Indian mythology is replete with instances of gods killing demons by slipping between the walls of rules. For example, say a demon may not be killed during the day or in the night, by a man or by an animal. The deity must then find an ingenious way to slip through the borders of those definitions. For instance, the demon Hiranyakashipu was killed by the god Vishnu who took a form of a half-lion, half-man (not a man, not an animal) and came out from a pillar (not in the room and not outside it) at dusk (not at day and not at night).
But how does this connect to the subject of India-NATO relations? Please bear me with, dear reader, and I will return to this comparison.
Signaling About Signaling
In recent months, the subject of India’s cooperation with NATO has seen growing interest. Some of the conversation was arguably sparked by an article penned in March by A. Wess Mitchell, a former U.S. diplomat, in which he makes a strong case that NATO should offer India partnership status (not full membership), and that New Delhi’s main benefits from such a relationship would be cooperation against China, as well as strategic signaling toward the same power. There does seem to be a lot of signaling going on: the United States and NATO are signaling to New Delhi that they may do more together, so that all of this could send a signal to Beijing.
Moreover, Mitchell announced that this is not just a hypothetical scenario he is proposing but a concrete solution being laid on the table. As he wrote: “When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders meet later this year, they will debate the recommendations from a group of experts (which I co-chaired) that advocates, among other things, extending a formal offer of partnership to India.”
In April, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appeared at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi. It was not hard to connect the dots of his remarks: Stoltenberg interchangeably stressed the need for a deeper dialogue between India and NATO and spoke of China in harsh words. Then, as if clarifying things further, he added: “There is a huge potential for NATO to work with India in different ways, learning from each other, sharing experiences without being part of an integrated military cooperation. There are many ways to work together, which doesn’t directly involve, I will say, military operations and missions.”
Reactions to this suggestion vary. To point to two extremes on the spectrum: Indian foreign policy expert C. Raja Mohan, known for his advocacy of stronger U.S.-India ties, wrote of the benefits of a “sustained dialogue between India and NATO” and an “institutionalized engagement with NATO.” On the other extreme was a comment by an Indian author A.G. Noorani who wrote of such benefits with great doubt in the Pakistani daily, Dawn.
Eating the Chinese Cake and Keeping the Russian One
India will not become a member of NATO (and isn’t seeking to) but that does not preclude other forms of close cooperation.
The first and most important point: New Delhi wants to retain its strategic autonomy. A formal NATO membership would tilt India more toward the West, making the country lose its balance in international relations and fall into a single alliance. New Delhi does not want this. Instead, it wants to remain on good terms with Russia, to continue with an independent policy toward third-party countries, to not be tied with alliance obligations toward the U.S. and the West, and probably to not even be seen by Beijing as a full ally of Washington. Of all these, ties with Russia could suffer most in the case of NATO membership.
Second, as long as Pakistan is a NATO partner country, Indian membership seems unlikely. There are, of course counterpoints to this assumption. Pakistan is just a partner country, and moreover NATO already contains among its formal members tense relationships (Greece and Turkey, for example). Furthermore, even assuming Pakistan’s NATO partnership status would be an irritant for India, it is arguably not prohibitive. After all, the two joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organization at the same time and China plays a leading role in that organization, too.
And then there’s this: Pakistan’s status as a NATO partner may not last that long (a point raised by Mitchell also). Pakistan’s historical relationship with the U.S. and NATO was informed by the policy of hammering together a chain of partners and organizations across Eurasia, primarily to counter Soviet influences. Since 2001, relations was based mostly on cooperation connected to U.S. and NATO involvement in the Afghanistan war. The first reason is but a historical memory now, and the second bond has been weakening with every passing year. Not only did U.S. policymakers belatedly discover that Islamabad was playing a double game (most clearly revealed by the dramatic unearthing of Osama bin Laden’s hiding place in Pakistan) but U.S. soldiers are in the process of complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. Even if a smaller force ultimately remains, there will be much less of a need to collaborate with Pakistan. This, in turn, may – though does not have to – lead to Pakistan losing its NATO partner status as well.
With the sidelining of the Pakistan question, India-NATO relations will be thus mainly left with a China/Russia dilemma. This dilemma is New Delhi’s own: India would like to have the cake and eat it too – to cooperate more with the U.S. against China but to retain its relations with Russia.
There Is Partnership Outside Partnership
The way forward appears to be building a very focused, carefully crafted partnership – so that India and NATO can actually proceed with meaningful cooperation against China and yet New Delhi’s diplomats will be able to explain in Moscow that no part of this project of this could be used against Russia. It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that Mitchell put emphasis on NATO’s partnerships being “highly customized arrangements,” signaling that it would be tailored to New Delhi’s needs. He also suggests that these could include joint military exercises, “defense planning for maritime contingencies” and technology sharing.
And while the former U.S. diplomat made his case too strongly and straightforwardly, he appears to be correct that India can be presented with a customized option. NATO has been developing such partnerships for quite a long time. As Wojciech Lorenz of the Polish Institute of International Affairs points out:
NATO offers these partners participation in about 1,500 projects in almost 40 areas, including military education, consultation, and exercises. Such a diverse offer makes it possible to adjust cooperation to the individual needs of the partner countries and the security interests of the Alliance.
Thus, engagement with NATO does not boil down to just the full membership option or the membership-partnership dichotomy. There are various aspects of cooperation, depths to it, and a few different formats through which it can be carried out. One of these, the NATO Partnership for Peace Program, even involves Russia. This suggests a customized relationship and a lot of diplomacy to back it could even save India from weakening its ties with Russia and, generally, from being perceived as a U.S. ally.
Strategic Autonomy From Definitions
However, this scenario rests on the assumption that India does have strategic autonomy in the first place, and that the country will be able to retain it. It appears that most Indian decision-makers and foreign policy experts would indeed prefer this to be true. There is nothing surprising about this: If you are a large and important country, why entangle yourself in an alliance as long as you have a chance to keep an independent foreign policy? But this is where Mitchell differs in opinion from many Indians. As he states: “India’s longstanding strategy of careful equidistancing, punctuated by tilts toward China and Russia, is not viable; inevitably, New Delhi will have to undertake more deliberate efforts to counter-balance the juggernaut of Chinese power.”
Only time will tell who was right (and I do not know who that will be). Indeed, even some Indian foreign policy experts point out that New Delhi is already institutionalizing its defense cooperation with the U.S. anyway, primarily by signing cooperation agreements. This is surely not an alliance but is it still equidistance if India’s defense collaboration with the U.S. surpasses its comparable relations with Russia, with China a clear motivating factor? The counterpoints – evidence of equidistance – are shrinking, too. Yes, India is still part of the SCO, for instance, but its cooperation there is becoming increasingly awkward and politically uncomfortable for New Delhi.
But most of all, India is keeping its options open because it has the power and position to do so. If New Delhi is not able to face a crisis of relations with China alone, it may be simply forced to ask the U.S. to help, suddenly accepting certain preconditions and thus lowering the banner of strategic autonomy. This is a scenario many may not wish to happen but which cannot be ruled out. In such a case, all the painstakingly careful and balanced efforts to build a customized relationship between India and NATO (and between India and the U.S.) were a waste of precious time. If that is the end result, a better course of action would have been to fully and publicly endorse a full NATO membership and a full alliance with the U.S., despite the diplomatic turbulence that would cause.
Like the mythological gods, India wants to vanquish the demon of geopolitics by slipping through the borders of definitions: by being in alliance with the U.S. but not being in alliance with the U.S. New Delhi is doing this by using the Quad, which is not an alliance, but may be an alliance. And in the future, India may extend the same policy to NATO, by partnering with it on various issues but not becoming a formal partner. But real life is not mythology. The next decades will show us if New Delhi is able to pull this stunt off.