Friday, October 14, 2011

Brothers In Arms

From Byword- India Today (October 14)

Brotherhood is a moveable feast. The Abrahamic faiths have always been cynical about its virtues. Cain, first child of the first family, dispatched Abel and then artfully asked the Almighty, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' Cain was never a likely candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, but he could have become, in a contemporary incarnation, a cold strategic warrior, much sought after by think-tanks. Abel the Good Boy merely confirmed that decency is an invitation to murder.

On October 4 Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai described Pakistan as a "twin brother" just hours after he signed up on a strategic relationship with India. Was Karzai encouraged by the fact that Afghanistan and Pakistan are locked in a property dispute across the Durand Line? Friends do not have ownership claims; brothers do.

Brotherhood was also on the mind of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad when, within the same week, he telephoned Karzai to say that "enemies never want to see friendship and brotherhood in the region and we should do our best to bring hearts and thoughts closer to each other." Ahmedinejad tends to talk like a Persian poet of the inferior sort; his point was not very subtle. He wants the three Islamic "brothers" Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan to make common cause against "enemy" America. I am not totally sure that Karzai, who has just lost his real younger brother Ahmed Wali to a Taliban bomb in Kandahar, believes he has the same enemies as Ahmedinejad or Asif Zardari.

On October 12, India signed agreements with "maritime neighbour" Vietnam to deepen strategic ties, and, in a rebuff to China, continue oil exploration in the South China Sea. Vietnam is the only country in four decades to have silenced China on the battlefield, forcing Beijing to withdraw from its territory after a 17-day war in 1979. Vietnam did not defeat France and America in order to succumb to China.

International diplomacy is a layered mechanism. Every bilateral purpose leaves a bit of space for potential crosspurpose. Peacetime manoeuvres are often far more intricate than straight-line confrontations of nations in conflict: foreign policy is the art of establishing advantage without the self-injurious risk of forcing a war. The patterns emerging from Iran to Japan are fascinating, perhaps because they are volatile. Primary needs intersect with parallel initiatives, linked by self-interest when they cannot be held together by logic.

Ahmedinejad is testing the possibility of a "Muslim alliance" of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan as the dominant influence between the Caucasus and China, stretching down to the Indian border in Punjab. This does not necessarily mean that Iran would be hostile to India, but Delhi has no role in this "Muslim consolidation". Pakistan might get more "strategic space" against India, but become vulnerable to American pressure and Chinese worry; China fears secessionist Islamism in Sinkiang. India's response is ethnic outreach to Afghan Tajiks, who resent the domination of Pushtuns. India's strategic intervention is largely about training Tajik soldiers for war against Pushtun-dominated Taliban, a variation of the Northern Alliance strategy when India financed anti-Taliban forces before America returned to lead them into Kabul after 9/11.

India has one significant advantage. It has no brothers in a region overloaded with faith-fierce siblings. Nehru tried brotherhood in the Fifties, and we all know what Comrade Mao thought of it. Today, emotion has been squeezed out of Indian policy, making it leaner and hopefully a bit meaner. Even at the height of Indo-Soviet amity in 1971, Delhi side-stepped Brother Brezhnev's bear hug. The cool Vajpayee-Singh cultivation of America is bearing reward now, nudging ahead quiet partnerships. There is virtual understanding between India, Vietnam, Japan and the US in the blow-hot-blow-cold relationship with China. They are drawing a line on water.

In 1962, America was ready to send air force squadrons with bombs and pilots to the Himalayas. The key question since 1962 has been: Which nation will support India in a second India-China conflict? The answer is emerging in the Indian Ocean and Pacific.

As the wealth of the world begins to rotate back to resource-hungry Asia, confrontation and cooperation will be calibrated by both long-term perceptions and immediate needs. We will learn, over the next decade, which nations have understood the tilt of history. Fervour is not conducive to comprehension; far better to be cool. Delhi is getting good at cool.

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