Challenge and Strategy: Rethinking India's Foreign Policy


Rajiv Sikri

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    To my late father, Baldev Raj Sikri, who inculcated in me the love for books, and who inspired and encouraged me to join the Indian Foreign Service.

    List of Abbreviations

    ACMECSAyeyawady–Chao Phraya–Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy
    ACSAAcquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement
    ADBAsian Development Bank
    AFRICOMAfrica Command
    AMUArab Maghreb Union
    APECAsia–Pacific Economic Cooperation
    APTASEAN Plus Three (China, Japan, the Republic of Korea)
    APTAAsia–Pacific Trade Agreement
    ARFASEAN Regional Forum
    ASEANAssociation of Southeast Asian Nations
    ASEMAsia–Europe Meeting
    ASSOCHAMAssociated Chambers of Commerce and Industry
    AUAfrican Union
    AWACSAirborne Warming and Control System
    BHELBharat Heavy Electricals Limited
    BIMST-ECBangladesh–India–Myanmar–Sri Lanka–Thailand Economic Cooperation
    BIMSTECBay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation
    BOADBanque Ouest Africaine de Développement (West African Development Bank)
    BSFBorder Security Force
    CENTCOMCentral Command
    CEOChief Executive Officer
    CEPEAComprehensive Economic Partnership in East Asia
    CHIBSAChina–India–Brazil–South Africa
    CICAConference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia
    CIIConfederation of Indian Industry
    COMESACommon Market for Eastern and Southern Africa
    CSCAPCouncil for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific
    CTBTComprehensive Test Ban Treaty
    CTF 150Combined Task Force 150
    DIADefence Intelligence Agency
    DSUDispute Settlement Understanding
    EACEast African Community
    EASEast Asia Summit
    ECCASEconomic Community for Central African States
    ECOWASEconomic Community of West African States
    EEZExclusive Economic Zone
    ERIAEconomic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia
    EUEuropean Union
    E-7Emerging Economies of seven countries, namely Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, Turkey
    FBRFast Breeder Reactor
    FICCIFederation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry
    FMCTFissile Material Cutoff Treaty
    FTAFree Trade Agreement
    GATSGeneral Agreement on Trade in Services
    GATTGeneral Agreement on Tariffs and Trade
    GCCGulf Cooperation Council
    GDPGross Domestic Product
    GMSGreater Mekong Subregion
    GRFGulf Regional Forum
    GSPGeneralized System of Preferences
    G–4Group of four countries (India, Japan, Germany and Brazil)
    G–7Group of seven countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and United States)
    G–8Group of eight countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom and United States)
    G–15Group of 15 countries
    G–20Group of 20 countries
    G–33Group of 33 countries
    G–77Group of 77 countries
    HALHindustan Aeronautics Limited
    HINDRAFHindu Rights Action Force
    HIPCHeavily Indebted Poor Countries
    IAEAInternational Atomic Energy Agency
    IAIInitiative for ASEAN Integration
    IBIntelligence Bureau
    IBSAIndia–Brazil–South Africa
    ICVLInternational Coal Ventures Limited
    IGADIntergovernmental Authority on Development
    IISSInternational Institute of Strategic Studies
    IMFInternational Monetary Fund
    IMTRATIndian Military Training Team
    IOR-ARCIndian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation
    IPIIran–Pakistan–India (gas pipeline project)
    IPKFIndian Peace Keeping Force
    ISAFInternational Security Assistance Force
    ISASInstitute of South Asian Studies
    ISIInter–Services Intelligence
    ITECIndian Technical and Economic Cooperation
    J&KJammu and Kashmir
    LDCLeast Developed Country
    LNGliquefied natural gas
    LPGliquefied petroleum gas
    LTTELiberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
    LWRLight Water Reactor
    MEAMinistry of External Affairs
    MERCOSURMercado Comun del Sur or Southern Common Market (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay)
    MFAMulti Fibre Arrangement
    MGCMekong–Ganga Cooperation
    MTCRMissile Technology Control Regime
    NAFTANorth American Free Trade Agreement
    NAMNon-Aligned Movement
    NAMANon-Agriculture Market Access
    NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organization
    NDANational Democratic Alliance
    NEPADNew Economic Partnership for Africa's Development
    NGONon-governmental organization
    NPTNuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
    NRINon-resident Indian
    NSANational Security Adviser
    NSGNuclear Suppliers Group
    NSSPNext Steps in (India-US) Strategic Partnership
    OBCOther Backward Classes
    ODAOfficial Development Assistance
    OECDOrganization for Economic Cooperation and Development
    OICOrganization of Islamic Conference
    ONGCOil and Natural Gas Corporation
    OPECOrganization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries
    OVLONGC Videsh Limited
    O–5Five Outreach countries (Brazil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa)
    PACOMPacific Command
    PFBRPrototype Fast Breeder Reactor
    PHWRPressurized Heavy Water Reactor
    PIOPerson of Indian Origin
    PLOPalestine Liberation Organization
    POKPakistan Occupied Kashmir
    PPPPakistan People's Party
    PTAPreferential Trade Agreement
    PTA BankEastern and Southern African Trade and Development Bank
    RAWResearch and Analysis Wing
    ReCAAPRegional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia
    RICRussia–India–China group
    R:P ratioReserves-to-Production ratio
    RTARegional Trading Arrangement
    SAARCSouth Asian Association for Regional Cooperation
    SADCSouth African Development Community
    SAFTASouth Asian Free Trade Area
    SCOShanghai Cooperation Organisation
    SLOCsSea Lines of Communication
    SSMSpecial Safeguard Mechanism
    TAPITurkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India (gas pipeline project)
    TEAM-9Techno-Economic Approach for Africa–India Movement
    TERCTrade and Economic Relations Committee
    TPATrade Promotion Authority
    TRIMsTrade-Related Investment Measures
    TRIPSTrade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights
    ULFAUnited Liberation Front of Asom
    UNUnited Nations
    UNCLOSUnited Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
    UPAUnited Progressive Alliance
    WTOWorld Trade Organization


    Foreign policy is an instrument available to a country to protect and promote its national interests. There is broad agreement on the concept of national interest, namely that it comprises the obligation to defend the country's national security, to maximize economic benefits for its citizens from international trade and commerce, as also to enhance the effectiveness of its ‘soft power’ through propagation of its core cultural assets. The tool of foreign policy is also used energetically to promote and export a country's ideological agenda such as spread of communism or religious revolutionary fervour or, in more recent times, export of democracy. The objective of the foreign policy of a country should be to create more space and more options for itself in the international arena. This calls for flexibility and pragmatism of a high order.

    Palmerston's dictum that a country does not have permanent friends or enemies but only permanent interests does not tell the full story. A country, in fact, can have relatively permanent friends, as can be seen from the ‘friendship’ between Pakistan and China which has lasted for over five decades. Pakistan also seems to regard India as a permanent enemy. India, on the other hand, falls under Palmerston's dictum and does not have permanent friends or enemies. It can perhaps be said that the weaker a country, the more its need for permanent friends. Obversely, the stronger and more self-confident a country, the less it needs permanent friends. The modern trend is for countries to establish ‘strategic relationships or partnerships’; India has strategic relationships with as many as 30 countries. As far as national interests are concerned, while it is true that a country will permanently have national interests, the content of the national interest will vary with time and circumstances. In the ultimate analysis, it is for the government of the day to determine what the country's interests are at a given point in time. A successor government may take a different view and reverse the decision of the previous government on precisely the same ground of national interest.

    A country's foreign policy is often described as an extension of its domestic politics. This is certainly true. Presidents and Prime Ministers will often lobby for the sale and export of a particular commodity because the producers of that commodity form part of their electoral constituency. Mrs Margaret Thatcher felt no compunction in making a strong sales pitch in India for Westland helicopters since the manufacturing unit was located in her constituency.

    What is different and new in today's world is the impact that foreign policy has on domestic politics in many countries. The most obvious example for India is the huge controversy that the India–US civil nuclear cooperation agreement generated in the country. It was probably for the first time that a government in India was obliged to seek a vote of confidence on a foreign policy issue. There are other, more serious, issues on which the government of the day will have to tread carefully and cautiously because of their impact on the internal situation within the country. Nothing is more crucial than to avoid doing anything in the field of foreign affairs that could have negative consequences for peace and harmony among all the communities that form our multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. The government will have to be vigilant and sensitive to this aspect in the conduct of our international relations.

    By and large, the governments in New Delhi since the end of the Cold War have followed realistic and pragmatic foreign policies. This is not to suggest that Mr Nehru was simply an idealist and followed a strictly ‘principled’ foreign policy. He was ready to take the war to Pakistan in 1948 when things were getting difficult in Jammu and Kashmir but was overruled by his British army chief. He took the Kashmir question to the United Nations under pressure from the British Governor General of India. In the early years of India's Independence, he was faced with a difficult decision on the question of Palestine. The way he handled the issue was a shrewd combination of principle and pragmatism. India voted against the proposal for the partition of the Palestinian land and deferred recognition of the State of Israel for a few years after it was admitted to the UN. He was acutely conscious of the impact that this question had on the domestic scene in India. Similarly his criticism of Soviet action in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 was less than forthright, even though principles of non-alignment would have called for a severe condemnation. Mrs Indira Gandhi was, if anything, even more pragmatic.

    Over the past decade and a half, the ‘strategic’ community in India has been talking excitedly about India becoming a major or global power, one of the half dozen ‘poles’ in the international firmament; we feel offended if our country is described merely as a regional power. True, we have done well in terms of our economic growth rate though we started from a low baseline. We still have huge poverty in India. Our share in world trade has barely touched 1 per cent. India has yet to acquire the kind of economic clout that China already has. Furthermore, surely, one of the criteria to be counted as a major power ought to be the capacity to produce at home the major weapons systems needed for modern warfare-fighter and bomber aircraft, long range artillery, tanks, AWACS, helicopter gunships, and so on. Woefully, more than 60 years after Independence, we are totally dependent on foreign suppliers in respect of all these strategic items. Having a few nuclear warheads and missiles is not going to make us a global power; even Pakistan has them. But the more relevant question to ask is: why are we anxious to become or be acknowledged as a major power? Is it because it will make us feel good about ourselves? Or, are we planning to use that status for some defined objectives?

    There has been a lot of discussion in India in recent years about an independent foreign policy. People in all countries are sensitive if their government is perceived to be more concerned about some other country's concerns than to their own. Public opinion in England was extremely unhappy with Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was perceived by the British people as sacrificing Britain's independence and dignity when he decided to support President George W. Bush on the Iraq intervention in 2003, no matter what. The people of India are proud of their heritage and expect their leaders to show sensitivity to this aspect in their dealings with foreign countries. Nevertheless, situations can arise when a country might have to temporarily compromise on the independence of its foreign policy when national interests clearly, conclusively and transparently demand it and a vast majority of the public opinion endorses such action.

    While foreign policy is the preserve of the government, diplomats have to implement it. In actual practice, diplomats do, from time to time, contribute to the formulation of policy but they are principally engaged in the art and practice of conducting negotiations with representatives of other States. In order to be able to conduct diplomacy meaningfully, diplomats need to have a more than passing acquaintance with the problems and issues they have to contend with during their professional career. Rajiv Sikri's book provides an extremely useful guide to the increasingly complex questions which Indian diplomats are called upon to deal with. Concise yet comprehensive, it is a highly commendable professional effort. Happily, he has adopted a thematic as well as a regional and sub-regional approach in his analysis and has not let any personal prejudices affect his judgement and observations except perhaps once, and that too obliquely. His primary concern is with national interest and that would put him in the ‘realist’ school of foreign policy. At the same time, he has emphasized the importance of not neglecting its moral dimensions. This is a very useful contribution to the study of India's foreign policy challenges and opportunities and should be of much help to academics as well as practitioners of diplomacy.

    Chinmaya R.Gharekhan


    The idea of this book originated during my association with the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) in the National University of Singapore in 2007. Veena, my wife and colleague in the Indian Foreign Service, prodded me into this venture with her persistent and infectious enthusiasm.

    A wide cross-section of the Indian intelligentsia, be they politicians, officials, businessmen, professionals, intellectuals or simply concerned citizens, think that India can and should play a larger and more active role in the world of the 21st century. An essential pre-requisite for this is that India's decision-makers and the public be more knowledgeable on foreign affairs. The controversy over the India–US nuclear deal has brought this out most emphatically. I hope this book can spread awareness of India's foreign policy challenges in the 21st century by stimulating an informed debate on India's policy options among Indians, particularly the younger generation.

    This is neither an academic textbook on foreign policy nor a diplomat's memoirs. It does not claim to be comprehensive. My monograph on India's Foreign Policy Priorities in the Coming Decade written during my stay in Singapore provides the framework for this book though it has been expanded to cover additional topics. I have tried to concentrate on India's strategic relationships and issues. The emphasis is on trends rather than events, regions rather than individual countries and underlying long-term factors rather than details. Some new, possibly controversial, ideas have been put forward. The views expressed are strictly personal, based on my academic grounding and practical experience in foreign affairs. Having no pretensions to omniscience, I do not offer definitive solutions.

    Many institutions and individuals have helped me in this project. I would like to acknowledge with gratitude the assistance and generous support of the Institute of South Asian Studies, in particular of Mr Gopinath Pillai and Professor Tan Tai Yong. Without that, it would have been difficult to undertake this venture. With her many ideas and constructive suggestions, my wife Veena was an invaluable sounding board-cum-critic. She also helped me immensely in the editing of the manuscript. I deeply appreciate the numerous suggestions of many former colleagues, friends and other well-wishers. Finally, my thanks go to the Indian Government, in particular the Ministry of External Affairs. My lifelong career in the Indian Foreign Service gave me the opportunity to learn about diplomacy and foreign affairs firsthand. In addition, had the government not created the circumstances that led to a premature parting of ways two years ago, this book might not have seen the light of day!


    New Delhi

    December 2008

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    About the Author

    Rajiv Sikri was a career diplomat for more than 36 years with the Indian Foreign Service. He retired in 2006 as Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs. In this capacity he had overall responsibility for India's relations with East Asia, ASEAN, Pacific region, the Arab world, Israel, Iran and Central Asia. Earlier he was Special Secretary for Economic Relations supervising foreign economic relations, including India's external technical and economic assistance programmes. He has served as India's Ambassador to Kazakhstan, and headed the Departments dealing with West Europe as well as the Soviet Union and East Europe in the Ministry of External Affairs. His other diplomatic assignments abroad include Deputy Chief of Mission in Paris, Political Counsellor in Moscow, Deputy Consul General and Commercial Consul in New York, and Political First Secretary in Kathmandu.

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