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The end of 2017 saw Trump administration on its charm offensive viz-a-viz India. India found itself as a main spoke in the Quadrilateral alliance, also including the US, Japan, and Australia. Trump during his Asia tour called for India’s leading role in the region. His administration’s first National Security Strategy further stamped that.  Many commentators have cited that India will be more than willing to lap up this role in Indo-Pacific. This article explores two questions. Is India comfortable with bandwagoning alongside Trump’s America? Did the US consult India before defining a ‘leadership role’ for the latter in the Indo-Pacific? How does this affect our ongoing quest for ‘strategic autonomy’?


What is Strategic Autonomy?


The pursuit to retain decision-making, avoid alliances, and build capabilities while working with others to further your interest can be termed commonly as strategic autonomy. India’s former National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon observes that since independence, India has been claiming to pursue freedom in its security and military relationships. A glimpse of this was the ‘non-alignment’ term coined by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru against the Cold War bloc politics. This was refashioned during different periods of time, with the most recent strand being “strategic autonomy”. India’s stand in the post-independence era mirrored that of America’s idea of ‘neutrality’, which was clearly reflected in President George Washington’s farewell address in which he warned Americans against getting caught up in “permanent alliances”.   


Strategic Autonomy: A Formal Policy Decision?


Realistically speaking, strategic autonomy is a desired objective. It may be pursued by a lone superpower that has the economic, industrial, military, and technological wherewithal to resist pressure from outside. Regional powers like India cannot be completely autonomous. They can choose to resist external interference on the core tenets of national security but tend to give way on some other not-so-core issues. For instance, Jammu & Kashmir and the nuclear issue fall under the category of core interests. Voting against Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) does not. It might have been ideal to follow the path of strategic autonomy, but we could never reify it completely. However, the changing world order today provides room to be more malleable.


Strategic Autonomy in the Changing World Order


The world order is in a state of flux – the rise of countries like China and India along with the resurgence of Russia; the United States taking a backseat from the leadership role it had assumed since the end of Cold War; the emergence of new technologies such as information and communication ones (drawn by e-commerce and other services) and cyber warfare that are reorganising power and influence; and so on. Militarily, it is still a unipolar world with the US ruling the roost. But economically, the US is vacating space to countries like China and India as it turns inwards. Ultra-nationalism is on the rise. There are security issues because of global terrorism and other threats. The Middle East is in chaos. North Korea is belligerent. All of this provides an interesting space for every country to revaluate its policies. The question of how does India follow its strategic autonomy in this situation will be noteworthy to delve into. 


The ‘Indo-Pacific’ Moment and its Appeal


The Indo-Pacific has been the buzzword of 2016-17. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled his regional vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. Australia cited the phrase in its foreign policy white paper. Trump appears personally seized with the idea. In his November tour to Asia, he used the phrase rather copiously. The term enlarges the geopolitical construct of Asia-Pacific to Indo-Pacific. It covers the area between the west coast of India and the west coast of the United States. The coinage of the term serves a specific strategic purpose. While India may or may not have been part of the birthing process of the Indo-Pacific, there is a pull for India in this. The rise of China has been a challenge for India. Beijing continues to modernise its military. It is the hub of communications and information technologies, and digital manufacturing. It is building influences across South Asia. Its initiatives (read the Belt and Road et al) appear untenable to India’s economic and geopolitical interests. 


A leadership role for India in the Indo-Pacific has the unstated goal to challenge Chinese assertiveness. The National Security Strategy (NSS) released in December 2017 described China as a “revisionist, authoritarian power, antithetical to US values and interests.” India’s recent snub to Beijing’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) and the Doklam crisis at the India-China-Bhutan tri-junction fosters this American view. What has further soothed Indian ego this time is Trump’s rant against Pakistan. Trump criticised Pakistan for fomenting terrorism and instability in the region. The NSS flagged a potential India-Pakistan “military conflict that could lead to a nuclear exchange”. Trump’s scathing Twitter attack and suspension of aid furthered the trust deficit. This rings good news for India. New Delhi has always wanted to see stronger US action against Pakistan. Yet, the hawkish nuke infused statements from India and Pakistan portend a doomsday scenario.


The Quest for Strategic Autonomy Should Continue


Changing world politics has raised expectations for India to play a proactive role. Yet, New Delhi has welcomed Quad 2.0 with caution; largely, because the first time around it had collapsed for two of its members found it “inconvenient”. India nonetheless would benefit from Quad as it allows the country to strengthen its geopolitical linkages. Through the Quad, India should promote its flagship ventures like the Sagarmala project and the East Coast Economic Corridor. This will spur development on India’s eastern coast and enable trade links with South and Southeast Asia.


On the other hand, the Quad can also result in China trying to box India by creating tensions across the border. This has a high possibility because Quad has a China-focused narrative. India will definitely face direct consequences due to the territorial proximity. Recently, however, China has upped its seduction game with India. It states the hope to “turn a new page of further growth and development of the bilateral relationship including the field of economy and trade.” India on its part needs to rejig its China policy. There is need for fruitful conversation with Beijing on economic engagement, maritime security, freedom of navigation, cyber security etc.


India also needs greater diplomacy with friendly countries like Russia and Iran who are the poster villains in the NSS. Our ties with Tehran are important in the energy and strategic-security realm. The Chahabar port is tactical to Indian interests as it opens a trade route to Afghanistan and Central Asia, bypassing Pakistan. This is also seen as a counter to the Gwadar port in Pakistan, that has Chinese blessings. Russia continues to remain our largest defence partner and we aspire a strengthened engagement with both Russia and China in forums like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and RIC (Russia, India, China).


As a growing power amidst a changing world order scenario, India’s future outlook should explore ways in which the country can be transformed without being a part of any camp. In that, practising strategic autonomy remains a desired quest if not an essential requirement.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the view of Manipal Advanced Research Group.