Current General Studies Magazine (January 2017)
General Studies - II "International Relations based
Article" (Continuity and change in India's Foreign Policy)
With the international system getting realigned, where does
India stand? As power shifts in a crowded field, India competes with others for
the status it seeks. History suggests that India’s aspirations are bound to
collide with the privileges of existing world powers. An ascent on the global
high table is never smooth.
For decades, India was treated as a middle- rung power. The expectation now
is that India will likely become a major world power in the foreseeable future.
Will it? Is India finding its true voice as a world power? What are its
strengths? What are its strategic priorities and challenges?
Strong growth and a vibrant democracy already aid India’s
ascension. It is in soft power projection that India is doing catch up. India
has launced a considerable charm offensive in recent years. Its’s diplomatic
arsenal is getting more diverse.
Do the present government’s moves to energise what I call "the diplomacy of
development” and put soft power at the centre of India’s diplomatic outreach
mark a foreign policy departure?
The Indian policy community is divided on where the nation’s
foreign policy is headed. Some argue that there has been a fundamental shift,
whereas others opine that there is no basic departure from the past. The truth
perhaps lies in between.
I would argue that there is both continuity and change in foreign policy.
Indeed, in some areas, there are elements of both continuity and change.
In the last few years there has been a high degree of continuity in foreign
policy objectives: ensuring a peaceful, secure and stable neighbourhood;
securing inward foreign investment, and increasing India’s influence.
There is a clear recognition that regional stability is
essential for India’s development. This explains the presence of all the leaders
of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and Mauritius at Prime
Minister Modi’s swearing in in May, 2014. With clear- headed pragmatism the
government has reinforced the primacy of the neighbourhood and the Indian Ocean.
Continuity and Change
At the bilateral level there is continuity and I daresay,
even change, in policy towards the United States, China and Pakistan. Foreign
policy does not change in sharp breaks with the past, but at a gradual pace.We
need to see things as evolving.
There is a growing convergence of views between India and the U.S. on the
security and diplomatic architecture of the Asia- Pacific. 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.”
There were direct references to the South China Sea in the India- U.S. joint
statement of September, 2014, and during Prime Minister Modi’s visits to Japan
in 2014 and South Korea in 2015.
There is also a breakthrough in the implementation of the civil nuclear
agreement of 2008. This is not a new policy, but the pace of developments is a
departure from the past.
A second ten-year defence framework agreement, providing for
technology transfers and the co-production of arms in India, and the Logistics
Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, have been concluded. The former agreement is
an example of continuity, the latter an example of change.
Now, I turn to the neighbourhood. With two nuclear-armed
neighbours in occupation of its territory, India faces formidable security
challenges, like no other nation on the planet. This is underappreciated, if not
ignored, by the world’s foreign policy and strategic communities.
Never in history did India have a great power like China on
its borders. In the past, India has relied upon a combination of diplomacy and
capacity- building to prevent strategic surprise. But the present government has
demonstrated a greater firmness in dealing with China, while simutaneously
seeking stronger business ties. As 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.”
Thus, India deals with China with confidence and candour.
This is the new normal in the relationship. India and China engage, cooperate
and compete simultaneously. Even as China has become India’s largest trading
partner, India has not lost sight of the issues of contention. Boundary
negotiations have reached a point where political will on both sides is required
for a solution. The two countries need to be mindful of the strategic aspect of
the relationship, and recognise that their rise can be mutually supportive.
The simultaneous rise of China and India as major world
economies is a new factor in the international system. The fact that China is
ahead of India shapes India’s positions towards its northern neighbour. India
sometimes has to concede to China in pragmatic side- stepping. For example, the
Asia Industrial Investment Bank and the New Development Bank of BRICS are
headquartered in Beijing and Shanghai, not in New Delhi or Mumbai, because China
is the stronger economy. Yet, while China remains a challenge, it is also a
partner in the transformation of India.
India’s complex relationship with Pakistan has swung from
dialogue to crisis. The issues bedevelling the relationship are far from
solution. With the strategic balance slowly shifting in India’s favour, Pakistan
has engaged in sub-conventional and asymmetric warfare. Since the 1990s,
Pakistan has adopted terrorism as policy, yet India has seen economic ascension
in this period.
With the internal problems Pakistan faces, India has poor
policy options. Neither dialogue nor its suspension have worked, so India is
intent on managing the relationship, and preventing problems from spilling over.
In such a strategic advance- retreat setting, the government has been firm on
bottom lines, but has also engaged Pakistan.
At one level, under the present government, we witnessed a
change in Pakistan policy. By engaging Pakistan, the government reversed the
suspension of official- level talks in January, 2013 by Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh, following ceasefire violations across the line of control in Jammu and
Kashmir. Prime Minister Modi and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held talks at Prime
Minister Modi’s inauguration in New Delhi in May, 2014, and on the sidelines of
a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Ufa, in 2015. In another policy
reversal, back- to- back "talks on terror” - led by the two National Security
Advisors – and talks between the two Foreign Secretaries on all other issues,
including Kashmir, were announced.
But soon enough terrorism began to cast its familiar shadow
over the relationship. Following differences on the agenda and programme for the
Pakistani National Security Advisor’s visit, planned talks between the foreign
secretaries and national security advisors were not held in 2014 and 2015. India
made talks contingent upon an end to terrorism.
For the government, terrorism remains the core issue. Lashkar
e Tayabba chief Hafiz Mohammed Saeed remains free, with a specious claim to
heading a charitable organization. Despite suspected links to the Pathankot
terror attack, Jaish e Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar is free. Zakiur-
Rehman Lakhvi, Lashkar e Tayabba’s Chief of Operations, and the prime accused in
the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, was released on bail after spending six years in
prison, on the ground of lack of evidence provided by India, something India
Yet, the government did not shy away from dialogue. In
December, 2015, official- level talks were held at Bangkok. External Affairs
Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Islamabad in December, 2015, and a Comprehensive
Bilateral Dialogue was announced. Prime Minister Modi visited Lahore to greet
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his birthday the same month. Following a pause
after the Pathankot terror attack, Foreign Secretary talks were held in April,
2016. The two national security advisors maintained contact, and the chiefs of
the two border forces met to calm border tension.
At present, following the Uri terror attacks, dialogue remains suspended. But
given the fraught history with Pakistan, India will continue to search for
solutions to issues with Pakistan.
Thus, broadly, there are elements of continuity and change in the
government’s policy towards Pakistan.
An example of both continuity and change in policy is the
resolution of the land boundary dispute with Bangladesh, which had eluded
solution since 1971. This was a pre- emptive good- neighbourly act. For sure,
previous governments had taken steps for resolution of the land boundary
dispute, but the present government has been decisive in taking the new approach
forward. It showed similar reflexes in resolving a maritime dispute with
At the regional level there has been vigour in taking forward initiatives in
the Asia Pacific. This marks change, amid continuity.
The Asia Pacific
The government has pursued a strong Indian Ocean policy, as
well as combating maritime terrorism. In March, 2015, after decades, India
unveiled a vision framework for the Indian Ocean. Going beyond the former
government’s policy of being a "net security provider” to Indian Ocean island
states, the Indian Navy has released a revised maritime security strategy,
Ensuring Secure Seas: Indian Maritime Security Strategy. The government has
announced a new initiative, SAGAR- Security And Growth for All in the Region-
not only to safeguard India and its island territories, but to broaden economic
and security cooperation in the region.
At the global level, there is both continuity and change in the economic
The Diplomacy of Development
Enlisting foreign partners for India’s development has been
at the core of India’s foreign policy since independence. After the economic
reforms of 1991, this was pursued with vigour. Under the present government, the
process has been further energized. There is continuity in policy, and change in
the vigour with which it is being pursued.
At his election in 2014, Prime Minister Modi announced the
goal of 8.5 per cent economic growth. In the year ending March, 2016 the Indian
economy grew by 7.3 per cent. Over the next decade the government hopes to raise
the share of manufacturing in the GDP from 17 to 25 per cent. Foreign policy is
an enabler in the process.
In recent years the government has sought billons of dollars
in investments in manufacturing and infrastructure, notably from the U.K.,
Germany, France, Japan and the UAE. The government has coupled diplomacy and
development in a turn towards quantifiable outcomes. Prime Minister Modi’s
foreign visits have focussed on the search for technology, resources and best
Another example of continuity and change all at once is
culture. The government has brought the tenets and symbols of India’s culture
into the centre of India’s diplomatic outreach. This is a continuation of
India’s charm offensive in recent years through its soft power approach to win
friends across the world.
India has always played a major role in international
affairs, offering a range of ideas and interventions in the cultural and
political domain. There is a need to integrate New Delhi’s natural soft power
aspects into its external interface. By harnessing such cultural resources, the
government has reached out to the larger world.
But this soft power narration is also an alternate view of
the world, aimed at the international community. The government wants to offer a
counter- narrative to the West- centric view of history and inter- state
relations. With thousands of years of experience in creating a civilisation out
of diverse belief systems, India is a beacon light. The government has seized
upon this idea to project a cultural narrative.
The best example of India’s harnessing of soft power to
achieve diplomatic objectives is the commemoration of the first ever
International Day of Yoga. With breath- taking speed the government got 177 of
the 193 member states of the United Nations to co- sponsor a resolution in the
United Nations General Assembly in September, 2014 on commemorating the
International Day of Yoga on June 21. The other example is the promotion of
Nalanda University as an international partnership.
It is not as if indigenous traditions were not put at the disposal of India’s
foreign policy mandarins in the past. But what is new is the sustained focus on
I now turn to change, at the global, regional and bilateral levels.
At the global level, we see a shift towards playing a leading world role,
rather than a mere balancing one, with ambition, energy and confidence.
There is a realisation in the government that, to become a
true great power, India will need to set the agenda on the burning international
issues of the day, rather than merely shaping outcomes. At the end of the Second
World War India was a passive witness to the creation of a new security
architecture for the world, as decisions concerning India were made by the
British. But India now is prepared to lead the negotiation of global covenants.
I shall illustrate examples.
India is willing to shoulder the responsibility of securing
the global commons. This was demonstrated by humanitarian relief operations in
Yemen, Nepal, South Sudan, Fiji, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, and in India’s
continuing lead in UN peacekeeping operations. India stood in the frontlines in
keeping the maritime commons safe and secure, and in global negotiations, such
as on climate change.
We are seeing a policy framework that radiates India’s
diplomatic influence beyond it’s neighbourhood. In 2015 alone Prime Minister
Modi made 28 foreign visits. This shows that India thinks globally, and Indian
leaders travel accordingly.
There is a change at the regional level as well.
Act East Policy
During colonial rule, India’s links with the East were
disrupted. At independence, India leaned on the West for nation- building. Asia
took a back seat as the West became the main source of technology and capital.
With the end of the Cold War, India again shifted its gaze to the East, drawing
from the rich ties of history. It began to search for new partnerships with a
rising East, led by China. The outcome was the Look East Policy. The evolution
of the Look East Policy to the Act East Policy is a shift from conception to
Let us turn to the bilateral level, where we see significant changes.
In January, 2016, India made a modest supply of three MI 25 ground attack
helicoptors to Afghanistan. This is not a force multiplier, but marks a change
There has been a modification in India’s policy towards
Israel. In a policy departure on the conflict in Gaza, which resumed in July,
2014, the government took a neutral position, calling for peace talks. In
another departure, India abstained from voting on an application by a
Palestinian non- governmental organization for special consultative status in a
UN committee. It abstained on a UN Human Rights Commission resolution that
condemned Israel over a July, 2014 UN report on violence in Gaza.
In September, 2014 Prime Minister Modi and Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met on the margins of the UN General Assembly at New
York. The first visit of an Israeli defence minister to India took place in
February, 2015. While in the past India had avoided high- level visits to
Israel, President Pranab Mukherjee visited Israel in October, 2015.
The fact that India’s foreign and security policies are
‘enablers’ in the transformation of India is now well understood among thinking
Indians. In that sense, by getting tied to domestic policy, which receives
greater public attention, foreign policy has woven itself into the people’s
India is being recast. At Partition, the Indian state was
weak. Strategic thinking was thus security- oriented, with an avoidance of
entanglements, to protect the borders. To- day India is at the centre of the
international security architecture, and key to the economic and technological
debates of the age. By virtue of its economic growth, its world- class space
programme, and its contributions from medicine to IT, India has become
indispensable to global needs and a shaper of the world economy, not just as a
market, but also as an engine of growth and ideas.
It would thus not be far- fetched to say that what India does
will profoundly affect the future of the world. Terrorism is an example. With
swathes of embittered humanity on the boil, terrorism is at the centre of
international discourse. The world now speaks of 9/11 and 26/11 in the same
breath, and, as a major victim, India becomes a natural partner in fighting
terrorism. Similarly, on the emission of greenhouse gases and climate change,
what India does affects the world. This is the foundation for India’s new
(Source- Ministry of External Affairs)