- Author's Response:From Isolation to Loneliness?
India's foreign policy has experienced dramatic changes in the last three decades. As underlined by Aparna Pande, "the importance of India's relations with its Southeast Asian neighbors was recently on full display when all ten leaders of ASEAN were present as guests of honor at India's celebration of its 69th Republic Day on January 26, 2018." This would have been unthinkable 25 years ago. At the end of the Cold War, India was an isolated country in Asia. It no longer is. Yet reversing the trend of isolation took more than a patient rapprochement effort with each and every Asian country. The process followed an economic and strategic rationale that evolved over time under the dual influence of India's own economic development and the gradual shift in the Asian balance of power to favor China, compelling India to look beyond the confines of its traditional economic policy and diplomacy. The formulation of the Look East policy was a complex process with multiple phases, which is reflected in the variety of perceptions found in the reviewers' comments.
Sunil Dasgupta believes that the underlying argument of India Turns East: International Engagement and U.S.-China Rivalry is that India's Asia policy is epiphenomenal of the triangular ties between India, China, and the United States. This interpretation calls for a nuanced answer. In my view, India's Asia policy has a dynamic of its own. The policy does make economic sense, irrespective of its strategic dimension. However, as the U.S.-China rivalry in Asia grows, the triangular relationship is indeed taking on a greater relative importance in the shaping of large parts of India's Asia policy to the point of challenging some of the assumptions on which the strategic and institutional dimensions of the policy are based. The growing polarization of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the challenge to ASEAN centrality, understood as a consensus-based decision-making process, is such an example. Yet the India-China-U.S. triangle does not turn these dimensions into epiphenomena. Large parts of the policy—notably, its entire economic dimension—have never been dependent on such considerations, even though they do have an impact on [End Page 154] the triangular relationship through affecting India's capacity to increase its military might and political influence.
Seen from that angle, the question of whether India should become a net security provider is much less relevant than the issue of India's capacity to become one. The latter is a different and much more dynamic argument, related not only to India's capacity to conduct reforms but also the pace at which it could do so. This question cannot be easily answered in a fast-evolving environment in which the sustainability of the current economic, political, and even military trajectories, including China's, can also be questioned.
Indeed, as rightly observed by Deepa Ollapally, "India would still prefer to neutralize China rather than try to contain its rival." The focus of the book is primarily on the strategic domain rather than economics and politics. But the tension between these three realms is in fact at the core of not just the relationship between India and the United States but also the never-ending redefinition of India's own hierarchy of priorities. Strategic considerations and concerns about the well-being of the population are in constant competition under the influence of an ever-changing international environment.
The history of India's Asia policy over the past 25 years reflects this dialectic between domestic and international concerns. When in 1992 the Narasima Rao government launched the Look East policy, the objective was to reform an economy, the insufficiencies of which had been made unsustainable by the collapse of the Soviet Union—a strategic earthquake of sorts. All of a sudden, India stopped benefiting from the preferential trade terms it had established with the Eastern bloc while also facing the economic shock generated by the 1991 Gulf War. From 1992 to 2003, New Delhi's focus was on economics. Improving India's trade and attracting FDI from capital-rich regional economies...