Here's an article of mine, wherein I make case for India to effectively use military diplomacy in its conduct of diplomacy, published in the year-end special edition on Indian Diplomacy (December 2013).
Today military diplomacy is construed as one of the essential tools in the pursuit of a nation’s foreign policy. This would mean utilisation of all defence activities and platforms including exchange of international military personnel, visits of ships and aircrafts, engagement of the civil, military bureaucracies and defence ministers, military training and exercises, regional and global defence meetings and forums. India, however, has been shy of using military diplomacy as an active tool in its diplomacy. What is not clear is whether this has been a deliberate attempt on India’s part or more a result of bureaucratic and political inertia. However, India has to become proactive in using military diplomacy in furthering its own national interests.
What Is Military Diplomacy?
Diplomacy is broadly described as the art and practice of pursuing a nation’s foreign relations, and military diplomacy is defined as the conduct of foreign policy by the men in uniform or even the civilian defence departments. As mentioned earlier, this involves military exchanges and accordingly these are categorised under heads such as defence exchanges to include joint training with the militaries of foreign countries.
While this broader definition has come to be used by a considerable number of countries, China, which has used military diplomacy in an effective manner, defines it from a narrower perspective, to say “foreign affairs work performed by defence institutions and armed forces.” (Matsuda Yasuhiro, “An Essay on China’s Military Diplomacy: Examination of Intentions in Foreign Strategy,” NIDS Security Repors, No. 7, December 2006, p. 3.) Yasuhiro, one of the prominent scholars on the subject, quotes Chinese authors who have differentiated military diplomacy from political or regular diplomacy by stating that military diplomacy is “all diplomatic activities relating to national security and military diplomatic activities.” (Yasuhiro quotes Yang Songhe, Junshi waijiao gailun (Survey of Military Diplomacy), Junshi yiwen chubanshe, Beijing, 1999.)
It may be true that military diplomacy does not differ in significant terms from the regular diplomacy in its content given that visits, meetings, exchanges, negotiations, participating in international conferences, treaty signings and exchanges of diplomatic documents are important aspects of military diplomacy. The difference lies in the fact that these would be conducted primarily by men in uniform or otherwise civilians in the defence ministries and that the content would have a large role for the military. However, these functions will form an important part of the larger foreign and security policy goals and ideals dictated by the political leadership. Broadly, military diplomacy has the following objectives: training of one’s own military for any emergency situation, strengthening of ties with other countries, sales of weapons and military technologies, and more importantly establishment of a sphere of influence as also learn a lot about foreign militaries, their way of working, their equipments through direct interaction with such organizations. The exercises are also big opportunities for signalling and messaging about a nation’s security interests and challenges to the foreign countries. If one were to look at the now routine SCO-China military exercises, which started way back in 2007, China announced that it intends to fight the three evils of terrorism, separatism and extremism. Despite Russia’s wariness and apprehensions of a rising China, it has been an active participant in these exercises. The exercises were also part of the Chinese efforts to limit the US influence in these countries, as much as an effort to strengthen bilateral and multilateral dealings with these countries. These exercises have also provided an opportunity to understand other militaries’ organizational ethos, culture, philosophies, strengths and weaknesses and most importantly get a sense of the other military’s modernisation processes. Forums like Shangri-La Dialogue are also becoming important conduits for conducting military diplomacy.
The major aspects of military diplomacy include military and strategic level undertakings including defence consultations and strategic dialogues, arms transfers, regional activities, including state to state military protocols, opening of military bases, participation in bilateral and multilateral military exercises, professional military education exchanges, including Track 1.5 and Track II dialogues besides cooperation in non-traditional security areas, like sending armed forces to counter-terrorism exercises, UN Peacekeeping operations, disaster management operations. Military diplomacy also includes: exchange of military attaches, visits by military delegations, military study abroad, participation in international arms control and disarmament programmes, arms import and export, and military assistance to friendly countries.
Military Diplomacy – India
India has been lagging behind in using military diplomacy as an effective tool in its diplomacy. But this has been changing in the last few years. India has recognised the crucial importance of military diplomacy to strengthen this beyond the narrow traditional level of bilateral joint exchanges to include multilateral exercises in our neighbourhood and beyond and also to engage in arms sales. Traditionally, this aspect of arms sales has been left to our neighbours such as Pakistan and China, who have been active in promoting this aspect of diplomacy and thus gaining greater influence beyond their immediate neighbourhood.
India’s participation in the quadrilateral exercises with the US, Japan, Australia was one of the major demonstrations of India taking big steps in this regard. In addition, India has enhanced its defence ties with some of the Southeast Asian countries including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore, who have been prompting an increased role and presence of India in Southeast Asia over the years. Signing of a defence cooperation pact with Singapore in 2004, for instance, drastically changed the fabric of New Delhi’s defence ties in the region. The manner in which the Indian Navy was able to quickly respond, first on its own, sending 35 ships, and later joined by the US, Japan, Australia in ensuring rapid response and relief, post-Tsunami 2004 was a spectacular display of the soft power aspects of India’s military capabilities. As part of its military diplomacy in Southeast Asia, India (as also Japan) has also been active in stepping up the maritime capabilities of key countries, particularly in meeting the challenges of piracy, sea lanes of communication (SLOCs). These have included regular regional and bilateral dialogues on the safety of SLOCs, coordinated patrols, port calls by ships, training of naval officers in Indian military institutions, and intelligence sharing particularly on maritime affairs. India has also been pursuing several trilateral partnerships in this regard including the US, Japan, India framework.
As regards India’s joint military exercises, India has been fairly active. For example, the Indian Navy has conducted exercises with navies of several friendly countries, including with the French Navy (the Varuna Exercise(s)), the British Navy (the Konkan Exercise(s)), the Russian Navy (the Indra Exercise(s)), the MALABAR series with the US Navy, SIMBEX with the Singapore Navy, Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces and the Chinese PLA Navy among others. Taking India’s Look East Policy forward, India has intensified its engagement with the ASEAN nations. In December 2012, the India-ASEAN relations were raised to the level of a strategic partnership, in recognition of the security and strategic interests that are gaining a greater say. Similarly, Indian ships have also made regular port calls in Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Libya, Greece, Oman, Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Tonga, South Africa, Kenya, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait. Initiatives involving the IBSA countries (India, Brazil and South Africa) have been on since 2008 – the first joint naval exercise, IBSAMAR I was held in 2008; a second one in 2010. The IBSA series of exercises has been of a sophisticated nature involving live-fire drills, radio compatibility and Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) exercises as well as anti-aircraft and anti-terrorist drills. Additional measures to strengthen military-to-military cooperation are being explored, especially given the issue of piracy on both the eastern and western coast of Africa. These challenges have also prompted this group to take up issues of ocean governance and freedom of navigation. Unlike the BRICS, the IBSA has far greater potential for military cooperation given that these countries do not share any history of conflict with each other.
In dealing with some of its neighbours, for instance, India has been much more pragmatic than idealistic. India has also been moving closer to Vietnam, with an eye on the rising China factor for both the countries. New Delhi has paid closer attention to Hanoi’s needs, particularly in enhancing its air and maritime capabilities. It has offered huge aid and assistance on both these fronts. In addition, India has also considering the idea of forging closer military ties with Myanmar given the growing Chinese reach in that country. While India along with China had come in for criticism for its proposed arms sales to Myanmar, India-Myanmar military-to-military relations have been warming up. All the three Indian service chiefs had visited Myanmar in the past one year – a sign of the closer bilateral ties and a sign of India gaining greater comfort in pursuing military diplomacy. Despite the apparent close ties with Beijing, Myanmar’s Navy Chief Vice Admiral Thura Thet Swe was in India for closer military cooperation with India. This visit secured higher number of slots for the Myanmarese military officers in Indian military installations, in addition to higher number of air force officers, especially helicopter pilots, to be trained in India. The Indian Shipyard will also be constructing at least four Offshore Patrol Vehicles (OPV) for use by the Myanmarese Navy. In the recent years, Myanmar had procured 105 mm artillery guns, mortars, armoured personnel carriers (APVs) and rifles from India.
Compared to even a decade back, India has made taken major strides in pushing military diplomacy to a new level. Even as that is the case, it has to do more in order to gain influence and leverage, both closer to home and far. India has not only increased the nature and intensity of its military interactions with others but has also strengthened its reach by increasing the number of military officers posted abroad as Defence Attaches and military advisers. Through woken up late to the idea, India is beginning to get a firmer grip on effectively running military diplomacy.
Arms Sales Should be A Big Part of Military Diplomacy
While there have been several important considerations including technological, economic and commercial, India has shied away from pursuing arms sales as an important aspect of its military diplomacy. However, a more critical consideration should have been the strategic considerations, which is to prevent China or Pakistan from gaining particular advantage in spheres of Indian influence and concern.
Accordingly, India should have considered sale of arms and such other items including the Brahmos cruise missile and the INSAS small arms systems to a number of countries who have been on a look-out. Regarding Brahmos, since it was jointly developed with Russia, there have been issues to work out with Moscow before India could make deals. However, these are problems that can be ironed out if India acknowledges the need to do so. For instance, Brahmos has been looked at with keen interest in South Africa, South Korea and Vietnam. Commercial considerations coupled with strategic interests in all of these three countries should be significant drivers pushing India in this direction. Similarly, several smaller western African countries have shown interest in India’s INSAS small arms systems.
India could consider other weapon systems for export purposes such as the Dhruv – the Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH). Dhruv, being a multi-role new generation helicopter, produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., is believed to have a variety of capabilities, including heliborne assault, logistic support, casualty evacuation, reconnaissance and training, besides its utility as air observation post. Dhruv has appeared in a few international air shows including the 2007 Paris Air Show and potential buyers have been identified as well. HAL entered into deal with Chile to sell six; two to Bolivia, among others. India’s ship-building capabilities are considered fine. Until now, India has been building destroyers though it is also building its own aircraft carrier. India builds whole range of smaller boats, ships, frigates, missile boats, patrol boats, and OPVs. Southeast Asia will provide itself as potential buyers given the nature of challenges faced by the countries in this region.
Among non-lethal weapons, India could possibly sell trucks, other military vehicles and radars. India is already selling trucks to the Malaysian Army; other military vehicles to some African countries and air defence radars – Indra - have been supplied to Sri Lanka. While the effectiveness of the Indra radars has been debated, they nevertheless serve some limited purpose.
Military diplomacy, conducted as part of India’s overall diplomacy, will act as a significant catalyst in strengthening its ties with friendly countries. Successive joint military exercises with a range of nations would further deepen the content and form of bilateral ties. India needs to pursue military diplomacy much more aggressively in order to create a strategic space for itself in India’s own neighbourhood, before losing out to Beijing and Islamabad that have been cashing on India’s lethargic approach in this arena. Keeping in mind larger strategic interests and not just commercial ones, India needs to step up arms transfer relations with important countries.
However, if India has to succeed in this arena, it has to create a strategic industry with significant private sector participation. Private sector participation that could boost India’s own defence sector will also be in a position to drive a profit-driven business if India’s arms export policy is revamped. India has to craft an innovative policy that will minimise delay and red tapism that have been a curse with our state-owned enterprises.
Revamping India’s arms export policy would also involve keeping up to date with the global export control lists such as that of the Waasenaar Arrangement and Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) Guidelines, which could also go to strengthen India’s own candidature in to these groupings.