The Strategic Culture of India

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India’s military relationship with the U.S. continues to grow. Washington has concluded that U.S. relations with traditional allies such as South Korea and Japan have become fragile, and it is time to develop closer strategic ties with India. In May 2002, Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense Policy, hosted a meeting of the U.S.-India Defense Policy Group to map out joint defense strategies. These included planning joint naval patrols of the strategic Malacca Strait, workshops on missile defense, and cooperation in defense technology.

Relations between the two countries have blossomed with the recent Malabar IV exercises, which involved coordinated maneuvers between the two navies. According to Martin Walker of United Press International, “the United States and India are already virtual allies, and share a strong military relationship with Israel.” The Bush administration has approved the sale of three Israeli Phalcon AWACS to India and is likely to approve the sale of the Arrow-2 anti-missile system, jointly developed by Israel and the U.S. These weapon systems could shift the balance of power in Asia, and make India invulnerable to missile attacks.

Reflecting this deepening of ties between Washington and New Delhi, a U.S.-India Institute for Strategic Policy has been launched with a major but unspoken objective: containing China. The Institute, affiliated with the ultra conservative Center for Security Policy, is also intended to limit the growth in U.S.-Pakistani ties.

After India dismembered Pakistan in 1971, it began to see itself as the preeminent and pivotal power in South Asia. The Indira Doctrine, enunciated at the beginning of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1983, stated that India was entitled to be the security manager of the entire subcontinent. The BJP embraced this vision wholeheartedly. India is now determined to become a “great power,” since it is home to one-sixth of humanity and heir to a great civilization. A major factor that is adduced in favor of this claim is India’s dynamic economy, which comprises a diverse technological base that produces world-class software as well as nuclear weapons and rockets capable of launching satellites into space. To further its claims to being a great power, India is anxious to acquire a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. India’s smaller neighbors, who were not consulted in the development of this Indo-centric vision, are concerned about being reduced to satellite states of India.

India’s security policy is built around four threat perceptions. First is the challenge to national unity, which comes from separatist movements that are active on its northeastern and northwestern frontiers. Continuing rebellions in the northeast require India to maintain a garrison of two to four army divisions in that region. India perceives that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence is furthering the rebellions in the northeast. It is also concerned that Myanmar and Bangladesh have become involved (at least at the non-governmental level) with the separatist movements, since they are hosting India’s rebel groups in their territories. In the northwest, the long-standing insurgency in Kashmir continues to bleed India, and requires the stationing of several hundred thousand troops in the state.

The second threat emanates from Pakistan. India’s fear of Pakistan mirrors Pakistan’s fear of India. One of India’s leading strategists suspects that Pakistan masterminded the Tehelka corruption scandal. Others suspects that Pakistan aims to disrupt India by funding and instigating organized crime in India. One analyst has argued that Pakistan caused the crash of the Indian stock exchange, and caused more damage to the Indian economy than what could have achieved by bombing major Indian cities. Pakistan is viewed as a thorn that is permanently lodged in India’s western hide. Its close ties with America and China over the past fifty years have thwarted India’s policy of translating economic and military preeminence in South Asia into legitimate predominance.

The rivalry with Pakistan has driven the recent modernization programs of the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force. Prithvi short-range ballistic missiles have been deployed on the Pakistani border in the army’s 333rd Missile Regiment. In the post 9/11 time frame, the threat of Pakistani-sponsored terrorism has been played up as a major problem. India has begun to reach out to Pakistan’s traditional allies such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, in order to impede Pakistan’s diplomatic maneuverability. During the past couple of years, India’s foreign minister visited Saudi Arabia, Vajpayee visited Iran and Iranian President Khatami was the Chief Guest at the Republican Day parade in New Delhi. Since 1970, India has unsuccessfully sought membership in the Organization of Islamic Countries, to further its image as a secular democracy with a large Muslim population.

Third, India feels threatened by China. This has driven India’s nuclear and ballistic missile program. India has embarked on a grandiose program to challenge China’s dominance in Southeast Asia. The Indian Navy is at the start of a 30-year buildup, to counter the 50-year plan of the Chinese Navy. There are plans to induct three aircraft carriers in the Indian Navy, and to install nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles on major warships. In the next few years, the navy’s “area of interest” will extend for 7,000 miles from west to east along the Indian Ocean littoral. Ultimately, India intends to project naval power into the South China Sea.

Finally, India perceives an embryonic threat emanating from the U.S., which is now the world’s unchallenged superpower. This factor has driven India to acquire an ICBM capability. One assumes that while the U.S. has found it convenient to enlist India as a partner in its drive to contain China, it would also seek to restrain India’s ambitions toward its smaller neighbors. Otherwise, it may inadvertently lay the seeds for creating an Iraq-like situation in South Asia.

To meet these perceived threats, India currently spends $14 billion annually on defense. Over half of this budget is devoted to fighting a conventional land war against Pakistan. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have reduced the likelihood of such a war, since the risks of escalation are simply too great for even the BJP to countenance. The probability that China would attack India remains remote, since the Middle Kingdom does not have a history of imperialism.

If India were to resolve the Kashmir issue, it could redirect some of the billions being spent on its military toward social and economic development. It is a nation where half of the children are malnourished, 350 million go to bed hungry, and 300 million are illiterate. The combined budget deficit exceeds 10% of GDP. These statistics paint the portrait of a power that is long past its prime, not one that is gearing up to greatness.

The author is an economist in Palo Alto, California.  He lived in Pakistan during the 1965 and 1971 wars.  He has written on Pakistan’s Strategic Myopia in the RUSI Journal, and reviewed Mazari’s book, Journey to  Disillusionment for International Affairs. He has authored “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan.” He is a Fellow of the American Institute of International Studies in California. He contributed above article to Media Monitors Network (MMN).

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