A deft balancing act

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Historically, India has maintained an equidistant relationship with geopolitical power blocs. India located itself at a safe centre in the ideological tug of war, often prompting other countries possessing similar political variables to join hands with India. This phenomenon was tried and tested during the Cold War period. During the Cold War, two blocs of power emerged to rebut the opposing ideology.

In 1949, the Capitalist bloc was unified under the leadership of the U.S. and formed the military alliance, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The opposing power was headed by Russia, which joined military and ideological forces and came together to form the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Both alliances started influencing the Third World, often through coercive measures to align with either of them. In a time of need, when standing tall with one’s voice was seemingly difficult, India took the reins of an alternative choice.

Along with Jawaharlal Nehru, Egyptian President Nasser, Yugoslav President Tito, Ghanaian President Nkrumah and Indonesian President Sukarno joined hands in forming an alliance of states that were formally not a part of either of the blocs. At the Bandung Conference of 1955, the Non-Aligned Movement or NAM materialised. The members took an oath to protect territorial integrity, uphold sovereignty, promote equality of all nations and emphasised noninterference. In the latter part of the century, the pertinence of NAM started dimming, thanks to recurring issues of coherence and cohesion, lack of unified decisions, divergence of opinion and action on nuclear policies and the persuasion to act on national motives.


The refusal to be pawned in international politics was loosened with Indira Gandhi establishing a favourable relationship with Russia. The disintegration of the USSR significantly affected India’s foreign policy and it desired to be a part of the Western-led global economy. In the unipolar order that followed, NAM lost further relevance owing to the group’s incapability to back its members in crises, as in the case of the Indo-Pak wars of 1965-71 when Egypt and Indonesia took sides with Pakistan.

Between the growing tensions, India became a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), a reactionary body to China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific. It joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as well, spearheaded by China. India aspires to an active role in global politics, still without aligning with any major power bloc. NAM, which was based on “strategic autonomy,” didn’t have an economic or technological focus, nor did it carry any mechanism for autonomy.

It merely had a name. After the developing stage of the post-colonial countries progressed, the ‘Third World’ is now in a position to afford to take a geostrategic stance. In 2001, the acronym “BRIC” was introduced by Jim O’Neill, an economist at Goldman Sachs, with his seminal report titled “Building Better Global Economic BRICs.” O’Neill presciently projected that Brazil, Russia, India, and China would ascend as the four most rapidly growing economies on the global stage in the ensuing decades. In 2006, the foreign ministers of these four nations initiated an informal diplomatic gathering, which was subsequently formalised into a summit in 2009.

The year 2010 marked a significant expansion of this consortium when South Africa joined, thereby transforming the acronym to “BRICS.” This year, on 24 August, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa announced the unified decision of the five-member group to add six members to the group, all from the Global South and including three West Asian nations, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two from Africa, Egypt and Ethiopia, and one from Latin America, Argentina. Back in 1975, at the peak of the oil crisis, five leading industrial nations sent their representatives to deliberate on matters of finance and the global economy.

Delegates from the United States, United Kingdom, France, West Germany, and Japan, attended the meeting to discuss the failure of the Bretton Woods system, the agreement on a comprehensive global economic strategy and steps to tackle global recession. In 1976, Canada joined the group and in 1981 the European Union (EU) was invited to make up the G-7. Russia becoming a member in 1997 had a positive implication for the world order. But in March 2014, pointing to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the G7 nations decided to keep the country out, straining any scope for continued cooperation. In 2019, India was invited to participate in the G7 summit when France was hosting the event.

Following this tradition, India was invited in the next four consecutive years by the respective host countries including the US, the UK, Germany and, in May 2023, Japan. India is seen as a valuable and potential contributor to the matured economies of the G7. India has an economy with a GDP of 3.74 trillion USD, larger than that of four G7 countries, Italy, France, United Kingdom and Canada, significant defence expenditure, fertile ground for foreign investment and is the most populous country in the world. India is the fastest-growing economy in Asia and its growth rate is expected to be over a whopping 6.6 per cent in 2024- 25, surpassing Japan and Germany by 2027. The IMF and the World Bank positively testify to these facts. India is at a crossroads, juggling alliances with other countries and more powerful economies.

What makes this step easier is the desire of other nations to have good relations with the country. External Affairs minister S Jaishankar said during GLOBESEC 2022 held at Bratislava, Slovakia: “I don’t accept that India has to join either the U.S. axis or China axis. We are one-fifth of the world’s population, fifth or sixth-largest economy in the world…we are entitled to weigh our own side.” India’s ambition of multipolarity and developing an Indo-centric collective growth of developing nations that can bridge the gap between the developed and the developing countries, confirms its motive to practise strategic autonomy.

India has good tie-ups with developing nations, including in Latin America and Africa. India and China are in a race to better their economies and lead a multipolar world order. India’s involvement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) gives the organisation space to act as a restrictive force that keeps it from escalating into a full-fledged antiWestern endeavour. An expanded BRICS is expected to dominate the world economy by 2050. Its new Development Bank’s backing helps India envision a positive change in the financial system and also in the areas of public health, social security, and sustainable development.

These overarching goals connect India’s engagement with countries other than China and Russia. India’s parallel participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), showcases its internationalist foreign policy. The Sino-Indian border issues moved India closer to the bosom of the Indo-Pacific countries. Apart from discussing climate change, technology, infrastructure, maritime possibilities and other research initiatives, Quad also does not restrict India from projecting itself as a security provider in the region. Japan has shown substantial interest in India’s international relations and trade and has joined India’s side against growing Chinese territorial aggression. Japan sees India as a potential partner in overcoming the Chinese threat and for promoting an open and free Indo-Pacific region.

Other countries of the G7 view India as a beacon that can withstand China in the IndoPacific, and hence all the G7 countries have bilateral and multilateral strategic partnerships with India. Italy and India have explored defence and security sectors to strengthen their relations and Italy coming out of BRI offers further hope. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, India became the channel for oil supplies for European countries who wanted to escape reliance on Russia. India was the largest supplier of refined fuel to Europe in April 2023. On 9 September, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu announced a joint corridor project termed the ‘largest cooperation project’ in history, on the sidelines of the G20 New Delhi summit.

The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor (IMEC) will boost the supply chains of the countries in the corridor, essentially countering China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In the Ukraine-Russia conflict, India’s meticulous balancing of foreign affairs has been on display. India does not project itself as an anti-West nation, and the country participates in the Western-dominated QUAD and G7. India has however not supported the Western sanctions on Russia and has kept the business lines of oil import intact to meet energy demands. Russia also supplies more than half of India’s military needs. India has been collaborating with the US too, strengthening mutual cooperation. The US is also India’s largest bilateral trading partner and is the top destination for Indian exports, standing at $78.5 billion in 2022-23. Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal expects the bilateral trade between the countries to reach $500-$600 billion by 2030, as opposed to $128.78 billion in FY 2023. India’s deft balancing act has drawn criticism, notably its position on China.

India’s lack of engagement in the Ukraine crisis raises concerns about its diplomatic stance as China and Russia get closer. India faces a tough challenge in achieving a balance between friendship and strategic autonomy in these evolving circumstances. In its efforts to reduce Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific, the United States may wonder how long it can put up with India’s customarily impartial position.

The decisions made by India in this geopolitical conundrum are of utmost importance because they might determine how the next global order will be shaped. India maintains its resolve in this dynamic environment by acting in its own best interests and with sound strategic judgement. It is a country that stubbornly holds the middle ground, without swinging in either direction. With this position, India can manoeuvre through the intricate web of international interactions while preserving its sovereignty and following its path to growth and wealth.

(The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for South Asian Studies, School of International Studies and Social Sciences, Pondicherry Central University.)