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A strategy for India: Nonalignment 2.0?

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COMMENTS

6 March 2012 09:14

Ian Hall is a Senior Fellow in the Department of International Relations, ANU.

India has been searching for a strategy since the end of the Cold War.

The three big changes in its foreign and security policy after 1991 – the partial opening up of the economy in the early 1990s, the nuclear tests in 1998, and establishment of better relations with the US in the 2000s – were really stop-gap measures. None signaled a wholehearted shift to a new approach. Rather, these changes were really pragmatic responses to pressing and unavoidable problems: an acute balance of payments crisis, the rise of China, and the need to access new technologies to grow India's economy.

Nonalignment 2.0, a major report launched on 28 February, represents the most significant attempt yet to move beyond this ad hoc muddling-through and establish some basic principles for a new strategic framework.

Written under the auspices of both the National Defence College and the Centre for Policy Research, it is the product of eight high-profile and influential thinkers – Sunil Khilnani, Rajiv Kumar, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Lt Gen (Retd) Prakash Menon, Nandan Nilekani, Srinath Raghavan, Shyam Saran and Siddharth Varadarajan. The well-publicised involvement of the National Security Advisor, Shivshankar Menon, and his deputies in the consultation phases of the project suggests its conclusions have at least some official support.

Despite the title, Nonalignment 2.0 looks quite different to Nehru's original. Both share a commitment to making India a great power and to 'new standards in moral and ideological leadership'. A Nehruvian mistrust of the West – especially of America – also lingers. The report's authors pay the usual lip-service to 'strategic autonomy', a recurrent theme of Indian strategic thinking since the 1950s, but the ways in which they want to attain it are new.

They want India to become active managers of the emerging international order, not passive critics, and they see that order as changing fast.

The report identifies a number of key challenges to India, some new and some old, some external and many internal. China looms very large among the new challenges; the old foe, Pakistan, is cut down to size. Indeed, in one remarkable passage, the authors even suggest that 'we may need to think of Pakistan as a subset of the larger challenges posed by China'. This signals a marked shift in perceptions.

The authors urge that India rapidly normalise relations with Pakistan even if it persists in sponsoring terrorist attacks, freeing India to deal with the bigger problem of China. They are frank in admitting that India will likely remain far weaker than its northern neighbour for some time, and argue that India should develop 'asymmetric capabilities' to deal with it, putting in place the foundations for insurgencies in contested border territories should China invade and occupy them, and building up India's cyber and naval power.

Nonalignment 2.0 also departs from the past (and the vocal and obstructionist Indian Left) in insisting that 'India's integration into the global economy is vital to its continuing prosperity'. An open global economy is crucial to India's development, the authors argue, and to its strategic interests, not least because it ties China into a 'rule-bound' order.

The report is equally blunt in its assessments of India's internal challenges. It acknowledges that the Indian state has too often abdicated its responsibility to many of its citizens, that security forces are often the 'predator', not the protector, and that agents of the state frequently fail to be impartial in social disputes. It calls for more conflict prevention and less conflict management.

Last but not least, Nonalignment 2.0 calls for the Indian state to adapt and to take advantage of the new knowledge economy. The authors want government 'joined-up', networked and transparent, with reform measures directed towards 'multi-level governance' and 'shaped by a clear sense of the knowledge architecture which modern states now depend upon'.

There are things missing from Nonalignment 2.0. Energy security gets lots of attention, but water security, an equally pressing problem for India, gets too little. More might have been said too about the human security threats of communicable diseases, including antibiotic resistant strains common in South Asia. But the big question that the report could not ask and cannot answer is this: will India's politicians do what is needed to realise the bold agenda it sets out?

Photo by Flickr user lukexmartin.

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