Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s engagements with the leaders of major world powers are distinct, well measured, and symbol of India’s quest for an autonomous status of India in world affairs.
When foreign policy analysts speak of strategic autonomy, they use the term in such a way that India cannot have closer defense and security ties with any power without losing its autonomy. Opponents of India’s strategic partnership with the United States have often argued that India would lose its strategic autonomy by going too close to the United States.
When India seeks to strike strategic bonds with Russia, France, Britain, Germany, or Japan, they usually remain silent about “strategic autonomy.” And that means the real worry in the strategic community in India lies with what the US would do to India if the country forges a very close strategic partnership with that country.
US President Donald Trump has made the task easy for India by making US relations with India purely transactional. There has never been any bonhomie between India and the US since the inception of the Trump Administration. Not even at the symbolic level.
By clamping high tariff on Indian exports of aluminium and steel products, by repeatedly describing India as the tariff king, by describing India’s retaliatory tariff as “unacceptable”, by withdrawing GSP to Indian products in US market, by adopting unfriendly policy on H1B visas and immigration issues, by asking India not to buy oil from Venezuela and Iran, by opposing Indian purchase of Russian weapons and military equipment, the Trump Administration has sought to redefine the contours of Indo-US strategic partnership.
There are apprehensions that the structure of Indo-US strategic partnership painstakingly built up by his predecessors—both Democratic and Republican Presidents, would completely transform if there is a second Trump Administration after 2020 election in the US.
In a way, the Trump Administration has pushed India incrementally closer towards Russia and China. In any case, India has never shown any interest in “containment” strategies and successive administrations in New Delhi had delimited the boundary of Indo-US strategic partnership centered around even notional containment. Trump has made it easy for India to sharpen its own transactional strategies by its unfriendly approaches towards India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s diplomacy with the major world leaders in Osaka at the time of G20 meeting of Heads of States/Governments of the member countries was par excellence. He held a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings with world leaders. More than the bilateral diplomacy, the trilateral ones were both symbolic and substantive. The two trilateral meetings of leaders that caught the attention of the international community were Russia-China-India (RCI) and Japan-America-India (JAI). Common to both the trilateral meetings was India. If this does not signify Indian autonomous foreign policy, then what else does!
There is no Japan-Russia-China trilateral; there is no US-Russia-China trilateral and nor was there USA-Japan-China trilateral. If analyzed carefully, in the changing circumstances of the global order, India is the only major power that can manage positive equations with Russia and China on the one hand and USA and Japan on the other.
Significantly, Russo-Chinese strategic alliance today aims at managing unilateralism of the United States. China has emerged as an economic superpower, and Russia continues to be a military superpower. Although the United States remains the singular comprehensive superpower, the combined strength of Russia and China is a force to be reckoned with. The US and Japan too are bilateral alliance partners. This alliance is a very durable bilateral alliance and remains the cornerstone of US strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. Both Japan and the United States have severe issues with Russia and China that remain pending for resolution.
While the United States and China have entered into a critical phase of “cold confrontation,” Japan solidly stands behind the United States. As the United States and Russia fiercely compete for influence in Eurasia, India remains non-committal to the US or Russia. Yet, the Japan-America-India (JAI) trilateral has far-reaching significance for the maintenance of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Russia-China-India triangle, on the other hand, has extensive relevance towards the goal of every nation in the world minus the United States to shape a multilateral global order where unilateralism of any kind would be unacceptable.
This in a way is the effort of the Modi Government to evolve a “smart non-alignment” where India would not remain unwelcomed to rival groupism, and at the same time, India would facilitate the prevention of groupism in international relations. India’s difficulties with China are not over yet, despite the tremendous expansion of positive Sino-Indian relations. India’s cooperative networks with Japan are work in progress given the lackluster growth in Indo-Japanese relations in the past.
Nonetheless, India has managed to be part of two trilateral groups of major powers. India thus plays a very critical role in world affairs today that has gone unnoticed among the IR scholars in many countries, including India. Excessive focus on China, Pakistan, USA, terrorism, etc. has clouded the thoughts to an extent Prime Minister Modi’s deft diplomacy has not been seriously examined.
There are many major powers in the world today, but India stands out in its role in promoting cooperative ties with powers that are often at loggerheads with one another.