India Begins Pivot to East Asia

Delhi displays growing ambitions in the South China Sea

By: Neeta Lal

India is belatedly setting out to become a counterweight to China in East Asia, strengthening defense ties and forging strategic cooperation in a growing challenge to Beijing.

Its latest move came earlier this month when it joined hands with the Philippine government in an agreement to “strengthen defense engagement and maritime cooperation…especially in military training and education, capacity building, regular goodwill visits, and procurement of defense equipment” at a virtual summit.

Manila and Delhi have also been holding Navy drills in the disputed South China Sea along with the US, to reinforce freedom of navigation in the sea lanes claimed entirely by China. Toward the same end, India has also dispatched coastal surveillance radar systems to Manila to improve the latter’s maritime domain awareness.

Such synergy is hardly surprising considering both Delhi and Manila are locked in territorial conflicts with Beijing. While Indian defense forces have been engaged in a protracted confrontation with China at the Ladakh border, the Philippines has belatedly woken up to the peril of Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.

India’s augmented synergy with Manila is also part of its Act East Policy, which has emerged as a cornerstone of PM Narendra Modi’s foreign policy since he took office in 2014. The policy also has spurred India to significantly deepen ties with Japan, Australia and the US through the so-called Quad, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, an informal strategic forum that has started to come alive after years of inertia. India has also reached out to Fiji and other Pacific Island nations as well as South Korea and Mongolia.

It should be noted that India obviously has a long way to go to challenge China, with its enormous multi-trillion dollar Belt and Road Initiative building infrastructure in scores of countries across the world, in contrast to India’s minuscule US$1.3 billion or so, most of that going to regional neighbors such as Bhutan and Nepal.

India’s annual defense spending admittedly is peanuts compared to China’s, at U$71.1 billion according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, compared to US$261 billion for China, which could be substantially more since many military analysts believe China hides considerable spending in state-owned enterprises and other places. Both are dwarfed by the United States, which spends US$732 billion – more than the next 10 nations combined.

Nonetheless, for instance, Delhi’s cooperation with Japan has resulted in a growing strategic, economic, and technological partnership in which Tokyo has committed to investing US$35 billion in India over five years in infrastructure and smart cities; a high-speed bullet train to run between Mumbai and Ahmadabad. Japan is also expected to invest in the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. It will also enhance defense cooperation, participating in the Malabar naval exercises with India and the US.

India’s association with organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is regarded as integral to its East Asian engagement. The volume of trade and investment flows between ASEAN and India jumped from US$12.1 billion in 2003 to US$77.05 billion in 2019. ASEAN and India are also working to improve private sector engagement through the re-activation of the ASEAN-India Business Council and the ASEAN-India Business Summit. India now has a dedicated mission to the ASEAN headquarters in Jakarta) and an ASEAN India Center in New Delhi. At the 14th East Asia Summit in Bangkok, 2019, India mooted the ‘Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative’ to enhance maritime security.

Analysts say China’s economic and military rise has triggered India’s quest for a new Asian security architecture.

“As China’s elbows get sharper in East Asia and its forays into South Asia more frequent, close relations with ASEAN can help India apply counter-pressure when and where required,” wrote Rohan Mukherjee, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale-NUS College, Singapore, in Business Standard.

For instance, Mukherjee said, Delhi’s ongoing naval exercises, port calls, and maritime security dialogues with South China Sea littoral countries serve to remind Beijing of India’s ability and willingness to increase the cost of Chinese unilateralism.

“A low-level tit-for-tat strategy with regard to China—a testing of each other’s waters, as it were—coupled with robust economic relations with ASEAN is undoubtedly a beneficial medium-term equilibrium for India,” he wrote.

Despite India’s energetic outreach to East Asia, however, challenges remain. Lack of flights connecting India and Southeast Asian cities as well as lack of state-of-the-art highways that can facilitate better trade and movement of goods and people-to-people contacts have hobbled such an outreach, say experts.

Some of these issues will be addressed with India’s premier private airline Indigo launching direct flights between Kolkata and Ho Chi Minh City, followed by nonstop flights between Hanoi and Delhi and Ho Chi Minh City and Delhi by VietJet Air, Nguyen Le Thanh, Vietnam's deputy chief of mission to New Delhi, disclosed at a recent seminar.

Vivek Agnihotri, foreign policy expert with a New Delhi-based think tank, said shoring up infrastructure is the best way to improve India’s access to its neighborhood. “The India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway is a step in the right direction but its progress has been tardy,” he said. “Similarly, roads connecting to the Cambodia-Laos and Vietnam Kaladan Multimodal Project and the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle need to be speeded up if India wants to consolidate its hold in the neighborhood.”

According to a Lowy Institute for International Studies paper, the Modi government’s increased eastward focus reflects both its competition with China and its ambitions for a greater global role. “It is in India’s interest to see a multipolar order in Asia, but India’s motivation for engaging with the region exists independently of its relationship with China. India has shown a desire for a greater role in Asia, including as a security provider.”

India in the past “has been careful to avoid the perception that it is attempting to contain China or intrude on China’s strategic space, as the swift demise of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and India’s reluctance to speak out on the South China Sea have demonstrated. As such, it is likely to cautiously expand its influence in the region, while attempting to avoid overt rivalry with China.”

However, given India’s growing aspiration to find a place at the geopolitical high table, and given the considerable diplomatic and political capital it has expended towards that end, its recent decision to opt out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – the world’s largest trade bloc comprising 15 Asia-Pacific nations – has surprised many.

India had been a part of RCEP negotiations for almost nine years till it pulled out in November 2019. The decision has also polarized opinion on the soundness of such a move. India’s sudden withdrawal, says a commerce ministry source, was guided by “inadequate safeguards and lowering of customs duties that will adversely impact its domestic manufacturing, agriculture and dairy sectors.”

However, the majority view is that by staying out, India has deprived itself an important role in the region’s most dynamic trade bloc, which represents 30 percent of the global economy and world population, touching over 2.2 billion people. Fifteen nations have now signed up for RCEP: the 10-member ASEAN group, plus their free-trade partners, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand.

Many feel India’s self-exclusion from RCEP is tantamount to a `strategic error’. “Opting to stay out of RCEP would mean passive acceptance of the trade pact’s norms, and worse. Indian goods and services would face mounting trade and non-trade barriers in the entire Asia-Pacific, even as our competitiveness takes a beating from a lack of economic openness,” says an edit in The Economic Times.

Despite all the differences with China, Australia and Japan have not stayed out of RCEP, points out Agnihotri. “By being part of RCEP, India is in a better position to safeguard its interests as well as those of several countries that are too small to stand up to its largest member, China. Besides, active participation in the trade bloc can provide further ballast to India’s Act East thrust.”

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and journalist and a longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel

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