Post cold war Indian foreign policy


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ANY survey of the shifting foreign policy orientations of a country like India must first start from a survey of US foreign policy perspectives, since it is within the framework of the US’s global imperial project post 1991 that one must situate India’s foreign policy and diplomatic behaviour. The American right and even the liberal centre are nowadays quite open about this imperial project of establishing, sustaining and asserting global pre-eminence. This is a project that finds academic sanction from the ‘hegemonic stability thesis’ or the view that a hegemon, single or collective (in this case single – the US), is a precondition for acquiring the international public goods of stability and prosperity for all or most countries and peoples.

This imperial project has both a geo-economic and a geo-political dimension. Geo-economically, the US has to promote a neoliberal form of economic globalization. This has strengthened the US relative to Western Europe (Germany) and Japan, even as it can only stave off the dangers represented by the inherent weakness of the US economy that must eventually demand its due. The single most important aspect of this economic neoliberalism is the financialization of the world economy wherein the dollar is the international currency, and where the ‘Dollar Wall Street Regime’ (DWSR) is at the hub of the world financial system.1

It is this reality that allows the US to avoid paying the price of being the world’s greatest debtor country and it is the benefits of this ability of the US to live well outside its financial-economic means that underpins its capacity and ambition to be the world’s hegemon. In fact, Japan more than even China, has played the crucial role in constantly bailing out the US dollar in the face of repeated financial crises. It has done this for reasons both economic – fear of what a significant fall in the value of the dollar would mean for its public and private holdings of accumulated dollars – and political.2

Zbigniew Brzezinski has spelt out better than anyone else the geopolitical requirements for establishing American hegemony – domination of Eurasia.3 Hence the hardware of the imperial project is the chain of military-related bases (over 730 in over 135 countries – far more than at the peak of the Cold War era) and the associated sets of regional alliance structures that must go with this, from NATO in Europe and extending into the Balkans to the web of alliances in West Asia (most crucially with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey) to new found alliances with dictatorships in Central Asia to regional alliances in South Asia, Southeast Asia and the Far East. The burgeoning US-India relationship must be situated geo-politically in American ambitions for Asia as part of its even wider project of constructing a Eurasian (and therefore global) dominance.

The software of the US empire-building project is now provided by six ideological banners or discourses in contrast to the single overarching banner of ‘defending the free world by containing communism’ that sufficed during the Cold War era. Today, with the ‘grand enemy’ gone, the US needs different discourses for different regions to suit different contexts at different times and to have the flexibility to shift from one legitimising discourse to another whenever appropriate. These six banners are (i) military intervention to overcome humanitarian crises; (ii) military intervention to carry out regime change in the name of democracy; (iii) the global war on terrorism; (iv) preventing acquisition of weapons of mass destruction in the ‘wrong hands’; (v) failed states; and (vi) war on narcotics.


It is within this broader framework of the US imperial project that we have to explain and assess the evolution of Indian foreign policy since 1991. For India the two crucial and related events of that year were the collapse of the Soviet Union calling into question the policy of nonalignment, and the inauguration of the New Economic Policy (NEP) by the recently elected Congress government. Though there was considerable continuity with earlier liberalizing policies, the NEP did represent a decisive turn ideologically towards neoliberalism. The collapse of the USSR affected not just the foreign policy of India but also its domestic economic policies.

In general theoretical terms, presumably sovereign independent governments can pursue any of five possible diplomatic strategies in relation to a dominant or hegemonising power like the US. A country like India can (a) bandwagon, (b) balance, (c) hide, i.e., practice neutrality, (d) transcend, i.e., appeal to international law to justify its postures, or (e) co-bind, i.e., eliminate a potential threat by tying that country tightly to its own political and economic structures. This fifth option does not really exist for India vis-à-vis the US though it is what France did to Germany after the Second World War, and what India could do with Pakistan if both countries had a mind to do so which they don’t. It is what Japan and China could consider doing if they had a mind to (which they don’t) and if the US would not strive at all costs to prevent this (which it would).


That India has now adopted the strategy of bandwagoning is obvious. But this eventual denouement was not reached all at once after 1991 but in phases. With the benefit of hindsight we can now identify three phases in the evolution of India’s post-Cold War foreign policy and diplomacy: 1991-98, 1998-2004, 2004 onwards.

Phase I – 1991-98: Soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union both India and the US began talking of forging a ‘strategic friendship’ if not a ‘strategic partnership’. There were US and western plaudits for India’s NEP. But the asymmetry of power meant that the terms of any such strategic relationship would be determined by the US and would have to be accepted by India. Since those terms did not involve a decisive US shift away from Pakistan towards India, it was not, to begin with, particularly attractive to India. The history of foreign policy reorientation since 1991 is basically the story of India accommodating to US strategic perspectives regardless of the nuclear issue where it was the US that moved from an initial posture of opposition to acceptance. Thus between 1991-98, the India-US diplomatic and military relationship developed slowly, half-heartedly and haltingly, even if the overall direction was forward.

Phase II – 1998-2004: This phase saw the accession of a BJP-led government and was marked above all by the nuclear issue following the tests of May 1998 and its impact on the triangle of US-India-Pakistan relations. Interrupted by the Kargil war of Spring 1999 when the US backed India and pressed Pakistan to withdraw its troops (incidentally paving the way for a military coup led by General Musharraf to replace the Nawaz Sharif government in Pakistan), this phase saw the most sustained rounds of high-level diplomatic-strategic discussions ever between the two countries since Indian independence in 1947.

The BJP-led government sought to convince the US government that it should accept Indian nuclearization since India was strategically on the same side as the US. The Clinton administration was to soon enough accept this, even welcome and endorse the growing strategic partnership. But it was also to remain concerned about the nuclear issue, wanting India to clarify what its nuclear ambitions and preparations were and would be. In short, it accepted India’s new status but wanted it to remain a small nuclear power (SNP).


This was also the period where a strategic triad was being forged between India-Israel-US, witnessing the first ever trip of Ariel Sharon as Israel’s Prime Minister to India. It was also the period where after 9/11 India was to accept the US balancing role vis-à-vis India and Pakistan as also that the US would not sacrifice its strategic alliance with Pakistan at the altar of the growing strategic relationship with India.


This readjustment on India’s part from pre-9/11 hopes has been rationalized as follows: the Indo-US tie-up is a first-tier relationship compared to the second-tier relationship between the US and Pakistan. Moreover, this latter relationship is in the long term an aberration, which the US will eventually find out for itself and abandon. It is in India’s interest then to bandwagon behind the US and to show itself a more committed ally to it than either Russia or China. India, if you like, was prepared to put all its strategic eggs into the American basket, even more so than Russia and China.

Phase III – 2004 onwards: The accession of a Congress-led government in 2004 witnessed a continuation of the neoliberal direction of the economy with left pressure only mildly affecting the pace and sequencing of the neoliberal project. This consolidation of the NEP has widened and deepened an Indian elite and ‘middle class’ as well as created strong economic and media lobbies, all of whom are strongly pro-American and committed to maintaining a strategic alliance between India and the US. Perceived economic needs are believed to necessitate a close strategic partnership geopolitically. The Indian PM, Manmohan Singh, has gone on public record to declare that his historic contribution as finance minister was to usher in the NEP in 1991. He believes that this decisive integration with the world economy must not be held back at any cost and thus it is vital that India-US relations become as close as possible. Manmohan Singh is an economic bureaucrat now converted to neoliberal theology whose economic thinking is a crucial factor in his handling of foreign policy and high-level political diplomacy.

While it was expected that the economic direction would remain the same even after the Congress party replaced the BJP as leader of a coalition government, it was not expected that the foreign policy trajectory laid out by the previous government would not only be followed but that the journey on that path would actually be accelerated. This was a resolute commitment to bandwagon ever more strongly behind the US even as this practice was to be naively rationalized as the best way to promote a more multipolar world order, when such regional alliances for the US are seen as the best way to sustain its unipolarity and global hegemony. The key factor behind this acceleration, however, came not from the Indian but from the American side. The Bush administration decided to shift gears in its pursuit of a strategic partnership with India, something that would not come as a surprise if one had read Condoleezza Rice’s writings prior to her taking a senior political appointment in the second Administration of Bush Jr.


In contrast to the Clinton administration, which though committed to establishing a strategic partnership with India nevertheless favoured a gradualist approach, the Bush administration decided to accelerate this process and signalled its willingness to enter into an Indo-US nuclear deal that would effectively rewrite both US domestic and international (Nuclear Supplier Group) rules and norms to reward a rule-breaker (India) on nuclear proliferation matters in return for India’s strategic realignment with the US. The bargain was perfectly understood in both governments. It achieved US Congressional ratification and endorsement without demanding the kind of changes that would make it difficult for this Indian government to accept the deal. The final bilateral deal was negotiated within the parameters laid down by US law, namely the Hyde Act of December 2006 and then Congressionally ratified.


Despite unavoidable ‘grey areas’, the language of the final 123 deal as it was called, was so worded that New Delhi could claim to have defended the ‘national interest’ in making the deal despite detractors saying it is a sellout. Somewhat unexpected was the left veto, since for a long period it allowed negotiations to go on and even tail-ended the DAE scientific community who had raised various objections to the deal being negotiated. But even though the odds appear against the deal going through (despite the left’s ‘relaxation’ in allowing the UPA government to begin negotiations with the IAEA), such an outcome is unlikely to alter the basic trajectory of India-US relations although it can somewhat slow the process. This Bush administration like the earlier Clinton one also wants India to remain a SNP. But it sees less reason to make a public issue of it since becoming a first-rank nuclear weapons power is only a longer term and difficult to achieve possibility; indeed India may well not succeed in obtaining such a status in the future.

The Defence Framework Agreement of June 2005 between the two countries and the March 2006 Indo-US nuclear deal have constituted the centrepiece of this enduring strategic relationship and the current Indian government showed its willingness to pay the American price when demanded – namely the Indian vote against Iran on the IAEA governing body in September 2006 which enabled the issue to be transferred to the Security Council for enabling the process of imposing sanctions. This was an India going some way along with the US in squeezing Iran for reasons that have only in part to do with US fears of Iran’s possible acquisition of nuclear weapons and more with US efforts to strategically dominate West Asia.


We need to take a closer look at the complex relationship between US, China, India and Japan. Our starting point must be the recognition that the US aims to play the role of key balancer in two regional triangle structures associated with its wider project of controlling Eurasia. The US aims to be the key balancer in South Asia in the US-India-Pakistan triangle. It aims to be the key balancer in East Asia in the US-China-Japan triangle. The US also aims to link the two regions via Southeast Asia, above all by promoting closer dealings between India and Japan.

Finally, in the US-China-India triangle, it is the evolution of the US-China relationship (whose future trajectory will essentially be determined by US behaviour) that will determine the India-China relationship. Not only is the India-China relationship not independent of either country’s relationship with the US, it is those respective bilateral relationships with the strongest world power, the US, that will determine the direction taken by their own bilateral relationship. That is to say, even a resolution of the longstanding border problem between India and China will not guarantee enduringly friendly relations with each other.

Let us take the US-China-Japan triangle. The US today has every interest in promoting (within limits) a more rightwing nationalist and ambitious Japan. It also wants to promote a more geopolitically ambitious India. Official US publications talk of making India more powerful. In a rather different register, the US calls on Japan to start behaving like the major power it already is and, therefore, for it to shed its political-military inhibitions of the past to play a greater role inside and outside the Far East Asian zone. For the US to balance between Japan and China and to keep them separate, it needs to both promote a more aggressive Japan to disturb China and also to drive home to China that it would be in its interest to accept the US-Japan Security Pact that allows the former to control the latter.

The US posture towards China currently incorporates two seemingly contradictory postures but is probably the most effective way for it to pursue its longer term project of nullifying a future Chinese geopolitical challenge, either through incorporation in a framework of accepted American leadership and hegemony or by isolating it sufficiently so that the costs of challenge are seen as too high. Thus the US treats today’s China as both a potential opponent and as a potential friend and makes its preparations – military, economic, cultural and political – accordingly. China on its part has every wish to avoid making the US see it as a strategic opponent and therefore to be left to pursue its modernization and growth over the next two decades or more without facing undue external pressure.


In South Asia, the US balances between India and Pakistan because each country serves separate and non-substitutable interests for the US. Pakistan serves US geopolitical interests westwards (vis-à-vis West Asia or the Middle East) and northwards (vis-à-vis Central Asia). India serves American geopolitical interests south-wards and eastwards, above all as a junior naval partner to control the Indian Ocean as part of US policy to contain China. This requires developing India’s military relationships not just with Southeast Asian countries like the Philippines and Indonesia but all the way to Japan and Australia. Indeed, Japan, Australia, Indonesia and India then figure as the base network on which a wider structure of regional alliances spanning South, Southeast and Fareast Asia can be pivoted.

The US is quite open about its strategic plans and these are spelt out, above all, in three key sources – a report commissioned by the US Department of Defense in September 2002; a 2005 study by the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College; and the writings of Ashley Tellis, a key adviser of Indian origin to the US government and former aide of the US Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill. Tellis is a member of the Rand Corporation.4


The thrust of these three studies is that it suits US interests to promote Indian ambitions, for only by doing so can it effectively incorporate India into its own overarching strategy for domination in that part of the world. The American idea is to construct an Asian equivalent of NATO in which, among other things, India can be a junior partner in controlling the Indian Ocean. To this effect, the US is financially supporting the Indian construction of a Far Eastern Naval Command (FENC) to be based in the Andaman and Nicobar islands close to Indonesia and strategically located between the North Arabian Sea and the Malacca Straits.


When completed in 2012 the FENC will be larger than the old Subic Bay base. It would have state-of-the-art naval electronic warfare systems, strike jets, aerial refuellers and short, middle-range and long-range Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). There will be three main bases and a chain of small anchor stations.5 India’s navy is seen by top US military managers as being particularly useful for carrying out ‘low-end tasks’ such as ‘peacekeeping operations, search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and high-value cargo escort.’ Joint patrolling by US and Indian ships is now fairly routine. India has also joined up with the US in regard to its WMD-TMD and Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) programmes, both of which are guaranteed to perpetuate global nuclear tensions and rivalries.

Since 2003 there have been serious discussions between the US and India about a possible Asian NATO in which India, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia could be important nodes in the overall project of containing China. The Blank study bluntly spells out the US thinking behind having an Asian NATO. ‘What’s in it for the United States? For one, the proposed security system is principally an in-region solution for dealing with two of the biggest international security threats – an over-ambitious China and the spread of Talibanised Islam. Second, this scheme being entirely indigenous, there is none of the odium that attends on US troops deployed locally as in South Korea and Japan… and finally, it in no way precludes the presence in the extended region of the US armed forces or limits US military initiatives.’6


The Indian attitude towards this idea of an Asian NATO can be gleaned from official statements made by the former Indian Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran, who said, ‘In the context of Asia, there is no doubt that a major realignment of forces is taking place.’ China was emerging as a ‘global economic power.’ The US and India could ‘contribute to creating a greater balance in Asia.’ And to manage the uncertain security situation in this region, it would be necessary to bring in ‘more and more countries within the discipline of a security paradigm for this region.’7

It is in this context too that one must view the growing military relationship between India and Japan. Japan’s Maritime Self-Defence Force is now operating in the Indian Ocean region in support of the US occupation of Afghanistan just as Indian armed forces are extending similar auxiliary support to the US in respect of Afghanistan and Iraq. This is Japan’s first participation in an overseas military operation since 1945. In May 2004, Japan publicly offered India a ‘global partnership’ for strategic purposes not difficult to fathom.8 In April 2005, when the Indian and Japanese prime ministers met, they reaffirmed their ‘global partnership’, declaring their joint commitment to opposing proliferation of WMDs and announced that they would move towards institutionalizing regular cooperation between the two countries’ navies and coast guards.


How are we to explain the turn in Indian foreign policy? The standard explanation – changed perceptions or understandings of the ‘national interest’ – fails. ‘National interest’ is not a term of explanation in international relations, and therefore is no compass either, although there is no reason to doubt the integrity of foreign policy decision-makers when they claim to be guided in their thinking by the ‘national interest’. This notion is essentially a term or principle of justification, not of explanation or guidance. It is too inadequate a concept for the purposes of explanation and too indeterminate a concept for the purposes of guidance. It exercises no control whatsoever over the domain of foreign policy choices. Any course of action, including complete opposites, can be claimed as warranted by the ‘national interest’. You can go to war or insist on peace. You can both support or oppose alliances with the very same country in its name.

Hardly surprising then that Realism – the conventional and dominant framework for explaining foreign policy behaviour and which fetishizes the notion of ‘national interest’ – also fails to adequately explain India’s foreign policy reorientation since 1991. Indeed, in a Realist perspective, the natural and predicted course of action for at least some if not all of the following major powers or aspirants to that status – Russia, China, India, Japan, Germany, France, UK – should be their movement (slow or fast) towards balancing against the dominant power, the US. Instead, the post-Cold War pattern now lasting for a decade-and-a-half is of a basically hub-and-spokes arrangement with the US at the hub and connected by separate spokes bilaterally to all the major powers, each of which is more concerned about developing and sustaining its relationships with the hub than with moving seriously along the rim against the hub. We live today in a world of various major powers bandwagoning to a greater or lesser degree with the US rather than striving seriously to challenge it.


The proper explanation for India’s turn can be found once we are clear about what it is that is the most important determinant of foreign policy behaviour by a state. It is quite simply the political character of the leadership stratum that makes and shapes policy decisions and of the broader social layer that makes and shapes opinion in support of such policies. Changes in this political character are never a simple function of external changes in power balances between countries or brought about by an unfolding pattern of economic integration, but are always determined by an extraordinarily complex combination of the international and the domestic, of the sociological, political, economic and cultural-ideological.

To put it another way, the story of the rightward shift in Indian foreign policy cannot be separated from the much wider and all-encompassing story of the general rightward shift by the elites and ‘middle classes’ of India over the last two-and-a-half decades, both preceding and following the end of the Cold War. As such that story cannot be adequately recounted here. It is the outcome of tumultuous upheavals that have changed the social, cultural and political landscape of India even as our ‘foreign policy establishment’, incapable as always of any self-reflexivity (the Realist framework of thought simply rules it out), nurtures the illusion that it is unaffected by such rightwing transformations and is only following the imperatives of ‘national interest’ in changed times.


It also follows that reversal of such foreign policy reorientations as have now taken place will require its own history and experience of struggles and transformations within and without. Within India, this means effective opposition to the neoliberal agenda, which is never only economic but always and necessarily has profound political (anti-democratic) and cultural ramifications. Externally, it means effective opposition to the US imperial project, which is today aided and abetted by the elites and substantial sections of the middle classes in India and other major countries from West Asia through Southeast Asia to Japan and South Korea in the Far East and Australia in the South Pacific.

The fact of the matter is that the diplomatic and foreign policy turn is in consonance with the interests and values of very significant and dominant sections of the Indian elite and its supporting ‘middle class’ layers. It is not an aberration. As is so often the case, sectional interests are passed off as ‘national interests’. If for the large masses of ordinary Indians, foreign policy concerns seem so distant from the difficulties of everyday existence, and what they know and hear about the US only reinforces the widespread sense that it is a global bully, this contrasts sharply with the perceptions of an Indian elite that actively consents to being part of the US empire project.

It consents because it realizes, not incorrectly, that it can benefit substantially from the perpetuation and consolidation of a global neoliberal economic order. And it is prepared to accept US hegemony because it has neither the courage nor the moral integrity to even want to seriously challenge it. It may prefer a US that is more internationally tamed and not so unilateralist and militaristic. But the Indian state that serves such dominant class interests is not about to take any risks in trying to bring this about.


One of the most important sources of US hegemony today, one of the key reasons why Indian and Chinese elites, for example, have no strong desire to challenge it, is to be found in the absence of an alternative ‘moral vision’. For some two to three decades after independence, the Indian elite as well as those they ruled, entertained a vision of building an India that would learn from East and West and build its own kind of India different and better than what was on offer from the two blocs.

Today the ‘model’, which the Indian elite, by and large, wishes to follow and emulate is that presented by the US itself. It is the model of what a prosperous, technologically and economically dynamic society is supposed to be, of what it means to be powerful, democratic and respected. Neither Western Europe nor Japan possesses the same attractive power for Indian elites, although in several respects they are far ahead of the US in their levels of democracy, equality and welfare. This is not to say that the US empire project will succeed. Like empires before it, it will be dismantled, sooner rather than later. But what role the Indian state will play in this dismantling, if any, remains to be seen.



1. This term was coined by Peter Gowan in The Global Gamble: Washington’s Faustian Bid for World Dominance, Verso, London, 1999.

2. For an acute analysis of the domestic political compulsions that drive Japan’s ‘great bureaucracies’ to prop up US hegemonic ambitions and practices, see R. Taggart Murphy, ‘East Asia’s Dollars’, New Left Review 40, July-August 2006.

3. See his two key works, The Grand Chessboard, Basic Books, New York, 1997 and The Choice, Basic Books, New York, 2004.

4. a) The Indo-US Military Relationship: Expectations and Perceptions, Dept. of Defense, 2002. This report was based on interviews with 23 American military officers, 15 government officials and 4 others as well as with 10 active Indian military officers, 5 Indian government officials and several members of Indian National Security Council and outside experts advising the Indian government.

b) Ashley Tellis, India as a New Global Power: An Action Agenda for the United States, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005.

c) Stephen Blank, Natural Allies? Regional Security in Asia and Prospects for Indo-American Strategic Cooperation, Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, 2005.

5. India’s officially recorded military expenditure rose from $11.6 billion in 1998/9 to $20 billion in 2004/5 and an estimated budget of $21.5 billion for 2005/6. Capital expenditure (mainly acquisition of weapons systems) rose from $2.4 billion in 1998/9 to $7.4 billion in 2004/5 and the budgeted figure for 2005/6 is $7.6 billion.

6. Natural Allies? Op. cit., p. 79.

7. ‘India ready to help US in Asian power rejig’, The Times of India, 29 November 2005.

8. Natural Allies? Op. cit., p. 148.