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Vivek Khare asked: How fruitful it has been for India not to align with any major powers historically? What should be the future course when it comes to dealing with the present major powers of the world?

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  • Kalyan Raman replies: If by nonalignment we mean not being a formal member of a military alliance, then India has remained nonaligned since independence, and it is likely to remain nonaligned for the foreseeable future. However, if nonalignment means not even having a military or security understanding with another country directed against a third country, then India was obviously NOT nonaligned between August 1971 and August 1991 when the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship was operational.

    The advantage of nonalignment lies in not getting entangled in other people's wars and consequently focusing on one's own internal affairs. However, the practice of such a policy is possible only under two conditions. One, the country in question enjoys 'splendid isolation' in terms of its geographical location (like the United States, for example, which is separated from Eurasia by two oceans). Two, the country in question has no adversaries/rivals, particularly adversaries who are more powerful. If it does, then whether it likes it or not, it will have to either align or at least come to a defence/security understanding with another country with which it shares common concerns about its adversary.

    So long as Pakistan was India's only adversary, which is until the 1962 India-China War, India could afford to remain nonaligned because it had the ability to tackle the challenges posed by Pakistan on its own. However, once the China challenge emerged and India found itself unable to deal with Chinese power on its own, India leaned towards the Soviet Union to serve as a balancer. Multi-alignment proved impossible for India given US-China rapprochement and the larger combination of the China-Pakistan-United States that appeared on the scene with the beginning of the 1970s. In its own view, India was technically not a member of the Warsaw Pact and hence was 'nonaligned' in the superpower Cold War; but this proposition was not fully accepted by the US and its allies.

    The larger point to note here is that given China's emergence as Asia's largest economy with Asia's largest military machine and defence expenditure, India simply does not have the ability to deal with the challenges that China has begun to pose. It therefore needs allies and friends with which if not to align but at least coordinate defence and security policy. Nonalignment is therefore a suboptimal policy option for India in the coming years.