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The New Great Game in the Middle East

Belly dancing on a tightrope.

The Best Defense carried a guest blogpost by Daniel R. DePetris on how India and China’s increasing demand for energy resources might play out in the Arabian Peninsula and the Greater Middle East.  The writer asks, how will New Delhi and Beijing’s foreign policies be affected by their quest for energy resources in the Middle East? Will they seek to assert themselves (thereby helping share “America’s burden”) or assume a more passive role?

These are all interesting questions, but also ones that have been largely answered.  The broad contours of engagement with the Middle East have been laid out by both countries.  China, in the past, tended to regard the Middle East as too distant for it to actively engage in the muddled politics of the region.  Even at the UNSC, while China sought to leverage its position to undermine U.S. power, it hardly ever actively brought proposals to the table on resolving the region’s long-standing disputes.

China’s growing economy and quest for resources necessitated a change in its approach.  It has established energy ties with several Arab countries.  It is invested heavily in construction projects in the Peninsula.  It is engaged (albeit uneasily so) in negotiations on the Iran nuclear issue, while it clandestinely pursued to build up Saudi Arabia’s nuclear deterrent via its friend, Pakistan.  While China today is engaged in the Middle East on several levels, its motivation is primarily economic, and its relations, nascent.

Therein lies the difference between India and China.  India’s engagement with the Middle East goes beyond the economic (although, arguably, energy security today is India’s chief motivator).  India’s historical cultural ties with the region have allowed it to engage with several, often warring factions in the Middle East without being drawn into zero-sum equations in the region.  Even where economic ties are concerned, India and China differ, with India having contributed substantially to the Peninsula’s human capital.

While India’s cultural ties with Iran are well publicized,  it has also maintained enduring cultural and economic ties with Arab countries.  These ties are the reason why a 350-year old Shiva temple stands at the outskirts of Muscat, why over a million Indians live and work in the U.A.E., and why India is Egypt’s fourth-largest trading partner.  That India has managed to maintain its ties with Arab countries, while also developing strong ties with Israel is a rare success for Indian foreign policy.  Belly dancing on a tightrope can’t be  easy.  And this is something that puts it at an advantage over Beijing in the Middle East.

This is not to suggest that the scope for adjustments in foreign policy, when required by national interest, does not exist.  India’s relations with Iran, for example, have come under stress recently, with New Delhi’s decision to support  U.N. sanctions, twice, against Iran and with its decision to launch Israel’s spy satellite, Polaris.  However, none of these changes will alter the nature of China or India’s engagement with the region.  Hopes that either country will offer to share “U.S.’s burden” in the region, therefore, are unrealistic.

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The ties that bind

Enough about curry and cricket.

U.K.’s Prime Minister David Cameron is in India on a three day state visit.  His visit comes on the heels of his trip to Turkey, where he pledged to support that country’s membership to the European Union.  Some say that is part of the Mr. Cameron’s new foreign policy initiative to woo the East.  Indeed, in an op-ed in The Hindu, Mr. Cameron declared as much:

From the British perspective, it’s clear why India matters. Most obviously, there is the dynamism of your economy. In the U.S., they used to say: “Go West, young man” to find opportunity and fortune. For today’s entrepreneurs, the real promise is in the East. But your economy isn’t the only reason India matters to Britain. There’s also your democracy with its three million elected representatives — a beacon to our world. There is your tradition of tolerance, with dozens of faiths and hundreds of languages living side by side — a lesson to our world. And there is this country’s sense of responsibility. Whether it’s donating reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan, peacekeeping in Sierra Leone or providing intellectual leadership in the G20, India is a source of strength to our world. [The Hindu]

Faced with government debt and high levels of unemployment, Mr. Cameron will do what he must to revive his country from the global economic slump.  At the backdrop of a domestic debate on immigration, Mr. Cameron arrived in Bangalore — not New Delhi — visiting Infosys’ technology park and HAL, where a $800 million deal between BAE and HAL for 57 advanced jet trainers (AJTs) was signed.

The U.K. is already India’s largest trading partner in the E.U.  Trade between India and the U.K. has, and will continue to amble along, increasing annually in absolute terms, while decreasing in terms of U.K.’s overall contribution to India’s economy. Certainly, India is open for business and any mutually beneficial opportunity for trade and commerce is welcome.  But if the goal of Mr. Cameron’s visit is to forge the bonds of an “enhanced relationship” with India,we will need to move beyond the (dare I say) mundane and begin talking about issues of strategic importance to each other; for India, this includes  energy and security.  Indeed, France has shown that such an engagement model can be successful.

In this respect, news of progress on civilian nuclear cooperation and the AJT deal, though long overdue, is perhaps welcome.  However, it is as yet unclear if U.K.’s leaders truly understand and are willing to commit to a more broad-based partnership with India.  It is also unlikely that India will bother to sit around and wait.

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Salaam, Washington

Navigating the nuances of the Indo-US relationship.

Much has been written about the impetus being given to the Indo-US partnership in the context of the strategic dialog between Secretary Clinton and Mr. Krishna in Washington, D.C.  For her part, Mrs. Clinton has tried to stay on message, terming Indo-US relations an “affair of the heart, not just of the head.”

As a precursor to the SM Krishna–Clinton moot, U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs William Burns spoke at the Council for Foreign Relations on Indo-US relations, attempting to dispel the notion that the Obama administration had “downgraded” ties with India or that the U.S. was attempting to “re-hyphenate” its relations with India and Pakistan.  Truth be told, while U.S. articulations are perhaps needed to temper the noise being generated by sections of the media, they may not have been altogether necessary for those studying Indo-US relations in the context of a rapidly changing world.  And despite the statements made by Secretary Clinton and Mr. Burns, a few points need elaboration.

First, while there is broad, bipartisan consensus on expanding Indo-US ties in the United States (a rarity in and of itself), there are differences on the specifics of what this should entail and how they should be operationalized. The Obama administration defines this partnership within the constructs of leveraging India’s growing global economic profile to tackle regional and global issues — climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, energy and trade security and ensuring checks and balances to China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean.  In this respect, Mr. Burns’ comments on dialog between India and the U.S. on East- and Southeast Asia is important.

Second, it is important for India to understand the limits to this engagement, at least as far as the Obama administration is concerned.  Some of these limits are imposed by ideology and some by compulsion.  While sharing India’s concerns on jihadi terrorism emanating from Pakistan, the U.S., however, is constrained by its own involvement in the region and on how much it can prod Pakistan into taking any meaningful action on terror originating from its soil. The Obama administration is similarly unable to engage with India in a manner that would appear provocative to China.  And many will argue that given China’s importance to India’s own economy, neither would India.

What this means for India is that it cannot expect the U.S. alone to fully address its security concerns in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the larger region.  The folly of throwing your lot in with a singular power should be more apparent to India now than ever before. Affairs of the heart notwithstanding, securing India’s strategic interests in the region must be driven through multilateral engagement with like-minded regional actors, and not by blind faith in any one power.  In this regard, working with the Russians and Iranians on balancing power equations in Afghanistan is imperative.  It remains to be seen if Mr. Krishna’s recent visit to Iran helped in arresting New Delhi’s diminishing goodwill in Tehran.

Next, on defense procurement, India must be clear about where its defense gaps are best addressed by technical expertise possessed by U.S. companies and must resist the temptation to be over-enthusiastic in trying to please Washington.  Across the services, our weapons are primarily of Russian origin and there isn’t an immediate need to drastically alter this.  Russia is able to offer Indian defense companies opportunities that perhaps the U.S. is unable to — from Technology Transfer Agreements (TTAs) to joint production.  However, U.S. technology and systems can play a pivotal role in the development of India’s power projection capabilities —  from refuellers to transport and surveillance aircraft — and it is here that a meaningful and mutually beneficial partnership can be forged.

That the Obama administration appears to be redoubling efforts to engage with India is encouraging (providing access to David Headley is an important first step); but this is no different from either the Clinton or George W. Bush administrations in their initial years, where preoccupation with the economy and the war on terror allowed for limited bandwidth on Indo-US relations.  This has, in the past, resulted in the necessity to “re-boot” (to borrow an IT expression) Indo-US relations each time a new president took the oath of office in the White House.

Even today, U.S.’s India policy is being driven by people who are not India-experts; indeed, officials in the Obama administration charged with policy formulation and operational aspects relating to Indo-US relations are mostly either experts on East Asian affairs or on Af-Pak.  As India and the U.S. aim to significantly upgrade co-operation on regional and global issues, U.S. administrations must ensure that their India policy teams are appropriately staffed.  Neither India nor the U.S. can afford the extended learning curve each time a new administration comes into office.

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The “unscrupulous” Mr. Karzai

When the solid matter hits the air circulating equipment, everyone looks out for their own interests. Are we?

“For it is dangerous to attach one’s self to the crowd in front, and so long as each one of us is more willing to trust another than to judge for himself…

Seneca the Younger, On The Happy Life

Groupthink is a dangerous thing. And while they may disagree about everything else under the sun, Washington-types have unanimously directed their ire at Afghan President Hamid Karzai.  An apparent quote from an unattributable source about Mr. Karzai threatening to join the Taliban, if international pressure on him did not cease, made the rounds in international media.  Ex-UN envoy to Afghanistan Peter Galbraith questioned Mr. Karzai’s mental condition and suggested that the president may have a drug use problem.

Steve Coll’s blogpost followed suit, with a detailed account of the pervasive corruption that the Karzai administration had fostered.  Fred Kaplan on The Slate asked whether a successful COIN operation could in fact be carried out in Afghanistan, given the manner in which Mr. Karzai is running things in Afghanistan.  Former US Assistant Secretary of Defense, Bing West, rather plainly called Mr. Karzai an “obstacle to progress” in his op-ed in The New York Times.

Washington’s foremost thinkers and analysts, singing together in perfect harmony. Mr. Kaplan sums up the groupthink perfectly — the US is of the opinion that Mr. Karzai believes he (and by extension, Afghanistan) is too big to fail, and with the stakes being as high as they are, the US is left with no option but to continue to pour resources — monetary and military, to sustain the Karzai government.

But a closer inspection at events unfolding in the region presents a clearer picture of Mr. Karzai’s intentions and US angst. Hamid Karzai began his second  term in office by stepping up engagement with China.  Mr. Karzai then invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, who proceeded to chastise the Americans in the presence of his host.

Therein lies the US’s angst — Hamid Karzai appears eager to consolidate power and dilute US influence in Afghanistan.  To accomplish this, he needs the assistance of other regional powers — hence, the dialog with China, the invitation to Iran and the visit to Islamabad. He sees the benefits in ensuring an extended US stay in Afghanistan (the Americans are, after all, his primary financiers), but no longer desires to see the US as  the absolute dominant power in the country.

This is effectively the source of frustration in Washington.

As China, Pakistan and Iran prepare to step up engagement with Afghanistan, there are question marks about where the recent developments leave India.  While the Karzai government has in the past pressed New Delhi to play a larger role in the country, India has restricted its involvement in Afghanistan to providing humanitarian and  economic assistance. Frustrated, the Karzai regime now looks to hedge its bets elsewhere.

This puts India in a precarious position.  The prospects of a reemergence of a Russia-India-Iran order in Afghanistan aren’t great, given that Indo-Iranian relations are at a low.  But we’re still very far away from throwing in the towel.  There are significant caveats and complications in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran relationship for it to become an order.

Both India and Iran share mutual interests in Afghanistan, and it is therefore imperative that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government make amends for its folly at the IAEA. India’s attempts at revitalizing its relationship with Russia is a positive step — it is important that this relationship extend itself to securing both nations’ mutual interests in Afghanistan.

Ultimately, it is in India’s best interests that no one order — be it the US and its Western allies, or the Pakistan-Saudi-China triumvirate — dominate Afghanistan’s landscape.  This landscape will include the “unscrupulous” Mr. Karzai, and increasingly, warlords (affiliated as well as adversarial) and Taliban remnants.  India must therefore work with regional powers and political players to ensure that its interests in Afghanistan are protected, at a time when power equations in the war-torn nation are rapidly changing.

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