Having long avoided formal alliances, the South Asian country offers a useful case study of how a nation can leverage informal global partnerships to pursue strategic objectives.
Global alliances are undergoing profound changes with traditional coalitions increasingly taking a back seat to both formal and informal partnerships. To better understand the impact of these shifts, we look to India, a country that has long maintained a policy of avoiding formal alliances, even as it has leveraged emerging alliances and looser partnerships to bolster its economy, strengthen bilateral relationships, and secure its footing on a global stage. To explore these issues further, we turn to Nirupama Rao, a Wilson Center global fellow who previously served as India's foreign secretary and as Indian ambassador to the US and China. She speaks with Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center's South Asia Institute.
Hello from the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. I'm Michael Kugelman, Director of the Wilson Center South Asia Institute. It's a great pleasure to welcome you to this multimedia feature as part of the Wilson Quarterly's winter 2024 issue, which explores the state of global alliances.
India is a country that has long maintained a policy of avoiding formal alliances—even as it has leveraged emerging alliances and looser partnerships to bolster its economy, strengthen bilateral relationships, and secure its footing on a global stage. To explore these issues further, we turn to Nirupama Rao, a Wilson Center global fellow who previously served as India's Foreign Secretary and as Indian Ambassador to the US and China. Welcome, Ambassador Rao, and thank you for being part of this important conversation.
Ambassador Nirupama Rao (retired):
Thank you very much, Michael. It's wonderful to reconnect with you and friends from the Wilson Center, and I send you warm greetings from Bangalore, India. Thank you so much for including me in this interview.
And thank you. So let's get right to it. I'll start with our first question for you and that is that India has long embraced a policy of strategic autonomy. So can you explain what this is—how it defines India's approach to alliances and why India has pursued this policy?
Amb. Nirupama Rao (ret):
Michael, India is quite unique in terms of the choices it makes on foreign policy. And that uniqueness, I believe, derives from a geography of continental proportions and our peninsular region, which abuts two seas and an ocean; our northern region, which borders the fastnesses of Central Asia in the north; our western regions facing west Asia; and our northeast being a gateway to Southeast Asia. It derives from the diverse makeup of our population, which is also, in numbers, as you're aware, the largest in the world. Our workforce has a steadily growing presence in many important global economies, and their safety and security are a constant concern. Then there are our significant economic and commercial interests. We are the fifth largest economy in the world, with steadily advancing trading and commercial interests globally.
India is a non-allied country, and it has not engaged in alliance relationships with any country. It's a policy that translates into being, and I use the word in the Sanskrit language, Vishwamitra, or a friend to the world, whose approach to global issues is based on reason, on logic, and the desire to build bridges.
We have paramount concerns to ensure our national security in what is a very troubled neighborhood, particularly when you consider our relations with two of our neighbors, China and Pakistan, who remain closely allied to each other. Now, the term strategic autonomy is used by several countries today to describe the sovereign decisions they make in the field of foreign policy. For India, strategic autonomy has signified—and we've mentioned this on a number of occasions—decisional autonomy: the exercise of the independent right to take sovereign decisions predicated on the national interest, keeping always in mind our security concerns, the safety and the security of our citizens, our focus on national development, both social and economic, our rapid race to become a developed country in the next two and a half decades, and to be a unifying voice of reason and resilience in a world that is increasingly driven with fragmentation and fear. It's often stated that India is on no one's side but its own, that it marches to the beat of its own drum. For a country of our size and proportions, that is only to be expected.
Now, such strategic autonomy has meant that India has built strategic partnerships with several countries and that it has friends and partners across various geographies. Strategic autonomy has also meant that India is a non-allied country—I use the word allied, I'm not talking about aligned—and it has not engaged in alliance relationships with any country. It's a policy that, in Prime Minister Modi's words, translates into being, and I use the word in the Sanskrit language, Vishwamitra, or a friend to the world, whose approach to global issues is based on reason, on logic, and the desire to build bridges (rather than destroy them), and to infuse multilateralism with the essence of what it's meant to be, providing voice and representation to the Global South, and building a more equitable and balanced world order.
Strategic autonomy for India also means that we will seek to build issue-based coalitions to defend our interests, whether against terrorism, on the subject of climate change, on energy, on food security, and in the defense of our territorial integrity and our democracy, and also that we support a rules-based global order. I also believe that strategic autonomy is best suited for a country that desires leading power status as it steers course on the choppy global seas that mark a polarized world today.
Thank you for that. Really interesting. Now let's dig into that a bit more with this next question I'm going to ask you. When talking about emerging and more flexible types of partnerships, few countries have engaged in them more than India, which is, as you know, part of BRICS, the Indo-Pacific Quad, I2U2, which is a newer Quad that also includes Israel and the UAE, the SCO, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Trilateral Commission, just to name a few. So why do you think that India has chosen this particular approach?
Amb. Nirupama Rao (ret):
Yeah, that's an interesting question. In my estimation, this approach stems directly from our policy of strategic autonomy and our independent approach to building partnerships, whether bilateral or plurilateral, to advance our strategic, our security, our economic, and development interests.
These arrangements allow India both flexibility, as well as maneuvering capacity, in a complex global environment. They enable India to safeguard its interests and those of its people. And most importantly they allow India to retain independence of action in very difficult circumstances.
India is not the only country to follow such an approach today. For the developed world and the Global North, I believe there is a need to hear the many voices that inhabit the global garden. Each of the organizations you just mentioned [plays] an important part in highlighting and advancing specific sets of concerns, whether economic, regional, or security-related, or sometimes a combination of all these. A country like India is particularly keen on sharing the fruits of our own development experience, as in digital technology and infrastructure, for instance, with our friends in the Global South. And this was an aspect, I think, that found a lot of salience and emphasis in the recently concluded G20 summit in New Delhi, as you well know.
Another example is that an organization like the Quad provides a crucial forum of shared interests across various sectors for its member countries, all of them democracies—the United States, India, Japan, and Australia—in the Indo-Pacific, in such fields as developing supply chain resilience, disaster resistance, resistant infrastructure, maritime domain awareness and security, the safety of sea lanes of communication, and building regional support for a rules-based international order. India's membership in many of these groupings is a factor of the voice, the reputational weight, and the value it brings to any discussion or forum that advances the global public good in concrete ways.
I think that one of the points you made about how India might be a leader in this strategic autonomy policy—you see this being pursued by so many other countries in the Global South, particularly those that had been in the non-aligned movement. I think that's a very important point to make.
Amb. Nirupama Rao (ret):
Michael, you saw at the G20 summit the fact that we were able to achieve consensus on the outcome document—especially on the issue of Ukraine. I think it was a measure of the kind of value that India is able to bring to these discussions, largely because of the credibility it enjoys on both sides of the spectrum. It's not a question of taking sides one way or the other, but a question of the kind of content that India is able to bring to the discussion and the ability to bridge divides—which I think is most important.
Absolutely. In talking about all these partnerships and coalitions and collaborations, is there a specific partnership or a grouping that you feel deserves particular attention in terms of how it has enabled India to achieve its foreign policy goals? Or in terms of how it has posed challenges for India to achieve those goals?
Amb. Nirupama Rao (ret):
Before I tackle that—a question that's often asked is whether all these different groupings have allowed India to accomplish what traditional alliances have not—I believe that these arrangements allow India both flexibility, as well as maneuvering capacity, in a complex global environment. They enable India to safeguard its interests and those of its people. And most importantly, and I'd like to really underscore this, they allow India to retain independence of action in very difficult circumstances. Our history as a nation has taught us that we have no option but to be the sole guardians of our destiny, our current well-being, and our future progress. And we must be able to make those sovereign choices necessary in this regard. Traditional alliances have never been our choice in all these decades of our existence as an independent republic. However, we've chosen to enter into key, high-yield, multifaceted partnerships with some countries, and our relationship with the United States is a shining example.
Now, going to your question about whether there's a specific partnership or grouping that deserves particular attention, I'll take my last argument forward. I think our partnership with the United States is an example of how democracy, development, demography, and defense have been synchronized between our two countries. Our values as democracies coincide, we share similar goals for the welfare and progress of our peoples, there's a strong human quotient to our relationship—especially with the Indian-American diaspora serving as a bridge—and our defense and security interests are closely aligned (ours and the United States interests, particularly in the Indo -Pacific). And our task— I do not call it a challenge—is to further toughen the sinews of this relationship since it's a force for universal good. That's to answer your question about a specific partnership or grouping that deserves particular attention.
Coalitions of shared interests, rather than alliances, in the traditional definition of the term are best geared to meet the complex challenges we face and may well configure the global security architecture for the future.
And in the same context, I'd say the same would apply to the Quad, especially after our showdown, India's showdown, that is, with China on the northern border in Ladakh in the summer of 2020 and the repercussions that flowed from that military clash—and the fact that India and the United States engaged in a whole range of consultations following those unfortunate events in the summer of 2020, in fact, just as the pandemic also broke upon the world. And flowing from that also, the fact that you saw a kind of reemergence, a rebirth, of the Quad as it were, in the months that followed, and the fact that today the Quad has emerged as an institution, as an organization that has so many areas of common ground between ourselves and the United States, and as I mentioned, fellow democracies like Japan and Australia.
So these groupings, I think, acquire contours that become increasingly important as a result of the global events and situations that often challenge us.
Thank you very much. I think it's really interesting that you cited the US-India relationship as an example of how these types of partnerships could work for India. As you know, there are some critics in the US [who] believe that this relationship could face challenges down the road, given that India doesn't participate in the traditional alliance system. But as you've very nicely laid out, that doesn't necessarily have to be the case—and I think full credit has to be given to both the US and the Indian sides for allowing this partnership to really flourish, you know, using innovative approaches. So, thank you for that.
Do you think that there is a possibility that India's approach might change one day? And if so, what factors could provoke such a policy shift?
Amb. Nirupama Rao (ret):
Looking at our foreign policy—and I think it applies to the foreign policy of any country in the world today—foreign policy is always forged on the anvil of domestic concerns and the interests of the people in that country. And a country such as India, with aspirations to be a leading power, will naturally have to be very adroit and far-seeing in the choices it makes to defend its national security and its interests. And these are choices, obviously, that have to be India's alone. The world is a very difficult place today and the region in which we are situated as a country (in which India is situated) is a very troubled one, with mounting trust deficits between countries. India's interests are, however, increasingly aligned with our friends among the Western democracies and our sister states in the Global South. A term our foreign minister, Dr. Jaishankar, used recently that we are “southwest” in the choices we make is, I think, quite appropriate.
Coalitions of shared interests, rather than alliances, in the traditional definition of the term are best geared (in my view) to meet the complex challenges we face and may well configure the global security architecture for the future.
Thank you very much. This really is interesting. And I have to say that this context that you provided is invaluable for our Wilson Quarterly readership and viewership and listenership because I think that many observers might look at something such as what happened several years ago. And you had mentioned the Ladakh clash when China and India experienced this incredibly deadly border clash—the deadliest violence between the two since the two went to war in the '60s. And very soon after that clash broke out, as you recall, Dr. Jaishankar (the External Affairs Minister) said that India will never join an alliance system. And I think many in the US were thinking what an interesting time to make that statement when one would think that perhaps there was ever a time when one would expect India to be receptive to the idea of furthering or pursuing some type of alliance with the US, it would be now. And I think that your comments here really provided some very useful context to help us understand why Dr. Jaishankar would have said that when he did.
Before we wrap, do you have any closing thoughts for us?
Amb. Nirupama Rao (ret):
I'd like to say, Michael, of course, a very big thank you. But also add that we often use the term “alliance” in the context in which we have traditionally understood it. And I think that whole structure of alliances that is so much of a post-World War II—or even post-Congress of Vienna concept—has been altered significantly and radically with all that we see around us, and even since the end of the Cold War and then, of course, the post-Cold War situation that we face today, the emergence of many new countries, growing economies like India, countries such as India which are taking their place as leading powers on the global stage. I think we need a redefinition of all the terms that we've been so familiar with, and I think I would emphasize that perhaps the term coalition, really coalitions of shared interests, issue-based coalitions, are really part of the lexicon for the future, and perhaps the word alliance may be somewhat dated in that sense.
Interesting. Well, on that note, thank you again for being with us, Ambassador Rao. This has been great. And to our audience: I thank you for joining us. And I hope that you take some time to explore the rest of The Wilson Quarterly’s winter issue.
Cover image: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)