Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India's Foreign Policy: Current priorities and relevance of SAARC

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Achal Malhotra
    Venue: UGC Centre for SAARC Studies, Visakhapatnam
    Date: October 08, 2018

Lecture at Centre For SAARC Studies, Andhra University : 8th October, 2018
Honourable Vice Chancellor, Andhra University,
Honourable Director, Centre For SAARC Studies, Heads of Department,
Members of Faculty, Students, including students from friendly foreign countries,
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen
I have been given the privilege of talking to you on India's Foreign Policy , current
priorities and also on relevance of SAARC.
In my presentation today I intend to cover three important aspects: Core Objectives of India’s foreign Policy; Fundamental Principles and Salient Features of India’s foreign policy,and the standard institutional mechanisms India has devised for the conduct of foreign policy.

I will then highlight the current foreign policy priorities in bilateral, regional and global contexts. I will also cover the Relevance of SAARC.

The Core Objectives of India’s Foreign Policy

The first and foremost objective of India’s foreign policy is to secure our country’s national interests. The definition and scope of national interests has over time acquired multiple dimensions; it includes for instance the defence of India’s borders and thus territorial integrity, it alsoincludes cyber security, food security and energy security, while combating terrorism, money-laundering, besides fighting drugs and human trafficking.

Securing national interests also envisages the creation of an external environment which is conducive for the overall and more importantly an inclusive development of our country.

The Fundamental Principles and salient Features of India’s Foreign Policy

One may argue that securing national interests is the core objective of all countries in the world. Further, we are living in an age of "Real Poltik . In other words the policies are framed on the basis of realistic assessment of current geopolitical scenario and are guided by what is best in national interests. In Real Poltik , no or not much consideration is given to ethics, moral or emotions or past association. Therefore,you may ask what makes the Indian foreign policy different from others?

The answer is: India's foreign policy is guided by an objective assessment of its own national interests but in its implementation India invariably adheres to a set of basic principles on which no compromise is made.



These fundamental principles include for instance the five principles of peaceful co-existence: Panchsheel,or Five Virtues which were first formally enunciated in the Agreement on Trade between the Tibet region of China and India signed on April 29, 1954 and later evolved to act as the basis of conduct of international relations globally. These Five Principles are: Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, ii. Mutual non-aggression, iii. Mutual non-interference, iv. Equality and mutual benefit, and v. Peaceful co-existence.

India is Opposed to Export of Ideologies and Change of Regimes

India believes in and supports Democracy; however, India does not believe in the export of ideologies.India has therefore endeavoured to deal with the government-of-the-day, be it a democracy, monarchy or military dictatorship, insisting that it is best left to the people of the country to choose or remove their leaders and retain or change the form of governance. By extension of the above principle, India does not endorse the idea of regime change in a particular country by use of force or other means by another country or a group of countries.

India DOES NOT ENDORSE Unilateral Sanctions

India also does not endorse the idea of imposing sanctions against any individual country by another country or group of countries unless these sanctions have been imposed by the United Nations as a result of international consensus.

India contributes only to such Peace-Keeping military operations which are part of the UN Peace-keeping Forces.

(India has contributed nearly 195,000 troops, the largest number from any country, participated in more than 49 missions and 168 Indian peacekeepers have made the supreme sacrifice while serving in UN missions. India has also provided and continues to provide eminent Force Commanders for UN Missions.)

At the same time, India does not hesitate in promoting democracy wherever potential exists; this is done by proactively providing assistance in capacity building and strengthening the institutions of democracy, albeit with the explicit consent of the concerned Government.

Interference : NO ; Intervention : YES

India does not believe in interference in the internal affairs of other countries. However, if an act - innocent or deliberate - by any country has the potential of impinging upon India’s national interests, India does not hesitate in quick and timely intervention. Mind it: intervention is qualitatively different from interference, particularly when the intervention is made at the request of the country concerned. (Examples: Bangladesh 1971, IPKF in Sri Lanka(1987-90) , Maldives (1988).


India advocates the policy of constructive engagement over aggression. It believes that violent retaliation and confrontation can only complicate the matters. War is no solution; after every war the conflicting Parties ultimately come to negotiating table by which time much damage has already been done. This applies in particular to Pakistan- the origin of State-sponsored terrorism targeted at India. India has shown restrain despite such serious provocations as have been in the past (attack on Parliament, Mumbai terrorist attacks etc.).

The policy of engagement is not allowed, however, to be misunderstood as India’s weakness. Strong and loud messages emanate from India each and every time our patience is tested. The Surgical strike to target terrorist –launch pads in Pakistan occupiedIndian territory in September 2016 is one such example.


Independence of decision making andstrategic autonomy are yet another significant features of India’s foreign policy. India thus believes in Partnerships and shuns Alliances, particularly military alliances.


India advocates a global debate and global consensus on issues of global dimensions such as world trade regime, climate change, terrorism, intellectual property rights, global governance.


Foreign policy in India by and large enjoys national consensus. At times, however, there are instances when it appears that the foreign policy is being held hostage to domestic regional politics. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are the most glaring examples, where some adjustments have been made due to the concerns of West Bengal, Assam and Tamil Nadu. The successive Governments have taken into consideration the domestic sentiments and genuine concerns of the segments of the society but have rightly not allowed to determine country’s foreign policy which must be guided solely by the overriding national interests and must be made in New Delhi.

Three Arms of Indian Foreign Policy: The political diplomacy, economic diplomacy and cultural diplomacy are the three mutually supplementary and complementary arms for the conduct of India’s foreign policy.


High degree of political understanding is essential to create an environment which can promote cooperation and collaboration and minimise irritants in mutual relations. In the absence of political understanding, even minor issues may get blown up and hinder the natural progression in relations. Hencethe importance of political diplomacy and of the so-called fine chemistry between the leaderships.


Political understanding does not automaticallytranslate into sound trade and economic relations as those relations are often guided by commercial considerations ; this is where economic diplomacy assumes importance. The main objective of Economic Diplomacy is to increase the volume of bilateral trade in commodities and services, reduce trade imbalances, and enhance foreign direct investments into country. For this purpose, India foreign policy makers identify suitable partners and enter into enabling framework agreements e.g Avoidance of Double Taxation Agreements, Bilateral Investment Protection Agreements, Most Favoured Nation Status, Free Trade Area Agreements etc.

The economic diplomacy assumes added importance when it is applied to cater to domestic compulsions of ensuring an overall inclusive development. In this context, the diplomacy is directed towards identifying the sources of raw materials and modern technology and equipment , which can contribute to India’s inclusive development in diverse sectors ranging from agriculture to defence.


The cultural diplomacy is used as a supplement to political and economic diplomacy and is useful wherever there is a history of religious and cultural links, presence of substantial Indian Diaspora; it includes Indian soft power as reflected in the popularity of Yoga, Indian Cinema and Indian cuisine.


High Level Contacts

Bilateral Visits at the level of Heads of State and Heads of Government or their meetings on the side-lines of multilateral conferences such UNGA are the highest platform for interaction and for laying the framework for pushing foreign policy objectives. Considerable home-work is done at officials levels before such meetings are actually held. Visits/Meetings at the level of Foreign Ministers also fall in this category.

Foreign Office Consultations

These consultations are held periodically between the Senior Officials of the two countries and usually focus on exchange of views on important topical interests of bilateral, regional and international dimensions.The contents are usually political.

Inter-Governmental Commissions

Such Commissions are usually comprised of representatives of Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other concerned and relevant nodal Ministries depending on the existing and potential areas of cooperation and meet periodically to review the status of cooperation in diverse areas such as trade and investment, agriculture, education, science & technology, culture. Often Programmes of Action are agreed upon for a duration of next two to three years.

Let me now focus on some of the current priorities of India’s Foreign Policy.

Neighbourhood First

Cordial relations and productive cooperation with India’s neighbours, particularly with the founder Members of SAARC in South Asia, has always with a priority.

India’s neighbourhood is a fairly complex geographical entity. In the post-colonial period, the South Asia has been a theatre of bloody inter-state as well as civil wars; it has witnessed liberation movements, nuclear rivalry, military dictatorships and continues to suffer from insurgencies, religious fundamentalism and terrorism, besides serious problems associated with drugs and human trafficking. The region also has the dubious distinction of having a large number of people living below poverty line. The region has produced several powerful female leaders and yet in the overall much remains to be done for the empowerment of women. On the barometer of religious tolerance, the constituent countries range anywhere between flexible secular minded and rigidly fundamentalist.

Where does India stand in this rather volatile region? India’s position is unique in more than one sense. As a matter of an interesting geographic factor, India shares borders with all other South Asian nations whereas no other South Asiannation shares borders with any other South Asian nation. Notwithstanding some shortcomings, democracy and rule of law as instruments of political governance are well entrenched in India. Transfer of power has been more or less peaceful and transparent. In relative terms India can be arguably considered as the most stable country in the region, moving ahead on the fast tracks of development, registering on average a healthy growth rates. Further in terms of its population, territory, GDP, its image as an emerging world economy and a responsible de-facto nuclear State, and as a country which is destined to play a larger role on international arena, and also for several other reasons, India stands apart amongst the bunch of other South Asian countries. In fact India can be said to dwarf others in the South Asian region.

These asymmetries over time have created misperceptions about India and its intention.There are unjustified and erroneous perceptions about India floating around in the region: "Big Brother bullying the smaller neighbour”; "India treats its neighbours as a neglected backyard” etc. etc. There is no justified explanation for the "trust deficit”. On top of it there are vested interests and lobbies for whom being anti-Indian is synonymous with being patriot and nationalist. And then there are strong institutions within the framework of a more or less failed and rogue State in the neighbourhood (Pakistan) which would like to see relations with India in a state of perpetual suspension. India’s motives are suspected even in cases of innocent proposals for economic cooperation which would lead to win-win situations.At times the domestic compulsions in India arising out of regional and coalition politics complicate matters further.

More-over, it is not uncommon for some of our neighbours to play the so-called "China Card”

In a scenario where we have incorrigible Pakistan at one end and genuinely friendly Bhutan at the other end of the spectrum, and everyone else somewhere in between, it is perhaps difficult to write one single foreign policy prescription for the entire region.

The focus of India’s "Neighbourhood First Policy” initiated in 2014 is on multiple objectives of re-invigorating relations, removing trust deficit and building bridges of mutually beneficial cooperation both on bilateral basis as well as within the frame-work of SAARC.

With those objectives in mind, the Prime Minister has extensively engaged the leadership in the region in last four years. The outcome is mixed. India has exemplary relations with Bhutan. Relations with Bangladesh are on an even kneel; the two countries have concluded some historic agreements , including Land Boundary Agreement of 2015.

Sri Lanka and Maldives had drifted towards Chinaat the possible cost of India’s strategic interests. Nepal also appeared to be moving in that direction. However, thanks to India’s efforts there is a reappraisal of their foreign policies in these three countries and there are now enough indications that they would like to balance their relations with India and China.


Relations with Pakistan are at the lowest ebb; this is despite tremendous efforts made by Indian leadership to normalize relations, including the surprise halt made by PM Modi in Lahore en-route to India from Kabul. It would be erroneous to dub India’s Pakistan policy as a failure. It must be understood that Pakistan’s India policy is controlled by its Army and ISI and so long as they do not end their declared policy of giving thousand cuts to India, the chances of normalization are very bleak.

Under the circumstances, India has adopted a policy that Terror and Talks cannot go togetherand unless there is a halt to cross-border terrorism and interference in Kashmir, India will not resume dialogue with Pakistan.

Afghanistan The situation in Afghanistan is a matter of concern to India. India can ill-afford the return of Taliban in Afghanistan. India’s focus in Afghanistan is on contribution towards reconstruction of war-torn Afghanistan and help Afghanistan build institutions of democracy and assist it in its capacity building through training programs. India’s assistance in the vicinity of 3nn $ has been/being used in Afghanistan for building its Parliament , roads, schools and several other infrastructure projects including in small towns and villages and therefore is being much appreciated both by the Government and people of Afghanistan.


Chinais our largest neighbour and arguably India's biggest challenge. India has repeatedly said that if the 21st century has to belong to Asia, both India and China will have to work together. Relations between the two countries were marked by cordiality for a decade in 1950s and then they fought a war in 1962 ,followed by several years of strained relations.

India's current policy towards China is built around four Cs: Cooperation and collaboration wherever possible, including on issues of multilateral and global dimensions, 2 Conflict: avoid to the extent possible without compromising national interests, 3. Contain China's growing influence ,particularly in our neighbourhood and finally Confront if any act on part of China infringes on India's interests.

Relevance of SAARC.

The importance of regional cooperation particularly in the spirit of South-South cooperation between geographically contiguous countries cannot be belittled. The objectives of SAARC as reflected in its Charter therefore remain relevant. Similarly SAARC as an instrument for the realization of its objectives also remains relevant .However,SAARC as an Organisation has not lived up to expectations when measured in terms of delivery. It has been in existence for several decades and yet South Asia remains the least integrated region in the world .Notwithstanding the explicit stipulation in SAARC Charter that bilateral and contentious issues will be kept out of the deliberations, the fact of the matter is that poor state of India- Pakistan relations and Pakistan' s policy of obstrauction has had an adverse impact on the progress in SAARC. In the backdrop of continued State patronage and sponsorship of cross-border terrorism by Pakistan, India had decided to boycott the SAARC Summit in 2016, India was supported in its decision by Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal . There has been no change in situation and chances of it being held in near future are bleak.

Meanwhile India' s views on SAARC were eloquently articulated by India's External Affairs Minister Smt. Sushma Swaraj at an informal meeting of the SAARC Council of Ministers in New York on September 27, 2018 on the side-line of United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). She reiterated India's commitment to SAARC and identified the following as priorities: seamless physical connectivity, further trade liberalisation under SAAFTA , operationalization of SAARC Agreement on Trade in Services (SATIS), early ratification by all Member-States of the Framework Agreement on Energy Cooperation ,signed during the 18th SAARC Summit.

The External Affairs Minister concluding remarks carried an implied message and I quote her when she said " meetings including high level ones can only be effective if expressions of resolve are translated in to concrete action on the ground” and added that "thetrue potential of the region can be realized only if all countries contribute constructively towards delivering on the commitments SAARC has made to the people of the region”.

It is relevant to recall what PM Modi had said at his first SAARC Summit in 2014. His message was loud and clear that India would prefer to work together with all other SAARC members but would not at the same time be averse to the idea of working with those members who are agreeable to implement agreed programmes. As a result India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh went ahead and signed a landmark Motor Vehicles Agreement for seamless movement of road traffic among Four SAARC Countries in June 2015, leaving aside Pakistan and others.

Later in May 2017, India launched the South Asia Satellite - a communication satellite built by ISRO to provide a variety of communication services over the South Asian region; the satellite was launched despite reservations by Pakistan. The project will touch the lives of the people even in remote areas of our region, through its wide ranging applications in health, education, disaster response, weather forecasting and communications.

India remains committed to funding the full capital new campus of the South Asia University in New Delhi; construction is in full swing.


While remaining committed to regional development through SAARC , India is also promoting the inter-regional cooperation through platforms such as BIMSTEC – the Bay of Bengal Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation comprised of five SAAARC countries ( India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka ) and Myanmar and Thailand. BIMSTEC has evolved from BIST- EC at a very slow pace since its first summit way back in June 1997. Only in recent years there has been a spurt in its activities in the backdrop of SAARC becoming more or less dysfunctional and India’s renewed thrust on its Look East Policy through Act East policy. India deliberately chose BIMSTEC over SAARC for outreach meetings with BRICS at the BRICS Goa Summit in November 2016.

The very recently held BIMSTEC Summit in Kathmandu (August-September, 2018) has naturally ignited a debate as to whether BIMSTEC will soon replace SAARC. It appears that both these grouping have the potential to complement and supplement each other. The Nepalese PM recently acknowledged the potential of BIMSTEC but also urged for the revival of SAARC. The keyto full scale revival of SAARC may appear to be in the hands of India but by available indications the reinvigoration of SAARC hinges upon Pakistan’s political will to containing the State-sponsored terrorism.

In short, India remains committed to SAARC but is determined to encourage sub-regional cooperation within South Asia and promote inter-regional cooperation through BIMSTEC, albeit not necessarily at the cost of SAARC.

Global Issues and Global Aspirations

India is the second largest country in the world in terms of its population, and amongst the fastest growing countries in terms of GDP growth. India is thus entitled to playing its role in international deliberations on issues of global dimensions. In this context, I propose to refer to the following important issues:


India has suffered too long and too much from the state-sponsored cross-border terrorism and therefore its condemnation in all forms and manifestations at all regional and international forums is on the priority of India’s global agenda. India had proposed way back in 1996 that a Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism(CCIT); unfortunately two decades have elapsed and despite the spread of terrorism throughout the world, the international community has not yet been able even to agree on the definition of terrorism. Meanwhile, India’s campaign against terrorism continues unabated; India does not look at terrorism from the prism of religion nor does India believes in differentiating terrorists as good terrorists or bad terrorists.


India is NOT a signatory to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ( NPT) of 1968 ; it considers the Treaty as discriminatory in as much as it creates Nuclear-Haves and Nuclear-Non-Haves.

In view of potential threats from nuclear powers in its immediate vicinity ( China and Pakistan) India has developed nuclear weapons despite sanctions and pressures from the West.


The core element in India’s nuclear doctrine (revealed through a Government Press Release of 4th January 2003) is in building and maintaining a ‘credible minimum deterrent’. It also envisages inter-alia: i) "No First Use" i.e. nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian territory or on Indian forces; ii) Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states. However, in the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons.

Even though India has not signed the NPT, it has diligently followed the principles enshrined in the Treaty in spirit. India has also adjusted its export controls appropriately. As a result, India today is a d’facto Nuclear Power; true this is not yet formally acknowledged by the international community. There is a widespread recognition, however, of India impeccable record in the field of non-proliferation, in recognition of which the international community is now ready to engage India in nuclear trade.[the Nuclear Suppliers Group’s India specific waiver was given in mid-2008). No other non-NPT signatory country has been given this privilege. And this can be considered as an outstanding achievement in the foreign policy pursuits during the past two decades.

Since then India has become a member of the three of the four multilateral non-proliferation regimes : Missile Technology Control Regime, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group. The only one remaining is the Nuclear Suppliers Group( NSG), which is stonewalled due to Chinese objections.

Disarmament : India’s disarmament policy is directed at achieving a world free from weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons; it advocates a universal, non-discriminatory disarmament in a time-bound, phased and verifiable manner; this approach is reflected in the Rajiv Gandhi Action Plan which India submitted at the UNGA in 1998.

Global Governance:

In India’s assessment the contemporary structures of global governance including UN and international financial institutions such as World Bank, IMF etc have proved inadequate in dealing with the political and economic crisis of present days and therefore the international community deserves new structures of global governance to confront cross-cutting and trans-national challenges. India seeks UN reform, including reform of UN Security Council. In recognition of India’s growing stature, several countries have explicitly endorsed India’s bid for a Permanent Seat in expanded Security Council. Objectively and realistically speaking it would be a long and difficult path to tread before the campaign for substantial reforms in the present structures of global governance could be attained.

Climate Change:

India considers climate change as a global problem requiring global efforts and global solutions. India ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1993) and Kyoto Protocol (2002) and more recently the Paris agreement in October, 2016.

India’s well-articulated position during the negotiation on climate change has been that the current state of climate change and global warming is attributable to the excess emissions of harmful gases by the developed countries during the period of industrialisation; this is often referred to as the concept of ‘historical responsibility’. India has further insisted that the developing countries cannot be expected to forego their developmental efforts. India subscribes to the principle of equity and ‘common but differentiated responsibility’. India would like the developed world to assist the developing countries through financial assistance and transfer of technology to meet the challenges of climate change. India’s position was adequately reflected in the Paris Agreement signed in December 2015.


India’s foreign policy is based on pragmatic assessment of national interests, and in its implementation India is guided by a set of well defined fundamental principles. India’s inclusive development is as much central to its foreign policy as are the other objectives.

India’s reputation as world’s largest functioning democracy and fast growing economy is on the rise, and its voice is heard at the international fora. There is widespread global acceptance that India is destined to play an important role in global affairs. India is thus an important player on international arena , moving confidently in the direction of becoming a global power in evolving multi-polar world.

Before I conclude ,I must complement the Andhra University for its initiative to organize this Talk at the Centre For SAARC Studies, and also thank the Ministry of External Affairs for assigning this important task to me . I should also thank the audience for their patience and interest.

I do hope that today's interaction will serve the desired objectives and also trigger interest in India's foreign policy to understand how it is serving country’s vital interests both at domestic front and international arena.

I will be glad to take your questions and to answer them to best of my ability.

Thank You.