Thursday, 27 September 2007

From non-alignment to superalignment

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th Sept 07

More than any other democracy, India’s government plays a delicate balancing game in shaping its external relationships. The pitfalls before New Delhi have been highlighted recently, first in the domestic opposition to the US-India nuclear deal and, this month, over Exercise Malabar, a massive naval war-game in the Bay of Bengal. While the Indian Navy manoeuvred alongside its US, Japanese, Australian and Singaporean counterparts, our communists drove along the coast, educating the proletariat about American Imperialism and hurling invectives at the warships, separated from them by some 800 miles of water.

The day after Malabar concluded, Indian and Russian paratroopers began an elaborate, ten-day, counter-terrorism exercise in Pskov, Russia. Simultaneously, off the coast of Somalia, the Indian Navy began an annual training routine with French warships. Last week, army Special Forces began a 24-day exercise, dubbed Himalayan Warrior, alongside 150 British Royal Marines in the high plateau of Ladakh. This November, Indian warships will exercise with the People’s Liberation Army’s fleet in the East China Sea.

This military engagement with each of the world’s important powers reflects the enormous changes in India’s foreign policy since Indira Gandhi’s days when India was non-aligned in name and a Soviet client in truth. Today, while nominally a member of the non-aligned club, India has embraced what can best be termed as “superalignment”, an even-handed cultivation of everyone who counts.

Rajiv Gandhi’s overtures to China and America, and Narasimha Rao’s agreement with China on border peace, were India’s first steps towards portfolio diversification. But superalignment really found traction after the 1998 nuclear tests. A short stint in the doghouse was talked into a “global partnership” with America. With the Moscow-Delhi axis alive and well, New Delhi also signed up with China for a strategic partnership in December 2005. Last December, Japan and India upgraded their relationship to a “strategic and global partnership.” There are similar strategic partnerships, differentiated only by adjectival prefixes, with some 20 countries, including Mongolia. India’s diplomatic dance, joke some of its diplomats, is increasingly tending to strategic promiscuity.

New Delhi’s many alliances reflect its domestic political preferences. The multiple strands of Indian opinion link up with constituencies across the globe. The Left parties have traditionally backed China; Britain, France and Japan find wide acceptance in the political centre, and nobody forgets Russia’s support during the Cold War. Even as the Left Front trashes the US, a Pew Global Attitudes poll last year found that 56% of all Indians, especially the young, support the USA. Only in Nigeria was there greater admiration for America.

Diplomatic superalignment also stems from India’s economic and commercial interests. The stability of India’s oil supplies and the interests of millions of expatriate workers demand good relations with the Gulf countries; simultaneously, India nurtures a growing arms relationship with Israel. America and Europe are India’s biggest foreign trade partners, even as trade with China catches up fast.

For India’s partners, these multiple relationships are often troublesome, for example Washington’s ire at New Delhi’s refusal to openly abandon Teheran. But, from their viewpoint, India’s attractions far outweigh its seeming capriciousness. A liberal, increasingly free-market democracy, a potential counter to China, a power that dominates the Indian Ocean sea routes, an economy growing at almost 10% per year, an investment opportunity for $150 billion in new infrastructure, the world’s biggest arms importer, soon to be the biggest buyer of nuclear power generating equipment; wherever one observes from, India is a desirable partner.

Superalignment, New Delhi believes, has yielded valuable diplomatic dividends. Near the top of India’s global agenda today is obtaining an exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group on the ban on nuclear trade. Not one country, not even China, seems willing to openly scuttle an exemption for India. That is also true for India’s other big project: permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

In the 1980s, Australia had led other South East Asian countries in a vocal campaign against India’s growing naval power, complaining that a two-aircraft carrier navy was beyond India’s legitimate needs. Today, with India’s navy far bigger and better equipped, and some $26 billion being spent on new warships, Canberra sheepishly calls that a closed chapter.

The Marxists are, therefore, incorrect in believing that India’s participation in exercises like Malabar would pull India into the US orbit, forcing it to play a role in “balancing China”. With so many benefits from superalignment, New Delhi would definitely not like too many eggs in just one basket. Even while joining the “quadrilateral initiative” (formed this year by adding India to the original “trilateral” grouping of democracies: US, Japan and Australia) New Delhi has been careful of Beijing’s sensitivity to what it sees as a potentially anti-China alliance.

When the “quadrilateral” proposed security consultations last May, New Delhi carefully noted Beijing’s immediate demarches to all four capitals, in which it sought to know the purpose behind the meeting. New Delhi agreed to participate only after addressing China’s concerns, when it was announced that there would be no fixed agenda. India has never joined a multilateral security grouping, even when Pakistan signed up with NATO’s regional cousins, CENTO and SEATO. New Delhi will be careful that the “quadrilateral initiative” remains free of security overtones.

A rising power that threatens practically nobody, India gets from superalignment a chain of strong relationships that leverage each other, while still retaining the bilateral space for reassurance, readjustment and reconciliation.

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