Military & Aerospace

Military Diplomacy: A Vital Tool for Furthering National Interests
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Issue Vol. 33.2 Apr-Jun 2018 | Date : 17 Apr , 2018

“While the civil bureaucracy and the political leadership in our MOD continue to constrain the Indian military’s engagement with the world, China is consciously promoting it.” 

— C Raja Mohan

A nation’s strength to thwart diverse threats to its interests and adequately address the varied transformational geo-political challenges in today’s highly troubled world rests primarily on its Comprehensive National Power (CNP). The various parameters which contribute to CNP should be robust, sustainable and ever improving. Some of the constituents of CNP are a nation’s economic power, military capabilities, industrial and technological prowess, infrastructural architecture, its population and the resultant demographic dividends, educational and medical reach, societal harmony within and, more importantly, the respect its diplomacy enjoys in the comity of nations. The CNP gets enhanced from a judicious amalgam of hard and soft power leading to augmentation in its smart power. Diplomacy to further a nation’s goals is, unquestionably, a critical dynamic and, if supplemented with defence/military diplomacy, will prove vastly beneficial for a nation.

The world’s leading power, the United States (US), like many other Western nations, since decades, has effectively employed military diplomacy to further its interests all around the globe. Its theatre commands are staffed and chartered to pursue US objectives all across the world. The US has consciously implemented what one of its renowned and popular presidents, John F Kennedy, once wisely expressed, “Diplomacy and defence are not substitutes for one another, either alone would fail.” As currently, the sole superpower in the world, however, with an assertive China making frantic efforts to catch up, the US rightly believes that, even in a democratic dispensation, a nation’s effective power is synonymous with the power of its military – to be pragmatically employed both in its hard and soft connotations. But is India, a regional power currently and aspiring to be a global power, conscious of the fact that it underplays and under-utilises the beneficial impact of its military in various hues and roles? In keeping with its rising status, is India according the necessary impetus to another eminently useful ingredient of its CNP, namely, military diplomacy within the overall gambit of overall diplomacy? The answer would be, woefully, in the negative! India appears to be, inexplicably, ambivalent about the utilisation of military diplomacy in the furtherance of its interests. That absence of a strategic culture in India and thus it not being strongly inter-woven in the Indian way of life, perhaps, is the answer to India not giving adequate priority to its military.

Military diplomacy is not an exclusive instrument, but supplements a nation’s foreign and security policies objectives…

Military Diplomacy: An Overview

There is no official definition or standard interpretation of military or defence diplomacy. Both the words, military and defence, though being different, are customarily interchangeable in their usage. On the face of it, the term (Military Diplomacy) appears to be an oxymoron! As the military normally achieves the nation’s objectives with hard power by employment of force, on the other hand, diplomacy endeavours to accomplish the nation’s goals by soft power, be it dialogue, persuasion, cooperation, treaties and alliances, aid which may include both economic and military and other humanitarian assistance. Somewhere, coercion is also an aspect of diplomacy – thus the term ‘gunboat diplomacy’, since many decades, being a part of the overall diplomatic lexicon when a threat or recourse to hard power is sought to be conveyed. Nevertheless, pragmatism dictates that a nation must not compartmentalise its diplomatic or military endeavours in achieving its strategic objectives as the famed Prussian strategist Karl von Clausewitz had astutely opined that military force was “a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means.”

Overall, military diplomacy is the non-violent and peaceful utilisation of varied and wide-ranging military resources in establishing positive and cooperative relations with other foreign nations, both bilateral and multi-lateral. This form of diplomacy covers activities like defence cooperation across a wide spectrum, mutual security pacts, training and exercises to enhance inter-operability, visit by ships and aircraft to each other’s bases, bilateral meetings, staff dialogue, intelligence sharing, high level engagements between senior military hierarchies, anti-piracy missions, communications assistance, humanitarian and disaster-relief operations, sharing of logistical support and various other mutual confidence-building measures. The positioning of Defence and Military Attachés (DAs/MAs) in each other’s country is also a significant aspect of military diplomacy. In this form of interplay among nations, conflict waging yields place to conflict prevention attributable to the successful exercise of diplomacy, including military diplomacy, even among recalcitrant nations.

Goals of Military Diplomacy

One of the ills that has plagued India’s higher defence management and its overall security preparedness, is the civil-military disconnect…

To put it in simple and clear-cut terms, military/defence diplomacy aims to achieve both national security and a nation’s foreign policy objectives. The renowned author, Dr Marc Faber in his best seller, “Gloom, Boom and Doom”, has succinctly observed that, “India continues to be ambivalent about power. It has failed to develop a strategic agenda commensurate with its growing economic and military capabilities. Throughout history, India has failed to master the creation, deployment and uses of its military instruments in support of its national objectives.” The London-based, widely-read Economist, in its March 2013 issue in its lead article on “India as a Great Power” had pithily opined that, “The Indian Armed Forces have grown exponentially since independence, but no civilian leader has the faintest idea of how to use India’s growing military clout!”

Military diplomacy endeavours to fill the gaps, as required, to make its parent nation responsive to the challenges and complexities of disruptive, rapidly-changing, strife-torn geo-political scenarios, albeit in concert with other instruments of the state. It must be appreciated by all stakeholders that military diplomacy is not an exclusive instrument, but supplements a nation’s foreign and security policies objectives. In addition, it endeavours to acquire/develop, with technologically advanced nations, the wherewithal for state-of-the art weaponry, equipment and systems. In addition, knowledge of modern concepts and techniques of combating newer traditional and non-traditional threats, each other’s Standard Operating Procedures to ensure inter-operability can be shared for mutual benefits. Cooperation in meeting disasters – both natural and man-made – countering terrorist challenges, pandemic threats, anti-piracy operations and synergy in various humanitarian activities between nations is also an important objective of military diplomacy.

Evolution of India’s Military Diplomacy

India at its independence in 1947 was categorised as a ‘third-world nation’. Owing to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s global vision and idealistic dreams of a peaceful world, diplomacy was given its due significance. However, military diplomacy in its true sense was overlooked. Former Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), General Ved Malik, in his book entitled ‘India’s Military Conflicts and Diplomacy’, candidly expresses that “India started poorly in making use of military diplomacy as a national security and foreign policy tool.” He further opines that, “There were several reasons for this, the foremost being a steep erosion of every aspect of India’s military’s capability; civil-military relations, leadership and morale. Nehruvian India was distrustful of the armed forces and kept them out of the Ministry of Defence and important decision making. The prevalent practice of ‘bureaucratic control’ instead of ‘political control’ in South Block ensured that policy-making was crafted by bureaucrats and strategy by diplomats. Both lacked military expertise or perspective.”

In keeping with Nehru’s world view, however, India, right from the beginning, did contribute a fair number of troops for various United Nations peace-keeping missions. When Prime Minister Nehru chaired the UN-sponsored Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission in Korea in 1953, India sent a large contingent and a field ambulance under Major General KS Thimayya (later to be the COAS); this step and the professional competence of the Indian Army contingent was widely acclaimed by the global community.

…even with an adversarial nation like Pakistan, India ought to give military diplomacy a chance!

Since the inception of UN peace-keeping missions, India has been the largest contributor participating in over 45 peace-keeping assignments in Korea, Congo, Egypt, Haiti, Lebanon, Rwanda and recently in strife-torn South Sudan. Indian police forces including a women’s contingent have also commenced participation in these UN missions. Currently, India is the third largest contributor to the UN in peace-keeping missions. But it is also a fact that bureaucratic and diplomatic powers in India have steadily ensured that Indian military diplomacy never attained its full potential.

Notwithstanding discouragement from the powers-that-be in India, the Indian Armed Forces has made some modest efforts in fostering military diplomacy. Since 1950, India’s prestigious Defence Services Staff College in Wellington, Tamil Nadu and in later years, the National Defence College, New Delhi, have hosted (some on the basis of diplomatic reciprocity) officer students from advanced Western nations and later from the Afro-Asian bloc. This step has been a successful ingredient in fostering India’s military diplomacy contributing to improvement of India’s image in the world. More importantly, some of the officer-students who have attended training courses in India, have risen to high positions in their nations including becoming heads-of-state.

Globally, the Indian Armed Forces enjoy a sterling professional reputation. Thus many friendly foreign nations, especially from the ‘Third World’ nations such as Botswana, Nigeria, Angola, Malaysia, Egypt, Nepal, Bhutan, Iraq (where the author has also served) and Afghanistan, among others, have eagerly sought Indian military assistance in training personnel of their armed forces. This is another significant extension of military diplomacy contributing to national objectives and image-building.

Current Status of Military Diplomacy

India’s military diplomacy is, overall, still to touch the desired levels in its endeavours and impact. However, since the last decade or so, a few qualitative changes for the better have certainly taken place. Currently, 120 officers from the three services belonging to 73 nations from across the globe, are represented in their embassies/high commissions in New Delhi. Meanwhile India has over 70 officers, posted as Defence/Military/Air Force/Naval attachés in 44 nations with their numbers increasing as India spreads its diplomatic footprint across the world. As India shuns its traditional reluctance to get militarily closer to some nations, especially countries like the US and Israel, military diplomacy will surely play its part.

With the US, the world’s sole super-power, India’s diplomatic relations including in military cooperation is on the upswing. The fillip to Indo-US military relations came about with the formulation of the Kickleighter proposals in 1991-1992. The conduct of army and naval exercises such as Op Malabar has become a regular feature leading to unprecedented military cooperation between the two nations. In June 2005, India and the US signed a new agreement for strengthening their relationship over the next ten years. This was again renewed for another ten years in 2015.

The US is now the third largest weapons exporter to India and many earlier military troublesome issues pertaining to Transfer of Technology, intellectual property rights and inspections are being resolved, thanks to military diplomacy at work. The three services of both the nations are regularly now exercising with each other including in the globe’s latest venue of the ‘great game’ namely the Indo-Pacific region. Defence trade is gradually assuming a significant area of India-US strategic convergence and India will become a recipient of high-grade US military capabilities.

The much heralded but yet not taken off India’s ‘Make in India’ initiative, can do extremely well with US military cooperation. The Quadrilateral Initiative comprising the US, India, Japan and Australia for ensuring maritime stability and freedom of navigation for all in the Indian and Pacific Oceans – to counter a belligerent China – will be a natural outcome of India’s far-reaching military diplomacy goals. Incorporating the ASEAN countries in this framework will be highly beneficial for India and all other nations who wish to thwart China’s continually rising ambitions in these maritime commons.

Since decades, Russia (formerly the Soviet Union), has had deeply fraternal relations, including in the military, with India and even today, India’s military arsenal is over 65 to 70 per cent of Russian origin. As India must continue to sustain this time-tested military relationship with Russia, some changes in the geo-political contours of the South Asian region and India’s deepening ties with the US, are causing these age-old relations to drift. India will have to manage the Indo-Russia association astutely and in the area of military trade, avoid putting all its ‘eggs in one basket.’ Russia too can further assist in India’s indigenous production programmes.

With Israel, India’s military relations emerging from a never- ever- seen- before bonhomie, are unquestionably on the ascendant. Thus India must prudently whip up its military diplomacy to the maximum to ensure attainment of mutually beneficial objectives. Israel’s expertise in certain military high-technology areas can be fruitfully tapped along with their participation in India’s lagging ‘Make in India’ programmes.

India’s pioneering ‘Look East’ policy initiated by Prime Minister Narsimha Rao in the mid-nineties and now ambitiously captioned by Prime Minister Modi as ‘Act East’ cannot be a success without giving it a military dimension. It is a matter of satisfaction that since 1995, the Indian Navy has been vigorously reaching out to all the Indian Ocean littoral nations. The Indian Navy has been conducting multi-national cooperation exercises codenamed Milan in its outreach to nations in the Bay of Bengal. In February 2016, the International Fleet Review, conducted by the Indian Navy at Vishakapatnam, that was attended by 99 warships from 50 nations was a spectacular showcasing of India’s military diplomacy at work.

Although India seeks harmonious relations with the other global power in the making – China, the latter’s propensity for assertive and aggressive behaviour along the ill-defined Line of Actual Control between the two nations, its irrational and belligerent stance in the Indo-Pacific region and the launch of its China Pakistan Economic Corridor running through the disputed Gilgit-Baltistan and POK areas, are hardly conducive to improvement in India-China relations. However, it is pertinent to note that China accords tremendous significance to the role of military diplomacy in furthering their national objectives. President Xi Jinping himself has frequently spoken about the importance of military diplomacy in today’s world. The Chinese have strived to ensure synergy between its People’s Liberation Army and the all powerful Chinese Politburo. China has its military attachés in 109 countries and has established strategic and military linkages with nations such as Pakistan, North Korea, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Seychelles and Maldives among others. The Chinese Navy frequently makes goodwill visits to many countries in the world to showcase its reach and display its emerging naval technologies and prowess.

Roadmap: Military Diplomacy

One of the ills that has plagued India’s higher defence management and its overall security preparedness, is the civil-military disconnect. Inexplicably, since independence, the Indian military has been kept out even in strategising in macro-level matters of national security. This malaise needs to be speedily addressed by the government. As India, deservingly, seeks its rightful place at the global high table, it has to ensure that all the constituents of CNP are coordinated adequately and synergistically addressed by the various organs of the government. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Ministry of Defence (MOD), National Security Council and where applicable, the Ministry of Home affairs have to jointly conceive and implement the security roadmap. India’s diplomacy will get energised and rise to greater heights if supported by military diplomacy.

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Within the armed forces, the Integrated Defence Staff has been making some efforts to rejuvenate the nation’s military diplomacy. The Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) is the appropriate institution to provide the much required fillip to the nation’s efforts towards military diplomacy. The DIA, on behalf of the MOD and the three services, can foster defence diplomacy, in close cooperation with the MEA to achieve the nation’s diplomatic goals. The Government of India may wish to note that many nations in the world are ruled by military/quasi-military governments and a large number of heads of state have a military background. All these foreign luminaries generally respond favourably to the uniformed community and that is the strength of military diplomacy. In nations like Nepal, why cannot India have a retired senior Army officer, a Gurkhali speaking High Commissioner from the Indian Army’s Gurkha regiments? The late Lt Gen SK Sinha’s tenure in Nepal, as India’s High Commissioner, is still fondly recalled by many Nepalese. Similarly, in nations ruled by the military, some retired and suitable senior officers of the Indian Armed Forces will be able to represent the nation better. Even with an adversarial nation like Pakistan, India ought to give military diplomacy a chance!

As India stands at a defining moment of its history, the Indian government has to shed some of its antiquated practices in governance and priorities. The world looks up to India to show the way in many fields of human endeavour. India, as it banks on enlightened diplomacy to attain national objectives, the optimum utilisation of military diplomacy by the nation will surely add to India’s image in the comity of nations and, more importantly, the fulfillment of national aspirations.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Kamal Davar (Retd)

a distinguished soldier and veteran of the 1965 and 1971 wars, was the founder director general of the Defence Intelligence Agency, raised after the Kargil conflict. After retirement, he writes and lectures on security, terrorism and allied issues in the national media and many forums.

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