By Nitin A. Gokhale

As part of its Look East policy, India has been boosting military ties throughout East Asia.


For years the Indian security establishment has been excessively obsessed with Pakistan and the proxy war it has waged against India. Over the past half a dozen years, the focus has gradually shifted to meeting the rising challenge posed by China’s rising military capabilities in Tibet.

Apart from two new army divisions now deployed in the country’s north-east after they were sanctioned in 2009, the Indian Cabinet has also a fortnight ago cleared a new mountain strike corps  specifically meant for offensive operations against China. The new formation, which is likely to cost well over $10 billion, will take at least seven years to be fully functional according to current assessments. Given the long and drawn out border dispute with  China, Indian policymakers have naturally tended to think “continentally” and looked at countering China on land.

That may however be changing too. As part of its two decade-old Look East policy, India has substantially stepped up engagement with East Asian and ASEAN nations. Last December, during an India-ASEAN Commemorative summit, the relationship was elevated to a strategic partnership.

As Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared in Phnom Penh in November 2012: “India and ASEAN should not only work for shared prosperity and closer links between our peoples, but also to promote peace, security and stability in the region. I am happy to note our growing engagement in areas such as defence, maritime security and counter-terrorism.”

Although never explicitly stated, ASEAN and East Asian nations want New Delhi to be a counterweight to increasing Chinese footprints in the region. Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and, particularly, Vietnam and Myanmar have time and again pressed India to help them both in terms of military training and weapons supply.

Myanmar’s Navy Chief, Vice Admiral Thura Thet Swe during his four-day visit to India in late July held wide-ranging consultations with top officials from the Indian Ministry of Defence. Apart from increasing the number of training slots of Myanmarese officers in Indian military training establishments, India has agreed to build at least four Offshore Patrol Vehicles (OPV) in Indian Shipyards to be used by Myanmar’s navy.

In the recent past, despite its military junta’s perceived closeness to China, Myanmar had sourced 105 mm artillery guns, mortars, armored personnel carriers and rifles from India. But now it wants India to do more. In the near future, air force personnel, especially helicopter pilots, are likely to train in India in larger numbers. Even as Myanmar opens up to the world, its military is moving closer to India than ever before. That all three Indian service chiefs visited Myanmar in the past one year is testimony to India’s military diplomacy with Southeast and East Asian nations.

But it is Vietnam more than any other country in Southeast Asia that India seeks to support and engage.  Both India and Vietnam have long-pending territorial disputes with China. Both have long-standing ties, dating back to Jawaharlal Nehru’s time. So, for more than a decade now, India has been providing Vietnam with assistance in beefing up its naval and air capabilities. For instance, India has repaired and upgraded more than 100 MiG 21 planes of the Vietnam People’s Air Force and supplied them with enhanced avionics and radar systems. Indian Air Force pilots have also been training their Vietnamese counterparts.

Photo Credit: REUTERS/Stephen Morrison/Pool

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    1. Kanes

      MiG21 (fishbed) is a very old and outdated plane. Modern avionics cannot add any use for it. Also Indian OPVs and FACs are no match to that of China.

      Each defence pact puts a huge financial commitment on the parties unless it is just on paper. Poverty stricken Indian economy cannot sustain all these defence pacts. It cannot meet the obligations they impose either. China is way ahead in this regard that hasn't committed anything that takes away focus or resources from its expanding military strength.

      India has many unresolved national movements. Telangana issue that remains unresolved is one example. Supporting National Movements in Indian states to gain full independence is a very productive and humane effort China must look into.   

      • Vayuad

        Ya just like India can look at the Tibet, Uhigir, Manchu and Inner Mongolia seperatism in China.

    2. Gaurav Tripathi

      India, as a developing nation is managing its internal and external affairs, tactically. Its influence in South-Asia has been continuosly increasing. Its domestic issues i.e. female education, infant mortality rate and poverty is still a cause of concern. Being the largest democracy of world, it is doing its best efforts to root out the major problems from the lives of its citizens , through various social welfare schemes , scholarships programs and by promoting e-governance (in the functioning of central govt and state govt's) . It might still take a decade to completely root out these problems. The greatest benefit to India is its Young Force, which is much more educated, aware, skilled,competent and adaptable in today's changing scenario.

      India's external affairs, basically its eternal affairs with world has a long history. In 21st century , the role it shall play , will surely affect the international politics. The world's largest democracy is emerging as an economic force. The western powers have been  regularly telling the significance of India in shaping their foreign policy towards Asia, in Asia's century. The world sees India as an alternative to China to pormote peace, tranquility and democracy in Asia. 


      To conclude, in coming years India must strive hard to fulfill the expectations of the world. 

    3. sam

      Math Olympiads are not a good yardstick for military sophistication nor do india's best participate.

    4. Devesh Kumar

      While it is acknowledged that India shares place with the likes of Afghanistan, Nigeria and other sub Saharan nations when it comes to most of human development indicators. But one should learn that India is and has been a land of great paradoxes. India is not just filling its stock with imported arsenal but is in production and joint -production of the most sophisticated weapons of the world. In no way a Vietnam can boast of being better than India militarily.

    5. RANA

      India's look east policy entails it to provide leadership to east asia, help foster a rapport among the major players in the region who oppose Chinese hegemonistic designs and re-enforce the virtues of securing the seas lanes across the south china sea from naval pressures by the PLAN. India plans to provide Vietnam missiles that can strike deep within vital industrial and economic hinterland hubs of China's prosperous south, as a quid pro quo for China's covert role in arming Pakistan. India would also like to see Vietnam developing with Indian technical assistance its very own nuclear weapons program as an insurance against any future Chinese belligerence. India wants Vietnam to have a minimum credible deterrence against China in the event of a Chinese attack either from the north or from the seas. India would like to co-opt Vietnam as part of a large strategic game plan to create military staging posts in the gulf of Tonkin for its naval fleets and submarines within easy striking distance of southern Chinese ports and cities to ensure that China will have to pay a heavy price for its involvement with Pakistan in the South Asian theatre.

    6. TDog

      Having the military lead the way for foreign policy is neither prudent nor effective, especially given India's current situation.  At a time when India's literacy rate is well below the world average of 84%, roughly a third of its people live below the poverty line, and its infrastructure is singuarly incapable of handling the rigors of a modern economy, India is casting about for military allies.  To frame it within a Maslow's Hierarchy context, India is looking to boost its self esteem at a time when it doesn't have enough resources to meet its fundamental needs.

      China began to throw its weight around after decades of economic and industrial growth.  The foundation of a strong military, after all, is a strong economy.  A robust economy can pay for a robust army, navy, and air force, but much to the chagrin of many hawks, a strong military can't pay for a robust economy.  In fact, a well-supplied and large military tends to be a drain on resources rather than a contributor to the nation's economic well being.  One should note that places like Japan, West Germany, and many other NATO states did exceedingly well economically primarily because the burden of military expense was being picked up by someone else.

      India, on the other hand and in this instance, seems to be of the mindset that with great power comes great material rewards.  They spend billions on military gear and participate in these very public military-to-military meetings and events, but to what end?  Will an aircraft carrier raise India's female literacy rate above its current 65%?  Will three carriers somehow magically grant India a more modern highway and rail system?

      India's priorities are skewed and while I do not begrudge any nation spending to defend itself, spending billions of dollars on power porjection and promising millions to others to entice them into signing on for an alliance when literally hundreds of millions of your own people live in abject poverty strikes me as ridiculous.  

      • Anjaan

        @ TDog,

        You are entitled to your opinion …… but one might differ on a few points :

        1.  Germany and Japan are great nations …. they would rise, regardless of spending less on military expenses, you have referred to as picked up by someone else ( you are alluding to the US, if I am not wrong).

        2.  India spends just about 2% of its GDP on defense ….. what is so ridiculous or abnormal about it ….. ?


        • TDog


          1.  Germany and Japan are indeed great nations, as is India.  Whether or not a rise is inevitable is immaterial – it is the pace at which it will happen.  Greatness can always be delayed and growth can always be halted through misplaced priorities and mismanagement.  

          2.  India spends just 2.5% of its GDP on the military, but that 2.5% is equal to over 13% of the Indian government's budget.  And given the Indian rupee's recent performance, India is not getting far less bang for its buck especially since India imports so much of its materiel.

          Like I said, I have no issue with any nation arming itself for defense, but right now India has – as an old saying goes – champagne tastes on a beer budget. It's trying very hard to be a global power and power broker, spending money on aircraft carriers, submarines, missiles, and all the trappings of a great power when its roads are pretty much pre-Industrial Era in quality, its literacy ranks well below the world average, and roughly a third of its population lives in poverty (in China, the figure is about 13% and in the US the figure is about 5%). 

          India's priorities are misplaced.  Given the Indian people I know, if the government would help them and spend money on improving their lot, India would have overtaken Japan and Germany in terms of economy and prosperity about ten years ago.  Instead, the Indian government chooses to chase this dream of becoming a world power through military potency without realizing that a military requires a sound economy to keep it fed, clothed, and equipped. 

          You can not have a world class military with a Third World economy.

          • TDog

            Correction:  Instead of "…India is not getting far less bang for its buck especially since India imports so much of its materiel.", it should read "…India is getting far less bang for its buck…"

            I'm not sure why the "not" was in there.

      • sam


        Here are some facts's_Republic_of_China

        If you think China is far ahead of India and India should hang its head in shame consider this:

        If your measure of poverty is $1.25 a day the India has 400 MM poor people, while China has 172MM

        If you measure poverty as $5.00 a day India has 1179 MM while China has 948 MM. 

        Are you feeling rich now?

        The GINI score for India is 33.4, for China it is 47. If the score is 100, 1 person owns everything, if the score is 0 everybody owns exactly the same. So you think China is a more equal society?

        Besides, India did not kill its own people like Mao which cost 45MM lives. 

        @Uncle Ho

        I think you are a tencent Chinese troll."Nuff said. 

        • TDog


          I live in the US, so I feel plenty rich.  

          Um, whose side are you on?  The statistics you provided (and, ironically enough, the ones I used but did not cite) show India's total population living beneath the all poverty levels to be 96.9% of India's population whereas China's is 71.6%.  In other words, CHina has roughly 200 million fewer people living in poverty than India does.  That does not exactly help your side of the argument.

          Another item: I never said China was more equitable nor that an equitable distribution of wealth was required for greatness, so I have no idea why you decided to bring up the Gini coefficient.  Is China more fair?  No.  But it certainly has fewer people living in poverty and that's a fact.

          And while India did not kill as many of its own people as Mao did, that once again had nothing to do with any of my observations – morality is not the yardstick by which geopolitical power is measured.  It is a subjective factor people bring up when the quantifiables of a situation don't make them feel good about themselves.  The fact is India is a basket case with delusions of grandeur.  It spends billions of dollars on aircraft carriers and spends many, many thousands of man hours seeking out military alliances when it has amongst the worst infrastructure in the world, some of the worst poverty, and some of the most worrying demographic trends – all of which could be solved with money, time, and effort.  And it is these three things that they choose to spend on military endeavors rather than domestic ones.

          • Rahul


            As an Indian, though  I acknowledge some of the things u r saying, but what I must tell u is one should not compare chalk and cheese. USA, Japan, European powers are great powers where lot less people live in poverty because the population is low and the country size is big compared to the population it hosts. USA is 3 times bigger than India areawise and has 1/3rd population compared to India. U talked about Indian infrastructure like roads; dude, if land is not availaible, where r u going to build roads? In space? Which "GREAT" country has people speaking more than 8000 diverse languages? And these so called "GREAT" powers were not built in a day; they took a lot of industrial revolution over a few centuries to reach where they are today. Independent India is only 66 years old dude. Still what we have achived is commendable. Our IT sector is becoming an election issue for Presidents in US and headache for US economy. And that too when the sector(outsourcing) is only 15-20 years old. Can't remember when was the last time when something in so called SUPERPOWER USA became an election issue in India. As for China, their country is also bigger than us though they are more or less equal in population with us, so they can use the land for building good infrastructure. Also their population is not as diverse as our's. What is good for Beijing people is also good for Shanghai people….Same cannot be said of India.


            As far as military strength is concerned, India has never been a colonial power unlike some of your so called "GREAT" countries. Being a colonial power means u have looted the oppressed power and that has contributed toward u becoming "GREAT". So India follows a policy of deterrence in military; but unfortunately, since a stupid and irrational China has more or less decided to teach USA and her allies a lesson and want to become the next colonial superpower, it becomes imperative for India to modernize her military qucikly because like it or not, we are also in the firing line of the Chinese. If it was only Pakistan for us to tackle, we would have disbanded our military a long time ago and our paramilitary forces would have been enough to finish off Pakistan and we would then have used our resources(otherwise spent on military) to achieve "GREATNESS"……


        • Oro Invictus

          @ sam (and TDog, to an extent)

          Oh for the love of… Not everyone who says something which ostensibly supports a “PRC position” is some fifty-cent troll/nationalistic nut-job. He is neither some slavish PRC pundit or (though, really, this shouldn’t matter) a PRC citizen, so such rudeness is not only uncalled for, it’s baseless.

          That being said (the following is why I have “CC’d” TDog on this), I don’t actually disagree with you on the matter of noting the PRC is not, on an effective economic basis, terribly better off than India. Even bringing into account factors such as calorific intake, the PRC still has an effectively third-world economy; by 2050, even by the more optimistic scenarios, the PRC is looking at a per capita income less than half of that of more developed nations. As such, it does strike me a little odd TDog does not critique the PRC nearly as much as India despite it also having a “third-world economy” (as defined by economic sustainability, opportunity creation/implementation, and citizen welfare). Still, in TDog’s defense, while his characterization of India as having a much worse poverty situation is highly questionable, it is undeniable that the people of the PRC do have a higher per capita GDP and will likely continue to have one for the foreseeable future (by the same scenarios cited above, India will have a per capita GDP a third of that of the more developed nations in 2050).

          I’m also uncertain where TDog got his statistics regarding poverty, as the world poverty line is under 2 US dollars per day, which puts India around 50-69% of their population living under the poverty line, the PRC at 33-45%, and the US at .02-.3%. I suspect he used the 1.25$ demarcation by mistake for the PRC and India, but that doesn’t explain the US’ number he stated.

          Finally, I also don’t really see why you brought income inequality or Mao into this; TDog never claimed India was less equal than the PRC nor did he get into the moral wrongs committed by either country. While income inequality and the moral compass of governments does strongly play into economic efficacy, TDog never disputed you on these points, so there was no point in bringing these against him.

      • Little Helmsman


        A great country does not try to hide its dark history instead it tries to learn from that sordid history in order to build a better society, better country for its inhabitants.  Introspection is a good thing.  

        Does China under the communists try hide its dark past?  If the anwer is Tiananmen square, Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, etc. are examples of its historic amnesia, then she is not so great.  

        A country without a memory is a country of madmen!     

    7. Uncle Ho

      In terms of technical capabilities, the Vietnamese air force is much better than India.  It should be Vietnam helping India, not the other way.  The Mig 21 in India is called the 'flying coffin' because India's air force has the world's worst safety record.  In fact almost half of the Mig 21 fleet India purchased from the Soviet Union has crashed.

      • Little Helmsman

        @ uncle Ho,

        I hate to burst you bubble but Viet Cong Air Force is a joke! VC ground personnel load bombs wearing flip flops. VC pilots are trained like the soviet way which is vwry simple. Usually just the basic is covered, pilots know how to take off, land and engage but commie trained pilots are not expected to have deep knowledge of aerodynamics and physics like western pilots do. Western pilots have deep knowledge of the engineering of the plane and air frame etc. additionally there are more versed complicated tactics and maneuvers. Just compare Israeli pilots vs any Arab counterparts. In 1982 Israel knocked off 100s Syrian planes while losing zero in the bekaa valley!

        • Uncle Ho

          Lets talk about bursting bubble then.  India should stop pretending it is some kind of up and coming power because it simply is not.  A look at the IMO (International Mathematical Olympiad) scores will see that year after year Vietnam out performed India by a wide margin.  Even Thailand out performs India consistently.  India simply does not have enough technical know-how to build an indigenious weapon system that is up to par with modern warfare.  All it does is import a lot of weapons from a lot of countries and now it is pretending to be some kind of military power advising other countries military?

          Vietnam beats India in almost every measurable indicator, not just IMO scores.  If India have a little bit of humility, may be we can help you out.  May be.


          To see the IMO scores, click on the below link:



          • sam

            Actually your defense minister cam to India and asked for help and it was provided happily.

          • Little Helmsman

            Dear uncle,

            Are u serious? You use some kind of math Olympiads as basis for your argument? Vietnam doesn’t even have one university ranking anywhere globally. Ever heard of the Indian Institute of Technology. This is a very prestigious university. In fact it harder to get in this school than in US Ivies. India has numerous Nobel laureates compare to China which hardly has any. India has a deep pool of human resources throughout the world. The chances are that an Indian professor will teach at and do research at a US institution is a lot higher than a Chinese. India has many problems as do all countries. If you take a look at world’s public intellectuals that are influential their respective field India does produce a lot. I’m not bagging on Vietnam but the commie government has hinder more than help the country. Vietnam is not even near Thailand in anything.

        • Uncle Ho

          Of course I am serious.  Performance in math olympaid is a very good indicator to gauge how the very top end intellectual resource in a country will do in the next few decades.  If you want to look at how well the average intellectual capabilities of a country do, look at the PISA scores.  In case you don't know, India is at rock bottom in PISA scores in 2009 despite the test is only administered in the top two Indian states in terms of academic performance.

          Yes IIT is very hard to get in.  But hard to get in doesn't neccesary mean it is good.  In fact none of the IIT made it to the top 500 global ranking in higher institutions.

          India is now worse than sub-sahara in terms of malnutrition.  India should learn from sub-sahara countries to reduce malnutrition instead of speading obsence amount of money buying fancy weapons from other countries and play big brother to Vietnam.

          • Uncle

            India and Vietnam are not competing, they are partners against China. Stop your attempt to rub each against the other as everyone can see through it. In war friends help each other and that's what they are. Infact, India has many more friends, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Myanmar, Thailand and soon the Philippines on its side. China too has friends like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Laos, Cambodia and not forgetting North Korea.

      • Pompey

        Uncle Ho is really a Chinese. His motive is to break India-Vietnam partnership against Chia. Don't fall into his trap.