LONDON – India hosted the leaders of Myanmar and Vietnam in early October, underscoring once again the seriousness with which it is pursuing its Look East policy as it forges close economic and security ties with two significant nations in East and Southeast Asia and counters China’s penetration of its neighborhood.
India’s Look East Policy was explicitly designed to initiate New Delhi’s re-engagement with East Asia after years of neglect during the Cold War. This is a time of great turmoil in the Asian strategic landscape and India is trying to make itself relevant to the region’s members.
With its political and economic rise, Beijing has started dictating the boundaries of acceptable behavior to its neighbors and tensions are rising between China and smaller states in East Asia and Southeast Asia over territorial issues. The United States and its allies have already started re-assessing their regional strategies and a loose coalition is emerging to counterbalance China’s growing power.
It is in this broader context that the recent visits by Myanmar and Vietnam’s presidents to India assume significance. Though under pressure to promote democratic reforms in Myanmar, India’s strategic interests have been winning out in its relations with that country in recent years. Myanmar’s reclusive military leader, Gen. Than Shwe, was in India earlier last year and India rolled out the red carpet for the head of Myanmar’s State Peace and Development Council.
Previously a harsh critic of the Myanmar junta, since the mid-1990s India has muted its criticism and dropped its vocal support for the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in order to pursue its Look East policy. More important to New Delhi has been China’s rapidly growing profile in Myanmar. As India realized that Myanmar — one of its closest neighbors and a major source of natural gas — was increasingly falling under China’s orbit, it reversed its decades-old policy of isolation and has now begun to deal directly with the junta.
India has found it difficult to toe the Western line on Myanmar. It is stuck between the demands of its role as the world’s largest democracy and the imperatives of its strategic interests. The large Burmese refugee community in India is a product of the 1998 military crackdown in Myanmar. Indian elites have long admired the freedom struggle led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who was honored with one of India’s highest civilian awards in 1993. Even today, the official policy of the Indian government is the eventual restoration of democracy in Myanmar. But India’s strategic interests in Myanmar have become significant in recent years, especially as China’s trade, energy and defense ties with Myanmar have surged.
Strategic interests have led New Delhi to only gently nudge the Myanmar junta on the issue of democracy. India has gained a sense of trust at the highest echelons of Myanmar’s ruling elite and does not want to lose this. As such, India remains opposed to Western sanctions on Myanmar. Suu Kyi has indicated that she would be talking to the military junta to find the best alternative for her nation and that should give India a larger strategic space to maneuver.
The three-day state visit to India by Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sam last month highlights the growing closeness of India-Vietnam relations. Ties between New Delhi and Hanoi have raised many eyebrows after India snubbed China and made it clear that India’s ONGC Videsh Limited (OVL) will continue to pursue oil and natural gas exploration in two Vietnamese blocks in the South China Sea.
As India’s profile rises in East Asia and Southeast Asia and China expands its presence in South Asia and the Indian Ocean region, India is staking its own claims in East Asia and asserting its legitimate interests in East Asian waters. India has a particular interest in protecting the sea lines of communication that cross the South China Sea to Northeast Asia and the U.S.
India has now decided to work with Vietnam to establish a regular Indian presence in the region as part of a larger New Delhi-Hanoi security partnership. New Delhi and Hanoi have significant stakes in ensuring the security of sea lanes and preventing sea piracy, and they also share concerns about Chinese access to the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Indian strategic interests demand that Vietnam emerge as a major regional player and India is well placed to help Hanoi achieve that objective. A common approach on the emerging balance of power is emerging with both India and Vietnam keen on reorienting their ties with the U.S. as their concerns about China rise.
Indeed, India is pursuing an ambitious policy in East and Southeast Asia — joining forces with smaller states in the region to offset China’s growing dominance and America’s likely retrenchment from the region in the near future. It remains to be seen, however, if India can live up to its full potential in the region.
Harsh V. Pant is a professor of defense studies at King’s College, London.