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Pranab's defence diplomacy
Srikanth Kondapalli
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June 06, 2006
Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee's visit to Japan [Images], China and Singapore from May 24 to June 4 is being termed as the flowering of India's defence diplomacy.

While India's agenda differed considerably in each of these countries, it was packaged as an integral whole designed to bridge the security deficit in Asia. Not only did India suggest new initiatives to mitigate pressing security challenges affecting Asia, it was also able to place itself well in the three nations' diverse -- at times contradicting -- positions.

Countries in Asia are groping with myriad security challenges ranging from spread of weapons of mass destruction and rising defence budgets to the spread of cross-border terrorism, energy crisis, environment, drugs, illegal financial flows, bird flu and migration.

Several security initiatives have been proposed through the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation, ASEAN Regional Forum, Thailand's Asia Cooperative Dialogue, Central Asian Conference for Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, the East Asian Summit, Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, Bo'Ao Forum and others.

However, as last week's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore indicated, diverse opinions still exist in Asia and beyond on how to tackle security challenges afflicting the region.

To further complicate issues, while the United States has made it known that it still retains influence in the region through its allies and friends, China has initiated exclusive multilateral efforts to not only to keep away the US but also carry Asia under its ambit.

This is polarising Asia into two camps.

An Indo-Japanese strategic alliance   

In this context, Mukherjee thoughtfully made Japan his first stop. While short, the visit was significant in terms of enhancing defence cooperation between the two nations.

In China, Mukherjee stressed increasing defence exchanges and enhancing trust levels.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, he underlined India's readiness not only to protect the crucial Malacca Straits, if the littoral states agreed, but also to bridge the 'security deficit' in the region.

During the April 2005 visit of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi [Images], India signed an eight-point agenda to enhance cooperation in several fields,  including defence. This, coupled with the June 2005 defence framework agreement with the US, is aimed at enhancing India's defence technological profile. Both nations can offer several items it needs for its military modernisation, particularly hi-tech products.

PM to visit Japan in 2006   

In turn, India offers a huge arms bazaar, having procured about $40 billion worth of defence equipment and systems from Russia [Images] alone in the last few decades, with certain big ticket defence deals on the anvil now.

The joint statement by Mukherjee and Fukushiro Nukaga, Japan's minister of state for defence, stressed 'deepening the dialogue and cooperation' in security and defence fields and a 'deep interest in tackling regional and global security challenges'.

Against the backdrop of Pakistani scientist A Q Khan's confessions in early 2004 that Pakistan cooperated with North Korea, Libya and other countries in the nuclear and missile fields, and in the light of the Indian Coast Guard capturing  a North Korean vessel suspected of carrying ballistic missile components to Pakistan and Libya off Kandla port in June 1999, the joint statement between India and Japan emphasises preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

In addition, Mukherjee also signed a Memorandum of Understanding on maritime security and coast guard cooperation with Kazuo Kitagawa, Japan's minister of land, infrastructure and transport.

As for China, while Beijing [Images] and New Delhi are making efforts to clear up mutual concerns (border dispute, China's role in the South Asian region, China's 'string of pearls' strategy in the Indian Ocean region, Tibet [Images], etc), there is nothing substantial that China or India could offer each other in defence industrial terms.

Although both sides did show an interest in these issues during Chinese Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan's visit to India in 2004, nothing concrete has emerged so far. Therefore, the main agenda for both countries was to stabilise their positions on the respective borders -- China on the Taiwan front, and India on the western front.

Mukherjee raises Indo-China border issue

The first-ever MoU signed by Indian and Chinese defence ministers during the current visit, which aimed at enhancing military exchanges in a step-by-step approach, was mutually beneficial. Low-key level joint operations between the two militaries and annual defence dialogues are being planned.

The Indian Navy has already conducted joint operations in search and rescue missions with the Chinese Navy at Shanghai in November 2003 and at Kochi in December 2005. Mountaineering expeditions, and exchange of military officials as observers in military exercises have preoccupied the two armies, while the air forces would get a chance to interact institutionally after the MoU.

US Admiral: 'Your navy is world class'

The implementation of the MoU should also enhance top-lever defence exchanges between the two countries. In the past five decades, only three Indian defence ministers have visited China, while Cao Gangchuan is the only Chinese defence minister to have visited India.

Major dividends for India are expected from the 5th Shangri-La meeting at Singapore as well.

Started in 2002 as a platform for defence ministers and officials from Asia and other nations, the Shangri-La dialogues have attracted wide attention. Last year's dialogue will be remembered for the explicit clash between the US and China over the latter's rising defence budget and lack of transparency. In comparison, the 5th Dialogue was less acrimonious and offered space for constructive suggestions such as those from India.

The central dilemma for India at the Shangri-La meeting was how to enhance the security of Asian countries without getting entangled in the territorial or other disputes of the region, and to remain exclusive in multilateral security groupings.

The region is strategically vital for India, with a significant portion of its maritime trade passing through the vulnerable Philip Channel of the Straits of Malacca. More than 75 percent of Japanese, 90 percent of South Korean and 80 percent of Chinese energy imports also pass through this crucial choke point, where they can be interdicted by pirates and others.

India to host multilateral Naval exercises

In the last few years India has positioned itself as a big player in the region by setting up a joint military command at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It swiftly conducted rescue and relief operations during the 2004-05 tsunami disaster and rescued several ships from pirates.

However, the task of identifying and interdicting hostile ships or cargo through this region is Herculean and can be effectively undertaken through joint multilateral efforts with sophisticated surveillance of the seas.

Multilateral cooperation thus holds the key to stability in the region.

The author is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analysis

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