Adopting aspects of India’s non-alignment while honouring our US defence alliance

Jul 20, 2020

The escalating tension between China and Australia threatens our economic health. India’s Non-Alignment Foreign Policy shows a way to get back from the brink without sacrificing our independence, while still meeting our obligations under the ANZUS Alliance.

When it won independence in 1947, India chose to become non-aligned in its foreign relations. Until then, as part of the Empire, it was, like Australia, required to fight for Britain, suffering massive casualties in World Wars I and II, just as we did. In 1947, nuclear-powered America and Russia were locked in a Cold War, keeping each other in check by threatening Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, as it was appropriately dubbed. Their hostility played out in fierce arguments in global fora, especially the UN. India and Pakistan had to choose to align with one or neither of the two sides. Pakistan chose America, progressively signing as many as four pacts with it, earning itself the title of ‘America’s most allied ally in Asia’!

Although pressured to follow Pakistan’s example, India chose Non-Alignment, convinced that taking sides in the Cold War was against its national interest. Having become independent after nearly 200 years of British rule, it wasn’t willing to sacrifice its freedom to American or any other power’s hegemony. While Non-Alignment allowed it to choose its stance on international issues, it still came at a significant cost.

Despite a ceasefire between India and Pakistan in their war over Kashmir, both countries had to be prepared in case hostilities resumed. Pakistan was in a stronger position. Its alliance gave it subsidised access to state-of-the-art US weapons and a guaranteed veto at the UN on Kashmir. India’s only recourse was to use its scanty foreign reserves to purchase arms from Britain, France and Russia and negotiate a UN veto from Russia, which wasn’t guaranteed because India didn’t join the Soviet bloc.

Yet, India stayed committed to Non-Alignment, valuing its freedom to choose its position when other countries were in dispute with each other. This enabled it to form constructive, albeit sometimes testy, working relationships with all nations, even the US and USSR. It could also play a valuable role as mediator, peacemaker and peace-keeper, something it did with distinction.

Unlike India, Australia has always depended on rich and powerful friends – Britain from 1788 to the early years of World War II and the US from 1942, when Singapore fell, onwards. However, ‘following the leader’ has often cost us dearly, prime examples being Gallipoli in World War I, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly not all US allies have felt similarly compelled. In the invasion of Iraq, for example, Australia joined the ‘Coalition of the willing’, but several US allies, including France, Germany and New Zealand opted not to, effectively choosing military Non-Alignment for that war.

Australia’s disposition tends to be publicly aggressive in our international comments. This has been very evident during the recent escalating tensions between America, and China, the countries we depend upon the most, one for our security the other for our prosperity. Discretion might have been the smart choice. Instead, our PM chose provocation, calling for an enquiry into China’s handling of Covid-19 and all but naming China as the potential aggressor when he announced our acquisition of long-range missiles to “deter or respond to aggression” in the Indo-Pacific region. It is hard to fathom what he hoped to achieve other than grandstanding, feeding the paranoia of the Australian electorate already aroused by media hawks or currying favour with President Trump and the American military establishment.

As US bases nearby are a much greater restraint on China than our long-range missiles, his posturing seemed pointless. Instead, his numerous vexing comments caused China to lose face, prompting it to suspend imports of our meat, impose tariffs on our barley and caution its citizens from travelling to Australia! The risk of provoking China further is incalculable. For example, it could temporarily suspend travel of tourists and students to Australia, diverting them to our competitors, further crippling our education and tourism industries, which are already reeling from Covid-19.

Managing situations where partners are at loggerheads is always problematic. This is where India’s Non-Alignment approach provides useful lessons. It frequently chose neutrality, staying silent or making constructive suggestions for resolution. With heavyweights America and China, competing for the world crown, it would be prudent for middleweight Australia to stay out of the ring. If following our penchant for being seen to punch above our weight, we want to raise fists against China, we had better find other markets to ameliorate the damage from the inevitable one-two we will get from reduced Chinese demand, a Herculean task as it accounts for 30% of our exports!

Non-Alignment is choosing what’s best for Australia even if it doesn’t please a close ally. That is exactly what John Curtin did in 1942, when he said, “without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom … we shall exert all our energies towards the shaping of a plan, with the United States as its keystone”. Although this infuriated Churchill as tantamount to disloyalty to Britain, it was the start of our US alliance, which safeguarded us then and still does.

A non-aligned approach doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take up issues with any country, even China. It just means avoiding megaphone diplomacy, which unnecessarily risks retaliation, instead using diplomatic channels to raise sensitive issues forcefully, but discreetly. Such discretion wouldn’t impose any constraint on working with America, or other allies, to discourage aggression from any country, including China, by bolstering our defence strength.

Non-Alignment is really about being publicly prudent, managing complex and competing international relationships to best serve our self-interest as an independent nation.

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