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  • Nischitha Paderu


Updated: Feb 2, 2022

Strategic hedging is a sweet departure from the analytical framework of ‘bandwagoning’ or the bandwagon effect in international relations; the first half of the 21st century compelled states to juggle between the U.S.A and U.S.S.R, which eventually moved to the U.S.A and the Asian juggernaut, China, in contemporary times. India’s foreign policy innately attempted to explicitly engage in balancing while she discreetly ‘bandwagon’ with U.S.S.R until it liberalized in 1991 and became a nuclear power in 1998. It followed only post the disintegration of U.S.S.R. Strategic hedging- a state’s decision to actively pursue two balancing/opposing interests, whilst prioritizing its national interest, was a nascent initiative undertaken by India when she was experiencing solidarity. Embracing positive relationships with major powers without compromising on national security to reap benefits on uncontested issues is the need of the hour.

Former Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, termed this an “Omni-directional” foreign policy, seeking to be allied with everyone while alienating none. “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests we must follow”,[1]which in my opinion summarizes the objective of strategic hedging. India bid adieu to strategic autonomy as the sole driver of foreign relations after the 1962 Indo-China war, a doctrine staunchly advocated by Jawaharlal Nehru post-1947. India had to approach the U.S.A for hard and soft power to diffuse the crisis. The Non-Aligned Movement and its aftermath apropos pursuing national interests proved as an unfit policy to espouse at the time. After a series of debacles of inapt foreign policies, India finally adopted ‘strategic hedging’ as a tactical pursuit, an equivalent of a grand strategy for foreign policy. Engagement with the West was negligible during the Cold War era when India was a strong advocate of socialism. Nonetheless, Indira Gandhi paved the way for commercial involvement with her Green Revolution initiative. The dramatic transformation of India’s foreign policy post-Cold War can be primarily attributed to Rajiv Gandhi, who initiated truly hedging. New Delhi and Washington signed an MoU before his visit (in 1985) for technology sharing.

Fred Ikle (the U.S.A. Secretary of Defence for Policy) visited India to discuss security cooperation. These initiatives were tactical masterstrokes at the time. Rajiv Gandhi visited China in 1988 to soften the relationship between Delhi and Beijing that went sour post-1962. He met Premier Li Peng and advanced proposals about border issues, economic ties, and science/technology. He also met Deng Xiaoping- a meeting that successfully changed the paradigm for Indo-China relations and said, “I see it as a new beginning”. Through the ‘Look East Policy, India began to look toward her neighbourhood post-Cold War. P.V. Narasimha Rao actively engaged and established diplomatic ties with a substantial number of republics in Central Asia. He also decided to change India’s policy toward the Middle East. He established diplomatic relations with Israel, relaxing tensions with Arab nations and Israel. The Indian Ocean Rim Association (IOR-ARC) for regional cooperation was founded in 1997 consisting of 23 countries that border the Indian Ocean. India also gained observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. The ‘Look West Asia and Connect Central Asia’ policies aimed at engaging with the Gulf Cooperation Council and Africa, respectively. India’s demand for energy and oil made the GCC countries recognise the vitality of India in the region and become one of India’s prime trading partners. Africa also decided to get involved with India and started trading with us and began diplomatic talks.

With the dynamic geopolitical and geostrategic occurrences, India has rightly comprehended her friends and foes by preparing for the best via engagement with her neighbours, working on diplomatic ties, participating in multilateral frameworks, undertaking trade networks, and initiatives in strategically important hotspots. By preparing for the worst, she has enhanced her military and defence power by intensifying security alliances; strategic hedging has transcended into calculated risk-taking by combining hard and soft power for India’s national interests. India has had ‘good’ friends, ‘neutral’ friends, and ‘difficult’ friends. We have sustained relationships with inter alia-Russia and the USA-Japan and South Korea, France, Germany (and the rest of the European Union), the UK, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Israel, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Australia, Brazil, and the elephant in the room-Pakistan and China-all at the same time. India has not invested its chips in one basket, rather, she has hedged her bets against various partners, which I believe, is a realpolitik lesson in current times. Strategic hedging practised by India modifies apropos the powers it hedges with or against. Different paradigms are adopted when India is viewed as a middle power internationally, i.e. below the USA, but she is a greater regional power. A plethora of issues demands diverse hedging strategies from India’s foreign policy.

I would categorize my argument into two broad events- before the Doklam/Galwan clash, the COVID-19 pandemic, and post these events. The strategic hedging policy under Prime Minister Modi before Ladakh and Doklam incidents was exemplary and was hedging in its truest form. Our dependence on the USA before these ‘grey rhino’ events was significantly less. India’s deal of purchasing the S-400 missiles from Russia despite mounting pressure of sanctions from the USA is a notable feat. Modi’s engagement with China on economic fronts like the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, the new BRICS bank, and trade and investment were distinct military concerns. The Neighbourhood First Policy and SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) attempted to tackle India’s neighbours not just economically but to also emerge as the security provider in the IOR region. While we undertook Malabar naval exercises with Japan and the US, we also participated in BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization meetings. We extraordinarily balanced our external environment while also fixing our policies internally-Modi emphasized the importance of the USA and maritime cooperation than what was leveraged earlier. The QUAD (USA, Japan, India, and Australia) grouping is an initiative undertaken unapologetically by India as a part of its hedging strategy. All these tactical pursuits came to standstill after the Galwan clash and eventually the COVID-19 pandemic. India needed to answer two questions- firstly, can it afford to hedge in the post-Ladakh cum pandemic world? Secondly, can we restore the status quo ante?

The crucial threat to diffuse now, evidently, is China. India’s rise in comparison to China has been slow. We have now entered what S. Jaishankar describes as ‘difficult waters’, which are cumbersome to navigate at a time when uncertainty looms over Asia[1] and the COVID-19 pandemic has visibly deepened this crisis. China is no longer the ‘benign’ globalized partner focusing on economic trade and development; it is now the principal dynamic that needs to be factored in for every foreign policy calculation, especially for India, more so in today’s times than earlier. Gone are the days of a Euro-centric or West-driven narrative; Asia is the future, and India and China are the epicenters of the ‘Asian century’. The hyphenation of India and China must not be misunderstood as alignment; every state in the Asia-Pacific has engaged in hedging overtly to counter China’s unprecedented rise. The Sino-Indian contest over the border has been a long one with both countries being on the Asian side to counter Western imperialism but pitted against each other as great regional powers. China’s alliance with Pakistan only worsens this status quo. While the security dilemma between the two Asian giants continued, trade has blossomed making India China’s prime trading partner. The question that arises here is; which state(s) India needs to adopt a hedging strategy alliance vis-a-vis China? The answer is the USA. The Doklam standoff in 2017, the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction, the South China Sea dispute, the Galwan standoff near the disputed Pangong Lake in Ladakh, and clashes along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) where the Indian and Chinese troops faced aggressive skirmishes, have turned India’s worst nightmare of China’s military presence and power into a reality, propelling India into the arms of U.S.A.

The “American dream” is now India’s safest hedging strategy to counter China apropos internationally while engaging closely with her neighbours; it needs to do wonders for India’s internal growth to stop China’s dramatic rise.

Washington and Beijing have opposing ideologies. China-Pakistan axis, viz. the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and Chinese support to aid Pakistan’s nuclear and military capabilities have eventually tilted Washington’s preference towards a democratic Asian power-India as China-Pakistan is a ‘mutual’ concern for Washington and New Delhi. China’s hedging moves in the Asian continent are driven by its deep pockets, wealth, and regional ‘messiah’ narrative. India’s future in the imbalanced Asian geopolitics is heavily dependent on U.S.A’s navigation and how India hedges against China’s military threat without foregoing economic growth and development. India must now strategically place China equidistant from the U.S.A but bandwagon with the U.S.A in terms of a security alliance, or as the situation demands. The USA, in the current scenario, is the only country with the ability to take on China. More importantly, it is willing to partner with India. This is a satisfactory symbiotic relationship for India to choose the U.S.A, which is largely based on economic and military might. India needs to leverage its interest of obstructing an Asian hegemon (which could potentially develop as a security threat to the U.S in the future) and other Asian states which, even cumulatively, are not strong enough to surpass China. For New Delhi, China’s supremacy in Asia became evident when Beijing opposed India’s membership in the East Asia Summit, attempted to block civilian-nuclear trade with India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group and was vetoed in the United Nations Security Council. All of it meant a perpetual threat lurking in the shadows and New Delhi’s end of strategic autonomy.

Apart from U.S.A and China, India must effectively hedge with two groupings immediately to secure external alliances, particularly against India’s imminent threat, i.e the Sino-Pak axis- Russia, Japan, Australia, and European Union. India cannot afford a Moscow-Beijing alliance that keeps lurking in the shadows. While Russia and India have had relations integral to India’s foreign policy, we must move beyond a buyer-seller relationship for defence equipment. We need to hedge with Russia to side with India in the wake of a Chinese military attack. Russia’s close relationship with Pakistan is also a serious worry. Sergey Lavrov, during his visit to Pakistan, has called it ‘druzhba’ (friendship) to conduct maritime exercises and drills, in addition to strengthening its counter-terrorism capabilities. India needs the strong support of Russia against a Sino-Pak axis; strategic hedging moves must engage toward the de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan vis-a-vis Russia. Japan is a crucial Asia-Pacific pawn for India and indirectly, for the U.S.A. India-Japan shares a complementary vision of managing and minimizing the negative repercussions of growing the Chinese footprint in the region. Japan poses as a compelling alternative for China- economically, politically, scientifically, and diplomatically. Shinzo Abe and Modi’s relationship has set the stage for a powerful duo in the region even if the leaders depart from their respective positions. Thus, India needs to hedge to keep Japan on its side. The QUAD is a great initiative in this respect. Japan can also advance India’s national military and defence capabilities which makes it a reliable ally. Importantly, this ally is the U.S approved friend. Moving to the EU, its economy is intricately tangled with the Chinese economy, which India needs to penetrate, which is a slightly ambitious argument. To ensure the EU’s unconditional support, trade is the language. India must carefully hedge to compete with Chinese firms-China’s percentage of trade with the EU is nine times that of India’s. Indo-Australian security relations are of vital importance now- a central relationship in the Indo-Pacific region.

India needs to hedge with Australia to gain a stronger hold on the Indian Ocean region, considering China’s dominion. India and Australia would have to overcome any distrust to tackle the mutual “red” enemy. Some other regions that India needs to effectively hedge are South Asian countries- Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, South Korea, Bhutan and the African continent. The reason to hedge in a post-pandemic world remains common i.e., China and its Belt and Road Initiatives, which has only intensified debt traps in the Global South.

In conclusion, China and Pakistan remain on India’s radar as imminent threats to strategic hedge. Pakistan, albeit not a major power, continues to endanger India’s potential and national interests due to its state-sponsored effort towards terrorism, lack of interest to engage in the Kashmir conflict, and its ability to attack India, i.e., geographical proximity. The Sino-Pak alliance after the Galwan clash has become an Achilles’ heel for India. In my opinion, in response to the two questions I have posed earlier, firstly, we have transitioned into a post strategic hedging world; it is now a policy that needs to be shelved. We have little choice but to form concrete external security alliances and internal policies if we need to counter China. China’s vaccine diplomacy has only heightened its sly cause of proving India weak once again. Even without enough efficacies, China’s gesture towards the global south by providing vaccines has won many votes. It, once again, swooped in as the ‘messiah’ to counter India’s laggard vaccine production. Secondly, if New Delhi believes we can still hedge to cooperate with China, I believe it is a malfunction of India’s prudence to judge her neighbour accurately. Hence, the expectation of restoring the status quo ante is ludicrous. The recent Cornwall G7 summit called China an Asian bully- a strategic narrative for India to leverage. With the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial celebrations, we have a huge risk at hand, to monitor the seat of the general secretary. The growing entente with the USA (plus allies) is India’s only hope to also ensure maritime cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. The ‘India Way’ must now be robust and confident, not that of an abstainer. If nothing works, we must be self-reliant. India’s foreign policy is nearing a juncture where it is time for an apodictic makeover without having to wait for crises to emerge. Despite her challenges, India is going to be an unstoppable force in the post-COVID world’s calculations; she continues to develop despite multiple curveballs thrown at her. In S. Jaishankar’s words, “let take it as a sign of the times that the world has discovered the virtue of Namaste, the India Way of greeting with folded hands.”


· S. Jaishankar, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World, 2020.

· Daniel Twining, India’s Heavy Hedge against China, and its New Look to The United States to Help, Joint U.S-Korea Academic Studies, pages 30-40.

· Rajesh Goapalan, India’s Strategic Choices: China and the Balance of Power in Asia, Carnegie India, September 2017.

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About the author: A passionate international affairs student, Nischitha Paderu is currently pursuing her Masters in Diplomacy, Law and Business at JSIA. An avid reader and enthralling public speaker; aspires to become a risk analyst; believes in being a catalyst in this dynamic world.

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