Naval Gazing

India wants to "look east," but does it have the ships -- and strategic focus -- to be a military player in Asia?


On June 23, during a visit to New Delhi, Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in which he explained the role that India plays in Asia. He mentioned Pakistan six times, climate change eight times, and Afghanistan 12 times. China, Southeast Asia, and East Asia only merited one mention, while the "Look East" Policy — India’s effort to expand its economic and military relationships with East Asian and Southeast Asian nations — received only two mentions, both in the same sentence. Kerry’s speech probably disappointed New Delhi: India no longer wants the world to see it as an inwardly focused nation mired in its own backyard.

Indeed, over the last month, India’s Navy made goodwill visits to Vietnam and Malaysia; a mid-June trip to the Philippines included "courtesy calls, receptions" and shipboard tours, according to the Inquirer, a Filipino newspaper. In May, for the first time ever, an acting Indian defense minister made an official visit to Australia; the two sides agreed to start annual naval exercises. After a late-May visit to Thailand and Japan, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that he is "hopeful" of the Look East Policy’s future success.

The rest of the region, however, should not share Singh’s optimism: India’s ability to become a major Asian power is constrained by conventional and insurgent threats, resource and organizational limitations, and a chaotic domestic political scene.

Yes, India is modernizing its armed forces. In February, India announced it will spend over $37 billion on its military, a 14 percent increase from last year; for the last three years, it has been the world’s largest arms importer. But India’s military remains distracted by counterinsurgency operations in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir and in the country’s restive northeast, as well as by a fractious relationship with Pakistan. And India still lacks the ability to secure its borders. One of the embarrassing takeaways of a border crisis in early May, in which roughly 30 Chinese troops pitched tents 12 miles inside Indian territory, was that India lags far behind China in its ability to move forces into the contested area.

Indian strategists place their greatest hopes for influencing Asia’s security dynamic on naval power. India’s annual naval spending grew from $181 million in 1988 to $6.78 billion in 2012; the navy is now a professional and capable force that, in combination with the United States and other allies, could potentially balance China in the South China Sea.

But some Indian strategists and political elites worry about excessively close cooperation with the United States. India’s Look East Policy has already created friction with a China worried about being contained. New Delhi is wary of further provoking its neighbor to the north, one of Asia’s dominant military powers and one of India’s largest trading partners. Both countries have stated that they want bilateral trade to reach $100 billion by 2015, up from $68 billion today; this is particularly important at a time when India’s economy is growing at its slowest rate in a decade. And without partners like the United States, the Indian Navy is unable to sustainably project power — doing so alone would require at least several years of modernization, expansion, and investment in logistics, support, and surface and submarine vessels. Courtesy visits to Manila are not the same thing as deployable military power in the South China Sea.

Indian domestic politics present another hurdle. India’s defense bureaucracy is slow and inefficient, and an ambitious strategy such as this would require sustained oversight and prodding by powerful politicians. Yet India’s most influential elected officials seem focused on the instability of the ruling government and, above all, the 2014 general elections. There is no incentive for Indian politicians to focus on defense policy or alliance strategy. Politicians win votes by distributing patronage, building local alliances with regional political parties, and making appeals to class, caste, language, and religion. As former Chief of Naval Staff Arun Prakash said in May, "Since defense and security have not, so far, become electoral issues," Indian politicians are "happy to leave defense and security matters" to the bureaucracy, which lacks the power to make changes to defense policy.  

Until India gets its own house in order, Singh’s hope that his country’s diplomacy "will contribute to peace, prosperity and stability" in the region will continue to ring hollow. In his Sunday speech, Kerry also said that "India is a key part of the U.S. rebalance in Asia." That it is — and it’s not ready to go into Asia alone.  

<p> Vipin Narang is assistant professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. </p> <p> Paul Staniland is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago. </p>