On July 20, Mr S Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs, affirmed at a virtual conference that India would not be joining any alliance in the future. This announcement came as a surprise when there were expectations of India gradually joining the US camp, as its standoff against China continued. Thus, speculation concerning Indian strategy to limit an assertive and aggressive China have resurfaced again.
Although the Minister has not said so, it can be inferred that India will limit and counter-balance China through an informal alliance. This inference is for the following reasons: 1. Key takeaways from the event’s discussion 2. Costs of a formal alliance and 3. A Probability of similar strategy being propagated by the US. The first takeaway from the discussion is with the significance of Nonalignment (NAM).
The Minister remarked that India had surpassed the era of NAM that was designed for a particular time and geopolitical landscape.
This was crucial for a bipolar and a post-war world, where postcolonial states could prevail out of cold war politics and stay neutral to attract cooperation and development from both the worlds.
But, in the current multipolar world the erstwhile colonies have undergone tremendous change, wherein most of their issues related to development and poverty have become a concern for domestic policies.
Besides, these states have also become significant actors at the international and regional level, safeguarding and extending their national interests. To this end, given its context and aspirations in the region and the globe, a policy of neutrality is not an appropriate and effective strategy for India, as China continues to adapt salami-slicing tactics and questions India’s status quo in the Indian Ocean and South Asia.
The second takeaway is concerned with the autonomy and independence of Indian foreign policy. Despite NAM triggering several debates of counterfactual history with the questions of “what if India had joined the US camp”? or “What if India was not part of the NAM”?, it still enjoys consensus over its role in shaping independence and autonomy of Indian foreign policy. Moreover, this legacy as Mr Jaishankar emphasised will be continued by India.
Since independence India has maintained autonomy in its foreign policy formulation, considering its national interests, civilisational and colonial history. Consequently, India has always opted to stay out of alliances.
By practising non-alignment, India can make its calculations and decisions based on national interests and capabilities, without any external pressure.
Meaning, India will have various policy options at its disposal considering its diplomatic, domestic and military capabilities.
It can either choose to internally balance against China by developing its military capabilities or externally balance by enhancing cooperation and coordination with other regional or global players. Or simply choose to negotiate, cooperate, or escalate and deescalate with China based on its interests and capabilities.
The third takeaway is that India should be articulating its national interests better and be willing to take risks. Mr Jaishankar emphasised that India is not as weak as it was in its early decades of independence. It has been a prominent player in recognising and solving contemporary international issues such as climate change and terrorism. So to enhance its global leverage, India has to exploit the international opportunities with risks, confidence and better articulation of national interests.
Thus indicating that if and when a rising and assertive China becomes an international issue, and if this issue coincides with Indian interests (as the current trend demonstrates), India would not hesitate in actively limiting China. However, considering its national interests and autonomy, India can neither stay neutral nor join an alliance.
Thus based on its independent behaviour and ability to take risks, India will be actively coordinating with others to tackle international issues such as China’s rise and assertiveness, as seen with its increasing coordination with QUAD members. In addition to these takeaways, the costs of a formal alliance will deter India from joining one.
Firstly, joining an alliance when the US is withdrawing from its responsibilities and thinning its security umbrella triggers uncertainty and puts fellow allies in a risky situation against a materially superior China. Furthermore, this anxiety could exacerbate with emerging global protectionism.
The international system is evolving into a multipolar world, where regional and middle powers such as Japan, Australia, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are playing a significant role in maintaining and shaping regional order and security. Thus, an alliance that will solely be dependent on the US’s leadership and dominance would be insufficient to limit China.
Similarly, India has also been a regional power maintaining its status quo in South Asia and the Indian Ocean by consistently persuading the influence of others. However, joining an alliance will erode Indian influence that has already been challenged with China’s growth and assertiveness.
Similarly, repercussions from China for joining an alliance have always bothered India. Shared and contested borders along with physical proximity might have unanticipated mutual disasters for both the countries, while other allies are relatively physically distant. Consequently, India had in the past not allowed Australia to join the QUAD joint naval exercises.
But with an informal alliance, India can avoid such major escalations by enhancing diplomatic pressure from fellow states and also keeping the door open to negotiations with China, depending on national interests and capabilities.
Finally, an inference of India favouring an informal alliance might seem unfeigned as the US has been hinting to limit China in a similar manner. On July 23, Mike Pompeo, the American Secretary of State, gave a speech asking the world to confront China.
He asserted all the democracies of the world should form a new alliance while stressing on the IndoPacific region. However, he also specified that since all states cannot challenge China similarly, they have to come to their understanding of limiting the former.
This statement comes in the light of a surging multipolar world, where the US is withdrawing from its global responsibilities, and regional powers are playing a prominent role in maintaining regional stability and security.
Thus, indicating that the democracies of the world should coordinate on limiting China based on their understandings and capabilities, as the US will not be able to dominate and dictate a formal alliance on its own.