Post-colonial Indian diplomacy has mostly pursued neutrality as policy. Since the Korean War to the current Russia-Ukraine conflict, India has avoided siding with any party.
From V K Krishna Menon in Jawaharlal Nehru’s government to T S Tirumurti in the current regime of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, most of India’s permanent representatives to the United Nations have, in different war situations, made cautious statements to highlight India’s non-aligned stand.
Condemning aggression by any country, India has on multiple occasions refrained from voting at the UN Security Council (UNSC) or the General Assembly (UNGA), opting for a risk-free approach.
India’s legacy of neutrality goes back to the core ideology of the NonAligned Movement (NAM). In the 1949 session of the Constituent Assembly of India, Nehru stated: “Our foreign policy is to stay away from the big blocs … to be friendly to all countries … not to join any alliance….”
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He added, “We will always instruct our representatives, first, to consider every question in the interest of India; secondly, to determine the merit of the matter … not to vote to please this power or that power.”
Historically, India has maintained a neutral stand in diverse political crises occurring around the world.
During the military coup in Myanmar in 2021 leading to the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Libya’s civil war in 2011, the Russia-Georgia armed conflict in 2008 that led to the breakaway of Georgia’s Abkhazia and Assyria, Kosovo’s secession from Serbia in the same year, the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict in 1992, the Iraq-Kuwait war in 1991, and the Korean War, India has remained neutral.
In current world politics a radical change is sweeping the constructs of international relations. Although the East-West rivalry had somewhat cooled off at the end of the Cold War, the last few years have borne witness to the world’s geopolitical axis tilting gradually from the West to East.
The unipolar world, with the US as the global supremo, is beginning to transform to a multipolar one. So a new cold war seems to be looming. Cracks in East-West relations are widening – US-EU alliance on the one hand, and the Russia-China entente on the other.
The US appears ruffled by the newly evolving Russia-China alliance. Having invaded several countries in the past, the United States’ power now seems to be on the wane. Its hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, leading to the Taliban takeover of the country, has impacted adversely on its global-cop image.
Russia and China, in a show of strength, rushed in to back the Taliban indirectly, which had only a few backers in their own region besides Pakistan. That sent out a message that a resurgent Russia and a rising China were keen to assert themselves on the global stage and fill the vacuum left by a weakened US.
India has remained silent in this power rally. It only worked toward eliciting from the Taliban assurances that they would not support any terrorist activity in South Asia, especially on Indian soil. Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said India would not take a stand on the Taliban issue, but instead “wait and watch.”
The Ukraine conflict
Similarly, in the ongoing Ukraine-Russia conflict, India has maintained a seemingly neutral position, three times abstaining from voting on a US-sponsored resolution against Russia at the UN.
Incidentally, although the US and the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization are on Ukraine’s side, both Washington and the broader West have largely left Ukraine to its own fate. Despite Russia’s military attack, the US and its allies have so far not offered a shield to Ukraine apart from declaring at the UN that Russia’s aggression is a violation of international law and imposing financial sanctions.
Russia has worked toward getting around the Western sanctions since its annexation of Crimea, as it forged strong trade ties with China over the past few years. Russia might struggle with the current sanctions during the initial period but is likely to weather the damage in the long run.
In order to become more self-sufficient, Russia has cut down on foreign investments in its economy, leaned toward de-dollarization, implemented a special “fortress economy” model and built up a massive reserve of foreign exchange.
To further its ties with China with an eye to strengthening Russia’s economy, President Vladimir Putin, at the opening of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China, signed a US$160 billion energy deal with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Even if Europe does not buy Russian oil and gas, big money from China will flow into Russia’s coffers. Conversely, the whole of Europe could be overwhelmed by a severe energy crisis.
As Russia and China raise toasts to their alliance, America remains on the back foot. The US is not on strong terms with its allies. Since Britain’s exit from the European union, the UK-US relations have been strained. Also, America’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan has upset its trans-Atlantic relations with a host of European allies.
Notwithstanding this fragile Western alliance, however, America, continues to retain its superpower status.
The hegemonic power of the US has turned Eastern Europe into a flashpoint as the US-led NATO positioned itself near Ukraine, which Russia considers a threat to its sovereignty. Putin’s aggression against Ukraine is, in effect, Russia confronting America or the West at large.
The China factor
While China is covertly backing Russia, as Xi Jinping administration is focused elsewhere too, with incursions on India’s Himalayan borders, and in the South China Sea. The possibility of another Indo-China conflict cannot be ruled out. If such a crisis occurs, India will need both the US and Russia by its side – military aid from the US and mediation by Russia. There is, therefore, little doubt that India will carefully calculate its diplomatic moves in the current order of world politics.
With eyes on its own concerns, India did not deviate from its neutral path in the latest Russia-Ukraine crisis. Urging all countries at the UN not to violate the legitimate security interest of any nation, Tirumurti stated that the recent developments were “deeply troubling” and that “immediate steps should be taken to end the violence and achieve lasting peace and stability.”
He maintained, “There is no solution at the cost of human lives…. It is a pity to give up diplomacy. We must go back to it.” Recalling the 2014-15 Minsk Agreement, Tirumurti said that “the agreement regarding Ukraine has not yet been implemented.”
Clearly, in the current scenario as in the past, India openly supporting or opposing any power bloc would tantamount to shooting itself in the foot.
In the current geopolitical order India views America as its strategic and democratic ally, although the US hasn’t been particularly India-savvy in the past.
During the Cold War, Nehru’s neutral foreign policy was disliked by the Americans. Henry F Grady, first US ambassador to India, told Nehru that the United States did not consider neutrality to be an acceptable position. As well, Washington sided with Islamabad after the end of the Cold War and continued to help Pakistan with money and weapons in its anti-India activities.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, India turned to the United States, and before the US-India relations could improve, there was another setback in when India backed away from supporting the United States in the 2005 nuclear deal.
Later, as Pakistan gradually veered toward China, the US reoriented its foreign policy in favor of India.
Russia, however, has maintained a consistently positive relationship with India since its independence from the British Empire. At different times, Russia has stood by India during political crises. That was true even prior to the Indo-Russian Friendship Treaty of 1971.
Since 1957, Russia has supported India in protecting its security and political position, exercising its veto power at the UN, more than once, on the Kashmir crisis and the Bangladesh war of independence, and helped build a robust Indian defense infrastructure. That the Indo-China conflict in Galwan and Doklam did not erupt into a full-fledged war can be attributed to Russia’s back-door intervention.
As India strives for permanent membership in the UNSC and entry to the Nuclear Suppliers Group, it is important for New Delhi to maintain, in equal measure, strategic relationships with both Washington and Moscow.
Also, China’s growing presence in South Asia is a headache for both the United States and India. In the Indo-Pacific region, India lags far behind China in terms of naval power. The United States, India’s co-member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue Group, can help in that regard.
In the current geopolitical scenario, any country can, at any moment, be involved in an aggression or war against an enemy. It then becomes necessary for the targeted nation to have a power bloc by its side. For India, targeted by China on the northeast and Pakistan on the northwest, it would be prudent to maintain its balance of power with both Russia and the US.
The equation of international relations around the world is changing rapidly. Therefore, in diplomacy, no one is a permanent friend or an eternal enemy; national interest that conforms to the Nehruvian model is the final word.
Disagreements are part of every bilateral equation. What matters is how the tensions of international relations can be ironed out and exploited for the benefit of one’s own country.