India's Geopolitics and Southeast Asian Security

By Mohan, C. Raja | Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

India's Geopolitics and Southeast Asian Security


Mohan, C. Raja, Southeast Asian Affairs


Introduction

As the weakest of the major powers in Asia, India is understandably the least consequential for the ordering of Southeast Asian security. Nevertheless, India's importance for security politics of Southeast Asia is beginning to grow, if only slowly. The debate on India's rise and its implications for Asian and global balance of power centres around the new expectations and residual scepticism about the sustainability of India's recent impressive economic performance - of around 8 per cent annual growth rates during the first decade of the twenty-first century. If India can maintain this performance, India's political and military weight in Southeast Asia will undoubtedly improve. The last few years have also seen the maturation of India's "Look East" policy launched in the mid-1990s. The expectations on India's rise have also begun to inject a new dynamism into India's relations with the great powers of Asia - the United States, China, and Japan. As a result, India is no longer marginal to either the regional politics of Southeast Asia nor the great power system that shapes it. For the first time since the mid-1950s, when its economy turned inward and its foreign policy drew closer to the Soviet bloc, India is now becoming an important factor in the security calculus of Southeast Asia.

India's Regional Diplomacy

India's enthusiasm for participating in and shaping regional political and security arrangements is relatively new. After its early disappointments in trying to build Asian unity and solidarity in the 1950s, India's political emphasis decisively turned global and multilateral. The presumed leadership of the non-aligned movement (NAM) gave India a stage to articulate its larger aspirations. But the obsession with NAM inevitably diluted the inheritance from British Raj, which was at the heart of the imperial defence system in the entire Indian Ocean littoral.1 To be sure, newly independent India nursed the ambitions of sustaining the Raj legacy on regional security. Its early political activism in southern Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, its large Army, and the plans to build an ambitious Navy all pointed to a strong Indian role in Asia. The notion that "Aden to Malacca" was India's sphere of influence was deeply rooted among post-independence foreign policy-makers in New Delhi. In fact, the foreign policy assertiveness of India in the early Cold War years generated deep suspicion in some Western quarters that India might emerge as the "successor of Japan's Asiatic imperialism".2 These fears turned out to be exaggerated.

The enduring consequences of the subcontinent's partition and the conflict with China over Tibet and the boundary tied down India to dealing with conflicts within its own neighbourhood. India's insular socialist policies resulted not just in India's relative economic decline, but also saw the erosion of historic trade links with the neighbouring regions in Asia. With no economic basis, India's relations with all the major powers, including the United States, Europe, Japan, and China remained under-developed. As India drew closer to the Soviet Union, in order to manage the regional balance of power within the subcontinent, association with Moscow increasingly became disconcerting to even those countries which valued their traditional links with India. The Indian military, which had a long record of participating in wars beyond the subcontinent, was now bogged down in territorial defence. The foreign policy of non-alignment also meant the Indian military shunned contact and cooperation with the outside world, including the Soviet Union. Although India's Third World activism meant taking positions on all global issues, these degenerated into mere posturing against one or both superpowers and the inability to come to the aid of friendly nations in conflict with their neighbours. Where it did take bold positions, as in Indo-China in support of Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia, it put New Delhi at odds with all the great powers, other than the Soviet Union, and ASEAN. …

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