India isn’t building a military to take on China despite all the noise

Though New Delhi has sought to balance Beijing in forums across the world, its policy vis-a-vis the Dragon suffers from internal differences, and the cash-strapped country still has a long way to go to match the military prowess of its much larger neighbour, writes Mihir Sharma.
India is leading the opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative as well as seeking to prevent Chinese inroads into its neighbourhood — including, most recently, an apparent power grab in the Maldives.(Bloomberg/Photo for representation)
India is leading the opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative as well as seeking to prevent Chinese inroads into its neighbourhood — including, most recently, an apparent power grab in the Maldives.(Bloomberg/Photo for representation)
Updated on Mar 29, 2018 11:41 AM IST
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Mihir Sharma, Bloomberg | By

As the People’s Republic of China continues its rise, Asia and the world are scrambling to keep their balance. Among China’s neighbours and rivals, few countries seem willing or ready to counter the challenge it poses. Japan is struggling with decades of diffidence internationally and the strictures of its postwar constitution. The countries of Southeast Asia are divided among themselves about the virtues of growing closer to China, while Australia is split internally over the same question. Europe is distant, Russia a reluctant Chinese ally — and, of course, the US seems to have turned inward.

Only one country seems eager to deal with the ramifications of China’s rise: India. Across dozens of world capitals, confidence is repeatedly expressed that India will seek, in the decades to come, to balance China. And in no capital is this sentiment expressed more loudly than India’s own.

Yet, the unfortunate truth is that, however worthy this objective or sincere its expression, India’s actions speak otherwise. Its diplomats and strategists continue to dither about whether or not balancing or containing China should be India’s strategic objective. More importantly, the government isn’t funding the military capability it would need to manage China’s rise. India is short of cash and it is, unfortunately, starving its military.

Don’t take my word for it: Look at the numbers. The share of military spending in India’s federal budget has fallen below 1.6% of gross domestic product — the lowest since 1962. That’s a year instantly recognisable to every Indian, since it’s when India’s underpowered army was routed in a border conflict with China. (Far fewer people in China would recognise the date, for obvious reasons.)

In the 1962 war, India paid the price for years of under-spending on the military, as well as for its determination to remained “non-aligned“, declining to shelter under the American military umbrella. The parallels with 2018 are eerie. While India is closer to the US than it was then, it remains similarly unwilling to embrace a full-fledged alliance. Successive governments have shrunk military budgets, even the proudly nationalist administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, as in 1962, India hasn’t moderated its tone towards China. It’s leading the opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative as well as seeking to prevent Chinese inroads into its neighbourhood — including, most recently, an apparent power grab in the Maldives.

One can perhaps understand the need to economise, given India’s tight fiscal constraints. But what funds are devoted to the military are going toward maintaining a 19th-century army in a 21st-century world. India’s army has too many men and not enough armament. One senior officer told a New Delhi-based defence reporter: “There is nothing in the defence budget except to pay salaries. Nothing for infrastructure creation, military station security, maintenance and repairs, maintaining critical war reserves, let alone modernisation or paying for current deals.”

That concern is now part of the official record: India’s vice-chief of army staff warned a parliamentary committee that over two-thirds of the army’s equipment was “vintage“. According to him, the military doesn’t have enough money to pay for committed purchases, let alone replacing older arms. It can’t afford the 10 fighting days’ worth of ammunition it considers a basic necessity. The air force, meanwhile, is missing one of the four squadrons it needs to be at full strength, while the navy is so short of submarines — it has 15 to China’s 70, and many of those 15 are superannuated — that it sent its two newest subs out to sea without torpedoes.

Meanwhile, India is adding to its already million-strong army by raising additional divisions. And a decision recently to raise military pensions has meant that the amount spent on manpower will continue to grow over time.

All militaries lament a lack of resources, of course. And the Modi administration has certainly moved towards a closer strategic relationship with the US, signing some crucial agreements on cooperation between the two militaries. The problem, however, is that Indian politicians are simply unwilling to commit to modernising the army if it means reducing its manpower — even though Modi himself has admitted, “modernisation and expansion of forces at the same time is a difficult and unnecessary goal”.

The army’s manpower is raised largely from parts of India that are often crucial swing districts in elections. In addition, the establishment appears unable to codify its vision of security threats and an ideal defence posture through, for example, the sort of white papers periodically produced elsewhere in the world. Meanwhile, defence procurement is notoriously politically sensitive; accusations of corruption tend to swirl around any major defence deal. Both the Modi government and its predecessor have been concerned enough about the political cost of such accusations to delay or cancel major purchases.

It would be quite understandable if India abandoned all attempts to balance China and instead concentrated on its quest to become a middle-class country. At the very least, though, an inward-focused India would stop its aggressive rhetoric about China. Nobody has ever claimed that “speak loudly and carry a tiny stick” is excellent strategy.

Instead, India has made it clear that it intends to challenge China in its neighbourhood, its seas and on the world stage. The politicians’ egos are writing cheques the military can’t cash. Metaphorically, that is: In actual fact, the politicians aren’t writing many cheques for the military at all.

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