Current History

The Fate of India’s Strategic Restraint

In February 2012, India selected a French jet, the Rafale, as the new mainstay fighter for its air force. A month earlier, the country had leased a nuclear submarine from Russia. The acquisition of the fighter aircraft and submarine is part of an ambitious military modernization that has made India the number one arms importer in the world.

This rearmament effort, riding on the nation’s unprecedented economic growth, has prompted some observers to wonder whether India has decided to balance Chinese power in Asia or is seeking to correct the anomaly of strategic parity with Pakistan, a country one fifth its size. Indians themselves want their country to act more assertively, and India’s primary rival, Pakistan, has never bought into neighborly restraint.

So, could we be witnessing the start of an India-China arms race in Asia that would become the defining global conflict of the twenty-first century— as the United States returns to its traditional role of offshore balancer, reduces its overseas presence, and husbands resources for domestic recovery? Could we also be standing on the precipice of a nuclear confrontation with Pakistan?

The answer is: Probably not. India’s rearmament efforts are unlikely to turn the nation into an aggressive power, seeking military balance with China and upending the existing balance with Pakistan. Indeed, not only have India’s political leaders traditionally hesitated to use force as an instrument of foreign policy even when the conditions were right for it, they have neglected to provide clear strategic guidance to the military. In a 2010 book, Stephen P. Cohen and I called this phenomenon “arming without aiming.” We found that the disconnect between strategic purpose and military planning is both shaped by and reinforces military-strategic restraint in India’s foreign policy.

Today, notwithstanding growing uncertainty in South Asia and the recently accelerated arms buildup, New Delhi appears unlikely to abandon this military restraint. Certainly, fears of American withdrawal from the region are making Indians jittery about a resurgence of terrorist threats. At the same time, New Delhi likely will strive to wield its growing economic and international influence in Afghanistan as U.S. troops pull out. Although India’s engagement probably will not rise to the level of military intervention, it might be sufficient to fuel another dangerous rivalry with the Pakistanis in Afghanistan.

Outside of an unlikely new war, however, India’s political leaders will not want to spend the political and monetary capital necessary to transform growing resources into military power and purpose sufficient for a reordering of their country’s strategic condition.

This is not a pessimistic view of India’s prospects in the world. To the contrary, military-strategic restraint has paid off handsomely despite the resulting inefficiencies in defense planning. Restraint has contributed to greater accommodation of India’s rise as a great power in the international community. The rise of China led Singapore, for example, to exhort India to become more engaged in Southeast Asia. Today, even the Russians hesitate to sell advanced weapons to China, but Western firms want to be part of India’s military revival. They are motivated by profit, of course, but also by the recognition that India is unlikely to become hostile to their own nations’ interests.

Most notably, the U.S.-India Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, based on a framework agreed to by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and then-US President George W. Bush in 2005, has legitimized India’s status as a nuclear weapons power, making it the only country to be accommodated this way since 1968, when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was concluded. Would a militarily aggressive India have received the same accommodation?