After its 1962 war with China, India woke up to a harsh reality. India’s non-aligned partners were reluctant openly to support or condemn China’s aggression in the Himalayas. Ironically, it was the West that readily offered India military aid upon request.
Previously, Indian policymakers were convinced that a carefully nurtured Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), founded in 1955, allowed India to punch above its weight, and would prove beneficial in rallying support when the need arose. India’s non-alignment policy was perceived as a success because it allowed New Delhi to benefit from different blocs, while remaining noncommittal to any particular side. This hope crumbled when it sought diplomatic support from its NAM partners and had to face the harsh consequences of having hardly any trustworthy set of friends in the aftermath of the 1962 debacle with China.
Alignment in a multipolar world
Fast-forward to 2019, and India has replaced the non-alignment policy with multi-alignment. The contours may be different but the underlying logic remains the same. Multi-alignment allows India “decisional autonomy,” potentially obviates the possibility of getting involved in unwanted conflicts of other powers, and provides flexibility to conduct ties with all crucial countries. In essence, India’s multi-alignment strategy aims to gain benefits from all sides while not siding prominently with any one.
The rise of China and the US desire to counterbalance it have revived India’s importance in the eyes of Washington since the mid-2000s. Since then, India has been relying on the belief that it remains indispensable to Washington. Naturally, New Delhi feels it can effectively strike a balance between all countries and maximize its benefits. If only international politics were so simple and other countries so naïve.
New Delhi has been trying to keep China, Russia and the US happy by incrementally offering some things to keep each power satisfied. This is exemplified in India’s “reset” with China since 2018, buying the S-400 missile defense system from Russia, and signing the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) and Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US. It all looked good in New Delhi’s calculations because it was convinced that it remains absolutely necessary in the United States’ worldview and in its strategy toward China. Undoubtedly, India is an important partner from the US point of view, but an America run by Donald Trump believes in transactional diplomacy, which India does not adhere to.
There is frustration in Washington that India’s infamous bureaucratic reluctance is getting in the way of translating the benefits of these foundational agreements (COMCASA and LEMOA) into practical cooperation. Also, President Trump has been frustrated not to see any forward movement on at least some trade items (the Harley-Davidson deal is critical for influencing election outcomes in a swing constituency like Wisconsin) and defense sales. Some in the US are unable to understand why India is dragging its feet on defense items, which it requires desperately for its own security needs. Perhaps the shape of the Indian economy also prevents New Delhi from signing up for any big-ticket deals.
Instead, India has responded in kind to US trade offensives, and defied its expectations periodically.
Events unraveling in recent months, whether in terms of losing influence on the issue of Afghanistan, the success of the summit between Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Trump, which many are keen to deny, are a response to India’s attempt at maximizing its benefits without offering something tangible in return.
This is not to argue that India should accept every American request. Instead, it is important to take calculated risks, especially in areas where mutual interests converge. This is important at a time when India’s economy is suffering, which is naturally dulling its attractiveness as an economic partner or a major power. Instead of not offering Washington anything substantial, New Delhi is only paving a complicated path for itself, which may be tough to reverse immediately.
A flawed partnership
It must be realized that while India may be a crucial partner for the US to counterbalance China in the Indo-Pacific region in the medium to long term, it needs Pakistan more dearly in the present context. Pakistan is the key to easing the United States’ early withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Islamabad’s cooperation may result in a personal success for Trump on the issue. Pakistan is willing to deliver (for now), considering its economic challenges and dire need for US aid and other economic incentives. In light of this mutuality, why would the two countries not cooperate, even if temporarily?
Here, India is clearly on the losing side. In the same vein, it is common knowledge that the India-China reset may eventually fragment after the honeymoon period is over. In the bargain, India’s relations with the US would become collateral damage.
The suddenness of the US policy reversal and deal-making in Afghanistan has rightly rattled India. The US should have engaged India with more consultations and displayed sensitivity for the security fallout of its designated “Major Defense Partner.” This is precisely the time when India and the US need to go the extra mile to work harder on sustaining their equation. Trump’s remarks on Kashmir were an important sign of the US losing patience with India. Trump may be volatile and rife with the ability to make controversial off-the-cuff-remarks, but some remarks need to be taken more seriously than others.
Ignoring the reasons for the Kashmir remarks and overlooking the downward movement in the trajectory of Indo-US relations will only prove harmful to India’s interests. If history is anything to go by, having a bunch of friends to talk to but none to rely upon will make India very lonely, especially when unstinted support is most needed.
Let us not relive the follies of non-alignment in the era of multi-alignment.