New Delhi’s actions at Doklam; its surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016 after the Uri terror attacks; and the Balakot airstrikes in the wake of Pulwama attacks - are examples of a new-found offensive and risk-taking foreign policy.

  • India has also been successful in selling Brand India abroad and in leveraging the vast Indian diaspora to national causes.
  • There has been a debate about whether the current govt. is fundamentally altering the trajectory of Indian foreign policy or not.

Evolution of India’s foreign policy:

    • Right from Kautilya's Arthashastra, India's worldview has been based on theme Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (the world is a family).
    • Following independence, India’s strategic outlook was shaped by Jawaharlal Nehru, who viewed the West with skepticism and had a rosy view of socialist ideals. 
    • This led to foreign policy that was built on three key pillars
      • nonalignment in the international arena; 
      • preservation of autonomy in domestic affairs; and solidarity among developing nations, particularly those that had recently gained independence from colonial powers.
    • India’s foreign policy has traditionally been a Nehruvian normative foreign policy, it often struggled to match its rhetoric with its actions. 
  • As a consequence, New Delhi often refused to act with determination; it avoided the use of raw power for political outcomes.

Nehru and the China Crisis

  • Nehru arrived at the five-point agreement or the Panchsheel between New Delhi and Peking in 1954. 
    • The Chinese invasion made India see that it is important to strengthen one's military strength and not overtly depend on peaceful negotiations in matters of international affairs. 
  • Though Nehruvian policy continued throughout the Cold War when India leaned toward the Soviet Union while deftly maintaining strategic autonomy and charting its own course in a bipolar international order.
  • Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and an economic crisis at home. India slowly opened its economy through careful economic liberalization.

The phase of transformation in foreign policy

  • By the late 1990s India was willing to place its own national interest – both economic and security – ahead of broader ideas of global justice and equity.
  • A big domestic economic market gave India the space to engage the rest of the world on its own terms.
  • India’s policy shift, which is ongoing today, seeks to position India among the great powers. India is now targeting a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council, NDG membership and much more.
    • Three emerging shifts in the international order have played a key role in catalyzing India’s rising stature in the international order: terrorism, climate change, and the rise of China.
    • In the post-9/11 world, India captured the opportunity to target Pakistan at a time when Islamabad was unable and unwilling to rein in terror organizations operating on its soil.
    • At the same time, India engaged with the rest of the world, including China, and made bold commitments to combat climate change. 
    • India quickly ratified the Paris Agreement, drawing worldwide accolades for its goal of installing clean energy capacity that would equal 40 percent of the country’s total energy capacity by 2030.
    • The new role of counterbalancing China
      • Today a rising China is being viewed as a strategic competitor by the United States and its allies, allowed India to position itself as a nation-state that could play a pivotal role in balancing against China. 
  • This enabled growing U.S.-India strategic ties, as well as close ties with countries like Japan, Australia, and France.
    • This explains why the rest of the world stood behind India in the most recent crisis like Balakot airstrikes and Article 370.

What has changed in Indian policy?

  • New India’s foreign policy has given up the Nehruvian normative angst and normative behavior. 
  • Economic and military power today are seen as tools to gain advantage vis-à-vis others, be it neighbors or the larger international system. 
  • India’s newfound multi-alignment approach
  • India has moved decisively from a P2 (US and China) mindset to a P5+2 approach to positioning itself as a power that makes it it's business to do business with all, rather than keeping distance or taking sides.
    • PM Modi has met US President Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin three times; his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe twice; and once each with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angel Merkel & British PM Boris Johnson. Merkel is also slated to visit India early next month.
    • Many interactions PM Modi has had with these seven leaders in group settings at the G20 meet in Osaka, Japan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit at Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, the G7 at Biarritz, France, and the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) at Vladivostok, Russia.
    • Neighborhood-plus’ 
      • The ‘plus’ in this extends beyond South Asia — from West Asia to Central and East Asia  ‘minus’: Pakistan.
      • China is one country that falls in both P5+2 and ‘neighborhood-plus’ categories. which is why the Wuhan summit and Mamallapuram summit between Modi- Xi was very significant for India. It helped two leaders to better understand each other.
    • Significance of engaging with China:
      • This messaging helps balance conversations with other major powers, especially with those looking to leverage India-China divergences to their benefit. 
      • It’s also a recognition by New Delhi that neither Washington nor Moscow has the clout with Beijing to tilt, or favorably influence, a conversation in India’s favor.
  • This is a shift from the UPA years when the objective really was how to leverage India’s strategic value with China on the back of strong India-US relations. 
    • The high point of that approach was 2005-06 when Indian cemented the India-US nuclear deal and signed the principles of a boundary settlement with China.
    • Indian neighborhood foreign policy focus shifting from SAARC to BIMSTEC: It is due to a lack of solution on the Pakistan issue.
    • India’s Pakistan policy has been altered unequivocally.
  • India’s strong response to the terror strikes in Pulwama and Balakot airstrikes has made it clear that the current govt. has managed to change the fundamentals of Indian foreign and security policy.
  • It shattered the myth of Pakistan’s nuclear capability and has thrown open the possibility of India fighting a limited conventional war if need be.
  • India has also taken Pakistan to the ICJ on the Kulbhushan Jadhav issue and worked with the Financial Action Task Force to blacklist Pakistan.
    • During the 2019 Raisina Dialogue, it was emphasized that “India has moved on from its non-aligned past. India is today an aligned state — but based on issues.” In the rules-based order, India would have a stronger position in multilateral institutions.
  • Warmth in Indo-US strategic ties:
  • The bilateral Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement: It was signed with the United States in 2016 for facilitating logistical support, supplies, and services between the United States and Indian militaries on a reimbursable basis and providing a framework to govern such exchanges. 
  • Signing of Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018 to facilitate access to advanced defense systems and enable India to optimally utilize its existing U.S.-origin platforms.
  • Strong partnerships with U.S. allies in the region including Japan, Australia, and Vietnam. Quadrilateral involving the United States, Japan, and Australia. It enhances its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China. 
  • Membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO): When it sits together with Russia and China for a trilateral, it enhances its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis a Trump administration intent on challenging the fundamentals of the global economic order.
  • In the Middle East, India has reached out to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran. It even got an invite to the inaugural address the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for the first time in its 50 years of existence.


  • India was one of the first countries to recognize the state of Palestine in 1988. India voted in favor of upgrading the status of Palestine to a  ‘non-member state ‘ in the UN in 2012. 
  • India with a considerable number of Muslim Population has been always sympathetic to the Muslim population in Palestine. Support to Palestine has always been the hallmark of India-Israel relations.
  • India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. India is the world’s largest buyer of Israeli weaponry. Apart from defense cooperation, Israel has intensified its cooperation with Indian agriculture.

Policy shift:

  • In 2015 India abstained at the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) on a resolution welcoming the report of a Commission of Inquiry against Israel's alleged human rights violations. It was the first time India refused to vote against Israel.
  • With an increased focus on closer ties with Israel, there is a perception that India has diluted its support to Palestine.


  • India’s energy security still relied upon the Arab Nations.
  • India should consider its relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran before going for closer ties with Israel.

Has India’s Foreign policy completely changed

  • India’s style of foreign policy has changed but the content remains the same. 
  • The current government is still following non-alignment, as it is balancing between the United States and China. 
  • It has changed the nomenclature from “Look East” to “Act East,” but in practice, India’s engagement with East and Southeast Asia remains a continuation of the past. 
  • It may want to be a big player on the global stage, but still, it doesn’t have the ability to project its aspirations adequately. 
  • And most significantly, the current government may have had stronger rhetoric against Pakistan and terrorism, in practice, there are limits to what it can do on the ground.

India’s options with climate change and economic growth in the backdrop of the recent developments around the “Paris Agreement”: 

  • India’s stance on Climate Change since the Copenhagen agreement was based on the United Nations Framework for Climate Change (UNFCC), rather than its own economic interest. 

Current challenges for India’s foreign policy: India-US relations:

    • The Trump administration is challenging the fundamentals of economic globalization and its trade and technology conflict with China is escalating. A stable global economic order is important for India’s global rise. 
    • India-U.S. tensions with the trade are bubbling.
    • Identification with US camp & 2+2 talks: Though we assert ‘strategic independence’ at times of confusion, we are now identified with the ‘US camp’. India-U.S. strategic partnership is becoming stronger with 2=2 talks between respective defense ministers and foreign ministers
    • The role of Iran and Russia in the Indo-U.S. bilateral relations.
  • Engaging with like-minded powers in the Indo-Pacific and setting the Quadrilateral grouping’s agenda.

India- China relations:

  • The world is hurtling towards Chinese unipolarity; international borders are becoming irrelevant as climate change and cyber terror bypass them.
    • China’s formidable Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) needs attention. 
    • India’s neighbors continue to look to China as a power with more capabilities whereas India’s inability to deliver an economically integrate the region makes New Delhi regional outreach challenging.
    • The possibilities of China and Pakistan grouping against India: We have already seen China and Pakistan trying to corner India on Article 370 issue.
    • Quad can antagonize China: India shares a 4000-km land border that our new-found geo-strategic friends in the US, Japan, and Australia do not have to worry about. They could not be expected to fight a land war with China for India’s sake if at all joined. 
    • Inability in Afghanistan: New Delhi’s apparent inability to play a noteworthy role in the emerging Afghan geopolitics at a crucial time such as this.

India-Pakistan relations

  • Zero tolerance to terrorism approach involves taking a firm line with Pakistan and strengthening international cooperation for countering terrorism and extremism. 
  • India needs to convince the international community about its Article 370 move.

India- Russia relations: Re-defining Indo-Russia ties as Moscow gets closer to Beijing. Rising tensions in the Middle East between Iran and the U.S and India’s energy security.

  • India lacking an institutional infrastructure for advancing the cause of democracy as soft power.
  • The implementation of the National Register Of Citizens will also concern relations with other countries. 
  • Building smart fences and improving border security impacts bilateral relations with neighboring countries. 
  • Seeking a permanent seat at the UN Security Council is laudable but looks unachievable at the moment because there is no appetite among the P5 and also many other nations for the expansion of the UN Security Council in the permanent members’ category. 
  • The politicization of the Indian foreign policy and national security
    • Current govt. foreign policy decisions are often undertaken to cater to domestic opinion. 
    • In recent elections, we have seen the politician mentioning surgical strikes for garnering votes.
    • It shrinks the domestic space for consensus building
  • The Madhesi blockade in Nepal caused Nepal signing connectivity projects with Chine and the opening of infrastructure to the Chinese side.
  • Iran and Russia forming a politico-military axis: India’s intervening vacillation in ties with Russia, and the American blow-hot-blow-cold relations with Iran since 9/11 are pointers that cannot be overlooked.

Way forward:

  • Building an institutional framework that can engage in long-term strategic thinking more effectively than in the past as well as strengthening the economic and military building blocks of India’s comprehensive national power.
  • Incorporating defense diplomacy in the overall diplomacy: It needs improvement in coordination between the ministries of defense and external affairs and the armed forces. Such coordination so far has been ad hoc and inadequate.
  • The US-China trade war: India should devise strategies not only to exploit the new opportunities but also to safeguard it against dangers.
  • Leveraging lopsided free trade agreements (FTAs)
    • FTAs signed in the past few years have only made the balance of trade worse. There is tremendous pressure on India from other countries to join RCEP. 
    • India must learn to leverage its vast market and human resources in the negotiations on FTAs.
  • A comprehensive government approach to foreign policy
    • The ministries of external affairs, finance and commerce need to work together to identify and implement winning strategies. 
    • At the same time, other departments like that of the industry will have to take steps to improve India’s productivity. 
  • Using soft power
    • India should work on further strengthening its own democratic credentials and opt for a people-based approach towards democracy promotion rather than a state-based approach.
  • Engaging global powers: India’s need to expand spaces, pursue interests and leverage every relationship – America, Russia, China, Europe, and Japan.
  • Prioritizing the neighborhood
    • India-China relationship in the last 15 years is characterized by regular engagement at the leadership level, and therefore despite the ups and downs, a message goes to the world that the leaders of the two countries want to keep the relationship going.
    • Chinese proposal of the idea of developing a manufacturing partnership as a measure to reduce the humongous trade deficit between both countries and 2+1 dialogue format with other nations must be considered.
    • India also needs to be mindful of China’s status as a P-5 member.
    • To tackle the border issue with China, the Peace and Tranquility Agreement of 1993 does not suffice and there is a need for a framework that takes into account the changing scenarios of the two countries.
    • The India-Nepal relationship can be used as a template for foreign policy in the SAARC region, which is characterized by open borders and free movement of people back and forth.
    • India should influence its neighbors, and help them too, if willing, to stall any Chinese such projects.
    • Ensuring comprehensive security for the neighborhood as a whole.
    • Afghanistan approach: It is imperative, to engage the Taliban, which is bound to be a dominant actor in Afghanistan in the days ahead.
    • Tackling US-Iran-Russia tensions
      • The Indian economy is still at a take-off stage. We need stable energy security. India has to do some tough-talking with the USA about our own long-term concerns in the immediate and extended neighborhood (Iran and Russia included)
    • Understanding India-Pak issue:
      • Using BIMSTEC rather than SAARC to indirectly engage with Pakistan is not a solution, as both sets of regional initiatives are necessary for sub-regional cooperation. 
  • The way to handle the Pakistan situation is not by turning away from it, rather the solution lies in understanding that the historical narratives of the two countries are poles apart creating an adversarial relationship. 
    • The effort should be to not let this relationship escalate into an armed conflict.
  • Formidable climate change policy: 
  • India must safeguard its position, first by acting on areas that essentially promote the country’s interest. For example, the shift from fossil fuels to renewable clean sources, to ensure energy security in the future. 


  • The success or failure of India’s foreign policy will be tested on issues like- India being a global rule-maker or is it still a rule-taker, membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or the UN Security Council, resolution of regional conflicts, etc.
  • But what’s clear is that India has made a significant shift in favor of multi-alignment, as opposed to an equidistant, non-aligned posture.

Mains question: There has been a debate about whether it can be really said that India’s foreign policy is undergoing fundamental change. Analyze. Also read: India’s Membership of Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) PoK terror camps destroyed: Army chief