Same Boat Brother

Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi are crudely in the same boat when it comes to their economies: investment rates are not what they would like. In India, the private sector, burdened by debts and spooked by tax terrorism, is holding back on investment. In China, the government’s own attempts to get away from decades of overinvestment in physical infrastructure has led analysts to trim growth forecasts to just above 7% for the year.

Beijing accepts that its reforms will mean shifting the economy to a lower gear. But it wants the transition to go as socially smoothly as possible. It is trying divert the overcapacity in generators, cement and so on to overseas markets. Hence the multibillion-dollar One Belt, One Road and its component Silk Routes. A modern-day Lenin would claim this is imperialism with Chinese characteristics.

But with some unofficial estimates putting growth as low as 5.2%, China is also backpedalling on other issues. It is softening its stance regarding archrival Japan because, as foreign observers in Beijing note, it is alarmed that Japanese FDI to China has fallen over 40% the past year.


All Your Base Belong To Us

This doesn’t mean Beijing has retracted its claws when it comes to its territorial disputes with neighbours. It has upped the stakes in the South China Sea, its most ey-popping example of snatch and grab, by building airstrips on contested atolls and coral reefs. But it has deliberately lowered the temperature when it comes to the Senkaku Islands (Daiyu Islands in China) dispute with Japan.

Chinese officials and academics insist that the easiest dispute they have is with India. The border is relatively peaceful, no one has died violently since the mid-1980s and the two countries now have “strong leaders,” the Chinese say, who can resolve the border dispute. They carefully differentiate the Indian border dispute from the South China Sea, arguing the former is a colonial leftover while the latter is about territory that is “indisputably Chinese” going back “to ancient times.” Given that India, Japan and Southeast Asia experienced an almost simultaneous assertiveness in their territorial disputes with China in the roughly 2008 to 2011 period, it will take a lot more to get Indians to buy that is true.


Cyber Modi

Narendra Modi’s visit, and especially his decision to open an account on the Chinese Twitter, Weibo, have generally gone down well in China. His number of followers tripled during his state visit and his selfie with Chinese premier Li Kejiang received 35 million hits. “It went viral,” said an Indian official.

Modi get a fair amount of abuse, largely by Chinese demanding India return “South Tibet”, their name for Arunachal Pradesh. Interestingly comments on the Weibo account now appear only in select times in the evening and morning which everyone assumes is by Chinese censors – removing the more egregious insults against Modi.

But Modi gets credit for wading into the wild dog world of social media. Tea Leaf Nation, a website that analyses Chinese social media, noted only five world leaders have dared to reach out to Chinese via cyberspace. In large part because of a fear of similar hypernationalistic abuse. It doesn’t help that Facebook and Twitter, where a more global audience could have balanced the Chinese commentary, are banned in the Middle Kingdom.

Chinese commentators across the board say the image of both India and knowledge of Modi has increased positively as a consequence.

And, yes, at least part of the crowd of 3000 who waved at Modi when he exited a Xian temple was spontaneous: the Indian prime minister had made the decision to take a walkabout on the spot, much to the horror of his security.


One Belt One Voice

Everything in China, one sometimes feels, ends up going back to One Belt, One Road – Xi Jinping’s grand plan to build a global infrastructure network with China at the centre. Everyone in China somehow connects what he is doing with One Belt, One Road – no matter how tenuous the link. I fully expected a noodle chef to say, “My noodle look like Maritime Silk Route.”

Chinese express sorrow that Modi rejected Indian endorsement of this project, saying New Delhi would selectively choose those bits that converged with its own interests. Sensible enough as the only two parts of One Belt, One Road announced for South Asia are a $ 46 billion transport corridor running through Pakistan and the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor that would effect India’s sensitive Northeast. As one Western diplomat noted, “The BCIM would make your Northeast more connected to south China than it would to the rest of India. Exactly what the Chinese did in Myanmar, almost detaching Upper Burma from Lower Burma.”

Not that India can stop One Belt, One Road. But an Indian yes would have opened the door for almost all the smaller South Asian states to jump on the bandwagon. And India will indirectly end up funding it as one of the key funding bodies for building it will be China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – of which India is the second largest contributor.

Just in case you wondered: the “road” part is confusingly a reference to the maritime part of the project while the “belt” is the two land Silk Routes.


Chindia Statistics

The latest statistic that the Chinese are bandying around to show the need for greater civil society engagement is that only 500,000 people travel each year between the two countries who have a combined population of 2.6 billion. “South Korea sends 8 million people to China every year,” said one Chinese think tank type. And most of that half-million is Indian. Only 180,000 Chinese come to India. There are no shortage of reasons why: a lack of Chinese speaking tourist guides in India, a Chinese vision of India as dirty, polluted and full of rapists, and a lot of difficulties getting Indian visas.

Modi is reportedly equally concerned about this lack of civil society engagement, one of the reasons he overruled India’s security agencies and unilaterally granted online visa applications to Chinese visitors to India.

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The Maoists guerrillas of India are back in the news after a lull of almost half a year. The skirmishing never actually stopped – an Indian Air Force helicopter took bullet fire during the third week of last month, putting one soldier in hospital.

The recent ambush that saw over a dozen Central Reserve Police Force personnel killed was, in military terms, not much of an indicator of where the struggle between government and the guerrillas was going.

Government forces seeing a spike in casualties is nowadays often evidence of that the paramilitary forces are on the offensive, moving deeper and deeper into the forests of east central India that serve as the main hideaways of the Maoists. The casualties may increase, but they are actually evidence of New Delhi asserting its authority.

Who is winning the war? Let us first consider some trends in the Maoist movement in India.

One, the overall casualty rates resulting from Maoist problems has fallen dramatically since violence peaked a few years ago. The peak of violence – in recent times – was 2010 and 2009. The home ministry’s figures indicate that the total number of deaths – civilian, military and guerrilla caused by leftwing extremism – reached 1128 and 1117. Those years were also the only ones when Maoist “incidents” touched over 2220 for the only these two years. Today the annual figures for both indices is about half that.

Two, the nature of the Maoist struggle has changed. The leadership is no longer the middle class intellectuals who gave these movements such an idealistic and romantic image in the 1960s and 1970s. An image that continues to survive among some armchair leftists in India’s urban centres to this day. Today, most of the leaders are of tribal origin, disinterested in ideology and, as a recent Open magazine cover article showed, ignorant of Fidel Castro or Mao himself. But this has also meant that while the movements, as their several Maoist groups who are semi-autonomous in nature, are still representative of tribal marginalization they have become more brutal in their actions, often killing other tribals and sexual exploiting women.

Three, while this is harder to pin down, after visiting Chhattisgarh and the Bastar area, I would argue the government forces are slowly but surely gaining the upper hand against the Maoists. In Raipur, officials talk of bringing the whole red problem to a close in a few years. This certainly exaggerates – Jharkhand must cease to be as dysfunctional as it is today for even a chance of that happening.

But the figures are telling. Despite the great publicity given to large scale ambushes by the Maoists, the numbers show that security forces have seen their losses plummet. Between 2007 and 2010, the government always lost over 200 men, the peak being 2009 with 317 dead. Since then, the figure have halved. In 2013 the losses were only 115. Maoist figures are harder to judge: the organization takes away its dead after fighting and so official figures are just estimates.

But the recent statement celebrating “a decade of struggle” by the Communist Party of India (Marxism-Leninism) was notable for its figure of 2500 deaths in its ranks because of fighting – substantially more than the 1800 that the home ministry gives for the 2003-2013 period. This would indicate a rebellion that has been much harder hit than people realize.

Finally, there is evidence that the economic prosperity and social development is slowly eating away at the sense of deprivation that led to the rise of Maoism in the first place. In a number of states, like Telangana and Andhra, the Maoists have been left hanging by a nail. Chhattisgarh has been a steady economic success story, especially given the very low socio-economic indicators that it began with. Poverty remains, but the sense of hopelessness that led many tribals to turn to the gun may be receding.

The Little Red Book is hardly over, but one gets a sense that rather than the last word on anything it may be heading to be a chapter that may soon be closed.

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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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Many Indians ask me how India can avoid a bloody nose if it cozies up to Japan. Some were surprised when Prime Minister Narendra Modi denounced some unname Asian country’s “expansionist” ways and said the continent could not have “18th century” ways of behaviour. “How can he expect China not to react badly?” I was asked. Read more

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Those who have lived in Calcutta, it is likely they ran into red and yellow mini-buses declaring “Indo-Japani Gate” as one of their destinations. I have never seen the gate and am not even sure where it is, but it was a landmark well known to most in the city. Read more

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Though the world was quite shocked, India’s decision to hold the World Trade Organisation’s trade facilitation agreement to ransom was not a complete surprise. Read more

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India is heading to be declared a “priority foreign country” by the United States Trade Representative over its intellectual property rights. It is not helping things by refusing to meet US officials to discuss the issue. Read more

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India is probably more dependent on the West Asia and North Africa region than any other part of the world, especially that big chunk of WANA that is around the Persian Gulf. And it is one of the regions which the Indian strategic community struggles to get its head around. Read more

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As happens a two or three times a year, I was invited to a state banquet on Thursday. This was being held by President Pranab Mukherjee for his newly elected counterpart from the Maldives, Yaamin Abdul Gayoom.

My sense was that this was a necessary bit of confidence building for the two countries. Gayoom making sure India was the first country he would visit. New Delhi getting a chance to remind him of what India saw as its interests in this scattered archipelago nation, strategically athwart the Indian Ocean.

After all, the Maldivian presidential election was far from controversy free. The incumbent had come to power by a quasi-coup. The election had been repeatedly postponed by a Supreme Court known to be composed of Gayoom loyalists with the purpose of the eventual winner being able to strike a deal with the number three candidate.

All a bit murky, definitely legally questionable, and all very Maldivian given the deep personal divisions that mark the politics of this tiny — population wise — nation. Said one ex-ambassador to Male, “Some 26 families run the whole country.”

I was number 40 in the order of protocol when the assembled guests were lined up in the Ashoke Hall to shake the chief guest’s hand. Gayoom smiled and said, “Happy New Year,” when I murmured welcoming noises.

Mukherjee, during his toast, made the normal nice noises that are made at state banquets. But I noticed that more than a few lines were about Indian Ocean security and included un-banquet like language like “maritime domain awareness” and “naval surveillance.” I conjectured that it was being underlined to Gayoom that the naval understandings India had struck with the Maldives and Sri Lanka in the past were things New Delhi expected policy continuity.

A number of Indian businessmen were seated at the banquet. Anecdotally, I got the sense that especially infrastructure and housing firms tended to cluster in an area ranging from Sri Lanka to Ethiopia and East Africa, a wedge of the Indan Ocean littoral area.

Inevitably, the Andhra infrastructure firm GMR was well represented. Though GMR seems set to exit the Male airport, this will take some untangling. New Delhi has ensured that both sides have taken it to arbitration. But the Maldivian government is caught in a cul de sac.

If it wins the arbitration case, it will need to compensate GMR a whopping sum of money — which the Maldives doesn’t happen to have. The Maldivians claim they can the run the airport. But few believe this. This could mean, the Indian system worries, a third party coming in and possibly loaded with much renminbi.

Rashtrapati Bhavan food is not the greatest, though the Goan fish curry was passable. President Mukherjee is know to roll out an excellent Bengali repast when he travels around the country. However foreign guest seem to get a pan-Indian spread where variety tends to overwhelm the quality. But state banquets aren’t about culinary stuff, they are about pomp, circumstance and a chance to get a bit of capitol gossip.

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Nothing succeeds like success. And the opposite is also true:once you start going down the slippery slope, the process only accelerates until you reach rock-bottom.India has yet to reach rock bottom but the ill-effects of its decline are evident in its global standing and influence. Read more

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