Is India’s Act East for China?

Analytics | Muhammad Saeed | 22-07-2017, 18:40

Is India’s Act East for China?Foreign policy of a state is the consequences of actions and reactions and generally, three factors are mainly considerable to judge a state’s perception regarding its foreign policy. The first and foremost factor is relative power capabilities, while the second factor is political culture of foreign policy behavior and last but not least, it is the situation in which perception has been made that matters. For instance, in the 1950s, when Pakistan received massive military assistance from America, this was an obvious threat to the regional balance of power for the Indian perspective. But Chinese assistance to Pakistan, as after the 1962 Indo-China war, was more dreadful for Delhi, since China and India viewed each other as a threat due to their bilateral power parity vis-à-vis the other. 

Following these patterns, in the present geopolitical scenario India again perceives Chinese aspirations in South Asia as a threat to the regional balance of power. This behavior is due to the years’ long setback and geopolitical rivalry between Beijing and New Delhi. Many scholars in India consider China as far bigger threat than Pakistan to India because of its influence and potential. 

If we shift the spotlight on the Indo-Asia Pacific region, this tug of war between China and India can also be witnessed there. This region is endowed with prime geo-economic and geostrategic significance for the world powers. Strategically, India is a close American ally in the region, and more than that, Washington finds strategic convergence between its “Rebalance to Asia” and New Delhi’s “Act East Policy”. 

In the post-cold war world, political realities on the ground have changedsubstantially in the Asian continent. In the 1990s, the process of globalization was underway in the ASEAN countries and opportunities for economic development were abundant. Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao has initiated reforms in the Indian economy and shifted its foreign policies towards   paying more attention to the East. This policy was officially named “Look East Policy”. ASEAN countries and Vietnam were more prone towards India’s economic reforms and its huge potential for market opportunities. 

In strategic terms, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos signed various agreements for cooperation in the fields of security and defense agreements with India, including military personnel training, joint military exercises, navigation security and defense exchanges, counter terrorism and smuggling. The mutual defense relations and cooperation between India and East Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, have increased. 

Currently, the maritime policy of India prioritizes energy security and protection of important sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf as core and primary areas of focus, while the South China Sea is considered as a secondary area of interest to avoid unnecessary confrontation with China. The Indian naval diplomacy augmented maritime relations with ASEAN countries, Japan and South Korea by coordinated networking and joint patrolling in Maritime. India has also engaged in annual naval exercises and goodwill tours with these countries naval vessels.

In order to form the Asian geopolitical architecture, Beijing and New Delhi have different approaches. PM Modi has updated Indian foreign policy towards East Asia from the “Look East” to the “Act East” policy and the latter supposesIndia to be ready to engage in the region with the U.S. and other regional powers in geo-economics and geostrategic realm. Modi’s recent visits to East Asia and multibillion deals are manifestations of this “Act East Policy”. 

On the other hand, China strives to play a larger role in the region, with the policy of ‘no acceptance’ of any extra regional influence inthe South China Sea especially and in the Indo-Asia Pacific generally. According to the Xi administration, China wants to develop mutual trust between all regional countries and solve all conflicts on equal footings.

In China, energy security is considered to constitute a matter of national security. China wants to secure Indo-Pacific Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) at all costs. Any military presence on important chokepoints on the SLOCs like Strait of Malacca is intimidating for China. Beijing is increasing its defense spending every year as from $119.80 billion in 2011 to $238.20 billion in 2015, and it is estimated to increase further to exceed the sum of the defense budgets of all the other Asian countries taken together. Former Chinese Defense minister Liang Guanglie while addressing the Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore in 2011 said that China has exclusively defensive policy and the intentions behind its Maritime strategy are peaceful towards neighboring countries. 

Economically, in order to counterthe Act East Policy China is playing its cards very smartly. In this regard, the Asian China Free Trade area (ACFTA) came into effect in 2010 between China and 11 countries of South Asia. This is considered the largest free trade area in terms of population and the 3rd largest when it comes to GDP. This framework helped Malaysia and Thailand to run trade surpluses in trade with China in 2013. Now Singapore is also acting as a financial hub for trade between China and ASEAN. Likewise, China has intentions to regionally connect all the ASEAN countries through its “One Belt, One Road” and “the 21st century Maritime Silk Road” policies in order to boost economy and enhance infrastructure development of the ASEAN. According to Beijing, Chinese behaviour towards the East Asian statesis friendly and based on win/win rationale.   

Thus, we may assume that although China has territorial disputes with some ASEAN countries, it is trying to resolve these issues on one hand and on the other, it is building strong economic relationships and economic forums for mutual prosperity and economic growth. However, it is facing multiple fronts in Indo-Asia Pacific. The Chinese strategic culture and its previous experience of engagement with regional powers like Japan, South Korea and India make them reluctant to cooperate. But on the other hand, economic integration is highly encouraging to sort out issues and disagreements between the regional powers, which will be obviously fruitful for all developing countries of the region.  


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Muhammad Saeed

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