Coping with China’s Rise

At the dawn of the new millennium, there were many influential Indian voices that backed the Congress Party’s resident intellectual, Jairam Ramesh’s notion of “Chindia”. Suffused with hopes for regional and international peace and a peaceful economically interdependent world order, they predicted that this unbeatable twinned duo of Chindia — China and India would make the 21st Century an “Asian” one. Implicit in this cooperative concept is the notion of a stable Asian order. A decade on that optimism is gone. This is so in the main because India has fallen so far behind China in every respect and finds itself so unable to cope with it that, realistically, it is not even in the big power game. China seems both driven to reach the acme of global power and realize its ambition to dominate Asia and to replace the United States as the numero uno power the rest of the world takes its bearings from. In the event, stability in the Asia-Pacific Region (APR) takes on a different hue and mandates a realpolitik strategy to balance China’s power by any and all means that, at the same time, preserves and enhances India’s freedom and latitude of action.

There is also the fact that with the abrupt ending of the short era of geo-economic interdependence spurred by the imperatives of global trade, industry, and commerce, the international system based on sovereign states is reverting to its original nature, rediscovering the need for countries to find themselves by turning inward. This has resulted in a return to hard nationalism, and seeking of ties with the external sphere only insofar as it serves the state’s interest in the narrow sense of directly benefitting its citizens in the here and now. The evidence of this is everywhere. Early in 2016 summer, the Brexit phenomenon saw the British masses voting to exit the collectivist-minded European Union (EU). It was a referendum the then prime minister, David Cameron, had confidently called to secure a popular mandate for his policies seeking even closer relations with the EU.

Across the Atlantic, the Republican Party presidential candidate Donald J. Trump vowed to withdraw the US from all treaty alliances, security arrangements, and free trade regimes. Call it   Amerexit; it reflects the isolationist impulses of the American people similar to those of their British counterparts and for many of the same reasons of too much of the outside world intruding too egregiously in the lives of the common folk. Except US’ distancing itself from the international mainstream is more consequential. Additionally, there is palpable fatigue with foreign entanglements and wars that over the past two decades have cost thousands of American lives, drained the US treasury, and sapped that country of its gung-ho interventionist spirit (several trillion dollars for the war in Iraq, a like sum spent in the conflict against the Taliban in Afghanistan). The traditional US desire to change the world in its image, save democracy everywhere, etc. is unlikely to come into play in saving friendly Asian states from China. The Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, for example, failed to secure support from the Barack Obama Administration for its claims on the Senkaku/Diaouyu Islands.

In the event, whether or not the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) survives and the American enthusiasm for containing China wavers, it will be imprudent for India to do other than assume that it will have to count mostly on itself, secondarily on friendly states on China’s periphery, especially in the Southeast and East Asian littorals and offshore, including Japan, and only tertiarily on the out-of-area US, whose vast cross investments and economic, trade and investment interlinks with China, render it an unwilling and unreliable “strategic partner” in the strategy to challenge that country’s hegemonic designs in Asia making for instability in the continent.

To counter China and neutralize its gains in Asia, India needs to shape a comprehensive strategy that is mindful of certain aspects of China and Chinese policy, is imaginative, multi-pronged, nimble and, above all else, disruptive, geared to throwing Beijing off its stride. With the challenge being as much ideological, military and geopolitical as it is economic and cultural, it will not be an easy task. But equally, it is not a route India can escape taking as an up and coming power.


Many countries have paid the price for being inattentive to or simply misreading the ideological motive behind the actions of adversary states. India has from the beginning made the mistake of ignoring this component in Chinese foreign policy. China’s emergence as global power began under the helmsmanship of Dengxiaoping. While his policy thrust was rapidly to lift the country economically, his ideology of state-managed rise driven by limited free market leeway (‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’), nevertheless retained the foundation of historical grievance from the Maozedong period. It constitutes a national ideology that has helped the Communist regime in its nation-building activity and firmed up the modern Chinese national identity. It has to do with the “Century of humiliation” when a technologically and military-wise backward China was reduced by Western imperial powers into a virtual colony.

This was the Nineteenth Century when China repeatedly suffered military defeat — in the two Opium Wars (1839-42, 1856-60) when Beijing was sacked, the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), the invasion by eight Western countries during the Boxer Rebellion (1900), the Japanese occupation of Manchuria (1931), and in the anti-Japanese war (1937-45). It was a period when unequal treaties were imposed on China, territory lost, whole provinces taken over and quisling regimes installed, and the country compelled by the victorious powers to open up the country to Western trade or, as the official phrase puts it, “to surrender sovereign rights and bring humiliation to the country” (sang quan ru guo).

Reversing this historical trend, righting the power imbalance, recovering the traditionally Chinese territory, and making China the zhung guo – the central power in the world once again is the ideological and non-negotiable predicate of Chinese foreign and military policy. This last is something New Delhi has failed to appreciate. The Indian government’s belief from Jawaharlal Nehru’s days has been that, as in all negotiations, there’ll be “give and take”, and China will eventually compromise. This may eventually turn out so, but Beijing will be more inclined to “give” and peacefully resolve its territorial dispute with India and other states it has disputes with if it sees the political-military “correlation of forces” in the extended region and globally tending decisively against it. It is this situation that the Indian government should try and bring about as a means of constraining China and realizing a stable and peaceful order in Asia.

Rejigging the Geopolitical correlation of forces

The phenomenal accretion in the economic and military power of China up until the entry into the scene of Xi Jinping was a low-key affair. In the new century, however, Deng’s “hide and bide” strategy has been replaced by Xi’s openly assertive stance, which seeks to translate the country’s comprehensive prowess into dominance in Asia. Indeed, the goal is expressly to pursue policies to replace the United States in the global arena and, more indirectly, to  undermine the security of its two main rivals on its flanks – India and Japan using client states, Pakistan and North Korea, respectively. It is a game plan that is paying off.

The clearest sign of this is that in the wake of the July 11, 2016, South China Sea verdict by the International Court of Arbitration at the Hague going against it, Beijing threw down the gauntlet with live fire naval drills and the imposition of the air defence identification zone in the contested waters and met with no resistance whatsoever, with the Chief of Naval Operations of the US Navy, Admiral John Richardson, merely reiterating Washington’s wish to “avoid conflict” with China. Beijing’s other policy stream of weakening India and Japan is evident in the activity of, what I have elsewhere called, the “rogue nuclear triad” of China, Pakistan, North Korea. Nuclear technology, materials, and expertise flow between these proliferating states with Pyongyang acting as the testing site for weapons designs conjured up by Pakistani nuclear weaponeers with Chinese assistance. It serves the separate interests of the three countries – China’s diplomatic value to contain nuclear proliferation is increased vis a vis the US, Japan, and South Korea, and with India, owing to its leverage with North Korea and Pakistan.

The solution is to hem China in with the help of the states bordering it on land and sea. The American geostrategist Nicholas Spykman in the late 1940s first conceived of containing an Asian heartland power by the ”rimland” states of Southeast and East Asia, including the offshore ones, such as Japan, Taiwan, and Australia, cooperating with each other. That solution still holds for checkmating China and blunting its attempts to project power and spread its influence. True, Beijing has utilized its economic heft in recent years to deter these countries from making common cause against it. As the biggest trading partner of almost every adjoining country, even those with unresolved disputes with some of them, China has managed to prevent a ganging up. This has happened, for instance, with regard to Southeast Asia. Beijing has succeeded in separating the more economically dependent states (Laos and Cambodia) from joining the other ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members in collectively opposing China’s “nine dash line” claims in the South China Sea. By insisting on bilateral negotiations with each disputant state in the region, China hopes to extract a series of deals from all of them that serve its interests better.

In the case of India, its trade with China is in excess of $70 billion and expected to touch $100 billion by 2020. The promise of infrastructure investment in tens of billions of dollars and of access to the Chinese market for its services has persuaded New Delhi to be quiet even in the face of niggling provocations (such as frequent armed intrusions across the Line of Actual Control on the Indo-Tibetan border). Smaller countries have a bigger incentive to toe the line as they are extensively integrated into the Chinese supply chain. Thus the increase in Chinese exports increases revenues of these countries. Security concerns, however, trump the mutually beneficial economic intercourse. This is now happening in Southeast Asia – China’s soft underbelly, where the danger from a belligerent dragon is too worrisome to ignore. Whence, the growing interest in the region for cobbling together flexible, collective security, arrangements

Except, the Bharatiya Janata Party government has shown little strategic imagination and, even less, urgency, in being proactive and building a Spyman-ian coalition of rimland and offshore states to constrain China and limit its options. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is still more talk than action when it comes to translating the country’s “look east” policy into “act east” policy, which has been on the anvil from Manmohan Singh’s days. It has also not followed up on Abe’s concept of the “security diamond” involving India, the US, Japan, and Australia, even as the other three states, US-Japan-Australia, have beefed up their triadic connections.

To the lack of strategic imagination may be added the absence of political will and drive to be disruptive. Indeed, New Delhi has so far played softball with China rather than pay it back in its own hard coin – by transferring nuclear missiles to Vietnam and other states on the Chinese periphery who fear China’s aggression. It would mean merely following China’s precedent; after all it nuclear missile armed Pakistan. But the Indian government seems unable to muster the gumption for even arming Vietnam with conventionally warheaded Brahmos supersonic anti-ship missiles. Unlike India, Vietnam has stomach for a fight – something Beijing hugely respects, one reason it does not want to test Hanoi’s mettle. While Vietnam’s longstanding demand for the Brahmos has been agreed to and, offensively deployed by the Vietnamese forces, can by itself deter and defeat the Chinese tactics of intimidation in the South China Sea, and help India’s maritime military interests west of the Malaca Straits, the Indian government has yet to get the Brahmos into Hanoi’s hands. The Indian government’s risk-averse, passive-defensive, attitude compounded by its complacent mindset, are the reasons why Asian countries doubt India’s ability  to provide them security.

Perils of the tilt to the US

Actually, the situation is worse. India’s bonafides as an independent player in the big power game are coming into question because of the Modi  government’s tilt towards the United States with consequent loss of its “strategic autonomy” and its status and standing in the extended region, and all this will be for short term gains. India will be drawn formally into the American orbit with its signing the three so-called “foundational” accords that the US insists upon with all treaty allies, namely, the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which is a slightly modified version of the standard Logistics Support Agreement, the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA), and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) pertaining to geospatial information.

Banking on the US to balance China in Asia is a losing game because the US is a declining power without the political will or the wealth to sustain an aggressive forward policy in Asia. The “pivot to Asia” during the Barack Obama presidency has been only partially realized as US military resources have been stretched and differentially allocated to three regions of concern – Eastern Europe with a resurgent Russia, a West Asia in turmoil with sectarian violence and conflict radiating outwards from Iraq, Syria, and the Islamic State to the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa (Boko Haram in Nigeria), and Southeast and Northeast Asia where an ascendant China makes trouble directly or indirectly through its proxy, North Korea. Had the evolving situation been properly assessed and the costs of siding overtly with the US calculated, the conclusion would have been reached that India would be better off treating America as an opportunistic offshore balancer, and forging — as suggested earlier in this article — strong military-to-military links with the ASEAN, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia to stretch China politically and militarily in its middle and at its two ends, something India has been slow in doing. It is still not too late. Even if LEMOA is signed, New Delhi can tarry over its implementation and case-by-case approval for logistics support reinstituted.

The real giveaway of American intentions is Obama’s policy of
“strategic patience” which, in its essentials, is a policy to do the minimum little when doing nothing at all just so Beijing is not riled. Hence, Washington’s big talk about contesting China’s control of the South China Sea notwithstanding, its warships and carrier task groups in the area pulling freedom of navigation patrols in those waters have been careful not to violate the 12 mile “territorial sea” around the artificial islands Beijing has constructed  out of cement and coral. America’s caution is reciprocated by Beijing, because both are eager to redefine in Xi’s words “a new special big power relationship”, constituting in effect a G-2 to oversee the affairs of the world. A G-2 is simply not in India’s interest any more than China’s predominance in Asia is. And acquiescing in the US designs for Asia will perforce require India to accept China’s supremacy. How’s that going to help India?

Contesting the strategic space

Geographic spaces are linked to constitute a strategic whole. The APR, Latin America and Africa are linked, with the latter two continents being the prime spaces for contestation. China has invested in the natural resources-extraction sector in a big way on these continents and, to consolidate its presence in these parts, is offering arms sales on concessionary terms. It is one-two punch India cannot match, not because it doesn’t have the wherewithal but because there’s insufficient appreciation of the hard power of the state in all its manifestations, including arms exports and the country thus lacks the administrative and policy infrastructure to pursue policy thrusts.   What India can do is to capitalize on the goodwill, especially in Africa, by fleshing out its role as a niche supplier of financial and information technology, and IT-enabled services. Also, tailored military training programmes for officer rank personnel and those from the non-commissioned officer cadre from the African and Latin American militaries, such as for peace-keeping (the first batch of African militarymen trained as peacekeeping passed out in the summer of 2016), counter-insurgency warfare, commando/special operations, etc. will be welcomed by these countries.

These training stints can be followed up by pitching Indian made armaments, such as infantry weapons, artillery, warships and Tejas combat aircraft to these states. It is a policy that can be furthered with generous grants to buy Indian-made military hardware and to sustain army, naval, and air force connections, particularly with states in the Indian Ocean littoral states in East Africa and Southeast Asia. Permanent Indian Military Training Teams such as in Bhutan may be configured for individual African states to suit their particular needs and milieus. This more than any other single policy set will block the entry into this crucial military space by China, and limit its growing political and economic influence in these regions. It will be an apt response to China’s “check book diplomacy”.

Again, all this doable but it is not being done. Mozambique has been asking for intimate Indian military engagement. In 2000, it asked for the Indian Navy’s help in founding, training, and equipping a Mozambqiue Navy and, in its initial tears, to also officer it. It is a request New Delhi has still to act on. The interest of Mozambique and other African countries in having India as its military mentor was piqued by the very effective offshore perimeter security the Indian Navy provided the Organization of African Union summit in July 2003 in Maputo. The Mozambiqan government thereafter offered a site on its northern coast for India to set up a naval base, which has not been acted on. Nor has New Delhi firmed up long term arrangements for the North and South Agalega Islands as forward naval and air bases in the Southwestern Indian Ocean as envisaged by the Mauritius. It is the sort of disinterest in strategic imperatives by the Indian government that borders on the criminal, this even as China swoops in when it detects even a sliver of opportunity. Like elsewhere, in the natural resources field too, India is myopic and lethargic.  Mozambique and Tanzania were eager that India mine the richest coal seam in eastern Africa that spans the two countries. Their request was that, along with the mining concession, India construct a rail line from the coal-head to the coast. Apparently this was too good a chance to not miss out on. There’s a cost to the turgid pace of policy and decision-making in government and India has paid heavily for it in the past and continues to do so.

India made a breakthrough sale of the indigenous HAL-built Dhruv advanced light helicopter to Chile and Ecuador. Had this export programme been supported by strong product servicing and support, the helicopter deal would have led to follow-on buys of Indian-made arms. Instead, after thye first crash on one of these aircraft, the contract was negated by Chile, and prospective sales to other South American states cooled off.  This episode is a guide on how to lose friends and influence.

Central Asia, likewise, has suffered strategic neglect. Indian Air Force has a presence at the Farkhor air base in Ainee in Tajikistan, which India refurbished at its own cost, including redoing the surface and extending the airstrip to take heavier aircraft. The Ainee base is significant because it has a virtual line of sight on the Chinese nuclear complex in Lop Nor in Xinjiang.  A Sukhoi-30MKI squadron that was supposed to have been emplaced there would have threatened Lop Nor and tamped down on bellicose Chinese behavior across the Line of Actual Control in the Himalayas. Not only are there no Indian Sukhois in Farkhor, Russia has reclaimed the military space in the former Soviet Central Asian Republics.

And, finally, India has left unexploited the Tibet and Uyghur cards to strategically discomfit China. It is willing to raise the issue of Baluchistan to provoke Pakistan, but not to court China’s displeasure by helping the Tibetan and Uyghur national freedom movements. Meanwhile, Beijing has materially supported and continues to upkeep various rebel insurgencies in the Indian northeast. Unless India plays these cards China will be on the offensive, confident that India can’t or won’t react or reciprocatre.

Reorienting its conventional military

Milieus change, threats change, threat perceptions change, and so do the orientation of military forces. China has shifted its national resources and primary adversarial focus from India and Japan to the US. In the new Century, the US has done the same, switching its military emphasis from Russia to China. India, however, remains the anomaly among major powers. Its military stress principally on the smalltime threat posed by Pakistan means it does not have the kind forces and in the numbers required to shove the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on the defensive in land war. Nor does it have genuinely long-legged aircraft to take the fight to the Chinese air space. Only in the maritime sphere,  the Indian Navy is capable of putting up a fight because the PLA Navy, despite numerous forays in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific (to show the flag and conduct anti-piracy missions), has still to acquire competence in operations far from home shores.

The trouble is the bulk of India’s military investment is in an archaic order-of-battle featuring heavy equipment, such as tanks (in three armoured strike corps) that may have made an impression in yesterday’s wars, but are laughably inadequate for the high-technology robotic warfare of tomorrow. But the Indian military seems blissfully outside the military technology innovation mainstream, content to be able to just beat the Pakistan military. Unless there’s a thorough overhaul of the three armed services and proper political instruction to align to China as main threat, the Indian armed forces will be facing in the wrong direction and tuned to fight the wrong war. This makes it easy for the PLA to control the 4,700 kms long disputed border in the mountains.

A major force restructuring would necessitate the rationalizing of the three strike corps into a single composite armoured/mechanized corps to credibly handle every conceivable contingency with Pakistan. The manpower and materiel resources from the two demobilized strike corps could then be shifted to fill two additional offensive mountain corps, for a total of three mountain strike corps to keep the PLA in Tibet on their toes.

Likewise, the IAF rather than have relatively small numbers of many different types of aircraft sourced from a host of different countries, could also rationalize its forces by having a few aircraft types in the fleet, such as the Su-30MKI as the main fighter-bomber, widely acknowledged as the finest combat aircraft flying anywhere for strike and air superiority, the locally designed and produced Tejas for short and medium-range air defence, and a long range bomber, like the upgraded Tu-160 Blackjack on sale/lease from Russia. Presently, the IAF is an ineffective air force with more show than substance, and with just too many different types of aircraft that are a logistics nightmare to maintain.

A foreign and military policy-wise strong and venturesome India will naturally anchor a stable APR. A floundering India, dependent on outside powers such as the US for its security will, on the other hand, lose respect in the comity of developing states and permanently advantage China with the strategic initiative. That will be a bad thing to happen for India, Asia, and the world.

Published in  special issue on “Rise of China & Asia-Pacific Stability”, New Approach, Vol. 21, No. 4 & Vol 22, No.1, 2016.

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Another K-4 testfiring soon but Kasturirangam metric poses danger

Preparations are afoot for the fourth test launch soon, and second from a submerged Arihant SSBN, of the K-4 missile. The first two firings were from an anchored underwater pontoon.

While this is good, the restricted number of launches planned from submerged submarines imperil the thorough training of submarine crews and the testing of the capacity of the vessels to instantaneously fill the ballast tanks to buffer the recoil from the launch. The international standard is upwards of 15-20 test launches at a minimum to get everything right in terms of not just ensuring that the technical mechanisms work properly but the crewmen — two crews to a submarine — know just what each of them has to do, how to do it, and, most importantly, to hone their firing drill and reduce the launch sequence and time taken to less than ten minutes. This sort of rigorous training requires repeated tests of missiles from submerged boats.

In previous posts, I have questioned the tendency of the government to minimize the test firings of every type of ballistic and cruise missile before its induction.  When the K Kasturirangan Committee established the metric a decade back of three successful test firings before missile induction, it was essentially an economizing measure. Whether this standard should still hold at a time when the strategic milieu daily grows more tense is a thing to ponder, as also the effects of such pusillanimity in terms of the quality of strategic/conventional military preparedness.

This kind of thinking has already affected the credibility of the Agni-5 5,500 km missile, which has yet to be launched to its full range. So far the A-5 has been fired four times, all at depressed trajectories.  Until the IRBM is seen to reach its advertized distance and to successfully achieve its fabled accuracy, there’ll always be a question mark around its performance, and India’s nuclear deterrence will have to be a matter of faith, not evidence. China and anybody else would not be wrong in taking Delhi’s claims of securing the wherewithal for strategic deterrence with a ton of salt.

Posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, DRDO, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Missiles, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, society, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Weapons | 20 Comments

Think-tanker as US ambassador

Newspapers have already mentioned Ashley Tellis as possible US Ambassador to India. Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and formerly  Special Assistant to US President George W Bush and, earlier still, Special Adviser to US Ambassador Robert Blackwill, in which capacity he was, over a decade back,the prime American driver in New Delhi of the nuclear deal. He is the most likely appointee, not little because he has enormous traction with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government. His advice apparently is so prized he has ready access to prime minister Narendra Modi that few other Americans and fewer Indians enjoy. The affable Tellis’ best attribute is a keen mind, smooth and convincing manner, and the gift of gab. He can make what’s essentially in the US’ interest appear — even when it is patently not — to be even more in India’s! That’s a tested and proven talent which Washington no doubt considers an invaluable diplomatic asset, not to be wasted. As far as the Indian government is concerned, Tellis apparently manifests “the brain gain”, not “brain drain”, that Modi said at the annual pravasi diwas celebrations in Bangalore the NRIs/PIOs represent. Except  (in this case), the gain is America’s. But why quibble, “gain” is gain.

Tellis may get a nod for yet another reason. With him as US ambassador, Carnegie will have a one-two punch in Delhi, with the C. Raja Mohan-led chapter of that Washington thinktank cultivating a bedrock of support in this country for the US line, which makes any US ambassador’s job that much easier.

Tellis has the inside track on the appointment. But two other persons are reportedly also in the running, both women as well as think-tankers — Lisa Curis, former CIA analyst and senior researcher at the rightwing Heritage Foundation in Washington that fills out Republican Party policies with appropriate content, and Alyssa Ayres, US deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, 2010-2013, currently at the Council on Foreign Relations.  Ayres has a close India connection in her spouse, Sadanand Dhume, formerly a reporter with the extinct Far Eastern Economic Review and now with yet another thinktank, the American Enterprise Institute.

Posted in Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, United States, US. | 22 Comments

Why India Is Not A Great Power

In Why India Is Not A Great Power (Yet), Bharat Karnad’s majestic breadth of national ambition surpasses even the wildest interpretation of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

Karnad, Bharat. Why India Is Not A Great Power (Yet). New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015. 564 pp


If India were to ever look for a Kautilya in the 21st century, Bharat Karnad would undoubtedly be at the top of a very short list. Some have compared him to Niccolo Machiavelli, the Renaissance Florentine political thinker, but that would be a grave injustice to Karnad, whose majestic breadth of national ambition in Why India Is Not A Great Power (Yet) surpasses even the wildest interpretation of The Prince. In his latest book, now marginally over a year old (but reviewed again because it simply has not got the attention it deserves), Karnad asks the question a whole new generation of young Indians are also wondering – why is their country not counted as among the major powers of the world?

The question is not the fatuous pretension of a strategist born in the wrong country or era, but a potent one. Consider, for example, that India has detonated nuclear devices, sent missions to the Earth’s closest neighbours, the moon and Mars, developed missiles that can strike anywhere from Japan to Austria, built nuclear-powered submarines, satellites, and once the first jet fighter outside the West, and has an advanced nuclear energy programme that includes an indigenously designed and built fast breeder nuclear reactor that is about to go critical as well as a thorium reactor in the wings. Yet Delhi also appears to lack the power to dissuade its tiny South Asian neighbours such as the Maldives, Nepal, or Sri Lanka from adopting policies that potentially put Indian national security in jeopardy; India has generally shied away from ever taking a clear stance on world issues, even when its own interests are at stake, such as over Iran or joint training operations in the Indian Ocean and its environs with friendly navies; and Delhi just cannot learn to use its increasing economic clout to influence bilateral trade terms or global commercial regimes in its favour.

The root of this problem, Karnad argues, is that the Indian republic’s leaders have never thought strategically. This echoes RAND analyst George Tanham’s famous 1992 report, Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay, a much reviled essay in many Indian circles but with more truth than they care to admit: after all, if one has to think back 2,300 years to recall the last great strategic thinker in one’s culture, it might be prudent to concede the point. Karnad cites several public intellectuals and officials – Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen, historian Ramachandra Guha, former prime minister Manmohan Singh, former national security advisors MK Narayanan and Shivshankar Menon, Congress minister Shashi Tharoor – explicitly stating that India should not even attempt to become a great power in the traditional sense of the term. What makes India great, the argument runs, is its soft power and ancient civilisational values imbued with rich diversity that have much to offer the world by way of example – in essence, an Indian version of Puritan John Winthrop’s city upon a hill. What little progress India has made in recent years in asserting itself on behalf of its national interests seems to be primarily at the urging of friendly powers invested in the idea of a normal India, with hard and soft power commensurate with its geographic size, location, population, and economy.

Karnad lays the genesis of such woolly thinking – bovine pacifism, he calls it – at the feet of Jawaharlal Nehru. Interestingly, his is not the simplistic assault on India’s first prime minister that one has become so accustomed to from the Indian “Right” in recent years, but a more nuanced understanding of the man. Karnad’s Nehru is an intellectual giant but a practical pygmy: according to Karnad, Nehru rightly saw the latent threat from China, envisioned a world order that would not leave three quarters of the world torn between American capitalism and Soviet communism, and articulated an important place for India and her interests on the world stage. Unfortunately, this was coupled with abject incompetence in implementation: Nehru abandoned his idea of an Asian Monroe Doctrine with India at its helm for fear of upsetting other newly independent third-world countries who only remembered the Indian military as agents of British imperialism, did not embrace the countries flanking China’s southern rim in a geopolitical and defensive association in an arrogant condescension towards geopolitics, rejected a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council over ideological vacuity, and failed to cross the nuclear Rubicon when the opportunity first presented itself in February 1964. Future leaders ossified Nehru’s vacillations much to India’s detriment.

Over seven chapters, Karnad discusses what it means to be a great power, India’s options in developing a coalition of littoral or rimland states to moderate Chinese aggression, Indian relations with the major powers – Russia and the United States – as well important countries in its near abroad – Israel, the Gulf states, Iran, the Central Asian Republics, the ASEAN, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan, the over-cautious, risk-averse nature of the Indian administration and its failure of strategic imagination, the shortcomings of the Indian military services in terms of procurement, silly and detrimental turf wars, silo-based decision-making, slow absorption of the latest technology, preference for short-term, tactical thinking over long-term, strategic planning, and organisational inelasticity, the weakness of Indian industry in not just developing but even assimilating technology, poor governmental policies favouring non-performing defence public sector undertakings, and the low motivation and budget for research and development, and finally the internal factors such as caste-driven politics, illiteracy, centre-state tensions, corrupt civil service, and socialist perpetuation of poverty.

Karnad regales the reader with ample anecdotes of stunted ambition, missed opportunities, and poor planning by Indian politicians, civil servants, and military brass that would make even the most committed teetotaler reach for a generous helping of liquid courage. The failure to become a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the short-sightedness in not taking Vietnam up on developing a naval base at Nha Trang, the docile surrender of Indian national interests to American priorities in Iran, the absence of the armed forces in any higher echelon governmental decision-making, the turf wars between the Ministry of External Affairs and the military, the impossible logistics of the Indian Air Force, the exuberance over soft power in isolation, and the irresponsible comment repeated by senior bureaucrats that nuclear weapons are not weapons of war all make an appearance in this excoriation of seven decades of Indian policy. While it is not difficult to agree with the author’s simpler premise that India must shrug off its timidity and become a Great Power, it is the audacious road map offered to Great Power status that makes this book truly interesting.

Anyone who knows Karnad would not hesitate to peg him for a security hawk. Even those who have heard of him for the first time in this review would have by now probably come to agree with that sentiment. Fascinatingly, unlike most security hawks in India, Karnad suggests a reorientation of Indian military policy away from Pakistan and towards the real bête noire, China. His argument is simple – anything that can dissuade China from having its way with India will likely deter Pakistan too but not vice versa. With 60 percent of the Indian army and 90 percent of its armour deployed against Pakistan, India finds its difficult to come up with the resources for the urgently needed mountain regiments and other requirements along the Line of Actual Control. Karnad even goes so far as to suggest the removal of the nuclear-tipped short-range ballistic missiles pointed at Pakistan as a unilateral gesture of goodwill. In times of war, they are easy targets for the Pakistani air force and the break-away state is anyway amply covered by the Agni family of missiles deployed deeper and more safely in the hinterland. These measures would reassure Islamabad and allow the Pakistani army to save face in following the Indian example. Furthermore, India should incentivise its immediate neighbours, including Pakistan, with generous economic terms to plug into Indian markets and thereby cement the country’s role as a regional security provider as well as economic engine.

Putting China in India’s crosshairs has several layers in Karnad’s grand design, each to be initiated simultaneously. Delhi must reorient its military towards China and order it to prepare for several scenarios, including pushing across the Himalayas and fighting China in Tibet, bombing the fragile ecology of the Tibetan plains and other high value targets such as the Three Gorges Dam, and setting up atomic demolition munitions in the Himalayan passes. Delhi should amplify its capability to prosecute expeditionary missions anywhere from Subic Bay to the Persian Gulf by establishing foreign military bases at Nha Trang, Agalegas, Farkhor, Ayni, Garden Island, and other important locations. This could be achieved in concert with other states of the Indian Ocean Region littoral, dissipating any resentment at India’s rise, increasing confidence in Delhi’s intentions, and forging a partnership for an Indian-led Asian Monroe Doctrine first envisioned by Nehru.

Yet to give its potential partners any confidence in India’s abilities, Delhi must actively seek to set up a defence-industrial complex led by the private sector that would initially absorb technology transfers and later further its own R&D. Defence independence would not only be good for India’s pocket book but it would also improve the Indian military’s operational readiness and psychologically nudge Southeast Asia towards betting on Delhi to balance China. If India emerges as an arms supplier to the Indian Ocean Region littoral, it would build long-term relations with the militaries Delhi hopes to partner to contain China.

In its international relations, Karnad argues that India jettison the loaded vocabulary of non-alignment but actually behave in a manner Nehru had intended that term to describe. To this end, Delhi should side with the United States, Russia, Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Australia against China when it comes to curbing Beijing’s adventurism in the Himalayas or the Nine-Dash Line. However, India should also align with Iran, Russia, and China against the United States and its Western allies in matters of international trade pacts, environmental norms, labour agreements, and other structural treaties that prop up the status quo favouring the victors of World War II. As part of both groupings, India would become the balancer.

Finally, in what will certainly be considered the most outrageous policy recommendations, Karnad suggests that India resume nuclear testing to attain the thermonuclear grail as well as to make credible its fission designs. Further optimisation on existing designs to yield weapons of various payloads, from tactical to megaton-strategic would give India a richer nuclear palette of responses to an incoming attack. Furthermore, most egregious to prevailing nuclear morality, the author also advocates that Delhi arm Vietnam with nuclear weapons in a tit-for-tat policy to pay China back for supplying Pakistan with nuclear weapons and missile technology.

Karnad considers the argument that India’s best foreign and defence policy for the next two decades is nine percent annual economic growth. As he points out, past Great Powers did not become so once they became the industrial engines of their times but their military and economic trajectories complemented each other. Elizabethan England, Bismarckian Germany, and one might add the Soviet Union, Catherinian Russia, the Ottoman Empire, or Rome did not become empires after attaining economic hegemony but their military muscle supported their economic wherewithal and vice versa. Even China, though its rise has been noticed by the West only since Deng Xiaoping, was a military power not of little consequence before it embarked on a programme of economic rejuvenation.

Sometimes, however, Karnad appears to contradict himself. For example, he lambasts the set of treaties the United States has been pressuring India to sign, known as the Foundational Agreements, for coercing India into an American military geopolitical as well as operational order but at the same time admits to India’s own individual abysmal failure in these respects. Not only is communication between the different branches of the Indian military difficult, Karnad tells us, but even within the same service! Different procurement policies, short-term fixes, and the tendency of the different branches to exist in isolation from its sister services has necessitated several jugaads to make possible joint operations. India has also failed to take up offers to establish military supply stations on foreign soil on its on and working with Washington provides a medium-term fix. Similarly, Karnad is leery of the United States as a provider of military technology. Yet he also admits that Indian DPSUs and industry have been spectacularly unsuccessful at indigenous development of required equipment in quality or quantity. The Americans offer a route to plug the gaps in Indian defence more immediately that bringing domestic capability up to speed and then doing so indigenously.

While Karnad is undoubtedly correct about the necessity for credibility of the Indian nuclear deterrent, he does not consider the ramifications of renewed nuclear testing. India will most likely come under sanctions from at least some of its major economic and military partners – the United States, Japan, Britain, Germany, Canada, Australia – and that could effectively scuttle military modernisation and retard economic growth. Again, the lesson to learn here comes from China – economic indispensability provides a great cover for many sins.

Moreover, arming Vietnam with nuclear weapons is easier said than done – true nuclearisation of Vietnamese defence would require indigenous thinking on technical as well as geopolitical and strategic aspects of nuclear weapons, something Hanoi will need time to develop. In addition, nuclear arms are financially unviable for Vietnam in its current status. It is not even clear if Vietnam perceives any need for its own nuclear arsenal. A case in point is Japan – despite its proximity to China and the regularity of anti-Japanese rhetoric in the Middle Kingdom, Tokyo feels comfortable even under an unsure American nuclear umbrella. Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has had an uphill battle in convincing his countrymen to make even the smallest of amendments to the constitution to allow a healthier defence outlook and there is great public opposition to all things nuclear.

It is not the purpose of Why India Is Not A Great Power (Yet) to explore every policy option – for example, terrorism and cyber security are given short shrift – but to emphasise the lack of ambition in the Indian ruling elite, whence all other problems arise. Karnad’s heartwarming embrace of amoral machtpolitik is not for everyone. Yet notwithstanding the provocations, disagreements, and the quibbles, the import of his argument should not be lost. This is a most important book anyone interested in Indian security policy should read; in fact, were the Indian prime minister, defence minister, and foreign minister to consider just one book in their entire term, this ought to be it.

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IPCS podcast on ‘India’s Nuclear Doctrine’

CNN has republished the IPCS podcast in its January 5, 2017 report — “2.6 billion people, nukes and missiles. What could go wrong?” by Joshua Berlinger at 01/04/asia/china-india-icbm/ index.html

But, CNN has given the story a Chinese spin.


The original IPCS  podcast below:

Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies had a podcast Dec 5, 2016 with me on the subject of ‘India’s Nuclear Doctrine’. It is available at


Posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, civil-military relations, Culture, domestic politics, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Army, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Pakistan nuclear forces, SAARC, society, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Weapons | 11 Comments

Hariz will do a Bakshi

Ever since the announcement by the Modi government of VCOAS Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as the new army chief, GOC-in-C Southern Command, Lt Gen PM Hariz, had intimated his colleagues, friends and relatives that he’d bypass the precedent established by Lt Gen SK Sinha in 1983 (when he was superceded Gen Arun Vaidya) of not serving under his junior in service and serve out the rest of his term under Rawat.  Praveen Bakshi meanwhile dithered with his decision to stay but ultimately decided against challenging Rawat’s elevation because, as reports suggest, he expects to be accommodated, ideally as the first Chief of Defence Staff, failing which as an ambassador somewhere or as governor. Hariz apparently has no such expectation but, presumably, will accept such post if offered.

The government may thus be incentivising military officers in the running who don’t make it to the top to not create trouble and get rewarded with high posts elsewhere in the system. This will legitimate, in effect, the actions of the government in rejecting the seniority principle and selecting an officer as Service chief  for any reason whatsoever that it deems fit. It is hoped that hereafter “merit” (however defined) will count, not the accident of dates of birth or of entry into service. The next time, the government will, hopefully, be even more flexible and choose from among the entire lot of lieutenant generals. Once the notion of selection is entrenched, the military may end up having younger, intellectually more open, and physically more vigorous officers as COAS, CAS, and CNS.

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Why a merit-less Rafale buy can’t be justified

As perhaps his last action as the air force chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha did two things to ensure that in retirement he will not face the opprobrium of his colleagues in service. One, he drew back from the position he had taken about ACM SP Tyagi (Retd) despoiling IAF’s reputation to say that as a member of the service the fraternity stood behind him. This may have been prompted by the op-ed pieces by former Chief of Air Staff AY Tipnis and the former navy chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, criticizing the government for, in essence, treating Tyagi in a manner not befitting the high military post he had occupied.

And two, more importantly, Raha revealed the real reason for the IAF enthusiastically backing prime minister Narendra Modi’s unexpected announcement in Paris in April 2015 of the purchase of 36 French Rafale combat aircraft without an iota of technology transfer, which this analyst had deduced then, namely, that this small number of Rafales while useless by itself as a fighting force, would work nicely as leverage with the Modi government to buy an additional 200-250  of the same aircraft.

By way of rationalization, Raha dredged up the spurious notion of the Rafale’s “medium” weight as its main selling point and how this plane in the fleet would “balance out” the force. He expressly ruled out the augmentation of the Su-30 fleet as an alternative, saying India had enough of this latter “heavy” aircraft. The IAF presently has some 272 Su-30MKIs.

As has been pointed out by this analyst, a separate “medium” category of fighter aircraft is uniquely an IAF invention and springs out of the notion of  “Hi-Lo” mix of weapons platforms that force designers have cottoned on to ever since the US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt originally conceived it in the early 1970s as the template for a naval force of a small number of expensive, high-value, nuclear-powered boats and the far more numerous, cheaper, lower technology, ships, resulting in a sufficiently large force to maintain a wide, global, naval presence. The “hi-lo” concept was introduced keeping in mind (1) the exponential growth in the price of major weapons platforms, with a direct relationship between unit cost and high-technology content — the more advanced the platform and onboard weapons the costlier the total item, and (2) the rather severe consequences (in terms of force attrition) owing to loss in hostilities  of the necessarily fewer high priced platforms in service compared to the loss of the cheaper, more expendable, fighting systems and, the enforced caution therefore in actually deploying the former, thereby  rendering them mere showpieces in time of war.

In this context, let’s briefly consider IAF’s hi-medium-lo force mix ideas. Raha has conceded the low end to the indigenous Tejas LCA (presumably the 1A and eventually Mk-II variants), and the high-end to the Su-30MKIs already in the fleet. With defence minister Manohar Parrikar pushing the Tejas, the IAF brass, in its ever fluid, expedient, thinking decided to humour the Modi regime by assigning the air defence role exclusively to the Indian-designed and developed LCA while using its short range to bolster the service’s demand for the medium weight “multi-role” Rafale for extended air defence as also for aerial (including nuclear) strike operations and for  air superiority purposes. The Su-30, in the mean time, fills the air dominance need. So, what’s wrong with this solution, especially when Raha deems 200 of additional Rafales (or F-16s or F-18s for which, he said, the competition is still open)  a “must have” for IAF? (See

Great many things. The reason no major air force thinks in other than than “hi-lo” terms is because there’s very little substantive differentiation in capability between  the hi-end and medium fighter aircraft.  But, cost-wise, as Parrikar himself once stated, India can buy THREE Su-30s of the upgraded “Super Sukhoi” variety (with Active Electronically Scanned Array radar for switching missions mid-flight between Air-to-air and Air-to-ground) for the cost of a single Rafale, which quality-wise is also manifestly inferior. Moreover, Rafale is 4.5 generation, exactly the same as an AESA radar equipped Tejas and no match whatsoever for the 4.75-5 generation ‘super sukhoi’ Su-30.  If the threats are taken into consideration, Rafale is viable only against Pakistan but in the quality-quantity matrix, will find itself swamped by huge numbers of low-cost Chinese built J-17s with the PAF. The paper performance of one Rafale taking out three or five J-17s is the kind of nonsense no self-respecting airman believes in (with the  Beyond Visual Range ordnance brought into the reckoning, except that the hit rate of the BVR missile averages around 30% in any realistic scenario)!

Further, Su-30 is for air dominance but can pull air superiority (another name for air dominance and air defence) and nuclear strike roles more effectively than Rafale whose only advantage — if it can be called that — is that it is range optimized for Pakistan — a lowly Pakistan for God’s sake. So just to tackle Pakistan IAF is acquiring an entirely new type of fighter aircraft to worsen the already nightmare situation of logistical diversity owing to improbably disparate kinds of aircraft in IAF’s employ. So, Rafale and F-16/F-18 are being added to this melange just so the country’s sources of military supply are diversified, even as the existing logistics and operational problems multiply manifold!   Can anyone credibly argue that a Super Sukhoi Su-30 that can reach deep inside China cannot reach the next door Pakistani targets? But such is the IAF’s pitch the Modi government has bought into. Now make sense of that.

And, finally, how about this aspect —  the down payment on the deal for 36 Rafales is a whopping Rs 9,700 crores — a sum the Indian government is unable so far to come up with. France  will, of course, not countenance a barter arrangement, something Russia may agree to if IAF goes in for another 200 of the Su-30s, with the side benefit of recovering the lost ground in Indo-Russian relations, and regaining the geopolitical leverage prospectively with Trump’s America, which leverage is eroding with New Delhi’s growing tilt to the US and the West.

Have maintained from the start that the Rafale deal in its entirety (costing upwards, inflation- and average weapons price annual  increases-  indexed, of $70-80 billion) will end up bankrupting the nation. But the IAF will have a fleet of 236 shiny Rafales to show off. GOI and IAF apparently think this is not such a bad trade-off.

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