- How Does India's Look East Policy Look after 25 Years?
The long arc of India's Look East policy has coincided with dramatic economic and strategic power shifts in Asia. Introduced in 1991 at the end of the Cold War, Look East is no longer just a policy instrument constructed to lift the country out of an immediate foreign and economic crisis. India's re-engagement eastward initially was focused on developing trade and investment opportunities and finding new strategic partners in Southeast Asia, but it has evolved into a multilayered approach that now reaches all the way to Australia. The Look East policy today is also intertwined with the big ideas of the United States on Asia—the concept of the Indo-Pacific and the erstwhile rebalance strategy to counter the rise of China.
There is a high degree of strategic uncertainty in Asia, ranging from concerns about U.S. alliance commitments and the nature of China's ambitions to questions about what countries like India and Vietnam are willing to contribute to making sure that the regional order does not become fully China-centric. The environment is further complicated by the reality that most regional states cannot resist economic interdependence with China at the same time that they want strategic interdependence with the United States. Although none of them want to see a direct conflict between the United States and China, many do want the United States to assert its dominance. This has given rise over the last decade to some form of hedging or soft balancing against China by key regional states.
India has been no exception, but for it the contradictions have become sharper than for others. On the one hand, India has no ally in the traditional sense. It has a near obsession with "strategic autonomy" and is the only regional actor that can envision itself as a peer-competitor of China in the future. On the other hand, China's recent assertiveness in India's neighborhood, especially the Indian Ocean, is coming well before India can effectively narrow the considerable economic and military power gap between the two countries. India's Look East policy might then seem like a logical, multifaceted organizing principle to meet what appears to be a growing Chinese threat without tipping the balance decisively [End Page 146] toward conflict. But then, are we asking too much of Look East (or the Act East policy, in its new avatar) and overestimating what the policy can realistically deliver?
Given the enormous uncertainty and ongoing power shifts in Asia, it takes someone with intimate knowledge of India and international security to successfully chart the long course of the Look East policy in a way that explains how it interacts with both regional actors and the United States and affects regional security dynamics and architecture. Frédéric Grare's new book, India Turns East: International Engagement and U.S.-China Rivalry, provides a comprehensive and insightful account of the Look East saga and what the policy can and cannot be expected to do for India as well as its partners. His main focus is on the India-U.S.-China triangle and whether the Look East policy can be an effective instrument to address Indian concerns about China. Other important considerations are how congruent Indian and U.S. objectives are and to what extent the Look East policy and rebalance strategy are complementary. The book is thoroughly researched and carefully argued, giving alternative explanations a good sounding along the way.
The timing of the book is somewhat unfortunate, given that the Trump administration has now put the rebalance in abeyance, if not jettisoned it altogether. The new National Security Strategy announced in December 2017 presents an Asia policy that is clearly more militarily edged than the rebalance. The changes in the U.S. political circumstances could call into question some of Grare's findings and recommendations. To his credit however, the book's most important recommendations remain quite pertinent, even if made more demanding under President Donald Trump. Grare rightly warns against the United States "overmilitarizing" its relations with India for a variety of reasons. This is an...