Archive for the ‘Asia’ Category



Should Pakistan Welcome Modi’s Election in India?

As others have reported today, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in India’s parliamentary elections this month. It’s the first time that a single party has won a clear majority in an Indian election in three decades.

The BJP’s victory will bring Narendra Modi to power as India’s next prime minister. As Ankit and I talk abouton the podcast today, Modi and the BJP’s victory are in many ways a nightmare for Pakistan. The BJP is a Hindu nationalist party, and both Modi and the BJP have been perceived as being especially hardline when it comes to Pakistan.

Ankit, for instance, pointed out that Modi has suggested that India might conduct covert cross-border raidstargeting specific Pakistan-based anti-India terrorists. Another harrowing possibility is that Pakistan-based terrorists, at least assumed to be working in cohort with Pakistani terrorists, will carry out another major terrorist attack in India in the mold of the 2001 bombing of the Indian Parliament building or the siege of Mumbai in 2008. A BJP government under Modi is unlikely to act with the same restraint that the outgoing UPA government has shown in these incidents.

Even if incidents as dramatic as these don’t materialize, Modi and the BJP’s victory could put the brakes on the nascent Indo-Pakistani détente. As The Diplomat has reported, since Nawaz Sharif’s assumption of power in Pakistan in 2013, India and Pakistan have made small but notable progress in expanding trade and people-to-people ties. It’s possible that Modi will reverse course on this front, which is probably one reason Sharif has been so quick to reach out to Modi and congratulate him on his victory.

Although none of these possibilities should be dismissed, it’s possible that Modi will actually become an asset for Pakistan on a couple of fronts.

First, the BJP in general and Modi in particular have been widely criticized as being anti-Muslim. Most notably, many believe Modi either acquiesced in or actively encouraged the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat back in 2002. At the very least, Muslims in India are extremely wary of Modi and the BJP at present. If actions and rhetoric in the ensuing months and years confirm their current suspicions, Indian Muslims and other non-Hindu Indians are likely to become extremely dissatisfied.

Moreover, if the Indian government enacts egregious anti-Muslim policies, or condones anti-Muslim actions (especially something like the Gujarat riots in 2002), this will hurt India’s image in the international community, particularly among Western nations like the U.S. and Muslim nations in the Middle East. Pakistan will have opportunities to exploit this dissatisfaction among Indian Muslims, although it will have to tread carefully so as not to provoke Delhi into a kinetic conflict. At the same time, it will benefit from India’s image suffering in the court of international opinion.

Second, Modi’s premiership might push China even closer to Pakistan. As Ankit discussed on the podcast today, it’s not clear that Modi will take a hard line against China, especially given the importance he places on economic growth. Still, if history is any guide a BJP prime minister is likely to see China with greater alarm than a Congress Party leader. And if India adopts more hardline policies towards China, Pakistan becomes a bigger asset in the eyes of Beijing. This would be extremely beneficial to Islamabad, given its desperate need for Chinese assistance and aid in numerous areas, especially as the U.S. is likely to reduce its own aid to Pakistan as it withdraws from Afghanistan.

Thus, while on the surface Modi’s electoral victory is unsettling to Pakistan, it may ultimately work out in its favor.


Published on 17 May, 2014 in


Fires in Vietnam could ultimately burn Beijing

Written on May 19, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Asia, Foreign Policy, News, Security

The spilling of blood and burning of factories by anti-Chinese rioters sweeping across Vietnamreinforces Beijing’s message to other countries claiming territory in the South China Sea: resistance is costly and ultimately futile.

But a region in which anti-Chinese sentiment grows and where sovereignty disputes disrupt trade and economic growth will burn Beijing as well. Over the long term, a commitment to peaceful dispute resolution in accordance with international law, including some concessions on historic claims, would serve China better than its current path.

China made the provocative first move in this latest incident by deploying a massive oil rig to the contested Paracel Islands. There was no doubt that Vietnam would respond, and China prepared by sending an armada of 80 ships — including seven naval vessels along with the rig. The two countries’ maritime forces are now locked in a standoff with aggressive and dangerous maneuvers, water canons and collisions at sea.

Deploying the oil rig allows Beijing to show that Vietnam is in a lose-lose situation when faced with Chinese aggression. If Hanoi ignores the Chinese move, it allows “new facts on the water” that will bolster China’s legal claims down the road. If it resists, its coast guard and navy will be dragged into a long and costly contest against a stronger force. And if the dispute continues to spark violent protests at home by angry Vietnamese nationalists, investment and international confidence gets disrupted for Vietnam — not China.

vietnam222China does not want open conflict with its neighbors, but when it comes to territorial disputes, the Chinese government has decided it can play hardball with little risk. It can push just enough to advance its own claims, but avoid serious conflict or war by deescalating before things get out of hand.

Beyond the oil rig, Chinese actions in this vein include new construction on contested reefs and shoals occupied by China; patrols and ceremonies on islands claimed by other nations like Malaysia; unilateral fishing bans imposed on other nations while China tolerates illegal fishing and harvesting of coral by Chinese fishermen; and many more. At the same time, China continues to participate in negotiations on a Code of Conduct among the countries it bullies, intended to prevent conflict and prohibit exactly this kind of behavior.

For Chinese leaders committed to defending what they view to be Chinese territory, this aggressive path makes sense for two reasons. First, it teaches the smaller maritime nations of Southeast Asia that they’re better off accommodating Chinese claims than resisting them. In essence, China is saying “we can do this the easy way or the hard way.”

Second, China knows that its most important claims — like the nine-dash line covering most of the South China Sea — are not well-founded under contemporary international law. By taking aggressive steps now, Beijing can establish a track record of presence and activity that will position China better if it ever needs to clarify claims in accordance with international law, as called for by the United States and other nations.

But this strategy is bold, not wise. Beijing’s actions carry significant risk, and mask a tension between China’s short and long-term goals. Sailors or airmen in tense standoffs could miscalculate and spark an incident that demands military escalation. Countries like Vietnam could also decide to take a stand and choose to fight rather than give in to Chinese pressure. Yet that decision would be calamitous: the last time China and Vietnam went to war, in 1979, about 60,000 people were killed. China would not benefit from such conflict in Asia, especially if it took the blame for derailing Asia’s long run of peace and progress.

Even if it avoids war, China can overplay this hand to such a degree that Southeast Asian nations defy history and join together to resist domination by a resurgent Middle Kingdom. The 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) are far from forming an alliance and have no tradition of such banding together, but ASEAN has grown stronger and is welcoming a greater U.S. role in the region, in part because of China’s assertiveness.

For now, Beijing’s refrain seems to be from the Rolling Stones: “don’t play with me ‘cause you’re playing with fire.” Chinese leaders think the fire will only burn their rivals. They are wrong.


By Vikram J. Singh; MAY 16, 2014

IT is well that we contemplate the abyss, if only to avoid it. This year we particularly remember the ghastly disaster of 100 years ago, when an almost unfathomable complacency shared by the European elite threw a generation into the fire of the First World War, almost as an afterthought. A century on from the fields of Waterloo, statesmen then assumed a general peace to be the rule, rather than a miraculous exception.

This overly sanguine state of mind seems to be every bit as present today as it was in the fateful year of 1914. Everyone knows that tensions are brewing in the seas around China, as Beijing claims the rights to territorial waters at the expense of most of its worried neighbours. But, says conventional wisdom, “So what? A little muscle flexing is to be expected, given the meteoric rise of Beijing, and its understandable determination to safeguard the sea-based trade routes around its shores. A little sabre rattling is all this amounts to.”

For many analysts, last week’s most recent dust-up – this time between Beijing and Vietnam in the South China Sea – is simply more of the same. A flotilla of Chinese ships have been ramming into and firing water cannon at Vietnamese government vessels trying to stop Beijing from constructing an oil rig 140 miles off the Vietnamese coast. Yes, the Chinese are playing hardball and it’s not very nice, say the gormless analytical descendants of 1914. But after all, Beijing wouldn’t jeopardise the present world order, particularly as they are doing so well by it.

Much the same was said after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, that a rising Germany surely wouldn’t risk its improving global standing over an unpleasant – but seemingly peripheral – incident. But if history teaches us anything, it is that states and especially statesmen do not always act in their best interests. 1914 reminds us that sometimes mini-crises ignite powder kegs beneath them.

Perhaps most hauntingly, the outline of the present order in Asia that surrounds these events resembles nothing so much as the supposedly “unsinkable” pre-1914 world. Barack Obama’s America is Edwardian Britain incarnate. For their time, both were easily the most powerful country in the world, while both being in relative decline. Alone among the great powers, Britain and America were omnipresent – both economically and in terms of their first-class navies – while not being omnipotent. Nothing could be done without them, but they alone did not possess enough power to guarantee the global international order on their own.

China fits the bill as the Kaiser’s Germany, a rising economic and military power bristling with nationalist indignation at perceived slights – both real and imagined – and increasingly believing its rise cannot be accommodated by the present order.

If Beijing makes for a worryingly effective Germany, Prime Minister Abe’s Japan is Third Republic France to a tee. As declining regional powers – beset by economic torpor and falling relatively further behind strategically – they were both directly threatened by aggressive neighbours. Both placed their hopes in alliances with the declining hegemon, respectively the UK and the US.

Even the milieu in which the 1914 analogy operates is strikingly similar. Currently, China is exploiting incidents in the seas around it to test the willingness of the US to stand behind its treaty commitments to allies like Japan and the Philippines, just as in the decade before the Great War the Kaiser provoked a series of international crises to see if Britain would really come to the defence of France under the gun. Ironically in both cases, the rising power miscalculated, making a general war far more likely as arms races broke out, wherein Japan/East Asia and France quickly armed themselves to the teeth in response to their menacing foes.

Given the almost exact correlation between the structural worlds of 1914 and 2014, alarm bells really ought to be ringing. It is far too early to give up on the notion of accommodating China’s peaceful rise. However, at the same time as Washington tries to bind China into the present order, it must hedge against Beijing following the Kaiser’s disastrous path. Instead, America must link India, Australia, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the other East Asian states into a more cohesive system, through free trade or military ties, making the price for China bucking the present order ever higher.

By pursuing this dual strategy, the US can improve the chances that the apocalyptic 1914 analogy fails to come to pass.

Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., and president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (, a global political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of Ethical Realism, The Godfather Doctrine, and most recently Lawrence of Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again.

Published on 12 May in


At last, a ray of hope for Afghanistan

Written on April 28, 2014 by Waya Quiviger in Asia, Democracy & Human Rights, News

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, front-runner to succeed Hamid Karzai.

Provisional results from the first round of Afghanistan’s presidential election look as if they will stand the test of tortuous fraud checks and complaint processes. Decisive margins make them robust. AlthoughAbdullah Abdullah, who emerged in the lead, has raised serious concerns about fraud, the first round should leave him facing Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, in a run-off.

Both Abdullah, a veteran of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and Ghani say they are ready for the second round, as electoral law requires. But a winner-takes-all contest is not the only way this contest could end. Abdullah set a precedent in 2009 by pulling out of the second round. That allowed Hamid Karzai to be declared elected unopposed. This time, many Afghans expect a deal between the two leading candidates to form a unity government and avoid a second round. This would entail Abdullah and his running mates taking the presidential and vice presidential slots but drawing on the other campaign teams to form the new administration.

There are powerful reasons why a hybrid administration might be best for Afghanistan. It would be a case of collectively quitting while you are ahead. The Taliban, after failing to disrupt the first round are delighted to get a replay in which they can inflict more damage. Countless election workers and security personnel will pay with their lives if Abdullah and Ghani fail to reach a deal.

The purpose of the election was to allow Afghans to choose a legitimate successor to Karzai. If Ghani endorses Abdullah, together they can claim the support of 75% of voters, far more than any sole candidate will ever obtain. There is a pluralism argument also. Afghanistan has four main ethnic groups, the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks. Both candidates deserve credit for campaigning in all regions, seeking cross-community support and articulating reform programmes. But on polling day, broadly speaking, Tajiks and Hazaras backed Abdullah and Pashtuns and Uzbeks backed Ghani. A run-off would become more divisively ethnicised, with Ghani obliged to rally the Pashtuns, undermining the idea of an inclusive administration with which all Afghans can identify.

Either candidate has the right to insist on the run-off – Ghani because he believes he can win or Abdullah to avoid coalition politics. Abdullah would start favourite. On a similar turnout he would need under 400,000 extra votes, attainable by attracting the supporters of either the number three or number four candidates. Ghani would need one million extra votes, equivalent to the total of both numbers three and four. For either of them and for the country as a whole, round two is a gamble.

Whether the election ends with a deal or after a run off, the six million votes cast this month constitute a powerful mandate. The voters’ message contrasts with the bigotry underpinning recent violence. All major comunities of the country want to be represented in the Kabul-based political system but want it cleaned up and reformed. They rejected the insurgents’ authoritarian alternative and showed little interest in those hardline Islamists who stood. They want to keep Afghanistan’s link to the west and an end to baiting its allies.

This calls for significant changes in how the country is run. But there will be tough bargaining within the Afghan elite before we see who gets to exercise the mandate. And the five British soldiers’ deaths in Kandahar over the weekend are a reminder of the high cost of the security umbrella which that elite has required to get this far.

Published on 27 April in the Guardian


As with any presidency, Barack Obama’s agenda has been heavily driven by external events. His landmark foreign policy initiative (if one doesn’t count ending the two wars in the Middle East) was supposed to be the so-called pivot to Asia. Instead, events at home — such as the government shutdown — and abroad have repeatedly hijacked the White House’s foreign policy agenda. But rather than bemoaning this, the president should now prioritize the Ukraine crisis in order to also rescue the Asia pivot.

This, of course, is a tough message for Obama to deliver to America’s allies in Asia when he arrives in the region this week. Countries such as Japan and South Korea, who originally welcomed the pivot to Asia with open arms, have lately grown wearier about Washington’s follow-through. They want to see a stronger security and political commitment from the United States.

These Asian allies may now worry that the Ukraine crisis will further jeopardize the U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific by consuming valuable time, energy and resources. Obama must therefore use some of his face time with Asian leaders to explain to them why they too have an interest in Washington focusing on Europe at the moment. In fact, there are several good reasons why doing so could be a good thing for the Asia pivot. Let’s consider three of them.

First, and perhaps most obvious, the situation in Ukraine is still very tense and can easily take a turn for the worse. The most serious crisis since the Cold War, Ukraine illustrates that Europe is still far from “whole and free.” Countries such as Moldova and Georgia or the Western Balkans may well be next in line for Putin. Unless the United States steps up its efforts, it could risk getting bogged down in potential future crises in the region. Asian allies should therefore welcome efforts to complete the European project once and for all.

At the same time, it’s in the long-term interest of both the United States and its Asian allies to get capable European countries to assume more responsibility for their own neighborhood. Such a “new transatlantic bargain” would allow America to focus its attention elsewhere in the world. Conversely, Europe should support America’s growing role in the Asia-Pacific even if this means less American troops in Europe in the future. In no way does the pivot to Asia mean Washington is pulling back from its commitments to European security. Read more…

Erik Brattberg is a Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.

Published on April 22, 2014 in

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