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Piyush Garodia asked: What is the function of strategic partnerships? Why has India signed so many of them and even with a long-time adversary like China?

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  • Ashok Behuria replies: In international politics today, the term ‘strategic partnership’ is being regarded as an alternative to the old ‘alliance’ system, which characterised interstate politics during the Cold War. In the post-Cold War years, when international politics is slowly transitioning from a bipolarity to multi-polarity, passing through a phase termed by scholars as a ‘unipolar moment’, the resultant uncertainty at the international level has weakened the prevailing structures of alliance worldwide. Instead of alliances, which used to bind states with commitment to ally against a common enemy, the states have felt more comfortable with partnerships that seek to pool complementary potentials of partnered states for mutual benefits. Therefore, there has been a surge in strategic partnerships all over the world. Loosely, it means mutual agreement to interact and partner with each other on a long-term basis in multiple fields of mutual interest covering economic, political, defence and security realms.

    India has signed strategic partnership with more than 30 countries including USA, UK, Japan, France, China, etc. It suits India's non-aligned approach to international politics. India has always studiedly avoided camp-politics and zealously guarded its ‘strategic autonomy’ while formulating/conducting its security/foreign policy. The logic of India's approach appeals to most states today, who do not hesitate to partner with countries unfriendly towards each other. Neo-liberals would term such relationships amongst states as a web of ‘complex interdependence’. While such interdependence moderates ‘politics among nations’, it may not entirely avert inter-state rivalry/conflict. Strategic partnership, thus, emerges as a preferred mode of inter-state interaction, at the intersection of realist and neo-liberal imaginations of international politics. It offers enormous scope for interstate interaction in multiple areas, as also opportunity for states to maximise their relative power. It also helps them balance their threats/anxieties in more un-threatening ways than the balance-of-power politics of the Cold War years could ever guarantee.

    It is in this context that one has to situate and contextualise India's (as also that of the other states) strategic partnerships today. It has now partnerships with both US and China even when the latter two are engaged in a competition for strategic influence around the world. Even when the inertia of hostility continues to bedevil India-China relations, there is a view in India that such hostility must not inhibit cooperation in economic, science and technology, and cultural fields. While India modernises its security machinery, it is not in India's interest to allow its relations with China to dip beyond repair. In the post-Doklam and post-Wuhan context, India's pragmatic approach is clearly discernible: India has successfully signalled to China its willingness to take steps/measures to protect its security interests, as also its readiness to engage China meaningfully in other areas of mutual interest.

    India has been able to maintain a close strategic relationship with the US at the same time. India's approach is not unique in so far as advocating such a foreign/security policy posture is concerned. Even many Cold War allies of the US have advanced a similar posture vis-à-vis China. As the international politics multilateralises further, such partnerships are likely to proliferate, perhaps ushering us into a world of modified realism, where the anarchy of international relations, which realists think pushes states inevitably/inexorably towards conflict and war in search of maximisation of their power, would get moderated by intricate webs of partnerships making diplomacy more nuanced and complex in future.   

    Posted on December 24, 2018

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