Indian Strategic Autonomy: From Non-Alignment to Multi-Alignment ; By Cmde. Vijesh Kumar Garg, VSM (
Updated: Aug 31, 2022
Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons
India’s stand vis-a-vis Russia and the US has been hailed by many strategic experts as NAM 2.0. However, differing geopolitical realities such as the new Cold War, the rise of China, the dominance of energy security and the safety of the shipping lanes had made it imperative for Indian government to think beyond the traditional domain of non-alignment. The Indian government has reoriented the non-alignment into a more positive force known as multi-alignment to achieve India’s comprehensive security. Thus, the two policies are not on the same level playing field and are not synonymous. The test of both policies has come from China’s direction, first in 1962 and then in the 2020 Galwan Valley clashes. In order to understand the practicality of multi-alignment, one needs to flip back a few pages of history.
Moscow’s position in the 1962 war was neutrality, and it urged both sides to resolve their differences bilaterally and amicably. Only later, when Indian leadership pressed Russia for help, it reaffirmed its promise to supply MIG aircraft to India. When the American aid started pouring in, the Soviets fearing India’s tilt toward the US increased their assistance. Despite giving India a military aid of $65 million, the US was watchful of potential Indian aggression against Pakistan. The aid was accompanied by ‘tutoring’ about India’s “true friends”. The US warned of “appropriate action both within and without the United Nations” if India initiated any open hostilities against Islamabad.
Further, the deceitful conduct of many Afro-Asian nations during the 1962 war, despite India’s commendable role in the 1950 Korean War and the 1956 Suez crisis, came as a rude shock for India. The Chinese aggression was not criticised, and India did not even gain their sympathies. Only the then United Arab Republic and Israel supported India’s position and supplied arms at the request of India. The policy did not fail India; instead, the over expectations did. There was no balance of interests. The test of non-alignment proved that it is not the intentions that are a deciding factor; instead, pragmatism and realism should be the crucial determinants of any foreign and security policy.
Indian leadership today has successfully grasped the foundation of NAM along with its constraints. It has steered India towards a multi alignment policy. The country is no longer chained by “you are either with us or against us” geopolitics. Consequently, during the Galwan Valley clashes, the Russian stand was more or less the same with its focus on ‘neutrality’ and the US to limit China’s influence in the South and East Asian region stood by India. However, despite its strategic alliance with China, Russia could not do anything much to appease Beijing.
The Ukrainian conflict further tested the limits of India’s multi-alignment policy. Russia and the US grapple for India’s positive overtures towards themselves. Moscow’s appreciation of India’s current foreign policy and the statement of Dalip Singh that Russia would do little in case of a Chinese belligerency speak volumes of the competition between the two for India’s geopolitical convergences. The acceptance by the US at the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue that Indo-Russo ties developed when the US was unable to be its partner ensures that the Indian interests are now formally acknowledged. The triangular dynamics of Russia, the US and India have been reversed in India’s favour.
Russia’s actions in Ukraine have attracted economic sanctions. Despite its belligerency against India, China is hesitant to defy the sanctions openly. Moscow looks towards India for its sale of energy resources such as oil. The fact that Germany and other nations cannot immediately halt their energy trade with Russia is indicative of the primacy of national interests over the ideological or other ‘like mindedness’ factors. On the other hand, Washington has been militarily used by Pakistan — first as a ‘major non-NATO player’ through official arms supplies and second by its deceitful support to the Taliban. It has taken around sixty years for the US to truly understand the role of Pakistan in advocating terrorism and creating regional instabilities in South and Central Asia. The prior considerations of an alliance with Pakistan are no longer present, which has paved the way for a robust military trade apart from the US assurances of tactical support in case of Chinese aggression.
So, what are the possible gains from practising a multi-alignment policy?
First, a chance to convince Russia for gaining air basing rights in Ayni and Farkhor air bases in Tajikistan. India can strategically use the Russian leverage in its favour. From 2002-to 2010, India spent $70 million to renovate the bases under its Connect Central Asia policy. It will be a game-changer for the Indian armed forces in regular warfare and ensure that Pakistan cut short its proxy war against India.
Second, Russia would be unwilling to treat Pakistan as a ‘zipper of Pan Eurasian integration’, possibly nipping the blossoming Russo-Pak strategic proximity. A decreased geopolitical importance of Pakistan would surely benefit Russia, India and the US, for Islamic fundamentalism affects all the three powers, although in varying degrees. During the Galwan clashes, Russia asserted its position of non-interference; yet, India’s vote absenteeism ensured that at the right time, the Russians would not delay the spare parts supply for various fighter jets Su-30MKIs and MiG-29s, MiG29K and the T-90 battle tanks apart from the Kilo-class submarines. Russia has already started the delivery of the second squadron of the S-400 missile system. Finally, the new possibilities of low-cost energy trade and Russia’s precious vote in the UNSC can strengthen India’s position.
Thirdly the US, the waivers of purchase of Russian arms and spare parts along with oil ensure the continuation of India’s strategic autonomy. The US has further verbally committed itself to stand by India in case of Chinese aggression. Both the countries aim for joint development and production of hi-tech weapons under the bilateral Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI). The government of India and the people are very mindful that both the U.S. and Russia can only provide military support and assure positive overtures in the UNSC. The Ukraine conflict teaches the world the biggest military lesson that a nation has to fight its wars. If imposed on the country, the war has to be fought by the Indians themselves.
Moreover, Indian leadership has broadly understood the dynamics of a war-based economy in international relations and has initiated several measures for boosting indigenous defence manufacturing, such as the specialised vehicles for infantry, aircraft, helicopters, UAVs etc. Additionally, the de-linking of internal issues from the international ones is another achievement of India’s current foreign policy. During NAM, India was assessed by the foreign governments concerning domestic issues. Instead, today, the world understands that abrogation of Article 370 and the Citizenship Amendment Act is altogether internal issues and is not open to international politics. Finally, Sino-Pak habitual disrespect to the bilateral agreements has been halted as the government can successfully communicate that only previously signed bilateral agreements would be considered while resolving the issues. Thus, the onus of respecting the LAC and LOC lies in China and Pakistan, respectively.
To conclude, Henry Kissinger once said, “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been” and the multi-alignment policy has proved just that.
(Commodore Vijesh Kumar Garg, VSM is Executive Director of the Chennai Centre for China Studies. The views expressed are personal.)