In looking East, India is being pulled in two directions
From his vantage point as a neutral third party (but very French) observer of India’s foreign policy, Frédéric Grare, south Asia scholar, former French defence ministry official and security affairs specialist, has authored a 360-degree analysis of India’s ‘Look East’ policy vis-à-vis east Asia and ASEAN countries individually and as a whole, with special reference to the India-China and India-US relationships and their interplay, that is remarkable for its rigour, objectivity and balance.
Grare rightly traces the immediate motivation for India’s LEP, launched by Narasimha Rao as prime minister in 1992, in several antecedent developments that propelled India to look eastward for economic and political opportunities: a stagnant State-dominated economy and the severe balance of payments crisis in 1991 that triggered economic reforms under the then finance minister, Manmohan Singh; turmoil in West Asia including Iran and Afghanistan, worsening relations with Pakistan and its negative impact on regional cooperation within SAARC; strategic and political vulnerabilities left by the collapse of the Soviet Union, and, further back, by the trauma of the 1962 India-China war.
Against this backdrop, Grare posits a few dilemmas that characterize Indian foreign policy. The first is the tension between India’s quest for status in Asia commensurate with its size and self-image and its almost chronic inability to meet the expectations of its friends and partners — partly because of internal weaknesses, but also because of its strategic reticence and ambivalence on several key issues. This is perhaps best illustrated by India’s refusal to respond to the requests of the Singapore prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, between 1966-68 for an Asian ‘Monroe Doctrine’ led by India after the withdrawal of the British navy from Singapore.
Grare shows how the LEP and associated economic openings partially reversed the setbacks India suffered since Independence while moderating its original aspiration for Asian leadership in favour of a more modest Asian regionalism under the ASEAN. He endorses the LEP as a pragmatic move of a “much chastened nation” away from strategic ‘autarky’ at home and diplomatic leadership abroad to unshackle its economy through greater openness, and regain strategic autonomy through new partnerships and recourse to multi-polarity in international relations.
Given India’s limitations, Grare argues that ASEAN and the East Asia Summit platforms and their consensus-driven mechanisms have served India well. It has partially offset a loss of strategic space occupied by the British post-Independence, and given it a voice on regional issues.
But he cautions that newer economic challenges posed by the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (dropped for now by Donald Trump) and a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership dominated by China could prove more fateful by showing up India’s unpreparedness to cope with the social, environmental and intellectual property standards required by the former on the one hand, or exacerbating an already unfavourable trade balance with China on the other.
Second, Grare plots the ups and downs of the India-China relationship, laying out India’s growing security concerns accompanying China’s rapid rise, and its increasing assertiveness on the Line of Actual Control and boundary issues. Tibet, Pakistan, the Indian Ocean Region and the South China Sea on the one hand, military budgets and capabilities, trade imbalances, naval programmes and ambitions, and strategic outreaches in the form of the Maritime Silk Road and LEP on the other, present a sobering picture of an increasing gap in ambition and capability between India and China that is unlikely to be bridged in the foreseeable future.
Therein lies the third dilemma: the tension between India’s quest for strategic friendships, particularly with the US, and strategic autonomy on the other. Grare shows that together with its chronic underperformance, this tension often leaves India between two stools, unable to get the security of alliances or safeguard its security and interests on its own. While sympathetic to the Indian desire for strategic autonomy, Grare argues that no Asian power, and only the US, can bridge this gap, but that this would involve choices and compromises that India cannot accept. There is also a hint that this could also be due to a lack of strategic clarity and a road map of its own on how to manage its security challenges.
But even if India were to consider such an ‘alliance’, Grare shows a mismatch between the incipient strategic convergence between the US and India in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ reflected in the LEP and the US ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot’ towards Asia to contain China, and India’s more complex position on the latter. These include India’s proximity to China, the 1962 war, the unresolved boundary problem, and China’s military capabilities, but also India’s wariness in getting caught in a US strategic embrace that would alienate China even further, its desire not to antagonize China and benefit from the relationship, and doubts about US commitment to India’s security when it comes to the crunch. These realities have also pushed India to rely more on hedging strategies and ASEAN regionalism, even as ASEAN itself is caught in the grip of US-China rivalry.
Grare seems to suggest that the only solution possible is the fulfilment of the original goal of the LEP to truly unshackle India’s economy so that it can integrate more closely with the US and East Asian economies, create economic interdependencies that increase stakes in each other, and enhance its economic and military capabilities, enabling it to act as a counterweight to China. He is acutely aware that political conditions for that do not yet exist in India, but he conveys these harsh truths without sentimentality or pessimism, or trying to paper them over.
It is a pity that Grare’s study ends before he can factor in the new dynamics brought by the elections of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump, the emergence of Xi Jinping in China as an undisputed leader with a much more assertive foreign policy, the development of the India-Japan strategic partnership, the recalibration of India-China relations post-Doklam and the Modi-Xi Jinping informal summit in Wuhan in May.
He may not have had to revise most of his observations if he updated them, except perhaps to underline India’s reservations about relying on the US as a strategic partner vis-à-vis China, the lack of headway on economic reforms promised by Modi, and the possibility of an ‘Asian’ response to the rise of China presaged by Modi and Shinzo Abe. It is to be seen how these emerging dynamics take shape, but without a single-minded focus on India’s economic growth, a deeper integration with east Asia, and a coherent economic response to the BRI and rise of China, hopes seem unlikely to be fulfilled.
India Turns East: International Engagement and US-China Rivalry By Frédéric Grare, Penguin, Rs 599