Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India’s Foreign Policy: A Practitioner’s Perspective

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) - Jitendra Nath Misra
    Venue: Central University of Rajasthan, Ajmer
    Date: April 02, 2019

Professor (Dr.) Arun Kumar Pujari, Vice Chancellor,
Distinguished members of the faculty,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very grateful to the Central University of Rajasthan for the kind invitation to speak to you to-day. I thank you for your warm reception and generous hospitality. I thank the External Publicity Division of the Ministry of External Affairs for so generously supporting my visit here. I thank Dr. Jayendra Shukla for taking such good care of me.How does a practitioner look at foreign affairs? Friends in the academic community tell me that a practitioner’s perspective is based on real- time situations. But I suggest that theoretically- rigorous scholarship is also an important input into policy- making.
But first, how does the world look like?

The Strategic Landscape

Ours is a world of competition between powers that are rising and powers that are falling. Five major countries are in various stages of ascension or descent.

Firstly, the U.S. is looking within.
Secondly, Europe is in decline.
Thirdly, China challenges the U.S. as the sole superpower.
Fourthly, Russia is trying to regain its position as a great power.
Fifthly, India seeks global power status. But is it a global power? India is the world’s main swing state.

The Setting

As the international system gets re- aligned, where does India stand? With power shifting, India is in competition with others. Nobody will give India smooth access to global chancelleries. There are bound to be collisions along with way.

How is India pursuing its strategic objectives?Note that India behaves more and more like a normal power, putting to use the tools it has, to shape outcomes in our complex world.

Let me illustrate how India is shifting towards leadership in world affairs. By failing to conduct a nuclear test before December 31, 1967, India was denied the opportunity to shape negotiation of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty. Under the treaty’s terms, India did not qualify as a nuclear power. This came to haunt India.

India did conduct its first nuclear test in 1974. But, since this was after the cut- off date of December 31, 1967, India’s status as a nuclear weapons state was not recognised. India termed the 1974 test a peaceful nuclear test.

India again conducted nuclear tests in 1998, and Prime Minister Vajpayee declared India a nuclear weapons state. What India got was sanctions, not recognition, in 1974, and again in 1998.

But India has learnt the lessons from its nuclear tests. The anti- satellite missile test it conducted last week is a case in point. The Ministry of External Affairs said: "India expects to play a role in the future in the drafting of international law on prevention of an arms race in outer space including inter alia on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space in its capacity as a major space faring nation with proven space technology.” Note that the Outer Space Treaty bans only the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, not conventional weapons.

Prime Minister Modi tweeted: "In the journey of every nation there are moments that bring utmost pride and have a historic impact on generations to come. One such moment is today. India has successfully tested the Anti-Satellite (ASAT) Missile.”

The Ministry of External Affairs made it clear that the test was about national defence. I quote:"The test was done to verify that India has the capability to safeguard our space assets. It is the Government of India’s responsibility to defend the country’s interests in outer space.

"The government is committed to ensuring the country’s national security interests and is alert to threats from emerging technologies. The capability achieved through the Anti-Satellite missile test provides credible deterrence against threats to our growing space-based assets from long range missiles, and proliferation in the types and numbers of missiles.”

This was as clear a declaration of intent as any. There was a thread of realism in India’s declarations.

I am narrating this in detail to convey a practitioner’s understanding, to show how the accretion of hard power has changed India’s behaviour, making us think more strategically.Note that India is a nuclear power with a professional military. But the real story is its economic transformation.

In the IMF’s assessment, in 2018, India had the sixth largest GDP, overtaking France. In 2019, India is expected to displace the U.K. in the 5th position. In 2030, India is projected to become the world’s third largest economy. From a 1 trillion dollars economy in 2007, India is a 2.5 trillion dollars economy to- day, and will become a 4.5 trillion dollars economy by 2035.

This has consequences. With growing economic strength, the world sees India differently, compared with even a decade ago. Foreigners show a better appreciation of the strategic consequences of economic change, than even informed Indians. The implications for India’s policies and influence are significant.

Let me rewind into my first posting in Cairo in 1984. India was respected as a great civilization, but was not seen as a great power. In 2014, when I was in Lisbon as India’s ambassador, there was an underlying expectation that India needs to lead. People were attentive to what I said, not because of me, but because I was the Indian ambassador.What is India’s main challenge?

It is poverty, without doubt. Foreign policy has to be understood as an instrument that promotes India’s development.

The Neighbourhood

To pursue development, India needs a peaceful neighbourhood.
What is happening?
With two nuclear-armed neighbours in occupation of its territory, India faces formidable security challenges, The world’s foreign policy and strategic communities show limited appreciation of India’s security challenges, if not ignoring them altogether. India is like no other nation on the planet.

Neighbouring Countries

India tries, but struggles, to match Chinese aid in its neighbourhood. We were slow to anticipate China’s growing challenge in our immediate neighbourhood, but are now crafting a response.

In 2017, India’s aid and credit to neighbouring countries was 7.7 billion U.S. dollars. Bangladesh is the largest recipient.

Connectivity has been fostered, notably the exchange of electrical grids. Regional groupings are being promoted- such as the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi- Sectoral Technical and Economic Co- operation, or BIMSTEC, which also has Myanmar and Thailand as members.

There are specific challenges, however. Take Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka

Under a 99 year lease, Sri Lanka has signed a 1.1 billion dollars deal with China for the control and development of Hambantota port. Despite Sri Lanka’s assurances that the port is for commercial operations, India worries that the Chinese military will use this port.

In fact, Sri Lanka was forced to lease the port to repay Chinese loans for its development.Don’t expect that the Maldives government will meet all Indian concerns. Maldives is too dependent on China for that.


India’s relationship with Pakistan oscillates between dialogue and its breakdown. Neither has worked. The balance of power has slowly shifted in India’s favour. To this, Pakistan has responded by launching asymmetric warfare. This terrorism- infested hybrid warfare has not dented India’s resolve to pursue development. The best years of the Indian economy have been the years when Pakistan has tried to destabilize India through terrorism.

With ties on pause, India is set on managing the relationship. While being firm on bottom lines, the government has sought opportunities to resume dialogue.

Strengthened by China’s support, Pakistan becomes more problematic. The China- Pakistan Economic Corridor increases Pakistan’s self- esteem, putting India off- balance.

Let me turn to Balakot. For the first time since 1971, India launched military action on territory it recognizes as Pakistani. India is ready to push the stakes to edge-of-the-cliff levels, and unpredictably. From my practitioner perspective, this is something different.


In Afghanistan, India concentrates on capacity- building. With an air freight corridor in place, India has become the second largest destination for Afghan exports, with a 40 per cent share. India overtaking Pakistan as Afghanistan’s largest market would be strategic.

In January, 2016, India provided Afghanistan three MI 25 ground attack helicopters. This was not a major military sale, but nonetheless a change in policy.

India has also begun a dialogue with the Taliban.The Indian Ocean

China’s rise has introduced a new calculus in the Indian Ocean.

There was a time when India championed the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace. This was designed to keep great power rivalry away from the Indian Ocean region. To- day, India seeks partnerships to counter Chinese activity in the Indian Ocean.A joint statement issued during President Obama’s visit to India in January, 2015 stated:

"We affirm the importance of safeguarding maritime security and ensuring freedom of navigation and over flights throughout the region, especially the South China Sea.”

India is seeking a presence across the Indian Ocean. In Mauritius, India will extend a runway, and build port facilities in the Agalega archipelago.

India has initiated or activated defence agreements with France, Oman and the U.S., and has a maritime agreement with Singapore. These open up possibilities of acquiring facilities in the Indian Ocean. India has year- round deployments in the Indian Ocean since 2017.

To foster economic and security cooperation in the region, and secure island territories, the government has launched SAGAR- Security And Growth for All in the Region.

The U.S.

Instead of deteriorating, ties with the U.S. have actually developed nicely during the Trump presidency. Strategic co- operation on South Asia, mainly Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Indo- Pacific, is taking place.

The beneficiary of strategic congruence is a step up in process, so important to take diplomacy forward. The 2+ 2 conversation has been elevated to cabinet- level. A logistics supply agreement and a communication security and compatibility agreement have been concluded.

A working- level Quadrilateral dialogue has been launched with the U.S., and its allies Japan and Australia. India has bilateral naval exercises with Australia. Japan works on development of infrastructure. India remains cautious on the Quad, however.

The security dialogue with France has deepened.


In 1950, India, for the first time in history, faced a great power on its northern borders. Given the tangled history, India can ill afford strategic surprise. In dealing with China, it relies on a combination of capacity- building and diplomacy.India seeks economic links, yet shows a measure of firmness on dealing with outstanding issues. China is India’s largest trading partner, but India does not brush issues of contention under the carpet. The two countries co- operate and compete simultaneously.Prime Minister Modi said at the Raisina Dialogue 2017: "both our countries need to show sensitivity and respect for each other’s core concerns and interests.”

Boundary negotiations have reached a point at which political intervention is needed for a solution.Since issues of contention remain, I doubt there has been a reset after the Wuhan summit. Differences have not been resolved over the boundary dispute, global governance, trade deficit (U.S. dollars 52 billion a year), and Belt and Road.

The U.S.- China- India

Can the U.S. and India work together to balance China? How far is the U.S. willing to meet India’s concerns? History suggests that the U.S. will meet part, not all of our concerns. Recall that the U.S. adopted a policy of strategic silence during the Doklam crisis. Note that the U.S. has its own interests with China, with which it has a full- spectrum relationship.

Geography separates the U.S. and China, but Chinese and Indian troops jostle in an undefined space- literally.

Given differences in capability, India need not and should not challenge China the way the U.S. does. But India does have strengths.


Russia provides India technology and platforms that others are not willing to. The S- 400 deal is a case in point. Energy co- operation is limited, but Russia remains important in the context of China.


Relations with ASEAN are broadening. Political relations are sound. All ten ASEAN leaders attended Republic Day 2018. Even starting from a low base, security co- operation is expanding- with coordinated naval patrols, training exercises and technical assistance. Connectivity remains a problem, however.

West Asia

I want to talk in some detail about West Asia, because it is of great importance.There is misunderstanding in India of events in the Gulf. It is not enough to see this region merely in the framework of the Israel- Arab conflict and the conflict between the Arabs and the West. There is conflict among the Arabs (Saudi Arabia- Qatar- UAE) and among Muslims (Saudi Arabia- Iran). The Arab versus non- Arab (Saudi Arabia- Turkey and Saudi Arabia- Iran) and Sunni-Shia (Saudi Arabia- Iran) conflicts, and the Kurdish struggle, are worthy of attention.

India has strategic interests in West Asia. Relations with the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia have shown significant improvement. These countries host a large Indian diaspora, supply much of India’s oil and natural gas, as well as engaging in security and intelligence cooperation.

Note that the UAE is India’s third largest trading partner. In 2018, trade was over 52 billion U.S. dollars, and India’s exports exceeded 30 billion U.S. dollars.

The rapproachment between the Gulf Arab states and Israel is an opportunity for India. In October, 2018, Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Muscat.
There are questions before us.Does Iran match the strategic importance of the Gulf Arab states? Hydrocarbons, migrant labour, remittances, trade and mutual investments are indicators to measure on.

Iran’s support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, and its efforts for a third front in Syria impact India’s ability to pursue its interests.

Iran also supports Indian strategic interests (Chabahar port as a gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia and the International North- South Transportation Corridor). There are different sides to this relationship

What are the takeaways?
India needs to balance its interest in Israel and Iran, but also in Iran and the Gulf Arab states.India has walked a tight rope in intra- Arab disputes, carefully weighing its interests. In October, 2018, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Qatar, amid a Qatar- Saudi Arabia row.

A question: Does India have a response to the possible implosion of pro- western regimes like Saudi Arabia and installation of regimes espousing extremist ideologies?


Israel is a key partner, helping India balance multiple interests in the Middle East, and providing options. With the exchange of visits by presidents and prime ministers in recent years, relations are more visible. The Israeli defence minister visited India in 2015, a first.


Economic growth creates attractive cultural models, driving strategic goals. Indian culture increasingly gains it influence. As India continues to grow, its social and cultural models will become more attractive to others.

This has strategic implications. Led by economic transformation, growing hard power is an opportunity for India to offer a counter- narrative to the West- centric view of history and inter- state relations. Pluralism, Nalanda University, Yoga, Bollywood and cuisine are examples.


At Partition, India was vulnerable to territorial and ideological pressures. To promote its security, India avoided entanglements. To- day, a stronger economy makes India a partner of choice that can shape humankind’s future. India not only influences the world as a marketplace, but is also an engine of growth, and of ideas. Over issues ranging from climate change to counter- terrorism, and outer space to oceanic research, India’s choices matter.Now, I will take questions.

Thank you for the honour accorded me.