After the Depsang Valley incursion of April 15-May 3, when Chinese patrols transgressed 19 kilometres into Indian-claimed areas in eastern Ladakh, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced that he will extend his visit in May to Tokyo by another day for consultations on strategic issues with various groups in Japan.
Around the same time, Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister and finance minister Taro Aso was in New Delhi. He stressed that Japan and India are “in the same boat” and that they should strengthen maritime cooperation.
These and other moves indicate new developments in India’s Look East Policy (LEP). Indeed, there has been some pressure on India to enhance the content of the LEP to provide “net security” to the region and become a centre-point of the renamed “Indo-Pacific”.
This pressure coincided with the U.S.’s announcement of “rebalancing” in the Asia-Pacific during President Barack Obama’s first administration. While India had been non-committal to the U.S. proposals, it may have a long-term interest in a bigger role in the region.
India’s contacts with the Southeast and East Asian region were rekindled in the post-Cold War period, and the LEP was announced in 1991. Several multilateral initiatives followed, with India joining the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1995, the ASEAN Regional Forum in 1996, and signing the free trade agreement (FTA) in 2009. India’s role in the region grew further when it joined the East Asian Summit in late 2005 and the multilateral naval exercises conducted in the region.
India’s changing role partly came from the reconfiguration of its security policy in February 2001 towards active involvement from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca. Other reasons included Indian investments in the energy sector in Sakhalin and in Vietnam-held areas; growing trade and investments with Japan, South Korea, China, Taiwan and the ASEAN; heavy dependence of the region on energy flows from the Indian Ocean (nearly 70%); and the Indian offer at the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore in mid-2006 to help protect the piracy-prone Straits of Malacca.
According to the Ministry of Commerce (Annual Report 2011-12), the Asia and ASEAN region now constitute more than 55% of Indian trade, even as India has entered into comprehensive economic partnership agreements with Japan and South Korea. And in talks with Taiwan on an FTA and possibly a regional preferential trade agreement with China, the Indian focus is mainly on trade, investments and markets.
The LEP is also acquiring strategic and security dimensions because these agreements coincided with China’s refusal to give visas to Indian military officials from Jammu and Kashmir, issuing stapled visas to Kashmiri residents in India, and the latest transgression issue at Depsang plains.
The LEP has implications for not only Southeast Asia and East Asia but also for China, which is slowly asserting itself in the region. After the Cold War, this region has had a relative power vacuum. With the disintegration of structures such as Subic Bay and Cam Ranh Bay, and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Southeast Asia (with the recent exception of the nearly 1,000 troops for counter-terrorism operations in the Philippines), China saw the opportunity and used a multi-pronged approach to come closer to the region.
Almost at the same time, India unveiled its LEP, mainly aimed at attracting investments, high-technologies, and markets. Some Chinese scholars view this international context and India’s LEP in terms of either containment or competition between the two countries, with regional states taking sides.
China’s assertiveness on the South China Sea dispute could be a time for a reassessment in the ASEAN of China’s long-term goals in the region. In the last two decades, ASEAN countries have engaged with China in many fields with mutually beneficial outcomes. Trade and investments increased with the FTA between the two. The ASEAN also took several pro-China positions in their policies related to the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the China-U.S. confrontation on the EP-3 surveillance plane incident in 2001, and the SARS-epidemic in 2003.
However, after China announced that the South China Sea areas are a part of its extended “core interests,” a majority of the members of ASEAN were either against China (as was evident at the Hanoi meeting in October 2010) or they lost consensus (at the Phnom Penh meeting in 2012).
All this has created conditions for the ASEAN to look towards India, which has no territorial ambitions in the region. Many ASEAN countries were critical of the Indian nuclear tests of 1998, but of late they are welcoming India’s role, especially in the maritime security domain.
Apart from the economic angle, the LEP has three security dimensions–balancing China in Myanmar; investments in Vietnam’s oil fields; and the Indian Navy’s maritime doctrine of 2007, which regarded the South China Sea and the Persian Gulf as being of “secondary importance” and the Indian Ocean as its “primary responsibility”. With China’s plans to establish dual-use ports at Hambantota, Gwadhar and other places, the Indian desire to go to the South China Sea and East China Sea is a part of the counter-strategy.
Over the last three years, the military in Myanmar has been engaged in a process to restore democracy. Several Chinese-funded dam and mining projects were put on hold, and the Chinese-origin Kokang minority was driven away. These events have also coincided with an increase in India’s diplomatic activity in Myanmar.
The Indian LEP is providing alternative security and economic scenarios for regional actors in the context of the concerted rise of China. India, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia and others are taking preliminary, though not cohesive, measures to retain stability in the region.
Srikanth Kondapalli is Professor in Chinese Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
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