Can the Shangri-La Dialogue Fill India’s Defence Diplomacy Void?

It’s a mere coincidence that while Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Washington from 7-8 June, being pressured by President Barack Obama to sign the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement and formally ally India with the United States, his Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar will be in Singapore at the 15th Shangri-La security summit from June 3-5, trying to explain India’s non-existent defence diplomacy. The concern animating the discussions in both locations will be an assertively expansive China.

The conceit of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) from Jawaharlal Nehru’s days has been the belief that where China is concerned, diplomacy can score over military muscle – a point of view which endured despite the 1962 Himalayan drubbing of the Indian army by Chinese forces. Antipathy towards the hard power of the state unfortunately gets translated into neglect of defence diplomacy in the 21st century.

This means that while Beijing is backed by considerable military heft and outreach, New Delhi, afflicted by geo-strategic myopia, has the Indian armed forces equipped with imported armaments for territorial defence to fall back on.

Given this backdrop, what can Parrikar possibly say in Singapore? Oh, sure, he will mouth the usual inanities about India’s newly confident “Act East” policy. He may point towards the feat of Indian naval flotillas – the latest featuring INS Sahyadri and another missile destroyer, a corvette, and a tanker presently making its foray into the disputed South China Sea.

But he is unlikely to be very convincing, because successive governments have seemed clueless about how Indian military power and its projection can serve the national interest. Thus, the sale/transfer to Vietnam of the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile – which can sink the biggest warships with a single shot and frighten China’s powerful South Sea Fleet enough to confine them to the Sanya base on Hainan Island – has still not been implemented, and the BrahMos has still not reached Hanoi.

Perhaps Parrikar can show some courage and make haste to equip the existing Vietnamese coastal batteries with this indomitable cruise missile. Were he keen on leaving a mark and seriously signalling India’s intent, he could arrange to sell, at cost-price to Vietnam, a BrahMos-armed, indigenously produced, Kolkata-class destroyer.

But will the Modi regime be even remotely this strategically venturesome? Nah! Consider this: Hanoi has offered India the Nha Trang port as a military base. Instead of jumping at it, India is going slow, the way it’s lagging behind in building up the Agalega Islands leased by Mauritius as naval and air bases, while entirely ignoring Mozambique’s request to set up a naval base on its northern coast. So much for New Delhi’s appreciating the importance of distant defence and the political value of foreign bases.
Or consider that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conceived of “the confluence of the two seas” binding India’s and Japan’s national security interests nine years ago, a perfect launch pad for a coalition of Asian “rimland” states to neutralise China.

In September 2014 Modi visited Japan and agreed to upgrade the bilateral relationship to a ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’. In the two years since, there has been no great progress – other than the Japanese Navy’s participation in the annual Malabar naval exercise along with the US – in fleshing out this “special partnership”. Nor have the consultations that were mooted in Tokyo for joint weapons development achieved much.

Even the finalisation of the sale of the US-2 amphibious maritime surveillance aircraft is proceeding tardily, despite the Shinmaywa Company’s desire to not only fully transfer technology but establish a production line near Hyderabad for this one-of-a-kind aircraft to meet world-wide demand.

Given the institutionalised habit of mind to waste such opportunities, chances are slim that MEA, and the Indian government generally, will suddenly see the light and be galvanised into strategic action. India’s reticence in owning up to responsibility for the defence of distant neighbours does not mesh well with New Delhi’s great power pretensions. This is something that Singapore’s great statesman, the late Lee Kwan Yew, repeatedly stressed. But, frustratingly, New Delhi has not quite cottoned-on to military power as integral to the conduct of diplomacy.
Projects in the Pipeline
11 March 2015: India signed an MoU with Mauritius to develop infrastructure and build strategic assets in the Agalega islands.
26 May 2015: India and Vietnam sign a five-year defence pact, however lack of clarity still persists on the export of BrahMos missile.
12 December 2015: India and Japan sign a deal on sharing military information but the deal on the sale of US-2 amphibious aircraft couldn’t be concluded.

Published in The Quint, June 3, 2016; at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in arms exports, Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Defence Industry, DRDO, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Ocean, Iran and West Asia, Japan, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, Northeast Asia, society, South Asia, South East Asia, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, Vietnam, Weapons. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Can the Shangri-La Dialogue Fill India’s Defence Diplomacy Void?

  1. jose says:

    Brahmos sold to Vietnam and South Africa

  2. raja s says:

    as a true indian I want india to have a debilitating defeat at the Chinese hands in the near future so that the mindset of running a country changes forever. keep posting these nice views.

  3. Another piece of nonsense!!! India needs to sign Logistics agreement with USA to take out Pakistani Nukes and cut this country into peices.

    Japan will only cooperate with India in defence research and Joint development of weapons only if India cuts Russians out.

  4. andy says:

    Maybe India is not jumping at the offer to develop bases at Agalega and Nha trang given the pressing need of developing quality infrastructure, including world class ports in country.Probably GOI feels that it would be politically in incorrect to divert monies to build military bases on distant shores when Indias own infrastructure is in such a decrepit state.One can well imagine the hue and cry the opposition parties would make if India started pouring money into such projects when it’s very own Andaman & Nicobar islands,that have a commanding presence at the top of the Mallaca straits & which India can use to draw an iron curtain across the same , are still languishing due to lack of funds & probably interest on the part of GOI.

    Such reasoning would clearly highlight the lack of strategic culture inherent in GOI.When the supply of the Brahmos missile,that’s not such a political hot potato,is still not transpiring despite promises to Vietnam ,one wonders wether India can muster the strategic sense to develop oversea bases for distant defence of the homeland.Although it’s heartening to note that India will be building INS Kamorta class Corvettes for the Philippines at a much discounted rate.Maybe India is destined to be the perinneal laggard due to innumerable beauraucratic hurdles.A case in point is the much delayed development of the much needed Chabahar port.

    Better late than never seems to be the motto,Although something done ten years down the line will never have the same impact it will have today.

  5. Kabir says:

    Why go for bases in far away countries?Better shape up in own country.Be prepared with a fine and good defence at your own door step.You cannot win much with getting some prestige from the big boys club.

  6. quickboy says:

    To take on China’s increasing hegemony in Asia, the Modi government has cleared sale of BrahMos supersonic cruise missile to Vietnam.

    Let us see if this works this time, If China opposes just tell them we are just returning the rewards for arming Paki missiles and we amy also consider a supersonic missile to be fired from Vietnamese subs. SImple. THere is no way they can keep on dumping their waste weapon systems in Pak to just increase our defence costs. Period.

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