International Affairs, a leading journal in the field of international relations, heads off 2017 with a special issue (Volume 93, Number 1, January 2017) dedicated to Indian foreign policy. The issue, which is co-edited by Manjari Chatterjee Miller of Boston University and Kate Sullivan de Estrada of Oxford University, presents the results of an international research network that has examined the impact of India’s rise and of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership on India’s foreign policy.
As Miller and Sullivan de Estrada note in the introduction, this special issue is particularly important because it is “the first time that Indian foreign policy has been the central focus of an English-language IR journal edited in ‘the West.’” This issue brings Indian foreign policy and its evolving geopolitical role to the forefront of Western academia, allowing leading scholars and policy-makers in the West to engage with the subject. Previously, “detailed discussions of Indian foreign policy tend[ed] to be scattered across and confined to regional or India-specific academic journals, think-tanks and the media. Rarely have western International Relations (IR) journals engaged seriously with India.”
The decision to focus on Modi is well-thought through and is reflected throughout the articles in the journal. Rather than focusing on Indian foreign policy in general, this issue has chosen to focus on the “current prime minister” in order to “draw early conclusions about the impact of Modi’s leadership on future foreign policy directions,” and so “bridge a much lamented academic–policy divide.” In addition to focusing on Modi, the issue also engages with the perspectives of “three major global players—the United States, China and the United Kingdom—in order to understand how India’s rise is viewed internationally.”
Readers of the special issue should seek to understand contemporary India’s foreign policy strategy through the framework established established in Rajesh Basrur’s article “Modi’s foreign policy fundamentals: a trajectory unchanged.” Basrur argues convincingly that although Modi may differ greatly in terms of style from his predecessor as prime minister, Manmohan Singh, India’s foreign policy can be broadly defined by continuity from 1991 onwards. It was in 1991 when the major change in India’s foreign policy calculus occurred, leading to the current consensus among India’s foreign policy elites. The section is worth quoting in full:
[After the Cold War], instead of trying to avoid engagement with the Great Power system, India now began to seek a prominent place in it. On the economic side, it gave up all notions of building a ‘new international economic order’ and began to encourage foreign investment and trade. One fundamental similarity between the old and the new approaches remained: the preference for strategic autonomy. But even here there was an important difference. In the old days, India had sought autonomy to minimize the costs and risks associated with being a weak power; now it began to think of autonomy as undergirding its quest for security and status as an emerging major power. In essence, what India wants today is to maximize its strategic autonomy as well as security by means of a hedging approach—that is, by spreading its bets and developing strong relationships with as many major powers as possible. In short, it is naturally inclined to favour building multiple strategic partnerships.
To emphasize again, two themes in particular stand out in this section that the issue’s various authors return to often: strategic autonomy and hedging, and strategy that secures strategic autonomy.
As such, this is not “non-alignment in new attire,” but an approach to an increasingly complex, interdependent world balanced with realpolitik. Despite expectations that the rise of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would upset this approach to geopolitics, Modi has largely followed the same paradigm as his predecessors, maintaining a type of pragmatism further explored in an article in the issue by Miller and Sullivan de Estrada.
As Basrur points out, tougher language toward China and Pakistan has not ended dialogue and cooperation with those countries. Similarly, closer relations with the United States and Japan has not led to outright alignment with those states. India seems determined to continue to take an upward, but inoffensive, steady, and respectable path to great power status, avoiding alignment and interventionism for the most part; what Modi has done is market his country more prominently than his predecessors on the global stage while continuing the trajectory of his predecessors.
Nonetheless, India is still cultivating closer relations with a variety of countries, especially the United States, in order to enhance its strategic position. An important strategic goal of India’s, especially under Modi, has been to develop closer relations with the United States, especially in light of the rise of China. Yet the conclusions of other authors in the issue that India is drawing closer to the United States continue to echo the same basic conclusion found in Basrur’s work: India does not wish to fully alienate China be aligning outright with the United States, instead preferring to use relations with the United States to strengthen its overall strategic autonomy.
Eswaran Sridharan, the academic director of the University of Pennsylvania Institute for the Advanced Study of India writes that “the most probable future direction for India over the next five to ten years is a continuation of the gradual shift towards the United States and its allies and partners, but still within the context of a search for strategic autonomy via strategic partnerships and without full realignment.”
In another article, Harsh V. Pant (a contributor to The Diplomat) and Yogesh Joshi suggest that while Modi is pursuing a qualitatively different approach (more engagement) to the United States than that of his predecessors, “robust Indo-US ties are viewed as an important component of an enhanced strategic autonomy for India (emphasis mine).” In another piece, Xiaoyu Pu also notes that from India’s perspective, “closer cooperation with the United States will attract Chinese attention and improve India’s profile and bargaining leverage in the eyes of Chinese elites, while a formal military alliance with the United States would provoke a Chinese backlash.”
Readers should take particular note of Xiaoyu Pu’s article, “Ambivalent accommodation: status signalling of a rising India and China’s response,” on Sino-Indian relations from a Chinese perspective. It is interesting in part because most IR writing on Chinese foreign policy tends to focus more on East Asia or Sino-American relations.
Pu’s piece argues that “Chinese perceptions of India are multidimensional and complex.” Further elaborating, he writes: “while having reservations regarding India’s Great Power status, the Chinese embrace enthusiastically India’s signals of developing country status. At the global level, China increasingly sees India as a potential global partner rather than as a significant threat. At the domestic level, Chinese debates about India’s democratic system are more indicative of China’s ideological divisions than of the intrinsic strength or weakness of India.” In other words, the Chinese elite embraces India as a partner in the developing world, but is wary of it as a potential great power rival.
The January 2017 special issue of International Affairs is a highly recommended read for policy-practitioners, IR theorists, and regional experts. In addition to coherently laying out the current state of India’s foreign policy for the first time in a major Western journal, its individual articles are a delight to read and serve up all sorts of interesting and relevant ideas on Indian foreign policy thinking about normative power, global institutions, and history, in addition to international security and geopolitics.