In this photo taken on February 15, 2021, warships from various countries participate in the multinational naval exercise Aman-21 in the Arabian Sea near the Pakistani port city of Karachi. Photo: AFP / Asif Hassan

Balance of power politics among like-minded countries seems to be the widely accepted arrangement in the international system, where clear lines between rival parties are made with little chance of cooperation between them.

The common idea among commentators and analysts of international affairs often centers on the inevitable power competition between the United States (and its allies and partners) and China, between members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia, or even between the broader coalition of democratic states and non-democratic states. 

However, what occurred during the recently concluded Pakistan-led Aman-21 naval exercise in the Arabian Sea showcased the often-taken-for-granted statement by the 19th-century British statesman Lord Palmerston: “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

The latest installment of the Aman exercise – held every two years since 2007 – under the slogan “Together for Peace” was held from February 11-16. The Pakistan-led Aman-21 exercise consisted of naval forces from 45 countries, including the US, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, Australia, Japan and Iran, in addition to several Arab, South and Southeast Asian, and African countries.

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What is important to note here is that India – the established Indian Ocean power – was significantly ostracized.

This astonishing display of cooperation in the military realm among key countries that have been generally assumed to pursue a strict path of power and ideological competition against one another raises several important questions about how we perceive international politics.

More so, the fact that India’s seemingly close strategic partners such as the US, Russia, Australia and Japan, which have been assumed to understand New Delhi’s sensitivities regarding Pakistan, willingly took part in the strategic exercise. This isolation India experienced clearly points toward a need for a reflection on, and recalibration of, its foreign policy.

At a time when the foundations of inter-state relations are dictated by uncertainty, India must strictly bank on multi-alignment and strategic autonomy as the fundamental pillars of its foreign policy.

According to Ian Hall, an international-relations professor in Australia, multi-alignment is characterized by “bids for membership of a range of established and new multilateral institutions and forums; the pursuit and management of informal and formal partnerships with multiple states in multiple issue areas; and what is termed, in what follows, normative hedging.”

Moreover, strategic autonomy is the ability of a country to pursue its national interests without being constricted by other states in any way.

As a rising great power, India has to accept that it has several varied priorities that may compel it to pave several varied paths. Issues such as developing its economy, maintaining the rules-based order, checking China’s assertiveness, securing the Indian Ocean Region, getting access to diverse energy markets, and enhancing strategic relations with a wide spectrum of countries to forward its global ambitions are just a handful of these priorities.

As a result, India must clearly demonstrate its effectiveness in maintaining strategic autonomy while forging multiple alignments. 

Accordingly, India must not put all its eggs in one strategic basket. Despite having rosy relations with the US and a formidable role in the Quad, India must practice restraint regarding how far it will play a role in these arrangements vis-à-vis its national interest. Similarly, India must continue to balance its relations with Russia or even Iran and Israel to the point of allowing it to achieve its strategic priorities. 

India’s global ambitions and interest in projecting power and influence throughout the continent must be compounded with a pragmatic foreign policy. India, being considered a normative power – a power to shape what is considered normal and acceptable – should not worry about upsetting its strategic partners on opposing sides by certain decisions it will have to make for its national interest.

India has already demonstrated itself as a responsible and peace-seeking major player in the international system regardless of its interest in maximizing power.  

In fact, even the US continues to prioritize its relations with Pakistan – a country known for its support of terror groups – over its national interest in Afghanistan, but still manages to adhere to its relations with India and other democratic countries.

This does not mean that US collaboration with Pakistan is directed toward undermining India or disregarding the rules-based order; instead, it simply means that the US knows the name of the game and prioritizes its national interest above anything else.

India must learn from this and always stand by its national interest through strictly adhering to multi-alignment and strategic autonomy. Aman-21 should serve as an eye-opener for India on the need to recalibrate its foreign policy.

Don McLain Gill

Don McLain Gill is a resident fellow at the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation (IDSC) and the director for South Asia and Southeast Asia at the Philippine-Middle East Studies Association (PMESA). He is also a geopolitical analyst and an author.