US-India relations are not in great shape. One indicator: India’s National Security Adviser, Shivshankar Menon, reacted to the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat for visa fraud and disregarding US labor laws as “despicable and barbaric.” In contrast, Menon had difficulty finding his voice when a battalion of PLA soldiers camped out for three weeks nine miles inside India’s disputed border with China. Granted, the strip search was extremely worthy of outrage. But still, the differential in official Indian indignation was telling.
Another indicator: India’s liability laws have so far prevented US corporations from constructing nuclear powers plants on Indian soil. The George W. Bush administration and its backers worked very hard to secure a special exemption for India from the international guidelines of nuclear commerce, hoping to build up India as a counterweight to China. So far, they have little to show for their efforts. Bilateral ties will continue to improve, as evidenced by India becoming the number one recipient of US arms sales. But hiccups are the rule, rather than the exception when two democratically unruly, independent-minded, and exceptional states try to work together.
The malaise in bilateral relations reflects a deeper malaise within India itself. How can a country with so much potential, entrepreneurship, and vitality become so torpid? For a start: tired leadership with an absence of ambition, endemic corruption, and an inability to tackle longstanding, structural pathologies, including those relating to national security.
The Kargil Review Commission, led by K. Subrahmanyam, clarified a laundry list of failings after dissecting India’s intelligence and military deficiencies associated with Pakistan’s surprise initiative along the Kashmir divide in 1999. Failure at the macro level, Subrahmanyam wrote, was one of stasis:
There has been very little change over the past 52 years despite the 1962 debacle, the 1965 stalemate, and the 1971 victory, the growing nuclear threat, end of the cold war, continuance of proxy war in Kashmir for over a decade and the revolution in military affairs.
Fifteen years later, very little has been done to follow up on the Kargil Commission’s recommendations, prompting a spate of new reports and critiques. Here’s a sampler:.
“[S]tagnation of thought hardly serves the national interests.” – “India’s Nuclear Doctrine: An Alternative Blueprint,” Task Force Report convened by P.R. Chari of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, 2012
“Dealing with the challenges presented by Pakistan and China requires several crucial changes to our defence and security structures. First, we should establish a Maritime Commission that will guide the development of India’s maritime capabilities… Second, we need to increase functional efficiency and improve civil-military relations, and this will require the establishment of an integrated Ministry of Defence by populating the ministry with civilian and armed forces personnel… A Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff should head the existing Integrated Defence Staff, which should become the Military Department of the Ministry of Defence. Third, we should establish integrated commands—which will be both regional and functional that includes Special Forces, Air Defence and Logistics. Fourth, the regional commanders should report to a Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff…” — “Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty-First Century,” Sunil Khilnani et. al., 2012.
“[T]he nuclear balance in the subcontinent is far from reassuring.” –“Nonalignment 2.0”
“Indian defence spending will touch a 52-year low in 2014-15, in terms of percentage of Gross Domestic Product — 1.74 per cent of GDP this year, and 12.7 per cent of government spending.” —Blog post by Ajai Shukla, a writer for the Business Standard, February 21, 2014
“The naval chief’s resignation came hours after a fire on board the newly-refitted Sindhuratna claimed the lives of two naval officers and injured seven — the third in a series of submarine accidents, including an explosion on the Sindhurakshak which exploded and sank in Mumbai’s naval dockyard in August, 2013, killing 18 crew. Last month, the Sindhughosh ran ground on its way to Mumbai harbour, though without loss of life… The Navy has long complained of delays in submarine fleet modernisation, at a time when regional navies, notably China, are dramatically expanding their fleets.” — News report, The Hindu, February 27, 2014
“The civil-military dissonance is growing, and whether it is tardy planning or prudent fiscal outlays to nurture the military, the last 10 years have been feckless and arid.” — C. Uday Bhaskar, Indian Express, February 28, 2014
On the plus side, India is a thriving democracy, and democracies offer the potential for significant renewal after national elections. Polls suggest a very different government will take the reins this spring, one that promises renewal. India’s renewal will unsettle Pakistan and draw China’s attention.
Revived economic growth is necessary but insufficient to help with India’s complex security challenges. One big missing piece, as Stephen Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta argue in Arming without Aiming: India’s Military Modernization (2010), is a clear sense of “strategic intent.”
Indian governments don’t issue national security posture statements. They don’t put arms purchases into a broader context. Yes, India demands strategic autonomy. But how? Yes, India must adapt to the rise of China. But what’s the strategy? Yes, India seeks to dissuade Pakistan from carrying out attacks through proxies. The Army has plans, but what is the national strategy?
Strategy in India takes a back seat to inference. Inference helps fend off external pressures and facilitates maneuvering through the thicket of India’s domestic politics. Even India’s nuclear doctrine was inferential — unveiled as a “draft” prepared by a quasi-official body. Inference allows Indian governments to muddle through, but inference is hard to update and risks magnifying weakness. The non-governmental reports excerpted above were prompted by frustration with muddling through.
India’s revival will require the opening of many spigots — procurement bottlenecks choked by corrupt practices, for a start. New Delhi will also be obliged to speed up arms acquisitions and increase defense budgets. Even then, India will punch well below its weight until civil-military relations become more cohesive and military service plans and operations become more integrated.