India Turns East: International Engagement and US-China Rivalry; Frederic Grare; Rs 599; Penguin Random House
The Look East policy has been constantly evolving since its 1992 birth. Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao wanted Southeast Asian investment for his liberated economy. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations were receptive as they no longer saw New Delhi as a Moscow proxy. Look East was also a sober acceptance by New Delhi that it was a marginal force in Asia. Southeast Asia and China had raced ahead economically. India was irrelevant to the continent’s security architecture. Indian leaders liked to talk of leading Asia. The reality of the Look East was, writes Frederic Grare, “an Asianism led by ASEAN, in which India does not exercise any leadership.”
For over a decade, Look East was about trade and investment. After 2003 a security element was added and “East” came to include Australia and Japan. The geopolitical alignment that gave rise to Look East in 1992 has changed dramatically the past few years. Look East has metamorphosed accordingly. Rebadging the policy as “Act East” is almost deserved. But Grare, France’s leading analyst of Indian foreign policy, argues India’s strategic reticence regarding its distance from both the US and China continues to limit how much looking can be replaced by acting.
The main reason for Asia’s geopolitical new look is that the ASEAN-based structure is crumbling. At least three Southeast Asian states are now more wedded to Beijing than to their own regional association. The others are hedging as the US’s commitment to Asia has become increasingly erratic. The problem for India is that the original Look East was built around ASEAN centrality and what the alternative is remains unclear.
Grare believes India’s present Asia-Pacific policy lies at the confluence of a number of policy strands. One, New Delhi retains a long-standing desire to maximize its strategic independence hence its avoidance of overt security alignments. Two, India is conscious China is capable of inflicting disproportionate pain either through Pakistan or along the Sino-Indian border. Its China policy is calibrated not to provoke Beijing beyond a point. Three, it wants to leverage the US as much as possible for economic and security gains, but without becoming entangled in any US-China rivalry. Earlier, Look East allowed India to sail in-between these conflicting interests but this is increasingly no longer the case.
The result is an Asian environment in which India does not top anyone’s enemy list but also has no dependable friends. Grare dissects India’s relations with various Asian players and shows them to be wanting. As India must “calibrate its own military posture to avoid appearing unnecessarily antagonistic to China while remaining relevant enough for its partners” the country’s “regional military presence and defence cooperation are seen by its partners as both indispensable and frustratingly insufficient.”
Author Frederic Grare
(Courtesy Carnegie India)
India lacks any genuine ASEAN partners other than Singapore, he notes. Its next closest strategic friend, Vietnam, “sees India as unreliable.” Australians question whether India can really break free of its domestic obsessions and wonder at India’s passivity regarding Asia-Pacific political cooperation. Even the Indo-Japanese bond, he believes, is “based more on a [economic] quid pro quo than true mutual understanding.” Japanese officers complain “it is almost impossible to plan for any meaningful naval exercise with their Indian counterparts since they refuse to consider any scenario that appears confrontational towards Japan.” Washington also “questions India’s capacity and willingness to balance China.”
Grare is not critical of India’s reticence. He accepts India has its reasons for taking the stance that it does. New Delhi rightly wonders “about the extent of the United States’ commitment to Indian security,” Australia has an undistinguished record of not standing up to China. Japan is so far away neither country is certain what “immediate security value” each gets from the other. India’s weak economic leverage in Southeast Asia reflects the different structural path India’s domestic economy has taken from that of China.
Four years have passed since Grare wrote this book. The trajectory of Asian geopolitics has partly mitigated his concerns. New Delhi nonetheless pokes the dragon far more aggressively than in the past. The US has become even more mercurial, but the two sides continue to tighten their security relations especially in the Indian Ocean, an area Grare does not recognize as a complement to Look East. The Japanese relationship is also a lot stronger. His argument that “Japan is divided over nuclear cooperation with India” is simply not the case today. Australia’s views on China are much more negative and it has joined the Quad it had deep-sixed earlier. He also underestimates how the various connectivity programmes India has embarked will help to interlink India’s economy with that of Southeast Asia – and how Japan’s support for them makes them more likely to be completed.
But Grare’s fundamental questions remain cogent. India’s Asian aspirations still remain negative, seeking to “prevent the dominance of any power in the region” rather than a leadership role of its own. So long as New Delhi remains married to “strategic autonomy” as a modernised form of nonalignment, it will never develop a genuine sphere of influence in Asia, continue to concede space to China, and will struggle to make its many strategic partnerships mature into something more than talking shops and photo ops.