Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Indian Foreign Policy: Confronting the 21st century

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Rajiv Bhatia
    Venue: Nirma University, Ahmedabad
    Date: September 17, 2018


What is foreign policy? What is so special about the 21st century? And why a young Indian, on his or her way to obtaining the first or second degree in this university, take interest in a lecture on the Indian foreign policy?

Let us first address the third question. Given my specific background – former university college lecturer, former ambassador, former head of a think tank, and now author and columnist – I stand before you more to hold a conversation than deliver a long talk or a boring speech. This conversation concerns your interests.

As budding students of law and other subjects, all of you are broadly aware of local, national and global affairs. Our joint purpose should be to understand the changing nature of international politics in the coming years and decades in order to appreciate how it will impact India, its citizenry and future leaders i.e. you. Indeed I am grateful to the Nirma University and the Ministry of External Affairs which have collaborated under the Distinguished Lecture Series to make this event happen.

Now, to the first question. Foreign policy is the sum total of policies, statements, diplomatic initiatives and other measures by a state to promote and protect its national interest. It involves a nation’s entire set of external relations covering various domains – political, diplomatic, defence, security, economic, cultural and others. Every country, including India,manages its relationships in the bilateral, sub-regional, regional and multilateral fora, bearing in mind that an enlightened – not brutal or naked – pursuit of interests, based on mutual give and take, alone can ensure a stable, orderly, peaceful and prosperous world.

India, in particular, is perceived as a benign power by most of its partners. It is a nation dedicated to values dear to it, including its belief in the dictum – ‘The World is a Family’, even as it goes about preserving all its fundamental interests in the world, in a realistic and pragmatic manner.

International Scene

The third question concerns the uniqueness, if any, of the 21st century. To begin with, it is special to you i.e. for this audience with an average of 20 years. It is crystal clear that for the next 60 years and more, you will grow, work and prosper, through this century and savour its sunset phase. Hence, the youth has a clear stake in ensuring that it is a century of orderly change, peace and prosperity for all. Is it heading in that direction?

The 18th and 19th centuries belonged to Europe. With the success of the Industrial Revolution that began inthe mid-18th century in Great Britain, European nations modernized production methods and manufacturing processes, captured foreign markets and sources of raw materials, and spread their power and influence across Asia, Africa and beyond, through the instrumentality of imperialism and colonialism. The 20th century witnessed the emergence of the US as a great power that decisively tilted the balance both in the first and second world wars, emerging eventually as the unchallenged leader of the Western alliance after 1945. Its camp won the Cold War. The US enjoyed its unique unipolar moment in the 1990s and for a while more. Scholars now debate whether the 21st century will belong to Asia, Afro-Asia, China, India or to some other combination of nations. Signs in the first 18 years have been mixed and confusing.

In this backdrop, it is desirable to pinpoint some of the key challenges that the world community faces today, which are likely to continue in the coming decades. These, in my view, are:

Rise of protectionism, threatening globalization

Unconventional foreign policy of the US – "America First”

Fissures in Western alliance

Rise of China

Strengthening Russia-China ties

Deteriorating West-Russia relations

A new power play in Asia

Rising Africa?

Oceanic challenges

International terrorism

Climate change

International governance reform stalled

Sustainable Development Goals

Fourth industrial revolution

The study of international relations helps us to comprehend the drivers, dynamics and repercussions of each of the above-mentioned challenges as well as their inter-play. An accurate and continuous appreciation of this kind is crucial for us to decipher India's foreign policy – its philosophy, rationale, goals and impact. The foreign policy is not foreign, but central to the country’s interests when the phenomenon of globalization in the realm of economy, technology, communication and mind space has lowered the barriers of separation and shrunk geography.

India in World Affairs

India has never viewed itself as a mere South Asian power. Starting with its independence in August 1947 (and, in fact, even from an earlier period), India perceived itself as charged with a broader global mission and larger international responsibility. This self-perception and the commitment to safeguard the nation’s independence in world affairs led India's leaders to fashion the policy of Non-Alignment. It was an idealistic mindset and yet a prudent strategy that helped India safeguard its interests through the decades of the Cold war when much of the world was divided into American and Soviet camps.

In the post-Cold War decade, India's rise has been there for everyone to see. It is part of Asia’s rise that has been marked and dominated by the rise of China (which began its economic liberalization programme a generation before us.)

India now is an eminent Asian power with a broad and expanding worldview. It is not content to be a balancing power or ‘a swing state’; it has the ambition to be a leading power. As its economic strength, military power and technological prowess grow further, it will move closer to its goal to be a Great Power, hopefully by the middle of this century. The aim of our foreign policy is to secure that goal in a manner that is beneficial to the world at large.

The story of the evolution of India's foreign policy is a long one. The policy traversed through many phases: Non-Alignment from the times of Jawaharlal Nehru till Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and even later; the calibrated restructuring and adaptation to the Cold War situation under PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee; consolidation and stress on strategic autonomy under Manmohan Singh; and now to the creative strategy of Multi-alignment, stamped by diplomatic resilience, unprecedented dynamism and purposeful pro-activism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In this light, let us briefly review the principal facets of the country’s external relations today:

Major Powers

Three of India's most important external relationships are US, China and Russia. In the Cold War era, India's Non-Alignment was perceived to be tilted in favour of the Soviet Union. However, even in that period endeavours were made to re-orient and improve US-India relations,although the two nations remained ‘estranged democracies.’ After our nuclear tests in 1998, the relationship touched a new nadir as the US and other countries imposed sanctions on India. But this was turned into an opportunity by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government which launched a strategic conversation and initiative to re-build relations with the US. Subsequent governments built on it, and the present government has especially made a huge effort in this connection at the highest political level. The recently concluded 2+2 Dialogue between India's external affairs minister and defence minister and their US counterparts resulted in strengthening defence and security partnership, deepening mutual understanding and cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, and cementing people-to-people ties.

China-India relations have been marked by a triad of competition, cooperation and contestation for long. After a period of tensions and public differences on a range of issues, the year 2018 witnessed a steady improvement in this relationship, following the informal summit between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping in Wuhan in April. Its gains have been consolidated in subsequent months.

Russia, on the other hand, has been a traditionally steadfast friend and a reliable strategic partner. Geopolitical changes brought this equation under stress, too. However, the Indian PM’s informal summit with President Putin in Sochi in May 2018 proved to be a positive step towards enhancing mutual trust and cooperation. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Moscow last week to carry forward the process.

President Ram Nath Kovind, while on a visit to Greece in June this year, observed: "Europe is irreplaceable in India’s determination to achieve the goals it has set itself.” Europe – both the European Union (EU) and the non-EU member-states of Central and Eastern Europe – are considered important – but in varying degrees. While the India-EU relationship has fluctuated in recent years, India's cooperation with the key European countries – Germany, France and UK – haswitnessed consolidation and expansion.

Immediate Neighbours

As it began its tenure in May 2014, the Modi government launched its "Neighbourhood First” policy, geared to improve and strengthen relations with all our neighbours in South Asia , ranging from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Bangladesh and Myanmar and from Nepal and Bhutan to Sri Lanka. Dynamics of regional diplomacy and inter-state relations are moulded by the facts of geography, history, national mindsets and competition among external powers.

In this context, India's endeavours to promote regional cooperation through various institutions such as SAARC, BIMSTEC and BBIN should also be discussed.

Extended Neighbourhood

This includes a large circle starting from Central Asia, moving leftwards to West Asia , down to the Indian Ocean and then to the Indo-Pacific region which extends, in its narrowest form, from India to Japan and Australia.

Relations with Central Asia are managed through bilateral diplomacy as well as through India's recently gained membership of SCO.

West Asia is a major source of energy supplies, home to seven million Indians, and a source of billions of dollars in remittances. It is a instable and turbulent region that requires deft handling so that India safely navigates through multiple faultlines and intra-regional tensions, protecting its vital interests and contributing to peace and stability in West Asia.

The Indo-Pacific is a central theatre where global geopolitical competition is in full play today, with India having assumed an important role. In his seminal address at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2018, PM Modi spelt out New Delhi’s vision of "a free, open and inclusive” region which "embraces us all in a common pursuit of progress and prosperity.” He also spoke of our concept of regional connectivity which should be based on a few fundamental norms including good governance, viability and sustainability.

Japan serves as a very significant strategic partner of India in the Indo-Pacific. India-Japan relationship is viewed as the cornerstone of our Act East Policy. The growing cooperation with ASEAN states too is a highly important element in our diplomatic matrix.

Africa and Latin America

India is seriously interested in both the continents, but at present greater diplomatic attention is accorded to the former i.e. Africa. India's political visibility on the African continent has gone up markedly. Development cooperation is on the rise.

Endeavours are underway to accelerate the growth of trade and investment cooperation through bilateral, trilateral and regional mechanisms. India Inc. has been particularly active in Latin America to increase its footprint there.

Multilateral Fora

India accords considerable importance to the UN and its role at the UN. It has been a leader in the political, economic and peacekeeping domains of the UN. India is committed to seeking reform of the UN, especially its Security Council and inclusion of India in it as part of its democratisation and expansion. Our principled fight against international terrorism is carried forward at the UN, therelevant agencies and through dialogue with our strategic partners others. Finally, India's membership of a host of multilateral organisations from G20 to WTO, BRICS and IORA, among others, is utilized to promote our national interest.


It should be relevant here to discuss other aspects of the foreign policy: our conducting summit, economic, cultural and public diplomacy; role of the Indian Diaspora; participation of states in the management of foreign relations;and foreignpolicy-making process and contribution to it by the non-governmental sectors such as business, media, civil society, academia and strategic community.

Above all, what should be the nature of engagement of the Indian youth?

All this and more, I hope, will be discussed in the Q &A session.

My parting thought is to recall the answer the President of India gave recently to a question he posed himself: "…so, what is India’s proposition?” His wise reply: "The dreams and organising principles that shape India’s domestic reforms are the very dreams and organising principles we seek for the international system. India is committed to world peace.”