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India–Vietnam Axis and
China: The Allure of
Arshid Iqbal Dar
The rise of China and its impact on regional as well as global power structure
has invited a plethora of rigorous scholarly analysis. Same has been the case for
how global powers like the US in particular and its neighbours in general respond
to its rise. However, if, on the one hand, the question of China’s rise has made
realism and the balance of power dynamics as the cynosure of international rela-
tions (IR), the response of most of its neighbours has challenged its parsimonious
‘balancing–bandwagoning’ dichotomy. To come to the terms with new realities,
scholars have come up with a new category that moves beyond this dichotomy.
The new category is hedging and is hailed to be the best explanation of states
behaviour when they neither balance nor bandwagon. While engaging with the
extant debate on hedging in IR, this article provides a comprehensive analysis of
two of China’s most affected neighbours: India and Vietnam. This article argues
that not only does hedging provide the best explanation of how they respond to
China, lonely as well as in cooperation, but also is the most alluring option avail-
able to them. Furthermore, this article, apart from examining the driving factors
of their hedging behaviour, also provides some important policy implications for
policymakers of New Delhi and Hanoi in the concluding section.
China, US, IR, ‘balancing–bandwagoning’ dichotomy, India, Vietnam
The rise of China and its impact on regional as well as global power structure has
been at the heart of contemporary international politics (Bekkevold, 2014;
Ikenberry, 2008; Whyte, 2013). Will its rise be peaceful or will it rupture the inter-
national structure has been extensively debated (Mearsheimer, 2006; Toje et al.,
2017). Same has been the response of the established power like US in particular
© 2021 Indian Council
of World Affairs (ICWA)
Reprints and permissions:
Arshid Iqbal Dar.
2 India Quarterly
as well as its local neighbours. If the rise of China has put the great power politics
back on the table and if it has made the balance of power theory as the cynosure
of international relations (IR) (Koga, 2018; 633), the dominant ‘balancing–
bandwagoning’ dichotomy has faced serious theoretical as well as empirical
challenges. The experience of most of its neighbours’ response to a rising giant
neighbour has given rise to an anomaly that the existing dichotomy fails to
explain. Instead, scholars of international politics have come up with new concep-
tual constructs to characterise such behaviour. One of the much-debated items
has been hedging (Foot, 2006; Goh, 2006; Kuik, 2008; Medeiros, 2005). Most
of China’s neighbours find it very hard to press too hard for either end of the
‘balancing–bandwagoning’ dichotomy while dealing with an aggressive giant
neighbour. Much work is going on the exploration of the hedging strategy in
connection with the response of a rising China’s neighbours towards it. Most of
the existing studies have employed this strategy to explain the individual state’s
response towards a rising China (Kuik, 2016). There seems to be a larger settle-
ment within the international scholar’s community working on hedging that it is
the best available theoretical tool to explain the behaviour of most of China’s
neighbours towards it.
India and Vietnam are the two most affected neighbours of a rising China.
While the former is hailed as the most worthy peer competitor, the latter also
qualifies to be a challenger. Despite the disparity in power and influence of New
Delhi and Hanoi, both are going through a similar experience vis-à-vis an aggres-
sive and assertive China. If, on the one hand, they are consistently striving to
enhance their capabilities by both internal as well as external means, on the other
hand, they are cancelling it out by simultaneously engaging China. This article
while taking the exploration of the term hedging further contributes to the existing
literature in the following ways. First, it engages with the on-going debate on the
exploration of the term hedging. Second, it examines the emerging India–Vietnam
axis through the alternative and still under-theorised and underexplored prism
than the hitherto dominant ‘balancing–bandwagoning’ dichotomy. Third, it argues
that hedging is not only the best available theoretical lens to examine the India–
Vietnam axis keeping in view the shared threat posed by a giant neighbour; it
further demonstrates that it is the most alluring option available to them given the
complex strategic environment. Even if there has been some work on Vietnam
from the perspective of Hedging, the Indian side continues to be dominated by the
balancing end of the hitherto dichotomy (Acharya, 2003). Fourth, it simplifies the
rationale of a hedging strategy by exploring the driving factors that apply to both
India and Vietnam. Fifth, it argues that examining the driving factors can not
only uncover the complexities of India–Vietnam relations for the academicians
who are expecting too much from the relationship and are mostly critical of their
reluctance to openly embrace each other. Finally, this article provides some
policy implications that will be instrumental for policymakers of New Delhi and
Hanoi to address each other’s concerns by understanding each other’s position.
Following this introduction, this article is divided into four sections followed by a
conclusion. The next section engages with the extant debate on hedging by
unpacking and clarifying the concept that is being understood and employed here.
The following section examines the dynamic of India–Vietnam axis and the role
of China threat, which places it towards the balancing end of the ‘balancing–
bandwagoning’ spectrum. The next section examines their efforts to cloud the
logic of the balancing end of the spectrum and discusses various measures that
stretch towards the bandwagoning end. The penultimate section examines the
factors that drive their hedging behaviour and also demonstrates explicitly as to
why this is the most alluring option for them. The concluding section summarises
the main arguments and provides some policy implications for policymakers of
both New Delhi and Hanoi.
Beyond the ‘Balancing–Bandwagoning’ Dichotomy:
Alliances or to use much broader term ‘alignment’ along with balance of power
continue to remain the most widely studied and frequently revisited subjects in
the scholarly literature on inter-state relations (Nexon, 2009; Snyder, 1997; Walt,
1987). This is reasonable because one of the central foreign policy debates in
every country centres on the concern of which nation to ally with and for how
long. During the late 1970s and up to almost 1990s, due to a rigorous scholarly
investigation, the literature produced the dominant ‘balancing–bandwagoning’
debate (Schweller, 1994; Walt, 1987; Waltz, 1979). While allying with others
states either balance or bandwagon. While balancing is defined as allying with
other states against the threatening one, bandwagoning is allying with the source
of threat (Walt, 1987). There is little doubt to argue that this debate continues to
sharpen the argumentation of why and how states align the way they do. However,
if, on the one hand, the rise of China has made the balance of power theory a
cynosure of IR; on the other hand, the parsimony of this theory had encountered a
lot of theoretical as well as empirical challenges (Koga, 2018). The response of
most of China’s neighbours demonstrates what Amitav Acharya reckons: the
‘balancing–bandwagoning’ dichotomy is too narrow to explain it (Acharya,
2003). The term that better explains the behaviour beyond this dichotomy and
which has, in fact, drawn particular policy and scholarly attention in the literature
is hedging (Koga, 2018). However, despite being hailed as ‘the rule rather than
the exception’ (Goh, 2006) among states and its growing usage as an ‘alternative’
alignment choice in IR literature, hedging still remains an under-studied, under-
theorised and often taken for granted concept in IR literature (Boon, 2016). While
taking it further, Evelyn Goh argues that even among those who attempted to
develop the concept in IR by giving it a greater definitional rigour, hedging
remains ‘problematic’ (Goh, 2006). Almost after 10 years another notable scholar
engaging with this concept, Cheng-Chwee Kuik attests that the argument made by
Goh still holds true due to a lack of a commonly accepted definition of the term
(Kuik, 2016). Before proceeding to explain hedging as it is to be understood here,
it is pertinent to mention that the concept is first and foremost a derivative from
non-IR fields such as finance, business studies and scenario planning. However,
as already hinted above, the term assumed much popularity within the theoretical
4 India Quarterly
literature of IR in connection to the response of most of the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) states caught within the US–China conundrum.
To quote Goh, the strategic behaviour of key ASEAN states is best understood
through the prism of hedging rather than balancing or bandwagoning. He defines
hedging as ‘a set of strategies aimed at avoiding (or planning for contingencies) in
a situation in which states cannot decide upon more straightforward alternatives
such as balancing, bandwagoning or neutrality’ but rather cultivating a middle
position that forestalls or avoids having to choose one side at the obvious expense
of another (Goh, 2006). While taking the similar line, Kuik conceives of it as
occupying a middle position between pure balancing and pure bandwagoning
involving the mixture of ‘risk-contingency’ and ‘risk-maximising’ options. These
are two opposite options for Kuik, because the ‘risk-maximising’ options are
aimed at maximising economic, diplomatic and political benefits from a positive
relationship with a rising power when all is well, whereas the ‘risk-contingency’
measures are designed to minimise and mitigate risks in case things go awry.
Furthermore, they are contradictory and counteracting in that while the former
pleases a big power (at times by showing deference to it), the latter displeases
it (at times by defying it) (Kuik, 2016). A hedger would typically pursue these
options concurrently so that their effects would cancel each other out. The
essence of these contradictory acts is to project an image of not siding with
or against any power to avoid the danger of putting all-the-eggs-in-one-basket
and to keep a fallback position for as long as the power structure remains
The concept of hedging within the recent scholarship has been defined in two
major ways. For some scholars, it entails the combination of balancing and band-
wagoning together to cancel out the risks associated with each action. The aim is
not only to get the benefit of buying time to determine whether the state should
balance or bandwagon but also to maintain a neutral position in a manner that
would maximise autonomy. However, others tend to define it as third choice in
addition to balancing and bandwagoning and as such contribute to hone the
balance of power theory by adding a nuanced explanation of state behaviour
(Kang, 2007; Tessman & Wolfe, 2011). In this article, hedging is understood in
the context of the ‘balancing–bandwagoning’ spectrum within the ‘balance of
power’ theory, in which hedging is located between balancing and bandwagoning
as the state’s third strategic choice. Hedging is defined here as a combination of
contradictory policy moves by states to deal with a threatening rising power
located in immediate vicinity. States do not possess the luxury to stretch the
balancing–bandwagoning spectrum too much to either of the end, rather employ
both in limited ways. There would be balancing measures, but there would also
be simultaneous limited bandwagoning efforts because pushing harder for either
is very risky and has serious uncertain strategic consequences. To avoid those
consequences, hedging ensures a much pragmatic and alluring policy option
available to states facing an immediate security threat. Keeping this in view,
and to demonstrate why it is so, India–Vietnam axis offers an interesting case
India–Vietnam Axis and China: The Elephant in the Room
Before analysing the response from India and Vietnam towards a rising and
assertive China, it makes good sense to first provide a brief overview of the threat
perceptions of both regarding China. A rising China is perceived as a topmost
security threat by both India and Vietnam, and this argument is supported by
various reasons. Apart from a similar experience of past Chinese aggressions in
1962 and 1979, respectively, both states have engaged in various limited
skirmishes and standoffs with China along their disputed borders. This conflictual
history continues to shape their perception of China as a confrontationist and
belligerent state (Boon, 2016; Hiep, 2013). The ‘power asymmetry’ and ‘tyranny
of geography’ also contributes to their perception of China as a threat (Hiep,
2011; Scott, 2008; Thayer, 2011). Based on the logic of geography, China’s huge
economic and military power along with the willingness to use force, as evidenced
by its growing assertiveness in recent years, further explain their threat perception.
From South China Sea to Dokhlam and the latest Galwan clashes, China had
reaffirmed its longstanding perception as an assertive and expansionist northern
neighbour. Besides differences on territorial issues, China’s disrespect to rule-
based international order and its growing nuclear arsenal is also buttressing their
threat perceptions regarding their giant neighbour. Furthermore, China’s Belt and
Road Initiative, backing of Pakistan, its growing footprints in South Asia along
with Indian Ocean is fuelling Indian threat perceptions of China (Boon, 2016).
This shared concern of an aggressive China is pushing both India and Vietnam to
pursue both internal as well as external balancing towards it. Internally, they are
building up their military strength. Both are going through massive military
modernisation programs enhancing their comprehensive power. Their internal
balancing strategy seeks to ensure that the overall balance of power does not tilt
in China’s favour; however, the huge power imbalance and the lack of sufficient
resources puts serious limitations on their internal balancing measures. Both look
at each other as part of their external balancing mechanism to tackle the China
threat. Keeping in view the scope of this article, India–Vietnam axis and the role
of China threat will be dealt with more elaborately.
For Vietnam, to quote Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the Southeast Asia
programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington,
‘which knows it can never stand up to China on its own but, it figures it can inflict
more damage to and perhaps even restrict Beijing’s unilateral forays in the SCS,
if its weapons hardware was bolstered a bit more and India appears a very willing
partner’ (Panda, 2017a). Similarly, for India, Vietnam being the ‘diamond on the
South China Sea’ serves as a blockade to Chinese domination of the South China
Sea, from where Beijing would be able to project power up through the Strait of
Malacca into the Indian Ocean (Brewster, 2013). Many experts on India’s policy
response to China reckon that Vietnam can be an important strategic heft to put
pressure on China’s southern flanks, thereby giving it a two-front challenge.
For them, India’s ‘Vietnam card’ against China in the South China Sea serves as
an equivalent to China’s ‘Pakistan Card’ against India in the Indian Ocean
(Brewster, 2013; Karnad, 2014). This proposition, argues that Bharat Karnad is
6 India Quarterly
based on a sound geo-political logic based on New Delhi’s unwillingness and
insufficient capabilities and, therefore, is a very cost-effective means of diminish-
ing India’s primary security threat and military challenge and will also ensure
paying Beijing back in its own coin (Karnad, 2014). This is classic balancing, and
as the proceeding discussion will demonstrate, India–Vietnam axis is, however,
an archetype of hedging. With China certainly as the ‘elephant in the room’, India
and Vietnam had witnessed a tremendous upward trajectory of their bilateral rela-
tionship in the recent past as Beijing has been pushing for more assertive and
aggressive territorial claims. Since both India and Vietnam, due to their geograph-
ical location, lie at the heart of the emerging Indo–Pacific construct, they play an
important role in this strategic space, which is becoming the main theatre for great
power politics. This gets exemplified further as both India and Vietnam have
strived for maintaining peace, stability, growth and prosperity in the region.
For instance, both nations have accentuated the importance of maintaining peace
and stability and peaceful resolutions of disputes, based on international law,
comprising the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Regarding
the South China Sea issue, both states have stressed the need to fully and effectu-
ally implement the Declaration on the Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the East
Vietnam Sea and the establishment of a Code of Conduct (COC) (Ao, 2020). The
growing India–Vietnam axis has witnessed a significant upward trajectory under
the Modi administration with a ‘pivot’ (Karnad, 2014) to Hanoi on the part of
New Delhi, leaving an ‘axis’ (Patil, 2014) that is now covertly Beijing-centric.
The strategic partnership with its military and strategic dimension was upgraded
to a ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ during Modi’s visit to Vietnam in
September 2016, 15 years after PM Atal Behari Vajpayee’s visit in 2001, further
underscoring the importance of Vietnam (Chakravorty, 2018).
An additional Line of Credit of USD 500 million for defence industry coopera-
tion was also announced during the visit. Modi considered Vietnam an important
and strong pillar of his Act East Policy (Ministry of External Affairs, 2016).
Likewise, Indian President Ram Nath Kovind said that Vietnam was ‘pivotal to
India’s ‘Act East’ policy’ (Ministry of External Affairs, 2018b), and during his
visit to Vietnam in May 2019, Vice President Mr. M Venkaiah Naidu, reiterated its
importance to India as a civilizational friend, a trusted partner, and a strategic
pillar of India’s Act East Policy (Ao, 2020). The growing importance of Vietnam
as a lynchpin of India’s ‘Act East’ and ‘Indo–Pacific’ policy got reiterated by the
progress in the bilateral defence cooperation that included exchange of high-level
visits from both sides. From the side of Vietnam, Hanoi’s response to New Delhi’s
outreach was on expected lines, and engaging India now as a comprehensive
strategic partner, a sort of relationship with only Russia and China clearly indi-
cates that both nations value this critical partnership. This closeness of strategic
cooperation and seemingly ‘natural allies’, India–Vietnam have developed their
relation to the extent that Vietnamese Prime Minister Pham Van Dong’s character-
ises them ‘as pure as cloudless sky’ (Panda, 2017). Notwithstanding these
developments, however, India–Vietnam axis lacks momentum since no notable
outcomes have materialised vis-à-vis the sales of the BrahMos cruise missiles
and Akash surface-to-air missiles. This lack of momentum clearly indicates the
limitations that for how long they can go in their embrace of each other
(Rajagopalan, 2018). Like most of other neighbours of China, India and Vietnam
find it very difficult to push balancing strategies too hard to avoid being seen as
‘ganging-up’ against China. To avoid the wrath of an aggressive giant neighbour,
India and Vietnam have stretched the ‘balancing–bandwagoning’ spectrum
towards the bandwagoning end. In the next section, I examine the policy measures
employed by India and Vietnam to cancel out the risks of either of these two
straightforward choices, hence pursuing a middle position of hedging.
Avoiding the Dragon’s Wrath: India, Vietnam and the
To counteract the above-discussed balancing behaviour, which neither Vietnam
nor India can afford or put simply to avoid the wrath of Chinese dragon, both
India and Vietnam had pursued a simultaneous counteracting policy measures.
Three important policy measures are particularly employed by Hanoi and New
Delhi: bilateral economic cooperation with Beijing, institutional binding and
explicit reassurance of not engaging in any anti-China gang up.
Bilateral Economic Cooperation
Both India and Vietnam had strong bilateral relations with China. For Vietnam,
China stands on the top of its list of 16 strategic partnerships as it is designated as
a ‘comprehensive strategic partner’, the only one to hold that honour. If anything,
this designation signals on Vietnam’s part is its willingness to engage comprehen-
sively with its northern neighbour (Thayer, 2017). One of the very crucial ele-
ments of their comprehensive engagement is the annual joint-Border Defense
Friendship Exchange program, initiated in March 2014. Hanoi and Beijing are
also carrying out joint border patrols, and by 2017, 23 of such joint patrols has
been conducted, and in recent years, they have carried out two patrols each year
(China Military Online, 2017). The China–Vietnam Land Border Joint Committee
jointly manages border stability and maintenance, and in 2018, they carried out
their first provincial-level joint patrol of the land border (People’s Army
Newspaper, 2017). Hanoi is also allured by Beijing’s economic miracle and as
such owing to shared political ideology looks at China as an economic and politi-
cal model to follow (Tran, 2018). The increasingly improved bilateral commercial
ties are reflected by the fact that while China stands as the largest trading partner
of Vietnam, the latter is also China’s largest trading partner in the ASEAN region
(Vinh, 2020). Since 2014, Vietnam’s experts to China more than doubled and in
return Chinese foreign direct investment to Vietnam also witness a significant
increase, and by 2018, it stood around USD 400 million as compared to USD 75
million in 2014 (Vietnam Briefing, 2019). It is in this context that David Kang and
Xinru Ma argued that despite the increasing tensions, the ‘overall frequency of
high-level exchanges between these two countries is far higher than most
8 India Quarterly
countries’ (Kuik, 2020). India from its part has also sought to engage China bilat-
erally. Modi himself sought to cultivate a strong bilateral economic partnership
with China as it is not only the second largest trade partner, but also the only
country after the US which he has visited many times since coming to power. The
bilateral commercial relations have witnessed a significant progress, and both
India and China have also cooperated on various economic forums and institu-
tions. Modi’s refrain from making adverse remarks against China during the
Dokhlam standoff, the subsequent Wuhan Summit along with the informal summit
at Mamallapuram in October 2019, further indicates that New Delhi was driven
by the hope to reduce the competitive elements in its relations with China and
move towards a more cooperative relationship (Kaura, 2020). Furthermore, even
if their militaries following the deadly Galwan clashes remain deployed in large
numbers at frontline positions, their military and diplomatic officials continue to
engage in dialogue.
India and Vietnam are also binding China to constrain its aggressive behaviour
through various institutions. ASEAN is one such institution that has been consid-
ered by some analysts as a central piece of Hanoi’s foreign policy and in particular
can prove very useful in addressing the security dilemma with China (Collin,
2013). Through ASEAN, Hanoi has been internationalising the bilateral dispute
with Beijing by invoking multilateralism (Emmers, 2014) to avoid the catastrophe
of dealing with China all by itself. It provides Vietnam an important institutional
platform to bind China by constraining its aggressive behaviour. The 2002 DOC
of Parties agreed on by the foreign ministers of ASEAN countries, and China has
arguably been the most tangible outcome of Vietnam’s efforts to constrain China
through the institutional mechanism (Hiep, 2013). Even if the DOC is not binding,
however, it continues to subject China to certain normative limitations, thus limit-
ing its freedom of action and providing Vietnam with appropriate grounds to
condemn its aggressive and illegal activities in the sea. The DOC is frequently
cited as a basis for Vietnam’s diplomatic protests against Chinese assertiveness in
the South China Sea. Furthermore, Vietnam together with its ASEAN partners has
begun consultations with China on a more ‘substantive and effective’ legally
binding COC to replace the DOC. For Vietnam, being the top priority, the COC
would provide a more binding code to constrain China. Although yet in the
negotiation phase, there are speculations that Hanoi may use its current chairman-
ship of ASEAN to accelerate the COC negotiations (Hiep, 2019; 7). Not only does
Vietnam appreciate the possibility of ASEAN transforming China through
constructivist processes to partake in ASEAN norms, but it also promotes the
inclusion of regional powers like India into the ASEAN community. The ASEAN
Regional Forum by virtue of inclusion of non-ASEAN states like India gives
additional leverage to Vietnam to ‘entangle, enmesh or engage’ China through
norm-based interactions and socialisation to foster trust and mutual security
(Acharya & Layug, 2012). Apart from ASEAN, which also forms a central piece
of India’s policy responses to China, New Delhi also uses various institutional
forums to constrain Beijing’s aggressive and assertive behaviour. India continues
to participate in various plurilaterals involving China such as the Russia–India–
China (RIC) trilateral, the BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization
(SCO) (Madan, 2020; 8) as a way of binding it. The RIC has in fact been an
important forum for India to engage China even amid the LAC clashes. India,
even after the deadly Galwan clashes, participated in the RIC’s foreign ministers
meet on June 23, 2020. The statement by India’s Minister of External Affairs,
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, that, ‘leading voices should act in an exemplary
manner by respecting international law and recognising the interests of partners’,
a subtle reference to China further underscores New Delhi’s institutional binding
of Beijing (Bhaduri, 2020). Based on the logic of let us talk, not fight, the RIC
provides India a platform to cooperate with the giant neighbour along with Russia,
which gives an additional opportunity to balance out one grouping with another
and places it at a neutral stance when it comes to taking sides and supporting a
country (Bandi, 2020). Similarly, India’s participation in SCO, the Asian
Infrastructure Investment Bank and BRICS, apart from serving its own interests
(Rajagopalan, 2020; 90), also underscores its policy of binding institutional
engagement of China. Besides, India has also taken common positions with China
on international issues including climate change, freer international trade and the
threats of international terrorism.
Reassuring the Dragon
To avoid the wrath of an assertive giant neighbour, both India and Vietnam had
employed various reassurance measures to avoid being seen as part of any anti-
China gang. Vietnam continuously reassures China that it is ‘ready, willing and
able’ to cooperate (Thayer, 2011) and Hanoi’s officials have repeatedly stated that
their country’s strengthened defence ties with regional partners like India are not
directed against any third country. In particular, these officials have underlined the
much cited ‘three no’s principle’, based on no military alliance, no relationship
with one country targeted against a third country and no foreign base will be
allowed on Vietnam’s soil. The elements of these ‘three no’s’ have been explicitly
stated in the Defense White Papers released since 1998. The latest white paper of
2019 advocates, ‘Vietnam consistently advocates neither joining any military alli-
ances, siding with one country against another, giving any other countries consent
to set up military bases or use its territory to carry out military activities against
other countries nor using force or threatening to use force in international
relations’ (Hanoi Times, 2019). Similarly, Indian government in particular has
been loath to admit that China is the main driver of its Indo–Pacific policy and
indeed actively discourages any such idea. New Delhi has made direct and
repeated declarations that India has no interest in becoming party to any anti-
China containment strategy (Rajagopalan, 2020). For example, in his speech to
the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, Prime Minister Modi explicitly stated that
the Indo–Pacific was not an exclusive grouping, that it was not ‘directed against
10 India Quarterly
any country’ and that India’s ‘friendships are not alliances of containment’
(Ministry of External Affairs, 2018a). Some months later, India’s ambassador to
China explained that his country will work with all powers, including China, and
that the only side it took was its own (Economic Times, 2018). The explicit reas-
suring of China by India and Vietnam is visible in their reluctance of openly
embracing the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (Quad). Even though the Quad is
generally seen as a balancing mechanism to contain China (Paul, 2018), India and
Vietnam’s tardiness in moving forward with it can be seen as their reassurance
measures towards China.
The Allure of Hedging Prong in India–Vietnam’s
Response to China
The above analysis of India and Vietnam’s individual as well as collaborative
response to a Chinese threat clouds the logic of either pure balancing or
bandwagoning as the hitherto dominant state behaviours. Therefore, the rise of an
aggressive and assertive China presents a situation for them that neither of these
dominant behaviours seems to meet their security requirement. Consequently,
hedging becomes a much more pragmatic choice to meet their shared China
challenge. In other words, it is a better explanation of India and Vietnam’s response
to China. To demonstrate as to why hedging is an alluring choice to pursue vis-a-
vis China, this section shall examine the factors that drive India and Vietnam to
employ this strategy. Examining the driving factors will also help in making a
case for as to why hedging serves India and Vietnam’s national interest and why
they should continue with it. Additionally, it will also help both India and Vietnam
to understand each other’s security predicaments, and hence, they can clear
various misgivings regarding the potential of India–Vietnam axis. There are three
important factors that shall be discussed here to suffice the argument: asymmetric
capabilities, geographical proximity and strategic culture. However, taken
independently, none of these factors can be much convincing, but when taken
interdependently and mutually reinforcing, the case for hedging becomes much
Growing Asymmetry in Capabilities
As discussed in the section on threat perceptions of a rising China, both India and
Vietnam are worried about their growing asymmetry with China. The sense of
inferiority in dealing with a mighty neighbour has serious consequences for
how both India and Vietnam respond to it. In essence, it creates a ‘behavioural
dilemma’, on the one side, as a compelling force to balance this asymmetry, while,
on the other side, the lack of sufficient wherewithal constrains any such balancing
move. China is, for example, 29 times larger than Vietnam, and despite being the
15th biggest populous country in the world, Vietnam is just an equivalent to a
mid-sized Chinese province (Thayer, 2011). Its Gross National Product as well as
military budget is 3% of China’s and less than 1% of it, respectively (Tran, 2020).
Clearly, China is more powerful as well as important than Vietnam, as the latter is
structurally more exposed to former in terms of both risk and opportunity.
Similarly, even being a rising global player, India has sharply plunged in its rela-
tive power to China. For example, India’s economy is a midget compared with
China, whose GDP is roughly USD 14 trillion, whereas India’s is less than USD
2.7 trillion, making China’s GDP about five times high (Ganguly & Pardesi,
2020). In 2019, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute,
China’s defence budget stood as USD 261 billion compared to India’s USD 71.1
billion (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 2020). Therefore,
China’s decisive pull ahead of India just over the past decade makes it more
accurate to talk about the imbalance of power between them (Saran, 2019).
This growing power mismatch at an alarming rate is, on the one side, compelling
both India and Vietnam to look for external alignments but, on the other side,
an equally important pull for forging stronger economic ties with China. The
economic asymmetry is further clouding the logic of balancing as both are looking
at Beijing’s economic rise as a principal source of economic opportunities.
Consequently, both India and Vietnam are enjoying strong economic and com-
mercial ties with China to maximise economic benefits through higher levels of
trade and investment. This is underscored by the level of their economic relation-
ship. However, this asymmetric economic engagement with China is also making
them nervous about what they consider as an overdependence on China. Therefore,
the growing asymmetry in military and economic capabilities between India,
Vietnam and China is creating a complex situation for the former to look beyond
the balancing–bandwagoning dichotomy.
The Tyranny of Geography
Along with their growing asymmetry, living next to the giant dragon as neighbours
further complicates their policy response to China. Both states share borders with
China and are also bearing the brunt of its recent assertive territorial reclamation
drive along with its past aggressions. Their ‘geographical proximity’ along with
active territorial disputes with China has placed India and Vietnam to live under
what is famously referred to as the ‘tyranny of geography’ (Thayer, 2011 2020).
The term was originally coined by Thayer in the context of Vietnam; however,
given the similar experience of India, it can be applied to New Delhi’s case well.
Being a neighbour, neither India nor Vietnam can escape China and, hence, the
strings attached to its assertive behaviour. They have to live with this reality.
Furthermore, being the weaker parties, this ‘tyranny of geography’ dictates a
judicious balance for Hanoi and New Delhi within the ‘balancing–bandwagoning’
spectrum. If, on the one side, the logic of geography is turning China an immediate
and a more direct threat for India and Vietnam, being adjacent and economically
vibrant ensures its allure as an economic opportunity. India and Vietnam have
compelling reasons to strive for symmetry in their engagement with China through
both internal as well as external means. There is, however, a worry not to being at
12 India Quarterly
the receiving end of their giant neighbour’s overbearing attitude. In addition, apart
from the concern of economic overdependence, they would also be constrained to
think of any bandwagoning push towards China keeping in view that it would
relegate their status to junior partners. To ‘jump for profit’ (Schweller, 1994) does
not make it a dishonourable choice on its face, but being a junior partner comes
with clear disadvantages including, most obviously, the reality that Beijing’s
interests would be put ahead of either of the two. As discussed above, India and
Vietnam have compelling logic to be unsure about the future intentions of a rising
China. So, the policymakers of India and Vietnam are worried that if it grows
more powerful in the future, it will increasingly dictate the terms of engagement
in its favour particularly in the border dispute. Additionally, the rising nationalism
with increasingly anti-China sentiments in both the states would make this choice
Strategic culture is another important factor that explains the limitations of
balancing–bandwagoning dichotomy and an allure of a hedging strategy in India–
Vietnam’s response to China. The term strategic culture was coined by Jack
Snyder, who defined it as a ‘body of attitudes and beliefs that guides and circum-
scribes thought on strategic questions, influences the way strategic issues are
formulated, and sets the vocabulary and the perceptual parameters of strategic
debate’ (Snyder, 1977; 9). These attitudes and belief patterns are largely based on
leaders understanding of their nation’s historical experiences, which significantly
shape national strategies and foreign policies. Both India and Vietnam’s strategic
culture drives their quest for strategic autonomy and independence and underpins
their policy of renouncing joining any alliance. As neither of them would get any
external substantial support during their wars with China, this shared experience
gave them a lesson to not trust in alliances and also a wakeup call to not depend
considerably on any external power. Pursuing foreign relations short of any formal
commitments including with a threatening China simultaneously ensures India
and Vietnam autonomy and independence. The much famous ‘three nos’ policy
exists on the principle of non-alignment and informs much of Vietnam’s response
to the giant neighbour. According to Andrew Butterfield, ‘Vietnam’s strategic
culture continues to be marked by sometimes contradictory desires concerning
China; to seek and receive help from China, but also to repel excessive Chinese
influence or domination (Butterfield, 1996; 18). For Le Hong Hiep, ‘this dual
perception persists and finds its manifestation in Hanoi’s hedging strategies vis-à-
vis China’. For him, based on the past, Vietnamese leaders today seek harmonious
and cooperative relations with China to maintain peace and promote their nation’s
economic development but simultaneously look for measures to ensure their
security against a rising China (Hiep, 2013; 340). Similarly, various analysts
have correctly pointed out that the strategic culture in which ‘ideas about an
anti-imperialist internationalism and non-alignment continue to inform India’s
state-building project and its ‘over-riding’ priority of economic development’
(Chacko, 2014; 448). There is no doubt to argue that current Indian foreign policy
by displaying the continuities underscores the strength of its tradition and culture
(Hall, 2017). The notion of ‘strategic autonomy’ intrinsic to India’s strategic
culture has not only become a ‘holy grail’ of Indian security policy (Brewster,
2011; 831), but due to its strong intellectual attachment, one has to ask whether it
is the product of a specific historical circumstance or a permanent organising
principle of India’s foreign policy. For Indian strategic thinkers apart from ensur-
ing independence and room for manoeuvrability in foreign policymaking, strate-
gic autonomy has also been seen as the sine qua non of great power status.
Consequently, any compromise of India’s strategic autonomy is considered as a
compromise of its destiny. During the Galwan clashes with China, as there were
strong voices supporting a policy shift of completely aligning with the US against
China, the government while being more nuanced in its approach has made it
crystal clear; India will not join any alliance system (Raghavan, 2020). Hence,
‘strategic culture’ of both India and Vietnam is an important factor that underlines
their hedging strategy towards China and, hence, can also prove useful in under-
standing their tardiness in embracing each other.
This article engaged with the extant debate in IR regarding the exploration of the
term hedging. Due to the inability of the ‘balancing–bandwagoning’ dichotomy to
explain the behaviour of most of China’s neighbours towards it, hedging has come
to be regarded as the better explanation. As the above analysis demonstrated, it is
also the best available theoretical tool to explain the dynamics of India and
Vietnam’s lonely as well as collective response to a rising and assertive China.
Hedging here is understood as a middle position located in between the balanc-
ing–bandwagoning spectrum. While exploring the case of India and Vietnam
keeping in view the shared concern of a China threat, the above analysis makes it
logical for both India and Vietnam to be anxious about their rising giant neigh-
bour. The growing power imbalance along with China’s increasing territorial
assertiveness is an important factor driving them for enhancing their domestic
military capabilities. But due to their insufficient resources to tackle China
lonely, they look at each other as important partners to pursue a collective chore-
ography to deal with it. However, China’s growing economic heft and being a
geographical contiguous state makes it also an important economic opportunity to
be engaged with. But even the growing trade and commercial ties had an impor-
tant geo-political string attached; apart from being worried about an economic
overdependence, neither Hanoi nor New Delhi would like to be relegated to a
junior partner status in any engagement with China. Apart from the economic
allure of a rising China, both India and Vietnam due to the ‘tyranny of geography’
find it very unwise to hurt their bilateral engagements and invite their giant and
aggressive neighbour’s wrath. Apart from their growing asymmetry both in
military as well as economic spheres, their ‘strategic culture’ is also a decisive
factor that drives their hedging strategy. Their past experience of unreliability
14 India Quarterly
of any external help along with the quest for an independent and autonomous
foreign policy further clouds the logic of ‘balancing–bandwagoning dichotomy’.
Therefore, given this complex strategic environment coupled with their strategic
culture, hedging not only seems as a pragmatic option but also as an alluring one.
From the above analysis, a number of significant implications for policymakers
of New Delhi and Hanoi can be discerned. First, even if the future of India–
Vietnam axis seems very promising, their ambivalence is irking various experts
who instead want to see it as a counterpart of China–Pakistan axis. However, the
India–Vietnam axis is very unique and must be evaluated through the prism of
hedging. Doing that will help them to better understand each other’s security
predicaments and consequently the appeal of hedging prong in their response to a
rising China. Second, both New Delhi and Hanoi must enhance their overall
comprehensive capabilities to prepare better for the uncertainties of a more
powerful China in future while continuing to enjoy better commercial relations
with it. This is indeed very pragmatic and logical because it will allow them to
manage their tense relations which Beijing while simultaneously reaping the
benefits of its economic heft to balance their growing asymmetry with it. Third,
and very importantly, both New Delhi and Hanoi require time and insurance to
deal with Beijing, hedging provides both. Finally, it provides them the autonomy
and independence, which they do not want to compromise especially in dealing
with their most immediate security threat. Thus, before making any shift in their
response to a rising China towards either end of the ‘balancing–bandwagoning’
spectrum, the policymakers of New Delhi and Hanoi in particular must evaluate
the dynamic as analysed in this article before it would be too late for them. After
all, neither balancing nor bandwagoning but rather hedging is the best recipe for
their current security predicaments and will continue to be an alluring option even
for the foreseeable future.
Arshid Iqbal Dar has obtained his PhD from Kashmir University and the broader
area of his research is International Politics wherein the specific area of research
interest encompasses India’s foreign policy, India-US relations and the Indo-
Pacific, Rise of China and South Asia.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author declared no potential conicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship
and/or publication of this article.
The author received no nancial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of
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