top of page

India's Foreign Policy: Emerging Trends in the 21st Century

As appeared in

There are at least two methodologies to approach this subject. One would be the conventional method of taking stock of developments like India’s “Look East” policy, the emerging “strategic cooperation” between India and China, the developing “strategic partnership” between India and USA, the restructuring of Indo-Russian relations, Russian impatience with the perceived evolution of US-centric unipolar world order etc. and discuss how to proceed further. The other method, which I prefer to adopt in this paper, is to have an overall look at the current and emerging international situation and try to evolve some guidelines for an effective and successful foreign policy in the twenty-first century.

Certain Basic Formulations

I would first list what I consider to be some of the basic formulations that should guide the evolution of India’s foreign policy in the new century.

The other day, I read a “blog” on the internet in which a “Person of Indian Origin” spoke of India’s pretensions of becoming a superpower. My obvious initial reaction was one of outrage; but as I read the entire piece, I realized that the person was prejudiced against his home country and/or is very misinformed. I wished that he had used “ambition” or “aspiration” in place of “pretensions”. The facts, as I see them, are that India is already a significant power, which is speeding on its way to becoming a big power; and that this has been recognized by many countries. However, Indian academics, intellectuals, analysts (and seemingly many in the foreign policy establishment) have for so long been used to India being strong on rhetoric but an under-achiever, that it is not easy for many to see that the ugly duckling is growing into a beautiful swan. One of the reasons may be that India is trying to achieve and is achieving in a few years what many other significant powers could comfortably achieve in many decades or centuries – as the world gradually evolved from the Middle Ages to the modern era. In the process, many intermediate steps are being skipped (as has happened in many areas of technological development) and the accelerated growth is not easy to cope with. The first requirement therefore is for such academics, intellectuals and foreign policy establishment to accept that India has grown out of her exploited under-dog status of nearly two centuries and to realize the potential of her current status as a significant power – economically as a matter of fact, militarily as a matter of relative strengths, and politically if we can learn to leverage them to our national advantage. Along with that, it has also to be recognized that India’s changed (and changing) status has also caused significant changes in the expectations of other countries about India’s involvement in world affairs. A change in our mind-set is therefore necessary.

A comparison could be made with China easing in comfortably into her emerging status as a significant (or even big) power. It is well to remember that China and India had both been significant powers centuries ago. However, China (which was not as colonized as India was) is having an easier task. Inspired by her perennial “Middle Kingdom” syndrome, China could get back into her big-power ways, overcoming the limitations imposed by a long period of foreign influence in her affairs. India, on the other hand, seems to have allowed foreign invasions and colonial rule to make her forget her glory days, except in speeches and school text books.

During the colonial era, India had no foreign policy of its own, as the policy was made in Whitehall to sub serve British interests. Even many years after independence, many intellectuals in think tanks and many in the foreign policy establishment have continued to let their thought processes be unduly influenced by western thought processes (with some, of course, tilting the other way). Jawahar Lal Nehru’s famous directive about the nomenclature of geographical regions was not followed up further and taken to its logical conclusion. It is time that we developed and nurtured Indian thinking about world affairs.

Economics has, over the past many decades, been gradually replacing territorial and imperial ambitions as the prime mover behind international relations. India has achieved a lot in the economic field since the policies of liberalization and globalization were brought into play. The aphorism that less government leads to good governance is being proved to the hilt. The innate genius of the Indian people has started blossoming and the Indian economy is generally thriving in international competition. People-to-people and business-to-business relations have taken their rightful places in economic relations between India and other countries. In the field of economics, the world is rapidly becoming multi-polar, with multiple foci of economic power. Globalization has resulted in the corporate sector playing important roles (earlier mostly played by governments) in areas such as heavy industries, communications, financial and commercial management etc. Although foreign policy is made by governments, commercial and social groups are pursuing their own foreign relations, which often outperform government initiatives. One could cite the various initiatives of FICCI, ASSOCHAM, CII , US -India Business Council, India-China Business Alliance etc. The role played by some of these and other non-governmental organizations during the negotiations on the US-India civilian nuclear agreement is still fresh in our memory. Multinational commercial entities also pursue their own foreign relations, (often blurring or ignoring international borders), which act as compelling ingredients in the evolution of the foreign or commercial policy of a country, e.g. the influence of Boeing on US-China policy.

We have to consider whether this route could not be adopted mutatis mutandis in the area of political relations also. It is possible that people to people relations and the media can act as pressure groups to evolve some kind of synthesis between differing security and political interests and priorities of India and other countries. Intellectuals, human rights workers, lawyers, press corps, artistes and film stars could easily set in motion a closer understanding between different countries to compel their governments to agree that cooperation on ecology and efforts to eradicate poverty and deprivation should receive higher priorities than narrow polemics. When the peoples of two countries develop a vested interest in good relations between their countries, the governments would have to follow suit. Though security services may have some reservations about this process, the benefits of regime neutralisation (as opposed to regime change) should help in overcoming those reservations.

As an example of how people-to-people cooperation could be used effectively to supplement and strengthen the efforts of governments, let us look at the example of Palk Bay, where the fishing communities on both sides had jointly exploited (with hardly any outside intervention) the marine resources for centuries. If the Governments of India and Sri Lanka would restore to those communities the right and responsibility to work out friendly, cooperative and sustainable fishing in these waters, the problem could probably be solved amicably. The two governments could encourage and facilitate whatever the fishermen are able to agree upon and reserve the waters of the Palk Bay for joint and co-operative fishing exclusively by artisanal fishermen of the littoral fishing communities.

The reality that the era of superpowers (and of “gunboat diplomacy”) has ended has to be recognized. Even at the height (or the nadir) of the Cold war, the “authority” of the two superpowers was more perceived than real and they were never certain of unqualified support from their “allies” without resort to binding treaties and occasional threats or implementation of punitive action. Their writs ran essentially through the fear of the opposite camp. The severe limitations of “superpower” authority have been exposed in Afghanistan, Iraq, DPRK, Iran etc In the present international situation, which has often been described as unipolar, with USA being the sole superpower, US foreign policy is probably more feared and loathed than admired or willingly accepted. Is it possible to cite instances where the US leadership has been accepted by willing consent, without financial and other incentives, without fear of sanctions and/or naked aggression? Russia and China have already started expressing their misgivings about US postures. The writ of the US Government does not always run in its own backyard of Latin America , as shown during the recent multi-nation tour of President Bush. The experience of USA should also signal that the use of military power is no longer a viable substitute for effective diplomacy and negotiation.

The terms of bipolar or unipolar international order seem to have lost their relevance. What we are likely to see as the current century progresses would be the emergence of multiple centers of political and economic power and influence, highlighting the need to achieve a stable equilibrium amongst them. The threats of economic losses and instability would become strong incentives for all economically powerful countries to cooperate and work together.

Certain Guidelines

On the basis of the above formulations, it is possible to list some guidelines (not necessarily in the order of their importance) for making India ’s foreign policy in the twenty first century. It may be argued that these are mere platitudes, but a careful and objective analysis will show their practical applications in specific cases. India has no doubt practiced one or more of these on different issues from time to time, but with our growing status as an emerging big power, these need to become permanent characteristics of our foreign policy.

  1. Overall national interest should always be the primary and supreme consideration. There should be no embarrassment in placing national interest at the top of our agenda.

  2. Our foreign and national security policies should be dovetailed, in private and in public.

  3. We should act as a responsible significant (or big) power, whose views and policies are of importance to many other countries. The luxury of making/taking not-so-well-thought-out statements/actions relating to other countries is no longer available to India.

  4. There should be some continuity and predictability in our foreign policy. These would be hallmarks of a significant, mature and self-confident power. If we do not have a viable long-term strategy, foreign policy swings would become inevitable, resulting in a lack of credibility.

  5. As in the case of National Security Policy, there should be, as far as possible, a National Foreign Policy, and not merely that of the party (or parties) in power. All efforts need to be made to have a national political consensus on major foreign policy issues, so that the concerned countries are aware that they are dealing with a stable country and not merely with a transient government. The present UPA Government under Dr. Man Mohan Singh has undertaken many significant consultations on certain foreign policy issues. [In this context, a worthwhile effort would be to set up an independent think-tank, on the lines of the US Congressional Research Service, to study various issues and provide objective position papers to all Members of Parliament.]

  6. Domestic politics and partisan interests could be major inputs during the stage of consultations, but should not become reasons for casting doubts on the credibility of the foreign policy of the country. We have unfortunately been having too many such instances in recent years. An example of how the removal of domestic politics from the equation can benefit international relations is the 3 March 2007 agreement between the Directors General of India’s Border Security Force and Bangla Desh Rifles.

  7. We should develop the art of looking at issues also from the perspective of the other country. [Intelligence and security analysts are taught and trained to get into the mind of the other person, to assess the possible plans, reactions and threats from such person.] This would help in avoiding over-sensitivity and any unjustified sense of mistrust. For instance, a relatively innocuous action taken by China in her own national interest could otherwise be misinterpreted by India as an unfriendly (or even a hostile) act.

  8. There should be more transparency in our policy-making process. We should consider making public disclosure, subject to security requirements, of our reasons – security, strategic, financial, and commercial – for making compromises or for taking specific actions, to enable others to understand our perspective and avoid misunderstandings. We should be unambiguous, in public or in private, in expressing our sensitivities on specific issues to the concerned countries. Such transparency may not always extend to diplomatic actions taken in specific cases. As Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh had stated in his letter of 14 March 2007 to L.K.Advani, “We do not believe in conducting diplomacy in public”.

  9. In a democracy, the government cannot be considered to be the depository of all wisdom on all issues. The policy-makers should be open to inputs also from outside the government, particularly from academia. India is already following this to some extent in the evolution of financial and economic policies.

  10. Guidelines are general in nature and cannot always be rigidly adhered to. A certain amount of customization would be necessary, relating to specific countries and specific situations.

  11. Without trying to reinvent the wheel, we could draw suitable lessons from the successes and failures in history. Just as we take vitamins and other dietary supplements to build up energy and muscles, it would not hurt if academics, intellectuals and the foreign policy establishment could adopt certain principles as below.

  12. National pride, short of chauvinism.

  13. A rosy vision of the future, short of fantasy.

  14. Boldness, short of mindless audacity.

  15. Self-confidence, short of arrogance.

  16. Logical thinking, short of paralysis by analysis.

  17. Firmness, tempered by compassion.

  18. Involvement with problems of smaller neighbors, short of unsolicited intervention.

At this stage, I shall offer only brief remarks on some of the emerging trends in India’s international relations.

Big Powers

When we consider relations with big powers, we have to take into account all countries and entities that would be economically powerful in the next few years. We have to factor in the reality that some of them would attempt to leverage economic power into political clout and attempt to influence other countries. The list of countries and entities that are likely to qualify in this league would include (in addition to India) Australia, Brazil, China, Germany, Japan, Russia, USA, ASEAN, OPEC and EU; and more may join the ranks as the century progresses. India has rapidly to grow up into dealing with these countries/entities on equal terms, understand and try to accommodate each one’s prime interests (subject to India ’s own national interests) and avoid unnecessary confrontation on minor issues. It will be a not-too-easy balancing act, with high stakes involved.

The colonial legacy of being more understanding and accommodative of the concerns of western countries is still quite dominant in the thought-processes of many think-tanks and the foreign policy establishment, except when it is fashionable to be anti-west on specific issues. With our words and actions being studied more than before, India has to make a special effort to be visibly neutral – unless otherwise dictated by national interest.


India has seven neighbors with shared borders, i.e. Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Maldives and ASEAN should also be considered as neighbors, for the evolution of India’s foreign policy. One tends to forget that the nearest landfall in ASEAN is less than 100 kms from Indra Point.


China, apart from being a Big Power, is also a significant neighbor and merits special attention. The progress towards India-China strategic cooperation has not eliminated Chinese concern at the growing India-US strategic partnership. India ’s foreign policy establishment seems to be fairly clear about the difference between “strategic cooperation” and “strategic partnership”. Strategic cooperation would imply an exchange and coordination of views by two countries on the common challenges posed in the political, security and economic spheres. Strategic partnership, on the other hand, would imply a relationship which would not only incorporate strategic cooperation but also an added emphasis on converting the strategic convergences between two nations into more meaningful defence and security cooperation, joint military training and exercises, defence production and hi-tech exchanges and shouldering of some common defence commitments.

China has displayed a remarkable consistency in its dealings in India ’s neighborhood. It is overtly friendly to Pakistan and Bangladesh, though both have been harbouring cross border terrorist organizations operating against India from within their territories. Further, when India supported the democratic movement in Myanmar , China showed pragmatism and supported the military junta. Air Chief Marshal S P Tyagi, Chief of Air Staff, had mentioned in November 2005 (B.C.Joshi Memorial Lecture at Pune University) that “ China ‘s strategic encirclement of India is already well under way. China is likely to view India as a regional economic threat and perhaps would be forced to attempt to stem its growth and influence in the region.” China has also started taking significant steps in Africa. Obviously, one of the worst nightmares of strategic thinkers would relate to India being encircled by hostile neighbors supported by China .

Even while progressing a close and comfortable relationship with China , India has to consider very carefully the implications to India’s security and economic interests of various Chinese actions. It may not be necessary to take reactive counter-measures at each and every stage, but our own policies and actions in various regions and on various issues have to be devised suitably to protect our overall national interests.

Pakistan and Bangladesh

Pakistan and Bangladesh pose special security and other problems, which stem largely from historical and geo-political reasons and are mostly caused or subscribed to by State actors. The ruling elites in both the countries seem to have adopted anti-India stance as a part of the basic foundation of their national identities and policies. India ’s internal security, as well as regional security, is threatened due to their unwillingness or inability to prevent jihadi extremist groups from carrying out cross-border terrorist operations. The jihadi> bases in the “ungoverned” areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and Pakistan ’s perceived status as a close ally of USA in the “global war on terror” have created a piquant situation. India has shown a fair amount of sophistication and pragmatism in formulating and pursuing her foreign policy vis-à-vis Pakistan ; but a similar approach is not apparent in relation to Bangla Desh.

Smaller Neighbors

The previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government had made India virtually invisible in its neighborhood, ceding influence to the USA and other western powers – due to certain over-emphasis on developing a strategic relationship with the US, its over-anxious solicitation of support for India’s bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council and in unsuccessful efforts to bring pressure on Pakistan to stop its sponsorship of terrorism in Indian territory. The present UPA government has been quietly trying to reverse this trend, without openly protesting about the increased involvement of the west in India ‘s neighborhood, but steadily seeking to regain the influence which India had traditionally enjoyed in this region.

India’s difficulties in maintaining friendly and cordial relations with her smaller neighbors may be due to her inability to deal with them as equals. The smaller neighbors are naturally worried about the asymmetry in size, human and material resources and economic and military strength. India’s perceived willingness and tendency to assert its national interests (e.g. India’s role in the creation of Bangla Desh, Indian support to the Tamil movements in Sri Lanka); Indian encouragement and support to its political favorites in the countries of the region (e.g. India’s soft corner for the opposition Awami League in Bangla Desh and for the democratic forces in Nepal); and continuing differences relating to the utilization of water resources, are also matters of concern to them. The affected countries tend to guard themselves by avoiding the development of very close (and possibly dependent) economic and other linkages with India , by developing (balancing) economic and military linkages with China . These are amongst the factors that make it difficult to generate full confidence about equal relationships with the smaller neighbors. This often results in positions of near hostility, suspicion and distrust of India . The need of the hour is to avoid being perceived as the ubiquitous “Big Brother”, but function more as the benevolent and helpful karta of a traditional joint family.

India has shown considerable maturity and responsibility in dealing with Bhutan and Maldives . Where necessary (like eliminating ULFA bases in Bhutan ), India has been firm; and, where possible, (like in the matter of revision of the Indo-Bhutan Treaty) India has been understanding and helpful. Despite being a Sunni Muslim country, the Maldives (under President Gayoom) has historically looked up to India as its well-wisher and benefactor. The confrontation between the government and the pro-democracy elements has the seeds of potential instability which could be exploited by jihadi elements based elsewhere. Though concerned about the absence of genuine democracy in the Maldives, India has reasons to be gratified over the Maldivian government’s success in keeping extremist influence away.

However, similar maturity, pro-active approach, pragmatism and helpful understanding have not been too evident in relation to Nepal , Myanmar and Sri Lanka . [Prime Minister Man Mohan Singh’s offer of “asymmetric reciprocity”, during the SAARC Summit in April 2007, in trade relations with India ’s economically weaker neighbors, is a visionary step in the right direction.] The developing situations in these three countries have the intrinsic capability to affect India ’s security significantly. The growing involvement of the Maoists in the governance of Nepal has the potential of encouraging the activities of the Maoists in India ’s “red corridor”. India ‘s ability to restore peace in the North-East depends a lot on the co-operation of the Government of Myanmar and the latter’s success in establishing an effective administrative and military presence in its northern territories. The effects of the Sri Lankan situation on India ’s security interests are well known and needs no repetition.


Most of ASEAN, as well as Japan and South Korea , are apprehensive of possible Chinese expansionism in South East Asia . The Chinese Defence Minister Cao Gangchuan, when he was the army chief earlier, had proposed Chinese force projection beyond the South China Sea . In the absence of any strategic competition within the region, with Japan having gone into a shell, and with the increased availability of additional resources due to the booming Chinese economy, China has continually been expanding her presence and influence in ASEAN. What China seems to be attempting is to get a practising hegemony over its own backyard and then make the leap to being a power to challenge the United States . India ’s somewhat hesitant efforts to improve political, economic and military relations with the ASEAN countries require to be intensified without any further delay.


In the early years of India’s independence, when India was relatively weak economically and militarily, Jawahar Lal Nehru evolved a foreign policy that got a certain global stature, at the forefront of the non-aligned movement. It made a lot of sense for many newly-independent countries to avoid getting sucked into the Cold War confrontations, though John Foster Dulles termed it “immoral”. Now, with the growing status of India as an economic power and a regional military power, India needs to be “rediscovered” and the foreign policy redefined. Intellectuals and policy makers have to start thinking differently, to reflect the changing status of India in world affairs. There was a slogan many years ago, saying “Be Indian, Buy Indian”. We could profitably say now “Be Indian, Think Indian”.

(This paper is based on a Keynote Address delivered by the author, Mr.R.Swaminathan, on 02 April 2007, at the National Seminar organized by the V.K. Krishna Menon Study Centre for International Relations, University of Kerala, at Trivandrum on 2-3 April 2007. The author gratefully acknowledges his debt to those whose views and words may figure in this paper – but accepts full responsibility. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. He can be contacted at

0 views0 comments
bottom of page