Watch the Duterte space

A colorful character that can make our Lalloo Prasad look stale and sober, Rodrigo Duterte has taken over Philippines as its President. The web is full of his hilarious and often offensive remarks so let us not waste any time discussing them. Many of them are about as sensible as a drunk garrulous taxi driver’s.

But then he is President of a nation and what he says and does impacts not only his country but others too. So his recent “break” with the United States, announced in China during a state visit, if carried out even partially will have profound impact.

Basically what he is saying is that US is a has-been, too arrogant and lecturing and unable or unwilling to help his country in its development. So he wants to turn to China the new Don in town. Interestingly similar comments were also made by a prominent Pakistani diplomat recently in the US, where he blatantly threatened Americans that Pakistan may “turn” to China or Russia. As if that is something new!

In fact many leftists in India have been arguing that instead of challenging China’s hegemony in Asia or even South Asia, India should learn to live with it, accept its overwhelming superiority and find ways to benefit from its rise. Be obedient and reap rewards.

There are many domestic and personal compulsions that propel Duterte’s open hostility to US and warm embrace of China. It appears he too suffered visa denials (1) and bad treatment at LAX airport in the past. Ethnic Chinese tycoons control practically all of Philippines economy and are a powerful. It is said that the indigenous populace, deeply suspicious of China and more wannabe American than Ronald McDonald will not support this switch.

Be that as it may, India should watch the space carefully. Two things may happen:

1. Duterte’s overture to China will result in good bargains for Philippines in its various disputes with China as well as economically. China will be generous to its “subjects” and give away more than it otherwise would. Projects and investments will flow not merely to fill order books of factories in China but benefit locals.

2. China will simply use this surrender as an example to arm twist other recalcitrant and fence sitters and drive hard bargains or worse, humiliate even more. Real gains to the Philippines at least in the short and medium term will be marginal.

As China goes about writing big cheques that may or may not bounce (well over $100b at last count (2) ), India should keep a watch on these developments. Given the experience of East Africans and others like Cambodia, this manna from heaven may come with side effects.

May be the lefties are right. May be they aren’t.

 



  1. http://news.abs-cbn.com/blogs/opinions/10/23/16/opinion-duterte-and-the-us-so-it-boils-down-to-a-visa-issue
  2. $24b to BD, $15 to Egypt, $48b to Pakistan, $15b to Philippines counting only the recent ones.

     

What’s Modi up to in Pakistan?

The 90 minute visit to Pakistan by PM Narendra Modi has “stunned” most observers. None were expecting it. Ironically most leaders, including well protected NATO VIPs, visit Afghanistan unannounced, fearing terror attacks, Modi did so with enough prior notice in media and visited Pakistan stealthily!

Naturally speculation is rife in the media as to the events that preceded the visit and the visit itself of which very little is known other than cleansed disinfected stale media statements and tweets.

Let’s take a look at some of the possibilities. Most of these have been offered as logical explanations by some media pundit, political commentator or the other, so there is nothing new. Of course, Congress tied itself up in knots, offering several of these, often contradicting each other! Let us also assume that wasn’t the entire objective of the exercise ūüėČ

Modi is just frivolous, he likes doing such drama, nothing comes out of it.

Naturally many that do not like Modi have advanced this theory. Modi¬†is of course, not bothered by Congress and AAP making noise. They are never going to get the votes of the hardcore anti-Pakistan lobby. They’ll only end up looking like clowns, perhaps even lose some of their own Wagah candle kisser voters. But he sure bothers about his own core constituency that is conservative, supposedly against any interaction with Pakistan other than sending the army or air force. Why should he make things difficult for himself doing this, that too after the recent Bihar debacle that has weakened him somewhat?

This silly ‘explanation’ has to be dismissed without further consideration.

Modi is doing this to please the international community. So he can say, “look, I tried, it didn’t work”

This is of course, plausible. After all, there may have been some gentle prodding by Obama to ‘go talk to them’ or at least make an effort. ¬†As US is keen on washing its hands off the Afghan mess so it can re-focus on the long term China threat, India Pakistan detente can make a bad mess look prettier.

But this also assumes that Modi is simply uninterested in any sort of peace with Pakistan. He is simply trying to shut a few mouths by making a token attempt and wait for the right moment to deal with Pakistan ‘problem’ militarily.

This argument can be resolved only when he remits office, not until then. We can also look for evidence to the contrary Рthat he wants to leave a distinct stamp on history. He can either do this by obliterating Pakistan so it ceases to be a problem for the next 100 years, or by doing a landmark deal that brings benefits without the costs of war.  Chances are, he is sensible and prefers the latter option.

He probably knows he is the only one who can do it for the foreseeable future. A 15 party coalition headed by Nitish Kumar or Rahul in 2019, even if they manage to defeat BJP/NDA, is unlikely to enjoy a free hand. That is because even if defeated badly, BJP is likely to secure 150+ seats in the LS, enough to make things difficult for any ruling coalition.

There is no plan, it is just theatrics

This is yet another Congress theory. ¬†Simultaneously, its spokies have also floated the other theory (see below) that it is well planned and Parliament has been ‘bypassed’ and opposition deliberately kept in the dark. Pro Congress media divas have been pushing the Jindal angle – a story¬†of prior coordination and choreography brokered by a businessman, effectively rubbishing their own¬†“unplanned, unscripted theatrics” allegations.

Again, it is possible that Modi simply had a brain-wave sitting in Kabul sipping tea, talking to Nawaz Sharif over phone. But while it is possible (and likely) the trip itself may have been unplanned, the state of mind and the game plan that led to it can’t be dismissed casually. Particularly because it has been preceded by other moves such as Bangkok talks, Paris meet, FM Sushma Swaraj attending the Afghan summit in Islamabad etc. In other words, the no plan theory falls flat when circumstantial evidence is considered.

This is well planned, part of an overall master plan

While we may have two (or more) opinions on the potential success or failure, or its appropriateness or otherwise, we can surely say there is SOME plan.

Obviously we (and for that matter most media ‘experts’) don’t know what this plan is and we can, like a bunch of blind men looking an elephant over, can try to make some sense of it by observing evidence that is publicly available.

But we can suggest the contours of what this plan should be, from our own perspective and make some educated guesses on the likely roadmap as well as outcomes.

Enough of triumphalism

It is worthwhile here to diverge a bit and take a look at the triumphalist noise in some sections of our media and analyst community. It goes like this: Pakistan is all powerful now, everyone is queuing up at its door because it has so much influence on Afghanistan and Taliban in addition to its ‘strategic’ location. Modi was a fool all this while¬†and is now waking up to the reality. Hence he is willing to surrender some of his earlier bombastic attitude and join the queue to talk.

If one can consider the fact that bombs are not going off every other day in Pakistani cities and TTP is yet to takeover a district or two, and Balochistan remains part of Pakistan as a major triumph, there can be some merit to this argument. But by any decent standard, Pakistan is a long way from being a normal state that domestic (let alone foreign) businessmen dare to invest in. The oil bonanza is gone, likely forever, seriously undermining its key source of free cash from Saudis and UAE. The Arabs are in fact worried their own dollars are digging the graves of their regimes by feeding the Islamist monster they no longer control. Pakistan’s¬†other benefactor, China, is facing enough economic problems at home, slower growth and need¬†to cut excess capacity created by over investment. All the big talk of $46 billion ‘belt and road’ remains just that – big talk and may remain that way even ignoring security problems. And the costs – India getting annoyed and playing its own games with USA, are mounting by the day making it a worthless game in the long run. The very fact that Uncle Sam is washing hands off Afghan mess also means he is no longer going to write big cheques to the Pakistan army for logistics support, worthless as it was. Even President Ghani is getting fed up, because Pakistani generals don’t seem to have the means to bring Taliban to the table.

Pakistan (and its friends among the left wing in India) should be living in a fools paradise if they can assume that simply because it shares a border with troubled Afghanistan, it has a massive geo strategic advantage it can milk for eternity to bleed India while keeping its own home safe and secure. Far from it.

What’s the way forward?

  1. It should be clear to everyone things are at a stalemate. China is unable to ‘use’ Pakistan to stop India or restrict its options. Pakistan is unable to change India’s behavior by using terror proxies. It is not able to get Taliban to rule Kabul. Nor is Kabul able to defeat them, with or without US help. India is not able to ‘fix’ Pakistan once for all militarily. And then there is ISIS that doesn’t dance to anyone’s tunes but only obeys the Quran.
  2. This stalemate can go on for years, as it has been going on for years anyway. But in case you missed the point earlier, there is ISIS, that doesn’t dance to anyone’s tunes but only obeys the Quran. This wildcard entry has changed the game for all players, big or small. The only difference is the extent to which each player worries about it. Clearly Pakistan has to worry the most because it has ploughed and fertilised the field, sown the seeds and grown the crop of Islamist fanaticism and jihadi mindset only to see the “crop” ready to be harvested by the purer green ISIS. And the rest have to worry because Pakistan has enough nukes.
  3. China’s top priority is to fix its domestic economic mess that has serious implications for the future of its communist regime itself. It just doesn’t have the bandwidth for adventurism that too against a rising India that is steadily jacking up the price for China’s game plan. ¬†Modi has shown India can deliver a big market and huge gains on the positive side, should China be ready to play ball.
  4. Uncle Sam has lost all interest in Middle East and its oil. It’s economy has moved on. All he wants from the region is for Islamist terrorism to remain bottled there and not bother mainland USA or Europe. He can, in order not to lose face, keep, at relatively cheap cost, sufficient forces in the Af-Pak arena for decade or more to ensure Taliban can never overrun Kabul even if it can’t be defeated.
  5. Pakistan simply can’t continue its self poisoning strategy for that long hoping to gain mysterious strategic depth and leverage against India when Uncle finally leaves. Along the way it can stage a Mumbai or two and slow India down by 1-2% but nothing more can be gained.
  6. It is in this context we have to see Modi’s recent moves. India too has to get its economy moving if it has to challenge China’s rising clout in the region and more importantly to win elections.
  7. Given all this regional context, the contours of an eventual settlement and the road map can go like this:
    1. Put a lid on the Kashmir issue by agreeing to current borders either immediately or after a cooling off period
    2. Turn the Afghan problem into an opportunity by getting Pakistan Army to give up its paranoia over India’s investment there.
    3. Obviate the need for terror proxies so Pakistan can begin a genuine cleanup of its system instead of the farcical changes to extract dole from USA. This strengthens its democratic institutions too.
    4. Strengthen regional connectivity and economic integration including transit rights across Pakistan and pipelines going the other way for everyone to gain.
    5. Ensure the discord and conflict between India and Pakistan doesn’t become valuable playing cards for this or that super power.
    6. Bring China into the game by promising huge market that can absorb most of its excess capacity. In addition, China gets reassured India will not get close to USA/Japan beyond a certain point
    7. All of this eventually leads to a situation where Asia manages its own affairs, limiting Uncle’s role with India and China playing their rightful role as regional-cum-global powers

Obviously there is a lot of big ifs in a process this complicated and for results to be so spectacular. It may take years. But some items in the check list such as (1) and (2) above are definitely possible. Particularly the Kashmir one, though intractable by assumption, has seen several near deals along similar lines. It just takes political will.

Item (3) may be beyond control of even Pakistan army depending on how the Middle East / ISIS situation evolves but the best India can do is to have Pakistan army at least stay neutral and not actively cultivating such groups. To have the Pakistani generals actively pursuing and bumping off anti-India jihadis would take years of peace and non-conflict.

Item (4) depends on (1) and (2) and can be realised fairly quickly. (5) would take a lot of trust and time. (6) is a bonus although as someone (Mulayam?) predicted India China conflict/rivalry/competition would last decades longer than India-Pakistan one and hence needs altogether different strategy.

Lastly (7) would probably remain a utopia at least for our lifetime!