Taming the Dragon


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Sawhney, Pravin and Ghazala Wahab. Dragon on our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power. New Delhi: Aleph Book Company, 2017. 488 pp.

Let alone China, India cannot even win a war against Pakistan. This is the provocative opening sentence of Dragon on our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power by Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab. While most Indians grudgingly admit to the vast disparity between their country and its giant northeastern neighbour, they are emotionally unprepared to accept that India might struggle to win a war with its Islamic twin to the west. Sawhney, a journalist with 13 years of service in the Indian Army, and Wahab, a career journalist covering security and terrorism, describe in their book the disturbing lack of strategic thought in India’s defence policy. While the material is nothing new for seasoned analysts, it brings to to the general public in a readable manner what the authors see as shortcomings in the country’s security and their proposed solutions.

The crux of the central point of Dragon on our Doorstep is made at the outset – Sawhney and Wahab begin with the argument that bean-counting the number of tanks, artillery pieces, fighter jets, and other hardware may make for colourful charts and captivating news coverage but says little about military strength. The authors differentiate between military power, which Pakistan has developed, and military force, in which India enjoys numerical superiority. The latter is merely the stockpiling of war materiel while the former is concerns the optimal utilisation of that force through well considered defence policy and political directive.

If the famous Prussian military theorist was right that war is the continuation of politics by other means, Sawhney and Wahab have put their finger on the fundamental weakness in Indian security that propagates to all other aspects and levels. The authors’ observation that India’s political will and institutional structure is ambivalent at best reinforces an observation made by an American analyst, George Tanham, in that has been received with some rancour in the Indian establishment. In a now famous 1992 essay for Rand titled, Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretive Essay, Tanham bemoans that India has always lacked in strategic thinking. This has only been to the advantage of Delhi’s enemies. As Sawhney and Wahab contend, “India’s political and military leaders, in cahoots with its diplomats, have sold falsehoods to their own people” about the country’s security.

Establishment weakness is partly due to incompetence: in its crusade to establish civilian primacy over the military, the government has effectively eliminated the armed forces from decision-making process and replaced them with generalist civil servants who are simply unaware of the implications of policies. Dragon on our Doorstep gives several examples of diplomatic errors that were caused by having little knowledge of precedence, history, and facts on the ground.

The lack of a coordinated security policy sometimes results in different government departments working at cross purposes with each other. The lines of authority are also inordinately ambiguous; for example, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police falls under the Ministry of Home Affairs during peacetime but is seconded to the Ministry of Defence in wartime. Not only do such regulations denude cohesiveness and self-awareness among units at the border but they create multiple chains of command that report to different bureaucracies that do not always have the same goals.

Sawhney and Wahab contrast the Indian condition with a conference they attended in China. From the beginning to the end, all representatives of the Chinese media had only one message to impress upon their guests, from the political leaders and bureaucrats to military officials and the media. Such is Beijing’s coordinated strategy, aligning everything from the battlefield to the airwaves.

Not only are Chinese forces well-coordinated, they have, through arms exports and constant training, achieved a high degree of interoperability with the Pakistani Army. This means that India’s enemies retain the physical option to fight on two fronts against a common enemy, holding only the political decision in abeyance. Delhi, on the other hand, suffers from poor coordination between its units, its services, and with foreign powers. Blurred chains of command and the lack of a joint chief of staff has hurt military planning severely, and Raisina’s reticence to establish regular and comprehensive exercises with foreign militaries has left India completely unprepared even if foreign assistance were immediately forthcoming in the event of war.

Sawhney and Wahab take readers on a tour of India’s security blunders and make a convincing case that someone, somewhere, who should know what is going on in fact does not. As the authors explain, weakness at the top has percolated to all levels – from strategic to operational and tactical. The elimination of military inputs from foreign policy and even, to an extent, defence policy, has created a dangerous blind spot in the manner India views the world.

One of the concerns is that India does not seem to learn from its mistakes; perhaps the structure of the defence establishment is such that it does not retain an institutional history. For example, Operation Vijay (1999) was preceded by an Operation Meghdoot. Just as Indian soldiers returning to the mountain tops of Kargil in the summer of 1999 discovered that Pakistani soldiers had infiltrated into India during the winter and occupied the heights, Indian soldiers at Siachen had already had a similar experience in 1983. Sawhney and Wahab describe how Indian delegations were surprised to bump into their Pakistani counterparts in Europe shopping for the same winter accoutrements. The inability to learn from experience is a death knell for any organisation.

There is nothing particularly new by way of data or analysis in Dragon on our Doorstep for scholars or even seasoned observers of Indian foreign and security policy. However, the solutions offered are bound to raise hackles and ignite spirited debates. Ultimately, however, this is perhaps what Sawhney and Wahab seek – greater discussion of issues of vital importance among citizens and decision-makers alike.

For example, it is suggested that the path to India becoming a leading power is Pakistan because Delhi would not be able to focus on global issues or dedicate resources to them without a stable neighbourhood. This would indeed be ideal but the observation underestimates Pakistan’s hatred of India. The authors remind readers of how close both nations were to peace during the Agra summit in 2001 with Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf but India was wary of trusting any offer from across the border so soon after the Kargil conflict.

On a related issue, Dragon on the Doorstep warns that Kashmir is potentially destabilising for India and goes on to criticise the highly controversial enactment of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in the state. Again, the ideal of diplomacy over bullets is proposed without taking into account relentless cross-border instigation. Sawhney and Wahab also work on the assumption that Kashmir is the root of India’s problems with Pakistan, something that has always been rejected by India and recently been dismissed by even Western scholars such as Christine Fair and Daniel Markey.

Provocatively, the authors write, “India needs to understand that the road to managing an assertive China runs through Pakistan.” This is not the first time this suggestion has been made. Bharat Karnad, a scholar at the Centre for Policy Research, has long advocated some emollience with Pakistan so that India may better focus on the real threat to its security from China. As Sawhney and Wahab see it, India has three options towards China. One, it can form a closer partnership with the United States to contain Chinese ambitions; however, India will always have a deficit of trust with a country that is as supportive of Pakistan as the United States has been.

Two, India can go it alone – build the requisite military and economic strength to become a true rival to the dragon; this is easier said than done and the umpteen structural weaknesses in the Indian state will make this a decades-long process, assuming there is no wavering of political will in the meantime. Three, India can bluff its way along without aggravating China too much; the authors leave the substance of this ambiguous but it possibly means maintaining the status quo and playing the unsatisfying balancing act between Beijing and Washington. The language leaves one suspecting that this would be the authors’ choice.

While the title may imply a hawkish position on China, some of the authors’ suggestions are surprising, some may even say naive. For example, Sawhney and Wahab recommend that India join Chinese infrastructural initiatives like One Belt, One Road (OBOR) and even the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) because it would give Delhi leverage to open negotiations on Tibet and facilitate a stable peace with Pakistan.

The same credulity is witnessed when Dragon on the Doorstep accept every positive claim about the Chinese and Pakistani armies while questioning the Indian army at every turn. The simple fact of the matter is that India managed to “win” its wars with Pakistan and hold its ground with China in later conflagrations such as at Nathu La in 1967, Sumdorung Chu in 1987, and Doka La in 2017. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has no doubt advanced leaps and bounds since the modernisation begun by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1970s – which Dragon on our Doorstep discusses at length – but despite its clear strategic vision, the PLA still suffers from lack of decent hardware, regular political indoctrination, insufficient training, a crisis of loyalty, and corruption much like the Pakistani Army.

It is important to understand the assumptions behind these evaluations, for they are not limited to the authors alone. In this world view, the United States is seen as untrustworthy, and India’s nuclear deal with it a failure. Russia is the model relationship, and China is a regrettable enemy. With these parameters, Dragon on our Doorstep makes a far more compelling argument than without. Sawhney and Wahab do not explore these assumptions beyond a superficial glance, unfortunately.

Otherwise, it might be countered that the United States remains the only country that has the economic and military wherewithal to catalyse India’s hesitant rise to an international power to reckon with. Furthermore, its relations with India and Pakistan over the decades have been coloured by Delhi’s (Jawaharlal Nehru’s) assumptions about the United States. Regarding Russia, there are more thorns in that relationship than are publicly discussed. The ballooning cost of the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier was just one incident among several disagreements on transfers of technology, quality of equipment, and cost. Finally, on China, it is unfathomable that a rising superpower would ever tolerate a powerful country on its border. Regardless of how much both countries can achieve together, Beijing can never countenance Delhi’s power.

Dragon on our Doorstep has a questionable foreign policy analysis but that should not detract readers from its strength – the discussion of the nitty-gritty of military planning and preparation, from foot soldier to president. The expertise of both the authors is on display as they marshal facts and anecdotes to make their argument that security-wise, India is ill-prepared at all levels. Sawhney and Wahab present a comprehensive accounting of India’s weaknesses, from border logistics to Islamist and Maoist insurgencies that draw soldiers away from military operations to counter-terrorism, from an anaemic domestic defence manufacturing industry to over-confidence in India’s armed forces.

A more conscientious editor would have certainly helped Dragon on our Doorstep sharpen the argument and reining in the authors when they got carried away by their narrative. What should be obvious by now is that Sawhney and Wahab are primarily interested in revealing the inefficiencies and incompetence in the Indian security structure despite the ominous, admonitory title implying China. In this, the book certainly succeeds, and is a valuable addition to the security buff’s reading list .


Who are the Rohingya?


, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The plight of the Rohingya in Burma has yet again surfaced and momentarily captured international attention. Tens of thousands of Burma’s Muslim minority, residents of the western Burmese province of Rakhine, are fleeing across the border into Bangladesh to escape persecution. Typically, global attention has been fixated on ameliorating the immediate human tragedy while ignoring the deeper causes for the periodic unrest. As a result, there has been the inadvertent yet inevitable conflation of several fissures such as separatism, a fear of Islamism, and Buddhist nationalism; it has largely escaped notice that the Rohingya are often the targets of not just the Burmese military but also Rakhine Buddhists. The previous round of violence in 2012, for example, was precipitated by the military government’s move to grant many Rohingya citizenship (although the cassus belli was the gang rape of a Buddhist woman).

The latest spiral of violence began on August 25 when over 150 Rohingya terrorists launched a coordinated attack on a military base that housed the 552nd Light Infantry Battalion and 24 police stations across Rakhine. The predictable military reprisal has left tens of thousands homeless and some reports suggest that half the Rohingya population may have fled Burma. Two observations need to be made here: the first is the obvious that the roots of this violence go far back to even before Burmese independence in 1948, and the second is that the nature of the conflict has been shaped by external political realities and evolved over time.

Early Arakan was ruled by Indian kings and the province served as a launching point for Mauryan Buddhist missionaries on their way to Southeast Asia. The Muslim kingdom of Mrauk-U was established in 1430 with the help of the Bengal sultanate, though Islam is said to have reached the region by the tenth century. Arakan was only peripherally a part of the Burmese empire until 1784 when Mrauk-U fell to Bodawpaya of the Burmese Konbaung dynasty. However, a predominantly Buddhist socio-cultural milieu pulled Arakan in a manner that political suzerainty did not.

With the British annexation of Arakan into the Raj after the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826 came the first modern waves of Muslim migration to avail of new agricultural opportunities. Returning local peasants who had fled the wars found that their land had been given away by the British to Bengali immigrants. So severe was the migration that Muslims, who constituted barely 10 percent of the population of Akyab (northern Rakhine) in 1869, were well over 33 percent by 1931. A 1941 British Report on Indian Immigration noted with some concern that the rapidly changing demographics “contained the seed of future communal troubles” and had foreboding remarks on the Islamicisation of Arakan.

World War II crystallised the cleavages between the migrant Muslims and the local Buddhists as the former sided with the British and the latter with the Japanese. By the end of the fighting, Muslims found themselves concentrated in Akyab while the rest of Arakan was held by the Buddhists. The brutality of modern war in the jungle created wounds between the communities that never healed and rumours began to surface that Akyab may be ceded by the British to Bengal to become part of the future state of (East) Pakistan than join Burma. There is no evidence this was considered seriously but both Archibald Wavell and Mohammad Ali Jinnah briefly flirted with the idea before turning it down.

Interestingly, Rakhine Buddhists, who are of a different ethnicity yet same religion from the majority Bamar, began an armed agitation for independence the same time the Rohingya were rebelling for a separate state in 1946. Yangon managed to remove the sting from these groups by the mid-1950s but over 50 armed ethnic groups remain in Burma and have been the targets of periodic offensives by the military. Many of the grievances of the Rakhine were resolved by the 1974 Burmese constitution; Prime Minister Ne Win’s Revolutionary Council renamed Arakan as Rakhine with the understanding that Burma is a federation of ethnicities. The same reforms rejected Rohingya appeals as it was argued that the term ‘Rohingya’ does not appear in any British document during their 122-year rule over Burma. The closest word to the term was ‘Rooinga,’ derived from Bengali and referring to geography rather than ethnicity.

In the 2010 elections, the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party won 35 of the 44 seats in the state legislature; it also became the second-largest bloc in the national House of Nationalities, which they have used to give voice to Buddhist concerns across Burma.

Such terms were not extended the Rohingya for a couple of reasons. The 1948 citizenship law clearly stated that only those whose ancestors lived within the borders of present-day Burma before 1823 would be eligible for citizenship, disqualifying the enormous wave of migrants that settled in Arakan under the British. While critics have argued that the 1982 law would have allowed a gradual, three-generation process of assimilation by recognising different classes of citizenship for those who moved to Burma before 1948 – associate, naturalised, and full – this was poorly implemented in the provinces due to the Rakhine fear of Islamicisation among the Rohingya.

Reports have surfaced at regular intervals of ties between Burmese Muslims and Pakistani intelligence, al Qa’ida, the Taliban, and Saudi Wahhabists. Fearing the introduction of jihadist tendencies in their country, the Rakhine have campaigned hard – politically as well as violently – against bringing the Rohingya into the Burmese fold. In fact, there was uproar in Burma when the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party tried to grant citizenship to the Rohingyas prior to the 2010 elections to counter the success of the RNDP in the polls.

As Anthony Ware of Deakin University has argued, the Rohingya-Rakhine hostility can best be explained by Michalis Michael’s theory of a double minority complex. In such a situation, the majority in a country feel as if they are a threatened minority competing for territorial survival and nationalistic autonomy. The Rakhine feel overwhelmed by the constant and centuries-old religious and territorial encroachment by their Muslim neighbours, their own minority status with respect to the ruling Bamar majority, and the international media that is hell-bent on ignoring their concerns for the sake of political correctness.

The minority Rohingya view of history is that Arakan was never Burmese until 1784 and the Muslim Mrauk-U kingdom validates their claim to the region. According to the Rohingya, the population influx from Chittagong was not of new migrants but the return of Muslims who had fled Burmese occupation. With the demographic and military power balance skewed against them, the Rohingya feel intensely insecure in a Burmese national narrative they neither wish to partake in nor belong.

Although it is easy for outsiders to proffer solutions to the Rohingya imbroglio, this is ultimately a question for the Burmese themselves: for the Buddhists if they can live with their Muslim neighbours as part of their nation or at least imagine Burma as a multi-national state, and for the Rohingya, if they can let go of Islam’s perpetuity clause on real estate, its harsh exclusivity practices, and belong to an infidel nation without making demands for special considerations and rights. Even then, this question may continue to fester as Burma’s demographic composition alters and may have to be revisited in a generation. After all, democracy does not reward who is right but only who is more plentiful. In that case, all we would have accomplished is to kick another problem on to our descendants.

Energy’s Holy Grail One Step Closer


, , , , , , , , , , ,

The recent announcement by scientists of a major breakthrough in fusion research has gone largely unnoticed or with jaded acknowledgement among energy analysts. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center obtained a ten-fold increase in energy output from the Alcator (ALto CAmpo TORo, High Field Torus) C-Mod tokamak in an experimental run last year. The results were so exciting that researchers at the Joint European Torus in Britain decided to replicate them. Success has raised hopes that the first commercial fusion reactors might be on the horizon by the 2030s.

Nuclear fusion is considered by many to be the holy grail of energy, promising limitless clean energy with little to no waste production. Unlike fission, which splits atoms and releases excess binding energy from the daughter products, fusion combines atoms and uses energy left over from a more efficient atomic configuration. However, it has substantial challenges and promises made from optimism than engineering grounding in the early days of the nuclear age – such as Lewis Strauss’ famous 1954 declaration that electricity will become too cheap to meter in the future – have not yet panned out, causing scepticism among lay observers.

One challenge is that it is not easy to induce atoms into undergoing fusion. Incredibly high temperatures – at least 100 million degrees Celsius – and pressures are required to achieve it and scientists have often described the process as igniting a small sun on earth. This is achieved most commonly in one of two ways – inertial (ICF) and magnetic (MCF) confinement fusion. In the former, a high energy laser targets a pellet the size of a pinhead to heat and compress the fuel; in the latter, radio-frequency heating is used and the fuel is contained in a torus-shaped device known as a tokamak. The famous International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, France, is an example of the latter.

Generating such temperatures is no easy feat but to contain it within the confines of a small reactor is even more challenging. The ICF design bypasses this need by focusing a very powerful laser onto a few atoms of fuel for ten billionths of a second; the high energy and short time frame means that the fuel pellet reacts before it can explode. MCF, however, confines the plasma in a tokamak with helical magnetic field geometry, usually achieved by using superconducting magnets to contain the fuel.

The most common fuel for fusion is protium and deuterium, two isotopes of hydrogen, or deuterium and another isotope of hydrogen, tritium. Scientists focus on the lower total density portion of the mixture that is usually 95 percent deuterium because it can heat up to much higher energies. The researchers at MIT, however, decided to create a three-ion mixture with trace amounts, less than one percent, of helium-3 in the fuel. The energy output, in the realm of mega electron volts, has allowed scientists to study how such high energy ions behave under fusion conditions and how they might best be contained.

Despite decades of experimentation, it is still difficult to maintain plasma at sufficient temperatures for long enough to achieve efficient energy output. However, the tri-fuel is an exciting step in that direction. The results will allow researchers to make predictions about other fuel ratios and combinations that might yield even better energy output at lower energies.

Nonetheless, nuclear fusion is a technology that has always been around the corner for decades and present optimism regarding commercial fusion reactors within the next two decades should also be considered with caution. The Alcator C-Mod, for example, was mothballed soon after the successful testing of the helium-doped fuel. Substantial financial commitments will need to be made and results are still a long way from commercially viable.

Second, as scientists begin to maintain plasma in a high energy stage for longer periods (the longest period so far is six and half minutes by the French Tore Supra tokamak), new demands might be made on technology to withstand such intense heat and pressure for commercially viable duration. It is important to note that even with the latest energy output breakthrough, no fusion reaction has yet produced more energy than was required to initiate a reaction – the Joint European Torus (JET) holds the record for this at 70 percent of input power. ITER hopes to push these boundaries of time and energy further.

Third, a regulatory framework will have to be created for safe operation. This will take time for a new technology and the cost of an insufficient safety environment could be high. Four, with so many unknowns about technology and regulations, it is as yet difficult to ascertain the economic viability of fusion reactors.

This is not to say that nuclear fusion is impractical or unviable. However, much like renewable energy and energy storage, it is a promise of times to come rather than an offer of immediate solutions to climate change and energy scarcity. That part of the nuclear spectrum remains the Gen III+ reactors and Gen IV designs such as molten salt reactors, thorium fuel, and small modular reactors that are awaiting only market confidence.

Fusion research is very promising and must be pursued with earnest. As one scientist explained it, fusion plasma performance has increased by a factor of 10,000 over 50 years; research is now less than a factor of 10 away from producing the core of a fusion power plant. However, it cannot be an excuse for inaction towards cleaner energy now. This is not a complicated concept – like in any other industry, current products must be optimised until new designs enter the market. The MIT experiment takes us that much closer to achieving limitless clean energy with virtually no toxic byproduct.