Opinion: Will India ever align with the West?

When Indian and American Foreign and Defence Ministers/Secretaries met recently, they signed an agreement which would further strengthen security ties and the broader strategic partnership between the two countries. It included plans for New Delhi to purchase advanced American weapons and the sharing of sensitive military technology – a key signifier of having Washington’s favour. Defence Secretary Mattis, probably mindful of the significance of China in pushing India and the US together, characterised ties as “cooperation between the world’s two largest democracies,” that would “work together for a free and prosperous Indo-Pacific”.

Nevertheless, as always, there are onions in the strategic ointment. And as usual they included India’s continued ties with Iran and Russia – both longtime friends of Delhi, both rivals of Washington and both facing American sanctions. On October 8, India defied US sanctions on Iran to announce it had placed orders to import Iranian oil in November. Just prior, India’s purchase from Russia of the S400 surface-to-air missile defense system resisted US sanctions against third countries that sign defense deals with Moscow.

Even with regard to China, Washington remains concerned about Delhi’s willingness to ‘confront’ Beijing. India-China relations have warmed in the period since the border standoff and Delhi is reluctant to join overtly anti-China military blocs.

Strategic and economic interests

Strategic and economic interests play a key role in determining whom New Delhi regards as its international friends.

India’s ties to Iran are rooted in shared civilizational history and driven by Delhi’s strategic imperatives of becoming a regional power, and economic interests – particularly energy. In 2017, Iran provided 11.2 percent of energy-thirsty India’s crude oil imports, making it the country’s third largest source and making Delhi one of Tehran’s biggest markets. Past US sanctions on Iran were not received well by India and the present sanctions regime will see Delhi seek to circumvent restrictions.

Stretching back to the Cold War, Russia has been a major weapons supplier to India –significant for both states given India is the world’s largest weapons importer and has a relatively small domestic arms industry.

In the past five years Moscow supplied 62 percent of Delhi’s total weapons imports over Washington’s 15 percent. The S400 deal was worth 5 billion US dollars and provides India a weapon which Moscow had used in Syria.

All this could be impacted by US sanctions on Russia, where those doing business with Moscow’s defense and intelligence sectors face the threat of secondary sanctions. Secretary of State Pompeo nevertheless stated that India would not be penalized for the S-400 purchase, perhaps revealing the importance for the US of buttressing India against China, over isolating Russia.

More broadly, greater integration with American defense technology faces complications given India’s use of equipment from states the US considers unfriendly; a dilemma not faced in America’s other top partners in Europe and the Middle East who buy their weapons almost exclusively from the West.

This reflects the uniqueness of India in comparison to America’s other major friends in terms of the level of independence within its foreign policy. The aforementioned strategic and economic interests play a part, but do not tell the whole story. Other partners of the US often sacrifice, for instance, benefits in trade with Iran or Russia in favor of greater strategic or economic interests in keeping Washington onside.

Hierarchy, prestige and independence

India’s independent foreign policy is also significantly shaped by the values of prestige and hierarchy. Political leaders and the foreign policy establishment have long held a ‘hierarchical worldview’ in which nation-states are arranged as a hierarchy and a state’s position equates to the level of prestige or status it enjoys. For India, having endured centuries of foreign rule, status and prestige have long been intertwined with strict independence.

For much of India’s post-colonial history, particularly under Nehru, the country sought to attain status through being a moral leader of the Third World – the same policy approach that symbolized India’s independence. This manifested in Delhi’s role in the Non-Aligned Movement. India avoided overtly aligning with either superpower bloc (even when security ties with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics grew closer under Indira Gandhi).

Beliefs about what achievements and actions conferred international status evolved with the ascendance of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to power in 1998. India increasingly conceived of status as being conferred by, and independence as being protected by, strategic and economic power (the ‘traditional’ conferrers of status in the international realm).

Independence came to be manifested in Delhi’s doctrine of ‘strategic autonomy’. The current BJP administration of Prime Minister Modi, despite its distinctly charismatic outreach, continues to adhere to the same principles. It is these values and principles that add fervor to Delhi’s resistance to jettison Russia and Iran, and aversion to joining military blocs against China. The Russian S400 deal can be seen as an attempt to steer the Indian foreign policy ship back into independent waters after veering close to the American shore.

Understanding the role played by hierarchy, prestige and independence is essential in predicting where New Delhi will stand in the future world order. In particular, how it will behave in the event of conflict between the US and China. Despite Washington ratcheting up tensions with Iran, Russia, and China, there is still a chance that the Trump Administration’s emphasizing of national interests and questioning of traditional alliance relationships could be finessed by astute policymakers to actually enable greater empathy for India’s position.

In a future multipolar world, a nuanced grasp of the diverse foreign policy approaches of rising powers may mean the difference between stability and instability, and between war and peace.

This article was originally published on CTGN, Link:  Opinion: Will India ever align with the West?

Kadira Pethiyagoda Author


Dr Kadira Pethiyagoda is a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution Doha. He was visiting a scholar at Oxford University, adviser to Australia’s Shadow Foreign Minister and a diplomat. Kadira’s PhD examined Indian culture and foreign policy, and he has an upcoming book on this. Kadira completed a Masters in international human rights law at Oxford University.

Published Date

October 24, 2018

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