An Alternate Agenda: Time for Disruptive Foreign and National Security Policies

The NSA To Beat All NSAs Thus Far... | Outlook India Magazine
Trimurti — Modi, Doval and Jaishankar]

In the run up to the 2019 general elections, the Centre for Policy Research published a compendium of essays by its faculty members — ‘Policy Challenges 2019-2024: Charting a New Course for India and Navigating Policy Challenges in the 21st Century’ for limited circulation and uploaded it to its website. It is available at These essays offered an alternative policy template for the incoming government to consider. I did not post my essay (with end notes) in this compilation on this blog ere now.

A year later and in the context of China’s annexationist policy on the disputed border and India’s continuing failure to deal with China, this piece has gained even more weight, methinks. It may be interesting for those of you eager to delve deeper into the subject, to compare and contrast my views with those of Shyam Saran, ex-Foreign Secretary, and honorary professor at CPR (also available at the above URL), which reflect the Establishment thinking.

Reproduced below is that piece.

Several mega-trends are visible in international affairs on the cusp of the third decade of the 21st century. After a trillion dollars spent on the 18-year old war with the Taliban in Afghanistan following a similar amount expended in Iraq and Syria, the US is drained of its wealth, stamina and will for military confrontations of any kind. A reactive and retreating America under President Donald Trump, besides generating unprecedented levels of uncertainty and anxiety, has accentuated the conditions of unusual flux in the international system.

Second, 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 are now matters of contestation with China staking claim to the pole position vacated by the US.

And finally, these developments are compelling major countries to try to protect themselves the best they can by handling things on their own, in coalition with other similarly encumbered nations, and by exploring new security/military cooperation agreements. There is 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 in the main. This is because it has, in the new millennium, accelerated its efforts to join the very same nonproliferation regimes and cartels that had victimized it all along. Worse, by sidling up to the US and virtually outsourcing its strategic security to Washington, India’s historical role as prime balancer in the international balance-of-power set-up – courtesy its hoary policies of nonalignment and its latter-day avatar, strategic autonomy – has been imperiled. This is at a time when doubts about the US commitment to other countries’ security have increased along with the apprehensions of allies and friends. With security made a transactional commodity by the Trump administration, treaty alliances have been weakened, unsettling West European and Far Eastern states traditionally close to the US. [1]

India’s trend-bucking policy, in the event, will only cement the growing perceptions of the country as unable to perceive its own best interests and to act on them. Its downgrade, as a result of its more recent strategies, to the status of a subordinate state and subsidiary ‘strategic partner’ of the US means that India will have restricted
strategic choices. Its foreign and military policies will therefore lose the freedom and latitude for diplomatic manoeuvre that they have always enjoyed.

Thus, 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 (as the 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, (i) permit the US to stage its military forces out of Indian bases and embroil India in its wars in the extended region, and (ii) to penetrate the most secret Indian communications grid, including the nuclear command and control network. The Indian government’s eagerness to cement the partnership is astonishing considering the trust deficit evident in a long history of duplicitous US behaviour and policies. [2]

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 the US) and Iran (central to India’s geostrategic concerns in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Central Asia), lost the nation its diplomatic elan, and has seriously hurt vital national interests.

Placating China is the other imprudent theme that Indian foreign policy has latched on to. It has mollycoddled its most dangerous adversary and comprehensively capable rival in Asia with giveaways – such as non-use of the Tibet and Taiwan cards, refraining
from nuclear missile-arming states on China’s periphery as a tit-for-tat measure for Beijing’s missile-arming of Pakistan, giving the Chinese manufacturing sector unhindered access to the Indian market through a massively unfair and unbalanced bilateral trade regime, etc. On the other hand, it has treated Pakistan, a weak flanking country, as a full-bore security threat when, realistically, it is only a military nuisance. This strategy is at the core of India’s external troubles. It has practically incentivized Beijing to desist from peaceful resolution of the border dispute. It has also undermined India’s credibility and credentials as ‘security provider’ to and strategic partner of a host of Asian littoral and offshore states fearful of an ambitious and aggressive China, as well as complicated the country’s attempts at obtaining a tier of friendly nations around it as buffer.

A topsy-turvy threat perception has also meant a lopsided Indian military geared to handle Pakistan but incapable of defending well against China, even less of taking the fight to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on land, air and distant seas; it is also laughably unprepared for future warfare featuring cyber pre-emption, remotely controlled armed drone swarms, robotic weapons systems managed by Artificial Intelligence, space-based weapons platforms, and clean micro-thermonuclear bombs.

In the context, moreover, of a recessive foreign policy and a military that seems unable to wean itself away from imported armaments, 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 and Strategy

Strong nations in the modern era have transitioned into great powers not only through expansive national visions, but also, more significantly, by pursuing policies disruptive of the prevailing order and multilateral regimes they had no hand in creating. India in the 21st century, on the other hand, seems content with the existing international system, 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.). In other words, it covets a place at the high table on terms set by other countries. It is not a mistake made by China or the US (or, to go back in history, Elizabethan England,
Germany, Imperial Japan, the Soviet Union and now Vladimir Putin’s Russia). The Indian government is hampered by its mistaken belief that upholding the current regional and international correlation of forces and mechanisms of order, and stressing its soft ‘civilizational’ power, will make the country great. India with its many infirmities is in no position to undertake system disruption by itself. [3]

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 – which should be the legitimate national aim and vision – requires a subtle but telling approach. It needs a doublepronged strategy. One prong should stress absolutely
reciprocal positions and policies. Thus, Beijing’s insistence on ‘One China, two systems’ should be met with a ‘One India’ concept. So, the non-acceptance by Beijing of all of Jammu and Kashmir (including the Pakistan-occupied portion) as inalienably Indian
territory should lead to formal recognition of and relations with Taiwan; it should also spark off New Delhi’s world-wide advocacy of a free Tibet and a free East Turkestan, and of campaigns against ‘cultural genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Tibet and Xinjiang. [4] And China’s nuclear missile arming of Pakistan should, even if belatedly, trigger India’s transferring strategic missiles to the states adjoining China on land and sea to ensure that, like India, China too is permanently strategically discomfited.

Hamstringing China should also involve metameasures to carve out separate, loose and specifically anti-China security coalitions from the two important groups India is part of. BRICS (Brazil-RussiaIndia-China-South Africa) is an entity dominated economically and trade-wise by China. This is something that arouses wariness in the other three
countries, which can be mobilized to form a smaller, informal, security-cooperation-minded coalition, BRIS (Brazil-Russia-India-South Africa). It will assist in hedging Beijing’s military options and affect China’s economic expansiveness. Likewise, the
US’s importance to international security has to be whittled away. The Quadrilateral (US-Japan-IndiaAustralia) proposed by Japan’s Shinzo Abe to contain China in the Indo-Pacific is problematic owing to the centrality accorded the capricious US. India could
propose a different set-up – a modified Quadrilateral or ‘Mod Quad’ with India, Japan, Australia and the leading littoral and offshore states of South East Asia, resisting China’s over-lordship and disputing its claims in the South China Sea, with a cooperative
Taiwan accorded, to start with, observer status.

This would at once define the strategic geopolitical face-off between ‘rimland Asia’ and a hegemonic ‘heartland’ China, and reduce the uncertainty attending on America’s security role (given that the US and China, owing to their close economic and trading links, are inseparable). Mod Quad will clarify the strategic calculi of member states, while encouraging the US to contribute militarily to the extent it wants to at any time but as an outside party.[5] BRIS and Mod Quad are extremely practicable geopolitical solutions to share the cost, divide the danger, and generate synergy from the wide-spectrum capabilities, singly and together, of the member states in these two collectives. At the same time, they would stretch China’s economic and military resources and minimize the consequences of ambiguity attending on the US role. These new arrangements adhere to the time-tested principle of vision shaping strategy but
geography driving it, which makes for cohesion and sense of purpose. 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 (which, typically, pursues its own interests at the expense of any coalition it is a part of). They will instill in the Indian government’s external outlook an outcomes-oriented, competitive bent. It may result, for instance, in getting the east-west Ganga-Mekong connectivity project – as a rival to China’s north-south Belt & Road Initiative – off the ground. [6]

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. More than 70 years of tension and conflict with India haven’t helped. For a lasting solution it is essential to break up the Pakistan-China nexus. The military palliative for terrorist provocations – air and land strikes – will only drive Islamabad deeper into China’s camp. A Kashmir solution roughly along the lines negotiated with General Pervez Musharraf in 2007 that Prime Minister Imran Khan has said Pakistan will accept, is a reasonable end state to work towards.[7] But India can lubricate such an offer with policies to co-opt Pakistan (along with India’s other subcontinental neighbours)
economically, by means of trade on concessional terms, and easy credit and access to the Indian market for manufactures and produce. This will obtain the goal
of unitary economic space in the subcontinent and lay the foundations for a pacified South Asia – the first step in India’s long overdue achievement of great power.

Such actions should, however, be preceded by several unilateral and risk-averse military initiatives (outlined later) to establish India’s peaceful bonafides and to denature the Indian threat that Pakistan perceives. Simultaneously, prioritizing strategic and expeditionary military capabilities against China and for distant operations jointly with friendly states in the Indian Ocean Region and in Southeast Asia will secure India’s extended security perimeter.

National Security Policy Priorities

Lack of money has never been the hitch. Rather, the problem has been and continues to be the misuse of financial resources by the three armed services with their faulty expenditure priorities. Intent on equipping and sustaining inappropriate force structures geared to the lesser threat, they have squandered the colonial
legacy of expeditionary and ‘out of area operations’. Consequently, they have shrunk greatly in stature even as they have increased in size.[8] Persisting with thinking
of Pakistan as the main threat long after it credibly ceased to be one post the 1971 war has resulted in an Indian military able to fight only short-range, short-duration, small and inconclusive wars. Indeed, so geared to territorial defence and tactical warfare are the Indian armed services that they have paid scant attention to strategic objectives and to the means of realizing them.

The political leadership, for its part, has shown marked lack of interest, and failure to articulate a national vision and to outline a game plan and strategy. It 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 is an imperative. It requires the Indian government to first seed a conducive political milieu by making certain safe unilateral military moves. What the Pakistan Army most fears is India’s three Strike Corps; if this ‘threat’ is denatured, a milieu with enormous peaceful potential can be created. Considering the nuclear overhang and zero probability of the Indian government ever ordering a war of annihilation – which is the only time when these armoured and mechanized formations will fight full tilt – three corps are way in excess of need. They can be reconstituted and the resources shifted to form a single composite corps adequate for any conceivable Pakistan contingency. The rest of the heavily armoured units can be converted to airborne cavalry, and to light tanks with engines optimized for high-altitude conditions; three offensive mountain corps can thereby be equipped to take the fight to the PLA on the Tibetan Plateau.

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 made without demanding matching responses will cost India little in terms of security, establish a modicum of trust,
persuade Pakistan of India’s goodwill, and confirm China as the Indian military’s primary concern. It will hasten normalcy in bilateral relations.

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, that Pakistan has used against India, and North Korea against America, when facing an adversary with a marked conventional military edge. It means revising the nuclear doctrine to emphasise Nuclear First Use (NFU) and deploying weapons to make this stance credible. Emplacing atomic demolition munitions in Himalayan passes to deter PLA units ingressing in strength across the disputed border is one tripwire. Another is
to declare that any forceful Chinese military action that crosses a certain undefined threshold may automatically trigger the firing of canisterised medium- and longrange Agni missiles, now capable of launch-on-launch and launch-on warning. Additionally, the large numbers of Chinese missiles positioned in Tibet should be seen as the third nuclear tripwire. As there is no technology to reliably detect and determine the nature of incoming warheads, any missile PLA fires will reasonably have to be assumed to be nuclear-warheaded. Such a posture leaning towards action will create precisely the kind of uncertainty about the Indian reaction and response that will bolster its deterrent stance.[9]

Exorbitantly priced aircraft carriers are unaffordable and, in the age of hypersonic and supersonic missiles, a military liability. The Indian naval budget should instead
prioritize nuclear-powered ballistic missile-firing and attack submarines, and a surface fleet of multipurpose frigates. The Indian Air Force needs to radically cut the diversity of combat aircraft in its inventory, rationalize its force structure and streamline its logistics set-up. This will be facilitated by limiting the fleet to just three types of aircraft – the multi-role Su-30MKI upgraded to ‘super Sukhoi’ configuration in the strike and air
superiority role and progressively enhanced versions of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft for air defence, the follow-on Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft for longer reach and bigger punch, and lease-buying 1-2 squadrons of Tu-160M2 ‘Blackjack’ strategic bomber from Russia as the manned, recallable, vector in the country’s nuclear triad.

Politically, the most difficult policy decision for the government will 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.



  1. An unreliable US, in fact, so concerns its NATO allies that the French defence minister Florence Parly in Washington asked a little plaintively,
    ‘What Europeans are worried about is this: Will the U.S. commitment [to NATO] be perennial? Should we assume that it will go on as was
    the case in the past 70 years?’ See ‘French defense chief questions US commitment to NATO’, AFP, RadioFreeEurope, Radio Liberty, 18 March
  2. Bharat Karnad, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2015), 187-219.
  3. For a detailed analysis of its various infirmities that preclude India’s becoming a great power anytime soon, see Karnad, Why India Is Not a
    Great Power (Yet).
  4. China sees itself as the main protector of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Visiting Islamabad during the Pulwama crisis, the
    foreign minister Wang Yi declared: ‘No matter how things change in the world and the region, China will firmly support Pakistan upholding its independence and territorial integrity and dignity.’ See Sutirtho Patranobis, ‘China firmly with Pakistan, says Beijing as Islamabad
    raises Kashmir in top talks’, Hindustan Times, 19 March 2019,
  5. Bharat Karnad, ‘India’s Weak Geopolitics and What To Do About It’, in Bharat Karnad, ed., Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and
    Beyond (New Delhi: Viking, 1994), 19-20.
  6. Bharat Karnad, Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition (New Delhi: Penguin-Viking, 2018), ch. 4.
  7. Imtiaz Ahmad, ‘2-3 solutions available to Kashmir issues, says Pak PM Imran Khan’, Hindustan Times, 4 December 2018,
  8. Karnad, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet), ch. 5.
  9. Bharat Karnad, ‘Shifting the Nuclear Security Focus to China’, in Lieutenant General A.K. Singh and Lieutenant General B.S. Nagal, eds.,
    India’s Military Strategy in the 21st Century (New Delhi: Centre for Land Warfare Studies and KW Publishers, 2019); Karnad, Staggering Forward,

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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14 Responses to An Alternate Agenda: Time for Disruptive Foreign and National Security Policies

  1. Sankar says:

    Brilliant essay, Professor Karnad!
    It reminds me of an observation made on Modi in a different context by the economist NL Amartya Sen when Modi first was hoisted to power something to the effect: “It is a disaster”! I am afraid, it is now valid in all counts.
    Also, not to forget George Fernandez, Defence Minister in the past during Vajpayee government, who openly had said that China is the biggest enemy of India – not Pakistan. And it is coming true. The entire Modi establishment is stinking now. On the economic front, India has become the dumping ground of Chinese industrial junk.

  2. Sankar says:

    I have some reservations on the negative assessment expressed here on aircraft carriers for IN. It has been recorded in history that the aircraft carrier Vikrant played a very successful role in the 1971 war by blocking Chittagong port and in other ways. In the open sea, an aircraft carrier will be an ideal platform for setting up a local command and control centre for anti-submarine warfare. So it has great potential for any blue-water navy always – it is not a passe weapon system.

    • IN will be going up against PLAN, mind.

    • Have argued, among other things re-carriers, in my 2018 book — ‘Staggering Forward’ that aircraft carriers are well beyond their sell-by date. But if carriers are needed for peacetime showing flag ops, very light carriers would be better. And in any case that 4-5 frigates for an aircraft carrier, cost-wise, is the exchange value. Operationally — given the supersonic and soon hypersonic weapons, the flotilla of frigates’d be more useful than a aircraft carrier at any time.

  3. Brig Pradeep Sharma says:

    An excellent piece and good over all read. My concern has and continues to be the following aspects :-
    1. Can a Govt( as demonstrated by Past & Present) ever change its approach to National Security?
    2. If the Armed Forces as claimed squandered away funds, is there a better way of using these? I am privy to the fact that Short, Mid and Long term Perspective Plans are prepared and presented to the MOD amongst others and that a Financial Constraint causes modifications and cuts to the procurement plans. The DPP has always been too complex and tardy to allow for smooth and quick procurement. Can one fault the Armed Forces for this?
    3. Can we fault the armed forces for the selection of Higher Military Leadership based on Political Alignments rather than Professionalism and then lament that they have not performed?
    4. Can we fault the Armed Forces if they are placed subordinate to the NSA who is basically a Civilian /Cop we cannot expect to know ‘Military Strategy’.
    There is much more to the Indian Nation when it comes to policy shaping and National Interests which require answers from Govts.

    • All that you say regarding the military aside, the fact is the armed services in their Perspective Planning schemes seem fixated on maintaining the current force structure, which involves sticking with dated threat perceptions and obsolete, usually imported high-cost armaments. This is at the heart of the problem of the misuse of resources.

    • Sankar says:

      Your point 4 is the crux of the problem. In all developed nations (Western countries and must be the same in Russia being European fundamentally) the Armed Forces have their own intelligence gathering setup and hierarchy – not subordinate to any civilian authority. This NSA is a joke, he pops up in the news every now and then like a Bollywood celebrity and wants to be in the limelight like James Bond. Have you (or anyone else in India) seen the CIA director, MI5 head or anyone in such position in the European world appearing in the public news (TV and print media etc) while they are in service? They all operate incognito in public domain. Only when they are retired, they can come forward and present their views in public domain.

  4. RG says:

    How is policy effected? Who are the people who affect policy ? Hows it done? Apart from politicians.

    Most of your stuff on china is first rate and yet we don’t see any implemented.Had we used the atomic munitions, this might not have happened.

    Mr. Karnad can u give an overview how a policy is brought to fruition?

    • In this BJP government, as I detail in my 2018 book ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’, the sole locus of power and authority and the exclusive fount of policy wisdom and ideas is Prime Minister Modi. Everybody else, NSA and ministers on down, are implementers of the PM’s ideas and views. He made clear to one of his biographers that he generates brilliant ideas all by himself, calling this a “God given gift”.

      • RG says:


        What am asking is, like for conducting elections we have election commission, security policy kaun banata hai. Yes, Modi is all in all, possible narcissist et al, that’s not what am asking. Whats the structure for formulating and implementing security policy in India In general?

      • In the business of government rules, the Defence Secretary and the Ministry he presides over is responsible for the security of the country. Since Vajpayee’s days, the PMO has become the centre with the NSA at the rudder.

  5. vijaysinghbali says:


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