By: Neeta Lal

New Delhi: India’s international diplomacy is increasingly taking on a newer and more assertive dimension – of combining high-level discussions with sales and exports of defense equipment. This has been evident in the country’s recent engagements with countries including Vietnam, Afghanistan Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, Russia and Maldives. 

Modi, 66, one of India’s most peripatetic prime ministers, who has visited 40 countries since his tenure began in 2014, has been at the forefront of defining and shaping defense diplomacy. Driving his ambition is the three-pronged aim to bolster “Make in India,” a project that envisages turning India into a global manufacturing hub, boost defense revenues and enhance India’s clout abroad.

During his visit to Vietnam this month, for instance, Modi was quick to extend a US$500 million line of credit for defense, raising the country’s earlier US$100-million ceiling by a whopping US$400 million. This is India’s most generous line of credit for defense ever. New Delhi is also in negotiations with Hanoi to sell the Defense Research and Development Organization-developed Varunastra heavyweight torpedo that was recently inducted into the Indian Navy. India has also exported choppers to Afghanistan, Nepal, and Namibia, indigenously developed HMS-X2 sonars to Myanmar and protective armor to Turkey.

Last December, Modi’s Christmas gift to Afghanistan included a pack of four Russian-made Mi-25 attack helicopters. Maldives was the beneficiary of Dhruv helicopters and fast-attack boats while Seychelles, Sri Lanka and Thailand received training, radar and surveillance equipment, and coordinated patrols. The US$50.8 million Barracuda warship supplied to Mauritius in 2014 also was the first Indian-made warship to be exported.

Maritime security is another area of focus for the current government. During his Kenya visit, India inked seven different pacts, including a Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Cooperation. In London last November, Modi and David Cameron, Britain’s erstwhile prime minster sought close bilateral synergy in the field of defense.

The leaders’ joint statement stressed India and Britain’s “global partnership” in the field of defense, cyber security, and counter terrorism cooperation. The document also stated that the UK will be a strong partner in India’s defense modernization plans, including the Make in India mission. A sizable share of the US$13 billion in deals signed between the two nations have been earmarked for defense cooperation, say ministry officials.

Not only are foreign visits by Modi and his diplomats being leveraged for defense sales, India is also fast tracking indigenous production of defense equipment. It has ordered BrahMos Aerospace, a joint venture between the DRDO of India and Russia (which produces the missiles), to expedite sales of the missile to five countries – Vietnam, Indonesia, South Africa, Chile and Brazil. Requests from 11 other countries including the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand and United Arab Emirates are under consideration.  

This flurry of activity is unnerving China which especially sees the sale and purchase BrahMos missile – reputed to be the world’s fastest cruise missile with a top speed of up to three times the speed of sound – as “destabilizing.”

Part of this new drive is also aimed at an image change for the country – from one of the world’s leading arms importers to an exporter of indigenously manufactured defense equipment. India hopes to boost arms exports 20-fold in a decade to US$3 billion, a push that can alter the dynamics of the regional arms bazaar, possibly even the world’s.  That is still far behind the United States, as US$10.2 billion in 2015. After the United States, the top arms exporters are Russia, China, France and Germany.

Steps by Modi to catalyze defense manufacturing, if properly implemented, could help achieve that figure by 2025, analysts say. The signs are encouraging. The new focus on exporting military wares has already resulted in Indian defense exports doubling to US$350 million this year. The country’s export focus has also widened from its focus on traditional markets of Nepal and Bhutan to the entire Indian Ocean region.

Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar has simultaneously set an ambitious target to raise defense exports to US$2 billion in the next two years. “In two years, the target is to touch US$2 billion. It is not very impossible as offsets are the area from where exports, and expertise, both can come,” Parrikar said earlier this year. The minster added that the government is also keen to export indigenous light combat aircraft Tejas.

To further streamline decision-making and bolster exports, a Defense Exports Steering Committee has been set up with representatives from the Military, Ministry of External Affairs, industry and the academia.

However, there are limitations. Despite a robust push for indigenization, much of the equipment that India has to offer is not totally home-made; it is often re-assembled with help from other countries.

“To be a bigger player,” said Akash Thakur, a defense analyst formerly with DRDO, “India will need to beef up its efforts on all fronts R&D, manufacturing as well as vigorously marketing its wares across the world.”

In this regard, India is keen to follow the template of China which has transformed itself from one of the largest importers of arms to a leading manufacturer. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute report on global arms purchases, China is the world’s third largest arms exporter. The country increased its exports by 88 percent between 2006-2010 and 2011-2015 and concurrently China’s global share of arms exports rose from 3.6 to 5.9 per cent.

Interestingly, the country has sold most of its weapons to India’s neighbors – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar. “China supplied major arms to 37 states in 2011-15, but the majority of these exports (75 percent) were to states in Asia and Oceania,” the report said. This is likely to be a flashpoint with India’s own increased forays in the Indian Ocean region with emphasis on military diplomacy and capacity building.

Neeta Lal (neetalal@hotmail.com) is a New Delhi-based senior journalist and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel. Twitter: Neeta_com