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India Is Clearly Disadvantaged in the Region's New Arms Race

Three Questions to Christophe Jaffrelot

India Is Clearly Disadvantaged in the Region's New Arms Race
 Christophe Jaffrelot
Senior Fellow - India, Democracy and Populism

On Friday 5 October, during a bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin in New Delhi, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi finalized a $5 billion weapons deal with Russia to purchase the high-tech S-400 missile defense system. The deal could potentially expose India to American sanctions, according to the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) legislation signed by President Donald Trump last August. The latter declared since that "India would soon find out" about his decision in this regard. Christophe Jaffrelot, Senior Research Fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS and Visiting Professor at King's College London, shares his insights on the implications this purchase could hold for India, its bilateral relations with the US, and the region.

What consequences could this deal have for bilateral relations between the US and India?

India seems to be taking a calculated risk. New Delhi assumes that the US needs India as much as India needs the US and, therefore, that it will benefit from some waiver to escape sanctions. This bet is risky because India simultaneously announced that it would also continue to import oil from Iran, despite the new American sanctions. Yet New Delhi seems to have no other choice: refusing to deal with Russia would involve even greater risks, given that Moscow is threatening to suspend the supply of spare parts on which much of the Indian arsenal depends. As for Iran, India considers it to be one of its strategic partners in the region - one that could notably help it to surround Pakistan and to gain access to Afghanistan. 

Does this purchase reflect India's desire to balance its defense relations with Russia on the one hand, and with the United States on the other?

In a way, the Indian government is back to square one, as it is rediscovering Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy after having dismissed it in derogatory terms. At the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), it was indeed quite fashionable to criticize the "Nehruvian model" of the 1950s and 1960s, and in particular to blame it for its Soviet and socialist tropism, in the name of a rapprochement with the United States. Yet Modi's government is now embracing Nehru’s line, and replaced "non-alignment" with "omni-alignment" in its discourse. This can be explained by the fact that India does not want to alienate its independence by entering into an alliance system. The country thus prefers to keep several of its geostrategic assets under its sleeve for the sake of sovereignty, exactly as advocated by Nehru. Of course, Modi partly operated this shift because he was constrained to, as suggested earlier, but also because of a strong pull factor: India does not want to depend too exclusively on its recent partnership with the United States, a country that no longer seems so reliable since Donald Trump came to power. The diversification of Indian military supplies will however not only depend on the Russians and Americans, as demonstrated by the Rafales deal with France, which led Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to visit France from 10 to 12 October.

The purchase of these missiles, the range of which could enable India to target Pakistan as well as many Chinese cities, could reinforce Beijing and Islamabad's sense of insecurity towards India. Can we expect an arms race in the region?

The S-400s are more defensive than offensive weapons, but China is indeed the threat that India increasingly dreads. New Delhi fears Chinese expansionism because of the border disputes it causes, but also because of the Chinese people’s growing presence in the Indian neighborhood (Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc.). A new arms race is underway, in which India suffers from a clear disadvantage: it still has not created a proper arms industry, hence its dependence on foreign suppliers. Not only does this situation imply financial costs (India is among the world’s largest arms importers), but it also generates internal tensions. The Modi government considers that public companies in the sector are not in a position to absorb the offsets allowing for the technology transfers to which it aspires in order to develop an Indian arms industry. Hence the promotion of private companies such as Anil Ambani's Reliance - Dassault’s partner in the Rafales deal. Such a strategy is part of a broader policy, that is known as "crony capitalism".


Copyright : MONEY SHARMA / AFP

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