Book Review: India-Southeast Asia-China Triangular Dynamics

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, ‘Insights on a Triangular Relationship’, The Book Review, Vol. XLI, No. 12, December 2017, 12-13.

Amitav Acharya. East of India, South of China: Indian Encounters in Southeast Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Karen Stoll Farrell and Sumit Ganguly (eds) Heading East: Security, Trade, and Environment between India and Southeast Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2016).

The two volumes under review are dissimilar books – dissimilar in structure, approaches and style. And yet, in their juxtaposition also emerges many interesting insights on the common theme in the two volumes namely, of the triangular relationship between India, Southeast Asia and China. Amitav Acharya’s East of India, South of China has China much more upfront as a central factor but Heading East edited by Karen Stoll Farrell and Sumit Ganguly would not stand either without China being the unspoken elephant in the volume.

This is not surprising. India’s interest in Southeast Asia today is largely commerce-driven but China has never been far from the surface as a factor. Indeed, it has been the glue holding disparate Indian interests and faltering attention together for over the nearly three decades since the Look East Policy was announced. But only just. And this is evident in the scant resources devoted to the study of Southeast Asia and China in Indian academic institutions or to desk specializations within the government. And this despite a change in nomenclature to an ‘Act East’ policy, frequent claims of Indian civilizational contributions to and geopolitical interest in the two regions and despite China being India’s largest neighbour.

While India has a famed (infamous, according to some sections) group of China-wallahs within its foreign ministry, it is slim pickings almost in every other area of India’s foreign policy and segment its government or non-governmental sector. Read more

Advertisements

China and its Neighbourhood: Perspectives from India and Vietnam

Jabin T. Jacob and Hoang The Anh (editors), China and Its Neighbourhood: Perspectives from India and Vietnam (New Delhi: Pentagon, 2017).

Vietnamese edition: Trang Quoc voi lang Gieng: Quan Diem Viet Nam va An Do (Hanoi: Vietnam Social Sciences Press, 2017).

Summary

This volume is an attempt to develop a more nuanced understanding of China’s foreign, security and economic policies by bringing together perspectives from two of its most important neighbours, India and Vietnam. This is a unique exercise because these two countries have a long history of both contending and cooperating with the People’s Republic of China. Even as India’s boundary dispute and Vietnam’s maritime territorial disputes with China have persisted, both countries have, in recent decades, also managed to successfully develop close economic relations with their northern neighbour as well as cooperated extensively with Beijing on regional and global issues of significance and mutual interest. Yet, the growth of China’s capabilities and ambitions, and the decline of its impulse towards multilateralism present challenges for India and Vietnam in their neighbourhood. It is against this backdrop that the authors in this book examine China’s bilateral relations and its role in regional multilateral organisations as well as the balancing behaviour of other powers in the region. In the process, this work also seeks to strengthen the sinews of the comprehensive strategic partnership between India and Vietnam by building closer ties between the research communities in the two countries and giving it greater analytical heft.

In India, Vietnam has the image of an uncompromising bulwark against China and almost any discussion of India’s external options vis-à-vis China is not complete without bringing Vietnam into the picture. Hanoi, meanwhile, sees India as a big neighbour to China and that while the relationship between the two countries has had its ups and downs in history, New Delhi now seems to be both cooperating and competing with China. India’s experience of dealing with China holds lessons for Vietnam. At the same time, it is extremely essential for policymakers and strategic analysts in India to keep a close eye on the dynamics of the China-Vietnam relationship itself. How relations between the two most successful communist regimes in the world – politically and economically speaking – will develop remains to be seen. There are both lessons to be learnt and cautionary tales here. New Delhi should have a realistic assessment of the lengths to which Vietnam will go in countering China’s assertiveness in the region given that it is the smaller country. At the same time, given Vietnamese history, there is also scope for calibrated measures to support Vietnam’s national capacity.

Available on Amazon.

Divide and Rule: China Woos Southeast Asia

At the 17th China-ASEAN leaders’ meeting in Naypyitaw, Myanmar in November 2014, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called for the formulation of a Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Declaration on the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity (2016-2020)[1] to ensure good neighbourly relations. A Global Times commentary has pointed out that while the Chairman’s Statement of the 24th ASEAN Summit on the South China Sea disputes ‘expressed serious concerns over the ongoing developments in the South China Sea’, the statement at the 25th Summit that concluded in Naypyitaw on 13 November, only mentioned that it was ‘concerned over the situation in the South China Sea’.[2] Clearly, the Chinese are working on the ASEAN members to moderate their views on the seriousness of the impact of the South China Sea disputes, and by extension, China’s actions, on regional stability. Read more

The Search for a Chinese Model of International Relations

Originally published as Jabin T. Jacob, “China in Southeast Asia: The Search for a Chinese Model of International Relations,” Special Issue: China and Southeast Asia, China Report, Vol. 48, No. 3, August 2012, pp. 317-326.

Abstract: Despite China’s claims of a foreign policy of ‘peaceful rise’/‘peaceful development’ and of seeking a ‘harmonious world’, and despite its economic openness and active participation in economic multilateralism, China’s neighbours continue to be concerned about the overall direction and intent of Beijing’s security policies. These concerns are particularly heightened by China’s rapid military modernization of the past couple of decades. The announcement in 2010 that China considered its territorial claims in the South China Sea a ‘core interest’, can be seen as a setback to its regional diplomacy, so diligently crafted over the years and drove its Southeast Asian neighbours to seek closer engagement with the US. This article argues that the contradictions evident in China’s neighbourhood foreign policy reflect its continuing search for a model of international relations that can balance its domestic interests such as the need for political stability, including regime stability, on the one hand and its external ambitions for a decisive role in regional affairs, on the other.

Read the full article here.

The States in Indian Foreign Policy

Original Presentation: “The States in India and Foreign Policy: Interests, Influence and Implications,” L’équipe  Politiques comparées et études européennes, SPIRIT, Sciences Po, Bordeaux, 9 April 2010.

Summary: This presentation focuses on an important political dynamic that while in play for some time now, has begun to have visible impact only in recent years. I am referring to the growing power and influence of the provinces/states in India with respect to national decisions, including foreign policy. The presentation actually begins with a short examination of the same phenomenon in China because it has in a sense been going on in that country for much longer.

And I hope that what I say will sort of ring a bell or remind you of some experiences that you know of in your own countries, while remembering the differences in context and historical development, when things sound either very obvious or very different. In India, meanwhile, there is increasing work being carried out on centre-province relations in India in the post-1990 or post-liberalization/economic reforms phase but a lot of this work is related to fiscal transfers and the like and much of the attention is also focused on matters such as countering terrorism and left-wing extremism (because law and order is actually, a provincial or state subject) and more recently on education (Right to Education legislation; education too, is a state subject).

This presentation however, focuses on only one aspect of the centre-province relations in India and that is the nature of influence that provinces exercise on national foreign policymaking.

See the full presentation at:

JabinJacob-2010Apr9-ScPoBordeaux-States in India-FP

From ‘Look East’ to ‘Think East’

Originally published: 3 February 2005

Alexander the Great met his “Final Frontier” in the Indian subcontinent; it was, however, the start of several incursions from the West leading to the spread of Islam, the rise of the Mughals, arrival of the Portuguese, and takeover by the British. The subcontinent’s political worldview has, therefore, for much of its history, inevitably been shaped by the West. The influence of the East has been more muted.

As the political entities of the subcontinent carry on their fractious relationships, the question needs to be asked, at least by India whether it is not time to move on. There are great and tumultuous changes occurring in its eastern neighbourhood that demand greater engagement. A beginning was made with India’s “Look East” policy in the early 1990s. But with a Westernized intellectual and political elite undertaking its conceptualization and operationalization, the policy still does not “look” sufficiently East. The more India and the subcontinent can learn to be Janus-faced, the less contradictions there will be in coping with the challenges of globalization and development. Incidentally, Pakistan was the first to realize the benefits of such an approach in the security domain.

But there is more to it than security. Even as historical, ethnic, political and military questions roil the region, East Asia is able to maintain the momentum of its economic interactions which has lessons for South Asia. Unlike the European Union experiment, the emphasis in Asia is – or should be – on the disaggregation of centres and doing away with centripetal forces. India, in particular, needs to show greater creativity and initiative in fostering closer economic ties with its neighbours. It needs to promote open borders and economic linkages between its border states and neighbouring countries. This would involve a substantial reordering of the concepts of federalism and sovereignty in India – a process already underway in China, though not always with government control.

In its engagement with East Asia, India is already on the way with BIMSTEC, Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) talks with China and Singapore and plans for FTAs with South Korea are examples. India’s FTA negotiations with ASEAN are notable since the latter will enter similar negotiations with Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand in 2005.

Geopolitically, India’s engagement with the military junta in Myanmar and interest in the Indochina region indicates pragmatism. Its membership of the ARF and the joint military exercises it now holds with several countries of the region, allows India to keep abreast with even if it cannot influence them. However, like Japan, India too, often conveys the impression that it only acts in reaction to Chinese moves. The remedy lies in imaginative thinking. ASEAN for example, has responded with initiatives such as ASEAN + 3 and the determination to be at the centre of a planned East Asia Community after the financial crisis of 1997. ASEAN may not be able to occupy the driver’s seat in the face of China’s rise but that should not invite deference from India. The fact that “East Asia” is the focus does not automatically exclude India from a leading role but that role can only come about if New Delhi progresses from “Look East” to “Move East” in its foreign policy orientation.

India should seize this opportunity with both hands. India’s northeast could serve as the land bridge and India’s eastern coast could provide the synergy across the seas. In the first case, a long neglected region would also acquire a position in the Indian polity that it has been long denied. In the second case, it would provide crumbling ports of Kolkatta and Chennai with the opportunities to revitalize themselves and their hinterlands.

An integral part of this process of realizing both domestic and global ambitions is to begin to “Think East” as well and this is where the Government of India has been lacking in wisdom or vision. In keeping diplomacy divested of academic input and academia being deprived of all access to the East Asian region whether in terms of language skills or access to resources for travel and study, New Delhi continues to drive its enterprise on the wrong fuel. Unless, India builds up dedicated and large academic resources to the study of more than the usual military buildups, economic indicators or foreign policy doublespeak, India is going nowhere East anytime soon.

Original Article: “From ‘Look East’ to ‘Think East’,” IPCS Article No. 1631, 3 February 2005.