[Analytics] Domestic concerns still shape India’s foreign policy

Modi arrives for inauguration of Integrated Check Post in Gurdaspur | Photo from PTI. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

It is a truism that foreign policy begins at home. But how does this work in India’s case? Five forces are at play — economic development, geographic reality, ideological positioning, transactional necessities and its place in the international order. Shivshankar Menon specially for the East Asia Forum.

Economically, India — like China and others — speaks of a new self-reliant (atma-nirbhar) path to prosperity in the aftermath of COVID-19. It is unclear what this will entail. India’s modest resource endowment — the need to import oil and gas, fertiliser, non-ferrous metals, technology, capital and other critical inputs for its industrialisation — makes autarky or pure import-substitution a counter-productive choice.

There is an ongoing debate on the nature and extent of economic readjustment required to restore growth. India chose not to participate in the final stages of Asia’s Regional Economic Partnership (RCEP) — the multilateral trade deal representing around 30 per cent of global output — and has raised tariffs for four years running. While it is too early to say how far the nation will turn inward, India cannot cut itself off from the world. A nation’s resource endowment does not change overnight, so this domestic foundation of India’s external role remains relatively constant.

In the short term, another shift is clear. Assertive Chinese behaviour on the Himalayan border between May and June 2020, leading to the first lethal clash in 45 years, has provoked a recalibration of India’s economic relationship with China. A conscious attempt is underway to reduce India’s economic dependence on China, creating opportunities for other partners in the Asia Pacific and elsewhere. This shift constitutes a significant bet on a multipolar economic future, with China as one — albeit important — participant in the Asian economy. So long as RCEP is seen as opening India to Chinese economic ‘penetration’, India will resist it.

Geographically, India has always been acutely conscious of the pivotal role that its size, location, history and capabilities give it in the sub-continent. For this reason, India’s domestic compulsions are mostly evident in relations with immediate neighbours other than China. In a sub-continent of ancient nations, new states and porous borders, the lines between internal and external politics are blurred. This awareness means India is much more willing to be a provider of regional public goods in this arena than on the global stage.

Since the 1980s, India has opened its economy to its neighbours without insisting on reciprocity, has been a net provider of security when asked, and sought stability in the sub-continent and Indian Ocean. The South Asian Free Trade Agreement of 2004 is being implemented between India and all its neighbours, on top of the non-reciprocal bilateral trading agreements that India has with all of them. The exception is Pakistan, which did not extend Most Favoured Nation status to India.

While the West might see India as a difficult negotiating partner that is reluctant to provide global public goods, India displays no such reluctance on the subcontinent. But as perceptions grow of the BJP government as ‘Hindu nationalist’, India must convince its neighbours to see it as a source of subcontinental stability, security and prosperity.

Ideologically, it is only natural that a secular, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-linguistic India would seek an international order marked by diversity, pluralism and the checks and balances intrinsic to democracy. India’s international preference has been for a more democratic and open international order, rather than a hierarchical, hegemonic order centred on a single power.

This preference has not involved an attempt to export an ‘Indian model’ of democracy, or granting the international community a prescriptive role in matters concerning the internal order of states. Given a choice between universal norms and sovereignty, in most cases sovereignty prevails. India did not fight for its independence only to suffer through new forms of colonialism. Indian domestic politics equally supports the defence of the country’s sovereignty in the international system, making it a constant feature of the republic’s external behaviour.

India is also becoming more transactional as the world becomes less ideological. India’s unsatisfactory experience with the workings of the multilateral system — especially with the UN on Kashmir — has seen the country rely more on bilateralism since the 1970s. With its internal politics now going through an adjustment, India seems increasingly reconciled to working in a realist world. Not only does India shy away from taking its issues to multilateral fora, it has recently watched and sometimes actively participated in their atrophy — as with the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

Through all its phases of engagement with the international community, India has preferred balancing arrangements rather than bandwagoning, whether as a non-aligned power during the Cold War or as an autonomous actor in a unipolar world led by the United States.

But what does India’s foreign policy experience and domestic politics suggest for its role in a world of acute China–US contention, great power rivalry, heightened geopolitical disputes and a slowing and fragmented global economy? In a situation where India–China relations are increasingly fraught, India is turning increasingly to the United States, Japan and other partners in issue-based coalitions, leaning to the side with which it shares a declared commitment to democratic values and principles.

Today, India’s internal politics are being reordered and its economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is taking priority. Domestic impulses, combined with external shifts such tensions with China, will likely push it toward more self-reliance, more selective engagement abroad, the strong defence of sovereignty, and tighter relations with the likely sources of capital, technology and markets needed for India’s economic transformation. In the meantime there will be selective cooperation with ASEAN, Japan, the United States and Australia through issue-specific ‘coalitions of the willing’.

Shivshankar Menon is Visiting Professor of International Relations at Ashoka University and a Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution India Center. He served as national security advisor to the Indian Prime Minister from 2010 to 2014.

Share it

Exclusive: Beyond the Covid-19 world's coverage