An isolationist American President Donald Trump will shrink the United States’ role and military presence abroad, and will be disinclined to assist India to deal with China or any other threat.
This is not a bad thing to happen considering the Indian government, which has relied on Washington since 2000 for succour, will be compelled hereafter to bank on its own wit, political will, initiative, and national resources.
Unfortunately, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has only laced the foreign and defence policies from the Manmohan Singh-era with some showmanship, but otherwise stayed with the old script.
Modi has not defined national interest, articulated a strategic vision, or followed hard-headed policies to bolster national security. What the country has witnessed is a lot of summitry, Pakistan bashing, inattention to big-power imperatives, the “same old, same old” subservience to the United States and accommodation of China, and continued emphasis on imported armaments furthered, ironically, by Modi’s signature “Make in India” policy.
No geopolitical drive is discernible in Modi’s approach. Stitching together a coalition of rimland states in the east to ring-fence China is floundering because of India’s faintheartedness in “speaking up” on the South China Sea dispute, delaying the transfer of the Brahmos supersonic cruise missile to Vietnam owing to US pressure, and reluctance to engage in meaningful military cooperation with Japan.
Meanwhile, China has swiftly encircled India land-ward, is delivering on the $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and, seaward, has taken over Maldivian islands four nautical miles from the Lakshadweep chain. In comparison, India struggles to connect the Indian northeast with Myanmar, forget achieving anything as grand as the Ganga-Mekong connectivity announced by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government in Vientiane 16 years ago.
To India’s west, the development of the critical Chabahar port, railway and roads northwards remains unimplemented, pending Washington’s approval. Linking Chabahar to Russia’s Northern Distribution Network will outflank CPEC and the prospective Chinese naval presence on the Baloch coast, and provide India access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, and Indian trade a cheaper land route to Europe. India has lost the first mover’s advantage in Iran and its goodwill.
The baleful US influence on strategic policy is reflected in India seeking entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group and civil nuclear cooperation deals with all and sundry premised on its not conducting new nuclear tests, even when these are urgently required to obtain a credible thermonuclear arsenal and, at least, notional strategic parity with China. It has resulted in Modi postponing the test-firing of long-range, canisterised Agni-5 and sea-borne K-4 and K-5/K-6 missiles.
Further, foreign reactors are being bought at the expense of modernising the Indian nuclear weapons design and production complex, including the construction of the second Dhruva reactor to produce weapon-grade plutonium, which is progressing at a snail’s pace.
It mirrors the situation in the defence sector where rather than have the Defence Research & Development Organisation transfer the design and technologies of the formidable 4.5 generation Tejas Light Combat Aircraft to a consortium of Indian private and public sector companies to rapidly productionise, develop variants, induct in IAF and market the plane globally, the Modi government’s approach will likely kill this indigenous plane.
Moreover, bending to American advice, Modi is shunning Russian hardware – the Indian military’s mainstay, in favour of obsolete Western equipment. Jazzing-up, 1970s vintage, US F-16s and F-18s, earmarked for license production under “Make in India” policy, is akin to dressing up a crone as teenager and “Make in India” being reduced to cobbling together any old item locally.
It is prompting foreign firms to unload worn-out production lines for antique aircraft, etc. for hefty moolah, and private sector firms to join defence public sector units in assembling 50-year old fighter aircraft and such, involving screwdriver-level technology.
The indigenous design, research and development and industrial capabilities in both the nuclear weapons and combat aviation fields are also being strangled as scarce resources are diverted to mindless, cost-prohibitive buys ($6 billion for a 1000MW nuclear plant, Rs 59,000 crores for just 36 Rafale combat aircraft!). When the import option was unavailable, India produced advanced strategic systems – nuclear weapons, the Arihant-class nuclear powered ballistic missile-firing submarine, and Agni missiles. So making conventional armaments is not problematic.
It needs Modi to show faith and confidence in Indian talent and capabilities, shutdown the arms-import channel, including license manufacture deals, that has institutionalised corruption, force the armed services to take ownership of indigenous weapons projects, and hold concerned bureaucrats, service chiefs, department and project heads accountable for bringing nuclear and defence projects in on-time and under budget. Such steps, alas, are not in the offing.
Haphazard arms procurement, highlighted by the commitment of some $70 billion since 2014 to purchase (with mid-life upgrades) an assortment of aircraft and other military goods, is exacerbated by the absence of a mechanism in the government for prioritisation and the arbitrary handling of competing military demands.
Thus, monies are found for the Rafale acquisition because Modi announced it, but the raising of 17 Corps for mountain offensives against China is lagging behind for want of funds. It reinforces the skewed threat and military orientation, resulting in meagre funding of wherewithal for the China front, and in capital-intensive armoured/mechanised forces to subdue Pakistan whose total annual budget only slightly exceeds India’s defence expenditure.
There is much that is woefully wrong with the national security system, some of it attributable to Modi’s policies, but nothing that is not rectifiable.
The writer is a Professor for National Security Studies, Centre for Policy Research, author, most recently, of ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’, and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com