India’s Military Diplomacy

by March 2023
Indian Navy officers stand on the flight deck of India’s first home-built aircraft carrier INS Vikrant in Kochi, India, September 2022. Photo credit: REUTERS

India, the world’s second most populous nation and sixth largest economy, is a nuclear weapons state with conventional forces among the largest in the world and a current defense budget of $72 billion. In 1971, India’s military prevailed over Pakistan to midwife the birth of Bangladesh. In 1999, it again chastised Pakistan for clandestine territorial transgression. May 2020 saw the Indian army forcefully retaliating against a surprise Chinese surge across a non-demarcated boundary in the Himalayas. And yet, many feel that India punches below its weight because it has been unable to leverage its significant national power to deter or dissuade its neighbors from undertaking actions inimical to its interests.

China and Pakistan formed an anti-India axis in 1972, with the former attempting to “salami slice” along India’s northern border while the latter engaged in a campaign of cross-border terrorism in India’s west. Both have attempted to alienate India from its smaller neighbors and to destabilize its borders. Yet why hasn’t India used extended periods of peace to employ military diplomacy as part of a coordinated foreign policy strategy to influence the behavior of its neighbors? Unfortunately, neither India’s political establishment nor its bureaucracy—defense and diplomatic—fully support the concept of the military entering the domain of diplomacy.

An important component of India’s evolving naval diplomacy has been the creation of a strong maritime domain awareness capability.

There is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes military diplomacy, and it is not unusual to hear “military diplomacy” dismissed as an oxymoron like “military intelligence.” The simplest definition of “military diplomacy” is “use of the armed forces in a non-violent role, or in operations other than war, for the purpose of promoting national and foreign policy objectives of the state.”

Military strength generally does not require the actual use of force, and nations have evolved with distinct military diplomacy paradigms. The US, as the world’s pre-eminent military power, provides a good example. Starting with the post-World War II Marshall Plan, which provided aid to rebuild western Europe and laid the foundations for NATO, America has made extensive use of its military in the execution of foreign policy initiatives through pacts, alliances, and partnerships.

In the case of China, with Xi Jinping having designated his signature Belt and Road Initiative as well as its seaward component, the Maritime Silk Road, as a strategic objective, China’s 2019 Defense White Paper states that “one of the missions of China’s armed forces is to effectively protect the security and interests of overseas Chinese people, organizations and institutions.”

China’s military diplomacy seeks to develop close security ties with client states through port visits by warships, combined exercises, arms sales, and high-level dialogues. Its navy, having surpassed the US Navy in the number of ships, seeks maritime footholds to support future operations in the Indian Ocean region. To this end, China acquired Djibouti as a military base in 2017 and has been diligently helping Indian Ocean nations like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar create ports, which China visualizes as potential bases in times of need.

A unique template for employing the military for the purpose of diplomacy, and other political causes, has emerged in Pakistan. The Pakistani army, after its first coup in 1958, has ruled Pakistan for nearly half of the country’s existence. As part of its foreign policy, Pakistan established a substantial military presence to support Persian Gulf and Middle Eastern regimes. In return, many of these states have come to Pakistan’s help, financially—and in some cases militarily—in all its conflicts with India.

It is against this backdrop that we need to examine India’s sporadic employment of military diplomacy. Since India’s post-independence political leadership was pacifist by belief, it not only discounted the employment of military force but also ignored the concept of military diplomacy. And yet, in the first two decades after independence, India saw fairly intense military activity, as it forcefully integrated recalcitrant and disputed states into the union, liberated Goa from Portuguese rule, and fought two wars—one with China in 1962 and another with Pakistan in 1965.

While keeping a distance from Cold War entanglements, India did actively participate in UN peacekeeping operations from their very start, sending significant military contingents to Korea in 1950 and to Indo-China in 1953. Since then, India has been among the largest troop contributors to UN missions, taking part in 49 peacekeeping missions in the Middle East, the Balkans, and Africa.

The late 1980s saw India attempt two military interventions in the neighborhood. While a “peacekeeping force” to Sri Lanka returned home, having failed to meet its political and military objectives, a tri-service operation in the Maldives successfully rescued the government from a coup.

“Exercise Malabar’’ between navies of Japan, US, India, and Australia, November 2022. Photo credit: Hidenori Nagai for Pool / The Yomiuri Shimbun via Reuters Connect
“Exercise Malabar’’ between navies of Japan, US, India, and Australia, November 2022. Photo credit: Hidenori Nagai for Pool / The Yomiuri Shimbun via Reuters Connect

India has seen outstanding success in the field of military training and exercises. It set up naval/military academies in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Botswana, and Uganda. Currently, defense personnel from 38 Afro-Asian nations are training in Indian institutions. Indian teams also regularly visit a dozen other countries to impart training. India’s army, navy, and air force participate periodically in bilateral and multilateral exercises, at home and abroad, with their counterparts from 20 other nations, including all the major military powers.

Notwithstanding the above, there has been an enduring debate in India’s strategic circles about the inadequate use of military power to advance the nation’s foreign policy interests. India’s external objectives could have been better served if the military had been given a greater role in the formulation and implementation of foreign and security policies. India’s great power ambitions and its quest for a place on the international high-table cannot be achieved by relying solely on diplomacy and “soft power.” India will need to shed its inhibitions about the projection of military power.

In this context, three relevant factors should be noted. First, India’s political leadership has been fenced off from the military by a layer of bureaucracy, thereby denying the soldiers participation in policy making. Whether or not this lacuna will be redressed, by the creation of a chief of defense staff in 2020, remains to be seen. Second, with less than 1,000 foreign service officers, India has one of the most woefully understaffed diplomatic corps of any major country, which could use the help that military diplomacy could offer. Third, a lack of coordination between the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of External Affairs has often dampened attempts at military outreach.

Indian proponents of sea power found it ironic that it was the clash in May 2020 between Indian and Chinese troops in the Himalayas that focused national attention on the maritime domain. Statesmanship and diplomacy had failed to persuade the Chinese to resume status quo ante on the land border. New Delhi then looked to the sea for options rather than “boots on the ground” to bolster India’s negotiating position. Many saw this as a belated acknowledgment of the Indian Navy’s 2007 Maritime Strategy, which had declared that “the main business of major navies in the 21st century is to use warships to support foreign policy.”

India’s naval diplomacy rose to national prominence in 2004, when the tsunami hit the region. Within hours of the calamity striking, the Indian Navy reached out not just to its own stricken citizens but also to its Sri Lankan, Maldivian, and Indonesian neighbors in dire need. This humanitarian assistance and disaster relief left a positive impression on the Indian Ocean region that is prone to frequent natural calamities. The Ministry of Defence should establish a sustained capacity to deliver such assistance in the future.

India’s current interest in the maritime domain is focused on two realities. First, for China, as the world’s largest trading nation and energy importer, the Indian Ocean sea-lanes constitute a significant vulnerability. Second, India’s own foreign trade-to-GDP ratio has climbed from 20% in 1990 to over 45% in 2021, and an overwhelming proportion of this trade moves by sea. Given its fortuitous peninsular geography, India’s compact but capable navy can dominate the Indian Ocean sea-lanes, offering many options for undertaking the maritime component of military diplomacy.

A decade ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that India was well positioned to play the role of “a net provider of security in our immediate region and beyond.” Before this ambitious role could be fleshed out, his successor Narendra Modi coined the slogan, “Security and Growth for All in the Region,” which was converted into the acronym “SAGAR” (which means “ocean” or “sea” in Hindi). Although there is no document outlining the SAGAR vision or doctrine, it has become a foreign policy catchphrase, representing a broad concept of maritime cooperation to which many naval diplomacy initiatives are credited.

In this context, two existing maritime concepts, “Exercise Malabar’’ and the “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” (Quad) have come in handy. Malabar, conceived as a bilateral Indo–US naval exercise in 1992, went on to embrace Japan and Australia, becoming a four-cornered naval drill. The Quad, formed to coordinate the 2004 tsunami relief efforts between the US, Australia, Japan, and India, was revived in 2007 as a security dialogue. While both Malabar and the Quad offer multiple avenues of military/naval diplomacy and cooperation, they retain the potential for transformation into security partnerships, much to China’s discomfiture.

An important component of India’s evolving naval diplomacy has been the creation of a strong maritime domain awareness capability. This enables delivery of real-time, multi-dimensional maritime traffic pictures to India and neighboring Seychelles, Mauritius, Maldives, and Sri Lanka. Another significant development has been India’s setting up in 2018 of the Information Fusion Center – Indian Ocean Region intended to extend the scope of maritime collaboration through regular exchanging maritime information with other centers in France, Singapore, and Malaysia.

Military diplomacy has remained underutilized in India owing not only to its excessive emphasis on soft power but also to the indifference of its politicians and the dominance of the government bureaucracy in security-related matters. For the full potential of military/naval diplomacy to be realized, a “whole of government” approach is needed to integrate the military into the country’s larger security strategy. Among the measures that would help are the creation of a cadre of civil servants specialized in political-military issues; inclusion of more military officers in the national security arena; and improving India’s sealift and airlift capabilities.

Arun Prakash
Admiral Arun Prakash (ret.) was India’s chief of the navy staff from 2004 to 2006 and chairman of the chiefs of staff committee from 2005 to 2006.
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