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Working With/In Nonalignment
In a recent post, I advocated for an expanded American strategic relationship with India. High-level cooperation between the two countries would create a disincentive toward aggressive action on the part of China. Expanding the partnership may therefore be an effective means of securing regional balance. The growth of this relationship, however, should not be solely based on overtures of threats to India’s national security.
Such an approach would go against India’s longstanding dominant strategy of Nonalignment. As Ashley Tellis argues in a 2012 paper exploring the implications of this policy in the modern context, New Delhi is suspicious of alliances that—in a neo-imperialist bent—would limit its room for maneuver. Pushing too hard for cooperation that is comparable to the United State’s level of engagement with NATO, for instance, would raise suspicions in India.
Fortunately, a joint statement from the Department of State on the Fourth U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue on June 24th confirms that the Obama Administration understands this lesson. While cooperation in business and global development play a large role in the joint statement, engagement on the regional strategic front is expanded through existing mechanisms for regional dialogue like ASEAN and IOR-ARC.
Support by the Numbers
Nonalignment aside, the US has strong support in the Indian population. According to a recent poll, 75% of Indians would like to see US-India relations strengthen over the next ten years. 62% also rank the United States as the number one country in the world that they would like to emulate, followed by Singapore at 58%. Apropos: 78% of Indians believe it would be better if India’s political system worked more like that of the United States. The United States should take swift action to continue capitalizing on these positive attitudes.
That said the United States should not do so by continually reiterating China’s threatening postures. It is true that 83% of Indians view their northern neighbor as a security threat. Equally notable, however, is the fact that 63% would like that relationship to improve. If the US can secure a position of soft-power leadership by building ties between the two powers, while emphasizing greater economic and civil society development in India, the partnership may begin strengthening without the need for explicit, high-level dialogues and agreements.
Sticking to the Carrots
The key to overcoming Nonalignment may be nuanced rhetoric on the part of the US. Policymakers would need to balance overtures of potential threats (read: String of Pearls) with gains to be had from expanding ties with the US.
With such ample room for dialogue with the Indian public, US policymakers should note India’s desire for an expanded role in regional economic matters. New Delhi growing its trade-relations with Pakistan following the granting of MFN status from Islamabad is one indication of positive movement to this end. Concurrently, as perceptions in Burma continue to solidify around China being an exploitative partner, this presents the United States with an opportunity to grow ties with an important regional player on India's border. US investment in Burma should grow to commensurate with this opportunity. Expanding cooperation with such nations will help make a more comprehensive relationship with America inevitable for India, as a more active regional foreign policy brings it into closer cooperation with established allies. Burma may someday consider itself part of this group, though for now, the signing of several trade agreements with South Korea and Japan has certainly put India on this path.
This regional context indicates that India is poised for a period of sustained economic cooperation with all its neighbors, including China. Given India’s policy of Nonalignment, the US must advocate such practical cooperation while branding itself as indispensible to the process of bilateral bridge-building. It must help broker the deals and, with the work of organizations like the US-India Business Council, advocate for more open markets—a cause for which the US is likely to find support among the Indian public. To wit: business ties are already at an all-time high in spite of the economic downturn, and American companies provide Indian investors some of their best returns.
Using carrots such as expanded energy imports would show India that there exist points of mutual self-interest. Working with India as a partner in developing global social programs in Sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan would further build cooperation to a point where Nonalignment becomes functionally moot. These are exactly the kind of points that were touched on during the Fourth Strategic Dialogue, and as such, there is cause for optimism in hoping that India and the USA—natural partners for their shared democratic values and global aspirations—draw into a closer and more profitable relationship.