Orbital Jumps, But How?

In Beijing to prepare the ground for the Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping summit, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval talked of Sino-Indian relations as primed for an “orbital jump”. Seeing these bilateral ties as a satellite in a low-earth orbit which, presumably powered by the success in the apex level talks, will be thrust into a high-earth or more strategic orbit is fine. The problematic part is to know what will push the ties into that more desirable state.

Low-earth orbit satellites have relatively short life because pulled by the gravitational force they eventually collapse back into the earth’s atmosphere and burn upon re-entry. But a low orbit policy, metaphorically and otherwise, hews more closely to ground reality which is that, with the border dispute, the India-China relationship is dictated by the line of actual control (LAC) and what transpires around it.

The ongoing incident in Chumar with Xi in India, suggests China is playing a different game to what New Delhi believes it is in. For Beijing its territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh and in Aksai Chin are uncompromisable (hence, “stapled visas” for Arunachalis) because accepting the status quo as boundary solution with India would pressure Beijing into accommodating several Southeast Asian nations on its extensive “nine-dash line” claims in the South China Sea. So, a resolution of the dispute can be safely pushed out to the remote future, with Special Representative talks only offering cover for lack of progress.

Modi’s plea for increased Chinese investments in infrastructure and manufacturing sectors and for shifting Chinese manufacturing plants to India as means of balancing Sino-Indian trade grossly favouring China was met partially with promises of foreign direct investment in industrial parks, etc. But there’s an irreconcilable clash of visions here.

Modi’s view of turning India into an international manufacturing hub generating massive employment runs smack into Xi’s vision for an “Asian century of prosperity” premised on coupling China’s “workshop” to India’s “backoffice”—the hackneyed Indian software wedded to Chinese hardware type of thinking. In other words, Xi is for freezing China-India economic ties on the basis of current national strengths, which surely is unacceptable.

With economic relations on the upswing, hardpower and geopolitics will matter more. India can exploit the mutual antipathy China and Japan feel for each other by acting the cat in the Panchtantra tale playing the two monkeys off each other. Japan will need no coaxing to assist New Delhi in slanting the balance of power and influence in landward and maritime Asia against China.

Modi can mouth trade makes for peace-mantra and grow the Chinese economic stake in India. But for larger impact, he should payback Beijing for its planned proliferation of nuclear missiles to Pakistan by transferring Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles to Vietnam, the Philippines, and any other state on China’s periphery desiring them, something I have advocated for over 20 years. There was talk of such transfer when the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and later president Pranab Mukherjee visited Hanoi on the eve of Xi’s visit, but New Delhi got cold feet. Unless India exploits the prevailing fear in Asia of China to the hilt, India will be forever disadvantaged. New Delhi better muster the will to conduct this two-faced game, or lose ground to Beijing.

Ties with the United States can be launched into a higher orbit by simply agreeing to buy several Westinghouse enriched uranium-fuelled reactors, the Indian liability law be damned. This is not going to happen. In the event, the bilateral relations will fall back on familiar themes. The trouble here is that, contrary to the rhetoric of India as “net security provider”, the US is mostly interested in seeing how India can fit into its Asian security architecture.

Washington is habituated, from Manmohan Singh’s days, of talking up the “strategic partnership” but only as vehicle for advancing US interests. In its “war on global terror”, for instance, Washington expects New Delhi to do everything to zero out the risk to Americans but does little to pre-empt terrorism targeting Indians as that involves Pakistan Army’s sponsorship of terrorist outfits.

This is reflected in the nature of the intelligence exchanges — the US insisting on raw data while only providing information filtered through American policy lenses. In this same vein, the US government is always keen to shape Indian foreign policy as it did during Congress party rule regarding Iran, for example.

At the heart of the bilateral relations, moreover, is sheer divergence of interests, especially relating to India’s great power aspirations the core of which is nuclear security. The United States has been active from John Kennedy’s time to pre-empt and prevent India’s becoming a consequential nuclear power, scrupling to nothing, including buying into China’s scheme to nuclear arm Pakistan.

In the wake of the 1998 tests, it accepted a civilian nuclear cooperation deal that New Delhi for some mysterious reasons was eager to have on the condition India never test again, thereby ensuring India never has a modern high-yield arsenal of proven thermonuclear weapons to match China’s. The tragedy, of course, is successive Indian governments have partnered the US in thus reducing India.

Modi can right the relationship with America by telling President Barack Obama some home truths. Such as the fact that courtesy US policies of the past there’s a huge trust deficit between the two countries, that the transactional tilt of US policy is robbing the bilateral relations of strategic value, that India’s nuclear liability law is not some trifling matter that can be overturned to please Washington, that the United States has gained in the last 60 years from Indian foreign aid worth hundreds of billions of dollars in Non-Resident Indian talent, and that the djinn of Islamic extremism was uncorked by the United States (with its founding of the Taliban in Afghanistan).

It will help that, unlike with Xi with whom he has a warm, personal, bond Modi, who was treated shabbily by Washington on the visa issue, will be correct when he officially converses only in Hindi, with a laboured translation for Obama, symbolising the distance that still separates India and America.

[Published in the New Indian Express on Friday Sept 19, 2014 and available at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Orbital-Jumps-But-How/2014/09/19/article2437745.ece ]

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.
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9 Responses to Orbital Jumps, But How?

  1. Salieri says:

    If United States has gained from Non-Resident Indian talent, it is India’s affirmative action policies’ fault and US only reaped benefits out of it with its pro-talent visa policies. We can’t hold them to that as if it is a debt they owe us.

    • True, GOI has failed to retain indigenous talent. Equally though the money spent on generously subsidising students in IIT, IIM, IIMS, NIITs, Regional Engg Colleges, etc. who then leverage the degrees from these institutions to get graduate education and green cards is lost to the country, loss India cannot afford.

      • Itanium says:

        Affirmative action is here to stay even if it will walk us back to dark ages. Nobody will commit political suicide by scrapping it. IITs are rather over-hyped if you compare it to its peer institutions in China, Europe & America. Its reflected in the poor quality of research publications that come out of IITs [if they publish them at all]. If they really did solid R&D work wouldn’t they get millions in Industrial research funding as it happens in American institutions? – Its rare to see such things happening.

        I have seen both parts of the planet [Within academic space] & we must separate hype from reality. We should look at IITs for what they are. Just because its super competitive (largely because of huge population) doesn’t make it a great research institution. Tech education on an average in India is rather poor.

      • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

        I don’t understand why this is a loss to India.
        These people went over because they wanted to. If you try to curb their wishes they will become another source of sar-dard for us. Not like some of them are not a head ache even now. But least they are out of India.

        Kejri is an IITians and a dukhi-atma by his very nature. Do you want him in India or outside India? So why different for others who are equally capable of exactly the same stuff.
        A more fruitful exercise would be to make the top 30 engineering colleges pay up their fee in full without any subsidy (whether of general category or reserved category). We could easily save close to 1000 crore an years on this account itself.

  2. Nitin Ghatkar says:

    I am a student of International Relations in Pune and I admire your writing. Keep writing, sir. India needs your type author who should also consider to write in mainstream media newspapers from Pune & Bombay.

    You are spot on in the oxford reader on India’s National Security… ”moralpolitik” !

    Keep Writing on your blog!

  3. Itanium says:

    About your statement “modern high-yield arsenal of proven thermonuclear weapons”.

    I feel compelled to say there is nothing modern or hi-tech about thermonuclear weapons. Its all medieval technology. It was probably a secret monster weapon back in 1940s. Not in 2014 anymore with so much super-computing at hand. Despite my super conservative thinking (& I share many of your views supporting continued testing, thermonuclearization & MIRVing the Delivery Vehicles) – I am still confident that India at this very point can pull off 170kT – 200kT yield on its weapons. And that’s close to what you need per warhead.

  4. Most advanced nuclear weapons powers are on the cusp of the 5th gen fusion weapons — compact, kiloton yield thermonuclears which, because they are clean with little radioactivity from fission trigger, may be more usable for pinpoint localized strikes, etc. We are nowhere in the picture both because we have not gone in for open-ended iterative physical explosive tests and lack the wherewithal (ICF, for instance) to experiment with new gen fusion weapons designs. The consolation is we can take care of Pakistan!

    • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

      Actually I think even the ‘equivalent’ of the 5th gen fusion weapons can be achieved without the wherewithals (ICF etc.) you mention. And that too is going to be 40s / 50s technology. And if Strategic concern is the main concern (aside from scientific concern, which too are valid), then this ‘equivalent’ should be sufficient for our strategic needs.

      I find your thought process to be very near my own and your concerns match my own, but at times I find it difficult to follow you.

  5. Itanium says:

    I think once the nuclear threshold is crossed, regardless whether gamma rays fill the atmosphere or not, its most probably going to escalate to full scale nuclear war. With any nuclear exchange both sides are bound to lose big time.

    And I don’t think India needs nuclear weapons to take care of Pakistan. It can be done with our huge conventional military superiority alone. Nuclear weapons are needed to deter a nuclear blackmail (Chinese threat for example). And that’s probably the biggest objective of Indian nuclear weaponization programme.

    Still its a tricky deal. By going nuclear India drove Pakistan into arms of China who gladly transferred nuclear designs to counter India. That gravely deteriorated national security for India.
    We got way more to lose than Pakistan in time of nuclear exchange. This goes to show nuclear weapons do not automatically help out national security objectives.

    Lastly I don’t think advanced nuclear powers would have enough (any) confidence at all in so called 5th gen weapons without field testing them! Ignition trigger is a big part that has to be validated (very similar to problems India had in Pokhran II).

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