India and APEC: Center of mutual gravitation

The APEC summit is taking place on the Russky Island in the city of Vladivostok in Russia’s Primorye Region. Source: Vitaly Raskalov

The APEC summit is taking place on the Russky Island in the city of Vladivostok in Russia’s Primorye Region. Source: Vitaly Raskalov

India’s Look East Policy and efforts to integrate its economy with Southeast Asia, make it a prime candidate to become a member of APEC.

Pranab Mukherjee is regarded as one of India’s most experienced and authoritative politicians. Apparently his election as President of India will add the required logic and coherence to the Indian foreign policy, the qualities it has evidently lacked in the recent 5 to 7 years.

First of all, a super-large entity such as India will promote the strengthening of existing economic structures in the world’s most economically dynamic region. It will also counter the attempts to change the fundamental principles of international relations, not the least of which, the presumption of unity and territorial integrity of states and societies.

Secondly, India’s joining APEC will facilitate the efforts to solve the problem of strategic importance, i.e., the strengthening horizontal economic ties in Southwest Asia and enriching the content of external economic activities of regional actors. The Indian experience of getting the best out of “plan” and “market” collectively may prove really invaluable under conditions of global economic slowdown.

Third, India has already moved ahead substantially in this direction. It has done solid preparatory work in the form of the “Look East Policy” initiated in 1997. The Gujral Doctrine has become an effective instrument of strengthening India’s diplomatic ties with Southeast Asian countries. The economic relations with these countries have also undergone a qualitative evolution. Today the region has become the largest market for India’s goods accounting for over half of exports (it was only 40 percent at the beginning of the century). The economic relations also have a solid political foundation. India has signed agreements with important APEC members like Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

It’s relevant to recall against the backdrop of the upcoming APEC summit that Indian interest concerning the situation in the Asia-Pacific region has its own story of a rather long duration.

The Indian ruling elites sees the cyclic recurrence of world processes as the main driving force boosting general dynamics of international relations in the spirit of traditions laid down by the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

If the 19th century was dominantly British, the 20th predominantly American, then, apparently, the 21st is to become the “Asian Century.” Naturally it will require an adjustment of foreign policy strategy to stay in tune with the changing global environment.  The “adjustment” has become a natural continuation of India’s 1991 economic reforms. Back in the mid- 1990s, the Gujral Doctrine or the “Look East” policy materialised as a sublime political expression that is being actively implemented nowadays.

The Indian elite outpaced many of their foreign counterparts to catch the winds of change in the global world economy and international politics. They succeeded in taking advantage of the shift towards the Asia-Pacific to emerge as the new pivot of world development.

Delhi seems to understand that the on-going increase of economic influence, military might and geopolitical capabilities of China will become the dominant trend of the Asian Century.

The foreign policy of India in the Asia-Pacific is finally shaped by the relations of the world’s largest democracy with actors like China, the United States of America and the most influential states of Southeast Asia and Far East, naturally including Russia.

What is the Indian political elite’s actual perception of the driving forces and motives behind the China’s policy in the Asia-Pacific? According to the Indian experts, China’s leaders realise that the Celestial Empire needs dozens of years to acquire the geo-economic and geopolitical status equal to that of the United States. That’s exactly why they are actively supportive of the “genuine multipolarity” concept. At the same time, the Indian experts presume the main goal of Beijing in the Asia-Pacific is mono-centricity in Asia, under the Chinese auspices. As they see it, India is granted a place only in the second echelon of the Asia-Pacific area. According to this author, such vision is explicitly oversimplified.

To my humble mind, such assessments of India’s capabilities in the Asia-Pacific are based on a twenty year-old analysis.  Intellectually, this analysis is not supported by the successful experience of India’s economic reforms that have greatly enhanced the geo-economic and geopolitical resources of the country. These consist of the effective search for a new foreign policy paradigm (Look East Policy) by the ruling political class, the actual recognition of India’s nuclear status by the world community and positive changes in relations with two other global centres of gravity- the USA and Japan. That’s why the Indian leaders, including Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, appear to emphasize the notion of cooperation between the Elephant and the Dragon. They stress that the two largest states have quite enough space to bring into life, national development strategies on the basis of sound competition instead of rivalry.

Still, as experts note, the boundaries between rivalry and sound competition are quite flexible and, especially taking into consideration the fact that, in comparison with other world leaders, India borders on the states that really create problems for its national security (Pakistan, Bangladesh, not to mention the Celestial Empire itself). Let’s not forget the old territorial dispute over the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, still called East Tibet in Beijing. Further, Indian scholars pay attention on stepped up pace of Tibet’s economic progress, calling the policy of China’s central powers a “double purpose strategy.”

For instance Ranjit Gupta from Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi, writes: "Given the serious territorial issues between China and India, the development of state- of- the- art rail, road and civil aviation infrastructure in very difficult terrain and sparsely populated Tibet, the conscious policy of rapidly increasing the Han Chinese population in Tibet, and deployment of very significant conventional and strategic military assets there, cannot but be a source of major concern. This is especially so when viewed together with the fact that China has spun a web of very strong economic, military and political relationships with India's neighbours, in particular with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan".

Really, today India fails to favourably change the foreign policy of Bangladesh that continues to fall under growing economic dependence of Beijing. That’s exactly where the factor of cooperation between the three super large states, bolstered by the prospects of APEC membership, should bring positive results. Or, perhaps, it’s not the expansion of the Celestial Empire into the Asia-Pacific that it’s all about, but rather the fact that a part of Indian establishment simply depends on the USA, that actively imposes on Delhi its own vision of world situation as well as its fears and complexes?

India’s Path to the Asia-Pacific goes through Southeast Asia. It starts from Myanmar (Burma). The importance of this country for the largest Democracy in the world is finally determined by four major factors. First, the security, political stability and social-economic progress in the north-eastern part of India depend on it. Second, the relationship is of special importance for keeping up strategic balance not in the Bay of Bengal only, but rather in the whole eastern part of Indian Ocean. Third, Myanmar is the only geographic bridge between India and economic group of ASEAN states that is the backbone of Delhi’s Look East policy. Fourth, there is a natural necessity to diversify the sources of energy security. That makes Myanmar a potentially significant source of hydrocarbons (oil and gas) so much needed for Indian economy.

It’s a well-known fact that seven north-eastern Indian states are in a way separated from the mainland by Bhutan, Bangladesh, the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and Myanmar. Myanmar enjoys a critically important place in this complex territorial configuration that finally explains the Delhi’s policy towards this country. So, the development of seven Indian north-eastern states and their security depend on permanent connection to the mainland to prevent the feeling of territorial isolation and being separated from the rest of the country among the population of North-East. The statement recently made by Indian Minister of Development of North Eastern Region M. Shankar Ayyar said: “East Asia begins in North East India.” These words have sound historical foundation. World War II and the partition of India in 1947 had broken the traditional cultural, ethnic and economic ties between India and Southeast Asia.

One of the most important missions is termination of insurgency in the North-East. Experts say the insurgents operate from the territory of Bangladesh that significantly enhances the importance of Myanmar among the foreign policy priorities of India in Southeast Asia. Besides the relations with Myanmar are of strategic importance for the security and vital needs of the Andaman and Nicobar islands situated in the eastern part of the Bay of Bengal. Finally the New Look East policy is based on the assumption that Myanmar is a gate to Thailand and Laos, the shortest way to Southeast Asia.

The strategic interests of India and the economic core of Southeast Asia – the ASEAN - to great extent coincide concerning the issue of political turbulence in Myanmar. These interests are defined by the following strategic reasons. First, the abatement of Myanmar’s dependence on China, which is becoming too dangerous according to some people. Second, the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of other states should be maintained as a sacred basis of international relations. Third, last but not the least, Myanmar boasts an extremely advantageous geostrategic position, and it is rich in natural resources, including hydrocarbons.

As a chairman of the authoritative organisation, Russia should take into account the concerns of the Indian elite and the logic of its behaviour on international scene while supporting India’s APEC membership. This way it’s easier to build security in the Asia-Pacific and implement the idea of multi-polar world.  

First published in Strategic Culture Foundation.

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