Oslo Notes: Norwegian Lenses, South Asian challenges

September 19, 2010


What are the international relations and security consequences of climate change that South Asia should anticipate?


At the inaugural session of a recent Norwegian Institute of Defence Studies (IFS)-Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) conference on grand strategic thinking in India, held in Oslo, the Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahre Støre, spoke about Norway’s changing strategic horizons in the east and north. In the east, Norway was interested in building further its relationships in South and South-east Asia but saw itself as one among many rather than anticipating a special relationship. It was his exposition on Norway’s northern interests that was illuminating and thought-provoking for someone who cannot imagine anything further north than Norway!

The Norwegian Foreign Minister identified three concerns at the country’s very doorstep. The physical impact of climate change in the Arctic region was the first. The melting ice will open sailing routes in hitherto impassable stretches of the north. With one-fourth of the world’s gas resources being located in the Arctic Sea, the second concern related to the exploitation of natural resource in areas made accessible by melting glaciers. The minister pointed to the imperative of settling delimitation issues and mentioned the imminent Norway-Russia agreement over delimitation in the Barents Sea. Russia and changes within Russia form Norway’s third strategic horizon. The Minister pointed to potential areas of Indo-Norwegian cooperation ranging from scientific to humanitarian to diplomatic and military. But his presentation on Norway’s northern interests raised many questions for me for the South Asian context.

Have we given enough thought to the impact of climate change on our own regional international relations? The Pakistan floods may already presage a re-think of our Indus agreements. If floods and disaster management are going to be added to the agenda of water-sharing, are we looking at a new round of negotiations in years ahead? Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh have long been advocates of an integrative approach to riparian issues in the eastern Ganges-Brahmaputra region. Rising sea-levels will also move migration further up the region’s security and economic agendas. Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and large areas of India, including Indian island territories, will experience displacement following inundation and destruction of homes and property along rivers and coasts. This may be the right time to think of cooperative solutions and emergency arrangements.

If there is an assessment of how climate change will affect our food supplies and natural resource base, is it available in the public domain? The Gangetic flood plains are India’s mineral-rich areas. Oil and natural gas have been found off the coasts. What is an opportunity in the northern seas could be a closed door in our much warmer waters. If the ability to exploit newly available resources reduces the global North’s dependence on others, will the premature closing of barely exploited resources increase ours? Perhaps these are questions scientists have already answered; my point is that it is time now to ask them in the context of international relations and security.

For those primarily interested in traditional diplomatic concerns too, I have a question: The Great Game in Afghanistan began as a way to thwart the Russian search for warm sea-ports. If polar sea-routes open up, what happens to Afghanistan? Will it be abandoned, left to heal itself or left to the mercy of its neighbours? For Pakistan, Iran and India, this is a very important consideration because their connection to and interest in Afghanistan is not limited to Great Game ramifications.

No One is an Island: India and the Maldives

September 9, 2009


The Indian defence minister’s visit to the Maldives drew attention to the India-Maldives relationship.


On August 20, 2009, India’s Defence Minister, AK Antony visited the Maldives. The visit was preceded by press reports that India would sign an agreement to draw Maldives into India’s “security grid.” This report was carried in sources across India, Pakistan, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

Commentaries appeared across the media and the Internet:

Maryam Omidi, Military pact provokes stir, Minivan News, August 16, 2009.
Ibrahim Mohamed, DRP advises caution on Indian media claims, Minivan News, August 17, 2009.
Simon Shareef, On joining India’s security grid, Open Salon, August 25, 2009.

It’s another matter that India’s ‘security grid’ might have been a journalistic fiction to begin with. By the time the Indian minister reached the atoll-nation, denials and clarifications were spilling forth.

What was set up during Antony’s visit was a programme of naval and coastal security cooperation which includes both technology and equipment transfers to the Maldives. The transfers extend the Indian navy’s reach beyond its territorial waters.

President Nasheed meets with Indian defence minister, Dhivehi Observer, August 20, 2009.
Times News Network, Antony to give Maldives shield against terror? Times of India, August 20, 2009.
India gives Maldives defence help, BBC News, August 21, 2009.
Maldives can always count on India as a well-meaning friend, says Antony, Dhivehi Observer, August 23, 2009.

Reflections on a changing India-Maldives relationship inevitably accompanied these reports and the visit.

Ahmed Shaheed, Building a Framework for India-Maldives Security Co-operation: An Oceanic Agenda for the Future, Open Society Association, August 22, 2009.
Gamini Weerakoon, Is India eyeing base in the Maldives? The Sunday Leader, August 30, 2009.
Siddharth Srivastava, India drops anchor in the Maldives, Asia Times, September 2, 2009.

India looms large in South Asia and it is not difficult to think of reasons why its neighbours feel bound to pay it attention.

Maldives-India defence cooperation have an important history and its closest moment was probably India’s intervention during the attempted coup in 1988. This naval intervention was critical to the survival of the Maldives’ regime then. In subsequent years, India continued to provide defence support to the Maldives but it had the effect of reinforcing the increasingly unpopular and repressive Gayoom regime. Indian support became a sore point with the growing movement for democracy even as the Indian establishment and intelligentsia chose not to notice the ferment across the waters. The regime change and the establishment of a democratic government seem to have effaced some of the bitterness of that moment.

Why do the Maldives matter to India, apart from good neighbourly concern?

The answer lies in the geography of the Maldives. The Indian Ocean is vital to India’s security, given its long coastline and its central location in this area. The Indian state is wary of all and any “outside” influence here, its long opposition to the Diego Garcia base so sustained as to become ritual. Reports of growing Chinese influence and a friendship with Pakistan are bound to interest India.

More important, I would argue, is the structure of the Maldives. Distance from Male to the outlying atolls is great and covers large stretches of open sea, making it hard to monitor movement in these areas. The Sri Lankan Tamil militant group, People’s Liberation Organization for Tamil Eelam (PLOTE), attempted to settle in this area to build themselves a safe haven. This is the group that volunteered their services to stage the 1988 coup. This need not be the last such instance. Following 26/11, coastal defence has become an even greater priority for India and this extends to assuring that its maritime neighbourhood is a friendly and secure one.

There is potential for cooperation between India and the Maldives in other spheres, and indeed these spheres are salient across the region: climate change, democracy and development.

For the Maldives, the most important survival (ergo, security) issue is climate change. Rising sea levels threaten to engulf and consume the low-lying coral reef islands that make up this nation-state. To ex-President Gayoom’s credit, the Maldives took on a pro-active role on the world stage to raise awareness about this issue. It has been an active participant and advocate in several global fora, including the Small Island Developing States Network. In November 2008, one of the first announcements made by the newly elected President Mohammed Nasheed was that his country would create a fund to buy land for an alternative home for the time when his people would become environmental refugees.

Nicholas Schmidle, Wanted: A New Home for My Country, New York Times, May 8 2009.
Jeremy Hance, Maldives president tells world: ‘please, don’t be stupid’ on climate change, mongabay.com, September 1, 2009

India, with its long coastline which is home to several major cities and large densely populated deltaic regions, should pay attention. Acting decisively on climate change and not getting sidetracked by a politics of blame may be one of the most important signs of genuine friendship that India can show to its Indian Ocean neighbours. India should also take a cue from President Nasheed’s concern about housing Maldivians in the wake of environmental disaster and consider rescue plans for its own island territories in the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea.

Unlike the high politics/national security concerns of the Foreign Policy debate blogged earlier, global warming is really a survival issue for communities that are already very vulnerable and for the states whose jurisdiction includes them.

Can India also help the Maldives with its resettlement plans? That is also something for Indian civil society and policy-makers to think about.

To briefly refer to the other two spheres mentioned above: India should lend support to democratic consolidation in the Maldives. Indian civil society organizations focused on democracy and governance issues do not really think beyond their borders for the most part, however, and ignorance about the Maldives is quite common, unfortunately. A change in both of these orientations could cement the India-Maldives relationship further. While the government of India does provide development assistance, civil society should pay attention to initiatives like that of the Maldives High Commission in the UK to set up an International Volunteers Programme to recruit teachers and health workers. India does not have a Peace Corps-like organization but it is time for civil society and possibly academic institutions to think about encouraging voluntary work across the region. Indians do work in the Maldives as employees in these and in the tourism sector, but in this particular Indian moment, it should be possible to find people to take time off to volunteer their time and services.

Defence and traditional security are only one dimension of an inter-state relationship, after all. It’s time to invest in the others as well.

We live here too!

August 11, 2009


Is climate change a threat to national security? First reflections from Asia on a debate elsewhere and an invitation to extend the debate.


Stephen Walt, National Security Heats Up, Foreign Policy Blog, August 10, 2009.
David Rothkopf, Actually, global warming is a major national security threat, Foreign Policy Blog, August 11, 2009.

A recent think-tank report provoked Stephen Walt to blog his view that climate change is really not a national security threat. He dismisses this view arguing—and who would contest this?—that crying ‘national security’ is simply a way to channel more money to your favourite cause. Military operations could be affected and this should be factored into planning. Climate change might tip the balance in “volatile” areas, but that’s not a US ‘national security’ concern. Most interestingly, he writes:
“It is entirely possible that climate change could provoke major refugee movements in certain areas (e.g., Bangladesh), and that such a development could have powerful effects on neighboring countries (e.g., India). But instead of immediately concluding that American interests are at stake, isn’t this first and foremost India’s problem? And if the United States starts devoting a lot of time and attention to figuring out how to mitigate such developments, won’t that reduce India’s incentive to reach a meaningful climate change agreement? “

David Rothkopf agrees that India and others should pay more attention to these issues, but points out threats closer to the US mainland and also reminds Walt (and their readers) that more conflict erupts around scarcity than anything else. He disputes Walt’s contention that these are not national security issues but humanitarian or philanthropic causes.

I wanted to flag this debate for several reasons—some observations and questions:

1. The fact that Bangladesh and India feature as examples of states that will be affected, should do more and whose burdens should not be assumed by the US. South Asians should reflect on why they continue to be the first examples that come to mind when people write about misery and miserable lives.
2. The debate is really about what national security means in this day and age, and it illustrates the many limitations of thinking solely or even primarily in “nation-state” terms.
3. The idea that concern over a global issue is tantamount either to instruction or assumption of responsibility. Could it not have to do with guilt?
4. The suggestion that resource scarcity, economic deprivation and hunger happen only in India, Bangladesh, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America.

I am deliberately overstating threads in these two posts; I am sure these are very nice people with no condescension at all towards the rest of the world. Moreover, I am pretty sure that the same ‘tone of voice’ is to be found in writings by Indians, Chinese, Brazilian.. other scholars from large states. The problem, I would like to suggest, is in privileging a ‘national security’ mode of thinking. It forces a distinction that every human experience proves artificial, between human beings and societies on the basis of arbitrary national-state borders. The result is a thus-far and no-further view even of the crises that literally, engulf us all.

I think Walt and Rothkopf have started a debate that is both old and new. This is a debate for Asian scholars (and those elsewhere) to join and enrich. Perhaps the ASI blog could provide that larger platform? This might be the opportunity to move beyond apportioning blame, drawing tight lines around ourselves and thinking collectively; after all, as Walt points out, the ‘securitization’ of a problem gives it access to the best of resources.