Sunday, July 18, 2010
With China and the US Looming Over Southeast Asia, Where Does India Fit In?
India’s Look East policy was initiated out of failures: the failure of India’s cold war strategy of “playing both ends against the middle” while at the same time attempting to adopt a pro-Soviet “tilt,” and the failure of India’s command economy, which by 1990 had managed to command only 0.4 percent of world trade — insufficient to cushion India from the 1989-90 oil shock. While the collapse of the Soviet Union was no fault of India, it left New Delhi searching for an alternative set of economic and strategic approaches. Look East seemed to fit both needs.
India faced a hard task in clawing its way back into those parts of Asia to its east. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations itself was born out of concern about an encroaching communist bloc and tempered in the fires of the Vietnam War, and it viewed India’s still clunky economy and former Soviet bloc tilt with suspicion. India also took some time to learn Asian diplomatic mores. In 1994, in a major address in Singapore, Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao expressed surprise at the title of the speech he had been given — India’s “new” relationship with Asia.
Rao pointed out that India’s influence in Asia was hardly new; indeed, Indian religion and culture lie at the heart of today’s Southeast Asia. True enough, but that missed the point from Asean’s perspective. The Asean nations were a bunch of hard-nosed pragmatists intent on getting on with the job — and the job was developing and making money. Of course, Asean was only part of India’s Look East policy, as Vietnam and Burma had not yet jointed the association. India had a friendship with the former and was already rivals with China over the latter.
And Japan was being eyed as a source of technology and foreign direct investment.
But in Asia — and especially Asean — nothing succeeds like success. Asean only took notice of India once the latter appeared to be locked into 8 percent to 9 percent growth, a pattern now seemingly resumed. India is now much more highly regarded in Asean than it was in the 1990s. It has extensive defense dealings with Singapore, Australia and Japan and defense relationships with Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Yet for all this recent success, the India-Asean Free Trade Association was extremely hard-won. India’s farmers were committing suicide at unprecedented levels over supposedly unbridled agricultural imports caused by globalization.
The FTA, when it finally emerged in 2009, was not only intensely criticized in India but also highly protective of Indian agriculture, especially edible oils. It took more than six years to negotiate and will not be fully implemented for non-sensitive goods until 2016 (later for poorer countries and India). Ironically, as India has gained significant traction in Asean and other East Asian forums, those venues are being overshadowed by larger, and some would say ominous, regional developments.
Increasingly the debate has devolved onto the growing strategic, diplomatic and financial critical mass of China. Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd saw this early on and tried to hone Asian security architecture to accommodate a rising China and provide it with a forum to be, if not first among equals, then equal among equals. The profound implication of this purpose was that all major powers should be part of that architecture, not least India. Increasingly, however, it looks as if the horses have fled from this particular stable. Rudd lost interest in his Asian architecture in favor of the G-20. More important, the rise of China and to a lesser extent India has “gone around the edges” of existing Asian architecture.
Initially at least, it looks as if China holds the key. How China chooses to rise to power in Asia will be the seminal factor in the future of Asian security. And further, how Sino-US relations unfold will be seminal to the process of how China rises. India is definitely there in the equation but not till some way down the track. Meanwhile, it is the Sino-US relationship that will define the character of China’s rise more than any other single factor, excepting, of course, the innate character of the Chinese polity.
So where does India fit in?
The United States knows it will lose power in Asia and even globally to China over the longer term. Hence the strategic quality of the India-US relationship, the fact that the nuclear deal between the two was intended above all to enable the United States to provide strategic military assistance to India, and that Washington remains unabashed that its intention is to build India over this century as a major strategic factor in Asia. At the moment India is especially weak vis-a-vis China. China can play virtually at will in India’s South Asian backyard. China’s great long-term enemy is, of course, demography. Not only will India be larger by 2030, but more significantly, it will have a higher proportion of young people than China.
But to take advantage, it needs to set in place labor and infrastructure policies to position it to become the new labor-intensive workshop of the world. Despite India’s long-term demographic advantage, China may well take after Japan and use its enormous capital reserves to substitute for labor. While Sino-US relations will initially hold the key, Sino-Indian relations will emerge as increasingly important as India gains in strength, increasing the prospect of an emerging strategic triangle between China, the United States and India.
At present, the United States and India each uses the other as a hedge against a difficult rise for China in Asia. Thus, what may one day become a strategic triangle cannot yet be accorded that label. Such a negative prospect depends both on how Sino-US and Sino-Indian relations develop. In terms of the Sino-Indian relationship, the most favorable term that could be used is ambiguous.
On the negative side, China has changed its position in relation to the border issue — now resolutely sticking to its claim to Arunachal Pradesh state. China is actively involved in the South Asian countries surrounding India, which is Beijing’s way of hedging against the possibility its vital energy secured lines of credit might one day come under pressure. Certainly, New Delhi would prefer if India were part of a concert of powers in Asia.
Although India will continue to get what it can from the United States and Israel in high-tech areas such as space, computation and anti-ballistic missile technologies, New Delhi believes India is too large ever to be any other country’s ally. India will also seek to have a range of relations with other large powers, including Russia, the EU, Japan and China. It avidly seeks to engage more successfully in resources competition in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. But in either case — that of a concert of powers or of power balancing — it seems that the Look East policy may retreat to a moment in history — a moment when a tentative India was feeling its way, a relationship on the rebound, as it were. That is not to say, of course, that Southeast Asia will not remain extremely important to India in the strategic and to a lesser extent the economic spheres.
It is to say, rather, that Southeast Asia will be only one of many regions of importance to a rising, global power such as India.
By Sandy Gordon professor at the Australian Research Council Center of Excellence in Policing and Security at Australian National University.