Joining the competition with leading weapons’ exporter China in the Asia-Pacific region, India is reaching out to countries that wish to expand their reach and influence. The Narendra Modi government is offering arms and military equipment on sale to several small, import-dependent countries.
Sources say India is reaching out to more and more countries in the neighbourhood, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and ASEAN. These countries have so far depended mostly on China for defence procurements.
India, multiple government sources said, was positioning itself as a more “reliable security partner” under the overarching Indo-Pacific strategic initiative.
The Modi government has made a decision that it will make serious efforts to present India as an “alternative to China”, the highly placed sources said, in providing quality defence items. This, the sources said, would not only help New Delhi check Beijing’s policy of ‘casting pearls’ around India but also bolster its image as a security partner for friendly countries.
Sources said that in exports India would provide a massive push to Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ Mission, or the policy of self-reliance, in the defence sector.
As part of its will to emerge as the preferred military partner for IOR and Africa, India has released a list of 152 defence items for friendly countries, including the Tejas light combat aircraft, Dhruv and Rudra helicopters, besides the light combat helicopter, the BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles — which do not fall under the purview of the export-restrictive Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) — and the Akash air defence systems.
Besides, the sources said, India would secure military bases in some countries located within the Indo-Pacific region in an effort to become a “net security provider”.
New Delhi’s plan is to increase its defence footprint in Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Maldives, Seychelles, Mauritius, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc. It will focus more on securing the maritime domain, in the midst of China’s growing military adventurism not just in the Himalayas but also in the seas, the sources said.
The push by India has been late but sources say China had left India with no choice but to go down this route.
India has told countries within its immediate neighbourhood, some of its Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) partners and a few African countries to consider making defence purchases — guns, tanks and choppers or other equipment — from New Delhi rather than approach China with such demands, which they do as of now.
Sources in the defence and security establishment said every region had its own dynamics. Thus, while the IOR countries required helicopters, naval vessels, coastal radars and air defence systems, they said, the African countries offer opportunities for land systems and small arms apart from radars and rotary wings — armed and unarmed.
The government has instructed the defence attaches posted at Indian missions to work “more closely” with the defence forces in their respective countries of operation to explore potential export opportunities, the sources said.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had said on the occasion that India was ready to supply various types of weapons systems to other countries, a stark difference from India’s earlier policy of focusing on its soft power alone.
R Madhavan, chairman of the state-run defence manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), had said last month that India was actively looking for an export potential for Tejas at a vanilla price of Rs 309 crore per aircraft, as countries from south-east Asia and the Middle East have shown interest in the India-made fighter jet.
Rajiv Bhatia, a distinguished fellow at Gateway House, a Mumbai-based foreign policy think tank, said “this is a policy on the right lines”. “We’ve come a long way from the Nehruvian or the Indira Gandhian idea of doing everything for partner countries but to sell arms. But now we have no choice,” he said to ThePrint.
Research Professor at the Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Policy Research (CPR) Bharat Karnad said India was “already too late in trying to square China”.
“It has already encircled us. But we can come into the picture even now by providing quality products which the Chinese don’t want to give or don’t have. Had we equipped the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam with BrahMos missiles about 30 years back, we could have finished the chapter on the South China Sea then and there,” he added, referring to the maritime conflicts triggered by Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea.
China has, over the past few years, emerged as one of the largest defence exporters along with the US, Russia, France and Germany. China is exporting fighter aircraft, missiles, small arms and even submarines other than armed drones.
However, Swedish arms watchdog SIPRI says that exports by China decreased by 7.8% between 2011-15 and 2016-20. Of course, even then it remained the world’s fifth-largest arms exporter in 2016-20.
Chinese arms exports accounted for 5.2% of the total arms exports in the time period from 2016-20. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Algeria were the largest recipients of Chinese arms, SIPRI said in its latest report published yesterday.
India is engaging in developing a military base on Agalega Island in Mauritius and a naval base at Seychelles’ Assumption Island, to boost its maritime presence. “This development is a manifestation of Modi’s 2016 vision for the Indian Ocean, articulated as Security and Growth for All in the Region (SAGAR),” stated a report by the Lowy Institute, an Australia-based think tank, earlier this month.
According to the report, the new base in Mauritius will be “essential for facilitating both air and surface maritime patrols in the south-west Indian Ocean, and as an intelligence outpost”.
In February, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was on a tour of Mauritius and the Maldives where he tried to boost trade and defence ties.
India and the Maldives then signed an agreement to “develop, support and maintain” a coast guard harbour at Sifvaru.
Army chief General MM Naravane and IAF chief Air Chief Marshal RK Bhadauria’s visits to Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh in recent days were pushes in the same direction.
This is the 50th anniversary of the 1971 India-Pakistan war, which led to the formation of Bangladesh. On the occasion, Dhaka sent a contingent of its armed forces to participate in the Republic Day parade, for the first time.
India, meanwhile, sent two of its warships to Bangladesh’s Mongla ports to celebrate ‘Mujib Barsha’ (birth centenary celebrations of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, their ‘Father of the Nation’) and for the golden jubilee of the 1971 war.
“China has left us with no option but to set up military infrastructure in other countries. If we have to compete with them, this is something we have to do,” said Bhatia. “But we also have to procure the land for such bases in a manner that there is local support.”
Defence ministry figures show that India more than doubled its defence exports between FY18 and FY19, to Rs 10,745 crore from Rs 4,682 crore.
So far, India has shied away from exporting weapons and believed in creating strategic heft through soft power. However, the government has now come around to seeing the benefit of military exports in building strategic heft.
But pricing is a major concern. While India may be ready to export defence items to other countries, it may not be possible for the intended buyers to make the purchases as they look to bounce back from the economic hit of the Covid-19 pandemic.
To this end, defence sources said, India can look at different financing options, including extended Lines of Credit (LoC). The focus, the sources added, is also on maintenance and servicing and not just delivery.
Earlier this month, India’s Ambassador to the Philippines, Shambhu Kumaran, told a local news channel there that New Delhi is willing to offer soft loans for their defence requirements.
The Philippines could eventually emerge as the first export destination for the BrahMos cruise missiles. While India has increased the range and is working on enhancing it further, the export variant will have a 290-km range.
“Russia used to give us ‘friendship prices’, we can follow that model. We can give our friends the armaments they need and we can buy something they want to sell us in exchange. We can have currency arrangements…” said Karnad.
“We continue to be on a slippery slope. Look, China is now all over the place. Our entire military effort got wasted on the western front and we lost focus of China. But we cannot waste any more time,” he added.