DURING THE past two decades in particular, Indian leaders have looked beyond their immediate neighborhood and adopted a more ambitious strategy. The “Look East” policy, a case in point, seeks to expand and deepen India’s presence in East Asia so that China does not have a free hand in shaping the strategic and institutional landscape there. More to the point, it is designed to strengthen security ties with the Asian countries located around China’s perimeter, particularly those unnerved by the prospect of a Pax Sinica and anxious about America’s staying power and the narrowing gap in power between the United States and China.
India has been active on a variety of fronts in East Asia. It has been training Myanmar’s naval officers and selling the country maritime surveillance aircraft. It has provided Vietnam loans for buying Indian arms and has signed a deal, despite profuse Chinese protests, to tap Vietnamese oil deposits in the South China Sea, adjacent to islands claimed by Beijing. It has been engaged in regular security consultations with Japan, Israel, Australia, Indonesia and the United States, and has participated in naval exercises in the Pacific alongside America, Japan, Singapore and Australia. It also signed a free-trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2009. While specialists on Indian foreign policy tally these and other triumphs with care, what’s sometimes missing from their analyses is a comparative perspective, which would show that China’s presence in East Asia, and the resources it has deployed to gain influence there, far exceed India’s on every dimension that matters, and by a wide margin.
Another part of India’s strategy has been expanding the power and reach of its armed forces. Much has been accomplished, and the balance between India and China is a far cry from what it was in 1962, when a military rout that revealed Indian troops’ lack of basic equipment created a political firestorm at home. The Chinese would find it considerably harder now to prevail swiftly in a war along the border. Still, India trails China in military power, and a quick comparison makes the disparity evident. Though the two countries have populations of comparable size, India’s GDP is a mere 22.5 percent of China’s. This gap gives Beijing a big advantage in mobilizing and applying various power-relevant resources—and one that is likely to widen given that China’s rate of growth, though it has slowed of late, still exceeds India’s. India and China have devoted a comparable proportion of GDP to defense in recent years: about 2.5 percent and 2.0 percent between 2008 and 2013, respectively. Yet because of the GDP disparity China can, with a smaller burden on its economy, spend far more on its military machine than India: $188 billion compared to $47 billion in 2013. The actual gap is likely even larger, as China’s official figures probably understate its true level of defense spending.
Nor is it just a matter of the spending mismatch: whether it’s armor, airpower, cyberwarfare, air-defense systems or power-projection capacity, China retains a significant advantage over India, in qualitative and quantitative terms. Some numerical comparisons of major categories of armament make this evident. In combat aircraft, attack helicopters, submarines and destroyers, China’s lead ranges from 2:1 to 4:1. Some strategists, Indian and Western, aver that the Indian navy now has the wherewithal to establish dominance over its Chinese counterpart and to block the lifeblood of the Chinese economy by controlling maritime passageways that provide China egress from East Asia. Leaving aside the fact that this scenario assumes a full-blown war in which the naval balance would be but one factor, the difficulty New Delhi faces is that China has far more economic resources than India to devote to seapower in the coming years. Besides, in 2013, the Indian navy received only 18 percent of the military budget, compared to 49 percent for the army and 28 percent for the air force, and a reallocation of resources, certain to be contentious, would be required to ensure maritime dominance over China. That’s possible in principle—leaving aside the inevitable interservice budget battles—but not easily accomplished given the threats India faces from the land and air forces of China and Pakistan, who continue to be aligned. Even if one concedes the claim about Indian naval superiority, Beijing can apply counterpressure in various ways, particularly by bolstering Pakistani military capabilities, using its well-developed strengths in cyberwarfare and striking across the Sino-Indian border. Even with India’s recent move to further strengthen its border defenses by creating a “mountain strike corps” of fifty thousand troops, the Chinese are likely to retain the advantage in numbers, mobility and firepower—and thus the wherewithal to mount offensive operations across the three main sections of the border: Ladakh-Xinjiang, Tibet-Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh-Sikkim.
Modi has his work cut out for him. He will doubtless seek to reform India’s defense industries but will have to continue relying mainly on external suppliers. Russia, whose armaments dominate India’s army, navy and air force, will retain a natural advantage. But in recent years India has been dissatisfied by cost overruns in Russian armaments, the unreliability in the supply and quality of spare parts, and accidents aboard Russian-built submarines, and so it has sought to reduce its dependence on Moscow. Modi won’t burn bridges with Russia, but he will open the door more widely to American, European and Israeli suppliers. While Israel will remain a niche supplier for India, since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, trade between the two countries has grown (it totaled $6 billion in 2012); so have Israel’s military sales, which cover radars, missiles of various sorts and reconnaissance aircraft. India has become Israel’s leading market for its arms exports, the annual worldwide total value of which is $7.5 billion, with India accounting for as much as $1.5 billion. Such transactions, which include intelligence sharing related to counterterrorism, are no longer controversial within India; Modi, who visited Israel while running Gujarat and attracted billions of dollars of Israeli investment in his state, has voiced his admiration of Israel’s economic and technological achievements and his desire to boost cooperation.
New Delhi’s strategy toward China goes beyond strengthening India’s armed forces. Since the bilateral military balance heavily favors Beijing, India has turned to a classic coalition strategy aimed at dispersing China’s military strength across what, given the size of the Chinese landmass, are far-flung fronts. This gambit, already well under way, will gain momentum. For reasons rooted in history and geography, India’s natural partners will be Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam and the United States, countries with which India’s military ties have grown during the last two decades. The increasing security cooperation between New Delhi and Tokyo in recent years is particularly significant and will increase because of their shared apprehensions about China. Given Japan’s economic and technological prowess, it could—if the increasing threat from China trumps domestic opposition—boost its military strength in fairly short order. With a GDP approaching $5 trillion, barely 1 percent of which it devotes to defense, this would only require a minimal increase in the defense burden. While East Asian states have been rattled by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to revise Japan’s “peace constitution” and to increase its military capabilities, India has welcomed them and embraces Japan as a strategic partner. In 2014, Japan and India decided to begin regular consultations between the two countries’ national-security leaders. This decision followed the initiation of yearly trilateral meetings among India, Japan and the United States in 2011. There is more involved in this than talk. Japan has participated in three—in 2007, 2009 and 2014—of the annual U.S.-Indian “Malabar” naval exercises, which were initiated in 1992 (they were suspended following India’s nuclear test in 1998). What bears watching is whether Japan’s 2014 decision to lift the ban—which dates back to 1967—on the export of military technology and arms leads to purchases by India as part of its push for military modernization and diversification. Tokyo’s 2013 offer to sell India the ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft, and India’s interest in buying fifteen of them, may represent a harbinger. Already, Japan and Australia have been in discussions over the latter’s purchase of ten Soryu-class Japanese submarines (worth $20 billion), a development that points to the potential for larger arms sales by Japan to India, especially given their shared concern about China’s expanding power.
USING DIPLOMATIC and economic means, India is also establishing a presence on China’s western and southwestern flank, in Afghanistan and Central Asia. It has positioned itself to play a major role in post-American Afghanistan by training Afghan security forces, building road networks and acquiring natural-resource deposits. But China has also been purchasing economic assets in Afghanistan, notably in energy and mining, and once the United States and its allies depart, Beijing will have to develop a strategy to defend these gains, which means that its presence in that country will grow, adding a new front to Sino-Indian competition.
China has overshadowed India in Central Asia, despite the emphasis the region receives from Indian strategists and New Delhi’s efforts to strengthen its position. India remains an observer rather than a full member in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, among the many sources of Chinese influence in Central Asia. Indian energy companies have been bested by their Chinese counterparts in bids for shares in Kazakh companies and energy fields, most recently in the giant Kashagan offshore field, among the largest in the world. Pipelines recently built by China are drawing increasing volumes of Kazakh and Turkmen energy eastward. Trade and investment trends show that Beijing’s economic presence is fast overshadowing Russia’s, to say nothing of India’s, in what has been a Russian sphere of influence since the nineteenth century. India’s position is even weaker in the military sphere. Unlike China and Russia, it lacks direct access to the region. Its quest for access to the Ayni air base in Tajikistan, its first attempt to gain a military toehold, ran into Russian opposition—no matter that New Delhi had spent some $70 million to renovate it—and so Ayni’s operational value to India as a combat-aircraft platform remains uncertain.