On East Asia’s periphery

India is being sidelined in the region due to its own strategic myopia

Should it be of any surprise that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrived at the ASEAN summit to find that India (along with Australia and New Zealand) has been sidelined in the regional community? The ten South East Asian nations and China, Japan and South Korea “would remain the main vehicle towards the long-term goal of building” an Asian regional community, their statement declared. As the Bloomberg report says (via email from Ananth) the “statement recognises China’s demand that only Asean Plus Three countries should be included in the community.”

When will it dawn upon New Delhi that the first lesson of realpolitik is that incumbents don’t make space for newcomers, however qualified the latter might be? Standing outside the UN Security Council’s or ASEAN’s doors with an application form won’t cut it. The only way to become a de jure member of any exclusive international club is to become a de facto one first. The latter can be done without anyone’s permission.

Look at what India did on the nuclear front. Not being annointed as a “nuclear weapon state” didn’t prevent India from being a nuclear weapon state. Or in the World Trade Organisation—it’s a major player in international trade negotiations because it has become a major player in international trade (well, sort of). Once India acquires the characteristics of a member of a club, that club will need to accomodate India to itself stay relevant. To sideline India would be allow itself to be sidelined. As the poet said

Khudi ko kar buland itna,
Ki har takdeer se pehle,
Khuda bande se ye pooche,
Bata—teri raza kya hai

And consider, in contrast, India’s recent geopolitical performance in East Asia: India’s silence on Burma confirmed the view in South East Asia that countries of that region cannot look towards New Delhi to balance the rising Chinese influence in the region. During visits to the region, Indian leaders did nothing to signal that India is ready to play the balancing game. First Defence Minister AK Anthony spoke about how he sees India’s strategic challenge stemming from internal threats. It was unsurprising that at the same meeting, the Indonesia foreign minister invited China and Japan to participate in the security of the Malacca straits. Second, Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee explicitly stated that India will be sensitive to China’s interests in Asia. Many might have thought this was mere diplomatic talk. But Burma was a litmus test…and as The Acorn warned, it is a test that India is seen to have failed. Defending India’s support for the junta, Indian realists argued that they were balancing Chinese influence in Burma. In doing so they failed to see that India would lose influence in South East Asia in general.

Will ASEAN’s decision cure the strategic myopia that is affecting India’s realists?

8 thoughts on “On East Asia’s periphery”

  1. I don’t really follow your blog on an everyday basis but do stop by once in a while.

    While I am not quite sure where I stand there is another op-ed I read which argues that India has started looking East and quite concertedly so.

    Have a look at this

  2. I don’t follow your blog very religiously but what I have been reading in the past few weeks directly contradicts your assertions.

    For a start I think we are following a very pragmatic policy. The Economist seems to agree.

    Also check out this report: India Rediscovering East Asia.

    I’d like to hear your thoughts on those two links, if you find the time.

  3. Aman,

    I get very worried with the word “pragmatism”. It can be used to justify anything. And I get more worried when pragmatism is used as a synonym for Realism. Is there any policy India is following that is not ‘pragmatic’ in one way or the other?

    As for disagreeing with The Economist’s take on things: that is to be expected. The Economist doesn’t claim to have India’s interests in mind 🙂 If you do a search on this blog you’ll see a lot of instances where I’ve disagreed, with that fine publication.

    The PINR piece was written in October; before ASEAN made this decision. But I’ll want to ask this: if everything is so hunky-dory about India’s engagement with East Asia, then why is India out of the regional community? And why is the free trade agreement with ASEAN being held up by Malaysia insisting on getting from India what it got from Pakistan? And why is Vietnam so shy of a stronger bilateral engagement with India? And why did the Indonesian foreign minister call upon China and Japan to take an interest in jointly policing the Malacca straits?

    Perhaps India is doing better compared to 10 years ago. But it’s nowhere near playing its cards to make the most of the moment.

  4. Nitin

    The worry associated with the word “pragmatism” is justified and I share that to an extent.

    I don’t know if you read the Economist prior to your comment or not, but I would be interested in reading about your objections to what is stated there. Differing on something is always welcome and I don’t mean to assert in any way or form that The Economist is always right.

    The PINR peace was something I really liked. Is our “Look East” policy flawless, of course not. But to expect it to be perfect is also a stretch IMHO. They could do better of course. However the title of your post suggested to a large extent that India was almost neglecting the EAST.

    I also found something else in the article you suggested on my blog.

    The Realist shift in India’s foreign policy is palpable: from the recognition and engagement with Israel, to breaking the ice with the Myanmarese junta, to the ‘Look East’ policy, to the new maritime doctrine, to the investment in anti-ballistic missile technology, besides, of course, the strategic partnership with the United States.

    Here you seem to suggest that India does have a conscious look east policy and is not neglecting it completely which was the case for a long time during the past and that was the point I was trying to make.

  5. Nitin, most of the issues you raise are self-inflected. Asean formed long time ago – when Nehru’s derisive cola-cola countries mentality was still in vogue. Malaysian may want special treatment for palm oil, but trade with Asean was blocked by Sonia writing not so secret letters followed up by Jairam Ramesh, as I blogged a while ago, although he should be promoting trade as state economic minister, undermining the utterly competent Kamal Nath. Asean was ready to sign the deal last year. I am not sure why Indonesia would want India to protect its area of Malacca Straits. We have little trade coming through there (comparatively) and have little interest securing trade routes, whereas that area is the life line for China and Japan.

    Ultimately, Asean countries are very good at reading the tea leaves. They know who is consistent and want something and who vacillates and can’t make its mind. Even the normally supportive Singapore didn’t come our aid this time. It’s hard to blame Vietnam, if we don’t have aggressive policy – a $mil here, a $mil there won’t suffice to get any traction to get a leadership role. They even rebuffed US wrt Myanmar.

    Relationships are with Asean countries are cordial, but India is no leader – not in Asean, not anywhere.

  6. Aman

    I read both the links after you pointed them out. Now, there is no doubt that Look East was a better policy than Don’t Look East. And I’ve written that Look East was informed by Realism.

    The point is that we should judge our policies by outcomes rather than by effort. So what if we have done better than in the past? East Asia has sidelined us, and that’s the point about the title and the content of this post. Objectively, we’ve fallen short. Btw, the Look East policy began under Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, over 15 years ago. We’ve had a lot of time to ‘Look East’ don’t you think?

    More importantly, as I commented on your blog and in my op-ed about Burma, what we are seeing is ossification/deification of policy positions, mistaking them for goals and interests. “We’ll do business with whoever is in power” is a position; “we’ll balance China’s influence in a particular geography” is a goal. As situations change, so must positions. But India, especially under the UPA government, has raised positions onto a pedestal.

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