The discipline of defence diplomacy picked up salience as an important component of foreign policy with most major militaries by the end of the Cold War. Particularly, in the last three decades, it has become a vital instrument in the diplomatic tool-bag of most countries.
While maintaining a nuanced policy of nonalignment during recent years, a significant shift in India’s expanding defence diplomacy imprint under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been from the West to South Asia.
This diplomacy includes a more advanced naval engagement, greater military exercises, and enhanced efforts for defence exports. As a result, they have improved interoperability with partner militaries, built partnerships, and earned diplomatic heft for India.
A key driver for India’s defence diplomacy has been China’s persistent aggressiveness in the region, particularly in the South China Sea. In recent years, India has intensified collaboration with many Southeast Asian states. They, too, are keen to expand their security ties with India to balance China and bolster their maritime security.
Significantly, most Southeast Asian states— Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Singapore, Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar, participated in this year’s Milan exercise. Of these, Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia had participated in the inaugural edition of the exercise in 1995.
The Indian Navy has supported this engagement by participating in multilateral exercises in the region like the Indonesian Navy’s Komodo and the US-led Southeast Asia Cooperation and Training exercises. India is utilising this collaborative approach to stimulate defence exports and counter China, which has leveraged its defence supplies to entrench itself in the region.
The recent $375 million Brahmos missiles deal with the Philippines—the first such export order for the missile— has come as a shot in the arm for India’s defence industry. Under the contract, India will provide three missile batteries to the Philippine Navy and potentially a follow-up order.
With a target of $5 billion for defence exports by 2024, India has intensified its efforts to sell weapons to Southeast Asia and Africa, where Chinese defence companies dominate. Due to such efforts, the exports have soared to Rs 10,745 crore in 2018-19, from just Rs 1,940.64 crore in 2014-15, although there is still a long way to go.
Besides the measures to expand the domestic defence industrial base and boost exports, the Government has strengthened the role of defence attaches located in Indian embassies abroad.
The Government has allocated them an annual budget of up to $50,000 to promote Indian defence equipment in their respective markets. Moreover, to reinforce their sales pitch, it has cleared multiple ‘Madein-India’ equipment, including the Tejas combat aircraft and Astra missile for export to friendly countries.
Beyond exports, India has also helped its immediate neighbours to build their naval capability by donating and transferring equipment. This includes off-shore patrol vessels to Mauritius (2015), Sri Lanka (2018), Maldives (2019), and Seychelles (2021), as well as two Dornier aircraft to Seychelles (2013 and 2018). Although small, with these steps India hopes to buttress its role as a ‘net security provider’ for the region.
A key element of being a ‘net security provider’ is the ability to launch Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations in the region. For long, India has been leading on the HADR operations front, as seen during the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, 2015 Nepal earthquake, and 2020 floods in Madagascar. Moreover, the acquisition of equipment like the INS Jalashwa transport dock and C17 transport aircraft in the last decade has empowered the Indian military to execute such operations.