Dr Namrata Goswami – India’s Approach to Asia

Profile Namrata Goswami Live Encounters Magazine April 2016

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India’s Approach to Strategy and International Relations – Dr Namrata Goswami, Independent Senior Analyst, Author and one of the foremost Indian thinkers on long-term global trends, emerging security challenges, and scenario building.

India is emerging as one of the foremost economic powers in the world. Pricewaterhouse Coopers predicts that by 2028, while China will overtake the U.S. both in GDP purchasing power parity (PPP) and market exchange rate (MER), India will follow suit as the second largest economy in GDP (PPP) terms by 2050.[1] This brings us to the question which is asked by most on how India conducts itself in its external relations. This question is critical due to the growing power and influence of India on the Asian and world stage. This article offers a perspective on India’s approach to strategy and international relations.  

The Indian Approach

India’s approach to foreign policy and international relations has evolved over the years, tracing its roots to ideas of non-alignment, strategic autonomy to strategic engagement. From being sceptical of forming any kind of close partnership with global super powers like the U.S. during the cold war, in 2015, India and the U.S. signed the ‘India-U.S. Delhi Declaration of Friendship’ committing to a long term close relationship.[2] In 2014, in a joint op-ed for The Washington Post, President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi outlined their vision for the world. [3] This was followed by the “U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region”,[4] which pledged to promote peace and prosperity, economic development and connectivity including freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and address poverty.[5] 

Yet, many strategic analysts, both in India and abroad, accuse India of lacking a strategic culture or strategic thinking. Key questions continue to remain unanswered on India’s approach to international politics/relations and foreign policy primarily due to the lack of a written and widely disseminated official ‘National Security Strategy” paper or “White paper” with regard to long term foreign policy goals. This quest for clarity in Indian strategic thought while throughout present, was perhaps propelled to limelight by George Tanham’s off cited essay on “Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretative Essay” published by RAND in 1992.[6] Tanham argued that Indians lacked a strategic sense. In fact he believed then that a coherent set of ideas and systemic thinking on Indian national strategy was remarkably hard to find.[7] Tanham claimed that India’s geography made it inward looking as the sub-continent’s unity was itself a task of priority given several regional separatist tendencies, its size and its resources. This inward looking propensity was based on history where India’s past had little to show for political unity with several kingdoms competing with each other for influence, with some ending up helping foreign invaders against adversarial kingdoms.[8] Tanham contends that Indians discovered their history since the late 1850s motivated and influenced by a growing sense of Indian nationalism vis-à-vis British colonial rule. Tanham however recognized that Indian culture represented by Hinduism and its ability to absorb and assimilate other religions provided the continuing thread through centuries. He credits the British for creating a unified Indian political entity, with clear strategic policy of defence and offence, maritime security and land defence. Thereby, the British envisaged that securing the Indian Ocean from foreign powers was vital in order to limit their ability to challenge the British Empire in India. This insight was drawn of course by their own easy arrival in India by sea due to the complete absence of Mughal capability to defend India’s maritime borders. The British developed strategic plans to safeguard the Northwest of India, and the Northeast, by establishing buffers to thwart foreign powers. There is a recurring belief that independent India adopted the British style of strategy and defence.

Following in the tradition of Tanham, The Economist, in two lead articles in 2013 titled “India as a Great Power Know Your Own Strength” and “Can India become a Great Power?” severely faulted India for its striking lack of a strategic culture.[9] Both articles strongly argued that India’s aspirations towards becoming a “Great Power” are undermined by its sheer lack of strategic thinking on future goals and ambitions supported by capability. The articles caution that with Pakistan in a dangerous internal web of jihadist violence, radicalization of its military and possession of nuclear weapons; China, an ever increasing threat from across the Himalayas and the Indian Ocean, harboring covert plans of arming Pakistan with nukes, coupled with jihadi terrorism and Maoist insurgency, India has a rough road to walk. The biggest blind spot, the articles indicate, is India’s lack of understanding on how to utilize its hard power (read military) for power and political influence. Indian leaders, the Economist allege “show little interest in military or strategic issues. Strategic defence reviews like those that take place in America, Britain and France, informed by serving officers and civil servants but led by politicians, are unknown in India. The armed forces regard the Ministry of Defence as woefully ignorant on military matters, with few of the skills needed to provide support in areas such as logistics and procurement (they also resent its control over senior promotions)”.[10] The capacity of Ministries like those dealing with external affairs is limited. The articles views this as a pity as India has so much to offer to the world via its democratic institutions, rule of law, human rights, etc.

Contrary to these opinions, I underscore that a deep foray into Indian foreign policy behavior reveals that India does have a strategic culture where it closely monitors the external environment and debates on the efficacy of the use of military power in addressing external threats. That India tends to give priority to dialogue over the use of military power in foreign policy does not mean that it does not have a strategic culture; it just means that the strategic preferences are different from the normal understanding of how Great Powers behave.[11]  Needless to say but critical to understand is the fact that when India emerged as an independent nation in 1947, its economy was weak and it did not possess the military capability (hard power) to influence world events like some other countries possessed at that time (Read the US, Soviet Union, etc). Hence, it was rather visionary of its founding leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru to use ideas to launch India onto the world stage. And in this, Nehru succeeded. Even when one explores the idea of non-alignment which Nehru championed, it was novel of him to think of an alternate concept of existence for a new state besides locating oneself within the limiting structures of the cold war; either with U.S or USSR syndrome. Nehru recognized that non-alignment in such a context would serve India well, by avoiding entangling alignments. Vital to realize that non-alignment was neither neutral nor passive, but had its own set of ideas and for Nehru it was an “India centric” strategy, at best. We see a continuation of that now with the “India first” policy of Prime Minister Modi.

Coming back to the assertions made in The Economist articles that India has no strategic culture to boost, to my mind, strategic culture is just how elites perceive threats and opportunities, and both The Economist authors more or less perceive what that fundamental Indian strategic culture is: they appear just not to like it – and hence the recommendation in one of the articles that India should join Western-backed security alliances in order to realize its Great Power ambitions. To be even more precise, what I understand by strategic culture is an ideational milieu by which the members of the national strategic community form their strategic preferences with regard to the use and efficacy of military power in response to the threat environment. Each country has its own way to interpret, analyse and react to external opportunities and challenges. India may lack a plan explicit enough to satisfy these observers … or complain that its strategy is not what they want – the reality is that India has in fact already shed its non-alignment – but the new alignments are contingent and based on shared interests, and can never be total alignments of the cold war variety. What the authors of The Economist articles are more likely saying is not that India lacks a strategic culture, but rather that it lacks a culture of strategic planning: of identifying desirable future goals, and plotting a series of sequential steps to reach them versus just pursuing an opportunistic policy of what appears preferable in the moment without a clearly defined end in mind.

There are broadly two major interpretations of Indian strategic culture. One is what I call “hardcore realism” for which the projection of military power beyond India’s borders will improve India’s international influence and secure its borders vis-a-vis China and Pakistan. Realists view the instability in Pakistan, the rising power of China and the unresolved border issue, as serious external threats mitigated by broadcasting efficient and effective military power at the border with Pakistan and China, and projecting Indian naval power in the Indian Ocean. Realists support increased defense spending, which by The Economist’s own admission poises India to become the fourth largest military power in the world by 2020. The other ideational base of Indian strategic culture is the Nehruvian commitment to use military power only as a last resort, not until the last diplomatic note has been written.

Nehruvians firmly believe that dialogue rather than military force is the best way to resolve conflicts with either Pakistan or China. They have faith in the ability of international organizations to mitigate international conflict and are wary of security alliances outside of the UN. Nehruvians are against India joining security alliances of any nature that could potentially create conflicts and undermine world peace. Military power projection, for them, is purely an act of self defense as under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Aligning with other states for the purpose of a common broadcasting of military strength is not supported by Nehruvians; hence their commitment to non-alignment and expressed aversion to militarized western security groupings. Given the overlap of these two ideational influences on India’s strategic culture, a complex structure is thereby superimposed on Indian strategic preferences, influenced by realist aspirations for Great Power status based on military power projection but tempered by Nehruvian ethos of dialogue and international cooperation, with a growing inward looking focus on building the Indian economy. India could move closer to some of the other recommendations made in The Economist articles of what India should do to become a Great Power but on its way it will also disappoint as it will appropriately give preference to tackle internal poverty and development, a greater concern to Indian citizens and politicians, which will be the true springboard for its enduring greatness.

It is however pertinent that India should resist the temptation to be opaque and non-committal in matters of foreign policy. India must showcase its leadership role; broadcast its capabilities and ambitions; issue directions on what are its foreign policy priorities through the publication of official policy ‘white papers’ on defense, economy, strategy, etc.; and take a stand on issues of global concern, including the health of the world’s environment, conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, and transnational crime. This is in tune with its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru who asserted India’s presence and role in the world; as a champion of de-colonization and peaceful world order. The scripting of policy papers is critical for India so that countries are not left to second guess its foreign policy parameters as has been the case earlier but benefit from a clear picture of what India’s priorities are, and what are the means that it would adopt to establish a peaceful world order.

It is however not enough to react to world events and global ideas of another’s making and agenda; the time has now come for India to take a lead in shaping world events, and work towards establishing an international order which is inclusive and representative of different values and cultures. Moreover, India should not shy away from utilizing opportune moments to strategically place its own agendas and interests on the world stage and identify countries that are willing to partner and support Indian foreign policy goals which are motivated to strengthen global peace. Taking thoughtless risk is not a good thing, but taking well planned out strategic risks is an art, much elaborated upon and discussed threadbare in the first Indian treatise on statecraft and strategy: Kautilya’s Arthasashtra. 


[1] “The World in 2050: Will the Shift in Global Economic Power Continue?”, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, February 2015 at https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/issues/the-economy/assets/world-in-2050-february-2015.pdf (Accessed on March 24, 2016).

[2] “India-U.S. Delhi Declaration of Friendship”, January 25, 2015 at http://pmindia.gov.in/en/news_updates/india-u-s-delhi-declaration-of-friendship/ (Accessed on March 24, 2016).

[3] Narendra Modi and Barack Obama, “ A Renewed U.S.-India Partnership for the 21st Century”, The Washington Post, September 30, 2014 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/narendra-modi-and-barack-obama-a-us-india-partnership-for-the-21st-century/2014/09/29/dac66812-4824-11e4-891d-713f052086a0_story.html (Accessed on March 24, 2016).

[4] “U.S-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean Region”, The White House, January 25, 2015 at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/01/25/us-india-joint-strategic-vision-asia-pacific-and-indian-ocean-region (Accessed on January 27, 2016).

[5] Ibid.

[6] George K. Tanham, “Indian Strategic Thought An Interpretative Essay” (Santa Monica: RAND, National Defence Research Institute, 1992).

[7] Tanham, p. v.

[8] Ibid, pp. v-viii

[9] “India as a Great Power Know Your Own Strength”, The Economist, March 30, 2013 at http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21574458-india-poised-become-one-four-largest-military-powers-world-end (Accessed on January 17, 2015). “Can India become a Great Power?”, The Economist, March 30, 2013 at http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21574511-indias-lack-strategic-culture-hobbles-its-ambition-be-force-world-can-india (Accessed on March 25, 2016).

[10] Ibid

[11] Namrata Goswami. “India has a strategic culture which is plain to see”, Asia Times, April 06, 2013 at http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/SOU-01-050413.html (Accessed on September 23, 2015). Also see James R. Holmes, “India has a Strategic Culture”, The Diplomat, April 19, 2013 at http://thediplomat.com/2013/04/india-has-a-strategic-culture/ (Accessed on September 23, 2015).


Dr. Namrata Goswami is one of the foremost Indian thinkers on long-term global trends, emerging security challenges, and scenario building. Dr. Goswami is currently an Independent Senior Analyst. She was formerly Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi where she specialized on ethnic conflicts, insurgency, counter-insurgency and conflict resolution. She also has an interest in international relations theory and Great Power behavior. She has been a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the Congressionally Funded United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington DC, where she explored long-term India-China-US scenarios in order to craft sustainable security frameworks to enable unimpeded human development and security. She was co-lead and editor of two IDSA sponsored works on long-term trends, Imagining Asia in 2030, and Asia 2030 The Unfolding Future.

Books by Dr Namrata Goswami Live Encounters Magazine April 2016



Her latest book published by Pentagon Press, New Delhi is on India’s Approach to Asia, Strategy, Geopolitics and Responsibility, 2016.  In 2015, she published with Routledge, London and New York, her book on Indian National Security and Counterinsurgency: The Use of Force Vs. Non Violent Response in which she explored the contrasting influence of Kautilya, India’s classical realist thinker vis-a-vis Gandhi’s prohibition on a violent response.  In 2012-2013, Dr, Goswami received the Fulbright-Nehru Senior Fellowship supporting her work on China-India border. She also received the “Executive Leadership Certificate” sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the National Defense University, Washington DC, and the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, Hawaii in 2013. She has been a Visiting Fellow at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, Norway, the La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia and the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Dr. Goswami is part of a renowned group of international experts exploring emerging security challenges such as 3-D printing, human self-modification and longevity, trans-national insurgencies, combating violent extremism, hybrid war and asteroid threats in the NATO sponsored “Partnership for Peace Consortium”. Her philosophy for life is one of the immortal quotes of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.

© Dr Namrata Goswami

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