Limitations of defence diplomacy


It is interesting how “defence diplomacy” has taken centre stage in the pursuit of our foreign policy. In earlier years, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) hardly ever looked at military interactions as a means to further the national interest, and economic issues, trade, cultural ties, and so on were at the forefront. Now, it would appear that those diplomatic arrows in our quiver are somewhat depleted. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than recent events which have brought defence interactions into greater focus.


Following its spectacular electoral victory in May 2019, the new National Democratic Alliance government had everything going for it. The economy was seeing some downslide, but nobody could have foreseen its subsequent deceleration in the manner that has happened. The Budget presented in July had soon to be literally rolled back in the next two to three months. Along with this came the abrogation of Article 370 in August, which, though it was within our sovereign rights, enabled some to question our credibility as a tolerant state. Indeed, it is after quite a while that India has found itself justifying internationally measures that it has taken domestically.


And, if this was not enough came the Citizenship Amendment Act which, possibly, without intending to do so, brought religion into play as a part of state policy, once again resulting in international criticism and the resultant need to defend our actions, sometimes rather aggressively — read the external affairs minister’s articulation, “we now know who our friends are”. This eliminated several countries which had earlier been cultivated as friends, including Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh, to name a few. Important functionaries in these countries did not hesitate to criticise our domestic policies, some more stridently than others.


In this environment, even US President Donald Trump offered to mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir, holding publicly, in India of all places, that there were two sides to the question — something that the American establishment had not done for years. At this same time, the economy has also been sliding; institutional inadequacies in many areas are seen to have further weakened our international standing, and the fact is that India’s stock is not anywhere near what it was a year ago.


In this somewhat worrying environment, if anything has helped India to stay afloat, it is what may be termed “defence diplomacy”. As mentioned earlier, it has come to the fore only in the last 10 years and has taken the form of frequent and increasingly ambitious joint exercises with militaries of the region and beyond, port visits by warships, and so on. While with most countries this has been not very significant, with the United States in particular, and with Japan, the interface has been substantial.


US President Donald Trump with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a reception at Rashtrapati Bhavan during his visit to India in February. The only major outcome was a $3-billion helicopter deal
Starting in 2002, it has also led to the purchase of over $20 billion of military hardware from America (mainly aircraft), and some important bilateral agreements which will facilitate not just logistics exchange but also transfer of technology, though much of this latter has yet to be seen; Japan is now a regular participant in the trilateral Malabar exercises at sea.

 While the Indo-Pacific has been repeatedly proclaimed as a theatre of mutual interest, what is left unsaid is that our understanding of the term is different and there is no precise identification of purpose, leaving aside “freedom of movement at sea”. Indirect hints are made by diplomats and strategists that the real purpose is to counter growing Chinese influence in the region, but without indicating how that will happen unless we enter into some kind of military alliance, and China actually threatens some of our common interests. The Americans have always had a military presence in the region through their Pacific and Central Commands, while our aspiration, to quote the chief of defence staff, is “peninsular” (meaning, a swathe of land protruding into the sea).


This will not make India an Indo-Pacific player, leave aside the measly 14 per cent share of the defence allocation that is made towards the navy, almost the same as three decades ago. With no other country with which India has defence cooperation at sea — for example, France, the United Kingdom, and Russia — does the term Indo-Pacific form the basis of cooperation. Indeed, the last-named has publicly derided this concept and this, too, at a MEA-sponsored conference in our own country. So, the one significant element of our defence diplomacy in the last decade has been the relationship with the US, and has essentially revolved on our purchases of military hardware from them.


This having been said, if defence diplomacy, inclusive of purchases, has become a key ingredient of our foreign policy as we aspire to move up in the global power chain, then it is all to the good. During the recent visit of Mr Trump, the $3 billion military helicopter contract was the only major outcome, and there is no reason why such interaction should not be there so long as we recognise its limitations.


There are other players around the corner who are also watching where we are going, notably China and Russia. With the former, we share disputed borders stretching over several thousand kilometers and a tense security relationship, and with the latter, a defence interface that goes back six decades and now stands in some difficulty. In the Muslim world, Iran cannot be easily ignored, nor Indonesia in the Asean, or Bangladesh next door.


India’s profile as seen from outside is now increasingly getting predicated on domestic issues within its borders. Defence diplomacy cannot, by itself, overcome the negatives. Unfortunately, a gathering of warships from 38 countries, planned to be held on the east coast later this month, has had to be cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic; it would have provided a badly needed boost.


To sum up, India, seeking to emerge as a major power, must be seen as “shining” not “whining”, and domestic issues must mesh holistically with the desired international image. Defence diplomacy can only take us thus far, no further.   

The writer has served as member of the National Security Advisory Board


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