These days one often hears phrases such as ‘India has arrived at the global scene’ or ‘21st century would be India’s century’. Prime Minister Modi’s style of diplomacy at the international level has given a fillip to such a feeling. Media projection of his personal equations with a majority of the world leaders including Trump, Xi and Putin has left most Indians believing that India is at the threshold of global power. More concretely, this feeling has enabled India to punch above its weight in international fora. No wonder, Modi is listened to with respect at forums like BRICS, ASEAN, SCO etc.
Today, however, the world is in transition. Thanks to Trump’s policy of ‘America First’, we are witnessing a gradual US withdrawal from its global commitments in groupings such as TPP and NATO. A common and cooperative approach to climate change issues stands debunked, as does the Iran nuclear deal. The unpredictability of Trump’s future actions has left the world in a state of suspense and tension. Tweeting appears to have become the preferred method of governing in the world’s strongest power.
The void thus created in world affairs is rapidly being sought to be filled by China, a growing global power. Projections indicate that China would overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2030. In the wake of such a development, China is expected to thrust its own version of the ‘rule of law’ and international boundaries especially with relation to its territorial disputes in South China Sea (SCS) and along its land borders.
Russia, under Putin, is seeking to achieve its old glory, despite evident limitations. A gradual US withdrawal from its global role is propelling Russia to occupy the vacated space, in competition with China. Russia is willing and prepared to exploit the fault lines in the western alliance to achieve this objective. Additionally, Russia would not hesitate to ally with China if that enables it to enhance its standing at the global level. The manner in which Russia has carved out a role for itself in the Middle East and is busy exploiting anti-US sentiment in Latin America are clearly indicative of its global role aspirations.
A common feature of all these powers is that they are economically and militarily strong. The US is a shining example. While Russia may have limitations on the economic side, it makes up for this shortfall by virtue of possessing a powerful military. China, for its part, has an equally strong economy as well as military.
In sharp contrast, countries like Germany and Japan are not looked upon as global powers despite their economic strength, because of their dependence on NATO and the US, respectively, for their security. Likewise, the erstwhile USSR could not survive an economic meltdown and disintegration despite being militarily strong. It is only when economic might and military prowess grow side by side that a country makes a mark in the global pecking order.
It may be worthwhile looking at India from such a perspective before determining how successful it has been in achieving recognition as a global or even a regional player. Considering the turmoil that the world has gone through in the last two decades, India has done reasonably well economically. Though nowhere near China, an annual average growth rate of about seven per cent has ensured steady economic growth. But poor infrastructure, unemployment, rampant corruption and poor work culture have prevented us from achieving better results. Nevertheless, we still have been recognized as a country with massive potential for future growth. By 2030, we are projected to have the third largest GDP globally.
However, that would not necessarily make us the third most powerful nation in the world. The reason is the lack of matching military capabilities. Like Germany and Japan (as mentioned earlier), economic power alone would not allow India to achieve global power status. In fact, without military prowess, we would not even be recognized as a regional power. No wonder then that the Indian Ocean, which was earlier an Indian preserve, is now seen as an arena that is open to domination by China, US, and the others. In fact, with bases at Coco Isles, Hambantota, Gwadar, Djibouti and Seychelles, the Chinese have literally established a string of pearls around India.
At the regional level, the pre-eminence enjoyed by India because of its size and population over its much smaller neighbours is slowly disappearing. Pakistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Maldives have gradually come under increasing Chinese economic, and in some cases military, influence. Bangladesh and Bhutan are being subjected to enticements/pressure to enable greater Chinese inroads at the expense of India. While the West may try to prop up India by renaming the erstwhile Asia Pacific region as Indo Pacific region, without a matching military capability from the Indian side, such efforts are unlikely to change the ground realities substantially.
The recent NATO summit has clearly highlighted the vulnerability of European nations from a security perspective in case the US goes ahead with threats of reducing its involvement in NATO. Trump’s warning to European leaders that even a defence expenditure of two per cent of GDP may not be enough to stop a US scale down in NATO and a subtle push for defence expenditure totalling four per cent of GDP post 2024, are indications of the kind of funding required for security and stability. At $636 billion annually, the US is spending 3.6 per cent of its GDP on defence.
In India, as a percentage of GDP, the defence budget has gradually shrunk during the last 10 years. From over two per cent in 2008-09, it is down to 1.57 per cent during the current year. This has resulted in increasing hollowness and the stopping of the modernization of the services. No wonder, one hears news of a MiG 21 crashing every few days, in the process at times snuffing out precious lives of trained pilots!
We cannot be deriving satisfaction from the success of ‘surgical strikes’ or stopping the Chinese juggernaut at Doklam. Those were mere tactical landmarks. Our requirement is to be prepared to defend ourselves against a two front threat. Increasing collusion between China and Pakistan in all aspects of functioning is a matter of deep concern for national security experts. None would want India to be exposed to a debacle like 1962. However, to avoid it, we need to develop capabilities to defend ourselves appropriately. It would also be prudent to understand that while diplomacy can play a crucial role in tackling critical situations, it may not be successful always. Not having a fall back option in case of failure of diplomatic efforts would be suicidal.
A series of cost cutting studies has been undertaken from time to time to save precious resources for modernization of the military within the available budget. A number of recommendations emerging from these studies have also been implemented, some with greater success than others. Such efforts at improving the teeth-to-tail ratio are an integral part of the functioning of a good organization. However, beyond a certain point, these efforts become counterproductive as greater time and energy are thereafter spent in ‘discovering’ them. The military has reached such a point.
The ‘Make in India’ route for improving defence capabilities, which the present dispensation is now trying to follow, should have been implemented immediately after independence to achieve the desired results by this time. It is good that it has been initiated now at least. However, it would require another 10 to 15 years to fructify. Of course, during this intervening period, the world would have moved further ahead.
We need to recognize that cosmetic changes to marginally improve the methodology of defence spending to achieve a greater bang from the available buck are no longer going to achieve the desired effect. India’s quest for being recognized even as a regional power, let alone a global power, requires a balanced and simultaneous growth of its economic and military capabilities.
In a growing economy, there would always be competing requirements for scarce resources. While growth and development must get priority, a delicate balance has to be ensured by factoring in the requirement of national security. The fact that the expenditure on defence is non-productive does not diminish the importance of security. We need to appreciate that we are perpetually exposed to a two front threat. Hostile neighbours can seriously disrupt growth and development if national security is not guaranteed. It is also important to understand that an occasional large allocation of resources to overcome crises is not an answer to security concerns. Allocation of suitable resources on an ongoing basis year after year is the only solution for an adequately prepared military to defend the nation. Professional expertise puts such an allocation at three per cent of the GDP. The sooner we factor it in our budgets, the better off we would be in being recognized as an emerging regional/global power.