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Can India “Go It Alone”?

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
October 19, 2011

India's BSF soldiers ride their camels in front of the Presidential Palace during the full-dress rehearsal for "Beating the Retreat" ceremony in New Delhi . (B. Mathur/ Courtesy Reuters)

India's BSF soldiers ride their camels in front of the Presidential Palace during the full-dress rehearsal for "Beating the Retreat" ceremony in New Delhi. (B. Mathur/Courtesy Reuters)

Liz’s post on India got me thinking about an article I published last year in Foreign Affairs on the fate of the U.S.-Indian partnership.

Liz bluntly titled her post, “India’s message to China and the United States: we’ll go it alone.” And that could mean two things:

(1)  India’s fate is in India’s hands, not yours, or

(2) We’ll stay non-aligned, thank you very much.

But the fact is, India has moved well beyond non-alignment. And Indian policy will increasingly intersect with Chinese and American policies in important ways.

Sure, India’s fate is largely in India’s hands because the country can hardly bolster its emergence as a major power without economic growth. And while trade has grown, India’s growth remains mostly internally driven.

What’s more, India needs to advance several important domestic social and economic transitions. And so the bottom line is that the central questions about India’s future are indeed India’s to answer. They include:

-       Will India’s choices facilitate an economically open, globally integrated India?

-       Will India’s choices shrink its wealth divide?

-       Will India’s choices expand its middle class?

-       Will India’s choices strengthen its physical infrastructure?

And so on.

But here’s the thing about “going to alone”: India’s success will increasingly depend on how New Delhi (and especially India’s 29 states) respond to opportunities generated beyond the country’s borders.

Take India’s economic transition:

India manufactures too little.  And despite an enthusiastic “Look East” policy that aims to better integrate India with East Asia, its prospects are constrained by a lack of economic integration, not least into Asian supply chains.

But China’s choices—and India’s response to them—could change all that. Rising costs in China—some the deliberate result of continuous wage hikes and other policy changes in Beijing and the provinces—will give India an opportunity to make radically different policy choices itself.  Such choices include bolstering manufacturing through new manufacturing zones, but also tax reform and labor reform. And all of these have either stalled out or are politically fraught in India.

It’s true, then: India’s fate is in India’s hands. But it’s also true that India’s success will increasingly be a function of how it does or does not seize opportunities being created by shifts taking place more widely in Asia and globally.

Then there’s the fate of India’s nonalignment. Debates rage in New Delhi; Indian foreign policy is in transition. Indeed, India has moved beyond nonalignment. But its new foreign policies and strategic doctrines are emerging only slowly. This evolution may ultimately prove conducive to a more expansive partnership with the United States around the world, but that is not assured.

So that’s one reason why a new report from CFR and the Aspen Institute India should be widely read. It offers tantalizing possibilities.

But the big questions are these:

-       What will replace nonalignment as the basis of Indian foreign policy? And

-       Will India leverage its growth, not to mention its seat at the new top tables of international relations, like the G20, into political influence and leverage?

For their part, the United States and others have choices to make about their relations with India too.

Washington will need to figure out how to be sensitive to Indian equities (and especially core security interests) as it disengages militarily from Afghanistan and attempts to renegotiate its increasingly fraught relationship with Pakistan.

But India is not going it alone in this important sense: notwithstanding differences at the United Nations, particularly over New Delhi’s abstention on a key Libya-related vote, India continues to publicly associate itself with the United States in unprecedented ways.

It has backed U.S.-supported resolutions against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency and enforces UN Security Council resolutions against Tehran.

It has stopped North Korean shipping in its waters and inspected cargo.

It is the fifth-largest donor of reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan.

It participates in nearly every U.S.-supported multinational technology initiative for tackling supply side answers to climate change, including projects on hydrogen, carbon sequestration, and nuclear fusion.

It is struggling to deal with the fallout of its nuclear liability law, in part to accommodate U.S. companies.

It provided tsunami relief in 2004 through an ad hoc naval partnership with the United States and two of Washington’s closest military allies. And that type of cooperation continues on an ad hoc basis:  India’s military conducts exercises with every U.S. armed service, and has exercised trilaterally with the United States and Japan, despite Chinese protests.

Taken together, these questions and realities mean that India’s choices are certainly its own. But few in India believe that remaining aloof will ever again be a viable strategic or economic option.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Bhaskar Menon

    It is a serious misreading of the Indian situation to see Delhi’s current foreign policy stance as a new nonalignment. Compared to its uneasy relations with China, India is firmly, and in many ways, comfortably allied with the United States.

    The perception that India needs to integrate more with global and East Asian “supply chains” does not take into account the critically important need for “sustainable development,” requiring much greater reliance on local and sub-regional markets.

  • Posted by ram iyer

    India is a billion people country. A nation with vast knowledge of all kinds of affairs, internally and globally (thought leader for 1000s of years). It will define a course that is good for all but not as fit for me is good for all (like US policy). If India grinds to stay internal driven it can grind the region around it and the world to come closer. It doesnt need recognition from none (US or China). India need to live with China more than US since its neighbour, big nation, relationship spans 1000s of years. India need US for next 2 to 3 decades to reestablish itself in the new age of business but it can give also US the needed pull for values. But it need to focused on its need to stay independent of power play and focused on global family, values and balanced value/business model.

  • Posted by vishnu

    Delhi believes in omnialignment and it has worked and it will work in the future too. Cooperate when needed , compete when needed and always keep engaged. Gone are the days of grand alliances, zero sum games and balance of power theories.

  • Posted by Dev

    When it comes to India’s Foriegn policy leadership perceptions are key.

    To go of what a poster above(Ram Iyer) said, India’s history is very important in shaping the leadership perceptions. As a civilization, India goes back 1000s of years. Indians, especially those in the ruling elite, see India as a great power, and will rise on her own accord. India is not looking to tie itself in overly formalized alliances. India has done very little to upset the U.S, and as the author said, has done enough to gain U.S trust and more. India will act as she sees fit, as we saw with Libya in the SC.

    India and the U.S have shared values and interests. These interests and both countries have only recently begun working together to bear fruit. I have always argued that India and China need to work together, and I think we are seeing more of that. India needs to assert herself in Asia and now is the time.

    The U.S needs to stop bringing up “non-alignment” in regards to Inda. Its 2011, wake up. Instead of hoping and predicting that every warm gesture is a sign of strategic policy change, focus on engaging India and work on mutual interests.

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