The India-United States (US) 2+2 dialogue that took place in Washington DC against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine concluded in a satisfactory manner and is testimony to the recently acquired resilience in the bilateral relationship. Recently, because the bilateral relationship was long described as one that was “estranged”.
For almost five decades, deeply held divergences related to security and strategic issues kept the two major democracies apart and the page was turned only in late 2008 when the India-US civilian nuclear agreement was concluded. In the larger US politico-military framework that classifies the world into allies and adversaries, India is neither fish nor fowl and is designated as a major or important partner nation.
Security dissonances have not been totally erased and what is evident is a larger and shared correspondence. Much of this has been reflected in the focus on the Indo-Pacific as a region, which has acquired considerable political traction under President Joe Biden.
This dissonance in the security-strategic domain and the ability to contain it within a larger ambit of shared concerns was discernible at the 2+2 deliberations. Bilateral resilience was tested over the Washington-Delhi dissonance apropos the Ukraine war and clearly a tentative modus vivendi was forged. This is reflected in the comprehensive joint statement and the consensus is to be welcomed.
Security and strategic determinants were at the core of the bilateral partnership when then US President George Bush took the radical initiative to end the “estrangement”. This was driven in no small measure by the Beltway’s assessment of the long-term strategic challenges posed by a rising China.
Certain sections of the joint statement and defence minister Rajnath Singh’s observations in Washington provide a template for a preliminary review of the macro policy opportunities and challenges that can impact India’s profile in the military-security domain. In the yet to crystallise post Covid-post Ukraine world (dis)order, India occupies a vulnerable perch and the numbers are stark.
Among the top 10 global economies (2021), the US is at the top of the ladder with a nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of $20.9 trillion; China is second at $14.9 trillion; and India is at sixth spot at $2.7 trillion. It is pertinent to note that the other seven nations (Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Canada and South Korea) are allies of the US and are assured of military support and inventory cooperation. China is both economically and militarily robust and is a major exporter/supplier with a credible military manufacturing ecosystem. Russia, for the record, is at 11th position.
India is in an unfavourable spot, for while it has the potential for economic growth ($5 trillion GDP is the current aspiration), it is militarily very vulnerable, for it has no meaningful indigenous capability to design and manufacture critical military inventory items that are combat-worthy: Tanks, guns, ships and fighter aircraft. Even personal weapons such as Kalashnikov rifles are imported or, at best, will be assembled in India. As is well-known, Russia remains a major supplier of India’s military equipment (almost 70%) and in the last decade , the US has also become a significant supplier.
Thus India’s claim to strategic autonomy and becoming a leading power on the global stage has to be contextualised against this glaring vulnerability. This is analogous to the Indian predicament in the 1960s when it adopted a strident post-colonial posture on the world stage and often voted at the United Nations (UN) against the US — but was a major importer of food grains. Paradoxically the primary food supplier to India at the time was the US.
Then Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi resolved to redress this “ship-to-mouth” national ignominy and embarked upon a major macro policy initiative — the Green Revolution. The paradox continued, for India sought and obtained US assistance from the latter’s proven agricultural competence and leading American universities were part of this sustained effort.
This successful cooperation led to India not only becoming self-sufficient in food production but also generating surplus produce and today Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi is in a position to offer Indian wheat to nations affected by the Ukraine war — if the World Trade Organization rules permit.
This transformation from vulnerability to excess capacity in food production was enabled by the high -octane political resolve of PM Indira Gandhi and a steady hand on the tiller provided by two Cabinet ministers — C Subramaniam and Jagjivan Ram.
In the current context, India’s visible military import dependency index needs to be reduced and PM Modi’s focus on atmanirbharta (self-reliance) must be commended. But for this transmutation to be realised, the domestic ecosystem must be receptive to foreign investment and technology transfers — which alas, is not the case.
Rajnath Singh was spot on in calling for “increased investments by US defence companies in India under the ‘Make in India’ programme” and adding that the “participation of US entities in industrial collaboration and partnership in research and development will be critical” for the success of this initiative. Galvanising the ministry of defence to rise to this challenge is imperative.
Commodore (retired) C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy StudiesThe views expressed are personal