Opinion World

Redefining India’s Strategic Autonomy

As China becomes more powerful in the region, we need to snap out of old ways of thinking, and find new ways to strengthen ourselves.

As India seeks to manage its relations with China and the US, its long-cherished foreign policy doctrine of “strategic autonomy” has come under increasing strain. The concept of strategic autonomy meant being “nonaligned” with the Cold War’s two competing blocs, and after two superpowers were reduced to one, it meant extreme caution over a prospective US-India strategic partnership. With the recent economic and political rise of China, some analysts have advocated a policy of maintaining “equidistance” between the US and China, or eschewing new strategic partnerships with regional powers.

But these old interpretations of strategic autonomy are increasingly untenable for India’s national interests. India faces stiff security competition from China, which continues to modernise its military, build political influence across South Asia, and bend international institutions to its will, all at India’s expense. This challenge, more than any other factor, has prompted India to cautiously deepen its engagement with the US, in a perfectly rational move to safeguard its interests. But sceptics of that engagement – many imbued with a streak of habitual anti-Americanism – fear that even technical instruments of cooperation will somehow rob India of policy independence.

A formal security-guarantee alliance with the US – of the type that Japan and Australia have – has never been, and never will be, in the offing. India will never be obligated to follow American policy, as sceptics fear. But in light of the growing China challenge, India cannot expect to persist with obsolete security arrangements. A refusal to build innovative strategic relations with other states such as the US and its allies, in blind devotion to an outmoded understanding of strategic autonomy, is untenable for Indian national interests.

Accelerating security competition

India’s necessary policy evolution may have reached something of a milestone in 2017. In particular, it took three major foreign policy actions which demonstrated a way to protect its interests in security competition with China, while also deflecting charges of undue alignment with the US. Together, these actions may represent a coherent new way of interpreting the doctrine of strategic autonomy.

First, in May, India pointedly boycotted the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit in Beijing. The BRI, China’s plan to fund and develop an eye-watering array of transport and energy infrastructure across multiple continents, is the centrepiece of China’s long-term efforts to build economic and political influence. India’s snub highlighted its opposition to the whole endeavour – on the grounds that it violates Indian sovereignty in contested Kashmir, and that it relies on opaque and predatory lending procedures.

Second, over the summer, Indian army troops engaged in a stand-off against Chinese troops near Doklam at the India-China-Bhutan border tri-junction. The Indian troops entered territory contested by China and Bhutan to physically stop Chinese troops extending a road there. For about 10 weeks, India placed military forces on heightened alert, weathered furious Chinese public statements, and undertook diplomatic negotiations. New Delhi maintained that the Chinese road-building constituted an illegal attempt to forcibly alter the territorial status quo. Ultimately, in August, the two sides agreed to disengage their forces, and the local situation returned to its uneasy status quo ante.

Third, in November, India joined with the US, Japan, and Australia to reconstitute their quadrilateral security dialogue known as the Quad. The first incarnation of the Quad was short-lived, in 2006-08, folding after China pressured Australia to withdraw. The mission of the renewed Quad remains unclear and fluid – but will probably centre on a consultative mechanism for issues of maritime security, non-traditional threats such as humanitarian assistance, and security cooperation.

The common thread running through these policies, of course, was the accelerating security competition with China. But critically, this is not competition with China driven by a deep-seated antipathy to Beijing, or even a response to China’s burgeoning economic power, which has eclipsed India’s for decades. Rather, it is a response to China’s relatively more recent revisionist approach to regional security, especially its attempts to forcibly claim and consolidate territorial control, or to gain political leverage through unfair lending and trading practices. Through these three major actions in 2017, New Delhi has signalled its opposition to Chinese behaviour, not Chinese power.

Defending structures of order, not power

Whether by design or not, New Delhi thus has a chance to redefine its concept of strategic autonomy. The doctrine traditionally represented a rejection of the global structure of power – whereby India would defiantly not align itself with either superpower bloc or, later, with the unipolar US. It may now be evolving, according to these early signs, into a defence of the global structure of order – whereby India would, both independently and with others, support the norms and institutions of a liberal world order against its greatest disruptive or revisionist challengers.

India has long been a status quo power, and for some time framed that in terms of the liberal order. Since liberalisation in the 1990s, India has enmeshed itself into the order’s most important edifices, from the WTO to the ASEAN Regional Forum. Its burgeoning relationship with the US has been framed largely in terms of protecting that order – recent bilateral joint statements have centred on, for example, the protection of freedom of navigation in the global commons, respect for international law, and observance of human rights. Washington has encouraged India to assume a greater role in regional security, perhaps even as a “net security provider” to help uphold these congruent interests. And most recently, US Secretary of State Tillerson lauded the two countries for “standing firm in defense of a rules-based order” – explicitly in contrast to China.

In 2017, however, India’s policy actions demonstrated how defending the liberal order could be viably operationalised, beyond the rhetorical platitudes that states normally offer. To be sure, India has also previously acted as a responsible security actor – not least with its response to humanitarian disasters across the region, and in support of UN peacekeeping operations, for example. But its actions in 2017 took on a new tenor as defending the standing order from an agentive revisionist power. India is not just rebuilding after hurricanes; it is now engaging in security competition with an increasingly assertive power bent on challenging prevailing norms and institutions. India took action to back up its declarative policy, and while its actions all served its national interest, it framed them in terms of preserving the liberal order. Thus, along with Japan, India is exploring options for regional infrastructure development that might be a viable alternative to mercantilist practices of BRI. At Doklam, India showed how China’s territorial revision can be halted – even if only temporarily – with deterrence by denial.

The Quad may turn out to be India’s most ambitious order-preserving action. With it, India is signing on to a loose security community which may – eventually – enable some coordinated military contingency planning for certain scenarios, and interoperability for certain missions. Politically, the salience of this Quad security cooperation would be to stiffen the counter-coercion power of its members and other regional states. It represents an effort to balance China’s seemingly unstoppable power – not to deny China its rightful influence in the region, but to deny China the ability to coerce less powerful states, or redraw territorial boundaries, or threaten free passage in the global commons. In that way, the Quad may ultimately position itself to defend against more immediate threats to regional order, for example from North Korean proliferation activity, or transnational terrorism. Realising this ambitious vision is far from certain – the Quad in its infancy is largely a blank slate – but it represents a promising mechanism that its members could shape, escalating their commitments if necessary to meet evolving challenges. And New Delhi’s decision to join the club suggests a new level of commitment to defend the existing liberal order.

Beyond the US and China

Defending the liberal world order does not mean supporting US power or policies. The liberal order has long been associated with the US, and for good reason – it was built and sustained from Washington. But as scholarship in international relations shows, the norms and institutions of world order, upon reaching a level of maturity, can operate independently of the global hegemon that established them. That distinction, between the world order and its sponsoring hegemon, has never been as sharp as it has in 2017, with the US led by the nativist Trump administration. Under Trump, the US has walked away from the hard-won Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade pact, which Washington had designed to reinvigorate its leadership in the region, and frequently threatens to neglect other key regional institutions.

Regional actors have quickly acknowledged the task before them, of supporting the liberal order without the customary level of active US leadership. Japan, for example, is pressing ahead with the “TPP11,” building the free trade pact without US leadership, and allocating billions to regional development, as an alternative to BRI. Echoing this approach, Australian Prime Minister Turnbull declared any development of the order “must be designed to enable the United States to dock back in when it is ready to do so. I personally remain confident about America’s long-term interests and commitment, but we cannot afford to wait.” Such arguments highlight that regional states can and do see the preservation of the liberal order – in Prime Minister Abe’s term, a “free and open Indo-Pacific” – as a valuable good in its own right, independent from American power or policies.

Equally, defending the liberal order is not about limiting China’s power. India maintains a comprehensive relationship with China, deeply engaged both bilaterally and institutionally. Thus, while India boycotted the BRI summit, it is also the second-largest contributor to the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which funds BRI projects. While it joined the Quad, it is also a member of the BRICS grouping and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Bilateral trade is growing steadily, and the two powers established a bilateral “strategic partnership” dialogue. While the Quad may seek to coordinate efforts to counter-balance disruptive Chinese influence, it is no way an attempt to “contain” China – that is, to limit its legitimate political and economic engagement with the region – as some critics charge.

In 2017 the liberal order in Asia has come under unprecedented threat. The Trump administration, seized with nativist political impulses, has signalled an approach to Asia that will be more transactional, and more dominated by immediate crises rather than by long-term strategic posturing. Meanwhile, with Xi Jinping freshly anointed as “core leader” and spying a less reliable and less present US, China will probably be emboldened to continue, if not accelerate, its challenges to prevailing norms and institutions. It then falls to regional states – Japan, Australia, and increasingly India – to play a greater role in defending those structures of order. The order does not prescribe or fix a certain configuration of power – indeed, the Quad itself shows the order’s capacity for renewal and evolution; as do other structures that do not include the US, such as prospective TPP11; and others that institute Chinese participation and even leadership, such as the AIIB. The order is not about keeping the Americans up or the Chinese down, but about ensuring that the framework for regional politics and security is transparent and rules-based.

In that context, India’s policy actions in 2017 demonstrated a valuable new approach that New Delhi could pursue. With this new interpretation of strategic autonomy, as a defence of the liberal order, India could continue pursuing profitable relations with China, without entrenching rival spheres of influence, while still assertively rejecting illegitimate revisionism, either from Beijing or others. And it would enjoy an increasingly favourable regional profile, furthering its policy goals of integration with east and southeast Asia. And, perhaps most importantly for a state that prizes strategic autonomy, it could retain its traditional policy independence, not bound or beholden to the US or any other power.

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About the author

Arzan Tarapore

Arzan Tarapore recently completed a PhD in War Studies at King's College London, where his research focused on Indian military effectiveness.