TCSS Security Commentaries #032

The path forward seems to be establishing a very targeted, carefully structured cooperation that will permit India and NATO to collaborate against security threats while allowing New Delhi’s diplomats to keep ties with other states to maintain India’s strategic autonomy.

Pauline Geyer, Intern, TCSS

In March 2023, New Delhi hosted a “rare strategic dialogue” with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to focus on regional security issues, including the growing security challenges from a belligerent China in the Indo-Pacific region. The dialogue marks a significant step in the emerging partnership between India and the transatlantic alliance.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine and China’s growing influence, NATO has been rethinking its strategies and goals to create a new strategic concept. Amidst immense pressure due to the ongoing Russia-Ukriane war, NATO identified Russia as its primary threat in its 2022 Strategic Concept, drastically shifting its Russia strategy. Earlier, the alliance underestimated Russia’s power and intent. In its previous strategic concept, NATO identified Moscow as a partner.

For the first time, NATO recognized China as a security threat and officially designated it as a “systemic challenge” in its 2022 Strategic Concept. It denounces China’s malicious activity, including cyber operations, deception tactics, party-state control over industrial and technological sectors, crucial infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply networks. With China’s increasing worldwide influence, especially on trade routes and the global economy, ties in the Indo-Pacific region are indispensable for NATO. By cooperating with allies in the Indo-Pacific, who share similar principles as NATO, the transatlantic alliance wants to respond to the developing China threat. NATO’s relatively waning position and influence urge for expanded military and political cooperation with stronger ties in the Indo-Pacific.

In recent years, the Indo-Pacific has become an increasingly important trading partner to NATO members. Securing goods and trade routes is decisive for NATO states’ economies and security. In addition, the emerging conflict in the Indo-Pacific region, for instance, between the US and China, is a key factor for NATO to extend its power to the Indo-Pacific region. NATO already has long-lasting partnerships with countries in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly with Australia, Japan, South Korea, and New Zealand.

NATO establishes relationships based on shared values, strategic interests, and cooperation in security, defense, and regional stability. Indeed, NATO members and their Indo-Pacific partners increasingly agree on the source and nature of threats to the global order. As the world’s largest democracy, India and NATO share core values and could therefore be potential partners. NATO could benefit significantly from enhancing its relationship with India while using it as a potential springboard to deepen its involvement in the South-Asian region and get close to the Chinese continental borders.

Thus, India and NATO could build a relationship to counter China’s growing regional influence. Therefore, enhanced cooperation with India helps NATO to expand its values and build alliances against growing autocracies. Besides, India’s location in the Indian Ocean is critically important for global trade and commerce. With access to critical trade routes, India has a key role in maintaining regional stability. As one of the fastest-growing major economies in the world, India opens up new economic opportunities for member countries and promotes economic growth in the region. Moreover, strengthening the partnership between the two advances common interests, such as maritime security, counterterrorism, and cybersecurity.  

The strategic intersection is here to stay, yet, not a total overlap. While the advantages of the NATO-India partnership prevail, NATO’s interest in the region has been met with skepticism. Even if India could benefit from NATO, an alliance with NATO runs against India’s diplomatic and strategic autonomy policy, and New Delhi be viewed as a supporter of merely Western interests and values.

Therefore, India’s partnership with NATO could be perceived as a threat to other regional countries, especially China and Russia. In the past, despite border conflicts with China, India sought to deepen economic ties and increase cooperation in areas like infrastructure development, trade, and investment. As for many other states, China is India’s biggest trade partner, and India certainly doesn’t want to escalate a conflict with China by moving closer to NATO. The divergences in strategies of NATO members and India are apparent. India’s diplomatic strategy focuses on autonomy and wishes to be independent to increase its influence as a world power. The potential for strong collaboration between NATO and India in the Indo-Pacific region is vast. India has traditionally followed a policy of non-alignment, preferring to maintain strategic autonomy in its foreign relations. Furthermore, it doesn’t want to belong to one alliance, especially not if it could cause diplomatic conflicts. Accordingly, India’s current approach to resolving disputes through diplomacy and negotiations will likely remain its preferred strategy. The path forward seems to be establishing a very targeted, carefully structured cooperation that will permit India and NATO to go forward with collaboration against security threats while allowing New Delhi’s diplomats to keep ties with other states to maintain India’s strategic autonomy. The strategic dialogue between NATO and India marks a significant step toward specialized cooperation but not a long-lasting partnership.

Pauline Geyer is an undergraduate pursuing International Relations and Social Science from the University of Erfurt, Germany. She specializes in global security and public international law. She is an exchange student at the Department of Political Science at National Chengchi University and an Intern at TCSS.