You are here

India’s Strategic Autonomy Dilemma and the Rapprochement with the United States

  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • March 20, 2009
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: Rajiv Sikri
    Discussants: Arun Sahgal and K. P. Vijayalakshmi

    The debate on strategic autonomy makes a conceptual contribution about how India as an emerging power seeks to forge a partnership with the United States. The Indian imperative is to keep a sufficient degree of autonomy in its security and military relationship with the United States. Within the framework of India-US rapprochement the dynamics of power acquisition by India clash with its effort to maintain a reasonable degree of autonomy. Consequently, the concept of strategic autonomy, which is a mutation of realism and India’s traditional non-aligned posture, can be described as a dependence control strategy aimed at safeguarding its independence in both foreign policy decision making and protecting strategic assets against American pressure. For India strategic autonomy necessitates the association between an autonomous foreign policy/security decision making capability and the preservation of material assets (both technical and economic). Strategic autonomy can only be a relative principle.

    Pragmatists and maximalists among India’s strategic elites agree that the concept must accept some compromises to advance larger foreign policy goals. Some pragmatists have argued that India’s deeply held notions of autonomy must move towards responsibility. If India is to rise as a great power there must be a greater emphasis on responsibility in its foreign policy. Others have contested this, noting that while autonomy is malleable so is the principle of responsibility. Maximalists argue that other great powers are unwilling and incapable of advancing India’s great power aspirations. Both maximalists and pragmatists agree that the 1998 nuclear tests by India reinforced its strategic autonomy. In this respect deterrence and autonomy are intimately linked. This was most evident during the debates about the civil nuclear deal between the United States and India. The pacifists, Indian Leftists and Nehruvians use the concept of strategic autonomy within a discursive framework characterized by an ideological anti-Americanism antagonistic to any kind of rapprochement with Washington.

    A strategic partnership necessarily depends on the broad convergence of interest of the two partners. The potential for a strategic partnership encompassing all security and defence issues needs a convergence of interests which is lacking given both partners’ different international status in the global power hierarchy, the security context of South Asia and the importance for India to retain its strategic autonomy. Thus despite the discourse within the United States on the transformation of the relationship, India seems to favour and negotiate a selective partnership. The necessity for a relationship with the US is understood by all decision-makers and commentators in India who prefer an ‘issue based’ partnership configured for two countries which have ‘not permanent but temporary identity of interests’. Practically, apart from avoiding any kind of alliance in the strictest sense, for New Delhi it means not to be linked with any US sponsored collective or bilateral security structure constraining India to intervene in support of its own interests.

    From an Indian perspective, divergent agendas with the US suggest a double necessity: to identify those divergences and exclude them from the partnership while resisting US pressure to reintegrate them. The necessity to pursue a multifaceted foreign policy and engage all major power centres is recognized by all Indian analysts. This is the surest and best way to maintain strategic autonomy. The Indian dilemma pertains to balance: the rapprochement with the US is improving faster than the partnerships with other countries such as China and Russia. The intensity and the ‘global’ ambition of the Indo-US relations are not balanced by India’s relations with other great or medium powers. A second of asymmetry insists on parallel engagements. Given the complexity and diversity of its international and security agendas, India needs to pursue multifaceted diplomacy especially vis-à-vis Russia, China and Iran. Energy supply, membership to the UN Security Council and quest to become a major player in Central Asia are among the agendas which potentially collide with US interests and require relations with alternative powers.

    Some scholars argue that India’s emphasis on strategic autonomy will decrease with its accession to great power status and that ‘great powers don’t speak of autonomy’. This vision seems to conceive autonomy only as a power-transition imperative and sets aside the emphasis on autonomy which manifests itself when an emerging power becomes a great power. Great powers tend to strive for maximization of their influence. For instance, the EU is today struggling to create new autonomous strategic capabilities in order to reduce its dependence on the United States. Will India become an ‘Asian France’, as one US expert asked? The major lesson of the French experience for India is that autonomy works efficiently when combined with power. France’s autonomous posture has been built as a way to keep power, not to create it. In the past India tried to pursue autonomy without sufficient power, but the growth of its power gives it more latitude.

    Points raised during Discussion:

    • Historically non-alignment enshrined a pragmatic approach; India wished to avoid entanglements.
    • India’s policy in the 21st century will have to cater for the rise of China and the shift in the locus of power and international politics towards Asia.
    • Non-alignment under such a circumstance when great power rivalry will rage all around India is an unviable option. Neither is the prospects for a China-India-Russia arrangement likely given deep Indian and Russian ambivalence towards China.
    • India could follow Bismarck’s diplomatic strategy and spin a web of alliances with India holding all the strands in its hands, though this would prove difficult given that it is not geopolitically central to Asia. An alternative is to forge partnerships with US, Japan, and possibly Russia to countervail the growth of Chinese power.
    • Over time asymmetry between the US and India is bound to decline, and so would fears about loss of ‘independence’.
    • India too defensive and excessively prickly.
    • Tendency on the part of Indian officials to literally read/interpret every US document and policy statement.
    • India’s involvement in the UN institutionalizes India’s participation in global institutions and thereby advances Indian and American common objectives.
    • It is important for India to create a peaceful periphery and ensure regional stability necessary before it goes on to become a major player.
    • India cannot become aligned with the US.
    • It is too early to decide on the extent of alignment with the US.
    • Strategic autonomy must be premised on national interest.

    Remarks made by the Chairperson Ambassador Rajiv Sikri:

    • There is a need to look into the other dimensions of the India-US relationship.
    • Strategic Community in India wields little influence; politicians call the shots.
    • The US is too meddlesome in India’s relations with third countries eg., Iran. It does not know how to deal with Pakistan and must pay greater heed to the United Nations.

    Prepared by Kartik Bommakanti, Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.