Friday, February 23, 2018

India’s Maldives Headache, my OpEd for The Diplomat

In this weeks's OpEd for The Diplomat, I focused on India's options in dealing with the current situation in Maldives. New Delhi is finding it difficult to forge a path that will preserve its interests and credibility.

For the full essay, please click here.



The debate in New Delhi about how India should handle the Maldives has become increasingly critical of the government’s approach. Though this is by no means the universal opinion, the increasing perception is that New Delhi is finding it difficult to forge a path to a peaceful resolution that would preserve its interests and credibility.

The current crisis started when the Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen decided to ignore the Maldivian Supreme Court’s ruling on February 1, which called the Yameen government imprisonment and prosecution of opposition leaders a “violation of the constitution and international law.” The Court also ruled that the government should release the nine opposition leaders including the former president, Mohamed Nasheed.

In addition to ignoring the Court order, Yameen also declared an emergency, which was extended for a month on February 20. India expressed its dissatisfaction at the extension of emergency as well as “the manner in which the extension of the State of Emergency was approved by the Majlis in contravention of the Constitution of Maldives.” Prior to the extension of the emergency on February 20, India had expressed the hope following the end of the emergency, Maldives returned to democracy and all the democratic institutions including the judiciary would be “allowed to function independently.”

Though a domestic political crisis, the stakes have dramatically increased because it has drawn in both India and China. Earlier in the month, Yameen had sent emissaries to China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. China thereafter issued a warning that no country should intervene in Maldives’ internal matters and that “the international community shall play a constructive role on the basis of respecting the sovereignty of the Maldives, instead of further complicating the situation.” On the other hand, Maldivian opposition leaders including Nasheed have sought Indian help, including military intervention “to free the judges and political detainees.” Nasheed also has asked the United States for its help, asking it “to stop all financial transactions of Maldivian regime leaders going through US banks.”

Amidst all these developments, Reuters reported, quoting a Chinese website, that Chinese naval warships were heading to Maldives. The Indian Navy clarified that the Chinese warships were transiting between the Sunda Strait and Lombok Strait. It must be noted that China deploying warships in the Indian Ocean is nothing new: China even has a military base in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa. Not surprisingly, the Indian Navy is keeping a close watch on Chinese activities in the region. Indian Navy spokesperson Captain DK Sharma is reported to have remarked that “India has a very robust surveillance system to ensure clear and transparent maritime domain awareness (MDA) in the entire IOR.”

Given the Maldives’ geostrategic location in the Indian Ocean, it is understandable that China has long-term strategic interests in it. The island nation sits atop of critical sea lanes of communication (SLOCs). Gaining a larger footprint in the Indian Ocean is now part of China’s stated strategy, as it noted in its Blue Book on Indian Ocean. In 2016, the Maldives leased an atoll to a Chinese company for 50 years at an estimated cost of just $4 million.

But India has critical interests in the Maldives too. First, the Maldives is in India’s backyard, making China’s inroads there a matter of deep concern for New Delhi. The Maldives is only about 700 km from India’s Lakshadweep Islands and about 1200 km from the Indian mainland, too close for Delhi’s comfort to let a potential adversary set up shop. Just two months ago, the Maldives concluded a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China, much to India’s surprise. This reflects the distance that crept in between India and Maldives in recent years. In addition, the Maldives had endorsed Xi Jinping’s pet project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which also includes the Maritime Silk Road. New Delhi worries about where all this headed.

Second, there is the matter of how this will be perceived by other Indian neighbors as well as by others. India worries about its credibility in the eyes of its smaller neighbors; any Indian hesitation in the Maldives could make these neighbors look towards China more actively. Similarly, smaller nations in South and Southeast Asia will makes their own judgments about India’s reliability, about whether they should trust India to stand up to China, depending on how they perceive India is behaving in its own backyard. If India is unable to settle the Maldives issue in its favor, smaller Southeast Asian states could decide that their best bet is to make their own individual peace with China.

New Delhi would clearly prefer not to intervene militarily, if only because of how uncertain such ventures are. But India also faces increasing difficulties, especially given Yameen’s obduracy. How India navigates through this crisis will have significant impact on not only the neighborhood, but also broader geopolitics including Sino-Indian relations.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The global space race, 2.0, I wrote this OpEd in The Washington Post

I am happy to share an OpEd on global space race I published in The Washington Post last week.

The recent launch of the SpaceX rocket Falcon Heavy is a good illustration of the entry of efficient and innovative private players into an arena long considered the preserve of national governments. But this does not mean that national competition in outer space is disappearing. I argue that if anything, it is actually accelerating in Asia. China’s growing space prowess is leading to a space race with India and Japan, which are beginning to pool their resources to better match Beijing.



The India-Japan strategic partnership has grown enormously in the last decade. Last September, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recognized the salience of outer space in their bilateral relations and “welcomed the deepening of cooperation between the space agencies of the two countries in the field of Earth observation, satellite-based navigation, space sciences and lunar exploration.” And as the president of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) proclaimed two months later: “India and Japan will lead the space sector in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Then in December, JAXA and the Indian Space Research Organization agreed to study a joint “lunar polar exploration” mission, to be completed this March. This will lead to a joint expedition that is expected to land a remotely piloted vehicle on the surface of the moon to collect samples and bring them back to Earth.

Both India and Japan have undertaken successful lunar missions before, but only to study the moon via satellites that orbited above; neither has sent a craft to land on the moon’s surface. And neither country has carried out a lunar mission in almost a decade. Both are acutely aware of what China has accomplished, with four moon missions between 2007 and 2014 alone. China’s technological dominance weighs on the Asian strategic balance, and both India and Japan are clearly feeling the pressure.

One attempt to catch up was a joint India-Japan moon mission that was a finalist for the Google Lunar XPrize competition. TeamIndus, an Indian private aerospace firm, planned to carry a Japanese rover developed by Japan’s Team Hakuto on its spacecraft. But the Google Lunar XPrize competition itself came to an end — none of the teams could meet the launch deadline of March 31, 2018.

The emergence of private space research entities in India represents an exciting development. Though the TeamIndus lunar mission was canceled, the team is working on a couple of different projects, including a satellite bus and a solar-powered drone, both of which it seeks to commercialize in the near future. As Rahul Narayan, the founder of TeamIndus, said: “From an investment standpoint, this will be a three-to-five-year journey until we can stabilize as a standalone company. We are looking at equity investors to come in and take the risk of helping us build the product. By year end, we can start to generate revenues from what we do.”

Asia’s growing space race is indicative of the larger geopolitical competition in the region. China’s rise and the strategic uncertainties it has created are particularly worrying to India and Japan, leading to surprisingly fast-growing India-Japan strategic cooperation.

Though India and Japan have had no history of direct conflict, the two were on opposite sides of the Cold War divide, with Japan formally allied with the United States and India tilting heavily to the Soviet side, leading to cordial but cool ties for decades. But China’s rise has affected both countries and led to an emerging India-Japan consensus on a whole host of global commons issues, such as maritime security and protection of the sea lanes of communication.

The growing intensity of competition in outer space is partially due to the growing number of commercial players and partially due to underlying geopolitical tensions. As during the Cold War, outer space has become one more area of the strategic competition on Earth. This means that the race to return to the moon, as well as to explore the moon and asteroids for mining and resource extraction, are likely to intensify in the coming years.

Even as the U.S. maintains a technological edge in this domain, China is fast catching up. The energized strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing — another new strategic entente — will only accelerate it. Private players are adding a new dimension to this space race, but national programs are driven by much older and more potent imperatives. As geopolitical competitions sharpen around the globe, those government-led efforts could turn out to be more important than private expeditions.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Space crises in a multipolar world: Lessons from a simulation exercise - an ORF Special Report I co-authored...

Recently, Abhijnan Rej, a colleague of mine at ORF, and I published a Special Report on the basis of a simulation exercise conducted in February 2017. The Simulation Exercise (SIMEX) involved a space security crisis scenario in which states had already attempted to interfere with outer-space assets. The SIMEX involved one scenario and three moves.

We were interested in this exercise to understand the interaction between contemporary terrestrial geopolitics and the ongoing securitisation of outer space. The exercise examined five key questions: In a hybrid conflict that draws in multiple powers with stakes in outer space, how do states meet national objectives in a conflict? Can escalation in such conflicts be controlled? What do the decision-making dynamics within states face in such a crisis, and what role does intelligence play in it? What roles do multilateral institutions play in controlling escalation? And what role does disinformation and information play in determining the tempo and outcome of such a conflict?

This report answers these questions based on the results of the ORF SIMEX. The next section of this report provides a brief background of the scenario played in the SIMEX. The third section presents an analysis of the results of the SIMEX, answering the questions raised above. The paper concludes in the fourth section, with a few brief policy-relevant observations. An appendix collates details about how each of the three moves of the SIMEX played out. Readers interested in other details of the SIMEX—standard operating procedure, briefing background, a map
of the universe of the SIMEX, country and force capability inventory, details of the scenario, team objectives and options—may consult the companion page.

Find the report here.



The full report is quite long and it is not uploaded here. I am pasting the four major conclusion of the SIMEX.

Four key lessons emerged from the SIMEX, all of which merit further study through other similar exercises.

First, a crisis that starts relatively high up in the escalation ladder can be deescalated. The exercise started with the premise that Yellow had destroyed, albeit accidentally, an Orange military communication satellite using an ASAT weapon. Thus, there was a strong possibility of a kinetic conflict during and after the first move. However, this was not the case. Instead, Orange multilateralised the dispute by approaching the Permanent Court of Arbitration and took only modest military punitive steps against Yellow.

Second, possession of significant kinetic and non-kinetic military means does not always translate to meeting the national objectives of a state. Blue in the SIMEX served as an example. Despite significant military capabilities, it failed to meet both its national objectives. Lack of military heft, on the other hand, can be compensated for by using smart diplomatic tactics. This was the case with Red, which is the weakest military power of the four.

Third, in a significant crisis involving three or more powers, a state will prioritise meeting those objectives that concern it directly, as opposed to those related to its alliance commitments. That does not mean, however, that states will not meet their alliance commitments at all. Yellow’s behaviour vis-à-vis Red is a case in point.

Fourth (and this pertains to the increasingly hybrid nature of warfare), in moments of intense crises, social and other media remain powerful tools. This is evident in how Blue moulded international and domestic opinion using social media in tandem with public statements containing the same message.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

What Does India’s New Australia Group Admission Mean for its Old NSG Bid?

What Does India’s New Australia Group Admission Mean for its Old NSG Bid? - in this short essay,
I explore India's recent inclusion into the Australia Group and what that means for its membership bid to the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
The development is significant because it brings New Delhi one step closer to integrating with the global nonproliferation system. India has been pursuing membership in the four key technology control arrangements that are part of the non-proliferation regime – the fourth being the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – for several years. But membership to the NSG still eludes India, and it is unlikely that it is any closer today, despite Indian membership in the other three arrangements.



In a unanimous decision, India was admitted as the 43rd member to the Australia Group (AG) this month. This comes on the heels of India attaining membership to two other global technology control arrangements, the Wassenaar Arrangement (WA) in December 2017 and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in May 2016.

The development is significant because it brings New Delhi one step closer to integrating with the global nonproliferation system. India has been pursuing membership in the four key technology control arrangements that are part of the non-proliferation regime – the fourth being the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) – for several years. But membership to the NSG still eludes India, and it is unlikely that it is any closer today, despite Indian membership in the other three arrangements.

These aforementioned arrangements that India has been pursuing memberships in are essentially informal groupings where members or participating governments, as they are called, work together to harmonize national export controls in order to ensure that export of certain sensitive items do not contribute to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

But while this has remained the primary objective of these mechanisms, they have also inevitably became tools in the hands of the more powerful states to deny technologies to some countries who were seen as proliferation threats. India had traditionally been a target of these arrangements and, in turn, been fiercely critical of such groups. But the U.S.-India nuclear deal in 2008, which included a waiver from the NSG that permitted India to resume nuclear commerce, transformed India’s relationship with the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

The support to India’s membership within each of these regimes reflects India’s clean track record with regard to non-proliferation. India asserts that its accession to these global technology clubs is “mutually beneficial and further contribute to international security and non-proliferation objectives.” This represents a significant change in Indian attitudes: India had for decades criticized these arrangements.

But it should be noted that there has been a significant change in the attitude of the non-proliferation order towards India too, from seeing India as a country of proliferation concern to a partner. Members of these regimes accept now that bringing India within the tent is in their own interests both because of India’s growing profile in the technology exports and the overall changing political equations between India and the major powers.

The Australia Group was set up in 1985 specifically “to ensure that exports do not contribute to the development of chemical and biological weapons.” The initial focus of the group was on chemical agents, but by the 1990s, the mandate was expanded to include biological agents as well. The export control lists of the Australia Group are considered fairly comprehensive and go beyond even the scope of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and BTWC.

India has established a comprehensive export control regime for chemical and biological agents, and this has remained significant given that these materials form a large segment of the dual use items in Indian exports. Harmonizing India’s national export control list, called the Special Chemicals, Organisms, Materials, Equipment and Technologies (SCOMET) List, and that of each of the four export control regimes, has been an important technical step that brought India into three of these regimes. While each of the regimes differ in its overall scope and mandate, the export controls and guidelines to be adhered to have similar objectives. Establishing a legally-based and rigorously-enforced national export control system is one of the prerequisites of these regimes.

If India is not celebrating too much, it is because India has not been able to get membership in the group that New Delhi covets most – the NSG. India pushed hard in 2016 for membership when the NSG members met in Seoul, but its application was scuttled by China. India tried again last year, but China did not relent. China’s objections appear to be political: it is unwilling to let India get membership while its ally, Pakistan, is left out. But Pakistan, with its poor proliferation record, is unlikely to be acceptable to the other members of the NSG, which means that India is unlikely to get in either.

Indeed, given the worsening trajectory of the Sino-Indian relationship more broadly, it is likely that China’s opposition to India’s NSG application will only increase. Sino-Indian ties have dramatically worsened since 2016 – partly because of the NSG’s rejection of India’s membership application itself (because both the Indian government and public opinion blamed it on China), but also because of other factors. China also repeatedly opposed Indian efforts to include a Pakistan-based terrorist chief in the UN terrorist sanctions list. And last summer, the two countries almost came to blows over a section of their border, which saw unusually harsh anti-India rhetoric from Chinese officials.

Though both sides have tried to revive their relations, irritants do keep popping up. China, on its side, has been critical of India’s increasingly closer ties with the United States and its allies such as Japan and Australia. All of which means that for the time being at least, India may have little hope of seeing its NSG membership actually achieve success.