Know India’s foreign policy – Part I

India has formal diplomatic relations with most nations; it is the world’s second most populous country, the world’s most-populous democracy and one of the fastest growing major economies.[1] With the world’s eighth largest military expenditurethird largest armed forceseventh largest economyby nominal rates and third largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity,[2] India is a regional power,[3] a nascent global power and a potential superpower. India has a growing international influence and a prominent voice in global affairs.

India is a newly industrialised country, has a history of collaboration with several countries, is a component of theBRICS & a major part of developing world.[4][5] India was one of the founding members of several international organisations, most notably the United Nations, the Asian Development Bank,G20 industrial nations and the founder of the Non-aligned movement. India has also played an important and influential role in other international organisations like East Asia Summit,[6] World Trade Organisation,[7] International Monetary Fund (IMF),[8] G8+5[9] and IBSA Dialogue Forum.[10] Regionally, India is a part ofSAARC and BIMSTEC. India has taken part in several UN peacekeeping missions and in 2007, it was the second-largest troop contributor to the United Nations.[11] India is currently seeking a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, along with the G4 nations.[12]


Even before independence, the Government of British India maintained semi-autonomous diplomatic relations. It had colonies (such as the Aden Settlement), who sent and received full missions,[13] and was a founder member of both the League of Nations[14] and the United Nations.[15] After India gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, it soon joined theCommonwealth of Nations and strongly supported independence movements in other colonies, like the Indonesian National Revolution.[16] The partition and various territorial disputes, particularly that over Kashmir, would strain itsrelations with Pakistan for years to come. During the Cold War, India adopted a foreign policy of not aligningitself with any major power bloc. However, India developed close ties with the Soviet Union and received extensive military support from it.

The end of the Cold War significantly affected India’s foreign policy, as it did for much of the world. The country now seeks to strengthen its diplomatic and economic ties with the United States,[17]the People’s Republic of China,[18] theEuropean Union,[19] Japan,[20] Israel,[21]Mexico,[22] and Brazil.[23] India has also forged close ties with the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,[24] the African Union,[25] theArab League[26] and Iran.[27]

Though India continues to have a military relationship with Russia,[28]Israel has emerged as India’s second largest military partner[25] while India has built a strong strategic partnership with the United States.[17][29] The foreign policy of Narendra Modi indicated a shift towards focusing on the Asian region and, more broadly, trade deals.


States that host an Indian diplomatic mission

  Nations that host an Indian diplomatic mission

India’s foreign policy has always regarded the concept of neighbourhood as one of widening concentric circles, around a central axis of historical and cultural commonalities.[30]

As many as 21 million people of Indian origin live and work abroad and constitute an important link with the mother country. An important role of India’s foreign policy has been to ensure their welfare and well being within the framework of the laws of the country where they live.[31]

Role of the Prime Minister

Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s firstPrime Minister, promoted a strong personal role for the Prime Minister but a weak institutional structure. Nehru served concurrently as Prime Minister and Minister of External Affairs; he made all major foreign policy decisions himself after consulting with his advisers and then entrusted the conduct of international affairs to senior members of the Indian Foreign Service. He was the main founding fathers of thePanchsheel or the five principles of peaceful co-existence.

His successors continued to exercise considerable control over India’s international dealings, although they generally appointed separate ministers of external affairs.[32][33][34]

India’s second prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri (1964–66), expanded the Prime Minister Office (sometimes called the Prime Minister’s Secretariat) and enlarged its powers. By the 1970s, the Office of the Prime Minister had become the de facto coordinator and supraministry of the Indian government. The enhanced role of the office strengthened the prime minister’s control over foreign policy making at the expense of the Ministry of External Affairs. Advisers in the office provided channels of information and policy recommendations in addition to those offered by the Ministry of External Affairs. A subordinate part of the office—the Research and Analysis Wing(RAW)—functioned in ways that significantly expanded the information available to the prime minister and his advisers. The RAW gathered intelligence, provided intelligence analysis to the Office of the Prime Minister, and conducted covert operations abroad.

The prime minister’s control and reliance on personal advisers in the Office of the Prime Minister was particularly strong under the tenures of Indira Gandhi(1966–77 and 1980–84) and her son, Rajiv (1984–89), who succeeded her, and weaker during the periods of coalition governments. Observers find it difficult to determine whether the locus of decision-making authority on any particular issue lies with the Ministry of External Affairs, the Council of Ministers, the Office of the Prime Minister, or the prime minister himself.[35]

The Prime Minister is however free to appoint advisers and special committees to examine various foreign policy options and areas of interest.[36]In a recent instance, Manmohan Singhappointed K. Subrahmanyam in 2005 to head a special government task force to study ‘Global Strategic Developments’ over the next decade.[37] The Task Force submitted its conclusions to the Prime Minister in 2006.[38][39] The report has not yet been released in the public domain.

Ministry of External Affairs

The Ministry of External Affairs is the Indian government’s agencyresponsible for the foreign relations of India. The Minister of External Affairs holds cabinet rank as a member of theCouncil of Ministers.

Sushma Swaraj is current Minister of External Affairs. The Ministry has oneMinister of State Vijay Kumar Singh. TheIndian Foreign Secretary is the head ofIndian Foreign Service (IFS) and therefore, serves as the head of all Indian ambassadors and high commissioners.[40] S Jaishankar is the current Foreign Secretary of India.

Look East Policy

Main article: Look East Policy

In the post Cold War era, a significant aspect of India’s foreign policy is the Look East Policy. During the cold war, India’s relations with its South East Asian neighbours was not very strong. After the end of the cold war, the government of India particularly realised the importance of redressing this imbalance in India’s foreign policy. Consequently, the Narsimha Rao government in the early nineties of the last century unveiled the look east policy. Initially it focused on renewing political and economic contacts with the countries of East and South-East Asia.

At present, under the Look East Policy, the Government of India is giving special emphasis on the economic development of backward north eastern region of India taking advantage of huge market of ASEAN as well as of the energy resources available in some of the member countries of ASEAN like Burma.[41] Look-east policy was launched in 1992 just after the end of the cold war, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. After the start of liberalisation, it was a very strategic policy decision taken by the government in the foreign policy. To quote Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “it was also a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and India’s place in the evolving global economy”.

The policy was given an initial thrust with the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao visiting China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Singapore and India becoming an important dialogue partner with ASEAN in 1992. Since the beginning of this century, India has given a big push to this policy by becoming a summit level partner of ASEAN (2002) and getting involved in some regional initiatives such as the BIMSTEC and the Ganga–Mekong Cooperation and now becoming a member of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in December, 2005.[42]


India’s relations with the world have evolved since the British Raj (1857–1947), when the British Empiremonopolised external and defence relations. When India gained independence in 1947, few Indians had experience in making or conducting foreign policy. However, the country’s oldest political party, the Indian National Congress, had established a small foreign department in 1925 to make overseas contacts and to publicise its independence struggle. From the late 1920s on, Jawaharlal Nehru, who had a long-standing interest in world affairs among independence leaders, formulated the Congress stance on international issues. As a member of the interim government in 1946, Nehru articulated India’s approach to the world.[43]

India’s international influence varied over the years after independence. Indian prestige and moral authority were high in the 1950s and facilitated the acquisition of developmental assistance from both East and West. Although the prestige stemmed from India’s nonaligned stance, the nation was unable to prevent Cold War politics from becoming intertwined with interstate relations in South Asia.

In the 1960s and 1970s India’s international position among developed and developing countries faded in the course of wars with China and Pakistan, disputes with other countries in South Asia, and India’s attempt to balance Pakistan’s support from the United States and China by signing the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in August 1971. Although India obtained substantial Soviet military and economic aid, which helped to strengthen the nation, India’s influence was undercut regionally and internationally by the perception that itsfriendship with the Soviet Unionprevented a more forthright condemnation of the Soviet presence in Afghanistan. In the late 1980s, India improved relations with the United States, other developed countries, and China while continuing close ties with the Soviet Union. Relations with its South Asian neighbours, especially Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, occupied much of the energies of the Ministry of External Affairs.[44]

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, India has forged a closer partnership with Western powers. Shown here is the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with US President Barack Obama in 2009.

In the 1990s, India’s economic problems and the demise of the bipolar world political system forced India to reassess its foreign policy and adjust its foreign relations. Previous policies proved inadequate to cope with the serious domestic and international problems facing India. The end of the Cold War gutted the core meaning of nonalignment and left Indian foreign policy without significant direction. The hard, pragmatic considerations of the early 1990s were still viewed within the nonaligned framework of the past, but the disintegration of the Soviet Union removed much of India’s international leverage, for which relations with Russia and the other post-Soviet states could not compensate. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, India improved its relations with the United States, Canada, France, Japan and Germany. In 1992, India established formal diplomatic relations with Israel and this relationship grew during the tenures of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and the subsequent UPA (United Progressive Alliance) governments.[45]

In the mid-1990s, India attracted the world attention towards the Pakistan-backed terrorism in Kashmir. The Kargil War resulted in a major diplomatic victory for India. The United States and European Union recognised the fact that Pakistani military had illegally infiltrated into Indian territory and pressured Pakistan to withdraw from Kargil. Several anti-India militant groups based in Pakistan were labeled as terrorist groups by the United States andEuropean Union.

India has often represented the interests of developing countries at various international platforms. Shown here are Vladimir Putin,Narendra ModiDilma RousseffXi Jinping and Jacob Zuma, 2014.

In 1998, India tested nuclear weapons for the second time (see Pokhran-II) which resulted in several US, Japanese and European sanctions on India. India’s then-defence minister, George Fernandes, said that India’s nuclear programme was necessary as it provided a deterrence to potential Chinese nuclear threat. Most of the sanctions imposed on India were removed by 2001.[46]

After 11 September attacks in 2001, Indian intelligence agencies provided the U.S. with significant information on Al-Qaeda and related groups’ activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. India’s extensive contribution to the War on Terror, coupled with a surge in its economy, has helped India’s diplomatic relations with several countries. Over the past three years, India has held numerous joint military exercises with U.S. and European nations that have resulted in a strengthened U.S.-India and E.U.-India bilateral relationship. India’s bilateral trade with Europe and United States has more than doubled in the last five years.[47]

India has been pushing for reforms in the UN and WTO with mixed results. India’s candidature for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council is currently backed by several countries including France, Russia,[48] the United Kingdom,[49] Germany, Japan, Brazil,[50]Australia[51] and UAE.[52] In 2004, the United States signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with India even though the latter is not a part of theNuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The US argued that India’s strong nuclear non-proliferation record made it an exception, however this has not persuaded other Nuclear Suppliers Group members to sign similar deals with India. During a state visit to India in November 2010, US president Barack Obama announced US support forIndia’s bid for permanent membership to UN Security Council[53] as well as India’s entry to Nuclear Suppliers Group,Wassenaar ArrangementAustralia Group and Missile Technology Control Regime.[54][55]

Strategic partners

India’s growing economy, strategic location, friendly foreign policy and large and vibrant diaspora has won it more allies than enemies.[56] India has friendly relations with several countries in thedeveloping world. Though India is not a part of any major military alliance, it has close strategic and military relationship with most of the fellow major powers.

Countries considered India’s closest include the Russian Federation,[57]Israel,[58] Afghanistan,[59] France,[60]Bhutan[61] and Bangladesh.[62] Russia is the largest supplier of military equipment to India, followed by Israel and France.[63] According to some analysts, Israel is set to overtake Russia as India’s largest military and strategic partner.[64] The two countries also collaborate extensively in the sphere of counter-terrorism and space technology.[65] India also enjoys strong military relations with several other countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States,[66] Japan,[67]Singapore, Brazil, South Africa and Italy.[68] In addition, India operates anairbase in Tajikistan[69] and signed a landmark defence accord with Qatar in 2008.[70] India has also looked at forging strong trilateral engagements – the most prominent of which are the India-US-Israel and India-Iran-Russia relationships.[71]

India has also forged relationships with developing countries, especially South Africa, Brazil,[72] and Mexico.[73] These countries often represent the interests of the developing countries through economic forums such as the G8+5,IBSA and WTO. India was seen as one of the standard bearers of the developing world and claimed to speak for a collection of more than 30 other developing nations at the Doha Development Round.[74][75] India’s “Look East” Policy has helped it develop greater economic and strategic partnership with Southeast Asian countries, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. India also enjoys friendly relations with the Persian Gulf countriesand most members of the African Union.

The Foundation for National Security Research in New Delhi published India’s Strategic Partners: A Comparative Assessment and ranked India’s top strategic partners with a score out of 90 points : Russia comes out on top with 62, followed by the United States (58), France (51), UK (41), Germany (37), and Japan (34).[76]


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