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Gen Bipin Rawat’s Russia, US visits show something is changing in India’s military diplomacy

India has openly pitched for exporting weapons to regions such as Africa, which has been traditionally dominated by China.

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Two recent developments, both involving Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, haven’t grabbed much media attention. However, both are important and give an insight into how India is playing its diplomatic and military cards in the global arena.

In his first visit abroad after becoming the CDS, Gen Rawat in September travelled to Russia to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) peace mission exercise. During his two-day visit, he also attended the conference of the Chiefs of General Staff of the SCO member States in Orenburg where his counterparts from Pakistan and China were also in attendance.


India had sent a team of 200 personnel for the nearly two-week-long Exercise Peaceful Mission that began on 13 September.

From Russia, General Rawat flew straight to the US where he met his American counterpart General Mark Milley.

According to a statement issued by the Pentagon, the two military leaders discussed a range of issues, including ways to ensure regional security and their respective roles as principal military advisors to the civilian leadership.

These two trips are just the beginning of a series of visits the CDS is expected to undertake to steer India’s military diplomacy.

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The new push to military diplomacy

Ever since the Narendra Modi government was sworn in 2014, there has been a lot of push on military diplomacy to widen its ambit.

While India has been indulging in military diplomacy since Independence through training of foreign cadets at its military training centres, it was never really fully exploited.

In a 2015 article, foreign policy expert C Raja Mohan had noted that “since the early 1990s, India’s international defence engagement has grown by leaps and bounds, effectiveness of India’s military diplomacy has been severely limited by the lack of adequate political support and insufficient coordination between the armed forces, the ministry of defence and the foreign office.”

“While the services and the MEA see the value of leveraging India’s military strengths, the MoD has neither the aptitude nor the institutional capability to meet the growing international demand for defence cooperation with India,” he had said.

A lot has happened since then.

The smallest but the most impactful cog in military diplomacy are the Defence Attaches posted in embassies abroad. With a view to ensure that the DAs play a larger role, especially in pushing for India’s emergence as a defence exporter, they have been empowered.

The DAs who, traditionally, had a largely ceremonial role when it came to defence industry, now have a dedicated budget to act as a catalyst. They have been instructed to attend the Def Expo and the Aero India show, and have been given a clear mandate to liaison with host countries, both at military and industry level, to promote Indian products.

One could perhaps say that India took a cue from China on this.

As Raja Mohan’s article had mentioned, in early 2015, “the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) brought together all its military attaches and advisors posted abroad and defence officials at home.” These officials were addressed by President Xi Jinping who “underlined the importance of military diplomacy in achieving Beijing’s larger national goals.”

“A more purposeful military diplomacy, Xi suggested, is a vital necessity to buttress China’s emergence as a great power in Asia and the world.”

As reported by ThePrint earlier this year, 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 has openly pitched for exporting weapons to regions such as Africa, which has been traditionally dominated by China.

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The diplomacy mix

Apart from directing the DAs to take charge of this new push, India has also been focusing on having a mix of traditional and military diplomacy when it comes to interacting with major global powers.

So, India had the first 2+2 dialogue with the US in 2018, a format which it has now extended to other countries as well. India is also experimenting with the 2+2 format by following it up with visits by Indian military chiefs—in pursuit of new diplomatic opportunities.

In an unprecedented move, Army chief Gen M.M. Naravane travelled to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in December last year, a sign of the growing ties between India and countries in the Middle East. That was the first trip by an Indian Army chief to Saudi Arabia and the visit to the UAE followed close on the heels of one made by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.

India has started reaching out more and more to other nations through military diplomacy, be it for humanitarian assistance, joint exercises or formation of new groupings like Quad, which is largely driven by joint military interests of the four countries, even though the government remains shy of linking it with the M word.

2021 has seen a spate of bilateral, tri-lateral and multi-lateral joint exercises conducted in India and abroad. As I write this column, the Indian Army is exercising with the British and the Sri Lankans armies while the Navy is exercising with the Japanese. It will carry out an exercise with the British later this year.

Earlier this year, six Indian Air Force (IAF) Su-30-MKI fighters took part in UAE’s multinational exercise Desert Flag.

India has rightly understood that a mix of traditional diplomacy coupled with the military diplomacy is what will yield results — at times and in certain regions, the military more than the civilian diplomacy. As I had written in my February column, “When you sell a weapon, you are not just selling a system but actually buying yourself a strategic heft”.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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