India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi markets itself as an alternative and counterweight to China in Asia, but it ranks behind Beijing in soft and hard power and its reforms have been anaemic by comparison

by Amar Diwakar

Unsurprisingly, Indian leaders were absent from China’s Belt and Road Forum on April 26-27. This marked the second time they had boycotted the event, rooted in concerns that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project violates India’s territorial integrity.

Alongside the US and Japan, India has been highly critical of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, labelling it as “debt-trap diplomacy.”

Just last month, New Delhi set up an Indo-Pacific division in its Ministry of External Affairs, which is expected to counteract the broader geopolitical impact of China’s Maritime Silk Road. The Act East policy has been a hallmark of India’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi – if not in action, at least in rhetoric.

However, Modi’s tenure has been plagued by inadequate investment to modernise India’s military. For New Delhi, it’s not just its defensive shortcomings that are of concern, but a host of other strategic areas where it lags well behind Beijing, from infrastructure to diplomacy and artificial intelligence.

If Modi is re-elected in the general election which wraps up on May 23, is there any reason to believe his administration – which has presided over a shaky period of Sino-Indian relations – has the strategic foresight to close the growing gap with China?

China is India’s largest trading partner, and their economies have become enmeshed. But, from the perspective of raw economic power, the gap remains quite visible: as of 2018 according to the International Monetary Fund, India’s economy was valued at US$2.7 trillion while China’s stood at US$13.4 trillion.

According to the Lowy Institute’s Asia Power Index (which ranks countries by economic resources, military capabilities and diplomatic influence), India lags behind China on every important geopolitical metric.

A glaring divergence can be found in the domain of defence. Following an aerial tit-for-tat with Pakistan in February, after a terrorist attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir, Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have sought to squeeze as much political capital as possible out of the incident by using national security as a significant platform in their re-election campaign.

However, after the cross-border skirmish in which India lost a Soviet-era MiG-21 to an army half its size with a quarter of its funding, The New York Times reported that “if intense warfare broke out tomorrow, India could supply its troops with only 10 days of ammunition, according to government estimates. And 68 per cent of the army’s equipment is so old, it is officially considered ‘vintage’.”
It has not been very successful in drumming up interest in its “made-in-India” artillery exports, either.

Driven by a desire for naval dominance of the Indo-Pacific, Beijing has looked to enhance its deep-sea capabilities through “intelligent” military systems.

In just the past couple of years, China has placed acoustic sensors in the Mariana Trench, commenced development of robotic submarines, and is in the initial stages of an AI-driven deep-sea base in the South China Sea.

While India has taken note of China’s investment in AI and other dual-use technologies, it has yet to counter with any effective AI-led strategy of its own.

This primarily stems from India’s failure to implement structural changes. Under President Xi Jinping’s wide-ranging organisational reforms, non-combat personnel have been slashed and military technology modernised with cyber and space-ops.

Meanwhile, 42 per cent of India’s defence budget is sapped by salaries and pensions. Devoid of reforms, asymmetric inequalities have only widened and the gap is set to grow.
This leads to the next concern: an undersized diplomatic corps. Despite a population of 1.3 billion, India retains a paltry 940 diplomats, barely more than Singapore, in comparison to China’s 7,500.

Such a lack of a well-staffed foreign ministry is even more concerning when you consider New Delhi’s role in pushing back against China’s belt and road projects, and with the Trump administration emphasising outreach to the Indo-Pacific region to enlist India into “the Quad” along with Japan and Australia.

After coming to power in 2014, one of Modi’s fundamental shifts was to seek greater alignment with countries looking to New Delhi to be a reliable counterweight to Beijing.

While India and China have the potential for benign competition, given their growing clout regionally and globally, several years of tense developments in bilateral relations reached a peak in 2017 during the 73-day border stand-off between the two at Doklam.

Modi and Xi de-escalated tensions at the Wuhan summit last year as part of a “reset” in relations, but that honeymoon phase has ended, with China blocking – for the fourth time – a UN Security Council effort to blacklist Masood Azhar, leader of the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (though it has since relented).

India understands that any potential reset would be tactical: policymakers have to grapple with obstacles that are swiftly defining the nature of the Sino-Indian relationship, taking power asymmetries, unresolved border disputes and the China-Pakistan partnership into account.

China’s infrastructural investments – in India’s own backyard – are shifting the long-term strategic picture. In response, India’s competing investments have been deemed lacklustre. India also opted out of a Quad-led project to offer alternatives to the belt and road scheme.

Whether the BJP returns to power or not, India’s next government will be saddled with a bureaucracy that hinders military reforms, a diminished diplomatic contingent and an ineffective counter to Beijing’s Geo-Strategic projects.

Clearly, if India fails to catch up in these strategic areas, it risks widening the gap so far in the short term that it would render any long-term Asian hegemonic strategy moot.