“Taking Centre Stage in the World”


   Vice Adm. (Retd.) Vijay Shankar

            First published in the author’s column on the IPCS website on 28 Nov 2017.                                                                                                 

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping, “Let’s Party like it’s 1793.” The Economist May2013, https://www.economist.com/.

When Chairman Xi declared at the opening of the 19th Congress of the Communist Party of China, “It is time for us to take centre stage in the world,” he may have drawn this deduction from two perceived shifts in the global strategic environment. Firstly, the sensed flagging of US interests in global pacts emblematized by the “America First” agenda that most resembled an impending abandonment of regional partnerships that did not recognise US pre-eminence; and secondly, apparent US distraction in providing decisive security leadership in the troubled parts of the world. Of course, the issue of whether any grouping of major nations wanted Xi’s leadership never entered the debate.

China in recent years has become a major funder of infrastructure in the developing world. Its arrival has challenged existing institutional lenders, particularly when Xi in 2013, announced a scheme to resurrect the medieval Silk Road through a vast network of roads, pipelines, ports and railways that connected China with Europe via Central Asia, West Asia and ports in South Asia and East Africa. China intends to provide proprietary financial support to the project. The innards of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) are driven by ‘over the line’ issues such as client-government superintendence and financing on a scale not seen before or, remarkably, with such indistinct terms. Essentially, the scheme’s purpose is strategic influence of global connectivity; while at the same time, deploying close to 30 per cent of China’s substantial dollar reserves (over $3 trillion) that has hitherto held low yielding American debt, on more strategically beneficial ventures.

And yet restoring the lost grandeur of the Silk Route has many other challenges that may not be overcome by Xi’s ‘fiat.’ Beginning with internal corruption, since the entire programme is to be funded largely by state owned banks. In the instance, as a wit put it, “then, how does a barber cut his own hair?” The matter of an opaque dispensation attempting to break from its political roots to gain a mandate of the people must add to planners’ discomfort. The questionable economics of committing billions of dollars into the world’s most impoverished and unstable regions hardly instils confidence in the programme. Already falling prices of primary products and unhinged host politics have undermined some of the 900 constituent projects. Compounding matters is the cost of freightage by rail, which is as much as four to five times that of cargo movement by sea. Besides, the current state of the enterprise is unidirectional as rakes return largely empty on the east-bound leg. Chinese ideology is hardly welcome in the region. The recent use of trade as a tool of punishment, specifically in the case of Philippines from where banana imports were cut, while rare earth exports to Japan were curbed, tariff barriers raised unilaterally, and the general economic retaliation on South Korea, does not in any way serve the ends of free trade-flow or economic inclusiveness.

Chinese historians do not tire of reminding the world of its recent past that staggered between the collapse of an empire to humiliating colonization, from bloody wars to the civil anarchy of Maoism and now in the success of ‘Authoritarian Capitalism,’ some even perceive a return of the Middle Kingdom. But even if the old world order were to make way, slipping into a mire of lost belief, there remains the problem of a potentially bizarre future where not nearly-quite-dead Capitalism is controlled by a totalitarian regime fervently dependent on magnifying growth, perpetuity of dispensation and a disruptive brand of nationalism for stability; all of which echo a past not quite from the Orient but from a more recent Europe of the first few decades of the twentieth century.

In response, for Xi to turn to an even more assertive military-led foreign policy, brings to the fore the probability of conflict; specifically, on the Korean Peninsula, where China’s role as agent provocateur is becoming more and more undeniable. If the generalised theory of war suggests causes of armed conflict as introduction of weapons of mass destruction, a revisionist agenda stimulated by significant change in the balance of power, and lastly, a contrarian and often disrupted structure of order; then these are all eminently resident in the region. Yet global remedies adapted to date have neither generated a consensual course of action nor has the status quo been emphasised. In the on-going brinkmanship polity on the Korean Peninsula, the antagonists have, predictably provided partisan military support and embraced a skewed one-sided stoppage of financial and economic flows that fuel the causes of conflict (being the main donor to North Korea, Chinese leadership sees no reason to check continuance.) Similarly, dialogue has focused on little else than a dual-stance posture: delivery of military threats and a litany of in-executable demands.

The littorals of the West Pacific have, in the meantime, rediscovered the Trans-Pacific Partnership sans the USA; while on the security front the Quadruple Entente (an initiative involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) is averred for revival. These undercurrents suggest not just a hesitancy to endorse a China-led order, but also a push back on belt-and-road craft as well as Chinese blue-water ambitions.

In truth, much would depend upon the will to order, the universal repugnance to leaving centre stage untenanted, or the unlikely event of China’s amenability to sharing the stage.




The Catechism of a Minister


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

The honourable Raksha Mantri was at a public book release function on 10 November 2016. Addressing the gathering he suggested that India should not bind itself to a No First Use (NFU) nuclear policy; continuing in the same vein, he blathered, “…in strategic warfare, there is a need to be unpredictable (with the use of nuclear weapons) while being responsible… I ought to declare that I am a responsible nuclear power and will not use (nuclear weapons) irresponsibly.” Such mindless derogation of an existing developed and sophisticated policy must surely promise him a place in Pyong Yang’s or even Islamabad’s nuclear establishment!

When Marshal Ferdinand Foch, one of the lesser meat grinding generals of the First World War, was faced with strategic perplexity, he is said to have countered with a fundamental question “de quoi s’agit-il?” – What is it all about? Indeed had the Minister Mr Parrikar, paused just a fraction to ask himself as to what it was all about, it may have revealed to him the woeful lack of discernment he possessed on the matter. And this coming from a key member of the Political Council of India’s Nuclear Command Authority can only make for a Dr Strangelovesque parody, if it were not serious.

Foundations of a Deterrent Relationship or ‘A Strategic Primer to Warfare’

The Clausewitzian understanding of warfare holds many truisms that remain relevant to the relationship between nations to this very day. Its significance lies in the manner in which a theory of total war, is advanced from the abstract and then moderated by uncertainties, shaped by friction and confounded by paucity of predictive surety. His labours breathed life into the concept of ‘limited wars’ the nature of which was determined by symmetricity, available means and limits on political purpose.

With the advent of nuclear arsenals not only has the wheel come full circle and war in abstraction has become a definite reality; but it also poses a peculiar dilemma to the strategist because nuclear weapons seek to obliterate what polity pursues to win; in which case what purpose do such weapons of mass destruction serve? The answer is to be found in what may be termed as ‘limits to conflict’ and ‘coercive appeal’ both settings solicit rationality of leadership. In such a frame of reference nuclear forces, in fact, become politics and not just an extension of it. As a natural corollary, its unpredictable and irrational control is a negation of polity. The appeal is made at two distinct levels and is intended to keep the scope of an armed conflict to mutually tolerable bounds. Firstly, it urges leadership to constantly indulge in an ‘interest-benefit’ analysis and secondly, it announces an unambiguous threat that beyond a certain threshold the antagonist would be made to suffer ‘more pain than gain.’  Nuclear forces today, therefore is the “shadow face” of warfare from where it scripts the perimeter and imposes cut-offs on the limits of the primary face as represented by conventional forces. This perspicacity lies at the core of India’s nuclear doctrine. To toy with it is reckless.

Lesson I, for the Mantri, may now be summarised by stating that in orthodox analysis of nuclear correlation, leaders are assumed to be rational and willing to engage in ‘interest-benefit’ calculations when contemplating a nuclear solution to a soured political relationship. The assumption of rationality is considered universal in terms of context and challenges and is largely a labour in mirror imaging. A deterrent relationship is premised on this assumption. From such a standpoint, the idea of ‘unpredictability’ is anathema.

Thus far it will be noted that the working of a deterrent relationship is less than perfect; while theoretically it attempts to arrive at a state where the level of understanding is such that the protagonists know where tolerance thresholds lie and that rationality is the basic premise that drives the relationship. On the part of the ‘deterree’ there is rationality in the conviction of disproportionate risks of hostile action; and on the part of the ‘deterrer’ rationality of purpose and transparency in confirming the reality of the risks involved in a manner that strategic miscalculations are avoided. The exceptional feature of this transaction is that the roles are reversible, provided it is in the common interest to maintain stability in the relationship.  However reality is far from this surmise. For, rationality itself is conditioned by human behaviour and a liberal sprinkling of all the elements of power—including wealth, geography, values, strategic culture, dynamism, history etc. This leaves the relationship riddled with deep suspicions that provides the incentive for overkill and for covert programs. Under the circumstances it is a “nuclear armed peace” that holds. Half-baked declarations such as those that sent quivers down the air-waves on 10 November only serve to further confound the problem.

Lesson II, is that the quest for a stable nuclear deterrent relationship begins by putting in place measures and structures that remove suspicion and bring about transparency. This is much easier said than done. It is also equally clear that any confidence building measure that does not target these two factors condemns the relationship.

The Problem

The real problem with the possession of a nuclear arsenal is to find ‘goofproof’ means to convince decision makers that no conceivable advantage can be achieved from a nuclear exchange; for as long as one side believes that there is some value to be had through the use of nuclear weapons, uncertainties and imponderables creep in that sets into motion a chain reaction that aggravates and raises the degree of risk of a catastrophe.

Military planners are more than familiar with the fact that risk assessment is an imperative in the generation of a strategic plan. Its evolution is marked by persistent motivation to not only eliminate uncertainties and bring about balance in the ‘objectives-resources-means’ equation but also to ensure that the benefits that accrue far outweigh hazards. However, the abiding conundrum is that the nature of warfare is in opposition to such precision. And, as we enter the nuclear arena we must note that strategic imbalance is intrinsic to the objectives-resources-means relationship. For, from the very start, the equation is irrevocably in a state of unstable equilibrium activated by the fact that whatever nuclear means are used, sets into motion an uncontrollable chain reaction of nuclear escalation that will invariably obliterate the very objectives that were sought to be attained.

Lesson III, is the reality of nuclear weapons. Its value lies in its non-usage; its aim is, to deter nuclear war; its futility is, in attempting to use it to attain political goals.

The Razor’s Edge

Nuclear weapons have put us on a razors edge, in part because of our inability to control the manner in which political events and technology are driving nuclear weapon policies. While technology invites covertness; lethality, precision, stealth and time compression that it has wrought demands transparency, demarcation between custodian and controller and central control if at all the risks of an exchange is to be averted and stability of a deterrent relationship assured. The development of tactical nuclear weapons only serves to enhance fragility of the relationship as control is easily lost. A whimsical approach consequently enlarges vulnerabilities of a deterrent correlation.

Lesson IV, is that escalation control of a nuclear exchange lacks conviction and to conventionalise the weapon’s use has to be abhorred. Nuclear weapons do not provide answers to low intensity conflicts. So also, to suggest conventional principles of war such as surprise or deception apply, is ludicrous. Besides, policy must remain sensitive to the multi-lateral nature of contemporary nuclear dynamics.  The bottom line: capricious and erratic behaviour in crafting a nuclear posture increases the perils of unintended use.

Indian Nuclear Doctrine and an Abiding Counsel

The genesis of India’s nuclear doctrine is rooted in three guiding canons; primarily, the nation would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, secondly that a nuclear first use would invite an assured massive retaliation and thirdly, India would develop a credible minimum arsenal. There was a fourth equally important unwritten faith and that was, under no condition would the weapon be conventionalized. The last principle, it is significant to note, was advanced in the wake  of the Cold War and yet remained oddly divorced from the one absurd tenet that characterized that war, that is, the belief that a nuclear war was not only fightable, but was also winnable. This last precept has currently been universally debunked.

The Doctrine is distinctive for it identified, with as much clarity as no similar document by any nuclear weapon state had done in the past; the role, purpose and relationship between Controller and Custodian in realizing the overall nuclear strategy of the nation. There remains the unwavering belief that nuclear weapons are, primarily, political weapons of war avoidance rather than devices of war fighting. Indeed Reviews of the Nuclear Doctrine is a cyclic phenomenon that is influenced by current geopolitics and challenges that are perceived to prejudice the status-quo. In fact over the last decade two such reviews have scrutinised India’s Doctrine for relevance and efficacy. Both reviews were neither public nor were they a wool gathering exercise. They were conducted objectively and by those in the know; the outcome (Mantri must note): no substantial changes to the doctrine.


“The Blind Men of Hindostan”


Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar

Valedictory Address Christ University, Bengaluru

Conference on Non-Traditional Security Threats 03 September 2016

Let me first declare what a singular honour it is for me to be here at the Christ University to deliver the valedictory address as the curtains come down on this conference on non-traditional security threats. I would be failing in my duty if I did not congratulate the galaxy of scholars and students who participated in the very lively debates, addresses and exchanges. Indeed the experience was stirring as it was humbling. Enriching for the wealth of knowledge that we so heartily partook of and humbling for the Odysseusian voyage that we undertake with the launch of this conference. I also want to give a hearty ‘shabash’ to the organizers who have done such an outstanding job in putting it all together with so much grace. I particularly want to congratulate students of the department of International Relations who have conducted the event with great verve, a hearty cheer to you, your vitality and your contagious effervescence.

In coming to grips with threats and challenges that confront a nation, the lines that demarcate traditional threats; by which I suppose is meant those that demand a military response, from non-traditional security threats is blurred. The confusion renders discernment problematic as one security threat morphs to the other. It also places leadership in a quandary as to what combination of tools from the State’s armoury of Comprehensive National Power would be most appropriate to confront it. The dilemma is analogous to a story in primary English text of my days titled “The Six Blind Men of Hindostan”. The tale is told of six blind men who visited a zoo. Coming upon an elephant each felt and sensed different parts of the pachyderm; the first wrapping his arms around a leg swore it was as the trunk of a tree; the second ran his fingers along the torso exclaimed, no it is like a wall; while the third holding the tail vouched it was more like a rope; the fourth stroking its head and feeling the swish of the elephants ear deposed, forsooth it’s like a fan; while the fifth and sixth grasped the tusk and the trunk and vowed it must be akin to a spear or related to a snake. But, as we know, the truth in its entirety is composed of the six vital elements that made the elephant. The same may be said of the various threats and challenges that speakers thus far addressed; each one’s subjective experience and indeed narrative is true, but it is inherently limited by the inability to account for the totality of truth, that is the elephant-of-state is an integrated whole of all those elements and the State can be destabilised by trauma to any one of them.

Contemporary history of the Anglo sphere has had disproportionate influence on structuring a world order and defining economic and societal values. Driven by the philosophic motivation of free will and a belief of liberal laws delivering what is best for mankind; it does not make an attempt to explain or seek a transformation to the dangerous inequities amongst nations, tyranny of the carbon economy, domination of military power or indeed the ‘emperor’ of challenges: Climate Change. The last, links and is intertwined with all other threats, traditional or non-traditional whether in the political, economic, demographic or military dimension. And therefore it is to Climate change that I shall focus your attention.

Amongst Mahatma Gandhi’s many pronouncements on the ills of mercantilism and industrial capitalism the one that was prophetic in its sweep and profundity were his lines written in December 1928 for Young India: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism in the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 million (sic) took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” Gandhi intuitively came to the conclusion that Industrialization was designed for inequity and an anarchic consumerist style of existence was untenable as we quickly emptied the innards of the planet. There is today no doubt that the climate predicament has been accelerated by the manner in which the lure of the carbon economy has evolved and its impious upshots has the world’s peoples finger prints on it. Its impact has broadened and intensified while its sway on politics and society comes at a time when politically the global perspective is more diffused and society blinkered in its uni-dimensional view of development. The November 1970 Bhola cyclone that hit the entire coast of erstwhile East Pakistan is one of the deadliest natural disasters of living memory; the official death toll was estimated at 500,000 but the number is likely to have been higher. Damages included destruction of approximately 20,000 fishing boats, property and crops. Total loss of cattle reached in excess of one million and more than 400,000 houses were destroyed. Maximum wind speed reached about 222 km/h while the storm surge was about 10.6 metres (never heard of before in recorded history of that region) which partially inundated the Sundarban island of Bhola, displacing millions setting into motion mass migrations the effects of which were political, military as well as demographic. The consequences are apparent even today. One of the chief causes of the disaster was global warming, melting ice-caps and rising sea levels; these are manifest in the increased periodicity of calamitous climate events and the scale of disasters.

There is another foundational problem that is linked to the system that we live and labour in; the Westphalian scheme of nation states (touched on by one of the speakers) is structured to channelize political energies towards nationality, sovereignty and the urge for domination rather than concentrating on new ideas to relieve and reconstitute the relationship between States such that uncertainty and turmoil that currently obtains is replaced by the larger reality of common destiny. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) established the precedent of a new system of political order in central Europe, based upon the concept of co-existing sovereign nations. Inter-state aggression was to be held in check by a balance of power. A norm was established against interference in another state’s domestic affairs. As European influence spread through imperial conquests and colonial domains, these Westphalian principles, especially the concept of sovereign states, became central to the prevailing world order. However the awkward irony is that these principles came into acceptance among and within what was essentially a cohesive religious entity “the holy Roman Empire.” We note today that these principles are at odds with the globalized world that we live in and perhaps the time has come when the Westphalian model itself requires a critical review for the ‘emperor-of-challenges’ is provoking man to think of an alternate way to exist. Here communications which can serve as the vehicle that catalysis the spread of new ideas of the larger reality has, unfortunately, found satiation in egocentric intrusiveness.

In this belligerent milieu of individual rights in a self-righteous state of confrontational flux against the nation and nations feeling the heat of relations within and without; illusions of a new world order emerging out of the ashes of the Cold War were quickly dispelled and found little use in understanding the realities. Some of the symptoms that have emerged are an increased and vicious securing of spheres of power and economic influence as exemplified by China in Africa and her claims to the South China Sea; the competition between autocracy and liberalism; an older religious struggle between radical Islam and secular cultures; and the inability to regulate the anarchic flow of technologies and information. As these struggles are played out the first casualty of the era is the still born hope of a benign and enlightened world order that comes together to face its common destiny. Sovereign democratic processes have feeble impact on the challenges ahead be it the carbon economy, climate events or in restructuring the system we live in. The reasons are amply clear for it is the spiritual nature of the quest for development to the exclusion of all else but the nation that blinkers political philosophy to things as they are rather than what they could be. So why has the political domain remained unaffected by the many crises that antagonize man? Is it myopia or a self-destruct lemming-like impulse?

Let me now yield the podium on an optimistic note; idealism is the exclusive right of youth; and it is to you that I commend the future. A future more benevolent, less bigoted, more tolerant and clear eyed about man’s common destiny and the philosophical passage from the individual to kinship.