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Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy and its Impact on India’s Global Power Status

08 Oct 2023

Contemporary Indian Foreign Policy and its Impact on India’s Global Power Status

08 Oct 2023


India is known for many things—inter-state diversities resembling different countries, culture, heritage, food, fine arts, religious coexistence, the India-Pakistan partition, and, more importantly, its non-alignment and great power aspirations. In recent years, India has significantly increased its international engagements. The reasons are many, ranging from national interests to reforming global governance. In this process, India is losing weight of its non-alignment doctrine, gravitating toward the West. Alternatively, many identify the shift as much-needed ‘multi-alignment’ and ‘strategic autonomy’ to advance India’s foreign policy pragmatism and global power.

However, arguably, India’s shifting foreign policies are increasingly aligned toward the West and the multi-alignment is imbalanced. Firstly, today, India’s foreign policy favours the United States and other countries (notably Japan, Australia, and Southeast Asian countries) that are at odds with China. Secondly, while India’s relations with Russia are historically strong, a deteriorating trend has been identified. Thirdly, India is engaging in an ‘evasive balancing’ act against China, where it remains dependent, seeks benefits from, and simultaneously feels threatened by and works against China. Finally, this insight will discuss how India’s foreign policy actions and shifts limit the country’s rise as a global power.

Periods of Indian foreign policy  

Nehruvian Idealism

Nehruvian Idealism is India’s first foreign policy stage, developed under the first Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The foreign policies followed for at least two decades were based on morals and ideas that sought to protect the country from the Cold War. A Cold-War alignment would hurt moral commitments and domestic developments due to power politics and incremental defence expenditure (Ganguly & Pardesi, 2009). These policies are known as the non-alignment policy, as bolstered through and beyond the development of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at the 1955 Bandung Conference (Abraham, 2008). They also comprise the panchsheel—the five principles of peaceful coexistence—which includes mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, non-aggression, non-interference in states’ internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. While many of these facets have remained in Indian foreign policy, the following decades saw significant pivots.

Post-1962 Pragmatism

In 1962, India lost the Sino-Indian border war. This compelled the government to make more pragmatic decisions around military affairs rather than idealism that failed to defend India’s borders materially. Subsequently, India started its nuclear program in 1974. The country concurrently continued to oppose Apartheid, colonization, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories, and more (Ganguly & Pardesi, 2009). These commitments, notwithstanding the heightening of military affairs, reaffirmed non-alignment. Military and border security enhancements were still defensive plans to protect India from invasions. Some analysts claim India lost its non-alignment in this period because of the India-Soviet treaty in 1971 (Sridharan, 2017). However, the treaty bolstered non-alignment as it was not a military agreement but protected India’s autonomy. Nevertheless, the intense relations developed with the USSR during this period continue with Russia today.

Post-1991 and contemporary Indian foreign policy

After the West defeated the Soviets, many thought India’s non-alignment had practically ended. The years that followed saw better relations with great powers and Western missions, such as the widely criticized invasion of Afghanistan. Better relations with Israel after 1992 also indicated alignment (Mukherjee & Malone, 2011). Alternatively, improving relations with Israel at the time resulted from the impending Israel-Palestine Oslo Accords. Presently, India’s foreign policy is best identified by the multi-alignment, ‘India First,’ ‘Act East,’ ‘Look West,’ and ‘Neighbourhood First’ principles.

India redefined non-alignment as developing relations with all major powers instead of avoiding them, as was previously the case. India is improving its global relations with countries, emphasizing the U.S., Russia, the Middle East, and East Asia. Consequently, many find India’s foreign policy unplanned, claiming that it has gone adrift. Institutional constraints and the lack of foreign policy coordination with domestic policy reinforce this position (Hall, 2016). The disconnect between Indian foreign and domestic policy is well known, as foreign policy formulation originated as elite politics, not mass politics (Kapur, 2009). Political parties focus very little on foreign policy to win elections, with most of their campaigning focusing almost entirely on domestic affairs (Sridharan, 2017).

India’s foreign policy in the last 15 years has strived to maintain stronger relations with the world. Its non-alignment has somewhat remained but is increasingly constrained by its quests to achieve national interests. Its primary objective is to achieve domestic economic growth and secure international investment and market access (Raghavan, 2017). Its increasing affinity with the West seeks to secure foreign investment, Western markets, technological advancements, a permanent seat at the UNSC, and membership in the Nuclear Supplier’s Group. Overall, India maintains non-alignment officially and is expanding its relations without dividing between the Global North and South to achieve its national interests reaping benefits from all sides (Alam, 2017). Despite a more assertive foreign policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government does not significantly depart from previous governments’ visions but expands its global soft power ambitions and bilateral engagements (Hall, 2016). 

India’s engagements in international organizations

India has maintained its non-alignment policy the strongest at the UN, IMF, and World Bank. Its voting records reflect this, where votes on controversial issues that pit the West against the East are abstentions, such as on the questions of Russia-Ukraine and Libya (Hall, 2016). India wants to be an emerging voice in reforming global governance and leading movements in international organizations. It has expressed its demand for a permanent seat at the UNSC and has engaged in much diplomacy to secure votes (Alam, 2017). India’s engagements at these fora do not suggest that it is losing its non-alignment; however, stopping here does not paint the whole picture.

India’s engagements with other organizations have been many, but the impact leans Westward favorably. Many of India’s engagements with China, Russia, and adversaries of the West are less impactful than with Western organizations. For example, India’s recent chairing of the SCO summit, where Iran joined the organization, rendered commentators finding India to tread a “diplomatic tightrope” amidst strong relations with the U.S. (Kaushik & Rajesh, 2023, para. 17). However, India hosted the summit virtually, impairing opportunities for sideline meetings and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s presence in New Delhi. This avoids upsetting the fast-developing relations with the U.S. (McCarthy, 2023). This is not India’s first Western appeasement action. In 2016, India skipped the 17th NAM summit in Venezuela, the first case of non-attendance since 1989. This period was marked by improving U.S.-India relations when India was recognized as a U.S. ‘major defense partner’ (U.S.-India Relations, 2023) and deteriorating U.S.-Venezuela relations. The U.S. had raised criticism of Venezuela and sanctioned Venezuelan officials (U.S. Congress, 2016). India did not clarify its non-attendance, but Western appeasement was and is likely given the dynamics.

In recent years, India has also ramped up interactions with ASEAN and other Eastern organizations. However, these engagements are less impactful than ones with the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and Western-aligned trialogues (India-U.S.-Japan, India-U.S.-Australia) as the latter lead to defence and security arrangements. A review of recent and upcoming developments with BRICS is also warranted. The organization is expanding quickly, and India has expressed hesitation. It is likely that its opposition to BRI-recipient states’ admission to the organization seeks to prevent BRICS from becoming China’s powerhouse (The Indian Express, July 3, 2023). However, reviewing India’s engagement with multilateral fora is not adequate. Thus, we now look at India’s relationships with states.

India’s relations with the United States, Australia, and Japan

India’s alignment has been perceived to skew toward the West from 2005, 2008, or 2011. The timeline differs based on the shifts’ intensity. The 2008-11 estimates are more accurate because that is the period when China’s rise started to threaten the West. The year 2008 was also when the Obama administration took power, yielding alterations in foreign policy. Through linkage politics, this period marked U.S. acceptance of India’s nuclear program, which it earlier opposed, in exchange for closer relations to counterbalance China (Raghavan, 2017). Japan’s criticism of India’s nuclear program also subsided similarly (Sridharan, 2017). India’s relations with Australia also depict linkage politics alignment. When Modi was elected PM, his visit to Australia was India’s first Prime Ministerial visit since 1986. Greater defence ties for the Island state sharing a sea with China were traded for silence on human rights concerns (Hall, 2016). Such linkage politics are scarce in India’s relations with Russia, China, and other neighbours.

The recent visit of Prime Minister Modi to the U.S. was a visit of the highest honour. India is the third state to receive this honour. Generally, it is a sign of alliance. However, India does not officially proclaim alignment despite the declaration of being “among the closest partners in the world” (Martina & Brunnstrom, 2023, para. 2). In a recent lecture, India’s Minister of External Affairs said that India does not want to be “tied down to exclusive relationships” and the “tradition of strong ties with Russia” is indispensable but will not become “an obstacle to an equally strong relationship with the United States” (Shweta, 2023). However, public proclamations are not necessarily fact—India saying it is not aligned does not mean it is not. It would be foolish for India to declare opposition to China publicly. However, the U.S. has not hidden its expectation and intentions of countering China with India (Martina & Brunnstrom, 2023). Moreover, during Modi’s state visit to Washington, he also emphasized a call for respecting international maritime law in addressing maritime conflicts, including ones in the South China Sea—a jab at China.

India’s silence on the (in)famous AUKUS deal also indicates acceptance and favours the West. The AUKUS deal is equipping Australia with nuclear-powered submarines. China vehemently opposes the deal, believing it represents a cold-war mentality, undermines nuclear non-proliferation, and creates insecurities in the South China Sea (Embassy of the PRC in the UK, 2023). India’s silence may be its means to maintain non-alignment and avoid upsetting China. However, as an active member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) whose relations with Australia, Japan, and the U.S. are improving, the silence functions as acquiescence rather than neutrality. Moreover, India’s presence in the Quad legitimizes U.S. involvement in East Asia (Miller, 2021). These developments reinforce the finding that India is increasingly Western-aligned.  

Overall, reviewing India’s external affairs reports (Ministry of External Affairs, 2016-22) reinforces the belief that India’s alignment is Western-leaning, albeit the reports do not and will not state this. India’s 2021-22 external affairs report highlights positive developments with the U.S., Australia, and the UK but discusses Russia and China sparingly in its ‘engagement with major powers’ section. Previous years denote rapid strides with Australia, Japan, Maritime Security Dialogues, India-U.S.-Japan trialogues, and more. India has also undertaken military exercises with the U.S. twice in 2022, once in 2021, and thrice in 2019, and twice with Japan in 2019, as opposed to just two with Russia in the 2019-22 period and one that included China. The preceding years saw a greater diversity in the participating countries of India’s military exercises, including greater involvement of China, but this has withered away in recent years. Even India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reports of the last two years have noted that its relations with China were “complex” owing to Chinese border transgressions, a negative indication amidst otherwise positive reports in previous years. A detailed insight into recent developments with Russia, China, and other countries is warranted.

India’s relations with Russia, China, and other countries 

India’s engagement with many states, including China, has not translated into strategic gains balancing those from Western countries. India also risks a lot from direct conflicts with China. It is unlikely that India could win a military expedition against China based on its GDP size, military expenditure, and levels of military modernization. China is also India’s largest trading partner, making relations with China indispensable (Trading Economics, 2022). The two countries share bilateral economic relations and India continues to seek more economic opportunities from China. The latter also maintains a near monopoly on rare earth materials used in manufacturing smartphones and cruise missiles, making India more dependent on China (Raghavan, 2017). From an ideological standpoint, India continues to officially maintain its aspirations of maintaining good relations with all great powers. However, it is covertly working to counter China with stronger military relationships with Southeast Asian countries, naval power, and military partnerships with Global North countries.

Russia’s close relationship with China may threaten India. Russia clarified that India need not worry about China using its leverage to weaken Indo-Russian ties owing to Russia’s independence (Bala, 2023). Nevertheless, a core pivot for India’s foreign policy stages to transition from Nehruvian Idealism to more pragmatic forms was underestimating China’s power. It is unlikely for the India to make the same mistake again. Subsequently, one can assume that India would reduce its dependence on Russia, which is proving to be true in terms of defense contracts. India is reducing its reliance on Russian weapons and shifting to the U.S. (Carafano, 2023). The recent India-U.S. meeting is also seeing underway a major defense contract worth US$2-3 billion in armed drones (Stone et al., 2023). Moreover, India’s relations with Russia are considered historic and traditional. This leads analysts to believe that the coming generations of Indian diplomats will not be as connected to such ties, withering Indo-Russian relations in favor of the West (Carafano, 2023). However, the contrary is seen in terms of crude oil imports. India has increased its crude oil imports from Russia.

The proposition that India is now leaning West does not render global politics to a cold-war zero-sum perspective. It does not nullify the great complexity of India’s relations. The subject of oil exemplifies such complexity. Firstly, the U.S. has exempted India from adhering to its sanctions on Russian crude oil, an extraordinary feat (Verma, 2022). India was also previously exempted from following sanctions against Russia to proceed with a defense purchase from Russia in 2018 (Singh, 2022). Secondly, India is not dependent on Russia for crude oil (OEC, n.d.). Finally, a discussion around global currency politics regarding the declining dollar and a rising Yuan cannot be ignored when discussing oil purchases. India recently purchased Russian crude oil in Dirhams and Yuan (Verma, 2023). Nevertheless, other bilateral relations reinforce that a Western skew on an imaginary binary is a reasonable and identifiable claim. Additionally, the case of Russia shows that India’s Western skew seeks to counter-balance China, not other U.S. adversaries like Russia.

However, the reinforcement of complexity further questions India’s increasingly pro-Western anti-China leaning. China’s rise is not an objective threat. Ideas, beliefs, and identities influence how countries perceive other countries and events. The militarization of the South China Sea is not an objective threat, either. China’s actions seek to protect itself from U.S. interventionism and bellicosity. It is surrounded by nations that have U.S. military bases and finds setting up its own in the ocean reasonable. The U.S. seeks to and is often asked by or convinces its Southeast Asian allies to constrain China (Kane, 2014; Cordesman, 2019). It is not surprising that China’s response to the U.S. military strategy would balance the heightened security threats. Many developments that portray China as a threat are constructions rather than reality. The BRI is another example of this. India opposes the BRI and questions China’s alleged ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ (Roy, 2022). But the debt-trap diplomacy allegations are largely Western fear-mongering constructs (Himmer and Rod, 2023; Brautigam & Rithmire, 2021). The conceptualization of China’s advancements as a threat is a Western-originating international relations (IR) perspective that needs a radical paradigm shift (Pan & Kavalski, 2018). India’s jump on the fear bandwagon is cold-war-like and thus Western-leaning. Public opinion research shows similar results, with Indians significantly finding China’s power a far greater threat than the U.S., Russia, and Pakistan (Stokes, 2016; Frisbie & Moskowitz, 2023).

Finally, examining India’s relations with other states highlights its increasing alignment with the West. Only a brief review is provided as a comprehensive insight is beyond the scope of this piece. India’s ‘Act East’ policy that is developing its relations with Southeast Asian countries largely works to counterbalance China. Its relations have had some novelty that reinforces this position. India recently gifted Vietnam, for the first time in any country, an active-duty missile warship (Martina & Brunnstrom, 2023). In previous years, India has also sent a navy fleet to the South China Sea to signal its reach and solidarity with friendly countries in establishing a peaceful maritime order (Miglani, 2021). India’s double-sided actions with China have been labeled as “evasive balancing,” signifying India’s attempts to simultaneously build better relations with China and counterbalance against it while reassuring it that the counterbalancing was not targeted at it (Pardesi, 2022). But how do these shifting alignments impact India’s global power status?

Implications for India’s power status

India’s rising regional and global power status has been discussed for over a decade (Khanna and Moorthy, 2017). But it remains contested, rising and mediocre—other countries account for India, but India lacks agenda-setting power and influence, with growth potential (Sridharan, 2017). Mainstream media often refer positively to GDP growth, population growth, land area, and army size in the context of power. However, these do not reflect India’s material realities, assessments of influence, and geostrategic considerations and cannot automatically translate into power (Sridharan, 2017). Thus, foreign policy shifts’ outcomes are better suited to comment on India’s power status.

India’s bilateral and multilateral relations in the last few months and recent years have been more beneficial to other countries. For India, the engagements are not novel or radical. The engagements with the U.S. are far less helpful to itself, as India is an indispensable ally for the U.S. to counter China. An India-U.S. relationship where US stands to gain and influence more will negatively impact India’s independence and power status. India cannot spearhead opposition against China due to its dependencies and does not lead the engagements it has partaken in. Despite India’s proclamation of strategic autonomy, its partnerships and foreign policy are largely dictated by movements in the U.S.-China-Russia dynamics and developments in the Asia-Pacific region (Sridharan, 2017).

India can achieve greater global influence by representing the developing and non-aligned world as it once did. Its contemporary relations with great powers and national interests have eroded its once-sustained image as the “leader of the oppressed and marginalized nations” (Mukherjee and Malone, 2011, p. 103). Alternatively, China is emerging as the leader of the developing world, expanding ties with nations across continents, and influencing them more than India is (Shullman, 2019). India’s enhanced engagements with the world are not yielding groundbreaking developments that would yield it more respect and power, either. India has the potential to gain power by playing the role of a mediator through its non-aligned position and diplomatic skills (Alam, 2017). However, India has not been able to serve as a mediator, a role China has better carried out to consolidate greater power, influence, and peace and oppose Western transgressions (Chaziza, 2018). 

India’s economic and military developments through closer ties with Western states come at the cost of India’s independence and salience. The increasing economic and military might will not translate into independent power and influence because it will prove most helpful in supporting the U.S.-led anti-China vision. Yet, New Delhi cannot fully align with Washington, as it has lots to gain from maintaining ties with Beijing and lots to lose by opposing it. India also has a plethora of unresolved diplomatic and border disputes with China and other neighbors that should take priority.

India’s most immediate concerns connect more with its institutional constraints, lack of a cohesive grand foreign policy strategy (drift), economic issues like persisting poverty, the prevalence of the primary sector, inequalities, and healthcare, education, border issues, and its relations with its immediate neighbors. India is rightly targeting to improve domestic conditions, but it should also develop better relations with its neighbors to achieve greater power. The only major success with neighbors has been Maldives’ development of an ‘India First’ policy. Apart from that, India’s global-power-worthy regional aspirations are confined to itself. For example, India’s opposition to the BRI marks itself as the only opposing nation in the region.

India’s non-alignment at international organizations being limited to self-interest also works against itself. It represents the developing world when it benefits itself and stops once its own goals are reached. For example, at the WTO, India has opposed Western-led positions to defend the developing world’s subsidies and food stockholding. However, India did not commit to representing the developing world. Instead, it was satisfied when only its own right to subsidies and food stockholding was secured, while the agreements harmed other developing countries and led to economic losses because of India’s exclusive victory (Hopewell, 2021). Many analysts find the Modi government fiercer in achieving international objectives; however, aggression does not translate into power or influence if it is neither transformative nor salient (Narlikar, 2022).

India’s position on the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) doctrine is another area where it could have fulfilled its role as the spokesperson of the developing world. It had opposed R2P as the doctrine was interventionist. However, it begrudgingly accepted it to avoid dissent hindering its UNSC permanent seat prospects (Fung, 2022). A realignment of India’s foreign policy that maintains its role as the spokesperson of the developing world could be better suited to achieving global power and influence.

Alternatively, India’s Minister of External Affairs claimed that India must aspire to be a ‘leading power’ on climate change, democracy promotion, development, and disaster relief, rather than a great or balancing power (Hall, 2016). However, an insight into India’s multilateral engagements and outcomes does not yield positive results. India’s lack of success in reforming global institutions, not just intending it, adds to this skepticism. The cases of global finance and environmentalism substantiate this. India holds the G20 presidency, the “premier forum for international economic cooperation” that seeks to shape global financial governance and architecture (G20, n.d.). Yet, it has not emerged as a major player in pushing financial reforms at the Paris Financial Summit, where countries led by a small island state, Barbados, led the pro-Developing world initiatives (Thomas and Jessop, 2023). In the environmental context, a significant move was made by the small-island state coalition led by Vanuatu that moved the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on environmental justice (Relief Web, 2023). These cases do not discredit India’s achievements in the field. However, India’s consistent commitment lacks novelty and radical change, making it appreciable but inadequate for its power ambitions. 


India’s foreign policy is better referred to as ‘multi-aligned’ and practising ‘strategic autonomy,’ as opposed to its initial ‘non-alignment.’ Under these doctrines, it seeks to build good relations with all major powers and countries rather than avoid alignment by avoiding relations. However, the shifts since 2011 and the Modi government have been marked by quickly dissipating remnants of non-alignment or balanced multi-alignment. India’s relations are developing stronger with the West (U.S., Japan, Australia, and other countries at odds with China) than with Russia and China, although official rhetoric claims otherwise. India’s interactions with trialogues and regional fora also yield more strategic gains and outcomes from Western ones. The country’s interactions with such organizations have also shown Western appeasement. Nevertheless, India maintains non-alignment in voting records at the UN. However, its actions at the IMF and World Bank fall short of representing the non-aligned world, albeit there is no alignment there either.

Overall, India is identified as shifting its alignment toward the West, strongly but covertly against China and minutely against Russia. India’s recent engagements have not been its own initiatives and are neither salient nor contributing to increasing its influence on the world. Continued alignment will hurt India’s global power aspirations as it will assimilate into a U.S.-led mission, given that constructions of China as a threat are Western IR perspectives. India has a stronger chance of gaining global power if it focuses more on addressing domestic challenges, building better relations with its neighbors, consolidating regional power, and representing the non-aligned world beyond just achieving short-term national interests. 


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