Friday, May 10, 2019

India’s Space Program: The Commercial Domain - The Diplomat, May 10, 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I write on the Indian space programme, focusing on the commercial aspects of it. The establishment of a new private institution has spotlighted New Delhi's ongoing efforts to build out the commercial aspect of its space programme.

In the beginning of March this year, the Indian Cabinet cleared the establishment of a private institution, the Newspace India Limited (NSIL), under the Department of Space. While the development may not have received as much international attention as some of the other space- and defense-focused developments in India, it bears careful watching as it is in line with New Delhi’s ongoing efforts to build out the commercial aspect of its space program.

India’s focus on the commercial aspect of its space program in general and moves such as the establishment of NSIL are not entirely new or surprising. This follows from the Narendra Modi government’s plan to make space a major industry focus under the government’s Vision 2030 announced in this year’s interim budget. The 10-point agenda in Vision 2030 included making India “the launchpad of the world and placing an Indian astronaut in space by 2022.”

For the full essay, click here.



With respect to NSIL itself, the new entity has been set up with a paid-up capital of around $1 million. NSIL will function under the directorship of Radhakrishnan Durairaj and Suma Devaki Ram, who have been Indian Space Research Association (ISRO) directors of launch services and operations respectively. They also serve on the management team of Antrix.

The new institution is the second commercial arm of the ISRO after the Antrix Corporation, which was set up in 1992 primarily to facilitate ISRO’s commercial launch of foreign satellites. The major goal for the NSIL will be to facilitate the transfer of ISRO technologies to private industries as well as aid in marketing space-based products and spin-off technologies.

Reports citing official documents suggest that in order to facilitate transfer of technology, NSIL will take license from ISRO before sub-licensing them to the commercial players. The technology transfer envisaged through the NSIL will include India’s small satellite program, the small satellite launch vehicle (SSLV) program and the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). This would mean that services including launching of satellites can be undertaken by private entities once the license is procured by the NSIL.

Speaking to Times of India, Dr. Sivan, head of the ISRO, said that the NSIL will essentially become the connecting link for ISRO with commercial players to aid in technology transfer for a fee. As he put it: “We wanted a mechanism to transfer the technologies of our new projects like SSLV and even lithium-ion cells. With this company, ISRO will be able to smoothly transfer these technologies after charging fees. Once companies start mass production of small satellites and launchers, ISRO will be charging them for using its launch services.” In another interview, he had stated that he expected a demand for 2-3 SSLV rockets per month.

A January 2019 notice on the ISRO website had already shortlisted ten domestic industries for the technology transfer with regard to lithium-ion cell technology. The ISRO had already decided to transfer the PSLV rocket to the private sector more than a decade ago, though this has not yet been accomplished. The NSIL can possibly help do this quicker. On the regulatory aspects, the ISRO Chairman added that a separate “space law” is being readied, which will soon be with the Indian cabinet for its approval. It will manage all aspects of the regulation of space ventures and will “also have provisions related to the accountability of manufacturers for its space components.”

The ISRO has a proven track record in launching small satellites with the success of the PSLV. The development of the SSLV will give India a further boost in this segment. SSLV will offer an even more cost-effective option than the existing PSLV. The Chairman and Managing Director of Antrix, Rakesh Sasibhushan has said that with the SSLV, they expect to hit “a much lower cost than the PSLV” and that they were “also looking at a large increase in our revenues.” Besides the cost factor, the SSLV can also be assembled in 3-4 days as against the 40 days for a normal size rocket (Other reports suggest 15 days to assemble the SSLV).

The first test flight of SSLV is scheduled for July-August this year. ISRO has plans to launch two defense satellites of 120 kg each during the first test slight itself. The SSLVs will carry payloads between 300-500 kgs to Low Earth Orbit, thus eyeing a specific market that has not been tapped into much as yet.

ISRO’s approach to privatization and commercial engagements has come a long way, driven by the need to stay competitive at a time when there are fast emerging competitors including China and foreign commercial players who have been eyeing the global commercial space. The competition is likely to be stiff, especially in the small satellite segment given the global trend to break the big satellite constellation into smaller ones. Small satellites offer many advantages, the cost to manufacture and launch being a major consideration. ISRO’s opening to bring commercial entities into India’s space trajectory is likely to have several spin-off benefits, including for national security purposes.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Will the Masood Azhar Listing Improve Sino-Indian Relations? - The Diplomat, May 7, 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, Rajesh and I wrote a joint article, "Will the Masood Azhar Listing Improve Sino-Indian Relations?," examining if China's decision on Masood Azhar is likely to have any positive impact on India-China relations. But we believe there are reasons to be skeptical.


Masood Azhar, a Pakistani national who heads the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorist group, has now been placed in the United Nations Security Council 1267 Sanctions List. This was long sought by India, who blamed Azhar and the JeM for various terror attacks in India. The issue was also a major irritant in Sino-Indian relations because China had for several years placed a “technical hold” that prevented the listing.

The Indian government was jubilant, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is fighting national parliamentary elections, immediately claimed credit. Though the Indian government welcomed China’s decision, they have been cautious about whether this by itself would move the relationship forward, stating that there are “many things” which have contributed to the “Wuhan Spirit” and “it is difficult to point out one single incident or instance which will contribute to a better India-China relationship.”

The caution is well-founded. Sino-Indian relations have improved since the Doklam confrontation in 2017. The Wuhan “spirit,” the supposed positive outcome of the informal summit at Wuhan between Modi and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, is credited with improving relations between the two countries. A follow-up informal summit is slated for later this year. China’s move on Azhar should add to the positive spirit. Still, fundamental problems remain in the relationship and they are unlikely to be easy to resolve.

For the full essay, click here.



The most important is the consequence of the changing balance of power between the two countries. From rough parity in the 1980s, China’s economy has pulled away from India at a dizzying speed, and it is now about five times as large. This has created a gross imbalance between the two sides that is likely to persist for some time to come, even if India’s marginally faster economic growth rate of the last couple of years continues into the future. This imbalance also leads to a military imbalance, as China’s military budget grows along with its wealth. Though China’s military spending as proportion of its GDP is still quite low, that should be of little comfort because in absolute terms, it is almost four times that of India’s.

More importantly, the effect of this imbalance is likely to be felt more in the political clout that it brings to China than in a test of arms. Over the last decade, China has become bolder in wielding its economic clout, as Evan Feigenbaum has pointed out. But even without such direct exhibitions of its power, China’s clout gives it political capacities in international settings that will be difficult to ignore. New Delhi will find that when it comes to many issues where its interest conflicts with that of China’s, China will be able to garner greater international political support than India. This is already very visible among India’s neighbors in South Asia, and its effect is possibly much more diffuse but far more potent than New Delhi yet realizes. This represents a pressure on India that will not yield in the near future, and it will limit the possibilities of Sino-Indian ties.

Of course, the older problem of the disputed border also remains, despite decades of negotiations. Neither side can compromise very much on this. The best that can be hoped for is that neither side will attempt to settle it by force, but misperceptions and local misunderstandings are likely to periodically recur. The Doklam confrontation was possibly the result of something along these lines; the next time, it could become more serious.

But one consequence that can be dismissed is any effect of the current general elections on the future course of Sino-Indian relations, even though China’s move comes in the midst of a hot campaign. As Vipin Narang and Paul Staniland have noted, foreign policy has fairly low electoral salience in India. Though the ruling BJP’s campaign is pushing strategic issues in an unusually heavy manner, it is unclear what effect this will have. But even if this has some limited effect (and it will be difficult to decide this even after the election results are announced, though exit polls may give at least some clues) on the elections, its effect on subsequent Indian foreign policy may be limited. Whoever wins these elections will still have to deal with the context of China’s power and its effects on India’s options, and these are fairly limited.

New Delhi is thus correct to be cautious about the effects of the Masood Azhar listings. And while it is at it, India should equally cautious about the so-called “Wuhan spirit” because it is not likely to last very much longer either.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Importance of Nepal’s First Satellite Launch - The Diplomat, 26 April 2019

In a second piece this week for the Diplomat, I write on the importance of Nepal's first satellite launch. Earlier this month, the United States launched Nepal’s first satellite, NepaliSat-1, into orbit. The satellite, equipped with a 5-megapixel camera and a magnetometer, is meant to gather information about Nepal’s topography and earth’s magnetic field, and is part of the greater attention the country is paying to the space realm amid domestic and wider regional developments.


The NepaliSat-1 was launched by the United States under the “Birds-3 satellite launch to International Space Station project.” The BIRDS project is a UN initiative to help countries launch their first satellite and the Japanese Kyushu Institute of Technology has been involved in this particular project. Under the project, there was also a satellite from Sri Lanka, named Raavana-1, that was launched along with the NepaliSat-1.

For the full piece, click here.



Nepal’s satellite was developed by two Nepali scientists, Abhas Maskey and Hariram Shrestha, at Japan’s Kyushu Institute of Technology and carries the Nepali national flag and the logo of the Nepal Academy of Science and Technology (NAST). Suresh Kumar Dhungel, senior technical officer and spokesperson of NAST, said that the data and images will be available in a month, by which time the ground station at NAST is expected to be ready. It is reported that the ground station at NAST will be able to receive data from the other Birds-3 project satellites too.

Nepal government is estimated to have spent a total of 20 million Nepali rupees (roughly $180,000) for the development and launch of the satellite as well as the construction of the ground station. This was clearly a proud moment for Nepal, and Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli congratulated the scientists in a tweet saying, “Though a humble beginning, with the launching of NepaliSat-1 Nepal has entered the Space-Era. I wish to congratulate all those scientists and institutions that were involved right from the development to its launching thereby enhancing the prestige of our country.”

Nepal’s involvement with satellites is expected to continue. The country is working on a second satellite, Nepal PQ-1, to be launched in 2020. And given the growing demand in the telecommunications sector, Nepal is reported to be working with France to launch a communication satellite in 2022.

That this is being made a priority should come as no surprise given Nepal’s own needs. For instance, currently, Nepal’s service providers rely on foreign communication satellites for meeting their requirement in the broadcasting and telecommunication sectors, but Kathmandu clearly understands the cost-effectiveness of having its own satellite. The growth projection in areas including direct-to-home (DTH) and rural internet connectivity is pushing Kathmandu to expand its own assets in outer space.

Interestingly, Nepal and Sri Lanka chose to avoid India and China — the two established space powers in the neighborhood — to launch their satellites. This comes after Bangladesh launched its Bangabandhu-1 satellite on an improved version of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last summer. India had reportedly offered assistance to launch the satellite but because the satellite weighed 3,500 kg, it was beyond the Indian launch capacity at the time.

On the other hand, both Nepal and Bangladesh are part of the Indian-launched South Asia Satellite (SAS) – or GSAT-9 – that has significance in the context of communication, e-governance, and disaster management. The SAS is expected to enhance communication and provide better disaster links in the Indian neighborhood. The satellite, launched in May 2017, was characterized by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a “priceless gift” to India’s neighbors.

More specifically with respect to Nepal, under the SAS, India agreed to provide at least one transponder with a bandwidth of 24,000 to 36,000 MHz to Nepal, though Nepal had to establish its own ground stations. In fact, a senior diplomat the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu is reported to have said that Nepal would receive two transponders on the SAS. Further, Nepali engineers are to be trained at Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) training centers in India. Each of the participating countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka –have received 36 Mbps of bandwidth from this satellite.

It was smart of Modi to use outer space to entice India’s neighbors, giving New Delhi a high-profile success while also satisfying some real needs of its neighbors. Going beyond GSAT-9, Modi is reported to have invited the South Asian neighborhood also to use the Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System, a mini-version of the U.S. Global Positioning System. India could also be fielding its remote sensing satellites to help its neighbors as the growth for downstream applications picks up pace. While there has been some apprehension in the neighborhood about getting caught up in the geopolitical tensions between India and China, space cooperation is probably too tempting an offer for smaller countries like Nepal to refuse.

All indications are that Nepal’s focus on satellites is expected to continue in the coming years. And the recent launch reinforces the need to pay greater attention to smaller countries in South Asia and beyond in the wider conversation about space cooperation and assistance. Though space is often discussed in the context of emerging geopolitical competition between major powers, other dynamics such as these also have their own importance as well.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

India’s Growing Iran Dilemma - The Diplomat, 25 April 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I write on India's growing Iran dilemma, and the current sanction waiver issue is just the latest manifestation of New Delhi's rising challenge in managing ties with Tehran.


The Trump administration appears to have decided not to extend waivers from sanctions on those countries that continue to buy oil from Iran. The decision not to extend another round of Significant Reduction Exceptions (SREs) will have a significant impact on big Asian oil importers including India, China, Japan, and South Korea, which had each initially secured a 180-day exemption from U.S. sanctions last year.

Among these countries, India is likely to be significantly impacted. India is the second largest importer of Iranian crude oil after China, and New Delhi is reported to be buying a considerable share of its oil from Tehran, making Iran the third largest oil supplier to India after Iraq and Saudi Arabia. This means that the Indian government will find it difficult to accept the U.S. decision.

The issue also raises broader questions about New Delhi’s relations with Washington. Among those is whether India has miscalculated its capacity to manage the United States. Given the centrality of India in the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy, the Modi government may have assumed that India will get another exemption from the sanctions that are to kickstart on May 1.

For the full post, click here.



Indian Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan tweeted to say that India has “a robust plan for an adequate supply of crude oil to Indian refineries. There will be additional supplies from other major oil-producing countries; Indian refineries are fully prepared to meet the national demand for petrol, diesel & other petroleum products.” But while India may have possibly been ready for additional reduction of oil imports from Iran, New Delhi is certainly not ready for a complete halt.

The U.S. decision is likely to create some negative reaction in New Delhi and raise once again the rhetoric of the United States as an unreliable partner that encroaches on Indian interests and sovereignty. Such a dynamic has been seen in the past as well whenever there have been tensions between the United States and India.

But in truth, India does have alternate options – Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and even the United States are potential suppliers that could replace Iran as an oil source. In fact, a White House statement made just this point: “The United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, three of the world’s great energy producers, along with our friends and allies, are committed to ensuring that global oil markets remain adequately supplied. We have agreed to take timely action to assure that global demand is met as all Iranian oil is removed from the market.”

Nonetheless, there are a number of strategic reasons why India wants to continue buying Iranian oil in spite of other options available. For instance, Shia Iran is seen in New Delhi as an ally against the predominantly Sunni Pakistan. Pakistan’s traditionally close relations with Saudi Arabia made Iran a possible ally. Iran’s position on Pakistan’s flank is also attractive, as is the perception of common Indian-Iranian interest in countering Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan.

From a wider perspective, New Delhi also sees Iran as a conduit to Central Asia, a region that India considers strategically vital. India has invested in Chabahar port in Iran and highways that provide an alternative route to both Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. And despite the growing closeness with the United States, there is residual sympathy in New Delhi for some of Washington’s opponents, including Iran, that is rooted in India’s historic cultivation of multiple alignments with a diverse array of states. Finally, there is a question of timing too: In the midst of a tough national election campaign, the Modi government will not want to be seen as bowing to U.S. diktats.

But the impact of the U.S. decision on India can also belie India’s own challenges in its relationship with Iran, which are important to keep in mind as well. For one, India has invested more in its relationship with Saudi Arabia and other anti-Iranian Gulf monarchies. Such improving relationships will put pressure on India to moderate its support for Iran.

India has also grown increasingly close to Israel, a country that is the source of vital military equipment for India, but which is also engaged in severe competition with Iran. New Delhi has so far managed to insulate these relationships, but they also mean that India cannot be seen to be going out of its way to support Tehran.

Iran’s positioning on a number of issues that matter to India is no longer very reassuring to New Delhi. For instance, Iran appears to be more closely aligned to Pakistan on Afghanistan than before, as evidenced by Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent trip to Iran.

Last and certainly not least, all said and done, the United States itself is an increasingly vital partner for India. Joining Beijing in defying American wishes on the Iran issue may not be particularly wise given the broader interests that Washington and New Delhi and share. All of this ensures that New Delhi will find itself in a strategically difficult position in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Army Exercise Showcases Growing India-Singapore Defense Collaboration - The Diplomat, April 17, 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I looked at the significance of the recently concluded India-Singapore joint army exercise, called “Bold Kurukshetra 2019. As was noted in these pages earlier this week, India and Singapore have just completed their annual joint army exercise, called “Bold Kurukshetra 2019.” The recent bilateral military exercise is a reflection of the growing strategic proximity between India and Singapore in the face of a series of challenges, including a growing and muscular China.


For the full essay, click here.



Singapore has remained one of India’s major security partners in Southeast Asia. The two countries signed their first Defense Cooperation Agreement in October 2003 and a separate memorandum of understanding on joint army exercises in 2005. The two then signed several more agreements for accelerating the pace of military-to-military relations in 2007 and 2008. These agreements have been reviewed and renewed periodically, maintaining their commitment to developing a habit of cooperation between the two countries’ armed forces.

Given Singapore’s territorial limitations, India has also opened its own military training facilities, such as the air force and artillery firing ranges, to the Singapore Armed Forces. Besides, the Indian and Singapore navies have been engaged in the annual naval exercise series called SIMBEX for more than two decades. In fact, the two countries celebrated the silver jubilee of their naval exercises last year with major displays of “multidimensional drills,” which saw the participation of many different types of ships and aircraft from India and Singapore.

Starting in 2015, the two countries have also held three editions of the Defense Ministers’ Dialogue, the last of which was held in November 2018. The third edition of this Dialogue had both the defense ministers appreciating the conclusion of the Navy Implementing Arrangement Concerning Mutual Coordination, Logistics and Services Support in June 2018. This, along with the Navy Bilateral Agreement signed in November 2017, broadened and deepened India-Singapore bilateral naval cooperation, taking the relationship higher.

They are also manifestations of the broader focus by both sides on maritime security, as evidenced by other developments as well such as a technical agreement on the sharing of white shipping information and advancing coast guard collaboration. Highlighting the significance of maritime security, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stated during the ASEAN India Commemorative Summit, “We remain committed to work with ASEAN to enhance our practical cooperation in our shared maritime domain.” He said India is particularly interested in pursuing cooperation on disaster risk reduction and management, joint patrols and exercises, and maritime capacity building.

India-Singapore engagements have gotten a lot stronger in recent years. Certainly, Modi has infused more traction into this relationship as part of his strengthened outreach to Southeast Asia with the Act East Policy. And there are upcoming developments that will showcase this as well, including reports that India is planning a new trilateral maritime exercise in the Andaman Sea with Singapore and Thailand later in the year.

The broader convergence of strategic interests between India and Singapore is clearly the driving factor for these engagements. At the Defense Ministers’ Dialogue, both sides have repeatedly emphasized “the importance of maintaining freedom of navigation and overflight consistent with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Further, while reiterating the importance of international law, they have articulated the need to resolve disputes through peaceful means.

On the issue of deepening defense technology collaboration, India and Singapore have a set up a bilateral Defense Technology Steering Committee as well as the India-Singapore Defense Industry Working Group and they are reported to be making good progress. Areas of cooperation include Combat Care and Vehicle Armor.

The growing economic muscle and military posturing by China provides an important rationale for India and Singapore to strengthen their bilateral relations. Irrespective of the results of the current Indian national elections, which are expected in late May, it is likely that India-Singapore ties would deepen and that Singapore will remain an important priority for India’s outreach to Southeast Asia.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

What Did India’s Foreign Secretary Achieve on His Trip to Russia? - The Diplomat, April 12, 2019

In my column for The Diplomat last week, I wrote on the Indian Foreign Secretary's visit to Russia. Recently, India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, the most senior bureaucrat in India’s foreign ministry, completed a visit to Russia. The visit shed light on the ongoing collaboration between the two countries and the opportunities and challenges for the relationship.


For the full essay, click here.



Unsurprisingly, official accounts of the visit focused on areas of collaboration, most of it already ongoing. The Russian embassy release said that the two countries examined “cooperation within the BRICS format, the current issues of the key multilateral export control regimes, including New Delhi’s application for NSG [Nuclear Suppliers Group] membership, other non-proliferation and arms control issues, as well as topical international issues of mutual interest.”

The evolving situation in Afghanistan too was covered by the two leaders. The foreign secretary is reported to have also met Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov for Foreign Office Consultations, where they “reviewed the implementation of the decisions of the 19th Annual Bilateral Summit” between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Vladimir Putin in 2018.

The two officials also discussed the upcoming high-level meetings, including India’s participation at the Eastern Economic Forum. Putin has reportedly invited India to participate in the Forum, which is to take place in Vladivostok in September this year.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of External Affairs press release on the visit characterized the meetings as “in-depth and productive, characteristic of the Special & Privileged Strategic Partnership between India and Russia.” The statement added, “The meetings resulted in enhanced mutual convergence and coordination of views on all major regional and international issues in the spirit of long standing and time-tested friendship between India and Russia.”

Despite the ongoing collaboration in these areas, the visit, and the official accounts of it, belie the mixed nature of actual ties. In fact, while India and Russia have had a long and warm relationship historically and Russia remains an important strategic partner (it is one of only two countries India has an annual bilateral summit with, the other being Japan), structural trends are pulling them in different directions.

Part of it has to do with perceptions on both sides. On India’s side, it can at times appear not to acknowledge the reality that Russia needs China far more than it needs India, and that its own diversification of partners in both the economic and security domains can also raise concerns in Moscow and complicate bilateral dealings. On Russia’s side, there is at times not enough of an appreciation for India’s strategic considerations, including its sensitivities toward China, as well as an acknowledgement that some of Moscow’s foreign policy activities can cause headaches in New Delhi.

But developments have also accelerated these perceptions as well. Russia’s adventurism abroad, including in Ukraine, China’s rise and its increasing convergence with Russia as it does so, rising U.S. competition with both Beijing and Moscow as it has gradually warmed to New Delhi, and upped conversation on the Indo-Pacific and the divergent approaches by India and Russia have all contributed to this.

Seen from this perspective, it is arguably even more important to have visits such as the one we saw from Gokhale, in order for both sides to understand each other. But at the same time, it is also critical to distinguish between the rhetoric that comes out of the visits and the reality of the relationship, especially when the gap between the two can seem to be growing wider in some senses.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Keep Our Eyes on the Sky - The Economic Times, 27 March 2019

I wrote an OpEd, "Keep Our Eyes on the Sky," for The Economic Times on the Indian anti-satellite (ASAT) test conducted on March 27. Now that India has a demonstrated ASAT capability, New Delhi's focus must be ever more in strengthening the global space regime.

India became the fourth country to demonstrate an anti-satellite (ASAT) capability by conducting its first test on March 27. This has ensured that New Delhi does not meet the same fate as it did in the nuclear domain, should there be a global initiative that bans ASAT tests in the future.

There was a fear that India might miss the bus again and the three countries that had conducted such tests in the past — the US, Russia and China — could formalise an instrument that would place an effective ban on India from conducting an ASAT in the future. Indian policymakers from across the civilian, scientific and military bureaucracies were mindful of such an eventuality.

Make Space for Me
But now that it has demonstrated such a capability and ensured a seat at the ‘high table’, India should take a leading role to channelise its efforts to avoid weaponisation of outer space. This is to be undertaken both for the internal and external aspects of India’s space security policy.



Reports such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking National Security Adviser Ajit Doval to prepare draft space doctrine could send misleading misperceptions about India’s objectives. This government appears to be taking the same approach as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government did after the Pokharan-2 nuclear tests in 1998, when it immediately began preparing a draft nuclear doctrine.

While clarity is required in terms of the future steps, GoI must also appreciate that there are important differences with the 1998 nuclear tests and what followed from that. ASAT capability is not a war-fighting capability and, therefore, plans to operationalise such capability need to be treaded carefully.

In this sense, it is different from the circumstances of 1998. Though nuclear weapons tests were not for war-fighting purposes either, there was a need then to come out with a doctrine to outline India’s deterrent posture and its limited nature. But such operationalisation is not required with the ASAT capability — unless it turns out that others are operationalising their ASAT capabilities too, of which there is no sign yet.

It is reported that India plans to create institutional authority along the lines of the Nuclear Command Authority (NCA), which will deal with issues of actual operationalisation of this capability within India’s military with clear counter-response options appropriated.

One senior official is reported to have said, “We have to lay down the defensive/offensive steps required in case Indian satellites are destroyed or degraded or there is access denial by an adversary through electro-magnetic radiation.”

While this clarity is appreciated, such actions should not lead to more alarm bells ringing. So far, none of the other countries who have acquired such ASAT capability have operationalised such a capability. The fact that space has not become part of overt deterrence calculations for any of the spacefaring powers is an encouraging sign that must be maintained.

Some of the immediate steps that India needs to articulate are, first, what kind of activities in space need to be restricted. This can be done by first producing a backgrounder or policy paper highlighting the importance of outer space for meeting India’s developmental and strategic functions.

This should detail the kind of space environment that must be maintained to ensure that deterrence does not become a reality in outer space and, thereafter, to suggest means and ways to strengthen norms of responsible behaviour. India may be accused of being hypocritical, but India was more of a reluctant ASAT power and has been compelled to act because of the worsening security competition within the space domain.

Not a LEO Toy
But having decided to do an ASAT, it must be recognised that India conducted the test in a responsible and transparent manner. The fact that India decided to do it an altitude of 300 km in low earth orbit (LEO) ensured that its action did not lead to the creation of long-lasting space debris.

Despite a much-reported complaint from Nasa about the Indian test leaving debris that could “pose a risk to the International Space Station” and adding that it was a “terrible, terrible thing”, so far, according to the US Strategic Command’s Joint Force Space Component Command (JFSCC), there are about 250-270 debris pieces that have been generated from the Indian ASAT test — which is more along the lines of the debris created during the US ASAT test in 2008, which was also at a similar altitude.

A second aspect that India needs to emphasise is outlining rules for what is permissible. India has interests in ensuring that outer space is kept clean, safe and secure for future generations to use as well.

It also has interests in strengthening its credentials in global space governance. Until now, New Delhi could not play an active role in this because it did not have that capability that gives it a voice in this arena.

Now that India has successfully demonstrated its ASAT capability, it should play an important role in mitigating problems such as space debris, space traffic management, orbital frequency issues and other issues that are important for ensuring safe and secure access to outer space. India should partner with like-minded countries in initiating these conversations and take them to meaningful international platforms such as Conference on Disarmament, UN First Committee and UN Disarmament Commission.

China takes seriously only the language of power, deterrence! Why India’s A-SAT missile test was a necessity - The Financial Express, March 29, 2019

I wrote a fourth piece on the Indian ASAT test for The Financial Express, looking at the rationale and compulsions for India to actually demonstrate the capability.


After debating for more than a decade, India has now conducted its anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, pushing itself into an exclusive group of countries that includes the US, Russia and China. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made this announcement in a televised address saying that the demonstration of the Indian ASAT capabilities has made it a true space power. Hitting a satellite at an altitude of 300 kms. in the low earth orbit, one must agree that this has been a fairly responsible act on India’s part because this would not create long-lasting space debris, which is a serious problem in space.

For example, the Chinese ASAT test in 2007 created a huge debris problem. The US ASAT test in 2008 was done at an altitude of 275 kms and the debris possibly came down in a few weeks. Thus, India will not come in for major flak on that count. As for the rationale and timing, there could be several factors at play. Clearly, the terrestrial competition with China and the larger geopolitical games underway in Asia have possibly had a determining say in the Indian ASAT decision. China’s growing power and aggressiveness, as well as its disregard for established global norms and rules means that it only understands the language of power and deterrence.

For the full article, click here.



It was China’s 2007 ASAT test that broke a long-standing voluntary moratorium on such tests. Moreover, that test was particularly unfortunate because, as mentioned earlier, it created a huge debris field. Such disregard has become a characteristic of China’s behaviour. It appears that China will only take seriously the language of power and deterrence. Thus, demonstrating an ASAT capability was an absolute strategic necessity to let Beijing and others know that if Indian assets in outer space are attacked, India has the means to retaliate. A second important calculation for India is to not find itself in the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) trap yet again. In the case of the NPT, India’s reluctance to push for a nuclear test in the 1960s left it out of the NPT category of “nuclear weapon state”, and India was unwilling to give up the nuclear option by signing on as as a non-nuclear weapon state. Thus, India found itself outside the entire NPT structure.

Having gone through the “pariah” experience for three decades, India has been particularly mindful of the developments in the global governance area to avoid being caught in a similar trap. There have been a few initiatives on and off in the past decade to regulate activities in outer space and India did not want to be on the wrong side of the wall again. However, neither the International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities proposed originally the European Union nor the current UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) seek to ban ASAT tests but it may have been the apprehension about such initiatives that could have motivated India to demonstrate the ASAT capability now.

There is also nothing that stops the current three countries who have tested ASAT capabilities from framing an NPT-like treaty for outer space denying others the technological capacity to develop such weapons. Moreover, India’s test does not violate any existing norms or rules, as the press note put out by the Ministry of External Affairs points out. India is a signatory to all the major agreements on outer space, including Moon Treaty that has seen very few signatories.

Nevertheless, some criticism and concern from other countries should be expected. China has put out a somewhat cautious statement to suggest that countries should “uphold peace and tranquillity in outer space” whereas Pakistan had a stern response calling upon international community to condemn India’s test. Russia and the US are yet to issue a statement. Countries that have pursued strong disarmament efforts such as Japan, for instance, could be a little uneasy with India’s test.

They could perceive India’s test as triggering fresh prospects for militarisation of outer space, which indeed would be unfortunate. India has little interest in militarization of space, considering how dependent India itself is on outer space for a variety of civilian needs. On the other hand, India also had little choice but to respond to China’s earlier test in order to maintain deterrence and protect India’s assets in outer space. Having done that, New Delhi should redouble its efforts to build a global movement to strengthen the norm of non-militarization of outer space.

India’s Missile Test Spotlights Its Lingering Space Challenges, The Diplomat, March 28, 2019

In this week's Diplomat column, I focused on India's demonstration of the ASAT capability arguing that while a recent test is no doubt historic, New Delhi has much work left to do to address the challenges that remain.


Earlier this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a televised address to announce that India had conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test from the Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam Island launch complex. Modi went on to tweet that this is a moment of “utmost pride” and an event of “historic impact.”

The test targeted and destroyed one of India’s own satellites operating in low-Earth orbit (LEO). A press release, rather an FAQ issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, claimed that the test was “fully successful” and achieved all mission objectives.

Modi also recalled the precise and complex nature of the exercise, saying “#MissionShakti was a highly complex one, conducted at extremely high speed with remarkable precision. It shows the remarkable dexterity of India’s outstanding scientists and the success of our space programme.”

For the full piece, click here.



It is not clear when India’s ASAT program started but it is safe to assume that it began after the first successful Chinese ASAT test in January 2007. Going by the statements issued by scientists, ministers, as well as military leaders, it is clear that China’s ASAT was a big factor. The previous government of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) led by the Congress party has indeed taken credit for starting the program. Former Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) officials like Dr. V.K. Saraswat had previously stated that India had developed the technological blocks for an ASAT demonstration but lacked the political will to demonstrate the capability.

Traditionally, India’s space program focused largely on civilian and developmental uses but has increasingly had a national security and strategic focus also. Over the last decade, India has deployed a number of satellites with specific national security roles in surveillance as well as military communication. It launched the first dedicated military satellite for the Indian Navy in 2013. This was the result not just of India’s growing technological capacity but also of the increasing competition in the space arena.

China’s efforts to catch up with the United States in outer space, while understandable, also have a second-order impact on India’s national security. And China’s power in both Asia and particularly in South Asia means that New Delhi could not ignore China’s capabilities, including in outer space. Terrestrial conflict and competition have begun to impact outer space activities too, much as during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.

In addition, India has also felt the need to conduct spectacular space operations to demonstrate its capabilities. These help demonstrate India’s achievements and possibly give it a bigger voice in international discussions about managing outer space. Though international management of outer space is beginning to fray, with more players, more challenges, and greater nationalism, this is all the more reason for countries like India to make efforts to re-establish some of the norms and rules of managing outer space.

But developing technological capabilities is only one dimension of the challenges India faces. An equally serious challenge is building the institutional apparatus within the government to use these capabilities in the most effective manner possible. To take just one example, the Indian government established the Integrated Space Cell more than a decade ago, which was a good first step, but the Cell has not been able to perform the kind of integrative functions it was originally meant to.

Similarly, the establishment of a triservice aerospace command has been debated for two decades with no real progress. The idea was first articulated by Air Chief Marshal SK Sareen back in 1998 when he headed the Indian Air Force (IAF). Two decades later, India is getting closer to having a Defense Space Agency but not yet a Command. Many in the IAF leadership have argued that the changing nature of warfare, with greater integration of space capabilities as seen during the U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, should be clear imperatives for India to proceed with institutional changes. Moreover, other countries like China are learning from United States’ operations and reorienting their own space programs.

But India has not progressed much in developing an integrated approach to outer space or creating the institutional architecture to ensure greatest effectiveness and efficiency. This task, in fact, may be harder than just developing technology, which is one reason why this has not kept pace with technological developments.

Another area where New Delhi must change is with regard to its involvement in global space governance. India so far has been quite reluctant to get involved in space governance or in the debates about its future. Having demonstrated its ASAT capability, India should not shy away from playing an active role in ensuring that outer space remains peaceful, without weapons, and developing mechanisms that would curb certain irresponsible actions in outer space. At the very least, India should take the lead in shaping the norms of responsible behavior even if formulating legally binding mechanisms are challenging given that developing consensus among major spacefaring powers has been the biggest challenge in this regard.

Having Tested Its ASAT Capability, India Should Help Shape Global Space Norms - The Wire, March 28, 2019

In a second piece on India's ASAT test, I published a short essay in The Wire. I argued here that now that India has demonstrated its ASAT capability, it should move away from its current position of ambiguity to taking a proactive role in shaping the norms, rules and regulations in this area. Having crossed the rubicon, it can join the conversations along with other established space powers to ensure that space remains weapons-free.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on Wednesday that India has conducted an anti-satellite missile test against a live satellite in low earth orbit (LEO). The ASAT test from the Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Island launch complex lasted for three minutes and was claimed to be “fully successful” and accomplished all the parameters set out for the missions.

Modi also tweeted that this was a proud moment for India and stated that this test is special for two reasons: First, “India is only the 4th country to acquire such a specialised and modern capability,” and second, “The entire effort is indigenous. India stands tall as a space power! It will make India stronger, even more secure and will further peace and harmony.”

Thereafter, the Ministry of External Affairs provided some additional details on the rationale and the timing for the test in the form of FAQs. The document underlined the rationale for India to demonstrate its ASAT capability as a means “to safeguard our space assets”.

For the full essay, click here.



ASAT itself is not a new technology. The US and the Soviet Union had conducted many ASAT tests during the latter years of the Cold War. After a voluntary moratorium that was in place for more than two decades, China conducted its own first successful ASAT test in January 2007.

The Chinese ASAT test was conducted at an altitude of 865 km and resulted in the creation of 3,000-odd pieces of long-lasting space debris. This was followed by the US, which conducted its own ASAT test, bringing down an old satellite in 2008 at an altitude of 275 km, but with very limited debris. India’s test today was at an altitude of 300 km and thus any debris that has been created could burn up in the atmosphere or come down in a few weeks and months. The larger pieces of debris will come down much faster because gravity will act on them more, but even the smaller pieces should down-enter the atmosphere and burn up in a few months’ time.

India’s demonstration of its ASAT capability has obvious implication for national and international security. For instance, though other countries have tested this capability, they are not thought to have actually deployed it. India is also likely to follow the same path and avoid deploying this system. However, this does not take away from the utility of the demonstration itself. This was required in order to avoid some of the mistakes that India had done in other areas, such as the nuclear domain. India refused to test its nuclear capability in the 1960s, thus being left out of the Non Proliferation Treaty’s category of “nuclear weapon state”.

Clearly, India does not want an NPT for space to be developed and then be banned from developing and demonstrating its ASAT capability. Before today’s test, there were only three countries that have demonstrated this capability and the three could easily come up with an international mechanism that would ban additional ASAT tests. India has been mindful of any such efforts to develop political and legally binding agreements addressing the trend towards weaponisation.

The other key question is the rationale for India to do the ASAT test. Since China’s ASAT test in January 2007, India has been concerned about the security of its space assets. Given India’s investment in the outer space domain including the services and ground infrastructure, India has significant material stakes. Therefore, developing certain deterrent capabilities against any ASAT threat is important.

Now that India has demonstrated its ASAT capability, it should move away from its current position of ambiguity to taking a proactive role in shaping the norms, rules and regulations in this area. Having crossed the rubicon, it can join the conversations along with other established space powers to ensure that space remains weapons-free.

There have been a number of efforts in recent years, including the Code of Conduct proposed by the European Union in the early 2010s to the current UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS), which will submit its report soon to the UN General Assembly for further action. India can and should be an active player in these deliberations.

India’s ASAT test: Further steps - ORF March 28, 2019

SO, India finally conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test on March 27, 2019. And there I was in Geneva for the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) Meeting on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). The timing was interesting and strange in many ways. But amidst all the GGE work, I managed to write a few OpEds on the ASAT test, the strategic implications of it and what needs to be done now that it has a demonstrated ASAT capability.


For the ORF, I wrote a piece examining the next steps following the ASAT test. India’s ASAT test is not surprising although the timing of the test is. India started developing its ASAT capabilities in the last decade after the first successful Chinese ASAT test in 2007. It goes without saying that other countries could follow suit and build ASATs. But China made the first move with regard to ASATs and it took India a dozen years to decide whether it wanted to demonstrate this capability or not.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced yesterday that India has conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, hitting a live satellite at an altitude of 300 kms. This makes India only the fourth country after the US, Russia and China to demonstrate such a capability. The only other country that is thought to have this capability is Israel, although it has not demonstrated it as yet.

India’s ASAT test could raise some questions given that it is likely to be perceived as a path to weaponisation but Modi argued that this was a “defensive” move meant to secure India’s own assets. He said, “Our aim is to maintain peace over war mongering. The space programme’s aim is peace, India’s economic and technological progress.” Highlighting the salience of space to India, Modi asserted, “Today, we are using space and satellites for all sorts of purposes, including agriculture, defence, disaster management, communication, entertainment, weather, navigation, education, medical uses, and other things. In such a situation, the security of these satellites is extremely important.”

In fact, the former DRDO chief Dr. VK Saraswat has claimed several times that India is developing the necessary technologies in order to destroy an enemy satellite. In fact, the successful testing of India’s anti-ballistic missile on March 6, 2011 was seen as taking a step closer to India’s development of an ASAT capability.

For the full article, click here.



Many will question the need for India to develop and test such capabilities when it is mired in a number of developmental challenges but the fact is that India is not located in a benign neighbourhood and cannot afford to ignore the new realities within the region and globally within the space domain. Therefore, even though India’s space programme is largely civilian oriented, it has acquired a slightly greater focus on national security concerns. While India still wants to ensure that outer space remains free of weapons and continues as a domain of peace and stability, it is of course not up to New Delhi alone to ensure that. India cannot avoid the increasing militarization of outer space and ignoring this reality will only hurt India’s security interests. Moreover, these developments are taking place at a time when there is a larger power transition within Asia and beyond. India’s difficulties with an aggressive China have also been pushing India down this path.

India has come a long way as far as the ASATs are concerned. From fierce opposition to the US and Soviet ASAT tests in the 1970s and 1980s, India has come to appreciate the strategic utility of these capabilities and demonstrations. While India’s approach to non-proliferation issues and the global regimes has been changing since the early 2000s, a clearer articulation on space began to appear after the Chinese ASAT test in January 2007. The Chinese test was a wake-up call for Indian policymakers who called for breaking down some of the bureaucratic and inter-departmental barriers within the Indian government to better address this threat. Then DRDO Chief Dr. M Natarajan suggested that there must be greater integration between institutions such as Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO). Similar statements were echoed by former ISRO chiefs like Dr. K Kasturirangan, who said that India has spent huge amount of resources to develop and place assets in space and therefore there is responsibility “to protect them from adversaries.”

India did not have knee-jerk reaction to China’s tests but given the worsening security competition, New Delhi had little choice but to make this decision in the interest of ensuring deterrence. But all sides will lose in such an unbridled competition because all are dependent on space.

Now that India has crossed the rubicon and has a demonstrated ASAT capability, New Delhi must make earnest efforts to help develop rules of the road that will bring about certain restraint in outer space activities. Under the current international political climate, it is unrealistic to assume that the major spacefaring powers will develop a consensus for a global treaty but India must not lose opportunities in making those efforts. At the very least, India must coordinate with all the key players in producing some consensus language about those global governance arrangements that can be taken up in multiple foras including the Conference on Disarmament, UN First Committee, and UN Disarmament Commission.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

India-Indonesia Naval Patrols Highlights Maritime Collaboration - The Diplomat, 22 March 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I looked at the India-Indonesia growing maritime collaboration and some of the recent events are a reminder of efforts by both sides to forge greater cooperation in this realm.


The Indian and Indonesian navies have just begun their 33rd coordinated patrol exercise from the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and it will go on until April 4. The exercise includes the Indonesian Naval Ship KRI Sultan Thaha Syaifuddin and Maritime Patrol Aircraft CN-235, along with Indian vessels and aircrafts, with the two militaries undertaking patrolling on their respective sides of the 236 nautical miles long International Maritime Boundary line.

Simultaneously, the Indian Coast Guard ship INS Vijit is undertaking a four-day visit to the Indonesian port of Sabang in a further demonstration of the increasingly close maritime collaboration. India’s growing involvement in Sabang port has been seen over the past year – last July, another Indian naval ship, INS Sumitra, had also visited Sabang.

These developments underscore the close maritime cooperation between the two countries over the past few years, and their widening defense relationship more generally. While the close relationship between the two countries in some senses is not new – they were both champions of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) in the 1950s for instance – strategic alignment had been far from clear, and the defense aspect of that has only begun to take off more in recent times.

For the full essay, click here.



That should come as no surprise. For one, generally, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India has began to pay more strategic attention to Southeast Asia in general and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in particular, and Indonesia is a vital part of that. Last June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had travelled to Indonesia as part of this three-nation trip to Southeast Asia giving a big push to India’s Act East Policy.

For another, as this process has been underway, both countries have interests that are aligned somewhat in terms of addressing the rise of China and making advances in the maritime domain. This comes amid the rising conversation about the Indo-Pacific, with Indonesia hosting a meeting on the subject this week.

As a result, it is no coincidence that we continue to see defense-related and maritime-related developments continue to take shape between India and Indonesia. To take just one example, there has been an agreement signed between the two countries to advance economic engagements between Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Aceh and North Sumatra Province. This agreement envisions joint development of the region to promote cruise and eco-tourism, start air transport linkages by introducing commercial flights between Indonesia and Port Blair, and sea transportation connectivity in the form of RoRo vessel shipping to facilitate trade between the two regions. These have the potential to create a constituency on both sides that could propel the economic aspects of the bilateral relationship.

In another example, in order to push the economic relationship between the two sides, Indonesia just hosted the 2nd India Indonesia Infrastructure Forum (IIIF). The first such Forum between the two sides was held last year with elaborate plans for regional connectivity in terms of economy, infrastructure and energy links. India has also agreed to join hands with Indonesia in developing a deep-sea port in Sabang. The port will clearly give India a bigger foothold in the region while enhancing the maritime links between India and Southeast Asia.

The strategic imperatives as well as new developments at play in the India-Indonesia relationship suggest that we are likely to see the two sides continue to grow closer in the coming years. But at the same time, expectations about this new partnership must be tempered with reality. There are no shortage of challenges as well, including New Delhi’s continued lack of nuanced understanding on how Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia operate as well as India’s own changes in its China policy in the face of complications. These serve as important reminders that even though there are larger strategic interests binding them together, there are also limitations.

Friday, March 15, 2019

China Shows its True Colors by Blocking India’s Terror Blacklist Bid Again - The Diplomat, March 15, 2019

In this week's column for The Diplomat, "China Shows its True Colors by Blocking India’s Terror Blacklist Bid Again", I argue that Beijing’s move, though unsurprising, is not without significance.


Earlier this week, for the fourth time, China has blocked India’s efforts to designate Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist under the United Nations (UN). Beijing’s effort represents just the latest blow to New Delhi’s efforts in this vein. While India has been making global efforts to isolate Pakistan diplomatically, its efforts at placing Azhar under the 1267 Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council has been yet again blocked by China.

To be sure, China’s action should not obscure the fact that the broader support base for India has gone up on this score. This is reflected in the number of co-sponsors of the proposal this time. The current proposal was initiated by France, the UK and the United States and co-sponsored by countries including Germany, Poland, Belgium, Italy, Bangladesh, Maldives, Bhutan, Equatorial Guinea, Japan and Australia.

Nonetheless, Beijing’s response is significant. China justified its action by saying that “our action is to make sure that the committee will have enough time to study the matter so that the relevant sides will have time for dialogue and consultation. Only a solution that is acceptable to all sides could fundamentally provide a chance for a lasting solution to the issue. China is ready to communicate and coordinate with all sides including India to properly handle this issue.”

For the full essay, click here.



India’s official response was disappointed but calm. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), in a statement, said, “The ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee (1267 Sanctions Committee), upon completion of the no-objection period on 13 March 2019, was not able to come to a decision on the proposal for listing Mohammed Masood Azhar Alvi under the UN Sanctions regime, on account of a member placing the proposal on hold. We are disappointed by this outcome. This has prevented action by the international community to designate the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a proscribed and active terrorist organization which has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir on 14 February 2019.”

Irrespective of what India says publicly, this is proof, yet again, that China is not going to abandon its ironclad relationship with Pakistan. Neither is Beijing going to succumb to pressure from others such as the United States, France, the UK, Russia, and India to change its tack on Pakistan. About an hour before the expiry of the deadline for any member to raise objections, China put in place a “technical hold” meaning that the proposal will be on the hold for the next six months. Member countries can supply information over the next nine months for lifting the hold and Masood Azhar can be listed.

In the past, China has argued that there is “no contradiction” in its policies on terrorism such as in supporting the BRICS declaration against terrorism and its policy to Masood Azhar designation as a global terrorist because the BRICS declaration was addressing terrorist groups and not individuals. And to be sure, there is some logic to Beijing’s position: It is premised on balancing India by supporting Pakistan. Pakistan has remained China’s all-weather ally through more than five decades, and both Islamabad and Beijing worry about and balance against India.

From Pakistan’s perspective, India represents an existential threat. Pakistan’s primary strategic objective since the two nations were born has been to weaken India by any means necessary. For Beijing, India represents one of the few potential challengers to China’s dominance of Asia. Both have been clear and single-minded in their pursuit to weaken and balance India, which has made for one of the most durable and deepest strategic alignments since the 1950s. There is little likelihood that this will end any time soon, a reality that seems lost on India’s foreign policy elite.

It is unlikely that India will respond in any extreme, escalatory manner toward Beijing in the short term. The general elections next month occupy much of the government’s attention. Foreign policy issues are unlikely to play a big part in the campaign except for the ruling BJP chest-thumping on the Balakot strike against Pakistan. Moreover, India’s opposition parties, all to the left of the nationalist BJP, have few foreign policy ideas or critiques that have any traction. Calling Modi “weak” and “scared of Xi”, as Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the opposition Congress party has charged, is unlikely to suffice.

On the other hand, there is significant and vocal criticism in the Indian media of the “Wuhan spirit,” and the broader Sino-Indian reset in the aftermath of the Doklam confrontation in 2017. The Hindustan Times, a leading English-language national daily, editorialized that “the Wuhan exercise seems to have failed. Not just Pakistan-backed terrorism, China has not yielded ground on anything else.” Another newspaper has warned that bilateral ties could suffer because New Delhi feels betrayed. This has been matched on social media sites in India such as Twitter where #BoycottChineseProducts and #ChinaBacksTerrorism have been trending. Whether and how this will affect Indian policy towards China after the coming elections remains to be seen.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

China Isn’t Hearing Asia’s Fears About Its Military Buildup - The Diplomat, March 11, 2019

In last week's column for The Diplomat, "China Isn’t Hearing Asia’s Fears About Its Military Buildup," I looked at the 2019 Chinese defence defence expenditure. The response to the country’s new defense budget suggests that Beijing continues to be tone deaf to regional anxieties.



China recently announced a defense budget of 1.19 trillion yuan ($177.61 billion). This represents a slower growth rate in the budget, falling to 7.5 percent as against an 8.1 percent increase in 2018. Nevertheless, there are likely to be predictable expressions of concerns at the size of even the publicly announced budget, considering that it is more than three times as large as India’s, which has the second largest defense budget in Asia.

For the full essay, click here.



China’s military power has expanded dramatically in the last several years. A recent report by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) noted that “since 2014, China has launched more submarines, warships, principal amphibious vessels and auxiliaries than the total number of ships currently serving in the navies of Germany, India, Spain, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom.”

Beijing has been closing the gap even with the United States, though the latter still maintains a considerable lead. Where China has been not able to catch up, it has developed certain asymmetric capabilities to compete with the United States. As Andrew Erickson points out, “In many areas, they have weapons systems that only a few other countries possess.” The development of the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities across all domains has been “impressive” under Xi’s leadership.

Such growth has also led to concerns in the neighborhood. Even countries like South Korea that have generally had good relations with China are beginning to face hostile actions from the Chinese PLA. For more than a year now, there have been repeated violations of the South Korean air defense identification zone (Korea-ADIZ) by the PLA Air Force, the most recent one in late-February.

However, these foreign concerns are falling on deaf ears in China. Headlines like “history proves China’s defense budget growth benefits the world” appear to be more the norm. Officially, Zhang Yesui, spokesperson for the annual session of the 13th National People’s Congress, termed the defense budget hike as “reasonable and appropriate.”

China has continued to reiterate that much of the hike in the defense expenditure goes to meet the salaries and other benefits of the troops, in addition to developing weapon systems, military reforms, and training. It has tried to make the case that China still lags behind a number of countries like the United States and that there are outdated systems and platforms that need to be replaced.

A quick look suggests that China’s defense analysts are largely reiterating the official line. Commenting on the defense budget announcement, Xu Guangyu, a senior consultant with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, noted that the Chinese military has reached “a normal and stable speed instead of a premature rush.” Chinese analysts also slammed reports that say the Chinese spending in actuality is much bigger than what is announced by the Chinese authorities, saying that “China’s military modernization is meant for self-defense and not threatening other countries. We should not care much about what others say.”

Many Chinese military analysts have also tried to highlight the fact that its defense spending has moved away from a double-digit growth rate since 2016. Chinese military analyst Li Daguang from the National Defense University of the PLA argued that the defense spending of 2018, which was 1.107 trillion yuan, was only 1.3 percent of China’s GDP, a much smaller proportion compared to other countries like the United States and Russia that spend around 4 percent of the GDP on defense. Instead, there are suggestions that as China engages in more international projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative, its security concerns will only go up and accordingly, “it must speed up its national defense power to protect the legitimate interests of Chinese people.”

Broader ambitions are also driving China’s defense budgets. Xi Jinping has outlined important goals for China in the next few decades as part of his Chinese Dream. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is all set to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021, by which time China hopes to have a “moderately well-off society.” The second major centenary goal is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China itself and China hopes to be “a completely developed country” by 2049.

Along with these broad goals, China has specified areas for focus like military drones, space, artificial intelligence, and overall development in the strategic domain. The Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation could see a lot more emphasis in the coming years with higher spending on each of these high-tech and defense arena. But China – and Chinese analysts – should take greater cognizance of the concerns around the region.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

India-Pakistan Crisis Exposes Modi’s Dilemma - The Diplomat, 28 February 2019

In a first, Rajesh (Rajagopalan) and I have a joint article on the India-Pakistan crisis post-Balakot air force strikes and what Modi's options are. In the piece, India-Pakistan Crisis Exposes Modi’s Dilemma, we argue that the decision about whether to escalate or not is much more complex than it appears.


The India-Pakistan confrontation over the terrorist attack on Indian troops in Pulwama does not appear to be easing just yet. After the Indian air strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist camp in Pakistan, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) retaliated by bombing several “non-military” targets across the Line of Control.

What happened subsequently is a bit hazy, but it appears that at least one Indian MiG-21 fighter was shot down as it chased the PAF fighters away, with the pilot falling into Pakistan’s hands. India has demanded that he be handed over. Paradoxically, this could be a blessing in disguise as it provides an avenue for both sides to deescalate the crisis.

On the other hand, the current situation does put Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the horns of a dilemma. He has incentives both to escalate and climb down, and the stakes for him are the upcoming elections.

For the full post, click here.



The incentives to escalate are clear: if this is where the confrontation ends, India has clearly lost, and the Modi government will be held responsible. Already Indian opposition parties are blaming the government for the situation India finds itself in. Twenty-one of these parties have jointly blamed the government for the “blatant politicization of the sacrifices made by our armed forces by leader of the ruling party”, a clear indication that Modi will be personally targeted if this does not end well for India. With barely a couple of months left for polls in India, it will be difficult for him to spin this as an Indian victory if this is where it ends. Moreover, it strikes at the root of the Modi persona as a strong man, and as a decisive leader.

The other strong incentive for India to escalate is the strategic equation if the crisis ends now. The Balakot strike was designed to demonstrate that India had the upper hand because of its conventional military superiority and that it had the space to escalate if it wanted to. If India had been able to do this successfully, it could have fundamentally changed the India-Pakistan dynamic, because it could have set up a template for future Indian military action. By the same token, an Indian failure does not return the situation to status quo ante, but to a much worse place for India. It would reinforce Pakistan’s deterrence logic, tie India’s hands in future confrontations, and give Pakistan a free hand to continue with its strategy of using terror against India. It would have been better for India to not have launched the Balakot attack at all because India’s conventional deterrence, such as it is, will lie in tatters.

Set against these are two disincentives for escalation, again one political and the other strategic. The political one is that after this taste of the unexpected turns in a test of arms, Modi will have to worry about whether he can trust the Indian military to carry out subsequent actions successfully. Further confrontation carries with it the possibility of retrieving the situation but equally, further risk that the situation could get worse. Though it is reasonably certain that India will come out on top in a long drawn out fight, a long drawn out fight itself would be humiliating for a country that is by many orders larger and more powerful. Modi will find it difficult to go campaigning if India has not won decisively, and the risk of escalation is that there will be no immediate or decisive victory.

A second disincentive for escalation is that India may not have militarily prepared for this confrontation. Doubling down on escalation with a military force that is not ready is a recipe for disaster. The Modi government has only itself to blame, having paid little attention to the military and starved it of funds to the point that it is not certain that it would perform much better if the situation worsens. The unpreparedness provides a good disincentive for further escalation because of the uncertainty.

It is not clear in which direction Modi will push. But beyond this iteration of India-Pakistan confrontation, this should hopefully demonstrate to Indian political leaders that they need to pay greater attention to military and security matters than they have hitherto and make the necessary adjustments before a crisis hits rather than after.