Stick to ‘Multi-Alignment’

Totally embracing the US or the West will not be in India’s interests

Talmiz AhmadTalmiz Ahmad

Within a few days of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s return from his high-profile US visit, Indian opinion got polarised between those who believe that India has now opted to firmly join the US-led western alliance and those who insist that, while ties with the US have scaled new heights, India “cannot get tied down to exclusive relationships,” as external affairs minister Dr S Jaishankar has clarified.

But the competition among commentators has just begun. Harsh Pant has dourly pointed out that ‘China’s rise and its aggressiveness has made a strong India-US partnership a veritable necessity’ and that the inclusion of India in ‘Nato plus’ would ‘strengthen global security and deter Chinese aggression’. Howard French speaks of a ‘dreamy hope in Washington’ that India can be tempted to give up its long-standing commitment to strategic independence.

Linked with this debate is a specific issue: which of the three grouping of which India is a member—the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Quad—is likely to prevail over others in New Delhi’s priorities? The first two are seen as ‘China-dominated,’ while the third, the Quad, a maritime grouping of the US and three other nations in the Indo-Pacific, reflects the intent of its members to challenge China’s expanding maritime footprint in the west Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Commentators have noted that Modi’s recent visit to the US has affirmed the two countries’ commitment to the Quad and has ‘paved the way for stronger collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region’.

In short, in the face of the security challenge from China, as evidenced by the ongoing three-year standoff at Ladakh, will India abandon strategic autonomy and seek to serve its interests through a robust engagement with the US-led western alliance? To answer this question, India’s place in the three groupings is discussed in the following sections.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa
Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa


BRICS’ Growth

The BRICS, which brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, will have its 15th summit in South Africa in August this year. Long derided by western writers as irrelevant and dysfunctional and bound for an early demise, this disparate grouping has resolutely organised annual summits, has established new organisations and gradually broadened its agenda.

In 2014, it set up the New Development Bank (NDB) and the Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA). The bank provides funding for development activity on easier terms than entities like the World Bank and the IMF, while the CRA supports countries facing short-term balance-of-payments pressures. These facilities are available not just to members but to other developing and emerging economies as well: in 2021, the UAE, Egypt, Bangladesh and Uruguay joined the bank. India has been an important beneficiary: it has obtained NDB backing for its priority projects in the areas of clean energy, public health, social safety, etc. In May 2022, a regional office of the NBD was opened in Gujarat.

The BRICS’ agenda has moved from economic interests to security, health, science and technology, and culture and civil society. In line with its members’ concerns, it prioritises matters relating to terrorism with special focus on counter-terrorism. BRICS has also begun to look at transnational security issues like drug-trafficking and the dark web and other technologies that support it. At the 14th BRICS summit in China in June 2022, Prime Minister Modi proposed an online database for BRICS documents, a BRICS railways research network and greater cooperation between small and medium enterprises in BRICS countries.

Far from being irrelevant or dysfunctional, as its detractors had described it, amidst ongoing global and regional contentions, BRICS is a central player in the promotion of ‘de-dollarisation’ and is looking at welcoming new members.

De-dollarisation: In March this year, a senior Russian parliamentarian called for the development of a new currency that could be used for cross-border trade by BRICS members. This is a significant intervention in global economics. The GDP of BRICS members at USD 32.72 trillion, i.e., 31.6 per cent of the global GDP, is greater than the GDP of the US, which is USD 25.46 trillion or 24 per cent of the global GDP.

Joseph Sullivan, former economic adviser in the Trump White House, has said that a new currency issued by BRICS (the BRIC?) ‘really could dislodge the US dollar as the reserve currency of BRICS members’. He added that de-dollarisation ‘would represent cooperation in a well-defined area where interests align’. He noted that India and China share an interest in de-dollarising.

While the idea of a BRICS currency is at a nascent stage and several details have to be worked out, the idea of reducing reliance on the dollar for international trade and finance is gaining in appeal. Russia, China and Brazil have turned to greater use of non-dollar currencies in their transactions. In June this year, India paid for its oil imports from Russia in yuan.

New members: In July 2022, Chinese commentator Nian Peng noted that Iran and Argentina had formally applied to join BRICS and that the foreign ministers of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Nigeria and Senegal had attended the Brics foreign ministers meeting in May for the first time. This author recalled that in 2017, China had proposed the ‘Brics Plus’ cooperation mechanism in terms of which BRICS members could reach out to others outside the grouping. Nian particularly focused on ‘node’ countries as potential members, i.e., countries that had ‘influence and important strategic positions in the region’.

In late June this year, there have been reports that the BRICS summit in South Africa in August will admit five new members—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Indonesia and Argentina. The reports note that Saudi Arabia’s presence in ‘BRICS +’ would boost the financial standing of the New Development Bank. Again, if the kingdom and other oil exporters insisted obtaining payments in the new BRICS currency, it would significantly promote de-dollarisation.

New Ideas: Despite differences between members, particularly the divide between India and China, what binds members together is their desire to be part of an entity that is not dominated by western powers and voices the interests and concerns of the developing countries. As a commentator has noted, BRICS has shown itself strong enough to handle divergent opinions and positions among its members. Thus, in the context of the Ukraine war, no BRICS member has joined in imposing sanctions on Russia. While some western policymakers worry that BRICS could become a hard anti-West entity, a thoughtful German observer believes it is not a platform against the West but a forum that seeks freedom and autonomy of thought and action for its members.

Building on this aspect, Venkatesh Varma, a former Indian ambassador to Russia, has pointed out that BRICS is the only forum with ‘a pan-global intellectual footprint’ and thus can contribute to a global discourse that goes beyond pro- or anti-westernism to ideas that emerge from the distinct civilisational experiences of its diverse members. The core idea that unites BRICS members is commitment to multipolarity in terms of which the developing nations obtain a more effective bargaining position vis-à-vis the western bloc. As the Indian external affairs minister noted at the BRICS foreign ministers meeting in Cape Town, the concentration of economic power ‘leaves too many nations at the mercy of too few’.

BRICS thus remains a crucial grouping for India’s interests. It signifies India’s interest in promoting multipolarity in world affairs by enabling it to engage with important non-western partners on matters of shared concern—both political and economic—while ensuring that its core interests are safe-guarded through institutions like the NBD and the CRA and several other platforms for dialogue on diverse matters that are not affected by Sino-Indian rivalry.

PM Modi with Japanese PM Fumio Kishida at G7 meet in Hiroshima in May 2023 

SCO’s Criticality

In the background of Sino-Indian differences over the last few years, India’s membership of the SCO has evoked considerable controversy, with shrill voices insisting that India withdraw from the organisation, an Indian commentator, Niranjan Marjani, wrote in May this year that participation in the SCO does not fit with India’s broader foreign policy, given that ‘countering China’s increasing assertiveness in India’s neighbourhood and beyond’ is at the heart of India’s foreign policy.

The organisation emerged in 1995 in the context of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the consequent need for China to finalise its borders with Russia and the new sovereign states in Central Asia. Once the borders had been sorted out, the SCO was formed in 2001 with China, Russia and four Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan and Uzbekistan) coming together to address shared concerns relating to terrorism; Turkmenistan is a permanent invitee. With India and Pakistan joining it in 2017, the SCO had eight members; Iran was inducted as the ninth member during the summit on July 4 this year. The SCO members taken together have 40 per cent of the world’s population, 25 per cent of global output, a quarter of the world’s oil reserves, and 50 per cent of global natural gas and uranium deposits.

A number of countries from Eurasia/ South Asia are observers—Belarus (expected to gain membership next year), Mongolia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. The SCO also has some important dialogue partners: Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, The Maldives and Myanmar. Its principal interest is regional cooperation in political and economic areas.

Besides the China-related point made above, criticisms of India’s participation in the SCO have included: the SCO’s overt anti-West posture which is at odds with India’s increasingly close ties with the US and its membership of Quad; and Russia’s shift towards China following the Ukraine war which would make it more amenable to China’s interests and concerns.

These observations are short-sighted. The SCO is the most significant entity in Eurasia, an area of considerable strategic significance for India. Despite China’s important place in the region in terms of its economic, technological and logistical connectivity role through the Belt and Road Initiative, all the Central Asian Republics cherish their ties with India.

As P.S. Raghavan, former ambassador to Russia, has pointed out, “Geopolitical realities do not present black-and-white choices.” It is in India’s interest to engage with its Central Asian neighbours, given historic and civilisational links, their energy-rich status, and the expanding interest in the region of other major strategic players like China and Turkey.

Since the overland route to Central Asia through Pakistan is not available, India has the option of pursuing connectivity through Chabahar port in Iran to every Central Asian country, while obtaining a multi-modal link from its west coast to Moscow through the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC) that would traverse Iran and Azerbaijan before reaching Russia. The INSTC and the Chabahar-Central Asia connectivity are also important outlets for the land-locked republics.

The other area where the SCO serves India’s interests is the growing interest in the organisation from the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with which it has very substantial energy, political, economic and community-related ties. This GCC interest in Eurasia is in line with the active diversification of ties by the GCC states in favour of Asia and affirms their support for a multipolar world order. As Francesco Schiavi has noted, “The SCO provides a robust platform for strengthening South-South cooperation outside the oversight of the United States and European powers”.

For all these reasons, the Modi government attaches great importance to its SCO membership. These ties are encapsulated in the acronym ‘Secure,’ coined by India, that stands for: Security of Citizens; Economic Development for all; Connecting the Region; Uniting the People; Respect for Sovereignty and Integrity; and Environmental Protection.

Modi with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Wuhan, China in 2018
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping

At the Samarkand summit in September last year, Modi had highlighted connectivity, food security, supply chains and enhanced regional trust and cooperation. Many of India’s concerns found expression in the Samarkand Declaration, such as: terrorism; transit rights; and setting up of a special working group on start-ups and innovation. At India’s initiative, the SCO Startup Forum has been meeting annually since 2020. Again, in his bilateral engagements with other leaders, Modi had discussed terrorism, Afghanistan and enhanced trade ties. In conversation with Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi he had emphasised the importance of the Chabahar port for regional connectivity.

It is in this background that India chaired the 23rd summit of the SCO this year on July 4. In his inaugural remarks, Modi noted that the SCO “has emerged as the key platform for peace, prosperity and development of Eurasia”. While castigating terrorism as “a threat to regional and global peace,” he also presented India’s AI-based language platform, Bhashini, which could remove language barriers in the SCO.

The SCO issued three documents—a declaration and two joint statements. Strikingly, the SCO leaders committed themselves to ‘the formation of a more representative, democratic, just and multipolar world order,’ as also ‘further improving and reforming the architecture of global economic governance’. The declaration also backed ‘gradual increase in the share of national currencies in mutual settlements’ among member states. The joint statements referred to countering radicalisation and cooperation in digital transformation.

Taking place just two weeks after Modi’s return from the US and despite the standoff with China, the SCO summit has affirmed India’s commitment to this regional grouping as a valued platform for engagement with Eurasia, a new geography that is gaining increasing importance in India’s geopolitical framework.

Russian Embassy Expresses Disappointment over Subramaniam Swamy's Article 

Quad Limitations

This maritime grouping brings together the US, Japan, Australia and India to discuss and work together on their shared maritime interests in the Indo-Pacific region. Following recent meetings between Modi and President Joe Biden in Washington, the readout reiterated the Quad’s core concerns to ‘promote a free and open Indo-Pacific, including support for freedom of navigation, territorial integrity, and a stronger regional architecture’.

The Quad first met at officials’ level in 2007, but then did not meet for another decade because of objections from China about the security grouping being directed at China. The hesitations of the four members ended in 2017 in the face of what was seen as increasing Chinese aggressiveness in asserting its maritime claims in the South China Sea, the East China Sea and against Japan, and its expanding presence in the Indian Ocean, including the commencement of the construction of a naval base in Djibouti from March 2016, besides increasing tensions at the Sino-Indian border.

Cooperation among Quad members has expanded steadily: it was elevated to minister-level in September 2019. Again, in the background of the military standoff with China at Ladakh from April 2020, India invited Australia to join its Malabar naval exercises in November 2020 so that these effectively became a Quad exercise. In March 2021, the Quad was further elevated to summit level.

From early 2021, amidst the ongoing Sino-Indian confrontation, Indian and American commentators began to highlight Quad’s security agenda vis-à-vis China. Just after the summit in March 2021, Dhruv Jaishankar and Tanvi Madan wrote in Foreign Affairs: ‘As its [Quad’s] members increasingly find themselves at loggerheads with Beijing, the group has become a test case for a new kind of flexible multilateral partnership designed to shape the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific…’

But this enthusiasm did not last. A conscious course-correction was affected at the in-person summit in Washington in September 2021. The security element in Quad was diluted and was replaced by focus on cooperation in areas of long-term interest such as: the Covid-19 vaccine initiative; the Quad Stem fellowship; a cybersecurity initiative; green shipping; clean-hydrogen partnership; and 5G deployment and semiconductor supply chain initiative. This seemed to have been done at India’s initiative to play down the Quad as a security grouping directed at China while the confrontation at the Sino-Indian border was persisting.

Limitations of Quad: The same Jaishankar-Madan duo again wrote in Foreign Affairs in May 2022 to call for ‘deepening its [Quad’s] security engagement’ and developing ‘a more robust security agenda’, even if it exacerbated existing tensions.

However, beyond this gung-ho rhetoric from Indian-origin academics resident in the US, there are several writers advocating a more cautious approach. Thus, Mark Valencia, writing in Foreign Policy, has noted that the phrases ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ and ‘rules-based international order’ merely refer to the international system built and dominated by the US and its western allies. Thus, Quad verbiage is nothing more than an attempt ‘to constrain, contain and, if necessary, confront China’.

Valencia has also rightly questioned the US focus on the ‘Indo-Pacific’. In the American view, this space ends at the east coast of India. India’s crucial interests, on the other hand, lie in the western Indian Ocean, which is outside the Quad’s domain of interest. In fact, as Michael Kugelman has pointed out, “The United States does not have a formal Indian Ocean strategy”. In the US understanding, the Indo-Pacific simply includes countries that have been cobbled together to enable it to encircle China.

Even within the so-called Indo-Pacific, none of the principal nations has shown any interest in joining a US-led security cabal against China. What they want, as Kelly Grieco and Jennifer Kavanagh have written, is ‘Multialignment—when states form overlapping relationships with several major powers’. The writers quote the Singapore prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, who noted China’s ‘substantial presence’ in the region and advised that countries ‘must learn to live with China’ and work with China on issues where they have differences.

Being at the centre of the Indian Ocean and having engaged with its neighbours on the east and west for several millennia, India has a good understanding of the ocean’s dynamics and its own interests. India is well-aware that, of the four Quad members, it is the only country that shares a border with China, a border that is 3,500-km long and is entirely undemarcated. Thus, India’s interests lie in minimising sources of friction with its northern neighbour; membership of a security alliance that is overtly directed at China does not serve India’s interests.

US Blandishments: In the runup to Modi’s visit to the US in June, the latter mounted a major effort to bring India into its strategic embrace. Over the previous months, India hosted the US’s treasury and commerce secretaries, the secretary of state and the national security adviser. The commerce secretary, Gina Raimondo, gushed publicly that Modi’s commitment to his people was “just indescribable and deep and passionate and real and authentic”.

In the US, the three-day visit, described by Ed Luce in The Financial Times as ‘Operation Seduce Modi’, was marked by extraordinary pomp and pageantry which thrilled the hearts of Indians at home and their four-million brethren in the US itself. For them, this was a well-deserved acknowledgement of the status and achievements of their modern-day messiah. During his address to Congress, Modi pleased his American hosts with a veiled reference to China when he said: “The dark clouds of coercion and confrontation are casting a shadow in the Indo-Pacific.” Within a few days of Modi’s return, The Financial Times carried a full-page article headlined: ‘How India is moving into the US orbit.’

The US agenda is clear. It sees India as a crucial political and military partner in its competition with China in the Indo-Pacific. Hence, its defence cooperation with India is aimed at upgrading the Indian military’s fighting capabilities (through US weapons, technology and joint exercises) and the quality of its maritime facilities so that they can be used by the US and its allies. Interoperability—in respect of equipment, capabilities, support facilities and shared experience of wartime situations—is at the heart of this agenda.

India on its part seeks to upgrade its military capabilities and, with technological inputs, its economy in general, but still rejects the idea of an alliance with the US. Several American commentators find this hard to understand or accept. Thus, in an interview before Modi’s visit, a former official from the Trump presidency, Lisa Curtis, said “India should choose the West”, and added that “there is a cost to overall US strategy” if India took the benefits from the US relationship but failed to back the US militarily in the Indo-Pacific.


Strategic Autonomy

India’s policymakers, led by Modi himself, have shown little enthusiasm for US blandishments. Soon after his return from the US, Modi spoke to Putin on the phone and had what has been described as a ‘substantive and constructive’ conversation. He is also said to have backed Putin in putting down the mutiny by the Wagner leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. A day later, external affairs minister Jaishankar said the Indo-US partnership ‘has come of age’ and was ‘based on collaboration and driven by mutual interests and respect’. But he added that his effort would be to ‘advance on multiple major relationships all at the same time in the best possible fashion.’

This approach makes sense from the Indian perspective. An Indian military alignment with the US in the Indo-Pacific would define India as hostile to China’s interests in the region and even inimical to China’s concerns relating to the movement of its imports and exports across the Indian Ocean. Thus, China’s maritime strategy in the Indian Ocean would include a hostile India in its calculus. An associated problem relates to the Indian Navy patrolling the South China Sea alongside other Quad navies, as has been suggested by the US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Near Eastern Affairs, Daniel Kritenbrink. This would signal to the Chinese the loss of India’s strategic autonomy and evoke considerable Chinese animosity, with little advantage to India itself.

India is correctly seen by its partners as the ‘weak link’ in the Quad; while the other three members are tied to each other with formal security agreements, India has no such arrangement with any of them. What it has are bilateral engagements with each of them in the shape of 2+2 dialogue platforms that periodically bring foreign and defence ministers together for joint interactions. Alongside this, India has close ties with Russia and several other non-western nations, the scenario being referred to as “multialignment” founded on strategic autonomy.

India understands that the US has a global footprint reflecting its worldwide interests and responsibilities. Its foreign policy interests and approaches are also in constant flux, often based on the fresh thinking and directions of new administrations. Affirming this is the fact that a few days before Modi’s arrival in Washington, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was in Beijing for discussions with Chinese leaders on managing their competitions in the political, economic and technological areas.

This has been followed by the visit of treasury secretary Janet Yellen in early July which, according to US sources, focused on ‘recalibrating ties between the world’s two largest economies, as military communications remain frozen and Beijing’s new restrictions on exports of some metals spark fresh tensions’. In this scenario of Sino-US competition and cooperation, it would be truly foolhardy for India to tie itself with the US, with its rapidly-shifting policy approaches vis-a-vis its northern neighbour.

In his recent book The India Way, Jaishankar has pointed out that strategic autonomy was not just keeping a safe distance from dominant players; it is instead ‘a derivative of capabilities, allowing the fending off of pressures and exercise of choices’. In the foreseeable future, India will remain an active member of Brics, SCO, Quad and other groupings that serve its interests, but it will itself set the terms of its participation and the nature and extent of its role to achieve the interests it seeks to obtain in each grouping.

(The author, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune. His latest book, West Asia at War: Repression, Resistance and Great Power Games, was published last year.)



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