My op-ed in Mint: Managing “armed co-existence” with China

A realist appraisal of the trans-Himalayan context

In today’s Mint Sushant and I argue that more than worrying about an unlikely Chinese invasion, India ought to focus on managing the armed co-existence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China. Excerpts:

Chinese scholars have suggested that this is due to Beijing’s assessment that no Indian political leader will be able to sell the compromise to the public. While this might be true, it certainly is self-serving. If the leadership in Beijing were merely waiting for Indian public opinion to hit the Goldilocks moment for a territorial compromise, they would hardly be backtracking on their own prior commitments, not least by amplifying China’s claims to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh.

While the risk of even a limited military conflict are overstated, it is true that there is indeed a state of armed coexistence—to use Mao Zedong’s phrase—along the line of actual control (LOAC). “You wave a gun,” Mao said, referring to Nehru, “and I’ll wave a gun. We’ll stand face to face and can each practice our courage.”

The Great Helmsman was speaking metaphorically. In reality this means that each side must expect incursions from the other. At the same each side must ensure that these don’t get out of hand. This is one lesson from October 1962 and there are signs that it is a lesson that has been learnt. Note that much of the recent furore over red-painted boulders and helicopter-dropped canned food in Ladakh was mainly due to a hyperventilating media—the official reaction from both the Indian foreign ministry and the armed forces played down the incidents.

While eschewing paranoia, alarmism and irresponsible rhetoric, a state of armed coexistence requires astute management. First, Indian and Chinese officials—civilian and military—must communicate across all levels. The establishment of a hotline between the heads of government must be followed up with communication links and better contacts between military commanders at operational levels. Despite appearances, the Chinese government is not monolithic and India must develop independent links to its various power centres.

Second, India must continue to invest in conventional defences to ensure that the military balance across the Himalayan frontier remains stable in the face of the PLA’s rapid modernisation. This calls for careful planning as to the type of military assets used and the areas where they are deployed, to minimise the risk of miscalculation by either side. Also, as Admiral Sureesh Mehta said in an important speech a few days before he stepped down as navy chief, “on the military front, our strategy to deal with China must include reducing the military gap and countering the growing Chinese footprint in the Indian Ocean Region. The traditional or ‘attritionist’ approach of matching ‘Division for Division’ must give way to harnessing modern technology for developing high situational awareness and creating a reliable stand-off deterrent.”

Third, India must avoid creating needless suspicions in Beijing over its Tibet policy. John Garver, a noted scholar of India-China relations, determines that Mao’s profound misreading of Nehru’s strategic intentions over Tibet was one of the main drivers of China’s decision to go to war with India in 1962. New Delhi must not allow the Tibetans’ struggle to unduly determine how it is perceived by the Chinese leadership.

Finally, not everything about India-China border issue lies in the domain of foreign policy. It’s not only about ‘development’ of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Ladakh. It is about making them part of the political, economic and social mainstream. [Mint]

Kalam’s failings

The dangers of elevating humans to superhuman status

Over on his blog, Manoj Joshi posts his Mail Today article on how the legend of APJ Abdul Kalam resulted in poor technological choices and ultimately, as sub-standard missile arsenal. Excerpts:

Whatever may have been his successes as SLV-3 project manager, his tenure as DRDO chief has been something of a disaster.

Because of (diversions caused by Kalam’s dogmatic insistence), India’s long-range missile deterrent has been delayed by about a decade and even today it depends on aircraft dropped weapons, not missile borne, for its credible minimum deterrent

Kalam’s very prestige became his, and his country’s, worst enemy. He had attained oracular status by 1998, and the result was that the governments of the day blindly accepted what he had to say. He was not willfully dishonest, but his fixations and whims led to diversions and delays for which the country has paid a huge price. Perhaps his greatest, and in a sense forgivable, weakness was his obsession on “indigenous” development.

But the argument that India’s missiles are “indigenous” and Pakistan’s are based on Chinese, American, North Korean or someone else’s technology is a meaningless one. Military acquisitions are not about the “purity” of solutions, but time-urgent answers to a problem. And who will deny that Pakistan has got more than enough “solutions” in the nuclear weapon delivery area, to any threat India can offer. [Mail Today/Manoj Joshi’s blog]

Did General Kapoor really call for a review of NFU?

Mistaken nuclear strategy or mistaken media management?

It might well be that General Deepak Kapoor’s remarks on Pakistan’s fast-expanding nuclear arsenal were blown out of proportion by the media. A Times News Network (TNN) headline in the Times of India yesterday said that India “(may) have to revisit nuclear no-first use policy: Army chief” but the accompanying report did not quote him as having said that. The report says that “Kapoor’s implied suggestion that India could have to revisit its no-first use policy in case the strength of Pakistan’s nuclear was close to what had been claimed, will challenge a long held position.” But since it does not carry his words verbatim, the reader must rely on the reporter’s opinion on what the army chief might have implied.

Other reports, including in the Economic Times, TOI’s sister publication, and Indian Express do quote General Kapoor. He said:

There is a difference between having a degree of deterrence, which is required for one’s own protection, and going beyond that. If news reports of them having 70-90 atomic bombs are correct then, I think, they are going well beyond the so-called requirement of deterrence and that is something which is of concern to all of us.” [ET]

Unless there are other reports it does appear that the general fell victim to some irresponsible sensationalisation and media malpractice. General Kapoor’s comment that Pakistan’s nuclear expansion is “of concern” is reasonable, although this blog has argued that it is more of a concern to the international community than to India. But from what can be gathered from other reports, he did not specifically mention or imply that India should review its no-first-use nuclear doctrine. Perhaps he should have been more careful in choosing his words and fully account for the possibility that sections of the Indian media would think nothing of putting words into his mouth merely to create a sensation.

In the event that General Kapoor did say or imply that an increase in Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal warrants a review of the no-first-use doctrine, he would not only be wrong, but irresponsible (which, in this context, might be worse than being merely wrong). As K Subrahmanyam points out in a magesterial op-ed in the Indian Express today:

If today an increase in the Pakistani nuclear stockpile and the development of Babar cruise missile cause concern about a decapitating first strike, then the logical remedy is not to abandon our NFU but to provide for credible, visible succession for both political and military command, and to streamline the chain of command. [IE]

If General Kapoor was misquoted, the army headquarters would do well to issue a clarification. To the extent that the episode draws attention to the need for better governance of India’s strategic arsenal, some good might yet come of it. (See my article on the lines of nuclear succession)

MUD, not MAD

A metaphor the the India-Pakistan nuclear deterrence relationship

It is not unusual for commentators to use the term “mutually assured destruction” or MAD while discussing nuclear weapons in the India-Pakistan context. This is a direct reuse of a Cold War-era metaphor to describe the nuclear game in the subcontinent. It is also an inaccurate and inappropriate description.

What’s MAD? According to Wikipedia:

MAD is a “Poison Pill” strategy. The doctrine assumes that each side has enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the other side and that either side, if attacked for any reason by the other, would retaliate with equal or greater force. The expected result is an immediate escalation resulting in both combatants’ total and assured destruction. It is now generally hypothesized that the nuclear fallout or nuclear winter resulting from a large scale nuclear war would bring about worldwide devastation, though this was not a critical assumption to the theory of MAD.
The doctrine further assumes that neither side will dare to launch a first strike because the other side will launch on warning (also called fail-deadly) or with secondary forces (second strike) resulting in the destruction of both parties. The payoff of this doctrine is expected to be a tense but stable peace. [Wikipedia]

In other words, both the United States and the Soviet Union had enough warheads and delivery mechanisms to completely destroy each other. Just how big was the stockpile? In 1986, the global stockpile peaked at 65,056 warheads, with the United States having 23,254 and the Soviet Union 40,723. The total number of warheads has been over 10,000 since 1958. Yields, delivery mechanisms and targeting apart, the arsenal was enough to cause total annihilation—in Churchill’s words, “to make rubble bounce.”

Despite Pakistan being the nuclear hare of the last two decades (and India the nuclear tortoise) the stockpile in the subcontinent—both actual warheads and those that can be assembled at short notice—is not greater than a hundred each. As INI co-blogger Dhruva Jaishankar notes, the actual numbers in India’s case at least might be much smaller. At such levels the impact of a nuclear exchange—even a total one—will no doubt cause widespread destruction and unprecedented misery. It is, however, highly unlikely to completely destroy India. It might not even completely destroy Pakistan.

Gregory S Jones, an analyst at RAND Corporation, estimates that Pakistan will need as many as twenty 10 kT warheads to destroy New Delhi alone, killing 1.5 million people and injuring another 3 million. (New Delhi has a population of around 12 million). You can read Mr Jones’s article for how the destruction would change under various conditions, but the general point is that Indian cities have huge populations and geographical spreads, and it is unlikely that Pakistan can completely annihilate India. Similarly, the Indian arsenal is likely to be sufficient to severely damage half-dozen Pakistani cities. If both countries empty their nuclear arsenal on each other, then the net result will be a badly damaged India, and an almost totally crippled Pakistan.

This is not to say that India should increase its stockpile to even the levels deployed by United States and Russia today. Far from it. Even these levels of destruction are unacceptable to India, and in all likelihood should be unacceptable to Pakistan too. In fact, as The Acorn has argued, even a single nuclear explosion is unacceptable destruction, and as such, rightly forms the bedrock of deterrence in the India-Pakistan context. While such a scenario is certainly not MAD, it is mutually unacceptable. It might, therefore, be more appropriate to characterise it as Mutually Unacceptable Destruction (MUD).

But the big one fizzled

The Department of Atomic Energy should not have bluffed about the H-Bomb in 1998

In a press conference on May 17, 1998—days after the Pokhran-II nuclear tests—R Chidambaram, head of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Atomic Energy said that one of the devices tested a two-state thermonuclear bomb with a yield of 45 kT. “The range can go quite high” he said, “but we were limited in the total yield by the damage it may cause to habitations nearby.” One of those present at that press conference was K Santhanam, who was then a senior official at DRDO and who played a leading role in conducting the tests. Those who followed the technical debate in the international nuclear weapons community at that time will recall that foreign analysts had challenged India’s claims and argued, based on seismographic studies, that the yield of the thermonuclear device was in the region of 12-25kT.

In a television interview yesterday, Dr Santhanam accepted that the foreign analysts were right: “Based upon the seismic measurements and expert opinion from world over, it is clear that the yield in the thermonuclear device test was much lower than what was claimed.” He cited this as the reason why India needs to conduct more nuclear tests, and why it should not be ‘railroaded’ into signing a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Dr Santhanam’s revelation does not alter India’s nuclear deterrence relationships: can an adversary rest any easier knowing that it’s not, after all, a 45kT thermonuclear bomb that they are likely to receive in retaliation, but merely a 20kT fission bomb? The differential in megatonnage does not change strategic picture all that much.

But the admission raises a serious question: were the scientists bluffing then or is Dr Santhanam lying now? More importantly, did they only mislead the public or did they also mislead the political leadership?

The strategic impact of Pokhran-II would not have changed if the scientists had actually admitted then that the thermonuclear bomb had fizzled, and more testing was necessary to fix the design. No one had gotten it right the first time anyway. But claiming to have a strategic weapon that they didn’t—and which the world knew they didn’t—at best fooled no one and at worst fooled the political leaders who had a finger on the button.

In the public mind, the nuclear scientist carries more credibility than the politician—due to reasons of information asymmetry, regard for intellectual accomplishment and the belief that they are non-partisan. If indeed it was a false claim—as it almost certainly is—it was unnecessary. It has dented the credibility of the individuals and the organisations that made it. The coming discourse over CTBT and FMCT has become all the more treacherous.

Which voice came from the mouthpiece?

As long as China controls its information landscape, it will be responsible for being misunderstood

How seriously should you take vitriolic—or soothing—opinion that comes out of China over the internet? Ananth Krishnan warns against the tendency to assume every voice is that of a government mouthpiece.

News reports also claimed the write-up could not have been published without the permission of the Chinese authorities — another dubious claim tied to the simplistic notion that the Chinese government vets every opinion expressed on all of China’s hundreds of political websites. The Chinese government blocks and censors numerous websites that are politically sensitive, discussing subjects like the Tiananmen Square protests or the Falun Gong. But suggesting that the government controls and moderates debates and political opinions in blogs and newspapers is a stretch.

It also belies a lack of understanding of the changing nature of China’s information landscape. China has 338 million Internet users and more than 100 million blogs and websites, such as the one where this post first appeared. It only takes a quick glance through half a dozen such sites—even “influential” ones—to look at the divergence of opinions and vibrancy of debates, with many voices even strongly criticising the Communist Party and its government. Yet the simplistic perception still endures in India that in authoritarian China, every analyst or writer must surely speak in the same voice.

Interpreting information from these four avenues is further complicated by the fact that they are sometimes inter-linked. For instance, the Chinese government sometimes uses influential think-tanks to hint at changes in policy. Views and opinions from mainstream Chinese newspapers and think-tanks must indeed be taken seriously in India. But at the same time, a more nuanced understanding of China’s information landscape is needed to avoid shrill hyper-reactions to anonymous bloggers and irrelevant fringe groups.

This is crucial to creating a level of discourse in India that allows for a deeper, more meaningful engagement with China’s opportunities and threats. [The Hindu]

That is a very sensible conclusion. What it does not state explicitly is that much of the reason why China is misunderstood to the extent that it is, is because of China itself. The lack of transparency in public discourse, the overbearing role of the state in permitting some views while going to great lengths to proscribe others, and the deliberately unclear linkages among the party, government, academia and media often results in people assuming the worst.

A relatively harmless result of this is the demonisation of China in societies that deal with it. More dangerous is the mistaking of noise for signal—it’s bad for everyone if the fulminations of an “angry youth” run the risk of being confused with tacit but deliberate military threats issued by a key senior official. If China doesn’t want to be misunderstood, it should do its part first.

Towards nuclear disarmament – a modest proposal

Three big steps against nuclear weapons—and one big one towards removing the poison in the India-US strategic relationship

Here are two ironies: First, that the political establishment around the US Democratic Party should think (via Atanu Dey’s blog) that the Obama administration ought to deliver ‘a tough message’ to India on nuclear weapons. Ironic, because India is perhaps the only nuclear weapons state where nuclear disarmament is state policy. It is perhaps the only country whose strongest proponents of nuclear weapons are also signed-up members of the Global Zero initiative.

Second, that for a president who came to power with promises on new approaches to everything from climate change to Iran, President Barack Obama’s chose the dogmatic dead-end of non-proliferation & arms control to move towards his idealistic vision of a nuclear weapons-free world. Ironic, because all the energy spent on flogging the dead mule could have been invested in a new path that would in the short-term minimise nuclear risks, boost international security and in the long-term, if future generations so wish, actually rid the world of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear non-proliferation does not have a future. It does help a lot of people—and there are many in Washington DC—who have invested their intellectual, professional and public lives in negotiating through the arcane world of non-proliferation treaties (the alphabet soup) make a living. The Democrats in government (like the Republicans who came before them) believe that they can resume from where they left off the last time they were in power. Strobe Talbott’s ‘tough message’ being a case in point. What they refuse to see is that the world has changed profoundly since then: Iran and North Korea have shown how easy it is to sign-out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, develop and test nuclear weapons, and live in the knowledge that the United States can now only blow hot air at them…from a safe distance. If the United States could not prevent this—notwithstanding the NPT—at the apex of its power in the two decades after the Cold War ended, what chance does it have now, when China intends to challenge its supremacy?

If President Obama is sincere about his vision and serious about securing US interests in the emerging geopolitical configuration, he would do well to face down the non-proliferation community and let a new disarmament community take its place. If he does so, he’ll find an a partner in India. But what would a real global nuclear disarmament plan (as opposed to non-proliferation/test-ban/fissile material cutoff treaty plans) look like? Continue reading “Towards nuclear disarmament – a modest proposal”

Kim crosses China’s line

Brinkmanship does not work beyond the brink.

“Either a nuclear-equipped DPRK or a collapsed DPRK,” Wu Chaofan concludes, “would cause disastrous interruption of the process of China’s peaceful development.” As long as the North Korean regime was playing inside these boundaries it was possible for China to use the situation to apply strategic pressure on the United States, Japan and South Korea. The threat from North Korea prevents the United States from concentrating its resources on Taiwan, and to that extent, reduces China’s cost of maintaining a balance of power across the Taiwan straits.

So it would be terrible for China if North Korea crossed those boundaries.

…many Chinese experts and advisors are more concerned with the threat Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons poses to China’s security. After adoption of Resolution 1874, the DPRK responded with a big rally in its capital. Its leaders announced that the country would stick to its own path, regardless of whether friendly countries sided with it and the effect on international aid. Such an attitude on the part of Pyongyang is a warning that China should reconsider its national interests.

Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, which took place only tens of kilometers from the Chinese border, might cause an environmental catastrophe in a densely populated area, not to speak of the threat it is to peace and stability in East Asia and the world as a whole. Any deadly accident following Pyongyang’s nuclear tests would not only inflict enormous losses on the Korean people but also seriously damage the environment in Northeast China and the surrounding region. [China Daily]

Mr Wu quotes two Chinese scholars who essentially warn North Korea’s neighbours to be prepared for the worst. China has been unable to persuade North Korea to stand down. Meanwhile Japan and South Korea have not only taken a hard line against Pyongyang, but have—in the delicate style of East Asian diplomacy—asked China to deliver. More than the US airstrikes that the Chinese scholars warn about, the real threat to China comes from the prospect of both Japan and South Korea developing their own nuclear deterrents.

If the North Koreans don’t oblige, then China will be, well, in a soup.

My op-ed in Mint: Pakistan’s nuclear expansion

A less self-centred perspective

In today’s Mint I argue that at the margin, more warheads do not provide more security for Pakistan vis-à-vis India. So, an analysis of Pakistan’s motives must consider alternative explanations.

Bruce Riedel, who chaired US President Barack Obama’s policy review for Afghanistan-Pakistan, points out in a recent essay in The Wall Street Journal that there have been “persistent reports of some kind of understanding between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for Islamabad to provide nuclear weapons to Riyadh if the Saudis feel threatened by a third party with nuclear weapons.” And although they both deny a secret deal, “rumours of one continue to surface as Iran gets closer to developing its own bomb”.

British journalists Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark, citing former senior US and Pakistani officials, write that the Saudis wanted the “finished product, to stash away in an emergency, and Pakistan agreed to supply it in return for many hundreds of millions of dollars”. Pakistan also brokered the transfer of the nuclear-capable CSS-2 missiles from China to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s.

As Iran gets closer to building a nuclear arsenal, Saudi Arabia—the Iranian Shia theocracy’s geopolitical and ideological rival—is likely to seek a nuclear balance across the Persian Gulf. Using Pakistan to hold its arsenal in trust allows Saudi Arabia to stay clear of violating its non-proliferation commitments.

Now, even if Pakistan’s own insecurities with respect to its eastern neighbour are kept out of the calculation, Iran’s nuclearization suggests that Pakistan will have to build additional capacity for its Saudi Arabian partner. In other words, Pakistan is in a nuclear arms race all right—but it’s probably a West Asian one. [Mint]

Sunday Levity(?): Making rubble bounce

It’s not funny, actually

Richard Rhodes writes in Arsenals of Folly—The making of the nuclear arms race:

…during years of the high Cold War, there was always political capital to be earned from exaggerating the dangers or benefits of any particular nuclear strategy or weapons system. But even for those within the two governments with the best of intentions, trying to find security among the shifting and partly obscured maps of both sides’ evolving force structures led to convoluted and sometimes absurd conclusions.

Robert McNamara, for example, visited the Omaha offices of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff for a briefing about the US nuclear target list in February 1961, shortly after he became secretary of defense. McNamara was curious to compare the targeting-system criteria to a target known to have been destroyed, Hiroshima, burned out by a mass fire after a fifteen kiloton bomb, Little Boy, exploded 1,900 feet above the city center on 6 August 1945. This dialogue ensued:

Q.—McNamara—Have you applied your procedures to Hiroshima?
A.—Smith—Yes. 3 DGZs of 8o KT each.

That is, were Hiroshima still a target, the JSTPS would have identified three designated ground zeros (DGZs) within the city and would have assigned three nuclear weapons, each equivalent to eighty kilotons of TNT, to destroy them. Such overkill gives meaning to Winston Churchill’s notorious 1954 comment, “If you go on with this nuclear arms race, all you are going to do is make the rubble bounce.” In the real world, one bomb of fifteen kilotons had been more than sufficient.[Arsenals of Folly]