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Manohar Parrikar, The Diplomat

Prakash Nanda

Updated: June 11, 2016, 11:32 AM IST
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Manohar Parrikar, The Diplomat
File photo of Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. (Reuters)

Enough attention has not been given perhaps to the fact that as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was crisscrossing West Asia, Europe and Americas over the last one week, his Defence Minister Manohar Gopalkrishna Prabhu Parrikar was addressing the intellectuals in Singapore and holding serious discussions with top leaders of Vietnam, including its President, Prime Minister and defence minister. While in Singapore Parrikar was highlighting India's strategic vision, in Vietnam he was holding high level bilateral talks on the entire spectrum of defence cooperation initiatives, including possible sale of supersonic missile BrahMos to the Southeast Asian country.

In fact, one development that has gone relatively unnoticed is the greater frequency and visibility of Parrikar in foreign countries these days. During the last one year, he has visited officially Japan, South Korea, Russia, the United States, China, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Vietnam. I do not know whether Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj has visited so many countries of extreme significance during the same period.

Be that as it may, one should consider this to be a positive development. What this means is that a rising India has discovered the virtues of what is called "defence diplomacy" in an international environment in which it has few adversaries but more partners. The term "military diplomacy" or "defence diplomacy" has gained currency after the demise of communism in East Europe during 1990s. In order to ensure that the armed forces of the erstwhile communist countries realise the value of democracy, which, in turn, requires "the civilian control of the military", the NATO-countries undertook extensive programmes like "Partners for peace" throughout Eastern Europe.

One remembers in this context the famous remark of the former US defence secretary Robert Gates that "the capability of America's military to redress the trials of the modern age lay not in its capacity to drop bombs, but rather in its ability to look beyond the use of violence and embrace alternative means of promoting its interests". Likewise, from India's point of view, defence diplomacy should be construed as any military activity with an expressly diplomatic purpose. Its formats could be either bilateral and multilateral contacts between senior military officials or bilateral defence cooperation or training of foreign military personnel or provision of expertise and advice on democratic control of armed forces or contacts and exchanges between military personnel, and ship visits or provision of military equipment and other material aid or bilateral and multilateral military exercises for training purposes.

Viewed thus, it is important to note that in 2015 alone India undertook as many as 18 military exercises- naval, army and air force- with 13 countries. This was probably the largest that the country has had in recent years. It is also worth noting that for the first time Japan joined India and the United States in the Malabar exercises in the Bay of Bengal and there was the first-ever maritime exercise with Australia. Add to this the fact that India in the last 18 months has also launched maritime security dialogues with Australia, China, France, Japan and the United States. All "these allow us to share security perspectives and explore possibilities of cooperation", Parrikar said at Singapore.

It is not that Parrikar is the first Indian Defence Minister to practice such defence diplomacy. His predecessor during the Congress rule, AK Antony, had also visited a number of important countries, including the leading ones in Southeast Asia, China, Australia and Russia. But it is to be admitted that the Modi government seems to be an intense practitioner of this diplomacy. In fact, not long ago, Parrikar had revealed that India was planning to export defence materials and training military personnel to a significant number of countries. "At least 38 countries are sending their defence personnel for training in India. We are encouraging them. We are giving them more slots. We are also considering to supply some sort of defence materials through export or through line of credit to the countries so that they can depend on India for their defence," he said.

Parrikar, however, did not reveal the names of these countries. He said he would not be able to reveal names of the countries which are sending their personnel for training due to "security reasons". However, he added, "India does not want to dominate any other country but increase its own strength through partnership and friendship."

It may be noted here that though defence diplomacy was not in the public parlance before 1990s, India, as the inheritor of the British legacy, had practiced it in the South Asian neighbourhood soon after independence. But this phase did not last long, with the then political leadership preferring what strategic expert Raja Mohan calls "military isolationism". It was only after the end of the Cold War, particularly after the demise of the Soviet Union, that India started realising the value of defence diplomacy. It all began with the United States through service to service interaction between the armed forces in the early 1990s, thanks to the so-called Kickleighter proposals, named after the then US commander of the Pacific Armies.

Today, India is actively pursuing defence diplomacy in many parts of the world. And here one of the focused areas happens to be Indo-Pacific region. Following the enunciation of India's Look-East policy in the 1990s, India has established substantive defence cooperation and military exchanges with all the major Southeast Asian countries. In fact, its defence diplomacy has extended to cover countries in West Asia, Central Asia, Northeast Asia and Austrasia. The Indian Ocean region has been also another focused region in this regard. To be specific, India maintains defence and military relations with Mauritius, Seychelles, Mozambique, Madagascar, Maldives, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, Republic of Korea, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Israel, Oman, Iran, UAE, Botswana, Lesotho, Zambia, Namibia, Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Djibouti, Tanzania, Kenya, South Africa, the USA, Brazil, UK, France, Russia, Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Belarus, Germany, Greece, Italy and Australia.

Talking specifically of the South East Asia or the Asean countries, India unveiled the Milan multilateral exercises in 1995. It has now been institutionalised as a biennial event that draws in a large number of countries in the Indo-Pacific littoral. In 1996 India joined the security forum of the Asean, the ARF (Asean Regional Forum). In 2005, the Asean leaders invited India to join the East Asia Summit process that was to focus on broader political and security issues facing Asia. In 2010, India participated in the first expanded gathering of the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting that was dubbed ADMM Plus (Asian Defense Minister Meeting Plus).

The ADMM-Plus (comprising 10 ASEAN countries plus eight others: Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Russia and the United States) has been focussing on five priority areas of cooperation: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR), medicine, maritime security, peacekeeping and counter-terrorism. In June 2013, there took place a unique military exercise in Brunei involving seven ships, 15 helicopters and around 3200 personnel from 18 different countries, including India, Japan, China, Singapore, the US and Vietnam, proving that the ADMM-Plus was a great forum of military confidence-building measures.

However, the fact remains that despite the increasing relevance of defence diplomacy, there are rooms for improvement in India's institutional capability to leverage the military element of national power. All told, India has not been able to establish a presence in the Asia-Pacific region commensurate with its strategic interests. Nor has it assisted properly friendly foreign countries in developing their defence capabilities. And that has been primarily due to the lack of adequate political support and poor coordination between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Hopefully, things will now change, given Parrikar's recent assertions and foreign visits.

First Published: June 11, 2016, 11:32 AM IST