In Its Own Interest

Strategic autonomy as an Indian foreign policy option

By Kanwal Sibal, The Telegraph, May 4, 2015

In the joint statement issued during the Indian prime minister's visit to France in April, the two sides reaffirmed "their independence and strategic autonomy" in joint efforts to tackle global challenges. In the French case, as a member of Nato, it is not so clear what strategic autonomy might mean, but in our case it would essentially mean independence in making strategic foreign policy decisions, and, consequently, rejecting any alliance relationship. It would imply the freedom to choose partnerships as suits our national interest and be able to forge productive relationships with countries that may be strategic adversaries among themselves.

In practical terms, this means that India can improve relations with the United States of America and China while maintaining close ties with Russia. It can forge stronger ties with Japan and still seek a more stable relationship with China. It can forge strong ties with Israel and maintain very productive ties with the Arab world, including backing the Palestinians in the United Nations. It means that India can have strategic partnerships with several countries, as is the case at present with the US, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Russia, China, Japan, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Iran and the like.

It means that India can be a member of BRICS and the RIC dialogues, as well as IBSA, which exclude the West, and also forge closer political, economic and military ties with the Western countries. Our strategic autonomy is being expressed in other ways too. India is a democracy and believes that its spread favours its interests, but it is against the imposition of democracy by force on any country. If the spread of democracy is in India's strategic interest, using force to spread it is against its strategic interest too, as is shown by the use of force to bring about democratic changes in West Asia by destroying secular authoritarian regimes and replacing them with Islamic authoritarian regimes. Likewise, India believes in respect for human rights, but is against the use of the human rights agenda to further the geo-political interests of particular countries, essentially Western, on a selective basis.

For a large country like India, which has the potential of becoming a big power in the future, strategic autonomy is a compelling choice. By virtue of its demographic, geographic, economic and military size, India must lead, but does not have yet the comprehensive national power to do so. It cannot subordinate itself to the policies and interests of another country, however powerful, as its political tradition and the functioning of its democracy will not allow this. India may not be strong enough to lead, but it is sufficiently strong not to be led.

India preserved its strategic autonomy even in the face of severe technology sanctions from the West on nuclear and missile issues. It preserved it by not signing the non-proliferation treaty and continuing its missile programme. By going overtly nuclear in 1998, India once again exercised its strategic autonomy faced with attempts to close the doors permanently on its nuclear programme by the permanent extension of the NPT and the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty and fissile material cutoff treaty initiatives.

In some quarters in India and abroad, the idea of strategic autonomy is contested as another manifestation of India's non-aligned mindset, its propensity to sit on the fence, and avoid taking sides and assuming responsibility for upholding the present international order as a rising power should. These critics want India to join the US camp more firmly to realize its great power ambitions. These arguments ignore the reality that while the US has been crucial to China's economic rise, China has been sitting on the fence for many years, even as a permanent member of the UN security council. Far from sacrificing its strategic autonomy, it has become a strategic challenger of the US.

To be clear, the US government has officially stated its respect for India's position on preserving its strategic autonomy, and denies any expectation that India would establish an alliance kind of relationship with it. It is looking for greater convergence in the foreign policies of the two countries, which is being realized.

During Narendra Modi's visit to the US in September, 2014, and Barack Obama's visit to India in January this year, a strategic understanding on Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean issues, encapsulated in the January 2015 joint strategic vision for the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean has emerged. This document suggests a shift in India's strategic thinking, with a more public position against Chinese maritime threat and a willingness to join the US in promoting partnerships in the region.

Modi chose a striking formulation in his joint press conference with Obama in September when he said that the US was intrinsic to our Look East and Link West policies, which would suggest a growing role for the US in our foreign policy thinking. During Obama's January visit, the joint statement noted that India's Act East policy and the US rebalance to Asia provided opportunities for India, the US and other Asia-Pacific countries to work closely to strengthen regional ties. This was the first time that India implicitly endorsed the US rebalance towards Asia and connected our Act East policy to it.

Rather than interpreting it as watering down our strategic autonomy, one can see it as strengthening it. So far, India has been hesitant to be seen drawing too close strategically to the US because of Chinese sensitivities. China watches closely what it sees are US efforts to rope India into its bid to contain China. At the same time, China continues its policies to strengthen its strategic posture in India's neighbourhood and in the Indian Ocean at India's expense, besides aggressively claiming Indian territory.

By strengthening relations with the US (which is strategically an Asian power), Japan and Vietnam, and, at the same time, seeking Chinese investments and maintaining a high-level dialogue with it, India is emulating what China does with India, which is to seek to build overall ties as much as possible on the economic front, disavow any negative anti-India element in its policies in our neighbourhood, but pursue, simultaneously, strategic policies intended to contain India's power in its neighbourhood and delay its regional extension to Asia.

In discussing the scope of our strategic autonomy, one should recognize that the strength of US-China ties, especially economic and financial, far exceeds that of India-US ties. India has to be careful, therefore, in how far it wants to go with the US with a view to improving its bargaining power with China. The other point to consider is the US-Pakistan equation. The US has just announced $1 billion of military aid to Pakistan; its position on the Taliban is against our strategic interests in Afghanistan; its stand on Pakistan's sponsorship of terrorism against us is not robust enough.

To conclude, strategic autonomy for India means that it would like to rely as far as possible on its own judgment on international issues, balance its relations with all major countries, forge partnerships with individual powers and take foreign-policy positions based on pragmatism and self-interest, and not any alliance or group compulsion.

The author is former foreign secretary of India
sibalkanwal (at)