Since Narendra Modi’s became Prime Minister in May 2014, India has hosted an American president at its Republic Day celebrations and finalised its application to join the Chinese and Russian-led Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. It has agreed a Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region with the US and become a founding member of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. It has announced or signaled major arms deals with France and Russia, and concluded significant loan and investment deals with China and Japan. Under Modi, India has promised not just to ‘Look East’, but also to ‘Act East’ building better political, economic, financial and strategic relationships in East Asia, while also attempting to ‘Link West’ with a series of partners in the Middle East.

To the casual observer, these various moves might be taken as signs of incoherence in Indian foreign policy. But on closer inspection, it is now evident that India is implementing a ‘multialignment’ strategy that stands in stark contrast to earlier approaches it has employed in its international relations, during and after the Cold War, when it pursued ‘non-alignment’ and then ‘strategic autonomy’. This new multialignment strategy is not the product of a new ‘Modi doctrine’. Rather, it is the consolidation of an approach that has evolved for at least a decade, which is judged by India’s foreign policy-making elite as the best means to achieve what they perceive as its core interests and ideals in an increasingly uncertain global context.

In an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs, I examine the origins, evolution, and possible payoffs of this strategy. The article notes that India is engaging with regional multilateral institutions and leveraging strategic partnership arrangements to try to boost its economic development and build its influence. At the same time, India is hedging about its preferred regional and international orders between established Western liberal norms and institutions, and putative alternatives that might be advanced by rising powers, notably China.

Whether this strategy delivers what India’s leaders hope it might remains in question. Many Indian and foreign commentators worry that Modi’s approach to foreign policy lacks a sense of purpose, apart from securing whatever advantages it can in the short term. My article argues that multialignment, essentially a compromise strategy that unites groups within India’s foreign policy elite with very different perceptions of the usefulness of closer ties with Washington and the intentions of Beijing, as well as other major issues, may persist for some time, but probably cannot last in a dynamic, changing regional order.

Article by Griffith Asia Institute and Centre for Governance and Public Policy Professor, Ian Hall.