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 continued…