Understanding India’s Foreign Policy in the Case of the Russia-Ukraine War

India and Its Neighbours

Source: https://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/india_map.htm

In this study, the foreign policy of India during the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War will be examined, and the search for balance among great powers and the problems effective on Indian foreign policy will be emphasized.

With the end of British rule on August 15, 1947, India, which took its place in the international community as an independent state (Encyclopaedia Britannica) and is one of the important countries of the Asian continent today, has a surface area of ​​2,973,190 million km2. Pakistan, China, Nepal, Bhutan in the north; Myanmar and Bangladesh in the east are neighbors of India.  It is surrounded with Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean in the south, and with the Arabian Sea in the west.

Based on purchasing parity, according to 2020 data, India’s Gross National Domestic Product is $8,907,120 trillion dollars (Statistics Times, 2021); this figure shows that India is the third largest economy in the world after China and the USA. Having the highest population in the world after China, India is home to 1,380,04,385 Indians (Worldometer, 2022).

In addition to the data above, it should be noted that India is a nuclear power with 156 warheads (Arslan, 2022a) and ranks third in the world after the USA and China with an annual military expenditure of 72.8 billion dollars (Arslan, 2022b). According to the 1950 Constitution, India is defined as a republic consisting of 29 states. There are more than 500 tribes in the country. Although the official language is Hindi, 22 local languages ​​are accepted by the Constitution (Musayev, 2015, p.282).

India is a country that has adopted the principle of avoiding conflicts socially and politically. When avoiding conflicts cannot be achieved, it is aimed to try to minimize the possible damage (Musayev, 2015, p.284). In this context, Pandit Jawaharlar Nehru, who took on the duty of foreign minister as well as prime minister after India’s independence, made “non-alignment” a foreign policy principle in a period of bipolar world order.

Post-independence India’s agenda was to foster new relations with former colonial nations to promote peace and cooperation. However, conflicts with neighbors such as China and Pakistan led to changes in India’s foreign policy and the country could not pursue its neutrality in its foreign relations (Swaniti Initiative, p.1).

During the Cold War, the USSR was India’s most important supplier economically and militarily. After the collapse of the USSR, India constantly improved its trade relations with Russia. According to 2021 data, India’s imports from Russia amounted to 8.69 billion dollars and exports to this country 3.18 billion (The Economic Times, 6.4.2022). Upon the weakening of the country’s economy after the collapse of the USSR, the entry of foreign investment into India was seen as a necessity. This process facilitated to integrate the Indian economy with the world, and the Indian economy has grown steadily since the 1990s.

The ongoing war in Ukraine and grouping of countries in the international community due to the war led to raise new questions about the foreign policy of India, which stands out with its nuclear capacity, large and developing economy, as well as its increasing military spending. It has been questioned whether India will stick to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) with the USA, Japan and Australia in the Indo-Pacific, or act together with Russia and China. In this process, India’s abstention in the vote in the UN General Assembly to condemn Russia on the grounds of attacking Ukraine (sondakika.com, 2.3.2022) drew attention and the reasons for this preference began to be discussed in the international arena.

India’s foreign policy preferences are shaped with the search for balance between regional/global powers, and under the influence of regional problems. In this context, the problems it has with its neighbors China and Pakistan are influential on Indian foreign policy.

India has some problems with China such as border problem, regional leadership, and living of the leader of Tibet, Dalai Lama, in India. Since 1960, Dalai Lama has been living in India almost like a leader of an independent state in exile. Tibet is a part of India, and the presence of Dalai Lama in India disturbs the Chinese administration. India’s problem with Pakistan is related to the belonging of Jammu and Kashmir region.

India’s strategic partnership with the US and other US allies in the Indo-Pacific has improved in recent years, by taking into account the challenge of controlling an assertive China in the region. However, Russia is still a crucial partner for India in its military readiness, and Delhi does not agree with Washington on the threat perception from Russia.

The changing international environment due to China’s military and economic rise is the main motivation for Delhi’s approach to Washington and its allies. However, the ongoing Sino-US rivalry and the recently deteriorated Russia-US relations have brought Beijing and Moscow closer more to each other strategically (Tourangbam, 14.3.2022). In this environment, India, which thinks that following a pro-US stance will cause a disruption in its relations with Russia, is trying to establish a foreign policy by taking into account the global and regional realities.

Although India is the most important country in South Asia, it has to deal with an external environment consisting of two countries with nuclear power. These countries are China and Pakistan. Moreover; In the region, on land and at sea, China’s security and economic impact has been constantly increasing. At this point, when we focus on India’s relations with China and Pakistan, the situation of this country can be understood much easily:

India-China Relations

Diplomatic relations between India and China began on April 01, 1950. In 1962, a war on the border between the two countries was witnessed. Despite this, both countries came to the stage of developing bilateral relations in 1988 and signed an agreement to maintain peace and tranquility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) on the border in 1993. Since then, trade and economic relations with China have made great progress. India-China bilateral trade volume, which was $2.92 billion in 2000, reached $70.4 billion in 2015 (Swaniti Initiative, p.8). Today, the trade volume between the two countries is approximately $125 billion (The Economic Times, 14.1.2022).

Despite the increase in trade volume, relation between the two countries frayed due to the tensions experienced. The official warning from China to India to restrict the Dalai Lama’s visit has strained relations between the two countries (DW, 1.4.2017). India’s signing of the “US-India Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region” (The White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2015) in January 2017 stood out as another development that negatively affected the relations between two countries. China ignored India’s objections to constructing a transit corridor to Gwadar, on the Oman coast, via Gilgit in the north of Jammu and Kashmir, disputed area between Pakistan and India (Swaniti Initiative, p.8).

In addition to the developments mentioned above, a tension between Indian and Chinese soldiers lasted more than 50 days in the Sikkim region. This problem was caused by the Indian army thwarting an attempt by a team of the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) to expand a runway in the Doklam Plateau area, which entered Bhutan’s territory.

Until recently, India considered itself a regional leader in terms of the resources and diplomatic support provided by this country to its neighbors. However, China has begun to forge strong ties with South Asian countries, putting India and its neighbors in an unusual situation, making India’s regional leadership controversial.

China’s investments in Nepal on roads, ports and airports have enhanced Nepali-Chineese relations. For the first time, in 2014, Chinese investments in Nepal excessed India’s. Similarly, China has become Myanmar’s largest trading partner. Bangladesh is the country with the most trade with China, with the establishment of economic and industrial zones worth approximately $25 billion and 80 percent of Bangladesh armed forces equipment coming from China. This situation created instability in terms of India’s position in the region. The fact that India’s foreign policy target for permanent membership in the UN Security Council was blocked by China (Narasimhan, 15.4.2017) draws attention as an important detail that needs to be emphasized.

India-Pakistan Relations

Since independence in 1947, the ongoing negotiations between India and Pakistan on economic integration, cooperation and peace have been under the shadow of a constant threat of war. This is due to claims on Jammu and Kashmir by India and Pakistan. The two countries fought in 1947-48, 1965, 1971 and 1999. However, these tensions did not prevent both countries from working to initiate peaceful and cooperative relations. The trade activities across Jammu and Kashmir, launched in 2008, became an important step in this direction (Sengupta et al, p.4).

In order to build confidence in the business circles of both countries, three agreements were signed in September 2012, namely the Custom Cooperation Agreement, the Mutual Recognition Agreement and the Trade Complaints Relief Agreement. However, in January 2016, the attack on the Indian air force base in Pathankot raised tension between both countries again. Tension escalated when Pakistan criticized India for its human rights abuses committed in Kashmir. Also, both countries recalled their diplomatic personnel after accusing each other of espionage. The 2003 Armistice Agreement signed between the countries also collapsed due to continuous firing/violations along the Line of Control under the supervision of the UN in the Jammu and Kashmir region (Swaniti Initiative, p.8).

As a result;

Despite being the third largest economy in the world, in an international environment where power is distributed among many actors, India tries to maintain the balance in its foreign policy by taking into account the relations between the USA-China, USA-Russia. In addition, as seen in the Russia-Ukraine War, in an environment where the loss will be very heavy, the regulator of the peace may be “nuclear weapons”. The stabilizing feature of nuclear weapons can also be seen in India-Pakistan relations.

In a world order that did not fully settle after the Cold War, in the Russia-Ukraine War, which was witnessed between NATO’s tendency to expand towards the east and Russia’s security concerns, involving in this issue with a preference that would disrupt its relation with major actors in its international relations, seems very difficult for India. It should also be noted that in an environment of uncertainty, agreements signed between countries can be interpreted by parties from different/broad perspectives.


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DW. (1.4.2017). Dalai Lama visits northeastern India, despite Chinese warning

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Independence Day

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