How China has overplayed its hand, writes Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda

Almost 2,500 years ago, Greek historian, Thucydides, wrote of the devastating Peloponnesian War, “What made war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the fear which this caused in Sparta.” There have been other such conflicts in history between established powers and rising ones, not all of which resulted in war. The same theme is playing out today, in the tensions between the United States (US) and China, and China and India.

In his provocative 2017 book, Destined For War: Can America & China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?,Harvard University professor Graham Allison was not optimistic. He wrote, “When one great power threatens to displace another, war is almost always the result”, citing 16 such conflicts in history, of which only four navigated the transition without war.

Nevertheless, war is not inevitable. Among successful examples cited by Allison, the following two are instructive. First, when a century ago, the US overtook the United Kingdom (UK) as the world’s pre-eminent superpower. It took accommodation by the established power, the UK, as well as statesmanship and negotiating skills on both sides.

A second approach involved a different strategy, where the established power, the US and the contender, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were continually attempting to contain each other for decades, but did not go to war. The Cold War, in that sense, was one of the great successes of the modern era in avoiding all-out war. That was a good thing, considering that nuclear weapons were part of the equation for the first time in superpower conflicts. The US approach to the rise of China had essentially been like that first approach —the UK vs the US— for decades, but has recently been decidedly shifting towards the second strategy, that of the US vs the USSR. China’s approach towards India has always been like the latter.

The US accommodation of China began with the Richard Nixon administration in the early 1970s, at the height of its rivalry with the USSR, when China was an impoverished developing nation. It stemmed from self-interest, of course, not least to counter the USSR, but also to develop a big new market for American products and a source of cheap imports. Earlier American administrations tried the same with India, but failed to crack India’s Nehruvian disdain for free markets and post-colonial suspicion of the West.
There was also a belief in the West, now belied, that as China prospered, it would also become less autocratic and a more open society. While the relationship was mutually beneficial for decades, in recent years, it has soured considerably. As China became the third largest and then the second-largest economy after the US, it progressively stopped playing by the rules from which it had itself benefited, and, in fact, started flexing both economic and military muscles. Nixon himself, long after ceasing to be president, said of China, “We may have created a Frankenstein’s monster.”
China’s approach towards India was always about containment. Right from the 1940s, as both emerged into a new, post-colonial, post-World War II era, it has viewed India as a long-term competitor that must be checked. Thus, its relentless focus on keeping India under pressure, and slowing down its resurgence, from every possible angle, using every possible tool at hand.
China’s India-containment strategy was clear since its early patronage of Pakistan from the 1950s. It has continued to exploit that benighted nation as a client-state, primarily to act as a brake on India. Then, while establishing a detente on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India for nearly half-a-century, China began leveraging its fast-growing economy to implement the “string of pearls” strategy to encircle India from south-east Asia to Africa. This has recently seen sharp acceleration, with the Belt and Road Initiative projects such as Hambantota and Gwadar ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor running right through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
Most significantly, China has feverishly stepped up its attempts to cultivate Pakistan-like client states among India’s immediate neighbours, as recent developments in Nepal have shown. Furthermore, as covered in the previous edition of this column, in recent years China has also begun asserting itself globally, raising the hackles of nations near and far.
India has also been changing. It had earlier wasted decades of LAC detente (when “no bullet was fired in anger, no life was lost”) by being laggardly about fortifying its border defences, unlike the Chinese. That has changed dramatically since 2014, with huge increases in infrastructure expenditure in border states, both civilian and defence. As many commentators have noted, the recent rapid scaling up of infrastructure on India’s side of the LAC was one of the key triggers for the current clash, with China wanting to intimidate India from trying to achieve parity. The Modi government has also taken similar steps abroad, for instance, by finally commissioning Chabahar port in Iran after decades of delay.
This time, China has badly overplayed its hand, and been shocked by India’s determined resistance. The Modi doctrine is clearly rooted in Kautilyan principles. Unlike his predecessors, he will not be complacent with defences because of opponents’ words of peace. He will seek peace like them, but maintain it from a patient, gradually-built position of strength.

How PM’s power of exhortation is critical in the battle against Covid-19

The ongoing 21-day national lockdown is unprecedented, though it could not have come as a surprise to those who had been watching how other countries responded to the coronavirus pandemic (Covid-19). India was quick to react to it, convening a crisis management group in early January.

Since then, beginning with the stoppage of flights from China in January, to screening of arriving international passengers, and quarantining, preventive measures have been gradually ratcheted up. This is as it should be. Any other way, say, imposing total lockdown a month earlier, would not only have been premature, but would have had a calamitous impact on the economy, far worse than the already serious current setback.

More importantly, such a drastic measure likely could not have been enforced before achieving a tipping point of acceptance among the populace. In fact, even now, there are stray examples of lack of compliance, even among the educated middle-class. This is why the rehearsal on March 22, the voluntary one-day “janata curfew” (people’s curfew) was a crucial prerequisite.

The eerie stillness all around the nation during the janata curfew was unprecedented. Social media was full of netizens’ posts, some with videos, about the only sounds heard all day being the long-forgotten chirping of birds. Except at 5pm, with millions thronging their doorsteps, balconies and windows to applaud the work of those in essential services with protracted clapping and clanging of utensils.

India has seen large-scale mass movements before, of course, but they have been political. From Mahatma Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement to Jayaprakash Narayan’s challenge to Indira Gandhi’s continuance, impassioned millions thronged the streets. And despite stated objectives to the contrary, violence invariably ensued.

But never before had India seen the buy-in, on such a grand scale, totally peacefully, of so many of its citizens for a social cause. Yes, there were a few who came out onto the streets in a misguided, celebratory mood. But they were a tiny fraction of those who joined in from their homes, in the true spirit of what was being attempted.

The reason this exercise was important has to do with democracy and State capacity. Authoritarian states like China can, and did, clamp down hard in enforcing social distancing. Of course, China bears culpability for suppressing information about the coronavirus in the initial weeks, to the extent of harassing and disciplining the first whistle-blower doctor. But in a first after decades, it demonstrated something heretofore unimaginable in the 21st century, that shutting down entire cities and provinces was not only conceivable but also doable.

Democracies find it harder to emulate that sort of brutal, top-down policymaking and enforcement. Examples abound in this particular crisis itself, with various democracies reacting at different speeds. All democracies, by definition, are burdened by slower decision-making than authoritarian ones. The ones that did take tough decisions faster did so, more likely, because of cultural attributes than any inherent systemic speed.

As the largest, most diverse democracy, India is no exception. In fact, over the seven decades in which it has been gradually rediscovering its historic relevance after centuries of slide, India has often been found wanting in State capacity on a variety of fronts. Unlike in China, therefore, no one, not even the most popular prime minister (PM) in decades, could simply snap his fingers and expect to successfully enforce a lockdown. Millions of argumentative Indians would have resisted, not for rational reasons, but due to long inculcated discomfort with diktats.Thus, democracies require leaders who excel at communicating with the masses, especially during crises. And that, unarguably, is this PM’s forte. Even leaving aside his ability to rally the electorate during campaigning — which has resulted in the biggest mandates in decades — there are plenty of other examples.

Narendra Modi’s messianic zeal in uniting millions for a social cause, simply by the power of exhortation, has been on display many times. His reigniting of the national consciousness towards public hygiene through the Swachh Bharat Mission was initially mocked by opponents. But six years down the line, it is widely acknowledged as having begun showing results. There is still a long way to go, but changes in attitudes are discernible.

Similarly, among many other examples, another one that stood out was the PM’s appeal to middle-class beneficiaries of subsidised cooking gas cylinders to voluntarily surrender them. Over 10 million Indians did so, enabling subsidies to be directed to the needy.

Nevertheless, to stop a pandemic in its tracks in a country like India, exhortation is a necessary but not sufficient precondition. Strict enforcement is unavoidable. Though large segments of the population are convinced of the need for social isolation, a few can still be seen violating the lockdown. Whether they are not yet convinced or are indisciplined, harsh enforcement of public health guidelines must be put in place.

As these weeks grind on, there will be many challenges. The marshalling of enormous resources will be required. The big package announced this week for the most economically vulnerable citizens is a crucial component. The government is surely working on more such measures. And yes, from time to time, exhortations from the top will continue to be needed.

People’s right to dissent does not mean taking the law into their hands| Analysis

The capital’s worst riots in decades have now mercifully been contained, albeit with the dreadful loss of dozens of lives. It can hardly be coincidental that after simmering under the surface for two months, amid sporadic incidents, violence suddenly flared on the day that United States (US) President Donald Trump visited Delhi. It is another matter that the visit proved to be a big success, with significant progress in the bilateral relationship of the world’s two largest democracies.

Worryingly, even in such circumstances, conflicting, partisan narratives continue to prevail, when what is desperately needed is objectivity and restraint, but also clear red lines and firm, resolute enforcement of those. But that is easier said than done.

While it is easy to criticise Delhi Police, their predicament is worth pondering over. First, there is the fatigue factor of having had to continually be on edge during two months of protests, during which they were repeatedly attacked with stones, not to mention shot at and had acid thrown on them.

Next, whether they chased stone pelters from outside Jamia Millia Islamia into the university’s library, or refrained from going inside the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus when vandals went on a rampage there, they faced opprobrium. Third, in this age of heightened alertness to potential human rights accusations, their dilemma in choosing between stern proactive steps, and waiting for the general public to accept the need for a crackdown, must be a tricky path to navigate.

It is no exaggeration to say that the police were being battered physically and psychologically from all sides. In the meantime, while the Supreme Court (SC) refused to intervene in public interest litigations (PILs) against the police action at Jamia, saying the maintenance of law and order was the first priority, it was far more ambiguous on the extended agitation at Shaheen Bagh.

The SC commented that agitators did not have an inherent right to blockade roads and inconvenience the public. But it declined to pass an order, leaving it to the police to decide what to do, while reserving the option to decide later if they took the right decision. As the agitation carried on, the court even sent out mediators instead of pronouncing judgment. Finally, with many of their ranks injured and one stoned to death, it should hardly be a surprise if the police were demoralised and indecisive.

One aspect that stood out during the past weeks was the apparent polarisation in the media. When some journalists perceived to be sympathetic to the government were manhandled by protesters at Shaheen Bagh, not all in their fraternity condemned it. But that sad situation came full circle in recent days when some among those considered anti-establishment also faced physical assault at the hands of another set of violent protesters.

Similarly, incendiary statements from the Shaheen Bagh protesters, activists, celebrities, as well as several politicians from around the nation yielded partisan responses. This tribalism, of responding to every development through an “us vs them” prism is, of course, not unique to India. And although more vociferously alleged by those on the Left against their opponents, it reigns across the political spectrum. In fact, in recent decades, it has become the norm in democracies around the globe.

Which is why President Trump’s India visit saw both politicians and some in the media, in both India and the US, react in noticeably partisan terms. Sadly, even India’s largest opposition party, which had itself prioritised this relationship when in government, turned critical of the Trump visit. And for no good reason, from an Indian perspective, other than the chemistry he seems to have with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

And therein lies the crux of the issue. The more that the PM has grown in stature, the more some seem determined to oppose him at any cost, without regard to principles or consequences. Nothing else can explain their rabid opposition to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA, the principle of which has been espoused by every major Indian leader from Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh, the last non-BJP prime minister.

It is cynical when most political opponents of Modi privately acknowledge that the CAA itself neither discriminates nor poses any threat to any Indian citizen, of any religion. Some do have objections to the possibility of a National Register of Citizens (NRC), although there is as yet no formal proposal for it. If there were to be one, they could, of course, oppose it, go to court, make it an election issue, and even agitate against it.

But the anti-CAA agitation, which has deliberately misled many Muslims into believing they would be disenfranchised, is misguided at best, and malevolent at worst. Of course, all of us have the right to dissent. But that dissent either must not include taking the law into our hands, such as vandalising public property, blocking public roads, and assaulting people, or we must concede that our opponents have just as much right to do the same. It is time thinking Indians stood on principles, and not on personalities, likes and dislikes.

Naxalism in India

Article Title:”The soil isn’t coloured red”

The coyness with which Indian politicians desist from publicly describing Naxalites as terrorists is telling. But ask them privately,as I have of many,and a surprisingly large number of them have no compunction in saying that “encounters are the only way to deal with them.These anonymous endorsements for dispensing summary justice by way of staged encounters where police and paramilitary forces are encouraged to gun down suspects in cold blood also speak volumes about political correctness in the largest democracy on earth.

India has long been called a soft state when it comes to taking hard headed decisions in the national interest that is,taking those decisions in time,well before years of festering brings the country to the brink of calamity. After years of the central government pretending that Naxalism was a state level problem,we are now at that brink nationally. In large swathes of the country today,the writ of the state has been replaced by that of the Naxals,who collect taxes,hold trials,issue punishment (including executions),recruit and operate a standing army,and are deeply dedicated to overthrowing the six-decade old Republic of India.

It is,of course,the failure of the republic to improve the lives of hundreds of millions of Indians that created the conditions for Naxalism to grow in the first place. This original sin has underpinned the guilt-ridden response of many liberals. Naxalism is not a law and order problem,goes the argument; it is a socio-economic one. The reality,of course,is that it is both. The tragedy is that the debate on how to deal with Naxalism invariably treats the problem as one or the other  that is,either a law and order problem,to be dealt with harshly,or a socio-economic problem,to be tackled with dialogue and development  when what is probably required is to do both.

The origins of Naxalism might lie in socio-economic injustices,but the movement has long since gone past the stage of fighting for social justice and development. In fact,and this is what the liberal viewpoint often misses out,the Naxalites today actively oppose any form of developmental activity,be it the construction of roads,schools,hospitals,anything whatsoever,with the cold-blooded aim of securing their turf. Their sole objective today is to ruthlessly keep hammering away at the organs of the state until the state is no more. The movement is explicitly committed to dismantling the republic,doing away with elections,closing down the media,and,by way of its sympathy for regional breakaway groups,chopping up the country.

So are they terrorists or not? The only stretch by which it could be argued that they don’t meet all the characteristics of terrorists  as opposed to militants or freedom fighters of some kind  is that they do not officially target innocent civilians. But ask those who understand the problem best,those who have studied the Naxals credo and have actually risked their lives in the frontlines,and they will tell you that there is no doubt at all.

Does that mean that dialogue with them should be out of the question,military-style action the only option? Not exactly. National policy must first distinguish that all Naxals are not equal. Many of the Naxal elite are college and university educated,they form the core of the CPI (Maoist) party,are its ideologues,and aspire to come to power some day. They must be tackled differently from the grunts,the disaffected tribals and other disenfranchised Indians who are the indoctrinated foot soldiers.

The central government has finally put together a grand plan,which will hugely increase boots on the ground to fight fire with fire. Those of us from Naxal-affected states had for years been wondering when Delhi was going to wake up and smell the coffee. Delhi seems to have not only smelled the coffee,but ingested a large dose of testosterone as well. But while hitting back with firepower is a necessary evil  necessary because the policy needs to have both carrot and stick  it will sadly not be enough.

The Naxals have been preparing for this day for years. They believe they have the upper hand in guerrilla type hit-and-run jungle warfare against the paramilitary forces being massed against them. They will also not hesitate to use as cannon fodder their cadre of foot soldiers. While the resolve of the Government of India will surely be tested,that of the Naxalites will not be,until and unless their core leadership,their ideologues,are engaged.

It is here that dialogue,track two discussions,could help. As in other militant movements in the North East for instance resolute military action combined with astute discussions could help to bring them into the mainstream. But there are those who maintain that dialogue is not the only complement to massive armed action. A retired civil servant with experience of such matters recently told me that talks are a waste of time,but a hundred or more top (Naxal) leaders need to be wiped out by targeted action,just the way it was done in Punjab before the terrorism there could be solved,and exactly how progress has been made in Andhra Pradesh.

There is hidden irony in the underlying similarity of these vastly different approaches talks vs. encounters  in that both doves and hawks are unwittingly saying the same thing: the massive armed action being readied now will run into expendable,and renewable,low-level Naxalites; what is also needed is a plan to tackle their leaders.