The Asianist

Balanced and fact-based analysis of Asian affairs

Archive for the ‘South Asia’ Category

ASEAN-India Relations and US Strategy in the Asia-Pacific

leave a comment »

Last week, as the 3rd US-India Strategic Dialogue was going on, I co-wrote an article for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC with Ernie Bower looking at ASEAN-India relations as both sides commemorate two decades of their official partnership.

The purpose of the article was two-fold: first, highlighting the importance of India’s role in the Asia-Pacific and US interests in the region, and, second, noting both the opportunities and limits to potential cooperation between India and ASEAN (and the US as well).

We propose some areas where both ASEAN and India can work together, such as building infrastructure, improving people-to-people ties and private sector collaboration. The idea is to get from India’s “Look East” policy which dates back to the early 1990s to “acting East”, as several US officials have urged New Delhi to do.

But we are also not naïve about how factors like India’s domestic politics and its identity may constrain its ability to work with ASEAN and the United States and also disappoint those who expect New Delhi to play a dominant role in the region.

You can read the full thing here.  I’ve gotten some feedback about the article, but I always welcome more and look forward to your thoughts.

Picture:  One of the winners of the ASEAN and SAARC drawing competition for 2011. From UNISDR Flickr Account using a Creative Commons License:

Kurt Campbell Emphasizes India Look East Policy Before Asia Trip

leave a comment »

In his remarks yesterday before departing to Japan, South Korea, India and Singapore, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell mentioned the importance Washington placed in encouraging India’s Look East policy, a strategy launched by former Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in 1991 to boost ties with East Asia which has been gaining steam over the last few years. Campbell said:

Part of the U.S. approach to the Asia-Pacific region is a deeper dialogue with India and encouraging India’s “Look East” strategy and so we will be talking about specific initiatives that we will be taking with Delhi to support that effort as part of our Asia-Pacific consultations with them.

Campbell’s comments are in line with what other US officials have been saying recently. In her visit to India in June last year for instance, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton encouraged India “not just to look East, but to engage East and act East”.

I’ve emphasized the importance of India’s Look East Policy and its increasing momentum in several previous pieces, most recently here, but also here and here. There has been and will continue to be a lot of commentary on it this year because 2012 marks two decades of India-ASEAN relations, and both parties are commemorating it with a series of meetings that will end with one in New Delhi later in the year.

Let me just briefly quote a few paragraphs from a recent article I wrote on where I see India’s Look East Policy going with respect to Southeast Asia.

Launched in 1991 by then-Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, India’s “Look East” policy was long regarded by many as lacking in vision and substance. Yet as India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) prepare to mark two decades of formal relations later this year, there is much to celebrate. Given the recent advances New Delhi has made in its relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors, as well as with ASEAN as an institution, both parties can proudly toast the progress achieved thus far. But they should also use the anniversary as an opportunity to strengthen ties further.

Despite these successes over the past few years, there are still several ways that India and its ASEAN partners can enhance relations even further. While improving commercial relations with Myanmar is an important step, infrastructure development and trade will always be limited unless New Delhi finds a long-term solution to the ethnic insurgencies that plague India’s northeast. Only by addressing that issue will Myanmar emerge as a true gateway for India into Southeast Asia. Much more can also be done to enhance India’s trade with ASEAN nations more generally, which is expected to grow to a modest $70 billion…

WPR articles are often fully available only to subscribers, but you can read parts of it here.

Where Are Sino-Indian Border Negotiations Heading?

leave a comment »

The border dispute between India and China is one of the major flashpoints between the two countries that many worry about. In light of recently cited progress on border negotiations, I wrote a piece about a week or so ago for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief incorporating developments in both China and India from the last few years as well as other related shifts. Here is the first paragraph, but you can read the full thing here.

On March 6, China and India operationalized a coordination agreement to avert conflict along their contested border. The Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on India-China Border Affairs, as the agreement is officially termed, was first broached by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during a visit to India in December 2010, and officially formed during the 15th round of border talks between the two sides in New Delhi from January 15 to January 17 this year. After last week’s two-day meeting, Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna said the mechanism would help in “minimizing” or “bridging” differences between the two countries, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement declaring that “positive progress” had been made to safeguard peace and tranquility along the border (Indian Express, March 9; Xinhua, March 6). Deep underlying tensions and rapid buildups of  military and infrastructure along the border by both sides however threaten to slow the already glacial progress being made in Sino-Indian border negotiations.

India and Syria: A Tough Balancing Act for New Delhi

leave a comment »

The 4 February vote on the Syrian crisis at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has led many commentators to declare a ‘watershed’ in Indian foreign policy.

Instead of abstaining — as it has usually done on questions regarding the Arab Spring — India voted in favour of the resolution. This has been interpreted by some as a foreign policy shift to support the West, and by others as a sign of India’s emerging power on the world stage.

But India’s vote at the UNSC is largely consistent with the cautious stance it has maintained throughout the entire Syrian crisis. From the beginning, the Indian position on Syria has focused on three things: first, condemnation of all violence and human rights violations irrespective of who the perpetrators are; second, encouraging a peaceful and inclusive political process for the resolution of the current crisis; and third, ensuring that Syria itself leads the resolution, with the latter taking into account the aspirations of all Syrians and respecting the country’s sovereignty.

India’s first official statement on Syria at the UNSC in April 2011 embodied this balance, highlighting the ramifications of ‘prolonged instability’ in the country, but also drawing attention to the fact that both sides of the conflict have committed acts of violence. When India, Brazil and South Africa visited senior officials in Damascus in August 2011, New Delhi reaffirmed its commitment to Syria’s sovereignty, condemned violence from all sides and encouraged President Assad to end violence and introduce political reforms. This balance continued when India abstained from a UN Human Rights Council vote on Syria later that month, noting that finger-pointing was no substitute for constructive dialogue.

Even as the death toll climbed later in the year and it became clear the Assad regime had no intention of reforming, India abstained during a UNSC resolution in October 2011, resisting substantial Western pressure. In explaining his country’s vote, Hardeep Puri, India’s permanent representative to the UN, said the threat of sanctions did not accommodate New Delhi’s concerns and the resolution did not condemn the violence perpetrated by the Syrian opposition. The October resolution was subsequently vetoed by Russia and China.

Many see India’s decision to vote for the UNSC resolution this February, rather than abstaining, as signalling a dramatic departure from its habitual Syria policy. They cite various reasons, including the West’s increased pressure on New Delhi, the growing death toll in Syria and India’s growing realisation that its energy interests in the Gulf states ultimately matter more. Yet the facts suggest continuity rather than change in India’s position. As Indian officials repeatedly mentioned when explaining their vote, New Delhi only decided to support the resolution after its reservations regarding regime change, sanctions and military intervention were addressed and the resolution’s language was watered down. Far from bowing to Western pressure, India was part of a group of countries working to resist it. In fact, according to some accounts, the resolution was so weak that even Russia considered supporting it until the collapse of last minute talks with the US.

As if to confirm the consistency of the Indian position, Vinay Kumar, India’s acting permanent representative to the UN, reiterated New Delhi’s long-held policy on Syria on 13 February. He expressed concern over the present situation, condemning violence from all sides, and called for a peaceful and inclusive political process led by the Syrian people. Contrary to some who read India’s latest UNSC vote as an abandonment of the Assad regime or an alignment with Western positions on Syria, Kumar noted that India believed ‘the leadership of Syria is a matter for the Syrian people to decide’. India also attended the 70-member ‘Friends of Syria’ conference in Tunis as an observer soon after the UNSC vote.

While there remains a chance that India’s position on Syria will shift in the future, this seems doubtful at present. Much like its silence on other questions regarding the Arab Spring — from Libya to Bahrain to Egypt — India is trying to walk a tightrope and avoid taking bold stances. And while there may be many at home and abroad who wish that New Delhi were more assertive in its foreign policy, they should not be surprised if they continue to be disappointed, or fool themselves into seeing change where none exists.

This article was originally published at the East Asia Forum.



Stop the Childish Afghanistan Debate

leave a comment »

Following the fallout from the Quran burnings in Afghanistan, the voices calling for America to abandon the country are growing louder. Fareed Zakaria thinks it is time for the US “to get real in Afghanistan” and abandon its nation-building hopes:

As America has discovered in countless places over the past five decades, there are problems with this nation-building approach. First, it is extremely difficult to modernize a country in a few years.Second, even if this were possible, the fundamental characteristics of that society – its ethnicity, religion, and national and geopolitical orientation – persist despite modernization.

The current approach, in his view, also “bets on the success of not one but two large nation-building projects” – creating an effective national government in Kabul and economy in Afghanistan loved by the Afghans, and to alter Pakistan’s basic character.

Zakaria is using a strawman to prove his argument, which I find quite silly and sad. Anyone watching the news, as I assume Zakaria does, would realize that the Obama administration’s modest goal has not been ‘nation-building’ in Afghanistan, but ensuring an Afghan government with the capacity to control a large part of its teritory with little international assistance before the US withdraws. In other words, as I’ve put it before, preventing national collapse rather than promoting nation-building.You can’t nation-build with the paltry number of troops the US has in Afghanistan now, and the administration knows this. Obama himself was reluctant to even give his generals the troop numbers they wanted last year to secure Afghanistan, so I doubt he harbors any illusions about ‘nation-building’, especially now with around 70 percent of Americans opposed to the war.

Instead of quoting administration officials or policy documents, Zakaria quotes a 2010 speech by Newt Gingrich to make a point about what the US goal in Afghanistan is before challenging it. Gingrich goes on about how “flooding the country with highays” and “guaranteeing every Afghan has a cellphone” is the way to succeed. Never mind that Zakaria is quoting the same guy who called Obama’s apology for the Koran burnings “embarrassing” to represent US policy. I’d challenge Zakaria to find just one single recent quote by an administration official along those ‘nation-building’ lines. Obama and his advisers have been saying consistently that they are charting a ‘responsible withdrawal’ in Afghanistan, and that while troops withdrawals will be “conditions-based”, the main objective is to build Afghan capacity to provide for their own security just like in Iraq. Here’s Obama himself a few days ago:

War is a tough business, and never goes in a perfectly good path. But because of the stick-to-it-ness of our teams, I feel confident that we can stay on a path that, by the end of 2014, our troops will be out and will not be in a combat role, and Afghans will have capacity, just as Iraqis, to secure their own country.

That doesn’t sound like nation-building to me. So let’s get away from this childishness and have a serious debate as to what the US role should be, rather than irresponsibly misrepresenting what it is right now.

A more serious argument would be that the Afghan outrage at the Koran-burning means hearts and minds cannot be won, which will doom any US counterinsurgency effort.

But as Michael Gerson over at the Washington Post has noted, the fallout from the Koran burnings may be overstated. He quotes Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution who, with his repeated trips to Afghanistan, is hardly an armchair commentator:

The current crisis, says Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, is “far more than a blip, but less than a catastrophe.” According to O’Hanlon, the United States is consistently more popular in Afghanistan than elsewhere in the Islamic world. Betrayal by Afghan soldiers and officials is disturbing and damaging but not generalized or dramatically growing. Many Afghans fear a hurried U.S. departure far more than they resent America’s presence. And Karzai’s reaction to the Koran incident has been measured, particularly when compared with past tantrums.

Gerson goes on about the modest but often overlooked successes of Obama’s Afghan strategy:

Obama’s Afghan strategy — including a large troop surge and expanded training and mentoring of Afghan forces — is more successful than some credit. In the south — the Taliban homeland — insurgents have been deprived of sanctuaries and weapons caches. Violence in that region was down by a third in 2011, compared with the previous year. About 300,000 Afghan soldiers and police are deployed across the country. More than half of U.S. military forces engage in joint operations with their Afghan counterparts. While conditions in Afghanistan’s north and west have deteriorated the past few years — complicating the work of relief organizations — the overall levels of violence are not severe. The east, in contrast, has serious and growing challenges. Gains in Afghanistan are not as dramatic as those in Iraq circa 2008. But they provide a reasonable hope that security responsibilities can be gradually shifted to Afghan forces by 2014, with American troops playing a supportive (but still substantial) role.

To all this must be added the cost of failure in Afghanistan. As I wrote almost three years ago:

The United States must not forget that the seeds of 9/11 were planted when it decided to disengage from Afghanistan instead of rebuilding it after the US-trained Afghan mujahideen defeated the USSR. Washington’s failure to construct a centrist government transformed Afghanistan into a cradle of Taliban fundamentalism in the mid 1990s and a sanctuary for Al Qaeda thereafter. Neglecting this war-ravaged and battered country once again would not only display an ignorance of history, but an utter disregard for long-term national security.

Of course, there are significant obstacles to achieving the modest goal the administration has set as well. There’s the corrupt and unpopular Karzai government, the less than helpful Pakistan, and the grim structural realities including rugged terrain and a low literacy rate. Obama did not help things when he gave his commanders less troops than he wanted.

But let’s have an honest debate about the pros and cons of the war, instead of listening to those building strawmen.


Pakistan Army and ISI Knew About Osama Bin Laden Hideout

leave a comment »

Just yesterday evening, I was debating the extent to which the Pakistani military knew about Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts in his Abbottabad safe house with my Fletcher friends, and the degree to which it can be held responsible as an organization.

As with many things at Fletcher, you often discover somewhere down the line that the current debates you have at the school often coincide in weird ways with future developments. Last night, fresh evidence surfaced by the Press Trust of India via a leaked Stratfor email that elements of the military knew about OBL’s whereabouts. Here’s what Fred Burton, the global intelligence firm’s vice president for intelligence, wrote to his company’s regional director for Middle East and South Asia Kamran Bokhari soon after the US commando operation last May:

Mid to senior level ISI and Pak military with one retired Pak Military General that had knowledge of the OBL (Osama bin laden) arrangements and safe house.

There were about less than a dozen people within the ISI and Pakistani military who had information on bin Laden. No word on the specific names or ranks, but apparently that’s information the US had. The Blackberry email goes on:

Names unk (unknown) to me and not provided. Specific ranks unk to me and not provided. But, I get a very clear sense we (US intel) know names and ranks.

Of course, questions of veracity arise since this is an email exposed via Wikileaks. Stratfor’s CEO George Friedman cautioned in a video on the company’s website yesterday that some of the emails may be “forged or altered to include inaccuracies”, such as his supposed resignation letter.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting insight into an important question by influential experts, and could have saved me and my Fletcher friends a few hours of debate.

In Sri Lanka, Reconciliation Far From Reality

with one comment

Yesterday, in a stinging rebuke to the Sri Lankan government, voters in northern and eastern parts of the country defied intimidation to hand an alliance of parties closely linked to the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) insurgency majorities in an overwhelming number of local elections.

The results reveal that seething discontent remains among Tamils about the glacial pace of political reconciliation and deep divisions still haunt Sri Lanka two years after the government declared victory over the LTTE and ended one of the world’s bloodiest and longest-running civil wars.

Some members of the Sri Lankan government, still running victory laps from 2009, were quick to declare the results a “great victory”, with one minister touting that “people had used ballots instead of bullets”.

Such a view, however, is alarmingly short-sighted and incredibly blinkered. Yes, Colombo has always been quick to point out (and few would disagree) that a country at peace is better than one riven by war.

But whether Tamil opinion is conveyed through the ballot box or through the barrel of the gun, it embodies the same message: the government, dominated by the Sinhalese majority, must acknowledge and address the legitimate grievances of the Tamil minority if it is to win the support of the people and achieve true reconciliation for Sri Lanka. That means not just more economic development, but greater political representation as well.

Yet there are few signs that the voice of the people is being heard by the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. According to a recent report by the International Crisis Group, despite the end of the war, minorities and political opponents continue to be either suppressed or excluded from decision-making, draconian emergency and anti-terrorism laws are still exercised, and creeping authoritarianism and heightened militarism appear to be subsuming the country. Aid to Tamil areas has been slow to arrive, development is often conducted without adequate consultation, and the pace of reintegration of former LTTE cadres has been much too slow.

Sadly, even as it is saddled with these myriad problems, the government appears to be devoting most of its political will to resisting true reconciliation than allowing it to occur. It has spent more energy fervently rejecting the establishment of an international inquiry into atrocities committed during the last stages of the war and quibbling over casualty figures when it is clear that tens of thousands of people died in the final weeks of the conflict (which included brutal army atrocities against civilians) and the nationally established Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is virtually powerless.

The Sri Lankan government may think that it can fool the international community through foot-dragging and finagle the Tamil population with false promises of reform in the near term. But at the end of the day, so long as the Tamils at home (and the diaspora abroad) continue to see a better future in a separate state than as part of a Sri Lanka that balances majority rule with minority rights, the wounds of war will not heal, and the deep distrust of government will persist.

Indeed, if the status quo continues unabated, it is not too difficult to imagine a scenario where Tamils conclude that justice may once again be better fulfilled through the barrel of a gun than at the ballot box. That, Mr. Rajapaksa and his triumphalist government may recall, was how the LTTE rose to power in the first place.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 94 other followers