For years the Indian security establishment has been excessively obsessed with Pakistan and the proxy war it has waged against India. Over the past half a dozen years, the focus has gradually shifted to meeting the rising challenge posed by China’s rising military capabilities in Tibet.
Apart from two new army divisions now deployed in the country’s north-east after they were sanctioned in 2009, the Indian Cabinet has also a fortnight ago cleared a new mountain strike corps specifically meant for offensive operations against China. The new formation, which is likely to cost well over $10 billion, will take at least seven years to be fully functional according to current assessments. Given the long and drawn out border dispute with China, Indian policymakers have naturally tended to think “continentally” and looked at countering China on land.
That may however be changing too. As part of its two decade-old Look East policy, India has substantially stepped up engagement with East Asian and ASEAN nations. Last December, during an India-ASEAN Commemorative summit, the relationship was elevated to a strategic partnership.
As Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared in Phnom Penh in November 2012: “India and ASEAN should not only work for shared prosperity and closer links between our peoples, but also to promote peace, security and stability in the region. I am happy to note our growing engagement in areas such as defence, maritime security and counter-terrorism.”
Although never explicitly stated, ASEAN and East Asian nations want New Delhi to be a counterweight to increasing Chinese footprints in the region. Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and, particularly, Vietnam and Myanmar have time and again pressed India to help them both in terms of military training and weapons supply.
Myanmar’s Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Thura Thet Swe during his four-day visit to India in late July held wide-ranging consultations with top officials from the Indian Ministry of Defence. Apart from increasing the number of training slots of Myanmarese officers in Indian military training establishments, India has agreed to build at least four Offshore Patrol Vehicles (OPV) in Indian Shipyards to be used by Myanmar’s navy.
In the recent past, despite its military junta’s perceived closeness to China, Myanmar had sourced 105 mm artillery guns, mortars, armored personnel carriers and rifles from India. But now it wants India to do more. In the near future, air force personnel, especially helicopter pilots, are likely to train in India in larger numbers. Even as Myanmar opens up to the world, its military is moving closer to India than ever before. That all three Indian service chiefs visited Myanmar in the past one year is testimony to India’s military diplomacy with Southeast and East Asian nations.
But it is Vietnam more than any other country in Southeast Asia that India seeks to support and engage. Both India and Vietnam have long-pending territorial disputes with China. Both have long-standing ties, dating back to Jawaharlal Nehru’s time. So, for more than a decade now, India has been providing Vietnam with assistance in beefing up its naval and air capabilities. For instance, India has repaired and upgraded more than 100 MiG 21 planes of the Vietnam People’s Air Force and supplied them with enhanced avionics and radar systems. Indian Air Force pilots have also been training their Vietnamese counterparts.
The Indian Navy, by far larger than the Vietnamese navy, has been supplying critical spares to Hanoi for its Russian origin ships and missile boats. But New Delhi is now more open in supporting Hanoi.
As The Hindu recently reported: “In a first, India has offered a $ 100-million credit line to Vietnam to purchase military equipment. It will be used for purchasing four patrol boats. The credit line was agreed upon around the time India once again expressed its resolve to remain involved in oil exploration activity in the Phu Kanh basin of the South China Sea. Vietnam says it is within its rights to invite India to explore for oil in this area. But China claims that this basin is within the “nine dotted line” or its zone of influence.”
Going further East, India and Japan’s growing strategic ties are not lost on Beijing. Following a longish visit to Tokyo a week after his summit meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has ensured that India and Japan are in a tighter embrace than ever before. In fact, a former foreign secretary of India, Shyam Saran went so far as to declare: “If Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Washington in July 2005, with the announcement of the nuclear deal proved to be a game-changer in India's foreign policy his visit to Tokyo in May 2013 may assume similar significance.”
But it is not just Japan that is receiving attention from New Delhi. Australia, some distance away from the Indian subcontinent, has also become a favored destination for Indian foreign and military diplomacy. AK Antony became the first Indian defense minister to visit Australia in June. En route he had stopped over at Bangkok and Singapore.
New defense cooperation avenues are being explored even as India and Australia play an increasingly important role in issues concerning the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean regions, both bilaterally and multilaterally. Both are members of the East Asia Summit (EAS), ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) and the Indian Ocean Rim ‑ Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC).
The Indian military, generally working in isolation from the rest of the governance structure, is coming into its own in establishing lasting relationships with countries outside its traditional zone of influence. If New Delhi can sustain this newly acquired momentum, India’s military diplomacy is likely to play an increasingly important role in the country’s outreach in East and Southeast Asia over the next decade. New Delhi has, however, been careful not to trumpet this development, lest it raise China’s hackles.