Bharat Karnad at CNAS/GWU Conference on ‘Rising Powers’ in Washington, DC, January 23-24, 2012

Bharat Karnad’s Brief Responses to Questions posed Indian panelists (in the lead-up to the) Center for New American Security/Sigur Center for Asian Studies, George Washington University conference on “India as a Global Power: Contending Views from India,” Elliott School, Washington, D.C., January 23, 2012. [The other Indian panelists were Mani Shankar Aiyar, MP, Lalit Mansingh, former Foreign Secretary, and TN Ninan, editor, ‘Business Standard’] For an audio link to the panel discusions at this conference, see

Problem with the Conference’s taxonomy!  The categorization of various Indian streams of thought on foreign policy into “Great Power”, “Hyper-Nationalist”, “Neo-Nationalist” and “Liberal Globalist” is perplexing.  Not sure if these categories are useful other than as a form of academic hairsplitting.  For instance, what is “hyper nationalism” except an ideology to achieve “great power”?  And surely, both “neo-nationalist” and “liberal globalist” define different aspects of Indian policies since Jawaharlal Nehru’s time. And, what exactly is “neo-nationalism” any way? Depending on the policy area, all these categories apply to a would-be great power, such as India. Thus, hyper-nationalist policy in the nuclear security field could be combined with a “liberal globalist” posture in the economic policy arena, and “great power” considerations could fuel policies relating to strategic partnerships (with the United States, Japan and Australia to contain China, for instance), and “neo-nationalism” – assuming I understand this concept correctly, could describe “issue-based” alliances (with China on climate and the Doha Round-WTO, say)

Security/Defense Topics:

Q: What are main threats to India’s security at global (ME conflict), regional (Asia) and national (South Asia) levels and how would you prioritize them?

 A: Prioritized threats to India are China, Nuclear & WMD proliferation by China, and terrorism, in that order.

The prime regional and Asian continental threat is ONLY posed by China. Serious military conflict is possible on account of (1) disputed border, (2) diversion of the Tibet-originating Yarlung-Tsangpo/Brahmaputra River before it enters India, (3) the Tibet Freedom Movement, (4) Chinese naval and military build-up in the Indian Ocean, (5)  Indian naval and military presence to protect vital national interests east of the Malacca Straits, and (6) contested natural resources.

The main global level threat to India’s security is China’s unremitting use of nuclear and other WMD proliferation, for instance, to North Korea, Pakistan, Iran, and Libya to discomfit its perceived adversaries. It is a deliberate and calculated policy tactic that may compel targeted countries, such as India, to respond in kind. I have argued for nearly two decades now that the Indian government should in like realpolitik vein nuclear missile arm Vietnam, Indonesia, and any other country on the Chinese periphery, including Outer Mongolia, desirous of absolute security vis a vis a potentially bellicose China, and to cooperate and collaborate in the nuclear armaments and missile spheres with Taiwan and Japan – as a way to payback  in the same coin, and contain, China.

South Asia-based threats: No subcontinental neighbor or state in India’s near abroad is a credible military threat, least of all, Pakistan. However, terrorism spawned by radical and extremist Islam is, but then it threatens peace and social order in all South Asian countries, starting with Pakistan. To the extent that the locus genesis of such threat is within Pakistan, it can be best countered, not by marshalling field armies (as happened in 2002), etc., but by targeted intelligence operations to disrupt the activities of identified terrorist organizations.

Q: Is US hegemony in Asia or world a threat?

A: No, the US as a benign hegemon is not a threat. But this assumes that the United States can muster the will to continue playing this role in Asia, and is politically, financially, and other resources-wise, anymore even in a position to do so, notwithstanding the Obama Administration’s recent shift of military policy focus and resources from Europe to East Asia.

Q: How should India react to growing Chinese military might, especially on the high seas? Is China a threat to India’s traditional dominance of South Asia?

A: The real imbalance is in land forces. At sea the Indian Navy is confident it can more than hold its own, especially with the Arihant SSBN  (with three more boats of this class to follow in relatively quick succession) completing its harbor trials and cleared for sea trials, the Akula-class SSN, on lease from Russia, in the process of being inducted, and the aircraft carrier Vikramaditya (Gorshkov, ex- Russia) embarking  the MiG-29K, likely joining the Eastern Fleet later this year.

The whip-hand China presently holds is in terms of its extant PLA concentrations and  build-up potential on the Tibetan plateau to the extent of  25-30 Group Armies inside of 28 days, courtesy augmented PLAAF airlift capability and the Qinghai-Lhasa railway with the spur line to Xigatze on the Nepal border that will soon open for traffic.

India has 9-10 Mountain Divisions deployed adequately for defensive positional warfare in the Himalayas but, by itself, this capability amounts to handing over the military initiative to PLA, because these forces are incapable of offensive actions of other than extremely short-range tactical kind. I have argued for over two decades now that the Indian Army needs to prioritize the raising of a minimum of 9 to 13 Divisions for exclusively offensive operations to take the fight to the Chinese on the Tibetan plateau, and for this purpose acquire light howitzers, light armor and ICVs (for deployment on the northern Sikkim plateau-plains and to debouch from the ‘Demchok Triangle’  on to the Tibetan shelf) in the Ladakh area,  and  an integral heli-lift capability. The raising of 2+2 Mountain Divisions, as per present Army plan, is worse than useless because these will invariably be used to beef up the already existing defensive formations, rather than be utilized in offensive/counter-attack operations, by an Army brass habituated to passive- reactive-defensive planning.

 India accounts for some 72% of the landmass of South Asia, and nearly 75% of its population and of the wealth produced by the region. China cannot, other than, marginally affect this “dominance”, any more than India, and the US and its allies together assisting Vietnam can  change its relative position vis a vis China.

Q: Is Pakistan a bigger threat as a nuclear power or as a failed state or both? 

A: The only real threat Pakistan poses is as a failed state. To the extent that nuclear weapons make the Pakistan Army, government, and people feel less insecure, it is a good thing and constitute a net gain for security-stability in South Asia. However, should the Pakistani state itself implode for any or all of the following reasons — (1) the uncontrolled and, possibly, uncontrollable Islamic radicalizing impulses that were set loose in the society during the Zia ul-Haq regime, which are now beginning to crest;  (2) the inter-regional disaffection-qua-subnationalist Movements transforming into full-blown civil wars (Balochistan, Baltistan); (3)  the violent clash of the Afghan Pashtun aspirations with Pakistan’s traditional Pashtun border problems along the vaguely delineated Durand Line; (4) and, the perennial military-civilian tensions leading to deep social and political fissures within the Pakistani society, then even Pakistan’s  carefully guarded and near hermetically-sealed nuclear weapons program, will be swamped.  Alarmingly senior retired Pakistani military officers estimate the virus of “extremist Islam” to have infected 30% of the officer corps and around 50% of the  NCOs and troops. This makes the situation doubly dangerous.

Q: Is US and NATO policy in Afghanistan a threat?

The threat is from Afghanistan as source of continued strife that will engulf the Pakistani Pashtuns and spread to Pashtun concentrations in Karachi and other Pakistani cities and towns.  What is crucial is the intention of the US and NATO policy. If it means to prop up and subsidize the rule by the Karzai cohort in Kabul and assist its military with US Special Forces ’ actions against  the Taliban, then things will continue as per present trend line. If, on the other hand, Karzai is persuaded to make peace with the Taliban, initially share power, and this leads to a gradual phase-in of the Mullah Omar-led Taliban team to control the levers of government,  on the condition that the Taliban regime guarantees to treat the Durand Line (or any other border negotiated with Pakistan and overseen by US/NATO) as final and unbreachable border between these two countries, thereby quieting the Pakistani fears of a separate and independent Pakhtunistan obtained by conjoining southern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province,  it would be a stabilizing arrangement and seed lasting peace.

Q: Is domestic terrorism a threat to India?

If terrorism arises from Islamic extremism then it a far more worrying threat because it  indicates  the degree of  alienation of the Indian Muslim community from the secular Indian nation, society, and state. The “Hindu terrorists”, on the other hand, fueled  by the sentiments of the majority that the Indian state panders to Muslim co-citizens, is a more meaningful but latent threat to domestic order. In both cases, the terrorism-triggered problems will have to be dealt with in a binary fashion – strict but fair policing, monitoring of unaccounted cash flows from wahabi trusts spreading radical Islam based in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, intelligence penetration of likely active groups for preemption purposes,  and hard counter-measures combined with “softer” means to assuage the hurt of the people.

Q: Does India need security allies, and if so which countries are the most important ones?

Yes, India needs to cultivate close security partnerships (not “alliances”), in particular, with Israel, Vietnam, Philippines, Myanmar, Singapore, Japan, the United States, and Australia – in that order.

Q: What role does US play? Obama has referred to India and the United States as “natural allies.” Are US-Indian relations the key to India’s future in the post-Cold War world, as Indian-Russian relations were during the Cold War?

Are Indo-US relations the key? Yes and No.

Yes, in the sense that the US policy of offshore balancing in Asia with its strengthened military and naval presence in the extended region will always give Beijing pause for thought and is useful from the point of view of India (and other Asian majors, such Japan and South Korea as well), because every little sliver of advantage helps in dealing with the Chinese behemoth.

And No, in that the United States is still an extra-regional, extra-continental, power which can stay on the sidelines by redefining its vital interests in and by agreeing on a mutually beneficial arrangement of power-sharing with China, which arrangement could be at the expense of India and other Asian states and detrimental to their security. It was not all that long ago, it may be recalled, that President Obama mooted G-2. Moreover, there is no chance whatsoever that the US will join India (or South Korea or Japan or Taiwan, or any other Asian country in a running war, even less a land war requiring boots on the ground, against China.

It is unlikely that India’s relations with the US in the 21st century will be anything like the Indian relations with Soviet Union in the Cold War: It will at once be more and less.  More, because the ties with the United States are of a peculiar nature, very full in great many respects – the sharing of democratic values, the politically active Indian diaspora in the US, economic and trade interlinks, etc. But also less because, unlike in the case of the Soviet Union in the Cold War, there is a glaring absence of trust, especially where nuclear security and military technology – the basic building blocks of close ties —  are concerned.  The main reason why, for instance, the Soviet Union enjoyed the confidence of the Indian military and the Indian state, won over the people, and its successor state, Russia, continues to benefit from those historical links, is because Moscow showed no inhibitions in transferring its latest military hardware and that too without conditions and without requiring India having to empty its treasury in the 1966-1990 period owing to  favorable rupee-rouble credit arrangements (typically, rouble loans at 2% interest over 17 years – and therefore virtually free!).

Any transfer of even second rate American military technology and equipment, on the other hand, involves unending hassles (end-user verifications, etc), complicated certification requirements, and a slew of do’s and don’t’s the user Services are expected to adhere to  Besides, the US has to live down its past record and reputation as a country inclined retroactively to change its laws and disregard treaty obligations (Tarapur fuel), and of generally being motivated, at every turn, by calculations of its other interests (nonproliferation, Pakistan, China) and, above all else, the desire to maximize its advantage.  May be all this is changing, but not fast enough to modify the wariness in India about the US as reliable friend, strategic partner, and high-technology supplier.

Q: Should India pursue a balance of power in Asia (China)? If so, how does India offset a China-Pakistan alignment or a Russia-China alignment?

Given the emerging correlation of forces, an Indian balance of power policy will, willy-nilly, obtain, however it is publicly presented.  The China-Pakistan alignment is the current state of affairs, but to treat it as an unchangeable configuration is the wrong policy tack for India.

Pakistan, hived off from the Indian broadcloth, is eminently co-optable and should be vigorously co-opted by India with generous terms for trade and commerce, open visa regime, and by measures to address Pakistani apprehensions of the Indian “threat” in ways to positively impact the Pakistan army  – such as unilaterally rationalizing the Indian armored/ mechanized forces and withdrawing short-range nuclear ballistic missiles from the western border, and initiating “open door” policies in all spheres, such as education, by admitting students from all neighboring countries, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh,  who have cleared the difficult entrance tests, into the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, etc.  Distancing Pakistan from China by such and other far-sighted unilateral actions and measures, will begin to normalize ties, and isolate China. This ought to be India’s primary short-term, mid-term and long term strategic goal.

China has to be contained, its military options and space for pol-mil maneuver restricted, by any and all means. This can be done by a security architecture tethered at the two ends by Israel and Japan, and with Vietnam sticking out into China’s relatively exposed gut — its soft under-belly in South East Asia, and backed up actively by Indonesia, Singapore, and Philippines, and even Taiwan. India, in this geopolitical scheme, can be the pivot, and the US do its bit as the offshore balancer, even as Pakistan is rendered inaccessible to China.

Q: In 2008 India and Japan signed a security cooperation agreement. Should security ties be expanded with Japan, as well as other Asian democracies (Australia, New Zealand, South Korea)?


Q: Should India be part of informal security arrangements to preserve the autonomy of Taiwan?

Yes. In fact, in my writings, I have advocated that close ties be developed with Taiwan in sensitive military technology fields, including nuclear weaponry and missiles, and that India ought to initiate joint naval exercises with the Taiwanese Navy off the Taiwanese coast, perhaps a triangular ‘Malabar’ with the US Navy every couple of years. Some sharing of intelligence on China is already afoot. The intelligence ties should be upgraded and made more muscular.

Q: Is the EU relevant in the security area?

here seems to be a withering of the European will to partake of other than activities directly and immediately relevant to its collective security, which rules out, in most circumstances, out-of-area military deployments and investment in out-of-area security schemes. But the EU wields a joker in the pack – military high technology that China wishes to get its hands on but so far without success owing to US pressure. But France may relent and the European technology floodgates will open for commercial reasons,  thereby weakening the effort to deny China easy access to technologies that may help to have in-date military wherewithal.

Q: How important are nuclear weapons for Indian security, compared to stronger conventional, especially naval, forces or overall economic growth through integration in global economy?

It is not clear why – when it comes to other than the five NPT powers – Western strategic communities insist on postulating an inverse relationship between nuclear weapons and conventional military might, that somehow a stronger conventional military obviates the need for nuclear weapons, leave alone advanced, high yield and versatile thermonuclear armaments. Nuclear security and security afforded by conventional military forces are two distinct and separate security and military policy realms, with the interface between them limited to realizing an appropriate tripwire, and coordinated war-planning. In the larger context, it is surely obvious that a strong and hefty arsenal of nuclear and thermonuclear weaponry will minimize the possibility of all out conventional war. And that nuclear weapons per se – however basic and few in number, nevertheless preempt coercive military actions [North Korea] and, for that reason alone, have tremendous utility [as realized by Iran].

A world without nuclear weapons, moreover, is one safe for conventional warfare and, hence, preferred by countries with high-grade conventional military capabilities, and therefore, more damgerous. That said, the best strategy for a would-be great power like India is to have both very strong and credible thermonuclear forces and large, highly effective, conventional land and air forces and navy. These are lines of argument that I have developed at considerable length in my various books.

The connection between nuclear security and economic growth and a globalised economy is even more confounding.  In Fiscal 2011 India spent less than 2.24% of its GDP on defense; were the black budget to be included that percentage will rise to some 3%.  It is a level of expenditure on national security that is among the lowest for any major power.  China ($180 billion) and the US ($708 billion) spend 5%-6% of their respective GDPs that are many times that of India. Meaning, India’s expenditure ($35 billion) on “guns” is the bare minimum and in no way negatively impacts the spending on “butter” unless the case is that India needs no security at all, and that it can always free-ride on security, courtesy friends such as the United States, much as it riding the Soviet coat-tails in the past.  However, such a policy of inaction and undue reliance on friendly foreign powers, is not recommended for an aspiring great power such as India nor sustainable in the future.  Actually, an Indian economy growing at a fairly rapid clip (over 6% per annum) for the next 20 years, will allow for much bigger defense budgets, and is the predicate for the bountiful capital acquisitions plans of the Indian armed services on the anvil.

Q: What role should India’s nuclear arsenal play in national strategy? Are Indian nuclear weapons designed for deterrence of Pakistan, China, Russia, the United States or all of the above?

 The Indian nuclear and thermonuclear arsenal should be large and growing to keep pace with the Chinese the N-force build-up, with no more than 50-75 weapons/warheads separating them, and sufficient to provide cover for distant conventional military and naval tasks in the face of Chinese military opposition.

For Indian strategic nuclear forces to make any sense at all, they have to be oriented touz azimuts, able to retaliate against any comer. But for now they are principally geared for anti-China contingencies.  Pakistan unfortunately features in the Indian Strategic Forces Command (SFC) plans but as secondary threat and then in purely reactive-retaliatory mode. Ideally, India should proceed on the basis that Pakistan poses no nuclear threat whatsoever, besides other reasons, because of a really skewed exchange ratio in a nuclear exchange. The exception is the previously sketched scenario of Pakistan imploding and radical Islamists taking hold of fissionable materials to craft radiation diffusion devices for terrorist use, if not whole and ready-to-use nuclear-warheaded missile systems. Both these contingencies are a matter of concern for the SFC and the Indian conventional military, to counteract which they have plans.

Q: Should India spend more on defense, and how does it do so given its relative economic weakness?

Spending more on defense is one thing, but spending smartly is the key. In the late 1990s, the 11th Finance Commission, India, recommended that defense allocations reach the 3% of GDP level by 2005 – something entirely affordable by a country with an economic growth rate that still is in excess of 6%, even with the downturn. Being smart about program expenditure is something the Indian military have not yet learned because money continues to be poured into combat arms, such as the vast armored and mechanized formations, that are growingly irrelevant, and in buying expensive and fast-obsolescing combat aircraft by the Air Force run by fighter jocks, for instance. What was the need for MMRCA, when the more cost- and operationally more effective option would have been to buy more Su-30MKIs, whose development India subsidized in the 1990s? And why, inn any case, are expensive combat aircraft preferred when IAF should be transitioning into, and investing more, in highly versatile and economical drones/RPVs?

Q: To increase economic power for defense, should India “Go Global” like China (WTO) or “Go Regional” like Russia (“privileged sphere of interests’)?

Economics-wise, India should simultaneously run regional and go global – regional by expeditiously promoting the South Asian Free Trade Association, BIMSTEC, and FTA with ASEAN, etc., and global in terms of upscaling the manufacturing sector to service the world-wide market to try and replace China as the world’s “workshop”. This last will require the government to reform land acquisitions laws, make easy credit available to industry, get out of the way of the private sector, and allow the marketplace to determine whether the public sector factories — steel plants, ordnance factories, research institutes, etc sink or swim.

Q: What is relative priority of the army, air force (including nuclear capabilities), and navy in managing India’s defense?

The landbased longer range Agni IRBMs -2s, 3s, and 4s, and especially the soon to be tested 5,000 km range Agni-5 and an ICBM in the near future; seaborne: 2nd and 3rd Arihant class SSBNs, Akula-II SSN, and possible mounting of N-missiles on certain ships, possibly missile destroyers: and airborne – the sequestering of a finite number of Su-30s and Mirage 2000s, and in the future, the FGFA, and MMRCA for nuclear missions — all these assets are meant for deterrence/dissuasion/retaliation against China, and for aggressive posturing to bottle up the Chinese Navy in particular east of Malacca, and landward to neutralize the PLA Second Artillery SRBM and MRBM batteries on the Tibetan plateau and in the adjoining Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions.

The current conventional military orientation is shifting from Pakistan to China, alas, glacially. In hostilities involving China, the brief is for the Army’s 2+2 offensive Mountain Divisions to complement the 10-odd defensively deployed Mountain Divisions to hold the prepositioned line behind the Line of Actual Control, for the plains-based Indian fighter-bomber aircraft to strike at hard targets – airfields, military installations, and softer targets – massed PLA forces in the extended Tibetan plateau region, and the Navy’s Eastern Command coordinating with the Andaman Integrated Command to stifle movement of PLAN ships, prevent them from moving into the Bay of Bengal, for the Western Fleet to take out such naval assets as are in its vicinity in the western Indian  Ocean basin, and generally shadow, hunt and harass China-bound oil tankers to China and trade-carrying ships from China.

The army’s three Strike Corps reconstituted into eight Independent Battle Groups and numerous independent armored brigades, useable only against Pakistan, are expected to follow on from where the armored elements of the “pivot” or holding corps leave off advancing on the Rahim Yar Khan axis, per ‘Cold Start’ plans. The idea is to capture as much Pakistani real estate as possible as a “negotiating card” in the inevitable end-of-conflict “peace talks”. All of which amount to a lot of useless to-ing and fro-ing across the border by Indian and Pakistani armor for no discernible purpose beyond reinforcing the raison de’etre for these vintage fighting assets in the orders-of-battle on both sides. In the larger context, this is an extra-ordinary and inexcusable wastage of financial and military resources.

Meanwhile, IAF will do some half-hearted strikes on Pakistani airfields, and PAF will return the compliment, and get into a bit of dogfighting so beloved of the AF crowd, but otherwise refrain from bombing each other’s cities or sensitive facilities, as happened in all the India-Pakistan conflicts to-date.  The clashing militaries will once again prove the late Major General D.K. Palit, former Director, Military Operations, Indian Army, and incidentally, former Baloch Regiment officer (before Partition) right when he described India-Pakistan wars as “communal riots with tanks”.

Short-duration expeditionary missions can be pulled by the ten battalions of Special Forces and an amphibious army brigade stationed in the Andamans, with appropriate airlift capability.

Q: In July 2011 a Chinese warship confronted an Indian amphibious assault vessel in international waters off the coast of Vietnam. Are India and China destined to compete on the high seas?

 Yes. The problem is this: Its oil trade is too vulnerable for PLAN not to establish its presence in the Indian Ocean, and South East Asia and the South China Sea is too strategically critical and the aim to blunt the Chinese main naval force too important for India not to have its navy operate out of Na Thrang in Vietnam, Singapore, and the Philippines. It makes for a naval competition, of course, but also for a possible fight on the high seas, and in the narrows.

 Q: How does India counter China’s “string of pearls” strategy to dominate the South China Sea (port facilities or access at Gwadar in Pakistan, Hambantota in Sri Lanka, Kyauk Phru in Burma, Chittagong in Bangladesh, etc.)?

The fact is that while many of the countries in the Indian Ocean littoral are permitting rest and replenishment facilities for the Chinese Navy in peace time, during an India-China war, it is unlikely that the same states, excepting Pakistan, will allow PLAN ships such access, because that would mean alienating India, which they cannot afford to do. So the “string of pearls” sounds good in table-top discussions and looks good on paper, but for China it will be unrealizable in war time, because all PLAN has is conditional access to most IOR ports. In any case, the Indian Navy will have a countering presence in most of the areas PLAN expects to be east of Malacca, and a forward presence in China’s backyard which is easier for India logistically to sustain than it is for China to do the same with its ships in the Indian Ocean, considering the Indian integrated Andaman Command will definitely close the Malacca straits to Chinese military nd military replenishment traffic.

Q: How important is great power status for India? Is membership on the United Nations Security Council the best symbol of that status? Was President Obama’s recent endorsement of an Indian seat on the UNSC a good thing or bad thing?

 Great power status is hankered for, seen in many quarters in India as its right, and generally associated with Permanent Membership in the UN Security Council. What is not sufficiently appreciated by even the Indian intelligentsia is that such status is not an entitlement that India can claim but is something, I have argued, India should earn, as other great powers have done throughout history. It is certainly not recognition that the US or a concert of Western countries can bestow on India.  So Obama’s or anybody else’s endorsement substantively means nothing.

 The fact is it is important that India work methodically and single-mindedly to attain genuine great power. But it is not advisable to mistake great power for membership in UNSC.  After all, what has India done, really, to merit even an UNSC seat?  Dispatching troops on UN peacekeeping missions is nowhere enough. It cannot continue to be a free-rider on security and grouse it is not getting respect.  Were India to act as a great power by implementing proactive foreign, military, and economic policies and become net security provider and economic prosperity spreader for a growing list of Indian Ocean littoral states in Africa and landward and seaward in Asia, match China’s forward stance, have sufficient thermonuclear and conventional military reach and clout to disallow China from pushing it around, and soon then an UNSC seat – with veto – and symbolic positions of great power, such as UNSC seat,  will come its way, without Delhi having to beg for it (which is what it is currently doing). It shouldn’t be recognition made available at any other countries’ sufferance – because that will be demeaning and hurtful of national self-respect.

Q: Should arms control and disarmament be a high priority for India?

NO. Absolutely not, if it requires India to, in any way, surrender its nuclear build-up and nuclear testing options, leave alone agreeing to reduce or curtail its extant weapons inventory and fissmat stockpile.  Here India has to simply ride piggyback on China’s prevailing stance – that the powers with the largest arsenals – the United States and Russia,  ought to winnow them to a point equivalent to where the lesser Nuclear Weapons States are presently at, and begin capping weapons quality, etc., before they can expect countries such as China and India to climb aboard the Disarmament bandwagon, and more immediately, India should encourage Pakistan’s obstreperousness in stalling the FMCT negotiations in the Committee on Disarmament in Geneva, because this will allow India to augment its fissmat holdings.

Q: Should India support the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)?

IAEA, yes; NPT, absolutely not; this treaty regime is decrepit, if not already dead. India should speed up its burial, but join other Nuclear Weapon States in forming a new, more relevant, international nuclear order.

Q: How troubling to India is the spread of nuclear technology to Iran and North Korea? Can India play a role to secure Russian cooperation on Iranian sanctions and Chinese cooperation on North Korean sanctions?

China and North Korea with their nuclear and missile proliferation to Pakistan have already done the damage where Indian security is concerned. So North Korea’s retaining its nuclear weapons or giving them up, makes little difference to Indian national interests, except insofar as it keeps Japan and US interested in consolidating an anti-China front.

Iran is on the cusp of N-weapons capability and it’ll not be denied.  India’s old historical and cultural links with Iran and its shia Muslim population — the largest outside Iran, translate into powerful domestic political constraints on Indian policy. Good relations with Tehran, moreover, are critical in order to (1) maintain access to Afghanistan and Central Asia through the Iranian Chabahar port on the North Arabian Sea, and,  (2) retain it as a source of oil.  For these reasons, it is counter-productive for India to be front and center on any Iran-bashing measures.

There is no point, therefore, in Delhi expending its political-diplomatic capital in securing Russian and Chinese cooperation to deal with Iran and North Korea respectively.

Q: What role does security and military assistance play in India’s foreign policy – for example, in training the Afghan army, providing equipment for the Burmese army, etc.?

Military diplomacy is something the Indian government has belatedly discovered as a useful diplomatic tool. India has always trained officers from Africa and the neighboring countries and South East Asia  in higher military training institutions (National Defense College, etc),  but, led by the Indian Navy, in the last decade or so, this activity has taken off, become more purposeful. The Indian military have extensive ties with many countries, that are bolstered by joint exercises (‘Milan’) and with gifts and transfers of military hardware and equipments, armament servicing contracts, permission for neighboring land and air forces, and navies to use Indian air and land space, and naval installations, to train their pilots, tank crews, and submarine crews (Vietnam, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Singapore,  Indian Ocean island-nations, etc.)

Q: Are economic sanctions useful to implement security objectives?

Only to a limited extent.  Speaking from India’s own experience of weathering sanctions, it motivates countries to go it alone, do more with less, develop critical technologies on their own, etc., with the result that the sanctioned states usually end up stronger after a dose of sanctions!  Besides, there’s no such thing as an air tight sanctions regime. There will always be countries that will help the sanctioned countries escape the harshest effects —  China in the case of North Korea, and China and Russia where Iran is concerned.

Q: India has supported IAEA sanctions on Iran yet historically has friendly ties with Iran and a large Shi’ite minority in India. How does India balance these interests?

With immense difficulty. It doesn’t help that the Iranian Embassy keeps in close touch with the Indian shia clerics and communities in Lucknow, Delhi, and elsewhere, and enormous  pressure is thus brought to bear on political parties and the Indian government, to pursue a “friendly” policy with Iran. But to balance siding with the US led initiative to punish/sanction Iran and maintain warm cultural and trade relations with Tehran cannot be sustained cleanly for too long. What will give is the anti-Iran posture.

Q:  Should India support international sanctions on Burma?

NO.  Delhi’s choosing to be politically correct (at the behest of the US and the West) cost India its dominant presence in Myanmar. It was the single, most potent, reason, Myanmarese Generals cite for Yangon sliding over to Beijing’s side. It cost India dear, strategically. India cannot afford to ride this Western moral hobby-horse and any longer follow such detrimental policies.

Economics/Ideology/Institutions Topics:

Q: What are most important global economic institutions for India’s foreign policy (IMF, World Bank, WTO, G-20, APEC, Emerging Markets [BRIC, BASIC], NAM, ASEAN, East Asia Summit, etc.)?

SAFTA, ASEAN, East Asia Summit, APEC, Emerging Markets, G-20, WTO, World Bank-IMF – in that order.

Q: Given India’s history of non-alignment, is there a domestic constituency for Indian participation and support of international organizations?

Nonalignment was always a thinly-veiled pretence anyway, but because it provided Third World leadership position, was useful in the Cold War for rhetorically waging South-North wars and punching above its weight-class. As a concept, it is long past its sell-by date. But, like in the Cold War when despite relying centrally on the Soviet Union for security, it provided political cover, in the new millennium too it may help propagate the fiction that India enjoys strategic “autonomy” when, in fact, it is free-riding on the West for strategic security.

Q: Given its new orientation to global markets, should India play an active role in the WTO, and urge a speedy conclusion of the Doha Round? 

Well, yes, but if the talks remain stuck in the same old quagmire of differences on agriculture subsidies in rich countries, free movement of labor, etc, developing countries insist on,  it would be better for India to carry on trade and economic relations based on Free Trade Agreements with individual countries and regional groupings.

Q: How is India affected by the global financial crisis (now festering in Europe), and what should it do about it?

In terms of diminished exports, yes.  But because the Indian economy is mostly inward-turned with industry serving mostly the very large domestic market, the effects of the European crash have been manageable. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had mooted the possibility of getting BRICS countries to ante up rescue funds for Europe. It is unclear how serious he was in proposing this, but India quickly backed down once China refused to be any part of such effort.

Q: Should India open up its domestic market more?

Yes, but in a phased manner.

Q: What is your position on the recent government decision, quickly retracted, to allow foreign discount retail giants – Walmart, Tesco PLC, and Carrefour S.A.  – to set up majority-owned operations in India?

There are no doubts about FDI; it is a must. The recent Walmart decision, however, became hostage to calculations of political gains in the upcoming elections in five states, in particular the largest province, Uttar Pradesh. But FDI will be allowed in, sooner rather than later.  The precursor decision to permit 100% FDI in single product retail outlets has already been made.

Q: Should India use its domestic market for commercial airliners and military equipment to gain foreign policy concessions?

Absolutely.  It’s tragic that the Indian government has not used this enormous leverage in the main because of the quirky “silo-based” decision-making system in the Indian government, wherein each ministry is autonomous and strongly protects its decision turf, especially where capital acquisitions are concerned.  Coordination in this milieu is impossibly difficult, and no PMO has so far undertaken the task to get the ministries to cooperate and collaborate in advancing the national interests in a collective manner.  So far, it has been criminally negligent in treating all airline purchases worth hundreds of billions of dollars as purely commercial transactions, and realized little by way of offsets and benefits to indigenous aviation industry, etc.  Indian passenger aircraft requirements in the next 30 years alone are estimated as worth a whopping $300 billion-$600 billion. Indian military acquisitions are higher than that in the same time frame, and unless the Indian government begins serious arms twisting and extorting foreign policy concessions, it will be continue to be a story of the fool being separated from his money.

Q: Does India take global free trade for granted?

Perhaps.  The bigger economies have too much at stake to let the global free trade regime go under. Hence, India does not feel compelled to do other than make the fullest use of it, while squawking about its extant inequities.

Q: As a leading exporter of services, should India be more active in opening service markets, especially in emerging market countries?

Yes. But its focus should be developed countries – the US and the West, and secondarily emerging market countries.

Q: As a free country, should India take a lead role in defending privacy, internet freedom and property rights in international trade?

Of course.

Q: Is India satisfied with China’s more mercantilist approach to trade? What are India’s options to deal with it?

No. India should respond with strong counter-measures such as raising tariffs on Chinese goods equal to the subsidy component in Chinese exports of manufactures, and even close off the Indian market to Chinese exports, and certainly immediately stop exporting natural resources, like iron ore, to China, which only promotes a neo-colonial trade – natural resources from India, finished goods from China.

Q: Should India be a regional or global player in foreign economic aid? If so what economic conditions or policies should it promote? Should India cooperate with US initiatives such as the Millennium Challenge Corporation?

To avoid being swept away or overwhelmed by US initiatives, India should dispense economic aid and developmental assistance to select countries of potential significance to Indian foreign and military interests – such as Afghanistan, CARs, Indian Ocean island-nations, East African states, countries with oil and minerals in Africa and South America, and of course, its immediate South Asian neighbors.

Q: How important are global environmental issues compared to economic and security ones? Should India exercise more aggressive leadership in climate change talks to universalize carbon emission commitments?

Global environmental issues take a back seat compared to security and economic interests.  Recall that the Kyoto Agreement was trashed by the US and its friends and allies for this reason. India showed leadership – at Copenhagen and more recently in Durban. However, if “leadership” means India having to take the lead in making concessions on environmental benchmarks, etc., then it is no go.


Q: Is India’s self-image primarily one of a “socialist” country, “capitalist” country, “democratic” country, or “exceptionalist” (unique) country?

 The adjective “exceptionalist” is appropriated by countries who cannot easily and exclusively slot themselves in any one of the other categories mentioned. It is also a convenient description because it allows a country to do precisely what it wants to do or has to do, whenever it wants to do it. So all great powers that are socially complex and heterogeneous are, ipso facto, also exceptional.

Q: Relatively speaking, should India strive to be an “autonomous” nation (non-aligned), a “developed” nation (great power), a “developing” nation (moral power), or a “globalized” nation (economic power)?

 Again, contestable typology! That descriptive-theoretical niggle aside, India should undoubtedly  a “great power”, because the other categories encompass inherently limited  policy vision, imperatives, resources, and wherewithal.

Q: How important is democracy promotion to India’s overall foreign policy?

Fine, as long as it is confined only to rhetoric, but not if democracy promotion imperils or hurts the national interest or realization of strategic policy goals in any way. Its experience with sticking to human rights, democracy, etc. lost India Burma, and offers a cautionary tale. Moreover, democracy-building is an even more onerous undertaking than nation-building, which lesser task the US has found difficult to manage in Iraq and Afghanistan, and which the Obama Administration has, apparently, sworn off.

Q: What role should India play in democracy promotion and nation building in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and China? Should India create its own National Endowment for Democracy?

No such democracy promoting role with any country except China, starting with a campaign to publicize the cultural genocide of the native Tibetans and of the Lama-ist traditions and culture. It is a great means to push China diplomatically on to the backfoot but, otherwise, it makes no sense for India to do other than leave the peoples in all other countries, near and far, to discover the joys of democracy for themselves. And no Indian National Endowment for Democracy; there is no dearth of wasteful expenditure programs in India without adding to that list.

Q: Should India support the recent international effort to bring democracy to Burma, or does it give priority to cooperation with the military regime to counter Chinese influence?

The imperative need is to diminish the Chinese presence, role, and influence in Myanmar. It is a policy the Indian government is now pursuing, but it should do so with greater conviction and vigor, and deploy more resources to achieve these aims.

Q: In India in November 2010, Obama called for cooperation “strengthening the foundations of democratic governance.” Should India and the United States pursue a foreign policy of “values-based cooperation?”  

Actually no; it will inevitably lead to needless friction and tension in bilateral relations. The values of democratic functioning and economic liberalism, for example, may be shared, but these and other values are accorded different weightages in the two polities and, hence, “values-based cooperation” may be infeasible and impractical.

Q: Does democracy matter in India’s relations with other democracies in Asia (Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan)?

Sure, in a cosmetic sense, but in substantive terms one should be prepared to sup with the devil if that furthers the national interest, which last is a realpolitik principle one hopes MEA and GOI will begin to internalize.

Q: Should India be an aggressive advocate of human rights?

NO. Because the issue can so easily be turned against India, as has happened in the past.

Q: In his speech to the Indian Parliament in November 2010, Obama chided India for shying away from international condemnation of gross violations of human rights? Was he right to do so?

President Obama spoke from the American perspective and with the US national interests in mind. Not everything that a visiting leader says is taken or need be taken seriously by the Indian government and people.

Q: Should India support human rights organizations such as Amnesty International to assist political dissidents in China, Russia, Myanmar, etc.?

NO, except in the case of China where India should join in every international and regional forum loudly and vociferously to pillory that country’s abominable human rights record.

Q: Drawing from Secretary of State Clinton’s recent women’s power initiative, should India be more active in the promotion of women’s rights?

Of course.  Otherwise, it’s a gross wastage of human resources and unrealized of half of mankind. India certainly cannot afford it.

[Audio Record of the actual panel discussion at ]

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Defence Industry, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, indian policy -- Israel, Iran and West Asia, Indian Politics, Military Acquisitions, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Bharat Karnad at CNAS/GWU Conference on ‘Rising Powers’ in Washington, DC, January 23-24, 2012

  1. Jagdish says:

    Link to the audio for above.
    [audio src="" /]

  2. Winnie Nham says:

    Bharat, it was great having your participation at our conference. FYI, we’ve posted a conference page w/ event summary and photos at:

    Videotaping of the event and a full conference report will follow shortly.

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