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India’s Diplomatic Disarray – OpEd


It is a universal truth that all nations aspire to increase their ‘power’ relative to their neighbours and competitors, although very few manage to achieve this altruistic goal. National power can be described as a combination of soft and hard power that create both tangible and intangible influence built on the total capacity of a nation to enforce its will on other nations.

The basis of national power is fostered on a large number of fundamental components, such as demography, social cohesion and culture, political leadership and processes, foreign policy and international relations, military capabilities, educational system, technological development, geographical factors, physical infrastructure, natural resources etc. The components are numerous but can be clubbed together under four main and overarching elements—diplomatic influence, military capabilities, economic status and information capacity—that form the pillars of national power. A single component could contribute to more than one element of national power. In the contemporary geostrategic environment, the use of brute military force to achieve national objectives is considered politically unacceptable. Therefore diplomatic overtures, firmly based on demonstrated military and economic power is the preferred element of national power that is normally employed. Shaping and influencing the environment, deterrent actions and coercion are all carried out through the diplomatic channels and only as a last resort are military and economic power used to initiate the strategy of punishment and destruction.

The primary role of national power is to ensure that all threats to the sovereignty of the nation are neutralised, preferably before the threat is able to create any damage. Sovereignty—the quality of being a fully independent nation or state with complete freedom to govern itself and exercise autonomous economic, military and parliamentary power—is ensured by the application of the elements of national power in a judicious manner. There is a subtle nuance to the employment of national power, it requires not only the capacity resident within the elements of national power, but a demonstrated national will to employ them on an as required manner. It is obvious that possession of power by itself cannot be a tool of influence, especially in international politics, but that the national will—an unquantifiable entity, which is a combination of the inherent and inculcated ethos of the people, the political process and national leadership—will be the driving force in spreading national influence. However, national power cannot be exercised without taking into account the international norms that guide its employment, the adherence to which is the only factor that keeps the global comity of nations in a relatively peaceful equilibrium.

A cohesive national will that in turn leads to a focused nationalism cannot be created as an overnight phenomenon. It has to be cultivated and nurtured and comes to the fore only over a period of time in which the nation has been seen as having been powerful and influential in the international arena. Historically it is seen that influential nations have well-established national institutions, whose positions are held sacrosanct and are not undermined by corruption in high places. Further, the separation of the judiciary and the executive and the demonstrated independence of the judiciary seem to enhance the perception of a nation’s power.

Similarly, stable nations understand that the ‘civilian’ control of the elements of national power means that the parliament of the people controls these elements. It is unfortunate that in some democracies, this ‘control’ has been interpreted as civilian bureaucratic control of national power elements, a recipe for gradual erosion of the influence and status of the nation in question. Further, national power will thrive only when sufficient checks and balances are placed on the executive power of the elected representatives, irrespective of the all other systems and processes that are in place. Within this complex situation, the political process is the overarching component in ensuring that the national influence is not allowed to gradually diminish.

In analysing whether or not a nation is influential and powerful, or has the capacity to become a powerful entity, the functioning of the four fundamental elements of national power has to be examined. An unbiased study of these elements and their interrelationship between each other and with the known grand strategy of the nation will provide a clear indication of the progress of the nation towards a position of regional or global power. India is no exception.

India’s Strategic Perceptions

For centuries, the Indian security psyche has been land-centric, conditioned by a long history of invasions from the north-west regions of the country. It is only the last conqueror of the sub-continent, the British, who made their initial approach across the sea. This land-centricity has been further ingrained by all the post-independence conflicts having been predominantly land-based. This has created a flawed strategic security posture for the nation that does not take advantage of India’s maritime traditions and its unique geographical position.

The global geopolitical and security architecture has already shifted towards being more focused on sea-based power projection. This in turn has led to an on-going economic and political realignment based on control of the seas. In the South and South-East Asian region, this paradigm shift necessitates all nations—big and small—to turn towards a sea-oriented national security stance. This becomes particularly important for India considering the advantages that it can derive from the long coastline of its peninsula, and its ambitions to be accepted as a regional, and then a global, power. India seems to have only now woken up to the fact that the Indian Ocean is geographically its own backwaters, named after it and historically dominated by it. However, Indian strategic autonomy of the Indian Ocean is no longer a matter that can be taken for granted.

National strategic perceptions are anchored on the grand strategy of the nation. While such a strategy is articulated at times, it is generally gleaned from the implicit behaviour of nations in their dealings with others when confronted with national security challenges. In the nearly 70 years since its independence from British colonial rule, India has not demonstrated a steadfast grand strategy that it believes in at the absolute fundamental level. This situation makes it difficult to examine the national security priorities of the nation. Even so, an analysis of the fundamental diplomatic initiatives, and the strengths and weaknesses of its foreign policy will provide an insight into the path that the nation is embarked upon.

India’s Diplomatic Capabilities

It is only in the past three decades or so that India has consciously emerged out of the Nehruvian philosophy of ‘non-alignment’, which had left it unable to either fly with the birds or hunt with the animals. Although a lofty idea, non-alignment as a diplomatic cornerstone was never going to work in a world immersed in power play, especially when the nation(s) espousing the concept were till in their early stages of independent development. Even after a conscious decision was made to move away from this self-defeating foreign policy concept, periodically the Indian diplomatic corps tends to lapse into a state of denial of real politick. This has led to a fundamental failure of the nation’s ability to use its considerable soft and hard power to influence events in its favour.

In order to fathom its efficacy, Indian diplomacy must be analysed both within the regional as well as the global context. For past few decades the country has tried to bear the burden of being the ‘big-brother’ in South Asia by prodding, mostly in a gentle manner, the smaller states of the region to align themselves with the Indian viewpoint. However, this big-brother attitude has not always been benign and therefore it has had only limited success. In a majority of cases these overtures have tended to alienate the surrounding smaller nations from India. A case in point is the recent debacle in its relationship with the Maldives.

The Maldives Fiasco. Maldives has been traditionally an Indian satellite and India seems to have taken the bilateral relationship for granted. In November 2013, Abdullah Yameen became president after a judicially controversial and politically contentious election. This was followed by some controversial actions, at least in Indian eyes—the arrest of the previous president, Nasheed, the revival of the abduction of judge Abdullah case and the concerted improvement of bilateral relations with China. The Indian reaction to these events was to cancel Prime Minister Modi’s visit scheduled for March 2016. Almost as if it wanted to further the diplomatic tensions, India committed a faux-pas by commenting adversely on the arrest of President Nasheed and the treatment meted out to him, which was a completely domestic affair of a sovereign nation. The end result was that the Maldives signed the Chinese ‘Maritime Silk Route’ initiative and accepted high volume Chinese investments in developmental projects. A nation that was attuned and content to being under Indian influence has been moved out of the orbit, not through its own manoeuvrings but by the ineptness of Indian diplomacy. If ever there was a diplomatic ‘own goal’, this was it.

Even a broad analysis of the policies being pursued by the Indian diplomatic corps reveals that it is not tuned to deal with the rapidly changing realities of global political and security environment. It would seem that the Indian diplomat lapses into a default position of embracing the non-aligned concept whenever faced with an unpalatable situation that requires decisive action. Perhaps the fault lies with the excessive bureaucratic control that the Indian diplomatic system exercises across the board in all decision-making processes. In this climate, where promotions and lucrative postings are at stake, individual initiative and calculated risk-taking that would fundamentally keep national interests as the highest priority are the sacrificial offerings.

Further, the diplomatic corps displays a barely concealed disdain for political directives, mostly considering themselves to be above the political agenda of the government in place. This is a manifestation of self-importance within the bureaucracy, who believe that the elected representatives are only temporary masters who need to be humoured, while the really serious business of developing and implementing foreign policy and the conduct of diplomacy is carried out by the ‘professionals’. Nothing could be more damaging to a democracy than this skewed view of foreign policy. There can be no doubt that the government formed by the elected representatives of the people is responsible for laying down the foreign policy of the nation. If the newspaper reports are to be believed, this dichotomy was one of the primary reasons for the government seeking the premature retirement of the previous Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs.

Narendra Modi, elected prime minister in May 2014, has given a boost to India’s diplomatic initiatives. By December 2015, he had visited 37 countries and placed the Indian viewpoint regarding a host of issues on the international stage. However, the Indian diplomatic train does not demonstrate any tangible change, at least in terms of policy initiatives, continuing to forever react to events and playing catch up when it should have been on the front foot. The highly successful and visible prime ministerial visits have not been capitalised upon by the laid-back Indian diplomacy. For an outside observer it would seem that the notion of national interest being of the utmost priority in the pursuance of diplomatic initiatives has been lost on the Indian diplomatic community. Their priority seems to be domestic turf wars to ensure the ascendancy of the diplomatic corps in relation to the other myriad bureaucratic ‘services’ that function within the Central Government.

Major Power Relations – USA

During his visit to India in April 2016, the US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter stated that ‘[US and India were] destined to be strategic partners in this century.’ However, at the same time, some of the actions initiated by the US in furthering its bilateral relations in South Asia seem to be at odds with this high-minded rhetoric. Two recent actions stand out. First, the US has hyphenated India and Pakistan on the nuclear issue, a move that New Delhi finds hard to fathom. Even so, India is unable to bring to bear any significant influence on the US decision-making bodies and therefore has to be content with voicing murmuring dissent, if at all. Second, the US initiatives to approve a new arms package for Pakistan that includes F-16 fighter aircraft also flies in the face of US approaches to India. The US explanation that the arms package is meant to make Pakistan bring the Taliban to the negotiating table is in itself an abject acceptance of the lack of influence that US has over Pakistan’s policy making apparatus. It is obvious that the US and India are at odds in this sphere, especially since India is totally sceptical, and with reason, about Pakistan’s ability to seriously pursue peace in any place where it is politically involved.

Given these ground realities, it is not surprising that India finds it hard to believe that the US respects or supports India’s strategic interests. The US has been harping on the need for India to be part of the joint naval patrols in the South China Sea to ensure ‘global’ freedom of navigation in that region. However, India has so far baulked at the idea, stating that joint strategic decisions should not be knee-jerk reactions that are politically motivated, but should be bipartisan and beneficial to all concerned. Reading between the lines, it means that India is still not convinced that it should throw its lot with the US in the escalating tensions of the South China Sea.

The US is increasingly aware of the critical role that India can play in maintaining the power balance in Asia. Even though it continues to blindside India in its dealings with Pakistan, the US is also trying to prove to India that it is a preferred strategic partner. This is an impossibility considering the vexed Indo-Pakistan relationship. During the recent visit of the US Secretary of Defence, a preliminary agreement to share military logistics was made. This agreement, when ratified, would have permitted both countries to access each other’s supplies, spare parts and services from military bases and ports, making coordination of actions easier. This could have been considered a small step forward in Indo-US defence cooperation. In combination with the current move in the US Congress to give India the same status as NATO countries for ease of technology transfer and amending the Arms Control Bill accordingly, the ratification of this agreement would have been significant. Further, the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative being advanced could considerably ease the barriers to Indo-US defence trade and cooperation.

These initiatives are however, unlikely to change the bilateral relations in any significant manner. India has an underlying concern that signing even the logistic agreement will somehow compromise its independence and sovereignty, a fear that goes back to the days of a foreign policy based on non-alignment. There is also the inherent fear that opening up Indian facilities to the US would provide the US with too much information regarding Indian capabilities and operational practices. Once again this paranoia has its roots in the Cold War era and the mantra of non-alignment. For reasons that cannot clearly be identified, India has backed away from signing the Logistics Support Agreement in the last minute. A cynical analyst would point to the fact that after the fundamental agreement with the Secretary of Defence Ash Carter in April 2016, the Indian Minister for Defence Manohar Parikkar went on an official visit to China. The flip-flop came immediately after that visit and therefore it will not be illogical to conclude that India succumbed to Chinese ‘pressure’ to desist from entering into such an agreement.

The result of this back-flip has been that India is seen as continually sending mixed messages to the US, as well as to other major powers. This could also be a manifestation of India’s hope to engage with both China and USA on an equal basis. Once again, this aspiration is non-alignment in a new package and bound to fail. The less than focused foreign and security policies that is clearly visible in these manoeuvrings signifies India’s inability to craft national security priorities and enforce them through the use of its considerable national power. The land of Asoka the Great and Mahatma Gandhi, steeped in the tradition of non-violence and non-interference, is reluctant to cast its lot with any alliance that is aimed at ‘containment’ of another major power. India needs to realise that sitting on the fence all on its own, read as a non-aligned foreign policy all over again, is not a viable option in the current geopolitical and security environment. Fence sitters traditionally never cultivate any ‘all-weather’ friends and have no support when they fall.

Major Power Relations – China

The bilateral relations between India and China has never been smooth and continue to be marred by the skeletons of the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1949 and the Sino-Indian War of 1962. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) has not been recognised by China and it claims Indian territories and even states as integral part of China. For example the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in the far-east is claimed unambiguously by China as a part of its own territory. India has not responded in a strong manner to this claim and its actions have only been reactionary. There has been no independent initiative from the Indian government to repudiate this claim or other diplomatic schemes that China has put in place to further their claims. It is interesting to note that China always refers to Arunachal as ‘South Tibet’ and India does not object! An extreme reluctance to confront China, diplomatically or otherwise, is obvious in all Indian dealings.

China is embarked on a massive infrastructure build-up on the Sino-Indian border with a three pronged objective—to integrate the border regions to mainland China; ensure military accessibility to the LAC; and increase its counter-offensive capabilities. The progress of the build-up is impressive and currently roads, railway lines and fibre optics have been established along the length of the LAC. It is obvious that there is a clear strategy being put in place to ensure quick mobilisation and for the build-up of a strong air defence network. Unlike the Indian reluctance to state the obvious, confrontation is not new in China’s attitude towards any of its neighbours, especially India. India has been cowed down by Chinese abrasiveness and is unable to, or perhaps unwilling to, face up to the reality that the Chinese have been browbeating it for decades and will continue to do so till strong actions are initiated. A bully—of whatever hue—will only understand resolute action.

In complete contrast to the concerted Chinese build-up, infrastructure development on the Indian side is in a dismal state of complete disarray. There is complete apathy that percolates the body politick in India when national security infrastructure is required to be created. Further, the political leadership does not seem to take minor diplomatic intrusions seriously enough and does not realise that insistence of such intrusions, like the claim of Arunachal Pradesh being part of China, will over a period of time become more insistent. Countering these claims will become increasingly difficult as they remain uncontested over time. It is safe to assume that in case of a contemporary Chinese aggression like the one in 1962, which still rankles the Indian psyche, the result would be even more disastrous for India.

China is diligently increasing its naval capabilities and does not hide its territorial ambitions. The assiduous creation of the ‘One Belt One Road’ that would ultimately connect Europe, Asia and Africa to Beijing is an overt manifestation of China’s global ambitions. China is already connected to Myanmar through an oil pipeline and is starting to build a railway line direct to Iran. In the face of these aggressive moves to enhance its influence and stature, India has been caught completely on the back foot and does not have the diplomatic adroitness necessary to turn these events to its advantage by converting the inherent goodwill that it has in these countries.

While it may not be palatable to the nationalistic spirited citizens of India, the fact is that India does not have a clear and firm policy to deal with China; there have been only reactive and defensive actions. The initiative has never rested with India in any of its bilateral dealings with China. India ducks behind the façade of being a responsible and law-abiding international citizen when any confrontational step is initiated by China and is not even able to make its case forcefully in the moribund United Nations. The inherent inexperience in conducting international relations has been the bane of Indian diplomacy—a sad commentary on the foreign policy of the nation after nearly 70 years of independence and pretensions to ‘greatness’.

There is no better illustration that submissive behaviour towards China has become the norm in India than the fact that China presumes to ‘advise’ the Indian Prime Minister not to visit Arunachal Pradesh since it is a ‘disputed’ region and India does nothing to repudiate it. India on its own can claim to be anything, a regional or even a global power. However, if India is to be considered even a regional power by other nations it needs to look beyond the Chinese threats and coercion. It has to shed an inherent reticence in dealing with China brought about through a historic sense of the fear of consequences, stand up to Chinese coercive strategies and discard the China factor that is influencing all its foreign policy initiatives. Nothing else will elevate it in the eyes of other nations to a position of power and influence.

The Pakistan Effect

In terms of size and capability, Pakistan should not have the capacity to create chaos within India at will and checkmate Indian diplomatic initiatives in the international arena. However, it carries out both these activities with ease and monotonous regularity. Pakistan has consistently kept India guessing regarding its own diplomatic efforts, most of the time making India look like a puppet that can be made to dance at will. Every time that India seems to have achieved some sort of diplomatic objective, Pakistan with the active help of China and its veto in the UN Security Council, manages to neutralise any gain that has been made. This is achieved through the blatant use of force in the guise of terrorism that is totally supported from within Pakistan, which provide safe havens and materiel and economic support. India so far has not been able to craft an appropriate response to these activities.

Examples of Pakistan’s devious activities are numerous. Recently Pakistan attempted to create a rift between India and Iran. While India’s initiatives in enhancing its long-standing bilateral relations with Iran was at a critical stage of negotiation, Pakistan released the alleged confession of a person purported to be an Indian spy operating from Iran. The fact that Pakistan is avowedly a Sunni nation fully aligned with the Sunni Gulf Cooperation Council did not make any difference to its actions aimed at currying favour with a Shiite Iran. India did not have any response to this Pakistani effort to befuddle the situation. India has to deal with emerging issues as it sees fit to achieve its pre-set national objectives and not cater for either Pakistan’s or China’s interests. If there is a blow back while doing this, India should be willing to counter it in whatever manner is required. In this context, the option to use military force to counter ‘terrorist’ attacks originating in foreign countries and the option to escalate if necessary should always be on the table. Force must be met with force, not through mouthing platitudes in international forums that carry no meaning.

The lack of focus in foreign policy is evident in the manner in which India is dealing with Iran. India and Iran have shared long term friendly relations, although their individual foreign policies are not similar. Even during the long period of sanctions against Iran, India had maintained reasonably stable economic relations with the country. However, the bilateral relationship is being played out in the turmoil of India’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Even though India was engaged with Iran during the sanction era, the rush of foreign investment into resource-rich Iran after the lifting of the sanctions has once again caught Indian diplomacy on the wrong foot. Iran is crucial to India’s energy security. However, in the wake of more lucrative offers, Iran has terminated a three-year agreement to accept half the payments in rupees, instead demanding that payment, including past dues, to be made in euros. Indian diplomatic failure is writ large on this demand.

It is time for India to realise that it may not be the natural favourite in Iran’s calculations for future development. The development of the Charbahar port is a long term bilateral partnership initiative but it can be assumed that competition in this area will also increase. India has so far not proven itself to be very good at beating diplomatic competition and leveraging national power for its benefit. It would do well to ratify pending agreements before competition and calculated mischief derails them. From a foreign policy perspective, India is walking a tight rope between the Sunni GCC, Shiite Iran and the turbulent Iraq-Syria region. The Shia-Sunni prism colours all relationships in the Middle-East, bilateral or otherwise. India’s ability to pick its way forward within this fractious regional environment will be the acid test for its diplomatic finesse.


For the major part of independent Indian history, its foreign policy has been mired in ambiguity and based almost completely on reactive actions. The concept on non-alignment has been a millstone that has impeded the development of a viable and focused foreign policy. The situation has not been helped by the self-serving attitude of the diplomatic corps that seems to have put the concept on nationalism on the back burner. Further, non-alignment itself has become distorted to mean appeasing both sides of an argument, which invariably leads to a diplomatic debacle. India needs to take stock of the current geopolitical environment, particularly with reference to China and Pakistan and the already entrenched and increasing nexus between the two.

Chinese think tanks and academics, with obvious and tacit support from the government, write regularly and clearly about the long rivalry between India and China, enunciating government policy that places India as a major threat to the security of Western China. They also make common cause with Pakistan in all its attempts to destabilise India and thwart Indian foreign policy initiatives. In contrast, the Indian strategic think tanks are carefully circumspect in even mentioning Chinese activities, and the government almost apologetic in its reaction. The only way for India to assert itself is for it to expose Chinese double-standards and hypocrisy and by joining the international community in asking China to behave like, and become, a responsible stakeholder within the global security environment. China has to be made to understand that being a maverick will only lead it so far and no more. Does the foreign policy pundits in New Delhi have the gumption to do so? A million dollar question.

Pakistan is immune to any Indian diplomatic initiatives, as it has demonstrated time and again. The most recent episode is the manner in which the attack on Indian Air Force Base Pathankot was handled by India and Pakistan. India bend backwards to accommodate Pakistan’s refusals to accept their role in the attack and finally succumbed to ‘pressure’ from Pakistan’s well-wishers to even accept a fact finding mission from Pakistan! Nothing could be more illustrative of the unwillingness of the Indian diplomatic establishment to call a spade a spade and initiate clear remedial action. The Indian reluctance to meet force with force is inexplicable.

A nation achieves greatness and influence through the optimised, combined and focused employment of all elements of national power to pursue its legitimate national interests. To achieve this the nation must set itself a goal, an objective, that must be worked towards at all times, unfailingly and without remiss. Unfortunately it has to be accepted that India has not been able to accomplish this concerted effort in its foreign policy initiatives. The clear picture is of the Indian elephant ambling along, marching to nowhere, and that too in no hurry to get to that nowhere point. A sad commentary of a nation that has the potential to achieve greatness, but is only circumventing the nucleus of greatness.

First published at

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Dr. Sanu Kainikara

Dr. Sanu Kainikara is a Canberra-based Military Strategist and a practising Historian. He is an Adjunct Professor at the University of New South Wales and the inaugural Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Regional Security, Canberra.

One thought on “India’s Diplomatic Disarray – OpEd

  • May 24, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    Well written as always. But the question is, is there anyone in the Indian Power circle who is reading this and initiating some positive actions? As you rightly convey, we as a nation has got used to be submissive and it is sad that for all the economic progress we are making, our governments have not learned to handle our wily neighbors well. Some people blame the tolerant Hindu philosophy for this, but then India also had brilliant strategists like Chanakya. Wonder what is happening to us?


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