- The Elephant Looks around the Dragon
The belief in India as an Asian leader and a model for other countries in the region has been deeply ingrained in Indian thinking for centuries. The 1947 Asian Relations Conference and the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung—which served as the launching pad for the Non-Aligned Movement—advanced India's aspiration to emerge as the leader of formerly colonized nations. That hope, however, was never fulfilled. Instead, India remained bogged down in South Asian politics and security challenges, first from Pakistan and later from China. Slow economic growth also impeded India's efforts to play a greater role on the world stage and resulted in an inward orientation for more than four decades. In the early 1990s, the end of the Cold War triggered both domestic and international changes, compelling New Delhi to implement economic reforms and rebuild relations with countries in Southeast and East Asia.
India's antagonistic relationship with China has always framed both its perception of East Asia and how countries in the region view India. As India opened its economy, it sought economic partners, partly to offset the impact of growing Chinese economic and military prowess. Countries in East Asia turned to India as they looked for options beyond China. As India deepened ties with the primary military and economic power in the Asia-Pacific, the United States, it became easier to forge closer ties with countries that were U.S. allies.
While the initial pillar of the Look East policy was economic, over the last three decades India's relations with Southeast and East Asia have acquired strategic and military dimensions as well. Moreover, most countries in Asia are beginning to consider China an economic and military great power that seeks to undermine the international liberal order established by the United States and its allies at the end of World War II. Washington and its allies see India as a like-minded democratic, free-market society that will help uphold this rules-based order. The 2015 U.S.-India Joint Strategic Vision on the need for a free and peaceful Indo-Pacific and India's participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—a strategic grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—reflect this view. [End Page 138]
Frédéric Grare's new book India Turns East: International Engagement and U.S.-China Rivalry helps us understand how India views its relations with Southeast and East Asia and the role that the United States and China play in New Delhi's worldview. The book analyzes India's compulsions, desires, and challenges and provides many fresh insights. Though he is sympathetic to the Indian perspective, Grare maintains objectivity in this tour de force.
India Turns East is divided into four parts, with each part seeking to understand one dimension of the Look East policy. The first part of the book deals with the drivers of the policy, primarily India's relations with China and the United States. Starting with a short history of India's relationship with China, the focus of the chapter is on recent changes in Chinese policy after President Xi Jinping came to power. As Grare rightly notes, China remains "India's main security challenge today" (p. 30). New Delhi's "security concerns with China derive primarily from 'Chinese efforts to establish and expand political and security relations with the countries of the South Asia–Indian Ocean region' which India feels compelled to counter" (p. 30). Many Indian strategists argue that if New Delhi moves closer to the United States and provokes China in the South China Sea, Beijing will retaliate along the land border. Grare disagrees with this view and argues instead that "the most likely trigger for a maritime conflict between the two nations would result from a security dilemma arising from Chinese naval deployment in the Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal to protect Beijing's commodity supplies" (p. 34).
In the last few years, China has repeatedly made it clear that it does not accept Indian predominance in the Indian Ocean, and Chinese naval ships and even submarines have docked at ports belonging to India...