India as a case study of a “catch all” foreign policy

By Claude Blanchemaison

Keywords: Indian foreign policy in 21st century ; Indo-Pacific ; Narendra Modi ; China/India ; USA/India ; QUAD ; Russia/India ; Indian geopolitics.

India has an original foreign policy, adapted to today's world, without military alliances but with a multitude of specific partnership agreements. This flexibility may seem surprising for a country that in 2019 was the 5th largest economy of the world and which will soon become the most populated on the planet. But this 'all-round' foreign policy provides a favourable environment for the Indian economy to return to its growth trajectory after being badly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, the nationalist Indian government intends to pursue its policy of Hindu revivalism.

Prioritising neighbouring countries

India, naturally, gives priority to its relationship with the eight countries in its immediate neighbourhood: the great rival China, its fraternal enemy Pakistan and Bangladesh which is very close, but also the two landlocked Himalayan states (Nepal and Bhutan), the two Indian Ocean island states (Sri Lanka and the Maldives), and Myanmar (facing the Indian archipelago of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands). All these countries have one thing in common: China is their main economic partner.

India did attempt in 1985 to bring all these countries together, barring China, in a South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), but the imbalance between the member-countries and the Indo-Pakistani dispute did not lead to a regional integration. Twelve years later, India set up along with 4 other countries around the Bay of Bengal and the 2 landlocked Himalayan states, a more operational framework for technical cooperation, the BIMSTEC, focussed on a wide range of sectors (such as transport, energy, agriculture or the fight against terrorism).

After 10 years of Congress-led governments, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, a Hindu nationalist party) became Prime Minister and continued, to a large extent, his predecessor, Manmohan Singh’s neighbourhood policy. In 2015, he signed an agreement to finally settle the border dispute with Bangladesh that had existed since its independence in 1971. However, after his triumphant re-election in 2019, he pushed through Parliament the Citizenship Amendment Act that will no longer allow the naturalisation of Muslim refugees. The political, economic and climate refugees coming in from Bangladesh, despite the barbed wire fence that delimits the border will, therefore, no longer be able to become naturalised Indian citizens. This did not prevent Narendra Modi from receiving from Sheikh Hasina, despite some hostile public protests, a warm reception in Dhaka in March 2021.

In June 2019, Narendra Modi visited Sri Lanka and the Maldives to assure them of India's willingness to establish a strong cooperation with them, seeking ways to counter Chinese activism, particularly in the field of infrastructure.

figure 1: 18e The 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu (November 2014) source :  SAARC secretariat website

figure 1: The 18th SAARC Summit in Kathmandu (November 2014)
source: SAARC secretariat website

Nuclear deterrence

Tensions with China and Pakistan led India to acquire nuclear weapons in 1998, and thus becoming a military nuclear power without being a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

In the following year during the Kargil War, the exercise of mutual nuclear deterrence between India and Pakistan was put to test for the first time. After bombardments using conventional weapons and infantry fighting, the Indian army forced the Pakistanis to withdraw from the Himalayan peaks on the Indian side of the 1949 LOC ceasefire line (Line of Control).

Calculated risk in Kashmir

In August 2019, after his victory in the general elections, Narendra Modi got the Parliament to vote for the abolition of Article 370 of the Constitution. Subsequently the state of Jammu and Kashmir ceased to exist and was replaced by two Union Territories directly administered by Delhi: Buddhist-majority Ladakh, neighbouring a territory annexed by China, and Muslim-majority Kashmir, which is separated from the Pakistan-administered part by the 1949 ceasefire line.

Apart from Pakistan's violent protests and China's formal objections, there has been no real international backlash, even from the governments of Muslim countries. India has traditionally had good relations with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and the Middle East, to which it actually supplies a large workforce. Narendra Modi, moreover, spent more than a week in the United States in September 2019, including several days at the United Nations General Assembly, where he convinced his interlocutors of his perfect serenity.

Complex relations with China

Relations with its large neighbour China are of course a major challenge for India. The Himalayan border continues to be unstable, both in the West where fighting took place as recently as in August 2020, and in the east, where Beijing still claims Arunachal Pradesh since the blitzkrieg of 1962. Beijing does not recognize any of the treaties signed by the British with Tibet.

Since 2014, China has been systematically developing its land and sea 'Silk Roads' programme, which effectively will encircle India. In this endeavour, the Chinese have gained direct access to the Indian Ocean through Pakistan in the west, and Burma in the east.

But China has become India's leading trading partner, and both countries would like to maintain good relations despite their rivalry and the increasingly frequent border skirmishes.

The tense neighbourhood with China is propelling India in the field of great power rivalry. Beijing is obviously opposed to India becoming a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council.

Already a key regional power, New Delhi, however, aspires to wield global responsibilities.

figure 2: Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi in Mamallapuram (October 2019)

figure 2: Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi in Mamallapuram (October 2019)
source : twitter/ @PMOIndia

Traditional Russian partner

India had a close relationship with the Soviet Union, which historically was its leading arms supplier and its model for the construction of big dams and steel plants. After a relative lull in the 1990s, strategic cooperation has become much closer since October 2000 with Vladimir Putin’s regular visits to the country. The most recent one was on 6thDecember 2021, during which numerous cooperation agreements were signed, notably in the military, energy and space fields. Russia often plays a moderating role in the attitude of China and Pakistan towards India.

figure 3: Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi at New Delhi (December 2021) source: Press Information Bureau, Government of India

figure 3: Vladimir Putin and Narendra Modi at New Delhi (December 2021)
source: Press Information Bureau, Government of India

The rapprochement with the United States

Relations between India and the US remained complicated throughout the Cold War era during which New Delhi appeared to be closer to Moscow because of its role in the Non-Aligned Movement. The nuclear tests of 1998 merely delayed the warming of Indo-US relations until Bill Clinton's visit in March 2000, twenty-two years after Jimmy Carter's. In 2015, Barack Obama initiated a 'Strategic and Business Dialogue'. The tensions in the Himalayas in the summer of 2020 with China led Delhi to seek a rapprochement with Washington, but India has refused any kind of alliance whatsoever, even after the creation of AUKUS bringing together the US, the UK and Australia in 2021. In early December 2021, Joe Biden naturally invited India and Pakistan to participate in the Virtual Democracy Summit.

The Americans have convinced India to join the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) with Japan and Australia. India has participated in a few maritime maneuvers with these countries, but is now seeking to give this informal framework for cooperation a non-military content as well.

But India is counting on its participation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), of which it has been a member since 2017, at the initiative of China and Russia, to balance out its rapprochement with Washington.

figure 4: Narendra Modi and Joe Biden in Washington (September 2021) source : Press Information Bureau, Government of India

figure 4: Narendra Modi and Joe Biden in Washington (September 2021)
source: Press Information Bureau, Government of India

European Union still lags behind

The European Union has been surprised by India's diplomatic mobility. It could never manage to transform its old 1994 agreement into a free trade agreement. It did, however, conclude a partnership agreement in 2004 and recognised in 2021 that India should become an important partner in the new Indo-Pacific approach.

figure 5: Virtual Summit European Union / India (2020) source : Photo: Twitter/@vonderleyen

figure 5: Virtual Summit European Union / India (2020)
source : Photo: Twitter/@vonderleyen

Strategic partnership with France

India has concluded strategic partnership agreements with a large number of countries. But the first signed with France as early as 1998 led to a fruitful strategic dialogue.

Many French companies are now established in India.

The air force now possesses about 50 upgraded Mirage-2000 aircraft. 33 of the 36 Rafales purchased from France were delivered by the end of 2021. Three Scorpene submarines built in Mumbai with Naval Group are operational, with three more to follow.

Further discussions are going on. President Macron met up with the Indian Prime Minister on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Rome and the COP 26 in Glasgow in November 2021. The French Minister of the Armed Forces visited New Delhi on December 16, 2021 to discuss developments in strategic and military cooperation in an atmosphere of heightened competition.

figure 6: Emmanuel Macron and Narendra Modi at Chantilly (August 2019) source : Elysée website

figure 6: Emmanuel Macron and Narendra Modi at Chantilly (August 2019)
source: Elysée website


India wishes to underline its central strategic position between Europe and Asia, and expects rightly to play a key role in the Indo-Pacific strategy through its control of the Indian Ocean.

India's foreign policy is "all encompassing" and tailored to its needs, which must necessarily be supported by sustainable economic development and a stable domestic political situation.

15th August 2022 will mark India’s seventy-fifth anniversary of its independence. On this occasion, Narendra Modi, who has been Prime Minister for the past eight years, will have to deliver the traditional keynote speech from the top of the Red Fort, a monument built in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. He will have to justify on that occasion his risky management of the pandemic, which has ravaged the country for two years, and give a clear perspective keeping the legislative elections of 2024 in focus and the more distant horizon of 2047, the centenary of India’s independence.

The outlook for economic growth varies according to the sources, but it appears that the performance in the fiscal year April 2021-March 2022 is likely to offset the contraction seen in 2020-2021 and put India back on a strong medium-term growth trajectory, needed to absorb the millions of young people entering the labour market each year.

Figure 7: Narendra Modi’s speech at Red Fort (August 2014) source :

Figure 7: Narendra Modi’s speech at Red Fort (August 2014)

Claude Blanchemaison
Former ambassador of France to India

Brief bibliography

Claude Blanchemaion, l’Inde, contre vents et marées, Ed. Temporis, 2021

Géopolitique de l’Inde, Hérodote (n°173), Ed La Découverte, 2019

S. Jaishankar, The India Way (Strategies for an Uncertain World), Ed HarperCollins Publishers India, 2020

Arundhati Roy, My seditious Heart, Ed Haymarket Books, 2019

figure 8: Credentials in New Delhi

figure 8: Credentials in New Delhi

figure 7 : Discours de Narendra Modi à Fort Rouge (Août 2014)
February 2022
Claude Blanchemaison
Ancien ambassadeur de France en Inde