India’s Rising Regional Military Engagement

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India’s Rising Regional Military Engagement

New Delhi has been strengthening defense ties with countries across the region.

India’s Rising Regional Military Engagement
Credit: REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Sometime in the latter half of 2013, the top brass of the Indian military had a short but effective brainstorming session with other stakeholders in the national security architecture. The participants were drawn from the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) which functions directly under National Security Adviser (NSA) Shiv Shankar Menon, senior officials from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the Research and Analysis Wing or RAW, India’s external intelligence agency and of course the Ministry of Defence. The main agenda: how to further India’s interests in the immediate and strategic neighborhood through effective use of India’s military.

For the past decade, India has been receiving increasing requests for joint exercises and training slots from what are described as “Friendly Foreign Countries” in the bureaucratic parlance of South Block, the colonial style building that houses both the defense ministry and the external affairs ministry. Considering these requests, a review was called for. At the end of the high-level meeting, a six-point formula for stepping up the nation’s military diplomacy was finalized.

Specifically, the officials decided to: leverage the military element of national power towards the furtherance of the national interest; contribute to the national security environment by developing a shared confidence amongst the armed forces; strengthen defense relations to promote India’s influence in the region; establish a presence commensurate with India’s strategic interests and the comfort level of the host nation; assist friendly foreign countries in developing defense capabilities consistent with India’s security needs; exploit India’s presence in UN Missions to further the national interest.

Many of the elements in the policy are part of India’s ongoing engagement with its friends and neighbors, but the fact that a reiteration was considered necessary signifies renewed interest in making full use of Indian military’s standing across the world.

One of the first decisions flowing out of the new thinking was to post defense attachés in the Central Asian Republics. Accordingly, three new attachés have been placed in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan in the past three months. These three countries are of particular immediate interest because of their proximity to Afghanistan, currently in the middle of an uncertain transition. By posting defense attachés, India wants to make sure it remains engaged with the military leadership there as it has done for years with Tajikistan, another country that borders Afghanistan. In fact, after initial difficulties, India has helped Tajikistan build an air base at Ayni, besides intermittently basing some of its own Russian-sourced helicopters there. A 60-bed, state-of-the-art hospital built by India is manned by military doctors and paramedics at Ayni, and is seen as a major Indian contribution in Tajikistan. The new Indian defense attachés are expected to offer similar, if smaller projects to the other Central Asian Republics.

But it’s not just about placing military officers in friendly countries. New Delhi also plans various joint exercises that keep strategic interests in mind. In 2012-13, India was perhaps the only country to have conducted joint drills with all P-5 countries—the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. While many of the exercises—like the Yudh Abhyas series with the U.S. and Exercise Ajey Warrior with the U.K.—are part of a long-term engagement, India is increasingly focused on offering its expertise to its immediate neighbors too. In keeping with that policy, Indian forces have conducted joint drills, maneuvers and exercises with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, as well as with Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Living in the shadow of an increasingly assertive China, most ASEAN and East Asian nations want New Delhi to be a counterweight to Beijing. Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and, particularly, Vietnam and Myanmar, have time and again asked New Delhi to help them both in terms of military training and weapons supply.

On a four-day visit to India last July, Myanmar’s navy chief, Vice Admiral Thura Thet Swe held wide-ranging consultations with top officials from the Indian Ministry of Defence. Apart from increasing the number of training slots of Burmese 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.

The Indian Navy, far larger than its Vietnamese counterpart, has been supplying critical spares to Hanoi for its Russian origin ships and missile boats. However, New Delhi is now more open about supporting Hanoi. Last year it offered a $100-million credit line to Vietnam to purchase military equipment. The money will be used to purchase four patrol boats.

Then there is the renewed closeness between India and Japan. When Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to India in the last week of January there was more than usual interest around the world because Abe has not hidden his intention of stitching together a broader alliance in Asia, not necessarily directed at China but certainly designed to balance its rapid rise. Not surprisingly, one key element of the joint Indo-Japan statement was preserving maritime freedom and respect for international laws in Asia. New Delhi and Tokyo reiterated their commitment “to the freedom of navigation, unimpeded commerce and peaceful settlement of disputes based on the principles of international law.” In the context of the rising tension between China and Japan over the disputed island and Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, the reiteration is important.

For the first time the two countries have decided to step up their defense cooperation. Japan is at an advanced stage of talks with India to sell the ShinMaywa US-2 amphibious aircraft. If that goes ahead, this will be the first Japanese defense export since World War II. New Delhi has also invited Tokyo to participate in the annual Exercise Malabar held between the U.S. and the Indian navies. Last time Japan—along with Australia and Singapore—joined the maritime man oeuvre in 2007, Beijing protested vehemently. Seven years down the line, China is unlikely to react as vociferously, at least judging by the measured response emanating from Beijing to this new India-Japan tango.  It is certain, though, that New Delhi’s new thrust to push military cooperation more vigorously as part of its diplomatic outreach will be watched keenly around Asia.