New Delhi: Since geo-economics equals geopolitics in significance and may even exceed it in coming times, it would be proper and wise for India to examine the Non-Alignment playbook in this context. Non-Alignment as it applies to geopolitics has been with this country since Jawaharlal Nehru devised it. It has stood the test of time. To give a positive spin to Non-Alignment, it is called strategic autonomy. When India finds its geopolitical options closed, it clutches at strategic autonomy like a straw, and it has always saved it from drowning.

Non-Alignment or strategic autonomy does not work so well with geo-economics because geo-economics compels nations to trade with one another based on commonly accepted trading rules. Those rules are under attack from the Donald Trump administration which has imposed prohibitive tariffs on Chinese goods. China is a mercantilist power and has gamed free trade and globalization to its benefit and to the manifest disadvantage of the United States. Trump is taking harsh trade measures against China which ought to have been put in place long ago. China has retaliated but faces the heat nevertheless. Neither being a market economy nor believing in free trade, it is obsessively protective of its own market. At the same time, it feels entitled to free market access to the West and especially the United States. Challenged on these double standards, it is unable to face the new situation. It has few allies who are economic powers. Indeed, it has to provide geopolitical and geo-economic support to its major ally, Russia, on account of the Kremlin’s growing rift with the West over election meddling, Crimea and Ukraine. As for India, relations are already troubled. While keeping the border row with India alive and encouraging Pakistan’s hostilities with this country, China is duplicitously trying to win over India in the trading arena by praising globalization, free trade, etc. The latest Narendra Modi-Xi Jinping meeting on the sidelines of the 2018 BRICS summit saw China exalt free trade while following none of its rules.

Previously, Donald Trump was indiscriminate in applying tariffs. Allies and adversaries were equally punished. This prompted China to play divide-and-rule between Western Europe and the United States. Rejecting China’s scheme to gang up against the United States, Western Europe said it disputed Trump’s manner of settling trade disputes but not the substance of his grievances insofar as they reflected America’s decline. Trump has since become more selective in imposing trade sanctions. He has doubled down on punishing China but held off acting against Western Europe with both sides meeting and agreeing for a negotiated settlement. Further, the Trump White House is trying to bring together the “Indo-Pacific” region on trade matters. It includes India and keeps out China. The message is clear. The economic containment of China, which uses its rise for expansion in Asia, has begun.

What should India’s considered position on this be?

The question really boils down to this: While India is a practitioner of Non-Alignment geopolitically, should it automatically extend it to geo-economics? The short answer is no. India has to be aligned with nation-states that practice and encourage free trade and globalization. The West, by and large, favours both free trade and globalization. China, on the other hand, pays lip service to the two paradigms while being in obvious and voluptuous breach of them. Russia is not a significant geo-economic player while Japan sides with the West. It is really a no-brainer which group India should align with, but it is important to contextualize it in reference to Non-Alignment and geopolitics. For geopolitics, Non-Alignment stays. It has proved its worth for the country. In the domain of geo-economics, however, India has to be aligned with the West, and in this particular instance, against China. Before Donald Trump’s about-turn on the European Union, the EU and Japan had joined in a free trade pact. That’s a union where India should find a place. India should also be part of Trump’s new trade initiative for the “Indo-Pacific”. Shedding Non-Alignment for geo-economics does not mean India is geopolitically aligned to any side in the looming new Cold War. This distinction must be made clear at the outset. By the same token, India should manifest no defensiveness and embarrassment in proclaiming to be on the side of the trading angel states. China would be peeved with the distinction but India has to shrug it off.

This is the age of geo-economics. Nuclear weapons have made major wars unthinkable. The only sort of expansion that would be barely tolerated for a time is geo-economic spread. Equally, containment has taken a profound geo-economic dimension. The designer of containment, George F. Kennan, disliked its overt militarization and felt powerless to make amends. He would be more at ease with geo-economic containment. So should India be.