India needs to get used to the idea that it is now a world power, according to senior ex-diplomats. Raymond Whitaker reports

The international scene is changing dramatically, and India is not immune. As the world’s largest democracy seeks to find its place in a political environment undergoing fundamental shifts, Indian foreign policy will have to set a new course.

This was the consensus of a heavyweight panel of retired Indian diplomats, plus a leading American expert on the region, assembled in Delhi by the South Asia Centre of the London School of Economics. The conference theme was ‘India at 70’, and the prevailing view was that old attitudes towards the rest of the world, and how the country reacted to events beyond its borders, now required an overhaul.

According to Kanwal Sibal, a former Foreign Secretary (the most senior civil servant in the foreign ministry), ‘India traditionally didn’t project its power.’ As a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement, the veterans agreed, the nation of Nehru and Gandhi sought to spread its influence through culture and civilisation rather than military force or trading prowess. Although Indian diplomats were well-respected, their country did not aspire to be a global power.

Two events – the end of the Cold War and the opening of the Indian economy – have brought that era to an end, in the view of Meera Shankar, India’s second woman ambassador to the US, and a former Director in the Prime Minister’s office. As a result, India had reshaped its relations with Russia and America, while managing relations with China. In the decades after independence, India’s share of global trade was ‘minuscule’, she said, but the country now ranked third on a purchasing power parity basis, overtaking Japan.

Rakesh Sood, a disarmament specialist when he was a diplomat, and now a commentator on foreign affairs, said that India was emerging as a global power ‘almost despite itself’. The reason: the international balance of power was moving from the European-Atlantic region to the Asia-Pacific, virtually compelling India to step up. While he felt that the Narendra Modi government had the ‘will to power’, it had failed to set out its overall strategic and military doctrine.

Ashley Tellis, an Asia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has worked with the US State Department, saw a world order that was ‘fundamentally in flux’ after 70 years of relative stability. Previous rivalries among the great powers had not affected India, he said, thanks to British policy during the Raj, which had kept them away from South Asia. But that order had now collapsed, and with a new superpower – China – next door, India was being confined within its own region of South Asia.


India’s relations with most of its neighbours have plummeted in the past three years, but Bangladesh is a notable exception, writes Ashis Ray.

Ties have been strong since India’s then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, facilitated the emergence of the country in 1971 from what was previously East Pakistan. They have returned to their previous closeness since Sheikh Hasina, daughter of the leader of Bangladesh’s liberation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, regained office in 2009.

In March, at the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group meeting in London, India thwarted a Pakistani bid to censure Dhaka over the hanging of pro-Pakistan elements who were involved in mass killings during Bangladesh’s freedom struggle. Delhi and Dhaka are also working together against separatist groups in north-eastern India who seek sanctuary in Bangladesh, and Islamist militancy against both, allegedly inspired by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.

Before he came to power, the most prominent references by India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to the country’s eastern neighbour were allegations of illegal immigrants swamping India and the plight of Hindu minorities in Bangladesh. But the Land Border Agreement – in effect an exchange of enclaves to streamline the border between the two countries – was ratified by the Indian parliament in 2015, ushering in a period of cordial relations and trade deals. In April Modi broke protocol to receive Hasina personally at the airport in Delhi, a visit which brought a meeting of minds on counter-terrorism, intelligence sharing, defence, outer space, electric power and nuclear energy.

However, Bangladesh kept its options open on greater defence co-operation. It has – to India’s slight concern – recently acquired two submarines from China. There was also no specific mention of movement of goods and people between eastern and north-eastern India through Bangladesh, or for that matter the Kolkata-Bangkok highway through Bangladesh and Myanmar. Bangladesh may well hold out on such transit arrangements until India increases the flow of waters from the Teesta river to it in the dry season.

Sood pointed out, however, that there was one crucial difference between the old superpower rivalry of the Cold War and the new one across the Pacific: while trade between America and the Soviet Union had been negligible, the economic ties between the US and China are vast.

But whatever else has changed, India cannot escape the facts of geography, which meant, according to Sibal, that the country was blocked to the west by Pakistan, its other nuclear neighbour, and turmoil in the Islamic world. India’s relative size meant it would always be dominant in South Asia. As a result, said Sood, ‘Our neighbours don’t like us. We have to accept that.’ Or, as Sibal put it, ‘We can’t isolate ourselves from our neighbours, and they can’t isolate themselves from us.’ A consequence was that the neighbours sought to bring in other big powers to counterbalance India. Sood again: ‘If we don’t manage our neighbours, China will move in.’

As ever, the thorniest regional question is the relationship with Pakistan. Jayant Prasad, a former diplomat who is now Director-General of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi, argued that with policy towards India in the hands of Pakistan’s ‘security state’, relations were on hold. India had sought better relations through increased trade, but Shankar said this was seen as a threat by the Pakistani security establishment, which had vetoed it. The weakness in the policy was that it depended on Pakistan becoming a ‘more normal’ state, rather than one pursuing ‘strategic over-reach’.

British Chancellor Philip Hammond (l) and Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney were in Delhi at the time of the panel discussion, seeking to boost post-Brexit trade with India
British Chancellor Philip Hammond (l) and Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney were in Delhi at the time of the panel discussion, seeking to boost post-Brexit trade with India

Shankar believed that ‘India needs to avoid getting tied down in South Asia’. But that means confronting the rise of China, which, said Tellis, had ‘driven India into the arms of the United States’. Until the election of Donald Trump, Delhi and Washington had both perceived China as a threat. Now the situation was much murkier. India had ‘to salvage what it can’ from the strategic partnership with the US, while continuing to seek to balance China by bolstering relations with countries such as Japan and Australia.

The US expert was not alone in warning that China was well ahead of India in spreading its influence. While Beijing had an overall strategy that combined its military and economic might, said Tellis, Delhi could not do well by diplomatic excellence alone. It needed to build up the country’s ‘material strength’. That term had a wide range of definitions among the panel. Shankar gave a couple of examples, pointing out that India still imported all its major defence equipment, while in the area of communications and information technology, the country did not have a chip manufacturing plant, and was dependent on China.

Sood complained that a lack of co-ordination meant India lost out to China when it came to regional projects

Sood, meanwhile, complained that a lack of co-ordination meant that India lost out to China when it came to regional projects. For Prasad, greater material strength meant boosting social spending in areas like health, where he said India spent only 1.4 per cent of GDP, an even lower proportion than in sub-Saharan Africa. All the ex-ambassadors and special envoys could agree on one thing, however: if India wanted to raise its profile abroad, it would need more diplomats.

Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, was visiting Delhi at the time with two other Cabinet ministers and the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, seeking to boost trade with India after the British exit from the European Union. Had they been able to sit in on the panel discussion in the India Habitat Centre, they would have been chastened to discover how little attention was paid to the old colonial power, apart from one question from the floor.

If Britain wanted a post-Brexit free trade agreement, the panel was asked, should it apologise for the Raj’s historical crimes, as the Indian MP, author and all-round media star, Shashi Tharoor, was demanding in a just-published book? What mattered more, said Shankar, was the question of opening up visa access for Indians in Britain, where Chinese citizens enjoy greater entry privileges. ‘Perhaps, out of a sense of decency, Britain should apologise, but it won’t affect a free trade agreement,’ she added. History, and India, have moved on.

A former Asia Editor of The Independent and Foreign Editor of the Independent on Sunday, Raymond Whitaker is Editor of Asian Affairs 

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