As India faces beligerant China, joining military alliance will be realpolitik realism, not sovereign surrender
History suggests that the ‘military alliances’ can make deterrence more effective by increasing the stakes substantially, that are otherwise not possible for a ‘non-aligned’ and effectively, stand-alone nations
India’s independence was preceded by the end of bloody World War 2 that killed an estimated 7-8 crore, and thereafter divided the world into binary camps of cold war, that subsequently set in. India was mulling over its own tryst with destiny with understandable aversions to colonialism and imperialism — as subservience to a foreign power had seen India’s share of global wealth plummet from 30 percent in the mid-18th century to less than 3 percent by 1947.
An idealist, India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru viewed ‘freedom’ from a wider yoke of psychological, economic, military, cultural and economic trap of ‘alliances’ that willy-nilly entailed choosing one of the alternative superpowers.
He made common cause with Josip Tito, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sukarno and Kwame Nkrumah to envision the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM). The morality of NAM was etched in it ‘abstention from the use of arrangements of collective defense to serve the particular interests of any of the big powers'. The pre-condition for its membership was an avowed commitment against joining any multilateral military alliances with either of the ‘big powers’, especially if it was, ‘deliberately concluded in the context of Great Power conflicts’.
Nehru was ideologically convinced about the philosophical nobility and intellectuality of NAM, and emerging India took aid from both the 'camps' and endorsed or opposed each, at multilateral forums. However, global and regional dynamics have evolutionary churns that insist on practicality over 'theoretical morality', and the 1962 Indo-China War was one turning point.
In 1965, support by one of the founding members of NAM, ie, Indonesia, to Pakistan and the relative cold shoulder by the Soviets were unmistakable signs of realpolitik that warranted a relook at the residual shelf life of NAM-led, isolationism.
Indira Gandhi was no Nehru and just months before the 1971 Indo-Pak War, she signed the 'Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation' that made its position less ambivalent, as Pakistan was already a member of the US-propped SEATO and CENTO.
Even though the war was fought directly with each other, the shadow optics of ‘quasi-alliances’ were in full display as the US-led Task Force 74, led by the aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise, sailed menacingly into the Bay of Bengal, as did the reciprocal component of Soviet Navy’s nuclear submarine, cruisers and destroyers from Vladivostok.
India won 1971 singularly and ultimately did not require Soviet intervention against the US flotilla, but soon went back to professing its half-hearted NAM posturing.
Cut to 2020, cold war dynamics have ebbed, and a new belligerent called China is upsetting the global applecart. Powered by the Chinese juggernaut, the hegemonic and expansionist instincts push the PLA to assert its militaristic footprint from the ‘Horn of Africa’ at Djibouti, and the South China Seas, to even attempting land-grab of Bhutan, Nepal and India. Whereas, Russia is a pale and diminishing shadow of USSR, and the USA is getting fatigued and finding the role of a superpower, unsustainable unilaterally. Amidst these tectonic changes in ‘Rising East’, the European continent is saddled with its own stagnations and that essentially leaves India as the only plausible ‘pivot’ to conjoin with any other power to counter Chinese expansionism.
With lingering memories of the Cold War, Russia is tactically keeping out of the costly war of attrition between the US and China, as it remains suspicious of both. This situationally leads to a natural gravitation of ‘free-world’ sensibilities with an underlying realpolitik agenda of ‘Sino-wariness’ between Washington DC and Delhi.
The current status of India-US as 'natural allies' has led to a significant cooperation in the strategic calculus but still falls short of a 'military alliance'. For the US, India is a partner which is extended sensitive information, weaponry and strategic posturing – but no commitment like ‘massive retaliation’ that cements the NATO alliance.
India has signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), the clearance-based Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), however the last of the four foundational agreements, ie, Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) that could facilitate exchange of geospatial, topographical, nautical and aeronautical information and services between Delhi and US National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), is still pending.
The limitations of a trusted partner vis-à-vis a hardbound ‘military alliance’ is in the level of reciprocal intervention afforded, as required by a partner under threat.
In the recent India-China violence in Ladakh, the US has offered meaningless platitudes like ‘ready, willing, and able to mediate or arbitrate’ or ‘We are engaged with the Chinese side to peacefully resolve this issue’ – in stark contrast to 1971 when it had dispatched the world’s largest aircraft carrier, amphibious assault carriers, assault helicopters, guided missile escorts, destroyers, etc, on behalf of its then, military ally, Pakistan.
Today, despite the Government of India's assurances that ‘not an inch of land lost’ in the recent India-China violence, the reactive mobilisation of troops, arms-procurement and delayed clearances, suggest a different reality. Will this suffice to protect or reclaim the land seized by Chinese in the past or in the future? The answer requires an honest introspection.
Will India have the bandwidth of financial, technological, infrastructural and relievable resources to match the Chinese, in the immediacy — or does it warrant a more formal conjoining of a ‘military alliance’ to weaponise a more strategic, substantial and stake-loaded deterrence?
Yet, despite the recent Ladakh experience, Union Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar reiterated that India ‘will never be a part of an alliance system’. The minister alluded to the ‘opening spaces’ for middle powers like Japan, India, EU, etc, and noted the hapless fate of the US military allies in the crunch situations – yet not surprisingly, it was not against traditional rivals like Taiwan, Japan or South Korea but against an formally ‘unallied’ India, did the Chinese test the waters.
Earlier, alliances were rightfully perceived as compromises of sovereignty, dignity and freedom. Today, they are contextualised as practical and efficient necessities. India has tinkered with the quasi-alliance possibility of the Sino-wary ‘Quad’ (US, India, Japan and Australia), however, it remains a conceptual idea on paper without binding commitments.
The spirit of NAM is not wrong, only outdated. It made sense then, though the urgencies have mutated to asymmetric dimension that require a similar flexibility and dexterity of counter approach. The political bogey of a ‘military alliance’ as a sovereign surrender is political romance, not realpolitik realism. Military alliances are a tool of force-multipliers with proven strategic deterrence and collateral benefits that accrue in the domain of diplomacy, commerce and soft-power.
Chinese appetite for expansionism directly or through its growing proxies in the region will not abate, therefore, joining an alliance will not ‘bind’ India but may, in fact, offer it the much-needed place on the table.
History suggests that the ‘military alliances’ can make deterrence more effective by increasing the stakes substantially, that are otherwise not possible for a ‘non-aligned’ and effectively, stand-alone nations.
The author is a retired lieutenant general and former Lieutenant Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry
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