June 2018 was the first time that India participated as a full member of the Central Asia- centric Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Qingdao. Prime Minister Narendra Modi met his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jingping, for the second time in less than two months. On July 6, India and the US will also hold their first ‘Two-Plus-Two” summit reflecting India’s role as a strategic partner of the United States in Asia. The questions arising in capitals across Asia-Pacific, whether Canberra or Tokyo or Jakarta, are, is India an American ally, or is India still continuing its policy of non-alignment - but in a different way?
As of now, it appears that Indian policymakers are unsure of which bloc to side with. They have two clear choices: the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). SCO consists of China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. It aims to improve cooperation among the member states in terms of education, energy, transport, tourism, and environmental protection. Through such cooperation, it hopes to ensure peace, security, and stability in the region. Quad is an informal security dialogue which consists of US, India, Japan, and Australia. SCO’s goal is to create a “new international political and economic order.” It is exactly the creation of this order that members of the Quad fear. No matter how much Indian policymakers try, they cannot have balanced relations with the two blocs because of their implicit opposition to each other.
India’s current policy of having a foot in both camps reminds one of its policy of nonalignment during the Cold War. Back then it was much easier for India to have neutral relations with both the Soviets and the Americans, as neither of them considered India a threat to their own hegemonic claims. Because China sees it as a threat to its own power claims, India cannot achieve with China and US what it achieved with the USSR and US, i.e. equally cordial relations with both the sides. So what exactly is India trying to achieve by appeasing both the sides and continuing its policy of nonalignment?
To understand India’s foreign policy, one has to understand the strategic goals India is working towards. Military modernization and sustained high economic growth are perhaps the two most important goals India hopes to achieve to safeguard its national interests. Any action that India takes raises the question of what India gains from it. Therefore, one has to question what India hopes to achieve through membership of the SCO and other Central Asian organizations. China and Russia, by default, dominate any central Asian organization they are a part of. So by being a part of such organizations, India is implicitly aligning itself politically and ideologically with countries that have historically asserted their regional dominance and maintained a strong sense of nationalism. Thus, alignment with China and Russia increases the likelihood that Indian pursuit of regional dominance will be compromised and curtailed by those members. Prime Minister Modi in his recent address at the SCO summit expressed his desire for increased economic and technological cooperation with the member countries while also reiterating India’s uncompromising stance on respecting territorial integrity. In fact, India is the only member of the SCO that did not support China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) at the recent summit on the basis of violation of India’s territorial claims. So it is clear that India is trying to reap economic benefits from the SCO while making sure that China respects India’s territorial sovereignty.
By increasing economic collaboration with the SCO and specifically with China, India hopes to protect its sovereignty by pushing territorial issues with its neighbors to the back burner. Dr. Pande, Director of Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia at the Hudson Institute, argues that increasing economic collaboration with China while not focusing on military modernization will weaken India’s ability to defend its territorial claims. Her argument is supported by last year’s Dokhlam standoff between China and India, which came after decades of rising trade and economic cooperation between the two Asian giants. Under the mantra of prioritizing the economy to the exclusion of military strength, a mantra which has failed previously, what are Indian policymakers trying to achieve?
India might achieve its goal of sustained economic growth through the SCO but India’s cooperation with the SCO directly inhibits India’s ability to achieve its goal of military modernization and thereby compromises India’s defense of its territorial claims. India’s increasing bend towards the United States is understandable as it is India’s best bet to achieve military modernization in the shortest time possible. India has had a longstanding relationship with Russia in terms of defense cooperation. With India’s deepening strategic partnership with the US, Russia-India relations will be tested. If India insists on maintaining ties with Russia like it historically has, then that might limit the extent of cooperation with the US. A recent example is India’s going ahead with the procurement of S-400 missile systems from Russia despite the threat of US sanctions. Although the probability of US actually imposing sanctions on India is quite low, the possibility that US limits the extent of future defense cooperation with India is not. Therefore, India’s insistence on holding on to Russia might hinder India’s ability to modernize its military.
Eventually, India has to choose between the SCO and the Quad. To be fair to Indian policymakers, their insistence on having equally cordial relations with both the groups is understandable because of the Quad’s inability to transform itself from just an informal dialogue to a fully-formed cooperation like the SCO. However, on balance, choosing to side with the Quad favors Indian policymakers more because it would not compromise India’s dominance in its region. Indian policymakers need to convince Japan and the US for more military and economic cooperation to counter the rise of Chinese influence. For that to happen, India needs to reorient its foreign policy from nonalignment to that of clear alignment with the Quad. For India, walking a fine line is not conducive to achieving its strategic goals anymore.