India shines, finally walks the talk on 'strategic autonomy'
India shines, finally walks the talk on 'strategic autonomy'
New Delhi: ‘Strategic autonomy’ is no longer a chimera for Indian foreign policy nor a veneer for not taking sides in world power-play. Beginning with the Russian military action in Ukraine on February 24, it has now become a reality that cements India’s place on the high table of major world powers.
If one looks at very recent developments, including at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that concluded Sunday, even amid India’s two-year-old ongoing belligerent standoff with China across eastern Ladakh, India did not budge from its stated position to toe the US line to critique China.
On Saturday, US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin had said in his Shangri-La speech that China has continued to harden its position along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India. Austin’s comment followed US Army’s Pacific Commanding General, General Charles A. Flynn who said in New Delhi on June 8 (Wednesday) that Chinese activity near Ladakh is “eye-opening” and some of the infrastructure being created by the PLA is “alarming”. The Shangri-La Dialogue is hosted by the London-headquartered international think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
On Sunday, addressing the same conference, Chinese defense minister Wei Fenghe, in an apparent rebuttal to Austin’s statement said a good relationship benefits both India and China. Wei said: “China and India are neighbours and maintaining a good relationship meets the interests of both countries. And that is what we are working on… We have had 15 rounds of talks at commander level with the Indians and we are working together for peace in this area (LAC).”
Similarly, the Chinese foreign ministry’s reaction to what Gen Flynn said was notable. Accusing US of truing to add fuel to the fire, on Friday (June 10), Zhao Lijian, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said: “This is disgraceful. We hope the US could do more things that contribute to regional peace and stability… The China-India boundary question is a matter between the two countries.”
The Indian reaction is interesting as it indicated a downplaying of the US rhetoric and a distancing from the US position. On Thursday (June 9), Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson of the Indian foreign affairs ministry said the government of India has taken various measures in recent years to develop infrastructure along the border areas to not only meet India's strategic and security requirements but also facilitate the economic developments of the areas.
On the Eastern Ladakh situation, he said: “As far as the current situation is concerned, we have maintained continuous communication with the Chinese side both through diplomatic and military channels.” This was a diplomatic rebuff to the US narrative on the ongoing eastern Ladakh conflict. The Indian spokesperson added that India will maintain its dialogue with the Chinese side to resolve the remaining issues in eastern Ladakh.
Not for nothing did the Iran foreign ministry, in an unprecedented incident on Thursday (June 9), redact its version of the read-out on the meeting between its foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian and the Indian National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval. The redacted version on the Iran foreign ministry website had culled out Doval’s apparent firm assurance of taking strong action against those who insulted Prophet Muhammad in an apparent reference to the Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal issue.
Of course, it may have been India’s assurance of supporting Iran on Teheran’s confrontation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Even as Abdollahian was in New Delhi, India abstained from voting on a IAEA resolution against Iran on June 8 (Wednesday). The resolution was to condemn Iran for violating IAEA’s rules and requests to inspect Iran’s nuclear facilities and processes.
While Russia and China voted against the resolution of the 35 countries in the IAEA Board of Governors, 30 countries voted for the resolution brought on by US, UK, Germany and France, while India, Pakistan and Libya abstained.
New India-Russian Link Through Iran
The Iran pull-back may have been in part due to a Russian nudge too as the Russians have stepped up efforts to set up an alternative system in place to bypass the US sanctions. Coordinated by the state-owned Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines Group (IRISL) and its branches in Russia and Iran, the three countries have begun testing a new transit corridor that can act as a ‘game changer’ as far as trade and commerce are concerned.
The route begins at St Petersburg on the Baltic Sea, travels across western Russia to the Caspian seaport of Astrakhan, crosses the length of the Caspian Sea on ships to reach the north Iranian port of Anzali. From Anzali, the route takes the highways to the south Iranian port of Bandar Abbas on the Persian Gulf, from where a water route connects to the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust or JLN Port (also known as Nhava Sheva Port) which is the largest container port in India.
As a pilot project, the route is currently being tested on a Russian 41-ton cargo comprising two 40-foot containers. From St Petersburg, the cargo is expected to take 25 days to reach JLN Port near Mumbai. Currently, India and Russia are connected by a 8,675 nautical mile shipping route from St Petersburg to JLN Port that traverses through the Suez Canal and the Rotterdam Port. What is interesting here is India’s standing up to the US which has placed Russia and Iran as well as the IRISL under sanctions.
India in Tug-of-War
Already, the Ukraine conflict has underlined India’s strategic importance as it has become embroiled in a tug-of-war between the US-led block of NATO countries and others and the emerging Russia-China axis, with both sides keen to enlist India’s support. A growing military power with the world’s second largest population and a vast market, the IMF has projected that India may become the world’s fastest growing major economy in 2022 with a growth rate of higher than 8 percent.
According to recent data released by the National Statistical Office (NSO), India’s economy grew at its fastest in 22 years when it registered 8.7% GDP growth in 2021-22.