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Abhijit Matele asked: What is 'multi-alignment’ and how it is different from ‘non-alignment’? Is India moving towards 'multi-alignment' in the current context?

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  • S. Kalyanaraman replies: Nonalignment meant not joining one of the two Cold War camps when our national interests were not at stake (in an earthy metaphor, we didn't have a dog in that global struggle for power and influence), when neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was an enemy or rival or threat or challenge, when we saw benefits in maintaining good relations with both sides, and when we thought that the preaching of good sense by a dispassionate friend to both would make them realise the need to shed their fear and other conflict-associated emotions and begin to tread the path of peace and amity so necessary for the good of the world. It was and proved to be an appropriate policy but only until mid-1971 when we had to contend only with a much weaker Pakistan and, in the 1960s, along with Pakistan a diplomatically isolated, albeit militarily more powerful, China.

    Nonalignment gave way to partial alignment when the global correlation of forces changed radically with the United States and China coming together against the Soviet Union, and the United States making it clear that it would no longer come to India's help or seek to in any way deter China in the event of China imposing another war on India. This led to the Indo-Soviet Treaty of 1971 -- a diplomatic understanding to deal with the eventuality of China initiating another war against India in a circumstance when the United States would (dis?)interestedly watch the unfolding drama. (In fact, during the 1971 India-Pakistan war, top US decision makers, Henry Kissinger in particular, egged China on to initiate military action against India.) In effect, India became aligned with the Soviet Union between 1971 and 1991 to deal with the China challenge, but did not extend that alignment to the global Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. In other words, even as India aligned with the Soviet Union to deal with the China threat, it did not range itself against the United States. This, in effect, enabled our decision makers and their civil society mouthpieces to claim that India continued to remain nonaligned.

    If nonalignment meant not taking sides between the parties to a conflict and preaching to them the virtues of peace and amity, multialignment would mean aligning with both or all parties (blocs) to a rivalry or conflict or struggle for influence. Such an idea, however clever it may sound, is not practicable as policy. When two or more parties are ranged against each other, how does one align with both or all? It would mean, for example, participating in coercive (military and non-military) measures against Country or Bloc A that are being coordinated by Country or Bloc B on one hand, while at the same time participating in coercive measures against B being coordinated by A on the other. What then would be the meaning of the word alliance, which rests on the pursuit of common or compatible national interests either in a region or worldwide? How would either party trust us if we were to adopt such a course? Wouldn't they insist on us being either with them or against them? Isn't it a fact that even neutrality and nonalignment have been interpreted as favouring the other party to a conflict? Isn't it a fact that the Soviet Union and Communist China initially branded India as an imperial stooge even as the United States labelled nonalignment as an immoral policy? If so, how would each contending party view our actions that are either explicitly targeted against it as part of an opposing coalition or even our 'benign/normal' multialigned actions that have deleterious consequences for it? Certainly negatively. And that would be the end of our multialignment.

    As for the current context, the US-China, US-Russia, China-Japan, China-Russia and India-China relationships are all marked by elements of both rivalry and cooperation. None has become a purely rivalrous or conflictual relationship. Under these circumstances, the question of alliance does not arise. Instead, what we are witnessing is each of these countries hedging its bets by engendering a degree of cooperation and coordination of policies with potential allies while at the same time endeavouring to forge a working and mutually profitable relationship with its potential rival or challenge. Such behaviour cannot be described as acts of alignment with all parties. And such behaviour is likely to change when the battle lines get drawn. Countries then will have to willy-nilly either choose one of the sides or remain neutral or nonaligned. They will not be able to align with all the sides. As far as India is concerned, if China emerges as one of the sides in a new 21st century geopolitical struggle for power and influence, India's policy choice will be determined by a combination of factors including the status of the border dispute, China's alliance with Pakistan, and China's ideas on the Asian order.

    Posted on December 02, 2015

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