Will China End India’s “Non-Alignment”?

China and India were engaged in their worst border standoff in decades this June, with dozens of casualties on both sides. But look away from the border for a bit: the global repercussions of this conflict could prove to be more significant than whatever happens in the Himalayas alone.

For years now, the United States and China have been engaged in competition on the international stage, sometimes quietly and often noisily. It all began with Chinese President Xi Jinping advocating alternatives to Western-led international institutions over the last decade.

Take the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), for instance. Although it is today the second-most influential member of the World Bank by voting power, China has long been disgusted with the liberal economics and the pro-democracy tendencies of the World Bank and the IMF. The two institutions routinely attach strings and conditions to their financial assistance, ranging from political considerations such as the guarantee of human rights, to economic ones such as tight government budgets and market liberalization.

In response to all this, China launched the AIIB in 2015. This was meant to be a political statement: Beijing wanted to give loans to developing countries with no strings attached and few questions asked. In Article 31, the AIIB’s Articles of Agreement say, “The Bank, its President, officers and staff shall not interfere in the political affairs of any member, nor shall they be influenced in their decisions by the political character of the member concerned.”

In the years that followed, Beijing became a key rival to Washington in global decision-making. That rivalry peaked during the COVID-19 pandemic. After reports suggested that China had misled the World Health Organization (WHO) early on, U.S. President Donald Trump launched an all-out attack on both. China struck back with its own social media propaganda campaign.

Meanwhile, New Delhi has been in a bind of its own. If there is one consistent and heavily guarded principle in Indian foreign policy, it is that of non-alignment – the pursuit of “strategic independence.” But since the start of this century, the United States has been goading India to become a full-fledged ally against the Chinese. Presidents have come and gone, narrating the many common interests between the two countries, from the defense of democracy to the maintenance of international norms. Trump has stepped up that effort in recent times: In May, the United States invited India to an exclusive gathering of U.S. allies to discuss changes at the WHO – ostensibly aimed at China. More recently, Trump proposed an expansion of the G-7 to include India, South Korea, and Australia – also with the ostensible aim of targeting China. Whatever happens in the presidential elections this year, the winner of that vote will likely continue this policy in his new term.

Yet, for decades, strategists in New Delhi have been repulsed by the idea of joining hands with any global superpower. Their common belief is that India’s independence in foreign affairs will be compromised by full-fledged alliances. So far, India has taken two steps forward and one step back – particularly where Chinese sensitivities may be involved. Despite its opposition to the Belt and Road initiative (BRI), for instance, India helped co-found the AIIB. India has also been the least enthusiastic member of the four- nation Quad alliance, comprising the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. For years, it has turned down Australia’s requests to participate in the Malabar naval exercises, out of respect for Chinese sensitivities.

India has been particularly keen on practicing non-alignment in the South China Sea. In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a joint declaration with then-U.S. President Barack Obama, explicitly referencing the conflict in the South China Sea and calling upon all parties to resolve disputes amicably under international law. Yet, the following year, when China refused to abide by an international tribunal ruling on that dispute, India chose not to pass comment.

In 2016, when the United States approached India with a proposal for joint patrols in the South China Sea, New Delhi once again developed cold feet. India finally joined the United States, Japan and the Philippines (one of China’s rival claimants in the South China Sea) in a multilateral naval exercise in 2019. But it tried not to dilute the principle of non-alignment: The Indian warships that participated in that exercise had, in fact, taken part only a few days earlier in a fleet review with the Chinese.

India has not been inactive in the South China Sea, but it has been cautious about aligning with the United States. New Delhi went it alone to build a military partnership with Vietnam, for instance, even as it resisted getting pulled into U.S.-led initiatives.

All this could now change with the unprecedented standoff with China on the border, particularly if the United States is willing to support India’s national security interests against the Chinese. Even before the border began heating up, public opinion in India was increasingly turning against China, thanks to COVID-19. Some Indian doctors had protested against faulty testing kits imported from China. Then, as another border dispute flared up with Nepal, China’s ratings in India deteriorated further. The Indian army chief even went on record to say that Nepal was acting at the behest of the Chinese.

The deaths of Indian soldiers for the first time in several years could prove to be the last straw. Policymakers in New Delhi are now considering Trump’s supposedly anti-China expansion of the G-7 very favorably. More significantly, in early June, India indicated that it might invite Australia to the Malabar exercises this year – thereby expanding it into a true Quad initiative.

India has debated its non-alignment principles for several years – even if, each year, it moved closer and closer to the United States. That debate seems headed for a more decisive settlement. If New Delhi does indeed want to pursue a paradigm shift in its foreign policy, the stage is now set: In May, India became head of the WHO’s decision-making Executive Board. A month later, it took over as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. India might behave somewhat differently now at these forums. We could soon see a new foreign policy.

(c) 2020, The Diplomat