India, as FP's James Traub recently discovered, is comfortable living with contradictions. A country that is the world's largest, and possibly its most competitive, democracy has seen its national politics dominated by a single party. A rising international player, India often appears less willing than ever to exercise its power globally. And while India's economy feels like it's in the doldrums, it has more than doubled in size over the past seven years.
There is perhaps no bigger contradiction than India's military. In terms of personnel, India, with some 1.3 million active troops, has for many years boasted the world's third-largest armed forces -- after the United States and China. It is a full-spectrum force, possessing nuclear weapons, remaining active in international peacekeeping missions, and confronting a range of domestic insurgencies. India is also the world's largest importer of conventional weapons systems, sourcing advanced combat aircraft, missile systems, and submarines from Russia, Israel, France, and the United States.
Yet given its enormous size, India's military has relatively little political or bureaucratic clout -- particularly when compared to China's People's Liberation Army -- and consequently less say in resource allocations. While the army, air force, and navy each enjoy considerable autonomy, the trade-off has been a diminished role for the armed services in influencing national security policy. Since a disastrous intervention in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1990, New Delhi has also evinced little interest in undertaking foreign military operations, other than occasional humanitarian or U.N. peacekeeping missions. But what is perhaps most striking given the nature and scale of the threats it faces is the country's anaemic military spending.
As late as 2000, India's spending on defense, at $15.9 billion, outstripped China's official military budget of $14.5 billion, although China's actual expenditure that year was estimated at three times that amount. The disparity has only increased with the growing resource gap between China and India. In its most recent budget, the Indian government's spending on defense stands at $37 billion (excluding military pensions), keeping it on track to be the fourth-largest defense spender by 2020, surpassing Britain, France, and Japan. But such expenditure increases have not even kept pace with the overall growth of India's economy, let alone the military modernization of its competitors. Defense now accounts for just 1.7 percent of India's GDP, which is less than in many European countries, and down from almost 3 percent in the late 1990s. And while China's defense budget this year is more than three times larger, its actual spending will undoubtedly be even higher.
It's not that India's leaders are unaware of the many security threats facing the country. China's growing power certainly generates concern and the two countries have a longstanding dispute over territory the size of Pennsylvania. To its west, India also borders Pakistan, a volatile country whose powerful army sees conflict with India as its raison d'être. Its other neighbors -- Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives -- are all chronically weak states that pose various challenges of their own. Domestic insurgencies in Kashmir, central, and northeast India have all declined in intensity over the past decade, but are far from resolved. And as India's interests have expanded to include protecting sea lines of communication and preserving the steady flow of energy resources, the demands on India's security apparatus have multiplied accordingly.