India needs to adequately securitise foreign policy: Dr Jaishankar at FINS event

File Photo: India’s external affairs minister Dr S. Jaishankar.

By Dr S. Jaishankar

We are all here virtually to remember Manohar Parrikar, who would have turned 65 years old today. It is natural for us to express our feelings and recall our associations. I myself had the opportunity of working with him as Foreign Secretary.

Quite apart from our many official interactions, my recollection is of a warm and informal person, with no airs about him. He could be very caring and it was very easy to build a rapport with him. So, I can well imagine that there are many plugged into this event who would share my sentiments about him.

But on an occasion like this, it would also be right to step back a bit and assess what he meant in terms of policy-making and governance. And how much of that ended up as his legacy. I am grateful to Lt Gen. D. B. Shekatkar and the Forum for Integrated National Security (FINS) for bringing us all together in that endeavour.

It is a real honour to deliver the Second Manohar Parrikar Memorial Lecture. And the theme I have selected for my remarks is of the relationship between defence and diplomacy to underline the importance of greater integration in policy-making. In many ways, those are the very issues which were at the core of my interaction with Manohar Parrikar.

Few would disagree with the proposition that when Manohar Parrikar came to Delhi as Minister of Defence, it was like a breath of fresh air, that too from Goa. This was much needed because it is typical in any system to see habits to set in and beliefs to become entrenched.

Parrikar came in with his ‘different’ persona, took charge and then brought his enormous energy to bear on all matters of national security. And he did that in his own inimitable style, engaging intensively with his colleagues and with his co-workers, questioning assumptions, offering his own views very transparently, inviting those of others and taking part himself in the argumentation that followed.

It certainly was quite different from the ethos prevailing before that. Even though his tenure was less than three years, he established a well-deserved reputation for being practical and for being outcome-oriented. He showed strategic clarity in assessing the world and did what he should on important matters of national interest.

Today, it is his outlook that I would like to focus on and emphasise to you the need to be non-dogmatic and self-critical when it comes to policy-making. Even otherwise, these are valuable attributes, but especially so in a world that is rapidly changing.


Now, the global order is continuously evolving and tracking that process is intrinsic to policy-making. What may be different now is the magnitude, complexity and pace of change. Because it has so many more dimensions and variables, the prospect of not fully comprehending all its implications is more real.

These are not just matters of policies and their implementation; we have actually seen sharp shifts in the basic stance and behaviour of nations and their interplay with each other. Some of this has unfolded more visibly in the last year; but its contours were evident even before.

The salience of China and the re-positioning of the United States are perhaps the two sharpest examples. But there are many others of great consequence, whether we speak of Brexit and intra-European Union politics, the Abraham Accords and the dynamics of the Gulf, the challenges faced by Africa, the ideological debates which we see in Latin America, or the evolution of the Indo-Pacific. Each, in their own way, is a reflection of this larger rebalancing and the emergence of multi-polarity.

Now, the resulting redistribution of power is, however, not a zero-sum-game among national competitors. There are new assertions in areas like connectivity and finance, just as there are growing deficits in global goods and multilateral regimes.

Such a profound transformation in the global landscape obviously cannot leave India unaffected. What are our key national security challenges, where and how do they arise, who are actual or potential partners, what can be optimal solutions – these are all questions to which the answers currently are very different from what there may have been in earlier decades. Our policy planning – indeed our strategic thinking – must obviously adjust to these new realities.

Change, however, is not just external. If we are the fifth largest economy in the world and third actually by Purchasing Power Parity terms, our relationship with the world cannot be the same as when our ranking was much lower.

Similarly, if our contribution to global talent and skills demand is so much larger, then so too will be our relevance in the calculations of others. A growing domestic demand will give our markets a salience in the business planning of the world that it did not have earlier.

The same holds true for our growing capabilities, whether in defence, economy or technology. On the big global issues of our times – whether we speak of climate change, trade flows, health concerns or data security – India’s positioning has more influence on the eventual outcome.

Our stakes in the world have certainly become higher; and correspondingly, so too have the expectations of us. Simply put, India matters more and our world view must process that in all its aspects. And just as important, our work style and mindset must adjust to raise the level of our game.

The national security challenges faced by this rising India are obviously also going to be different. At one level, some of the more perennial problems associated with our national consolidation and development will continue. In particular, a long-standing political rivalry is today expressed as sustained cross-border terrorism by a neighbour.

Today, as Gen. Shekatkar reminded us, is the anniversary of the attack on the Parliament. In some other cases, activities of insurgent groups need to be continuously monitored and neutralised. But the world is a competitive place and India’s rise will evoke its own reactions and responses.

There will be attempts to dilute our influence and limit our interests. Some of this contestation can be directly in the security domain; others could be reflected in economics, connectivity and even in societal contacts. Indeed, as the metrics of measuring power themselves undergo change, so too will their application when it comes to the games that nations play.

We are an increasingly inter-dependent world, with many of the accompanying constraints. The era of unconstrained military conflicts may be behind us. But the reality of limited wars and coercive diplomacy is still very much a fact of life. Visualizing and responding to a new range of national security complexities require the willingness to continuously review policy and audit performance. And that is an area where Manohar Parrikar certainly serves as an inspiration.

Since 2014, we have witnessed a number of conceptual changes in Indian foreign policy. Much of that was influenced by the growing understanding of the different world that we had begun to face. In terms of Neighbourhood First, the new approach envisaged a generous and non-reciprocal engagement of neighbours that was centred around connectivity, contacts and cooperation.

The enhanced importance of India to the daily life of its neighbourhood will clearly build stronger regionalism. But it was also one that is clearly predicated on mutual sensitivity and mutual respect for each other’s interests. This was followed by the SAGAR doctrine which took an integrated view of the maritime space in India’s proximity and beyond.

Here too, a template of cooperation was created that gave long-awaited attention to strengthening maritime capabilities, infrastructure, activities and cooperation. To India’s West, there was a conscious initiative to appreciate and engage the Gulf in its full strategic manifestation. This took the relationship beyond the more limited understanding of the region’s energy and diaspora relevance to India.

Correspondingly on the East, the roll-out of the Act East policy added the security and connectivity dimensions more prominently to an interaction that was already central to India’s globalization. The overarching view, of course, was of a steadily growing multi-polarity that mandated a stronger Indian engagement with the major power centres.

It not only took greater finessing to do that successfully but also a nuanced understanding to ensure that we got the best value from each of these ties. All this required a more holistic and integrated view of the evolving global architecture, one that brought elements of politics, defence, internal security, economics, commerce, technology and connectivity together.

On his part, Manohar Parrikar made a particular contribution to promoting synergies between defence and foreign policies, institutionally reflected in closer MEA–MoD cooperation. This yielded results not only in terms of the larger strategic framework but also in responding to the challenges of the day.

If we were successful in evacuating 5,600 persons of 41 countries during the Yemen conflict, this was due in no small measure to the contributions made by the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force. The civil-military partnership was even more strongly in evidence when we responded so promptly to the catastrophic Nepal earthquake in 2015.

Indeed, the firm establishment of India’s role as a first-responder in HADR situations across the Indian Ocean and its littorals was a result of these shared endeavours. That Op Rahat, Op Maitri or Op Sankat-Mochan entered the Foreign Ministry lexicon so readily, so naturally , spoke volumes of the distance we travelled during this period.

The sense of coordination and shared responsibility that many of these activities reflected grew rapidly as we dealt with different facets of national security. Whether it was the strike across the LoC in the aftermath of the Uri terrorist attack or the neutralizing of IIGs along the Myanmar border, the Foreign Ministry was very much an integral element of a larger effort.

At times, this could be even broader, such as the effort to accelerate the building of a contemporary border infrastructure. And here too, I saw first-hand Manohar Parrikar’s willingness to challenge orthodoxies as he set about determinedly reforming the Border Roads Organisation.

Policy and practicality, of course, go hand-in-hand and the intensification of strategic partnerships only takes place when that happens. Parrikar made a notable contribution to the development of three of them – with France, with the United States and with Russia.

The personal equations he developed contributed in no small way to that objective. Overall, in an era where foreign policy has got more securitised and defence policy has got more strategised, the integrated outlook that he promoted has certainly introduced changes in our working style. So as we look ahead, it is also natural to ask ourselves how he would have approached the issues with which we are grappling today.

The interplay between diplomacy and defence policy has been visible from the early days of our independence. Having served in many embassies where this was happening, I can personally testify to the difference that adept diplomacy can make to defence preparedness.

Given our industrial limitations, we have long been dependent on import of equipment and technology. While it is now our endeavor to strengthen defence industry at home, it will nevertheless remain a major consideration in the foreseeable future.

Now, it must be credited to Indian diplomacy that over the years, they have allowed the nation to source its defence needs from many suppliers, ranging from Russia and the United States to France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Israel. We may take this as granted today in a world where commercial interests are paramount.

But do remember that it happened through an era where political considerations were much more dominant. Indeed, much of our foreign policy energies were focused on developing this access and our success in doing should not actually diminish this achievement.

Even more challenging was the task of overcoming the hurdles of technology denial that became increasingly problematic after 1974. While they targeted our nuclear and space capabilities, their impact on our defence requirements was also very significant.

It is no accident that the resumption of the India-US defence trade took place in parallel to the evolution of the India-US nuclear deal. Since then, India’s membership of various export control regimes has enhanced the level of comfort vis-à-vis its defence partners.

In recent years, the prospect of India participating in global defence supply chains has come closer to reality. Indeed, given the importance of contract designing and engineering, the value of Indian talent has also steadily grown for an international defence industry focused particularly now on resilience and reliability.

The doors that diplomacy has opened could well become India’s windows to the world of global technology. As our capacities in the defence domain increase in tandem with an expanding footprint, these considerations will also be relevant when it comes to our own defence exports.

Utilising diplomacy to achieve military objectives extends of course beyond issues of sourcing supplies and accessing technology. Today, our maritime domain awareness has been developed through partnerships with other nations. A combination of coastal radar surveillance systems, white shipping agreements, hydrographic cooperation and provision of equipment and training has given the SAGAR doctrine a very strong foundation.

If the International Fusion Centre at Gurgaon has emerged as the region’s hub for maritime security, it is in no small measure due to the larger relationship that India has developed with the participating countries. A similar logic drives the range of military exercises that all three Indian Services undertake today with their foreign counterparts, bilaterally or plurilaterally.

They too parallel the strategic convergences that have been developed through the use of multiple instruments and policies. These endeavours all contribute to greater regional and global stability and security, a goal as much of defence policy as it is of foreign policy.

Having brought that out, let me also recognize that it works the other way round as well. The military can be an extremely effective platform to advance diplomatic goals even in situations that are not conflict-related. In fact, in the last six years, few activities have done more than HADR operations to enhance India’s stature and credibility in the region.

If we have developed a deserved reputation as a first responder, it is because we have done exactly that – in Yemen and Nepal in 2015, in Fiji in 2016, in Sri Lanka in 2016 and 2017, Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2017, Indonesia in 2018, Mozambique in 2018 and 2019, and most recently in Madagascar in 2020.

These have been supplemented by initiatives to render medical assistance and provide essential supplies in our immediate and extended neighbourhood, including during the COVID period. In fact, even when it came to directly addressing COVID health challenges,it was our military health teams were dispatched to Kuwait, Maldives, Mauritius and to Comoros.

Beyond all that, of course, are peace-keeping operations that we have conducted under the United Nations flag virtually since independence. Our record of 51 out of 71 UN deployments – involving more than 200,000 personnel – often in very difficult circumstances, is not only widely appreciated but has actually contributed, it has strengthen our credentials for the permanent membership of the UN Security Council. If the military training and support teams we have extended abroad have developed goodwill of partners, the policy dialogues and staff talks have strengthened the sense of convergence as well.

However laudable better coordination and stronger partnerships may be, and I have spoken about them in some length, they are still inadequate for the world that we now live in. The complexity of challenges that we face in our respective domains is as important to recognize as the mounting stakes that we have in insuring better outcomes.

This is not just an issue for foreign, defence and I would say even national security policy, or even for governments. In fact, the quest for greater integration to realize better value is as applicable to the business world and even our daily lives as it is to public policy.

In the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), this has been a major focus of the changes that we have promoted and driven in the last six years. The objective is not only tighter in-house coordination but also a conscious effort to work more closely with other ministries, I spoke of defence, but others as well, and leverage capabilities and talents even beyond the government.

We have inducted officers from other services, established inter-departmental centres, utilised consultants and partnered think-tanks on high-profile dialogues. We see diplomacy today as much more than just negotiations between trained diplomats. It is as much about creating perceptions and shaping the public discourse.

We are undertaking an ambitious set of development programmes abroad. And again the political-military aspect of our activities is steadily increasing, as indeed is the military-political one. As a field-led model of diplomacy, utilising our presence abroad as a bridge-head for bringing in additional activities. That is really what is today our well established Standard Operating Procedures.

Defence has, no doubt, its own variant of change and the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff was a notable landmark in that process. But, you know, models and examples for such endeavours are naturally derived from the experiences of those who have undertaken the journey before us.

But, as our own record in MEA affirms, we have to customise our reform planning to our particular needs and constraints. Gen. Shekatkar, of course, knows very much more about this than most of us. But I am sure he would agree that as India undertakes the next generation of reforms and embraces greater ‘Atmanirbharta‘, the military cannot be left behind. It must do its own introspection and prepare to meet effectively the new sets of challenges that we can all see are coming our way.

The importance of stronger integration in matters of national security can of course never be overstated. If there was a big lesson from the 9/11 experience, it was that policy implementation was really undermined by siloed thinking and lack of coordination.

In fact, this applies in equal measure even to policy formulation. Most nations, as they move up the global ladder, consequently tend to focus a lot on these aspects because that is for them one way of maximising their comprehensive national power.

We have seen this earlier with US and Russia; today it is very much in evidence if China is concerned. Call it coordination, sharing, integration, jointness or in some cases even fusion; that spectrum of coming together can make a huge difference. But if we are honest, we know that this is also a prescription easier made than practiced.

For the reality of the world is one of distinct identities, vested interests, and set habits. Not just that, we should also accept that the era of generalists is increasingly behind us. The complexity of national security issues require serious specialization; and that also means it requires equally serious integration.

This is a subject close to my heart and I have actually spoken about it on earlier occasions as well. So even at the cost of repetition, I would like to emphasise the criticality of rapidly improving our current status on this count. Every step forward, while undoubtly it should be recognized as an achievement, but it should also be treated as the precursor for the next ones.

We can have exemplary symbolic measures may be important; but in themselves we must understand they can often be inadequate. There has to be a sustained follow-up to institutionalize integration and an unending effort to foster the accompanying work culture.

This is truly a journey where we can never afford to rest on our laurels. In India, we are all aware of the integration milestones in the national security domain, most notably the establishment of the institution of the National Security Adviser and its Secretariat.

The Services are also progressing in their own way and their own pace towards stronger coordination. While I do recognize that this is not as easy as it sounds, it is nevertheless important that the scale and intensity of challenges mandate that we now go beyond half-way house solutions.

This can also make a big contribution to the pressing task of optimal resource utilisation. To overcome the constraints that all of us are familiar with, leveraging what exists more imaginatively is just as important as eliminating duplication. And both are possible only with better integration.

While this argument can be made probably from every perspective I guess on all domains, let me share with you how I see it today as Foreign Minister. To my mind, adequately securitising foreign policy is for me an absolute imperative. And the primary reason for that is quite obvious: there are really very few major states that still have unsettled borders to the extent that we do.

Of equal relevance is the unique challenge we face of years of intense terrorism inflicted on us by a neighbour. We also cannot disregard any attempts to undermine our national integrity and unity. Over and above these exceptional factors, there are the daily security challenges of long borders and large sea space.

The thinking and planning of a polity that operates in such an uncertain environment naturally will give primacy, should give primacy to hard security. Even the development of diplomatic skills will be shaped by the nature of this agenda.

Where India strayed from that assumption in an earlier era, we have seen the costs to the nation. I accept that Multilateralism and global issues, you know, undoubtedly, they have their importance. But they can never come at the cost of core national interest.

Such realism may sometimes be mistakenly perceived as a defensive mindset. I believe that it is, in fact, a grounded one. As India expands its global interests and reach, there is an even more compelling case to focus on hard power. A larger responsibility – whether it be in maritime security, HADR or in peace-keeping , it does call for an updated understanding of the global situation.

Encouraging our defence and security agencies to develop a better sense of the world is also necessary because of the vulnerabilities which are created by globalization. Whether it is at home or abroad, foreign policy cannot be conducted by any Foreign Ministry alone anymore.

And the bigger you become, the more that comes your way, this logic is even stronger. It is only through the osmosis of continuous interaction that diplomats will understand defence and security better,just as soldiers and intelligence will develop a good understanding of world politics.

Such a case can – indeed should – be made for other spheres as well. It is certainly our endeavour to make foreign policy more economic, more commercial, technological, digital, more focused on project delivery, more cultural, people-friendly. And each harmonisation obviously offers the obvious gains in that particular domain.

But they also underline what is today the expansion of the concept of power and its application. The world is more inter-penetrative and national frontiers are increasingly inadequate as a defence. Many activities that had only sectoral significance till now are getting politicized, sometimes I dare say even weaponised.

Whether it is connectivity or trade, data or debt, tourism or education – all of them are emerging as instruments of influence, sometimes even of coercion. So, the bottomline is this: we live in an increasingly integrated world and unless our thinking matches that, as a nation we will be selling ourselves short.

Let me, in conclusion, thank FINS for the opportunity to share some of these thoughts with all of you today. We are in the midst of big change and that is best advanced through open and vigorous debate. This was very much the temperament of Manohar Parrikar. Our real homage to him would be to make our motherland stronger, more capable, modern and more secure.

(The author is India’s Minister of External Affairs. Excerpted from his address delivered through video conferencing at the Second Manohar Parrikar Memorial Lecture organised by Mumbai-headquartered Forum for Integrated National Security)

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