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How Should Europe Respond to India’s Self-Alignment?

How Should Europe Respond to India’s Self-Alignment?
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

In the last decades, India has witnessed a dramatic foreign policy shift from its earlier Soviet embrace. The principle of non-alignment acclaimed by Jawaharlal Nehru has taken a back seat, and increasing power tests from China (overtaking the festering issue of Pakistan) along with a fast-growing middle class with Western cultural ties have all created the expectation of a spontaneous strategic shift from India’s Third World posture. Along this line of reasoning, in 2021, Raja Mohan pointed to "an unprecedented convergence of Indian and American national interests". Others suggested a strategic move to an alliance, through the Quad or the extension of the recent AUKUS arrangement.

Europe (and especially France) have sought to find a more subtle path with India, resting on shared interests and values. This is not a "third way", evocative of the 1950s Afro-Asian movement and neutrality. In an official visit to New Delhi in April 2022, Ursula von der Leyen hailed India as the "world's largest democracy" and underlined that India and Europe share a commitment to rule of law (a principle also voiced by Narendra Modi at the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue), and the belief in "each country's right to determine its own destiny". To the French especially, this comes with a "strategic autonomy" aspiration or "strategic sovereignty", in more recent European versions. The former wording, after all, has been a staple of Indian strategic language long before French adoption in the European context.

Less obvious to this EU-India convergence is the common problem of leverage. Europe, for all of its "Brussels Effect" influence on global rules, and despite a substantial aggregate defense spending, is not a hard power at the global level. European nations like France or the UK share with India the constraint of insufficient means. India is the world’s third largest military spender and is forecasted to become the most populous nation by 2023, but its GDP is only one sixth of China's. As noticed by Ashley Tellis, India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar may be hard-hitting and an advocate for a more ambitious Indian role. But nonetheless, Jaishankar concedes that the notion of India as a leading power remains "a goal on the horizon" that requires "delivery at home". These very same words could be applied to the EU. Despite notable differences in their respective demography or economy, both India and the European Union are middle powers in today’s geopolitics, characterized by incessant challenges to the rule of law and paralysis of the UN system.

Are India’s views on Russia’s war with Ukraine, and its choices in arms procurement, revealing of a broader strategic posture?

Are India’s views on Russia’s war with Ukraine, and its choices in arms procurement, revealing of a broader strategic posture? In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Institut Montaigne’s China Trends described how China was using India’s detachment on the issue as an alibi for its own vocal support of Russia, terming it an Asian way. And two recent Institut Montaigne articles examine India’s own stand on Russia, particularly its arms purchases, albeit with varying angles.

While one underlines a diversification in India's arms suppliers and a transition away from Russia, the other points to a legacy of dependence that is not fading away. The two viewpoints are in fact complementary, and overlap in recognizing a degree of Indian dependency on Russian arms. However, it is the resulting prognosis for the future that differs: is India eventually moving away from Russian arms, and does that bring it closer to Western views?

In a similar vein, one might underscore India’s Russian oil purchases, suddenly ballooning from a cold start, as a sign of New Delhi leaning towards Moscow. That would be confusing commercial opportunism with a political stand. Russian oil now comes with a significant discount, and China is taking greater advantage of this bargain price. More surprisingly, several European states have actually increased their LNG imports from Russia. The current US proposal to cap the purchase price for Russian oil considers this reality, by keeping Russian oil on the market while minimizing the proceeds for Russia. In both sectors - defense and energy - strategic interests are not the only driver. Availability and price matter, even more so for an economy barely hovering above 2,000 USD per capita GDP. In energy terms, India is also stuck in the transition from coal, simultaneously adding more thermal power plants while undergoing a coal shortage and planning for a greener energy shift. And in both scenarios, New Delhi wants to make more use of its currency for international contracts. Here the desire for greater strategic sovereignty becomes apparent. It is therefore useful to take a closer look at some aspects of India’s arms procurement.

First, nearly every secondary source uses SIPRI’s well-known trend-indicator value (TIV). Values are expressed in USD but do not represent the actual price paid for these arms transfers. They are an estimate of transferred military capability allowing for international comparisons. This is a sort of PPP (purchasing price parity) index for weapon transfers, likely to vastly overstate Russian arms’ true price and to inflate the dollar value of Russia’s weapon sales. On this uncertain TIV criteria, Russia’s banner year for sales to India was 2013 - the fall of deliveries from 2014 coincides with Crimea’s annexation and subsequent sanctions.

India’s share of Russian arms sales was still at 23% between 2016 and 2020, ranking as the number one recipient of Russian weapons exports.

Nonetheless, India’s share of Russian arms sales was still at 23% between 2016 and 2020, ranking as the number one recipient of Russian weapons exports. Look no further for the co-development and indigenization of sophisticated arms systems that Russia has signed with India in 2021. India obtained leverage from being Russia’s main customer, along with Moscow’s willingness towards transfer of production. It is of course far from proven that the actual process will be smooth. There have been past difficulties with localization of production, and there are now unprecedented restrictions of Western dual-use technology access that Russia has brought onto itself, and which undermine its arms industry. In the long and protracted negotiations over the France Rafale fighter, local production, ultimately replaced with large offset clauses, has also been a key issue (perhaps one slowing down the second deal to this day).

Second, the price factor also explains India’s land army arsenal. Russia has a quantitative advantage. According to the IISS, 85% of all new military hardware pieces in the 2010 to 2020 decade were still of Russian origin. But that is exactly where the issue lies: quantity prevails over quality. The Ukraine war teaches a harsh lesson, notwithstanding sanctions and their effects on Russia’s defense industry and sales. There have been only 17 signed contracts with Russia since 2016, and 31 since 2010, out of a total of 121 orders, according to SIPRI’s arms transfer data. In 2018, representatives from the Indian Army testified to the Lok Sabha (the lower house of India's bicameral Parliament) that 68% of its armaments were "vintage", and only 8% qualified as "state-of-the-art".

Even a cursory look through these items reveals a massive quantity of T-72 and T-90 tanks, as well as aging anti-tank munitions - obviously dedicated to a traditional land war with Pakistan. Guided shells, torpedoes, radars are largely pre-2000 orders. Conspicuously absent are the kind of support that tanks need, as shown in Ukraine: India’s BMPs of Russian vintage are obsolete against the kind of asymmetric weapons that have proven essential in Ukraine. For this, one needs to turn to purchases from Israel (now India’s third arms provider after France) which reveal in recent years a cornucopia of armed drones, fire radars, guided bomb orders and tank defense systems. France itself has of course sold Rafale fighters, but also accompanying laser guided bombs and cruise missiles. It is also competing for an additional fighter contract. Naval Group has now launched in India the sixth of its Scorpene submarines, with a reported 40% domestic content. The United States is also notable for anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, as well as artillery locating radars.

India’s emphasis on the indigenization of weapon procurement has kept Russia in the race given its willingness to transfer and localize production - the best example being the S-400 anti-missile system.

Two conclusions can be drawn here. First, past quantity orders placed with Russia are likely to become obsolete, especially army equipment. Pakistan, the target for these armaments, is also moving to conventional asymmetric weapons. Other sellers provide crucial edge weapon systems and advanced components or service weapons. Second, India’s emphasis on the indigenization of weapon procurement has kept Russia in the race given its willingness to transfer and localize production - the best example being the S-400 anti-missile system. Its predecessor, the S-300, did not prove successful so far in Ukraine, illustrated perhaps by Russia’s reckless decision to place missiles on Europe’s largest nuclear site, using the plant as a shield.

But India does use a layered anti-missile protection of which the S-400 is only one component. Reliance on Russian weapons is diminishing, but not without conditions to other providers. By and large, Israel sells subsystems, and the United States are only slowly overcoming their reluctance towards localization and technology transfer. If France has now emerged as India’s second provider, it is not only because of joint reflexions on strategic sovereignty, but because France has entered the race with Russia to localize production - or accept large offset conditions.

A caveat must also be noted: shifts in arms procurement take time. Obsolete weapon systems are unlikely to be junked if there is no replacement available. India is now looking for defense deals with Poland and the Czech Republic to procure parts and service for former Soviet-era equipment. Both US and European arsenals exhibit shortages in critical categories and very long production in times of peace. If India tilted to the West, it would likely have to stand in line for deliveries. Modi himself expressed this concern as a justification for indigenous production. Avoidance of future sanctions or technology denials may be one of the motivations, but indigenous production is unlikely to be exclusive. In practice, all advanced defense systems including on board electronics and most jet engines (not to mention software and C4I) can hardly do without foreign-produced parts and designs.

India’s AatmaNirbhar Bharat in defense - the vision of making India a self-reliant nation, including for design and components - is a long-term project which may actually slow down military modernization in the short to medium term. Yet in a short-term perspective, India’s industry and workforce can also create additional production capacities for imported systems, as it has done for instance in the pharma and civilian software sectors. Indigenization is also part of a larger discourse to move India’s industry forward. In 2022, according to SIPRI’s valuation, India may well be the world’s third arms market.

India’s AatmaNirbhar Bharat in defense [...] is a long-term project which may actually slow down military modernization in the short to medium term.

But in recent years the defense budget did not follow GDP growth. Core defense expenditures (excluding several border forces and a central police reserve) fell from 2.3% of GDP in 2012 to 2% in 2022. Weapon procurement is now scheduled for an extensive catch-up, with new plans announced in May-June 2022. Promoting indigenization is a political necessity in order to push for major increases in the weapon procurement budget, and fits in with India’s overall industrial and innovation ambitions. The Indian Navy is a case in point - with a 43% increase in outlay planned over the previous year. But 75% of procurement is meant to be indigenous. The United States, which is clearly not interested in sanctioning India over the acquisition of S-400 missiles, is reportedly considering a 500 million USD military aid package to boost modernization in critical defense sectors.

Jaishankar recently termed India’s posture as one "self-alignment" and assured critics that India knows its own interests best. Behind this defensive language - due to foreign criticism of India’s lack of overt condemnation for Russia’s invasion - lies a complex reality. On weapons, India has played both sides, although the balance is shifting and Russia’s own procurement challenges are likely to speed up that shift. But indigenization is both a political pre-requisite and a long-term strategy: with the growing number of defense items banned from import, it is clear India will try to rely on imports only for immediate critical gaps, or for large technology transfers. In this context, Russia may well serve as a hare, or indeed provide alternatives if it has not only the will to do so, but also the remaining capacity.

India will try to rely on imports only for immediate critical gaps or for large technology transfers.

Which finally brings us to the wider India-Russia relationship question, and India’s global stand. India’s silence on Crimea and the Donbas, and its quasi-silence on the February 24 invasion, is a widely shared choice among developing countries not wanting to bear any negative repercussions from their eventual condemnation. Not only that, it is also a consequence of the long-standing legal conundrum over Kashmir.

Interestingly, Russia chose to consider India’s 2019 revocation of the Jammu and Kashmir autonomy statute "within the Indian Constitution", a declaration India regards as support. This contrasts with China’s condemnation of India’s "unilateral moves". Broadly speaking, India is faced with a dilemma: in order to respond to the China challenge, it needs the West. But parting separate ways from Putin’s Russia will reduce what’s left of Russia’s diplomatic balancing act with both countries. India also needs to keep common interests alive with Russia on two fronts. One is Afghanistan, where it has been sidelined by the Taliban’s victory and the regional diplomacy between China, Pakistan, Central Asian States and Iran. Russia’s decision to recognize the Taliban government in April 2022 makes it a useful partner for stability. The other one is Iran. India still suffers from the impossibility to directly import Iranian oil since the mid-2019 following the re-imposition of sanctions on the Persian nation by the Trump administration, and from an earlier failure to extend to India what was dubbed the Iran-Pakistan "peace pipeline". That is an area where New Delhi felt strong-armed by Washington, as had been the case over its own nuclear development.

More generally, India is conscious of its geopolitical importance and likely to use its leverage on the world stage as a result. This will less often be based on moralistic arguments, although, as one top-level Indian diplomat quips, "India can beat any other nation at the moralizing game". Instead, interest-based bargaining and eventually horse-trading are likely to come to the fore. Had India not been confronted with the China threat, that new trend would be more pronounced. One could recall Japan’s own self-assertion phase before the China factor settled in. It is with good reason that Narendra Modi and Shinzo Abe have been such close partners. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, in answering a question about India’s position on Ukraine, described America’s India policy as "a long game". That is probably the best Europeans can do. After the illusion of full strategic convergence has faded away, real topics of convergence must be cultivated: meeting China’s challenge, preserving the global commons, cooperating for innovation, and possibly, climate change mitigation. A realist approach will also consider that in other areas, a meeting of interests is a pre-condition to a meeting of minds. Without a doubt, this includes the need to ensure that India does not pocket unilateral concessions from its partners. The balance between indigenization and an open economy, and future developments of the relationship witih Russia, will be closely monitored by everyone.



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