India and Multi-Alignment: Having One’s Cake and Eating It Too

By Joanne Lin, Lead Researcher, Political-Security Affairs, ASEAN Studies Centre – ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute

The evolution of India’s foreign policy from non-alignment to multi-alignment has yielded dividends, writes Joanne Lin. The question is whether New Delhi can continue to 'straddle all sides and sit on the fence on key issues'.

At a time when the region is seeing intensified rivalry between the United States and its allies against China and Russia, the compulsion to pick a side has heightened. In this case, Southeast Asia can take a leaf from India: it continues to be a friend to all and an enemy to none. In other words, New Delhi can have its cake and eat it at the same time. The key question here is whether India can continue to enjoy such a state of affairs.

In May 2022, India participated in the leaders’ summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in Tokyo, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted that India shares a common objective with the other members (Australia, Japan, and the U.S.) in regard to the Indo-Pacific. On the sidelines of the Quad Summit, India also became a member of the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF).

Less than a month later, Modi was in the company of President Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, among other members, at the 14th BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) Summit held virtually in June. He called for the strengthening of the BRICS identity and proposed the establishment of several initiatives, including in connectivity. In the same month, India was invited by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to attend the Group of Seven (G7) Summit in Schloss Elmau as a partner country — an acknowledgement by the affluent group of democracies that India matters.

Three months later, in September, Modi attended the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit (a grouping of non-democracies, except India) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where he also held talks with Putin. At that meeting, the Indian Prime Minister famously rebuked Putin on the war in Ukraine by saying that “now is not the time for war”. In November, Modi attended the Group of Twenty (G20) Summit in Bali, Indonesia, and took over the presidency of the group for 2023.  In the same month, a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership was established with ASEAN during the Commemorative Summit of the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-India dialogue relations.

In short, India is an enviable position. It appears to have sealed its status among the major powers and important groupings as a friend to all and an enemy to none. All camps seem to need India on their side. Even when India chose not to condemn Russia for its aggression toward Ukraine and continue purchasing its crude oil at a steep discount, it did not receive any backlash from Western powers.

However, questions remain if India can continue to straddle all sides and sit on the fence on key issues. Despite its rhetoric about supporting the so-called rules-based order, India has not shown itself to be a supporter of principled positions.

The diplomatic success of India as a rising middle power has not gone unnoticed. The State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey saw India doubling its rating (from 5.1 per cent in 2022 to 11.3 per cent in 2023), as ASEAN’s preferred and trusted strategic partner in hedging against the uncertainties of the US-China rivalry. As a result, India’s ranking rose from the last spot last year to third this year.

Furthermore, India has enjoyed a significant increase in trust levels this year at 25.7 per cent compared to only 16.6 per cent last year. Among those who trust India, there is a significant increase among those who felt that India’s military power is an asset for global peace and security.

India’s global influence is not attributed to its size alone but also its growing economic (especially technological) and military capabilities. The rising country has a clear ambition to up the game by projecting its leadership in the Indo-Pacific. It wants to work with like-minded partners, including ASEAN, to align cooperation with its Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI). India’s desire for maritime influence is apparent in its founding and leading roles in forums such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS). India is also planning to hold the first-ever ASEAN-India maritime exercise in the first quarter of this year.

As India’s influence increases, it can assume a greater role as a bridging power and play a moderating role in the Quad, G7, BRICS and the SCO. India’s strategic autonomy and policy of non-alignment have evolved into a multi-alignment approach. This allows India to play all sides to gain maximum leverage in the global arena.

However, questions remain if India can continue to straddle all sides and sit on the fence on key issues. Despite its rhetoric about supporting the so-called rules-based order, India has not shown itself to be a supporter of principled positions. It has refused to condemn violations of international law, as in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine or the February 2021 coup in Myanmar (New Delhi abstained from United Nations General Assembly and Security Council resolutions). It is also expected that India will provide diplomatic legitimacy to the Myanmar junta following its upcoming “sham” elections.

Not surprisingly, the latest State of Southeast Asia Survey has shown that India ranks the second lowest (at only 1 per cent) among ASEAN and nine middle powers in its leadership in maintaining a rules-based order and upholding international law. Similarly, it ranks the lowest in its leadership in championing the global free trade agenda at 1.2 per cent, demonstrating that India has much room for improvement in regard to its trade policies (as a missing partner in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) and economic governance (noting the Adani crisis and its impact nationally), should it wish to grow its middle-power status.

For now, India is in a sweet spot. It holds the presidency for the G20 and the SCO this year. As the chair of the two important platforms, it is expected that India will make use of the opportunity to strengthen its middle power standing, should it not distract itself with domestic affairs resulting from social unrest or economic downturn (a concern that was also raised in the State of Southeast Asia 2023 Survey). 2023 will indeed be another year to see how India finesses its balancing act.

Joanne Lin is Co-coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

This article originally appeared on the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute's Fulcrum on February 15, 2023.