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End of strategic autonomy

India’s power on the world stage will be measured by its ability to engage with, and influence, others.

Written by David Brewster |
Updated: November 18, 2014 8:25:16 am
Modi-G20 Many Indian decision-makers argue that defence cooperation with other countries endangers India’s sovereignty. (Source: PTI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s attendance at the Asean and G-20 summits caps a busy few months of travel that have included bilateral summits with Japan, the US and now Australia. Modi is the face of a newly confident India that is not afraid of doing deals — sometimes tough deals — with new partners across the economic, political and military spectrum.

Since the end of the Cold War, we have seen big changes in the way India looks at the world. For one thing, India realised that its quest for economic autarchy had been a mistake. In the decades after Independence, India discouraged foreign trade and investment in an attempt to become self-reliant. But policies that sounded desirable only led to economic stagnation and caused India to be less powerful, not more. In contrast, many countries in East Asia connected themselves deeply into the global system, which helped them develop their economies and strengthen their national power.

It is now broadly accepted that the path to a strong India lies through globalisation and economic interconnectedness. Modi was elected on a platform of strengthening India’s economy through more trade and more foreign investment. But even though economic autarchy has been thrown into the dustbin of history, many Indian decision-makers still cling fast to old ideas of strategic autonomy as an excuse to keep other countries at arm’s length. They argue that defence cooperation with other countries somehow endangers India’s sovereignty and that India should try to act alone on the international stage. To them, sovereignty is a sacred object that must be kept in a box.

This view of the world contrasts with the way most countries now promote strategic interconnectedness to enhance their power and influence, and indeed their sovereignty. Of course, the United States came to this understanding some 75 years ago and it is now skilled at using interconnectedness to enhance its influence.

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But many other nations, large and small, now use strategic interconnectedness to leverage their power and punch above their weight. This reflects a world in which few countries — even the US — can achieve much by themselves in the international arena. The new norm is of ad hoc coalitions of states that come together to address a particular problem or achieve a specific objective. And in these coalitions, the countries that will wield the greatest influence are those that have the fewest inhibitions in working with others.

In the future, a nation’s power will be increasingly measured by its ability to mould, join and sometimes lead international coalitions to respond to unpredictable events and crises. But it requires considerable organisational and political flexibility and, most of all, close strategic relationships with a range of partners that have worked together in the past and know that they will work together in future. This capability will be of critical importance to India as it aspires to build its power and influence throughout the region.

India is now cautiously exploring greater security and defence links with new Indo-Pacific partners, such as Japan, Vietnam and Australia.


But India’s influence will be a function of its ability to engage with these countries on economic, political and military terms. This needs much more than just good political relationships at the top. It will require an ability to engage across the spectrum, certainly including at the operational level.

In international affairs, reality often has a way of overtaking outdated ideas. Many Indian thinkers are coming to realise that using the idea of strategic autonomy as an excuse to avoid building connections with others is a mistake. In fact, just as economic interdependence actually enhances a nation’s economic power, strategic interconnectedness enhances its military power.

Former Defence Minister Arun Jaitley’s recent decision to revitalise India’s military by encouraging foreign suppliers to partner with Indian companies and make their products here is a good example of this. It moves India past misguided policies that, more often than not, left it without vital military equipment. The Modi government recognises the reality that India can only strengthen its military capabilities through fostering greater interconnectedness with foreign partners in a way that benefits India.


Indian strategic thinking is continuing to evolve towards a focus on outcomes, not nice-sounding principles. As in the economic dimension, India’s sovereignty will come to be measured by its actual ability to exert national power and influence. This is not a function of India’s ability to turn its back on the world, as some would have it, but of its ability to engage with and influence others across the defence and security spectrum.

India’s understanding of strategic autonomy must continue to evolve if it is not to end up in the dustbin of history. India needs to use strategic interconnectedness as a way strengthening its national power and its sovereignty.

The writer is a visiting fellow, the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University, and the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

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First published on: 18-11-2014 at 12:16:54 am
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