“War is a continuation of politics by other means”
The above quote attributed to the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz was aimed at describing the utility value of the Armed Forces in advancing the interest of a State. Owing to the dynamic profile of modern-day Armed Forces in advancing the interests of a State, they have also found a place in the realm of diplomacy under the nomenclature of ‘military diplomacy’.
India’s experience with military diplomacy as an instrument of statecraft has a relatively short history when compared to its overall engagement with the rest of the world. However, it is to be noted that India was one of the first nations to have actively and consistently supported peacekeeping under the aegis of the United Nations since the early days of this global forum which dates back to the days of the Korean War. Contrarily, this aspect of India’s military engagement with the outside world is seldom seen as constituting what is now being generally called ‘military diplomacy’. The limitations on this ground are not only one of posturing but it also from suffers theoretical cognition as there is an absence of a universally acceptable definition of what constitutes military diplomacy.[i]
Despite this question of definition, India’s military diplomatic outreach by most accounts is seen as a spinoff of the reorientation of Indian economic policy in the early 1990s and the subsequent ripple-effects being seen in New Delhi’s political engagement with the rest of the world. During the Cold War, India’s military engagement was mostly limited to active combat operations in the immediate neighbourhood, assisting the UN in its peacekeeping operations or engagement that were largely limited to absorbing foreign-made defence equipment and platforms which were mostly sourced from the erstwhile Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc.
With respect to military diplomacy between India and her Southeast Asian neighbours, the era of the ideological contestation for global dominance between the then super-powers had an impact on the nature of engagement between the global South and Southeast Asia. The nations of these two regions across the Bay of Bengal were on either side of the Rubicon.
In addition, the developments in the 1980s too played its part in sowing seeds of suspicion. For instance, some Southeast Asian nations interpreted Indian engagement in addressing the internal security concerns in Sri Lanka and the peacekeeping mission in the emerald island, along with the counter-coup Operation Cactus in Maldives through tainted glasses. However, closer home, New Delhi’s ‘reported plans’ of developing the Andaman and Nicobar Islands as a major naval installation generated concerns in some quarters.[ii]
From years of uneasiness to building contact
The new decade of the 1990s did not only turn a new page in the nature of engagement among nations, owing to the changing global order in the post-Cold War phase, but also found greater impetus for India to adoptits ‘Look East Policy’ in 1993. The Look East Policy of New Delhi was in parts complimented by policies of Southeast Asian nations. For example, the ‘Look West Policy’ of Thailand and Singapore’s support for New Delhi’s engagement with ASEAN-led forums acted as an impetus that opened new avenues of engagement between India and the larger Southeast Asian region. Building on this and other past engagements, India and Southeast Asia were able to foster a multi-dimensional relationship that is not only limited to bilateral ties but also multilateral engagement.
For instance, accepting India as a dialogue partner of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1993 and the subsequent inclusion of New Delhi in larger forum of this regional groupings like the ASEAN + mechanism, ASEAN Regional Forum, East Asian Summit and the ASEAN Defence Minister Meeting-Plus (ADMM+) paved the way for greater engagement. Additionally, other avenues of bilateral and multilateral engagements like the formation of the BIMSTEC and the Mekong Ganga Cooperation enabled the fostering of greater bonhomie between nations of this region and India, going beyond what was seen as India’s traditional partners like Vietnam.
Military diplomacy at its infancy
While the ties at the diplomatic, economic and political levels were gaining prominence, the military engagement as a component of foreign policy too gained significant traction. From a near non-existent base, in the 1990s the Indian military was actively engaging with its Southeast Asian counterparts. It was in this context that the former Foreign Minister of Malaysia, Syed Hamid Albarm, reflected on the nature of ties and said “...end of Cold War provides an opportunity for ASEAN and India to focus on promoting a strategic environment in Asia that is free of those thorny issues that have complicated relations between the two sides”. The Minister also identified ‘cooperative security’ within the ambit of ‘principle of mutual and equal security’ to be a point of convergences of national interests of the two sides.[iii]
The first significant military-to-military engagement was in 1995, when ‘Exercise Milan’, the multinational naval excises was held under the aegis of India’s Andaman and Nicobar Tri-Services Command, which saw the participation of the navies from Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand along with Sri Lanka’s. The Milan Exercise is now held very alternative year and has witnessed the participation of a number of nations, including those from Southeast Asia.
Apart from Ex Milan, the other avenues of engagement have mostly been in the bilateral format, in the nature of joint exercises, joint patrols, and Passex, etc. Some of the notable engagements that have been institutionalised include the one with Singapore, known as SIMBEX. The Singapore India Maritime Bilateral Exercise (SIMBEX), since its inception in 1994, has been an annual fixture in the calendar of the navies of both nations. Additionally, both the Air Force and the Army of the two nations have had their own joint exercises and training programmes, code-named ‘Sindex’ and ‘Bold Kurukshetra’, respectively,
The annual joint exercise between the Royal Thai Army and the Indian Army that commenced in 2006 is known as ‘Maitree’. And along with Singapore Navy, the three nations have undertaken the Trilateral Maritime Exercise ‘SITMEX’. With Indonesia, the joint exercises, ‘Garuda Shakti’ is on between the Armies. Apart from these avenues of cooperation, there have been other points of engagement like a series of Coordinated Patrol (CORPAT), port-calls and others between the Indian Navy and the naval forces of the region.
Initial contact was made between the respective militaries in the early 1990s. However, the role that the Indian military, especially her Navy, played in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami in terms of Search and Rescue (SAR) operations along the larger Indian Ocean, despite suffering considerable losses nearer home, brought forth India as a regional centre in the Indian Ocean region.
Shifting gears of military diplomacy
Owing to a number of factors, the scope and range of military diplomacy the world over is hamstrung by narrow avenues for engagement. Nonetheless, the hallmark of the military ties between nations is based on two vectors. The first is in acquisition/ transfer of military platforms and equipment; and the second being joint development of platforms and equipment. And it is this avenue of military ties that fosters a lasting relationship which in turn shapes regional and supra-regional security architecture.
India’s primary lines of military diplomacy has by and large been a soft approach based on training, joint exercise, delegation-level visits and port-calls. This nature of military diplomacy owes not as much to a lack of intention but is rather a question of capability and capacity of the defence industrial complex of India. However, this situation is showing considerable signs of transformation with New Delhi making a foray into the sphere of the sale and transfer of military equipment and platforms.
In this regard, the first notable development has been India’s sale of two batteries of BrahMos Missile systems to Philippines at a cost of US $375 million. This missile system, which is jointly developed by India and Russia, is based on the erstwhile Soviet Union’s P-800 Oniks, also known as Yakhont missile system. However, even prior to the transfer of BrahMos, India has been active in the region as early as 1994. When Malaysia purchased a squadron of Russian Mig 29N aircraft, India was roped in to the deal in assisting Moscow to honour its commitments to Kuala Lumpur in the supply of spares, maintenance and repairs as well as training of the crew.[iv]
Recently, India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has inked a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to establish an office in Malaysia. The primary purpose of this office is to facilitate the sale of 18 HAL manufactured Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to the Royal Malaysian Air Force. HAL also intends to set up a Maintenance and Repair Operations (MRO) to service the Tejas combat jets, based on the procurement of the same by Malaysia. Additionally, the two sides have an institutionalised mechanism for greater engagement at the level of the Defence Ministers in from of the Malaysia India Defence Cooperation Meeting (MIDCOM).
In additional to the Malaysia, others nation in the Indo-Pacific region like Australia, Indonesia, Philippines and the United States have evicted interest in the two-seater vainest of the LCA Tejas to serve their respective Air Forces’ training squadron as Fighter Lead In Trainer (FLIT) [v].
From taxing to take-off
With the intention of India to play an active role in the world of military trade and also self-reliance in view of the ‘Atmanirbhar’ scheme, New Delhi has already seen an eight-fold increase in its defence and security-related commerce between the years 2015-16 to 2021-22 [vi]. Though both these approaches of India are still in their early days for a host of reasons, the intention and direction of New Delhi is evidently clear. However, the overall importance of Southeast Asia cannot be missed as Myanmar alone has reported to be the recipient of close to half of Indian defence exports between the years 2017-2021[vii].
This, when taken along with India’s approach of ASEAN’s centrality to its Indo-Pacific outreach, the importance of military diplomacy cannot be over-looked. This is based on two reasons. The first is the fact that India’s Indo-Pacific outlook is guided by the principle of a ‘rule based regional order’ that is inclusive. Secondly, New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific order is another platform for greater regional engagement – not as negative alliances system but a positive multi-national partnership.
In this context, the nature of India’s military diplomacy with the nations of Southeast Asia first, and followed by the larger eastern Asian nations is based on cementing bilateral and multi-lateral ties that is based on mutual respect and complementarity of capabilities. It is also to be noted that the acceptance of India-made security platforms and equipment is not only a reflection of the nature of bilateral political and strategic ties but is also a statement of the robustness of the evolving Indian ‘Military Industrial Complex (MIC). The recognition of New Delhi’s military industrial complex is also a testament to the level of comfort that nations of Southeast Asia enjoy with New Delhi, with the scepticism of a generation ago becoming a thing of the past.
*Dr. Sripathi Narayanan, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Dhruva Jaishankar, ‘India’s Military Diplomacy’, Defence Primer: India at 75 https://www.gmfus.org/sites/default/files/Military_Layout_Final-1.20-26.pdf. (Accessed on August 24, 2022).
[ii] Pankaj Kumar Jha, “India’s Defence Diplomacy in Southeast Asia Focus”, Journal of Defence Studies, IDSA, Vol 5. No 1. January 2011, https://idsa.in/system/files/jds_5_1_pkjha.pdf, page 53. (Accessed on August 29, 2022).
[iii] Pankaj Kumar Jha, “India’s Defence Diplomacy in Southeast Asia Focus”, Journal of Defence Studies, IDSA, Vol 5. No 1. January 2011, https://idsa.in/system/files/jds_5_1_pkjha.pdf, page 52-53. (Accessed on August 29, 2022).
[iv] Pankaj Kumar Jha, “India’s Defence Diplomacy in Southeast Asia Focus”, Journal of Defence Studies, IDSA, Vol 5. No 1. January 2011, https://idsa.in/system/files/jds_5_1_pkjha.pdf, page 53. (Accessed on August 29, 2022).
[v] Tejas Fighter Aircraft, Lok Sabha, Parliament of India, August 5, 2022, https://loksabhaph.nic.in/Questions/QResult15.aspx?qref=42221&lsno=17, (Accessed on September 12, 2022).
[vi] ‘India defence exports at record ₹13,000 crore, US biggest importer’, Mint, July 9, 2022, https://www.livemint.com/news/india-defence-exports-at-record-rs-13-000-crore-us-biggest-importer-11657369829286.html, (Accessed on August 30, 2022).
[vii] Raghav Bikhchandani, ‘India 3rd largest military spender, 50% defence exports go to Myanmar, shows data from SIPRI’, The Print, 26 April, 2022, https://theprint.in/defence/india-3rd-largest-military-spender-50-defence-exports-go-to-myanmar-shows-data-from-sipri/930570/, (Accessed on August 30, 2022).