By Harsh V. Pant
In a move of great significance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not attending the 17th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, currently taking place in Venezuela’s Margarita Island. Instead, India is likely to be represented by vice-president Hamid Ansari on 17-18 September. NAM was founded in Belgrade in 1961 by Jawaharlal Nehru, Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, Egypt’s second president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, and Yugoslavia’s president, Josip Broz Tito. This will be only the second time an Indian prime minister will give the summit a miss since the country co-founded the movement. The only other case was of Charan Singh in 1979; he was then a caretaker prime minister.
Modi’s explicit shift away from the legacy of Nehru is a significant departure from the traditional foreign policy approach of New Delhi. Indian policymakers’ fixation with non-alignment has remained a central component of Indian identity in global politics that is manifest in continuities: Since independence in 1947, India has been in pursuit of strategic autonomy, a quest that in practice has led to semi-alliances fashioned under the cover of non-alignment and shaped by regional dynamics. In this setting, the rise of China now raises an interesting conundrum for Indian policymakers as New Delhi seeks to balance the benefits and risks of an increasingly assertive neighbour and a network of alliances with like-minded countries.
The decision to adopt non-alignment was not merely an idealistic dream of neutrality, but was, rather, based on a realistic assessment of India’s geopolitical situation. Nehru intended to give India room to manoeuvre according to its own interests rather than allowing it to become confined within the limitations of a Cold War alliance. Hindsight reveals the consequences of this approach. Although providing the benefits of flexibility, non-alignment gave way to an inward-looking foreign policy that gave real credence only to Pakistan as a threat.
Finding an effective grand strategy inevitably requires a balancing act. Non-alignment has been India’s answer to this challenge and an influential tenet of its foreign and security policy since its emergence from colonization. This approach has in the past enabled India to avoid many of the limitations and entanglements of formal alliances; but it has also left the country in the position of shaping policy in a reactive manner.
India is now at a crossroads. China’s rise and assertiveness as a regional and global power and the simultaneous rise of middle powers in the region mean that this balancing act is increasing in both complexity and importance, simultaneously. China’s growth presents great opportunities for positive engagement, but territorial disputes and a forward policy in the region raise concerns for New Delhi, particularly in the Indian Ocean and with Pakistan. The region itself is riddled with rivalries; a desire to balance China may push states together, while other issues divide them. The same applies on the global level as well, as noted by the unpredictability in Sino-US relations.
Indian policymakers have continued to place emphasis on strategic autonomy, a relic of non-alignment, as a means of mitigating the potential costs of a strategic partnership with the US. This balancing act is evident in relations with China: despite interest in cooperation with the US, India stands to benefit from an economic partnership with China and wishes to avoid antagonizing its more powerful neighbour by serving as the lynchpin of the US pivot to Asia, which the Chinese broadly perceive as a measure of containment. There is also lingering concern over US reliability, not only owing to its relationship with Pakistan but also because of its vulnerability to China during the financial crisis of 2008–09. Likewise, India has balanced its still strong defence relationship with Russia against its interests in cooperation with the US. New Delhi has sided with Russia, China and Iran in avoiding interference in Syria’s civil war and, despite voicing concern over the spread of the Islamic State network, has continued to promote a Syrian-led process of institution-building. Finally, there is a general concern in India that the country’s capabilities in the event of a conflict with Pakistan may be limited by over-reliance on the US, which continues to extend defence aid to Pakistan despite a drop after 2011.
Despite this hesitancy, India is facing a major shift in power dynamics with the rise of China that adds impetus to its pursuit of constructive relations with the US and America’s Asian allies. India stands to benefit from being more assertive. Already, cooperation with regional players is boosting its economy and defence capabilities, and as a pillar of the US pivot to Asia, India is finding support for an increased role as a regional power-broker. These growing partnerships do not need to bar engagement with China. Moreover, assertiveness in regional and global relations may actually carve out more room for India to pursue the strategic autonomy it values.
India’s rising global profile is reshaping New Delhi’s approach to its major partnerships in the changing global order. Though sections of the Indian establishment still want to reinvent non-alignment under ever new guises, New Delhi is showing signs of pursuing strategic autonomy separately from non-alignment under Modi. This separation is overdue in India’s foreign policy, and the country stands to benefit from leveraging partnerships rather than shunning them. Under the Modi government, India is charting new territory in its foreign policy, predicated on the belief that, rather than proclaiming non-alignment as an end in itself, India needs deeper engagement with its friends and partners if it is to develop leverage in its dealings with its adversaries and competitors. India is today well positioned to define its bilateral relationships on its own terms without ideological crutches.
Harsh V. Pant is professor at King’s College, London, and head of strategic studies at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
(This piece was appeared before the NAM Summit.) (Live Mint)
Gradually burying non-alignment
By Harsh V. Pant