It is time to look ahead at the challenges that India’s security planners will face in 2017. Spillovers from 2016 and the forthcoming leadership change in the United States will make the environment very challenging in India’s security calculus.
For the U.S. certainly, and for India too, January 20 could turn out to be a day like no other in the recent past. If U.S. President-elect Donald Trump sticks to his “twitterwords”, the Trans- Pacific Partnership (TPP) would be history, U.S.-China relations may become even more tenuous, while America’s interaction with Russia may become “interesting”.
While Mr. Trump has not talked about India, his “fantastic” Pakistan may see some more tensions developing with Uncle Sam, as the general thrust of ‘Trumpism’ has been to take a tougher line on terrorism. After his “Israel” tweet on the UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements and outright condemnation of the Iran nuclear deal, one can expect U.S. involvement in West Asia to increase. Would that imply a reversal of President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia?” Will Mr. Trump’s views change once he is in the saddle? What does this scenario portend for India?
India has to factor in the enhanced aggressiveness of China, which has taken on a new hue and trajectory; shorn of diplomatese, the “peaceful” rise has become an ominous one that is transforming the “challenge” of China into a “threat” from China. Its recent moves, of positioning air defence weapons on a reclaimed island in the South China Sea, forays by fighters and bombers over the East China Sea, and even sending its aircraft carrier Liaoning to Hainan via the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and Philippines, have sent an unwelcome message to its neighbours. It may not be long before Liaoning makes its foray into the Indian Ocean. If not for power projection (which is still some time away), it may be to just announce to the world that a new “world” power has arrived. Though these activities are far removed from the India-China border, these developments can be co-related with the reorganisation of its military into Theatre Commands, local media hype about large-scale, “realistic” joint training exercises, and aggressive diplomatic reactions to events that impinge on its stated positions (the Dalai Lama’s visits to Mongolia, and later Arunachal Pradesh). If Mr. Trump gets on the front foot with China, then it (the U.S.) would require India to be firmly with it. With its placing of India as a major defence partner and the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in place, Indian planners would have to tread a narrow path between getting close to the U.S. and being classified as a major cog in the American scheme of things. The key dictum to follow would be to ensure that India’s interests are insured against reversals in power politics, as Pakistan faced to its discomfiture when the Cold War and the Soviet presence in Afghanistan ended.
The Pakistan Factor
Pakistan can be expected to continue meddling sub-conventionally in India’s affairs. Thus, support to terrorism would continue, with the Pathankot and Uri attacks being pointers of actions to be expected. India’s guard cannot be lowered and eternal vigil is the need of the times. Hopefully, the relative quiet along the border is indicative of some backchannel diplomacy at work. That there is a new Pakistan Army Chief and the top brass there has been overhauled sends out a feeling of hope that the civilian leadership may be exercising a greater say in security and foreign affairs. But haven’t we seen this, which we have fervently wished for, many times before?
On this broad security canvas before India, there also lie the subtle but understated strokes of India’s relations in the neighbourhood. Even as China and Pakistan make forays in these countries, especially with arms sales and economic aid, we can ill-afford to neglect them; they constitute our vital interests. To be influential in world affairs, words need to be backed by deeds — claims of “historical cultural relations” do not work in realpolitik. Thus, the commitment to develop the Chabahar port in Iran gains importance, even as a new relationship develops between Russia, China and Pakistan. The buzz is that this friendship is around China’s ‘China- Pakistan Economic Corridor’ initiative but astute observers can sense something more to be brewing. Similarly, economic and military commitments to Afghanistan have to be met, the geographical disconnect notwithstanding.
Budgetary Support Before 2019
History has proven that a strong military is the foundation for resolute action in the economic and diplomatic fields. The demonetisation exercise may have ensured extra money in the government’s coffers as its statements have proffered. A year from now, the nation will be in the final stretch of the race for the 2019 general election, when priorities for budgetary allocations are bound to change. Hence, a greater allocation for the defence sector is needed in the 2017 budget to enable the services to overcome the neglect of the past decade and enhance their capability to support government aims at influence-building in the neighbourhood. In parallel, the building up of a defence industrial base should gather greater momentum from the snail’s pace it is now. Getting a firm footing in the “near abroad”, to use a Russian term, is a sine qua non for aspirational India’s ambitions in the coming years; 2017 would be decisive in more ways than one.
Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur, retired from the Indian Air Force after 36 years of distinguished service. He is an Experimental Test Pilot from the French Test Pilots School, a graduate of the Air Command and Staff College, USA and a post graduate in Defence and Strategic Studies from Madras University. He has commanded a frontline Helicopter Unit and two Flying Bases, was the Contingent Cdr of the first IAF United Nations Mission in Sudan and has been Head of Training (Air) at Defence Services Staff College, Wellington. As Asst Chief of Air Staff, the author was the operational head of Transport and Helicopter Operations of the Indian Air Force for two and a half years. His last assignment was as Asst Chief of Integrated Defence Staff in-charge of perspective planning and force structure of the Services. He writes for leading national newspapers and professional journals and his core interests concern Air Power and Strategic Affairs. He is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi. This article was first published in The Hindu, 05 Jan 2017.