India’s Evolving Defence Diplomacy: An Assertive Multilateral Engagement? – Analysis


By Prof. B. R. Deepak*

Historically, India has been ambivalent about the role of defence diplomacy in foreign affairs; ever since its inception, even though it aspired to play a greater role in the global political arena, but underestimated the role of defence diplomacy.

It is for this reason that the Non Alignment Movement that it steered during the height of the Cold War lost its steam in the uni-polar world after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and more so in recent times when the multi-polarity is gaining currency.

The disintegration of the Soviet Union was a watershed, and the Indian leadership starting with PM P.V. Narasimha Rao, and followed by PM A.B. Vajpayee started to emphasize the role of defence diplomacy in foreign affairs, obviously with a desire to catapult India to the status of a great power. The detonation of the nuclear devices by the then Vajpayee government in 1998 should be viewed from this point of view. The real push in this direction came when Congress government lead by PM Manmohan Singh signed the New Framework for Defence Cooperation and the India-US civil nuclear deal in 2005. The Defence Policy Group (DPG), chaired by the US Under Secretary of Defence for Policy and the Indian Defence Secretary, is at the apex of the bilateral defence relationship. Some of the priorities defined for the cooperation include maritime security that include joint military exercises, humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, defence sales, co-development of weapon program, personnel exchanges, and counterterrorism cooperation etc.. Since then, India has concluded similar deals with Russia, Canada, France, the UK and Australia being the latest.

PM Narendra Modi has been even more assertive in defining and shaping India’s defence diplomacy. This is visible from his London visit where he with his counterpart, David Cameron, issued a joint statement on their ‘global partnership’ that included defence, cyber security, and counter terrorism cooperation. For the first time the Joint Statement explicitly mentioned the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), and the Haqqani network, and announced that the two countries will work together to disrupt ‘all financial and tactical support for terrorist networks’ including the ISIS and al-Qaeda. In the words of PM Modi, ‘UK will also be a strong partner in India’s defence modernization plans, including the Make in India mission in defence sector’ needless to say a sizable share of the $13 billion deals will go to defence cooperation.

At home, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, General Fan Changlong has been in India, after visiting China’s ‘best iron brother, good friend and strategic partner’ Pakistan as General Fan has defined China’s strategic partner. During his meeting with Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar on 16 November, General Fan said, ‘China attaches great importance to developing ties with India and the Chinese military is willing to cooperate with its Indian counterpart to actively implement the consensus reached by the leaders of the two countries to build a comprehensive exchange mechanism, expand cooperation in specific fields, and enrich the contents and meaning of the strategic cooperative partnership between the two sides.’ On his part Parrikar said that ‘India is ready to strengthen defence cooperation with China and work hard to maintain border peace and stability.’ Indian Defence Minister also said that ‘both India and China are victims of terrorism and India hopes to stage common fight against international terrorism with China.’

If Modi government received General Fan in India, it sent the Indian army chief, General Dalbir Singh Suhag to Japan at the same time for greater military cooperation keeping in view General Fan’s Pakistan visit as China is reluctant to de-hyphenate Pakistan from India. According to a Defence Ministry release on 16th the ‘visit will further cement the longstanding ties between India and Japan, which are based on a shared commitment towards world peace and regional security.’ It may be remembered that the relationship was enhanced to ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’ during PM Modi’s Japan visit in September last year. It is learnt that in order to reinforce bilateral relations in security and economic sectors, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be visiting India next month. Of late, defence diplomacy between India and Japan has taken a centre stage and the same has been strengthened by participation of Japan’s Self-Defence Force’s in the Malabar joint exercises conducted annually by India and the US.

In a balancing act, Home Minister Rajnath Singh headed to China on a five day visit starting from 19 November to strengthen cooperation with China on border and counter-terrorism. The visit is first in a decade by an Indian home minister. India believes that if China has been assertive in the South China Sea, it has also been flexing its military muscle along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) of the contested border. This added to China’s ‘all weather friendship’ with Pakistan, its military forays in the Indian Ocean, and its indefensible stand on some of the terror organisations that advocates Jihad against India and have found safe heavens in Pakistan are some of the roadblocks hampering defence cooperation with China.

On the issue of terrorism, even though both claim to be the victims of terrorism, however, since approaches towards cross border terrorism are diametrically opposite, it is difficult to reach a consensus. For example there are concerns in China about the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) terrorists finding sanctuaries in Pakistan, which is evident from General Fan’s remarks in Pakistan when he said, ‘China values the efforts of Pakistan Army in fighting East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)’ and his appreciation for the Pakistan Army in ‘safeguarding the China Pakistan Economic Corridor security.’ However, as far as Pakistani terror organisations that are engaged in Jihad against India, China’s position is ambiguous and untenable. For example in August this year China used a ‘technical hold’ to block India’s bid for UN censure of Pakistan for releasing Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commander Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi, who masterminded the terrorist attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 that left 167 people dead. Of late similarities have been drawn between the Paris and Mumbai terror strikes, as both were designed abroad with the help of local accomplices.

Besides, Singh is also believed to take up the issue of Chinese arms and ammunition reaching the hands of dozens of Northeast India insurgents; recently India has declared the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang) NSCN (K), a Naga insurgent group as a terror outfit. In India many believe that ULFA fugitive Paresh Barua has found sanctuaries in Bangladesh, Myanmar and even China’s Yunnan and has joined hands with NSCN Kaplang faction which is being trained by Kachin Independence Army in Myanmar adjoining Yunnan. There are also apprehensions that these rebels may also be trained in Khokang Self-administered zone again bordering Yunnan and that have been supported by China throughout its history. These are some of the apprehensions India feels are genuine and seeks China’s cooperation.

It is obvious that PM Modi has given a push to India’s defence diplomacy; as regards China even though Indian establishment remains weary of the security issue, nonetheless it is willing to engage China on various domains including counter terrorism. However, I believe if some of the impediments flagged in the previous sections are addressed, there is no reason why India and China should not deepen defence and security cooperation. A few more steps towards security partnership could be a security dialogue mechanism between the BCIM Economic Corridor partners, a substantive maritime security dialogue, exploring ways to extend some of the nodes of connectivity along to ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ to South Asia in consultation with India, deepening the scope of ‘Hand in Hand’ counter terrorism exercises, and strengthen economic cooperation by way of greater market access and investment.

There is no doubt that an emerging India is ready to reach out to China and willing to forge a real strategic partnership, however, for a greater success of this partnership both need to recalibrate their policies to the new ground realities and fundamentally alter the conventional perceptions about each other.

*B R Deepak is Professor of Chinese and China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi. The views are solely his own.


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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