Tuesday, January 26, 2021

2020 - A challenging year yet a satisfying year, professionally

2020 has remained a challenging year for the world around and I was no exception.  Personally, it was a trying year with a lot of dislocations.  Nevertheless, it has been a satisfying year, professionally speaking.  

In March 2020, I was offered to join the Perth USAsia Centre as part of their inaugural Indo-Pacific Fellow programme for a period of nine months.  While I represented India, there were colleagues, one each from Australia, Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam.  It was a very fulfilling experience.  As part of the fellowship, I did a number of essays and webinars: Towards A Quad-Plus Arrangement?; Uneasy Contradictions Continue in India's Strategic EngagementsCountering ChineseAssertiveness: India’sChanging Posture in the Indian Ocean; and a forthcoming one, looking at how India-Australia relations will continue to get stronger in the face of an aggressive China.  

I got a peer reviewed journal article, "India's Emerging Space Assets and Nuclear-Weapons Capabilities" published in The Non-proliferation Review in March 2020.  In this article, I argue that over the last five decades, India’s nuclear and space programs have gone through several phases, from collaboration to divorce to supportive. An interplay of two factors determined the nature of the relationship. One was the state of India’s nuclear-weapon program. The second was international conditions, especially India’s relationship with the nuclear-nonproliferation regime. In the early decades, because of the rudimentary nature of India’s nuclear and space programs, the relationship was collaborative, since the rocket technology being developed was a necessary adjunct to the nuclear-weapon program. Subsequently, as India’s rocketry capabilities and nuclear-weapon program began to mature and concerns about international sanctions under the non-proliferation regime began to grow, the two programs were separated. The Indian rocketry program was also divided, with the civilian-space and ballistic-missile programs clearly demarcated. After India declared itself a nuclear-weapon state in 1998 and the programs matured, the relationship has become more supportive. As the two programs mature further, this relationship is likely to deepen, as the nuclear-weapon program requires space assets to build a robust and survivable nuclear deterrent force.  

In May 2020, the Office of Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India and the Department of Science and Technology invited me to be part of the process of formulating India's new Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy (STIP 2020).  As part of the STIP 2020 policy drafting exercise, 21 thematic groups (TGs) were constituted and I was asked to be a member and Co-Chair of the TG-Strategic Technologies.  It was such an honour and privilege for me to part of this exercise, discussing and coming up with recommendations on India's strategic technologies.  The report should be out within a few months, I guess.  

In October 202, I was invited to be part of the Editorial Board of Asian Security.  It is one of the top ranking journals on various aspects of national and international security in Asia.  I am honoured and delighted to be joining the journal in this capacity.  

In November 2020, I was part of the Bloomberg-Intelligence Squared US debate, "That's Debatable - Is A U.S.-China Space Race Good for Humanity?".  The debate was aired on November 7, 2020 and it is available at: https://www.intelligencesquaredus.org/debates/us-china-space-race-good-humanity.  American theoretical physicist, Prof. Michio Kaku and I argued against the motion, and Prof. Avi Loeb and Bidhushi Bhattacharya argued for the motion, and so well-moderated by John Donvan.  This was so much fun and we won the debate.  

I thought I will highlight some of my professional activities here but I have updated my blog with most of these developments on a reasonably regular basis.  

Thursday, January 7, 2021

India-Russia Relations Face More Trouble - The Diplomat, 31 December 2020

In my last essay for the year, I wrote a short essay on India-Russia relations for The Diplomat.  The immediate context of course was the cancelled annual bilateral summit, a first in two decades. Was Covid-19 the reason or did the China factor influence the decision?  

India and Russia have gone through several ups and downs in their decades-old bilateral relationship. The two appear at present to be going through a tricky phase. The two-decade old India-Russia annual summit was cancelled for the first time. A news report in India suggested that the postponement was the result of “severe reservations on New Delhi joining the Indo-Pacific initiative and Quad.” India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson responded by saying, “The India-Russia Annual Summit did not take place in 2020 because of the COVID pandemic. This was a mutually agreed decision between the two Governments. Any imputation otherwise is false and misleading. Spreading false stories on important relationships is particularly irresponsible.” The Russian side also responded with a statement saying that it is in “close touch” with its counterparts in India to finalize new dates for the summit, “postponed due to epidemiological reasons.” 

But such denials are unlikely to entirely remove speculation about the state of bilateral relations, especially considering that India has taken part in a large number of bilateral and multilateral talks virtually, even if the pandemic has prevented physical meetings.  

For the full essay, click here.  

Moreover, overall speculation about difficulties in the relationship is not exactly new.  There has been a lot of it, especially because of comments from senior Russian officials, such as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on India’s Quad and Indo-Pacific policy. Russian officials have repeatedly criticized the idea of the Indo-Pacific and the Quad, arguing that it is meant to contain China. Lavrov publicly stated so at the annual Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi in January 2020. More recently, Lavrov returned to the theme, saying at the general meeting of the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow on December 8 that “India is currently an object of the Western countries’ persistent, aggressive and devious policy as they are trying to engage it in anti-China games by promoting Indo-Pacific strategies, the so-called ‘Quad’ while at the same time the West is attempting to undermine our close partnership and privileged relations with India.”

Indian officials and public commentators are increasingly miffed at this lack of sensitivity to Indian concerns about China, especially coming after China’s intrusion in Ladakh this year, which led to a bloody clash and Indian casualties. Even the normally cautious Indian foreign ministry was forced to respond, with the MEA spokesperson stating that India has always had an independent foreign policy based on its own national interests, that India’s Indo-Pacific approach was not directed at any particular country, and that India stands for a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific. He also added, for good measure, that “India’s relationship with each country is independent of its relations with third countries. We hope that this is well understood and appreciated by all our partners.” 

All of this is coming at a time when the India-China relationship is in one of its worst phases. India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S Jaishankar while speaking at an Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute, commented that India and China are “at the most difficult phase of our relationship” in the last three or four decades and that the relations between the two were “very significantly damaged” over the past year.  

These damages are unlikely to be undone easily. It took several decades to rebuild relations after the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, but the progress made since 1988 has been entirely lost with the current Galwan clash, provoked by China in an effort to unilaterally change the status quo on the border.   

Russian comments have led to some criticism in India of Moscow’s position and are increasingly eroding public support that the relationship always had. But there are contrarian voices too. In fact, Rahul Gandhi, leader of India’s main opposition party, the Indian National Congress, criticized the government’s decision to cancel the annual summit with Russia in a tweet saying, “Russia is a very important friend of India. Damaging our traditional relationships is short-sighted and dangerous for our future.” It should be noted, of course, that it was the Congress-led UPA government that joined the Quad the first time, back in 2007. It was the same UPA government that has also strengthened the strategic partnership with the United States, including by signing the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal.  

While Russia’s dependence on China is understandable considering its worsening relations with the West, Moscow cannot expect India to ignore its national security concerns regarding China. And as I have written previously, a China-India crisis invariably puts Russia in a tight spot, with difficult choices between India, a traditional partner and also a lucrative defense market, and its newfound but mighty partner, China. For India, it will be increasingly difficult to see China as a partner. Finding common ground and partnering with a neighbor that has aggressively pursued a salami slicing strategy at India’s expense will be difficult. In order to build appropriate diplomatic and defense response against its aggressive eastern neighbor, India will need to partner with like-minded states that have also borne the brunt of Chinese aggressive behavior.  Moscow will either have to understand this reality or risk further hurting its ties with India.  

Monday, December 28, 2020

India-Vietnam Virtual Summit Strengthens Partnership - The Diplomat, 28 December 2020

In my latest column for The Diplomat, I looked at the recently-concluded India-Vietnam virtual summit meeting and how the strategic necessity of dealing with an aggressive China brings India and Vietnam closer together.  

Earlier last week, India and Vietnam held a virtual summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc. India and Vietnam have held a number of meetings and consultations this year leading up to the summit.

For the full post, click here.  

Modi, during his remarks at the summit, lauded Vietnam’s important role in India’s Act East Policy and as an “important partner of our Indo-Pacific Vision.” He highlighted the “long-term and strategic view” of the India-Vietnam relationship and the breadth and depth of their bilateral ties. He also underlined the importance of their shared purpose of “peace, stability and prosperity” for the Indo-Pacific region.

The two leaders also signed a joint vision document, “India-Vietnam Joint Vision for Peace, Prosperity and People.” The document is meant to drive the future of the India-Vietnam Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, based on their “deep-rooted historical and cultural bonds, shared values and interests, and mutual strategic trust and understanding between the two countries.” The two countries also signed a “Plan of Action for period 2021-2023 for further implementation of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” in order to strengthen their bilateral partnership with a clear agenda for the next two years, as well as seven other agreements that cover a number of important areas of cooperation including defense, nuclear safety and radiation protection, petro-chemicals, clean energy, and U.N. peacekeeping.

The fact that India and Vietnam have been at the receiving end of the China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea and on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has made the partnership even stronger. Given China’s aggressive behavior in South China Sea, which has remained a significant challenge for Vietnam, the joint vision document devoted attention to it. The very first paragraph of their “joint vision” highlighted a “shared commitment to international law” and agreement to “work towards achieving a peaceful, stable, secure, free, open, inclusive and rules-based region.”

With this strategic factor in mind, the focus on defense cooperation was inevitable. The joint statement laid emphasis on the implementation of the high speed guard boat (HSGB) manufacturing project with the Vietnam Border Guard Command. The project is being implemented through a $100 million defense line of credit already extended by India to Vietnam. The project, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) would involve also “handing over of one completed HSGB to Vietnam; launch of two HSGBs manufactured in India; and keel-laying of seven HSGBs to be manufactured in Vietnam.”

The joint vision document from the summit also recognized the importance of enhanced bilateral defense partnership in the context of the changing geopolitical and geoeconomic environment in the region and beyond. The document highlighted how a strengthened defense and security collaboration between India and Vietnam could be “an important factor of stability in the Indo-Pacific region.” To this end, the two sides agreed to augment military-to-military exchanges, training, and capacity building engagements between the two militaries including the coast guard. India and Vietnam also agreed to step up defense industry partnerships, taking advantage of the Indian credit lines already extended to Vietnam. More importantly, the two countries also decided to formalize their partnership by further institutionalizing defense exchanges through a number of programs including mutual logistics support, regular ship visits, joint exercises, and exchanges in military science and technology. The document also identified the decision to work through institutionalized dialogue structures in dealing with traditional and non-traditional security threats in some of the technology domains such as outer space and cyber space as well as a range of threats such as health security, natural disasters, terrorism, and transnational crimes through strengthened legal cooperation.  

This iteration comes against the backdrop of Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh’s bilateral meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart General Ngo Xuan Lich in November, which emphasized defense collaboration as “a key pillar of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” between the two countries. In addition to defense industry collaboration, the two sides concluded an “Implementing Arrangement for cooperation in the field of Hydrography between National Hydrographic Office, India and Vietnam Hydrographic Office” at the earlier virtual defense ministers meeting. The sharing of hydrographic data will help in developing navigational charts by both countries. The two countries also agreed to produce an institutionalized framework agreement for industry collaboration soon. India also agreed to step up the scope and level of training extended to Vietnam military personnel in the Indian defense training institutions.

Vietnam has remained interested in the acquisition of a range of weapons and platforms from India, including the Akash air defense system and the Brahmos supersonic cruise missiles. These two systems have been on the India-Vietnam defense trade agenda for a long time but have not materialized yet. The possible sale of Brahmos systems to Vietnam was initially problematic from a Russian perspective, but those issues have reportedly been resolved.

While there has been historically strong strategic affinity between India and Vietnam, these bonds have become stronger, driven by the strategic necessity of dealing with an aggressive China that has been questioning the sovereignty and territorial integrity of both countries.

Friday, December 18, 2020

India-Iran-Uzbekistan Pursue Central Asian Connectivity - The Diplomat, 18 December 2020

In my column for The Diplomat this week, I looked at India-Iran-Uzbekistan plans for Central Asian connectivity.  The region has its fair share of great power politics, but the Iranian port of Chabahar has the potential to shift some of the regional dynamics in India's favor.   

India, Iran, and Uzbekistan have held their first trilateral meeting for possible joint use of Chabahar port. The meeting was chaired jointly by India’s Secretary of Shipping Sanjeev Ranjan, Uzbekistan’s Deputy Minister of Transport Davron Dehkanov, and Iran’s Deputy Transport Minister Shahram Adamnejad. Using Chabahar port for trade and transit purposes as well as strengthened regional connectivity were the key agenda items at the meeting. India’s keenness to explore this option comes from its desire to extend connectivity into Eurasia. Double landlocked Uzbekistan has also been interested in using the port for transit facilities into the Indian Ocean and as a means to expand its trade and transit options. That Uzbekistan has already developed rail connectivity into Afghanistan as a means to link with Iranian railway lines reflects Tashkent’s seriousness. Other Central Asian states like Kazakhstan have also been interested in exploring such options.  

For the full post, click here.  

Given the geostrategic location of Central Asia, the region is also witnessing a fair share of great power competition. While the region is viewed as Russia’s immediate backyard and Moscow has traditionally maintained a dominant role in relations with Central Asia, China has steadily strengthened its footprint. India has also been pursuing both geopolitical and economic ties with the region. 

Chabahar has the potential to shift some of the regional dynamics in India’s favor. First, it could prove to be a gateway to Central Asia and Eurasia, which can, most importantly, avoid Pakistan. A year ago, the Trump administration exempted India from sanctions for the development of the port because of the benefits it potentially had for both India and Afghanistan. A Trump administration official said, “We have provided a narrow exemption for the development of Chabahar that allows for the construction of the port and rail line that allows for the export of refined oil products to Afghanistan.” 

This week’s trilateral meeting is reported to be an outcome of last week’s India-Uzbekistan bilateral summit between India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uzbekistan’s President Shavkat Mirziyoyev. This is clearly an effort at exploring an alternate option for Central Asia to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). India has long historic connections to Central Asia, but its relations with the region waned for a number of reasons, most importantly the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan, which blocked Indian access to the region. Since coming to office, Modi has made fresh efforts to re-establish linkages with the region, calling Central Asia a part of the country’s extended neighborhood. 

But lack of physical connectivity has proven to be a major hurdle in building trade and economic ties. Modi became the first Indian leader to travel to all five Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan – in 2015. In addition to energy security cooperation, India and Central Asia have both shunned Islamic terrorism and extremist ideology. Fighting cross-border terrorism has become an important common issue shaping their agenda. India has also been stepping up defense cooperation with the region, with a defense attaché posted in each of the Indian missions in Central Asia. Among the Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan has emerged as one of the more proactive players in its engagement with India. The two countries signed a civil nuclear agreement in January 2019, under which Uzbekistan agreed to supply India with uranium.  

Regional connectivity and infrastructure projects have also been high on Uzbekistan’s agenda. Seeing Chabahar port as a connectivity solution for Uzbekistan is not new either. In fact, in June 2018, following an earlier meeting between Modi and Mirziyoyev on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, then-Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said the two leaders were keen to use Chabahar port as an additional connectivity route.  

Not surprisingly, at last week’s bilateral summit meeting between India and Uzbekistan, infrastructure and connectivity projects figured prominently. The two countries signed nine agreements including on counterterrorism and infrastructure-related issues. Both Modi and Mirziyoyev agreed to pursue connectivity projects via the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC). INSTC is a multi-modal infrastructure initiative spanning around 7,200 km. It encompasses a network of ship, rail and road routes for transporting freight between India, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and Europe, with the goal of creating transport linkages among major cities including Astrakhan, Baku, Bandar Abbas, Moscow, and Mumbai. Feasibility studies undertaken so far has shown significant reduction of transportation costs, to the tune of $2,500 per 15 tons of cargo. India is “pitching for” Uzbek participation in the INSTC connectivity project.  

India’s push with the trilateral arrangement for Uzbekistan to use Chabahar port is important in the context of expanding bilateral, trilateral, as well as broader regional cooperation. But more significantly, it is a geopolitical move aimed at countering growing Chinese influence in the region. India has capacity issues in this regard compared to China, but New Delhi is planning on cashing in on existing projects to expand its reach and linkages so that the Central Asian republics have an alternative to China’s BRI.  

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Assessing the British Proposal on Space Security - The Diplomat, 10 December 2020

In my column for The Diplomat last week, I looked at the recent UK proposal on space security governance.  That the UK proposal emphasizes a bottom-up approach and stresses trust-building are important.  It is a critical first step.  

Space security issues have potentially serious consequences. The consequences of either a deliberate or even an accidental conflict in space are too horrible to contemplate. A day without the utility provided by outer space is difficult to even conceive and yet the actions of states might lead the world in that direction sooner than later. Unless states take measures to restrain some kinds of activities in space, access to space will not be safe, secure, or guaranteed. 

For the full post, click here.  

Because of the highly competitive and contested nature of major power relations today, even peaceful applications and technological developments such as On-Orbit Satellite Servicing or technologies to tackle space debris are viewed with much suspicion. There are also more specific space security threats – the return of anti-satellite (ASAT) testing, and cyber and electronic warfare in space, for example. Any satellite service disruption or damage will have a wide-ranging impact, one that cannot be contained to the security or economic sectors alone, and one that cannot be limited geographically either given the significant global dependence on space. Space is truly a global commons. 

All of this suggests we need new rules of the road. There have been recent efforts including the Russia-China sponsored draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), originally proposed in 2008 (with a revised text introduced in 2014); the 2010 EU-initiated International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICoC), the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) in 2013, and the 2018-19 GGE on further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS). None of these have led to a favorable conclusion.  

The biggest challenge facing the development of an outer space regime is a lack of consensus among major powers. These are essentially political impediments and therefore that much harder to overcome than practical issues. Major power relations are characterized by a serious lack of trust and confidence in each other. And therefore, what we need in the first instance are measures that would strengthen confidence.  

The United Kingdom has also made a recent proposal — “Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviors” — aimed at looking at problems in space through a bottom-up approach. The proposal, in one of its operational clauses:

encourages Member States to study existing and potential threats and security risks to space systems, including those arising from actions, activities or systems in outer space or on Earth, characterize actions and activities that could be considered responsible, irresponsible or threatening and their potential impact on international security, and share their ideas on the further development and implementation of norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors and on the reduction of the risks of misunderstanding and miscalculations with respect to outer space.

It further calls on the U.N. secretary general to get views from member states in a substantive report to be submitted to the General Assembly at the 76th session scheduled for September 2021 for additional discussion. The plan is to include this in the provisional agenda of the General Assembly’s session, under the item, “Prevention of an arms race in outer space,” with a sub-item entitled, “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors.” 

One of the key features of the U.K. proposal is to focus on a behavior-based approach, since debates focused on an object-based approach have not gone very far. The U.K. proposal is not prescriptive in suggesting a particular type of outcome or a particular format. Thus, this proposal provides room for greater flexibility and certain amount of maneuvering among member states as they debate the threats and challenges and possible ways forward. 

Even though there is no particular preference for a specific format as an outcome, it is important to look at this as a process that would lay stress on trust-building as a key driver. Given the high level of disagreements among major space powers, this is a sensible approach. In this regard, transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) offer a good first step between recognizing the functional need of regulating space and the negotiation of a binding instrument. There has been any number of debates on the need for and effectiveness of binding and non-binding instruments, but these discussions have not led to any meaningful outcome. TCBMs are certainly not a substitute for legal measures but they can be effective tools in bringing about openness, transparency, and information sharing, which are badly required to raise the level of political confidence between key great powers. TCBMs are essentially a bridge that can provide opportunities for countries to talk to each other and work on building greater trust in each other. This is a recognition that political issues have become the biggest hindrance in developing new rules of the road for outer space activities. 

A few measures that could be considered in this regard include pre-launch notifications (already contained in the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation) and ASAT test guidelines and rules for intentional orbital breakups. Others include the UNIDIR proposal (no debris, low debris, and notification) and pledges like “Not the First to Act beyond the scope of Article 51” because many developing countries worry that the right to self-defense under U.N. Charter Article 51 may be used as an excuse for space weaponization. 

While an end goal of developing more binding agreements for space security must be pursued, reaching a political consensus to commit to legal instruments appears to be difficult in today’s political and security environment. Revising or reforming the 1967 Outer Space Treaty is problematic precisely due to the current political impediments. Therefore, states need to first invest a great deal in developing mutual trust. The U.K. proposal provides an alternative to the PPWT or the EU ICoC, both of which have run into their own problems. The bottom-up approach emphasized in the U.K. proposal, letting member states to identify threats and challenges from their national security perspectives, is a welcome step.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Countering Chinese assertiveness: India’s changing posture in the Indian Ocean - Indo-Pacific Analysis Brief, Perth USAsia Centre, 4 December 2020

In my third Analysis Brief as an Indo-Pacific Fellow at the Perth USAsia Centre, I looked at India's changing Indian Ocean strategy in order to address China's growing footprint in the region.  

Note: The paper contains endnotes, which I have not been able to incorporate here.  So, please check out the main page of the article, the link for which is given here.  

Major Takeaways are: 

→ The Indian Ocean region is becoming increasingly contested as Chinese presence expands. In recognising the threat posed by China, India has shifted its perceptions and priorities in the region. 
→ A large concern is the security of sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean, which many Asian countries use as a trade corridor. 
→ China has demonstrated an objective to become a key player in the region with increased presence and activities, including in India’s Economic Exclusion Zone. 
→ India has become more active in protecting its interests in the region by calling for cooperation with external powers and enhancing its capabilities in the Indian Ocean to overcome capacity constraints. 
→ Cooperation between like-minded powers in the region is challenging due to divergences in individual perspectives, approaches and outlooks. Closer coordination is needed between these powers to build greater synergy. 

The Indian Ocean is once again at the centre of major geopolitical competition. China’s growing footprint and influence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has made the contest for power and control in the region between China and the US and its partners significant. The Indian Ocean sea lines of communication (SLOCs) are important for many Asian countries because it is both an energy and trade corridor, making these countries sensitive to any vulnerabilities. Now, undersea cables add to these vulnerabilities.1 

India has long been wary of power-plays in the Indian Ocean but finds itself with few options today but to participate in securing a free and open Indo-Pacific. 

In the process, India appears to be willing to reconsider some of its old concerns about external actors in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, there are also some questions about the terms of engagement between India and its partners about the focus of their common efforts. Resolving these could lead to greater synergy and easier cooperation. 

For the full brief, click here.  

Growing Chinese presence is cause for concern
India’s stakes in the IOR are obvious, despite India’s lack of attention to the maritime front. From a security perspective, since independence, India has not faced any significant maritime threat. Much of the Indian maritime security focus was in terms of the relatively minor naval threat from Pakistan and non-traditional threats including piracy and terrorism. While these concerns remain, they have been overtaken by worries about China as an emerging IOR power, with a growing footprint in the region. 

Darshana Baruah argues that China’s growing Indian Ocean presence is not just about contesting India’s strategic role in the IOR, but it is part of a determined agenda to “emerge as a key player in the IOR” which feeds into “China’s larger objective of becoming a global maritime power2 .” The PLA Navy’s growing strength means that it is shaping up to be a formidable force to reckon with. This is complemented by China’s growing maritime ties with countries in the IOR and increasing naval presence in the region. 

India has multiple concerns about China in the Indian Ocean. One, already alive, is Chinese activities in India’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Speaking earlier this year, Indian Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh said that both Chinese research vessels and fishing boats have been seen in Indian Ocean, including in the Indian EEZ. 

This is a long brief but I concluded the Brief with the following thoughts.  

Australia’s participation at the 2020 Malabar naval exercises is a clear recognition of India’s changing attitude towards foreign navies in the Indian Ocean. It is a step towards fulfilling Modi’s call for cooperation with like-minded strategic partners, fuelled by India’s changing posture towards China. 

It is also an indication of the increasing synergistic approach among the major Indo-Pacific powers – Australia, India, Japan and the United States. The expanded Malabar exercises demonstrate the common strategic endeavour among the four to develop cogent responses to the many security challenges in the Indo-Pacific including China. The naval exercises could go a long way in creating greater confidence and interoperability among the four navies, which will be key in ensuring a stable, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific. 

But cooperation with such partners will also require some common terms of understanding, most basically of the relationship between the ‘Indian’ and ‘Pacific’ components of the IndoPacific. Even though the concept of Indo-Pacific has gained greater traction over the last couple of years, there have been differences in the understanding of what constitutes the Indo-Pacific. 

The geographical limits of the Indo-Pacific in particular has been a topic of considerable debate. India, Japan and France have similar perceptions that the term ‘Indo-Pacific’ covers the area from the eastern shores of Africa to the west coast of America. Others, especially the US, appear more focused on the Pacific component. The Pacific powers, including Japan, the US, Australia, and New Zealand, appear to be more focused on countering China’s power in the Pacific and South China Sea, whereas Indian worries have been around China’s expansion into the Indian Ocean. There clearly needs to be better coordination between these two sets of concerns. Only when there is better coordination between these two sets of focus areas would it be possible to consider burden-sharing between the partners. 

Hopefully, a clearer enunciation of India’s Indian Ocean strategy will also translate into efforts for coordination between India and its partners in dealing with maritime challenges, especially those posed by China. 

There is a precedent for cooperation, though, at a smaller scale: India has worked with others to cooperate in anti-piracy operations. These, of course, included China also. Cooperating to deal with the security challenge posed by China in the Indo-Pacific will be at an entirely different scale and seriousness. This would require a sustained dialogue involving the different partners to evolve some sort of division of labour and burden sharing in order to effectively monitor China’s naval activities in all theatres of the Indo-Pacific. This could lead to arrangements in which India bears a greater burden in the Indian Ocean, while others bear a similar burden in the eastern waters. Other minilaterals in the Indo-Pacific are exploring such options of burden sharing in order to address capacity gaps – the India-France-Australia trilateral is a case in point. 

There is little doubt that China’s growing naval capacity affects all Indo-Pacific powers. New Delhi appears to recognise the difficulties involved and thus appears more keen to cooperate with other maritime powers in maintaining security in the Indian Ocean region. This is a good first step to greater Indo-Pacific cooperation, but further coordination is clearly needed.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Why the India-Sri Lanka-Maldives NSA-level Talks Matter - The Diplomat, 4 December 2020

In my first column for The Diplomat in December, I looked at the increasing strategic relevance of the India-Sri Lanka-Maldives NSA-level talks.  I argue that the nature of bilateral political relations in the Indian Ocean region has an impact on the quality of subregional engagements such as the NSA-level talks held in Colombo.  

Last week, Colombo hosted an India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral maritime security dialogue. The meeting saw the revival of the national security advisor (NSA)-level dialogue among the three countries, which began almost a decade ago in 2011. That the meeting took place six years after the last edition in 2014 is significant. Both Sri Lanka and the Maldives are rcritical maritime neighbors to India in the Indian Ocean region and there have been continuous efforts by both India and China to win friends and favors in Colombo and Male.

For the full post, click here.  

The NSA-level talks are also a demonstration of the Indian intent to push subregional diplomacy, which has been gaining traction in India’s foreign policy in the last few years. The Modi government has made efforts to engage in subregional diplomacy as a useful track following the near-complete halt in regional diplomacy in South Asia under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). 

For the Colombo trilateral, the Indian side was represented by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval whereas the Maldives sent its defense minister, Mariya Didi, and Sri Lanka was represented by Defense Secretary Maj. Gen. (retd) Kamal Gunaratne. Mauritius and the Seychelles were also present virtually at the level of senior officials. With the goal of encouraging meaningful maritime cooperation in the Indian Ocean region, India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives discussed a number of areas for possible collaboration such as maritime domain awareness (MDA), humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), joint military exercises, capacity building, maritime security threats, marine pollution, and maritime underwater heritage. The Heads of Delegations decided that they would meet periodically to maintain the momentum of the dialogue and to ensure timely execution of the decisions taken at the NSA-level meetings. According to the joint statement, a decision was also made to institute deputy NSA-level working group meetings biannually for cooperation at the operational level.  

So far, there have been several iterations of the trilateral meetings at the NSA-level. The first, hosted by the Maldives, was held in Male in 2011, following which Sri Lanka hosted the second edition. The third was held in New Delhi in 2014, which was attended also by Mauritius and the Seychelles as “guest countries.”   

Following the first trilateral meeting, the India-Maldives “DOSTI” joint coast guard exercise in 2012 added Sri Lanka and was held as a trilateral exercise. The India-Maldives DOSTI exercises have been going on since 1991 and are aimed at strengthening capabilities of the three partners in the area of search and rescue operations, combating piracy and armed robbery, damage control, and casualty evacuation at sea. India and Sri Lanka also have held bilateral naval exercises called SLINEX since 2005. The latest iteration, the eighth, was held off Trincomalee in Sri Lanka in October 2020. India’s official statement on the exercise noted that the synergistic approach developed by the two navies for “seamless coordination” was in evidence when the two navies came together in September 2020 to assist MT New Diamond, a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), that caught fire off the East Coast of Sri Lanka. 

While broader maritime security, anti-piracy, and HADR are important components of the growing India-Sri Lanka-Maldives strategic narrative, the real worry for India is growing Chinese activism in the Indian Ocean region. China’s efforts at cultivating the Indian Ocean littoral states have been a concern for New Delhi. In response, New Delhi has pursued many paths to build rapport with these neighbors, including bilateral, trilateral, and minilateral conversations in the region.  

While India is a resident Indian Ocean power and has its own advantages, there are capacity gaps in India’s ability to play a sustained or dominant role. Meanwhile, China has the economic and military wherewithal to expand its military presence in the Indian Ocean and has been developing serious inroads into the region through bases and other strategic networks. It is these that India is most concerned about and to which it is responding.  

While India is stepping up its efforts in naval modernization, these are capital intensive and time-consuming projects. The small budget allocations for the Indian Navy are not helpful either. Therefore, India has also entered into a series of partnerships with like-minded countries in the Indo-Pacific, such as Australia, Japan, and the United States, to offset the growing Chinese influence as well as to enhance India’s own capabilities. The logistic agreements that India has signed with a number of countries — including the United States, Australia, France, South Korea, Singapore, and Japan — in recent years are a demonstration of the Indian intent to enhance the geographical reach of the Indian Navy, and also to strengthen the combined capability mix that is available to deal with China’s aggressive maneuvers in the Indian Ocean region. It is also an important tool for messaging both to its friends and foes.  

Meanwhile, even as India pursues a neighborhood first approach, it has also acknowledged the limitations of regional groupings such as the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which came to a grinding halt a few years ago. Modi had reached out to the SAARC nations when he came to office in 2014 but the bonhomie did not last long. Therefore, India has energized other regional groupings such as BIMSTEC and subregional arrangements such as the BBIN and India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral. While the subregional initiatives have primarily focused on connectivity and similar issues, India is also exploring the possibility of engaging in subregional security cooperation.  

But subregional initiatives are not free from the state of bilateral relations with these countries. As K. Yhome explained in a recent essay, the nature and framework of bilateral political relations will have an impact on these subregional initiatives. The case of the NSA-level trilateral maritime dialogue between India, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives is a case in point. The talks were stalled from 2014 primarily because of India’s poor relations with Maldives under then-President Abdulla Yameen. India, as a big state, has to be mindful of the needs and aspirations of its much smaller neighbors and has to be able to adapt to meet their requirements. 

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