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Unpacking Multi-polarity: India’s Strategic Autonomy in an uncertain world

  • Geopolitics
  • 1 Years ago
  • 15 min read
Unpacking Multi-polarity India’s Strategic Autonomy in an uncertain world

© NatStrat

D.B. Venkatesh Varma
D.B. Venkatesh Varma - Former Ambassador to Russia and Conference on Disarmament

While there is general agreement that the current global situation is more multipolar than unipolar, different views persist as to the true meaning and implications of a multipolar world. Where India stands on this issue will have relevance for its foreign policy and its place in the world this century.

The United States unipolar moment came quickly but ebbed over time. The end of the Cold war saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and its associated structures - the Warsaw Pact as a military alliance and socialism as state ideology. The primacy of the United States as the pre-eminent world power and its associated structures saw NATO’s expansion as a military alliance and neo-liberalism as the dominant ideology of US-led globalization.

 "That the United States has chosen to push Russia, a peer nuclear power, to a corner shows that mutual deterrence has eroded substantially."

US primacy eroded over time – militarily in terms of its inability to prevail in conflicts such as Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The 2008 financial crisis exposed the limits of American capitalism, despite a two-decade dominance of its technology sector. The rise of China crept up on the world leaving the US scrambling to face it as a peer challenger and a pacing power. The Russia-Ukraine war may be seen as the dying embers of US unipolarity and the contested birth of multipolarity.

Ukraine conflict

The Russia-Ukraine war is unlike other wars this century. The US wars were with non-peers, where its superiority in firepower determined how wars started and ended - usually with the US prevailing militarily but failing to grasp the political fruits of victory. Russia is fighting with Ukrainian battalions which were trained to NATO levels since 2016. Over the past year, the Russia-Ukraine war has acquired the characteristics of a proxy war between Russia and NATO and more specifically with the United States, especially in the field of battlefield Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR). Much of the advanced weaponry being provided by the US to Ukraine can be used only if the US assisted with target acquisition and cueing information. This is a US-led proxy war against Russia.

The prolonged nature of the Russia-Ukraine war is due to the ferocity of a bitter Civil War, where two separate but intertwined peoples are locked into conflict - the ‘narcissism of minor differences’ between Russians and Ukrainians putrefying into deep hatred during the last decade. The conflict has the territoriality of a geopolitical conflict – with Russia pushing back against NATO expansion and the use of Ukraine as a dagger against Russia in the Black Sea area. It also has the incendiary explosiveness arising from massive external intervention in terms of arms supplies from the US and other NATO countries to stiffen Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression.

"The grave deterioration of Russia - US relations over the past decade has been largely due to US miscalculation of the extent of Russian weakness and a deeply ideological decision-making calculus in Washington which hindered any modus-vivendi with Russia."

Limits of US Power

Despite massive sanctions imposed by the US and its allies, Russian ability to sustain a prolonged war has laid bare the limits of US power. In turn, it has catalysed alternative arrangements even among countries not directly involved in the conflict. While the blatant weaponization of global interdependence did not substantively degrade Russian ability to conduct war, it advertised to the world the downsides of overdependence on the petrodollar, risks of exclusive holding of US dollar reserves, western banking channels, airline, shipping, and insurance links. The political economy of Europe which was based on cheap American security, cheap Russian gas and cheap Chinese manufacturing has been turned upside down largely under US pressure, thus showing that while there are multipolar tendencies elsewhere, in Europe US unipolar influence has returned with a vengeance. Further NATO expansion to include Sweden and Finland may take place after a suitable price has been paid to accommodate Turkey’s interests. Expanded NATO is also an extended NATO, which may not necessarily translate into an effective NATO. It may be a while for stable deterrence to be re-established, of the nature that European security took for granted over the past three decades.

Overextended US chasing weakened Russia

That Russia may eventually gain the upper hand in the war with Ukraine is a distinct possibility. However, this would call into question the credibility of US leadership, which may provoke the US to further double down on Russia with respect to its troubled peripheries - from the Arctic, the Baltics, the Black Sea, the Caucuses, the Caspian, and Central Asian regions. For the foreseeable future, Russia will be a distracted power and may take a decade or more to recoup its economic strength. Unless there is a rethink in Washington, which is unlikely, the expected US response would be to chase Russia down this rabbit hole of keeping its peripheries unstable and on fire through interventions of various kinds - economic and technological isolation, energy and commodity bans and military aid to countries to wean them away from Russia. Perceived Russian weakness will be too attractive for the US to choose an alternative path but this pursuit risks overextending the US into strategic exhaustion.

The consequences of this policy will be an overextended US chasing a weakened Russia until such time this conflict is either addressed through sensible diplomacy based on mutual accommodation or settled using force. The grave deterioration of Russia - US relations over the past decade has been largely due to US miscalculation of the extent of Russian weakness and a deeply ideological decision-making calculus in Washington which hindered any modus-vivendi with Russia. Unipolarity and hubris have not been a good mix for Washington, laying bare its incompetence in handling key issues of grand strategy.  Domestic divisions and polarization now make it difficult, if not impossible for the US to do a course correction. The longer Russian defiance stands, the longer will be the shadow of US inability to shape global trends.

 "The ‘Americanization of India’s China policy’ often overlooks key divergences between India and US, including the optimal balance between India’s interests as a continental and maritime power."

Advantage China

The prolonged Russia-Ukraine war has thus thrown up a weakened Russia and an overextended US locked in geopolitical conflict on a fast-crumbling common ground last agreed upon in 1945. The country that is best positioned to take advantage of this triangular equation is of course China, which can pick and choose on playing the other two powers. It is advantage China, as it has leverage with the US and Russia more than either of them has with China, either individually or jointly. China is rest assured that the latter can be ruled out for the foreseeable future - by the US inability to grasp the gravity of its geostrategic conundrum and the severe material limitations of Russia. Their mythical ‘no limits’ partnership notwithstanding – only countries steeped in communist methods of propaganda typically exaggerate their common interests when facts speak otherwise, China has not assisted Russia in any substantive way in its war with Ukraine. This is due to the fundamental contradiction in Russian and Chinese interests. The more the US is compelled to commit resources for the defence of NATO against Russian aggression in Europe, the more it is a boon for China and a burden for Russia. In addition, China is well poised to harvest geopolitical space that Russia may be compelled to vacate in Central Asia. Russia-China partnership is two-sided in context and one-sided in content.

Dual containment fallacy

With record high debt, the US does not have the resources nor the policy bandwidth to conduct dual containment simultaneously of the two largest continental powers on the Eurasian continent. The resources committed to European defence – now expanding exponentially, will be at the expense of its needs in the Indo-Pacific. For China, this is the primary reference point for how it assesses multipolarity amongst the big powers. That said, Russia and China, as two continental powers, have a common interest in keeping at bay the world’s foremost maritime power which places a lower premium on continental stability than they do. To count on an embattled NATO stuck with Russian aggression in Europe to spare resources against China in the Indo-Pacific is to tempt fate with fantasy.  Russian advances in Africa at the expense of French interests is also significant.

Multi-dimensional multipolarity

Multipolarity is thus more than merely a dilution of US unipolarity. It is multidimensional, as the diffusion of power is not uniform or unidirectional, and leads to reordering of older hierarchies.  The US is still the foremost maritime power and has a huge lead in global technological innovation. But it has been confined to the territorial margins of the Eurasian Continent with declining influence as a resident Continental power. Economic power dispersal has accrued to China but also more broadly to the Indo-pacific region, where the US has steadily lost market access and influence as compared to its position in Europe. The US is now the foremost fossil energy producer and exporter but has been unable to maintain its primacy amongst the Arab states of the Gulf. The growing influence of Brazil, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and others shows that in addition to the more familiar examples of multipolarity in which India figures prominently (as seen in BRICS, SCO, RIC or even the G20), there is a dispersed multipolarity at play whose real impact cannot be ignored. The line up of new aspirants for BRICS or SCO membership is another attribute of the proliferation of groupings which seek to move past US primacy.

India and multipolarity

India is no stranger to multipolarity. The first green shoots were in the NAM during the Cold War period as no country or group of countries was able to dominate the NAM for long. The current generation of Indian foreign policy thinkers and practitioners are children of the era of globalization with a strong belief in US primacy as the main reference point for India’s external engagement. Even our pursuit of multipolarity through various means -RIC, BRICS, SCO etc was seen as useful to the extent of creating additional leverage with the United States. This has yielded mixed results.

While the US has eased many of the barriers imposed by it on India’s growth as an independent power during the Cold War, the vast potential of what the US can do materially to support India’s rise is still largely untapped. This is despite the US occupying a position of pre-eminence in India’s strategic thinking. The bilateral strategic partnership with the US is seen by many as the single most important of India’s external relations. The same view is accorded to other foreign policy formats that are closely linked to US interests – Indo-Pacific, Quad, I2U2 etc. There has been a strong tendency in some sections of our strategic community to define the China threat through the US prism. This ‘Americanization of India’s China policy’ often overlooks key divergences between India and US, including the optimal balance between India’s interests as a continental and maritime power. US disregard of India’s interests during its withdrawal from Afghanistan is a case in point; but mention may also be made of US restrictions on India using the INSTC through Iran which has exacerbated India’s connectivity challenges on the continental dimension. Maritime connectivity looms far larger in India’s strategic imagination rather than the more chronic problem of land connectivity, which leads to the question - can India ever be a secure, great power if it is isolated from its continental hinterland in Eurasia, perched precariously on its margins gasping for distant partners across the seas?

US shadow

India was quick to embrace in the past key US concepts in foreign policy only to realize that these do not always translate into promoting Indian interests consistent with its needs and capabilities. This gap has resulted in flipflops in Indian foreign policy on concepts such as Global Commons, whether these apply to maritime, cyber and space or only to the former two, whether freedom of navigation is derived from UNCLOS or from customary International Law, the meaning of Rules-based International Order and its relation with International law and the latest – the correlation between resilient supply chains and economic efficiency associated with classical notions of globalization and free trade. There is ambivalence in India’s thinking on rule or norm building in cyberspace and global e-commerce, data sovereignty and residency -whether these should be multi-stakeholder-led, or addressed multilaterally through forums such as the WTO or the ITU. Though in practise India has often stopped short of a complete endorsement of US positions, how its foreign policy choices would impact its relations with the US is a constant preoccupation in Indian thinking and a key filter for the pursuit of options provided by multi-polarity.

Road of self-doubt

While India’s preoccupation with big-power sensitivities is understandable, in the past two decades, India’s foreign policy has travelled a road of self-doubt on how to deal with the developing world. Until recently, there was a strong desire to stay away from the NAM summits- India stopped attending at the PM’s level, or to take leadership of Global South issues at UN forums. This was before India hosted in January this year, a voice of the Global South online Summit as part of preparations for the G20 Summit in September this year. Even then India’s ambitions are still evolving,  as to whether this is an act of belonging or leverage – whether India’s interests lie in being the leader of the South in Northern groups or an interlocutor for the North in Southern Councils. This issue will come to ahead in the G20 Summit.

"Strategic autonomy is a policy concept that cannot be separated from state capacities or the purposes of power in the larger geopolitical context."

There were several somersaults on non-alignment, non-alignment 2.0, multi-alignment or even unalignment. With the general policy direction inclined not to deepen existing defence dependency with Russia, and the exclusion of any alignment with an increasingly hostile China, this zig-zag in policy, which in practical application meant avoiding a foreign policy pathway that would restrict space for closer relations with the US. It was felt that the only open pathway was with the US or with US-friendly derivates - EU, Quad, I2U2 and closer ties with countries which are already allies of the United States, be it in the Indo-Pacific, South East Asia, Gulf, Eastern Europe, Africa, or Latin America.

These trends are now being put to the reality test not only as to how the world situation has evolved - where US primacy is eroding or grasping the US hand is proving to be less rewarding than previously expected. India’s domestic needs and requirements, where Make-in-India or Atmanirbhar programmes have been ascendant and often clash with US objectives of open markets and free trade. Though strategic autonomy has come back into circulation, after being side-lined for almost a decade, its definition is still being contoured to keep it safe for an open-ended expansion of India’s relations with the US. Our policy on Quad is premised on the deterrence utility of strategic ambiguity- what is known creates uncertainty as to what is not. Whether it works in practise, time will tell.

Strategic Autonomy

Strategic autonomy is a policy concept that cannot be separated from state capacities or the purposes of power in the larger geopolitical context. At a fundamental level, it means India’s capacity and will for independent thought and action, on issues of war and peace. The post-1947  global order was mostly inimical to India’s interests - on issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity of our western and northern borders; the economic order under the WB and IMF (over 120 billion dollars in development aid was given to India but constant pressure was exerted to change its  pattern of economic development); the nuclear order tried to strangulate India’s nuclear programme for three decades until the nuclear deal of 2008 and India benefited from liberalized trade and services for less than 15 years before the tide turned during the 2008 financial crisis. Pakistan and China, together and separately benefited from the geopolitical and geoeconomic largess of the US more than India during the Cold war period. Soviet /Russian support for India, on the other hand, surpassed that provided by the US during the same period.

India has acquired some significant attributes of national power over the past seven decades - food security, rail and road connectivity, huge science and technology base including largely indigenous nuclear and space programmes, a defence production base, especially in missiles and other high technologies and new digital infrastructure. But huge gaps remain – India is still dependent on energy imports, does not have a civil maritime or air fleet of its own, huge exodus of its talented youth in the STEM sectors, uncertain capital flows, huge defence imports, critical imports of fertilizers, API and rare earths and low index of R&D, to name a few. On norm and rule-building, India is still marginal though an increasingly influential actor. The 2023 G20 summit will be a test of India’s norm-building reach at the global level.

Importance of the US

The United States will be a critical partner for India’s growth in the coming decade, including for access to capital, markets, technology, energy, and defence. But each of these factors will play out differently for India when viewed through the changing position of the US in an emerging multipolar world. With respect to capital and markets, the US remains an open and abundant source. But with respect to technology, especially high-tech such as semiconductors, information technology, advanced materials etc the US has tightened controls and sees external engagement primarily through its national security prism with the twin objectives of denial to Russia and managed access to China, given that the latter’s market is still a big factor for the US. Nothing is more important for India than securing long-term preferential technological support from the US for its growth, and nothing else will be as challenging.

As the world’s largest energy exporter in terms of fossil fuels and an important source of green finance and technologies, the US will be a major energy partner for India. In the name of decarbonization, India’s growth will be burdened with the geopolitical pressures of fossil-fuel powers including the US and Russia. The US will thus be a key player in the weaponization of the climate change transition. With the cut-off in European markets, excess Russian energy can either go east to China or come south to India. It would be in our interest to conclude long-term preferential supplies to boost our growth, through an energy alliance with Russia. Multi-polarity for India would mean multiple options for its sustained growth and energy security.

"The US should endorse India’s strategic autonomy as an objective that is good for US long-term interests."

In terms of defence cooperation and arms supplies, the US would seek to locate them in the context of its geopolitical conflict with Russia – to wean India away from its defence partnership and use China as a reason to build India into a credible military power consistent with US overall global interests. While the Indian transition away from Russian dependency is inevitable, the key question would be its time frame - some Russian-origin weapon systems will be in the Indian inventory until 2070. It would be an unfriendly act if the US were to force this transition against our interests through the enforcement of CAATSA. India should be left free to handle its inventory management according to its doctrinal needs, Make-in-India priorities, technology transfer and budget considerations. The US is a welcome partner in the defence sector but without pressure on India to jettison its relations with Russia. Multipolarity in the Indian defence inventory should move towards greater indigenization, not swap one foreign dependency with another.

Clarity of thought and firmness of purpose

The primary foreign policy challenge is for India to derive the maximum benefits of its comprehensive partnership with the US for India’s interests, where they match, while minimizing the costs of a closer alignment with the US on issues regarding which we have parallel or conflicting interests, including on Pakistan and China. This will require developing and using leverage that the multipolar world has to offer to further India’s interests through the exercise of strategic autonomy. Getting the US relationship right in a fast-changing world is vitally important as it is vastly complicated. To help achieve this objective, there is a need for a new generation of American experts in India, more attuned to the complexities of the multipolar world rather than those who cut their teeth in the glitter of American power three decades ago.

For half a century, the US resisted accepting the merits of India’s independent nuclear deterrent, until geopolitical developments induced a fundamental change in US thinking. Likewise, the US should endorse India’s strategic autonomy as an objective that is good for US long-term interests. A strong and independent India should be seen by the US as the best guarantee of its global interests instead of an India that is boxed-in as a military alliance partner of which the US has more than 50 across the globe. For this to happen, it is for India to demonstrate with clarity of thought and firmness of purpose, its commitment to strategic autonomy in its global engagement as the true twin of Atmanirbhar policy in the domestic domain. If we want the world to take our strategic autonomy seriously, we should first show wholeheartedly a national commitment to it ourselves.

(Exclusive to NatStrat)


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