Strategic Hedging: Possible Regional Strategy in the Indo-Pacific

Vivek Mishra, PhD
Assistant Professor
Netaji Institute For Asian Studies
February 19, 2019


Given the intricate nature of regional complex dependence in the Indo-Pacific, new emerging power centers, increasing overlaps in economic and security policy considerations for states and revisionist scrambling by major and middle powers of the region have situated hedging as the most likely strategy in the Indo-Pacific by nation states.

Binaries in power structures across the world was considered primarily a thing of the last century. The structural relics of the end of the Cold War had etched thisconception in stone, especially with the rise.of unilateralism for a brief period. However, as the baton of power passed from the Euro-Atlantic order to a Sino-centric Asian order and subsequently to a multilateral order in Asia with the emergence of Japan and India in distinct forms, there have been conspicuously large disruptions in power alignments across the world. Large and powerful states have come around their relative power deficits with other emerging power nodes. Ersthwile moderately strong states with respect to their military and economic might have emerged to assert their accommodation in the new power mix of the global and regional order. Relative decrease and increase of power at two ends of the spectrum of global power transition has led to calculated realignments, partnerships and friendships. The nature of these newer reformulations between countries function at a nuanced level, often at the regional level, rather than a stark display of binary alignments reflecting black and white distinction in policy decisions at the global stage. These complicated state behavior form the back bone of strategic hedging,  a rather nuanced way of navigation for states, which is preferred due to its low level of risks involved, especially when contrasted against risks of direct confrontation between states. Hedging as a strategy is likely to find special relevance in today’s times, given the inherent nature of states’ dual and compelled reliance on trade/economy and military/strategy elements of statecraft.

Strategic hedging as a prominent state behavior and strategy is most pronounced in the Indo-Pacific region. There are various reasons for states preferring to hedge against one another but the strongest is the entry of China as a countervailing force against the US, Asia’s most powerful player since the end of the WW II. As a fallout of China’s increasing economic and military might in the Indo-Pacific (essentially extending from Africa to the South China Sea), it has managed to generate unprecedented leverage with states in the region. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has been at the forefront of that regional currency generation process, spread by way of economic loans, strategic ports and airports including a range of infrastructure with domestic relevance in specific countries. China’s growing influence with the countries in the IOR like Sri Lanka, Maldives, Djibouti, Madagascar, Paksistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and it’s ever strong hold on ASEAN nations have catapulted it to a position that ensures obligated diplomacy from the countries that are dependent on China. These geopolitical and geostrategic circumstances create an unprecedented position of strength for China in the while region.

There are at least two factors that make hedging a sustainable strategy in the Indo-Pacific. First, the US’ influence in the region hasn’t faded away and militarily it remains the most potent blue water navy in the region. Second, there has been the emergence of India and Japan in Asia that is at least conceptually, if not through overt actions, poised against China’s rise in Asia in the long term. These structural and power asymmetries are most palpable in the Indo-Pacific region because of the the combined commercial and strategic importance of the region. While the US seeks to find newer partners in the region to retain its traditional influence, China intends to build an irreversible road to regional and extended influence generation. Furthermore, in this emerging mix India and Japan have also sought to establish an Indo-Pacific infrastructure and security bridge between the two adjacent oceans, PacifIc and the Indian Ocean. These options for states in the Indo-Pacific region have potentially created the following possibilities in the region: First states have found regional alternatives in the emergence of newer power nodes, thereby diversifyingand distributing smaller states’ economic and strategic reliance over a larger group of countries. This has potentially created hedging possibilities for nations in the region that allows them to partner with Middle and Great powers in the region while still aligning/partnering with countries on the other end of the spectrum vis-a-vis their ideology, capabilities and regional interests.

Australia, Japan, China, India, Russia, Pakistan and even the US could all employ hedging against each other in the Indo-Pacific, while some of them, led by India, are already testing hedging as a viable strategy in partnering with other countries. The Quadrilateral Security Initiative (Quad) Even under current regional geopolitics As the US’s regional position in the Indo-Pacific power pecking order is below that of a global hegemon, still the most potent military power, dwindling relative power apropos China (and even India in the long term), its own dilemmas in sustaining regional alignments in the Asia-Pacific, diminishing reassurance to friends, partners and allies etc. have sent its traditional allies and friends scrambling for strategic reassurance in the Indo-Pacific. These factors have created space for new form of alignments between middle powers in the Indo-Pacific. As a result of this, quite a few middle power axes have emerged in the region: India-US, India-Japan, China-Pakistan, Russia-China, Russia-Pakistan, India-America-Japan, Australia-India-Japan and the Quad. Besides, the revitalized entry of extra regional powers in the Indo-Pacific like France in the IOR, growing India-US proximity and India’s logistics agreement with both France and the US, growing clarity of Australia’s  position vis-a-vis China and the entry of the UK across the Indo-Pacific through growing partnerships and joint patrols in the South China Sea, have factored hedging as a strong policy option in the Indo-Pacific region.

Whether hedging as a regional strategy in the Indo-Indo-Pacific will sustain itself remains an open question, even as the strategy is being tested by stakeholders of the region in their ways. The future success of hedging in the Indo-Pacific will depend on the nature and scope of the next steps which China takes and how other countries led by the US cope with such steps.