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Indian foreign policy in the 21st century

Posted on 07/03/2012

A group of leading independent Indian academics and policy makers has published a landmark report this week on the future direction of Indian foreign policy as the nation stands at a crossroads in its development. The goal of the study, co-authored by Professor Sunil Khilnani of the King’s India Institute, is to identify common principles that might guide India’s foreign and strategic policy over the next decade and beyond, seen as vital if India is to successfully pursue its national development goals and lift millions of people out of poverty.
The report, available on the King’s India Institute website (pdf), addresses the shift in global power and what it implies for the nature of power today.  ‘Our nation is at a period of critical choices concerning our internal development and our advance in the world,’ said Professor Khilnani, presenting the report in New Delhi. ‘India must play a greater role on the world stage, and should set new standards for what the powerful must do.’

One of the major recommendations of the report is for India to realign its defence strategy and develop more naval capacity, in order to maximize the advantages of its peninsula location and shift emphasis away from border disputes in mountain regions. ‘India’s strategic objective must be to emerge as a maritime power,’ said Khilnani. The report suggests a package of reforms are required to achieve these military objectives, starting with the creation of a Maritime Commission, which can coordinate development of capabilities across both naval and civil needs.
The authors also suggest more work needs to be done to build a platform for engagement in South Asia – while India is clearly the major economic power in the region; the country has so far failed to convert this into political influence and convergence necessary for greater economic interaction. They argue that deepening South Asia’s economic integration will serve the interests of all its members, and will also be the counter to the ambitions of other great powers, such as China, who are expanding their influence in the region.
On Pakistan, the report suggests that a variety of policies should be pursued simultaneously. While maintaining diplomatic and political engagement aimed at bringing some normalcy to the relationship, they argue that India’s policy initiatives should offer Pakistan real options to join in the region’s economic growth. 

On the economy and trade, the authors warn against India becoming too protectionist, encouraging India to build multilateral rather than bilateral regimes. ‘This is to our benefit,’ comments Khilnani, ‘not least because it helps to embed China in a rule-bound, negotiated, international system. We need to take a more strategic view of our financial sector and encourage its global orientation, and we need to engage more actively in Asian and global discussion about monetary systems and currency regimes.’

The report also provides recommendations for India’s energy policy, encouraging a move away from imported fossil fuels to a policy based on renewable and clean sources of energy.

Finally, the authors stress that India’s national security must be viewed as rooted in the nation’s capacities to produce knowledge, create educational opportunity, and expand the frontiers of research. ‘A great power is defined by its ability to produce knowledge in all fields, rather than simply being a consumer of knowledge produced elsewhere’ said Khilnani. ‘Failure to reform our knowledge and human capital formation capacities will have serious negative impact on our hard power.’
Khilnani and his co-authors conclude that India in the 21st century is in a unique position to act as a bridge between different interests and worlds:  ‘India is the most ‘western’ and liberal among the non-western powers, but we are rooted in Asia. As a poor and developing country, we also have an enormous global footprint. We have the potential to become a technological powerhouse, yet remain an informal economy. We are committed to democratic practices and are convinced that robust democracies are better guarantee of security.  Yet we do not ‘promote’ democracy or see it as an ideological concept that polarizes states. This diverse identity and multiplicity of interests is India’s greatest strategic asset.’
Notes to editors
Professor Sunil Khilnani is available for media interviews. Please contact Katherine Barnes on +44 207 848 3076 or at
NonAlignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century
Centre for Policy Research, 28 February 2012
Download a copy of the report:
The views, findings and recommendations of the report are the product of collective deliberation by an independent group of analysts and policy makers: Sunil Khilnani, Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Prakash Menon, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran, Siddharth Varadarajan. The group’s activities were administratively supported by the National Defence College and Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

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