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Should India Engage with NATO?

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • July 08, 2008

    On the face of it, India and NATO are poles apart. NATO is a military alliance. India is a non-aligned country with an independent foreign policy. Any engagement between India and NATO is, therefore, problematic.

    However, whether India likes it or not, NATO is on its doorsteps. It is conducting a UN-mandated mission in Afghanistan as the leader of ISAF. No one has called for NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Russia, China, Iran and India may all be uncomfortable with NATO’s presence in Afghanistan, but they have no alternative strategy to stabilise Afghanistan. So, they have to tolerate NATO in Afghanistan for the moment at least.

    NATO made an appearance in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake in the Kashmir region. NATO engineers, paramedics and other support teams landed in the earthquake affected region within no time. Although NATO has wound up its relief mission in Pakistan, the two sides have expressed a desire for cooperation. NATO Secretary-General welcomed the appointment of the new Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani and expressed the hope that contacts consultations and dialogue between the two sides will continue. NATO regards Pakistan as a valuable ally in the war on terrorism. Pakistan will encash this dependence of the western world.

    NATO is in search of missions “anywhere, any time”. Protecting Europe against an attack from Russia is no longer its only mission. It is taking in its stride new threats to its members. These threats arise from far away like in Pakistan and Africa. Therefore, it is developing capabilities to tackle these new threats – terrorism, WMD proliferation, drug trafficking, threat to energy infrastructure, and so on. It has currently several missions spread all over the globe and has devised a variety of instruments to engage with various countries.

    New Delhi cannot prevent NATO from expanding its footprint into areas which are of strategic interest to India. NATO has developed partnerships with the Central Asian Republics and with countries in the Mediterranean region, and has active dialogue with Japan, Australia, Singapore, etc. Under an initiative taken in Istanbul, NATO has approached Persian Gulf countries for cooperation.

    Interestingly, China, which should be worried about the NATO presence in Asia, has not shunned it altogether. China and NATO have a dialogue with each other since 2002 although it has yet to be formalised. Judging by articles in Chinese journals, NATO and China may formalise their informal relationship. After all, NATO has a highly structured relationship with Russia, which harbours deep apprehensions about NATO’s eastward expansion. A formal relationship between China and NATO, and between Pakistan and NATO, is not unthinkable.

    India has to consider this situation: what if NATO offers “partnership for peace” or a similar cooperation programme for countries in India’s neighbourhood like Bangladesh, Sri Lanka or Nepal? How would it react?

    No doubt, there is genuine apprehension in India about NATO’s expansion outside its traditional area of operation. NATO is recasting itself as a global actor with military and technical capabilities to reach any part of the world. Recently, ships from NATO countries came to the Indian Ocean for the first time. India will have to take these developments into account. But can India stop NATO from expanding? No. That is the reality.

    NATO has taken a positive view of India and has launched a charm offensive. It has realised that India is a rising power with powerful military capabilities. In NATO’s perception, India is a democracy that shares many common values with many NATO members. NATO and India have many shared security concerns like the fight against terrorism, WMD proliferation, drug trafficking, and disaster management. That is why in recent years NATO has made overtures to engage India. Deputy Secretary General of NATO Ambassador Rizzo visited India in 2006, met officials in the Ministry of External Affairs and had public engagements. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee held discussions with NATO Secretary-General Jaap De Hoop Schaeffer at the United Nations in 2007. Schaeffer’s message was that India and NATO have shared values and common security concerns and that they can cooperate with each other. Understandably, the Indian response has been mute.

    Success in Afghanistan is vital for NATO. It knows that India is playing a commendable role in Afghan reconstruction despite not being a part of ISAF. NATO also recognises India’s role in regional security issues – counter terrorism, non-proliferation, maritime security, etc. It therefore seeks to engage India.

    There is understandable apprehension in India towards NATO. NATO is a military alliance led by the United States. Its recent actions smack of it wanting to play the role of global policeman. It hobnobs with Pakistan which is a part of the terrorism problem. It is coming into areas which are of strategic concern for India. India cannot take NATO’s rhetoric at face value. It cannot agree with many of NATO’s actions like expansion up to Russia’s borders.

    It is crucial for India to understand NATO’s true motives. This is best done by opening a channel of dialogue with NATO. The dialogue needs to be low key without fanfare. India should not close the option of co-operating with NATO on a case by case basis, particularly on terrorism and WMD related issues. India should also apprise NATO of its perceptions on regional and international security issues.

    A dialogue with NATO does not mean agreeing with it on all issues. It only means that India will have a channel of communication open with an organisation that is fast increasing its presence in various regions. It also means making NATO receptive to India’s own concerns.

    The UN has sanctioned many of NATO’s missions. If Russia, China, the Arab countries and other friends of India can talk to NATO, why not India?