On Agni V

A milestone in the longstanding strategy of security by deterrence

From my response to a journalist’s questions.

The Agni V missile is part of India’s long term strategy to attain security through deterrence. It ties in with no-first use. It is wrong to see the development flight test of Agni V in the context of contemporary or current events. It is a milestone in a longstanding plan. Because India relies on a strategy of deterrence—see my essay in the special issue of India Today—it is important to provide psychological reassurance to the Indian public about their security. A successful test achieves that purpose to an extent.

The missile is not “meant for” any specific country. Rather, it deters powers that have interests inimical to India from acting in ways that undermine our national security.

India’s power projection in the region is a combination of geo-economic, geopolitical and military power. A missile test might work at the margin to show India’s capability to deter its adversaries but it does not say anything about India’s intentions to direct this weapon to coerce or threaten anyone. A mere missile test must not be seen as constituting a shift in the Asian balance of power.

We shouldn’t read too much into official or media pronouncements about this missile test, in India or abroad. The concerned governments are all aware of India’s strategy and Agni V is no surprise at all. Diplomatic statements coming out of New Delhi are meant to frame this test and capability in the context of international arms control negotiations.

Tailpiece: Terms like inter-continental and intermediate-range to describe missiles are a relic of Cold War arms control negotiations. A far more meaningful way to describe missiles is in terms of their range and payload capacity—the Agni V is a 5500km/1000kg class missile.

Secure under the New Himalayas

Nuclear weapons in Indian strategic culture

This is the full unedited version of my essay that appeared in the 35th anniversary special issue of India Today.

Despite living next to each other for most of history, despite having fundamentally different ways of looking at international relations, the number of cases of direct military conflict between India and China have been few. In fact, before the India-China war of 1962, the last recorded instance of a Chinese military expedition against India was in 649 CE, when a diplomatic misunderstanding caused a resourceful Chinese envoy to organise a force comprising of 7000 Nepali horsemen, 1200 Tibetan warriors and a few Chinese soldiers to organise a punitive expedition into the Gangetic plains. So, while India was invaded overland several times from the North West, and later from the southern ocean, the Northern frontier was relatively quiet. Why?

You probably guessed it — the Himalayas acted as insurmountable strategic barriers for most of history, specifically preventing the large scale passage of men and material necessary for invasions. It was only in the late 19th-century that technology began to ‘lower’ this barrier, by making it easier for troops to cross the mountains. It should therefore not surprise us that by the 1960s, technology had advanced to such an extent that the Himalayas no longer were the barriers they used to be in the centuries past. There was nothing to stop two very different civilisation-states, two incompatible political systems, two proud leaders and two geopolitical mindsets from clashing violently.

Even as technology lowered one strategic barrier it helped erect another. The advent of nuclear weapons in the latter half of the previous century restored the old equilibrium. Since 1998, after India unambiguously acquired a nuclear arsenal, the resulting strategic deterrence between India and China works quite like the Himalayas used to.

We can see nuclear weapons as the New Himalayas that keep us secure. As long as they are high —that’s where the minimum credible deterrent comes in—it is inconceivable that China or any other power will see merit in mounting a direct military invasion. Of course, we will continue to see skirmishes, proxy wars, terrorist attacks and geopolitical chess games under the nuclear umbrella, but a large scale war is very unlikely. For a nation with a strategic culture of being oblivious to external threats until they reach the plains of Panipat, if not the very walls of Delhi, acquiring security through the New Himalayas was perhaps the ideal way.

As much as nuclear weapons have profoundly added to our national security, many parts of our political, intellectual and military establishment have yet to come to terms with what it means to be a nuclear power. This is partly because knowledge of nuclear matters is limited to a small number of people within the government. It is partly because India has been a declared nuclear power for just over a decade. There are some who steadfastly refuse to think about nuclear weapons in any way other than seeing them as immoral and unethical, with disarmament their only goal. Whatever might be the reasons, nuclear weapons somehow do not figure in many policy conversations where they ought to.

Take for instance the enduring perception of “China doing another ’62, to put India in its place.” This leads to paranoid outrage on violations of the line of actual control, gratuitous self-flagellation on being “too weak”, followed by demands for us to invest in military capabilities to fight a land war on our North-eastern frontiers. Most of the time, this discourse ignores nuclear deterrence. When the nuclear dimension does figure, it is in the form of calls to throw away the no-first use policy or to develop thermonuclear warheads. Few ask whether the Chinese would jeopardise their historic ascent by getting into a war with India that will not only throw New Delhi into the arms of Washington, but could also go nuclear. Few ask how much the men in Beijing trust New Delhi when it solemnly declares that India won’t be the first to launch a nuclear strike. Will Chinese leaders be any more comforted that the warhead on the incoming Indian missile is a kiloton fission weapon, and not a megaton hydrogen bomb? Fundamentally rethinking our assumptions in the context of nuclear weapons will throw up different set of prescriptions of dealing with China.

While India has a well-considered nuclear doctrine and command-and-control structure with the red button in the hands of the prime minister, you can detect a certain nonchalance in the way this actually works. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee didn’t hand over control to his deputy in October 2000 when he underwent major surgery. That was in the days before the Nuclear Command Authority was set up, but even in 2009, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was hospitalised for a bypass operation, the nation did not know who actually was in command of the nuclear arsenal. Was this person—presumably a senior cabinet minister—familiar enough with nuclear weapons policies and procedures? In other words, did he or she know what to do? We still don’t know. We ought to.

For all the talk about a new push towards global nuclear disarmament, it is more likely that the world will have two or three more nuclear weapons states in the near future. If Iran has the bomb it is quite likely that the Saudis will want to declare their hand too. A Saudi bomb will probably come from a Pakistani factory. So a triangular nuclear relationship among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel may be in the offing. We need not assume that this will necessarily make things more unstable.

In any case, the international nuclear order needs renewal. In the coming years, therefore, India will have to simultaneously discuss disarmament while ensuring that it has what it needs to ensure that the new Himalayas remain high. All the more reason for us, as a nation, to soberly but quickly reconcile to the value and utility of our nuclear weapons.

The Asian Balance: Assessing India’s East Asian engagement

Geoeconomics is the key to the seas East of Singapore

This was published in yesterday’s Business Standard.

The Asian Balance turns one today. It had promised to “devote itself to chronicling and interpreting the unfolding geopolitics of East Asia. It will be an unabashed advocate of Looking East far beyond the Straits of Malacca”. If anniversaries are a good time for some reflection, recent events make it even more necessary.

I had argued that three factors would shape the Asian balance. First, nuclear deterrence would shift the India-China context away from direct military conflict along the disputed land borders to theatres in and around the Indian Ocean. Second, the small- and medium-sized countries of East Asia would look towards India to help them counter the pressures arising from China’s geopolitical assertiveness. Third, the whole effort to create “one workable grouping (such as the East Asia Summit) is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to”.

It is not uncommon to hear Indian commentators lament how China is expanding its presence in countries traditionally considered close to India, how it has hardened its posture on the border dispute, and how it continues to prop up the Pakistani military-jihadi complex. New Delhi could do little about much of this because, by and large, it lacks direct levers. The structural geopolitics of the subcontinent leads to our neighbours welcoming an outside power to balance India.

Seen from the confines of a subcontinental mindset, New Delhi appears to have few options between resigned hand-wringing and reckless aggressiveness, both accompanied by rhetorical frenzy. But if you realise that the game board of the raja-mandala is global, New Delhi doesn’t look that helpless any more. Continue reading “The Asian Balance: Assessing India’s East Asian engagement”

China’s moment of vulnerability

China is at its most vulnerable moment since the Tiananmen Square upheaval of 1989.

At a recent panel discussion at the College of Defence Management, Secunderabad, I argued that it is important to include the dimension of China’s vulnerabilities in the way we see the India-China dynamic. The following is a summary of my remarks:

First, it has managed to antagonise almost all major nations–Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines and India—in its region, causing them to explore ways to counter-balance it. This has raised the demand for a US presence and strategic engagement in East Asia. The upcoming East Asia Summit will essentially be a framework that will attempt to bind China’s rise in the silken bonds of international norms. [See the East Asian kabuki]

Second, it is locked into geo-economic interdependence with the United States in a situation akin to two people with a gun to each others’ heads. China cannot escape the consequences of a US default or devaluation. [See my colleague V Anantha Nageswaran’s pieces on China’s policy tangle, quest for balance and US default.]

Third, China’s internal stability has been rocked by multiple vectors. The three big ethnic minorities are in various stages of unrest: the Mongolians have joined Tibetans and Uyghurs in mass protests. Rising productivity is exerting upward pressure on wages that the Communist Party is being forced to keep a lid on. Some of the labour grievances have erupted into agitations. Farmers protesting against expropriation and eviction have constituted another vector of instability. While many of these incidents might not make it to televisions, newspapers and even websites due to information control, Beijing still has to deal with them.

Fourth, there is certainly a serious factional war raging within the cloisters of the Chinese Communist Party. The recent drama around the health and whereabouts of Jiang Zemin is the latest in a series of events that suggest China’s policies are outcomes of factional contention. For all its attempts to show otherwise, the Chinese Communist Party leadership is not a monolithic entity. The Shanghai faction, the Youth Communist League Faction and the ‘Princeling’ faction have been identified. Even within the PLA, geographical regional loyalties and the changing balance of power between the PLA and the PLA Navy (PLAN) might be shaping China’s behaviour, not least in the East Asian maritime domain.

What should we make of it?

India should attempt to become a swing power. It should aim to achieve better relations with China and the United States than they enjoy with each other. At the same time, it must have the credible capacity to inflict pain and give pleasure to either of the two. This requires an unprecedented level of foreign policy dexterity.

While there is some empirical evidence that China tends to be more amenable to settling boundary disputes when it is internally weak, India should not be (and should not appear to be) in any haste to rush to a settlement. China is and perceives itself to be much more powerful than India at this time, and is likely to insist that disputes are settled only on its own terms. Instead of over-emphasising the Himalayan frontier, India should engage more deeply in East Asia, and contribute to a stable balance of power there [See the Asian balance and on the East Asian dance floor]. This is the primary means for India to acquire strategic leverage vis-a-vis China, for New Delhi is mostly on a weaker wicket on other issues.

The Indira Doctrine is dead

Make way for the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine

Led by the redoubtable Aziz Haniffa some observers are getting more than a little flustered at a senior US official’s remarks about the United States letting China play a bigger role in and around the Indian subcontinent. Speaking at a seminar at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, James Steinberg, deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration said “”China has an important role. It’s a neighbor of South Asia. And it’s unimaginable that China would not be involved.”

Well, he’s right. He appears to refer to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but even if he were to mean the subcontinent and its neighbourhood, he would not be wrong. Whether you like it or not, China is and will, in the coming years, become a even more influential player in India’s immediate neighbourhood. This will undoubtedly mean that India’s neighbours will attempts to play one against the other, and because India is the status quo power, this will work to India’s relative disadvantage vis-a-vis China.

The Indira Doctrine—which saw the subcontinent as India’s exclusive sphere of influence—died somewhere over the last twenty years. Whatever might be the reasons for its lapse, the objective reality today is that India is a pre-eminent power, but not the sole hegemon, in its immediate neighbourhood. Getting excited over Mr Steinberg’s realist appreciation of the situation is therefore unwarranted.

Should Indian foreign policy attempt to resuscitate the Indira Doctrine? Doing so would be limiting the vision to India’s capabilities and interests to what obtained during Indira Gandhi’s days, would be very challenging, of dubious strategic wisdom and perhaps even unnecessary. Why? Because India is playing in a much bigger playground today. New Delhi needs a Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. If China seeks to gain influence in India’s neighbourhood, India should do the same in China’s neighbourhood and elsewhere. [See East of Singapore and The Asian Balance]

What is interesting about Mr Steinberg’s remarks is that the United States is prepared to engage India on this. “Just as we talk about South Asia with China,” he said, “we talk about East Asia with India…” In fact what is even more interesting is this “We see India as (an) East Asian country. We engage with them on issues like North Korea and the like because we think of the importance that India plays.” This is almost exactly The Acorn’s argument.

Because of geography if not anything else, India’s influence in its immediate neighbourhood will grow in parallel with its own development. It is important, however, to understand the opportunities in the geopolitical environment that allow India to implement the Global Raja-Mandala Doctrine. At this moment, it is in the United States’ interest to support India in the East Asian balance of power. New Delhi must swing towards this opportunity.

The Asian Balance: Recognising good neighbours

My new monthly column in Business Standard is called The Asian Balance. It “will devote itself to chronicling and interpreting the unfolding geopolitics of East Asia. It will be a unabashed advocate of Looking East far beyond the Straits of Malacca. Rebuilding the economic, cultural and political relationships that India historically shared with the countries and the peoples to its East has never been more important to our future than it is today.”

The first piece is up. Here’s an excerpt:

Three factors will shape the Asian balance: first, nuclear weapons—what I call the New Himalayas—will shift the India-China contest away from a direct military conflict along the land border. It will take place, among others, in and around the Indian Ocean. It will play out in the form of increased Chinese presence in the waters off India’s coast and renewed US engagement of Asean countries. The big question is to what extent will India be a player in areas that China considers its backyard.

Second, the small- and medium-sized countries of the region will prefer a balance where no single power dominates over them. If they do not see this forthcoming, they are likely to join the stronger side. What this implies is that the importance they give to their relationship with India will depend on their assessment of whether New Delhi has the capability, and the will, to contribute to the balance.

Third, unless there is an addition to the number of nuclear powers in East Asia, there will be a preference to create and work through regional multilateral institutions like the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) and the East Asia Summit (EAS). The absence of direct nuclear deterrence in the Western Pacific has emboldened China to claim almost the entire South China Sea as its own. All the activity in East Asia trying to form one big workable grouping is premised on the unfounded hope that a powerful China will play by the rules it promises to. [Business Standard]

The wolf in the cabbage patch

…is unlikely to be vegetarian

The tragedy of M K Bhadrakumar’s article in today’s Hindu is that one half of it is eminently sensible and the other, unsubstantiated wishfulness. Yes, it is important not to allow paranoia to determine policy towards China, but unless Mr Bhadrakumar is wired into the minds of the Chinese leadership, it is illogical and dangerous to assume that the wolf in the cabbage patch is vegetarian. And will remain vegetarian.

As I had tweeted earlier, reports of Pakistan handing Gilgit-Baltistan over to China are almost certainly exaggerated. This does not mean, however, that the scenario is implausible. To the extent that Selig Harrison’s article caused the public and politicians to consider the implications of such a scenario—and hopefully, prepare for it—it served a purpose. It is quite possible that Mr Harrison was an unwitting part of a disinformation operation, perhaps by the United States, to ensure that public opinion in India remains wary of China. If this were so, shouldn’t China be extra careful to ensure that it doesn’t deliberately carry out unfriendly acts like the visa denial to a senior military officer? Mr Bhadrakumar would have been on a firmer footing had he listed some measures China took to prove its bona fides vis-a-vis India. I myself can count none.

Mr Bhadrakumar goes on to make two key assertions. First, that stability in India’s immediate neighbourhood needs India and China to co-operate, and that China sees a stable subcontinent as in its interests. Second, that growing Chinese influence in the neighbourhood will not damage India’s interests. There is no basis for such beliefs, and surely enough, he does not offer any.

On the first point, there is direct evidence that China uses unstable states to indirectly keep its adversaries engaged. China deliberately transferred nuclear weapons technologies to Pakistan, Iran and North Korea so that India and the United States could expend their resources tackling the paw, not the cat. It is hard to adduce evidence to prove conclusively that China is deliberately destabilising the subcontinent in order to contain India, but no sensible person can dismiss the possibility. The onus is on Mr Bhadrakumar to produce evidence of Chinese moves to stabilise the neighbourhood in co-operation with India. Does selling nuclear reactors to a highly unstable Pakistan, in violation of its international commitments, count?

On the second point, realists will accept that China’s influence in the subcontinent will grow, whether or not India likes it. But that’s not the issue. The issue is, even in the unlikely event that China itself does not use its influence against India’s interests, the countries of the subcontinent almost certainly will. Bilateral relations with Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Myanmar and countries of ASEAN will get even more difficult to resolve, because their leaders will play New Delhi against Beijing. There’s evidence for this: King Gyanendra, Khaleda Zia and Mahinda Rajapaksa all pursued policies contrary to New Delhi’s recommendations. Two of them lost power, but not before plunging their countries into instability and crises. Mr Rajapaksa didn’t lose power, but thanks to Chinese influence, tragically believes he can avoid genuine reconciliation after the civil war.

While India cannot prevent China from increasing its influence in the subcontinent, there is no reason to welcome it. New Delhi must act to increase its own influence and counter China’s. That’s not all. The game is not restricted to the neighbourhood—it is global. Ergo, India must extend its influence in and around China’s immediate neighbourhood. As I wrote in my Pax Indica column recently, New Delhi needs a Look East Beyond Singapore strategy. Achieving balance within regions and balance between regions is the surest way to have a stable relationship with China.

Related Posts: M K Bhadrakumar routinely imputes benevolent motives to Beijing. Couple of instances: Worshipping false gods; John 8:7 doesn’t apply to international relations