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Issue 12

An extract from India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present

Chapter 1: page 16-18

“The postmodernists would like us to believe that Indian history is what we make it or are the narratives that we choose to tell ourselves and believe. I beg to differ. History is like a map, an imperfect reflection of a larger objective reality that, over time and with improvements in the historian’s art, becomes clearer and more representative of an objective reality that did exist and certainly seemed to exist to earlier generations in history. That map is important to us in looking at India’s foreign and security policies because we choose, decide, and act on the basis of the map of our own experience, or the history, that we carry in our heads. Perception matters. And when perception does not match objective reality, policy errs or fails.

The problem is that several generations in India have been taught a version of history that ignores that India has for much of its past been well connected to the world and its prosperity and security have waxed and waned in direct proportion to that link. That may be because the regions that undertook these contacts with the rest of the world, what historians call coherent core areas, that is, areas characterized by stable, long-term political and cultural institutions, such as Bengal and Gujarat and the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, have been ignored or downplayed in these historical narratives in favor of the relatively insular Indo-Gangetic plain and the region around Delhi, partly because a version of Indian history written by those loyal to the British empire dominated the field. It is only in the last few years that younger scholars have begun to study these less recognized regions seriously.

The simplistic history written by historians loyal to the British empire legitimized British rule by making Indian history a continuous sequence of alien empires and conquerors. This saga of empires was periodized by religion, and caste was emphasized, disregarding the fact that the ruling elite was always of mixed religious persuasion and origins, and that assimilation and social mobility were both possible and practiced.

It amazes me that some Indians—despite having been shown alternative and more cogent lines of enquiry—persist in this religious characterization and accept the simplified history foisted on us. Certain historians and writers in India still contribute to the misrepresentation of India in history as an autonomous world apart, driven by religion and its own logic, and different from the rest of the world. One has only to look at the practice and the linkages with the world of the Mauryas, Kushanas, Guptas, Delhi Sultanate, and Moghuls to see how misleading this representation is. And these entities were carrying on a tradition of engagement stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East, the Roman empire and the Mediterranean Sea, central Asia, China, and southeast Asia inherited from the Indus valley civilization in the third and second millennium BCE. India was not “a world apart,” but a complex civilization involved in myriad exchanges—of goods, ideas, and peoples—with the surrounding world.

But this is only one part of India’s true geopolitical inheritance. Kalidasa described the ideal rulers of the Raghukula as asamudra kshitiesanam, or those whose territories extended to the sea shore. The Satavahanas used the title Trisamudrapati, or Lords of the Three Seas. Including the history of the other regions in our consideration gives us a very different historical legacy that forms an increasingly important element of our strategic culture and driver of our policy choices. If you see Indian history as Delhi-centered, you will make the mistake that many of us make, of believing, as K. M. Panikkar said, that “India has, throughout history, had trouble arousing much interest in the world beyond its borders,” which he contrasted to British attentiveness to developments around the Raj. The coastal tradition in India, on the other hand, has seen outward projections of power, influence, and culture throughout its history.

Once you include southern and western India and Bengal and Orissa, the strength of India’s links with the rest of the world, going back to 2600 BCE, become clear. Ptolemy attests to this in the second century CE, while Pliny in mid-first century CE grumbles about gold and silver draining away to India from the Roman empire for luxury goods, a problem that the British also had in the early days of trading with India, until they discovered the uses of opium.

The reach and extent of the soft and hard power of non-Gangetic regions of India in both mainland and archipelagic southeast Asia are visible to this day in the great ruins of Angkor Wat and Borobudur, on the walls of the Vaikuntha Perumal temple in Kanchipuram and in Hampi, and in the living culture of our countries. The Cholas’ activist external policies and willing militarism enabled them to last from the third century BCE to the thirteenth century CE, longer than any dynasty in the Gangetic valley. Their example was actively followed by the Pandyan (sixth century BCE to twelfth century CE) and Pallava (third to ninth century CE) dynasties. The same is also true of the reach and influence of some Gangetic or Indus valley-based political entities like the Mauryas or Kushanas as the spread of Buddhism overland to the Pacific and the Mediterranean attests. Vijayanagara flourished and grew prosperous on its trade with central, west, and southeast Asia. The Mughals, for their part, played an active role in central Asian politics, too. This is a strong, continuous, and abiding legacy of engagement beyond the subcontinent. As long as the Indian Ocean was an open, competitive space, peninsular India was relatively secure. The Mughals punished the Portuguese for piracy by limiting their activity on land, advantaging their competitors, the English, French, Dutch, and Danes. When Britain managed a relative monopoly on trade in the Indian Ocean following the Carnatic Wars with the French, it became possible for Britain to translate maritime control into predominance on land.”

Shivshankar Menon is an Indian diplomat, who has served as the National Security Advisor to the Indian Prime Minister from January 2010 to May 2014. He has previously served as the Foreign Secretary of India (2006-09), High Commissioner of India to Sri Lanka (1997-2000), and Pakistan (2003-06) as well as Ambassador of India to Israel (1995-97), and China (2000-2003). He is the author of “Choices: Inside the Making of Indian Foreign Policy” (2016), and “India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present” (2021). He is currently a Visiting Professor at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

The Cost Of Peace in Afghanistan

For over three years, there have been substantive efforts by the U.S., its allies and the Afghan government to negotiate peace deals and end the war in Afghanistan. What began in 2001 as a U.S. operation against the Taliban in Afghanistan, soon spiralled into a protracted war involving regional as well as international actors. The war in Afghanistan was largely against the Taliban – an extremist Islamist militant group that controls large parts of the country and has links with local and international terror outfits such as the Al Qaeda and Daesh. Since the beginning, the justification that the U.S. provides for waging the Afghan War is that it is a part of their Global War on Terror – the Taliban was harbouring terror groups and it needed to be stopped at all costs. 

As the war progressed, however, so did the U.S.’s perception of terror and their ability to counter it. For a long time, the goal was to drive the Taliban out of power in the regions that it controlled, and ensure it does not provide a base for terror outfits in Afghanistan. However, over the past decade, there has been a decided shift in America and its allies’ response to the Taliban – instead of total defeat, there have been attempts to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the Taliban. Currently, there is a conditional peace deal with the Taliban that was signed in February 2020 announcing that U.S. troops would be out by 1st May, and talks are scheduled in Turkey this month involving regional actors to finalise the peace process. While there is no doubt that both the Taliban and the U.S. want to hasten the end of the war, the power dynamics in the country after the troops leave remain worrisome. Power-sharing with the Taliban essentially depends on the moderation of its ideology, and a firm agreement ensuring peace in the region. The rising violence by the Taliban in the past few weeks raises pertinent questions about its moderation and commitment to peace, as well as the U.S.’s priorities in Afghanistan. Should the U.S., in its haste to end the war, agree to a deal that will leave Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban, it would be detrimental to all actors involved. 

There are three main reasons why the current peace treaty to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1st would likely provide an edge to the Taliban to take over the country. The first reason is the history behind the treaty itself, which was signed in February 2020. Under President Donald Trump, the focus was on ‘bringing back the troops from America’s 18-year long war.’ The negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S. government began with demands for power-sharing between the Taliban and the Afghan Government, an end to the Taliban’s support for terrorist organisations, a cease-fire declaration by the Taliban and the withdrawal of American troops. However, the final peace treaty that was signed just required the Taliban’s guarantee that it would not allow terrorist groups against the U.S. “on Afghan soil.” The number of concessions given to the Taliban displayed U.S.’s impatience with the war. The second reason has to do with the role of the Afghan government. The first treaty in February 2020 did not involve Kabul or President Ashraf Ghani in any way. While talks were held later in September that year involving the civilian government, the government and the Taliban still hold differing views on fundamental issues. Unless the talks between Kabul and the Taliban are conclusive, U.S. withdrawal of troops will only add to the chaos. The Afghan government needs the military backing of the U.S. if it is to exercise any sort of leverage against the Taliban, or it could potentially lose power the minute troops are withdrawn. The third and most important reason why the Taliban would likely have an edge in Afghanistan once U.S. troops leave is because of its understanding of its position. Experts and scholars both agree that there has been “little to no change” in the Taliban’s extremism, even after ceasefires and peace talks with other actors. The Taliban is aware that the withdrawal of U.S. troops would leave Kabul unprepared to take on its attacks. After the February 2020 deal with the U.S., the Taliban visibly reduced its attacks on U.S. troops. At the same time, it increased the number of attacks on the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, according to a report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The relentless nature of the Taliban in dealing with the Afghan government is a fairly clear indicator of their strive for total control. 

The three-way negotiations between the U.S., Taliban and the Afghan government make it highly unlikely for peace to emerge in the region anytime soon. The Biden government’s actions in these crucial months before the May 1st withdrawal need to reflect not just the U.S.’s counterterrorism priorities but also the larger stability and prosperity of the region. Any narrative of the Taliban’s moderation falls short of living up to the ground reality in Afghanistan, and the U.S. needs to consider the same. The role of international and regional stakeholders also comes in here. For sustainable peace, diplomatic talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government need to be moderated by countries that are invested both in the internal security of Afghanistan and the region in general. China, India, Russia and Pakistan are all key players in the conflict and have vested interests in Afghanistan. If the U.S. prioritises ending the war over safeguarding Afghanistan for the future, other players should be brought in to mediate and bring about conclusive peace in the region. 

Akanksha Mishra is a student of political science and international relations at Ashoka University. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 11

100 Days of Biden

It has been over 100 days since President Joe Biden took charge of his administrative duties in the United States. The Biden administration has been highly optimistic by promising to meet an expansive agenda that includes controlling the coronavirus pandemic, enabling economic recovery, revising US climate policy and reviewing their health care system. Biden has also taken active steps to reverse Trump’s isolationist policies and his decisions, alongside  catalysing the process of restoring America’s place in the international community. With only 100 days of his term completed, Biden has taken some notable steps to meet his agendas. 

Within his first few days at the White House, Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organisation. He rescinded Trump’s Muslim ban, which restricted immigration from a host of Muslim-majority countries. He took the liberty to address US-China relations by getting on a call with President Xi Jinping to discuss climate change, human rights violations, and trade relations. The President has made it clear to the Americans and the world that he plans on restoring America’s position in the global community and that he is determined to get rid of the isolationist policies introduced by his predecessor. 

The Biden administration fulfilled their 100-day promise of providing 100 M COVID vaccinations within its first 50 days. Biden’s timing could not have been better – as infections were peaking and America’s vaccines were coming online because of Trump’s funding of Operation Warp Speed,  Biden utilised the opportunity to play the hero without having to put in all the work. Moreover, he recently announced that all adults in the US will be eligible for the COVID vaccine by April 19th. 

Biden is firing on all cylinders to ensure that repercussions of the pandemic can be contained, singing a $1.9 trillion relief package to fight the pandemic and restore the US economy. The relief package, currently Biden’s top priority, plans to send direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans. The bill also includes a $300 per week unemployment insurance boost until 6th September 2021 and steps ahead to expand the child tax credit for a year. The relief plan also allocates $25 billion into rental and utility assistance, and $350 billion into state, local and tribal relief. It puts nearly $20 billion into Covid-19 vaccinations. 

Biden’s plan to reverse Trump’s tax cuts on corporations has been championed by the Left, but the effectiveness of implementing this policy needs to be carefully considered.  Biden’s tax policy wants to raise the top income tax rate to 39.6% from 37% and the top corporate income tax rate to 28% from 21%. This move will allow the government to collect a tax revenue of approximately $4 trillion by 2030. President Biden claims that his administration will ensure American companies  contribute tax dollars to help invest in the country’s roads, bridges, water pipes and other parts of his economic agenda. The plan detailed by the Treasury Department would make it harder for companies to avoid paying taxes on both U.S. income and profits stashed abroad. 

While this move sounds good on paper, its effective implementation has several obstacles. Corporates with major accounting teams and an army of lawyers have continued to find safe havens and loopholes in tax laws to legally avoid paying taxes. A tax hike of this rate also increases the probability of tax evasion and tax fraud, which will undoubtedly lead to the creation of a larger shadow economy. Additionally, in a post covid world that has witnessed large scale unemployment, increasing taxes on corporations and high bracket earners is going to  push firms to cut costs, thereby creating disincentives for hiring. The increase in taxation may also push firms to switch gears and focus more on international markets such as Hong Kong or Singapore that offer lower corporate tax rates. While progressive taxation is ideally the way to go, the Biden government must ensure that its implementation takes into account all the limitations of the current system. 

The Trump administration focused on deregulation in the manufacturing sector to ensure productivity and economic efficiency, whereas Biden  promises to focus on sustainable development. As part of his election campaign, Biden had released a 10-year, $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan. The plan aims to move the U.S. to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Biden’s climate change plan in total would cost the US approximately 2 trillion dollars, which he aims to fund by reversing Trump’s excess tax cuts on corporations and putting an end to subsidies for fossil fuels. While Trump focused on short-term economic efficiency, Biden’s plan is for the future. Switching to sustainable means of manufacturing is going to undoubtedly drive up costs for the American economy, but has the potential to  create middle-class jobs and ensure environmental conservation. 

Biden has had over 100 successful days since being sworn in, mainly because the bar set by his predecessor was quite low to begin with, but also because of his constructive policies. He envisions an America that will not be easy or cheap to achieve. While Biden’s plans cease to be as optimistic as “Mexico will pay for it,” they still are overreaching. The policies and infrastructural changes that Biden aims to implement would likely add to the 28 trillion dollar debt, but as long as the economy is developed in a constructive manner, there is hope for Biden’s America.

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Program. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time. 

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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Issue 3

China’s Kintsugi: How it filled cracks in India’s diplomacy, gaining influence in South Asia

India shares deep socio-cultural ties with its immediate neighbors Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. In the past few years, there has been a palpable shift in diplomatic and economic alliance between these countries. Historically, India has been the leading power in South-East Asia, being also the leader amongst the non-aligned states with great affinity with the three countries. But recently, there have been various pointers that suggest these countries have been leaning more towards China and that this has put the kibosh on India’s influence in South Asia. There have been conspicuous and strategic shifts that have put the northern giant in a position that India was once in. With there being conflicts between India and China in forms of tensions at the border and India banning the Chinese app TikTok, it is important to look at whose influence is growing in the region as this implicates several political decisions in other states. 

Nepal

An adage by Nepal’s first king Prithvi Narayan Shah goes as follows: “Nepal is a yam between two rocks”. The rocks here refer to India and China. The trajectory of the relationship between these countries in recent years can be likened to a tug of war with the two powers vying for greater influence on the Himalayan nation in between. 

India and Nepal share a porous border. Between these two countries, there are also deep intersections in terms of ethnic identities, culture, political history, trade and diplomacy. Since Nepal is a landlocked country with high mountains and rocky terrains bordering China, most of its imports come from the southern plains and more than 60% of those come from India. Yet, when the country was just recovering from the disastrous 2015 earthquake, India imposed an economic blockade on Nepal, restricting import of goods. 

The Indian government refuted allegations of betrayal in the face of tragedy, holding that the Madhesi conflict in southern Nepal was the actual reason for its decision. The decision nonetheless angered many politicians and citizens in Nepal, harboring anti-Indian sentiments because of how difficult life became due to the scarcity of daily goods in Nepal. 

With Nepal’s economy plummeting, there were reports that the Indian Oil Corporation declined sending adequate oil to Nepal after receiving orders to restrict supply from New Delhi. The Nepali populace agitated over their dependency on India for oil. However,  this was not the only reason that they were furious. At the time, India conveyed to the Nepali government to make several amendments to the new Nepali constitution promulgated that year. This caused many stakeholders in Nepal to be further inflamed at how India played the role of a big brother to Nepal, interfering in Nepal’s internal politics. 

In what was viewed as a keystone to bolstering Nepal-China relationship Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli made an agreement with the Chinese government to buy one third of its required oil from China. China also pledged to donate 1.3 million litres of oil to Nepal. After this, many projects in Nepal were initiated by China under the Belt and Road Initiative, including aid in reconstruction after the earthquake. China’s assistance was key to developing various highways and roads, with more projects including the Kathmandu-Kerung railway in the pipeline. 

In late 2019, India inaugurated plans for a railway near Limpiyadhura region, which Nepal claimed to be its own. The Nepali parliament issued an updated map that includes this region as its own. Many Nepalis supported this move. While both the countries have claimed this territory, the ‘cartographic war’ still ensues as little development has been made through diplomatic negotiation as it was proclaimed before. 

These factors put a severe strain on India-Nepal relationship. With China aiding several projects and a communist government taking hold in Nepal, allegiance between Nepali politicians and their Chinese counterparts has been observed with greater rapport in contrast to a much less cordial relationship with India. 

Pakistan 

Since Partition, India and Pakistan have had a relationship that has been rife with several tensions. The two countries have fought four wars and observed several armed conflicts and stand-offs over the years. The fact that several attempts have been made by both countries (Agra summit, Lahore summit, Shimla summit, state visits, talks through diplomatic channels) to improve their bilateral relations shows that they view each other as important neighbors. These efforts have been impeded by the wars, border skirmishes and cross-border terrorism. 

Following the 2016 Pathankot attack and 2019 Pulwama attack, the renewed bilateral relation under new governments in both the states has deteriorated. While India has alleged that the attacks were orchestrated by the Pakistani government, the latter refuted it and claimed that the attacks were local retaliation to increased Indian army presence in the region. This also stoked nationlist sentiments amongst citizens in both countries. After the 2019 attack, India revoked Pakistan’s Most Favored Nation trade status, which implied the subjection of Pakistan goods to higher tariffs and restrictions.

While Pakistan’s relations with India declined, it developed a close relationship with China. Pakistan’s nuclear warfare development program has highly benefited from China’s support. Its  nuclear arsenal consists of weapons that operate in air, water and on land. In May 2020, a ship from Hong Kong headed to Karachi was detained by the Department of Revenue Intelligence and Kandla Customs for mislabeling an autoclave, a device used to manufacture long range missiles, as an industrial dryer. Clearly, China’s and Pakistan’s strategic relationship has been of great concern for the Indian national security. 

In addition to assistance in nuclear weapon development, China has also aided Pakistan’s economic growth with its incorporation into the Belt and Road Initiative through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China will also assist in building railways and highways through Pakistan to the port of Gwadar. This will increase not only trade but also Pakistan’s political and economic dependency towards China, which might pose hindrances to India-Pakistan relationship and also be challenging to India’s own security in the region. 

Bangladesh 

Like with Nepal and Pakistan, India shares rich socio-cultural and historical ties with Bangladesh as well. While India was a strong ally in the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, a few years later, Bangladesh’s new ties to Islamic nations and an emphasis on its own Islamic identity deteriorated relations with India. Furthermore, the two countrieswere part of opposing alliances during the Cold War, which also put more strain on their friendship.

While their ties have seen some improvement with India and Bangladesh making major agreements with regards to land and water disputes such as the Teen Bigha Corridor and co-operation against terrorism, there have also been tensions regarding killings at the border and migration. 

Bangladesh has enjoyed a prosperous commercial relationship with China. Since 2006, China has been Bangladesh’s biggest trading partner. In addition to trade, China also pledged to support Bangladesh with a staggering offer of $24 million in loans after Xi Jinping’s visit in 2016. While this has improved Bangladesh-China relations, this improvement seems to have come at the cost of India’s relationship with Bangladesh. In 2018, China exported $17.8 billion to Bangladesh while India exported $7.5 billion. On the other hand Bangladesh exports amounted to less than $1 billion to China and about $1.2 billion to India. 

It is evident that the rise of China’s influence is eclipsing that of India in these three countries. This foreshadows the growth of China as a regional hegemon in South Asia through several political and economic measures. With India also competing to gain the same vantage point, it has landed itself in a race to ensure efficient diplomatic dialogue, while refraining from interference in its neighbors’ sovereignty and inhibiting their prosperity. As for China’s surging economic influence, it is not something that has gone unnoticed. Experts are aware of the implication of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and what the spillover effects of economic dependence can be. Having said this, India’s relationship with its neighbors is still pivotal on accounts of trade and close socio-cultural ties.  For social cohesion amongst states in South Asia, neutrality will be key to ensuring that there are no tensions. At the end of the day though, its neighbours cannot ignore India even if they are under the influence of China.

(Featured image from pxfuel.com)

Nirvik Thapa is a student of Sociology/Anthropology, Media Studies and International Relations at Ashoka University. Some of his other interests include music, pop culture and urbanism.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).