NEW DELHI, India — Despite its burgeoning economic importance and million-man army, India has long punched below its weight when it comes to international relations.
But a new boldness this week suggests New Delhi might finally be coming into its own — not in Afghanistan or the Indian Ocean, but in Asia-Pacific.
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed an energy accord with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang on Wednesday that flies in the face of recent Chinese opposition to Indo-Vietnamese oil exploration in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
China has said it considers those waters sovereign territory.
New Delhi and Hanoi also agreed to launch a joint security dialogue, held twice a year, to expand a burgeoning strategic partnership.
"A strong India-Vietnam relationship is a factor of peace, stability and development in the Asia-Pacific region,” Singh said at a joint press conference with Sang following their meeting.
“It stands on its own merits. The president's visit has given a new thrust and direction to this partnership.”
This week, Singh will also meet with Burma’s President Thein Sein, marking a significant opportunity for India to continue to transform its decades-old “Look East” policy from a modest trade initiative into a full-fledged strategy to extend India's influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Of course, both Burma and Vietnam need to remain friends with China as much or more than they need to build better ties with India, just as New Delhi needs to improve relations with Beijing despite their differences over China's support of Pakistan. But recent events in Burma and Vietnam have opened a window to the east that India has so far only been looking through. New Delhi now appears ready to make its move.
“Most major powers today are preoccupied with their own domestic problems,” Singh said Tuesday in a speech before the leader of the three branches of India's armed forces at the Combined Commanders' Conference, according to the Indian Express. He added, “We must therefore consolidate our own strategic autonomy and independence of thought and action.”
India's Look East policy was crafted by then-Prime Minister Narasinha Rao in 1991 to boost trade at a time when India desperately needed foreign-exchange reserves. Aiming to emulate China's success in courting investors, India targeted the so-called Asian tigers as the key to shoring up its finances, according to Srikanth Kondapalli, a professor in Chinese Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The policy paved the way for economic agreements with Japan and South Korea, and a free-trade deal with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional economic bloc, Kondapalli said.
Asian nations now account for 60 percent of India's foreign trade and a hefty portion of foreign-direct investment, he said.
Although in recent years, India has sought to transform the Look East policy into a strategic response to China's growing influence with its South Asian neighbors in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, New Delhi has often seemed at a loss as to how to deal with Beijing.
Hawks here have long asserted that Beijing build Islamabad's nuclear weapons program and continues to turn a blinde eye to Pakistan's use of terrorist groups to launch attacks on India. Yet none seemed to know how to deal with China's provocative border incursions in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, or the reported presence of Chinese troops in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. And so India waffled.
But in the dispute over the South China Sea, India reacted to the latest bellicose rhetoric from Beijing, and the reported “buzzing” of India's INS Airavat by the Chinese navy in July, with remarkable savvy.
It neither backed down nor allowed itself to be drawn into the broader South China Sea dispute.
Instead, New Delhi emphasized that those territorial questions will have to be resolved by the ongoing multilateral negotiations between Beijing and the Southeast Asian regional bloc, in a “prompt and emphatic reaction” that former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal called
The accords signed Wednesday in New Delhi, along with a deal signed by Vietnam and China in Beijing recently to ease tensions over the South China Sea dispute, suggest that the new approach may pay off.
“[China is] not interested in escalating, but they are certainly interested in putting us off balance,” said Jabin Jacob, assistant director of India's Institute of Chinese Studies. “If we bend over backwards, that's exactly what they'll do. They'll push us over backwards.”
Meanwhile, Burma's slow edging toward reform through the loosening of restrictions on opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, this week's release of some two-dozen political prisoners, and last year's election of a civilian government — however questionable — leave it in a state of flux that could also play to India's advantage when Singh meets Thein on Friday.
India was criticized at home and abroad throughout this decade for its support of the military regime. But now, as Burma’s sole democratic ally, New Delhi is now poised to benefit from the new civilian government's seemingly greater interest in courting international approval.
And, as suggested by Yangon's recent shelving of a controversial $3.6 billion, Chinese-led dam project that Suu Kyi and her supporters had opposed, those same domestic political developments may well simultaneously reduce Beijing's influence.
“[Burma] wants to remain fiercely independent in its foreign policy,” said Kondapalli. “So they would like to balance China with other countries.”
According to P.M. Heblikar, who was until recently a high-level bureaucrat in India's cabinet secretariat, this also offers India the chance to secure Burma's efforts to expel various insurgent groups that attack India from its borders — as Bangladesh has done recently, and Pakistan has notoriously refused to do, apparently with China's stamp of approval.
And though sabers may rattle, New Delhi's new backbone reflects India's understanding of how far Beijing is willing to go.
“In the South China Sea and elsewhere, will [the Look East policy] lead to a conflict between India and China? I don't see that happening,” said Kondapalli, who believes only a narrow section of China's military sees India's activities as an encroachment. “During globalization you cannot simply say something is your sphere of influence. That's a Cold War mentality.”