India's days of strategic autonomy over: New Delhi cannot continue pandering to West while attempting a 'reset' with China

Days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi's attempt to do a 'reset' in India's relations with China in Wuhan, French president Emmanuel Macron has crashed the party by proposing a 'Paris-Delhi-Canberra' axis during his visit to Australia last week. During a wide-ranging speech at an Australian naval base in Sydney on 2 May, Macron proposed this new strategic alignment saying: "... If we want to be seen and respected by China as an equal partner, we must organise ourselves... This new Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis is absolutely key for the region and our joint objectives in the India-Pacific region."

The French proposal comes even as a powerful US Congressional Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, has proposed renaming the US Pacific Command to the 'Indo-Pacific Command'.

File image (clockwise) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and US president Donald Trump. PTI, Reuters and AP

File image (clockwise) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull and US president Donald Trump. PTI, Reuters and AP

These events demonstrate one simple fact, that the steadfast expansion of Indian naval capabilities in the last one decade has elevated India's profile in the Asia Pacific and New Delhi is now seen as a vital element of any proposed security framework in the region – primarily aimed at responding to China's aggressive posture, evident since the ascendance of Xi Jinping as chairman of the Central Military Commission, and as Chinese president. And as India adds more teeth to its naval firepower, this profile will be enhanced even further, even as the waters around it get further muddied.

And that will accentuate a crisis for a fundamental principle of India's foreign policy – 'strategic autonomy' or further nuanced in the principle of 'multi-alignment'. Times have evolved since the days when strategic autonomy principle was brought in to explain India's continued hobnobbing with Russia, fight and cooperation with China while simultaneously courting the United States.

That strategy carried India well because, in some sense, it was still an emergent power, at least in the Asia Pacific. But as India makes a rapid transition to a major power status, riding high on the phenomenal economic growth. And as international politics and state actors get more and more polarised, mandarins of South Bloc will need to invent new conceptual frameworks to interpret India's world and what role India should play in it.

Make no mistake, it is not Australia or France which have the responsibility to preserve the order in Asia Pacific or Indo-Pacific, they are merely responding to the emergence of India as a vital element of the region. It is India whose territory spans on both sides of the Indian Ocean that has the responsibility.

Look at the Malabar exercises – the annual naval exercises between India and US, which were opened up to Japan two years ago and are slated to take place next month. These exercises are now being seen as a natural extension of the 'Quad initiative' resurrected last year, with the potential inclusion of Australia. Yet, India is unsure of what course it wants to adopt. Perhaps to not offend China, it rejected the proposal to include the Australian Navy in this year's exercises.

But India cannot have the best of both the worlds by continuing to enjoy the benefits of enhanced security co-operation with the West while attempting to do a reset with China.

History of international politics shows that there is no respect for fence sitters and they end up becoming the first casualty during a conflict.


Updated Date: May 09, 2018 14:07 PM

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