India seems to be putting its 20-year-old “Look East” policy into high gear as it signs free trade agreements with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Korea, and Japan and discusses hydrocarbon exploration with Vietnam in the disputed South China Sea. Though perceived as being “caught in the middle” of Chinese and U.S. interests in the region, India’s own strategic policy is coming into play as it forges close economic links to the rest of Asia.

since the establishment of India's “Look East” policy.

In the sixteenth installment of the “China-South Asia Dialogue” seminar series, senior fellow R.N. Das and fellow Jagannath Panda of the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis in New Delhi analyzed the factors behind India’s strategic shift toward the Asia-Pacific region with a panel of Chinese experts. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.

India’s New Phase of “Looking East”

While acknowledging that India is entering a new phase of involvement in the Asia-Pacific, Das maintained that its interest in the region is far from new. He cited India’s lengthy cultural, political, and historical links to the region, including with Indonesia and Vietnam. India has been present in the South China Sea since the late 1980s, and its “Look East” policy India's "Look East" Policy, which was initiated in 1991, marked a strategic shift in India’s perspective of the world. It was developed and enacted during the government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and rigorously pursued by the successive governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. emerged in the early 1990s, said Das.

  • Interdependence: Despite India’s long history in the region, Das cautioned against characterizing Indian and Chinese bilateral relations in the region using outdated Cold War constructs like “zero-sum game.” Das highlighted statements by India’s National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to the effect that the idea of Southeast Asia being China’s “sphere of influence” is outdated.
  • Interests: Das asserted that, much like China, economic interests have had a strong impact on India’s involvement in the Asia-Pacific region. Neither country remains confined to its geographic perimeter and both countries confront pressing demands for natural resources and energy that push them to seek solutions farther afield, he said. India values freedom of navigation and stability, as well as the resolution of disputes in accordance with international maritime law. Yet, even more than political concerns, Das noted that Indian companies, such as the Oil and Natural Gas Commission, have been known to abandon cooperation when oil and gas exploration have not yielded commercial prospects, as in its cooperation with Vietnam.

Power Politics in the Asia-Pacific

Indian foreign policy is wedged between China’s realist deliberations and U.S. attempts to maintain its superpower status.—Panda

Indian foreign policy is wedged between China’s realist deliberations and U.S. attempts to maintain its superpower status, said Panda. He cited a growing perception that the United States is encouraging Indian development in an effort to counterbalance a rising China. Panda argued that it is important to explore the nature of India’s “Asia-Pacific strategy” in order to understand the extent to which India might buy into the idea of being a counterbalance.

  • Defining Motivation: Panda noted that there is no fixed definition for what constitutes the “Asia-Pacific,” since India, China, and the United States all apply different geographical and geopolitical constructs to the region. Panda sought to delineate how India approaches the region, concluding that India’s driving motives are to widen the space for its strategic and military flexibility, as well as to flex its economic muscle. India’s leanings today are no different from any of the other major global powers, as it faces growing needs to facilitate energy deals, business links, and diplomatic goodwill, Panda noted.
  • Mediating Between Neighbors: Panda discussed how India mediates between China and the United States in its foreign policy. While there is a tendency in Beijing to assume that New Delhi leans towards Washington, he noted that the reality on the ground differs greatly. Experts in the United States frequently express consternation that India has not cooperated to a greater extent on major policy issues, according to Panda. And while Chinese experts tend to attribute India’s activities to power-seeking motives, Panda emphasized that India, much like China, remains preoccupied with meeting its economic demands and its needs for energy resources.

Discussants: Zou Yunhua, Ren Jingjing, Zhai Dequan, Gu Guoliang, Su Hao, Han Hua, Hu Yumin, Xu Jianying, Li Hengyang, Yan Ting, Mao Jikang, Yang Xiaoping, Zhong Zhong, Sun Lizhou, Xie Chao, Simen Willgohs, Fan Huaxi, Chen Long, Zhou Baiyin, Lu Wentao, Liu Ming, Song Xue, Wang Dingwei, Chris Cheng