The Ideas of "Autonomy" and "Self-Reliance" in Contemporary India's Foreign Strategy
-- "Autonomy" toward the United States and "Self-Reliance" from China --

Kazutoshi TAMARI
Associate Professor, Chukyo University


India is facing a grave national security crisis. As of May 2021, India is amid the second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, which has caused a devastating medical care breakdown across the country. In June 2020, the Indian military suffered many casualties in a border skirmish with Chinese troops. As a result, Indian public opinion became increasingly anti-Chinese, and a widespread boycott of Chinese products ensued. These grave national security incidents will have a substantial impact on India's perceptions of security and relevant policies.

While there is a need to observe the changes brought about by these events, this paper is intended to focus on the diachronic aspects of India's foreign strategy. To first state my conclusion, this paper argues that the ideas of "autonomy" and "self-reliance" are prevalent across various administrations in India's mainstream national security and foreign strategy.

The chief documents for analysis are the "Non-Alignment 2.0," a document that drew attention for describing the government's views on national security during the Manmohan Singh administration (2004-14), and a new economic policy "AtmaNirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India)" adopted by the Narendra Modi administration (in office since 2014) in May 2020 amid the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak. Focusing on the trends envisaged by these two documents, I will examine, among other things, statements made by Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who directs the foreign strategy of the current Indian government, to clarify the Indian government's thinking on "autonomy" and "self-reliance." The implications of these ideas for India's strategy toward the United States and China will also be discussed.

1. Threat Perception and Security Cooperation in India

Before discussing the "autonomy" and "self-reliance," let us review the big picture: the threat perception and national security policy in India.

For a long time since the Partition in 1947, the most important threat for India has been Pakistan. But Pakistan alone has already receded to the background in India's current threat perception. Pakistan's conventional forces are not conceived as a serious threat on their own, but they can be seen as a threat to India's national security in possible escalation to nuclear warfare, asymmetric warfare such as through terrorist attacks, and in conjunction with the Chinese military forces.

Instead of Pakistan, China is perceived as the most important and almost the only external threat to India. India and China had cooperated in the international political arena in their early years, but they have not been able to resolve the border issues since the war in 1962, and the issues have resurfaced since around 2005, when Beijing stepped up its claims on Arunachal Pradesh. It can be said that China or China-with-Pakistan is commonly perceived as the most important threat in India.

During the Cold War, especially after the 1970s, India relied on the Soviet Union both diplomatically and for weapons procurement. Even after the end of the Cold War, India's close relationship with Russia continues, with Russia still accounting for 55% of India's arms imports in 2014-19, followed by the US at 14% and Israel at 12%. 1 India is currently working on the introduction of the Russian-made S400 surface-to-air missile, while opposed by the United States.

Its security cooperation with the United States has expanded rapidly since the beginning of the 21st century. Previously, in the 1990s, the two countries were antagonistic over India's nuclear development, but they overcame their former rivalry and rapidly deepened their security cooperation by agreeing on the "Next Steps in Strategic Partnership" in 2004 and signing a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement in 2008. Even as India hastens to domesticize its weapons production by announcing an import ban on certain items in August 2020, imports of weapons from the U.S. in 2020 are reported to have surged. 2 Closer security cooperation with U.S. allies Japan and Australia is now underway, but will not be dealt with in this paper.

The overarching issue in India's national security has been the extent to which it should cooperate with the United States, the only country capable of countering China, or China-with-Pakistan, in order to counter those threats. It is in this context that the concept of "strategic autonomy" and "self-reliance" came into focus in this paper.

2. "Strategic Autonomy" in "Non-Alignment 2.0"

As of May 2021, India has failed to formulate a document that articulates its national security strategy. Apart from whether or not the current Indian government has a security strategy per se, there is no strategic document specifying, at home and internationally, India's comprehensive national security strategy, corresponding to the US National Security Strategy. The need for such a strategic document is often a topic of discussion in India, and military and government officials sometimes refer to it. 3

Consequently, in the study of India's foreign policy, attempts are made to use materials other than official policy documents to understand the Indian government's thinking. In 2012, a policy document released by eight non-government experts, including a former foreign secretary, drew attention as suggestive of the thinking of the then Manmohan Singh government. The document is "Nonalignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty First Century," which was prepared between October 2010 and January 2012 and released in February 2012. 4 Given that the then National Security Advisor and Deputy National Security Advisor participated in some rounds of the working group meeting to prepare the document, it was considered a "semi-official" foreign policy document 5 and has often been referred to by Japanese researchers on Indian foreign policy. 6

Although often misunderstood, "Non-Alignment 2.0" does not call for a return to the Cold War-era "non-alignment" that advocated: (1) non-alignment with either the United States or the Soviet Union and (2) cooperation with non-aligned countries. 7 By the 1990s, when the Cold War structure disappeared, (1) had already lost its significance and faded out from discourses on India's foreign policy. "Non-Alignment 2.0" was an attempt to redefine India's foreign strategy by using the term "non-alignment" that was about to become a dead word.

If (1) of the Cold War-era "non-alignment" were applied, as it was, to the current situation, it would mean to not align with either the United States or China. However, this is not the position that "Non-Alignment 2.0" takes. "Non-Alignment 2.0" views China as a "significant foreign policy and security challenge for India" and advocates checking China's behavior through alignment with other countries such as the United States (Paragraph 29 and 34, "Non-Alignment 2.0"). 8 Meanwhile, it argues that India should work with the United States to confront China's challenge, but that it should not elevate its alignment with the United States up to the level of an alliance (Paragraphs 131 and 133, "Non-Alignment 2.0"). The reason for this argument is that forming an alliance with the United States would undermine India's "strategic autonomy."

This "strategic autonomy" is the core objective of India's foreign strategy in "Non-Alignment 2.0," and it is also the concept pronounced in the foreign policy of the Manmohan Singh administration. 9 "Non-Alignment 2.0" states in its preface that "Strategic autonomy has been the defining value and continuous goal of India's international policy" (Preface to "Non-Alignment 2.0"), and argues that "to give India maximum options in its relations with the outside world --- that is, to enhance India's strategic space and capacity for independent agency" (Paragraph 9, "Non-Alignment 2.0") is in India's national interest.

As explained above, "Non-Alignment 2.0" does not state that India will take sides with neither the United States nor China, but rather states that based on the premise that India should confront China in alignment with the United States, the India-US alignment should, nonetheless, not develop into an alliance to maintain India's strategic autonomy. India's foreign policy during the Manmohan Singh administration promoted partnership with the United States. In particular, we should not forget that the US-India Nuclear Cooperation Agreement concluded in 2008 was a significant development in the bilateral relationship.

It is already a consensus in the current Indian strategic community to consider China a threat and the United States a partner. For example, according to a survey targeting researchers of India's strategy conducted in 2018, when asked "What country is the most important partner for India on global issues?" 75% of respondents answered that it is the United States. 10 To the question of what India should do in the event of greater US-China competition, 54% of respondents answered it should "remain equidistant," 43% "collaborate more with U.S.", and only 2% "collaborate more with China". 11

3. "Non-alignment" and the Modi Administration

There is much mention in the debate over India's foreign policy that India has shifted from a "non-alignment" policy under the Manmohan Singh administration to a more cooperative policy toward the United States under the Modi administration. It is true that under the Modi administration, India strengthened its alignment with the United States and its engagement with the Quad. However, the idea of "strategic autonomy" appears in discourses on the Modi administration's foreign policy.

Here, I want to focus on the discourse of Foreign Minister Jaishankar, who, after serving as Foreign Secretary from January 2015 to January 2018, has been leading the Modi government's foreign policy as Minister of External Affairs since May 2020. Jaishankar frequently appears in the media and is known for his directness.

In July 2020, in the context of a question about non-alignment, Jaishankar stated as follows: "Non-alignment was a term of a particular era and geopolitical landscape. One aspect was independence, which remains a factor of continuity for us." 12

Jaishankar often makes similar statements, which confirm his views that "non-alignment" is a thing of the past but that the Indian credo of independence, an aspect of "non-alignment," remains intact. He also said, "... we were never part of an alliance system and we will never be." 13

This idea of emphasizing Indian autonomy or self-reliance and not allying with the United States, even if the country has to confront China in alignment with the United States, is found in "Non-Alignment 2.0." Jaishankar has repeated it; in this sense, the continuity of thinking is evident from "Non-Alignment 2.0" through the statements of Jaishankar.

Jaishankar's book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, published in September 2020, helps us to understand his concept of Indian foreign strategy. 14 In the book, he argues that India can improve its position by playing a proactive role as a balancer to develop multilateral partnerships, rather than working under either the United States or China. 15 In the concluding section discussing the post-Corona world, the book stressed the importance of "strategic autonomy" and "self-reliance" in the economic field. 16

The Modi administration has not abandoned the second principle of the Cold War-era "non-alignment," namely, cooperation with non-aligned countries. Since Modi did not participate in the 17th (September 2016, Venezuela) and the 18th (October 2019, Azerbaijan) triennial Summits of the Non-Aligned Movement, many people believed that India tried to distance itself from the movement because the 17th Summit is the first one held after the inauguration of the Modi administration. However, Modi attended the latest Summit held online in May 2020 and gave a speech reaffirming the importance of the Non-Aligned Movement, which met with some disappointment from right-wing commentators. 17 His speech paraphrased the Non-Aligned Movement with the "Global South," which indicates that Modi does not hold fast to the Non-Aligned Movement but regards it as a useful framework of partnership for developing countries.

4. A New Economic Policy "Self-Reliant India"

In May 2020, during the first wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, Modi announced his new economic policy paradigm called "AtmaNirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India)." 18 It is a large-scale economy package worth about 20 trillion yen, inclusive of supplements in October and November of the same year, aiming at making the Indian economy "self-reliant," besides India's restoration from the COVID-19 crisis. Since then, the phrase "self-reliant India" has been used in contexts other than economic policy and has become a new banner hoisted by the Modi administration.

The "Self-Reliant India" policy aims principally to promote India's manufacturing industry by tightening import controls, raising tariffs, and subsidizing domestic manufacturing companies, besides an emergency response to the COVID-19 crisis. In Indian economic policy trends, the new package may be positioned in a series of protectionist moves starting from the withdrawal from the RCEP negotiations in November 2019 and the tightening of restrictions on FDI from neighboring countries in April 2020 (a policy change to actually implement application/approval procedures for Chinese investment alone).

As the border dispute in June 2020 led to a widespread boycott of Chinese products, the "Self-Reliant India" policy seems to have been perceived to recommend a switch from Chinese products to domestic products, reminiscent of "Swadeshi (स्वदेशी)," a slogan to favor domestic products during the independence movement years. 19 The concept of "Self-Reliant India" is an idea rooted in Indian tradition, as evidenced by its association with "Swadeshi" during the independence movement led by the Nationalist Congress Party. Therefore, some of the opposition Nationalist Congress Party argue that the idea of "self-reliance" was "stolen" from the NCP. 20

Looking at discourses on the "Self-Reliant India" policy, the debate is not only about economic policy to achieve economic "self-reliance" by eliminating dependence on China, but also from the perspective of nationalism. For example, one of the Ministers of State (junior minister) in the Modi government argued that the "Self-Reliant India" policy is a modern version of the "America First" policy of the Woodrow Wilson administration and that this policy is based on the idea of prioritizing domestic issues. 21 Some critics of the Modi administration sensed in that policy the administration's authoritarian stance and its intention to dismiss criticism from abroad of its ethnic minority policy.

Also, concerning India's foreign policy, there is much mention of "self-reliance," as seen in Jaishankar's book noted above. At an event in May 2021, Jaishankar emphasized that the promotion of the manufacturing industry, a goal of the "Self-Reliant India" policy, constitutes a core element of India's security. 22 Thus, "self-reliance" represents guidelines for not only Indian economic policy but also for its foreign strategy in general.

5. "Autonomy" toward the United States and "Self-Reliance" from China

So far, I have examined "autonomy" and "self-reliance" in discourses related to India's foreign strategy. Although "autonomy" and "self-reliance" have the same phonetic sound in Japanese, their nuances are not identical. Analogous concepts as they are, there is a rough distinction between them: "autonomy" implies freedom from the influence of others; "self-reliance" suggests standing on one's own feet without depending on others. With these nuances in mind, I want to consider the policy implications of "autonomy" and "self-reliance" in India's foreign strategy in relation to the United States and China.

India's relations with the United States are discussed more from the viewpoint of "autonomy" than "self-reliance," as "Non-Alignment 2.0" sets forth the view that the alliance with the United States undermines India's "strategic autonomy." In other words, India's relations with the United States are considered an issue of "autonomy" or concerns about having the range of options narrowed, rather than an issue of "self-reliance" or those about future dependence on the United States for national security.

As far as the above remarks by Jaishankar are concerned, the Indian government is still negative about improving ties with the United States through an alliance. In this sense, the idea of "autonomy" toward the United States persists. However, compared to the Manmohan Singh administration, the Modi administration much less mentions "autonomy." Some argue that the Modi administration has already abandoned the idea of "strategic autonomy."

For example, C. Raja Mohan of the National University of Singapore maintains that India should abandon the idea of "strategic autonomy" and move toward an alliance with the United States. He perceives that India has already stepped over the line. 23 A 2020 border dispute is said to have made India determined to take an adamant attitude toward China. It is noteworthy whether India will maintain "autonomy" toward the United States or abandon it and further alignment with the United States and Japan.

To now look to India's relations with China. As has already been discussed, "self-reliance" is an issue in India's relations with China, whereas "autonomy" is seldom discussed in the context of bilateral relations. As mentioned earlier, India expedited different policy measures for "self-reliance" from China after India's withdrawal from the RCEP negotiations. Various policy measures India took to boycott Chinese products in the wake of a border dispute accelerated the move. 24 Some view these developments as an attempt by India to "decouple" from China --- analogous to the US policy of decoupling China. 25

It may be premature to assess to what extent such moves have helped India to break away from its economic dependence on China. According to data at hand, the share of imports from China in the April-December 2020 period did not decrease but increased; it appears that India has not yet achieved "self-reliance" from China. 26

Political momentum is gathering toward India's "self-reliance" from China due to a series of incidents from India's withdrawal from the RCEP to an Indo-China border dispute. However, it is not easy to achieve economic "self-reliance" from China. There is no small amount of opposition at home to the withdrawal from the RCEP negotiations; there is also criticism of protectionist trade policies advocated by the "Self-Reliant India" paradigm. The China boycott is showing some signs of a backlash. 27 Whether India will move toward decoupling from China or change its China policy, we must closely watch the future policy and economic trends.


In this paper, I have argued that the notions of "self-reliance" and "autonomy" are emphasized in India's foreign strategy. Given the grave crises that India is currently facing, it is indisputable that we must focus on changes that will result from these crises. But at the same time we should also pay attention to the ongoing factors often overlooked.

Jaishankar is directing the foreign strategy of the Modi administration. What he speaks about India's foreign strategy retains the ideas taken over from the previous administration. Since Jaishankar, now a parliamentary member of Bharatiya Janata Party, first worked in the Indian diplomatic service, he is, quite understandably, imbued with conventional Indian diplomatic thinking.

As the cooperative relationship between Japan and India, as well as the alignment among the Quad members --- Japan, India, the United States, and Australia ---, deepens with the increasing importance of India to Japan, I hope this article will help readers understand the ideas behind Indian security strategy.

current topics