India - East Asia
India’s relations with East Asia during 2021 were characterized by two major developments; increasing interaction with the United States, Japan, and Australia as part of the “Quad” and painstaking efforts at border disengagement and dispute management with China. Within these preoccupations, India continued a robust if undramatic set of engagements (mostly virtually) across East Asia. India’s active East Asia engagements were notable, coming as they did amid New Delhi taking up a nonpermanent seat of the United Nations Security Council, finding its footing with the new Biden administration, addressing a February coup next door in Myanmar, battling a major wave of the delta variant of the COVID-19 virus, and contending with the fallout of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer, as well as participating in the COP26 Summit and the Summit for Democracies that President Biden hosted at the end of the year.
Despite the COVID-19 global pandemic, India’s engagement with East Asia during 2020 remained reasonably active, both actually and virtually. India’s external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, took several opportunities to emphasize that the Indo-Pacific concept (i.e., the inclusion of India and the Indian Ocean region) has gained wider acceptance. In his opening remarks at the 2nd Quad Ministerial Meeting, for example, he said “[i]t is a matter of satisfaction that the Indo-Pacific concept has gained increasingly wider acceptance.” And he also repeatedly highlighted India’s commitment to the concept, saying “The Indo-Pacific Ocean’s Initiative that [India] tabled at the East Asia Summit [in 2019] is a development with considerable promise in that context.” He pointedly highlighted India’s actions at the frontier of the western Pacific, telling an Indonesia-Australia convened town hall that “[i]t is revealing that in the midst of a global health crisis, Indian diplomacy has actually put its Indo-Pacific approach into practice. We provided assistance to Solomon Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Tonga, Tuvalu and Palau for procurement of medical equipment and supplies to assist in their response to COVID-19.” However, on two major counts—the decision by most regional countries to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement (RCEP) without India (which had dropped out of the negotiations last year) and the confrontation-filled Sino-India relationship—India’s East Asian relations were complicated rather than positive. Brighter spots included progress on the “Quad Consultations” (US, Japan, Australia, and India) and concomitant steady progress in bilateral security ties to Japan and Australia.
India’s 2019 interactions with the Indo-Pacific were active if measured by diplomatic outreach and defense engagements, but ended with two “whimpers” rather than “bangs.” The first was the decision to drop out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), announced at the ASEAN-convened summits in Bangkok in November. Until the announcement, India seemed ready to join the agreement. The second was the postponement of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s scheduled trip to Assam and Manipur states in northeast India for an annual exchange of prime ministerial visits. The postponement was reportedly decided after discussions between the two governments in the wake of violence against the Indian government’s controversial citizenship bill. The two unrelated developments did speak to two common themes: the first being the limits of India’s East Asia relations, and the second the occasional interruption, by domestic drivers, of India’s continued upward (if not steep) trajectory in relations with the Indo-Pacific region.
Beginning in 2000, and in almost every year since, Comparative Connections has carried an annual assessment of India-East Asia relations; on occasion this assessment has been combined with one on India-United States relations. The approach to this series of articles has been to review India’s relations with East Asia’s individual countries and subregions such as Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. This year our annual assessment of India-East Asia relations takes a new approach: assessing India’s involvement and integration with East Asia thematically (diplomacy, defense, trade/investment and multilateralism) incorporating updates on select/relevant countries during 2018. The impetus to the change is to arrive at a better appreciation of the most important elements of India’s involvement and integration into East Asia’s diplomatic, defense-security, and economic environment.
Progress was not dramatic, but the combination of a US-India relationship strengthened and networked in the context of the Indo-Pacific, ongoing China-India tensions, and India’s continued incremental advances in regional ties is consolidating India-East Asia relations. The Trump administration, in its first year in office, welcomed Prime Minister Modi and articulated India’s importance to both its South Asia and Indo-Pacific policies, including trilateral and quadrilateral arrangements among the US, Japan, India, and Australia. Mid-year, India and China engaged in a tense two-month standoff on the Doklam Plateau, highlighting yet another element of longstanding territorial and border disputes and adding to the list of accumulated grievances. India’s relations with other East Asian countries, however, advanced on the diplomatic and defense fronts. India’s own emphases in its East Asia outreach included maritime cooperation, seeking to engage East Asian partners in India’s states, building new bilateral mechanisms to harness relations, and participating in regional multilateral groupings to institutionalize regional relationships and engagements.
India deployed its prime minister, president, and vice president as well as key Cabinet officials across East Asia and the Pacific in 2016 in support of its “Act East Policy.” Since 2015 was the first full year of India “acting east” under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, 2016 was not expected to be a defining year in India-East Asia relations and it was not; rather, India’s engagement was robust but not riveting. After years of negotiating, a nuclear deal between India and Japan was one major development. More troubling, trade and investment ties were lackluster due to a range of international as well as specific bilateral factors, although India continues to participate in negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. India-China relations were noticeably cool and contentious. Still, India pursued broad and innovative outreach initiatives despite more pressing priorities, limited leverage, and East Asia’s own flux, contestations, and uncertainties. An example of innovation was President Mukherjee’s first-ever state visit to Papua New Guinea. He also made the first Indian presidential visit to China since 2000. Meanwhile, Vice President Ansari made a first-ever vice presidential visit to Brunei and to Thailand after a 50-year gap. So, India “acted east” as Modi promised soon after taking office in 2014, but it was hardly a bravura performance.
India-East Asia relations during 2015 offered a perspective on the first full year of India “Acting East.” India took important steps to shore up ties with several Asia-Pacific countries while also creating new relationships. While India-East Asia relations saw no ground-breaking developments, Prime Minister Modi continues to emphasize the political and strategic dimensions of India’s East Asia outreach – particularly in the maritime domain. An official review of India’s foreign relations released in late December provided a perspective on the priority that the Modi administration has been giving to East Asia.
India-East Asia relations since May 2014 are distinctive for two main reasons. First, Narendra Modi was inaugurated as India’s new prime minister on May 26 following a landmark and landslide election. In the months since, the Modi-led government has conducted robust and wide-ranging bilateral meetings with East Asian leaders and attended the East Asia Summit (EAS), the India-ASEAN Summit, and the G-20 Summit. Modi is seeking to create a new narrative for India-East Asia relations, saying at the EAS that “my government has moved with a great sense of priority and speed to turn our ‘Look East Policy’ into ‘Act East Policy’.” A second distinctive element of current India-East Asia relations is that it marks the third decade of India’s “Look East” policy launched in the early 1990s. This is, then, the third decade of India’s “third incarnation” as an Asian player – the first incarnation covering the millennia of historical, religious, and civilizational connections and the second incarnation covering the immediate post-1947 independence period until the early 1960s.
India-East Asia relations since the beginning of 2013 are a model of “low drama.” India continues to steadily manage and move forward its relations with both large and small countries using a mix of tools including government policy, the private sector, and broader societal links. India has been diplomatically, economically, and to some extent militarily rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific for about 20 years; a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and “Eastern bloc,” the economic dynamism of East Asia, and India’s own “Look East” policies combined with some Asian countries reciprocal efforts (e.g., Japan and ASEAN countries) to expand the role of “external” powers in the region. A careful analysis of India-East Asia ties suggests how much progress has been made in expanding ties and how much potential remains. Closing this gap will be the story of India-East Asia relations for decades. But as tensions rise in Asia and countries jostle for economic growth, diplomatic space, and security reassurances, it seems a safe bet that India will continue to be an element, and possibly an increasingly important element, of the strategic picture.
India’s relations with the United States and East Asia during 2012 revolved around notable visits and anniversaries rather than any major policy developments. India’s chief guest at its Republic Day in January was Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, making her the third consecutive leader from East Asia to be honored by India in this way (preceded in 2010 by South Korea’s President Lee Myung-bak and in 2011 by Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono). In March, Prime Minister Singh made the first state visit by an Indian prime minister to South Korea since former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, initiator of India’s “Look East” policy, visited there in 1993. In May, Singh became the first Indian prime minister in a quarter century to visit next-door neighbor Myanmar – following up President Thein Sein’s visit the previous October. (Aung San Suu Kyi, chair of Myanmar’s opposition National League of Democracy party, visited India in December for the first time in 40 years.) Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard made her first visit to India as prime minister in October. In late December, nearly every head of government of ASEAN member countries traveled to New Delhi for the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit.
The “big anniversary” of the year was India’s relationship with ASEAN – the 20th anniversary of India’s dialogue partnership with ASEAN and the 10th anniversary of the India-ASEAN summit-level partnership. Also, India and Thailand marked 65 years of diplomatic relations and India and Vietnam marked 40 years of such relations and the 5th anniversary of a “strategic partnership.” 2012 is also the 50th anniversary of India’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian Border War.
These visits and anniversaries should not be dismissed as symbolism without substance. India has achieved a modicum of satisfaction in its relations with the US and East Asia – encompassing greater diplomatic interchange, steadily rising though far from optimum economic ties, a role in security and military considerations, and inclusion in some if not all key regional multilateral efforts (exceptions being particularly glaring in the economic realm such as APEC and TPP membership). But measured against just two decades ago when India was seen as a potential security threat, economically irrelevant, diplomatically isolated, and reeling from internal crises, India’s current engagement with the US and East Asia should be viewed as an upward if unfulfilled progression. Indeed, many in the US and East Asia are frustrated because they want more, not less Indian engagement.
Over a decade into the “normalization” of US-India relations and nearly 20 years into India’s “Look East” policy, the US-India-East Asia nexus is regularly articulated by the US and India, generally accepted in the region, and shows some signs of gaining traction including a regular US-India dialogue on East Asia and the launch of the first-ever US-India-Japan trilateral dialogue. More broadly, US views of India as part of Asia now encompass mental as well as policy maps (though not yet bureaucratic and all geographical ones) and transcend party politics. Meanwhile, US-India bilateral relations move steadily if sometimes frustratingly forward, and India-East Asia ties continue to deepen and widen though to neither side’s full satisfaction. One thing is clear: triangulation depends above all on India’s own commitment and actions to build a closer relationship with the wider Asia-Pacific region. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an echo of comments made by regional leaders over the years, told an Indian audience in Chennai in July that “India’s leadership will help to shape positively the future of the Asia Pacific. That’s why … we encourage India not just to look east, but to engage east and act east as well [emphasis added].”
High-profile visits and meetings characterized Indian relations with both the United States and East Asia in 2010. While there were no major “breakthroughs” or departures as a result, the ongoing evolution of both US-India and India-East Asia relations suggests that they are now a fixed part of the US-Asia dynamic. It is worth noting that while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton neither visited India during her first trip to Asia in February 2009 (she did visit India in July 2009) nor made mention of India in her pre-departure address on US Asia policy, in November 2010 President Obama opened his speech to the joint session of India’s Parliament by declaring that “[i]t’s no coincidence that India is my first stop on a visit to Asia…” And the joint statement between the two countries issued during that visit specifically noted a “shared vision for peace, stability and prosperity in Asia, the Indian Ocean region and the Pacific region…[and] agreed “to deepen existing regular strategic consultations on developments in East Asia…” Indeed, including India at all in an Asia itinerary is a recent innovation in US foreign policy and one that speaks to a larger US policy debate about the evolving Asia-Pacific. Whether such an innovation sticks remains to be seen, although many indications suggest that it will; especially as the need to coordinate increases on matters such as the East Asian Summit, maritime cooperation across the “Indo-Pacific,” and wider global issues.
India-US relations were characterized by a degree of ennui while India-East Asia relations were overshadowed by public tensions between China and India throughout much of the year. The Obama administration, preoccupied by multiple high-stakes domestic and foreign policy priorities, offered up two high-profile visits for New Delhi with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton going to India in July and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh coming to Washington in November as the first head of state visit. But the newly strengthened Congress-led government, which returned to power after the April-May national elections, remained wary of the Obama administration’s priorities and approaches toward a range of issues including its Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) strategy, nuclear nonproliferation, and climate change, as it felt some nostalgia for the primacy of place and purpose offered to India by the bygone Bush administration. Meanwhile, in India’s ties with East Asia, even though New Delhi made diplomatic forays ranging from Mongolia to Papua New Guinea to the Pacific Islands Forum to Australia while sustaining its traditional relationships with Japan and ASEAN, the tense Beijing-New Delhi interaction over the decades-old border dispute was the focus of attention for most observers.
The twain did (and did not) meet between India-US and India-East Asia relations. Of particular note during the year was the joint US-China communiqué following President Obama’s visit to Beijing that referred to US-China cooperation on South Asia. To the Indians this had echoes of the Clinton administration when similar language was used after India’s nuclear tests and was highly objectionable then and even more so today given the progress in US-India relations and the absence of nuclear tests. For the US, thinking of South Asia in broader terms including AfPak, and cooperating with China accordingly is entirely reasonable – and not directed at India. Indians also noted that Secretary Clinton did not refer to India in her major speech on Asia before traveling to the region in February; a sign of the continuing US ambivalence (not to mention India’s) about New Delhi’s role in Asia.
India’s relations with the U.S. and East Asia during 2008 took place amidst remarkable flux domestically, within the South Asian region, and around the world – all of which directly and indirectly influenced developments in bilateral relations. The two issues that dominated U.S.-India relations during 2008 were the civilian nuclear cooperation deal and, at the end of the year, the U.S.-India-Pakistan triangle including the issues of terrorism and Kashmir. India’s relations with East Asia were quiescent during 2008. A notable development was the completion of an India-ASEAN free trade agreement, although its economic implications remain uncertain. India accentuated the positive with Myanmar as bilateral relations became more cordial while relations with China seemed to be on hold for most of the year as the border dispute remained unresolved and India responded cautiously to the Chinese handling of unrest in Tibet.
India’s relations with countries in the Asia-Pacific region during 2007 were wide-ranging as New Delhi sought to consolidate and expand ties with both small and large countries from Singapore to Australia to South Korea. With the U.S., India was on the verge of a landmark agreement on civil nuclear energy cooperation. But in India’s relations with both Asia and the U.S. there was unfinished business. In the case of Southeast Asia for example, the failure to conclude an FTA agreement despite long, complex and sometimes quite testy negotiations blunted what has generally been a positive if incremental trajectory in India-Southeast Asia relations. With China, India’s relations crawl forward year by year with little progress on fundamental issues such as the border/territorial dispute. With Japan, for all the excitement of the Abe-Aso tenure with India, the facts on the ground, especially on economic relations, remain limited. There are some more interesting openings for India in the region such as relations with Australia and South Korea, but they too are somewhat unusual rather than an established pattern. What is undeniable is that India is now a thread in the fabric of Asia. Similarly, despite the failure of the U.S. and India to conclude the civilian nuclear energy deal in 2007, the thickness of U.S.-India relations is unlikely to be diluted, even if it will take a lot of work from both Washington and New Delhi to keep them going.
Two years have passed since India’s relations with East Asia have been considered in this journal (see “India-East Asia Relations 2004: A Year of Living Actively,” January 2005). In the interim, a steady if un-dramatic consolidation of ties has occurred between India and its neighbors to the east. On a parallel track, India has also gained membership or observer status in regional organizations such as the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). India’s immediate South Asian environment continues to demand considerable Indian attention and energies given the multiplicity of challenges there, and India’s relations with Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal remain complex, but this situation has not impeded India’s relations with East Asia. India’s economic growth during the past two years has also been healthy. And though not directly related, India’s improved relations with the U.S., capped by the approval by the U.S. Congress of the U.S.-Indian nuclear cooperation agreement, also provided a positive basis to engage key Asian countries and organizations.
The past two years have been especially full for India’s diplomacy – both toward the United States and East Asia. Toward the U.S., India, by mobilizing hundreds of thousands of troops along the international border with Pakistan following an attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, was engaged in “coercive diplomacy” aimed at getting Washington to pressure Pakistan to halt cross-border infiltration into Kashmir. For much of 2002 and half of 2003, U.S.-India relations were preoccupied with getting Pakistan to carry through on its commitments, preventing further escalation or miscalculation of the crisis, initiating a political process in Jammu and Kashmir, and nudging India-Pakistan relations toward dialogue. Simultaneously, the U.S. and India worked to implement the “big idea” of the Bush administration to transform U.S.-India relations through enhanced defense cooperation, improved trade, and wider political and security consultations. On both these counts, the U.S. and India achieved some progress – though not smoothly.
India in 2003 was also pursuing an improvement in relations with its rapidly growing neighbor, China, while building on the past few years of steady improvement with Southeast Asia, and to a lesser extent Japan. While no dramatic events or breakthroughs have occurred, an incremental but steady focus by India on East Asia has been maintained despite severe India-Pakistan tension during all of 2002 and the first half of 2003.
This article, building on earlier reviews of U.S.-India (see “U.S.-India Relations: Visible to the Naked Eye,” Comparative Connections, Vol. 3, No. 4) and India-East Asia Relations (see “India-East Asia Relations: The Weakest Link, but not Goodbye,” Comparative Connections, Vol. 3, No.1, January 2003), examines U.S.-India and India-East Asia relations in 2002-2003 and 2003 respectively.
During the two years since India-East Asia relations were last considered here (see “India’s Latest Asian Incarnation,” Comparative Connections, Vol. 2, No. 3, Oct. 2000), India has achieved incremental progress in building political, economic, and even limited security ties to countries in East Asia. India, however, is still not an integral part of the region’s international relations or a critical bilateral relationship for Southeast Asia, China, or Japan. India’s relationship with East Asia thus remains the weakest link when compared to the region’s other major partners. But India’s growing engagement with East Asia in 2001-2002 both on a bilateral and multilateral basis demonstrates that India has neither bid the region, nor been bidden by it, goodbye!