Future aspects of India's cooperation with NATO

Signalling India about NATO cooperation

A.Wess Mitchell: Former U.S. diplomat

Recent times have seen the increasing interest of experts between the cooperation of India and NATO.

The major share of this spark in argument goes to an article by A.Wess Mitchell, a former U.S. diplomat in march. That article strongly mentioned India's partnership(not a full member) with NATO as a concrete step towards major strategic cooperation. New Delhi and NATO's major benefit from this is against Chinese activities and expansionist policy.

There does seem to be a lot of signalling going on: the United States and NATO are signalling to New Delhi that they may do more together so that all of this could send a signal to Beijing.

Moreover, Mitchell wrote that this is not just a hypothetical scenario, rather there is a solid behind such an integration. As he wrote:

“When the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders meet later this year, they will debate the recommendations from a group of experts (which I co-chaired) that advocates, among other things, extending a formal offer of partnership to India."

This April, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stressed deeper ties between India and NATO, where there was a sense of criticism for China in his language at the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi.

Then, as if clarifying things further, he added:

“There is a huge potential for NATO to work with India in different ways, learning from each other, sharing experiences without being part of an integrated military cooperation. There are many ways to work together, which doesn’t directly involve, I will say, military operations and missions.”

Reactions to these statements are opposite extremes: Indian foreign policy expert C. Raja Mohan, known for his advocacy of stronger U.S.-India ties, wrote of the benefits of a

“sustained dialogue between India and NATO” and an “institutionalized engagement with NATO.”

On the other extreme was a comment by an Indian author A.G. Noorani who wrote of such benefits with great doubt in the Pakistani daily, Dawn.

India's partnership status with NATO

India's partnership status with NATO

Neither India is seeking to become a partner of NATO, nor NATO has any full membership plan for India. Though, there is a scope for closed-door cooperation between the two.

New Delhi has always been critical of maintaining its strategic autonomy. Any step ahead of informal talks can lead to a significant shift towards the west. This might in turn lead to a strategic loss to India which they don't want to face in any condition. Any type of formal partnership between the two can lead to a significant blow in the India-Russia relationship. Even Beijing might suspect India's full tilt towards the western nations.

Another notable point can be the presence of Pakistan as a partner of the NATO alliance. There are, of course, counterpoints to this assumption. Pakistan is just a partner country, and moreover, NATO already contains among its formal member's tense relationships (Greece and Turkey, for example). However, considering Pakistan's presence at NATO might create some problem to India's future action plan but it won't ever play a prohibitive role.

And then there’s this: Pakistan’s status as a NATO partner may not last that long (a point raised by Mitchell also). Pakistan's previous relationship with the USA and NATO had a significant role in countering the USSR's ideology in the region. Whereas, that particular sequence of event is history now.

The U.S. soldiers and diplomats realised this over time, that Pakistan was playing a double game (could be seen very clearly after the Osama bin laden's episode) using their resources in pumping terrorism in the region. Nevertheless, the USA's soldiers are working out for the complete withdrawal from the Afghan land which might force the USA to keep some unwanted ties with Pakistan.

This, in turn, may – though does not have to – lead to Pakistan losing its NATO partner status as well.

With the separation of Pakistan's issue, New Delhi has left with a self-created dilemma of Russian partnership. India's motto could be seen very clearly in this case, of having better cooperation with the western world and yet maintaining relations with Russia.

Future aspects of India

The way forward in this situation should be a well-designed strategy of slowly progressing their relationship with NATO, by the time India should be able to convenience Russia that in no way the partnership is going against India-Russia interests.

It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that Mitchell put emphasis on NATO’s partnerships being “highly customized arrangements,” signaling that it would be tailored to New Delhi’s needs. He also suggests that these could include joint military exercises, “defence planning for maritime contingencies” and technology sharing.

And while the former U.S. diplomat made his case too strong, he appears to be logical while quoting that India could be provided with a customised option by NATO.

The fun fact is that one of NATO's customised plan also has Russia as a partner. That gives a significant scope to thrive India's relationship with NATO and yet maintain the ties with Moscow.

Strategic Autonomy from its core

Indian Flag

The only difference to be seen in Indian experts viewpoint and Mitchell's text is where India wants to maintain their strategic autonomy of following the Non-Align Movement whereas Mitchell quotes,

India’s longstanding strategy of careful equidistancing, punctuated by tilts toward China and Russia, is not viable; inevitably, New Delhi will have to undertake more deliberate efforts to counter-balance the juggernaut of Chinese power.

India's plan of maintaining its strategic autonomy makes completes complete sense when we see the significance of India as a dominant force in the Indian Ocean and its strategic importance for the western goals.

But most of all, India is keeping its options open because it has the power and position to do so. If New Delhi is not able to face a crisis of relations with China alone, it may be simply forced to ask the U.S. to help, suddenly accepting certain preconditions and thus lowering the banner of strategic autonomy. This is a scenario many may not wish to happen but which cannot be ruled out.

Similar to the mythological stories of India, the need is to pass the borders of definitions and reach the goal by being in alliance with the U.S. but still maintaining the relevancy of strategic border lines. Some of this can be seen in reality in the form of QUAD, which is not an alliance, but may be an alliance. It is a bit baffling but that is how it is when we study the prospects on the basis of the counterparts ideology.