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Exit that Strategy

Ashley Tellis challenges the argument that India should pursue a new version of non-alignment

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
July 14, 2012 12:21:39 am

Book: Nonalignment Redux: The Perils of Old Wine in New Skins

Author: Ashley J. Tellis

Publisher: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Available at:

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As China becomes the second most important power and its relations with the United States become less predictable,how should India position itself? Amid China’s rapid rise and the belated US determination to assert its primacy in Asia,dealing with the uncertain dynamic between Beijing and Washington has become central to India’s national security strategy.

Some in Delhi have argued that India must join the distant power,the United States,to prevent the dominance of a rising hegemon next door. Ancient maxims on strategy,from both China and India,would suggest this is the natural and inevitable course for Delhi.

Many in Beijing suspect that India is simply emulating China’s strategy of coping with America and Russia in the final decades of the Cold War in the last century. During the 1970s and ’80s,Beijing aligned with “the far” (the United States) to defeat “the near” (the Soviet Union).

Strategic realism comes naturally to Chinese leaders,but the Indian political classes tend to resist unless no other option is left. Delhi,not surprisingly,has been deeply conflicted about its response to the unfolding power play between China and the US.

Ashley Tellis confronts the Indian establishment’s ambivalence on this very important question. India-born Tellis is one of America’s leading strategic thinkers and is closely associated with the transformation of the bilateral relationship between Delhi and Washington over the last decade.

The new monograph from Tellis on India’s great power relations is structured as a response to a report called “Nonalignment 2.0” issued in Delhi earlier this year. The document,written by a group of influential Indians,reviewed the nation’s challenges and opportunities in a changing world and offered guidance on how Delhi should conduct its foreign and security policies.

One of the central propositions of the report was that India should enhance its strategic autonomy by pursuing a new version of non-alignment. The report was greeted with much scepticism in India.

Many argued that the return to any version of non-alignment was neither sensible nor possible for India.

But the report did attract much attention in the rest of the world,for it suggested that Delhi might be preparing to depart from its decade-long policy of deepening strategic partnership with the United States. Although the report was not an official one,it seemed to have the blessings of the UPA government.

“Nonalignment 2.0” cautions against drawing too close to the United States despite India’s many and growing conflict of interests with China. It points to the possibility that India might be left out in the cold if Washington and Beijing find it convenient to establish a regional and global duopoly.

The report warns that a tight partnership with Washington will limit India’s freedom of action and provoke Beijing into hostile actions against India; it also doubts the reliability of the American partnership in the event of India’s conflict with China.

Tellis parses each of the argument with much precision and challenges the report’s judgement that Delhi can leverage its growing weight and importance by playing both Washington and Beijing without aligning with either.

“By presuming that the competition for partnership is primarily about a Sino-American rivalry for India’s favor,instead of being a more demanding challenge also revolving around India’s own need for strategic partners,” Tellis argues that Delhi could be “falsely exaggerating both India’s geopolitical relevance and its bargaining capacity relative to its stronger friends and adversaries.”

Tellis also reminds Delhi that the opportunities and challenges in building ties with the US and China are not symmetric. Realists have no problem seeing that India’s core security interests — like territorial sovereignty — are contested by China,not by the US. On cross-border terrorism,Washington today is more empathetic to India’s concerns than Beijing is. America is more supportive of India’s aspirations to play a larger role in the world than China is.

If geography is strategic destiny,as many realists would argue,rising Chinese power poses bigger risks to India’s “strategic autonomy” in its own immediate neighbourhood. Tellis also points to India’s difficulty of bridging,on the basis of its own resources,the growing military and technological gap with China.

Tellis concludes that the “strategic solution to India’s predicament cannot consist of resurrecting nonalignment in some new numerical iteration,but rather of India’s decision to solder a deeper and closer engagement with the world in general,and with its most capable friends and allies”,in particular the United States.

One does not have to agree with either Tellis or the Indian authors of “Nonalignment 2.0” to acknowledge that the two reports together provide arguably the most insightful discussion of Delhi’s dilemmas in reordering its great power relations,especially with Washington and Beijing.

C. Raja Mohan is distinguished fellow at Observer Research Foundation,Delhi

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