Playing the strategic autonomy game 

New Delhi should play its cards extremely well right now to invest for the future of geopolitical dividends

April 04, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 12:18 pm IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in New Delhi.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: PTI

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a flurry of diplomatic activity in New Delhi: some visitors came to test the waters, some to discuss life beyond Ukraine, some to seek solidarity, and some others to issue veiled warnings. New Delhi has been forthcoming and patient. What, however, hasn’t gone down very well in India is the public chastisement of its Russia policy i.e., the decision to continue its trade with Russia and unwillingness to condemn Russian aggression. It appears that several visitors to New Delhi miss a crucial point: India is not in Europe even if it shares, despite the occasional aberration, many of the norms and values held dear by much of the international community. More importantly, notwithstanding the Indian diaspora in the West and the warmth of people-to-people contacts, India is a post-colonial country with understandable sensitivities about how Western interlocutors engage the country.

More so, it is unfair to ask a developing country fighting serious economic hardships and recovering from the debilitating impact of COVID-19 not to buy discounted Russian oil, especially when some of India’s critics are still buying energy from Russia, discounted or not. Several Western policy commentators are aghast as to why India is unwilling to endure some economic pain to send a loud and clear message that it doesn’t not support territorial aggression by any country. The answer once again lies in the state of India’s economy, its need for unrestricted supply of defence equipment, and its geopolitical location. There is little doubt that the Ukraine war will impact the Indian economy, slowly perhaps but steadily for sure. Unfortunately for India, the sanctions on Russia have come at a time when the Indian economy is still recovering from the impact of COVID-19.

The strawman arguments

One of the arguments that is emphatically made by several of India’s partners in the West is that the Russia-Ukraine war is a broader conflict between democracies and non-democracies, and therefore India must decide which side of the ideological divide it wants to be on. That is not just a baseless myth, but a dangerous trope that can plunge the international community into another needless ideological rivalry. This is not something that New Delhi should get caught in. Russia’s military aggression is unjustified, and India’s decision to abstain from condemning Russia is based on a geopolitical rationale (just like India did not condemn the American invasion of Iraq in 2003); it has nothing to do with India being any less of a democracy.

The second argument is that Russia is unlikely to help India in a future conflict with China. This argument is not without merit, but then again, it misses the point. Russia may not help India against China in the longer run, but India certainly cannot afford to have yet another unfriendly country in an otherwise deeply unfriendly region. And that is sound strategic rationale for not alienating Russia. This argument also implies that the West may not stand by India when it comes to China if India doesn’t stand by them today. This argument overlooks the reality that China is a challenge to the U.S. as well as to India, albeit in varying degrees. India needs the assistance of its partners to meet the China challenge, but this is hardly a one-way street.

Charms of the swing state

This is also India’s big power moment. The fact that both the opposing sides in this war are rushing their senior interlocutors to New Delhi to woo India also shows that India is the most sought-after swing state in the contemporary international system, a role it has played well so far. Despite being in an adversarial relationship with India, China sees merit in reaching out to India to convince the latter to move on with business as usual notwithstanding what it did to India in 2020.

China sees the Ukraine war as an opportunity to construct an anti-American world order by forging some regional unity. This at least partly explains Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to South Asia. Then came Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the only recent visitor to have managed a personal meeting with the Indian Prime Minister. The meeting is also a clear indication of the Indian leadership’s intent not to abandon Moscow, at least not yet.

The U.S. is also keen to retain India in its fold. For sure, it doesn’t want to lose the exceptional gains it has made with India over the past two decades. The visitors from the U.K. and Germany also want New Delhi on their side. New Delhi may indeed be on their side, but not in the manner they would like India to be.

By refusing to fully ally with either side and yet maintaining good relations with both, New Delhi may have finally experimented with the tenets of strategic autonomy that it has long professed but struggled to practice. Contemporary Indian diplomacy is a textbook example of a swing state that refuses to swing either way.

Between the present and future

Yet, there is a time to be a swing state, and a time to think beyond it. There is little doubt that the war will quicken the fundamental transformations that Asian geopolitics was already undergoing. Southern Asia’s continental geopolitics is now China-centric. It is only a matter of time before the rest of the Asian region becomes China-centric as well. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, its current focus on Russia and Ukraine, the further weakening of Russia, and Beijing’s proactive outreach to the region with money and muscle will eventually lead to the end of Indian primacy in the region and the rise of a China-centric Asian geopolitical order.

Also read | Jaishankar sees ‘campaign’ against India for buying Russian oil

When the Ukraine war is done and dusted, India will be relegated to a weaker position in the region that it was before the war began. The current adrenaline rush in New Delhi of being a swing state courted by various powerful suitors will eventually fade away. That is the harsh reality of geopolitics. That is precisely why New Delhi should play its cards extremely well right now to invest in future geopolitical dividends. Decision-makers in New Delhi will have to go back to the drawing board and create long-term plans to engage the region, including China, and the international community.

Put differently, New Delhi will need to keep in mind its long-term objectives even during the delicate balancing that it is doing today. Ideally, in the longer run, India would like to have both the West and Russia on its side. But given how this war is unfolding and the manner in which Beijing is making its moves, New Delhi may indeed find it harder than ever to manage the growing contradictions between the West and Russia. Geopolitical choices are almost never black and white, nor are they always readily available. Sometimes, therefore, states must proactively try to shape the environment to generate new options. It is New Delhi’s turn to do so.

Happymon Jacob is Associate Professor, Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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