Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

Strategic Dimensions of India’s Foreign Policy

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Jitendra Nath Misra
    Venue: Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Dhanbad
    Date: October 31, 2018

Professor Jamini Kant Pattnayak,
Professor Chandan Bhar,
Professor. Pramod Pathak,
And Friends,

I thank Indian Institute of Technology, Dhanbad for the very kind invitation to speak here to- day. I am very grateful for your warm reception and generous hospitality. I thank the Ministry of External Affairs for giving me this opportunity, under its Distinguished Lectures programme.

I will speak on the strategic dimensions of India’s foreign policy.

First, let us survey the complicated world we live in.

The Strategic Landscape

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

Firstly, the U.S. is looking within.

Secondly, the European Union is in trouble.

Thirdly, China is trying to lead globalization, taking over from the U.S.

Fourthly, Russia is trying to regain its position as a great power.

Fifthly, India seeks to become a global power, but whether it is one is open to question. India is the world’s main swing state.

The Setting

With the international system getting re- aligned, where does India stand? As power shifts in a crowded field, India competes with others for status. History suggests that India’s aspirations will collide with the privileges of existing world powers. An ascent on the global high table is not easy.

How is India pursuing its strategic objectives?

India is a nuclear power with a professional military. Its economic transformation is compelling.

In the IMF’s assessment, in 2018, India has 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. Regardless of challenges, figures show a trend- 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 strategic 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.

What is India’s main strategic challenge?

It is poverty, let there be no doubt. Foreign policy is an enabler in giving a better life to the Indian people. Economic development is a strategic goal for foreign policy.

The Neighbourhood

To pursue development, a peaceful neighbourhood is important.

What is happening?

With two nuclear-armed neighbours in occupation of its territory, India faces formidable security challenges, like no other nation. This is under- appreciated, if not ignored, by the world’s foreign policy and strategic communities.

Neighbouring Countries

India tries, but struggles to match Chinese aid in its neighbourhood. 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.

Sri Lanka

China’s activities in Sri Lanka have India concerned.

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

Sri Lanka was forced to lease the port to repay loans for its development.

This has even other powers worried.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said at a Hudson Institute speech: "Just ask Sri Lanka, which took on massive debt to let Chinese state companies build a port with questionable commercial value. Two years ago, that country could no longer afford its payments – so Beijing pressured Sri Lanka to deliver the new port directly into Chinese hands. It may soon become a forward military base for China’s growing blue-water navy.”

The Maldives

China’s activities in the Maldives need to be watched.

Don’t expect that the new Maldives government will meet all Indian concerns. Maldives is too dependent on China for that.


India’s complex relationship with Pakistan has swung between dialogue and crisis. Neither dialogue nor its suspension has worked. With the strategic balance tilting in India’s favour, Pakistan pursues sub-conventional and asymmetric warfare. Despite Pakistan’s use of terrorism, India has done well economically.

With relations on pause, India is intent on preventing problems from spilling over. In an advance- retreat setting, the government has been firm on bottom lines, while also looking for an opportunity to resume dialogue.

China is Pakistan’s equalizer against India. The China- Pakistan Economic Corridor makes Pakistan self- confident, while putting India off- balance.


In Afghanistan, India concentrates on capacity- building. The air freight corridor has made India 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 is not a force multiplier, but a change in policy.

The Indian Ocean

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

There was a time when India wanted to promote the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace, as part of the policy of keeping major powers away from India’s neighbourhood. To- day India is in search of partnerships to counter Chinese activity.

What is India doing?

Firstly, it is taking diplomatic measures.

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.”

Secondly, India is seeking a presence to keep the peace.

In Mauritius, India will extend a runway and build port facilities in the Agalega archipelago.

India has a maritime agreement with Singapore, and has either initiated or activated defence agreements with the U.S., Oman and France. This could give it facilities across the Indian Ocean, in places like Duqm for example. From 2017, India has round- the- year deployments in the Indian Ocean.

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 SAGAR- Security And Growth for All in the Region- not only to safeguard India and its island territories, but also to broaden economic and security cooperation in the region.

The U.S.

With the U.S., contrary to the view that relations have been strained during the Trump presidency, there is strategic co- operation. South Asia (mainly Afghanistan and Pakistan) and the Indo- Pacific are examples.

The growing congruence has had effects over process. The 2+ 2 conversation is now cabinet- level. A logistics supply agreement and a communication security and compatibility agreement have been concluded.

U.S. allies like Japan and Australia have a Quadrilateral working- level dialogue with India and the U.S. Japan works with India on infrastructure, and Australia on bilateral naval exercises. With France, the security dialogue has deepened.


In 1950, having a great power like China on India’s borders introduced a new factor. In the past, India has relied upon diplomacy and capacity- building to prevent strategic surprise. While seeking stronger business ties, India demonstrates a greater firmness in dealing with China.

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.”

In a new normal, India deals with China with confidence and candour. India and China engage, cooperate and compete simultaneously.

Even as China has become India’s largest trading partner, India deals with tissues of contention. Boundary negotiations have reached a point where political will on both sides is required for a solution.

After the Wuhan summit, there is talk of a re- set in the relationship, but I doubt there is a re- set. Differences over the boundary dispute, trade deficit (U.S. dollars 52 billion a year), global governance and Belt and Road remain. Neither side has made concessions on these issues. Do both countries believe that their rise can be mutually supportive?

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?

China poses a bigger existential challenge to India than the U.S. Geography separates the U.S. and China, but it puts hurdles before deeper strategic co- operation between India and China.

India does not have the capacity to challenge China the way the U.S. does. But it does have cards.


Relations with Russia are important, especially in defence. Russia provides technology and platforms- such as submarine technologies- that others are not willing to provide. The S- 400 deal is a good decision that provides deterrence, and stability to the relationship. Energy co- operation is limited, but Russia remains important in the context of China.


Relations with ASEAN grow. India hosted all ten ASEAN leaders at Republic Day 2018. Even from a low base, security co- operation is expanding- with training, exercises, coordinated naval patrols, and technical assistance. Though efforts such as the India- Myanmar- Thailand Trilateral Friendship Highway are on, connectivity lags.

The Middle East

India has strategic interests in the Middle East. Relations with the Gulf states, especially the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Saudi Arabia, have shown significant improvement. These countries host a large diaspora, supply the bulk of India’s oil and natural gas, as well as engaging in some security and intelligence co- operation. Iran is important for connectivity to Afghanistan and Central Asia through Chabahar port and the International North- South Transportation Corridor.


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

India has taken specific action to assuage Israeli sensitivities. In a shift from support for the Palestinians, the government took a neutral position on the Gaza conflict, calling for peace talks. In another departure, India abstained in a vote 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.


Economic performance creates attractive cultural models, driving strategic goals. This will become clearer as India continues to grow. As India catches up with the West, its social and cultural models might find a hospitable terrain among sceptics. This will be mutual borrowing.

India’s growing economic strength has strategic implications. Led by economic transformation, an increase in hard power is India’s opportunity to offer an alternate view of the world. A counter- narrative to the West- centric view of history and inter- state relations could challenge cultural hegemonies. Yoga, Nalanda University, cuisine, Bollywood, the practice of pluralism- all these make India attractive.


At Partition, a weak state made strategic thinking security- oriented. To protect the borders, India avoided entanglements. To- day, a stronger economy makes India central to the world’s security architecture, and to the economic and technological debates of the age. India shapes the world economy, not only as a market, but also as an engine of growth, and of ideas. Whether it is counter- terrorism, or climate change, or other global challenges, India’s choices have global implications.

Now, I will take questions.
Thank you for the honour accorded me.