Written by Arzan Tarapore.

As India seeks to manage its relations with China and the US, its long-cherished foreign policy doctrine of “strategic autonomy” has come under increasing strain. The concept of strategic autonomy meant being “nonaligned” with the Cold War’s two competing blocs, and after two superpowers were reduced to one, it meant extreme caution over a prospective US-India strategic partnership. With the recent economic and political rise of China, some analysts have advocated a policy of maintaining “equidistance” between the US and China, or eschewing new strategic partnerships with regional powers.

But these old interpretations of strategic autonomy are increasingly untenable for India’s national interests. India faces stiff security competition from China, which continues to modernise its military, build political influence across South Asia, and bend international institutions to its will. This challenge has prompted India to cautiously deepen its engagement with the US, in a perfectly rational move to safeguard its interests. But sceptics of that engagement – many imbued with a streak of habitual anti-Americanism – fear that even technical instruments of cooperation will somehow rob India of policy independence.

Competition with China is not driven by an antipathy to Beijing. Rather, it is a response to China’s more recent revisionist approach to regional security, especially its attempts to forcibly claim and consolidate territorial control

A formal security-guarantee alliance with the US – of the type that Japan and Australia have – has never been, and never will be, in the offing. India will never be obligated to follow American policy, as sceptics fear. But in light of the growing China challenge, India cannot expect to persist with obsolete security arrangements. A refusal to build innovative strategic relations with other states such as the US and its allies, in blind devotion to an outmoded understanding of strategic autonomy, is untenable for Indian national interests.

Accelerating Security Competition

India’s policies evolved in 2017, as can be seen through an analysis of three major foreign policy actions. These demonstrated a way to protect its interests in security competition with China, while also deflecting charges of undue alignment with the US.

First, in May, India boycotted the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) summit in Beijing. The BRI, China’s plan to fund and develop an array of transport and energy infrastructure across multiple continents, is the centrepiece of China’s long-term efforts to build economic and political influence. India’s snub highlighted its opposition to the whole endeavour – on the grounds that it violates Indian sovereignty in contested Kashmir, and that it relies on opaque and predatory lending procedures.

Second, over the summer, Indian army troops engaged in a stand-off against Chinese troops near Doklam at the India-China-Bhutan border tri-junction. For 10 weeks, India placed military forces on heightened alert, weathered furious Chinese public statements, and undertook diplomatic negotiations. New Delhi maintained that the Chinese road-building constituted an illegal attempt to forcibly alter the territorial status quo. Ultimately, in August, the two sides agreed to disengage their forces, and the local situation returned to its uneasy détente.

Third, in November, India joined with the US, Japan, and Australia to reconstitute their quadrilateral security dialogue known as the Quad. The first incarnation of the Quad was short-lived, in 2006-08, folding after China pressured Australia to withdraw. The mission of the renewed Quad remains unclear and fluid – but will probably centre on a consultative mechanism for issues of maritime security, non-traditional threats such as humanitarian assistance, and security cooperation.

The common thread running through these policies is the accelerating security competition with China. But critically, this is not competition with China driven by an antipathy to Beijing. Rather, it is a response to China’s more recent revisionist approach to regional security, especially its attempts to forcibly claim and consolidate territorial control, or to gain political leverage through unfair lending and trading practices. Through these three major actions in 2017, New Delhi has signalled its opposition to Chinese behaviour, not Chinese power.

Defending Structures of Order, Not Power

New Delhi thus has a chance to redefine its concept of strategic autonomy. The doctrine traditionally represented a rejection of the global structure of power. It may now be evolving, according to these early signs, into a defence of the global structure of order – whereby India would, both independently and with others, support the norms and institutions of a liberal world order against its greatest disruptive or revisionist challengers.

In 2017, India’s policy actions demonstrated how defending the liberal order could be viably operationalised, beyond the rhetorical platitudes that states normally offer. India is now engaging in security competition with an increasingly assertive power bent on challenging prevailing norms and institutions. Along with Japan, India is exploring options for regional infrastructure development that might be a viable alternative to mercantilist practices of BRI. At Doklam, India showed how China’s territorial revision can be halted – even if only temporarily – with deterrence by denial.

The Quad may turn out to be India’s most ambitious order-preserving action. With it, India is signing on to a loose security community which may – eventually – enable some coordinated military contingency planning for certain scenarios, and interoperability for certain missions. Politically, the salience of this cooperation would be to stiffen the counter-coercion power of its members and regional states. It represents an effort not to deny China its rightful influence in the region, but to deny China the ability to coerce less powerful states, to redraw territorial boundaries, or threaten free passage in the global commons.

Beyond the US and China

Defending the liberal world order does not mean supporting US power or policies. The liberal order has long been associated with the US – it was built and sustained from Washington. But as scholarship shows, the norms and institutions of world order, upon reaching a level of maturity, can operate independently of the global hegemon that established them. That distinction has never been as sharp as it was in 2017, with the US led by the nativist Trump administration. For instance, under Trump, the US has walked away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade pact, which Washington had designed to reinvigorate its leadership in the region.

Regional actors have quickly acknowledged the task before them. Japan is pressing ahead with the “TPP11,” building the free trade pact without US leadership, and allocating billions to regional development. Echoing this approach, Australian Prime Minister Turnbull declared that any development of the order “must be designed to enable the United States to dock back in when it is ready to do so.”

Equally, defending the liberal order is not about limiting China’s power. India maintains a comprehensive relationship with China. Thus, while India boycotted the BRI summit, it is also the second-largest contributor to the Chinese-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which funds BRI projects. While it joined the Quad, it is also a member of the BRICS grouping and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Bilateral trade is growing steadily, and the two powers established a bilateral “strategic partnership” dialogue.

In 2017 the liberal order in Asia has come under unprecedented threat. The Trump administration has signalled an approach to Asia that will be more transactional, and more dominated by immediate crises rather than by long-term strategic posturing. Meanwhile, with Xi Jinping freshly anointed as “core leader” and seeing a less reliable and less present US, China will probably be emboldened to continue, if not accelerate, its challenges to prevailing norms and institutions. It then falls to regional states – Japan, Australia, and increasingly India – to play a greater role in defending those structures of order.

With this new interpretation of strategic autonomy, India could continue pursuing profitable relations with China, without entrenching rival spheres of influence, while still assertively rejecting illegitimate revisionism, either from Beijing or others. It would enjoy an increasingly favourable regional profile, furthering its policy goals of integration with east and southeast Asia. And, perhaps most importantly for a state that prizes strategic autonomy, it could retain its traditional policy independence, not bound or beholden to the US or any other power.

Arzan Tarapore recently completed a PhD in War Studies at King’s College London, where his research focused on Indian military effectiveness. He tweets @arzandc. This is an abridged version of an article originally published in Pragati; the longer, original version can be found hereImage credit: by Indian Ministry of External Affairs/Flickr.

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