China-India Brief #107

Published Twice a Month
December 13, 2017 - January 09, 2018

Centre on Asia and Globalisation
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

Guest Column

The Look East Policy: India’s ‘Containment through Engagement’ Strategy

By Suyash Desai

The Look East Policy: India’s ‘Containment through Engagement’ Strategy 

China’s emergence as a global superpower has had a profound influence on India’s foreign policy. Indeed, one of the structural factors that compelled India to overcome its traditionally cautious and sedate approach to foreign engagements was the threat posed by a rising China. Despite its concerns, India has shied away from openly challenging its giant neighbour. Instead, its approach since the end of the Cold War has focused on engaging regional powers as a means of subtly undercutting Beijing’s growing power. It is within this context that India launched its ‘Look East Policy’ (LEP) in 1992. The policy aimed to strengthen India’s relations with the Southeast Asian states – a region of growing economic and geostrategic importance – while at the same time, containing the spread of Chinese influence.

The roots of the LEP can be traced back to the end of the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union coupled with the possibility that the United States would withdraw from Southeast Asia led to fears that China might exploit the resultant power vacuum and become the new regional hegemon. It was around this time that Indian Prime Minister Narasimha Rao formally launched the LEP following a series of visits to Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. Unsurprisingly, the move was welcomed by many members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Although most members had been apprehensive of New Delhi’s military modernisation programmes during the late 1980s, they now saw India as a potential counterweight against China’s increasing political and economic influence.

ASEAN’s positive reception allowed India to anchor its presence in the region. Reflecting India’s growing influence, the South Asian giant was named ASEAN’s Sectoral Partner in 1992, Dialogue Partner in 1996, and finally, Summit Level Partner in 2002. India’s presence in regional initiatives like the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), East Asia Summit (EAS), and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) was also actively encouraged by ASEAN members, to China’s unease.

India’s ‘containment through engagement’ strategy was especially apparent in the ARF and EAS. The ARF had been formed to address regional security problems through dialogue and confidence-building measures. Interestingly, India’s membership had been proposed by Singapore. As ASEAN’s smallest member, it was acutely aware of the importance of maintaining a favourable balance of power in the region. India also benefitted from the membership, gaining a group of meaningful security partners in the uncertain post-Cold War environment. Moreover, involvement in the ARF meant an assurance against a possible Chinese-driven regional security order given the forum’s consensus-building approach. When India later conducted its Pokhran II nuclear test explosions in 1998, New Delhi also used the ARF as an important platform to explain its decision to the world, namely, balancing against the Chinese nuclear threat.

The EAS represents a similar case. China had been an active proponent of the summit since its initial conception. Beijing had managed to keep Washington out of the initiative and was set to dominate the regional forum. This did not sit well with the other members, and India’s entry was a way to neutralise China’s position. Singapore once again took the lead in extending the invitation to India, a move that was backed by Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam. In response, China tried to limit India’s influence in the initiative by proposing a primary and secondary group for the regional and extra-regional countries, respectively. The ASEAN countries and Japan opposed the move, and China had to make room for India. Besides containing China, New Delhi saw participation in the EAS as a means to legitimize its status in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region, after its failure to gain membership in Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

On the bilateral level, India has improved its relations with individual ASEAN members, along with other states like Korea and Japan, which were on the opposite side of the Cold War divide. Of note was India’s decision to begin engaging Myanmar in a pragmatic manner. This policy reversal towards Myanmar was driven in part by China’s increasingly cosy ties with the Southeast Asian state. Similarly, India’s engagement with regional organisations like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) and Mekong-Ganga Cooperation provided India with a much-needed mechanism to get involved in the heavily Chinese-influenced Indochina region. Initiatives like the India-ASEAN FTA and Mekong Ganga Cooperation was also a direct response to Chinese developments like the China-ASEAN FTA and Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Programme.

Engagement with ASEAN and other states under the LEP, while not meant as an overtly aggressive policy towards Beijing, was ultimately intended to impede China’s rise as the only superpower in Asia. Apart from this, it also aimed at acquiring limited insurance against the strategic unpredictability of the post-Cold War environment. In sum, New Delhi’s ‘balance of power’ approach through the ‘ASEAN way of engaging and consensus building’ aimed to stifle the strategic ambitions of Beijing in the post-Cold war period and legitimize its return to the Asia Pacific.


Suyash Desai is a PhD Scholar at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), Jawaharlal Nehru University. His MPhil dissertation was on ‘India and Regionalism in Asia’. His twitter handle is @Suyash_Desai.


Guest Column

India-China Relations and ASEAN: A Role Theory Explanation

By Aditi Malhotra

India-China Relations and ASEAN: A Role Theory Explanation 

On January 26, 2018, New Delhi will host the leaders of all ten Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries as chief guests of India's annual Republic Day celebrations. Traditionally, the chief guests are chosen after careful consideration and are usually a reflection of New Delhi’s most important political interests. The decision to host the ASEAN heads of states not only illustrates the importance placed on Southeast Asia by New Delhi, but also its interest in strengthening ties with the region.

These developments take place at a time of China’s unmatched rise and a growing sense of mistrust between New Delhi and Beijing. Many argue that India’s growing engagement with the ASEAN countries is primarily driven by the China factor. While China’s relevance cannot be denied, this article presents an alternative viewpoint based on role theory and its notion of National Role Conception (NRC). A NRC can be described as a country’s self-perception of its role in the international or regional system. In the words of K. J. Holsti — who championed the use of NRCs to understand a state’s international behaviour — an NRC is the policymaker’s “image of the appropriate orientations or functions of their state toward, or in, the external environment.” NRCs act as guiding templates for countries to follow and on which to base their behaviour.

This article argues that India and China’s NRCs have changed from being ‘developing countries’ to that of a ‘leading power’ and ‘great power’. As the two countries align their foreign policy behaviour with their newly-defined roles, they continue to compete with each other for influence in various regions, in this case the ASEAN region.

Changing NRCs: The case of India and China

India’s NRC has continued to evolve throughout its history. A ‘developing country’ until the late 1990s, it has embraced the role conception of a ‘major power’ beginning in the early 2000s. Most recently, New Delhi asserted its aspirations towards taking on the role of a ‘leading power’ that acts as a “system shaper”. Although India may not be living up to the demands of its NRC as a leading power, it is poised to play such a role in the coming decades. India’s leading power aspirations have serious ramifications for its foreign policy behaviour and regional engagements. Before playing a crucial role on a global stage, New Delhi will have to position itself as a pivotal player in Asia. As a result, India's new enthusiasm in engaging with Asia’s sub-regions, particularly Southeast Asia (SEA), can be seen almost as a natural progression of its evolving foreign policy.

Interestingly, there has been a convergence between India’s transforming NRC with China’s rise and the latter’s changing NRC. For most of its contemporary history, China has identified itself as a ‘developing country’. With its meteoric rise over the last two decades, however, it has begun to ascribe to itself the NRC of a ‘great power’. This change is reflected in how Beijing deals with various regional players and other major powers in the international system. China’s phenomenal economic growth and increasing military assertiveness have led to its forceful claims in the South China Sea and expanding list of core interests. Coinciding with the perceived decline of the West, China is expanding its forays into Southeast Asia, the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Africa. Through its ambitious Belt and Route Initiative (BRI), and in conjunction with its economic statecraft, Beijing hopes to transform itself into a great power with Chinese characteristics.

That Asia’s two huge neighbours are simultaneously embracing newer and more ambitious NRCs is bound to result in overlapping areas of interest. As India and China adopt newer NRCs and direct their efforts towards performing their stipulated roles, they are interacting with each other in new theatres, where they compete for resources and influence. This remains the crux of India-China dealings in the ASEAN region.

India-China competition is further complicated by their historical territorial dispute, periodic flare-ups along the disputed border, and China’s military partnership with Pakistan. Inspired by the so-called Malacca Dilemma, China has sought to amplify its influence in the Indian Ocean region – India's backyard and primary area of strategic interest. China’s take-over of the Hambantota Port in Sri Lanka, establishment of Gwadar port in Pakistan, and efforts to undercut Indian influence in the region have only led to greater mistrust between the two giant neighbours. Similarly, India's growing economic connections with SEA and expanding naval presence in the region are a source of concern for Beijing.

Look East to Act East

India’s relationship with ASEAN countries have traditionally fallen under the purview of India’s Look East Policy (LEP) and now Act East Policy (AEP). LEP was introduced during the early 1990s, following the end of the Cold War and liberalisation of the Indian economy. The first phase of LEP (1992-2003) saw limited results, with success mostly in terms of a strengthened political understanding between India and SEA.

The policy began to pick up pace in its second phase starting in 2003. This period saw more overt assertions about India’s NRC as a major power in the region. India's strategic interests began to expand as it took on its new role conception. In the years after 2003, the LEP came to encompass more and more states, and its focus on economic engagement was expanded to include security cooperation. India’s confidence was boosted by its economic growth and support from important players like the US, Japan, and Australia, among others.

India’s growing stakes in the Southeast Asian region coincided with China’s rising economic and military strength. New Delhi became alarmed at Beijing's increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and expanding naval footprint in regions like the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. India's growing dependence on sea lanes of communication for its expanding trade ties and extraordinary energy needs meant that China’s actions potentially threatened its own strategic interests.

Despite the initial flurry of activity – high level visits, signing of important agreements, and enhanced naval cooperation with ASEAN members – New Delhi failed to capitalise on its gains and allowed the LEP’s momentum to slow down. This somewhat tarnished India’s image as a dependable partner – an image it had painstakingly sought to cultivate in the region. Undeterred, India launched the AEP in November 2014. The new policy was designed to address the inadequacies of the LEP and allow India to re-emerge as a serious player in SEA and beyond. Under the AEP, India has been fortifying its relations with the ASEAN countries through space cooperation, military sales, joint production, capacity building, and training.

India views ASEAN as a springboard from which to launch its forays into East Asia. Support from ASEAN members, in New Delhi’s view, would help legitimise India’s status as a pivotal regional power and facilitate its NRC as a leading power. Additionally, ASEAN-led forums are central to India’s idea of a viable regional security order. For India, a favourable regional environment would be one where no single power (especially China) would dominate. Despite its deficiencies, the consensus-based ‘ASEAN way’ was seen as an appropriate way to achieve such a regional landscape. Moreover, India and most ASEAN states share many common interests. Both are concerned by the potential threat from an increasingly powerful China, and there is a convergence of views over trade issues such as the safety and security of the global commons.

In the coming decades, India will undoubtedly continue to strengthen its relations with ASEAN. Such a policy, however, should not be regarded as solely driven by China. A better way to perceive the relationship would be through the unit of NRCs. As India marches towards its dream of becoming a leading power, and Beijing continues to regard itself as a great power, the two countries will continue to interact and compete in multiple sub-regions, not just in SEA. How to manage the complex mix of conflict and cooperation will remain a challenge for both India and China.

Aditi Malhotra is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Graduate School of Politics (GraSP), University of Muenster, Germany. Her doctoral thesis focuses on the evolution of India's security role towards Southeast and East Asia. Previously, Aditi was a Senior Research Fellow in the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme (ISSSP) at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bangalore. Prior to joining NIAS, she was an Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi. Aditi holds a Master’s degree in International Studies from the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom. Her areas of interest include strategic and security issues related to South Asia, India’s foreign policy towards Indo-Pacific region, nuclear proliferation and nuclear security.


The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy or the National University of Singapore.


News Reports

Bilateral relations

Intrusion in Arunachal: China agrees to stop road construction work, India returns seized equipment
The Times of India, January 8
China has agreed to stop road-construction activity across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) near Bishing in Tuting area of Arunachal Pradesh, with Indian troops returning the two earth excavators and other equipment seized from Chinese workers in the region last month. "The Tuting incident has been resolved. A border personnel meeting (BPM) was held two days ago," said Army chief General Bipin Rawat on Monday (January 8).

Indian envoy meets top official of Chinese Communist Party
The Indian Express, January 4
Indian Ambassador to China Gautam Bambawale on Thursday (January 4) held talks with Guo Yezhou, Vice Minister, International Department of the ruling Communist Party, amid efforts by the two nations to improve their ties post-Dokalam. Guo is the senior most vice minister of the international department of the CPC which plays key role in policy formulations of China’s external relations. The meeting took place as a high-level Chinese delegation headed by Meng Xiangfeng, a close confidant of President Xi Jinping and the Deputy Director of the General Office of the CPC Central Committee, is currently visiting India under an exchange programme with the Ministry of External Affairs.

Chinese road building team enters Arunachal Pradesh, India seizes equipment
The Indian Express, January 4
The Indian Army and Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) have foiled a Chinese attempt to build a track on the Indian side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Tuting area of Arunachal Pradesh. According to sources in Arunachal Pradesh, a Chinese civilian track construction party, unaccompanied by any soldiers, crossed into the Indian side of the LAC, near Bishing in Tuting area of Arunachal Pradesh on December 26. The ITBP and Army sent a joint patrol on December 28, which asked the Chinese workers to return to their territory. While the Chinese workers were told to return to their side of the LAC, their road construction equipment was seized.

India, China hold border talks, first after Doklam standoff
The Times of India, December 22
The Special Representatives of India and China on the Boundary Question met in New Delhi on Friday (December 22) for the 20th round of talks. The talks were positive and focussed on bringing out the full potential of the Closer Developmental Partnership between the two countries. Both parties agreed on the need to maintain peace and tranquillity in the border areas, pending resolution of the border question.

News Reports

China and India in the Regions

India to woo ASEAN with connectivity, maritime projects
The Hindu Business Line, January 7
The Indian government is all set to woo the 10 member countries with mega connectivity plans while paving the way for a grand roadmap on maritime security and cooperation. All the heads of state of the ASEAN member countries will be given a detailed and elaborate presentation on India’s connectivity and maritime security plans by Prime Minister Narendra Modi a day before during the India-ASEAN Commemorative Summit. The idea is to “catch up” with China’s speed and magnitude in terms of enhanced connectivity through roads and ports to make the country’s presence felt as Beijing makes inroads with its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI).

First Djibouti ... now Pakistan port earmarked for a Chinese overseas naval base, sources say
South China Morning Post, January 5
Beijing plans to build its second offshore naval base near a strategically important Pakistani port following the opening of its first facility in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa last year. Beijing-based military analyst Zhou Chenming said the base near the Gwadar port on the Arabian Sea would be used to dock and maintain naval vessels, as well as provide other logistical support services. Another source close to the People’s Liberation Army confirmed that the navy would set up a base near Gwadar similar to the one already up and running in Djibouti.

China’s underwater surveillance network puts targets in focus along maritime Silk Road
South China Morning Post, December 31
A new underwater surveillance network is expected to help China’s submarines get a stronger lock on targets while protecting the nation’s interests along the maritime Silk Road, from the Korean peninsula to the east coast of Africa. The system, which has already been launched, works by gathering information about the underwater environment, particularly water temperature and salinity, which the navy can then use to more accurately track target vessels as well as improve navigation and positioning.

CPEC's extension to Afghanistan not directed against India: China
Times of India, December 27
China on Wednesday (December 27) said that its ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is not directed against India and the project should not be influenced or disturbed by any third country, a day after Beijing offered to extend the $50 billion project to Afghanistan. At the first trilateral meeting of foreign ministers of China, Pakistan and Afghanistan here yesterday, China offered to extend CPEC to Afghanistan as the three sides pledged to step-up counter terrorism cooperation and not to allow any country, group or individual to use their soils for terrorism.


News Reports

Trade and Economy

China's CDB withdraws insolvency petition against India's RCom
Today, January 5
China Development Bank (CDB), the biggest foreign lender to India's Reliance Communications Ltd (RCom), on Friday (January 5) withdrew a petition seeking to drag the indebted telecoms carrier into insolvency. A lawyer for CDB told the National Company Law Tribunal that the Chinese bank had filed to withdraw the petition. The tribunal allowed CDB's plea to go forward. CDB, which is owed around $2 billion along with two other Chinese banks, had filed the petition in November 2017 seeking insolvency proceedings against RCom, saying a large amount of loan principal and interest payments was overdue.

China to Overtake U.S. Economy by 2032 as Asian Might Builds
Bloomberg, December 26
According to a report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research in London, by 2032, three of the four largest economies will be Asian -- China, India and Japan. China will have overtaken the U.S. to hold the No. 1 spot. India’s advance won’t stop there, according to the CEBR, which sees it taking the top place in the second half of the century.

Indian IT companies establishing firm presence in China amid receding US demand
The Times of India, December 21
In a first, India's IT industry has joined hands with Chinese authorities to establish the business equivalent of a marriage portal. The matchmaking platform will help Indian companies to obtain contracts at a time when they are facing reverses in their biggest market, the US. The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) has entered into an agreement to establish the online platform which will connect companies from the two countries and provide legal and infrastructure support to Indian firms coming to China for the first time.

India's trade deficit with China stands at $37 billion in April-October
The Economic Times, December 18
India's trade deficit with China stood at USD 36.73 billion during the first seven months of the current fiscal (April-October) compared to USD 51.11 billion in the financial year 2016-17. The growing trade deficit can be attributed primarily to the fact that Chinese exports to India rely strongly on manufactured items to meet the demand of fast expanding sectors like telecom and power, while India's exports to China are characterised by primary and intermediate products.


News Reports

Energy and Environment

Spot prices rise as cold weather strikes, India buys
Reuters, January 6
Asian spot LNG prices rose to highs not seen since November 2014 on strong demand as a cold snap stimulated consumption in China and India launched fresh purchase tenders. Spot prices for February delivery steadied at $11.30 per million British thermal units (mmBtu), 10 cents above Jan. 2 levels. China, the second-biggest LNG importer, continues to attract spot cargoes after rapid consumption growth in 2017, when imports rose by more than 48 percent.

Govt monitoring Brahmaputra flow to detect abnormalities, says Sushma Swaraj
Livemint, January 4
The Indian government continues to carefully monitor the flow of the Brahmaputra river for early detection of abnormalities and to ensure that corrective and preventive measures are taken, external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj said on Thursday (January 4). Replying to a written question in the Rajya Sabha on whether construction of dams by China on the tributaries of the Brahmaputra has contaminated its waters, the minister said the government has noted the Chinese foreign ministry’s statement denying such a link and that it was caused by an earthquake in the region and was not a man-made incident.

India Consider 7.5% Tariff on Imported Solar Panels
Bloomberg, January 4
India, the largest buyer of solar equipment from neighbouring China, is considering a 7.5 percent tax on imported solar panels, according to government officials with knowledge of the situation. The proposed change could imperil Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious goal of installing 100 gigawatts of solar energy by 2022, especially as developers have relied on low-cost equipment from China to push tariffs to among the lowest in the world. The South Asian nation bought a third of China’s $8 billion of shipments from January through September, according to BNEF research.

India challenges China as world's biggest LPG importer
Reuters, December 27
India is set to surpass China as the biggest importer of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) this month as a drive to replace wood and animal dung fires for cooking boosts consumption. Shipping data in Thomson Reuters Eikon shows LPG shipments to India will reach 2.4 million tonnes in December 2017, pushing it ahead of top importer China, on 2.3 million tonnes, for the first time. India’s LPG purchases have surged from just 1 million tonnes a month in early 2015 on the back of a government program to bring energy to millions of poor households relying on open fires.



The Political Consequences Of China’s Rise – Analysis
Eurasia Review, January 7
There is greater recognition today in India of the growing power disparity with China and its impact on Indian security and interests. While this much-delayed recognition is welcome, there is still insufficient appreciation of the full effects of China’s power. Far too often, this disparity is seen only in the context of military security. Though the military power China can bring to bear on India is considerable and it is a real threat to the security of India’s borders, the international political consequences of China’s growing power is less often recognised.

Why India and China must take the lead in the Asian century
East Asia Forum, January 7
Eighteen years ago, thousands of street protestors derailed a World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting in Seattle. The protestors denounced the forces of globalisation and the governments that promulgated them. At the dusk of 2017, a WTO ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires ended with a whimper as the United States led a general apathy towards free trade and globalisation.

New Delhi’s delicate balancing acts in 2018
DNA, January 7
The year is starting with the upcoming visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to India. This visit will further shape Indo-Israeli relations especially at a time when India has just voted against the ‘Jerusalem vote’ at UNGA last month. When Netanyahu comes, the political leadership in India will try to do a ‘balancing act’. After that comes the visit of 10 heads of states from ASEAN countries as guests for the 69th Republic Day celebrations. With this, India will look to push forward its ‘Act-East Policy’. The occasion also coincides with the 25th anniversary of Indo-ASEAN relations as India looks forward to strengthen its relations with ASEAN member states.

Beijing is pursuing a complex strategy to corner natural resources
The National, December 31
While international attention remains on China’s expansionist activities in the South China Sea’s disputed waters, Beijing is quietly focusing on other waters also — of rivers that originate in Chinese-controlled territory like Tibet and flow to other countries. China’s new obsession is freshwater, a life-supporting resource whose growing shortages are casting a cloud over Asia’s economic future. By building cascades of large dams on international rivers just before they leave its territory, China is re-engineering cross-border natural flows. Among the rivers it has targeted are the Mekong, the lifeline of South East Asia, and the Brahmaputra, the lifeblood for Bangladesh and north-eastern India.

India And The QUAD: Delhi’s Balancing Act? – Analysis
Eurasia Review, December 21
There has been considerable conjecture in the media and strategic circles about the so-called “Quad” or Quadrilateral, a term referring to the meeting between officials of the United States, Japan, India and Australia on 12 November 2017. Speculation has been rife on whether India has finally joined the big league in opposing Chinese belligerence on various fronts. After all, a similar initiative in 2007 had come to nothing, after Australia pulled out of the grouping under Chinese pressure.

Books and Journals

China's India War: Collision Course on the Roof of the World
Oxford University Press, January 2018

By Bertil Lintner

The author was a senior writer for the Far Eastern Economic Review for more than twenty years, covering Burma (now Myanmar) and related issues. He now writes for the Swedish daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet and Janes Information Group in the UK. He is a recognized expert on Burmese issues as well as ethnic minorities, insurgencies, and narcotics in Southeast and South Asia.

Bertil Lintner attempts to put the Sino-Indian border dispute and the 1962 war into its rightful historical and geopolitical context. His book examines how the 1962 war was about much more than the border.

China was going through immense internal turmoil following the disastrous 'Great Leap Forward' and Mao Zedong, the architect of the movement, was looking to reassert his power over the Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army. Finding an outside enemy against which everyone could unite was his best option. Coincidentally, India was emerging as the leader of the newly independent countries in Asia and Africa and the stakes were high for a war with India: winning the war could mean China would 'dethrone' India and take over. A border dispute with India and India's decision to grant asylum to the Dalal Lama after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in Tibet in 1959 gave China legitimate reasons to go to war.

This book unveils how China has started planning the war as early as in 1959, much before Jawaharlal Nehru launched the 'forward policy' in the border areas. And how the war accomplished much for China: India lost, China became the main voice of revolutionary movements in the Third World, and Mao Zedong was back in power.


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