India serves its national interest through strategic autonomy
At the end of June, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi returned home from a visit to the US that had included all the pomp and pageantry of a high-profile state visit. A joint statement described the two countries “as among the closest partners in the world.” The statement also reiterated the two countries’ commitment to the four-member maritime grouping known as the Quad, which has “paved the way for stronger collaboration in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Within two weeks of his return, Modi presided over the 23rd (virtual) summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which has as its members China, Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and four Central Asian Republics. Critics have seen it as an anti-West conclave, while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described it as “forming a fundamentally new model of geopolitical integration.” Both Russia and China have been harsh critics of the Quad.
Where does India belong? An eminent Indian writer has said that “China’s rise … has made a strong India-US partnership a veritable necessity,” while an American observer has noted the “dreamy hope of Washington” that India could be tempted to give up its strategic autonomy in favor of a Western embrace. Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has robustly entered the discussion by pointing out that India “cannot be tied down to exclusive relationships.”
Indian critics believe that SCO membership does not fit in with the country’s close ties with major Western nations
Indian critics believe that SCO membership does not fit in with the country’s close ties with major Western nations. But this carries little weight with the Modi government. At the SCO summit, Modi noted that the grouping “has emerged as an important platform for peace, prosperity and development of Eurasia.”
This assertion affirms the importance India attaches to its ties with the Central Asian republics and the strategic value it sees in the connectivity projects from Indian ports to the Iranian port of Chabahar and onward to Afghanistan and Central Asia, as well as the International North-South Transport Corridor that links India’s western coast to Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia.
Together, the SCO’s members make up 40 percent of the world’s population, 25 percent of global output, a quarter of the world’s oil reserves and 50 percent of global natural gas. The Central Asian republics are particularly rich in rare earth elements and metals, which are essential in the manufacture of processors and electronic components used in the defense and aerospace industries, nuclear plants, clean energy applications and medical appliances. India also attaches importance to the fact that many major Middle Eastern nations have become dialogue partners of the SCO, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Egypt and Turkiye, with all of which it has close political and economic relations.
The joint statement that emerged from the SCO summit reflected India’s interests. It spoke of realizing a “more representative, democratic, just and multipolar world order,” and called for “further improving and reforming the architecture of global economic governance,” both of which are priority concerns for India.
The Quad, which brings together the US, Japan, Australia and India, is a maritime entity that promotes “a free and open Indo-Pacific,” including freedom of navigation, territorial integrity and a stronger regional architecture. The grouping gained credibility and urgency in 2017, in response to what its members viewed as increasing Chinese moves to assert its maritime claims in the South and East China Seas, its expanding presence in the Indian Ocean, and the setting up of its base in Djibouti. It was elevated to ministerial level in September 2019 and to summit level in March 2021.
It makes little sense for India to tie itself to a single power with its own rapidly changing interests and priorities
However, at the September 2021 summit, members consciously moved away from the strident security agenda to matters of longer-term interest, such as health cooperation, science, technology, engineering and math fellowships, cybersecurity, green shipping, clean hydrogen, 5G deployment, and a semiconductor supply chain initiative. This perhaps reflected India’s interest in playing down the Quad as a grouping directed at China while the confrontation at the border was ongoing.
Despite US blandishments and the sharp rhetoric of the pro-US lobby, India’s leaders understand that the country’s national interest is best served through assertions of strategic autonomy. Thus, expanding defense ties with the US and other Western powers helps to upgrade India’s military capabilities, but it does not occur at the expense of India’s long-standing military ties with Russia, which provides India’s basic needs for weaponry, artillery, armor and aircraft.
India takes into account other considerations as well. The US also has global interests and responsibilities and its foreign policy approach changes frequently with new administrations and the efforts of its domestic lobbies and interests. Again, America’s approach to China combines both cooperation and competition. Both before and after Modi’s visit to the US, high-level American officials were in Beijing to recalibrate ties between the world’s two largest economies. Thus, it makes little sense for India to tie itself to a single power with its own rapidly changing interests and priorities.
Finally, joining a maritime security alliance directed at China would mean that China’s own maritime security strategy would necessarily include a hostile India in its calculus. This would make India China’s antagonist on land and sea — a situation that would provide no advantage to India.
For the foreseeable future, New Delhi may be expected to remain a member of several diverse groupings, in which India itself will set the terms of its membership and the nature and extent of its role in order to achieve the interests it wishes to obtain from each grouping.
• Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat.