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2011, the year of hedging in foreign policy

December 28, 2011 19:53 IST

Hedging has become inevitable in the emerging global scenario and we too should have our share of hedging. But it has to be combined with firm positions and sturdy alliances wherever necessary, says T P Sreenivasan.

'The rising powers and the US have calibrated their security and strategies in the new era in an effort to adapt to the changing circumstances. They are pursuing limited balancing and diplomatic engagement as part of a hedging strategy with each other.'

These words by Professor T V Paul of McGill University encapsulates India's evolving foreign policy posture as we enter the new year with increasing uncertainties in the international situation.

The tumultuous internal situation in India and the negative trends in economic growth contribute to a wait and watch policy. The assertion made by an unnamed official on that "on vital diplomatic issues and particularly in its relation with China, India stands alone" is the most explicit example of India's imperatives, even as it makes tentative moves for soft balancing.

In the past few years, India had moved away from nonalignment to selective alliances, based on mutuality of interests free from any ideology, but for strategic objectives. But it soon realised that these alliances had internal contradictions, which were hard to resolve.

These contradictions became evident in the BRICS, a grouping of five countries which were identified by economists as having certain features. But as a political group, it had very little glue to hold them together and a persuasive power like China was able to hijack it for its own purposes.

By moving to trilateral confabulations with the US and Japan and separately with the US and Australia, our focus has become sharper, but we are not sure that these exercises will remove the threats and challenges we face. And hence the declaration of loneliness, but with tenuous linkages with various actors in the emerging global balance.

Our hedging approach is most evident in the case of China, which will be the biggest foreign policy challenge for India in the next decade and beyond.

"India is just learning to deal with today's China, which has certain goals to achieve," admits the unnamed official, having detected changes in China's regional policies, following the slowing down of the economies of many Western countries, which has impacted on the global economy.

This explains the total unpredictability of our responses to China, ranging from silence to open defiance.

As long as India continues the policy of not provoking China, there should be no worry about quarrels with China. If we are are aware of Chinese strategies and we have adequate contingency planning, any amount of hedging will not hurt. And India is likely to continue this policy in 2012.

In the case of the US, 2011 was a year of uncertainty and anxiety. The quest for the next big initiative after the nuclear deal has hit major roadblocks because the nuclear deal itself did not fulfill the promises made to the US, particularly at a time when the US needed everything it could get in terms of business and jobs to meet its financial downturn.

The situation was further complicated by the Afghan imbroglio, the fighter aircraft fiasco and the Headley controversy. Internal preoccupations in both countries prevented a revival of the old spirit.

India also began soft balancing the US with Iran, China and Russia with a dose of nonaligned rhetoric, which caused concern in Washington. India did not look like an alternative friend when the US-Pakistan relations collapsed. India has not given any credit to the US for ending the war in Iraq, nor is it pleased with the end game in Afghanistan.

We have also shown no concern for the destabilisation that the Arab Spring has brought about in West Asia. Somehow the Indian public appears to highlight US failures, not successes. India-US relations do not show signs of progressing from hedging to a strategic partnership.

With Russia, we believe in permanent friendship to the extent that our President declared during her visit to Moscow that our friendship with Russia is an exception to the dictum that there are no permanent friends and permanent enemies. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh ignored the rising clouds in Vladimir Putin's political future and wished him well. On the Russian-built nuclear plant in Koodankulam too, the prime minister promised more than what he can deliver.

Such embrace of Russia has the public approval in India, which does not get shaken by the events on Moscow streets.

Pakistan is another country towards which our policy is likely to be fixed rather than flexible, but we have to wait till the air clears in Pakistan itself. The goodwill invested in Prime Minister Gilani may not pay if he himself loses out in the current chaotic political situation there.

Sooner or later, we have to engage, but not with any expectation that concessions on our part will be reciprocated. Pakistan will normalise relations with the US, reinforce the China connection and then confront us with greater vigour to deny us the advantage we have gained in Afghanistan.

Here there is no scope for hedging, only for decisive action to get the criminals of Mumbai to book and to force Pakistan to abandon the pursuit of terrorism as their instrument of policy with India.

2011 was 'Annus Horribilis' for nuclear power around the world and as a country still committed to nuclear power, we had our share of the misery. Our expectation that Fukushima will recede into history like Chernobyl and Three-Mile Island did turn out to be wishful thinking.

The effect of the unfolding drama in Fukushima on live television for days together has been deep and the nuclear business cannot be as usual any more.

The sooner India realises this fact and engage in a bit of hedging the better.

Koodankulam, it was thought, would be commissioned even if Jaitapur was in danger. India must have nuclear power, whatever be the dangers, for the foreseeable future. But to pretend that we will go ahead with the plans made 60 years ago is unrealistic.

The people of India must feel reassured that future generations will be free of the threat of nuclear accidents if they have to accept the present needs of the country with the attendant risks.

To close our eyes to this reality is to invite more opposition to the establishment of new reactors. Thinking caps are needed to redraw our energy strategy.

We have one more year on the UN Security Council. We have not used the first year on the Council either to enhance our power or to make our chances of becoming a permanent member brighter. Instead of being innovative and courageous, we tended to slip back into the frozen rhetoric of another period.

If anything, the permanent members have only become more nervous about the presence of India on the Council even as a quasi-permanent member. To be seen to be even more conservative than the regional powers in no sign of dynamism.

Hedging has become inevitable in the emerging global scenario. The Chinese are accusing the US of hedging to meet the rise of China. We too should have our share of hedging. But it has to be combined with firm positions and sturdy alliances, wherever necessary.

The proverbial Hindu mind has the capacity to juggle several things effectively. And this has been in evidence in the past year and it will continue in 2012.

T P Sreenivasan is a former ambassador of India to the United Nations, Vienna, and a former Governor for India at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna.

He is executive vice-chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council; member, National Security Advisory Board; member, India-UK Roundtable; and director general, Kerala International Centre.

You can read more of his writings here.

T P Sreenivasan