India is presently investing in a sustained program of military modernisation. Some $40bn was earmarked for defence in the budget for 2012–13, with a significant proportion to be spent on new weapons. This year, according to SIPRI, India became the world’s biggest arms importer, and its long ‘wish list’—including fourth-generation fighters, heavy-lift aircraft, attack helicopters and main battle tanks—suggests that it will remain in that position for years to come.
These numbers, however, tell only part of the story. Some of this modernisation program involves upgrades to defensive capabilities, but not all. The mix also includes three new aircraft carriers (a refurbished Russian ship should eventually be delivered in early 2013, with two indigenous carriers soon to follow), nuclear submarines (a leased Russian Akula-II class boat plus a new Indian one) and air-to-air refuelling tankers (six soon to be ordered), as well as those multi-role combat aircraft, transports, helicopters and tanks. Many of these are systems designed more for power projection within and beyond India’s immediate region as well as for territorial defence.
In scale and spend, India is matching parts of China’s longer-running and more expensive modernisation program. In others areas—aircraft carriers and air-to-air refuelling, for example—India is arguably acquiring superior capabilities. Yet while China’s military modernisation is generally considered a cause for cause alarm, India’s program is not. Why?
One recent study by George J. Gilboy and Eric Heginbotham, Chinese and Indian Strategic Behaviour, gives a simple answer: when it comes to India, we’re fooling ourselves. They argue that there is an ‘India Threat’ to the security of the Indo-Pacific region on a par with that posed by China.
They also assert that India has much more in common with China than most Western observers think, including; a strategic culture that emphasises ‘veiled Realpolitik’, for instance, a telling history of using force to settle disputes, and a ‘preference for offensive military doctrine’. India’s strategic behaviour, they think, ought to generate the kind of ‘alarm’ that China’s does. They urge Westerners not to be distracted by the blandishments of ‘democratic peace theory’ or windy rhetoric about shared values, and suggest instead that they acknowledge the very real threat India might pose to regional stability.
Understandably, this argument has had a mixed reception in New Delhi. The highly-respected scholar Swaran Singh asserted in a prominent review in The Hindu newspaper that the book might speak with an ‘American voice’, but in a ‘Chinese accent’. In another review, the veteran strategist C. Raja Mohan expressed some doubts about the thesis, but thought it might have the positive effect of showing what Americans really think about India. Hopefully, Mohan argued, the book might shock sections of India’s elite into a more ‘pragmatic’ view of the strategic partnership with America and give it a better sense of the limits of that relationship.
Mohan’s point is apposite: the notion of an ‘India threat’ has emerged in a difficult stage in the ongoing rapprochement between India and the US. It hands ammunition to the many Indian critics of the strategic partnership, who argue vociferously that American foreign policy is exploitative and fickle, and that India is unwise to commit itself to that arrangement.
But the ‘India threat’ also contradicts most other assessments of India’s military modernisation and strategic intentions, including Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta’s excellent 2010 book Arming without Aiming . These assessments emphasise two points; first, that India remains a relatively weak military power and, second, that its strategic behaviour is characterised by restraint, even in the face of serious provocation. India is modernising from a low base and must import arms because its defence industries are mostly incapable of providing what it needs. And, as Cohen and Dasgupta show, India presently lacks both the will and the means to be more assertive in its own immediate neighbourhood or further afield. Ultimately, the ‘India threat’ rings hollow.
Ian Hall is a senior fellow and the acting head of the Department of International Relations, Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user $wap.