Stand By Me
Confident of its newfound economic prowess and growing military might, an emboldened India is in the throes of voicing a new foreign policy doctrine for the 21st century. As pragmatism overpowers a traditionally quixotic and nationalistic external outlook, the new direction of Indian foreign policy is encouraging and refreshing. Nevertheless, the lingering threat of a flawed and archaic non-alignment policy threatens to squander the world of opportunity that India is presented with today.
Conceived amidst the euphoria and idealism of India’s independence era, the doctrine of non-alignment has consistently been cited as the cornerstone of India’s outward vision. It dictates strict neutrality toward major foreign powers in the hopes of keeping India independent from extraneous influence and preaches the righteous position of refusing to form an alliance against another nation or bloc of nations. Such a theme found particular resonance during the onset of the Cold War with newly liberated colonies and remained a popular idea in the Third World until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even today, the notion of non-alignment is held in high regard by many influential Indian diplomatic officials and, in principle, the nation has perennially been committed to the policy. Recent world developments and power shifts have revitalized interest in the doctrine, which faced the prospect of irrelevance after the end of the Cold War.
As territorial rifts in the Asia-Pacific region stir up tensions between China and the United States, many wonder whether the coming decades will see a world not too different from that of the Cold War, defined in the terms of an American or Chinese tilt. A large number of foreign policy experts are becoming increasingly interested in the prospect of what would have seemed unimaginable to thinkers of the past two decades – the reemergence of a bipolar global framework. Whether such a world order is a permanent shift, or is even plausible, policymakers in many of the world’s regional power hubs, especially in India, are reconsidering the value of a cold war paradigm to analyze world events. Such a prospect, along with deepening Indo-US ties, has reignited the non-alignment imagination. The past year has witnessed several events highlighting that independence-era thinking remains à la mode in New Delhi. In January, an independent but prominent group of policy analysts comprised of recently retired military advisors and government officials across several departments released a strategic guideline titled “Non-Alignment 2.0,” which calls for a return to the founding pillars of India’s foreign policy doctrine over the coming decades. Although excruciatingly vague in terms of explicit objectives, one of the few things “Non-Alignment 2.0” made evident to observers was that a cross-section of eminent voices remains in favor of non-alignment. A few months after the release of the policy paper, non-alignment made headlines once again in August when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attended the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran. The continued attendance of Indian prime ministers at such summits – usually perfunctory gatherings of developing countries – even in the face of a challenging political climate at home demonstrates the commitment to the ideal of non-alignment at the very apex of the Indian government.
Although decision-makers at every level appear tempted to conduct India’s current and future foreign relations in accordance with its traditional values, they do so at great peril. They seem to have forgotten the lessons of history and the consequences of impractical policy. Indeed, if India’s post-independence narrative has taught observers anything, it is that the holier-than-thou approach of non-alignment is doomed to fail because it is a policy at loggerheads with geopolitical realities. The very nature of global diplomacy calls for negotiating deals and alliances of convenience to achieve external objectives and guarantee territorial security.
A vague fear of cozying up to larger foreign powers has always made India’s foreign policy unfaithful to India’s strategic interests, and often kept its hands tied. This concern was evident from the start of India’s experiment with the doctrine, as threats from neighboring Pakistan and China brought India into three armed conflicts in its firs two decades as an independent country. Particularly threatened by the Chinese invasion of 1962, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was forced to abandon the ideals of the Non-Aligned Movement he was credited with founding and issue a plea to the Kennedy administration for arms and diplomatic assistance. Although the aid was insufficient to salvage India’s faltering defenses, it highlighted the necessity of retaining a superpower patron for a country surrounded by hostile neighbors. Indeed, one could speculate that a more serious effort at a strategic partnership with the United States in the 1950s might have preempted the Chinese invasion in 1962 altogether (and perhaps, too, the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 that soon followed). Instead, the latter sounded the death knell for the transient US-India friendship, with the cessation of US aid to India as the conflict intensified. By replacing the diplomatic and military shield of a superpower with a moral ideology, India spoke loudly, but carried no big stick. Throughout the late 1960s, as this harsh reality won over romanticized visions of foreign policy, India again succumbed to the inevitable pressures of alignment. Bound by a shared hostility toward China and Pakistan, the Soviet Union emerged as a close partner and reliable arms supplier for India, and remained so until the very end of the Cold War.
With the advantages of investing in foreign alliances evident throughout history, a reorienting of India’s foreign policy away from non-alignment seems long overdue. Some in diplomatic circles seem to have reached this conclusion as well; for all the mention of “strategic autonomy” and neutrality in officialdom, discreet steps are increasingly being taken to foster advantageous ties with world powers and redress India’s emerging foreign policy concerns. The eulogizing of non-alignment notwithstanding, practice is beginning to diverge from principle. And Indian foreign policy, once the docile business of avoiding external entanglements, is now being reshaped into the sensible task of securing current and future interests by reaching out to influential world players.
Of the threats that have preoccupied Indian military analysts, China is the one that looms largest. The emergent power’s stunning economic and military rise has come at the cost of great insecurity for its neighbors, especially those that it has faced on the battlefield. For Indians, memories of the humiliating defeat of 1962 and lingering territorial disputes on two fronts continue to sow the seeds of suspicion and distrust. Consequently, China has also become the impetus for much of India’s recent push toward a strategically focused external policy. Over the past two decades, successive Indian governments have initiated and sustained links with East Asian nations like South Korea and Japan under a “Look East” policy. Although such interactions are innocuously passed off as maritime security and economic development measures, few doubt that these overtures are directed at countering China’s growing influence in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Nepal – India’s backyard. More spectacular than the Look East policy, India has forged unprecedentedly close ties with the United States and many European nations in the last ten years. The US-India relationship, acrimonious and hostile for nearly 35 years on account of Cold War tensions, is now being described by both sides as one of the most important partnerships of the 21st century, and rightly so.
For India, the advantages of a more robust relationship with the United States are numerous. The primary benefit, however, is a more secure posture toward China. In this regard, the United States can play a major security role in two arenas: fulfilling Indian defense needs as an arms acquisition partner and binding India with a broader coalition of Asian countries anxious about China’s rise. Aside from the obvious and overwhelming technological superiority of American weaponry, the pooling of Indian military resources with East Asian allies creates a formidable force that can ease the strains on India’s defense sector. Paradoxically, such a move might actually impose a degree of stability in Indo-Chinese ties; Chinese assertiveness over border territories coupled with Indian defense insecurities are key factors contributing to India’s mistrust of China, driving a wedge into relations. A sense of stability along the border provided by a US alignment might lessen paranoia over Chinese aggression in New Delhi, paving the way for a more mature relationship.
Cementing ties with the United States is clearly the optimal policy route for New Delhi as far as a defense strategy is concerned, but it is also an astute economic policy for a country whose position in global markets can be strengthened by access to sophisticated US-produced technologies. Crucially, a stronger partnership with the United States does not preclude any of the benefits of China’s dynamism, an economic engine one would have to be naïve to ignore. Despite the increased hostility of recent years, India’s trade with China, at over $70 billion annually and rising fast, is already at an all time high. As the Chinese experience with Japan, South Korea and even the United States shows, political or diplomatic differences need not negatively affect mutually beneficial trade or investment. Instead, these US allies find lucrative opportunities both in trade with China and research partnerships with American firms.
Unfortunately, however, a similar US-India vision remains a distant reality; despite a shift toward strategic calculus in Indian policy, the lingering non-alignment paradigm continues to inhibit New Delhi’s approach to a decisive pro-US tilt. American enthusiasm for expanding the nature of bilateral ties is starkly contrasted with an Indian wariness of engaging in a close relationship. Bound by rituals of the past, and an overly conservative attitude, New Delhi’s faceless bureaucratic machine seems unlikely and unwilling to make any grand or overt changes to its current policy toward the United States.
Opponents of stronger US-India ties first point out that aligning with the United States pressures India to make foreign policy concessions: Indian policy, they say, should be able to disregard the opinions of the West when it wishes, remaining neutral and autonomous. Observers should be quick to spot the unfeasibility of and hypocrisy in their non-alignment stand – a position that requires American sensitivity over Indian issues such as Kashmir and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty for partnership to be possible, but simultaneously doesn’t hesitate to take vociferously anti-Western standpoints on issues like Iran’s nuclear program or North Korean aggression. Secondly, and more understandably, non-alignment thinkers are afraid of provoking a Chinese response by bolstering US-India defense ties. However, they neglect to take into account that a US-India alliance offers much more promise of a stable India-China relationship than the alternative: prolonged and unyielding border talks that have consistently failed for over 40 years. US support not only brings greater leverage to India at the negotiating table, but makes any aggressive military move on China’s part far less attractive.
Due to these popular misconceptions, American enthusiasm for expanding the nature of bilateral ties has been met with an Indian wariness of engaging in a closer relationship. Bound by conservative attitudes and plagued by hesitation, New Delhi’s bureaucratic machinery seems unlikely and unwilling to advance any further beyond the gains it has already secured in the India-US relationship. This is made apparent not only by the sharp resurgence of Non-Alignment rhetoric, but also by a loss of momentum in India’s outreach to the United States. A forceful American thrust to augment engagement with India has been met with a disappointingly lukewarm response. Beginning in 2006, the United States initiated an unprecedented civilian nuclear agreement with India, tacitly acknowledging the country, which has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, as a legitimate nuclear power and paving the way for it to obtain nuclear resources and technology from the outside world.
President Obama furthered this approach, emphatically underscoring America’s commitment to partnership with India by endorsing the country’s bid for a permanent UNSC seat in his powerful 2009 address to the Indian parliament. His administration actively pushed defense cooperation and weapons sales, striking down several technology transfer restrictions that applied to India. And in current policy discourse, the United States continues to refer to India as a pivotal partner in its vision for security in the Asian continent. In response, the United States has received limited cooperation from the Indian diplomatic community. Far from pioneering any grand initiatives to bring the two countries together, Indian officials fail at the most basic level of maintaining ties, being unwilling to publically accommodate a number of America’s core interests and foreign policy objectives. As a country that holds influence over Iran, India has so far refused to condemn in strong terms the nuclear ambitions that Tehran harbors, merely parroting that Iran should remember its international obligations.
Worse yet for bilateral ties, skepticism of the United States is more prevalent in mainstream Indian society than it is in policy organs. American hostility towards India, which was manifest as recently as the late 1990s, looms large in the public’s memory, and media and political distrust towards the United States and the West continues. Even though the two largest national political parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress Party are cognizant of the potential of US-India cooperation, both are extremely hesitant of projecting a pro-US image. The nationalist BJP may have quietly initiated a pioneering rapprochement with the United States while it was in power in 2000 under the leadership of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but today, while in opposition, it has vehemently spoken out against numerous pro-US measures taken by the Congress-led government, accusing the government of betraying its nation. It has also orchestrated nation-wide demonstrations that banded together nearly half of all political representatives and threatened the stability of the government twice in four years; once to protest the passage of the Indo-US nuclear deal, and the second time to express anger at the government for granting permission to foreign retailers to enter Indian markets. The popularity of such protests is a clear indication that an openly pro-US stance is still a heavy liability in domestic politics. The Congress, for its part, criticized the BJP’s US policy during Vajpayee’s tenure, but adopted a position identical to that of the BJP after coming to power in 2004 under Singh: criticize pro-US policies when in opposition, but surreptitiously take advantage of them while in office.
The result of these political attitudes is an atmosphere inimical to building bridges between the United States and India in diplomacy, culture, politics and business. American businesses and investors are made to feel unwelcome and fettered with regulation in most Indian states. Though large arms acquisitions from the United States are increasing, they still lag behind imports from other destination, such as Russia, by a significant margin. And governments and policymakers fear making even the smallest commitments to the US-India bond in public, let alone taking necessary but monumental steps to secure further progress in ties. The result is that an opportunity to construct an exceptionally fruitful and positive relationship is being shamefully wasted.
As Indian policymakers search for an external message to guide their nation through a phase of incredible transformation, they must not shy away from resolute and foresighted action, even if it is politically unpopular. Of all the amendments that need to be made to foreign policy, expunging the harmful myth of non-alignment from the vocabulary of Indian diplomacy should be the starting point for today’s visionaries. Such ambitions cannot be achieved without a more astute policy toward the world’s most powerful nation. Purchasing more armaments from the West, allowing US corporations to more openly conduct business in India, and showing greater receptiveness (or at least greater diplomatic tact) on issues of American interest – such as Iran’s nuclear program – can all strengthen the US-India bond. For their part, American officials must understand the glacial pace at which the Indian bureaucracy moves if left to its own devices, and that Indian leaders’ domestic political calculus often makes assurances of friendship in diplomatic backrooms much easier than in a public forum. America can help expedite the process by selling itself more effectively to the new Indian middle class and its representatives, and creating a popular public image through soft power. Washington must underscore its position as an ally of India, a civilizational friend, and partner in security and prosperity. Intelligent advertising mixed with a bit of patience for a new generation of leaders might be enough to bring India and Indian society all the way down from its tall fence and create a lasting symbiotic alliance between the world’s largest democracies.