Current General Studies Magazine: "Continuity and change in India's Foreign Policy" January 2017

Current General Studies Magazine (January 2017)

General Studies - II "International Relations based Article" (Continuity and change in India's Foreign Policy)

The Setting

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.

The U.S.

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 disputes.

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 Bangladesh.

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 realm.

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 practice.


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 this.

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 outcomes.

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 in policy.


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 consciousness.

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 foreign policy.

(Source- Ministry of External Affairs)

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