Research Blog

Indian public opinion toward China: some new research

Aidan Milliff and I have been working on a paper examining Indian public opinion toward China, with a mix of interesting – if limited – historical data and a deep dive into recent surveys.

Massive caveats: it needs substantial revisions (this version from early March has already received extensive feedback to address in the next round of changes) and will still need to go through peer review. Nevertheless, given the importance of China-India relations these days, we wanted to make this draft available to those interested in the topic.

You can find the working paper here.

Managing insurgent decline: 1970s Naga edition

I came across a substantial file in the Abilekh Patal portal with materials supporting the Government of India banning the Naga National Council/Federal Government of Nagaland as unlawful organizations. It included as an annexure an apparent letter from the Office of the GOC Eastern Command Naga Army, 1 July 1973, in the midst of the post-1972 Indian crackdown. It struck me as an interesting document as an example of how an armed group tries to keeps its forces motivated in the face of clear military pressure (something I’ve written about more generally elsewhere):

Scattered thoughts on American Asia strategy

The consolidation of an American Indo-Pacific strategy aimed at managing the rise of China has occurred alongside a renewed emphasis on US foreign policy focused on values and democracy. I’ve been working on a possible future book project on the domestic politics of foreign policy in South/SE Asia (where posts like this come from), so this has been a particularly interesting development. Some important recent arguments suggest the two can/should work in complement: for instance, pieces by Zack Cooper and Laura Rosenberger, Tom Wright, and Dan Twining come to mind as suggesting ways in which competition with China and a values-based foreign policy can together generate virtuous circles. Some version of this is at least rhetorically what Matt Pottinger claims to have been advancing (though Cooper’s “Tale of Two Asia Strategies” nicely gets at Trump-induced challenges on that front, in addition to a set of deeper issues that Ankit Panda points to). 

Given that this appears to be where the policy action under a Biden administration will be, it’s worth taking the arguments very seriously. I want to suggest some potential wrinkles in that approach, with a focus on tensions between containment/balancing  China vs. advancing the kinds of liberal democratic values that are so central to this line of work. But this isn’t intended to be a hard-line critique or whatever – the rise of China generates incredibly complex questions that have lots of probably-wrong answers but few clearly-right ones. I also appreciate a genuine effort to try to advance rights and democracy, even (especially?) in a world of limited American credibility and leverage. My starting biases are 1) very skeptical of happy talk about the history of US foreign policy, while also 2) very skeptical about Chinese domestic and foreign security policy (I guess that puts me in some kind of lukewarm “offshore balancer” camp – I don’t find Goldstein-style Asia-restraint/goodbye Taiwan policy very compelling even while intense Cold War 2.0 competition with China is unappealing).

This combination is bad for offering clear policy recommendations, so I’m taking the prerogative of an irrelevant flyover-country professor to pose some problems without straightforward solutions. There are some tensions in the emerging strategy that I think need to be foregrounded and discussed more than they have been thus far.

First, many of the countries that are looked to as either partners or arenas in which the US/”like-minded partners”* compete against China are not interested in a coalition of techno-democracies against authoritarianism, nor do they necessarily fit in any clean way into a “contest of systems” (in Twining’s words).

Let’s take Bangladesh: recently visited by Stephen Biegun, economically growing quite fast, home to approximately 200 million citizens, and able to maintain decent relations with both India and China. It’s generally coded as some flavor of electoral autocracy, and there is not much to suggest that Sheikh Hasina is convinced of the essential competitive advantages of liberal democracy, free speech, a thriving university sector, etc. Similarly, in Burma/Myanmar I don’t think Aung San Suu Kyi these days celebrates Western visions of liberal democracy. Where exactly do these cases fit? Thailand is a US treaty ally. . .  de facto run by a praetorian/monarchist military. The case of Vietnam is too obvious to dwell on here – being worried about China does not require holding elections. Wright suggests that a commitment to democracy “should also mean imposing a cost on U.S. allies that undermine democracy—for instance, banning their leaders from visiting Washington, or even reducing cooperation with them” but I suspect advocates of the Indo-Pacific strategy would not be especially on board with that. There aren’t a lot of free lunches here.

Other countries don’t seem especially likely to fall into CCP-style autocracy regardless of their international alignment choices; the fear that is most often expressed about Indonesia, the Philippines, and India is not the imposition of a hardened bureaucratic-authoritarian Leninist dictatorship, but instead illiberal majoritarianism, state-committed and -tolerated violence, and the lack of equal protections under rule of law, even as elections chug along as scheduled. We get into murky territory in perceptions of regimes here – on how to think about India, for instance, just from the last couple weeks compare Nisha Biswal’s effusive speech with Madhav Khosla and Milan Vaishnav’s distinctly more skeptical take – but the broader point remains that these massive, hugely important countries don’t seem to be either sprinting toward convergence with the liberal democratic models heralded in US strategy writings, nor falling prey to the grim lures of the Bolshevik party-state. Most places are neither China nor Japan.

Put differently, I’m not sure that the clash of regime-types captures all of the important action here, and you can easily imagine cases in which competing with China lands the US in rather normatively unpleasant situations (some Burma activists are not thrilled with Kurt Campbell). For a different way of thinking about the politics of the region, especially its heterogeneity across multiple directions, I am partial to my Carnegie colleague Evan Feigenbaum’s interview with Vaishnav here (and the linked articles).

Second, regional sources of pushback against China are both very real and not necessarily in line with broader claims about the nature of US-PRC competition. For instance, the work I’ve been reading on China in Southeast Asia (such as Strangio & Hiebert) makes clear that at least some of the skepticism toward China in Malaysia and Indonesia is the result of deep-seated suspicion of ethnic Chinese in both countries, a source of illiberalism and riots.

More broadly, Raja Mohan has argued (longer, brand-new version here) that the US should “align with Asian nationalism” to provide a powerful counterbalance to Chinese revisionism. But I’m not sure this solves much, and it gets you into other problems. Leaving aside some historical disagreements with Mohan’s interpretation of both anti-colonial and post-colonial nationalism, we run into the challenge that almost every regime/leader/party claims to be nationalist (Suharto and Sukarno were both self-identified nationalists. . .), so the policy prescription basically comes down to “do business with whoever is in power” and doesn’t say much of anything about what those in power want.

The real variation is instead in how governments and their competitors identify boundaries of and hierarchies within “the nation”: Awami League vs. Bangladesh National Party, Bamar nationalism vs. ethnic minorities’ visions of federalism, disputes over the role of the monarchy in Thailand, the INC vs. BJP’s articulations of Indian nationalism, etc. Everything from electoral politics to coups to insurgencies to state mass killing have been linked to the question of which/whose nationalism/s. This means that US approaches to external alignment unavoidably filter down into domestic politics, in some cases quite dramatically and with long-lasting consequences: the US alignment with the Pakistan Army in the 1950s, for instance, put its thumbs on the scale in a particular direction.

Tied into this is the content of at least some of the dominant nationalist projects that sometimes push back on China. Backlash against China can come from Bamar xenophobia represented in part by the tatmadaw (which has its own bloody ways of dealing with allegedly anti-national elements), Malay anti-Chinese bigotry, and/or the repressive political survival project of the Communist Party of Vietnam, among others. If you are worried about human rights and democracy as an integral part of Asia strategy, the challenge then becomes threading the needle in supporting “like-minded partners” without being actively complicit in their domestic projects. And since, by its very nature, nationalism is Janus-faced, simultaneously inward- and outward-looking, this is easier said than done (as US policies during the Cold War grimly showed). Appealing to Asian nationalism doesn’t clarify matters, and embracing at least some of the nationalist projects on display certainly doesn’t do a lot to square the potential circle being faced.

We could add in other dynamics that are hard to line up cleanly with some of these frameworks, whether byzantine coalition politics in Nepal, or what the return of the Rajapaksas means in the context of decades of Sri Lankan efforts to carve out some degree of foreign policy autonomy (self-identified nationalists who have nevertheless historically worried about India and been willing to extensively deal with China, who win elections but also operate a political system described as ethnocracy, etc).

I guess if there are any takeaways here, they would be that the actual politics in a lot of these countries may fit uneasily with influential frameworks that currently seek to inform US strategy. Regional states and political leaders have their own agency and room to maneuver, very often are pursuing domestic projects that are inextricably intertwined with their foreign policies, and may not see the terms of the debate in even remotely similar ways as American thought leaders (nor care what they think). I would also be concerned that Americans not be too credulous about the credibility and appeal of their invocations of values/democracy abroad (as these pieces by Ashford and Goldgeier/Jentleson suggest, as well as, in a very different but fascinating way, Beckley’s “Rogue Superpower“).

A cynic might suspect that the US, trying to have it both ways, in some cases will end up in a “you’re better than China, [choose one of: A) neither of us like China or B) we’re worried you might tilt to China], and so here’s guns and money; plus, we will provide political cover for you by saying glowing things about democracy and your role in the global struggle with authoritarianism even as you throw people in jail and target the press” equilibrium. Since that is not be the desired end-state for the strategic writers in question, I think it’s worth more bluntly and explicitly thinking through ways to manage some of these trade-offs and tensions.

* Tangent: I came up with two potentially-lethal drinking games while writing this blog post. The first would center on the phrase “like-minded partners and allies,” which appears with monotonic regularity. The second is specific to Team India, involving the words “assertive” and “aspirational” as ways to explain/justify/defend basically all behavior, even if assertion and aspiration are only relevant in the most hazily general sense of “this is something we wanted to do because we think it will achieve things we like.”

Javid and Younus on Pakistan’s dynastic politics

This interview of Hassan Javid by Uzair Younus is really really great, part of Younus’ Pakistonomy newsletter/podcast/YouTube empire. It highlights some of Javid’s research on dynastic politics. Go read and watch (pulled out a bit of summary below):

“Dr. Javid’s research shows that about 400 families have dominated Punjab’s political system since the 1970s, with electable / dynastic candidates often moving from one party to another based on the shifting sands of power in the country.

This system of influence has spread its tentacles across other organs of the state, with members of the most influential dynasties having familial links into the bureaucracy, judiciary, and the security establishment.

It is these linkages, not just money, that makes dynastic politicians important to the political party seeking to come into power.

I learnt a lot during this conversation, but it thoroughly depressed me. I do not have much to share in terms of solutions or a path forward. I will just say that the way the system is stacked up, it seems highly unlikely that Pakistan’s masses will be ruled by a system that truly cares about making their lives better.”

Another piece of (tentative) Indian Army demographic data

The ethnic/religious/regional composition of a state’s security forces is incredibly politically important. Political scientists, from Horowitz to Enloe Petersen to Cederman et al. to Bellin to Roessler to, most recently, Johnson and Thurber (among many many others) have highlighted ways in which the composition of the state can affect political stability, coups, counterinsurgency/internal security posture, and revolts. Yet for many obvious reasons, military and security forces tend to be extremely reticent to share this kind of data publicly, so studying it is difficult.

In the South Asian context – one of the inspirations for Horowitz in particular (especially Sri Lanka – see also his less-well-known book on the attempted coup of 1962) – we have recent-ish work touching on the demographic composition of the Pakistan Army by Fair and Nawaz (at the level of recruitment intake) and by Dann Naseemullah, Ahsan Butt, and me (at the level of the corps commander tier). A related, excellent, recent ethnographic book on the Pakistan Army was just published by Maria Rashid. Classic comparative-historical work by many, such as Siddiqa, Cohen, Shah, Jaffrelot, Rizvi, Jalal, and Fair, has highlighted ethnic imbalances at a macro-level within the military apparatus.

On India, Steven Wilkinson has unpacked Army data on regional patterns, and I’ve worked with Drew Stommes to tentatively back out spatial variation in force composition in the BSF and CRPF using published fatality data. Omar Khalidi focuses in more on the police.

The newest contribution comes from David Smith in his Stimson Center monograph The Wellington Experience (2 years ago I highlighted his counterpart monograph on Pakistan, The Quetta Experience). On page 49, Smith offers a summary of some of Wilkinson’s findings for those not familiar with it.

The monograph further provides (highly tentative) data allowing insight into Muslim and Sikh representation in the Indian Army’s higher ranks (p. 48):

Annex H is on page 248 and is crystal-clear to caution that “these figures are not official and should be taken as illustrative only,” so massively important caveats abound. But this is nevertheless a valuable addition to this very challenging empirical agenda.

4 Questions on India, Liberalism, America, etc.

Ashley Tellis’ interview with Milan Vaishnav on the Grand Tamasha podcast has triggered quite a lot of discussion on the relationship between political liberalism in India and its relationship with the US and “the West” in general. Tellis also advances some of these themes in a recent Carnegie paper; one summary of his claim can be found here:

“To be sure, India’s relevance in the Indo-Pacific will survive, thanks to the exigencies of balancing China. This ensures continued engagement by the United States and other powers, but a constrained acquiescence to partnership is a poor substitute for the enthusiastic boosting of India that would otherwise occur if its liberal credentials were not contested.”

I’ve suggested something similar in the past:

“Those skeptical of India’s political direction may have a higher bar for Indian strategic convergence than those supportive of the Modi government”

Tellis’ claim attracted various kinds of pushback. I found Rohan Mukherjee’s twitter thread and responses, for instance, quite interesting – he argues, among other things, that 1) the US is no position to be judging the liberalism of others and 2) history gives limited evidence of liberal alignment in world politics (i.e. plenty of alliances or linkages across regime-types).

Rather than coming down hard on any side of this (I’ve already said my piece), I think it’s more useful to identify a set of open questions that need to be answered to make this debate useful.

  1. What do we mean by “liberalism” in this context? I generally think of liberalism as not meaning left-right ideology, but instead the quality of mechanisms that prevent the classic “tyranny of the majority” dynamics – individual rights, institutions that treat citizens equally across ethnic/religious/class categories, and an autonomous space for media and civil society. Freedom House and V-DEM provide specific criteria of the different dimensions that can be used to measure this. Japan’s LDP is a conservative party, but Japan doesn’t get criticized for being illiberal. I don’t think that democracy is the same as winning elections, but everyone needs to be crystal-clear on what they mean one way or another.

2. What is the “dependent variable”? I.e., what do we mean by security cooperation and what levels should we expect it to take under different conditions? This is where I see the greatest potential for intractable debates. It’s also why twitter is just the worst for engagement. My read of the Tellis claim is that “ragged engagement” could result from illiberalism in India. This not the same as a lack of cooperation, or a breakdown in relations. There is clearly realpolitik momentum in US-India relations in response to China, full stop.

But then the question is what level of cooperation we should expect from that realpolitik on its own, and what explanatory “value-added” comes from shared regime-type? For instance, it’s undeniably the case that the US has worked extensively with a whole variety of nasty regimes (as I’ve pointed out myself). But it’s also the case that America’s closest security partners have tended to be liberal-ish democracies – the vast majority of NATO, Japan, and the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing partners. Jessica Weeks and Mike Tomz have argued that “individuals are substantially less supportive of military strikes against democracies than against otherwise identical autocracies. Moreover, our experiments suggest that shared democracy pacifies the public primarily by changing perceptions of threat and morality.” There is at least some broad linkage between domestic regimes and international politics (i.e. Seva Gunitsky’s book). Both claims – the US is extremely willing to work with dictators and the US works best for liberal democracies – can be simultaneously true.

The real inferential challenge becomes the counterfactual – if India was more/less liberal, what variation should we expect? Critiques of the Tellis argument could point to US-India cooperation and say “A-ha – there is cooperation, thus Modi can do whatever he wants!” but if there is a counterfactual world in which cooperation would be deeper and smoother and more broad-ranging, then the simple fact of cooperation doesn’t disprove the Tellis “ragged engagement” thesis. In turn, advocates of the “liberalism helps cooperation” thesis need to specify what smoother engagement would actually look like in the absence of an “illiberalism tax.” For instance, one could point to the amount of time and energy Indian diplomats spent on CAA/Kashmir-related topics in 2019 and ask how that time could have been spent in a counterfactual world.

3. What do perceptions of liberalism have to do with perceptions of other things? My basic realpolitik sense is that a rapidly growing, powerful India can get away with a lot of domestic illiberalism with limited international consequences – the US is deeply hypocritical, the French don’t care, the Japanese are worried about China, the UK is led by Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and his people prefer authoritarian strongmen, etc.

But India’s growth/power trajectory is extremely far from predetermined – this Carnegie India summary of India’s current state makes clear the overlapping crises facing India:
“The combination of the compounded economic crisis and the standoff along the LAC underscores the larger fiscal-military challenge that confronts India. One foreseeable consequence of the pandemic is a greater pressure on India’s defense budgets owing to a drop in government revenues.53 Even to keep up the current levels of military expenditure, defense spending will have to rise as a proportion of GDP. This is bound to be challenging against the backdrop of urgent competing demands for spending on public infrastructure and welfare.”

As Ido Oren has shown, perceptions of other countries’ liberalism/democracy can be quite malleable. You can imagine a world in which foreign views change in response to the “hard” economic-military power of India. When I first lived in India back in 2007, there were conclaves about the implications of 10% growth and the like. That feels like a million years ago now.

If you end up with perceptions of Indian underperformance on its power trajectory it may accelerate perceptions that India’s ruling party cares most fervently about detentions and denunciations, and things would look less rosy in both cynical/realpolitik and “liberal” terms (see also Aparna Pande on this). This of course may absolutely not be India’s trajectory, but no one should be highly confident of anything about the future, much less make firm policy demands on that basis.

4. What is the future of US domestic politics? The US is itself moving in a deeply illiberal direction. If that continues, then some set of claims about American perceptions will be operative. But if not, and especially if we see Congress or the White House viewing illiberalism as a global problem with worrisome knock-on effects for the US, then we may end up with a notably different set of emphases. The future direction of US foreign policy is fluid and there are huge partisan splits in views of the top foreign policy problems facing America. Any claims about “what the US will want” in the future need serious caveats. Even if the US wants to manage the rise of China, we can see hugely varying levels of resource and political commitments to Asia over the next decade, from “Nixon Doctrine 2.0” to “NATO Redux” or something.

Simply put – this is all a recipe for less-than-ideal exchanges unless key concepts get defined, measured, and compared.