India: Steadfastly Non-Aligned

by | October 18, 2021

Earlier this year, during a visit to India, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described the formalization of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) between the US, Japan, India, and Australia as a ‘divisive and exclusivist’ apparatus, part of an American policy to undermine the historic Indo-Russian friendship. Lavrov’s remarks have touched off the latest round of debates in a long-running discussion about India’s foreign policy and, in particular, its history of ‘non-alignment’. It is a discussion well worth following, as India asserts itself as a significant economic and military power in Asia, the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Lavrov’s trip was not for nothing. On the sidelines of his visit, Russia likely secured a multi-billion-dollar deal, selling India AK-203 rifles and pitching for additional S-400 air defense systems and possibly the T-14 Armata tanks. Lavrov’s visit was preceded by that of the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who arrived to forge a stronger strategic alliance with India, including closer military cooperation and interoperability between the armed forces. Austin also stressed the growing threat to the global order from an evolving Russia-China nexus. Commercial interests were also in play. In the background, the US may have secured a multi-billion-dollar deal for additional P-8I Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft and MQ-9B Predator drones.      

Earlier, of its own accord, India chaired the 19th Council of Heads of Governments (CHG) at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The Indian navy also participated in QUAD exercises along with the US and Japan, while expanding the ‘Malabar’ exercise to include the Australian navy. Those engagements sent a clear message to China regarding its intrusions into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the South China Sea. Meanwhile, India has rebuffed offers from Russia and the US and purchased military aircraft from France’s Dassault. India has also engaged in purchase negotiations with the UK to manufacture 110 KN jet engines and with Japan on naval aircraft. 

In short, India has engaged with all major powers without prejudice, contrary to the view that it is on the way to full-fledged membership of the US military alliance system. India has not shunned the Nehruvian remnant of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) completely; it continues that foreign policy tradition for its own advantage. An unapologetic independence in policy decisions and defense procurements is being touted as ‘Strategic Autonomy’ in New Delhi’s policy circles. The 10 Bandung Principals of the NAM that were promulgated in 1955 still hold relevance in India’s modern foreign policy under the Modi government. 

India’s reluctance to commit to anyone power, while retaining security and military links with many, remains a policy cornerstone. But one thing has changed. India has come out of its shell of passivity and is showing its leadership in in various ways, including hard or soft power projection and in forging global alliances. India sees such alliances as strategic, not militaristic, and as means to an end. For India, a complex web of relationships serves a strategic hedge superior to putting all its foreign policy eggs in one basket. 

Under Modi, India’s foreign policy can be defined as NAM 2.0, a philosophy that emerged in 2012 under the influence of eminent analysts such as Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Rajiv Kumar, and former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, among others. The guiding principle is that NAM has given India flexibility to pursue an independent foreign policy versus all major powers while drifting towards and away from influence centers whenever necessary. Via NAM 2.0, India seeks a ‘swing-state’ role in international affairs, one that enhances is importance in global matters.    

That differs from NAM 1.0. Under Nehru’s non-alignment approach, India consciously strove not to associate with either the US or the Soviet Union, and to peacefully co-exist with other regional powers, most notably China. Nehru built India’s China strategy on five principles of co-existence, also known as ‘The Panchsheel’. Among these five principles, mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, along with mutual non-aggression, were the bedrocks of India-China relations. 

The China-India War of 1962 shattered India’s trust in China. Despite thriving trade between them, levels of mistrust between India and China remain high, particularly over disputed border territory. China remains India’s most sensitive foreign policy challenge. 

At various times during the past half century, India has sought closer relations with other powers, above all with Soviet Union (Russia). Nevertheless, Indian policymakers now see merit in the revival of NAM, albeit in an updated form. 

Above all, the re-engineering of NAM 2.0 is China-focused. It gives India the confidence to use shifting relationships—even alliances—to boost its standing with all powers, but most importantly with China. Yet given the growing superpower rivalry emerging between China and the US, geopolitics imply some drift by India toward the US. Perhaps for that reason, India will maintain good ties with Russia. As a matter of policy, the implication is that India will not be a crusader for democracy and human rights. 

The ball is also with the US. The new US alliance with Australia and the UK on submarine deployment will be a regional focus of the US, over QUAD. Yet if the US remains sensitive to Indian concerns, it is plausible that NAM 2.0 might give way to closer ties between India and the US. But if the US does not grasp the changing dynamics of Indian foreign policy, and the history behind them, it risks alienating a key potential strategic partner in an increasingly important geopolitical corridor.

Filed Under: Economics . Politics

About the Author

Karan Mehrishi is an India economics commentator. He is the author of the political economy book, 'The India Collective: What India is really all about' and the forthcoming book, 'The Making of Monetary Policy in India: Imagining the Future'. His work has been published in Nikkei Asia, Forbes, HT Mint and The Diplomat, among others. Karan has nearly 1.5 decades of experience in covering the Indian economy and holds an M.A. from Columbia University, New York.

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