India’s ‘Look-East Policy’, initiated during the early 1990s as a part of India’s attempts to cope with the post-Cold War shifts in world and Asian politics, has picked up the threads, lost during the 1950s and 1960s, of seeking intensive engagement with the ASEAN region.
Asia’s emergence in world politics has in a significant way, been concretized with the holding of East Asia Summit (EAS) on December 17, 2005. This is a firm first step towards building a broader Asian strategic community that can address the basic challenges of the region in the areas of trade and investment, energy security, revival of cultural bonds and ensuring of peace and stability.
The US has not been a part of EAS but it has formidable strategic presence in the region and the security relationships will be decisively influenced by its preferences and priorities. And yet, it may be in Indias long term interests not to project itself in the region as an ally of the US, particularly in building any anti-Chinese coalition.
There were initial reservations among some of the East Asian countries on India’s participation in the EAS but they were eventually set aside. India’s preference has been that the EAS, like the ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) be driven by ASEAN and this has been so accepted. At the EAS, India, in no uncertain terms, underlined its commitment to build the Asian community, a vision that was articulated by Nehru in the concept of “Eastern Federation” at a time when India was still struggling to liberate itself from the British colonial domination. Nehru’s vision was lost in the whirlwinds of Cold war, great power domination of the region and the Asian rivalries. Since then, India has generally remained shy in taking any bold and imaginative initiative to revive its Asian vision. In the recent years, China has launched its Boao Forum and Japan has been pursuing the concept of JACIKA (Japan, China, India and Korea).
Even Thailand has floated the idea of Asian Cooperation Dialogue, that includes India. But India has remained a hesitant participant in some of these initiatives. The EAS provides a great opportunity for India to engage itself with the dynamics of new Asia that is coherent not only economically and culturally but also strategically.
Equations with the regional powers
The strategic architecture of Asian community will evolve at three levels–from the interaction of major players, the dynamics of regional integration and interdependence, and the substance of bilateral cooperation and understanding. At the level of the major powers, India’s emerging strategic engagement is constructive. It has strategic partnerships with the US and China and is building areas of understanding with Japan, South Korea and Australia. The US has not been a part of EAS but it has formidable strategic presence in the region and the security relationships will be decisively influenced by its preferences and priorities. And yet, it may be in India’s long term interests not to project itself in the region as an ally of the US, particularly in building any anti-Chinese coalition.
There is a lose talk of structuring an “Asian NATO” to ensure that a powerful and assertive China, in the years and decades to come, does not dominate the region. It would be in India’s own long term interests to ensure that no single country dominated the region, but the coldwarish coalitions would in general be counter productive. India’s efforts should be geared towards keeping such coalitions off the region, and not participate in them if they are forged.
The major strategic concern in the EAS region arises from the rise of China and its consequences. India has a complex framework of engagement with China”¦
The major strategic concern in the EAS region arises from the rise of China and its consequences. India has a complex framework of engagement with China where there are areas of competition, cooperation and conflict (C3) operating simultaneously with varying paces and thrusts. Therefore while taking cognizance of the area of incompatibility and even conflict, India must vigorously pursue its constructive engagement with China. This may in the long run hope to moderate and soften incompatibilities in the interests of the two Asian giants. There are indications that China is also aware of this potentiality and would want to ensure, at least in the short and medium term prospects to ensure that India does not join any of the China-containing coalitions forged by the US, Japan or other major powers. Defining its role in the emerging balance of forces in its eastern neighbourhood without vitiating its relations with China is the real challenge for India.
In this respect, statements like that of India’s Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, at the India Economic Forum in New Delhi on November 28, 2005, that “India and the United States can contribute to a much better balance in the Asian region”, tend to mislead. The problem lies not with India’s aspirations to contribute constructively to the Asian peace and stability but in clubbing itself with the US, or any other major player in the region for structuring regional balance. As against this, Prime Minister has been forthright in asserting that India is not in the business of counterbalancing or competing with China in Asia. This does not preclude India from cooperating bilaterally or multilaterally with the US or any other country, or group of countries, in ensuring maritime security as India did in Malacca Strait by escorting US ships in 2002.
It would be better to broaden this concept at the Asian level without encouraging such alliances or coalitions that prompt and reinforce conflictual or antagonistic engagements and threaten the stability of the regional balance.
Similarly, India has also established strategic partnership with Japan, which may be dominated by economic interactions in the immediate context but will not exclude security and strategic relationship as it evolves. ASEAN constitutes the core of EAS as mentioned above. It has consistently evolved a resilient multidimensional strategic balance in the region through constructive engagements both with the regional as well as extra regional powers. This is evident in the ARF where India is an important partner, by virtue of being a dialogue partner of ASEAN on the lines of other countries like the US, Japan, China and Russia.
It would be better to broaden this concept at the Asian level without encouraging such alliances or coalitions that prompt and reinforce conflictual or antagonistic engagements and threaten the stability of the regional balance. The elements of this approach were inherent in Shyam Saran’s India Economic Forum statement where he elaborated by saying “We believe in terms of managing the emerging security scenario in Asia, we need to bring more and more countries within the discipline of a mutually agreed security paradigm for the region”.
It is this thrust in India’s approach that is reflected in India’s ship visits, naval exercises and strategic dialogues, with or without the label of “strategic partnership” with all the major players in the region including the US, China, Japan and Australia. India’s participation in the core group constituted to respond to the Tsunami disaster was an important initiative in this respect. It was constituted under the US leadership and other members included were Japan and Australia. India was one of the fastest to reach the disaster sights and it was also the first to complete the assign task and get out of the affected countries. There was some misunderstanding initially on the size and nature of deployments.