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Indian Non-Alignment 2.0: Defensible Duplicity

05 Oct 2023
By Anil Anand
PM receives warm welcome by people on his arrival at Gwalior, in Madhya Pradesh on October 02, 2023. Source: Prime Ministers Office, India /

The West’s complacency and enabling of non-alignment 2.0, as much as embodying optimism for India’s convergence with the West, ignores the possibility of an Indo-Sino-Russian alliance. In seeking greater assurances and avoiding such a alliance, the West must begin matching Indian rhetoric with its deeds.

India matters because of our similar institutions, shared understanding of democracy and pluralism, opportunities for economic cooperation and security interests. Any decay of these values has been overlooked, partly in acknowledgement of the unique challenges posed by India’s demographics, and in part by optimism of India’s convergence with the fraternity of democratic states.

The West has advanced aid, negotiated preferential trade and defence agreements, and technological assistance in the interest of India’s advancement. India’s non-alignment policy and anti-West tilt, however, have been more than disappointing; New Delhi has often undermined Western interests.

Non-alignment 1.0 was marked by India’s misappropriation of Canadian nuclear technology for developing its own weapons program in violation of an agreement between Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and Prime Minister Jawaha Nehru. It has also been the basis for India’s refusal to sign onto the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

Non-alignment justified acquisition of a burgeoning military arsenal including aircraft carriers and submarines from the former Soviet Union and Russia, while simultaneously negotiating the U.S.- India Defense Technology and Partnership Act. Non-alignment has also justified India’s defence cooperation agreement with Iran in 2002 while pursuing expansion of U.S.-India defence agreements, including a Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement and the Industrial Security Agreement.

And India has ignored US, European Union (EU), and G7-led sanctions on Russia despite significant courting and pressure from the West, and has continued trading with Iran during previous sanctions. Britain’s Foreign Office in 2014 found that India had voted against the British position at the UN more often than any other large nation, a pattern that continues today.

The India-EU defence co-operation report describes the relationship between the EU and India as “vacillating between distrust and misplaced expectations.” Former US ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, and former senior advisor to the US embassy in New Delhi, Ashley Tellis, note serious concerns” about India’s defense decisions as  “all talk and no show.” And Daniel Markey, with the US Institute of Peace cautions that India’s desire to work with the US is born of circumstance, not conviction, and could quickly disappear.

Non-alignment 1.0, initially insular and intended for capacity building (military and economic), is now non-alignment 2.0, intended for projecting India’s economic and military capability as an assertive global realisation of Indian interest.

Domestic origins of Non-alignment 2.0

Within India, authoritarianism has subverted democratic institutions and encouraged fascist movements like the Rashtriya Swayamsevask Sangh (RSS), to which Narendra Modi belongs. This group is committed to an exclusively Hindu society. It is no surprise, therefore, that India has grown increasingly antidemocratic – free press is suppressed, opposition intimidated, academia manipulated, and civil society squashed.

According to the Economist’s Democracy Index, India is classifies a “flawed democracy.” The World Press Freedom Index ranks India at 161st of the 180 countries surveyed. And the  V-Dem Institute describes India as an “electoral autocracy”; “one of the worst autocratizers in the last 10 years.” India has rebuffed such assessments as propaganda and foreign interference.

Beyond its border, Hindu nationalists are mobilising RSS-affiliated groups for support of the BJP’s illiberal initiatives. In 2020, DisinfoLab uncovered 750 fake media outlets promoting disinformation for advancing Indian interests within the EU. And in 2022, several Australian academics were compelled to quit the Australian-India Institute at Melbourne University citing coercion by India’s High Commissioner to Australia.

The murder this year of a Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian Sikh activist, has been linked to the BJP, and Canada now considers India among the top sources of foreign interference.

Yet, India is accepted on par with the US, Australia, and Japan into the QUAD, and is provided with critical intelligence support during its skirmishes with China. The World Bank, a Bretton Woods organisation, recently approved US$1.5 billion in financing for Indian infrastructure projects. And the US this year agreed to a memorandum of understanding to invest up to US$825 million for a semiconductor assembly facility in India. These are actions that imply a partnership with common purpose and aim.

Strategic misalignments

A major Indian policy paper entitled, “India’s Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century,” cites two underlying aims as encouraging Indian actions. The first is to project a passivity committed to doing no harm in its range of relationships, and the second, to develop “a repertoire of instruments to signal—and where necessary to establish—that there will be serious costs to attempts to coerce Indian judgements or actions.”

Empirically, non-alignment 2.0 is characterised by intimidation and coercion of critics, dismissal of oversight and accountability at home and abroad, a commitment to a remaking of the liberal international order, contesting Bretton Woods institutions, opposing democratic counterparts at the United Nations (UN) and beyond – all veiled in a boisterous rhetoric of non-alignment with little commitment to its membership in the fraternity of liberal democracies.

This policy framework also highlights that a Sino-Indian relationship, despite what appears to be two nations at ideological odds, is not  as far-fetched as some believe. Neither Modi nor Xi Jinping wants a conflict that would siphon off critical resources, leave their thriving economies stunted. Xi is more focused on Taiwan, and both share the greater common aim of restructuring world order. Vladimir Putin and Xi, too, have more to gain through cooperation with India; both reject liberal democracy wholesale and both are committed to an assault on Western hegemony.

A Sino-Indo-Russian geopolitical convergence, a worst-case scenario, holds significant opportunities and is not an impossibility.  Remaining on the side line in a conflict that engulfs the West against China in a quagmire advantages India over both, potentially accelerating resolution of its border disputes while advancing its own strategic goals. On balance, India has no incentive to participate in a conflict between the West and China or the West and Russia.

India’s intentions, interests, and inclinations at the UN, its relationship with the West, and to its future with respect to the Indo-Pacific, are being projected crystal clear – it’s time for the West to read the signs.

Ashley J. Tellis, Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs, cautions that India’s support for the liberal international order remains “limited and tentative.” India’s foreign policy warrants a reassessment of the limits to which the West can accept non-alignment as a legitimate and acceptable basis for a relationship with India.

Anil Anand is an independent Canadian policy researcher and author with extensive experience in law enforcement, security, and social justice.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.