India, the nation long being under colonial oppression started its journey of foreign policy with the ideology of Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Non-Alignment; abstaining from taking sides of the bipolar power blocs and securing its newly gained national sovereignty and independence. But soon after, it realised the crux of surviving in the internationally interlinked world that the countries were fast approaching towards. Therefore, in 1971, India joined hands with the Soviet Union in a Treaty of Friendship, but with the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1991 and the United States emerging as the sole superpower, India felt back into the state of isolation and helplessness.
As the famous saying goes on to say “don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, India soon learnt from its mistakes to not put all its might and trust into one entity as concepts such as ‘trust’ and ‘no strings attached’ are non-existent elements of global politics and international relations.
Today, the 21st century is largely seen as an ‘Asian century’, the century where Asia’s burgeoning economy and demographic dividend will make it rise to everyone’s notice and be the talk of the center stage. This is what is envisioned by experts and to no surprise it is what is slowly molding to be the fact; a fact that is greatly favoring the People’s Republic of China.
Despite the pandemic’s birth from Wuhan and the global economic stagnation in 2020, China managed to log 2.3 percent growth for 2020, becoming the only major economy that grew during a year when the virus exacted a devastating global toll (Gerry Shih, 2021). This shows the success rate of the country into turning its far-sighted ‘China Dream’ a reality. It is of no surprise that the rise of China is rampant, aggressive in some instances, strategic and far-sighted into changing the existing world order; posing a threat to the rest of the major power houses today.
India, being the largest rival neighbour to China has a lot at stake, for which it has shifted its foreign policy from hedging for to strategically hedging against the collective threat imposed by China. Contemporary geopolitical and strategic circumstances present a multifaceted challenge to India’s foreign policy, with regards to its neighbourhood, border and the Indian Ocean region, for which incorporating a pragmatic realpolitik approach is the need of the hour.
What balancing China means is to strengthen India’s capacity and linkages in order for it to be well-equipped to counter Chinese aggression. India has been working towards this aspect in the following ways-
-India has embarked on its own “Diamond Necklace” policy to counter China’s ‘String of Pearls’ through which it is building ports in strategic points such as Singapore, Indonesia, Oman, Seychelles and Iran and strategically cooperated with Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam and the Central Asian regions.
-India-Russia and Indo-Pak relations although sour, have been tried to reconcile in the recent past as maintaining a somewhat cordial relationship with China’s ally should be one of India’s priority as both the nations are militarily heavy. India has built its defence cooperation with Russia and Putin recently told that “there is no contradiction in the relationship with India”, giving it a stronger tie. Russia has also managed to show great support to India during its fight for Pandemic. Maintaining this cordial relationship is of great benefit to both and is a way towards balancing relations.
-In addition to all this, what is more important today to withstand international threat is the coming together of like-minded states that are willing to support each other and target China with a common motive. India has therefore, signed bilateral and multilateral agreements on different fronts to achieve its hedging goals, which will be further looked upon ahead in the paper
-Along with external ties, India needs to be well-equipped domestically as well by building up its defence capabilities. It is here that India’s ‘atmanirbhar’ (self-reliant) initiative plays importance.
However, on the flip-side, India cannot manage independently without China. The two being giant players in Asia with the two largest populated countries in the world and more so, being geographically in close proximity and economically dependent on each other, it is inevitable for them to have zero contacts. Therefore, whilst battling China’s String of pearls and border disputes, India must also be wary of having a middle ground with China wherein it can conduct its peaceful coexistence and continue its trade relations.
Overall, it can be said that New Delhi’s policy of strategic hedging works on a mode of attempting to find a modus vivendi with Beijing, while also slowly moving towards building security and political links with other regional and international powers as an insurgence against China. The Modi government has adopted a mixed strategy towards asymmetric rival China by maintaining a relationship of cooperation at the regional level (the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), competition at the regional level (Indo-Pacific), rejection of China’s unilateral initiatives (Belt and Road Initiative), and deterrence along the Himalayas and in the Indian Ocean (Manjeet S. Pardesi, 2021).
When the survival of a state is threatened by a hegemonic state or a coalition of stronger states, they seek to join forces with other states and establish an alliance to preserve its own independence by keeping in check the power of the other state. This is the Balance of threat theory (Stephen M, 1985), wherein the threat levels can be affected by geographical proximity, offensive power, and aggressive intentions and when all this is together met with one nation alone, the severity of forming coalition and strategically hedging speaks for itself.
The United States
If the rise of China poses a direct threat on someone, it is United States’ hegemony. US being the super power in the globalized multipolar world, while India being the largest democracy, an emerging economy and a key important player in Asia proves both the states to be in a mutually benefitting coalition.
The two biggest democracies have joined hands on various fronts such as pursuing the joint interest in freedom of navigation in the highly contentious South China Sea where China has shown a great deal of interest as well. The US recently has shown a shift in their focus to the Asia-Pacific region through its new policy of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its decision to station 2500 marines in Australia. This has been regarded by China, who staked claim over South China Sea, as a hedging strategy if not outright containment by the USA. In 2020, Indo-US ties have elevated to a “comprehensive global strategic partnership”. This has been a great achievement in India’s vision for development. Moreover, both the nations have successfully concluded three 2+2 dialogues, wherein USA reiterates to support India in defending its territorial sovereignty against the “greater threat”, referring to China. In addition to these, the highlights also follow the four foundational agreements between the two nations, which are – Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA), General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA) and Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA). The two nations have also released a Joint Statement on shared Indo-USA goals in the Asia-Pacific region. The developments so far have been quite beneficial on both sides and are a great strategic hedging handling on India’s part. And to top this policy of strategic hedging is the establishment of QUAD (Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue) between the four members- United States, Japan, Australia and India with their common vision of securing global order, liberal trading and freedom of navigation between the countries. The informal dialogue between these four nations has seen to be a driving force is curtailing a ‘rising China’.
India’s foreign policy is built on its three foundational pillars, which are security, economic development and status and Japan plays quite a significant role in all three aspects. This bilateral relation is of great benefit to India. Japan and India’s upward trajectory gives it a status of being ‘Special Strategic and Global Partnership’, transforming the relation into a ‘cornerstone of India’s Act East Policy’. The relationship between Asia’s largest democracies is deemed to be Asia’s fastest growing relationship as well. Japan was the first country with which India held its 2+2 ministerial level dialogue which along with military and defence talks, also shared concerns of China’s rise in the region. As Japan acquires world class navy and high-tech capabilities; if the two countries continue to add concrete securities, a high hope is instilled in this strategic relationship of becoming a game-changer in Asia. The two countries have already deepened ties in the field of maritime defence and infrastructure such as the construction of India’s first high speed railway corridor between Mumbai and Ahmadabad.
The two nations have had a cordial relationship even before independence and continue to share common interests in trade, sustainable development, and student-to-student ties. It has been building its strategic partnership and recognizes India’s critical role in the Indian Ocean and therefore, the two nations are committed to working together to enhance maritime cooperation, along with engaging in a naval exercise called AUSIDEX since 2015. Trilateral engagements with crucial nations like Indonesia and Japan, deeper engagement with regional groups like the Indian Ocean Rim Association and East Asia Summit and the very efficient quadrilateral dialogue with Japan and US have all contributed in strengthening the ties between India and Australia. A cordial relation with Australia will help India in the long run as by 2027, India is expected to have world’s largest population and henceforth require the up-skilling of 400 million people. Australia is well-equipped to assist with this huge need for knowledge-sharing, education and skill development. The two countries also have enormous potential to build on their people-to-people links and thus their soft power influence (Parakkal, 2018). India is the third largest source of immigrants to Australia and the second largest source for skilled professionals. The pandemic is seen to have exacerbated Sino-Australian relations and this further strengthens Australia’s relations with India is managing China.
The recent past has seen a reboot in the relations between India and EU which have both embarked on the journey of resuming the long stalled talks on a free trade deal with an aim to strengthen their economic cooperation in the face of an increasing Chinese assertion.
In 2013, trade talks suspended between the two nations but today it rises together to hedge strategically amidst the pandemic. The nations aim to double the trade by 2030 which shows the optimism it withholds for the future endeavours.
In a speech, Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar highlighted how the pandemic has shown the necessity of diversifying supply chains, especially for the EU. He says “Europe is looking at strategic autonomy, looking at a multipolar world, which is actually hedging its risk” (Jaishankar, 2021). This was told in the backdrop of repercussions faced by EU and more so, for the majority of the world for being overly dependent on China for trade. Glorifying on this aspect, India has an edge to build connections in the European world and sustain Chinese growth.
In addition to the trade boon, EU countries also signed the “Indo-Pacific Strategy” that aims to impose greater European influence in areas of Chinese superiority. Keeping this in hand, the two nations remain steadfast on building infrastructure across Europe, Asia and Africa in the name of “connectivity” partnership. It doesn’t brand it to be an “anti-Beijing” plotting, but a mere alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative of china, a way of disallowing Chinese investments.
Today it can be said that the world has come up together, galvanised in order to counter China in the changing world order. This pushback against China has been manifesting itself in multiple ways and in particular, by the regional players who have been successful in persuading more coordinated actions along the way so as to create a more stable balance of power in these highly tumultuous world that we live in.
The complex rivalry between India and China has led to hedging strategically by a mixed approach of cooperation, deterrence and balancing, which is seen to be working efficiently for India till now. After all, India’s ultimate aim is to build its own capabilities without overtly provoking China and silently transform itself to be a competition. To achieve this, India is building its relation with China’s neighbours such as South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, along with maintaining a cordial relationship with Russia and mending relations with Pakistan and ultimately gaining support from the western nations in strategic cooperation with a common aim.
It is evident today how China’s belligerent agenda on regional states has caused it a greater pushback with the unity of the rest of the world against it. The BRI is confronted with numerous fault lines, the Indo-Pacific is well-established, QUAD resurrected and various regional players are beginning to engage with each other much more cohesively.
The only concern that remains today is the growing influence China has over India’s neighbours through its ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ and its ‘aggressive wolf-warrior diplomacy’, for which India needs to make sure to make the neighbouring countries believe in the hidden agenda and bring unity with India in countering the spread and rise of China. India’s ‘vaccine-maitri’ initiative was a good way of handling the neighbourhood, but more needs to be done in this aspect.
The way forward is to accept each other’s legitimacy in certain aspects and hedge accordingly in others. Military escalation such as in 2020 Ladakh is to be prevented in order for both to maintain its relations. To paraphrase Deng Xiaoping (1988), “unless China and India are able to co-exist peacefully, “there will be no Asian century.”