For a few years now, it became visible that South Asia has seen a rearrangement of its balance of power, especially due to India’s close ties to the United States. Since the beginning of the 21st century, both countries seem to share common strategic interests regarding security issues in the subcontinent and also the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). On the other hand, China’s exclusive partnership with Pakistan has guaranteed its foothold in the region, growing regional insecurity over the consequences of its One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative. Moreover, the South Asia Regional Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) seems to be at a delicate stage of affairs since the escalation of tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad in Kashmir, which reached a new peak of confrontations starting at mid-2015.
The approximation between India-U.S, and between China-Pakistan has turned the region into a hotspot for two different blocks, with the potential to change the status quo in the area. It resembles, to some extent the configuration of the subcontinent in the Cold War period. Back in the late 1960’s, South Asia was somewhat divided into two geopolitical poles, an outcome of the bipolarity of international system: one comprised of India and the Soviet Union; the other, by Pakistan and the U.S. Both superpowers got involved in the issues concerning the Indo-Pakistani conflict and provided military, financial and political support to their respective partners, as part of regional mutual counterbalancing strategies.
Certainly, India is now a much different country than it was during the Cold War. Since the beginning of the 1990’s, it started to reshape its foreign policy according to the new international system, developing a greater autonomy in external affairs in a more pragmatic manner. While Russia is still an important partner, especially for Defense and energy sectors, New Delhi has managed to restructure its approach towards Washington and construct a stable relationship between both countries. The first sign of changing winds was given in 2005, with the signing of Civil Nuclear Agreement and the further convergence of speeches regarding opinions on issues like Israel’s conflict with Palestine and China’s growing influence in the IOR. India has realized that rather than sticking to idealist or moralistic concepts, its foreign policy should be centered on national interests and on maximizing its gains on bilateral and multilateral arrangements.
By enhancing ties with several different countries in all regions of the world, India has replaced the ‘non-alignment’ approach with economic diplomacy and multi-alignment, with positive results from this shift. Pakistan, on the other hand, jumped in partnership with China and made it its most valuable ally in the region, since the U.S. has been distrusted of Islamabad ever since the 9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terror” disclosed by Bush’s administration, which labeled Pakistan a “terrorist sponsor state.” China, in turn, saw an opportunity to establish itself in South Asia by offering assistance in development and infrastructure programs and occupying a vacuum left when the Americans started to move away from Islamabad. The whole China-Pakistan Economic Corridor venture is an example of this friendship.
Since Narendra Modi took office as Prime Minister of India, one can point out that multi-alignment and economic diplomacy are still two imperatives of his foreign policy. As aforementioned, that means having autonomy to define which regions or group of countries are relevant for India to maximize its gains while seeking new non-traditional partners. Some analysts point out that New Delhi doesn’t have allies since it means being compromised with a set of goals, values, and morals that won’t necessarily fit India’s interests – in some cases, they could even limit them. A good example is the Afghanistan War, in which it has acted as an independent actor, providing arms, economic and political support to the Ashraf Gani regime without engaging directly with the U.S. and NATO at most of the time. Washington has never actually included India in its strategy in a straightforward sense until last week, in Trump’s speech. This autonomous stance gave New Delhi some level of freedom of action with significant achievements for its national interest. With its Chabahar Port project, in Iran, India ambitioned a strategic position in the Strait of Hormuz and also an important maritime direct access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. In June this year, the India-Afghanistan air corridor was unveiled, with the aim of boosting regional connectivity bypassing Pakistan.
Taking all of the aspects above into consideration, would it be wise for India to align with the United States in the Afghan conflict? There is no evidence to sustain an affirmative answer to this question. Then again, it could damage the efforts made in the last 20 years towards multi-alignment and undermine India’s regional insertion. Further polarization could mean a more hostile Pakistan and China and also damage New Delhi’s regional image – which is not that good still. Most countries of South Asia mistrust the U.S. intentions and its tradition of interference in the internal affairs of other nations. The Cold War taught the subcontinent that this kind of regional configuration changes the status quo in a way that tends to toughen existing animosities. In this case, the change of status quo would not benefit New Delhi nor its foreign policy. Additionally, it would damage India’s relationship with long-term partner Russia, since Moscow and Washington are fighting on opposite sides.
Rather than relying on international strategies with uncertain benefits, India should reinforce multi-alignment as the basis of its current foreign policy – and that means not fighting in someone else’s war. The consequences of alignment would extrapolate Afghanistan to affect the balance of power in South Asia, particularly regarding border conflicts and animosities. Only by preserving its autonomy of action in the region can New Delhi strengthen its regional power projection consistently with its national interests.