Role of Defence Diplomacy in Shaping Favourable Strategic Neighbourhood
Arvind Gupta, Director, VIF

(The following is a summary of the talk given by the Director VIF at National Defence College, New Delhi on 04 Sep 2023)

  • Defence diplomacy plays a powerful role in shaping strategic environment. Military engagement, defence dialogue, joint exercises, information exchanges, logistics and infrastructure sharing, arrangements augment defence capabilities.
  • Post Russia-Ukraine war, defence diplomacy has been intensified. Some examples :
    • NATO has come together to support Ukraine’s war effort. Finland and Sweden are joining NATO thereby altering and shaping the strategic environment in Europe.
    • Russia has come closer to China in “no-limit” partnership. Russia-China strategic partnership will have has an impact on Eurasia. India is also impacted adversely.
    • In Eurasia, Russia-led CSTO has played an important role last year in putting down unrest in Kazakhstan.
    • The security environment in Indo-Pacific has changed drastically in the last few years. Several new formations have come about: the Quad, AUKUS; Japan, US and South Korea trilateral (JUSK); US-Japan-Australia trilateral etc. Several countries in Europe now have Indo-Pacific strategies. Many of them, e.g. France have sought out India as security partner.
  • Several UN Peace Keeping Missions involving multilateral forces
  • The focus of this talk will be on India’s defence diplomacy.
  • India has gradually shed its hesitations on defence cooperation. In the last few years, defence diplomacy has been used extensively to enhance military engagement with many countries.
  • Post 1998 nuclear tests, the US changed tack and reached out to India as a strategic partner. The process which began with Clinton’s visit in 2000 has continued. China’s rise and assertion in the Indo-Pacific has created conditions for deeper defence cooperation between the two.
  • Besides the US, other countries also reached out to India for closer defence cooperation e.g. France, Israel, UK, Japan, Australia even as India’s defence cooperation with Russia continued. In the last two years, India has emerged as a reliable defence partner.
  • India is also gradually evolving as a security provider for many countries particularly in South Asia, Africa, Indian Ocean, South-East Asia etc. India’s SAGAR, neighbourhood first, Act-East policy, doctrines include defence cooperation.
  • India has nearly 75 Defence Attaché staff in 45 countries and several Indian military training teams abroad. It conducted 51 military exercises with foreign countries in 2020; 28 bilateral, 23 multilateral.
  • India’s defence diplomacy is also geared towards diversification of procurement of defence equipment’s and technologies and to strengthen indigenous defence manufacturing.
  • As of July 2023, a total of 5934Indian troops have been deployed in thirteen UN peacekeeping missions. It has contributed approximately 2.75 lac troops to various missions. A total of 128 Indian personnel have died. As per UN data, India is currently the 3rd largest troops contributing country.
  • Emerging technologies like cyber, space, quantum, AI, ML etc has thrown up new security challenges. The latest Indo-US initiatives on critical and emerging technologies will have a deep impact on defence cooperation between the two countries.
  • In Africa, India has established three defence academies and deployed 8 military training teams.
  • In conclusion, while India is unlikely to join any military alliances, it will continue to diversify its defence cooperation programme. This will play an important role in shaping regional and global security environment. Defence diplomacy will also play an important role in strengthening defence manufacturing in India and also making India a net security provider.

In the last 20 years, India has paid considerable attention to upgrading defence cooperation with other countries. As India adjusts to the changed security, environment defence cooperation has come to occupy an important place in India’s diplomacy.

Historical Background

Although India has had deep defence cooperation with Russia during the cold war years, its cooperation with other countries was of limited character. During the years of non-alignment, India followed a policy of not joining any military alliances and was therefore cautious of forging defence relationship with most countries. Post-independence, India had to fight several wars with Pakistan and China with its limited capabilities. It had also to deal with a hostile, unsympathetic West which was locked in an arms race with the USSR during the cold war years. The India China war of 1962 exposed the weaknesses in India’s Armed Forces and its defence capabilities. India undertook the task of building its armed forces after 1962. This was not an easy task. It required a political will, resources and some help from the external world. India’s defence cooperation was conducted in this backdrop. It first approached the west for help in building its armed forces but did not get the required help. The emergence of Bangladesh weakened Pakistan but also increased its hostility many folds.

India has a land border of 15000 Km and a coastline of 7000 Km. Instability in India’s neighbourhood has had a direct impact on India’s security. Apart from facing direct security threat from Pakistan and China, with whom it has unsettled borders; India faces the pressure of illegal migrants, drug and human trafficking and cross border terrorism. The instability in Sri Lanka and Maldives resulted in brief military intervention in the 1980s in these countries albeit at the invitation of respective governments. India has detailed defence cooperation arrangements with Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives. It also has good defence cooperation arrangements with several countries in the Indian Ocean including with Mauritius and Seychelles.

The Post-Cold War Security Environment

After the end of the Cold War, the security environment for India changed dramatically. Russia, the successor of Soviet Union, came under the influence of the West. The Indo-Soviet Treaty ended. The Soviet Union, its long-standing strategic partner, went into oblivion overnight. The US emerged as the sole super power. This had serious impact on India’s defence capabilities. Further, the border with China was unsettled. Pakistan sought to destabilize India by fomenting cross-border terrorism and insurgency in Kashmir. It’s clandestine nuclear programme developed at a rapid pace. The radical Taliban took power in Afghanistan. The changing security environment compelled India to go nuclear in 1998 and develop a credible minimum nuclear deterrent. Pakistan, in response, went nuclear too. India faced two hostile nuclear adversaries on its borders as it came under Western sanctions after conducting the nuclear tests. India was isolated. It had limited options to conduct defence cooperation of any meaningful kind.

The US: However, the situation began to change when the US shifted its policy around the turn of the century. It decided to engage with nuclear India and start a dialogue, to establish a workable relationship with India. Post nuclear test, India began to expand its engagements. It embarked upon developing strategic partnership. President Clinton visited India in 2000. The joint statement of 21st Mar 2000 outlined the common “vision for the future relationship… for promotion of peace and prosperity in the 21st century”. Thus the US changed course and began to see India as a long-term partner. They set up a comprehensive institutional dialogue mechanism covering various fields including, most importantly, a dialogue on security and non-proliferation. This led to a series of in-depth discussions between Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh and US Deputyy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott on security issues including the nuclear matters. This paved the way for developing a comprehensive India-US strategic partnership in the later years. Defence cooperation emerged as one of the pillars of Indo-US strategic partners.

The major milestone in India-US defence cooperation in the last 20 years have been:

  • 2005: The United States and India signed the New Framework for the India-U.S. Defense Relationship,
  • 2008: Indo-US civil nuclear agreement was signed.
  • 2012: The two countries signed an ambitious Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) to focus on U.S.-India co-production and co-development of high end defence technologies.
  • 2014: President Obama and the former Prime Minister Singh endorsed the India-U.S. Declaration on Defense Cooperation,
  • 2015: A 10-year Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship was signed. Agreement to pursue four pathfinder projects under the DTTI as well as cooperation on Aircraft Carriers and Jet Engine Technology; and Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region,
  • 2016: The US accorded India the status of ‘major defence partner’. India signed foundational agreement LEMOA.
  • 2018: First Indo-US military-political 2+2 dialogue at ministerial level held. India signed the foundational agreement COMCASA.
  • 2020: India signed Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) on geospatial information sharing.
  • 2023: India and US signed Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET), a comprehensive roadmap for cooperation in high technologies areas. The US agreed to co-developed and co-produce F-404 GE Jet engine in India.

The rapidly changing security environment characterized inter-alia by the growing Chinese assertions in the Indo-Pacific changed the security environment in Asia. Apart from the US and India, China’s rise has also impacted Japan, Australia and other countries of the region in varying degrees. This has created conditions for mutual security cooperation amongst them. The emergence of Quad, AUKUS & US JAPSK trilateral is a case in point. Even European countries have come out with their policies on Indo-Pacific. Many of these countries have reached out to India for closer cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. France is an outstanding example. Not a part of the Quad, it has forged a deep partnership with India on maritime issues.

The emergence strategic partnership between India and the US also opened up the possibilities for India to develop similar partnerships with other countries in the West. The result is that India has over 30 strategic partnerships and over 60 defence cooperation agreements with various countries. Defence cooperation with France, Israel, UK and Japan has progressed well. India participates in numerous multilateral as well as bilateral military exercises round the year. India’s defence industry is also growing. India is looking forward to becoming self-reliant in defence manufacturing and emerge as an exported of defence cooperation play an important role in the endeavors. It’s Make in India programme has opened up many avenues of defence cooperation attracted around the world.

India is not just a receiver of defence technology and equipment. It has also emerged as a provider. It has struck defence cooperation arrangements with countries in Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, Indian Ocean, Southeast Asia et cetera where it is providing assistance in capacity building, training, building of defence infrastructure, HADR, et cetera. For example, India has established defence academies and colleges in Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Tanzania and deployed teams for training in Botswana, Namibia, Uganda, Lesotho, Zambia, Mauritius, Seychelles, and Tanzania. Approximately 4400 Indian peacekeepers, including women, are contributing to peace and stability in Africa.

Defence Diplomacy

India’s defence cooperation is multifaceted and substantial. Defence cooperation helps India to secure its own interests and also play a role in regional and global stability. It has substantial presence in UN Peacekeeping Forces. In the changed security environment, India is seen as a dependable and reliable security partner by many countries including in the West.

Key Features of India’s Defence Diplomacy

Defence diplomacy is an instrument for forging defence cooperation. It is an integral part of the country’s overall diplomatic effort to secure its national interests, contribute to peace and stability in the neighbourhood, various regions of the world and globally.

India’s defence diplomacy covers a wide range of activities including defence dialogues, military exchanges, training, capacity building, information sharing, HADR, staff level talks, defence industrial co-operation, arms trade, peacekeeping, trade fairs, skill development, etc. The activities are carried out round the year.

Several Indian military training teams are deployed (08 in Africa) abroad. India holds signature exercise like MILAN regularly. India trains several hundred military officers in its military academies and institutions from various countries every year. India’s defence diplomacy toolkit includes

  • A wide range of defence cooperation agreements
  • Strategic dialogues
  • Defence industry
  • Joint military exercises.
  • Capacity building
  • Defence dialogues.
  • Technology.
  • Trade.
  • HADR.
  • Maritime security.
  • Cyber security, space, disarmament
  • UN Peacekeeping
  • Quad
  • Counter terrorism
The Impact of Defence Cooperation

As a result of wide range of Defence Cooperation agreements and strong defence diplomacy, India has been able to respond effectively to the changing security environment in its strategic neighbourhood.

Diversification of defence agreement has strengthened India’s diplomatic options. It has led to diversification of sources of defence equipment and technologies. India has been able to import high tech platforms and equipment from US, France, Israel in the last few years. This has reduced dependence on Russia.

Following the 2004 Tsunami, the impromptu collaboration between the navies of India, the US, Australia and Japan in the field of HADR led to the eventual formation of the Quad. Today the strategic interests of these countries and that of India converge to a fair extend, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. While the Quad is not a military alliance, it does shape the strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. The Quad, along with other dialogues frameworks like IORA, IONS, ADMM plus, the various trilaterals etc have played an important role in shaping the security environment in the region. India is an active member of these institutions.

The Indian Navy has been perusing active collaboration with the leading navies of the world in the Indo-Pacific region. Malabar exercises are an example. Naval cooperation is an important part of India’s defence diplomacy. India’s naval capabilities are growing steadily. A significant part of India’s naval production is indigenous but also have a strong foreign component. India and France have been collaborating on the production of the submarines. Recently, India has decided to buy French made Rafael jets for its aircraft carrier. India is also buying three additional submarines from France. Indian and French navies hold regular exercises in the India Ocean. Their scope is going to be extended to the Pacific Ocean as well the deepening defence cooperation between India and France will have significant impact on the security environment in the Indo-Pacific. Quad countries and France have also held joint naval exercises. These exercises are held in the context of keeping Indo-Pacific free and open.

A significant part of India’s defence diplomacy is geared towards enhancing maritime domain awareness to curb illegal activities on the seas like illegal fighting, trafficking of drug and human, maritime pollution etc. Indian Navy and Indian Coast Guard are collaborating with several countries in the region in this regards. Indian Coast Guard has extensive cooperation with counterparts. India’s policy of Security and Growth for All. (SAGAR) and Act East Policy focus on maritime security cooperation. India has provided number of coastal radars to Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius and strengthened their maritime domain awareness. The Indian Navy Fusion Centre in Gurgaon is providing help to these countries to increase maritime domain awareness.

Historically, India is the second largest contributor of peacekeeping to UN peacekeeping mission. Presently, India is participating in 13 UN peacekeeping missions. India is also helped in UN Peacekeepers training. India has been insisting that the contributing countries should also have a say in deciding UN Peacekeeping Mission.

Emerging technologies like cyber, space, quantum technologies, artificial intelligence etc have thrown up new security challenges. Supply chain resilience in critical to global trade and manufacturing. India has a number of dialogues and partnerships in these areas. The latest Indo-US relationship on critical and emerging technologies (iCET) will have a deep impact on defence cooperation between the two countries. Similar initiatives are also underway in the Quad. The impact of these initiatives will not be confined just to bilateral domain but also it will have much wider impact.

South Asia is an important part of India’s defence diplomacy. India has helped Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bhutan, and Nepal in defence capacity building. India has maritime cooperation agreement with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh, Seychelles and Mauritius. It has given Dornier Aircraft and OPVs to these countries. Hundreds of defence personnel from these countries are trained in Indian defence training academies.

Pakistan and China remain critical for India’s security. While India has to deal with the security challenges alone, information sharing, counter terrorism cooperation, training, capacity building etc, help Indian armed forces in meeting with these challenges. The involvement of leading western defence manufacturers in India’s Make-in-India programme is critical for strengthing India’s defence preparedness. Emergence of India as a major defence manufacturers and exporters of equipment will have global impact.

India’s Defense Exhibition (Def Expo) is a biennial exhibition showcasing Indian defence wares. The October 2022 edition, held in western India, was the 12th and largest ever, attracting participants from 75 countries, including the United States, and more than 1,300 companies.

Aero India is a biennial air show and exhibition held since 1996 in southern India, and organized by India’s Ministry of Defense and Air Force. Reportedly Asia’s largest air show, the February 2023 iteration included more than 730 exhibitors, and the United States displayed many of its most advanced military aircraft. Numerous U.S. defense companies participated, as did the largest-ever delegation of U.S. diplomats.


In conclusion, it can be observed that while India is not a member of any military alliances and is unlikely to participate in them, it’s wide ranging diverse defence cooperation programmes are important factor in regional and global security environment. Through active defence cooperation and diplomacy India has not only benefited but also emerged as a security provider to some extent.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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