As Sino-Indian competition intensifies, India is emerging as a serious player in the Asian strategic landscape as smaller states in East and Southeast Asia reach out to it for trade, diplomacy and, potentially, as a key regional balancer. The “Look East” policy initiated by one of the most visionary Prime Ministers India has ever had, P.V. Narasimha Rao, is now the cornerstone of India’s engagement with the world’s most economically dynamic region. India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made it clear that his government’s foreign-policy priority will be East and Southeast Asia, poised for sustained growth in the 21st century.
China is too big and too powerful to be ignored by the regional states. But the states in China’s vicinity are now seeking to expand their strategic space by reaching out to other regional and global powers. Smaller states in the region are now looking to India to act as a balancer in view of China’s growing influence and America’s anticipated retrenchment from the region in the near future, while larger states see India as an attractive engine for regional growth. To live up to its full potential and meet the region’s expectations, India will have to do a more convincing job of emerging as a credible strategic partner of the region. Neither India nor the regional states in East Asia have incentive to define their relationship in opposition to China. But they are certainly interested in leveraging their ties with other states to gain benefits from China and bring a semblance of equality to their relationships. Great power politics in the region have only just begun.
Dr Harsh Pant is currently an Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Australia India Institute and a Reader in International Relations in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London. He is also an Associate with the college’s Centre for Science and Security Studies and an affiliate with its India Institute. His current research is focused on Asian security issues. Recent books that Dr Pant has authored or edited include The US-India Nuclear Deal: Policy, Process, and Great Power Politics (2011); The Rise of China: Implications for India (2011); China’s Rising Global Profile: The Great Power Tradition (2011), The China Syndrome: Grappling with an Uneasy Relationship (2010), Indian Foreign Policy in a Unipolar World (2009), and Contemporary Debates in Indian Foreign and Security Policy: India Negotiates Its Rise in the International System (2008).