COM 01/2019

India and the changing global scenarios

By Major General Ashok Hukku (Retired), former Chief Intelligence former Chief Military Intelligence Advisor to the Cabinet Secretariat of the Indian Government in New Delhi


When India achieved independence, the country was in the grip of a socio-economic crisis. Rampant poverty, illiteracy and famines were taking a heavy toll on its people. As the horrific effects of colonization and the two world wars were fresh in the minds of political leaders of that time, they were imbued with a spirit of nonviolence and peaceful coexistence. Their attention was focused on development and social equity.

India steps forward

The result was that India refused to join military alliances that came up after World War II ended. Instead Pandit Nehru, the first Prime Minister of free India inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s strong belief in non-violence and peaceful coexistence, launched the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1956 along with President Tito of former Yugoslavia, Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia and Nkrumah of Ghana.

NAM now has 125 member countries and 24 observer countries. The objectives of NAM in the 21st century as mentioned in the 17th summit hosted in Venezuela are:

  • strengthening and revitalization of the NAM
  • strengthening international peace and security
  • the right to self-determination 
  • disarmament and a nuclear-free Middle East
  • the protection and promotion of Human Rights and the principles of the United Nations Charter
  • condemnation of terrorism

The communiqué from Venezuela also called for a dialogue amongst civilizations, to respect religious, social and cultural diversity. The reform of the World Bank and IMF, Climate change issues, refugees and migrants were also addressed.

NAM’s view on global governance includes reform of the UN by strengthening the powers of the General Assembly, reforming the Security Council and the need for geographic rotation and gender equality in choosing the Secretary-General.

Besides NAM India also became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations comprising former British colonies. Nehru promoted the idea of decolonization from the platform of the Commonwealth.

In keeping with the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, Nehru abjured conflict between nations to the extent that he paid scant attention to developing India’s armed forces. He was also among the first few persons to ask for a ban on nuclear tests as early as 1954.

One of the earliest treaties that India signed was the treaty of Panch Sheel with China in 1954. It incorporated five principles of peaceful coexistence and non-interference in each other affairs. Nehru also championed the cause of China’s entry into the UN’s Security Council. However noble Nehru’s thoughts and actions may have been, his approach was to cost India dear in the years ahead.

On the other hand, India became an active contributor to Peace Keeping missions of the UN, it is one of the countries that provide largest number of troops for the purpose worldwide.

Thus, India began to gradually emerge on the global stage in an environment of Cold War and regional conflicts.

Sino-Indian war 1962

Some aspects of Prime Minister Nehru’s vision and hope for peace in the region had shades of idealism. He championed the cause of PRC’s entry into the UN in place of Taiwan, not for a moment visualizing that in the years ahead lay a Chinese military aggression.

India’s gross miscalculation of Chinese intentions in the late 1950s resulted in a military debacle in 1962. An unprepared Indian army was out manoeuvred by the PLA. Nehru’s Utopian dream lay shattered. This conflict laid the foundations of the border dispute with China which remains unresolved till today.

The Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 drew the US into the scene as it came to India’s help militarily. Bruce Riedel, the veteran CIA officer, says in his book “ JFK’s Forgotten Crisis” that on 19 Nov 1962 Nehru wrote to Kennedy asking for twelve squadrons of fighter aircraft, two squadrons of long range bombers, transport air crafts and radar coverage.

The US moved a carrier group into the Bay of Bengal while Canada and Australia were asked to stand by. Soon enough China withdrew from occupied areas.

Meanwhile, Pakistan contemplated a surprise attack to capture Kashmir. Galbraith, the US Ambassador in New Delhi, asked Kennedy to rein in Pakistan. The attack was thus prevented.

Nine years later the US would once again send a naval fleet to the Bay of Bengal on a totally different mission.

Having learned its lesson from the 1962 war, India began to slowly modernize its armed forces.

Three years later in 1965 the second war with Pakistan broke out as it again tried to forcibly annex Kashmir in a surprise attack. The conflict served a second warning to India to be better prepared for such eventualities.

India changes track

Throughout the decade of 60s as the US got increasingly involved in Viet Nam, it began to lose interest in India. Consequently, India began to lean towards the Soviet Union. Even though the USSR maintained a neutral stance in the Sino Indian war of 1962, by the time Lal Bahdur Shastri became the prime minister, New Delhi had developed close relations with Moscow.

During this period the strategic scenario was changing rapidly in Southeast Asia. As India had refused to join any power bloc the US took a willing Pakistan under its wings and decided to build it as a bulwark against Soviet influence.

In July of 1971 Pakistan organized a secret visit for Henry Kissinger to Beijing. It was followed by President Nixon’s visit to China resulting in a breakthrough in Sino-US relations. Full diplomatic relations were established; President Carter recognized China and severed normal ties with Taiwan.

In India Mrs Indira Gandhi had succeeded Shastri as the Prime Minister in 1966. In August 1971 the Treaty of Friendship was signed by India and the Soviet Union. This was to prove a crucial decision later that year.

East Pakistan becomes Bangla Desh

By 1971 the situation in the sub-continent began to deteriorate. Pakistan’s army started a systematic genocide in its eastern wing. As a result, ten million refugees, as per UNHCR estimate, fled erstwhile East Pakistan and crossed into India creating a severe socio-economic crisis. Mrs Gandhi met Nixon in Washington and other world leaders in Europe to request them to reign in Pakistan, but her pleadings fell on deaf ears.

Left with no option India intervened militarily in Dec 1971, another war followed and East Pakistan became Bangla Desh. An enraged Kissinger advised President Nixon to intervene. The US 7th Fleet sent Task Force 74 led by the nuclear powered USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal, it arrived there on 15th Dec. Unlike 1962 this time the fleet arrived to threaten India. British carrier HMS Eagle also moved toward Indian waters.

Fortunately, the USSR came to India’s help, it dispatched two nuclear submarines, a cruiser and a destroyer towards Task Force 74. The US called off its threat and withdrew while HMS Eagle set course for Madagascar. The Treaty of Friendship with USSR came to India’s rescue.

Pakistan an unstable nation

In the sub-continent peace has remained elusive. The bitter legacy of partition engendered suspicion and animosity between India and Pakistan. There have been four Indo-Pak wars since 1947, border skirmishes take place frequently. For nearly three decades a proxy war has been waged by Pakistan in Kashmir which has later extended to other parts of India.

In Pakistan the army Generals define the nature of their country’s relationship with the rest of the world. As attempts to arrive at a compromise between India and Pakistan were stymied by vested interests, it became evident that a peace agreement would deprive the Pakistan army of its raison d’être.

On the strategic side, Pakistan is a nuclear power, but importantly has a different doctrine to that of India.

The current situation is tense as the relations between the two countries have not improved.

China’s Emergence

Towards the East undoubtedly China is an emerging world power. It is economically and militarily strong and is growing stronger with time.

China has made determined effort to secure its borders, develop modern armed forces and has made tremendous progress in acquiring new technologies. With confidence born of inherent military and economic strength it has developed strategic objectives which aim to ensure that the existing world order is changed in which the US is not the only super power. Consequently, some important aspects of China’s strategic priorities have great relevance for India as they affect Indian strategy, these are:

        (a) China sees the 21st century as a strategic window of opportunity to become a global power.

        (b) It considers that globalization and opening up of the country for development is indispensable, it would therefore like to maintain a favourable external environment.

        (c)  Assimilation of Taiwan is a strategic priority.

        (d) It is building strong and modern armed forces that will have the capability of power projection well beyond Asia.

        (e) It wants to secure the Sea Lanes of Communication for its economic survival, this includes domination over South China Sea.

        (f) Given the extreme secrecy around China’s strategic programme it is difficult to accurately assess its nuclear arsenal. The Federation of American Scientists’ (FAS) estimate of 2018 mentions that China has a total of 280 nuclear warheads.

       (g) China is consciously moving very slowly to resolve the border dispute with India. It sees India as its only regional rival, while globally it is the US.

India conducts First Nuclear test

Given the developing strategic environment of Asia an important decision was taken by Indira Gandhi; India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974. Thus, it started to emerge as a fledging regional power. However, India suffered from a weak economy as a result of outdated policies. Economic breakthrough would not come about for another seventeen years.

Soviet occupation of Afghanistan

When the USSR invaded Afghanistan in 1979 the regional strategic scenario changed once again. India’s close relations with Moscow did not allow it to criticize Soviet occupation. An alarmed US fell back on Pakistan to push out the Soviet army. Propelled by CIA and Saudi Arabia, Pakistan organized and participated in the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. The Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989.

Gen Zia ul Haq the military dictator of Pakistan seized the opportunity to quietly push forward his nuclear weapons programme, a quid pro quo for his efforts in Afghanistan. The US acquiesced.

The hammer and sickle flag flew for the last time in Moscow on 25 Dec 1991. The dissolution of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War and once again the global strategic environment began to change.

While the Soviet Union was collapsing India was faced with a critical economic crisis.  Fortunately, under the brilliant economist Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh India not only managed to recover from the crisis but it set upon the path of economic recovery by  opening up to foreign investments and international trade.

India turns Eastwards

In 1991 India formulated the policy of Look East. The subsequent two governments of Mr. Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh pushed this trend further. By 2014 “Look East” progressed to “Act East” as India began to explore new markets and bilateral military cooperation with its S.E Asian neighbours. In the process India began to emerge as one of the major players of the region.

Some of the important regional initiatives that India undertook are: the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-lateral Technical and Economic cooperation (BIMSTEC) comprising India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangla Desh, Myanmar and Thailand; strategic partnership with ASEAN; India Myanmar Thailand Trilateral Highway and the QUAD. All these initiatives further promoted India’s position as an important player in S.E Asia.

Turmoil in Afghanistan

The present conflict in Afghanistan has been devastating the country for seventeen years with no sign of resolution. As far as India is concerned its relations with Afghanistan go back for centuries. Before independence India had a common border with Afghanistan. Traditionally there was flourishing trade as well as social, military and economic activities. A shared historical background bound the two countries together.

After independence Pakistan came into existence. This did not imply that India was going to shed its close ties with Afghanistan. India has supported every government in that country except that of the Taliban.

On the other hand, Pakistan sees Afghanistan as its own back yard where it wants to ensure a pro Pakistan dispensation at all costs.  Thus, was formed the Pakistani concept of ‘seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan’.

However, India cannot allow Pakistan’s priorities to diminish its own relations with Afghanistan. India’s role is to provide humanitarian and economic aid to the Afghan people. The policy has found universal approval except by Pakistan which strenuously objects to Indian presence in Afghanistan.

Nuclear Issues

India has moved very carefully as far as nuclear tests and doctrine are concerned. As far back as 1954 India had proposed a standstill agreement which called for termination of tests. But the tests were not stopped.

Ultimately CTBT came into existence in 1996 and NPT came in force in 1970. India is not a signatory to both the treaties on the grounds that these are discriminatory. However, after 1998 nuclear tests India has followed a voluntary moratorium on nuclear testing.

India’s nuclear doctrine emphasizes : No First Use, No Use Against Non-Nuclear states and Minimum Nuclear weapons for Deterrence purpose only. Of course, it does not proliferate either nuclear weapons technology or weapons themselves. Which is not the case with China, as a signatory of NPT it has proliferated nuclear weapons design/technology to Pakistan.

Global disarray in the 21st Century

As the world heralded the 21st century with hoping for peace and prosperity, contrary scenarios began to emerge that have a direct bearing to the strategic environment of Asia and Indo-Pacific region.

US-Russia relations began to unwind and continue to do so. Under pressure from NATO and US sanctions an angry Putin moved closer to China.

The US created further complications by cancelling the nuclear deal with Iran and imposing sanctions on it which prohibit other countries from buying Iranian oil.

In November 2018 the US granted a waiver to eight countries including India, but asked them to reach the figure of zero imports in six months. This is of grave concern for India, as a developing country its huge dependence on oil imports is indispensable and so are its close relations with Iran. India has started reducing oil imports from Iran from November 2018, but it will ensure that bi-lateral relations remain strong. 

Afghanistan continues to remain a hot spot in South Asia. The announcement in December 2018 by President Trump regarding withdrawal from Afghanistan will have a profound effect on the regional situation. Taliban will try to seize power with all possible help and support from Pakistan. The Afghan army is unlikely to put up a fight.

There could be an internal conflict between contending Afghan war lords. Al Qaeda and Islamic militants of varying groups may surface again to further complicate the situation.

Indian development projects will be seriously affected as Pakistan will target them with the help of Taliban and the Haqqani network. Consequently, Indian influence in Afghanistan will wane creating further Indo-Pak tensions. A new element of instability is on the horizon.


Aggressive policies of China

China’s relentless march towards super power status characterised by aggressive initiatives in South China Sea, the launch of One Belt One Road (OBOR) project, pressure on ASEAN and  military pressure along Indian borders have disturbed the global balance of power.

These are issues of great concern for India. They are exacerbated by China’s String of Pearls Policy and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), both pose a strategic threat to India.

The CPEC is a major initiative in India’s neighbourhood. It is supposed to link up with the ambitious OBOR project.  If OBOR is successful it has the potential to threaten the US’s leading global role. OBOR/CPEC’s trade potential is tremendous and so is its military potential. It has now come to light that military infrastructure are planned by China to come up along the CPEC.

An additional element of worry for India is that CPEC passes through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir which is a disputed territory. As exploitation of that region by China is a significant concern for India it has declined to join the Chinese initiative.



Prime Minister Abe’s initiative of the Quadrilateral security Dialogue (QUAD) has brought together Japan, Australia, India and the US. The purpose is to keep the strategic shipping lanes open to free international trade. Of course, what remains unsaid is that free implies from the current and future threats emanating from Chinese aggressiveness in South China Sea.

While the US, Japan and Australia have emphasized a rule based order, Indian articulation is somewhat weak. If QUAD is to be a meaningful force in checking China, India must speak more forcefully.

During the QUAD conference in Singapore in November 2018, the members brought out the importance of ASEAN in Indo-Pacific. But there are infirmities in ASEAN itself that need to be taken note of. Within ASEAN there is dissent; Laos and Cambodia are clearly inclined towards China.

Viet Nam, one of the firm pillars of India’s Act East policy, has expressed reservations regarding the QUAD. Though it objects to China’s activities in South China Sea, it does not go beyond that. Viet Nam’s ambassador in New Delhi said “We do not want any military alliances as it is not conducive to regional security. We welcome any initiative which can contribute to peace in the region but if there is any ganging up or use of force, it will go against Viet Nam’s position.” The statement was made when the QUAD conference was taking place in Singapore. Viet Nam is unlikely to join any military exercises that QUAD may think of in the future.

This more or less falls in line with the Indian approach which remains cautious. With Sino Indian ties on the path of improvement India will remain wary about bringing any military content to QUAD. Without a visible military content QUAD will not be able to impose caution on China. Efforts to get more countries into the system could be of help and need to be considered, Indonesia can be invited.

Two Koreas

The recent developments taking place in the Korean peninsula offer some hope for peace. The four main actors in the process are Xi Jin ping, Kim Jong-un, Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump. The decisions these persons take will have a strategic bearing on the region.

China has been supporting North Korea since the Korean war of 1950-53. North Korea remains highly dependent on China for its economic growth and support. With around 29,000 American troops in South Korea, China views North Korea as a buffer state and is likely to keep it under its firm grip.

As far as de-nuclearisation of North Korea is concerned the US must not expect it to happen any time soon, if at all.  Nuclear weapon capability is the only ace Kim Jong –un holds.

But there is some change in the air between the two Koreas, perhaps the world can dare to hope for the possibility of détente, if nothing else.

New Delhi needs to watch the developments very carefully to see how it can leverage its position.

Strategic choices for India

Lingering differences between India and China create tensions in the relations between the two countries. Some of the irritants are as follows.

China has not allowed any solution of the border dispute with India even though presently Sino Indian relations seem to be improving.

China’s support to Pakistan poses a distinct military challenge to India.

Chinese opposition to India’s entry as a permanent member of the Security Council and NSG is another point of disagreement.

India has not joined the ambitious OBOR project of China and protests against CPEC.

China also blocks India’s efforts to place a UN ban on Masood Azhar of Pakistan, he is the leader of JeM a terrorist organization.

There was a military stand-off between PLA and Indian Army in 2017 at Doklam in Bhutan where China tried to build a road through a disputed territory. Fortunately, the confrontation ended peacefully.

On the other hand, Sino- Indian trade in 2017 was at a historic high at $84.44 billion. With Sino- US relations going downhill and a trade war in progress, China is looking around for other trade partners. India ranks high in that search, this gives it an opportunity to iron out some of the rough edges with China.

Russia has been a strategic partner of India but it began to lose some of its earlier enthusiasm in view of growing Indo-US relations. However, the Modi-Putin summit in May 2018 cleared the air. The level of Russia-India relations was raised to a “special privileged partnership”. But New Delhi does view with some concern the increasing relations of Russia with Pakistan.

India is the biggest buyer of Russian military hard ware. The latest proposal is to buy the highly advanced S 400 Triumf anti-aircraft anti-missile system. In view of the sanctions imposed by the US on Russia, US objects to this deal and has warned that there could be consequences for countries that purchase strategic systems from Russia, but India is going ahead with this deal.

India is also on the world stage along with Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa in the organization which is known by the acronym BRICS. The group works towards sustainable mutually beneficial development. The annual summits of BRICS are important as they serve to sort out differences and strengthen bilateral relations besides the basic aim of working for development.

Indo-US strategic partnership brings about a very significant influence in the evolving strategic environment of Indo-Pacific region. At the 2+2 dialogue that took place in New Delhi in Sep 2018 the partnership was further reinforced. COMCASA, the Communication Compatibility and Security Agreement, was signed. Two other agreements have already been signed earlier, one in 2002 relating to Security of Military Information, and another in 2016 known as the Logistic Exchange Memorandum.

This strategic closeness has distinct advantages, but greater the dependence lesser the strategic autonomy.

India is undoubtedly an emerging regional power. However, it has got caught up in the power play between the US, China and Russia. New Delhi has to steer its foreign policy with great care. It will have to keep its relationship with all three intact and on a strong footing. Weakening of anyone will begin to force India to tilt towards the other, which will have most undesirable consequences. So, India must hold its own firmly as all three major powers need its cooperation in different ways, as much as India needs their support.

In the foreseeable future as far as Indo-Pacific is concerned India will move along with the US taking care not to enter into a military dimension against China. India will also continue to build up bi-lateral relations and military cooperation with S.E. Asian countries independently. Indo-Russia ties will stay strong. Sino-Indian relations will keep improving pushed by economic factors.

Global Governance

The Indian position is that the UN does not reflect the global reality of the 21st century and its decision making process is captive of an out dated organizational structure. India has proposed that the G4 countries (Brazil, Germany, India and Japan) should become permanent members of the UNSC. This proposal is opposed by a group called “Uniting for Consensus”, led by Italy and Spain, Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, South Korea, Turkey, Pakistan and a few others. In 2017, it was reported that the G4 nations were willing to temporarily forego veto power if granted a permanent UNSC seat.


To conclude it would be appropriate to say that India has emerged in its own right as a regional power. It is fully aware of the risks posed by Chinese aggressive policies and its own disputes with it.

Indo-Pak relations are unlikely to improve until Pakistan stops using terror as an instrument of its foreign policy.

Taking care to guard its security and national interests, India is likely to keep a balanced approach in the global power play. Of course, India will not enter into a military alliance with any power. Its emphasis will remain on strong bi-lateral relations.