India - East Asia
Two years have passed since India’s relations with East Asia have been considered in this journal (see “India-East Asia Relations 2004: A Year of Living Actively,” January 2005). In the interim, a steady if un-dramatic consolidation of ties has occurred between India and its neighbors to the east. On a parallel track, India has also gained membership or observer status in regional organizations such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). India’s immediate South Asian environment continues to demand considerable Indian attention and energies given the multiplicity of challenges there, and India’s relations with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal remain complex, but this situation has not impeded India’s relations with East Asia. India’s economic growth during the past two years has also been healthy. And though not directly related, India’s improved relations with the U.S., capped by the approval by the U.S. Congress of the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement, also provided a positive basis to engage key Asian countries and organizations.
India’s relations with countries in the Asia-Pacific region during 2007 were wide-ranging as New Delhi sought to consolidate and expand ties with both small and large countries from Singapore to Australia to South Korea. With the U.S., India was on the verge of a landmark agreement on civil nuclear energy cooperation. But in India’s relations with both Asia and the U.S. there was unfinished business. In the case of Southeast Asia for example, the failure to conclude an FTA agreement despite long, complex and sometimes quite testy negotiations blunted what has generally been a positive if incremental trajectory in India-Southeast Asia relations. With China, India’s relations crawl forward year by year with little progress on fundamental issues such as the border/territorial dispute. With Japan, for all the excitement of the Abe-Aso tenure with India, the facts on the ground, especially on economic relations, remain limited. There are some more interesting openings for India in the region such as relations with Australia and South Korea, but they too are somewhat unusual rather than an established pattern. What is undeniable is that India is now a thread in the fabric of Asia. Similarly, despite the failure of the U.S. and India to conclude the civilian nuclear energy deal in 2007, the thickness of U.S.-India relations is unlikely to be diluted, even if it will take a lot of work from both Washington and New Delhi to keep them going.
India’s relations with the U.S. and East Asia during 2008 took place amidst remarkable flux domestically, within the South Asian region, and around the world – all of which directly and indirectly influenced developments in bilateral relations. The two issues that dominated U.S.-India relations during 2008 were the civilian nuclear cooperation deal and, at the end of the year, the U.S.-India-Pakistan triangle including the issues of terrorism and Kashmir. India’s relations with East Asia were quiescent during 2008. A notable development was the completion of an India-ASEAN free trade agreement, although its economic implications remain uncertain. India accentuated the positive with Myanmar as bilateral relations became more cordial while relations with China seemed to be on hold for most of the year as the border dispute remained unresolved and India responded cautiously to the Chinese handling of unrest in Tibet.
High-profile visits and meetings characterized Indian relations with both the United States and East Asia in 2010. While there were no major “breakthroughs” or departures as a result, the ongoing evolution of both US-India and India-East Asia relations suggests that they are now a fixed part of the US-Asia dynamic. It is worth noting that while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton neither visited India during her first trip to Asia in February 2009 (she did visit India in July 2009) nor made mention of India in her pre-departure address on US Asia policy, in November 2010 President Obama opened his speech to the joint session of India’s Parliament by declaring that “[i]t’s no coincidence that India is my first stop on a visit to Asia…” And the joint statement between the two countries issued during that visit specifically noted a “shared vision for peace, stability and prosperity in Asia, the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific region…[and] agreed “to deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia…” Indeed, including India at all in an Asia itinerary is a recent innovation in US foreign policy and one that speaks to a larger US policy debate about the evolving Asia-Pacific. Whether such an innovation sticks remains to be seen, although many indications suggest that it will; especially as the need to coordinate increases on matters such as the East Asian Summit, maritime cooperation across the “Indo-Pacific,” and wider global issues.
Over a decade into the “normalization” of US-India relations and nearly 20 years into India’s “Look East” policy, the US-India-East Asia nexus is regularly articulated by the US and India, generally accepted in the region, and shows some signs of gaining traction including a regular US-India dialogue on East Asia and the launch of the first-ever US-India-Japan trilateral dialogue. More broadly, US views of India as part of Asia now encompass mental as well as policy maps (though not yet bureaucratic and all geographical ones) and transcend party politics. Meanwhile, US-India bilateral relations move steadily if sometimes frustratingly forward, and India-East Asia ties continue to deepen and widen though to neither side’s full satisfaction. One thing is clear: triangulation depends above all on India’s own commitment and actions to build a closer relationship with the wider Asia-Pacific region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an echo of comments made by regional leaders over the years, told an Indian audience in Chennai in July that “India’s leadership will help to shape positively the future of the Asia Pacific. That’s why … we encourage India not just to look east, but to engage east and act east as well [emphasis added].”
India’s relations with the United States and East Asia during 2012 revolved around notable visits and anniversaries rather than any major policy developments. India’s chief guest at its Republic Day in January was Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, making her the third consecutive leader from East Asia to be honored by India in this way (preceded in 2010 by South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak and in 2011 by Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono). In March, Prime Minister Singh made the first state visit by an Indian prime minister to South Korea since former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, initiator of India’s “Look East” policy, visited there in 1993. In May, Singh became the first Indian prime minister in a quarter century to visit next-door neighbor Myanmar – following up President Thein Sein’s visit the previous October. (Aung San Suu Kyi, chair of Myanmar’s opposition National League of Democracy party, visited India in December for the first time in 40 years.) Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard made her first visit to India as prime minister in October. In late December, nearly every head of government of ASEAN member countries traveled to New Delhi for the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit.
The “big anniversary” of the year was India’s relationship with ASEAN – the 20th anniversary of India’s dialogue partnership with ASEAN and the 10th anniversary of the India-ASEAN summit-level partnership. Also, India and Thailand marked 65 years of diplomatic relations and India and Vietnam marked 40 years of such relations and the 5th anniversary of a “strategic partnership.” 2012 is also the 50th anniversary of India’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian Border War.
These visits and anniversaries should not be dismissed as symbolism without substance. India has achieved a modicum of satisfaction in its relations with the US and East Asia – encompassing greater diplomatic interchange, steadily rising though far from optimum economic ties, a role in security and military considerations, and inclusion in some if not all key regional multilateral efforts (exceptions being particularly glaring in the economic realm such as APEC and TPP membership). But measured against just two decades ago when India was seen as a potential security threat, economically irrelevant, diplomatically isolated, and reeling from internal crises, India’s current engagement with the US and East Asia should be viewed as an upward if unfulfilled progression. Indeed, many in the US and East Asia are frustrated because they want more, not less Indian engagement.
India-East Asia relations since the beginning of 2013 are a model of “low drama.” India continues to steadily manage and move forward its relations with both large and small countries using a mix of tools including government policy, the private sector, and broader societal links. India has been diplomatically, economically, and to some extent militarily rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific for about 20 years; a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and “Eastern bloc,” the economic dynamism of East Asia, and India’s own “Look East” policies combined with some Asian countries reciprocal efforts (e.g., Japan and ASEAN countries) to expand the role of “external” powers in the region. A careful analysis of India-East Asia ties suggests how much progress has been made in expanding ties and how much potential remains. Closing this gap will be the story of India-East Asia relations for decades. But as tensions rise in Asia and countries jostle for economic growth, diplomatic space, and security reassurances, it seems a safe bet that India will continue to be an element, and possibly an increasingly important element, of the strategic picture.
India-East Asia relations since May 2014 are distinctive for two main reasons. First, Narendra Modi was inaugurated as India’s new prime minister on May 26 following a landmark and landslide election. In the months since, the Modi-led government has conducted robust and wide-ranging bilateral meetings with East Asian leaders and attended the East Asia Summit (EAS), the India-ASEAN Summit, and the G-20 Summit. Modi is seeking to create a new narrative for India-East Asia relations, saying at the EAS that “my government has moved with a great sense of priority and speed to turn our ‘Look East Policy’ into ‘Act East Policy’.” A second distinctive element of current India-East Asia relations is that it marks the third decade of India’s “Look East” policy launched in the early 1990s. This is, then, the third decade of India’s “third incarnation” as an Asian player – the first incarnation covering the millennia of historical, religious, and civilizational connections and the second incarnation covering the immediate post-1947 independence period until the early 1960s.
India-East Asia relations during 2015 offered a perspective on the first full year of India “Acting East.” India took important steps to shore up ties with several Asia-Pacific countries while also creating new relationships. While India-East Asia relations saw no ground-breaking developments, Prime Minister Modi continues to emphasize the political and strategic dimensions of India’s East Asia outreach – particularly in the maritime domain. An official review of India’s foreign relations released in late December provided a perspective on the priority that the Modi administration has been giving to East Asia.
India deployed its prime minister, president, and vice president as well as key Cabinet officials across East Asia and the Pacific in 2016 in support of its “Act East Policy.” Since 2015 was the first full year of India “acting east” under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, 2016 was not expected to be a defining year in India-East Asia relations and it was not; rather, India’s engagement was robust but not riveting. After years of negotiating, a nuclear deal between India and Japan was one major development. More troubling, trade and investment ties were lackluster due to a range of international as well as specific bilateral factors, although India continues to participate in negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. India-China relations were noticeably cool and contentious. Still, India pursued broad and innovative outreach initiatives despite more pressing priorities, limited leverage, and East Asia’s own flux, contestations, and uncertainties. An example of innovation was President Mukherjee’s first-ever state visit to Papua New Guinea. He also made the first Indian presidential visit to China since 2000. Meanwhile, Vice President Ansari made a first-ever vice presidential visit to Brunei and to Thailand after a 50-year gap. So, India “acted east” as Modi promised soon after taking office in 2014, but it was hardly a bravura performance.