March 1, 2010

Putting India on the Atlantic

On February 1st, 2010, the United States Department of Defense released the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR). The expiration of the Soviet Union had left the United States bereft of a grand strategy. In 1993, the US Congress mandated that the Department of Defense submit a report every four years on long term defence strategy and procurement. Although the four-year cycle does not directly correspond with the American presidential term, it does mean that every presidential administration is required to submit a QDR. Thus, the QDR gives a presidential administration the opportunity to both lay the tracks of future procurement, and to make a statement about its strategic orientation. The 2010 QDR, therefore, is one of the first major opportunities for the Obama administration to set forth its national security priorities, and to steer the national defence apparatus of the United States in its desired direction.

While the Bush administration’s 2006 QDR attempted to paint the struggle against al-Qaeda in grand, ideological terms, the 2010 QDR focuses on winning the nation’s wars and especially on maintaining the liberal international economic and political order that undergirds globalisation.  For QDR 2010, stability is the watchword. The QDR treats India, China and Pakistan firmly within the context of the contribution or threat that each poses to the liberal international order, suggesting that India will act as guarantor of that order, that China may threaten the order, and that Pakistan requires assistance in maintaining order. However, the QDR fails to deal seriously with potential sources of friction in the US-India relationship, instead simply assuming that India will choose to support the US-designed international economic and political infrastructure.

The most positive assessment of the QDR’s appreciation for India’s role in the international security arena would note that the 2010 QDR devotes almost twice as much attention to India as its 2006 counterpart. A balanced observer would have to acknowledge that even this proportional increase amounts only to an expansion from seventy-eight words to one hundred and sixteen. Nevertheless, the heightened focus lies in the greater attention paid to Afghanistan-Pakistan, and to the Indian Ocean. The 2006 QDR treated the Afghanistan war as an accomplishment of the “Long War”, the ideological struggle between the United States and forces of terror personified in Osama bin Laden. Both because of events and because of a shift in ideology, the 2010 QDR treats the Af-Pak situation as a problem to be solved. It notes:

As the economic power, cultural reach, and political influence of India increase, it is assuming more influential role in global affairs. This growing influence, combined with democratic values it shares with the United States, an open political system, and a commitment to global stability,will present many opportunities for cooperation. India’s military capabilities are rapidly improving through increased defense acquisitions, and they now include long-range maritime surveillance, maritime interdiction and patrolling, air interdiction, and strategic airlift. India has already established its worldwide military influence through counterpiracy, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief efforts. As its military capabilities grow, India will contribute to Asia as a net provider of security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

While much of this paragraph involves diplomatic-speak, it nevertheless carries several important indicators of how the United States views India and Indian military power. Indian democracy is important, but the commitment to global stability is key. The emphasis on growing Indian military power, especially those elements of military power that contribute to international stability, indicate that the United States understands India to be a partner in the maintenance of the liberal international trade system, and it perceives India’s military power as a guarantor of that system.

The QDR does not discuss either China or Pakistan in the same terms. It holds open the hope that China may play a constructive role in the maintenance of the liberal international order:

China’s military has begun to develop new roles, missions, and capabilities in support of its growing regional and global interests, which could enable it to play a more substantial and constructive role in international affairs.

However, where the QDR treats Indian military capabilities as a boon to international cooperation, it also discusses Chinese capabilities as a threat to the United States, and as a potentially destabilising force in the East Asian economic order. China’s development of anti-ship ballistic missiles, advanced submarine technology and cyber-warfare capabilities are all cited as areas of concern. To be sure, the QDR remains agnostic about eventual Chinese intentions, and recognises the importance of the Sino-American economic relationship.  Nevertheless, the contrast between the treatment of China and India is striking.

Similarly, the QDR expresses skepticism about Pakistan’s contribution to international order.  Rather than discuss the ways in which Pakistan might reinforce international stability, the central concern of the QDR seems to the ability of Pakistan and its friends to maintain stability within Pakistan’s borders. Pakistan receives more attention in the QDR than either China or India, which is evidence of US defence secretary Robert Gates’ pragmatic focus on current wars. The emphasis is on Pakistan’s ability and will to continue to carry out a counter-insurgency campaign against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces within its own borders. To this end, it describes assistance programs designed to increase Pakistani state-building capabilities, as well as to re-orient the Pakistani military away from conventional combat and towards the counter-insurgency doctrine that has recently characterised US military operations.

For understandable reasons, the QDR avoids the argument that issues concerning India, China and Pakistan might be interrelated. Indian capabilities are not discussed in the context of containing China, nor of positively influencing Pakistan. China’s relationship with Pakistan and potential rivalry with India receive no attention.

In this context, the implications for direct co-operation between the US and the Indian armed forces are substantial. By emphasising the regional reach of the Indian armed forces, the importance of the Indian Ocean, and the need to stabilise the liberal international order, the QDR creates grounds for military co-operation in several different arenas. For example, the Indian Navy has taken on responsibility for anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, along with the United States and a host of other countries. Because of its geographic position and familiarity with the Indian Ocean region, the Indian Navy is uniquely capable of managing anti-piracy operations between the Horn of Africa, Gulf of Aden and the Straits of Malacca.   The QDR’s focus on maritime surveillance and interdiction capabilities suggests that the United States projects the Indian Navy as playing a major role in anti-piracy operations in the coming decades.

Concerns about terrorism are tied to concerns about piracy, both because of the presence of jihadi groups in Somalia and because of the maritime nature of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The Indian Ocean, touching on much of the Islamic world, remains a significant avenue of terrorist travel, as well as a potential area of operations. Terrorist funding, either from drug trafficking or potentially from piracy, depends on easy and secure access to the Indian Ocean. The QDR expects that Indian naval, air, and police capabilities, in collaboration with the US presence in the Indian Ocean, will help turn the ocean into a governed space.

Finally, the emphasis on strategic airlift creates an opportunity for co-operation in disaster relief. Both the 2004 tsunami and the more recent Haitian earthquake relief efforts demonstrated the importance of military air and sea lift capabilities in natural disasters. United States Navy amphibious capabilities played a key role in 2004, and again in 2010. The Indian Navy also conducted operations in support of tsunami relief in 2004, and the addition of both the INS Jalashwa (the former USS Trenton) and the INS Vikramaditya should further enhance Indian amphibious and disaster relief capability. The establishment of an amphibious warfare hub in Andaman and Nicobar will also facilitate long term disaster relief cooperation.

All of these operations, and even the implicit assumption that India will act as a guarantor of the liberal international order, are dependent on a deeper assumption about India’s intentions.  The QDR blithely—and arguably, given the weight placed on that assumption, recklessly—assumes that India wants to act as a guarantor of the international order, and that it will continue to want to act as such a guarantor for the foreseeable future. In short, the QDR assumes that India wants to play in the US game. Moreover, it assumes that India will gear its foreign policy and military force structure around the role of regional policeman. While this assumption might not seem extraordinary in the context of the last ten years of US-Indian relations, it would have seemed seriously questionable in 1990. The United States and India have had many foreign policy disagreements over the years, ranging from relations with Pakistan to the proper attitude towards China to support for various states and sub-state groups. While the Indian armed forces have diversified supplies, New Delhi still procures a considerable amount of equipment from Russia, even as relations between Moscow and Washington deteriorate. Finally, although differences over nuclear proliferation have eased over the last ten years, India and the United States still stand on different sides of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty chasm.

Thus, while the QDR confidently projects about India’s role in supporting the US-defined international order, it conveniently ignores what might become serious differences in foreign policy outlook. At some point and to some degree, India’s desire to restructure the international order (at least at a regional level) may come into conflict with the US desire for stability. This does not imply fault on the part of either country, but rather the simple recognition that different states view the world differently and seek different (if often compatible) ends. The QDR’s treatment of India on this point stands in contrast to its treatment of China. According to the QDR, China must choose between supporting and trying to revise the international order.  India’s contribution, however, isn’t treated as a choice, but rather as an assumption.

In an important sense, the 2010 QDR “Europeanises” India. It assumes that India will, minor friction aside, act in the general interests of the political and economic order that the Atlantic powers have established, just as Japan, South Korea, Australia, and NATO have acted for the past several decades. This framework is unquestionably productive. It sets Indian foreign and military policy apart from either Pakistan or China by treating the former as a solution and the latter two as problems (even if India isn’t described as a solution to the particular problems posed by either China or Pakistan). It opens space for thinking seriously about the role that the Indian military could play in maintaining regional stability, and hints at both avenues for cooperation and a desired Indian force structure.

However, the program set forth in the QDR hinges on the assumptions that Indian and US interests will not diverge substantially, and that India is interested in playing the role that the US wants it to play. These assumptions would be problematic if they were associated with France, Germany, or Japan—nations which have had strong, decades-long security relationships with the United States. Friction inevitably develops, even in close alliances.  Particularly for a document intended to set forth long-term strategy and procurement policy, the expectations of comity between Indian and American interests seem optimistic. This is not to say that tension will develop, or that either side is unprepared for the tasks that lie ahead.  Rather, at least some note of caution would be wise, and well taken.

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