India’s Decision on Fighter Jets Disappoints U.S., But Should Not Surprise

By Deepa M. Ollapally

The Indian Defense Ministry’s announcement that it has shortlisted two European fighter jets, shutting out two American competitors from Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for its once in a generation purchase of 126 multi-combat aircrafts may be disappointing, but not surprising. This has as much to with what is seen as the technical superiority of the Eurofighter (UK, Spain, Italy and Germany) and Dassault’s Rafale (France), as much as New Delhi’s attempts to stay clear of perceived geopolitical undertones involved in buying Lockheed’s F-16 and Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet. Despite the very real improvement in relations between India and the U.S., India seems to have fallen back to its longstanding instinct for strategic autonomy. In a domestic context where there has been an intense debate taking place over the last five plus years about India’s new and growing role as a rising power—especially about how close is close enough to the U.S—the “safest” course of action for Manmohan Singh’s government was to do what it did.

Simply put, a purchase from Europeans is seen in purely commercial terms, while any major deal with the Americans immediately takes on strategic and political meaning in India. Prime Minister Singh had already gone out on a limb in 2008 when he put his government on the line with a vote of confidence over the US-India civil nuclear deal. This unprecedented deal with a price tag of $11 billion had led to enormous lobbying over several years by all the potential suppliers, most noticeably by the American companies. From Washington, there was an implicit, if not explicit, expectation of “payback” for the landmark U.S.-India nuclear deal. No doubt, had the government gone with Lockheed and Boeing, there would have been loud accusations at home of India caving into American “pressure.” At least since 2004, domestic voices comprising a diverse group of Nationalists and Leftists have been at the forefront in urging India to stay closer to its traditional un-aligned stand in international relations.

For all practical purposes, the metric for gauging India’s autonomy comes down to proximity to the U.S. And on this question, the decades old consensus against close ties with the U.S. has clearly eroded since the end of the Cold War, opening it to hot contestation between old and new opinion groups. Individuals that may be called traditional Standard Nationalists fear entrapment in unpopular U.S. foreign policy undertakings; post nuclear test Hyper-Nationalists resist and resent the inevitable junior partner position with the U.S.; both groups distrust the U.S. given its ongoing reliance on the Pakistan military; and domestically oriented anti-globalization Neo-Nationalists and Leftists see the U.S. pursuing its own narrow economic agenda to the detriment of India’s poor masses. Arrayed against these groups are the newly emergent Great Power Realists and post 1991 Liberal Globalists who value the relationship with the U.S. in order to extend India’s global power and international economic clout, respectively. These latter groups have in recent times found common cause with sections of the large and influential Standard Nationalists, and tipped the balance on key issues such as the U.S.-India nuclear deal and voting for sanctions against Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This time around, Indian defense analysts seemed to suggest that the Europeans offered a more technologically advanced, less expensive product, along with greater technology transfer possibilities. To make a counter-argument based on the long term attractiveness of the U.S. as a strategic partner, and the utility of the U.S. in enhancing India’s status globally, would have required the existence of a nuanced domestic consensus on the kind of global power India should be. That simply does not exist in today’s India.

Meanwhile, the U.S. can take some comfort from the fact that New Delhi is fast re-orienting its defense purchases. While it rebuked the MiG-35 option from its traditional military supplier Russia in the current jet fighter battle, India has been spending billions of dollars on Lockheed Martin’s C-130 J and Boeing’s C-17 aircraft in the last few years. With the government having turned down the Americans in such a hotly contested and high level bid, it has in the process cemented its autonomy credentials. Thus in the future, the trio of Great Power Realists, Liberal Globalists and Standard Nationalists might well be able to spearhead India’s major defense purchases (set to reach $50 billion soon) toward U.S. companies, arguing in effect for diversification to safeguard India’s autonomy—something that all contending domestic groups can agree on.

Deepa M. Ollapally is Research Professor of International Affairs and Associate Director, Sigur Center for Asian Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University.

For a more detailed discussion by Ollapally and Rajesh Rajagopalan of the various foreign policy schools of thought in India and trends, see “The Pragmatic Challenge to Indian Foreign Policy” in The Washington Quarterly and the Sigur Center Policy Brief on “Rising Powers and Domestic Attitudes on Hard Power.” 

About risingpowers
Sigur Center for Asian Studies Elliott School of International Affairs The George Washington University

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