Indian Prime Minister Chanakya, in his treatise Arthasastra back in 350 BC, stated that “Economics is the basis of a strong defense” and that the “geography of a nation will determine its history.” Both seem relevant when considering the diplomatic challenges that India faces today.
While India’s more immediate neighborhood is wracked by coups or near coups (the Maldives, Bangladesh and Pakistan), New Delhi is also under pressure over Iran’s row with the Western world. Throw into the witches’ brew the civil war unfolding in Syria and the attack on Israeli diplomats in New Delhi, Georgia and Bangkok, and it’s clear that India has plenty on its plate to contend with.
India has been importing oil from Iran for decades, with imports constituting around 12 percent of total volume. Until recently, India had chosen to pay for these imports in dollars, but with Iran faced with sanctions from the West, new arrangements have been concluded, including payments in rupees as well as counter trade arrangements.
India has taken a principled stand that the common man shouldn’t suffer the consequences of this standoff between the West and the Iranian government, and these arrangements will allow Iran to buy food, medicines and other necessities from India. India has, after all, previously noted the debilitating consequences of sanctions on Iraq. At the same time, India has clearly stated that another nuclear weapons power isn’t required in its neighborhood.
But this isn’t the only issue on which India has ruffled some feathers. Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne this month stated firmly during a visit to Singapore that the Indian Air Force was delighted with the Rafale fighter aircraft having been selected for the MMRCA contract, a move that frustrated the United States, which also had firms vying for a deal. Browne added that arrangements were being made to train its fighter pilots on this “omni-role” aircraft and that the armed forces were keen on all variants of the plane, which is expected to be in service for around 40 years. The process of finalizing the contract has begun between India’s Defense Ministry and Dassault, a contract that includes significant transfers of technology in the aviation sector.
Meanwhile, smaller nations around India and in the Indian Ocean Region have become a matter of concern for the government. Armed pirates and terrorists are seeking to take advantage of economic uncertainty to establish bases in small countries in India’s backyard. The Indian government has therefore commenced a forward looking, proactive policy of calling on the leaders of these nations for detailed discussions. As a result, in quick time, fruitful negotiations have been undertaken with the Seychelles, Madagascar, Mauritius and Saudi Arabia.
A common request from all these nations has been for more interaction with the Indian Navy. The government is speeding up the building of naval ships and fighter aircraft, and India is, according to military people I have spoken with, eyeing a 200-ship navy and a naval inventory of about 500 aircraft. Although much remains to be done, India’s naval diplomacy is coming of age, a point highlighted by the praise from ASEAN countries, the Australian and New Zealand navies and Japan following the recent MILAN naval exercises.
In addition, INS Arihant – an Indian built ship submersible ballistic, nuclear (SSBN) submarine – is undergoing extensive sea trials. A second submarine in this class, INS Aridhman, is also being constructed. Indian naval warships are also being deployed for the imminent test of India’s AGNI V strategic missile, which has a reported range of 5,000 kilometers plus. The K-4 SLBM, with a reported range of 3,500 kilometers, is also slated for testing this year.
So what does all this mean? What it demonstrates is that with a series of steady steps, India’s military and diplomatic establishment is coming of age on the global stage. The question now is whether it can cement its position in the comity of nations as a beacon of democracy in Asia.