As the People’s Republic of China continues its rise, Asia and the world are scrambling to keep their balance. Among China’s neighbors and rivals, few countries seem willing or ready to counter the challenge it poses. Japan is struggling with decades of diffidence internationally and the strictures of its postwar constitution. The countries of Southeast Asia are divided among themselves about the virtues of growing closer to China, while Australia is split internally over the same question. Europe is distant, Russia a reluctant Chinese ally — and, of course, the U.S. seems to have turned inward.
Only one country seems eager to deal with the ramifications of China’s rise: India. Across dozens of world capitals, confidence is repeatedly expressed that India will seek, in the decades to come, to balance China. And in no capital is this sentiment expressed more loudly than India’s own.
Yet, the unfortunate truth is that, however worthy this objective or sincere its expression, India’s actions speak otherwise. Its diplomats and strategists continue to dither about whether or not balancing or containing China should be India’s strategic objective. More importantly, the government isn’t funding the military capability it would need to manage China’s rise. India is short of cash and it is, unfortunately, starving its military.
Don’t take my word for it: Look at the numbers. The share of military spending in India’s federal budget has fallen below 1.6 percent of gross domestic product — the lowest proportion since 1962. That’s a year instantly recognizable to every Indian, since it’s when India’s underpowered army was routed in a border conflict with China. (Far fewer people in China would recognize the date, for obvious reasons.)
In the 1962 war, India paid the price for years of under-spending on the military, as well as for its determination to remained “non-aligned,” declining to shelter under the American military umbrella. The parallels with 2018 are eerie. While India is closer to the U.S. than it was then, it remains similarly unwilling to embrace a full-fledged alliance. Successive governments have shrunk military budgets, even the proudly nationalist administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Meanwhile, as in 1962, India hasn’t moderated its tone towards China. It’s leading the opposition to the Belt and Road Initiative as well as seeking to prevent Chinese inroads into its neighborhood — including, most recently, an apparent power grab in the Maldives.
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One can perhaps understand the need to economize, given India’s tight fiscal constraints. But what funds are devoted to the military are going toward maintaining a 19th-century army in a 21st-century world. India’s army has too many men and not enough armament. One senior officer told a New Delhi-based defense reporter: “There is nothing in the defense budget except to pay salaries. Nothing for infrastructure creation, military station security, maintenance and repairs, maintaining critical war reserves, let alone modernization or paying for current deals.”
That concern is now part of the official record: India’s vice-chief of army staff warned a parliamentary committee that over two-thirds of the army’s equipment was “vintage.” According to him, the military doesn’t have enough money to pay for committed purchases, let alone replacing older arms. It can’t afford the 10 fighting days’ worth of ammunition it considers a basic necessity. The air force, meanwhile, is missing one of the four squadrons it needs to be at full strength, while the navy is so short of submarines — it has 15 to China’s 70, and many of those 15 are superannuated — that it sent its two newest subs out to sea without torpedoes.
Meanwhile, India is adding to its already million-strong army by raising additional divisions. And a decision recently to raise military pensions has meant that the amount spent on manpower will continue to grow over time.
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