As India’s capabilities evolve, so, too, do its old rivalries and strategic interests abroad. Panelists Ashley J. Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment and Jack Gill of the National Defense University analyzed two traditional fronts of Indian foreign policy—China and Pakistan. Carnegie’s Frederic Grare commented on India’s expanded focus on the entire Asia-Pacific region and Milan Vaishnav moderated the discussion.
The Sino-Indian Military Balance
- Conventional Wisdom: In assessing the military balance between China and India, popular assumptions usually favor China. Tellis challenged that assumption, explaining that while China’s aggregate military might is by far the greatest in the region, India has long maintained the advantage along its northern border. China, he said, has adopted a defense-in-depth strategy that would trade territory for time and requires few regular forces stationed in the Tibetan plateau.
- Tilting the Scales: But in recent years, Tellis went on, China has undertaken a massive military expansion and modernization. While these efforts do not target India specifically, Tellis identified some major consequences for the conventional land balance. China has expanded its transportation infrastructure in Tibet, a move that Tellis said would allow the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) far greater mobility in a crisis. He added that the PLA now enjoys more centralized logistics operations and command and control, so it could bring to bear a wider range of forces and support a more ambitious campaign.
- Dogfights and Doctrine: Tellis observed a similar trend in the Sino-Indian air balance, noting that China’s inventory of later-generation aircraft alone now outnumbers the entire Indian Air Force (IAF). China has also begun adapting to destroy aircraft on the ground or degrade their capabilities in the air, a move that Tellis said challenges the IAF’s traditional focus on air-to-air combat.
- Powerful Partners: To keep its quantitative and qualitative edge, Tellis advised India to enhance its relationships with powerful actors like the United States. Tellis explained that Indian investments in frequent bilateral and multilateral exercises and military-to-military partnerships can help produce a more experienced and robust conventional force.
- Unstable Stasis: Gill argued that there is room for cautious optimism in the Indo-Pakistani conflict: the enduring ceasefire in Kashmir and expanded cross-border trade are both good signs. But the recent violence across the Line of Control is a worrisome reminder of this peace’s fragility, he added. With elections approaching in both countries, promised trade and visa reforms on hold, and the American withdrawal from Afghanistan looming, Gill lamented that a major breakthrough in resolving the conflict is unlikely in the next few years.
- Persistent Problems: Gill identified two major obstacles to a stable Indo-Pakistani relationship: terrorism and nuclear weapons. He explained that terrorist groups operating within Pakistan create grave uncertainty and mistrust in India. Both nations, he added, maintain nuclear postures that threaten to undermine traditional deterrence: Pakistan continues to explore tactical nuclear weapons, India aims to develop missile defense systems, and both countries are contemplating sea-based nuclear platforms.
- Management, Not Resolution: The most realistic outcome, Gill concluded, is for both countries to aim to manage their differences and avoid major hostilities. To do so, he advised more comprehensive diplomatic engagement, expanded confidence-building measures and military-to-military relationships, and a meaningful dialogue on Afghanistan. The international community should realize, Gill added, that its influence in the conflict is limited and that any real change will depend on India and Pakistan.
- Why Look East? Grare explored the genesis of India’s Look East policy, which began in the 1990s as a strategy for greater economic engagement with Southeast Asia. Since then, he explained, the policy has expanded in geographic and strategic scale: it now includes the entire Asia-Pacific region and involves security partnerships as well. Grare argued that the Look East policy has always had a geostrategic component aimed at balancing Chinese power in the region.
- Know Your Limits: Grare identified several factors that could potentially constrain India’s engagement with the region. Political transitions in Bangladesh and Myanmar remain unpredictable, he said, and there are doubts throughout Asia about India’s ability to realize its commitments to its neighbors.
- Autonomy and Leverage: The Look East policy provides a telling microcosm of India’s broader strategic direction, Grare added. New Delhi continues to emphasize “strategic autonomy,” a doctrine that Grare described as designed to leverage the capabilities of partners whose interests converge with India’s own, while maintaining autonomous decisionmaking power. As Asia grows more geopolitically polarized, Grare contended that the Look East policy will continue to be a valuable strategy for India, but added that New Delhi will have to assuage its partners’ doubts if it is to realize the policy’s full potential.