Written by Paul McGarr.

Over the past decade, India has been pressed by external actors to assume a more expansive security role in the Asia-Pacific region. Notably, the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia ushered in renewed optimism within Washington that India could be co-opted as a partner in containing burgeoning Chinese power. In February 2015, the United States’ National Security Strategy announced that America was “primed to unlock the potential of our relationship with India” and “support India’s role as a regional provider of security.” In India’s case, the advent of the Trump administration appears unlikely to change the established US direction of travel. On a visit to India in April, H.R. McMaster, Trump’s National Security Adviser, enthusiastically endorsed the US-India strategic relationship and reaffirmed India’s status as a “major defence partner”.

Indian strategic thinking continues to be dominated by an insular and entrenched focus on its contested northern borders. In contrast, China’s burgeoning military power has increasingly been directed externally….

How, precisely, Washington envisions India injecting substance into rhetoric surrounding regional security projection remains much less clear. India has a range of possible options. These encompass, amongst others, capacity building with neighbouring states; taking on more responsibility for humanitarian operations and disaster relief; enhanced policing of maritime trade routes; and even an expanded role in meeting military threats to regional stability. In the later sphere, India has already begun to develop the scope and scale of its military footprint, rebooting joint naval exercises with the US and Japan in the Pacific.

An assumption that India’s growing military and economic power will see New Delhi play a greater security role in the Indian Ocean region and perhaps beyond may, however, be slightly premature. India has tentatively extended its diplomatic focus outside the Indo-Pacific rim to take advantage of economic and political opportunities in the Persian Gulf and Eastern Africa. Moves have been made to secure transnational commercial networks and safeguard access to global energy supplies. But, this has occurred in the context of a stuttering and incremental improvement in India’s ability to project force beyond the subcontinent.

Current Indian military spending lags well behind that of China, and is increasing at a slower pace. Plans are afoot to modernise the Indian navy, notably through the acquisition of a new generation of ballistic missile submarines and the addition of an additional aircraft carrier. Yet such plans will take decades to bear fruit. In the interim, Indian strategic thinking continues to be dominated by an insular and entrenched focus on its contested northern borders. In contrast, China’s burgeoning military power has increasingly been directed externally, with Beijing aggressively asserting territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Capacity issues are far from the only obstacle, or even the primary impediment, constraining India’s assumption of a more prominent regional role. Within Indian policymaking circles, overwhelming emphasis is placed on the subcontinent’s importance in terms of security policy. In the 1950s, the nation’s first premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, framed Indian security policy in expansive terms, carving out an international role for India as a peacemaker in disputes ranging from Korea to Suez. In the 1970s, under the governance of Nehru’s daughter, and India’s third premier, Indira Gandhi, the country’s strategic focus shifted fundamentally to embrace a new orthodoxy. New Delhi’s concept of security became narrower, more parochial, more coercive, and was rooted firmly within South Asia.

The Modi government continues to hew broadly to the insular security posture forged under Indira Gandhi. India remains predominantly concerned with a problematic and volatile national periphery. New Delhi’s preoccupation is less with greater Asia, and more on longstanding and bitter territorial disputes with its immediate Pakistani and Chinese neighbours, two nuclear armed states, boasting modern conventional forces, both of whom have gone to war with India in the recent past. For any Indian policymaker to prioritise regional security over local threats remains psychologically problematic and electorally suicidal. Inevitably, expending the bulk of India’s material and intellectual capital on internal security considerations limits capacity for wider action.

Moreover, existing strategic alliances constrain India’s latitude to pursue activist regional policies. India’s ties to Iran complicate its relations with the United States. A dangerous and irresponsible nuclear proliferator in Washington’s thinking, Iran is valued by India as a close trading partner and source of energy security. Likewise, India has a long association with Russia in the defence field that stretches back to the Indo-Soviet friendship treaty of 1971. Still New Delhi’s principal supplier of armaments, India has received Moscow’s gratitude and America’s ire in almost equal measure by backing Russian efforts to sustain the Assad regime in Syria.

Conflicts between longstanding India strategic priorities and the lure of wider regional prizes are certain to limit the extent to which India occupies the role of security guarantor in the Indian Ocean. Such tensions will also restrict India’s ability to function effectively in support of the United States in tendentious operations in the Middle Eastern or East Asian theatres. It is probable that further attempts by Washington, or other global actors, to encourage or cajole India to shift its security focus outward will flounder on the treacherous rocks of an inward-facing domestic political culture that is highly resistant to the application of external pressure.

As over the coming years India’s relative global power grows, as current projections indicate that it will, history suggests that New Delhi will ignore siren calls, from Washington or elsewhere, to utilise enhanced force capabilities in Southeast and East Asia. It is more probable that Indian power will continue to be directed preponderantly northward, away from the South China Sea and towards shoring up its internal borders.

Such an outcome may, in fact, serve India and the United States well. Back during the Cold War, under the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, ill-fated American attempts to transform India into a counterweight to communist China through the use of economic and, after the Sino-Indian War of 1962, military assistance, came badly unstuck. The endeavour destabilised the subcontinent and fractured US-Indian relations. In the process, India delivered a painful lesson to Washington upon which contemporary US policymakers would do well to reflect. Intense American pressure on India to prioritise broader regional security concerns over local threats to national sovereignty ultimately proved wholly ineffective. External agency, even of the superpower variety, proved to be a blunt and ineffective tool of little utility when targeted at Indian security policy.

Moving forward, India will continue to give paramountcy to local security issues while, at the same time, working more broadly with the United States, and other regional actors, whenever its suits its interest to do so. New Delhi’s present relations with Washington have bounced back from a late Cold War nadir to stand at a remarkably good level. Nonetheless, declarations of common purpose emanating from the White House and the South Block that laud a shared commitment to promoting Indo-Pacific stability and security should be treated with caution. The fundamental principles and priorities of Indian security policy remain unaltered. In New Delhi, for now, at least, conceptions of security still begin in Gujarat and Rajasthan, run through Kashmir, and peter out on the border with Bangladesh.

Paul McGarr is Assistant Professor in US Foreign Policy in the Department of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham. His first book, The Cold War in South Asia, 1945-1965, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013. He tweets @paul_mcgarr. Image Credit: CC/ Wikimedia Commons.

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