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Nirmala Sitharaman stays firm on India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ stand in the US

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman (Photo: IANS)

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman picked up the threads from where External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh left, asserting that India has to defend itself from two neighbours that have joined hands against the country.

Speaking with a group of Indian reporters in Washington, she said that the India-US bilateral relationship has moved forward post the Ukraine war.

Sitharaman is the third senior member of the Indian cabinet to delve upon the doctrine of India's 'strategic autonomy' as the government comes under sharp scrutiny and pressure from Western nations over its trade relations with Russia.

Sitharaman's remarks follow the 2+2 dialogue of the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries appeared to be an assertion of India's “strategic autonomy”—a mantra that highlights India's strategic interest-driven doctrine, which evolved after India became a nuclear weapons power in 1998 during then prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s time.  

"You have a neighbour, who joins hands with another neighbour, both of whom are against me. In the context of the Russia-Ukraine war, God forbid, if there are alliances created, India has to be strong enough to protect itself", Sitharaman said, hinting at Pakistan and China's joint aggression towards India. The two all-weather allies, who surround India on its northern and western borders have a close defence relationship geared to undermine India.

With the onset of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, India is pushing the envelope in international diplomacy by outlining clearly that it is going to pursue its interests in a global environment made dynamic by deadly viruses, international conflicts, terrorism as State policy and well-equipped militaries standing on its borders.

Sitharaman stressed that India’s relationship with the US is improving each day despite the global challenges.

"India wants to be friends with the European Union and the Western, free, liberal world, but not as a weak friend that needs desperate help here and there. Unless I am strong, given the fact that I am geopolitically located in such an area, how do you expect me to even defend myself?” she said. “Not strong as an aggrandizer or expansionist, but strong to defend our own 1.3 billion people—both politically, strategically and, equally important, economically”, Sitharaman defended the Indian stand stoutly.

Barely a fortnight back, defence minister Rajnath Singh while addressing the Indian diaspora in the US, referred to the Galwan Valley clash of June 2020, saying: "I cannot say openly what they (Indian soldiers) did and what decisions we (the government) took. But I can definitely say that a message has gone (to China) that India will not spare anyone, if India is harmed. (Bharat ko agar koi chherega to Bharat chhorega nahi)".

Experts interpret the Indian Defence Minister's statement as a warning to China that India is prepared to defend itself. For almost two years now, the Indian Army has maintained a hefty deployment on its China border in a direct challenge to the communist country in a bid to thwart further Chinese intrusions into India.

On the same visit, Jaishankar too stood his ground when the US pushed India on oil purchases from Russia. In a cryptic remark, Jaishankar told a journalist: "If you are looking at energy purchases from Russia, I would suggest your attention should be on Europe. We buy some energy necessary for our energy security. But I suspect, looking at figures, our purchases for the month would be less than what Europe does in an afternoon". The minister was addressing a press conference with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken when he highlighted western hypocrisy. 

Both the Indian ministers had extensive engagements during their visit to the US after their 2+2 meeting, where they deftly displayed India's diplomatic prowess—asserting that India as a responsible power will maintain an independent stand keeping its interests in mind. Almost a fortnight later, Sitharaman reinforced that very sentiment on her visit to Washington for the World Bank and IMF spring meetings, when she said that the country could also battle the global food crisis caused by the Russia-Ukraine war by exporting agricultural products, particularly cereals, if allowed by the World Trade Organisation.