March 6, 2018

China’s Military Spending


The following post originally appeared on China File on March 6, 2018. 

When assessing China’s military spending and modernization, we should keep six things in mind. First, China’s official military spending figures are questionable, with many independent estimates suggesting that it already spends in excess of $200 billion on its military each year. Although the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) has become somewhat more transparent over the past two decades, the exact annual defense budget should be taken with a grain of salt.

Two, until about 2020 the P.L.A. will be undertaking perhaps its most radical modernization drive since 1949, shrinking the size of its ground forces by about 300,000, increasing the relative weight of its air force and navy, and improving joint theater-level command and control structures. In short, the P.L.A. is evolving into a modern, war-fighting, and offensive-oriented force.

Three, despite spending increases, China’s ability to import defense equipment and technology is still limited by export controls and arms embargoes. Russia and the former Soviet republics are the largest exporters to China over the past five years, with sensors, missiles, and aircraft among the equipment provided. However, the fact that China’s arms imports have steadily decreased over the past 15 years points to its growing defense industrial capabilities, helped in part by reverse engineering and technological theft.

Four, as recently as 2013, China spent more on internal security than on defense (local security spending from 2014 onwards has not been fully divulged). This includes funding for entities such as the Ministry of State Security (intelligence) and Ministry of Public Security (law and order), whose functions partly contribute to national defense. But equally, this indicates Beijing’s continuing concerns about its vulnerability to domestic unrest.

Five, despite its greater resources, the P.L.A. of today has never fought a war. General Zhang Youxia, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, is among the few remaining officers with battle experience (against Vietnam). This is in stark contrast to the United States, which has been battle-hardened (and fatigued) from almost constant warfare in the Gulf, Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Considering the rising tide of jingoism, the P.L.A.’s inexperience suggests that it is an adolescent and potentially trigger-happy force, one that is as likely to drag a country into conflict as it is to prevent one.

Six, rather paradoxically, the P.L.A. remains a force of last resort—for now. The recent pattern of Chinese assertiveness—whether in the East China Sea or in the Himalayas—has often involved a three-tier approach. It is led by apparent civilians, such as armed fishing vessels, dredging ships, or road-building crews, who are backed up by paramilitary or law enforcement forces such as coast guard vessels and border security. The P.L.A. itself offers a large latent threat, but one that has (so far) barked more than it has bitten. In fact, information, psychological, and legal warfare and economic coercion remain at the pointy end of China’s spear.


What is without doubt today is that China today has the second-most potent military today after the United States, and this represents the degree to which Beijing has become a peer competitor to Washington as a global power. Its ability to play an offensive role in future conflicts has increased. This is obviously a concern for countries along China’s periphery, particularly those with which it has outstanding territorial disputes. These include Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Bhutan, and India. China’s growing military profile also directly involves the United States, which is a resident power in the Western Pacific with alliance commitments to five countries. For all these actors, China’s increased military spending, capabilities, and assertiveness will require continued vigilance, confidence-building measures, and exhortations for greater transparency. At the same time, it will necessitate better defense preparedness and stronger alliances and partnerships to raise the potential costs of Chinese military adventurism, and if necessary the resolute and appropriate application of force.

March 1, 2018

Aid Wars: U.S.-Soviet competition in India


The following post, co-authored with Shruti Godbole, appeared on brookings.edu on March 1, 2018.

The issue of development aid has significant contemporary relevance. Today, many longstanding donor countries like the United States debate the efficacy of aid, while new donors such as China and India explore the possibility of using economic assistance for political purposes. As David Engerman, Professor of History at Brandeis University, shows in his new book The Price of Aid, development politics can have significant – often unintentional and undesirable – effects for both donor and recipient countries.

To read the full text, click here

Creating an India-US advantage in the Indo-Pacific


The following article, co-authored with Alyssa Ayres, Tom West, and Michael Fuchs, originally appeared in The Times of India on March 1, 2018. 

The Indo-Pacific region is today the primary locus of global growth and opportunity, but its security and stability are increasingly under duress. China’s rise, while beneficial to international prosperity, has occurred in a manner that continues to generate mistrust and anxiety across the region – and the concerns are only growing. Beijing regularly attempts to consolidate its control of disputed seas, airspace, and land, in the South China Sea and in the Himalayas.

China also continues to flout established international norms of cyber security and non-proliferation, and its international economic policies are likely to leave many countries with unsustainable debt. Meanwhile in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Islamist terrorist organisations continue to destabilise the region and strike international targets, with little end in sight.

India and the US, as the world’s two largest democracies with two of the largest military forces, have a shared interest in ensuring a stable security order in the Indo-Pacific. This shared interest has propelled India-US security ties dramatically forward over the past decade.

Each has something important to offer the other. The US can greatly assist India’s capacity building efforts. India has the potential and willingness to shoulder regional security responsibilities, as evidenced by increased patrols in the Indian Ocean, aid to South Asia, and humanitarian assistance activities. But the India-US strategic partnership is still hobbled by parallel bureaucracies that do not yet move in sync. The US often seeks tangible short-term returns on its investment in India’s capabilities and success, while India wants continued assurances that US support will be neither fickle nor overbearing. A few important steps could help advance security cooperation further.

One, the US could – with Indian inputs – create a Strategic Advantage Initiative. Having designated India a Major Defence Partner, the US could develop an initiative with the explicit objective of enabling India to prevail in contested domains. This government-wide programme would ensure that all US agencies take the appropriate steps to enhance defence cooperation with India and that US commitments become ingrained in policy under future administrations. Among other steps, this could involve refining export licence regulations, offering India access to platforms and equipment that boost its maritime security capabilities, and creating joint mechanisms to identify specific capabilities necessary for various pressing security contingencies.

Two, the countries could better coordinate humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations in the Indian Ocean region, including planning and training. HADR is an area in which India has proven remarkably adept in recent years. Creating a joint India-US Indo-Pacific HADR cell might be one way of accomplishing this objective.

Three, for its part, India could create a more efficient and transparent defence procurement process. This would not only benefit India-US relations but also accelerate India’s self-reliance in defence and thereby improve its ability to effectively perform a range of security functions. Integration of international supply chains and joint defence R&D could help to achieve the vision of Make in India. Currently, despite the US having considerably eased the process for India to acquire sensitive military technologies, India’s procurement process and military industrial base often inhibit the absorption of these technologies.

Finally, India and the US could finalise a joint defence implementation agreement that facilitates information sharing, interoperability and capacity building efforts within the two countries’ comfort zones. This might encompass some long-pending bilateral defence agreements. Such an agreement could provide India disproportionate benefits, including better communications systems, access to more intelligence, and enhanced operational capabilities.


Considerable progress has been made in improving India-US strategic and security relations. Officials from the two countries talk more frankly on more issues than at any time in the past. Military exercises are frequent and defence commerce has increased significantly. But through a handful of key initiatives, India and the US can yet improve their ability to meet the increasingly pressing challenge of preserving stability across the Indo-Pacific.

February 20, 2018

Reports of India’s Demise as a Regional Power Are Greatly Exaggerated


The following article originally appeared in The Print on February 20, 2018. 

A great churning appears to be underway within India’s smaller neighbours. In Bangladesh, opposition leader Khaleda Zia has been sentenced to five years in jail for corruption. In Sri Lanka, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party scored a big victory in local elections. In Nepal, K.P. Oli – who has a difficult history with India – has returned as prime minister. In the Maldives, a state of emergency has been declared by an embattled president Abdulla Yameen. In Bhutan, local elections are around the corner, amid calls from some politicians to decrease the country’s dependence on India.

The Indian press – print, television, and online – has noted these developments and adopted a familiar refrain: India is losing the neighbourhood. It feeds a well-worn narrative, in which China is ascendant and India is surrounded, isolated, and helpless. But if one were to step back just a little, look at longer trends and the stark realities of India’s relationships with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives, the picture looks rather different. The political, economic, and military interdependence between India and its smaller neighbours (not counting Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Myanmar) is far too great, and is in fact deepening. India can certainly do a better job in building consent, trust, and goodwill with these countries. But reports of India’s demise as a regional power are greatly exaggerated.

There are four important points to consider in assessing India’s relations with these neighbours.

One, all are steadily democratising in practice or in spirit, although at different rates and with occasional setbacks. In the long term, this is a positive development. In the short run, this presents new kinds of challenges. Although the King retains significant powers, Bhutan has begun its evolution into a constitutional monarchy. Nepal has gone farther, becoming a republic. Bangladesh has transitioned away from years of military dictatorship to democratic rule, however flawed. And the Maldives had its first glimmer of democracy before Yameen established his stranglehold on power. Even Sri Lanka, which has a longer democratic tradition than the others, managed to end its civil war and a period of politics marked by regular assassinations of opposition leaders. Today, there are new, dissenting voices in all these states.

Two, identity politics is on the rise everywhere. It is only natural, given India’s size and the fact that ethnicities traverse borders, that India would be dragged into the identity politics of its smaller neighbours. Thus, certain political forces in each of the neighbours find utility in anti-India rhetoric and actions, while their political opponents often seek advantage in closer ties with India. Minority groups and dissidents often seek Indian assistance, as recent events in the Maldives have shown. Nationalism and anti-Indianism have been constants over the past seventy years, although the factions have changed over time and the fault lines have sharpened.

Three, many Indian commentators ignore the fact that as sovereign states, these countries have agency, and make decisions in their own self-interest. At times, these choices – whether political or policy – align with Indian preferences. At other times, they do not. India’s ability to determine outcomes, especially political outcomes, will therefore always be limited. Intervention of any kind could easily prove counterproductive. Indeed, some of the same voices in India who lament Indian inaction are just as likely to criticise Indian intervention for being overbearing, hegemonic, and reckless.

Four, there is a tendency to exaggerate China’s footprint in India’s immediate neighbourhood. This is not to say that Chinese influence hasn’t increased—it has. Over the past few years, Beijing has played an unprecedented political role in Nepal. It benefits from strong military ties with Bangladesh dating back decades (Bangladesh is the second-largest recipient of Chinese arms after Pakistan). In Sri Lanka and the Maldives, China has become a major financier, especially of infrastructure, which it has tried to translate into political involvement.

But the idea that India is playing ‘catch up’ to China in these countries or that China is set to replace India as the primary external actor is grossly misleading. China’s military presence remains limited, although the bounds are constantly being tested. Meanwhile, India’s security role is often overlooked, whether the Trilateral Maritime Security Cooperation Initiative with Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and unique arrangements with both Nepal and Bhutan. Although China is a major investor and exporter to these countries (just as it is to India), it does not rank among the top five importers for any of them, whereas India is the recipient of 94 per cent of Bhutanese and 63 per cent of Nepali exports.

A few other realities should be taken into consideration, especially with Nepal and Bhutan. Despite the many differences over the past few years, Nepal still enjoys an open border with India, and over a million (possibly many more) Nepalis work in India without requiring permits. Seven regiments of Nepali citizens – Gorkhas – are part of the Indian Army, and the Indian government still pays pensions to some 127,000 Nepali veterans. These are not functions that China can replicate. The Indian Army also bears considerable responsibility for training and equipping the Royal Bhutan Army, which also coordinates closely with the Indian Air Force. Bhutan is by far the largest recipient of Indian aid, with over Rs 3,700 crore in 2017-2018, or about 57 per cent of India’s total aid. By contrast, Bhutan does not yet maintain official diplomatic relations with China.

While of a different nature, India’s relations with Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives also point to considerable interdependence. In addition to having finally resolved the land boundary dispute with Bangladesh, India is increasingly investing there, with $7.8 billion in approved lines of credit since 2003, equivalent to about one-third of India’s total. Not only has Sri Lanka been the fourth-largest recipient of Indian aid over the past five years (after Bhutan, Nepal, and Afghanistan), but it has become a significant transshipment hub for India. India has provided humanitarian assistance to all five of these countries during disasters, whether Sri Lankan cyclones, Nepali earthquakes, or Maldivian water crises.

Among other significant regional developments over the past several years are agreements for India to help develop Sri Lanka’s railways, a South Asian satellite for communications and meteorology launched last year by India, and increasing electrical grid connectivity with Nepal and Bangladesh.

Will there still be difficulties in India’s relations with its neighbours? Absolutely. India has to overcome a history of interventionism (particularly between 1971 and 1990) and long periods of neglect. But mistaking differences and grievances for enmity is neither accurate nor particularly useful. Today, Maithripala Sirisena, Sheikh Hasina, Oli and Yameen are in power in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Maldives respectively. The first two are very crudely characterised as “pro-India” while the latter two are often described as “anti-India”. The reality is always more nuanced than such caricatures.

It is in this political context, that many Indians have arrived at the conclusion that the neighbourhood is hostile to India. However, should the four be replaced by Rajapaksa, Khaleda Zia, Sher Bahadur Deuba and Mohamed Nasheed, many commentators would likely draw the exact same conclusion, which reveals just how meaningless such assessments are.


A final point. With the possible exception of the United States, which resolved its land disputes with Canada and Mexico in the 1840s and 1850s, no global power has settled its neighbourhood before seeking wider aspirations. None of the European colonial powers did, not even Britain, which saw insurrections in Scotland and Ireland even as it was building a global empire. Nor did the Soviet Union, Japan, or China. Those who believe that India cannot have larger ambitions until every one of its regional differences is resolved would do well to reflect on this history.

February 6, 2018

India’s 5 Most Important Public Intellectuals (and what this list says about our national discourse)

The following article appeared in Scroll.in on February 6, 2018.

Women, minorities, multilingual writers and Right-of-Centre thinkers are completely under-represented.


Amid the hectic Indian conference season – the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in December, the Raisina Dialogue in January, and now the Jaipur Literature Festival – it is worth asking ourselves a simple question. Are we witnessing the dawn or the demise of the public intellectual? At one level, everyone with access to a smartphone and an active social media presence is a public intellectual today, or certainly acts like one. It has become easy to share one’s views with a large number of people on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp or any other social media platform. Paradoxically, we also seem to be witnessing the global decline of public intellectualism, as politics becomes more rancorous, the media becomes more clickbait-driven, and academia retreats further into the ivory tower. Moreover, subject matter expertise has become more specialised and siloed, so that we are today less likely to have the archetypal man (or woman) of letters – a Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, or Michel Foucault.

On Republic Day, I posed a question to friends on Facebook: Who are the five most important public intellectuals in India today? The inspiration was an article by Tufts University professor Daniel Drezner on his Washington Post blog, which was itself inspired by a tweet. Some of the responses I received were predictable. Former public servant and writer Gopalkrishna Gandhi and the historian Romila Thapar featured prominently. Economists such as Amartya Sen, Kaushik Basu, and Bibek Debroy, who are also fluid writers on a variety of subjects, made appearances. So did conservative writers and political figures like Arun Shourie and Swapan Dasgupta. There were some curious suggestions, including the widely-ridiculed if even more widely-read popular writer Chetan Bhagat. Some absences were surprising. No one, for example, mentioned social theorist Ashis Nandy, who would perhaps have been foremost on people’s minds a couple of decades ago. I would also have expected influential figures such as economist Jean Drèze, environmentalist Sunita Narain, sociologist André Béteille, or Yogendra Yadav, Madhu Kishwar, or Mukul Kesavan to have made the cut for some people. An assessment of an intellectual’s importance should not be conflated with concurrence or correspondence with one’s personal beliefs. Nor should it simply be correlated to influence or public profile. In this context, I would primarily equate importance with irreplaceability. Whose voices would be felt most by their absence? Obviously, there will be considerable disagreement even on this criterion, but these would be my humble suggestions:

Ramachandra Guha: Guha has written eloquently on history, politics, environmentalism, and cricket. No other writer is read as much by aspirants to the Indian civil services examination. Despite its many shortcomings, India After Gandhi still remains the go-to introduction to contemporary India. Until someone else can produce as broad and accessible a body of work, Guha would have to feature on any such list.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: An institution-builder both at the Centre for Policy Research and now at Ashoka University, Mehta has become a household name from his regular newspaper columns. There is no aspect of public policy that has not been covered in his pieces in The Indian Express, and he has driven important work on public institutions. One may disagree with him on many accounts (and many on both the Right and Left certainly do), but few people today drive and shape the discourse on public affairs as much as he does.

Shashi Tharoor: If anyone puts the public in public intellectual in India, it is perhaps Tharoor, who writes faster than most of us read. Despite a political perch in the Lok Sabha, he finds time to pen a critique of the British Empire and a commentary on Hinduism, all while remaining a ubiquitous presence in the media, on the conference circuit, and at literary festivals. He is also an active presence on social media and commands some respect across the political aisle. His voice – and vocabulary – remain unique in India’s public sphere.

Ashok Malik: My inclusion in this list of Malik – who was appointed press secretary to the president of India in August – might appear the most surprising, but his is the most demonstrable case of importance by (temporary) absence. A journalist and columnist, Malik has written thoughtfully and critically on everything from the business of airlines and television, foreign policy and trade, and regionalism and high politics. Guha, Mehta and Tharoor often defy precise ideological pigeon-holing, but none could be said to be consistently conservative or Right-of-centre. The paucity of prominent Right-wing intellectuals despite having a notionally Right-wing government in power for the past four years in my mind necessitates Malik’s inclusion in such a list. He provides a lucid window into elements of politics, economics, and policy that most Indian intellectuals have long overlooked – and, unfortunately, continue to overlook.

Raghuram Rajan: At least one of the five should be an economist, and India has in fact produced its fair share of eminent economists (Jagdish Bhagwati, Arvind Panagariya, and Arvind Subramanian come to mind, in addition to Sen and Basu). A few years ago, Sen would have been the obvious candidate, as India’s only Nobel laureate in economics and writer of The Argumentative Indian, among other less scholarly and more popular works. However, Sen’s legacy has been tarnished somewhat of late, and based on his star power and outspokenness on a variety of issues, Rajan should probably take precedence in such a list today.


A significant problem many might have with my list is that all five are elite-educated (Doon School, Oxford, St Stephens, La Martinière, and the Indian Institute of Technology) middle-aged males. Three of the five are based in New Delhi, none belong to religious minorities, and all write primarily in English. At least three of the five are ardent cricket fans. This lack of diversity is a fair criticism. While such potential criticism does not alter my submissions, it is only fair to highlight some of the emerging voices contributing in various ways to India’s intellectual discourse. Such a list can never do complete justice to every sector and viewpoint, but people like the prolific political theorist Madhav Khosla, the founder of the Takshashila Institution Nitin Pai, or the former banker and non-fiction writer Sanjeev Sanyal (currently principal economic advisor to the Finance Ministry) come immediately to mind. There are also a very large number of women now shaping intellectual trends and undercurrents, among them writer and Financial Times columnist Nilanjana Roy, economist Gita Gopinath (currently an advisor to the chief minister of Kerala), president of the Centre for Policy Research Yamini Aiyar, lawyer Menaka Guruswamy, journalist and author Snigdha Poonam, and the economist (and my Brookings India colleague) Shamika Ravi. We also have the phenomenon of non-Indians who comment intelligently and perceptively on several aspects of Indian public life, such as British biographer and historian Patrick French, Nepal-born political journalist Prashant Jha, and Washington-based Indian-American political analyst Milan Vaishnav. I am sure many others would come to mind upon further reflection. Some of these names might make it to a list of most important public intellectuals in India in some years’ time. But even a superficial list of such emerging talent shows that while younger voices and women might soon feature more prominently in Indian public discourse, minorities, multilingual writers, and serious Right-of-centre thinkers remain under-represented. This remains something to remedy.

February 5, 2018

Strategic Dilemma: to Quad or not to Quad

The following article appeared in The Deccan Herald on February 5, 2018. 

India, like many other countries, is coming to terms with China’s rise. This rise has been meteoric and in many ways beneficial to the global economy. However, it has been accompanied by increasing military assertiveness, as at the trijunction between India, Bhutan, and China at Doklam. Under its Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing provides state-backed financing to countries in Eurasia and the Indian Ocean Region with political and military strings attached. And China increasingly ignores established international practices, contravening freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, proliferating nuclear technologies to Pakistan, and stealing intellectual property through cyberattacks. All these actions have led to greater concern about how an increasingly powerful China will wield its power.

One element of India’s response has been to deepen its strategic relations with three other democratic maritime powers in the Indo-Pacific region -- the United States, Japan, and Australia. This engagement has usually been bilateral or trilateral in nature, encompassing both official security dialogues and naval exercises. But the notion of all four countries coming together has proved surprisingly controversial. This configuration – India, US, Japan, and Australia – is widely referred to informally as the “Quad.” The merits of the Quad have been hotly debated for over a decade. Equally, there are many enduring misperceptions of what the Quad is, what it might become, and what it is intended to accomplish.

In an earlier iteration, the Quad was actually two things. One was a one-off dialogue held in Manila in May 2007 on the side lines of the ASEAN Regional Forum featuring foreign ministry officials from the four countries. The second was a single naval exercise held in September 2007 in the Bay of Bengal – Malabar 07-02 – that featured the navies of the four countries and Singapore and involved over 25 ships and 20,000 personnel. China responded harshly to these developments, perceiving them as a form of containment. In India, these moves were controversial and there were protests supported by the Left parties. However, it was Australia that fatally pulled the plug, with the government of former prime minister Kevin Rudd announcing in February 2008 that it was no longer interested in such a formation.

Over the past decade, governments in all four countries explored the possibility of reaching an accommodation with Beijing, sometimes at the expense of a deeper strategic partnership with the other three democratic powers. This applied to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ)-led governments in Tokyo, the Rudd government in Canberra, and at times to both the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in New Delhi and the Barack Obama administration in Washington. But rather than become more sensitive to these countries’ concerns, Beijing responded with greater assertiveness, whether with Japan in the East China Sea, with Southeast Asian states in the South China Sea, or with India in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. In time, all four governments began to acknowledge the limitations of engagement with Beijing and sought alternatives to better manage China’s rise.

This is why the idea of the Quad has once again gained momentum. In November 2017, officials from the four countries’ foreign ministries met once again in Manila for what India’s Ministry of External Affairs called “consultations on Indo-Pacific.” It is important to note a few things about this revived initiative.

First, it was exploratory in nature. An exact quadrilateral agenda still needs to be ironed out. The four countries must still decide what can be accomplished that is not already being done bilaterally or trilaterally. There are today much more evolved US-Japan-Australia, US-Japan-India, and India-Japan-Australia dialogues. The scope of the Quad is also contentious: India, for example, believes that a discussion on developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan is necessary for a holistic dialogue on the Indo-Pacific.

Second, the initiative is led by the foreign ministries, rather than the defence ministries or military services. Subsequently, at the Raisina Dialogue in January 2018 in New Delhi, the naval chiefs of all four countries appeared together on a public panel discussion. But at this point, quadrilateral cooperation remains consultative in nature, rather than operationally collaborative.

Third, all four parties are still using the Quad as a bargaining chip with Beijing. We will see, for example, Japan work towards a thaw in relations with China this year, and the Quad strengthens its hand. Therefore, all four parties must go into the Quad with eyes wide open. For all these reasons, much of the commentary about the Quad requiring commitments on the part of India or others, or evolving into a formal alliance, are off the mark or very premature.


Moving forward, India should not be fixated on only this four-pointed configuration as a means of deepening cooperation with like-minded security partners in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad is not a sine qua non for regional security. If, for example, more countries are to be invited to future Malabar exercises (currently involving India, US, and Japan), it would make just as much sense to involve an ASEAN member country such as Singapore or Indonesia, as it would Australia. Still, the simple recognition that India, US, Japan and Australia have shared concerns about China’s rise and assertiveness, and together have the will and capability to define the security order in the region, makes the Quad both valuable and necessary.

January 14, 2018

The United States and India: Forging an Indispensable Democratic Partnership

The following report was the product of deliberations of the Task Force on U.S.-India Relations supported by the Center for American Progress (CAP). 

The Center for American Progress Task Force on U.S.-India Relations is specifically designed to include both United States and Indian citizens and seek a shared vision of bilateral relations over the next decade. In this report, we attempt to look beyond immediate challenges to longer-term goals, and recommend steps both sides can begin taking now to achieve a shared vision of the future. As task force members from the United States and India with experience on a wide variety of policy issues—from national security to democracy, business to energy policy and more—we hope that this report helps move forward a public conversation in both countries that informs policy makers and promotes ideas to advance the U.S.-India relationship.

Read the full task force report here

December 31, 2017

Diving Into the Indo-Pacific

The following exchange originally appeared in the December 2017 edition of ASEAN Focus

Q: What is your understanding of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept as repackaged by the Trump administration?

A: The exact contours of this policy – including the military dimensions – are still taking shape, and will do so over the coming months. However, in terms of rhetoric, it draws upon Japan’s own, parallel approach for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” While the exact policies and scope are still to be fleshed out, there is a shared understanding of: (1) the Indian and Pacific Oceans as a single strategic space in which all these countries have a stake, (2) an appreciation of the importance of the maritime domain for both security and trade, (3) an emphasis on the rule of law in governing this wide region, and (4) an understanding that India plays a vital role in the regional balance of power.

Q: Do you think there is an inherent disconnect between the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept and President Trump’s “America First” approach on trade? 

A: The Trump Administration’s approach to trade and international economics is somewhat discordant in two ways. One is the obsessive focus on reducing trade deficits. The second discordant element is the unilateral withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which cedes space in setting the next generation of multilateral trade standards for the region.

Q: The Free and Open Indo-Pacific is meant to provide strong alternatives to China’s infrastructure financing in the region. What are the tools and resources available for the US and its partners to deliver on this?    

A: The US has only a limited ability to play a competitive role in infrastructure financing in Asia. However, its partners bring other strengths to the table. Japan is the only country that can rival China in strategic infrastructure investment, and there is now palpable competition between China and Japan in this respect across Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa. Together, the likes of the US, Japan, and India can establish norms and principles for sustainable infrastructure financing in the region.

Q: How would the Free and Open Indo-Pacific play out in security terms?

A: Across the Indo-Pacific, the US has unrivalled capabilities, including a network of military bases, treaty alliances, and important security partnerships. The United States’ challenge in recent years has been the will to employ these resources to preserve the status quo, as in the South China Sea, where China has successfully militarized much of the sea and airspace. That said, the US – for political, economic, and other reasons – is increasingly keen on sharing the burden, and this is where Japan, India, and Australia come in. The challenge will involve political will more than material capabilities.

Q: What would be the role of the revived Australia-India- Japan-US quadrilateral partnership (Quad) in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific? Could Quad 2.0 be more viable than Quad 1.0?

A: The Quad is not an alliance. It is merely a gathering of four democratic maritime powers, who have some convergent interests when it comes to a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and the requisite capabilities to uphold that order. What has changed from its first meeting in 2007 to its latest this year are the circumstances. Rather than assuming greater responsibility with its rising power, China has become more authoritarian, opaque, mercantile, and revisionist. Furthermore, in all four countries elected governments attempted to reach accommodations with Beijing, but were spurned. This means that despite a continued willingness to engage China by all four parties, alternative mechanisms to uphold a rules-based order are being sought. For this reason, Quad 2.0 is probably more viable than its predecessor.

Q: The Quad 1.0 centered on security dialogue and military exercises. What is the possibility of the Quad 2.0 transforming itself into something that should be more economically oriented?        

A: The exact purpose and agenda of the Quad in its present avatar will still have to be defined, although elements of the priorities of the four countries are reflected in their statements. Today, economics are increasingly intertwined with security. I expect we will initially see the four parties sharing views on regional developments, followed by better coordination, a gradual building of habits of cooperation and familiarity, some investment in capacity building, and – should it continue and progress – some contingency planning.

Q: India’s foreign policy has always been guarded around the principle of non-alignment. What made India become a more proactive partner in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific?              

A: Non-alignment is long dead. That said, India sees itself as an emerging pole in the international order and therefore is keen on preserving its autonomy and flexibility of decision-making. It has also become a more vocal proponent and supporter of a liberal international order. Finally, India’s multi-faceted relationship with China – involving a long- standing border dispute, differences over regional security, a sizeable if imbalanced trade relationship, and some convergence on global governance – has deteriorated, largely as a result of China’s own evolution. For these reasons, Indian support for a free and open Indo-Pacific is a natural outcome

Q: How does the Free and Open Indo-Pacific dovetail with India’s Act East policy?

A: The Act East policy represents a change from an earlier Look East policy in three respects. First, Look East was primarily economic in nature, with India seeking investment, technology, and economic models from dynamic Asian economies. Act East is much more comprehensive and includes a strong security component, including greater capacity building, interoperability, and information sharing with Southeast and Northeast Asian powers. Two, the scope of Act East has expanded to cover the entire Indo-Pacific, beyond an earlier focus on Southeast Asia, China, Japan, and South Korea. Three, Act East has been more focused on end results rather than direction, which is a natural progression and also a sign of greater urgency.


The idea is that India must be fully integrated into Asia- Pacific institutions (which it is, barring APEC), should be more commercially integrated into regional value chains (which remains a work in progress), and become a net security provider within its capabilities. These objectives, and India’s overall evolution, dovetail nicely with the notion of a free and open Indo-Pacific, whether articulated by the US or by Japan.


December 29, 2017

Why the 2017 idea of the year is the Indo-Pacific


The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on December 29, 2017.

As another year comes to an end, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that political leaders and controversies come and go, but ideas, concepts, and terminology often have a longer shelf life. What were the big ideas of 2017?

Some, inevitably, are the product of technological developments: blockchain (a distributed ledger to ensure secure transactions) and deep learning by machines (a more sophisticated form of artificial intelligence) have been around for some time as applied concepts, but have only recently become a part of popular consciousness. Other notions that have gained salience are political in nature, such as ‘fake news.’ Some are purely linguistic. Online searches for the rather archaic word ‘dotard’ spiked after North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un used it to insult US President Donald Trump.

In the international political realm, I would venture that the idea of the year is the Indo-Pacific. In 2017, with its official adoption by the US, it reached a new threshold, and it may now be with us to stay. The Indo-Pacific is not a new idea, nor is it originally an American one. It actually arises from the natural sciences, referring to a large bio-geographic region of warm water in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Its evolution as a strategic concept is a more recent development.

Its origins can be traced to a speech delivered in August 2007 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Indian Parliament. Abe did not use the phrase Indo-Pacific, but rather alluded to a book by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh in describing the “dynamic coupling” of the Indian and Pacific oceans as the “confluence of the two seas.” In October 2010, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the importance of the “Indo-Pacific basin...to global trade and commerce.” The term soon caught on Indian strategic circles. C Raja Mohan, in his book 2012 Samudra Manthan, argued that “the seas of the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean must be seen as a single integrated geopolitical theater, the ‘Indo-Pacific’.” The 2013 Australian Defence White Paper led its strategic outlook with an assessment of the Indo-Pacific. And Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh referenced the Indo-Pacific in a May 2013 speech in Tokyo.

This year, the idea picked up steam, especially in official circles. Abe’s government outlined a vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper made numerous mentions of it. In his January address to the Raisina Dialogue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that India “believe[s] that respecting freedom of navigation and adherent to international norms is essential for peace and economic growth in...the Indo-Pacific.” And, somewhat belatedly, the US described the Indo-Pacific as a priority region in its 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS). Trump appears personally seized with the idea, and used the phrase Indo-Pacific numerous times during his November tour of Asia. Thus, Indo-Pacific is now firmly part of the official strategic vocabulary of India, the United States, Japan, and Australia. The coming together of these four countries in a dialogue earlier this year, while still exploratory, also began to cement the idea of the Indo-Pacific as an operational construct.

A common query is what part of the earth’s surface is actually covered by the Indo-Pacific? The US NSS defines it as extending from the west coast of the United States to the west coast of India. Japan’s view is perhaps the most ambitious, extending to two oceans and two continents (Asia and Africa). India has not formally defined it, but it is clear that in Indian conceptions it extends from the east coast of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, to the western and south Pacific.

But the exact geographical scope of the Indo-Pacific is almost beside the point. What matters is the shared understanding of the term. Essentially, it is three-fold. One, it implies that the Indian and Pacific Oceans are a single, shared strategic space. What happens in one, has implications in the other. Thus the militarisation of the South China Sea directly affects India, just as developments in the Indian Ocean have immediate consequences for Japan or the United States.

Two, it suggests that geopolitical competition in the broader region will play out primarily in the maritime domain. By defining the region by its oceans, rather than by any continental features (e.g. Asia), it automatically elevates the maritime element of our way of thinking about the region. For India, this means thinking more seriously about maritime trade, the blue economy, and naval requirements and capabilities.

Three, although the “Indo-” in Indo-Pacific refers to the Indian Ocean and not India, it is impossible to think about the Indo-Pacific without considering the role of India. Given its central location, its status as the largest economy, its long coastline, and its blue water naval capabilities, India is the geopolitical keystone of the Indian Ocean. Therefore, the use of the term Indo-Pacific implicitly acknowledges India’s central role in regional security and commercial dynamics.


This shared understanding - and the full significance of the adoption of Indo-Pacific by Indian, American, Japanese, and Australian leaders - has not necessarily been appreciated in capitals around the world, including in New Delhi. But it has been noted in Beijing. Its adoption and acceptance in official circles may have been belated, but it is nonetheless a welcome and important addition to the ideas that shape our thinking about the world.

November 2, 2017

Trump Goes to Asia


The following post appeared on China File on November 2, 2017.

Let us give credit where credit is due. For all the talk of dysfunction and policy incoherence in Washington under President Donald J. Trump, his administration has started to get some things right, especially when it comes to Asia policy. It helps that some of the key positions in the U.S. government, including senior posts at the Department of Defense and important ambassadorial appointments, are finally being filled by competent and experienced personnel. Additionally, after some trial and error, regional policy has started to assume some consistency. Indeed, the Trump administration’s learning curve on Asia over the past year has actually been steeper than the Obama administration’s, which often reversed or moderated course during its first six years.

Admittedly, Trump’s Asia policy got off on the wrong foot, with the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) sending a strong signal of American commercial disengagement from Asia. The handling of the North Korea situation was also mismanaged, to the detriment of U.S. relations with South Korea, and raised genuine questions about Trump’s ability to handle sensitive crisis scenarios.

But a lot has changed. One, in contrast to his peculiar presentation in Beijing in March which appeared to inadvertently rehash Chinese talking points, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson produced a clear policy speech in Washington last week. Ostensibly about relations with India, Tillerson’s remarks offered a carefully-crafted but sharp critique of China’s “predatory economics,” subversion of its neighbors’ sovereignty, and disrespect of a rules-based order. It provides an important insight into the administration’s thinking about the Indo-Pacific region as a whole. Moreover, Tillerson, Mattis, and Vice President Mike Pence have laid some important groundwork with visits to Indonesia, Australia, and South Korea

Two, the broader policy direction has been complemented by action on the ground. This is most clearly manifested in more frequent U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea over the past several months.

Three, while the Trump administration’s emphasis on burden sharing may sit uncomfortably with European allies and partners, in Japan and India, the United States has found partners willing to step up and burden-share. Indeed, these now account for some of the more positive relationships that the Trump administration enjoys, despite niggling differences, including over trade. And finally, despite political distractions at the top, the strength of the U.S. system has persisted. For all the talk of the Philippines’ growing proximity to China under Rodrigo Duterte, it was U.S. special operations forces that helped that country’s military retake the city of Marawi from Islamic State-linked militants.


The ability to articulate a consistent policy line, follow through, work more seamlessly with partners in achieving those objectives, and retain strong habits of cooperation lie at the core of sound policy. As Trump heads to Asia on his maiden trip as President, he has the opportunity to build upon what has been a reasonably successful reversal and consolidation of his administration’s regional policy over the past few months.

October 28, 2017

Tillerson’s visit opens a window of opportunity that India must seize

The following article originally appeared in The Hindustan Times on October 28, 2017. 

In 2000, in the midst of a US election, George W Bush’s top foreign policy adviser Condoleezza Rice wrote an essay in Foreign Affairs that outlined the candidate’s worldview. Among other things, it recognised the importance of India, and the need to facilitate its rise as a balancer in Asia. The US “should pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance”, she wrote. “There is a strong tendency conceptually to connect India with Pakistan and to think only of Kashmir or the nuclear competition between the two states. But India is an element in China’s calculation, and it should be in America’s, too. India is not a great power yet, but it has the potential to emerge as one.” This may seem obvious today, but it was not widely recognised in the US at the time. Many Indians — including at the senior levels of government — were unimpressed. Why should India be dragged into America’s geopolitical games?

Five years later, Philip Zelikow, counsellor to Rice, now US secretary of state, said in a background briefing that the US wanted to “help India become a major world power in the 21st century”, adding, “we understand fully the implications, including the military implications, of that statement.” This sentiment similarly faced resistance in both Washington and New Delhi. Indeed, it was in part why the statement had to be couched in a background briefing rather than in a policy statement by a senior official. But after considerable debate and deliberation in both capitals, it manifested itself in a civil nuclear agreement and a defence framework agreement.

How times have changed. Recently, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson expressed rather the same sentiments in a public address — the first foreign policy speech in Washington by a senior Trump administration official on relations with an individual country. “The United States and India are increasingly global partners, with growing strategic convergence,” Tillerson said. “Indians and Americans don’t just share an affinity for democracy; we share a vision of the future. The emerging Delhi-Washington strategic partnership stands upon a shared commitment upholding the rule of law, freedom of navigation, universal values, and free trade.” Tillerson contrasted India with a China that challenges international law and norms, subverts the sovereignty of its neighbours, and disadvantages other countries through its predatory economic policies. In his subsequent visit to India, Tillerson reiterated those thoughts in meetings with Indian leaders.

The fact that Tillerson’s remarks were positively received in India signals just how far India has come. When the US and Japan agreed to send delegates to China’s Belt and Road Forum in May, it was India that took a principled stand and articulated its concerns. Today, both the US and Japan have come around to sharing India’s view about the Belt and Road Initiative, as have some others. Similarly, it is India that deployed military force to prevent Chinese unilateral expansionism in a third country at Doklam in June. India has shown itself capable of shouldering a burden in its neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean region, without being a burden on the US — an ideal partner for a US presidency that has often criticised its allies for not playing an adequate role as net security providers.

Today, rather than concern in India about being dragged into the US’ geopolitics, it is about keeping the US engaged in advancing India’s strategic interests. It is important to recognise that neither the US’ offers of support for India nor India’s desire for the US to play an active and supportive role in its region are motivated by sentiment. Rather, the two countries have a clear congruence of interests when it comes now to China’s rise and assertiveness, an open and secure Indian Ocean, a stable and democratic Afghanistan, and global counter-terrorism. The signal of receptivity on the part of the US to help address some core Indian challenges is an opening for New Delhi to now seize squarely. This window of opportunity will not remain open forever.

Equally, it will be important to better manage continuing differences, especially on Pakistan. The US under Donald Trump has shown a greater receptivity to Indian perspectives about dealing with Pakistan’s continued State support for terrorist organisations. What exactly Washington does about this remains a very open question. But if a shared vision of an India-US partnership is to be realised, it will now require concrete actions on the US’ part to recalibrate its Pakistan policy.

October 26, 2017

The rise and rise of Xi Jinping


The following article originally appeared in The Times of India on October 26, 2017. 

The National Congress of the Communist Party, held every five years, is the closest thing authoritarian China has to an election. The most recent Congress – the 19th – was held October 18-24, and was an occasion for the over 2,000 delegates to deliberate and agree on policy matters guiding the nation. It also witnessed the selection of the Party’s Central Committee, the 25 member Politburo, the 11 member Central Military Commission, and the 7 member Politburo Standing Committee, which forms the country’s most exclusive leadership circle.

Observers in China and around the world had been on the lookout for signs about the degree of centralised power that will now lie with President Xi Jinping, and hints about his future succession plans. The implications are potentially significant. Among other things, they will affect India’s economic prospects, border security, neighbourhood relations, and global ambitions. With the unveiling yesterday of the Politburo Standing Committee, we now have some tentative answers, although they are far from encouraging.

First, on policy, Xi laid out his thoughts in a marathon three-and-a-half hours speech on October 18, the central theme of which was ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. With the goal of achieving “national rejuvenation”, Xi has advocated a “people-centred philosophy of development” grounded in “Four Comprehensives”: the continued centrality and strengthening of Communist Party rule, further reform, “law-based governance”, and the building of a “moderately prosperous society”.Xi also spoke of the need for a strong military capable of winning wars and “a new type of international relations”. A cynical reading of Xi’s speech would suggest that the party’s governance philosophy now clearly constitutes a mix of authoritarianism, populism and nationalism.

This broad approach has Xi’s strong personal imprint and ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ has now been written into the Communist Party’s charter. This week, the 19th Congress “unanimously” agreed that Xi Jinping Thought will guide the party for the foreseeable future. Xi and the Party are now effectively one and the same, and opposition to one constitutes opposition to the other. Moreover, the inclusion of Xi Jinping Thought in the charter now sets China’s president on par with only Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping as major leaders of Communist China identified with their own philosophies.

The second indicator of Xi’s power – the politics, rather than the policy – resulted in more ambiguous outcomes. To some degree, there was steady continuity, particularly on accounts that directly affect relations with India. General Zhao Zongqi, commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s vast Western Theatre Command (with responsibility for the entire border with India), has retained his position in the Central Committee. The country’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi, who acts as the special representative for the border talks with New Delhi, was elevated to the Politburo.

Of greater curiosity, observers were looking to see whether the 69-year-old Wang Qishan, who has led Xi’s anti-corruption campaign and is sometimes described as the country’s second most powerful person, would retain his position on the Standing Committee, in contravention of informal age limitation rules. Wang’s retention would have been a key indicator of Xi’s dominance over various rival factions within the Party, and a sign that Xi would have a recent precedent to hold on to power for another five-year term beyond 2022 after he crosses the age threshold of 68. However, Wang was not included in the Central Committee list, and is expected to be replaced by new Standing Committee member Zhao Leji.

Furthermore, questions lingered about who would fill the leadership vacuum caused by Xi’s purge of those who have opposed his rise to power. Bo Xilai, the charismatic head of the party in Chongqing and once considered a potential rival of Xi’s, was found guilty of corruption in 2013 and sentenced to life imprisonment after a high profile trial. Xi also went after the old guard. In 2015, Zhou Yongkang, once one of the country’s most powerful people as head of internal security and law enforcement, was similarly charged and sentenced. Sun Zhengcai, who until recently was considered a future senior leader, was suddenly expelled from the party.

Eyes were therefore on a handful of younger political leaders as potential successors to Xi. Hu Chunhua of Guangdong Province was seen as an earlier frontrunner, but the rise of Chen Min’er as the party chief of Chongqing following Sun’s expulsion had created an alternative. Heilongjiang chief Zhang Qingwei, a former aerospace engineer, represented an outside possibility. But as it turned out, none were appointed to the Standing Committee, leaving open the questions about Xi’s likely successor.


In sum, the 19th Congress has seen Xi consolidate power to a degree not seen since the days of Deng Xiaoping and possibly since Mao Zedong. He has maintained the authoritarian, populist, and nationalist tone that has characterised his presidency to date, and now has fewer checks on his power and vision. At the same time, questions about his succession remain as open as ever. For India, as with other countries around the region that have been confronted with China’s growing assertiveness under Xi, these are discouraging signs.