India’s Foreign Policy Strategy – Strategic Autonomy or Strategic Military Alliances?


(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

Indian is at cross-roads redefining its foreign policy in the face of China’s challenge on the Himalayan frontiers. The term “strategic autonomy” requires amplification. Strategic neutrality or equi-distancing is archaic for today’s dynamic and fluid geopolitics of tremendous uncertainty in “Hawkish” world – China’s benign benevolent “Face mask diplomacy”, muscle flexing and “Wolf War diplomacy”.

Ipso facto, the end objective of foreign policy is to maintain peace and stability. “No permanent friends; only permanent interests” and “Today’s’ enemies can be tomorrows friends; and today’s friends can be tomorrows enemies” are the guiding principles of foreign policy.

To maintain peace and stability, it is vital to maintain effective balance of power. In the past, balance of power several times sufficed to tide over critical situations. Preserving equilibrium in “balance of power”, physical as well as mental, is also critical and compulsion.

On the global stage, tensions are escalating between the United States and China. Trump’s retraction of USA to “Isolationist” foreign policy posture has dented international reputation of the USA, the world’s COVID-19 worst-hit country. The course of U.S.-Indian relations is highly unpredictable either way after November 2020 US election results. Even if Trump is re-elected for a second term, it will not be “honky-dory” and may hit a rough patch over trade-related issues and H1B Visa policies.  If Joe Biden is elected with Kamala Harris as human rights advocate in J & K, the relations need a re-set.

Even China has struggled to capitalize on USA retraction due to its dramatic shift from “peaceful rise” to aggressive and hegemonic foreign policy. Mass detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang, crackdown on protests in Hong Kong, besides assertive domination in East and South China Seas, the Himalayan borders and post COVID-19 backlash have dented China’s image – many nations have unfavorable views.

Yet, China’s rise threatens to usher Unipolarity in Asia-Pacific region. The significant lesson of mankind’s history is those powers enjoying overwhelming military, economic and technology superiority are prone to adopt ‘extended coercion’ or even wars to consolidate their hegemony over nations on periphery and to gain access to raw material resources world over. China’s “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy”, particularly when viewed in the past experiences of “Salami Slicing” PLA tactics and “Creeping Incrementalism and Extended Coercion” doctrine are means to achieve strategic ends of heralding the “Middle Kingdom” status – Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream.

The irrefutable fact is that China has overwhelming advantage over India in short and midterm context. It is challenging USAs lone super power status. Under Xi Jinping, China is assertive, aggressive and hegemonic as events reflect in recent past. It has mastered the art and science of waging “Hybrid or Camouflaged warfare”. India’s current economic, technology and military power capabilities cannot ensure “balance of power” either in Asia or in the Indian Ocean Region in short and midterm context.

In the past, experts of international and regional geo politics postulated a myriad of terms like unipolar, bipolar, multi polar, bi-multi polar, pentapolar, bipolycentric etc., to define international order.

Unipolarity is least suited to promote peace and stability. Bipolarity considered relatively more stable, failed to sustain enduring peace and stability world over. For example, Vietnam, Afghanistan, South Asia remained on the boil during the “Cold War era.

As per theoretical postulates of experts of geopolitics, multi-polarity was considered more stable. Now, some experts are suggesting polycentrism or bi-multi polarity. Also, there is consensus emerging that a “hybrid” system is the need for ensuring “balance of power” in international affairs of bewildering complexity today with emerging regional powers staking their claims.

India faces constraints/compulsions to abandon past foreign policy postures. India just cannot sideline Russia which has been trusted ally of the past and its armed forces dependence on Russian combat systems. For energy supplies and cultural relations, India needs to maintain friendly relations with Gulf Nations. Israel offers opportunities. Such are the constraints and compulsions!

Perforce, India needs to make radical shift from “strategic neutrality” to bi-multipolar strategic military alliances in short and midterm contexts.  The real challenge is to maintain stable relationship with Russia whilst entering into bi-multipolar strategic relationships with US and its alliance partners and also with friendly Islamic nations besides Israel.

Viewed in the above framework, India needs to address its foreign relations with others, particularly 4-nation Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD, also known as the Quad 2.0 – informal strategic forum formed in 2007) to ensure “Balance of Power” in the Indo-Pacific region.

On 6 October 2020, the foreign ministers of the United States, Japan, Australia and India  recently met in Tokyo, Japan. Pompeo, USA Secretary of State, stated that “QUAD should be institutionalized to build out a true security framework” for the Indo-Pacific. He described the QUAD as the “fabric” that could “counter the challenges of the Chinese Communist Party presents to all of us.”

India’s S. Jaishankar, Minister of External Affairs, omitted any reference to pursue cooperation around quality infrastructure, cyber security and data issues. He steered away from making any statements on security challenges on the Himalayan borders and did not mention China by name.

Yet, Chinese spokesperson abundantly made it clear that it was opposed to “organizing closed and exclusive cliques.” Ironic that China is indulging in diplomatic sermons. It’s dual diplomatic postures (combination of benign “face mask diplomacy” with “wolf warrior diplomacy”) with its exclusive military-economic strategic alliance with Pakistan in South Asia, the BRI projects, expanding diplomatic foothold world over and latest “Mideast Forum Initiative” are also “closed and exclusive cliques”.

China must appreciate that diplomatic parleys can be fruitfully conducted when both sides are represented by decent statesmen with human security concerns. If China pursues coercive –  aggressive, expansionist and hegemonic – diplomacy, one cannot find solutions for sustainable peace as events and development of the past 27–years have proved after signing the 1993 agreement on border issues.

So what? Archaic are India’s past foreign policies of NAM, Peaceful Co-existence or strategic neutrality to cope with emerging challenges and opportunities. Persisting with such policy postures is anachronistic and doomed to disaster. Thinking too narrowly about foreign policy and maintaining the status quo or status quo ante is also intellectually short-sighted. After all, prevention is more important than redemption.  Intellectual alacrity and flexible responses hold the keys to peace and stability.

India must, therefore, make a clean break with the past myopic approach to national security in the simplistic frames of the past. Situations of “One Front Pak-centric obsession” or “Two Front China-Pak obsession” need to be replaced by broader “Multiple-cum-Multi Dimensional” approach.

Failure to internalize broader approach that covers a wide range of threats, challenges and opportunities is patently disastrous.  Today, the threats confronted by India are an altogether different scope and range of threats. No more, it is a traditional military contest of force per se and firepower. Indian needs to prepare to counter adversaries that use new tools to fight in the gray zone between war and peace, exploit its open Internet and economy to undermine Indian democracy, and expose the vulnerability of many of its legacy weapons systems.

Statesman of threatened nations like India must show a sense of urgency to avert war. Gone are the days of “Cold War” bipolarity and NAM and also the unipolar status thereafter. Trump has retracted USA to “isolationist” posture. Even Joe Biden is likely to tread the same path since overwhelming Americans favor such a posture.

There is no alternative for India but to enter into bi-multipolar military strategic partnerships to counter threats of adversaries. The Modi government’s active diplomatic outreach must aim to build bi-cum-multilateral military strategic partnerships with “shared security interests” of other nations with the end objective of maintaining “equilibrium”.

Let me in broad outline review India’s foreign policy postures during the past 73 years. One, Nehru spearheaded the “Non Aligned Movement” and Panchsheel or the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence. Two, the Indo–Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation signed in August 1971 that specified mutual strategic cooperation, which was major shift from non-alignment during the Cold War era.  Thereby, India became the second most hated nation by the US until after the end of the Cold War.

Three, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war in early 1990s, India has forged a closer partnership with Western powers – United States, Canada, France, Japan and Germany. In 1992, India established formal diplomatic relations with Israel. P V Narasimha Rao government opted for “Look East Policy” to redress imbalance in India’s foreign policy. Initially it focused on renewing political and economic contacts with the countries of East and South-East Asia. To quote Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “it was also a strategic shift in India’s vision of the world and India’s place in the evolving global economy”.

In post September 11 attacks in 2001, India’s extensive contribution to the War on Terror, coupled with a surge in its economy, helped India’s diplomatic relations with several countries. In the recent past, India has held numerous joint military exercises with US and European nations that have resulted in a strengthened US-India and EU-India bilateral relationship. India’s bilateral trade with Europe and United States had more than doubled in the five years since 2003.

India became a summit level partner of ASEAN (2002) and actively participated in regional initiatives such as the BIMSTEC and the Ganga–Mekong Cooperation. In December 2005, India became a member of the East Asia Summit (EAS).

Four, the Act East Policy (AEP), devised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a regional summit in Myanmar in 2014, has shifted the geostrategic posture of India in the Indo-Pacific and reformulated New Delhi’s approach to one that is viewed more strategically assertive. As part of the policy shift, there is special focus on the economic development of backward north eastern region to take advantage of huge market of ASEAN as well as of the energy resources available in countries like Burma.

Indian Act East policy has paved the way to develop greater economic and strategic partnership with Southeast Asian countries, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. India also enjoys friendly relations with the Persian Gulf countries and most members of the African Union.

The silver lining is External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, former diplomat, is an astute diplomat held in highest esteem. During Modi’s first term, Jaishankar was instrumental in turning Modi’s foreign-policy vision into actionable policy. By choosing Jaishankar as Minister of External Affairs, Modi has made it clear that India will prioritize foreign policy. Modi’s “Act East” policy shows the India’s regional road map ahead.

Most importantly, Jaishankar in his recently published book “The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World” has cited “three major burdens” from its past — Partition, delayed economic reforms and prolonged exercise of the nuclear option. As per Jaishankar, “the 1947 Partition reduced the nation both demographically and politically. An unintended consequence was to give China more strategic space in Asia. Another is the delayed economic reforms that were undertaken a decade and a half after those of China ~CHECK~ the 15-year gap continues to put India at a great disadvantage. As a result of the prolonged exercise of nuclear option, India has had to struggle mightily to gain influence in a domain that could have come so much more easily earlier.”

India has friendly relations with several countries in the developing world. Majority of partnerships are “fair weather” friendships based on economic and social relations. None of them are military strategic alliances to ensure guaranteed “balance of power” in Himalayan and Indo-Pacific region.

Yes! Jaishankar has rightly identified that “the very nature of international relations and its rules are changing and for India, this means optimal relationships with all the major powers to best advance its goals.” Jaishankar has recognized emergence of multi polar world where middle powers like India will have a greater role. Yet, he stopped short of initiating QUAD into a multilateral military alliance instead of articulating clearly in its favor.

However, Jaishankar prescription of “Strategic autonomy”, sans clarity, is highly debatable to ensure peace and stability what with China-Pakistan strategic alliance, the emerging Afghan conundrum and the Turkey-Malaysia-Iran-Pakistan-China Middle East Forum initiative.

Furthermore, to exploit strategic raw materials, particularly energy resources available in Latin American and African countries, India needs to financially aid countries to exploit mines.  The energy transition is picking up speed rapidly. The Governor of California signed an executive order to ban the sale of new gasoline-fueled cars by 2035. Petrostates are likely to fall. Powerful “electrostates” will rise sooner than later. Nations with lithium, cobalt and nickel that are critical inputs for many clean energy technologies such as batteries will play a key role – Democratic Republic of Congo, Chile, Australia, etc. Chinese companies have already invested in mines in DRC, Chile and Australia.

In sum, “Strategic Autonomy”, a vague foreign policy posture, will not guarantee peace and stability.  Even self-reliance in strategic raw materials, combat systems and technology are vital for “Strategic Autonomy” in foreign policy. India needs to maintain balance between “Bread” and “Guns”.  India also cannot match China financially to enter into economic partnerships with developing nations due to lack of surplus financial resources to gain access to strategic raw materials.  It is under such compelling constraints, India needs to chart its foreign policy course. Can Jaishankar deliver significant breakthroughs by maintaining strategic autonomy? Or, India needs to take a bold step and champion the case of bi-multipolar world order!