Talk by Dr Arvind Gupta, Director, The Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) at The National Defence College: ‘Role of Defence Diplomacy in Shaping Favourable Strategic Neighbourhood’, 16 Sep 2019
Rapidly Changing Security Environment

In the post-cold war decades, the global security environment has evolved rapidly. Many analysts believe that future conflict will be Hybrid conflicts involving military, economic, social, information, technological dimensions. Terrorism has been a key driver of the security situation in the 21st century. India fights cross-border terrorism on a daily basis. The global war on terrorism launched by the US after 9/11 terrorist attack has transformed the global security landscape. Terrorism has been supplemented with the rise of violent extremism.

Now we are increasingly witnessing the rise of conflicts centering around resources, data and technologies. Many regions of the world are getting water-stressed. Conflict within the country and among country on water issues are distinct possibilities. Trans-boundary pollution is also a source of tension amongst states. The forest fires in Amazon forest have become a global issue. Trade and security impact are getting interlinked.

The impact of climate change on security is being felt all around. Extreme weather events like floods and hurricanes lead not only to massive devastation but also large-scale migrations. The disruptions caused by emerging technologies will also have security implications. Nuclear and missile environment is also changing rapidly. With the demise of the INF treaty, a new arms race is a distinct possibility. All this is happening in the backdrop of flux in international order, which is marked by the emergence of new power equations and the erosion of international law.

Cyber security is emerging as an almost intractable issue. With the growth of the digital economy, the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in governance and the emergence of technologies like 5G, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning, new security challenges have emerged for all countries. India is no exception. New technologies are also impacting military doctrine, force postures, defence manufacturing etc. War-fighting is likely to undergo major changes as a result.

There are many new developments in the space arena. Weaponisation of outer space is a serious concern for all. The US has set up a new space command. China has made rapid progress in space technologies. India has also taken major steps towards exploiting space technologies for peaceful purposes. Additionally, it has also strengthened its space security profile by testing an Anti-Satellite System.

The security of the Sea-Lanes of Communications (SLOC) and maintaining good order on the sea is imperative for any country. Global security and prosperity is linked to SLOC security. India, as a maritime nation, is particularly vulnerable. Strengthening maritime security is essential for India’s growth and prosperity. Since the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the significance of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) has been increasingly realized. HADR cooperation has emerged as one of the most important tool of defence cooperation worldwide.

India’s security environment is going to be affected by all these factors. To meet the new security challenges we will have to take several steps. The decision to create the post of the Chief of Defence Staff is a step in that direction. Among his many responsibilities, shaping India’s defence diplomacy will be one.

India’s Defence Diplomacy

Defence diplomacy is a powerful tool to achieve foreign policy objectives. It is also a force multiplier. In an interconnected, dynamic world, the security environment changes rapidly. Defence diplomacy helps take stock of the situation and prepares oneself for meeting the security challenges. At the same time, the potential of defence diplomacy as a stabilizer is not to be underestimated. HADR or anti-piracy cooperation is a good example of that.

Defence diplomacy helps strengthen cooperation with other countries, which is now a prominent part of India’s growing engagement. India has shed the tag of being non-aligned and is now actively pursuing defence cooperation with different countries in bilateral and multilateral formats.

Recognizing the potential of defence diplomacy for India, Prime Minister Modi, addressing the combined commanders conference on 15th December 2015, said, “…. We will continue to build our defence capabilities and infrastructure, engage our neighbours more closely and strengthen our regional and global partnerships, including in maritime security.… Our responsibilities are no longer confined to our borders and coastlines. We must have a comprehensive strategy for external defence engagement to develop our capabilities and fulfil our responsibilities to advance peace and stability including in our extended maritime region…” In subsequent years, Prime Minister Modi has built on these themes by talking about ‘security and growth for all’ (SAGAR) and proposing the concept of Indo Pacific. There has been a lot of emphasis on defence diplomacy with neighbours. BIMSTEC national security chiefs have met several times to discuss security cooperation amongst member countries, including defence cooperation.

India has defence partnerships with major countries as well as countries in our immediate and extended neighbourhood. Modi government has been pursuing defence cooperation actively. The key segments of India’s foreign policy namely Neighborhood first, Act East policy, Look West, Connect Central Asia et cetera all have defence cooperation as a major component.

To give an example of India’s active defence cooperation portfolio, India signed 21 defence cooperation agreements and MoUs during 2014-17. Diverse countries and themes were selected as:

Table : List of military or defence agreement signed with foreign countries for the last three years (from 1st August 2014)

The momentum built in the first term of Modi government continues in the second term. Recently Raksha Mantri Rajnath Singh reviewed defence diplomacy including bilateral/multilateral exercises, capacity building, training, material assistance to Friendly Foreign countries (FFCs), etc.

India is not new to defence cooperation. Even during the nonalignment days, India had strong security defence and security cooperation with the USSR. It also has been buying defence equipment from a variety of countries including the US, Russia, France, UK, Israel et cetera for decades. Right since inception, India has also been a major participant in most UN peacekeeping missions. India is a leading provider of troops to UN peacekeeping missions. Presently India’s participating in nine UN missions contributing nearly 7000 personal. India has participated in 48 of the 71 UN missions so far. Over the last six decades, India has contributed over 200,000 troops and suffered 150 casualties in the UN missions.

In post-independence era Indian forces have played significant role at critical moments in the region. The role of Indian forces in Bangladesh is liberation war in 1971 is well known. India extended military assistance to Sri Lanka on its request in 1971 and in 1987-90. At the request of the Maldivian President, Indian Armed Forces helped prevent a coup from taking place in 1987. India Bhutan training cooperation goes back to 1969. As far as back as 1974, India has gifted ships and interceptor craft to Mauritius and Seychelles Coast Guard respectively. In December 2015, India supplied for MI-25 helicopters to Afghanistan on the latter’s request to deal with militancy. In Tajikistan India has an air force facility and a military hospital. It is also provided training and infrastructure development assistance to a large number of countries in Africa Asia and Central Asia.

Indian armed forces have also been involved in numerous out of area contingencies in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Libya et cetera to evacuate stranded Indian nationals as well as foreign citizens. Indian Navy has also provided escort to merchant ships vulnerable to piracy in the Gulf of Aden. In 2004, Indian Navy cooperated with the US and other regional navies to provide humanitarian assistance in the wake of Indian Ocean tsunami. The Indian Armed Forces have provided timely humanitarian assistance following the devastating earthquakes in Nepal in April 2015, in Haiti in 2010 and in Fukushima in 2011.

In the recent years India’s is being increasingly seen as a reliable security partner and as a force for stabilisation. The Indo Russian agreement of 2000, India Japan 2006, US India joint vision on US on Asia-Pacific and IOR 2015 and the foundational agreement signed by India with the US are examples of India’s broadening defence diplomacy.

What has changed is that India is now incorporating in its defence diplomacy several other new dimensions such as export of India made equipment.

Tools of India’s Defence Diplomacy

India adopts a variety of tools to conduct defence diplomacy. These are: defence agreements, high-level visits, joint exercises, training of defence personnel, import and export of defence equipment, participation in security dialogues at professional and political levels, defence industrial, technological cooperation and research and development (R&D), medical facilities and training, exchange programs and military courses, UN peacekeeping operations, HADR operations, anti-piracy and search and rescue operations, assistance through military equipment transfers infrastructure development joint exercises, information and expertise sharing and cooperation in maritime security, cybersecurity, space security, et cetera are some of the prevalent instruments of diplomacy.

The effort now is to enhance defence manufacturing in the country under the ‘Make-in-India’ programme and promote defence exports. The focus is on producing high-tech equipment within the country under a variety of arrangements. India is also enhancing cooperation with other countries in defence R&D. Defence Technology and Trade Initiative with the US is a step in that direction. India also has a variety of R&D collaboration programs with Russia and other countries.

Major countries

Guided by bilateral and regional security compulsions, India has deepened defence cooperation with several countries.


The Indo-US strategic partnership is growing rapidly due to a variety factors, mostly linked with the changing geopolitical environment. The US is looking at India as a key partner in a variety of fields and India is looking at the US to seek help in building its strengths.
The key trends in Indo US defence cooperation are:-

  • New framework agreement on defence cooperation, 2015.
  • The launch of the 2+2 Dialogue at ministerial level. The first meeting of defence plus external affairs ministerial level was held in 2018.
  • The US has designated India as a Major Defense Partner (MDP) to promote better defense and security coordination and cooperation.
  • The inclusion of India by the United States among the top tier of countries entitled to license-free exports, re-exports, and transfers under License Exception Strategic Trade Authorization (STA-1)
  • Further expansion in two-way trade in defense items and defense manufacturing supply chain linkages.
  • The signing of Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016.
  • The signing of a Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) that will facilitate access to advanced defense systems and enable India to optimally utilize its existing U.S.-origin platforms.
  • To begin negotiations on an Industrial Security Annex (ISA) that would support closer defense industry cooperation and collaboration.
  • The creation of a new, tri-services exercise
  • To encourage and prioritize co-production and co-development projects through the Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI)
  • Memorandum of Intent between the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and the Indian Defence Innovation Organization – Innovation for Defence Excellence (DIO-IDEX).
  • Advancing a free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific region, based on recognition of ASEAN centrality and on respect for sovereignty, territorial integrity, rule of law, good governance, free and fair trade, and freedom of navigation and over flight.
  • To work collectively with other partner countries to support transparent, responsible and sustainable debt financing practices in infrastructure development.

The signing of foundational agreements like CISMOA, LEMOA, are steps in that direction. Basic Exchange Cooperation Agreement (BECA) is next to facilitate exchange of geo-spatial agreement.

The Malabar naval exercises with USA and Japan is an important step towards realization of the Indo Pacific concept. India is also revived cooperation under Quad grouping with the US Japan and Australia.


India and Russia have strong defence cooperation going back to several decades. A number of mechanisms exist to promote cooperation. India buys from Russia a lot defence equipment.

Military and Military-Technical Cooperation between the two countries is an important pillar of their strategic partnership. The Indian-Russian Intergovernmental Commission on Military-Technical cooperation meets regularly. They have a Roadmap for Military Cooperation, which has paved way for greater interaction between the militaries of both countries, including in training, exchange of senior functionaries of the militaries, staff talks and exercises. So far, INDRA Exercises have been undertaken between respective Armies, Navies and Air Forces engaged with each other without concurrent participation from other Services. 17 such service specific exercises with the Russian defence forces have been conducted since 2003. Exercise INDRA-2017 is the first Joint Tri-Services Exercise between Russia and India. This is also the first time that Russia has hosted a Tri-Services Exercise on its soil.

The two have concluded the contract for the supply of the S-400 Long Range Surface to Air Missile System to India. They have a High-Level Committee on Cooperation in High Technologies set up in November 2017 that identified concrete projects in areas of mutual interest for joint research and development. At bilateral level, important exercises are being conducted with all major countries namely the US, Japan, Australia, Russia, France, UAE, et cetera.

India is also participating in security forums such as ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) plus with ASEAN, Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), and counter-terrorism exercises under the aegis of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). The rising salience of Indian Ocean in India’s security calculus has led to several fresh defence cooperation initiatives. Maritime Domain Awareness has emerged as a major area of cooperation. The PM has also focused on the concept of SAGAR, Security and Growth for All. He has announced the Act Far-East policy, which aims at increasing for enhancing cooperation with Russia Far-East. This has strategic implication as well for the Indo-Pacific.


India has maritime trilateral cooperation bilateral maritime cooperation with Sri Lanka and Maldives in which Seychelles and Mauritius have also been invited as guests. India has built a coastal radar system in the Maldives. Indian Coast Guard are helping Mauritius in coastal surveillance. There are many examples of defence cooperation between India and its neighbours.

As part of the ongoing India Bangladesh defence cooperation, a joint military exercise Sampriti-2019 was held at Tangail, Bangladesh from 02 March to 15 March 2019. This was be the eighth edition of the exercise which is hosted alternately by both countries. The scope of exercise was fighting terrorism under UN mandate. Manohar Parrikar became the first-ever Indian Defence Minister to visit the eastern neighbours. India has extended a $500-million line of credit (LoC) to Bangladesh to look at Indian defence products.

India also holds regular military exercises with Maldives. The aim of the exercise EKUVERIN is to “acquaint both forces with each other’s operating procedures in the backdrop of amphibious and counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism (CI/CT) environment as also to enhance the existing military relationship between the Indian Army and the Maldivian National Defence Force.” The exercise aims to enhance the interoperability between the Indian Army and Maldivian National Defence Forces in conducting joint operations and cement bonds of friendship between the two countries. PIB.

With Sri Lanka too, a similar line of credit has been extended and there has been exchange of visits by high-level military officers between India and Sri Lanka – the Mitra Shakti VI annual exercise on joint CT/CI Operations.

India is also holding defence dialogues with Myanmar after that country's transition to a civilian-led government following the general elections in 2015.


Under the Act East Policy, India is building its defence ties with key Southeast Asian nations like Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia. India has institutionalized dialogues with Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia, and Thailand. An equipment-centered MoU (memorandum of understanding) has been signed with the Philippines.


India, Japan and Australia, along with the US, are part of a Quad revived in 2017 that seeks to work for peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific, a region that stretches from the east coast of Japan to the east coast of Africa. This comes in the face of China's increasing footprint in the region and Beijing's aggression in the South China Sea.

Japan and India have held air force exercises, which is a significant development. The two sides have also set up the first-ever joint venture for defence equipment production. With Australia, there has been a considerable forward movement in the last three years, according to the sources. In future, Australian may join the Malabar series of exercises. Apart from the armies and navies of the two countries participating in joint exercises, the Indian Air Force also participated in Exercise Pitch Black organised by the Royal Australian Air Force.

West Asia

However, a palpable transition in defence ties has been with India's extended neighbourhood towards the west. The low-key defence relationship with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has grown up considerably in the last two to three years. Apart from holding joint naval exercises, the UAE is now looking at India as a potential source of defence equipment. There have been positive outreaches from India to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Countries like Jordan and Morocco are also engaging with India in a more active manner, especially in terms of counter-terrorism.

India has also boosted its defence cooperation with Central Asian nations like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, according to the sources (IANS).


Going forward, India’s defence diplomacy will have to factor in many challenges. Some of these are external while others are internal in nature.

The rise of China as a major economic military and technological power has global regional and bilateral implications. India needs to find a way of dealing with China on all fronts. Modernisation of the Pepole’s Liberation Army (PLA) is proceeding along rapidly. The latest Chinese white paper on defence shows that. Through the use of Belt and Road initiative China’s influence has also gone up in different parts of the world. China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean is a development of great import for India. At the same time, China’s acquisition, naval ports in Gwadar, Djibouti and other areas will also have to be taken note of by India.

How does India deal with these challenges ? The rise of the concept of Indo-Pacific, as well as Quad, is directly related to the rise of China. India is gradually increasing its defence cooperation with the countries in the region. China Pakistan Economic Corridor is not just economic in nature but has strategic implications for India. India has sought to build a port in Chabahar in Iran but this is a small civilian port. This will not provide the military answer to the military port with China is building in Gwadar.

The signing of foundational agreements with the US will increase inter-operability between India and the US Navies. But this does not tantamount to military alliance. India is also buying a lot of defence equipment from the US thereby diversifying its options. It is also developing defence manufacturing base which will cater to India’s own needs as well as defence exports. The focus on indigenous defence manufacturing, or indeed and defence exports will help India to deal with the rising security challenges.

Even in areas like Africa where India is trying to increase its engagement, there is a greater demand for defence cooperation. India is setting up training facilities for African countries. However, the effort is still in the nascent stage.

The problem will always be that of resources. India’s defence budget is less than 2 percent of its GDP. The modernisation of Indian Armed Forces will require huge budgetary resources which are not going to be easily available. Robust defence diplomacy involving sharing of resources, joint operations et cetera could help India meet its challenges.

In the recent years the coordination between the defence Ministry and the external affairs Ministry has been growing. India has also set up a few 2+2 dialogues with importing countries thereby bringing together the political and military dimensions. This is a new experiment was effect will be visible in due course.

How Defence Diplomacy Help safe Security Environment for India in the neighbourhood?

India has fairly well developed defence cooperation with the neighboring countries. This has helped in significant benefits both sides. These can be listed as follows:-

  • Cooperation with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar have helped in border management. Indian Border guarding forces have detailed cooperation with their counterparts.
  • Defence cooperation has been a two-way street. In dealing with insurgencies, India has benefited significantly from cooperation with Bhutan, Bangladesh and Myanmar.
  • India has helped neighbouring countries in building capacities of their armed forces and security forces.
  • In Nepal, several thousand Gorkha soldier who served in the Indian army get significant amount of pension amounting to several thousand crore every year. This has helped the Nepalese economy as well.
  • HADR Cooperation is becoming more common and helps all sides and has become acceptable form of defence diplomacy.
  • Information sharing and intelligence sharing between India and counterpart is increasing. This helps in counter-terrorism.
  • Better relationship among the armed forces also has significant political benefits.

There is Scope for Further Improvements:-

  • Armed Forces play an important role in the history of our neighbours. They are an important part of the society. There should be a greater trust and confidence between India and its neighbours to encourage security and defence cooperation.
  • A conclave of armed forces chiefs should be set up between India and its neighboring countries to give fillip to defence cooperation.
  • India can set up security dialogues at different levels with the neighbourhood. NSA level dialogue among BIMSTEC members is showing promise.
  • The armed forces of region should do more advanced joint exercises as well as sports and adventure activities.
  • HADR cooperation should be enhanced. Joint HADR training and cooperation could be considered.
  • Cooperation in cyber and space dimension of security should be enhanced.
  • Joint production of defence equipment; defence exports could be considered. Make India program should be so structured that coproduction and co-development of defence equipment between India and its neighbours can be considered.

I would like to end with a quotation from Prime Minister Modi’s speech to the commanders conference in 2015. He had noted, "Above all, it is our neighbourhood that is most critical for our future and for our place in the world. But, ours is a difficult neighbourhood in the world with full spectrum of security challenges…”.

Thank you.

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