India’s Strategic Autonomy: Lost or Finally on the Right Track?

 
 

In diplomacy, the scheduling and sequencing of  meetings tends to have symbolic meaning. April saw New Delhi blowing hot and cold to both Washington and Beijing, putting its multi-vector foreign policy on display. During the visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter to India, the countries reached an “in principle” understanding to conclude the Logistical Exchange Memorandum of Understanding (LEMOA). LEMOA would enhance logistical bilateral military cooperation, especially maritime cooperation.

The LEMOA arrangement is still a considerable distance away from constituting a full-fledged military alliance between the two nations, but it will allow the two militaries to use each other’s land, air, and naval bases for resupply, repair, and rest. The agreement does not entail the stationing of U.S. troops on Indian soil; neither does it require Indian support for U.S. military action elsewhere nor mandate joint naval patrols (a term which India has been careful to avoid, despite repeated references by the United States). India can refuse access to its bases anytime.

Nonetheless, the engagement has still been touted as a bold move by the government. Washington has been pursuing Delhi for the last ten years, but the earlier governments had not been forthright on signing these so-called “foundational agreements,” citing India’s strategic autonomy. India in the past has, however, provided logistics assistance to the United States on a case-by-case basis, which included providing refueling facilities to American aircraft during the Gulf War in 2001.

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There are also on-goings talks regarding two other agreements —  the Communications and Information Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) and the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for geospatial intelligence. CISMOA will help India get encrypted communications equipment and systems allowing military commanders to communicate with aircraft and ships through a secure network. The BECA would provide India with topographical and aeronautical data and products, which will aid navigation and targeting. Indian military officials are reportedly not in favor of CISMOA and BECA; skepticism abounds that the agreements would provide the United States with access to communications about Indian military operations. The current arrangement nonetheless helps India to bolster defense and security ties with the United States to deter the China-Pakistan axis that hurts its interests.

It is no secret that the arrangement is one of the many U.S. policies designed to contain Chinese growing assertiveness in the region. Recent years have witnessed aggressive courting of China’s neighbors by the United States. Carter’s most recent visit to Asia, for example, involved a stop in the Philippines to reassure the country of U.S. backing in Manila’s South China Sea disputes with China. Washington has been likewise working to strengthen its alliances with South Korea and Japan and forge cooperative military ties with former adversary Vietnam. Notably, Carter cancelled a previously scheduled trip to Beijing that was supposed to be part of his Asia tour.

However, New Delhi refuted critics’ opinions that India’s strategic autonomy had been traded off by the recent progress in India-U.S. relations. New Delhi realizes the importance of maintaining strong ties with China even as it courts other partners beyond its neighborhood. The LEMOA announcement was followed by three high-level exchanges between India and China. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval traveled to Beijing for the India-China strategic dialogue, followed by a four-day visit by Parrikar to China aimed at implementing the bilateral Border Defense Cooperation Agreement (BDCA), which the two countries agreed to in 2013.

Alongside those trips, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj signed a joint communique outlining areas of trilateral agreement between India, Russia, and China. Notably, it is the first time that South China Sea dispute was mentioned in a Russia-India-China trilateral. The statement that “[a]ll related disputes should be addressed through negotiations and agreements between the parties concerned” echoes Beijing’s sentiments on the issue, which opposes the internationalization of dispute resolution in the South China Sea. It is striking that India signed the statement. In the last few years India has followed United States, Vietnam, the Philippines, Australia, and Japan in calling for “freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. While there may not be any change in New Delhi’s policy, the joint statement is sure to raise the eyebrows of other stakeholders.

Meanwhile, India has also sought Chinese help to get details of the conversation that an alleged Islamic State recruit from Maharashtra had with his handlers in Syria and Iraq using WeChat, a Chinese social messaging app. Plus, the countries are close to a breakthrough in establishing a hotline between the two military headquarters as part of an effort to improve border management through a new round of confidence building measures (CBMs).

Indian diplomacy also recently flip-flopped on the visa issue of World Uyghur Congress leader Dolkun Isa. India originally issued an electronic visa to Isa, whom China regards as backer of terrorism in Xinjiang (there is also an Interpol notice against Isa). However, New Delhi withdrew the visa after strong criticism from Beijing. Issuing the visa was reported to be retaliatory diplomacy in the wake of Beijing’s blocking a ban on Jaish-e Muhammad chief Masood Azhar at the UN.

This could have snowballed into a diplomatic brawl,  a situation that India had to avoid in the run-up to President Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Beijing and Guangzhou in May. More importantly, India has been striving for full-fledged membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). In 2015, the process of India’s SCO accession was launched, but still has not been completed.

New Delhi wants to play its cards right on this front. At a time when India’s exports have dipped, trade remains strong with China. Interactions between Indian and Chinese states and provinces have been on the rise. The Modi administration has gone farther than earlier governments in opening up India for Chinese economic investment. With its hot-and-cold messaging to both the United States and China, New Delhi’s foreign policy is as ambiguous as ever and is working on the basis of self interest. India seems to be asking the right question: “What is in store for us?”

Shreya Upadhyay is a research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. She was associated with American University in Washington D.C. as a Fulbright-Nehru Doctoral Research Fellow for the year 2015-2016.

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