MH370 and three worrying “ifs”

Implications for India’s diplomacy, national security and civil aviation policy.: my The Asian Balance column at Business Standard.

It was not until Wednesday, nearly four days after Malaysia Airlines flight MH470 was lost over South China Sea, that the Indian armed forces were activated into the search for the missing aircraft. This was well after the crucial first 48 hours and after President Pranab Mukherjee’s offer of assistance. Given that the Malaysian authorities knew — for Royal Malaysian Air Force’s primary radars had detected an aircraft heading towards the Andaman Sea — that there was a chance that the aircraft might have flown westwards, we wish they had requested Indian assistance much earlier.

In his press conference on Saturday, a week after the plane was reported lost, Najib Razak, Malaysia’s prime minister said that “(s)ince day one, the Malaysian authorities have worked hand-in-hand with our international partners – including neighbouring countries…(in the investigation)”, which only implies that the Malaysian authorities did not consider India a neighbouring country either. Given that he also announced the missing plane might have gotten anywhere from the Kazakhstan-Turkmenistan border to northern Thailand—which implies overflight or landing on Indian territory — Kuala Lumpur’s lapse was terribly unfortunate.

The underlying message is that India’s Look East policy in general and the Indian navy’s sustained outreach near and across the Straits of Malacca in particular still leaves countries like Malaysia unpersuaded. There are reasons to believe that Malaysia is an exception, but Kuala Lumpur’s delay in roping in India is an indicator that New Delhi must redouble its diplomacy, messaging & capacity demonstration in East Asia.

The human tragedy of the uncertain fate of 239 passengers and crew on the aircraft is bad enough. The possibility that the flight might have entered Indian maritime space, passed undetected over thousands of kilometres of Indian territory or landed somewhere across our borders is disturbing.

From what we know at this time, the probability that the plane flew in India’s direction is only 50% (as there is an equal chance that it could have flown towards the southern Indian Ocean). The probability that it overflew the Indian landmass is lower than that, and that of a touchdown across India’s borders even more so. Even if the chances are very low, that one of the biggest aircrafts in the world might have passed undetected by our armed forces in the Andaman Sea and by both civilian and defence authorities over the mainland should worry us. Risk, after all, is a function of both probability and the potential loss.

The first of the three “ifs” concerns our military setup in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. India’s only tri-service theatre command, it is “charged with the responsibility for the defence of the Andaman & Nicobar territories, its air space and waters.” If, and it is a big if, MH370 had indeed flown west or north-west across the Straits of Malacca, it went undetected by Indian military radars. That is a lapse. Admiral Arun Prakash, a perspicacious former navy chief, told the Washington Post that there are only two radars there, focussed on Indian airspace (not the Straits of Malacca) and might not be operate round-the-clock.

Given all the geopolitical turbulence in East Asia and intense naval activity in the vicinity of the Straits of Malacca, India cannot allow its south-eastern gates to be guarded only during daylight hours. If you can’t spot a lumbering elephant the chances are that you can’t spot quick brown fox either. If you miss a Boeing 777-200, you are likely to miss smaller, faster, lower-flying objects too. That’s not a good thing for national security.

The next government must review the capacity of the Andaman & Nicobar Command and allocate enough resources to ensure that our armed forces don’t miss the next bird.

The second “if” involves the missing plane approaching or flying over Indian territory undetected. Yes, the plane’s transponders had been turned off, and secondary surveillance systems wouldn’t have detected it — but how that aircraft could have evaded the many civilian and military primary radars across India is unfathomable. However, if (and note that this is a bigger “if”) it did pass undetected then not only are our air defences weak, our skies are more unsafe for civilian flight than we thought. Should subsequent developments raise the probability of this scenario, the management of our skies will need an urgent reappraisal.

Now for the third and most far fetched “if”. What if the plane was stolen and landed somewhere across our borders? Who might have stolen it and why? Given that there are some very bad answers to these questions, the far-fetchedness doesn’t diminish the risk to national security. Terrorism is political theatre, and if the plane had been hijacked, it makes little sense for the hijackers or their associates not to claim responsibility. One of the questions that leaves us with is what if stealing the plane was the first act of an unfolding drama? We should hope not, but as George Shultz said, hope is not a policy.

The wages of distrust

Tackling a Mahatma Grade Problem

In a discussion at Takshashila’s Bangalore centre several months ago on what might be India’s biggest problems, I nominated “lack of social trust” as one of the fundamental ones. In today’s new column in Business Standard—the old monthly column on geopolitics continues as usual—I argue that lack of trust is undermining India’s economic growth.

“Widespread distrust in a society,” according to Francis Fukuyama, “imposes a kind of tax on all forms of economic activity, a tax that high-trust societies do not have to pay.” In a 2001 study of 41 countries, economists Paul J Zak and Stephen Knack conclude that “growth rises by nearly a percentage point on average for each 15 percentage point increase in trust.”

According to the World Values Survey, social trust plunged almost 18 percentage points in the first half of the last decade. This suggests India might have lost an entire percentage point of economic growth due to the loss of social trust. So while economists and “policymakers have been sensitive to slowing growth, growing inflation and widening fiscal and current account deficits, few account for the impact of the fall in social trust.” Read the column for what role public policy might have in addressing this problem.

How did other countries fare? Scandinavian countries score very high. Brazil, surprisingly, scores very low. Here’s a chart that compares India, China, Japan and the United States.

generaltrust-wvs

Even if social trust in China appears to be declining gradually, the Chinese enjoy much higher levels of trust than the others being compared. The United States seems to be recovering gradually from a plunge in the 1990s. For a country that is relatively homogenous, Japanese trust levels are lower than Chinese, and are comparable to the much more diverse United States. Note, also, that other than the Chinese, a majority in the other countries does not trust other people.

Restoring trust is a Mahatma Grade Problem (MGP) — we can be reasonably sure that public policy alone cannot solve it: the solution has to emerge from society itself. As I write in today’s piece, “even if we somehow found a way to make us trust each other, only one out five is likely to trust the persons advocating the solution. A democracy with high levels of distrust will, thus, find policies hard to implement, especially if they are non-intuitive.”

Addendum: What causes some countries to have greater social trust?

Jan Delhey and Kenneth Newton analysed social trust levels in 60 countries and arrive at the following conclusion:

The highest levels of generalised social trust across the globe are closely associated with a tight syndrome of religious/cultural, social, economic, and political characteristics.

Protestantism, but no other religion, is strongly associated with trust, probably because the Protestant ethic has left an historical imprint on cultures of equality and the importance of consistently trustworthy behaviour.

An absence of ethnic cleavages is also important, presumably because people of the same ethnic background find it easier to trust one another.

Wealthy and egalitarian societies are trusting societies, although wealth seems to matter more than equality.

Last, good government is an essential structural basis of trust. Corruption free and democratic government seems to create an institutional structure in which individuals are able to act in a trustworthy manner and can reasonably expect that others will generally do the same. [Delhey & Newton, Predicting Cross-National Levels of Social Trust: Global Pattern or Nordic Exceptionalism?]

Is China being bullied by the Philippines?

The disproportionate negotiating power of strategic proxies

Today’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

The small-country bullies
China’s aggressive posturing over maritime boundaries has caused East Asian countries to look at other powers for support

It’s those Chinese fishing vessels again. Last month they ventured into a shoal in the South China Sea, presumably hunting for giant clams, when they were apprehended by the Philippines’ naval patrols. If the Philippines claims the Scarborough shoal – a few hectares worth of low-lying rocks 200 kilometres from its shores – China claims the entire South China Sea as its own. In what has become a familiar pattern over the last few years, the Chinese fishing vessels triggered off a confrontation that quickly escalated into a maritime and diplomatic stand-off. Chinese tourists left the Philippines, and Filipino bananas face an uncertain prospect now in clearing China’s food safety tests.

The two countries are now trying to back off at this time, but not before the “w” word surfaced in the popular discourse.
War? Over some uninhabited rocks in the middle of nowhere? Between China (GDP $7.3 trillion, defence budget $106.4 billion) and the Philippines (GDP $213 billion, defence budget $2.3 billion)? Who would want it?

Not China. While it certainly wants to keep its territorial claims alive by letting intrepid fishing vessels do to South China Sea islands what dogs do to lamp posts, it knows that an outright military conflict will be counterproductive to its longer-term interests.

Provocative fishing vessels and Beijing’s aggressive diplomatic posturing over maritime boundaries have already caused East Asian countries to look at the United States, India and other powers for support. In case China finds itself in a war with the Philippines, opposition to Beijing will consolidate, and the US will make strategic inroads into the region, making it harder for China to achieve its goal of dominating the Western Pacific.

The US too does not want a war. It has a military alliance with the Philippines, and Manila could call upon US support if it is attacked. Washington is understandably reluctant to let itself be dragged into a war against a great power by a small ally over a tiny issue. The Obama administration has signalled that territorial disputes are outside the scope of the defence pact. Even so, if it is seen as shirking from supporting its ally, the value of Washington’s strategic promissory notes in East Asia will sharply depreciate. It cannot, however, support its ally without provoking Beijing. A war would cause the US to choose between losing its reputation and getting into an unwanted confrontation with China.

Most East Asian countries do not want war either. They have spent the last decade attempting to engineer “regional security architectures” – essentially multilateral forums that discuss security issues – that hope to solve tricky geopolitical disputes without being bullied and without having to fight. Yet for all its achievements, the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) has little to show in terms of ability to manage armed conflict, even between its member states. Thailand, for instance, has stonewalled the deployment of Indonesian military observers over its border dispute with Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple.

Nor has Asean been very vocal in insisting that China comply with the code of conduct in the South China Sea they agreed to in 2002. Its member states are unlikely to want their solidarity to be put to the kind of test that a China-Philippines naval conflict would entail.

What about the Philippines itself? For Manila, maritime boundaries in the South China Sea assume an economic significance that goes beyond nationalistic sentiment over territory. The seabed is supposed to have rich reserves of oil and natural gas, although estimates vary. The technology to exploit natural gas fields in the South China Sea is maturing. China National Offshore Oil Corporation already has semi-submersible deep sea drilling platforms. Manila has its eyes on healthy revenue streams from energy exports which can make a substantial difference to its fiscal position and overall economic health.

This, coupled with the security guarantee the Philippines enjoys by virtue of its alliance with the US, has caused it to stand firm and confront China. So much so that Dai Bingguo, one of Beijing’s top foreign policy hands, accused the Philippines, “a smaller country”, of bullying China. He has a point. As China’s leaders ought to know all too well, small countries that are backed by great powers have disproportionate negotiating power, and they “bully” both their adversaries and their backers. The Philippines might calculate that it has relatively less to lose by letting tensions escalate.

That’s the main risk — when pesky fishing boats, Chinese law enforcement vessels and Philippines naval ships are facing off each other, an accidental trigger can cause an unintentional escalation. Given the turbulence in China’s civil-military relations ahead of this autumn’s leadership transition, and the numerous Chinese state agencies engaged in the South China Sea, the risk of escalation is higher on its side. The onus, therefore, is on Beijing to keep a lid on the tensions.

Unrelated to the stand-off, a contingent of four warships from the Indian Navy’s Eastern Command is on a routine long-range overseas deployment to the South China Sea, and ports in China and the Philippines are among those it will call on. It does come at an interesting time, given its mission of what the Navy terms “generating goodwill among the neighbouring countries”.

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All Rights Reserved.

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.

Put Pakistan on a genocide watchlist

All of Pakistan’s minorities are under systematic attack

Today’s Asian Balance column in Business-Standard.

Earlier this month, provoked by a grenade attack, hundreds of militants affiliated to radical Sunni groups stopped buses in Gilgit-Baltistan (a part of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir under Pakistani control), rounded up Shia passengers and executed them. Similar incidents in the region over the past few months have claimed scores of lives. We do not know how many exactly, because Pakistan has imposed a media blackout. It is already clear though, that the killings of Shias were systematic and carried out with the connivance of the Pakistani state authorities.

That’s not all. All of Pakistan’s religious and ethnic minorities are under attack.

While the lot of religious minorities in Pakistan was never pretty, it has gotten far worse in the last few years. The brazen, unpunished and celebrated assassinations of personalities like Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti divert attention from the violence against minorities on a day-to-day basis. There are reports of several dozen Pakistani Hindu families seeking asylum in India. Compiling figures from Sindhi language newspapers, Marvi Sirmed, a Pakistani writer and activist, has estimated that 3,000 Hindu girls have been abducted and converted to Islam in the province. Christian families have been forced to flee after charges of blasphemy were levelled against their members.

It’s a similar situation for ethnic minorities. In Balochistan, the Pakistan army’s counter-insurgency strategy includes terrorising the population through enforced disappearances, torture and killing of citizens followed by the dumping of their bodies as a warning to the rest. The Shia Hazaras are not only a religious minority, but also an ethnic one. Over the last two years there has been an escalation in violence against them in Balochistan, in FATA and Gilgit-Baltistan.

The perpetrators and immediate motives in each of these cases are different. They range from Sunni jihadi groups targeting people they consider apostates, to rival communities seeking domination, to the Pakistani armed forces fighting insurgents. They are called sectarian violence, gang warfare, ethnic cleansing, kill-and-dump or counter-insurgency. It is perhaps because there are individual names for these crimes that we are missing the possibility that they might amount to a bigger one — genocide.

This is not a word to be used loosely. Genocide specifically means “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. It includes killing people on account of belonging to a group; causing them serious bodily or mental harm; deliberately inflicting conditions to destroy the group in whole or in part; preventing births and transferring children by force. The situation in Pakistan today satisfies many of these criteria, and to varying degrees.

How many people have died? The blackout, censorship and violent intimidation of journalists makes it hard to estimate even the order of magnitude. Baloch nationalist groups, for instance, have criticised the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan for reporting 35 disappearances and 173 dumped bodies in 2011. They claim over over 14,000 disappearances since 2005 and 400 dumped bodies since July 2010. It would be wrong, though, to wait for the body counts to rise to some arbitrary level for the world to take action.

A genocide takes place in stages. These can be rapid or drawn out in time. Gregory Stanton, an American human rights scholar and president of Genocide Watch, has identified eight stages, starting from classification of people into “us and them” and ending in extermination followed by denial. Pakistan is already through many of the early stages. Instead of waiting until it is too late for too many, the proper thing to do now is to squarely place Pakistan in a genocide watchlist and bring the intense focus of international public opinion to bear. It is understandable that the governments of the United States and India are unwilling to take up the violence against minorities for reasons of realpolitik. It is understandable that China and Saudi Arabia don’t care. It is therefore understandable that the UN Security Council doesn’t care. What is not understandable is that international media and human rights groups appear oblivious to this ongoing tragedy.

The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCR2P) and the International Coalition for The Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP) — two prominent international NGOs that champion the Responsibility to Protect populations against mass atrocities as an international norm — do not even list Pakistan in the crises they are tracking. Organisations like Human Rights Watch are bravely reporting events on the ground, but their wide mandate precludes them from focusing on this one issue.

The UN Human Rights Council is more interested in outlawing giving offence to religion than killing in its name. The Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), always ready to talk about the world’s oppressed Muslims, can be trusted to maintain a resolute silence in this case.

Closer home, the Indian media stands indicted too. So completely are our television channels beholden to the narrative of the peace process that they are, literally, overlooking mass murder.

The white stripe on Pakistan’s flag is being eaten up. The geopolitical implications come later. At this time it is already a human tragedy that is unconscionable for Indians to ignore. In Bob Dylan’s sublime words, “Yes, and how many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died?”

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All rights reserved

The dogmas that undermine our defence

Reforming defence procurement, mindset first

This the unedited version of my op-ed in today’s Business Standard.

Why is it that on the one hand India is the world’s biggest arms buyer, and on the other, the outgoing army chief has complained that we are short of basic war-fighting equipment like tank ammunition and field guns? Why is it that our defence procurement takes years to complete and can be halted or reversed by allegations of corruption? Is corruption so rampant within the top echelons of our armed forces that the both the army chief and defence minister could shrug off a brazen attempt to bribe the general in his office? How come the defence ministry has spurned and blacklisted vendors from countries whose geopolitical interests are aligned to ours?

It is easy to treat these issues as merely the failings of individuals and the shortcomings of the latest procurement rules. It is easy to park the unholy affair under the general head of how corruption is undermining our nation. To do so would be to ignore the underlying causes of why things have some to such a pass.

The first is the dogmatic pursuit of indigenisation, a mindset that pervades the defence establishment. It has resulted both in policy capture by public sector unit (PSU) network and introduced layers of complexity in procurement rules. Ordinarily, as end users, the armed forces would want the best possible equipment for the rupee, but they too are prisoners of a narrative that involves the pursuit of a chimerical indigenisation. For in New Delhi, it is still nearly heretical to suggest that an enemy killed by a foreign-made bullet is as dead as an enemy killed by a partly-indigenous bullet.

This is not say indigenisation is an unworthy goal. Rather, it is to suggest that the longstanding approach to indigenisation has not only met with limited success but also that the same goal can be achieved using different means. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the government couldn’t produce an indigenous passenger car no matter how many it purchased from Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles. It was only after the liberalisation of the economy and the entry of foreign competitors that Tata Motors, Mahindra and others could produce automobiles that are not only indigenous but also in the same league as their foreign competitors. The route to effective indigenisation, therefore, is counter-intuitive. We must open our defence sector to foreign investors so that Indian industry can acquire the capabilities to produce the equipment our armed forces need.

This cannot be achieved by offsets that require foreign suppliers to spend part of the contract price in India. Offsets might re-inject part of the defence expenditure into the domestic economy but will not result in the transfer of knowledge, skills and human capital that are essential for India to build a modern defence industry. The most effective way to get there is to open doors for foreign direct investment in defence manufacturing. Capping the foreign equity at 26% has attracted few investors. Instead of arguing over another arbitrary level at which to set the cap, we should do away with it altogether.

The second is the equally dogmatic anti-middleman mindset. Going by the statements of the defence minister, it would appear that middlemen—like their lobbyist cousins—are uniformly evil and therefore ought to be banned outright. Yet middlemen are not the cause of corruption. Rather, both middlemen and corruption are the twin offspring of the same parent—complex procurement rules.

The more complex a set of rules, the more the need for ‘specialists’ to help navigate through them. The reason lawyers and chartered accountants exist is because the law and the tax code are complex. Middlemen exist because they perform a useful economic role. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or immoral about them. It is our rules that make them so, driving underground a genuine economic activity.

Why do we have complex procurement rules? Because we have overcrowded them with multiple, sometimes conflicting objectives. Changing our approach to indigenisation as argued earlier can simplify them to some extent. Even so, it is unlikely that they can be simplified enough to eliminate the need for agents. That is why instead of prohibiting middlemen in defence procurement, a far better policy would be to create a regulatory framework under which they can operate legitimately.

Agents could be required to declare their past and current affiliations, and disclose relevant family connections. Former defence officers and their civilian counterparts could be required to serve out a cooling off period before getting into the business. The policy objective ought to be to align—to the extent possible—the economic incentives of the middlemen to the organisational interests of the armed forces. We don’t have to like lawyers and chartered accountants in order for us to let them discharge their economic roles. Why should it be any different with middlemen?

The final cause of the mess in our defence procurement is that we often ignore the geopolitical consequences of our purchases. Awarding the tender to the lowest bidder might be the best method to resurface parade grounds but not for billion dollar purchases of equipment. To treat both purchases the same way would be to lose strategic leverage that comes from being able favour a country which can give us something else that we need. Blacklisting companies from friendly powers exposes us to purchases from less friendly ones.

The biggest argument for indigenisation is that reliance on foreign suppliers is risky because supplies can be withheld in order to coerce us. That risk can be mitigated if we procure military equipment from countries with which we have extensive economic ties, and vice versa. Reducing the incongruence between our top trading partners and our top arms suppliers ought to be an important policy goal.

The ghost of Bofors continues to haunt our defence procurement. Avoiding stepping on the dung on the road is now more important than getting to the destination. As the defence minister admitted in parliament, the pace of modernisation is slow because every allegation of corruption is investigated. This leaves us with the unfortunate implication that that anyone, from an inimical foreign power to a disgruntled equipment vendor, can apply brakes on the modernisation process. The ghost must be exorcised by liberalising the defence manufacturing sector and getting rid of the superstition that passes off as strategy.

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All rights reserved.

Time to restructure the Indian armed forces

The controversies around the army chief are symptoms of a deeper malaise

(This is the unedited draft of today’s op-ed in Indian Express)

Like the metaphorical iceberg, what is visible to us in the ongoing controversy involving the army chief and the defence ministry is just the small fraction floating above the line. Much of the public debate has been occupied by trivial issues like his date of birth or scandalous matters like corruption in defence procurement. While the service tenure of an individual officer is of little relevance to national security, corruption among the top brass most certainly is.

What lies below the line is bigger, more dangerous and invisible to the naked eye: the controversies triggered by General V K Singh are manifestations of an organisational structure and culture that is in dire need for change.

Actually, it has been in dire need for change for decades. Ten years ago, the Vajpayee government constituted a committee of experts to study India’s war effort in Kargil. That committee, chaired by the late K Subrahmanyam noted that “an objective assessment of the last 52 years will show that the country is lucky to have scraped through various national security threats without too much damage, except in 1962. The country can no longer afford such an ad hoc functioning.” It proposed a slew of important reforms, few of which have been implemented in spirit. The UPA government instituted another committee under Naresh Chandra last year which is in final stages of submitted its report. We have all the reports. We just don’t have the reforms.

India is facing the strategic environment of the twenty-first century with its armed forces structured largely as they were during the Second World War. The reduced likelihood of a big conventional war—thanks to nuclear deterrence—means that our complacency in not restructuring the armed forces is unlikely to punished in the battlefields that easily. What is more likely is that the outdated structure will eat our armed forces inside out, through corruption, cronyism, indiscipline and inefficiency. Ossified structures seldom reward initiative, risk taking and integrity.

Unfortunately, these have begun affecting the Indian armed forces. Quotas in all but names have emerged for everything from gallantry awards to promotions. While in principle the government can appoint the best man for the job, in practice it is seniority that determines who becomes the army chief. Lower down the hierarchy informal rules determine the speed at which officers in various combat arms are promoted. Not even the comptroller and auditor general can fathom the notional loss to the nation in terms of wasted talent and human capital. What is fathomable is that despite setting aside a defence budget to make India the world’s biggest arms importer, the army chief has complained of shortages in the most basic of warfighting material.

We cannot allow this to go on. We must change the way our armed forces are structured. We must change how our service personnel are trained, equipped and promoted. We must change now.

Such a change can only come from the top — it must be driven by the Union Cabinet with the Prime Minister’s imprimatur. The current moment opens a window of opportunity to carry out transformational change. The doubts and uncertainties created among the higher levels of the army due to the question of General V K Singh’s birth date cannot be left unresolved. There is a risk that it will create deep divisions within the echelons of the army, especially if the losers in this round of the army’s ‘office politics’ feel victimised. Shaking up the organisation is a one good way to put it in order.

As K Subrahmanyam had consistently argued, India needs a Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and theatre commanders. We should adapt the US model to our specific context. Instead of the army, navy and air force operating separately in their own independent commands, we should reorganized them into five theatre commands (Northern, Western, Southern, Eastern and Expeditionary). Brigadier-equivalents must serve outside their respective services in order to qualify for command positions in the combined joint commands.

The roles of military advisors, service chiefs and theatre commanders must be separated. This allows us to balance seniority, experience and talent by placing the right person in the right job.

We also need to rebalance the civil-military relationship. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, as the principal military advisor to the government, must report directly to the Prime Minister and carry ex-officio cabinet rank. This will ensure that the chief executive has direct access to military advice without upsetting civilian supremacy over the armed forces.

Obviously, restructuring the armed forces is not a miracle cure to the problems that plague our defence policy. However, it is the first step. The rest will follow. In the coming months, everyone involved will find it tempting to rejig the procurement process some more, order a few enquiries, appoint another high-level commission and set aside more money for flashy new equipment. That would exactly the kind of ad hoc functioning that the Kargil Review Committee warned that the country can no longer afford. Not least because the armed forces are at great risk of losing in the battleground of public trust.

Copyright © 2012. Indian Express. All Rights Reserved

What does Taiwan’s election result mean for India?

Ma’s victory and India’s dilemma

Yesterday’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

Taiwan’s presidential elections, since they first started in 1996, have in large part been referendums on the “One China” policy. Voters have been offered two deviations from the delicious ambiguity of the status quo: either a path towards eventual re-unification with mainland China or a dangerous path towards independence. Taiwan’s grand old party, the Kuomintang (KMT), espouses the former, while the Opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) favours the latter.

The stakes, obviously, are high for Beijing — whose leaders have tried, unsuccessfully, bullying, coercion and suasion to influence the Taiwanese voter. But the stakes are also high for the Indo-Pacific region because Taiwan is critical to the stability of US-China relations, especially at a time when they both are attempting to move away from the confrontation of the past two years.

Neither China nor the United States wants the Taiwanese voter to rock the boat. Both had let it be known that they would prefer the incumbent president, the KMT’s Ma Ying-jeou, to win. In the event, on Saturday, the Taiwanese people agreed. But not before pre-election opinion polls showed that the election would go down to the wire, prompting thousands of expatriate Taiwanese from places like Silicon Valley to crowd into flights back to the island to cast their ballot.

That Ma found himself neck-to-neck with Tsai Ing-yen, his DPP challenger, is interesting. Four years ago, he was voted in after people felt that the DPP’s Chen Shui-bian was taking Taiwan into dangerous waters with his pro-independence line. Ma delivered on his campaign promise of closer ties with the mainland, sealing a major trade deal with China in 2010, boosting trade, travel, communications and investments.

China-Taiwan trade is currently around $160 billion. Taiwanese investors pumped in close to $40 billion in the four years of Ma’s first term. Chinese investors reciprocated, albeit only to the tune of $170 million. Increasing the number of direct flights to almost 100 a day brought in 2 million Chinese tourists and $3 billion in receipts. There has been a parallel improvement in official relations between Beijing and Taipei, as much in form as in substance.

Why then did Ma face a tough election? One answer is what we would call an anti-incumbency effect. As he admitted last month, there were some economic goals his government failed to achieve, especially those relating to employment and income growth. The other answer, one that goes beyond economic angst and back to the China-Taiwan question, might be a preference by voters to drag deviations from the status quo to the middle. As Russell Hsiao, a political analyst, wrote in the Jamestown Foundation’s “China Brief” last month, a majority of Taiwanese people want to perpetuate the status quo and will punish politicians who stray too far from it. This might also explain both the closeness of the contest and the verdict itself.

Over in Beijing, Ma’s victory is seen as vindication and a political triumph for President Hu Jintao. In the internal dynamics of the Communist Party of China, it is likely to empower individuals and factions close to Hu, influencing the pecking order of the new administration that will take over after this year’s party congress. Also, as Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based commentator, points out, “if the KMT continues to rule, one can assume that tensions will be lowered further and the [People’s Liberation Army] will have no reason to ask for a higher budget.” To the extent that the issue of Taiwan’s status becomes less of a thorn in Beijing’s side, the political salience of the hawkish factions will, on the margin, diminish. This in turn can help reduce tensions with the United States.

In Washington, some commentators have already begun asking whether it makes sense to continue to allow Taiwan to poison relations between the United States and China. While it is unlikely that such a policy reversal is in the offing, it is already clear that Washington would prefer a Taiwan that doesn’t raise the temperature in East Asia. Washington’s strategic calculus, like that of the other major powers in Indo-Pacific, is about shaping a favourable balance of power, not triggering a military confrontation.

India faces a dilemma. On the one hand, the geopolitical stability suggested by a KMT government means greater economic opportunities for India to engage Taiwan. Compared to Japan, South Korea and Singapore, our bilateral trade and investment with Taiwan is negligible. The country accounts for one per cent of India’s foreign trade. At 0.03 per cent of the total foreign direct investment in India, Taiwan ranks below countries like Chile and Turkey. Bilateral trade agreements can help, but only if domestic reforms make India relatively more attractive as an investment destination.

On the other hand, a Beijing less preoccupied with issues in its backyard will find it easier to project power elsewhere, including against India.

Geoeconomic opportunities are, thus, stacked against geopolitical risks. So unless New Delhi uses the space created by Saturday’s elections to rapidly scale up economic ties, India will have little upside from Ma’s success.
Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All Rights Reserved. [Business Standard]

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: Dealing with a vulnerable China

China’s external, economic and ethnic vulnerabilities are worsening

Here’s today’s Asian Balance column in Business Standard.

This may come as a surprise to many, but China today is at its most vulnerable since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. That’s not all; it is unlikely that the country will shake off its vulnerabilities – geopolitical, economic and internal security – over the next three to five years.

The developments in East Asia in the past few weeks, focused around the East Asia Summit at Bali, have put China on the defensive. Not only is the United States reinvesting its military assets into the Indo-Pacific region, but almost all of China’s neighbours have moved to construct bulwarks against China. Even Myanmar is showing signs of wanting out of China’s orbit, and is opening up to India, the United States and Vietnam. If countries of the region are ganging up against China, it is largely Beijing’s fault. Picking a fight with each one of your neighbours at the same time is not the smartest of moves. Yet, that’s what China has done over the past couple of years.

What happened in Beijing’s foreign policy kitchen is anyone’s guess but China no longer enjoys a favourable external environment that it used to for the last two decades.

Let’s come to economics. Not only does China hold more than a trillion dollars of US debt, it is likely to have to increase its dollar holdings given the sovereign debt crises in the euro zone. So a lot of China’s money is, and will be for some time, at the mercy of its biggest strategic rival. Continue reading The Asian Balance: Dealing with a vulnerable China