How to lose friends and alienate people

India’s decision to reject US fighter planes is strategic stupidity

New Delhi, it is reported, has shortlisted two European vendors for its long-drawn procurement of fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force. Now, military analysts can have endless debates and even objective opinions on which among the American, European and Russian aircraft is technically superior and better suits the stated requirements of the IAF. Financial analysts can have similar debates and objective opinions on which is the cheapest or the best value for money. These opinions may or may not converge. But when you are buying 126 planes worth more than $11 billion dollars, you are essentially making a geostrategic decision, not a narrow technical/financial one.

The UPA government’s decision to reject both American proposals, of the F-16 and F/A-18, demonstrates either a poor appreciation of the geostrategic aspect or worse, indicative of a lingering anti-American mindset. While the US ambassador has resigned, whether or not it will prove to be a setback for India-US relations remains to be seen. Damaging the careers of pro-India American officials is a silly thing to do.

This move will most certainly reduce India’s geopolitical leverage with the US military-industrial complex, at a time when India needs it most. From the unfolding dynamics in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, to the changing balance of power in East Asia, to UN Security Council reform, to a number of geoeconomic issues, the United States can take positions that can have long-lasting consequences for India’s interests. Is the United States more likely to be sympathetic to India’s interests after a $11 billion contract—which means much needed jobs for the US economy —is awarded to someone else? Long used to complaining that the United States doesn’t care for India’s interests, will awarding the contract to some European firms help change the situation?

The argument that the European bids were ‘technically’ superior are not entirely credible either, for two reasons. First, at sufficiently high levels of technology, the difference between the planes on offer is marginal. To suggest that the European models are vastly superior defies logic, because some of the world’s most powerful air forces are flying F-16s, leave along F/A-18s. Second, the notion that combat requirements can be perfectly defined at the time of procurement is false. It is the combination of man and machine that wins battles. The focus on machines ignores the reality that much swings on the man flying it. Moreover, given the nuclear deterrence relationships obtaining in the subcontinent and across the Himalayas, those planes might never see an aircraft-to-aircraft dogfight in their lifetimes. For other tasks like air support for ground operations, the specifications are even lower.

What about those alphabet soup agreements and fine-print contracts that the US insists that India sign, that might prevent the planes from being used when needed? Those who make these arguments do not understand what war means. War means all bets are off, and India will do whatever necessary to protect its interests. While the existence of those agreements was a usual bargaining chip for India, to get a discount, to believe that such arguments will hamstring India’s military options is naivete. The government might not need to spell this out in public, but it should know it.

It has been this blog’s argument that in the contemporary geopolitical environment, India’s interests are best served by being a swing power, holding the balance between the United States and China. It must enjoy better relations with each of them than they have with each other. It must also have the credible capacity to give pleasure and inflict pain. In this context, buying fighter planes from the United States would have been an excellent move.

And who has New Delhi shortlisted instead? European companies. The European Union is a bit player in the international system, zealously safeguarding its own legacy position at the United Nations Security Council, the G-20, the World Bank, IMF and other places, against India. Italy is engaged in process of blocking India’s UNSC candidature. An order placed with Eurofighter or Rafael isn’t going to change its plans. EU busybodies can be found everywhere from inviting Kashmiri separatists to speak, to attending court hearings of Binayak Sen. Some small EU states almost wrecked the India-specific waiver that the United States was obtaining at the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. When it’s crunch time in Afghanistan, does anyone in New Delhi think that the EU will or can make any move that’ll safeguard India’s interests? Why is India being gratuitously generous to Europe when there is much to gain from giving the contract to the United States?

Yes, France, Britain and Germany are countries that India must engage. There are ways to allow them to benefit from India’s growth process—from power projects to manufacturing to services. The fighter aircraft contract need not be awarded to European firms, because it has higher strategic opportunity costs.

The downshot is that the UPA government has squandered a unique opportunity to gain leverage in Washington at a crucial time when closer ties are in India’s interests. It first took way too long to decide, dragging the procurement process even China built its own new fighter plane. It now decided to pick two vendors who might well sell a technically superior and cheaper product, but do no more than that. To put it mildly, this is strategic stupidity.

Update: [April 29th] This post and related tweets were quoted in the Times of India and New York Times today.
My colleague Dhruva Jaishankar has a different take over at Polaris. Offstumped has it in a nutshell.

My op-ed in WSJ Asia – Dr Singh’s leap of faith

India’s decision to resume dialogue with Pakistan is a triumph of faith over reason

The following is the original draft of my op-ed that appeared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal Asia earlier this week:

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waited until public memory of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai on 26th November 2008 faded to a level that it was politically feasible for him to resume the composite bilateral dialogue with Pakistan. The attacks had compelled him to reluctantly suspend official talks two years ago. Despite increasingly compelling evidence that the Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out those attacks with the connivance of the Pakistani military establishment, Islamabad has preferred to engage in a dilatory game of dossiers-and-lawsuits to avoid having to take any action against the perpetrators of one of the most provocative acts of terrorism in recent years. Yet, in the absence of the tiniest acts of good faith from his Pakistani counterparts, Prime Minister Singh has dogmatically persisted with his pursuit of dialogue — a policy which last week saw New Delhi effectively yielding to Pakistan’s demand of talks without preconditions.

Dialogue for Mr Singh is neither an eyewash to satisfy the international community nor a pragmatic policy tied to outcomes. It is almost a matter of faith, oblivious to facts or reason. Continue reading “My op-ed in WSJ Asia – Dr Singh’s leap of faith”

Like China in a china shop

A costly show of brightness

The line-up of columnists at Yahoo! India have a special on 2010 Year in Review. In my view, the most important geopolitical development of the year was the shattering of the myth of China’s “peaceful rise”. Here’s my piece:

Factional power struggles within the Politburo, bureaucratic turf fights among various arms of the PLA, overconfidence arising from the geo-economic cards it holds, provocation by the United States or grand incompetence — whatever the reason might be, China set aside Deng Xiaoping’s uncharacteristically straightforward advice to “hide your brightness, bide your time”. In doing so, it shattered the myth of a “peaceful rise” that its own spin-meisters had created and the world’s wishful had consumed. It also put paid to fanciful notions, promoted by nostalgic Cold War-era strategists, that the United States and China could form a “G-2” super-duopoly and, between them, sort out the many problems of global governance. China’s rapid change of foreign policy gears surprised its Asian neighbours both for its content as for its speed. The countries of East Asia are now engaged in a dramatic quest for stability that will come from a new balance of power.

India is an intrinsic part of this dynamic. There are signs that the UPA government, in its second term, is more committed to adding India’s weight to the Asian balance than it was in its first. It is drawing closer to Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and the United States, strengthening their diplomatic hands in their engagements with China. Executed carefully, such a strategy is just what New Delhi needs to check China’s moves in the Indian Ocean. As I wrote in a Pax Indica column “the seas east of Singapore hold the key to the lands west of the Indus.”

Beijing is aware that stronger India-US partnership in East Asia is not in China’s interests. It is unclear, though, whether China’s leaders realise that they can avoid such an outcome by stepping back from the numerous Indian red lines it crossed in 2010. Comrade Deng perhaps didn’t say this, but “it’s better to have a swinging neighbor to the south, than a committed one.” [Yahoo India!]

China’s nuclear brazenness

Power is when you can break the rules with impunity

Why is China literally giving away two nuclear reactors to Pakistan now?

As this blog has long argued the new reactors do not matter much to India from a security perspective. K Subrahmanyam supported this contention in a recent op-ed in the Indian Express.

If, as China claims, the reactors are safeguarded and cannot be used to produce material for nuclear weapons, then the only risks are those relating to Pakistan’s domestic stability and its nuclear facilities. These risks, we have on the authority of the US president and the Indian prime minister, are currently adequately managed. If, on the other hand, China’s claims are false—and both this blog and K Subrahmanyam are inclined towards this—then the new reactors will escalate the nuclear arms race between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Beyond the security calculus, there is a simple political reason why China is brazenly violating the commitments it made when it joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2004. It is playing a grand geopolitical game of tit-for-tat with the United States. It saw the US-India nuclear deal as a move to check its own power. It has responded by giving reactors away (literally)to Pakistan. Indeed, it could have done so by going through the due process of the NSG, as the United States did in India’s case. But tit-for-tat becomes all the more effective when you show that you can break the NSG norms and there’s nothing anyone can do about it—the Obama administration can just lump it. The sanctimonious Europeans, New Zealanders and others won’t even open their mouths (via INI Polaris) this time.

More than equating Pakistan to India, China is signaling that it is the United States’ equal. Once it is down that path, it can hardly back off. Can it?

Pax Indica: Playing the energy game with China

Why India must promote democracy abroad & private enterprise at home

An interesting conversation with Rajeev Mantri & Yogesh Mokashi last week led to the writing of this piece: how might India compete against China in the global quest for energy (and other) resources:

Moreover, the “game” is not one-off. It is a continuous ongoing game that will be played for generations. Nor is it entirely “zero-sum”. It is possible to envision a world where both China and India have access to the energy resources they need. Such a world is possible even when, perhaps only when, the two countries are competing (in a free market) for those resources. Such a world, however, will cer-tainly not come into being merely by wishing for it. It has to evolve, under the tender loving care of nuclear weapons.

The Indian government is trying to improve its score. It has set overseas acquisition targets for state-owned corporations and permitted them to spend $1.1 billion ‘without government approval’. This might yet produce some results—especially if it is backed by political support. It is unlikely, though, that bidding wars with companies that have parents with the world’s deepest pockets are winnable. That’s not all. As India found out in Kazakhstan in August 2005, the kid whose dad drives a Merc can get the goalposts shifted after the game begins.

Clearly, India’s strategy must be different. It must be one that plays to India’s strong points. It must also be one that undermines China’s advantages. The greatest asymmetries that are in India’s favour are democracy and private enterprise.

Consider. It would be much harder for China to move goalposts by coddling the dictator if there were no dictator to coddle. It would be much easier for Indian companies to compete against Chinese ones if the former didn’t have the Government of India as the single largest shareholder. In other words, in the long term, it is in India’s interests for resource-rich countries to be democracies. It is also in India’s interests to facilitate its private sector to expand globally. [Yahoo! India]

Read the whole thing at Yahoo!

Pax Indica: Why India must swing

Strategy in a triangular predicament

In today’s Pax Indica column, I argue “that despite an alignment of interests, (India) must not always side with the United States. It must swing.”

To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, India’s options toward the United States and China must always be greater than their options toward each other. It serves “our purposes best if we maintained closer relations with each side than they did with each other.” Isn’t this—by design or by default—what we’re already doing? Not really. That’s because until New Delhi demonstrates that it can deliver pain for one and pleasure for the other, it won’t be seen as swinging. It will be mistaken for sleep-walking. [Yahoo! India]

Read the whole thing. Coincidentally, this piece has the answer to the question that Dan Drezner poses on his blog today, though the question itself is posed from a quintessentially American frame of reference.

The Filter Coffee – a new blog on The Indian National Interest

Perspectives on foreign policy, defence, strategic affairs and governance

Rohan Joshi joins us on INI with The Filter Coffee, a blog “dedicated to raising awareness of issues relating to foreign policy, defense, strategic affairs and governance so that India’s citizens can demand the accountability they deserve from their elected representatives on the pursuit of India’s national interests.”

Smell the coffee. Better still, sip it every day.

Crossette & cliché

A fisking of Barbara Crossette’s piece in Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy‘s online editors invited me to rebut Barbara Crossette’s piece on India being the baddest boy of global governance. You can see the published version on their website. This is the original draft.

Making room for India
Contrary to Barbara Crossette, India does the global governance thing

According to Financial Times’ Lucy Kellaway, “Elephant in the Room” was the most popular cliché to appear in major newspapers and journals in 2009. It is perhaps appropriate then, that Barbara Crossette’s latest diatribe against India appeared in Foreign Policy under that headline. While it claims to show that it is India that causes the most “the most global consternation” and “gives global governance the biggest headache” it is merely a series of rants and newsroom clichés selected entirely arbitrarily in order to support the author’s prejudice.

It is unfathomable how Ms Crossette can declare that it is India that causes the most consternation and the biggest headache—among Afghanistan, Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, Pakistan and China—merely by listing its alleged failings. Without an attempt to compare the failings across countries—and why only these countries, why leave out the West and the rest?—it is logically impossible to arrive at a conclusion that one of them is the biggest culprit. But once you trade logic for hyperbole, you can fit just about any animal you like into that room. For Ms Crossette’s, it is the pachyderm.
Continue reading “Crossette & cliché”

The New Himalayas

Nuclear weapons are doing what high mountains once did

As K M Panikkar noted, while India developed a sophisticated framework of inter-state relations within the natural frontiers of the subcontinent it “lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers”. Arrian, the ancient Greek writer, contended that Indian kings refrained from expanding their kingdoms beyond the subcontinent because it might have even been seen as morally incorrect. Thus, while the classical Indian tradition of realist statecraft leaves us with the assessment that in the raja-mandala the immediate neighbour is an adversary and the state beyond it an ally, in practice, this is tempered by the fact that this applied to subcontinental affairs only.

China, on the other hand, sees the world divided between the civilised world centred around itself, the Middle Kingdom, on the one hand and the world of uncivilised barbarians on the other. At the periphery of the Middle Kingdom (and still within the civilised world) lay the states who paid tribute to the Chinese emperor and professed to be in awe of its great civilisation. What this meant in practice was that the Han Chinese Middle Kingdom expected its neighbours to be tributaries—the concept of a sovereign equal simply didn’t exist.

These two disparate frameworks of international relations co-existed next to each other for the most part of human history because of the unique geography—the Himalayas acted as the strategic barrier between India and China and made large scale movement of people and goods impossible. Armies couldn’t cross the mountains and the disparity in their international relations frameworks didn’t actually clash. The Himalayas kept the peace between the two civilisations.

Until the twentieth century, when the advances in technology made it possible, for the first time in human history, to breach the Himalayan barrier (in a strict sense, the Himalayas had been breached once before in 649 CE). And when in 1950 Communist China annexed Tibet—as opposed to treating it as a tributary—India and China became neighbours. For India, this meant, in the Kautilyan sense, that China was now the ‘enemy’. For China, India was now a state on the periphery of the Middle Kingdom, and therefore a ‘tributary’. The Himalayan barrier fell, and placed two conflicting worldviews in direct confrontation. It is no coincidence that this led to military conflict in 1962 and 1967.

But if technology broke one strategic barrier it also helped raise a new one. Starting from 1974 and especially after 1998 nuclear weapons replaced the Himalayan mountain range as the factor that deterred war. The new strategic barrier will improve as India’s missile capability improves and brings key Chinese cities within range making a direct military conflict between the two very unlikely.

However, this does not mean that the underlying conflict has gone away. It has, on the contrary, intensified as today both China and India have regional and global strategic imprints. The Middle Kingdom is much bigger, forced to work within a system of sovereign states that is alien to it, even as its tradition would cause it to expect ‘tribute’ from its much larger strategic periphery. India is more comfortable among sovereign states and is beginning to work off a global raja-mandala.

The New Himalayas might keep the peace along the old ones, but they won’t stop the wider geopolitical contest that will take place in the coming decades. It is therefore important for the Indian mindset move beyond the five decades of the second half of the twentieth-century when the old barriers were down and the new ones hadn’t come up yet. The game has changed (See what the astute admiral said). To bring the global raja-mandala into balance, India must seek allies that lie beyond China.

K M Panikkar on India’s strategic omphaloskepsis

The costly refusal to see beyond itself and the subcontinent

An extract from Sardar K M Panikkar’s Annual Day address to the Indian School of International Studies on 13 February 1961:

The study of international relations is fundamentally a study of power relationships. This, of course, has to be interpreted in terms not only of military power but also of political stability and leadership, industrial strength, and all the factors which contribute to the power of nations. The power relationships between nations are constantly changing, and unless a country understands and adjusts itself to the changes that are taking place around it, its own security will be seriously endangered. In our own time we have witnessed such changes, cataclysmic in character and revolutionary in effect, that the picture of international relations may be said to have been completely transformed in the course of two decades.

It is only by a continuous and vigilant study of power relationships in the world that even the mightiest nations can maintain their position. Without a knowledge of the changes and dynamics of social life taking place elsewhere in the world no country can build up its own life. This is the primary object of international relations. Diplomatic relationships which every country now establishes with the ther independent nations of the world has this knowledge as its primary object. Earlier, since political interests were limited to one’s own neighborhood, diplomatic relations never extended beyond countries which were closely connected with one another either by geography or by interests. As everyone knows, modern diplomacy developed in Italy and spread from there to the rest of Europe. Till the second half of the nineteenth century, even the independent countries of Asia did not consider it necessary to set up permanent diplomatic missions in other countries or to study the dynamics of power so far as other countries were concerned.

Neither the Moghuls nor the Marathas had any notion of the sources of strength of the European nations with whom they had to deal. The Chinese Admiral who challenged the might of Britain during the First Anglo-Chinese War knew nothing about the naval strength of Britain and firmly believed that he could defeat the British Navy with his fleet of junks. The result of this ignorance of the sources of power of other nations was that India had, for a long time, to remain subject to a foreign power while China was, for over a hundred years, the whipping-boy of European nations.

From the earliest times, India lacked interest in the balance of power outside its own national frontiers. While China was continuously watchful of developments across its land frontiers and had developed a very efficient system of diplomatic relationship on a continental basis, the Indian idea of diplomacy was confined to states within the geographical limits of India. Within this area, at different times, India developed a system of international relations and diplomatic usage. But so far as areas outside the physical boundaries of India were concerned, we were content to live with the attitude of complacent ignorance. It is a well-known fact of history that the changes in the dynamics of power in the Hindu Kush Valley profoundly influence the politics of the Indo-Gangetic Valley. From the time of the first Aryan invasions this has been one of the determining factors of Indian political evolution. The emergence of a powerful state in the Kabul area, whether in the time of Kanishka, Mahmud of Ghazni or Ahmed Shah Durrani, profoundly influenced events within India; and yet, so far as the great states of the India-Gangetic Valley were concerned, they continued to remain ignorant of these developments and, therefore, were unable to take the necessary steps to safeguard their independence. In the time of Mahmud of Ghazni, every effort was made by that king to collect and evaluate information about the political situation in India and to estimate the sources of strength of the various Indian states. We know with what thoroughness this was done from Alberuni’s great work. In contrast, we may note that the great monarchies—rich, powerful, and well organized according to the standards of the time—of King Bhoja of Dhar and the Gurjara Pratiharas of Gujarat knew little or nothing of the revolutionary transformation which had taken place in the Kabul Valley and of the strength of the great state which Sabaktajin had established and Mahmud had inherited and enlarged.

This may be compared with the policy which the policy which the British pursued from the beginning of the last century, when they established themselves as one of the imperial powers in India. The invasion of Egypt by Bonaparte was viewed as an event affecting the security of India. When Napoleon and Tsar Alexander reached an agreement at Tilsit, the British authorities in India immediately took steps to send a mission to Persia, the object of which was to find out the extent of that country’s defensive strength and to explore possibilities of entering into an alliance with its government. Sir John Malcolm’s report on Persia is still a classic. Similarly, the advance of Tsarist Russia towards Central Asia led to the British neutralization of Afghanistan. The British did not wait for enemies to penetrate as far as Panipat before taking countermeasures as the Indian rulers of the Gangetic Valley had been accustomed to do. They carefully studied the conditions across the borders, developed a large body of experts who studied the geography, language, political conditions, and economic structure of the areas which bordered on India or which were considered to be of vital importance to the defense of India. No area was left uncovered. The British Government in India had at its disposal men who had devoted most of their active life to the study of sensitive areas: the North-Western Frontier and adjacent areas, the Persian Gulf and the Trucial Coast, Tibet and the Himalayan regions, Sinkiang, Alma Ata, and other areas of Central Asia. It was sufficient for them to cover the areas of special interest to India because the British Empire, as world power whose interests were spread over five continents, was able to take care of the rest.

Our case today is different. We have to keep ourselves informed of developments in all parts of the world, not because we have vital interests everywhere, but because conditions in the world have so changed that events in the most distant parts may affect us in a manner which few of use realize. Undoubtedly for us the vital areas continue to be those immediately bordering India; and consequently the study of conditions in these areas is of permanent importance to us. But with changed economic, political and military conditions, other areas also emerge as vital and sensitive. At no time in India’s long history had Tibet and the North-Eastern Frontier become areas of vital concern to India’s defense. The geographical, political and social conditions of Tibet were sufficient guarantees for our safety from that quarter: while the North-Easter Frontier covered by dense forests and high mountains was also a dead frontier. Besides the Himalayas provided us with an almost impenetrable wall across which no invading force had ever approached India. Today, the emergence of a great military power on the other side of the Himalayas, which stretches from the Karakoram to the borders of Burma, has totally transformed the situation. This is only one example of the frequent changes in areas of international sensitivity, without a knowledge of which it is not possible at any time to formulate national policies. This has been the weakness of India in the past, this sense of isolation and refusal to see itself in relation to the states outside the geographical limits of the subcontinent. [International Studies 22:2 (1985) pp192-195, emphasis added]