The place of ‘self-reliant’ India in South Asia

Economic weakness will affect India’s strategic position in the region

Anita Inder Singh

How will an economically be­leaguered India find its way strategically in the changing and contested world, now battling the deadly coronavirus? India can’t change its strategic geography. It has border disputes with neighbouring Pakistan and China. Facing multiple socio-economic shocks, India has been concerned about the deaths of its military personnel in the recent terrorist attack in Kashmir, the unpredictability of China’s recent moves on its northea­stern border, China’s military and economic influence in its Indian Ocean ne­ighbourhood and the strategic implication of the US’s decision to quit Afghanistan. Defence spending has de­clined over the last few years; it is possible that Covid-19 will lead to further cuts ranging from 20 to 40 per cent of the allocations for 2020-21.

According to PM Modi and Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, the answer lies in “self-reliance”.

India’s strategic aim as outlined by the CDS is to “guard and fight only alo­ng its borders” and dominate the In­dian Ocean region. Visualising India as a South Asian, Indian Ocean power, not an Indo-Pacific one, he has declared that India’s armed forces will not be deployed worldwide. Unlike political leaders in New Delhi over several years he has not claimed that India is a leading or global power. In contrast, only as recently as last February, during Pre­sident Trump’s official visit to India, Modi boasted that increased bilateral defence and security cooperation wou­ld be a “very key aspect” of the envisag­ed India-US Comprehensive Global Partnership, which would be “one of the most important partnerships” of the 21st century.

The CDS has marked the strategic distance between India and the US by saying India should define its own equipment needs and “and not look at what the US or other advanced countri­es have”. That statement reflects the long-standing questions about the ability of an economically feeble India to contribute to the defence of Trump’s Indo-Pacific.

Moreover, India has always prioritised its border disputes with China and Pakistan. The US, however, wants gre­ater collaboration between Indian and American armed forces in South-east Asia.

Understandably, the US has far stronger military and economic relationships with its Asia-Pacific allies than with strategically autonomous In­dia. More than 133,000 American troo­ps are deployed in the South-east Asia-Pacific region and 10,000 in the Indian Ocean region, mostly in West Asia. In Diego Garcia, the military base closest to India, there are barely 300. The troubling question is whether India can de­fend its stake in the Indian Ocean without the US. Over the last few years all of India’s neighbours have joined China’s Belt-and-Road-Initative. So China has made strategic and economic headway and emerged as the largest military re­tailer and investor in India’s South Asi­an neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean area.

Does “self-reliance” imply India will stop buying foreign arms? Finance Mi­nister Sitharaman says India will not import matériel that can be produced domestically. Highlighting the milita­ry’s limited role, the CDS thinks indigenously produced weapons will suffice, even if their quality meets a mere 70 per cent of the standards desired by India’s armed forces. But how will the armed forces cope with the poor record of Make in India defence projects? So far none has taken off. Given that India imports 70 per cent of its weapons, how long would it take Indian defence manufacturers to produce world-class arms, with or without foreign collaboration, to make India “self-reliant”? Is the im­plication that until then, India’s milita­ry would be expected to defend their country with weapons of poor quality? Or does New Delhi anticipate no new war with Pakistan and China?

In fact, India’s inability to play a wi­der regional role has since long been obvious. The huge economic gap bet­ween India and China has created friction in the US-India strategic tie, tho­u­gh the friendly relationship developed after the signing of the nuclear deal in 2005 papered over that reality. Since 2017 New Delhi has continually de­cla­red that India is the centre of Trump’s Indo-Pacific without ever saying how much it could contribute to the defence of the region, especially when its own defence spending was sliding down.

Before the Covid crisis, India’s GDP per capita was $2,000. De­fence budget for 2020-21 was $65.9 billion. China’s defence budget was $177.61 billion. In 2019, China’s GDP per capita was $9,770.8; the US’s was $62,000. New De­lhi’s sledgehammer lockdown has wa­sted India’s much-vaunted demogra­phic dividend by precipitating the largest exodus of more than half-a-milli­on internal migrants si­nce the 1947 partition. By catalysing a humanitarian crisis, New Delhi has displayed its ad­ministrative incompete­n­ce, India’s poverty, shambolic health fa­cilities and economic weakness to the world.

Economic strength is essential for strategic clout — and currently India does not have it. Modi envisages a self-reliant India influencing the world by joining global supply chains. When? The embarrassing reality is that China and some South-east Asian countries, more developed than India, already have the advantage. The long-standing economic advantage, in turn, has given China the military one.

The Modi government has simultaneously shown its inability to craft a bold demand stimulus to rescue India from a precarious economic situation, and its disinclination to reduce stifling Big Brother regulations.

So how long must India wait before good, participatory governance ad­van­ces its progress, counters Beijing’s economic influence and consolidates its strategic influence in South Asia alone?

The author is a founding professor of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution in New Delh


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