Amidst the geopolitical realignment in East Asia, India has focused closely on this region with particular interest. The region is critical for India’s economic growth, as 55 percent of its exports pass through the South China Sea and Malacca Strait. For this reason, it becomes vital that the region remains stable, with freely traversed sea lanes, open lines of communications, and the rule of international law.
Apart from trade and commerce, Asia is also the home of a few liberal democratic states, such as South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. These like-minded states have become a critical factor in today’s global geopolitics. Having a democratic political system is now seen as essential in state relations because of the disruption seen in global supply chains during the COVID-19 pandemic, which holds the capacity to disrupt domestic stability. Due to eroding trust between totalitarian and democratic states, a resilient supply chain has become vital, leading to new strategies like friendshoring—manufacturing and sourcing components and raw materials within a group of countries with shared values. Another factor that adds to the strategic vitality of the region is the technological prowess of the states based in this region. With developed economies like South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan, which are technologically advanced digital societies, and respected leaders in diverse sectors ranging from ICTs, Shipbuilding, Telecommunication, and robotics to emerging technologies, the region's importance has become quite significant in India's economic vision. India has established strategic relations with South Korea and Japan and economic ties with Taiwan. However, one factor that makes this strategically important for India is China. The subsequent breaking down of international law and rules in the region, led by a much more militaristic China dominating the region, has been a concern for India. The four factors of trade and commerce, supply chain resilience, technological innovation, and China play into India's interest in this region.
India’s Evolving Approach Toward East Asia
India framed an Act East policy under the Narendra Modi administration, which was upgraded from the Look East Policy formulated in the early 1990s under former Prime Minister Narasimhan Rao post the economic liberalization reforms. The Act East policy in its initial avatar focused on strengthening economic relations, continuing its legacy from before but with more vigor, with the states in Southeast and East Asia, now part of the Indo-Pacific region. But now, the policy has also proliferated to develop closer political, cultural, defense, and strategic relations. The Act East policy stands upon the vision of an economically prosperous India, which sees the Indo-Pacific regional states as an essential part of this vision. India’s relations with East Asia have proceeded systematically with a strategic vision bilaterally. India has strategic relations with every country in the region, from a special strategic and global partnership with Japan, to a special strategic partnership with South Korea, and a strategic partnership with Mongolia. Ties with different countries stand on their merits. The India-Japan foundation lies in strong economic cooperation, a bilateral focus on improved connectivity, and a global outlook based on respect for a rules-based order, territorial integrity, and dispute resolution under international law. With South Korea, the ties tilt heavily on the side of trade and commerce, with defense now emerging as another sector to invigorate cooperation. Lastly, with Mongolia, which considers India its third neighbor, the relations have gotten closer, further strengthening strategic partnership and ‘defense emerging as the key pillar.’
However, the current geopolitical churning in East Asia brings out new challenges for India. The rise of China is accelerating the pace of bipolarity taking shape in the Indo-Pacific region. This shift influences the sub-regional systems, and East Asia is no exception. Additionally, after the Ukraine invasion by Russia, U.S. attention and resources have diverted toward Europe. Many in Asia have questioned the United States’ commitment to maintaining the region's strategic security following the Afghanistan withdrawal and Russian invasion of Ukraine. This makes it even more important for regional stakeholders to rise to the challenge. India realizes this fact and has been working on upgrading and building its relations with states in the East Asian region. India has tried to create a broad consensus in the Indo-Pacific region by creating a sustainable dialogue and communication mechanism with legitimate stakeholders of the region through bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral platforms. India considers ASEAN a core of its Act East policy, a major actor in Asia, and a dominant one in Southeast Asia. Even engagement with ASEAN on regional issues, has led to positive developments like the ASEAN Indo-Pacific outlook. Such a mechanism doesn’t exist in East Asia due to the experience of colonialism and different perspectives; hence, it needs extra diplomatic efforts.
Another substantial reason is that with deteriorating relations with China due to boundary disputes in the Himalayas, and its increasing political clout in India’s neighboring countries, India will push for better and closer relations with China’s neighbor. Past hesitations are slowly fading in India's foreign policy. We see a clear shift, moving away from what S. Jaishankar calls ‘Dogma’s of Delhi’ in his book The India Way. We see India being clear towards its issues with China and projecting a foreign policy based on the principles of reciprocity and acknowledgment of India’s legitimate concerns. A pattern of Chinese hegemony in South Asia, including the Doklam standoff in 2017, the Galwan incident in 2020, and the domestic political crisis in Sri Lanka this year, has steadily changed India's perspective towards China. Most recent was the visit of a Chinese survey ship docking in Sri Lanka, which raised the alarm in India about Chinese intentions. India comprehends China's rising military power and wants to collaborate with states in East Asia to ensure that no one country dominates any region of the Indo-Pacific. The military capacities of countries in East Asia make them appropriate for strong defense relationships.
India shares democratic values and respect for international law with East Asian countries. The recent visit to Mongolia by the Indian defense minister in September signals a consistent engagement in developing solid relations and completing previous commitments. Additionally, India shares a rich legacy of Buddhism with Mongolia, South Korea, and Japan. Cultural diplomacy with Mongolia and South Korea has ensured that state-level relations remain strong and cultural ties are strengthened. India has tried to secure its interest while respecting the sensitivities of its east Asian partners. However, there remain challenges for India in pursuing absolute strategic autonomy. Rising Chinese hegemony and dwindling U.S. strategic focus are critical issues for East Asia’s future. However, in a multipolar world, creating strategic convergences and recognizing the consensus that the countries share can manage these obstacles.
Abhishek Sharma is a Doctoral Student in Korean Studies, Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.