Former Service chiefs visit to Taiwan is proactive military diplomacy: It helps in India’s narrative building..FP


The visit of the three former Service Chiefs to Taiwan may be a path breaking event in an era in which more than physical standoffs it will be the grey zone, the cognitive domain and psychological targeting which will take the upper hand

The recent presence of three former Indian Service Chiefs at a seminar in Taiwan took a lot of people in India by surprise. Even Service personnel were pleasantly surprised by an initiative that could be classified to be in the military diplomatic domain. That is a domain where India can do much more, although notable progress has been made in recent years. Military diplomacy usually involves contacts between military personnel of two or more countries to enable the build-up of trust, goodwill, interoperability and cooperation through areas such as joint training, technological cooperation, weapons and equipment purchases, military manoeuvres or simply liaison visits to each other’s events of significance. This includes the very important aspect of port calls by naval ships.

If mutual trust exists between the armed forces of two countries, doing all other business becomes easier. That is why it is often said that political diplomacy rides on the back of military diplomacy and greatly depends on this for the establishment of good diplomatic relations. We have recently witnessed the contingents of the three Services marching down Champs-Élysées during the Bastille Day Parade on the French National Day, along with a smart Indian Army military band. Addition to ceremonial grandeur of friendly countries through participation in their national events is another contribution of military diplomacy. We have seen a similar presence of foreign contingents at the Kartavya Path at Delhi on Republic Day in recent years.

Our citizens will be happy to know that as a measure to enhance cooperation and trust, India undertook over 20 major joint exercises with friendly countries in 2022. This included the famous exercises Yudh Abhyas and Vajra Prahar conducted with the US Army. The Indian government has in recent years enhanced the number of Defence Attaches (DAs) with many more Indian diplomatic missions now having the benefit of their presence. Central Asian Republics, which have emerged with higher geopolitical importance attached to them, have now all got an Indian DA each. Increased military diplomatic presence in Latin American countries is also a very welcome step. As India’s strategic stature rises due to a larger economy, political stability, technological surge and increased military capability, the need for more officers from the armed forces will be felt at our missions abroad.

Well conversant with geopolitical and geo-strategic affairs these officers are already making a mark through their presence with the Ministry of External Affairs. It’s hardly known outside the circles of the uniformed fraternity as to the extent of formal and informal education on international affairs that Service officers undergo in various courses of instruction and institutions. The international exposure available to well qualified and trained officers prepares them for multifarious roles which include those in the field of diplomacy.

That brings us back to the issue of the former Service Chiefs’ visit to Taiwan. Projecting a halfway military to military relationship with Taiwan is a good way of conveying to China that this relationship could develop further. We still believe in a One China policy and only unofficial ties exist with Taiwan, with a full-strength Embassy of the Republic of China present at Delhi. The presence of former Service Chiefs in Taiwan, without any provocative utterances is a classic example of the Grey Zone which China itself is adept at pushing in its dealings with India. Thus as a quid pro quo it may be good to keep observers guessing what the purpose of this visit was all about? It also benignly projects India’s intent of pursuing its foreign policy devoid of the sensitivities that Beijing’s concerns may raise.  Such actions are usually well thought through as probably done in this particular case.

Since the MEA has undertaken this step or given its political clearance for the same, it needs to be reminded of the tremendous scope of using the instrument of Indian presence at international seminars and academic events. Many of these events have the presence of nominated subject matter experts, academics, intelligence officials, veteran diplomats and military officers from our adversaries. The Pakistan or Chinese narratives are expounded vociferously there. Indian absence at such events is most noticeable which is counterproductive, something I have been regularly pointing out in all my writings and advisories. Among the many issues Pakistan regularly raises is a justification for continued validity of the UN Resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir and the complete relegation of the Shimla Agreement of 1972 to insignificance. A favourite with representatives from our western neighbour is the alleged human rights violations by the Indian security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. Absence of Indian presence prevents the placing of any counter narratives and arguments, thus allowing many attendees to carry away the perception projected by our adversaries.

We need to focus on just a few things. First of them is to identify the leading cities of the world where such events are conducted on a regular basis. Cities with high value academic institutions, reputed think tanks and diplomatic institutions. From East to West one can easily point them out with fair accuracy. Sydney and Melbourne have many such events. The nodal centre for strategic studies in South East Asia is Singapore with its lively universities and think tanks – the Rajaratnam School for International Studies (RSIS) and the Institute for South Asian Studies are the standout centres of learning with constant events and programmes.

Manila and now Seoul are also important but of lesser consequence. In West Asia there is Bahrain and once in a while some events occur in UAE and in Oman. In the European scene, its Brussels, Berlin, Oslo and Amsterdam. London of course takes the cake and in the US there are many cities and many think tanks and universities. On an average approximately 100 events with the opportunity to raise the Indian point of view, do get organised across continents. Thus the second action necessary is to ensure the presence of one, two or three prominent and articulate Indian personalities at such events. That will ensure that the Indian standpoint is never ignored. This will entail an expenditure of not more than Rs 50 crore annually.

As India embarks towards achieving the long-term objectives of 2047 which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set for the nation, the importance of both diplomacy and military diplomacy is going to be increasingly felt. With AI proliferating, the adversaries will attempt sophisticated propaganda to flood the information domain. We will need an expanded cadre of diplomats to ensure that our diplomacy matches our ambitions. This is where the institutions of the armed forces will come in very handy to enhance the knowledge chain and assist in diplomatic duties, within the MEA and abroad, at least in the short term when the cadre of the Indian Foreign Service is still insufficient for the task at hand.

The visit of the three former Service Chiefs to Taiwan may be a path breaking event in an era in which more than physical standoffs it will be the grey zone, the cognitive domain and psychological targeting which will take the upper hand. With our ambitious objectives for Amrit Kaal India surely cannot afford to be static in its thinking.

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