Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India's Foreign Policy - Determinants, Issues and Challenges

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Rajiv Sikri
    Venue: Central University of Rajasthan, Ajmer
    Date: February 13, 2017

India’s foreign policy is shaped by five broad factors viz. geography; strategic culture; India’s requirements and goals; global and regional challenges; and resources. Let me briefly deal with each of them.


"India” is the English name of "Hindustan,” or the abode of the Hindus, so called by invaders for whom ‘Hindus’ were the people living beyond the first major natural barrier, the river Sindhu or Indus. Blessed with abundant water, sunshine and fertile land, protected by the seas to the south, virtually impassable mountain ranges to the north, thick forests to the east and deserts to the west, India was a self-contained, self-satisfied and rich civilization (sonay ki chidiya) stretching from Punjab and Sindh to the Himalayas, Bengal and the shores of the ocean. India was never an aggressive power since it had nothing to gain by making forays beyond its natural frontiers. Trade and cultural contacts across the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea were mostly peaceful interactions. The only threats and invasions India periodically faced were from marauders from the northwest.

Thus, Indians developed a defensive mindset. They did not craft a strategy to tackle foreign threats. The limited problems of diplomacy and statecraft involved ambitious feuding rulers within the Indian sub-continent. India did not have clearly defined borders. Rather, it had frontier zones – in the northwest, the Himalayas and the northeast. These were left alone, as long as they did not threaten the security of the heartland. Invariably, these zones had as extensive contacts with India as with areas on the other side viz. Afghanistan, Tibet and Burma.

In today’s world, India’s geography poses three principal foreign policy challenges. One, whereas the modern Indian state requires fixed, determinable borders, the inhabitants of these amorphous frontier zones have traditionally had, and do indeed need, flexible borders. Trying to demarcate a historically non-existent border gives rise to border disputes as, for example, with China. Two, today’s political borders of South Asia are artificial. India has been divided in the past, but never so irrationally as it has been since 1947. India’s neighbours want to keep their distance from India in order to assert and preserve their sovereignty. Thus they deliberately downplay their interdependence, complementarities and commonalities with India. At the same time, they can ignore neither the tugs of a shared history and culture, nor the compulsions of intertwined economic and social ties. Three, India is boxed in – by Pakistan on the west and Bangladesh on the east. nWithout their cooperation, India cannot meaningfully extend its overland reach and influence.

At the same time, India is very strategically located in the heart of Asia and dominates the Indian Ocean, which is named after India. It was from India (which the British regarded as ‘the jewel in the crown’) that the mighty British Empire controlled the whole of Asia. East Africa, the Arab world, Central Asia and Southeast Asia are all within easy reach of India. The main sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean pass very close to India. The Persian Gulf, which is the principal source of exportable global oil and gas, is India’s neighbour. Unfortunately, terrorism, fundamentalism, piracy and narcotics production are rampant in areas that surround India.

Strategic Culture

India’s strategic culture has been shaped by its history, philosophy and traditions. Centuries of peace and prosperity made Indians complacent and arrogant. India stagnated and ossified. That is why it could be so easily conquered by invaders, both by land and by sea, in the second millennium. Unable to repel these attacks, India’s tolerant Hindu rulers typically worked out prudent compromises with invaders. These invaders, as well as their retinue of administrators, traders, men of letters, artisans and others were assimilated within India’s fold and over time became stakeholders in a peaceful, prosperous and pluralistic India.

Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence, moral behaviour and Satyagraha was rooted in India’s moral, ethical and philosophical traditions such as the Vedas, the Ramayana, Mahabharata as well as the teachings of Lord Buddha. Gandhiji’s own experiences in South Africa contributed to his understanding that India’s freedom was linked to that of other Asian and African colonies. In turn, Gandhiji’s thinking influenced Jawaharlal Nehru. Therefore, it is not surprising that the defining characteristics of India’s foreign policy in the first few decades after Independence were non-alignment, anti-colonialism, anti-racialism, non-violence, disarmament, and peacemaking.

India indulged in moralistic posturing, and had an air of self-importance and self-righteousness as it strutted on the world stage with lofty statements that did not match its real strength. Multilateral diplomacy acquired an aura beyond its real importance. Indian diplomats became experts in trying to work out compromise positions than to playing hardball to preserve and promote India’s national interests. More attention was given to elegant formulations on paper than to the substantive outcome of negotiations. Such attitudes lasted for many decades after Nehru too. It is only under Prime Minister Modi that this deeply ingrained attitude has begun to change. India’s foreign policy today is not hobbled by ideology or sentimentalism. India is seeking friends and partners, though not as a supplicant, or as a weak country that can be manipulated.

Requirements and Goals

The primary task of India’s foreign policy is to ensure the country’s security and territorial integrity, and a peaceful external environment for India. This means having good relations with foreign countries. Foreign policy is not an elitist, esoteric activity that is conceived and executed in a separate silo, disconnected from what’s happening within India. It is an integral and critical element of an overall strategy to serve national goals and priorities including social and economic development, and defence preparedness.

That is why today there is greater emphasis on the economic component of India’s foreign policy. Globalization and the digital revolution have made trade and other economic interaction, including movement of capital and labour across countries, more important for India’s development. Economic liberalization has raised the stakes and the influence of businessmen, industrialists and entrepreneurs in foreign affairs. Foreign policy has to promote trade, create jobs (both in India and abroad), bring in needed civilian and defence technologies and promote inward as well as outward investments. It also has to ensure India’s energy security, since India depends hugely on imported oil, gas and coal, as well as many other raw materials and natural resources.

Today, an increasing number of Indians, particularly the younger generation – students, professionals, and businessmen – have global interests. Millions of Indians travel abroad for business, education or tourism. An equally large number of Indian citizens and people of Indian origin live and work abroad. Looking after the welfare of all these groups of Indians is a very important task of Indian foreign policy.

Global and Regional Challenges

How should India protect and promote its interests in today’s world, which is in flux and full of uncertainties? Global power equations are changing. The relative weight of the US has diminished and it is less self-assured and more inward looking. Europe is grappling with Brexit, the rise of right-wing nationalism, and a flood of immigrants. China is the new pretender that relentlessly pursues its ‘China Dream’ of Asian, and eventually global, domination. Russia has regained much of its self-confidence and seeks to reclaim the Soviet Union’s erstwhile global stature. We see a more activist and less inhibited Japan is playing a greater role in Asia matching its economic and technological strength. The entire region from Pakistan to Morocco is in upheaval, with rampaging terrorism, fundamentalism, sharp regional rivalries, as well as many so-called ‘failed’ and ‘failing’ states.

In this shifting kaleidoscope, a more self-confident and ambitious India under Narendra Modi is seeking to develop a new paradigm for India’s foreign policy where India would not be a mere ‘balancer’ or ‘swing state’ but a ‘leading state’ that seeks a place at the global high table. This will not be easy, since power is never given, always taken. It will have to be ready to take risks and at times pursue conflicting goals. Many other countries will work to keep India down. That is why India must leverage its strengths have diversified foreign policy options, and remain alert and flexible.

Like all previous Indian leaders, Prime Minister Modi too seeks to preserve India’s independence of action and autonomy of decision-making in foreign policy. Earlier, the creed was "non-alignment.” As a policy option for India, as distinct from the Non-Aligned Movement, this meant resisting pressures to join rival camps during the Cold War and examining foreign policy options on merit. Various factors, including our sense of pride and self-worth based on a rich heritage of civilization and culture, our past achievements, and our multi-faceted successes as an independent nation, impel Indians to cherish strategic autonomy. India is too big, self-respecting, and steeped in the anti-colonial tradition to become anyone’s camp follower. India may not have been an aggressive, expansionist power. But it has not been a passive power. India fought against colonialism and apartheid. It resisted pressures to join blocs. It did not accept the iniquitous nuclear regime of the NPT. Today, India has a more positive agenda. It seeks greater influence in global governing structures. Already, it has a much greater voice in the WTO, and is a member of the G-20 and East Asia Summit. Over time, it hopes to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group and become a Permanent Member of the UN.

It has been rightly said that nations have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests. Broadly this holds true for India too. India’s relationships and priorities have changed over time. For example, during the Cold War, India’s interests were best served through a close relationship with the Soviet Union, which gave India much needed political and diplomatic support on key issues in the UN, as well as valuable economic and defence assistance. Today, the relationship is not as effusive as it used to be. By contrast, India’s relations with the US were quite strained throughout the 20th century. Today, however, India and the US have, as PM Modi put it, "overcome the hesitations of history,” and there is a much greater congruence of interests. Similarly, India-Japan relations that remained low-key and insubstantial for many decades are now very vibrant and dynamic. On the other hand, "Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai” has given way to a relationship of much greater suspicion and mistrust. Other examples are the Commonwealth, NAM and the G-77, all of which were important for India in the early decades after Independence but no longer today, whereas the Persian Gulf region and ASEAN, which earlier occupied a minor place in India’s foreign policy, are now extremely high priority regions.

Resources India needs both human and material resources to achieve its foreign policy goals. The first pre-requisite is to have good leaders – with political will, resolve and vision. Fortunately, Prime Minister Modi is indeed a strong and determined leader who wants change the traditional ‘chalta hai’ attitude of Indians and has set into motion a long and difficult process to make India a strong, modern country. There is a rise in general public interest in foreign policy issues because foreign policy matters because these affect people’s lives as never before. In any case, in a democracy like India, public understanding and support of foreign policy is essential. Thus, the Government has to take on board multiple stakeholders such as parliamentarians, political parties, businessmen, industrialists, the media, academia, and other sections of the intelligentsia. Many Indian States, particularly those that have land and/or maritime borders with neighbouring countries are deeply interested in what’s going on there and how the policies of these countries could affect them.

The most important tool of foreign policy is diplomacy, the traditional method to regularly grease the wheels of relations with other countries. Embassies abroad and the Ministry of External Affairs are principally responsible for this. Other Ministries and Departments of the Government also play a role in matters relating to trade, investments, energy and so on. Soft power, exercised through cultural and people-to-people contacts (be it tourists, students, businessmen) plays an important role too in shaping India’s image abroad. The role of the Indian diaspora, from among whom many have gone on to become heads of global corporations, is extremely important and is being systematically leveraged by Prime Minister Modi. India’s official technical and economic assistance as well as private sector projects in Asian and African countries, particularly India’s neighbours, also send a powerful positive message about India.

It is only when diplomacy fails that a country generally resorts to coercion and use of military means. This too India has done on many occasions. The most notable example is India’s assistance in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. But coercion was certainly used in ensuring the incorporation of Pondicherry, Goa and Sikkim into India, in sending an Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka, as well as in relation to Nepal on more than one occasion.

Thus an effective foreign policy needs credible military capabilities to buttress diplomatic influence. This requires both economic strength and a self-reliant defence industry. We must recognize that much work remains to be done in both areas. It will take time to build India’s infrastructure, create indigenous defence capabilities, and create a healthier and skilled work force. India’s own resources may not be enough. They will have to be supplemented by foreign investments and technology. Prime Minister Modi’s extensive interactions with leaders and investors across the world, particularly from developed capital-surplus countries, have certainly created a new interest in India. These will translate into concrete results only if there are proper policies in place. Implementation of stated policies is the key to success. One cannot underestimate the constraints on resources for defence and security, since the demands of development are enormous. In the early years after Independence, Nehru focused more on economic growth than defence. The result of this neglect was the humiliating outcome of the 1962 border war with China. The choices are difficult. In the traditional argument of guns versus butter, a judicious balance will have to be found.


Some of the global issues that necessitate multilateral cooperation are: tackling terrorism, combating climate change, preserving biodiversity, exploitation of deep sea resources, ensuring that there is a fair global trading system, keeping open the sea lines of communication and air space for civilian aircraft. With advances in science and technology, there is need for international cooperation in space, cyberspace, and extra-terrestrial bodies. One should perhaps also include things like access to fresh water, knowledge and culture.

However, the more pressing problems relate to handling relations with individual countries and various regions. India needs stability in neighbouring states. There also has to be a degree of mutual trust as well as economic interdependence. As India grows, it must take along its neighbours, otherwise the development gap between India and its neighbours will create problems. India will not be able to stop the flow of people across its porous and poorly policed borders looking for jobs in India. With them will come terrorists and fundamentalists as well. India must have a dominant role in a peaceful South Asia, so that it doesn’t remain bogged down in managing relationships in its neighbourhood. It should have the time and freedom to engage strategically with the rest of the world. To prevent its neighbours from straying away in undesirable directions, India will need to deploy considerable resources, attention and imagination. All countries know that India is South Asia’s natural leader, but this leadership and respect has to be earned, not taken for granted by India.

India has to keep a close eye on developments in the currently turbulent and unstable Arab world where it has huge stakes. Most of India’s imported oil comes from here. Over seven million Indian workers live and work here. Israel too is important to India particularly in the defence field. From a long-term geopolitical perspective, Iran cannot be ignored. It is a strong and cohesive state with growing regional influence, and currently India’s only route to access Afghanistan and Central Asia. India will have to intensely engage, and delicately steer its way through the mutual regional rivalries of the Arab countries, Iran and Israel.

The East and Southeast Asia has many dynamic and large economies that offer promising opportunities for trade and investment. The development of India’s own Northeast Region requires greater connectivity with ASEAN countries. Fortunately, ASEAN and East Asian countries reciprocate India’s desire for closer relations. Many regional frameworks supplement bilateral contacts. In addition to economic ties, of late security and defence cooperation has become an extremely important component of relations, the more so following China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. It would be unwise to let China hold unchallenged sway over this region.

Despite its relative decline, the US is the most powerful country in the world having unmatched comprehensive power. There is little doubt that India needs at least a benign, and preferably a cooperative, US for ensuring India’s economic growth and defence modernization. India also needs US cooperation to tackle the growing challenge of China. Of course, many differences remain, and at least some of them will not go away. The important point is that both countries are in a pragmatic partnership. We are cooperating in areas where interests coincide, without letting differences derail the relationship. There is some uncertainty about the attitude of the new US President. However, early signs are that this relationship will retain its importance for the Trump Administration and the US Congress, but India will have to be watchful and alert.

Russia has traditionally been a very close and time-tested friend. Today, some of the warmth is missing. For various reasons, this relationship occupies a somewhat lower priority in the foreign policy priorities of both countries. Russia has also become uncomfortably close to China. Even though Russia no longer occupies an unchallenged top spot among India’s defence suppliers, it is a critically important defence partner. It has also given India unique defence platforms like nuclear submarines and an aircraft carrier, which no other country has been willing to give. India has to nurture this relationship, try to give it greater economic content, and take steps to check the recent drift in relations.

Europe, Africa and Latin America are important for India primarily from an economic perspective. Even though India’s economic ties with Europe are vibrant and significant, much more can be done, particularly to get needed investments and technology. Africa and Latin America play a relatively marginal role in India’s foreign policy priorities, but the scope for enhancing economic ties is considerable. In all these relationships there are no vital security issues, other than cooperation to combat terrorism.


The principal challenges to India’s national security emanate from China and Pakistan. Their strategic collaboration has deepened. A virtual combined China-Pakistan front has emerged. Pakistan’s dependence on China has increased. In this way the threats and challenges have become more serious. Here are some illustrative developments:

  • Chinese soldiers are present in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan in the guise of workers;
  • China-Pakistan defence, nuclear and missile cooperation has strengthened;
  • China gives open support to Pakistan on Kashmir;
  • China is giving cover to Pakistani terrorist activity and terrorists like Masood Azhar.
  • The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is the most prominent and geopolitically significant project of Xi Jinping’s One-Belt-One-Road (OBOR) scheme, makes it abundantly clear that Pakistan will remain pivotal in China’s strategy for Asia.
Seeing Pakistan’s actions since the middle of 2016 (Kashmir, Uri, Kanpur) it is unlikely that Pakistan’s visceral hatred of India and its determination to bleed and weaken India will go away. Thus, it is vital for India’s national security that the China-Pakistan nexus is broken, and that Pakistan is isolated internationally as much as possible. Is a strong, stable Pakistan is in India’s interest, as many seem to think? Not really, if Pakistan remains a state that is trying to weaken and split India.

How do we tackle this challenge? India should be prepared to fight its own battles, without necessarily counting on the support of other countries. Outside support will come if other countries have sufficiently large stakes in India and they see that India is able to effectively execute its chosen policies.

The surgical strike in response to Uri should not remain a one-off event. Should there be continuing provocations, India should definitely retaliate, but our response should be unpredictable. India necessarily has to be cautious in dealing with a nuclear adversary. Perhaps one should look at non-military options. Fortunately, we appear to have done so. Some of steps taken are:
  • By taking a forthright public position that India will not be satisfied with the status quo on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, and by raising human rights issues in Baluchistan, the Prime Minister has warned Pakistan that it should not remain complacent about the situation in these regions. This is also a clear indication to China that it should not assume an obstacle-free clear path for its China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project, which starts from Gilgit-Baltistan and ends in Baluchistan. Prime Minister Modi has given the signal; now it is up to the system to flesh out and implement the stated policy.
  • A very important move initiated by the Modi Government is to take steps to fully utilize its entitlements under the Indus Waters Treaty, both on the Western Rivers and the Eastern Rivers. A high-powered committee has been set up to handle this matter. Even though it would take a few years for the proposed projects to fructify, the intent is clear. Even a small reduction in the flows of the river waters to water-stressed Pakistan could create serious economic and political difficulties for Pakistan. In addition to the above, India should also work with the Afghan government to build small dams and barrages on the Kabul River (which is not covered by the Indus Waters Treaty) that flows into the Indus.
  • India should consider working with Afghanistan to question the legitimacy of the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which no government in Afghanistan has accepted. Pakistan has to be made to understand that if Pakistan follows policies that undermine India’s territorial integrity, India can pay back Pakistan in the same coin.
From China, India faces challenges at three levels – globally, regionally, and as a neighbour. At the global level, China is using its economic clout, and its status as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council and a NPT-recognized nuclear power to thwart India’s rise in every possible way, be it to block India’s bid for Permanent Membership of the UNSC, entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group. It is certainly not prepared to treat India as its co-equal in any way.

In view of the current power differential between China and India, it would be prudent to try to keep the admittedly uneasy relationship with China stable. It will take time to reduce the current power gap between India and China. That will depend on how rapidly we can develop our economy and indigenous defence capabilities, and whether the Chinese economy and polity falter. For now, India needs friends and partners to deal with China. India must raise the costs for China of its current policies. To start with, India must not lose the psychological war against China. China’s weaknesses must be highlighted and exploited. These include its fragile economic model; its failure to build an integrated polity with justice for minorities like the Tibetans and Uighurs; its excessive dependence on foreign trade for its growth; its desire to exploit the Indian market; its irresponsible attitude towards the environment especially in Tibet; its expansionist and hegemonic policies; its selective approach to fighting terrorism, and so on.

At the regional level, so far China has been using Pakistan as a pawn to keep India tied down in South Asia and to prevent India from becoming a serious challenger to China’s ambitions to dominate Asia. China is also using its deep pockets and newfound strategic confidence to get a firm foothold in India’s traditional sphere of influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region. It is enticing India’s South Asian neighbours into its economic and military orbit, expanded its naval presence in the Indian Ocean, and established de facto control over the South China Sea. With US President Trump trashing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which had a strong political objective), China may be expecting that its strategic space in Asia will grow.

It is vitally important for India to prevent this from happening. India is rightly working closely on the security front with the US, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Australia and, potentially, Indonesia, all countries that are deeply troubled by China’s policies. US President Trump has signaled possible changes of US policy in Asia, such as questioning the ‘One China’ policy, having an open mind on Japan acquiring nuclear weapons, and the determination to take measures to reduce US trade deficit with China. If followed through, these could create serious problems for China.

Bilaterally, there is little trust between India and China. China now aggressively claims Arunachal Pradesh and has ruled out an early border settlement. Periodic border incidents put psychological pressure on India, which cannot lower its guard. India is already taking much-needed steps to reduce the military gap with China, such as the development of the Agni-V and Agni-IV missiles, acquiring nuclear submarines, raising a mountain strike corps, and upgrading border infrastructure like roads and airfields. One hopes there are plans in place to target China’s weak spots along the border and on the seas in case of a conflict. Cyber capabilities and security must be enhanced. Economically, India has to diversify its imports of critical inputs like active pharmaceutical ingredients and rare earths to reduce its excessive dependence on China. In the border negotiations, our strategy should be not merely to defend what we possess, but also lay claims to places like Kailash-Mansarovar that have been linked by faith to India over several millennia.

Tibet remains a key and sensitive issue in bilateral ties. The situation will get more complicated in a post-Dalai Lama scenario, and a crisis could well break out in India-China relations. India has rightly shed inhibitions about high-level contacts with the Dalai Lama who was recently received in Rashtrapati Bhavan. We are encouraging his visits and those of foreign diplomats (most notably the US Ambassador) to Arunachal Pradesh including Tawang. The US Ambassador was in Arunachal Pradesh recently. Perhaps India should think of similarly nuancing its ‘One-China’ policy by linking it more closely, as Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj had hinted some time ago, with China following a ‘One-India’ policy.

In this relatively short presentation, I’ve tried to flag some of the key issues in the formulation and implementation of India’s foreign policy. I’m sure this will raise many questions in your mind, which I will be glad to answer.