The Platform


India has more or less always muddled along internationally.

Countries such as the U.S. and China have the power to shape world events. For instance, the U.S.-led global war on terror has shaped international security discourse and China’s Belt and Road Initiative is also shaping events in both the developed and developing world.

In the case of India, while it would never be mistaken for an economic or military superpower, it has always preserved its interests.

India since its independence and throughout the Cold War period had to deal with a variety of issues that were problematic to its national interests, including hostile neighbors, border conflicts, and the need to build its military and economic power.

India’s foreign policy through the ages has shifted from non-alignment to strategic autonomy and multi-alignment as it is today. During Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership, India maintained a policy of non-alignment advocating for decolonization, non-interference in the sovereign affairs of other states, support for national liberation movements, and opposition to apartheid or racial segregation.

During the Cold War period, India was keen not to join either power bloc of Russia or the United States. Domestic insecurities such as the Kashmir conflict with Pakistan and the Sino-Indian border conflict led India to lean towards Russia for a steady supply of arms.

India realized its own strategic vulnerabilities being bordered by hostile neighbors. India was one of the first countries to even recognize Communist China despite the criticisms of the United States. Unfortunately, when China claimed sovereignty over Tibet, India was cautioned to keep the Himalayan buffer states Nepal, Bhutan, and the Sikkim region within its influence. To China’s dismay, the Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 as a political refugee and has remained there ever since.

Nuclear developments in the 1960s caused India to re-think its foreign policy driven by the national interest of safeguarding its military power relative to that of China. China conducted its first nuclear tests in 1964 after the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and India also began to acquire nuclear power, conducting its first test in 1974. Ultimately, India never signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Furthermore, Indira Gandhi maintained a strategic relationship with Russia irrespective of her private criticism of Russia’s intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 because the event triggered the U.S. to support Pakistan. During her tenure, India had an existent fear of its immediate neighbors falling under the U.S. influence and this insecurity continued to Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership during which he decided to intervene in Sri Lanka’s conflict with Tamil militants. In 1987, India occupied Sri Lanka for a brief period of time driven by geopolitical interests and suspicion of Sri Lanka’s relationship with the U.S.

India’s decision to finally let go of deep-seated suspicions of the U.S. was due to a domestic economic downturn in the 1990s. India had to borrow from the International Monetary Fund which imposed conditions to liberalize sectors of the economy. India may have not bent to foreign powers until 1991, but had to enter domestic economic reforms due to pressure from the IMF. Moreover, Under Narasimha Rao, India also warmed up to the U.S. to attract much-needed foreign direct investment. Again, India secured its national economic interests.

Although the U.S.-India relationship deteriorated rapidly due to economic sanctions imposed by the Clinton administration in retaliation for nuclear testing, India could not be swayed to sign onto the NPT and the Bush administration eventually lifted the sanctions. This is mostly because the Bush administration realized what an asset India could be as a strategic partner in its global war on terror.

In the 21st century, upon officially recognizing India as a nuclear power, the United States and India entered a new era of foreign policy by signing the New Framework for the U.S.-India Defense Relationship and cordial relations have been maintained.

While border conflicts with Pakistan and China have always nagged India, India’s primary security threat today is China. The rapid rise of China both economically and militarily means India and the U.S. have a mutual adversary. With the launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, India had to re-strategize its relationships with its neighborhood, and the rest of the world, particularly in regions where China had expanded its footprint.

Nathasha Fernando is a visiting lecturer at the Metropolitan College, Dehiwala in Sri Lanka.