Ashok K Mehta

Ashok K. Mehta is a radio and television commentator, and a columnist on defence and security issues. He is a former Major General of Indian Army. After joining the Indian Army in 1957, he was commissioned in the 5th Gorkha Rifles infantry regiment in the same year. He had fought in all major wars India went into, except the Sino-Indian War of 1962. And he was also on a peacekeeping mission in Zaire in the year 1962 and in the Indian Peace Keeping Force, Sri Lanka (1988-90) and it was his last assignment in the Indian Army. He is also a writer of several books and a founder-member of the Defense Planning Staff in the Ministry of Defence, India.

Mastering the Art of Diplomacy: India’s Foreign Policy Success


Who could have dreamt that Sri Lanka where anti-India sentiment was sky-high and China (and Pakistan) ruled the roost, would come into India’s fold? Who could have thought that Sri Lanka, a country that was once touted to become the Singapore of South Asia, would default on its sovereign debt? Who could have imagined that the Rajapaksa clan which handled 70 per cent of the country’s wealth, were hailed as the victors of the 30-year-long war and were darlings of the south would be hounded out? Who could have conceived that six times Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe whose United National Party (UNP) won one (that too on PR) seat, would become President? In 2022 many unthinkable happened in Sri Lanka.

Twice President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, younger brother and last President, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, and party strategist and former finance minister Basil Rajapaksa, were all forced into hiding even as Gota fled the country while Basil was prevented from doing so. On 9 May 2022, Mahinda resigned following countrywide violence in which 9 persons died and 30 were wounded. Gota resigned on 15 July and Wickremesinghe was sworn in as acting President. On 20 March 2023, IMF approved USD 3 bn bailout and released USD330 mn as immediate disbursement. All three Rajapaksas along with former Governor Central Bank, Ajit Cabraal and former Finance Minister SR Attygalle have been charged by Transparency International Sr Lanka for being directly responsible for the economic crisis. Former President Chandrika Kumaratunga said the Rajapaksas and friends thought they owned the country and its assets. But Mahinda blamed foreign forces and the former government for the economic collapse.

The Rajapaksas were ousted from power by a popular people’s revolution, Aragalya, for their role in the economic meltdown. The economy slumped minus 11 per cent in 2022 and will decline minus 4 per cent in 2023. The shortage of foreign currency was made up mainly by India (USD4bn) in three months in 2022. As inflation rose to 99 per cent, and then fell to 59 per cent, nearly 30 per cent of the population is facing food insecurity and acute shortage of cooking gas, fuel and 10 to 12 hours power outages. Things have improved after creditors, especially India, helped. Wickremesinghe, who is also Finance Minister, presented the interim and full budgets last August and November.

He is still unpopular because contrary to Aragalya’s demand, he has refused to dissolve Parliament whose term ends after two and a half years. He is backed by the Rajapaksas SLPP breakaway faction  which has a majority in Parliament.

Wickremesinghe has postponed elections to 340 local bodies, due 9 March, indefinitely, SLPP fearing it will lose them and undermine their image. Rs 10 bn allotted for elections was ordered instead to be utilised to distribute free rice but the Supreme Court blocked the populist scheme. Provincial elections have not been held for four years. 12 members of SLPP including the mercurial GL Peiris, have joined the opposition SJB party as a breakaway faction of UNP. Another Aragalya has been threatened but Wickremesinghe has vowed to use the Army.

Meanwhile, Colombo suffered its worst defeat since 2009 at UNHRC Geneva during the 51/1 Resolution last October. Most of the demands were carryovers from previous resolutions. For the first time, India included issues of reconciliation and devolution calling actions taken on them by Sri Lanka inadequate and abstained from voting for the resolution. This prompted Wickremesinghe to resume dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance and pledged to implement fully, the 13th Amendment enacted in 1987.

The India-China rivalry took a distinct pro-China trajectory in 2005 as India refused to provide lethal arms while China (and Pakistan) were obliging. Further, the Rajapaksas are so deeply indebted to China for the massive and superfluous infrastructure projects in the south, especially the airport and Hambantota sea port which is on a 99-year lease to Beijing. Similarly, Colombo Port City is expected to become another white elephant. With the elimination of the Rajapaksas China, the third biggest creditor after Japan and ADB has changed its tune, dragging its feet over debt restructuring.

The Chinese naval surveillance ship Yuan Wang5 was first prevented from docking at Hambantota port after India raised strong objections but later, it managed to force its entry.

Besides the cancellation of income tax concessions, IMF imposed conditions for the 17th bailout including the reduction of the once worshipped Army from its strength of 200,000 to 135,000 by 2024 and 100, 000 by 2030. This could never have happened during Colonel Gotabhaya’s presidency. Several officers including three Generals including present CDS, Lt Gen Shavindra Silva, have been sanctioned by the UN and separately by the US with travel bans. Sri Lankans have recognised India’s timely USD 4bn assistance and first responder in debt restructuring. Foreign Minister S Jaishankar said on his recent visit to Colombo that India will stand by the people of Sri Lanka at all times. India’s primacy in Sri Lanka is likely to continue as Wickremesinghe has cancelled Chinese energy projects in Jaffna and finally allotted oil tanks in Trincomalee for refurbishment. Sri Lanka is becoming India’s foreign policy triumph.

India: Defence ties with Australia are strong


Wandering through Australia, I’m discovering that our own great Sikhs came in shiploads during the 19th century to fight under Australian officers in World War I. The Brits brought camels from India with Sikh cameleers whom the Australians mistook as Afghans. More Sikhs arrived to set up a base between Brisbane and Sydney establishing banana plantations. Surprisingly they haven’t reached the moon yet.

Fast forward to 1998 to India’s nuclear tests. Australia then was so paranoid about nuclear proliferation that the Sikh Defence Attaché was asked to leave Australia within 24 hours. In a surprising turn of policy two years ago Canberra decided to export uranium to India. On 15 February Defence Secretary, Greg Moriarty announced its ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ nuclear policy. Australia no longer asks strategic bombers whether they are carrying nuclear weapons. US B52 stealth B2 bombers operate from Australian bases to maintain ‘Operation Unpredictability’ dispersing the nuclear triad. The stationing of nuclear weapons in Australia is prohibited under its South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty but the US has traditionally neither confirmed nor denied carriage of nuclear weapons, a policy endorsed by Foreign Minister Penny Wong at a Senate hearing last week where the Greens Senator objected to breach of SPNFZT. Under the highly controversial Australia UK and US (AUKUS) arrangement, Canberra’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet — which canceled the agreement with France to buy its Barracuda design — two already built UK Astute class submarines will be fitted with American subsystems. Australia could have 12 such submarines by 2050. It will become the only non-nuclear state to get US nuclear technology for its submarine fleet. This has generated a big debate on ‘do we need AUKUS’ or whether Australia is rubber-stamping US policy. Australia is already part of the US India Japan QUAD and its Navy has already been part of the Malabar Naval exercises. With the new Albanese government calling up to China and India sitting on the fence, QUAD and Malabar as serious deterrents to China are questionable.

Australia’s new Defence Security Review, authored by former Defence Minister Stephen Smith and former CDS Air Marshal Angus Houston was released last week. Previously defence policy focused on defence of Australia and later, forward defence to the present when the China challenge of uncertainties and ambiguities has covered Australia. A defence expert told me in Sydney that the Chinese tried to strangle Australia and its economic coercion failed miserably. Distance and sea frontiers have made Australia safe and secure. There’s not been a single terrorist attack that makes Australia an attractive destination for trade and investment. However, fears of illegal immigrants have magnified. Last Saturday Foreign Minister S Jaishankar was in Sydney transiting from a visit to Fiji. India-Australia relations are on a high. Canberra considers New Delhi one of its most important partners in the Indo-Pacific. Prime Ministers Morrison and Modi signed the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in 2020, the Economic Strategy Update in 2022, and Australia India Economic Cooperation Agreement in 2022. The Australian government is setting up the Centre for Australia-India Relations like the Australia India Council set up 30 years ago.

Today 50,000 Indian students are helping the Australian higher education sector rebound after the pandemic. India-Australia defence cooperation traces its origins in the trenches of Gallipoli in World War I. Two agreements underpin defence ties – the 2006 Memorandum of Defence Cooperation; and the 2009 Joint Declaration in Security Cooperation. A joint working group on joint research and military cooperation has been set up. Joint exercises are regularly held between the three services. In 2015, the first formal bilateral naval exercise was held off the coast of Visakhapatnam and these are held every two years. In addition, the Milan fleet review has the Australian Navy participating. A maritime partnership exercise off Perth last year involved several ships and helicopters. IAF Su30 and C17 aircraft participated in Exercise Pitch Black. This was followed by another international Exercise Kakadu 2022. The Australian Navy participated in RIMPAC, an Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2022 Exercise.

The focus of India-Australia military cooperation is in the maritime domain in support of an open, inclusive, and resilient Indo-Pacific as stated by Defence Minister Richard Marles. Australian High Commissioner in India, Barry O’Farrell has said that joint defence activities had experienced a nearly fourfold increase since 2014. The upgrade of ties was reflected in the recent 2+2 dialogue between Finance and Defence Ministers. The Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement entered into force on 29 December 2022 will allow tariff-free trade of 85 to 90 percent of the goods. India-Australia defence ties have come a long way since the expulsion of the Defence Advisor.

India: Invest in defence modernisation


The only surprise in the defence budget was no surprise: static, in real terms, a negative budget for modernization- the litmus test of capability enhancement for maintaining deterrence in order to meet the two-and-a-half threat challenge plus government articulated missions of retaking PoK and Aksai Chin. Much of the capital is consumed by committed liabilities – payment for equipment already ordered and in the pipeline. Overconfidence in a strong government and leader, the chimera of G20 grandeur, and ‘it is not an era of war’ but ‘Amrit Kaal has ruled out conflict with China and Pakistan. Northern Army Commander, Lt Gen Dwivedi earlier and former Army Chief, Gen Naravane, only last month, revived illusions of ‘we are in a position of strength’ in Ladakh. In the last nine years, the ruling government has invested more in lip servicing and symbolism than in closing the capability gap with China as defence budgets have hovered between 1.5 and 1.6 percent of GDP. Former Defence Minister Arun Jaitley would admit: “we have no money, we can’t put cess on defence”. So the government has renamed anonymous islands after PVC winners, built giant statues, installed tall flags, and embellished Jai Jawan Jai Kisan Jai Vigyan with Jai Anusandhan.

In the current fiscal defence has dropped to 1.4 percent of GDP and for the first time in decades, dipped below 2 percent of GDP if the pension bill is included. The capital acquisition increased from Rs 12,000 crore to Rs 1.6 lakh crore just an 8 percent increase well below inflation and the falling rupee. As there is no National Defence Strategy and a Policy, Plans, and Budgeting System to evaluate inter se capabilities, allocation is erratic and prioritized by CDS. IAF chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhuri has thrice publicly mentioned the dangers of combat squadron strength dwindling to 28/30 squadrons against the authorized 45 squadrons. PM Modi acquired 38 Rafales against 126 MRCA urgently sought by IAF. Its requirement of 114 MRCA has been languishing for years: Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) is still not fructified i.e. forget it.

Similarly, the Navy, whose missions have multiplied – from the Gulf of Aden to the Indo-Pacific – is woefully deficient in submarines, and the indigenous aircraft carrier Vikrant is minus aircraft and other subsystems. At this pace of modernization, the third aircraft carrier is a mirage. Manpower-intensive Army needs a new tank, a light tank, and a new gun. The increased capital segment of the revenue budget is to make up for deficiencies in ammunition and equipment to fight a 30-day war not 10 days of intense conflict. Neither the hand-picked service chiefs bar Chaudhuri, nor the deeply-selected CDS Gen Anil Chouhan, has pointed to shortfalls in the modernization budget. They are unlikely to do so in the prevailing environment when discretion has become a better part of valour. Young officers have proven the backbone as an ADC of President Murmu gently ticked off Modi when he tried to step ahead of her during the Republic Day parade.

Two instances need recall. Former Army Chief, Gen Shankar Roy Choudhury warned the government that Army will not be responsible for any operational mishap due to inadequate funding and former CNS Adm Vijay Shekhawat declared at a press briefing that naval shipyards not receiving ship orders will have a negative effect on naval capabilities. The next day Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav invited Shekhawat to breakfast. It is inconceivable that the highly nationalistic government that has excelled in capex – infrastructure hikes and doubled railway budget – has kept the sword arm insufficiently sharpened.

The government took huge operational risks by keeping the Army alone deficient of 300,000 soldiers: no recruitment was done for the last three years due to Covid. While the annual demobilization of 65,000 soldiers continued, no salaries had to be paid for the void in recruitment. Only now will 46,000 Agniveers be recruited on a low salary and no pension. It’s OROP whose cost equaled modernization allocation but has reduced to Rs 1.3 lakh crore that is hurting. OROP arrears worth Rs 23000 crores are due by 31 March. Modi must rue his 2014 BJP election manifesto in signing up for OROP. This is indeed an era of war. As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its second year, India has to review its relations with Russia which has China, a no-limit strategic partnership. India is still dependent on Russian military hardware, technology, and spares. Serge Chemezov, CEO of Russia military industrial Rostek was in India last month for payment of dues on account of Russian oil and S400 AD systems. The Americans are making determined efforts including the use of sanctions and diplomatic pressure to wean India away from Russian equipment. All European countries are increasing defence budgets to meet twin Russia-China challenges. The UK, France, and even Germany have reached 2 percent of GDP spending levels. Japan has erased the one percent GDP embargo and will spend USD332bn over the next five years. In Asia Pacific, South Korea, and the Philippines are increasing defence capabilities by 8 and 5 percent respectively. Despite active LAC and LoC and a sensitive internal environment, the Modi-Shah government is happy to let China march ahead with a defence budget thrice India’s size. There is an urgent need for recapitalization of defence to deter China.

Thailand: Civilian façade of military


Thailand, the favorite destination for Indian tourists, is an instructive case for the study of civil-military relations. Control of the military by civil authority, the accepted democratic norm, is frequently challenged by the Palace, the third player even though monarchy is constitutional. An election is around the corner on 7 May with the parliamentary term ending on 23 March. Currently, a coalition led by the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) the military which includes three Generals, all former Army Chiefs, has ruled the country since 2014. The two Generals in subordinate political positions are senior to the Prime Minister. The billionaire PM Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a military coup in 2006, was followed by his sister Yingluck becoming Prime Minister later and now his daughter Paetongtarn is carrying the flag of Pheu Thai Party (PTP). King Maha Vajiralongkorn, Rama X, barred his elder sister, who renounced royalty, from contesting elections with Thaksin’s PTP. Shinawatra according to a report in The Bangkok Post in May 2005 had made arrangements with the Palace to control the Generals.

The PPRP is led by Deputy Prime Minister, Pravit Wongsuwon, the senior most General; Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha juniormost General is PM with Interior Minister Gen Anupong Paochinda. Wongsuwon last month told reporters that his party will decide whether he will be PM but he prefers “military life to political one”. He was confident his party would remain in power as part of a coalition. The Sunday China Morning Post of December 2022 reported that three of four Thais think PTP should be in power and Paetongtarn was the favorite leader to end the decade-old military rule. The National Institute of Development Administration polls showed she was 10 percentage points ahead of Prayuth and PTP ahead of PPRP and other political parties. But unless all political parties unite against the Generals’ PPRP they have no chance of defeating them.

Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch said that the military has made itself invulnerable by framing laws to dissolve the main opposition party, control the Election Commission, and hand-pick the Senate (which decides on government formation) to thwart the will of the people. Wongsuwon publicly stated it is not difficult for his party to form a government as the Senate is ‘controllable’. Thai Generals have taken a leaf out of neighboring absolute military rulers of Myanmar’s 2008 constitution into their 2017 constitution. Only a landslide victory by a single party like the National League of Democracy of Aung San Suu Kyi achieved in 2021 (which resulted in the coup) can undo military rule in Thailand. The 2017 constitution allows the nomination of 250 Senators (mostly Army and Police) that can dilute the verdict of the 500-strong House of elected Representatives. Rules have been so framed that the military needs only one-third of the elected house for government formation. The Generals have given a civilian façade to the military government – to put it crudely – like a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The military (and police) in Thailand is one of the most politicized entities in this part of the universe. My Thai colleagues at Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth (US) in 1975 mentioned how they made their political choices while in the Military Academy. Recently, the constitution was believed to have been amended to give the King special powers and certain special forces placed under his command. The Army Chief 2018, the son of a former coup leader, led his officers on bended knees and folded hands, to swear an oath of allegiance to the King at Army Headquarters in Bangkok. Gen Prayuth outdid him saying: “I will worship and protect monarchy”. Generals are galore – for every 212 troops one flag rank officer. In India, 21,000 soldiers make one General. The Army has prepared a 20-year Strategic Development Plan which governments are required to follow.

Although absolute monarchy ended in 1932, the constitutional monarchy prevailed with the previous monarch the most revered King who ruled for 70 years, slightly less than the term of Queen Elizabeth II. It is not clear which way the pendulum is swinging in Palace-Military relations at present. South China Morning Post reported that ‘normally the Army proposes and the King disposes of. Very strict laws exist on royal defamation under lese’ majeste – 15 years in jail under Law 112 for expression against Monarchy. Protests for reforming monarchy erupted recently though mostly by youth who use code words to refer to their targets.

Two tragic events occurred last December – the sinking of a Thai warship with several sailors drowned; and the cardiac arrest of the Crown Princess (apparently first in the line of succession) still in a coma. The effects of the pandemic have struck a body blow to tourism, the mainstay of the economy. Fortunately, the tourist footfall in 2022 has crossed the 10mn mark.

India has strong and friendly relations with Thailand with 50,000 Indians gainfully employed from Gaggan Anand’s two Michelin Star restaurants to Gunjan Kumar’s mobile chana jor garam enterprise. Statues of Hindu gods and goddesses are dotted all over Thailand with many beautiful Tamil kovils. There are strong Buddhist links also with Thailand. The Shinawatra scion may give the Generals shivers but the ruling trio of Generals is bound to return for a third term four months from now.

Nepal: Prachanda’s art of Govt formation

Never before in the history of Nepali politics has a convicted politician been visited in Kathmandu’s jail by a parade of luminaries like former Prime Minister Madhav Nepal, Nepali Congress stalwart Arzu Rana (wife of former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba), emissaries of Prime Minister Prachanda and many others. Resham Chaudhary of the Nagarik Unmukti Party is in jail for life for inciting fellow Tharus in the killing of seven policemen in 2015 at Tikapur (No 7 province). To obtain his party’s support (three seats) now run by his wife and father, leaders have promised to get his release by ordinance. Everyone knows that will not happen. But such was the desperation of the two primary coalitions led by NC and CPN(UML) and Prachanda especially to add weight to his 32 seats in order to cobble together 138 seats to form the government.

Never before has a single biggest NC- Deuba-led coalition that included Prachanda snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Clearly, Deuba underestimated the awesome Prachanda who undauntingly led the revolution against the state and monarchy. An ambitious Deuba (89 seats) wishing to be Prime Minister a sixth time (astrologers have predicted he will be PM seven times), refused to yield the first premiership to Prachanda with just 32 seats in a power-sharing agreement that has become the new normal in Nepal. The doubtful locus standi of such agreements and their non-implementation have led to bad blood and revolt. Prachanda, who had done his math and sent adequate signals to Deuba, immediately walked out of Baluwatar to Balakot to join the CPN(UML) alliance of former Prime Minister KP Oli, turning the tables on Deuba. Prachanda’s Plan B has caused a revolt in NC against Deuba for failing to preempt it.

Fire-fighting operations led by Rana (Deuba had no real Plan B) included breaking the Oli—led alliance that included Rajendra Lingden, RPP (14), Upendra Yadav, Janata Samajwadi Party Nepal (12), Rabi Lamichhane RSP (21), Resham Chaudhary Nagarik Unmukti Party (3), CK Raut Janmat Party (5) and several independents claiming 166 seats. It was this grand coalition that Rana attempted to fracture after Prachanda and six ministers had been sworn in on 26 December. In a last-ditch attempt on the week-end before Prachanda’s vote of confidence Tuesday (10 Jan) NC offered one year each as Prime Minister to Lingden and the suspended in-animation CPN (United Socialists) of Madhav Nepal (10 seats). NC made a similar offer to Lamichhane who said he was already deputy prime minister and home minister. An offer was made to Yadav (JSP-N) of Deputy prime minister and home minister and election to the House within six months. When Lingden refused the offer after Oli’s intervention the operation was aborted as arithmetic to disrupt the confidence vote did not work out. Otherwise, as leader of the single largest party, Deuba could have been invited by President Bidya Debi Bhandari to form the government.

The RPP and JSP(N) agreed to support the vote of confidence last Saturday after the Common Minimum Programme prepared by Prachanda was handed over to a high-level political mechanism led by Oli. It was not easy for Prachanda to accommodate the political demands and ambitions of a coalition as bizarre as the one that won the vote of confidence. Third-time Prime Minister Prachanda is no novice in successfully managing contradictions, He learned the tricks on the job as Prime Minister.

President Bhandari’s term expires in March. CPN (UML ) will take the posts of President and Speaker. The name of former Speaker Subhash Nembang is doing the rounds for President though there is a minor domestic glitch. Had Madhav Nepal joined the Oli coalition it would have been a homecoming – like Prachanda’s return – and a possible shot at the presidency. The agreement has also been reached within the winning coalition of government formation in the provinces. Of the seven provinces, ( CPN UML) has bagged four chief ministers in provinces 1, 4, 5, and 7. In Number 7 province no government can be formed without the redoubtable Resham Chaudhary, Maoists will form government in No 3 and No 6 provinces. Ironically, in the No 3 province, no govt formation is possible without RPP. Anti-monarchists will cohabit with staunch supporters of Panch Sarkar, In no 2 provinces, only Madhes Pradesh, JSP (N), and Janmat Party will share chief ministership.

Making the best of a bad job NC Alliance with India’s prodding supported Prachanda in yesterday’s trust vote in unity and also magnanimity in adversity by the party with the largest mandate of the people. They will sit in the opposition with undecided Mr. Nepal and another dwindling Madheshi party, Loktantrik Samajwadi, led by the aging Mahanta Thakur (4 seats). Having missed power by a whisker, NC can claim it has stuck to democratic polity and principles and not chased power. Within sections of NC, the view is different. As for Prachanda, his third innings is fraught with the unknown. But at least for the next year, a vote of no confidence is inadmissible in Parliament. But the threat to Prachanda is from within.

India: Restore deterrence along LAC for peace


Ram Madhav, once a powerful RSS voice who counted in the government, recently remarked that Indian action at Yangtse was only defensive but India is now prepared for China, adding that only Operation Snow Leopard against China was proactive. On the 15,000 feet high Yangtse plateau, the LAC follows Yangtse Ridge, the watershed where Indian border posts are located along a stone wall. Overlooking the plateau are the Yangtse heights which command a towering 360-degree view, especially of Tawang bowl 30 km away extending to Sela Pass where a tunnel is being built. It is one among several disputed areas resulting from the patchy marking of the McMahon Line on an 8-inch map and perhaps the only disputed area in Indian possession. This riles China as it was occupied by the bold actions of local commanders in Tawang when PLA infiltrated across LAC into Wangdung/Sumdorong Chu in June 1986. Over time, Tawang developed into a fortress. It has the 341-year-old Galden Namgey Lhatse monastery, second only to Lhasa’s Potala monastery, the world’s largest Tibetan Buddhist place of worship. More importantly, the 6th Dalai Lama was born in Tawang which Tibet administered till 1950.

For China, the succession of the 14th Dalai Lama is linked to the status of Tibet and its control over Tawang. During the talks starting in 2005 over finding a political settlement to the border, skipping LAC identification, three clauses turned out to be key: ‘not to disturb settled populations’; ‘political compromise’; and ‘national sentiment’. India’s claim to Tawang’s ‘settled population’ was trumped by China’s use of ‘national sentiment; and ‘political compromise’. The Chinese offer in the 1950s of a border solution was a swap: India conceded Aksai Chin while China accepted the McMahon Line. Unfortunately, this Chinese position has hardened from concessions in the west to concessions in the east, mainly in Tawang. In no way China will compromise on Tawang and will by hook or crook, even by use of force, try to retake Tawang which was under its possession for two months in 1962. China’s new border law 2022 equates territory with sovereignty and makes recovery of lost territory sacred.

The PLA’s attempt to unilaterally alter the status quo at Yangtse is not their first. They’ve done so regularly since 2016 to assert China’s claim over disputed territory. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, supported by satellite imagery Dec 2022 of Planet Labs, Chinese infrastructure has improved significantly in one year with a road now 150 m short of LAC with new villages coming up close by. China’s infrastructure development along LAC has created an ‘escalation trap’ for India which it tries to compensate for with increased readiness and surveillance to reduce the risk of accidental escalation. On 9 December, the PLA operation started around 3 am in foggy conditions, expecting to overwhelm Indian troops who were forewarned and beat back intruders with clubs and sticks. Through these attempts, says ASPI, China is testing Indian willingness and readiness to resist while eroding the status quo.

India has gone silent on Doklam in Bhutan where in 2017, Indian troops allegedly ‘illegally crossed LAC’ into Chinese territory to prevent the construction of a road to the disputed tri-junction invoking its treaty obligations with Bhutan. Following an agreement, the Indian and Chinese disengaged after 73 days. But the Chinese feigned withdrawal and soon returned. According to Planet Lab’s, imagery obtained this month Chinese village 9 km east of Doklam at Pangda is inside Bhutan with now a bridge over Torsa Nullah. This will create a new red-line situation for India with Indian troops at Dokla just meters away from PLA at Doklam. India has allowed the Doklam front to reopen as Bhutanese would any day settle their differences with China but for India’s security concerns in Chumbi valley.

It is increasingly clear China will neither clarify LAC nor settle the border question. It will repeat its 2020 tricks in East Ladakh in other areas as its infrastructure expands further. After withdrawal from Hot Springs in September, China said it would not accept the status quo of 2020 created by India’s ‘illegal crossing of LAC.’ This fiction China has used after every clash with Indian troops in shifting the onus of blame to India. High time India paused to rethink its China policy of diplomacy which has hit a cul de sac. PM Modi’s handshake at Bali with President Xi Jinping has made little difference. Last week’s 17th round of military talks produced a blank with zero progress on friction points Depsang and Demchok. It is the end of Disengagement without any Deescalation.

Madhav is wrong claiming India is prepared for China. Far from it. Deterrence has broken down and military diplomacy has also failed. The government’s resolve to keep Parliament in the dark and Modi’s reluctance to utter the ‘C’ word add to the complexity of the LAC dilemma. China is extracting maximum advantage from it. One way to rebuild deterrence is through QPQ (Quid Pro Quo) operations like Snow Leopard. Political will is needed for QPQ but so is a worthy allocation to next year’s defence budget to boost deterrence.

Nepal’s very own ‘Game of Throwns’


The second multiparty elections in Nepal on 20 November after the new constitution 2015 have been unique. For the first time, the simultaneous federal and provincial elections were contested as pre-poll alliances with several independent parties, candidates and rebels participating. It is not simple casting four ballot slips in a mixed electoral system (first past the post and proportional representation) that does not throw up a clear majority unless various factions and parties unite to form coalitions. In 2017, Communist parties merged as Nepal Communist Party and swept the elections. This time, no single party dared to fight independently.

This election bucked the trend of local elections in 2017 when Communists took Kathmandu’s Parliament as well as six or seven provinces. This time, results are scattered due to the meteoric rise of independent parties like Rashtra Swatantra Party; and Janmat and Nagarik Unmukti parties in Madhes, decimating traditional Madhesi parties. Power equations have changed significantly and neither major coalition – Nepali Congress led by Prime Minister SB Deuba and CPN (UML) led by former Prime Minister KP Oli has managed to reach the 138 majority mark. Deuba’s coalition consists of former PM Prachanda’s Maoists, former PM Madhav Nepal’s Unified Socialists, Mahanta Thakur’s Loktantrik Janata Samajwadi Party and Chitrabahadur KC’s Rashtriya Jan Morcha. Upendra Yadav’s Janata Samajwadi Party, the original constituent of NC coalition jumped ship and joined UML coalition and was replaced by Thakur Saab. Unsurprisingly, CPN (UML) won the highest votes – 28,45,641 – giving it 34 additional PR seats. NC was close behind with 27,15,225 votes and 32 PR seats.

The Game of Thrones started a week ago, to guess which coalition President Bidya Debi Bhandari will invite to prove majority on the floor. Prachanda is deeply embarrassed by Maoist’s poor showing with just 32 seats when he expected at least 45. Similarly, NC, as the single largest party, won 57 plus 32 (89) seats. Its strike rate was 57 of 91 seats it contested. CPN UML which fought 141 of 165 seats won just 44 plus 34 PR (78 seats). The UML coalition has reached 104 against NC’s 136 seats. It is Prachanda’s Maoists which as third largest party, have progressively declined from 329 to 83 to 51 and now 32 seats in elections since 2008. According to a pre-poll understanding, if Prachanda was to fetch 44 and more seats, NC and Maoists would share power with Prachanda holding the reins for the first two and a half years and later handing over to Mrs Deuba- Arzu Rana Deuba. She is known to have tied a rakhi this year to BJP’s Vijay Chauthaiwale, in charge of the party’s foreign affairs cell. Power-sharing stabilizes unwieldy coalitions they say.

In order to improve Prachanda’s bargaining power, Maoists are looking over their shoulder. Party Vice President KB Mahara last week announced that Maoists will “keep all options open” but next day the party reneged saying it will stick by the NC coalition and signed a press release of coalition partners sans Thakur Saab, to that effect. It seems Maoist well-wishers are campaigning for Prachanda’s premiership and working to increase the party’s flock by roping in Nagarik Unmukti Party led by Resham Choudhary who is in Kathmandu jail for the fifth year but his party brings along three seats plus one independent. In the foursome are Choudhary’s wife and father. Also pledged to join are Prabhu Shah, a former Maoist who joined Oli and an independent. The surprise star of Madhes, Dr CK Raut, who routed Upendra Yadav, met Deuba and Prachanda and will bring six seats. Onlinekhabar reported that Prachanda commands support of 60 legislators. Now, even Rabi Lamichhane (21 seats) has offered to support Deuba who will need to be discreet in selecting partners. The contenders for PM are many in NC- Deuba, dark horse Shekhar Koirala and gold star Gagan Thapa. Eventually, as always, experience will trump new blood with Deuba likely chosen by the NC parliamentary party as its leader for the sixth time.

Other options are afloat. First, Oli has offered his bête noir Prachanda a power-sharing deal. #no not again Mr Oli. All three years from 2018 to 2021, Oli and Prachanda fought bitterly over leadership and split the party. Oli has forgotten his clarion call: “Never let Prachanda become Prime Minister ”. That Oli will make Prachanda PM is make-believe. Overall it appears the NC coalition will cobble an inflated coalition struggling to form a stable government. The constitution cushions such a government with the provision of a two-year bar on no confidence motion. Nepali journalists asked me: who does India want as Prime Minister? My reply: the one whom the alliance will select. India will not micro-manage the selection of PM. The first decision the new PM will make is on Agniveer – one factor that lost BJP Himachal Pradesh last week.

India: Jointness Mantra


Almost 3 months after his appointment as CDS, Gen Anil Chauhan has maintained silence. He travelled to Def-Expo in Gujrat and along with three service Chiefs to NDA Khadakvasla, the cradle of jointness – symbolically a deft move. Initial briefings and scrutiny of feedback from Services on theatrisation are over. Integrated capability development requires a Joint Procurement Agency which was produced by Defence Planning Staff in 1988. The absence of institutional memory causes time and cost overruns.

CDS has become synonymous with integration and theatrisation, the task given originally to late Gen Rawat. Jointness was to be achieved in 3 years but no timeline was set for Integrated Theatre Commands. Not surprisingly, days after Gen Chauhan’s appointment as CDS, Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, in the run-up to IAF Day on 8 October, admitted that inter-service differences had not been reconciled and a discussion was warranted to find a solution to take theatrisation forward. He reiterated the traditional objections of IAF: the paucity of resources, just 30 fighter squadrons today and best case of 35 to 36 squadrons by 2035; 24X7 AD cover required concentration of resources and separating the two (AD Command and Theatre Command) will affect joint strategy.

Gen Rawat, not averse to shooting from the hip, had stirred a hornet’s nest by suggesting IAF was an extension of Artillery and essentially a combat support arm. ACM Chaudhari’s recent comments included a ‘future ready IAF to include space and cyber-space, abridged decision-making chain of command and need for a joint strategy’ while each service had its own doctrine. As a precautionary, he added:” IAF is not opposed to integrated theatre commands (theatrisation)”. He also advocated the need for an equivalent national security strategy. NSS is a vital document on integrating the whole of government effort that every President in the US is mandated to produce once in his term. Biden issued an interim NSS in March 2022 and on 12 October, a final one. The Biden strategy talks of ‘strategic competition with China, the US’s ‘most pressing challenge’. “We will effectively compete with PRC which is the only competitor with both the intent and increase the capability to reshape the international order while constraining a dangerous Russia’.

On India, it says ‘as it is, the world’s largest democracy and a Major Defence Partner, the US, and India will work together bilaterally and multilaterally to support our shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific”. For a long time India used to define its military challenge as: while Pakistan is the immediate threat, China remains the long-term challenge. That was dramatically reversed by China’s incursions in Ladakh. The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols DoD Reorganisation Act in the US brought about sweeping changes, especially on integration and jointness; almost simultaneously in the UK, the Heseltine reforms introduced the CDS legislation. India is allergic to the idea of a written document outlining national security objectives, their orientation, and their pursuit. No White Paper has seen the light of day even though India had a CDS for nearly three years. India is defiantly proud of its strategic autonomy and that it is among the world’s leading economies with the third largest military.

India feels that not articulating NSS is a strategy, though there is one. The Raksha Mantri’s Operational directive with 8 contingencies to three Service Chiefs is considered good enough. A Joint Services Doctrine 2017 on release was found with many loopholes. The Breaking News is that NSS is being scripted by NSA.

The current debate on theatrisation has turned into prioritising structures, strategies, and capability building. Movement on capabilities has been tardy due to insufficient funding and somewhat retarded by Atmanirbharta in absence of quality R&D and a developed military-industrial complex. The IAF is stuck at 30 squadrons for two decades and an RFP for 114 MRCA stagnates for 5 years. Legislation mandating conceptual and structural transformation through the CDS system instead of amendments to Service Acts must become the path to integration. NSA Ajit Doval who heads DPC is working on NSS from an integrated review of defence, foreign, and development -in other words, the Strategic and Technology Environment meshed with fiscal allocation.

Gen Chauhan is determined to press on with Eastern Land Command (China); Western Land Command (Pakistan); Air Defence Command; and Maritime Theatre Command. Northern Command dealing with LAC and LOC will be merged later with ELC and WLC. Air Space Command and Cyberspace Command commissioned in 2017 are likely to be operational shortly though there are teething problems with ASC. One other entity will also be operationalized shortly- the Special Operations Division consisting of Battalion Special Forces, Garud, and Marcos squadrons. This will later upgrade to Special Operations Command. Gen Chauhan must invite ACM Chaudhari for talks to smoothen wrinkles in establishing ITCs with as little difference as possible. Political oversight is essential to prevent irreconcilable differences. A periodic review will be useful.

Vintage Hawksley thriller arrives

A journalist can and often does become a person for all seasons: politician, diplomat, teacher, and of course a best-seller author of fact and fiction. Humphrey Hawksley — HH to some — is in that class. Besides he is a delightful person to know, a great raconteur.

What a cracker of a book- Ice Islands.

First, a disclaimer: Humphrey is a dear friend. But that notwithstanding, I have great respect for him as a reporter. His work as a BBC foreign correspondent has taken him all over the world with postings in Beijing, Hong Kong, Manila, Delhi, and Colombo. He has contributed to ABC, National Public Radio and other networks in the United States and global publication of his work includes the Financial Times, New York Times, Yale Global, Nikkei Asian Review, and others. So he’s no stranger to superpower rivalry, intrigue, and backstabbing – he’s reported on it extensively. Ice Islands may be fiction. But it has the hallmark of authenticity. The inside story of the Ukraine military campaign must have sub-plots inspired by his works.

Hawksley’s protagonist is the hard-as-nails Rake Ozenna who comes from the Alaskan island of Little Diomede right on America’s border with Russia. Little Diomede, I learnt, is a craggy, rough island with a population of around eighty Indigenous Alaskans living less than three miles across a narrow stretch of water from a Russian military base. Rake is a Major belonging to the Alaska National Guard. He is tasked with breaking into the Kato family, a Yakuza crime organization that is turning Japan against the United States. The weak link is Sara Kato, the family’s rejected daughter, whom Rake plans to turn into an informant. He is to approach her at a peace conference on the Finnish Aland Islands in the Baltic Sea. As Rake flies in, assassins murder a delegate who turns out to be the secret son of the Russian president. (We know this.) Sara is implicated. Rake is ordered to get Sara out and keep her safe. The action moves from the Baltic Sea through Washington D.C. to Hokkaido in northern Japan against a broader context of the unresolved dispute between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands or Northern Territories.

Sara is not the only female interest in the story: Rake’s old girlfriend, Carrie surfaces as the mental health therapist who analyses Sara (and Rake as well, much to his discomfiture). Rake’s boss Harry Lucas and his ex-wife Stephanie are also important arms of the plot, which has, as its subtext, an American President, John Freeman, who is at war with his executive. Rake has to navigate this maze, and take care of the charge under his protection, who is deeply conflicted – she has an elder brother whom she both adores and loathes. HH’s description of the murder of Sara’s twin brother Kazan – ritual murder carried out by the eldest, Michio, described in grisly detail, because Kazan is considered simply not ‘strong’ enough’ – sickens and revolts Sara. And yet, it is her family. Rake, himself from a dysfunctional family, empathizes.

Ice Islands is full of impressive technical detail which gives it the ring of authenticity. Rake favors a SIG Sauer P226pistol and a smaller 938. He also has a Beretta 92 semi-automatic. His calculations, as he weighs running a police check post with Sara beside him, is masterly tactics that only a trained soldier can appreciate.

I hesitate to say more, for I don’t want to reveal the twists and turns in the plot. Suffice it to say that Hawksley is well-equipped to describe international intrigue. His earlier book, Dragon Fire, paints a nuclear war scenario involving India, Pakistan, and China. In that story, a renegade unit of a Tibetan militia maintained by the Indian Government steals a couple of aircraft and attempts an audacious assault on Lhasa to rescue an imprisoned monk. Simultaneously, General Hamid Khan grabs power in Pakistan and wants to get extreme Islamists in Pakistan to shut up so that they allow him to modernise the country. In Man on Ice (2018), Ozenna helps thwart an attempted Russian invasion of the U.S. Three Russians try to kill Rake during a presentation he’s giving at a Washington, D.C., conference without success. Meanwhile, Carrie is in peril inside Russia, where she has traveled to meet her Vice-Admiral uncle, Artyom Semenov, a specialist in submarine technology. Semenov is hoping to use Carrie to transfer some highly classified state secrets to the West. The operation is botched amid indications that the British embassy in Moscow has been compromised, leading to frantic efforts on Carrie’s part to stay alive. Rake goes to her rescue.

Comparisons are odious. But you can spot Stieg Larsson here, with flashes of Robert Ludlum (who specializes in the central theme of anarchy and chaos), Lee Child of Jack Reacher fame, and also a bit of James Bond. But running through all that is a seam of philosophy and tenderness. He describes a relationship, is not quite extinguished: ‘He rested a hand on each knee, giving her a look which even now melted something deep and undefinable inside her. It wasn’t love. It wasn’t sexual attraction. It was something magazines would find a name for one day.

Read Ice Islands. It is ….satisfying.

Criticism and free speech not welcome


Imagine former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee when alive or former Party President Rajnath Singh being removed from a BJP Chintan Shivir presided over by PM Modi. Unthinkable. Wrong. It is possible if Modi, as things are going, becomes the supreme leader of the BJP and the country’s ultimate ruler. But even then it will not be easy. In President Xi Jinping’s new China, under Emperor Xi (or Maximum Xi), anything is possible: from a warlike lockdown zero COVID policy where in some places COVID tests are held twice a day, to remove former President Hu Jintao (79) his predecessor from the closing day proceedings of the recent 20th National Party Congress. Journalists who were allowed into the Great Hall opposite Tiananmen Square have reported this event backed with video footage – many with more than one set of footage – of the stunning event which, but for this unprecedented incident, passed off with peace and tranquility.

The first reports of the tumultuous incidents appeared on BBC on 23 October which showed Hu’s ‘extraction’ with the explanation it was due to Hu being unwell. But the clips that have now become collector’s items, do not indicate an un-well Hu. He is shown remonstrating with the Emperor and also his protégé, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, sitting on Xi’s right. Nevertheless, he has whisked off the stage without a murmur from the 2300-odd delegates in the Great Hall.

The Hindu was the first Indian newspaper to report that something had gone amiss at the Party Congress. Ananth Krishnan wrote that Hu had attended the opening on 16 October and was known to be in ill health and sat beside Xi. Hu insisted on attending the last session despite health issues. On the closing day, he appeared to mistakenly take a white sheet of paper placed in front of Xi which the latter then removed away from him. Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported that Hu was not feeling well so his staff took him to the room next to the venue meeting for rest. Throughout the Party Congress sessions, Hu was shown following behind Xi to indicate his hallowed status.

Meanwhile, on its Twitter handle, Xinhua’s reporter Li Jiawen reported the incident on the same lines as Krishnan. The event depicting Hu escorted out against his will when he insisted on attending the closing session has caused a stir. Anybody seeing the video footage will also draw this conclusion. Li’s tweet suggested that Hu should not have attended the session but he did so in defiance of Xi’s wishes. Observers that included several foreign media outlets interpreted Hu’s removal as preventing him from apparently expressing dissent on the removal of his faction (as part of collective leadership of the past) which represented their wipe-out from the leadership. With Li Keqiang and Vice Premier Wang Yang dropped and Hu Chunhua, demoted, (all from the Communist Youth League associated with Hu Jintao) the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee is now stacked with Xi loyalists.

Other video footage of the incident showed that twice Hu attempted to return to his seat: he was not permitted to return by his aides, fearing words of dissent from him. This supplements clips of how outgoing Politburo members Li Zhanshu, sitting to Hu’s left, took a file away from Hu while speaking to him. Then, Xi is seen giving instructions to the escorts who persuade Hu to leave not before he is seen muttering words to Xi and Le Keqiang. Krishnan had earlier reported that Hu’s removal was to ensure that he did not vote in the session where several sweeping amendments proposed Xi is “everything” in the constitution.

Richard McGregor of Lowy Institute Sydney described ‘truly extraordinary’ the incident that reflected a lack of basic courtesy to Hu while ‘wooden men elevated by Hu were frozen and dumbfounded in stony silence. Another video shows Hu going to look at the contents of the red folder in front of him only to be stopped by Lin. Hu later reaches for papers in front of Xi who puts his hand on them to prevent Hu from taking them. The footage read together tells the story: Health issues or not, one thing is clear; Hu could have created a big stir that was not in the script. Every event in the Party Congress is so perfectly choreographed that a misstep is almost impossible. Still Hu did it.

In the new Xi era, he is everything forever. His three aides promoted and chose military commanders in the Central Military Commission (CMC) only a powerful insider can rock the boat. Xi has ignored age caps, replaced rules with political standards (loyalty), and brought core interests (Taiwan, South China Sea, and Senkaku Islands) to the front and middle of the great rejuvenation. The video footage of the Galwan clash attracted applause. The image of the PLA commander, the injured Qi Fabio standing with his arms outstretched facing Indian soldiers heralded the start of the conference. Qi was one of the delegates. He was also the torchbearer during the winter Olympics. China has regaled Galwan heroes signaling longer winters in Ladakh. And rubbing salt on wounds PLA had earlier painted in red in 1962 on a stone at Nakula in north Sikkim. India has to show it is 2022, not 1962. But that will require using power.