India Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

India is a nation in Southern Asia. Its capital city is New Delhi. In its immediate area, India is a great power. The country’s political and economic influence over several of the smaller neighboring states makes the relations periodically strained. India is also seeking a greater role internationally, including through the pursuit of a permanent place in the UN Security Council. The country’s power ambitions collide with China’s growing influence in Asia, not least in the Indian Ocean and in the Himalayas. India’s conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir concerns the outside world, especially as both countries have nuclear weapons.

india military spending and defense budget

Already in the 1970s, it was clear that India had the capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. In 1974, the country conducted its first nuclear test. The consequence was that Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), whose 48 members decide on global rules for international trade in nuclear energy technology, banned India from exporting nuclear technology, reactors and nuclear fuel for civilian use to 45 countries. The ban was first lifted in 2008 after India and the United States agreed to cooperate in the field of nuclear energy (see below).

India has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), a treaty signed in 1968 in New York to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Nor has the country acceded to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which came into being in 1996. In May 1998, India shocked the world by conducting five nuclear tests and could then declare itself a nuclear state.

The reasons why India carried out the nuclear weapons tests were in this way to create a balance with China which also has nuclear weapons, and partly a concern that the arch-enemy Pakistan with China’s help would get ahead of India in developing nuclear weapons. India also wanted to strengthen its own position internationally by being recognized as a nuclear power.

The test blasts had several consequences. Pakistan responded with a series of nuclear weapons tests. The United States and a number of other countries imposed sanctions on India and Pakistan. These were eventually repealed. India introduced a moratorium (temporary stop) for new test blasts, but since 2007 it has nevertheless tested nuclear missiles on several occasions.

India today belongs to the world’s recognized nuclear powers and strives to become a member of NSG. The United States supports this endeavor, while China has stopped Indian membership.

Hostile relationship with Pakistan

India’s relations with Pakistan have been problematic ever since the split of British India in 1947 (see Modern History). Three wars have been fought between the two states: 1947–1948, 1965 and 1971. The first two touched the area of ​​Kashmir, which both countries claim. Third was East Pakistan’s (now Bangladesh) liberation from West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan). India intervened on East Pakistan’s side and enabled the formation of the new state of Bangladesh.

Relations with Pakistan have been going up and down over the years. The countries have tried to keep a dialogue alive and conduct regular summits. In 1988, they entered into an agreement not to attack each other’s nuclear weapons arenas.

At the same time, the Kashmir conflict in the late 1980s was exacerbated by the fact that Muslim armed groups began to fight to break Kashmir out of India. India accused Pakistan of supporting these groups, but Pakistan only allowed “moral support”. These positions still apply today. However, there are many indications that groups within the Pakistani military and the ISI military service actively support separatists in Kashmir.

In the spring of 1999, a new war was imminent. Muslim guerrillas then crossed the border in Kashmir, probably backed by Pakistani government soldiers. The attackers withdrew following pressure from the United States and because of an overpowering Indian military presence in the area.

Later that year, India’s then Prime Minister Vajpayee traveled to Pakistan. There, the Lahore Declaration was signed, which included a series of confidence-building measures (new bus lines between the countries, joint cricket matches, etc.) aimed at peace.

A backlash came in December 2001 when the New Delhi Parliament building was attacked by terrorists (see Modern History). India once again accused Pakistan of supporting the perpetrators of the act. Pressures from the US and China, both wishing for stability in the region, led to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in 2002 and in early 2004 a ceasefire was introduced in Kashmir.

During the 2000s and 2010s, Islamic guerrillas continued to carry out a series of attacks, both in Kashmir and inside India itself. The terrorist attacks in Bombay (Mumbai) in 2008 (see Modern History) strained India’s relationship with Pakistan to the utmost. In 2009, however, talks between the two countries resumed.

During Narendra Modi’s first year as India’s Prime Minister from 2014, there were some hopes for improved relations, but two major guerrilla attacks against Indian military bases in Kashmir in 2016 put a point to that. When a suicide bombing attack on a military column in Kashmir in January 2019 demanded the lives of some 40 Indian soldiers once again, relations ended in a bottomless state. India accused Pakistan of the killing, pledged to isolate the country internationally, removed trade benefits and raised import duties for the neighboring country. Indian fighter aircraft attacked guerrillas in Pakistan, causing the neighboring country to make flights over Indian-controlled territory.

For a detailed description of the conflict in Kashmir, read here.

Relations with the United States: from chilly to good

With the US, India has always had many cultural and commercial ties, but foreign policy contacts have long been quite chilly due to India’s close relations with the Soviet Union. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, India has in every way approached the United States and the rest of the Western world. A contributing factor to the improved relations is that India has gradually opened its market to foreign companies since the early 1990s.

India gave its support to the US-led global fight against terrorism following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. However, the country did not contribute soldiers to the US-led coalition that invaded Iraq in 2003.

A clear sign of India’s growing influence in the outside world came when the US and India in 2005 signed an agreement on closer defense cooperation. The following year, the United States invited India to take part in the US civil nuclear program (something not offered to Pakistan) in exchange for India allowing regular inspections of non-military nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The civil nuclear energy program touches on nuclear power for peaceful use. In October 2008, a cooperation agreement was signed.

India’s strategic importance to the United States increased in the early 2010s, which was clearly reflected in the relations between US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Modi. During Modi’s first two years in power, he met Obama seven times. The US investment in India should be seen in the light of the competition Americans face from an economically and strategically stronger China. The United States wants to see a larger Indian military presence in the Indian Ocean as a counterbalance to China’s growing influence there.

In January 2015, the two countries signed a pact, which meant that the cooperation agreement on nuclear energy for peaceful use from 2008 could begin to be implemented. The six-year delay was due to uncertainty over the debt issue in the event of a nuclear accident in India. During Modi’s mandate for 2014–2019, cooperation with the United States in trade, defense, climate policy and counter-terrorism was also strengthened.

The relationship between Modi and US President Donald Trump (2017–) appears to be good. In February 2020, Trump made a visit to India. Agreements were signed in defense, energy and telecom, but no comprehensive trade agreement was reached. Trade relations are strained; The US has a $ 25 billion deficit in trade with India.

Relations with Russia: from cordial to good

Despite Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru staking out an alliance-free foreign policy course for India after independence in 1947 – India was one of the founders of the alliance-free movement – the country had a warm relationship with the Soviet Union. The two countries entered into a friendship and cooperation agreement in 1971 and Nehru adopted the Soviet plan-economy model.

Relationships changed after the collapse of communism in 1989–1991. The same cordiality does not exist in India’s relationship with today’s Russia, though it is good. India, for example, buys Russian fighter planes and other military equipment, and the Russians help the Indians build nuclear power plants. Under Russian President Vladimir Putin from 2000, cooperation between the countries has been expanded in defense, trade and counter-terrorism. However, Russia is irritatingly looking at how India is approaching the US.

Clueless attitude to China

While India, like many other countries, would like to take part in China’s foreign investment and the huge Chinese market, competition between India and China on the political level has increased significantly in the 2000s and especially in the 2010s. The confrontation is most evident when China approaches the region that India sees as its own backyard: South Asia.

China’s long-standing and good relations with Pakistan have been an obstacle to a closer relationship between India and China. India, in particular, has turned to China to help Pakistan acquire nuclear weapons. More recently, China’s infrastructure investment in Pakistan, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, CPEC), has challenged India. The CPEC project will connect western China with Pakistani ports on the Bay of Bengal.

Another blockade was created by the short war with China in 1962 over the Arunachal Pradesh border area in the Himalayas. The war ended in a humiliating defeat for India. A visit by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to Beijing in 1988 can be said to have been a turning point. Then a trade agreement was concluded, and the two countries began to discuss the border disputes in the Himalayas.

In 1993, an agreement was signed to work to reduce tensions along the border, but India’s nuclear test in 1998 caused a major setback. In 2003, a thunderstorm occurred when India acknowledged China’s supremacy over Tibet, but the fact that India houses the Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama (and has given him political asylum) and a Tibetan exile government in Dharamsala is a continuing dispute.

However, China has abandoned all claims to Sikkim, an area between Bhutan and Nepal that is now part of India. A special commission has been set up to solve remaining border problems and in July 2006, a mountain pass was opened symbolically between India and China – part of the old trade route Silk Road. In October 2013, India and China signed an agreement on border defense cooperation with the aim of avoiding confrontations in the disputed joint border areas in the Himalayas. When a year later, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India, a series of cooperation agreements were concluded, including on Chinese investment in India’s railways and on trade, space research and nuclear energy for peaceful use.

In June 2017, a crisis arose when China’s army began road works on the Doklam Plateau on the China-Bhutan border. India supports Bhutan’s claim on Doklam, which in practice is controlled by China. India sent soldiers to the area and a post war started which was first interrupted in August 2017 when India first withdrew its forces, and China then did the same. Road work now stands for the feet and the border conflict is unresolved.

In the spring of 2020 several hundred, according to some sources, several thousands of Chinese soldiers entered Indian Ladakh at the disputed border between India and China. Soldiers from both sides were involved in paratroopers at some point and both countries supplied heavy artillery and other military equipment to the border area. Tensions had increased between the countries in the area since India in August 2019 divided the state of Jammu and Kashmir into the federally controlled Union Territories Ladakh as well as Jammu and Kashmir. India believes that the China-controlled region of Aksai Chin is part of Ladakh. India’s construction of a new highway to a military base in the area worries Beijing, which has therefore moved troops there. Diplomatic talks are held between the countries to find a solution to the tense situation. In May, a border dispute also flared up between the two countries of the Indian state of Sikkim, causing Chinese and Indian soldiers to be injured after stone-throwing and fighting. In June, at least 20 Indian soldiers were killed in a confrontation with Chinese soldiers along the checkpoint between Ladakh and Aksai Chin. The collision was described as the deadliest since the 1960s. It should not have happened with firearms, but with the additions like stones and iron pipes.

During the 2010s, countries such as Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bangladesh and Seychelles became more closely linked to China through loans and credits. With the economic ties, China has strengthened its influence in the Indian Ocean, a strategically important sea for trade in oil, among other things. India is watching the development with concern and is increasingly surrounded by China-dependent countries in its own neighborhood. India, the United States, France and China build runways and end up in island nations that were previously of no political significance. In this way you try to get a better military insight there. The United States has highlighted its interest in the area through its policy called The Indo-Pacific Idea.

Assistance to Afghanistan

India has good relations with the government of Kabul and sees Afghanistan as a key partner in the region. India is one of the largest donors in the reconstruction of war-torn Afghanistan. India is training Afghan government soldiers but has not contributed troops to the international forces. The Taliban does not infrequently attack Indian and Indian interests in Afghanistan.

The Taliban regime that took power in Afghanistan in 1996 was close to Pakistan. After its fall in 2001, relations between India and Afghanistan were strengthened. Under Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the Kabul government received extensive Indian assistance.

In July 2008, the Indian Embassy in Kabul was subjected to a terrorist attack and at least 41 people were killed, including four Indian diplomats and officials. In Afghan government circles, the Pakistani military intelligence service ISI was suspected of involvement in the act, which India later claimed to have evidence of. The Indian government condemned the act and declared it did not deter India from pursuing its support for Afghanistan.

Complicated relations with Bangladesh

India played a pivotal role in Bangladesh’s creation in 1971 and provides extensive credit to neighboring countries. Despite this, the relationship between the two countries has often been strained. The contradictions have included the exploitation of water resources in the common rivers (where, however, an agreement was reached in 1996), illegal immigration (see Conflicts in Northeast India) and smuggling from poorer Bangladesh to comparatively more prosperous India.

The conflicts have also stirred up Indian accusations that Bangladesh is protecting insurgents from the troubled northeastern India, as well as the border crossing in the Bay of Bengal, where there is believed to be significant amounts of gas and oil. In July 2014, the Permanent Arbitration Tribunal in The Hague granted Bangladesh the right to just over two-thirds of the sea area that the countries have disputed for decades. Both parties declared themselves satisfied with the outcome and the Government of India hoped it would foster economic relations between the countries.

In June 2015, Bangladesh and India signed a border agreement which meant that around 50,000 stateless villagers living in a number of enclaves along the common border had to choose which nationality they wanted to belong to. In August of the same year, the two countries changed control of 162 small enclaves (111 in Bangladesh and 51 in India). Most residents chose to stay where they lived. The question of the enclaves had helped to strain relations between the countries.

Sri Lanka, in the firing line between India and China

In Sri Lanka, India was drawn into the conflict between Tamils ​​and Sinhalese in the 1980s, when Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi supported the Tamil LTTE guerrillas (“the Tamil Tigers”). Her son Rajiv tried to persuade the parties to reach a settlement and in 1987 India sent a peacekeeping force of over 50,000 men to Sri Lanka to enforce it. In the spring of 1990, the last Indian soldiers were withdrawn.

India has since been careful to stay out of neighboring ethnic conflict. The Indian state of Tamil Nadu has received large numbers of Tamil refugees, which it has tried to send back, which has proved to be a lengthy process. More recently, the economic relations between India and Sri Lanka have been strengthened.

In November 2013, India’s Prime Minister Singh boycotted the Commonwealth Annual Meeting in Colombo in protest at Sri Lanka’s failure to accept the outside world’s demands for an independent investigation into allegations of serious human rights violations committed by the military during the end of the civil war in 2009 (see Sri Lanka: Modern History).

During President Mahinda Rajapaksa 2009–2015, Sri Lanka was increasingly drawn to China through Chinese loans and infrastructure investments. Developments are worrying about India, so when Maithripala Sirisena triumphed over Rajapaksa in the Sri Lankan presidential elections in 2015, hopes of a closer ties with India rose. However, Sri Lanka is heavily indebted to China and its close relations with Beijing have continued.

“Buffer States” Nepal and Bhutan

India regards Nepal and Bhutan in the Himalayas as buffers between themselves and China. India has had great influence over the politics and economy of neighboring countries over the years.

In 1989, relations with Nepal deteriorated significantly due to a trade dispute. India then closed border crossings for coastal Nepal. It was not until the middle of the 1990s that the conflict was resolved. India has also later used this means of pressure, including in 2015 when Nepal would adopt a new constitution that Indian-friendly Madhasians in southern Nepal considered to be disadvantageous to them. Many felt that India gave unofficial support to the Madhesi people when in protest they blocked off roads into India. The conflict ended in February 2016 after an addition was made to the constitution.

The Maoist uprising in Nepal from the 1990s was a major concern for India, which is also drawn with Maoist insurgency (see Naxali uprising). After the peace agreement in 2006, when the Maoists prevailed in an election in Nepal, good relations could still be established.

In an attempt to balance China’s growing influence, Modi has become increasingly interested in Nepal. When he traveled to the country in 2014, it was the first time in 17 years that an Indian government chief visited Nepal. During a visit in 2018, Modi chose to travel to the city of Janakpur, central city of Nepal’s only province of Madhic rule.

India has a great influence over Bhutan through a 1949 agreement that gives India largely the supremacy of the small kingdom’s foreign policy. When the agreement was renegotiated in 2007, Bhutan had a bit more to say about it. In 2010, China has tried to forge stronger ties with Bhutan, which has caused concern in India. Exports of hydropower to India is one of Bhutan’s most important income. India supports Bhutan in its claim on Doklam on the border with China (see above).

Other relationships of importance

India and Japan have been approaching each other as China has grown in strength. India receives favorable loans from Japan, which has among other things delivered fast trains to India. Japan, along with Australia, participates in military exercises between the United States and India on the Indian Malabar Coast in the west. The countries also cooperate in the energy field.

India’s relations with Israel were complicated for a long time, but the contacts between the two countries became sealed during the 2010s when several bilateral cooperation agreements in trade and technology were concluded. India also buys weapons from Israel.

India buys around 80 percent of its oil from Iran. In 2018, India took over part of the port of Chabahar in Iran.

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited India in February 2018, it took a whole week before he could meet Prime Minister Modi or any other high-ranking government representative. The backdrop was India’s anger that Canada put a Sikh extremist on the invitation list for an official dinner with Trudeau in Bombay (Mumbai). The Sikh had previously been a member of a banned separatist group and sentenced to 20 years in prison in Canada for attempted murder of an Indian prime minister in Canada in 1986. The man was later removed from the invitation list by Canada. In India there is a widespread belief that Trudeau is too friendly towards Sikh separatists. About half a million Sikhs live in Canada.

Relations with France are good. When French President Macron visited India in March 2018, the two countries signed a comprehensive security agreement for the Indian Ocean region. The purpose was to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region. The agreement means that India and France will open their naval bases in the region for each other’s naval battleships. The two countries also signed an agreement on French technical support for the construction of a nuclear power plant in Jaitapur, Maharashtra. Macron also promised increased aid for India’s ambitious investment in solar power.

India has had a strained relationship with Myanmar (formerly Burma) due to the fact that Indian rebels in the Northeast are crossing the border into the neighboring country and seeking refuge there. In recent years, however, India has approached Myanmar which is rich in minerals. India educates Myanmar judges and assists in upgrading the port of Sittwe in Rakhine.

Regional and international organizations

India belongs to the so-called Brics countries, which also include Russia, China, Brazil and South Africa. Brics has its own development bank (New Development Bank, NDB), which will be a competitor to the World Bank and the IMF.

An expression of India’s quest for cooperation with its neighbors is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), which was formed in 1985. Members include India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. However, over the years, Saarc’s operations have been hampered by the India-Pakistan conflict.

Another regional cooperation organization is Bimstec (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation). Together with Pakistan, India 2017 joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) regional cooperation organization.


The Indian Army is one of the largest in the world, much because of the situation in Kashmir. In recent decades, India has been investing in a major upgrading of the armed forces, which is now relatively modern and has an increased focus on and equipment to fight terrorism. India is the world’s second largest arms importer after Saudi Arabia and accounts for close to a tenth of purchases.

The military service is voluntary, although the constitution says that all citizens have a duty to apply for military service if they are called.

In 2015, India and the United States signed a 10-year framework agreement for defense cooperation. The two countries will, among other things, be assisted in developing and manufacturing defense equipment and technology.

In November 2017, India had 1.2 million men in the army, just over 58,000 men in the Navy and just over 127,000 men in the Air Force. The coastguard was made up of almost 10,000 men. There were more than 1.1 million people in the reserve. The semi-military forces consisted of 1.6 million people, of which just over 250,000 were found in a Border Security Force in Jammu and Kashmir.

India has a military unit on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to guard the country’s interests as far as the Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia.

READING TIP – read more about India in UI’s web magazine The Foreign
Magazine: Old frontier behind increased tension India-China (2020-06-17)

About our sources


Army: 1 200 000 men (2017)

The air Force: 127,200 people (2017)

The fleet: 58 350 men (2017)

Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 2.5 percent (2017)

Military spending’s share of the state budget: 9.1 percent (2017)