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India aims to raise its profile vis-a-vis China by ‘looking east’

by Harsh V. Pant

LONDON — In a sign of the importance that India is attaching to its ties with East and Southeast Asia, India hosted Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at its Republic Day celebrations last week.

It was 60 years back that then Indonesian President Sukarno was the chief guest at the first Republic Day celebrations by India in 1950.

The most recent visit is intended to give a boost to India’s “Look East” policy, underscoring the need for greater integration and deeper engagement between India and East Asia in trade and other strategic sectors.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who had traveled to Japan and Malaysia for bilateral visits and to Vietnam for the 8th ASEAN-India Summit last November, has made it clear that his government’s foreign policy priority will be East and Southeast Asia, which are poised for sustained growth in the 21st century.

This is a time of great turmoil in the Asian strategic landscape and India is trying to make itself relevant to the regional states. The standoff between Japan and China over a boat collision last year underscored a more aggressive stance being adopted by the communist state against rivals and U.S. allies in Asia. There may be more tension to come.

With its political and economic rise, Beijing has started dictating the boundaries of acceptable behavior to its neighbors, thereby laying bare the costs of great power politics. The U.S. and its allies have already started reassessing their regional strategies, and a loose anti-China balancing coalition has started emerging.

Both Tokyo and New Delhi have made an effort in recent years to put Indo- Japanese ties in high gear. The rise of China in the Asia-Pacific and beyond has altered the strategic calculus of India and Japan, forcing them to rethink their attitudes toward each other.

India’s booming economy is making it an attractive trading and business partner for Japan as Japan tries to get itself out of its long years of economic stagnation. Japan is also reassessing its role as a security provider in the region and beyond, and of all its neighbors, India seems most willing to acknowledge Japan’s centrality in shaping the evolving Asia-Pacific security architecture.

Moreover, a new generation of political leaders in India and Japan are viewing each other differently, breaking from past policies, thereby changing the trajectory of India-Japan relations.

India’s ties with Japan have come a long way since May 1998 when a chill had set in after India’s nuclear tests with Japan imposing sanctions and suspending its overseas development assistance.

Since then, however, the changing strategic milieu in Asia-Pacific has brought the two countries together so much so that the last visit of the Indian prime minister to Japan resulted in the unfolding of a road map to transform a low-key relationship into a major strategic partnership.

The rise of China is a major factor in the evolution of Indo-Japanese ties as is the U.S. attempt to build India into a major balancer in the region. Both India and Japan are aware of China’s not-so-subtle attempts to prevent their rise.

An India-Japan civil nuclear pact would be critical in signaling that they would like to build a partnership to bring stability to the region at a time when China is going all out to reward Pakistan with civilian nuclear reactors, putting the entire nonproliferation regime in jeopardy.

The talks on a civilian nuclear pact, however, seem to be going nowhere at the moment with the two sides merely agreeing to speed up talks. Japan continues to insist that India sign the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, whereas India has no intention of doing so given its long-standing concerns regarding the discriminatory nature of these treaties.

Meanwhile, the new liability law in India could make greater civilian nuclear cooperation between Japan and India more difficult to accomplish.

Trade was also the focus of the Indian prime minister’s visit to Malaysia. Making a strong pitch for greater Malaysian investment in India, Singh and his Malaysian counterpart signed an array of agreements aimed at galvanizing bilateral economic cooperation and liberalizing their respective investment regimes to facilitate greater foreign direct investment into each other’s territory.

The security partnership between the two is also being strengthened with the decision to explore possibilities of collaborative projects in the defense sector and enhance cooperation in counterterrorism through information sharing and establishment of a joint working group.

In Hanoi, India made a strong case for its growing relevance in the East Asian regional security and economic architecture at the 8th ASEAN-India Summit where the focus was on enhancing the integration of the East Asian region with India. India’s free-trade agreement with ASEAN signed last year committed New Delhi to bring down import tariffs on 80 percent of the commodities it traded with ASEAN.

This allows India to challenge China’s growing penetration of East Asia and prevents India’s growing marginalization in the world’s most economically dynamic region in the world. After signing a free-trade pact in goods, India and ASEAN are now engaged in talks to widen the agreement to include services and investments. India hopes to increase its $44 billion trade with the ASEAN to $50 billion by next year.

Indonesia remains a key player in India’s “Look East” policy and it has played a key role in enhancing India’s ties with the ASEAN. By giving the Indonesian president the honor of being the chief guest in the Republic Day celebration, India is underlining the need for greater India-Indonesia cooperation in the years to come.

India is pursuing an ambitious policy in East Asia to increase its regional profile. China’s presence is already changing the regional landscape and smaller states in the region are now looking to India to act as a balancer in view of China’s growing prowess and America’s likely retrenchment from the region in the near future.

It remains to be seen if India can indeed live up to the full potential of its own possibilities in the region.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King’s College, London.