India and the Balance of Power in the Asia-Pacific

By Ladwig, Walter C., III | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2010 | Go to article overview

India and the Balance of Power in the Asia-Pacific


Ladwig, Walter C., III, Joint Force Quarterly


When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made an official state visit to Washington last November, he encountered a markedly different political landscape. The past year has seen a notable shift in Indo-U.S. relations from the heady days when the Bush administration pursued a strategic partnership with India with the enthusiasm of an ardent suitor. Despite the praise and platitudes that President Barack Obama heaped on both India and Mr. Singh during the visit, it is clear that China occupies pride of place in America's present Asia policy. President Obama himself has stated that "the relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century," while prominent Democratic (referring to the party, not the political philosophy) foreign policy thinkers have suggested that a "G-2" condominium with Beijing should become the new arbiter of global affairs. (1) Although the present focus on China is understandable given the global economic crisis and the deep interconnection between the U.S. and Chinese economies, it is nevertheless myopic and potentially harmful to long-term regional security and stability for the United States to overlook the increasingly important role India is playing in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Over the past 18 years, New Delhi has undertaken a concerted effort to direct its foreign, economic, and military policies eastward. What began as economic cooperation with the nations of Southeast Asia has expanded into full-spectrum engagement with the major powers of East Asia, such as Japan and the United States. A steadily expanding economy, paired with a growing partnership with key regional actors, positions India to have an impact on the emerging security architecture of the Asia-Pacific. This article explores India's regional emergence in four parts. Discussion of India's eastward orientation begins with Southeast Asia before moving on to East Asia, Australia, and the United States. After exploring potential constraints on India's ability to act as an extraregional power, the article concludes with a discussion of the impact India can have on the future regional order in the Asia-Pacific.

Look East, Phase I

With the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union, India lost its main trading partner, arms supplier, and source of subsidized oil. At the same time, the end of the bipolar struggle between the superpowers freed Asia from many of the ideological divisions that had defined it in previous decades. Desiring a way to create strategic political and economic ties with individual nations in Southeast Asia while simultaneously developing closer ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Prime Minister P.V. Rao launched the "Look East" policy in 1991. Rather than being simply an economic policy, Look East marked "a strategic shift in India's vision of the world and India's place in the evolving global economy." (2)

Over the past 16 years, India has steadily expanded and strengthened its relationship with ASEAN. In 2002, the first ASEAN-India summit was held, and the following year, India became one of the first non-Southeast Asian nations to accede to ASEAN's Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, which commits India to the principles of nonaggression and noninterference in the internal affairs of partner nations. India's economic engagement with the region has expanded by an order of magnitude since 1990 as its annual trade with ASEAN nations grew from $2.4 billion to over $38 billion by 2008, with a goal of expanding bilateral trade to $50 billion by 2010. As a result of these increasing ties, India has reached an agreement with ASEAN to create a free trade zone by 2012 that would link 1.6 billion people in an area with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of over $1.5 trillion.

With the policy supported by successive Bharatiya Janata Party and congressled governments, Look East has become an institutionalized component of India's foreign policy. …

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