In recent years, Indian foreign policy—for better or worse—has been primarily a regional affair. India has sought to check the nefarious influence of Pakistan and prevent instability in Sri Lanka.
Therefore, last week’s unfurling of an Indian nuclear-powered submarine—built on Indian soil—is a momentous occasion. Analysts are right to point out that India has now positioned itself as a global power, not simply a regional one.
But there is more at stake here than just the transition from a brown-water navy to a blue-water one.
One of India’s major foreign policy concerns continues to be Pakistan. After the nuclear-powered submarine was released, a Pakistani foreign office spokesman told BBC, “Pakistan will take appropriate steps to safeguard its security without entering an arms race.”
Pakistan’s defensive line is just rhetoric; this could not possibly trigger an arms race as Pakistan has no access—or means—to build its own nuclear-powered submarines. That hasn’t stopped Pakistan from barking, but it really has no bite.
But that raises a larger issue. India’s nuclear-powered submarine provides a second-line nuclear deterrent against Pakistan. A nuclear arms race cannot happen, but the significance of such Cold War rhetoric is not lost; India has already won the race.
Finally, China’s expansion in the Indian Ocean—and globally —has widened India’s regional concerns in scope. Nuclear-powered submarines, therefore, are necessary to deter Chinese meddling in the waters around the subcontinent.
There is a great symbolic importance to India joining the exclusive nuclear submarine club, if it can be called so. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been criticized, as the submarine is costly and less technologically advanced than those of India’s peers. But that’s beside the point. Just as possessing nuclear missiles or nuclear power plants signifies a level of advancement in defence and infrastructural terms, nuclear-powered submarines signal broadly to the world that India is a legitimate global power.
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