India: the latest recruit to the alliance of democracies?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

As international travel slowly takes to the skies once more, and foreign ministers plan their priority destinations after the long months of COVID-19 related lockdowns, Delhi has suddenly become popular. The new United States Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, dropped in during his first overseas trip to the Indo-Pacific region; last week Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister was in town; this week is the turn of the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian; and United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson will soon embark on his long delayed but heavily publicised visit to India which he sees as a key part of his new ‘Global Britain’ foreign policy.

As a friendly welcome in Beijing becomes increasingly unlikely in the immediate future for Western politicians and diplomats, in the wake of sanctions against Chinese officials implicated in the repression of Uighurs, doing diplomacy in Delhi seems a better option.

Of course, this was not always the case. During the Cold War, India prided itself on its independence from the Western powers. It was an early leader of the neutral and non-aligned movement following its launch at the Bandung Conference in Indonesia in 1955. It tilted towards the Soviet Union, which supplied it with weapons and cheap energy. It developed its own nuclear weapons as one of only three states that refused to adhere to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (the others being Pakistan and Israel); and in the 1990s it carried out a series of nuclear tests in defiance of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Critical of the West’s perceived support for Pakistan in the three wars it fought against India in the 60s and 70s, and wary of the US and former colonial European powers, India was more on the international agenda as a major recipient of aid and development funds to relieve its high levels of poverty than as a geopolitical actor in its own right. In trade it was highly protectionist, especially in agriculture and textiles, and its slow rate of infrastructure building and industrialisation compared to China dampened its requirement for direct foreign investment and technology transfer. This meant that negotiating trade deals with India was well down the US and EU’s priority list of emerging markets. The refusal by Delhi to take an interest in the EU as a foreign policy actor and instead to define itself mainly in relation to the US, and more recently China, explained the surprisingly low profile of Indian diplomats on the Brussels political scene.

Yet in recent years, Western interest in India has increased significantly. This is in large part because India has opened up to multilateral diplomacy with Western countries and has become less prickly in its dialogue with the US and its allies.

India has finally woken up to the importance of the EU as a player in Indo-Pacific security

Already during the Obama presidency, the US agreed to give Delhi civilian nuclear technology without requiring that India sign up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the rigorous safeguards on illicit nuclear weapons activities imposed by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Delhi had only to agree to a firewall between its civilian and military nuclear fuel processing cycles, leading to criticisms against the American double standards regarding its non-proliferation policy. It certainly did not help its case vis-a-vis Iran, but Washington saw a strategic opening to break India away from its reliance on Russian nuclear technology and build a new defence relationship with Delhi. The US gained access to the Indian arms market and enticed Delhi into joining the US Navy’s RIMPAC exercise in the South Pacific with Australia, Japan and New Zealand. India also sent ships to the Gulf of Aden to work with the US Task Force 150 to combat piracy off the shoreline of Somalia. The US subsequently established a Quad forum to arrange periodic meetings on Indo-Pacific security with India, Japan and Australia.

Certainly, the growing estrangement between the US and Pakistan in the wake of Islamabad’s unwillingness to curb Taliban violence in Afghanistan has helped India move closer to Washington.

At the same time, India has finally woken up to the importance of the EU as a player in Indo-Pacific security, as well as a source of cooperation in areas of key importance, including space, bio-technology, pharmaceuticals, the digital economy, financial technology and renewable energy.

France has succeeded in selling its Rafale fighter aircraft to Delhi, and bilateral cooperation on space and science is well advanced. It is no surprise that Minister Le Drian will travel to Bangalore this week to visit the Human Space Flight Training Centre and a number of joint Franco-Indian start-ups in this ‘Silicon Valley of India’. The attraction of a market of 1.2 bn people, almost as large as China albeit much poorer in GDP per capita terms but with a burgeoning middle class and proven computing and data management skills, is making India a magnet for European business investment. Generations of Indian students trained in US, UK and Australian universities – although not yet sufficiently in EU universities – are helping foster these links.

India looks with concern on the growing economic dependency on China by its neighbours

Delhi is now adding a diplomatic track to these business relationships. It has joined the Franco-German sponsored Alliance for Multilateralism and Indian Prime Minister Modi has held a summit with the European Nordic countries to discuss Arctic security and economic cooperation. He has also met with the Visegrád Four group from central and eastern Europe. In Afghanistan, he has tried to help the stabilisation efforts of the NATO allies by offering financial support to Kabul in rural development, agriculture and education – all in a discreet way so as not to unduly provoke India’s historical rival, Pakistan.

Consequently, Delhi has kept to a low profile in the current whirl of international diplomacy to resolve the Afghan conflict, leaving the initiative to more ‘neutral’ regional powers such as Turkey and Russia.

Some commentators believe that the recent clashes between China and India along their disputed demarcation line on the Himalayan plateau, during which several Indian soldiers were killed, will further push Delhi into the Western camp. India and China fought a war in 1962 and India has long suspected Beijing of having designs on its easternmost province of Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as part of its Tibet Autonomous Region. It looks with concern on the growing economic dependency on China by its northern and southern neighbours of Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The second dimension of India’s rapprochement with the West is the US effort to rally a diplomatic and military coalition to contain China in the Indo-Pacific. This lies behind the decision of the Biden administration to resuscitate the Quad, which had fallen into abeyance during the unilateralist years of Trump’s foreign policy. Boris Johnson has worked on a parallel track to associate India more with the G7, inviting Modi to attend the summit in Cornwall this June. India has usefully launched an annual Raisina Dialogue on Indo-Pacific security, drawing in its new transatlantic and Asian partners in an effort to foster coordinated multilateral approaches. It is taking place this week with Le Drian and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne among the keynote speakers. The Raisina process can help bring a more India-specific angle to a regional security dialogue which for many years has been dominated by the annual Shangri-La conference held in Singapore.

Delhi took a look at its options and evidently decided to stay where it was

In the military field India has also opened up to port visits and an increased momentum of maritime exercises in the Indian Ocean, using counterterrorism, piracy, energy security and disaster management scenarios. This year, in addition to the US and regional partners such as Australia and Japan, European nations have stepped up their participation, with Germany, France and Belgium sending frigates. The Indian Ocean is emerging as the new strategic hub for military interoperability among the transatlantic and Asian-Pacific democracies, helping them gain control over this vital global supply chain route.

At the same time, Indian think tanks and some leading media outlets have been publishing papers and articles arguing that it is time for Delhi to formalise these growing pro-Western orientations by joining NATO’s Global Partnership alongside Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, or even seeking recognition as an Enhanced Opportunity Partner, a status which currently only Australia enjoys within the region, and which in truth is normally linked to partner contributions to NATO’s operations.

So does this flurry of activity mean that India has now durably re-oriented itself towards the West and is ready to be a full-fledged member of the coalition of democracies in their growing strategic competition with China?

Here I have my doubts. I well remember a time back in 2009 when at NATO Headquarters we received similar signals that India was seriously considering starting a dialogue with the alliance and joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace. The Secretary General dispatched his deputy, along with me, to travel to Delhi to meet with the Indian foreign minister and work out the practical arrangements, in an atmosphere of discretion. We were courteously received, the foreign minister listened attentively to our briefings on the political goals and operational modalities of the Partnership for Peace for a couple of hours, and then concluded by saying that India would now indeed open a structured dialogue with NATO. We flew back to Brussels satisfied with our diplomatic efforts – but nothing ever came of it. Delhi took a look at its options and evidently decided to stay where it was.

The Indian swing to the West should not be over-rated

Of course, the geopolitical context today is different. NATO is far less present in Afghanistan whereas China is a much more daunting presence in the region. Yet Indian foreign policy has long been anchored in two principles: independence and navigating between East and West in an even-handed way. On occasion this has pushed Delhi closer to the East, as during the Cold War and the period of African and Asian decolonisation; more recently it has pushed the country more towards the West. Yet Delhi has always been careful not to burn its bridges with either camp.

In between visits from Western foreign ministers, Delhi played host to Sergey Lavrov and his visit made clear that India will continue to be a customer for Russian arms, raw materials and energy.

Recently India moved to de-escalate tensions with Beijing by agreeing to a mutual pull-back of forces along the Himalayan plateau and some additional incident prevention measures. It has joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which is heavily dominated by Russia and China and looks, in particular, to foster regional cooperation in fighting terrorism, political extremism and separatism, a common preoccupation of India and its eastern neighbours. India naturally is focused here on the divided region of Kashmir; SCO membership can provide useful leverage against Pakistan and regional support, or at least understanding, for actions – such as revoking the autonomous status of Indian Kashmir – which have been criticised in the West.

Indeed, India likes to send Washington little signals from time to time that it is still different from the other US-aligned Asia-Pacific democracies and that its followership in joining US regional initiatives should not be taken for granted. Just this past weekend it rapped Washington on the knuckles after the USS John Paul Jones, transiting from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, sailed through Delhi’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the Indian Ocean off the Lakshadweep Islands. Delhi complained that the US Navy had not requested prior approval whereas for the US this was another freedom of navigation exercise, similar to what it has been conducting in the South China Sea.

In conclusion, the Indian swing to the West should not be over-rated. Delhi is seeking to play a broader role in global multilateralism and emerge from its inward-looking Cold War shell. It is on the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member for the next two years and will certainly want to use this opportunity to assert its positions and influence. This will be notably the case at the COP26 in Glasgow this autumn when it comes to setting new global targets for CO2 emission reductions and more climate resilience and adaptation funding for the developing countries.

Expect India to remain only an associate, part-time member for the foreseeable future

The now-famous Serum Institute is the world’s largest manufacturer of COVID-19 vaccines, essential to the success of the global COVAX programme and to the EU’s rollout of adequate supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine. Yet recently Delhi has halted vaccine exports in the wake of its own rapidly increasing coronavirus infection rates. It has shown that its protectionist trade instincts are still alive, particularly when it comes to access to its food production and processing markets and to its health and public procurement sectors.

The Modi government, based on the massive majority of its Hindu nationalist BJP party, has been backsliding on a number of market opening and investment protection reforms, especially as it faces mounting unrest from Indian farmers. The same applies to anti-corruption crackdowns, cronyism in public contracts, freedom of the media and guaranteeing the independence of the judiciary. The Modi government’s recent citizenship law, which was seen as targeted against its large but increasingly estranged Muslim minority, has not endeared the quality of Indian democracy to Western liberals – all the more so as it led to widespread anti-government protests in India itself.

If an alliance of democracies is to emerge from the Democracy Summit, which the Biden administration is planning to convene in the near future, and India signs up, its internal politics are likely to come under the same constant scrutiny as those of established allies such as Turkey, Hungary and Poland. So expect India to remain only an associate, part-time member for the foreseeable future.

Undeniably India’s rising status and its opening to the West makes it an indispensable partner for the transatlantic allies. Having it on board will certainly give the democracies much greater geopolitical heft as they confront the challenge from authoritarian regimes. Yet India will not put all its eggs in the multilateralist basket. It will stubbornly go its own way according to its perception of its own interests in preserving a regional balance and keeping its channels of communication open in all directions. Bringing India into the Alliance of Democracies will take a more sustained and skilful diplomatic approach than I was able to achieve during my short visit to Delhi in 2009.

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