Many pitfalls

The act east policy

Prime minister Manmohan Singh will meet United States president Barack Obama this weekend in Bali. Obama has been elusive for an year. His renewed interest underscores United States’ regional priorities. The Asia-Pacific is Washington’s new priority; the currently fashionable catch-phrase is that the region is the ‘strategic pivot’ of the US’ foreign policy.

Delhi has dutifully accelerated its ‘Look East’ policy in the past two month period or so with a view to to harmonise with the US current regional strategies. On its part, Washington has paid an extraordinary tribute to Delhi’s enthusiasm by rechristening the ‘Look East’ policy and hailing it as ‘Act East.’

The unspoken theme, of course, is the ‘containment’ of China. Delhi’s initiatives to beef up defence ties with Japan and Vietnam; its interjection into the disputed South China Sea; revival of the proposal on US-Japan-India ‘trilateral dialogue,’; joint initiative with Canberra to resuscitate the moribund Indian Ocean Rim Association of Regional Countries; newly-minted security doctrines advocating security pact with US and Australia – the leitmotif is evident.

And Beijing quickly grasped the import of India’s ‘Act East’ policy. Beijing has cautioned India to introspect on the actual need for this frenzy. Beyond pursuing legitimate interests to develop cooperation with China’s neighbours, Beijing asks, why cross the ‘red line’ and morph into the US’s containment strategy toward China? Beijing is watching, making allowance for the US diplomatic style to hustle hesitant partners.

But it also cannot help factoring in that India is looking for military and political support from the US. It comprehends that in particular, Delhi is desperate to ‘activate’ the nuclear deal with the US and would go the extra league for it. The political symbolism of India timing the launch of Agni-IV missile to near-perfection – as, indeed, Australia’s change of heart on selling uranium to India – cannot be lost on Beijing.

Delhi hopes to ‘neutralise’ Pakistan through its dialogue process and incrementally marginalise it as a factor in regional security. It also hopes to atrophy China’s capacity to leverage the India-Pakistan tensions. The US encourages the Indian leadership to work on this track. India’s helpful stance at the recent Istanbul conference vis-à-vis the US moves on OSCE-type security architecture in the region and New Silk Road (to roll back Russian and Chinese influence in Central Asia) mesh with this thinking.

However, the pitfalls are many. The ‘Act East’ can be at best tactical. Its strategic potential remains uncertain. India’s ties with the Asia-Pacific are rather underdeveloped.

China’s mistakes

India’s opportunities lie today more in exploiting China’s mistakes than in the assets created by the two-decade old ‘Look East’ as such. Japan and Australia have much bigger bilateral agenda with China than with India. Suffice to say, a long way lies ahead for interdependency to develop between India and the Asia-Pacific; economic integration and strategic interaction is too little. Meanwhile, India should guard against excessive rhetoric. Its capacity for keeping a ‘sustainable maritime presence’ in South China Sea is laughable and in any case, it should first develop the irreducible minimum capacity needed to secure its own coastline.

The nature of China-Pakistan relationship has changed over the years but it is foolhardy to expect the ‘all-weather friendship’ to loosen anytime soon. Equally, despite the opinion favouring normalisation of relations with India, Pakistan hasn’t overcome its fear of Indian hegemony. India’s military build-up causes concern to Pakistan and will prompt it to seek countervailing help from China. In fact, India should work for normalisation with both China and Pakistan on parallel tracks and create a favourable external environment.

On the contrary, alas, amidst the fervor of the ‘Act East’ orchestrated by the US lobbyists, India’s membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation may get relegated to the backburner. We need to introspect what our South Asian neighbours – Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, in particular – must be thinking. China so far pursued its legitimate interests with these countries without injecting ‘anti-India’ virus into their mindset or blocking Delhi’s neighbourhood initiatives. Yet, they have shown an uncanny knack to flaunt the ‘China card.’ Our Japanese or Australian ally cannot help us out of the predicaments in our region.

Finally, even as Singh sits down with Obama, the US Congressional ‘super- committee’ will be working overtime in Washington to meet the November 23 deadline to effect budgetary savings by at least $1.2 trillion. How does that translate into foreign policy? Reuters took a poll among the CEOs of American multinationals operating in the Asia-Pacific who met Obama in a Q&A in Honolulu during the APEC summit. As many as 40 per cent of them said their “single biggest growth opportunity comes from the rise of spending power” in China.

Even more interesting was Obama’s reply as to why he remains hopeful about the ‘super-committee’ meeting the deadline. Obama said: “The maths won’t change. There is no magic formula. There are no magic beans that you can toss on the ground and suddenly a bunch of money grows on trees. We got to just go ahead and do the responsible thing.”

The US estimates that Asia may be growing magic beans – especially China. Put simply, at a time of deficient global demand, the emerging economies are accumulating substantial savings and the US is determined to help these cautious and defensive Asians to unlock their excessive foreign exchange reserves by stimulating their domestic demand. 

(The writer is a former diplomat)

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