Written by Vivek Mishra.
The end of the Cold War hitherto tacitly justified the neutrality of most nations on the global stage in the period that followed since. Any stark contrarian positions easily reminded nations of the hostile binaries of the Cold War: the USA and Soviet Union, Capitalism and Communism, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, etc.
These binaries created power concentrations into opposed blocs, strengthened respective negotiating positions of blocs, and in turn created an unbridgeable distance between two sets of nations. However, especially since the turn of this century, a globalized world and highly interdependent ties between nations, have reformulated relations between countries and erstwhile binaries have paved way for nuanced cooperative-competitive relationships. The power-axes that have emerged as a result of realignments between a waning US, a powerful China keen to take the mantle from the US, a confounded Europe mulling to get its global act together, and an emergent Middle Power group that includes Australia, Brazil, India, South Africa along with a few others, seem to further compound the dilemma that nations face between adopting polarised positions and entangled nuances. India, today, faces this choice more palpably than any other country.
Much of India’s Cold War legacy pertaining to its ‘strategic autonomy’, its measured neutrality between the two power blocks, has sustained.
India led the Non-Aligned Movement group and took pride in alienating itself from major power blocks of the world. But altered circumstances since then present completely different geopolitical and geo-strategic scenarios, meriting a re-evaluation of the need for ‘strategic autonomy’ in India’s foreign policy. The complex-interdependence of foreign relations, along with rising nationalistic pursuits through foreign policy, today leaves some ‘neutral’ nations without much scope or rationale for their strategic neutrality.
India has not been able to gauge how reliable a partner the US is, despite growing proximity. Likewise, there is hardly any assurance today in India-Russia ties beyond a buyer-seller relationship limited to the defence sector
In an era of enmeshed economic and strategic stakes, being neutral in most circumstances comes at the cost of one’s interests. India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ has been placed at the forefront of that dilemma. If trends in India’s current relations are any indication, its Cold War strategic neutrality is being gradually replaced by strategic partnerships, dependence and hedging. While careful recalibration in partnerships has created newer stakes for India, it is far from using strategic hedging as an effective tool in its foreign policy, amidst a pressing need to do so.
India’s growing GDP, rising military power, vast demographics and regional influence have together catapulted it to a leading Middle power standing at the altar of being a great power. However, its strategic choices in foreign policy symbolise a mismatch with its accomplishments and aspirations. India’s change of heart from its ‘strategic autonomy’ days to current times when it holds that phrase dear only partially, reflects both the need and difficulty of the transition.
India’s increasing bonhomie with the US seems to reflect the singular leap of faith India has taken from its erstwhile non-aligned stance. While the strain in its relationship with China has not abated despite increasing economic interdependence, India’s changing relationship with Russia, Israel, Japan and the West in general has marked other distinct trends. The complexity of inter-country relationships with its myriad grey overlapping has prevented India from getting clarity about the nature of relationship with individual countries. As such, India has not been able to gauge how reliable a partner the US is, despite growing proximity. There is hardly any assurance today in India-Russia ties beyond a buyer-seller relationship limited to the defence sector. India’s rather pronounced military shortfall with China, together with its massive trade dependence and deficit with China, has blunted any retaliatory possibilities as much as any conviviality.
In India’s neighbourhood, a top-down approach to regional politics in South Asia has failed miserably, driving smaller nations like Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Pakistan into China’s fold. It is a transitory phase in the evolution of India’s foreign relations where stark choices would be extremely difficult to make but seem desperately needed.
The way forward from here for Indian foreign policy should be strategic hedging; a combination of bolstering domestic as well as external strategic capabilities and creating economic dependencies abroad through enhanced manufacturing and exports. Furthermore, a balance between capabilities and reach is what India needs to master strategic hedging with other countries.
Without substantial symmetry between capabilities and power on one side and political will, strategy and implementation on the other, it leaves very limited scope for incorporating hedging as a necessary component in its foreign policy. India’s ‘strategic autonomy’ has hitherto prevented India from being too outgoing or evincing a necessary bias in its foreign policy outlook. Under current circumstances, when most of the other countries are hedging against India by qualifying their expectations with conditions and objections, there is both a time and a need for India to adopt similar countermeasures. For instance, Russia’s altered ties with Pakistan and China, China’s friendly ties with Pakistan, Nepal’s double gain game between India and China, Sri Lanka’s prioritizing of China over India, and more recently, Maldives’ snub of New Delhi favouring Beijing, could all be as much accorded to Beijing’s astuteness and capabilities as to New Delhi’s slack and lack thereof.
As such, if India were indeed to create leverages with countries to begin the process of hedging, it would have to start with an unapologetic political will to absorb the hedging from lower-tier nations and employ to those above.
To do this, India should infuse a ruthless political will to take forward its national interests mostly undone by lack of historical conviction, pragmatic inabilities related to resources, partners or even historical paradigms. It is strategic hedging that allows space for ‘competitive rivalry’, thereby hurtling the Middle-power-to-Great-power process. Furthermore, strategic hedging dilutes binaries in foreign relations, particularly between friend and foe nations, and creates navigable yet cautious space to take the relationships forward. How India adapts to strategic hedging will mould its course to becoming a stable Asian pivot, going into the future.