A few days after India and the Soviet Union signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in August 1971, Foreign Minister Swaran Singh flew to Washington to an icy reception. In his recently released memoirs, A Life in Diplomacy , former Foreign Secretary M.K. Rasgotra has a full account of Swaran Singh’s meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Will Rogers, where he wasn’t even offered a cup of tea. Instead, the host railed on about the how the treaty made India’s policy of non-alignment look like a “sham”. Unruffled, the minister replied that he didn’t see any need for the U.S. to be upset. In fact, he said, “My Prime Minister (Indira Gandhi) has authorised me to sign an identical treaty with your government.”
The idea may have seemed laughable, and certainly the U.S. didn’t accept the offer, but the anecdote has remarkable similarities to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own task this month, in reverse order. Fresh from his visit to Washington, where the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) on defence has been finalised, and India declared the U.S.’s major defence partner, Mr. Modi must fly to Tashkent to finalise documents for India’s accession to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a “political, economic and military alliance” spearheaded by Russia and China. While non-alignment, a term that now invites raised eyebrows and some mirth in South Block, has yet to find a mention in the Prime Minister’s speeches, it may still be a necessity in his actions, especially with India’s desired Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) membership hanging in the balance.
Shifting sands of alliances
Many assume that India’s push for the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), formed in Belgrade in 1961, came as a result of its disillusionment with the U.S., China, and colonial powers, but actually, non-alignment was spelt out a year before independent India’s first bilateral relations were declared. In a radio broadcast in September 1946, Jawaharlal Nehru said India’s foreign policy would rest on eight pillars: non-alignment with “power groups” was the third.
India’s break with the U.S. came in 1951 when Prime Minister Nehru refused to attend a peace conference in San Francisco hosted by U.S. President Harry Truman after calling the war reparations for Japan too meagre. The strain grew from there on as India refused an alliance, possibly because of its own attempts at better ties with China and the Soviet Union, which were themselves at loggerheads at the time.
History is indeed strange, former enemies became the best allies, and India today stands once again in a place somewhere in the middle (albeit more to the right than the left). It has close defence exchanges like Operation Malabar with the U.S. and Japan on one side, and on the other, joining a conference that has Russia and China at the helm. The alliance with the U.S. and Japan is yet to be spelt out, but it is clear from the Indo-U.S. joint vision statement of 2015 that Mr. Modi now envisages closer military cooperation with the U.S., and as a corollary its allies, both in the seas and on its military bases, airspace and cyber centres as well. Of particular importance will be the lines in the joint vision statement for Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean region, signed by Mr. Modi and President Obama last year, on “ensuring freedom of navigation and over flight throughout the region, especially in the South China Sea”.
Clashing terms of engagement
It is worthwhile to see what SCO membership for India entails. The 2001 declaration on the establishment of the SCO clearly states that its aim is “jointly preserving and safeguarding regional peace, security and stability; and establishing a democratic, fair and rational new international political and economic order”. Analysts have always believed that the reference to the “new order” juxtaposes the Eurasian SCO as a counterpoint to the transatlantic North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It was further spelt out vividly at the Astana SCO summit declaration in 2005, a summit in which India, Pakistan and Iran were admitted as observer countries.
At Astana the members formulated joint mechanisms for regional security, joint planning and conduct of anti-terror activities, and jointly contributing to security issues “on land, at sea, in air space and in outer space”. The SCO also has a formulation on ‘Asia Pacific’, with members making a declaration “against fault lines appearing both in the Asia Pacific region and in its separate constituent parts”.
Clearly, adherence to the terms spelt out in both the western and eastern alliances would be absurd, as they could conceivably see the Indian Navy in joint patrol with the U.S. and its allies, challenging China in the South China Sea, even as it cooperates with China and Russia to counter U.S.-backed forces across the “fault lines”! Equally strange is the possible vision of the future this brings: one of India discussing nuclear safety and non-proliferation on an equal footing with known proliferator Pakistan at the NSG, and also sharing counter-terror operations with it as part of the SCO’s Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS).
In this scenario, even NAM, with its inherent confusion and often “lip service-only commitment” to neutrality, isn’t fraught with as much contradiction, and is a group that India has leadership of. The fact that the next host of the NAM summit, Venezuela, hasn’t been able to declare a date for it also gives the government some time to consider Mr. Modi’s position on attending it, which he has not indicated so far.
At her annual press conference a few days ago, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said that non-alignment is “India’s heritage”. Given the stormy waters and multiple criss-crossing alignments India now envisions, it may be a safer shore for India’s future as well.
suhasini Haidar in The Hindu