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India and Nato

The road to NATO
September 2008

India’s foreign policy has historically been based on what is described as the principles of ‘non alignment’. Whilst in theory India remained neutral to conflicting positions between the United States and the Soviet Union, in practice it was perceived largely as a Russian ally. Foreign policy in the early days was determined on strategic considerations. Effectively, Russia became India’s leading arm supplier and this relationship stood the test of three decades. However, things have gradually started to change.

The first move towards a transition began on the 9th November, 1989 with the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Russia’s satellite countries that constituted the erstwhile Eastern Block, quickly disengaged and the Soviet Union collapsed as a military power. India, too, commenced a programme of economic reforms, in 1991, under the PV Narasimha Rao administration leading to an integration with other countries, many of whom had traditionally been on the other side. With these changes, a new thought process was crystallised in the Foreign Office and the essence of foreign policy formulation began shifting from strategic to economic considerations.

Policy makers realised that a growing market and economic influence would attract the interest of foreign nations and India could quite easily negotiate two seemingly separate issues on the same discussion table. Those countries that were prepared to support New Delhi’s position on geo-political issues would get easier access to India’s market. Economic and foreign policies were now being drafted with national interests and in a manner that was logically more complementary. It was at this stage that the United States began to take an inquisitive interest in India. New Delhi had moved up the pecking order and the US Department of State under the Clinton administration acknowledged India as being important. However, in matters of foreign policy, the urgent always overrides the significant. The State Department had other contentious issues to address – the Middle East peace process, for example, which was then at its peak, logically occupied Washington’s larger mind-share.

Everything changed on 11th May, 1998 when a large mushroom cloud appeared unexpectedly in the Thar Desert. India had exploded a thermo-nuclear device. The State Department’s top priority instantly turned to engaging India into a discussion involving nuclear non-proliferation and comprehensive test ban treaties. Following an initial period of economic sanctions imposed by the US, Indo-US relations began to thaw under the Clinton administration. President Clinton visited India and spoke of a longer term strategic partnership. Jaswant Singh, India’s then Foreign Minister, rightly described the past as “fifty wasted years”.

More recently, under the Bush administration, Indo-US relations moved even closer. President Bush, in fact, bent backwards when he offered a nuclear agreement to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visit to Washington. The Republican administration was then so concerned about the sensitivities involving this issue that it even refused to take the all powerful Senate foreign relations committee into confidence before making the offer. Hopefully, in the next few months, the Indo-US Nuclear Agreement would be finally sealed.

Quite logically, with India’s growing proximity to the United States, its relationship with Moscow began to suffer. Contentious issues cropped up as irritants, for instance in the supply of military hardware. Seeking a replacement for aircraft carrier INS Virat, the Ministry of Defence had placed on order on Russian suppliers for a ship decommissioned by the Russian navy. The original cost of refitting was estimated at Rs 2000 crores to be delivered in 2008. The Russians subsequently hiked the price to Rs 6000 crores and delayed delivery to 2012. New Delhi was understandably unhappy with this situation but had little choice. As things stand, India’s defence capability is still acutely dependent on Russian supplies. The bulk of the Air Force, for instance, is comprised of MIG and Sukhoi fighter squadrons, although India does possess a smattering of French and British aircrafts.

American defence contractors were previously unable to do business in India, but this now seems to be changing. Washington is more willing to grant waivers towards the sale of sophisticated weaponry and the transfer of military technology. Recently, Lockheed Martin announced that they would supply six Super Hercules C130s to India in a deal worth USD 1 billion. The Government’s new defence procurement policy actively seeks the participation of US suppliers. With the Indo-US Nuclear deal hopefully in place, it is more than likely that a chunk of the estimated USD 50 billion arms procurement contracts will go the American way. In fact, US defence suppliers are keenly positioning themselves with a host of modern weapon systems which Indian forces would be able to use for several years to come. More significantly, India has been invited to participate in military exercises to be hosted later this year under the banner of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. This is significant, as it will be the first ever engagement between Indian and NATO forces, thus leading eventually to the establishment of formal ties.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation is an alliance of 26 countries from North America and Europe. The fundamental role of NATO is to safeguard the freedom and security of its member countries by political and military means. The alliance provides the framework for a trans-Atlantic link through which the security interests of America and her European allies are permanently knitted together. NATO’s important participants include the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Turkey, Spain, Canada and a host of smaller east European and Scandinavian countries. In the Middle East, Israel whilst not a full signatory is effectively a de-facto member. NATO has no presence in the Indian Ocean.

The US Missile Defence System – an important constituent of strategic capability – is deployed in several NATO countries in Europe, the Baltic States, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. In the Pacific Rim, NATO allies comprise of Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan. From Washington’s perspective, India’s participation in the Missile Defence System would seem vital to contain the growing military aspirations of China and, more recently, that of Russia. For now, the US has identified three important issues that constitute longer term threats to its security[1]. Firstly, the menace posed by Islamic fundamentalism personified in the Al Qaeda and its sister organisations. Secondly, the threats from ‘rogue states’, specifically Iran and North Korea who the Americans believe sponsor terrorism. They are understandably concerned that these countries either possess nuclear capability or have the ability to very quickly assemble weapons of mass destruction. Thirdly, the challenge posed by China (most visibly seen in the frequent sabre rattling across the straits towards Taiwan) and now Russia (reinforced recently by its aggression into Georgia).

From India’s perspective, the longer term challenges comprise of Pakistan and its aspirations over Kashmir; Islamic fundamentalism which now appears to be growing rapidly within the country but is allegedly sponsored by Islamabad and the threat of China, now supported by its growing economic clout. The 1962 humiliating defeat following a Chinese aggression, still remains fresh in Indian minds. In fact, when it happened, the world wondered how such a fine army that had shown exemplary performance in North Africa and Burma, during the Second World War, could be reduced to such levels of incompetence. The Chinese threat is reinforced by frequent cross border infringements in Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim. Whilst India’s defence capabilities are a lot stronger than they were in 1962, military analysts suspect that they are unlikely to contain a serious Chinese assault.

The Unites States has been keen on creating a strategic partnership within the Indian Ocean that comprises of India, Singapore, Australia and Japan. The first step would be towards an engagement by naval fleets (the Indian Navy currently patrols the straits of Malacca in partnership with Singapore and the United States) in joint exercises, basically to develop joint operating capability. Ultimately, in our view, all this leads towards India becoming a full member of the NATO.

This concept may sound absurd, as historically India’s strategic position has often been opposed to NATO interests. However, slowly but surely, things are changing, both in terms of longer term strategic imperatives, as also economic and foreign policies. It is possible that the United States would in the fullness of time, at the cost of ruffling the Chinese, be willing to invite India into the organisation. There may be minor irritations expressed by a few countries – for example Turkey, with whom India has little or no engagement. But these problems can be fixed very quickly.
The real challenge to India’s membership into NATO will be internal. A large part of India’s ruling establishment still subscribe to old fashioned views that America can not be trusted and New Delhi should stick by its ‘non-aligned’ ideology. Even within India’s military establishment, the concept of a turnaround will be difficult to swallow. For some odd reasons, the establishment will prefer independence to the security comfort of an alignment. However, over a period of 10 years, this will start to change. A younger breed of politicians informally admit that India’s long term interest, both from a strategic and economic perspective, would be to ally closely with the United States. An alliance of this sort, they believe, need not compromise our national integrity or independence of thought. The increasing number of joint military exercise held with NATO members, including the United States, United Kingdom and France may in fact provide a fresh perspective.

Ultimately policy makers would do well to remember that in foreign relations, assuming that allies are friends forever is dangerous folly. A British Prime Minister in the 19th century, Lord Palmerston, so aptly stated that “England has no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests”. Possibly it is time to admit that the ideology of non-alignment is based on flaky emotions and can no longer constitute the basis of determining India’s future national interests.

[1] National Defense Strategy Paper – US Department of Defense, June 2008


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