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FPC Briefing – Thinking Big: Modi’s Foreign Policy Priorities for India

Article by Dr Chris Ogden

January 19, 2018

FPC Briefing – Thinking Big: Modi’s Foreign Policy Priorities for India

Following the landslide general election victory by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in May 2014, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) proclaimed a ‘renewed energy, vigour, and planning in India’s engagement with the rest of the world’[1].  Under Narendra Modi, India’s foreign policy priorities have indeed become more self-assured, visionary and global in scope, displaying a dynamism and energy often absent in previous regimes. Further reflecting the greater pragmatism, self-confidence and assertiveness associated with the diplomatic style of both Modi and the wider BJP, Indian officials now explicitly and consistently seek to present their country as ‘a confident, articulate, (and) rising power … no longer content to merely react to international developments’[2].


Evermore proactive and pre-emptive in their diplomacy, India’s diplomatic footprint has also substantially increased. This expanding bandwidth has been accompanied by a significant upswing in political missions, visits and summits under Modi, which have vastly exceeded those of Manmohan Singh during the previous ruling government. At the core of this approach, the BJP are less ambivalent in promoting India internationally, and more explicit in achieving greater status, recognition and power on the global stage. A negotiation style typified by the BJP’s frequently hard-nosed and nationalist bravura has also meant that ‘pragmatism, not principle, and delivery, not doctrine … (are) the marks of Modi’s approach’[3].  Strong personal drive and focus underpins such a style, whereby India’s Prime Minister follows a mantra of ‘thinking big’ in all possible ways concerning India’s place in the world.

Three Core Strategic Priorities

Concerning foreign affairs, the BJP’s 2014 election manifesto clearly stated that; ‘the vision is to fundamentally reboot and reorient the foreign policy goals, content and process, in a manner that locates India’s global strategic engagement in a new paradigm’[4]. At the heart of this vision are three core strategic priorities that have all been solidified under the Modi regime concerning the basic guiding orientation of Indian foreign policy. These policy preferences – achieving great power recognition; constructing a multipolar world order; and pursuing the “Act East” policy – are now fully evident across New Delhi’s various international diplomatic activities. They are each internationally focused and aim to augment India’s global standing through specific bilateral and multilateral ties.


Achieving Great Power Recognition

Making India one of a handful of the world’s great powers has been the first major strategic priority of the Modi regime. As Modi announced to his supporters in 2014; “I assure you that this country [India] has a destiny”[5], which would play a significant role in international politics. The BJP’s tapping into nationalist sentiments across both its supporters, and India more generally, has underpinned such assertions, whereby India aims to be at the upmost level of the international hierarchy. Encapsulating these narratives, upon gaining office Modi furthermore declared that the twenty-first century was to be “India’s century”[6] during which the country’s status ambitions would be fulfilled.


Gaining self-sufficiency in its international affairs is the mainstay of this priority. In particular, via the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’, New Delhi seeks to possess sufficient amounts of power to independently express its own interests and its own vision of the world order.  Prevalent within such narratives is increasing India’s position as a large developing economy that can be of potential benefit to the current global economic system, as well as bolstering ‘Brand India’ as a means to enhance her domestic modernisation programme. A slew of innovations such as ‘Make in India’, ‘Skill India’, ‘Digital India’, and ‘Start Up India’ has accompanied this focus, and are all intended to boost foreign direct investment, create jobs, enhance workforce skills and increase production standards.  So as to reinforce this aim, New Delhi has also sought new trade and energy partners across Asia, Africa and South America. These ties have included heightened Saudi Arabia relations, as well as major investment promises worth $35 billion and $22 billion respectively from Japan and China. In combination with ensuring her energy and trade security, the ongoing cultivation of India’s defence and multilateral capabilities is also required to achieve greater strategic autonomy.


Modi has further sustained, refreshed and intensified relations with the US. Underscoring these sentiments, when Narendra Modi and President Obama met in 2014 they issued a statement broadcasting that ‘we will have a transformative relationship as trusted partners in the 21stcentury’[7].  Since then, relations have centred upon deepening cooperation in the fields of defence, trade, civil nuclear affairs and Asian security. Indian officials have also noting mutual ties concerning ‘shared values of freedom, democracy, universal human rights, tolerance and pluralism, equal opportunities for all citizens, and rule of law’[8], which underscore the political commonalities between them. Close ties to an established great power such as the US is also central for fulfilling India’s status aspirations.


In June 2015, the Indo-US ‘New Framework for Defence Cooperation’ was formally renewed for ten years, and led to the signing of a ‘Master Information Exchange Agreement’ between the Pentagon and India’s Ministry of Defence to share aircraft-carrier technology heavily desired by New Delhi.  The highly significant ‘Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement’ has also been signed, which allows both sides mutual access to military supplies, spare parts and services. With the new Trump administration, both countries further declared themselves to be ‘democratic stalwarts … resolved to increase cooperation, enhance diplomatic consultations, and increase tangible collaboration’[9].

Constructing a Multipolar World Order

At the core of the BJP’s wider vision of global politics is constructing a multipolar world order, whereby multiple powers – not just one – compete for influence.  Within this worldview, the multiple poles are argued – in addition to the US – to be China and Russia, and potentially the EU, as well as India once the country has fully reached great power status. It is underpinned by collective cooperation concerning mutual development, equality, and non-intervention – all of which are core, longstanding principles within Indian foreign policy. When they came to power in 2014, the BJP further argued that India was a vishwaguru (‘world guru’) capable of actively re-crafting, rather than passively acquiescing to, international affairs – a sentiment central to this foreign policy priority.


With this proactive image in mind, Modi’s diplomacy has encompassed an approach of ‘multi-alignment’ that is centred upon engaging with regional multilateral institutions, and creating specific strategic partnerships. As part of this latter process, in 2015 for instance, India entered into new strategic partnerships with Canada, Mongolia, Oman, Seychelles, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. India’s strong economic profile (with an average rate of 7.5% between 2014 and 2016)[10] heightens such linkages, as does her growing middle class population who provide a potentially major consumer market for the goods of any external trading partner. As India’s economic prowess increases, so too has her voice in any discussion of global financial governance.


Ensuring better ties with other great powers is also central to achieving this foreign policy priority.  The most longstanding of these are with Russia, who has been a steadfast strategic partner of India since 1947, providing it with economic, military and political support. Under Modi, the relationship remains firmly ‘rooted in longstanding mutual trust, characterized by unmatched reciprocal support to each other’s core interests’[11]. In 2015, the two sides carried out joint exercises for both their naval and ground forces. Crucially, both sides also subscribe to a similar world order vision that seeks a ‘system based on the central role of the United Nations and international law, common interests, equality, mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries’[12]. Along with China, Russia also subscribes to being part of India’s vision of creating a multipolar world order.


Elsewhere the BJP’s assertive pragmatism has been highly visible towards China. At the core of Modi’s attitude to Beijing is the conviction that their ‘simultaneous re-emergence … as two major powers in the region and the world, offers a momentous opportunity for (the) realisation of the Asian Century’[13]. Both sides cooperate in a variety of multilateral settings, which reflects a shared strategic preference for a multipolar world order. Major trade and investment deals have bolstered relations but have been offset by continued friction concerning their ongoing border disputes. Here however, the BJP has been very forceful in its use of India’s military capabilities, especially along the Himalayan border and has strongly responded to infiltrations by Chinese troops (which have occurred at several junctures). Indian officials have also openly pledged that Arunachal Pradesh (which the two sides dispute) is an indisputable part of India, and to which the Indian Home Minister openly visited in 2015. In order to put greater diplomatic pressure on Beijing, New Delhi has also pursued an unprecedented policy of coalition-building with the US, Vietnam, Japan and Australia.


The final part of the priority to achieve multipolarity is institutional, whereby India is now more willing to take the lead in creating, joining and running groupings. Pointing to this new-found self-confidence, in October 2014 India helped set up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as well as the New Development Bank in July 2014. In 2017 India also became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which Modi deemed to be ‘a logical extension India’s age old ties with the region; … India’s engagement … will help us build a region which is an engine of economic growth for the world; (and) is more stable’[14]. These efforts point to an international system that is in flux and which concurrently enhance New Delhi’s strategic preference for evoking a multipolar world order.

Pursuing the ‘Act East’ Policy

Following the ‘Act East’ policy has been the third priority of the Modi government, which extends the ‘Look East’ policy first introduced under P.V. Narasimha Rao to create deeper common military, economic, and diplomatic ties with South East Asia. Act East seeks to realise the core assumption of the twenty-first century being the Asian Century, as well as inter-connecting India to the Asia-Pacific region through the new formulation of the ‘Indo-Pacific’. India’s continued domination of the Indian Ocean Region is a major feature of this policy, whereby the region is considered to be essential to ensuring her economic, military and territorial self-sufficiency, as well as India’s modernisation of its naval capabilities towards a blue-water capacity. Within these parameters, and as a means to counter the presence of competitors in the region, the Modi government has carried out sustained and frequent diplomacy included the formation of strategic partnerships with Singapore and Vietnam. Concerning the latter, New Delhi has offered a US$100 million line of credit, considered the transfer of BrahMos supersonic cruise missiles, and signed treaties on coast guard cooperation. In turn, the lucrative ASEAN-India Free Trade Area entered into force in July 2015, which delivered a further foundation for the proactive diplomacy that is the hallmark of the Act East policy.


Amplifying other particular bilateral relations has also been imperative to the Act East policy. Thus, within the Indo-Pacific region, Modi has elevated ties with Japan to that of a ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s 2015 visit to India saw the announcement of the ‘Vision 2025’ statement ‘which reflects a broad convergence of their long-term political, economic and strategic goals’[15] and centred upon professed political congruence concerning pluralism, tolerance, the rule of law, and democracy. India invited Japan to become a permanent participant in the India-US Malabar naval exercises, which Tokyo took up in 2016, and pointed to a heightening triadic relationship between these countries. The addition of an explicit security element to India-Japan relations epitomized a noteworthy step-change in relations, whilst their intensifying political and strategic conjunction continued to be reinforced by economic ties. These included the signing of a major infrastructure deal for Japan to build a bullet train system from Mumbai to Ahmedabad.


Further afield, relations with Australia have ameliorated the desired pursuit of the Act East policy, as well as wider strategic linkages with the US and Japan. The first Indian prime minister to visit Australia since 1987, Modi’s 2014 mission acknowledged a bilateral relationship ‘anchored in shared values, expanding economic engagement, converging strategic interests and a growing shared agenda in regional and multilateral institutions’[16]. Signing agreements on security, defence and counter-terrorism cooperation, and the sale of uranium to India, have all enhanced relations. In turn, India and Australia’s first ever bilateral naval exercise in 2015 – AUSINDEX-15 – further advanced ties, as did the trilateral India-Japan-Australia security dialogue held since 2015, and as will their first bilateral Army-to-Army exercises in 2018. Officials have additionally noted how ‘Australia and India share a commitment to democratic values, rule of law, international peace and security, and shared prosperity’[17].  These elements show a major increase in India-Australia relations, primarily via the dynamism central to Modi’s diplomatic style but also based upon their shared values and interests.

Global Power India

The core strategic aim underpinning Modi’s three foreign policy priorities is to augment, heighten and embolden India’s position as a significant and important international actor. As such, whether is it about increasing India’s status (to become a great power), crafting a new form of world order (based upon multipolarity) or establishing itself as a major Indo-Pacific player (via the Act East policy), India’s global focus is the hallmark of the current BJP government. Within these dynamics, the other major powers, especially in Asia, are of especial focus as seen concerning the emphasis on enhancing relations with the US, Russia and China, as well as second tier countries such as Japan and Australia. Such a focus fits with New Delhi’s desired future self-image as a major Asian global power.


Augmenting New Delhi’s national power resources flow into these dynamics, such as through sustaining high rates of economic growth with which to attract others to India, bolstering her domestic development and thereby enabling her to gain an ever greater say in the management and nature of global governance. Enhancing India’s trade and energy security links to this growth, so as to fuel her continued economic expansion, as does the continued acquisition of superior military capabilities and higher levels of security cooperation with other countries through new agreements or more inter-force exercises. India’s ever-increasing diplomatic presence also bolsters her general global standing, which is aided by having a proactive and assertive leader, in the guise of Narendra Modi, who is able to forcefully and visibly promote India’s interests on the international stage in a manner not seen for several decades.


In these ways, the global edge is what defines Indian foreign policy and will continue to do so in the coming years and decades, especially if the BJP wins the next Indian general elections scheduled for 2019, which looks increasingly likely. Such a victory will act as a reinforcing mechanism that will essentially legitimise this approach. This edge also has repercussions for those countries who are not placed – or who are not perceived to be placed – within the higher echelons of world affairs, or who do not have something obvious to offer New Delhi in either economic, military or diplomatic terms.  This observation will have a definitive impact for the UK, which – given the current uncertainties surrounding the pathway to an eventual Brexit, whatever that may be – appears to be significantly weakened in the aftermath of the referendum result to leave the EU. Such doubts do not offer any clear succour to Indo-UK relations, and suggest a downgrading of relations as New Delhi focuses on those countries that will be its probable peers and competitors in the new Asian-centric world order.


[1] MEA, Ministry of External Affairs, Annual Report 2015-16 (New Delhi: Policy Planning and Research Division, Ministry of External Affairs, 2016), i.

[2] MEA (2016) Annual Report 2015-16, i.

[3] Ian Hall, “Is a ‘Modi Doctrine’ Emerging in Indian Foreign Policy?”, Australian Journal of International Affairs 69 (3): (2015): 258.

[4] BJP, Election Manifesto 2014 (New Delhi: Bharatiya Janata Party, 2014), 39.

[5] Quoted in “India, 20 Others Set up Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank,” Indian Express, 24 October 2014,

[6] Quoted in Annie Gowen and Rama Lakshmi, “Modi Promises a ‘Shining India’ in Victory Speech,” The Washington Post, 16 May 2014,

[7] MEA, “Vision Statement for the US-India Strategic Partnership: Chalein Saath Saath: Forward Together We Go,” Ministry of External Affairs, September 29 2014,

[8] MEA, “India-US Joint Statement During the Visit of Prime Minister to USA (The United States and India: Enduring Global Partners in the 21st Century),” Ministry of External Affairs, June 7 2016,

[9] MEA, “Joint Statement – United States and India: Prosperity through Partnership,” Ministry of External Affairs, June 27 2017,

[10] World Bank, “GDP Growth (Annual %) – India”, The World Bank,

[11] MEA, “India-Russia Joint Statement during the Visit of the President of Russia to India: Partnership for Global Peace and Stability,” Ministry of External Affairs, October 15 2016,

[12] MEA, “India-Russia Joint Statement”.

[13] MEA, “Joint Statement between India and China during Prime Minister’s Visit to China,” Ministry of External Affairs, May 15 2015,

[14] MEA, “Speech by Prime Minister at SCO Summit’, Ministry of External Affairs, June 24 2016,

[15] MEA, “Joint Statement on India and Japan Joint Vision 2025: Special Strategic and Global Partnership Working Together for Peace and Prosperity in the Indo-Pacific Region and the World,” Ministry of External Affairs, December 12 2015,

[16] MEA, “Joint Statement on the State Visit of Prime Minister of Australia to India,” Ministry of External Affairs, September 5 2014,

[17] MEA, “India-Australia Joint Statement During the State Visit of Prime Minister of Australia to India,” Ministry of External Affairs, April 10 2017,

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