China warns Singapore

As Singapore confronts difficult choices, it must sound out New Delhi.

It is an open secret that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) train in the Republic of China in Taiwan, and the two countries have enjoyed a quiet, but very productive partnership since the early 1970s. Like how actors in ’70s Hindi movies used to become totally unrecognisable merely by putting on a moustache and a beard, Singapore’s soldiers would become Taiwanese ones when they exercised in that country. The subterfuge was out of respect for diplomatic niceties, to placate the People’s Republic of China. For instance, Singapore service personnel would assume Taiwanese aliases. Sometimes this would lead to hilarious outcomes: like when my friend, an ethnic-Tamil Singaporean infantry platoon commander, had to pass off as Chong Wai-kiong.

Singapore’s defence cooperation with Taiwan (Project Starlight) predates the establishment of diplomatic relations with China. For its part, Beijing was content with this arrangement, even when it came close to war with Taiwan in the mid-1990s. Ian Storey writes that Li Peng, then China’s Premier, said that China ‘should not mind too much’ if Singapore continued its military relationship with Taiwan, but had asked that this be done discreetly.

So last week, when Hong Kong customs authorities — tipped off by their Chinese counterparts — seized nine infantry vehicles on a ship that was making its way from Taiwan to Singapore, it appears that Beijing has decided to deliver a warning. Or more.

It comes as a surprise, but is clearly yet another manifestation of an emboldened China taking aggressive positions in its extended neighbourhood. Even if Beijing were to end the impasse by releasing SAF’s equipment in return for renewed Singaporean commitment to the One China policy, it would further strengthen the perception among East Asian countries that it is best not to antagonise China. It would also put greater caution, and perhaps even a suspension of the four-decade old Singapore-Taiwan military cooperation. Chastising Singapore has multiple benefits for China.

It is too early to tell if Beijing’s actions are informed by an expectation that the upcoming Trump administration will disengage from Asia, leaving the field open to China. China’s actions over the past few years suggest that Beijing is confident of upping the ante even in the face of US “pivot” to Asia. It may be American conceit to believe that Trump is leaving East Asia to China. The rulers in Beijing perhaps believe they already have Asia.

This is a crucial period for India’s own Act East policy. New Delhi must reassure Singapore, Hanoi, Jakarta, Seoul, Tokyo and Canberra that India has the wherewithal and a commitment to shape an Asian balance that does not surrender to Chinese hegemony. If the United States wishes to be part of such an arrangement, then it is all for the better. If not, the six Indo Pacific powers must manage on their own. Let’s not forget that if the United States is no longer in the picture, India is the only nuclear power on the other side of China.

Aiming for nuclear war prevention

Non-proliferation is not the only way to prevent nuclear war. (It may not even be a way at all.)

Craig Campbell and Jan Ruzicka have a refreshing blog post at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage on how what they call the “non-proliferation complex” has locked down fresh thinking on the nuclear problem.

It is refreshing to see Western commentators accept that the current nuclear order is based on “massive hypocrisy” (for the nuclear powers reneged on their commitment to disarm) and that the “complex’s domination of nuclear politics is its stifling of thinking about serious alternatives to the current nuclear order.”

Campbell & Ruzicka suggest that a solution may lie in the direction of forming a—admittedly unrealistic and unfashionable—world government.

It might not be necessary to form a world government for this purpose. Creating an international regime that performs certain nuclear risk management functions (okay, that guarantees a retaliation against any nuclear attack) is likely to be good enough for the limited purpose of preventing nuclear war. This modest proposal from 2009 lists out a three step process that can get us there:

Step 1: Adopt a Global No First Use Treaty (GNFUT)—all countries of the world, regardless of whether they already have, almost have, can soon produce and do not have nuclear weapons commit that they will not be the first to use nuclear weapons against another country.

Step 2: Convert the world’s arsenal into a ‘force-in-being’—states that have nuclear weapons will reconfigure their arsenals and deployment postures such that the risk of a surprise first strike, or indeed an accidental nuclear exchange, are minimised. Complete verification will be impossible but advances in technology will aid the process. But better a cat-and-mouse in verification and obfuscation than arms races and hair-trigger alerts. This step can accompany a global reduction in the number of weapons and delivery systems to a negotiated minimum (so-called “minimum deterrence”).

Step 3: Globalise nuclear deterrence—an international treaty that allows the international community to punish any violation of the GNFUT with a punitive nuclear strike will globalise deterrence. [A modest proposal]

It is unclear if the combination of a mindless worship of nuclear disarmament and the dubious theology of the non-proliferation complex will permit such proposals to be even discussed in wonkdom, forget their consideration by official multilateral forums. It isn’t in the interests of the beneficiaries of the current order to do so.

Agni-V in perspective

In simple terms

This appeared in DNA yesterday.

Let’s look at some of interesting questions that arose after the recent test of the Agni-V missile. The first is whether it is really an inter-continental ballistic missile being undersold as an intermediate range ballistic missile out of reasons of political correctness. Well, other than for the purposes of international arms control negotiations, what four-letter acronym we use to refer to a missile is irrelevant. For example, an artillery shell fired across the 14.3 km-wide Straits of Gibraltar is, factually, an inter-continental ballistic missile. The classification of missiles with ranges less than 5500 km as ‘intermediate range’ is a relic of Cold War era arms control negotiations and an outcome of the strategic geography of that era. So while pedants, lawyers and negotiators can agonise over whether Agni-V is an ICBM or an IRBM, what is important from the perspective of our national security is its range and its payload capacity.

Officially, Agni-V has a range of 5000kms and can carry 1000kg of multiple warheads. In contrast to the usual cynical ‘they are inflating their claims’ comment, some foreign commentators have alleged that India is under-declaring the actual range. Chinese experts have claimed that the actual range is 8000kms, thereby allowing Europe to be targeted. Could there be something in these claims? Now, anyone who’s tinkered around with automobile engines or over-clocked their computers knows that there is often more juice to be squeezed from the machines because the engineers who design them are a conservative lot.

High school physics tells us that the trajectory of a projectile can be made to vary by changing its weight. So the 5000kms range is largely an indicative figure. With strategic missiles it makes sense to obfuscate range and weight parameters to the extent possible because keeping everyone guessing is a good part of the game.

That game is strategic deterrence. It’s a game that is well-suited to our national genius. India — and Delhi in particular — has historically ignored threats until they materialise at or inside the walls of the capital. Our internal political games keep us so preoccupied to this day that we are not interested in stopping the invader at the strategic frontiers like the Khyber Pass or the waters of the Indian Ocean. Only the Himalayas generally saved us from invasions from the north until 1962. By then the previously insurmountable barriers could be traversed due to the march of technology. However, after India developed nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them, the strategic barrier between India and China was restored. Now that we have apprised potential invaders of the unacceptably high cost of attacking us, we can go back to the delights of our domestic politics and entertainment.

The fact that the army chief warned of a severe shortage of basic ammunition troubled us for a fleeting moment last month. Then the IPL season started…

Once fully developed and deployed — a few years from now — Agni-V will extend the deterrence to countries in its range. Of course, this includes China. It would, however, be misleading to conclude that the Agni-V missile is solely ‘meant for’ China. It’s not. Like that colourful message you see painted on the back of trucks, it applies to anyone within its range who has an ‘evil eye’. There are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations, and today’s adversary could well be tomorrow’s ally. A strategic missile deters countries with inimical interests from acting in ways that undermine our national security.

Many foreign media reports connected India’s test with North Korea’s and suggested an Asian arms build-up. Meanwhile, a few Indian commentators attributed it to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s foreign policy. Both are wrong, because they ignore the fact that Agni-V is part of a missile development programme that was started in the early 1980s and has been consistently pursued by all governments since then. The broad timing of the test is more related to the development cycle than to contemporary events — the exact timing might well be influenced by factors ranging from the diplomatic calendar to the direction of the wind.

Relating it to Pyongyang’s latest shenanigans or China’s recent assertiveness would be impute a causation where none exists. Unlike mothers facing unexpected dinner guests, DRDO can’t cook up a new missile just like that.

It is fashionable to argue that India’s fractious democratic system does not allow it to pursue long term inter-generational projects. This is only partly true. India’s nuclear strategy contradicts this argument — the minimum credible deterrent has been pursued for at least the last three decades.

Will Agni-V change the balance of power in the broader Asian region? Not quite. For that India will need to regain the economic growth trajectory that it fell out of over the last decade. What remains to be seen is whether the security the missile provides will make us even more complacent about implementing the second-generation reforms necessary to accumulate power.

©2012 Diligent Media Corporation Ltd.

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.

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 case for South Korean nukes

Self-help is best

Kim Dae-joong, columnist at South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper calls for Seoul to develop its own nuclear arsenal, arguing that the South’s nuclearisation is the key to the denuclearisation of the penisula.

(Few) experts or politicians believe the North will actually abandon its nuclear program. They know that the North Korean regime believes the country would have no future if it gives up its nuclear weapons. In other words, the parties to the nuclear talks are operating on false premises, trotting out their goals out of habit without any belief that they can achieve them. Fully aware that the North won’t denuclearize, they clamor for its denuclearization at every available occasion. It is the ultimate in hypocrisy and bad faith.

The way out of the hypocrisy trap is for South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons too. Only when Seoul develops a nuclear bomb will the way for substantive negotiations between the two Koreas open. Paradoxically, denuclearization is possible on the Korean Peninsula only when both Koreas have nuclear arms, exercise mutual restraint and conduct nuclear disarmament talks. We can no longer entrust our lives and territorial security to the incompetence of world powers that have failed to settle the North Korean nuclear issue for over two decades. We have to take charge, and to do that we need to develop nuclear weapons.

The regions most exposed to the threat of war are the Korean Peninsula, the Middle East and Africa. Nuclear balance is maintained in the Mideast and Africa. But on the Korean Peninsula the North can make nuclear threats and the South trembles. Some say the U.S. nuclear umbrella plays its role, but having nuclear arms and relying on someone else’s nuclear protection are two very different things.

The chances are nil that Washington, which trembled at the artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island, would risk a war with China by deploying its nuclear umbrella when the North launches a nuclear attack. That is the limitation of the nuclear umbrella, and there lies the reason why Pyongyang will not give up its nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons can be subject to negotiations, but a nuclear umbrella cannot. [Chosun Ilbo]

Pakistan’s ‘second’ nuclear arsenal

My talk at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi

Earlier this month, I presented my analysis of Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal at CLAWS. A summary of the talk and discussion is up at their website. Excerpt:

Pakistan is worried for its nuclear safety and the US view on its nuclear programme. The second nuclear arsenal would be outside the ambit of its regular arsenal and could be brought into play if any attempt is made to take out its regular arsenal by any agency distrustful of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads.

Possible existence of a second nuclear arsenal increases the risk for the US and also imposes an asymmetric threat to India. Such an arsenal will fuel an arms race in the Middle East especially in view of the Saudi-Pak nuclear convergence and cooperation with respect to growth of Iran’s nuclear capability. India for its part must disabuse all concerned that it is in a nuclear arms race and promote stability in the region. Perhaps if India can act as an interlocutor between Iran and the USA and bring about a rapprochement between the two countries, it could promote strategic stability in the region and prevent a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. [Shah Alam/CLAWS]

Related posts: Why is Pakistan cranking up its nuclear capacity? The arms race in the Middle East; Not our problem; and, MUD not MAD

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?

Those masterly Persians

Lula and Erdogan have cleared Tehran’s clouds

In approximately one year two men will have red faces. That’s when the world will know that Brazil’s president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan were suckered by the leaders of Iran.

It took Iran around 8 months to double its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU), half of which it has now agreed to swap for 20% enriched uranium under a deal brokered by the Brazilian and Turkish leaders. That still leaves it with 1200 kg of LEU, an unrestrained capacity to continue working its centrifuges and, possibly, clandestine facilities where it can produce weapons-grade uranium. In other words, Iran can get as close to building a nuclear bomb as it wishes to. Further, to the extent that that deal takes the international pressure off Iran it gives Tehran the time it needs to get closer to its self-defined finish line.

There’s more.

For now, Brazil and Turkey have avoided getting into a difficult position having to vote against Iran at the UN Security Council where they are currently non-permanent members. Since it was the Obama administration once floated the proposal for such a swap, the United States will find it hard to oppose it now, despite the facts having changed substantially since last October when it first mooted the idea. China will heave a sigh of relief too, since it too will not need to support tougher sanctions against Tehran. Everyone—other than the United States—wins. For now.

As we know from the North Korean story, what Iran needs most is time and diplomatic space. That, thanks now to Messrs Lula and Erdogan, it has acquired.

After that, it will be fait accompli.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear arsenal-on-demand

Just say the word

That Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have a secret nuclear deal is not exactly a secret. But the Guardian‘s Julian Borger has some details:

According to western intelligence sources (the meeting was under Chatham House rules so I am not allowed to be more specific) the Saudi monarchy paid for up to 60% of the Pakistani nuclear programme, and in return has the option to buy a small nuclear arsenal (‘five to six warheads) off the shelf if things got tough in the neighbourhood. [Guardian Blogs]

That’s still very fuzzy, but better than what was previously known to the public. In any case, the Pakistanis are unlikely to refuse if Saudi Arabia were to increase the size of the order.

While on the topic, do see Sean O’Connor’s very good open source intelligence analysis of Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile force.