External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s talks with many Asian counterparts in a multilateral setting in Myanmar and Defence Minister Arun Jaitley’s engagement with US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel this week will highlight a big void in India’s external engagement, left behind by the UPA government. It is about India’s defence diplomacy or the lack of it.
Amid the shifting balance of power and the mounting regional tensions to the east and west of India, many countries in Asia and the Indian Ocean were hopeful that Delhi would take on a larger security role in the region. There is deep dismay among India’s Asian neighbours that Delhi is unwilling to step up to the plate. The major powers, meanwhile, are asking if India is ready at all for geopolitical prime time.
If the ministry of defence does not see much utility in bilateral defence cooperation with countries, big and small, its leadership will not even show up at multilateral meetings, and where it does, it has little to say. While the ministry of external affairs and the armed services understand the value of defence diplomacy, they have struggled to persuade the MoD.
The reason for this lies in the nature of the MoD, which views its role in terms of control over the armed forces. The MoD has, over the decades, shunned the responsibility of developing and implementing a defence strategy for India. It has created no institutional capacity within the ministry to engage foreign defence establishments. Its bias is to limit, rather than to promote, India’s defence diplomacy.
Asian leaders will be too polite to bring it up in their meetings with India’s foreign minister. But if Swaraj is willing to ask questions and listen to her Asian interlocutors, she will discover the huge gap between the regional expectations of India as a stabilising force and Delhi’s performance as a security actor.
America’s frustrations are even larger, because Washington had bet big in the last decade that India would rise to be a major power and emerge as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond. Over the last few years, US defence officials have virtually given up imagining India in grand strategic terms. They find organising even routine meetings with the MoD an enervating exercise.
This was not the way India and the US began in the mid 1980s, when the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, opened the door for defence cooperation with Washington. Successor P.V. Narasimha Rao, and his defence minister, Sharad Pawar, laid the basis for a more systematic military engagement with America and the West, as well as with the East Asian neighbours. India’s prolonged military isolationism had come to an end in the early 1990s.
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was bolder in its defence outreach. It intensified the military exercises with the US and undertook joint missions with the US armed forces in the Indian Ocean. It deployed the Indian navy for the first time in the South China Sea, signed agreements for bilateral defence cooperation with a number of countries in East Asia and revived past security cooperation with countries in the Middle East and Indian Ocean.
The UPA government ran with the ball in the first two years of its tenure. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh and former defence minister Pranab Mukherjee lent an expansive vision for India’s military cooperation with the US, the West, Japan and the Asian partners, and the key island states of the Indian Ocean. They also launched a programme for military interaction with China. This incremental expansion of India’s defence engagement, built over a number of governments of different political orientation in Delhi, began to unravel under the stewardship of A.K. Antony, who took charge of the defence ministry at the end of 2006.
It is India’s misfortune that A.K. Antony, India’s longest serving defence minister, slammed the brakes on India’s global security engagement at the very moment of its greatest opportunity. In the middle of the last decade, Delhi was in a position to leverage its good relations with the major powers, all of whom were eager to sell arms to India, and use the size of its growing defence market to lay the foundations for a solid defence industrial base at home, initiate a sweeping transformation of India’s armed forces and build enduring strategic partnerships abroad.
Antony, however, squandered this extraordinary moment and turned the MoD’s back on India’s many prospective international partners. At precisely the moment Asia was drawing India into its new defence forums and mechanisms, Antony’s MoD made India not just reluctant but also closed for business with the rest of the world. Manmohan Singh, whose instincts were rather different, seemed unwilling to bring Antony’s MoD in line with India’s national interests.
Swaraj’s interlocutors in Asia and Jaitley’s American guests would want to know if India’s defence policy and diplomacy will be more pragmatic and purposeful under the Narendra Modi government. Few of them would expect overnight changes. But they wonder if Modi and his team have the strategic ambition to play a larger role in Asia and the Indian Ocean, the political will to reorient the defence bureaucracy, and the institutional capacity to bring greater synergy between the MoD, the armed forces and the MEA in pursuit of national objectives.
The Modi government has a choice. It could simply drift along with the political self-doubt and strategic insularity that Antony had injected into the defence establishment. Or it could recognise the advantages of a defence diplomacy that mobilises external partnerships to accelerate India’s defence modernisation, shapes its regional strategic environment and helps Delhi emerge as an indispensable element of a new balance of power system in the Indo-Pacific.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’