Academic journal article The Journal of East Asian Affairs

India as a Nation of Consequence in Asia : The Potential and Limitations of India's 'Act East' Policy

Academic journal article The Journal of East Asian Affairs

India as a Nation of Consequence in Asia : The Potential and Limitations of India's 'Act East' Policy

Article excerpt


Six months after taking office in May 2014, India's newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi addressed the 12th India-ASEAN Summit and declared:"a new era of economic development, industrialization and trade has begun in India. Externally, India's 'Look East Policy' has become 'Act East Policy'" (MEA 2014). Whilst it was unclear at the time exactly what 'acting East' was to mean, it marked the next phase in what is thought to be one of India's most successful foreign policy initiatives. The Look East Policy was launched in 1994 at a time when India was in economic crisis and bereftof powerful friends. In looking East India realized that it needed to look beyond the confines of South Asia, where it was often viewed with suspicion by its smaller neighbors, to the emerging centre of the world economy. Whilst the first phase of the Look East policy was primarily focused on economic and institutional relations with the countries of ASEAN , the second phase took on an expanded definition of 'East' to include Japan, South Korea and Australia, and took on a much more strategic flavor.

Whilst initially strategic engagement focused primarily on naval cooperation in terms of disaster relief, counter-terrorism activities and protection of sea-lanes for trade, India has increasingly been viewed by major states in the region and elsewhere as a nation of consequence that has the potential to play an important role in maintaining regional stability. As the world's largest multi-ethnic, liberal democracy, committed to a policy of non-intervention in the affairs of other states, and no direct conflicts with Asian states, India is viewed as a benign power that is willing to support the existing rules of the road. This expectation - or hope - has become more pronounced as China's growing confidence has resulted in heightened tensions in the South China and East China Seas, and direct competition between China and the United States and its allies has begun to more clearly emerge in the Asia-Pacific.

With the Modi government continuing to emphasize the importance of its economic and strategic relations in Asia, and committing to 'act' more ambitiously to further these interests, this paper will focus on the potential role India will play in Asia including any factors that may limit its ambitions. It first outlines the historical basis for the Look East Policy and the objectives pursued by earlier governments. Second, it analyses the economic, diplomatic and security objectives and strategies pursued by more recent Indian governments to deepen relations in Asia, and seeks to explain why the region has largely embraced Indian partnership. Finally, it analyses the main factors that impede an expansion of India's economic and strategic role in the region. The paper will argue that whilst India's economic integration in the region has improved, its potential has yet to be realized. The greatest scope for an expanded role for India is clearly in terms of its capacity to play a soft-balancing role to manage the rise of China. India could assist other strategic players by exerting additional costs and constraints on China to discourage behavior that disrupts and undermines the normative and strategic basis of Asia's regional order. However, I argue that India's own strategic culture may be the greatest impediment to it playing this role.

The Hi storic al basis of India's 'Look East' Polic y

Historically, India has long exerted a considerable cultural influence over East and Southeast Asia as the birthplace of Buddhism. The British used India as the main strategic base for its colonial presence in the rest of Asia (Muni 2011, 4) making India highly integrated with the region's economy. In the period after gaining independence however, after a promising start, India soon became largely isolated and inward focused. Upon gaining independence in 1947, India's new leaders sought to re-set Indian foreign policy to achieve a number of aims: to distinguish the nation's foreign policy from that of it's colonial masters; to assert a leadership role in the international system - despite its developmental challenges - based on India's size and civilizational legacy; and to preserve the country's new found autonomy despite growing pressure to do otherwise. …

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