Army As A Diplomatic Instrument

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The casual newspaper reader would not have failed to notice reports about the army’s interactions with foreign armies. This is military diplomacy which can be a vital tool in the exercise of foreign policy.BY SURYA GANGADHARAN

In March, Pune will host the first ever exercise comprising 360 military personnel from the 10 ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) countries and the seven ASEAN observer states: Australia, Japan, South Korea, USA, Russia, China and UK. The six day long joint drill will cover humanitarian mine action and peacekeeping operations.

Sources at Army Headquarters in Delhi said the aim was “to build common understanding to establish and practice baseline interoperability in these fields.”

More important, the sources said, “it will help the army showcase professional prowess in these fields… and being the first multinational exercise conducted by the Indian Army, it would create strategic foot prints in the Asia-Pacific region… a platform to learn best practices from each other. This would also enable Indian Army to project its commitment towards closer interactions with leading armies of the region for peaceful co-existence.”

While this exercise on home ground is the first of its kind, the army has over the years developed 24 institutional exercises with the armies of 19 countries. It has 10 training teams in as many countries and 44 officers serving as military attaches in Indian embassies overseas. (The navy and air force also have institutionalized exercises and training programmes with their counterparts in friendly countries).

As a component of diplomacy, the army (also navy and air force) can help build capacity among countries stretching from Africa to South-east Asia, said a senior Indian diplomat. “This is important more so now when the government is pushing hard for Make in India defence production and exports. We are providers of security and also require support from leading countries. Therefore the need for greater military interaction.”

I must introduce a caveat here. It appears that in the countries where India is actively seeking to strengthen its military profile, it is in serious competition with China. And unlike the elephantine pace at which our bureaucracy moves, the Chinese (although far bigger) are nimble, sure footed and goal oriented.

“Much of our aid is free,” a former defence attache explained, “but it comes many months after it is promised. If we deliver three free vehicles and the army in question asks for more, by the time we get going the Chinese step in and deliver. MoUs take three to four months to get finalized when the Chinese do it in 30 daysflat.”

Generally, Chinese military officers posted in diplomatic missions overseas are considered among the best. They have language skills, understand the country they are posted in, are polished and forthcoming. Indian officers are no less but where the Chinese deal directly with their own headquarters back in Beijing which ensures a smooth supply line, the Indian attache has to go through the Ministry of External Affairs which has its own rules and moves at its own pace.

“Unfortunately, our political commitment is not backed by adequate financial commitment,” the former defenceattache noted. “This is where we lose out vis-à-vis the Chinese even where we are viewed more positively and there is considerable goodwill for us.”

In countries like Vietnam, Cambodia or even Thailand, the military occupies a privileged position and it is often seen that the military attache in a foreign embassy enjoys better access to the powers that be in that country than the diplomat. The fact that most Indian diplomats do not have country proficiency (because the IFS cadre is so small) adds to the problem. While they do spend the early years of service learning a language in a foreign country, it maybe many years before they return to that country. Result, they are not able to build their expertise about that country.

In that sense, the army’s approach to proficiency is far better. It is quite normal for officers of the rank of say colonel to have had at least three tenures in conflict areas like Jammu & Kashmir or the North-eastern states. A brigadier would obviously have more.

Also, army officers learn about geo-strategy and geo-politics as they rise up the ladder, go to Staff College and other specialized institutions that enable them to understand the neighbourhood and the wider region. Peacekeeping operations give them on-the-ground experience.

A frequently asked question is why despite all those years in peacekeeping operations, India has no leverage when it comes to deciding the mandate of a particular operation. Since our diplomats have not been able to work that out so far, maybe the army will have some ideas.

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