India’s vision void - And it looks like Washington is set to exploit it
By Bharat Karnad
Few developments are as full of promise and danger for India as its burgeoning relationship with the United States. Had the Indian government configured the right set of “long haul” policies, there was every possibility of the two countries enjoying huge mutual benefits and, colaterally, firming up regional and international peace and stability.
Unfortunately, in apparently seeking only short term gains and trying to please the US, there is the likelihood of the Manmohan Singh government sacrificing the irreducible Indian national security interests and turning India into a US client state in the region. It is a posture that cannot endure because an economically and militarily hefty India will soon begin to chafe at the bit.
The looming problems could have been avoided had the Congress-led coalition government shown the self-belief and self-confidence to articulate an expansive strategic vision, an “Indian Monroe Doctrine”, to mark out an Indian “sphere of responsibility” to match the country’s legitimate great power ambitions. New Delhi could have exhumed the idea of “distant defence” popularised by Lord Minto, Governor-General of British India in the 1810s, a concept encompassing the Indian Ocean basin, the Gulf, the Central Asian Republics and the South East Asian littoral inclusive of Vietnam.
New Delhi could have drawn up a plan, based on the enormous goodwill the Iraqi people have for India, to normalise Iraq minus the US presence and elsewhere, for it to act as a bridge between Iran and Israel/US and between Israel and Palestine. Such attractive options would have created enduring leverage for India in Washington. But, absent an Indian grand strategy or game plan or an alternative design for regional and Asian order, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be left exploring with President George W. Bush ways to fit India into the American scheme of things. It is an Indian vision void Washington will exploit. Unlike New Delhi, US has a road-map. It means to emulate the erstwhile Soviet Union and use the sale of military hardware and, especially, the follow-on logistics support requirement to influence Indian politico-military policy — an approach helped by New Delhi’s penchant for judging a western country’s bonafides by its willingness to sell sophisticated armaments and transfer the latest technology.
The problem the US government is wrestling with is: how to cater to India’s conceit as a military and scientific power without augmenting Indian military capabilities to a point where it can upset the “balance” Washington deems necessary to maintain peace and stability in the subcontinent and threaten American strategic interests in the extended region.
The solution the US government has alighted on and reflected in the agreement Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee signed in Washington is to offer pleasing rhetoric and showy combat aircraft — F-16 with “co-production”, F-18 probably without it — that are in no way superior to planes already in service with the Indian Air Force, and ballistic missile defence (BMD) systems of questionable worth, in lieu of the advanced “dual use” technologies vaguely promised by the Next Steps in the Strategic Partnership that could enhance India’s strategic military prowess and which, therefore, the US is reluctant to part with. A “Procurement and Production Group” has been constituted to facilitate these offers, which are “safe” because other than yanking the supply leash, the US Congress can be prompted at any time to cut-off the sale/transfer deals mid-stride.
The defence accord also tempts India with future augmentation of the ineffective but inordinately expensive terminal phase intercept system (Patriot PAC-2/PAC-3 or Arrow-2) — should India be conned into buying it — with the boost-phase and deep space intercept wherewithal once it is developed. This hardware too, like the Patriot/Arrow, will have to plug into the global American sensor complex and thereby formalise India’s dependency status. If the Patriot is useless, this other stuff remains in the realm of science fiction and unlikely to materialise for several decades and, when ready, to bring down more than a score of incoming missiles! Meaning, an adversary can easily defeat the proposed system purchased for thousands of crores of rupees by saturating it with missiles costing between Rs 80 lakh and Rs 2 crore each! Indeed, anticipating India’s acquisition Pakistan has already constituted its Missile Groups, North and South, in such a way as to undermine any meaningful Indian BMD architecture.
Further, measures to prevent nuclear proliferation, protect sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean basin, cooperate in disaster relief, and to engage in multilateral defence cooperation, mentioned in the agreement are missions the Indian armed forces have been performing for many years now, and do not amount to enlargement of India’s activities.
Hans Blix, the former International Atomic Energy Agency Chief, has faulted the US for relying on “faith-based” intelligence regarding the non-existent WMD in Iraq rather than on “critical analysis”. The Manmohan Singh government’s national security and science and technology policies seem to be similarly flawed, based as they seem to be on faith in the US’s benign intentions when a more skeptical attitude is merited.
How seriously should one take Washington’s policy of assisting India to become a “major” power when US maintains pressure on New Delhi to keep its deterrent small and inert and vigorously opposes India’s entry into the Security Council with veto rights? It does not help to argue that such doubts are redolent of “Cold War thinking” when it is obvious national interest alone animates US policy, as it should Indian policy.
There is just too much at stake for New Delhi to agree to initiatives that weaken India’s sovereignty and hollow out its national security prerogatives. The US involvement in the critical defence and energy fields is best kept at a minimum level until such time as an equitable relationship can accrue based on mutual trust generated by years of intensive politico-military cooperation and evidence of a more reasonable American stance on Indian nuclear forces and India’s place in the emerging international order. This will require modest steps informed by caution, not a series of sprints into a potential minefield.
Karnad is author of ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’