Saturday, March 18, 2006

Exhibitional Deterrence: Does it Work?

Nitin Pai asked me what I felt was the role of `exhibitional' deterrence in a national security calculus, i.e. does showing off our national capabilities help deter adversaries?

I want to avoid making sweeping statements about the value of `exhibitional' deterrence as a whole but I feel the following holds without exception:

  1. Deterrence regimes are context specific, akin to a conversation between two specific people. What is said by one party as an implied threat has to have some controlled impact on the other party. The implied threat cannot induce a state of disregard in the target.
  2. Exhibitionism as a form of national behavior - is seen as a direct reflection of a national sense of insecurity. By repeatedly displaying that part of the nation's "body", the polity is attempting to draw attention away from other parts.

For example, the Pakistani Defence Day celebrations are an attempt to showcase Pakistan's military might and remind the Pakistani public (ad nauseum) that the Pakistan Army is the sole entity in Pakistan capable of defending it, but does this inspire fear in the Indian Army? I am sure that people in the DMI at Delhi watch the defence day parades, but does it scare them?

Alternatively the Qin emperor Shi Huang built a mighty wall around 200 BC. The wall served to create a huge industry that economically entangled the newly unified states of China. In later years this wall was the precursor to the Great Wall of China (later built by the Ming Dynasty to keep the Mongols out). Built at great cost in money and life, the Wall speaks to the skill and engineering genius of the people of China, but did it really keep the invaders out? Or did it even remain solely a symbol of the strength of the emperor's political will? What did the Chinese people think of their wall when Europeans began to land on the shores of Shanghai? Didn't it seem like a complete waste then?

Exhibition has a role to play in communicating your national security views, but exhibitionism as a part of national security calculus comes with many caveats. Lest we want to be caught again, like the priests of Somnath, subjugating our national genius to worship idols that cannot protect us - we must take great care in sustaining illusions brought about by exhibition.


At 5:56 PM, Blogger Nitin said...

Can't remember exactly, but I think it was in Praveen Sawhney-Gen Sood's book on Operation Parakram that they argued that superpowers like the United States achieve deterrence by displaying their ware, while lesser powers like India do so by retaining ambiguity with respect to their capabilities.

Televised operations of Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom are all intended to demonstrate 'exhibitional deterrence' can perhaps be seen in this context. On the other hand Hollywood was always famous for its cowboy movies...

I agree with you on the absurdity of the more nasty forms of exhibitionism: those fibre-glass models of Chagai Hills and Ghauri missiles in Pakistani cities are eggregious examples. They've apparently been decommissioned now.

We've managed to avoid weapon worship. But perhaps we too must separate out the military parade on R-D from the national celebrations.

At 8:33 PM, Blogger interestedonlooker said...


Would accretion of power (as opposed to its dispersement) also count as a form of exhibitionism?

When I compare the US strategy of building alliances and partnerships and fighting via proxies during the Cold War to its current policy of direct and costly intervention, I wonder if it hasn't lost the plot. In contrast, the Chinese have demonstrated the value of accretion of power over two decades without expending their resources. Yet, the threat that China poses to the US' Pacific domination is not lost on anybody.

The Chinese appear to have turned the idea of exhibitionism on its head, yet paraded their latent capabilities very successfully.

At 2:20 AM, Blogger Dadoji said...


Not taking away that China is following its doctrine of propping up and using rogue states to her own advantage, but to say that it is without expending her own resources would be incorrect.

China is not only investing internal resources in terms of man, money & material but also the extent to which it is exposed internationally.

It is a bit like the emperor's clothes really. The EU that is rushing to do business with China will not bat an eyelid if the time is right to put China in the dock over various such "power distribution to rogue states" schemes. The state of China's banking system may be hidden from popular dailies but certainly not lost on those who do business there.


Demonstration of capabilities has its own uses. So, while we are a happy nation to have avoided building monument to Prithvi & Agni at every chauraha, it is also undeniable that Mission Udaan saw number of applications to IAF swelling. As long as we, as a nation, maintain a balance between developing defence technologies, making available power to every nook and cranny, developing basic infrastructure and competitive education for our subsequent generations IMHO it will all hang together.

At 4:21 AM, Blogger interestedonlooker said...


I agree that wealth disparity among Chinese has increased, there are a lot of non-performing SOE assets, most innovation from China is coming out of Western owned enterprises with little profit margin returning to China, the banking sector is due for an overhaul etc. Yet, I have always seen these facts being interpreted in two ways in Western politico-economic discourse:

(a). For these reasons, China is not yet a threat. But the fact that it is surely on its way to becoming one, is not emphasized enough!

(b). There is a business opportunity to even out the trade imbalance with China by exporting much needed services!

But what I really wanted to focus on w.r.t Chinese strategy vis-a-vis the US is its continuing success in weaning away ASEAN and South Korea from the US orbit purely by economic means. While the Chinese have resorted to propping up multiple rogue states against India, it has propped up only NK against the US. The power shift that has occurred in the Pacific rim can be traced to the Chinese success in reducing S. Korea's tilt towards the U.S. and making the ASEAN countries vie with each other for a share of Chinese markets, thereby diluting their unified political and economic identity.

Do you agree with this line of thought or am I over-reaching?

At 4:28 AM, Blogger maverick said...


I agree that media management can be used for psyops in this regard.

I am not sure how Praveen Sawhney or Gen. Sood support the argument. I think each nation seeks what is most expedient.

The Republic Day parade has a much larger number of non-military floats but for reasons that escape me, we only see people focussing on the military side of it.

I don't have a problem with the defence related floats in the parade. I am more concerned about people, especially young people placing swords over ploughshares.

It should be obvious to anyone from India that ISROs immediate commercial gain is more important than an ICBM wet dream and yet it seems people are more keen to subscribe to the wet dream!

I will email you later today

At 4:35 AM, Blogger maverick said...


The building of alliances always attracts negative publicity. The imagery of pre WWI europe is still fresh in a number of minds. When you consider that most of the people in the diplomatic community used WWI and WWII as case studies, it does not seem unusual.

Building trade alliances and other items are all part of a rational security calculus. I only caution against the public being seduced by icons of national strength to the point where their worship of these icons becomes an obstacle to national economic growth.

The Chinese have their way of doing things - we have ours. Yes the Chinese can claim some successess, but then what price have they paid?

I think a vibrant and robust research and development sector in India is the quality we want to exhibit the most.

At 4:42 AM, Blogger maverick said...


In my experience, people in India identify with the military because of its long record of selfless service and sacrifice.

At the risk of sounding callous, every funeral we have for a soldier killed in counter insurgency brings forth a slew of recruits.

Udaan indirectly spoke to this, and in my opinion, it is this aspect of things that must be emphasized in military publicity. The balidan badge is something every Indian should understand or know something about.

We have so far maintained a balance as you say, but now this idea - the need for maintaining a balance has to go out among the younger people.

We have more technology in India today than we have had in our entire recorded history. We have to produce a national culture of choice that carefully exploits this to ensure peace and prosperity.

A blind pursuit of agendas of weaponization, seems to run contrary to this theme.

At 11:14 AM, Blogger cynical nerd said...

Dear maverick:

I have been going through your recent posts on deterrence and the use of PSLV as ICBM. Very well written.

I tend to agree with most of your thoughts. I would like to hear your views on countering specific threat perceptions like the Chinese building new submarine bases in Indian ocean. Obviously, they appear in Western sources like Stratfor, PINR, Janes, etc. with very little original reporting from Indian sources.

You don't want to fall for the trap set by American neo-con think-tank's idea of India Vs China. But some of these developments indeed are worrying.


At 3:20 PM, Blogger Dadoji said...


I see. Your reasoning is now clearer to my vision. I am in agreement.

To that extent, US is in the same "orbit" as ASEAN due to the trade ties. Defence outlook can be supressed but not superceded by trade though. If China and Vietnam were to get into a tiff again, all that trade will not result in Vietnam saying "haan ji" and keeping quiet. To that extent, China cannot take away SKorea either. Their strategy will succeed as long as they don't start using the military muscle that they are now developing. Everybody likes it when the goonda behaves like a politician and not like a goonda.


Roger that. Boys will always like their toys but they need to drink their milk as well.

At 10:22 AM, Blogger maverick said...

Cynical Nerd,

The Chinese are mainly attempting to keep an eye on our sub-surface activity. It is plausible that they want to intercept or intervene in ballistic missile related activity (testing etc...) on our side.

I also expect they are concerned about growing Indian and American naval cooperation, and the increased Indian surface activity near the Malacca Straits.

All of China's oil comes from through the straits so their sensitivity is understandable, but intrusive behavior in our defence programs does not seem very acceptable.

At 11:51 AM, Blogger cynical nerd said...


Thanks for your thoughts. I came across some specific information on Chinese nuclear submarine base in Hainan Island. I will try to post on the general submarine stuff, you may come over to my blog and comment if you wish.


At 12:47 PM, Blogger maverick said...

Cynical Nerd,

I would be worried about the reports of submarine support capabilities at Greater Coco or at Hianggyi island than I would be about this Hainan island base.

In theory I suppose the Chinese could easily resupply their submarines using a surface ship but then refit and other support activities would be minimal.

Their ports will enable them to perform maintenance operations and overhauls. This will encourage their submarine captains to be more adventurous.

The Hainan base is meant to stage the Xia force. I think the Americans have that one covered. When they cross our front at Port Blair, then it is a concern for us. Until they enter the Bay of Bengal, I can't say they are really our problem.

At 2:09 PM, Blogger cynical nerd said...

Got your point w.r.t. Hainan and Coco. Open source stuff available from FAS says that PLAN SSN/SSBN so far have rarely left 'Chinese waters'. Like you allude, USN or even JMSDF can have an eye on PLAN submarines of Types 93/94 in East Asia. A negative side effect might be that Chinese may start looking West and installing big time in Myanmar. That BR paper on Myanmar is a solid read. Thanks.


At 3:10 PM, Blogger maverick said...

Cynical Nerd,

That is the best paper I know of on Myanmar and from what I hear, it has been well recieved in New Delhi also.

I am not sure whether I can trust what others say about the Xias.

Our own experience with advanced technology vessels has been very instructive. I imagine that the Chinese whose history of submarine naval operations is quite a bit less than our own, are having a learning experience with the Xias.

I would not be dismissive about the impact of the Hainan facility but only more concerned about the immediate situations that could develop in the Bay of Bengal.


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