As the Indian economy grows to be the world’s sixth-largest, the expectations from most South, Southeast and East Asian countries, Indian Ocean littorals, and a large number of nations that make up the free world is for India to play a greater role in ensuring stability and a rules-based order in the region.

With the Chinese aggressively advancing their interests and military capabilities, the Indian security establishment has perceived the need to enhance its intrinsic capabilities and interoperability with other nations – both proximate and distant – to fulfill its role.

Narendra Modi has been to 58 countries since taking over as prime minister of India in 2014. At the top of the chart are the US and China, which he has visited five times each. A large number of his other visits have been to Asian countries. India’s “Act East” and “Neighborhood First” policies are the priorities.

However, diplomatic heft calls for complementary military capabilities and political will. Political will was displayed quite resolutely at Doklam, Bhutan, the site of a 73-day India-China standoff last year.

India has addressed its military capabilities quite vigorously of late. Viewed at the macro level, the Indian endeavors include restructuring of its apex national-security apparatus, consultative mechanisms and agreements with friendly countries, equipment-procurement policies, force modernization and restructuring.

National Security Strategy long overdue

As far as the apex national-security structures are concerned, a new organization called the Defense Planning Committee has been established. The committee will be headed by the national security adviser and include the three chiefs of the armed services, the chief of the Integrated Defense Staff, and the foreign, defense and expenditure secretaries. The mandate includes producing a national-security strategy, defense diplomacy, a capability development plan and a defense manufacturing ecosystem in India. The evolving of a National Security Strategy was a long-overdue requirement.

Force restructuring to usher in greater cooperation of the three armed services is an area that requires to be immediately addressed by the Indian government. It needs to start with appointing a chief of defense staff and creating joint headquarters at the theater level. Such headquarters in the Indian context remain single-service-specific, calling for a huge amount of communication among the entities of the three services with attendant disadvantages of time lag, distortion and sub-par optimization of resource allocation.

As of now only two joint services commands have been created, one for the island territories of Andaman and Nicobar and the other a Strategic Forces Command for such assets as nuclear weapons and land- and sea-based missile systems. The latest reports indicate that tri-service agencies for cyberspace, space and special services are in the offing. These are already overdue and will serve to garner greater resources and focus that these areas merit.

Consultative mechanisms

Among the more important consultative mechanisms with friendly foreign countries is the “Quadrilateral” comprising India, the US, Japan and Australia. The forum came into being in 2007, and then underwent a downslide as the Australians under prime minister Kevin Rudd kept away. The mechanism found its feet again with a meeting of working-level officials in Manila in November 2017. The central theme was “a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

There is considerable convergence among the participants on the issues relating to freedom of navigation and flying across maritime commons. It’s a forum that has been of concern to the Chinese.

Other dialogue mechanisms include the so-called 2+2 meeting with the Americans. With the Indian defense and foreign ministers on one side and the American defense and foreign secretaries across the table, the forum successfully negotiated the Communications Compatibility and Security Arrangement (COMCASA). With the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) already in place, COMCASA enhances the interoperability of the two forces. A hotline at the ministerial/secretary level is also being implemented.

India and Australia also held their first 2+2 dialogue in 2017 on strategic defense ties, with the secretaries of defense and foreign affairs of both countries meeting. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs in its release communicated, “There is a growing convergence of strategic perspectives between the two countries. Both sides agreed that a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large.” Australia is also keen to join the Malabar series of naval exercises and awaits an invite.

A week after the dialogue, the two foreign secretaries were joined by their Japanese compatriot for the fourth round of a trilateral dialogue. There was already a 2+2 mechanism in place between Japan and India. The dialogue was upgraded to the ministerial level during Modi’s visit to Japan in October. India and Japan have begun negotiating an acquisition and cross-servicing agreement that will provide for logistics support to their forces in each other’s military facilities.

Modi visited the Philippines in July and signed an agreement to step up cooperation in defense. In March, he had visited Vietnam, where the two prime ministers emphasized the need for an open and prosperous Indo-Pacific region and also an efficient and rules-based regional security architecture.

India and France have also signed a reciprocal logistics support agreement for their armed forces in each other’s facilities.

India-Thailand military ties were boosted in 2012, when a memorandum of understanding was signed that catered for joint exercises and dialogues. The relationship has firmed with trade, commerce and seabed exploitation being pursued jointly.

India has also secured access to the Port of Duqm in Oman. Further, India should be building a port facility on Assumption Island with the support of Seychelles. India has also reached a logistics agreement with Singapore for Changi Port.

India is constructing the Chabahar port in Iran. The Indian commitment will cost about US$8 billion. It’s a substantial counterweight to the facility being constructed at Gwadar in Pakistan by the Chinese. Sabang Port in Indonesia, close to the Malacca Strait, would also provide logistics support to Indian ships.

Defense Procurement Policy

As far as military capability building is concerned, India issued a new Defense Procurement Policy (DPP) in 2016. The Indian armed forces depend heavily on imported equipment to maintain their inventory. According to one set of statistics, 70% of the equipment for its 1.5 million forces is imported. A large percentage of equipment is also obsolescent and requires immediate replacements.

The methodology for procurement has been archaic. The DPP 2016, though not adequate for conducting business in today’s market conditions, is nevertheless a huge step forward that provides an even playing ground to the Indian private sector. It emphasizes indigenous capability development and the adoption of a strategic partnership model, inclusive of the Indian private sector, that would address long-term capability building in selected critical sectors such as tanks, helicopters and ammunition.

The government has also displayed a degree of dynamism in amending the new policy wherever it has been found wanting.

The Indian Army has initiated a study for transformation in key areas. These areas include the possible removal of divisional headquarters. The brigades would be restructured as task forces, with their composition and strength being tailored to meet operational roles. The study is also considering manpower cuts and increasing the capital outlay for force modernization. A review of the current rank structure of its officers cadre based on the requirement for the task-force concept is also being studied.

Strengthening partnerships

India continues to evolve stronger partnerships with other countries. Indian development assistance has become a major plank of its diplomacy. A total of 61 countries have benefited from Indian aid.

In the immediate neighborhood, Bangladesh ranks on top, while engagements with the Afghans have been extensive and protracted. Currently Indians are building a nuclear power plant in Bangladesh, while constructing the Afghan-India friendship dam (Salma Dam) on the Hari River in Herat.

Notwithstanding Indian funding, the Chinese have invested substantially, and hold out the promise of billions of dollars as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. However, gradually the recipients of Chinese funding are realizing that Chinese money gnaws into their sovereignty.

The Quadrilateral of India, the US, Australia and Japan needs to get its act together. Far greater cohesion is required among these countries if the Chinese are to be stalled. They have created military assets on disputed islands in the South China Sea with the whole world barely responding. The entire exercise was progressing simultaneously with then-US president Barack Obama talking about the “pivot to the East.”

Indian preparedness to meet the challenges it faces has been slow. Even after it picked up pace lately, the allocation for defense remained $63.8 billion, as compared with China’s $228 billion, for 2017 according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Understandably, India’s priorities as a developing country cannot be entirely the defense sector at the cost of poverty alleviation, basic health care or education and a host of other areas that compete for resources. Yet if the pace of induction of new-generation weapons systems is to be maintained, a transformation of the inventory of the forces will need to be achieved in the next decade. However, by then the Chinese will have raced far ahead to increase the gap between the two countries.

Over the past decades, India, with unpredictable and aggressive neighbors along its land borders, had been oriented toward strengthening its army. Now, having built up the army considerably to defend its land borders, it has turned its focus seaward.

At the end of the day, it’s all-season durable partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region that hold the key to stability.