Will India Embrace “NATO Plus” Membership? A Perspective from Global South

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NATO Plus is an expanded security arrangement between NATO and five other countries: Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, and South Korea. The alliance is intended to strengthen international defense cooperation and deter aggression from common adversaries. Recently, the United States extended an invitation to India to join NATO Plus, sparking serious discussion and speculation regarding the potential consequences. While some argue that India’s inclusion could exacerbate division and conflicts in the Global South, there are doubts about India’s willingness to join such a security alliance, given its long history of non-alignment. It has traditionally avoided joining military alliances, preferring to maintain its own independent foreign policy. Now, the world is watching Prime Minister Modi’s state visit to the US to see if India accepts the US invitation to join NATO Plus or not. Any decision India makes will have consequences for the future of Indo-US relations. Nevertheless, India should always maintain a cautious approach in its dealings with NATO and other parties.

The Recent US Proposition to India

Recently, a proposal has come from the US House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the US and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to include India in the NATO Plus. Composed of representatives from both the Republican and Democratic parties, the committee recommended that India be accepted as the sixth member of NATO Plus. The objective of the committee is to strengthen alliances and security partnerships in order to compete effectively with the CCP on a strategic level. In a bipartisan effort, the committee has proposed a series of recommendations aimed at bolstering global security and countering CCP aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. In the event of an attack on Taiwan, one of the key proposals is to impose economic sanctions on China, with the understanding that such measures would be most effective if supported by key allies such as the G7, NATO, NATO Plus 5, and Quad members.

For decades, NATO has been an emblem of shared defense and democratic values, primarily among North American and European nations. However, the evolving geopolitical climate, marked by emerging powers and intricate alliances, has compelled the US to reassess its global strategy. Offering a NATO Plus membership to India is a testament to this reassessment. The move is a strategic outreach that reflects the US’s recognition of India’s growing importance on the global stage.

India’s Potential Membership in NATO Plus and Its Impacts on Global South

No doubt, the invitation to join NATO Plus presents an appealing opportunity for India, as it would for any other nation. Membership in NATO Plus grants access to an abundance of knowledge, intelligence, and expertise within NATO’s vast network. A country’s defense capabilities and preparedness could be improved by adopting NATO’s military standards and procedures. Nonetheless, it could bring economic advantages through increased trade and investment opportunities among NATO members.

A NATO Plus membership, while symbolically significant, might prompt India to reassess its diplomatic posture. Accepting this offer could reinforce India’s strategic alliance with the US and other NATO member states, bolstering its defense capabilities and global reputation. It would enable a seamless exchange of intelligence and grant India timely access to cutting-edge military technology. Moreover, it could serve as a platform for India to influence global norms and policies. However, it could create new rifts and divisions within the Global South.

India’s potential membership in NATO Plus signifies a departure from its long-standing non-alignment policy, which has been a defining feature of India’s independent foreign policy. India played a pivotal role in forming Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961.  By traditionally avoiding military alliances, India has maintained strategic autonomy and pursued its national interests. Joining NATO Plus would mark a significant shift in this approach and could potentially isolate India from other countries in the Global South that also prioritize non-alignment.

Moreover, India’s inclusion in NATO Plus could be interpreted as a strategic move against China with which India has border and other diplomatic disputes. China holds considerable influence as a major power in the Global South and is a prominent rival of the US. Aligning with NATO Plus would be perceived as a step taken by India to counter China’s influence, which could escalate tensions between the two countries and lead to heightened geopolitical rivalries. As an example, earlier this year, Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu cautioned against the formation of NATO-like alliances in the Asia-Pacific region. He expressed concerns that such alliances could coerce regional nations and amplify confrontations, leading to an escalation of disputes and conflicts throughout the region.

Furthermore, India’s potential NATO Plus membership would likely strain the dynamics within BRICS, a grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The group recently held a ministerial meeting in South Africa, where all members called for joint efforts to help marginalized countries in the Global South and rebalance of global order away from the West. India’s alignment with NATO Plus could potentially create tensions within the BRICS bloc and damage India’s image as a trusted partner.

In addition, neighboring countries like Pakistan, with whom India has a historically contentious relationship, may view India’s participation in NATO Plus with apprehension. Nonetheless, countries aligned with China and Russia may perceive India’s inclusion in NATO Plus as a challenge to their positions, potentially leading to heightened geopolitical tensions in Global South. However, India’s recent emergence as a voice for the Global South and its neutral stance in the Ukraine-Russia war has cast serious doubts on whether India will join a Western-led Cold War time security alliance.

The Possibilities of India Joining NATO Plus

India has traditionally been a non-aligned country and a strong advocate of multilateralism in pursuing its national objectives. Recently, India has overtaken China as the most populated nation and its economy is projected to be third largest by 2027. Moreover, India’s recent foreign policy stands on different issues of global concern demonstrating its foreign policy autonomy and assertiveness as a regional power. Against this backdrop, there is a thin possibility for India to join NATO Plus which may eventually create new rifts in Global South. Nonetheless, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar said that India can counter Chinese aggression and hegemony all by itself. There are other issues that could deter India from joining NATO Plus.

India has good diplomatic relations with Russia. It is quite clear as India has constantly called for a “cessation of hostilities” by both parties and the need for a peaceful resolution, but it has never publicly criticized Russia since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. India has also become one of the top buyers of Russian crude in the last year. For instance, Indian oil imports from Russia reached an unprecedented peak in February accounting for 35% of its total imports. Moreover, despite Western pressure, India abstained from the UN General Assembly vote on condemning Russia for attacking Ukraine. It is unlikely that India would abandon its partnership with Russia. Moreover, distancing itself from Russia could potentially strengthen the China-Russia relationship, posing challenges to India’s geostrategic aspirations in the Indo-Pacific region.

India has always longed for leadership of the Global South. This year, India organized a virtual summit titled “Voice of the Global South for Human-Centric Development,” which saw the participation of 125 countries from the Global South. With the theme “Unity of Voice, Unity of Purpose,” this summit underscored India’s commitment to championing the interests of developing nations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his inaugural speech, emphasized that the voice of the global South would resonate as India’s voice, emphasizing the alignment of priorities between India and developing countries. Additionally, PM Modi pledged that India’s G20 agenda would be shaped not only in consultation with G20 partners but also in collaboration with fellow members of the Global South. If New Delhi chooses to become part of the US entourage by leaning toward the NATO mechanism, it will have a great impact on its leadership ambition, as well as its position as a major power and its room for diplomatic maneuvering.

Besides, joining NATO Plus will seriously hamper India’s position in multilateral and regional organizations like G20, BRICS, and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It will damage India’s position as a bridge between the West and East also. Nonetheless, India will lose its credibility as an advocate of a multipolar world order, as joining the security alliance signals rising polarization and Cold War-like bloc politics.

Besides, India might still avail the opportunity of gaining access to the advanced military technology of the US without even joining NATO Plus. India has already signed three powerful agreements with the US, namely the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), and Critical and Emerging Technology (iCET) which will ensure better interoperability and technology sharing without jeopardizing India’s strategic autonomy. Most importantly, both countries are set to sign a historical jet engine agreement during the first state visit of Modi to the US.

Considering all the developments, it is unlikely that India will risk its non-aligned and independent foreign policy stand to join a West-led security alliance. Now, all eyes are on Modi’s upcoming visit to the US to find out the final answer. The outcome will heavily depend on India’s ability to strike a delicate balance between the potential costs and benefits of joining NATO Plus. It must be acknowledged that India’s accession to NATO would constitute a significant geopolitical upheaval, potentially exacerbating divisions and rifts within the Global South. Hence, rather than rushing into a decision, it is imperative for New Delhi to take the necessary time to craft a response that preserves stability in the Global South while safeguarding its strategic objectives.

– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Research Assistant at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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