Sunday, September 28, 2014

Audio: Interview with Andrew Koltun from Academic Council on the United Nations Systems about Robert Kaplan's Coming Anarchy, Australian strategic positioning and Jonah from Tonga


In this Special Issues episode of the ACUNS Podcast series, award-winning writer and geopolitical expert, Cleo Paskal, joins co-host Andrew Koltun. Paskal discusses the influences and legacies of Robert Kaplan’s widely-read 1994 article, “The Coming Anarchy”. Specifically, Cleo examines the ways in which Kaplan’s ideas and images of African politics and society affected media approaches to understanding and reporting foreign policy issues afterwards, long after its publication. She also discusses a recent television show, Jonah From Tonga, produced by the Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC). Paskal expresses strong criticisms of this controversial show, which she describes as an example of “Australia’s establishment racism”; she provides insight into the depth of the production’s inappropriate nature and failed satire; and remaining on the subject of how and why “ideas matter”, she addresses the potential implications of the show both for Tongans around the world, and at a national and international level within the dimension of Australian foreign relations and regional cooperation.

You can hear the interview here.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Audio: Interview with Ian Masters on Background Briefing about the UN Climate Summit and strategic context of climate negotiations

Ian Masters, host of syndicated radio show Background Briefing talks to Cleo about the UN Climate Summit, REDD, and strategic implications of the negotiations, and the effects, of environmental change. You can hear the interview here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Interview (radio): John Batchelor Show with Gordon Chang

Cleo had an interesting chat with John Batchelor and Gordon Chang about the geopolitical implications of the 'brownface' Australian tv show Jonah from Tonga. You can hear the interview here. It starts at around 10.40. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Widespread coverage of the HuffPo piece about Jonah from Tonga

There has been widespread coverage on the on the Huffington Post piece about Jonah from Tonga. Including:

Comedian Chris Lilley under fire for 'racist Australian brownface' character as calls for HBO to cancel his series  Jonah from Tonga, Daily Mail, 16 July 2014

Is brownface acceptable in new HBO show 'Jonah From Tonga'? Soraya Nadia McDonald, The Washington Post, 16 July 2014

Jonah from Tonga faces more 'brownface' criticism - is it fair? Priya Elan, The Guardian, 16 July 2014

Calls to dump Chris Lilley's 'racist' Jonah from Tonga from US TV, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16 July 2014

Also, an AAP wire story made the rounds, including:

Network asked to dump 'racist' comedy, New Zealand Herald, 16 July 2014.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Article: Will HBO Give Platform to Racist Australian Brownface 'Mockumentary'? (Huffington Post)

Cleo Paskal
It's not often you see a new form of racism being created. But, if HBO goes ahead with its planned screening of Jonah from Tonga, that's exactly what's going to happen. And the lives of a whole lot of good people will get that much worse.
Jonah from Tonga is an Australian 6-part 'mockumentary' so brimming with a peculiar sort of deep Australian racism that's hard to even know where to start. So, let's go with the main character. Jonah is 14 and 'from Tonga', though living in Australia with family.
Jonah is in trouble with the law, is a horrific bully, homophobic, and regularly sexually harasses women teachers, his aunts and even a nun. Academically, he is failing and is being parked in a remedial education unit known in the show as "spaz" house (thanks, Australia, for breathing new life into that almost forgotten derogatoryterm).
And the thing is, get this, this racist teenaged pastiche is being played by Chris Lilley, a 39-year-old white guy, in a permed wig and brownface. Yes, brownface. In 2014. Really. Take a look at the promo shot. Even the logo is some sort of faux-'Tonga' tiki.
What are you thinking, HBO? This is not cutting edge. This is not a modern All In The Family. This is not, as the original broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) described it: "comedy and satire... with a sharp edge -- notions that extend back to Chaucer and Shakespeare."
The reference to Chaucer and Shakespeare is apt only in that this sort of 'comedy' is so old-fashioned as to be medieval. This is barely post-colonial racism. This is a middle-aged white guy putting on brown face paint and a curly wig and pretending to be a sexually aggressive, moronic, criminal, brown guy whose only saving grace is singing and dancing (or in this case, rapping and break dancing -- I kid you not). I thought the days of minstrel shows were over.

Oh, there's more. Jonah's all 'Tongan' school dance group is called Fobba-licious (from FOB -- Fresh Off the Boat). When Jonah inevitably gets sent to juvenile detention he forms another group: Juvi-licious -- helpfully showing the viewers the smooth transition from immigrant to criminal.
In lock-up, Lilley introduces us to another Australian racist stereotype and term. The violent criminal "Abos" (for Aboriginal Australian). The brown Islanders and brown Abos fight each other while the kindly white guards try to keep the peace.
Just as a bonus, the show also introduces a new slur that will make life hell for redheads. In the show redheads are violently bullied for being "rangas" (for orangutans). This largely Caucasian-only stereotype is the only one that Lilley hassaid he feels a bit bad about: "I get angry letters from rangas. And letters from parents whose kids are rangas. So I feel a little bit guilty, but it's funny and that overrides everything."
Really? According to ABC's defense of the show: "Our editorial policies provide a solid framework for this sort of programming: if there is harm and offence it must have a clear editorial purpose and be signposted." The editorial purpose here seems to be Lilley thinks it's funny.
Team Lilley is getting used to trying to come up with excuses for the inexcusable.
ABC's head of TV comedy, Rick Kalowski, said: "Jonah from Tonga plays with stereotypes but it's doing so to make an observation about the narrow-minded attitudes expressed by some of its characters, including Jonah's own." Let's start with the basics. Mr. Kalowski is blithely saying that, in his mind, there is a preexisting stereotype of Tongans as sexually aggressive, profane, dumb and criminal for Lilley to 'play with'.
That tells us a lot more about Mr. Kalowski than it does about Tongans. Who is he hanging out with? Certainly not the Tongans who are excelling at Harvard. Or the Tongan Marines who are serving alongside us in Afghanistan. Or the Tonganacademics in Japan. Or Tongan religious leaders posted all over the world. Or the thousands of quiet, hard-working, devout, family focused Tongans living across Australia.
  • A chain of islands in the South Pacific, near Fiji. Population 106,000. Large Diaspora in the US, mostly in California and Utah.
  • Literacy 99%. One of highest per capital PhD rates in world.
  • Practically no starvation or homelessness. Very safe.
  • No traffic lights or chain fast food outlets (No McDonald's KFC, etc) in the whole country.
  • Very family-oriented and devout Christians. No flights in or out of the country on Sundays.
  • Former capital of a large Polynesian Maritime Empire.
  • Never Colonized. Last Polynesian Kingdom.
  • King Tupou I Wrote and signed one of first Constitutions in the region in 1875.
Mr. Kalowski's racist stereotype of Tongans does not (yet) exist in the mainstream American consciousness. Just for a nanosecond accept Mr. Kalowski at face value. Why in the world would HBO want to create a new racist stereotype, affecting the lives of thousands of Pacific Islanders in their schools, their communities, and at work, just for an Australian actor to 'play with'. What the hell?
And if anyone thinks creating a new derogatory stereotype won't have an effect, please watch PBS's classic Frontline Documentary A Class Divided about Iowa school teacher Jane Elliott's famous 1970's blue eyes/brown eyes racism experiment (or any of the thousands of scientific papers on the effects of racism and bias).
Tongans, Pacific Islanders, and those who understand racism know the attacks will come if HBO broadcasts, are they doing what they can to defend themselves, including writing articles, taking to Twitter (#MyNameIsNOTJonah), Facebook and urging people to cancel their HBO subscription if it broadcasts. Many of the comments on the petition asking HBO not to broadcast the show are deeply touching pleas to save communities, especially the children, from the inevitable targeting. As Tevita Tapavalu wrote:
This perpetuates stereotypes beyond Tongans and makes a mockery of the migration experiences faced by every ethnic group. This narrative is more common than you think and by making a joke of these lived experiences, Mr. Lilley--moreover, HBO, makes it okay for open discrimination and racism under the premise that 'it's just comedy'.
It's worth making one thing clear. Throughout the series, Team Lilley shows it really doesn't know anything about Tonga and Tongans, and really doesn't care. For example, in the show, when a boy from Jonah's family becomes a man, he gets the 'traditional' family tattoo -- 'Tonganized' male genitalia. Jonah gets his done on his chest. His father's is on his butt. Hahaha, Lilley seems to be saying, Tongans are so stupid, they think they are being a man by getting traditional tattoos, but really they are just big dicks. Geddit? Where is the sophisticated "observation about the narrow-minded attitudes" in that segment, HBO?
Tongan culture is old, deep and complex. Social relationships, especially within the extended family have intricate but clear (to Tongans) parameters. The hardest Tongan Crip would never say the sort of thing that Jonah says to his sister (just two examples: "I'll punch you in the vagina" and "eat shit... bitch"). He just wouldn't. It wouldn't be Tongan.
In a letter defending the show to a concerned Tongan church group, ABC claims that "Jonah's clear lack of respect toward his family and ignorance about his culture is in stark contrast to those around him." This is complete nonsense. His father, sister, other relatives also do things no Tongan would do, including swearing at close family members of the opposite sex, and during prayers.
Another excuse given by Mr. Kalowski was: "It's also worth noting that while Jonah himself might be a heightened comic character, virtually every other Tongan or Islander character in the series is presented as a well-rounded, believable person without comic traits: Jonah's brother, sister, cousin, aunt and his social worker 'Kool Kris'."
I watched the whole series. All I know about Jonah's brother is that he has learning difficulties, was also in 'juvi', and his one saving grace, in true racist tradition, is that he can sing. The most defining characteristic of his sister is that, as Jonah repeatedly says to her, she is "fat." The cousin, whom Jonah lusts after, ends up being pretty lustful herself and dates the local 'Tongan' gangbanger. The aunt is an unmemorable benign non-entity with no backstory. 'Kool Kris' is another stereotype: the decidedly uncool, saving-himself-until-marriage, religious do-gooder (i.e. the only 'good' Tongan male character is self-emasculating). These characters are well-rounded only in the context of a two-dimensional universe.
Anyway, in an interview, Lilley himself said something completely different: "I had the example of the other boys that were Jonah's friends and that was intentional as I wanted to surround him with kids that were just like him in order to help the illusion and you could place him." Which is closer to the truth.
The 'Tongans' we see most, Jonah's gang, are a Greek chorus reinforcing and echoing Jonah's violence, profanity and disruptive behavior. And Jonah's father is dumb, foul-mouthed and abusive, frequently beating Jonah and shouting at him in public: "I'm gonna smack you in the asshole." Kool Kris calls him a typical Tongan dad.
As for Lilley's character research, he says: "I met Pacific Islander kids and just naughty teenage boys, those types of kids."
Which is possibly (one of the many reasons) why it went wrong. Cultures are not mix-n-match. A Tongan 'naughty boy' will not do things an Anglo-Australian 'naughty boy' will do. And vice-versa. As Kolini Fusitua put it: "we tongans view Jonah as a white teenager characteristic with possible disability that is not address by people in his environment." The core point is, if Lilley was interested in just 'naughty boys', why single out someone from a very specific culture, Tonga, unless he also wanted to make a point about Tonga?
Which brings us to another line taken by Lilley defenders, that he 'offends everyone'. Not like this. His only other stand-alone character series, in which he plays an obnoxious teenaged girl, was Ja'mie: Private School Girl.
Imagine if in Ja'mie was from another country and the show was called Ja'mie from China. Or Ja'mie from Mexico. Or Ja'mie from Jerusalem. Pretty ugly, right? It also limits the show's 'social commentary' as her characteristics can be dismissed as not referenceing a certain sort of girl, but as reinforcing/creating stereotypes about a certain sort of Chinese, Mexican, etc... Well, apart from the sex change, that's exactly what Lilley did with Jonah from Tonga.
Richard Finlayson, Director of TV at ABC says Jonah: "is not intended, nor should it be seen to represent all Tongans." Then why specify Jonah is 'from Tonga' (in the title no less) and surround him with similar criminal and disruptive 'Tongans': the Tongan ganbangers, the Tongans in jail, the Tongan boys in 'Spaz' House. In the context of the series, Jonah is not an outlier; Jonah is a bridge character between the disruptive 'Tongan' teens at school and the dangerous 'Tongan' gang members (the show's core question is whether or not he will end up in a gang). And it's not the soppy Kool Kris who gets the girl, it's (in the context of the series) the actually cool Tongan gang member.
Mr. Finlayson says Jonah's journey is "redemptive" and ends with him having "a sense of pride, direction, self-worth, spiritual awareness and greater purpose." Did we watch the same show? Because in the one I saw, the series ends with Jonah using Photoshop to trick his father into thinking he is doing well at school so he can go to Tonga to get his family dick tattoo.
Australian racism towards Pacific Islands is a major problem, at many levels, especially for Australia itself as it tries to find its place in the 'Asian century'. There is, in many Pacific capitals, the perception that Australia is an inept, condescending regional bully -- and that Canberra looks at national governments as little more than Jonahs in better suits. That deteriorating relationship has the potential to changegeopolitics.
Jonah from Tonga has been a ratings disaster in Australia and the UK. This is not a 'good' sort of controversy. Apart from the effects on Pacific Islanders, it is bad for HBO. It is bad for the producers, Melanie Brunt and Laura Waters from Princess Pictures. And it is bad for Chris Lilley. With Jonah, Lilley jumped the shark. And the sad thing is, his friends didn't warn him.
Please, HBO, I get it, you like Lilley -- this isn't about the quality of his other shows. You may even think he is Australia's Shakespeare. But it's not the 16th Century. Nowadays, friends don't let friends wear blackface. Period.
There is a debate going on now about whether white Australia is still racist. Those in the 'yes' camp point to the treatment of Aboriginals, the series of attacks on Indianstudents, the assaults on Asians and more. Now they can also say Australia's establishment racism is so casual the national broadcaster will commission a brownface series trashing the reputation of a specific immigrant community while saying it's in the tradition of Chaucer. Australia, you are better than this. Aren't you?
And HBO, doesn't the US have enough divisions without having to import new ones? Don't be a hater. If you drop it, Lilley will be fine. If you run it, good kids will get hurt. And that is not funny.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Article: Expert: Global Grand Alliance Needed Against Wahhabi Terror (Huffington Post)

Cleo Paskal, Huffington Post. Posted: 
Indian Strategist Prof. M D Nalapat, UNESCO Peace Chair and Editorial Director of the Sunday Guardian, has an unusually spot-on record for predicting trends in the Middle East. He was in New York City on September 11, 2001, having just warned that the U.S. was likely to be targeted. At the start of the Arab Spring, he was already predicting a 'Wahhabi Winter.' And he foresaw the current catastrophic situation in Libya from the early days of the conflict, as well as the potential for extremists spillover from Syria to its neighbors. This is what he has to say about Iraq.

How did we get to where we are today in Iraq?

Via Benghazi and Aleppo. The 2011 decision by NATO member-states to arm, train and finance those willing to physically battle first against Muammar Gaddafi and subsequently against Bashar Assad set in train a series of events that have led to the present crisis in Iraq. The U.S. and its European allies ought to have understood that the goal of states such as Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia was not to ensure that democracy dawned on Libya or Syria when it was still absent in their own countries, but the removal of those they saw as apostates: Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar Assad.

Those who have read Gaddafi's writings and speeches know that he was a foe of Wahhabism, which he (correctly) saw as un-Islamic and indeed, in several respects, anti-Islamic. As for Bashar Assad, his Alawite sect is regarded with the same reserve as the Ahmadiyyas are in Pakistan. They are regarded by Wahhabis as apostates needing to be either converted to the "true" faith or eliminated. By hitching themselves to the Turkey-Qatar-Saudi Arabia bandwagon and assisting these states to fund and equip Wahhabi fighters, the West in effect joined in their crusade against anti-Wahhabis (in the case of Gaddafi) and the Shia (in the case of Bashar Assad).

Ever since the 1980 occupation of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by students swearing fealty to Ayatollah Khomeini, the U.S. and several of its allies have conflated the mullahcracy in Iran to cover an entire country (Iran). Over time, this has drawn in governments in states such as Syria and Iraq that have been seen as "over friendly" to Tehran.

Check the weapons used by ISIS in its drive on Baghdad. They are almost entirely from the stocks supplied to the "moderate" opposition to battle first Gaddafi and later Assad. This concept of a "moderate opposition" in battlefield terms is laughable. The fact is that extremists join the so-called "moderate" groups, collect cash, training and weapons from them and subsequently migrate to those frankly extremist groups, such as ISIS or Al Nusra.

The assumption made by policymakers in the U.S. and in the EU is that the divide between those in the "moderate" and the "extremist" camps is watertight enough to ensure that the flow of cash and weaponry from the first to the second is minuscule. The fact is that this division is illusory. There is perfect mobility between the two supposedly irreconcilable groups. In fact, almost all the actual fighting is carried out by the "extremist" groups, while the fundraising and collection of weapons is done by the "moderates". What has landed in Iraq are the weapons, cash and training given by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states with leaderships eager to ensure a reserved seat in paradise by facilitating the defeat of presumed infidels.

What is the situation on the ground?

Still very susceptible to improvement, provided both state as well as public donors in the GCC abandon their policy of training, funding and arming groups to do battle against established regimes in the region.
The fact is that the extremist groups have very little support within local populations. What is unfortunate is that television channels such as CNN and BBC are constantly talking of a "Sunni" rebellion against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of Iraq, a Shia.

The fact is that this is a Wahhabi war against a Shia leader, one in which the majority of those classified as Sunni are standing aside, just as they did in Syria. While al-Maliki has drawn much flak from NATO member-states for his alleged "neglect of the Sunnis," the fact is that in his government, just as in that headed by Bashar Assad in Damascus, there is ample representation of Sunni elements.

What the Qatar and Saudi regimes seek is to give primacy to Wahhabi elements within the Sunni population, and to give this tiny minority (among the Sunni, itself a minority in Iraq) the same importance as the (majority) Shia population. Should Nouri al-Maliki agree to this, it would lead to both his exit as well as to a distortion of democracy in Iraq. Indeed, by holding back on launching air strikes against ISIS until al-Maliki fulfils the Qatari-Saudi agenda, the U.S. is creating a situation where the Prime Minister of Iraq will be forced to turn to Moscow and Tehran for military support.

Wahhabi extremists are a danger to the entire community of nations, and hence what is needed is to do battle with them in every theatre where they are seeking to change ground realities by force. This is still very possible. If the opportunity is missed, and safe havens for Wahhabi extremists become semi-permanent, this would pose a significant threat to Europe within the next two years.

How does this relate to Syria and/or other neighbors?

The Assad regime is proving quite successful in battling the Wahhabi extremists seeking its overthrow but, even now, assistance from Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other states is pouring into Syria, including assistance by France and other Western countries. This has to be stopped immediately, as arms given in one theatre flow to others, the way it happened between Libya and Mali. Should the fighting in Iraq develop into the bloody stalemate that the war in Syria is in danger of becoming because of assistance funneled into the Wahhabi groups, there is likely to be clashes between Shia and Wahhabi across the region, with the moderate majority among Sunnis caught in the crossfire. Fire spreads quickly, and sectarianism is a fire.

Who is backing ISIS?

Al Qaeda. The so-called disavowal of the group by Ayman al-Zawahiri was in my view a ruse to ensure that ISIS continued to get assistance from those capitals seeking the end of the Assad regime, and in ensuring Wahhabi supremacy in the governing structure of Iraq. It is surprising how quickly Al Qaeda's protestations of daylight between itself and ISIS have been believed. In this context, the Obama administration is doing a disservice to the entire world by keeping secret the cache of information seized from the Abbottabad house of Osama bin Laden. The war on terror is global, and information of the kind retrieved from bin Laden ought to be more widely shared rather than hoarded.

Who is bribing whom, and what is the outcome?

ISIS has been bribing commanders in the Iraqi army so that they ensure near-zero resistance to their takeover of population centers. This was the same tactic carried out by the Taliban in Afghanistan during 1994-96. Those Iraqi commanders shown to have been bribed should be identified and executed, so as to prevent others from going the same way. At present, several are either in GCC watering holes such as Dubai  or are in London and other such locations, working on spending the money they have made through betraying their country and in the process, endangering several countries in Europe.

What are the options for the U.S.?

To help the Iraqi military to finish off the ISIS battalions while this is still possible. Once they disperse among the population at large, it will be too late. They need to be attacked while they are still on the march. And to stop pursuing a Wahhabi agenda in the Middle East. That would be the same mistake as Israel made in Lebanon in the 1980s -- backing the Maronite Christians against the Shia in Lebanon, making Israel the only country in the world to have to endure Shia terror. Should the U.S. and its allies continue with its post-2011 policy of assisting Wahhabis against Shia, the whole of Europe as well as the U.S. will become the target of Shia terror groups formed in the crucible of the present sectarian combat in the region.

What does this mean for India?

Terror in India was Subcontinental, now it is continental and covers the whole of Asia. In my view, India should assist Baghdad in battling the extremists, ideally together with the U.S. and other powers, including Iran.

It is time for a Grand Alliance against Wahhabi terror, and what this means is that the Wahhabi International has to be confronted in every theatre, confronted and eliminated, so that the great religion of Islam can get freed of its distorting influence and once again shine as a moderate force for good in the world.

Should the U.S. or India hesitate in helping Iraq to eliminate the extremists who are so close to the gates of Baghdad, we may see the start of sectarian war across the region, with incalculable consequences to both the international economy as well as security.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Interview (radio): John Batchelor Show With Gordon Chang

Cleo spoke with John Batchelor and Gordon Chang about changing geopolitics in the South Pacific and India's foreign policy. You can hear it here.

The John Batchelor Show is on the air Saturdays and Sundays between 9pm and 1am EST. Click here for instructions on how to stream the show on iTunes.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Article: Will Modi's India Reinvent International Relations? (Huffington Post)

Cleo Paskal, Posted: 

On May 16 Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People's Party) and its allies won 336 out of 543 seats in the Indian parliament, giving them India's strongest political mandate in over 30 years, and putting them within reach of the 2/3 majority needed to change the Indian Constitution.
The decisive win means Prime Minister Modi can now reshape India's listless foreign policy.
Modi is credited with being an exceptionally focused administrator, with over a decade of experience running one of the country's key states, Gujarat. While Chief Minister of Gujarat, he spurred growth by tackling corruption, leveraging the Gujaratidiaspora to increase investment and business opportunities, and successfully worked with a range of international partners, including ChinaJapanIsrael, and yes, theUS.
Modi and his experienced team have had a lot of time to craft a national foreign policy and plan its implementation. Modi's main drive is stable and secure growth that makes India -- all of India -- stronger. According to the BJP's election manifesto:
The vision is to fundamentally reboot and reorient the foreign policy goals, content and process, in a manner that locates India's global strategic engagement in a new paradigm and on a wider canvass, that is not just limited to political diplomacy, but also includes our economic, scientific, cultural, political and security interests, both regional and global, on the principles of equality and mutuality, so that it leads to an economically stronger India, and its voice is heard in the international fora.

This is a far more complex, comprehensive and holistic foreign policy than classic International Relations theory is used to. Those looking to explain Modi's India with labels like 'right-wing' or 'religious fanatic' are going to find themselves stymied.
So, what will India's foreign policy under Modi look like?
A main priority will be to generate investment. Among many options are an amnesty for untaxed "black money" which is estimated to be in the trillions of US dollars, anactive pursuit of illegal money stashed abroad, and the appointment of a SpecialEnvoy for Development Diplomacy to facilitate foreign investment into India, especially from Asia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The foreign service will be revamped, including the changing of key Ambassadors (some of whom are perceived to have been appointed more out of their loyalty to the Nehru-Gandhi family than to India as a whole).
Modi will reinvigorate India's soft power in partnership with the Indian diaspora worldwide. For example, Africa and the GCC both have large, established Indian communities that can facilitate a range of partnerships with India.
Modi will also consolidate India's relationships with its immediate neighbors, and with regional organizations such as SAARC and ASEAN. In a widely welcomed and groundbreaking first step, Modi invited leaders from all SAARC countries (and Mauritius) to his swearing-in ceremony, followed-up by bilaterals. All came, including Afghanistan's President Karzai who passed up the opportunity to meet President Obama, but made sure to meet Modi.
A new era in regional relations? SAARC leaders attending India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi's swearing-in on 26 May 2014. From left to right: Nepal's Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, Bangladesh's Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Mauritius' Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, India's Vice President Hamid Ansari, India's President Pranab Mukherjee, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, Maldives' President Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and Bhutan's Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay.
Modi is likely to be tested, particularly by Pakistan, but he has strong backing in India's intelligence and defense communities and, unlike recent administrations, is likely to fight back hard, and smart.
Within Asia, primary growth partners will be China and Japan, and to a lesser degree old partner Russia. That may appear contradictory to some, but in the complex calculus of Asia, countries are not as bound by the zero-sum game 'you are with us or against us' policies.
Economic engagement may dovetail with strategic interests that could see, for example, India and China working together in Afghanistan (possibly even with Russia and, to some degree, Iran), a lowering of tensions on the India-China border and, eventually, a larger Indian presence in the wider Indo-Pacific. Watch for a growing and strong India-Japan technology partnership.
As for Western engagement, the Devyani case is instructive. In December 2013, female Indian diplomat, Devyani Khobragade, was arrested and strip-searched by New York police officers for an alleged visa violation. This led to a series of strong protests from Delhi, including Delhi's refusal to meet US delegations. Ultimately, US ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, quietly left her post mid-term.
The episode was a useful wake-up call to Washington that power balances are shifting, and it will need to adapt from an approach of allegiances to one of true alliances if it wants to maintain its relationships.
Equally important for India was that it signaled to countries around the world that increased reciprocity is possible. India's moral leadership position in Asia, Africa and Latin America rose dramatically for defending 'one of its own' against perceived injustice from a stronger state. Delhi's stand hinted at the possibility that India might offer a different path in international relations that is not Western nor is it Chinese. Real or not, many find the concept intriguing.
Against this backdrop, how will India engage with Europe? Modi is pragmatic, and looks for pragmatic partners who will treat India equitably and seriously. Germany, apart from its high-tech compatibilities, was one of the first European countries tonote Modi's rise and potential and it is likely that, on his way to the upcoming BRICS summit in Brazil, Modi will make Germany his first European visit.
Given the size and potential of the Indian market, other European countries are already jettisoning old approaches towards Modi, if not to India. Their success at engagement will depend on if there is a true reassessment not only of India, but of what they themselves have to offer India.
US-India relations are complex and multifaceted, and includes Indo-Americans, Buddhists, the business sector, both main political parties -- many Indians view Bush 43 as friendlier to India than either Clinton or Obama -- counter-terrorism, and more (if the US wants to quickly gain trust with the new Indian government, it could be better at sharing information, at the very least on mutual terror threats).
From a US perspective, the size of India's economy, and its potential for double-digit growth, means relations are "too important to fail." That and India's geostrategic location makes India an essential partner if the United States wants to stay truly globally engaged.
For his part, Modi has said the two countries are intertwined and no single issue can overwhelm the whole. The visa "controversy," triggered when Modi's request for a diplomatic visa to visit the US was denied, and his existing visitor's visa was revoked over his alleged mishandling of riots in Gujarat in 2002, is a non-starter. Modi's take away from that experience, and from the US House of Representatives Resolution 417, is that opaque, and possibly foreign, funded domestic lobbies have a lot of leverage in Washington.
However, now Modi has a massive lobby of his own. The Indo-American caucus is one of the largest on the Hill, and the Indo-American community is one of the country'swealthiest and most internet savvy. They overwhelmingly support Modi. As Modi reaches out to them in ways that previous Indian administrations did not, Washington will wake up to a whole new set of issues.
On other fronts, Modi's India is likely to move towards building its domestic civilian nuclear program (including research on thorium-based reactors) and ramping upindigenization of defense procurement with up to 100 percent FDI in defense in some cases. Overall, there will be major openings for FDI and public-private partnerships though, as was seen with the failed attempts at limiting nuclear liability, India will insist on more equitable agreements than some US business might be accustomed to.
Modi's goal of a strong India engaging in a global, holistic foreign policy has the potential to rewrite international relations. It will not be easy. Systems do not like change but, for now, all eyes are on New Delhi.