Sunday 27 December 2020

PLA ally GHQ Rawalpindi's terror toolkit makes deadly progress ( Sunday Guardian)

A cauldron is brewing in parts of Pakistan, Taliban-controlled segments of Afghanistan, radical enclaves in Libya and Syria. This is the intensified and covert training by “retired” or “on leave” officers of the Pakistan Army, who are training youths in the kind of warfare that is carried out by extremist fighters across the world. While India is the primary (some would say, the only) target for GHQ Rawalpindi, some in other countries active in the campaign to spread Wahhabi extremism have other priorities. Theirs are Europe and the United States. The objective is to train and infiltrate (or send back) fighters to these locations as would prepare themselves for strikes either when ordered to do so by the higher commands of extremist groups or when an opportunity arises to carry out a successful strike. The risk in imparting such radicalization and training is that more than a few of those who get through the process may no longer be amenable to direction even from the trainers or their associates, and may veer off into directions that cause severe consequences. Pakistan itself is witnessing such a situation, with several groups making their own country the principal target. GHQ (Rawalpindi) seeking to pin the blame for their own folly on India is an excuse that few find plausible.

What is becoming a worrying development is the Nelson’s Eye that the Central Military Commission of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has turned towards the asymmetric warfare activities of GHQ Rawalpindi, its “iron brother”. Open support has been given to internationally identified terrorists by the Chinese delegation in the UN Security Council, stepping back only when such backing isolated the PRC within the UNSC. That GHQ(R) is fully aware and indeed complicit in the activities of trainers and handlers of extremist fighter groups in multiple theatres has now become evident even to those inclined to accept such arguments as that A.Q. Khan was a Lone Wolf rather than the public face of a systems-operated nuclear smuggling cabal. Now the spotlight has moved to the PLA, in the light of its increasing involvement even in tactical moves by GHQ(R) against common targets, principally India, but also operations involving both diplomats as well as agents of influence in countries such as the US. In this country, the diplomatic footprint of Pakistan is better tolerated than that of the PRC since the intensification of Cold War 2.0 in 2017. How much does the CMC know about the operations of the terror associates nurtured by elements in the Pakistan Army? What is the extent of logistical and other support given to such covert and irregular warfare activities by the PLA, which has long been aware of the nature of the terror training, facilitation and operations conducted by GHQ(Rawalpindi) in Afghanistan and India, and in recent times, Sri Lanka and Nepal? Assisting the conventional forces of Pakistan is a less than friendly action in a context where India has, from the foundation of that country in 1947, been the primary target of hostile activities. Facilitation of such activities of GHQ(R) by the PLA would cross a red line in terms of the Sino-Indian relationship. On an even broader scale, any knowledge and tacit acceptance of the training operations undertaken by retired and “on leave” elements of the Pakistan Army in locations other than in South Asia would pose a security challenge to countries in the EU as also the US, given that these are the principal focus of attention of several such groups. A situation is developing in which the diplomatic and other costs of the complete backing given by the PLA to GHQ(R) may become apparent even to those in the CCP who for long have looked away from the reality of the nature of the Pakistan military. In the pursuit of tactical gains, strategic objectives may get sacrificed by Beijing’s policy of backing for the entire gamut of operations of the military in Pakistan and the facilitation of such operations. The blame would fall on both the trainers as well as those who knew about such activities but did nothing to stop them, and indeed in several instances facilitated them. Such blame would fall even in the case of terror attacks outside of those directed by the Pakistan trainers and their principals. As mentioned, in several of the theatres where such training is taking place, it is not India that is the eventual target, but the EU and the US.


Quarters hostile to US interests may wish to teach the Biden administration a lesson and may turn to terror groups as a low cost, deniable option to secure such an outcome. Groups that are being trained and equipped on the pretext of fighting “good” wars could be secretly mobilised to cause a series of terror strikes within the US or on US targets overseas that would bring into disrepute the ability of the White House to control a monster that had for several years been in check. Backing the Haqqani network is an example of such policies, as this network has caused the killing and maiming of US soldiers on a substantial scale. Deniability is becoming difficult. When the A.Q. Khan network was discovered, it was apparently accepted in several chancelleries that the scientist was a solo operator running a vast network of nuclear smuggling and espionage without the backing and indeed the knowledge of GHQ Rawalpindi. In contrast, should the main players be identified in the ongoing effort to recruit and train clusters of extremist fighters to operate in locations such as SE Asia, India and the US, it will be difficult to argue that they operated without the knowledge of those in charge of a subcontinental military that has made little secret of its reliance on extremist terror as an acceptable tactic of war. Or the military partner that has emerged as its key provider of weapons and support across different levels and areas of operation, the PLA. The problem that has now to be confronted so far as the major democracies are concerned is that GHQ Rawalpindi has an all-weather (all-tactic) partnership with a powerful military, the PLA, that is itself allied to the armed forces of the Russian Federation. The vast country led by President V.V. Putin remains among the top military powers of the world. Will the use of terror strikes as a tactic continue to be accepted as kosher, or will such an inhumane option be rejected by the partners of GHQ Rawalpindi? That retired or “on leave” officials cannot but leave a trail sufficient for monitoring by several agencies is as obvious as the fact that A.Q. Khan was only the face of a network that was operating in connivance with the military establishment of Pakistan. The ever closer strategic and tactical relationship between the PLA and GHQ Rawalpindi in the context of Cold War 2.0 has yet to have several of its dimensions explored by the countries affected. This is a lapse that may have consequences as severe during the period in the White House of Joseph R. Biden Jr as it was early into the George W. Bush administration. The use of asymmetric warfare to weaken a foe openly or covertly is not a skill that can be used exclusively in operations against India. Extremist fighters being trained across parts of Asia and North Africa could perform the task of teaching a painful lesson and damaging the image and credibility of an incoming administration that—to the surprise of those who believe Joe Biden to be a weak leader—may take vigorous steps to ensure that US primacy is not surrendered in the coming period to a challenger much stronger than was the Soviet Union in its prime, the People’s Republic of China. The extent of contact at different levels between the PLA and GHQ Rawalpindi, especially given the track record of the latter, needs more attention, especially if a policy of active defence rather than the passive retreat seen during the Clinton and at least six of the Obama years gets carried out by the Pentagon against threats to US and allied interests.


The Chinese Communist Party leadership core has long been aware that at some stage in the future, there will almost certainly be kinetic contact between the PLA and the US military. This may escalate to a scale significant enough to alter the geopolitical destiny of the losing nation. During the 1930s, it was clear to Communist Party of the Soviet Union General Secretary J.V. Stalin that war with Germany was inevitable. What he sought to do was to postpone it until the then NSDAP-ruled state became weakened by wars in its west, while the USSR grew in military strength. Production of weapons and munitions multiplied significantly, rising rather than falling after the non-aggression pact between the two countries was signed on 23 August 1939 by the foreign ministers of both sides. The treaty specified a period of ten years during which neither side would wage war against the other, a time limit that exposed the flimsy underpinning of the pact. Earlier, Hitler had bowled a googly to Stalin, planting a fake dossier that purported to show that the higher echelons of the Red Army were infested with agents of the Nazi regime. Stalin fell for the trap and executed more than 30,000 officers, including 86 generals. The best military minds in the country were killed from 1936 onwards not by the German armed forces but by the government to which the soldiers who were executed had been loyal. Fake dossiers manufactured within the Abwehr (German military secret service) continued to be sent to Stalin pinpointing army officers that the Wehrmacht (German army) knew were fluent in tactics and courageous in spirit. Stalin killed them until the close of 1942, by which time Alan Turing broke the German code machines so that every secret intercept between German forces was accessible to the British scientists at Bletchley Park. Communist sympathisers within the pool of those with access to the intercepts were able to convey almost as much of them as was provided by the British side to the US. The flow of information conveyed through official channels by London to Moscow was far below what was sent to Washington, but Stalin made up most of the gap through his spies. Only then did the Soviet dictator understand how he had been duped into decapitating his own military. From then onwards, he became more respectful of the generals, a list that included marshals of the calibre of Rokossovsky, Zhukov and Chuikov, who used the information given to them by the code-breakers at Bletchley to escape German traps and design more of their own such that the tide of war turned by the initial months of 1943. Fast forward to the present, where in countries regarded as hostile or potentially hostile by China and its ally the Russian Federation, fake dossiers have been sought to be planted about those in policymaking circles that the Sino-Russian alliance would like to get out of the way. In these dossiers, such individuals are presented as dupes or agents of the alliance rather than what they are in reality, its deadly foes. In countries where counter-espionage processes are weak or where corruption is rife even within sections of the intelligence community, such operations have met with some success, although far from the scale witnessed in the Soviet Union that began in 1936 and tapered off only in 1942, after the secrets of Enigma were revealed to the Kremlin and efforts at spreading disinformation by the German side became largely ineffective.

The Russian Federation is not the Soviet Union, and has no ambition of replacing the US as the primary power of the world in the manner that the USSR had until the declining years of CPSU General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. These began in 1975. From then onwards, the USSR played defense rather than offense with the US-led alliance, until even that was replaced by retreat by Mikhail Gorbachev in his effort to make the Soviet Union a hybrid mix of communism and social democracy with assistance expected from the very powers committed to its destruction, the major members of NATO. The adoption of the Gandhian creed of ahimsa by Gorbachev led to the speedy dissolution of the Soviet bloc and soon afterwards, that of the USSR itself. Thereafter, US President Bill Clinton sought to convert Russia into a third class power, working to drain it of scientific and technological capability, while Germany and France ensured that Russia would never have the gate to the European federal experiment opened to it, lest Moscow overshadow Berlin and Paris by its size and potential, not to mention the immense latent capability of the Russian people. Once Vladimir Putin ensured a lengthy rather than a truncated stint in power, efforts by major NATO powers at boxing in Russia expanded in scope, with the consequence that an alliance with Beijing was the only option available to Moscow for its continued salience as a Great Power. Aware that it was only a matter of time before tensions with the US intensified as a consequence of the expansion of PRC capability and influence, by 2004 the Russia-PRC border was settled on terms favourable to Moscow, a factor that has contributed to the strengthening of the alliance between the former superpower and the present superpower. Had the PRC leadership not agreed to the concessions made to secure the agreement, the Sino-Russian alliance would not have been the factor that it now is. At least so long as President Putin and General Secretary Xi are in charge of their respective countries, the Sino-Russian alliance will endure. Indeed, it may reach a level such that even a leadership change may have little effect on this significant partnership that challenges the primacy of the US and its allies in the Indo-Pacific and later the Atlantic. This is a fact not clear to more than a few policymakers in Delhi’s Lutyens Zone, as also to their counterparts in the Washington Beltway. The Biden team in particular has several elements wedded to a view of the world that became obsolete before the close of the previous century.


The problem facing India in the context of its relationship with Russia is the reality of GHQ Rawalpindi being an apparently indispensable accompaniment to many activities involving the PLA. Although the fact was not apparent at the time, the effort under Leonid Brezhnev to make Afghanistan a country firmly tethered to the Soviet bloc ultimately resulted in much grief to the USSR. Such a disaster did not begin with the invasion and attempted occupation of Afghanistan in 1979 but more than a decade earlier, with varying degrees of support being provided by the Kremlin to selected Afghan leaders in an effort to make that country a “reliable” partner. In much the same way, the constantly expanding linkages between Pakistan and the PRC are almost certainly going to entail a substantial cost to Beijing, and not just in terms of the money spent. As long as the Pakistan military together with an alternating handful of prominent families ran the governance structure in that inherently unstable country, the involvement of Beijing in the internal workings of its all weather and iron friend could be kept within safe limits. As the power of the military fades and opposition to the men in khaki increases, and as a multiplicity of significant players emerge from within the cauldron of policy and politics in Pakistan, the CCP will need to deal with an expanding number of players. Such contact will need to be of a level of involvement as would generate counter-forces, which would in turn necessitate additional effort in ensuring an authority matrix that safeguards the rising level of interests in the country of the world’s other superpower. The US got out of Pakistan in time, although its stint there has done great damage to itself and to other countries, including several friends. Entering a zone of rising geopolitical risk without an exit strategy may in course of time be accepted within the CCP leadership as the mistake it is. Included in the collateral damage caused by the expansion and depth of PRC involvement in Pakistan, much of it caused by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, is the relationship of China with India. Since the 3 May intrusions and the 15 June clash at Galwan, the disaggregation between action on the border and commercial linkages between the two most populous countries of the world has ended. The trajectory of such relations will go the same way as the situation on the border, which is unlikely to improve in a situation where the expertise on India (including its military) comes substantially from an entity that focuses entirely on its own interests, GHQ Rawalpindi. In the past, the Pakistani “tail” wagged the US dog, more recently in Afghanistan after 9/11, when reliance on suggestions from the Pakistan Army finally resulted in the kowtow to the Taliban by the White House at Doha not long ago. Had wiser counsel been adopted, that entity would have been as inconsequential a force as the alliance between the US and the Northern Alliance made it in four short months in 2001 that ended with the suicidal concession made by Bush and Cheney at Kunduz in November that enabled both the Taliban as well as Al Qaeda to survive and fight another day when the US-Northern Alliance had the leadership of both groups at their mercy. Although the players are different, this may be compared to Hitler’s decision to call off Heinz Guderian, when the general and his tanks closed in on Dunkirk, thereby enabling the British military to survive the fiasco in France rather than become PoWs and to the network of alliances.


The CCP has no illusions about the reality of the PRC being in a conflict with the US over global primacy, although it would prefer that this remain non-kinetic. A thousand cuts (the ultimate Imperial Chinese punishment) on that country from a miscellany of forces could weaken at least the resolve of Washington to challenge Beijing much more assertively than was the case during the Obama administration in the South China sea, where Beijing got what it wanted and the US got some high-octane optics of ships plying the waters but nothing more. In substance, this is what has been taking place even during the “assertive” term in office of Donald J. Trump. The militarisation of the South China Sea proceeds without any let-up, and the effort by the PRC is to get ASEAN to agree to a Code of Conduct that would legitimize its sway over the waters. Apart from Taiwan, the Himalayan massif is another strategic target of the PLA, and it remains to be seen whether the CCP leadership core will understand the damage done to PRC interests by permitting the PLA to so unreservedly sign on to GHQ Rawalpindi’s action plan against India. It had been thought in Beijing that Moscow would succeed in keeping Delhi apart from Washington in a military sense, and the S-400 purchase by the Government of India (with its consequences for the partnership with the US) has helped keep that expectation of distance between Delhi and Washington alive. What is tilting the balance in favour of the US-India military alliance that the Sino-Russian alliance seeks to abort is the way in which the PLA has bought into GHQ Rawalpindi’s playbook and is acting as a force multiplier for the latter in such plans. This is certainly the case with India. Will it be the case with the US as well? Beijing has established partnerships with Venezuela, Iran, Turkey and powers other than Pakistan, each of which has the capability of causing damage to US and allied interests. Some of the trainers from Pakistan are active in camps that have been established by Turkey’s policy of assisting a particular side in the Libyan tribal war and in Syria, and both countries worked closely together in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. The humiliation of an Orthodox Christian country by an ally of Turkey backed by Pakistan had a significant impact on the credibility of Moscow as a security partner. It is clear that it was the unseen hand of its superpower ally that prevented Moscow from giving assistance to Yerevan in ways and on the scale that would be needed to push back the forces entering Nagorno-Karabakh. The manner in which Russia accepted the counsel to remain practically uninvolved in a conflict that was going disastrously for a treaty partner such as Armenia shows the limits to which assistance can be expected from Moscow in the event of another kinetic faceoff between the Indian military and the various wings of the PLA. Rather than stop buying oil from Iran and going forward with the purchase of S-400 systems, the oil should have been bought and the Russian system abandoned in a signal to Washington that India has the potential to be a reliable partner. It needs to be remembered that the lobbies of those allied against the US and its partners are on overdrive in Washington blackening the image of India so that unwary policymakers after the Biden takeover may balk at continuing with the Obama-Trump policy of close ties with India especially in security and defence. The less than accurate comments made on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s farm laws by influential US lawmakers may be an early warning of the information and outreach battles to come that will be needed to establish a strong foundation for a US-India partnership during the Biden administration that continues with the policies of his three immediate predecessors.


A policy of looking the other way at some of the toxic tactics of GHQ Rawalpindi would go against longer term PRC interests, but at present, “all the way with GHQ Rawalpindi” seems to be the line taken by the Central Military Commission of the PRC. The CPEC in particular is becoming a tar baby that is locking Beijing in an embrace with GHQ Rawalpindi that could be as fateful to the PRC as the move into Afghanistan was for the USSR. The consequences of such a policy are becoming apparent. The Ashraf Ghani government in Afghanistan has acted against elements from the PRC who are indulging in copycat actions in that country similar to those conducted by GHQ Rawalpindi and its proxies. Those apprehended have assisted groups that have a record of working not just against India but against US forces in Afghanistan. This is a disquieting development that brings into focus the extent to which the PLA has bought into the bag of tactics long in use by GHQ Rawalpindi. A bag that has in its sights targets other than India, which is why there needs to be attention paid into efforts at reviving extremist violence through increasing the number of recruits to camps created for the purpose. Errors made in Afghanistan and elsewhere by successive US administrations facilitated 9/11. Policy missteps that have taken place since may cause a second such security disaster not just in India but in the EU and the US. The democracies and other powers that are slowly but steadily allying against common threats may have more than Covid-19 to worry about during the term of the next US administration.

Return to the past won't work in Kashmir ( Sunday Guardian)

 Jammu Kashmir

India has the same problem as the US, which is the persistence of those regarded as domain experts within the portals of policymaking even after—in fact, especially after—the suggestions made by them have been found to have disastrous consequences. Although it has passed into folklore that lunacy is the consistent repeat of failed approaches when it ought to be obvious that failure will be the inevitable result. That does not stop such “domain experts” from suggesting the same nostrums that they have championed in the past, with perhaps slight changes in emphasis. In other words, presenting the same used car, with only a fresh coat of paint and a changed licence plate. The electoral system may result in a change of government at the political level, but at the level where much of actual policy gets formulated, there is continuity in personnel and consequently of those on the outside who get consulted during the making of policy. Consequently, a kaleidoscopic pattern gets formed, in which the same bits of coloured glass get swirled around the policymaking matrix rather than getting replaced with alternatives that do not just appear different (in the way spin doctors proclaim every such “breakthrough” to be) but represent an actual change from measures from the failed past. Over the past couple of years, substantive changes have been made in policies concerning Jammu & Kashmir, but the usual suspects have gone into overdrive, worried that the changes in J&K policy introduced during Modi 2.0 may actually succeed. Before that, they in effect seek a return to the past, although of course couching such a reversal in language that gives an illusion of retaining the change in atmosphere and effectiveness made during Modi 2.0 while calling for a slide back into the policy approaches of the past.

Much has been said about the “roots” of the “Kashmir problem”, even while there has been insufficient attention paid to a very consequential such root. This is the corruption and maladministration deliberately indulged in by the few who have for several decades played musical chairs with each other. For long, Kashmir has been a zone safe from any serious investigation by the Income-Tax, the Enforcement Directorate, the CBI and other agencies tasked with taking action against illicit funds and assets. This seems to be changing, and accountability at least on the scale seen elsewhere seems to be taking place in the two new Union Territories. A hands-off policy had been going on since the 1975 Sheikh Abdullah-Indira Gandhi accord. The assumption of office in 1989 as Union Home Minister by Mufti Mohammad Sayeed saw the two families experiencing a situation where either or both were directly in the seats of power at the state or central level. Except since the alliance between the PDP and the BJP broke up in 2018, a breakup that paved the way for the 2019 removal of Article 370, which widened the perception gap between J&K and the rest of India from 1954 onwards. In 2019, J&K was converted into a Union Territory with a legislature, while Ladakh was made a Union Territory without a legislature, hopefully only for the time being. Given the security situation facing both the new UTs, there is an almost overwhelming case for retaining the new status rather than returning to the past, when there was a unitary Jammu & Kashmir state. In this construct, both Jammu as well as Ladakh were given far less attention and bounty than were other parts of the state. This did not stop those parts from getting converted into havens for “militants” (the quaint term used for those who seek a wresting away of the state from the rest of India by violence). More than the National Conference, the People’s Democratic Party has from the start been less than successful in curbing such activities. While the PDP Chief Minister and ministers ensured their stamp was prominent in decision making by the coalition, the influence of the BJP ministers in the Mehbooba Mufti Cabinet appeared muffled at best, perhaps because the CM and her principal colleagues dealt with the central leadership of the BJP, bypassing state office-bearers and even ministers. That the security situation was less than ideal during the PDP-BJP regime is undeniable, as is the improvement in conditions after the changes made since the breakup of the alliance took effect. Whether it be the revocation of Article 370 or the setting up of two Union Territories in place of a single full-fledged state, the government has endured the blowback generated by China and Pakistan as well as the headwinds created by the influence within some western countries of the Sino-Pakistan and Sino-Russian alliance system of dissemination of material helpful to the strategic objectives of the three countries. The ruling party in Canada, the Labour Party in the UK and the Democratic Party in the US have been particularly affected by the misinformation created by lobbies loyal to the interests of one or the other of the three countries mentioned above, Russia, China and Pakistan, and several of those prominent in them have sounded off about Kashmir in a manner suggesting that they are less than aware of the ground situation there. In particular, the effort by GHQ Rawalpindi at reviving the Two Nation theory and in creating a safe haven for terrorists who could as easily get deployed in Europe as in India.

The District Development Council elections have been welcomed in a situation where voters throughout the state were less than happy about the quality of governance experienced at the hands of successive state governments. The “domain experts” who over decades helped fashion dysfunctional policies towards J&K by the centre are now demanding a “return to statehood” for J&K, while the Gupkar Alliance is touting that it will roll back the rollback of Article 370. Either of these moves would be a disaster for J&K. Hindus and Muslims are cut from the same cloth and ought not to be treated separately in the manner that the country’s only Muslim-majority state was for too long. And until tensions with the PRC simmer down to safe levels, the flexibility of the UT system is better suited to effective response to crises than the construct it replaced. Of course, Ladakh too merits a legislature, the way the institution has been created for the UT of J&K. The change in the medication prescribed appears to be generating results that are a change from the dismal swings into trouble that marked the past. Modi 2.0 must not return to the past but move towards a future that ensures J&K as well as Ladakh enjoy the tranquility and prosperity that people living in the two UTs look forward to.

Sunday 20 December 2020

Modi, Johnson and the confluence of democracies (Sunday Guardian)



Cold War 2.0 has begun, and India seems on track to be part of the partnership of democracies opposing the march to primacy of the Sino-Russian alliance in the Indo-Pacific.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the UK is the guest of honour at the next Republic Day parade to be held on Rajpath. He has talked more than once of a “concert of democracies” to tackle the challenge posed internally by extremism and externally by the emergence of another communist superpower, the People’s Republic of China. It ought to be a given that any such grouping would include India, but in a less than logical world, this is not the case. The Atlantic Council, regarded as among the primary thought dispensers of the Atlantic community, includes not India but the European Union as a component of its version of the G10. That the EU is a coherent and unified group of states federated into a union with bonds sufficiently strong to be designated as a country seems a given to the Atlantic Council, and to Brexit enthusiasts in the UK, who managed to prise Britain away from the EU on the grounds that membership in the grouping was a grievous infringement to sovereignty. They should know. The British have been expert in extinguishing the sovereignty of more territories than any other country on the planet, in the process cobbling together an empire that straddled the world. It was only after the close of the war unleashed by Hitler and Tojo during 1936-45 (a period which includes the takeover of the Rhineland by the German military and the invasion of Manchuria and later historical China by Japan) that the US stepped forward to claim the mantle of global leadership, only to be contested in that by the USSR from the mid-1950s to around the 1980s, when the latter began a process of meltdown culminating in its fragmentation and collapse in 1992, the year P.V. Narasimha Rao began to seek (and eventually fail as a consequence of the myopia of the Clinton administration) to replace the vanished entente with Moscow. Under Xi Jinping, the third foundational leader of the Chinese Communist Party after Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the PRC has not hidden its intention to once again emerge as the Middle Kingdom, this time in Mao-Deng-Xi rather than in imperial hues. The apparent scientific and other successes of the PRC have led to a spurt of support for strong leadership in countries across the world, whether in India or Brazil or Russia, and in an intensification of the control of the state over the lives of citizens, an expansion of governmental power facilitated by the extraordinary curbs on activity placed as a consequence of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Much more than in previous years, the pandemic-caused expansion of the authority of the state in major democracies has made them resemble the governance structure of the PRC, rather than (as had been expected by numerous policymakers) the latter moving closer to the former over time.

India has a neighbour whose population of religious minorities has dropped from 38% in 1946 to less than 2% at present. School textbooks are filled with derogatory comments about selected religious practices, and the country has been majoritarian from the time it was separated from the rest of India and brought into the world by the British in 1947. The thinking in Whitehall was that Pakistan would be a reliable ally of the Atlantic alliance during Cold War 1.0, while India under Jawaharlal Nehru and his ideology of a fusion of Stalinist administration, Gandhian forbearance to foes and a society designed by Beatrice and Sidney Webb would most probably be lost as an ally. Nehru stood by his principles, in the 1950s, refusing to join with Eisenhower in seeking a halt to the takeover of Tibet by the PLA and backing Mao for the permanent UNSC seat even during the 1962 conflict and despite it being informally offered instead to India by the US and later, the USSR. Mahatma Gandhi would have been proud of such an act of sacrifice by the individual he chose over candidates such as Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar and Vallabhbhai Patel as the Prime Minister of India on the grounds that when gone, Jawaharlal would “speak my language”. So deep was the compassion of the Mahatma that he advised the Viceroy of India to “allow Hitler to occupy British homes”, as such a gesture would transform the unmatched depths of the dictator’s depravity into a kindness not known to have been demonstrated by Adolf Hitler except perhaps to his Alsatian canine Blondi, which he finally killed (whether in a gentle manner or not we are not told) through poisoning. Given such extraordinary and saintly views about a mortal foe of Britain and its allies of Nehru’s principal supporter, it was no surprise that the British were less than certain that India under such a Prime Minister would stand by the US and the UK during Cold War 1.0. Now Cold War 2.0 has begun, and India seems on track to be part of the partnership of democracies opposing the march to primacy of the Sino-Russian alliance in the Indo-Pacific (quaintly named the Asia-Pacific by Nehruvians in the Biden entourage). Prime Minister Johnson is right in placing India as a central player in such an alliance, in contrast to those in his country and elsewhere who get confused between India with Pakistan and speak of the former as being the country where minorities are disappearing and where religious supremacy reigns. This about a country where there are 240 million religious minorities, among whom are some of the most influential (not to mention wealthiest) citizens in the land.

The Prime Ministers of the India and the UK, Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson, have much to discuss besides the symbolism of the two leaders being present together at India’s most consequential annual event. The democracies are running out of time in the face of the problems that await them, and both Modi and Johnson will be judged by their success in overcoming them.

Saturday 12 December 2020

Medical Diplomacy is more than vaccines (Sunday Guardian)



Therapeutics now and vaccines later need to be made available even to countries under US financial sanctions, but which are critical for India, such as Iran.

Among the reasons why the US dollar is at greater risk of going the way mapped out by strategists in Beijing and Moscow is the frequent use of sanctions by Washington to ensure changes in specific policies of target countries, preferably through regime change. The latter is assumed to be the most likely result of sanctions that cripple an entire economy, such as those imposed on Iraq after its occupation of Kuwait in 1990, and more recently those imposed by successive US Presidents on North Korea and Iran. Some of these have received the imprimatur of the UN Security Council, while others—such as the withdrawal of the US from the Iran nuclear deal—have been unilateral. In Iraq, the sanctions caused human suffering on a scale seldom witnessed even during wartime and failed to remove Saddam Hussein from power. This happened only after the G.W. Bush invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. In North Korea, neither has the steady march towards nuclear and missile capability of that state been reversed by the sanctions nor a change of regime. Those unique communists, the Kim dynasty remains in power. In Iran, the withdrawal by the US from the 2015 nuclear deal accompanied by several more turns of the sanctions screw by President Donald Trump has had the effect of reducing the popularity of the relatively more moderate President Hassan Rouhani to the benefit of those who had opposed the nuclear deal and now see themselves as vindicated. Financial sanctions that make use of the dollar being the global reserve currency and the US being at the hub of global banking are leading several leaders across the world to diversify away from the US dollar and financial architecture. Among the beneficiaries of this trend has been the RMB, the currency adopted by the Peoples Republic of China. An additional incentive offered by the PRC is the fact that moneys secreted away in Macao and in other PRC-controlled banking havens are safe from the prying eyes of US agencies in a way that money deposited in other banking havens such as those run from London, Zurich or Dubai have long ceased to be. Outside China and perhaps Russia, in the banking segment, no significant player is immune from the prying eyes of the Department of the Treasury in Washington. The only ones who are, are those under the care of the Chinese Communist Party in the territories under its supervision. Long before there was talk of decoupling from China, that country quietly ensured that a sensitive segment of its financial infrastructure was decoupled from the US and its tributaries.

Smart sanctions are those carried out through a sniper rifle, on influential individuals rather than on the population of an entire country. The use of such scattershot sanctions results in misery getting inflicted on millions of ordinary citizens, without at the same time furthering the agenda of those imposing them. President Trump imposed sanctions on Teheran to remove the time limitations prescribed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in the nuclear deal reached by the Obama administration. Instead, the effect of the scrapping of the JCPOA will be to make the development of nuclear weapons by Iran a certainty. Prime Minister Netanyahu is aware that Israel by itself cannot take the risk of an all-out war with Iran, and hence would like the US to initiate such a conflict. The problem facing him is that the present capabilities of Iran would make such a war extremely risky for the countries waging it. Iran may go through hell as a consequence of war, but it has the capacity to drag several other countries into the same cauldron. Which is why even Donald Trump held back from launching such an attack a few months ago, after checking with his military and intelligence staff about its likely consequences. In the case of North Korea, the stage when a pre-emptive war could be launched against the DPRK has almost certainly passed. Kim Jong Un has built up WMD capabilities that have the potential to inflict damage on a scale impossible to accept in South Korea, Japan and on US bases in the region. John Bolton believes that it was not the handing over of WMD stockpiles by Muammar Gaddafi that led to the Franco-UK takeout of him in 2011, but the Arab Spring. He was wrong. Gaddafi would have ridden out the storm caused by uprisings but for NATO intervention. Both Ayatollah Khamenei and Kim Jong Un remember the Libya precedent quoted by the then NSA as his preferred template for resolving the nuclear issue. It was the surrender of WMD by the dictator of Libya in 2003 that gave the wide safety margin over Gaddafi that was sought by NATO in its intervention. The execution of the Libyan dictator removed any chance there previously was of persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapon capabilities. Besides flooding Europe with refugees, creating a safe haven for terrorists, finishing of the Libyan oil industry and reducing the country to warring splinters. Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and Hillary Clinton have a lot to answer for that they are silent about.

Ordinary people need medicines, not inhumane sanctions. India has already shown its prowess in therapeutics, with more than 90% of medication keeping HIV patients alive in poor countries coming from this country. Soon, low-cost vaccines are likely to be rolled out from Hyderabad and Pune. Therapeutics now and vaccines later need to be made available even to countries under US financial sanctions, but which are critical for India, such as Iran. If such essential items are given free, the question of financial sanctions does not arise. Medicines need to be made available, and if the volumes are large, perhaps this could be through barter trade. Once President of the US, Biden is likely to appreciate why the US needs good relations between India and Iran. This is in its own national interest, and so also that of Israel in a situation where conclusive kinetic action by the US against that country’s nuclear capabilities no longer seems viable. Such evaporation of viability seems to have been crossed in the case of North Korea as well, which is why the best that can be secured may be a hopefully permanent remission of the danger from them of enhanced nuclear and missile capabilities, rather than a “cure” (i.e. elimination of such assets). Given the experience of Iran with the Trump White House, it is unlikely that the clerical regime in Teheran continues to believe that nuclear weapons capability is not necessary for its continuance, if ever such a belief existed in the first place.

Wall Street readies to sabotage Biden's China fightback (Sunday Guardian)



It will be clear from statistics that President Trump’s battle to retain US primacy has been less than successful, in large part because he has surrounded himself with the favourites of Wall Street. It remains to be seen whether President Biden will be similarly handicapped in his efforts at reversing US’ drift towards second class status.

NEW DELHI: Once he got elected in 2016 on a platform opposing the chokehold of Wall Street over US politics, President Donald J. Trump filled key economic slots in his administration with individuals steeped in and obedient to the traditions and interests of Wall Street. This is the location in New York that caused the 1930s depression and the 2008 financial crash, among other similar human (or inhumane) tragedies. In its functioning, Wall Street functions not as a part of the broader United States but as a separate entity that is focused entirely on itself rather than on the interests of its host, the US as a country. Such a disconnect in thinking and acting between the interests of the country at large and Wall Street is embedded into the minds of those steeped in the workings of the Street in a way absent in the City of London or in the financial centres of Frankfurt or Zurich, in each of which the anchor to individual national needs and interests is much stronger than is the case with Wall Street. Having entered the White House on January 20, 2017 as its legal tenant for a full Presidential term, Donald Trump forgot about the unemployed and the economically devastated citizens of voting locations that were converted by competition from China into economic wastelands. Instead, his focus was on the US stock market. As long as that kept rising, he was certain that he would be re-elected. Ignored voters had a different choice, Joe Biden. Once in a way, such as in friendly references to that lifelong campaigner against the influence of Wall Street Senator Bernard Sanders or Senator Elizabeth Warren, the 45th President of the US expressed during the 2016 campaign Wall Street-phobic sentiments that ensured millions more votes than he would otherwise have got against Hillary Clinton, a politician who has been unable to conceal the linkages that she and her husband have with Wall Street. However, even a President Hillary Clinton would not have filled the top tier of the economic component of her Cabinet with as many friends and agents of Wall Street as Trump did. And unlike those with such connections, most of the Wall Streeters have lasted through the shifting personnel strands of the Trump presidency. This is not to say that the 45th President of the US was himself a creature of the Street, only that he was dazzled enough by its products to, once elected, throw into the dustbin his campaign promise to rid policymaking in the Washington Beltway of Wall Street influence.

The national security apparatus in the US has since 2013 studied more seriously the reality of the PRC under CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. Since 2012, he has been moving forward steadily to replace the US as the “tiger on the mountain”. It was only in the final two years of his stay in the White House that Barack Obama was able to shake off the influence of Wall Street enough to begin a series of countermoves designed to protect the primacy of US interests from encroachment by the formidable challenger that was President Xi. Despite the Wall Streeters in his entourage, President Trump had sufficient common sense to understand that the top position (which was in every field an obsession of his) was in danger so far as the US was concerned. Without admitting that President Obama may have been right in some of the stances the country’s first African-American President finally took, Donald Trump carried forward the policy of his predecessor, this time with klaxons hooting and bells ringing rather than the muted rhetoric of the Obama era during the two years that he escaped from the Clinton shadow into which he had placed himself immediately after getting elected in 2008. In the process, the pragmatic Obama jettisoned several of the Clinton-phobic aides who had been instrumental in his victory in exchange for members of the Clinton durbar. The truth remains that while there has been much sound and fury concerning the trade war that President Trump launched against the PRC, very little light has been shed on its meagre results. This when Cold War 2.0 has been an obvious fact of international life since the first decade of the 21st century.


It would be a conspiracy theory too far to claim that the Covid-19 pandemic was intentionally created in a Wuhan laboratory to kneecap those economies that were (or could in future be) commercial rivals of China. However, even if authorities in Beijing were innocent of any intent to spread the pandemic far and wide through flights from affected locations to cities across the world, such a spread became inevitable through such traffic. Also, the constriction in domestic production in the US and Europe that was caused by the effects of, and responses to, the pandemic caused the PRC to just record the highest trade surplus in its history. The absence of any substantive decoupling of production facilities based in China (in part because conditions in India are judged by several investors to still be far from what they need to be to emerge as a significant alternative) has resulted in the PRC retaining its status as the Factory of the World, trade war or no trade war, decoupling or not.

This analyst has been pointing out for some time that the leadership of the PRC was, if not consciously working towards a reset of the US dollar to a much lower and less stable level, at the least they expected this to happen. The digitalisation of the RMB and the imprimatur given to blockchain by General Secretary Xi Jinping are steps in the direction of displacing the dollar as the reserve currency of the world, a status that it has had since 1941, when President Franklin D Roosevelt ensured that the US entered the war as a consequence of the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese navy. In the currency war, judging by the index used by both Wall Street as well as the Trump White House (stock prices), the MSCI (China index) has risen by 23% during the pandemic, as opposed to 12.6% registered by S&P 500 or the 11.06% of India’s Nifty. Had Wall Street not been continuing to feed Chinese companies with dollars, this would not have happened.

Soon after the latest large-scale intrusion by the PLA on May 3, Prime Minister Narendra Modi banned TikTok, hitting a blow at the sucking up of mountains of meta data by PRC entities who are engaged in ramping up their country’s Artificial Intelligence capabilities. No other country has followed India in this unprecedented move so far, with even the Trump ban on TikTok quickly being overturned by a US court (to the relief of Big Tech in that country, which masochistically supports the PRC as a consequence of the titbits that it is fed from that well-stocked table). PRC tech champions have done spectacularly well during the pandemic, sucking up vast amounts of meta data and establishing leadership positions in segments such as online shopping that they were previously lagging behind in. In online gaming and video streaming, Several PRC entities are far ahead of many US and European competitors, including in the home markets of the latter while the Chinese market remains shut except for domestic champions. In India, reports are that Huawei has been allowed to participate in 5G trials. In both price as well as quality, the company is likely to outperform the competition.


It will be clear from the statistics that President Trump’s battle to retain US primacy has been less than successful, in large part because he has surrounded himself with the favourites of Wall Street. It remains to be seen whether President Biden will be similarly handicapped in his efforts at reversing the US drift towards second class status that has been witnessed for some time, certainly since the trillion dollar Lost Wars launched by President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney and the 2008 crash. Now that Hunter Biden is under investigation for influence peddling as a consequence of the generous compensation received by him from Chinese companies, efforts will be ongoing to compare incoming President Biden’s policies towards the PRC with the largesse handed out to his only surviving child from his first wife. Both Jill and Joe Biden are known to be exceptionally decent human beings. Those familiar with the Bidens say that the bond between father and son has become exceptionally close after the passing away of Beau Biden, an idealist who would have been an immense success in public life. The question is: will Wall Street sabotage the Biden counter-offensive against efforts to displace the US from global primacy, they way the interests supporting them have substantially succeeded in the case of his predecessor? If there is a failure by Joe Biden to rein in the onward march of the PRC, the blame will be placed not on Wall Street but on the 46th President of the US. It will be alleged that such failure is the inevitable consequence of the manner in which Hunter Biden was looked after financially by old friends in the PRC. Senators Sanders and Warren are right about Wall Street, and President Biden could do worse than to consult them more often about the battle for retaining primacy for the US and its values. Trump talked a lot, acted much less than he ought to have. The reverse needs to take place.


Those focused on ensuring the continued primacy of not simply the US geopolitical ascendancy but the spread of its values warn that across the world, the success of the China Model is leading to a spurt in public acceptance of authoritarian structures and values. Whether in Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Turkey or Russia, liberal democrats have given way to autocrats largely as a consequence of public support. The forecast that the end of Cold War 1.0 between the USSR and the US led to the “end of history” has proved to be less than accurate. Cold War 2.0 has made an appearance that even the Atlanticist speechwriters for President-elect Biden may not for long be able to ignore by constantly referring to the dead “Asia-Pacific” construct rather than the reality of the Indo-Pacific. Once sworn in on January 20 next year, Biden will need to sabotage the Wall Street saboteurs. In a way that his predecessor failed to do, the 46th US President needs to concentrate on (a) holding investment managers personally accountable for sending capital from the US in hundreds of billions to PRC entities that have linkages with defence production and other security related entities. The US Senate and House of Representatives will need to pass enabling legislation for this, as sabotage of the saboteurs may not be possible through executive orders alone, (b) work towards a BRI debt moratorium of 15 years followed by a 15 year period of repayment for any country that seeks to take advantage of such a provision, (c) cut off banks and other financial entities from the SWIFT system that violate sanctions designed to maintain primacy of the global democratic alliance that is taking shape, (d) delist ADRs from stock exchanges that are not compatible with domestic accounting rules. Rather than go alone in such matters, both Atlanticist as well as Indo-Pacific partners need to be brought on board with such measures, and adopt them as well. The key to the battle is access to money, and Wall Street and others that prize cash above liberty and security need to be taught otherwise, not simply by sound and fury but by the light of action.

Saturday 5 December 2020

Supreme Court defends citizens (Sunday Guardian)


The apex court said that it was its duty to act in a situation where deprivation of liberty for a single day is a day too many.

Now that decoupling of industries and services from the Peoples Republic of China has begun, the process will accelerate, and with that will come an opportunity for India to replicate the economic success of China during the mid-1980s to around 2009. It is indeed possible for huge tranches of investment to get attracted from the PRC to India, but to ensure such a flow, among the factors needing attention are colonial constructs that make it easy for agencies of the state at practically any level to take away the freedoms and property of a citizen on grounds that ought not to stand in court but often do. This is not the fault of the courts but of successive governments that have only added on to their punitive powers rather than got rid of those that belong to the colonial past and are incompatible with the freedoms and rights which ought to be enjoyed by citizens in the world’s most populous democracy. Recently, a high-profile editor of a television channel that is admittedly less than complimentary to multiple authorities in its coverage was sent to prison and slapped with a volley of charges. Not just him but a large number of his colleagues in the channel were similarly treated. In India, much of what ought to remain within the ambit of civil jurisprudence has been shifted by politicians and officials hungry for additional power to the netherworld of criminal conduct. Actions that are innocent can be distorted in chargesheets to appear sinister. The channel in question had been less than flattering about the Mumbai police. This columnist has lived in Mumbai (then Bombay) for several years and has found much to appreciate in the Mumbai police. In common with police personnel across the country, they are underpaid and overworked. Which is why the series of actions taken against the editor and his colleagues (as well as members of his immediate family) could have been avoided. The fact that such actions were affirmed rather than overturned by the High Court in the state is a reflection of the fact that 73 years after freedom from British rule, the legal bar in India to locking up an individual and enmeshing him or her in criminal proceedings is much lower than in other major democracies. Colourable action by state agencies making use of that of that low bar to criminal detention and prosecution takes place every day and almost always go unreported. In the case of the television channel editor, his detention made headline news. For citizens unhappy about the trajectory that has been followed even after 1947 where the protection under law of individual rights and freedoms are concerned, it was welcome news that the Supreme Court of India took up the matter of the actions against the channel and its staff . The court gave its views in a manner that is as forthright as it is welcome. Should these words serve to alter the fearsome scaffolding of colonial-era laws and practices, that would be a second birth of freedom, this time at the level not of the nation but the individual.

The Supreme Court’s prima facie observations on the appeal filed by Arnab Goswami constitute a Magna Carta of citizens’ rights that merit being codified in law and procedure. Only a removal of several of the arbitrary powers (to take away liberty and rights) of officials and politicians can ensure that a climate for investment on the scale needed to make India a country of sustained double digit growth gets created. It must not be forgotten that often, a business rival has been falsely enmeshed in legal proceedings of multiple hues by well-connected rivals. In its observations, the Supreme Court opined that prima facie the ingredients for the offence of abetment to suicide (which was among the charges filed against the editor) were not established. Nor that he was, prima facie, guilty of abetting the suicide. It speaks for the ease with which charges can be brought against a citizen that such a long list was prepared against the editor and several of his colleagues. It was further stated by the court that the appellant seemed to have been made the target of an organised effort to take away his liberty and enmesh him in criminal cases, and that it was the duty of the courts to ensure that criminal law does not become a weapon for targeted harassment. The apex court said that it was its duty to act in a situation where deprivation of liberty for a single day is a day too many. These are words that need to be displayed inside every court and police station in the country. In another decision, the Supreme Court has ordered that some agencies should ensure closed circuit cameras so as to record their interrogations. Transparency is needed to prevent abuse and worse.

The judicial system across the country needs to be the protector of the people against any wrongful use of state power, and by affirming the right of all citizens to liberty, the Supreme Court provided leadership in a manner that has the potential to transform the way in which administration has long been conducted in the country. An example is the use of the draconian laws against narcotics that have for too long lingered on the stature books, and which give enormous power to the agencies policing this space. For alleged possession of a few grams of drugs that are in common recreational use in India and across the world, several in the Mumbai film industry have lately seen the inside of police stations and jail cells. This campaign may have the effect of an important element of Indian soft power—Bollywood—relocating to locations such as Mauritius. Were the Narcotics Control Bureau to jail all those guilty of the offences made out against the Bollywood celebrities it is going after, several tens of million citizens would be imprisoned. The NCB adopting a scattershot rather than a sniper rifle approach creates the danger of allowing the big fish to escape while the agency chases after minnows. The NCB needs to go after the handful of sharks who control the trade in hard drugs, for only that will ensure that this toxic trade is shut down.

This columnist knew Balasaheb Thackeray, who had a sharp intellect and a wondrous sense of humour, especially in his private depictions of those whom he was not overly fond of. Balasaheb was at heart a satirist who strayed into politics. His son Uddhav has the reputation of being a gentleman, just as the Mumbai police have a distinguished record in several ways. In Sharadchandra Govindrao Pawar, Maharashtra has a leader who is known across the world for his skill in the art of political leadership. Not just to an influential editor but to any citizen, a state government led by such personalities should walk the extra mile away from colonial-era practices. Maharashtra should move towards a path protective of rights and freedoms. How this can be done has been mapped out eloquently by the Supreme Court of India in its observations on the matter of the detention of Arnab Goswami. Not just the premier economic state but the entire country would be well served by such a change.

Saturday 28 November 2020

President Biden Will Pick Up the PRC's Gauntlet (Sunday Guardian)



Should Joe Biden revert to the China-friendly policies of the Clinton era, voter backlash against the Democratic Party would be severe.

What is democracy and how does it flower? According to some social scientists and the policymakers who believe in them, it’s all about money. It was their conclusion that once the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) became more prosperous, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would morph into a social democrat party. This is the model favoured by Senior Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont. Since the days of Nixon’s wooing of the CCP and the casting away of much of the attention paid to the Kuomintang (KMT) that from 1949 ruled only Taiwan, successive US administrations opened the gates of technology and commerce to China. This was in the belief that each concession would be another brick in the evolution of the CCP as a party of social democrats. Both when Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping were put in charge of the PRC in 2002 and 2012, hope-filled voices in Europe and the US rose about whether the new party chief would be the “Chinese Gorbachev”. The higher an individual has progressed within the CCP, the more has been his or her awareness of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union General Secretary who presided over the demise of the USSR. Not as someone to emulate, but as an example to avoid. The hollowing out of the CPSU and the consequent decline and fall of the CPSU has been tracked back to the dawn of detente, the Helsinki accords of 1975 that gave a powerful lever to Washington to use against Moscow: human rights. There certainly were egregious violations of such rights, including the manner in which Jewish citizens were for long barred from migrating to Israel, an unforgivable act in a party that was founded on the doctrine enunciated by Karl Marx. But till the Helsinki summit, such considerations when raised by the US and its allies in Europe were brushed on the grounds that such matters were the “internal affair” of Moscow and therefore outside the purview of discussions—much less agreements—with a foreign power. Elements in the Brezhnev bureaucracy came up with the idea of getting the most deadly foes of the USSR (the US and its allies) to help rescue the country from economic turmoil caused by the refusal of the CPSU to let go of control of industry and agriculture to private hands. Expecting an enemy to become a helpmate was a jump too far from reality. In the way a carrot was dangled before a donkey to make sure it trotted forward, the carrot of commercial reward was dangled before the Soviet leadership in exchange for a concession. When that was made by Moscow, only a tiny piece of the promised carrot was handed over. More would require greater concessions in ways that inevitably weakened the respect and fear of the CPSU that had kept the population of the Soviet Union from revolting against their masters. Which is why every statement from Beijing about improvements in the life of the Uyghur population of Xinjiang has been accompanied by an intensification of the drive to coordinate life the province in the direction mapped out by the CCP leadership. Unlike the Soviet Union, which was an economic shambles, the PRC has grown into an economy that has passed the superpower threshold while at the same time doubling down on the governance system that it has followed since its inception.

Unlike in the case of the US and the USSR, where almost all the concessions made went one way, from the USSR to the very country eager to witness its demise, the PRC has been at the receiving end of concessions from Washington that have boosted its technology and the economy. The Atlanticist obsession with Moscow suited Beijing, which was concerned at efforts by some policymakers to shift focus to the Indo-Pacific and therefore to itself. Meanwhile, the country was catching up with the US in technology, and even ahead of it in several ways in an increasingly digital age. When it became impossible to ignore the risks inherent in the rise in capabilities of the Peoples Liberation Army, “disaggregation” became the new formula. This was an effort at separation of the commercial from the security part of the policy matrix. The problem is that much of modern commerce relates to dual-use capabilities that can clearly be deployed in a conflict situation. At the same time, the hollowing out of much of US lines of manufacture and their replacement by imports from the PRC has become politically sensitive. Rust belt voters did not switch to Joe Biden from Donald Trump because he acted too strongly against China, but because they feel that he was not strong enough. What they used to make in the towns they live in continue to be imported from China, although with a higher duty. They wanted more, they wanted their jobs back the way Trump had promised in 2016.

Should incoming President Joseph R. Biden Jr revert to the China-friendly policies of the Clinton era, voter backlash against the Democratic Party would be severe. The party would lose control of the House of Representatives two years hence, crippling Biden in the manner a similar electoral disaster did President Obama. The Sanderistas in his party may go along with a lot of existing policies that are the opposite of socialist, but cozying up to Beijing would be too much of an ask from them. Nor would the Pentagon or the National Security Council embrace such an idea. Several policymakers still hesitate to speak the truth and try and push the reality of Cold War 2.0 between the PRC and the US into the closet, the way some do their sexual orientation. However, the battle to retain US primacy is real, and can no longer be kicked down the road to be faced in the future. President Obama dismayed ASEAN leaders by refusing to act while the PLA Navy took over the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines in 2012 and the Central Military Commission of the PRC began a militarisation of the South China Sea with just a symbolic protest by the US administration. Even during the Trump term, apart from the usual transits of naval vessels in the waters claimed by China, no actual challenge took place against the attempted takeover of the seas by Beijing. The tinder is plentiful and the fuse is primed. And there is no way the Biden administration can be anything other than responsive to such a challenge. The Melania and Donald Trump may give way to Jill and Joe Biden in the White House but the gauntlet that has been thrown to Washington by the PRC through its actions will get picked up even after 20 January 2021.

Mounting BRI Debt Could Trip PRC in Currency War With US (Sunday Guardian)



Those prophesying imminent doom for the PRC base much of this forecast on an expected meltdown of the Chinese financial system. They point to debt exceeding 320% of GDP this year. The reality is that the finances of the PRC remain viable as long as the CCP itself is viable, given that the communist state directly or in effect owns the entire territory it administers as the Peoples Republic of China.

New Delhi: The ongoing currency war between China and the United States has become impossible for those rejecting the coming into force of a new Cold War to ignore. The increasingly overt expression in the US of a conflict of fundamental interests between Washington and Beijing comes despite efforts by multiple interests wary of their wealth and incomes getting reduced as a consequence of the steps that need to follow such an acknowledgment. President Donald Trump’s trade war with China (begun in 2017) was the first macro-indication that reality had penetrated a US establishment prone to accepting as gospel its self-created myths and postulates. The Sino-US Trade War was in 2017 merely an acknowledgement of the reality that the two superpowers are engaged in a comprehensive global contest every bit as consequential as that which took place between the USSR and the US from the time the Korean War began in 1950. In such a context, given the force multiplier impact on US global power of the US dollar (USD) being the reserve currency of the world, it was inevitable that strategic planners advising the higher rungs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would turn their sights on displacing the world’s premier currency. General Secretary Xi Jinping cannot be accused of a lack of transparency. From the start of his takeover of the CCP in 2012, the leader of the world’s other superpower has not hidden his resolve to replace Washington with Beijing as the centre of gravity of global commerce and strategy. Displacing the USD has been a priority. Xi’s brainchild, the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) has served as a vehicle for making the PRC by far the largest creditor nation in the world, with outstanding debt claims on the rest of the world having risen from $874 billion in 2004 to $5.4 trillion by 2019, the year before the Covid-19 pandemic and the adoption of WHO-mandated countermeasures had an unprecedented (in peacetime) impact on the economies of the NATO member states, India and Japan. These actual and potential competitors of the PRC are each in a much more precarious condition in terms of their economies vis-a-vis China than was the case a year ago. BRI projects have extended to 109 countries out of the 193 members of the United Nations General Assembly, and are estimated to have generated $715 billion in construction contracts for Chinese companies thus far. While some of the money has gone into sinkholes such as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (the impetus for which seems to have been based on sentiment rather than logic), much of the rest has ensured (a) sharp upward movement of the geopolitical influence of the PRC, (b) most likely permanent additions to the Chinese diaspora across Eurasia, and (c) increased reliance on China as the primary driver of local economies, displacing the US and any other country. While the overwhelming share of the investment by the PRC in BRI projects is denominated in RMB at the source of materiel, services and labour used, they have mostly been denominated in USD terms where repayment of loans are concerned. Given the scale of investment and the commercial terms on which financial accommodation has been made, defaults are inevitable, and many have resulted in a transfer of ownership of assets to PRC-controlled entities in key locations across the world.


Those prophesying imminent doom for the PRC base much of this forecast on an expected meltdown of the Chinese financial system. They point to debt exceeding 320% of GDP this year. The reality is that the finances of the PRC remain viable as long as the CCP itself is viable, given that the communist state directly or in effect owns the entire territory it administers as the Peoples Republic of China. There is no difference between government and country in China in the way there is in other countries. The party is the government, which is the country. Hence the emphasis by Xi on continuance of the system of governance instituted by Mao Zedong. This was refined by Deng Xiaoping and further developed by the third foundational head of the country, current CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping. Given the entrepreneurial spirits that are present in ethnic Chinese, the private sector will need to play an increasing role in further transforming the PRC economy. Xi understands this. However, the General Secretary of the CCP is in the process of replacing what may be termed “Globaliser Capitalists” among its citizens with what may be termed as a cadre of “Patriotic Capitalists”. Or in other words, replacing the Jiang-era globalist tycoons with a new cadre of nationalist capitalist trailblazers who not merely accept in their operations but believe in the objective of the CCP core. Similarly, the Chinese diaspora across the world is expected to facilitate this transformation of the international order rather than merely be indifferent or worse, assist the US and its allies to overcome the PRC challenge. In Xi Thought, it is the duty of all Chinese (no matter where they live or what they do) to push forward the attempted repositioning of Beijing as the geopolitical nerve centre of the globe. Younger Soviets lost faith in the CPSU and the USSR itself. In contrast, the young in China are becoming less “globalist” and more “nationalist”, and more visibly and volubly in the Xi era, are identifying the CCP-controlled governance system in China as the vehicle that will carry China to the peak of the global pyramid. Not surprisingly, the CCP higher cadres believe that continued dominance by the party is an essential condition for achieving this goal. Backers of the General Secretary are clear that Xi’s continuance in office is necessary for the overriding objective of global primacy to be achieved. Those elsewhere who believe in the possibility of another Gorbachev emerging to take over the CCP, or a morphing of the CCP’s Mao-Deng-Xi Thought into the doctrines inspired by Sidney Webb (which were adopted together with a mix of Soviet economic praxis by Nehru), can dream on and many still do. It remains to be seen how significant the influence of such “dreamers” is within the incoming Biden administration that will soon preside over the world’s leading superpower. More than a few, judging by past (and some present) writings and commentaries.

From the viewpoint of those within the CCP leadership who are forecasting (and working towards) a reset of the US dollar to a much lower level than presently, the present “dollar shortage” in China is not the setback it has been made out to be by conventional thinkers. They claim that in fact, policies are being calibrated so as to ensure that Beijing is in an advantageous position when the anticipated reset of the dollar takes place. In their view, this could happen even during the first term of the 46th President of the US, Joseph R. Biden Jr. Those managing the financial system in the PRC believe that despite recent headwinds, they have expanded the supply of USD available to them through (1) selling assets that are denominated in RMB but for which payment is asked for in dollars, (2) pledging of US assets such as Treasury bonds in exchange for dollar loans, and (3) currency swaps with Eurodollar banks that have the effect of adding to dollar stocks not created by the US Federal Reserve but by foreign banks. Proof of the efficacy of such methods is the stability of the extent of foreign reserves reported by Beijing. This is despite the effect of Covid-19 as well as the ongoing trade war with the US, not to mention the global economic slowdown caused by several countries following to the letter and beyond the growth-killing measures for handling the pandemic that have been mandated by the WHO and “fellow traveller” institutions in the US, Europe and Asia. These have made wholly inaccurate estimates of casualties in previous pandemics, yet their thus far wildly inflated claims of Covid-19 fatalities is still being taken as gospel by governments in framing policies that will set back growth in much of the world for years. To augment its dollar stock, Beijing is taking advantage of the US Federal Reserve Board’s system of Quantitative Easing to infinity (which is completely the opposite of RBI policy for India, which more accurately resembles that of the Federal Reserve in the 1930s). Where the frequently mentioned “dollar shortage” in China is concerned, added to the mix of palliatives is the present Federal Reserve policy of interest rates that are almost zero, together with the Chinese side taking advantage of multiple Eurodollar sources to increase the supply of USD available to them in their activities.

Presently, the BRI mechanism devised by the experts surrounding Xi Jinping have no problem with individual debt defaults, partly caused by (what they expect to be a temporary) rise in the value of the dollar. Once the commercial terms that are enforced for BRI projects in numerous countries gets enforced, PRC-controlled entities move in to take control of collateral-assets that are of value not merely in financial but in strategic terms. The more such assets that get owned by PRC entities in place of dollars, once the USD moves into the Reset Zone and rapidly begins losing value, the “dollar starved” PRC financial system would reap a windfall. The 1971 system of international exchange that institutionalised the dollar as its keystone is already showing strain, and more and more countries are looking to exchange USD for other currencies or assets. The windfall created for China by BRI defaults would be similar to those in India who give loans against pledging of gold by individuals in a market where the price of the precious metal moves in an upward direction. The more defaults take place of such loans, the more (higher and higher value) gold becomes the property of the lender. The only fear is the “Nuclear Option”. This is that a significant group of debtor nations will (under the presumably covert prodding and protection of the US) go in for what may be termed a synchronized quasi-sovereign debt rescheduling of BRI loans. This would involve governments in countries where a coordinated series of defaults take place, passing protective and enabling laws and regulations. These would protect commercial and other entities which join such a serial debt rescheduling under protection of sovereign governments acting informally in concert with Great Power backing. Under such a plan, countries having a high debt load to China would decide to legislate measures that give domestic entities the right to repay BRI loans that are due after an extended grace period of 15 years. Payments would be staggered across 15 more years. This would result in loans that are due prior to such rescheduling getting repaid by 2049, a year that represents a significant milestone for the Peoples Republic of China. The interest rate on the BRI loans repaid would be that mandated by the US Federal Reserve Board for itself, which is close to zero. Authorities in Beijing would have the option of either accepting the new conditions for repayment and continuing with projects in accordance with the changes, or breaking off relations in whole or in part with the countries (or entities) that adopt the 15:15 repayment rule rather than make payments as per the schedule agreed on in existing BRI contracts. Withdrawal would immediately deprive the PRC of the use of the hard assets created under the BRI, while even if Beijing decides to continue with BRI activities, such a plan would keep a country’s assets outside Chinese ownership. The BRI as presently operated has had a beneficial effect on the Chinese economy, including in protecting jobs for millions of citizens of China. A chain lengthening and easing of the BRI loan repayment schedule if followed by a PRC withdrawal from countries going in for the rescheduling option could lead to deflation in the PRC and a consequent weakening of the RMB. This would happen just when the Chinese leadership is calling for an expansion of domestic consumption to make up for likely declines in export revenue caused by the ravages of repeated WHO-mandated lockdowns on key economies.


Global primacy hinges significantly on confidence in the currency of the country seeking it. Synchronized action on debt to China of multiple countries that have accumulated as a consequence of loans given under the BRI carries the potential to severely reduce confidence in the Chinese economy and therefore system of governance. Confidence both internally and externally in the economy and in the CCP governance structure is essential for monetary stability and a strengthening geopolitical footprint. From a policy of often unstated but effective offensives across diverse fronts against geopolitical rivals, the PRC would be thrown into a defensive mode. Continuing emphasis on the Indo-Pacific strategy and increasing coordination between by the US and India is already causing concern in Beijing. This would increase should the incoming US President build on rather than reduce the levels of trust and cooperation that has developed between Delhi and Washington during the final two years of the Obama administration and the four years of the Trump White House. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have done much heavy lifting to take forward the US-India partnership. Whimsical decisions of the 45th US President such as denying a fair pension to former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, dropping Mark Esper or pushing the Kurds under the bus, all this and more gives a perhaps not wholly deserved impression of vindictiveness and instability on the part of the world’s greatest showman since P.T. Barnum. Should Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken succeed in getting major players in the EU as well as the UK on board with the adoption of synchronized debt rescheduling of BRI projects by several countries acting in sequence and in concert, that would be a heavy blow to the PRC. Such a move may reverse the strategic gains made by the BRI, which may turn into a millstone around the neck of the Chinese economy rather than an economic and strategic plus. Thus far, the thinking (and not just in Beijing) is that Joe Biden, who as Vice-President opposed the taking out of Osama Bin Laden, will not be the US President who can carry out a strategy of coordinated rescheduling by select countries of BRI debt through use of the power. Some who know the chosen 46th President of the US differ and say that he will take hard decisions should they be deemed necessary to safeguard the global primacy of the US that was established after the war between the Allies and the Axis in the previous century. Meanwhile, the race for primacy between Washington and Beijing continues, with the many aftershocks generated by the Covid-19 pandemic serving to bring closer rather than push further away Beijing’s timetable for occupying the summit of global leadership in place of Washington.

Saturday 21 November 2020

Biden-Harris on course to prove critics wrong (The Sunday Guardian)


Given the tantrums of the outgoing administration, the challenges Biden will face on entering the White House will be unprecedented.

President-elect Joseph Robinette Biden Jr has spent 34 years preparing for the four years ahead beginning 20 January 2021. Although there may be those who use the mechanical metric of age rather than the chemistry of experience to gauge competence, it is clear from the steps that the former Senior Senator from Delaware has taken since 3 November that his earlier years have been well spent. Given the tantrums of the outgoing administration, the challenges he will immediately face on entering the White House for the first time as the lawful occupant will be unique. President Donald J. Trump has had more than a few successes during his term, and Benjamin Netanyahu behaved with gratitude and courtesy in thanking him for some of them, which included the welcome escape of Israel from the diplomatic quarantine of so many Arab states. In the case of that often ignored democracy, Taiwan, Trump has done more to secure that country from a PLA takeover than any of his predecessors since Jimmy Carter initiated the pro-PRC tilt. The problem with Trump is that he has had a lifelong obsession with the dollar, which the 45th US President clearly values above all else, save perhaps Ivanka, Melania and Barron. This has been in evidence during trade talks with allies, who in this matter get treated as mortal foes. The Trump USTR has made numerous efforts to derail the low-cost pharma industry in India, or try and subject our country to East India Company-modelled policies in data storage and IPR. India has the brainpower needed to create tech titans in the same way as these have developed in China and the US. Modi 2.0 needs to take down the layer upon layer of burdensome regulations and laws that stunt honest enterprises and smother individual initiative. Whatever one does in India, there is a regulation or a law which can get used by unscrupulous competitors to take away viability, property and liberty. Especially in the matter of personal liberty, much work needs to get done during the second term of Prime Minister Modi. Just being in the vicinity of a few grams of drugs that are in common recreational use across the world (and which have been legalised in many countries) has been sufficient cause for the Narcotics Control Bureau to treat several Bollywood notables as dangerous criminals. The effect of such zeal on the part of an agency that has long had outsize powers and discretion on an important component of India’s soft power will be visible in the period ahead. Incoming Vice-President Kamala Harris would serve her boss well were she to oversee substantive reforms of the criminal justice system in the US. The Biden administration needs to do away with the Nixon-Clinton measures that have swollen the jail population of the US to greater levels than that in the People’s Republic of China, the country that is challenging US primacy across Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific.

Joe Biden is known to be a warm and decent human being, which is a welcome qualification in any individual. However, this will not help much in reaching across the Republican-Democrat divide to revive a presently moribund bipartisanship. As Vice-President, this was a task that he had little success in. Six of the eight years of President Barack Obama were spent in enduring the legislative blockade created by a Republican-controlled US Congress. It is unlikely that President Biden will have any greater luck than Veep Biden, which is why the Democratic Party needs to win the two Senate seats in Georgia being contested in January, so that the party takes control of the Senate from that master of obstruction, Mitch McConnell. The Senate Majority Leader has been the saviour of Ankara because of his rescue of President Erdogan from CAATSA sanctions that ought by law to have been applied after Turkey’s S-400 purchase. This unpunished defiance by Erdogan has reduced to caricature the assumption of solidarity within NATO to the level of farce. It remains to be seen whether the Biden administration will show more courage than its predecessor in the matter of S-400 sanctions. Trump has further smudged his legacy, but not by trying to reduce US troop commitments to 2,500 each in Iraq and Afghanistan. If those left behind are carefully chosen, and this gets followed up with adequate rather than insufficient transfers of intelligence and essential weapons platforms to the Afghan and Iraqi armed forces, this is all that is needed, not US troops. What has damaged US credibility as a security partner is not the Afghanistan troop reduction but the pell-mell nature of the rush to the door, and the dangerous message that Zalmay Khalilzad’s kowtow to the Taliban contains for terror groups across the world. It is that of a power too scared to fight and which is ready to sacrifice an ally to its worst enemies. This was in evidence elsewhere as well, including the manner in which Trump sought to ingratiate himself with Erdogan by sacrificing the Kurds. An allegation has been made that the Kurds in Syria went the Czechoslovakia way because of President Trump’s eagerness to ensure that present and future Trump properties in Turkey generate money that may be needed by the group to repay loans it has taken in the past. This seems just another of the smears that have so befouled politics in too many democracies. After the fiasco of the Nancy Pelosi-led effort to impeach the 45th US President, President-elect Biden has said that he does not want his term to be defined by criminal processes against his predecessor at the federal level. It was the lengthy and doomed to fail impeachment process that gave oxygen to the multiple conspiracy theories that are occupying much of media and mindscape in the US. The Democratic Party has been punished in polls to the House of Representatives for the impeachment soap opera that was conducted, especially when it was clear from the start that the US Senate would toss out any impeachment resolution. Just as when he fell victim to Covid-19 during the campaign and showed grit in coming back to fight, efforts at impeachment converted Trump into a victim, thereby assisting him in the 2020 polls, which would otherwise have been a landslide for the Democrats.

While North Korea is and will remain a nuclear weapons power, Iran is unlikely to ever be coerced or persuaded to abandon its own program, given the about turn it has experienced from Washington in the matter of the JCPOA. Returning to the Obama outreach to Cuba will within the Biden term deliver benefits for Cubans on both sides of the present divide. This will wipe out the temporary fall in votes caused by misinformation about the Havana initiative. As for the Indo-Pacific, this has replaced the Atlantic as the centre of gravity, and it is unlikely that the Biden administration would follow the example of Canute and seek to roll the waves of change back. Washington, London and Paris may even team up to demand a UNSC vote on India’s admission as a permanent member, albeit without a veto. Judging by the measured tone and actions of the putative Biden administration, there are grounds for optimism.