Is India’s Act East for China?

June 18, 2017

By Sahibzada M. Saeed

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. First and foremost factor is relative power capabilities, while second factor is political culture of foreign policy behavior and last but not least is, situation in which perception has been made. For instance in 1950s, when Pakistan has received massive military assistance from America and as per Indian prospective, this was obvious threat to regional balance of power. But Chinese assistance to Pakistan, as after 1962 Indo-China war was more dreadful for India. Because China and India, therefore, realize each other as a threat, due to their bilateral power equivalences vis-à-vis the other.

Following these patterns, in present geopolitical scenario, again India perceives Chinese projections in South Asia as a threat to regional balance of power. This behavior is due to 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 level of equality and potential.

If we shift the spotlight on Indo-Asia Pacific region, this tug of war between China and India can also be witnessed there. Indo-Asia Pacific is the region with prime geo-economics and geostrategic significance for world powers. Strategically, India is 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 post-cold war scenario, ground realties have changed in Asian continent. In 1990s, the process of globalization was underway in ASEAN countries and opportunities for economic development were abundant. Indian Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao has initiated reforms in Indian economy and developed its policy to look towards East. This policy officially called “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 & cooperation between India and East Asian countries like Japan and South Korea has increased.

Current, Maritime Policy of India prioritizes energy security and protection of important sea lanes in Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf as core and primary area of focus. While South China Sea is considered as secondary area of interest to avoid unnecessary confrontation with China. 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 tour with these countries naval vessels.

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

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

For China energy security is considered as the 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 SLOCs like Strait of Malacca is intimidating for China. China is increasing its defense spending every year as from $119.80 billion in 2011 to $238.20 billion in 2015. It is estimated that defense spending of China would increase from which will be more than sum of all of Asian countries defense budget. Former Chinese Defense minister Liang Guanglie while addressing Shangrila Dialogue in Singapore in 2011 said that China has only defensive policy and China has peaceful Intentions in its Maritime strategy to neighboring countries.

Economically, for countering Act East Policy China is playing its cards very smartly. In this regard, Asian China Free Trade area (ACFTA) came into effect in 2010 between China and 11 countries of South Asia. This is considered largest free trade area in terms of Population and 3rd largest with respect to GDP. This resulted trade of Malaysia and Thailand with china go in surplus in 2013. Now Singapore is also acting financial hub for trade between China and ASEAN. Likewise, China has intentions to regionally connect all ASEAN countries through its ‘One Belt, One Road’ and ‘21st century Maritime Silk Road policy’ in order to boost economy and enhance infrastructure development of ASEAN. According to Beijing, China has friendly behavior along with win/win policies for East Asian states.

All of this situation depicts that Although China has territorial disputes with some ASEAN countries but it is trying to resolve these issues on one hand and on other hand it is building strong economic relationship and economic forums for mutual prosperity and economic growth. But China is facing multiple fronts in Indo-Asia Pacific. Chinese strategic culture and previous way 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 obviously fruitful for all developing countries of the region.

*The writer is an IR analyst and freelance columnist based in Islamabad and could be reached at mmsb1000@gmail.com.

< Previous Article
A Massive Win

1 Comment on this article. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. amirniazi@hotmail.com'
    Amir Niazi June 19, 2017 at 1:07 pm -

    Dear Mr. Saeed,

    You draw a very good and detailed picture of Asian trade and Geo-political situation. Your article has helped me understand the whole scenario of regional politics…