For decades India had looked inwards, concerned only with defending itself from aggression, unwilling to venture beyond South Asia. It did participate in military operations in Maldives and Sri Lanka, but these were within the region. The last government, headed by an economist Prime Minister, had economic development as its main agenda. India increased economic cooperation with countries across the globe, however foreign policy remained defensive and India was unable to break the shackles of non-alignment of the Nehruvian era. The UPA even hesitated in signing the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement with the US, fearing it would be labelled as being part of the US camp.
Time and tide waits for no nation. Our defensive policy only emboldened Pakistan. We cried ourselves hoarse to the world every time there was a terror strike, however received only words of support which had no impact on Pakistan. China continued to create a string of pearls encircling India, as we watched. Meanwhile across the globe, the nature and variety of threats increased. Terrorism became a common thread binding most nations.
First the al Qaeda and subsequently ISIS became household names, whose reach spread beyond borders and regions. India has for decades been affected by terrorism and hence had to change its way of doing business.
The world over, national security and intelligence-sharing began gaining importance. No nation felt secure by itself, hence security cooperation began to increase. Terrorist and external threats continue to dominate security challenges in Asia, Europe and Africa.
In South East Asia, it is rising Chinese hegemony including its claims over the South China Sea, as also an expanding ISIS footprint. In South Asia, it is export of terrorism from Pakistan. West Asia faces its worst civil war and population migration affecting vast swathes of Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. Europe is battling increased immigration and lone wolf attacks. African nations face internal squabbles for power, alongside a growing menace of Boko Haram and other similar groups, who have no hesitation about rampant killings.
The present Indian government has commenced including security alongside its economic agenda to enhance level of ties with nations. In every visit which the prime minister has embarked on, mainly where India seeks to develop closer relations, two agreements are invariably inked. While an economic agreement, including greater investment and increased trade is natural, the other assuming equal importance is security and military cooperation.
These agreements have been concluded with a diverse group of nations, including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa etc, in addition to our traditional allies including the US, Russia, Japan etc.
Economic agreements indicate India’s growing financial clout and ability to participate in regional development. Security agreements indicate cooperation and joint efforts against common threats. They also project India as a recognised military power. It implies increased visits by naval vessels, enhanced vacancies for training in India, as also in some cases joint exercises. Sharing of intelligence on common threats is also a part.
While agreements are signed, it is the follow up which assumes importance. India’s credibility would only exist if serious steps are taken to ensure that defence cooperation agreements are implemented in letter and spirit. The issue in India is lack of coordination between the ministries of finance, external affairs and defence, as also keeping the military away from all branches of the government. Even the aspect of training of foreign students in India involves two ministries, external affairs and defence. Payments are to be made by the external affairs ministry from their budget, which is normally way behind schedule. In many cases, the stipends to participating students are made by the host institute, from its own funds; reimbursement if ever comes years later.
Vacancies for courses in our military establishments are allocated by embassies at the last moment, even to countries where English is not a common language. This results in non-English speaking students being sent. Planning of visits by military personnel is even more cumbersome, with a civilian-controlled defence ministry holding back the final sanction, at times till the day of departure, sometimes more out of spite than reason. Thus detailed coordination with the host nation remains incomplete. Cancellation of visits at the last moment are regular, which have hurt India’s image. In cases of joint exercises, when complete expenditure of the foreign team is to be borne by India, government sanction is delayed and has at times resulted in cancellation, an embarrassment to the nation.
Such laxity impacts the nation’s international standing. The entire process, even in the future, would continue to be a failure and lead to further embarrassment unless there is a separate department formed, involving all stakeholders (military, external affairs and finance), working together under one responsible minister. The present concept of water-tight compartments, file pushing, increased bureaucratic bungling and ignoring the military, would only increase embarrassments. Since we are looked upon as a growing global power, we need to be realistic and well prepared.
One aspect which the government ignores is the importance of growing military soft power. In most nations, mainly in South East Asia and Africa, the military is a dominant force. This is on account of it having played a major role in ensuring stability of the country. With nations of West Asia, which we desire to wean away from Pakistan, military soft power helps build better trust and understanding, which in the long term would pay dividend. Hence closer military-to-military contacts would build better bonds than pure political or bureaucratic interactions. Further, interacting with a professional Indian military in joint exercises, as also training in Indian military institutions, always projects a positive image of the nation.
unless the government ensures follow up of agreements and trusts the military enough to incorporate it into various ministries for seamless coordination, military soft power, ideal for enhancing ties, would remain neglected.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.