India’s Cold War policy of Non-alignment – a blessing or a curse?   

Following from centuries of colonisation, a newly independent India was opposed to aggressive military alliances, political pacts and economic aid with strings attached. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) became a formidable force in international relations in the mid- 1950’s with the leaders of 29 post-colonial states mobilising to devise strategies which would enable their countries to develop independently from the major powers. Prime Minster of India, Jawaharlal Nehru was a central architect of NAM, encouraging many countries to resist alignment with either great power during the Cold War. As the world’s largest democracy and with close historical links to Britain, India seemed a natural fit for the western bloc. Yet inspired from the economic modelling of the Soviet Union, Nehru sought to construct a non-aligned foreign policy, which in theory, would enable India to manoeuvre between the great powers and adopt aspects from the East and West.

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Prominent leaders of the Non-aligned movement meet at the Bandung Conference, Indonesia 1955.

Supporters of India’s non-alignment argue that the strategy allowed India to take an interest-driven approach to foreign policy. India had no empire to protect, no oceans to safeguard and no ideology to promote. India’s only goal, it believed, was to survive as a free and prosperous country, while developing a unique national identity. India argued that by rejecting Cold War ideology, it could avoid being drawn into bi-polarised conflicts and could remain focused on its development. Further, this strategy allowed India accept generous aid from both the West and East without strings attached. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, India was indeed successful in attracting financial assistance from a variety of industrialised countries. The USSR and Eastern Europe contributed almost as much in capital goods and technical assistance as did the United States, Great Britain and West Germany.

In this way, Nehru’s decision to pursue a strategy of non-alignment was more than just an idealistic dream of neutrality. It was a policy based on his realistic assessment of India’s geopolitical situation at the time. However, hindsight reveals the negative consequences associated with this approach. Though India may have had a level of flexibility during the Cold War, non-alignment dictated an inward-looking and reactive foreign policy posture.   Further, the pursuit of NAM staggered India’s economic development for decades, the repercussions of which are still felt by the nation’s people today.

Non-alignment instructed India’s leaders to pursue a naïve and pacifist foreign policy strategy based upon the premise that India faced no significant security threats. India’s lack of investment in deterrence capabilities and use of diplomacy where strength was needed led to immense devastation. In 1962, the Maoist Red Army defeated Indian forces in the Himalayan heights. The victory for China was decisive- a wounded India suffered vast bloodshed and had 15,000 square miles of territory in the Aksai Chin region of Ladakh seized from its grip in    days. The situation left a broken Nehru with no choice but to approach the US for military assistance.

In 1964, China tested its first nuclear weapon and New Delhi pleaded for security guarantees from the US, UK and Soviet Russia. India learnt the hard way that while non-alignment provided some strategic autonomy, its lack of security routinely placed it at the mercy of the Great powers. The capacity of Pakistan to attack India soil was also underestimated by Indian policy makers. In 1965, Pakistan attacked India across the ceasefire line in Kashmir, emboldened by US weaponry. India’s pursuit of non-alignment led the country to establish policies of friendship where strength and deterrence was called for. Ultimately, this rendered India vulnerable to regional threats and at the behest of world powers.   

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Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru talking with his Chinese counterpart Premier Zhou Enlai.

While India sought to pursue foreign policy that was independent from both major parties, it was far closer to the Soviet Union than to the United States throughout the Cold War. Nehru felt an ideological affinity with the USSR and for four decades, the Indian economy mirrored the Soviet’s centrally planned economy. Private enterprises were crumpled, India nationalised major industries and locked its economy out from trade. The economic growth of India suffered greatly as a result. Mockingly referred to as the ‘Hindi rate of growth,’ India struggled from the 1950’s to 1990’s, only developing at a rate of 3.5 percent per year. This performance was half the rate of the Asian tigers. During the same period, Indonesia sustained 6 percent growth per annum, Thailand 7 percent, Taiwan 8 percent and South Korea 9 percent. When the USSR collapsed, this marked the dramatic discrediting of   socialist economic management. Following the fall, Indian policy makers were left with a balance of payments crisis, inflation at 17 per cent per annum and an economic growth rate of 0.9 per cent.

India responded in the only plausible way forward- by radically restructuring their economy. This shift has enabled India to double economic growth. The shift away from central planning and towards the Washington Consensus has been instrumental in empowering India, a country that was previously insular and insecure about its place in the world to become a confident, emerging power. India’s non-alignment strategy which attempted to appease both sides, held the country back from developing. Thus, undermining the impact of any aid that India managed to extract from both blocs during the Cold War.

While the non-alignment policy may have given India global distinction, it failed to assist India in developing as a free and independent nation. Nehru’s commitment to a non-aligned foreign policy jeopardised India’s security and economic development. India suffered a series of devastating military setbacks during the Cold War and its economy stagnated for decades, crippled by government regulation. While the extent of India’s non-alignment policy will never fully be understood, once India distanced itself from the non-aligned movement- abandoning pacifist military polices and the socialist economic model, the country rose to economic prominence and claimed its rightful place as a regional powerbroker. For such reasons, the strategy of non-alignment adopted by India during the first stage of independence was unwise.

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Mumbai, India, 1991.



Gabrielle Harman

Who is the partner of choice for developing states?

The European Union have provided development and trading partnerships with nations from every corner of the globe. In doing so, the EU promotes democracy and human rights by attaching social provisions and human rights conditions to their agreements. For example, EU development partnerships in the Indo-Pacific or Central Africa will be subject to clauses regarding the internal affairs of a country.

Comparatively, China’s programs and partnerships do not bind political clauses to agreements. China promotes norms of ‘unconditionally’ and ‘win-win’ economic outcomes and will turn a blind eye to the internal affairs of the countries it partners with.  This approach allows China to be increasingly viewed as the development partner of choice as they are willing to meet the immediate economic needs of states.      

The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 further elevated the status of China’s economic model.  Responding to the crisis, China unleashed substantial stimulus packages through the state-controlled financial sector and aided regional neighbours. China’s trade surpluses and currency manipulation have also led it to accumulate the world’s largest foreign currency reserves, thus becoming a central part of the international political economy. China’s performance, when juxtaposed with Europe’s response which was largely confined to bailing out poorly regulated banks, positions China strongly to extend its normative power throughout the developing world.            

The European Union’s strict criterion for its membership and programs rests on principles of democracy and the rule of law. While developing countries have traditionally been willing to make concessions in their internal affairs in return for economic benefit, China is providing ‘no strings attached’ partnerships and an economic model that outperforms that of the EU. Therefore, the EU’s normative influence to promote democracy throughout the world is waning significantly.   

To maintain a normative presence which continues to push developing nations closer towards democracy and the recognition of human rights, the EU must do more to acknowledge the role of China by allowing reform in areas of traditional EU development initiatives. Greater flexibility and inclusion in EU programs will enable a balance to be struck between economic and social development. This will also reduce the appeal of China’s development program which often leaves countries devastated by national debt and forced to maintain deferential stances towards the grand strategy of the CCP.

A right to develop?

The “East Asian Miracle” was the title of a 1993 World Bank report which attributed the rapid economic growth and development of Asian countries post-World War II to the success of neoliberalism. While the neo-liberal theory of development is widely held in the West, the developmental state theory poses a challenge to the Anglo-American analysis, providing an alternate explanation for the rise of economies within East Asian following World War II. 

Critics of the neo-liberal consensus argued that Asian economies rapidly developed due to the strong, centralised roles assumed by governments in economic planning. Regional leaders such as Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Yuan Yew also reacted to the atmosphere of neoliberal triumphalism that was conveyed in the World Bank report and advocated for others to “look East” toward countries like Japan for models of economic development rather than West.

Developmental state theory argues that late industrialising nations need to take measures to catch up with advanced capitalist economies. Protection and oversight from central governments can help to created a dynamic environment for countries to develop evenly and strengthen their industrial capabilities prior to integrating into the neo-liberal global market. 

While developmental state theory provides a plausible alternate explanation for the rise of East Asian economies, the model is not superior to a democratic capitalist system. The strong role of the government in developmental states gives rise to authoritarianism. In the interests of pursuing drastic economic development, states subordinate political objectives. This means that citizens are not free to criticise their government or actively have a voice in policy development. 

The process of industrialisation enables developing states to drastically improve living standards and reduce abject poverty. Such needs are arguably more pressing than the actualisation of civil liberties in countries where access to food, water, shelter and sanitation are not ubiquitous. 

Given these considerations, it is reasonable to offer developing states a grace period in which they can prioritise national economic development above the civil rights of citizens. However, when has a state sufficiently developed to a stage where the international community can pressure them to uphold the human rights of their citizens?

In practice, the international community has had difficulty in grappling with such questions. Most notably, China lays claim to the second most powerful economy in the world while also holding developing-state status which allows it to maintain the need for international concessions and time to adequately develop. 

The right to develop is an internationally recognised right at the United Nations and has also been ratified in a number of international instruments and national declarations.

  • 1991 China published a White Paper on its right to prioritise economic stability over Western priorities of civil and political freedoms (essentially China published the view that individual freedoms, while important should not come before the interests of the collective)  
  • Right to Develop is recognised at the UN (since 1986) and this resolution and way of thinking continues to be a prominent issue cited by developing countries when discussing international issues (UN- Res. 41/128) 
  • This right is also recognised in the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights
  • Reaffirmed in in the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, the 1993 Vienna Programme of Action and  2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Though the international community has found consensus on the existence of an international right to develop, a lack of clarity remains on when this right expires.

So long as China continues to argue its status as a developing state and the leader of the developing world, the right to develop will increasingly be used as a tool for countries to argue that authoritarian governance and centralised economies are not merely temporary but rather provide a strong alternate model to democratic/capitalist governance. This reality will result in a world that is less free, and more divided between East and West.