What the Modi government should do in the foreign policy field


Instead of disruptive foreign and national security policies, India seems content with the existing world order. It covets a place at the high-table but on terms set by other countries.

International affairs is witnessing several megatrends, but India is yet to respond actively. And it won’t do anymore.

A reactive and retreating America under President Donald Trump has accentuated the conditions of unusual flux in the international system. With the old certainties gone, traditional alliances (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), trading regimes (Trans-Pacific Partnership), schemes of regional peace (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), and technology and supplier cartels (Missile Technology Control Regime, Nuclear Suppliers Group, et al) are all alike in disarray, their concerns now are matters of contestation with China staking claim to the pole position vacated by the US.

There’s a particular urgency in Asia to blunt China’s hegemonic ambitions and preclude its domination from taking root.

State of play
Unfortunately, India finds itself on the wrong side of these trends because it has accelerated its efforts to join these very same non-proliferation regimes and cartels that had victimised it all along.

Worse, by sidling up to the US and virtually outsourcing its strategic security to Washington, India’s historical role as a prime balancer in the international balance-of-power system, courtesy its hoary policies of nonalignment and strategic autonomy, has been imperilled.

So, the 2008 civilian nuclear deal, for all practical purposes, signed away India’s sovereign right to resume underground testing, and froze its nuclear arsenal at the sub-thermonuclear technology level (1998 fusion test was a dud). Agreeing to the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement – the so-called “foundational accords” will, respectively, permit America to stage its military forces out of Indian bases and embroil the country in its wars in the extended region, and to penetrate the most secret Indian communications grid, including the nuclear command and control network.

By clinging to a feckless and demanding US, India’s profile as a fiercely independent state has taken a beating, distanced the country from old friends, such as Russia, which is pivotal to balancing China and US, and Iran – central to India’s geostrategic concerns in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Central Asia.

Placating China is the other imprudent theme that Indian foreign policy has cottoned on to. Mollycoddling the country’s most dangerous adversary in Asia with giveaways while treating Pakistan, a weak flanking country, as a full-bore security threat when it is only a military nuisance, is at the core of India’s external troubles.

A topsy-turvy threat perception has also meant a lopsided Indian military geared to handle Pakistan but incapable of defending against China.

It is almost as if the Indian government and armed services have given up on national security. This bewildering state of affairs is in urgent need of drastic overhaul and repair.

Geopolitical vision & strategy
Strong nations in the modern era have transitioned into great powers by pursuing policies disrespectful and disruptive of the prevailing order and multilateral regimes they had no hand in creating.

India, on the other hand, seems content with measuring its foreign policy success in terms of entry gained or denied in congeries of international power (UN Security Council) and trade and technology cartels (Nuclear Suppliers Group, Missile Technology Control Regime, etc.).

The Indian government is hampered by its mistaken belief that stressing its soft “civilisational” power will make the country great.

India with its many infirmities is in no position to undertake system disruption by itself. Rather, for India to rise as the premier Asian challenger to China and as the other economic-political-military power node in the continent in the shortest possible time needs a double-pronged strategy.

One prong should stress absolutely reciprocal positions and policies. Beijing’s insistence on ‘One China, two systems’ should be met with ‘One India’ concept, and acceptance by Beijing of all Jammu & Kashmir (including the Pakistan-occupied portion) as inalienably Indian territory. And, China’s nuclear missile arming of Pakistan should, even if belatedly, trigger India’s transferring strategic missiles to the states on the Chinese periphery so that China too, thereafter, suffers permanent geostrategic disadvantage.

Second, hamstringing China should also involve meta-measures to carve out separate, loose and specifically anti-China security coalitions from the two important existing groups India is part of – BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) and the Quad (India-Japan-Australia-US). BRICS can be mobilised to form a smaller, informal, security-cooperation BRIS (Brazil,-Russia-India-South Africa). Likewise, a modified Quadrilateral or ‘Mod Quad’ with India, Japan, Australia, and a group of leading Southeast Asian states, including Vietnam and Singapore to replace the US, would reduce the uncertainty of America’s security role given that the US and China owing to their close economic and trading links are inseparable.

BRIS and Mod Quad will enable their member states to be less inhibited in cooperating with each other to deal with the overarching security threat posed by China, but without the intimidating presence of the US.

But BRIS and Mod Quad leave Pakistan out of the reckoning. Pakistan is strong enough to be a spoiler and, in cahoots with China, pose a substantial problem. A lasting solution is essential to break up the Pakistan-China nexus.

A Kashmir solution roughly along the lines negotiated with General Parvez Musharraf in 2007 that Prime Minister Imran Khan has said Pakistan will accept, is a reasonable end-state to work towards. But lubricating such an offer with policies economically to co-opt Pakistan, along with India’s other subcontinental neighbours, will help it obtain the goal of unitary economic space in the subcontinent and lay the foundations for a pacified South Asia.

National security policy priorities
Lack of money has never been the hitch. Rather, the problem has been and is the continued misuse of financial resources by India’s three-armed services with faulty expenditure priorities.

Intent on equipping and sustaining inappropriate force structures geared to the lesser threat, they have squandered their colonial legacy of expeditionary and “out of area operations” and, consequently, shrunk greatly in stature even as they have increased in size.

Seeing Pakistan as a threat long after it credibly ceased to be one post-1971 War, has resulted in an Indian military able to fight only short-range, short-duration, small and inconclusive wars.

The political leadership, for its part, has chosen the easy way of relying on the armed services professionally to do the right thing by proffering the right advice, which they haven’t.

Breaking the Pakistan-China nexus requires a conducive political milieu making certain safe unilateral military moves. What the Pakistan Army most fears are India’s three Strike Corps, which “threat” if denatured can obtain a milieu with enormous peaceful potential. The nuclear backdrop can likewise be changed for the better by India removing its short-range nuclear missiles from forward deployment on the western border and, perhaps, even getting rid of them altogether, because hinterland-based missiles can reach Pakistani targets with ease. These two moves will cost India little in terms of security and persuade Pakistan of India’s goodwill and China as the Indian military’s primary concern.

Tackling China at a time when it is widening the gap with India in all respects necessitates India using the playbook the Chinese successfully used against the US, Pakistan against India, and North Korea against America, when facing an adversary with a marked conventional military edge. It means resorting to Nuclear First Use (NFU) and deploying weapons to make this stance credible.

Politically, the most difficult policy decision for the Modi government will, however, be to resume nuclear testing. This is absolutely necessary to obtain tested and proven thermonuclear weapons of different power-to-yield ratios. India has got by with a suspect thermonuclear arsenal for 20 years. It is time India’s strategic deterrent acquired credibility.

Published in ThePrint.in June 6, 2019 at https://theprint.in/opinion/indias-problem-is-its-policy-to-pamper-china-while-treating-weak-pak-as-full-blown-threat/246337/
This is a shortened version of a Paper; the fuller version will be put up soon on the Centre for Policy Research website and published as part of a compilation of Papers by CPR faculty on various issues by the month end. It is meant to set the public policy agenda and to offer policy guidelines for the 2nd Modi government. A longer version of this piece is available on the CPR website at http://www.cprindia.org.

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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2 Responses to What the Modi government should do in the foreign policy field

  1. Lt Gen Surinder Singh says:

    Read your guest column in India Today on Two Front war. If I may submit, the compulsion for Chiefs to say that we’re ready for a Two Front War is political. Otherwise, the govt will have to answer the public what it’s doing, especially when the budget doesn’t allow capability building of the scale required. The Army knows nobody can fight and win on two fronts simultaneously. It’s for the government to ensure the country doesn’t have to fight on two fronts simultaneously. God forbid it happens, the armed forces would leave the minimum escapable forces, those which by virtue of unsuitable equipment can’t operate in mountains, to determine and hold Pakistan and switch all others to Northern Front to hold PLA as best as it can. That’s what Chief meant.
    Regarding Light tanks in mountains, PLA has medium tanks opposite us, except a few experimental light tanks. To face them, we need T72 or rather T 90 tanks. And whoever says that 40℅ of tanks in North Sikkim don’t start? The Army is already refocusing on building capacities for mountains. The Strike Corps in plains are just adequate to deter Pakistan and nothing big is being done for plains.
    We’re in-principle on the same page

    • The central point I tried to make in the piece, General Surinder Singh, is precisely the paucity of financial resources and the need, therefore, to be judicious in deciding what capability against which adversary to invest in. Surely, you’d agree that making Pakistan top security priority is ridiculous with an unforgiving China looming in the north and east whence the absolute need to hereafter focus primarily on China with a bare holding force deployed in the west against Pakistan. Of course, the army’s, and generally the military’s, Pakistan fixation is a political decision in sync with the government of the day’s inclination. It still does not excuse the army or any other service for not speaking truth to power.

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