Decoding India’s new multi-alignment plan - Hindustan Times
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Decoding India’s new multi-alignment plan

Aug 02, 2022 06:25 PM IST

Indian policymaking has often been criticised for its moral indecisiveness, diplomatic reticence, and ideological confusion. Such criticisms fail to observe the subtle shifts in Indian foreign policy from non-alignment to multi-alignment

On July 15, Tehran Times celebrated the arrival of two 40-ft containers into its Caspian Sea port of Anzali. The containers had commenced their journey a month ago from Saint Petersburg in Russia, entered the Caspian Sea at Astrakhan port, and were headed towards India’s Nhava Sheva port off Mumbai. The journey signalled the launch of the International North-South Transport Corridor (INSTC), a 7,200-kilometre multi-modal transport corridor that combines road, rail and maritime routes, connecting Saint Petersburg to Mumbai.

India’s departure from non-alignment to multi-alignment is exemplified by its role in INSTC and Quad. (ANI) PREMIUM
India’s departure from non-alignment to multi-alignment is exemplified by its role in INSTC and Quad. (ANI)

The legal framework for INSTC is provided by an agreement signed by India, Iran, and Russia in September 2000. Since then, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Oman, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Syria have signed accession instruments to join INSTC. Once fully operational, INSTC is expected to reduce freight costs by 30% and the journey time by 40% compared to the deep-sea route via the Suez Canal.

The launch of INSTC was overshadowed by the joint declaration of the Quad summit in May, in which the leaders of the United States (US), Japan, Australia and India re-emphasised the principles of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The declaration went beyond outlining commitments to freedom, the rule of law, and territorial integrity to reinforce a central purpose of the collective, providing the region with public goods. In addition, a slew of new initiatives designed to deepen cooperation across the region was announced, encompassing maritime security, the climate crisis, and regional infrastructure.

India’s involvement in both arrangements will not come as a surprise to careful observers of foreign policy. As a founder-member of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), India distanced itself from the two rival camps during the Cold War era. More recently, India refrained from condemning and supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, illustrating its refusal to be drawn into great power rivalries.

However, India’s involvement in diverse — almost antagonistic camps — should not be confused with non-alignment, which entails a refusal to side with opposing alliances, camps and groupings. For example, during the Cold War, India refused to be drawn into rival pacts such as the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization or the Warsaw Pact. By contrast, India’s strategy since the turn of the millennium is one of proactive involvement not only in joining rival alliances but in creating them. Departing from non-alignment, India’s strategy is one of multi-alignment: Actively seeking out allies who may otherwise be at loggerheads with each other; and working with them to pursue its interests and ideas.

India’s departure from non-alignment to multi-alignment is exemplified by its role in INSTC and Quad. INSTC offers a platform for India to collaborate with Russia, Iran, and the Central Asian Republics towards fostering a Eurasian Free Trade Area. Indian policymaking has often been criticised for its moral indecisiveness, diplomatic reticence, and ideological confusion. Such criticisms fail to observe the subtle shifts in Indian foreign policy from non-alignment to multi-alignment.

India’s multi-alignment strategy offers it crucial leverage against China, with which it seeks to compete militarily and economically, but recognises its weaknesses: India’s military budget is just over a quarter of China’s, and its Gross Domestic Product slightly over a third. India’s multi-alignment strategy allows it to compensate for its weaker capacities relative to China without overtly relying on alternative power.

India assiduously stays out of arrangements with China at the helm, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). However, it does not mind being involved in arrangements where China is one of the several players, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Indeed, as a co-member of the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) grouping, India was instrumental in co-founding the New Development Bank (NDB), a new multilateral initiative expected to rival the World Bank. India’s rivalry with China does not preclude cautious cooperation while consolidating alternative arrangements in Eurasia, such as INSTC.

INSTC has received far less media attention than initiatives such as Quad, BRI, and NDB. However, as a transcontinental corridor that aims to bring Eurasia closer together, INSTC is a laudable initiative in its own right. That it helps India consolidate its multi-alignment strategy sweetens the deal.

Indrajit Roy is senior lecturer, global development politics, department of politics, University of York The views expressed are personal

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