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Strategic autonomy is key

By Shreya Upadhyay, Feb 9 2018, 23:46 IST

The end of 2017 saw a Trump administration charm offensive on New Delhi. India found itself as one of the main arms of the Quadrilateral 'alliance', in its second coming, with the US, Japan, and Australia. Trump, during his Asia tour, called for India to play a leading role in the region. His administration's first National Security Strategy (NSS) put a stamp on that. Many commentators said that India would be more than willing to lap up this role in the 'Indo-Pacific'. Is India comfortable bandwagoning with Trump's America? How does this affect our quest for strategic autonomy?

Former foreign secretary and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon writes that since Independence, India has sought to maintain its strategic autonomy. Jawaharlal Nehru fashioned 'non-alignment' to stay independent of the two Cold War blocs. This policy has been refashioned in different periods of time since. The philosophy behind India's 'non-alignment' wasn't much different from the American founding fathers' desire not to entangle the nation in "permanent alliances" in the decades after its declaration of independence.

Strategic autonomy is a desired objective for many countries. In reality, it may only be pursued by a lone superpower that has the economic, industrial, military, and technological wherewithal to resist pressure from outside. Regional powers like India cannot be completely autonomous. They can choose to resist external interference on core tenets of national security but tend to give way on some other not so core issues. For instance, Jammu and Kashmir and the nuclear programme fall in the core interest category, voting against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency does not. While the path of strategic autonomy may be ideal, India could never achieve it completely.

The world order today is at the cusp of change. It is still unipolar militarily, with the US ruling the roost. But economically, much space has been vacated for countries like China and India as the US turns inwards. Ultra-nationalism is on the rise; new, authoritarian leaders are coming to power; there are security issues due to global terrorism; the Middle East is in chaos; North Korea is belligerent. All this provides space for countries to revaluate their policies. How India will maintain its strategic autonomy will be noteworthy.

'Indo-Pacific' has been the buzzword since 2016. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled his regional vision of a "free and open Indo-Pacific". Australia cited the phrase in its foreign policy white paper. Trump appears personally seized of the idea lately. The term covers the expanse from the West Coast of India to the West Coast of the United States.

The coinage of the term serves a specific strategic purpose. While India may or may not have been part of the birthing process of the Indo-Pacific, there is a pull for India. The rise of China is a challenge for us. Beijing continues to grow fast economically and modernise its military rapidly. It is building influence across South Asia. Its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) appears untenable to India's economic and geopolitical interests.

A leadership role for India in the Indo-Pacific has the unstated goal to challenge Chinese assertiveness. The NSS described China as a "revisionist, authoritarian power, antithetical to US values and interests". India's recent snub to the BRI and its handling of the Doklam crisis at the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction fosters this American view.

What has further soothed Indian ego this time is Trump's rant against Pakistan. Trump criticised Pakistan for fomenting terrorism and instability in the region. The NSS report flagged a potential India-Pakistan "military conflict that could lead to a nuclear exchange". Trump's scathing twitter attack and aid suspension furthered the trust deficit. New Delhi had always wanted a stronger US action against Pakistan.

Rejig China policy

Changing world politics and the China-focused narrative have raised expectations for India to play a proactive role. Yet, New Delhi has welcomed Quad 2.0 with caution. Largely because the first time around, the idea had collapsed because two of its members found it "inconvenient". This time around, it is still being debated whether the US asked India before putting it up for the "leadership role."

India nonetheless would benefit from the Quad as it allows it to strengthen its geopolitical linkages. India could promote its flagship ventures, like the Sagarmala project and the East Coast Economic Corridor. This will spur development on India's eastern coast and enable trade links with South and Southeast Asia.

The Quad, however, could also result in China trying to box India by creating tensions within the subcontinent. Recently, however, China has upped its seduction game with India. It states the hope to "turn a new page of further growth and development". India on its part needs to rejig its China policy. There is need for fruitful conversation on economic engagement, maritime security, freedom of navigation, cyber security, etc.

India also needs greater diplomacy with countries like Russia and Iran who were the poster villains in the NSS. Our ties with Tehran are important in the energy and security realms. The Chabahar port is important to Indian interests. It opens a trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. This is also seen as a counter to Gwadar port in Pakistan, increasingly a Chinese base. Russia continues to remain our largest defence partner and we aspire to a strengthened engagement with both Russia and China in forums like the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and RIC (Russia, India, China).

As a growing power in a changing world order scenario, India's future outlook should be about how to transform the country and not be part of any camp. In that, practicing strategic autonomy remains a desired quest, if not an essential requirement.

(The writer is Programme Associate, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru)

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