America Has High Expectations for India. Can New Delhi Deliver?

Indian Army

Editor’s Note: This is the eighteenth installment of “Southern (Dis)Comfort,” a new series from War on the Rocks and the Stimson Center. The series seeks to unpack the dynamics of intensifying competition — military, economic, diplomatic — in Southern Asia, principally between China, India, Pakistan, and the United States. Catch up on the rest of the series.

India is a big deal in Washington these days. The old stereotype of a desperately poor, frustratingly stubborn India has been replaced by that of a shiny, IT-savvy global power on the move. A wave of think tank reports, books, and op-eds identify India as a key component of U.S. grand strategy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the National Security Strategy herald an important Indian role in containing China. India is part of “the Quad” of democracies worried about the rise of China, along with Japan, the US, and Australia. President Donald Trump has even encouraged a greater Indian role in Afghanistan. Two prominent scholars of Indian security recently argued that “India has emerged as a central partner in U.S. efforts to balance rising Chinese power in the Indian Ocean/Asia-Pacific region.”

India is a ray of optimism about America’s ability to sustain its position in Asia. American administrations have been strongly pro-India since 2000, but the rise of China has heightened the urgency of the threats the United States faces in the region. Closer ties with India are seen by many as a key component of, in Ashley Tellis’ words, “protecting American hegemony” by keeping China out of the Indian Ocean, occupying its conventional forces, supporting American balancing efforts in Southeast Asia, and underpinning the broader American-led economic and political order in Asia. This strategic bet on India — providing diplomatic support and offering valuable deals in exchange for closer future ties — makes long-term sense and is worth continuing.

But Washington should not talk itself into excessive optimism about India’s ability to help the United States manage the pressing challenges it faces in Asia in the years to come. India is a hard-pressed power, facing deep domestic challenges and tightly constrained by powerful adversaries on its borders. There are real limits to what it can deliver, yet these often seem better understood in Delhi than in D.C. American policymakers and analysts need to keep their expectations for India limited and realistic to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Domestic Politics

India’s domestic politics and economy have real strengths, but also create serious and long-term constraints on its ability to generate and project military power.

First, India’s political system limits the attention and resources officials devote to foreign policy and the armed forces. The country’s democratic politics and values are often identified as a reason that it will align with the United States. In October, Tillerson argued in a speech on U.S.-India relations, “I want to be a partner with another democracy; I don’t want to partner with these other countries that do not operate with the same values.” While Indians generally view the United States positively, the fact that both India and America are democracies has little obvious implication — not only did this not lead to alignment during the Cold War, but the incentives (in both countries) created by democratic politics often have nothing to do with foreign policy or U.S.-India relations.

As Vipin Narang and I recently argued in Security Studies, domestic political incentives are a far higher priority for most Indian politicians than the finer points of grand strategy or alignment with America. The country’s top politicians spend much of their time raising money, campaigning, and managing candidate selection, coalition bargaining, and intra-party feuding, rather than overseeing or reforming security bureaucracies or investing in strategic assessment.

India is not unique in this regard: grand strategy is only occasionally an important part of domestic politics in many other democracies. But this limits the actual significance of shared democracy as a binding agent in the relationship: The United States is largely peripheral to the core issues of Indian politics.

The United States has worked to build strong relationships with India’s important foreign affairs and defense bureaucracies. Yet major policy shifts ultimately must be driven by elected politicians. Without concerted attention and the expenditure of political capital, bureaucratic delay and sclerosis are likely, rather than smooth-functioning, far-sighted technocracy. Dan Markey has argued that India’s foreign policy “software” is not adequate on its own to drive ambitious foreign policies, which means concerted attention from India’s elected leadership is essential. To move beyond parochial bureaucratic incentives, civilian politicians need to devote consistent effort to overseeing, managing, and prodding national security bureaucracies.

And indeed, even when resources are allocated to defense, the Indian state has struggled to turn them into military power. The budget of the Ministry of Defence is being cannibalized by military personnel and pension costs. These costs place a hard limit on the ability of the military, especially the huge and manpower-heavy Army, to invest in serious modernization and technology acquisition. The available weapons procurement process and indigenous development are also deeply inefficient and unable to meet India’s needs, in part because civilian politicians are focused on other issues and worried about being ensnared in corruption allegations.

The “Make in India” program to encourage defense indigenization has not led to dramatic changes. Increases in GDP are not being straightforwardly converted into new military power: Simply maintaining sufficient ammunition stocks and replacing aging equipment (especially in the worrisome case of the Indian Air Force) are enough of a challenge, much less engaging in the kinds of ambitious new reforms China has pursued in the last decade.

India has made important strides (such as in missile development and space technology) that need to be taken seriously, but in many key areas it is working hard just to try to maintain the status quo. India’s rising GDP is not, at least yet, being turned into an equivalently improved balance of forces against China. If anything, the current risk is that the balance will shift against India as it struggles to adequately supply its forces with appropriate equipment. An India in military decline or stasis relative to China would certainly look to the United States for support, but would not be as useful to Washington as an India that can gain ground on its own.

Indian democracy creates strong incentives for politicians to devote both attention and funds to far more pressing domestic priorities. Democracy is generally good for India, but it does not have obvious advantages for its security policy.

Second, India’s economy is both a success story and a cause of concern. Growth has accelerated dramatically since the early 1990s, and has reshaped much of India. It will continue, but Washington needs to keep in mind the limits of growth: Sufficient industrialization has not accompanied growing GDP numbers, inequality has shot up, and large swathes of India remain underemployed and undereducated. India currently has a “demographic dividend” — it will age much less quickly than China, which may get old before it gets rich. But capitalizing on that dividend requires providing young Indians with real skills and good jobs. Under both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his predecessor Manmohan Singh, this challenge simply has not been met. Without major changes to the Indian economy and educational system, India will struggle to generate broad-based economic growth, limiting its ability to build a sustainable defense-industrial base (that could produce, for instance, substantial numbers of high-quality fighter jets) or get anywhere close to China’s levels of economic development in the near to medium term.

Third, social divisions persist in India that can threaten the country’s political stability and, in some cases, require ongoing commitments of security forces. The Hindu-Muslim question remains unresolved. Modi’s BJP has committed itself to a project of making Hindus the symbolically dominant citizens of India, and vigilante attacks and rhetorical assertions of supremacy by Hindu nationalist activists have made it clear that this project has teeth. The dramatic waves of communal riots that swept across India in the 1980s and 1990s have not recurred, but underlying potential for deep social division, and violence, remains.

India also remains bogged down by internal insurgencies. These are not as challenging as they were in the early 1990s, but a mix of state police, Ministry of Home Affairs internal security forces, and the Army remain deployed in large numbers to deal with ongoing revolts. Kashmir’s insurgency — which pundits and officials have regularly and inaccurately claimed is “returning to normalcy” for the past two decades — has revived itself after several years of quiescence. In central India, a Maoist insurgency (the Naxalites) has largely been contained, but still occupies the attention of huge Ministry of Home Affairs forces.

India’s Northeast has seen numerous separatist rebellions stretching back to the 1950s. Today, violence is down, but forces remain heavily occupied in garrisoning areas of current and past violence. The “durable disorder” in the Northeast has limited India’s ability to deliver on its “Act East” policy of expanding links to mainland Southeast Asia. It also creates additional political and military challenges in a region that already faces a growing Chinese presence along both disputed and undisputed border areas. Army forces often find themselves tasked to long periods of counterinsurgency duty in Kashmir and the Northeast, occupying combat forces that are also supposed to handle China and Pakistan. Ministry of Home Affairs internal security forces have tied up substantial, and increasing, resources.

Understanding India’s domestic politics and economy is essential to understanding what it can actually accomplish in power projection and foreign policy. Electoral competition does not create incentives to devote attention or resources to security policy, the government’s process for turning resources into military outputs is inefficient, the economy will struggle to sustain the growth needed to make major gains against China, and Indian society remains far from stable. India is certainly not unique in being constrained by domestic problems, but the country’s challenges nevertheless place real limits on its security policy ambitions.

China and Pakistan as Regional Competitors

These domestic constraints are joined by regional limitations. India is in many ways now a defensive power in its own region, facing a resolute and risk-tolerant Pakistan Army to its west and, to its north, a truly formidable China that is aligned with Pakistan and expanding its influence throughout the region. The ultimate center of gravity of Indian security remains its own region: This is where the bulk of India’s military capabilities and strategic attention will be deployed in the decades to come.

India is undoubtedly, and successfully, seeking a broader presence in and beyond the Indian Ocean: India’s Navy is extending its outreach and India is developing closer links with Asian powers, the United States, and Israel. The United States is right to encourage this strategy. But the Indian Navy remains the least-resourced of the services, while the Army’s share of the budget grows in the face of continental threats from China and Pakistan.

India has attempted, supported by many American analysts and policymakers, to “de-hyphenate” its relationship with Pakistan. This means evading Pakistan’s efforts to drag every issue into an India-Pakistan framework. Yet where it counts the most, India has not been able to escape Pakistan. Despite the media hysteria and heady claims that accompanied the Modi administration’s “surgical strikes” against Pakistan in September 2016, some hard facts remain: ceasefire violations along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir have increased, militant violence within Indian-administered J&K has ticked back up, and the Pakistan Army continues its Chinese-backed project of nuclear and conventional modernization. India has been unable to seal off the domestic politics of the Kashmir Valley from the international dimension of the conflict: Even pro-India Kashmiri parties continue to emphasize the need to engage with Pakistan on the question of Kashmir.

The goal of moving past Pakistan is smart, but the means remain out of reach. The Pakistan Army itself seeks to limit India’s ability to do this, and is not going anywhere. Huge Indian conventional forces remain committed to Pakistan-related operations and contingencies, even as others support counterinsurgency operations against Pakistan-backed (though often also indigenous) armed militants in Kashmir. The sheer footprint of force structure that India is forced to devote to Pakistan shows the limits of de-hyphenation.

China’s move into the region has marked a larger political shift. While it is easy to overestimate China’s savvy and influence, the country has thrown huge resources into Pakistan while also cultivating Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka. The long-term results of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor remain to be seen, but the scale of the commitment is striking. China is also able to provide at least some political cover and military equipment sales to Pakistan, creating a buffer against American coercion.

The small states of the neighborhood have often had, at best, an ambivalent attitude toward India, historically seen by many as a domineering neighbor. China is seeking to take advantage of this ambivalence in Sri Lanka and Nepal, where powerful parties and factions are deeply suspicious of India. This influence takes different forms, and in the case of Sri Lanka may create far greater costs than benefits for Colombo. But it nevertheless puts India on the backfoot, playing defense against a cash-rich, highly motivated Chinese foreign policy that is well-positioned to exploit regional tensions.

The Chinese challenge can be found in starkest terms along India’s borders. Indian analysts have been sounding the alarm about China’s force development and infrastructure advantages for years, and these fears are becoming more pressing. The stand-off between India and China at Doklam initially seemed like an Indian victory. Yet as time has gone on, it looks instead like the first round of a recurrent series of mini-crises as China digs in for the long haul.

There is little likelihood of a major conventional war between India and China, and India has some key advantages in specific areas of possible combat. Still, India will need to devote significant resources to holding its positions and fortifying its infrastructure along its borders with China. This is a defensive reaction to growing Chinese power, not a form of leverage.

India is certainly not bottled up. It has reach in the Indian Ocean and into the Middle East and Southeast/East Asia, as well as ties to the United States and Europe. But its core security challenges lie on its borders and occupy the bulk of its strategic focus and budgetary resources.

Taking India Seriously

Crafting strategy means taking India seriously as it is, and as it likely will be. The standard stories of skyrocketing economic growth, the IT sector, and shared democratic values need to be weighed against the realities of India’s politics and regional position. Indian domestic politics are extraordinarily complex, its economy mixes the very good with the very bad, and its neighborhood imposes numerous constraints on broader power projection. All of Asia’s powers confront real limits on their security policy — but India faces a distinctive bundle of challenges that will shape how it can generate, and where it will deploy, military power.

Where does this leave U.S. policy? India is a hugely important American partner, and an American tilt toward India in the region is a smart long-term strategy (even if the United States will have to continue doing business with Pakistan). This is not a counsel of despair or a call for reversing course on the U.S.-India relationship. India is already a key power in the Indian Ocean, and may be able to bolster the broader set of institutions that underpin American power in Asia.

Yet the United States needs to keep its expectations limited and realistic (just as India should when it comes to what the United States can deliver). Policymakers and analysts in Washington  must resist the temptation to view India as more capable and committed than it actually is. Overestimating Indian military capabilities, both in the present and future, will make the correlation of forces in Asia appear artificially inflated in favor of a balancing coalition against China. Overlooking the realities of Indian domestic politics may lead to overconfidence about India’s willingness, and ability, to come to America’s aid in crises. India is an increasingly important player in Asia, but the United States needs to maintain a clear-eyed understanding of India’s likely trajectory.


Paul Staniland is Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Committee on International Relations at the University of Chicago. He is the author of the award-winning book Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Cornell, 2014), and numerous scholarly and policy articles on conflict and security issues in South Asia. He has done research in India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, and Singapore.

Image: Indian Ministry of Defence