Month of Plain Talking

All diplomacy is calculation but it is how the lines of national interests and strategy clash or converge that are of concern during state visits which, otherwise, are staid, scripted affairs. The decade of the wimpish Congress party regime showed an India at its most pusillanimous, wracked by doubts about leveraging the country’s myriad strengths. The spate of visits this September starting with prime minister Narendra Modi’s to Shinzo Abe’s Japan followed by jaunts to New Delhi by his Australian counterpart Tony Abbott and by Chinese president Xi Jinping, ending with Modi’s September 30 meeting in Washington with US president Barack Obama will, hopefully, reverse the trend. These will be occasions when foreign leaders, because Modi is new on the scene, will be keen to size him up, read his mind, try and decipher his intentions and get a fix on his foreign policy orientation and attitude.

Modi must have been disabused of the notion that cultural links and personal bonhomie count for much in international relations when Tokyo insisted on an unambiguous commitment against resuming nuclear tests before approving a nuclear deal. Despite being fully aware of this precondition why Modi still pitched for a nuclear trade accord isn’t clear. It is troubling that the Indian government from Manmohan Singh’s days persists in making a “nuclear deal” with every passing country the test of its seriousness to engage India, when actually what it does is reduce India to a supplicant and erodes its prestige. One hopes Modi reminded Abe that sections within Japan, which is the proverbial screwdriver’s turn away from the Bomb, are calling for nuclear weaponisation to deal with the North Korea-China combine, and that a thermonuclearised India and Japan at the two ends of Asia is the best solution to keep Beijing quiet. Moreover, surely Modi isn’t prepared to waive India’s liability law and buy the unproven Toshiba-Westinghouse AP 1000 enriched uranium-fuelled reactor just to please Tokyo? An aside, but prioritising the Mumbai-Ahmedabad Shinkansen “bullet train” line in existing Indian conditions may not be pragmatic considering it will also take a big chunk ($10-$15 billion) off the promised Japanese $35 billion foreign direct investment (FDI) in infrastructure build-up. It will cost more to protect the special corridor than run the high-speed trains.

Rather than “nuclear deals” and stuff, Modi should propound the logic of geopolitics and military cooperation. It pays. For instance, Modi’s reference in Tokyo to the 18th century-style imperialistic tendencies of China to grab land and sea territories, and Tokyo’s agreeing to sell 15 US-2 amphibious aircraft along with transfer of technology (ToT) that will result in a US-2i version tailored for Indian needs to be designed with Indian military’s inputs, and the talk of the Soryu-class conventional hunter-killer submarine in the Indian fleet, have made an Indo-Japanese pincer real. Beijing has reacted with reports suggesting that Xi Jinping is preparing to match Abe’s ante and to up it with even more attractive investment and other deals. To maximise geostrategic gains, Modi should maintain pressure by announcing the sale/transfer of Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles to Vietnam and other Southeast Asian states in the run-up to Xi Jinping’s visit.

Beijing is worried. The Islamic insurgency is taking hold in the Uyghur Muslim-majority Xinjiang, and Tibet continues to seethe with people angry with the Chinese policy of rubbing out Tibetan cultural identity. In this context, Modi should respond to Xi Jinping’s pleas for restricting the Tibetan exile community’s activities by suggesting the restoration of genuine “autonomy” for Tibet and as buffer zone devoid of the Peoples Liberation Army presence as the foundation for lasting peace.

Australia is ready to sell uranium in order to balance the exports of the same commodity to China and as a hedge against Beijing cornering the market on Australian natural resources, whence Canberra’s encouragement to Indian industrial houses, such as the Adanis, to invest in the Australian coal and minerals extraction sector. But a strategically more potent issue requires to be broached by Modi. Abbott should be sounded out about permitting Indian SSBNs (nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing submarines) to stage out of a deep water port on the northern Australian coast as a means of increasing the strategic reach and deterrence impact of the Arihant-class boats. Such a basing-option will also enhance the “theatre-switching” maritime riposte preferred by New Delhi to Chinese aggression across the land border. An agreement on such basing would be welcomed by an Australia itching to be part of the evolving Asian security architecture rather than remaining a Western outpost.

The logic of strategic ties with the US is getting simpler. Washington has lost the will and doesn’t have the money to be very active in the Indian Ocean region and is eager for New Delhi to pick up the slack. America’s declining stock allows Modi to do some plain talking. The PM’s counter to changing India’s liability law should be to ask Obama to reform the nuclear deal enabling the 2006 Hyde Act instead. Washington wrongly assumes that an Act legislated by the US Congress is dearer to New Delhi than a law promulgated by the Indian parliament. He should also demand changes in America’s transactional, “buy this, buy that” bent of policy.

Modi should inform Obama that henceforth there’ll be no off-the-shelf weapons purchases, and US and other foreign armament producers will have to manufacture all military hardware from scratch in India itself starting with the first buy (as has been wisely decided in the case of the army’s utility helicopter fleet). It will catalyse high-tech manufacturing sector growth and generate a demand for skilled labour and massive employment opportunities. American arms companies should be incentivised to set up shop in India or concert with Indian private sector companies to “Make in India” for the Indian market and, to make such presence economical, use their facilities here to source whole weapons systems, spares and service support to countries in Asia and Africa. India’s aim of self-sufficiency in armaments will thus be advanced, the haemorrhaging of hundreds of billions of Indian dollars end, and the country’s economic prospects immeasurably brighten.

[Published in the New Indian Express on Friday September 5, 2014 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 arms exports, Asian geopolitics, Australia, China, China military, civil-military relations, Defence Industry, DRDO, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian democracy, Indian ecobomic situation, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Japan, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, Northeast Asia, nuclear industry, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, South Asia, South East Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, United States, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Month of Plain Talking

  1. Shaurya says:

    Except for the bullet train issue, the other points made are great and original. India needs a marquee project such as a bullet train to showcase a changing India. Similar to what the Meglev represented to China. Criticized at first but now increasingly seen as a wise investment.

    • Ashish K says:

      Bullet train is not the need of the hour, first accomplish what’s really necessary. If it is taking 10-15bn $ chunk of the aid itself its not worth it. Improvise existing rail network all over India. Even developed countries r struggling to manage bullet trains.

    • Except, China has found the Maglev technology it bought lock, stock, and barrel from Siemens, Germany, to be so expensive there are no plans to deploy it beyond the showpiece approx. 12-mile long line from Shanghai airport to Pudong Central. So the marquee cost Beijing pretty hefty yuan for fewer returns than the Chinese had bargained for.

  2. Pingback: Ucraina, Nato e il Galles visti dall’India -

  3. It was a thought albeit a controversial one that has appalled many — my suggestion that a northern Australian basing option for the Arihant SSBNs be explored with Canberra. Except, such an option was premised, as stated plainly in the article above, on Australia pulling away from the US and the West in order to integrate more fully into an organically Asian security architecture. If this latter condition does not obtain — and there’s very little likelihood it will — the question of Arihant-class boats embarking on deterrence patrols from an Australian port doesn’t arise, lest the Indian SSBNs and, by extension, the Indian nuclear deterrent are thoroughly compromised.

    • Itanium says:

      @Bharat Karnad
      If you base Arihant in Australia – won’t it run the risk of ever increasing sophistication of detectors & instruments form other organizations keen on picking up its noise signatures?

  4. And, hence, the caveat in my piece, further elaborated in my Sept 10 interjection (see above),

  5. Itanium says:

    India is a very weak nation. In the words of one of commentators in this website its a “slave nation”. And if we think about it long enough, its not too hard to see the reason why. Democracy works in places where its constituent people are willing to work hard & make smart choices. It has particularly failed in India where most of the masses are backward illiterates – and their collective voting might fills the political institutions with rogues & rascals.

    While China moves ahead with manufacturing nuclear submarines, ASAT weapons, Hypersonic ICBMs, Cyber Defence, Advanced Communications, AWACS systems, military transport planes, civilian aircrafts etc… the silly Indian leaders wastes gargantuan amount of public resources on bribing the uneducated masses & buying up their votes. Someone needs to wake up and take the cause of the nation and start questioning the system.

    After nearly 60 years of independence PSUs like HAL has not delivered anything substantial after all the public money spent – not even the most basic fighter aircraft or a transport plane (never mind FGFA). Compare that to China unveiling Y-20 not too long ago & how serious they are about modernizing their air force. While we rot in our political mess perpetuated by our leaders Chinese race ahead with Sci-Fi like infrastructure, ultra modern military, star wars weapons that is sometimes beyond imagination (Dong Feng 41d, ASAT etc…)

    Any country is only as strong as its citizens. Eventually its Indian people that are to blame for all the mess – and no one else. The sad part is people like you & me that are caught up among unfortunate backward masses. Eventually its economically & militarily strong country with strong leadership that is going to keep us all safe. Not laggard countries like India with the kind of leaders we have.

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