When Russia attacked Ukraine on 24 February 2022 having surrounded it from three sides, the majority of the world anticipated that Ukraine will collapse in no time given the perceived superiority of Russians. With nine months into the war, multiple myths have been broken and there is a clear indication of the New World order emerging. Countries, including India, are re-strategizing their warfighting and equipping philosophies based on the lessons learned from this war, which has also showcased the advent of new technologies.
While all this has been happening, India faced new challenges. On one hand, it had Russia, a trusted friend, and a country that has supplied the bulk equipment for the Indian defense forces, including the current inventory, on the other hand, it had the USA which partnered with India in the QUAD, as well as IPEF to checkmate Chinese expansionist agenda. This assumes importance as China is the primary and most critical adversary of India. India has attempted to maintain a balance between both of these superpowers. There are many contradictions in the situation prevailing now. The contradiction includes India’s most trusted friend Russia, aligning with India’s most critical adversary, China. The contradiction also includes the USA realigning with Pakistan, one of the arc rivals of India since independence. The contradictions also provide new opportunities and challenges for India. On one hand, India is buying cheap Russian oil, despite sanctions by the USA and the West and on the other hand, India is telling Putin to abandon war and embrace diplomacy.
India embraced NAM post-independence. When NAM came into being with the purpose of principle-based evolution of relationships amongst the comity of the nations, India wholeheartedly supported and became a leading nation to champion this cause. India calibrated its response based on evolving situations without being part of any security alliances. The state of economic development, non-availability of enhanced security for its national interests, and lack of indigenous capability had been prohibiting India to achieve strategic autonomy and optimization of its statecraft while dealing with the Geo- politics of the world.
It is important to understand the concept of strategic autonomy in the national conduct paradigm. Strategic autonomy stands for a situation, wherein a nation-state, is not only free to take independent decisions in its national interest but is able to sustain the outcome of these decisions even despite adversarial actions of the other countries of the world, whether individually or collectively. There are multiple challenges to achieving strategic autonomy, especially in an interconnected world more so for emerging nations, India, being one of them. India has been getting up to achieve a reasonable degree of strategic autonomy as has been displayed by it during its interplays, with Russia, USA, China, as well as other countries of the world. There are certain stages or capabilities or capacities, which need to be achieved and created to achieve strategic autonomy. These are as given below:
A number of countries in the world have become recognized as nuclear power/ possess nuclear bombs without formal recognition. Both our adversaries, China and Pakistan are nuclear powers. India is also a nuclear power besides possessing the capability of having TRIADS for the launch of nuclear arsenals. It, therefore, clears the first parameter of achieving strategic autonomy. It has to enhance its arsenal by going past Pakistan and more close to China. Not only does the production of adequate No of nuclear weapons but the delivery systems have to be long-range and capable to deliver these arsenals anywhere in the world, even if it adds to the deterrence value and a force ‘in being’.
India has two major adversaries on the borders and not only individually, these pose a collusive threat to our country and its security. The threat is continuing on a regular basis, wherein Pakistan keeps LOC active most of the time, besides continuously waging a proxy war in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. China has also been nibbling our areas at multiple locations all along the LAC and has made large incursions across the LAC in Eastern Ladakh, which still stands unresolved to date. Force disparity with China also continues despite our efforts to modernize. This is one parameter where India still needs to work more to develop structures in terms of the organization, integration of all the services as well as border guarding troops, and adding more potency including technological advancements to our defence forces.
The country has to make major strides in indigenous manufacturing in all domains, including defense manufacturing for achieving strategic autonomy. The country has to achieve a status wherein more than 90% of equipment in the defense forces is indigenous besides the country being able to meet its manufacturing needs indigenously in all other fields as well. ‘Make In India’ and ‘Aatmanirbhar Bharat’ are the right steps in this direction, but the country has to work in the mission mode to ensure it achieves self-reliance in the manufacturing sector, especially in the defense equipment. The majority of our defence equipment are of Russian origin and may face severe challenges if Russia is unable to wind up its war with Ukraine at an early date. India must declare ‘Maintain In India’ and must give a new operational focus to MRO in India to ensure that mission-reliable defense equipment is available to the defence forces for prosecuting the war. Once this capability is achieved, strategic autonomy on this count will be a given outcome.
It is one of the most important facets to achieve strategic autonomy. Only economically strong nations are able to take independent decisions. India has recently reached the fifth position in the world and is due to replace Germany and Japan, to claim the third spot in the list of biggest economies by 2027. This, notwithstanding, there has to be a reasonable balance in the forex reserves which has slipped down somewhat in the recent past to keep the strength of the Rupee reasonably good. The country currently has the capacity of close to nine months of import bills but will need to have at least 12 months of duration capacity as a benchmark figure to factor all disruptions and still stand tall. The inflation must be maintained below 5% and the country should be able to take its entire population out of the poverty line. India does pretty well on this factor of the strategic economy but needs to do much more. India must have a favorable balance of payment situation with all the countries in the world, more so with Chinato ensure that our strategic economy is not compromised.
Grain Production (self-sufficiency)
Russia has not been affected adversely much, despite being more than eight months into the war. This has happened due to grain sufficiency in the country. India has also achieved self-sufficiency in the majority of the grains in the country and was exporting to numerous countries facing shortages due to the Russia-Ukraine war. It had to impose free export restrictions, as its own stocks started depleting. In addition to the conflict, weather disruptions also cause huge problems for the farmers. While India has done well and cleared this test of strategic autonomy, it needs to create more safe and secure storage conditions aligned to the national need as well as for meeting the export requirements. India must maintain a minimum buffer stock of 18 months to address all kinds of disruptions.
India has been dependent on imports substantially to meet its energy needs. This is an area where the country has to work hard to make it self-sufficient to meet its current and expanding energy needs. In addition to solar, wind, Hydro, and coal-based power, India has to focus on nuclear energy on a bigger scale. This is the only sustainable model and can free India from the import hostage situation. Full strategic autonomy will remain a dream unless full self-reliance in energy is achieved. This is another area due to which Russia is sustaining war.
While it will be practically impossible to get full capability in all the required domains by itself but the nation can participate in favorable alliances carefully. To exercise our strategic autonomy and take our decisions in the national interest alone, alliances can play a very important role to bridge the gap in those areas where full capacities don’t exist. India is doing well on this count coming to the aid of every other country in the world due to its soft power, vaccine diplomacy, and many other facets including unprecedented capacity development in space capabilities where it is placing satellites of multiple other countries in the desired configuration in the space for the longer good of the nation.
It has been after a long time since India has started coming out of its shell, and has been exercising its strategic autonomy to a reasonable degree. To achieve a better enabling environment, it has to work hard in the areas, described above in the article. Besides freeing itself from the dollar hegemony, it has to leverage its own currency for trade purposes, besides leveraging the full convertibility of the rupee and digital rupee at an early time frame.
It is also important for India to divorce NAM and be out of it. It is essential even without the need to join any specific block or security alliance. It is time for India to also redefine its nuclear doctrine and first-use policy. There are essential ingredients for India, searching bulk parameters for strategic autonomy in the current geopolitics.
About Author: Maj Gen Ashok Kumar, VSM (Retd) is a Kargil war veteran and defence analyst. He is visiting fellow of CLAWS and specializes in neighboring countries with a special focus on China. The views in the article are solely the author’s.
(He can be contacted at email@example.com)
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