Debate Magazine

Can Britain Draw India into the West?

Posted on the 04 July 2022 by Shahalexander
Can Britain Draw India into the West?

The war in Ukraine has starkly divided the world into Western democracies and Russo-Chinese autocracies. However, some democratic nations that were invited to the Democracy Summit by US President Joseph Biden, stay neutral and abstained from denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the UN Security Council in February and the UN Human Rights Council in April. Among them, India has long and deep relations with Russia since the Cold War era to counter Pakistan. Even today, Russia is the primary exporter of weapons for this country. Thus, it is unrealistic to expect India to join Western sanctions against Russia, at this stage.

On the other hand, India has been deepening security partnership with the United States since the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Today, she joins the Quad to enhance the FOIP against China's maritime expansionism. Therefore, it is a strategic imperative for Western Democracies to draw India into their side. For this objective, it is necessary to provide some defense and economic incentives from long term perspectives. The 21st century Cold War between the Sino-Russian axis and the Western alliance would go beyond the Russo-Ukrainian war. Prior to the Quad summit in Tokyo on May 24, Britain and France made some deals with India. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited India to meet his counterpart Narendra Modi on April 22, in order to enhance strategic partnership between both countries regarding the economy, security, climate change, etc. ("PM: UK-India partnership 'brings security and prosperity for our people'"; GOV.UK; 22 April, 2022). Among numerous issues, the most critical one is Britain's assistance of India's next generation fighter aircraft project ("UK, India promise partnership on new fighter jet technology"; Defense News; April 22, 2022).

Prior to the deal with Britain, India cancelled the FGFA project, whose design was based on the Su-57 of Russia. Actually, this project has been delayed repeatedly and turned out too costly, as Russia faced financial and technological problems to develop the original Sukhoi stealth fighter aircraft ("$8.63-billion advanced fighter aircraft project with Russia put on ice"; Business Standard; April 20, 2018). Quite importantly, India was dissatisfied with the proto-type of the Russian design, and wanted more than 40 changes in engine, stealth and weapon-carrying capabilities ("India and Russia Fail to Resolve Dispute Over Fifth Generation Fighter Jet"; Diplomat; January 06, 2016). It seems that operational history of this fighter substantiates those concerns. In 2018, the Su-57 made a battlefield débuts in Syria ("Russia's most advanced fighter arrives in Syria"; CNN; February 24, 2018), but strangely, it is not used so much in the contested air space of Ukraine, where Russia is supposed to need a stealth fighter to establish air superiority ("Russia's much-touted Su-57 stealth fighter jet doesn't appear to be showing up in Ukraine"; Business Insider; Jun 14, 2022).

The Russian defense industry has been a formidable rival to the Western counterpart until the 1980s. Its technological strength lies in hardware, not in software. For example, the West was startled to see the level of Russian aerodynamics of fighter aircraft, when the Su-27 demonstrated Pugachev's Cobra maneuver at the Paris Air show in 1989. However, as a consequence of the progress in computer electronics and information technology, avionics have become more important than maneuverability, which has given the West a much more advantageous position vis-à-vis Russia. At the beginning of the 1990s, when the Soviet Union was crumbling, Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University mentioned about Russian manufacturing, "The Stalinist economy was successful in mastering relatively unsophisticated technologies and producing basic goods on a massive scale. ... The biggest problem , however, is that Soviet central planners lack the flexibility to keep up with the quickened pace of today's information-based economy. ... An information-based requires broadly shared and freely flowing information to reap maximum gains" ("Bound to Lead"; Chapter 4, p. 120~121; 1990).

Currently, Britain is providing technological assistance for major regional powers to develop their next generation stealth fighter such as Turkey's TAI TF-X and Japan's Mitsubishi F-3. Those projects are associated with Britian's Tempest project, while allowing technology transferees to maintain their sovereign initiative. Since the Modi administration launches the "Make in India" initiative to strengthen manufacturing sector, Britain's offer will be helpful for India because it is based on the experience of international defense technology cooperation. Other Western countries such as the United States and France are launching export campaigns of their weapons actively, but Britain's offer is quite outstanding, because this is aimed at assisting India's stealth fighter against China, from the R&D stage ("India bolsters arms ties with West to sever Russian dependence"; Nikkei Asia; June 17, 2022). Historically, Britain did not rule the whole of the Empire directly, but permitted some sort of self-rule by local lords to some extent in some areas. This traditional imperial skill will be helpful for the British defense circle to engage with stealth fighter projects in Turkey, Japan, and India.

BAE Systems that lead the Tempest R&D, provides advanced components for American warships and combat planes, which is technologically the most competitive defense market in the world. This implies that British defense technology is more reliable than Russian one. The war in Ukraine impresses Western advantage furthermore. Russia has fired numerous precision guided missiles, but unlike Western ones, 60% of those missiles failed to attack the target ("Exclusive: U.S. assesses up to 60% failure rate for some Russian missiles, officials say"; Reuters; March 26, 2022). Appallingly, Russian missile attacks are more poorly accurate than a layman's throw in playing catch. Sanctions will broaden the gap of industrial technology between Russia and the West. China is not going to supply Russia with sanctioned technology, for fear of secondary sanctions on itself ("Russia's economy in for a bumpy ride as sanctions bite"; BBC News; 15 June, 2022). Russian weapon systems are less expensive and need less maintenance work than Western ones. But India today has grown richer and stronger enough to deploy more advanced Western arsenals, and ultimately, lower dependence on Russia.

Britain's engagement with India's stealth fighter project is also associated with its Indo-Pacific strategy. Last year, before Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, the British Prime Minister's Office released "Global Britain in a competitive age", which illustrates Britain's foreign and security policy to anchor the "tilt" toward the Indo-Pacific within the Euro-Atlantic region. It states that Russia is the foremost threat, while China, India, and Japan are the key strategic focuses in the Indo-Pacific from their respective natures. Among the three, Britain regards China as an authoritarian state that poses the "biggest state-based threat" to its economic security and a "systemic challenge" to its security, prosperity and values. Meanwhile, India is recognized as " "the largest democracy in the world" and as an "international actor of growing importance" to be aligned with Britain's partner in this region, notably, the United States, Japan, and Australia, in terms of security, economy, and the environment ("Understanding the UK's 'tilt' towards the Indo-Pacific"; IISS Analysis; 15 April, 2021).

The "tilt" was designed to augment Britain's global standings in the post-Brexit era, through deepening security and economic engagement with the Indo-Pacific region, to curb Chinese threats and to open up business opportunities in this fast-growing market. It is endorsed by diverse actors in Britain, including the government, business, and think tanks. Also, stakeholders in the region welcome the "tilt" ("What is behind the UK's new 'Indo-Pacific tilt'?"; LSE International Relations Blog; October 6, 2021). Regarding the Anglo-Indian partnership in the "tilt", Visiting Professor Tim Wiliasey-Wilsey mentioned the following points in a joint commentary by defense experts of the King's College London ("The Integrated Review in Context: A Strategy Fit for the 2020s?"; King's College London; July 2021). The fundamental point is that the strategic partnership, from bilateral relations and multilateral relations like the Quad plus and other regional security and economic arrangements. Historically, India regarded Britain as pro-Pakistani, because the Muslim League of Pakistan was treated more favorably than the Congress Party of India during the colonial era and upon independence. Also, Pakistan joined the CENTO, a UK-led anti-communist military alliance in the Middle East. However, as the Taliban obstructed NATO operations in Afghanistan, Britain had begun to turn to India rather than Pakistan. Today, Britain is even inviting India to join the Five Eyes. As the FGFA project has stalled, is the United Kingdom drawing India into the West, both in terms of defense procurement and intelligence, despite disagreements on the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

Meanwhile, Hindu nationalism can grow into a critical hurdle to develop the strategic partnership between India and the West. First of all, we have to reexamine the assumption that India is the largest democracy in the world. However, according to the Freedom House index, India is not as free an democratic as advanced democracies. Regarding political rights, though India inherited the Anglo Saxon political system, ethnic and religious minorities are under-represented in the parliament. The score of civil liberties is much worse. Current Prime Minister Modi is more antagonistic to press freedom than his Cambridge and Oxford-educated Sikh predecessor Manmohan Singh. Religious freedom is not guaranteed, as the Hindu majority launches aggressive anti-Muslim campaign in line with Modi's BJP. The judicial authority is not independent to stop such populist upheaval ("FREEDOM IN THE WORLD 2022: India"; Freedom House). The West has a technological advantage to supplant Russia in defense procurement. But the question is how much we share common values with India.

Quite interestingly, Hindu nationalists have some similarities with Russky Mir devotees for Putin and January 6 rioters for Trump. According to Gareth Price, Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House, most of the support for Modi's BJP comes from the most populous and generally poorer Hindi 'heartland' states in the northern inland like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. They are resentful of English-speaking globalist elites who brought socio-economic inequality. Those nationalist populists satisfy their pride by scapegoating "privileged" ethno-sectarian minorities, notably Muslims and Dalits, just as Trump Republicans blame affirmative actions for blacks and Hispanics, and Putin supporters label pro-Western independentists in Ukraine as neo-Nazis. Most of the media and experts dismiss this point about India's tolerant attitude to savage, brutal, and immoral deeds by Russia in Ukraine.

For further consideration of Hindu nationalists in foreign affairs, we have to bear in mind that they are so xenophobic that they are not hostile to other homegrown religions such as Sikhism and Jainism, but antagonistic to exotic ones, notably Islam and Christianity ("Democracy in India"; Chatham House; 7 April, 2022). Therefore, the West should not be so wishful as to call India the largest democracy in the world. Of course, this country share common geopolitical interest with the West, notably, Free and Open Indo-Pacific. But with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, India's deep and intertwined relationship with Russia poses a critical question, whether we share common values with this country.

As shown in Britain's defense cooperation, the West can outcompete with Russia in the defense market of India, with more advanced and sophisticated technology. Geostrategically, that is a worthy effort for the West to weaken the Russo-Indian ties. Modi's Hindu nationalist India in the Indo-Pacific is like Erdoğan's Islamist Turkey in the NATO. Coincidentally, Britain is providing Tempest technology for both countries to help their indigenous fighter projects. While deepening strategic partnership with India on common interest issues to dilute Russo-Chinese influence on this country, we should not fall into wishful thinking to regard this country as the largest democracy in the world. For the time being, it is not recommendable to take provocative reaction to Hindu nationalism at governmental level. We should rather let non-governmental actors engage with ethno-sectarian and other social minorities to improve governance in India.

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