A United Nations Security Council Washout: India’s Unraveling Non-Alignment Foreign Policy

India’s abdication to project and share in regional influence leaves others to carry its burden – a duplicitous and dangerous policy for global security, and one which signals trouble ahead. Understanding and responding to the dynamics of India’s contribution and response to its dangerous neighborhood is increasingly important to the global fraternity of democratic nations.

India is important to each of the “Five Eyes” (The United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom), the Quad, (cooperative partnership between the United States, Australia, Japan and India); and to the global fraternity of democratic states. The United States and India share long-standing bilateral relations built upon democracy, pluralism and strong interpersonal connections. India matters because of our similar institutions, values, security interests, and opportunities for economic cooperation.

India is the ninth largest trading partner to the U.S., the seventh largest trading partner to Australia, 15th largest trading partner to the U.K., tenth largest trade partner to New Zealand, and 12th largest to Canada. But relationships, beyond purely economic interests, merit scrutiny. Special attention is deserved by India, the world’s “largest democracy’.  India has been a promising democracy where, despite its many geopolitical, cultural, religious, and socioeconomic challenges, significant strides have been made towards improving the welfare and wellbeing of its citizens. That trend has however, weakened and is indicating alarming signs of a democracy in decline; its internal and foreign policies indicating increasing signs of authoritarianism.

India’s democracy rating increased slightly in 2021 but did little to compensate for the intolerance and sectarianism towards religious and other minorities under Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The US-based non-profit Freedom House has downgraded India from a “free democracy” to a “partially free democracy”.  Sweden based V-Dem Institute warns that India has become an “electoral autocracy”;  and the Democracy Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit describes India as a “flawed democracy”.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, World Report 2020, several states controlled by the BJP have enacted laws and policies that target minorities, particularly Christians, Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis, and mob violence perpetrated by groups associated to Hindu nationalists against minorities has continued to escalate under the BJP. Following the Delhi communal riots in 2020 that left 53 dead, it was found that partisan civil servants including members of the ruling BJP and Delhi Police were themselves complicit in the violence against Muslim protesters.

At the 2021, Dharma Sansad, a Hindu conference, leaders including members of the BJP openly issued calls for the genocide of Muslims and making India a Hindu nation. Hindu monks incited “war against Muslims”, called for a ban of the Quran, and urged Hindus to “take up weapons” to kill Muslims. India is exhibiting troubling signs, both internally and externally – and calling out red flags is the primary function of policy analysts.

One of India’s central guiding principles has been a policy of non-alignment for navigating the hostilities between the cold war superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union.  Non-alignment has, however, been neither effective in serving India’s own interests nor effective in supporting the larger struggle for securing and maintaining the global democratic order.

While India was the first non-socialist country to establish relations with the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) in October of 1954, India’s defense and strategic concerns have, in large part, been defined by its rivalry with China along its northern border and Pakistan on its western flank. India’s rivalry with China has been marked by the 1962 Sino-Indian war and ongoing border disputes and skirmishes. India has also fought three wars with Pakistan (1947, 1965, and 1971) and continued hostilities over Kashmir. India has territories contested by Pakistan and China, with the two having formed strong economic and military ties and sharing interests in the destabilization of India.

Concerned with China’s growing influence Primer Minister Nehru was drawn by the Soviet Union’s ability to exert political and security influence following World War II and into the nuclear era. The U.S. deployed an atomic bomb in 1945. The Soviet Union entered the nuclear club in 1949, Britain in 1952, France in 1960, and China in1964. China’s entry into the nuclear club posed an alarming shift in the Indo-Chinese rivalry. India would look to the Soviet Union, and later Russia, as an ally against an emerging China. And despite commitment to the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), India secretly pursued fission technology and in 1974 became the first non U.N. Security Council (UNSC) member to conduct a nuclear test.

India had secretly subsumed Canadian Nuclear Agency’s (CNA) assistance and later rejected the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) as an extension of its non-alignment policy. The test was a violation of an understanding between Canada’s Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister Gandhi’s father. Since that time, Indian foreign policy has been increasingly veiled in non-alignment to pursue what has become a duplicitous relationship with the United States, Russia, and other partners. India has demonstrated a dramatic rise as a global economic power since its independence in 1947 to becoming a de facto veto-player at the United Nations. As the world’s largest democracy, India has been a strategic partnership for security and economic cooperation.

Annoyed by American relations with Pakistan, India procured much of its military hardware from the Soviet Union and later Russia, a dynamic complicated for both India and the U.S. by Pakistan’s entry into the atomic club in 1998. Leveraging its strategic importance to the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, the Indo-Pacific, and Sino-American tensions, India was able to negotiate the U.S. India Defense Technology and Partnership Act (DTP), while at the same time, using its relationship with Russia to mitigate the Sino-Russian and Sino-Pak alliances.

Washington’s inclusion of India as a “major defense partner” in 2016 allowed India access to American defense technology.  The DTP signaled a new strategic partnership at a time of rising competition from China.  The U.S.-India defense trade cooperation was expanded with the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Communications, Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), and the Industrial Security Agreement (ISA).  U.S. defense trade with India increased from near zero in 2008 to over $20 billion in 2020.

India is also a member of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), integral to expanding Indo-Russian ties which includes a “special and privileged strategic partnership” with Russia for strengthening defense cooperation and economic trade.

India is also a signatory to the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) agreement between India, Russia, and Iran for developing a transport corridor from Mumbai to St. Petersburg; a coalition expanded to include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Oman, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Ukraine. India’s relationship with Russia has, in part, been intended to wedge the Sino-Russian relationship. The Sino-Russian partnership, however, remains stronger than ever. President Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed the Sino-Russian agreement in 2021 extending a friendship and cooperation treaty between their countries, displaying intent on undermining the democratic world order.

In February of 2022 Putin and Xi Jinping declared a “new era” in a sweeping long-term agreement (Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development) that challenges liberal democracy as a model for world order. The agreement declared a friendship between the two with no limits, and no “forbidden areas of cooperation”. It’s not clear where that leaves New Delhi in its Indo-Russian relationship.

To India’s chagrin, Moscow has also become increasingly cozy with Pakistan. Russia has supplied Pakistan with attack helicopters and the Russian navy is now a participant in the biannual Aman naval exercises hosted by Pakistan. And both Pakistan and China have been invited to the multination Kavkaz military exercises hosted by Russia, prompting Indian’s withdrawal.

The Sino-Pakistan friendship has also strengthened. China has invested heavily in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The port of Gwadar, on Pakistan’s coast, is now owned and operated by China and is a likely base for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now tests Indian strategic, geo-military and economic alliances in unexpected ways. India has abstained from condemning Russia at the Security Council, and stood apart from the 141 of 193 members of the General Assembly in denouncing Russia’s aggression. 

India’s evasive response to Russia’s invasion has been disappointing to the U.S., the European Union, and NATO.  India has blatantly offered Russia a back door to economic sanctions. The Countering Russian Influence in Europe and Eurasia Act and new sanctions presents considerable new complexity and risk for any future engagement India pursues with Russia. India is left soft-footed on all fronts – floundering in no man’s land between the U.S., Russia, China, and Pakistan. 

India is a member of the Quad but remains non-committal on the emerging geo-politics of South-East Asia.  It is not surprising that India has been left out of AUKUS, the defense arrangement between the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom. India’s non-aligned policy renders it as an unreliable partner in the emerging power dynamics of an evolving world order.

The Chinese Maritime Silk Road project and development of projects in the Indian and Pacific Oceans form part of the Chinese “String of Pearls” strategy, which threatens Indian encirclement and challenges security concerns for Australian and New Zealand. The struggle is far beyond boarder disputes and economics. It’s a contest between forces for a democratic world order opposing those that favor authoritarianism and autocracies.

India’s foreign policies exhibit an unwillingness to make the sacrifices required of alliances, while expecting all of the benefits. U.S. policymakers, including former Secretary of State and ambassador to India, Mike Pompeo, Robert Blackwill as a former senior advisor to the U.S. embassy in New Delhi, and Ashley Tellis have all raised “serious concerns” about India’s defense decisions. The Indian position is increasingly viewed as  “all talk and no show.”

India’s abdication to project and participate in the Indo-Pacific theatre, and refusal to back sanctions against Russia, leaves others to carry its burden. Its commitment to non-alignment is becoming increasingly duplicitous and dangerous. Non-alignment has provided India with a convenient excuse for non-engagement, leaving the rest of the democratic fraternity, including members of the Five Eyes, left carrying the load.

[Image Credit: G20 Argentina via Flickr and it is available under a Creative Commons license.]

*Anil Anand is an independent Canadian policy researcher and author with extensive experience in law enforcement, security, and social justice. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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