‘Bharat Natyam’ in Indian Diplomacy

Published in the Hindu on March 16. 2022

The late Jyotindra Nath Dixit (Mani Dixit to his many friends and admirers) took over as Foreign Secretary on December 1, 1991. He retired 26 months later, on January 31, 1994 – 58 years was then the retirement age.

Republics and Moscow

Those were times of change. On December 25, 1991, Soviet Union’s General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev resigned, the flag of USSR was lowered for the last time at the Kremlin and the following day, USSR was formally dissolved. In its place, 15 republics emerged. India accepted the challenge and set about opening new embassies to build new relationships with these countries in Central Asia, South Caucasus and Central Europe while maintaining its traditional ties with Moscow.

In January 1992, India and Israel established full diplomatic relations, announcing the opening of embassies and exchanging ambassadors for the first time, opening the door to a relationship that has blossomed into one of India’s most significant strategic partnerships in the last three decades.

Path to the nuclear deal

On January 31, 1992, Prime Minister P V Narsimha Rao participated in the first ever meeting of the UN Security Council at summit level (India was a member in 1991-92), presided by British Prime Minister John Major. On the side-lines, Mr. Rao had a bilateral meeting with U.S. President George H. W. Bush where the two leaders decided that in the changing world, India and the U.S. needed to have frank exchanges on issues that had divided them during the Cold War; the issue identified was ‘nuclear proliferation and disarmament’; the first meeting took place during Mr. Dixit’s visit to Washington two months later, sowing the seeds of the dialogue that continued through ups and downs, leading to the path-breaking India-U.S. Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement in 2008.

At the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit on January 28, 1992, Prime Minister Rao’s ‘Look East’ policy began to take shape as India and ASEAN embarked on a sectoral-dialogue partnership. By end-1995, this had matured into a full-dialogue partnership and in 1996, India joined the security dialogue platform – ASEAN Regional Forum. Since 2002, the relationship has strengthened further with the annual India-ASEAN summit.

On China and Taiwan

Following intense negotiations, during Mr. Rao’s visit to China in September 1993, the two sides initiated the first of the many confidence-building-measures, notably the Agreement on the Maintenance of Peace and Tranquillity Along the Line of Actual Control in the India-China Border Areas. It laid the foundation of the relationship for two decades.

Simultaneously, India and Taiwan negotiated to open Economic and Cultural Centres; Taiwan opened its office first in Mumbai in 1992 before shifting to Delhi while Indian established the India-Taipei Association office in 1995.

The above gives an idea of how India was responding to the changes taking place around us and in the wider world. As a junior colleague who had the privilege of working closely with Mr. Dixit during these years, I often heard him engage patiently with foreign diplomats and respond to questions from inquisitive journalists seeking to make sense of the about-turns in Indian foreign policy.

Relaxing as he puffed on his pipe, in a private aside to his friends, he would tell us, “In Indian diplomacy, sometimes, you need to do a bit of Bharat Natyam”. The point was simple – you may appear in different forms to others but after you have first secured your interests.

UN vote dynamics

In recent weeks, the debates and discussions in Indian media and TV talk-shows about India’s stand on the Ukraine conflict and India’s votes in the UN Security Council and General Assembly are an appropriate moment to reflect on the Dixit principle.

Evidently, the Indian government has chosen to ‘abstain’, based on an assessment of its core interests. However, there is a cardinal principle associated with Security Council votes on issues in such charged times. A ‘for’ or ‘against’ vote is intended to convey a blunt message of ‘support’ or ‘opposition’. It is a black or white choice, and once exercised, the messaging is clear.

On the other hand, ‘abstention’ takes us into a grey zone because it is the middle path. It can either be seen as fence-sitting (which is a sign of helplessness) or create space for diplomatic manoeuvre (which is a successful outcome). In the Ukraine instance – the West should feel satisfied that India ‘abstained’ because they perhaps expected us to oppose their draft proposals given our traditional ties with Russia while Russia should also feel satisfied at our ‘abstention’ because they perhaps expected us to give in to Western persuasion.

The second outcome is a positive one but to appear in different forms at the same time, we need to revive the kind of Bharat Natyam that Mr. Dixit used so effectively to navigate those turbulent times, even as he helped set the course for Indian foreign policy three decades ago.


At The Edge Of A New Nuclear Arms Race

Published in The Hindu on 27th April, 2020

Last week, a report issued by the US State Department on “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-Proliferation Agreements and Commitments” raised concerns that China might be conducting nuclear tests with low yields at its Lop Nor test site, in violation of its Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) undertakings.

The US report also claims that Russia has conducted nuclear weapons experiments that produced a nuclear yield and were inconsistent with ‘zero yield’ understanding underlying the CTBT though it was uncertain about how many such experiments had been conducted.

Russia and China have rejected US claims but with growing rivalry among major powers, the report is a likely harbinger of new nuclear arms race which would also mark the demise of the CTBT that came into being in 1996 but has failed to enter into force even after a quarter century.

What does the CTBT ban
For decades, a ban on nuclear testing was seen as the necessary first step towards curbing the nuclear arms race but Cold War politics made it impossible. A Partial Test Ban Treaty was concluded in 1963 banning underwater and atmospheric tests but this only drove testing underground. By the time the CTBT negotiations began in Geneva in 1994, global politics had changed. The Cold War was over and the nuclear arms race was over. USSR had broken up and its principal testing site, Semipalatinsk, was in Kazakhstan (Russia still had access to Novaya Zemlya near the Arctic circle). In 1991, Russia declared a unilateral moratorium on testing, followed by the US in 1992. By this time, US had conducted 1054 tests and Russia, 715.

Negotiations were often contentious. France and China continued testing claiming that they had conducted far fewer tests and needed to validate new designs since the CTBT did not imply an end to nuclear deterrence. France and US even toyed with the idea of a CTBT that would permit testing at a low threshold, below 500 tonnes of TNT equivalent. This was one-thirtieth of the 15000 tonne Little Boy, the bomb US dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. Civil society and the non-nuclear weapon states reacted negatively to such an idea and it was dropped. Some countries proposed that the best way to verify a comprehensive test ban would be to permanently shut down all test sites, an idea that was unwelcome to the nuclear weapon states.

Eventually, US came up with the idea of defining the “comprehensive test ban” as a “zero yield” test ban that would prohibit supercritical hydro-nuclear tests but not sub-critical hydrodynamic nuclear tests. Once UK and France came on board, US was able to prevail upon Russia and China to accept this understanding. After all, this was the moment of US’ unipolar supremacy. At home, the Clinton administration satisfied the hawks by announcing a Science Based Nuclear Stockpile Stewardship Programme, a generously funded project to keep the nuclear labs in business and the Pentagon happy. Accordingly, the CTBT prohibits all parties from carrying out “any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion”; these terms are neither defined nor elaborated.

Why the CTBT lacks authority
Another controversy arose regarding the entry-into-force provisions (Article 14) of the treaty. After India’s proposals for anchoring the CTBT in a disarmament framework did not find acceptance, in June 1996, India announced its decision to withdraw from the negotiations. Unhappy at this turn, UK, China and Pakistan took the lead in revising the entry-into-force provisions. The new provisions listed 44 countries by name whose ratification was necessary for the treaty to enter into force and included India. India protested that this attempt at arm twisting violated a country’s sovereign right to decide if it wanted to join a treaty but was ignored. The CTBT was adopted by a majority vote and opened for signature.

Of the 44 listed countries, to date only 36 have ratified the treaty. China, Egypt, Iran, Israel and USA have signed but not ratified. China maintains that it will only ratify it after US does so but the Republican dominated Senate had rejected it in 1999. In addition, North Korea, India and Pakistan are the three who have not signed. All three have also undertaken tests after 1996; India and Pakistan in May 1998 and North Korea six times between 2006 and 2017. The CTBT has therefore not entered into force and lacks legal authority.

Nevertheless, an international organisation to verify the CTBT was established in Vienna with a staff of about 230 persons and an annual budget of $ 130 million. Ironically, US is the largest contributor with a share of $17 million. The CTBTO runs an elaborate verification system built around a network of over 325 seismic, radionuclide, infrasound and hydroacoustic (underwater) monitoring stations. The CTBTO has refrained from backing the US allegations.

A new nuclear arms race
The key change from the 1990s is that US’ unipolar moment is over and strategic competition among major powers is back. US now identifies Russia and China as ‘rivals’. Its Nuclear Posture Review asserts that US faces new nuclear threats because both Russia and China are increasing their reliance on nuclear weapons. US therefore has to expand the role of its nuclear weapons and have a more usable and diversified nuclear arsenal. The Trump administration has embarked on a 30-year modernisation plan with a price tag of $1.2 trillion, which could go up over the years. Readiness levels at Nevada test site that has been silent since 1992 are being enhanced to permit resumption of testing at six months notice.

Russia and China have been concerned about US’ growing technological lead particularly in missile defence and conventional global precision strike capabilities. Russia has responded by exploring hypersonic delivery systems and theatre systems while China has embarked on a modernisation programme to enhance the survivability of its arsenal which is considerably smaller. In addition, both countries are also investing heavily in offensive cyber capabilities.

The new US report stops short of accusing China for a violation but refers to “a high level of activity at the Lop Nor test site throughout 2019” and concludes that together with its lack of transparency, China provokes concerns about its intent to observe the zero-yield moratorium on testing.

US claims that Russian experiments have generated nuclear yield but is unable to indicate how many such experiments were conducted in 2019. It suggests that Russia could be testing in a manner that releases nuclear energy from an explosive canister, generating suspicions about its compliance.

The New START agreement limits US and Russian arsenals but will expire in 2021 and President Trump has already indicated that he does not plan to extend it. Instead, the Trump administration would like to bring China into some kind of nuclear arms control talks, something China has avoided by pointing to the fact that US and Russia still account for over 90 percent of global nuclear arsenals.

Both China and Russia have dismissed US allegations pointing to Trump administration’s backtracking from other negotiated agreements like the Iran nuclear deal or the US-Russia INF Treaty. Tensions with China are already high with trade and technology disputes, militarisation in the South China Sea and most recently, with the Coronavirus pandemic. US could also be preparing the ground for resuming testing at Nevada.

The Cold War rivalry was already visible when the nuclear arms race began in the 1950s. New rivalries have already emerged. Resumption of nuclear testing may signal the demise of the ill-fated CTBT, marking the beginnings of a new nuclear arms race.

A sneeze, a global cold and testing times for China

Published in The Hindu on 1st February, 2020

The Year of the Rat has begun on an inauspicious note for China. A new virus belonging to the Coronavirus family (now named 2019-nCoV) has claimed over 100 casualties and numbers infected has crossed 4500. On 25 January, President Xi Jinping convened a meeting of the top leadership to underline the seriousness of the outbreak which has assumed epidemic proportions in China. Chinese authorities have been directed to take whatever steps are needed on emergency footing to deal with “a grave public health crisis”. However, for President Xi, it is more than a public health crisis, it is a credibility challenge, with both domestic and global dimensions.

Wuhan – the epicentre
Ironically, the epicentre of the outbreak is the bustling town of Wuhan which also hosts a number of biotech enterprises. The virus is believed to have originated in the ‘wet market’ in Wuhan where dead and live animals including seafood are stocked in close proximity. The genome of the new virus has been compared to more than 200 coronaviruses which normally affect animals revealing that this possibly originated in a certain species of local snakes. The virus underwent a change and, in the process, developed a capability that enables it to bind to human cells.

Normally, coronaviruses is a large family of viruses that are often the source of respiratory infections, including the common cold. Majority of the viruses are common among animals and only a small number infect humans. Sometimes, an animal-based coronavirus mutates and successfully finds a human host. Rapid urbanisation forcing animals and humans into closer proximity (as in the ‘wet market’) creates a perfect petri dish from where such zoonotic outbreaks can originate.

The first official acknowledgement of a new virus outbreak in Wuhan came on 31 December after the first casualty was confirmed. During the past four weeks, the number of those infected and fatal casualties has climbed rapidly. Cases have been reported from different parts of China as well as Hong Kong; nearly fifty cases are reported from Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, USA, France, Austria, Germany, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore, though no casualties yet. However, about 4000 Chinese from Wuhan are reported to be still abroad. For India, the most critical is cases being reported in Nepal since India and Nepal share an open border though so far, all tests undertaken in India have been negative. WHO has called it a health
emergency in China and refrained from describing it as a pandemic. The Director General of WHO Dr Ghebreyesus is in Beijing for talks to review the Chinese response to date.

Decoding the new virus
Initially, there was uncertainty about the mode of transmission but now it is clear that 2019-nCoV virus is passed from human to human via – air through coughing or sneezing, personal touching or contact, and also, contact with an object that may be hosting viral particles (such as a door handle) and transferring it ones nose or mouth. More significant is the new understanding that the virus is contagious even during incubation, that is even before a patient exhibits any symptoms. The incubation period can last up to a fortnight. This characteristic amplifies the transmissibility factor. It also explains the travel bans across China, and the literal isolation of Wuhan, a city of 11 million and Hubei province with a population of nearly 60 million.

For China, the timing of the outbreak could not be worse. The Chinese Lunar New Year began on 24 January and normally, it marks a week long holiday, marked by feasting and travel by large numbers to join their families for the celebrations. Undoubtedly, this movement contributed to the rapid transmission of the disease across China and to many countries before the Chinese authorities cracked down hard.

Holidays across the country have been extended by three days till 2nd February in an effort to stagger the returns. Starbucks and McDonalds have shut down their outlets in Hubei; in Shanghai, Disneyland and in Beijing, the Forbidden City is closed, and a number of temple celebrations have been called off to prevent large scale gatherings. In Shanghai, businesses have extended the holiday period till 10 February, except for supermarkets, medical suppliers and public utilities. Hong Kong has drastically cut travel between mainland and the city.

Can China cope?
Comparisons are being drawn SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in 2002-03 which infected 8000 patients and claimed nearly 800 casualties. SARS is also a zoonotic case, part of the coronavirus family that jumped to humans from horseshoe bats. The first incidents were reported in Guangdong province in November 2002 but WHO was officially informed only after three months though mysterious flu outbreaks were being widely reported. It quickly became more than public health issue and later, the Chinese health authorities issued a public apology. It was the first case of a coronavirus family virus develop lethal pathogenicity together with high transmission. The global economic loss was estimated at between $30-100 billion.

This time, the Chinese government has been more open but the question being asked is, has it been open enough? The response mechanisms, especially in the early days evidently fell short, reflective the top down bureaucratic approach of the Chinese system. The system has kicked in now with the all-of-government approach which characterises the China model. This is embarrassing for ‘core leader’ President Xi, the author of ‘China’s rejuvenation’ who replaced Deng Xiaoping’s advice of ‘keep head down, hide your capability, bide your time’ with the mantra ‘demonstrate capability, assume responsibility and claim rightful place’ implying that China’s time has come. How China manages this challenge will be a test – demonstrating that the Chinese model can deliver when it comes to a crunch and that it is a responsible global player, no longer hesitant about engaging with the WHO. For SARS, it took 20 months from the genome sequencing to the first human trials; for 2019-nCoV, US authorities are working on a deadline of 90 days.

Learning right lessons
It provides an interesting contrast with how the Kerala government dealt with Nipah outbreak in May 2018. Nipah is also zoonotic and made the jump from fruit bats to humans. Though there were 17 deaths in May, effective quarantine measures by local authorities prevented the spread. It helped that health is a state subject. The local doctor took the initiative to contact the Manipal Centre for Viral Research which had worked in the northeast (where Nipah is more prevalent and a 2001 outbreak in Siliguri had claimed 49 lives) and had the diagnostic tools to identify the virus. The state heath machinery responded with alacrity. More than 2500 persons were put under observation. No new case was reported after 1 June and a month later Kerala was declared Nipah-free and travel restrictions were removed. Had the district and state authorities not taken the initiative and only reported matters to Delhi and awaited instructions while Delhi sent teams to prepare plans, the outbreak would have taken a higher toll.

Kerala managed to curtail the Nipah outbreak with few casualties. However, infectious diseases including of the zoonotic variety are on the rise in India. In addition, regions in India suffer from seasonal outbreaks of dengue, malaria and influenza strains. The nation-wide disease surveillance programme needs to be strengthened. There is an acute shortage of epidemiologists, microbiologists and entomologists which translates into wasteful delays in diagnostics. Given the growth potential of India’s biotech sector, it is time to put in place a robust public-private partnership model that can transform the health services sector in the country, covering disease surveillance, diagnostic kit availability and accelerated vaccine development.