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Today, India’s strategic autonomy is about coping with Beijing’s challenge to its territorial integrity, sovereignty

In the 1990s, the quest for strategic autonomy from the US drove India into a political coalition with Russia and China that sought to limit the dangers of the unipolar moment. Today, the logic of strategic autonomy from China nudges India to look for strong security partnerships

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
Updated: August 25, 2020 8:44:08 am
Unlike in the past, Modi’s self-reliance today is not about retreating from the world, but of enhancing India’s economic contribution to the global economy. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

Addressing a Southeast Asian forum last week, external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar outlined India’s new quest for “strategic autonomy” in its global economic engagement. “Strategic autonomy” is a familiar idea for students of India’s post-Cold War diplomacy. Jaishankar’s extension of it to foreign economic policy marks an important moment in the evolution of India’s international relations.

To be sure, Jaishankar’s “strategic autonomy” is the natural external complement to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s delineation of a new economic strategy, described as “Atmanirbharata” or “self-reliance”. The PM’s articulation on self-reliance came as part of the post-COVID economic measures unveiled earlier this year.

Since the concept carries so much ideological baggage, its resurrection by Modi inevitably raised many questions. Is India turning its back on economic globalisation of the last few decades? Is Delhi harking back to the much-vaunted idea of economic autarky that peaked during the years of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi?

Senior ministers and officials of the NDA government sought to reassure India’s partners that Delhi was not marching backwards. In his address to the nation on Independence Day, the PM talked at some length on his definition of economic self-reliance. Modi underlined India’s determination to seek deeper global economic engagement, if only on different terms.

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Unlike in the past, Modi’s self-reliance today is not about retreating from the world, but of enhancing India’s economic contribution to the global economy. Above all, it is about empowering India and the speedy realisation of its full national economic potential. When applied to the foreign policy framework, “self-reliance” becomes “strategic autonomy”. In his remarks at the ASEAN-India Network of Think Tanks, Jaishankar pointed to the very different context that informs India’s strategic autonomy.

Jaishankar referred to the risks in the global economy that have come into sharp view since the corona crisis enveloped the world earlier this year. He also pointed to the growing consensus among the major economic actors for shorter and more reliable global supply chains. Although Jaishankar did not mention China by name, it was at the heart of the argument. “Actions of nations during times of crisis determine how the world really perceives them, and they did bring up many of the risks inherent in the current global economy,” he said. De-risking supply chains has now become an explicit policy of many countries, including India.

Even more deeply, there is a growing international concern that Beijing has taken unilateral advantage of the global trading system. This in turn has led to calls for a significant rearrangement of the global economic order away from excessive dependence on China.

Jaishankar also compared the current and earlier context of India’s “strategic autonomy”. He reminded his audience that India’s past emphasis on strategic autonomy was in the context of the “unipolar moment” that emerged after the Cold War. As America towered over the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, India was caught in a cleft stick.

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On the one hand, it had to actively seek the cooperation of the US and the West to make a success of its economic reform and reorientation. India needed Western capital as well as technology and better access to its markets. On the other hand, Delhi had to protect some of its core national interests from the threats of US intervention.

In the early 1990s, the Clinton Administration had the irresistible itch to resolve the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan. Washington also thought that South Asian nuclear weapons programmes were a big threat to international peace and security.

To make matters even more interesting, the Clinton Administration saw the nuclear and Kashmir disputes as one and the same thing. Washington concluded that “Kashmir is the world’s most dangerous nuclear flashpoint”. The story of Indian diplomacy for the next two decades was about a sustained effort to change the US policy on both Kashmir and nuclear issues.

Thanks to the fresh thinking on India under President George W Bush, the US discarded the long-standing temptation to insert itself in the Kashmir dispute. The US also went out of the way to resolve the nuclear dispute with India by changing its domestic laws and international norms on nuclear proliferation. The Obama and Trump Administrations have stayed the course since then.

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In its single-minded focus on resolving the American problem, Delhi paid little attention to the gathering challenges from China. It is not that Beijing did not signal the looming trouble. On the atomic front, as the US sought to lift the prolonged atomic blockade against India, China sought to block the process. Beijing insisted if India was to be let into the nuclear club, so must Pakistan. When the US refused, China turned an obstacle to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

If India’s nightmare in the 1990s was about America “internationalising” the Kashmir dispute, it is China that now takes up the issue regularly in the United Nations Security Council. Delhi’s prolonged refusal to see the China challenge on was finally overcome with the PLA aggression in eastern Ladakh this summer.

In the 1990s, India’s strategic autonomy was about fending off US political threats to India. Today, it is inevitably about coping with China’s challenge to India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. And then some. In the 1990s, the US was seen as a valued economic partner for India. China today is viewed in Delhi as a major threat to India’s economic development.

The problems in India’s rapidly expanding economic relationship with China came into view in the 2010s as the bilateral trade deficit steadily rose reaching nearly $55billion in 2019. Even more important was the fact the cheap import of manufactured goods from China was wiping out India’s industrial base.

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Modi ended India’s inaction when he pulled India out of an Asia-wide free-trade arrangement called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership late last year. Delhi had concluded that a China-led economic order in Asia will permanently doom India’s economic prospects. Beijing’s Ladakh aggression forced India to go from a passive commercial withdrawal to an active economic decoupling from China.

In the 1990s, the quest for strategic autonomy from the US drove India into a political coalition with Russia and China that sought to limit the dangers of the unipolar moment. Today, the logic of strategic autonomy from China nudges India to look for strong security partnerships with the US, Europe, Japan and Australia. On the economic front, India is exploring various forms of collaboration with a broad group of nations that have a shared interest in developing trustworthy global supply chains that are not totally tied with China.

Threats to either territorial integrity or economic prosperity are powerful enough on their own to compel drastic changes in any nation’s policies. Coming together, they promise to make strategic autonomy from an assertive China an enduring theme of India’s economic and foreign policies in the years ahead.

This article first appeared in the print edition on August 25, 2020 under the title ‘Reinventing India’s strategic autonomy’. The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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