World as we see it
For the foreseeable future (two decades), while it is envisaged that humans will continue to be central to the decision-making process, it will be shaped by politics, strategy, society, diplomacy, military power and technology. There will be ever-increasing employment of autonomous systems, disruptive technology and game-changing kinetic and non-kinetic systems which are changing the nature of war/confrontation. There will be less emphasis on emotions, passion and chance.
The international order is transforming with power increasingly diffused within and among states bringing fresh layers of complexities. As there are many more dimensions, variables and cross-effects to it, the prospect of not fully comprehending all its implications is more real. Some of this has unfolded more visibly in the last year, but its contours were evident even before. The salience of China and the re-positioning of the United States are perhaps the two sharpest examples. Change, however, is not just external. If India is the fifth largest economy in the world and third actually by PPP (purchasing power parity) terms, our relationship with the world cannot be the same as when our ranking was much lower. Our stakes in the world have certainly become higher; and correspondingly, so too have the expectations of us. Simply put, India matters more and our worldview must process that in all its aspects. Just as important, our work style and mindset must adjust to raise the level of our game. We are in an increasingly interdependent world, with many of the accompanying constraints.
The era of unconstrained military conflicts may be behind us but the reality of limited wars and coercive diplomacy is still very much a fact of life. Visualizing and responding to a new range of national security complexities require the willingness to continuously review internal and foreign policy and audit performance. India can emerge as the world’s most influential democracy in the second half of the 21st century, giving it the ability to shape Asia, the Indo-Pacific region and the dynamically evolving global order, for which all dimensions of comprehensive national power (CNP) must synergistically act. Military power in its myriad forms will always remain the ultimate arbiter. Along with military diplomacy (MD) it helps shape foreign policy goals and security interests, and will play an increasingly pivotal role, in maintaining/creating and expanding a nation’s strategic space and achieving national objectives.
Military/Defence Diplomacy: Overview[i]
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the coercive use of militaries (specially navies) by colonial powers led to coining of the term ‘gunboat diplomacy’, which refers to the pursuit of foreign policy objectives with the aid of conspicuous displays of military power, implying or constituting a direct threat or warfare. It followed that the nations had to have the capability and capacity to act; and decision makers the will to call the enemy’s bluff, if required. Concurrently, the peaceful use of military as a tool of national diplomacy to further international relations led to the use of the term ‘military diplomacy’. Military Diplomacy and Defence Diplomacy are used interchangeably (including in this paper). Possibly ‘military’ implies exchanges and interactions between uniformed services; ‘defence’ could be used to identify activities undertaken by entire defence establishments of a country including civil bureaucracy and R&D establishments[ii]. Military Diplomacy does not replace, but supplement the overall foreign and security policy guidelines set by the political leadership.
Military Diplomacy in India: Apprehensive Beginnings
India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was a staunch votary of non-alignment and our foreign policies were centred on charting a path independent and virtually equidistant of the two competing power blocs. Consequently, India’s military diplomacy also remained ‘isolationist’ in its orientation, and military linkages with other nations were frowned upon by India’s new rulers. Its peripheral application and not strictly as part of diplomacy (by both MEA and political leaders) could possibly be due to our nascent democracy, and understandable anxiety of military takeover in keeping with what happened in Pakistan. The exception to this rule was India’s willing participation in UN peacekeeping endeavours. We have come a long way especially in the last decade in projecting military diplomacy.
Methodologies of Military Diplomacy
(1) High-level ministerial and military commanders meetings, ship/aircraft goodwill visits, training (singly or tri-services) both at military institutions and in the field, operational cum logistical exercises, regional defence forums (like Shangri La and Raisina Dialogues), confidence-building measures, cooperation in combating sea piracy, the establishment of air, sea traffic control and communication facilities, construction of specialized infrastructure like ports, airfields, bridges, exchange of specialist military personnel, participation in each other’s military parades, fleet reviews or air shows and the like.
(2) The exchange and positioning of military attaches of the three services in each other’s diplomatic missions has been, since years, an important ingredient of global military diplomacy.
(3) In today’s terror afflicted world, the exchange of timely terrorist related intelligence will also fall under the purview of military diplomacy.
(4) Officers education and training is beneficial specially when the officer reaches senior ranks/influential decision-making positions within their nations.
(5) Stationing liaison officers in each other’s headquarters enhances interoperability and training.
(6) Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief internationally; Lebanon (Operation Sukoon), Libya (Op Safe Homecoming), Yemen (Op Raahat). We have secured the safety of other national citizens, mainly neighbours. Provided humanitarian assistance and disaster relief during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to numerous countries including Indonesia, Sri Lanka; cyclone Nargis – Myanmar, Cyclone Sidr – Bangladesh, Op Maitri – Nepal earthquake.
(7) International military cooperation and joint bilateral/multi-lateral exercises. India has taken military exercises with other nations to a whole new level with lexicons like ‘defence diplomacy’, ‘strategic signalling’ and ‘interoperability’ surrounding a series of war drills that Indian forces have undertaken one after another; Op Indra with Russia (200 Indian soldiers are participating in ‘Zapad’: a 17-country drill in Russia); ‘Kazind’ with Kazakhstan; quadrilateral exercise ‘Malabar’ in which India, US, Japan and Australia take part; in next three months we participate in more bilateral and multilateral exercises which include a ‘Quad-plus-UK’ naval exercise in October, ‘Surya Kiran’ with Nepal, ‘Mitra Shakti’ with Sri Lanka, ‘Ajeya Warrior’ with the UK, ‘Yudh Abhyas’ with the US, ‘Shakti’ with France, and not to forget the first tri-service drill with the UK, where the 65,000-tonne aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth participated with its 5th-Gen F-35B ‘lightning’ fighters.
(8) Many of these exercises are intended as a signal to our principal adversary, China. As part of a larger plan, our armed forces have also been seeking to scale up its Africa outreach to deter China in its new geo-political playground. It is pertinent to point out that for now, we have stopped the bilateral ‘Hand-in-Hand’ exercise with China; given the escalation in our Northern borders.
(9) New thrust areas in the 2+2 Ministerial Meetings and Strategic Defence Agreements. Meetings between the Foreign Minister and Defence Minister of India with their counterparts in USA, Russia, Japan and Australia strengthens the external dimensions of CNP (comprehensive national power). In addition, four foundational security agreements with USA, exponentially enhances our security status; Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for geo-spatial information (BECA); General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA); Logistic Support Agreement (LSA); and Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA).
Challenges to Military Diplomacy and Current Status Report
India has come to be known as a nation where ‘bureaucratic control’ of ‘political policies’ is the norm when it comes to national security, and one can even add the armed forces. The armed forces’ have long felt that India has ignored the importance of military diplomacy as an adjunct to the conduct of foreign policy. The earlier practice of serving military chiefs confining themselves essentially to bread and butter defence and service issues related to equipment, procurement, organisation, manpower, deployments, capacity gaps, and modernisation, and staying clear of issues with foreign policy sensitivities is thankfully being redefined.
Coalition politics too sometimes can be at the cost of national security to appease domestic constituents. India’s relations with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh does get impacted by the domestic local politics in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Military Diplomacy specially when India is very reliant on defence systems from abroad (in an era where political considerations often overrode economic) has a vital role to ensure our national security till we achieve some degree of ‘aatma nirbharata’ (self reliance), when the same diplomatic doors would be used for defence exports. There has been a recognition that in today’s multi-polar, multi-domain world, diplomacy and defence are two vital pillars of foreign policy, and India urgently needs to reorient with the changing times.
We have been inconsistent and good in parts. IPKF intervention in Sri Lanka, highlights the total lack of synergy between the political, diplomatic, bureaucratic and military verticals of comprehensive national power. An inspiring example of soft power and military diplomacy is during the Somalia civil war (movie Black Hawk Down), when the Indian military contingent was one of the only militaries which was allowed to evacuate with its complete contingent, equipment and personnel, due to tremendous work done by it which was widely praised and respected.
Other events showcasing national synergy is our successful Maldives intervention (Op Cactus, 1988) at their behest; and UN Peace Keeping Operations (UNPKO). It was amply demonstrated during ‘Op Khukri’, by Indian forces in Sierra Leone (May 2000), where our peace enforcing force carried out the most difficult operation of war; a fighting withdrawal against the rebel RUF (Revolutionary United Front) immaculately, bravely and professionally with just one casualty to our forces. This successful operation received worldwide acclaim and appreciation, but unfortunately little is known within the country.
Recently, there has been noticeable synergy between ministries (specially defence, external affairs and home) on security issues be it the strike across the LoC in the aftermath of the Uri terrorist attack; the low-key operations of neutralizing of IIGs (Indian Insurgent Groups) along the Myanmar border and the Balakot strikes, which signalled India’s resolve, change of intent and policy. Diplomacy to achieve military objectives extends of course beyond issues of sourcing supplies and accessing technology. Today, our maritime domain awareness has been developed through partnerships with other nations. A combination of coastal radar surveillance systems, white shipping agreements, hydrographic cooperation and provision of equipment and training has given the SAGAR doctrine a very strong foundation.
Encouraging Emerging Dimensions to Military Diplomacy
Our late Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat and service chiefs, have been more forthcoming and articulate in public forums about our national security challenges and our service strategic road map. Kanwar Sibal in his recent article[iii] highlights the vocalising by CDS of China’s ambitions and aspirations to global power as an “omnipresent danger” to regional strategic instability and carrying the potential of “threatening India’s territorial integrity and strategic importance”.
The CDS also warned of China’s aggressive interventions which harms our national interests in our immediate and near neighbourhood including the Indian Ocean Region. Collusive actions in all domains between Pakistan and China is a reality. As part of military diplomacy, military bluntness contrasts with a firm but much more diplomatic posture adopted by the External Affairs Minister and studied reticence at the Prime Minister’s level on the China challenge[iv]. The strategy of maintaining military diplomacy pressure spell out the ground realities and aggressiveness against China, and avoid direct involvement in the highest political authority in the LAC impasse retains political manoeuvrability. This signals that the Chinese threat is not being glossed over at the military level. Concurrently, it keeps the window open at the bilateral and multi-lateral political level (India builds new alignments). This is only possible with excellent coordination and consultation between the defence and foreign policy establishments.
The changing scope and nature of war, the multiple domains impacting national security specially the non-kinetic domains of psychological, information, electro-magnetic spectrum (EMS), legal, disruptive and hi-tech technologies (AI, big data, hypersonic weapon systems, massed drones, out of horizon capabilities) has further emphasised the pro-active role of military diplomacy.
Recommendations and the Way Ahead
Increasing use of Military Diplomacy judiciously for influence projection regionally and globally wherever our national interests lie is now an accepted mantra. Increasing competition and confrontation, but conflict prevention regionally and world-wide can best be done using military diplomacy. Adequate impetus in national strategy and national security issues to the defence services must be given and overall synergy achieved. Our three services through the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and IDS (Integrated Defence Staff) need to be reoriented. The energetic pursuit of military defence and defence cooperation with nations of interest to India is a natural corollary; immediate and consequential regional neighbours (Iran, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia), with whom our relations do fluctuate from time to time.
As Indo-Pacific assumes increasingly larger strategic significance in the years ahead, military diplomacy is reaching out to Japan, South Korea, Philippines and others. Our military representation, currently restricted to just 44 nations, must be substantially increased. One thought is to place Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) under CDS, including the responsibility of conducting defence diplomacy in all its manifestations. On behalf of the Ministry of Defence and the three services, the DIA can foster military diplomacy in concert with the Ministry of External Affairs and any other ministries involved. As most nations look up to India for increasing security assistance, India will have to speedily establish integrated institutions and expertise within, to comprehensively reach out to the growing demands and aspirations of friendly foreign nations.
Our growing global status in a multi-polar world, and with our complex internal and external multi-domain threats, national security needs synergised holistic effort, specially between foreign and security policy. Our unsettled borders, years of intense state terrorism (by neighbours), cannot be allowed to challenge our national integrity and unity. Diplomacy will remain vital as we go ahead in evolving into a global balancing power, in which military diplomacy will form a pivotal constituent. Military diplomacy is being conducted very robustly and professionally, and we need to constantly stay ahead of the geo-political and security challenges.
[i] A large number of articles/publications/online material have been perused to write this article. Their central theme has been the increasing importance of military diplomacy as a powerful tool to meet national objectives. Some articles apart from those indicated, and referenced are; ‘Contours of India’s foreign policy” delivered by India’s External Affairs Minister Dr S Jayashankar for the Second Manohar Parikkar Memorial Lecture for FINS (Forum for Integrated National Security) on 13 Dec 2020; Sanjeev Rai, Ahmad Rashidi, Pratik Sharma and Sumati Kumar, Mil Diplomacy – a Critical tool of Statecraft, NDC Journal, Volume 38, Number1, 2017.
[ii] Gen VP Malik, India’s Military Conflicts and Diplomacy: An Inside View of Decision Making, 2013, Harpers Collins Publishers, India
[iii] Kanwal Sibal, India’s New Game Plan to Tackle China Challenge is a Mix of Bluntness & Studied Reticence, October 28, 2021