India: the warped history and geography of Non Alignment 2.0

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In the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Narasimha Rao government reworked India‘s dysfunctional economic and foreign policies to improve India’s abysmal terms of trade with the rest of the world. The latest global financial crisis seems to have shaken the United States‘ global dominance and is forcing India to revisit its post-Soviet foreign policy.

Choices Asian countries like India make in the near future will affect the chances of the emergence of an ‘Asian Concert’ that, in turn, will influence the United States’ ability to sustain its dominance by ‘rebalancing’ toward Asia. A second term for President Obama means that Asian countries may be compelled to respond to ‘rebalancing’ sooner rather than later. Obama’s first foreign tour since his re-election is a case in point. But as usual India is struggling to discover the right balance between strategic independence and alignment, and soft and hard powers. NonAlignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century, a document released in February 2012, is of interest in this context, as it is one of the most comprehensive contributions to the ongoing debate within India.

It discusses India’s strategic opportunities and attempts to outline India’s foreign and strategic policy over the next decade. While the authors, including well-known academics, retired government officials, journalists and industry representatives, ‘were administratively supported by the National Defence College and Centre for Policy Research’, the usual disclaimers apply. Written over a year, the document’s release coincided with the Chinese foreign minister’s visit to India and was attended by the current and past National Security Advisors, who mostly disagreed with the document. The document indeed does not throw much light on India’s foreign policy conundrum – ‘to enhance India’s strategic space and capacity for independent agency’. It largely restricts itself to presenting a bulleted list of what ought to be done. The authors were ‘driven by a sense of urgency… that we have a limited window of opportunity in which to seize our chances’ and the belief that ‘internal development will depend decisively on how effectively we manage our global opportunities’.

But they seem to be torn between nostalgia for India’s earlier non-alignment policy and the belief in India as a quintessentially nonaggressive country, and the reality of an emerging multipolar world, where hard choices are unavoidable and hard power counts. NonAlignment 2.0 then appears to be a convenient, if not ad hoc, solution to India’s foreign policy conundrum in the midst of the growing chances of confrontation between the US and China, as well as between Israel and Iran. Three aspects of this document – which limit its usefulness – are striking. First, the document is devoid of idealism, which, irrespective of its impracticality, could have helped build overarching structures to reconcile the otherwise irreconcilable claims upon foreign policy. Second, the discussion is not built upon any theoretical and strategic framework, given the ad hoc nature of the solutions presented in the document. Third, the document does not empirically substantiate the assumptions that inform the solutions.

The discussion essentially happens in a vacuum without engaging in parallel or preceding debates. The document does not even refer to the Non-Alignment Movement. Unsurprisingly, the authors neither explain why and in what ways the earlier non-alignment policy needs to be changed, nor do they explain in what respects NonAlignment 2.0 is different. Moreover, the authors think in largely non-institutional terms, which is surprising given their commitment to nonalignment that ideally entails multilateralism. This is evident from the absence of references to key organizations and blocs such as ASEAN, the EU and SAARC. With the exception of the IMF, UN and the G20, other international organizations are rarely, if ever, mentioned. And there is hardly any discussion on potential alternatives to the existing international organizations. A narrow geographical focus compounds the historical and institutional vacuum at the heart of NonAlignment 2.0. Global pretensions notwithstanding, the document largely focuses on China and Pakistan – the only countries that have sub-chapters devoted to them. Most references to the US are related to Pakistan, Afghanistan and China. Even Pakistan is thought of ‘as a subset of the larger strategic challenges posed by China’. SAARC members, excluding Pakistan and Afghanistan, are referred to merely seven times, of which five references are to Bangladesh.

And Indonesia, another important neighbor, and Japan, an important partner, attract less attention than Iran. In fact, Iran completely overshadows the Middle East in the document. Viewed alongside the lack of engagement with international institutions and India’s history, the skewed geographical focus of NonAlignment 2.0 suggests two things that should disturb those who, for some reasons, hope that India will step up and play a larger role in the emerging international order in Asia. Firstly, a significant section of the Indian strategic community continues to be obsessed with Pakistan and, increasingly, China and, hence, is oriented toward India’s northern land borders. Such an orientation is obsolete given India’s ever increasing marine footprint and growing economic and strategic engagement with countries across the world. Secondly, they also continue to be unable to imagine international institutional solutions to perennial regional military and diplomatic concerns.

For instance, NonAlignment 2.0 informs us that in future, Chinese attempts to escalate the China-India border conflict ought to be countered through ‘effective insurgency in the areas occupied by Chinese forces’. This is a solution from another age. But as veteran journalist BG Verghese pointed out, this document is important insofar as it challenges others to think aloud.

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