Foreign policy challenges lie ahead

ByAshley J Tellis
May 22, 2019 06:03 PM IST

Between globalisation and China’s influence, India cannot protect its strategy of local primacy

Although Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoyed many foreign policy successes during his term in office, the incoming government in New Delhi — which could witness Modi’s return to the helm — will have to confront serious challenges both around India’s periphery and farther beyond. Grounded in a vision of India as a leading power in the international system, Modi has displayed an extraordinary international activism unprecedented since Jawaharlal Nehru’s long tenure, engaging India in global issues ranging from climate change to strategic realignments.

Restoring a desirable equilibrium will require New Delhi to strengthen relations with the US and China(Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Restoring a desirable equilibrium will require New Delhi to strengthen relations with the US and China(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

For all of Modi’s achievements, however, India’s strategic aims over the last half-decade were often frustrated by both contextual constraints and limited national capabilities. A successful Indian foreign policy must create external circumstances conducive to realising India’s fundamental goals, namely, protecting its physical security and its decisional autonomy, enlarging its economic prosperity and its technological capabilities, and realising its status claims on the global stage.

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Attaining these objectives requires New Delhi to engage at three different levels abroad: within its immediate periphery, among the world’s middle powers, and with the great powers of the system. The next government will confront significant tests especially in the first and the last arenas, suggesting that the incoming prime minister will have his work cut out for him.


India’s problems within the subcontinent and around its immediate periphery (excluding China) have always been significant—and fundamentally for structural reasons. Occasional diplomatic blunders notwithstanding, India’s limitations in material power have proven the primary obstacle to establishing political hegemony among its smaller neighbours. A weak state and inadequate economic development have constricted the resources available for securing India’s external influence. And by pursuing inward-looking growth, India has failed to integrate its region economically.

Between the realities of globalisation and China’s expanding influence within South Asia, the traditional Indian strategy of protecting its local primacy—insulating the subcontinent—is well and truly dead. The new government will have to confront this discomfiting reality.

Of all of India’s immediate neighbours, the relationships with the Maldives, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Burma, and the Indian Ocean island states are currently comfortable, though in each case good relations are contingent on having friendly governments in place. Ties with Sri Lanka and Nepal are complicated, as recent governments have excessively dallied with China.

India’s problems with Pakistan remain insuperable as the Pakistan Army continues to wage subconventional wars against India under a nuclear umbrella. Short of a domestic transformation within Pakistan, the incoming government will have, like its predecessors, only better or worse ways of managing this persistent problem.

In order to vivify its regional primacy, therefore, India must accumulate greater power at home and deepen interdependence with its neighbours.


If India’s immediate environs are still challenging, India’s relations with most of the key middle powers have improved dramatically. The Modi government has especially utilised India’s partnership with Japan to attract economic investments, acquire critical technology, gain support for India’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council, and create an evolving intra-Asian balance to China. In addition, Modi’s successful outreach to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia has enhanced India’s quest for stable energy supplies and increased foreign investment while also limiting their traditional support for Pakistan.

Much to India’s chagrin, however, Moscow today has ceased to be a reliable partner in balancing China within Asia as India and Russia struggle to find strategic convergence. India’s relations with the middle powers remain robust apart from this exception, but these ties — despite their importance — cannot compensate for the hazards posed by India’s neighbours and the great powers.


India faces problems from both great powers: intensifying threats from China and geopolitical fickleness from the United States. Hopefully the problems with the latter are a temporary feature of the current Trump administration.

The challenges embodied by China, however, are more enduring because China is still growing and is located next door. China has long recognised that India represented one of the three major Asian threats to its quest for continental, if not global, preeminence. Consequently, Pakistan became the favoured instrument for containing India. China is now also intensely penetrating South Asia and the wider Indian Ocean region, further diminishing India’s influence. The Indian attempts to neutralise this Chinese strategy have not yet come to full fruition.

India’s relationship with the United States, therefore, matters greatly, but it remains hostage to internal anxieties. Modi has demonstrated a commitment to deepening ties with the United States through his handling of disputes over, for example, the S-400 purchase from Russia and Trump’s threat to end Indian privileges under the Generalized System of Preferences. But Indian domestic opposition to strengthening US ties abounds on both the left and the right as the Indian body politic is deeply conflicted about foreign alignments. The Trump administration’s targeting of India raises further suspicion about American reliability as a partner to balance China.

The incoming government will thus find its ties with both Beijing and Washington to be unsettled concurrently. Restoring a desirable equilibrium will require New Delhi to strengthen relations with Washington while simultaneously minimising the offence to Beijing, a continuing and unenviable challenge.


India’s foreign policy limitations are linked intimately to its weaknesses at home. Therefore, if India is to realise its great power ambitions, the next government will have to accelerate economic reforms, strengthen India’s institutions, preserve its constitutional ethos, and protect its internal cohesion, all of which have floundered dangerously in recent years. Today, when India’s claims to exceptionalism will not suffice either to protect its security or to increase its influence, its missteps within will have outsized impact abroad.

Ashley J Tellis holds the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specialising in international security and US foreign and defence policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent

The views expressed are personal

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