India and the Asia Pacific chessboard

The Sino-American competition for allies within Asia Pacific could be an opportunity for these countries to compel China to narrow conflicting issues, especially India who should focus its foreign policy into engaging China in a proactive way.
Medha Bisht
1 December 2011

Recent developments in the Asia Pacific summit contain the strategic seeds of Obama’s proactive Asia Pacific policy. S.D. Muni, an Indian strategic analyst, has even termed it as having potential “elements to trigger a subtle and sophisticated new Cold War in Asia between the US and China.”  While in the domestic discourse of the United States, Obama’s Asian distraction is being perceived as the trump card for winning the presidential elections in 2012, strategic analysts have hailed it as a containment strategy directed towards China. For instance, Walter Russell Mead, has called it a “diplomatic blitzkrieg, aimed at reversing a decade of chit-chat about America’s decline, also nipping the myth of China rise in the bud.” Meanwhile, Stephen Walt has argued that Sino-American competition in the years ahead will primarily be a competition for allies. The Asian game, as he points out would be more concerned with winning and sustaining its Asian allies, a challenge, which the United States will have to manage well.

Some strategic thinkers have traced Obama’s recent Asia Pacific overture as a continuation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership which was initiated by the United States and eight Pacific countries viz., Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam in November 2009. TPP is a regional agreement aimed at enhancing trade, innovation, economic growth and development between the concerned parties. In fact, Sanjaya Baru termed it recently, “the economics of containment”, aimed at blunting the edge of China’s non-transparent trade competitiveness. Noting the increasing political, and economic weight that China frequently attains nowadays, Fareed Zakaria in the latest edition of the Time magazine, (November 28, 2011) argues for a new China policy. He writes, “Beijing needs to understand its new position in the world and act in ways commensurate with its power.” 

While these arguments suggest that the contours of the international structure are being reordered, India’s role and place within the changing political and security equations perhaps need also to be reckoned with. Common sense would dictate that ‘hedging’ and ‘balancing’ is perhaps the safety net and best bet for India in the changing political environment. While such an approach is more prescriptive than instructive, it is important that India revisits the fundamentals of its foreign policy before moving onto the grand Asian chessboard. 

The primary policy concern for India should be to distance itself from the emerging discourse of ‘containing’ or ‘balancing’ China. Instead, engaging China in a proactive way should be the primary driver dictating its foreign policy choices. There are a number of issue areas where China and India need to cooperate and perhaps Obama’s Asia–Pacific policy has in it a spill-over effect in redefining the framework of Sino-India engagement. It could be argued that with the presence of the US in Asia, China could be most susceptible towards narrowing conflictual issues and might look for spaces to leverage its influence with its neighbours in East Asia and South Asia.

The most pressing issues confronting China and India are related to border demarcation and institutionalising water cooperation. While institutional frameworks on border issues are in place, they need to be picked up on a regular basis by both sides. Confidence building measures are most needed to allay misperceptions leading to further risks and uncertainties. On water issues, China’s riparian dominance has been a cause of concern for the lower riparian in South Asia. Climate change and ecological concerns are two urgent issues for the Asian giants and can be termed the nodal points for facilitating sustainable cooperation.  The Brahmaputra River Basin could be the fulcrum for getting Bangladesh, India and China around a common table where linkages between energy, water and ecology can be factored in. Thus, while talking border issues are important for regional stability in the long term, water issues are urgent and need to be prioritised, given the impact they have on the livelihood of the people downstream. Articulating a policy of ‘balancing’ and ‘containing’ China could prove deleterious to issues vital for riparian South Asian countries.       

An engagement strategy would also be helpful in providing substantial strategic autonomy to India in its posture vis a vis Iran. The issue of a nuclear Iran has been a policy priority for the United States for some time. This was evident in the  recent statement made by Mitt Romney who during the GOP candidates debate, argued in unequivocal terms that electing Mitt Romney means that Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. Notwithstanding the foreign policy priorities of the United States, Iran remains an important partner in India’s energy security. As Iran is an important player for Asian political stability, India’s support for Obama’s Pacific policy could prove costly for Indo-Iran relations in the long term.

It is also important that India revisits the basic tenet of its Look East Policy. India is in an enviable position in South East Asia as it can exercise leverage through its soft-power, a missing strand in strengthening ties with ASEAN countries. A soft power approach however requires investments in institutions, through which India and South East Asian countries can strengthen their diplomatic outreach and understanding.  As India paces up its economic diplomacy with South East Asian nations in the coming years, it is important that the institutional foundation of soft power also be strengthened, an issue intrinsically tied with India’s image as an attractive alternative which can prove beneficial to South East Asia.  This is an area where India has been lagging behind and thus needs to be picked up by the Ministry of External Affairs in India.

For India to exercise its diplomatic leverage it is important therefore that engagement rather than balancing and containment becomes its policy brand. While the changing contours do provide some tempting contours for opportunistic action, given that Asia will be an important pole in the twenty-first century, with multiple power centres, an engagement discourse should be marked out in the public domain. While India’s historical commitment to Asia is often traced to an ‘Asian Federation’with Washington’s Pacific diplomacy, India's positions however should be dictated by its own strengths and domestic interests.  


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of IDSA

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