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India and Pakistan Betwixt Washington and Beijing

10th Anniversary Issue Tête À Tête

India and Pakistan Betwixt Washington and Beijing

GB: What is the main policy challenge for Narendra Modi as he begins his second term in power?

KB: Modi’s principal challenge is to learn how to govern better. Winning elections is one thing. But governing wisely and effectively is quite another. Modi governs through a group of senior civil servants and technocrats, and this is why he has made so many mistakes. He has presided over one of the worst periods of economic growth and unemployment in India since the reforms of 1991. And despite his government’s fiddling with India’s GDP statistics and employment statistics, the trends are clear. On human development, India is poised to fall behind Bangladesh and Nepal because the Modi government has done little on health and education. Indians are migrating to the cities, and after promising to build or rehabilitate 100 cities, Modi has done precious little to improve urban blight. As such, the future of Indian cities looks increasingly bleak as these waves of rural migrants arrive.

India’s infrastructure is a scandal. While national highways are improving, this was a trend well under way before Modi. On electricity generation, there is a long way to go if India’s economy is to grow soundly. Per-capita water availability in India will fall to less than 20 percent of what was available in 1950. Yet Modi’s government has done little or nothing about the problem. His promised clean-up of the Ganges River has been an embarrassment. Socially, the attacks on, and humiliation of, religious minorities and of lower caste communities are a major national problem – setting the stage for serious internal security problems in the decades ahead. Bref, the government has not stepped in to protect the vulnerable, and the country will pay a price eventually. Unfortunately, I do not see this as being any kind of priority for the new Modi government.

Politically, it is clear that Indian institutions from the Supreme Court downward are in shambles. India has never been as ‘de-institutionalized’ as in the past five years. Modi’s principal challenges are therefore primarily internal – to wit, his style of governance and his lack of effectiveness. That he has been massively re-elected does not reflect very positively on the Indian electorate. It has succumbed to a hyper-nationalist politics of the kind that dominates in Russia and Turkey. Democracy is not just (largely) free and fair elections. It is about checks and balances on untrammelled power, rule of law (not rule by law), and civility in political discourse. All these have been deteriorating and collapsing since Modi’s arrival in Delhi in 2014.

GB: What happened in the short border skirmishes between India and Pakistan this past winter and spring?

KB: The Indians responded to what they perceived to be a terrorist attack by the Jaish-e-Mohammed in a place called Pulwama. The Jaish is based in Pakistan and claimed credit for the attack. The Indian action was really a vengeance strike, at one level, responding to outrage within the Indian public. At another level, it was an attempt by New Delhi to mount deterrence against future attacks. What India wanted to do was to signal that any future attack must take into account the retaliatory costs that would be visited on Pakistan. Of course, this is premissed on the idea that the Jaish is under the control of the Pakistani government – or at least elements of the Pakistani government – and that the retaliatory Indian strike in Balakot could actually influence the Pakistanis, who could then influence the Jaish. Whether this logic is accurate remains unknown.

GB: Why did the Jaish strike when they did?

KB: There is a great deal of speculation about this. At one level, clearly, the strike was a gift to Prime Minister Modi, who was weeks away from a general election. It is clear that Modi played the Indian retaliatory strike to the hilt in the election campaign and got a lot of fuel from it. On the other hand, the timing of the terrorist attack could well have nothing to do with the elections themselves. The attacker was a young man from the Indian side of Kashmir, who was probably handled and inspired by the Jaish. Of course, whether he himself chose the timing or was explicitly set up to execute the attack at that particular time – just prior to the election – is for now entirely in the realm of speculation.

Some of Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan’s statements were puzzling and lent some credence to the notion that the terrorist strike was aimed at the Indian election. For instance, Khan said that he was looking forward to a Narendra Modi electoral victory because he thought that this would be better for India-Pakistan relations. Evidently, the reason that Khan and the Pakistani establishment prefer Modi is that he is an unabashed Hindu nationalist, and his advent to power confirms that the creation of Pakistan was a necessity – that is, in the end, India was always likely to be a Hindu majoritarian country, just as Muhammed Ali Jinnah, who led the fight for partition, had predicted. Diplomatically, on the world stage, Pakistan has suffered by comparison with secular India. With Modi in power, New Delhi’s advantage on that score disappears.

GB: How close did the Jaish attack and the Indian counter-attack bring India and Pakistan to war?

KB: India and Pakistan have a way of dealing with these crises. Clearly, this is not the first time that they have been here. The 2001 attack on the Indian parliament was a spectacular one, and India mobilized its entire military in response. After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the Indians did not mobilize militarily, and chose instead to exert diplomatic pressure on Pakistan. What is common to both cases is that India and Pakistan know how to play the mobilization game – military and diplomatic – up to a point and no further. In particular, both sides do not play the military card beyond a very specific point. There is a tacit routine here, whereby both sides blow hot and then blow cold, just in time. We have more or less seen a repeat of this algorithm in the latest escalation and de-escalation. Still, the shadow of nuclear weapons and the threat of conventional escalation remain very powerful. Bref, I would say that we did not come close to bona fide war, and that the skirmish was played by both sides for domestic audiences and for the international audience. Both sides, at the official level, have continued to have a good sense of how conflict short of full-scale war plays out.

India and Pakistan know how to play the mobilization game – military and diplomatic – up to a point and no further. In particular, both sides do not play the military card beyond a very specific point.

GB: How representative of, or identified with, the Pakistani state is Jaish today?

KB: It is fairly clear that no big, over-the-surface organization like Jaish or Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) can operate without the knowledge of, and at least elements of support from, the Pakistani government. At the very least, some rogue elements of the Pakistani army’s intelligence service, the ISI, must know about the activities of the Jaish and LeT, and must let them carry on. These organizations hold massive public gatherings, collect money legally and illegally, threaten India, and even threaten the Pakistani government. They are shut down periodically after crises, but are then allowed to resurface when the courts permit it or after a respectable interval. In short, it is nonsense to claim that the Pakistani government is not responsible for these groups in any way, shape or form.

Even if we accept that various episodes, incidents and attacks are not directly and immediately traceable to the Pakistani government, we still have a situation in which these groups are free to operate and are getting an official wink and nod. The Pakistani government is therefore responsible and culpable. That is exactly the position that the US took after 9/11 in dealing with the Taliban and the Pakistani government. The Indian government is playing the game in much the same way as the US, according to a similar logic – that is, Pakistan is responsible insofar as it allows militant groups to organize and operate.

GB: How is Imran Khan, the new Pakistani prime minister, performing?

KB: Mixed. He has a persona. He has domestic support. And he does somewhat unpredictable things. But no civilian leader in Pakistan – in fact, not even most Pakistani military leaders – can really stray very far from the preferences of the top army corps commanders. This is certainly true in respect of foreign and security policy, and especially so when we are talking about Pakistan’s relations with the US, China and India. Relations with these countries and other powers like Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia are determined by the Pakistani army.

Bref, Khan is interesting up to a point. He can take bilateral relations with India only so far, but there are, in the end, manifest red lines. He is aware of these red lines, and the Pakistani army will make sure that he does not cross them. Khan’s interests and pressures are therefore multiple. He has an interest in keeping the Pakistani army happy, and an interest in some form of reconciliation with India. Yet there are also significant Chinese and American pressures on him to avoid escalating matters with India beyond some limit. The Chinese pressures are – to be sure – the most telling and most important. And China has its own reasons for exerting pressures on Pakistan.

GB: What are the sources of Chinese pressure on Pakistan?

KB: First, the Chinese do not wish to alienate India altogether. India is too big, and it sits right at China’s southwestern border. India can have an impact on Tibetan politics. It has a military deterrent – both nuclear and conventional – and it has an economy that matters. India is China’s seventh biggest trading partner at this stage, and China has a huge trade surplus with India. Bref, there are significant Chinese economic, military, and diplomatic stakes in good relations with India. Beijing clearly does not want to push New Delhi into Washington’s arms. This is also the case with Beijing’s relations with Islamabad – that is, China must ensure that it does not alienate Pakistan and allow it to get too close to the US.

Second, there are nuclear weapons on the Indian subcontinent. A crisis that gets out of hand in South Asia – on the Chinese borderlands – is not a situation that China fancies. No one would want an escalating crisis on the subcontinent, given that such a crisis could erupt into nuclear war. The global consequences of a nuclear war in terms of the demonstration effects, the breaking of a nuclear taboo that has held since 1945 and, of course, the physical drift of nuclear fallout would be catastrophic. China therefore has very important reasons for ensuring that things do not get out of hand, and I am certain that the Chinese counsel restraint in the handling of any crisis involving India.

GB: How will the next five years in India-Pakistan relations evolve?

KB: More of the same – blow hot, blow cold. The re-elected Modi government will not stray much from its present foreign policy vis-à-vis China, the US, Pakistan and other countries. There will be no great breakthroughs. Both India and Pakistan will avoid polarization beyond a point. The key question, of course, is whether the Pakistanis can show enough progress on actions against extremist groups and terrorist groups – that is, enough so that New Delhi can declare victory in order to return to the comprehensive dialogue that had been in place until 2008.

There have been some back-channel contacts between the two countries since 2008, but even those contacts will have been aborted in the aftermath of the recent terrorist strike.

The most likely initial scenario, then, is the re-establishment or reinstitution of back-channel or low-level contacts. If the Pakistanis are sufficiently convincing in moving against extremism, then it is quite possible that the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan could lay the groundwork for the resumption of a comprehensive dialogue to address the perennial bilateral issues – the future of Kashmir, security and terrorism, river water and smaller territorial disputes, trade and people-to-people contacts.

GB: Do you see India as part of a resurgent Asia, or are there disparate futures for East or Northeast Asia and South Asia?

KB: Increasingly, the idea of the Indo-Pacific has linked up East Asia or the Asia-Pacific with the Indian Ocean area. Of course, India sits at the heart of the Indo-Pacific. There are – to be sure – all kinds of different conceptions of the Indo-Pacific. The Japanese launched it. The Americans ran with it, and have almost taken it over with their construct of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific.’ The Indians themselves thought that they had their own conception of it. (It is still not very clear what that conception is.) The Australians have worked it into their defence white paper. The Indonesians are prodding ASEAN to come on board, after initial doubts about the Indo-Pacific. In short, the idea of an Indo-Pacific that gives India more prominence is very much out there.

Even the Chinese have recognized that there is something going on here – that is, that they need to track and be aware of what is happening. As for the nature of the nexus between East Asia and South Asia, that has already begun to manifest itself at the level of conceptions, ideas and thought processes. To some extent, the nexus has been evolving materially over many years because, in the first instance, the navies of the Asia-Pacific – including the Chinese navy – have been operating in the Indian Ocean. These navies are acquiring base-like facilities in various places. The Indians, in turn, have been sending boats into the South China Sea. And the American navy clearly operates in both oceans.

All the members of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific construct – Australia, India, Japan and the US – have pitched the idea of a formal Indo-Pacific grouping, even if they all seem to have dialled back somewhat after their initial advocacy. The military discussions among the four, in the so-called Quad, really involve maritime security and not much else. These discussions, too, have been marked by ups and downs, with the Indians particularly ambivalent. Nevertheless, the long-term intent of the four countries is clear – to wit, to stitch up the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean area into a unified strategic space.

Having said this, at this point, there is not a lot that happens in South Asia that really impacts East Asia. The reverse is truer, as developments – particularly economic developments – in East Asia do matter significantly to South Asia.

The really big issue is, of course, China. It affects East Asia and South Asia alike. Bref, what really unites Asia, strategically, is China. China abuts and connects every region of the continent, from Central Asia on one side, into Northeast Asia on the other, with South and Southeast Asia in between. Whatever China does in one region has an impact on the other regions. States are either attracted to China or repelled by Chinese actions, and in all of these regions they watch China very carefully. So it is China, above all, that connects all of Asia, even if there are two powers – China and India – that, formally or more informally, operate in every regional space on the Asian continent as members of virtually every regional organization.

It is China, above all, that connects all of Asia, even if there are two powers – China and India – that, formally or more informally, operate in every regional space on the Asian continent as members of virtually every regional organization.

GB: Will India ‘rise’ like China, or do the two countries have different futures?

KB: They have different futures. Chinese GDP today is five times that of India. The gap is growing – not shrinking – and will likely continue to grow until late this century. Indian growth rates are unlikely to hit double digits. It is fairly safe to predict that India will grow at about seven to eight percent, and not much more. That is partly the price of democracy, but also of a ramshackle public administration. The idea that India can grow at double digits for 25 or 30 years, like the Chinese did, is not something on which many specialists would put much money. The gap may shrink somewhat in 30 years or so as a function of demography, as India’s population grows to 1.6 or 1.7 billion by 2060. At that point, China will be going the other way demographically, and so the population gap will approximate 350 million souls by the late 21st century.

That, of course, is a substantial gap. Even if Indian per-capita income remains lower than that of China, which is very likely, the GDP gap will shrink toward the end of the century. India will, nominally, have the second or third biggest economy in the world – behind or just ahead that of the US by 2070 or so. But it will still be China’s world to lose, as it were. China will be a behemoth, and the Indians will be second or third. That is fairly safe to predict.

Now, the wild card in all of this is climate change and world-altering events – events that could change everything for everyone, but about which few people wish to speak in earnest. Climate change will disproportionately harm Asia, as well as parts of Africa. The impact will not be as great in the ‘Global North,’ among the developed countries. So, if one really plays the long game, there are quite a number of uncertainties. It is fairly easy to extrapolate to future Chinese dominance, but there are ‘X-factors’ like climate change.

There is also the perpetual question of China’s internal stability. What are the prospects for the Communist Party and for internal peace if economic growth levels off? India has its own internal order problems, but at least it has a fairly routinized way of holding elections and choosing leaders – nationally and in the states – such that politics remains reasonably stable and predictable. Given what is happening right now in China as a function of the US-China trade war, there are portents that are not great for China.

GB: Is the US-China trade war, and the broader amplification of the bilateral rivalry, acutely felt in India? What about in Southeast Asia?

KB: It is not acutely felt, but everyone is very aware of it, and everyone is wary of it. There is a general sense that the region is heading toward a point where states will have to start making or indicating choices. There are pressures on states from both the Chinese and the Americans. We are not there yet. People are watching the situation. They are hoping that things do not get worse. But they are preparing for the day when choices will have to be made. Some states in the region have already made choices – or so it would seem. Cambodia and Laos certainly appear to be siding with Beijing when Beijing wants them to. And Vietnam appears to be tilting toward the US, even though it has strong economic links to China, and despite the fact that it has not altogether forgotten the US role in its civil war. China’s power scares the Vietnamese. Hanoi will therefore likely continue to be cautious publicly, while tilting privately toward Washington.

ASEAN, the 10-member regional organization, has already begun to feel the pressures. The region is starting to look not so much at the trade issue but instead at the war over technology. On that analysis of things, the key issue is not who wins the trade war. It is rather the extent to which the Americans will drive the idea of technological decoupling from China in high-tech areas. If there is serious decoupling, how will that impact China’s economy?

Have the Chinese crossed over to a point where their own technological momentum cannot be stopped? If this is the case, then that is one story for Southeast Asia. But if the Chinese find that they are caught in the middle-income trap – because they are not making the requisite technological transition – then we could well end up telling a different story in the region. A China that is floundering technologically and stuck in the middle-income trap could encourage the Americans to make an economic, diplomatic, and military push back into the theatre. China may then have to find a way to manage its diplomacy in Southeast Asia in a less hard-nosed way. Beijing has certainly been quite aggressive over the last 10 years, and Xi Jinping has been particularly unapologetic about playing hardball. If the Chinese really start to feel the heat on technology, and if their growth levels off, then the region will probably revert to an American sphere of influence or at least tilt toward America again.

GB: Which side would India choose if up against a wall? Or would New Delhi do everything to avoid choosing?

KB: Not to choose – that is the default and long-enduring Indian position. As the Chinese say, “The Indians do not like to carry anyone’s water.” There is a deep-rooted political, cultural and strategic sense in India of being on its own and of taking care of itself internationally. This has deep roots, whether on the political right or left. That is the preferred norm. Even Modi, after four years of tilting toward the US, Japan, and Australia and tilting against China, has, over the last year or so, tilted back to a kind of non-aligned position. Bref, India will stick to the middle ground as far and as long as possible, with occasional tilts this way and that.

Even Modi, after four years of tilting toward the US, Japan, and Australia and tilting against China, has, over the last year or so, tilted back to a kind of non-aligned position. India will stick to the middle ground as far and as long as possible, with occasional tilts this way and that.

GB: Where does Russia figure into this dynamic?

KB: The Russians are trying to make a comeback in Asia-Pacific – partly in league with the Chinese. In South Asia, Moscow is sticking with the Indians, but it is increasingly courting the Pakistanis with a view to reducing Islamic extremism in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and also with a view to selling Islamabad military equipment – as India turns to the US for arms. The Russians evidently worry about their own domestic problem with Islamic extremism. Like the Chinese, the Russians want to keep the Pakistanis happy and open some lines of dialogue in order to make sure that things do not go wrong in Pakistan, and that Afghanistan does not revert to a highly extremist government under the Taliban. Because the Indians have, over the last decade, developed a more robust military relationship with the Americans, Moscow has tried to indicate to New Delhi that Russia could tilt toward Pakistan.

India is – to be sure – very aware of how Moscow plays the game. After all, New Delhi plays exactly the same game – flirting with the Chinese when the Americans are not helpful, flirting with the Americans when the Chinese are not helpful, and flirting with the Russians when neither the Chinese nor the Americans are helpful.

As we have seen in other theatres, the Russians play a fairly astute game. They are not out of any theatres in Asia. In West Asia (the Middle East), in particular, they have developed very substantial presence and influence. In the rest of Asia, they are probably not quite where they wish to be – partly because the Chinese are so big that the Russians cannot muscle into these areas. Looking out from India, then, one can see the elements of a ‘Mackinderian-Mahanian’ game. There is a Sino-Russian quasi-alliance in the great Eurasian landmass that seeks to project influence all the way to the shores of Calais in the west, and as far as North Korea in the east.

On the other hand, or indeed in parallel, there is the Anglo-American Mahanian game of dominating the seas. This contrasts with the Russians and Chinese, who are betting that dominance of the Eurasian heartland will mean world dominance. The Americans, because they cannot make an ingress into the Eurasian heartland, are forced to bet on the seas. As for the Indians, they are stuck. Although they are in Eurasia, they are separated from the heartland by the Himalayas and, of course, by Pakistan. In other words, the old great game of which India was a part when the British ruled the subcontinent is now gone for India. Nor has India developed the requisite naval power to play the Mahanian game. This means that India’s modern non-alignment – non-alignment 2.0, as it were – is embedded in big geopolitical games in which India cannot fully participate. New Delhi’s interest in the Indo-Pacific ensemble may suggest that India is more likely to play the Mahanian game of sea control, even if the problem remains that the country is attached to the Eurasian landmass and has a border with China. As such, it can only go so far into the American Mahanian scheme of things without incurring China’s antagonism, which could be expressed on the unsettled border between the two countries. Bref, India cannot play much of a role in Eurasia, and will remain ambivalent about the Indo-Pacific grouping.

New Delhi’s interest in the Indo-Pacific ensemble suggests that India is likely to play the Mahanian game of sea control, even if the problem remains that the country is attached to the Eurasian landmass and has a border with China. India can only go so far into the American Mahanian scheme of things without incurring China’s antagonism.

GB: What do the next five years hold for Afghanistan, and in relation to Indian and Pakistani behaviour there in particular?

KB: If the Americans pull out, which now seems certain, then something like a Taliban-led government or Taliban-influenced government will increasingly and inevitably be in power in Afghanistan. That means that there will be Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, and that the Indians will lose influence. However, there may be a silver lining to the Americans leaving – specifically, some of the pressure, or indeed some of the kinds of extremist inspiration or encouragement that come from the American presence in Afghanistan will diminish. The pace of jihadist recruitment in Pakistan and Afghanistan may ease off. Taliban ‘Mark 2’ may not wish to push their luck the second time round. And that is because the Americans could well come back if the Taliban is too provocative, and this time with drones and bombing campaigns. The US does not need proper boots on the ground to punish the Taliban.

The Pakistanis clearly face pressure in relation to Afghanistan not just from the Americans but also from the Chinese. Islamabad probably does not want Taliban ‘Mark 2’ to be too assertive in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis would like to keep a Taliban government under control. In other words, we may see the Pakistanis quite happy to have a much softer Taliban in Afghanistan. This is relatively good news for India. Contrary to the standard analysis, then, the American decision to get out of Afghanistan should be watched carefully. It is not a certainty or self-evident that there will be a Taliban ‘Mark 2’ that is anywhere near Taliban ‘Mark 1’ in its brutality and depravity. It may well be a much softer version.

GB: What do the recent bombings in Sri Lanka say about the security situation in South Asia in general, and in India and Pakistan in particular?

KB: It is clear that the terrorists who struck in Sri Lanka had links outside the country. They certainly had links to radical Muslim groups in Kerala, if not in other parts of India. There is some evidence that at least one of them visited Pakistan. This suggests that there are violent-minded extremists in India who incubated Sri Lankan militants. We know, for instance, that there are Sri Lankan and Indian Muslims who joined ISIS and have since come home. India has, until now, largely thought that the problem of radical returnees was a problem reserved predominantly for Western countries. That may not be the case, which means that New Delhi will have to become far more vigilant and reckon far more seriously with this problem.

GB: What is your view on the Rohingya situation today in Myanmar and Bangladesh?

KB: The expulsion-cum-exodus of Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar is possibly the largest outmigration from a Southeast Asian country since Myanmar pushed out some 300,000 Indian migrants and workers in the 1960s. This came after a series of attacks by radical Muslim groups in Myanmar on the Burmese armed forces. Most of the expelled Rohingya – perhaps up to one million – have ended up in Bangladesh. They live in horrendous conditions, and are sequestered in camps. Dhaka is doing what it can, but it, too, is under tremendous pressure. There is no sign that any real number of Rohingya will be allowed to return or would choose to return to Myanmar. They will therefore be in Bangladesh for a long time to come, and may well have to be permanently settled there. Of course, this raises questions about whether they will be allowed to work in that country, and about what kind of Bangladeshi medical, educational and other welfare services will be extended to them. India, as the regional power, has for now shown little interest in their fate, and indeed has forcibly repatriated some Rohingya who ended up in the country’s northeast. Needless to say, in the medium run, this overall mistreatment of the Rohingya could eventually comprise a serious security threat to an already volatile part of South Asia.


Kanti Bajpai is the Wilmar Professor of Asian Studies and Director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. He is a past professor of international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.


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