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  • India's Vision of the East Asian Order
  • Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan (bio)

Asia's importance in global politics has grown dramatically over the last decade. Though the United States remains the dominant unipolar power, the perception that it lacks either the capability or willingness to maintain order in the region has created new power dynamics. As a result of this perception of U.S. decline, the regional security environment is increasingly uncertain and competitive, and the potential for unresolved border disputes or sovereignty issues to escalate into conflicts cannot be underestimated.

China's rise and the United States' seeming reluctance to balance it has raised the profile of India, especially among China's smaller neighbors to which India has become somewhat responsive. Traditionally, India was reluctant to play balance-of-power games, but it has now been compelled to adopt a more pragmatic and power-centric approach to its foreign and strategic engagements. There are two reasons for this. First, the strategic balance between India and China has tilted in ways that are inimical to Indian interests. Second, the uncertainties around China's growing military and strategic power have made regional countries apprehensive about its impact on the larger strategic balance. China's exclusivist approach to the Asian strategic framework has been a concern for many, including India. New Delhi does not want to see an Asia that is dominated by another Asian power. Still, it is also important to examine India's capacity and capability to shape the Asian strategic order.

This essay will first look at how India views its role in Asia and then analyze its wherewithal to shape the regional order in terms of economic, nuclear, and conventional military capabilities. East Asian countries have shown some interest in India playing a balancing role in the region, and this fits well with India's own interests. The challenge is that India still lacks the capacity to play such a role.

India and the Asian Strategic Order

The current state of uncertainty offers India abundant opportunities to play a leading role in Asia and beyond. The question is what kind of [End Page 39] regional order India wants and what kind of role it sees for itself. Most basically, India wants a non-hegemonic Asia—in other words, a region that is not dominated by a single Asian power. As then foreign secretary S. Jaishankar has explained, India "welcomes" both a multipolar world and a multipolar Asia.1 The meaning of these words is clear: India does not want an Asia that is dominated by China, considering that no other Asian power could make much of a claim to dominate the region. In addition, it wants a rules-based order. In fact, India has taken an unusually strong stand on the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, considering the distance from Indian shores.

This does not mean that there is consensus in India about how these objectives should be met. Some suggest that New Delhi should formulate a new nonalignment policy that exploits both the United States and China, without necessarily aligning with either country against the other.2 On the other hand, a growing body of opinion argues that China's enormous power and clear opposition to India necessitates that New Delhi partner with Washington to counter Chinese hegemony. According to this view, Chinese regional hegemony is a greater threat than U.S. global hegemony.3

India is reluctant to acknowledge that it is concerned about the increasing likelihood that the combination of the United States' inattentiveness and China's rising power will require some kind of a regional balancing effort against China. India's relations with Japan, Australia, Vietnam, and Singapore have dramatically improved, with a strong focus on defense and security cooperation. This includes not only military exchanges and bilateral and multilateral exercises but even potentially weapons transfers. This emerging regional security alignment is not coming at the expense of engagement with the United States, of course; India and its partners remain committed to doing all they can to maintain the U.S. commitment to the region, including by bearing a greater share of the military burden. Rather, this new regional security alignment is...


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