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India Turns East International Engagement and US-China Rivalry Frederic Grare Penguin Random House 265 pages; Rs 599 With the Narendra Modi government officially taking India into the much-debated Indo-Pacific Quad — a quadrilateral arrangement consisting of Japan, Australia, the United States and India — India’s foreign policy has perhaps taken the first substantial “Act East” step. To be sure, joining the Quad is a major departure from the past, when New Delhi was reluctant to enter into any arrangement that could be interpreted as being directed against China. The reluctance might have been justified by pragmatism — as it is unwise to poke deliberately a more powerful neighbour in the eye — if it were not for two reasons. One, the fact that for well over the past decade, China took Indian caution for incapacity and lack of will, and behaved in ways that ignored and undermined India’s interests. Two, New Delhi did not demonstrate similar reluctance in joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a China-led security grouping that is aimed implicitly at countering US influence in the region. In that sense, India joining the Quad now harmonises institutional participation with strategic interests. The Quad is a good idea, but it is currently weakened by the uncertainty of commitment on the part of its members. Japan’s participation is contingent on how much Shinzo Abe will be able to carry his establishment along. Australia’s depends on a calculation of how much of its future is dependent on China. India’s on the extent to which it is wise to antagonise a country with which it shares a boundary. And the United States’ on the extent to which the sayings and doings of President Trump are not constitutive of its foreign policy. Reading Frederic Grare’s analysis of India’s Look East Policy, you are left with the impression of how fast things have changed over the past year. When Mr Grare was writing the book, Act East was merely a clever phrase inserted into official speeches to indicate that the Modi government was different from the previous one. By the time the book arrived on the shelves, India had declined to participate in Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative extravaganza, faced down Chinese troops in Bhutan and decided to join the Quad. How could Indian policy change so quickly? Partly because of the Modi government’s decisiveness.
Partly due to the slow and steady accumulation of possibilities created since 1991 by the Look East Policy (LEP) under then prime minister Narasimha Rao and all his successors.Mr Grare considers the LEP from the perspective of what it means for US foreign policy, which allows him to be unsentimental in his analysis. For instance, he correctly identifies that “beyond its economic objectives…the Look East policy was an ‘unstructured’ creation. Its strategic dimension, for example, did not emerge as a carefully crafted strategy but rather as a cumulative process, gradually developing defence cooperation with its neighbourhood.” Washington, he writes, calculated that “if New Delhi’s diplomacy could complicate Beijing’s foreign policy in the region, it was a welcome addition”. Mr Grare is less convincing when he argues that in the early 1990s, Indian policy-makers became aware of the need to counter Chinese influence in South East Asia. Living in Singapore during that period, I sensed little of that awareness. The book’s narrative captures the China and US factors in Indian foreign policy before examining how the LEP panned out in South East Asia, Australia and Japan. In the third section, it goes into the details of the alphabet soup of institutions that emerged in what is properly now called the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, the Obama administration’s decision to use the term “Indo-Pacific” is symbolic of the success of the LEP. When Rao (found that he had no choice but to) put it into action in the early 1990s, the Clinton administration was gung-ho about the “Asia-Pacific”, seeking to connect East Asia to the western seaboards of North and South America. India was, literally, not in the picture. Even as the Bush and Obama administrations began to see India’s importance for US policy in the region, differences persisted between Washington and New Delhi. Mr Grare correctly identifies that these differences do not stem from ideological divergences but rather, “reflect the considerable asymmetry in power between the two countries, the constraints resulting from their respective geographic locations, and India’s fear of being instrumentalised by the United States.” This understanding is crucial because the differences persist even as the two countries work out their respective responses to the rise of China. The problem for the author, though, is different. Mr Grare cannot rest in the satisfaction of having written a good book. A quick revised edition that captures the new flavour and tempo of power alignments in the Indo-Pacific is in order.