Harsh V. Pant
Foreign policy is a strange terrain where even the best-laid plans of nations have to be moulded and remoulded, constructed and deconstructed, depending on the plans of other actors. Much as nations would like to think that they have it all planned out, their friends and adversaries often end up surprising and challenging their long-held assumptions. Most foreign policy, as a result, ends up not what nations plan for themselves, but what others end up doing to them. Policymakers may feel that they are in the driving seat, but more often than not, it is external factors that shape the trajectory of nations. Structural realities transcend personal predilections and ideological preferences.
India’s strategic community is emotional about Russia and there are good reasons for that. When the West shunned and ostracized India, the Soviet Union stood by India through thick and thin, providing strategic cover to New Delhi’s foreign policy aspirations. Bilateral ties between the two nations have withstood the test of time.
Even after the demise of the Soviet Union, all Indian leaders since the end of the Cold War tried to maintain strong ties with Russia, hoping against hope that the Cold War romance could be rekindled. From Narasimha Rao to Narendra Modi, all invested in the relationship to ensure that the two nations could continue to work on areas of mutual interest.
Yet, the relationship has been on a downward spiral despite the best efforts of New Delhi. And it is primarily because of the choices that Russia has been making. Russia’s inability to emerge from its economic stasis, Tsarist ambitions on its periphery, cosying up to China, and more recently its aggression vis-à-vis Ukraine have all been exposing Russian strategic weaknesses and making a robust Russia-India partnership all the less likely. Many in the Indian strategic community wax eloquent about Russia’s strategic importance for India, but the relationship just refuses to take off for all the efforts being put in by Indian policymakers.
The India-US relationship, on the other hand, presents a striking contrast. Indian policymakers often talk about standing up to the US. It is a barometer of Indian strategic autonomy. Resisting American pressure, real or fictitious, is a badge of honour. Despite growing convergence with Washington ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Indian leadership has been wary of being seen as closely allied with the US. It took the threat of a prime ministerial resignation for Manmohan Singh’s party to rally behind him in support of the civil nuclear deal.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi did declare in 2016 that “the hesitations of history” were over when it came to India-US ties, and he has indeed managed to carve out a strong partnership with Washington. But even with this remarkable convergence, a formal alliance with the US remains out of the question. There is no political support within India for it.
Structural changes, however, have their own ways of manifesting themselves. Even as many in India would have preferred a more hands-off engagement with the US, the changing global and regional balance of power has produced a strategic reality that New Delhi has not been able to ignore. China’s rise and its aggression have made a strong India-US partnership a veritable necessity. The re-emergence of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and its sustained momentum is a testament to the strategic imperative for regional players in the Indo-Pacific to create mechanisms and instruments for managing power shifts in the region.
It is in this context that one must view the debate on India’s engagement with Nato. Recently, the US Senate’s India Caucus Co-Chairs, Mark Warner and John Cornyn declared that they would introduce legislation to give India ‘Nato plus five’ defence status. This came after the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recommended that the inclusion of India in Nato Plus would strengthen global security and deter Chinese aggression.
This saw a swift response from New Delhi, which declared that the “Nato template doesn’t apply to India.”
It is certainly true that at the moment any discussion on India’s engagement of any kind with Nato would be a non-starter. New Delhi doesn’t do military alliances goes the popular theology. And perhaps India will never enter one. But just as the US is recognizing the need to work with a partner like India which doesn’t fit the mould of a traditional treaty ally that Washington is used to dealing with, India should also recognize that in international relations, structural realities trump everything else.
If China continues with its assertive and aggressive foreign policy agenda vis-à-vis India, New Delhi’s options will have to evolve accordingly. Ideological rigidity has not served India well in the past and it is unlikely to help India in the future.
Modi’s visit to the US last week was an acknowledgement that for all the Indian strategic community’s desire to keep away from Washington, the pulls and pressures of foreign policy have ended up making the India-US partnership the most consequential one for India. And if this trend continues, many other shibboleths of the past will end up biting the dust. India’s ‘no’ to Nato may also be one of them.
The article was first published in Mint as Geopolitical realities may yet push India closer to Nato on June 29, 2023.
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