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Foreign policy agenda for the new government

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  • May 27, 2014

    Foreign policy is based on a country’s long term national interests and takes into account both domestic and external factors. Strategic interests of a country do not change when governments change but the style of functioning and inter-se priorities in foreign policy undergo changes. Hence elements of continuity and change can be expected in the new government’s foreign policy.

    Achievements and shortcomings

    Undoubtedly, there have been a number of achievements to India’s foreign policy in the last few years. India’s engagement with the rest of the world has increased substantially. Its relations with major powers are better than before. Even in the neighbourhood, bilateral ties are on the upswing despite many problems. In the extended neighbourhood, India’s Look East Policy has been a reasonable success. India is now beginning to focus on new areas like Africa and Latin America. The Indian Ocean is the new area of attention for Indian foreign policy makers. Maritime and energy security have received attention. Public diplomacy has been strengthened. India today has visibility at the global and regional levels with many countries wanting to forge deeper ties of friendship and cooperation with India. In fact there is increasing demand from regional countries for India to play a more pro-active role. India is regarded as a non-threatening but reluctant and shy power not ready to play its role.

    Yet many weaknesses have been revealed. Resources for conducting an active foreign policy have been limited. Lack of political consensus on key foreign policy issues has been a bane of Indian foreign policy. Foreign policy decision making processes have been slow to respond to the emerging opportunities. India’s diplomacy lacks the depth required for a robust diplomacy in emerging areas like energy, cyber, space, economy etc. Ad-hocism is evident in many areas of foreign policy like military diplomacy where no long term strategy is visible. There are serous shortcomings in coordination among different ministries, departments and agencies involved in the implementation of foreign policy.

    Indian government has been shy to explain its foreign policy through official White Papers and concept documents. As a result there is lack of clarity about the principles and goals which guide India’s foreign policy. The foreign policy is not linked with any national security strategy, which the government has not been able to articulate.

    Agenda for the new government

    The new government could continue implementing the positive aspects of foreign policy and upgrade and reinvigorate it in different areas. It could also explore whether some breakthroughs can be achieved in relations with Pakistan and China.

    The following recommendations, necessarily generic in nature, have been developed after a series of discussions at the IDSA with a number of experts over a long time. These could be included in the foreign policy agenda of the new government.

    1. Articulate a National Security Strategy and a Foreign Policy Concept outlining the principles and goals of Indian foreign policy.
    2. Provide more human and financial resources for foreign policy and diplomacy. Current allocations for MEA (Rs 11,000 cr) are too meagre and inadequate for an effective foreign policy.
    3. Pay attention to India’s development partnerships, particularly the developing countries. Development Partnerships should be the key tool for foreign policy. Greater synergy and timely implementation is essential for credibility.
    4. Be on the look for new opportunities to enhance India’s engagement with other countries and beef up its presence in strategic regions. Follow a combination of strategic and commercial approaches rather than strictly commercial approaches. (Example: India should move quickly in capitalising the strategic opportunities in Iran through the development of Chabahar port and investments in Chabahar free Trade Zone. Similar opportunities await in other regions too.). Private sector should be involved in foreign policy initiatives whereever possible.
    5. Get political and domestic consensus on foreign policy issues but ensure that the central government retains the right to formulate and conduct its foreign policy in best national interest. Institutionalise the meetings between the MEA and state governments on critical foreign policy issues.
    6. Improve relations with neighbours as first priority. High level political exchanges and visits should become more frequent. Adopt a regional cooperative security approach on security issues. Encourage regional cooperation within the framework of SAARC and BIMSTEC by taking a lead role. Revive both by greater investments.
    7. India should look for breakthroughs in ties with China and Pakistan countries but should be cautions in its approach. Gestures of friendship and cooperation should be appropriately responded to but Pakistan should clearly know India’s red lines particularly with regard to terrorism. China should not be allowed to take India for granted. Asymmetries in capabilities between India and China should be reduced. It should develop comprehensive national strength to deal with these countries.
    8. Deepen and broad base ties with the GCC countries. Energy cooperation, trade and investment, welfare of Indian citizens working in the Gulf region are obviously important, but expand these relations to cover newer areas like food security. Attract investment from the Gulf countries into Indian agro-food sector.
    9. Given the growing Chinese assertiveness in the region, India may deepen its ties with ASEAN countries even further through deeper economic integration, enhanced connectivity and defence cooperation.
    10. Strengthen relations with Japan which is looking for new partnerships, particularly in the area of security cooperation. Deeper India-Japan relations not directed against any country, could be game changer for India.
    11. Pay special attention to maritime cooperation in India’s foreign policy. In the Asia-Pacific, the US, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia are key countries. India has independent relations with them. India’s relations should be independent of US rebalancing policy.
    12. Impart fresh stimulus to Indo-US ties which are levelling off is required. Attention should be paid to economic, technological and defence cooperation issues.
    13. Deepening of relations with Russia must continue. Russia-US ties are under strain on Ukraine and there is talk of increasing sanctions against Russia. Avoid joining sanctions against Russia. India must steer clear of getting entangled into Russia-US tensions. Russia has appreciated India’s position.
    14. Special attention should be paid to non traditional security issues like energy, maritime, food, space and cyber security issues. Indian diplomacy must develop depth in these areas by involving experts.
    15. Defence and diplomacy must go hand in hand. The defence component of diplomacy must be strengthened. The MEA should set up a defence diplomacy division to synergise better with the MOD.
    16. Use economic diplomacy to bolster India’s economic growth. Economic diplomacy must become the centre piece of India’s over all foreign policy. The new economic order driven by globalisation and technology requires a fresh look at how foreign policy is perceived. India should carefully monitor the implications of Trans pacific Partnership (TPP) and then decide whether it would like to join the negotiations. So far India has been reticent.
    17. India need not give up its no-first use nuclear doctrine but at the same time it should strengthen its command and control systems. Some details should be made public to generate confidence. The focus on universal nuclear disarmament must continue.
    18. Indian foreign policy must leverage the presence of huge Indian diaspora as well Indian nationals working abroad. The MEA and MOIA should work together to evolve a viable diaspora policy. India should also have out-of-area contingency plans to ensure that the safety conflict prone zones are addressed in the time of emergencies of millions of Indians working in conflict zones.
    19. India must enhance substantially its investment in strategic thinking by encouraging the growth of think tanks, security curricula in universities and new methodologies of analysis. This will help develop capabilities to decipher the countries of emerging world order and its implications for India.
    20. India must harness its culture and soft power to meet the objectives of foreign policy. India’s cultural diplomacy is weak and need a thorough overhaul.


    India has unprecedented opportunity to follow a foreign policy to meet its developmental aspirations and security needs, both of which are complementary. Sustained economic growth is essential for India to follow a proactive foreign policy. India’s foreign policy must be backed by domestic consensus and all round capabilities including strategic thinking. More resources and a proactive mindset would be required for this purpose. For effective implementation better synergy among government ministries, departments, and agencies swill be required. Foreign policy making should be a whole-of-government approach in which non-governmental stake holders as well States will play an important role.