In India, some foreign policy analysts declared non-alignment 2.0 to demonstrate the nation’s strategic autonomy. However, the slow but steady evolution of the India-US strategic partnership made the non-alignment strategy moribund for all practical purposes.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s five-hour visit to India and ten-year extension of a military agreement, among other things, raise questions over the strength of India-US strategic partnership.
One of the key aspects of India’s growing defence and security cooperation with the United States contains billions of dollars of US arms sales to India. Washington has never kept it a secret that it has desired to reduce the size of the Indian market for Russia; and simultaneously enlarge the scope of the market for US weapons manufacturers.
Part of the US strategy to contain the Russian weapons sale abroad has been the passage of a bill — CAATSA or Countering American Adversaries through Sanctions Act. The US has already imposed sanctions on Turkey and China under this Act. India has, however, defied the threat of the US sanctions and has gone ahead with purchase of S-400 air defence missiles from Russia.
The Trump Administration threatened but did not impose sanctions on India; and now the Biden Administration has not yet waived CAATSA provision for India, yet the recent Putin-Modi summit put the final stamp over the S400 missile deal and its delivery has begun.
One of the reasons that discouraged the US to transfer high-tech weapons to India during the Cold War was its apprehension that US technology could fall on the Soviet hands. After the Soviet collapse, Russia ceased to be perceived as a threat to the US security for years and Russia was not a factor that could complicate India-US strategic partnerships, including weapons and defence technology deals.
But the situation has changed again and a sort of mini-Cold War between Washington and Moscow has erupted in Eurasian landmass. Russian support to the Syrian regime, use of force against Georgia, annexation of Crimea, and now amassing a large number of troops along the Ukrainian border have come to symbolise the tumultuous years of the Cold War era.
Significantly, India is not caught between two strategic partners — the US and Russia — who are ostensibly indulged in a mini-Cold War. New Delhi neither advocates non-alignment nor displays anxiety about Russian disquiets over India-US strategic partnerships and US concerns over persistent arms purchases by India from its emerging adversary.
Rather, India has deftly handled its diplomacy to take hard decisions as per the merit of its engagements with major powers and has shown its strength and autonomy.
In fact, terms and conditions of India’s engagement with major powers have been changing over the decades. Non-alignment was a cardinal strategy of India’s relations with the major powers during a large part of the Cold War era.
When the Cold War ended, the non-aligned movement did not dismantle despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union, although the movement lost most of its steam. It was not given a decent burial and many leaders continued to profess non-alignment even under a unipolar world order for years.
In India, some foreign policy analysts declared non-alignment 2.0 to demonstrate India’s strategic autonomy. However, the slow but steady evolution of India-US strategic partnership since early years of the 21st century, particularly since US President Bill Clinton’s path-breaking India visit, made the non-alignment strategy moribund for all practical purposes.
The new trend is discernible. It can be called multi-alignment strategy to maximise national power and build strategic partnerships even with countries that have adversarial relationships, such as Russia and the US or China and the US or even Saudi Arabia and Iran.
India is thus an important pillar of Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and at the same time, it is a vital leg of the Russia-China-India Trilateral. The Quad aims to prevent China from establishing a hegemonic order in the Indo-Pacific. The R-C-I trilateral, on the other hand, seeks to promote a multilateral global order. And, significantly, India is opposed to militarisation of both the Trilateral and the Quadrilateral and articulates the need to create a multipolar global order and a non-hegemonic polycentric order in the Indo-Pacific.
Many wonder as to how India could be in the groupings, such as Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, BRICS, BASIC and several others along with China despite Chinese aggressiveness and confrontational military deployments along the Line of Actual Control.
Actually the era of Cold War-type enmity has ended and the dynamics of power plays and power configurations do not allow black or white approaches to relations with countries. The economic Cold War between China and the US that began under the Trump Administration has assumed other dimensions with Chinese military manoeuvres in the Taiwan Strait. Under the Biden Administration, the US and its allies have deployed naval power in the South China Sea and China has been openly threatening military action against Taiwan.
But the Sino-American confrontations have not prohibited the trade relations between the two countries. In fact, the trade between the US and China has increased in the midst of severe political and economic differences between them and pandemic related disruptions. President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping did hold a virtual summit and have tried to manage the relationship to prevent miscalculations that could lead to military confrontation.
Likewise, the United States and Russia, despite the Eurasian mini-Cold War, have cooperated on several other fronts, including space cooperation. They have extended arms control agreements; they are together in preventing further proliferation of nuclear weapons and they are in dialogue to manage the North Korean behaviour and Iranian civil nuclear programme.
In addition, members of military blocs, such as NATO and Washington’s Asian alliance partners too have found their relations more complex and do differ even on critical security issues. Britain is out of the European Union, yet continues to be an important NATO member. France is a NATO member, yet felt double-crossed when Australia, UK and the US struck a nuclear submarine deal with Australia and lost billions of dollars in the process.
Under these circumstances, India cannot allow any major power to dictate its engagements with other major powers. The traditional redlines drawn by erstwhile major powers for other countries have been erased in a fluid global order. Thus multi-alignment to promote national interest and certainly staying away from confrontational advances of other countries would suit India’s interests best.
Read another piece by the author titled Joe Biden-Xi Jinping summit: Good beginning, but virtual outcome in IMPRI insights.
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Read another piece by the author titled Quad Summit Spotlights Chinese Unilateralism in IMPRI insights.
Read another piece by the author titled Why US-China Ties Are Showing Signs of Thawing And What It Means For India in IMPRI insights.
About the Author:
Prof Chintamani Mahapatra is Professor of American Studies, School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi