India’s Monroe Doctrine for Asia

Tug of war. Vector artwork depicts power struggle, competition, and opposition.

India’s Monroe Doctrine for Asia 

This would not be an exaggerated assertion that India sees itself as a regional hegemon, a ‘just leader’ and the sole dominant force in the Indian Ocean region. India has not only sped up its struggle to maintain its hegemony over the region, but has also started spreading its wings further to give its rival neighour, i.e. China, a tough time in all the regions and sub-regions of Asia, as well as in all the seas of Indian and Pacific oceans. This is where India’s Monroe Doctrine explains its attitude. Before we delve into details, it seems imperative to know as to what is Monroe Doctrine in itself.

What is Monroe Doctrine?

In 1823, the then-President of the United States, James Monroe, in his annual message to the Congress, claimed the whole Western Hemisphere as America’s exclusive zone of influence, and unleashed a kind of warning to the world, especially the Europeans, of not fostering any kind of future designs to colonize, subjugate or even interfere in any of the areas, particularly the Latin American states that erstwhile were colonies of Spain and Portugal. The policy was a kind of iron curtain and a sign of America’s protective strategy.

Though the Doctrine was a general strategy for all the aspiring European powers, Russian Czar is considered the immediate audience of President Monroe’s historical speech. It was mainly because the United States was highly concerned about Russia’s territorial ambitions in the northwest coast of North America — Russia had inspired concerns of imperialism, with Czar Alexander I claiming sovereignty over territory in the Pacific northwest and banning foreign ships, through Ukase of 1821, from approaching that coast. This was rejected by the US President and his Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. In this regard, Adams’ contribution in the Doctrine, besides President Monroe’s own, in formulating it into a complete, practicable concept was vital. This doctrine remained alive and effective during the eras of successive American governments in establishing, and then maintaining, America’s supremacy in the region and beyond, and has been no less than a cornerstone of US foreign policy for a long time.1_cqR4C9snfZjHwJtx5BM8Vw

The powerful Monroe Doctrine restrained the European nations from aggression or intervention in the Latin America despite the fact that the United States was still a young, relatively minor player on the world stage. It clearly did not have the military or naval power to back up its assertion of unilateral control over the Western Hemisphere, and Monroe’s bold policy statement was largely ignored outside US borders. That’s a major reason why this doctrine kept on transforming with the passage of time. The first major upgrade was done by President Grover Cleveland, to whom the doctrine proved no less than a sort of licence for justifying the US dominance over the Americas. Further, in 1904, the then-US president, Theodore Roosevelt, made great transformation giving a more aggressive aspect to it through his “Roosevelt Corollary” assuming for the US duties “to the exercise of an international police power” in the Western Hemisphere.

From the era of President Theodore Roosevelt to that of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States intervened repeatedly in the affairs of Latin America; for example, in the Caribbean. As a part of the Monroe Doctrine, a body “Organization of American States” was established that, along with individual states of the region, was being consulted for America’s Latin American policy from 1935 onwards. The threats of dire consequences made in the Doctrine were made credible through repeated reminders and pronouncements, “fiscal intervention in Santo Domingo in 1905,” and also through military build-up, particularly naval, as maritime prowess was considered fundamental to containing any European misadventure. With the changing US power dynamics, the Doctrine underwent various phases of change and upgrade to align it with the demands of the time, and was burnished into a theory of power politics and literally became ‘an Americanized version of the White Man’s Burden’.

The Monroe Doctrine has two main assumptions; one explicit (non-intervention) and the other implicit (expansion).

Now let’s apply this doctrine to the ongoing power politics between China and India.

Currently, these two main geopolitical competitors in Asia are involved in a zero-sum game and a perpetual struggle to expand their respective areas of influence. Also, they want their rivals to stay away (non-intervention) from their traditionally assumed regions of influence. The theoretical relevance of some of the pivotal facets of the two Asian competitors with MD is being discussed hereunder.

India has a long history of Monroveian methods in its foreign and defence policies. India’s historical doctrinal similarities with Monroe Doctrine may be discussed under two titles:

  1. Nehru Doctrine153df220-c1c4-11ea-8c85-9f30eae6654e_image_hires_171335

Not only the policy of current Indian government mirrors the Monroe Doctrine, Indian successive leaders, starting from first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, have also been the proponents of their own versions of Monroe Doctrine. PM Nehru embraced the Doctrine and warned the external powers that any misadventure towards Asia and any interference especially in India’s internal affairs would be considered an intrusion into India’s political system, which according to Nehru, would never be permitted or tolerated. Nehru declared his own formal doctrine on the lines of Monroe Doctrine. Nehru made special mention of Portuguese control of Goa, which is the basic cause behind invoking of Nehru Doctrine, and took it as an opportunity to give general policy statement for the future.

Not only theoretically, but also practically embracing Monroveian inspiration through Nehru’s vision, India got vacated its Goa area from Portuguese and intervened in Sri Lanka and Maldives. Though policy thinkers and opinion-makers in India, such as Bharat Karnad, support India’s expansionist aspirations; they criticize PM Nehru for keeping the Monroe Doctrine general by giving its Asian version rather than adopting it exclusively as India’s Monroe Doctrine.TheSeenAndTheUnseen_illustration30_1920X1080-1

In this regard, India’s proactive efforts and role to end protracted civil war in Sri Lanka, its authoritative policies towards other neighbours, e.g. Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan and the Maldives, evidence that India is employing Monroe Doctrine. It was perhaps the Monroveian principle which knitted India with many of its neighbours, keeping in view the threats of military aggression from China. In 1949, India entered into treaties with Sikkim and Bhutan, as well as with Nepal, in 1950, under the “Treaty of Peace and Friendship” which affirmed that “neither government shall tolerate any threat to the security of the other by a foreign aggressor. To deal with any such threat, the two governments shall consult each other and devise effective counter measures.”

  1. Indira Doctrine

Analysts believe that under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the country pursued a realist foreign policy and, in those years, ‘Indira Doctrine’ was formally introduced through political scientist Bhabani Sen Gupta to explain India’s regional aspirations. During that period, the British opted for a complete withdrawal from Indian Ocean. India had played a major role in the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971 and it also had tested, in 1974, a nuclear device that made Indian policymakers confident of their country’s new leadership role in the region.

According to the Indira Doctrine, “India will not tolerate external intervention in a conflict situation in any South Asian country if the intervention has any implicit or explicit anti-Indian implications. No South Asian government should, therefore, ask for external assistance with an anti-Indian bias from any country.” India announced that all the affairs of South Asia must be resolved bilaterally and no external player will be welcomed. All the countries were asked to seek any such help from regional players. Even afterwards, in 1987, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi inked an accord with Sri Lanka insisting that it must not offer its bases to any external power inimical to Indian interests.

Current Dynamics

Many security analysts view the Monroe Doctrine as functioning in India, and believe that the country’s “treaties/alliances, diplomacy and intelligence have played a crucial role in India’s strategic affairs”. This corroborates the claim that “India has always aspired to strategically dominate its neighbours in South Asia.” As far as the Indian Ocean is concerned, India sees it as its own lake and its current aspiration to dominate the IOR, its Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal was one of the most significant lessons it learnt from its time under the British rule. India’s recent geopolitical moves in Indian Ocean as well as in the Pacific under Quad testify the claims that it is expeditiously working to expand its area of influence.view-indias-faceoff-with-china-in-sikkim-is-a-sign-of-the-futureThe incumbent Indian government is in cahoots with the United States to play their collective part to contain China from geo-economic and geopolitical expansion so not to let it achieve a dominant global-power status where it may challenge the prevailing Western economic, political and security order. India’s declared strategy to become a Net Security Provider, primarily at the behest of the US, in the region instead of remaining defensive, is a clear proof of India being a proud Monroveian state.


The writer is a noted educationist and a visiting faculty in Department of International Relations, University of Okara. Email: 


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