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India’s Fickle Geostrategic Framework – Analysis

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By Peter Layton*

In October 2022, India abstained from voting in a UN Security Council draft resolution against Russia’s annexation of areas of Ukrainian territory it has seized. This passive support for Vladimir Putin’s imperialism is at odds with India’s membership of the Quad — the other three Quad nations voted to condemn Russian aggression. India’s vote underlines that on defence and security matters beyond the Quad, its cooperation with the United States, Japan and Australia is problematic. India’s geostrategic aspirations and modus operandi are not like others.

Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India aims to become a leading power able to shape international order. Achieving this ambition involves placing atma-nirbhar (strategic autonomy) as the first pillar of Indian diplomacy.

Strategic autonomy is the ability of a state to pursue its national interests and adopt its preferred foreign policy without being unduly constrained by other states. Such autonomy is most easily achievable in a multipolar international system where several great powers can be played off against each other. Unsurprisingly, the second pillar of Indian diplomacy is its ‘multipolar focus’.

But manoeuvring in the contemporary international system requires considerable strategic flexibility. India has needed to adopt a short-term approach rather than basing decisions on enduring values. India’s foreign policy and strategic orientation has shifted to an expedient pragmatism. India’s Minister of External Affairs, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, sees this as a policy of ‘exploiting opportunities’.

The turn towards strategic flexibility drives India towards preferring strategic partnerships over formal alliances and seeking multiple alignments rather than committing to particular allies. Indian foreign policy may appear unpredictable and perplexing. In the United Nations and other multilateral forums, India frequently aligns with Russia and China, appearing as part of their bloc rather than a member of the Quad. India considers this to be the lowest cost way to publicly demonstrate at least some strategic autonomy and that such actions will not cause irreparable damage to relationships with others — that they will understand.

India’s strategic autonomy can be constrained by practical matters, as its relationship with Russia highlights. Its reliance on Russia for logistical support for its armed forces means that India is dependent on Russian goodwill for the foreseeable future. India has tried to become self-sufficient in military technology and to diversify its foreign arms purchases but Russia remains its key provider, as highlighted by India’s leasing of two Russian nuclear submarines in 2019.

Such constraints extend into India’s strategic thinking as the Russian military remains esteemed. This includes misguided tropes such as the West must address ‘Russian sensitivities’ and Ukraine is responsible for Russian bombing of civilians. India also values its participation in Russian military exercises. As a result, India is entrappedin Russia’s decline for fear of abandonment.

Australia’s security relationship with the United States — built on a strong expectation of reciprocity — is a sharp contrast to India’s strategic thinking. Australia assiduously promotes the concept of mutual obligation — each party should support the other because they have done so previously. The most recent Australian Defence White Paper sees the Australia–NATO relationship growing ‘on the basis of reciprocity’. This notion of building locked-in, reliable support over time is fundamentally different to India’s issue-by-issue approach.

India’s focus on strategic autonomy and great power multipolarity means India has little regard for of how smaller nations play the geostrategic game. This diplomatic shortcoming is created and reinforced by India being a nuclear weapon state and having the world’s largest population. This makes joining others in collective endeavours or compromising during complicated negotiations over difficult issues unattractive. It’s not surprising that India is not part of any regional economic architecture or formal alliance in the Asia Pacific.

Compared to India, many developed nations are relatively small in terms of population and economic power, and accordingly emphasise multilateral economic and security agreements. In the European Union, for example, some two-thirds of the countries have a population of only 10 million or less. Working collectively is common for many states but not for India. Jaishankar sees ‘leveraging others [as] central to success’, not working with them.

India’s emphasis on autonomy also complicates its ability to appreciate habits of cooperation which are developed within longstanding multilateral structures. Australians can be surprised by both the inability and unwillingness of the Indian Armed Forces — when participating in military activities outside of tightly-choreographed Quad-associated training exercises — to seamlessly integrate with US coalition-led operational protocols and procedures.

India’s actions concerning defence and security matters beyond the Quad are likely to continue to disappoint. India’s treasured policy flexibility appears to emphasise the short-term while excluding consideration of the longer-term impact of its actions and behaviours. Being deliberately inconsistent may suggest India lacks principles or values, or that it is simply opportunistic.

Indian policymakers appear unconcerned that placing short-term self-interest over other considerations may mean others may act similarly when India would prefer international support. The implications of this approach became evident in September 2022 when the United States announced a major arms sale to Pakistan. India’s Defence and Foreign Ministers both voiced concerns. But in many respects, it was not dissimilar to India’s own strategic autonomy approach.

India may change, but that will take time. Until then, Michael Wesley’s advice appears apposite for relations with India concerning issues beyond the Quad: ‘Great powers, whatever their politics, are selfish, solipsistic and capricious. Other states must learn to live with them on these terms’.

*About the author: Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, London.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

3 thoughts on “India’s Fickle Geostrategic Framework – Analysis

  • October 30, 2022 at 4:15 am
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    First and foremost every nation follows a policy looking into his self interest first and foremost.So does the West especially the US,UK and others.India’s interests are well entrenched in the present situation of the changing world order created by the US through the Ukraine war.And India so far is doing better than most nations.Quad YES but what about the US helping Pakistan now,India’s not so friendly neighbour.The west needs to look within especially the US by plunging the world in an economic crisis courtesy the Ukraine war- their creation . Let the winter set in Europe and the populace will speak up.Wait and watch who is right and who is wrong.

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  • October 31, 2022 at 8:18 am
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    India, Pakistan and a host of other countries of course act primarily in their own self interest, and favour the opportunities of the present to the uncertainties of the future. That some western countries build alliances with the future in mind can be seen, but even that is not universal — NZ, despite it’s membership of the Five eyes alliance, courts China with a view to short term gains despite the longer term risks that entails.
    That is no excuse for peddling the notion that the US (and NATO) created the war in Ukraine. That war is one man’s ambitions to “leave a legacy”: Putin’s personal ambition. Russia was not threatened. Those 150,000+ troops on the borders were not conducting “training exercises” (remember that?), any more than Ukraine was full of “Nazis”, a “dirty bomb” was being assembled in Ukraine, “American bio-labs” were preparing to unleash some terrible disease in Russia or the UK Navy blew up the Nordstream gas lines and Black Sea Fleet fleet. These fantasies are pathetic, no matter how jealous autocrats are of the success of democratic nations.
    Democracy was the only threat — that kleptocratic leadership would be seen for the failure that it is and was, there as in other autocratic regimes. So before the same pitiful excuse is wheeled out, the US is not “forcing” China to invade Taiwan or Iran to “defend” itself against Israel either.

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  • October 31, 2022 at 10:22 am
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    Let’s start with US recognizing India’s borders and stop pampering those whom India has a problem with. If QUAD is that critical for American strategy, is it that big an ask? You assert your right of passage through India’s navy corridor, you ensure that a state sponsor of terror gets F16 refurbishments to fight terrorists, every second day, you complain on India’s internal affairs. Is that what an ally does? The ball is in US’s court, not India’s.

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