Tag Archives | deterrence

Living with a nuclear Iran

Dealing with a nuclear Iran is better than suffering an international war to stop it.

Led by the United States, much of the international community has tightened economic sanctions on Iran in an attempt to prevent it from building nuclear weapons. India and China are among the few countries that have stayed out of this initiative and have been criticised for it. In a piece in the Wall Street Journal that comprehensively captures the argument against New Delhi’s current policy of not participating in the sanctions regime, Sadanand Dhume argues:

An India that uses its oil purchases and diplomatic clout to create breathing room for Iran risks scuppering the notion New Delhi has benefited from for more than a decade: that India’s rise is beneficial to the West. By contrast, should India throw its weight behind a powerful anti-Iran coalition, it stands to gain by halting the further nuclearization of its neighborhood, blunting the spread of radical Islam and bolstering its credentials as a force for stability. [WSJ]

Mr Dhume makes an important point when he says that “India’s quest for security and prosperity is most effectively pursued in a predictable and stable US-led international order.” Yet there is room—and indeed, a need—for discrimination within agreement over this worldview. In the case of Iran Washington’s policy position is dogmatic to the point of rejecting without any consideration the benefits—to the United States and to the US-led order—of a grand rapprochement with Iran. In a recent article on FP, Neil Padukone, a new fellow for geopolitics at Takshashila, details the scale and the scope of this geopolitical opportunity. I have argued that New Delhi well-placed to lubricate this process.

We have to criticise New Delhi, but for a different reason. It did not even attempt to avoid being crunched by Washington on one side and its own interests with Iran on the other. The situation in Afghanistan can change dramatically if Iran and the United States could cooperate. Where we needed imaginative and deft diplomacy, we saw resignation and default. Opportunities to improve ties with Washington on issues unrelated to Iran—from the fighter plane purchase, to UN Security Council positions over Libya and Syria—were gratuitously squandered.

On the nuclear issue, if the question were asked at a time when Iran was far away from building a bomb, the answer to whether an Iranian bomb is in India’s interests would have been a “No.” But now, at a time when the only way to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon is a war, the answer is different. In fact, the question for governments around the world now is whether an Iranian bomb is worse than an international war to prevent it.

A military conflict against Iran is not in India’s interests. Not only will it further destabilise a region that is already in deep crisis, it will do so in a form where India will be directly affected. Fuel supplies from Iran and supply routes from the Persian Gulf will come under threat and could precipitate a domestic economic crisis with unpredictable consequences. Also, doesn’t a war with Iran once again provide the Pakistani military-jihadi complex, with the encouragement of the Saudis, to once again become a frontline ally in an American war? Washington’s predisposition to turn a blind eye to Pakistan’s shenanigans in the context of its own geopolitical projects was and will be expensive to India.

Those who have long enough memories will recall that General Zia-ul-Haq was in Washington’s doghouse until the United States had to intervene in Afghanistan. Those who have shorter memories will recall General Musharraf being in a similar place and his dictatorship getting a ticket to respectability when the United States had to do it again. The Pakistani military establishment used these periods to first develop and expand its strategic assets—nuclear weapons and jihadi groups. Another reprieve will be no different.

It takes a lot to believe sanctions can prevent a determined, modern state like Iran from building a bomb it wants to. The costs of these ineffective sanctions are subjective—and unless there’s a short-term way to ensure the long-term security of 11 percent of India’s energy imports—for New Delhi they are not worth incurring.

Where does this leave us? Well, with the reality of having to deal with a nuclear Iran, and consequently perhaps with an overtly nuclear Saudi Arabia too. This need not necessarily make the region more unstable, even considering a triangular dynamic that includes Israel. Let’s not forget Western nuclear deterrence theory has always lagged deterrence in practice—be it during the Cold War or in the case of the subcontinent.

This does not mean that the Iranian regime is all Persian fragrance towards India. It’s not. But you can’t survive as a regime or as a state—even a revolutionary one—without realism. There’s a reason why Mullah Omar had to flee on a motorcycle while the leaders of Viet Nam are now Washington’s strategic allies. Regimes devoid of realism write their own obituaries. The survival of the Iranian theocratic-democracy is evidence of there being an underpinning of realism. Iran’s realists, however, are eclipsed by fundamentalists like Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who feed on hostility with the United States. To the extent that the hostility can be ratcheted down, the realists in the regime will be strengthened. Even otherwise, the Iranian regime, despite its foundations on the Shia narrative, is unlikely to desire civilisational suicide. [Update: How states act after they acquire nuclear weapons - on The Monkey Cage, linkthanks @chennaikaran]

New Delhi’s position might differ from that of Washington and Tel Aviv. But just as their positions are based on their perceptions of self-interest, so is ours. While there is no need to be apologetic about its positions over Iran, New Delhi must not lose other opportunities to strengthen its relationship with the United States and Israel.

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K Subrahmanyam on Admiral Mehta’s speech

Admiral Mehta’s speech signifies “the arrival of senior service officers at the top rung of national grand strategy formulation”

Coping with China

By K Subrahmanyam

Admiral Sureesh Mehta, Chief of Naval Staff and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee who is due to retire at the end of this month delivered an address on national security under the aegis of the National Maritime Foundation on the 10th of August. It was a fairly comprehensive overview of our national security perspective. Though delivered by the senior most Service Officer, the lecture was remarkable as it went beyond the military realm and focused on a broad strategic and political vision in the currently evolving international situation.

In a sense this address by Admiral Mehta signified the arrival of senior service officers at the top rung of national grand strategy formulation. His eminently pragmatic, strategic vision has been misinterpreted in certain sections of the media as a cry of despair that India will not be able to catch up with China militarily. He has made it clear that India has no intention to do so. At the same time he has formulated the most viable strategy to cope with this situation. Whether India—with a population likely to exceed China’s in the next two decades; the advantage of a much younger age profile of that population; its post September 2008 integration with the rest of the world; and being a democracy along with the all other
major powers as also English-speaking—will ultimately catch up with China it is too early to predict. China today has the advantage of a decade and half of head start in economic reforms and globalisation and very close industrial cooperation with US and other multinational firms. Admiral Mehta has detailed the lead China has gained on this account over India. That is an inexorable reality which Indian strategists have to accept and factor in coping with China. The word Admiral Mehta has chosen to use is ‘coping with China’, not confronting or competing with it.

While China by switching sides in the Cold War and repudiating the Maoist legacy broke out of its isolation in the seventies, India could do so only in 2008 with the waiver of NSG guidelines. While China was a tacit but active strategic partner of the US and NATO during the Cold War and an established permanent member of the Security Council and an accepted nuclear power of the Nonproliferation Treaty, India’s recognition as one of the rising powers and a balancer in the international system began less than a decade ago.

India presently has strategic partnerships with all great powers including China. Today India’s largest trading partner is China. Yet as Admiral Mehta pointed out, in China’s case India has a trust deficit because of the long standing territorial dispute and among other issues, the China-Pakistan connection. Unlike in India’s case where its emergence as a power does not cause concern in the world, that is not the case with China. Its propensity for intervention in space, both on earth and in outer space and cyber warfare have been cited as causing concern to other nations.

Addressing those who entertain expectations that 1962 can be repeated, Admiral Mehta highlighted that the economic penalties resulting from a potential Sino-Indian military conflict would have grave consequences for both sides. Unlike in 1962, China has today multiple vulnerabilities and has to consider seriously the effect of a war on its energy supply lines. In such circumstances mutual cooperation is to the benefit of both countries. Therefore Admiral Mehta’s advocacy is for India reducing its military gap with China and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean region.

He does not favor the traditional bean-counting or division-for-division approach in closing the gap. Instead, he wants to rely on harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable standoff deterrent. The recent launch of the nuclear submarine, INS Arihant, is a step in that direction. Admiral Mehta further adds, that in order to minimise the chances of conflict, India should proactively engage China diplomatically, economically, culturally and in people-to-people contacts. At the same time India should nurture its relations with US, Russia, Japan and other East Asian countries to leverage towards this end. In his view our growing relations with South East and East Asian countries would increase opportunities for cooperative engagement with China as well.

What Admiral Mehta does not say in his speech is as important as what he has said. China is looking forward to emerging as the foremost power of the world. Its GDP is expected to overtake the US in the next two decades. The recent economic recession has narrowed the gap between the two and made China the second largest economy of the world. While US and China have some mutuality of interest in ensuring the stability of the dollar, as otherwise China will lose heavily on its large dollar holdings, in the period beyond the recovery the US will be keen to sustain its preeminence as the foremost military, economic and technological power of the world. There will be radical changes in the US-China economic relationship so far anchored on China selling enormous quantities of consumer goods to US and running huge balance of payments surpluses. Those were saved and lent back to the US to enable American consumers to spend more.

This world order is unsustainable and is bound to change. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, India is seen as one of the key partners for the US to reshape the 21st century. The US has agreed to sell high technology defense equipment to India while it is not likely to sell them to China, its main rival in the coming decades. Therefore Admiral Mehta’s reference to the innovative use of technology by India to close the military gap with China.

Besides focusing on this core subject, the lecture also dealt with non-state actors, shaping our immediate neighborhood, securing our maritime borders, internal security, intelligence, cyber-warfare, higher defence integration and jointness among the three services, nuclear issues, reducing dependence on other countries for equipment, trends in defence expenditure and adequacy of our defense outlays, delays in our procurement procedures, governance and culture of strategic thinking. His ideas are thought-provoking and deserve to be objectively debated by the Indian strategic community.

In a sense this address breaks new ground. A service chief has put on record his views on a whole host of national security issues just a few weeks before demitting office. Many of these issues have been under consideration for ages without solutions. In today’s security environment these need to be debated openly in the country—to generate public pressure for early decision-making in the Government. Regrettably, in our Parliament national security issues do not receive the attention they merit and therefore greater the need for informed public debate.

A Hindi version of this op-ed was published in Dainik Jagran yesterday. This piece appears here thanks to Commodore C Uday Bhaskar.

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My op-ed in Mint: Why India must pull its troops back from the border

Let’s call Pakistan’s bluff with Operation Markarap

In today’s Mint, Sushant and I argue that moving our troops back will compel the Pakistan army to act against the Taliban; and because it is incapable of doing so, will cause the United States to realise that there is no alternative to dismantling the military-jihadi complex.

Sooner or later, the Obama administration will come to realise that it has no way to make the Pakistani military establishment seriously fight and defeat the jihadi groups, which includes the Taliban, al-Qaeda and outfits like the Lashkar-e-Taiba. When that moment comes, Barack Obama will need to choose between direct confrontation with the Pakistani military-jihadi complex and colossal strategic defeat—in the form of acceptance of a radical Islamist state with a well-developed nuclear weapons capability. It is in India’s interests that this point comes sooner rather than later. Needless to say, it is in India’s interests that the United States dismantle the military-jihadi complex. Clearly, this is far more important than merely putting some Lashkar-e-Taiba leader behind bars for carrying out the 26/11 attack on Mumbai.

Already, the Pakistani military establishment is under severe pressure from the United States to stop sponsoring jihadi militant groups on the one hand, and to actually join the fight against them on the other. Now, even in the unlikely event that the ISI decides to dismantle its jihadi connections, the army will still find it impossible to purposefully prosecute a counter-insurgency war against the Taliban. Why? Because the dominant belief among Pakistani military personnel—across the ranks—is that it is the United States that is the real enemy and the Taliban are righteous fighters for the Islamic cause. One only has to imagine what a brigade commander would say to his troops to motivate them to fight their compatriots to realise that the Pakistani army is incapable of fighting the Taliban. In a way, those who argue that the Pakistan army lacks the capacity to fight this war are right: but this is a lack of capacity that no amount of night-vision goggles and helicopter gunships can ameliorate. This unpalatable reality is obfuscated behind the India bogey—the pretence that the Pakistani army could do much better against the Taliban if only it didn’t have to defend itself from its much stronger adversary to its east.

If the ‘India threat’ were to recede, Pakistan—and for that matter the United States—will have no more excuses left to avoid having to do what is necessary. New Delhi should, therefore, call Pakistan’s bluff by mounting what we propose to call Operation Markarap.
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More Pakistani nukes? That’s Washington’s problem

India is already under risk from the Pakistani nuclear arsenal. So what if Pakistan has some more of them?

No, it should not surprise anyone that Pakistan has been cranking up its capacity to produce more nuclear weapons and delivery systems. ISIS analysts David Albright & Paul Brannan recently sounded alarm that two new plutonium reactors in the Khushab complex might be close to being operational. As Mr Albright says, there is not even the pretence that these reactors can be used for generating electrical power. The fact that Pakistan—international migraine, mortal threat, most dangerous place in the world, 60 miles away from being taken over by the Taliban and all that—is expanding its nuclear arsenal at a time when it is pleading for international aid for almost everything has shocked the Western media, and US Congressmen. This is good—especially if it is coupled with the realisation that the fungibility of money (linkthanks Chidanand Rajghatta) renders absurd the Obama administration’s argument that aid to Pakistan will be monitored, benchmarked if not actually made conditional. [Watch this video]

Now, a bigger Pakistani arsenal increases the risk to the United States and the international community in various ways.

And because of this, it undermines Pakistan’s own security. The more fissile material Pakistan has, the higher the risk (to the international community) with regard to its custodial security. The greater the risk the United States faces, the more it will coerce Pakistan. In the ultimate analysis, Pakistan cannot continue cranking up its nuclear weapons factory without running the risk of a direct military intervention by the United States. It is strategic stupidity—a well-known pathology affecting the Pakistani army’s general staff—that causes Islamabad to expand its arsenal beyond what it has.

But it shouldn’t worry India any more than it already does. So Pakistan has not 80, but 100 warheads now. Deterrence still holds.

So yes, the United States, China and the West need to worry—perhaps even panic—about Pakistan’s expanded nuclear arsenal: what goes around, comes around. The Pakistani government needs to worry about it too. On the other hand, India need not lose additional sleep over it. That’s why calls such as the one by today’s New York Times, which suggests that it is India’s ‘responsibility’ to prevent Pakistan from blowing the beleaguered US taxpayers’ dollars on churning out plutonium for more nuclear weapons, must be ignored. On the contrary, it is for the Obama administration to demonstrate “the kind of regional and global leadership expected of a global power” by ensuring that it doesn’t indulge Pakistan’s dangerously deceitful military-jihadi complex in pursuing its maximalist nuclear ambitions.

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Putting perfume on a skunk

Pakistan’s military mobilisation bogey didn’t work—it only exposed the army’s hand in the Mumbai attacks

It is hard to say whether the good retired brigadier Shaukat Qadir actually believes in his own fairy tale or is merely trying to make the skunk smell good in public. For he argues that “the token withdrawal of troops from our western borders was also an exercise in employing defence to further diplomatic ends and accelerate international efforts to defuse tensions between two nuclear neighbours; and it was successful.”

His first argument about how Pakistan showed tremendous restraint in the face of belligerent words and actions on the ground by India is factually wrong. According to the the same paper that published his analysis, Pakistan threatened to pull back 100,000 troops on 29 November 2008, even as the Mumbai siege was in progress. Far from responding to any hostile action from India, Pakistan’s alacrity in troop movements suggests that this was a pre-planned move, and half of which failed in the end.

And his argument that moving one armoured and one infantry division to a strategic location that would threaten India’s lines of communication is ridiculous. For if all it took to deter India from attacking Pakistan were army divisions at strategic locations, then why did Pakistan ever have to invest in nuclear weapons at such great cost to itself? It is plain and simple that Pakistan is using its nuclear weapons to provide cover and protection to terrorists. That smell won’t go away so quickly.

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And how much are these nukes?

If your goose lays golden eggs, you’ll want to keep it

Like many thoughtful people, Bret Stephens zeroes in on the central problem—Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal protects jihadi terrorists, besides running the country down in various ways. He deserves appreciation for attempting to think up an innovative solution to it. (via Pragmatic Euphony)

Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that Pakistan will give up its nuclear arsenal and capability for US$100 billion and an American nuclear umbrella. Forget US$100 billion, it’s unlikely to trade-in its nukes for any price that the world is prepared to pay. Why?

Because it can get the same money by keeping the nuclear weapons—by playing up the risk of these weapons falling into the hands of rogues and terrorists in case of widespread turmoil. So why sell the goose that lays the golden eggs? And we are not even talking about whether the ordinary and the elite would accede to a trade-in deal.

As for placing Pakistan under the American nuclear umbrella—it makes a good soundbite, but is not credible. Is the United States prepared to use nuclear weapons on Pakistan’s behalf should India launch a punitive strike against Pakistan’s jihadi training camps in retaliation to a major terrorist attack? If you are a Pakistani leader—civilian or military—you won’t count on this. Besides, your all-weather friends in Beijing are unlikely to be favourably disposed to it either.

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Beyond the cosmetic crackdown

Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex remains unaffected by the latest ‘crackdown’

It would be one thing if Pakistan’s ‘crackdown’ on its jihadi groups was sincere and thoroughgoing. But it’s not. It is as much a temporary, cosmetic and unsatisfactory exercise as the ones under General Musharraf five years ago (see this archived post). The leaders and operatives of the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Mohammed will be ‘released’ once the heat is off and the dust settles. Pakistani officials are saying as much, actually. Unless India produces evidence, the jihadi leaders will be let off from “preventive custody”. The United Jihad Council, a clique of jihadi outfits led by Syed Salahuddin and focussed on Kashmir ‘disappeared’ by the simple expedient of taking down its signboards.

Perhaps this is as much as the Asif Ali Zardari and his government can do. Yet it won’t do. If the civilian government cannot take meaningful action to cleanse Pakistan of the military-jihadi axis that is directed against India, then the genuineness of its own sincerity is of little consequence.

There is much to say for the assessment that there are deeper, structural reasons why Pakistan’s governments will not take decisive action against the jihadi infrastructure. And it is Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal that protects Osama bin Laden and Hafiz Mohammed Saeed right down to the jihadi foot soldier. In other words, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons not only deter India from militarily attacking Pakistan, but, more importantly, deter any country from targeting the military-jihadi complex. Where does this leave us? Pakistan’s nuclear weapons must be made irrelevant if the global war against Islamist terrorism is to be won. They used to call it the Islamic bomb. It certainly has become the Islamists’ bomb.

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Is a Zardari NFU policy a Pakistani NFU policy too?

That is now a very important question

Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, used a Q&A session at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit to announce that Pakistan “will not be the first country ever to use (nuclear weapons). I hope that things never come to a stage where we have to even think about using nuclear weapons”.

On the face of it, it is a welcome development. If only, that is, Mr Zardari is anywhere close to having an influence, let alone control, over his country’s nuclear arsenal. When his wife was prime minister, the Pakistani army didn’t even allow her to visit the facilities where nuclear weapons were being developed. As president, the National Command Authority is nominally under him, but the Strategic Plans Division—the organisation that is supposed to be in actual control—de facto reports to the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. (Technically, the SPD reports to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, but try explaining that to the army chief.)

It is unclear if General Kayani and the SPD agree with Mr Zardari’s declaration of a no first use policy. So we’ll have to wait for clarifications, retractions and suggestions that Mr Zardari was misquoted. If Pakistan indeed seeks to adopt a no first use policy, then a platform more credible than a Q&A session should be used to reiterate the commitment. Until either of this happens, Mr Zardari’s statement is non-credible at best, and ‘noisy’ at worst.

It is best that Pakistan clears the air promptly.

Update: Well, Mr Zardari himself was only playing with words to the galleries. It was noise.

When asked if Pakistan would adopt the policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, he said, “Most definitely, yes, we hope we will never get into that position (of using nuclear weapons). I am for a South Asian Non-nuclear Treaty.”

“I can get my Parliament to agree to it right away,” he said. “Can you (India) get your Parliament to agree to it?” [IE]

He should understand that such flippancy ultimately damages the credibility of Pakistan’s civilian leadership. And Karan Thapar, who moderated the session, should be less credulous and more probing, especially on such matters.

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Regarding the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal

The right time to worry about it is also the wrong time to worry about it

Brigadier Gurmeet Kanwal of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies describes the various issues concerning the security of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in a piece on Rediff titled “Are Pakistan’s nuclear warheads safe?”. He hints that the Pakistani army’s custodial control is robust, but there is a “clear and present danger” of nuclear material falling into the hands of terrorists and the ensuing risk of dirty bombs. He also suggests that rogue Pakistani nuclear scientists might help al-Qaeda put together rudimentary nuclear bombs.

Now, thinking through the various scenarios that might obtain from the risks to the custody of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and material is an important activity for strategic affairs analysts. But unless there are significant political developments or specific new intelligence, there is little to be gained by sounding public alarm.

Discussion about how Western troops will enter Pakistan and neutralise its nuclear arsenal are dangerous—not least because they cause wholly unnecessary alarm among those in the Pakistani nuclear command. Nuclear neutering operations, albeit by American forces, come with severe risks for India—for while the United States and Israel may well be outside the range of a Pakistani retaliatory strike, India certainly is. And although Brig Kanwal points out that India lacks the capability to insert its own special forces deep into Pakistan to carry out such missions, such assurances are hardly likely to convince the Pakistanis. (For surely, the Pakistanis would think, Indian commandos can get a lift from those who have such transport and logistics capabilities.)

Also, Brig Kanwal’s piece repeats an assertion about the use of permissive action links (PALs)—electronic combination locks—on Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. As The Acorn has pointed out earlier, this doesn’t add up to the other assertion about Pakistan’s arsenal being in a de-mated state. A satisfactory answer to the question of the extent of use of PALs or lack thereof is vital to further analysis of the question of custodial security.

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Six small states, one big one, and the nuclear cartel

It is easy to take a moral position when there is little cost to it

Before China publicly signaled its opposition to clearing the decks for India at the Nuclear Suppliers Group, six small states were instrumental in throwing a spanner in the works. They opposed the first draft of the proposal to unconditionally lift the ban in export of nuclear material to India. Now emboldened by China’s ‘unofficial’ position, they may yet block the revised draft.

But why are these small states, minor players on the international scene, behaving in this manner? Are they being merely being racist or are they acting as the world’s “conscience keepers” ? Or as Paul Nelson, a professor emeritus at Texas A&M University argues, their domestic perspectives on nuclear power and nuclear weapons may be preventing them from understanding India’s compulsions. [via Idaho Samizdata, which has a good post on this topic]

Whatever it might be, it only reflects that they have calculated that it is inexpensive for them to take the position they did. In fact, they have little to lose, in the short-term, from taking an anti-India position. They are geographically distant and, except for Norwegian peace diplomacy in Sri Lanka, are removed from the geopolitics of India and its neighbourhood. More importantly, India’s trade with these states is miniscule. The Commerce Ministry’s latest trade figures (as of February 2008) explain why these countries could afford to be more concerned about nuclear non-proliferation. Clearly they don’t really have much of a share of emerging India.

Country Exports (%) Imports (%)
Ireland 0.2 0.1
Austria 0.12 0.24
New Zealand 0.09 0.14
Netherlands 3.18 0.84
Norway 0.17 0.67
Switzerland 0.37 4.13

Now, the Netherlands and Switzerland played a role in permitting A Q Khan and the Pakistani nuclear underground to operate for so long and cause so much damage to non-proliferation, the cause they now ostensibly espouse.

But John 8:7 does not apply in international relations. What really makes the Dutch and Swiss stand inexplicable is that there is reasonable inward foreign investment coming into India from these countries, as well as some trade. They are also likely to be beneficiaries from an opening of India’s nuclear power sector to foreign investment. Perhaps their position is designed to extract a quid pro quo at a later date, or indeed motivated by a quid pro quo with other parties.

In any event, by overplaying their hand, the six small states are risking pushing the NSG into irrelevance. The dynamics of cartels being what they are, the interests of the United States, Russia and France being what they are, and the NSG being what it is (a cartel and not a treaty), the question for India is one of timing and convenience.

This episode serves to highlight the need for India to develop deep economic linkages with countries that are a source of fuel supplies and technology. At the same time it is important to ensure that countries do not find taking anti-India positions costless or inexpensive.

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