Safeguarding Indian interests in foreign lands

India's renewed thrust on military diplomacy is significant. Given our growing geopolitical interests, it is imperative to calibrate engagements and develop leverages to promote national interest.
Safeguarding Indian interests in foreign lands
Express illustration | Sourav Roy

Military diplomacy has been an integral part of a country’s overall diplomacy for around 170 years—since Britain sent a general to its embassy in Paris in 1856. He was later attached to the French army’s higher command during the Crimean War of 1853-56 and other military campaigns.

In recent times, a military or defence attaché, also called a defence advisor, has become a permanent feature at embassies in most countries. The position is always held by a serving military officer supported by other officers, depending on bilateral relations and strategic requirements. India maintains separate Army, Navy and Air Force attachés in big countries with which it maintains defence ties. The officer and his deputies are given diplomatic status.

Primarily, military diplomacy uses military assets and engagements to achieve strategic objectives in foreign policy. For a country like India, with a long military history and growing geopolitical interests, it is imperative to calibrate its military engagements and develop leverages for promoting national interest, in a rapidly evolving international multipolar global order.

The main functions of a defence attaché is to gather information, report on developments in the defence sector, liaison with the defence forces of the host country, handle defence-related exchanges, coordinate defence procurement for India’s armed forces, and keep track of advances in military technologies. India also provides training to military officers from many countries who attend courses at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, the National Defence College, Delhi, and the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington. The defence attaché coordinates such training programmes.

It is said they also are a part of a country’s espionage network to gather intelligence. These functions are part of the international legal framework of diplomatic relations. During the Cold War, there were instances of defence attachés being expelled by the US and the Soviet Union. There was an incident of an American military attaché who was shot and killed in East Germany. He was photographing a military installation, which led to tit-for-tat expulsions of military attachés.

Assisting the ambassador with crucial inputs on developments in his domain of work and file reports to the Ministry of Defence in Delhi are also integral parts of the defence attaché’s role. The attaché also plays a crucial role in coordinating Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, whose primary actors overseas are the Navy and Air Force. The other overseas responsibility is deployment for the UN Peacekeeping Operations, for which deployment is from the Indian Army.

India will be sending new defence attachés to Ethiopia, Ivory Coast, Mozambique and Djibouti, the last a strategically located country in the Horn of Africa that overlooks the crucial maritime route through the Gulf of Aden. Djibouti also hosts China’s first overseas military base. India’s defence attaché will be the second one after China. With limited resources to deploy, it would be necessary to trim some defence attaché’s offices in select missions and divert these posts to Africa.

India’s engagement with African nations is growing. China made substantive investments under its BRI in Africa, enlarging its influence in the continent. India has championed the cause of the Global South and ensured the entry of the African Union in the G20 at the Delhi Summit, bringing in this 55-member nation pan-African organisation as a permanent member. India’s investment in Africa has reached $98 billion and trade turnover is around $100 billion.

Apart from African nations, Armenia in Central Asia will get a new Indian defence attaché. Armenia has emerged as an important buyer of military equipment from India. Yerevan has acquired the PINAKA multi barrel rocket launchers , anti-tank missiles, rockets and anti-drone systems from India. These acquisitions have occurred because of the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. The Philippines has bought the Brahmos missiles from India under a $375-million agreement and the defence attaché’s office in Manila will be strengthened. Poland is the only European country to have a new Indian defence attaché, bringing the total number of such new attachés to 16. The export of military hardware is an important part of this initiative.

The global geopolitical situation has been rocked by the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. Oil and food prices have risen, putting pressure on all countries, particularly those in the global south. Foreign reserves have fallen, forcing them to seek bailouts from the IMF. The fallout of the Gaza war has impacted shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Somali pirates have been poaching on shipping for quite some time. The Indian Navy’s deployment in the maritime zone has increased, with several interdictions of ships captured by pirates who were disarmed and arrested.

Defence diplomacy is critical for India’s relations in West Asia. India conducts joint exercises with countries like the UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Oman. From the traditional domain of energy, India has steadily upped its military-security cooperation with countries in this region. India’s ties with West Asia have broken restrictions of the old paradigm and branched out into defence and security sectors like counterterrorism and cybersecurity.

These developments necessitate India’s defence attachés are placed where they can keep their eyes on developments that have a bearing on India’s maritime and national security, which is now looking also at Francophone African countries like Ivory Coast. France has been the traditional power in these countries because of its role as the former colonial power. France and India have a robust military relationship.

India’s foreign policy trajectory has evolved since the end of Cold War—from non-alignment to multi-alignment and strategic autonomy—in its quest to be a leading power. In an era wherein the global geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape is changing rapidly, India’s foreign policy has adapted with major and subtle changes under PM Narendra Modi’s leadership. India’s decision to open new defence attaché offices, the majority of them in African nations, is a significant policy initiative.

As India advances on its path of economic development and cooperation with African countries, military diplomacy will be an essential tool of India’s foreign policy as a leading power to safeguard its national interest, balance competing powers, resolve conflicts peacefully and enhance India’s capabilities as a responsible stakeholder in the emerging global order.

(Views are personal)

Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty | Former Secretary in the MEA and former High Commissioner to Bangladesh; Visiting Fellow at the ORF and a founding Director of DeepStrat, a think tank.

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