What’s the Korean for Parakram?

What North Korea is doing to South Korea is quite similar to Pakistan’s strategy with respect to India—carry out provocative acts of aggression under the umbrella of nuclear weapons in a bid to coerce the victim into making political concessions. It’s called a stability/instability paradox, in that while nuclear weapons create stability at one level, they allow the weaker, less risk-averse player to rock the boat with impunity. [See a related post by Joshua Pollack over at Arms Control Wonk]

The Pakistani military-jihadi complex uses terrorism. The North Korean regime sinks South Korean ships and fires artillery shells at civilian targets.

Interestingly, the manner in which South Korea and its ally, the United States, have responded so far is reminiscent of India’s response after Pakistani terrorists attacked the Indian parliament in October 2001. India sent troops to the border. They are conducting naval exercises in the Yellow Sea. Galrahn reports that the United States is deploying another carrier strike group, led by USS Carl Vinson to the Western Pacific, adding to the military ‘mobilisation’. Because this involves ships moving over water it’s considerably faster than the Indian Army mobilising its formations over land to the India-Pakistan border, but it boils down to the same thing. A show of force, parakram or if Google is to be trusted, .

Will it work?

The business of mobilising military forces is as much due to action bias and audience benefit as it is to penalising the aggressor by increasing costs. Unless it is Manmohan Singh, governments must be seen doing something in the face of flagrant provocation. The domestic and international audiences must be persuaded that the government views the provocation as serious enough to warrant more than a verbal response. Mobilising troops to war-like positions is a good way to achieve these ends. The problem, however, is that this does not automatically ensure that the aggressor is made to suffer.

If there are no external sponsors, Pakistan or North Korea can’t sustain a troop mobilisation for too long. They enjoy asymmetry in costs–in absolute terms its cheaper for them to maintain troops on alert than for their adversaries, India and South Korea & the United States respectively. However, their relative ability to sustain such expenditure is much shorter. Even if Kim Jong Il drives unpaid conscripts to stay at the border, they’ll die if they run out of food and their equipment will stop working if they run out of fuel.

But there are external sponsors. The United States bailed a bankrupt Pakistani state out in 2002 and China continues to maintain the bluff that Pyongyang’s irrationality is the reason why it needs to continue to sustain the North Korean regime. Whatever punitive costs Pakistan incurred was more than made up by US largesse. Similarly, whatever costs the US-South Korean deployment in the Yellow Sea imposes on North Korea will be covered by the funds China pumps into Pyongyang.

The value of Parakram-like mobilisations lies in their ability to enable coercive diplomacy. To the extent that the external scaffolds release pressure on North Korea and Pakistan, coercion is undermined. So too the fortunes of diplomacy.

One of the weaknesses in the theoretical studies of the “stability/instability paradox” is that it restricts the analysis to the two direct players. A smaller, weaker state cannot afford to be aggressive and adventurous unless it has the support of a big power. Once we recognise this, it becomes clearer how it is possible to check Pakistan and North Korea—as I wrote in my Pax Indica column, go after the scaffolders.

In the current Korean crisis, Washington, Seoul and the rest of the international community should just call Beijing’s bluff.

Related Link:There’s a disputed boundary in the Korean case too.

Spooked by an unfinished doctrine?

The Pakistani military establishment has its reasons to over-react to General Deepak Kapoor’s remarks

This time, it’s an obscure comment at an internal seminar about a new doctrine that the Indian army is working on. The doctrine is not even ready in draft form. It has not even been endorsed by the Army Headquarters. And, as we know from the story of ‘Cold Start’, the Army’s endorsement doesn’t mean that the other services, the defence ministry or the Cabinet Committee on Security has accepted it. That tells you something about how serious India’s political leadership is about defence strategy. It also tells you how ridiculous the Pakistani establishment looks when it goes into hysteria about a new Indian army doctrine that is still work in progress.

Now the army chief being the army chief merely said that the army will be ready to fight China and Pakistan simultaneously and quickly. This shouldn’t be news to anybody. The fact that both China and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, and that this makes large-scale war unlikely, doesn’t mean that the armed forces in those countries don’t prepare for conventional war. In the India-China and the India-Pakistan context, where bilateral relations are hardly like those between the United States and Canada, for instance, the conventional military balance across the border is important, and itself acts as a deterrent to outright conflict.

Furthermore, till the time the Pakistani military-jihadi complex remains intact, it makes abundant sense for India to possess the necessary military capacity to conduct swift, decisive operations across the border. No army wants to go to war, and to some extent, the prospect of having to fight the Indian army will discourage the Pakistani military leadership from using jihadi groups for acts of terrorism.

All this, though, is not some bold new innovation in military strategy. So why is the Pakistani establishment in such a state of excitement?

At one level, given the history, war hysteria is understandable. But it serves two key purposes: first, it rallies the Pakistani people behind the military-jihadi complex. Second, it allows the Pakistani establishment to inflate the ‘Indian threat’ to audiences in the United States, both as an explanation for its reluctance to allocate more resources to the border with Afghanistan, and also to justify its use of US financial assistance to purchase military assets for use against India.

We saw this happen after the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. And we’re seeing it again now.

Missile vs Missile

Missile defences strengthen India’s strategic deterrence

Failure to understand how deterrence works is a common error. Wholesale application of the Cold War era nuclear arms race in today’s South-Asian geopolitical context is another. And analysts assuming every Indian strategic platform is exclusively targeted at Pakistan is yet another. Jawed Naqvi’s recent article in Dawn makes all three, when he criticises India’s progress towards development of a missile defence system.

Maverick explains—like only he can—why Naqvi’s arguments are wrong. Strategic deterrence is first and foremost a mind game: its objective to ensure that nuclear weapons are not used. Any system that increases the chances of non-use increases stability. In the case of the missile defence system, pointing out that 4 minutes is way too little for Indian anti-missile missiles to do their work misses the target. The system needs to be good enough make a potential adversary think “What if the first strike fails?”. In combination with India’s possession of a second-strike capability, a missile defence shield enhances nuclear stability.

More importantly, it’s ironic that Pakistanis, whose rulers (and their nuclear/missile benefactors) have done so much to put nuclear weapons within reach of any state that wants them, should think that India only thinks of them.

From the archives: Defence against the dark arts; and Kind Word Defence