US Budget, Indian Security

The US budget deal was interesting in foreign policy terms for the willingness with which the US legislators and administration were willing to put the Pentagon’s budget to the axe.

The US defence budget was already shrinking as its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down. But on top of this natural demobilization, some $500 billion will be chopped over the coming decade. And, if the first phase of the debt deal collapses, an automatic guillotine will fall on the defence budget, chopping off $1.2 million over a decade.

On one level this is a natural response to the end of the post-9/11 wars. The US demobilizes savagely after its wars are fought. On another it is a natural response to the enormous debt levels the US has run up – the public debt of America passed an amount equal to the size of its GDP this week. This is the stuff of Italy or Belgium.

But it also represents the dramatic unraveling of a Republican and Democratic consensus on maintaining high levels of defence spending post-9/11. Most striking has been the willingness of many Republicans, especially the populist Tea Party movement, to countenance– if not support– such a change.

Between 2001 and 2009 the Pentagon budget expanded 70 per cent, a virtually wartime state of affairs. With no terrorist attacks on US soil since 2001 and Osama Bin Laden dead, the former sense of peril has clearly dissipated. China remains a source of concern to theoreticians.

Until now the Republicans had seen an ever-higher defence budget as being part of its policy bedrock. But fiscal conservatives and Tea Party isolationists have cracked this.

So what does this matter to India?

A lot, depending on how the cuts are dispensed through the sprawling US military system. Consider the ways:

Even before the budget deal, the US was scaling back its navy. Over the next few decades it will go from being a 300-ship fleet to about half that. One of the areas it will pull back will be the Indian Ocean, especially the southern half. Much of India’s trade and its maritime security interests lie in that area.

The US is reconfiguring its military position in Afghanistan. It may not be a withdrawal, but what will be left will be a stump of what was once there. Afghanistan won’t be about nation-building, it will be about seeing how little one has to concede to the Taliban to get them off your back.

Attached to that will be Pakistan and the degree of aid they will receive from the US. The amount of money doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it buttresses the Pakistani military, messing up that country even more than it already is.

And then there’s China. Obviously the greatest beneficiary of a US budgetary onslaught on its military will be the only country with the resources and desire to fill at least the gap in Asia. China is cautious, but even its appetite could grow as it faces zero pushback. The US’s present intention, say US officials, is to maintain supremacy over the Chinese Navy even off China’s coast. But it will have to roll up a lot of military ops elsewhere to do so.

India, not helped by its visionless Ministry of Defence, needs to be looking much more closely on how the all but inevitable shrinkage of the US’s military profile in the world will affect is free-riding propensities even in its own environment. The US does a lot of policing and so on that benefits India. It should also be giving some thought about how the US’s retreat may embolden China much more than the latter’s actual power may entail, and the dangers that may pose.



Copyright © 2011 Hindustan Times.

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