Never Again (As Long As It Is Convenient)

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A Tunisian court has just banned Israeli taekwondokas from participating in the World Taekwondo Junior Championships being held presently in Hammamet. The decision came as a local group, The National Commission for Supporting Arab Resistance and Opposing Normalization and Zionism, sued the Tunisian Taekwondo Federation for violating the government’s commitment “to denouncing and refusing Zionist occupation and colonization, as well as boycotting and not dealing with the Zionist entity (…) in any way.” The world governing body of the sport, World Taekwondo has issued a tepid letter of regret and promised to discuss the situation with the Tunisian authorities as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Such behaviour is routine among Muslim countries. The hosts, Tunisia, have a track record of refusing to play Israel – in 2013, the country’s tennis federation forbade their player from going up against an Israeli opponent. In the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, an Egyptian judoka refused to shake hands with his Israeli opponent. In November 2017, an Iranian wrestler threw his match against a Russian opponent so that he would not advance to face an Israeli challenger; in August 2016 at the World Youth Championships in Hungary, another Iranian wrestler was ordered to feign an injury to avoid going up against the Israeli competitor. Although Israeli athletes were allowed to participate in the October 2017 Grand Slam judo tournament in Abu Dhabi, they were not allowed to display any symbol that might identify them as Israelis and the hosts refused to play the Israeli national anthem when one of them won a medal.

Such churlishness is not just poor sportsmanship but it goes against the very principles of international sport. Discrimination based on nationality, as Muslim states have long been practicing against Israel, goes against the charter of the IOC which aims to promote not just various physical competitions but also the proper ethics that accompany such activities. Under ‘Fundamental Principles of Olympism,’ the charter reads, “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” Furthermore, it is the IOC’s role “to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.”

If the plaintiffs are indeed correct about Israeli athletes creating a legal crisis for the Tunisian government, it can be argued that the country – and all who support it – should be expelled from the IOC, for member states must take an oath that promises, among other things, “to keep myself free from any political or commercial influence and from any racial or religious consideration; to fight against all other forms of discrimination.” In fact, it is the duty of the National Olympic Committees to “ensure that no one has been excluded for racial, religious or political reasons or by reason of other forms of discrimination.”

Regular discrimination against Israeli athletes has unfortunately not yet pricked the conscience of the West or other major powers. Confrontation over principles is not convenient in geopolitics and Israel just does not have the economic or strategic footprint to force the moral issue. The indignation, however, is not difficult to imagine if, say, the United States were to cut all sporting contacts with Middle Eastern states.

The commonly repeated argument in support of the Muslim boycott of Israel is that it is not racist or anti-Semitic but a response to specific “Zionist, imperialist” policies of the State of Israel. The international sporting community does not accept political justifications for discrimination but even if the argument were allowed to stand for a moment, the Muslim states’ general political position towards the existence of the Jewish state betrays their rancour to be primarily religious in nature and contrary to the spirit of the United Nations Charter and several human rights statutes.

In the mid-1960s, the world began to turn its back on apartheid South Africa. Most sporting associations expelled the white-minority ruled country from its ranks and those who did not were shamed into doing so by massive boycotts such as the 21st Olympic Games in Montreal by 25 African states and the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh which was boycotted by 32 of 59 member states. The same outrage is sadly not present for anti-Semitism and Israel must bear the brunt of international hypocrisy – as it long has. If Muslim states genuinely believed that a boycott of Israeli athletes served as an ethical cudgel to Jerusalem, they could perhaps start within their own ranks – Pakistan for its persecution of the Baloch, Saudi Arabia for its treatment of women, minority Islamic sects, and homosexuals, and Iran for human rights excesses.

The irony of the situation is that many of the states that piously condemn Israel in public have security relations with it in private. The harsh condemnations and meaningless boycotts are empty virtue signalling to the street that has been stoked for decades on propaganda; the international community, ever fearful of the Islamophobia tag, seems to be doing the same as well but with its own domestic minority audience in mind. In the process, the moral persuasive power of their own democratic principles is weakened.

Although the geopolitical consequences of a sports boycott are not particularly significant, it does have some economic fallout. More importantly, it wreaks havoc on the careers of individual athletes. The international governing bodies of various sports must step up to not just condemn the boycott of Israeli athletes but take punitive action against the states that continue to discriminate against athletes at international events. Such states should not be allowed to host events and must run the risk of being disbarred from international competition themselves. The risk of a boomerang effect of a boycott might dissuade states from a display of poor ethics and sportsmanship. If not, it will at least prevent the disruption of events and careers at the whims of state officials.

It is the casual acceptance of discrimination against Israel that brings out how difficult it still is to be Jewish in this world. The last century and a half saw the tide turn against slavery and racism; perhaps, with the economic rise of Asia and states not of the Abrahamic religious order, the vigour behind anti-Semitism might also ebb – ironically so, given that Judaism is the fount of all Abrahamic faiths.


This article was written for The Indic Collective Trust.

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Earning the Dragon’s Respect

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Pace protestations from Delhi to the contrary, India’s relations with its larger northeastern neighbour China have at best been fraught with tension that have boiled over to outright hostility at the worst of times. Given Beijing’s consistent efforts to undermine Indian security and standing on the world stage, it is beguiling to see a not inconsiderate number of Indians expressing the hope that the 21st century will belong to a partnership between the two countries that will reshape the international order to the benefit of rising powers; with greater contacts through education, tourism, and trade, the border issue would diminish in salience.

Such aspirations are unrequited from the other side: it is a striking difference that Chinese businessmen returning from India are rarely as optimistic as their Western counterparts. Whereas CEOs from the United States, Britain, Germany, and elsewhere are enthused about India’s growing middle class, the improving regulatory environment, and the massive opportunities it offers in infrastructure, services, defence, and other sectors, the Chinese corporate class is more likely to complain about regulatory red tape, poor quality of human resources as well as material, woefully lacking infrastructure, and the culture of middlemen and rampant corruption. This difference indicates more than just the other side of the coin – it reaffirms that the Chinese do not see India as belonging, with themselves, to the first circle among nations.

The fundamental, unrecognised road block to India’s improved relations with China is that Beijing does not see Delhi as an equal. Incomprehensible to South Block’s mandarins confident in their own greatness, India remains for China a lesser power that could yet derail their aspirations for a Pax Sinica. Beijing, therefore, has never considered India in its own respect but as an appendix to its policies with other states.
A defining element of India’s self-projection on the world stage is the belief that somehow, it is an important nation. This could be seen in its first prime minister’s gratuitous commentary on international events at a time when India did not have the means to play a practical role in global affairs. In an audacious attempt, Jawaharlal Nehru tried to lead most of the world’s nations away from the superpower rivalry in a non-aligned third bloc. Delhi’s confidence did not come from its abilities but from a deep-rooted hubris that India simply was great; by virtue of its ancient civilisation, rich in philosophy, literature, science, architecture, and engineering, India deserved respect today.

Perhaps motivated by curiosity more than anything else, the world did accord India some attention in the early years of the newly-independent republic. With the passing of Nehru, however, so too did those giddy days. A planned economy that stumbled at every step, the constant moralising, and little contribution to alleviating the problems of the word soon put India back in the ranks of the “fly over” nations. Going by historic trends, India’s geographic size, population, and strategic location would have normally destined the country for an important global role but India’s leadership believe(d) that this was already so.

It is easy to bask in the praise of allies as India has done in recent years with the United States, and to a lesser extent, France, Israel, and Japan. However, much to Delhi’s discomfiture, it has not received the same deference from its unacknowledged rival, China. In fact, Beijing has studiously avoided reference to India in its policies except as a curt, off-handed afterthought. This disregard is apparent in the way Chinese policies are always presented as having their focus elsewhere but whose objectives may coincidentally impinge on Indian interests. For example, Beijing’s increasingly heavy footprint in Tibet has been portrayed as the integration of the forcibly annexed state into the mainstream of Chinese national life; however, the infrastructure, demographic transfers, and military deployments coincidentally put pressure on the Line of Actual Control with India. Similarly, China’s sudden activity on nuclear non-proliferation is couched in the language of creating a non-discriminatory regime though its real aim to stymie India’s admission into the Nuclear Suppliers Group is transparent.

After the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998, China was initially silent but later released a restrained statement expressing shock and urging India to disarm and sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. China’s official position on India’s nuclear ambitions is that it is unfortunate, wasteful, and that Delhi and Islamabad should sort out their differences peacefully; the China threat is a rumour of ulterior motives. Similarly, India’s missile tests have not merited a comment until the recent Agni V finally rattled China into seeking a hearing in the United Nations. Even then, Beijing’s greatest concern is Delhi’s cosying relationship with Washington – and perhaps Tokyo – more than anything it has been able to achieve itself. There is no acknowledgement of any consideration of India in China’s defence planning, perhaps studiously so. This has successfully de-linked the two Asian giants in most minds, though the yawning gap between the two states in terms of the size of the national economy, their militaries, and infrastructural development has also contributed in some measure.

It is natural  that a rising power like China has expansive interests. Yet Beijing’s quest for influence has always tried to block Delhi’s gains – such as the recent interest in Chabahar –  or undermine India – Pakistan is the most glaring example. Competition between powers is natural, and no one can deny China’s legitimate interests around Asia. Yet it is the tone in which they are pursued that ought to have clued Delhi in on its neighbour’s thinking.

Delhi may believe China’s indifference to be merely a psychological game but all indications suggest it is much more than that: Beijing does not see Delhi as its equal. This is why the response to overtures towards resolving the border dispute have been met with flippancy. In October 2013, as well as during Xi Jinping’s visit to India (September 2014) and Narendra Modi’s stop in Beijing (May 2015), the Chinese army intruded deep into Indian territory and remained for days.

Although the Line of Actual Control separating India and Tibet is quiet in comparison to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, there has nonetheless been constant friction. There have been three serious incursions in as many years during which the Chinese army camped inside India for weeks before finally retreating back to their side of the line.

There is also the matter of continued support for Pakistan – not just in terms of conventional military supplies, nuclear weapons, and missile technology but also in the form of substantial economic investments that could fundamentally alter Pakistan’s economic geography as well as support for Islamabad’s terrorist forces in the United Nations. This is not out of any shared worldview or camaraderie but is purely utilitarian – Beijing’s belief is that a lesser power like India can easily be distracted from global geopolitics by significant irritation from an even smaller state such as Pakistan.

The growing disparity in economic and military werewithal between India and China lends some credence to the latter’s attitude towards the former. More importantly, Indian leaders and society remain too focused on their domestic bickering to present a strong and unwavering image to the rest of the world. If Delhi truly wishes to improve relations with the dragon, it must do so from a position of equality. This means a far narrower difference in power and a demonstrated ability to achieve strategic goals – be they defence manufacturing or aid projects in the neighbourhood – in a timely manner. India must earn the respect of its opponent before anything fruitful may be expected of border talks and other summits.

Creating an Indian Lake

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The small, out-of-mind archipelago of Seychelles has been in the Indian news cycle an inordinate amount. Part of this is due to a prospering Indian public starting to take greater interest in the geopolitics of their region. Another reason is the recent agreement signed between India and Seychelles for the construction of a military base on Assumption Island, one of the 115 islands of the African country. Originally signed in 2015 during a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the country, work could not begin on the strategic asset as the deal was not ratified by the Seychelles parliament during the term of the previous president, James Michel.

Controversy was stirred recently when the present president of the South Indian Ocean country, Danny Faure, declared in 2017 that the agreement would have to be renegotiated as it did not serve the interests of the Seychellois. Then, a recent leak of the text of the newly-negotiated agreement also stoked the controversy in that it was alleged that Victoria has sold off Assumption Island to India; Faure’s administration rushed to clarify that this was not the case and stressed that India would not be developing infrastructure on Assumption for military purposes. Ostensibly, the facilities are meant to support patrolling against illegal fishing, piracy, and drug and human trafficking.

Under the agreement, India will renovate the airstrip on Assumption Island, renovate the jetty, and build living quarters for the Seychelles Coast Guard. The entire project is expected to take a quarter of the tiny island that measures barely 6.7 kms in length and 2.9 kms in width and cost approximately $550 million.

Several things were clarified and modified between the 2015 agreement and the 2018 revision. The deal was extended to 20 years from 10 years with an option to further extend the arrangement by another 10 years; it was clarified that the island was still under the sovereignty of Seychelles, meaning that Indians stationed on Assumption Island will face Seychellois justice if accused of a crime; the obligations of each party were explicitly spelled out as were technical details pertaining to the jetty and airstrip; conditions for the storage of arms have been made more stringent (military exercises, guarding the facilities, and self-defence in case of internal disturbances). As in the 2015 agreement, India has agreed not to use the base in times of war or allow vessels with nuclear weapons to use the facilities. Third parties may be allowed use of the facilities upon joint agreement by both governments.

Although Seychelles has been at pains to emphasise that the agreement with India is not military in nature, the terms indicate otherwise or at least hold open the strong potential for use for security purposes. Victoria, however, does not wish to invite Great Power rivalry – not just between India and China but potentially the United States and France as well – into its living room and has made a public relations decision to highlight the benefits it receives from the development of infrastructure on Assumption Island in the enforcement of domestic law and order.

The deal is seen as important for India because it enhances its surveillance capabilities over the Indian Ocean. In concert with a coastal surveillance radar station already operating in Seychelles, a naval base at Agalega in Mauritius, a coastal radar station in Madagascar, an array of radars in Maldives, and a strong presence in the littoral waters of Mozambique, Delhi’s acquisition of facilities on one of the 67 raised coral islands of the Aldabra group will create an impermeable surveillance net in the southwestern and central Indian Ocean. Assumption Island’s position dominating the Mozambique channel, a key sea lane for merchant ships, adds to India’s kitty a second potential choke point after the Strait of Malacca; the latter is dominated by India’s augmented presence in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands chain as well as with naval agreements with Vietnam and Singapore.

India’s strategic assets in its ocean, important as they are on their own, have an added multiplier effect: Delhi has recently signed a Logistics Support Agreement with the United States and France, allowing the navies of those countries to share naval facilities with the Indian Navy. This extends India’s reach even further from the French base at Reunion – perhaps even Paris’ services in Djibouti – and the US base at Diego Garcia. Together, it is possible for the three countries to establish a Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) line array to closely monitor the movement of all ships and submarines through the region. It is rumoured that India is seeking Japanese assistance in setting up a similar surveillance line from Indira Point to Sumatra, which will then connect with a similar existing US-Japanese network in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean Rim. Between these two arrays, Delhi’s knowledge of movement in the Indian Ocean will see a marked increase and make its naval deployments more efficient.

An agreement with Australia for access to its Indian Ocean Territories, Cocos Islands and Christmas, is tempting but the geography and size of the islands is not an insignificant obstacle to overcome.

There has been some opposition to India’s presence in the archipelago that range from geopolitical to economic and environmental. However, with approximately 10% of the population tracing its roots back to India, there is, so far, general good will towards India. Unlike its larger northeastern neighbour China, India has avoided giving hard loans or flooding client states with Indian labour and instead preferred joint development. India’s previous assistance to the archipelago also puts it in good standing with the Seychellois. In June and September 1986, India helped suppress two coups in the country, the first by deploying the INS Vindhyagiri (which, to be fair, was already on its way to the island on a routine visit) and the second by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi loaning Air India One to Seychelles president France-Albert René. India has also helped Seychelles patrol its Exclusive Economic Zone and provided equipment such as Dornier Do 228s and Chetak helicopters to meet the security needs of the island chain. The Indian Navy has frequently assisted Seychelles in anti-piracy operations in the past decade. and Delhi has also helped train the Seychellois own armed forces.

At present, India is economically and militarily incapable of facing Chinese encroachment into the Indian Ocean. Beijing has been candid about its String of Pearls for over a decade and yet little was done to augment India’s ability to respond to the threat, either diplomatically or otherwise. Despite its jarring paeans to non-alignment, strategic autonomy, and other such dated misadventures, Delhi has recently made a sound move by agreeing to work in tandem with similarly-minded powers to protect the Indian Ocean. The acquisition of its own assets in the Indian Ocean Region is a bonus and will retain some autonomy for India.