Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Behind the Modi Government's Doublespeak on Ladakh, a Refusal to Acknowledge Reality

Reading the Ministry of Defence press release following the failed 13th round of talks between Indian and Chinese senior commanders, one may wonder what the Sino-Indian dispute in eastern Ladakh is all about. 

Look at these sentences:

1. “The Indian side pointed out that the situation along the LAC had been caused by unilateral attempts of [the] Chinese side to alter the status quo and in violation of the bilateral agreements…

2. It was therefore necessary that the Chinese side take appropriate steps in the remaining areas so as to restore peace and tranquillity along the LAC in the Western Sector….

3. The Indian side emphasised such resolution of the remaining areas would facilitate progress in the bilateral relations….

4. The Indian side therefore made constructive suggestions for resolving the remaining areas but the Chinese side was not agreeable and also could not provide any forward-looking proposals….”  (Emphasis added all through)

From the above, one would not learn that the PLA had, in the summer of 2020, surprised the Indian Army all along the Line of Actual Control in eastern Ladakh and occupied positions on or across the LAC which have denied the Indian forces access to large chunks of territory they had earlier patrolled.

After all, if the Chinese only made unilateral “attempts” to alter the status quo, in simple English it means that they did not actually succeed. But if those Chinese “attempts” did not succeed, what does it mean to talk of “appropriate steps” that the PLA needs to take? What is the issue of “resolution of remaining areas” or, for that matter, the  “constructive suggestions” that the Indians side made which the Chinese have rejected as “unreasonable and unrealistic”?

Surely the only “constructive suggestion” that can be offered is for the Chinese to pull back. But then why not say so? Why this obfuscation ?

Some claim that this is for diplomatic reasons of not wanting to name and shame the Chinese, so that they can be persuaded to pull back. Others declare that governments have to keep issues relating to the border confidential.

But let’s get this in the right order: The Chinese know where they are, and the parts of the LAC they have crossed, and so, of course, does the Indian government. So, the only people from whom the information is being kept are the people of the country. As for being sensitive to Chinese concerns, well good luck to that policy.

From the outset, the government’s stand on recent developments in eastern Ladakh have been bizarre and downright mendacious. It originated at the very top when Prime Minister Modi declared on June 19, 2020  – four days after the deadly events in the Galwan Valley that took the lives of 20 Indian jawans and led to some Indian soldiers being taken prisoner by the Chinese – that “neither is anyone inside our territory nor is any of our post captured.”

In fact, some unconfirmed social media posts doing the rounds this week  suggest things may have been  worse for India in the Galwan incident than has been so far acknowledged

As Modi’s remarks led to a controversy, the government quickly clarified that his statement related to the immediate situation in Galwan, not to what may have transpired earlier or for that matter elsewhere in Ladakh.

The statement did note that “that this Government will not allow any unilateral change of the LAC”, yet, it completely ignored the wider issue of the PLA’s sudden ingresses and actions that denied Indian forces the right to patrol parts of the LAC that both sides had hitherto patrolled. There were five such areas, north to south: the Depsang plains, Galwan, Kugrang river valley, north bank of Pangong Tso and Charding Nala near Demchok.

China’s 1960 claim line in Ladakh is marked in yellow, the LAC at Pangong Tso in in pink. As can be seen, Thakung, the site of the latest standoff, is inside the LAC but within the 1960 Chinese claim line. Map: The Wire

Needless to say, similar prevarication featured in the first authoritative statement on the developments in eastern Ladakh which came in parliament from Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in September 2020. He, too, fudged the issues. He said that in early May “the Chinese side had taken action to hinder the normal, traditional patrolling pattern of our troops in the Galwan Valley area.” An effort was made to address the issue through local commanders, but by mid-May, the Chinese began “several attempts to transgress” the LAC in other areas like Kongka La, Gogra and the north bank of Pangong Tso.”

So, “attempts” had been made and, presumably they were not successful. He conveniently ignored the important areas in Depsang, Kugrang river Valley or the Charding  Nala area, where the Chinese remain deployed and are the subject of the current senior officers’ talks.

By far the most serious Chinese ingress has been in the Depsang area (see map below). The Chinese have created a blockade at Y Junction as a result of which Indian soldiers who routinely patrolled the areas marked by Patrolling Points (PP) 10, 11, 11a, 12 and 13 have been prevented from doing their task. Reports suggest similar restrictions to the north of this area as well.

Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) is India’s northernmost post, short of the Karakoram Pass. It is also the terminus of the Darbuk Shyok-Daulat Beg Oldi (DS-DBO) road. As can be seen from the map, Indian forces have been denied access to a huge area which provided defence to the road. Conversely, the Chinese presence near the road threatens Indian deployments in DBO.

Map: Manoj Joshi


Most recently this fudge is evident in External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s speech  at the India Today Conclave in early October 2021.He  said the Indian side still had no clear idea of the Chinese motives. “If attempts are being made to unilaterally change the LAC status quo and large forces are brought to the border in contravention of written agreements, then obviously the relationship will be impacted.” He said that while there had been progress in reversing the situation, “the larger problem remains which is a very sizeable Chinese force close to, if not at, the LAC.”

Nowhere is there an acknowledgement that what happened was not mere “attempts” to change the LAC status. Like it or not, the Chinese side had changed it by force and the action was not “close to the LAC” but in some instances across it. And that is what the talks with China, including his own repeated discussions with his counterpart Wang Yi were all about.

The saddest part of all this is that the Army brass, too, is going along with the government. No doubt, this is aimed at hiding their own culpability in lowering their guard last year. But take, for example Lt Gen Y.K. Joshi,  the northern army commander’s assertion that the situation in Depsang, by far the most serious, is a “legacy issue”, meaning it had unfolded before the 2020 events. Recall here that the Chinese have established a blockade at a key point that is preventing Indian patrols from surveilling several hundred square kilometres of territory.

The response to Joshi’s claim came from Lt Gen (retd) R.K. Sharma. Writing for the pro-government Vivekanand Foundation of India, he rejected this “legacy issue” argument, noting that 8-10 patrols a year had visited the area between 2013-2019. Sources say that the last Indian set of Indian patrols actually took place in February 2020.

The Chinese are not misled by all this. They know where they are and what they did. The government of India and the Army, too, are, hopefully, wiser after the event. The only ones who do not yet clearly know what transpired are the people of India who have been treated to this double-speak where the bravery of soldiers is praised to the skies even as those who should have been more vigilant get away scot free. This is similar to the Kargil incursion where again, soldiers paid the price, a great victory was declared, while nobody was held accountable for the intelligence failure.

Fortunately, at least in the case of eastern Ladakh, a fictitious narrative of victory has not been fabricated, at least as of now, though Modi’s June 19, 2020 statement comes close to it.

The government seems to have embarked on a peculiar course of information denial and manipulation with regard to events in eastern Ladakh. This, despite the sorry history of the tragic consequences of a similar policy followed by the Nehru government in the 1950s. Open societies have long known of the value of an informed citizenry. They do not believe that “bad” news  is “anti-national”.  On the contrary accepting setbacks is the best and perhaps only way to set things right.

The Wire 14 October 2021

US, China in defrost mode

To say that the global order is in a state of churn would be an understatement. There are, of course, long-term trends relating to economic growth, military power, climate change and so on. But what is important from the policy point of view are the short-term events. And here there is substantial instability.

In the US, there is an administration that has not been able to manage to get a grip on policy, something that could lead to the return of Donald Trump in 2024. In China, the supreme leader has thrown the Communist Party’s rule book out of the window and is seeking an unprecedented third term in 2022 and has unleashed a slew of policies that are aimed at shoring his position. These domestic developments play into the foreign policies of these countries.

There is an irony in the efforts between India and China and the US and China to normalise their relations. In the case of India, Beijing has been suggesting that there is need to detach the issues arising from their disputed border with normal relations in other areas. But, when it comes to Washington, China insists that it is not possible to pursue closer ties in areas like climate change and other transnational issues, even as their relations remain tense in other areas.

With India, the Chinese are hanging tough and refusing to withdraw from areas they occupied in eastern Ladakh in 2020. The failure of the 13th high-level military talks in Moldo seems to suggest this. The Indian side seems to be living in a world of its own. Instead of saying that the Chinese are refusing to withdraw from positions they occupied in the Depsang Plains, Kugrang Valley and the Charding Nala last year, the official press note says coyly that the Chinese did not provide ‘forward looking proposals’ for an ‘early resolution’ of the issues. Meanwhile, the Chinese spokesman countered that India had persisted in its unreasonable and unrealistic demands.

As for the US and China, there are signs of a thaw in their relationship. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan’s long-awaited review of China policy that would flesh out the details of the Biden approach has been inexplicably delayed, with some suggestions that it could be a result of disagreement over China policy in the administration.

Last week in Zurich, Sullivan met Yang Jiechi, the seniormost Chinese official dealing with foreign policy. This followed the September 9 telephone call between Xi and Biden where both leaders emphasised the importance of keeping channels of communications open. Sullivan underscored the point that Biden has been making that the US and China must manage ‘intense competition’ between them so that it does not veer off into a conflict.

Yang bluntly rejected this notion of ‘competition.’ According to Xinhua, Yang told Sullivan that the US needed to understand ‘the mutually beneficial nature of the US-China ties and correctly understand China’s domestic and foreign policies and strategic intentions.’ Even so, there can be little doubt that the Chinese prefer dealing with the Biden administration, considering that rhetoric of the Trump administration had reached a point where its officials were encouraging policies of regime change to challenge the Communist Party rule of the country.

On October 4, US Trade Representative Katherine Tai unveiled a ‘top to bottom’ review of US’s China trade policy. Held a week before her virtual dialogue with Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He, Tsai said the US would hold ‘frank’ talks with Beijing and seek to re-engage China to achieve a ‘durable co-existence’ by ‘frank conversations’ with Chinese officials about addressing US complaints regarding Beijing’s trade and subsidy policies.

As of now, US import duties still exist on $360 billion worth of Chinese goods and exemptions for 2,000 products have expired, though last week the process of providing exemptions was restarted. But the Biden administration has maintained a tough position on human rights, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, South China Sea and Taiwan.

That there is internal debate on US policy towards China is evident from a news item in the New York Times last month saying that American businesses were ‘increasingly frustrated’ by the Biden administration’s approach. They were lobbying heavily for the White House to drop tariffs on Chinese goods and come up with a more durable policy than the chaotic one pursued by the Trump administration.

An important recent signal from the Chinese side is the declaration by Xi Jinping that while China was determined to pursue reunification with Taiwan, it would be through ‘peaceful means’. This is an important qualification and comes in the wake of Biden’s statement that he and Xi had agreed to abide by the existing policy where Washington recognises Beijing as the sole legal government of China, even while remaining ambiguous about its commitment to prevent a forced reunification.

In the coming two months, many of these issues are likely to be accorded high priority by Washington and Beijing as the two countries prepare for the first summit, albeit virtual, between Biden and Xi later this year.

These developments have implications for India. A US re-engagement with China would mean that the leverage New Delhi hopes to exercise from the US-China estrangement will be reduced. AUKUS has already dented it somewhat. New Delhi needs to carefully watch its flanks. In the rapid flux of events, we could find ourselves in a tough spot. The Chinese build-up in Tibet suggests we could be in for a long haul anyway.

The Tribune October 12, 2021

China’s Arunachal ‘Incursion’: Why India Should Look at the Bigger Picture

Even as the Sino-Indian border prepares for its winter freeze, we are besieged with reports of PLA “incursions”. First it was Barahoti, a pasture north of the Nanda Devi peak, and more recently at a place near Bum La, north of Tawang. Reports suggest that these were routine “transgressions”, the term the government uses for forays into areas that are known to be contested and patrolled by both sides on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). However, according to one report, Indian troops foiled an effort by PLA intruders to damage Indian defences and even detained some Chinese personnel for a brief while in the Bum La area.

Reports say that at the end of August, some 100 Chinese soldiers had entered the Barahoti bowl, through Tunjun La Pass. Indian personnel were surprised by their numbers and surmise that this is on account of India’s improved posture in the area and a measure of caution after the Galwan clash in 2020.

Barahoti's Significance

Since the central region saw no military action in 1962, Barahoti is relatively less known than places in the eastern and western sectors, where “transgressions” take place. But Barahoti is the site of some of the oldest contention between India and China on the border.

India has long maintained that the Barahoti pasturage is very much on the Indian side of the border, but the Chinese have repeatedly contested this and both sides have agreed that they will not maintain permanent encampments there.

In fact, there are five areas the Chinese dispute in Himachal and Uttarakhand area — Chuva-Chuje, Shipki La, Nilang-Jadhang, Barahoti-Lapthal and Lipu Lekh. They are not too well-known, but they retain the potential of escalation. Since they are close to the heartland of the country—Barahoti is less than 400 km as a crow flies from New Delhi—they should be viewed as significant.

Yet, this sector is not as contested as the one in the west and the east. For that reason, this is the only sector where India and China have exchanged maps in November 2002, as part of a now-failed effort to work out a mutually acceptable LAC.

China's Changed Posture Along the LAC

The increased transgressions appear to be part of China’s changed posture along the LAC. In recent years, the PLA has been busy upgrading the posture of the forces facing India. They have built new accommodation for troops to stay closer to the border, new helipads, airfields, and even a number of model villages to encourage locals to populate the harsh border region. Both sides face an acute problem of depopulation as villagers migrate to find better jobs. This problem is particularly acute for India in the central sector.

The 13th round of military commander’s talks between India and China is now expected to take place in Moldo, near the Pangong and Spanggur lakes in Ladakh, on Sunday. There is already a significant agenda for the talks since New Delhi wants China to pull back its forces in Depsang, Hot Spring and Demchok, from areas they occupied last year.

Following the talks between External Affairs Minister Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation(SCO) summit in September, the two countries had, according to the Ministry of External Affairs, agreed that “the prolongation of the existing situation was not in the interest of either side as it was impacting the relationship in a negative manner”. Jaishankar had called for the resolution of the remaining issues along the LAC even while abiding with existing bilateral agreements and protocols.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted Wang as saying that he hoped “that India will meet China halfway to move the situation towards stability and shift it from urgent dispute settlement to regular management and control”.

Read carefully, the statement could be seen as a sign that China was willing to steadily walk away from the forward positions it took in the summer of 2020. Beijing may be realising that unlike Indian military leaders who regularly say that they are ready to handle a two-front situation, China would like to “stabilise” the Indian front so as to take on the infinitely bigger challenge it confronts in the western Pacific from the United States and Japan.

The US-China Picture

It is important to see the developments in the Sino-Indian border in the larger framework of relations between the US and China where there are intriguing signs of change. There was an important signal on Saturday when in a speech Chinese leader Xi Jinping vowed reunification with Taiwan, but said that it would be through “peaceful means.” This is days after China flew nearly 140 fighter jets near Taiwan in the first four days of October. Taiwan had been emerging as the focal point of a potential US-China military clash and Xi’s statement should cool things down.

Things led off from a phone conversation between President Biden and Xi on September 9/10 where, according to a White House readout, both sides discussed the importance of maintaining open lines of communication and “responsibly manage the competition” between the two countries. This was followed by the October 6 meeting in Geneva of US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and the senior-most Chinese official dealing with foreign policy, Yang Jichei. This is expected to be followed by a virtual summit, the first, between Xi and Biden later this year. Sullivan repeated the formulation of the need “to ensure responsible competition” between the two sides and despite their differences.

How Will New Delhi be Affected?

The Chinese readout of the Sullivan-Yang talks noted that Yang bluntly rejected the US belief that relations between the two countries were “competitive”, and emphasised Beijing’s long-held view that the US should adopt a pragmatic policy “and correctly understand China’s domestic and foreign policies and strategic intentions”. It also noted the US assurance that it continued to adhere to a one-China policy.

Sullivan had been expected to put out the long-awaited review of the Biden Administration’s new China policy last week, but nothing has happened to date. Some reports suggest that there is a great deal of pressure on the White House, particularly from the business community, for a softer approach to China. Such developments will obviously impact New Delhi’s posture.

The Quint October 10, 2021 

The demographic bogey

EARLIER this month, in response to a Right to Information (RTI) query, the Union Home Ministry headed by the de facto number two in the government, Amit Shah, declared that the perceived threats to the Hindu religion were ‘hypothetical’ and ‘imaginary’.

We can only hope that this response feeds into the current political discourse. But that may be asking for too much. As of now, the Sangh Parivar’s political mobilisation strategy rests on marginalising the Muslims, especially in northern India. Just the other day, Yogi Adityanath hot-buttoned it by declaring that prior to his assuming office in 2017, all food rations used to go to those who addressed their fathers as ‘abba jaan’— a thinly veiled reference to Muslims. Figures, of course, gave the lie to this claim since at that time, there were 14 crore beneficiaries of this scheme initiated by the then government run by the Samajwadi Party, and census figures show that there were less than 4 crore Muslims in the state at the time.

Ad hominem attacks on Muslims are not uncommon these days. Social media and ‘WhatsApp University’ have played a dubious role in spreading fake information. Politicians, ever ready to stir trouble, have taken it up with laws, some to limit families, others banning conversions, ever ready to burn the straw man.

The Sangh Parivar is not unaware of this; most of their leaders are, after all, educated. But to accept its conclusions would mean abandoning what has proved to be a spectacular political mobilisation tool. Never mind that tens of millions of people have been marginalised socially, educationally and economically, something that only detracts from the country’s health. Attempts to square the circle by declaring, as RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has, that “every Indian citizen is a Hindu” mean little in the real world which is run by the Adityanaths of the world.

One persistent narrative suggests that the Hindus will soon be outnumbered by Muslims in the country. The 2011 census says that Muslims constitute 14.2 per cent of the country’s population and this figure is slated to reach around 18.4 per cent by 2050. But by then, the Hindus will constitute 76.7 per cent of the population and Hindu and Muslim population growth rates will be similar.

A recent Pew Research Centre poll has some answers to this demographic anxiety. It found that India’s religious composition has remained largely stable since Partition and though for years Muslim fertility rates were higher than those of Hindus (a consequence of higher levels of backwardness and illiteracy), they are now more or less converging.

In 2015, the fertility rate for an average Muslim woman was 2.6 and for her Hindu counterpart, it was 2.1. The fertility rate is the average number of babies a woman will have in her lifetime.

A fertility rate of 2.1 means just enough babies will be born to maintain the population levels constant.

Government figures for nine states, released earlier this year, reveal that Hindi-speaking states like Bihar have high fertility rates for people of both religions, while those in Andhra Pradesh, Goa, Himachal Pradesh or Karnataka are below the replacement level for both. The fertility rate in Jammu & Kashmir is 1.45, lower than the fertility rate of Hindus in other states, but ironically, the rate for Hindus in J&K is even lower at 1.32.

Another vicious narrative relates to the alleged prevalence of forced conversions. But the real-world data gives it the lie. In 2018, an RTI reply in Maharashtra noted that the total number of those who converted in the state in the 43 months studied was 1,687. Most converts to Islam and Hinduism came from the other’s faith. In a population of around 120 million people, the number is clearly statistically irrelevant.

Figures in other states are likely to be similar. The Pew study cited above surveyed nearly 30,000 Indian adults and found that religious preferences were very stable in the country. As many as 99 per cent of those born Hindu had remained the same into adulthood, while the figures for Muslims and Christians were 97 per cent and 94 per cent, respectively. There were conversions, but Hindus gained as many people as they lost. Yet, there is an enormous din around the need to ban conversions and some nine states have actually passed laws against conversion in recent years.

In democracies, it is not unusual for divisions to be accentuated during election time. All parties try and maximise their votes by indirectly and sometimes directly using caste and religion. After the elections, these divisions need to be healed and governance be based on the citizenship of the individual, regardless of caste, creed and gender. This, unfortunately, has not been happening in India. One reason for this is the constant cycle of elections, but another is that false beliefs have taken hold in a significant section of the population, based on the dishonest propaganda.

As India hurtles towards becoming the most populous nation on earth, it needs to keep a careful watch on social friction that is tearing its national fabric apart. No matter what the Assam or UP governments do, in 2050, there will be 310 million or so Muslims in the country. They will be vastly outnumbered by the 1.38 billion Hindus, but they will not be a small number. Making large chunks of minorities feel that they are somehow not quite Indian is a self-destructive approach. All Indians need to be better educated and productive; leaving behind entire communities and groups will most certainly not yield a New India.

The Tribune September 28, 2021

Narendra Modi And Joe Biden 'Meet' On Respective National Interests

Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the United States lacks the theatrical flavour it has had in the past. Perhaps, it is all for the better. The focus would then have been on practical issues relating to the India-US relations, Afghanistan, the Quad and the United Nations and so on. The coverage of the visit, though, remains over-the-top on TV.

Actually, a visit to the US during the UN General Assembly session is almost routine for the PM, except for the circumstances of 2020. The bonus as it were was the Washington leg of the tour which enabled personal meetings with President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, as well as the first in-person Quad summit.

Reading the Body Language and More in Modi-Biden Meet

Seated next to President Biden while making the opening remarks before their official meeting, Modi’s posture and delivery appeared restrained and there was no effort at any kind of informality. There was a bit of gushing praise for Biden, but the latter, for his part, avoided any effusive touch to his remarks.

PM Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden

Courtesy: MEA, India

What was interesting was that the American leader read off his statement from cue cards, while Modi spoke extempore. This wasn’t just about Biden’s age, but probably his lack of familiarity with issues relating to India indicative of the lower priority he assigns to New Delhi notwithstanding the public postures.

Biden’s remarks before the bilateral meeting made it clear that for the Americans the focus issues of the meeting were the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and the Indo-Pacific. Both Biden and, earlier, Harris spoke of the democratic values of the two countries and “our shared responsibility” to uphold them.

From the Indian side, as indicated by Modi’s remarks, the big focus was on India’s desire to become a technology and trade partner, playing as the PM noted, a complementary role. He expected this to be a major factor in the relationship in the coming decade.

What was Agreed or Construed on Pakistan

Going by the briefings that have been made by Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, one would almost imagine Pakistan was the focus of the visit. Clearly, New Delhi is seeking to block Islamabad as it runs with the Kabul ball, to use an American football analogy.

Speaking to the media after the Harris-Modi meeting on 24 September, Shringla used the interesting term suo motu for Harris raising the issue of Pakistan’s role in terrorism and the need for Islamabad to check itself. But a closer look at the sentence reveals a different nuance: “She agreed with the prime minister’s briefing on the fact of cross border terrorism, and the fact that India has been a victim of terrorism….”

So, as the PM spoke and Harris nodded, and this was construed to be an agreement that Islamabad was doing all those bad things.

The US is, of course, concerned over developments in Afghanistan, and it is putting Islamabad through the cold Turkey treatment as Biden has even refused a phone call to Imran Khan. The Indian decision to go tough on Pakistan may have been triggered by a remark of Secretary of State Antony Blinken on September 14 that the US planned to review “Pakistan’s role in the last 20 years.”

But Islamabad is busy trying to get control of the situation in Kabul and if it manages, you can be sure that Washington will come knocking again. At this juncture, both the US and India have been kept out of the grouping of Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran in dealing with stabilising Afghanistan. The US is probably staying out willingly but the situation certainly rankles New Delhi because of our regional context.

US Interests in the Indo-Pacific; Quad Becomes Crucial

Licking its wounds in Afghanistan, the US is now focusing on the Indo-Pacific. After the coup of the AUKUS agreement, Washington is seeking to shore up the Quad. In his remarks at the first in-person Quad summit that he hosted, Biden reiterated the common vision of the “democratic partners” to the “key challenges of our age, from COVID to climate to emerging technologies.”

He reported that the vaccine vision was back on track to produce an additional 1 billion doses in India after having been disrupted by the devastating second wave of the pandemic. Modi provided no additional information about the vaccine situation, but expressed the hope that it would help the Indo-Pacific community.

Modi was the only leader who did not mention the “free and open Indo Pacific” in his public remarks.

Clearly, however, the remarks of the four leaders signal a clear line between the challenges of the Quad – COVID-19, climate change, emerging technologies, infrastructure, clean energy, people to people exchanges in science and technology—and the hard military issues which will be the remit of the AUKUS. That should not detract from the importance of the Quad since the military aspect is only part of the China challenge. The other areas are equally, if not more significant.

Democracy in India and US

Many have seen in the remarks made by Harris on 24 September about “democracies around the world [that] are under threat” and the need to “defend democratic principles and institutions within our respective countries” as a veiled nudge to Modi.

On the other hand, Modi and Indian officials have sought to use the “democratic” connection to emphasise India’s US connect and underscore it with effusive references to Mahatma Gandhi, who is deeply respected in the US.

All said, the issue of democratic values should not be overstated. After all, the US did not see any special virtue in them when it pushed aside France, its oldest democratic ally, because it perceived that its national interests demanded it in the Indo-Pacific.

In the same measure, just last week, Washington told visiting Prime Minister Boris Johnson that a trade deal would not be possible, despite their new found proximity in the Indo-Pacific. All he got by way of concession was a US lifting of decades old ban on British beef and lamb. New Delhi has also been looking for a trade deal but has been realistic enough to accept that it is not available as of now.

India Aware of New Era of American Policy

All these are manifestations of a new era of American policy where national interests, or the American perception of them, are the top priority. Washington’s altruistic style has been set aside as it confronts what it sees is the most significant challenge to its global hegemony since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

All this comes at a time when, according to a Reuters poll in May, a majority of the opposition Republican Party believe that Trump is the real winner of the 2020 election. Democracy is not just threatened in India, Brazil or Turkey, but the US as well.

From US point of view India is on a good wicket. With the Americans seeking to nuance their relationship with China to one of “extreme competition”, India with its large population and talent pool offers alternatives to US companies that are too sensitive to be permitted to set up shop in China, or are barred by Beijing.

Modi and Jaishankar are probably well aware of the situation. India like all countries in the world, including China, knows that as of now, Uncle Sam remains the key player in the world in terms of its military, technological and soft power. Getting his blessings are worth their while, while crossing him can prove to be dangerous.

The Quint, September 25, 2021

Where Does India Stand In the Indo-Pacific Nuclear Tinderbox?

The new Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) alliance is the latest warning of the looming threat of war in the Indo-Pacific region. In the middle of this month, we saw competing missile tests conducted by North and South Korea, there have been successive and deliberate intrusions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAF), and, most recently, the Chinese have issued a veiled warning against India’s planned Agni-V missile test and have been spotted constructing hundreds of new silos to house their long-range nuclear armed missiles in Gansu and Inner Mongolia.

The hostility between the US and China is no longer constrained. Within a week of telling Xi Jinping over the telephone on September 9 that the US wanted to maintain the “guardrails” on the relationship to ensure “competition does not veer into conflict”, the United States sharply escalated the situation by entering into a new security alliance on September 15. Though China was not mentioned, it is clear that the US aim is to pose a challenge to Chinese naval activity, especially in the southern Pacific Ocean.

A Slew of Security Pacts

The US, Australia, the UK, New Zealand and Canada have a long-standing and dense secret alliance called the UKUSA Agreement. There is also an old non-binding and partially functional Australia-New Zealand-US (ANZUS) security pact, and an even looser Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) linking Australia, New Zealand, UK along with Malaysia and Singapore. Though it has gained headlines because of the nuclear propelled submarine (boomer) decision, the new AUKUS is not simply an arms sales agreement, but a military pact whose full details have not been fully disclosed and whose longer-term implications are not yet clear.

The US has always been most reluctant to share its submarine technology with anyone. However, it has made some exceptions for the UK. And now, the two have roped in Australia into their system. Though the UK conducted 12 nuclear weapons tests in Australia, it has kept the Aussies out of all nuclear issues and Canberra is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state.

In his announcement, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared that Australia “ has no plans to acquire nuclear weapons”. But as is evident from the sudden decision to get a “boomer”, such commitments need to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Technically, the NPT does not prohibit the export of nuclear propulsion technology, but states have been careful in dealing with it. In the case of India’s INS Arihant, for example, the Russians set up a “research” reactor in the Kalpakkam Atomic Power Station; India’s task was to successfully copy it for the Arihant.

Non-Proliferation Commitments

The Americans and British are not going to pretend to be scrupulous on this point. But there is one issue of concern. Unlike the VM-4 reactor for the Arihant, which uses uranium enriched at around 20 per cent to 30 per cent, modern US-UK reactors used highly enriched uranium at about 95 per cent, which is also ideal for making a nuclear weapon. It remains to be seen as to how the US-UK work the Australian deal to meet their own non-proliferation commitments.

There has been some talk about the Chinese now targeting Australia in their nuclear scheme of things. But these are somewhat overstated. In contrast to the US and the UK, China retains a “no first use” pledge in relation to nuclear weapons. Second, the profile of its arsenal is such that it can, at best, have a retaliatory capability as compared to the massive US arsenal that could, theoretically, be used for a first strike.

Tensions are high all through the Indo-Pacific, especially its northeast quadrant. Here we have an officially recognised nuclear weapons power — China — as well as an unofficial one, North Korea, which has made it a point to threaten its southern neighbour and Japan with its nuclear weapons and missiles. China has a small maritime dispute with South Korea and a major one over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands with Japan.

Tensions Over Taiwan

In mid-September, North Korea said it tested a strategic cruise missile that could easily evade the network of ballistic missile defences that the South Koreans, Japanese and Americans have established.

The South Koreans did some messaging of their own through a successful test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile. South Korea has no nuclear weapons, but the betting is that prolonged tensions with North Korea could possibly push South Korea, and possibly even Japan, over the nuclear threshold. The experience of the Trump years has rattled both countries and this could have consequences for nuclear proliferation in the future.

Another major point of tension is Taiwan. China claims sovereignty over the island and has not ruled out the use of force in achieving unification. Aggressive Chinese actions, including flying fighter jets into its air defence space, are part of Beijing’s tough tactics.

Temperatures have been rising perceptibly for other reasons as well. In recent months, the Japanese have hinted that they could play a role in defending Taiwan. Last month, President Biden also declared that the US would defend it if it were attacked, but the Americans later backtracked. The official US-Japanese position on defending the island is ambiguous, and these statements have only enraged Beijing which claims sovereignty over the island republic and has not ruled out the use of force in asserting it.


Old Quarrels Getting Nastier

Far off in another part of the Indo-Pacific, there has been the manufactured controversy over the first user trials of the Indian Agni V missile, expected on September 23. The missile, with a range of some 5,000 km, has already been tested several times earlier. This time around, the Chinese responded to the news by citing the UN Security Council Resolution 1172, issued after India’s 1998 nuclear weapons test. Foreign Ministry spokesman and “wolf warrior” Zhao Lijian noted that the 1998 resolution, which is still operative on paper, had called on India and Pakistan to “stop their nuclear weapons development programmes, to refrain from weaponisation … to cease development of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons…”

No doubt this was a statement for the record. The Chinese, who helped Pakistan make nuclear weapons in the 1980s, tested their first weapon in 1990 in their Xinjiang range, and who have helped advance their nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programme since then, are hardly in a position to be seen as serious critics of Indian activities.

Related to AUKUS is India’s own nuclear-propelled submarine programme. India has two ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), the Arihant and INS Arighat, and is building several more. Further, it is planning to build six nuclear-propelled attack submarines (SSN).

India has yet to decide on the design of its new SSN. It could well take off from the Arihant itself and upgrade its reactor. On the other hand, it may go in for a new single-hull design, or approach the French for help.

One thing is certain — with more nations coming up with nuclear-propelled and conventional submarines and new missiles, the Indo-Pacific is becoming a high-risk place. Old quarrels are getting nastier. There seem to be few signs that any of the parties — the US, China, North and South Korea, India, Australia and Japan — are willing to back off. All that can be said is that with two official nuclear powers, and two unofficial ones, the consequences of any conflict could be so destructive that they would change the future of the world.

The Quint September 21, 2021