Follow @southasiaanalys

“India’s Look East Policy, Act East and South China Sea: Politico-Strategic Dynamics

Paper No. 5603                                       Dated 14-Nov-2013

By Dr Subhash Kapila

(The Paper was presented by the author at the “5th International Conference on South China Sea: Cooperation for Regional Security and Development” on November 11 2013 at Hanoi, Vietnam. The Conference was attended by over 35 international strategic and legal analysts including China)             

 Introductory Observations

Politico-strategic and economic imperatives impelled India to launch its ‘Look East Policy’ in 1992. From the initial political and economic underpinnings, two decades later, India’s ‘Look East Policy’ has matured into a comprehensive political, economic, and strategic and defence relationships between India and ASEAN and India and East Asia.

In the two decades of India’s ‘Look East Policy’ existence, the politico- strategic dynamics stand significantly transformed. The first decade marked India’s concerted efforts to integrate itself with ASEAN and East Asia economically and politically. India was adapting to the post-Cold War era and its economy badly needed repair and resuscitation.

Politico-strategic dynamics in play in the Asia Pacific in the second decade hastened the process of the strategic discovery of each other between ASEAN and India and between East Asia and India.

In the second decade of India’s ‘Look East Policy’ the politico-strategic dynamics in play need to be briefly stated. In the opening years of this Century, India stood tall as an economic power and a military power. India’s nuclear weaponisation had taken place. The United States made a political and strategic reach-out to India and forged the US-India Strategic Partnership.

Contextually, the Asia Pacific by middle of the last decade witnessed the phenomenal rise of Chinese military power and naval build-up. The use of this power for conflict escalation and military brinkmanship by China created strategic distrust in East Asia and ASEAN about the not too benign strategic intentions of China.

Both in East Asia and in ASEAN there were growing expectations that India should emerge as the strategic regional balancer and hence the moves for strategic engagement by both sides.

On the verge of the third decade of India’s ‘Look east Policy’ , ASEAN accepted India as a full-fledged “Strategic Partner” at the 11th India –ASEAN Summit held in New Delhi in December 2012. The validity of India’s ‘Look East Policy’ and its record of ‘Act East’ stood validated.

India’s ‘Look East Policy’ initiated in the early 1990s was a well-crafted and visionary foreign policy strategy initiated by then Indian Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao. To him and him alone goes the credit of reversing India’s economic and foreign policy directions which put India on the path of economic liberalisation and divesting India of its erstwhile idealistic foreign policy mind-sets.

India’s ‘Look East Policy’ fortunately enjoyed consistent political support of all political dispensations that followed the Late Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao.

Ordinarily, a presentation on India’s ‘Look East Policy’ and ‘Act East’ initiatives would have sufficed with enumeration of statistical data and listing the political and economic achievements of the last twenty years. Thee in any case stand well documented in writings by policy analysts.

But now that the strategic component in India’s ‘Look East Policy’ is gaining salience, as this policy enters the third decade, it would be appropriate to dwell more on this aspect.

 In politico-strategic terms, in the pursuance of its ‘Look East Policy’, India without much diplomatic flamboyance, has established substantial and comprehensive politico-strategic linkages in East Asia with Japan and South Korea and in South East Asia with the entire group of countries comprising the ASEAN Region. That now provides the bedrock of more substantial strategic openings as ASEAN and East Asia nations seem to be investing in India’s reputation as a benign emerging power not only in the Asia Pacific but also the Indo Pacific.

 The broad template having been laid of the main theme, a closer examination is merited of India’s Look East Policy, India’s record in terms of “Act East’ and India’s policy approaches to the South China Sea disputes. A look is also being given to the global and regional acceptability of this Policy.

India’s ‘Look East Policy’: The Politico-Strategic Dynamics of the 1990s

India’s Look East Policy crafted and given impetus by India’s Prime Minister Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s merits to be qualified as one of the masterstrokes of Indian diplomacy. The persistent pursuance of this Policy by subsequent political dispensations in power in New Delhi highlights India’s long term interest and commitments to South East Asia and East Asia.

Politico-strategic dynamics in play in the 1990s, the first decade of India’s ‘Look East Policy’ need to be viewed in two separate time frames, namely the early 1990s and the closing years of that decade.

India’s ‘Look East Policy’ needs to be viewed as a logical reawakening of India to the strategic reality in the post-Cold War era that India had ‘Other Neighbours’ too, besides South Asia. The ASEAN neighbourhood had gained both political and economic salience in regional and global affairs. While India shared land borders with only Myanmar, India shared maritime boundaries with many ASEAN countries like Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia.

ASEAN Region therefore offered an attractive proposition for an Indian political and economic reach-out. Politically it offered India wider openings to ASEAN countries and East Asia as a whole. Economically, India could benefit with this economically dynamic and vibrant region for its own economic ascendancy with economic liberalisation having already being initiated.

India’s initial thrusts in its Look East Policy were primarily political and economic, and one could say that the emphasis was on the latter.

The point that needs to be emphasised initially itself is that India had maintained good relationships with South East Asian countries and also in East Asia with Japan even before it initiated its ‘Look East Policy’.

India’s ‘Look East Policy’ progress in the initial years may seem slow to many policy analysts but then it needs to be remembered that this was the time of India and ASEAN and East Asia politically discovering each other and sizing-up each other. This was also the period when ASEAN was focussing more on integrating China into various ASEAN mechanisms.

India’s ‘Look East Policy’ gained more traction as the decade of the 1990s was coming to a close due to a combination of prevailing politico-strategic dynamics. By 2000 India had emerged as a rising power both economically and militarily. Economically, India had registered strong economic growth rates and India now presented an attractive destination for economic investments. With its nuclear weaponisation in 1998 and its advanced missiles programmes India’s military strengths were on display.

At the turn of the Millennium, India’s power potential and attributes of power stood recognised by the United States which prompted it to forge the US-India Strategic Partnership. India’s 1.2 billion domestic markets in a liberalised economy and India’s growing defence purchases programme provided the stimulus to United States recognition of India after shunning it in the Cold War era.

The unstated factor in United States recognition of India’s power potential and its courting India were the balance of power considerations in Asia Pacific in relation to China’s disturbing military rise

Politico-strategic dynamics had propelled India on an upward strategic trajectory in the Asia Pacific. This had a two way effect on the maturing of India’s ‘Look East Policy’.

East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea tied in security relationships to the United States found it easier to move closer to India in terms of openness to strategic partnerships and economic cooperation.

Similarly, ASEAN Region nations were moved to make strategic openings to India in view of India’s rising international profile. ASEAN Region’s creeping disappointment with China not delivering on their security expectations of a conflict- free South East Asia despite ASEAN integrating China in ASEAN dialogue mechanisms prompted them to look for alternatives,

India with its benign image of a responsible stakeholder in South East Asian stability and security provided that alternative.

India’s initiation of its ‘Look East Policy was therefore not only in effect a ‘re-return’ of India to a far more active and integrative role in South East Asia and East Asia affairs, but in terms of the Global Shift of Power to Asia provided an alternative to China in the region.

Asian Politico-Strategic Dynamics of the 21st Century First Decade Adds Impetus to India’s ‘Act East’ Profile

India’s ‘Act East’ Profile in the Political and Economic Domains

Politically and economically, India’s ‘Act East’ record in relation to South East Asia seems to have followed a two-strand inter-twined strategy. The two noticeable strands were one getting integrated at the regional level maintaining the centrality of ASEAN as the long-standing regional organisation of South East Asian countries. India’s approaches in East Asia to Japan and South Korea followed a similar pattern.

The second level was focussed on the forging of close political and economic linkages with each of the South East Asian countries in the bilateral format but within the overall framework of ASEAN centrality.

India’s political and economic overall record in pursuance of its ‘Act East’ record is exhaustive and therefore this presentation would focus on the more salient achievements to highlight India’s ‘Act East ‘record.

Politically, India pursuing its ‘Act East’ strategy reached a creditable high point when the India-ASEAN Summit was held in New Delhi in December 2012 attended by Heads of ten ASEAN countries. It marked the coming of age of India’s ‘Act East’ drive.

The ASEAN-India Commemorative Summit was held in New Delhi in December 2012 to mark the 20th Anniversary of India-ASEAN relations and the 10th Anniversary of India becoming a Dialogue Partner of ASEAN. The most notable achievement of this Summit was the issue of a Vision Statement which significantly declared that “We declare that the ASEAN –India Partnership stands elevated to a strategic partnership.”

The Vision Statement lays down in great detail the blueprint of ASEAN and India to surge ahead in in all fields in a comprehensive manner.

Complementing this ‘Act East’ political achievement of India is also its record of establishing substantial political relationships with individual ASEAN countries on a bilateral basis. India has forged strong political linkages with Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar. High level exchanges of political dignitaries take place regularly. Dialogue mechanisms exist for regular exchange of strategic views and advancing economic relations to higher levels.

India’s ‘Act East’ Profile: The Strategic and Military Dimension

India’s ‘Act East’ profile was not restricted to the political and economic spheres only. Strategic and military turbulence in East Asia and South East Asia generated an unstable security environment. India was not a party to the regional disputes of Asia Pacific of which East Asia and South East Asia were parts of.

Nevertheless, India could not remain a detached observer of conflictual regional events as they impacted on India’s security and national interests. It needs to be noted that India and ASEAN share overlapping security environments and share virtually the same strategic concerns.

Furthermore, India as an emerging power was expected and increasingly being looked upon by ASEAN Region as a counterweight to China’s perceptionaly threatening military profile. ASEAN was expecting India to play the role of a “Regional Balancer”.

The United States going by the statements of its top dignitaries at international forums in the region expected India to be the “nett provider of security in the Asia Pacific”. That stands supported by other Western nations.

India has always traditionally been reluctant to join military alliances or security networks but despite that reluctance what has become increasingly visible in India’s ‘Act East’ profile is the adding of bi-lateral strategic and military dimensions.

In East Asia, India has a strategic dialogue with Japan and South Korea, exchange of visits by Defence Ministers and Armed Forces Chiefs. India conducts naval cruises in Western Pacific and conducts s joint exercises in the region.

On a higher plane the US-Japan –India Trilateral and US-Japan-India-Australia Quadrilateral indicate integration with security initiatives in the region.

In South East Asia, India has substantive strategic and military dialogues with ASEAN nations. Heading the list are Vietnam and Singapore. Added to this list are also Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. India also enjoys close military relations with Myanmar.

In short the strategic and military tapestry that India has woven now extends from South Korea and Japan in the North to the South China Sea littoral ASEAN countries and extends all the way to Straits of Malacca, Myanmar and India’s island territories of Andaman & Nicobar Islands sitting strategically on the approaches to Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.

India’s Interests In the South China Sea: The Politico Strategic Determinants

The South China Sea extends from the Straits of Taiwan and extends all the way to the Straits of Malacca. The South China Sea therefore is virtually located at the doorsteps of India. Overlapping security concerns between India and ASEAN countries are therefore a legitimate outcome.

India has therefore a legitimate security interest in the security and stability of the South China Sea region as any turbulence in this region could adversely impact India’s national security interests.

Apart from the strategic importance of South China Sea to India’s security interests, this maritime expanse is vital for India’s trade and commerce. The South China Sea is also vital for India in relation to its energy security in relation to its Sakhalin supplies from Russia.

Politically, the ASEAN littoral countries of the South China Sea count on India for support against any dominance of the South China Sea by a single power. China has demonstrated by its Nine Dash Declarations and the South China Sea as China’s ‘Core National Interest’ Declaration that it claims sovereignty over the entire South China Sea. This claim is not acceptable regionally or globally.

Globally and regionally it has been asserted that the South China Sea is “Global Commons” and these are international waters through which international maritime traffic including naval movements have the right of unimpeded access and navigation. The United States has declared that security in the South China Sea is a national security interest of America.

India strongly supports the stand of the international community on this score and it has been reiterated and asserted at India’s apex political levels.

The ASEAN-India Vision Statement of 2012 states the same: “Committed to strengthening cooperation to ensure maritime security and freedom of navigation and safety of sea-lanes communication and unfettered movement of trade and commerce in accordance with international laws (UNCLOS)”.

The question that is often asked is as to whether India would come to the assistance of Vietnam or the Philippines or any other ASEAN country in the event of Chinese aggression and armed conflict in the South China Sea.

The short answer would be that in the event of such an armed aggression or conflict escalation contingency, a ‘stand-alone’ response from India is not expected by the Region. In such a contingency it would be a strategic gauntlet thrown by China at the international community with deep regional and global implications.

The international community would have to unitedly face such a contingency and it is my personal belief that India would not be found wanting in not supporting international community’s actions.

While India in relation to the South China Sea as a responsible stake-holder is committed to conflict prevention and peaceful conflict resolution of the South China Sea, it cannot remain oblivious to a threatening maritime environment which presently menaces the South China Sea and later may manifest in the India Ocean.

Sometimes back the Indian Naval Chief had asserted that the Indian Navy is prepared for South China Sea contingencies, even though the India Government downplayed the assertion for obvious reasons. But the fact is that by its periodic cruises in the Western Pacific, joint naval exercises with ASEAN, US, Japanese, South Korean and Vietnamese Navies, the Indian Navy has built substantive familiarisation of South China Sea waters and inter-operability with other Navies with a stake in the South China Sea.

India’s own maritime and naval postures have adopted an eastward orientation with greater emphasis on reinforcing the operational capabilities of its Eastern Naval Command, the Tri-Service Command in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands now to be headed by an Indian Navy Vice Admiral. Maritime aerial surveillance backed up by Indian Air Force strike capabilities is also being Eastern India.

 India is presently engaged through various protocols in ‘capacity-building’ of self-reliant naval and maritime capabilities of a number of ASEAN nations along with other responsible stake-holders in the South China Sea.

In fact, conflict-escalation in the South China Sea has been a ‘wake-up call’ for ASEAN as a whole where complacency is no longer advisable and an unquestioned unity a strategic imperative.

Concluding Observations: Regional and Global Acceptance of India’s ‘Look East Policy’

Asia’s politico-strategic dynamics have led to an increasing regional and global acceptance of India’s ‘Look East Policy’. It is not without reason that India stands elevated by ASEAN as a ‘Strategic Partner” at the ASEAN-India Summit in December 2012 at New Delhi.

There is an increasing strategic convergence of views on regional security between India on the one hand and East Asian countries and between India and the ASEAN Region nations.

Significantly, the United States as the predominant power in the Asia Pacific not only strongly supports India’s ‘Look East Policy’ but also encourages India to be more assertive in its ‘Look East Policy’ initiatives.

The above is a far cry from the second last decade of the 20th Century when India was the object of suspicion and strategic distrust from the United States and its Asia Pacific allies.

What has brought about this change in policy attitudes and policy inclinations of the United States and the line-up of Asia Pacific nations? Obviously, the contemporaray politico-strategic dynamics that dominate the Asia Pacific strategic landscape, in which comparatively, China is viewed with strategic distrust and India as the other rival Asian power is viewed as strategically trustworthy and a benign power with a powerful stake in the stability of East Asia and South East Asia.

India has emerged as a significant player in the Asia Pacific strategic calculus and power play and that by itself would ensure an enduring commitment to its ‘Look East Policy’.

Suggested Related Readings on the Subject: Author’s Papers on South Asia Analysis Group website

‘South East Asia: The Great Game Strategically in Swing”. Paper No. 5315 dated 28 November 2012

“Vietnam-India Strategic Partnership: A Contextual Analysis”. Paper No.5328 dated 14 December 2012.

“ASEAN Region: India Needs to Stand Strategically Tall.” Paper No.5332 dated 20 December2012.

“South China Sea: Indian Defence Minister Makes Strong Assertions”. Paper No. 5496 dated 20 May 2013

“South China Sea: Indian Navy Operational Cruise”. Paper No. 5500 dated 29 May 2013