India has always cherished its strategic autonomy in foreign relations, which India’s first Defence Minister, Krishna Menon, characterized as ‘non-alignment’, a term later popularized by the country’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. However, 2019 could prove to be the year when India is pulled into the remaking of the global order with its attendant uncertainties. The country is faced with unprecedented regional and global challenges aggravated by great power contention between the US, Russia, and China.
For the last 70 years, India has balanced its relations with the big powers. The best and most recent example of this balance is the participation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a troika with U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (the QUAD countries minus Australia) on the sidelines of the G20 meet in Buenos Aires in December 2018. It was followed immediately after by a meeting with the Russian and Chinese Presidents in the Russia-India-China (RIC) forum.
But now is the time for India to make tough choices between non-alignment or going with its geostrategic imperatives. The choices may not be so clear or easy, but India will have to lean more one way or lose relevance in the great global reordering underway. India’s relations with the three great powers – the U.S., Russia and China – provide the backdrop and the opportunity for choosing the right side.
The U.S. has been signalling its interest in a more strategic relationship with India, at the same time that it has declared a trade war against China. The U.S.-China rivalry is not just over the trade deficit, it is for the leadership in emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics and machine learning in which China had hoped to be the global leader as announced in its policy, A Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan in July 2017. Although the U.S. trade deficit with India, Japan, South Korea, and Germany is a fraction of the $ 344 billion with China, President Trump has threatened action against these allies and friendly countries as well.
Since the U.S. is still the most important market for most countries, in order for India to pre-empt punitive action on the trade deficit, moving closer to the U.S. is a strategic move. There are several ongoing India-U.S. trade disputes, but they are playing out in the WTO, which is preferable to the imposition of actual tariffs.
For the U.S., India is consequential because of the size of its economy and its armed forces, and as a potential counterweight to the rise of a predatory China. Every day, the U.S. signals its desire for a closer relationship with India. Just this week, the U.S. Congress passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act which, inter alia, states that the US proposes raising the all-round engagement with India, diplomatic, economic, and security.
For India, the friendly signals from the U.S. are in contrast to the intermittent military pressure from China at the border and the unsustainable trade deficit with China. The short glow of the victory claimed by India in the Doklam military standoff from June to August 2017 has dissipated in the reality of the improved infrastructure of roads and bridges built on the Chinese side. The trade deficit which is $60 billion is untenable, and killing India’s small and medium sector, which are principal employment generators and key to Prime Minister Modi’s Make in India initiative. The only jobs still being created at home seem to be for delivery boys supplying Amazon products sourced from China. Still, China is keen on India’s market, and will temper its hostility also because it does not want to open too many fronts.
India’s old friend Russia, under pressure from the U.S. and Europe-imposed sanctions, has teamed up with its old rival China, principally for the sale of fossil fuels and sophisticated military equipment, and has even undertaken joint military exercises. Russia’s growing dependence on China and its interests in Afghanistan predisposed Moscow towards building a strong relationship with Pakistan, including the sale of some defence equipment, joint military exercises, and cooperation in the end game in Afghanistan. India, however, sustains Russian defence production as its biggest customer, a position Moscow will maintain.
In the first Cold War, India successfully balanced its interests between the two then super powers, the U.S. and Soviet Union. Although it leaned towards the U.S.S.R. in international bodies—because the latter supported issues of Indian interest such as decolonization and anti-racism—it was also a major recipient of Western aid and technical knowhow, especially for achieving self-sufficiency in food through the Green Revolution.
In the new Cold War between the U.S. and China, the choice for India is clearer, because it has endured an antagonistic China since the latter’s occupation of Tibet in 1956 and the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959. Nevertheless, there are compulsions since China is now a land neighbour which has shown no willingness to delineate the long militarized border, making localised conflict a perennial possibility.
India’s other South Asian neighbours are also enthusiastic partners in the BRI, which promises an infrastructure buildout. Some of this enthusiasm has back-fired, with pro-Chinese regimes in Sri Lanka and the Maldives being ousted in democratic elections; their economies, however, remain trapped in unrepayable debt to China.
The propensity of China to interfere in the internal affairs of India’s South Asian neighbours and the possible use of their ports as naval bases, pose a serious threat to the maritime security of India. That makes the geostrategic advantage of strengthening ties with a West finally waking up to the threat from China an easy choice. With President Trump also no longer willing to support Pakistan financially and strategically, the U.S. has freed itself to move closer to India, without the burden of Pakistan past.
The need for India in 2019, then, is to decisively reorient its foreign policy towards the West. Signing the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), the third foundational agreement with the U.S., is a signal in that direction. Dithering is not an option – else the value of its friendship may diminish with all contenders losing interest.
Neelam Deo is Director, Gateway House.
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 The White House, Federal government of the United States, Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China, 4 October 2018, <https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-vice-president-pence-administrations-policy-toward-china/>
 China Copyright and Media, A Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan, 20 July 2017, <https://chinacopyrightandmedia.wordpress.com/2017/07/20/a-next-generation-artificial-intelligence-development-plan/>
 United States Census Bureau, 2018 : U.S. trade in goods with China, <https://www.census.gov/foreign-trade/balance/c5700.html>
 Strong Indo-US relations include extensive people-to-people relations, a shared commitment to democratic values, and a trade balance in India’s favour. Undergirding these elements, India has already increased the number and complexity of military exercises with the US and concluded the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Association (LEMOA) and Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), two of the three foundational agreements creating compatibility of their armed forces. It is also buying more defence equipment from the US, worth $15 billion over the last decade, with only an occasional order to Russia, (5 squadrons of the S-400 surface-to-air missile system worth $5.4 billion and 4 Russian frigates worth $2.2 billion for the Indian Navy) at least partly, to maintain the supply of spare parts needed by the still approximately 70 per cent of defence equipment of Russian origin.