Decisively Submissive

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi (Photo Imaging: Saurabh Singh)

(Modi and Trump in a clinch)


Delhi’s compliance with Washington on Iran will let China gain influence


The omnibus US sanctions policy under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) targets India on two fronts. Regarding Iranian oil, the Bharatiya Janata Party government of Narendra Modi has less than a 138-day reprieve. India will have to show substantial progress during this period in“zeroing” out its energy supplies from Iran, or face the music. On the other front, India is sought to be punished for continuing to buy military hardware from Russia. The Donald Trump Administration has justified sanctions ostensibly hurting Iran and Russia – with whom India has had historically strong ties– in terms of curbing their supposedly “malign” activities.

Because being in the good books of America at any cost, including self-respect, national interest and strategic common sense, is apparently the Modi regime’s top priority,India finds itself in the familiar role of a supplicant begging for exceptional treatment. The National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s numerous interactions with the poobahs in Washington failed to budge the US from placing India squarely within the crosshairs of its sanctions policy meant to coerce friendly states into doing its bidding. Coercion being President Trump’s preferred means of dealing with allies and “strategic partners”, with consultation reserved for its foes — Russia, China and North Korea.

But the Trump Administration’s waiving sanctions on India despite its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system should have alerted Prime Minister Modi to the geostrategic factors driving its India policy and how these constitute the leverage Delhi could have used to shape a more assertive response to US sanctions. The fact is in the entire Asian littoral no country, other than India,has the resources, territorial expanse and pivotal location for staging and sustaining massive military operations in the Indo-Pacific region. Without India, US military forces would be restricted, as they are now, to concentrated deployment at the two ends – US 7th Fleet out of Yokosuka, Japan, and the US 5th Fleet in Bahrain. In this context, the question the PM should have asked himself is not whether India can manage without an indifferent America, but whether the US can do without a friendly India.

Except by appearing too eager, too ready to please, Modi showed obsequiousness, a quality Trump disdains, respecting willfulness and strength in leaders and nations. It led Washington to assume, correctly as it tuned out,that the BJP government, unmotivated by national interest, can be fobbed off with small favours, such as conditional waiver of CAATSA sanctions on Iran oil and the buy of the Russian S-400 system. And that the Modi dispensation will happily be a party to India’s strategic reduction as camp follower.

In the event, rather than putting in place an alternative sovereign banking channel to facilitate India-Iran trade, such as the one contemplated with Russia, and a “blocking statute” providing legal cover for Indian companies doing business with Iran – the sort of move the European Union has made in response to US’ Iran sanctions, and otherwise ruthlessly using geopolitical logic to leverage a hands-off attitude to India’s Iran and Russia policies from Washington, Modi caved in.

India’s strategic autonomy and policy freedom as a result are being compromised, the decimation of this country’s longstanding Iran policy being an egregious example. Modi is siding with the US in strangulating Iran’s oil and gas-based economy. The US aims to slash Iranian oil production to some 300,000 barrels per day – the bare minimum necessary for survival, from a high of 3.9 million barrels in 2004. Delhi has done its bit by cutting its Iranian oil imports by a third with more to follow, even expensively retrofitting Indian refineries that previously processed Iranian crude with the wherewithal to process Saudi oil.

The consequence of India’s complicity in furthering the American design means that Tehran will close in with China as savior and degrade its ties to India. Instead of India cementing its vantage point in Chabahar, consolidating its presence in the Gulf, and radiating its influence northwards to Afghanistan and Central Asia, it will be Beijing in the driver’s seat. Worse, the possibility of pincering the Chinese and Pakistan navies ex-Gwadar and ex-Djibouti on the Horn of Africa (where China has established a military base)with Indian naval presence in Iran and Seychelles, will be nullified. Domestically, it will erode BJP’s support among the Indian shia community.

Doval recently referred to India under Modi as a “decisive” power. India is decisive alright — decisively submissive to the US (and China). Bad policy from a supposedly strong “nationalist” leader and government.


Published as a ‘Web Exclusive’ by Open magazine, Nov 16, 2018, 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.
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8 Responses to Decisively Submissive

  1. Vishnugupt says:

    The Mandarin speaking mandarins of MEA are to be blamed for a failed negotiations with the notorious Iranians specially when China is set to gain from the negotiations failing.

    The Communist party of China is very demanding of what it wants from the people under its payroll, and the babus of MEA are the best example. Starting form the very first one KPS Menon, the current one seems to be following the same tradition.( After all Wuhan was his brainchild).

    I have read you exposing uncle SAM’s modus oprendi of “infulencing” Indian babus and netas by offering greencards etc, but you don’t seem to speak much as to how the Chinese get what they want from these lowlives.

    Would love to know that.

    • Have for a long time now in all my writings, including in this blog) and in my books [See Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)] have emphasized the insidious role of the China Study Circle (CSC), comprising mostly Mandarin speaking IFS and intel officers, has played in crafting and conducting a kneeing before China policy. Far from dismantling the CSC, Modi has encouraged their national interest-hurting mindset and attitude.

  2. andy says:

    What’s apparent ,especially from Doklam onwards to Wuhan and till date, is how much Modi depends on his Foreign service to guide his major moves on the international front.Doklam happened under Foreign Secretary Jaishankar and when he was replaced by the current incumbent Vijay Gokhale ,the reset at Wuhan followed.

    It was when Gokhales name was announced as FS that Bharat had written… quote “The fly in the ointment may be the new Foreign Secretary-designate, the Mandarin-speaking  Vijay K Gokhale — another of the China Study Group-wallahs, always ready to back down ere China sneezes.” So it was hardly a surprise when Wuhan followed Gokhales appointment.Problem with such fickle and wavering stance against the aggressive Chinese is India looses respect in the international arena.Also the Chinese,same as Trump,respect only resolute policies of other countries.What Indian policy makers don’t realize is appeasing China is a bottomless pit.

    Currently the root of Indias Pakistan problem is the support provided by China,aside from the American support from the past that not only provided conventional weapons but looked the other way when China began nuclear arming Pakistan.The contempt with which China sees India is apparent through its nuclear arming of Pakistan and the CPEC corridor being constructed through POK, over which India professes sovereignty.Indias wavering China policies of the past have brought it to this juncture.The impunity and complete disregard for Indias red lines is all too apparent in Chinese behavior in turn emboldening Pakistan to remain a perennial thorn in Indias side.

    The problem seems to be that India has not sought to permanently hobble China in the South China sea by supplying military hardware(not surprising considering India still has to import assault rifle tech)to the littoral states by arming them progressively with the Brahmos and nuclear tipped ballistic missilesa as has long been advised by Bharat.These are the only 2 systems that India can export that have the power to decisively take on China.When Vietnam,Taiwan etc are thus armed then the game will truly be on between India and China,till then its waffling as usual for India.

  3. Megs says:

    The easy part about trenchant and hawkish positions in international relations is that you don’t have much to lose if proven wrong in the long run because you can always say that the opposing side, the target of ire baulked and relations improved because of criticism by hawks. And if the equation turns for the worst, one can anyways say “I told you so” with a smirk. Either ways, its a smart choice – criticism dosent cost time and money. Construction does. The issue with China hawks in Indian strategic circles is that they do not seem to realise that it is a fundamental requirement of the profession of diplomacy to reduce tensions in a tenuous, asymmetrical relationship and gain advantage by skillful positioning in the given geostrategic situation. This does not necessarily mean use of threats and compellance. All the three commentators above are viscerally spiteful and even inimical to China and cannot imagine any other paradigm in Sino-Indian relations other than adversarial and antagonistic. It’s comparable to the deep seated bias seen in Pakistani establishment about India.
    The reality of interstate relations is that there are always criss-crossing undercurrents of interests that may complement, converge or oppose each other and diplomacy is the art of keeping the river flowing by leveraging the forces of less conflicting streams. The diplomats being criticised here for their Mandarin speaking skills must have read their history well to know about what all China has done in the past to keep India in check and tied down in South Asia. And still, if they are trying a particular line of negotiations to enhance our position vis a vis China, there must be a good reason behind it. Can we afford a ‘hot-border’ with China given our economic situation?
    Hawkish and hamhanded approaches do not always work but more saner approach might lead to some thaw and advantage especially when China is under relentless pressure from the Americans on trade and commerce issues. One of the reasons why India may have appeared submissive in the past is its relatively weak economy and that could be a forceful realisation that dominates strategic thinking today. Unless we acquire the economic heft and a strong S&T base domestically, it would be laughable to remain in a perpetually confrontational stance with a neighbouring power that has long overtaken us in every conceivable field. India has already put in place credible military measures along the Line of Actual Control and also in the maritime domain to deter China from any adventurism or aggression. Since 1967 not a single bullet has been fired across one of the world’s largest disputed borders, though statements of claims and counterclaims have been made on and off. By all indicators, Indian deterrence is working against China’s territorial revisionism. Every PM of India, since Mrs IG has made incremental efforts to normalise ties with China. The current endeavour, led by a professional diplomat, should be seen as a continuation of the optimism that was shown by past many administrations, including Atal Behari Vajpayee’s NSA, Mr Brajesh Mishra. By ridiculing the efforts and insinuating against the ‘Mandarin speaking’ diplomats amounts to not just questioning their integrity but also reducing the very credibility of the commentators themselves, and more importantly, their objectivity. For if they had any, they would have focussed on critiquing the developments, not questioning the integrity of personalities who are merely doing their duty. India is steadily evolving a fine balance in its ties with China, being firm and resolute in the sphere of its core security interests and becoming pragmatic, even co-operative, in the developmental and economic spheres. In this carefully crafted strategy lies the promise of realisation of India’s true potential as an emerging power of consequence that can serve as a force for good in the international arena. Biased and prejudiced views, advocating a recourse to eternal confrontation may evoke cheer and excitation in jingoistic audiences, but on the sobering chessboard of geostrategy, these options will surely lead to a desolate check-mate. In the sport of yachting, a clumsy jibe may lead to capsizing. It’s good to watch the bellweather once in a while before adjusting the sail.

    • Megs@ — Thank you for a thoughtful exposition of the intent of the current China policy and the thinking of the mandarinate fueling it. The argument means to be reassuring, except the “fine balance” between firmness in the preservation of the “core security interests” and pragmatism “in the developmental and economic spheres” is absent because the policy favours pragmatism more than it values resoluteness in facing and neutralizing the growing danger from China. Delhi’s abject failure in appreciating the evolving geopolitics and responding fast and in kind to Chinese moves, has permitted Beijing to permanently skew the balance of advantage against India in southern Asia and the Indian Ocean region which India should naturally dominate but now doesn’t. China is well established in the Indian Ocean basin but India has no military presence worth the name east of the Malacca Strait. China is ensconced in Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and, until recently, the Maldives, and is spreading its influence in the Seychelles and Mauritius, with a full military base operating in Djibouti. India has no counter-presence of any kind on China’s periphery. And with the Chabahar-Afghanistan-Central Asia option imperilled by India’s jumping on to the US sanctions bandwagon (by reducing its Iranian oil buy), there’s no Indian counter on the landward side either. Indeed, it is in the context of Delhi’s indecisiveness about building up a military presence (for instance in Na Thrang on central Vietnam coast) and substantively helping out states on the South China Sea that Hanoi’s statement last week that it wants to be no part of any security system must be seen. With India thus geostrategically cornered, it is hardly to be wondered that Beijing hopes for Delhi persisting with its pragmatism (just another word for an over-cautious, risk-averse, policy) because increased trade, etc will only cement China’s position to India’s detriment. If, on the other hand, India had reacted to Chinese proliferation of nuclear missiles to Pakistan in the late 1970s with like moves to arm Vietnam and other receptive countries in that sub-region, Beijing would have instantly got the message that India is not to be trifled with. So all the nuance and sensitivity to Chinese concerns mustered by Mandarin-speaking diplomats in MEA over the years has done is dug a deeper strategic hole for India. Continued show of understanding and silk-glove treatment of China will make it that much harder for India to climb out and equalize the situation.


      But the real problem with such thinking by the government lies in your view that “In this carefully crafted strategy lies the promise of realisation of India’s true potential as an emerging power of consequence that can serve as a force for good in the international arena.” If a policy starts out on the basis of doing good the present mess and a reduced or compromised international profile is what the country will end up with. Should India do what great powers do, i.e., use narrow national interest as the lodestar of policy then it will end up as one.

      • Megs says:

        Some issues need elucidation. Firstly, the comparison you make between China-Pak axis, against India, and the potential India-Vietnam axis, against China, is fundamentally flawed. It made to appear too simplistic in your writings, propositioning arming of Vietnam by Brahmos and other missiles, ignoring that Vietnam is not as eager a China baiter, and willing to brazen it out with China with ‘care two hoots’, as much Pakistan is, against India. Also, Brahmos is a collaborative production between a Russian and an Indian company so where is the guarantee from the Russian side that they will play along and concur transfer of these missiles to Vietnam? Aren’t there contractual obligations?
        Secondly, it is not as if India did not take steps against Chinese aggressiveness, after the betrayal and humiliation of 1962. It is well known that India partnered with the US to establish strong intelligence links, created SFF, ITBP, ARC etc, its quite well recorded in public writings. After the Sino-Soviet split, India strengthened its ties with USSR, thanks to which Beijing did not attempt any adventurism in the 1971 Indo-Pak War, despite Pak goading it to come to its rescue.
        Thirdly, as regards your point about Chinese naval/military activism in the Indian Ocean, and no comparable counter activity by India in the South China Sea, it bears consideration that the Indian Ocean is a much bigger maritime/oceanic space vis a vis the South China sea and Indian Navy’s primary area of interest lies mostly in the Indian Ocean region. Therefore, the Navy would tend to focus more upon fulfilling its mandate in the primary area of interest, with occasional forays in the secondary area of interest, including South China Sea. In contrast, China has a huge dependency on the International Sea Lanes passing through the Indian Ocean, and therefore tends to focus equally on the Indian Ocean.
        India is fortunate that about 25% of its sea borne trade passes through the South China Sea, where heightened international attention, and the resolve of all big and small players to ensure freedom of navigation, has given India the luxury of being a free rider and precluded active full scale naval deployments. This luxury is not available to China in the Indian Ocean.
        The UNSC mandated anti-piracy operation off Somalia gave the pretext to China to establish regular naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and it has since continued its naval deployments in coordination with allies like Pakistan, Djibouti etc. The South China Sea is a contested maritime space where many players prowl the seas and despite private calls by like minded ‘Quad’ partners, the Indian govt does not seem to have the appetite to establish a permanent military presence in that part of the world, primarily for reasons of economy. The tendency has been to curtail expenditure on military projects and reduce long term financial commitments. In Delhi’s scheme of things, even expenditure of minor nature has to pass through the sieve and magnifying lenses of conservatively inclined bureaucracy, which can frustrate best laid plans, and grand dreams of the General Staff (subject of your latest yorker, of 21 Nov). Reportedly, the head of our military wings do not even have the authority to sanction the travel of their officers or jawans for overseas duty, even for simple things like attending professional conferences, participating in pre-planned military exercises, attending exercise planning meets, or for inspection of equipment being imported. For each and every such case, a file has to be made and it goes all the way up to the Minister, after crossing at least 10 levels in the bureaucratic chain – military or civil. Even after that there is no guarantee that the sanction would be given at the bureaucratic end, even after the case has been scrutinised and recommended by a Lt Gen level officer at the military headquarters.
        In contrast, a 28 year old CEO of a tiny software start-up operating from a match-box in Bangalore or Pune can book their techie on a flight to New York or Tokyo on a days notice, to keep clients satisfied and keep their business in good shape. Were they to be infected with even a sampling of Delhi’s bureaucratic shivers, the start-up would likely shut shop in a few weeks, if not days.
        As attached offices of the ministry, the Indian armed services are sort of hamstrung in their spending ability, and in quick decision-making on strategically significant issues, particularly where an international dimension is involved.
        Therefore, comparison of India’s spending ability with a gargantuan economic power like China is delusional and inappropriate. Its like comparing apples and oranges. To make up for the lack of economic muscle, and structural issues with India’s military exertion ( as sampled above), the ‘Mandarin speaking diplomats’ have been adopting a modus vivendi based in pragmatism, in Indian jugaad style, to preserve peace with China by a combination of deterrent and engaging measures.
        So Mr Karnad, with due respects, your observations about ‘silk glove treatment’, is more a function of necessity, or majboori, of a middle power, still (painfully, and reluctantly) learning the ropes of great power politics. Also could not help feeling that you wasted your time adding the ‘addendum’. A ‘force for good’ does not necessarily mean kindness, benevolence or ‘doing good’, as you say. The ‘good’ is in the result – in ensuring good order, and mitigating threats in the strategic space. A beat policeman with a deadpan look, with a baton in hand, also contributes to preserving good order in his locality. He need not be smiling at or cajoling people. For the antisocial, super cops often carry their revolvers. There is wide choice when the intent is clear.
        Human civilisation has seen reducing violence as mankind has moved through the centuries. Less people died of violence in the second half of the last century as compared to the first half. Your prescriptions for use of hard power by a state pose a great dilemma for democratic governments of third-world states who have to prioritise spending on developmental requirements of their large, demanding populations. Your recommendations are often provocative, and offer maximalist positions that bear potential to increase tensions, and trigger hostilities between contestants. As such, they are an anti-thesis to civilisational evolution and pose a conundrum to the cause of promoting international understanding, vasudhaiva kutumbakam, if you will. It sounds aspirational, even idealistic in the world of hyper-realism but the art is in finding a meeting ground between realist and liberal schools of theory. Political conservatism, like communism, is gridlocked in inflexible ideological moorings and therefore, has a high risk of unraveling on the shoals of practicality in international relations.
        A disclaimer – I am not a IR scholar or a diplomat. Views are amateur.

    • Vishnugupt says:

      @Megs Mine and the Prof.’s acquisition on the Mandarin speaking MEA officials as compromised is not an Ad hominem. We are saying that most of them serving in China are a kind of diplomatic double agent so to speak, thus their every move is suspect and that makes it a comprehensive charge, which makes them ineligible to hold their current position. (it is like saying Donald Trump is a narcissistic tyrant).

      Even Mr Nehru had reservations about his Foreign Secretary Menon, this is well known to all seasoned MEA watchers in Delhi, an open secret of sort) and another prominent example is of the outcasting of Brajesh Mishra by his Mandarin speaking peers and bosses in the MEA,as he refused to tow Beijing’s line when he served there in 62.

      And i understand that you being an “ameture”observer is oblivious of these important details.

      On your point “the ‘Mandarin speaking diplomats’ have been adopting a modus vivendi based in pragmatism, in Indian jugaad style, to preserve peace with China by a combination of deterrent and engaging measures.”

      Well, now China might be 5 times our size, but it wasn’t in 1950 when it gobbled up Tibet, nor it was any richer than India in1962( just well prepared and ruthless, unlike a delusional India). So clearly we weren’t always “majboor” by design, we just had silly men at the helm of affairs and corrupt babus( like three generations of Menons and other extremely left leaning diplomats) deliberately ill advising them on China’s behest.

      Now, if economic might was such a huge deal, how did the starving North Korea brought Uncle Sam to the negotiating table. How did the ISI milked uncle Sam for billions.

      Now ask yourself, we didn’t have any “economic ties” with China during the 62 war 67 standoff right untill the late 1990s, so why on earth we didn’t use Taiwan as a bargaining tool to settle borders, why did we played guilty in giving asylum to Dalai Lama and other Tibetans?

      Silly ignorant men as leaders plus corrupt mandarins of MEA misleading them will result in situations like we are in right now.

      Indeed the sobering chess game of Geo-politics is not everone’s cup of tea. Specially not New Delhi’s, if one were to judge by historic precedent.

      On your point “In contrast, a 28 year old CEO of a tiny software start-up operating from a match-box in Bangalore or Pune book their techie on a flight to New York or Tokyo on a days notice but head of our military wings do not even have the authority to sanction the travel of their officers or jawans for overseas duty”

      I am not a fan of the infamous Indian bureaucracy and i fully agree to the notion that red tapism needs to be reduced, but yours is a wrong example because, corporations looks only for profit and governments don’t. And this makes it more difficult to put a “cost benefit analysis” on Generals going abroad for conferences. This is why military and other government wings will never function like a startup run by a 28 yr old CEO. Don’t compare apples and oranges.

      On your point on justifying China’s military provocations in South China sea ” This luxury is not available to China in the Indian Ocean”

      Well i am amused how, you make China as the victim here. Ask yourself is China the only country in the periphery of the sea, why don’t other country don;t feel so threatened. Why only China?
      I will tell you why, the same American corporations which aided China’s rise is angry at it for hacking in and stealing all their hard developed technology, through a state sponsored corporate espionage. China’s made in China 2025 has rung the alarm bells in all major American corporate house specially the military ones.

      This is why China knows, uncle Sam will not sit quietly while all its crown jewels are being stolen by Chinese state hackers. It knows what is in store for it.

      On your point “As such, they are an anti-thesis to civilisational evolution and pose a conundrum to the cause of promoting international understanding, vasudhaiva kutumbakam”
      “Political conservatism, like communism, is gridlocked in inflexible ideological moorings and therefore, has a high risk of unraveling on the shoals of practicality in international relations.”

      There is no basis for morality in international relations, not in the current “Westphalian world order”. So untill the “New world order” which is in the making for the past 3-4 decades in Bilderberg Meetings by the likes of Henry Kissinger,Rockefellers,Rothchilds etc comes into effect, only REALISM/Real Politik will rule the day.

  4. Khatushyam says:

    Sorry for the Ad-Hominem but something tells me that Megs does not eat with a fork or spoon or his hands if you catch my drift. What else explains his portraying China as a victim and his not being able to understand why India might just be a little suspicious of Chinese motives? Maybe arming to the teeth India’s arch-enemy with Nuclear Weapons has something to do with it ? Or is that too difficult to understand?

    I wonder where China would be right now had it followed the same prescriptions Megs advises India to undertake ? What good is eloquence when it is so thoroughly pusillanimous and deceptive? I am reminded of the messages left behind by a certain Frenchman which heartily endorse the wonderful Rafale deal in all it’s glory.

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