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Russia tops Obama’s hit list, not China

The India-Russia annual summitry had lately become a tepid affair — something like the anniversary of a boring marriage. How often can an aged couple arouse passion? But the upcoming event bringing President Vladimir Putin to Delhi next month promises to be exciting. Geopolitics may act like an aphrodisiac. 

The time-tested relationship is coming under a rare challenge. A rank outsider threatens to barge into it and throw garbage at it no sooner than Putin returns to Moscow.  
The pundits in India do not realize the sheer depth of the US president Barack Obama’s visceral dislike of Putin. It is an animosity felt in the blood and felt along the heart that the usually laid-back president can barely conceal, as the G20 at Brisbane revealed. 
The general drift of the discourses by Indian pundits is that Obama’s forthcoming visit to India In January will be about cementing a US-Indian partnership in the ‘Indo-Pacific’. It may be true insofar as the US aspires to get India on board as a fellow-traveller (“lynchpin”) in its ‘pivot’ strategy in Asia. 
Nonetheless, make no mistake that it is actually Russia today that tops Obama’s hit list — and not China. The Washington Post carried a fascinating opinion piece recently authored by two prominent American pundits who were evaluating how Obama could tackle the two troublesome emerging powers, Russia and China, that threaten the US’ global hegemony. Their conclusion? 
They wrote: “The good news is that, unlike Putin’s Russia, China is not committed or destined to a revisionist path. President Obama’s trip to Beijing this month demonstrated that it is possible to steer the relationship with China toward a more stable course.” 
Indeed, the heart of the matter is that Russia poses a challenge to the US’s global standing in a way that China does not and cannot for a foreseeable future. 
At the end of the day, Moscow is the only power on the planet that has the capability to negotiate the global strategic balance with the US. China simply lacks that strategic prowess for one or two generations to come. 
The US undersecretary for arms control and international security Rose Gottemoeller stated in a speech in Romania last Tuesday that Russia has more anti-ballistic missile interceptors than the US. She claimed Russia has 68 interceptors at the Moscow Anti-Missile Ballistic System (which is 24 more than the 30 interceptors currently deployed by the US in Alaska plus the 14 more that it plans to deploy.) 
The raison d’etre of the relentless containment strategy toward Russia pursued by successive US administrations, therefore, needs to be put in perspective.  
The huge strategic backdrop to the Russian-American rivalry has never really been in doubt for close observers of that relationship through the past decade and more, as it picked momentum through the ‘color revolutions’ in Georgia and Ukraine in the early part of the last decade, through Georgia’s war with Russia in 2008 and in the present Ukraine conflict. (See a hard-hitting Heritage Foundation paper dated March 2009 titled How the Obama Should Deal with Russia’s Revisionist Foreign Policy.)  
The differentiated approach toward Russia and China on the part of the Obama administration is at once apparent. While the US is piling sanctions on Russia with a view to weaken its economy and force it to curtail its defence budget (which registered a 31 percent increase in the five-year period from 2008 thanks to the boom in the Russian economy), Obama had a most productive visit to China recently. 
The qualitative upgrade of the Sino-American relationship is apparent from the White House readout detailing the outcome of Obama’s visit to Beijing. It should come as an eyeopener that the readout says, inter alia:
“The United States and China commit to work together in support of a shared vision for Afghanistan: a democratic, sovereign, unified, and secure nation. Together with Afghanistan, the United States and China agreed to convene a US-China-Afghanistan dialogue to advance this vision. The US and China agree to work together to support Afghanistan’s government of national unity, security forces, and economic development, so that Afghanistan cannot be used as a safe haven for terrorists. They agree to support and Afghan-led, Afghan-owned process of peace and reconciliation… they also commit to each support economic development projects and frameworks to foster Afghanistan’s regional integration and build government capacity.” [Emphasis added.] 
In sum, the US is courting China as partner in the first circle of its strategies in Central and South Asia. Again, while the US has no worthwhile economic relationship with Russia, the Sino-American partnership is one of profound interdependency where each side has become a stakeholder in the other’s economic welfare.
Indeed, the US agenda to ‘isolate’ Russia can never work. Russia has been and still remains an avid ‘globalizer’. Its agenda of Eurasian integration is steadily advancing and is attracting worldwide interest. Around 40 states have officially sought free trade agreements with the Eurasian Economic Union. 
Nor is the world caught up in a rift of competing ideologies today. Russia too belongs to the capitalist world. Hardly anyone outside the western world is in a mood to listen to the US, including even the close allies like Israel or Turkey. 
Ironically, the Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Al-Saud visited Moscow last week to discuss with Russia the state of confusion in the oil market due to the fall in oil prices. 
As Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it, here, the two countries “see eye to eye” by agreeing on the need to keep a balance between supply and demand and to reject any “political or geopolitical factors impacting the market.” And this just before the crucial OPEC meet due in London on Thursday (which is expected to discuss cuts in oil production.)     
Having said that, India is not like Saudi Arabia or Israel, which became Russia’s interlocutors only in the post-Cold Ware era. India, on the contrary, is one of Russia’s oldest and closest friends in modern history. Any erosion of that relationship would have a deleterious effect on both in strategic terms. 
It is not so much the content of that relationship that matters as the relationship itself. Speaking of India, the relationship with Russia provided the anchor sheet of the country’s strategic autonomy for the past six to seven decades. 
India diminishes without that anchor sheet — its capacity to maneuver shrinks, its ability to develop options gets affected, its confidence about an absolute certainty to fall back in an increasingly volatile international environment gets shaken. Suffice it to say, Russia is irreplaceable in India’s strategic matrix. 
On the contrary, the US strategy toward India has consistently aimed at weakening the latter’s fixation over strategic autonomy (which has been the stumbling block in shepherding India into a US-led regional alliance system). 
The concerted assault on India’s policy of ‘non-alignment’, the debunking of Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign policies or the flattering talk pandering to India’s great-power vanities have only served this American objective. 
No doubt, an erosion of Indian-Russian ties will serve the US’s business interests, too. Firstly, India is still Russia’s number one market for arms exports. By rolling back the Russian presence, a significant source of income for Russia dries up. This is one thing.
On the other hand, the US can never match Russia when it comes to transfer of military technology to India. The US will never give nuclear submarines on lease to India or part with an aircraft carrier. It is yet to translate into deeds its promise to give India reprocessing technology, as expected under the 2008 nuclear deal. 
Without a strong Russian competitor, the US will be in a better position to keep dodging any worthwhile transfer of military technology to the Indian market.
Secondly, Moscow has a game plan to diversify its energy exports away from Europe by tapping the Asian market. The western sanctions have prompted Russia to seek new Asian partners. China has been a beneficiary. India too is potentially a big energy partner for Russia. 
All in all, therefore, the visits by Putin and Obama to Delhi in successive months against the backdrop of the cold-war tensions in world politics pose a profound intellectual challenge to the Indian leadership. The bottom line is that a strong relationship with Russia enables India to negotiate more effectively with the US. 
Therefore, Putin’s visit to India next month should not get reduced to a symbolic event, an annual ritual of sorts that somehow has to be gone through. It is crucial that Moscow does its homework — and the Indian side raises its expectations too — and packs Putin’s visit with froward-looking content that can reenergize the strategic partnership. 
A disinformation campaign is already afoot in the American media aimed at poisoning the climate of Putin’s visit — the canard being spread is that Russia is ditching India and courting Pakistan. 
Whereas, it will take light years for a truly strategic Russia-Pakistan relationship to shape up, if at all. Russia’s search to normalize relations with Pakistan is perfectly understandable, given the acute regional security scenario and Moscow’s keenness to retain a level of influence over the Afghan developments that impact the volatile situation in North Caucasus and Central Asia. 
Of course, a strategic realignment may become inevitable in South Asia if India finally abandons its independent foreign policies and its strategic autonomy and instead aligns with the US in a manner that hurts Russia’s core concerns and vital interests. But under prime minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, it is hard to imagine that happening, whatever the self-styled pundits may be saying to the contrary. 

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Obama’s timely return to Afghan combat role

The US president Barack Obama has sprung a big surprise by approving the military’s plans for expanding the scope of the American presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014. The US forces remaining in Afghanistan will selectively undertake combat missions and American air power will continue to be deployed against the Insurgent groups. 

The known unknown is whether this new strategy is possible to be pursued at the previously anticipated troop strength of 9800 (to be halved incrementally and tapered off through 2016). It’s a politically sensitive issue but it stands to reason that Obama may agree to the Pentagon’s demand for a higher troop strength if the security situation warrants it.
Obama has taken this decision with great deliberation, no doubt. The ‘inputs’ he received would have been several. First and foremost would have been Pakistan’s role, which is pivotal. 
Significantly, Obama’s presidential decision sailed into view while the Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif was on a visit to the US. From all accounts, it was an excellent visit with a high degree of understanding reached between the two militaries on the thrust of the operations on both sides of the Durand Line.  
It cannot but please Washington that under Raheel’s leadership, Pakistani military is showing the willingness to jettison its differentiated approach as regards ‘good’ Taliban and ‘bad’ Taliban and to take on the counterterrorism operations without doublespeak and duplicity. 
As a WaPo report put it nicely, Washington greeted Raheel with “far less skepticism” than it was prepared to show to his distinguished predecessor General Ashfaq Kayani who ran the Americans around in circles in the Hindu Kush. 
The American military commanders have assessed that the Taliban groups and, in particular, the Haqqani network are reeling under the pressure of the Pakistani military crackdown in Waziristan. 
More importantly, with former Afghan president Hamid Karzai’s retirement, a far better climate is prevailing in US-Afghan relations. The ease with which President Ashraf Ghani steered the security pacts with the US and NATO through the Afghan parliament is self-evident. Karzai had point blank refused to sign these pacts and departed from the scene amidst much acrimony. 
President Ashraf Ghani is well-liked in Islamabad and the spate of high level exchanges between Kabul and Islamabad since he took over augurs well for initiating coordinated military operations by the two sides against the insurgent groups operating in the lawless border regions. 
Ghani is also willing to give much greater operational freedom for the US troops than Karzai had allowed. He is possibly reflecting here the demand on the part of the Afghan armed forces for an expanded US combat role. The fact remains that the US air cover and drone strikes alone can have a multiplier effect on the performance of the Afghan forces on the ground. 
Evidently, Obama has assessed that a window of opportunity arises to push for a coordinated US-Afghan-Pakistani assault on the Taliban. Such a military strategy will enable the Kabul government to negotiate with the Taliban from a position of relative strength. 
Equally, Obama would have taken in that the regional opinion favors a renewed military effort to counter the Taliban. China is willing to play a ‘proactive’ role by investing in the Afghan economy, but remains diffident about the security climate. 
In an implicit endorsement of Obama’s latest decision, a Xinhua commentary on Saturday underscored that “Afghans are doubtful that Kabul can really rein in the Taliban insurgents who seem to be more aggressive in their attacks.” 
In the final analysis, therefore, Obama is taking a gambit because the success of the new strategy is critically dependent on the cooperation from Pakistan. The point is, ‘anti-Americanism’ is deep-rooted in the Pakistani public opinion and the political parties (with the exception of the PPP, perhaps) have maintained an ambivalent stance toward the Taliban. In short, it is not entirely in Gen. Sharif’s hands to keep up the momentum of the shift in Pakistan’s Afghan policies. 
Consequently, a trust deficit remains between the US and Pakistan, as a BBC commentary last week noted. Indeed, Obama’s phone call to prime minister Nawaz Sharif on Friday testifies to the imperative need felt in Washington to carry the Pakistani civilian leadership along. 
Meanwhile, China’s big plans to invest in infrastructure projects in Pakistan to the tune of $45.6 billion go in tandem with these US efforts, underscoring that there could be a fantastic ‘peace dividend’ for Pakistan if the Afghan situation stabilizes, and the security climate improves. 
Interestingly, Obama’s decision to ‘reengage’ with the Afghan combat mission has come about following his state visit to Beijing recently where in his talks with President Xi Jinping, Afghanistan was identified as a key area of the developing matrix of US-China cooperation over regional issues.  
All in all, therefore, three main templates are at work today in the Afghan stabilization process. At the very core is the improving climate of Afghan-Pakistan relations (actively promoted by Washington and Beijing). 
A second template involves the prospects of coordinated US-Pakistani-Afghan military operations in a concerted effort to degrade the Taliban and the Haqqani network. 
A third template comprises the “pro-active” Chinese role (encouraged by the US) involving greater investments in the Afghan economy and a helping hand by Beijing in moderating the Pakistani policies and initiating a reconciliation process (which will of course be of enormous help to the overall success of Obama’s strategy for reaching an Afghan settlement before his term ends in 2016.) 
The interplay of these equations in the coming period will determine the success of the decision taken by Obama to return the US troops to an Afghan combat role. On balance, the chances of success are fairly good. (See my earlier blog Afghan scenario is not so gloomy dated November 15.)
Delhi ought to welcome these developments instead of remaining in the past, savoring memories that do not really count anymore. The forthcoming visit by Obama to Delhi should be a useful opportunity to recalibrate the Indian policies in sync with the new tidings. But the probability of that happening seems low, what with the government’s preoccupation with preparing the country to fight a two-front war (with two nuclear powers simultaneously) in the second decade of the 21st century. 

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Will Obama come bearing gifts?

After mulling over for two months, US president Barack Obama finally made up his mind to accept the invitation extended to him by India’s newly-elected prime minister Narendra Modi to visit India and be the chief guest for the Republic Day celebrations on January 26. The decision is masterstroke on his part. 

The meeting at the White House in late September was the first time Obama ever came across Modi and Obama, an unusually cerebral mind, would have felt intrigued when the latter sprang a surprise and extended the invitation. 
So, the thoughtful man he is, who never gives in to momentary impulses, Obama took his own time, but eventually took this decision. Why did he do that? 
First and foremost, Obama is conscious of Modi’s controversial past but then, he is known to be cold-blooded about his interlocutors’ past life (including even the closest European allies) and his litmus test is solely on their utility to America. 
To be sure, Obama has concluded that Modi could be shaping up every bit as an enthusiastic promoter of the US-Indian ties as his predecessor Manmohan Singh had been. 
In fact, Modi might even be one better, being a “man of action” as he proved in crossing the hump of the discord over the WTO facilitation agreement just ahead of the conclave of the G20. 
Secondly, Obama has sized up that Modi’s government is willing to take to neo-liberalism with gusto, notwithstanding the “Swadeshi” plank of the right-wing nationalists, and the corporate lobbies that worked during the Manmohan era continue to be in the business of promoting US-Indian relations. 
Maybe, the CEOs Forum should be recast to include some faces who are close to Modi. But that is a detail. Crony capitalism is alive and kicking in India, for sure.  
Washington’s capacity to steer the directions and pace of India’s reforms may only be increasing in the coming period, considering that Modi heads a single-party government enjoying solid majority in the parliament. 
As the saying goes, early birds catch worms, and Obama never dithers when an enterprise abroad presents itself to help promote exports and create jobs in America. His visit to Delhi will be just in time when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley will be preparing the annual budget, which is expected to be “transformative” and “bold” on reforms in areas that impact American business interests. 
Yet another salience appears insofar as Obama finally made up his mind to travel to India only after his recent tour of the Asia-Pacific. 
The Asia-Pacific tour was a rude awakening, and it brought home the diminishing influence of the US in the region and China’s phenomenal success in riding the wave of aspirations of the countries of the region for development. 
If this was on spectacular display at the APEC summit in Beijing, Obama would have been disappointed that the maritime disputes of South China Sea took a back seat at the ASEAN summit despite all this drum beating. 
Obama rounded off his tour with a tripartite with his Japanese and Australian counterparts. Ironically, the best moment of his entire tour happened to be the accord reached with China on climate change. 
In sum, the US’s “pivot” strategy is in serious drift and that is where a renewed effort becomes necessary to rope in India. 
It could not have been lost on Washington that after a promising start to the Sino-Indian ties when Modi came to power six months ago, things have dramatically deteriorated — although nothing really untoward has happened lately. 
Clearly, Modi’s set-up, driven by right-wing Hindu nationalism, opposes tooth and nail a takeoff in India’s relations with China. 
With a view to (re)set the compass of the Modi government’s approach to China for a foreseeable future, Interior Minister Rajnath Singh has in recent weeks queered the pitch by indulging in intemperate remarks regarding China. 
In the latest statement, Singh went to the extraordinary extent of doubting the wisdom of India’s recognition of Tibet as an integral part of China — crossing something of a “red line”. 
Now, Singh is also an ambitious politician and it is a matter of speculation whether he is having a game plan. Interestingly, Modi himself has failed to endorse Singh’s views regarding Chinaa. 
Indeed, China’s response is also the same as Modi’s — to ignore Singh’s rhetoric. But Beijing seems to have estimated that for whatever reasons, Modi is not in a position to advance the India-China relations to a higher trajectory, driven by his electoral pledge of a development agenda riveted on foreign investment that would create jobs in hundreds of thousands. 
Beijing had initially warmed up to Modi’s invitation for massive Chinese investments in projects in India, but it realizes that there is no scope to move forward unless and until Modi shows the grit to pursue a new type of relationship with China. 
Thus, the forum of Special Representatives, which has been in existence for over  a decade to address the border dispute and to finesse the overall relationship, is yet to be reconstituted even after six months of the Modi government. 
Beijing showed no interest in scheduling  a “bilateral” with Modi availing of his presence recently at the EAS summit in Myanmar and the G20 in Brisbane. Such “bilaterals” have been a set tradition during the Manmohan Singh era.
In a subtle way, Beijing has flagged that India will be the loser by refusing to be part of the “Asian century” that it has been promoting. Beijing’s decision to commit a massive investment of $46.5 billion in infrastructure projects in Pakistan conveys an explicit message. 
Suffice it to say, a rare window of opportunity may be arising for the US to probe how far Modi is willing to be co-opted into the Obama administration’s “pivot” strategy in Asia. 
This is a double whammy for Obama because not only would the US’s “pivot” regain something of its lost elan, but  the heart of the matter is that Washington is also hoping to cash in on India’s tensions with China to boost its arms exports to India. 
Washington can count on the entrenched interest groups within the ruling circles in Delhi surrounding Modi who also want things to move that way — be it on grounds of ideology, right-wing nationalism, intellectual conviction, private interests and so on.
Moreover, the raison d’etre of evicting Russia from the great Indian arms bazaar has never been so compelling for the US in geopolitical terms, what with the deep chill in Russian-American relations and Obama’s concerted strategy to weaken Russia’s economy by choking its sources of income. India is a lucrative market for Russian arms exports. 
Without doubt, the US feels more than ever, against the backdrop of the creeping shadows of a New Cold War, the imperative need to erode the “time-tested” Indo-Russian strategic partnership, which has been the anchor sheet of India’s “strategic autonomy” for decades, through good times and bad times. 
Obama realizes that the ruling circles around Modi are clamoring for Australia to be brought in as India’s new shining knight in armor. He witnessed first-hand Modi’s fervor in Australia and the sheer pull of the new Australian lobby within India’s ruling circles. 
Having said that, Obama still had to give serious thought to how his second visit to India would be viewed in Pakistan, where he has never been as president. 
Of course, it isn’t easy to “de-hyphenate” the US policies toward India and Pakistan. Pakistan’s cooperation is vital for the success of the US’ regional strategies and Washington point-blank refused to apportion blame for the deterioration of India-Pakistan relations during the past few months. 
On the other hand, the US has secured its immediate agenda in Afghanistan, centred around the transition in Kabul to a “pro-American” leadership and the conclusion of the security pact for the establishment of the American military bases in Afghanistan. 
However, new factors have crept in. The US is now reviewing its past decision to end the combat mission of the American deployment in Afghanistan and, perhaps, there could be a bigger American military presence than what Obama had earlier sanctioned for 2015. 
Most certainly, the current Pakistani military leadership is responsive to the US’ counterterrorism agenda in Afghanistan and taking into account the splintering of the Taliban groups and the weakening of the Haqqani network, Obama feels emboldened to stay put in Afghanistan and finish the job if only Rawalpindi could be kept moving on the present track. 
Meanwhile, two new factors have also appeared — China’s willingness to play a “proactive” role in Afghanistan and, secondly, the easing of Afghan-Pakistani tensions. The interplay of these two factors could help speed up a reconciliation process with the Taliban. 
Therefore, all in all, Obama needs to navigate his way carefully through the mine field of India-Pakistan relations. He made an extraordinary gesture of calling up Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif to “sensitize” him about his decision to visit India in January. 
The Pakistani readout of the phone conversation makes fascinating reading as a peep into Obama’s contrarian thought processes. 
Thus, any whichever way one looks at it, Obama has made a brilliant decision to visit India in January. The initiative came from Modi personally and the onus is now on Modi to ensure that Obama does not return home empty-handed. 
What can be said with absolute certainty is that the Obama visit will be a grand spectacle that would give fresh lease to the Modi brand of foreign-policy, which is long on showmanship even if measly on substance. 
But how long can Indian diplomacy live in Modi’s world of make-believe and grandstanding? The Indian media is in ecstasy and no one wants to ask hard questions. The euphoria is comparable to the signing of the US-Indian nuclear deal in 2008 (with patchy results so far.) 
Would Obama come bearing gifts? Say, an investment package of $100 billion that would match China’s for a much smaller country like Pakistan? Can Obama ensure, finally, India’s membership of the technology control regimes, if not the UN Security Council? 
Will Obama help Modi somehow realize the alluring Make in India dream? Or, at the very least, will he agree to liberalize the visa regime for Indians? 
Indeed, the best hope will be that Obama’s visit to the region doesn’t provoke any ghastly terrorist strikes in India and that in the run-up to the visit at least, India-Pakistan tensions do not cascade and the spectacle on January 26 doesn’t turn out to be an occasion of national crisis.  
Of course, speaking for Obama, this visit to India can only shore up his standing in the US political establishment, as he’ll be seen as a “foreign-policy president”. 
And that is the absolute bottom line for Obama, a famously unemotional personality who never really warmed up to India as his predecessor did — and yet, due to be the first American president to visit India twice while in office. 

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Russia signs military pact with Pakistan

When a Russian defence minister comes to Pakistan after a gap of forty-five years, it becomes a landmark event both in the bilateral relations between the two countries and in regional politics. And on top of it, there is much symbolism that Sergey Shoigu came to Pakistan on Thursday in the second leg of a tour that first took him to China at a defining moment in Russia-China strategic ties. 

It’s too early to connect the dots — not at least until President Vladimir Putin undertakes a long-awaited visit to Islamabad — but there is no gainsaying the fact that a critical mass of shared interests and concerns is steadily forming between Russia, China and Pakistan. 
The press release of the Pakistan defence ministry on Shoigu’s visit, in fact, stressed that the two sides “expressed satisfaction over convergence of views on most international and trans-regional issues.” A military cooperation agreement was signed during Shoigu’s visit, which is the first of its kind between the two countries. 
The Pakistani expectation is that the pact will strengthen the mil-to-mil relations in “tangible terms” as well as “pave the way for exchange of views and information on politico-military issues as well as issues related to strengthening of mutual trust and international security, intensification of counter-terrorist and arms control activities, extension of relations in various fields of military education” and so on. 
The press release quotes Shoigu as expressing appreciation for Pakistan’s defence production capabilities and remarking publicly that the world community “wants to do business with Pakistan now.” It stands to reason that Russia could be eyeing Pakistan as a potentially valuable partner for military sales and weapons production. 
Reporting from Islamabad, TASS news agency quoted Shoigu as saying that there is mutual agreement that “bilateral military cooperation should have a great practical focus and contribute to increasing combat efficiency of our armed forces.” 
The Russian-Pakistan interaction at the military level has been steadily building up. All three service chiefs of Russia visited Pakistan this year. Obviously, much preparation went into Shoigu’s landmark visit. Shoigu said without elaborating that he discussed with the Pakistani side “a range of specific events of particular importance.” These are not off-the0cuff remarks and they are meant to carry resonance in the regional and international audience. 
What explains the Russian overture to Pakistan? In the broadest sense, the deep chill in Russia’s ties with the United States provides the backdrop. 
From the Russian perspective, Pakistan plays a key role in the US’ regional strategies and it is in Moscow’s interest to create political and diplomatic space for Pakistan to withstand US pressure. In intrinsic terms, therefore, Russia will do all it can to strengthen the trend of Pakistan’s independent foreign policies. 
Arguably, in the new world order that Putin choreographed in his recent speech in Moscow in late October, Pakistan fits in as participant in what the Russian leader called “a new global consensus of responsible forces.”
In regional terms, Russia has everything to gain out of cooperation with Pakistan. Shoigu acknowledged this by saying, “our [Russian-Pakistani] assessment of the situation in this country [Afghanistan] is either similar or the same.” 
To be sure, Russia views with great suspicion the US’ intentions in establishing long-term military presence in Afghanistan, given Washington’s track record of using extremist groups as geopolitical tools. Pakistan, too, cannot but be uneasy about the establishment of the US military bases in Afghanistan. Most certainly, sharing of intelligence becomes a leitmotif of the Russian-Pakistani military cooperation. 
Moscow would like to keep track of the covert activities of the US intelligence, which has a big presence in Afghanistan, while the fact remains that Pakistan has been at the receiving end of cross-border terrorism originating from Afghan soil and masterminded by various forces. 
Of course, viewed from Delhi, there will be an inclination to see Moscow’s overtures to Pakistan as a Russian reaction to India’s lurch toward the American camp. But that will be simplifying matters in zero-sum terms. 
Indeed, the fact that the US has overtaken Russia as the number one vendor of weapons in the Indian bazaar could be rankling Moscow. But then, Russia will not be doing anything exceptional by supplying weapons to Pakistan and India — something which the US and European countries have been doing all along.  
What should worry Delhi is something else, namely, the failure of the Indian policy to brand Pakistan as a terrorist state and to demand its isolation. 
On a day when Shoigu is in Islamabad while the Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sharif was being feted by his American hosts, it is beyond doubt that Pakistan is not facing any danger of isolation. Ten days back, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in Beijing, too.
Shoigu’s visit to Islamabad underscores that Russia has joined the US and China in recognising the shift in the Pakistani policies on terrorism, what with the growing evidence of the disintegration of the Taliban and the Haqqani network. By working with Pakistan, Russia hopes to influence the search for an Afghan settlement in a way Moscow’s profound security interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia are safeguarded.
Therefore, as time passes, Delhi will be hard-pressed to find alibi for not engaging Pakistan in dialogue. Secondly, a possible upswing in Russian-Pakistani cooperation — and possible coordination eventually as the relationship matures — on Afghan developments can only aggravate India’s political and diplomatic isolation in Kabul. 
Finally, one main purpose of Shoigu’s visit has been to intensify the military exercises between the two countries. This is coming at a time when Russian navy aspires to make its reappearance in the Indian Ocean in the post-cold war era. The Russian warships from the Pacific Fleet made a port call in Karachi in April. 
Most certainly, it is no coincidence that Russia is probing the frontiers of military cooperation with Pakistan at a juncture when India is manifestly accelerating its defence ties with the US, Japan and Australia bilaterally as well as multilaterally and giving it a regional format in the ‘Indo-Pacific’. These are early days, but a strategic realignment in the Indian Ocean region is, perhaps, becoming unavoidable and the Russian-Pakistani military pact cannot be regarded as a mere flash in the pan.       

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‘Evergreen tree’ of Sino-Russian friendship

The Chinese President Xi Jinping had made some highly significant remarks regarding the future directions of the Sino-Russian strategic cooperation while receiving President Vladimir Putin in Beijing ten days ago on the eve of the APEC summit. The exceptional warmth of the meeting was noticeable — taking “good care of the evergreen tree of Chinese-Russian friendship”, Xi remarked. 

He said the two countries have “lately enhanced our strategic management and planning in bilateral relations” and envisaged “a time for new achievements.” Xi estimated that the strengthening of the cooperation “complies with the spirit of the times” and no matter the “changes… on the world arena”, cooperation with Russia is a priority area” for Chinese foreign policy. 
He envisaged the two countries having “to jointly protect the post-cold war world order.” (Kremlin readout). Indeed, the remarks were made against the backdrop of the rising tensions in Russia’s relations with the United States. 
Taking stock of Xi’s latest meeting with Putin, a scholar at the China Institute of International Studies noted, 
“Geopolitical conditions and strategic security concerns have impelled China and Russia to strengthen cooperation… In a sense, cooperation… can help them protect their core interests and maintain the balance of world power. But their efforts have focused more on short-term cooperation and coordinated emergency responses than strategic and long-term cooperation projects… Now (after Putin’s visit) the bilateral ties have been pushed to new heights as practical cooperative efforts have been introduced.”  
The scholar took note of the West’s sanctions against Russia and argued that beyond trade and energy cooperation, the two countries can also help each other to transform their “economic growth modes… Russia is a world leader in aerospace and defence technology and heavy equipment manufacturing; China excels in agriculture, light industry and information technology. The two countries can complement each other…” (Beijing Review
Meanwhile, another prominent scholar attached to the State Council in Beijing forcefully argued in an opinion-pice in the communist party tabloid Global Times that it is in China’s vital interests to help Russia as the latter grapples with the Western sanctions. 
He concluded, “China can only stay stable with stability in Russia ensured… What will China encounter on the international stage if it lets Western countries heighten sanctions on Russia and drag the country into chaos?… On the other hand, if China’s help earns Russia’s trust and makes it a reliable and resource supplier as well as a military strategic partner, how much would such a deal worth?” (Global Times). 
The two commentaries bring out some important vectors. One, the two mega gas deals signed between the two countries during the past six months worth a total of $700 billion would signify a big statement by Moscow that Putin’s ‘pivot’ to China is a strategic decision. This is for many reasons. 
For one thing, Russia has diversified its energy exports and there is every likelihood that China will replace Europe in the medium term as Russia’s principal market. 
Ironically, Russia’s increased exports to the Chinese market are threatening to kill the dream harbored by the US natural gas exporters to export to China, the largest and most profitable market for LNG exporters at present. This is a body blow because Russia is literally making it difficult for the US to compete on the world market. (The US LNG is no longer competitive in Europe.) See an excellent analysis by the Oil Price magazine. 
By the way, Russia has made some unprecedented gestures to China in the field of energy cooperation. Putin disclosed In an interview with the TASS news agency last week that: a) Rosneft is offering to China a 10 percent stake in the massive Vankor oil field project in Eastern Siberia b) Alongside, China will be given representation in the board of directors of the Vankor project. c) Russia has offered to sell the oil from Vankor to China for the yuans. 
To quote Putin, “we’re moving away from the diktat of the market that denominates all commercial flows in US dollars. We’re encouraging in every way the use of national currencies.” The Russian move amounts to a direct challenge to the status of the US dollar as the reserve currency globally.
Two. Beijing proposes to help Moscow to counter the deleterious effect of the Western sanctions on the Russian financial system. In essence, China can continue to help by investing in Russian bonds and exchangeable monetary assets, apart from making direct investments, thereby strengthening Moscow’s hands to withstand the effect of the Western sanctions. China is uniquely placed to do that because the manner in which it deploys its foreign exchange reserves (exceeding $4 trillion currently) cannot but make a critical difference. 
On its part, Russia also is showing signs of shedding its traditional reserve in military-technical cooperation with China involving high technology products. Beijing will see this as yet another definite signal by Moscow that it is willing to expand the perimeters of cooperation in the defence field. Thus, the 3-day visit by the Russian defence minister Sergey Shoigu to Beijing this week, which concluded on Wednesday, merits close attention. 
Shoigu is indeed a close confidante of Putin. While announcing the visit, Russian defence ministry spokesman said Shoigu’s agenda will include discussions on “current issues of international and regional security and bilateral military and military-technical cooperation” and that Shoigu would “determine priority tasks” for further cooperation. 
The Xinhua reports on Shoigu’s meetings with the Chinese prime minister and military leaders(here, here and here) underscore unmistakably that the two militaries have a shared interest in strengthening the cooperation and have drawn very close to each other. 
Evidently, Shoigu carried a much bigger brief than merely negotiating a road map of Russian- Chinese military-technical cooperation for the year ahead. He held discussions with the Chinese military leadership on the current trends in the international system and the imperatives for the two countries to join ranks to meet common challenges. 
Shoigu disclosed to the media that the defence ministries of the two countries have decided to form a regional collective security system in the Asia-Pacific. He said both Russia and China are concerned about the US’ ‘pivot’ to Asia, translating as attempts by Washington to strengthen its military and political clout in the Asia-Pacific. 
Quite obviously, this comes as a riposte to the tripartite meeting  between the US president and the Japanese and Australian prime ministers on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Brisbane, which targeted Russia directly and China by implication.    
Shoigu said, “We [Russia and China] believe that the main goal of pooling our effort is to shape a collective security system.” Interestingly, he announced that Russia and China will hold joint naval drills in 2015 not only in the Pacific but also in the Mediterranean. He expressed satisfaction that the spectrum of joint activities between the two countries “has visibly expanded and gained a systematic character… We have vast potential of cooperation in the defence sphere and the Russian side is ready to develop it in a wide range of areas.”  
Shoigu added: “Amid a highly volatile world situation, it becomes particularly important to strengthen reliable good-neighborly relations between our countries. This is not only an important factor for security of states but also a contribution to peace and stability on the Eurasian continent and beyond.” 
In effect, Shoigu cited China’s understanding and support for Russia’s stance in the Ukraine situation while affirming Russia’s shared concerns with China with regard to the Asia-Pacific theatre. (TASS
Interestingly, Shoigu’s talks in Beijing touched on the protests in Hong Kong as an example of the US-sponsored ‘color revolutions’, which only goes to show that, as a senior Russian official accompanying Shoigu put it, here, “Russia and China should work together to withstand this new security challenge to our countries.” 
The Russian reports also mentioned an intriguing new salient in the Sino-Russian strategic understanding with the two countries agreeing to use the format of the Geneva disarmament conference to explain their “peaceful approaches… in order to make it clear where we are moving to, what we want and what we must do together to live in peace” — to quote Russian deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov.  
To be sure, the Russia-China strategic ties have reached a defining moment. Neither country has desired an alliance. On the other hand, neither country is also under any illusion that their respective rivalry with the United States trumps everything. 
The fact remains that despite the bonhomie over the US-China climate change accord, the power rivalry between the two big powers still threatens the Pacific. 
Equally, the G20 in Brisbane saw an unprecedented spectacle of the US and its Anglo-Saxon allies — Britain and Australia — berating Russian leadership in a manner that has no parallel even in the high noon of the Cold War.    
Therefore, with the US breeding insecurity in the Eurasian and Asia-Pacific regions, Moscow and Beijing may be seeing the need to draw closer to each other and form an axis between them. Shoigu’s mission to China aimed at taking the first steps in that direction. 
Of course, Russia’s search for collective security has a long history and has taken a tortuous course over the past decade. (See my article Russia’s search for collective security in Asia Times dated May 31, 2006). However, it is for the first time in the Cold War era that Moscow has dusted up the Soviet-era doctrine of collective security in Asia and discussed it in Beijing as a template of the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. And, the crucial thing is that Beijing warmed up to it. 

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Lessons from Modi’s Asia-Pacific odyssey

The Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Australia accounted for one full half of his three-nation tour spread over  a ten-day period abroad. Was it worthwhile? The spin doctors have put out the story that Modi got the black money issue into the G20 agenda — as if the nineteen other world statesmen ate out of the hands of our prime minister. 

But in real terms, though, the only tangible result out of Modi’s 5-day visit to Australia has been the massive $16.5 billion project that the Adani group proposes to undertake in that country. 
But then, it is also not something to write home about when a very dynamic business group leaves the Indian shores to make such a big investment splash abroad — and that too, focused on building infrastructure in a developed country such as Australia. 
It implies a tragic failure on the part of our government to convince the Adani Group that it is in the enlightened national interests if only such a big investment could be made in the coal sector in India itself. It seems the Adani Group doesn’t take seriously the government’s claim that India will be able to stop importing thermal coal within the next three years. When the brightest among our industrialists lacks confidence in the business climate, it becomes bad publicity for Modi’s “Make in India” agenda. On the other hand, funnily, State Bank of India is apparently funding the Adani investment in Australia. 
Indeed, Australia has every reason to feel excited about the bizarre way its ties with India are developing. Australia is a very focused country, which pays enormous attention to economic diplomacy, and a $16.5 billion foreign investment is no small matter even for such a rich country with a per capital income close to $70000. (India’s  per capital income, by the way, is $1500.) 
Without doubt, Australia is making good money out of India. The trade ($15 billion) is heavily in Australia’s favor, with Indian exports almost non-existent at $3 billion. Then there are the “invisible” earnings in the education sector — and the IPL, of course. 
Clearly, it is about time we begin to ask what is it that Australia can do for India’s development agenda? Hopefully, Modi framed that question in no uncertain terms — and got some convincing answer from his counterpart Tony Abbott. 
The media reports suggest a disappointing outcome — the two countries agreed on an “early closure” on the civil nuclear agreement, a reconstitution of the CEO forum and to “speed up negotiations” on the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement. (here). 
Considering that India and Australia had set a target of $50 billion for bilateral trade by next year and are still struggling at around $15 billion, there is a credibility gap between promises and performance.
Cricket, hockey, yoga, Swami Vivekananda, Gandhiji, Festival of India — that’s all very well but they only create an ambience for a relationship between two countries as dissimilar as India and Australia. What about the content of the relationship? 
From the Indian viewpoint, sadly, it is turning out to be a lot of hot air that keeps our think tankers busy weaving castles in the air over the ‘Indo-Pacific’. Put differently, a novel without a plot?   
Talking of think tankers, the PM did well by ignoring them and staying away wisely from the tripartite meeting of the leaders of the US, Japan and Australia held on the sidelines of the G20 summit to discuss the security and defence cooperation within the ambit of the US’ ‘pivot’ to Asia. 
Nor did Modi do any further sales pitch on the South China Sea disputes after the faux pas in Naypiytaw, Myanmar, where he was needlessly verbose. 
The good thing is that no matter the advice rendered by Modi’s foreign-policy advisers (whoever they are), he is undoubtedly on a learning curve himself. Beijing has also given Modi a free rope to say as much as he likes on the South China Sea so that he figures out whether it makes sense. 
At the end of the day, the chair’s statement at the East Asia Summit failed to make any reference to South China Sea. The summit’s statement itself made only an anodyne reference. So indeed, the G20 communique. 
Modi would have taken careful note that India’s best friend (currently) in the South China Sea, Vietnam, chose to play a “constructive role” at the EAS, which is to say Hanoi decided not to take its disputes and differences with China to the multilateral meet but instead seek bilateral solutions. 
Interestingly, Vietnam was not alone in such a chastened mood. The Philippines too has piped down. Most certainly Modi would have got a sense of how the highly innovative Chinese diplomatic strategy is working to bring the territorial disputes onto the bilateral track. This of course should give food for thought to Delhi — alongside the fact that the Chinese leaders held no formal ‘bilateral’ with Modi in Myanmar or in Australia. 
The Australia tour would have been an excellent tutorial for Modi on the complexities of the Asia-Pacific power dynamic. The fact that his own visit to Australia was overshadowed by the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s would have given a sense of proportions. 
The point is, Australia-China trade amounts to $150 billion, and it is heavily in Australia’s favor. And China is the destination for one-third of all Australian exports of goods and services worldwide. China is also surging as an investor in Australia.  
Indeed, Australia is thrilled that the FTA with China has been concluded, finally. The Australians are a plain-speaking lot and their leading newspaper The Australian ran a screaming headline, Xi Jinping came bearing gifts, Barack Obama just gave us griefs, which testifies to the value they attach to money and their ties with China as the driver of growth for their economy
The paper’s well-known foreign affairs editor Greg Sheridan wrote: “Xi Jinping’s accomplished, well-considered speech to parliament yesterday contained no… implicit criticism of Australia… Xi was charming, respectful and helpful to all Australians… He completed the free-trade agreement, which is a big win for both countries. But more generally his speech was one of reassurance and reasonable ambition… More than that, the substance of his message was one of reassurance more generally to the Asia-Pacific region… Given how robustly the Abbott government has backed Japan’s strategic re-emergence… many analysts… had expected some overt display of Chinese displeasure. But the Chinese seem to value their relationship with the Abbott government, certainly to the extent that they would not embarrass their host by emphasizing disagreements.”
The contrast couldn’t be sharper between the great Indian goof-up in the handling of Xi’s visit in September and the sophistication of the Australian diplomacy.  Why is this happening? The root cause is that India has been misreading the tea leaves, thanks to the notions implanted by the American pundits in our discourses
Delhi cannot afford to overlook that the power dynamic in the Asia-Pacific is on the cusp of phenomenal changes. The APEC underscored that China wants a bigger role in Asia-Pacific and it cannot be stopped from claiming it. This past week underscored that the leitmotif of regional politics is on economics and China intends to keep it that way. 
The US is left with no choice but to tailor its ‘pivot’ strategy accordingly. The shift in the locus of American thinking in the direction of trade deals is only going to become more pronounced in the coming period.   
China-Australia FTA is the latest signal that the ground beneath India’s Look East policy is phenomenally shifting. Australia was being fancied as pivotal to India’s strategies toward China. In sum, there is a lot of catching up to do unless India’s “Act East” altogether becomes a sideshow that is confined to a moth-eaten corner of the Asia-Pacific. 
Truly, a spectre of irrelevance haunts India. Unless India can identify with the massive currents of economic integration sweeping the Asia-Pacific and the region’s prioritization of development as the most important template of geopolitics today, it will get left behind. Which makes a commentary in Global Times, the Chinese communist party tabloid, titled It’s crunch time for India indeed very timely. 
But there is also a deeper philosophical question involved here. Indonesia’s exciting new president Joko Widodo framed it very nicely while taking stock of the packed week and the summits of APEC, ASEAN, EAS, G20 —  when he said as he headed home from Brisbane on Monday, “For me ‘free and active’ is making friends with countries that can provide us with benefits. What’s the point of making friends if we are always on the losing end? What’s the benefit of making friends if it is a aimed merely at image-building and if it risks our national interests?” 
Jokowi was gently marking distance from his flamboyant predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono obsessed with grandstanding in diplomacy. Modi too will do well to craft, as Jokowi put it, a “free and active” Asia-Pacific policy that brings quantifiable “benefits” for India. 
Countries nowadays go to extraordinary lengths to press their case and no issue is too small for them from the perspective of national interests — as Modi would have discovered when German Chancellor Angela Merkel quizzed him closely on the exclusion of German language from the Indian school curriculum. 

Posted in Diplomacy, Politics.


US shows pure evil to Russia, IS pays back

The Islamic State [IS] missed its timing by a whisker in making the announcement that it beheaded an American aid worker. The announcement should have been made a day earlier just when the G20 summit was getting under way and Russian “aggression” in Ukraine was about to be brought to the centre stage as per the pre-planning by western countries led by the United States. 

The IS could easily have put President Barack Obama on the horns of a dilemma and his Australian sidekick might not have resorted to such boorish behavior, either.  
There is some poetic justice nonetheless that in the event, the US’s triumphalism of turning the G20 into a pulpit to bait Russia proved short-lived. 
The IS has reminded Obama that the US has a lot of blood on its hands and murder begets murder. By the way, it is not Muslim blood alone; the “regime change” Obama presided over in Ukraine in February has so far killed 4000 people. What is one American life in Mesopotamia comparison? Yet, Obama calls It “pure evil” when IS killed  a single American. 
The G20 at Brisbane could have been turned into a creative forum to try to find a solution to the Ukraine crisis. Instead PM Tony Abbott got a midnight phone call from Washington to turn the summit arena into an Orweliian animal farm. Which he did loyally. 
The problem begins only now. One, Ukraine situation is going to take a turn for the worse. Much bloodshed can be expected. Russia is determined to safeguard its national interests and after what happened in Brisbane, it will be strengthened in its belief — and rightly so — that Ukraine is only the symptom of a concerted US strategy to contain Russia’s emergent role as an independent power centre in world politics. 
Clearly, Obama wants a “frozen conflict” in Ukraine, which creates an obstacle in Russia’s relations with the western European states in the short and medium term and, in turn, helps to consolidate the US’s trans-Atlantic leadership, apart from giving new verve to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 
Two, the bitterness created at Brisbane in Russia’s relations with the West will vitiate the climate of world politics as a whole. The bad blood in US-Russia ties will find its echo in the United Nations Security Council while that body is called upon to address the “hotspots”. It will outlive the Obama presidency. 
Obama’s calculation could be that with Iran on his side, the US doesn’t need Russia’s cooperation in the Middle East. Equally, Obama could be factoring in that the mesmerizing prospects of a “new type of relationship” between the US and China would keep Beijing in abeyance from teaming up with Moscow in a veritable alliance against Washington.  
However, both assumptions can go wrong — or worse still, rendered irrelevant — because there are power centres other than Russia, China or Iran in world politics. In fact, the IS just underlined it. 
Again, what happens if Russia abandons its self-restraint and switches gear to active opposition to the US’ policies — from one of passive non-cooperation? So far this hasn’t happened for a variety of reasons. Is the G20 at Brisbane a defining moment, finally, for the Russian elites who pander to the West?  
The point is, to borrow Obama’s own expression about the IS, Russia just experienced “pure evil” from the US. What was exhibited at Brisbane was malignity of the sort that is “motiveless” — like Iago’s in William Shakespeare’s play Othello

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Afghan scenario is not so gloomy

The formation of the national unity government in Afghanistan remains incomplete and the 45-day deadline that President Ashraf Ghani had set for himself to announce the cabinet appointments has just passed. 

Evidently, the two coalition partners comprising the government — Ghani’s and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah’s respectively — could not reach consensus and within each group far too many claimants are vying for the limited number of cabinet posts, leading to political wrangles that have made government formation a tortuous process. 
A Kabul datelined report in the New York Times presents this dismal picture. The report will reinforce the opinion of most Indian analysts too, whose gloomy assessment makes things seem all but hopeless. 
But the good thing is that Ghani started running right from the moment he hit the ground. He arrived in Pakistan on Friday, swiftly following up a productive trip to Beijing, which was also, interestingly, his first state visit abroad as president. 
If his focus in Beijing was to elicit a big Chinese role in the stabilization of Afghanistan in the political and economic spheres alike, his agenda in Islamabad will be to try to put behind the acrimonious history of Afghan-Pakistani ties during Karzai’s rule (who was viewed with distaste in Pakistan) as well as to explore the possibilities of kickstarting a reconciliation process, with Pakistan brokering it on the ground (which of course demands the injection of an ambience of good-neighborly relations across the Durand Line.)  
Indeed, much of the current pessimism regarding the post-2014 Afghan scenario stems out of an estimation that the national unity government in Kabul may prove transient and in a short time from now Ghani and Abdullah will be at loggerheads and the tussle will take the flavor of an ethnic discord sooner or later, which in turn would create civil war conditions that could only work to the advantage of the Taliban. 
This doomsday prediction emanates out of an assumption that the experiment of the national unity government is a contrived idea, which the Americans imposed on the Afghan political class, and which is predicated on consensual politics and will inevitably crash against the bedrock of ethnic politics in Afghanistan. 
However, on closer examination all this becomes a false assumption or a facile estimation and a premature rush to judgment.
The extraordinary thing about the US’ initiative of a national unity government has been that it is actually old wine in a new bottle. Washington has promoted continuity in the aftermath of what proved to be an extremely divisive presidential election 
The challenge facing Secretary of State John Kerry when he came o Kabul on the mediatory mission was to make the winner (Ghani) the president without making the loser (Abdullah) feel he ‘lost’. 
But alongside something else also happened — namely, Kerry also made sure that the ethnic balance that was the mainstay of Afghan politics during the past decade or more of Karzai’s rule has been preserved. 
If the Karzai regime was a revolving door through which a procession of key figures drawn from various non-Pashtun communities passed in some capacity or the other — Burhanuddin Rabbani, Dr. Abdul Rahman, Muhammad Fahim, Abdullah Abdulah, Ismail Khan, Rasul Sayyaf, Younus Qanooni, Ahmed Zia Massoud, Karim Khalili, Mohammed Atta, Mohammed Mohaqiq, Rashid Dostum — Ghani era promises continuity. 
What does it mean? It means two things. One, Afghan ethnic politics will keep simmering but will not approach the boiling point of an inter-communal struggle that might have exacerbated the prevailing conditions of instability. 
Two, the political system, which although highly centralized in the persona of the president, nonetheless continues to provide space — even proportional distribution of power — to various ethnic, tribal and regional power brokers. 
Clearly, a system that accommodates even electoral losers can be trusted to keep ethnic tensions in check. (Ghani has promised Abdullah that his nominees will get half of the key portfolios in the cabinet, including either interior or defence.) 
The bottom line here is that so long as ethnic politics is preserved on these lines, the possibility of the Afghan armed forces splintering into unruly militias does not arise. The implications of this for overall stability are self-evident. 
Put differently, even a disaffected warlord today understands that he has more to gain by remaining within the system rather than challenging it. 
Indeed, the US should continue to encourage the preservation of the political balance between the ethnic groups. The US enjoys much greater leverage today, because Ghani is a predictable ally — unlike Karzai who proved to be mercurial. 
At the end of the day, Afghanistan remains critically dependent on US-led foreign assistance. Suffice it to say, everything depends now on continued American engagement at the political and diplomatic level so that the requisite underpinning is available for the all-important mission of building up Afghanistan’s capacity for safeguarding national security, while also enabling Kabul to negotiate with the Taliban from a position of relative strength. 
Simply put, the danger to Afghan stability arises not so much from lack of internal cohesion as from the external factors — principally, the role of the regional players. 
Iran may seem a wild card but everything depends on the progress of the negotiations on the nuclear issue. If a deal can be struck, Iran overnight becomes Washington’s best ally on the Afghan chessboard, not merely as a factor of stability but also as active promoter of the US-led strategy to stabilize Afghanistan. 
Equally, the Barack Obama administration has done brilliantly to encourage a ‘pro-active role’ by China. Indeed, China being a stakeholder in peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan would have many positive fallouts for regional security.
Most important, it compels Pakistan to rethink its Afghan strategies. On its part, therefore, China has moved fast on a parallel track to offer a New Silk Road package of seamless possibilities to Pakistan, which can be seen as an invitation in geopolitical terms to play a responsible role in Afghanistan. (The outcome of Ghani’s visit to Islamabad will be a litmus test of new thinking in Pakistan.)
The two other regional players — Russia and India — are sitting on the fence and that creates some uncertainties. This needs some explaining.
These are extraordinary times when Russia views the regional and international situation — even the G20 summit in Brisbane — almost exclusively through the prism of its frosty ties with the US that fall just short of outright hostility. 
No doubt, Russia’s trust deficit with the US explains — partly, at least — the strange stance Moscow took at the recent international conference on Afghanistan in Beijing where it reportedly rejected a Chinese proposal to create a peace and reconciliation committee in Afghanistan involving regional countries. 
Perhaps, Moscow is nervous about any ensuing erosion of its leadership role in integrating the Central Asian space as a political and economic bloc. 
Or, it could be that Moscow is simply sulking, having been reduced to a marginal player in the new regime headed by Ghani, an ex-World Bank official close to Washington who is also at the same an “old friend” for Beijing. 
To be sure, Moscow cannot but remain on guard as regards the American intentions in Afghanistan. After all, the US has a consistent history of exploiting the forces of militant Islam as instruments of its regional policies. 
A flashpoint may arise if a curious Syria-style role reversal ensues — America staunchly backing the Ghani regime and Russia covertly undercutting it. If that happens, it could be a matter of time before the black flag of the Islamic State makes its appearance in Afghanistan. 
India’s dilemma would be similar to Russia’s and, perhaps, somewhat more acute. Delhi bristles, having lost the great game in the Hindu Kush to Pakistan — and, as it happens, China’s lengthening shadows also create a sense of deep disquiet. 
The nascent Sino-American concord — Afghanistan figured prominently in Obama’s conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping last week — also makes Delhi feel isolate. And, to cap it all, in Karzai’s retirement, Delhi lost an irreplaceable friend. 
The Indian policy has reached a cul-de-sac and it should own the blame for it. What makes things extremely difficult is that this is now going to be much more than a matter of adjustment to new realities alone. 
The new government in Delhi has lately begun ostentatiously wearing on its sleeve its bullish spirit of rivalry vis-a-vis China, which may preclude any worthwhile Sino-Indian cooperation over Afghanistan. 
Alas, smitten by the intense feelings of rivalry via-a-vis China, Delhi refuses to comprehend that India and China are actually traveling in the same boat and could be likely becoming ‘frontline states’ fighting terrorism. 
On the other hand, the government is bankrupt of ideas for engaging Pakistan constructively and remains (as of now) a captive of its domestic constituency that is rooted in archaic notions of Hindu nationalism. 
In sum, India and Pakistan seem fated to continue to think in zero sum terms on vital issues affecting regional security and stability. 
The Chinese proposal to create a peace and reconciliation committee involving the regional countries ought to serve India’s interests and give impetus to new thinking in Delhi and provide a new sense of direction to India’s Afghan policy. It could give Delhi a sense of participation rather than be an outsider looking in. 
The US and China should jointly promote the idea of a regional forum that commits the countries surrounding Afghanistan to foster peace and reconciliation in that country. It could even provide the germane seeds of a much-needed architecture of collective security — something which this region inhabited by nuclear powers lacks.

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Hunt for Red October off Brisbane

If the G20 has been about discussing coordinated strategies for spurring the growth of the world economies, the summit in Brisbane this weekend will be taking place at a most awkward time. Nothing brings this home more poignantly than the fact that with just about 30 hours to go for the meeting in Brisbane to begin, the host country is preoccupied elsewhere — in the Coral Sea. Australia is reportedly busy intercepting “a Russian naval flotilla steaming towards the G20 Summit in Brisbane.” (Australian). 

The Australians suspect that a Russian submarine could be lurking in the sea off Brisbane. It brings home nostalgic memories of the Sean Connery film The Hunt for Red October
How can G20 overlook this dramatic backdrop of the New Cold War? With the clouds of a New Cold War gathering on the Eurasian landscape, what is the point in discussing coordinated global economic strategies?  
The G20 summits have been increasingly reduced to vacuous events, conceived as sop to the emerging powers not to upset the apple cart of the Bretton Woods system. With the US economic recovery, the Bretton Woods system is no more under any immediate threat and the G20 may have outlived its utility. 
Australia has a terrific opportunity in hand to inject new vitality to the G20. The Australians have a reputation for being unconventional folks with an earthy sense of practical wisdom. All they need to do is to simply throw into the dustbin the Brisbane summit’s agenda worked out by the sherpas, which focuses on esoteric tax issues and shady money-laundering practices and instead convert the gathering of the esteemed world statesmen into an international conference to discuss the Ukraine crisis. Call it the Congress of Brisbane.  
When the world statesmen, who include one distinguished Nobel by the way, are tearing each other apart in a murderous vanity fair that is systematically dismembering Ukraine, how are they qualified to discuss the fruits of peace?  
Indeed, the 2-day summit in Brisbane has become a macabre joke on the conscience of the world community. The tidings from Ukraine look grim. 
The UN just reported to an emergency meeting of the Security Council in New York “over the possibility of a return to full scale fighting” in Ukraine, which has become a conflict that may “simmer this way for months, with sporadic, lower-level battles, marked by periods of increased hostilities and further casualties”, or yet another prospect of a “frozen” or protracted conflict “which would entrench the current status quo… for years or even decades to come.” (UN News)  
The fact of the matter is that the Western countries, especially the United States, are wringing their hands in pleasure and purring that the Russian economy is about to pack up and crawl on its knees under the weight of their sanctions (here), but Moscow is in no mood to oblige them. Clearly, the least the G20 can do is to break this stalemate. 
The Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has floated a simple formula for settling the Ukraine crisis. He was quoted by Interfax as saying after meeting President Barack Obama on the sidelines of a summit in Myanmar on Thursday that it is necessary “to abandon sanctions, leave relations to a normal working order, return to normal, calm, productive talks.”  
It’s as simple as that. Going a step further, the two-day Congress of Brisbane could even find ample time for an expanded agenda that could be devoted to the hopeless fight by the international community against the Islamic State [IS]. 
With the King of Saudi Arabia and the Prime Minister of Turkey expected in Brisbane, there couldn’t be a better opportunity to discuss Syria and Iraq. These two venerable mentors of the Islamic State could just be the wise men who would know where the IS monster is at its weakest. 
Simply put, if a solution could be found to the conflicts in Eurasia and the Middle East, that would go a long way to ensure that the painfully slow global economic recovery process becomes sustainable. Which in turn will enable the G20 meet in Istanbul next year to get habitation and a name in the world of summitry. 

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G2 in the making in Asia-Pacific

The White House official who conducted the customary media briefing last week in Washington did drop a hint that there could be some major announcements during President Barack Obama’s forthcoming state visit to China, but when it actually sailed into view, the big announcement on greenhouse emissions in Beijing Wednesday with potentially big consequences for Mother Earth still had an element of surprise — although it came as the culmination of secret US-China negotiations over almost an year. 

The US secretary of state John Kerry summed up in an op-ed in New York Times that “the world’s most consequential relationship has just produced something of great consequence in the fight against climate change.” He saw it as “a milestone in the United States-China relationship.” Kerry concluded: 
“Two countries regarded for 20 years as the leaders of opposing camps in climate change negotiations — have come together to find common ground, determined to make lasting progress on an unprecedented global challenge. Let’s ensure that this is the first step toward a world that is more prosperous and more secure.” (NYT). 
There are many ways of looking at the development — first and foremost, its likely impact on upcoming global climate change negotiations in Lima, Peru, next month followed by the big event in Paris in December next year that is expected to clinch an accord to replace the Kyodo Protocol. The point is, the US and China have now caught up with the European Union’s commitment to effect deep cuts in emissions by 2025-2030. 
This, in turn, creates a new dynamic and will spur countries such as India to act and make similar commitments for 2025 and 2030. Which is just as well because India has been taking cover behind the specious plea of ‘equity’ and the new government under Prime MInister Narendra Modi subscribes to the view that development and growth cannot be ‘sacrificed’ at the altar of environment. Indeed, Delhi is called upon to do some creative thinking,   
Having said that, the profound significance of the US-China climate change deal for regional and international politics and for the Obama presidency itself cannot be underestimated.
To take the last point, Obama has once again surprised his Republican detractors in Washington by signaling he intends to lead the US foreign policies for another two years. To be sure, in yesterday’s historic deal with China, Obama created a policy legacy for his presidency.
No doubt, his search is in a very advanced stage already for another big legacy he’s set his eyes upon — clinch a nuclear deal with Iran and set right the fractured US-Iranian relationship. Tehran would do well to estimate that Obama has the grit to navigate a fair deal through the choppy waters of US politics. 
Equally, what needs to be noted here is that China is also sending a big message to the Asia-Pacific region regarding the so-called ‘Asian century’. As a commentary in Deutsche Welle noted, this week’s APEC Summit brought out several salients: thaw in China-Japan ties on Beijing’s terms; primacy of economic growth, development and prosperity in the regional agenda; the US’ diminishing stature; and, China’s rising profile as the driver of growth in Asia-Pacific. (here). 
However, the most important salient will undoubtedly be the reset of the US-China partnership as such. The US-China deal brings in an altogether new flavor to regional politics in Asia-Pacific. 
Suffice it to say, the US’ ‘pivot’ to Asia transformed yesterday. The Chinese leadership has signaled to Obama that there is an alternative path to zero-sum competition between the two big powers. And Obama is willing to try it out. 
President Xi Jinping outlined six “priorities” in building a new type of relationship with the US. Significantly, one of them relates to Xi’s call that the two big powers “should jointly respond to regional and global challenges”. Xi explicitly mentioned the resolution of the Iran nuclear issue, denuclearization of North Korea and the stabilization of Afghanistan as three specific regional projects as well as offered China’s cooperation in meeting the challenge of terrorism (read Islamic State), climate change and Ebola. [Emphasis added.] 
Again, if we factor in that China and the US have also reached two other agreements that are important deals in their own ways — a military accord that is designed to avert clashes between Chinese and American planes and ships off China’s coast, and, secondly, an understanding to cut tariffs for technology products — there is no mistaking the fact that the US-China partnership is entering a qualitatively new level. 
At its core, a blueprint of diplomatic progress between the two big powers has emerged, which of course has been the outcome of the sustained efforts by the two leaderships who played a direct role ever since their summit meeting in California last June, that hinges on elevating potential areas of agreement while showing restraint in the handling of areas of disagreement.   
To a very large extent — perhaps, even critically — the US-China interdependency is setting the direction and tempo of the relationship. Thus, Time magazine drew a pointed comparison between the two rival economic projects in the Asia-Pacific that played out at the APEC Summit in full view of the region’s leaders — the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership [TPP] and the China-led Asia-Pacific Free Trade Agreement [FTAAP] — and came to the following conclusion: “Whatever trade deals eventually win the day — the TTP, the FTAAP, and so on — the world’s two biggest economies may have to create a few more acronyms they can share.”
In such matters, the final word must go to Singapore, which has a fine mastery over the dialectics of the US-China competition-cum-cooperation. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong may have hit the nail on the head when he flagged that it is hard to foretell if China would turn down the TPP membership in the long run, because China’s involvement will be “a huge plus” for the region (while the US involvement is “necessary”) — which is why Obama has chosen to voice support for the FTAAP. A nice summing up, indeed, of the spirit of our times in the Asia-Pacific. 

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