It’s time for India to revisit ‘Look East’

Trump tantrums raise new challenges and opportunities to fine-tune our geopolitical strategy, especially in Asia Pacific

Viewing western television channels such as CNN and BBC is fascinating, listening to scathing comments about President Donald Trump and his seeming eccentricities, prejudices and his stereotyping of countries and peoples across the world. Trump is, however, merely reflecting the concerns and anger that whites across the US, whose lifestyles have been shaken by losing employment, feel about globalisation, as industrial facilities migrate to distant shores.

Such people also feel under siege from perceived threats from “radical Islamic terrorism”. What is missed out, however, is that Trump has already won support from oil- rich Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, by backing them against Iran and asking Israel to go slow on settlements in occupied Palestinian lands. What remains is for Trump to show the same foresight in dealing with Iran.

In these circumstances, India needs to pay greater attention to seeing what it needs to do in its eastern neighbourhood, extending across the Bay of Bengal, the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.

Changing times

Our ‘Look East’ policies now need careful review, as they were crafted in an era when the Asia-Pacific was the fastest growing region in the world. We were able to conclude free trade and comprehensive economic cooperation agreements with ASEAN members, who were united in their approach to the outside world, apart from strengthening ties with Japan and South Korea. The US, under President Obama, followed suit, participating actively in ASEAN Summits together with India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Things, however, started changing as an increasingly assertive China started defining its maritime frontiers in an outrageous manner, provoking tensions with its maritime neighbours — Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. China used its economic muscle to entice countries such as Cambodia and Laos and drive a wedge between ASEAN members on how to deal with Beijing’s territorial ambitions. Military was used to reinforce its claims on Vietnam and the Philippines.

TPP after beyond

Given the Chinese assertiveness, the Obama administration responded by its “pivot to Asia”, strengthening military ties and naval presence across the Asia Pacific. Crucially, the US challenged China’s economic prowess by fashioning a Trans-Pacific (Economic) Partnership (TPP) to facilitate trade and investment ties across the Asia Pacific. The TPP included the US, Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, together with ASEAN members Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.

There were clear indications that the Philippines, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia and Cambodia would join the TPP in due course. Given the vast size of the US market and the opacity in Chinese trade and economic policies, the US was set to lure these countries away from excessive dependence on China. One of Trump’s first actions after assuming office was to annul the TPP, manifesting his aversion to further trade liberalisation.

This is going to have serious implications across and beyond our eastern shores. There have already been growing concerns in East and Southeast Asia over growing Chinese economic and military power, amidst increasing manifestations of emerging American isolationism. While Beijing was excluded from the TPP, it has been working to promote a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with ASEAN and its dialogue partners, including India.

This would involve the entire Indo-Pacific Region becoming a Free Trade Area, which China would inevitably seek to dominate. More importantly, a number of ASEAN members including long-term American military allies are showing increasing signs of nervousness about getting drawn into the vortex of American-Chinese rivalries.

Despite Chinese maritime boundary claims and occupation of its Scarborough Shoal, a nervous Philippines leadership has sought to befriend China and appear neutral, with its defence minister Lorenzana proclaiming: “We have to remind our friends, firmly if necessary, not to use ASEAN as a proxy for their rivalries”. Malaysia has expressed similar sentiments.

Cambodia recently cancelled military exercises with the US. Most importantly, Thailand, a long-term American military ally, is now set on purchasing Chinese submarines and other defence equipment. Myanmar is similarly being coerced to toe the Chinese line by Chinese pressures through trans-border insurgencies, on Beijing’s borders with Myanmar’s Shan and Kachin States. Moreover, ASEAN is itself, for the first time, internally coming under strain, with countries like Indonesia and Malaysia taking exception to alleged killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Beijing has, meanwhile, rolled out the red carpet for Vietnam’s Communist Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong.

The collapse of the TPP is welcome in New Delhi, whose competitive edge in the US would have been eroded. There is no way that India could have, anytime in the near future, accepted the American imposed conditionalities on issues such as labour standards, intellectual property rights and arbitration.

New Delhi has now to see how best it can influence the direction of negotiations on the RCEP, so that its concerns on inclusion of the service sector and lack of transparency in Chinese policies on the exports of India’s goods and services are met. We should not remain isolated from the emerging security and economic architecture to our east.

Our plan

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis and Trump himself have reasons to be seriously concerned over China’s policies across its maritime frontiers. While Mattis has already affirmed American commitment to Japan’s security, Tillerson is obviously concerned about China’s maritime claims on Vietnam, where Exxon has interests in off shore drilling and exploration.

The US establishment knows that balancing Chinese power and irredentist maritime boundary claims will need partners such as Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia and India. Dialogue with the US and others in the future should also pay much greater attention to security across the western sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean through which over 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne oil exports traverse. Moreover, with differences and bickering arising for the first time within ASEAN and Trump unlikely to show as much personal interest as Obama had done in regional Summits, the dynamics of such Summits could well undergo changes.

The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan

Published on February 08, 2017
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