Friday, January 18, 2019

The Case for Outer Space Cooperation in South Asia - 18 January 2018

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I published a piece making a case for outer space cooperation in South Asia. The piece, "The Case for Outer Space Cooperation in South Asia," I argue that while the need for cooperation is clear, realizing such cooperation will mean addressing several key challenges, including those among the established space powers in the region.


Space technology has great potential to help social and economic development, especially in parts of the developing world such as South Asia. Yet, South Asia has not fully exploited the space domain for several reasons. Availability of resources and lack of visionary leadership in the region are important factors, but so are international insecurity and conflict. While there are limitations in dealing with the former set of issues, it is possible to suggest some ways to deal with the latter set.

In particular, confidence building measures (CBMs) can help promote space development in South Asia. This has been a theme of many workshops and seminars in the last couple of years. The author has participated in several such engagements where representatives of some of the smaller countries in the region have shown pronounced interest in international collaboration in developing outer space assets and technologies for meeting developmental challenges. But these countries also feel they are caught in the accelerating competition between India and China, which spills over into this domain too.




There is little doubt about the demand side: South Asia is a region with uneven development and serious social, economic, and developmental challenges. Space technology capabilities are also unevenly spread with China and India as established space players in the region but with more new entrants in the field. Countries like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and the Maldives have a clear requirement for space capabilities for a number of different utilities such as dealing with natural disasters and communication. The region has remained prone to many weather-related calamities on a fairly frequent basis, making disaster warning and mitigation important drivers for pursuing an outer space agenda.

Strengthening connectivity, communication, and broadband internet across rural and remote areas of the region too should be strong imperatives. India and China can offer significant assistance to these new entrants. But at the same time, smaller countries worry about being dragged into the Sino-Indian competition if they collaborate with one side or the other.

Another factor to keep in mind is the poverty of existing rules and norms for outer space. Treaties such as the Outer Space Treaty (OST) are increasingly inadequate to deal with the rapidly developing space sector. This has resulted in a growing debate about how to strengthen space norms and rules to ensure safe and sustainable use of outer space for future generations.

But in developing new rules, care must be taken to ensure that, without restricting legitimate cooperation between states in outer space, there are adequate safeguards to prevent completely unregulated outer space cooperation that could lead to greater insecurities for some or all. Among the smaller countries, Sri Lanka has taken active interest in the past and in going forward with such efforts.

More international cooperation and coordination is definitely needed. In the Indo-Pacific region, there are two major regional space cooperation initiatives, one each under Japan’s and China’s leadership. Most South Asian countries are members of the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF) that is governed by Japan. Pakistan and Bangladesh are members of both the APRSAF and Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO), the Chinese initiative in the region.

Yet, the big lacuna is that these two initiatives do not collaborate in any manner whatsoever. The limited resources of the many new space players could be more judiciously used if there were a means to get the two initiatives to work together. For example, there could be joint initiatives in the area of manufacturing and launching satellites for the purpose of providing advance weather-related disaster warning.

More significantly, space cooperation at the regional level has to focus on more basic needs. Regional powers can join hands in providing sounding rockets, to start with, and weather satellites, for instance. Areas such as disaster warning and mitigation are ideal candidates for cooperation within the South and Southeast Asian regions.

But there is also potential for cooperation at the higher end of the spectrum. Strengthening cooperation in Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and enhancing SSA coverage in the southern hemisphere can be an important aspect of cooperation among the more capable space powers in the region. India, China, and Japan have their own limited capabilities to monitor the space environment. Combining the efforts of these three large spacefaring powers in Asia would be greatly beneficial. And if the bigger space players in Asia could find ways to cooperate, it would provide incentives to smaller states as well.

How Long Can India’s China Juggle Last? - 16 January 2018

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I looked at the changing dynamics in India-China relations. In this piece, "How Long Can India’s China Juggle Last?," I argue that while New Delhi continues to walk a fine balance, its ability to sustain this approach remains to be seen.

India’s China policy is going through a bit of a strange time. Since the Wuhan Summit in April 2018 the two countries have been making great efforts to demonstrate that all is well in their relationship and that both sides expect the relationship to warm up further in the coming years. On the other hand, there is little indication that India’s concern about China’s military and political pressure is declining. It is unclear how long India can stay on these diverging tracts.


For the full essay, click here.



At the diplomatic level, New Delhi has been doing its best to keep the smile on its face. As an indicator of this, the number of diplomatic engagements between the two sides has been in the spotlight and has seen officials convey words of warmth to reaffirm the state of ties. In late December in particular, in addition to official bilateral exchanges, there was also an India-China High-Level Media Forum as well as an India-China Think Tank Forum.

Addressing the Media Forum, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj called Wang Yi, the foreign minister of China, “my close friend and my brother” before going onto emphasize the need for people-to-people, cultural, and educational exchanges. She noted the “Wuhan Spirit,” thanked China for the “concrete steps” taken by the “Chinese side” to find a solution to the increasing trade deficit, and listed the various multilateral forums where India and China are cooperating. A day earlier, in a message to the Think Tank Forum, she noted the “civilizational bonds” between the two countries and highlighted the expectations that India and China will lead Asia and usher in a new Asian century.

As important as what was said was also what was left unsaid. Hosting the newly elected prime minister of Bhutan, Lotay Tshering on his inaugural state visit, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waxed eloquent about Indo-Bhutanese relations and Indian assistance as a “trusted partner and friend in the development of Bhutan” with space science becoming a “new dimension” in India-Bhutan relations. Despite the fact that months-long Doklam confrontation had taken place on Bhutanese territory, there was little indication of any international issue and certainly not China in his speech.

While these issues are almost certain to have come up during the discussions, India’s reluctance to raise them publicly fits with much of the public signaling by India on other issues as well. For example, in a speech at the recently concluded Raisina Dialogue, Swaraj outlined the critical challenges that confront India as terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and climate change. Again, there wasn’t even a hint of the potentially more serious challenges that India is facing on the international front.

On the other hand, India’s concerns about China’s inroads especially in the maritime domain continue to grow. Speaking at the same Raisina Dialogue, Indian Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba stated that there are six to eight Chinese navy warships in the northern part of Indian Ocean at any given point of time, putting one quantitative metric down around India’s rising concerns about Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean. He also supported the Quad idea, stating that it stood for inclusive, free, rules-based order. He predicted that the Quad — a grouping consisting of India, Australia, Japan, and the United States — will grow with time. Considering India’s official reluctance on the Quad question, especially its military component, this was undoubtedly a surprising statement.

Lamba particularly noted the presence of Chinese submarines in the area, wondering about their use in supposed Chinese anti-piracy operations. He is not alone; the Indian Navy’s worries about Chinese submarines are growing. It is about to award Cochin Shipyards a contract for building eight new anti-submarine corvettes. The Navy also just inaugurated the Information Fusion Center, based in Gurugram in the National Capital Region, to coordinate maritime intelligence with multiple countries. India has also just opened a new airbase, INS Kohasa, on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which host India’s only triservice command center and are located at a critical spot close to Indonesia and the Malacca Straits.

There is little doubt that New Delhi is doing its best to calm the tensions in its relations with China, but there is also little doubt that the pressure on India is growing. Whether these two can be reconciled remains to be seen.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Will India’s Trump Fears Ease With the New US Asia Reassurance Initiative Act? - 5 January 2018

In this week's column, Will India’s Trump Fears Ease With the New US Asia Reassurance Initiative Act?, I wrote on the US Asia Reassurance Initiative Act and whether the Act will address some of India's concerns. New Delhi will be hoping that Congress can continue to rein in Trump’s worst instincts.

For the full article, click here.



On December 31, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), which promises to bring back fresh focus to American priorities in the Indo-Pacific. The Act assumes particular importance in the context of China’s expanding and aggressive footprint across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania and the responses by the United States as well as its allies, partners, and friends in the region.

India for one has three specific areas of concern that it would want the United States to address. Within South Asia, there are two: India is worried about the prospect of American withdrawal from Afghanistan as well as about the inroads that China is making in India’s neighborhood. A third concern is more broadly the challenge that China poses to India, both militarily and politically. So, New Delhi is likely to judge this Act on how it will address these three challenges.

India will be happy to have been accorded special importance under the Act, which reiterates India’s significance in the U.S. strategy in the region. The Act notes India as a Major Defense Partner, a “unique” status for India, which would ease defense trade and sharing of technology, including “license-free access to a wide range of dual-use technologies” as well as promote greater coordination on security policies and strategies and increased military-to-military engagements. Of course, in practical terms, this doesn’t change very much. Nevertheless, the symbolic element is always important while dealing with New Delhi.

Of course, the congressional action comes immediately after Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Whether the congressional action will slow down or alter American withdrawal remains to be seen. Trump is reportedly considering changes to his approach to Syria, including slowing down a reduced presence. On the other hand, he also dismissed the Indian contribution to Afghanistan as nothing more than a library. Given India’s sensitivity to developments in Afghanistan, New Delhi will be very interested in whether the U.S. Congress can moderate Trump’s instinct to withdraw.

A second regional issue is China’s expansion in India’s neighborhood. China’s enormous wealth and its remarkable capacity for infrastructure building has made it an attractive partner for India’s neighbors, despite the threat of being sucked into a Chinese debt trap. Beyond this, the comfort of having an extraregional great power as a counter to the regional hegemon was probably an equally important factor. India’s limited capacity to provide an alternative has been an issue. The Act does talk about countering China’s coercive economic policies, but New Delhi would be interested in seeing whether this will provide any help to India’s neighbors in escaping China’s debt grasp.

A third issue is whether this Act will reassure India in its direct confrontation with China. Like other powers in Asia, India has also sought a more accommodative policy toward China over the last year. Change of leadership in the Indian foreign ministry was one factor, with Vijay Gokhale replacing S. Jaishankar in January 2018. Jaishankar was known to be an advocate of closer U.S.-India relations while Gokhale appears to be a much more traditional Indian Foreign Service officer who prefers equidistance from both the United States and China.

But more than personality factors were at play in India’s pursuit of closer ties with China. Though the Indian military stood fast in the 2017 Doklam crisis, the Indian military’s overall preparedness is rather poor. Indian military budgets are lower than they have been in decades and corruption scandals and bureaucratic incompetence have delayed necessary acquisitions. Another issue is domestic politics. India is set to hold national elections in 2019, and there are suspicions that the Modi government did not want to be diverted by a confrontation in the Himalayas.

Though these factors were important, underlying all these is a certain lack of confidence in America’s commitment to India and Asia. In that sense, this congressional action is potentially positive in providing greater reassurance, even though a lot will also depend on whether the Trump administration follows up on it or not.

India, like other American partners in Asia, has had concerns about Washington’s commitment to the region. This Act is not likely to remove those concerns. But to the extent that it endorses a consensus opinion within the U.S. Congress and also expresses the broad bipartisan consensus in Washington, it is likely to be welcomed in New Delhi.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Why India Fears Trump’s Emerging Afghanistan Approach - 28 December 2018

In my latest column for The Diplomat, "Why India Fears Trump’s Emerging Afghanistan Approach," I write on the US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and what it could mean for Indian security. I argue that a weaker American presence would only compound New Delhi’s existing Afghan conundrum.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump decided to pull out about 7,000 American troops from Afghanistan. The decision to slash the number of troops by half appears to have been taken by Trump against the advice of his own senior administration officials, and this has provoked varied reactions in the region and in the United States.

For India, however, there is little question that this surprising decision puts it in a tough position of having to manage any potential fallout while having few viable policy options to deal with the emerging situation in Afghanistan. It is no surprise that commentators in New Delhi have almost uniformly expressed concerns about the consequences of the decision for India.

For the full essay, click here.



India’s policy has been to suggest an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled,” process with participation of the Afghan government. The gist of this appears to be that India wants to leave Pakistan out of the process. But it has become increasingly concerned about the central role that all key players are giving to Pakistan. In reality, most of the other stakeholders have simply ignored India’s views and have been engaged in finding a solution with the inclusion of Taliban and its sponsors in Pakistan. Oddly enough, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, for the first time acknowledged that India has a stake in Afghanistan and that Indian cooperation is necessary for the peace process in the country.

A clear effect of India’s stand has been to isolate India in the multiple ongoing negotiations for ending the war. As an editorial in an Indian newspaper, The Hindustan Times, noted, “the American withdrawal comes at a time when its [India] views on Afghanistan are at a significant variance with other traditional regional partners like Russia and Iran.” In fact, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, had twice skipped New Delhi when he had visited the region to hold talks on Afghan reconciliation. Even India’s long-standing ally, Russia, has ignored India’s objections to negotiating with the Taliban, and invited the Taliban to the second round of talks in Moscow in early November (India swallowed its pride and did send two former foreign service officials to the Moscow talks).

Of course, India has not been entirely forgotten in the Afghanistan conversation. For instance, India can take some comfort from the fact that Ambassador Khalilzad will be stopping over in India over his next swing through the region in January, while the Russian Special Envoy, Zamir Kabulob, also visited New Delhi last week for bilateral India-Russia discussions on Afghanistan. Nonetheless, all in all, it is clear that despite the fact that India has contributed a huge amount of economic assistance to Afghanistan and the supposed-support for India among the Afghan masses, New Delhi has found itself without much viable options in discussions about the future of Afghanistan.

India’s problem of being increasingly marginalized in discussions involving a wider range of regional players is only compounded by the fear of the potential consequences of American troop pullout. The first concern is about which forces will be withdrawn. As a former senior Indian foreign service officer wrote in a recent column in an Indian newspaper, The Asian Age, “if the air assistance component is kept intact and only trainers leave, then perhaps the effect may be gradual.” This point was also reiterated by “people in the know in New Delhi” presumably government officials, who also stated that whether the troops being pulled back would be those “involved in counter-terrorism or those advising Afghan combat troops or both.”

A second issue mentioned by these so-called “people in the know” is the time frame for the withdrawal, whether they leave before the upcoming Afghan elections or after. But the Indian concerns are not just about what happens in Afghanistan but also the effects of that in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir. A former senior police official from the state pointed out that “the US pulling out troops from Afghanistan will have implications in the Kashmir Valley as terrorist outfits there may feel emboldened.” It is also clear that Indian commentators are increasingly rethinking the earlier hostility towards the Taliban. As one noted, “India can’t remain oblivious to the ground realities in Afghanistan by maintaining a hostile attitude towards Taliban.”

There is little doubt that New Delhi is becoming increasingly anxious about the state of the Afghan peace process and particularly about Trump’s sudden decision to withdraw forces. But at the same time, India also finds itself without very many good options about how to proceed. If the United States does go ahead with a significant withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, India’s troubles will undoubtedly deepen.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

India’s Big Defense Acquisition Challenge - December 22, 2018

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I wrote on India’s big defense acquisition challenge. I argue that occasional concerns about corrupt defense deals are merely the symptoms of broader structural issues that need to be addressed.


Accusations about corruption in defense deals are once again roiling in Indian politics. This time, the charges pertain to India’s decision to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets from France. Questions have been raised about why the deal was abruptly changed from 126 fighter jets, many of which would have built under license in India, to just 36, which are being bought as fly-aways.

Irrespective of the veracity of the charges, it is clear that opposition parties will use the issue in the upcoming general elections in mid-2019. The case illustrates the broken nature of India’s defense acquisition process, but even more importantly, it demonstrates that the Indian political system and governing institutional mechanisms have not come up with a way to adjudicate these issues outside of the political arena. The consequence is that Indian defense acquisitions are likely to continue to suffer for the foreseeable future.

The immediate consequence will be felt by the Indian Air Force (IAF). The IAF has a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons but it is currently down by a quarter at just about 31 squadrons. Even of these 31, almost half of the aircraft are of the 1960s and 1970s vintage, such as the MiG-21s, MiG-27s, and Jaguars.



The IAF was planning to replace these under the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) program, which featured competition between fighter planes from several countries, with Rafale emerging as the ultimate winner. Negotiations for the acquisition of the Rafale, however, proved to be difficult and the Congress-led UPA government, which initiated the deal, was replaced before the deal could be concluded.

But in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed the deal and decided to purchase 36 jets outright. Questions were raised about the sudden change but more recently, opposition parties have charged that the new deal and particularly its offset clause favors business interests, who are alleged to be close to the ruling BJP and specifically Modi. While the deal itself is going through, it still leaves the IAF with a huge shortfall. The IAF has restarted the process for buying another 110 fighter planes, which would see a re-run of the MMRCA competition with the same planes once again competing for more-or-less the same deal.

More importantly, the travails of the MMRCA deal highlight once again the politically fraught nature of large defense acquisitions in India. The charges of corruption in defense deals are not new. There have been accusations of corruption in previous defense deals also including the Bofors artillery gun, coffins bought for soldiers during the Kargil War, and the purchase of Augusta Westland VVIP choppers.

While none of these accusations have been decided by the courts in India, the political and bureaucratic effects on India have been far more damaging. Fear of accusations has slowed Indian defense procurement to a crawl as illustrated by the nearly two-decade long MMRCA case.

Part of the response to these problems has been to write very elaborate rules for acquisition, with the hope being that such rules will eliminate any element of discretion because any exercise of discretion could potentially be challenged as being motivated by ulterior reasons. But other than complicating the process, these rules really haven’t helped smooth the path of defense acquisition. Bureaucrats are increasingly worried about having their name attached to any such deals because they could later be called to answer questions if the deals run into problems at the political level. Thus, they would rather postpone making decisions, leaving the choice to their successors rather than risk being caught up in political games.

An important part of the problem is also the inadequacy of Indian police agencies and Indian courts. These cases are usually handled by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), but the CBI has a very poor record of being an effective or independent police agency. It is usually seen as acting on the whims of the government in power, changing its positions on criminal and corruption cases when its political masters change. Even the Supreme Court (SC) has criticized the CBI, calling it a caged parrot.

Even more importantly, the CBI’s investigative capacity is also clearly wanting. Even in cases where political masters are presumably interested in letting the CBI move ahead, such as the cases involving a previous government, the CBI has not been able to effectively investigate or close these cases. The consequence of the CBI’s lack of autonomy and its incompetence is that these cases are likely never to be closed but continue to run in political cycles for decades on end. The absence of a neutral and effective investigative and judicial process means that accusations of corruption essentially become simply political ploys rather than matters of justice that eventually reach any closure.

Thus, India is likely to continue facing to have difficult time with large defense acquisitions, especially when they involve foreign military equipment. And consequent to this, India’s defense acquisition is likely to continue to be slow and creaky. Combined with low levels of defense budgets, the effect on India’s defense preparedness is likely to be telling.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Is India Expecting Too Much From Its Strategic Partnership With Vietnam? - 14 December 2018

In this week's column for the Diplomat, I wrote about the state of India-Vietnam strategic partnership. It appears that all is not well with the partnership. I argue that despite growing strategic convergence, New Delhi should also be mindful of some of the limitations in the relationship.

It has been an active few months for India-Vietnam relations, with several diplomatic and defense visits being recorded by the two sides. That in and of itself should come as no surprise for those following developments in the Asia-Pacific. Vietnam is one of India’s closest international partners and an important component of India’s Act East Policy. Over the last decade, Vietnam has also become a vital part of India’s strategy to counter China’s rise in Asia.

But while Vietnam-India relations have remained strong, with multiple senior-level visits between the two countries, there are indications that all is not well with the relationship. Put simply, New Delhi might be expecting too much from the Vietnam relationship, while Vietnam, though also very keen on the India relationship, may be facing constraints in how close it can get to New Delhi and how much it can serve New Delhi’s strategic objectives. Indian strategy should consider the limitations that Vietnam faces and pare down its expectations from Hanoi.

For the full article, click here.



On the surface, there are natural affinities that should lead to closer India-Vietnam ties. Historically, the two countries have had good relations going back to the Vietnam War. During that war, India consistently and vocally supported the Vietnamese cause, much to the irritation of Washington and despite India’s dependence on the United States for economic assistance. India even supported Vietnam during its invasion and occupation of Cambodia, despite the fact that this was not a particularly popular position internationally. India also supported Vietnam when China attacked it in 1979, with Foreign Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee cutting short his visit to China in protest.

These historical ties are now complemented by deep strategic necessity. Both India and Vietnam worry about China’s growing power and domination. Both have had recent experiences of being attacked by China. And both have independently realigned their policies, becoming friendly with the United States as well as traditional American allies in the Indo-Pacific such as Japan and Australia. Both also, of course, have active territorial disputes with China.

These natural affinities have indeed strengthened the relationship between the two countries, especially in the defense and strategic sector. There are frequent high-level visits and meetings between the two sides. The most recent of these was the Indian Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat’s visit to Vietnam on November 22-25. His visit came barely a week after Indian President Ram Nath Kovind completed his state visit, during which he was given the rare honor of addressing the Vietnam National Assembly, which only Chinese President Xi Jinping had done before.

A couple of months before Kovind’s visit, Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman also visited Vietnam. Moreover, India has supplied military equipment and military training to Vietnamese armed forces. New Delhi had hoped that this military relationship would further deepen with sales of other equipment such as the Akash surface-to-air missile. India and Vietnam had already concluded a strategic partnership, one of the very few that Vietnam had entered into.

But despite this natural affinity and the closeness of the strategic relationship, there are also indications that there are limits to this relationship. For one, though Vietnam is building up its military strength to defend against China and building partnerships with other like-minded countries, Vietnam faces the same difficulties in balancing against Beijing that most of China’s neighbors face: even as it seeks to increase its capacity to defend against China, Hanoi is also concerned about provoking China.

Thus, Vietnam has been very reluctant to be seen as “ganging up” against China with other countries. In particular, it is wary of being seen to be an integral part of the the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (Quad). Indeed, it is notable that the Vietnamese ambassador to India, Pham Sanh Chau explicitly stated as much in a recent interview in New Delhi.

In addition to multilateral alignments like the Quad, Vietnam also seems concerned about how far it wants to go in deepening the military relationship with India. For instance, though Vietnam has bought some naval equipment from India and has allowed India to train its naval personnel, Hanoi has been reluctant to buy additional equipment from India. India has extended a $500 million line of credit to Vietnam for purchase of Indian military equipment, but much of that remains unused. Indeed, Vietnam had sought to convert some of that for non-defense purchases, which India has refused.

Despite India pushing the Akash surface-to-air missile, Vietnam has appeared resistant to purchase this. There have also been rumors about India selling the BrahMos anti-ship missile to Vietnam, which does not appear to have gone through, though it is not clear whether it is because of Vietnamese reluctance or other factors.

What this suggests is that though Indio-Vietnamese ties are deep, including in the defense sector, and though there may be strong strategic rationale pushing the two countries together, there are also potentially clear limits to the relationship. As much as Hanoi needs greater support, it also has to worry about potential negative Chinese reactions. This is not an idle concern: there have already been concerns raised in the Chinese media about India-Vietnam ties.

New Delhi needs to be careful not to push Vietnam too far, especially considering its own reluctance in being seen as “ganging up” against China. India itself has been dragging its feet on the Quad, it is worth noting. And the concerns about a negative response from China is not limited to India and Vietnam, but is common in most countries in China’s periphery.

China’s tremendous power and its demonstrated willingness to use diplomatic and economic resources to get its way mean that most of its neighbors are reluctant to push balancing strategies too hard. This requires New Delhi to be sensitive to Vietnam’s concerns and not be too ambitious about the potential for the relationship.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Why the 2018 US-India Air Force Exercises Matter - 11 December 2018

I wrote for the Diplomat on the ongoing US-India Air Force Exercises that will be wrapped up in a few days. I argue that the ‘Cope India’ military exercise holds broader significance for the bilateral relationship.

In June 2017, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump underlined the central role of India and the United States in maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Recalling the tenets of the UN Charter, the two leaders emphasized the underlying importance of sovereignty and international law which should be universally respected in order for every nation to prosper.

This emphasis on strategic alignment has continued onto 2018 and its principles were reiterated again during the first U.S.-India 2+2 Strategic Dialogue held in September 2018. These principles and commitments have also formed the substantial basis for Washington and New Delhi to firm up their strategic and military engagements for the last several years.

In accordance with the bilateral commitments to a free and open Indo-Pacific, the Indian and the U.S. Air Forces have come together for a 12-day joint exercise dubbed “Cope India 2019” to be held through the end of this week (December 3 to 14).

This is the fourth iteration of the exercise conducted by the two militaries. The previous editions of the Cope India Exercise were held in 2004, 2008 and 2009 respectively. But none have been held since then, making the current exercise an indicator of the renewed mutual U.S.-Indian interest in deepening their military engagement.

For the full post, click here.



Colonel Darryl Insley, the commander of the 13th Air Expeditionary Group-Cope India 2019 (AEG-CI19) said, “We are excited and grateful for the opportunity to fly and train with our Indian air force counterparts within their home country.” The Indian Air Force Chief noted during his visit to the exercise that the significance of the joint exercises was in “create[ing] an environment of camaraderie and an opportunity to learn from each other’s best practices in enhancing operational synergy.”

The exercises are being hosted at two air force bases in India – Air Force Station Kalaikunda in Midnapore and Air Force Station Arjan Singh at Panagarh, both located in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, not too far from the Sino-Indian border where Indian and Chinese forces were locked in a confrontation in 2017. It should be noted that the second hub of the U.S.-supplied C-130J Super Hercules transport aircrafts of the (IAF) is also hosted at the Arjan Singh Station.

The U.S. complement includes 200 U.S. Airmen with 15 aircraft from the 18th Wing, Kadena Air Base, Japan, and 182nd Airlift Wing, Illinois Air National Guard. The Indian side is being represented by Su-30MKI, Mirage-2000, Jaguar, C-130J, as well as AWACS. The Special Forces from the both the USAF and IAF are also taking part in the exercise.

The restarting of the Cope India exercises appears to be yet another indicator of the slow but growing comfort level in India about military engagement with the United States. Despite concerns by some in the Indian strategic community, India has signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (or what is now called the Logistics Services Agreement) and the Communication and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (or what is now called the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement). These agreements are further boosting the U.S.-India military relationship. But India has yet to sign the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement, another of the foundational agreements that the United States has been pushing. India had early on signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement.

These agreements and military exercises tie India and the United States closer militarily. This also suggests that U.S.-India military exercises are likely to increase in scope and intensity in the coming years. Notably, India is also stepping up military exercises with other countries in the Indo-Pacific that may be considered like-minded and also have close ties with the United States. For example, India is also conducting a joint air force exercise with Japan, at the same time as the Cope India exercise with the United States.

While India’s bilateral military exercises are increasing with many countries, there are not as many multilateral joint exercises, even though the logic of carrying them out is quite clear. In some cases, such the Malabar exercise, there appears to be concern about the kind of message being sent with such exercises, especially to China. On the other hand, it is unclear why New Delhi feels that large numbers of bilateral military exercises will be more acceptable to China.

What this suggests is that India continues to want to both build up its military ties with like-minded countries, but also assuage any concerns in Beijing about India forging closer ties with potential adversaries. Whether this delicate balancing act will work remains to be seen.

Friday, November 30, 2018

India and the Maldives: Back on Track? @ The Diplomat, 30 November 2018

In this week's column for the Diplomat, I wrote on the changing dynamics in the India-Maldives relations. Clearly, the recent changes have provided an opening for both sides to recalibrate ties.

With a new government under President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih in office, the Maldives appears ready to get its relationship with India back on track.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his maiden visit to the Maldives earlier in the month for the swearing in ceremony of Solih. A joint statement signed by the two leaders noted the “importance of maintaining peace and security in the Indian Ocean and being mindful of each other’s concerns and aspirations for the stability of the region,” a clear reference to recent controversies in their relationship.


Solih also used the opportunity to apprise Modi of the urgent assistance needed in the areas of housing and infrastructure as well as setting up water and sewerage systems in the remote islands.

For the full article, click here.



Following tradition and highlighting India’s importance to the Maldives, the new president will be visiting India on December 17. Within a few days of Modi’s visit, a number of Maldivian ministers and officials visited India, including Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid, Finance Minister Ibrahim Ameer, Economic Development Minister Fayyaz Ismail, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Ahmed Khaleel, and Foreign Secretary Abdul Ghafoor Mohamed.

There are definitely some signs of a fresh beginning. The Ministry of External Affairs in a statement, following the foreign minister’s visit, said that “India attaches highest importance to its relationship with the Maldives which is marked by trust, transparency, mutual understanding and sensitivity.” Further, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj noted that as per India’s “Neighborhood First Policy,” India “stands ready to fully support the Government of Maldives in its socio-economic development.” The statement further noted that Maldivian Foreign Minister Abdulla Shahid had reiterated his government’s “India First” policy and had said that his government looks forward to working closely with the government of India on all issues.

The two ministers discussed defense and security cooperation and scheduled the next meeting of the Defense Cooperation Dialogue between India and the Maldives in the first half of December 2018. The foreign minister also noted that the Maldives has asked India for a Dornier aircraft and the MEA has also “promised that it would be delivered soon.”

These developments are significant because the Maldives under the previous Abdullah Yameen regime seemed to be slipping into China’s orbit. For instance, the Maldives had signed a new law permitting developers to own islands on lease for development for a period of 99 years. Subsequently, a Chinese company took control of Feydhoo Finolhu, an uninhabited island close to Male and its international airport, on a development lease for 50 years for $4 million.

The current finance minister is also now finding out that China is running “most of these projects (are) at inflated price” but many of them are now completed, which means these are fait accompli. But the new government is reviewing every project that is yet to be completed. For instance, a Male hospital project given to China has already cost $140 million, whereas a rival cost estimate was just $54 million.

The two countries also signed free trade agreement (FTA), which took India by total surprise and one that could have longer term implications for India. In addition to the strategic concerns, India has worries that Chinese goods dumped in Maldives could find its way into India.

The negative impact of the China FTA for the Maldives is huge too. Mohamed Nasheed, former Maldivian President and now adviser to Solih, recently said the trade imbalance is quite enormous and called the FTA “very one-sided” arrangement. Chinese companies also benefited disproportionately, pouring in large sums of money into infrastructure projects, including upgrading of the airport at a cost of $830 million and building a bridge linking the airport to Male at a cost of $400 million. Beijing now worries that Male will scrap some of the agreements.

Even as the economic component of the relationship is significant to Beijing, it is the geographical location of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean that appears to have been of the greatest interest. With the Maldives endorsing China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on the Maritime Silk Road, Beijing felt that it had developed better hold and influence over a crucial piece of real estate in the Indian Ocean.

The fact that India enjoyed unparalleled access and influence in many of the Indian Ocean island states, including the Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius has been a problem for China. India has been the unofficial security guarantor to these states, providing patrol vessels, helicopters, and military training. So China’s interest in the Maldives was understandable and Beijing was able to secure its interests in Male through the “raw power of financial incentives” to the detriment of Indian interests.

With a new government in the island nation, there is much hope in India that New Delhi and Male will be able to undo some of the damage under the previous regime. Both Modi and Sushma Swaraj, as well as the Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, have promised significant help to deepen and expand the partnership while helping to prevent Maldives from falling into a possible debt trap with China.

However, like in India’s relations with other smaller neighbors, the key question is one of delivery. India has to be mindful of the fact it is competing with China in many of these projects and India will be judged against China’s accomplishments.

Even though things have turned around for India politically in many of the neighboring countries such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives, New Delhi’s ability to match China in providing economic and infrastructural assistance is open to question. While dealing with smaller neighbors, India also needs to become a lot more magnanimous, staying true to its own “Gujral doctrine,” thus creating greater confidence. India has a great opportunity in the Maldives to demonstrate that it can learn from its previous errors.



Modi Visits Japan: What’s on the Security Agenda? @ The Diplomat, October 26, 2018

Here's an article, "Modi Visits Japan: What’s on the Security Agenda?" I wrote for the Diplomat in October before Prime Minister Modi's visit to Japan. Due to some personal issues, I have not updated my blog for more than a month, but hoping to get back on track from now on.


India’s Ministry of External Affairs recently announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will travel to Japan on October 28-29 for the 13th India-Japan Annual Summit. The fifth annual summit meeting between Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will put the bilateral relationship in the spotlight amid wider regional and global changes.

In this article, I examine some of the agenda items on the defense side between India and Japan.

For the full essay, click here.



The India-Japan relationship has expanded over the years, and given the rapidly changing strategic dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, the two leaders are expected to further boost and deepen their bilateral cooperation and discuss a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues that impinge on their security. Nevertheless, there are specific areas on defense that will stand out and potentially further elevate the India-Japan partnership.

At a broad level, the mutual concern between India and Japan about China is evident, and Tokyo and New Delhi hope to be able to present clear and credible alternatives to smaller nations in the Indo-Pacific on economic and infrastructural assistance. So, in that vein, establishing regional connectivity appears to be high on the agenda for both Abe and Modi. Kenji Hiramitsu, Japan’s Ambassador to India, hinted that there may be certain projects for South Asia that may be announced during the summit meeting.

He also reiterated what Abe had stated in his address to the Indian Parliament a decade back, that “a strong India is in the best interest of Japan, and a strong Japan is in the best interest of India.” Many Indian officials acknowledge the importance of Japan in India’s strategic calculations and say that “Few governments align their foreign policies as closely to New Delhi’s as Tokyo. Even fewer have committed as much aid and investment to boost India’s economy.”

Even as there is collaboration across several other sectors between India and Japan, defense and security cooperation has been at the forefront driving the relations in recent years. At a recent interaction at a think tank in India, Hiramitsu said the two sides will strengthen maritime cooperation further on all aspects from maritime domain awareness (MDA) to logistics support and joint exercises. He said, “We are also expecting to sign agreement between Indian Navy and Japan’s Naval Defence Force with regard to maritime domain awareness and security issues. Also defence equipment and technology cooperation, we have agreed to have joint research activities with regard to unmanned vehicles and robotics.”

He also added that for the first time, the two armies will exercise together in a joint drill at the Counter Insurgency Warfare School in Vairengte in India’s northeast, in November. The exercise, to be called “Dharma Guardian 2018” will see the participation of 6/1 Gorkha Rifles on the Indian side and the 32 Infantry Regiment on the Japanese side. This will come close on the heels of the just concluded the JIMEX series of maritime exercises earlier this month. Japan will also participate as an Observer at Cope India, a joint air exercise between India and the United States.

Defense trade is also an important facet of India-Japan defense ties. Talks to procure the US-2 amphibious aircraft are apparently once again on – the ShinMaywa Industries Limited and India’s Mahindra have reportedly signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to manufacture and assemble structural parts and components for the US-2 amphibious aircraft.” Reports have also suggested that this will feature as an important item during Modi’s visit and that there is willingness on both sides to push the deal through a G2G route.

In a particularly significant move, Japan and India are also contemplating the signing of a Mutual Logistical Support Agreement. This agreement, something along the lines of Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA), would be strategically beneficial as it would permit the Indian armed forces and the Japanese Self Defense Force (JSDF) to access each other’s military bases for logistics support.

While neither the Japanese nor the Indian officials have provided any details, it is possibly one like the arrangement India signed with France earlier this year and the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the United States in 2016. According to one report, “sources said the pact would require armed forces of India and Japan to help each other with logistic supports, including food, water, billet, transport (airlift, if necessary), petroleum, oils, lubricants, clothing, communications, medical services, base support, storage, use of facilities, training services, spare parts, repair and maintenance and airport and seaport services.”

Signing such an agreement would give the Indian military access to Japan’s base in Djibouti and the Japanese forces would in turn gain access to Indian military facilities on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, in the Indian Ocean.

But the implications of the pact would be beyond that as well, and it would be a huge boost to the India-Japan strategic partnership more widely too. A major handicap of geographical distance between India and Japan, and therefore the inability of the two sides to reach out in times of crisis and conflict, can be addressed quite effectively with such an arrangement.

Therefore, it is no surprise that logistics and base sharing proposals were initially discussed at the annual defense ministers meeting held in New Delhi earlier this year. Speaking to reporters after that meeting, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said, “The (early) conclusion of the bilateral ACSA is important for creating an environment to allow the SDF and the Indian military to conduct sufficient joint exercises.” This agreement will indeed expand the military reach for the two navies across the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

The possible signing of a logistics agreement and the increasing number of military and security engagements between India and Japan are clear attempts at balancing the growing Chinese muscle in the Indo-Pacific region. The relations have seen a big boost with Abe and Modi at the helm. With both leaders likely to stay in power for a few more years, the prospects for India-Japan security and defense relations continue to remain quite good.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Can the New China-India Thaw Last? - October 19, 2018

Last week, I did my weekly column for The Diplomat on the state of the India-China relations and whether the current thaw is long lasting or not. In the "Can the New China-India Thaw Last?," I argue that despite India’s recent seeking of friendlier ties with Beijing, the future prospects for relations remain uncertain.

A year after Doklam, India appears to be intent on seeking friendlier ties with Beijing. Whether this is sustainable for the long-term, however, is unclear. Even as this process has unfolded, India continues to worry about China’s activities in the neighborhood and continues to build up its ties with other partners, though cautiously.



For the full essay, click here.



Since April, there have been a series of meetings between the top Indian and Chinese leaders, Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping. After the “informal” summit in Wuhan in April, the two met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Qingdao in June and the BRICS leaders’ summit in Johannesburg in July.

At the Wuhan Summit, Modi and Xi agreed to the China-India Plus cooperation format to work in third countries such as Afghanistan. Thereafter, India’s Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale went on to develop an outline for a capacity-building project, which was announced on the sidelines of the SCO summit in Qingdao in June.

On October 15, India and China jointly began a training program for Afghan diplomats in New Delhi, a significant development. Chinese Ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui is reported to have said that the two countries should collaborate in other neighboring countries such as Iran, Nepal, and Myanmar. The 10 Afghan officers, on finishing the training at the Foreign Service Institute in India, will go to China for the second leg as part of the joint training program.

Though Afghanistan sent its diplomats for training under the program, the Afghan leadership is reportedly disappointed with India. Kabul is apparently of the view that because of India joining hands with China, there has been a downgrading of India’s assistance to Afghanistan to “smaller” projects as a way of assuaging Pakistan’s concerns. Reports indicate that “India had, in fact, conceded [to] China’s request to jointly implement a limited ‘capacity building’ project to opt for a smaller project in Afghanistan, possibly to assuage its ally Pakistan’s misgivings.”

India’s efforts to assuage China are not limited to Afghanistan alone. The two sides are slated to sign a bilateral internal security cooperation pact on October 22 during the visit of Zhao Kezhi, China’s minister of public security to India. Intelligence exchange, sharing of best practices, exchange programs, and cooperation in disaster mitigation are some of the areas the two sides intend to cooperate on under this agreement.

Quoting officials, reports suggest that this security cooperation arrangement could possibly lead to an agreement to exchange prisoners in each other’s countries. There are apparently 10 Indian prisoners is Chinese prisons and “an equal number of Chinese in Indian prisons as well,” according to the Financial Express. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled to come to India in December to co-chair a meeting that focuses on people-to-people ties, a decision that was taken by Modi and Xi in the wake of the Doklam crisis.

While New Delhi tries to address Beijing’s concerns, there are questions about how long all this will last, given that there seems to be no letup in the expansion of China’s military and diplomatic presence in India’s periphery. For instance, just as India and China started their joint training program for Afghan diplomats, China was busy deploying PLA Navy submarines in the Indian Ocean after a gap of more than a year. It has been reported that China had sent a Type 039A Yuan class SSK diesel submarine and submarine rescue vessel, which were sighted in the Indian Ocean earlier this month. This is the first such PLA Navy mission in the Indian Ocean since the Doklam crisis.

How India will respond remains to be seen. India’s Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba recently said that India was “working with all like-minded nations and we are in dialogue with China as well.”

Meanwhile, China is also continuing to demonstrate its interest in pushing into India’s sphere of influence in Bhutan. Even though Beijing has no formal diplomatic ties with Thimphu, it has been expanding its footprint in Bhutan for a while now. Reports suggest that China has increased the number of shipments into Bhutan in the past decade, everything from machinery to cement to electrical equipment to toys to the point where China is now “the third largest source of foreign products” to Bhutan.

As India seeks better ties with China, it is also continuing to build up its partnerships in the region. India-Japan maritime cooperation saw a boost with the re-starting of the exercise, JIMEX that concluded earlier this week. India also held the inaugural 2+2 Dialogue with the United States last month and signed the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). India-Australia ties are also seeing some revival with a number of security dialogues and military exercises between the two sides.

On the other hand, in a demonstration of “strategic autonomy” from the United States, India has signed an agreement to purchase the S-400s anti-aircraft missiles from Russia and also plans to buy more oil from Iran from November, despite the threat of U.S. sanctions. Whether India can continue this high stakes strategic tightrope-walking remains to be seen.



Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Japan-India Maritime Exercise 2018: Operational Clarity, Strategic Confusion? - October 16, 2018

In the latest piece for The Diplomat, I wrote on the just-concluded Japan-India Maritime Exercise JIMEX 2018, the third in the series between India and Japan. I argue that while New Delhi’s desire to cultivate closer defense ties with Tokyo is clear, its overall strategic approach is much less so.

Despite India’s ambiguous tone from time to time on the Indo-Pacific strategic concept and the Quad, the revival of the India-Japan maritime exercise underlines the growing concern in the two capitals about the threats to the freedom of navigation and respect for international rules of the road in the Indo-Pacific. JIMEX-18 also reflects the growing comfort level and sophistication of India-Japan military ties, which are informed by the closer strategic vision shared by Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe.

But whether or not this represents India’s broader strategic alignment with states such as the United States and Japan as part of an effort to balance against China and ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) as envisioned by Washington is less clear.



For more, click here.



From October 7 to 15, India and Japan held the third edition of the Japan-India Maritime Exercise (JIMEX) in Visakhapatnam, in southern India. While the exercise is indicative of better bilateral defense ties between the two sides, the strategic message by New Delhi is less clear.

In recent years, interactions between the Indian and Japanese militaries have grown tremendously. The two navies have been coordinating anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden. Japan is also a permanent participant in the Malabar series of naval exercises since 2015, which originally started between the Indian and U.S. navies in 1992. The Malabar 2018 trilateral exercises were held off Guam in June.

The JIMEX series is designed to create better interoperability, ensure better understanding, and share best practices between the two navies. JIMEX-18, the third one in the series, is taking place after a gap of five years and is demonstrative of the worsening maritime scenario in the Indo-Pacific and the greater coincidence of interests between New Delhi and Tokyo especially in the defense and security arena. The last JIMEX took place off the Chennai coast in December 2013.

Despite India’s ambiguous tone from time to time on the Indo-Pacific strategic concept and the Quad, the revival of the India-Japan maritime exercise underlines the growing concern in the two capitals about the threats to the freedom of navigation and respect for international rules of the road in the Indo-Pacific. JIMEX-18 also reflects the growing comfort level and sophistication of India-Japan military ties, which are informed by the closer strategic vision shared by Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe.

But whether or not this represents India’s broader strategic alignment with states such as the United States and Japan as part of an effort to balance against China and ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) as envisioned by Washington is less clear.

In that sense, the JIMEX exercises are another example of the apparent inconsistent Indian approach to the Indo-Pacific that is likely to confuse both India’s partners as much as China. On the one hand, the fact that it was restarted after five years appears to suggest that India is intent on partnering with other countries to dealing with challenges that China’s rise poses.

More broadly, over the last several months, India has sent several signals to this effect. It signed the COMCASA (Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement) with the United States, and conducted bilateral maritime exercises with Australia, in addition to joining the Australian-led multilateral Pitch Black air combat exercise for the first time and the India-Singapore joint naval exercise SIMBEX.

However, over the last few months, India has also taken steps that can only create concerns among the same potential partners. For one, after the Wuhan Summit between Modi and Xi, India’s approach to China appears to have considerably softened, as indicated by Prime Minister Modi’s Shangri-La Dialogue keynote speech back in June. In addition, India has also refused to allow Australia to join the Malabar exercises – despite Australia expressing a keen desire to do so. That would have brought India together with other key potential players in the Indo-Pacific.

India also attended the Senior-Level official meeting of the Quad in June, but it seemed quite lukewarm about the idea. Most recently, India has signed a deal with Russia for the S-400 anti-aircraft systems and Indian government oil companies announced that it was buying more oil from Iran in November, both of which will raise tensions with the United States, a key partner.

Thus, despite restarting the JIMEX exercise, India’s approach continues to show incoherence. To be sure, it is not uncommon for states to hedge their bets. But Indian political and bureaucratic leaders need to consider the effect of such mixed signaling and aim for more consistent policy or if there is an underlying logic to it, explain it better to India’s partners and observers.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Asia in space: cooperation or conflict? - 10 October 2018

In this week as we celebrate the World Space Week from 4-10 October 2018, I published a short essay examining where Asia is in the outer space domain, what the prospects and challenges are in the coming years. In this essay, Asia in space: cooperation or conflict?, published by APPS Policy Forum, an initiative of the Crawford School of Public Policy, I argue that national security casts a dark shadow on Asia’s spacefaring ambitions. As in other domains, space will likely be no exception to Asia's great power rivalries.



The outer space environment has undergone significant changes in the last decade. Countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa are driving many of these changes. Nevertheless, there are differences in the storylines of these regions as far as their space programs are concerned.

Asia presents a mixed story. While many countries approach space activities in the context of climate change and natural calamities, there are also countries looking at space with an excessive focus on national security. This is not the case in Africa and Latin America, where space programs almost have a total focus on social and development aspects.

For the full essay, click here.



Space programs in the Asian and Indo-Pacific region are dominated by three established spacefaring powers – China, India and Japan – and several emerging players, including Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Malaysia, North Korea, Pakistan, Singapore, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam.

Six of the ten countries that have demonstrated independent launch capabilities are in Asia – China, India, Iran, Israel, Japan and North Korea – a fact that demonstrates the increasing proficiency of the space programs in the region. The key question is whether this increasing Asian proficiency in outer space will lead to more cooperation or competition. Also of interest will be how the established and emerging spacefaring nations in Asia will contribute to the global governance of outer space.

There are currently two regional space cooperation organisations – the Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum (APRSAF) promoted by Japan, and the Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization (APSCO) under China’s leadership. The very existence of two regional space organisations indicates the sharp divisions at play in the Asian context. At the same time, there is no institutional mechanism to coordinate between these two regional initiatives.

APRSAF, APSCO, and the major players in the region must find a way to cooperate in a couple of different areas. One area is climate change and related environmental issues – here countries could find ways to cut costs on key technologies as a parameter for collaboration.

A second, pertinent area for Asian countries to come together would be in writing the rules of the road for space, whether through legally binding rules or through normative instruments. Given the contentious nature of major power relationships in Asia, it appears unlikely that space will emerge as a platform for cooperation among all the major Asian spacefaring powers. Instead, it is possible that the divide will only get deeper, with one set of countries led by China and a second one led by Japan and India.

Unfortunately, this is likely to be the case because the underlying disagreements are quite deep-rooted. While all the major Asian powers acknowledge that space should be used only for peaceful purposes, the growing gap between the rhetoric and reality on the ground is stunning.

China’s anti-satellite test in 2007 is a case in point. The 2007 test, as well as the ones that were conducted subsequently under the garb of missile defence tests, have created new debates in countries such as India and Japan as to how they must respond in order to protect their own interests in space and create an effective deterrence. Clearly, the geopolitical tensions in the terrestrial world have managed to infect the sanctity of one of the global commons.

China’s longer-term plans for outer space have also raised concerns. China’s human space activities have remained an integral part of its goal to construct and operate a space station in low earth orbit by 2024, by which time it could be the only operating space station. Unless the partners in the International Space Station (ISS) are able to find a financially sustainable option, the ISS could be winding down by this time.

After dismissing the utility of inter-planetary or human spaceflight missions for decades, India has decided to join in too. For years, India had remained hesitant about human spaceflight programs, arguing that there are no major spin-offs in technological terms. The decision by the Indian government in August to have a manned mission by 2022 is a partial reflection of the competition in Asia.

Inter-planetary missions were similarly not a big priority for India, but again New Delhi is mindful of the need to undertake such missions to demonstrate its own advancing space prowess. Such demonstrations have implications for both security and the global commercial space market. A similar trajectory can also be seen in Japan, where a purely civilian space program is shifting gears towards a more military orientation.

The 20th century saw outer space competition play out between the two superpowers of the day, the US and the USSR. Today, space technology and programs are more spread out, with over 60 players including non-state, private commercial players.

While the participation of the private sector in space is still largely a Western phenomenon, there are many private space firms beginning to develop in China, India and Japan as well. The entry of commercial actors has driven innovation, making access to space a lot cheaper and more competitive.

These are important developments, yet what has had the most significant impact in driving space-related competition is the shift in the global balance of power. The international power struggle has had a deleterious impact on the governance of this particular global commons.

The trend towards developing counter-space capabilities is particularly worrying, and it’s a trend that is quite evident in Asia. The fact that Asia has some of the fastest growing economies also means higher military spending, including for military outer-space programs. On top of this, the seemingly unending sovereignty and territorial disputes make it difficult to generate better collaboration on even unrelated issues, such as writing the rules of the road in outer space.

Ultimately, while all powers would possibly benefit from greater cooperation in outer space, the prospects appear dim.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Modi-Putin Summit: What’s on the Agenda for India-Russia Defense Ties? - October 4, 2018

In last week's column, I wrote on the Modi-Putin Summit, which took place on 5 October. In the "Modi-Putin Summit: What’s on the Agenda for India-Russia Defense Ties?," I focus as to how both India and Russia remain focused on defence trade to keep the relations on an even keel.


As Putin arrives in New Delhi, there is both excitement and uneasiness around the visit and what might come of it. There is excitement on both sides about a couple of important defense deals and there are plans to strengthen and streamline civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries. But there is also anxiety in New Delhi about the growing Russia-China ties and what that could mean for India.



On October 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin is to hold the India-Russia annual summit meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi. The last summit meeting took place in St. Petersburg in 2017, and Putin and Modi met last for an informal summit in Sochi in May this year.

The summit process between India and Russia started way back in 2000 and since then, the relationship has been elevated to a “Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership.” The India-Russia strategic partnership is important for a number of reasons, but the two countries also face significant challenges. The relationship in the last few years have undergone some big changes, not all of them positive. The key question therefore is to see if the age-old bilateral relationship is sturdy enough to withstand some of the current turbulence.

As Putin arrives in New Delhi, there is both excitement and uneasiness around the visit and what might come of it. There is excitement on both sides about a couple of important defense deals and there are plans to strengthen and streamline civil nuclear cooperation between the two countries. But there is also anxiety in New Delhi about the growing Russia-China ties and what that could mean for India.

On the other hand, Moscow remains anxious about India’s changing strategic orientation, particularly its relationship with the United States, and New Delhi’s defense trade diversification policy, among other issues. Russia has failed to appreciate the Indian strategic calculation behind its closer strategic engagement with the United States and other partners such as Japan and Australia.

From India’s perspective, Russia remains an important strategic partner for a number of different reasons. The historical character of the bilateral relationship aside, there are several strategic factors that impinge on the Russia-India dynamic. For one, Russia remains the only partner that is still willing to give India critical technologies, such as a nuclear submarine. Two, the emerging Russia-China strategic relationship has important security consequences for India. Even as India is diversifying its defense trade partners, Russia still dominates the Indian defense inventory to the tune of about 70 per cent. This raises worries in India because of the changing nature of the Russia-China defense relationship.

To take just one example, Russia’s sale of Su-30 and especially the Su-35 fighter puts India’s security at some risk. Russia’s sale of advanced Kilo-class submarines is another instance. These are illustrations of the important changes in the Russia-China security dynamics because Beijing for a long time was not given access to the best and most modern Russian technology and there was no technology transfer. The Russia-China oil and gas deals over the last few years also is a testament to this new closer partnership.

On the other hand, there are positive elements also in India-Russia relationship. Civil nuclear cooperation and defense and technology collaboration will dominate the Putin-Modi Summit meeting. The two sides are believed to be formalizing an action plan on nuclear cooperation. The two sides are also expected to sign an agreement for the purchase of the advanced S-400 Triumf air defense systems worth more than $5 billion.

This deal has been under threat because of the US’ CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) legislation, which seeks to sanction any country that does significant business with Russia in the defense or intelligence domains. Even though U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has sought an exemption for India, and the U.S. Congress has given the U.S. administration the authority to waive CAATSA, it is up to the president to decide on whether such a waiver will be granted.

Irrespective of how the CAATSA sanctions may play out, India appears quite certain that it wants the S-400 because of the technological superiority of the system. India has explored a financial mechanism where India can make the payment in rupees rather than in U.S. dollars. Though the United States has not indicated how it will react to the S-400 deal, Washington has been somewhat understanding because India over the last few years has diversified its defense procurement and reduced its dependency on Russia to some extent, which is one of the conditions for gaining a CAATSA waiver.

Russia, for its part, appears quite confident that the deal will go through. Igor Korotchenko, head of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade noted that “the U.S. won’t impose sanctions on them because they don’t want the Indians to refuse to purchase American weapons in the future.”

There are reports suggesting that there may be an agreement also for the sale of four frigates to India. Under the deal, two of the advanced Talwar-class frigates will be directly purchased from Russia’s Yantar Shipyard and delivered in two years’ time, while the next two will be built at the Goa Shipyard. Although of an earlier previous generation, the Indian Navy already operates six of the Talwar-class frigates. Defense analysts add that the newer frigates will be equipped with the Brahmos missiles.

There is also the possibility of Russia-India cooperation on Amur-class submarine. Andrei I Baranov, Deputy Director General for Foreign Activities at Rubin Design Bureau which builds these submarines, promised that India will be able to have 80 percent indigenization. The potential for collaboration to jointly develop Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) is also a possibility.

Such defense deals and nuclear energy cooperation should keep the India-Russia relationship afloat for the time being. But they will not assuage New Delhi’s long terms concerns about the increasingly close Russia-China strategic partnership.