Limits to strategic hedging

It is now conventional wisdom that the policy of non-alignment and strategic autonomy served India exceedingly well in the first six decades or so of its independent existence. Sure, there were times when the policy strained at the leash: one such instance was 1971 when India signed a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation with the erstwhile Soviet Union; yet another was the position we took when Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. But on the whole, India managed to walk the tightrope pretty well and it may be reasonably argued the policy helped us punch above our weight in global affairs.

While strategic autonomy is aimed at securing independent foreign policy space, strategic hedging is about actively using the space so acquired for pursuing national interest. In this sense, the period from 2014 when the current government assumed office has been characterised by India hedging its bets whether it is with regard to China or with the US, not to mention other powers such as EU, the UK and Russia. Again, it has worked quite well for India thus far.

In global affairs, there are decades in which nothing much happens and then there are weeks in which decades happen! Covid-19 is one such and has fast-forwarded global trends in ways that were scarcely conceivable earlier.

One of the key areas where the inadequacy of our current policy of strategic hedging stands exposed is in our ties with China. Sino-Indian ties are of course extraordinarily complex. It is, however, possible to argue that India hitherto has been overly accomodating of China’s core interests, be it Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang, for that matter. It may also be plausibly argued that we have hitherto carefully calibrated our ties with the US, at least partly out of our concern not to take sides in the emerging confrontation between China and the US. It is reasonable to ask what India has got in return for all this.

China’s position on the most important core interest of India, namely Kashmir, has been one of callous disregard. China took sides on the issue of abolition of Article 370, even though we made it abundantly clear to them that this was an internal matter. On Pakistan-sponsored terrorism, yet another core interest for us, China has either turned a blind eye or provided implicit support to Pakistan. Even on an issue as blatant as Arunachal Pradesh, there has been no give from the Chinese side. The less said about support for our candidacy for the United Nations Security Council or the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the better.

Despite all this, there was one redeeming feature until now. The Indo-Chinese border has been relatively tranquil. From our perspective, this held enormous significance since a peaceful periphery was an imperative for us to focus on our domestic agenda. The current imbroglio at the border in eastern Ladakh is an inflection point that changes all this and calls into question our continued policy of strategic hedging vis-a-vis China. If a besieged and corona-stricken China can precipitate a border crisis with India, it is not hard to imagine what a powerful China can do in normal times.

Indeed, for many experts it does not make sense for China to open up so many battlefronts, namely, the US, South China Sea, Australia, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, Africa and now India. Yet, China obviously believes that the time is propitious for it to flex its muscles when the rest of the world is grappling with the coronavirus. China cannot be unaware that its soft power has taken an immense beating, though there is no reason to believe there has been a diminution of its hard power.

The writing is clearly on the wall. China wishes a relationship with India where it expects its core interests to be fully respected by us, without much reciprocity from their side vis-a-vis our core interests. What then are India’s options? Well, one thing seems clear. The policy of strategic hedging that India has so assiduously practiced until now may be nearing the end of its shelf life. The recent flare-up at the Sino-Indian border demonstrates the limits of that policy.

India is not bereft of policy options. In the recent stand-off with China, the US publicly made a statement of support for India, which was a first. Is this a pointer to the shape of things to come? No policy is without its downside and the downside of a closer alliance with the US might be bad timing because of the internal problems that it faces in an election year.

Similar moves have been made by India with regard to Australia, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand (QUAD plus). Towards the end of May, US President Trump also called for a selective expansion of the G7 by seeking to include India, Russia, South Korea and Australia. This may or may not come about, but it certainly is an indication of which way the wind is blowing. None of these are “slam dunk” options and they must be pursued only after careful consideration. But consider we must, because continuation of status quo may well be harmful to our core interests. If all else fails, India must be prepared to go it alone to defend its vital interests. It may be time for a fundamental reassessment of our policy options vis-a-vis China.
The author is a former ambassador to France and is currently chairman, RIS, and vice-dean & professor at Jindal School of International Relations

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