The Risks of ‘Non-Alignment’ That Pursues Short-Term Tactical Benefits

If India continues to remain 'neutral', the outcome of the Ukraine war will mean that it will be forced to choose between the US and China.

It is startling how completely an Indian government that criticises Nehru’s policy at every turn seems to have embraced one of the centrepieces of Nehruvian foreign policy: non-alignment. For newly independent India, the key challenge was internal: the security and prosperity of a much-abused population that was deprived of literacy, did not grow enough to feed itself, and needed both jobs and infrastructure. Involvement in global wars, driven by a superpower contest between the US and the USSR, would have distracted from dealing with these challenges. This is one of the reasons that Nehru clearly stated, both at home and abroad, that Europe’s wars were not India’s or Asia’s – something that external affairs minister S. Jaishankar has recently repeated in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine without acknowledging the originator of the idea. 

In fact, from a distance, it seems that India has found a sweet spot in the current war, one in which it does nothing to criticise either side, buys cheap oil from Russia, and develops deeper ties with the US and its allies. One could almost think that Nehru, six decades after his death, was still shaping Indian foreign policy. And yet, there is a key aspect missing. Non-alignment for Nehru did not mean neutrality. Instead, it was premised on the freedom of peoples around the world, and against colonialism and things like apartheid. 

The difference between the vision of non-alignment that Nehru had, and the current regime pursues, is that Nehru’s non-alignment was part of a movement, one that pursued a strategic goal, not short-term tactical benefits. This becomes very clear when we ask the very simple question of what happens when the war in Ukraine ends, and the world order that emerges.

As of now, this question has largely been set aside – mostly because the likely outcome of the war remains unclear. On one side is Putin’s elimationist, genocidal remarks about ending Ukraine, and on the other is a position by Ukraine and its allies that sees only the elimination of Putin, his complete change – his turning 360 degrees (an odd phrase, since that would put him back facing the same direction), and possibly his entire regime, as the only viable outcome. Neither outcome is very likely, because, for the US and its allies, the prospect of a victory by Russia is impossible to stomach, but any outcome that could lead to the collapse of Putin’s regime could likely lead to an escalation is too dangerous to contemplate

A protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo: pix-4-2-day/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0

Another war

But there is another war taking place that is inextricably linked to the war in Ukraine, and that is the US-China battle for dominance. In this context the US has a first-mover advantage. It sits at the centre of international financial systems, a position it has made plain it will weaponise by three actions: the sanctions against Russia and the appropriation of its foreign reserves, the repeated warnings against China in helping Russia, and the slow denial to China of many cutting edge technologies

In one of the most interesting responses to this, Yang Ping, the editor-in-chief of the Beijing Cultural Review, argues about the necessity of creating a new international order focussed on the Global South. This is where China should develop its “strategic depth”, argues Yang, and he does so in the context of keeping open a capitalist economic system. He does not mention India by name, but a Global South without India makes little sense. At the same time, scholars like Liu Zongyi, at the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, are blunt about India being part of the US bloc against China for the foreseeable future.

Pursuing short-term non-alignment tactics may give India some tactical benefits, but they risk allowing us to drift into a strategic cul-de-sac. The outcome of the Ukraine war, especially if India continues to avoid taking any sides, will mean that it will be forced to choose between the US and China, or more bluntly, between a dominant economic system in which the US can determine who is in and who is out, and a China-centric economic system that is purportedly more “open” and driven by (still) the most dynamic economy in the world, India’s biggest trade partner, and country constantly redrawing India’s borders to its advantage.

Had India played a more active diplomatic role in the Ukraine conflict – as it did in the Korean war (despite much criticism), it could have played a role in managing the outcome based on credible, clearly stated, strategic and ethical principles. Instead, India has stayed aligned only to its short-term interests, a movement of one. As the long year of India holding the rotating presidency of the G20 unwinds and the Ukraine war grinds on, Indian isolationism will only become more visible, its silence louder, and the muddle India finds itself in, that much clearer.

Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.

Edited by Amrit B.L.S.