Can the Shangri-La Dialogue Fill India’s Defence Diplomacy Void?

Antipathy to military power could cost India dearly in Asia amid China’s expanding influence, writes Bharat Karnad.

4 min read
(Photo: Hardeep Singh/ <b>The Quint</b>)

It’s a mere coincidence that while Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Washington from 7-8 June, being pressured by President Barack Obama to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and formally ally India with the United States, his Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar will be in Singapore at the 15th Shangri-La security summit from June 3-5, trying to explain India’s non-existent defence diplomacy. The concern animating the discussions in both locations will be an assertively expansive China.

The conceit of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) from Jawaharlal Nehru’s days has been the belief that where China is concerned, diplomacy can score over military muscle – a point of view which endured despite the 1962 Himalayan drubbing of the Indian army by Chinese forces. Antipathy towards the hard power of the state unfortunately gets translated into neglect of defence diplomacy in the 21st century.


Hollowness of ‘Act East’ Policy

This means that while Beijing is backed by considerable military heft and outreach, New Delhi, afflicted by geo-strategic myopia, has the Indian armed forces equipped with imported armaments for territorial defence to fall back on.

Given this backdrop, what can Parrikar possibly say in Singapore? Oh, sure, he will mouth the usual inanities about India’s newly confident “Act East” policy. He may point towards the feat of Indian naval flotillas – the latest featuring INS Sahyadri and another missile destroyer, a corvette, and a tanker presently making its foray into the disputed South China Sea.

But he is unlikely to be very convincing, because successive governments have seemed clueless about how Indian military power and its projection can serve the national interest. Thus, the sale/transfer to Vietnam of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile – which can sink the biggest warships with a single shot and frighten China’s powerful South Sea Fleet enough to confine them to the Sanya base on Hainan Island – has still not been implemented, and the BrahMos has still not reached Hanoi.

 External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (third from Left) and Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (third from Right) attend a meeting in Hanoi August 25, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj (third from Left) and Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (third from Right) attend a meeting in Hanoi August 25, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Projects in the Pipeline

  • 11 March 2015: India signed an MoU with Mauritius to develop infrastructure and build strategic assets in the Agalega islands.
  • 26 May 2015: India and Vietnam sign a five-year defence pact, however lack of clarity still persists on the export of BrahMos missile.
  • 12 December 2015: India and Japan sign a deal on sharing military information but the deal on the sale of US-2 amphibious aircraft couldn’t be concluded.

Strategic Blunder

Perhaps Parrikar can show some courage and make haste to equip the existing Vietnamese coastal batteries with this indomitable cruise missile. Were he keen on leaving a mark and seriously signalling India’s intent, he could arrange to sell, at cost-price to Vietnam, a BrahMos-armed, indigenously produced, Kolkata-class destroyer.

But will the Modi regime be even remotely this strategically venturesome? Nah! Consider this: Hanoi has offered India the Nha Trang port as a military base. Instead of jumping at it, India is going slow, the way it’s lagging behind in building up the Agalega Islands leased by Mauritius as naval and air bases, while entirely ignoring Mozambique’s request to set up a naval base on its northern coast. So much for New Delhi’s appreciating the importance of distant defence and the political value of foreign bases.

Or consider that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conceived of  “the confluence of the two seas” binding India’s and Japan’s national security interests nine years ago, a perfect launch pad for a coalition of Asian “rimland” states to neutralise  China.

Realising the Importance of Military Power

In September 2014 Modi visited Japan and agreed to upgrade the bilateral relationship to a ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’. In the two years since, there has been no great progress – other than the Japanese Navy’s participation in the annual Malabar naval exercise along with the US – in fleshing out this “special partnership”. Nor have the consultations that were mooted in Tokyo for joint weapons development achieved much.

Even the finalisation of the sale of the US-2 amphibious maritime surveillance aircraft is proceeding tardily, despite the Shinmaywa Company’s desire to not only fully transfer technology but establish a production line near Hyderabad for this one-of-a-kind aircraft to meet world-wide demand.

Given the institutionalised habit of mind to waste such opportunities, chances are slim that MEA, and the Indian government generally, will suddenly see the light and be galvanised into strategic action. India’s reticence in owning up to responsibility for the defence of distant neighbours does not mesh well with New Delhi’s great power pretensions. This is something that Singapore’s great statesman, the late Lee Kwan Yew, repeatedly stressed. But, frustratingly, New Delhi has not quite cottoned-on to military power as integral to the conduct of diplomacy.

(The writer is Professor for National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research and author of ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet’))

Also read:

What the New Indo-China ‘Red-Telephone’ Would Mean for the World

Chabahar Vs Gwadar: Gaining Advantage Over China-Pakistan Axis

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