Preserving a Realigned India’s Strategic Autonomy
By Rustom Zabuli
A realignment of India’s international relations moving it even closer to the US seems inevitable. Is India’s vaunted strategic autonomy still relevant as a concept and is it worth preserving? And how?
With the recent deterioration in Sino-Indian relations after the Galwan Valley incident and other reported border clashes and incursions, it seems likely – and even desirable – that India will seek closer ties with the US and its allies.
The US-China trade war and an increasingly assertive China under Xi Jinping’s leadership that appears to be intent on creating turbulence on all fronts – Hong Kong, the Taiwan Straits, the Senkaku Islands, the South China Sea and even in the Korean Peninsula – means that the US and its allies will also see value in a more closely knit defence, intelligence and economic partnership with India.
While there is an increasing convergence of defence and security interests which are a primary driver in an enhanced partnership, this is further strengthened by the shared values of a democratic polity.
It should be remembered that the process of India realigning its political, economic and military relationship with the US is not a new one and has been taking shape gradually over the past two decades.
Two key reasons
There are two key reasons why it has proceeded at such a measured pace – first, the inherent political and bureaucratic resistance in India emanating from institutional memories of the US’ perceived pro-Pakistan position during the Cold War and the sanctions imposed on India post its 1998 nuclear tests.
And second, because India still felt it could evenly balance its relationships among the US, China and Russia. The current external situation and resultant turn against China in Indian public opinion will now largely help override the systemic resistance to the US in India’s political and bureaucratic class.
As far as the second factor is concerned, while India will still seek good relations with Russia, it probably realises that positive outcomes are unlikely with China – at least until India has achieved a greater level of economic parity and military deterrence vis-à-vis the Chinese.
Thus, a key strategic imperative for India will be to boost its economic and social development and enhance its military capacities, and do so without increasing its economic or technology dependency on China.
In the long term, this increased capability will improve India’s bargaining power with China, and perhaps even open the door to a more equal economic relationship and greater stability through deterrence.
But that is still some way off, and the path to that desired outcome necessitates India seeking deeper partnerships with the US and its allies – for trade, investment, security and technology, and also ensuring greater domestic cohesion and integration.
So what does this potential shift to a closer tie-in with the US and its allies mean for India’s cherished strategic autonomy? Some have questioned whether this is even valid as a concept given India’s current situation. And assuming it is still relevant, how is it to be preserved?
The reason why strategic autonomy remains important for India is three-fold – firstly, India is a very large country and despite its many development and other deficits, it still has some very significant human and geopolitical strengths. In other words, India is not a bit player and needs to be able to chart its own course where required – including on key global matters such as climate change.
And secondly, despite a large convergence with the US and its allies, there will still be significant long-term issues in India’s neighbourhood – particularly related to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Myanmar – where India’s position and interests may significantly diverge with those of the US. And last but not the least, India will not want its future options foreclosed by sudden or drastic shifts in the US policy due to underlying domestic US political factors – the Trump presidency only underlines this risk and the need to adequately insure against it.
So, specifically, what will India need to do to assure its continued strategic capabilities and the ability to use them independently if required? Here’s an initial prescription:
Nuclear, Missile and Space Programmes
India should seek to expand its nuclear, missile and space programmes and ensure they remain as independent as possible. In particular, India should assess whether its nuclear doctrine needs updating – should India continue to focus only on minimum credible deterrence-linked second strike capabilities or should it also explore certain first strike capacities and postures? Should India tweak its ‘No First Use’ pledge so that it extends only to other powers who explicitly reciprocate this and to non-nuclear weapon states?
And should the Indian nuclear arsenal be enhanced with both a wider array of tactical warheads as well as more powerful thermonuclear devices? And what about speeding up ICBM/MIRV and BMD system development and expanding the Indian SSBN programme? I will explore these aspects in more detail in a separate article, but India’s main goal should be to move from its current posture of relatively basic defensive deterrence to a position that provides India a wider array of options.
Upgraded Naval and Amphibious Warfare Capabilities
If India is to be strategically autonomous, it must have the capability to dominate the Indian Ocean region and its maritime environment in a decisive manner on its own, maximising the geographic advantages India enjoys.
This will mean purposefully ensuring a greater share of India’s limited military budget is spent on enhancing naval and amphibious warfare capacity. It will also mean focusing on political, economic and military ties bilaterally with Indian Ocean rim and island States – and having the ability to operate and get resupplied throughout this large region stretching from Southern Africa to Indonesia and Western Australia.
A valuable side benefit of such capability will be that India can bring more to the table along with the US and other allies in the South China Sea as well, if and when required.
Maintain Strong Ties with Russia
India has a deep and longstanding strategic relationship with Russia and will keep using Russian equipment and systems for decades to come. However, equally importantly, India and Russia have a common interest in limiting rising Chinese influence in Central Asia, which Russia regards as its “Near Abroad”.
The fact that Russia and India share no borders and have no significant disputes is a boon, and makes Russia less wary of Indian outreaches to Central Asia. With Russia facing long term economic and demographic stagnation and a strained relationship with the West, it is likely to welcome Indian partnership in Central Asia wherever this makes sense. As in the past, the main challenge India will have to counter and balance is the US’ reservations about India’s relationship with Russia.
Closer South Asian Integration
India’s linkages with some of its South Asian neighbours will have to be significantly strengthened – both to counter increased Chinese interference and to avoid India being distracted and bogged down regionally.
In particular, there are some low hanging fruit here – particularly with respect to improving connectivity and relationships with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka while continuing to strengthen the strong partnerships with Bhutan and the Maldives.
For starters, India should consider unilaterally allowing nationals from all these countries – not just Nepal and Bhutan – to live and work in India, and seek easier movement of goods, services, capital and people across the region in a seamless manner.
There are many opportunities to integrate Bangladesh economically with Bengal and India’s North East while also bettering linkages with South East Asia, and likewise, to explore greater regional economic integration between Sri Lanka/Maldives and the Southern Indian States.
India should undoubtedly seek closer linkages with the US and its allies through various structures such as the Quad/Quad Plus. However, as it does so, it must preserve and enhance its ability to practice strategic autonomy – and not reduce it.
__ The author is a corporate lawyer qualified in the US and India. He is also an aviator and a student of geopolitics.