Distinguished Lectures Distinguished Lectures

India's Foreign Policy approaches in the post Cold War period

  • Distinguished Lectures Detail

    By: Amb (Retd) Achal Malhotra
    Venue: Banaras Hindu University
    Date: April 30, 2014

Honourable Vice Chancellor , Dean Faculty of Social Sciences, Distinguished Guests, Dear Students, Ladies and Gentlemen,

At the outset I would like to thank the Banaras Hindu University and the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs for giving me this opportunity to inter-act with the students of one of the oldest and most prestigious Universities in India. In our country with a population of over 1.2bn, only a miniscule elite is actively engaged in the domain of foreign policy and international affairs. It is a pity but at the same time a ground reality. I am therefore delighted to address you- a group of young undergraduate and postgraduate students of this university, some of whom I hope will in due course of time be contributing effectively to foreign policy making in India.

Needless to say that I will be speaking to you as a practitioner of diplomacy, and may therefore sound somewhat different from theoreticians and academicians

The topic assigned to me is: India’s Foreign Policy Approaches in the Post Cold War Period. In real terms it means the evolution of India’s foreign policy from 1991 onwards. The year 1991 was a defining moment in the history of India’s foreign and foreign economic policies in the post cold war scenario. The collapse and disintegration of the USSR at the one end and the acceleration in the processes of globalisation on the other, created a much larger space for India to manoeuvre at home and on global arena. India found itself automatically out of the perceived shadows of the "now former mighty USSR”. In 1991, there was a change of Government at the Centre, which took some visible and tangible foreign policy and foreign economic policy decisions. One of the more pronounced shifts in foreign policy came through the "Look East Policy” initiated in 1991. The other visible and tangible departure from the past was in the field of foreign economic policy as India decided to open its door for foreign investments and to deregulate and let its economy come out of insulation and face the challenges through globalisation and be part of the global market economy. Several other important steps in the next two decades were made; these include for instance strategic partnerships with all major players such as USA, China, Russia and the EU. In addition, India has forged some important regional links through grouping such as BRICS and IBSA. In the context of anti-piracy initiatives,India has emerged as a net security provider in for the small island countries in the Indian Ocean. These initiatives were, however, gradual, relatively subtle and/or a result of adjustments and adaptation to fast changing global geo-political realities and therefore can be treated as less pronounced .

Let us look at salient features of India’s foreign policy in the last two decades in some details:

Look East Policy: In announcing its Look East Policy India was guided by its wish to focus on the region, particularly the ASEAN Member States , it had neglected out of compulsions beyond its control. The policy has been pursued diligently over the past two decades. In 1992 India entered into a Sectoral Dialogue Partnership with ASEAN which was upgraded to Full Dialogue Partner status in 1996. Since 2002 India has been holding annual India-ASEAN Summit level meetings. To mark the 20th anniversary of the dialogue partnership and 10th anniversary of Summit level partnership, a Commemorative India-ASEAN Summit meeting was held in New Delhi (December 20-21, 2013). The initial objective of the Look East Policy was to reach out to Asian Tigers such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand ; the dialogue now covers a wide range of areas with the objective of deepening economic integration through enhanced trade and investments, improved connectivity between India and the region, closer cooperation in defence and maritime security matters as also disaster management. The India-ASEAN Agreement in trade in goods has facilitated significant growth in trade which has reached $ 80 billion. India has offered an agreement on trade in services and investments. The scope of Look East Policy has been expanded over a period of time to cover dialogue on security matters at the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and interaction at EAST Asia Summit meetings.

Integration into Global Economy: From 1947 to late 1980s India had subscribed to the concept of mixed economy with socialistic orientations; the policy was perhaps the right choice for a newly independent country which faced several challenges in socio-economic sectors. In fact the policy did pay its dividends to a certain extent. However the growth rates of economy hovered around two to three percent. The decision to deregulate and integrate into world economy was guided by the desire to be in pace with the fast changing scenario when the whole world was shrinking into a global village, aided in particular by the revolutionary changes in the fields of telecommunications and civil aviation. The policy shift has paid its dividends; India is now counted as one of the largest emerging economies and its views are heard and respected at the international gatherings such as G- 20 meetings. The successive governments have followed this policy in its spirit though there have been occasional differences of opinion eg FDI in retail sector.

India and its Neighbourhood

Let me begin with a quickly sketched profile of South Asia which accounts for the bulk of our neighbourhood. I will later touch upon our next door neighbours in East Asia namely China and if time permits also Myanmar.India’s neighbourhood which the member-countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) namely Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka comprise , is a fairly complex geographical entity. This is to say the least. In fact India can be said to be living in a dangerous neighbourhood. The constituent countries-individually as well as collectively-represent a world of historical links, shared legacies, commonalities as well as diversities which are so elaborately reflected in their ethnic, linguistic, religious and political fabric. China and Myanmar, the other two neighbours, are no less complex.

The South Asian region is also full of contradictions, disparities and paradoxes.

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 over 540mn people who earn less than $ 1.25 a day and account for 44% of developing world’s poor. 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.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has remained in existence for over 27 years; yet South Asia is considered as the least integrated of the global regions; this is despite the stipulation in its Charter that "bilateral and contentious issues shall be excluded” from its deliberations, thus making it possible to put the contentious issues on the back burner and focus on areas of possible cooperation.

On the positive side, the region has been registering a healthy growth (average 6% per annum) during the past several years. Also democratic forms of governance (howsoever flawed and feeble) are beginning to gain some ground in most parts of the region.

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 Asian nation (except Afghanistan and Pakistan) 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, even though the growth has of late slowed down and may not return to 9% in foreseeable future but according to the assessment of some international agencies, it may climb up to 7%.

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 which in turn has created misperceptions about India and its intention.India has valid reasons to be proud of its achievements. However, in the regional context, "India’s pride”, unfortunately is also "neighbours’ envy”. 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.

It is against the above backdrop of various challenges one has to look at the options which India’s foreign policy makers have at their disposal for this region:

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. Nevertheless, there are some basic approaches which India has consistently endeavoured to adopt and apply;

these include for instance:

• India advocates the policy of constructive engagement, despite such serious provocations as have been in the past (attack on Parliament, Mumbai terrorist attacks etc). It believes that violent retaliation and confrontation can only complicate the matters. This applies in particular to Pakistan- the origin of State-sponsored terrorism targeted at India. The policy of engagement is not allowed, however, to be misunderstood as weakness. Strong and loud messages emanate from India each and every time our patience is tested.

• India adheres to its benign and noble policy of non-interference into internal affairs of other countries in the region. 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 request for intervention is made by the country concerned.

• 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. In such cases, the domestic sentiments and genuine concerns of the segments of the society are taken into consideration but not allowed to determine country’s foreign policy which is guided solely by the overriding national interests and must be made in New Delhi.

• India has endeavoured to deal with the government-of-the-day, be it a democracy, monarchy or military dictatorship, insisting that the choice of the form of government is best left to the people of the country concerned. India does not believe in exporting democracy but 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 in close consultation with the Government in the concerned country;

• In contemporary globalised world, the foreign policy and the foreign economic policy objectives stand integrated and cannot be addressed divorced from each other. This is more so as the benefits of growth have yet to reach a very large segment of society.

Creation of an external environment which is conducive to all inclusive growth in the country is therefore one of the integral component of India’s foreign policy. All diplomatic skills and political leverages are being put to use to impress upon the partners in the region that joint exploration of natural resources can lead to win-win situations. India’s cooperation with Bhutan in hydropower generation is an example to be cited and followed. In contrast, as a result of its reluctance to collaborate with India in this field, Nepal remains a net importer of electricity despite its enormous hydro resources.

• India is using its Development Assistance Program as an effective foreign policy tool which India employs to earn goodwill and friends of India particularly in developing countries. India’s assistance in capacity building and infrastructure development is much appreciated by the recipient countries as the assistance is invariably non-prescriptive and the priorities are determined by the recipient State.

In a slight departure India is gradually switching over from pure charity to a judicious mix of outright grants and soft loans linked to project/commodity exports. Also India is judiciously working to ensure that the "goodwill’’ thus earned must get translated into concrete political and economic dividends.

• Finally, India is ready to go an extra mile in seeking the integration of the region. As often cautioned by the International Financial Institutes, only through regional cooperation can the South Asia be a part of Asian century.

India and Some Selected Neighbouring Countries

Pakistan It may appear that the unresolved Kashmir issue is at the core of strained relations between India and Pakistan. This is true but partly. The real problem is that there are at least four centres of power in Pakistan :

Military; ISI; civilian government and the extremist and fundamental forces. The civilian government- the only legitimate interlocutor- is the weakest link in the Pak power structure. And perhaps none of them is serious in resolving the issues. The pre-election and post election pronouncements by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharrif may have raised hopes for a possible breakthrough. It has been demonstrated by the Pakistani side once again that it would like to keep the issues alive rather than resolve them. We perhaps need to wait for yet another defining moment in our history when relations between the two countries will stand fully normalised.

Meanwhile, the problem has been further aggravated by the State sponsored/supported cross- border terrorism against India. India has shown an extra-ordinary restraint despite several terrorist attacks, particularly on Parliament and in Mumbai. India still prefers the path of dialogue over the option of direct confrontation.

Afghanistan: The current situation in Afghanistan is a source of serious concern for India as it impinges upon its security interests. Initially India was kept out for a while when the international community was seeking a solution to the problem; India is now very much a part of global efforts for the stabilisation of Afghanistan. India believes that the reconciliation processes in Afghanistan must be Afghan-led. Bilaterally India has entered into a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan and has committed $ 2 bn assistance to Afghanistan for the development of its infrastructure.

As Afghanistan moves closer to multi transitions (NATO drawdown, Presidential elections, economic transition) and enters the phase of transformation decade, India’s focus on Afghanistan is becoming sharper in view of the stakes India has in Afghanistan from the perspectives of Its own security and strategic interests. India can ill-afford the return of Taliban. The emergence of a regime in Afghanistan which is a proxy of Pakistan and dominated by Islamic fundamentalists would also not be in the interests of India.


In terms of geographic and demographic dimensions, skilled manpower, civilizational depth, China is the only country in the region which qualifies for comparison with India.

The two countries have a long history of civilisational links. Soon after its own independence and the Maoist revolution in China, India went an extra mile to reach out to the communist regime. India was quick in recognising China, and supported its entry into the United Nations; recognized Tibet as an autonomous region of China. The 1962 border conflict therefore came as a political shock to India. While Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s landmark visit in 1988 began a phase of improvement in bilateral relations, it is the cumulative outcomes of seven key High Level visits in last 10 years which have been transformational for India-China ties. [These were that of Prime Minister Vajpayee [2003], of Premier Wen Jiabao [2005 & 2010], of President Hu Jintao [2006], of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh [2008 and 2013] and of Premier Li Keqiang [2013]. It is noteworthy that more than 60% of the agreements between India and China have been signed during the last decade. As of today, both sides have established 36 dialogue mechanisms covering diverse sectors. Bilateral trade has registered enormous growth reaching $70bn in 2011 (and may touch $100bn by 2015). The year 2014 has been designated as the Year of Friendly Exchanges between India and China. The two sides have established a Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (2005) The leaders of India and China have also been meeting on the sidelines of regional, and multilateral gatherings and conferences.

In the past two decades new generations have grown up both in India and China. The young Indians do not carry the burden of bitter memories of the humiliating defeat in 1962 war; they look at china as the fastest growing economy which has already displaced Japan from its second position and may one day overtake USA as well. From the Indian policy makers’ perspective, China offers opportunities as well as poses challenges.

The irritants in relations between the two countries are well known ; the border dispute between India and China remains unresolved; China’s plans to build dams on Brahamaputra or seek access to Indian ocean through Pakistan and Myanmar, "string of pearls” etc are matters of concern. In addition, the rapid economic rise of China and its military strength have given it the audacity to occasionally flex political and military muscles.

It remains to be answered precisely as to whether the modern China is an opportunity, challenge or threat? Perhaps, a mix of all three.

Sri Lanka

India has adopted a multi- pronged approach since the liquidation of the LTTE; this policy has several components: i) India misses no opportunity to impress upon the Sri Lankan Government to abide by its commitments towards Sri Lankan Tamils particularly meaningful devolution of powers and the implementation of the 13th Amendment and beyond in a time bound manner; ii) India reassure as often as possible the Sri Lankan Tamils that it will make every effort to ensure the 13thfor the community is marked by equality, justice and self-respect; iii) India continues to invest into the reconstruction of Northern Sri Lanka; iv) As far the Tamil leadership in India, the Central Government in New Delhi listens to their demands, accommodates them to the extent feasible but ultimately exercises the prerogative of the Centre in the formulation of foreign policy taking broader national interests into account rather than being pushed by narrow regional priorities; v) India is monitoring carefully the Chinese overtures in Sri Lanka and check the latter’s drift towards China.

Global Issues

Let me now touch upon some important global issues which have engaged the attention of foreign policy makers of India in the past twenty years:

Disarmament/ Non-Proliferation Nuclear Doctrine

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.

While continuing to work for global disarmament, India has kept its nuclear options open. India has declined to put its signatures on the NPT as it considers the Treaty discriminatory and an instrument which has divided the world into two parts: the P-5s (USA, Russia, China, France UK) codified as legitimate nuclear powers, and the rest of the world which has been denied the right to develop and possess nuclear weapons. India’s refusal to subscribe to the NPT resulted in decades of isolation in the international non-proliferation community. India’s impeccable record as a responsible nuclear power has, however, reversed the process and India now enjoys the confidence of major international players. In this context, developments during the first decade of the 21stissues which had arisen out of India’s rejection of the NPT and development of its own nuclear weapons capabilities in defiance of international opinion, have more or less been relegated to background/resolved. Sanctions have been eased / lifted. The unflinching support from the USA and allies paved the way for the waiver by the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in 2008 which in turn has made it possible for India to conclude civil nuclear cooperation agreements with global nuclear powers. On its part, India has demonstrated its unequivocal commitment to non-proliferation through a series of steps and policy shifts. It has placed selected civil nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards, signed an Additional Protocol with IAEA, brought export control laws in lines with those of the NSG and has taken many other steps which bring most Indian policies in line with the NPT spirit without formal signing. 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 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.

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.

Climate Change: India considers climate change as a global problem demanding global efforts and global solutions. India ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (1993) and Kyoto Protocol (2002). India’s well articulated position is 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 further insists that the developing countries cannot be expected to forego its 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 does not want to be seen as an obstacle but as a part of the solution. India has thus volunteered to cut its gas emissions though it has no such obligations under the international treaties.

Terrorism: India has been a victim of terrorism for decades; this issue has therefore engaged the attention of India’s foreign policy makers for past several decades . India has adopted a policy of zero tolerance to the scourge of terrorism and condemns it as well as religious extremism and fundamentalism in any form or manifestation. It underlines the challenge posed by terrorism to international security during bilateral meets and at regional and international fora. In 1996, India introduced at UN the Draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism and is now advocating its early adoption.

The progress unfortunately has been slow; meanwhile, India has accelerated its bilateral interaction and has signed extradition treaties with over 30 countries.

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; India’s election to Non-Permanent Seat of UNSC with overwhelming support speaks for itself. 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.

Indians Abroad : There are more than 20mn Indians or persons of Indian origin living abroad all over the world. It has been the endeavour of successive Government to formulate such policies as would help derive economic and , where feasible, political benefits from their presence abroad. The welfare of overseas Indian community is now a very important element in India’s foreign policy approaches. India’s oversees Missions and Posts have been adequately equipped to handle difficult situations impinging upon the safety and security of oversees Indians; the Government of India has never been shy of intervening at the highest levels whenever the situation has so demanded. Let me now make some concluding remarks: The main objective of the foreign policy of a given country is to secure its national interests. India is no different in this regard. There is, however, a qualitative difference. It is noteworthy, that the foundations of India’s foreign policy are laid on certain core principles. These include for instance the five principles of peaceful co-existence (Panchsheel), independence of decision making, resolution of conflicts and disputes through dialogue and peaceful means, preference for constructive engagement over isolation of individual countries, support for multilateral approaches to global issues. India has followed these principles diligently and has scrupulously eschewed the philosophy of ‘ Sam Daam, Dand, Bhed’ in pursuing its foreign policy objectives. In the past two decades, these core principles have provided a great deal of continuity. While adhering to these core principles, India has continuously adapted to the changing external circumstances and shifting domestic needs. Economic dimensions are now an important element in India’s foreign policy. Currently as much as 50% of GDP is linked to foreign trade as compared to 20% in 1990s. Foreign investments, modern and advanced technology, critical raw materials, energy resources are required as important inputs for our economic development. An important objective of India’s foreign policy is thus to act as an enabler, and also to create an external environment which would be conducive for inclusive development within the country so that the benefits of growth can percolate to the poorest of the poor segments of the society.

India’s international image and Its stature as an important international player is indisputable. At the same time India is perceived by some as a soft power which prefers to punch below its weight. Well that is what India is: non-intrusive, non-prescriptive, non-interfering but firm and adamant when it comes to safeguarding its national interests. Occasional failures are bound to occur but by and large the track record of India’s foreign policy mandarins can be rated as above board.

May I now conclude and thank you for your attention, while opening the floor for question -answer session!