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The Big Picture
Afghanistan, AUKUS, and Ukraine: A new strategy for India

  Amit Gupta

The lessons for India are: do not rely on the West, broaden the country's strategic alternatives, and have a substantive discussion with China.  

Amit Gupta


In the past year, the following three international events should have given Indian security planners reasons to pause and reconsider the country's foreign policy: The American withdrawal from Afghanistan; the decision to make an AUKUS security grouping and the transfer of nuclear submarines to Australia; and the war in Ukraine. These three international developments have major security implications for India since they have created an unfavourable security environment for New Delhi. They have also brought home some bitter truths that the country's decision makers have to recognize and address.

Afghanistan, AUKUS and Ukraine
In Afghanistan, the Biden administration left abruptly thus leading to the Ghani forces quickly disintegrating in the face of Taliban troops. No one bothered to consult the countries in the region about what to do to leave behind a stable security environment? As a consequence, India now has to deal with yet another Taliban regime in Kabul.  

AUKUS was a blow to India for two reasons. First, it was the creation of a grouping of white nations to build a security architecture in Asia, thus leading to charges in some Asian capitals that the West was being patronizing by stating that it would achieve regional security in Asia rather than leaving it to the natives of the region. Secondly, in the wake of all the hype about the Quadrilateral Initiative, one would have thought that the US and the UK would have offered nuclear submarines to both (emphasis added) Australia and India, but, instead, the offer was made to the country with whom the two nuclear powers had a cultural and racial affinity. 

Ukraine should have brought home that in the event of a major war the West's reliability as an ally has to be questioned. Some western nations encouraged, and some believe actually engineered, the overthrow of the democratically elected Victor Yanukovych government in Ukraine and more recently encouraged Zelensky to adopt an aggressive approach towards Russia. In the face of a bloody war, where Ukraine has shown stout resistance, the West's limited support has caused considerable frustration in Kyiv.  Cynics state that the West is fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian, and the devastation brought upon Ukraine will take decades to repair. The three million Ukrainian refugees in Europe will soon strain the facilities in the host countries and one can only wonder how long these countries will remain as good-willed and generous towards the refugees?

Charting a new strategy for India
Put simply, the lessons for India are: do not rely on the west, broaden the country's strategic alternatives, and have a substantive discussion with China.  

Broadening India's security alternatives means strengthening the ties with the Asian countries to boost the Indian economy. Both Southeast Asia and the Gulf are interested in expanding their economic and technological ties with India. The UAE has asked for Indian scientific assistance in developing its space program while countries like Oman and Saudi Arabia want to increase their investments in India. New Delhi should be encouraging such investments and partnerships.  

The Southeast Asians can invest in 24 of the 25 sectors (defense being the exception) in the Make in India initiative and the Indian government would be smart to take up this offer and work to have greater economic integration with the countries to the east. Keep in mind that ASEAN is now China's largest trading partner, with China-ASEAN bilateral trade having reached $724 billion in 2020. India cannot afford to have an ASEAN that is firmly ensconced in the Chinese economic camp. 

The second strategic initiative is to build deeper ties with France and, depending of the fallout of the Ukraine war, Russia. France was dealt an economic blow and a political slight by the Biden Administration which persuaded Australia to scrap its submarine deal with Paris and, instead, enter the AUKUS agreement. It is time for India to go to France and ask for the transfer of nuclear submarines because Paris may be willing to take this decision since it sees the long-term value of the Indian market.  

Much will depend on how long Western sanctions on Russia remain so as to determine the future of the India-Russia security relationship. Long term sanctions on Russia will lead to a surge in oil, fertilizer, and wheat prices and only increase the growing inflation in western economies. Additionally, there are serious doubts that the Europeans will spend the money they normally spend on social welfare programs to boost defense expenditure. 

As mentioned above, the strain of hosting three million refugees will also hurt western economies and boost tensions in the region. If these concerns lead to splits in Western political resolve against Russia, there may be a dilution of sanctions. In that case, India should strengthen the security relationship with Russia both to increase its strategic autonomy and to ensure that Russia, out of economic and political desperation, does not get too close to China. A strong coalition between Moscow and Beijing would not be a welcome outcome for Indian strategic planners. This then brings up the question of China. 

After Galwan, India-China relations have touched an all-time low, and some Indians have been talking of militarily resisting China. One good thing coming out of the excellent coverage by the Indian media of the Ukraine war is that the Indian public now realizes how devastating a military conflict can be to the general population. Also, while parts of the Indian media and some military analysts have made hawkish statements about China, the one person who has been silent is the Indian Prime Minister. Modi has steadfastly refrained from attacking China, and one can conjecture that the Prime Minister would like to retain negotiating space with Beijing.  

Now is the time, therefore, to use that negotiating space because the Chinese recognize that in the polarized world created by the Ukraine war, and its possible consequences for a Taiwanese push for independence, they need more friends and less enemies in the international system. India should start a high-level meeting with China and state that while there are serious differences between the two countries—most notably the border—what concrete steps can the two countries take to normalize their interactions? 

One such move may be to talk about enhancing trade since both India and China stand to benefit from it. This would be a controversial move by the Indian government, but the Prime Minister has the internal stature to pull it off and right now, the Chinese will be receptive. Once tensions ease and the strategic environment changes, they may revert to a harder position.  

To sum up, India must not depend on a potential alliance with the west and take steps to broaden its strategic autonomy.  


About the author

Amit Gupta is a Defense and Economics analyst based in the United States. He can be contacted at agupta1856@gmail.com  

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