Amid China’s growing clout, Indian and US interests in the Asia Pacific are out of sync

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Dynamics are shifting in the Asia Pacific region, and India continues to struggle to redefine its foreign policy in a changing regional order. The Look East policy has represented India’s attempt to connect with its Asian neighbours, but the goal has been complicated by parallel attempts by China to redefine itself in the region while the United States is still in many ways weighing its options. India’s relationship with the United States continues to be crucial to its aims but also ambiguous.

In this context, what are the implications of India’s Look East policy for its future relationship with the United States?

The question has been particularly salient since 2011, when the Obama administration issued a series of announcements indicating that the United States would be expanding and intensifying its already significant role in the Asia Pacific, particularly in the southern part of the region. The “pivot,” or “rebalance,” as the policy came to be known, was intended to deepen US credibility in the region through a systematic effort to influence the development of norms and rules in the Asia Pacific as China emerges as an ever more influential regional power.

On Nov. 17, 2011, president Barack Obama invited India to be part of the effort as India “looks east and plays a larger role as an Asian power.” The actual expectations of the US administration vis-à-vis India have never been totally defined.

One would be mistaken, however, to believe that the Look East policy has ever figured prominently in US strategy. It would be further incorrect to believe that Washington’s policy shift and the depth of its concern about China structurally changed its relationship with New Delhi or that the Look East policy transformed India into an indispensable partner to the United States. Nor did New Delhi’s and Washington’s interests suddenly converge in such a way that the United States had no choice but to systematically take India’s interests into account in its strategic calculations in Asia.

The US and India’s Look East policy

India’s Look East policy has been understood in the United States as a limited but potentially useful instrument in the short term. The attempt to align—at least rhetorically—the Look East policy with the Rebalance to Asia was more an attempt to draw India closer to the United States than the inevitable outcome of the congruence between the two countries’ objectives and was understood as such by the Indian side. The convergence of interests was real, but the asymmetry of power between the two countries was such that the relationship was not really necessary for the United States while potentially risky for India.

Indeed, even after the announcement of the Rebalance to Asia in 2011, differences between the two countries persisted, and the effort to integrate India’s concerns and policies into the US strategy only highlighted them. Unlike during the Cold War, these differences are no longer based on ideological divergences. They primarily reflect the considerable asymmetry of power between the two countries, the constraints resulting from their respective geographic locations, and India’s fear of being instrumentalised by the United States.

US role in east Asia

Indeed, deeper questions persist in both countries about the potential scope of the partnership. New Delhi wonders about the extent of the United States’ commitment to Indian security and does not intend to fight the United States’ wars, whereas Washington questions India’s capacity and willingness to balance China, which motivates its own investment in the relationship.

India’s capabilities and policy are not the only factors at play. The US policy is being questioned by Indian policy-makers and strategic experts alike. If the Rebalance to Asia attracted US attention to the Look East policy, important policy components of the same rebalancing also raised questions about India’s true importance to the United States. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a high-standard free-trade agreement recently concluded between the United States and eleven other Pacific Rim countries, excluding India and China, is one such component. Uncertainties regarding the fate of US allies in Asia in the ongoing US domestic debate about the future of the relationship with China is another component of the dilemma faced by Indian decision-makers. These two issues are closely related.

Many Indian officials are concerned that by pushing the TPP agenda, the United States will contribute to slowing down the modernisation of the Indian economy, accentuating India’s power differential with China. They also fear that the TPP will lead to the erosion of the ASEAN-led security architecture by further polarising the region in a zero-sum game between China and the United States at the expense of some of India’s partners or allies.

US military predominance in the Asia Pacific is a key element in the overall balance of power in the region, and the status quo in this regard is essential to India’s security. But…despite its many flaws, ASEAN remains an important instrument of India’s protection against any hegemonic aspiration in the region, in particular from China.

India and ASEAN

ASEAN’s institutional weaknesses, such as its consensus-based decision-making process, make it particularly vulnerable in an environment increasingly characterised by the zero-sum-game nature of the US-China rivalry in Asia. China has long been playing on the weakness of some of ASEAN’s most vulnerable members to divide the organisation and prevent the adoption of any consensual policies opposed to its own interests. But the TPP further divides ASEAN into two categories of states—those whose economy is strong enough to join the treaty and those whose economy is not—raising questions regarding the political future of the states remaining outside the treaty. The latter are de facto pushed closer to Beijing, though being part of the TPP does not guarantee against Beijing’s political influence.

In the process, the role of political buffer between China and the United States traditionally played by ASEAN is further eroded, affecting India’s interests and its already weak confidence in the United States’ commitment to India’s security, weakening moreover the constituency in favour of a stronger US-India relationship.

These uncertainties, which feed the lack of trust between the two countries, explain India’s continued insistence on the concept of “strategic autonomy.” It reflects not a sense of over-confidence in India’s own capacity to defend itself but a desire to limit India’s dependency on the United States’ goodwill and to mitigate the collateral risks emanating from too close a proximity to Washington.

There is therefore much more at stake in the development of the relationship than the supposed strategic convergence between India and the United States. In this context, the Look East policy is an attempt to neutralise China by inserting India into a web of relationships while hyphenating its own strategic interests to those of the United States without ever losing its autonomy. The main difficulty resides, however, in the definition of these common strategic interests. While China may—rightly or wrongly—be perceived as a common threat by both countries, the definitions of what constitutes a threat and, more importantly, the means to contain it still differ considerably.

Excerpted from Frédéric Grare’s book India Turns East with permission from Penguin India. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.