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India must rethink strategies on national security if it wants to join ranks with US, China

India lags behind in nearly every aspect of the national security equation – be it trade, aid or diplomacy.

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For any country, national security is one of its primary agendas and, whether they like it or not, the face of national security is changing rapidly around the world. Countries that modernise their security policies will survive. Leading the change in national security are ideas related to Artificial Intelligence-enabled militaries, innovative trade and aid models, and the use of “soft power” through deft diplomatic manoeuvring.

For a few years now, there have been concerns regarding India’s preparedness in these areas. The situation has come to a point where India can either embrace a multi-faceted realist strategy to secure its strategic interests or be relegated into the ranks of the “once promising, now archaic” second-rate global powers.

Several recent events showed India is lagging behind in its security agenda on all frontiers, including military modernisation, trade, and aid. These include the Pulwama conflict, where India’s capabilities to dominate its neighbour in a short war came into question. This was followed by the United States revoking India’s status under its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) programme, leading to a potential loss of $5.6 billion in Indian goods that currently enjoy concessionary tariffs. Then there was the apparent loss of control gradient in Sri Lanka and Maldives in the face of Chinese investment and aid.

Where India lacks

If India wishes to be a first-rate power in the world, it needs to be at the frontiers of innovation or at least move in lockstep with the leaders of the world such as the US, China, France, and Russia. We are living in a world where nations like France already have well-functioning cyber warfare units (Cybercom or Le Commandement de la cyberdéfense) with investments dwarfing what India allocates to capital expenditure in the armed forces by 1.5 times.

Countries like the US have started deploying AI capabilities for predictive aircraft maintenance, culminating into an Automated Logistics Information System. On the other hand, India has a shortage of aircraft and the Indian Air Force (IAF) calls upon Israeli engineers to modify its old French Mirages so they could carry the Russian R-73 air-to-air missiles and replace the now obsolete Matra-530D.

Similarly, India is still busy debating and dealing with the ghosts of the Gujral Doctrine, which was formulated in 1996 and set the tone on the country’s foreign policy with regards to its neighbours. This is when countries such as China, Russia and the US are utilising the cyberspace and relying less and less on human intelligence. In fact, Admiral Michael Rogers, the former commander of the US Cyber Command, unequivocally stated that relying on human intelligence alone in cyberspace is “a losing strategy” and will always keep a country behind the “power curve”.

Also read: China’s defence vision paper takes potshots at ‘Quad’ but wants stability on India border

Resistance to reform

While there is no dearth of technically trained professionals in India, the problem lies in an archaic political mindset, for which reform is a bad word. The resistance to reform and modernisation has led the Indian government to keep investing nearly 42 per cent of its defence allocations to pensions and salaries at a time when the world is moving towards non-human tech-enabled strategic leadership.

Indeed, it may be politically disastrous for any government to reduce the expenditure on personnel and pensions, but not doing so or not finding an innovative approach to fund military modernisation would eventually lead to a veritable survival threat in the long run.

For nations that lag behind in absolute military power – such as Canada, Spain, South Africa, Australia and the United Arab Emirates – the usual good news is that military strength forms only one part of their national security equation. For these countries, trade, aid, and diplomacy account for their considerable global influence.

Unfortunately, India lags behind in these aspects of the national security equation as well. India’s Rs 6,447 crore budgetary allocation to foreign aid is dwarfed not only by neighbouring China, which contributes nearly $2.4 billion (equivalent to Rs 1.65 lakh crore) each year, making it one of the largest donors in the world; India’s contributions seem unsubstantial even compared to nations like Turkey, which provides upwards of $2 billion in aid each year.

Only last month, General Paul Selva, the vice-chairman of the US’ Joint Chiefs of Staff, made an astute observation when he said, “Dollar for dollar, every dollar spent on diplomacy and development… are immensely more effective … than having to deploy soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines to a crisis”. Comparing the 0.64 per cent allocation to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) with the 15.5 per cent of government expenditure on defence shows our lack of appreciation for Selva’s doctrine, which should apply to a developing country even more than it does to developed nations like the US, Germany, and Japan.

Also read: Even after Balakot air strikes, defence budget remains unchanged at Rs 3.18 lakh crore

Solution lies in diplomacy, aid

Perhaps if we can allocate more budget to enhance our diplomatic efforts where greater investment in human capital can create incremental positive outcomes and there is still lesser dependence on artificial intelligence technology such as in the case of the military, we may then be able to enhance our global influence.

Our nation of 1.3 billion people only deploys around as many diplomats as New Zealand, which has a population of around 5 million. With approximately 950 foreign service officers, India has one of the most understaffed diplomatic force of any major country.

One of the key functions of a diplomatic system like the MEA is to create what Joseph S. Nye has called “soft power” – that is, rather than forcing others to do what you want them to do, “it is about getting others to want what you want”. A 0.64 per cent expenditure from the national budget on creating soft power does not do justice to India’s global agenda.

It is ironical that whatever little success we are finding on the global level is thanks to our diplomatic efforts. With the International Court of Justice putting a stay on Kulbhushan Jadhav’s execution, and with nations like Afghanistan, Mongolia, Bhutan, and Maldives responding somewhat favourably to even the paltry aid we provide to them – the signals are clear that India needs to invest more in aid and diplomacy. Yet, the reason why we seem to be losing influence in countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, and even Maldives, is because we are not able to exercise enough soft power through aid-led development in comparison to China. It is natural for nations to prefer the large sums of investments and loans from China, even on disadvantageous terms, than pledge allegiance to India when we engage in mere tokenism by disbursing very little and by multiple visits from the Prime Minister.

Also read: Outdated courses to rampant ragging: Why India’s National Defence Academy needs urgent help

Strive for greatness

While the appointment of S. Jaishankar as the Minister of External Affairs, and the seemingly unending tours of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to every corner of the world, may look good on paper, it is important to not lose sight of the larger question of the efficacy of our diplomatic systems. With an understaffed diplomatic core, one can only imagine the extent to which India will be in a strong enough position to really exercise its will.

Daniel Markey’s observation that “India’s own foreign policy establishment hinders the country from achieving great-power status” is indeed true as the foreign services are plagued by inaccurate selection processes, lack of mid-career training opportunities, and a lack of support solicited by experts out of the IFS system.

With these challenges in place, it is necessary for India to envision its strategic fitness from a long-term perspective and modify its stance by balancing efforts in defence, trade, aid, and diplomacy.

After all, it is often balance that creates the difference between good and great. India should strive for greatness. As a country colonised for two centuries, we owe greatness on the global stage to ourselves. As the largest democracy in the history of the earth, we owe it to the world.

Kalvakuntla Kavitha is a former MP and a member of Telangana Rashtra Samithi. Views are personal.

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  1. She is right, the world expects more from us and we fail the people of India, when we do not measure up to our potential. One of the key functions of a diplomatic system like the MEA is to create what Joseph S. Nye has called “soft power” – that is, rather than forcing others to do what you want them to do, “it is about getting others to want what you want”. A 0.64 per cent expenditure from the national budget on creating soft power does not do justice to India’s global agenda.

  2. thanks for sharing She is right, the world expects more from us and we fail the people of India, when we do not measure up to our potential.

  3. Let’s be clear about the antecedents of Kavith ji.
    I request her to clarify her character Caliber and competence and offcourse authentication of sermon on diplomacy by her

  4. Surprise, Kavitha can write such stuff (no offense meant). She never exhibited such smarts till now, working as she was amidst the riffraff and goondas of TRS. Well, one wonders, why people with such thought processes do not mind the large scale loot and violence that happens under their watch. She and her father are notoriously corrupt, with KCR said to have amassed more than Rs 1000 cr during the Telangana agitation. Will Kavitha tell her father to take action against the MLA who beat up the lady IFS officer in Telangana recently?

  5. I agree with the writer on the point that India’s diplomatic strength is very low for a country of our size and that there is a need to increase the number of personnel in this sector, however I do not agree with the point raised about the need for India to increase its foreign aid simply because India cannot compete with China in terms of foreign aid as their is vast difference in the size of the economy of the two countries and also because both Turkey and China are effectively military dictatorships who do not care about their own people’s misery in various regions of their own countries and thus providing aid to protect their own leadership from foreign intervention. Finally, commenting on the last paragraph of the article calling upon India as the largest democracy and owing it to the world, I think we first need to owe it to our own people as regards to the aid it provides.

  6. This is a brilliant article. I congratulate the author for her quality of thought and analysis. My only question is, why is it that we do not hear her more often? Well done, Ma’am.
    She is right, the world expects more from us and we fail the people of India, when we do not measure up to our potential.

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