Indian Non-Alignment in the 21st Century


“But India is neither on the US side nor on China’s side, but has its own agenda,” remarked Chinese strategic analyst Wang Dehua recently while reacting to a statement made by an Indian Minister in Parliament about the number of border transgressions attributable to the Chinese in the past couple of years[i].

That agenda he referred to essentially revolves around India sustaining its interests in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. It is India’s willingness to balance these interests with that of other powers, which drives its present day non-alignment posture. In a globalized world, India’s non-alignment has become more of an issue-based alignment practice wherein India forwards its support on a reciprocal basis, depending on the context and its own compulsions. If the world of the twenty-first century is indeed one characterized by a G-Zero framework[ii], then there are probably few others more adept than India at navigating it.


Circa 1991, the Indian economy was in its most difficult situation since independence, epitomized by the fact that it had foreign exchange reserves that barely covered two weeks’ worth of imports.[iii] The situation was compounded by the fact that one of its chief trading partners, the Soviet Union, was coming apart while the Washington Consensus loomed larger than ever. In this background, India embarked on a path of reforms and liberalization which put it on a growth trajectory that has made it one of the engines of the world economy. However, the economic opening up orchestrated by then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao was also accompanied by a “Look East Policy”[iv] which sought to integrate India with the Tiger economies of East Asia that had followed a different economic path from India post World War II. Look East was actually the first articulation of a policy which sought to increase everyone else’s stakes in India’s future. It was a time when India’s Nehruvian foreign policy establishment had to yield space to various economic ministries that were being remolded by Narasimha Rao to understand that trade was indeed diplomacy by other means.


That India’s market was its biggest hedge in troubled times, characterized by a unipolar moment being enjoyed by the very superpower that India didn’t quite see eye to eye with during the cold war, was a lesson well internalized by the Indian policy-making establishment. The nineties were characterized with both a Clinton administration admonishing India on Kashmir and pressurizing it to slow down various strategic defense programs,[v] as well as by the fact that millions of Indians were now drinking Coca-Cola. Interestingly, it was a time when non-alignment was rather easy to project – the world had but one victorious side left.


Despite the liberalization of the Indian economy, it was clear that China and Pakistan, who had both had been on the right side in the Cold War, were looking to use the unipolar moment to increase their own space to the detriment of India. The United States was very much in interventionist mode and India’s former fellow traveler on the non-alignment bus, Yugoslavia, was being systematically dismantled. At the same time, geopolitics was once again being characterized by non-proliferation, with even a reduced Russia deriving some traction from its status as a nuclear weapons state. With the Clinton Administration looking to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) into force[vi], India decided that the window for a nuclear breakout was fast closing. The Indian economy was in a goldilocks state (not too cold or hot) as far as sanctions were concerned. It was not as integrated with the world economy as was necessary for sanctions to have really hurt, nor was the potential of its market unknown given the new economic policies instituted almost a decade ago. Indeed, the call of India’s market did allow it to ride out the sanctions that followed and the Pokhran nuclear tests of 1998 ultimately paved the way for even greater engagement with the world, because ironically now the world had to create stakes in India for its own future.[vii]


Indian corporates, who had consolidated in the nineties to weather out the change from a protected license raj economy to one which had to compete with global majors, were now beginning to spread their wings again, and not just in India. Globalization had facilitated the growth of various sunrise industries in India which were making it the back office of the world. Concomitantly, a burgeoning middle class emerged, fuelling India’s thirst for resources much the same way it had in China a decade earlier. The need to secure energy and mineral resources broadened the horizons of Indian industry further as India entered the global hunt for the various juices that drive all economies.


Of course, any hunt by its very nature will be composed of competing predators. And to keep conflict at bay, it is best if predators demarcate territory and actively signal their willingness to defend the same. India’s needs have made it delineate a ‘legitimate’ area of interest stretching from the Persian Gulf to the straits of Malacca, essentially the most navigated part of the Indian Ocean.[viii] India’s trade, after all, is overwhelmingly seaborne and this area of interest well defines both the routes that trade traverses, as well regions crucial to India’s energy security, both present and future.


To lend credence to its oft-stated goal of being a net provider of security in its area of interest, India is currently building up its power projection capabilities. Though India started its current military modernization program post the Kargil War of 1999, augmentation of the navy and air force without-of- area capabilities has proceeded much faster than commensurate augmentation to the army. This actually runs somewhat counter to the rhetoric at the time which was focused on securing India’s land borders. However, it clearly shows that India’s military buildup is dovetailed to its geo-economic progress.


Indeed, a majority of diplomatic and military decisions taken by India in recent times center around securing its geo-economic interests. The fall of the Soviet Union, and the economic rise of China pursuing a capitalistic trading model, convinced Indian policymakers that old-world-styled military power and alliance building would not suffice to guarantee the security and prosperity of a nation, especially in a networked age. The emergence of the internet and satellite television have served to flatten popular aspirations across the globe, and no country can pretend to be secure if it is not perceived by its populace to be actively increasing the standards of living. After all, glasnost and perestroika resulted in accentuating the collapse of the Soviet Union which never really did match the United States economically and ultimately went broke trying to match it militarily, despite the economic weakness.


Of course, the Soviet Union also lacked a major public good – freedom – where India scores rather high, warts and all. The fact that democratic institutions and the rule of law are already well established in India mean that the Indian state has to primarily deliver economic development for its writ to hold greater sway. As such, the Indian polity is typically loath to divert resources away from that goal towards cold war-style arms races. This is evidenced by the fact that India’s annual arms expenditures continue to be less than two percent of gross domestic product.


However, there is little denying the fact that India faces a major constraint to its development with two nuclear-armed rivals on two flanks, whose friendship is claimed to be “taller than the tallest mountains”. The Indian military establishment can, therefore, never discount the possibility of a joint attack by China and Pakistan. Indeed, as the threat of such coordination has grown, India has been forced to once again pay much greater attention to securing its northern borders where Sino-Pak cooperation is heightening, represented by the recent entry of a division of Chinese troops into the Pakistan administered Gilgit-Baltistan region of Kashmir(GB). [ix]


While not readily evident, Tibet, Kashmir and Afghanistan actually represent a geographic continuum that is of great strategic import to a China looking to set up a modern-day silk route. But these are also regions characterized by insurgent violence and unsettled borders, and China has both opportunities as well as vulnerabilities here. As the Chinese state’s capacities have grown, fuelled by the economic miracle, so too has its attention to these areas. In the past decade, Beijing has made massive infrastructural and military investments in both Tibet and Xinjiang and is now looking to use the Gilgit-Baltistan region to create a corridor which will allow it to connect its own transport eco-system with that of Pakistan and eventually gain overland access to Arabian Sea ports.


For India, China’s heightened posture in Tibet has forced it to engage in a counter buildup in the North and North-East. Till about 2005, India had been relatively sanguine about the Chinese respecting a couple of agreements signed between the two sides in the early nineties that looked to keep the Indo-China border at a modest level of militarization, with a view to sorting out differences via dialogue that would keep the possession of so-called settled areas unchanged. However, in 2006, the then Chinese ambassador to India openly stated in an interview to a private Indian news channel that his government was claiming all of the Indian state Arunachal Pradesh, including Tawang,[x] which is a settled area. This represented a definite hardening of China’s position on the border dispute and could not be ignored when seen together with the dual use infrastructure buildup in Tibet.


India has since responded by markedly militarizing its presence on the India-China border with new detachments and deployment infrastructure.[xi] In a way, India’s recent activities on this front mark a departure in the Indian strategic mindset. Earlier, a wholly defensive stratagem was adopted on the border with China wherein border areas were left underdeveloped so that it became difficult for any ingressing forces to make headway. Now, however, the Indian military is clearly planning for offensive thrusts of its own into Tibet if the need arises. The idea being that the best way to negotiate would be to grab Chinese territory which can later be traded for any Indian territory the Chinese may have captured.


The infrastructure build also has a development aspect to it. India seems to realize that the best way to secure frontier areas is to ensure the continued loyalty of the population of that area. After all, the same aspirational argument that holds for the population as a whole also holds for those in the frontier regions. In fact, it becomes even more of an issue when the opposite side i.e. China, has worked frenetically to develop infrastructure right up to the Indian border.


Nevertheless, the shift towards a counter-offensive position is also reflective of a larger change in the Indian ethos. For both Indian corporations as well as individuals, globalization has been a process that has allowed them to taste success abroad and also find that success communicated back home by the media. The Indian diaspora, over twenty-five-million strong, has also been able to re-connect with their ancestral homeland at multiple levels, and are, in fact, instrumental is deepening many of India’s international engagements. The Indian view of things has therefore moved from being an inward-looking “defend whatever you have” kind of thinking to one that seeks to literally go forth and harness opportunities on a larger world stage.


This new more confident mood is something that is increasingly reflected by India’s foreign policy as it is accompanied by a very real enlargement of geo-economic interests worldwide. It also means that India’s non-alignment now is different from that in the years just following independence. That policy catered more towards insulating India from foreign influences whereas this is dovetailed to embellishing India’s growing presence in various parts of the world, something which often reaches critical mass via either diasporic interactions or the emergence of corporate interests, or frequently both. Essentially, in today’s world of interwoven multi-tiered interests and opportunities, India is simply not willing to be circumscribed by becoming part of any overarching alliance.[xii]


India’s stance on the Iran crisis is the foremost example of this doctrine, if it could be called that. During Hillary Clinton’s May 2012 visit to India, New Delhi, while apparently agreeing to cut crude imports from Iran by 11 percent,[xiii] simultaneously hosted a massive Iranian trade delegation looking to take Indo-Iranian trade ties to the next level. Least amused by Washington’s pressure tactics on Iran, India actually vacuumed up cheaper crude from Iran earlier this year, before agreeing to the 11 percent cut. In contrast, China has reduced supplies from Iran by 40 per cent. There is simply no two ways about it – Iran is extremely important for securing India’s energy needs and therefore represents an interest that India cannot sacrifice.


Iran, at various times, has supplied between 12 to 18 per cent of India’s energy needs, and some very big Indian refineries are actually optimized for Iranian crude. Till very recently Iran was also seen as a key source in enabling India’s strategy to switch from oil to gas in the transportation sector in order to cut down on overall emissions. Now, even though the Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline project has not gone anywhere, and the India supported LNG liquefaction terminal at Tombak remains incomplete, Iran is likely to once again figure in India’s plans once the nuclear crisis is settled. While India has turned to Qatar and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline project in the interim as the chief sourcing option, India’s massive needs mean that Iran, with world’s second largest gas reserves, simply cannot be ignored.


Now even as Washington may facilitate India securing its supplies from other sources (which it is already doing on its own anyway) it can never offer a substitute for Iran’s geostrategic location, which is crucial to Indian ambitions in Afghanistan and Central Asia. Besides helping stabilize Afghanistan, Iran is the southernmost node of the International North-South Transport Corridor which will facilitate Indian geo-economic aims in Eurasia via market access and energy sourcing. India has already built elements of the INSTC within Iran and is in talks with other partner countries, such as Azerbaijan, to hasten the project.[xiv]


So just as China wishes to expand westward, by and towards the Indian Ocean, using
GB as a conduit, India wants to do the converse – head from the northern Indian Ocean into Central Asia via Iran. And that is the one of the chief reasons why the India-China border is back in the news. However, as an Indian military official recently said while talking about India’s counter buildup, both sides are now moving to a newer and higher equilibrium on their mutual border.[xv] India’s heightened spending in the area will nevertheless remain in tune with perceived requirements which, as we have seen, also have a development dynamic to it, and India will continue to increase its spending to augment its navy since the greatest guarantee of India–China military stability actually lays in the maritime domain.


Just as the expanding Indian Navy helps secure India’s sea lines of communication (SLOC), it also serves to put at risk, if necessary, China’s vulnerable SLOCs that transit just below the southern tip of India and through the 10 degree channel which lies in India’s Andaman and Nicobar island chain on their way to the narrow Straits of Malacca. That the Chinese are extremely concerned about their vulnerability is quite clear[xvi] and there is an enduring suspicion in Indian strategic circles that their heightened force posture on the land border is an attempt to make it difficult for India to allocate more resources to its Navy.


Nevertheless, the Chinese are at least two decades from credible force projection in the Indian Ocean Region(IOR) despite the expansion of the Chinese Navy and various China aided port development projects in the region. At the moment, therefore, both India and China are involved in wide-ranging talks on maritime cooperation and on building a stable framework for competition.[xvii] Clearly, while there is strategic competition for resources and influence in places such as Central Asia and Myanmar, there is also substantive convergence in a variety of domains such as the World Trade Organization(WTO) and Climate Change talks.


The two Asian giants are also quite keen on unlocking each other’s market potential. China has already emerged as India’s largest trading partner and although two-way trade is significantly skewed in China’s favor, talks are underway for greater market access for the Indian side. Beijing is also eyeing India’s trillion-dollar plus infrastructure build program as an important component of future export driven growth. At the moment, both sides seem keener to focus on their respective core areas of interest rather than getting drawn into an unnecessary standoff that may yield no clear results.


So even as the United States pivots to Asia, it is beginning to realize that India is unlikely to become part of any coalition-building exercise aimed at containing China. India’s cooperation with the United States will continue to be issue-oriented and will depend to a great extent on the kind of favorable geo-economics the relationship is able to engender.[xviii]


For instance, on an issue such as freedom of navigation on seas in the South China Sea (SCS), India’s stand will be in consonance with that of the United States. India considers the SCS as part of the global commons and a key trade route given that India exports more to East Asia than any other region[xix]. Any proprietary claims by Beijing over the waterway will certainly not find favor in New Delhi. To that end, India will also partake in multilateral exercises involving the United States and Japan to build common approaches for resolving contingencies if they so arise.


India, however, will not want the joint exercises to be viewed as a permanent force consolidation of any sort, aimed at China, and as a confidence building measure India seems to have pulled out of the Vietnamese block it had been exploring in the SCS. The basic tenet in Indian policy is to pursue omni-engagement while “tilting” away on issues where a player is being overly aggressive or destabilizing. So when it comes to instances where China’s rise doesn’t seem particularly peaceful, India will signal its support for consensus aimed at tempering such aims. The idea is that in the international system of today, trying to rein in civilizational impulses is feasible, but not by encumbering a civilization itself. Especially when no one particular power has only one kind of diplomacy to offer.


To put things in perspective, the Nixon-Deng compact has ensured that US and Chinese business interests are deeply enmeshed with each other and India refuses to be drawn into a formulation where it may simply be used as an instrument for incremental benefit in an economic arrangement between two highly involved parties. So while Washington rants about India’s continuing restrictions on foreign direct investment in multi-brand retail, what India looks to stave off is another avenue for Chinese mass produced goods to flood India at a time when India is trying to boost its own manufacturing sector.


This also means that India will see merit in any US pivot to Asia only if very significant economic benefits can arise out of it. If the pivot leads to the reordering of the US alliance system in Asia in a way that supports India’s economic growth, a favorable polity towards it will be generated in New Delhi. A closer industrial partnership with Japan and unrestricted access to Australian minerals will be the key result areas for India in such a framework and the ongoing trilateral diplomacy in Asia may be understood in this context. Interestingly, there is also a US-India-China trilateral on the anvil, an idea that Beijing at first was lukewarm to but now seems willing to participate in.[xx]


Commentators in the US often like to portray India as a sort of neo-Gaullist state, with reflexively contrarian stances on a variety of issues. But such viewpoints fail to see that India is not a part of the Western ecosystem to begin with, and so dubbing its policies as contrarian is actually non-sequitur. At the receiving end of various technology denial regimes and kept out from the core membership of UN governing structures for the better part of the post-independence period, India’s stance, if anything, is always tinged with a certain realism – that it is essentially on its own and needs to take a decision that will prove durable.


Support from India, therefore, would always be on doable issues and not on onerous ideas such as regime change. In keeping with its principle of tilting on issues that threaten regional stability, India voted with the US twice at the IAEA to express its concern on Iran’s nuclear program, something that took a few years for the Iranian regime to get over. India has also voted alongside the US at the UN on issues such as Syria and Sri Lanka. Of course, it could be argued that both those votes were made due to India’s own compulsions. But then again, what this shows is that Indian policy at any point of time is unlikely to take its decisions from an ideological precipice, as it now seems to have internalized Lord Palmerston’s mantra that “nations have neither permanent friends nor enemies, but permanent interests”.


Criticism on the lines that it(India) is not fulfilling its global role whenever India has a different viewpoint on an American chestnut, cuts no ice in New Delhi either. Indian policymakers do not believe that their rise as a power lies in spearheading a West-centric globalization narrative centered around foisting democracy via regime change if necessary. Especially when the US continues to arm Pakistan under the pretext of the War on Terror, which,to many even in US, seems to be a semi-failed state with terrorism as its only thriving export. India believes in staying engaged (even with Pakistan) and letting shifts in popular sentiment within the nation decide the nature of its polity. India believes that interventionist doctrines only serve to harden the stance of regimes and exacerbate the hardships of the citizens of a country. A pragmatic approach is to work with regimes and help them in transitioning to a more open political framework. An example of where such an approach has been vindicated would be Myanmar, which has moved rather rapidly from being a pariah regime to one that is actively wooed by all the major powers of the world. [xxi]


The Indian view of things on Iran is also similar and there have been indications that India is actually conducting back-channel diplomacy between Washington and Teheran with Israel in the loop.[xxii] Indo-Israeli coordination on international affairs is understated but pretty robust given that their interests converge on most issues, not the least of which is the need to keep virulent jihadism at bay. Both countries have in the past two decades developed a deep intelligence and defense relationship which is not subject to the vagaries of issues such as Iran and Palestine. Nevertheless, India is keenly sensitive to Israel’s position in the Middle East as evidenced by its current stance on a two-state solution for resolving the Palestinian issue, and is definitely working behind the scenes to defuse the Iranian crisis.


A peaceful Persian Gulf is in any case vital to the stability of India’s economic growth process, given its dependency on the region for energy. Any significant disruption in supply, due to a drawn out conflict, is certainly not in India’s interest. At the moment, India is therefore building a strategic reserve with the help of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that will give it some leeway in mitigating such a situation. Indeed, India’s relationship with the various member states of the GCC have warmed considerably in the past decade, reflecting Indian success in building compartmentalized relationships with opposing players in the Middle East. The Middle East, on its part, has been attracted to India’s rising economic and military heft, and sees India as a credible presence in a region that hosts up to six million Indian nationals.


At the other end of the region that India defines as its legitimate interest, ASEAN, Korea and of course Japan, are seeing India as a crucial balancer in the maritime domain vis-a-vis China. India has, in the recent past, sewn up free trade agreements with all of them and the trade relationship is expected to flourish considerably in the years to come. India is once again being welcomed in Indo-China and attempts are being made to revitalize historical links. The Look East policy is beginning to fulfill the potential that was envisaged and in many ways is happening faster because of China’s not-so-peaceful rise.


An Asian framework for stability appeals quite readily to the Indian mind. It is something that the current strategic mindset shares with the Nehruvian establishment and, indeed, with the view of the Indian freedom movement which drew great inspiration from Japan’s victory over Russia in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. Any stability construct in Asia today would naturally require the balancing of interests of India, Japan and China. Now while Sino-Japanese business ties are massive they are not yielding for Japan the kind of returns that it needs to revitalize Japanese industry. Japanese industry is now looking towards India with its younger and cheaper workforce to achieve that aim. India, in turn, is looking to Japan to provide the technology and capital needed to increase the share of manufacturing in India’s GDP from the current 16 percent to 25 percent by 2020.[xxiii] The conditions for an Indo-Japan strategic industrial partnership are, therefore, more conducive than ever and this is likely to be a key relationship for Asia in the coming years.


Ultimately, India would like to create a partnership with Japan that is as durable as the relationship with Russia has been. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, India and Russia remained engaged, regardless of the fact that in the Yeltsin years their individual relationships with the US had become more important than their mutual relationship. However, Putin’s ascendancy in Russia brought renewed vigor in Indo-Russian ties and the former superpower emerged as a key supplier of strategic technologies to India. India also kept Russia as its chief supplier of weapons, partly because of the degree of trust it has on the latter, and partly to ensure that Russia did not wholly gravitate to the Chinese side. Both sides have also graduated to co-developing weapons, because the Russian military-industrial complex does not have the resources to develop the latest generation of weapons. India, for its part, still finds difficult to secure from most other sources, including the US, the level of technological co-operation it gets from Russia.


Like Russia, France is another old friend of India’s that has continued to be “bullish” on India through the years. France, like Russia, did not condemn India’s nuclear breakout in 1998 and has also transferred strategic knowhow to India in the past, albeit at a price much higher than that of Russia. Nonetheless, France’s autonomous instincts within the NATO alliance serve to make it a partner that India has come to trust. In Europe, neither Britain nor Germany enjoysthelevelof trust that India has with France. This greatly aided Dassault in winning the coveted multirole medium range combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition, since reliability of spares support, along with technological capability, was a key consideration in India’s book for awarding this contract.[xxiv]


France’s win in the MMRCA sweepstakes has, not surprisingly, piqued the US side considerably since it was expecting one of its own contenders to win, as a reward to the US for spearheading India’s re-entry into the world of nuclear trade. India however simply did not find enough value in the US offer, not the least because of the latter’s track record in sanctioning India. India would also contend that it continues to compensate US defense industry by buying weapons and support platforms upwards of 10 billion dollars at last count. However, India is unlikely to purchase key offensive platforms such as tactical aircraft from the US because despite the hype about Indo-US ties being a defining relationship in the twenty-first century, neither side is willing to sacrifice clear and present interest at the altar of power politics.


The nuclear relationship between India and the United States is also in a quagmire at the moment. India’s recently passed Nuclear Liability Law, which has a provision for supplier liability, makes it difficult for the free enterprise-oriented US nuclear industry that lacks the sovereign guarantees extended by their respective governments to the French and Russian nuclear majors, to participate in India’s nuclear market.


A remaking of the international order is clearly underway as the rise of the rest, led by the re-emergence of the Indian and Chinese civilizations, continues apace. What this has also meant is that South-South cooperation is no longer a feel-good adage in international politics. The emerging countries of the world have a lot to offer each other today in terms of both knowhow and markets. In keeping with this trend, India has built a so-called IBSA grouping with Brazil and South Africa, and all three are sort of a sub-group within the BRICS, with China and Russia arguably constituting the other sub-group due to their leadership within the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement. IBSA is again a very non-ideological grouping, built around a mutuality of interests between three maritime nations looking to share their developmental perspectives for geo-economic gains. The fact that Brazil serves as a gateway to South America, and South Africa to Africa, is clearly an Indian consideration in pursuing this forum.


Heading into the new millennium, we find India looking to both widen as well as deepen relationships, in its quest to secure an international environment optimal to its economic rise. It is also a time when India is taking those relationships forward that couldn’t be taken forward before. For instance, post-World War II, Nehru could only donate two elephants to the Tokyo zoo, in order to cheer Japanese children at a time of great deprivation.[xxv] In 2011, India emerged as one of the largest suppliers of Post-Tsunami aid to Japan. India’s growing activities in Africa also attest to the very substantial capacity the Indian economy has at its disposal to engage in building worthwhile international relations in this mercantile age.


And that is the crux of India’s new age non-alignment. India has the critical mass today to participate in a complex world of relationships, where government to government contacts may not be the prime mover in bringing societies and economic interests together, at a time when such constituencies can directly interact with each other, bypassing the State-oriented order. This is precisely why India and, indeed, most other nations seek to enhance people to people cooperation and cultural exchange. India realizes that in the coming decades, State policy will have to overwhelmingly reflect the aspirations of transnational constituencies, perhaps based more in one geographical context than another. In that sense, India is developing its foreign establishment as a focal point for economic consultation and arbitration, rather than for philosophical support, as in the time of Nehru. So while Nehru’s Non-Alignment at the end was reduced to fighting for a right to disagree to agree, twenty-first century India’s non alignment has expanded to the right to agree to disagree.



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[iii] C Rangarajan, “BoP crisis of 1990-91: Overcoming the forex constraint”, The Financial Express, Published July 2, 2001 <> Last accessed on 05.06.2012.



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[viii] R. Bedi, “A New Doctrine for the Navy”, Frontline, 21:14, 3–16 July 2004

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<> Last accessed on 05.06.2012.


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[xx] Ananth Krishnan“In shift, China backs trilateral talks with India, U.S.”, The Hindu, Published on April 11, 2012

<> Last accessed on 05.06.2012.


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