India’s Foreign Policy Challenges: Today and Beyond


The years 1989 – 1991 were a watershed in the history of the 20th century. In a series of swift and stunning events, the USSR and its proxy regimes in Eastern Europe collapsed. Grass roots revolts by disaffected youth were seen in both Europe and Asia as evidenced by the ceremonies at the collapse of Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square, and Myanmar. The ideological struggle between capitalism and communism melted and paved the way for globalization. The world previously polarized by an ideological struggle rapidly morphed into economic blocs. ASEAN, a bulwark against the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, rearranged to include Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

In the post Cold War era, two main and often opposing trends emerged. The first was a willingness of the international community, particularly the US to play a mediating role in settling conflicts from Northern Ireland to East Timor. Associated with this trend was the break up of larger countries into smaller nations of Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States of the erstwhile USSR. Simultaneously, neighboring states realized the benefits of economic interdependence coalesced into trading blocs. Among the most notable groupings are NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), European Union, and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). India in the early 90’s seemed ill suited to cope with the changes in the global environment. It was largely dependent on the former Soviet Union for military equipment and spares. India’s economy was highly regulated and centrally controlled and its ties with the US remained limited. 

During the late 80’s and the 1990’s, the end of the Cold War heralded realignment in global relations. India engaged new friends, maintained steadfast contact with old friends, and an ever watchful eye over enemies. India started its journey of economic liberalization, and the Gujral doctrine dampened hegemonic fears among neighbors. India extended its influence into the distant neighborhoods of Southeast Asia and the Middle East. The tenure of Prime Minister Rao witnessed burgeoning economic and political relations. Astute foreign policy laid the cornerstone in the foundation of India’s post Cold War foreign policy, and subsequent administrations advanced this agenda.

India established economic and diplomatic relations with Israel and deepened ties with the Arab states. India’s economic engagement of ASEAN continued at a steadfast rate throughout the 1990’s. Relations with the US gradually thawed and even blossomed. Overall, the pre-Cold War Indo – US ties were held hostage to the larger Cold War agenda and to US-Pakistan relations. The 1980’s brought about a rapprochement in Indo – US ties due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, India’s desire to open its economy, and clandestine Pakistani acquisition of nuclear weapons. The post Cold War era reduced the confinements of the past, and new administrations in both countries sought to increase ties. The Clinton administration’s simple message “it’s the economy stupid” allowed both governments to set aside some past disagreements and focus on mutual economic growth. Relations with Russia continued to mature and involved a long standing multidimensional approach involving security, military, and economic links. 

Despite the upswing in India’s global contacts and the post Cold War era bonhomie, Pakistan remained a sore point due to its obduracy in Kashmir and support of cross border terrorism. The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan allowed Pakistan to redirect trained mercenaries towards Kashmir in order to achieve long sought goals. As tensions between India and Pakistan flared over various reasons, President Clinton repeatedly offered unsolicited American services and at one time even asked China to play a role. Indian policy treaded a difficult course of exposing Pakistan’s role in cross border terrorism. At the same time it avoided internationalizing the Kashmir issue and invite serious meddling. Internationalization would play into Pakistani hands of devaluing the bilateral Simla Agreement. One notable event borne out of over zealous efforts at peacemaking was the Robin Raphel fiasco. It inadvertently questioned the legitimacy of the Indian Union and threatened burgeoning Indo – US ties. India’s diplomats successfully raised objections and prevented further carelessness by the Clinton Administration.

India’s engagement of Southeast Asia was dubbed as “Look East Policy.” India’s economic engagement of ASEAN continued at a steadfast rate throughout the 1990’s and reaped dividends in the form of trade agreements, increased contact between people, and the establishment of sub-regional grouping such as BIMSTEC (Bangladesh India Myanmar Sri Lanka Thailand Economic Council) and GMC (Ganga Mekong Cooperative). These groups worked towards free trade agreements, common development of infrastructure, and integration of national economies into the global economy. In addition to an economic dimension, India’s engagement was motivated by strategic reasons. China’s economic and military interaction would restrict India’s role in Southeast Asia. India capitalized on ASEAN’s concern about Chinese influence to bolster its position. India’s northeast region would serve as a launch pad for economic interaction and revitalize an ailing portion of the country. India’s engagement of Myanmar despite significant Chinese influence indicated broad goals of engaging neighbors on economic and strategic terms. Indo – Myanmar ties formed the first and critical step in India – Southeast Asia ties while improving security in the Northeast region and paving the way for future economic development. 

In a stunning move India carried out three nuclear tests on May 11, 1998. As the Clinton administration preached nuclear morality, India retorted with an additional 2 tests on May 13, 1998. India “gate crashed” into the exclusive nuclear club. Despite bravado about a de-nuclearizing India from a non proliferation regime in Washington the world accepted India as a nuclear reality. The usually economically savvy Clinton administration sought to replace incentives with economic sanctions in order to punish India. In retrospect, the economic sanctions overwhelmingly failed. The dialogue between India and the US resulted in a lengthy exchange on mutual security situations. India voluntarily agreed to the principle of the NPT (Non Proliferation Treaty) as a way of calming American apprehensions. Pakistan soon retorted to India’s tests. Despite disclosed nuclear capability, a conflagration between India and Pakistan in the spring of 1999 did not escalate to a nuclear exchange. Furthermore, it amply demonstrated the success of Indian policy and marginalized Pakistan for promoting instability. On the other hand, the Kargil imbroglio served as a convenient way for the West to continue the Indo – Pak dyad to encompass nuclear tensions. The region was dubbed the most dangerous place in the world and serve as a vehicle for numerous peace making attempts and a Presidential visit. 

The fears of the most dangerous place in the world were confirmed in an unimaginable way on September 2001 as terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, while Pakistan obstructed attempts to capture him. After the 9-11 attacks, Pakistan was forced to officially turn against the Taliban and aid US efforts. India was driven by economic and strategic compulsions. It. offered significant aid to the US in the initial phase of the War on Terror. According to India, the 9-11 attack sharply focused attention on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terror. Additionally, due to strong economic linkages any downturn in the US economy would adversely impact Indian economic growth and hurt Indian Diaspora in the region. The presence of American military personnel and long term interests in Afghanistan irrevocably changed the security situation for India. Pakistan’s overt cross border terrorism would be checked, and the reversal of the Taliban reduced training camps for future jihadis. On the other, Pakistan secured by American interests would resort to adventurism against India without fear of retaliation as evidenced by December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. In the post 9-11 scenario, India benefited from the removal of the Taliban regime, established diplomatic and economic linkages with Afghanistan, and furthered ties to Central Asian neighbors. India desires a stable Afghanistan that retards the growth of fundamentalist forces and allows India access to the region’s trade and energy commodity. The American engagement of Pakistan is a double edged sword, on one hand it limited Pakistan’s ability to spread the nuisance of terrorism, but it resulted in military benefits that could be potentially directed against India. 

Challenges Ahead

During the Bush administration, Indo – US ties acquired a security dimension with regular military exercises and limited access to civilian and military technology. Thinkers in both governments sought to make the two countries “natural allies” and often touted that India could play a pivotal role in America’s Asia policy in the new century. Despite the rhetoric, there are numerous issues of divergence such as American unilateralism, support of Pakistan’s regime that fosters terrorism against India, and future containment of China and Iran. If these points of divergence are not discussed or mutually resolved will unravel ties and threaten to undercut the momentum of Indo – US relations. Furthermore, the US must quietly bury the India – Pakistan dyad, the staple of many public announcements. Any ongoing use of the dyad will seek to accentuate the ridiculous because a reasonable comparison between the countries cannot exist. 

Nonetheless, one must note several significant points of convergence such as economic development, balance of power in Asia, stemming of terrorism and policy with regard to Afghanistan. Stability in Afghanistan forms the pivot of India’s political, economic and strategic policy in Central Asia. Any constraints on Indian policy in the region will ease the path of fundamentalist influence. Trends such as the resurgent Taliban and marginalization of minority groups are worrisome as it could unravel the progress of the past 3 years. The success of a representative government in Afghanistan and freedom from the Taliban keeps fundamentalist forces at bay in the region and promotes stability in Central Asia. The establishment of intercultural contacts, strong diplomatic interaction, and aid in the form of food and vehicles are meant to not only promote good will and help a troubled neighbor, but also are a stepping stone to mutually lucrative trade corridor extending into the interior of Asia. 

Iran forms the second pillar of India’s engagement in the region. It diversifies India’s engagement of the Islamic world and bypasses Pakistan. American action against Iran will affect India’s policy in Central Asia, strengthen the factors of instability but also could widen the area of instability from Iraq to Afghanistan and promote Islamic fundamentalism. 

The Pakistani government’s continued stubbornness poses a strong challenge to India’s foreign policy. Pakistan’s “invader” mindset is evident from non-compliance with past treaties, support of cross border terrorism, view of historical events and the names of its missiles. It is simplistic to view Pakistan as a monolith. In actuality, Pakistan has a sizeable amount of diversity across ethnic groups, religious sects, and political ideology. Unfortunately, such diversity is not represented in its military dominated government. Moderate factions are often held at bay by the government’s backing of fundamentalist forces and its promotion of a paranoid world view to its populous. Suppression both ethnic and political diversity has lead to numerous dissident factions seeking regional autonomy or a change of government. Despite a façade to the contrary, the Pakistani government shows no sign of significant or lasting change regarding Islamic fundamentalism which threatens the region and beyond. American policies based on encouraging Pakistan to restrain zealots, cooperate in capturing Osama bin Laden, and maintain stability in Afghanistan is very limited. Pakistan’s incorrigible behavior is the very problem. Pakistan misdirects American aid and furthers the very bothersome habits it is designed to eradicate. In the long term, Pakistan is a moribund nation, and American realization of this reality by preparation of contingency plans to deal with the consequences would provide true security in the region. 

India faces challenges on its eastern flank. Nepal’s Maoist movement continues to ravage the country despite the involvement of the Nepali army. Borne out of the frustration of a disenfranchised population, it continues to displace government influence. Several truces have been broken, and the onslaughts of Maoist attacks on Nepali forces and on Katmandu continue at an unabated pace. The insurgency must be tackled with a multi-modal that includes military, social and economic means designed to parch the support for the Maoists. Maoist ties to anti-monarchy forces in Bhutan, and terrorist groups in India’s Northeast provide regional enemies with a convenient way to meddle in India’s security matters. Bangladesh’s ongoing struggle, thirty years after a hard won independence, to establish a confident national identity blending Bangla nationalism and Islam will consume resources, affect its interactions with neighbors, and cause internal upheaval. The core problem in India – Bangladesh relations is Bangladesh’s insecurity over its identity which manifests a paranoid suspicion of a larger and more powerful neighbor. Bangladesh often rivals Pakistan in its stubbornness, and its refusal to economically integrate with India despite mutual benefits. 

China continues to play dual twin roles of engaging India while simultaneously backing Pakistan and other smaller neighbors acquire military items. Ties have historically been soured due to 1962 war, support of various Northeast terrorist groups and role in Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear program. Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to engage civilian Chinese leadership may bear fruit with cooperation in technology, tourism, and increased contacts. China’s dual strategy towards India can best be seen in the engagement during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s state visit and subsequent reports of Chinese army entry into Indian territory. Various factions within the Chinese government have individual interests; some seek to compete with India while others favor cooperation. The current trend in Sino – Indian relations will likely continue with cooperation on an economic front and competition on a strategic front. Southeast Asia has responded to India initiatives and has proposed closer economic and military cooperation. ASEAN realizes its position between India and China and seek to promote ties with both for their benefit. This region may become the hotly contested area between ascendant India and China because of its ethnic mix, historical background, and economic. 

Rapid economic growth is fueled by readily available energy. Unsurprisingly energy has become major focus of policy both internal and external. Books written by government officials now mention energy security as a part of national security. India has invested in a multilateral strategy to gain energy. It involved expansion of indigenous energy as well as involvement in foreign projects. India has explored oil and natural gas options in Nigeria, Sudan and Russia. Closer to home, energy deals with Iran, Bhutan, and Myanmar are afoot. Energy related projects such as the pipeline across Pakistan into India and another natural gas pipeline from Bangladesh to India seem promising despite occasional flare ups in tension. In the coming decades, energy policy will form an increasingly important component in India’s foreign policy and national security perceptions. 

Since Independence, India has struggled to maintain a balanced place in the world as an old civilization and a new nation in a hostile neighborhood. It avoided Cold War entanglements as much as possible while plotting an independent course. It championed the cause of developing nations. India’s foreign policy rose to the challenge posed by the end of the Cold War. Though the initial outlook in the early 1990’s seemed bleak, the post-Cold War era presented a unique opportunity to engage countries based on strategic and economic grounds. Overall, the first decade of the post Cold War era was a difficult time as foreign policy often tilted to compensate for previous leanings. Overtime, India’s policy has matured into a balanced engagement of the major powers, and strategically important regions. India must continue to engage while avoiding entanglements. Its alliances must be limited by mutual goals, and not be forced to serve as a wedge in larger rivalries. Foreign policy must tread a focused path between advancing long term goals and agile enough to respond to abrupt changes. In the coming decade, India’s foreign policy will aid in choosing allies, forming partnerships based on mutual interests, and in fending off old and new enemies. The issues of international terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism, competition for a sphere of influence and acquisition of energy will dominate India’s policy in the foreseeable future. India’s policy should be grounded in present concerns as well as historical dialectics; a patchwork combining the legacy of an ancient civilization, security imperatives of the Raj and its importance as a cultural and commercial crossroad.