- Fair Winds, Heavy Burdens:The Limitations of India's Turn East
Where many authors set out to magnify the importance of their subject matter, Frédéric Grare's India Turns East: International Engagement and U.S.-China Rivalry aims to define its limits. The book is a comprehensive look at the confluence of factors that have both driven and constrained India's efforts to regain its historic status as a player on the wider Asian strategic stage. It traces the shift from India as a "politically suspect, economically unimportant, and, at times, even militarily threatening" (p. 181) power in Southeast Asia, skeptical of ASEAN, aligned with the Soviet Union, and distant from the United States and its allies, to the current "unprecedented degree of goodwill [India] is receiving" (p. 215). Yet perhaps the book's central concern is that India risks failing to capitalize on this shift. Grare is a natural skeptic, and much of the book's value comes from his digging beneath the surface of supposed diplomatic and economic breakthroughs to find the persistent divergences in strategic outlook, the failures of execution, and the structural issues that still prevent India's Act East policy from achieving as much as the benign conditions for it merit.
India Turns East was largely written before the ascendancy of Donald Trump, but developments over the last year have amplified rather than undermined the book's principal claims. Grare's overarching contention is that while regional anxieties about China's rise have provided the crucial impetus for India's burgeoning relationships, New Delhi's countervailing efforts fall far short of the stakes, both militarily and economically.
On the security front, this is partly attributed to India's caution. Grare cites Japanese officers complaining that "it is almost impossible to plan for any meaningful naval exercise with their Indian counterparts since they refuse to consider any scenario that appears confrontational towards China" (p. 147). The criticism only partly holds true. The intensification of Sino-Indian competition in the last couple of years has already resulted in some of that caution being cast off. More importantly, as Grare notes earlier in the text, it has been New Delhi's deftness in navigating relations with Beijing that has made it possible for many Asian states to deepen ties with India without facing a zero-sum political choice. A sharp acceleration in [End Page 150] the competitive dynamics between Beijing and New Delhi will make India a more attractive partner to some, but most states in the Asia-Pacific are still trying to navigate a healthy relationship with all the region's major powers. If that proves impossible, ties with India will more often than not be the ones that suffer. In that sense, New Delhi's current efforts to reach a revised modus vivendi with Beijing in the aftermath of the Doklam standoff are also a way to ensure that India's influence in East Asia can continue to grow unimpeded. Given the limitations of India's current capacity to project power in the Asia-Pacific, gaining real leverage over China through an expanded security role is still a long-term goal. In the short term, India remains "unlikely to solve the challenges presented by Beijing to China's other neighbors" (p. 205) and is focused on fending off the growing Chinese strategic presence in its traditional sphere of influence in South Asia.
The principal thrust of Grare's critique, however, is directed at the economic underpinning of the Act East policy. Some of the obstacles that India faces are the residue of older strategic choices. After the war with China on the two states' border in 1962, India's leadership "deliberately decided not to develop the region in order to better ensure its defense against Chinese penetration," meaning that "until recently, the Indian northeast has been more a buffer zone…than a gateway" (p. 92), all the more so given the insurgencies that have racked the region. This at least is in the process of being remedied, with the Modi government making even more significant efforts than its predecessors to place the northeast at the heart of regional connectivity initiatives. India...