Should India Respond To NATO’s Overtures? – Analysis


India continues to be wary about military alliances despite having  multiple international military cooperation projects 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), comprising countries from Europe and North America, has informally sought a partnership with India in an expanded effort to contain Russia and China. 

Apart from 32 full members (including Finland), NATO has 40 partners around the world in Asia, Africa, South America and Oceania. Though India is a strategic partner of the US, receiving equipment and intelligence from Washington, neither the US nor NATO considers India a “non-NATO ally”.

However, both the US and NATO see India as a bulwark against authoritarian China and Russia and want it to be a major non-NATO ally sooner than later.

This wish was verbalized by the US Ambassador to NATO, Julianne Smith, earlier this month while speaking on strengthening relationships with South Asia and the Indo-Pacific. She stated that though there were no plans to expand NATO to be a broader global military alliance, it sought different kinds of partnerships with countries outside it. Such partnerships envisaged political engagement, inter-operability of the armed forces and equipment standardization. 

On India, specifically, Ambassador Smith said that membership was not being opened to anyone in the Indo-Pacific or Asia-Pacific region. However,  paving the way for a partnership with India, she said: “We both at NATO and United States, welcome what India has been able to do for the people of Ukraine. We are very grateful for the humanitarian assistance that India has been able to provide which is critical right now and those needs are only growing. Certainly, appreciate calls coming from India for some sort of immediate end to the war in Ukraine. That’s important. And we have been in constant communication with India about what more we can do together to hold Russia accountable, and we have done that and worked with India, spoken with India several times since Russia started this war inside Ukraine.”

She acknowledged that the US and India did not always share the same policy approaches, but pointed out that the two countries shared a commitment to upholding the rules-based order and ensuring that the key principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity were respected.

Smith pointed out that NATO had been turning its attention to India, as seen in references to the Asia-Pacific and the Indo-Pacific regions in its strategic documents. 

The reason for this shift is the mounting challenge posed by a rising China. India’s troubled border with China and the latter’s claims over the Indian State of Arunachal Pradesh make it a suitable candidate for recruitment to the NATO’s stable. Since 2017, China has been renaming dozens of places in Arunachal Pradesh, a State which China says is “South Tibet” and therefore a part of China. China is also challenging the notion of an “Indian Ocean” which Indians consider an affront.   

Now arises the question if India should have a partnership with NATO.  There are arguments for and against it. The entrenched Indian view is that any close tie-up with NATO could end up with India becoming a part of the global “War on Terror” with all its commitments – commitments it cannot undertake. 

On the other hand, Dr.C.Raja Mohan, writing in the Journal of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University,  Singapore, in July  2022, says that while India had not formally welcomed NATO’s growing outreach to the Indo-Pacific, it had no good reason to shun it. 

“Any additional pressure on China from Europe and NATO cannot but serve India’s interest in balancing Beijing,” he argues.  

And yet, NATO is still taboo in New Delhi. The view there appears to be that any close relationship with a military grouping goes against India’s traditional “non-aligned” status that had given it much elbow room in foreign affairs as well as international respectability for decades in the past. Joining NATO, even peripherally, will go against India’s time-tested policy of not going in for military alliances. And NATO is essentially a military alliance. 

For example, in 1970-71, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi politely told her Soviet allies that India could not accept their offer of a military alliance ahead of the Bangladesh war. Instead, she proposed and got them to sign a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. Thus, India managed to get arms from the Soviets to fight that war without signing a military pact as such. 

The current Modi-Jaishankar duo in New Delhi has put India on the path of “multi-alignment” that is driven by “national interest” rather than by any predetermined relationships. Thanks to this policy, New Delhi has bought oil at a 30% discount and S-400 batteries from Russia, defying US sanctions.

Dr. M.A. Muqtedar Khan, Professor of International Relations at the University of Delaware, warns that if India develops a very close relationship with NATO, it will join Taiwan to be a frontline State in any Sino-American war. Given India’s dislike for stationing foreign troops on its soil, India will have to fight China with its own men (albeit with arms given by the US and NATO). 

India will not only have to contend with the sensitive issue of receiving body bags but also bear the consequences of becoming a client State of the US (like Pakistan) and losing its hard-won independence, Dr.Khan said in video program “Khanversations”.  

However, Dr. C.Raja Mohan takes a more sanguine view of a tie-up with NATO . “An India-NATO dialogue would simply mean having regular contact with a military alliance, most of whose members are well-established partners of India,” he wrote in Indian Express in April 2021.

“India has military exchanges with many members of NATO — including the US, Britain, and France — in bilateral and mini-lateral formats. Why, then, is a collective engagement with NATO problematic? If Delhi does military exercises with two countries with which it has serious security problems — China and Pakistan — under the rubric of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), why should talking to NATO be anathema?” he asks.

Raja Mohan submits that India’s real problem is not with NATO, but with Europe. India was historically involved in a continuous struggle against Europeans. This goes back to colonial times when India battled European powers beginning with the Portuguese and ending with the British.

But he points out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been bringing about a change in the outlook vis-à-vis Europe. Joining the Franco-German Alliance for Multilateralism in 2019 and striking the Rafale fighter deal with France are examples. Reportedly, Modi has been invited by France to attend Bastille Day. 

Modi’s first summit with Nordic nations in 2018 was a recognition that Europe is not a monolith but a continent of sub-regions, Raja Mohan points out. NATO is riven with factionalism. Turkiye, one of its earliest members, has been a continuous problem, with President Erdogan striving to follow an independent foreign policy. He had not been seeing eye to eye with the rest of NATO on human rights and the Kurdish rebellion. Istanbul had opposed the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO. Only now it has okayed the entry of Finland. 

In turn, Turkiye got sanctioned by the US for ordering S-400 from Russia and was punished for financing terrorism by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF). But despite differences, Turkiye has not quit NATO. It still houses US bases. 

India could follow the Turkiye example of being in NATO in some ways and for some reasons, and yet follow an independent foreign policy, some say.

What India will do eventually is not clear. But India would certainly think it through very carefully so that even if it changes its policies it sticks to its core values, namely, independence, sovereignty and dignity. Its primary goal is to pursue its national interest and not be a  lackey of some other power.

P. K. Balachandran

P. K. Balachandran is a senior Indian journalist working in Sri Lanka for local and international media and has been writing on South Asian issues for the past 21 years.

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