US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel will be in Delhi on August 8 -9 to meet with his counterpart Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley. Coming in the wake of the just concluded Kerry yatra, these two back-to-back visits will hopefully set the agenda for a substantive Modi-Obama meeting in late September in Washington DC.
The word ‘hopefully’ is operative since the India-US bilateral relationship has been in extended political stasis for almost two years due to a combination of complex domestic political constraints peculiar to Delhi’s Raisina Hill and the Washington Beltway. This is also a reflection of how leaders in democracies are victims of the relentless electoral cycle and the tyranny of the ‘local’ dynamic in decision-making.
At the outset we know what the Hagel visit is not about, for the Pentagon has formally noted that “the purpose of this trip is to nurture the relationship and not to ink any deal." The transactional element having been set aside, this visit offers an opportune moment to review the larger political and strategic context against which the bilateral relationship is to be nurtured and the stakes involved for both sides.
An empirical recall is instructive. From the Indian perspective, while there has been a messianic commitment to non-alignment that has now morphed into strategic autonomy, the stark reality is that India’s composite military capability is largely dependent on imported equipment and technology. The most telling illustration of this is the sad reality that India still does not have the appropriate indigenous capacity to design and manufacture its own personal weapon for the soldier – be it a pistol or a rifle.
And this despite the fact that the first modern gunpowder factory in India was set up in Ichapur, West Bengal by the East India Company in 1787 and a gun carriage unit in Cossipore near Kolkata in 1801. Almost a 100 years later, Ichapur was converted into a rifle factory and these factories played a valuable role in World War I whose centenary is currently being commemorated the world over.
But to stick with the numbers – current projections indicate that in 2014 India has allocated about US $50 billion for defence expenditure and while this is modest when compared to the USA or China – it is not insignificant. If the current GDP growth rate is sustained or improved and the defence allocations as a percentage of GDP progressively taken up to the three per cent mark -- India will cumulatively allocate almost one trillion dollars towards its defence sector over the next 16 years – that is by 2030.
Of this amount, a ballpark figure would suggest that even if the profile of the Indian military remains manpower intensive, thereby leading to a high revenue cost (recurring expenditure for the pay and allowances and training of a one million plus force) – India would still have about US $400 billion (Rupees 24,00,000 crores) to modernise its military inventory and steadily increase its domestic design and manufacturing capability so that the strategic autonomy claim is not a charade.
Based on current experience one may aver that the existing Indian national security apparatus does not have the appropriate competence or institutional confidence to utilise this fiscal resource in the most optimum manner. The higher management of national security is now mired in the straitjacket of maintaining the status quo – come what may – and hence the greater probability is that the Indian political establishment will be engaged in viewing the Hagel visit as part of the same exercise.
The more desirable alternative would be for PM Modi and the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to take a holistic review of India’s long-term defence requirements and the US context. In October 1962, PM Nehru wrote an abject letter to US President Kennedy seeking military assistance to deal with the Chinese aggression. In May 1998 PM Vajpayee wrote a letter to President Clinton rationalizing the Indian nuclear tests against the anxiety generated by an assertive China. These are part of the historical record.
The estranged India-US relationship underwent a major transformation with the 2008 civilian nuclear agreement and since then there has been some defence and military cooperation that has resulted in the Indian military now having acquired major US platforms – such as transport and surveillance aircraft for the air force and the navy respectively. Yet this is not marked by any clear political and strategic underpinning despite the ambitious Rumsfeld-Mukherjee defence cooperation agreement of June 2005.
The Indian CCS would be well-advised to review the entire gamut of past agreements and proposals that include the often neglected Ashton Carter blueprint for technology cooperation.
For the US, this could be an opportunity to review its own experience in the region and its track record of the last 40 years. The unfathomable sagacity of the US political and security establishment has led to an anomalous situation where it has evidently nurtured its potential adversaries, or forces inimical to its interests from the Nixon years through to Obama. Despite the ideological commitment to contain communism as represented by the former USSR, the US progressively enabled a communist China and is now in what some describe as eternal fiscal debt to Beijing.
Concurrently US South Asian policies have resulted in the emergence of a nuclear armed state, Pakistan -- primarily under military control that also supports terrorism as state policy – and to add insult to injury, uses US military aid to kill US troops as the Af-Pak operations have tragically revealed. For Secretary Hagel, who is himself a Vietnam war veteran – this orientation of the US in South Asia must call for the most intense policy review.
The India – US bilateral relationship is perhaps the most complex in recent history given the inexorable compulsions of globalisation and the venal pettiness that is increasingly becoming the hall-mark of the domestic politics of large democracies. Yet this complexity is accompanied by a range of potentially rewarding cooperative possibilities – but only if the political leadership on both sides is willing to visualise and realize the big picture with the clarity that is currently elusive. The Hagel visit provides a rare opportunity.
The author is Distinguished Fellow, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi