Talmudic debates on India's strategic autonomy an artefact of a bygone era, says strategic thinker Dhruva Jaishankar

Sreemoy Talukdar
·7-min read

Dhruva Jaishankar hardly needs any introduction. Director of the US Initiative at ORF and a non-resident fellow at the Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute, Dhruva's research has spanned issues such as India-US relations, India's relations in Asia and the Indo-Pacific, the interaction of technology with politics, and defence and national security. Dhruva is a regular contributor to Indian and international publications offering his insights on Indian foreign policy. A strategic thinker, Dhruva took time out to interact with Firstpost for an interview on recent developments, Indo-US relationship and the possible impact of upcoming US presidential polls in bilateral ties.

Do you interpret India's Malabar invitation to Australia as the natural arc of a trajectory that has seen a broader and more cooperative bilateral relationship in recent times (mentioned explicitly in Indian readout), or do you see this decision as India's signalling mechanism to China that may even be open to revision depending on the situation at the border?

I would read Australia's inclusion in the Malabar exercise as part of a natural progression that has taken place since 2000, albeit at an uneven pace. After 1999-2000, India normalised ties with the United States and its regional allies (particularly Japan and Australia). Their 2004-05 tsunami relief effort and the mainstreaming of India's nuclear programme after 2005 were natural accompaniments to the first iteration of the Quad in 2007 and the Malabar 07-02 exercises in which all four countries and Singapore participated. The pace of such intensified cooperation between India, Japan, Australia, and the US changed after 2008, for a number of reasons. Structurally, the global financial crisis played a role, but equally political changes in all four countries in 2008-09 put closer security cooperation on the backburner.

The last few years have seen a resumption and an acceleration. One major driver €" not the only one €" has been clear evidence that China's behaviour as a rising power has been accompanied by territorial revisionism, mercantilism, political interventionism, and an undermining of accepted norms. Additionally, there is a conscious effort at delinking the Quad from any specific policies by China or anyone else, so as not to make it a bargaining chip. Therefore, a wholescale reversion of the trends towards cooperation is unlikely. After all, all four Quad countries had made prior attempts at engaging Beijing only to be rebuffed. Political leaderships will come and go, but there is today a qualitative difference in how the foreign and defence bureaucracies in Australia, India, Japan, and the US perceive China's rise. The natural outcome is a greater appreciation of relations with one another.

The Trump administration has been quite clear that Quad is not an Asian NATO. And yet, it is dropping large hints of formalizing it into a soft security alliance, which basically refers to India since the other two are US treaty allies. Considering that the bilateral defence relationship has been flourishing already, how may the future of Quad shape up?

NATO is a terrible analogy for any contemporary security system because it evolved under very specific circumstances that resulted in pooled resources and joint command structures. Creating NATO from scratch today would be impossible, even in Europe. But the reality is that we are already witnessing the elements of a new emerging security architecture forming in the Indo-Pacific as a consequence of China's behaviour, inadequate regional institutions, and the uncertainty and inability of the US to play the sole role of security guarantor. These elements include the sharing of classified information, geospatial intelligence, secure communications, military interoperability €" overseen by political-level strategic direction €" by Australia, India, Japan, and the US, among many others.

The Quad is an important €" but not the sole €" vehicle in the advancement of this new Indo-Pacific architecture. I would add that it is not just about India's gradual integration with the US and its allies. The US and both its allies have also been resetting the terms of their cooperation, especially as Japan remilitarises. And Japan and Australia are also making strides in improving their bilateral relationship, such as the visiting forces agreement under negotiation.

India will be ready to work with whoever Americans choose on 3 November. However, given the fact that Biden is a traditionalist in foreign policy and Democrats place a huge weight on climate change, China may offer grandiloquent declarations in return for reduced geostrategic pressure, as Greg Sheridan points out in The Australian. Similarly, greater stress in US-Russia ties under Democrats may work to India's disadvantage. Surely, a second Trump term may be more aligned with India's interests than a Biden team to whom China is offering a fresh beginning?

The picture is mixed. Under Trump, the US has been a high-maintenance relationship for India, although not without its advantages. There have been important developments on defence cooperation and high technology sharing, combined with difficulties on bilateral trade and immigration. At the same time, a Biden administration will also have its concerns about China. Many younger Asia hands among Democrats share similar perspectives with some of the more "hawkish" elements on the political right. And while the Democrats' incentives for economic and climate change cooperation with China will remain, this could be mitigated by growing concerns about human rights, not to mention the implementing of sweeping national security laws in Hong Kong.

It is hard to predict which factors will have greater sway over a Biden administration's China policy, but there are many reasons to think that the competition is more structurally defined than in 2015, let alone 2009. From an Indian perspective, the Democrats may also be more advantageous from a narrow economic standpoint, while contributing a little more to strategic predictability. Overall, I would not be too concerned about the outcome of the election for India, although any new administration €" Democrat or Republican, should Trump somehow be reelected €" should hopefully embark upon a steep learning curve.

You have written recently about Indo-US relationship entering beyond basic conceptual agreements to a more constructive yet challenging phase. Would you call it an unprecedented phase in bilateral ties?

I was motivated to write that article by a disjuncture I've noticed between, on the one hand, the more basic public debates that you still find in Washington and New Delhi, and the far more detailed and advanced bilateral negotiations taking place between officials from the two countries such substantive issues as defence, trade, aid, and technology. There is no doubt that we have reached an unprecedented level of coordination between the US and India. The question remains as to whether both sides are interested in deeper cooperation, which is by necessity more intrusive and requires adjustments by one or both parties. Do you align data regimes, or engage in joint military scenario planning? Do you engage in sensitive research and development, secure each other's investments, or jointly finance foreign aid projects? My intention was not to advocate for one position or another, but simply to highlight that while closer cooperation is possible, it would involve much more difficult negotiations. The Talmudic debates on strategic autonomy are, in a sense, an artefact of a bygone era.

Would you agree with the assessment that a difference in perception over values €" beyond strategic, defence or economic ties €" may interfere with the trajectory of India-US relationship?

India and the US are both proud and large democracies, with noisy politics and decentralized governance structures. But these similarities, while important, obscure critical differences, which the superficial characterizations in both countries of each other fail to appreciate. India is still a developing country that has had to contend with a very particular kind of pluralism: its social and political trajectory since 1947 has in some ways been unique. The United States's origins in the 18th century and its legacy of race and immigration is equally unique.

I have seen some unrealistic assessments €" some unfortunately motivated by wishful thinking €" that these different attitudes will result in a decisive break in India-US relations. But I also recall discussions with very serious US policymakers more than a decade ago, who did not think that India was a democracy even then because of casteism, corruption, and some restrictions on free speech. So different perceptions and contexts will persist, no matter the political outcomes of elections in the US or India. The solution will have to involve (to use Joe Biden's words) an honest conversation between the two countries as close friends.

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