India in a changing Asia: Towards a Forward Policy

Society for Policy Studies in collaboration with India Habitat Centre held a lecture in Changing Asia Series

Speaker: C.Raja Mohan, Director, Carnegie India, New Delhi
Date: April 13, 2016
Venue: India Habitat Centre, New Delhi


Mr. Kacker, Cmde Bhaskar, and friends, I am delighted to be a part of this prestigious Changing Asia Lecture Series at the India Habitat Center, New Delhi.

We face today an extraordinary period of change at home and abroad. The changes in Asia and its waters have never been as consequential as they are today, and are likely to shape India’s own evolution in the coming decades and the 21st century. Although the rise of Asia has been upon us for nearly a quarter of a century, our own debate on it has not generated enough clarity of thought.

Our strategic and economic policy communities continue to be buffeted by competing ideas. Self doubt and fear of entering uncharted waters compel us to cling to familiar but long outdated ideas. As a result, our policy direction seems to oscillate considerably between engagement and isolation. Before I examine some of these problems, let me say a few words about the title, especially the reference to Forward Policy.

The idea of Forward Policy is often associated with Jawaharlal Nehru’s foreign policy towards China and has drawn much criticism for its lack of realism: of ambition unmatched by resources. But, the notion of forward policy was not invented by Nehru. It is very much part of our strategic legacy from the (British) Raj. It is very much rooted in the modern origins of India’s territorial structure. It was about defining the nature of the relationship between the sovereign India and the adjoining territories; it was about addressing threats before they materialized on India’s borders; it was about sanitizing the space around ‘fortress India’. Sustaining this policy was never easy or cheap, even at the peak of the British Raj. But the inability to sustain it had severe consequences for the territorial integrity and security of India.

Having dealt with the notion of Forward Policy, let me explain the structure of this presentation. I will begin with a brief discussion of India’s ideas of Asia and examine the centripetal and centrifugal forces shaping Asia. In the second part, I will briefly review the cycles of engagement and isolation in India’s history and suggest that we are in the phase of expansive engagement. In the third part, I will look at India’s potential role in a changing Asia and conclude with reviewing the case for a forward policy that will contribute to peace and prosperity in Asia.

India and the Ideas of Asia

As one of the world’s oldest continuing civilisations, India has always been enriched by its interaction with other cultures and civilisations around it. As India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the delegates at the 1947 Asian Relations Conference in Delhi, India is “so situated to be the meeting point of western and northern and eastern and southeast Asia. Streams of culture have come to India from the west and the east and been absorbed in India, producing the rich and variegated culture which is India today.”

“At the same time,” Nehru added, “streams of culture have flowed from India to distant parts of Asia… If you would like to know about India, you have to go to Afghanistan and Western Asia; to Central Asia, to China and Japan, and to the countries of Southeast Asia. There you will find magnificent evidence of the vitality of India’s culture which spread out and influenced vast numbers of people”.

The idea of Asia’s unique identity endures and takes many forms. There is the notion of a ‘cultural Asia’ that has been propounded by the Japanese art historian Okakura Kakuzo way back at the turn of the 20th century, as the region began to discover shared civilisational roots. “Asia is one” was the simple but profound first sentence of Kakuzo’s highly influential work, ‘The ideals of the East’, published in 1903. As they gained national consciousness and became more aware of the world around them and intensified the effort to free themselves from colonial yoke, many in the region defined Asia as the ‘spiritual other’ in the East to the ‘materialistic West’.

Some in Asia were deeply wary of the idea of an Asia that defines itself in anti-Western terms. Instead, they sought to imagine the Asian identity in more universal terms. Contemporary Asia’s first great power, Japan, instrumentalised the idea of pan-Asianism to promote its own imperial interests in the first half of the 20th century. As it occupied vast swathes of Asia, Japan talked of an ‘Asia for the Asians’ and presented its own conquest of the region as a ‘liberation’ from European colonialism. In contrast to the notions of Asia’s imperial unity, the anti-colonial struggles generated a very different version of Asian unity. This sense of solidarity expressed itself at the Asian Relations Conference in Delhi and the The Afro-Asian Conference at Bandung (1955). It eventually morphed into the Non-Aligned Movement. Asia’s sense of unity, however, was shattered quickly as inter-state and intrastate conflicts, exacerbated by narrow nationalism and Cold War geopolitics, enveloped the region.

As the West prepared for a triage of new nations, the so-called ‘Asian Tigers’ surprised the world by demonstrating the prospects for rapid economic growth through globalisation in the 1960s. Their example was emulated by others, including China and India, in the subsequent decades. Their separate efforts turned Asia into the world’s economic powerhouse and laid the foundation for the great reverse in the balance of power between the East and the West. Complementing the rise of an ‘economic Asia’ was the new ‘institutional Asia.’

If Asian regionalism and internationalism in Asia rapidly dissipated in the 1950s, the end of the Cold war saw the dramatic expansion of trans-regional institution building in Asia under the leadership of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). What seemed an impossible dream in the middle of the 20th century turned into a reality by the beginning of the 21st century amidst the proliferation of regional institutions, including those focusing on political cooperation such as the ASEAN Regional Forum, the East Asia Summit and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia.

Asian nations are now more economically connected than ever before. They are striving to deepen regional integration through trade liberalisation agreements at the sub-regional, trans-regional and international levels. In the middle of the 20th century, regionalism ran into opposition in Asia from those emphasising ‘economic sovereignty.’ Today, Asian nations have the luxury of dealing with competing trade pacts. As it seeks to build an economic community among its ten members, the ASEAN is also promoting the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with six other partners— China, Japan, Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. The United States has led the effort to draft a more ambitious trade pact among 12 nations, including some members of the ASEAN, called the Trans-Pacific Partnership. China has proposed a much wider arrangement called the Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific. Meanwhile, market forces are pushing different parts of Asia and its immediate neighbourhood together. The rise of China and India has made them the largest and preferred customers for the oil resources of the Gulf and mineral resources of Africa. Trade, investment and aid volumes from China and India with the Middle East and Africa have surged. Beijing has also lead the creation of new Asian and international financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank under the non-geographic forum BRICS involving Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Its ambitious One Belt and One Road initiative to build physical connectivity across borders promises to recast Asia’s economic geography. Its project for overland industrial belts extends all across Eurasia. 3 Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road project connects the Indian and Pacific Oceans, long viewed as separate maritime domains. Japan, which had led the efforts in the second half of the 20th century to build Asian infrastructure, is now taking fresh initiatives. As a result of these initiatives, Asia is going to be more intricately tied to itself through new roads, high-speed railway systems, energy pipelines and optical fibre networks.

The moment to celebrate the extraordinary triumph of the idea of Asian unity, however, seems to be marred by the re-emergence of conflict and power rivalry in the region. Regaining control of national destinies was one of the main objectives of the post-colonial states in Asia. The region today is no longer a mere theatre for European colonial powers. It is the motor of global growth and has agency in shaping the world’s financial and political order. If the reviled Vasco da Gama moment has ended in Asia, the region is also facing sharp internal divisions. While the focus of the last two decades has been on the shifting balance between Asia and the West in favour of the former, the region is now coming to terms with structural changes in the evolution of Asia’s ‘internal’ balance of power. The rapid rise of China relative to the other powers in Asia has raised big questions about the future strategic order in Asia. China has overtaken Japan to become the second largest economy in the world and is poised to surpass the US in the near future. The widespread hopes for Beijing’s peaceful rise have evaporated amidst the sharpening maritime territorial conflicts between China and its neighbours.

To make matters worse, the great power harmony in Asia that has existed since the normalisation of Sino-American relations in the 1970s and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 has been replaced by mounting tension between China and Japan on the one hand, and between Beijing and Washington on the other. There is renewed emphasis on alliances, defence partnerships and military modernisation across the continent. At the same time, the project to build a ‘comprehensive cooperative security architecture’ for the region is in disarray. There are deep disagreements on the nature, scope and terms of any such arrangement, some of which have turned the idea of Asia into a contested one.

One view articulated with great vigour in Beijing reaffirms the slogan of ‘Asia for Asians’ and demands that outside powers quit the region. Others wary of Chinese power eagerly seek American military presence in the region. As they develop strategic partnerships with America, they also strengthen military cooperation among themselves as an insurance against a potential US-China duopoly in the region. A century after the ideas of unity and shared identity gained regional traction, Asia enjoys levels of integration and cooperation that few could have imagined. Yet, the political fault lines in the region have never been so deep.

India’s Engagement and Isolation

As Asia enters a period of great churning, the question of India’s role in the region has become an important one. The great potential and persistent challenges to India’s role in Asia can be seen in terms of a paradox: Through the ages, India was both a self-contained (sub) continent in itself as well as the geographic pivot between different parts of Asia. India’s history has seen periods of expansive engagement with the neighboring regions interrupted by extended periods of self-imposed isolation. This pattern has repeatedly played out over the centuries. The dynamic interaction with the Aryans from inner Asia, its maritime linkages with Greece and Rome, the spread of Buddhism from India by land and sea and its links to the Silk Road all marked a significant interaction with the world in the pre-Christian and immediate post-Christian era.

This engagement took place despite the physical barriers—the seas to the south, the deserts to the west and the great Himalayas to the north and east. When the Indian society turned inward around the 10th century, its engagement with the world was confined to the margins of the subcontinent. In this era too, the impact of Muslim rulers from Arabia, Turkey and Central Asia saw the enrichment of Indian society. But it was the rise of capitalism in Europe and the colonial era that dramatically reconnected India to the world. While it subjected India to alien rule, colonial rule began the process of globalising Indian economy. The region was no longer producing for itself and trading with the limited agrarian surpluses.

The new era saw local production for global markets and the emergence of India itself as a market for goods produced elsewhere in the world. The colonial era also saw the movement of Indian capital and labour across the world and formed the foundation for India’s global footprint and human connectivity. Through the colonial era, India became the economic connector of different regions in Asia and in the Indian Ocean littoral. The colonial era saw the construction of three major ports—Bombay, Madras and Calcutta—that became critical nodes in the new global maritime trading network. The British Raj continuously opened new markets and new trading routes between India and its abutting regions in inner Asia, from Xinjiang to Yunnan. It built road and rail networks, much in the manner that China is doing with its Silk Road initiative today. At the political level, the colonial Raj saw the territorial consolidation of India. Although the Raj never fully approximated to the coherence of modern European states, it did become the largest empire that the subcontinent had ever seen.

The need to concentrate the means of violence under colonial rule saw the creation of a massive armed force that built on the many indigenous formations before. This force inevitably emerged as the centre of British imperial defence system. India’s armed forces became the main security provider in the Indian Ocean and its abutting regions—from the South China Sea to the Mediterranean and from Southern Africa to Siam. 5 Independent India, wittingly or unwittingly, abandoned this legacy of a massive external economic and military engagement with Asia and the Indian Ocean.

By making a conscious choice in favour of economic self-reliance and import substitution, India disconnected itself from the regional markets. The great Partition of 1947 made matters worse by breaking up the political and economic unity of the subcontinent. The creation of new borders and the tensions between India and Pakistan meant that the region’s military energies, directed outward during the Raj, were now turned inwards. The unification of China, its control of Tibet, and the boundary dispute between Delhi and Beijing resulted in shutting down the long frontier between India and China. If an insular approach to development diminished India’s relative economic weight in Asia and the Indian Ocean, Delhi’s foreign policy rooted in non-alignment reduced India’s weight in the security politics of Asia. That India became increasingly isolated in a region that was its natural space for leadership underlined the tragic paradox of India’s foreign policy in the early decades after independence. It took the end of the Cold War and an internal economic reorientation to put Asia back at the Centre of India’s foreign and economic policies.

Changing Asian Order

India’s dilemmas in coping with the strategic consequences of China’s rise and America’s response to it are similar to those confronted its fellow Asian states. Until recently, East Asia believed that the rise of China is most likely to be peaceful and bet that Beijing can be ‘socialized’ through a network of regional arrangements. That confidence, however, has been shaken during the last few years amdist mounting tensions between China and the U.S. and between Beijing and some of its neighbours. Meanwhile, the United States, which encouraged its Asian allies to accept Communist China as a legitimate power after the rapprochement with Beijing in the early 1970s and facilitated its economic growth, now confronts a challenger to its longstanding primacy in Asia.

India, which was deeply uncomfortable with the Western and Asian embrace of China in the past, now finds itself in a very different quandary as relations between China and America begin to enter a complex and uncertain phase. India, on the one hand, stares at a rare opportunity to shape the Asian balance of power and confronts on the other the real danger of being drawn into the conflict between the world’s foremost power and the rising challenger. There are nine potential ways in which the regional order could evolve.

The first is the prospect of a Sino-centric Asian Order. Many scholars including some in the United States have argued that it there is something natural about Asia being reorganized around Chinese primacy. After a couple of bad centuries, it is argued, China is reclaiming its place at the heart of Asia. China’s new role as 6 Asia’s largest economy and the engine of its economic growth would provide the foundation for this Sino-centric order in Asia. While this logic has much merit, it is not clear if many of the large countries of Asia, like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Japan are politically prepared to accept such an order.

A second possibility is the reinforcement of American primacy, which has been the source of order and stability in the region for decades. A slowdown in Chinese economic growth, renewed economic vigour in America, restoration of American political will and the strengthening of its traditional alliances and new partnerships would certainly make that outcome possible. While India might be happy to live with the restoration of the old order, Delhi can’t afford to devise its policies on that possibility. For the scale and scope of power shift in China’s favour is undeniable. While the pace of that change might be uncertain, there is no escaping its essentially irreversible direction.

The third and fourth and fifth possibilities are about different forms of accommodation between the United States and China. Before announcing the pivot, the Obama Administration signaled its willingness to accommodate the rising China if it was willing to play by (American) rules in the first year of its tenure. Many in Asia characterized the American attempt to offer strategic reassurance to China as the construction of a G-2. Beijing, however, appeared to utterly unenthusiastic about the concept of G-2. Many leading lights in the U.S. strategic community like Henry Kissinger have warned that a confrontation with China will be disastrous for America and insisted that there is no alternative to their ‘cooperation and co-evolution’. Faced with the U.S. pivot to Asia announced during 2011-12, the Chinese leaders have called for a “new type of great power relationship” between Beijing and Washington that is different from the past pattern of conflict between rising and declining powers. Contrary to the widespread perception, Chinese opposition to an accommodation, in the form of a G-2 or Sino-American condominium is not about the principle, but the terms. Besides condominium there are other forms of accommodation between China and the United States.

The fourth scenario in our list is the prospect of an arrangement for separate spheres of influence. Much like Spain and Portugal who agreed not to compete with each other, it is possible to imagine America and China demarcating their primary areas of interest and agreeing on the principle of no-contest in agreed spheres of influence. India is deeply concerned about the prospects for any form of joint management of the regional order in Asia by America and China. In the past, India reacted strongly against statements on U.S.-China cooperation for example in promoting non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the Subcontinent. U.S.-China accommodation aimed at defining the rules for others in the region is bound to be resisted by India.

Fifth, another variant of this is the prospect for ‘offshore balancing’ by America. Much like British policy towards continental Europe, America could step back from its current role as a hands-on manager of the regional order, promote ‘in-situ’ balance of power in Asia and intervene only to restore when the shift in the balance threatens its interest. Many American scholars dismiss the possibility of the U.S. ever adopting such a role by arguing that off-shore balancing does not come naturally to Washington.

The sixth possibility involves the construction of a regional balance of power from a multipolar perspective. The idea of a concert of Asian powers, including America, China and India, has gained some traction in recent years but faces many practical obstacles. On its part, India has welcomed the proposal by the Obama Administration for a sustained triangular dialogue with China on Asian security issues. Beijing, however, has shown little interest in such a dialogue with Washington and Delhi. Besides China a number of other middle powers are not likely to respond positively to a self-selected Asian concert. In post-Napoleonic era, the Concert of Europe was formed by a set of roughly equal sized powers all of them located within the old continent. In Asia, the varying sizes of the powers, the problems of limiting geographic scope and the pitfalls of excluding key players could complicate the challenge of constructing a concert of powers.

A seventh possible scenario is the idea of middle power coalition in Asia that can cope with the challenges from a bilateral strategic dynamic between Washington and Beijing. Asia has a large number of middle powers with an inherited tradition of non-alignment. Even treaty allies of the United States might see such a middle power coalition as a small insurance against the twists and turns in U.S.-China relations. The last few years have seen an expanding network of bilateral defence cooperation agreements and trilateral security consultations between different middle powers in Asia. The U.S. treaty allies such as Japan, Korea and Australia have been part of this process. As one of the founding members of the movements for Asian solidarity and the non-aligned movement, India might the option of constructing such a coalition attractive. But it will require the devotion of considerable institutional resources, the lack of which is evident in India’s current security engagement with the East Asian countries. The U.S. on its part might see the emergence of a web of regional security cooperation among the middle powers as a useful complement to its own traditional alliances and special relationships. China, however, is likely to prevent the emergence of such a coalition.
The eighth possibility is that the regional security institutions, led by the ASEAN, will emerge strong and help mitigate the great power tensions in Asia and set the stage for a cooperative regional security. The reality, however, is that 8 the very construction of these regional institutions, defining their membership and mandate has been subject to contradictions among the great powers. The evolution of the East Asia Summit initiated by the Association of South East Asian Nations underlines this. ASEAN has sought to draw in most other powers, including India, Russia and America, into the EAS fold to broaden the playing field. But Beijing’s emphasis has been on limiting the scope of the EAS and refusing to let it interfere with China’s pursuit of its own national interests. If the EAS has not done too well, neither the older institutions like the ASEAN Regional Forum or the newer ones like ADMM Plus (which brings together the defence ministers of the EAS member states) are likely to be effective in coping with the historic redistribution of power in Asia. Their current focus on soft security issues in EAS only underlines its inability to address the larger challenges coming to the fore. Beijing has also shown the ability to break ASEAN unity on issues relating to China. Meanwhile the attempts at regional economic integration are being pulled in different directions with the ASEAN calling for a new Asia-wide free trade agreement that excludes the U.S. and the American initiative on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. India, as the weakest of the major powers and strongest of the middle powers, has been happy with supporting the “centrality of ASEAN” in shaping the Asian security architecture. That is good diplomacy, but not necessarily a solid basis for structuring the future Asian security order.

Finally, the most likely scenario for the near future is the slow but certain buildup of the Sino-U.S. rivalry in the region. China’s assertiveness in the region and the U.S. response to it, in the form of military and diplomatic rebalancing to Asia, might have set the stage for a prolonged geopolitical contest in the region. It is a rivalry few in the region have wished for or can manage. The tension between Chinese search for greater freedom of action in its Asian periphery on the one hand and the American forward military presence and its long standing alliances on the other is real and will have great bearing on Asia’s international relations for a long time to come.

Towards a Forward Policy

The search for regional balance of power will be different from the Cold War experience in Asia. Unlike the Soviet Union, which was isolated from the economic flows in the region, China is at the very heart of Asia’s economic dynamism and is by no means amenable to a strategy of containment by other powers. On the other hand, China’s power naturally complicates the credibility of traditional U.S. alliances in the region. In Japan and the Philippines there is a fear that the United States might not stand by them when their territorial conflicts with Beijing turn into shooting matches. In Australia there is a debate on the importance of adapting to China’s new role in Asian security. Meanwhile the ASEAN, which has seen itself as the driver of regional institution building is finding it hard to stay united amidst the assertion of Chinese power. The new divisions across the region are further reinforced by the deepening schisms in within the political elites of all major countries on how best to deal with China’s assertiveness and how far their nations must go in working with Washington to limit Beijing’s power.

These new dilemmas are clearly visible in India’s own policy response to the changing balance between China and the United States. In Delhi they acquire greater complexity given India’s own aspirations to play a larger role in Asia and its celebrated tradition of non-alignment. India’s strategy in the near term is likely to evolve along four axes. One is to strengthen its own comprehensive national power, especially in the military domain, in order to slowly reduce the emerging strategic gap with China. The second is to deepen economic and security cooperation with the United States without becoming a formal ally of Washington. The third is to reassure Beijing that it will not become a party to the any U.S. plans to contain China. Managing the relationship with China and avoiding a confrontation with Beijing on its borders will remain a major priority for India. Finally, India will try and step up its bilateral and trilateral security cooperation with key Asian states like Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia and Australia to retain a measure of autonomy from the unfolding U.S.-China strategic dynamic.

This approach is not free of contradictions and is likely to face many tests in the coming years. Let me conclude then by briefly mentioning how others view us in Asia. That India’s ‘Look East’ policy came in the wake of its economic reforms initiated at the turn of the 1990s was not surprising. Reconnecting to Asia, Delhi recognised, was critical for the modernisation of the Indian economy that had fallen behind the rest of the region and to rejuvenate its foreign policy in the new era. Since then, India has made considerable advances in connecting with Asia. It is now part of the major regional institutions, has growing economic and trade links and has stepped up its security cooperation with most Asian nations. Yet, there is a widespread sense of disappointment in Asia with India’s recent record in the East. Asia’s regional dynamic— in economic, political and strategic domains—has moved much faster than Delhi’s readiness to adapt. Asia today hopes that the ‘Act East’ policy unveiled by the government of Narendra Modi will bridge the gap between India’s promise and performance.

To meet the regional expectations for leadership, India will need to accelerate its internal economic reforms, deepen its integration with its South Asian neighbours, seize the opportunities for strengthening physical connectivity with different parts of Asia, play a more active role in the regional institutions and intensify its defence diplomacy. Delhi cannot afford to miss the unprecedented opportunity to accelerate Asia’s march towards prosperity or disavow the historic responsibility to shape its future political order.