Distinguished Lectures

India's Foreign Policy: An overview core objectives, Fundamental principles and current priorities

  • (Retd) Achal Kumar Malhotra

    By: (Retd) Achal Kumar Malhotra
    Venue: Jai Prakash University, Chapra, Bihar
    Date: December 18, 2019

Honourable Vice Chancellor,
Distinguished Faculty Members, Dear Students
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

At the outset I would like to thank the Vice Chancellor of the Jai Prakash University for his initiative to organize a Talk on India’s Foreign Policy ; this should go a long way in generating interest in the less-debated subject in our country. I would also like to thank Ministry of External Affairs for deputing me to deliver the Talk under its prestigious Distinguished Lecture Series Programme. The mutually agreed topic assigned to me is: India’s Foreign Policy: An Overview (Core Objectives, Fundamental Principles and current Priorities)

Accordingly, I have divided my Talk into three segments: I will begin with the overarching objectives of India’s Foreign Policy. I will then list out the fundamental Principles which India follows in the implementation of its foreign policy and achievement of its core objectives. I will then talk aboutselected foreign policy Priorities and Challenges ahead of us. And finally, I would look forward to your questions and would be glad to respond.

Foreign Policy Objectives

In my opinion, India’s Foreign Policy has at least the following Four Core Objectives:

First Objective: The first and overarching objective of India’s Foreign Policy –like that of any other country-is to secure its national interests. The scope of "national interests” is fairly wide. In our case it includes for instance: securing our borders to protect territorial integrity, countering cross-border terrorism, energy security, food security, cyber security.In short, the first objective is to protect India from traditional and non-traditional threats.

Second Objective: The second objective is the objective to create an external environment which would be conducive for an inclusive domestic development. Let me elaborate : We need substantial external inputs in the form of foreign partners, foreign direct investments, transfer of modern technology so that we can develop a world-class infrastructure in India, so that our programmes such as Make in India, Skills India, Digital India, Smart Cities, can succeed , so that we have advanced agriculture, and modern defence equipment etc. India’s foreign policy’s added focus on this aspect in recent years has resulted in Diplomacy For Development by integrating economic diplomacy with political diplomacy.

Third Objective : In the past seventy two years, India has evolved from a poor developing country to an emerging economy and is counted as an important global player. The third important objective therefore is to ensure that India’s voice is heard on global forums and that India is able to influence world opinion on issues of global dimensions such as terrorism, climate change, disarmament, non-discriminatory global trade practices, reforms of institutions of global governance, which affect India as much as rest of the world.

Fourth Objective: India has 30mn strong Diaspora comprised of Non-Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin, spread all over the world. Over the years it has emerged as an influential force in the host countries. It provides a strong link between India and other countries and can play an important role in strengthening bilateral relations. The fourthand an important objective is to engage Indian Diaspora and derive maximum benefits from their presence abroad, while at the same time protecting their interests to the extent possible.

Dynamic World: Proactive and Pragmatic Approach

We are living in a dynamic world. India’s foreign policy is therefore geared up to be proactive, flexible as well as pragmatic so as to make quick adjustments to respond to evolving situations. In the implementation of its foreign policy India, however, invariably adheres to a set of basic principles on which no compromise is made .

Foreign Policy : Fundamental Principles

These fundamental principles include:

1. PANCHSHEEL , or Five Virtues which were first formally enunciated in the Agreement on Trade between the Tibet region of China and India signed on April 29, 1954 and later evolved to act as the basis of conduct of international relations globally. These Five Principles are: Mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, ii. Mutual non-aggression,iii. Mutual non-interference, iv. Equality and mutual benefit, and v. Peaceful co-existence.

2. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The World is One Family) Related to this is the concept ofSabkaSaath, SabkaVikas, Sabka Vishwas. In other words the entire world community is a part of one single large global family and the Members of the family must live together in peace and harmony, work and grow together and have trust in each other for mutual benefits.

3. India is Opposed to Export of Ideologies and Change of Regimes

India believes in and supports Democracy; however, India does not believe in the export of ideologies. India has therefore endeavoured to deal with the government-of-the-day, be it a democracy, monarchy or military dictatorship. India believes that it is best left to the people of the country to choose or remove their leaders and retain or change the form of governance. By extension of the above principle, India does not endorse the idea of regime change or violation of territorial integrity in a particular country by use of force or other means by another country or a group of countries.( Ex. US interventions in Iraq, Libya, Syria or Russia’s intervention in Georgia, Ukraine etc.)

At the same time, India 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, albeit with the explicit consent of the concerned Government. (Ex. Afghanistan)


India does not endorse the idea of imposing sanctions/military action against any individual country by another country or a group of countries unless these sanctions/ military actions have been approved by the United Nations as a result of international consensus. India therefore contributes only to such Peace-Keeping military operations which are part of the UN Peace-keeping Forces.

(India has contributed nearly 195,000 troops, the largest number from any country, participated in more than 49 missions and 168 Indian peacekeepers have made the supreme sacrifice while serving in UN missions. India has also provided and continues to provide eminent Force Commanders for UN Missions.)

5. Interference : NO ; Intervention :YES

India does not believe in interference in the internal affairs of other countries. 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. You will agree with me when I say that intervention is qualitatively different from interference, particularly when the intervention is made at the request of the country concerned. (Examples: Bangladesh 1971, IPKF in Sri Lanka (1987-90), Maldives (1988).


India advocates the policy of constructive engagement over aggression. It believes that violent retaliation and confrontation can only complicate the matters. War is no solution; after every war the conflicting Parties ultimately come to negotiating table by which time much damage has already been done. 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 India’s weakness. Strong and loud messages and actions emanate from India each and every time our patience is tested. The Surgical strike to target terrorist –launch pads in Pakistan occupied Indian territory in September 2016 is one such example. Air Strike at terrorist camps in Balakote in February 2019 in retaliation to Pulwama terrorist attack is yet another example.


Independence of decision making and strategic autonomy are yet another significant features of India’s foreign policy. India thus believes in Partnerships and shuns Alliances, particularly military alliances.


India advocates a global debate and global consensus on issues of global dimensions such as world trade regime, climate change, terrorism, intellectual property rights, global governance.



For several years post-Independence India had followed the policy of non-alignment and led the Non-aligned Movement (NAM). However, in the backdrop of cold war between the two superpowers namely the USA and USSR, India was usually seen as more inclined towards the Soviet Union. The collapse of the USSR in 1991 created a large strategic space for India to manoeuvre. Currently, although India hasn’t abandoned the basic tenants of non-alignment, India believes in the policy of multi-engagement; however, it doesn’t believe in building relations with one at the cost of the other.

2. South Asia :India’s Neighbourhood First Policy

India is the largest country in South Asia both in terms of area and population; India’s economy is sound and its growth rates are higher than those of others in the region. India’s stature as an important player in international affairs is growing. India’s credentials as a responsible nuclear State and its proven capabilities in Space Technology are acknowledged world-wide. These asymmetries have caused historically a sense of trust deficit in the region vis-a-vis India. Vested interests in neighbouring countries have floated erroneous narratives such as India acts like a "big bully” or a "big brother” In some countries there are segments of society which consider " being anti-Indian” as being equal to "patriotism”

India’s Neighbourhood First Policy, unveiled in May 2014, seeks to address the trust deficit, reset relations and build bridges of friendship and understanding thorough mutually beneficial cooperation. The outcome so far has been mixed; the engagement with neighbours is a continuous process and the level of relationship is often determined by the shifting priorities of the Governments in our neighbourhood. At the moment, India’s relations with Bhutan are exemplary; we have close and cordial relations with Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Maldives; a new chapter in relations with Sri Lanka has begun with the election of a new Government in that country. Relations with Nepal are more or less on an even heel. Relations with Pakistan have touched the lowest ebb in recent history.

South Asia: SAARC and BIMSTEC

India remains committed to integration of South Asia through South Asian Association For Regional Cooperation (SAARC)processes. However, SAARC as an Organisation has not lived up to expectations when measured in terms of delivery. It has been in existence for several decades and yet South Asia remains the least integrated region in the world. To make it worse the poor state of India- Pakistan relations and Pakistan's policy of obstruction has had an adverse impact on the progress in SAARC. No SAARC Summit at the level of Heads of Government/Heads of State has been held since the 18th Summit in November, 2014 in Kathmandu.The 19th Summit was scheduled to be held in Islamabad in 2016, which India decided to boycott in view of continued State patronage and sponsorship of cross-border terrorism by Pakistan. India was supported in its decision by Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.

In the backdrop of more or less dormant SAARC India has adopted a two pronged approach. First, it is willing to undertake sub-regional projects with as many members as are agreeable. As a result India, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh went ahead and signed a landmark Motor Vehicles Agreement for seamless movement of road traffic among Four SAARC Countries in June 2015, leaving aside unwilling Pakistan and others. Later in May 2017, India launched the South Asia Satellite - a communication satellite built by ISRO to provide a variety of communication services over the South Asian region; the satellite was launched despite reservations by Pakistan.

While remaining committed to SAARC, India has begun to see beyond SAARC. It is focussing on BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative For Multi-sectorial Technical and Economic Cooperation) as a platform for inter-regional cooperation between five SAAARC countries (India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka ) and two South East countries (Myanmar and Thailand). India deliberately chose BIMSTEC over SAARC for outreach meetings with BRICS at the BRICS Goa Summit in November 2016.

India’s policy is not to replace SAARC by BIMSTEC; both are relevant and can complement and supplement each other.

3. India’s Extended Neighbourhood :South East Asia: ASEAN and East Asia

In the context of India’s extended neighbourhood, the 10 ASEAN countries in the South East Asia are of utmost importance. India’s first outreach towards the Asian Tigers was made in early 1990s in the backdrop of the demise of the USSR, end of cold war and our own decision to liberalise economy and integrate it with word economy. As a result, India’s Look East policy was announced; The LEP has gone through three Phases. The first phase of India’s ‘Look East’ policy (1992-2002) was ASEAN-centred and focussed primarily on trade and investment linkages. During this period India entered into a Sectoral Dialogue Partnership with ASEAN in 1992 which was upgraded to Full Dialogue Partner status in 1996, when India also joined the ASEAN Regional Forum(ARF). From 2002 India began holding annual India-ASEAN Summit level meetings.

The Phase-2 began in 2003 when the then Foreign Minister Sh. Yashwant Sinha (at Harvard University; 29th September, 2003) shared the Government’s expanded definition of ‘East’, covering Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan and South Korea, with ASEAN at its core. He further added that the new phase also marked a shift from trade to wider economic and security issues, including joint efforts to protect the sea-lanes and coordinate counter-terrorism activities. In 2012, the 20 years of dialogue partnership culminated into Strategic Partnership.

In 2014, the new Government led by PM Modi renamed the "Look East Policy(LEP) ” as "Act East Policy (AEP)” ; this was more than rebranding.

Since then the Government has sought a more "dynamic" and "action-oriented" approach in relations with ASEAN. Considerable attention is being made to promote India’s economic links with CMLV countries (Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam)-a sub region within ASEAN whose relative proximity with India’s North-East has inherent advantage. As one of its most significant initiative the Indian government set up the Project Development Fund in 2016 within the Export and Import Bank of India with a corpus of Rs 500 crore (approx. US$ 71.5 million) to promote Indian investments in the region.

The most significant exposition of India’s Act East Policy was the presence of Heads of state and Heads of Government at the 2018 Republic Day celebrations. India is now expected not only to bolster its economic and strategic engagements with the region but also to emerge as a potential security balancer in the region as well. The India-USA-Japan-Australia Quard is a pointer in that direction. Our recent decision to stay out of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was guided by our national interests.

4. Connectivity

India places a great emphasis on physical and digital connectivity to integrate South Asia and to connect South Asia with other regions particularly South East Asia and Central Asia. Within South Asia, the Bangladesh- Bhutan -India- Nepal ( BBIN) Motor Vehicle Agreement provides seamless connectivity for movement of passenger and cargo vehicles within the four countries.

Some of the projects which are of utmost importance include the development of strategically important Chabahar Port which connects India on the one hand with Iran and Afghanistan and on the other with Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan : the common adversary of Afghanistan and India . Even though India had started talking to Iran in this context in 2003, the real push from India was given in mid- 2014 resulting in the signing of agreements and actual development and inauguration of the first Phase of the Port in December 2017. India has since taken over the physical possession and this is the first Port India is operating outside India. Afghanistan sent its first cargo to India using Zaranj- Chabahar route in February 2019. India had earlier sent wheat to Afghanistan end 2017 using this Sea route. India has established two direct Air Freight Corridors as reliable alternative supply routes for landlocked Afghanistan .The Delhi-Kabul corridor has been operational since June 2017 and Delhi- Great corridor was inaugurated in March 2019.

The 1360 km trilateral India, Myanmar Thailand Highway under construction and likely to become operational by next year will connect India' s North East with ASEAN . India is funding the construction of the segments in Myanmar. India has also proposed to link of with Cambodia , Laos and Vietnam.

Kaladan Multimodal transport project is yet another project which was moving at a slow pace and was expedited in 2015 by allocation of substantial funds. The project seeks to connect India's landlocked North East with mainland India through Myanmar using maritime, inland water and road systems. KMMT project when completed will cut short the time for transportation of good from Kolkata to Mizoram by up to four days and cut short the distance by appx. 950 km.

5. Issues of Global Dimensions

Terrorism : Corruption, Black Money, Money Laundering Fugitive Economic Offenders

Global campaign against International terrorism remains high on the agenda of the Indian government. Realizing that the negotiations on the Draft Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism (CCIT) are moving at snail’s pace, India has plans to build a "Comity of Nations Against International Terrorism” as a voluntary multilateral forum based on the principles of CCIT to combat international terrorism. In an implied reference to Pakistan the BJP Manifesto 2019 declared India’s commitment to take all possible steps at international forums to isolate such countries and organizations which support terrorism. India is likely to continue to lobby so that Pakistan was moved from the "grey” to "black list of Financial Action Task Force (FATA).

China’s defence of Pakistan on terrorism related issues and some countries’ selective approach towards terrorism is a challenge India will have to reckon with.

India also remains focussed on raising at global forums such issues as Corruption, Black Money, Money Laundering Fugitive Economic Offenders. Expeditious extradition of economic offenders such as Vijay Malaya, NeeravModi, etc. would be another priority.

Climate Change:
India is committed to making its own contribution towards lowering greenhouse gas emissions and expects at the same time the developed countries to play an important role both in reducing emissions and assisting developing countries through funds and technology to combat climate change, in view of the historical responsibility of the developed world for causing damage to environment through indiscreet industrial development in 19th and 20th centuries.

Disarmament: India remains committed to non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.India’s record as a nuclear power is impeccable. India stands for global, non-discriminatory and verifiable disarmament.

Reforms in Institutions of Global Governance : India is of the opinion that the institutions of global governance such as UN, World Bank, IMF etc. do not represent the ground realities of contemporary world which have undergone tremendous change since those institutions were created decades ago after the World war II, and therefore need to be reformed.

India’s Bilateral relations with Selected Countries


Within our immediate neighbourhood, I now propose to discuss our relations with Pakistan and China.


In 2014 India’s relations with Pakistan were at low ebb. In sync with its Neighbourhood First Policy, India made considerable efforts to normalize its strained relations with Pakistan; By the beginning of 2016, it was abundantly clear that the Pakistani Deep State ( Army and ISI) was not interested in the resumption of dialogue and continued to promote and support cross-border terrorism to harm India. Limits were crossed when the Pathankot Airbase was attacked within a week of PM Modi’s gesture of making an unscheduled halt at Lahore (en-route New Delhi from Kabul) end December, 2015. There was a further setback to relations when 18 soldiers of Indian Army were killed in a terrorist attack in September, 2016 in URI, the Baramulla District of J&K. India had reasons to lose patience and change the rules of engagement along the line of Control; it carried out a successful "Surgical Strike” on terrorist camps in the Pak-occupied Kashmir across the Line of Control within a week of Uri attack. Similarly, the Pulwama attack killing 40 CRPF Jawans in February, 2019 was promptly retaliated by an air-strike by the Indian Air Force on the Terrorist training centre in Balakot, inside the Pakistani territory.

Relations have gone from bad to worse due to Pakistan’s feverish attempts to internationalize Kashmir issue after the abrogation of Article 370; these efforts were skilfully thwarted by India’s pro-active diplomatic offensive.

India has adopted a firm policy of "Terror and Talks cannot go together”, and has made it abundantly clear that, no departure will be made unless there are tangible and verifiable concrete evidence of Pakistan reining in the State –sponsored and supported terrorism targeted against India, and stopping interference in Kashmir.


During the visit of the Chinese President Xi Ping to India in September, 2014, India extended its hand of friendship and conveyed a clear message that the two countries must work together so that the 21st century could belong to Asia. The trajectory of India-China relations, however, did not develop the way India would have liked. India does not endorse China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, particularly the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through the Pak-Occupied Kashmir and thus raises the issue of sovereignty. China is also blocking India’s Membership of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and protects Pakistan on the issue of terrorism by projecting it as a victim of terrorism and advocating that no country should be singled out while addressing the issues related to Terrorism. China on its part is apprehensive about India joining hands with USA, Japan and Australia to forge an anti-China alliance to counter it in Indo- Pacific region. There are issues arising out of huge balance of trade in China’s favour, and also unresolved border disputes. The prolonged Doklam face-off between the Indian and Chinese troops in September, 2017 posed a serious threat to bilateral relations but was fortunately resolved thanks to skilful use of diplomacy. The understanding which emerged from the informal summit between PM Modi and President XI Ping in China in April 2018 has come to be known as Wuhan Spirit, the essence of which is that the two sides must enhance efforts to build upon the convergences and handle the differences through peaceful discussions, and that peaceful, stable and balanced relations between India and China will be a positive factor for stability amidst current global uncertainties, and further that proper management of the bilateral relationship will be conducive for the development and prosperity of the region, and will create the conditions for the Asian Century. The Wuhan spirit was carried further through second informal Summit in October, 2019 between PM Modi and President Xi Jinping described popularly as "Chennai Connect”. The issues which divide India and China are unlikely to be resolved in near future. Meanwhile India is expected to cooperate and collaborate with China whenever feasible (e.g. trade and investments), confront whenever required (e.g. Doklam) and compete with and contain China whenever the occasion demands(e.g. counter China’s influence in our neighbourhood)

Two big powers : USA and Russia

On the whole, the trajectory of relations with USA has been on the ascendency except that some irritants have appeared in bilateral relations in the recent past. The US has accorded the status of Defence Partner which puts India at par with NATO allies. The USA is keen that India acts as a counter-weight to China in Asia. The USA would also like India to join hands with USA, Japan, Australia and others in the region to act as net security providers in Indo-Pacific Ocean in matters such as maritime security, freedom of navigation, piracy and disaster management. The unstated objective is to contain China’s expansionist designs, particularly in South China Sea where China is undertaking construction activities on disputed islands.

The US sanctions on Russia (CAATSA) (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act) and also on Iran have implications for India' s defence procurements ( S 400 Missile Defence system from Russia ) and for its energy security due to inability to buy oil from Iran. In addition, the USA has withdrawn GSP under which India’s exports to USA worth $ 5.6bn were receiving preferential tariffs. India has retaliated by imposing higher duties on certain US exports to India. These concerns were addressed during the visit of the US Secretary of State to New Delhi and PM Modi’s meeting with President Trump on the side-lines of G20 Summit in June this years. India was candid and firm in conveying that ultimately India will do whatever it considers best in country’s national interests.

The Soviet Union and its successor State Russian Federation are rightly described as India’s reliable, tried and tested friends. For a fairly long period of time, Russia was the leading source of defence procurements for India; even now we heavily depend on Russia for new, modern defence equipment and spares of equipment bought earlier. On assumption of charge in 2014, the new Government had moved swiftly and aggressively to diversify India’s defence requirements. Our move came at a time when Russia’s economy was going through a difficult phase due to US and European sanctions and dip in oil prices. Our genuine desire to diversify sources of defence supplies was misunderstood by Russia as India’s drift away from Russia. India was quick in rectifying the situation and restoring mutual trust and confidence. Our relations with Russia are now on firm footing and the focus of special and privileged strategic partnership is on defence, energy, space and trade and investments.

Foreign Policy Challenges

Balancing Act :To steer clear of the on-going conflicts,

Challenges are numerous. Stable relations with countries in the neighbourhood and leading powers such as Russia, USA, China ,developed countries such as Japan, France, UK and Germany and resource-rich countries such as Saudi Arabia, UAE, Iran, Israel are in India’s interests particularly in the context of sourcing raw materials, modern technology, investments, sophisticated weapons, joint ventures to meet the requirements of inclusive domestic development and success of programmes such as Make in India, Smart Cities, Skill India, and for the modernization of infrastructure. The challenge is to steer clear of the on-going conflicts, for instance between the USA and Russia and Iran and USA, the China-US trade war resulting in particular in a sanctions regime (like CAATSA) which, as mentioned earlier, is to the disadvantage of India.

India’s Global Aspirations

India is a politically stable country and its economy is steady. India is building up its military muscles slowly but steadily. As a large market India is an attractive destination for foreign investments, joint ventures, commodity exports. India’s stature in international affairs has grown considerably in recent years. Arguably India’s time has come. A certain degree of assertiveness in foreign affairs was visible even during the past five years, when India appeared to punch according to its weight.

I would like to conclude on the following Note: India is now bound to ensure that it plays an increasingly important role in shaping the global agenda, that it is part of the "rule making” rather than "rule following” and that it emerges as a strong pole in the multi-polar world. Needless to add that India deserves a Permanent Seat in the UN General Assembly as and when it is reformed and expanded, and in this context a large number of countries have already committed their support.

I thank you all for your attention and patience. I would also like to thank Vice Chancellor’s Team, in particular Assistant Professor Dr Sonali Singh for her initiative and efforts in enthusiastically organising this event and Professor R. Singh for ensuring that my stay here in Chapra is confortable.

I will be glad to take questions from the audience.

Disclaimer :-The opinions/views expressed in the Lectures are author's own and do not represent the views of the Ministy of External Affairs.