India’s Foreign Policy in the Post-Cold War Era


Collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, drastically altered the World order and the geopolitical scenario. India had close economic, cultural, defence and technological ties with Soviet Union and even signed the treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1971. In fact, Soviet Union had been India’s largest supplier of arms. But the disintegration of erstwhile Soviet Union not only marked the end of Cold War and bipolar system but also significantly changed the contours of the overarching Indian Foreign policy. This development eventually accelerated the pace of globalization. In tune with changing realms and to tide over abysmal economic doldrums, India adopted New Economic Policy (NEP) that ushered the country into the new post-Cold War era. Incidentally, India quickly recalibrated its foreign policy and established diplomatic relations with break-away states of USSR- Russia and other Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

With disappearance of power blocks, India steadily harnessed ties with United States, with emerged as the lone Super Power. This period was marked by change in leadership in India. Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao who assumed the charge launched “Look East Policy” and quickly coupled the foreign policy with economic aspirations of India. He laid foundation for the foreign economic policy, wherein India began to actively forge ties with nations seeking foreign investments and opened its economy for foreign players. India cultivated strategic partnerships with countries like US, China and EU. This period also witnessed marked reorientation of India’s foreign policy towards China. Setting aside the border disputes, India actively strived to develop strong trade links with China. Indeed, Indian leadership maintained distance with Dalai Lama to avoid any tussles with China. India reached out to ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nation) countries and established strong partnership with Tiger Economies of Asia like Japan and South Korea in 1992. New Delhi which covertly maintained friendly ties with Israel officially established diplomatic relations. By 1993, India made successful overtures to Iran and other Gulf nations. This policy eventually helped India in stalling the resolution introduced by Pakistan regarding the human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir at UNSC. India gradually shifted to multi-alignment and began to realize the importance of regional cooperation and consolidated ties with neighborhood countries. India signed Mahakali Treaty for hydroelectric power generation with Nepal and signed the South Asian Preferential Treaty (SAPTA) with other SAARC nations to boost up trade links. The South Asian Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) came into force in 2006. India rigorously pursued Missile Development program and successfully tested, Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM)s and Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM)s. India’s progress irked US. But these pursuits failed to deter American interest in an emerging country like India with huge market potential. Subsequently a US-India Commercial Alliance (USICA) was created and India was declared as a “Big Emerging Market”. Indeed, ever since introduction of economic reforms India began to clock good economic growth, foreign investors began to view as a lucrative investment destination. Steady growth rate, eventually changed World’s perception towards India. 

Ever since disintegration of Soviet Union, there has been a perceptible change in India’s approach towards US. During the Gulf crisis, India remained favorable to US and permitted refueling of US aircrafts at Mumbai port and agreed for joint naval exercises. While there were major differences between both countries regarding NPT and Super 301 (Intellectual Property Rights) both countries steadily invested in building cordial relations. On the other hand, China, eyeing to have a greater say in international arena, showed keen interest in joining hands with India for defending the rights of third world countries at international platforms. But despite this overt developmental cooperation, incongruent border issues tormented bilateral relations. In the meanwhile, the possibility of greater American preponderance led to the integration of European economic system, emergence of South-South cooperation. India cultivated a pragmatic approach towards these developments and began forging bilateral trade relations with countries like Germany and UK. Further, India began to take a lead role in UN peace keeping force to reiterate its commitment towards World order based on peace and tranquility. The Gujaral Doctrine of 1998, postulated that India shouldn’t insist on reciprocity in developing relations with neighboring countries. Proliferating Indo-Chinese trade relations was perhaps, rooted on the basic premise of Gujaral Doctrine.

Indeed, in the early 1990’s India’s foreign policy underwent radical transformation, as it began to shun the anti-western political impulses accumulated during the cold war era. India began to shed political inhibitions and carefully crafted a finely balanced foreign policy of maintaining good relations with US, Russia, China, Japan and West Europe. Despite West’s opposition to India’s nuclear ambitions, with increased threats from Pakistan, India realized the overwhelming need to become a nuclear power. Eventually it conducted a nuclear test in 1998 under the leadership of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In response, the West imposed sanctions on India. Vajpayee invested great energies for finding political reconciliation with Pakistan but despite best of his efforts the outcome has been negative. Indeed, it reply to India’s Aman ki Asha doctrine and Delhi-Lahore bus service, Pakistan responded back with a stealthy attack on India which soon escalated into Kargil war of 1999. Soon army launched a coup and took over Pakistani civilian government. Committed to establishing normal ties with Pakistan, India invited Pakistan for peace talks. Despite best of efforts, Agra Summit failed to reach any breakthrough.

In the meanwhile, New Delhi withstood international sanctions, isolation and quickly explored diplomatic opportunities for convincing the West by assuring them of legitimate nuclear weapons use. Vajpayee pronounced US as India’s natural ally and made formidable efforts to enhance the strategic friendship between both countries. India adopted adopting no first use (NFU) and pledged to use nuclear technology for civil purposes. The 9/11 attack widened distrust between US and Pakistan eventually promoting America to comprehend the threats posed by burgeoning terrorism. Fighting terrorism has become legitimate aim of these two democratic countries. Within seven years after the sanctions, India headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed civil nuclear treaty with America in 2005 marking the end of 34-year isolation. To export nuclear technology India aspired to enter the nuclear regimes. India gained entry in the 34-member MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) in 2015. Delhi is making attempts to join the Australian Group, Wassenaar Agreement, and Nuclear Security Group (NSG). As of now, India’s efforts to gain membership into NSG are stonewalled by China.

India was elected for record seventh time as non-member of UNSC in 2010 with a thumping majority and its two-year term commenced in 2011. Notwithstanding, UN proclamation of introducing reforms, India along with Japan, Germany and Brazil formed G-4 for intensifying its campaign of obtaining permanent membership in UNSC. Indian membership to UNSC is openly supported all permanent members except China. In 2005, India launched a neighborhood policy with an emphasis on developing connectivity and people to people network. But absence of synchronized leadership and persistent efforts eventually pushed Indian neighbors into Chinese embrace. India renewed its relations with Africa under the framework of Indo-Africa Forum Summit in 2008 and 2011. Modi government bolstered Indo-African friendship through a massive outreach program in 2015 and extending developmental assistance. For strengthening regional cooperation, India played a lead role in the establishment of Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IORA) in 1997 and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multisectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) in 1998. Modi gave a massive fillip to India’s engagement with Bay of Bengal region countries by extending invitation to BIMSTEC countries to Goa-BRICS summit, 2015. Responding to predictions of 21st century to be essentially dominated by emerging economies, India joined hands with China, Russia, Brazil and South Africa to form BRICS in 2008. To boost trade and investment, India signed Free Trade Agreement with ASEAN in 2010. India was invited to be part of outreach group of G-8 and was a founder member of G-20 formed in response to global economic crisis of 1998. India is part of the trilateral south-south cooperation, IBSA group (India Brazil South Africa) established in 2003. India’s trilateral and multilateral Malabar Naval Exercises has invariably strengthened its position as a responsible and reliable partner for US and Japan. India recently became member of SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) joining the club instituted by China.

Interestingly, during the decade long UPA regime though India actively aligned with different countries in various organization, its global participation was replete of reluctance. It failed to cobble up support of like-minded countries and shied away from assuming any responsible role. In absence of a steering leadership, India cheaply lost its neighbors to China. In the meanwhile, buoyed by steady economic growth and extensive global trade connections, Middle Kingdom, aggressively promoted itself as an emerging super power. It eventually threatened to override, Indian presence in its sphere of influence, Indian Ocean. At this juncture, Narendra Modi who took over as prime minister in 2014 revitalized India’s relations with neighboring countries with neighborhood first policy, gave fresh impetus to ties with Eastern countries through Act East policy, simultaneously energized links with strategic west under Link West, traveled to Central Asian countries and hosted leaders of Pacific islands through Forum for India-Pacific Islands Cooperation (FIPIC), revamped Indo-African ties. Encumbered by Chinese juggernaut, Modi ably transformed India Foreign Policy and cultivated relations with countries through extensive use of soft power. Declaration of International Yoga Day by UN, aptly exemplifies Modi’s transformative approach in fashioning foreign policy. Amicable settlement of the pending 41-year old Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh culminating in exchange of enclaves mirrored Modi’s diplomatic skills. Similarly, the Prime Minister productively explored India’s historic religious, trade, cultural and linguistic connections to reach out to different countries. By extolling India’s customs and traditional commitment to conserve environment, he steadfastly pledged to support Paris Climate Accord and even roped in support of 100 odd countries towards establishment of International Solar Alliance (ISA). Modi has been instrumental in deepening India’s strategic ties with Japan, whose investments and long-term alliance might prove invaluable. 

In the past 25 years, India moved away from ‘idealism’, ‘sentimentalism’, embraced globalization and subsequent global interdependence. This realization brought about sea-change in India’s foreign policy. Delhi’s reticence, political inhibitions are now replaced by a pragmatic, extensive global reach. From being a struggling regional power, India is now ready to reclaim its place a responsible global power.



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