(This was originally posted in The Print by Nayanima Basu and Snehesh Alex Philip)
New Delhi: Buy Weapons From Us, India Says As It Pushes Exports To Compete It’s a strategic outreach perfected by the big powers, including by China in India’s neighborhood. Now, New Delhi has set out to join the bandwagon – of countries that seek to expand their reach and influence by offering arms and military equipment on sale to smaller nations that depend on imports to meet their needs.
India is increasingly reaching out to countries in the neighbourhood, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and ASEAN that mostly depend on China for defence procurements, and is positioning itself as a more “reliable security partner” under the overarching Indo-Pacific strategic initiative, multiple government sources have told ThePrint.
Big export push
India, sources said, has told countries within its immediate neighbourhood and some of its ASEAN (Association for Southeast Asian Nations) partners as well as a few African countries to consider making defence purchases, be it guns, tanks and choppers, or other equipment, from New Delhi even as they approach China with such demands.
Sources in the defence and security establishment said every region has its own dynamics. Thus, while the IOR countries require helicopters, naval vessels, coastal radars and air defence systems, the African continent offers opportunities for land systems and small arms besides radars and rotary wings, both armed and unarmed.
The defence attaches posted at Indian missions have been instructed to work “more closely” with the defence forces in their respective country of operation to explore potential export opportunities, the sources said.
During last month’s Aero India showcase, India had pitched itself as a defence partner to countries in the IOR.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said 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), said in February that India is actively scouting for export potential for the Tejas at a vanilla price of Rs 309 crore per aircraft, as countries from Southeast Asia and West Asia have evinced interest.
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 added.
Bharat Karnad, a research professor at the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and a national security expert, said India is “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.
Over the past few years, China has emerged as one of the largest defence exporters along with the US, Russia, France and Germany. Besides armed drones, China is exporting fighter aircraft, missiles, small arms and even submarines.
Latest data from Swedish arms watchdog SIPRI shows that exports by China decreased by 7.8 per cent between 2011-15 and 2016-20. Even so, it was the world’s fifth largest arms exporter in 2016-20.
Chinese arms exports accounted for 5.2 per cent 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 Monday.
Indian military bases
India is currently engaged in developing a military base on the 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 that is coming up 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 visited Mauritius and the Maldives in an effort to boost trade as well as defence ties.
India and the Maldives subsequently signed an agreement to “develop, support and maintain” a Coast Guard harbor at Sifvaru.
The neighborhood focus was also borne out by Army chief General M.M. Naravane and IAF chief Air Chief Marshal R.K. Bhadauria’s visits to nations such as Myanmar, Nepal, and Bangladesh in recent days.
This year, which marks the 50th anniversary of the 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to the formation of Bangladesh, the latter 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 Borsho’ — 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.”