New Delhi’s decision to not consider the American F-16 and F-18 for its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) might have been sound on technical grounds but it nevertheless has important political implications for India’s relations with the U.S. Most of the criticism of the decision has focused on the lost opportunity to build a strategic partnership with the U.S. on the basis of this lucrative deal. Supporters have pointed out that such decisions cannot be based on political considerations. The argument that political and strategic considerations should not influence arms purchases does not hold much water.
Not every decision to buy weapons is made on political grounds, but political factors have played a role in some key Indian arms purchases. That the Indian armed forces are today mostly armed with Soviet/Russian equipment is neither an accident nor the consequence of the superiority of Soviet arms. There were good strategic reasons why New Delhi looked to Moscow for arms. Indeed, much of India’s armed forces opposed the shift to Soviet arms in the 1960s because they had traditionally used British equipment and were Western in orientation. Similarly, the Indian decision to diversify arms procurement since the late 1970s was also a political decision, and an equally sound one. It was unwise to depend so heavily on one source for weapons and the decision to buy the Jaguar (built by a European consortium), the French Mirage-2000 and the German HDW submarines were deliberately designed to limit such dependence.
Therefore, to suggest that political and strategic considerations should not have any role in the MMRCA deal is both foolish and at odds with previous Indian arms purchase decisions. Of course, such considerations would suggest giving greater weight to not only the American jets but also the Russian Mikoyan MiG-35. Indeed, the rejection of the MiG-35 will be a serious blow to the Russian aircraft industry of which Mikoyan is an integral part, a development that does not bode well for India either.
But a more serious issue is its impact on relations with the U.S. The key problem with this decision is that it comes on top of a number of other decisions, all of which suggests that New Delhi is increasingly uncomfortable about developing closer ties with the U.S. Much of the expected India-U.S. cooperation in nuclear energy has been stymied by the Nuclear Liability Bill, which effectively targets U.S. nuclear suppliers more than others. Indeed, those who argued for such provisions in the liability bill were also, not surprisingly, those who had opposed the India-U.S. nuclear deal. That New Delhi gave in to such demands was an ominous indication of a shift in Indian policy.
More recently, New Delhi saw it fit to abstain from the U.N. Security Council vote on Libya. There might have been good reasons for India taking such a position. India has traditionally been wary of international intervention and is only a recent and reluctant convert to the idea of an international ‘responsibility to protect’. Nevertheless, there was little reason for such timidity from the world’s largest democracy which claims to be a rising power and seeks a seat in the UN Security Council. New Delhi has sensible strategic reasons for maintaining ties with the military junta in Myanmar but the strategic rationale for backing Qaddafi is far from clear. This suggests that the primary reason for India’s decision on the Libyan vote was that India did not want to be seen to be siding with the U.S. Indeed, Indian commentators who supported the Indian abstention saw it precisely in those terms, as a vote against strategic ties with Washington.
Each of these decisions has been justified by New Delhi on its (dubious) merits. Cumulatively, they cast increasing doubt about whether India is interested in a strategic partnership with the U.S. at all.
India’s coyness appears to have at least two reasons. First, the increasingly dispirited Mammohan Singh government – and the Prime Minister personally – seem not to have the energy left to push the India-U.S. relationship. Support for a strategic relationship with the U.S. exists both within and outside the government but it still requires political support. Without such support, Indian foreign policy appears to be sliding back to a warmed-up version of its default third-worldism, best exemplified by inanities such as the BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) group.
Second, significant sections of domestic opinion appear to think that India has become such a global influential that the U.S. needs India much more than India needs the U.S. They are convinced therefore that Washington will back Indian interests even if India does not reciprocate. Such wishful thinking is the bane of Indian strategic policy. Nehru, for example, thought that China would not attack India because it would start a third world war given India’s presumed importance to the global power balance.
India’s power and influence is definitely growing and U.S. power is in relative decline. Nevertheless, India is still at best a regional player and the U.S. is still the world’s sole superpower, as it demonstrated recently by killing Osama Bin Laden deep inside Pakistani territory. Common sense suggests that New Delhi as the weaker partner has much more to gain from this relationship, but common sense has always been somewhat scarce in Indian strategic thought.
Obviously, India and the U.S. are not going to agree on everything. In addition to Myanmar, there are a number of issues including Pakistan where Indian and U.S. interests diverge. New Delhi needs to pursue its own interests when it must but it also needs to have the political gumption to stand with Washington because sometimes the strategic partnership is worth it.