If there were any doubts that India is moving slowly but surely from being non-aligned to becoming multi-aligned, they were laid to rest at the recent G-8 plus G-5 summit in L’Aquila, Italy.
New Delhi has not only been participating in this process for the past few years but has also developed de facto or de jure strategic partnerships with all the other 12 countries attending the meeting.
Such a prospect was unthinkable even five years ago. This strategic shift, which has been in evidence since the end of the Cold War (remember the “look East” policy of P.V. Narasimha Rao?) and the beginning of India’s own economic reforms in the early 1990s, has remained, like the economic liberalization programme, ad hoc, inarticulate and piecemeal. That is, until now.
For the first time India has officially sought to rationalize and explain this strategic shift. In his contribution to the compendium prepared for the recent G-8 summit, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh explicitly noted: “Bipolarity has given way to multi-polarity, the developing countries are not only sovereign states but some group of developing countries have gained in relative economic importance and this trend will only gain momentum” and argued that the “unworkability of the existing structures (based around the UN system) has led to greater reliance on plurilateral groupings”.
Thus, India has entered into bilateral strategic partnerships with not only new friends, such as the US, but also old enemies, such as China, while trying to maintain them with traditional friends, such as Russia. However, India’s multi-alignment policy is not confined to only bilateral ties with other countries but also includes other regional and global groupings. These range from the so-called “league of dictators” (the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, or SCO), where India is the sole functional democracy, to the league of democracies (the European Union, or EU) and, of course, the G-8 itself.
Also Read Pal Sidhu’s earlier columns
India’s membership of the so-called Brazil, Russia, India and China (Bric) bloc and India, Brazil, South Africa (Ibsa) bloc as well as its quest for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council is also part of this grand strategy. This, clearly, is the appropriate strategy for the evolving multi-polar world order.
However, even as New Delhi marches boldly towards multi-alignment and the brave new multi-polar world, there are several ideological, political and practical challenges that it will need to address.
First, in his thoughtful contribution for the G-8 compendium titled How the world is governed in the 21st Century, Singh gives pride of place to the UN-centred system of global governance and notes that “groupings (such as the G-8 plus G-5) do not have any special legitimacy within the UN System” and asserts that India “will continue to strive for the reform of the United Nations to make it more democratic”. While there is no doubt that the UN system is in serious need of reform, the Indian bias towards the UN-centred world order is myopic, especially as Singh candidly acknowledged that “efforts to reform the system have made little headway”.
Moreover, it is clear that in a multi-polar, multi-faceted and globalized world the UN will be one of the many forums for global governance, not the forum. In fact, the trend of “forum-shopping”, where countries go from one forum to another to seek a favourable outcome for themselves, is already well established and India will have to learn to play in a world of multi-polar forums instead of putting all its eggs in the UN-forum basket.
Second, in light of the above and in line with the multi-alignment approach, India should also seek to participate in other forums and groupings without necessarily becoming a member (as is the case with New Delhi’s participation in SCO). India should consider at least two forums in particular: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
The former’s partnership for peace mechanism allows even countries such as Switzerland and Russia to participate in deliberations of the alliance without ever having to become a member (an impossibility in the case of both Russia and Switzerland). This would allow India familiarity with Nato thinking and doctrines as well as a platform to express New Delhi’s concerns and, perhaps, even support (as might be the case in Afghanistan).
Indeed, Nato’s policy of defeating the Taliban and ensuring democratic rule in a pluralistic Afghanistan is very much in line with India’s and the two could benefit from greater dialogue if not coordination. Similarly, by becoming an observer to NPT, India can strengthen its nonproliferation credentials without ever having to join a treaty that New Delhi considers discriminatory. Such a move would be logical given the exceptional exemption that India has attained from the Nuclear Suppliers Group to receive nuclear technology and material for its civilian programme. This would also raise India’s comfort level in other forums, as was the case when the recent G-8 plus G-5 summit issued a statement on non-proliferation which left India, as the only non-NPT member in that group, feeling isolated and possibly, an unintended target.
Third, clearly, some strategic partnerships are more strategic than others. For instance, the US-India partnership is, clearly, more significant than the strategic partnership between New Delhi and the EU, which still remains largely on paper.
Both of these partnerships are more promising than the Sino-Indian strategic partnership, which remains a non-starter until the two sides can resolve their outstanding disputes. Therefore, India would have to prioritize among its various existing strategic partnerships and be more circumspect about entering into new ones.
India has a tremendous opportunity to shape and influence the emerging multi-polar world as well as its own role in it through its strategy of multi-alignment. However, it will have to be less ideologically driven and more strategically savvy to achieve this goal. The new government clearly has the mandate and the talent, as recent events have shown; but will it deliver?
W. Pal Sidhu is vice-president of programmes at the EastWest Institute, New York. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org