Later this week, a flotilla of Indian warships will complete a month-long deployment to the Pacific that included visits to Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam. Such an event may be surprising to some, because India is rarely considered a major Asia-Pacific power. However, over the past 18 years, New Delhi has made a concerted effort to direct its foreign, economic and military policies eastward. If the country stays on this course, it could become an important force for regional economic and security stability.
India’s eastward focus began in the economic sphere in 1991 with attempts to link its own liberalizing economy to the dynamic “tigers” of South-East Asia. This process has been slow and sometimes halting. But two decades on, India is set to ink a free trade agreement with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations that will link 1.6 billion people with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of $1.5 trillion by 2012.
These economic linkages are leading to military cooperation with countries such as Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. Those governments see India as, in the words of Singaporean minister-mentor Lee Kuan Yew, “a useful balance to China’s heft”. This is all the more important as the Barack Obama administration appears to be paying less attention to Asia even as China is increasingly asserting itself.
India already possesses the world’s fifth largest navy and Asia’s only operational aircraft carrier. Having introduced its first indigenously constructed nuclear submarine last year, the navy is in the process of acquiring a number of new diesel-electric submarines and surface vessels, as well as three aircraft carriers that will house the most advanced maritime strike aircraft in the region.
New naval facilities constructed in India’s eastern island chains, roughly 500 miles from the mouth of the Straits of Malacca, will facilitate its power projection into the Pacific. The navy has been conducting joint exercises with other South-East Asian countries for years. These drills run the gamut, from annual training with the Singaporean navy on anti-submarine warfare and advanced naval combat to the manoeuvres with both Indonesia and Thailand emphasizing coordinated anti-piracy exercises in the Straits of Malacca.
Now India is extending its influence beyond South-East Asia. Shared concerns over the Beijing-Islamabad- Pyongyang nuclear proliferation axis led to a “long-term cooperative partnership for peace and prosperity” with South Korea, which includes a free trade pact, bilateral security cooperation and agreements on joint defence production.
More significant is India’s strategic partnership with Japan, founded on a shared desire to see a peaceful multipolar Asia based on democratic values. The two countries will sign a free trade agreement later this year and have already institutionalized defence cooperation, high-level military exchanges and joint naval exercises in both the Indian Ocean and the Sea of Japan.
And though Australia’s ties with India have cooled somewhat under Sinophile Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a 2009 strategic partnership between the two nations pledges “policy coordination on regional affairs in the Asia region”, which is a euphemism for shared concerns over China’s growing power.
India’s increasing role in the Asia-Pacific has been firmly supported by the US. Since 2001, the US and India have conducted at least 40 joint military exercises, including one of the largest multilateral naval exercises ever held in the region, Malabar 2007, which featured three aircraft carriers, 28 surface vessels and 150 aircraft from India, the US, Japan, Australia and Singapore. A 10-year Indo-US defence pact signed in June 2005 deepened intelligence sharing, military technology transfers, missile defence collaboration and arms sales.
The question for New Delhi will be how best to leverage this progress for additional security and improved relations throughout the region. Though India’s “Look East” policy has clearly met with success, there are many in India who still fail to acknowledge the vital role it is poised to play in Asia. The ability of countries in the region to partner effectively with India would be enhanced significantly, were New Delhi to define more concretely its vision for the country’s broader role in Asia.
India’s partners also will need to learn how to work with the rising regional power. It will be critical to understand that India is not seeking to be a junior partner in an anti-China coalition, but is pursuing its own interests as an emerging power. Heartache will result if policymakers, especially in the US, attempt to force India into a familiar mould such as the US-Britain “special relationship”. Instead, the US should champion India’s robust participation in key regional economic and political institutions such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group and the Asean Regional Forum.
The Obama administration to date has placed a higher priority on strengthening its ties with Beijing than on pursuing the closer relationship with India initiated during the Bush years. That may be changing. President Obama himself recently said that the US-India relationship is the “indispensable partnership of the 21st century”. Now it’s time to partner more effectively with India in practice.
The Wall Street Journal
Walter Ladwig is a doctoral candidate in international relations at Merton College, Oxford.
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