The lure of an Asian century predicated on the two Asian civilizational powers and economic giants, India and China, has been subsumed by the Indo-Pacific era. And the shift in the United States’ grand strategy, now focused on managing China’s rise, is making all other stakeholders reorient their foreign policy directions. Moreover, while the prevailing debates on the United States’ relative decline and its ramifications for the world order have been apparent, Washington and its European allies’ response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has generated new tea leaves to be read. The anti-West China-Russia alliance has added new complexities to the China-U.S. great power rivalry, also putting the foreign policy paths of independent powers like India at a crossroads.
Although the newfound strategic tilt in India’s foreign policy toward the United States in particular, and the West in general, to manage China’s rise is unmistakable, New Delhi’s pursuit of dexterity and autonomy in its foreign policy choices is still overwhelmingly paramount. The world is neither bipolar nor unipolar, but is it truly multipolar amid the rising geopolitical rifts between the United States and China? India’s rising capabilities and growing voice in global affairs are significant, but its ability to shape the contours of the international system in its image remains circumscribed. In the face of such a hard reality, it is imperative to ask: What are the pros and cons of India’s multidirectional policy, a policy premised on the practice of strategic autonomy and abhorrence for strict alliances?
Do More Choices Mean No Friends?
Popular logic in international relations says that there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies, but only permanent interests. Making temporary friends to deal with temporary enemies is the primary business of the games that nations play. As India became independent with deficient material capabilities but high aspirations in the midst of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, New Delhi chose the path of non-alignment, with the intention to create more choices and traction in its foreign policy.
Forces of geopolitics seemed to have pushed New Delhi closer to Moscow, as the India-U.S. differences dipped to their nadir in the early 1970s amidst some sort of a triangular alliance between the United States, China, and Pakistan. Yet both Washington and New Delhi found reasons to come closer briefly during and after the 1962 India-China War. As the Cold War ended with the demise of the Soviet Union, New Delhi had to reorient its economic and political ties with Washington while maintaining its defense relations with Moscow. In the 21st century, as the specter of China’s rise became a reality to reckon with, New Delhi found itself in a new strategic environment, which gave economic reasons for building an Asian century with China, but security reasons to see a new partnership with the United States as a means to deal with a proximate power like China.
Limits of India’s Balancing Act
Despite a growing adversarial relationship with China, India’s foreign policy still finds prudence in not embracing the United States completely. Moreover, India’s dependence on Russia for a majority of its military hardware is well known. Although, over the years, the United States has shown more willingness than ever before to collaborate with India in order to diversify New Delhi’s sources of military equipment, and despite India embarking on its own domestic defense production, the relationship with Russia, in this sector, cannot be altered overnight.
India likes to set the terms of its engagement with foreign powers. Still, the inherent power asymmetry against India in the U.S.-India-China triangular dynamics cannot be discounted in crafting India’s foreign policy strategy. Moreover, the pursuit of a multipolar Asia has been under constant threat, due to China’s growing expansionist and aggressive behavior, directly affecting peace and stability not only on India’s land borders but increasingly in India’s maritime space as well.
The idea of a united Asia rising together, while enticing on paper, has very little currency in realpolitik. Competition for influence and power within the region and beyond plays out in the context of great power rivalry, and the one between the United States and China is not only getting more confrontational but also more comprehensive — ranging from contentious territorial issues in the Indo-Pacific and trade wars to a growing competition over new technologies. That New Delhi has to deal with China’s growing national power, particularly in its vicinity, is a hard truth. Despite diplomatic niceties and all bilateral initiatives to set strategic guardrails, the China-India relationship has a tendency to hit new lows from optical illusions of high optimism.
History tells us that India’s balancing act and practice of strategic autonomy have provided the flexibility of choices. Still, such an approach has often hit limitations when faced with high-tone geopolitical tensions. In times of war and crises, when India needs capability and political support, India has had to cross its foreign policy thresholds and find pragmatic routes to seeking support from one of the great powers.
Indeed, India’s multidirectional foreign policy is not a manifestation of confusion, but rather a way of responding to global forces of competition and cooperation often beyond its control. Such an approach serves well in times of regulated great power behavior and a less volatile neighborhood. However, as the global rivalry between the United States acquires a more confrontational streak, Russia’s fractured relationship with the West takes a nosedive with its invasion of Ukraine, and India’s own fractured relationship with China acquires more uncertainty, India’s foreign policy premised on maintaining autonomy and leveraging choices by avoiding strict alliances will go through a test of fire.
As India attempts to take its defense preparedness and deterrent capabilities against China to the next level, can India avoid going too close to the United States and its allies? In the Soviet Union-U.S. great power rivalry, neither of the two powers had any fundamental dispute with India, but in the case of the China-U.S. dynamic, it would be naïve to ignore the reality that China not only claims Indian territory, but repeatedly commits aggressive acts. Moreover, on global platforms, Beijing stands against many of India’s national security concerns and national objectives. Therefore, in the absence of a mathematical formula to show India’s path to glory in the international system, New Delhi needs to constantly reorient and recalibrate its foreign policy strategy to navigate the uncertain winds of geopolitics.