Flashpoints | Diplomacy | South Asia

Is Strategic Autonomy a Boon or Burden for India?

In the emerging global order, is India’s hewing to “strategic autonomy” more trouble than it’s worth?

Is Strategic Autonomy a Boon or Burden for India?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

India has been engaged in a recent flurry of diplomatic activity. Within a span of two weeks, New Delhi hosted Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio (March 19), Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (March 25), and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (April 1), as well as holding a virtual meeting between Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (March 21) and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. During this period New Delhi also hosted the foreign ministers of Austria, Greece, Oman, and Mexico, as well as the U.S. under-secretary for political affairs, EU special envoy for the Indo-Pacific, German national security advisor, U.K. foreign secretary, and U.S. deputy national security advisor. 

On the face of it, this should vindicate India’s importance to the international system at a time of heightened geopolitical volatility associated with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. India’s longstanding commitment to non-alignment (and its post-Cold War variants of strategic autonomy/omni- or multi-alignment) mean that it has been courted by both sides of an increasingly polarized international system. The meetings with the Japanese and Australian prime ministers and European and U.S. officials were aimed at ensuring New Delhi’s participation in punitive actions against Russia, including reducing Indian reliance on Russian military hardware and oil imports. Meanwhile, visits by the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers were aimed at maintaining India’s neutral stance and circumventing Western sanctions through a proposed ruble-rupee payments mechanism. Lavrov also spoke of a “Eurasian Partnership” rooted in a common worldview by Moscow, Beijing, and New Delhi in the development of a multipolar world order and cooperation through regional initiatives such as the BRICS, China-India-Russia trilateral, and Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). 

However, despite these developments India risks becoming increasingly marginalized in an emerging global order marked by renewed bifurcation fueled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the China-U.S. strategic rivalry. Developments in the Indo-Pacific can be seen as a microcosm of this. On the one hand, India maintains an official commitment to an open and inclusive regional architecture embedded in the principle of “ASEAN centrality,” which is becoming increasingly irrelevant. At the same time, New Delhi maintains lukewarm support of more exclusive and functionally driven plurilateral groupings, such as the Quad where New Delhi remains unwilling to become enmeshed in more institutionalized regional initiatives akin to the Five Eyes or AUKUS. The Ukraine crisis has exacerbated these pressures as India has been labeled a “shaky” member” of the Quad after being the odd man out in terms of its position on Russia. This places India is in the unenviable position of becoming increasingly marginalized in the emerging regional architecture.

India’s Marginal Role in Key Global Flashpoints

Globally, while India is well positioned to be a key player in several key geopolitical flashpoints, in reality its role has often been marginal at best. For instance, India should be a party to the Foreign Ministers’ Dialogue comprising countries bordering Afghanistan. This is because India technically borders Afghanistan as the Pakistan-occupied territory of Gilgit Baltistan, which is claimed by India, is adjacent to Afghanistan. New Delhi also has a direct interest in ensuring that Afghanistan does not fall back into destitution and conflict following the U.S. and NATO withdrawal in 2021, which would make it ripe for falling under the renewed influence of external powers that could challenge India’s interests and security. But India has been consistently shut out of the meetings, including the latest iteration hosted by China in March.

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Similarly, India is well positioned to play a prominent role in the peace and denuclearization process on the Korean Peninsula as a country maintaining diplomatic relations with both North and South Korea. New Delhi also has vested interests arising from the symbiotic relationship between Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program and North Korea’s ballistic missile program. However, despite this, India has not been a party to various diplomatic initiatives, including the erstwhile six-party talks or the larger 10-party talks. Similarly, despite India being a close partner to both Iran and the United States, New Delhi has played a marginal role in denuclearization talks as a non-party to the P5+1 process. Again, New Delhi has inherent interests in seeing a rapprochement in the Iran-U.S. relationship given India’s need to ensure low and stable energy prices and its overwhelming dependence on oil imports from the Middle East.

Most recently, India’s status as a key partner to both Russia and United States has prompted suggestions of New Delhi’s potential role as a “silent diplomat” in the Ukraine conflict, particularly when compared to China whose “no limits” partnership with Russia undermines Beijing’s credibility as an impartial mediator. But instead, other middle powers, notably Turkey, France, and Israel, have assumed the mantle of leadership in driving efforts at a peace process. Meanwhile, India’s role has been largely limited to defending its own economic and energy security interests while evading possible secondary sanctions. The fact that India’s position on the conflict is more aligned with that of autocracies such as China and the UAE (with all three countries abstaining in their votes in the U.N. Security Council condemning Russia’s actions) undermines whatever rhetorical claims India has as the world’s largest democracy and defender of the liberal international order.

Looking Back to Look Forward

Claims that India’s status as a developing country limits its geopolitical heft do not hold weight as the country played a prominent role in the early years of independence when it was a far poorer country. Prominent examples of this include India hosting the Asian Relations Conference in 1947; participation in the Eighteen Nations Conference convened in 1949 to voice opposition to Dutch “Police Action” in Indonesia; military aid to the Burmese government in its campaign against Karen rebels the same year; helming the Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission at the end of the Korean War in 1953; chairmanship of the International Control Commission on Indochina following the end of the French-Indochina War in 1954; and sponsoring the Bandung Conference in 1955, which became the precursor to the Non-Aligned Movement. 

To be sure, some of this may come down to resources. An oft-quoted statistic is that until recently the size of the Indian Foreign Service was on par with that of Singapore. But on a more fundamental level this is a question about India’s will to exercise power. And this brings us back to India’s non-alignment/strategic autonomy status, which has often been interpreted as “fence sitting” and relegated the country to irrelevance in times of crisis. As academic Amitav Acharya notes in his 2017 book

New Delhi appears to be still hamstrung by a vision deficit. At a time when many of the original ideas of [India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru… seem realizable, India seems to be still plagued by self-doubt and the burden of inherited ideologies.

These words are even more relevant today as India faces an increasingly polarized and bifurcated international system where there is limited space for countries to “sit on the fence.” 

The silver lining is that New Delhi has proven itself to be strategically flexible and open to realigning its posture when necessary. For instance, New Delhi’s conclusion of a free trade deal with Australia earlier this month (which follows an agreement with UAE in February) alludes to India softening its protectionist proclivities, which was most visibly illustrated by the country’s exit from the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) in 2019. On the security front, India’s border standoff with China since 2020 has renewed New Delhi’s enthusiasm for the Quad. Questions are also being raised about the utility of New Delhi’s close relationship with Moscow amid Russia’s growing dependence on and junior status relative to China. This reduces the likelihood of Russia siding with India (over even maintain a neutral stance) in a future conflict with China.  

In this context, it remains to be seen if India’s long-standing commitment to non-alignment/strategic autonomy will serve to strengthen or weaken its position in the emerging global order.