THE past few days have been spent by this columnist in the United States, in Washington DC, the nation’s capital. For at least a generation more, the US will remain the most consequential country in the world. After that, should China remain on a high growth trajectory, Beijing will replace Washington as the leading capital on the globe. And this is a factor that is gnawing at several minds in Washington. If there was only a scatter of negative voices on China twenty years ago, these days such a lack of empathy for the world’s most populous country is widespread within the policy elite. War gaming is almost a daily activity at the Pentagon, and scenarios where the military of China can pose a threat to its US counterpart are getting more frequent by the month.
There is a real fear that, for example, the immense space capabilities of the US military are becoming vulnerable to the Chinese. Senior figures even spoke of Beijing soon using the moon to set up offensive capabilities that could neutralize US assets. Over the past decade, the domestic technological capability of Chinese military has developed at speed, and unlike India, which still needs to import more than 80% of its core defence needs, by now China is more than 80% self sufficient in such systems. In India, there are powerful lobbies that ensure snuffing out of indigenous capabilities. An example is HF-24 Marut, an excellent aircraft that was not allowed to proceed to a Stage II level.
Lobbies working to import the UK’s Jaguar ensured that the HF-24 program was abandoned. Had such anti-national elements not prevailed within the decision making levels of the defence establishment in India, by now India would have been exporting several billions of dollars of military aircraft to friendly countries, the way China is doing despite the fact that twenty years ago, the Chinese were technologically behind India in the aeronautics field. Not just the Marut but a whole range of weapons systems that were designed within the country were either slowed down (through deliberate tweaking of specifications, often several times within a year) or stopped altogether.
A few weeks ago, the High Court in Milan found several employees of an Italian company guilty of having paid bribes to secure an order for twelve aircraft to India for use in the VVIP squadron. The height ceiling requirement was brought down from 18,000 feet to 15,000 feet to ensure that the Italian company (Agusta Westland) got the deal, of course at a bloated price. At that time, an Indian helicopter, Dhruva, was capable of reaching 20,000 feet but was never considered for the order. A VVIP (according to press reports at the time) said that she would not fly in an Indian chopper.
In contrast to India, where foreign items were preferred over domestic substitutes of similar quality, China ensured that its own producers were given priority. Should Beijing continue at the speed it has been moving the past decade, within another ten years, there will be a Chinese civilian aircraft as good as Airbus or Boeing, and almost certainly much cheaper. It is this that is motivating manufacturers in the US and in parts of Europe to look at India as an alternative production platform. Despite its shoddy infrastructure and its nightmarish regulations, the country has thousands of qualified aeronautical engineers. Also, the risk of India copying such products the way some other countries are known for is very low. The relentless pride in country that drives such activity in some other countries such as Japan and China are missing in India.
Of course, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is aware of this, and unlike his predecessors, is rectifying the situation. However, this is proving to be a slow process. There are hundreds of brilliant young minds in India who come up with major breakthroughs in technology, but few of them are allowed to succeed in an environment where arms lobbyists control the decisions of several policymakers. What takes place is that the frustrated inventor finally migrates to the US or to another foreign country ( a nearby option being Singapore). In the much better ecosystem of those countries, he or she completes work on invention and in time, product returns to India as a foreign (and high priced) import. There are examples where state agencies have forced domestic manufacturers to accept very low and unremunerative prices for items made by them.
The intention is to drive them out of business so that foreign companies and foreign countries retain their monopoly, selling items at prices much above what the destroyed Indian start-up charged. Being practical, Modi has focussed on the option of getting foreign companies to invest in India on the scale that they did in China during the latter part of the 1980s and throughout the 1990s. Start Up India and Stand Up India are his exhortations, and very slowky, changes are taking place that may make both a reality. As a consequence, the odds are high that over the coming years, a larger and larger share of total US production of military assets will get made in India If China is looked upon as a threat, India is seen as an opportunity.
On the other side, Modi has been seeking to tame those in the bureaucracy who have for decades been blocking closer defence production relations with the US out of fear that this would impact the sales by countries such as France and Russia to India. Unlike during the time of the Cold War, when Delhi was seen as too close to Moscow, these days there is a willingness to work closely even on sensitive matters. Unlike during the 1990s when Bill Clinton was in charge, these days the exceptionalism of a country of 1.26 billion is becoming accepted by the bureaucracy in the US, which is as rigid and impervious to change as its counterparts in India. Prime Minister Modi arrives next month for a summit with President Obama, and during the trip, he will address a Joint Session of the US Congress.
The visit is expected to announce some major initiatives that would highlight the fact that slowly, the US and India are becoming partners in matters of security, the way India and China are coming together in matters of commerce. In both Washington and Delhi, the mood is for a closer relationship, as it seems obvious that such a situation would lower the prospect of any other country going to war with some other countries, especially in East Asia, a zone where it is essential that there be peace.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.