India’s Risky Neo-Nonalignment
Image Credit: Office of the Indian Prime Minister

India’s Risky Neo-Nonalignment


Two recent developments indicate that nonalignment – seemingly dead in the unipolar world that succeeded the collapse of the Soviet Union – is returning through the backdoor of India’s foreign policy.

First, an influential Indian think tank released a report titled “Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for the 21st Century.” Interestingly, the report recommends India pursue “strategic autonomy” as the cornerstone of its foreign policy strategy. Strategic autonomy, Cold War jargon that most nonaligned nations used in that era, in practical terms means a non-commitment to any particular power bloc in international politics. The panel that proposed the report included a number of senior foreign policy thinkers such as Ambassador Shyam Saran, the chief negotiator of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal, National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon and Lt. Gen. (rtd.) Prakash Menon.

A second sign came with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent state visit to South Korea, where he appeared to propose a foreign policy strategy of equidistance from both the United States and China. Articulating his reservations over containment of China, Singh declared that India would maintain friendly relations with both the U.S. and China. Surprisingly, the mantra of equidistance comes from a leader who essentially heralded the most decisive pro-U.S. shift in India’s foreign policy by signing the civilian nuclear deal.

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The reason for this shift isn’t clear. Is it based on nostalgia for the inertia of Nehruvian foreign policy? Or does it simply reflect a lack of a strategic culture in India?

The end of the Cold War induced a certain pragmatism in Indian foreign policy. The country’s leaders, under the constraints imposed by the international political order, made some key decisions, including the opening up of the economy, nuclear weapons tests and a reorienting of bilateral relations with U.S. and Israel.

However, as India sailed from the rough currents to the smooth waters of international politics, and even as it looked set to assume a new position at the global top table, somewhere along the line it appears to have gotten cold feet. The rise of China, and its strategic focus on containing Indian influence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, as well as the unresolved boundary dispute between the two nations, have encouraged policymakers in New Delhi to hedge against any imbalance of power that might be created as China continues to grow both economically and militarily.

Meanwhile, India finds itself in a domestic quagmire, wracked as it is with major corruption scandals, slowing economic growth and tense civil-military relations, all of which have hampered the efficient use of state resources that would allow India to stand up to China.

Yet repeating the mantra of nonalignment now makes no sense. India is on the cusp of becoming a major global power. During the Cold War, the country’s interests were best served playing one superpower off against the other, but no such need exists today. Indeed, as a major power in international politics, India’s position on critical security issues, including through membership of international institutions such as the Nuclear Suppliers Group, could be used to underpin India’s status.

During the Cold War, India was striving to claim ideological leadership in the international community. But India today faces a new reality. Its boundary dispute and tensions with China over the South China Sea and Indian Ocean mean the danger of confrontation between these two emerging giants is actually more likely than conflict between the U.S. and China. India needs to accept that its policies must change with the new world it finds itself inhabiting.

Unfortunately, democracies are often slow to gauge power trends and commit themselves to engaging long-term threats. This is clear in India’s approach to countering China. Ideologically, it’s tempting for India to claim that it stands for multilateralism and a multi-polar world. However, in the practical business of international politics, it surely knows that its climb up the global ladder is dependent in part on ties with the United States.

All this means that India must begin to look to its future and not to its foreign policy past. It’s important for the Indian leadership to understand that ideas can’t transcend reality, and they don’t necessarily transfer well from era to another. India must look to new sources of inspiration for crafting its foreign policy ideas and goals.

Yogesh Joshi is an M.Phil candidate at the Center for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. 

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