The strategic logic of India’s fighter deal
India received plenty of criticism from US commentators and officials recently for eliminating Boeing’s Super Hornet and the Lockheed F-16IN from the shortlist for a 126 fighter contract. The argument goes that India should have chosen to reinforce its relationship with the United States and purchased one of their aircraft. Instead, India has eliminated both the US bids (and India’s standby arms supplier, Russia) in favor of the French Rafale and the EADS Eurofighter. Why did India snub its likely future partner in a counter-Chinese strategic partnership?
Indian strategists simply do not see the problem that way. Several important problems have come to the surface – firstly, that the F-16IN and F/A-18 Super Hornet are older airframes, closer to the end of their technological life-cycle than the newer European aircraft. They may yet be open for newer upgrades that will allow India to keep pace with China’s modernizing indigenous aircraft industry. Making the development of India’s own industry even more difficult were US restrictions on technology transfers and demand for inspections. India does not want to be reliant on its arms suppliers, like most great powers. Finally, the fact that America has sold upgraded F-16 aircraft to Pakistan recently must be figuring in Indian strategic logic. Such a snub would not just be out of spite, it would also be out of a desire to maintain a strong qualitative edge against India’s main military adversary, and America ought to recognize that its relationship with Pakistan has often left Indians feeling insecure about their strategic position. When Obama and other Americans floated the notion of including India in the AfPak brief, possibly to follow Pakistani exhortations to solve the Kashmir dispute in an attempt to exit Afghanistan with a comprehensive regional settlement, the Indian press went berserk. Understandably so, considering the sensitivity of Kashmir to both sides and the awful US track record at mediating the problem. Indeed, much more progress has been made between the two states without America breathing down either Islamabad’s or New Delhi’s neck.
It is actually quite logical for India to maintain flexibility in its arms purchases even from a strategic political, rather than purely technical, standpoint. Far from being short-sighted, India recognizes that it will be making a large number of investments in its military in the years ahead, and given the likely growth to come in the Indian navy, this may well involve US cooperation. The fundamental geostrategic logic of Indo-American cooperation will find other opportunities to express itself, but it hardly puts India in a position where it can only guarantee its interests by expressing the maximum possible deference to the United States.
After all, part of countering Chinese influence can even run against the immediate interests of the US. For example, competition for energy dictates that India maintain some degree of openness and flexibility vis-a-vis Iran, which would harm India should it fall too deeply into a Chinese orbit. It also means competing with the Chinese for influence in Burma – America may not have more concrete interests at stake by alienating the ruling dictatorship, but India does. India will also likely continue trying to keep relations with Russia warm and keeping it wary of China. Essentially, the most comprehensive approach to Indian security mitigates against India showing America the same kind of deference that Europe or Japan did during the Cold War. Unlike Europe, India is a major power in its own right, rather than a oft-incoherent bloc of states in relative decline. So too will India have greater horizons for pursuing an independent foreign policy than Japan.
Multipolarity, at least within the realm of Eurasian geopolitics, will have important effects on US relationships with India. China is not the overwhelming threat to Eurasian system that the Soviet Union was. India has far more capabilities relative to China than Japan or the European states did against the USSR. While Indo-American relations will certainly be less tense than Sino-American relations during the Cold War, Indian balancing against China will leave India far less dependent on the US than its treaty allies were during the past several decades.
Additionally, a multipolar world and the new level of European security mean that a stronger Indo-European defense trade might ultimately benefit the US. For all the complaining about the lackluster state of European defense, Europe will not be able to maintain its defense industries through an age of austerity without foreign buyers. Just as major purchases from China helped keep Russia’s armaments industry alive during the 1990s, Indian purchases may help sustain the defense industrial base of Europe. This will help Europe maintain the basic economic strength to re-enter the Eurasian security arena in the future – and it also reduces pressure for Europeans to push against the EU arms embargo on China, which would obviously harm US interests.
While it would be too much to say Asia’s 21st century will be Europe’s 19th or 18th, it would do well for Americans and American analysts to look to that era’s diplomatic relations. When alliance systems are fluid and the strongest state cannot maintain outright geopolitical hegemony, states have more to choose from and more complicated grand strategic agendas. Getting used to such snubs and learning to compensate so deteriorating relations do not imperil enduring national interests will help American leaders and policymakers both better understand Eurasian geopolitics and craft sounder grand strategy.