What the admiral said about China

Beyond a realistic appreciation of the situation

“Common sense” according to Admiral Sureesh Mehta, “that cooperation with China would be preferable to competition or conflict, as it would be foolhardy to compare India and China as equals. China’s GDP is more than thrice that of ours and its per capita GDP is 2.2 times our own.” (linkthanks Commodore C Uday Bhaskar)

The economic penalties resulting from a military conflict would have grave consequences for both nations. It would therefore, undoubtedly be in both our interests, to cooperate with each other in mutually beneficial endeavours, and ensure that the potential for conflict is minimised…

On the military front, our strategy to deal with China must include reducing the military gap and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean Region. The traditional or ‘attritionist’ approach of matching ‘Division for Division’ must give way to harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent. [Adm Mehta/NMF]

Those looking for a hawkish tone would understandably be disappointed at these words, but the outgoing navy chief’s understanding of the geopolitical context is infused with realism. There is a wide gap between India and China in terms of aggregate national power—not least because China opened its economy earlier, did it more purposefully—and the gap may be widening despite India’s own growth take-off. A military confrontation, therefore, is not desirable. In Kautilya’s metaphor “attacking a stronger king will meet the same fate as that of a foot-soldier opposing an elephant.”

While Admiral Mehta’s reading of the situation is astute, his policy prescription summarily rejects the possibility that competition and conflict might be in India’s interests, should such competition hurt China more than it hurts India. That’s in Kautilya’s Arthashastra too, actually. Galrahn over at Information Dissemination has a valid point when he argues that “military asymmetry in interstate relations does not mean the weaker side must bend to the dictates of the stronger, nor should the weaker state seek to propitiate it.” Perhaps Admiral Mehta’s office constrained what he could say openly, but his point about countering the growing Chinese maritime footprint in the region suggests that he has left some things unsaid.

B Raman reads in Admiral Mehta’s speech the UPA government’s re-orientation of grand strategy “from power projection” to “deterrence and self-defence.” If this is a conscious choice, it is a bad one. It should be obvious for anyone to see—no one can reasonably argue that the extended neighbourhood is any more stable after the UPA government’s strategic myopia allowed China literally unbridled room to encircle and contain India. The question is whether this situation came about due to neglect or design. The former is perhaps excusable. The latter is not.

This blog has consistently argued that “projection of power is necessary to create the conditions for human development”. Because there are Maoris out there.

Why is Pakistan cranking up its nuclear weapons capacity?

Rather, who is it cranking up for?

Consider the following:

—There have been, as Bruce Riedel points out in a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “persistent reports of some kind of understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons.” And although they both deny a secret deal “rumours of one continue to surface as Iran gets closer to developing its own bomb.”

—After 9/11, the United States took steps to ‘secure’ Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, which included transfer of technology to prevent their unauthorised use. The Acorn has previously argued that this suggests that Pakistan is likely to protect its nuclear autonomy by creating a second, more secret, and perhaps less secure arsenal. In a recent Times of India report, Chidanand Rajghatta points to a briefing document by the US Congressional Research Service which says that Pakistan has developed a “second strike capability”, and infers implications for the India-Pakistan nuclear balance. While the inferences are debatable, it supports the second arsenal hypothesis.

—A country in the middle of a long political and economic crisis, financial bankruptcy, several insurgencies and a war within its own borders, and clearly dependent on the international community for life support, is not only increasing its stockpile of fissile material for nuclear weapons, but also expanding its capacity to produce more. And until November 26th, 2008, Pakistan was still engaged in a ‘peace process’ with India.

—Given the subcontinental nuclear equation, it doesn’t matter to India if Pakistan has 60 warheads or 120, and whether or not it has a “second strike capacity”. Why has India built no new plutonium reprocessing plants—relatively simple projects that don’t need a lot of money and for which competent indigenous technology exists—in the last decade? The Pakistanis are not entirely oblivious to this, and recognise that the marginal utility of the additional capacity to produce nuclear weapons is very low. In other words, there’s little additional security to be had vis-a-vis India for the kind of investments they are making.

So why is Pakistan adding capacity?

Here’s a hypothesis: the additional capacity is partly meant for Saudi Arabia’s proxy arsenal that Pakistan manages in trust. It is linked to a Saudi-Iran nuclear balance and linked to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons capacity. The additional capacity is also meant to strengthen the “second arsenal”, because Pakistan fears that the first one is compromised either by US supervision, snatch plans or both.

What does this imply?

First, that there is a new nuclear arms race—not in the subcontinent, but between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with Pakistan acting as the latter’s bomb factory.

Second, that because the US has been unable to fully ‘secure’ Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, it has caused Pakistan to build more warheads/capacity that has increased nuclear risks to yet unquantified levels.

It’s not Spider-man

With great power comes a Great Power

It warms the cockles of The Acorn’s cotyledons when people say things like “India’s unflinching defence of its narrow interest is cause for deep frustration among its interlocutors in the corridors of international power” and that it must “embrace a sharing of the burdens as well as the rewards of collective security.” So when Anantha Nageswaran of The Gold Standard drew attention (via email) to Philip Stephens’ piece in FT, it felt like a good time to inject some, well, realism into the proceedings.

But first—let there be no doubt: The Acorn and many of its fellows on INI strongly advocate that India needs to get on the front foot in its foreign policy. But this is because it is in India’s interests and not out of some heartwarming but fuzzy notion of shouldering burdens of collective security. By the way, what collective security? Surely Mr Stephens can’t be referring to NATO’s half-hearted, caveat-filled and now one-step-out-of-the-door presence in Afghanistan? The kind that rests on the implicit belief that the Taliban can be tolerated as long as they don’t target Europe. Or the kind that sabotaged international efforts to stop the genocide in Rwanda in the mid-1990s or in East Pakistan in 1971? Or the kind that came to India’s assistance after terrorists went on a shooting spree in Mumbai last November?

Mr Stephens makes two main arguments in his piece. Of these he gets two wrong. First, he claims that admission to the club of great powers requires a state to adopt a foreign policy that goes beyond “narrow definitions of national interest” and provides public goods. The other part of the admission fee, he contends, is that “others claim a say in your internal affairs”. Second, he argues that the fact that being a democracy exposes India to less international criticism as compared to China. Both these arguments are flawed in their premise. But even if we were to accept the premise, the facts don’t bear out Mr Stephens’ conclusions.

Continue reading “It’s not Spider-man”

My op-ed in Mint: There is no one China policy

Competition in zero-sum games, co-operation in positive-sum games

My op-ed in today’s Mint is a synthesis of several posts and discussions on this blog. Many of you might rightly say that it is stating the obvious. But sometimes the obvious has to be stated as well (and the need to do so is not always so obvious).

Reading the Arthashastra: The proper use of détente

Using hostile peace to tilt the balance

By distinguishing enmity and offensive action, Kautilya makes a sophisticated argument about the use of a ‘hot peace’ to accumulate economic power, that will, in time, allow a state to defeat the counterpart—by military force, if need be.

He classifies three types of what Dr Shamasastry calls “neutrality”. But this translation is not very appropriate, because Kautilya is not advocating sitting on the fence. One needs to study the Sanskrit, but from the context, the word “quiescence” may be more appropriate. Quiescence can be:

“Keeping quiet, maintaining a particular kind of policy is sthana; withdrawal from hostile actions for the sake of one’s own interests is asana; and taking no steps (against an enemy) is upekshana.” [Arthashastra VII:4]

The first arises out of a stable balance of power, where the adversaries are compelled to keep to their places. The second is deliberate, similar to what has been termed “masterly inactivity”, the phrase most famously used to describe colonial British policy towards Afghanistan under Governor-General Sir John Lawrence. It also refers to a state of détente. Finally, the third variety of quiescence arises from dereliction of duty, or impolicy.

Kautilya favours the policy of “keeping quiet after proclaiming war” when it can strengthen one’s own state and inflict injuries on the enemy. The latter could be due to exploiting the enemies internal troubles or, interestingly, through seizing an advantage by influencing patterns of trade: by “(preventing) the import of his enemy’s merchandise, which was destructive of his own commerce” or drawing “that valuable merchandise…to his own territory, leaving that of his enemy”. In fact, in what might militate against the contemporary view on the issue, Kautilya sees inward immigration from neighbouring states as a benefit. He places immigration in the benefits side of the analysis in several places in the Arthashastra.

This, according to Kautilya, is the way to both impoverish the enemy and not only accumulate, but also exhibit one’s own power.

So under what conditions does the king “march after proclaiming war”? The case for offensive action is based on the internal condition of the enemy and the geopolitics without. The enemy’s internal troubles must be beyond redemption, the state in a terminal decline and its people ready to desert their master. External conditions require a favourable disposition among the front and rear allies. The offensive action could be taken independently or in partnership with the allies depending on the circumstances.

Related Links: The reading the Arthashastra series archive.

Rudd-erless

Alphabet soups and unwarranted trips down under

Kevin Rudd, Australia’s prime minister, has created a kerfuffle among Asian foreign affairs types this month by calling for something he calls the Asia-Pacific Community. Now that represents ‘inclusive growth’—that is, of the alphabet soup of Asian multilateral organisations—for every country east of India and West of the United States is included (no, not Taiwan, dear, because Mr Rudd would be the last person to argue that it needs a seat of its own). To fly this new kite he got Richard Woolcott, an octogenarian diplomat who worked on creating the Asia-Pacific Economic Community (APEC) when he used to be a sexagenarian diplomat.

It is unfathomable why people should think that just because some European countries got together to form the European Union, it is somehow desirable, possible and important for Asian countries to behave similarly. For all the talk about the EU project, it has yet to pass the Turkey test. Undeterred by the lacklustre performance of most of these Asian outfits—APEC was dead by the time Mr Woolcott became a septuagenarian diplomat—Mr Rudd floated his new idea. As Lowy Institute’s Rory Medcalf argues there is “substantial merit in trying to fix one of the existing regional houses rather than building a new one.”

In this context, the Times of India reports that Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee ‘backed’ Mr Rudd’s idea to save him from embarrassment. Actually, Mr Mukherjee did not so much back the idea as to note that India “would watch with interest” whatever Mr Rudd has set about to do. Translated into plain English, it means “okay, whatever”.

But Mr Mukherjee shouldn’t have been visiting Australia in the first place. Mr Rudd’s actions suggest that he favours a ’tilt’ towards China. His party’s position is clear about the important question of the sale of uranium to India—it won’t sell unless India signs the NPT. Mr Mukherjee should have waited until Mr Rudd’s government was ready to engage India seriously.

Update: In an op-ed in The Asian Age (via email from Adityanjee) Professor Purnendu Jain writes that the ‘onus of engagement should not be left to Australia’. That even if Mr Rudd has shown little interest in engaging India, New Delhi should take the initiative. Mr Mukherjee’s visit, he argues, is a step in the right direction.

That’s questionable. It is for Australia to assess whether or not it would like to benefit from India’s economic growth. It is for Australia to assess whether or not it can leverage India’s geopolitical power to further its own interests. India can envision a future where Australia is a marginal economic and strategic partner. What about Australia?

When will Iran have its Bomb?

Watch out for the Big Bad Row

The IAEA submitted its latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme to its board of governors on 26th May. (via V Anantha Nageswaran). The report points out that Iran has been operating its assembly of 3000 IR-1 centrifuges at the Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant with greater efficiency and is in the process of adding another similar assembly. It is experimenting with advanced centrifuge designs (modified Pakistani P2 designs, replacing maraging steel rotors with carbon fibre composite ones), although these remain employed in the pilot stage.

The IAEA report finds Iran guilty of both procedural violations (reporting installations post facto, rather than in advance) as well as for not providing satisfactory accounts of alleged weapons development activities (preparing an underground shafts for testing, testing detonators and warhead designs, and modifying the Shahab-3 ballistic missile to carry a nuclear warhead). [See Arms Control Wonk‘s post]

So what does this tell us about the all important question: when will Iran have a bomb ready?

Assuming that Iran does not have other secret nuclear plants well hidden from the public eye, the reasonable assumption is that Iran will use the Natanz facilities to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) that will go into its bomb. According to Jeffrey Lewis’ handy calculator, Iran will need between 156 to 293 days to produce enough HEU for a bomb. If it gets the second assembly of 3000 centrifuges operating, that period will be halved, to about 78-147 days. As Dr Lewis’s calculations show, the time to produce sufficient HEU gets shorter if more centrifuges become operational, or their efficiency improves.

In addition to having sufficient quantities of HEU, Iran must also have a functioning weapons design—again thanks to Pakistan and A Q Khan, that should not be too difficult.

But Iran’s centrifuges are not yet producing HEU. The IAEA is keeping watch over the nuclear material and the centrifuge cascades in the Natanz facility. It is likely to know if and when the Iranian authorities decide to go into the bomb mode. A possible indicator of this happening is when Iran and the IAEA have the Big Bad Row. Depending on how many centrifuges Iran has working then, we can estimate the time it will take to produce and assemble a bomb. That could be anywhere between 78 days (if the second assembly is operational) to 293 days (if only the existing one is operational). If you are looking for a ready reckoner: you can assume that Iran has the bomb three months from the Big Bad Row.

(Some Europeans are going to look silly when that happens. So will the some Americans. But other events—both ugly ones and not-at-all-ugly ones—might well spare them from the embarrassment. )

Sunday Levity: Escalation control lessons from a kindergartener

Teachers preclude anarchy in the kindergarten

“Remember the new girl in my class?” the kindergartener said. “She hit me.”

The father, being a student of conflict, was naturally interested in conflict among students. The kindergartener had caught his attention.

“And what did you do then?” he asked.

“I told the teacher. And the teacher scolded her,” the kindergartener replied, expecting appreciation. The father worried that this kid was falling into the maternal sphere of influence. It was time for a lesson on deterrence and balance of power.

“You should have hit her right back”, he said. “And then complained to the teacher.”

“What?” She half-suspected that the father was pulling her leg. Noticing that he was serious she went on. “But I told the teacher and the teacher scolded her and told her never to hit me again.”

The father moved to press home the most important point. “If she knows that you’ll hit her back, she’ll think twice before hitting you. Even when the teacher is not around.”

“What if she hits me harder?” The father vaguely remembered something about the new girl being bigger in size and older than the rest.

“Well, then, you hit her back just as hard.”

“Pappa, but then we’ll be fighting…like boys!”

And she ran out of her father’s study.

Related Link: Lessons in strategy from a kindergartener

Realism, tragedy and Sri Lanka

Pity, not serendipity

The Sri Lankan government seeks military assistance in order to defeat the LTTE. Since India is unwilling to arm the Sri Lankan army, it argues that it is only fair that it should look elsewhere. Pakistan is a willing supplier: “it’s main military supplies to Sri Lanka include mortar ammunition, radio sets, hand grenades, naval ammunition and tanks.” It supplied US$50 million worth of arms to the Sri Lankan army last year. It’s about to supply at least another US$25 million worth of mortar ammunition and hand grenades. Pakistan can argue, with reason, that it is fair that it supports a fellow South Asian government in its war against a terrorist organisation.

It’s all realism. That’s precisely why T S Gopi Rethinaraj argues in the April 2008 issue of Pragati that in the event of the LTTE’s military defeat, it is quite likely that the Sri Lankan government will have little reason to be favourably disposed towards India’s interests. This argument can’t entirely be countered by suggesting that this eventuality can be avoided if India were to support the Sri Lankan government in the first place. There is much logic in Dr Rethinaraj’s contention that the Sri Lankan government’s interests will depend on the end state, not the process of getting there. Like in the case of Bangladesh’s policy towards India, for instance. To prevent an unfavourable change in the balance of power in the immediate Indian Ocean region, he goes on to call for a subtle shift in India’s position towards the LTTE.

There is a another option: if the governments of India and Sri Lanka were to agree upon a broad security relationship that would secure India’s interests as part of a broader settlement of the ethnic civil war along federal lines. That would require a much more muscular approach from New Delhi—which, in turn requires a particular domestic political equation at the Centre and in Tamil Nadu—as well as a much more responsive approach from Sri Lanka. It’s within the realm of the possible, but don’t keep your fingers crossed.

In the meantime, watch (in despair) how a realism plays out in the region.

One China Policy

There isn’t one.

This post was first published in November 2006. As it is pertinent to the current situation it is reproduced here, almost in its entirety

In the debate over China, many of those with any experience actually dealing with China on political issues had advised caution. Many of those whose primary experience of China has been through trade and investment advocated closer ties. The oversimplified question on everyone’s lips was a cliche: Is China a friend or foe? That, though, is a wrong question to ask. The inherent anthropomorphism in the framing of this question confuses the issue, for relations between states are not like relations between people.

The essential fact is that on a fundamental level two powers as large and as proximate as China and India cannot rise without competition. And in most spheres of this competition, it is India that is catching up.

Three games
There is competition for regional and global influence: China is taking leadership in regional groupings where it has been a member, and entering groupings where it has not. It is now the most important member in East and Central Asian groupings. It has secured a good foothold in South Asia. And it is knocking on the doors of Africa. India, on the other hand, has secured a greater role for itself in South East Asia, where it has been welcomed because it can help balance China’s influence. Japan too has recognised that India will be a necessary element of the balance of power in East Asia. [See Harsh Pant’s piece in the April 2008 issue of Pragati]

Then there is competition in the quest for energy sources and, soon, natural resources. Here too, China is ahead, but India has begun to up its game in energy diplomacy. The two are already competing in securing fossil fuels. With the India-US deal bringing India into the nuclear mainstream, the competition will extend to securing nuclear fuel too. This decade will also see the two countries on a worldwide hunt for natural resources as their economy develops.

And of course, there is competition for investment and trade, which will only intensify as China becomes proficient in the English language and India gets its manufacturing act together.

…three strategies
So yes, there’s a contest going on all right. This does not, however, call for visceral hostility. Each competition has its rules. They cannot be wished away. This is a moment of profound change in the global balance of power and India would do well to play the game according to what the rules are (and not, as in the past, according to what the rules ought to be). China’s objective—couched as it may be in the language of ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘harmonious world’—is to become the pre-eminent power in Asia. It is a game that requires China to improve its relative power. There are two strategies for winning: one, for China to develop its own power; and two, for China to contain its competitors. The principal challenge for India will be to counter this. Nuclear weapons have made it unlikely that the contest will escalate to war. It is necessary to invest in maintaining the conventional and nuclear deterrence to keep it that way. They may be important in their own right, but Tibet, Tawang (i.e. the border issue) and Taiwan are both instruments and shock absorbers in this geopolitical game.

On the surface, the energy and resources game is zero-sum, and for that reason, the prudent strategy for both parties is to compete with each other. There may be scope for co-operation; but such co-operation will not be in India’s favour until it is able to negotiate with China on a peer-to-peer basis. At this time, India should focus on closing the gap, though not necessarily taking the same route as China.

It is a matter of basic economics that greater trade and investment will leave both countries better off. The rules of the game here are entirely different from the rules of the geopolitical or the energy game. There is no good reason—not even ‘national security’—for restricting trade with and investment from China. Those concerned with national security must adapt to the contemporary era of information abundance. Although this is changing, the Indian government is playing the geo-economic game according to geopolitical rules (and perhaps, vice versa).

The upshot is that India will have to counter China’s geopolitical moves, keep pace in the quest for natural resources and engage China in trade. There is, in the end, no simple one China policy.