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Can Antony boost India’s defence diplomacy?

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna's categorisation of India as a 'responsible power' has found an echo in the just-concluded Shangri La dialogue.

Written by C. Raja Mohan | New Delhi |
June 1, 2009 6:11:00 pm

External Affairs Minister S M Krishna’s categorisation of India as a ‘responsible power’ has found an echo in the just-concluded Shangri La dialogue – the impressive annual conclave on Asian security at Singapore run by the London-headquartered International Institute of Strategic Studies.

When it comes to Asian security calculus,India has more than a peer in China. The leader of Beijing’s delegation,Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian,described China as a “resonsible major power”.

As they come to terms with the rise of China and India,the rest of the world wants to know how Beijing and New Delhi will use their growing military power. In his address to the IISS conclave,U S Defence Secretary Robert Gates outlined America’s expectations and apprehensions.

On India,Gates said that Washington hopes that New Delhi will be partner and a “net provider of security in the Indian Ocean”. On China,Gates was a little more circumspect,emphasising the need for greater openness on China’s part on military issues.

Adm Sureesh Mehta,the top gun of the Indian Navy and the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee,told the delegates on how New Delhi is meeting its military responsibilities as a rising power.

For one,Adm Mehta said India will continue to contribute to the collective international goods in the maritime domain. “We see the Indian Navy as a significant stabilising force in the Indian Ocean region,which safeguards traffic bound not only for our own ports,but also the flow of hydrocarbons and strategically important cargo to and from the rest of the world across the strategic waterways close to our shores.”

On promoting regional security,Adm Mehta pointed to his recent initiative on convening the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium. More significantly,the Chief of Indian Naval Staff underlined India’s efforts to help the smaller countries secure their maritime interests.

Referring to the current Indian naval cooperation with the island states of Sri Lanka,Seychelles,Maldives and Mauritius,Adm Mehta declared his conviction that “as India grows in economic and military stature,it would have to take upon itself the role of further equipping its neighbours in ways that would not only enhance their own security but contribute positively to regional stability as well”.

Adm Mehta’s reference to these island states comes amidst the growing concern in New Delhi at China’s perceived attempts at securing a foothold in the Indian Ocean. Meanwhile Gen. Ma highlighted China’s own ambitious defence diplomacy that includes growing arms sales,joint exercises,training packages,and collective engagement of the South-east Asian defence establishments.

While the Indian Navy is responding to India’s new regional security responsibilities,can say the same thing about New Delhi’s civilian bureaucracy and political leadership? One hopes that some of foreign minister Krishna’s emphasis on India as a responsible power will rub off on the defence minister A. K. Antony,whose strategic hesitation during the last two years has resulted in India ceding the initiative on Asian defence diplomacy to China.

(C. Raja Mohan is a Professor of South Asian Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,Nanyang Technological University,Singapore.)

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