communism was in full bloom along with its presence in Soviet Union. The strategic location of Japan between the two Communist powers, made it absolutely priceless for United States.

For the next five decades, United States did everything it could to boost Japan as an economic power par excellence on the world stage. It tolerated Japan’s structural economic protectionist preferences and allowed it a free way market in the United States even at the cost of hurting its own domestic industry.

Cunningly, United States allowed Japan to get on with its own domestic, political and economic missions. It allowed the Japanese elites to maintain an economic system that’s radically opposite to America’s view of the world economic order. As long as Japan kept its foreign policy under United States’ thumb, the latter was willing to overlook a few nuisances.

Japan those become almost invisible to the world on the diplomatic stage. It’s political relations with rest of Asia are under-developed. It lacks multilateral associations such as EU, NATO, NAFTA, ASEAN that other regions enjoy.

A few of its unique characteristics are worth a mention to readers. For one, Japan was never colonized. Two, it remains a “one-country” language. Three, Japanese religion was never exported as Christianity and Islam were. It has far fewer Western education outlets than even China or South Korea. Foreign enterprises have restricted presence. There is very little Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in the country.

The US predominance in Japan’s affairs was sharply brought to focus in 2010. This was the year when US nudged an “unfavourable” Japanese government out of the office. This was the cabinet of Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) which had come to power a year before in September 2009. Till then, Japan had been a “one-party democracy” of Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in power for 50 years.

The DPJ had a strong reformist agenda. It wanted a control over a rampant bureaucracy which encouraged a pivot towards US.  Importantly, it wanted a new China policy. There were massive “people to people” contacts planned; prime minister Yukio Hatoyama wanted to join ASEAN+3 community, consisting of Korea, China and Japan.

This got Washington furious. It refused at least three requests the Japanese prime minister made of meeting the new president Barack Obama. The new man in White House shunned Japanese head in international gatherings. The Japanese press, who followed the American editors blindly, began screaming that prime minister Hatoyama was damaging US-Japan ties. Media and bureaucracy succeeded in their vicious campaign and Hatoyama to step down.  What clinched the matter was the false impression given to Hatoyama that US would reconsider having a new marine base in Okinawa.

Hatoyama’s successor Kan Naota was wiser by the event. He distanced himself from the foreign policy reformists’ agenda. His successor Yoshihiko Noda called for an unnecessary elections which brought the LDP back to power.

So where a friendly relations with China had begun to bloom, suddenly it was now put in reverse gears. Shintaro Ishihara, towards the end of his 13-year governorship of Tokyo, proposed that the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea be bought over. This was a long disputed territory but largely dormant due to improving Japan-China relations. Now it became a smoking hot issue. Growing relationships took a nosedive.  Beijing saw a hand of US behind these machinations.

It’s important at this stage to remember the great divide between Japan and China in the 20th century. An imperialistic Japan had seized Manchuria in 1931 and invaded rest of China from 1937.

The present Japense Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took a historic step last year by ending a ban that had kept the military from fighting abroad after World War II. It contradicted Article 9 of the country’s constitution which had renounced war forever and declared that Japan would never maintain land, air and sea forces.

Since he took office in 2012, Abe has hiked up the military budget, visited the notorious Yasukuni shrine, a symbol of Japanese militarism and denied the role of the Japanese military in forcing hundreds and thousands of women—called “comfort women”—into sexual slavery for its troops.

Abe greatly admires his grandfather Nobusuke Kishi who was Japan’s minister of munitions during World War II. Kishi raised Abe in lieu of his real father, sowing in his grandson the seeds of making Japan a military power again.

US, worried at China’s rise, was happy to stoke Abe’s militaristic disposition. It’s pleasing to Washington that Japan still supports the illegal Iraq War or that it awarded Japan’s highest medal to then US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently.

So now we have a background to US’ control of Japan and the latter’s historic hostility to China. In the second and concluding part of this article, we would look at why India has hedged its bet with US-Japan lot and put itself on path of military confrontation with China.