India Raises its Game vs. China
The Indian Ministry of Defense’s clearance for a US$13-billion military modernization plan – the country’s most ambitious one-time military expansion ever – is causing ripples in global diplomatic circles.
Described as India’s largest increase in deployment along the China border since the Sino-Indian war in 1962, the plan includes induction into the Indian army of 90,000 more soldiers over the next five years. The expansion package, firmed up last week, will also entail raising four new divisions along the India-Chinese border.
At the same time, the Defence Ministry is in the final throes of choosing between two European bidders to supply 126 fighter jets said to be worth more than US$20 billion. The price of the jets has soared to almost double the original estimate of US$11 billion. The finalists are France’s Dassault and the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium.
The government also recently gave the go-ahead for the positioning of supersonic Brahmos cruise missiles in Arunachal Pradesh, considered a marked shift in Indian military strategy vis-à-vis China from defensive to offensive.
According to reports, the extensive overhaul will involve the upgrade of the army's fire-power and logistical capabilities, investment in new helipads, air strips and last-mile road linkages. New concepts of military transformation will also be pressed into service along with a significant enhancement in the army’s capability to operate in smaller units and providing logistics in an integrated manner.
The staggering scale of the military expansion, analysts say, is surprising at this juncture considering that the beleaguered United Progressive Alliance government has its back against the wall with so many other problems. It is facing public angst over inflation, rebellion from anti-corruption crusaders, intraparty wrangling and threats of withdrawal from its allies from the UPA combine.
The looming elections in India’s largest northern state of Uttar Pradesh, where the government will be pitted against the state’s putative chief minister and dalit leader Mayawati, are giving the UPA additional jitters.
The domestic political situation notwithstanding, strategists feel that New Delhi’s military expansion has to be regarded in the larger context of the regional power contest.
“It is of a piece with a rapidly evolving geopolitical jigsaw,” a senior defense ministry official old Asia Sentinel. The political theatre playing out in Asia, with India and China both aspiring to lead, has embroiled the two in a game of one-upmanship. And military might is an integral part of this picture.
What is adding intrigue to the situation is the growing unease of nation states – including the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan – with China which is asserting its “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea and around it.
Harsh V. Pant writes in Yale Global Online that this is indeed a time of great turmoil on the Asian strategic landscape, and India is trying to make itself relevant to the regional states. “With its political and economic rise, Beijing has started dictating the boundaries of acceptable behavior to its neighbors, thereby laying bare the costs of great power politics.”
Beijing’s growing regional heft and muscle-flexing vis-à-vis its neighbors, writes Pant, “have now resulted in a regional balancing effort.” India’s role in the region thus becomes crucial to offset China’s aggressive maneuvering in and around Asia.
With this changed dynamic, most Asian states are keen that India – the world’s largest democracy -- act as a regional counterweight to Beijing’s dramatic rise and maintain stability in the region.
Many of these nations have also made direct overtures to India. Last month, New Delhi hosted two heads of states -- Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang and Burmese President Thein Sein in quick succession. Both countries currently share a certain amount of antipathy to China.
Tokyo too, has agreed to a substantial increase in bilateral defense engagements with New Delhi. Defense Minister A K Antony, who was in Japan last week, has pushed for the first-ever joint air force and naval exercises between Japan and India next year. India and Japan have also expressed the need for freedom of navigation in international waters and sea lanes of communication.
This is being read as a signal to China to stop exerting undue influence in the South China Sea, which it regards as its own lake. In other words, Beijing’s belligerence will not go unchallenged.
Interestingly, the Indo-Japanese camaraderie is being given a nudge by a Beijing-wary Washington. On her India visit this July, US Secretary of state Hillary Clinton strongly advocated a more active policy initiative from India with reference to its stature and policies in Asia and the East.
Clinton said it was time for India to wield its growing economic and political clout further outside its borders and help "shape the future" of the Asia region and beyond. This was widely interpreted as a US strategic imperative for India to keep China in check.
Washington’s desire for India to play a more forceful role in the East dovetails neatly with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s own foreign-policy thrust on east and Southeast Asia for the coming years. New Delhi’s “Look East” initiative – initiated two decades ago – is seen as a refreshing approach to its earlier foreign policy that was dominated by its obsession with Pakistan.
On the contrary, New Delhi has till now been playing down its friction with China on its border, careful not to antagonize Beijing. But now it seems India is keen to fortify its diplomatic, economic and military engagement with East Asia where an anti-China sentiment is taking hold.
India is also apprehensive about China's looming presence in the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. Besides Gwadar in Pakistan, China is building ports at Hambantota in Sri Lanka and at Chittagong in Bangladesh. In Myanmar too, it has upgraded several ports. New Delhi is concerned that Beijing could use these ports for military or strategic purposes.
Indian military officials in the past have expressed unease over the Defense Ministry’s lackadaisical infrastructure development and military modernization. An Army proposal to set up a Mountain Strike Corps for the border has been pending with the Ministry while infrastructural developments such as road and rail links are also lagging behind schedule. However, with the new modernization plan, it is hoped, things will fall into place.
”With its changed assertive approach in the region,” says Anmol Kabra a New Delhi-based security analyst, “India is demonstrating its capability to impact the Asia-Pacific security architecture.” India may not be a key player yet in the region, adds Kabra, but it is increasingly making its voice count in the shaping of the emerging Asian order.
(Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist)