February 4, 2012

India's Strategic Challenges

Indian strategic thinker K. Subrahmanyam passed away on February 2, 2011. This article is the second of two adapted by Dhruva Jaishankar from four of Subrahmanyam’s unpublished essays on grand strategy, Indian foreign relations, defence policy, and nuclear deterrence

Among the strategic challenges facing India are those relating to defence policy, nuclear strategy, and governance. India is the world’s fourth-largest military power and has fought five wars against neighbours that are today nuclear-armed revisionist states advancing territorial claims against it. But India has lacked an ability to formulate future-oriented defence policies, managing only because of short-term measures, blunders by its adversaries, and force superiority in its favour. The cardinal mistake of India’s leaders was flouting the principle that chiefs of staff should never be in command of their forces. Separating command and staff functions enables the service chiefs to focus on defence planning and policymaking, including procurement, human resources, and military diplomacy. Theatre commanders handle the administration, daily management, operational planning, and operational training of forces. This is the practice of all large, modern armed forces, but there is no demand to rectify this shortcoming in India.

At present, defence policymaking is ad hoc, short-term, and service-specific. The state of readiness of forces and jointness of operations, training, and planning have not been addressed. Although a Chief of Defence Staff has been discussed, the position is not in harmony with India’s size and democratic structure; a Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee under a full-time chairman is more appropriate. The National Security Council, which had been expected to address policy incoherence and inadequate strategic planning, burdened itself with executive responsibilities. The services intelligence directorates are ill-equipped for long-term intelligence assessments, and area specialists are few, suggesting a greater need for think tanks. The armed forces have also not fully though through important aspects of nuclear policy and strategy. In a nuclear era, the role of the military becomes, essentially, preventing wars from breaking out through appropriate weapons acquisitions, force deployment patterns, the development of infrastructure, military exercises, and defence diplomacy. This is a far more demanding task than peacetime operations in a pre-nuclear age.

India is a reluctant nuclear power. After the Bangladesh war, India opted for a “recessed deterrence”, but this position could not be sustained after a 1979 intelligence assessment that Pakistan was attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. Indo-Pakistani nuclear deterrence is often viewed in the West through the prism of the Cold War, with doubts about the viability of India’s no-first-use doctrine and concerns about an arms race. But theirs is not an unconstrained competition, and India’s position has always been that deterrence is not proportionate to the number of warheads a country faces. No-first-use is also at the essence of deterrence, as the threat of a first strike is plain aggression. Although China was first in announcing a no-first-use policy, its caveat is that areas considered parts of China are excluded. The more important challenge with China is not nuclear confrontation but its defying international regimes and norms.

As a revisionist state espousing terror as state policy, Pakistan’s conception of deterrence is radically different from that generally accepted by the international community. Pakistan’s lesson from various crises over the last twenty-five years was that India had been successfully deterred. Other than perhaps during Operation Parakram, India, not being a revisionist state, has never been deterred because it never contemplated aggression against Pakistan. Successive Indian governments have proclaimed that a stable and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interests, but these sentiments have never been reciprocated. Given Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent, India must resort to engagement as the only viable strategy against terrorism. India is handicapped because Pakistan defines itself as anti-Indian, and its army is against developing commercial or social contacts with India. As Pakistan requires American aid, the US has a better chance of increasing Pakistani dependency in order to persuade it to give up terrorism as a state policy.

A final note on governance: It is a myth that India’s political classes submit themselves to public accountability at every election. India’s first-past-the-post elections, in which as little as 25 per cent support can produce victory, results in patronage politics that favour some sections of the population at the expense of the majority. Democracy therefore does not always result in the fair delivery of goods and services to the entire population. Non-inclusive growth is consequently not a result of globalisation but of patronage politics. Politicians also often have a vested interest in keeping voters poor, as it costs less to buy their votes. As long as the first-past-the-post system prevails, corruption, caste politics, and the poor delivery of goods and services by the state will continue, and the elimination of poverty and illiteracy will be hampered. The simplest solution is run-off elections if candidates are unable to attain a majority, but second-preference voting is another possibility.

India’s foreign relations: The transformation of the Indo-US relationship from estranged democracies to strategic partners is bound to take time, and relations should not be measured by the number of successful transactions. The shared values of both countries — democracy, pluralism, tolerance, openness, and respect for freedoms and human rights — acquire a greater prominence in building a more peaceful, prosperous, inclusive, secure, and sustainable world. The relationship must therefore be assessed on its progress in setting up structures that make it more effective in countering the challenges of the 21st century. In addition to terrorism, failing states, organised crime, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation, there are threats to various global commons — such as international waters, cyber space, and outer space — which cannot be addressed unilaterally or through NATO-like military alliances. In any other age, China’s rapid and inevitable rise would also probably have led to war, but that is unthinkable in a nuclearised and globalised era. US advantages in its competition with China include China’s ageing and unfavourable demographics, US immigration policies, and its culture of innovation. But to sustain its preeminence, the US still has every incentive to enter into a partnership with India, a democratic, pluralistic, and secular country with a young population that will soon exceed China’s.

What about Indian interests? If not sabotaged by poor governance and corruption, India’s growth will make it the world’s third-largest economy. It could then try to develop further on its own, but will be unable to bridge the vast gaps between it and the US and China. It could cooperate with China, but the Chinese model is inadequate for a diverse country such as India. Finally, it could partner with the US, a country that is home to a large Indian diaspora and shares India’s values. Other countries — including Japan, France, and Germany — face similar concerns as India. Together, the leaders of the democratic world must face the combined challenges of authoritarianism and jehadism, which cannot be countered by military means alone. Comprehensive and cooperative action by democracies, who constitute more than half the world’s population for the first time in history, is therefore necessary. Global governance must rely upon networks of bilateral strategic partnerships among democratic powers that manage rather than impose outcomes, and provide a powerful response to the challenges they face.