As India test-fires its ballistic Agni 5 missile, calls for India to join a democratic quad with Australia, Japan and the U.S. grow louder. The launch was the sixth test of the 5,000-kilometer range missile, and gives India its desired minimum credible deterrence against all major global powers. Likewise, Indian, Japanese and American navies are taking part in the Malabar naval exercises, and the Indian air force is participating with Australia in the air combat Pitch Black exercise in desert conditions. It may seem as though India is flexing its muscles and preparing for an arms buildup.
The idea that India will form part of a balancing coalition in Asia isn’t new. It started with the Bush administration wanting India to share the security burden in Afghanistan, which India’s Vajpayee government very nearly agreed to. Recently, this idea has come to the fore again. Last month, Foreign Policy magazine came out with an article stating that India should be taking up responsibility in Asia, and should “show India has teeth” in its growing power and economy.
Exactly how India should do this isn’t clarified. Suggestions that India sell weapons to East Asian countries, and that the Indian navy do joint patrols with the U.S. Navy, were vaunted. Permanently stationing Indian armed forces in Afghanistan was also considered. These were, of course, not happening. All those ideas were shot down by the Indian strategic community, including the current navy chief. India’s government and leadership is irrelevant to its permanent strategic considerations. Of all the countries that are supposedly part of a coalition, only one shares a land border with China. It is almost impossible to expect India to be a part of a military alignment considering this fact, or to expect that there would be a solution to India’s predicament if there were a conflict tomorrow. Indian policymakers know that all too well.
Also, India lacks the social coherence and political will to take any leadership role in Asia. The Indian foreign policy bureaucracy suffers from a status quo bias, and is notoriously slow to take action. Other than in India’s immediate neighborhood – places like Kashmir and Myanmar, where the country’s strategic interests are located and it has previously taken swift action — Indian forces are loath to be part of any multilateral coalition. Nonaligned training, following India’s carefully drafted default position of not taking sides, is mandatory for all Indian foreign service members. In a way, it’s the perfect policy for a midrange power, helping the country hedge its bets in times of conflict and maintain a profitable relation with all parties.
A simple way to understand Indian foreign policy since the nation’s independence is to consider the teachings of Kautilya, India’s foremost strategic thinker and sage from the Mauryan period. Kautilya, in his seminal work “Arthashastra,” divided strategy into five parts. The foremost of these was three-pronged: seek peace, prepare for war while keeping quiet, and align with the enemy’s enemy. India’s policy should be understood as a reflection of Kautilyan wisdom.
However, India has no major ally in the region, and cannot afford to fall into any one camp in any upcoming major power rivalry. It is simply not in the country’s strategic DNA. India doesn’t have the will or capability to decide on such a bold course of action and then carry out such an endeavor over the long term in an efficient way. India’s domestic politics have many structural issues, and with a looming economic crisis and lack of jobs, the country needs investment urgently. It’s therefore futile to ascribe some grand strategy to India, or to be paranoid or hopeful about its intentions in Asia.