Tag Archives: India

Indian perspectives on border tensions with China

Some context at the WSJ on the past week’s flare-up, and my article from 2011 (PDF) on the drivers of Sino-Indian tension. And Indian reactions:

Srinath Raghavan:

The areas where Chinese intrusions occur are claimed by both sides as lying on their side of the LAC. The Chinese are perfectly sincere when they claim that their forces are operating on their side of the LAC — just as the Indians are when they claim that the Chinese have intruded into the their side of the Line. This simple fact seems to elude most of our commentators in the media. This is all the more surprising because this problem has been around for over fifty years now. Daulat Beg Oldi, the focal point of the current hubbub, was an area of contention even before the 1962 war. Such places are likely to remain contentious until there is a boundary agreement between India and China. Till such an agreement is reached, both countries will continue to send troops into disputed areas, if only to keep their formal territorial claims alive. An Indian army chief is on the record stating that “the Chinese have a different perception of the Line of Actual Control, as do we. When they come up to their perception, we call it incursion and likewise they do.”

Equally mistaken is the notion that every move by China is part of some larger plan to box India into a corner. If our experts are to be believed, Beijing has worked out its strategy for the next thirty years while New Delhi can barely think thirty days ahead. The idea that great powers work to some predetermined grand strategy flies in the face of all international history. It is certainly not true of China, which has more than its share of extraordinary blunders.

Srinath Raghavan, again:

Srinath Raghavan, the author of War and Peace in Modern India, shares the view that Chinese unease with India’s border bustle is the big driver in this round of hostilities. But the senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi refuses to divine a hardening of Beijing’s overall stance towards India.

“I think it fits with past patterns of incursions in the area,” says Raghavan. “The Chinese are operating within their notion of the LAC. There is evidently an increase in tit-for-tat moves but China is not the only active party here. We too make our moves in areas that fall under China’s perceived LAC. So long as there is no agreed boundary, these things are bound to happen.”

Prashant Jha:

Last week, as the dispute over the alleged Chinese incursions across the Line of Actual Control deepened, the Headlines Today anchor, Rahul Kanwal, adopted a particularly aggressive line of questioning. Implicit in his approach was the assumption that the Chinese were the ‘aggressors’, that the Government of India had been weak, submissive, and not done enough [...] Mr Kanwal did not reply to The Hindu’s question whether his channel had adopted a particular editorial line on the issue. But his approach was very similar to what was seen across channels, with anchors framing provocative questions, picking experts with a particular slant of views, and hectoring down those whose opinions perhaps varied with a narrative which sought to paint the issue of border ‘incursions’ in black-and-white. This throws up, yet again, questions about the nature of foreign policy coverage on Indian television.

The other issue is of the kind of ‘experts’ on TV discussions. Senior editors admit that there is a pre-determined narrative and guests are picked depending on their availability, but also familiarity with their thoughts and what they would say. ‘We don’t like nuances,” says one editor.

 Nitin Pai:

The PLA’s tactic of creating outrage to check the Indian Army works because the Chinese side expects the Indian political leadership to act rationally. If, instead, New Delhi were to allow the situation “to accentuate”, to use the prime minister’s phrase, then it would be for Beijing to choose whether it wants to escalate matters, especially at this time when China finds itself poised on the verge of conflict with almost all of its neighbours.

This is, of course, a risky thing to do. However, this is also a good time to take a calculated risk. After this month’s incursion, PLA commanders have proposed that the Indian Army back away from its positions in return for the PLA vacating its campsite in the Depsang valley in Ladakh. New Delhi should reject such a compromise; instead, it should visibly reinforce the Indian military presence around the vicinity. New Delhi should signal to Beijing – and, lest we forget, to our television studios – that this would be our default response to anything that we consider an incursion [...] Beyond the Himalayan boundary theatre, New Delhi should calibrate its attention to the numerous maritime disputes involving China and its East Asian neighbours to the temperature of the overall India-China relationship. China cannot expect New Delhi to be insensitive to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian states if Beijing is insensitive to India’s interests.

Ajai Shukla:

Without a road network, the cruel Himalayan terrain reduces even the largest divisions to isolated groups of soldiers sitting on widely separated hilltops. For decades, New Delhi has failed to speed up road building [...] New Delhi must initiate an emergency inter-agency drive to cut through the difficulties and cut the roads through the hills. A Strategic Roads Plan already exists, crafted by Shyam Saran, a former special advisor to the prime minister who invested years of tramping around the borders into this comprehensive document [...] Until this network of new Indian roads substantially changes the military equation on the ground, India has little choice but to hasten softly in its military build-up [...] And as India changes ground realities, it must face the current ones, too – and keep talking with the Chinese army to ensure that tensions do not get out of hand.

Ajai Shukla, again:

This is no routine patrol incursion, which is common since both sides routinely patrol up to their perceived boundaries in order to keep alive their claims. Instead, this is an escalation that establishes “facts on the ground” that would materially affect an eventual territorial settlement. Remember the Wangdung intrusion, near Tawang, in 1986? That pocket, where the Chinese had pitched up a few tents, much like they did at DBO last fortnight, continues to remain with them [...] You must make it clear that – even in the absence of a Wangdung-type troop build-up – all options remain on India’s table. The “proportionality” that you have advocated could involve a similar occupation of disputed territory by Indian troops at a selected time and place [...] If the Chinese patrol replaces tents with permanent shelters, the Indian army will conclude that they intend to remain there through winter. In that case, it will be difficult for the government to explain to voters why it is not reacting militarily to a Kargil-style occupation of Indian territory [...]

China’s new regime is clearly testing New Delhi’s resolve, checking to see whether the MEA’s wish to make the visit a success will induce it to meekly accept the incursion at DBO. Your discussions in Beijing will set the tone for the next 10 years. We are confident you will flash the steel that your predecessor, S M Krishna, did in reminding the Chinese that our sensitivities in J&K matched Chinese sensitivities in Tibet; coming closer than any Indian official before or after to reopening the Tibet question.

 Indrani Bagchi:

Watching China’s aggressive territorial moves in the east, India should have learnt one lesson — China will remain intractable in its territorial claims. It’s willing to go to war with Japan or Vietnam and even India if need be. Second, having built a formidable network of infrastructure on the border, China is apparently unsettled at India’s own efforts in the past five years. This may ‘explain’ Chinese behaviour, but the Indian government’s focus seems to be on keeping the relationship insulated from such incidents. This talks-despite-terrorism policy didn’t work in the Pakistan context and it’s bound to fail equally spectacularly with respect to China.

KC Singh (former Secretary in India’s foreign ministry):

This time, however, the Chinese have not only exceeded their accepted outer limit by a few kilometres but actually camped there. In effect, the Chinese have changed the rules of the game. The ministry of external affairs dubs it a “face-to-face” situation. The mechanisms for border stabilisation, established by the Special Representatives (SRs) for border settlement, have failed to deal with the latest Chinese infraction [...] Interestingly, the current fracas occurs weeks before the arrival of the new Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, in India much as the Chinese ambassador’s provocative remarks on Arunachal Pradesh in 2006 were made on the eve of the visit of then President Hu Jintao. Is there method in this madness?

India’s dilemma is akin to what the US and the West faced in 1945, at the end of the Second World War, i.e. whether to trust Stalin’s Soviet Union or contain it [...] Sinologists advising the Indian government, led by national security adviser S.S. Menon, who interminably insists that a war with China is impossible, may actually have emboldened China to test the Indian resolve again half a century after the 1962 debacle. The Chinese offer of an agreement to freeze Indian troop enhancement, bolster Pakistan, encourage Sri Lanka and penetrate Nepal are all to make India accept Chinese dominance in the new world order.

B. Raman (former intelligence officer):

There is no evidence to show that this could be a prelude to a major Chinese assertion of territorial sovereignty in this area. The Chinese aim seems to be to re-assert their claim of sovereignty over this area without disturbing peace and tranquillity. The Chinese troops are presently camping in the area in a tent. We will have reasons to be more than concerned only if they stay put there and construct permanent defences as they often do in the uninhabited islands of the South China Sea [...] There is a noticeable keenness on the part of both China and India to avoid any provocative incident either in the Eastern or Western sector [...] The Chinese are unlikely to relent in their claims to Indian territory in the Eastern sector till after they have succeeded in imposing on the Tibetans a Dalai Lama chosen by the Communist Party of China (CPC) with the help of the Panchen Lama chosen by the CPC

P. Stobdan (former Indian Ambassador):

Since 1986, China has taken land in the Skakjung area in the Demchok-Kuyul sector in Eastern Ladakh. Now, it has moved to the Chip Chap area in Northeastern Ladakh. As in Kargil, India has been lax in patrolling. Unlike the lowlands in Eastern Ladakh, the Chip Chap valley is extremely cold and inhospitable. Until end-March, it remains inaccessible, and after mid-May, water streams impede vehicles moving across the Shyok River. This leaves only a month and a half for effective patrolling by the Indian side. For China, accessibility to Chip Chap is easier. No human beings inhabit the area. No agencies except the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and the army have a presence there. And both are locked in inter-departmental disputes [...] The Chinese intention is to enter from the south of the Karakoram and cross the Shyok from the east. That would be disastrous for Indian defence, leaving the strategic Nubra vulnerable, possibly impacting supply lines and even India’s hold over Siachen. It is quite possible that China is eyeing the waters of the Shyok and Chang Chenmo rivers, to divert them to the arid Aksai Chin and its Ali region. The only provocation from the Indian side was the recent opening of airbases at Daulat Beg Oldi, Fukche and Nyoma [...]

As of today, the issue is not reclaiming 38,000 square km of Aksai Chin lost to China in 1962 but retaining the territory lying inside the Indian LAC. India’s problems include poor infrastructure, shortcomings in understanding the boundary, discrepancies in maps held by various agencies, a lack of institutional memory, lack of clarity in South Block, a demoralised army. In a 2010 meeting, officials admitted the loss of substantial land in 20-25 years, though then Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor dismissed that Ladakh had shrunk. Some agencies used the change in river course as a reason for the loss of 500-1,500 metres of land every year [...] India’s political sensitivity towards Ladakh has also waned over the years. A drift in Ladakh is not desirable.

Major General Vinod Saighal:

To the armed forces, to the people of India, and to the world the foreign minister of India is not going to the Chinese capital to demand a pull-back. He is seen to be going to Beijing as a supplicant. As in the days of yore the imperial power may graciously oblige its vassal. The country will not know as to what concessions the minister would have been authorised to concede that would further undermine India’s capability in the future. Flowing from it, it could be well on the cards that during the Chinese Prime Minister’s visit some public pronouncements that the country can live with would be made. Nobody would be deceived that once again India would have been humiliated.

India still has a range of options to make China see reason without losing face. It hardly matters that India loses face, the country having been inured to it, used to it and reconciled to it by now. If these options are not exercised early enough – timing always being of the essence - India’s humiliation would have been compounded and its military position further degraded. What is worse the status quo might conceivably turn out to be freezing of positions as obtaining on the date of the agreement; meaning thereby the new LAC on the DBO sector would be 19 kms within Indian Territory.

Sushil Kumar (former navy chief):

This stand-off may be defused diplomatically, but what it really shows is the PLA’s contempt for our military capability. This raises a serious question: why do we continue to remain militarily fragile vis-a-vis China, despite being nuclear-armed, with a deterrent that boasts of an ICBM capability? [...] We consequently lack the refinements needed for manoeuvre warfare in our mountainous borders with China. With improved border infrastructure and massive airlift resources, the PLA can deploy up to four full-fledged mountain divisions to any point along the LAC within 24 hours. In contrast, our troops remain bogged down by decrepit border infrastructure and lack of mobility. That is the ground reality [...]

But why are we in such a paradox — nuclear-armed, yet militarily fragile? It is because we have deluded ourselves that nuclear deterrence reduces the need for conventional force levels and, taken in by this flawed proposition, scarce national resources have been diverted to build a nuclear war-fighting machine that will never be used. Influenced by nuclear warfare gurus with a “nuclear mindset”, we have misplaced our strategic priorities [...] Hopefully, we are not going to make the type of strategic blunder Great Britain made in the 1960s and 1970s, when it opted for the Polaris-Trident programme to bolster its nuclear deterrence. Massive resources were diverted that emasculated Britain’s conventional war-fighting capability. It cost the Royal Navy dearly. An atrophied Royal Navy realised the consequences of this folly much later in1982, when it could barely assemble a motley group of ships to sail for the Falklands.

Srikanth Kondapalli:

They are testing us and we are testing them back. When you have uncertainty, people play games. In this case, the fact that we asked for two flag meetings and the Chinese had to accept, indicated that we too put them to a test. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made a comment on this, and their foreign ministry spokesperson also said, “We should go back to status quo.” This means they accepted that it was China that changed the status quo, so to go back to it, they will have to withdraw and go back 10 km. So it is true that China tested India and India, in turn, also succeeded in testing it [...] I don’t think this issue will lead to a war. This is just posturing. Both sides will protect their sovereignty and territorial integrity, but they will not go to war on small issues. It is a big issue in terms of changing the status quo, but a small issue in terms of war.

Manoj Joshi:

Even so, it would be hazardous to speak definitively about Chinese motivations. After being lambasted by the Indian media for occupying “Indian territory,” the Chinese might be concerned about losing face with a hasty retreat. The fact of the matter is that the boundary in the region is defined merely by a notional Line of Actual Control, which is neither put down on mutually agreed maps, let alone defined in a document through clearly laid out geographical features. While both sides accept most of the LAC and respect it, there are some nine points where there are overlapping claims and both sides patrol up to the LAC, as they understand it. In such circumstances, the Chinese could well withdraw after a decent interval.

This more benign interpretation of Chinese behaviour is also in tune with the statements that the new leadership in Beijing has been making [...] 2013 is not 1962 and the Indian media and politicians should not behave as though it was, by needlessly raising the decibel level and trying to push the government to adopt a hawkish course on the border. But what the recent controversy does tell us is unsettled borders are not good for two neighbours because they can so easily become the cause of a conflict that neither may be seeking.

Praveen Swami:

Finding a speculative explanation for what is going on is easy. For example, it is possible Chinese want to lean harder on Indian positions facing the Karakoram, or that they are signalling irritation about India’s wider build-up on its eastern borders, which includes the raising of an entire new corps [...] It is also, of course, possible that China is telling the truth when it suggests the action may be a protest against defensive fortifications India has put up in Phuktsé, to compensate for its vulnerable logistical chain [...]

Even though it’s improbable China wants war, India wants one even less. India’s political leadership is hesitant to authorise force, wary of the certain costs of precipitating a crisis. Later this year, as the cold sets in across Ladakh, China’s outpost will have to withdraw: there’s simply no way to survive the cold in temporary shelters. However, Chinese will by then have drawn lessons about Indian resolve—and it’s vital, in the long-term interests of peace, that they not be the wrong ones. There are things India can do, short of setting off a firefight, which can signal seriousness of purpose: among them, more aggressive probes and presence-marking operations. There will be a price—but it will be cheaper than the cost of doing nothing now.

Zorawat Daulet Singh (via Nitin Pai):

China’s perceptions and its approach to its entire periphery has undergone changes in recent years. The reasons can be attributed mostly to internal political dynamics where the Dengist image of a pragmatic and agreeable China has been trumped by a more assertive self-image of China as a great power. The East Asian geopolitical dynamic, especially the US ‘pivot’ and renewed intra-allied cooperation in the US security network, only reinforces China’s threat perceptions and its assertive posture. This is now an ongoing game as part of the evolving balance of power in the Asia Pacific [...] At some point intense forward probing can tend to undermine the bigger negotiating picture with both militaries seeking marginal improvements in their LACs. If political oversight from both sides over the operational details is robust then this game can carry on a little longer. While on India’s side political oversight is strong, overzealous tactical behaviour must not be allowed to dictate the strategy of seeking a negotiated settlement.

Brahma Chellaney:

In this light, it will be a mistake to view the Chinese intrusion in Ladakh in isolation of the larger pattern of increasing Chinese assertiveness that began when Beijing revived its long-dormant claim to Arunachal Pradesh just before the 2006 India visit by its president, Hu Jintao. The resurrection of that claim, which was followed by its provoking territorial spats with several other neighbours, was the first pointer to China staking out a more domineering role in Asia. It was as if China had decided that its moment has finally arrived [...] India’s defensive and diffident mindset has been on full display in the latest episode. Not only has it publicly downplayed an act of naked aggression — the worst Chinese intrusion since the 1986 Sumdorong Chu incursion brought the two countries to the brink of war — but India also insists on going with an outstretched hand to an adversary still engaged in hostile actions, unconcerned that it could get the short end of the stick yet again [...]

More fundamentally, India can maintain border peace only by leaving China in no doubt that it has the capability and political will to defend peace. If the Chinese see an opportunity to nibble at Indian land, they will seize it. It is for India to ensure that such opportunities do not arise. In other words, the Himalayan peace ball is very much in India’s court. India must have a clear counter-strategy to tame Chinese aggressiveness. [...] To build countervailing leverage, India has little choice but to slowly reopen the central issue of Tibet — a card New Delhi wholly surrendered at the altar of diplomacy during the time Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister.

Jaideep Prabhu:

Returning to 2013, these patterns from the past are immediately visible – proclamations of the desire for peaceful coexistence, feigned anger at a supposed slight, ambiguous diplomatic positioning, and military risk-taking with the hope of usurping territory and rights undefended. Enough ink has already been spilled on how the Indian military might better defend the country’s frontiers, how India lacks a coherent China policy, and how Indians need to calm down about an incident that is more routine than one would like. However, it might also behoove policy makers to take a step back and see the larger pattern of Chinese behaviour with its neighbours: duplicity, opacity, and belligerence when they can get away with it. The present border skirmish is not an isolated incident but fits uncomfortably well with Chinese strategy over the past few decades. India needs to consider the entirety of Chinese strategy and not restrict its response to a singular event but develop a range of options by which to undermine China’s game.

Pierre Fitter:

Let’s start with the immediate problem – the incursions. The one thing India does not want to do is to play Beijing’s game. Beijing wouldn’t mind a fight right now. This would rally China’s citizens behind the Party. The goal, remember, is not the fight itself, which the PLA will likely win thanks to superior logistics. It is for the Party to have the unquestioning support of its citizens. India, at any rate, cannot afford a conflict right now. The best solution is to talk and defuse such provocations. This has happened 600 times before and will continue to happen in the future. The media should avoid conflating such obvious distractions with the real problems identified above.

That said, there is no harm in enhancing India’s ability to respond to a potential conflict. The stationing of new military units along the LAC is a strong signal that New Delhi is prepared to defend its territory. This conventional deterrence bolstered by the existing nuclear deterrent, will ward off more serious land-grabbing attempts [...] Another strong signal would be the strengthening of ties with China’s other neighbours such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan [...] The wider the basket of benefits for good behaviour, the greater will be Beijing’s perceived alienation for its bad behaviour. MEA officials and observers in the strategic community indicate that the New Delhi is doing exactly this. Perhaps its public messaging could do with improvement.

Suggested additions welcome.

India and “No First Use”

Earlier this year, the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) in Delhi released a document, India’s Nuclear Doctrine: An Alternative Blueprint, intended as a “constructive critique” of India’s existing doctrine.

India’s first draft nuclear doctrine in 1999 was a rush job, designed to alleviate international pressure after the previous year’s nuclear tests. In 2003, a more formal document was issued, one which basically accepted India’s “No First Use” pledge and promised “non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states” i.e. negative security assurances. (Scott Sagan has a nice overview).

In the decade since, most of the debate has been on whether India’s promise of massive retaliation should change to something more credible, such as “assured retaliation” or “flexible response”. There has been comparably little debate over whether India should retain NFU. Last year, former foreign and defense minister Jaswant Singh called for the policy to be reconsidered. See also Reshmi Kazi here and Ali Ahmed here.

The IPCS doctrine, which has an impressively diverse range of authors (many of the other Delhi think-tanks are represented), has an interesting take on this.

It states that:

In adherence to a policy of no first use, India will not initiate a nuclear strike.

The ambiguous use of “strike” is unhelpful. The term has a specific meaning in orthodox deterrence theory, usually referring to a specific type of nuclear first use – preemptive counterforce (see Quinlan, p6, para. 5).

But even more curious is its clarification of what “initiate” means: “‘Initiation’ covers the process leading up to the actual use of a nuclear weapon by an adversary. This would include mating component systems and deploying warheads with the intet [sic] This will enable the Prime Minister to gain the flexibility to decide upon an appropriate response”.

The unfinished sentence aside, this is a fairly … bold definition. It means that if Pakistan mates its warheads to missiles as part of nuclear alerting during a crisis, it can be understood to have “initiated” a nuclear strike. That denudes NFU of all meaning.

The IPCS doctrine also alters negative security assurances a bit: “India will not resort to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against states that do not possess nuclear weapons, but such states shall be deemed nuclear weapons states if they ally with or assist nuclear armedstates against India, and/or assist them during hostilities”.

If India had a strict NFU pledge, then these assurances are irrelevant – how would a non-nuclear state initiate a nuclear strike on India in the first place? But, with this definition, you can just about craft a scenario whereby nuclear preparations by a nuclear-armed state count as “initiation”, which then doctrinally permits Indian nuclear use against any non-nuclear ally or co-belligerent of that first state. This is pretty fanciful stuff, but then the nature of nuclear doctrines is that they are supposed to cater to a wide range of scenarios.

There are some other interesting aspects to the document. “This document also does not speculate on the complicity of states in the motives and actions of sub and non-state actors” i.e. we have absolutely no idea what to do if Lashkar-e-Taiba gets a dirty bomb. The authors also, understandably, take a pop at the non-credibility of massive retaliation:

Ethically, the punishing of a whole population for the decisions of its leadership is unsustainable. Moreover, executing massive retaliation would expose India to risking international isolation. There is also the operational consideration, that territories captured or in dispute will be destroyed and rendered uninhabitable for a long time. The suggested alternate wording provides flexibility, while a doctrine based on reflex massive response curtails India’s options.

This – flexibility – certainly seems the direction in which India’s nuclear posture is, slowly, headed.

Non-alignment and its discontents

Earlier this year, a group of Indian analysts and policymakers released [PDF] Non-Alignment 2.0: a foreign and strategic policy for India in the twenty first century, arguing that that India “must seek to achieve a situation where no other state is in a position to exercise undue influence on us – or make us act against our better judgement and will”. (p10)

The report was (surprisingly) liberal internationalist in its economics, Asianist on security, stridently navalist in its military outlook, pragmatic on the question of where India ought to stand in relation to the United States and China, and carefully assertive on how and when India should use force.

On Asia:

It is in our interest that China remains preoccupied with its first-tier, more immediate maritime theatre. The retention of strong U.S. maritime deployments in the Asia-Pacific theatre, a more proactive and assertive Japanese  naval force projection, and a build-up of the naval capabilities of such key littoral states as Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam: all may help delay, if not deter, the projection of Chinese naval power in the Indian Ocean.

We need to use this window of opportunity to build up our own naval capabilities. Our regional diplomacy should support this approach by fostering closer relations with these ‘countervailing’ powers. This should include a network of security cooperation agreements with these states and regular naval exercises with them. (pp13-4)

On Pakistan:

 We should also be prepared—in the event of a major terrorist attack—to send a political signal to the Pakistan Army. The idea would be to instill a measure of caution and make them think hard before allowing another attack in the future. We have, in the past, resorted to controlled application of force across the Line of Control. Going forward, we need to move away from the notion of capturing and holding territory (however limited) to conducting effective stand-off punitive operations. (p19)

On the Middle East or West Asia:

[W]e need to carefully distinguish between the emerging Islamist political forces and jihadi terrorist organizations like the Al Qaeda and its affiliates. In the past, there has been intense rivalry between them and alliances have usually been tactical and short-lived. We must be ready to work with Islamist groups that have entered the political mainstream in their countries and are competing by legitimate means to enter government.

But we should also be clear that their hold on power will be contested by institutions that have existed long before the democratic turn in these countries. Some of these institutions will be important to us in securing and stepping-up cooperation on security-related activities like counter-terrorism and intelligence. (p23)

On balancing:

Given that India has more interests in ‘direct’ competition with China, and less with the U.S., it may be tempting to conclude that the U.S. is a likely alliance partner. But this conclusion would be premature. While there may appear to be attractions for India to exploit its derivative value, the risk is that its relations with the U.S. could become a casualty of any tactical upswing in Sino-American ties. Nor is it entirely clear how the U.S. might actually respond if China posed a threat to India’s interests. The other potential downside is that India could prematurely antagonize China … The U.S. can be too demanding in its friendship and resentful of other attachments India might pursue. The historical record of the United States bears out that powers that form formal alliances with it have tended to see an erosion of their strategic autonomy. (p32, emphasis added)

***

Writing in The Caravan magazine, I reflected on how the report was received, and whether both the critics and proponents of an “upgraded” non-alignment might have missed some of the conceptual difficulties associated with it:

The critics immediately leapt on the [Non-Alignment 2.0] report—and particularly its title, perhaps missing some of the playfulness of its choice. Bharat Karnad, among the fiercest of India’s hyper-nationalists, rubbished the whole thing as “an exercise to force the present into a conceptual policy straitjacket from the past”. Two former national security advisers, Brajesh Mishra and MK Narayanan, and the incumbent, Shiv Shankar Menon, suggested that they found the term non-alignment to be a dangerous anachronism. Tom Wright, a South Asia correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, damned it as something pulled out the “dustbin of history”

However, the problem with framing Indian foreign policy debates around the language of alignment versus non-alignment, or borrowed versus indigenous strategic thinking, is that these terms are becoming emptied of meaning. Not only are they coming to represent inchoate prejudices rather than careful strategic thought, but it’s also unclear whether they capture important dimensions of India’s strategic circumstances. Two questions are especially important. The first is about the realistic parameters of non-alignment. The second concerns the demands of alignment.

On the burdens of non-alignment – the issue of what an “erosion of … strategic autonomy” might actually mean:

What is certain is that India is already aligned—with various powers, in various ways, and certainly to an increasing degree with the United States. But if complete autonomy is illusory, the perceived and projected demands of alignment—let alone alliance—have probably been overstated. The problem comes when we conceive of alignment as a distributive problem.

In this imagining, Indian diplomatic largesse is something to be apportioned in zero-sum fashion among a fixed set of partners. If the US wins, Russia loses. If Iran is up, the US is down. Ironically, pro-Indian factions in Washington and anti-American ideologues in Delhi share this simplistic framework.

So do others, like Brajesh Mishra, one of the architects of the US-India rapprochement in the previous Bharatiya Janata Party-led Indian government. Mishra, speaking at the launch of Non-Alignment 2.0, declared that “once you join [the] US, there is no non-alignment.”

This is historically untenable.

And, finally, an electoral metaphor for the future of Indian strategy:

India’s fractious politics suggest a useful metaphor. In parliamentary democracies, smaller parties can enter into a coalition—or they can offer a ‘confidence and supply’ agreement, the promise to support a bigger party in individual pieces of legislation on a case-by-case basis.

Indian foreign policy is accommodating to the country’s expanding strategic horizons and new capabilities. Expect it to shun the coalition, but offer deepening confidence and supply to the United States.

One could slap a label on this—but, as veteran columnist AG Noorani observed some years ago, “non-alignment is … a non. It no more indicates how a country pursues its interests than calling a person non-married indicates how he or she pursues happiness.”

Anyway, read the whole thing here.

***

For other reactions to Non-Alignment 2.0, see: Shyam Saran (one of the report’s authors), C. Raja Mohan, Sadanand Dhume, Tom Wright, Ian Hall, Dhruva Jaishankar, Zorawer Daulet Singh, K. Shankar Bajpai, a bunch of people at Carnegie, Bharat Karnad (who is, er, not happy at all), and Lisa Curtis.

Agni-V, Indian nuclear weapons, and arms racing: a wrap-up

Three pieces of my writing on India’s new 5,000km-range ballistic missile, along with a few by others. Writing for RUSI with Frank O’Donnell (of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London),  I looked at the general implications:

An Agni-V deployed in modest numbers, and accompanied by political signals that the system’s development represents the maturity of India’s nuclear forces, would most closely accord with the initial spirit of credible minimum deterrence. By contrast, if the Agni-V is seen as a ‘bridge’ to a much more diverse and sizeable Indian arsenal, and its production and deployment eventually takes place in large numbers, this could herald a strengthening of the more assertive strand in Indian nuclear thinking. This is not about India adopting a nuclear posture of counterforce and embracing nuclear war-fighting. Rather, this is about a longstanding debate, pioneered in the United States, between the view that ‘deterrence can be achieved only through difficult choices, sustained with intelligent effort, and will depend very much on the technical details’ and the opposing view ‘that, beyond a certain point, all of this is crazy talk, and the technical details don’t matter very much at all’. India’s approach to nuclear weapons is, and is likely to remain, closer to the second of these – but that is not to say that the ‘technical details’ of nuclear deterrence will not assume greater prominence in India’s security policy.

At the Times of India, we suggest that the missile test reflects a shift in the US-India relationship:

In 1994, the United States pressured India to suspend testing of the Agni series after just three test flights. India formally suspended the programme at the end of 1996, although it resumed testing in 1997. The muted American response to the test of the Agni V, despite Washington’s concern over the missile programmes of Iran and North Korea, is indicative of the rapid improvement in the US-India bilateral relationship over the past 15 years. Some Indians sneer at the efforts made by successive Indian governments to improve ties with Washington. These sceptics should consider the diplomatic nightmare that India would have faced had it conducted this test 15 years ago.

We also look at two risks:

The first is that bureaucrats and scientists, rather than elected politicians and a well-informed public, make these choices [about India's nuclear future]. Last year, MIT professor Vipin Narang … warned that “DRDO’s press releases and post-test comments unnecessarily – and dangerously – confuse India’s nuclear posture”. Perhaps India should build on the Agni V test to make longer-range missiles, as DRDO director V K Saraswat promised to do last week, but this has big financial, diplomatic and strategic implications – and is therefore a matter for political leaders. A national security strategy and nuclear posture review – like those we see in other nuclear weapons states – would be a good start. The second danger is that we begin to see all technological advances as desirable. To be sure, anything that makes India’s missiles more survivable – for example, increasing their mobility on the ground – is unambiguously a good thing. But other improvements mentioned by Saraswat, like MIRV technology that puts multiple warheads on a single missile, presents trade-offs: the missiles will pack a greater punch, but could generate fears that India is abandoning credible minimum deterrence.

Then, at the New York Times‘ India Ink, responding in part to the newspaper’s own reporting of the Agni-V test, I questioned the prevalent thinking that an “arms race” is now underway:

Of the Agni 5, the Hindustan Times’ foreign editor, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri, estimates that India will add, “at best, two such missiles to its arsenal every year.” This will have virtually zero impact on China’s retaliatory capacity. There is, therefore, no reason to suppose that Beijing will scramble to respond in the way that Washington and Moscow would have done in response to one another. Under these conditions, having more survivable and robust means of retaliation, like the Agni 5, can be stabilizing. Such missiles can be moved around by road or rail, which makes them less vulnerable than those in fixed silos. This enables India to shift away from less reliable and more trigger-happy delivery systems like aircraft. The more confident India feels in its ability to respond, the calmer it can be in handling crises.

The BBC asked this same question last week, and quoted Jeffrey Lewis along the same lines (emphasis added):

“Beijing tends to focus much more on the United States, rather than India. Indian officials talk about China much more than their Chinese counterparts talk about them. I doubt very much that China and India will engage in an arms race, scaled-down or otherwise. Both countries tend to pursue the same specific capabilities, but neither produces large numbers of nuclear weapons or nuclear-capable missiles.” He suggests that both China and India seem to be pursuing what he calls a “possession” oriented approach to nuclear modernisation: “They are developing in turn small numbers of ever more advanced capabilities held by other power. Neither country, however, has produced anywhere near the number of nuclear weapons or nuclear-capable missiles that each is capable of producing“.

The article by Vipin Narang (the one that we cited in the Times of India) was published with the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) last year. It’s available here, and is well worth reading in light of last week’s flurry of post-test commentary:

Certainly, the engineers at DRDO who have developed these capabilities should be proud of their contribution to India’s strategic capabilities, but their post-test commentary risks adjusting or crafting Indian nuclear doctrine on the fly and in ad hoc ways—carrying the danger of dragging the cat by its own tail. Leaving aside the larger direction and drivers of DRDO’s strategic missile developments, these seemingly public relations details can have tremendous implications for future crisis stability on the Subcontinent. The DRDO commentary presumes that political and strategic decisions about future missile role-assignment have been made. But, if the NCA and SFC decide, for example, that the naval variant of the Shourya will have a nuclear role but the land-based cousin will not, those subtleties may be lost on adversaries because of these DRDO statements, possibly generating misperceptions and miscalculations about India’s movements during a crisis.

Last year, Michael Krepon also reflected on the broader question of an arms race (or “arms crawl”), and comes to more mixed conclusions with which I wouldn’t agree:

Ashley [Tellis] was right about New Delhi’s limited enthusiasm for nuclear weapons [when he wrote in 2000-1], but he was off the mark in assuming that Pakistan’s nuclear requirements would be influenced by India’s restraint and deep ambivalence about the Bomb. Instead, Pakistan’s military leadership appears intent to outpace India’s nuclear capabilities. China is also moving forward with strategic modernization programs. Situated between two more serious regional nuclear competitors, New Delhi has done “the needful.” India, like Pakistan, has reportedly doubled the size of its nuclear arsenal over the past decade, while still lagging behind its neighbors … Pakistan and India are entering a less stable phase of offsetting, growing, and more diversified nuclear capabilities, one that is complicated by China’s strategic modernization programs. This is par for the course after rivals with serious security concerns move from covert to overt nuclear weapon capabilities and, then later, when they build out their force structure. If one of the competitors in southern Asia seeks advantage, or worries about being disadvantaged, the result will look more like a nuclear arms competition than an arms crawl.

At his blog, Rohan Joshi warned against triumphalism:

However, it is important to exercise caution and not get unduly carried away with yesterday’s successful test.  Unfortunately, India’s mainstream media has displayed misguided, almost vulgar bellicosity in its reporting of the success of Agni-V.  The same mainstream media that claimed that India wasn’t even prepared for war against Pakistan just two weeks ago, was all set to launch a punitive nuclear attack against China yesterday.  Some TV news channels also featured animated videos of Agni-V hitting targets in China!  This shrillness, rhetoric and lack of credible analysis does a tremendous disservice to the profession of journalism and to the people of India.

Nitin Pai, writing for DNA, was also cautious:

It is fashionable to argue that India’s fractious democratic system does not allow it to pursue long term inter-generational projects. This is only partly true. India’s nuclear strategy contradicts this argument — the minimum credible deterrent has been pursued for at least the last three decades. Will Agni-V change the balance of power in the broader Asian region? Not quite. For that India will need to regain the economic growth trajectory that it fell out of over the last decade. What remains to be seen is whether the security the missile provides will make us even more complacent about implementing the second-generation reforms necessary to accumulate power.

 Also in DNA, Radhakrisha Rao demanded an ICBM. Why? Well …

an ICBM capability is vital for India to be recognised as a military power of global standing. India should look beyond the Chinese threat to build a sturdy ICBM muscle to showcase Indian technological prowess that cannot be browbeaten by the technology denial regime.

The Hindu Kush have ceased to exist

In January, Seminar magazine, an always-interesting Indian monthly, published a retrospective on 2011. Two essays – by C. Raja Mohan, and Srinath Raghavan – stood out. Both looked at Indian’s foreign, security and economic policies in the subcontinent.

In Modernizing the Raj Legacy, C. Raja Mohan wrote on the continuity between the strategic principles of British and independent India:

First, an ‘Inner Line’ delineated the limits of fully administered sovereignty of the Raj. (Embedded within it were the barely sovereign princely states). Second, beyond the Inner Line, the Raj drew an Outer Line [including FATA and] Arunachal Pradesh … At a third level, the Raj constructed a system of protectorates and buffer states that were formally sovereign but bound to the Raj in a treaty system in a manner that excluded the influence of Britain’s rival great powers from Europe.

Nehru’s adoption of this framework:

The much touted ‘Nehruvian’ foreign policy did not shirk the Raj legacy … The first four treaties that independent India entered into were with Bhutan, Sikkim, Nepal and Afghanistan. The first three agreements were variants of the Raj treaties with these states in the 19th century. As China entered Tibet, Nehru moved quickly to consolidate the traditional security arrangements with the three Himalayan kingdoms … Nehru found no contradiction between his high minded idealism at the global level and pragmatic realism at the regional level.

India’s influence in its near abroad naturally waned during the Cold War because of India’s economic isolation and China’s rising influence, but

[i]n the intervening decades, India did indeed affirm the Raj legacy. Indira Gandhi liberated Bangladesh [in 1971], integrated Sikkim [in 1975], and proclaimed the so-called Indira doctrine of India’s regional primacy. In the 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi sought to discipline the King of Nepal – who was flirting with China – by ordering a trade blockade, used force to secure the Maldives against a coup [in 1988], and inserted the Indian military into Sri Lanka [during 1987-1990] in order to keep peace between Tamils and the Sinhalese

Now, to C. Raja Mohan’s approval, Manmohan Singh is deepening and widening the so-called Gujral doctrine:

Taken together, Delhi’s recent agreements for partnership with Bhutan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Maldives mark a significant effort to reconstitute India’s neighbourhood policy. Unlike in the recent past, India is not claiming primacy in the region as a divine right. Instead, it is offering genuine partnerships to its neighbours premised on sovereign equality and mutual benefit. In doing so India is modernizing the Raj legacy and making it relevant to our time

Srinath Raghavan, in another excellent essay, explains that ‘the open doors of South Asia turned on two hinges: Afghanistan in the West and Burma in the East’, both of which swung shut after independence:

South Asia is amongst the least integrated regions of the world. Official intra-regional trade, to take but one indicator, hovers around 5% of total trade of the countries of the region. This is abysmally low not just in comparison to other regions of Asia (the corresponding figure for East Asia is over 50%), but also when contrasted with its own potential for growth through trade. South Asia has three attributes that make it extremely well-suited for integration by trade: the highest population density in the world, linguistic and ethnic overlap across borders, and the presence of a large number of cities close to the borders.

Raghavan concludes that

[t]he time, then, may be propitious not only to press ahead towards economic integration within South Asia, but also to try and weld the subcontinent with South East Asia, and possibly West Asia … it is clear that India needs to get its act together.

Finally, Kanti Bajpai has an essay on Sino-Indian relations. It’s less historically-textured, but collects some useful figures:

The energy picture also suggests that India and China could come into conflict. Global energy needs will rise by 50% by 2030, half of it from India and China. China is already the world’s largest energy consumer. Per capita energy use in India will grow by 56-67% and in China by 60-67%. Oil accounts for about 25% of India’s total energy use. This will rise to 35% in 2030. Over 60% of India’s oil comes from the Gulf, Iran, and other Middle Eastern sources. India’s reliance on coal is 42% of its total energy use. Its shortfall of coal is likely to be 100 million metric tons by 2012. Oil accounts for roughly 20% of China’s total energy use. This is expected to rise to 24% in 2030. Its reliance on coal is nearly 70% of its total energy use. Demand for coal in China is growing rapidly and will be six billion tons in 2025. Natural gas use will also increase substantially in both cases.

 These writings reminded me of an interesting essay by A.G. Noorani in Frontline (another Indian magazine) a few years ago, in which he reviewed The Future of The Great Game: Sir Olaf Caroe, India’s Independence, and the Defense of Asia:

In a major paper dated April 26, 1942, [the British colonial administrator Olaf Caroe] wrote that “a realisation is needed in the highest places that India cannot build a constitution unless the frontiers are held and the ring fence in some manner kept standing”. It was entitled “Whither India’s Foreign Policy”. Two others he wrote bear mention. They are “Some Constitutional Reflections on the Landward Security of the India of the Future” (August 18, 1944) and “The Essential Interests of the British Commonwealth in the Persian Gulf and its Coastal States, with special reference to India” (1944).

Caroe’s ideas may be showing up in Mohan’s work, but what’s interesting is that Caroe’s colleagues (and, today, Noorani) did not agree:

Brobst takes the reader through Caroe’s theories on “India’s Outer Ring”, the Buffer System, much of which became irrelevant after Independence. Guy Wint was much more realistic than Caroe. Advances in military technology and the rise in air power had undermined the traditional role of the buffer states. He wrote on June 7, 1943, a paper entitled “Some Problems of India’s Security”, in which he pointed out that just “as Louis XIV, when his grandson ascended the throne of Spain, remarked that the Pyranees had ceased to exist, so today have the Hindu Kush virtually ceased”.

The irony is that Pakistan is, for India, a quite serious buffer against the northwest – just not in a way that seems especially desirable in light of the pathologies of the regional economic architecture described by Srinath Raghavan.

India, phantom coups, and civil-military relations

In response to the Indian Express‘ story on “curious” troop movements in Delhi and the resultant (alleged) civilian panic, I wrote a short piece for the Wall Street Journal looking at the pedigree of civil-military distrust in India:

There are plenty of other examples of alarmism from the government about military intentions, most of them demonstrating not much more than civilian neuroses … senior intelligence officials claimed to have detected at least three coup plots by generals in recent years, including one supposedly by General K. Sundarji in 1987.

“There is no credible evidence of such plots,” [Stephen P.] Cohen writes, “but insecure politicians and bureaucrats, many of whom have a stereotyped image of the military, listen to these warnings.”

I followed it up with a longer piece for Foreign Policy. In some ways, I argue, an Indian coup is the dog that didn’t bark:

Yet paradoxically, the civilians have thrust expanding domestic roles onto the soldiers. Out of 17 major Indian Army campaigns between 1947 and 1995, a dozen were within India’s borders. Between 1982 and 1989, the army was deployed to assist the civilian authorities no less than 721 times.

All this took place during a period of such growing political instability that Atul Kohli, a scholar of India at Princeton, subtitled his 1990 book “India’s Growing Crisis of Governability.”

The civilians appeared not to mind empowering generals as state governors and advisors, as long as their forces stayed in far-flung parts of the country.

Yet setting aside the V.K. Singh episode, civil-military tensions have been abating over the past decades:

 According to a book by Stephen Peter Rosen, a professor at Harvard, the military in the 1990s had little idea of how many nuclear weapons India possessed or how they might be used in wartime …

Today, military officers are increasingly plugged into such policymaking — a retired three-star rank officer now sits in the Prime Minister’s Office to deal with nuclear affairs.

I conclude:

Successive committees, going back decades, have urged India to reform the way it manages its military; recommending in particular that the headquarters of the three service arms better integrate with the Ministry of Defense to improve communication and cooperation between officer corps and civilian bureaucrats.

The irony is that the civilians have resisted making these much-needed changes for fear of unleashing a politically influential military. Their resistance has resulted in what [Anit] Mukherjee has called an “absent dialogue” between those in uniform and their political masters. It was that absence of dialogue that contributed to the errors of communication and judgment during January’s late-night crisis in Delhi.

What else to read?

An excellent place to begin would be Anit Mukherjee’s detailed paper [PDF] for the IDSA on the trials and tribulations of Indian defense reforms:

The bureaucrats without much defence expertise concentrate on the process of decision- making instead of the outcome. Moreover in the absence of political interest they often emerge as crucial power brokers. Stephen Cohen had referred to this as an alliance forged between the civil service and the politicians “for the purposes of reducing the role of the military in the decision-making process”.

[A] lack of expertise on defence affairs makes most political figures insecure about their own knowledge. As a result they are unwilling to challenge pre- existing bureaucracies. Finally, there is an unstated fear, within the bureaucratic and political class, about ‘empowering’ the military.

Finally, there’s an excellent chapter (India: The New Militaries) by Sunil Dasgupta in Coercion and governance: the declining political role of the military in Asia, a 2001 book published by Stanford. Dasgupta, against my optimism in Foreign Policy above, argues that:

[C]ivilian institutions that held the military in check are weakening. The military’s growing internal security role has given rise to concerns about the future of civilian control over the military … Today the core of the Indian state – politicians, bureaucrats, and the public generally – have become militaristic … what we see is civilian militarism. Politicians and civilian bureaucrats are willing to use force more often and earlier on, increasingly through paramilitary forces and intelligence agencies …

India faces a greater worry: the erosion of democratic civilian control over its men-at-arms, both the formal military and other armed organizations. (pp92-3)