Conflict Escalation: China and India’s Territorial Dispute in the Himalayas

During the summer of 2017, an unusually volatile territorial spat between China and India erupted in the Himalayan Mountains. For over two months, hundreds of Chinese and Indian troops were locked in an escalating standoff on the Doklam Plateau, a region disputed by China and Bhutan near the Indian border. (See map.)

The fact that there was a standoff came as little surprise to most observers of China and India’s long-running territorial dispute. Other standoffs have periodically occurred along the two countries’ 4,057-km mostly disputed border—called the Line of Actual Control (LAC)—from the rocky peaks of Aksai Chin in the west to forested mountains of Arunachal Pradesh in the east. But this latest case was different in three respects: the parties involved, the strategic location, and the length and level of escalation.

Parties Involved

In the past, whenever such incidents took place, they occurred on parts of the LAC that China and India shared. This one did not; it transpired on land claimed by a third country, Bhutan. The incident began in June 2017 when Chinese troops and bulldozers moved onto the Doklam Plateau to build an all-weather road. With no ability to stop them, Bhutan appealed to India for assistance. Obligingly, New Delhi dispatched a military detachment to confront the Chinese, prompting the standoff.

Of course, China saw things differently. It accused India of sending troops into its territory and obstructing its road construction. China also intimated that India had exercised its historic influence over Bhutan’s foreign affairs to manufacture the Bhutanese request for help. But while one can debate the propriety of India’s intervention, what prompted China to attempt to build a road on land that it disputes with Bhutan in the first place remains unclear. Some speculated that Beijing may have been trying to gain a bargaining chip with which it could pry Bhutan away from India’s influence. If true, that would have been a long shot, given Bhutan’s economic dependence on India.

Strategic Location

While standoffs have developed in sensitive areas before, the most recent one occurred near a particularly strategic location for India. The Doklam Plateau sits near a part of India where its territory is squeezed between Bhutan, China, and Nepal to the north and Bangladesh to the south. That location, known as the Siliguri Corridor, is strategic because it connects India’s northeastern states with the rest of the country. The Indian military has long worried about a possible Chinese thrust through Sikkim that could sever the corridor and cut India in two.

China’s rapid infrastructure development and military modernization over the last two decades have only heightened those concerns. Indian strategists fear that China could use its new all-weather roads, high-speed railways, and airfields to quickly mass its military might on the border. Chinese military doctrine and exercises suggest that China is preparing to do just that. During its Stride 2009 exercise, the Chinese military mobilized and transported four divisions across China in record time. Meanwhile, the Chinese military has been steadily acquiring new combat platforms suited for mountain warfare, from helicopters to light tanks able to operate at high altitudes. It also recently completed a major reorganization of its command structure to boost its joint war-fighting capability.

On the other side of the Himalayas, India has struggled to keep up with China. Already five years behind schedule, India has competed only 27 out of 73 roads that it had wanted built to improve its access to the LAC.[1] To compensate for that weakness, the Indian military has stationed sizable forces near the LAC so that it can quickly respond to any crisis there. But as the gap between Chinese and Indian military capabilities continues to widen, India has felt more pressure to strengthen its border defenses. In 2013, it began to raise a new two-division formation, the 17th Mountain Strike Corps, to be better prepared to repel a serious Chinese incursion. The Indian army is now outfitting the corps with some of its newest arms, including U.S.-designed M777 howitzers.

Length and Level of Escalation

Historically, when a standoff on the LAC has arisen, it is settled in a few weeks through a diplomatic resolution whereby both sides agree to a mutual and simultaneous withdrawal. Most observers expected that to happen in this latest case. Instead, whether by coincidence or design, China conducted a series of live-fire drills in nearby Tibet after the standoff began. Then, when India’s national security advisor travelled to Beijing in July, China rebuffed him. Rather than negotiating a resolution, China issued a lengthy position paper accusing India of wrongdoing and insisted on a unilateral Indian withdrawal.

In August, India upped the ante. It increased the combat readiness of its 50,000 troops along the eastern portion of the LAC, advancing the timetable for its annual exercise in the region and deploying its forces to their wartime positions. China’s state-owned Global Times warned that “China is more than capable of defeating India in potential military conflict” and had already mused that “perhaps it is time that [India] be taught a second lesson,” a reference to the 1962 Sino-Indian War.

The Next Standoff

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed by late August, and the two countries reached a settlement. India withdrew its troops, and China removed its road-construction equipment from the disputed region. Eventually, what drove the easing of tensions may have been Beijing’s desire for stability ahead of a Chinese-hosted BRICs summit (to which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was invited) in September and China’s Communist Party Congress in October.

In any case, how Beijing handled the standoff on the Doklam Plateau seems to have marked an incremental shift in Chinese behavior. It demonstrated that China has become more willing to directly challenge the strategic interests of a large neighboring power and is less concerned over conflict escalation than it once was. If there is a lesson for India to learn from all that, it is to be better prepared for the next border standoff.


[1] Rahul Bedi, “Deadline for construction of India–China border roads extended to 2022,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, Aug. 3, 2017.

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Trump’s Seoul Speech: All the Right Points, Still No Way Forward

President Trump’s speech in South Korea’s National Assembly on Wednesday, November 8, 2017 was likely the best foreign policy speech he has ever given. And that is not only because expectations were low. It would be more accurate, perhaps, to say that fears were high. After months of unpredictable diplomacy-by-Twitter—calling Kim Jong-un names, making seemingly off-the-cuff-threats, undermining diplomatic efforts by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—many feared that Trump’s speech would be yet another moment of this sort.

But rhetorical strength is no replacement for policy. Even though Trump’s speech largely checked all the necessary boxes for what a U.S. president should say during a state visit in South Korea, a fundamental divide remains between him and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in over how to deal with North Korea, and whether military strikes should really be on the table. Trump expressed a will to talk, but also continued to push North Korean denuclearization as a precondition for improved relations. North Korea has repeated time and time again that its nuclear weapons are non-negotiable. President Moon, on the other hand, has expressed several times a will to engage with North Korea despite (or perhaps because) of its nuclear progress. This is a policy difference about as big as they get and though symbolically important, Trump’s speech did little to change matters.

First, let us look at some of the good parts of the speech, of which there were many. Some have criticized Trump’s speech for being akin to a Wikipedia page on South Korean history. Such criticisms miss the genre, context, and point of speeches such as this one. Trump did not go to Seoul to lay out new, ground-breaking policy lines. This state visit was highly symbolic, especially after all the ups and downs of U.S.-Korea relations over the past few months. By speaking on South Korea’s history, and the history of U.S.-Korean relations, Trump tried, and succeeded, in affirming American respect and recognition of both.

By anchoring the U.S.-Korea alliance in the Korean War (1950–1953), the speech signaled that the countries’ relationship is about more than strategy and geopolitics. Take, for example, the following lines, almost right at the beginning (my emphasis):

“Almost 67 years ago, in the spring of 1951, they recaptured what remained of this city, where we are gathered so proudly today. It was the second time in a year that our combined forces took on steep casualties to retake this capital from the Communists. Over the next weeks and months, the men soldiered through steep mountains and bloody, bloody battles. Driven back at times, they willed their way north to form the line that today divides the oppressed and the free. And there, American and South Korean troops have remained together holding that line for nearly seven decades.”

In other words, the alliance is steeped in shared sacrifices on the battlefield. South Korea’s war—for the Korean War was never formally ended, fighting only stopped following an armistice—remains America’s, too.

Trump also dedicated significant time to extolling South Korea’s economic and political development. This part of his speech served an important purpose: it gave recognition to a national narrative of modern South Korea that is an important source of pride for many. This narrative obscures a great deal of suffering and oppression at the hands of the country’s military dictators, but you can’t demand full and perfect academic nuance from a presidential speech during a foreign visit. The success story, next to the failed, oppressive and poor hermit kingdom, is a powerful story.

But Trump repeated the same policy the U.S. has held onto for decades, and in very clear terms. Complete and verifiable denuclearization is the beginning of better relations, and not even a guarantee (my emphasis):

“And to those nations that choose to ignore this threat—or worse still, to enable it—the weight of this crisis is on your conscience. I also have come here to this peninsula to deliver a message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship. The weapons you are acquiring are not making you safer. They are putting your regime in grave danger. Every step you take down this dark path increases the peril you face. North Korea is not the paradise your grandfather envisioned. It is a hell that no person deserves. Yet despite every crime you have committed against God and man, you are ready to offer—and we will do that—we will offer a path to a much better future. It begins with an end to the aggression of your regime, a stop to your development of ballistic missiles, and complete, verifiable, and total denuclearization.”

The leadership in Pyongyang sees things differently, to put it mildly. They see the nuclear weapons as the reason they haven’t met the same destiny as leaders like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. Moreover, while Trump’s “message directly to the leader of the North Korean dictatorship” was at least in part meant to reassure South Korea that the U.S. stands behind it, South Koreans know full well that they, and not the U.S. president or population, are the ones in greatest risk should tensions escalate into armed clashes or nuclear war. This difference underlies the basic but crucial tension between the U.S. and South Korean administrations, where there has been little visible coordination of statements and measures during the last months’ tensions around North Korea’s nuclear program.

Of course, there is probably more flexibility in reality than can be gleaned from major speeches. Secretary of State Tillerson, when talking to reporters in Vietnam on Friday, seemed to imply that the U.S. is open to talks with relatively few preconditions. He would look for a “relative period of quiet and an indication from Kim Jong Un himself that they would like to have some type of a meeting,” reported Bloomberg. Trump’s emphasis on the U.S. being open to talking to North Korea, under the right conditions, was also a change of nuance, if not of words, from his usual tone against the North Korean regime. Perhaps more is going on under the surface. But as of now, the deadlock remains.

For other articles related to the Korean Peninsula, see Russia-North Korea Economic Ties: Is There More Than Meets the Eye? and Time for Decisions on North Korea.

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What a 1991 CIA Assessment on North Korea Tells Us about the Current Crisis

The current situation is no ordinary escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula. Those happen with regular frequency, but tend to fizzle out after a few days or weeks. Not so this time. Rhetoric is certainly more extreme than it has been in the past. North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho’s declaration on September 25th that North Korea reserves the right to (note: not that it “will”) shoot down American bombers even in international airspace is an eerily concrete threat. Its logic is easy to understand: in a situation as tense as this one, North Korea cannot be sure whether approaching bombers are merely intended to signal U.S. resolve in its defense of South Korea, or if they are out on a mission. When tensions run as high as they do right now, the potential for misunderstandings between the two parties poses enormous risks.

The tone and context of the statement matters. North Korea has accused other countries of making “declarations of war” against it on numerous occasions, just like its foreign minister did in New York on September 25. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry, for example, claimed in 2016 that a U.S. State Department report release on human rights in North Korea constituted a declaration of war. But with the overall bluster, it is harder for the parties to read each other’s true intentions through the chatter.

In many ways, however, not much has changed on the Korean peninsula for the past few decades. North Korea’s rapid development of its nuclear weapons and missiles (including ICBMs) has certainly been a game changer, but many of the basic dynamics have remained the same since the fall of the Soviet Union, throughout North Korea’s nuclear crises. A look back into the archives provides a fascinating reminder that situations and dynamics that we explain and analyze time and time again often haven’t changed for several decades.

By the end of the 1980s, the U.S. first saw, on satellite images, what looked like the construction of a nuclear reactor near the North Korean town of Yongbyon. Together, with the international community, it began to demand that North Korea allow international inspections of its nuclear facilities under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which North Korea was still a party to at the time.

What tools did the U.S. consider using to pressure North Korea into compliance? One that should be familiar to basically every human being on the planet within listening range to TV news by now: economic sanctions.       

A look in the archives of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reveals some assessments that the agency made about how well sanctions could function. And here is where things get very familiar. One memo drafted by the National Intelligence Council in December 1991 shows that much of the reasoning of the time around North Korea’s reactions to sanctions, as well as those of its neighbors, have remained very similar till this day. Let us look at some of the key analyses of the memo, one by one (some are shortened for simplicity):

  • “. . . economic sanctions per se would not cause North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program.”

This, U.S. intelligence assessed 26 years ago. North Korea has been under various UN sanctions since 2006, which did little or nothing to prevent them from acquiring a nuclear deterrent. The ambitions for a nuclear deterrent have always been stronger than Pyongyang’s fear of sanctions, especially when these largely lack impact because of China’s unwillingness to enforce them. And now, here we are.

  • “Foreign trade plays an important role in key sectors of North Korea’s economy. P’yongyang imports all of its crude oil, coking coal, and advanced technology, and 25 percent of its needed food grains.”

North Korea today exports far more coal than it imports (before the latest rounds of sanctions, that is). Though the data is uncertain, it is likely far less dependent on outside imports of food than it was in 1991. Still, the basic tenets hold. North Korea depends on the outside world for crucial resources, most notably crude oil.

The memo notes further that: 

  • “A trade embargo – if fully respected and enforced – would cause a significant falloff in production and impose severe hardships on the North Korean populace. A curtailment of crude oil shipments would be particularly troublesome and would lead to industrial shutdowns, restricted transportation, and reduced agriculture and fishing.

And, further down in the document:

  • “The cutoff of oil deliveries would probably cause the regime to accelerate the shutdown of even essential industries and move to inefficient alternative forms of transportation – ox carts, bicycles, and charcoal-burning vehicles . . .”

There is currently no full trade embargo on North Korea. But under the current sanctions, and mainly due to China’s enforcement of them, a number of the results above are creeping into the economy. The fishing industry is suffering under the ban on seafood exports, and likely due to increased fuel prices as well. Should China continue to restrict its exports of oil, the transportation sector that supports the private market economy will also suffer. Agriculture, however, remains poorly mechanized—it largely reverted to manual methods after the famine in the mid-1990s when fuel became extremely scarce, so the predictions of the memo largely came true there as well, only through a different process.

But then, as today, the “if” on full respect and enforcement of a trade embargo was a big one:

  • “Most of the North’s trading partners would be reluctant to impose, much less to enforce, economic sanctions. China’s role would be key, and we believe Beijing would strenuously oppose – and assist P’yongyang in evading – an embargo.”

And, further down:

  • “We believe China – which has publicly opposed pressure tactics against the North – would not support trade sanctions and would veto UN action either to impose or militarily enforce an embargo. At a minimum, we believe Beijing would break the embargo by expanding trade with North Korea in an effort to preserve the P’yongyang regime. In particular, China would probably provide needed food and medical supplies, and could also increase oil deliveries . . .”

Again, no embargo is in place against North Korea, but current sanctions largely fill a similar function in blocking or severely restricting North Korea’s external trade in a wide range of goods. And as of now, China appears to be implementing many of the trade restrictions with force—at least enough for the North Korean economy to feel it. But in the grand scheme of things, Beijing’s sanctions enforcement remains an anomaly. China usually enforces sanctions only for temporary periods of time, when global attention is focused on North Korea, and reverts to normal trade with the country when tensions have blown over. It remains China’s primary objective in this that the status-quo be preserved, and part of that is to ensure the survival of North Korea in the long run. This was true in 1991, and it remains true in 2017.

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Our Brave New Nuclear World

So now we have a North Korea armed with long-range missiles and thermonuclear weapons. Make no mistake. This is the new normal. Pyongyang will never give them up, and no one can make them do so. 

The follow-on effects of this development will transform global politics and security policy. A wave of nuclear proliferation and military buildup is definitely to be expected. So one must ask: given our knowledge of what was going on in North Korea, how did we ever let this happen? Also we must ask, what realistically can be done to lower the threat of war?

In 1994, when President Bill Clinton announced the “agreed framework” with Pyongyang that he claimed to believe would solve the problem, I found myself in guest quarters at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. with my wife (from China) of just six years. President Clinton said, “North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program. South Korea and our other allies will be better protected. The entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons.”

The American president also stressed that security would be maintained and that United States determination was firm.

Puzzled, my wife asked me, “What is this man saying.” I responded, “This, my darling, is what in America we call an ‘empty threat’”  . . . and indeed it proved to be just that. Within six years, the CIA had detected North Korea’s clandestine program. In 2006, Pyongyang carried out her first nuclear test. “Experts” stated that alone North Korea was incapable of developing delivery systems or increasing the size of her arsenal. 2020 was given as the then conveniently remote date when Pyongyang might pose some rudimentary threat.

What went wrong? Intelligence failure of course. Inability to imagine what was going to happen as well. A failure of policy which sought to use negotiations and incentives (the provision of light water reactors) to bring Pyongyang around. Most important was a failure to take seriously the lessons of history.

Think of WWII. In Hitler’s time, the highest ranks of the military and security apparatus contained many opposed to war. They planned to carry out a coup if the Führer invaded Czechoslovakia. Those involved included Foreign Minister Konstantin von Neurath; Head of Intelligence Colonel Hans Osler; Head of Counter- Intelligence Admiral William Canaris; Chief of Staff of the Army Colonel-General Ludwig Beck, and  the opposition contained many others—less well organized, from political parties as well as Protestant and Catholic Christians.  When the Czech plans became known by the army, General Beck and others sent envoys to London and Paris who were rebuffed. Not, that is, until British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier came to terms with Hitler at Munich, in September 1938, sacrificing Czechoslovakia, thus inadvertently destroying the whole plan. Other plans were also made, but this one was perhaps the best chance. Reaching Czechoslovakia required passing through fortified mountain passes, and with the famous Škoda Works munitions factory supplying them, the efficient Czech army might well have broken Hitler’s momentum with a stalemate on difficult ground. It was, in other words, worth a try. The French and British governments should have reacted positively. Terrified, however, Chamberlain and others became intoxicated by a delusional vision of peace through sincere negotiation with Hitler and appeasement—i.e. letting him invade other countries, but not yours. The might-have-beens continue to add literature to an already substantial mountain of speculation.[1]

The historical lesson here is that often prairie fires are started by discarded matches showing almost no flame. Douse the match somehow and all will be well: otherwise, hundreds of thousands of acres may go up in a firestorm.

In geopolitical language, this means force or the credible threat of force are best used the instant a threat is detected. Civilized people, however, tend to place actual force far down the list—after engagement, negotiations, incentives, embargoes, etc. which do not work when a country is genuinely on the warpath.

Possibly, World War II could have been averted as late as 1938, but by 1939, Germany learned that the allies would not resist, so the war could only be fought to the bloody finish.[2]

Likewise, North Korea could have been stopped in 1994 by military threats or even strike operations against their nuclear facilities. Instead, we wasted time heedlessly and profligately. We weren’t even serious. No one had a gut sense of how bad things could really get. Yet, ask our people about how appeasement strengthened Hitler, and many could have given intelligent answers. But to them, this was history; it resided in their brains, but not their bones; they would never have made nor make such mistakes. 

At that time, we also still harbored grave delusions with respect to Beijing’s interest in cooperation on the issue. In fact, one year after Clinton’s speech, China’s government made her first tentative move toward what is now territorial expansion greater in size than even that of the Third Reich at its largest—with the annexation of Mischief Reef from the Philippines.

Had we or the Philippines sent forces simply to demolish this minor maritime feature, China might well have desisted. Likewise, had the allies prepared for war or actually fought over Czechoslovakia, Hitler would never have acquired the aura of invincibility that so benefited his campaigns.

Now, the new situation has ratcheted into place. South Korea and Japan will likely become full nuclear powers. The existing East Asian arms race will pass through India to the western borders of Russia, thus menacing Europe. No solution exists any more, except a balance of terror. Sad nay tragic, but SO human. Welcome to the pre-war period.


[1] See among many others, Peter Hoffmann, The History of the German Resistance 1933-1945 (Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 1997))

[2] See Williamson Murray, The Change in the Balance of Power (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984)

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Selling Out the Rohingyas

In the past several weeks, much attention has been devoted to the abject plight of the minority, predominantly Muslim, Rohingya community in Burma’s (Myanmar’s) Rakhine state. They have long been mistreated in the country and are denied citizenship rights despite a claim to have inhabited the Rakhine region since the sixteenth century; their situation has recently taken a particularly adverse turn. On August 25, it is reported that an emergent Rohingya guerrilla group had launched an attack on some Myanmarese army units. The military retaliated with considerable force and massacred substantial numbers of villagers at Tula Toli near the Bangladeshi border. In its wake, thousands of the hapless villagers trekked to nearby Bangladesh swelling an already turgid refugee population.

The harshness with which the Burmese military has responded to the guerrilla attack has generated understandable condemnation in the global community. Some groups have even organized to try to strip the Burmese leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, of her Nobel Prize. A fellow Nobel Laureate, Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, has sharply criticized her deafening silence about the situation of the Rohingyas. Another Nobel Laureate, Malala Yousufzai, has also criticized her silence.

Bangladesh and India’s Response

The focus on the global community’s response to these most tragic developments in Myanmar is entirely warranted and appropriate. Lost in much of the reportage on these events, however, are the reactions of two key regional countries, Bangladesh and India. Bangladesh, which has grudgingly sheltered Rohingya refugees for years, has allowed more of them to enter the country, albeit with much reluctance. The conditions that prevail in the Bangladeshi refugee camps can only be described as being downright squalid. Yet, such dire conditions do not deter the wretched Rohingyas from fleeing the depredations of the Myanmar army. Of course, Bangladesh has little or no incentive and has limited resources to improve the existing state of the camps. Making them more livable is likely to make them a magnet for further refugee inflows. Furthermore, despite much economic progress over the past few decades, it remains a desperately poor country and can ill-afford to provide succor to increasing numbers of refugees even if they happen to be fellow Muslims. Even if substantial inflows of international assistance were available to Bangladesh, it is most unlikely that its regime would alleviate the milieu of these camps for fear that the refugees would seek more permanent residence in the country.

Bangladesh’s response to the emergent refugee crisis, while less than laudable, is at least somewhat understandable. What then has been India’s reaction to the unfolding crisis? The country has a long and storied tradition of not merely accepting refugees, but actually providing them solace. For example, in the wake of the Khampa rebellion in Tibet in 1959, it provided comfort to thousands of Tibetans. It has also sheltered the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of the global Tibetan community, for decades since his flight to India. More recently, in 1971, it opened its borders to nearly ten million Bengalis who fled East Pakistan following a military crackdown during the crisis that led to the creation of Bangladesh. Why then has the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime adopted a mostly uncaring stance? The reasons stem from the imperatives of both regional and domestic politics.

In his visit to Myanmar last week Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at least in the public domain, scrupulously avoided bringing up the issue of the Rohingyas. Worse still, he concurred with Suu Kyi that Myanmar was confronted with and needed to address a “terrorist problem.” According to reliable Indian newspaper sources, he was able, however, to persuade her that it was necessary to provide substantial economic assistance to the strife-torn region. Whether or not such aid ever materializes and reaches the unfortunate population remains an open question.

What explains Modi’s reticence to criticize the country’s role in precipitating this humanitarian crisis? In considerable part, it stems from a careful calculation of India’s perceived national security interests. Given that the country has long faced and continues to confront a range of insurgencies in its northeastern region abutting Myanmar, it needs to elicit Suu Kyi’s cooperation to prevent them from using bases and sanctuaries in her country.

Additionally, it can also be traced to India’s interest in limiting the influence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In earlier decades, Myanmar’s fledgling democracy movement was battling a vicious military dictatorship, and India had been at the forefront of supporting it. However, after watching the PRC make steady inroads into Myanmar in the early 1990s, India started to move away from its unstinted support for democratic reforms. Modi’s muted reaction to the ongoing crisis amounts to a logical culmination of that strategy.

Beyond regional concerns, what are the domestic determinants of this policy? The BJP regime, as is well known, has little or no regard for India’s vast Muslim minority. In fact, elements within the party are known for their active hostility toward India’s Muslim citizenry. Consequently, it should come as little surprise that the regime has no particular regard for the Rohingyas who have sought refuge within India. With complete disregard for customary international law, which calls on states not to deport refugees to countries where they face a reasonable prospect of persecution, Kiren Rijiju, the junior minister for Home Affairs, has threatened to deport the Rohingyas to Myanmar. Without adducing any evidence, he has argued that the refugees pose a potential terrorist threat and thereby should be deported. It is uncertain that the stinging rebukes that he has received from both Indian civil society as well as human rights groups will lead to a suspension of this stated policy.

At a juncture when multiple global crises command the attention of national leaders, there is a strong likelihood that the stance of the two most important regional actors— Bangladesh and India—to this humanitarian crisis will be mostly overlooked. Under those circumstances, the predicament of the Rohingyas will simply be written off as yet another footnote to the many humanitarian tragedies of the new century.


Sumit Ganguly is a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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The Mystery of China’s Naval Strategy

Almost daily, we have news of Chinese military preparations or activities: her new second aircraft carrier, her quantum communications, her ever-increasing power. Serious analysts, however, usually pose a simple question when considering such developments: what is their purpose? What is the geopolitical end-state that the country in question envisions after her operations are completed? After all, no one is going to invade China, so defenses need not be on this scale. Is she seriously thinking of invading someone else? Her most important land neighbors are Russia, Kazakhstan, and India. Most would say that it would not only be pointless for China to attack any of these, but also self-destructive. Consider the bloody defeat inflicted on China in 1979 by little Vietnam (128,000 square miles; Germany is 138,000) in a conflict that still smolders. In the language of strategy: What is China’s policy? Where does she want to get?

Under my maddening, stupid, repetitive questioning, not unlike the below, I finally received the exasperated answer: “No matter what, we will be a great country” (無論如何我們是一個大國家). I had not the energy nor my poor victim any desire to discuss what “great” meant: Coming at the top of Freedom House’s list of countries rated by freedom and democracy? Having the lowest infant death rate? Or the highest literacy and numeracy level? Or most equal Gini coefficient? Cleanest and most beautiful natural environment? Number of Nobel Prizes or Olympic medals per capita? Largest number of people who say they are happy? Largest number of H-Bombs? You can choose lots of metrics, but no matter who you are, you will come out badly on some (e.g. U.S. Gini coefficient, literacy, etc.). To be tops in everything is what the Chinese wish for their country and their children—but it is impossible, and it is childish. 

To the best of my knowledge, Alfred Thayer Mahan’s (1840-1914) works were not translated into Chinese the first time around, in the nineteenth century, when they went into Japanese and many other languages, and are thought by many to have influenced national policies. 1954 appears to be the first Chinese edition of The Influence of Sea Power on History which appeared in the West in 1890. Now, in print in China in better annotated editions than we have, clearly Mahan has influenced the Chinese who are now pouring vast sums into something no Chinese state has ever possessed before: namely, a high seas fleet. I suspect they are attracted not so much by the specifics of Mahan’s theory as by certain stirring generalities, for example:

“It was not by attempting great military operations on land, but by controlling the sea, and through the sea the world outside Europe, that England ensured the triumph of their country.”[1]

A phrase like “by controlling the sea, and through the sea the world outside Europe” may sound like a policy or desired end-state an ambitious country such as China, that feels status deprived. But it is not.

Mahan is not about how to use sea power to conquer the world, but only in how to use it to conquer a specific adversary. He got the ideas that made him famous during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) when he stayed at the Phoenix Club in Lima (still there) and started reading about how Hannibal attacked Rome—crossing the Alps—and reflected on how easier a time he would have had if, like Scipio, he had been able to use ships to land on the coast and win quickly as Scipio did in 202 BC having crossed the sea easily to Zama near Carthage (and also by buying off Hannibal’s chief ally). This led Mahan to coin the phrase “sea power:” something long extant, but never named and examined before.

In both the Napoleonic War and the Second Punic War, maritime operations were direct contributors to the loss of what were essentially land wars. I believe the Chinese now consider sea control to be an element, if not the key element, in her future ill-defined greatness.

One suspects that some top leaders, having a superficial acquaintance with Mahan, think they can realize what was not even Mahan’s topic: control of much in global affairs with sea power. Such a concept is absent from Mahan. He believed that local sea control was necessary against an adversary in order to enforce a blockade that would bring it down. How exactly this would happen Mahan never says. His argument contains no real “theory of victory,” rather it assumes that most states are vulnerable to blockade (he was on service blockading the Confederacy during the Civil War). That may be true for small states, but it makes no sense for large land powers such as China, Russia, India, the United States, etc.

Not fleets, but alliances backed by military power, allow the extension of influence. Truth be told, China has no allies. How can one exercise unilateral hegemony over Asia from the sea as the Chinese are warning their neighbors? It is impossible. The United States aircraft carrier Reagan will visit Camh Ranh Bay in Vietnam next year not by shooting her way in but because the Vietnamese will welcome her. One can begin the conquest of a country with sea power and air power, but how does one get enough troops there by ship to fight on land? Can one rule from horseback, a Chinese general asked two thousand years ago—or rather, from the fleet? No. According to another story, the Germans were asked before World War I what they would do if the British landed on the Baltic Coast. They answered, “Send the gendarmerie and arrest them.”

More than anything else, Mahan emphasized, “never divide the fleet.” His theory of a “fleet in being,” essentially deterrence in nineteenth century diction, states that if a country maintains a fleet certain of victory, that fact will cause other powers not to attack, even though owing to sailing times, it might be two months before their fleet was destroyed. The Chinese seem not to have read this part. For with her numerous acquisitions of naval bases e.g. in Pakistan and coral atolls in the South China Sea, defense will require dividing the fleet. If submarines menace access to one of China’s “coaling stations” or South Sea rocks, several ships will have to be peeled off to deal with the contingency—which will not be easy to do, given the remoteness of these places from China and their proximity to land that can support, among other things, much more air power than they can bring to the theatre. Think how American submarines paralyzed the Japanese in the South Pacific by simply isolating islands holding immense garrisons, and thus taking them out of the war.

Such islets and harbors, however, are unlikely to be the focus of conflict. Russia, a naval power of some magnitude, will never tolerate Chinese dominance of the seas around Vladivostok and Kamchatka. A war started at sea would become a land war China could not win. The Korean peninsula flanks the Bohai Gulf which is the only sea lane into north China; Shanghai faces Kyushu, so it is strategically untenable; only Hainan island has some open water, but it is all either cupped like the island itself by Vietnam, or flanked by the long Vietnamese coast. Finally, let us not forget India which, one suspects, is capable of closing the Strait of Malacca from the Andaman and Nicobar islands: lining up ships, and pulling out those headed for China.

Is China in fact she neglecting land power? For some time before World War I, the Germans spent more on their failed “risk fleet” designed to keep Britain out by menacing her navy, key to the island’s survival. Had they spent that money on their army, they would probably have won the war.

I would count every one of China’s fourteen land neighbors—Pakistan included—as either potentially hostile or hostile. This number does not include offshore powers like Japan, which has immense resources with which to help. So suppose a war began, and as Chinese General Liu Yazhou (劉亞洲), a fervent anti-Japanese nationalist, who also knows his trade, has predicted, the Japanese stealthy submarines sank the eastern fleet in four hours? China would be humiliated and exposed. We lack the space to consider domestic political consequences.

I know a bit about the excellent Singapore navy which controls the Philip Channel, the narrowest part of the Strait of Malacca (1.5 miles). Suppose China, necessarily dividing the fleet, sent a taskforce to subdue Singapore (278 square miles). I have no doubt that Singapore would sink the Chinese. Multiply this scenario by all the contingencies China is creating, and one has an impossible strategic problem.

When it comes to strategic destinations, I use the following image. China is a bus, the biggest in world history. It is carrying more people than any bus has ever before. It is going faster than any bus in history. In what direction? Straight ahead. One steps up and asks the driver, “Where are we going?” The driver responds, “I’m not sure exactly, but as we get closer, I’ll be able to tell you more.” This is a terrible approach to strategy and policy, but it seems to be China’s right now.


[1] Mahan, Alfred T., The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire 1793-1812 (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company. 1895). Volume 2, p. 402 quoted in https://severalfourmany.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/mahan-corbett-douhet-and-mitchell.pdf

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What North Korea’s Statement against Trump Really Means

It would be hard to deny that rhetoric on and around the Korean peninsula is at a high mark. United States President Donald Trump’s words about “fire and fury” aimed at North Korea sounded almost like the typical rhetoric coming from North Korea. North Korea’s response, seemingly implying a threat of bombing Guam, was unusually direct and concrete.

Still, it is important to remember one key fact that has gotten lost in the bluster and chatter: Neither Trump’s statement, nor North Korea’s response, imply any change of the status quo.

Trump’s words were dangerously crude, and struck a tone that previous American presidents have not taken toward North Korea. At the end of the day, however, striking North Korea has never not been an option for the Unites States. Within the strategic confines of the North Korean nuclear issue, it has always been implied that the U.S. would consider striking North Korea should it sense serious, imminent and tangible threats against itself or its allies. That is what overflights of bombers over the Korean peninsula—which the U.S. has often conducted after North Korean provocations and did only a few days ago—intends to signal. Trump’s statement was reportedly spontaneous, rather than a result of newly calculated U.S. language or new red lines. In other words, it was not intended to signal a change of policy. 

Similarly, North Korea’s threat against Guam was not a shift of position. The whole point of North Korea demonstrating its ICBM-capacities is to show the U.S. that it has the capacity to strike its mainland, or islands such as Guam. It is worth re-reading the central passages in full:

The KPA Strategic Force is now carefully examining the operational plan for making an enveloping fire at the areas around Guam with medium-to-long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 in order to contain the U.S. major military bases on Guam including the Anderson Air Force Base in which the U.S. strategic bombers, which get on the nerves of the DPRK and threaten and blackmail it through their frequent visits to the sky above south Korea, are stationed and to send a serious warning signal to the U.S.

The plan is to be soon reported to the Supreme Command soon after going through full examination and completion and will be put into practice in a multi-concurrent and consecutive way any moment once Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of the nuclear force of the DPRK, makes a decision.

The execution of this plan will offer an occasion for the Yankees to be the first to experience the might of the strategic weapons of the DPRK closest.[1]

Note the following:

  1. The KPA (Korea People’s Army, North Korea’s military) is, according to KCNA, “carefully examining the operational plan” for striking Guam. That’s not exactly a threat of imminent bombing. Rather, it is simply stating that North Korea has plans readily available for how it would attack Guam, should it choose to do so. Anything else would be surprising given North Korea’s tense relationship with the United States, and its heavy emphasis on missiles in its strategic doctrine.
  2. That the plan is to be reported to Kim Jong-un, and will be put into practice if Kim Jong-un decides it should be, is also not a change of policy. Remember: Kim Jong-un is the supreme commander of the North Korean military. He could order any attack he wants at any time. This fact was true yesterday, and will likely be true tomorrow as well. Of course, the wording of the statement makes it sound as if though North Korea might launch an attack in the near future. But North Korea threatens its neighbors and adversaries in regular intervals. Consider the following paragraph from a news report in the spring of 2013, another time when tensions ran high between North Korea and the U.S., citing a North Korean statement:

“We formally inform the White House and Pentagon that the ever-escalating U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK and its reckless nuclear threat will be smashed by the strong will of all the united service personnel and people and cutting-edge smaller, lighter and diversified nuclear strike means of the DPRK and that the merciless operation of its revolutionary armed forces in this regard has been finally examined and ratified,” it said. “The U.S. had better ponder over the prevailing grave situation.”

In other words, North Korea regularly makes it a point to remind its adversaries of its capabilities. In terms of pure language, this time appears to be no different.

None of this is to say that the current tensions are not dangerous. Words eventually need to be backed up by action for them to carry any meaning. In situations like this one, the danger of escalation beyond the point of no return, and of miscalculation, is grave and serious. That is precisely why words and rhetoric must not be overblown, and understood in their proper context. 


[1] Source: Korean Central News Agency, “U.S. Should Be Prudent under Present Acute Situation: Spokesman for KPA Strategic Force,” August 9, 2017. North Korean outlets always write Kim Jong Un’s name in bold, and in a larger font.

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After North Korean Missile Test, South Korean President Takes a Stance  

North Korea’s latest ICBM test—conducted on July 28—was not as big of a shock as the one preceding it. The message North Korea sent with its initial test on July 4 was loud and clear: the country can hit the United States mainland with its missiles, and perhaps soon with nuclear weapons. The second missile launch primarily served to drive home that point, and to do it with a vengeance. The missile North Korea launched in the late evening hours of Friday, July 28 reached an altitude of 3.7 kilometers and flew 998 kilometers, metrics that Pyongyang claims shows its ability to hit the entire territory of the United States. On Tuesday, August 1, evidence surfaced that North Korea may have carried out another test of a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during the preceding weekend, proving the mobility of its missile-launching capabilities.

North Korea’s ICBM capacities means that when it threatens to annihilate its enemies for various reasons (as Pyongyang does from time to time), these words carry force. But overall, it does not change the strategic environment very much. It has long been known that North Korea’s ICBM- and nuclear-capacities are advanced, and as U.S. officials have pointed out, for the past few years, it has only been a matter of time before North Korea displays these capacities in a credible way.

In fact, one of the most important implications from the ICBM-test came from South Korea. When South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed in the day after the test to deploy more interceptor missile launchers for the country’s controversial anti-missile defense system, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, more commonly known by its acronym, THAAD, it was a radical turnaround from his previous positions. North Korea had probably hoped to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea through its missile tests and other provocations in the months following the election of a left-leaning government in South Korea. As of now, it looks like those ambitions have failed.

Only a few weeks ago, this outcome seemed far from certain. Moon is a leftist politician, and his skepticism of THAAD’s deployment is well known. Donald Trump calling on South Korea to pay hefty amounts for the system earlier this year also did not help. The South Korean left has historically been wary of too much U.S. influence and presence in the country, and the left in South Korea has long favored cooperation, exchange, and negotiation with North Korea over sanctions.

A sign at Dorasan station pointing toward the crossing into Kaesong, North Korea. (Source: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, July 2017)

At times, divergent attitudes on the North Korea question has caused significant strain between the two countries. For example, in the early 2000s, when South Korea was governed by the liberal Roh Moo-hyun and the U.S. by George W. Bush, the two often differed in their approaches to North Korea. While Bush had branded North Korea part of the “Axis of Evil,” Roh was an avid proponent of the “Sunshine Policy” of cultural and economic collaboration with North Korea, with the long-term goal of peaceful unification of the two countries.

To put it very mildly, Trump and Moon also differ in their approaches to North Korea. Trump has often vowed to pressure North Korea into making concessions on its nuclear and missiles programs, while Moon is a known advocate of talks and exchange with North Korea. Just to name a few examples, Moon Jae-in has pledged to re-open the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, where South Korean firms operate factories with North Korean employees, which was closed under the Park Geun-hye administration in February 2016 in response to North Korea’s nuclear test and satellite launch in the preceding weeks. The administration has a long and ambitious wish list for economic cooperation projects with North Korea. Moon’s administration has repeatedly asked North Korea for military talks, only to be met with silence. Moreover, accusations surfaced in the run-up to the elections that Moon, as chief presidential secretary for Roh Moo-hyun, accepted the suggestion that South Korea ask North Korea for its opinion before abstaining from a vote on a UN resolution condemning human rights violations in North Korea.

Moreover, one should not underestimate the desire among significant portions of the South Korean governmental bureaucracy and other institutions for closer ties with North Korea. Within the Ministry of Unification in Seoul, which is a ministry dedicated wholly to matters related to North Korea, there seems to have been cautious hope that finally, those programs of cooperation with North Korea that died under the two preceding conservative presidents would once again be started under President Moon. Though often seen as a long-term, distant goal, the very idea of unification with North Korea is rarely questioned in the general political debate in South Korea.

Customs clearance form for travelers coming back to South Korea from North Korea, waiting to be filled out. (Source: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, July 2017)

Near the North Korean border in South Korea, symbols abound of the currently broken dreams of inter-Korean exchange. At the Dorasan train station and inter-Korean transit center near the border, for example, where South Koreans working in the Kaesong Industrial Complex would pass through on their way to North Korea, all is set up for traffic to resume. When I visited the Dorasan transit center a few weeks ago, the customs transit forms were neatly piled up, and metal detectors and immigration inspection desks were all in place. There was only one thing missing: people in inter-Korean transit.

In other words, ambitions and hopes for closer relations with North Korea have long been present in South Korea, and the newly elected president carries them as well. North Korean strategists had likely hoped that their missile tests this spring and summer—one only a few days after Moon Jae-in’s election in May—would force Moon to eventually indicate through his response (or perhaps lack thereof) that better relations with North Korea are more important than the alliance with the U.S. Moon’s response to the latest ICBM-test went the opposite direction, with the decision to employ more THAAD units. Not only that—Moon’s administration has requested talks with the U.S. about allowing South Korea to boost its own arsenal of missiles, which it is currently barred from doing under a bilateral treaty. Perhaps President Trump will pronounce this a victory for his own policy of pressuring allies with U.S. troops stationed in their countries to pay for larger shares of their own defense costs.

Empty immigration counters ready for inspections of travelers going to the Kaesong Industrial Complex from South Korea. (Source: Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, July 2017)

It may not have been North Korea’s intention, but its ICBM-tests have helped Moon Jae-in clarify where South Korea stands. This clarification may not change anything regarding North Korea’s nuclear and missiles programs in the immediate term. But for those who worried that the alliance between South Korea and the U.S. would suffer with presidents of diametrically opposed political camps, it is a welcome development.

 

 

 

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Why We Must Recognize North Korea

The reason that negotiations over North Korea have never achieved anything is simple. Their avowed goal is impossible to achieve. It is well-past time to accept that no means, political or military, exists to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons. Their continued existence is certain, as will be explained. That being the case, it is time for the United States in particular to adopt a new approach.

This approach would be to recognize North Korea diplomatically, as a state, and as one having nuclear capability. Washington and Pyongyang should each build embassies and exchange ambassadors. This is the best alternative now available. It will not restore peace to Asia but it will bring partial progress that is real, rather than the total solution on which all agree, but that is simply impossible.

On June 21. 2017  United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that Washington and Beijing agreed to “a complete and irreversible denuclearization of Korean Peninsula.” [1] Two weeks later, on July 7, 2017 it was reported that Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump had also agreed on such“ a complete and irreversible denuclearization.”[2] South Korea has already agreed repeatedly to this idea.

But how could such a situation ever be created? No country possessing nuclear weapons is ever again going to give them up. Ukraine did so, trusting to the pledges of the Budapest Memorandum (4 December 2004) in which “The Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America reaffirm their commitment to Ukraine, in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” That was proven a worthless scrap of paper when Russia invaded (2014-present) and annexed Crimea.

No one could miss the lesson nor will North Korea: keep your nuclear weapons and no one will dare invade you. Give them up and your position is vulnerable.

Suppose, however that North Korea solemnly agreed to denuclearize under treaty provisions, perhaps similar to those of Budapest. Proving that Pyongyang had complied would be impossible. North Korea is 48,000 square miles; under her surface are labyrinths of tunnels, factories, and military facilities of which we have no clue. To hold back and conceal  a substantial nuclear strike force would be easy, nor could any inspection regime, up to and including a military occupation, detect it if the concealment were competently done. Even a military holocaust over the country would not surely eliminate such weapons.

Note too that even a residual North Korean nuclear force would probably range from 49 to 100 (author’s estimate), as compared to 7,000 Russian bombs, China’s perhaps 1,000 (author’s estimate), India’s 130, Pakistan’s 140, Israel’s 80, France’s 300, Britain’s 215, and the United State’s 6,600. Her threat is deeply concerning, but the region is far more worried by China.[3]

At worst North Korea will flatly turn down our offer of recognition, in which case we should state that it remains open. If embassies having secure conference facilities, and able ambassadors are created, then for the first time the United States and Pyongyang will have a secure means of communicating ideas, however sensitive. This too may lead nowhere. But as the advantages of closer ties with the United States and her world of allies become clear, it is equally possible that Pyongyang will come to see that they can offer much more than their current shaky alignment with Russia and China.

No quid pro quo should be offered for this standard diplomatic procedure. Nor should anyone imagine that, if successfully accomplished, it will bring peace to hand. The greatest threat to Asia is not North Korea but China’s illegal expansion and militarization over millions of square miles into territories to which she has no claim, seas to her east and mountains of or near north India.

This fact of Chinese aggression means that the U.S. and her allies must continue to be strong; indeed stronger than they are at present. If a recognized North Korea continues to develop weapons of mass destruction, our only option will be further to increase the armaments and missile defenses of our Asian allies.  My own view is that if South Korea finds the North unresponsive to her peace overtures, she will develop her own nuclear weapons, regardless of American opinion. The same is almost certainly true for Japan, which China is forcing into a remilitarization that she does not want. When the Japanese do things, though, they tend to do them well, so we may assume that, if China does not change the situation radically, she will soon face a Japan possessing a nuclear deterrent—I argue only for minimal nuclear deterrents for our allies, perhaps no more than nuclear tipped torpedoes or nuclear cruise missiles that can be launched near shore—as well as and an air force as good as any.

Finally, what of North Korea? She will no longer be glued in place, attached to China of which she is not fond. With her independent forces she will also be too strong for China to intimidate. lest she cause nuclear attack. By the same token, North Korea will no longer be forced to ally only with  rogue nations.  She will have the option of moving into a more central and multipolar position globally, both diplomatically and economically. The possibility of trading in real world markets may afford her the opportunity to change.

These are only hopes. For now we extend our hand of formal recognition. But we offer nothing in return, nor do we diminish our relations with South Korea and other allies. Not a trail whose terminus is visible. But a rail at least that we can begin to walk.

Arthur Waldron is a Senior Fellow in FPRI’s Asia Program and is the Lauder Professor of International Relations in the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania.


[1] http://www.teletrader.com/news/details/39290551?ts=1499882856534

[2] https://koreas.liveuamap.com/en/2017/7-july-tillerson-says-trump–and–putin-had-a-pretty-good

[3] https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/Nuclearweaponswhohaswhat  This is the source for all figures save those labeled “author’s estimate”.

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Israel and India: From a Chill to an Embrace?

Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India concluded a three-day visit to Israel. His visit was genuinely historic as he was the first Indian prime minister to ever undertake such a trip. Indeed, the visit may well signify an entirely new phase in the Indo-Israeli relationship. Though India had recognized the state of Israel in 1950, it was only in 1992 that it had finally accorded the country full diplomatic status. Why has it taken the two states decades to finally arrive at a stage where they can enjoy a cordial and indeed close relationship? The answer to this question is complex and has complex historical and ideological roots.

India had formally voted against the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947. In considerable part, its opposition had stemmed from India’s anti-colonial history and the sympathies that its principal nationalist leaders had for the Palestinian cause. Even a letter from Albert Einstein pleading the Israeli cause had left the most prominent exponent of Indian nationalism, Mahatma Gandhi, India’s most noted nationalist leader, unmoved. Not surprisingly, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, chose to maintain a studious diplomatic distance from the nascent state. His successors, while accepting clandestine military support from Israel during India’s wars with Pakistan in both 1965 and 1971, nevertheless did little to enhance ties with the country.

Their decision to maintain the diplomatic reserve stemmed from three sources. First, it emanated from what institutional economists refer to as “path dependence.” Once organizations embark upon a certain policy direction only significant shocks, from within or without, lead them to fundamentally change course. India’s foreign policy establishment proved to be no exception to this principle. Second, India’s policymakers convinced themselves that India’s substantial Muslim population would take umbrage with an open embrace of Israel. Even though there was no clear evidence to this end, the belief alone was so strong that none within the political leadership dare chose to challenge its veracity. Ironically, at the end of the Cold War, when India chose to finally extend full diplomatic recognition to Israel, there was barely a whimper of protest from India’s vast Muslim community. Third, it had also shied away from closer ties with Israel for fear of a backlash from the Arab world. However, at the Cold War’s end, with a general re-appraisal of India’s foreign policy orientation, it became easier for the political establishment to accord Israel full diplomatic recognition.

Since then, the relationship has undergone a fitful, but dramatic transformation.  Previous governments under the tutelage of the Indian National Congress (INC), because of their inheritance of the legacy of the nationalist movement, had been somewhat circumspect about openly embracing the Indo-Israeli relationship.  Nevertheless, they had gradually expanded the scope and dimensions of existing ties. As a consequence, there had been considerable growth in diverse areas ranging from trade to military cooperation. Much of this expansion, however, was carried out without any great fanfare because the INC remained wary about alienating a key domestic electoral constituency and was also concerned about not troubling India’s Arab partners.

Similar misgivings do not appear to concern the current, right-of-center, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime of Prime Minister Modi. It has concluded that it can cede much of the Muslim vote to the INC and still achieve electoral success both in national and most state level elections. No doubt, it has also concluded that the divisions in the Arab world as well as India’s enhanced global stature ensures that improvements in relations with Israel will not lead to any significant diplomatic costs being imposed on India.  More specifically, it needs to be borne in mind that long before assuming the premiership, Modi had successfully sought to attract investment to his home state of Gujarat from Israel. Consequently, he could draw on his prior ties to the country as he planned this path-breaking visit.

Apart from the obvious symbolic significance of this visit, what exactly was accomplished during it? Even prior to the visit, Israel had emerged as a significant defense partner for India. For example, in April of this year, India had placed an order amounting to $2 billion to acquire various forms of high-technology weaponry, including drones, from Israel. There is every reason to believe that in the wake of this visit defense cooperation will only be enhanced further. Also, as of 2016, bilateral trade, which had once been of trivial importance, was approaching nearly $5 billion.

More specifically, during the visit, the two sides signed seven different agreements that will lead to greater cooperation in such areas as space, water management, energy, and agriculture. They also agreed to set up a five-year joint technology fund. Beyond these particular accords, they affirmed their existing commitment to counterterrorism cooperation—a matter of no trivial significance to either country.

Since by all accounts the trip was both a substantive as well as a symbolic success, what could possibly trouble the relationship in the likely future? The issue that the two leaderships seem to have deftly avoided is India’s robust diplomatic relationship with Iran. Despite public professions about long-standing civilizational links, the bilateral diplomatic warmth is based upon cold, hard calculations. India needs Iran for access to hydrocarbons especially natural gas, for an alternative route to Afghanistan (given the state of the India-Pakistan rivalry), and to ensure the political quiescence of its very substantial Shia minority. Consequently, it can ill-afford to distance itself from Iran. Israel, for various national security concerns, on the other hand, remains deeply wary about the country, its causes, and its goals.  

This is an arena where the budding Indo-Israeli relationship will no doubt diverge. The task for policymakers in both Tel Aviv and New Delhi will be to build upon the significant convergence of interests and not allow this issue to disrupt an emerging partnership that could prove beneficial to both states, especially since it has taken so very long to come to fruition.

Sumit Ganguly, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, is a professor of political science and holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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