The recently concluded virtual meeting of the leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (Quad) drew the attention of Beijing. The Global Times has carried a number of commentaries calling out the Quad for varied deficiencies, including its “limited scope,” “internal divergence,” and lack of a “cohesive force from within,” in addition to warning that the group will have negative repercussions for other multilateral groupings like the Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa (BRICS) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Despite the all too palpable strategic embrace between India and the United States, which forms the bedrock of the Quad, India’s membership in the BRICS and SCO still count as important planks of its multilateral engagements. A severe downturn in Sino-Indian relations following the military crisis at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), coupled with rising tensions in U.S.-China great power competition, has seen a growing convergence between India and the United States to counteract China’s unilateral and intransigent behavior in the Indo-Pacific region. The other members in the Quad, Japan and Australia, also happen to be treaty allies of the United States. They are increasingly experiencing difficult relations with China and also show intentions of growing their own strategic engagement with India. The recent inclusion of Australia in the U.S.-India-Japan Malabar exercise has added more heft to the Quad.
In the midst of these geopolitical tensions, the current discourse on the broader direction of India’s foreign policy seems to revolve around New Delhi’s close engagement with the United States while adhering to its historic inhibitions for formal military alliances. The unfolding geopolitical milieu has clearly prompted India to re-examine its status in the international system, and reflect upon the central undercurrent of its foreign policy orientation: the practice of strategic autonomy, whether through non-alignment in the bipolar Cold Ward era, or multi-alignment in the emerging multipolar era.
The New Delhi policymaking establishment has projected an urgency to break free from the traditional dogmas of Indian foreign policy, and become more upfront in terms of choosing partners to maximize India’s interest through hard-nosed pragmatism hitherto unseen. India’s choice of non-alignment as the definitive feature of its foreign policy during the bipolar Cold War era arguably represented India’s intention to practice strategic autonomy, by projecting an aversion to war, alliances, and power politics. For a young India, lacking in material capabilities and etching its independent identity in the comity of nations, maintaining an independent agency by practicing strategic autonomy through non-alignment remained the guiding light for its foreign policy decision-making.
The articulation of non-alignment and India’s objectives for pursuing the same have since been subjected to varied misinterpretations. From U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ calling it “immoral” and wrongly identifying it as “neutrality,” to perceived notions of India breaking its vows of non-alignment by signing the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union in 1971, India’s ability and willingness to practice strategic autonomy through non-alignment has often come under scrutiny. With the end of the Cold War and the coming of a brief unipolar era, non-alignment began to encounter carpers who questioned its relevance, and the lure of practicing strategic autonomy came under scrutiny as well.
As India seeks out to actualize its own potential as a shaper of geopolitics in the Indo-Pacific, policymaking elites in New Delhi ought to think about what they seek to achieve through the practice of strategic autonomy. This is particularly imperative as other major stakeholders of the “free, open, inclusive and rules based” Indo-Pacific seem to have raised expectations for New Delhi, not only in countering an aggressive China, but also in meeting other challenges like climate change and global health. Through the practice of strategic autonomy, India strives for an ideal traction giving it “maximum options in its relations with the outside world.” It is expected “to enhance India’s strategic space and capacity for independent agency,” allowing maximum flexibility and maneuverability to increase the options for New Delhi’s choices to promote and protect its interest.
However, the practice of strategic autonomy is bound to come under circumstantial limitations. Strategic autonomy articulated as non-alignment during the Cold War era imbibed the idea that alliance-driven power politics in any iteration would be detrimental to the development of a newly independent nation such as India. The transformed geopolitical environment after the Cold War saw India adapt the practice of strategic autonomy to fully exploit the opportunities the globalized world had to offer. Ridding itself of its non-aligned past, India now espouses “alignment based on issues” rather than ideology, thereby maintaining “decisional autonomy.”
It is interesting to note that India’s non-alignment, and hence its practice of strategic autonomy, have been questioned because of both its closeness to the Soviet Union during certain phases of the Cold War, and currently its strategic congruence with the United States. However, these foreign policy orientations on New Delhi’s part rather represent the practice of strategic autonomy, to protect India’s core interest in the face of exigent geopolitical scenarios.
Currently, India has found strategic convergence with a number of countries, which see a joint interest in managing the ramifications of a rising and aggressive China. Whether the Quad is a “concert of powers” or a budding “Asian NATO” remains in the realm of conjecture. However, India’s alignment with like-minded countries toward evolving a “free, open, inclusive and rules based” Indo-Pacific also happens at a time when India will have to simultaneously navigate its way through its complex relationships with countries like China and Russia, and multilateral groupings like the BRICS and SCO.
In the words of India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, India has come to “discover the benefits of working with different powers on different issues” in the multipolar world, which he likens to “having many balls up in the air at the same time and displaying the confidence and dexterity to drop none.” As the Quad finds greater political leverage with the virtual leadership meeting and the joint statement that extols “the Spirit of the Quad” amidst a world limping back from a severe global pandemic, India seems to be exuding a new foreign policy direction to confront the new brave world. In New Delhi’s pursuit to become a leading power and key influencer of the shape of things to come in the Indo-Pacific, the flexibility and traction accorded by the practice of strategic autonomy will be its guiding north star.