In the National Interest – A Strategic Foreign Policy for India

Santosh Kumar, IFS


A grand external strategy would require that interactions between different strategic objectives be examined to arrive at the right balance. There is clearly a possibility of a trade-off between some interactive objectives, and even between components of an objective. We now discuss some of the more significant interactions.


Security and growth can be seen as a dyad, with primacy to security objectives sometimes negatively affecting growth. An exaggerated perception of threats to security, either external or internal, can result in neglect of measures required for achieving the required economic growth and raising overall welfare levels. The erstwhile Soviet Union is an apt historical example of this distorted prioritisation of policies. India’s attempts in the past to adopt leadership and vanguard positions on a range of global issues are an example of a trade-off between perceived returns from an enhanced role on global public goods issues, and a focus on measures more directly affecting its national interests. The former, it can be reasonably argued, often distracted attention away from more immediate and important aspects of national interest. The analysis in this volume indicated that India will enjoy a window of relative external security during this decade. The probability of a major armed conflict or violation of sovereignty through territorial incursion or remote aggression is quite weak because of the global balance. India’s changing relationship with the US, multipolarity, nuclear deterrence, and preoccupations elsewhere of China and Pakistan. Although the military build-up for contingencies beyond 2020 must continue, the situation does leave room to concentrate on economic prosperity as the driver of external policy during this decade. An inability to achieve the potential rate of economic growth of 8-10 percent will not only generate unmanageable levels of social and political stress internally, but also severely compromise India’s capacity to acquire the required strategic capability. This is best understood from the fact that while both India and China currently spend around 3 percent of their GDP on defence, this translates in absolute terms to a threefold advantage for China, given the differential in the two countries’ total GDP. This was not the case prior to 1978, when India’s GDP and per capita income were comparable to those of China. Following the advice given by Deng Xiao Ping, the latter set about achieving a sustained GDP growth of more than 9 percent annually during the subsequent three decades, while India only managed an average growth rate of approximately 5.8 percent per annum during the same period. There is no other option to catching up with China, which has emerged as the most important ‘swing economy and strategic power’ in the current global transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world. Thus, it would be important for the Ministry of External Affairs to focus principally on foreign policy’s role in achieving the economic growth target. The rest can and will follow.


Another example of tension between security and economic objectives is India’s Iran policy. India’s national interests lie in expanding its energy relationship with Iran, which has some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves. A long-term modality can be the IPI gas pipeline once security concerns relating to its transit through Pakistan, as also pricing issues, are addressed. A practical option is to increase imports of liquefied natural gas from Iran. India also needs transit through Iran for its trade and supplies to Afghanistan as an alternative to the Pakistan route. But these interests run counter to India’s sensitivities to US security concerns regarding Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme. While India might share the nuclear proliferation concern, this should not stifle the energy imperative India, therefore, needs to go along both tracks, and make this clear to the US and Iran. India’s de-linking of strategic and economic interest in Myanmar from democracy and human rights issues is a useful precedent in this regard.


Insofar as the security paradigm is concerned, internal security threats that emerge from ethnic strife, ideologically driven armed campaigns against the state, or religious fundamentalism will pose a greater danger to the country than external conventional and non-conventional threats. Security and foreign policy should, therefore, pay greater attention to the not insignificant external aspects of these internal security threats. Despite the heightened expectation of the global community, the implications of India’s enhanced role in global issues and governance needs to be looked at within the parameters of its growth and security objectives. In case of contradictions, the former should be given lower priority in the conduct of the country’s foreign policy. This does not in any sense imply an abdication of global responsibilities, but rather that India cannot afford to let them pose a trade-off on the more important aspects of its national interest. For example, it would have been an unnecessary distraction had India let its potential leadership role in global disarmament come in the way of finalising the nuclear deal. Similarly, making special efforts to become a member of either the Security Council or other leading groups in global fora should not be at the cost of primary objectives.


While the long-term security threat from China remains, neither government seems to be in a position to make the compromises necessary for a settlement of the border dispute during this decade. And yet, neither is interested in exacerbating the military stand off on the ground. This gives India breathing space to consolidate its military dispositions and connectivities on its side of the LAC. It also gives it the opportunity to engage China in exploring long term possibilities of building economic interdependence between the two countries through hydropower projects along the Yarlong Zangbo-Brahmaputra. Sino-Indian cooperation on the latter issue is of course time-sensitive to the situation in Tibet. In the event of a resurgent militant Tibetan pro-independence movement possibly after the demise of the present Dalai Lama, Beijing’s attitude towards India and the border question could harden. An early resolution of the Tibet issue on the basis of substantial autonomy is therefore in India’s interest. Failing that, India will have to walk the tightrope between China, Tibetan expatriates, and western countries.


The security-economy dyad also runs through the overarching India-US-China triangle. The US has adopted a ‘çongagement’ policy towards China but has, at the same time, become progressively more dependent in the trade, investment, and financial sectors on that country. It is simultaneously seeking closer strategic ties with India in order to ‘hedge’ against the prospect of a more assertive China. India on its part will have to rely on critical inputs from the US in terms of markets, investments, technology, military build-up, and strategic synergies. Together with this, it needs to contain its border dispute with China and benefit from China’s economic rise, especially its trade and energy potential. The main challenge for diplomacy during this decade and beyond will be how to play the triangular relationship to India’s best advantage. This will essentially be a balancing act in which a military alliance with the US or involvement in anti-China postures can be as counterproductive as a less than robust strategic partnership with the US.






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