US Senate approves India's elevation to NATO-level partnership; mistrust, pursuit of autonomy kept New Delhi away from alliances so far

All eyes are on India as global players await its reaction to the US Senate passing a legislative provision that brings New Delhi at par with its NATO allies and countries like Israel and South Korea. The bill has been passed with a view to increase defence cooperation; specifically in the areas of humanitarian assistance, counterterrorism, counter-piracy, and maritime security.

The bill is to be signed into law after both the chambers of the US Congress — the House of Representatives and the Senate — pass it. The House is expected to take up its version of the NDAA sometime in July.

India has been infamously non-committal towards "alliances", ever since its Independence from British colonial rule in 1947. From being at the helm of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) during the Cold War, to opening up its foreign policy for "strategic partnerships", India has come a long way in forging friendships on the global platform, but has skirted commitment in a bid to balance its interests with immediate neighbours as well as global powers.

Strategic partnerships

 US Senate approves Indias elevation to NATO-level partnership; mistrust, pursuit of autonomy kept New Delhi away from alliances so far

File image of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. AP

Currently, the United States, Russia, Israel, China, Japan, Indonesia, Australia, Vietnam, South Korea, Iran, ASEAN, Afghanistan, and several others find themselves on a mish-mash list of strategic partners that India is maintaining bilateral relations with.

A report by The Hindu noted, "Strategic partnerships are commonly associated with defense or security-related issues, but a survey of formal strategic partnerships around the world reveal they can also be quite a hold-all, covering a wide range in bilateral relations, from defense to education, health and agriculture, and quite commonly, economic relations, including trade, investment and banking."

While India's dogged efforts to limit itself to strategic partnerships is likely to be a source of frustration for countries like the US or Russia, a hierarchal system is in place in India's foreign policy with both the Cold War-era 'superpowers' finding an almost equal footing.

"(There is a) perception that India’s so-called strategic autonomy in this regard can be seen more as dilly-dallying — a criticism that echoes from the days of outright non-alignment. India remains partially tethered to the underlying strategic logic of non-alignment, even though its policymakers see a clear hierarchy in its foreign relations, an article in The Diplomat notes.

Strategic partnerships are important for India in a region and global market where interests and conflicts criss-cross. This is illustrated by the tensions and simultaneous dependence in equations between US-China, Japan-China, India-China. "The US and China are each other’s chief trading partners, while China ranks at the top for Japan and India. Besides, India might confront China at Doklam but it also wants Chinese investment," The Hindu reported.

Meanwhile, being strategic partners allow both parties to step away from committing to the other's disputes with other countries. "New Delhi does not take a strong position on Japan’s territorial disputes with China and Russia. Likewise, Tokyo does not openly side with India in its quarrels with China and Pakistan," the report adds.

India's concept of strategic partnerships lends to its Nehru-era goal of "self-autonomy". It also gives New Delhi the space to balance complex bilateral relations between the US, Russia, and China. According to experts, one of the major factors India considers before any sort of alignment is the effect the partnership would have on its self-autonomy.

The US-India-China-Russia balancing act

India has managed a precarious balance between its interests and closeness with the US and Russia, even as New Delhi's equation with Washington and Moscow have soured over its interactions with either party in the past. With India having signed a deal to purchase several Russian S-400 long-range surface-to-air missile systems in October 2018, US had threatened punitive measures under its Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which was implemented in 2017.

However, since India is an important player in the US' 'Free and Open Indo-Pacific' strategy, it is in the interest of both the countries to not "overreact" to interactions with Russia. "The United States should realise that Moscow is part of India’s China strategy too (as a supplier of defense equipment and a potential counterweight). But India’s relationship with Russia is much more limited than it was during the Cold War.

"US sanctions or public pressure are unlikely to limit this further; instead, they could constrain US-India cooperation. As it is, the threat of sanctions has raised questions in Delhi — not about the Russia relationship, but about the wisdom of a closer partnership with the United States," an article on War on the Rocks said.

Russia also claimed to be India's "ally" in its "darkest hours", reportedly with the hope to seal the multi-billion dollar deal for the P75-I project for India. Saying that Russia was "the only partner" for India during the threat of sanctions from the US, a Russian defence official was quoted by The Economic Times as saying, "that the US and Europeans can never give what Moscow can and has offered."

Mistrust towards the US

While India is wary of China's growing position has a superpower, it has also harboured skepticism about the US' former closeness with Pakistan and has been critical of America's policies in the past.

"It (India) abhorred America’s involvement in Vietnam, and in 1971 was shocked by the Nixon administration’s fierce opposition to independence for Bangladesh. Later, India opposed brash American policies such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It also resented being punished for developing nuclear weapons even as China, which tested its atom bomb just ten years before India, was welcomed into the nuclear club," The Economist reported.

The US recognised India as a "Major Defence Partner" in 2016, a designation that allows India to buy more advanced and sensitive technologies from America at par with that of the US' closest allies and partners. However, in June this year, the US also announced the end preferential trade treatment for India under the Generalised System of Preference (GSP).

Current situation of bilateral relationships

Equations between major global players are dynamic and are constantly changing according to their self-interests and international circumstances. In the recently concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Bishkek, India considered joining China and Russia in objecting to US trade protectionism.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Jul 04, 2019 13:42:40 IST