Since the end of the Second World War, the global order has seen two major transitions. After the War, a bipolar world, led by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, emerged.
Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, unipolarity replaced bipolarity, with the U.S. being its centre. There have been discussions for the past several years whether American unipolarity has passed. Now, there are more signs, from China’s rapid rise to Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, to suggest that the global order is undergoing another (third) transition.
While many governments, including India, Russia and China, welcome multipolarity, the U.S. remains the world’s most powerful military power. But the U.S.’s ability to shape geopolitical outcomes is clearly in decline, as was seen in its withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of war or the Russian invasion of Ukraine, challenging the post-Cold War security equilibrium in Europe.
These changes actually leave the world in a flux. There’s a lack of clarity on which direction the world is headed, which makes policymaking harder for middle powers like India.
When India became independent, the Cold War was still in its early stages. For a newly free country with enormous challenges in an ideologically and geopolitically divided world, managing its foreign policy itself was a daunting task.
But a long view of India’s foreign policy trajectory would tell us that India, which adopted non-alignment as a foreign policy doctrine, did well in managing most of its challenges. The conventional wisdom about India in the Cold War period was that it was too idealistic.
But that is a simplistic way of reading India’s foreign policy choices. India has actually been flexible in readapting itself to the changes in the global and regional equations.
If in the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru had opposed Zhou Enlai’s proposal for a permanent Afro-Asian Secretariat saying it would create yet another bloc, the same Nehru would support turning non-alignment into a movement in the 1960s, after CENTO (Central Treaty Organization) and SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) were formed.
If in the 1950s and 1960s, India maintained equidistance from both blocs, living up to the true spirit of non-alignment, in the 1970s, after China fell out with the Soviet Union and started moving closer to the U.S., it started tilting towards the Soviet Union, but stayed out of any Soviet-led military alliances. When the Soviet Union collapsed, India sought to transform its ties with the U.S. and integrate itself with the global economy in the new era of globalisation. But it also maintained close defence and strategic ties with Russia and built a vibrant economic partnership with China.
But in making choices, India faces an entirely new set of challenges in the new global disorder. If the centre of the Cold War was Europe, the arena of the looming U.S.-China great power contest is Asia. It is unfolding right in India’s neighbourhood, and even if it stays out of it, it will feel the heat.
Second, during the Cold War, India didn’t have hostile relations with any of the opposing superpowers. Today, India would be tempted to join the American bloc as it faces the China problem.
The power imbalance between India and China, which shared similar economic clout in the 1970s, has widened in recent years. China has also developed a strategic partnership with Pakistan, and is raising its influence in other South Asian and Indian Ocean countries.
Besides, the decades-long border peace between India and China collapsed in 2020 when Chinese troops attacked Indian soldiers in the Galwan Valley in the Himalayas. So on all fronts, India faces the heat of China’s rise. And with China and India rising further, this friction is likely to get more heated.