Indian foreign policy and strategic thinking

On Tuesday 27 May IFS hosted a joint seminar and book launch on Indian foreign policy and strategic thinking.

India's recent economic growth and the perception of a rising India have triggered increasing debates about India's role in the world. Several ideas exist about Indian foreign policy and strategic thinking – that the country lacks a culture for strategic thought and a 'grand strategy', and that the foreign policy lacks guiding principles and remains stuck in a Nehruvian, idealistic framework. Furthermore, India's relationship with China remains a salient issue in this connection, with considerable academic and popular interest for the two giants' positioning and vying for influence in what has been called the 'Asian Century'.

Inspired by two recent publications by IFS fellows: A Game of Chess and a Battle of Wits. The Making of India's Forward Policy 1961–62 (Bloomsbury, 2014) by Johan Løøv and India's Grand Strategy. History, Theory, Cases by Kanti Bajpai, V. Krishnappa and Saira Basit (eds.) (Routledge, 2014), the seminar thus focused on two central themes in Indian foreign policy: Sino-Indian relations and India's grand strategy.

The seminar was opened by Jo Inge Bekkevold, Head of the Centre for Asian Security Studies at IFS. Part one of the seminar dealt with Sino-Indian relations, and particularly the 1962 war and its lasting influence on the bilateral relationship.

Johan Løøv, former research fellow at IFS (now with the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), presented his book A Game of Chess and a Battle of Wits. The Making of India's Forward Policy 1961–62. Using recently declassified sources and archives, the book analyses the policy making process leading up to India's "Forward Policy", through which India exerted mild military pressure on China – a policy often assumed to have triggered the Chinese attack on India in October 1962. The 1962 war and India's humiliating defeat is still a highly controversial topic in the history of India, and has impact on Indian perceptions of China, even today.

Professor John Garver of Georgia Institute of Technology then gave a talk on the topic 'China – India relations: Past, Present and Future', commenting on Løøv's book. According to Garver the book makes a valuable contribution to the study of the 1962 war, shedding new light on the Indian decision making process. 

Løøv sees Nehru's (and therefore India's) decision for the pivotal and highly controversial "Forward Policy" as an exercise in incremental decision making, with a half dozen key decisions, each adapting earlier policy to emerging circumstances and culminating in the November 1961 decision. Garver suggested that Løøv's conceptual demotion of the importance of India's November 1961 Forward Policy decision was similar to recent scholarly demotion of the US crossing of the 28th parallel in 1950 as the trigger of the expanded Korean War that began in October 1950. Garver also stressed  that the Indian shock in response to China's decision to administer a large scale punitive blow in 1962, must be seen against background of what Nehru and Indian opinion generally saw as a decade-long Indian diplomatic effort to assist and befriend the People's Republic of China.

Garver emphasised the importance of the Tibet question understanding China's policy in 1962, and that Mao saw India's Forward Policy as a possible threat to his Tibet policy. According to Garver, Mao also viewed the Tibetan Uprising as a result of Nehru's foreign policy, an uprising that contributed to a militarization on both sides of the border. Because Nehru had supported China on a whole series of important issues in the early 1950s, he thought it unthinkable that China would go to war against India, and in this sense India felt betrayed by China in 1962, a perception that still lingers in how India views China. Garver argued that China today would love to go back to the Nehru vision of the 1950s of a strategic partnership between China and India, but India's sense of betrayal in 1962 makes this very unlikely, but China will most likely seek to bring India's newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi closer to Beijing in order to avoid India reaching out to the US.  

Part two focused on India's foreign policy more broadly, and whether or not India has a Grand Strategy. V. Krishnappa presented the book India's Grand Strategy. History, Theory, Cases. In his presentation, Krishnappa explained how the various contributors to the book have traced strands of Indian strategic through and practice both in Indian history, in modern India, and in relation to India's core interests in its neighbourhood and the wider world. Krishnappa furthermore placed the book's topic in a contemporary context, showing how Prime Minister Modi relates to Nehruvian and Gandhian notions of foreign policy.

Professor Harsh V. Pant of King's College London commented on the book and gave a talk on the topic 'Perspectives on Indian Foreign policy: Aligned or Non-Aligned?' Pant outlined the academic debate on India's Grand Strategy, presented the main opinions and explanations that have been put forth on the matter and underlined the controversy of this topic. Pant also focused on India's history as a non-aligned country, the recent resurgence of the concept of non-alignment, and linked this issue up with the new Indian government's foreign policy priorities. He argued that non-alignment is a nice strategy in theory, but in reality it may be challenging to follow such a strategy. He stated that Indian foreign policy very often is more ad-hoc than a result of a grand strategy, and that India lacks institutional capacity to take a greater role in international politics.

The Q&A session gave much attention to the Modi government's possible foreign policy priorities, India's relations to its neighbouring countries, as well as Modi's relation to Indian political thinking and tradition.

Summary by Sunniva Engh

Publisert 27. mai 2014 00:00.. Sist oppdatert 28. juni 2016 11:07.