Before nations embark on major defense spending drives, they usually issue a foundational strategy to shape the missions the new equipment is supposed to accomplish. Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Japan, Turkey, the United States and many other nations are guided by one or more public national security strategies or white papers that shape defense spending.
Yet India, despite a 17 percent defense budget increase this year, has no such public guiding document.
As India presses ahead with a $100 billion equipment modernization plan that includes new fighters, transport and other aircraft, new ships, submarines and ground systems, it’s doing so without so much as a public document to indicate an underlying strategy.
As Amer Latif of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington argues, this approach may have worked during the Cold War, when India led the non-aligned movement, but it is out of synch with New Delhi’s rise on the world stage, as an increasingly important nation both economically and militarily.
India is consistently demonstrating its growing regional role through joint exercises, ship visits and a host of bilateral and multilateral engagements that would have been unimaginable a decade ago, asserting security interests well beyond Pakistan and China.
Many in India’s security community see a need for a public strategy, but worry how clear choices within such a document will be seen domestically and by Beijing, Islamabad, Moscow and Washington. That’s why some say continuing a strategic autonomy policy best avoids such difficult choices, preserving maximum flexibility. They have a point. Ambiguity allows decisions on a case-by-case basis.
In the United Nations, for example, New Delhi abstained on the operation in Libya, voted to impose sanctions on Syria, and has vacillated on Iran, which is a key energy supplier.
That ambiguity, however, arguably creates policy inconsistencies that are construed as weakness, undermining the very security that India seeks by investing in new systems. Unless India’s friends and potential adversaries clearly understand New Delhi’s interests, it’s hard to find new opportunities for partnership or to serve a critical declaratory deterrent function.
Indeed, if India becomes a permanent U.N. Security Council member, a public strategy will be even more important as it is forced to make, rather than abstain from, tough calls.
More fundamentally, India is torn between moving closer to the U.S. and being regarded as a counterweight to a rapidly rising China, which is expanding its military even faster than is India.
From an Indian perspective, as Washington and New Delhi have grown closer since 2005,Beijing has become more belligerent by denying Indian military officers visas, staging incursions along their unmarked border, and dragging out talks to resolve long-standing Sino-Indian border disputes.
China’s strategy of being an unaccommodating neighbor appears to be working. In fact, a small group of Indian academics and retired policy officials recently unveiled a new strategy dubbed “Non-Alignment 2.0,” which argues that India should remain “strategically autonomous” in the future.
That’s non-alignment by another name.
India is growing too important globally — economically, technologically and militarily — to be ignored or to hide in plain sight.
That’s not to say that India should follow a U.S. model so awash in “strategic documents” that it’s hard to keep them all straight.
But defining a strategy is something leaders do, and the need for one should not be construed as a call to craft any other future for India than the one it chooses for itself.