In geostrategic circles, there have long been whispers behind closed doors about India joining NATO. Amid drastically evolving global dynamics, these murmurs have suddenly become the talk of the town. As tensions between the West and China heightened, India emerged as the numero-uno candidate for NATO in the Indo-Pacific. Sino-India rivalry, coupled with border disputes and the growing stature of India in the region, makes it a favourable bulwark against China for the West. These speculations were re-ignited when the China Select Committee of the US House recommended making India part of the NATO (+) framework. This came just ahead of Prime Minister Modi’s high-level visit to Washington. The select committee unanimously approved a policy proposal to bolster Taiwan’s deterrent, particularly by expanding NATO Plus to include India. The select committee was led under the leadership of Chairman Mike Gallagher and Ranking Member Raja Krishnamoorthi.
The committee recommendation, unanimously adopted by both Democratic and Republican members, reflects the bipartisan consensus on India in a deeply polarised US Congress. It conveys the bellwether of the mood in Washington, envisaging India’s role in counterbalancing China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific. Also, it reflects the US’s inclination to seek India’s active participation in the event of a conflict between the US and China. But the million-dollar question is: Should India join NATO? Should India step out of its fundamental position of non-alignment? And, if yes, what would be the dynamics of this relationship? Certainty: India has always been averse to the idea of getting embroiled in other countries’ wars. There is spit in the opinions over India being a NATO member. So, in this piece, we’ll look at the possible outcomes of India joining the NATO framework and its impact on India’s standing vis-à-vis the regional outlook.
NATO PLUS STATUS: PRIVILEGES
The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is a military alliance of 31 nations, mainly the US and some European countries. NATO Plus, currently NATO Plus 5, is a security arrangement that brings together NATO and five aligned nations—Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Israel, and South Korea—to boost global defence cooperation. Additionally, the US has now extended an invitation to India to join this bigger coalition that stands against adversaries. Recently, US permanent representative to NATO Julianne Smith stated that NATO’s door is open for more engagement with India, should the Indian government seek it. Though she emphasised that currently there are no plans to expand this to a broader global military alliance, Now the ball is in India’s court to make a decision. But before jumping to a decision, let’s discuss what’s in it for India.
ENHANCED DEFENCE AND INTELLIGENCE CAPABILITIES
NATO Plus membership provides access to a wealth of knowledge, intelligence, and expertise within NATO’s extensive network. NATO member states share intelligence and engage in information exchange on security-related matters. This collaboration enables countries to benefit from shared intelligence, early warning mechanisms, and a broader understanding of potential threats. NATO Plus membership would provide access to advanced military technology, intelligence sharing, and joint military exercises. It could lead to improved interoperability with other member states, allowing for joint operations and more efficient defence cooperation. By aligning with NATO’s military standards and practises, a country could enhance its defence capabilities and readiness. This can include military assistance, joint research and development projects, and defence industry collaboration. Such cooperation can strengthen a country’s defence capabilities and promote technology transfer.
POLITICAL AND DIPLOMATIC INFLUENCE
NATO Plus membership would provide a country with a platform to participate in high-level political and diplomatic discussions. By being part of NATO’s decision-making process, a member state gains a voice in shaping the alliance’s policies, strategies, and collective security efforts. It also provides opportunities to engage in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy, fostering closer ties with other member states and potentially increasing the country’s influence on the global stage. It not only helps a country to bolster its regional stature but also grants it an opportunity to have a say in the security matters affecting the Euro-Atlantic region. This can lead to broader partnerships, increased regional stability, mutual support in times of need, and magnified global credibility for a nation.
Membership in NATO Plus could bring economic advantages through increased trade and investment opportunities. Being part of a strong military alliance often instills confidence in potential investors, as it signifies stability and security. Additionally, the sharing of defence technologies and capabilities among member states could lead to the development of domestic defence industries and the creation of high-skilled jobs. Moreover, participation in NATO programmes and initiatives may offer economic opportunities through defence contracts and joint projects. NATO also provides financial support for defence modernization programmes and infrastructure development. Therefore, NATO Plus membership not only provides investment opportunities but also boosts the domestic defence ecosystem. This benefits a nation economically by strengthening defence exports and reducing dependency on foreign defence imports.
NATO PLUS STATUS: COST TO PAY
JEOPARDISING INDIA-RUSSIA TIES
Looking back at the origins of NATO, the primary reason behind it was to contain the Soviet Union, which now became Russia. Even today, the primary threat on the NATO black list is Russia. Currently, US-led NATO is engaged in asymmetric warfare with Russia in Ukraine. It will have a direct impact on New Delhi’s strong, established, and close ties with Moscow if India joins the NATO alliance that is supporting Ukraine in the ongoing war with Russia. The US is steadfastly working towards achieving this. The US seeks to isolate Russia, obtain India’s defence contracts, and take advantage of the country’s advantageous location in the Indo-Pacific. In fact, the Russian foreign minister has often criticised NATO for dragging India into an anti-Russia alliance. In fact, NATO Plus membership will cost India its old, time-tested ties with Russia. This would have an adverse impact on India’s energy and defence sectors.
FORFEITING STRATEGIC AUTONOMY
NATO Plus membership involves aligning foreign and defence policies with the alliance. This can restrict a country’s autonomy in decision-making, as it needs to coordinate and consult with other member states. NATO membership may also affect India’s strategic autonomy. India, due to its well-known strategic autonomy, was able to balance its ties with opposite camps like the US-Russia, Iran-Saudi Arabia, etc. India has been tactfully showcasing its strategic autonomy. Not to mention, India is the only country that managed to evade US CAATSA sanctions for buying Russian S-400s. India’s strategic autonomy is driven by its national interests. The same was reiterated when India put aside western pressure to buy cheap Russian crude oil during the Ukraine conflict. NATO membership would seriously dent India’s strategic autonomy, which in turn might hurt India’s national interests.
RISK OF ENTANGLEMENT IN CONFLICTS
As part of NATO Plus, member states could be obligated to participate in conflicts that they may not consider within their national interests. This risk of entanglement in conflicts can be seen as a disadvantage for countries that prefer to maintain a more neutral or non-interventionist stance. Being a member, India would be required to get embroiled in America’s conflicts against its wishes. Though India won’t be involved militarily, it will be financially. India might be asked to impose and support sanctions on enemy states. This might include countries with which India has deep strategic interests, like Russia, Iran, and several other African states. Getting embroiled in foreign conflicts as a US lackey is a concern already expressed by France, a key NATO member state. Engaging in foreign conflicts would be devastating for India, which is currently on a growth trajectory to become a major global power.
It is wisely said that there is no such thing as a free lunch; everything comes with a price tag. NATO membership has its own pros and cons. It is now up to India to decide whether it wants to join NATO Plus as a member or not. A lot will depend on whether India is able to strike a balance between the costs it has to pay and the gains it will reap. India joining NATO would undoubtedly be the biggest geopolitical upheaval of our time. Therefore, instead of jumping the gun, New Delhi must carry out a thorough cost-benefit analysis before making a decision. It’s better for India to take its own time and, in the meantime, focus on bolstering its strengths. This way, India could negotiate its terms from a position of strength. Thus, India could get its pound of flesh while minimising its toll.