Strategic autonomy in a multipolar world order | 23rd November

In News: India has adopted Self Reliance as an objective in the post covid world. While it is seen primarily in economic terms (reducing imports, shifting value chains), self-reliance also means strategic autonomy in foreign policy.

Strategic autonomy: Strategic autonomy is the ability of a state to pursue its own national interest and preferred foreign policy without being constrained by other states. It has to be formulated as per the security environment to ensure India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity are maintained.

Evolution of Strategic Autonomy in India

1st phase- Non-Alignment (1947-1961): During Bipolar world (USA and USSR as power centres)
  • Non-alignment: India played a critical role in the establishment of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) (1961), which marked the peak of Third World solidarity.
  • Five-point agreement or the Panchsheel policy of PM Nehru.
  • Preservation of autonomy: India’s objectives were to resist from joining any military blocs while rebuilding its economy and consolidated its territorial integrity.
2nd phase- Realism (1962-71)
  • India made pragmatic choices on security and political challenges after the 1962 war.
  • India looked beyond non-alignment in the interest of national security. for example, a defense arrangement with the United States in 1964.
3rd phase- Regional Assertion (1971-91):
  • Tilt towards USSR: signing of the India-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation
  • Getting involved in 1971 war, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh.
  • India conducted peaceful nuclear explosion test in 1974 (Pokhran I) for which it faced sanctions from the USA.
  • Indian peacekeeping operation in Sri Lanka.
  • The creation of the US-China-Pakistan axis threatened India’s prospects as a regional power.
4thphase-Strategic autonomy (1991-2005)
  • Economic reforms and high economic growth led to an evolution in the country’s strategic outlook.
  • Multi alignment: India reached out to engage the US, Israel, and ASEAN countries more intensively.
5th phase: India’s strategic autonomy approach in a multipolar world (after 2005)
  • Multi-alignment approach:
  • India has moved from a P2 (US and China) mindset to a P5+2 approach to positioning itself as a global power. e.g.: membership of ASEAN, SCO, Quad.
  • India’s preference towards a ‘free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific’ refers to a multipolar regional order within which Delhi can maintain its strategic autonomy.
  • Balancing diplomacy manifested in the Russia-India- China (RIC) meeting and Japan- America –India (JAI) meeting on the sidelines of G20.
  • De-hyphenation policy of India:
  • De-hyphenated Look West Policy, which means India’s relationship with Israel would stand on its merits, independent and separate from India’s relationship with the Palestinians.
  • Issue-based cooperation:
  • In the Middle East, India has reached out to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran. India invited to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for the first time.
  • Recently India overlooked USA’s sanctions and decided to go ahead with the S-400 deal with Russia.
  • Intensified cooperation with middle powers like UK, EU, Japan, and ASEAN countries to accomplish collective goals.
  • India pulled out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and concluded that a China-led economic order in Asia will permanently ruin India’s economic prospects.
  • Use of Hard power and expanding military cooperation:
  • India’s responded strongly to the terror strikes in Pulwama and Balakot airstrikes.
  • India has also signed military logistics support agreements with partner countries such as the USA, France, Singapore, Australia, South Korea.
  • India’s soft power: International yoga day, south Asian satellite, International solar alliance, and SAARC COVID-19 Emergency Fund.

Changing the world from unipolar to bipolar multipolar:

  • Bipolar (1945-1991): Bipolar world can be defined as a system in which the majority of global economic, military and cultural influence is held between two countries – the USA and USSR. This resulted in Cold War characterized by geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union and the United States.
  • Unipolar (1991-2008): After the disintegration of USSR, the United States became the only superpower and the international system has become unipolar. Assuming the role of global policeman, the USA was able to impose its will on other countries. For Example, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the war in Afghanistan, and the policy of regime change during President Bush.
  • Multi power (2008-till now): Multipolarity is the emergence of many regional powers along with the withdrawal of the USA as a global policeman.
  • Rise of China: Aggression in the South China Sea, US-China trade war, Clashes with India at LAC (Line of Actual Control) and heavy investment in developing countries through Belt and Road initiative.
  • Rise of BRICS and other major power: BRICS is committed to democratization of international life. It accounts for almost a third of global GDP at purchasing power parity. E.g.; creation of the New Development Bank (NDB) and Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA).
  • Creation of international/regional groupings:For example, ASEAN (Association of southeast Asian Nations), APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation)
  • Russia reasserting its bipolar status: meddling in Syria against US, growing Sino-Russia relations, Russia’s annexation of Crimea
  • Rise of India: India’s participation in Shanghai Co-operation Organization, G-20 Summit, the Mekong-Ganga Co-operation, the International Solar Alliance, etc. India is also recasting its approach. e.g., Quad, SAGAR, Blue dot network, etc.

Recent Trends: Increasing India- US co-operation

Strategic partnership

  • The US has designated India as an integral part of the Indo-pacific narrative by the conception of
  • India becoming a non-NATO Ally of the USAin line with countries such as Israel and South Korea for increasing defense cooperation.
  • USA has supported India’s membership in the Australia Group and Wassenaar Arrangement.
  • USA has recently unveiled its New Security strategy (NSS) to promote deeper partnership with India.
  • The 2+2 dialogue: It is the dialogue between Indian External Affairs and Defence Ministers, and their US counterparts to provide a vision for strategic partnership.
  • Security agreements like Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement, Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA)

Challenges to strategic autonomy:

  • Fear of becoming a US ally: India is actively seeking the cooperation of the US but it has to protect its core national interests from the threats of US intervention. For example- USA threatening India of CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) in relation with Chahbahar port and S-400 deal with Russia.
  • Assertive rise of China: It may result in security threat like Doklam standoff, clashes in Galwan valley across LAC. A possibility of China, Pakistan, Russia, Iran axis.
  • Assertion of Power: Regional assertion of power may lead to arms races and rise in geopolitical uncertainty. For example, arms race between India and China.
  • Dependence on other developed countries for economic growth: India needs technology, capital, markets, skills, defence equipment, international networking, and global cooperation to resolve global issues. Sensitive technology can come only at the behest of compromising strategic autonomy.
  • Impact of US tilt: Complete dependence on US will impact ties with Russia, Iran as well as defense indigenization.

Way forward:

  • A multi vector foreign policy approach: India’s potential has to be maximized by multi alignment rather than isolation or alliance.
  • Practice creative diplomacy and flexibility: In the destabilised world, there is need to adjust to the fast-changing balance of power and correlate with the countries around us.
  • Cooperate and Compete: India must work with other powers to ensure that its region stays multi-polar (preventing dominance of one country of the region)
  • Active Engagement with middle powers: Intensified cooperation with middle powers like UK, EU, Japan and ASEAN countries to accomplish collective goals.
  • Utilising multilateral institutions: Strategic relationships with multilateral institutions and multiple partners including developing countries, least developed countries.
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