New Delhi is set to host a rare strategic dialogue with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) focused on regional security issues in a development with potential global ramifications.
The dialogue is expected to be held in early March, said people aware of the matter.
Senior officials from NATO, including from its policy planning division, and officials from India’s ministries of defence and external affairs are expected to participate.
Within South Asia, the security alliance of 30 countries from North America and Europe was present in Afghanistan, where NATO forces fought for 20 years until the US-led withdrawal in late 2021.
The dialogue will likely focus on a range of themes, including the possibility of a stronger partnership between India and NATO focused on geopolitical challenges in the Indo-Pacific.
“Given the fact that India is increasingly multi-aligned, consultations or dialogues with even military alliances like NATO seem okay. The goal of multi-alignment is the preservation of India’s strategic autonomy so New Delhi can talk to NATO and also be a part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation with Russia and China,” said Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research.
Media reports had earlier indicated that India and NATO held a political dialogue in 2019 aimed at expanding cooperation. The same reports, never denied, indicated that the discussion had centred around China, the evolving situation in Afghanistan and terrorism.
But NATO’s prioritization of Russia as a key threat and its relative ambivalence about the security challenge posed by China limited common ground between the two sides at the time. This latest round of talks occurs in a dramatically changed strategic landscape.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan and the escalating threat posed by China to India and other countries have altered calculations.
“In a dialogue such as this, China is going to be an issue of mutual interest given that India continues to face Chinese border aggression. NATO might like to have a better understanding of the threat India faces and how China’s expansionist strategy operates,” said Chellaney.
This time around, NATO has adopted a more muscular approach in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beijing’s support for Moscow and its unveiling of a ‘no-limits’ partnership with Russia has hardened NATO’s outlook on the Asian giant. NATO’s new Strategic Concept, unveiled in June last year, squarely addresses the China challenge.
“The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values. The PRC employs a broad range of political, economic and military tools to increase its global footprint and project power, while remaining opaque about its strategy, intentions and military build-up. The PRC’s malicious hybrid and cyber operations and its confrontational rhetoric and disinformation target Allies and harm Alliance security,” reads the document.
“The PRC seeks to control key technological and industrial sectors, critical infrastructure, and strategic materials and supply chains. It uses its economic leverage to create strategic dependencies and enhance its influence. It strives to subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains,” the document goes on to add.
The two sides are likely to look for common ground to address security challenges in the Indo-Pacific. In recent years, individual European nations like the UK, Germany and France have stepped up their military footprint in the region. It remains to be seen whether this development will have any consequences for India’s relationship with Russia given Moscow’s acrimonious relationship with NATO. Strategic experts think not.
“While India has made clear to Russia that we will not take sides on Ukraine with the West, we have also made clear that we will continue our dialogue with the US, NATO and the West on the Indo-Pacific and China. There is a clear difference between India and Russia over China,” said Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. Queries to the ministry of external affairs and NATO on Wednesday remained unanswered till press time on Thursday.