Foreign Policy Watch: India-United States

India’s strategic autonomy and its evolution


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not much

Mains level: Paper 2- Evolution of the idea of strategic autonomy

The article analyses the evolution of India’s approach to strategic autonomy from the unipolar world dominated by the U.S. to now when the Chinese threat has been looming large.


  • Addressing a Southeast Asian forum last week, external affairs minister outlined India’s new quest for “strategic autonomy” in its global economic engagement.

Connection with Atmanirbhar Bharat

  • This new quest for “strategic autonomy” is the natural external complement to new economic strategy, described as “Atmanirbharata” or “self-reliance”.
  • The concept carries so much ideological baggage, its revival by Government inevitably raised many questions
  • Senior ministers and officials of the NDA government sought to reassure India’s partners that Delhi was not marching backwards.
  • When applied to the foreign policy framework, “self-reliance” becomes “strategic autonomy”.

Evolution of the idea of strategic autonomy

  • America towered over the world after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
  • India’s past emphasis on strategic autonomy was in the context of the “unipolar moment” [dominated by the U.S.] that emerged after the Cold War.
  • On the one hand, India needed Western capital as well as technology and better access to its markets.
  • On the other hand, Delhi had to protect some of its core national interests from the threats of US intervention.

India-U.S. Relations: Evolution after the Cold war

  • In the early 1990s, the Clinton Administration strong desire to resolve the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.
  • The Clinton Administration saw the nuclear and Kashmir disputes as one and the same thing.
  • Indian diplomacy for the next two decades tried to change the US policy on both Kashmir and nuclear issues.
  • Under President George W Bush, the US discarded the long-standing temptation to insert itself in the Kashmir dispute.
  • The US also went out of the way to resolve the nuclear dispute with India by changing its domestic laws and international norms on nuclear proliferation.
  • The Obama and Trump Administrations have stayed the course since then.

China challenge for India

  • On the atomic front, as the US sought to lift the prolonged atomic blockade against India, China sought to block the process.
  • China turned an obstacle to India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
  • China takes up the Kashmir issue regularly in the United Nations Security Council.
  • Today, India’s strategic autonomy is about coping with China’s challenge to India’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
  •  China today is viewed in Delhi as a major threat to India’s economic development.
  • The bilateral trade deficit reached nearly $55billion in 2019.
  • India pulled out of an Asia-wide free-trade arrangement called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership late last year, sensing the threat posed by China-led economic order.
  • Ladakh aggression forced India to go from a passive commercial withdrawal to an active economic decoupling from China.

Way forward

  • The logic of strategic autonomy from China nudges India to look for strong security partnerships with the US, Europe, Japan and Australia.
  • On the economic front, India is exploring various forms of collaboration with a broad group of nations that have a shared interest in developing trustworthy global supply chains.

Consider the question “Delineate the evolution of India’s approach towards the idea of strategic autonomy. How it differs from the past?”


Threats to either territorial integrity or economic prosperity are powerful enough on their own to compel drastic changes in any nation’s policies. Coming together, they promise to make strategic autonomy from an assertive China an enduring theme of India’s economic and foreign policies in the years ahead.

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