by Ajai Shukla
The Wall Street Journal, Asia: 18th Sept 2007
India’s nonaligned movement of the 1960s and ’70s is giving way to a new kind of foreign policy school: “superalignment.” Unusually, this strategy relies upon strong bilateral relationships with all global and regional powers—even those whose relations with India may be troublesome in many ways. Each relationship is leveraged by the combined weight of the others. While this approach can be uncomfortable for India’s partners, so far, it’s working largely to New Delhi’s advantage.
To see superalignment in action, look no further than India’s recent military ventures. This month, India joined the United States, Japan, Australia and Singapore in naval warfare games in the Indian Ocean. The day after the drill, dubbed Exercise Malabar, concluded, Indian and Russian paratroopers began an elaborate, 10-day counterterrorism exercise in Pskov, Russia. In November, Indian troops will exercise with the People’s Liberation Army in Chengdu, China, and its warships will exercise with China’s fleet in the South China Sea. Over the last two years, the Indian Navy has wargamed with 20 navies.
Superalignment may have had its genesis in the early 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi’s administration started warming up ties with the U.S. after decades of frosty relations, and de-escalated tensions on the border with China after two decades of armed standoff. This was the beginning of foreign policy balance, ending a lopsided diplomatic dependence on Big Brother in Moscow.
But the policy really found its footing after India’s 1998 nuclear tests cooled New Delhi’s warming ties with the West. Alongside its traditional treaty partner, Russia, New Delhi warmed to China enough to sign up for a strategic partnership in December 2005. Last December, Japan and India up- graded their relationship to a “strategic and global partnership.” The U.S.-India relationship is back on, too. India’s diplomatic dance, joke some of its diplomats, is increasingly tending to strategic promiscuity.
These alliances largely reflect India’s domestic political preferences. The current ruling Congress Party coalition and its allies on the left, are a disparate group, encompassing a wide set of views. The left parties have traditionally backed China; the political center holds Japan, Britain and France in high regard, and no one forgets Russia’s support during the Cold War. Much of the younger generation supports closer relations with the U.S.—a fact all parties have to acknowledge.
India’s economic and commercial interests also naturally necessitate a wide range of diplomatic relationships. The stability of India’s oil supplies and the interests of millions of expatriate workers demand good relations with the Arab states, nurtured alongside a growing arms relationship with Israel. The U.S. and Europe are India’s biggest export markets, even as trade with China catches up fast. India is an observer in the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but also seeks to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, in which the U.S. participates.
India’s partners tolerate superalignment, in part, because of the country’s strategic location. A fast-growing alternative power in a region where China’s influence is growing, India dominates sea lanes that carry much of the world’s trade and energy flows. The Andaman and Nicobar chain, India’s island possessions in the Bay of Bengal, sit astride the 10 Degree Channel, which funnels more than 60,000 ships yearly into the Strait of Malacca. A newly established Indian military command, with a complement of fighter aircraft, warships and amphibious troops, has transformed this archipelago into a base from which forces can quickly counter any threat to this global shipping highway.
India is also an increasingly important economy, to which its allies want access. Growing at over 10% a year, India, like China, is seen as Asia’s “new tiger.” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says that India needs foreign investment of about $150 billion over the next seven years in infrastructure alone. Already among the world’s biggest arms buyers, India will spend another $50 billion on foreign weaponry over the next five years. If the Nuclear Suppliers Group gives its nod to a pending U.S.-India deal on nuclear cooperation, New Delhi will pay out an estimated $150 billion for nuclear reactors. That’s not small change.
New Delhi has worked to soothe tensions over its many and competing alliances through smart diplomacy. Within hours after the 2004 tsunami, for instance, the Indian Navy dispatched warships laden with supplies to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Maldives— despite commitments to relief efforts on its own shattered coastline. During the Israel-Lebanon conflict in July 2006, Indian warships mounted an international evacuation operation from Beirut, the only navy that carried hundreds of people to safety. Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson remarked earlier this year that the Indian Navy was the only “reliable” force from the Malacca Strait to the Red Sea.
That’s not to say that superalignment works perfectly all the time. India’s policymakers walk a fine line to balance their partners’ competing interests. Since 2003, New Delhi has chosen not to join the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative, a treaty that claims the right to interdict any transfers of banned weapons and technology. China, which opposes the program, is pleased; Washington is not. So Indian policy makers—many of whom share U.S. concerns about China and North Korea’s proliferation to Pakistan—decided to let the Indian navy participate informally.
Some “superalignment” tensions will never fully be solved, such as India’s juggling of its simultaneous friendship with Iran and the U.S. Despite relentless opposition from Washington, New Delhi continues to negotiate a natural gas pipeline from Iran to India; even while doing that, India has voted against Iran’s enrichment program in the U.N.
Nevertheless, New Delhi believes super- aligment has yielded valuable diplomatic dividends. No country, not even China, stands openly in the way of India’s most crucial global goals: obtaining an exemption from the Nuclear Suppliers Group to carry on nuclear trade, for example, or permanent membership of the U.N. Security Council.
Signals such as these suggest that India’s historical aversion to multilateral security groupings is unlikely to disappear anytime soon. New Delhi believes the growing U.S.-India partnership provides sufficient leverage against China without reinforcing it with a provocative quadrilateral security partnership. Superalignment seems here to stay.