India Adopts a New Assertive Geopolitical Strategy for the Twenty-First Century

Article published on Feb. 20, 2011
community published
Article published on Feb. 20, 2011
by Vassilios Damiras Following India’s independence in 1947, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated a foreign and defense policy that was based on principles of socialism and remaining uncommitted to the Cold War disputes. Eventually, this specific policy led to India becoming the founding and leading member state of the Non Aligned Movement in 1955.
This approach was described by various diplomats and scholars as noncommittal, neutral, and immoral. It placed India to collaborate in bilateral global commitments only in crisis that were neutral.

Later on, the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 came as a shock to the Indian political elite, as the Russian Federation did not carry the same international clout and not longer provide the kind of military support to India in various international fora that its predecessor Soviet Union did. The new post communist Russia did not accept the barter of goods and materials for military hardware as the Soviet Union did.

Following India’s independence in 1947, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurated a foreign and defense policy that was based on principles of socialism and remaining uncommitted to the Cold War disputes. Eventually, this specific policy led to India becoming the founding and leading member state of the Non Aligned Movement in 1955. This approach was described by various diplomats and scholars as noncommittal, neutral, and immoral. It placed India to collaborate in bilateral global commitments only in crisis that were neutral.

Later on, the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 came as a shock to the Indian political elite, as the Russian Federation did not carry the same international clout and not longer provide the kind of military support to India in various international fora that its predecessor Soviet Union did. The new post communist Russia did not accept the barter of goods and materials for military hardware as the Soviet Union did.

In 1991, India faced an economic crisis due to growing trade deficits and increased capital expenditures in the 1980s that resulted in a serious and critical reduction in foreign exchange reserves. The India government decided to liberalize its economy. This economic policy of liberalization had a psychological effect in a very area in India. Thus, the defense establishment started looking to U.S.A. for military aid and technology. Indian political and military elites perceived that a strong military relationship with the American military establishment could create the conditions for India to become a major power.

Hence, in the twenty-first century India’s defense establishment is undergoing a serious and dramatic transformation as it modernizes its defense capabilities. India systematically seeks a “strategic partnership” with the United States of America. The diplomatic courtship started under President Bill Clinton continued under President George W. Bush and furthered under President Barack Obama with his latest trip to India.

            On specific terms, the Indian political establishment wants to expand its economic influence in the Indian Ocean basin and beyond. This cataclysmic transformation includes a shift from an emphasis on the former Soviet Union/Russia as the main supplier of defense materials to a pro-Western base supply and an increasing emphasis on India-U.S. relations.

            The rapid warming of the diplomatic relations between India and the United States over the past decade is proving to be a serious and significant, yet very challenging, new relationship. The new opportunity for tens of billions of U.S. dollars in defense related sales will open up new business venues for both countries and establish strong bilateral relations.

            In addition, the U.S. defense technologies have important applications to domestic counterterrorism; these sales also expand beyond the defense establishment to law enforcement and border control challenges. Despite the tremendous new opportunities, U.S. policy makers need to keep a few crucial things in mind as the Indo-U.S. defense relation moves into new and uncharted territories.

            The Indian diplomatic establishment to a lesser extent will look to the United Nations as a way of forming global consensus on multilateral issues and challenges that do not affect adversely India’s national interests. At the same time, New Delhi will fiercely protect its own domestic and bilateral issues such as, counterterrorism measures, the conflict in Kashmir, and the Indo-Chinese troubled relations.

            India wants to become a regional power or even regional hegemon and secure diplomatic and defense agreements from nation-states that support this specific goal, while building an expeditionary navy and a strong air force. In addition, India builds a new army ready to deter a Pakistani onslaught or domestic terrorist activities.

            Globally, India wants and desires to develop “strategic partnerships” with nation-states perceived as leaders of a global, multipolar order, and seek to buy sophisticated military capabilities from many of these new relationships. This includes modern and highly sophisticated military assets as well as the technology and licensed production associated with those weapons and weapons systems.

Various military analysts argue that, India will most likely emphasize balance in its defense relations, especially with the larger powers of the United States, Russia, the European Union-EU, UK, and Israel. This balance will often be reflected in defense procurement decisions, as these are enduring symbols of the bilateral relationship. Most bilateral and multilateral military exercises will not be affected with considerations of balance, with the exception of larger, more visible exercises.

The relationship between India and the European Union (EU) is new and does not involve defense matters. India targets civilian markets for investment. Of all the EU member states Britain and France have a robust bilateral relationship with India. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, France offer to India to sell sophisticated technology. However, the French-India relationship has some problems, because France has strong economic relationships with Pakistan and China. Both countries perceived to be enemies of India. On defense issues, India develops some cooperation with Germany and Italy.

Regarding Israel, India recognized the state of Israel in 1992. Since then, Israel surpassed France to become India’s second largest defense supplier with the conclusion of a $ 1.1 billion contract to sell the Phalcon airborne warning and control system Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). In addition, both Israel and India are jointly developing a $2.5 billion surface-to-air missile system. In addition, they collaborate in counterterrorism and intelligence various projects.

Furthermore, Indian political elite wants to secure and sustain strong diplomatic ties with smaller countries across the globe, many of which are member states of the Non Aligned Movement, that can provide a great support in international fora as well as provide potential markets Indian’s own emerging defense industry. India will maintain a position of leadership in the Non Aligned Movement and publicly appears itself as “nonaligned” despite its actual alignment. It is evident that India will achieve a serious defense industry to be reckoned. Also it is crystal clear that the Indian political elite want a close relationship with the U.S.A. This kind of close Indian-U.S.A. bilateral relationship will assist India to become a regional hegemonic power. In addition, the American government can use this new diplomatic connection as a venue to protect American national interests in the region.

            The new era of U.S.-India defense cooperation has commenced an era of strong defense ties between the two largest democratic nation-states. Military-to-military contracts made substantial inroads. In 2005, the then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the then Indian Minister of Defense Pranab Mukherjee signed a “New Framework for the U.S.-Indian Defense Relationship.” This treaty formally introduced the idea of “strategic partnership.” This new epoch of strong defense ties could establish a strong military stability in the region. In addition, the new strategic partnership allows both countries to cooperate on various counterintelligence and counterterrorism projects and operations. Also, this specific defense treaty permits both militaries to execute symmetrical and asymmetrical warfare exercises.

            It is evident that India’s defense interests have changed over the past two decades from the position of nonalignment to one having specific geopolitical, geostrategic, geoeconomic, and geodefense goals and policies. In addition, Indian political elites are interesting of a “poly-alignment.” This new defense and foreign policy elevates India to a regional hegemonic power. Finally, India wants to have strong diplomatic and military ties with U.S.A. in order to achieve better global recognition.

Vassilios Damiras is a Defense Consultant in the US