Strategic Autonomy and U.S.-Indian Relations
For decades after gaining independence in 1947, Indian foreign policy was guided by one overarching principle: non-alignment. Considered a “central component of Indian identity in global politics,” the doctrine counseled India against entanglement in the Cold War and alignment with either the United States or the Soviet Union, while seeking to position India as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement.
Non-alignment may have been a more flexible Cold War strategy than its critics care to admit, with India embracing stronger ties with both superpowers in the 1960s and 1970s when the threat from China grew more acute. But non-alignment was also less principled than its proponents may acknowledge, later being warped into anti-American ideology divorced from India’s national interests.
As the Cold War has faded from memory, so too has the attractiveness of non-alignment, falling even further into disfavor since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014. Today, there’s broad consensus in New Delhi that the doctrine has outlived its purpose, as non-alignment has quietly been succeeded by a new foreign policy principle: strategic autonomy.
Billed as a “mutation of realism and India’s traditional non-aligned posture,” strategic autonomy prioritizes self-sufficiency and independence. It seeks to keep Indian decision-making insulated from external pressures while moving beyond some of the ideological constraints of non-alignment and its inherent aversion to foreign partnerships.
Yet there are diverging opinions in New Delhi about what strategic autonomy means in practice. Specifically, there is disagreement about which activities and countries are enhancing India’s autonomy, and which are restricting it. Some acolytes of non-alignment view strategic autonomy as cautioning against a closer partnership with the United States, which they believe would constrain India’s freedom of action. They are losing ground, however, to a growing chorus of Indian voices that see alignment with the United States as a way for India to secure its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis its principal security threat: China.
These debates have gained greater salience in recent years as India confronts an escalating rivalry with China that has entered a new chapter following the outbreak of a deadly crisis at the disputed Sino-Indian border this summer. At the same time, it has developed an increasingly intimate strategic partnership with the United States.
For U.S. policymakers keen on further elevating the partnership with India, it is imperative to understand the domestic and international drivers, and the geopolitical implications, of the evolution from non-alignment to strategic autonomy. The paradigm shift could present opportunities to take the Indian-U.S. relationship to new heights. However, this will depend on policymakers in Washington appreciating Indian sensitivities regarding alignment, and the willingness of Indian officials in New Delhi to recognize that the greatest threat to India’s autonomy comes not from America’s embrace but rather from Chinese hegemony.
An examination of strategic autonomy in India requires a basic understanding of the doctrine it succeeded. While non-alignment had roots in India’s colonial past, philosophical aversion to blocs and alliances, and “nationalist inclinations towards non-confrontation,” it also had more pragmatic geopolitical applications.
India emerged from its independence struggle in 1947 weakened by a century of colonial occupation and partition. Its government was determined to tackle the country’s profound developmental and governance challenges at home, while managing an intractable rivalry with Pakistan, and later China, abroad. As the Cold War began to simmer, and the United States and the Soviet Union began recruiting nations to their respective sides, India viewed the conflict as a dangerous diversion from its domestic and international priorities.
Neither of the quarrelling superpowers posed a direct threat, eliminating the most compelling reason to choose a side. As importantly, neither superpower offered India a natural partner against its two neighboring, increasingly aligned rivals: China and Pakistan. By the 1950s the United States had enlisted Pakistan as a regional anti-Soviet partner, while China and the Soviet Union were still considered communist brothers-in-arms.
Furthermore, non-alignment was a manifestation of India’s fear of entanglement, the belief that its “biggest security risk was being drawn into the conflicts of other nations.” It was concerned that aligning with one superpower would entail alienating the other. Non-alignment, policymakers hoped, might offer a way to avoid antagonizing the Soviet Union and United States, and for a period in the 1950s and 1960s India was a large recipient of aid from both countries.
Eventually, the threat from China forced India to break away from non-alignment. During the 1962 Sino-Indian border war, New Delhi successfully appealed to the United States for emergency aid and military supplies. But the honeymoon proved short-lived and American military aid to India was suspended during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. As Pakistan and the United States grew closer in the years ahead — bound by mutual opposition to the Soviet Union and its 1979 invasion of Afghanistan — India and the United States grew more estranged.
Following the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s, and Pakistan’s efforts to foster an opening between the United States and China in 1971, India broke even more decisively away from non-alignment in practice, if not officially. On the eve of the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, New Delhi signed a defense pact with Moscow.
Non-alignment was more agile in practice than it was in theory. Without doing irreparable damage to its ties with the United States, India secured discounted arms deals from Moscow and geopolitical cover at the United Nations while largely avoiding involvement in the Soviet Union’s ideological and military struggles. Following their conflict in 1962, India also succeeded in deterring China from any additional significant military adventures along their disputed border.
Arguably, non-alignment’s greatest shortcoming was the way in which it was later corrupted and hijacked for alternative purposes. By the latter half of the Cold War, non-alignment became less of a principled position in service to India’s national interests than a vehicle for anti-Americanism. Its proponents were unconcerned when India purchased Soviet arms or signed defense pacts with Moscow. Later, they held no objection to acquiring French submarines, training Vietnamese soldiers, or conducting military exercises with Japan. Any move closer to the United States, however, was attacked as an act of submission and an offense to Indian sovereignty and the principles of non-alignment.
No Love for Non-Alignment
Non-alignment outlasted the Cold War, albeit in a diminished state. Its appeal was further diluted by the transformation of Indian-U.S. ties after the turn of the century, beginning with a 10-year defense pact and civil nuclear deal in 2005. Within a decade, strategic cooperation with the United States was expanding at an unprecedented rate.
Non-alignment’s acolytes would not go down without a fight. In 2012, a group of prominent Indian intellectuals attempted to update the strategy for the 21st century — a more elastic “Non-Alignment 2.0.” The document recognized that Indian foreign policy needed to adapt to a world that had “changed considerably, as have India’s own capacities and requirements.”
However, it was evident that the authors of “Non-Alignment 2.0” sought to slow India’s drift toward the United States. They effectively advocated for a more equidistant policy between the United States and China, reflecting the fact that several influential constituencies still opposed greater Indian alignment with America.
The first of these constituencies was comprised of domestic critics, mainly hailing from the political left, versed in framing any move toward the United States as a grave capitulation. The second was China. Many Indian strategists believed, but rarely admitted in public, that a closer partnership with Washington risked antagonizing Beijing and hardening their rivalry. Russia was the third constituency: It was not the patron that the Soviet Union had once been, but it was still a key supplier of Indian arms and had made no secret of its discomfort with the budding Indian-U.S. partnership.
Critics, however, were unconvinced by the report’s “utopian and self-defeating goals” that “ignore the centrality of balance of power politics in interstate relations.” Others worried that it would merely serve as an extension of the worst part of the original non-alignment policy, a way of “keeping the U.S. at arm’s distance, with the hope of placating the Chinese.”
In reality, by 2012 non-alignment was already on its deathbed. The following year, Indian officials officially discarded the Cold War strategy and sanctioned the transition to a new guiding principle: strategic autonomy.
Strategic Autonomy Takes Shape
Loosely defined, strategic autonomy refers to a state’s ability to make decisions insulated from external pressure. Indian journalist Sreemoy Talukdar defines it as the “exercise of choice driven purely by sovereign considerations and interest.”
“At once vague and central to Indian foreign policy,” strategic autonomy has been a feature of the Indian discourse for decades, but its meaning and usage have evolved with time. In the 20th century, strategic autonomy was viewed as a pillar of, and sometimes synonymous with, non-alignment. The latter was a vehicle for preserving the former.
After the Cold War, strategic autonomy assumed a new emphasis. Following India’s 1998 nuclear weapons tests, strategic autonomy was frequently used by Indian officials to signal that India, a non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, would never accept international restrictions on its nuclear weapons program or doctrine.
This was the case when President K. R. Narayanan invoked the term in October 1999 to underscore how India would seek to preserve its strategic autonomy amid “global nuclear disarmament.” It was used in a related context by senior officials in February 2000 and March 2000. In August 2006, one year after India’s historic civil nuclear deal with the United States, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claimed, “there is nothing in this nuclear deal which will hurt the strategic autonomy that this country must have with regard to the management of its nuclear weapons program.”
In October 2007, strategic autonomy was used in a broader context. “Building strategic autonomy of choice,” explained External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, was the “primary task of Indian foreign policy since 1947.” A June 2009 parliamentary address by President Pratibha Patil and an August 2011 parliamentary report both underscored the importance of strategic autonomy and “independent decision-making” to Indian foreign policy more broadly.
By 2013, government officials were sanctioning a more formal shift from non-alignment to strategic autonomy. In November 2013, External Affairs Minister Salman Kurshid explained: “In the past, we had our non-aligned position and more recently we describe it as our autonomous strategic position.”
If the United Progressive Alliance coalition that governed India from 2004 to 2014 saw a gradual evolution from non-alignment to strategic autonomy, the election of the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government in 2014 heralded an even more decisive shift. As if to underscore the transition, in 2016 Modi became the first Indian prime minister since 1979 to skip the annual Non-Aligned Movement summit.
Modi later touted the expanding list of India’s external partnerships as a “measure of our strategic autonomy.” At the 2019 Raisina Dialogue, Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale declared: “India has moved on from its non-aligned past. India is today an aligned state — but based on issues.” This alignment, he claimed, “is not ideological. That gives us the capacity to be flexible, gives us the capacity to maintain our decisional autonomy.”
“The sense that we can be non-involved, we have to put behind us,” External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar argued in September 2020, urging India to “step out, shape the world more actively, engage other players more confidently, be much clearer about what our own interests are and try and advance them.” Indeed, Jaishankar has suggested India may be already looking beyond the horizons of strategic autonomy, “whether it is the non-alignment and strategic autonomy of earlier periods, or multiple engagements of the future.”
Who Threatens Indian Autonomy?
While there is near universal agreement in New Delhi that strategic autonomy is a laudable goal, there remain dissenting views on what precisely contributes to India’s strategic autonomy, and what diminishes it. For some , the greatest threat to strategic autonomy remains a closer partnership with the United States.
Some Indian scholars have defined strategic autonomy as “a dependence control strategy aimed at safeguarding its independence in both foreign policy decision-making and protecting strategic assets against American pressure.” Analyst S. Kalyanaraman worries that a closer partnership with the United States will open channels for Washington to pressure India on “core national interests” like nuclear weapons and Kashmir.
Former National Security Advisor M. K. Narayanan decried the decision to launch a new “2+2” dialogue with the United States in 2018 as “alien to traditional diplomatic and strategic intercourse between nations.” America was “exploiting the current state of ‘special relations’” and “seems to have succeeded in co-opting India into the U.S. strategic framework aimed at the containment of China.” After a deadly crisis at the Sino-Indian border in June 2020, Narayanan suggested the answer was not to strengthen ties with the United States, but rather that “India’s relationship with [the Non-Aligned Movement] needs to be revitalized.”
Some Chinese scholars have adopted a similar line of argument. Dr. Wang Shida of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank with close ties to China’s Ministry of State Security, insists that India’s decision to sign defense agreements with the United States “obviously runs counter to India’s longstanding tradition of strategic autonomy.” He argues that Indian-U.S. defense cooperation “has gradually eroded the material and institutional basis of India’s strategic autonomy. It increased India’s unilateral vulnerability to the United States in the fields of defense and national security.”
Withering Under Scrutiny
Of course, all countries value autonomy in their decision-making, but the imperative has carried special resonance in contemporary India. Even for critics of non-alignment the word “alliance” is still spoken in hushed tones in New Delhi, the object of skepticism and derision.
It’s not so much that non-alignment purists reject alignment as a concept — India sought leadership roles in several developing world geopolitical “blocs” during the Cold War. Rather, they fear the consequences of aligning with a more powerful state, which they see not as an avenue for protection, but rather as a source of manipulation. And they view the United States as uniquely disposed to manipulating allies and prone to rapidly switching allegiances. While partnerships with most countries are unobjectionable, they believe that each step closer to the United States results in a corresponding loss of strategic autonomy.
This flawed but stubbornly enduring perception ignores America’s record of consistency in maintaining a network of formal treaty alliances across multiple continents for over 50 years. It conveniently overlooks the fact that U.S. allies are already quite autonomous, regularly disagreeing and diverging with Washington on myriad policies and sensitive geopolitical issues. And, perhaps most importantly, it repeatedly obfuscates the reality that the United States isn’t pursuing a treaty alliance with India. Instead, it’s looking for a closer strategic partnership.
The argument also fails to withstand analytical scrutiny. Few would dispute that there has been a dramatic expansion of Indian-U.S. ties over the past two decades. The logic of non-alignment dictates that this must have resulted in a suffocating contraction of India’s autonomy. Has it? Has the partnership with the United States compelled India to adopt policies at odds with its national interests? Has it eroded India’s strategic options? Has it forced Indian involvement in American military conflicts? Has it coerced India into subservience at the United Nations?
The short answer is no, it hasn’t. Countless ominous predictions have proved unfounded. While improving ties with the United States, India has maintained its freedom of action on core national security issues. In fact, improved bilateral relations — especially arms purchases — have improved India’s ability to secure its interests.
One could argue that U.S. sanctions policies toward Iran and Russia have indeed harmed India’s strategic autonomy. America, critics say, has effectively forced India to choose between U.S. sanctions and Russian arms or Iranian oil. However, this argument implies that India’s exposure to American sanctions is a product of its alignment with the United States. The reality is quite the opposite. Both sets of sanctions were global in nature, and would have applied whether India was a partner or an adversary. In fact, India’s proximity to the United States helped to diminish the impact of the sanctions, earning the country a six-month waiver from Iran oil sanctions and amendments to the sanctions legislation offering an easier path to an executive waiver.
Autonomy via America?
As a result, a growing number of Indian strategists, and increasingly the Modi-led government, are turning non-alignment’s logic on its head. They believe that India’s strategic autonomy is enhanced, not constrained, by a strategic partnership with the United States. They have been aided by a progressive weakening of the influence of anti-American constituencies in New Delhi.
As China has doubled down on its strategic partnership with Pakistan, Indian concerns about antagonizing Beijing via closer ties to the United States have diminished. With an increasingly youthful and pro-American electorate, domestic critics can no longer persuasively argue that there will be a high political price to pay for aligning with Washington. With Moscow forging an increasingly substantive partnership with Beijing, particularly post-2014, India has become less deferential toward Moscow as it regards its geopolitical partners.
India and the United States now routinely engage in cooperation that would have been unthinkable at the turn of the century. On several occasions Modi has referred to the United States as a “natural ally.” The two sides have signed several high-profile arms deals and military cooperation agreements, crafted joint vision statements on the Indo-Pacific, and launched a diverse series of increasingly advanced military exercises. The Indian and U.S. military now practice hunting submarines in the Indian Ocean while their warships refuel each other at sea. According to conversations with Indian officials, U.S. and Indian diplomats have privately coordinated their approaches to several regional crises in recent years, including in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
While the evolution of India’s views toward alignment with the United States is multi-causal, arguably no factor has been more consequential than the deterioration of Sino-Indian relations. “Years of [Chinese] behavior have worn down India’s cherished commitment to non-alignment — or ‘strategic autonomy,’ as we are supposed to call it in the post-Cold War era,” writes columnist Mihir Sharma. “Finding a China dove these days is as difficult in Delhi as in Washington, D.C.”
If any country is restricting Indian autonomy, a growing number of strategists say, it is China. It is fear of Chinese retribution that has prevented India from pursuing greater ties with Taiwan, conducting military exercises with like-minded partners, or permitting Tibetan exiles to exercise their freedom of speech. It is China that threatens freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, protects Pakistani-based terrorists from U.N. sanctions, and covets thousands of square miles of Indian territory. It is China’s political, economic, and military thrust into South Asia and the Indian Ocean that has New Delhi feeling increasingly encircled.
“When a country is facing serious threats, alignments can actually enhance strategic autonomy,” argues Rajesh Rajagopalan. He suggests that “for India, China’s hegemony over Asia would be a direct security threat that would severely constrain New Delhi’s strategic autonomy.” Harsh Pant contends that “when India engages in the so-called ‘Quad,’ it enhances its strategic autonomy vis-à-vis China.”
Ashley Tellis, a former U.S. government official and leading strategic analyst, bemoans the fact that the logic of non-alignment “fails to appreciate the central paradox of our times: Strategic autonomy is best achieved through a set of deep strategic partnerships among friends and allies.” Raja Mohan believes that the “Indian foreign policy debate would be less metaphysical if it stops obsessing about ‘non-alignment’ and ‘strategic autonomy’ and starts focusing on a pragmatic assessment of India’s interests and the best means to secure them.”
In some ways, the contemporary shift from non-alignment to strategic autonomy in India is simply a case of the rhetoric catching up to reality. A convergence of national interests and shared concerns about China have been bringing the United States and India steadily closer for twenty years, unmoored from the philosophical debates unfolding in New Delhi.
Nevertheless, the death of non-alignment was overdue — it is a concept born of, and tailored to, a different era. The last time India confronted a superpower rivalry it was a newly independent, developing country struggling to conduct the most ambitious democratic experiment of the 20th century. Fear of entanglement was not unreasonable then — India was weak and neither Cold War superpower presented themselves as a natural threat or natural partner.
Today, India is no longer a strategic middleweight. It is a nuclear-armed power and already possesses the world’s third-largest military budget and fifth-largest economy. By mid-century India may be China’s and America’s only geopolitical peer. More importantly, the rival great powers of the 21st century occupy much clearer positions on India’s strategic horizon: one its most daunting security challenge, the other its most promising new partnership.
But what does all this mean for U.S. policymakers? On the one hand, it means that India is now in the midst of a generational paradigm shift that is creating more space for a substantive strategic partnership with America if Washington is responsive to India’s sensitivities on autonomy and alignment. To its credit, the U.S. government seems to recognize this. “India has a strong and proud tradition of strategic autonomy, and we [the United States] respect that,” Deputy Secretary of State Steven Biegun declared in an address to an Indian forum in October 2020. “We do not seek to change India’s traditions. Rather we want to explore how to empower them and India’s ability to defend its own sovereignty and democracy.”
On the other hand, the current context also means that India will remain sensitive to the risks of entrapment, perceived dependencies, and formal alliances. Developing the strategic partnership will require more patience and flexibility than Washington is accustomed to displaying, but the geopolitical benefits will continue to outweigh the costs by a considerable margin.
From Washington, it can appear at times as if India is dragging its feet. Next to America’s decades-old treaty alliances with Japan or Australia, Indian-U.S. ties are sometimes portrayed as underachieving or failing to meet expectations. That assessment is understandable but fails to appreciate the historical context, the distance the two sides have already traveled, and how the partnership is viewed from the other side.
From India’s vantage point, the strategic partnership with the United States is already an anomaly, a new gold standard pushing the boundaries of alignment. It is already the most expansive strategic partnership India has forged since independence, in all but arms sales surpassing the heights of its relationship with the Soviet Union.
For all practical purposes India is already aligned — it has made its choice. It’s just that, as with everything else, New Delhi is pursuing alignment on its own terms.
Jeff M. Smith is a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the 21st Century. Twitter: @Cold_Peace_