New Delhi: It’s a strategic outreach perfected by the big powers, including by China in India’s neighbourhood. Now, New Delhi has set out to join the bandwagon – of countries that seek to expand their reach and influence by offering arms and military equipment on sale to smaller nations that depend on imports to meet their needs.
India is increasingly reaching out to countries in the neighbourhood, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and ASEAN that mostly depend on China for defence procurements, and is positioning itself as a more “reliable security partner” under the overarching Indo-Pacific strategic initiative, multiple government sources have told ThePrint.
The Narendra Modi government, the highly placed sources said, has taken a decision that it will be making a serious effort in presenting itself as an “alternative to China” when it comes to providing quality defence items. This, the sources added, will not only help New Delhi check China’s policy of encircling India but also bolster its image as a security partner for friendly countries.
Sources said it will also provide a massive push to the Prime Minister’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ Mission, or the policy of self-reliance, in the defence sector.
As part of its intention to emerge as the preferred military partner for IOR and Africa, India has come out with a list of 152 defence items that are available to friendly nations. This includes the Tejas fighter aircraft, Dhruv and Rudra choppers, besides the Light Combat Helicopter, the BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, and the Akash air defence systems.
Apart from this, the sources said, India is also looking to secure military bases in some countries located within the Indo-Pacific region in an effort to become a “net security provider”.
India’s plans to increase its defence footprint in countries such as Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, among others, as it puts greater focus on securing the maritime domain, amid China’s growing military adventurism not just in the Himalayas but also in the seas.
Speaking to ThePrint, defence and security experts said India’s push comes late but is welcome nevertheless. China, they said, had left India with no option but to go down this route.
Big export push
India, sources said, has told countries within its immediate neighbourhood and some of its ASEAN (Association for Southeast Asian Nations) partners as well as a few African countries to consider making defence purchases, be it guns, tanks and choppers, or other equipment, from New Delhi even as they approach China with such demands.
Sources in the defence and security establishment said every region has its own dynamics. Thus, while the IOR countries require helicopters, naval vessels, coastal radars and air defence systems, the African continent offers opportunities for land systems and small arms besides radars and rotary wings, both armed and unarmed.
The defence attaches posted at Indian missions have been instructed to work “more closely” with the defence forces in their respective country of operation to explore potential export opportunities, the sources said.
During last month’s Aero India showcase, India had pitched itself as a defence partner to countries in the IOR.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said India was ready to supply various types of weapons systems to other countries, a stark difference from India’s earlier policy of focusing on its soft power alone.
R. Madhavan, chairman of the state-run defence manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), said in February that India is actively scouting for export potential for the Tejas at a vanilla price of Rs 309 crore per aircraft, as countries from Southeast Asia and West Asia have evinced interest.
Rajiv Bhatia, a distinguished fellow at Gateway House, a Mumbai-based foreign policy think tank, said “this is a policy on the right lines”. “We’ve come a long way from the Nehruvian or the Indira Gandhian idea of doing everything for partner countries but to sell arms. But now we have no choice,” he added.
Bharat Karnad, a research professor at the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and a national security expert, said India is “already too late in trying to square China”.
“It has already encircled us. But we can come into the picture even now by providing quality products which the Chinese don’t want to give or don’t have. Had we equipped the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam with BrahMos missiles about 30 years back, we could have finished the chapter on the South China Sea then and there,” he added, referring to the maritime conflicts triggered by Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.
Over the past few years, China has emerged as one of the largest defence exporters along with the US, Russia, France and Germany. Besides armed drones, China is exporting fighter aircraft, missiles, small arms and even submarines.
Latest data from Swedish arms watchdog SIPRI shows that exports by China decreased by 7.8 per cent between 2011-15 and 2016-20. Even so, it was the world’s fifth largest arms exporter in 2016-20.
Chinese arms exports accounted for 5.2 per cent of the total arms exports in the time period from 2016-20. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Algeria were the largest recipients of Chinese arms, SIPRI said in its latest report published Monday.
Indian military bases
India is currently engaged in developing a military base on the Agalega Island in Mauritius and a naval base at Seychelles’ Assumption Island, to boost its maritime presence.
“This development is a manifestation of Modi’s 2016 vision for the Indian Ocean, articulated as Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR),” stated a report by the Lowy Institute, an Australia-based think tank, earlier this month.
According to the report, the new base that is coming up in Mauritius will be “essential for facilitating both air and surface maritime patrols in the south-west Indian Ocean, and as an intelligence outpost”.
In February, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited Mauritius and the Maldives in an effort to boost trade as well as defence ties.
India and the Maldives subsequently signed an agreement to “develop, support and maintain” a Coast Guard harbour at Sifvaru.
The neighbourhood focus was also borne out by Army chief General M.M. Naravane and IAF chief Air Chief Marshal R.K. Bhadauria’s visits to nations such as Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh in recent days.
This year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the formation of Bangladesh, the latter sent a contingent of its armed forces to participate in the Republic Day parade, for the first time.
India, meanwhile, sent two of its warships to Bangladesh’s Mongla ports to celebrate ‘Mujib Borsho’ — birth centenary celebrations of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, their ‘Father of the Nation’ — and for the golden jubilee of the 1971 war.
In a historic first, two 🇮🇳 warships INS Kulish and INS Sumedha, with Cmde MV Raju, NM, Naval Officer-in-Charge Andhra Pradesh onboard, arrived at Mongla today & were accorded a ceremonial welcome by #Bangladesh Navy pic.twitter.com/IhzNtEkRUD
— India in Bangladesh (@ihcdhaka) March 8, 2021
“China has left us with no option but to set up military infrastructure in other countries. If we have to compete with them, this is something we have to do,” said Bhatia. “But we also have to procure the land for such bases in a manner that there is local support.”
Defence ministry figures show that India more than doubled its defence exports between FY18 and FY19, to Rs 10,745 crore from Rs 4,682 crore.
So far, India has shied away from exporting weapons and believed in creating strategic heft through soft power. However, the government has now come around to seeing the benefit of military exports in building strategic heft.
But pricing is a major concern. While India may be ready to export defence items to other countries, it may not be possible for the intended buyers to make the purchases as they look to bounce back from the economic hit of the Covid-19 pandemic.
To this end, defence sources said, India can look at different financing options, including extended Lines of Credit (LoC). The focus, the sources added, is also on maintenance and servicing and not just delivery.
Earlier this month, India’s Ambassador to the Philippines, Shambhu Kumaran, told a local news channel there that New Delhi is willing to offer soft loans for their defence requirements.
The Philippines could eventually emerge as the first export destination for the BrahMos cruise missiles. While India has increased the range and is working on enhancing it further, the export variant will have a 290-km range.
“Russia used to give us ‘friendship prices’, we can follow that model. We can give our friends the armaments they need and we can buy something they want to sell us in exchange. We can have currency arrangements…” said Karnad.
“We continue to be on a slippery slope. Look, China is now all over the place. Our entire military effort got wasted on the western front and we lost focus of China. But we cannot waste any more time,” he added.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)