About Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Pramit Pal Chaudhuri has resumed as foreign editor of Hindustan Times after a two year lapse. A member of a clutch of think tanks of which his favourite is an Italian one that takes him to Tuscany most summers, he genuinely likes to muck about the ponderous economic and political issues that make the world turn. On the bright side, he likes chocolate, football and Old Monk Rum.

Why did Narendra Modi go to Fiji and hold a summit of nearly a dozen South Pacific nations – including the half-island state of Papua New Guinea?

The idea was put to him by the Indian foreign ministry, one of the few times in recent times they have impressed the prime minister one suspects. Why did Modi lap it up?

Different theories abound.

One is that he has a vision of mobilizing the Indian diaspora for both domestic political and foreign policy ends. It helps that the Indian minority in Fiji is so small that they are no longer part of a political struggle between the Indian migrants and the Fijian natives. But it is hard to see how this remote island and its small population will be of much use to him.

Another is the great geopolitical game supposedly being played between India and China, and sometimes the United States. India struggles to extend its military power beyond the Straits of Malacca. Melanesia and Micronesia are beyond even its navy’s imagination. Neither India nor, I suspect, China has a chapter on the South Pacific in its Grand Strategy Blueprint.

In fact, Modi was sensibly modest in what he offered the islanders. India cannot match the aid commitments of players like China and even New Zealand. But, says Jenny Heyward-Jones, Micronesia expert of Sydney’s Lowy Institute, “they are tailored to areas India has a comparative advantage…and have a reasonable chance of development impact in the island countries.” Tele-medicine, for example, makes sense given the distance between the islands and limited medical infrastructure.

I believe Modi going to Fiji is really an example of a larger pattern of leaders of two-tier countries building larger global profiles. Shinzo Abe is now one of the most travelled Japanese prime ministers in history. And it isn’t just about reducing Chinese influene. He also went to countries on India’s periphery where New Delhi’s diktat is still stronger than those issued by Beijing. And Chinese leaders have been everywhere.

At the heart of this is a simple fact that the West’s influence in the world has dipped a lot the past few decades. In addition, emerging economies have to hardsell themselves across the world to investors.

Modi understands the importance of narrative. He does at home anyway and I presume he gets it overseas. When he went to the United States he needed to change the narrative on India following five years of dismal UPA government. And he did, more successfully than many others who tried like the leaders of Turkey and Brazil, as one president of a prominent US think tank told me.

By putting aside one day in Fiji, probably holding an Indo-Africa summit at some point, even doing a tour of Latin America in a few years, Modi will keep adding to this new India narrative.

Some of this may have an immediate diplomatic benefit, as the world squares for another round of climate change negotiations. The South Pacific islanders, who face extinction, are hardliners against carbon emission won’t necessarily be won over by Modi’s climate change pitch. As Heyward-Jnnes notes, “climate change is an existential threat..its the one thing that unites them, even against their friends.” But hopefully they will at least understand where India comes from when it pushes hard against carbon pressures.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi shocked the international system when his government blackmailed the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation by saying, in effect, “give us a permanent food security solution or we will block the unrelated trade facilitation agreement (TFA).” [Read more]

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Are there any foreign policy pluses and minors for India following the Democrats’ defeat and the effective end of the presidency of Barack Obama?

The biggest global issue has been the limp waisted US response to so many international problems. Not just in terms of not bombing here or there, but more in terms of using diplomacy to bring like minded regional players together. The US hasn’t been cashing in IOUs or arm twisting the doubtful.

That won’t change much in the post election era. But expect Republicans to push for greater action against IS, possibly even passing money and bills to force Obama’s hand. There will also be a much tougher stance on Russia and the Ukraine issue.

But ultimately the Senate cannot craft a foreign policy, it can only try to embarrass the president into doing more. But Obama is right: Americans are tired of war, even if they increasingly see foreign policy setbacks as a sign of poor leadership in Congress.

India may be less happy with the fact many new Republican leaders are ardent free traders and want the Trans Pacific Partnership and its North Atlantic equivalent to go through. India is nervous of what would eventually become the gold standard in global trade and leave India marginalised.

There is strong bipartisan support for a strong India relationship. That is good. But it is not clear how this will manifest itself. Congress is also violently anti Pakistani. Useful to India only if it manifests itself a commitment to hold the line in Kabul.

The real accomplishment of the midterm elections has been the evidence that the Republican leadership carefully brought the Tea Party under control. If a more mainstream Democrat wins the primary at this point the isolationism tidal wave that engulfed US foreign policy the past five years can be declared to have receded.

Then we will start to see a real American revival.

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I have been browsing Henry Kissinger’s latest volume, World Order, and had a chance to hear him live and close-up in New York City. [Read more]

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Once again, the Sino-Indian border is the epicentre of an Asian geopolitical tremor. Not an earthquake, but it causes just enough shakes to weaken diplomatic efforts to at least ease relations between the two countries.

But where the Chinese incursions at Demchok and Chumar unusual?

The difficulty is that the border, for all of its Himalayan proportions, is more fluid than most people realize.

One, there is the issue of demarcations. There are two Lines of Actual Control which tell where the two armies have physical control. In between there is an extensive no man’s land in which snake two claims lines which more often than not overlap each other.

Two, there is the issue of infrastructure. While the Chinese have built extensive infrastructure on their side of the border, India has begun to catch up only in the past five years or so. But this is important: improved infrastructure means more frequent patrols and, say, jeeps instead of pack mules. Change the road system and patrols are more frequent – inevitably the more often Indian and Chinese troops will bump into each other.

Three, the operating procedures between the two sides on handling the border keep changing with new border agreements. These agreements are necessary to keep pace with the improved infrastructure, weapon systems and the entry of such things as helicopters and drones.

This makes it hard to draw from raw numbers whether this is a consequence of a Chinese tactical decision or a simple fallout of, say, a better road and warmer weather that season.

Looking at the raw numbers – of which there are, this being India, different and often contradictory figures depending on the agency one talks to – there is clearly an increase in border transgressions by China in the western sector.

In the period up to 2011, such incursions normally numbered about 200 per year. Then from 2012 this number has doubled to the 430 range. This present year, 2014, is set to match this new range.

Harder to judge is the quality of such intrusions. One thing seems certain is that China border action is focusing on a few specific areas. In Ladakh these are Chumar, Demchok, Pansong Lake (Three Idiots fans please note), Depsang and a half-dozen smaller points. All these largely match the 1959 claims line of China, an older claims line now seemingly in the midst of being revived physically.

There is an additional issue which New Delhi doesn’t like to admit.

Over the years, India has become much less aggressive about patrolling the full extent of its claims area, even the full extent of its LOAC. This seems to have been because of piecemeal decisions over the years that have led the Indian patrols to restrict themselves to hugging the LOAC. As Shishir Gupta points out in his book Himalayan Face-Off, “Indian patrols do not go up to the LAC on advice of the CSG in these areas.” The CSG is the quasi-official China Study Group that advises the government on such issues. This has immediately meant the furthermost claims areas of India have become de facto areas of Chinese control.

After the fall in Sino-Indian relations in the latter years of Hu Jintao, India built up both infrastructure and the began pushing its patrols forward. Confrontations have been inevitable.

So, yes, the Sino-Indian border is becoming just a bit more heated. It will continue to do so. Both these countries are experiencing a rising nationalism. India has also seen the emergence of a more shrill television media that is no longer prepared to accept the relatively common back and forth that takes place on the border of both sides intruding. Better infrastructure, better patrolling and, in the case of India, a sense that too much was conceded in the past decade and needs to be reclaimed.

There is a new norm emerging on the Sino-Indian border for better or worse. And the two governments need to hammer out an even more comprehensive border management agreement to make sure the norm is institutionalized in a manner that keeps the guns quiet.

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