Saturday, March 17, 2018

From Sea to Space: India and France Deepen Security Cooperation

In this week's column for The Diplomat, I focused on the visit of the French President, examining two facets that gained particular traction in India-France security relations. The essay titled, "From Sea to Space: India and France Deepen Security Cooperation," examined why and how outer space and maritime security had come to feature prominently during the French president’s India visit this week.

French President Emmanuel Macron was on a four-day visit to India earlier this week, with both sides trying to elevate the India-France strategic relationship. The bilateral partnership covers an entire gamut of issues from defense, civil nuclear, and space to climate change, clean energy, and urbanization, and India and France signed 14 agreements. But what was of particular importance on the defense side were those on outer space and maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

For the full essay, click here.

On outer space, the two countries identified nine specific areas in the India-France Joint Vision for Space Cooperation of which a few including high resolution earth observation, space domain and situational awareness, satellite navigation, space transportation, and human exploration, stand out. Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and high resolution earth observation are especially relevant in the context of the growing concerns around maritime security and the Indian Ocean.

The two countries have shared concerns on a number of issues, including, as they framed it, “maritime traffic security, especially in the Horn of Africa; respect of international law by all States, in particular freedom of navigation and overflight; fight against organized crime, trafficking, including in weapons of mass destruction, smuggling and illegal fishing.”

Recognizing the need to develop a joint action plan, the two sides signed a Joint Strategic Vision for Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region. A practical joint action in the area of maritime surveillance around Indian Ocean waters would at the very least call for a clearer understanding of the maritime environment that they are operating in and this has pushed both India and France to increase sharing of information on the emerging maritime scenario in the Indian Ocean.

The MoU signed between the two space agencies foresees them joining hands to design and develop “products and techniques, including those involving Automatic Identification System, to monitor and protect assets in land and sea.” This, the two sides believe, will significantly boost maritime domain awareness in the region. Given the growing reliance and vulnerabilities that exist in the outer space domain, the two space agencies also agreed to develop a cooperative agenda that will protect their space assets, by also developing infrastructure that is necessary to create a broader engagement on SSA.

Underlying all these practical steps is the shared strategic vision, particularly driven by the strategic uncertainties around China’s rise and its growing assertiveness. The two share a common strategic objective of “establish[ing] an open, inclusive and transparent cooperation architecture, with the aim of delivering to all associated with the region, peace, security and prosperity.”

Modi, during his meeting with Macron said that both sides believed in the importance of the Indian Ocean for the global community, while Macron in his own remarks acknowledged the importance of the Indian Ocean for the stability of the entire region. Most significantly, India and France agreed to reciprocal access to each other’s naval facilities to military facilities. France has facilities in the island of La RĂ©union, Mayotte, and the French Southern and Atlantic Lands. Indian access to French military facilities will help India spread its reach and influence, especially in western Indian Ocean.

This is similar to the understanding that India had earlier reached with the United States with the signing of LEMOA. That agreement occasioned a lot of criticism in India, with commentators suggesting that India was bargaining away its precious “strategic autonomy.” Indeed, that agreement was delayed for years precisely because of the fear of such criticism.

But the agreement with France has largely received a positive reception in the Indian media. The difference between the treatment of these two agreements indicates a clear evidence of the continuing opposition among sections of the Indian elite to any closer ties with Washington. Indeed, precisely for this reason, France may be a good supplement to India’s strategic partnerships. It should also be remembered that France has generally been supportive of critical issues of concern to India, including India’s nuclear weapons program (before it acquired its current level of legitimacy).

On the other hand, the limitations of the partnership should also be kept in mind. If France has not received as much importance in New Delhi as some others such as the United States, despite France’s well-acknowledged sympathy for India’s strategic concerns, the reason has been mostly due to France’s relatively limited capacity. The current bonhomie overlooks this old and unchanged limitation: though France can help India, its own remaining weakness will likely not allow Paris to become a major source of strategic support to New Delhi. But in these troubled times, one more supporter is surely welcome.

China’s 2018 Military Budget: New Numbers, Old Worries, my article in The Diplomat

I am beginning to slow down in updating my blog but I am trying to keep up. I wrote on China's defence spending in my second essay in March for the Diplomat. The essay, "China’s 2018 Military Budget: New Numbers, Old Worries," argued that Beijing’s growing might continues to stoke regional anxieties.

On Monday, China announced that its defense expenditure in 2018 would be over 1.1 trillion yuan ($174.5 billion). In a speech, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said, “Faced with profound changes in the national security environment, we must … firmly uphold the guiding position of Xi Jinping’s thinking on strengthening the armed forces as we develop national defense and the armed forces.” He added that China will advance “all aspects of military training and war preparedness, and firmly and resolvedly safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.”

This year’s defense budget marks an increase of 8.1 percent from last year. This is slightly more than 7 percent hike seen in 2017, but possibly the largest spending in the last three years.

This appears to be part of a wider trend where China, after the decade-long double-digit increases in its defense spending, now seems to be settling down for high single-digit hikes. Earlier, China’s defense budget increase rate was 10.7 percent in 2013, 12.2 percent in 2014, 10.1 percent in 2015 and began to come down to single digit growth rate from 2016 onward with 7.6 percent in 2016.

China has justified its defense budget by arguing that its defense spending is less than 1.5 percent of its GDP, but that argument is not going to go down well with its neighbors. Given the size of China’s economy, its defense spending in absolute terms is quite high.

For the full essay, click here.

Chinese experts have suggested that what China does with its defense spending is quite normal and standard given its ambitions. Guo Xiaobing, the deputy director and research professor at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), outlines a range of threats that China’s military will have to counter including “protection of maritime tights,” counterterrorism, disaster relief operations, international peacekeeping, and “escorting in the Gulf of Aden.” Guo also argues that China is transparent about its military expenditure, referring to the report of the 19th National Congress of Communist Party of China which identifies the military goals of China.

While this may all sound reasonable to Beijing, China’s neighbors, particularly Japan, Taiwan, India, and Vietnam, will have many concerns about the impact of such defense spending on the military balance in the region. They worry that China’s increasing military might may make it even more prone to aggressive moves in the region.

The recent signs are not comforting for some of these regional states, including countries such as South Korea that maintain friendlier ties with Beijing relative to some of China’s other neighbors. To take just one example, the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff recently reported that a Chinese military spy plane, a Y-9, crossed into South Korea’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) without warning last week, one of several such crossings into the Korean ADIZ in recent months.

This is not an isolated incident. It comes on top of other developments including China’s actions in South China Sea over the last few years which suggest that Beijing is changing the status quo in a way that raises questions about its long term objectives. Similar strategies have played out in the East China Sea as well, though with less success.

Chinese state media, for its part, has unsurprisingly continued to rebut such concerns. For instance, China Daily has asserted that “accusations of China’s rising assertiveness in the East and South China seas… is a denial of the truth, as China is merely trying to stand up for itself and its rights.”

Among China’s neighbors Japan in particular, has raised the lack of transparency as a major problem in China’s military spending. Reacting to the increase in military spending, Yoichi Shimada, professor at Fukui Prefectural University, said that “it is an open secret that China’s military spending is far bigger than their government will ever admit.” He added that in addition to the quantum of funding, it is the increasing sophistication of the Chinese military that is alarming.

The United States has also raised similar concerns about the non-transparent nature of China’s military spending. Vice Adm. Phillip Sawyer, commander of the Asia-based U.S. Seventh Fleet, referred to the lack of transparency as an issue that causes angst in the region which “is potentially disruptive to security and stability and the free flow of commerce and trade.”

Though it is unlikely that there will be much of an arms race between China and its neighbors – for most, China is already too large to compete with anyway – anxieties around Beijing’s defense spending can exacerbate security dilemmas and generate behavior that could leave the region less peaceful and prosperous than it could otherwise be. Especially worrying in this respect is the fact that Beijing at times seems far too quick to dismiss the concerns of its neighbors rather than listening and attempting to allay them.

All this suggests that even as we keep getting new numbers around what China spends on its military, the old concerns around what Beijing does with its rising capabilities are unlikely to go away anytime soon.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Why the Vietnam President’s India Visit Matters for Security Ties

Why the Vietnam President’s India Visit Matters for Security Ties - this was my second piece for the Diplomat this month published yesterday on the strategic imperative behind this energetic relationship between India and Vietnam, as highlighted in the Vietnamese President's visit to India. The weekend trip attests to the logic of increased security cooperation between the two major Asian players.

For the full essay, click here.

In addition to the manifold story lines that have emerged in recent days, Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang’s India visit, which kicked off on March 2 and will last till March 4, is a testament to the growing closeness in the bilateral security ties between Hanoi and New Delhi.

Quang’s visit comes at a time when momentum for bilateral ties and India’s ties with Southeast Asia in general are at a high level. This is a trip that is coming just a few weeks of the Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc’s visit to India as chief guest at India’s Republic Day celebrations in January, along with the leaders from all the other ASEAN countries.

Quang’s visit also marks 45 years of diplomatic relations between Vietnam and India and is centered on continuing efforts to deepen the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between the two countries. According to the Vietnamese Ambassador in India, Ton Sinh Thanh, the President will deliver an address on March 4, which is set to be an “important policy statement.”

On the security side, India and Vietnam share concerns about the growing Chinese power and how it might impact on their national security. Nowhere is that clearer than in the South China Sea. Responding to China’s aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, Vietnam has called on India to play a more proactive role in Southeast Asia.

India, for its part, has reiterated the importance of and adherence to international law, especially the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), in settling the South China Sea issue. Speaking about the Indo-Pacific waters in Indonesia in January this year, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj said, “These waters must not only get better connected, but remain free from traditional and non-traditional threats, that impede free movement of people, goods and ideas. Respect for international law, notably UNCLOS, in ensuring this is, therefore imperative.” She added that ASEAN and India are maritime nations and that India will strive “to evolve a regional architecture based on the twin principles of shared security, and shared prosperity.”

Both India and Vietnam have unresolved disputes with China and have been subjected to aggressive Chinese tactics. Vietnam is one of the handful of countries in Southeast Asia that has stood up to Chinese pressure, even though how long Vietnam can hold up against China is open to question. In addition to the gross imbalance of power between the two countries, a recent RAND study concludes that Vietnam may not be able to engage in “an extended, large-scale, or high-intensity conventional conflict in the region” for a variety of reasons. Thus, it is no surprise that Vietnam is keen that states like India, Japan, and the United States help build up its capabilities, especially on the air and naval fronts.

India is clearly keen to help, and New Delhi has a comprehensive defense and security relationship with Vietnam. The growing number of high-level bilateral visits, annual security dialogues, and military-to-military cooperation are an indication of the growing convergence in security matters. The Joint Commission Meeting at the Foreign Ministers’ level and the Foreign Office Consultations, Strategic Dialogue at the Foreign Secretary level, and Security Dialogue at the Defense Secretary level are some of the useful institutional mechanisms that have propelled the relationship.

Beyond this, India has been training the Vietnamese military in operating its Russian-built Kilo-class submarines and SU-30 fighter jets. Supply of military spares, maintenance of hardware, and ship visits are also other important facets of the defense cooperation. The two sides have also signed an MoU for Coast Guard-to-Coast Guard collaboration. During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Vietnam, New Delhi gave Hanoi a $500 million line of credit for defense cooperation. Sale of Brahmos missiles to Vietnam has also been reported from time to time, though it has yet to be confirmed.

While defense ties have somewhat dominated the headlines regarding the relationship because of China, there is an effort to continue to boost other aspects of the relationship as well, particularly in the economic realm. It is therefore no surprise that the visiting delegation includes the Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, ministers for trade and industry and planning and investment, as well as a large group of businessmen. During the visit, the two countries are expected to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on nuclear energy, agriculture and trade and investment. An MoU for joint port development and a joint venture on a coal project are also likely to be signed during the visit.

To be sure, the India-Vietnam bilateral trade is a miniscule one compared to Vietnam-China bilateral trade, which is around $70 billion. But it is also true that given India’s market size and continued economic improvements and Vietnam’s rapidly rising economic profile
, trade and investment should pick up in the bilateral context with India. This could in turn also give fillip to the bilateral strategic engagement, making the relationship a more comprehensive one.

Shared concerns about China have brought India and Vietnam particularly close in the recent years. Unless China mends its ways, which seems quite unlikely, expect to see Hanoi and New Delhi continue deepening their strategic and defense ties in the future.

Are China-India Relations Really Improving?

"Are China-India Relations Really Improving?" - this is an opinion piece I wrote for the Diplomat a couple of days ago on the nature of bilateral relations between India and China. I argue that though both sides continue to try to stabilize relations, complications are expected to continue.

India-China relations have gone through a tumultuous phase in the last few years. There have been a series of disputes between the two countries, including China’s fervent opposition to India’s potential membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG); Beijing’s shielding of Pakistan and blocking Indian efforts within the UN to designate the Pakistan-based terrorist, Masood Azhar, head of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), as a global terrorist; the Doklam crisis that went on for more than two months last summer; and India’s open opposition to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Though these incidents have cast a long shadow on bilateral relations, it is also true that, following the Doklam conflict and the BRICS Summit thereafter, both New Delhi and Beijing took some steps to stabilize the relationship. Nonetheless, given the bitterness that preceded this recent uptick in ties and the continuing competition between the two, it seems unlikely that the bilateral relations will improve significantly in a way that is sustainable for the future.

For the full essay, click here.

There are a couple of indicators of the slight improvement in the relations. First, the recent visit of the new Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale to Beijing may be injecting some fresh momentum to the bilateral relations. Gokhale, fluent in Mandarin, is believed to be an expert on China and someone who will possibly bring some balance to the rocky relationship. Gokhale was notably credited with bringing the Doklam crisis to the finish line without firing a bullet.

The Global Times, in its coverage of the visit, highlighted the meeting between Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Gokhale and added that they agreed to “deepen strategic communication, beef up mutually beneficial cooperation and properly settle sensitive issues, based on the consensus reached by leaders of the two countries.” The official Indian view also appeared positive: the Indian Embassy in Beijing, in a statement, said the two sides “noted the need to build on the convergences between India and China and address differences on the basis of mutual respect and sensitivity to each other’s concerns, interests and aspirations. Both sides underlined that as two major countries, sound development of relations between India and China is a factor of stability in the world today.”

This positive turn, while welcome, is somewhat additionally surprising considering earlier concerns among some in China about Ghokale. When he was appointed, The Global Times in an opinion piece identified Gokhale as a “hardliner” on China. The author of that piece, Liu Zongyi, added that “his [Gokhale] hard-line stance toward China have won him the appreciation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which further contributed to his appointment as the foreign secretary.”

Second, there has been generally positive reaction in India – albeit still tinged with some suspicion – about China agreeing to place Pakistan on the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) terror financing grey list. Subsequently, when China took over as the vice president of FATF, India promptly congratulated it, with the Indian MEA spokesperson tweeting his congratulations and hoping “that China would uphold & support the objectives & standards of FATF in a balanced, objective, impartial & holistic way.” There has been speculation in the Indian media, although the government has not divulged anything, that there may have been a deal between India and China on this: support for China’s vice presidency in return for China agreeing to put Pakistan on the grey list.

For China, gaining India’s vote for FATF was possibly sufficiently important enough for it to not object to placing Pakistan on the grey list. Moreover, it is worth noting the broader context at play here: the move within the FATF was sponsored by a number of other countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, and France, and China was also not the only one to withdraw its support to Pakistan: Turkey and Saudi Arabia also initially resisted the U.S. move, and reportedly withdrew their support for Pakistan only in the final phase. The limitations of the grey list are also worth keeping in mind: though this move will hurt Pakistan, making it difficult for Pakistan to raise money from overseas, including international monetary agencies, Pakistan is no stranger to the list, having been on it earlier from 2012 to 2015.

China’s change of mind with regard to Pakistan may have been prompted by a couple of other factors too that extend beyond India, in addition to a possible bargain with New Delhi itself. One, China is itself concerned about the growing threat of terrorism to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). China’s talks with Baloch militants last week are an indicator of those growing concerns, which pours some cold water over some of the sensationalism around the sunny future for China-Pakistan relations.

Those broader considerations are worth keeping in mind. Though it is possible to see the Ghokale visit and the FATF as signs of improving bilateral relations, the reality may be more complicated. Furthermore, there is still no shortage of problems between the two sides old and new, including the recent spat over the Maldives and the continuing wariness about what might happen in Doklam. These realities suggest that we are likely to continue to see tensions ahead, even with this welcome uptick in ties.