When the UK was contemplating the size of its nuclear arsenal in the 1950s, it was driven by two considerations: first, how many weapons would it take to convince the Soviets that they posed a serious threat and, second, how many weapons would it take to convince the US that they were a reliable ally. London concluded that it needed more weapons to convince Washington than to threaten Moscow.
The lesson of this insightful anecdote revealed by the late Sir Michael Quinlan, one of Britain’s most thoughtful strategists, is clearly also informing decision-makers in India as they ruminate the propinquity of their relationship with the US. New Delhi’s hesitation at the pace and proximity of its evolving partnership with Washington is, doubtless, driven by the present state of India’s military capabilities rather than any political qualms.
Currently, India is in no position to militarily dominate a resurgent China in either all areas of primary interest or in all spheres of possible military action—land, sea, air or outer space. India is even worse off in dealing with a China-Pakistan conventional and nuclear military nexus, which is only likely to grow in the coming years. Consequently, even the US remains unimpressed with the state of India’s military preparedness, especially its ability to project power beyond its immediate neighbourhood in the northern Indian Ocean, let alone in distant theatres like the South China Sea. One indication of this is the absence of Indian assets deployed to search for the missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in the southern Indian Ocean. This absence is particularly telling given that even China joined the search.
The recognition of its limitations might have compelled New Delhi on the one hand to go slow on key agreements with Washington to enhance military cooperation and on the other to try and placate China by including an equivocal reference to the South China Sea in the joint communiqué issued following the 14th Russia, India, China ministerial in Moscow. China promptly noted that the communiqué, which calls for disputes to be addressed “through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned" rather than through the Permanent Court of Arbitration, “tallies with China’s consistent position on dealing with maritime issues".
Some Indian strategists also warn against closer military cooperation with the US on the grounds that this might tie India into an informal military alliance with Washington and force New Delhi to accord basing rights at the very least or, worse, draw India into a US-led conflict with any third party.
These concerns are unfounded and two recent instances expose their fallacy. First, during the run-up to the 2003 US-UK-led invasion of Iraq, France, a close nuclear ally of both countries, not only opposed the war but actually threatened to exercise its veto in the UN Security Council, forcing its allies—the US and UK—to abandon efforts to seek UN approval. France briefly suffered an ill-conceived boycott of its wine and cheese while French fries were temporarily renamed “freedom fries", but the US and the UK did not sever the alliance. Similarly, Turkey, another Nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) ally of the US, did not sign on to the 2003 Iraq war and also refused US troops the use of its territory, forcing Washington to change its invasion plan.
Second, during the ill-conceived 2011 military intervention of Libya, which Washington led “from behind", Germany, another US and Nato ally, which is also dependent on the US nuclear umbrella, opposed the operation in the UN and withdrew its military assets from the Mediterranean. Clearly, if US allies can avoid being drawn into a war not in their interest, then India can certainly ensure the same.
What is evident is that the US-India partnership needs to continue apace to ensure that India can build up its capacity to deter potential conflicts with China (and Pakistan) as well as become a net security provider (in partnership with the US) in its area of primary interest. This is vital for India and global security.
W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the New York University’s Center on International Cooperation and non-resident senior fellow at Brookings Institution.
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