Monday, August 20, 2018

Should Rising China-Nepal Military Ties Worry India? - 20 August 2018

In this week's column for the Diplomat, "Should Rising China-Nepal Military Ties Worry India?," I analyse the growing China-Nepal military ties and what it might mean for India's security. New Delhi’s concerns are growing, and perhaps understandably so.



There has been no shortage of references recently to the fact that China and Nepal are about to conduct a second round of joint military exercises, titled Sagarmatha, in Chengdu in Sichuan, China, next month. The two countries held their first joint military exercise, Sagarmatha Friendship 2017, for 10 days in Kathmandu in April last year.

Often neglected in a focus on headlines alone is the fact that it has been reported that there will be no more than 15 personnel taking part in this edition of the exercise. Nonetheless, even as the scale and sophistication of the China-Nepal joint military exercise is nowhere comparable to the kind that India holds with Nepal, it still raises hackles in New Delhi.

For the full essay, click here.



India does the Surya Kiran series of military exercise with Nepal twice a year, alternating between India and Nepal. The last one, SURYA KIRAN-XIII, was held in June this year. Reportedly, this series of military exercise with Nepal remains the “largest military exercise in terms of troop participation” that the Indian army undertakes with any other country. A press statement noted that that the focus of the exercise was on counterterrorism operations.

While India can find some solace in the depth of New Delhi’s relations with Nepal, India’s concerns nonetheless have been growing about this new facet of the China-Nepal relationship that has seen an uptick, particularly in recent years.

That concern is not entirely without reason. India’s own relations with Nepal have seen some testing times. More generally, Beijing’s proactive diplomacy in South Asia and the Indian Ocean remains particularly sensitive to New Delhi. While these are not new manifestations to be sure, China’s outreach has indeed picked up the pace in recent years.

The growing security ties between China and Nepal also comes in the wake of growing commercial and economic linkages as well. China pumped in more than $8 billion in investments in Nepal last year and overtook India as the biggest foreign investor three years ago. That is no small feat.

To be sure, it has not all been smooth sailing for China. For example, Nepal recently cancelled two massive hydroelectric projects that Chinese firms were contracted to build. Furthermore, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been stepping up his outreach to Nepal as well, making his third visit to Kathmandu in just four years.

But, for perspective, Modi’s latest visit was also to repair the damage done by the two-month long Indian economic blockade of Nepal in 2015, a move that had caused serious hardships for ordinary Nepalis. Everything from fuel to medicines and earthquake relief supplies were affected, resulting in a huge backlash against India in Nepal. This had happened in the backdrop of Nepal’s efforts to amend its Constitution and India’s efforts at championing the case of the Madhesi people, which made India a villain in the eyes of ordinary Nepalis. Following these events, Nepal’s outreach to China grew even as the Himalayan Kingdom attempts to maintain a balance in its relationship with these two giants on its border.

That balance appears set to continue. For example, former Prime Minister of Nepal and alliance partner of the Oli Government, P K Dahal Prachanda, is slated to visit India next month from September 7 to 12, a few days before he travels to China. Prime Minister Oli too had done this balancing act earlier this year, when he travelled to India first before he headed to Beijing.

All of this indicates that the Oli government is possibly just keeping its options open, and that there are really no major or dramatic changes to Nepal’s foreign policy in spite of individual moves that might be taken.

Yet India’s fears about China’s encirclement in the neighborhood are not without any basis. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s aggressive strategic pitch through his Belt and Road Initiative and debt trap diplomacy have seen the strengthening of China’s footprint in the Indian neighborhood.

The case of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port is the oft-cited case in point. But the Maldivian government’s approach toward India is another instance of how the traditionally pro-India Maldives has turned against New Delhi, with support from China.

To be sure, India must shoulder its own share of blame for not managing these relations well. But the fact also is that for the smaller countries in the region, the economic incentives offered by China has been critical. Nepal’s decision to join the BRI will beef up Beijing’s role and presence in Kathmandu manifold. Similarly, Modi’s efforts to stem China’s influence in Nepal would depend on India’s ability to deliver on the promises made during Oli’s visit to India earlier this year, apart from any wider geopolitical calculations or moves.

It is worth keeping in mind that the fact that India and China are competing on similar projects including infrastructure development means this competition is likely to be lopsided. India does not enjoy a good track record in completing such ventures on time. The India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral way is a case in point, with the project, initially conceptualized in 2002, seeing many delays and the latest update suggests 2021 as the completion date.

Certainly, in an election year, Modi will want to show clear successes in his neighborhood-first approach. But unless India strengthens its delivery capacity, New Delhi is bound to continue to lose to China. Ultimately, irrespective of what India’s neighbors do with China in the economic or military domains, New Delhi’s surest bet to shore up ties with these countries is to focus on shoring up its own reputation as a provider of security and prosperity. Nepal is no exception to this rule.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Hidden Failure of US-India Counterterrorism Cooperation, August 15, 2018

This week, I wrote for The Diplomat on the nature and effectiveness of India's counter-terrorism efforts, in The Hidden Failure of US-India Counterterrorism Cooperation, While New Delhi is getting more diplomatic support for its position, it is doing little to change the threat Pakistan poses.



Late last month, the United States penalized three Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) terrorists and terror financiers as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) in a move that challenged Pakistan’s professed earnestness in its fight against terrorism.

With the objective of restricting the financing and fundraising of the LeT, the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated two of the group’s financial facilitators, Hameed ul Hassan (Hassan) and Abdul Jabbar (Jabbar), as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs) in accordance with Executive Order (E.O.) 13224.

The two individuals were accused of working with or on behalf of the LeT. Sigal Mandelker, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said that these “financial facilitators” were responsible for “collecting, transporting and distributing funds to support this terrorist group and provide salaries to extremists.”

The consequences are not insignificant. This action prohibits any U.S. citizens from conducting any transactions with them, in addition to blocking the property and assets in the name of the two individuals within the United States. In addition to blocking the LeT’s financial assets and network, it will seriously impair their capacity to raise funds for their activities.



The individuals in question are also notable. According to the U.S. Treasury Department notification, Hassan has been a financial facilitator for LeT, having worked earlier with Falah-e Insaniat Foundation, an alias of LeT, to send funds to Syria in late 2016. The notification provides additional background information too: Earlier in 2016, Hassan worked with his brother, Muhammad Ijaz Safarash and Khalid Walid to send funds to Pakistan on behalf of LeT. Safarash and Walid were earlier designated as SDGTs for their links with LeT in March 2016 and September 2012 respectively.

Hassan on his Twitter account identifies himself as the leader of Jamat-ud Dawah (an alias of LeT) in Azad Kashmir. Likewise, Jabbar also has been a financier for LeT and is believed to have been working for the finance department of LeT since 2000.

The third person designated as an SDGT is Abdul Rehman al-Dakhil. This measure will similarly impose sanctions on the terrorist leader, blocking his property and assets in the United States as well denying his ability to engage in fundraising activities. Al- Dakhil, was “an operational leader for LeT’s attacks in India between 1997 and 2001” according to the State Department. Al- Dakhil was a senior divisional commander for the Jammu region in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir in 2016. As of early 2018, he was a senior commander within LeT.

There is no doubt that the designation of the Pakistan-based LeT and penalizing it for their continuing acts of terrorism highlights the increasing synergy between India and the United States on counterterrorism. And one ought not to understate the importance of that collaboration.

But at the same time, that cooperation also has its limits. It is doubtful that these designations, and other moves like it, would be in any way sufficient to deter Pakistan and Pakistan-based terrorist organizations from continuing terrorist attacks against India.

Of course, the U.S. move has been welcomed by the Indian establishment. The MEA spokesperson in his press briefing said, “India welcomes the announcements… The announcement vindicates India’s consistent stand that internationally designated terrorist groups and Individuals, including LeT and it’s front, Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation [FIF], continue to operate from and raise financial resources with impunity in Pakistan, and use territories under its control for carrying out cross-border terrorism in India and elsewhere in South Asia.” Clearly, New Delhi is pleased.

On the other hand, both the LeT and Jamat-ud Dawah have been under both U.S. and UN terrorist group categorization for some time. The U.S. designation is the only the latest in a long string of Indian diplomatic victories in getting other countries and groups to support the Indian position on terrorism, even though there have also been occasional setbacks such as China blocking the effort in the UN to put Masood Azhar, a leader of the Jaish-e-Mohammad terror group, in a list of UN-designated terrorists.

There are questions about the utility of this diplomatic strategy. Pakistan has shown little indication that its policies will be dictated by fear of international diplomatic response. Thus, India is facing a situation today where it has substantial diplomatic success in its fight against terror, but with little real benefit in terms of any reduction in the threat it faces. Facing up to this reality is also challenging because it requires New Delhi to consider harder options that it has little appetite for.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Trouble With China’s Edge in the AI Arms Race - 10 August 2018

In this week's column for the Diplomat, I write on the AI arms race and possible implications, The Trouble With China’s Edge in the AI Arms Race. Beijing’s rising capabilities, while not surprising, should raise concerns for the region.


Artificial Intelligence or AI, simply described as the machine intelligence, has come to apply itself in several different sectors across countries in recent years, including healthcare, finance, education and security. But it has also increasingly become inserted into wider geopolitical conversations about the capabilities of major powers, including the United States and China.

For the full post, click here.



Within that aspect of the ongoing conversation, in terms of market share within the industry, the leaders in the field include the United States, with around 40 percent of the global market by some accounts, with countries like China, Israel, Germany, Canada and Russia fast catching up.

But market share is just one indicator of capabilities in this realm. Arguably the more important criteria to understand the lead in the domain is possibly the data that one is able to gather. On that count, it is estimated that China is possibly well ahead of the United States, perhaps aided by the fact that privacy laws in many countries, especially democracies, can dampen data access, thus hampering the prospects of AI, as noted by Microsoft President Brad Smith recently.

Reports suggest that China is probably ahead of the United States in terms of the amount of personal data collected, owing to many factors including the fact “it is a larger country” and the opportunities for collecting information in a country like China are “colossal.”

Chinese government wants to overtake the United States and be the global leader in the field by 2030. China has been making massive investments to create a huge pool of AI experts – in one indicator, it was reported that during the period 2011-2015, China had published more than 41,000 papers on AI, almost double the number of that of the United States. China is also ahead of the United States in patent applications for AI, with Chinese tech giants including Alibaba and Baidu making massive investments in AI.

The regional competition within China to set up AI hubs is also picking up pace. Tianjin, a coastal province in northern China, for instance, revealed $16 billion in funding for AI in the province. There is a clear economic logic to this too, with China attempting to use the AI as a platform to make the switch from being the world’s factory of cheap goods to a technology pioneer. A Cabinet note in China last year stated that by 2030, it will leap ahead with a global lead on AI theory, technology, and application.

However, there is little doubt that China’s leap in AI will extend far beyond civilian sectors and into the military as well. China intends to apply AI in important security sectors such as in the warfighting domain with special emphasis on naval warfare. China has established many AI institutes, but the most eye-catching one from a security perspective is a new research center established by the PLA Academy of Military Science. China’s National Defense University too has a new center for AI sciences, in addition to Tsinghua University’s “high-end” laboratory for military intelligence.

Both the United States and Russia are making efforts to catch up with China in terms of the number of institutions and centers focused on AI. Both countries will reportedly open their own centers for AI in the near future, although there are significant differences in which the three countries approach AI. For instance, Russian efforts are driven closely by the Kremlin, whereas China seeks to combine the civilian and military utilities of AI in a big way. The United States, at least for the time being, is looking at AI for assistance in areas such as logistics and open-source data analysis.

Clearly, there is a big surge in AI research in China, and it is easy to come to some hasty conclusions about how that might play out. According to Jeffrey Ding, a researcher at the University of Oxford and author of a study on China’s AI strategy, China’s capabilities as on date are “only about half those of the US.” He argues that the United States has an edge in AI when it comes to hardware design, algorithmic research, and overall commercial linkages. China’s edge is possibly in terms of the data they are about to churn through a mix of Chinese “private” companies and government agencies. Some groups estimate that China “will possess about 30 per cent of the world’s data” in about a decade.

For many countries around the world, China’s lead in AI itself is not much of a concern. But how that aids Beijing’s military plans in the future should cause some worry. China’s plans to develop large autonomous robotic submarines, to give just one example, create anxieties. These are believed to “large, smart and relatively low-cost,” unmanned in nature and can traverse the international strategic maritime spaces by 2020s.

The traditional advantage held by the western naval powers such as the United States, and Asian maritime powers such as Japan and India, could possibly be eroded by the new Chinese venture. These submarines could be entrusted with underwater operations including mine placement, reconnaissance, and anti-carrier kamikaze ops aimed at the United States and its allies. Zhuhai in Guangdong province boasts of having the world’s largest testing facility for surface drone boats.

While China does not plan to do away with human operators in submarines totally, these AI-assisted underwater boats will have no humans on board and they will have the self-sufficient capacity to head out, complete their missions, and head back to the base without any command support.

It is worth noting that this could also heighten regional security competition more generally. China’s new venture is unlikely to go ahead without any competition, and this could in fact drive a new competition on the naval front as well. In fact, the United States has plans to develop its own Extra Large Underwater Unmanned Vehicles (XLUUVs), for instance, and Boeing and Lockheed Martin are already on the job.

China is also pushing AI in tank warfare by reportedly converting its old Type 59 Soviet tanks into unmanned vehicles fitted with AI. Reports indicate that back in 2014, China had set up its first dedicated research center for unmanned ground vehicles. While the tanks’ main gun was not visible in the recent China Central Television (CCTV) footage, Indian analysts familiar with tank warfare note that it is only a matter of time.

China’s advances in the military domain using AI are nothing short of remarkable. Clearly, such AI-assisted systems, if they are successfully deployed, give China a huge edge. But this will also likely spur a new technological arms race in the region, giving defense planners one more thing to worry about.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

India’s China Challenge in Africa, July 31, 2018

Last week, I analysed for The Diplomat India’s China Challenge in Africa as both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister undertook a three-nation African tour before heading to the BRICS Summit in South Africa.

While the tenth iteration of the BRICS Summit brought its own share of headlines, an equally notable development was the effort put by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to tour key African states ahead of the meeting alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own visits. The effort spotlighted New Delhi’s continued bid to strengthen its influence in the continent despite the clear limitations it has relative to Beijing.

For the full post, click here.



While India has engaged Africa for long, its capacity to effect changes have been limited primarily due to lack of India’s economic capacity. Conversely, China’s deep pockets and the larger trade engagement have seen it garner far greater influence. Chinese investments in Africa have been growing for more than a decade. In 2014, China-Africa bilateral trade was around $220 billion. In comparison, India-Africa bilateral trade in March 2016-17 was $52 billion.

Modi’s forays to Rwanda and Uganda, before landing in South Africa for the BRICS Summit, was an attempt to bring about new dynamism in the India-Africa relationship. In Rwanda, which has China as its largest trading partner and had inked a strategic partnership with Beijing just last year, Modi became the first Indian leader to visit the country and signed several agreements on trade, agriculture, and defense. In Uganda, Modi delivered the first-ever address for an Indian premier and announced two key lines of credit alongside support for African states across sectors such as agriculture, health, education, infrastructure, defense, and energy sectors.

To be sure, both China and India have downplayed the Sino-Indian rivalry factor in each country’s engagement in Africa. In an effort to downplay the strategic and economic competition in Africa between India and China, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Geng Shuang during a press briefing said that “both China and India are willing to help Africa within the South-South cooperation framework to accelerate its industrialization and achieve self-driven development… China and India are on the same page in this regard.” But even as Chinese officials make such claims, Xi has signed several agreements furthering China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), many components of which has been objected to by India.

Indian officials have similarly echoed Chinese ones in rejecting any competition. TS Tirumurti, a senior official in India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said that the Modi visit was simply a continuation of India’s long relations with Africa, which go “back…to Mahatma Gandhi.”

The reality is much different and also clearer. While New Delhi often makes claims of about its century-old historical relationship with Africa, there can be little doubt that the new Indian focus on Africa is more the result of China’s growing footprint in Africa. China in the last few years has been strengthening its presence and influence in Africa, as well as some of the African littoral states in the Indian Ocean. India’s nervousness with the growing Chinese maritime interests is quite real. In response, India is now trying to step up its cooperation with a number of countries including Seychelles and Mauritius (incidentally, Xi is also included Mauritius in his African tour). The Indian Ocean region along with the littoral states will become much more vital in the coming years, with these maritime spaces carrying two-thirds of the global oil cargo, one third of the bulk cargo, and half of all container traffic.

For New Delhi, Africa has become a lot more significant because of China’s proactive engagement in the region. But at the same time, India’s long neglect and the inadequate economic capacity are serious disadvantages in the face of China’s strategic push and the economic muscle. Nonetheless, India’s promises and commitments will be judged against China’s projects in the region. New Delhi’s biggest challenge has been its inability to deliver on the promises that it makes. There is little sign that India has done much about this, adding to the doubts about India’s capacity to compete with China.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

What Does the Trump-Putin Summit Mean for India’s US-Russia Worry? - 19 July 2018

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I wrote on the Trump-Putin summit in Helsinki and what it means for New Delhi.

While some of America’s allies and partners were aghast at U.S. President Donald Trump’s performance during the recent Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, reaction in India was somewhat different. There was actually greater hope than dread leading up to the summit, and in its aftermath somewhat greater disappointment at the reaction in the United States to the summit than in Trump’s performance.



The reasons are not that difficult to understand. India’s traditional and continuing security relationship with Russia and its growing partnership with the United States meant that there was a desire in India that Russia and the United States would patch up their deteriorating ties. This troubled relationship was clearly putting Russia on the defensive and pushing Moscow to seek closer ties with China and even Pakistan, leading to consternation in New Delhi.

Much of this was obviously the result of Russia’s tensions in its relations with the West in general and the United States in particular. But that tension also meant that India had to balance its relationships with two of its closest security partners. This is not a place that India wants to be in, especially as it faces growing pressure from China.

Ideally, India would like to have both Russia and the United States in its corner to deal with China. After all, both of these countries are worried about China. China’s rise is threatening to push the United States out of the Indo-Pacific, while creating a powerful potential adversary on Russia’s eastern front. They should be natural partners with each other and with India, except that they appear unwilling to recognize their clear common interest sufficiently to bury their differences. The hope was that Trump and Putin might begin to reverse course.

For the full essay, click here.



This consideration shaped much of the response of Indian commentators, although there has been no official comment from the government. Prior to the meeting, the expectation was that “any thaw in U.S.-Russia relations would come as a relief.” Analysts were also concerned about the impact CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) would have if the U.S.-Russia relations did not improve.

Some also believe that the Trump-Putin meeting provides a window of opportunity “to establish clear lines of understanding” and seek an exemption for the Indian government to procure the S-400 air defense system from Russia. Others fear a much larger dynamic could be at play and that this could set in motion the dismantling of the Eurasian geopolitical order that the United States had built and nurtured for decades. Arguments were also made highlighting the stabilizing effects of improved U.S.-Russia ties for not just the two countries but for the broader global order as well.

Indian commentators were thus both excited and nervous about the Trump-Putin meeting. An overall improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow could possibly ease the strain in Indian diplomacy. On the other hand, worsening of the U.S.-Russia ties post-Helsinki meeting could have multiple adverse reactions. For one, it will make India’s choices in the defense and security realm quite challenging. Indian interest in buying the S-400s is just one instance. Even as India has diversified its defense procurement, its defense inventory is still Russia-dominated. Additionally, there are technologies and platforms that no other country is willing to part with to India as yet, at least in the immediate time frame and therefore India will continue to be dependent on Russia for a number of important technologies, as well as spare parts and the upkeep of its existing defense infrastructure.

But more importantly, further deterioration of Russia’s ties with the West and isolationism will drive Moscow further into the China’s arms, which will exacerbate the strategic challenges for India and restrict the choices for India. A close Russia-China strategic partnership also creates real worries in the security sector. For instance, the Russian sale of advanced weapon platforms to China such as the Su-35 and the Kilo-class submarines only serve to widen the disparity in the military balance between India and China.

Furthermore, while Russia continues its diplomatic support for India in various forums for now, this could also potentially change in the future. The Russian keenness to build political and military relations with Pakistan has also raised concern in New Delhi not as much for the scale of the relations (at least for the time being) as an indicator of how far away Russia has moved away from India. The fact that the emerging Moscow-Islamabad ties could be an afterthought of the strategic ties between Russia and China offers little comfort.

Tensions between Russia and the United States might make Moscow uncomfortable with the growing ties between India and the United States, even if this is not directed at Russia. But New Delhi also sees little choice, considering the challenge it faces from China. The harsh bipartisan domestic reaction in the United States to President Trump’s performance, and his back-peddling on some of his comments with President Putin, means that there is little hope that there will be much improvement in U.S.-Russia ties in the immediate future. So, New Delhi will likely have to continue to worry about any fallout that might affect India.

Friday, July 13, 2018

What Did Moon's India Visit Achieve?, @Diplomat, July 13, 2018

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I wrote on South Korean President Moon Jae-In's visit to India.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in was in India this week on a four-day state visit, after which he moved on to Singapore. The visits put a focus on South Korea’s foreign policy development under Moon and its efforts to strengthen ties with regional states.



The visits have been cast as part of Moon’s New Southern Policy, focused on India and ASEAN. Part of the rationale in this policy is that Moon is trying to diversify South Korea’s relations, particularly with significant countries in the region, beyond just China. In the backdrop of some strains in the bilateral relationship between Seoul and Beijing, there are some within South Korea who endorse this changed approach in its foreign and strategic engagements and consider it as “a timely, even necessary, development.”

For the full article, click here.



Considering the larger geopolitical developments underway in the Indo-Pacific, the expectation might have been that both Moon and Prime Minister Narendra Modi would have tried to drive the bilateral relationship from an economic and trade to a security and strategic perspective.

But a look at the bilateral engagements and agreements signed by the two sides shows that economic and commercial ties still dominate this relationship. The two sides signed 11 agreements including on Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Big Data, and anti-dumping.

To be sure, South Korea has long played a key role in India’s economic growth story since the early 1990s, when India liberalized its economy and opened its market. But at the same time, while trade and economic ties are important to give substance to the partnership, the two sides should not lose sight of the strategic imperative that are forcing critical shifts in their foreign policies and there are immense possibilities for the future.

During the visit, Moon and Modi announced a shared vision for building a new era of India-Korea Special Strategic Partnership, a reference to the tag that the relationship was elevated to during Modi’s visit to Seoul in 2015.

The vision spells out a number of initiatives in the foreign policy and strategic realm, reflecting the regional anxieties and tensions and a shared approach to addressing these. The two leaders have, for instance, emphasized freedom of navigation, overflight, and unimpeded lawful commerce; resolving disputes on the basis of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and international law; as well as contending with the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, which is a shared priority. They also pledged to strengthen various elements of military-to-military cooperation as well through areas like training, exchanges, and research and development.

To be sure, that shared vision does not mean South Korea and India are entirely aligned across the board on issues. South Korea so far has not been part of initiatives such as the so-called “Quad” or even other related minilaterals, in part because its own approach to China is a more complex and ambivalent one.

Nonetheless, there have been clear efforts by the Moon government to cultivate ties with other regional states such as India, whether as part of a diversification strategy or to make further inroads with respect to new strategic partners and markets. Recent incidents, including accusations of China flying military aircraft into the Korean air defense identification zone without providing prior notification and China’s combative reactions to the South Korean decision to deploy a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea, have shaken Seoul’s confidence in Beijing. Even as relations between Seoul and Beijing have shown signs of warming up, South Korea’s quest for a broader foreign policy approach along with the need for newer markets are visible in Moon’s outreach.

Within this context, trade is still likely to be critical in the India-South Korea relationship. Especially after its business was hit hard last year following China’s reactions to South Korea’s THAAD decision, Seoul is looking to diversify its economic presence and India offers plentiful opportunities in this regard. The large export market, in addition to providing infrastructural development support, can push the India-South Korea economic relations to newer heights. In 2015, during Modi’s visit, the two sides had signed a Framework of Cooperation in the areas of road transportation and highways and another MoU in maritime transport and logistics. The two sides are also eyeing development and infrastructure projects in third countries such as in Afghanistan.

One other area where new cooperation could emerge is in defense technology. South Korea’s expertise in developing high-end defense electronics should be of particular interest to India. One of the agreements signed during the visit pertains to defense industry collaboration, and India last year signed an agreement for the development of artillery guns under the Make in India initiative. To be sure, there are obstacles: as an example, India’s plans to collaborate with South Korea for the co-production of the 12 minesweepers for the Indian Navy fell apart earlier this year due to cost and transfer of technology issues. But there definitely potential here for closer cooperation, as there is in the India-South Korea relationship more broadly.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Why India’s Nuclear Security Challenge Demands Attention - July 5, 2018

In last week's piece for the Diplomat, "Why India’s Nuclear Security Challenge Demands Attention," I looked at thee urgent need for India to tackle one area in nuclear security - its nuclear regulator. The government for close to a decade has been planning to get a Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill passed in the Parliament that would replace the current Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) and also establish a Council of Nuclear Safety (CNS) under the leadership of the Prime Minister. The Bill was originally tabled in the Parliament in 2011 which lapsed in 2014 as the country went into general elections. It is four years since the Modi Government came into office but the Bill is yet to be introduced.

For the full essay, click here.



Nuclear security has been a key issue for India for several decades, well before the world started paying greater attention to the subject after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Given the kind of neighborhood that India is in, securing nuclear and radiological materials from a range of internal and external challenges has remained a major preoccupation.

Such concerns shaped the Indian approach, which took the form of a number of institutional and legal measures, some of which go back to the 1960s. These measures have been periodically revised to adapt to the changing threat environment. Though the likelihood of an attack on a nuclear facility may be remote, the impact of such an attack could potentially be horrendous. This has led to greater official Indian attention leading to better interface between policy, regulation, and technology to implement a more effective security practice.

Even so, India is lagging in one area: the regulation of India’s nuclear sector. For example, India’s nuclear regulator, the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), is not entirely independent of the Department of Atomic Energy, calling into question the independence of the AERB.

One critical step to address this has been the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill that was initially tabled in the Indian Parliament in September 2011. The bill would have created a more independent nuclear regulator. However, with the country going into general elections, that bill lapsed and is yet to be reintroduced in the Parliament. The BJP government has not shown much inclination in attending to the NSRA bill, though it is critical of it for several reasons.

That is unfortunate. The passing of the bill and its consequences at home and abroad would be a major boost for India’s nuclear security. At home, setting up the NSRA would demonstrate the independence of its nuclear regulator, and that would certainly only improve the formulation of India’s nuclear security policies and practices. These additional steps are not difficult to establish either. India has already been practicing many additional measures, be it physical protection, nuclear transportation, or insider threats. However, India has yet to streamline these in a proper framework that is in line with international standards.

Abroad, India’s policies and the steps that it takes, especially on nuclear safety and security issues, are critical in strengthening India’s case for integration into the global non-proliferation architecture. As India once again makes its case for membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in the December plenary, there is an opportunity for New Delhi to showcase its efforts in this regard.

India’s officialdom needs to understand that no country has a fool-proof security regime but as in nuclear safety, nuclear security regime will continually evolve and improve. In that context, taking up and passing the NSRA bill indeed will have positive impact both internally and externally. Internally, it will only improve the security, safety and regulatory practices. Externally, it is critical to strengthen India’s nuclear security credentials among the larger global nuclear community.

The sad part is that India does have a good story to tell when it comes to nuclear security policies and practices. What India seems to lack is the self-confidence about its own achievements in nuclear safety and security and be willing to engage and learn from others as well. India has an opportunity to take the lead especially since the Nuclear Security Summit process has come to an end.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken some initiatives, such as announcing that that India will be hosting a WMD Terrorism Summit in 2018. Not much has been heard about the summit since the announcement but it is believed that India might be holding the Summit sometime early next year. With election around the corner, its prospects, along with that of the NSRA, remain in doubt.

This is why it is essential that before its term ends, the Modi government must go ahead and table the NSRA bill. In addition to replacing the AERB, the bill seeks to establish a Council of Nuclear Safety (CNS) under the leadership of the Prime Minister. This is a significant improvement over the existing AERB structure.

Of course, there are issues with how things will move forward. There are still many who question the independence and autonomy of the regulator even with a new NSRA. In response, the Modi Government undertook a series of inter-ministerial meetings to write a new draft of the NSRA bill back in 2015, but it is yet to see daylight.

But the fact remains that in whatever form an NSRA Bill is introduced, it will still be a big step forward in having a legally autonomous nuclear regulator, similar to ones that exist in countries like France, the United Kingdom and the United States. The key question now is whether this government will prioritize nuclear security and take up the Bill before the next general election.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Why Postponing the New US-India Dialogue Matters, my essay for The Diplomat on the postponement of the 2+2 Dialogue, June 29, 2018

This week, I published a second essay for The Diplomat on why postponing the New US-India 2+2 Dialogue matters. The postponement may have been entirely a scheduling issue but such developments only exacerbate the challenges of managing differences in an important, complex relationship.



Speaking in New Delhi recently, Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, characterized the U.S.-India relationship as a high priority one saying, “Perhaps no other partnership has as much potential for global peace and prosperity over the next 10, 20, or 50 years.”

In reality, despite being a high priority, significant challenges remain for the relationship that require both sides to address, and recent developments have only compounded some of these. That was most recently demonstrated by the fact that even a supposedly regular mechanism such as the U.S.-India inaugural “2+2 dialogue” was postponed.

The U.S. Embassy in India issued a short statement saying that the dialogue postponement was “prompted by reasons entirely unrelated to the bilateral relationship.” As this article went to publication, reports indicate that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will be travelling to North Korea next week, which suggests a possible reason for the postponement.

Irrespective of the details, the big picture is clear: even as Trump administration officials have reiterated that India is a priority country and high on the agenda, this is the second time that this new dialogue has been postponed within a year of its formulation.

For the full essay, click here.



This new dialogue initiative between India and the United States was agreed upon by the two sides during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States in June 2017. Before the postponement, India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman were to travel to Washington, D.C. for this inaugural dialogue, where a number of tricky but significant issues were to be taken up.

The dialogue was meant to re-energize the relationship against the backdrop of a possible downward trend in trade and economic ties. It was also critical in the context of possible strains over the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) issue – a law passed by the United States in August 2017 and which came into effect in January this year. CAATSA penalizes entities that undertake significant transactions with Russia in the intelligence or defense sectors. New Delhi engages Moscow on both these fronts, with the defense sector being more critical.

While U.S.-India relations have broadly been on the right track, there are clearly some troubles ahead. The postponement will add one more issue to the mix, particularly with respect to the ever-lingering perception that the United States is not giving sufficient importance to India. It will also add to the existing issues that were already slated to be discussed. Rescheduling the dialogue is not an insignificant task because a number of bilateral issues need attention now and could exacerbate if they are not addressed soon.

As an example, on the economic front, India announced last week that it will impose retaliatory tariff on 29 U.S. products that will take effect on August 4, in response to unilateral U.S. imposition of higher import duties on steel and aluminum from India. India had earlier asked the U.S. government to make an exemption for India but Washington did not heed the request.

The U.S. duties will increase the cost of steel exports to the United States by $198.6 million and aluminum exports by $42.4 million. India in this regard is also reported to be taking the United States to the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute settlement mechanism. This could galvanize support from other countries as well, including the European Union (EU) and China. After a month of verbal retaliation, the EU has also begun taking more concrete steps. Japan, Mexico, Canada, and other countries are also considering similar responses to the U.S. imposition of duties. China has already imposed a series of measures targeting the United States, to which President Donald Trump has already threatened to retaliate.

The overall impact of these measures is unpredictable but potentially quite dangerous. More worryingly, the trade war is also bringing China and U.S. allies and partners together, thus strengthening Beijing and weakening efforts to counter its other more aggressive political and military tendencies.

Another reason for a quick rescheduling of the 2+2 dialogue is because of the CAATSA headache. Though New Delhi has diversified its defense trade partners, Moscow continues to dominate the Indian defense inventory to the tune of about 70 percent. Further, India’s plans to acquire important platforms including the S-400 air defense systems could run into serious problems.

Even as the CAATSA sanctions are not aimed at India, its security implications for India will be significant given the continuing Indian dependence on Russia for defense equipment. Congressman Joe Crowley, the House Democratic Caucus chairman recently ousted in a primary, while speaking at a U.S.-India Friendship event stated that CAATSA “is a serious issue that needs to be dealt [with]. There needs to be a dialogue between the U.S. and India. Our goal is not to sanction India.” He added that “understanding the needs that India has as a nation for self-defense as well … has to be taken into consideration.”

Given that the S-400 deal with Russia is an important one for New Delhi from a national security perspective, this is likely to be an issue at the 2+2 dialogue. Acknowledging this, Nisha Desai Biswal, the former assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia and the current president of the U.S.-India Business Council said, “It is something that we are all mindful of and looking at very very carefully. But I do think that we need to acknowledge and address the continuing importance for India of its relationship with Russia and how we how we manage the way forward on that issue.”

If the United States wants a strong India as its partner, Washington cannot come up with such blanket sanctions that might hamper its defense capacity-building. This could also increase some of the fears that the United States is not a credible and secure defense partner.

A third issue that needs attention is the Communications, Compatibility, Security Agreement (COMCASA), an agreement that will offer a legal framework for India to obtain more secure, encrypted, and advanced communication equipment from the United States. This would in turn create better interoperability between the two militaries as also with other militaries that use U.S.-origin platforms with similar communication links.

The framework agreement, originally called the Communication and Information on Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) was changed to COMCASA to suit India-specific requirements. This is part of the three foundational agreements that the United States has sought with India in order to further the India-U.S. defense partnership. India in August 2016 signed the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), which was earlier called the Logistics Services Agreement (LSA).

Looking at the slow pace with which India approached the LEMOA and the negotiations underway for signing the COMCASA, the third agreement, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Cooperation (BECA) will be a long off. Reports indicate that India and the United States are closer to signing the COMCASA, and officials familiar with the negotiations say that it only needs the political will to sign. A lot of ground was believed to be covered during the visit of Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale and Defense Secretary Sanjay Mitra to the United States earlier in April.

These agreements are significant because they are critical for aspects of cooperation to go forward. As an example, India’s plans to buy Guardian Avenger armed drones from the United States cannot be expected to progress if COMCASA is not signed.

It is unclear if there are technical glitches to India signing the agreement. Some reports indicate that India is concerned about possible “intrusive American access to Indian military communication systems, and about the violation of Indian sovereignty due to visits by U.S. inspectors to Indian bases to inspect the COMCASA-safeguarded equipment.” It is also argued that India’s Russian dominant defense inventory “may not be compatible” with COMCASA. But like LEMOA, the Indian opposition is almost entirely political in nature.

While each of these issues can be problematic, both New Delhi and Washington need to be mindful of the larger Asian strategic issues that have brought the two closer in the first place. If the United States wants to see a capable India that is able to balance China in an effective manner, Washington has to become more understanding of some of India’s choices. Equally, New Delhi needs to be more pragmatic about which fights it wants to pick with the United States on what issue and what it stands to lose.

Whether the two sides can accomplish this is the question. Postponing the dialogue may have been unavoidable, but it does not help either India or the United States in working out a path forward.

The Trouble with India’s Indian Ocean Diplomacy - June 26, 2018

Earlier in the week, I published a short essay on India's Indian Ocean diplomacy, where New Delhi’s record is more mixed than some of the headlines seem to suggest. I looked at three recent Indian maritime outreach: to Indonesia, Seychelles and Maldives.



For the full essay, click here.



India has for a long time had a “continental outlook,” with insufficient attention paid to maritime aspects of security. But this has begun to change over the last two decades, a reflection of India’s growing economy and the resultant need for secure trade routes and the growing security competition in the maritime space as a consequence of China’s naval expansion.

One aspect of this shift has been India’s efforts to build security partnerships in the Indian Ocean region. On this score, the record of India’s strategic shift is at best mixed. Indeed, while there are often headlines about India’s successes, with an example being India’s outreach to Indonesia with India gaining access to a strategically vital Sabang port earlier this month, in fact, India’s efforts to partner with other states have actually been less than successful, be it an agreement with Seychelles or the Maldives.

The India-Indonesia agreement to jointly develop a strategic Indian Ocean port, Sabang, which lies at the tip of the Sumatra Island and close to the Malacca Strait, has been a clear success. During the recent visit of Modi to Indonesia in May, Indonesian President Joko Widodo told the press, “India is a strategic defence partner… and we will continue to advance our cooperation in developing infrastructure, including at Sabang Island and the Andaman Islands.” Earlier, Indonesia’s maritime coordinating minister, Luhut Pandjaitan is reported to have told the media that the Sabang port can be developed to handle commercial vessels as well as warships including submarines. Clearly, Modi’s Indonesia maritime gambit worked out in India’s favor, though it is important to emphasize as well that Indonesia’s own concerns with China’s expansion has been an important factor here.

Less successful has been India’s venture in Seychelles, where India had signed an agreement for developing a naval base on Assumption Island focusing on “development, management, operation and maintenance of facilities.” This was to be a joint initiative that India was to execute per the request from the Seychelles government. India was to upgrade the jetty, renovate the airstrip, and construct housing for the National Coast Guard of Seychelles. The goal was to help Seychelles step up its capacity to patrol the vast Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) (1.3 million square kilometers) including near the Mozambique Channel, from poaching, illegal fishing, and drug and human trafficking.

However, the agreement, which was signed originally in March 2015, was renegotiated at the request of the Seychelles government because of concerns expressed by the Opposition in the National Assembly. The current government does not enjoy a majority in the National Assembly and the opposition was not entirely convinced of the agreement with India. In an Indian Parliament question and answer session, Minister of State for External Affairs, Gen. (Dr.) VK Singh stated, “As per the terms of the agreement, the facilities on Assumption Island will be funded by India, owned by Seychelles and jointly managed by both sides.”

The revised agreement signed on January 27, 2018 attempted to clarify many aspects relating to ownership and conditions for Indian use. The revised agreement says that the sovereignty over the Assumption Island will still be with the Seychelles and that New Delhi cannot use the facility during war times or let vessels with nuclear materials use these facilities.

The opposition leader, Wavel Ramkalawan of Linyon Demokratik Seselwa (LDS) party, has raised several objections to the agreement including that stationing of Indian military and presence of Indian technical workers in the small island could lead to an Indian dominance of the local economy. Among other things, he was also concerned that an Indian facility could spark a regional competition between India and China because a deal with India for a base could force Seychelles to take sides.

This is a setback for India. Seychelles and India have traditionally been close defense partners. round 70 percent of the Seychelles’ military is trained by India, and in 2017, 11 Indian naval ships visited Seychelles, and eight so far this year. India established a coastal radar surveillance radar system in Seychelles in 2016 and India has also given Mahe three patrol ships and a Dornier aircraft.

In a possible effort to soften up and win over the opposition, India is reported to be donating another Dornier to the Seychelles this month. New Delhi is also exploring a trilateral cooperation involving France which could go a long way in protecting India’s maritime security interests while restricting China’s larger footprint in the region. France, for its part, has also been seeking to improve bilateral maritime ties with the island nation.

Gaining access to a facility in the Indian Ocean island nation would have been significant for India in the backdrop of China’s recently developed naval base in Djibouti. But India failed in reaching out to the Seychelles’ opposition parties, especially considering the fact that the Seychelles President Danny Faure had briefed Modi on the difficulties in implementing the agreement when the two met at the Commonwealth meeting in April this year. The visit of the Seychelles President to India this week offers New Delhi some additional opportunities to make up for lost ground in this regard.

By comparison, India’s efforts in the Maldives has turned ugly. The recent crisis in Maldives began with the imposition of Emergency by President Abdulla Yameen, openly disregarding calls from India to respect rule of law and democratic institutions. But for India, more pertinently, the bigger concern has been Maldives’ growing strategic proximity to China. Male’s endorsement of the Belt and Road Initiative and its maritime component, the Maritime Silk Road and the signing of the free trade agreement with China have infuriated the Indian leadership.

The relationship had already been spiraling downward for several months. But recent reports, such as those about job advertisements which categorically state “Indians need not apply” and reports of visa denial to Indians, will likely only further exacerbate tensions. Further, it is believed that India voted against and even campaigned against Maldives in its recent bid to secure a non-permanent seat to the UN Security Council for a period of two years.

India’s successes and failures are at least partly the consequence of the proximity of the threat. Both Seychelles and Maldives may see India as a bigger problem than China simply because of proximity, with the situation reversed to some extent in the Indonesian case. But this cannot become an excuse either. India’s diplomacy needs to get more nimble-footed to influence other countries if it wants to compete effectively with China.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

What’s Next for the India-Russia Strategic Partnership? - June 16, 2018

I wrote a second piece this week for The Diplomat on what’s next for the India-Russia strategic partnership.

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin had an “informal” meeting in Sochi in late May, the two leaders discussed a number of bilateral issues such as military and defense cooperation and international issues relevant to both India and Russia. The meeting once again put the attention on the strategic partnership between New Delhi and Moscow, which continues to be significant, but also faces a number of challenges.

For the full essay, click here.



Many of the areas of convergence were unsurprisingly on display during the meeting at Sochi. In terms of outlook, the two leaders endorsed and emphasized the importance of their Special and Privileged Strategic Partnership for global peace and stability and the role of the two in shaping “an open and equitable world order.” Both Modi and Putin underlined the need to develop “a multipolar world order” while increasing consultations and coordination including on the Indo-Pacific, even though the two sides differ in their characterization. Foreign Minister Lavrov, while speaking to the media on the informal summit, talked about it as the Asia-Pacific region, a formulation preferred by China, whereas the Indian Ministry of External Affairs referred to it as the Indo-Pacific region. Putin and Modi also reiterated the importance of continuing their work together in platforms such as the United Nations, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS), and G-20.

Issue-wise, cooperation in the energy and economic sectors dominated the two leaders’ discussions. The progress seen in the bilateral trade – about 20 percent in 2017 and about 40 percent in the first few months of 2018 – was highlighted by both sides. In an effort to keep up the momentum, the NITI AAYOG and the Russian Ministry of Economic Development will be engaged in an annual strategic economic dialogue.

Nevertheless, it is the civil nuclear energy and defense cooperation that will dominate the relationship. The technical aspects for the construction of the fifth and sixth units of the Kudankulam nuclear power plant (NPP) have been finalized by Rosatom. During a recent visit to the NPP manufacturing site in Rostov sponsored by Rosatom, I was able to witness the progress of these including the units that will be transported to Kudankulam.

More fundamentally, while the two leaders highlighted the tried and tested nature of their partnership, in truth India-Russia ties have been lately going through a rough patch. For more than a decade now, the bilateral relationship has been characterized by increasing strains.

Several factors have contributed to it. For one, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis in 2013, it is clear that Russia wanted China’s support because China’s opinion carries greater weight globally than India’s. This is evident in the continued strategic outreach efforts made by Russia towards China, further reflected in a number of strategic agreements between Moscow and Beijing. The manner in which Putin in 2013 rapidly wrapped up an agreement on natural gas sale to China for 30 years – negotiations that had been dragging on for a decade – was a reflection of Moscow’s eagerness to work with China. This was over and above the earlier deals in 2009 and 2013 for the sale of oil on a long-term basis.

But far more consequential is the Russian sale of weapons systems to China that have direct security implications for India. Moscow’s sale of Su-30 30MKK/MK2 fighters and especially the Su-35 are likely to have an immediate and tangible impact on the Sino-Indian military balance and India’s security. Then there is the sale of S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missiles, which China is reportedly already deploying, though it seems like India may get the same system too.

Second, India’s efforts at diversifying its defense procurement and thus bringing in other partners such as the United States, Israel, and France has also impacted the relations. In the absence of a strong bilateral economic and trade relationship, India-Russia relations must have a robust defense ties and any downgrading of those ties could have adverse impact on the overall state of India-Russia ties. Till a few years ago, India’s largest defense trade partner was Russia, but Israel and the United States have overtaken Russia in the last few years.

Even so, India’s defense inventory continues to be dominated by Soviet/Russian systems, to the tune of close to 70 percent. Also, when it comes to certain critical platforms such as nuclear submarines, Russia’s importance cannot be understated. Therefore, as India engages in the process of diversifying its defense trade partners, perception management and explaining the rationale and imperative to Russia will go a long way in assuaging Moscow’s concerns about India’s leanings.

Third and possibly the most significant has been India’s growing proximity to the United States. Driven by fear of China, India has grown strategically closer to Washington in recent years, though lately New Delhi’s foreign policy leaning may appear a lot more confused. Prime Minister Modi’s Shangri-La Dialogue speech earlier this month in Singapore was a good reflection of this.

These three developments have dampened bilateral relations between India and Russia. For India, the critical question is whether Russia will stand by India in any dispute with China. Moscow’s stand during last year’s Doklam crisis did not inspire much confidence in New Delhi. On the other hand, New Delhi understands that it cannot afford to drive Moscow into Beijing’s hands. Any strategic partnership between Russia and China does not augur well for India. Whether India can do much about this is unclear, but New Delhi is definitely trying.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Can India Make Headway in the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2018? - June 14, 2018

My third essay in June for The Diplomat - Can India Make Headway in the Nuclear Suppliers Group in 2018? - focused on the NSG plenary that is underway this week and examining India's NSG membership issue. How likely is the NSG to discuss and make progress on the issue? Despite New Delhi’s continued hopes and some encouraging signs, significant challenges remain.


Becoming an NSG member would be a major foreign policy achievement for the Modi government but given China’s opposition, it is unlikely that this week’s plenary will see any forward movement. Nevertheless, given India’s technological advancements and its potential to engage in nuclear commerce in the future, it should be an imperative for the participating governments to bring India into the NSG tent rather than leave it outside.

For the full essay, click here.



The next plenary of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is taking place this week, and a second plenary for the year later in December. India is making some serious but quiet efforts to garner support for its membership into the group, an exclusive club of 48 nuclear supplier countries.

The NSG strives to uphold and strengthen the nonproliferation architecture by implementing its own guidelines to regulate nuclear commerce. India has now become a member of three of the four export control mechanisms that deal with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and other strategic technologies – the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in June 2016, the Wassenaar Arrangement in December 2017, and the Australia Group in January 2018.

Upon admission into the Australia Group, the group announced, “With its admission into the AG, India has demonstrated the will to implement rigorous controls of high standards in international trade, and its capacity to adapt its national regulatory system to meet the necessities of its expanding economy.” With accession to the three export control regimes, India has attempted to prove its nonproliferation credentials, particularly important because India is not a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Becoming an NSG member would be a major foreign policy achievement for the Modi government but given China’s opposition, it is unlikely that this week’s plenary will see any forward movement. Nevertheless, given India’s technological advancements and its potential to engage in nuclear commerce in the future, it should be an imperative for the participating governments to bring India into the NSG tent rather than leave it outside.

India’s membership bid was first taken up for discussion at the Seoul plenary in June 2016 but Beijing at first even refused to entertain India’s case for discussion, using as an excuse India’s refusal to join the NPT. Though they were some other countries that were also unenthusiastic about India’s membership, it was China’s opposition that scuttled India’s entry into the NSG. The question is whether the recent bonhomie between India and China following the informal summit in Wuhan changed ground realities in India’s favor.

Indian security analysts believe that things are looking up for India. Many believe that there is a considerable shift in India-China relations after Modi’s meeting with Xi in Wuhan on April 27 and 28. While there is a general mood of optimism in the air and the optics of the relationship have improved, it is too early to suggest concrete positive changes in the bilateral relations between the two. Since the NSG makes decisions on the basis of consensus, there is little chance of India being able to join the NSG unless China drops its opposition.

Currently, India is believed to have undertaken some quiet diplomacy in reaching out to strategic partners and friends to push India’s membership at the upcoming NSG plenary. India has been in touch with countries such as the United States, Russia, and the Netherlands to make a concerted push at this week’s plenary.

The Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, during his recent visit to India reaffirmed the Dutch support to India’s NSG aspirations. The joint statement issued at the end of the visit noted, “In order to further strengthen global non-proliferation, the Netherlands reaffirmed its strong support to building consensus among regimes’ members on the issue of India’s membership to the Nuclear Suppliers Group; recognizing that India’s accession will add value to the aims and objectives of these regimes.”

It is not clear as to what extent these countries have been successful in effecting a change of mind in Beijing. India has also been articulating the need to have a merit-based approach while considering new applicants. India’s clean nonproliferation track record along with the NSG waiver in 2008 should strengthen the case for India. But there is also some understandable fear that member-states will get stuck at first establishing criteria to consider new membership cases.

Meanwhile, India is also trying to work with other countries such as Brazil, Argentina and South Africa, to head-off any procedural issue – which usually is an excuse — with examining the Indian application. South Africa has more than on one occasion extended support to India’s NSG membership bid.

India’s heightened diplomatic outreach to many of the NSG member countries is testament to the importance of this to the Modi Government. In May this year, the two ministers from the Ministry of External Affairs, MJ Akbar and VK Singh, were in Austria and Argentina respectively pushing the NSG agenda. India also hosted the foreign minister of Serbia in May.

But clearly, the big puzzle is China. If China were to behave as a more magnanimous power, it could change not only Sino-Indian relations for the better, but potentially wider Asian power dynamics as well. But this is far from certain.

My contribution to the ChinaFile Conversation this week - One Year After They Almost Went to War, Can China and India Get Along?

This week's ChinaFile Conversation @AsiaSociety focused on India-China relations, specifically looking at the likelihood of another border stand-off that might erupt in the near future - One Year After They Almost Went to War, Can China and India Get Along?. This is a pertinent question to ask, a year after the Doklam conflict. The ChinaFile Conversation carried short write-ups from other experts as well, including: Jeff Smith, Oriana Skylar Mastro, Sameer Lalwani.


I argue that even as Sino-Indian relations have stabilized since the serious military confrontation last year at Doklam, the fundamental problems between the two sides continue to persist. The “informal” Wuhan summit between President Xi and Prime Minister Modi was touted as the “reset” in the bilateral relations. The two leaders have met again at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit, and there are more meetings planned. The talks are believed to have improved understanding between the two sides even as substantive issues between India and China remain.
Though there is optimism, there appears to have been no significant progress made on issues that are crucial to both sides.

For the full article, click here.



Though there is optimism, there appears to have been no significant progress made on issues that are crucial to both sides. Beijing has yet to accept India’s concerns on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) branch of the BRI, or support India’s bid to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or India’s efforts to use multilateral tools to contain Pakistan’s support for terrorism. India remains concerned also about China’s greater role and presence in the maritime space in India’s neighborhood, and China has not taken steps to reassure India that its intentions are benign.

For China, India’s lack of endorsement of the BRI may still irritate. India has supported regional connectivity proposals, but New Delhi has articulated that “connectivity initiatives must be based on universally recognized international norms, good governance, rule of law, openness, transparency and equality, and must be pursued in a manner that respects sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Accordingly, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs has stated that the “so-called ‘China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’ violates India’s sovereign.”

While these are important parameters for both India and China to judge the state of the relations, a more critical and a deep-rooted problem is the competition for the Asian strategic space. Beijing believes its rise is a natural phenomenon and it approaches the world in a hierarchical manner, which is increasingly problematic for a number of countries in the Indo-Pacific, including India. The speech delivered by China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin at the sixth Xiangshan Forum, held in October 2015, reveals China’s view: he spoke about the responsibility of “big countries” in not creating spheres of influence while small and medium countries should not take sides between big countries. The Chinese division of the international system into big, medium, and small countries itself reflects China’s hierarchical view of the international system and the differentiated role that it has assigned to itself as a big country and to its neighbors as small countries that ought to know their place. This line of thinking repeated itself when President Xi discussed with President Obama the format for developing a new pattern of major country relations. Such an approach is hardly the way to reassure its neighbors or win friends. The Asian strategic order that China seems to want is one where it sees itself as the hegemon. Therefore, even as relations have become warmer, it is unlikely that Sino-Indian relations have stabilized for good. Border stand-offs like Doklam are just the beginning of a troubling phase in Asian security.

Time for Global Action Against Radiological Threats

In my second essay for The Diplomat, I focused on the radiological security threats and argued the need to streamline global efforts to confront this challenge. Despite the serious security, environmental and health risks from radiological sources, global mechanisms to regulate this sector has been far and few.

As a general proposition, the security of nuclear and radiological materials has been a global concern since the disintegration of the Soviet Union, when there were fears that these materials and expertise from Soviet Union would fall into the wrong hands.

But the issue only really gained serious attention only after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. In its aftermath of the incident, there were genuine worries that terrorists may get hold of these materials.

The fears are not unfounded – according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Incident and Trafficking Database (ITDB), there were a total of 2,889 confirmed incidents involving nuclear and radiological materials between 1993 and 2015. Though only around 25 countries around the world have nuclear materials in their possession, radiological sources are far more widely available because of their dual-use nature and their use for medicinal, industrial, and agricultural purposes.

While there are a number of radioactive materials, not all pose serious risks. Some of the high-risk category materials include cobalt-60, cesium-137, iridium-192, strontium-90, americium-241, californium-258, plutonium-238, and radium-226. The risks of each of these sources depends on the amount of radioisotope present in the source, the kind of exposure, and the kind of radiation it emits, among other things. Cesium-137 is one of the materials which raises concerns as it is easily available because of its large-scale use in the medical and other commercial sectors. There have been a number of incidents of theft and illicit trafficking of cesium-137.

Radiological material in the hands of terrorists could pose serious risks because it could be used it to develop a dirty bomb, what is called a Radiological Dispersal Device (RDD). Their widespread use makes it impractical to control them. While these materials cannot be used to make weapons of mass destruction (WMD), they could create massive disruption.

For the full essay, click here.



An RDD weapon will not result in mass casualties. But they could cause mass panic, especially in places that are densely populated. In addition, these weapons could have economic, psychological, and social impacts. Anne Harrington, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration’s Deputy Associate Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation outlined these in 2014: “An RDD detonated in a major metropolitan area could result in economic costs in the billions of dollars as a result of evacuations, relocations, cleanup, and lost wages.”

In addition to RDDs, radiological materials can also be used to make a Radiation Emission Device (RED), which can spread radiation to a large number of people if kept in an enclosed location such as a train compartment.

While national level measures need to be introduced and streamlined, equally important is the need to strengthen global measures to prevent and mitigate the threats from radiological weapons. Given its wide applications in the civilian sectors, maintaining a global inventory of radiological sources through national channels is an important requirement. A national registry of such materials can be made mandatory only if there is collective effort at the global level.

Additionally, monitoring “orphan” materials that have been discarded by hospitals and industries, military and laboratories also need to be brought under a global framework. A serious incident took place in Brazil in 1987 when a hospital that was using cesium-137 shifted to a new campus but carelessly discarded a teletherapy unit in its old premises. The locals who dismantled the unit had no clue of the dangerous material that they were being exposed to, resulting in four deaths.

Asia, too, is not immune from this radiological threat. There has been an incident in Bangkok when an individual was arrested with 66 pounds of cesium-137. There was also an incident in India in 2010 that involved Cobalt-60. Each of these incidents happened due to oversight, improper handling and disposal of radiological sources. All of these are indicative of the flaws in the current systems and regulations and therefore suggestive of the urgent need to write or strengthen global measures for radiological security.

Despite the high-risks from radiological sources, there are no legally-binding mechanisms regulating the spread and use of these sources. The IAEA has, for instance, a non-legally binding “Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources,” published in January 2004 but these, as the name suggests, are merely suggestions for states to voluntarily adopt. There is an additional document called the “Guidance on the Import and Export of Radioactive Sources,” approved and issued originally in September 2004, which is also not mandatory.

Therefore, one of the first steps that the IAEA members and others must consider are ways to review and strengthen the existing international radiological security measures. Developing a binding agreement for securing radiological materials and expanding the support base for the IAEA Code of Conduct will be the first baby step to developing more holistic measures.

It is a shame that all the IAEA member states are not yet parties to the Code of Conduct. While many countries have argued that there must be a binding Convention developed for radiological security, it is more important to get sufficient endorsements to the existing Code before moving towards a formal, mandatory Convention. Also, given the current state of relations among the great powers, the likelihood of developing consensus, especially for mandatory, legal instruments appears bleak.

Therefore, states must consider simpler and pragmatic steps to control pilferage of radioactive sources especially those used in medical facilities, as they are least protected physically. Better licensing procedures and accounting of materials used in industries and medical sectors also need to be instituted to avoid theft and illegal possession.

Meanwhile, as a long-term solution, states need to work on alternate technologies to reduce dependency on such high-risk sources. The IAEA has, for instance, begun exploring alternate sources to cobalt-60 and cesium-137, which are two of the most widely used radiological materials used in hospitals and industries. But states also need to be given incentives to make the shift from cobalt-60 and cesium-137 to less riskier options.

Last but not the least, there should be a global effort to convening forums such as the Nuclear Security Summit for radiological security that can bring focused attention to an otherwise neglected area of security. Such an initiative could bring multiple stakeholders including industry who could also share their best practices which may help in shaping future instruments.