The term “strategic autonomy” has acquired almost talismanic status in recent discussions of India’s foreign and security policy. In the wake of the recently concluded third U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue a number if commentators, especially from India, hailed the country’s ability to preserve its “strategic autonomy.” Even some U.S. academics have claimed in the recent past that this preoccupation with “strategic autonomy” has been a constant in India’s foreign and security policies.
Despite these confident pronouncements, a more careful look at the country’s policies since independence suggests otherwise. In the wake of the disastrous Sino-Indian border war of 1962, India sought military assistance from the United States. Soon thereafter, following the first Chinese nuclear test of 1964, India actually reportedly sought a nuclear guarantee from the United States. However, since its leadership was unwilling to abandon its commitment to nonalignment, no such guarantee proved to be forthcoming.
These instances aside, there’s little question that India’s putative commitment to an autonomous foreign policy was compromised in the aftermath of the Indo-Soviet treaty of “peace, friendship and cooperation” of 1971. It may well be true that the treaty served India’s strategic interests during the 1971 Indo-Pakistani conflict and beyond. However, it’s equally clear that India’s subsequent dependence on the Soviets for markets, weaponry and diplomatic
leverage especially in the U.N. Security Council, compromised its independence of action. This was amply evident after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when Indian policymakers had to resort to verbal subterfuge to rationalize the Soviet invasion.
The quest for “strategic autonomy” may well be a legitimate and worthwhile end. However, it’s equally important to recognize that it has hardly been a sturdy leitmotif of the country’s foreign and security policies.