Thursday, 7 July 2022

Professor Joseph Stiglitz's Talk At UTS

I got an email announcing that the Nobel Laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz was in Australia, and that he would be addressing a crowd at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) on Thursday the 7th of July. So I registered for this free event and turned up for it. It was a strictly one-hour affair, which drastically reduced the time allowed for audience questions.

Prof. Stiglitz made the following points, and I took quick notes. (He said he was going to make 5 points, but then he made 6.)

1. Human progress was static for centuries, then standards of living and life expectancy started to increase rapidly after the 18th century. The reason is science and technology, and societies have learnt to organise themselves to harness science and technology. An important mindset that we gained from the Enlightenment was that progress is possible. Enlightenment values include democracy and tolerance for other viewpoints. In the US, these enlightenment values are being challenged today. What is at stake is every aspect of our progress including democracy. We need to re-learn the values of the Enlightenment.

2. Innovation cannot be taken for granted. It is endogenous. We can hasten or undermine it through our conscious choices.

3. Since Adam Smith, many economists have believed that markets would lead to progress in society. In the 1950s, the economist Gerard Debreu (later a Nobel laureate himself) studied under what conditions this would occur. He realised that information wasn't perfect, and markets weren't perfect. Along with Bruce Greenwald, Stiglitz himself argued that markets weren't always good for society. Innovation isn't automatic. Joseph Schumpeter argued that competition spurred innovation. He was wrong (in more than one way, actually), because it didn't always spur the right kind of innovation. For example, reducing labour isn't as important as reducing carbon emissions, but because markets reward labour-reducing innovations, those tend to occur more. Social returns are not the same as private returns. Curing malaria is more important than stopping hair loss, because millions of people die of malaria every year. But these deaths occur in poor countries, and the people there don't have the money to pay for a cure. But rich and insecure men have plenty of money to spend on hair loss prevention techniques, hence the latter area sees more market funding for innovation. There are also "me-too" innovations that are intended just to sidestep patents. They don't add any additional value socially. Markets also stay away from risky investments. Hence some of the most important innovations come from the public sector, because governments aren't that risk-averse. Knowledge is a public good. It shouldn't be hoarded, but private enterprises tend to keep knowledge to themselves, which isn't good for society. Thomas Jefferson said a candle doesn't diminish if it lights another. Government needs to get larger as we become a science-based society.

4. Research is an enquiry into the unknown. There will be failures. If a process doesn't see enough failure, it's not exploring boldly enough. The US government gave Tesla a lot of money, and that's why Tesla became successful. In Stiglitz's opinion, the government should have bought shares in Tesla instead of just giving the company money, so that the public would have got a return on its investment. Incidentally, government tends to get a higher return on its investments compared to the private sector. Although people say government should get out of the business of doing business, this is not justified based on results.

5. Government should not only support basic research, but should also steer the private sector. However, industrial policy is controversial. People say, "Governments shouldn't pick winners." But this happens anyway. Governments' decisions are always steering the economy. When people aren't paying attention, special interests end up steering the economy. Like derivatives which exploded. Derivatives got first preference when companies went bankrupt. This was a law passed through Congress because of lobbying by financial firms. So if governments are going to have an impact anyway, it's better that it make conscious steering decisions, such as adopting an education policy, a tax policy, etc., which would result in societal benefits. Current tax policy steers the economy towards saving labour, which creates more unemployment at a time when people are suffering economic hardship. Saving on labour does not result in societal well-being.

6. Government is beginning to talk about "well-being budgeting". Markets may be maximising profits and GDP, but not societal well-being. Technology policy is an important part of public policy.

After his talk, there was a brief discussion with a panel member, who asked a couple of questions, and Prof. Stiglitz answered.

There was time for just one audience question. I had a question, but didn't get a chance to ask it.

For what it's worth, this would have been my question.

"Prof. Stiglitz, you spoke about societal well-being, and you also touched upon democracy. One of the intriguing phenomena in today's world is -- China. China is not a democracy in the way we understand democracy, but after the death of Mao Zedong, all subsequent Chinese governments seem to have been very focused on improving the quality of life of the Chinese people. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in a single generation. The government executes a series of Five Year Plans, all of which are focused on investing in sectors that require the most attention. For example, China lays thousands of kilometres of high-speed rail every year. This is particularly relevant to us in Sydney because we have seen our government take years and spend billions of dollars just to build a few hundred kilometres of metro rail. China seems to get more bang for the buck. We pride ourselves on our democracy, and we believe that democracy is about responsive government that delivers good governance, but it seems to me that a non-democratic government like China is showing up democratic ones in terms of the societal well-being that it has been able to deliver to its people in just a few decades.

What are your thoughts on this?"

Saturday, 16 April 2022

A Logo Suggestion For Fibonacci Coffee

There is a brand of coffee in Australia called Fibonacci Coffee. The logo has a nice spiral, indicating that the owners are well aware of the Fibonacci series and its mathematical characteristics.

It struck me that the logo and brand name could do with a subtle tweak that further reinforced its mathematical pedigree.

I believe I suggested this to them a while ago on some forum but didn't hear back from them.

Oh, well.

Wednesday, 30 March 2022

The Wrath Of Revenge That Russia's Rulers Rue (How A Wronged Brother, Father And Grandfather Came Back To Haunt A Country)

A videoclip I recently saw provided some fascinating insights into the possible motivations of Victoria Nuland, the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs in the Biden government, who was formerly Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs when Obama was in power. It's almost two hours long, but worth listening to.

Victoria Nuland, of course, is known for her role in the 2014 coup in Ukraine, and was recently in the news for her embarrassing gaffe over American-funded bioresearch labs in Ukraine.

The video by Gonzalo Lira was revealing, because I didn't realise that Victoria Nuland has ethnic Russian origins. Why would she be working so hard against her native country then? Put simply, it's revenge, and I'll elaborate on this further on. But importantly, the video got me thinking about three different people from three consecutive generations of Russians who were motivated by revenge against the government or even the common people of Russia, because of what had been done to their families at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Lenin, or Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov

It's well-known to all who have read Lenin's biography that his older brother Alexander, whom he adored, was executed by the government of Romanov Tsar Nicholas II for his role in a royal assassination plot.

Vladimir Ulyanov was already into the revolutionary movement in 1887 when his brother was executed, and that event is said to have greatly increased his fervour and determination to see the Tsar overthrown. Thirty years later in 1917, he finally succeeded. A few months after Lenin's Bolsheviks won power, the entire Romanov family was assassinated in the basement of the house where they were being held.

Ayn Rand, or Alisa Rosenbaum

Ayn Rand, the high priestess of Capitalism, was born in 1905 to a Russian Jewish family in St Petersburg. Her father was a pharmacist with his own shop. In 1917, when the Bolsheviks took power, they confiscated his business. She stayed on in the Soviet Union until she completed university in 1924, then shortly left on a visit visa to the United States, never to return.

We know how her early experiences with Communism shaped her attitudes towards the ideology.

Victoria Nuland

Victoria Nuland is the daughter of Sherwin Nuland, who was born Shepsel Ber Nudelman. Sherwin's father was Meyer Nudelman, who lived in Moldova, part of the Russian Empire. In 1907, the infamous anti-Semitic Kishinev Pogrom occurred, in which several Jewish people were killed. After that, Meyer Nudelman fled to the United States. His son Sherwin and granddaughter Victoria were born in the US.

As Gonzalo Lira's video explains, Meyer Nudelman appears to have had a major influence on both his son and his granddaughter. Victoria Nuland tellingly studied Russian Literature, Political Science and History for her BA degree from Brown University.

In time, she joined the US Diplomatic Service, and her actions in recent years have all been aimed at hurting Russia.

Revenge and Russia

Three tales of revenge, one from each generation, show us that Russia continues to reap the fruits of what it sowed in the early twentieth century.

It appears that revenge is a dish that can be served hot, lukewarm or cold.

Tuesday, 29 March 2022

Does India Have Agency When Dealing With China? Some Examples From Indian History

When debating with Indian friends over the right approach that India should take towards China, I first try to find common ground by asking a simple but crucial question:

Does India have independent agency when it comes to dealing with China?

In other words, can India make its own choices that can have significantly different outcomes, or is it just a helpless player forced along a certain path by forces of history, powerless to choose how to view and approach other countries?

You, the reader, should probably ponder this question and answer it for yourself before reading further. But before I talk about the answers I have heard in response to this question, I would like to reach back into Indian history to discuss some interesting tidbits.

Friends and enemies of the kingdom

Around 300 BCE, there lived an Indian scholar and thinker called Chanakya or Kautilya, who was an advisor to two emperors of the Maurya dynasty. His well-known treatise on statecraft called Arthashastra (literally “Economics”) contains sage advice to rulers on how to recognise and deal with adversaries. In this respect, the treatise can be considered India’s answer to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Kautilya had a rather cynical view of a kingdom’s friends and enemies. As he saw it, any kingdom that shared a border with one’s own was a natural enemy and hence a threat. The only allies of a kingdom were to be found on a neighbouring kingdom’s other borders, or in other words, “an enemy’s enemy is a friend”.

If one applies Kautilya’s reasoning to present-day India, Pakistan is a natural enemy for the simple reason that it shares a border with India. India’s allies are then to be found on Pakistan’s other borders, such as Afghanistan and Iran.

In similar fashion, China is India’s natural enemy on account of the two countries sharing a border. India’s allies are to be found on the “other” side of China, such as Japan, the US and Australia. If Kautilya were around today, he would probably have approved of The Quad. That grouping reflects classic Kautilyan thinking.

Subjects of the kingdom

Fast-forwarding to the mid-16th century CE, we find the Mughal empire of Emperor Akbar dominating the Indian landscape. Adjoining his colossal empire were two small kingdoms. One was Mewar, ruled by the Rajput king Rana Pratap Singh. The other was Amer (or Amber), ruled by another Rajput king, Raja Man Singh. Akbar approached both kings seeking their cooperation in his federalist vision. His vassals would support the Mughal empire, which in turn, would protect them from their enemies.

The two Rajputs made opposite choices.

Rana Pratap’s pride would not allow him to become a Mughal vassal. He chose to fight Akbar’s empire.

Raja Man Singh allied with Akbar, even giving his sister in marriage to the emperor. He became one of Akbar’s trusted commanding generals in many campaigns, including one against Rana Pratap.

Indian history textbooks glorify Rana Pratap as a brave patriot who fought an invader. Raja Man Singh is barely mentioned.

What is interesting to consider is the fate of the subjects who lived in these two kingdoms.

The subjects of Mewar suffered the expected tribulations of a long war, as their king was first defeated and later fought his way back to some of his lost territories in a series of guerilla campaigns.

The subjects of Amer lived in relative peace and prosperity. Amer fort is just outside the modern city of Jaipur, and I had the opportunity to visit it. An interesting architectural feature of the fort is the Ganesh Pol, a huge archway built in the (Muslim) Mughal style, but with a picture of the Hindu god Ganesha at its crest. It indicates that Raja Man Singh was not forced to convert to Islam, but that he and his subjects continued to practise their religion even though they were a vassal state to a Muslim empire.

Fast-forward again to the 19th century, when the British were extending their rule over India. The kingdoms of Jhansi and Baroda provide a similar contrast in terms of the choices they made in dealing with the British empire.

Jhansi’s queen, Rani Lakshmibai, is the heroine of Indian history textbooks. She died fighting the British when they attempted to annex her kingdom.

Baroda’s king Sayyaji Rao Gaekwad III did not openly defy the British. He agreed to be a vassal king (although he had his own passive-aggressive ways of thumbing his nose at his British overlords). Indian history textbooks rarely mention him.

One can imagine what the subjects of Jhansi went through as a result of their queen’s choice. When Jhansi finally fell, the British spared no one, not even women and children. A British army doctor, Thomas Lowe, wrote, “No maudlin clemency was to mark the fall of the city.

Baroda’s citizens, in contrast, enjoyed the modernisation ushered in by their king under the peace he had negotiated with his British suzerein. In many ways, Baroda enjoyed a far more advanced society and lifestyle than the rest of British India.

History celebrates plucky and defiant rulers as heroes, and contemptuously ignores those who reach an accommodation with a superior power. Yet the lot of the common citizens of those rulers may have been quite the opposite of what the headlines of history mislead us into believing. (The plight of Ukrainians today under their indomitable leader President Zelensky is a topical example of this. Would ordinary Ukrainians have been better off if Zelensky had reached some sort of understanding with Russia instead of choosing confrontation?)

Agency, or the lack of it

Returning to the subject of agency, Kautilya’s model of statecraft admits of no choice at all on the part of a nation in deciding its enemies and allies. Geographical and political boundaries are held to determine these, and the rulers of a nation are mere receivers of a situation that is laid out for them.

If Indians accept the Kautilyan model of statecraft, then they implicitly acknowledge that India has no agency in determining who its enemies and allies are! In that case, continuing down the path of using the Quad to defend against China is an unavoidable strategy, no matter the consequences.

This argument is an uncomfortable one for many Indians, who like to have their cake and eat it too. They are proud of Kautilya for having given them a homegrown treatise on geopolitics and statecraft, but also insist that their country has independent agency!

OK, so let’s explore that angle as well. If India does have independent agency, then it has to choose how to deal with a much more powerful neighbour that expects deferential allyship. In many ways, India can see China as similar to Akbar’s Empire in terms of the deal it offers its neighbours — prosperity and internal autonomy in exchange for alignment and non-defiance. Should India defy this power, or seek an accommodation with it? In other words, should the Indian government act like Rana Pratap or Raja Man Singh? Like Rani Lakshmibai or Maharajah Sayyaji Rao Gaekwad? Accommodation does not have to mean surrender or appeasement, but the ability to negotiate a deal that wins autonomy for oneself while offering a non-threatening and cooperative relationship to the other.

As a democracy, it would be good for India’s government to make such a decision based on the likely outcome for India’s people. Defiance, as we have seen, often leads to hardship for common people. Accommodation, on the other hand, can result in peace and prosperity.

In sum, these would seem to be India’s choices today as it deals with an ever more powerful and assertive China — (1) accept the Kautilyan view that antagonism with a neighbour is inevitable (no agency), (2) exercise agency and choose defiance, or (3) exercise agency and choose accommodation.

As an ordinary citizen, which of these approaches would you like your government to take?

Wednesday, 23 March 2022

Australia's Overdue "Re-Orientation"

"Ultra Asia" (Beyond Asia) is an apt anagram for Australia.

Geography pointedly and unsentimentally places Australia right at the southeastern corner of Asia, yet the country's cultural heart wanders wistfully in the mid-Atlantic, somewhere between the US and the UK. If it were possible for countries to move house, tectonic plates and all, that's the white picket-fenced neighbourhood Australia would choose to reside in. Alas, the tyranny of geography has no room for pity.

Australia is in serious need of "re-orientation" (pun fully intended). Map courtesy ""

Now these are the most interesting times in over three centuries. The world order is being overturned before our living eyes. The future is Asian, and Australia's corner of the world has never seen this asserted so forcefully.

Former prime minister Paul Keating lectured for years to deaf ears that Australia needed to accept it was an Asian country, and that it needed to start behaving like one. His countrymen never bothered. And now, the future is here. Australia has been wrenchingly yanked back to Asia, away from the seppos and the poms, and forced once more to mingle, however uneasily, with Asian hordes of all hues.

Australian foreign policy over the past century has been quite simple-minded - to fight other countries' wars instead of looking towards the interests of its own citizens. First it fought in Britain's wars, then in America's.

The Gallipoli campaign during the First World War is a breathtaking example. Australian troops were sent to fight a European war. It wasn't even the understandable assignment of defending Britain against an attack by its enemies. It was an offensive campaign against Turkey, a country Australia had had no quarrel with. Over 8000 Australian soldiers gave their lives for a British war. To this day, the event is remembered in Australia as ANZAC Day, with the accompanying slogan, "Lest We Forget". Pity that Australians do forget to ask why they had to fight an offensive war against a country that had no quarrel with them, and shed their blood for another one that they just happened to identify with.

The Second World War was a bit different, with Australian troops initially fighting at several overseas theatres in the service of the British Empire, and allying with the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. The only dramatic rift came in 1942, when Australian PM John Curtin defied Winston Churchill and brought Australian troops back to defend the home country instead of deploying them to Burma, as Churchill had wanted.

By the end of the Second World War, Australia had switched its loyalties across to the United States, faithfully sending troops first to Vietnam and then to Iraq, both ill-advised misadventures that could have been avoided. Canada proved a savvier country in that respect.

All of these go to show that Australia's heart has belonged in the Anglosphere, and if anyone thought the years since Iraq may have brought about a change in attitudes Down Under, these latest examples should disabuse them of that notion.

For a country situated in Asia's neighbourhood, Australia has shown a contemptuous refusal to belong.

Australia's attitude to Asia thus far has been quite unsubtle:

  • We're white
  • We're Western
  • We're superior

But now, Australia is starting to hear Asia's message:

  • You're in our backyard
  • You're alone, and the odd one out
  • There are far bigger players here than you

It will be interesting to watch the tenor of public discourse in Australia as the new reality begins to sink in.

History holds some pointers. The first Englishmen in India who came to trade were quick to learn Indian languages, adopt Indian modes of attire, and some even took Indian wives. But as Western power grew, cultural adaptability gave way to hauteur, and the received wisdom of Western superiority over the East took root. As history begins to right itself, my guess is that hauteur will once again yield to gracious accommodation.

From my experience living in this country for the past quarter century, my bet is that after a round of characteristic cursing, Australians will take to being Asians with gusto.

Sunday, 13 March 2022

A Creative Solution To The India-China Border Row

I've read a great deal about the roots of the India-China border conflict - quite a few online articles, and three books in particular.

  1. India After Gandhi, by Ramachandra Guha
  2. India versus China (Why They Are Not Friends), by Kanti Bajpai
  3. Powershift, by Zorawar Daulet Singh

Another important book is "India's China War" by Neville Maxwell, which is based on the yet-unreleased Henderson-Brooks Report (HBR). I have read excerpts of this book.

In a nutshell, the situation is complex, nuanced and characterised by misunderstandings and missteps by both sides. There are tensions between principles and interests, and between realpolitik and the pressures of democracy (on the Indian side). We will see the interplay between these aspects as we analyse the issue.

The root of the conflict

The root of the conflict is Tibet.

China's 1949 takeover of Tibet, which was hitherto a buffer state between India and China, suddenly created a border between the latter two countries. This is the border that then had to be negotiated.

The fundamental issue of principle is whether China had a right to annex Tibet in the first place. We can debate this endlessly based on history, and also based on whataboutism regarding India's 1973 annexation of Sikkim, another Himalayan kingdom. However, the real opposing point to principle here is realpolitik. Nobody today seriously disputes China's claim to Tibet. It is a part of the "One China" concept that all countries, including the US and India, have accepted.

Do we continue debating the annexation of Tibet by China on principle, or do we adopt an attitude of realpolitik and move on? (I would say move on.)

Ownership of Aksai Chin

Aksai Chin is a desolate and barren area of the Himalayas, cold, arid and unsuitable for agriculture, uninhabitable, and not known for any significant mineral resources. With the annexation of Tibet, however, Aksai Chin gained enormous strategic importance for China, because it provided the only access route into Tibet from China, specifically from China's Xinjiang province.

Since this was an area that was uninhabited and not actively patrolled by India, India remained unaware that China had started construction of a road in 1950 called the Karakoram Highway. China did it quietly and without fanfare. India only came to know about it in 1957, when a Chinese publication mentioned it publicly for the first time. Then all hell broke loose in India.

Given that Aksai Chin was a remote and inaccessible area, Jawaharlal Nehru was initially inclined to let Aksai Chin go, even arguing at one stage that "not a blade of grass grows there". However, he changed his mind when one of his advisors showed him documents establishing India's strong claim to the region.

From India's perspective, Aksai Chin was indisputably Indian territory, and there was no negotiation possible. It was an issue of principle. From China's perspective, it was a question of interests. The Karakoram Highway (and therefore Aksai Chin through which it passed) were of vital strategic importance, because there was no other way to access Tibet from China. Although China today has built other access routes into Tibet (including high-speed rail links) and thereby reduced its strategic dependence on the Karakoram highway, Aksai Chin was something China could not afford to give up back in those days. By analogy, the narrow Siliguri Corridor that connects India's northeastern states to the rest of India is a strategically important piece of territory. Even if another country (say Bangladesh) were to produce strong documentary evidence proving their claim to the Siliguri Corridor, India simply couldn't afford to give it up. That was China's situation in the 1950s and 1960s. India had the legal claim to Aksai Chin, but China could simply not afford to give it up.

Pedants would point out that the strategic importance of Aksai Chin to China was only because of the annexation of Tibet, which was itself questionable. However, if we accept the international consensus today that Tibet belongs to China, then it follows that China could not afford to give up Aksai Chin for reasons of national interest. Hence the tension between principle and national interest.

Negotiating positions

When China negotiated with India on Aksai Chin, India's position was unyielding for two reasons.

  1. Nehru was recently convinced of India's legal claim to Aksai Chin, and therefore was indignant that China just moved into the area without even asking for permission or notifying India;
  2. Even if Nehru had been willing to yield Aksai Chin to China after understanding China's crucial interest in it, the issue had by then become public knowledge in India. India's opposition parties, the press and public opinion together ensured that the Indian government could not yield on Aksai Chin.

We can see the tension between principle and national interest, and also between realpolitik and public pressure.

Bargaining chips

China realised that India was not going to budge on its claim to Aksai Chin, yet was unable to give up a vitally important piece of territory in view of its need to access Tibet.

I wonder if China could have offered to buy the territory from India. It might have been a fair way to settle the issue. Yet what China did in practice was introduce a new bargaining chip.

China did not have a strategic interest in territory to the east, but saw the opportunity to make a claim there to balance India's claim to Aksai Chin. China laid claim to the North East Frontier Area (NEFA), called Arunachal Pradesh today, on the grounds that it formed a contiguous part of Tibet. There was a plausible basis for the claim because the Tawang region of Arunachal Pradesh does in fact host monasteries that are an extension of a line of such monasteries in Tibet. China offered to relinquish its claim to NEFA if India would cede Aksai Chin.

The Indian government was understandably indignant about the new Chinese claim. It was clear that China, being unable to prove a superior legal claim to Aksai Chin, and faced with an India that was unwilling (or unable thanks to public pressure) to cede territory that was vitally important to China, was now staking a new claim just as a bargaining chip. Once again, we can see a tension between various elements. There's a matter of principle involved, because there is a justification for at least the Tawang area of Arunachal Pradesh to be reunited with the rest of Tibet, since the two are culturally contiguous. But then principle would also exhume the question of China's claim to Tibet itself. A third matter of principle is that one cannot accept a swap based on a new claim that was made with the transparent goal of balancing a valid claim by the other side. The opposing element of realpolitik says a swap between Aksai Chin (which India has a stronger claim to but China has a greater need for) and Arunachal/Tawang (which China/Tibet has a greater claim to but not a great need for) is a reasonable way forward. But then the indignation of the Indian government over this deliberately created bargaining chip, compounded by public pressure, meant that the swap could not be agreed to. As Nehru commented at the time, "If I agree to this deal, I will cease to be prime minister tomorrow".

The effect of time

China has been offering the "swap deal" (Aksai Chin for Arunachal Pradesh) on multiple occasions to several Indian governments, and has been rebuffed each time.

But over the years, as the power gap between India and China has widened in China's favour, realpolitik has begun to make India see that the swap deal was in fact a good idea to settle the border dispute for good, because India cannot afford to have an increasingly powerful adversary on its borders.

Unfortunately for India, it appears that that boat has sailed. In view of the growing power differential, the border tussle has now become one-sided in that China holds the initiative. China can keep India off-balance on the border, and India is forced into a reactive stance. The border dispute has now become a source of leverage for China over India. Every time India does something to displease China, China just has to "yank the chain" on the border to convey its displeasure. In this situation, settling the border dispute means China gives up that leverage. From China's perspective, why should it?

The new bargain

China now sees a settlement of the border dispute as a gift that it is giving India, because it means irreversibly relinquishing a source of leverage. Once the border is settled, China cannot make fresh territorial claims on India, which is a matter of great relief to India. However, there is no corresponding constraint on India's side. India can continue to engage in behaviour that displeases or threatens China, such as allying with China's enemies. Hence China needs something irreversible from India in exchange.

The basis for a bargain has therefore now altered. The swap is no longer the old one (Aksai Chin in exchange for Arunachal). The new swap is at a higher level (the border settlement itself in exchange for something irreversible from India).

The opportunity

The crisis in Ukraine has brought matters to a head. The rift between the West and Russia has become serious. China knows that its greatest threat is from the US-led West, and therefore it needs to align with Russia, but it lacks the leverage to do so openly, both because such open alignment violates its own stated policies, and because it is not immune to Western sanctions and related economic pressure.

India is in a similar bind. There are issues of national interest in supporting Russia. Yet there are dangers in doing so openly. And there is the further issue that India sees China as an adversary and the West as a necessary ally against China. The Russia-India-China triangle is complicated, with unresolved tensions. All three countries have an interest in seeing this tension resolved.

A possible solution

If India takes the initiative, it will need to accept the swap deal to settle the border dispute with China, and offer something irreversible in exchange. That something irreversible could be a package:

  1. A similar settlement of the India-Pakistan border dispute, formalising the Line of Control (LOC) as the international border, making Pakistan-administered Kashmir no longer disputed territory, and hence removing India's opposition to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir;
  2. An agreement to withdraw from the Quad and other anti-China groupings;
  3. An offer to link India's transport and port network to China's BRI to provide China better access to the Indian Ocean.

If China takes the initiative, it can make India an offer that it cannot refuse. The official Indian negotiating position is still that China needs to return Aksai Chin as well as relinquish its claim to Arunachal Pradesh. Realpolitik recognises that this is unlikely to happen, and a swap deal (Aksai Chin for Arunachal) is the best that India can hope for.

However, there is an opportunity here, because what the two countries need from Aksai Chin are different! India wants recognition of title. China wants operational control (perhaps less critically today than in the 1950s and 1960s). So a package from China could look like this:

  1. China recognises Aksai Chin as part of India, on the condition that India leases it back to China for (say) 99 years. Indian public opinion can be assuaged by the fact that Aksai Chin has been returned (in terms of legal title), yet China retains operational control of the territory, which changes nothing on the ground. The financial terms of the lease may be pocket change for China.
  2. China relinquishes its claim to Arunachal Pradesh. The Tawang region is possibly negotiable. India may not mind ceding the part of Arunachal Pradesh that is logically part of Tibet if it gets back its title to Aksai Chin as well as the rest of Arunachal.
  3. India strongly aligns with Russia and China in terms of setting up an alternative to the US-controlled, dollarised global financial system.

Time is of the essence, because the global situation is changing from day to day. A quick resolution of issues between India and China can bring about an alignment of the most powerful non-Western countries, and a corresponding geopolitical balance.

[Check out my earlier post "Quad Switch - How India Could Permanently Alter The Balance Of World Power (While Also Ensuring Its Own Best Interests)".]

Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Reactions To My Essay "Indians Don't Understand History"

It has been almost 2 months since I put up my essay "Indians Don't Understand History" on Medium, with an accompanying PDF version.

These are some of the reactions I've received. I've blurred out surnames for privacy.

1. From Indians

There were a number of positive reactions. Some of the commenters expressed the wish that more Indians could read it.

But of course there were negative reactions too, all along expected lines. The main points of contention were:

  1. The Aryan Invasion Theory and the genetic evidence for it
  2. The view about Muslim rulers
  3. The view about China

I'm not surprised at the mixed reaction, and I'm not disheartened at the negative views either. I view the essay as a conversation-starter. I find that Indian thinking on the topic of China has fallen into a predictable rut, with a depressingly uniform (and racist) view that the Chinese are an inherently untrustworthy and treacherous people. The popular and incorrect narrative after the military debacle of 1962 is responsible for this. If this essay challenges such thinking and spurs some debate, it would be a positive development. I'm not seriously expecting Indian foreign policy to change as a result of my essay.

2. From Chinese people

My wife sent the essay to a Chinese friend (Christina), and her response is below.

Another Chinese person on Twitter took the trouble to translate it into Chinese and post it on Weibo, and I then created an account on Weibo to follow up.

In contrast to the Indian reactions, which were a mixed bag, the Chinese reactions were almost uniformly positive. They appreciated the sentiment of collaboration and believed India and China should work together.

These were general comments on my Weibo page:

The only negative opinion was around whether it would be practical given how far gone India seemed to be in terms of Western influence.

3. From Westerners

And finally, as expected, the general response from Western readers (especially Anglo ones) was one of disagreement. There were some positive responses too.

But the negative views seemed to predominate. One of my wife's colleagues (Gavin) told her on the phone (so I don't have it in writing) that he read the whole essay in one sitting because he found it full of fascinating information that he didn't know before, but that he disagreed on my conclusion that India should ally with China. His objection was that China was not a democracy.

Other negative views are as below:

The question raised by Gavin, Brian and Lionel regarding democracy is important. My response is in two parts.

  1. Alliances between countries are based on a congruence of interests, and have nothing to do with systems of government.
  2. Systems of government are not manichean but range across a spectrum.

I elaborate on these below.

Alliances and systems of government: I grew up in India during the Cold War. One of the strange ways in which the Cold War played out in the Indian subcontinent was how the democratic US backed a series of military dictatorships in Pakistan, while the communist USSR stood behind democratic India. And this was not an ephemeral line-up either. The arrangement lasted for over two decades and was remarkably stable. So the takeaway is that systems of government are far less important to alliances than a congruence of interests.

The spectrum of freedom within systems of government: Looking back again to the Cold War, the difference in the degree of freedom enjoyed by citizens of democracies and those of authoritarian states was striking. The Berlin Wall epitomised the complete lack of freedom of the countries behind the Iron Curtain, with guard towers and machine-guns meant to keep citizens from escaping to the West. That black-and-white distinction has been erased in today's world. Not only have the autocracies become less cartoonishly repressive, but the democracies too have unfortunately regressed. Let's take a quick survey.

China: The Soviet Union rarely allowed its citizens to travel abroad. Stories of Soviet citizens defecting and seeking asylum in Western countries were common. Today, millions of Chinese travel abroad every year, and willingly return home. Chinese also apply for permanent residence in Western countries through regular channels, and it isn't considered defection. Internally, Chinese citizens seem to have a fair amount of freedom to complain and criticise their government. Only some kinds of protest, dissent and discussion are deemed threatening to the stability of the state and clamped down upon. The Chinese political system in the post-Mao era also seems to have worked out mechanisms to be responsive to the needs of their people without being a full-fledged democracy in the Western sense. The end result is that the Chinese government seems to enjoy the trust and approval of the people even without a system of regular elections at the national or provincial levels.

Russia: Technically, Russia is a democracy in the sense that it holds regular elections. However, the levers of power are manipulated to keep one man in power indefinitely. Compared to the days of the Soviet Union, Russian citizens can travel freely abroad and even emigrate to other countries without worrying about guard towers and machine-guns. They are thus freer than they were in the past, especially in a market-capitalistic sense, and yet they do not have a functioning democracy in spite of the appearance of elections.

India: Regular elections give India the bragging rights to being a democracy. There is an independent judiciary, and no visible controls on the press. However, Indian governments too have worked out mechanisms to ensure obedience to authority, and the Modi government has refined these to a fine art. Institutions that should be independent have been suborned in a variety of ways. Judges who are compliant while in office are rewarded with governorships and ambassadorships after retirement, and this well-understood system of carrots ensures the servility of the theoretically independent judiciary. The press is kept in line by the subtle means of diverting the significant amounts of money in government advertising away from overly independent outlets towards more sycophantic ones. Prominent personalities who are publicly critical of the government find themselves under immediate investigation by the tax authorities. a form of harassment that stops as soon as they toe the line. The historian Ramachandra Guha has referred to India as an "electoral autocracy", where elections are held like clockwork, but freedom itself is subtly constrained.

Western democracies: The dual personality of the Western press has been known for decades. Domestic politics is aggressively covered, challenged and investigated, but foreign policy is rarely questioned. The government and media act in coordination to portray allies and adversaries as good guys and bad guys, regardless of what they actually do. Saudi Arabia and Israel get a free pass for their myriad human rights abuses, and China's commendable progress in poverty alleviation and protecting people from the pandemic are downplayed or reported with a "but at what cost?" slant. In recent times, freedom in absolute terms is increasingly constrained. Under the guise of curbing hate speech and preventing misinformation, a variety of mechanisms have been used to shut down contrary views and silence dissent. The fact that channels of communication are now increasingly under the control of a few electronic media giants makes it far easier to throttle undesirable opinions. Algorithms can subtly channel content to filter out inconvenient voices. The deplatforming of Donald Trump by social media channels was a dramatic example of censorship. Most recently, after the start of the Ukraine crisis, the demonisation of pro-Russian opinion as state-sponsored disinformation has completely silenced dissenting voices. Russia Today is banned in the EU, and the many independent voices it hosted are gone with it. A pro-Russian audience member was thrown out of an Australian TV show. Only the approved political line is allowed to be heard anymore.

And so, the argument that a democracy like India should not align with autocratic countries like China and Russia seems idealistic and naive. A cynical view could be that the various parodies of democracy that the modern world exhibits can group together in any way they wish without seeming incongruous.