By Aroonim Bhuyan
Title: India Turns East – International Engagement and US-China Rivalry; Author: Frederic Grare; Publisher: Penguin/Viking; Pages: 265; Price: Rs 599
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi heads to the Philippines to attend the Asean and East Asia Summits, a new book provides some valuable insights into India’s growing engagements with East Asia and its response to the rise of China.
In “India Turns East: International Engagement and US-China Rivalry”, author Frederic Grare enlightens readers about India’s move to reclaim its status in a rapidly-changing Asian environment under its Look East Policy, now called the Act East Policy, which primarily focuses on the the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Grare is a non-resident senior fellow in the Carnegie Endowment’s South Asia Programme and his research focuses on security issues, Afghan, Indian and Pakistani regional policies, and tension between stability and democratisation. He has served at the French Defence Ministry’s Directorate for Strategic Affairs, at the French Embassy in Pakistan, and as Director of the Centre for Social Sciences and Humanities in New Delhi.
Grare throws light on how the Look East Policy, launched in 1992 by then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and initially aimed at developing regional trade and attracting foreign direct investments from capital-rich Asian economies to finance India’s economic reforms, turned into a a comprehensive strategy with political and military dimensions concerning the entire Asia-Pacific region.
He describes the Look East Policy as the most important foreign policy initiative of India in the immediate post-Cold War period and New Delhi’s attempt to reconnect with Asia as part of India’s economic globalisation.
“Political and strategic considerations were present very early on in the elaboration of the policy,” the book states.
“Frustration with the process of integration within South Asia, and the manner in which Pakistan was seen to be subverting the efforts at energising the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), had convinced Indian decision-makers that it was necessary to look beyond the region.”
As for China, Grare is of the view that despite New Delhi’s concerns about potential Chinese military threats, a conflict with China is not pre-ordained, if not inconceivable.
“While China’s increased maritime presence in the Indian Ocean and India’s participation in naval exercises in the Pacific do create new security dilemmas in the region, these are often a reflection of the aspirations of India’s partners, who seek a larger role for India as an economic and military balancer in the region,” he writes.
Regarding southeast Asia in India’s geo-strategy, the author opines that changes in the configuration of the international system post-Cold War, rather than geographical proximity, have cemented the importance of southeast Asia for India.
“The acceleration of economic growth following trade and investment liberalisation reforms initiated in 1991 required India to play the role of regional peacekeeper and stabiliser, ensuring the free flow of energy and goods to and from the global market,” he states.
Grare explains that with the development of the Look East Policy, more and more of India’s international trade takes place within Asia, leading to increased worries about the future of freedom navigation in an area of potential importance to the country’s energy security.
“The northeast of the Indian Ocean, including the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, is therefore another key strategic space,” he states.
“India’s strategic presence in the area provides it with the stability to control the sea lines of communication that cross the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea to and from the Malacca Straits.”
Coming to Japan’s role in India’s Look East Policy, Grare argues that as long as Beijing remains the epicentre of Asia, relations between New Delhi and Tokyo will remain but these are, and will be, based on a quid pro quo.
“For India, the objective is to leverage its relation with Japan to generate enough uncertainty in China about a possible alignment or partnership with an anti-China coalition in order to ensure that Beijing does not engage in any action likely to push India too far into the US sphere of influence,” he states.
However, the author adds that the difficulty for India will be in sufficiently engaging Japan without ever being committed enough to the relationship to lose its strategic decision-making autonomy while Tokyo will expect New Delhi to continue with its reforms in order to get the expected return on Japanese investments.
Regarding India-US equations vis-a-vis China, Grare argues that the objectives of New Delhi and Washington need not necessarily be congruent.
“Like every foreign policy, India’s policy vis-a-vis China is a mix of integration, balancing, and deterrence,” he states.
“In each of these categories, the United States can bring India some useful support. But the discourse on the commonality of the China threat to the United States and India, as useful as it may be by justifying the quid pro quo that forms the basis of the India-US relationship as for arms sellers and buyers in both countries, represents only a limited aspect of the reality of the relationship as seen by actual policy-makers. The asymmetry of power between the United States and India and their geographic separation make the persistence of significant divergences inevitable,” Grare opines.
(Aroonim Bhuyan can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)